It is a lifetime ago and I am sitting on the lap of a man 10 years older than myself and I’ve had too much to drink. I remember the feel of his hair against my face and the way the party at my apartment swirled around us. I can still smell his aftershave, or that’s what I tell myself from the distance of 35 years.
People came and went. A lamp shined yellow light on the chair where we sat, the chair where I would bubble in my GRE application and write my thesis. The keg my roommate and I purchased oozed beer extravagantly into our bathtub.
Was I nibbling on his ear? Kissing him?
Nothing happened. Nothing ever happened, and this was an on-and-off-again disappointment for the year or two or three when we would occasionally date and he would walk me to my door, leaving with nothing more than a chaste goodnight kiss. I cried a swamp over him.
And now I’m grateful.
Every day it’s somebody new. Often a man whose work I’ve admired. Kevin Spacey. Jeffrey Tambor. Al Franken. Louis CK. Charlie Rose, too, dammitalltohell. Not to mention our Predators in Chief, plural, the many of them, the Leaders of the Free World, who, at the very least, cheated on their gloved, hat-wearing wives, and at worst assaulted young women, using their power and charisma and position to satisfy whatever it is a man wants when he pushes himself on someone and knows he can get away with it.
Who’s next? Surely there are many, many more. How could there not be?
We are starting to parse phrases like pedophile and child molester. Sexual harassment and assault. The apologies are becoming more and more eloquent, but the denials remain brutish and arrogant, making clear the tacit entitlement our culture has bestowed on men as if anyone younger, less powerful, more marginalized is up for grabs, male or female.
Where are the good ones? Are there any? Let he who is without sin… I look at the one in the bed next to me, his face like mine showing the traces of time, his brow like mine, furrowed with the exclamation points of worry, concern, frustration and curiosity. Do we ever know anybody, really?
Of course, I ask him, and he says, “I think I behaved well.” But he also wonders about a time when maybe he pressed too hard or insisted too much when perhaps “yes” was more of a “maybe.” I remember being that “maybe” not with him, but there was one time when the answer was more of an “oh, alright” than a “yes.” It haunts me still, not because I blame the man, but because, it happened and it hangs in my memory like an old coat in the closet, worn and outdated but not yet discarded.
Not long after we got engaged, a guy came to work in our office who checked the smart/writer/garrulous boxes—and was good looking enough to be on a pack of men’s briefs. Ours was a predominately female team and we took an inordinate interest in this new member. I, for one, followed him around like a shadow, spinning my engagement ring with my thumb. Who was this guy? What was his deal? Was there a girlfriend? A puppy? A fish in a bowl? We all wondered, teasing him, trying to figure him out, confused how to fit him into our female culture to the point that he felt harassed.
Harassed. The word had the hard sound of rebar clanging against cement. I don’t remember how I learned he felt this way, but I backed off like someone had flicked a match. That my dying singlehood had caused this man a moment’s discomfort, that our curiosity had created a toxic environment for a guy who deserved his privacy embarrassed me. Was this about power? Sex? Objectification? Yes? Maybe?
That we eventually became friends is a testament to his forbearance and the places between yes and no and did I or not, between wilderness and sidewalks where there really are 50 shades of grey.
My freshman boyfriend who went home with crossed eyes, because I wasn’t ready. The married political science professor, who looked like Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl but made it clear to me my crush wasn’t welcome. My brother, who sobbed like he had seen the doors of heaven, holding his first born in his arms. Colleagues I could trust with my safety—and my copy—and my friendship. The young neighbor, who gave up four years of his life, holding his wife’s hand as she passed from this world into the next. My grandfather, who told me to stay away from “men chil’ens,” who sang, “You are my sunshine,” who gave me a snow scraper after I bought my first car. My future husband, who scraped the ice off my car windows and asked me to call him at night when I arrived home. My husband, who continues to try his best to care for our home and hearts. And every year puts the scraper back in my car when the weather turns cold.
Novelist Jennifer Weiner wrote in the New York Times recently that “It’s absurd to feel grateful to men just for exercising basic decency. No woman, whether she’s a chief executive or cleaning hotel rooms, should have to feel thankful to the guys who didn’t grope or grab or leer.”
She makes a good point, but that’s not where my heart is in this season of Thanksgiving. I am thinking of the interstices between the trees and the concrete, between wild nature and our poisonous culture and our better selves, that place where we aren’t sure whether we have crossed a line or not or don’t know? I am thinking, too, of the times when I was given the grace of my own terrain, even when I didn’t know what that land looked like, blinded as I was by youth and need and lust. For those times when I’ve been warned off, saved from myself, have observed or been given love that looks like the hand of God at work, for that, that, I am grateful.