Image Credit: Gene Jeffers
The door opens and she steps from the dorm. I see her, know her footstep. She is so clear, the nineteen-year old college sophomore skipping down the steps now. I feel her, know the feel of her baggy sweatshirt and paint-speckled jeans, her sandals with the left heel worn down more than the right. I recognize the look of determination she wears. Ride the currents of youthful confidence that bubble in her veins flushing out most of her self-doubts and disappointments.
I feel very close, hate that I am a voyeur, hate that I do not call out. She is mission-focused, believes she is in charge, and I cannot divert her attention. I can only watch as she stops on the sidewalk to flick her long, straight hair behind her shoulders. Glossy brown hair nearly down to her waist. Perfect hippie hair. Then adjusts the shoulder strap of her purple suede purse.
She makes me hurt and I want to scream “Don’t go. Not today.” But she is still the one in charge. I already know she will not be dissuaded.
She marches up the hill to the Fine Arts Building on top and pulls open the stage door. I slip in behind, find her blinking away the bright sunshine, waiting for her eyes to adjust before she starts down the grim hallway that leads to the stage in the university’s main theater.
On the left is the combination scene shop and tool crib. She hurries to the time clock, listens for the “thunk” as it punches her card. She sets her purse on the floor and turns to the shop boss sprawled in the chair across the room A different guy today. I stand back as she takes him in. Mid-twenties, grad student maybe. Curly shoulder-length hair in need of a good scrub. Bell-bottom jeans, boots, “Power to the People” T-shirt, flannel over it unbuttoned, big shiny belt buckle. Chair tipped back against the wall, clipboard balanced on his thigh.
“Dress rehearsal for Midsummer last night turned up some problems with the set,” he says gruffly, without sitting up. “Need you to shellac some sand on the big tree root. Actor’s foot slipped off. Can’t have that in tonight’s performance.”
She nods, finds a three-inch paint brush, a small bucket of sand, a can of shellac and moves toward the stage. Her step is brisk, shoulders squared, eyes intense, focused on the job ahead. Work she can do to help with the performance, and at the same time, chip away at the sixty hours outside of class all students in DART 14 “Stagecraft” are required to put in.
I have heard her complain about the course to her friends and fellow art education majors. Understand why she resents that it is a requirement, along with a course in lettering and typography, for students like her who wanted to become high school art teachers. Wanted to teach art, its concepts and principles set within historical and cultural contexts. Not act as hand-maidens to the high school drama teachers who needed sets painted and posters designed. She has had to take a deep breath. Suck it up for now, get the degree, get state certification. Then teach according to her convictions. That’s the plan.
She bursts onto the stage and I watch her eyes grow huge. She has never seen this backdrop before. She finds it bewitching, so unlike the Medieval castle scene she and a handful of fellow DART 14ers had worked on earlier in the week. She lifts her face to the new backdrop, lets it transport her into a mystical fairy forest. She feels like she is twirling through Shakespeare’s dream.
The drop is lit softly, its blues and greens and grays twinkling, blending, spreading magic through the forest. She looks down stage. Her mouth falls open. A single spot light strikes the magnificent tree. She is drawn to it, wants to be swept up in its spreading branches, dance among its tangled roots, hide among the trunk’s deep furrows. It is glossy, yet looks old and gnarled. It is also painted in blues and grays and greens so magical that she is happy to suspend all disbelief. The tree is the true center of life in the fairy forest. It is transfixing, and she loves that it reaches high and at the same time roots itself below. She gazes, delighted to stand in the captivating space between.
She runs her hand over the big root, more of a knee, feels the flat place where the actor must plant his foot. I notice the care she takes in spreading the sand in the wet shellac. She waits for it to dry before painting a top coat to match the shine of the tree. She takes a last look at the set, eyes widening again, lips parting as if she is about to whisper “How beautiful.” The illusion. This transcendental moment.
Take another moment, I plead. Take ten. A hundred. A thousand, I want to say. Stay in the shiny illusion.
But no, she strides across the stage, disappears into the scene shop. I hurry to catch up. She has found the jug of turpentine and is squatted down cleaning the brush. Studies the bristles. They don’t look clean. Tries again, more turp, touches the bristles this time, but they only feel sticky. She is baffled and reaches again for the jug.
“You need alcohol to clean shellac,” the boss barks from his corner. I flinch, understand he has been watching. My cheeks feel hot, hers look flushed. I know how embarrassed she feels, how she berates herself. Why didn’t I know that, she thinks. I’m going to be an art teacher. I should know these things.
The alcohol is the right solvent for the job and the brush comes clean. Satisfied now, she rises to her full height, throws her hair, her shoulders back, ready to return the brush to its place in the tool crib.
“Let me see it,” the voice demands. The front legs of his chair hit the floor. He sits up straight, sets the clip board aside.
She does as she is told. Performs her walk of shame across the room step by aching step.
“Hold your head up,” I want to tell her.
But in the suffocating room, it is all I can do to suck in my breath, watch as she holds up the brush for him to see.
He motions for her to come closer.
She inches forward, utterly humiliated now.
I want to close my eyes, shut him out forever. Too late.
He lunges. Gorilla arms grab her. Wrap around her waist. Pull her close. Pull her struggling body toward his belt buckle.
Push her screaming face down.
She puts up her hands. Bends her neck back. Points her chin up.
Manages to get a word out.
Everything is a blur, happening too fast.
He is so strong.
She strains, fights with everything she’s got, all 112 pounds of her.
“Hey!” A disembodied voice thunders from somewhere high up. It sounds ferocious. “Leave her alone,” the voice commands.
The shop boss releases his grip.
She is gone in a flash only half wondering if the booming voice of authority was her professor’s and he had seen the attack from up on a catwalk in the fly space.
“Nothing happened,” she tells herself, streaking down the hill, racing up the stairs to her room on the dorm’s top floor.
“Nothing happened,” she insists and slams the door. She refuses to cry. It is over.
I see her again decades later. She stands outside the Starbucks peering through the front windows. Will she recognize me? An older woman, emeritus professor who looks the part in wire framed glasses with Coke bottle lenses. A mother of two grown daughters, grandmother to three high school kids. My hair is shoulder length now. still dark, straight, natural. A little shine left. I watch her move to the door, watch her hesitate, then push through, and head for my table.
I gesture to the chair across from me. She rests her hand on the back and says firmly “Nothing happened,” before she is willing to sit down.
I see the pain that darts in her eyes.
“Green tea, no sugar.” I slide a cup toward her.
“Just how I like it, thanks.” She takes a sip. “So comforting.”
“Always works for me.”
She opens her mouth, words on the tip of her tongue. A streak of gray slices her face, and I know what she is going to say. Words repeated year after year.
“Something did happen. Maybe we can figure it out together,” I start.
“I have been over and over it. Re-played that scene so many times.”
“Me, too.” I sip my green tea, compose myself, take it a little slower. “I’ve always wondered,” I say, then stop. “Just curious. What happened to the purse? Or the time card? Did you stop to punch out? At least get some credit for the time you put in?”
“Or the paintbrush? What happened to it?” She muses.
We shake our heads. “Just can’t remember,” we say.
We look at each other, then look down at the table.
“Wish I had smacked him in the face with that wet brush,” she growls.
“Just what he deserved,” I growl back.
We study each other again. “I thought I was a feminist,” she says softly, head bowed. “And yet I caught myself wondering if it was the long hair…” she trails off, chagrined.
I take her hand. “We can’t cut him any slack. As if he couldn’t help himself.”
I take another sip, then ready to roar, I proclaim, “We did nothing wrong. Hair or no hair, he had no right.”
She nods and now it is my turn to confess. Come clean about the thoughts I am not proud of.
“Never wanted to be rescued like some damsel in distress. Always thought I was strong enough to take care of myself.”
She sees me shaking, takes my hand. “Shhhh,” she whispers. “You are mentally tough,” she soothes. “Not much you can do against a beast that outweighs you by a hundred pounds.”
“Thank god Professor Caudhill, or whoever it was, shouted out like that,” I say, head bowed. “Who knows what would have happened.”
“Nothing happened,” she says, rocking herself in the chair. “Not like with so many other women. True horror stories.”
“Something happened,” I say as evenly as I can. I look off in the distance. “Such a violation. Fucking predator stole our self-confidence. Betrayed our trust. He would have taken everything if he could have…” I blink, rub my eyes, focus on her. “You never told,” I say, fighting back tears.
“Nobody to tell in 1970. We didn’t even have the words in those days. Didn’t know what sexual harassment was, or sexual assault. It was rape or nothing back then.” She stares at me, seems to search for wisdom I don’t have. She blinks, rubs her eyes, looks at me again, imploring now.
“You never told either,” she says. “All these years, all your convictions and you never said.”
“I wasn’t going to let him derail the plan, ruin a good career. Tried to keep it buried. forget about it. Keep going,” I say simply. “Some things are better glossed over.”
“Even if we could, why would we tell? We needed to finish the course. Get the credits. Get the “A,” keep the GPA intact.”
”Went on to teach art,” I murmur, then chuckle as the memory bubbles up. “Never painted any drama teacher’s sets either.”
She rolls her eyes, grins. “It’s already 2020. I guess we should finally tell.”
“We are telling,” I smile.
We lay our hands on the table and watch as they blend together.
Carol Jeffers has published The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity (August, 2018, Koehler Books). Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Wordgathering, Persi