TW: Sexual harassment
When I was 19, my father encouraged me to get a life insurance policy. I can’t recall what his reasons were, perhaps he was reflecting on my brother’s death 20 years earlier. Or that he knew he himself would be dead inside of ten years. Could have been something external that prompted it. I’ll never know, I only understood that life insurance was something I should get, so I made an appointment with his agent Jim at Allstate.
Other than having a job, opening a bank account, and going to college, I hadn’t done much actual adulting up to this point. It seemed important to go into someone’s office, a proper business. I remember thinking that I needed to look very professional. It was 1989 and the nicest outfit I could pull together was a jean mini-skirt and an oxford with the collar up. I had no good shoes so I squeezed into a pair of a friend’s pumps. I was nervous when I approached the office but my Dad said he wouldn’t ‘take me for a ride’ and that he would give me a good deal – not that I would have known the difference.
I don’t remember walking into his office or saying hello or sitting down across from him at his large desk. My Dad had called him earlier so he had paperwork prepared for me to review. I flipped through the pages earnestly, pretending to understand them.
“How much does it cost?” It seemed a reasonable question though I still felt naive for asking it.
“It’s a $250,000 policy and costs next to nothing. Here, let me show you where it’s spelled out.” He stood up and walked to my side of the desk while I stayed seated. I kept looking at the contract, expecting him to show me the page explaining the cost. But he continued to step closer until he was in front of me and then leaned against the desk, his hands in his pockets. He was medium height, middle aged, hair slightly thinning, his pants held up by a tight belt forcing his stomach to hang over.
His voice changed then, lower, quieter.
“I can’t get over what a beautiful woman you’ve turned into. Little Chrissy O’Donnell.”
I remember a feeling in my stomach – a feeling I know too well now – and I mistook it for excitement, importance even. A grown man thought I was beautiful, and a woman at that.
“Thank you. So, how much do I pay – is it once a month?” I tried to stay poised.
“You must have the boys chasing after you. Mmm, look at those legs. Why don’t you uncross them?” He took his hands out of his pockets and rested them on the desk behind him, arching his chest toward me, his crotch at my eye level. “Relax,” he said.
Time was still yet there was a shift in the air, in the molecules, in the temperature. I felt it in my armpits and on my back. I could feel his breath change as he continued to stare at my legs. He adjusted himself while I tried not to move a muscle, waiting for him to give up, to go back to sitting behind his desk. But he didn’t. Jim didn’t want to talk about annuities or payouts. He wanted something else entirely.
Looking back, I can’t convey all of the sexual transgressions I’ve endured as a woman. How many (countless) times I’ve been cat called, rubbed up against, propositioned, groped, criticized or yelled at. How many men didn’t get the message despite saying No, No thank you, Sorry but no, Not interested, I have a boyfriend, or Fuck off. I’ve had men – strangers and colleagues – speak to me in an overtly flirtatious and sexual manner and think nothing of it. I’ve had married men ask for wildly inappropriate relationships. But at 19, I didn’t understand how offensive it all was yet. I still thought it was part of the game, the deal, the nature of men and women. I thought it was normal and I was slow to catch up, to figure out my role in all of it. I didn’t see any women I knew handling it differently, so assumed this discomfort was my own deficiency.
When my gut began to churn and I felt the instinct to flee, I pushed back my chair and began walking toward the door. Jim got up quickly and leaned one hand against the closed door while gesturing back to the seat I’d just vacated with the other.
His voice was stern, like a scolding parent. “Now, I promised your Dad I’d take care of you. If you don’t sign on the bottom line, what will I tell him?”
Instead of screaming or fighting to push past him, like every cell in my body told me to do, I froze. What would he say to my parents? That I was childish? That I misunderstood something? Or worse, that I was flirting with him?
I walked back to the desk but continued to stand, trying to keep a semblance of power despite the weakness I felt.
He was irritated, I could feel his annoyance. A bruised ego, I understand now. He pushed the contract toward me so I leaned over and signed my name. I signed myself into a relationship with the company that hired him, and I would give them my $23.33 every month for the next 25 years. I used to think about that encounter sometimes as I wrote out my check, and wondered how many other women Jim behaved that way toward. I wondered if my father would have believed me if I told him how it made me feel. If he would have laughed it off or hunted Jim down and punched him in the face.
I like to imagine the latter.