It starts with an elevator.
The doors slide open and your stomach flips. The Commissioner is standing in the car, alone. You’re a lowly civil servant. He is the Guy at the Top, who answers to the Governor. The Guy Who Summons People.
You remember he had summoned you, once. It was six months earlier, and you had just landed a job as Assistant Curator in this department of state government, your first professional position. The job was a low rung on the ladder of power, nothing the Guy at the Top needed to approve.
But a few days after you accepted, the woman who hired you called, embarrassed, and said the Commissioner insisted on interviewing you, too. “I didn’t realize…” she’d said. And then, more confidently: “It’s just a formality.”
At the state’s expense, you flew back so the Commissioner could bestow his blessing on the choice his underlings had made. All you remember from the haze of that meeting was his affable statement that you both hailed from the same city. Your audience with him may have lasted ten minutes, but it made the offer official.
You moved to the state, you started your job, and you didn’t see him again for six months. Or maybe you did, in passing, without incident—nothing that sticks in memory. You made friends at work—the Historian, the Librarian, the Archivist—and settled into your new life, brimming with optimism.
Then one day you hop on the elevator although you usually take the stairs. And there is the Commissioner, on his way to his top-floor office. Suddenly he’s looking at you like you’re a choice piece of real estate he’s forgotten he owned. During the brief ride up, he asks innocent questions about how you’re getting along, his steady gaze unnerving you. On your floor, you exit, hoping you’ve misunderstood.
But that same day, he calls your extension. You are so flustered to get a buzz from the Commissioner, his words rattle in your ears. He invites you to a dinner party at his house. You’ve heard it’s a beautiful place, an 18th-century farmhouse. He mentions the names of other guests, top-floor minions. It’s odd to be invited, but no one would turn down an invitation from the Commissioner. “Sure,” you say, although the thought of such a party terrifies you.
“Sure,” you repeat, because no other answer seems possible.
Later, you realize he didn’t give you the date of the party. Later still, you realize there’s no party. When he asks again, it’s clear he means for you to come alone. He means a party of two. The house is in a remote, rural setting. “Sure,” you’d said so clearly, twice—and in his mind, you consented to sex.
He’s not unattractive—you might even say he’s distinguished, with posh suits, a closely trimmed beard, and impeccable manicure. He’s a cultured man, a theater professional turned bureaucrat.
But you don’t want sex with him. He’s twice your age, and he’s the Commissioner. You’re sure a scenario like that wouldn’t go well for you. You berate yourself: Naïve. Careless. Stupid.
What you want—and are having—is sex with a woman. The Grad Student is your age, a boy-girl in button-down shirts, in training to be a curator. The relationship is less than a year old, and for once your life makes sense. You and the Grad Student live in different states and on weekends take turns driving feverishly to each other’s beds. It’s 1980, and instinct tells you no one can know about the relationship. “I’m involved with someone” isn’t a viable excuse for the Commissioner, because he’ll demand to know who.
The Commissioner tries to fix a date for the dinner, and you stall, stammer about other plans. You confide in the Historian, the Librarian, and the Archivist—a man and two women—about the unwanted attention, and over the days and weeks, they share your disgust. They advise you to keep dodging; the Commissioner will give up.
He does, but only the dinner invitation. Other requests supplant it: “Let me drive you home” (after a department picnic); “Come to my hotel room” (on a weekend business trip).
Avoiding his pursuit should go horribly wrong for you, but instead, an opportunity lands on your desk: heading up a project that involves travel, meetings, budgets!—more responsibility than you’ve ever had. The Commissioner selects you over your immediate boss, the Curator, who’s handled similar projects before. He announces your appointment at a staff meeting, and all heads at the table pivot your way.
You’re sleeping with him even if you aren’t.
The project requires you to OK some expenditures directly with him. During one progress report, when you’re in mid-sentence, he says, “You have such beautiful eyes. Are they green or blue?” And during another: “I love your hair like that.” You make a note never to wear it in combs again.
He visits you in your new office. Originally, you had an office situated with all the others, but this one is removed. He had you removed to it, claiming yours was needed for a Visiting Curator. You objected and fumed, even as workers carted off your desk. In your new office, you wish you had a tape recorder when he sits close to you and says, “I’m good to the girls I have affairs with.” Two of said “girls” are young women you have been in meetings with who, indeed, have very nice jobs. One of them is married now, the other has a handsome boyfriend. They don’t seem unhappy.
He keeps asking, and you keep politely ducking. Six months pass in this way, then twelve, then eighteen. He glares at you across conferences rooms: Cock tease. Ungrateful bitch. Your friends hear rumors about other women who were unhappy with his persistent propositions and transferred out of the department, but you have no idea how to find them or what you’d say to them if you did.
Your love relationship with the Grad Student shatters, mends, splits apart for good. You tell the Archivist that you’re gay, breaking in the identity like a new pair of shoes. It pinches. You go out to dinner with the Law Clerk, a handsome man your own age, whom you knew in college but kept missing chances to sleep with. Your dinner conversation veers toward politics, and his amusement at your budding feminist consciousness tosses cold water on your lust.
The Commissioner seems to know things you do outside of work, including the date with the Law Clerk. Does he also know you attended a N.O.W. meeting and approached a chapter official about “sexual harassment,” a phrase you’d recently learned? The response had not been encouraging: “It’s his word against yours, and there’s no one to report him to but the Governor.” Maybe you could find a pattern, she advised, locate those other “girls,” the unhappy ones.
The task overwhelms you, but just as you’re deciding to dig into it, the unexpected happens: His cajoling, demanding, and expecting magically stop. You’re convinced he knows what you were planning, but how?
There’s a cost. Little responsibilities fall away from you, nothing too obvious. What’s clear is there will be no more projects for you to head.
You’re twenty-seven now. The writing part of your work is the only thing you still enjoy. You would rather be a writer than a low-rung civil servant in a dead-end job. A friend is moving to New York City and invites you to come. You’re young enough to start from scratch.
You could easily resign to the Curator, or to your mutual boss, the Division Director. Instead, you deliver your letter to the Commissioner himself.
“Oh, no,” he says. “Is this what I think it is?”
On your last day, the department holds a goodbye party with cake and an expensive present—a split-oak basket, crafted by a local artisan and chosen by the Arts Coordinator, one of the “girls” the Commissioner was good to. At the end, the Commissioner grabs you by the waist and kisses you in front of everyone. As you push away from him, his smile says: I got the last word.
But he doesn’t. After the party, a co-worker, the Photographer, asks the Librarian, “What’s he going to do? He’s really going to miss her!” That parting kiss, the Photographer thinks, was romantic.
The Librarian tells the truth. You imagine the Photographer sharing the news: “I never knew …” “I always thought …” You imagine the truth seeping into the cracks of the building like spilled honey—sweet retribution for all those months of distress.
Your story would be incomplete, though, without betrayal. The Historian—a man who has become like your brother, whose words comforted you as the pressure mounted—looks you in the eye on your last day of work and says, “There was no harassment.” You wonder if he was the one leaking your private life to the Commissioner. (Later, the Historian advances to Division Director, a job he coveted. It’s probably a coincidence. He is, after all, very deserving.)
You cut your hair. You cut your ties. In New York, your new identity fits better, like comfy slippers.
The department’s lovely farewell gift accompanies you to New York and to every city you live in after that. Other baskets crack and splinter over time, come unwoven; you throw them away. But this one is sturdy, resilient.
Three decades later, you’re driving on an interstate with your wife and you’re so deep in conversation you miss your exit—which sends you careening directly toward the city you left behind all those years ago. There’s no fixing the mistake that will take you an hour out of your way. Your panic bubbles up and over.
“Why don’t we just stop and look around?” your wife suggests in a way that calms you.
From instinct or memory, you wind your way to the marble building where you worked when you were a lowly civil servant. Inside, the greeter in the Grand Hall tells you with pride about a massive renovation project that has transformed the building’s interior. “I worked here a long time ago,” you manage to say, but either your connection to the place doesn’t register with her or maybe you’ve spoken too softly. Behind the greeter, like a frame, are the doors to the State Theater. Your eyes fasten on the block lettering over the entrance: the name of the Commissioner.
“That was him,” you say to your wife.
You stare at his name for a solid minute, your eyes slipping back and forth over the letters. Of course, he’s had something named for him. You didn’t remember his middle initial.
The edges of your wound separate, reopen. You think about the serendipity that led you to see his name in such big letters. You remember the “girl” you were with something like tenderness. You weren’t stupid. You made your own name. And now, at last, you can leave.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/JD Hancock