The mothers were highly educated. In 1985 when this story begins they wore white silk blouses and long gold chains to work. My mother was an attorney for New York City. A powerful woman who looked like Diane Keaton she had famously won a lawsuit that allowed women reporters into the locker rooms at Yankee Stadium. Her city offices were full of curses and ultimatums. Platitudes bloomed: Everything was the last straw come hell or high water… People were playin with fire and the hammer was coming down! Our next-door neighbor, Evie, was accomplished too. A therapist and photographer, she took black and white photos of all six of us children—I was one of two and Evie had four—on the thirteenth floor when she was not seeing clients. I was proud of living on unlucky 13 when some buildings on Park Avenue didn’t even have a 13. My luck changed when the new elevator man, Keith, arrived.
I was a fifteen-year-old virgin when he started to work in our building. There, in an 8×8 box, he sexually harassed me for two years. People had just started using the term “harassment,” but it wasn’t commonplace. I may have even seen an episode on Oprah about it, but I was young and didn’t have the wherewithal to connect it to my own experience.
Through it all, the women, our mothers loved us. But more than their love, the dynamic example of their own vibrant lives comforted me; they were women of confidence and substance who moved about freely in the world and affected change. Theirs was my fate. Despite this, the un-nameable menace degraded me and made me speechless.
Do you like it doggy style or regular missionary? Keith might ask, with the casual tone reserved for, “Coke or Pepsi?”
Please open the door.
Only if you say please.
I need to go.
What’s the magic word?
This might hardly seem like a problem: I lived in the doorman building and he worked in it, after all. The fact was—and this is the nature of his abuse—Keith maneuvered and reversed the power dynamic to his own advantage. The man-operated elevator, an anachronistic and confining fact of our lives, helped.
We did not press buttons and zoom up to our landing. Instead, elevator men joined us for all our outings and all our returns. The elevator man was there if my sister and I were arguing over a certain black cardigan, if a child was being disciplined, when a couple shared a heated exchange or a kiss, when people were blue and when they were elated. He picked people up after they were fired or failed a test and delivered them fresh to the lobby in the morning when the whole untouched day lay ahead. These men bracketed our days. Collectively, we filled theirs.
You didn’t have to be telepathic or even very smart to read the mood of a given ride; there was no cloak of anonymity as there were in other places of close confinement like public elevators or subways. No, the elevator man knew where you lived, what your position was in your family—I was the youngest of two girls—what your morning tenor was like, if you preferred to chat about the weather or do some last minute grooming in the elevator’s giant mirror. He would know this and respond accordingly if he were sensitive and aware of another person’s feelings. All but, Keith were.
Keith didn’t look like a monster. He looked more like a baby. He was chubby and of medium height. He had a nondescript, doughy beige face and light brown hair as straight and fine as a child’s, no-color eyes, and truncated fingers. He was jolly and effusive with the adults, particularly the men, trading information about recent sports events and occasionally making a bet or two with my father about the outcome of a given game. With the women, Keith was often obsequious, chatting quietly about the weather, offering to assist with shopping bags or weekend bags or briefcases, let me get that for you Mrs. Goodman, please… and offering very little conversation after that.
With me—shy, loaded down with a backpack full of books and new breasts that felt disproportionately large for my still childish frame, topped with a mountain of deliberately huge, moussed hair—he brought the elevator to a halt, abandoned his station by the door and stood six inches from my face.
How was Friday night? He might begin.
None of your business, I’d say not even offering a simple “fine.”
What, I’m not your business?
I would look at the ground, willing him back to his corner.
You have fun with your boyfriends?
We lived close to school and I often had friends over on Friday afternoons and evenings. I had three close girlfriends—so close we were like a family—and we’d connected with about five guys from the class above us to form a group.
Please just go, I said.
Which one did you do? Come on, tell me. Steve or Danny? I loved Steve and Danny—in fact wanted to kiss them both, but hadn’t done anything with either one. Reddening I would stare into any corner away from him and he would move his body, trying to capture my gaze. I saw him shifting around in his fat blue suit.
He shamed me by discussing desire, the first flickers of which were emerging in me and among my group of friends. Naturally we were getting excited by each other and slowly experimenting with our sexuality. How could he have known, I wondered? His knowledge debased my own nascent feelings, crushing them and crushing me. It was disgusting. By extension, I was disgusting.
Please go, I’d manage.
How come? You don’t want dose boys away from you. What about me?
I’m going to be late.
Then very quietly, hotly and straight into my ear:
Tell me what they do to you.
I could sometimes manage a “shut up.”
Take me downstairs.
I could tell your parents you had a party, he’d threaten.
It wasn’t a party. I had some friends over.
I hated myself for even explaining.
I could tell them everything!
There was little to tell. The boys left late sometimes but as a pack and I was rarely alone with any of them. One wrote poetry and took me to The Cat Club to hear Sonic Youth. Another, a jock, had a smashed nose like prizefighter, and black taciturn eyes that wouldn’t respond to my own, but he had kissed me in a way that made me swoon. A third was built like a small body builder and once brought my mother roses. She remarked that he flirted like thirty-seven year old—whatever that meant, and I adored him too.
As I constructed a private life, Evie and my mother were there in the background. I had already passed through the hormonal stew of early adolescence when my mother could do no right. But at 15, I could see her again without spite. We were learning in English about greatness versus perfection and I thought perhaps my mother was great. I didn’t consciously emulate her but I felt simply that I liked her again. She, Evie, my dad, were the people I counted on to be good adults, while Keith was a terrible one.
The BUZZ sounded. How I loved and counted on that interruption. How Keith hated it. He would mutter a curse under his breath and then swoop back to his stance by the door, unlock the brake and take me zooming dangerously fast down to the lobby where he’d violently rip open the brass accordion door.
Why if it isn’t Mr.Chabon, hello sir, Keith would say with his fawning tones. I’d race from the elevator, drenched in sweat, my face aflame and run to the street praying that he would not be on duty when I returned from school.
I was never tricked. I never mistook his comments as simple kindness. I always knew from the start—How was Friday night?—that he had stepped over a line. I was born with some kind of defense, some easily triggered kick and I didn’t let up; I didn’t trust easily. But this is the nature of harassment, despite my strength, he had me under his control, he overpowered me. He had trapped me, for his interrogations and appraisals. I could no more run away, or operate the elevator, than I could fly.
Tell me who you like.
Hey, look at me.
I’d stare at the floor and wait for the buzz.
Let me see that face. You hidin from me?
The elevator we rode in daily had a honeycomb grille covering a golden light that shone flattering hues on everyone. The back wall was entirely mirrored and had a small velvet bench. When I was little I would spend the ride making funny faces in the mirror. In middle school I applied the eyeliner that my mother said was forbidden, layering it thickly before we reached the ground. The elevator had a dark green, carpeted floor that absorbed all kinds of weather gracefully. It had the golden accordion door, the axis of each grate clogged with black oil, and the operator’s golden lever.
Although fairly obsessed with my appearance I never applied the eyeliner when Keith was on duty. I couldn’t look at myself while he looked at me; in fact if I turned to the mirror that flanked the back wall, he would abandon his post and stand right behind me; turning my back on him was like turning my back on the ocean. I stood and faced him, proud of my coldness. I was unflappable.
He’d often not only slow down the elevator but would stop it abruptly as if to savor our encounter, to delight in my freezing response. He might start off like this:
Nice shirt. (Eyes on chest.) I remember that shirt, a black Psycho t-shirt with a ripped neck and hem. I’d gotten it at the premiere.
Me: Nothing. Eyes on floor.
You wore it for me right? Oh, or is it Danny this week?
Take me to the lobby.
Why are you so rude? So ungrateful!
A muttered “bitch” under his breath.
You know I like cut t-shirts right? How did you know? I love them. Ummmm.
I need to go. Please go.
You beggin me? Huh, Madonna?
I just need to go.
Like a virgin… he’d sing.
I was indeed a virgin, swirling with confusion about how long I would remain one, and where and how I might one day be loved. I turned crimson as he sang.
You tease me, you know that? You tease all the boys? I love it when you say please. Say please again. Please.
I would wait for the BUZZ. And when it came he would zoom down, my heart lurching into my stomach, sure that we would crash at the bottom.
Once, something terrifying happened. The BUZZ sounded from another floor but Keith ignored it.
He came a step closer to me; he’d been commenting on the safety pins fastened around the ankles of my jeans and then he crouched down as if to touch my ankle. Nice jeans, he said and stood up. How do you get those on? Those skinny ankles?
Your hair is amazing; how do you get it like that? Some gel or something? You know I like that.
I did spend a while with my hair each morning turning it into a stiff puff of dark crunched strands that fell in a tangle over one eye, a la Prince.
Another BUZZ sounded but Keith didn’t return to the lever. He wove his fingers together to cradle his head as he leaned back against the wood-paneled wall. He crossed one thick ankle over the other.
Would you show me how you do your hair? I’ll just watch.
No. Please just go.
Oh, you beggin me! Touch your hair.
I will not. Go!
Another BUZZ sounded a bit fiercely now.
You’re a goddamn tease you know that? He shook a short finger in my face.
Just kiddin. You have NO sense of humor.
BUZZ BUZZ two in a row and no movement on his part. Just his pacing.
Turn around, he said and when I refused he inched behind me and, I presume, stared at my ass. We wore our Levi’s very oversized and loose but I remember a bead of sweat rolling down the small of my back and into my underwear as he stared—the wave, the giant wave was behind me, could clobber me.
You have to go now. Please. I hated the sound of begging in my own voice. I was saying please to someone who deserved no politeness.
But I was cold, straightforward. I had self-possession, more than I perhaps then gave myself credit for. I knew he was wrong. I knew I was right. Yet still he demeaned me. He delayed me. The delay was out of my control. I was once late for an astronomy test because he had detained me in the elevator of my own building. There was no way I could have explained this to the teacher. What could I have said? Sorry I was late, someone was staring at my ass in an elevator. He shamed me with his eyes, his hot breath, and his insinuations. And, before long, his obscenity.
When he finally opened those doors, I ran out of them determined to forget the experience. I was too ashamed to utter a word of what had transpired. I determined to simply find a way to avoid it ever happening again—I developed strategies: I started either planning to have a friend with me or get home after his shift ended, or I would act in some different way to defend myself. My coldness wasn’t working. I would be even steelier. Or I would just stare at the floor and not meet his eyes. Nothing worked, though. Once, from desperation, I tried to be friendly.
How are you? I said plainly when the elevator started to move.
He abruptly jerked the elevator to a halt.
Ha! Like you care! Bitch. He went back to the controls and rode the box super fast, grinding his jaw as we soared up.
I was filled with dread. What if he did touch me in the elevator? What if he never responded to those other people buzzing? Looking back I am amazed that I did not break down, that I did not scream or concede his foul allegations saying, Yes, I did all three boys at once while my girlfriends watched! just to appease him.
I left the elevator silently, wishing he were dead, that he’d get hit by a car on 86th Street on his way home from work and never return. I fantasized about striking him, kneeing him in the balls. (Briefly, we studied self-defense in gym.) But it was no use. For after I had karate chopped him or elbowed his windpipe, then what? How would I get out of that archaic elevator?
Occasionally, then more and more, I couldn’t face him and I’d take the stairs, hopping down in threes through the cool gray stairwell past puzzled janitors collecting garbage.
Elevator’s not working?
Oh, no I just decided to walk!
More than a few times, I walked up thirteen flights to get home.
Once he asked me to meet him after work.
What do you say? You and I?
I didn’t answer.
What I’m not good enough for you?
But Eric is? Andy is?
My heart shook in my chest.
Are you a tease or a slut? ‘Cause I can’t tell.
With each incremental move in my sexual life I’d often feared I was acting like one or, confusingly, the other. Whatever internal pace was right for me was not right for the world; in short, my sexuality was wrong however it moved. I felt it was quite uncanny that Keith knew this. That he confirmed this fear.
Sometimes as I walked away, I felt an internal tremor that was hard to dispel, an unsettling empty rattle as if I were not subject to gravity but could float up and away. If there were time, I’d get a bagel at the corner deli before school and try to stuff it into that shaking place, to ground me. But there were important things on my mind. I did love Eric and Andy and Danny and Steve and I had an astronomy test.
I told my best friends about some of the grosser incidents; at first they were incredulous.
No way! He says that to you?
Yes, he’s so repulsive.
But Keith knew or intuited another essential thing about his abuse; he knew that my power would grow in numbers and so he would let no one else see, let me have no company in my mortification. When my girlfriends were with me he’d employ a much milder version of it all. He wouldn’t stop the elevator, only slow it to an excruciating pace. He’d keep his distance and his hand on the controls. He might say something milder like,
You girls have a nice weekend? So innocently that one friend might answer.
Yeah, and you?
Okay, I watched the game. You follow baseball?
He might bring it up a notch and say,
Party with your boyfriends this weekend?
To which one friend would just roll her eyes.
But he wouldn’t go much further than that. Even so, they declared him revolting.
How dare he ask us about our boyfriends? We don’t even have boyfriends! We wanted to. We wanted to grow up. Yet we were under his sickening gaze, his nearness, his breath.
He really didn’t matter, I told myself, except for those few minutes each day.
Over time, his wretchedness sneaked out with my friends and he made comments to them about their appearance or how they had worn that sweater because they knew he liked it. They grew to hate him as I did.
I had a sweet sixteen dance party and after that he harassed me mercilessly. Did I shake my rack when I danced? Did I want to dance with him? I finished sophomore year and became a junior.
One night Danny and Steve said to me in shock,
Do you know how sick Keith is? The things he says to us about you?
I was frozen for a moment, profound shame coursing through me.
I can only imagine, I said.
He’s really sick, Danny said. I watched as his Adam’s apple moved up and down with emotion.
These were two typical adolescent boys who loved Andrew Dice Clay, Monty Python, Eddie Murphy. They were teenage horndogs and ANY talk about sex was usually good for them. Yet Keith, they claimed was sick, over the top.
I had thought I’d feel vindicated if someone else knew how foul he was; instead I was mortified. I shuddered to think what he had said to them about me. I begged them not to tell me and clamped my hand over their mouths.
You know I say nothing, I told them.
Oh, he mentioned that! Steve said.
The next day Keith muttered fuck this shit when he opened the elevator door and then ground his jaw in rage as he sped the elevator down; then slowed it dramatically and turned to me, gritting his teeth.
Ice queen. He held onto the controls and glared at me. The box moved glacially through the black shaft.
Yup. I said. Glaring back. That’s me.
That’s your nickname. All the guys say it.
Uh huh. I said.
That’s me. The Ice Queen. Now let me out.
But something had sprung in me. I had turned seventeen and I felt older, stronger. Fuck you, I said.
Keith took a step closer to me. He licked his lips. I was afraid of my own anger and the effect it could have.
Fuck me? You want to fuck me? Oh yeah! He said.
I now consciously wanted to lose my virginity, but I wanted to be in love. I loved the boy in our group who was a bit distant, the prizefighter with the smashed nose, but my feelings appeared unrequited. I was mortified by my own hobbled desire.
You’d like to fuck, wouldn’t you? Or are you a prude? ‘Cause, I don’t get it. You sure have a lot of parties.
I was a slut. A few weeks ago something surreal had happened. I’d had a sort of date with the prizefighter—we were together without the group that usually accompanied us—and we had ended up fooling around on his parent’s leather living room sofa. He had wanted to have sex but I wouldn’t, knowing—even as I didn’t want to admit it—that he didn’t love me. But on that sofa he introduced me to a catalogue of sensations I’d never experienced. I felt the chief secret of the adult world had been revealed to me in that evening. A reverberation had stayed with me for weeks, a buzzing sensation, the wonder and amazement at being able to feel that good.
Yet coupled with it was the boy’s new coolness. Now the prizefighter merely nodded at me in the school hallways and I was heartbroken. He wasn’t ready for commitment, he’d explained one night on the phone, perhaps noting the heat of my new ardor. It was a catch 22. Perhaps if I’d slept with the prizefighter he’d love me… If he loved me, I would have slept with him. As it was, I was crushed.
To make matters worse, a few days earlier, he’d started dating another girl, the gym teacher’s daughter, a true foreigner, who commuted everyday from Long Island. I watched from a distance as he went through all the clichéd motions of romance with her, the passed notes and hand-holding and all the kindnesses, and gestures—he even gave her a ring—that he never enacted with me.
You’re a tease. Keith said, naming me.
You think you’re all that, he continued. Hot and cool and hot and cool.
Stop it. I said.
I was not lovable. I was impaired in some way. The good feeling, the reverberation, of the encounter with the prizefighter had shrunken to some perverted kernel, an aberration and a wrongdoing; a favor granted or a payment of some kind. There had been a baseball game on in the background. He and Keith could have even made a bet on the outcome of the game.
You’re not all that! Keith shouted in my face.
Stop it, I said.
Stop what? You want me to stop. You don’t want me to come?
Keith licked the corners of his mouth then he burped quietly into his fist.
I had been wrong. It now seemed clear. The prizefighter was not going to change his mind about me. He simply didn’t love me.
Whatcha cryin about, hottie?
Please take me to the lobby.
So formal! Keith put one finger to his nose and lifted it to convey my snobbery.
Now, I said. Please.
Are you beggin me, bitch?
The tears would not stop now. I was crumbling before him. I had not wanted him to defeat me. He put his hand on his belt buckle and flicked the tail out of the loop.
I must have looked frightened because he quickly said, Just jokin! A joke! Can’t you take a joke?
The BUZZ began again or maybe it simply continued louder than before.
Saved by the bell, he said and snorted. But he didn’t move.
He remained where he was. A giant trembling started in my teeth and consumed my entire body; I was rattling inside, sharp rocks shook in my torso, tearing me apart. Then something great happened. A swell of calm came over me. I had come to the last resort and decided I would tell. I told him so.
I’m going to tell someone.
You would, you ice bitch.
We were silent for a moment.
Tell them what?
Oddly, my mind drew a blank. That you stop the elevator, I managed.
I never touched you, bitch.
Let me out. Now! A new power was soaring in me. The worst had happened: I had cried in his presence. And now, his belt intact, he would let me out and I would tell.
With Keith I held onto a weird sense of loyalty. I had always spoken the truth to him. I claimed to tell and so, with fidelity, I would. It was over. HE would be over. I went to school and aced a vocabulary test. Later I watched an Antonioni film and wrote an essay about the Trobriand Islanders. In Spanish class I acted as the narrator when we read a play. I painted a purple iris in watercolor class, capturing each fine filament and delicate vein. I felt newly capable, certain. I saw the prizefighter and in his casual way he asked, Wassup?
Leave me alone, I lashed out, enjoying the hurt I saw flicker in his black eyes. I had a weird sensation of winning, that I would excel beyond all expectations, that I would again be loved. In this mood of vicious certainty—it was as if I needed to confirm a reality, not receive any reparations—I prepared to tell my parents.
And now the anticlimax. I can’t verbatim remember our conversation. Not in the way I remember the nearly crystal cut words of Keith. I had been having dinner alone with my parents every night for two years—my older sister had gone away to college my sophomore year—and we talked about everything: Citizen Kane, which I admitted I didn’t like, and art history, which I loved. I had just learned the concept of nature vs. nurture in an anthropology class. The three of us were close in our way, but my knees shook as I caught my breath and began.
I most likely spoke at the last possible minute before we would have excused ourselves from the dinner table, my dad to his cigar and papers in living room chair, my mom to her book and couch and me back to my homework. Instead I stood with that new buzzing certainty I had. I told them what happened, but I couldn’t reveal my own shame; I only insinuated what Keith had said, but couldn’t repeat his actual words. I didn’t shed a tear.
I made it clear he hadn’t touched me. I held back the information about his hot breath in my ear, or the exact choice of his curses or his asking me about concrete sexual positions. It was simply too embarrassing to repeat. My only tool of persuasion was assertion, but I had no proof I could reveal. I wonder now if I really said anything with impact.
I do remember their reply. My mother—always hardy and rarely sick—said I looked no worse for the wear. Well, was I worse for the wear? Was that the point? No, the point was the injustice; my survival seemed just coincidental. My father cleared his throat and lit one of his cigars, puffing on it while he pondered the new information. He remarked that Keith was from a different social milieu.
So? I countered.
So there are different norms, different social mores.
He’s not an alien; he lives on 86th Street.
My dad asked me if I understood what he meant, and I said it didn’t matter if he was from the moon. My dad insisted that because he was from another class he was somehow not guilty of anything.
I pointed out that none of the other elevator men did anything remotely similar and they were all more foreign than Keith and came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Ireland.
My mother said this had happened to her countless times throughout her life.
In an elevator? I asked.
No, but everywhere else. She sighed.
I thought that weary sigh meant she understood.
Thea, this is part of what it means to be female, she said.
You don’t understand, I said.
I don’t know if I told them how long it had gone on. I do remember that I hotly declared that he should be fired. My father asked me if I would have any idea what it would mean to fire someone, for Keith to lose his job.
Images of the Depression came to me, people in tatters stood in long lines for bread. It couldn’t mean that.
I don’t care what it would mean to him. He needs to go. He—I want him to lose his job.
You can’t really mean that, my dad said. Those are hateful words.
I really think you might want to amend your position.
I was silent, so stunned I don’t think I could look my father in the eye. How could he imply my cruelty?
I remember my parents having some slight disagreement on this point but then my mother said something about reality and accepting the world as it is. I went to bed in a stony cocoon, cement in my limbs. I didn’t cry. I was just quiet. Keith had powerfully silenced me.
But the reaction to my confession taught me all I needed to know about both feminism and being a writer. Their shrugging off his repeated sexual harassment built in me a rounded defense, an ironclad surety of two things: One, I had to trust myself above all; only he and I were alone in those elevator rides so there were no witnesses. My point of view was important. And two, I was utterly alone in the world. The second realization galvanized the first instead of draining it. I was singular. My solitary vision, although I had wished they had validated it, was something I had never been more sure of in my life.
I finished high school and mutely rode the elevator, privately deciding that I would no longer utter a word to Keith. He still spoke in his fashion. I went to college. I was not wounded, but ordinary; I had a boyfriend and lost my virginity. There appeared no outward sign of what had transpired. Maybe it was isolated and terrible in its time but in no other.
But I was emboldened when I told the story to an acquaintance, a girl from San Francisco who already considered herself a feminist. On a break from school I brought it up with my parents again.
They exchanged a long look and deep sighs. Children could be a pain in the ass.
Do you still think—my dad started to speak but a chortle of laughter choked him half way through—he should lose his job?
I nodded yes. I was now equipped with new vocabulary. I knew the word “harassment.” He had committed a crime.
Why don’t we discuss it with Evie? She’s on the board of the building. She can do something about it
I begged them not to. They looked puzzled.
Not unless you are going to go all the way, I said.
All the way?
Yes, all the way and get him fired.
Thea! My mom said, exasperated.
I mean it. If you warn him he’ll be so mad at me he’ll act much worse. I hated the way my words sounded, as if he and I had a relationship. I realized that we did have one.
Evie approached me later that day and asked me to tell her what was going on. Men are pigs, she said, smiling, after I told her a version of it. Then she added, authoritatively, He’s an asshole, and he shouldn’t act that way.
I hugged her and inhaled her tea-rose perfume in the silk of her shirt, her nimbus of auburn hair. She invited me in for some fresh squeezed orange juice. As we walked in to her apartment she told me this was the way of the world.
As I sipped the juice my mother joined us in Evie’s kitchen. This is one nice thing about getting older, she said. Evie smiled in recognition. It just doesn’t happen anymore, she added. My youth, my simple existence had been the cause of my harassment.
I thought of Evie and my mother the next morning as they armed themselves for work. How did they get through it, a lifetime of it?
A few days later, my dad reported, We gave him a warning and think that’s fair
You told the board?
Yes and they had a talk with Keith.
What?! Do you realize what this is going to do to me? I can never come home again. Don’t you get it?
I think you’re acting melodramatic, my mother said.
We’re doing the best we can, she said.
I now try to make sense of why my parents responded to my eventual complaint about Keith as they did. Perhaps his harassment was a truth in plain sight as obvious as the fact of my being female; I needn’t have confessed anything at all. I forgive them for their reaction, which was meant to teach me to ignore but also to endure.
Perhaps my mother was overwhelmed: Now, as a mother who works, I can feel the difficulty in her dual roles. She was trying to do so much and I seemed fine, after all. As a mother there is sometimes one complaint too many. A ball drops now and then. I can feel her agitation and I can feel her fear, her ardent wish that my claims were not true.
I can even glimpse her resignation—we live in the world and this is what men do. Or did. Or are capable of doing and our job is to take it calmly and move on. As a mother I can understand my mother’s need to be somewhere else. I can understand needing to be in two places at once. I can sense how my complaint about Keith when it finally emerged was an interruption in what had been a carefully constructed, willfully earned life that included a hard-won, successful career and a pretty intact family.
He was never fired but simply warned, and in the times I saw him after the warning he was vicious. Lewd. Steaming mad, racing the elevator hard, but never once stopping it. Muttering curses, but never looking at me. His hostility itself a form of harassment, I stopped riding the elevator all together whenever I was home. Once, when I mentioned this to my mother, she said, Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too far?
Sorry, Mom, I said, unsure what I was apologizing for.
My parents moved to another building when I was 21 and none of us ever saw Keith again. The same was true for Benny, Mike, Arthur, all those men who had held our days, our months, our years—gone. But a few weeks ago, I think it was my sister who said, out of the blue, Remember Keith? (Three years older than me, she had been away for most of the story but she too, despised him.) I wondered what he had said to her.
I nodded. What made you think of him?
I don’t know.
Our children had left the dinner table and begun a game of hide and seek. We watched as they counted and ran away.
My father cleared his throat—can a gesture ever be that pure, that clear in its unequivocal message of discomfort? For my dad never, I believe, wanted me to be hurt or harmed in any way. In fact, for both my parents, my essential well being and protecting me from harm had been the center of the majority of their lives. I know this is true now that I am a parent myself. The idea of any ill befalling my child is so painful to me that I might, I just might, not be able to see it coming or to see that it already had.
I remember Keith, my mother said, taking a big swig of her white wine. I watched her swallow, older, but still lovely at seventy-two. She shook her head like she was gearing up for a tirade in the style of that city office, before she’d issue a grand threat or expletive. I waited for her anger; if she found Keith she would eat him alive, burn him at the stake. Instead she spoke simply—to the tablecloth, which would definitely absolve her—and said, that was the worst mistake I ever made as a parent.