During the second half of my first year of college, I started a work study job that entailed working switchboard from midnight to four a.m. Five days a week I sat in the information center of the student center and answered the phone, transferring calls to their appropriate places. I was also responsible for checking in with security every 15 minutes and dispatching them when they were needed.
The campus was quite sleepy and there were strict curfews, along with serious ramifications regarding coed fraternization. The combination of this and the hours of my shift made for some very long, boring nights. Initially I spent the time reading my textbooks, grateful for the long spans of quiet time, only interrupted by a security guard checking in via radio or knocking on the door to say hello as he walked through the building. This was before the time of cell phones and iPads so the distractions were few.
As time passed, the security guards stopped in more frequently. At first they had excuses. They needed to get batteries for a flashlight or just needed to warm up in the student center. I didn’t mind them stopping. The nights were long and though I needed to spend the time studying, chatting was much more interesting. The guards were all male during this time and were all “townies.” They held a certain allure, probably because I was coming from such a sheltered place. I rarely left the University campus even though it was quite small and I had an inbred fear of the consequences of breaking rules. I tended to ride a line, trying to be obedient but always feeling intrigued by the thought of not. Plus I loved the attention.
A guard named Joe used to hang around quite often, spending the majority of my shift standing at the desk, talking. He was unique in that he lived in town but was also a student at the University. He had a wife and a child and spent much of his time talking about his troubled marriage. I listened and tried to make him feel better. I spoke from the perspective of an 18 year-old pretending to understand the intricacies of life as an adult in their mid-30s. I assured him that everything was going to be okay and I made him laugh. I was vaguely aware of Joe’s increasing infatuation with me, but viewed it as harmless.
One day, as I walked to class in a fog, Joe appeared and handed me a cup of coffee. I laughed and said how much I appreciated it. Then I continued to class. After that, Joe showed up more often during the day. I wondered how he knew what my class schedule was as he did most of the talking during our night shifts and I knew I hadn’t told him, but I didn’t think much of it. Then a few weeks later, he came up to me in tears telling me he had left his wife. My heart sunk for him and I asked what I could do to help. He asked me to meet him at a playground that bordered the University so he could talk.
Later, when I walked to the playground, I noticed he was there with his daughter. He introduced me to her and then he spoke while pushing her on the swing. He was heartbroken but he couldn’t stay with his wife knowing I was in the world. He was in love with me and had to be with me. My heart pounded and my face got hot. I broke out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was just trying to be nice; trying to listen to his pain. I hadn’t been clear with my boundaries. I felt nauseous. I didn’t know how to let him down easily; how to be kind with his fragile feelings while also making clear that I wasn’t going to be with him. I stumbled over my words trying to make it clear how flattered I was, but that the feelings weren’t reciprocated. I failed miserably in making myself heard. I walked away from the playground, excusing myself to go to another commitment. I couldn’t catch a deep enough breath.
I worked the next night and was relieved to find that Joe didn’t. I was at a loss for what to do. When I got back to my dorm at 4:30 a.m., I fell into bed, sleeping fitfully. I hadn’t told college friends what was going on. I felt like I was to blame; like I had led him on somehow. Around six in the morning, my roommate shook me awake, fearfully. Someone was knocking on the window. It only took a second to find out that it was Joe. I ran outside, whispering loudly. It was still quiet hours, he was male, this was against all rules. I was sharp and pointed, trying to be as clear as possible. He needed to go home! He needed to work out his family and his life; I was not the answer! The fear of getting in trouble for the infraction of having a male at my window was stronger than my fear of hurting his feelings.
Getting back in my room, I tried to explain to my roommate. She was confused and I stammered, trying to rationalize all the events of the past months. I could hear myself and felt ashamed.
At my next shift, I found out that Joe had quit. I was relieved, hoping he’d forget about me and move on. We could both close the doors and get onto our real lives. Walking home after work, I noticed a security guard approaching in one of the cars. Guards would often offer to give us rides back to the dorms, especially when it was cold outside. The car pulled up and the door was opened from the driver’s side. I got in, assuming it was the guard I had just worked with. I closed the door behind me, turned and instantly saw that it was Joe behind the wheel. I was confused. Suddenly the car accelerated, wheels screaming as we flew away from the center of campus. I was filled with a cold fear. I tried to talk to Joe, but he said nothing.
We quickly left campus, turning left to go over the bridge towards West Virginia. I did not have a car with me when I went to college and so rarely left campus that I was almost immediately clueless about where we were. We wound around mountains formed partially by geography and partially by mining practices. We were fenced in by sharp jagged cliff on one side and dark nothingness on the other. I was terrified and screamed at him to slow down. I contemplated opening the car door and flinging myself out. His response was to turn off the headlights so that we zig-zagged quickly without even the road as a guide. I was becoming certain that I would die, flying off a rock or through high-speed impact with another unsuspecting vehicle. Our saving grace became the late hour; very few cars were on the road at half past four in the morning.
Eventually we reached a strange house. It was a split level and junk cars littered the yard. In many ways it was a typical house in that area with too many lawn ornaments and paint that flaked off the exterior. It was shabby and sad but all the lights were on, which gave me hope. When we entered the house, I took in the people. Some were stereotypically toothless, none of them greeted us. It was a party, but only in the loosest sense of the word; it was a group of people gathered with the unified goal of becoming numb. There were cans of cheap beer everywhere and people taking hits from a pipe. The air was thick with smoke and smelled dirty and sour. Joe pounded a beer and handed one to me. I wondered if we just came to hang out. Again, I was confused. I tried to figure out how to get out of there; who could I call to pick me up? It occurred to me that I truly had no idea where I was. Considering the location of my college, I could be in any one of three states.
I took a few sips of the beer, trying to fit in but aware of people staring at me. I was a goody two-shoes from the University; a spectacle to behold. Then Joe grabbed me by the arm, dragging me up thickly carpeted steps to the upstairs. It was dark but there were others around – I could hear quiet murmurings though the pounding of my heart threatened to drown out all sound. Suddenly Joe threw me down on the floor and pinned me like an expert wrestler. His feet hooked around my ankles holding them down, his knees were between my thighs. He laughed a ghoulish laugh and I kept my head turned to the side, struggling. His breath was hot on my neck and he tried to kiss me. A part of me still felt that I could talk him out of this and I giggled weirdly while trying to pull away. He fumbled with my shirt, pushing it up. Somehow I was able to push it down. We did this dance a few times and then he stopped. My head was still turned and I clenched my jaw. Some part of me was disassociated from the event, still wondering how to let him down easy, unsure how how to simply say no. I was paused in time on that thick dirty carpet, fully clothed, legs splayed, vulnerable, trying to be nice.
And then it was over. A woman suddenly showed up and either out of mercy or more probably, out of fear of consequences, pulled Joe up and asked what he was doing. She was un-accusatory; her air was one of “wrong time, wrong place.” She didn’t admonish him and didn’t acknowledge me, but her actions had broken the spell. We walked down the stairs where the roomful of people sat with their dead eyes and heavy bodies. Quickly, Joe drank two more beers. I stood awkwardly, attempting to blend into the wall. I wanted to apologize for being there, for infringing on their gathering. I felt rattled and afraid. I felt eight years old. I avoided eye contact.
Finally Joe muttered that it was time to go. He walked out the door and I ran after him like a puppy who had been waiting to go outside, stumbling over myself. I had all but forgotten that we had arrived in a security car. I briefly pondered how he had “borrowed” it. I was terrified to be in the car with him, but there was no workable alternative in my mind. He was my captor and liberator simultaneously. Silently he drove me back down the winding roads, headlights on. Though we must have been backtracking, the route was unfamiliar. I was grateful for the lights on the dash and the clock that faithfully changed with each minute. My concept of time had been skewed when I was in the house and there was something comforting in knowing that no matter what happened, minutes continued to tick by. This was absolutely certain.
Unceremoniously, he dropped me off at the front door of my dorm. The sun was beginning to come up and in the low-lying fog, I could smell the sharp sulfur from the mines. Here and there a few people quietly walked. The early morning risers were almost always on their way to church or walking in prayer. I felt dirty and embarrassed. My eyes were itchy. I was suddenly exhausted. I slunk into the dorm, sneaking my way into my room and then fell into bed, hoping my roommate would sleep through it all. I tried not to replay the night’s events. It was a blurry dream anyway, nothing seemed to segue correctly.
In the following days, I expected to see Joe “accidentally” appear along my walk to class. He never did but I received a lumpy envelope in my cubby at work. It contained a note from Joe and a gold ring. I don’t even remember what the note said, but the ring was thick with a woven pattern around its circumference. It was definitely a man’s ring. I told myself it was a class ring or something he had purchased for himself at some point, but deep down I knew it was probably his wedding ring.
I kept the ring in my backpack for a long time hoping to run into him so that I could return it. I hated it. It felt hot and bitter and heavy. I wanted to lose it and lived in fear that someone would find it and ask me about it. I never saw Joe again and never managed to lose it. Eventually I threw it in a box with a bunch of costume jewelry from my grandma and didn’t think about it for a long time. Ten years later, after I had been married, had a child, gotten a divorce and relocated, I happened upon it as I was sorting through my old gold jewelry. The memory flooded back, but it was as if it belonged to someone else. I felt a dull pain in my gut. My pulse quickened. I quickly set the ring aside. Later that day I would sell it and it would bring me more than all of the other jewelry combined.