Author

Sarah

When I was 23 or 24, in the early 2000s, I worked at a small company in a small office with thin, dingy carpet on the second floor of an orange building near the industrial area of Berkeley, California.

It was a weird work environment, but I didn’t have enough work experience to know that yet. I had some good colleagues, many of them around the same age, and we were all muddling through young work life. I had veered from my professional path in order to afford living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the dot-com boom had inflated housing costs. The company gave me a shot at something I hadn’t tried before, and that opportunity both gave me a living wage and the knowledge that I was on the wrong career track.

I could not afford to be a beginning writer and pay $1,300 a month to rent two-thirds of the top half of a red North Berkeley bungalow with an accordion bathroom door and knocking pipes. The apartment came with a cracked window and a cracked ceiling, and my boyfriend and I spent our downtime repairing, painting, and decorating to make a home.

Working at the small business in Berkeley, well off my career path, afforded us the opportunity to feed ourselves and buy furniture. Later, we would move to a nicer apartment on the quiet island of Alameda, just inside the San Francisco Bay from Oakland. The Alameda apartment building had a gym and a pool and was $200 cheaper. I don’t remember where we lived when my boss patted my ass.

Here are my excuses for him:

  • He gave me an opportunity to work in a career for which I had not been formally trained. He offered me on-the-job training.
  • He promoted me from an office manager position into this better paying position, well before the event I am describing.
  • He encouraged me in the position, giving me bonuses when my work was especially productive.
  • He had never made me feel sexually uncomfortable in all the time I had worked for him.
  • To this day, I am confident it was an unfortunate slip, the way you might have ended a client call with “OK, love you. Bye,” and after ending the call, realized with horror what you had done. He had patted my ass in the affectionate way he might have patted the bottom of one of his sons or wife when they were all in the kitchen and happy and preparing a meal. We were celebrating a big success in the department and hugged, like people do in small offices when they celebrate successes or life events or holidays. I thought I saw embarrassment flash across his face.

We hugged, he patted my ass, and all of the celebratory joy drained from my body. I was shocked and embarrassed, speechless. My cheeks were hot, and I felt nervous. He said nothing, did not acknowledge what had just happened. No, “Oh no. I am so sorry.” No, “I am embarrassed by my behavior. I apologize. It was a stupid reflex.” Not even, “Oops.” He left my part of the office without any explanation or apology.

I stood there stupidly, feeling stupid, among my colleagues. My mind raced to question itself: Maybe he didn’t register it? Maybe I imagined it?

I asked incredulously if anyone who stood with us had seen that. I don’t remember what most of them said, but I remember nervous chuckles and slinking back to their cubicles.

“I saw it,” someone said.

My colleague looked me in the eyes. He was a smart, funny man my age who exuded a cool, casual confidence. I knew him to be professional, kind, and decent. “I saw it,” he had said, and held my gaze long enough for me to know I could trust him and I could trust myself.

I don’t know if I said, “Thank you,” or if I asked again to be sure. I don’t remember much else except overwhelming embarrassment and shame.

I told my female boss what had happened, that others had seen it. I told her I thought it had been an accident. I told her I wanted the boss to acknowledge it and apologize. I was terrified of making waves, and in my early 20s, fear could have silenced me. But others had seen, and I was worried about my reputation.

The battle between fears could have kept me awake, could have riddled my thoughts, could have bound me so tight I resigned to inaction. By speaking up, I risked repercussions from my boss or the company. (And for what? It had been an accident, hadn’t it? Had it even happened? Was it someone walking by I hadn’t seen?) By staying quiet, I risked the respect of my colleagues and I accepted shame.

That could have been the end of my story: anxiety, self-doubt, diminished self-esteem, guilt, shame.

But my colleague’s simple sentence changed the way I faced the situation: “I saw it.”

The boss gave a horrible apology: “If I somehow unconsciously or without my knowledge … I’m sorry,” delivered with contempt, an eye roll, and after quite a bit of arguing about whether it happened. It was not his best moment. I suspected he was worried I would sue him and let that fear guide his actions the way I might have let fear lead mine, a larger life lesson for me than I realized at the time.

But I do not tell this story because my boss didn’t behave well or because I faced an uncomfortable conversation with a person who touched me inappropriately. We know people don’t like to acknowledge their wrongdoing. We know that survivors of sexual assault face a secondary social and emotional assault from their perpetrators and society at large: doubt, blame, contempt, and shaming. We know that fear of those repercussions silences survivors.

This story is not shocking; a pat on the ass is so common and relatively low-level that it would be easy to dismiss. How many tweed-clad strangers 40 years my senior have cupped my ass? Countless. They are good at doing it under the radar; they’ve practiced. My ass has many stories of unwanted touching. I don’t tell this story because it’s shocking.

I tell this story because 15 years ago, a man in his mid-20s changed the way my story ended. Having a witness gave me back my power. It felt like a gift. Three quiet, serious words validated my experience, and that is what lit my path.

Let us be witnesses. When we see wrong, let us validate the wronged. Let us say, “I saw it.” Let us lend our power to people who are feeling powerless. It doesn’t take much. Three words. I saw it. I see you. I believe you.

Once upon a time, a man named Jesus did a bunch of wholesome stuff. He never sinned, which is impressive considering he wasn’t allowed to eat pork because he was Jewish. He lived to be thirty-three years old and never ate bacon, not once, and imitation bacon bits hadn’t been invented yet. That’s called sacrifice, and you could learn something from Jesus. Bacon abstinence aside, Jesus was God, only in man form (which is different from a guy who looks like a god). People didn’t understand Him the first few times, so He came down to Earth to clarify His message through His Holy example. Henceforth, I stop capitalizing he and him because it’s obnoxious. I can’t stand it.

Jesus made some amendments and forgave people for their wrongdoings, because everyone was so goddamn judgmental, he just couldn’t take listening to us bicker for one more minute. He asked us to try out his new rules in return for his extreme sacrifice, and to really try this time, not just make up our own rules or focus on the rules other people are breaking (ahem, Pharisees). If it works, no one’s judging those who mess up. Just do your best, he asked. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Like, maybe pick up your dog shit from the neighbor’s yard, but if you find someone else’s dog shit in your yard, pick that up, too, and don’t get angry about it. Your neighbor might not know it’s there. It could have been a different dog. Maybe your neighbor was just late for work because her kid was being an asshole, or she had to rush to the hospital to see her mother.

To some, Jesus’ message seemed clear: Be nice. I mean it. Don’t make me come back here again. I’m going to check on you one more time, and if you’re still abusing each other, you’re in eternal time-out. If, by the time I get back, you’ve been kind and forgiving and you’ve followed my lead, we’re going to go rock-and-roll with the angels and throw back some shots but never have hangovers and eat lots of ice cream but never get fat, plus we’re going to sleep on fluffy white clouds. There will be peace.

After Jesus died, went to Hell, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, he left his friend Peter in charge of his message, and told him to pass it on. Peter was a fisherman and a loudmouth, the Catholic everyman. He was a rock, the first Pope, as we now call the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church. There have been many Popes since then. Reminiscent of the slumber party game Telephone, they mixed up the message as they passed it to one another, and Jesus’ “be nice” part somehow twisted and still hasn’t been fixed, but most people of faith and no faith are trying to muddle through their lives, being kind and hoping for some compassion in return.

At some point in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the people in charge (men, of course) decided people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays because every Friday, Catholics should remember how Christ died a gruesome, horrible death, nailed to a cross. Even though Jesus mentioned a few times that fasting had value, he never said, “Followers: honor my message of compassion by making meaningless sacrifices on the weekday I died. Don’t give of yourself or use the time to reflect on how you could make the world a kinder, love-filled place. Just don’t eat meat, and glare at people who do.” But the guardians of the message devised rules for honoring Christ’s sacrifice and declared it sinful to eat meat on Fridays, even though keeping Kosher, as Jesus would have done as a Jew, wasn’t really necessary anymore. Except for Fridays, followers of Christ could have pork. Bacon for everyone (who obey Pope’s rules)! But for a long time after that, people who accidentally ordered a club sandwich on a Friday at the MBNA New Associates Retreat went directly to Hell after death. A bit harsh. Then, almost 2,000 years after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the people in charge of the message decided, guess what? Catholics may now eat meat on Fridays. Hooray, Jesus! Not during Lent, of course; abstinence from meat is still required on Fridays during Lent.

jesus“We mean it,” they probably said, and looked sternly over the top of their glasses at the people. And the people shuffled their feet and muttered, “So … no bacon on Lenten Fridays?” Members of the church hierarchy get pissy about questions – except for the Jesuits, who are, as far as I can tell, the only ones sanctioned to question any of the rules created A.D. (The Church should let us eat turkey on Fridays because turkeys are so stupid, they’re practically vegetables, but at press time, there’s no official dialog on this with the Pope, and maybe this is exactly the kind of idea that exemplifies why women aren’t allowed to make any rules.)

The rules are as follows: Catholics do not have to be vegetarians on Lenten Fridays. Fish is not meat, according to the Vatican. Also, broth is allowable because it’s boiled marrow, not meat. Bacon drippings are acceptable, but not bacon … even if you fry a little up just for the fat and it smells so delicious and salty and porky that you just can’t resist one little nibble. If you eat just the corner that broke off in the drippings, the Pope will see you, and you will go to Hell. Snake meat is undefined, as far as I can tell. A water moccasin is a water animal that is not a fish, but I don’t think we’re allowed to eat dolphins either, no matter how delicious their large brains are. Not that I eat snakes or dolphins (except as an unfortunate byproduct of the canned tuna industry), but my policy is to eat what is served to be polite, and I’m not used to outside forces imposing food rules on me – especially when I’m just trying to be nice. I’d ask about the snake, in case it’s ever served to me on a Friday during Lent, but then I imagine the leader-men asking, “Is it really going to kill you to skip eating snake on Fridays during the most religious 40 days of the year?” The imagined guilt trip wears on my psyche before it even happens, so I just order a cheese pizza like every other Catholic on the planet, except when I forget that it’s Lent and Friday and accidentally order a cheeseburger.

It’s not the worst sacrifice. No one is forced to breakfast on scrambled eggs and grapefruit, so the Vatican’s rules are admittedly better than those of the Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet (hindsight: Herman Tarnower should have considered a bullet-proof Popemobile). Lacto-ovo vegetarians and pescatarians might find the rules rather accommodating, as eggs, dairy, and honey are allowed. People fourteen and older must abstain from eating meat on Fridays, period, except for the previously mentioned exemptions. Everyone must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which are also days of abstinence. “Everyone” means anyone between the ages of fourteen and fifty-nine who are not pregnant and have no underlying health issues.

The Catholic Church spent a lot of time inventing and editing the food rules, but a better plan would have been to prepare a few thousand open-face tuna melts and let the word spread about how amazing God is. Tuna melts are God’s way of sharing manna. On Lenten Fridays – or any day – nothing is lovelier than warm tuna salad and a slice of tomato on a whole-wheat English muffin, covered in two slices of melted cheddar with a side of Utz potato chips and a pickle. If you truly want to know Jesus, add a slice of avocado under the cheese. The whole plate is heaven and might make a believer of you. I find myself unsure. I believe in tuna melts and compassion. But God? Even as I’m grateful for the tuna melt on the plate before me, even as I make Lenten sacrifices and pray the Rosary, I wonder who is buried beneath a mudslide or who is making a pipe bomb in his basement and where is God.

(self-plagiarized and updated from a previous blog)

photo-1451187580459-43490279c0fa

This is a love story.

In your journal, you draw faces, words, and twirling patterns. In notebooks, you doodle improbable leaves and tesselating triangles. Sometimes, you draw a funny pig or a bird. Your mother used to draw the same triangles on notebook paper or envelopes as she talked on the phone. An old drafting pencil made particularly crisp lines as she repeatedly retraced her design.

First a triangle. Two become a square. Three, a house. Four, a rectangle. Beyond that, it’s a pattern without shape or reason.

You have done this in class, in meetings, during readings or speeches. You have trouble sitting still. You frame your nervous energy, fence it with lines and triangles, an endless trap of tessellations that will never be satisfied.

A man murdered fifty people last week. An alligator snatched and drowned a little boy. An old, kind acquaintance lost a child to an awful disease. Your dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A thousand million other things terrified the tiny creatures on a spinning globe in an endless universe.

Your journal sits on the coffee table. You want to doodle, shade with the new pencils you bought with your children at the craft store named for a founding father. But you don’t. You write drivel on social media. Sentence fragments. You give the dog bacon and extra peanut butter. You eat double-dip ice cream cones with your children and swim together at the YMCA. They try to make the tiniest splash and then the biggest. They request that you rate the splash created by each jump. You listen to the dog’s snores while you work and will your heart to ignore his present missingness. You pet his soft head, to his annoyance. Other people’s tragedies feel too close. A storm is coming.

On your back steps, sometimes you smoke cigarettes. You are not a regular smoker but you like rituals, and you have always loved the view of the stars in your backyard. You struggle to remember the constellations from your undergrad astronomy class. One star is Betelgeuse; three stars are a belt; seven become Orion, but you have to look that up. Look up. Look out.

On the back steps, one of the corner bricks cracked in last winter’s snow and it seems as though a chunk might fall off. The sky spits now, and the first drops hit your arm. Next door, maybe the artist is leaving his studio, or his wife calls in the dogs. Why do fireflies avoid the rain?

You go inside and pet the dog. He is panting but you don’t know if he is nervous about the storm or if a tumor is shorting him lung capacity.

On social media, someone has made a joke, someone has posted a sunset. A new niece, a dead parent. Are you there?

Yes, I’m here. Are you?

Goodnight.

Goodnight.