“I need you to come back to campus. I’ve just had a call from Lee. Ahem.” Her voice cracked.
“Someone has made the accusation that you and I have been sexually involved.”
I was standing in a juice bar. My girlfriend — Ace, as I called her, the nickname I had given her that night on the harbour under the half-moon when I told her I loved her — stood across from me, tilting her head to the left as she watched me from across the bar, my face falling as I listened to the voice on the other end of my cellphone.
Dr. E. James, the woman who taught me how to fall in love with books, who had brought Ace and I around her table for meals, for breakups, for life, for so many months that it seemed impossible to number, asked if I had heard what she had said.
“We’ll be back soon.” I managed it as an afterthought, then hung up.
My eyes were already wide. Ace, instinctively, made up the distance between us, putting her right hand against my cheek, the habit she had of willing me to tell her when I tried to keep her from the dark.
We were in the car when I finally said the words out loud, although I don’t remember exactly what they were. Language had lost meaning somewhere between the phone call and the ride back to campus, somewhere where sexually involved was a term with power, with legal ramification, with the ability to rupture a world, end a life, and disentangle the beauty of an afternoon in a juice bar with the woman you fell into young love with —
because somewhere, between all of that, someone, an unknown, used the words to describe your relationship with your favourite professor, and somehow after that words no longer mean much, because the words themselves seem guilty, seem a betrayal, and seem, as Yehuda Amichai once wrote, without God.
I was 20.
Too old to be foolish, to young to be wise. And somewhere in that drive back to campus, in those ten minutes in which a world was ruptured, I lost a piece of myself, misplaced it, and did not find it again for about two years.
When Ace and I eventually broke up, it was because of what I had misplaced. Somewhere, trust shook loose from my soul and rattled out like a big, loud, clanging pot skidding on tile—but I didn’t hear it or I didn’t care; I didn’t pick it up, I didn’t think it would matter later, and in ten minutes I lost it, that bit of myself.
I didn’t know until later that this made me, not just language, for a time, without God.
My life became a puzzle, a tangled collection of memories and conversations that I spread out every morning for hours, trying to discern the pattern and make the connections.
It became clear, fairly quickly, that this had nothing to do with me. The accusations were about ousting Dr. James from her position at the University. In keeping with the benevolent sexism of Christian Universities, it was largely about keeping her, as a woman, in her place.
I don’t make that accusation lightly.
I make it because a month before the accusation had been made about Dr. James and I, I was privy to knowledge that another professor had been carrying on an affair with a student—and there was evidence—and that situation had been handled much differently.
If you pull out the facts as they stand, the complexity of all these moving pieces, it becomes hard to ignore that the major differences in the two scenarios is gender-based.
At least Preston has a girlfriend now, we don’t have to worry about that crush he had on you.
This was spoken by someone in the administration to Dr. James. Spoken by someone I trusted, who, in another life, I would have asked for letters of recommendation, support, advice. This person never believed an affair had actually happened, but they were willing to entertain that there had been attraction, even when there hadn’t been, and they entertained it with the kind of light, boys-will-be-boys attitude that permeates these cases in our society.
Would it have been different if I had been a girl and Dr. James a man?
Would it have been different if we were both female or both male?
For eight months, I was under a legal obligation of silence; yet, I attended parties, galas, fundraising events, lectures, all as a representative of the community that had turned against me.
I was disenchanted, holding an alcohol free “Champagne Punch” and encouraging a wealthy donor to consider investing in this space. “I’m astounded by the integrity of the administration.”
I think lying, for that time, was self-preservation.
We won in the end, if there are winners in these things.
After eight months, the accuser was relocated and eventually encouraged to leave, the person that had been roped in to corroborate the story moved to a less prestigious job on the other side of campus. Over time, people who had known seemed to forget. That’s the way of these things.
I think I forgot, a bit, too.
I went back to campus this past January, before I left for my second semester in Scotland. It was PanHellenic week—all the sorority girls had filled the parking garage close to the coffee shop I once loved.
Frustrated to not find a space, I was turning my car to go out again when I slammed on my breaks.
There, in front of me, the corroborating accuser.
We locked eyes, held each other’s gaze for some time, until I lifted my right hand, motioning that it was alright, pass in front with care, I would keep my foot on the break.
As this form, this shadow of past, went before me, I felt that little bit of trust creep back in. There’s something profound about forgiveness, especially when forgiveness means not running over another person. I suppose in that moment I realised, perhaps for the first time in quite some time, that I was not without God.
How do you deal with someone who has wrongly accused you? How do you forgive them?
[Photo: seanmcgrath, Creative Commons]