70: Standing Alone

70: Standing Alone

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Standing Alone

A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman.

~Melinda Gates

Paul hired me on the spot during my interview for the accounting job. I would be starting the next day. He introduced me to the ladies I’d be working with — his secretary, Susan, whose desk was just outside his office down the hall from where I would be stationed, and then two others who were in their early twenties like me. Elaina, the fourth, was much older and would be training me to do the job she would retire from in about two months. Everyone seemed welcoming.

Back in Paul’s office, we concluded the interview. As I rose to leave, I extended my hand to shake his. His fingers closed around mine. His other palm rested on my forearm for a moment and then began to glide upward and down, stroking me more intimately than I was comfortable with.

“You’re going to fit in just fine here,” he murmured, stepping toward me as I stepped back.

I thanked him, pulled away as politely as I could, and left. Once home, I decided to dismiss the whole incident. It was the early 1970s, and that sort of behavior was still quite common. I don’t think the term “sexual harassment” even existed back then, but I was no stranger to it. Since puberty, I had been groped or had my bottom pinched and patted by strangers, and even had to administer the occasional slap to ward off unwelcome attention. But I had never experienced inappropriate advances by someone in power in the workplace.

The first few weeks went by quickly. Everyone was patient as I pushed past that novice learning curve. Within a month, I was relaxed and efficient at my job, but I began noticing that the atmosphere in our section seemed more subdued than other departments. Except for Elaina, who eagerly kept a retirement day countdown of bright red Xs on her desk calendar, none of my accounting colleagues seemed happy.

The reason became crystal clear the morning Paul returned one of my ledgers. He leaned over me to place it on my desk. As he pulled his hand back, his fingers deliberately brushed against my breast, while his other hand gave my shoulder an intimate squeeze.

Before I could react, he was gone. I sat there blinking in shock. I whirled around to check if any of my co-workers saw what happened, but everyone was focused on their own work. Again, I said nothing. I desperately needed my job. I had been unemployed for several months due to health issues, and my husband’s job didn’t pay enough to cover the bills that had mounted while I was ill.

Two days later, I was taking a late break alone in the company kitchen when Paul walked in. My heart started pounding when he smiled and eyed me up and down, stopping to focus on my chest.

“I like that sweater, Marya,” he commented. “It shows off your lovely assets — both of them!”

“My break is over. I’d better be getting back,” I responded nervously, reaching for my purse. I hoped I didn’t sound as frightened as I felt.

To my shock, he gripped my wrist firmly as I tried to pass.

“Sit. Relax,” he urged. “There’s no rush. I know your boss won’t mind if you’re a few minutes late,” he joked.

“I-I have a lot of work,” I stammered, shaking off his hold and bolting toward the door. Behind me, I heard his taunting laughter.

During the next few days, there were no new encounters. I made sure I was never alone in the kitchen again, forgoing my breaks altogether if another employee wasn’t present when I peeked in.

I started to see things with fresh eyes. Paul was inappropriate with all my immediate co-workers, rubbing their shoulders, kissing them on the cheek when they turned in assignments, patting their behinds when he passed them at the filing cabinets, and hugging them tightly and for far too long. His secretary, Susan, spent long periods in his office behind closed doors, often exiting with disheveled hair, her eyes filled with shame before she cast them downwards to straighten a skirt or blouse.

I began having trouble sleeping and became jumpy, stiffening when my husband spontaneously pulled me close for a random kiss. He noticed and asked why, but I couldn’t confide in him. He treated me like his fragile princess, always protective and ready to do battle on my behalf. I was afraid of what he would do if I told him my boss was too familiar.

I knew it was futile to discuss the situation with the other girls. They were in the same predicament as I was. They needed their jobs, were bogged down with bills and responsibilities, and were afraid to speak out. Either way, it would have done no good. There was no help available all those years ago. We only had two options: to stay and tolerate the abuse, or to leave and go elsewhere, hoping things would be better. My co-workers had already made their choices.

Things came to a head about three weeks after the kitchen encounter. Paul called me over the intercom, directing me to come into his office and bring a file he needed.

My legs felt leaden as I made my way down the hall. Susan saw me coming and ducked her head, pretending to be intent on her typing. I walked into the room where Paul sat waiting in his chair with his feet up on his desk. He gave me another once-over, leering before insisting I close the door. I felt bile rise when he actually licked his lips like he was about to enjoy a feast. I left the door open and stood there waiting.

“How can I help you?” I asked, keeping my distance.

“I told you to close the door. Do it and get over here. I need a massage,” he barked.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked, stunned.

“You heard me. I twisted my knee last night. I need you to rub it every day until it feels better. Now do as you’re told. It’s time you learned your place here. I’m getting sick of your prudish act!” he snapped.

I gasped in outrage at his gall. Fury replaced my fear of job loss. I was tired of feeling like prey every time I walked into work, and I wasn’t going to tolerate it anymore.

“That’s not in my job description! Go to a massage parlor!” I suggested with a newfound calm. “As for my ‘place,’ it’s never going to be in some repulsive pervert’s lap!”

With that, I put the file on his desk, turned, and walked to my desk. I retrieved my belongings and left the building, my dignity and pride intact. I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew I’d face it with a newfound strength, courage and, most importantly, self-respect.

Eventually, I found another job where I felt safe and valued for my contributions and not my gender.

That day, decades ago, I stood alone. Today, I’m delighted to see women stand united, bettering the world slowly for females everywhere.

~Marya Morin

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