My first real boss had a wall of mirrors across from his desk. I alerted him to my approach with a cough, a laugh, a word to avoid catching him in the embarrassment of his obsessive mustache grooming, his narcissus gaze. It was months before one of his female in-flight service training instructors told me the truth. Casual, gossip during lunch break.
He watched me in the mirror, not himself. He watched my ass, my legs, my body. He boasted of the mirrors, of his parade of female flight attendants called to his office. He installed them with the sole intent of watching. He deposited a single item in his outbox, and buzzed me to retrieve it in the mirror. Over and over, multiple times per day.
The afternoon after that gossip lunch, I sat at my desk outside his office in utter dread. I wore my favorite orange sweater dress with no stockings. The hem fell mid-thigh. When he buzzed my phone, I forced myself to rise, to step around the desk, to approach, to stand in his doorway, though I knew what he expected. He tilted his head to the outbox on the far corner of the desk, a greedy glance to his mirror. His facial hair was prodigious, thick sideburns, caterpillar eyebrows, an enormous mustache. His lower lip bulbous and wet. His left hand squeezed his round red racquet ball, for dexterity, he’d said, squeezing, massaging, caressing. His right hand hid in his lap.
I prayed for the phone to ring, an appointment to show, any excuse.
I crossed the office in an ear-ringing stupor, intent on collecting the new items in the plastic box, acutely aware of the mirrors behind me, of his body solid, upright behind the desk, his fingers on the ball. I dared not look at him.
After lunch, if the VP was out of town, Dave was stoned. He’d been promoted fast, a sudden pick from the mostly female flight attendant ranks, an even quicker wedding to a non-airline civilian to prove himself the family man, the non-lech. Promoted beyond his capability, like my Dad used to say about his boss. Dave would return from lunch with his flight attendant woman friend grinning, eyes bloodshot, like the boys in my dorm freshman year, adults clueless.
That day, his office reeked.
That day, he squeezed his ball.
That day I dared not look at his face, his full red lips, his eyes hungry on the mirror, his attention on my bare calfs, my bare thighs, my ass covered by the taut orange knit. In and out, to and from, crossing the mirror again and again at his beck, his call.
On the way home, I stopped at the Macy’s at the mall and bought a black boyfriend jacket, oversized, loose, like Annie Hall, even though my husband and I could barely make the minimum credit card payments while he was in Med School.
I confessed to my husband when the bill came. By then, my boss had agreed to my request for a pay grade promotion based on my quick grasp of the technical upgrades to the flight attendant manual.
I could handle my boss, I told my husband, and a piece of me folded inward.
Like a first kiss, I replay the memories of my first boss at my first real job, deepening the groove, trying to understand how I stayed silent, compliant. And even after I read about power imbalance, knew the shame turned inward instead of righteousness turned out, and found I was not alone in shutting up about the accumulating indignities, I cannot understand how I lived in that world that treated me as no different than a porn movie actress, feast for the male appetite. How any woman lives being watched that way. And of course I know exactly why, we all do. The boss valued my work.
I searched for him on the internet a few years ago, curious in a queasy sense. In some ways, I’d hoped he continued in the Airline Industry after Continental’s second bankruptcy, that he’d risen high enough to be taken down by the next generation of women. But he’d disappeared.
This week, another Trump assault victim told her story, worse than mine, and I searched for Dave again. I remembered the name of his tiny wife and her life-threatening asthma attacks, his newborn baby I babysat as a favor, enough details to search beyond his rather uncommon name. I found her, her son and daughter, they look happy. Without him. I was happy for his wife that she’d left him behind, too.
And then finally, I found him.
The same Porn star mustache, the same swollen red bottom lip. His middle initial, R, reminded me of his signature on all those letters I typed and he left for me, like bait in his outbox.
His picture stunned. A mugshot. In 2016 at 3am, my former boss was arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana. His eyes are downcast, ashamed.
What took so long, I thought?
He likely forgot me after the furlough, it had been less than a few years of employment. The minute and granular details of our adolescence are uniquely indelible, I was young and lived every moment as if my life depended on it for the next. And yet, even now, deep down, his watching made me question a loving, trusted male gaze; I suspect objectivization in innocent compliments. I am utterly bereft of the ability to be appreciated without the rise of that shame in the back of my throat.
I’m overwhelmed with grief when I see his face again. I feel deeply sorry for the guy, for his daughter and son. I knew him at a moment when the world was bright with possibility and potential for both of us. If I could’ve found the courage, could my words have made a difference? If I hadn’t “handled” him but instead been honest, would he have turned from sex and drugs and toward his wife and career? Such is the value he found in me that I think maybe, maybe his downfall wasn’t assured.
Though he didn’t set the stage in me—that scarred and fertile landscape is another story—his is the story we wish upon the most powerful men on earth who abuse women, to experience the shame they inflict upon us, to feel the humiliation of being caught in the flash of the camera, to be lined up against the wall and to have his fingers rolled for the record, tagged offender and splashed on the internet.
We can hope for redemption, but first comes the punishment.