Alarms: Sexual Violence and Spiritual Freedom in the University – Part 2

Alarms: Sexual Violence and Spiritual Freedom in the University - Part 1

If you have not read part one.

The day after Hector and I’s dinner, I met with my Spanish teacher, Marta, at the Stevenson Café. She sat at a small patio table with a fleece vest, cloud of curly gray hair, laughing as I struggled with irregular verbs. Her eyes, always alert and content, peered at me from over my textbook as she quizzed me. I missed every mark; I wasn’t doing as well as I should’ve. I told her about Hector and I’s “pizza night,” sparing no details about the advantageous touches and long parting embrace.

“Oooo! No, no, no. No esta bien, Melanie. No esta bien. Maybe you should tell someone.”

“But, I like him.”

Marta compared Hector to a predator reinforcing its place in the food chain, using knowledge to find power over others, like traps catching the foot of a rabbit, or scents leading prey into his den. Marta insisted this kind of psychological predation, the manipulation of a student professor dynamic, would hurt most. She knew I didn’t possess the arsenal to spar with someone like Hector.

“Melanie—what do you want from this?”

If Hector hunted like a predator, then who better to surrender myself to? Stereotypes of sexual predators were pimpled, bleary-eyed men with jagged teeth. Hector had intelligence and charm. Even if his academic career was a by-product of his lust for young women, he advised the government on international policies. I didn’t see how him being a monster in one regard stopped him from being a hero in another.

“I don’t know. I think I’m just going to wait and find out.”

Marta half-smiled as I collected my things. As I left, I glanced at her eating the rest of her cookie alone among the happy college kids I never spent my Friday nights with. I had an appointment to meet Hector in thirty minutes time and started up the hill, the path narrowing and steepening. He stood in front of the office building and smiled without feeling.

“How are you?” I prodded.

“Very fine. It’s just been a hectic day.” He guided me through the empty halls and unlocked a door to a white office with a window overlooking the courtyard and two large cardboard boxes underneath the table stuffed with colorful photos, fliers, notebooks, postcards, and letters. He took out a journal and let his hands roll over its faded blue cover and opened it, releasing a long sigh.

“This was my uncle’s journal. He worked as an activist with the churches here in the U.S. He traveled to Nicaragua during the war to help with the peace efforts and lost his life. This will be the first thing you document.”

We flipped through photos with images of nuns standing proudly together on a dirt floor, activists smoking and drinking coffee in rooms with smoke-stained walls. We talked briefly about his book and the Cold War. More than testifying to America’s bloody pursuit of its own ideals, he wanted his book to inspire people to be activists, to be “heroes”.  He sat down in the metal fold out chair, the fluorescent lights highlighting the lines alongside his mouth.

“I want young people like you to keep researching and changing the world. Let’s advantage the disadvantaged.”

His eyes trailed off briefly. He didn’t put a hand on me this time. No gestures, no lunch invites. He handed me the silver key to the office, which I could go to at any time. Saying goodbye, my heart throbbed, my stomach gutted. Darkness surrounded me on the hill, with just pools of orange from the streetlights to guide me down. Hector loved these files. I had to do a good job.

In the following weeks, friends invited me to parties I would not attend. Voicemails piled up. I went to the office every day, immersed myself in a land of manila folders and empty coffee cups until as late as two in the morning. After the upcoming Thursday night lecture, I planned to debrief Hector. I utilized the five minute window of time before class to swap outfits–a shirt with a neckline that sloped down. Hector walked in with his signature grin and jump started our discussion of dwindling indigenous communities by asking us about solutions—what could we do? I raised my hand triumphantly, thinking of a Christian charity organization from the files. They funded refugee centers and reconstruction in Central America.

“We could raise money for organizations that provide housing and community centers to them.”

My answer struck him immediately. His eyes ran cold, and he directed his reply to the entire audience.

“OK. Well, we should be careful about trying to become saviors. We need to recognize their strength to overcome. We don’t need to indulge in guilty consciences.”

Some students in the audience triumphantly “hmmed.” Shame took hold. He looked nowhere near my direction as he finished the lecture, some other girl with big tits suggesting economic nationalization policies while he smiled brightly. Once his briefcase snapped shut, I launched from my seat and past the eager students vying for his attention. Their banter, his laughs, and their ignorance couldn’t touch me as I flew out the doors. I quickly made my way through the crowds of people, shamelessly bumping into laughing students rushing to their off campus parties. I knew exactly where I’d be in the next five minutes.

I walked up the hill to my little white office once more. First, the sadness washed over me, the tears absorbing in the grey carpet. Then, I worked with his book laid before me, annotated with post-it notes, the stacks from the large cardboard boxes thinning.  My eyes shrank in their sockets, my fingers crippled. By the time sunlight trickled into the room, the project was almost finished. And when the birds commenced chirping, I snapped my laptop shut and locked the door. It was done.

A clear sky greeted me the next day—so clear I could see my reflection in every single passing window. In the morning, I’d gotten my hair cut for the occasion but it turned out bowlish and blackened. As I approached the LALS building, one of the students from Hector’s class walked out, a shy smile on her face. Her glossed up curls and her big, buoyant lips caught my attention. The glass doors didn’t spare the comparison between her and I. I flicked stray hairs off my shirt. I walked up to his office, back against the wall, an inch away from the entrance. I heaved in air, hoping this would release the intense anxiety taking hold. I entered.

“Melanie. So good to see you! Have a seat.” As I did, he scanned my appearance, sparing no comments about the hair. “I’ve been so busy, excuse me. I had family in town. So, I haven’t been able to give you the attention you deserve.”

Even under the dull office lights, his eyes flickered. A couple passed by his window, unattractive. Normal. But smiling and laughing. Hector’s desk wreaked of chaos and disorder. A picture of him smiling and awkwardly holding a woman close to his chest from behind faced me.

“Of course,” I couldn’t stifle a shocked laugh. “So. Who… who is this?”

His grin spread further, prepared. “My ex-wife.”

He took more inventory, looking down on me from his upturned nose. “How did you feel about what you said in discussion yesterday?”

“Yeah. I feel okay about it. I don’t think I said anything too bad.”

“Good. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I wanted to encourage caution.”

Feverish, I turned towards saving face. My chance for a big reveal, I took the leap and pulled out my laptop.

“I finished the project.”

“You did?”

“I spent eleven… maybe even ten hours finishing it all in one night,” I pulled up the excel sheet and faced the screen towards him. “Everything is color coded according to the themes in your book. Cold War rhetoric is in blue. International activism efforts are pink. Sandinista media is yellow. Oh—and I labelled the organizations. Everything is titled, dated, and summarized for ease of reference. I put a Y in the excel sheets next to documents I thought were relevant and useful, and an N next to the ones that weren’t. All 12,000 files are filed and in the cabinets.”

As I spoke, he drew the shades. ““Oh. Thank you,” he turned back around, his eyes stayed flat, his expression didn’t change. “Just log all of that into your paperwork.”

“You’re welcome.”

At his seat now, he directed his body towards me. His eyes bright, open, and focused, they trailed over the top of my head and slowly to my chest. He flicked his pen and smiled.

“You got a new haircut. That was it.  It looks beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

“Did you get it for a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Do you want one?”

My laptop glared. The colors on the spreadsheet started meshing into each other. I felt dizzy.  Maybe this was just dummy work to keep me occupied. Maybe this was the conversation he wanted to have. Or maybe, he just wanted me in the moment and in whatever moment he wanted. My work. My sweat. Me. I did the job, the job he wanted me to do, the job that wrenched my wrists from typing all night, that consumed me above all else. It didn’t matter that I spent all semester and pulled an all nighter to complete it because it didn’t matter to him right now. Right now, he wanted to play.   

“I don’t want to talk about this. It’s inappropriate,” I replied.

His face twitched considerably, and his hunger settled. He dropped the pen on his desk and looked at me decisively.  

“Well. The project is done? Send it my way.”

Nothing I could say would satisfy me. I didn’t want to show him where his talons had dug in. His ears wouldn’t hear it. My heart couldn’t take it. He acted how he should have, how I feared, and how I wanted. But I didn’t want this feeling. He kept his eyes on his lap as I walked back into the sun blasting in my eyes, a chorus of sickly sweet birds biting my eardrums.

I indulged myself, walking through campus as if coming from Hector’s apartment on the morning after we would have had sex. I thought of knots in my hair, the plainness of how my face would look after sweating at some stranger’s house for the night. I thought of his bulky body rolling over mine, him looking at me and not through me, his opaque eyes absorbing everything, seeing nothing. I thought of lighting the archive on fire and throwing it out the window, the nun’s fliers and the Sandinista pictures raining down on passerby, engulfed in flames. They’d blame me. Like, what kind of lunatic student would undermine good work like Hector’s? I knew where my lighter was from when I’d smoked for my first semester in college. Tears pushed. His eyes froze over, mine burned.

I might have told someone, but we both had our monsters we were trying to feed. If I had known what he was capable of, I might have. When the student came out publicly about Perla, she said the UCSC administration outright ignored the copious amount of complaints about Hector’s inappropriate behavior. When the administration started their investigation in June 2015, no punitive action was taken against Hector Perla. Instead, he resigned in August. Portillo criticized the delay, and questioned why sexual harassment has become such a persistent theme in the university.    

The university could be a perfect refuge from our sick world where divisions melt away, and social borders like race, class, gender, and looks don’t matter because intellectual discovery takes precedence. The University of Oregon banned intimate relationships between their staff and its students. Policies like these remind academia of its role: to make space for the free flow of ideas and intellectual innovations which illuminate the cracks of our faulty world. Re-evaluating and innovating in this quiet corner, our personal insecurities and political problems could be safely stowed away, at least for a time.

But still, I wonder how many of us think of power and how intensely we crave it. Power comes as a specter in many forms—and the shadow cast over those without it obscures the view from below. I think everything is out of my control, but then I see unfortunate things unravel and all I want to do is rewind. I wish that Hector could’ve undone my family past. I wish that I could undo his. If we had the ability to do that, maybe we wouldn’t need the thing we only ever wanted and never truly possess.   

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

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