I am a first generation college student with no living parents to help me navigate this completely foreign environment. I am living on campus in a big city far away from the dirt roads of my youth. It is my second day of my Sociology 101 class. I am already signed up to be a Sociology major. I already know that I love people and want to understand us better so that I can help to change the parts of our society that leave so many behind- or more accurately push so many of us behind.
Is it just me or does my professor keep looking at me…I try to stay focused but I am already insecure and uncomfortable. Many of the kids sitting in the desks around me already have college credits from their high schools offering special courses or their parents paying for special courses. I had never heard of such a thing. I know that my education is not as strong as these suburban kids. My professor drops a note on my desk. What?! Did I just have a teacher pass me a note in class? Is that normal? I look around anxiously to see if anyone else saw. I am nervous to open it and read it in front of everyone.
Crystal, please meet me in my office after class. I already checked your schedule and I know you do not have any classes until the afternoon.
Gulp. I wonder if I did something wrong. I wonder if he can see right through me and knows that I do not belong here. Maybe he wants to tell me that I am not ready for college. I don’t know. I can’t focus for the rest of the class. What were we even talking about anyway. I thought I would love Sociology, it was my major after all, but I was always fighting to keep my eyes open in his classes.
Finally the class is finished. My heart is pounding as I make my way to the Chair of the Sociology Department office. As the Chair, he has his own private secretary and she directs me to sit down. Before my butt even touches the seat though, he is out of his door and waving me in. He is smiling too big and too friendly. I have never spoken to him so I am confused about his very familiar greeting.
“Crystal! I am so glad that you could come by!” …um…did I have a choice?
“ Please, sit!” his hand pats the seat of a cushioned desk chair that he has pulled away from the desk so that it is positioned right across from him and there is nothing between us. I can hear my blood pumping in my ears. I have learned to be cautious at the very least around men and I wouldn’t generally put myself in a position to be alone with one that I don’t know in a room with the door closed behind us.
“How are you?”
“How do you like college so far?”
“Um….it seems ok….”
He smiles at me again with that huge goofy too big grin. I look away and glance around the office. I notice a Pirates Baseball Player bobble head up on his bookshelf. There are stacks of books on every surface. He is not a tidy man. This actually makes me more relaxed. I am not a tidy girl/woman. There is a big camera on his desk and it looks complicated. There are photos on the walls, blown up and framed. The photos are mostly of things, like trains and fields and bridges. But there is one that catches my eye. It is an old man. Just his face. His head is thrown back and his mouth is wide open. There are only a few blackened teeth remaining. He looks kind of like my grandpa looked. Again, this calms me. I do not know enough to fear middle class sociologists who romanticize poverty.
“Crystal, let me tell you why I called you in here.” He has been watching me take in his office. Over the next year, I realize that he loves to watch me, is always watching me. Sometimes from behind his camera lens, sometimes not. “I noticed you right away. You stood out in our very first class. You don’t look like a regular college student. You look different.”
I look down to see how I look today. Long flowy floral skirt. Brown and pink buds floating around the cotton fabric covering my legs all the way to the floor. It is August, so it is hot enough for me to pair this with a tank top. It’s simple and brown and ties at the waist. My hair is long and curly and I have dyed my dark brown hair a pitch black. Tiny braids are scattered throughout. I guess I don’t look like the other college students with their Duquesne Hoodies and booty shorts. Is this a dress code thing?
He makes a sound. A grunt and covers his mouth. “After our first class I couldn’t resist my curiosity about you so I pulled your file to have a look.” Dramatic pause while my mind races through all of the things that he would see in there. Orphan. My admission letter about my parents dying of AIDS, my income at $0 and no home address. “I knew there was something special about you and I was right! Oh, sweetie. I am so sorry to learn about the terrible hardships that you have gone through. I have kids of my own in college. (No, he didn’t they were full grown late 20’s and only one of them was connected to any college of any kind and that was as a TA, not a student.) I can’t imagine how you must be feeling in a new place with new people and no family to call home to talk about it. I want to invite you to think of me as your “fictive uncle.” haha! Sorry that is a sociology term, just throwing in a little learning. I saw that you are a Sociology major which is perfect! I am going to take you under my wings and guide you every step of the way!”
All of this is finally sinking in. I am a lucky girl. I always have been. I mean think about it. I could have easily contracted HIV when I was born. My mom wasn’t being treated at all, I mean there wasn’t even any reliable treatments yet at that time! It is my turn to smile. I can’t believe the Sociology Chair is offering to be my mentor! I am so excited. All of my reservations are gone. Because I need this. And honestly, because I do not know yet that toxic masculinity is not specific to working class and poor men. I do not know that I need to protect my girl body even here at this respected Catholic institution of learning. I am classist I guess like everyone else.
Wilson goes right into this new role he has graciously offered to fill in my life. He employs me as his editor…I have no experience of writing, have not even taken even one college level writing class…or any writing class for that matter. This means that he will see me at least once a week to go over our work together. I learn that he has authored a few books. He does love spending time with poor people! One book is about living with the “hobos” who jump trains. Another is about farmers in upstate New York. His books are filled with poverty porn. He is always the hero, courageously leaving the safety of suburbia behind to venture out and live among the downtrodden. He is never over the age of 30 in the pictures he shows me even though his hair is thinning and he hardly resembles the young man that he shows me.
One weekend, he invites me over to have dinner with his family. He invites another girl too. Let’s just call her Olivia. She is an exchange student from Ecuador and I recognize her from class. While she and I wait for him to pick us up in his little white punch bug car, she confesses that she is nervous. She has called home. Her parents are wondering why a grown man is inviting us to dinner. They say it is inappropriate. They tell her not to go. She wants to know if this is normal in our culture. If her parents are overreacting. I am not wise enough yet to realize that she is lucky to have parents looking out for her. In a way, a tiny way, I am even relieved on some level that I don’t have to navigate that kind of thing with parents who are going to slow down my independence. I tell her “Don’t worry! We are going together. We are meeting his family. He is our teacher! We are safe. If anything feels off about it, we will promise to leave together.” She is convinced enough to go, but I can tell she is still nervous. I feel grown up and bold.
I feel even more bold as we sit at a table with Wilson and his 29 year old son eating pasta and salad and sipping red wine. I LOVE red wine. Wilson apologizes that his wife is out of town and his daughter lives on the other side of the country so we are only going to be able to meet his son. Who is a jazz musician! I look at the son, who does resemble the young man in the books that I have been “editing.” He seems annoyed to be there. With his dad and two 19 year old college freshman girls.
Olivia is quiet and reserved throughout the dinner, but when I whisper to her to check in, she tells me that she isn’t afraid anymore. But she isn’t engaging either. I can see that her glass of wine is still full and I am almost finished with my second. Wilson pours it freely into my glass and beams that awkward whole face smile at me. His speech is looser now and he is talking to us about his life, his travels, his first love. His son is more and more annoyed. Looking back, I wonder if he is disgusted that his dad is so clearly flirting with teenage girls in their home while his mother is away. I still don’t see it that way. My eyes are clouded by the idea that this is what it means to be an adult! Sipping wine over dinner and having intellectual conversations. This is so much better than the college parties that I have not been going to.
The night ends without anything happening to wake me up. Olivia never goes to his house again, and neither do I, but I do go to our favorite Italian restaurant with him or our favorite diner where I get the feta and spinach omelet. Wilson loves food and he loves introducing me to all of the flavors that I have never experienced in my impoverished childhood. It grosses me out to realize how much he was getting off on it all.
“Hey Wilson! I got your message. You wanted to see me?”
“Come in! Come in!” He gestures to the chair that is basically mine now in his office. I sit down and hope he can’t smell the cigarettes on my sweater. I don’t want another lecture from my fictive uncle. He reaches over and puts a hand on my chair. It has wheels and he pulls it close to him. I must let my surprise show on my face because he laughs and says, “Relax kid, I have a surprise for you! I stopped by the Italian Market in the Strip District and picked up a few things today.” He is giddy like a child. Again, ew. He tells me to close my eyes, which I do because I mostly do whatever annoying things that he wants me to do. He bounces between teacher and mentor all the time so that I sometimes get confused which Wilson is making the request. I do not tell him that I am uncomfortable with my eyes closed. It is triggering for me, even though I don’t know that word yet or that concept. I only know that if I can not see freely all around me, I start to panic and feel like I can’t breathe. But I force my eyes shut. They refuse to stay shut all the way and through slits, I see him pull me even closer still. His hand is squeezing my knee. It does not go higher, but it does not belong on my knee. He says, “Open your mouth.” My panic is wrestling with my desire to seem normal and not like a freak. I think that there is something wrong with me in this scenario, not his behavior. I open my mouth. Now, I know he can smell the cigarettes. But he doesn’t say anything. He places an olive on my tongue. “Be careful of the pit. Isn’t that delicious?” I open my eyes. Ya, I say and scoot my chair back an inch or two. I have never been this close to him before. This scene plays out again and again with chocolates and grapes and dolmas and all of the flavors that he wants to share with me over the next year. He only wants to help me experience everything that I wasn’t able to as a child. Sometimes when I open my eyes, I see him putting his camera back down. I wonder how many photos of me he has with my mouth open and my eyes closed.
One day, I am down at the Hooka Bar with my friends. I have made friends with all of the international students because I am part of some group called the “global community” and the college arranged for kids who were interested in that group to have similar classes even if we had different majors. I go to the Hook Bar with the international kids. It is fun to be there with the kids from Iraq who sing in Arabic as we pass the hooka around. Wilson knows that I go there. I look up to see him approaching my table. He looks so completely out of place that it takes me a minute to make sense of what I am seeing. Plus, doesn’t he hate smoking? He squeezes in right next to me, pushing away the boy that is currently occupying that space. He watches as the hooka is passed to me. He takes it from me and sucks in the flavored smoke. Exhaling and looking right into my eyes. This is for some reason, the first time that I realize that this is not right. Something is not normal about this. When he leans over and whispers, “I love watching the smoke roll off your lips..” I feel sick in my stomach.
After that, I avoid any extra curricular time with him. I do his editing, which again is a joke, but he pays me…I say, Im busy when he invites me to the baseball game. “Don’t get too radical!” He warns me. “You don’t want to turn into one of those crazy too far leftists who can’t even relax and enjoy baseball without crying about oppression!”
I say no when he asks me to go on a camping trip with him. He has a cabin somewhere and has been asking for weeks. When he finds out that I have gone camping instead with a boy that I am still in love with from my hometown, he is furious. And heartbroken. He sulks in his office and mumbles something about “hoping I had fun rolling in the weeds with some redneck boy instead of going camping with him at his nice lodge.”
I invite friends with me when I can’t dodge his requests so that I am only seeing him in the company of peers. His eyes flash anger as I show up at our Italian restaurant with a male friend in tow. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought someone along!” I say cheerily. The tables are turning. I am no longer his puppet and he doesn’t like it. He barely says two words through dinner. I don’t bother to tell him that I barely know this boy. He is literally just a person that I saw outside of the dorms and told him the situation and said, “hey, do this for me and you get to eat some really good free pizza.” I let Wilson think this is my boyfriend, not because I want him to be jealous but because I want to shift the dynamic. I want him to stop all of this gross flirtation and actually honor his offer to mentor me.
He ups the ante. I am currently taking out massive loans to go to this school. You would think an AIDS orphan would get a free ride, but, no. Not at all. “Crystal, I have a proposition for you. There is a program that gives a HUGE scholarship to a Sociology major each year. You have to be a junior to get it, but I think we can bypass that if you take two more of my classes next semester. As the chair of the Department, I have a lot of sway over who gets a scholarship like this.” He is trying to reel me back in. He feels my trust in him slipping away and he wants me to remember that I need him to survive in college. Remember, I am not like the other kids. I am different. I don’t really belong here. I need someone who does belong here to help me find a place.
I say yes. I say Thank you. I say this is an incredible opportunity. But then, I leave his office and never come back. I leave my campus and never come back. I never go back to college at all. What am I going to do if I get on the wrong side of the Chair of the department that I am majoring in. But I realize that he thinks that he owns me. He has bought me all year with the pizza, chocolate, money, everything. I don’t want this. I hate what he has done to me. I hate that he has an excuse every time that I ask to meet his wife.
Over the summer following my freshman year of college, he emails me constantly. He begs me to come back. He tries every tactic from talking up the scholarship and academic advances he can get me to painting me a picture of us at that cabin he always wanted to take me to. He refuses to send me the negatives of the photos that he took to get developed for me. He says if I want them I have to come get them in person. He casually sends me texts about getting him pot. I haven’t smoked since high school and he knows that. I got all of that out of my system and I don’t want it anymore. I tell him I can’t get him any and he begs me. “Please. I can’t ask anyone else. I am a professor here! I need you. I need you to help me. We can just smoke a little together and relax.” I think of the way that he looked at me at the hooka bar and I pass. No way. I’m not doing this anymore.
When he ignores my attempts to shut off communication, I meet him one last time at a coffee shop in my new neighborhood. I dropped out of college so I’m not at the dorm anymore. I ride my $5 goodwill bike there so I can get out of there without asking him for a ride.
“I don’t want you to contact me anymore. I don’t want you to email me or call me or text me. About anything. Ever. I am not a student and I am not your friend. I don’t trust you.” I am proud of myself in this moment. I am scared but I am proud.
“Why would you say such a thing?!” He is freaking out. He acts as if I am coming out of nowhere with this even though I have been giving him this message for months over email.
I look him in the eye. “Tell me the truth for once. You never wanted to be my “fictive uncle.” You called me into your office because you were attracted to me. You called me in and the one other female student who had no family in the States to look after her. You targeted me.” I am clear. I am not crying. I do not cry even though saying this part about how I feel like I have a target on me, that he preyed on is terrifying and true.
“No! It’s not like that! I….I mean….am I attracted to you? Yes! Of course I am. You are beautiful. I am human. I dream about you. Can I help that? How can I help what I dream about? I am a human…a man…You are something really special. I have never met anyone like you before. I am….in love with you. I can’t help that! How can you be mad at me for falling in love with you?”
“Stay away from me or I will tell your wife. You will lose your job!” I get on my bike and pump as hard as I can.
But Wilson is a man with a lot of privilege and he knows that what I said isn’t true. I have no power over him. He does not leave me alone and when I muster the courage to meet with the Dean of the Liberal Arts Department to report him for harassment, I am told that I am no longer a student there and that this matter does not concern them. They will do nothing. When I throw a fit about how unjust this is and how I will protest and organize, they tell me that what has happened is not a big deal. Did we have sex? No? Then I have nothing to report.
I fantasize about making flyers warning his female students about him. I want to stand outside of every class he ever teaches and tell every single student. I want them all to see him for who he is. But I never do that. I never do anything. But I did this. I wrote this today. And this did feel good.
Wilson is not his real name.