HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Hope” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author. All other names herein have been changed as well.
< Part One
I can still remember his glare, the way his lips clenched and eyes narrowed, and then he took his red pen and scrawled his judgment across my paper. The look and the words combined to tell me all I would ever need to know about myself. That I was a failure. That I would never measure up. That my best efforts were utterly worthless.
It was December of 2006, the last week of class before finals, and twenty-four hours before, my roommates, Alice and Amy, had come back from a meeting with the dean of student life as two utterly broken girls.
A few weeks earlier, over Thanksgiving break, Alice had been sexually assaulted by Ryan, a man I had once considered a close friend. She didn’t have to say much for me to know she was telling the truth and I didn’t press for details. I didn’t want to know and I thought it would be insensitive to make her tell.
When she told me what happened, I tried to be supportive. I told her that he’d pay for it – I was fully convinced he would be expelled from the school. I told her I believed her, didn’t blame her, and that Ryan had always been weak in that area.
After all, who’d know that better than me? Sign after sign I’d seen all that semester . . . he wasn’t a gentleman, wasn’t pure in thought. He was a stalker, who lived to see the prey’s fear. How many times had I seen him sneak up on a friend, just to terrify them? Not startle – terrify. He had cruel eyes and he licked his lips.
I even felt a sense of relief when she told me, because finally things were out in the open. The problem had finally been defined.
All three of us skipped Biology lab that morning, to let the news sink in and to avoid taking class with him. Alice and Amy decided to take a nap, as they’d been up late talking. Once they were asleep, I left the room, walked down to the basement door of Red Hill, and waited for Ryan to arrive.
I didn’t have to wait long. Lab was just ending and he soon came out. He smiled, but I didn’t wait for his greeting.
“I know what you did,” I told him, loudly but with finality. “Alice told me. You were very wrong, and you will pay for it. People will find out about it. A lot of people are going to find out.” He tried to defend himself, but I didn’t listen. I’d said what I needed to say, so I turned and left.
I expected that to be very nearly the last word on the subject, or at least the last word that I would ever need to make on the subject. Things didn’t turn out that way. Alice and Amy did come back from the first meeting with the dean hopeful, reporting that she – the dean – had been very upset by what she’d heard and that she’d promised (if it was true) to expel him.
Well, the catch was in the qualifier, I guess, although I’ve never really been sure. My interactions with the dean were almost all indirect and the ones that I did have was so cold, so professional, and so distant, that I can’t begin to speculate on her motives.
In any case, things began to go all wrong shortly thereafter. Ryan was angry. Very angry. What’s the phrase, “high dudgeon?” That was it . . . the absolute, iron-clad, self-righteous assurance that what he had done was perfectly right, or if not perfectly right, that at least it was something that no one had any right to challenge him on.
It might not have been so bad, except that I was expecting things to be quick and simple. Oh, probably not court conviction, it’s not like we had any proof that the police could take to trial, but obviously this was going to be public. Obviously he was going to be disgraced. Obviously he would go away and leave us alone. I mean, seriously, this was sexual assault we’re talking about. People get expelled for that.
But it didn’t happen.
Lunch happened, he was there. Night fell, he was on the sidewalks or in the bushes. I remember coming around the building once and jumping out of my skin to see him so close. Heart in my mouth and breathing heavily, I caught up to some other walkers as quick as I could.
He did jump Alice once. Didn’t do anything, just scared her. I was furious.
The college asked us to keep quiet while the investigation was ongoing. I could understand that. Don’t want to crucify a person before you know he’s guilty . . . this silence did align with my own convictions against gossip. But the longer the thing went on, the more I realized this silence was isolating me. I had only my roommates and my all-too-distant mother for support.
Both of my roommates left campus that weekend, leaving me alone with this madman. I didn’t expect, when I said good bye to them, that it was going to be much of a problem, but I had severely underestimated how much Ryan scared me. The moment night fell, I began to remember so much that had not meant anything to me before . . .
. . . that blow to the face he’d given me in a pillow fight, so hard that my glasses were driven deep into my nose and I’d blacked out for a split second . . .
. . . him telling me about how he’d climbed D2 to plaster nightmarish posters over the girls’ second story windows to “celebrate” Halloween, and how disappointed he was that the security guards had removed them so soon . . .
. . . all our trash talk about martial arts and how he could take me in a fight, which somehow didn’t feel much like trash talk now . . .
. . . each time I’d tried to pull back and he’d ignored my hints and every time I’d given way because I didn’t want to be a prude . . .
Once upon a time, I’d been excited to think that he was a little bit dangerous. Now? Now, it was night, I didn’t have a roommate with me, and he was angry. If he wanted to retaliate, I was the only available target. And he knew I was alone. And he could climb. And he could beat me. And he never did take ‘no’ from me, not even on little things.
I was horribly terrified and far more alone than I’d ever been in my life.
I slept in the RD’s room that weekend, but that was only at night. The RD and my own RA were both incredibly busy people. I felt guilty for taking up their time, and wanted to talk to Amelia, the RA I had adopted as my own. Stupid me, I asked permission first.
It was denied.
For most of the semester, I had been in the habit of walking up to Founder’s several times a night just “to get a drink of water” and also to scope out the events – always did hate to miss a party. I didn’t dare do that alone now, but I also was fully convinced that it was not right to spill the details. I asked a friend to accompany me “because there is someone on campus that I’m scared of.”
Word made it back to the dean, who sent me an order through the RA to shut up. “Don’t be scaring people,” they said. “It isn’t true anyway. Don’t be seeking attention.” I shut up.
Then came the day when we realized none of this was ever going to go away. The day we realized they weren’t going to expel Ryan. Twenty-four hours of hopeless uncertainty, then the meeting where they’d make it official.
And that was the night my paper was due.
Actually, I had two papers due. One was an Economics paper that I had planned to write on the financial considerations of making vs. buying a dress for the Liberty Ball. Ryan, my roommates, two other guys, and I had planned that we would all go together dressed in LOTR costumes – I was going to be Rosie. I didn’t have time to change topics.
Each word I wrote was sheer agony, a blow to an open wound, and I couldn’t allow myself to cry. I had to finish that bloody paper, so I could do the next one.
I could have done them on the weekend before, yes, but I had never had problems writing in high school. Writing was, for me, a pleasure and a privilege, always accompanied by high praise from my teachers and often in front of the class. I could write easily and in minutes what others never could even if they’d struggled for days. I wanted it to stay a pleasure. I wanted to write without the burden of uncertainty and fear on my shoulders.
And now things were nightmaric. All I wanted to do was cry and try to sleep. Instead, I wrote about dreams that could never happen as I worked the night into oblivion.
The first paper finished barely on time. The second was harder, as I had no ready-made plan for it. I had no mental power left to spare, but I came up with a topic. Somehow. I found quotes . . . somehow. I wrote . . . somehow.
And then I walked into the end of class, with my paper hot from the printing. I smiled at the professor, proud to have accomplished something despite the madness of my world. I had done it. No sleep, no tears, no heart left to call my own . . . but at least I could still write. He glared back and, taking his pen, scrawled those four unforgettable red words across my clean white sheet.
Late. End of Class.
My smile vanished, but I didn’t cry. I nodded polite acceptance of his judgment, and left without a word.
And that was my first semester.
For me, it meant a major restructuring of my world. I went home for Christmas feeling like a total failure and scared to death of the dark. Each night of Christmas break, I turned off the lights and just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, letting the fear wash over me as the tension built and built. Then, I’d reach up, hit the closet light switch, and roll over to go to sleep. Then came the joyful day when I realized I could see enough by the green light of the digital alarm clock that I didn’t have to turn on the closet light. The worst of the fear had finally been broken.
Everyone at home knew something had gone wrong, but not what it was. I told my parents, but acted distant and quiet around anyone else. People told me they were praying for me.
For my own part, I spent my days thinking things through. Did I really want to go back to PHC? I had two years and all my savings sunk into that college and it’s not like I could expect all of my credits to transfer. If I went back to school somewhere else, I would be starting all over again. But maybe that would be worthwhile, just to get away from Ryan.
There are bad apples at every school, I thought. At least at PHC I know who it is. Not, perhaps, the most cheering sort of progress one could make, but still progress of a kind.
If I leave PHC, where will I go? It had taken me two years to scrape together enough hope and will power to apply to PHC. I had no guarantee the next time would be quicker and plenty of reason to believe that it wouldn’t. I have always hated giving up and I believed that the shock of quitting would probably kill me. I felt like a failure right now; but if I got that diploma, wouldn’t I be proving that I wasn’t a failure at all?
It never occurred to me to wonder if other administrations did things differently than PHC’s had. I guess I just assumed that was industry standard. Not the best assumption perhaps, but it did give me a way to distance myself from the event.
It happened, it was done, I’ll move on.