When my swim coach, an elderly man with a Dean of Something or Other job sexually harassed me, I let it go. It wasn’t like he was really harassing harassing. Just asking us to twirl in front of his desk when we wore skirts. Well . . . not really we. Me. My best friend Katie was always there, too, but she stood off to the side, wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead tee shirt and baggy pants belted with a carabiner from our school’s ropes course.
It didn’t matter that we kept silent. Overnight, Mr. Mead* was asked to leave Eastgrove, where he’d been on the faculty for probably forty years. With his wife—one of those trim old ladies with a golf game and a shoulder-draped sweater. How did he explain as he backed their packed Volvo out, corgi squeezed in, lump in his throat? It had all happened so quickly. One day, a life, the next, I-95 North.
Anyway, I never reported it. Even after he grabbed my chin and planted his clammy old man kiss on my lips twice. Was Katie there for those? I honestly can’t remember, but I feel like she must’ve been. Warmth radiated from behind me as though he wouldn’t go beyond the kiss if she were there.
On the way out, one of us said, “Poor guy, he thinks he’s our grandfather.”
We thought he was the victim: of loneliness, of too many years cloistered inside Eastgrove where time froze. He’d grimace when the team played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the bus, and on most evenings, he’d usually have his assistant coach finish practice so that he could bustle off to the dining hall early for dinner. I can still see his wide-wale corduroys scissoring up the natatorium stands and out one of the red doors.
Maybe this is what membership feels like.
That’s what we thought. Mahogany walls, oversized desks, coffered ceilings, models of sloops on the shelves, and kisses for the chosen.
It didn’t occur to me until Regionals that there was another way to see it. Katie and I had gathered a bunch of swimmers on our team for a carpet picnic in our hotel room. Carr’s Table Water crackers and squeeze cheese the night before prelims. Katie and I were laughing and they weren’t, or at least not as hard, so I kept going, talking, describing. Still, the girl with the curly bob, the one Katie and I referred to as Lane Six, wasn’t participating.
“No, seriously, you guys, he got up from behind his desk and said, ‘You should wear skirts more often. You girls are so self-conscious nowadays,’ and grabbed my chin like it was an ice cream cone. Hard too. It kinda hurt.” I paused. Smiled. Then: “And kissed me.”
They screamed. I remember them shrieking and draping themselves all over the floor, writhing almost. Katie was crying she was laughing so hard. Someone’s heel accidentally smashed down on the crackers. We laughed harder.
“Dude is like eighty years old.” Bald like a cartoon vulture with his neck craned forward. I pantomimed it.
He’d said something like, “Try to have a wonderful day,” or, “Go get ’em,” as Katie and I had walked out of his office, but that part is a blur. My mind was already doing that Alfred Hitchcock Psycho trick where the camera zooms in and pushes out at the same time, with me suspended at center frame. I’d wanted to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, but I didn’t. In case he was still watching. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
In loco parentis was printed everywhere at Eastgrove, on every brochure: we parent your kids for you because you’re not, basically. For most of the kids, the school was doing them a favor. If you came from a messed-up Park Avenue life where your parents acted like children or ignored you, school felt like a reprieve. Boarders were connected to their parents the way an orbiting astronaut is to ground control. I came from a different place. I was a Day Student. For me, every afternoon was a searing re-entry. When he picked me up at the field house, my dad hummed the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” in the car. In the mornings, he pulled our Honda Accord up to the Fathers’ Building, its heavy doors, soaring rotunda, and marble stair treads polished as the moon.
“Pop Hall, dad. We call it Pop Hall,” I’d say before I shut the door and set my Arrival Face. Neutral: languid determination.
At home, I could relax. Nobody could walk into my room while I was in the shower and steal my jewelry, which had happened to Katie twice. (We figured out who did it, and of course she was the richest girl in the house.) Nobody could wake me up blaring U2’s Achtung Baby (everybody was doing this). Nobody could monopolize the hall phone for an hour talking to her parents in Gstaad or Paris or Greenwich. When I finally got my license in Fourth Form, I drove my black Acura Integra home at night. To my parents who had to stretch to pay the tuition bill or pander to my grandparents to subsidize half of it. To my parents who thought I was the brightest kid ever to have been born. Because my English teacher had pulled them aside the first month of eighth grade and whispered, “You can’t keep her here.” The public high school didn’t have AP English and they wanted me to reach my potential, which is usually code for “Go to an Ivy League school,” but my parents claimed that they were “fine with wherever as long as you’re happy.”
When some of the girls asked if I was a “mall rat” in the first weeks of school, I didn’t mention it to my parents. Day Student translated to Actually From Here, God forbid, the version of Here outside Eastgrove’s tweed and elbow-patched reach. I was from just over the state line, but I surmised what they meant about mall rats from John Hughes movies. It wasn’t worth responding.
After we got back from Regionals, Mr. Flynn, the dean of students, invited every girl on the team to come in and talk about Mr. Mead. Katie went—freckly, dimpled, and from Palm Desert, California. Katie’s folks were on the older side and they’d sent her and her brother to eastern boarding schools. It was a long way to fly to get home every holiday, but she did it. I went with her twice over spring break. There were cacti and grapefruit trees in her yard. That’s the only time I’ve ever eaten grapefruit peeled like an orange. I was standing in her Brady Bunch–modern kitchen waiting for toast to pop when she plucked a grapefruit off the tree next to the pool then slid back through the patio doors.
She plopped it down on my plate: “Try this.”
I asked for one of those special serrated grapefruit spoons, to section it. She peeled it for me instead. Said to try it this way. I blushed when I put the first section in my mouth. It was body temperature. Like eating a secret.
With Mr. Flynn’s invitation in my head—how had he asked? In writing? In person? I can’t remember—I walked into my parents’ bedroom with its cheery yellow walls. My mom had copied the color from one she’d seen at Monticello or Mount Vernon, but we’d had to tone it down a little after the first coat since it turns out the founding fathers liked their paint adrenaline-bright. The summer before I went to Eastgrove, my mom and I stood on ladders for days, stenciling a floral motif around the perimeter, dabbing a blunt brush against a plastic pattern.
“So, what should I do? Should I go in to see Flynn?”
My mom walked out of her closet clasping an Eastgrove sweatshirt. She stood there with one foot perched on the bed frame, her hands hidden inside the sweatshirt like a Christmas caroler wearing a muff. Her eyes were fixed on me but not. She was thinking.
I heard aerosol deodorant hiss in the bathroom, then a cabinet clack shut. In my mind’s eye, I could see it swing slowly back open—because its magnet was long gone. Enter Dad. He’d been showering, but now he came out of the bathroom scrubbing his head with his favorite raggedy brown towel, boxers on. That’s my family. Not totally naked around each other, but close.
“Jane. Jane.” He admonished her as though she’d already given me bad advice. “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do,” he said. “Nothing.” He unscrewed the faux wooden top of his English Leather cologne. “You’re not going to talk to anyone about this.”
“They want me to tell them what happened, Dad. I’m the one who got it the worst.”
“Earl.” My nickname. From some pearl-trimmed socks I’d worn as a baby. Earl the Pearl. I still answer to it. “Earl.”
“Yeah?” I was holding on to one of the four poster’s bed rails, like a rider on a stifling bus, preparing for a long conversation in serial format. Later, there’d be knocks on my bedroom door, Mom worrying about the school’s opinion of me, Dad blowing up because “we don’t know how these people operate.” And me deciding to do what I’d been planning all along: to walk into Mr. Flynn’s office the next day and say what I knew.
“We will not be responsible for ruining a man’s career.”
And that was it. What I Knew diminished from a chapter title in my life’s novel to a subheading in their story.
I never spoke to anyone at Eastgrove about Mr. Mead’s skirt twirls or chin grabs or clammy kisses or optimistic platitudes. He retired to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard and continued to work for the school in Alumni Relations.
Had he been one of those pedophiles who grooms his victims? In that case, Lane Six may have rescued me from something. Something worse.
I thought for sure that Lane Six had been the one to report what we’d said at Regionals. How else did the school find out? Surely, Lane Six had been the one to catalyze the investigation—with her irony-proof countenance. And Mr. Flynn hadn’t even needed to hear from me to know how to proceed.
But had Lane Six been wrong? Was Mr. Mead less a Machiavellian villain than a Founding Father archetype? Too bloated with entitlement to see that his brightly painted beneficence required everyone else to shutter their eyes?
Scurrying and withstanding, squinting and twirling, swimming and commuting. Those were my verbs, always moving, transiting across stories that weren’t of my own telling. Our last swim practices melted into hushed hours—laps in the inside lanes. Katie was sad for weeks and sought out some of our other friends for hugs and notes with hearts on them and talks on the spring lawn that eventually didn’t include me. I guess she didn’t think I was taking the whole thing seriously. In fairness, my silence was profound.
“Smile,” he’d said.
Then grabbed my chin hard. Hard enough to bring tears to my eyes.
I could feel muscles twitching as they’d struggled to winch my lips’ corners skyward. But they wouldn’t go. Like I held hot grapefruit in my mouth, it took me time to form the necessary resolve to swallow it. Which I did, and it’s burned all the way down.
*I am using pseudonyms.