There was a little nagging feeling when I first met him. I wasn’t sure quite what it meant, except yes I was. It was the sense of a man who wants something I don’t want to give him. It was the feeling given off by the man who raped me in New York. It was the feeling I got from my student who, after I left my marriage, spent months bringing me presents he insisted were friendly–until he professed his love for me and became belligerent when I wasn’t responsive. I knew what I felt, but I tucked away the mental note and figured I’d know when it became pertinent.
I saw him with other people around in an environment where I felt safe. I had a boyfriend. I introduced them once; he smiled at Kevin.
After the breakup when I was having a difficult day and burst into tears he held me while I cried. He murmured in my ear, “Baby, what’s wrong?” Baby. He used that word and I let it pass, so distraught I just needed to know someone was there.
“Breakup,” I managed, and when he checked in later I was relieved to have someone to talk to. I felt miserable; rejected, hurt and afraid. In my pain, I was afraid of driving people away with the intensity of my emotions–after all, that’s how I’d just lost Kevin. He met me for lunch and listened to the whole story. He said he couldn’t imagine how scary it must be to lose that support so suddenly. He said my boyfriend sounded really emotionally immature. He said of course you hold your crying girlfriend when she’s afraid.
He texted to see how I was doing and didn’t mind when I ranted about how anxious and miserable I was. He dropped hints that made me figure something was up with his marriage. Every now and then there would be some maybe, possibly obliquely flirtatious comment I wasn’t sure I understood. He was validating and interesting to talk to. I left my occasional discomfort and confusion untended, so sick with grief and fear that I needed all the support I could get. He said he was fascinated by me; the word choice made me nervous. When you feel worthless and alone and needy, any kind attention will do–even when it comes with confusing undertones.
I met him for lunch on a day I was nauseous with anxiety over a new round of housing insecurity and not fully possessed of my faculties. After lunch we went across the street for coffee and he began to talk about his marriage. I tore the corrugated cup sleeves to shreds methodically as he spoke, which is not something I usually do. He told me he loves his wife and intends to stay with her and would never cheat on her–but that she just isn’t very nurturing or physically affectionate. I stacked the shredded paper in neat rows, avoiding eye contact and told him I understood how that might be challenging. Was he familiar with Gary Chapman’s work on the five love languages?
He took my hand in both his and held it tightly. I think he said something about how he was sorry things were so difficult for me as my head began to swim. My consciousness spun in a rapid whirl of threat cues, the sense of human connection, concerns about his intentions and whether I should pull away. I looked up. He looked back at me, a person in pain wanting solace. My heart thudded. I changed the subject.
“You’re nervous,” he observed.
“You’re right, I am.”
“Is this okay?”
“Um, yes? I’m not sure,” I stammered. My heart hammered. I couldn’t quite think clearly. We were in public, this surely wasn’t such a big deal. I looked at his hands holding mine, so different from Kevin’s hands. I couldn’t really feel his hands or my hands.
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.
“To your place?”
“Absolutely not.” I sat up a little taller. No way was I letting a man in an intimate space with me, that was not negotiable and I didn’t hesitate about it.
“Okay, want to walk?”
He released my hand, which felt like a relief. He kept his distance for a stroll around the block. He was brief with his goodbye and when I thought about it later I figured I’d tell him next time I saw him that he’d gotten too close and it had made me uncomfortable.
I considered talking it over with someone, but between my ongoing grief and anxiety over the breakup and the press of a few new crises–I was afraid I might already be wearing on my friends’ patience. With my bags packed in my car for the span of a week I spent drifting, I kept quiet about the awkward encounter I didn’t fully understand. I needed support for more immediate, painful concerns.
Talking with my therapist, it came up in the context of a conversation about how the hell I was going to sell my piano. I threw in “this weird thing that happened” in passing. I watched the alarm in her eyes as she asked,
“He told you about his marriage and then held your hand?”
The queasiness hits me all at once and my hands fly to my belly.
“What does that feel like to you?”
I describe the sick, clenching feeling and how my arms and legs are tight like a coiled spring. I feel my eyes getting wide.
“You’re describing someone who got close to you knowing you’re intensely vulnerable right now.”
“Yes. Oh, god.” That sick feeling is unrelenting; my body seems on the edge of mortal peril.
“Laura, how would you characterize that behavior if a friend were telling you this story?”
I struggle to breathe. I feel sick. My voice comes out soft and low;
“It’s predatory.” My eyes dart around the room; “Oh, no. I’m going to have to get someone else involved. I don’t want to. I can’t handle this right now.”
We talk about the power imbalance and the boundary pushing. I try to remember exactly what exchange gave me that initial sick feeling. She asks me if it felt sexually charged when he took my hand and I say no–but what the hell else is going back to my place about? We talk about who else he might behave this way with. I picture the pretty face of a younger woman than me and feel desperate worry. We talk about who I should tell, who feels safest to talk to. I worry about the consequences which she reminds me are his responsibility. I muse about my proclivity to identify with other people’s sad stories while failing to protect myself–and then I get just a little angry.
Before I head home I send an email to my minister. Later I tell five friends what happened. My friends are angry; they seem to see my worth more clearly than I do.