“She’s just not friendly enough.”
Sitting in the quarry manager’s office before his desk, the words came at me straight in the face, though they were addressed to my boss. Mike, the owner of the landscaping stone company where I worked doing advertising design, was standing over me. I could see him looming just out of the corner of my eye. The quarry manager was half-scowling, half-smiling at me as he spoke, as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether I was worth the bother.
It was a bright, sunny November day I remember, light streaming in through the office windows. They never heated it well, being big, tough men. But despite the coldness of the room, I had begun to sweat profusely at the statement just delivered.
Mike had driven me out to the quarry that morning specifically for the purpose of discussing my behavior (or lack thereof) with the quarry workers when I came to take photographs for my advertising projects. The quarry manager had complained about me, his men having complained to him. Apparently I didn’t act toward them like the company saleswomen did when they came calling, giving out hugs and kisses, or engaging in friendly, flirtatious banter.
Instead I just walked around with my camera taking photographs, doing what I thought was my job.
The advertising position for the stone company was my first real job after graduating with a degree in graphic design. I had only been there a couple of months before the meeting in the quarry office that morning. Grateful to find a job there as quickly as I had, I’d been so excited to start my new career.
However, it wasn’t my first job ever. I was nearly thirty at the time, not a kid unfamiliar with the ways of the corporate world. I had worked for several years prior for large company creating television listings publications before returning to school. I knew men and women flirted at work, got into relationships, some more appropriate than others. Married men had approached me; I’d had a crush on my boss and a co-worker or two, and a couple had had crushes on me. I knew sexual tension was a thing at most any job where men and women come together.
But at least in my personal experience, it always had been outside the realm of my actual work. I realized there in the quarry office that morning that, although I wasn’t an innocent, I was a bit naïve. I had never seen anything like this coming.
Tomboyish, shy and still a bit awkward as an adult, I was surprised to be the object of such expectations. I had grown up learning to hide from men really, not wanting to be noticed much at all. My father had been an alcoholic, and my room was the best place to be, hiding away from his anger and demands. Later I avoided boys who liked me that I didn’t like back, and withered with embarrassment at attention from strangers, like catcalls on the street or the odd comments from men growing up. The few boyfriends I had had started out as friends and were mostly quiet introverts like myself, including the boyfriend I was living with at the time.
Unused to direct attention and on such a topic, it was incredibly uncomfortable for me to find myself sitting there in the office that day.
“Couldn’t you be more like the other girls? Just be a little more affectionate with the guys, you know?” Finally the quarry manager was addressing me directly, but I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. I understood in that moment the meaning of the word, ‘dumbfounded.’ It was as if someone was sitting there trying to tell me that aliens had taken over the government.
And I just sat there in the chair, stomach churning, my palms and the soles of me feet sweating, silent, taking it all in. How the conversation ended, or the rest of what they said to each other or to me, I don’t remember at all. But I got the message quite clearly all the same.
After it was over Mike and I left, and drove back to the main office in the sunny, deceptively cheerful cab of his big pickup truck, me quiet as the grave, with the unspoken expectation that I think over what had been said. Then I simply returned to work, and nothing was ever the same again.
Of course I did think about it all, a lot. I began to live in that sweaty, sinking place inside every morning as I got ready for work– in the shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast- and along every mile of the roughly forty-five minutes I drove one way to work. I made a home in it each night, as I lay in bed dreading the coming day. And every second at my desk, thoughts of what had been said to me in that office and what could now happen filled my mind.
Shocked and numb, growing ever more on guard after the meeting, I waited quietly for the next shoe to drop.
My fears, it turned out, were justifed. What followed were other criticisms of and demands on my behavior, delivered sometimes as “just a joke,” and sometimes not, more harassment that I never recognized as such at the time, and consequently, more incidents of shame and silence on my part. From obvious overtures by the married office safety manager, to subtle cues from the saleswomen (who were all and only women), to resentful stares and sly comments from the quarry workers when I went out again to take photographs, the messages I was getting continued.
And I never said a word about it to anyone, not to a friend or even my boyfriend, whom I lived with at the time, and not to my dad who was ill and losing his fight with cancer. I never thought about calling a hotline or asking for help. And to this day I still don’t truly understand why.
But I can say that, despite my confusion, my fear, and my painful silence, none of the messages, either subtle or overt, had their intended effects.
I never altered my behavior one bit toward anyone. I went on with my work and if anything, I became even quieter and less friendly than I had been before. Although I didn’t fully understand what had happened to me at the time, that I had experienced sexual harassment, deep down I knew it had all been very, very wrong. Not on my part, but on theirs.
Soon all I wanted was to get out of that job, be gone and away from the place. I plotted and planned how to leave, looking for new jobs in the newspaper constantly, but pickings were slim. And it only got worse as the months passed. At times I felt like a trapped animal, panicking, desperate and sick, willing to chew a leg off to be free.
The final straw came one day when I was informed I was required to attend a big industry gathering at a resort several states away. Mike and I and a few saleswomen would go to mix and mingle for a few days, to meet current customers and try to recruit new ones. I was told point-blank by my boss that I was expected to be friendly with people, to get in the hot tub with a prospective customer if he wanted, and do whatever was needed if it would help us get business. I was being told in no uncertain terms that my attitude of aloofness would no longer be tolerated if I wanted to keep my job, especially not at such a big and important event where so much potential business was at stake.
I still remember hearing the words coming out of his mouth in his gravelly voice, how natural he made it all sound, almost pleasant even, and how surprised I was that I could still be surprised by anything he said, or that happened.
That night I went home and knew I was done. Even if I lost a limb in the process, I would leave. But I was still too scared to tell them the truth, that I was leaving because they were all assholes, and that for months I had been living in fear and sickness every day of my life. I couldn’t say anything, even then.
My father had been ill for months with cancer back in my home state of Missouri. To my shame, I came up with the story that he had taken a turn for the worse, and I was going to move back to take care of him. I finally did tell my boyfriend something of what had happened at my job, and that I had to leave as soon as possible, that I finally couldn’t stand it anymore.
Days after being told about the big event I was expected to attend I gave my notice, much to the shock and disappointment of my boss. My co-workers who had harassed and made comments about me were suddenly sympathetic and consoling about my father’s illness. I remained polite and thankful, eager and thinking only how to get out unscathed, unharmed, intact. I hated the show I was putting on for their benefit. But mostly I hated my inability to turn around and slap each and every person in the face.
Before I left, in two weeks I actually helped hire my replacement. I remember sitting across the conference table from her during her interview. She was a very experienced graphic artist, much more so than me, relocating to upstate New York from the city after 9/11. I recall thinking that she seemed like she could handle herself much better than me if anything happened. But still I never warned her, though I had wanted to.
Shortly after I left the story I told about my dad came true, and I returned to Missouri. The whole experience got swept under the rug in caring for my dying father. Days and weeks passed where I had so many other things to think about, to feel, in the wake of my dad’s illness and eventual death, that I had little chance to ever process the sexual harassment I received or what I felt about it.
Those weeks turned into months, and then years, until I rarely ever thought about my experience again. I changed careers entirely and went on to become a nurse. That time eventually began to feel like it had happened to another person, as if it was an unfortunate and troubling story a friend told me once.
But in those odd moments when I would remember it had happened to me, mostly what I would feel was shame all over again. Shame that I had not done something more, that I had not gotten angrier, that I had not recognized or understood what was happening, that there had been times when I wondered back then if they were right about me, that I had been afraid. And shame, too, that I felt there was little or nothing I could or would even choose to do about it all now, in the present day. I never wanted to see any of them again.
Even now, I asked myself why I am writing about it, thinking about it all over again, when it only hurts. In the wake of the recent “Me-Too” movement, I guess it is impossible not to recall everything, drag it back up and out of the basement from where it’s been hiding.
But it doesn’t make me feel better to revisit the experience, to feel those awful feelings in my body again – all the anger, shame, confusion, and fear– despite the fact that they are shadows now of what they once were. I haven’t liked reliving the memories of what I did and didn’t do, the questions I should have asked, the anger and disgust I should have given voice to.
And I don’t know if I believe writing about it will help anyone at this point, even me. It certainly doesn’t feel that way.
Like the very recent backlash after the Kavanaugh investigation against dragging sexual harassment victims through emotional mud, asking them to relive their experiences and tell their stories, even to help prosecute the perpetrators, it almost feels as if it is another injustice in itself, adding only insult to an irreparable injury.
As a nurse now, I know that some wounds must be opened for them to drain and become clean, but also that opening them up time and time again will never allow them to fully heal. With the ones you can’t see, only feel, it is much harder to know what to do sometimes.
There is nothing that could be done to the people who harassed me that could turn back the clock, take away the experience for me, or assuage the feelings I still have today. No so-called justice they might receive, however deserved, would ever undo what happened. And if that cannot be the result, then I guess the best course of action for me is to learn to come to terms with it, and go on to live the best life I can, resolving to do better by myself and others should (or really, when) the issue of sexual harassment rises up to show it’s ugly face again.