(Who's Brother, Who's Sister)
After four months of beating the bricks, I finally got a job offer. The start-up I'd been working for had vaporized almost overnight, tossing me back into the job market just before Thanksgiving, the worst time of year to look for a job in Silicon Valley. The whole valley essentially shuts down for the holiday season, and in January, everybody's hassling budgets and don't want to commit to new hires. Things don't return to normal-whatever normal may be in the goofiest industry on the face of the earth-until February.
Moreover, the market was tight right then, and, on top of that, I have a pretty heavy-duty resume, so most of the people who were hiring were looking for somebody who'd work cheaper than I was willing to. When DigiHertz decided they wanted me, they moved fast. I got the offer after only a single interview, and had only three days to wrap up my loose ends before I was to report for work. I would have preferred to think things over a bit, but my bank balance was on a rapid collision course with disaster, and, I kept reminding myself, "This is only a living, not a life." I took the job.
DigiHertz, incidentally, has nothing to do with cars. They make digital microwave radios. If you have a digital cellular phone, it's probably a DigiHertz radio that's carrying your call to the phone company. If you see little microwave dish antennas on the corner of a building, there are probably DigiHertz radios behind them, pumping data to a building on the other side of town.
I had to go into the DigiHertz building to sign the offer letter late on a Friday afternoon. When Sarah Nesbitt, the woman from Human Relations who was handling my offer, gave me the letter at the reception desk, she did kind of a double-take and stood off to one side, looking at me closely. As I was reading the letter, I glanced at her out the corner of my eye from time to time, and every time I did, it seemed to me that she was looking at me rather strangely. I was both puzzled by her looks and wondering whether maybe I was misinterpreting something or whether maybe I'd missed a patch under my chin when shaving, but the whole transaction took less than five minutes, and after I was out of the building, I didn't give it any more thought.
My introduction to DigiHertz, the following Monday, was four hours of orientation that focused heavily on company policies and procedures; in essence, 110 pages of reminders of who was boss and what was and what was not permitted, carefully worded in politically correct "you can't blame me" phrasing. There was a heavy emphasis on sexual harassment, which was not surprising.
About a year earlier, DigiHertz had been involved in an ugly lawsuit involving sexual harassment. It had cost them a million dollars in settlement and a whole lot of bad press, and had rocked the company to its foundations. One of the VP's had leaned a little too heavily on his administrative assistant, assuming that there was a "yes" down there somewhere beneath all her "no's." The admin had filed a complaint with the HR department. The director of the HR department, who was an old friend of the VP, had treated the matter lightly, taking the view that "well, that's just Harry." He'd spoken to Harry, but Harry didn't get the message, so the admin got a lawyer. The upshot of it was, aside from the million dollars, that both Harry and the HR director were now working elsewhere, the president managed to hang on by the skin of his teeth, and the company was hyper about sexual harassment. In order to keep his butt covered, the president had hired as the new director of HR "Battleship" Barbara Corrigan, who was known throughout Silicon Valley for her utter intolerance of anything that even hinted of sexual harassment. One of her hallmarks was that, although she was the director of the department, she never assigned sexual harassment complaints out to any of her staff. She handled them herself.
None of which bothered me much. I certainly didn't have any intention of harassing anybody, sexually or otherwise. I was there to work, to try to get back on my financial feet after four months without income, and to be able to relax and enjoy having a steady income again. For the first week, I did nothing but read documentation and experiment with the product I'd be working on. I talked to only three people, Ben, my boss, Mike, the fellow with whom I shared office space, and Suzi, the departmental admin. I went home at night with my head feeling like it was stuffed with oatmeal, ate dinner, watched TV, checked a couple of newsgroups, and hit the sack.
I got around the company only to the extent of going back and forth to the men's room and the coffee pot. It just so happened that, in those few and brief excursions, Sarah's and my paths crossed fairly often. I'd give her a nodded greeting, but nothing more, and it seemed to me, once again, that she looked at me strangely and veered away a little, almost going around me, making more space between us when we passed than people usually do under those circumstances.
Despite its tedium, my nose-to-the-grindstone approach during that first week was worth the effort. DigiHertz's equipment was not remarkably different from a lot of other similar equipment I'd worked on. Sure, they had a few twists and a whole bunch of local lingo I was unfamiliar with, but those were minor details I could pick up as I went along. On Friday, I told my boss that I was ready to go to work seriously, and the following Monday, I attended my first product team meeting.
Tuesday morning, when I went to my desk, I found waiting for me a voicemail message from Barbara Corrigan, asking-directing-me to report to her office immediately. Barbara's imperious tone was a bit off-putting, but I wasn't bothered. I assumed that there was some kind of HR paperwork that had to be completed.
I'll swear that Battleship Barbara could have driven nails with her face. She was about fifty-five. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut in a short, no-nonsense style, her dress was businesslike and severe, and her rock-solid jaw gave no indication that she ever smiled. Nor did she beat around the bush. After a curt greeting, she said, "Sarah Nesbitt has filed a complaint of sexual harassment, visual harassment, against you. Do you know what visual harassment is?"
My shock must have been visible. I'd scarcely even nodded at Sarah Nesbitt. How on earth could she be accusing me of sexual harassment?
"Yes, I know what visual harassment is," I said.
"And will you tell me, please?" Battleship Barbara asked.
"Visual harassment is when someone displays sexually offensive material in his or her work area, or when someone repeatedly looks at another person in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable."
"That's right," Battleship Barbara said. "You are hereby issued a verbal warning for this infraction. If there's a second instance, you will receive a written warning. If there's a third instance, you will be placed on probation."
"Whoa! Wait a minute," I said. "I think you'd better say that Sarah Nesbitt alleges visual harassment. I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Sarah Nesbitt handled my offer letter. I've never been near her or spoken to her, except when I came in and signed the offer."
"Sarah claims that, on numerous occasions, when you and she passed in hallways, you leered at her," Battleship Barbara said.
"Leered at her!" I exploded. "I nodded to her in passing, just as I have with other DigiHertz employees, both male and female. This doesn't make any sense at all."
Battleship Barbara fixed me with an icy stare. "Ms. Nesbitt has filed her complaint. Unless you can produce evidence to the contrary, I have to assume that her complaint has merit."
Nice. Lovely. HR taking care of its own. I'd seen this tactic in other places and under other conditions. Put somebody instantly on the defensive, then watch them squirm, especially when the accused person has to try to prove a negative, which is damn hard to do. How could I prove that I hadn't leered at Sarah Nesbitt? Sexual harassment laws are written so that if a woman claims to have been sexually harassed, the claim is virtually as good as proof. I knew that the worst thing I could do was start to blather in protest, so I sat quietly, trying to regain control of myself and gather my thoughts. In the process of doing my homework the preceding week, I had read all 110 pages of company policy. I thought back over the lengthy section on sexual harassment. Finally, I spoke.
"Ms. Corrigan, I believe that, according to company policy, and consistent with law, I have a right to confront my accuser."
Battleship Barbara looked at me coldly, but she had to comply. She lived by written policy, and she'd written that one. She picked up her telephone, called Sarah Nesbitt, and asked her to come to her office.
When Sarah walked into Battleship Barbara's office, her chin was thrust forward, and she had a defiant stance. I looked at her closely as she passed by me. She was pretty, not model-pretty, but healthy, girl-next-door pretty-somewhere beneath all her makeup. I hadn't really noticed the makeup before, very dark lipstick, and heavy eyeshadow and eyebrow liner. She didn't need all that makeup, and it seemed inconsistent, made her look older than she probably was, late twenties, I'd guess, a few years younger than I am. She looked lithe, with a figure like a ballerina, almost no chest, long, solid legs, and a muscular, round, high, protruding butt, framed nicely in a pair of very tight slacks. She took a seat at the other corner of Battleship Barbara's desk, sitting on the edge of the chair, her back rigidly straight.
"Sarah," Battleship Barbara said softly, "I've informed Mr. Wilson of your complaint. He has cited, quite correctly, company policy that permits him to confront his accuser directly, and that's why I've asked you to come in. I know this will be difficult for you, but it's required by policy and by law. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand," Sarah said.
Battleship Barbara reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a small tape recorder, which she placed on the front of her desk. "I'm going to ask your permission to tape this meeting," she said. "This tape will be as confidential as the conversation, and will be locked in my file cabinet. It will be used only in the event that future action may make reconstruction of this conversation necessary. Do you both agree to the taping?"
"Of course," Sarah said.
"Of course," I said.
"Now, then, Mr. Wilson, what would you like to know?"
"I've been accused of doing something I haven't done," I said. "In order to be able to refute Ms. Nesbitt's claims, I have to know the specifics of her charges, details about what she believes I did."
"All right," Battleship Barbara said. "Sarah, would you please tell us exactly what happened? It's okay. Take your time."
"It's quite simple," Sarah began. "It happens that Mr. Wilson and I have walked by each other a number of times since he started at DigiHertz. Almost every time we passed, he looked at me hard, strangely, running his eyes up and down my body, focusing his attention on my groin area and my chest. It made me feel like he was sizing me up, undressing me with his eyes."
Battleship Barbara looked at me with her lips pursed, as if to say, "See, I told you so." This was unbelievable. I knew I hadn't stared at Sarah Nesbitt and sized her up. If anything, it was she who had looked at me strangely, though I hadn't felt like I was being sized up. I'd felt like I was being looked at like a zoo animal in a cage.
"Then he touched me," Sarah said.
Battleship Barbara's jaw dropped. I whipped my head in Sarah's direction so fast that my neck cracked loudly.
"It was very late at night," Sarah continued, "maybe two or three in the morning. It was a very hot night, and I was wearing a baby-doll nightgown with nothing else on. I'd turned the covers back, and was lying on the sheet, trying to get to sleep in the heat. All of a sudden I saw him walking into my bedroom. He thought I was asleep, but I wasn't. I was so scared, I didn't know what to do, so I lay there quietly, pretending to be asleep. I could see that he was wearing only undershorts, and that his stiff thing was making them stick out in front."
Sarah's eyes were closed. As she spoke, she began to rock forward and back slightly. Her voice lost its adult timbre, and started sounding more and more like the voice of a young girl.
"He came over to the edge of my bed, and looked down at me, holding his stiff thing in his hand and squeezing it. He reached down and pulled the hem of my nightgown up until my private parts were uncovered. He just stood there for a long time, looking at me and squeezing his stiff thing. Then he put his hand onto my private parts, very lightly, as if he didn't want to wake me up. I still didn't move. Then he started to rub my private parts. He rubbed and he rubbed, squeezing his hard thing while he was rubbing me."
Beads of perspiration appeared on Sarah's upper lip and brow. Battleship Barbara rendered me a menacing stare.
"Then he put his finger into my slit and started rubbing on the inside, and took his hard thing out of his shorts and started stroking up and down on it. While he rubbed me inside my slit, he kept sliding his finger farther and farther between my legs, pushing it just a little bit into my vagina. I was getting all wet and slippery. He kept rubbing his finger between my legs, getting his finger wet and slippery too, and rubbing my button. Oh, Davey! Daveeeeeey! What are you doing to me? It feels so good and I'm so scared and you shouldn't be here but it feels so good!"
Sarah's voice had become high and thin, completely like that of a little girl, and she was rocking back and forth harder and harder. She dropped her hand to her lap, and started rubbing between her legs. I looked at Battleship Barbara and saw that her eyebrows had gone to the middle of her forehead, and well they should have. As if Sarah's rocking back and forth and putting her hand between her legs wasn't enough: my first name is Mark.
"I knew this was wrong and I knew I should scream, but I couldn't. He kept rubbing and rubbing between my legs. His finger was so slippery that it just went back and forth and back and forth so easily. He started stroking his stiff thing with the same rhythm he was rubbing me. While he was rubbing, I felt my body getting all tingly. I'd never felt like that before and it felt so good even though it was so wrong and I was so scared, and then, all of a sudden, my body did something funny and it felt all kind of like fireworks inside. Davey. Daveeeeey. Oh, Davey. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oooooooooooh!"
At the same time Sarah made her final long "Oooooooooh," her rocking stopped and her body became completely rigid. She'd given herself an orgasm, right there in Battleship Barbara's office.
"And then stuff spurted out the end of his stiff thing and landed on my stomach and my hip. It was warm and gooey and it felt good in a funny kind of way when it hit my skin. Then, after he rubbed me between my legs a few more times and squeezed his thing a little bit more, he took his hand away. He took some tissues from a box beside my bed, mopped up his gooey stuff, pulled my nightgown back down, and left."
Sarah stopped rocking and sat silent. As softly and as evenly as I could, I said, "Sarah, how old are you?"
"Eleven," she said, in the high, girlish voice.
Battleship Barbara and I looked at each other. The steel in her gaze had been replaced by a look of concern... She came around her desk and put her hands on Sarah's shoulders and shook her gently. "Okay, Sarah," she said. "It's okay, sweetheart. That's enough. You can stop now."
Sarah remained motionless. Battleship Barbara shook her a bit harder.
"Sarah? Sarah? Can you hear me?"
Sarah's head gave a quick jerk, and her eyes popped open. She gazed around the room with a look of disorientation and concern on her face.
Battleship Barbara turned her attention to me.
"Mr. Wilson, I believe you can go now. I'll be in touch with you later. And surely I don't have to remind you that everything that took place in this office is in strictest confidence?"
"Of course not, Ms. Corrigan. Thank you."
I stood and prepared to leave.
"By the way, Sarah, who's Davey?" Battleship Barbara said.
"Davey? Davey? I don't know any... oh, Davey. 'Davey' is what I used to call my brother. He died in an automobile accident ten years ago, when he was nineteen. He was three years older than me. When am I going to get to tell my story?"
Battleship Barbara and I exchanged a quick glance. She pulled the chair I'd been sitting over next to Sarah's, and, as she sat down and put her arm around Sarah's shoulders, I left.
Obviously, Sarah had some kind of problem, and I felt kind of sorry for her. But it just as obviously didn't have anything to do with me, and I was confident that Battleship Barbara would be off my case.
But there was one other thing wrong. Sarah's story had given me a raging hard-on. What Sarah had described-apparently, an incident between her and her brother that had taken place what? sixteen years ago-was virtually identical to an incident that had taken place between my sister and me. I hadn't thought about that in years. One hot summer night, when I was fifteen and my sister was twelve, I had been overcome by horniness and curiosity and had gone into my sister's bedroom. I'd never seen a naked girl before, and I thought that, with the hot night, I might be able to catch a glimpse of my sister's bare skin. Light from a full moon was shining directly on my sister's bed, illuminating her almost as brightly as if it had been day. Her covers were thrown back, and she was lying on the sheet, wearing a baby-doll nightgown. The nightgown was covering her crotch, so I couldn't tell when I first walked in whether she was wearing panties or not. But I could see all of her legs, as she lay there asleep, completely relaxed and natural; innocent. And she looked so beautiful.
I didn't know what to do next. I didn't have any plan to do anything, so I just stood by her bed, looking at her, getting harder and harder, squeezing my hard-on through my Jockey shorts. After a while, I just had to see whether she was wearing panties, so, very gently and slowly, I eased the hem of her nightgown up, and almost spurted on the spot when I saw her naked pussy. My heart was beating so loudly I couldn't hear anything else. I felt dizzy and my ears were ringing. She had a little patch of fur up at the top of her slit, but her pussy lips themselves were bare. Like the rest of her, her pussy was so beautiful that I couldn't take my eyes off of it. I looked and looked, all the while squeezing my hard-on through my shorts. Finally, I just had to touch it. And I did, just barely. When my sister didn't move, I touched her again, then a little more firmly, and then I started rubbing her pussy lips, as gently as I could. After I'd rubbed her pussy lips for a while and she still didn't stir, I pressed my finger into her slit, and began to rub up and down. And my sister had got wet and slippery, too. By that time, I was so crazy with horniness, love for my sister, and lust that I took my cock out of my shorts and started jacking off with the same rhythm I was rubbing her. And then I came, like I'd never come before, spurting my semen all over my sister's stomach and pussy and legs. When I realized what I'd done, I was scared to death that my sister would wake up and tell Mom and Dad, and I was full of guilt for masturbating myself while I masturbated her. I mopped up my come and got out of my sister's bedroom, as fast as I could. I was scared that my sister would say something for days afterward, and guilty for as long as I was scared. Apparently, my sister never said anything, and my guilt and fear dwindled. Then I must have pushed the incident into a far, far corner of my mind. It had never occurred to me, until Sarah told her story, that my sister might have been awake during the whole thing.
I never went into my sister's room in the middle of the night again, and the two of us never did any other sexual experimenting. But I think that single instance left me with a predilection for women with girlish figures, not big-breasted, wide-hipped women, but lithe women, women built like ballerinas, women with small breasts and long legs, and high, rounded bottoms, women built like... Sarah? I dismissed that thought from my mind. Sarah had the right kind of figure, to be sure, but she wore way too much makeup, and she had problems, besides. Even if I had felt some attraction to Sarah, I would have had to be stone dumb to do anything about it.
When I walked out of Battleship Barbara's office, the chatter on the HR floor stopped as quickly as if someone had sliced a knife through it. The corporate jungle fell silent as the tiger passed by.
I walked though the corridors, climbed the stairs to the second floor, and threaded my way through the maze of cubicles. As I passed by the secretarial area near my office, the women quit chatting and typing and fussing with their hair and fixed their eyes on me as I passed by. I was sure that what had happened in Battleship Barbara's office was still in her office, but some kind of word had spread. Apparently even the taint of accusation was as good as an admission of guilt. I had trespassed against womankind. It's too bad upper management couldn't learn to make effective use of the corporate tom-tom, surely one of the most efficient means of communication ever devised.
I returned to work and tried to put the Sarah business out of my mind. Two days later, I got a memo from Battleship Barbara, officially clearing me of any and all charges. Sarah had withdrawn her complaint. But even being officially cleared by Battleship Barbara didn't satisfy the natives. The women were nervous and avoided me. The men kept their distance, too, civil when we had to do business, but not willing to shoot the bull. God only knows what they might have had on their minds as far as the women in the building were concerned, but they must have feared guilt by association. When I walked by a group of people talking, conversation ceased. If I approached a group of people as if I were going to join them or needed to talk to somebody, they dispersed, leaving behind one poor soul whose unfortunate chore it was actually to speak to me. I was uncomfortable, no doubt about it, but I knew that I wasn't guilty of anything, and decided that I was just going to have to keep my head up and let time run its course until people forgot, or something more juicy came along.
Then, two weeks and one day following the meeting in Battleship Barbara's office, just as I was beginning to feel an easing in the tension around me and permit myself the hope that my life at DigiHertz might assume a more normal routine, I got an email letter from Sarah.
Dear Mr. Wilson,
Please accept my apology for causing you trouble and
discomfort. I know now that you in no way sexually
harassed me, and I'm deeply sorry that I accused you
I would very much like to talk to you. Could we meet for
lunch one day soon?
I was utterly dumbfounded. Certainly I appreciated Sarah's apologizing, and I could understand how that might have been difficult for her, and something she felt was necessary. But I couldn't see any reason to meet with her, and I didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize the relationship I was trying to build with DigiHertz and my co-workers. It didn't take long for me to compose my reply.
Dear Ms. Nesbitt,
I accept your apology.
However, considering the circumstances that led to your
apology, I think it would be unwise for us to meet.
I then put Sarah Nesbitt as much out of mind as I could. I was really getting into my new job. I'd found that DigiHertz had a way of looking at all its products and projects with a strange kind of single-mindedness, that they seemed to consider each product line in complete isolation from any other, and that there were huge areas of confusion and overlap. I'd put together a package describing how they could eliminate two major areas of redundancy, speed up their time to market, and save a good deal of money in the process, and I needed to start the politicking I'd have to do to make my point. I was working hard, and I was, in my own slightly less than humble opinion, earning my keep.
Three days later, I got a second email letter from Sarah Nesbitt.
Dear Mr. Wilson,
I can appreciate your reluctance to meet with me, but I
feel like I *have* to talk to you.
This is *very* important to me.
If we can't meet for lunch, could we get together for
perhaps an hour at any other time that would be
convenient for you? Please?
Probably there isn't a man alive who doesn't respond at some level to a "damsel in distress" message, no matter how much he may know consciously that her distress has nothing to do with him, and I was no exception. Consciously, I still thought it was a bad idea to meet with Sarah. But it was very important to her, and she felt like she had to talk to me. My ego and my curiosity were piqued. And I felt kind of lousy. It seemed clear that she had some kind of problem, and I'd be a rat if I didn't help her try to solve it. My guts were saying "yes" at the same time my head was saying "no." One lesson I had learned in life, the hard way, was that when I let my head overrule a strong gut feeling, I was almost surely making a mistake. Men can have intuition, too, no matter how hard American society tries to drub it out of them. I wrote back to Sarah, and we arranged to meet the following day at a little Mexican restaurant out on the north side of Milpitas, far enough away from DigiHertz that it seemed unlikely we might encounter anyone from work there.
Our meeting was, of course, strained at the start. The last time we'd actually spoken to one another was in Battleship Barbara's office, after Sarah had accused me of sexually harassing her, and she'd told her trance-like story. But we made it through terse hellos and ordering a meal. I was uncomfortable with the silence, but it was Sarah's show. I was here because she'd asked me to me here, and I didn't know what she had on her agenda. I sat and waited. Sarah smoothed her hair, brushed invisible lint off her blouse, inspected her fingernails, and rearranged the silverware. When the salads came, she finally spoke.
"This is even harder than I thought it would be," she said. "I'm so embarrassed."
Be gentle, be helpful, a voice inside my head cautioned.
"It's okay," I said. "Please try not to feel embarrassed."
"Well, I, I mean, after all, in Barbara's office, I, well, I masturbated, and I had an orgasm, right in front of my boss and a man I don't know. Oh, this is terrible, I don't even know where to start."
"Like they always say in the movies, why don't you start at the beginning?"
"Mostly because I don't know where the beginning is. I mean, I'm not sure any more what's real and what's not."
"If you can't start someplace, then start any place, and let's see where it goes from there."
Sarah looked off in the distance, crunching a piece of romaine as she thought.
"Okay. I'll start with what happened after you left Barbara's office. She played the tape of what I'd said. I heard what I said, I heard myself come, and I heard me say that I was eleven when you asked me how old I was. I didn't remember saying any of those things, but I understood that I had said them, that I'd gone into some kind of a trance. Barbara talked to me for a while and helped me get my bearings straight, then she suggested that I call the company's AEP number and get some counseling. So I did.
"I've seen the psychologist three times now. I took the tape and played it for her, too. We've talked, and the psychologist says that either one of two things happened. Either Davey did come into my room late one night and fondled me, or that's a fantasy I've been carrying for so long, unable to resolve because of Davey's death, that I truly don't know whether it happened or not."
"Can I ask a question?" I asked. "I'm confused and curious about one thing."
"I really don't think I was giving you any particular kinds of looks when we walked by each other at work. Why did you file your complaint of visual harassment in the first place?"
Sarah sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilson, but I don't have a good answer for that, either. To me, it felt like you were staring at me, undressing me with your eyes. I think I would have felt the same way even if you were staring off into space as we passed. I don't know why I felt that way, but I do understand that it came from inside of me, not in response to anything you did."
"How about if you call me Mark?"
"Okay. And, of course, you should call me Sarah. The psychologist told me that it's very common for an incidence of childhood molestation to take on a dream-like quality, that kids try real hard to make it all go away. After a while, they're not sure whether it actually happened or not, but it's not uncommon for some small thing-the shadow of an arm crossing your face or a quick glimpse of a profile-to reawaken the memory. I think what happened was that when I first saw you, when you came to sign your offer letter, some little glimpse of you triggered the memory."
"Do I look like David?"
"Not at all."
Sarah started fishing in her purse. The waiter came and took away our salad plates and brought the main course, the usual chiles rellenos for me, and cheese enchiladas for Sarah. As the waiter left, Sarah handed me a photograph.
"This is a picture of Davey when he was sixteen. After all this business started, I went to an old photograph album to see if there might be any similarity between you and Davey. I haven't found it yet."
I looked at the picture. Sarah was right. If there was any similarity between Davey and me, I couldn't see it either. In the picture, Davey was sixteen-gawky, on the skinny side, sharp features, and dark-haired, like Sarah. My hair is sandy blond, and I have a big frame, wide shoulders. I gave the snapshot back to Sarah.
Sarah and I sat in silence for a few minutes, stirring around the steaming food on our plates, lifting bites to cool a bit before we moved them to our mouths. Conversation between us, now that we'd got started, was becoming easier. But I still didn't know why Sarah had wanted to talk to me. Maybe she just needed to get Davey and me separate in her mind.
"Probably you're wondering why I wanted to talk to you," Sarah said, hissing breath around a dollop of scalding cheese. "This is the hard part. The really embarrassing part. The part I've got to do."
"Take your time," I urged. "It's okay."
"That's the problem. I can't take my time. I'm afraid that if I don't go through with this now, I never will. It's most definitely not okay. Mark, I'm desperate, that's all there is to it. I'm twenty-seven years old. I want to have a real life, to fall in love with a man, to get married, have some kids."
Sarah paused for a few pensive bites of enchilada, then resumed speaking, more with determination than with ease.
"This whole... business... has brought a bunch of stuff to a head, and I feel like I'm standing at a turning point. Either I can confront it and try to overcome it, or I can avoid it and accept its interfering with my life for the rest of my life. I'm scared to death that I may never have another opportunity to deal with this again, that if I don't act now, I'll lose the chance forever."
Sarah closed her eyes, clenched her jaws for a moment, then continued.
"I've never been able to have a real relationship with a man. I become attracted to someone, feel like I'm falling love, and want with all my heart to be close to him. But when I try to be intimate, something goes haywire. I know there's nothing physically wrong with me. I can masturbate myself to orgasm, but when I'm with a man, I just go numb, shut off. I lie there and feel him moving in and out of me, but nothing happens in my body. I can't let go, wrap around him, move, scream, come until I think I won't be able to draw another breath. No matter hard I try, nothing happens. I get disappointed, the man thinks there's something wrong with him, and the whole thing falls apart."
"Isn't confronting it what you're doing with the psychologist?"
"Yes and no. Certainly if I hadn't seen her, I wouldn't be able to be talking to you now. But psychotherapy takes a long time, lots of talk. After thinking it over for a couple of weeks, I've decided that I want to meet the problem head-on, to try to shock myself out of whatever it is and see if I can decide what's real and what isn't, and get on with my life."
I felt like I should make some sounds of acknowledgment or say something. But I couldn't find any words that seemed appropriate. I looked at Sarah with what I hoped was an encouraging expression.
"Here's why I wanted to talk to you," she said. "I want you to help me confront the problem"
My eyebrows went up. I couldn't think of a way in the world that I could help her wrestle with her own demon. Sarah reached into her purse, then placed two items on the table between us.
"Here's the tape from Barbara's office," she said, "and a key to my apartment. What I want you to do is listen to the tape. Then, some time during the next week-I don't want to know exactly when you're going to do it-I want you to come to my apartment in the middle of the night and do to me exactly what I described on the tape. After you've done that, if I haven't woken up, I want you to wake me. I need to know what happened to me, and that you're not Davey."
I almost blew a mouthful of arroz across the table.
"Are you kidding?" I exploded. "I don't know anything about psychology, but that sure seems to me like it could backfire completely. I could scare the absolute shit out of you, or you could freak out entirely. Uh-uh. No. No way. I don't like it. Better you should stick with your psychotherapist, or maybe find someone else who'd be willing to help you. Did you tell your shrink you were going to do this? I can't believe she'd go along with it."
Sarah's face fell. She looked directly into my eyes. As she did, her eyes began to pool and glisten, and tears ran down both her cheeks, leaving stains in her heavy makeup.
"I was afraid you'd react that way. I guess I really can't blame you. It's an awful lot to ask of someone who is, after all, a complete stranger. I'm sorry. But it was you who triggered the response in me. I don't think there's anyone else who could help. And no, I didn't say anything to my therapist about it. This was my decision alone. I told you I was desperate, Mark. So desperate, I'm willing to bet the farm. I accept full responsibility for what I want to do. If I freaked, I wouldn't hold you responsible."
"When it comes right down to it, you don't know anything about me. I could be some horrible guy who'd take real advantage of you in the middle of the night or use your key to get in some other time and steal everything you own."
"I thought about that, too," Sarah said, with a weak smile. "What I know about you is that you could have come completely unglued when I accused you of sexual harassment. You didn't. I heard your voice on the tape when you asked me how old I was. You figured out quickly that something was wrong, and were gentle, not vindictive or mean. After I withdrew my complaint, you could have counter-complained about false charges. You didn't. You could have refused completely to meet with me. You didn't. And, after meeting me today, you could have told me I was nuts and just to buzz off. You didn't. You listened. Besides that, you look like a nice guy. I'm comfortable with you. I'm really not terribly concerned about the nature of your character."
My mind took off in two directions. The part I wanted to listen to kept telling me, this isn't your problem, this isn't your problem, this isn't your problem. It's a bad idea. You could get yourself into a heap of trouble. It could turn out badly. You have no business even thinking about creeping into a woman's apartment in the middle of the night and fondling her in her sleep. It's crazy, is what it is. The part I didn't want to listen to was the mucho macho, white horse, knight in shining armor, pure ego part. You could help the damsel in distress, it said to me. Only you, nobody else. You could save the day and be a hero. The debate between my ears raged for several minutes.
"You sure you want to do this?" I asked.
"Very sure," Sarah said.
With a bit of effort, I got out of my own ego and fear and tried to consider the situation from Sarah's point of view. What a courageous woman, I said to myself. There's an incredible strength of character and self in there. She knows she's bogged down, and she wants to be able to live a normal life so badly that she's willing to take extreme measures to get what she wants. I understood, finally, that if I could get out of myself enough, I had the opportunity to give something to somebody else, to help her with no thought of gain for myself. I suddenly felt very selfish.
"Okay," I said, picking up the tape and the key and putting them in my pocket. "I'll do it." Sarah wrote her address on the back of a business card and handed it to me. I put it in my pocket along with the tape and key.
"Thank you," she whispered, and began to cry in earnest, not loudly, but visibly. The people around us in the restaurant looked at us with veiled eyes, obviously uncomfortable.
Sarah sniffed, fished a kleenex from her purse, and blew her nose with a satisfying gurgle. "I think I'm making a scene," she said, "and I must look awful." Her eye makeup was smeared and her cheeks were streaked. "We'd better get out of here."
Sarah went straight out to her car while I settled the check. When I went outside, I looked around until I saw her, using her rear-view mirror to touch up her makeup. I put a hand on top of her car and leaned down to look at her through the open window.
"Seems like we ought to say something more," I said, "wrap this up somehow."
"It's wrapped," she said. "I don't want to say anything more right now. Any more talk might ruin the plan. I'll see you when I see you. And thanks again."