Following on the heels of a very romantic evening with an office crush, the writer discovers the true meaning of "fetish."
I’d landed an assistant position in graduate school, a part-time job where I got to be a quasi-secretary for the two professors who ran the science journalism program. There were only 12 students, and I got to know each one of them a bit, since I was the first person they’d see when they came into the office. And they were all very nice, but Jeff was especially friendly. I’d remembered meeting him at the welcome party for all the new journalism students and thinking he was cute. He had twinkly chocolate eyes and he was taller than me, which is all I really require in the verticality department. The remaining requirements—perhaps the main thing, really—is a sense of humor, and he happened to have one. The fact that he was three or four years older—a sizable spread when you’re 21—was a bonus. But there was something about him that reminded me of Kevin Spacey, for better and for worse—not just a physical resemblance, which was superficial: they both have round heads with dark, close-cropped hair. This wasn’t a bad thing—plus I was a fan of Spacey’s work. But it was something else, something unsettling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
And yet, it didn’t stop me from harboring a minor crush on Jeff. He didn’t hijack my brain. It was more that I was just always glad to see him. And, it turns out, the feeling was mutual, because he asked me out.
Being asked out on a proper date was a new experience for me. My romantic life up until that point usually consisted of drunken, less-than-discriminate hookups at college bars and parties—my first kiss occurred at age 16, dancing and drinking a Fuzzy Navel with a boy I didn’t know named Elliott at what had to be an illegal club in Manhattan—or the kind of fusion that tends to occur between people who live in the same college dorm. In seventh grade, I went out for pizza and a movie with a boy in my class, but I suspect the poor kid felt pressured to ask me out after word of my crush on him flowed through the gossip channels. (We never had another date. I think I made him uncomfortable when I cried at the end of Running on Empty). Before Jeff, no one ever asked, “Would you like to get dinner some time?” I did want to get dinner.
Jeff was fascinating. Riding the T to a restaurant in the romantic North End, Boston’s Little Italy, he told me all about the six months he’d spent in a Costa Rican lab studying monkeys. I hadn’t traveled further south than Florida. He was interested in biology and was a captivating storyteller, so it made perfect sense that he was getting a master’s degree in science journalism. Meanwhile, I felt like I was posing as someone who wanted to be a journalist: When I’d applied to grad school, I hadn’t considered the idea that in order to be a reporter, I would have to interview people for the articles I’d have to write. The thought of imposing on strangers—anyone—with a few questions terrified me.
We were almost at our T stop when he glanced down at my hands. He picked up my left one and examined it. My nails were painted a deep reddish purple. “It’s vampy,” he said, with a subtle grin. “I like it.” Interesting choice of words, I thought, but a compliment is a compliment, and I was happy to get one from him.
Dinner was romantic: We drank a bottle of red with our pasta by candlelight. We shared a cannoli as we strolled the cobblestone streets. The conversation was easy, and funny, filled with laughs. We were having such a good time that we decided it should continue at my apartment. On my futon, assembled in its upright couch position, we talked about our pre-Boston lives. He asked a lot of questions, about my life in college at Buffalo, about my friends and the places we went together—the great alcoholic triumvirate of P.J. Bottom’s, Third Base, and Molly’s Pub. And then I returned the favor.
He told me about a place he liked in St. Louis, where they hosted a fetish night on Tuesdays. Now for a confession: I didn’t quite understand what that meant.
“Fetish night?” I asked. “What goes on there?”
He looked at me quizzically. “You know,” he said, “people dressed up in black leather, dancing and stuff.”
“Oh, OK. I get it.”
Except that I didn’t really. Because I was imagining a burlesque show, with Jeff sitting in the audience, hand wrapped around an Old Fashioned glass. I didn’t come close to getting it. But he didn’t know that.
When we got together again—yes, he asked me out a second time—I went to his place. It was big, with multiple rooms, books everywhere, dark wood—grown-up. This was not a college guy I was dealing with but a man, and I liked it. After he gave me the tour, he walked over to his elaborate stereo system and put on some music I didn’t recognize. It was smooth, dark, moody, a bit creepy, and…strangely sexy. He told me it was a British artist named Tricky.
This was sex music. And then it dawned on me that I was in a pre-scripted scene and I was a guest star. I’ll admit, I prefer a little more improv and a lot less Velveeta when it comes to matters of the loins, but I decided I’d play along just to see how the narrative goes. And indeed, as he turned away from the CD player, he accelerated our story arc toward the climax.
Conveniently, we were just outside his bedroom. He backed up into it, his arms locked around my torso, the tension in them signaling that, like it or not, I was going with him. I was not opposed to it, but right as I was getting a handle on all this exploding passion, I found myself suddenly and painfully against the wall, which he’d slammed my back into, the full motion culminating in a smack to my head. I yelped. “Sorry,” he said insincerely, and with a sinister smile that I’ve seen a certain Academy Award–winning actor flash on the big screen, he went back to kissing me, harder now, crazily, with his mouth everywhere on my face and neck. I couldn’t keep up with his hands, and I realized I wasn’t even moving. I’d been stunned into stillness, stripped of the power of speech. My head was throbbing and I was starting to panic—Do I have a concussion? Could I possibly be under attack?—but then I heard something that extricated me from the grips of fear. It was an absurd sound. Impossible. I did some rapid-fire accounting of my environment: He didn’t have a dog, and it couldn’t have come out of the speakers with Tricky, because I’d felt the noise. I realized it had emanated from Jeff.
It was a growl, an actual rawr, like a cross between a pirate call and a wolf imitation. I tried to stave off the urge to laugh.
But I didn’t have an opportunity to laugh, because he spun me around without warning and with such speed, as if I were as light as a foam pillow. When he threw me down on the bed, I was relieved, so grateful for the soft landing. (Though cracking up would’ve felt better.)
He took a moment to sit up and straddle me. I cannot imagine what my face must’ve conveyed, but he didn’t seem to notice. He had an agenda, and the first thing on it was to get my shirt off.
It was a nothing shirt: a black Gap tee. I liked it because it was reliable and trustworthy, and covered all my flaws, not to mention my curves. Yes, I was on a date, and I could’ve classed it up more, but I believed that when it came to my body, it was better to look uniformly shapeless than a person with breasts and fat rolls. I had made an effort: I was wearing makeup and some cool jewelry. And of course, I had my dark nail polish on.
But back to that shirt: I would never wear or even see it again. This shirt was the end of the evening, and everything with Jeff, because he grabbed the fabric from around my neck and yanked it downward with such strength that once was all it took to render me lying there on my back with my bra and belly exposed. He had literally ripped my shirt off.
“Holy shit! What the hell did you just do?” I yelled.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” I sat up.
“It’s just a T-shirt.” He laughed. “Sorry, I thought you were into it.”
“Yeah, no. I’m kind of freaked out right now.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
“Well, what did you think was going to happen?” he asked.
“What do you mean? I thought maybe we’d make out like … normal.”
“I thought you knew!” he said, getting to his feet, visibly frustrated.
He faced me and said, “What exactly did you think I meant when I told you I went to fetish night?”
I paused, unsure how to answer, and embarrassed, because I still didn’t really understand. I was going to have to consult some friends—friends who would let me know that the letters S and M acquired a very particular meaning when they bookended an ampersand. Finally, I came up with “I think I should go.” I was in tatters, so I added, “Do you have a shirt I could borrow?”
With an audible breath, he walked over to his dresser, shuffled around for an interminable minute, and pulled out an innocent Fruit of the Loom tee. “Here,” he said, handing it to me.
I couldn’t look at him. Instead I looked at the white cotton in my hands. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with my nail polish.
Jeff knew my assistantship hours, so I didn’t see him around the science journalism office much anymore. Which was fine with me; it let me work on forgetting how mortified I was. Maybe I wasn’t the only one. The few times we ran into each other on the way to class, we traded those weak acknowledgement smiles you muster for people you wish you hadn’t just made eye contact with.
At the beginning of the next semester, I ran into a few of his classmates in the student lounge.
“Hey, guys, what’s up?” I said.
“Leah, have you heard anything from Jeff?”
“Um, no, what do you mean?” I couldn’t tell whether they were asking me in a social context or a business one.
“We think he left the program. No one’s seen or heard from him since we got back.”
“Whoa, that’s weird. He didn’t call or anything? The professors haven’t said anything to me….”
“Nothing. It’s very odd.”
He never did return. Once I learned how to use the Internet (which had been invented in the midst of all this), I used it to discover that he’d quit to go to medical school. Today he is a doctor. Smart as he was, I bet he’s a good one. But being a good doctor means being more than just a skilled diagnostician. It means honoring the Hippocratic oath. After all, it’s his job to first do no harm.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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