Lawmaker, lawmaker make me a law,
Rule me a rule,
Decree a decree,
Night after night in the dark I’m alone
So make me a law
and make it known.
(with all due homage to Fiddler on the Roof)
Mid-Eighties: Carson, California
After sweeping, straightening shelves, and attending to other tasks, I depart through the back door, near the dumpsters. At 9:30 the parking lot is dark. It is lit sporadically by dim streetlamps, pools of soft light that illuminate just how dark the black of the asphalt would be even if it were day.
It is so dark that I almost miss seeing the small folded piece of paper. It is tucked beneath the windshield wiper of my light blue 1970 Toyota Corona. The paint on the car is old, the blue dusky. Not quite the shade of a pristine daylight sky, but slightly dulled, just as the real sky is everyday in this part of L.A. county.
I tug the paper out from under my wiper blade. It is from a secret admirer. In words a bit too urgent and prolific, it declares admiration and devotion. I automatically assume it is from someone who also works at the mall, probably young and lacking the confidence to approach me directly. I’m vaguely flattered but don’t think too much more about it. I am tired. Too much standing, too much smiling. I throw the note toward the passenger seat where it loses itself in discarded fast food wrappers and empty soda cans. I turn the key and drive away.
The mall is in Carson, my hometown, so it is a quick drive home. I’ve heard of Carson referred to as “Compton adjacent.” I am not sure if that is intended as a positive or negative. Probably the latter. Our schools had always felt more like prisons than educational institutions. Block-shaped buildings painted a nondescript beige sit on asphalt playgrounds surrounded by a chain-link fence. The corresponding beige they use to cover graffiti is not quite the same shade, leaving blotches on the walls. In nearby Torrance (which while it could be called “Carson adjacent,” somehow it never is because Torrance is a good deal more affluent; I’m sure they are convinced there is an invisible force field between us), the high school is a two- or three-story brick structure with a green lawn that looks like the schools I see on tv. I always imagine that life would be so much more vivid and happy within those walls. In Carson, when students like me drop out no one blinks. Our block-shaped buildings, our chain link and asphalt absent of grass — they are, at least, prisons we can escape. The town I’m not so sure. Faces at the mall always seem vaguely familiar. Other former students I suspect. We all toil for minimum wage with no benefits, inconsistent shifts, and legally required fifteen-minute breaks. Clock in, clock out.
People don’t tend to buy cheese at the mall, so I’m often assigned the task of carving new holes in blocks of Swiss with a melon baller to disguise areas where mold is removed. The assistant manager at the cheese store is young and fervent. Not long after I was hired, she gave me a small religious comic book. Graphically depicted with illustrations of people in agony as flames engulfed them and melted their skin, the initially innocuous-seeming pamphlet told me of my fate in hell if I didn’t accept Jesus into my heart.
Hell. Wasn’t that what this was?
No, fire in hell is literal she explains.
Fear merged with hopelessness. I accept Jesus into my heart the same way you might invite a relative or neighbor you don’t much like into your house — out of some sort of vague sense of obligation, or maybe just inertia.
* * *
My young supervisor gives me a cheap Bible, its green paper cover embossed to mimic leather, and takes me to her church. It is in a warehouse on the outskirts of Carson.
I begin wearing modest dresses that cover from collar bone to knee. I read my green leatherette Bible. Sermons rail against the evils of popular music. I throw out my record albums, slowly replacing them with Amy Grant’s entire catalog.
The shop lets me go at the end of holiday rush. I pick up another part-time job at a discount toy store in the same mall. The assistant manager there is the sister of my previous assistant manager and attends the same church. Had I been older, I might have imagined a worldwide cabal of shopping mall assistant managers deployed to recruit directionless youth into the frightening hands of the Christian god. But I am maybe 17, and left high school without graduating so I’ve never encountered the word “cabal” before.
My job may have changed but the notes have followed me. I find them each night when I arrive at my car. After a shift at the mall, my feet and my smile always ache. Retail workers become used to forcing cheerfulness whether facing boredom or patron anger. It’s a transferable skill; one people of our class are supposed to learn until it becomes second nature. Fluorescent lights make our eyes hurt. The light is an impostor of the kind that would shine with promise through a glass windowpane somewhere else. The mall has no windows. The town no promise. Stores are vacant. I cut my admirer some slack. Who can blame someone also trapped in the dead-end world of retail for having no social skills? In the beginning I felt empathy for my letter writer more than curiosity.
Being alone at night in empty parking lots never bothered me before, but as the long, handwritten letters continue to appear beneath my windshield wiper I find myself a little more wary, walking a bit more briskly. I have long since stopped actually reading the letters. I wonder each night if my admirer is watching as I cross the asphalt, observing me the way God does: with a silence and inaction that makes me question their intentions. My nerves begin to fray.
* * *
By now, church is my center. It provides social interaction, moral direction, and equal portions of comfort and fear. As the letters pile up without ceasing and my prayers go unanswered, my sleep becomes fitful. I dream of being followed. Sleep no longer provides respite.
One morning upon waking, I find a stuffed animal sitting on my bedroom windowsill outside my parents’ one-story 1960s subdivision home. It is a ladybug. I want to scream but my voice is simply not there.
My admirer knows where I live.
My admirer has been on the other side of my bedroom window at night.
I haven’t a clue who this person is.
There is nothing I can do. What they are doing is not against the law. People tell me it is romantic, so why does it make me tremble with frustration, and fear? Why does what they say make me as angry as what he does?
I need to know who is doing this. I concoct a plan: friends from church will park at the mall, watching my car while I work. My plan doesn’t extend much beyond that.
I clock in as usual. I’m nervous. I wonder: can they see my car from where they parked? Is it light enough out there to tell who it is placing the note on under my windshield wiper? There’s nothing I can do but keep myself busy and wait. I sweep floors, tidy shelves, and go through the motions. My shift ends.
There are few remaining automobiles, so I spot where they are immediately. I walk quickly toward their car. As I get near enough to see their faces through the windshield, it’s clear that they’ve seen him. Their faces are tensed, but I can’t quite read what their expressions are saying. They look directly at me. They won’t open their door. Confusion follows. They won’t talk. I plead through the glass. They just sit there looking nervous.
Anger begins rising up — not sadness or fear or hopelessness (emotions that usually follow me like eager, depressing puppies) — every emotion is transformed as fury floods my system.
With the base of my palm, I begin pounding their window. I hear my voice rise in the dark parking lot. The window remains closed so I pound harder, scream louder. I don’t care about breaking the window or my hand. There is determination and rage in my face. I know because I see my reflection.
The window finally rolls down. They tell me a name I don’t recognize. “He’s a Sunday School teacher.”
I don’t remember him, but clearly he knows me. They guess he’s probably in his thirties. He caught them watching him tonight. He even chatted with them. They don’t think he means any harm.
I wonder which of us they are protecting and why.
I go to church the next day. I wait on a plastic chair until I can talk to the pastor. I show him the letters. I am shaking. He assures me he will handle it.
He convenes a meeting of the church elders, all men. They invite the Sunday School teacher to attend. I’m told to stay home. Afterward, the pastor calls to assure me all is well. I feel myself breathe again — I hadn’t realized I’d stopped.
I resume working at the toy store. During my next shift I decide I need something cheerful to erase the anxiety of the past months. I look for the cutest stuffed animal below five dollars. It’s a small cow. I name it Maggie Moo after Milk of Magnesia. I like my own joke. I sweep the floors and clock out.
The back door opens into the night. My body feels less tense than it has in weeks. I look at Maggie in my hand and smile a bit. Then I look up.
There is another letter, and flowers. Next to them a cassette I don’t care to listen to, ever. Mylar balloons are tied to my bumpers. An orange road pylon sits atop the car hood. I can’t begin to speculate what the pylon is supposed to mean.
I yank at the balloons and let them go. I rid my car of every trace, angrily sweeping my arm across the hood, causing the pylon to tumble off and pushing the flowers, the letter, the tape onto the asphalt. I need to feel clean again.
The next day I return to church. Everyone reiterates he’s harmless. They think I am being irrational. What he is doing is not against the law; if anything, people tell me, it’s romantic. He continues teaching Sunday School.
I leave church. I leave God.
Late Eighties: Carson, Santa Barbara, and Long Beach, California
Kat’s white van is speeding north on the 101 freeway. I might have felt like O.J. Simpson on the lam, but that hasn’t happened yet. O.J. is still hawking rental cars for Hertz under a mask of respectability and we are on our way to Stampfest, a retreat Kat organizes for people who are passionate about carving rubber stamps out of erasers. Yeah, I know — so maybe it’s an obscure past-time but I am so excited. For three days we will all sit in one room on the leafy grounds of a former convent, carving stamps from morning until night.
I work for Kat. It is a dream job. Kat is like birthday cake with buttercream frosting and ice cream that you are prone to indulge in too much. She wears her curly black hair in a topknot, applies her false eyelashes with precision, and wears long, flowy dresses layered with colors and patterns that clash as much as they go together. They will blind you if aren’t careful. Kat runs a rubber stamp company and hosts an enormous convention for stampers. As a fad, rubber stamps will eventually be eclipsed by scrapbooking, but at this cultural moment people are obsessed with them, including me. Eraser carvers are an even more fanatical subgroup.
I got the job after Kat came in yet another shop in the mall I was working at. I was already a rubber stamper. By the time she walked in, Kat was a celebrity to me. When she entered the store the very first time I gasped, “Are you Kat Okamoto?” She was a little startled, but before she left, she offered me a job.
After a seemingly endless series of retail jobs, I was finally escaping the living death of shopping malls.
* * *
By now I have worked for Kat through most of college. This experience was more influential in attaining my degree than the assistance provided by financial aid or official advisors; the job paid for tuition and books while also keeping me out of debt. Kat, well, she kept me sane. She nurtured my budding creative spark and fed me chocolate hearts wrapped in pink foil whenever days were long or my spirits were down.
After a two-hour drive, we arrive at the retreat center. It is more beautiful than anything I have seen before. To get there, you drive past miles of blue ocean and then into the tree-lined former convent. All the structures on the site are in an old Spanish Colonial style — smooth stucco walls, terra cotta roofs, tile floors — all surrounded by lush greenery that reminds me that not all of California is a desert.
The hall where we set up evokes the atmosphere of a church and each of us there, a couple dozen or so, approach our projects with appropriate devotion. I help Kat set up, but then it is time to carve. Carving is labor-intensive and requires patience. Depending on the level of detail, one stamp might take all day. I carve from morning until night, carrying my carving-in-process to the communal dining hall at mealtimes. Along the shaded and sun-dappled paths of the former convent, I leave behind a trail of white eraser shavings.
The tall man assigned as host for our group welcomes us with witty rehearsed patter. Afterwards, as everyone wanders back to their work tables, I talk to him at length. He is about forty; I am in my early twenties. He’s telling me about a couple of books he’s written. I am easily impressed. I notice I’ve stopped carving, tool still in my hand.
It’s late. Our conversation winds down. I walk to my room on the second floor of the guest building. As I approach my door, he climbs the ivy-covered lattice from the ground up. The moment is perfect. We kiss. He bounds down the balcony and I go to bed.
When the retreat is over, I am riddled with guilt. I have a boyfriend back home. I tell the man who climbed up the ivy I can’t do this.
* * *
They are long, on thin onion skin paper, typed and single-spaced. He rambles about everything from esoteric subjects like Taoism and Tantra to recollections of our time together, admiration for my intellect and beauty, his desire to see me again. It is too much. His feelings are too intense, too ardent for the few hours we spent together over the course of a couple days. It disturbs me that he must have looked up my home address in the registration records at work. I vacillate on whether or not I should reply just to tell him to please stop. I worry that any kind of contact will just encourage him.
When I don’t write back, he sends my parents a letter — three pages back and front, typed and single-spaced. He begs them to convince me to talk to him. My parents are baffled. This letter makes me really nervous, even scared.
* * *
Tina, a friend from school, is sunshine, the taste of a freshly peeled tangerine, and the kind of bright, hallucinatory flowers you might see on a drug induced journey. She was born too late to be a flower child and by the time boho comes around we will both be well into middle age. It doesn’t matter. Tina is the prototype for both. We were both born in 1966.
It was Tina who first sent me a newspaper article about women born in our year, her handwritten scrawl asking, “Is this us?” In Asian astrology we are Fire Horses. The sign occurs only once in every 60 years. Being born a Fire Horse was considered so unfavorable for women — and just women — that in years when the Fire Horse makes its way through the cycle, birth rates dramatically drop. In 1966, the birth rate in Japan dropped by 15%. Females who are born that year are said to lie about their age if they want to be considered marriageable. Fire Horse women were believed to be this dangerous. I find I’m not displeased by the accusation.
I want to be strong, unassailable. I want no one to come near me.
* * *
I skip a student event on campus. Tina says an older man approached her there after talking to a few other students. She describes him as tall and intense. Without preamble, he asked if she knew me. He had to get in contact with me, he explained. He needed to see me. I was special.
I immediately know exactly who this man is — it has to be the retreat host. He drove two hours to track me down on campus. I have no idea how he found out about the event.
Failing his mission, he left a postcard in the department office — right out in the open where anyone could see. In ballpoint pen, the retreat host claimed he was dying and wants to leave me something.
I don’t believe he is dying. He is 20 years older than me, but that only puts him in his early 40s. He lives two hours away, so it took effort to attend this event. I certainly never mentioned it to him. Somehow he learned of it on his own. This isn’t a national or even regional gathering he might have heard about — just a departmental event at an unremarkable state teaching university in Long Beach, California (Long Beach could be thought of as Carson adjacent just as Carson is Compton adjacent). It’s not the sort of event that attracts outsiders. There is no such thing as the internet. Just finding out about it took some doing.
I am more than weirded out. What forty-year-old chases you down at school? Or writes your parents? And who writes they are dying on a postcard? Even Tina is weirded out by him. If sunshine, tangerines, and hallucinatory flowers don’t accept you, there is definitely something awry.
I call Kat to tell her about his relentless pursuit of me. She tells me a friend of hers recently had lunch with him. Their conversation apparently centered on how he was “courting” me. She agrees this is not courting.
She calls his employers. The ex-nuns at the retreat center agree his behavior isn’t appropriate. They will talk to him. Pronouncements of his impending death cease. And yet I can’t go to the retreat anymore. The nuns decide to keep him on and he lives on premises. There is nothing more I can do. There are still no laws against stalking.
So I destroy all his letters. I can’t abide their presence near me. They make me feel like the walls are closing in.
Early Twenty-Tens: Denver, Colorado
I am attending one of an endless series of meetings about a program I was recently hired to direct. Now just over forty, I am still idealistic. I believe in our mission and that all of us in this room are striving to help underserved students be successful. These students are who I once was and I am determined to help them. Pollyanna has nothing on my sincerity and optimism.
Nonetheless anxiety begins to bud in my belly; I sense and try to dismiss the political maneuvering that seems to be occurring just below the surface of the discussion. All this is taking place in a large conference room. There is a man at the table a few seats down; he is just one of the crowd but I notice him immediately.
As soon as I see him, I know he is my type. He has dark, wavy hair, dark eyes, and wears a crisp white shirt. His position at the university has to do with civic engagement so the idealistic dreamer in me places a halo glowing around his head. He smiles a lot and seems to get along with everyone, which already seems to be something of an oddity here. His physical presence is relaxed and at ease. Either he doesn’t feel the tension in the room or he isn’t affected by it.
He finds a reason to follow me back to my office right after the meeting. He tells me about his passions, which revolve around photography, journalism, and social justice. We talk about official matters, too: strategizing about how our programs can collaborate, that sort of thing. I am already in la-la land. Social justice, creativity, art — and those dark eyes. Be still my over forty-year-old divorced heart.
We begin meeting on campus for coffee. I give him rides to the bus on occasion. It should probably be noted that he gets on that bus to travel home to his wife.
Yes, I know. Shut up.
Our conversations evolve from brainstorming about work projects to the increasingly personal. He reveals to me that he and his wife have sexual problems. To me she sounds uptight.
Of course I think that. I am about to become the other woman.
After the first moment of physical contact, things progress quickly. He writes me long love letters — on paper, not email. He gives me a mix cd (Seriously, who does that anymore?) filled with songs that are soulful and plaintive. Stolen moments during breaks at work are filled with the kind of gazing into one another’s eyes that I haven’t experienced in years.
He tells me he loves me. He has decided, he says, to leave his wife.
I know, I know. Or I should. But his promises are so earnest and believable, even tangible: he’s consulted a divorce lawyer. I persist in ignoring my better judgment.
* * *
His wife finds out.
He is “out sick” for several days.
Midday, two police officers arrive at my tiny office.
They hand me a restraining order.
In it he is accusing me of forcing him to have sex seven times.
Yes. That means rape. Seven times over.
Time stops. All the air in my lungs depart. There are no rules at the university against co-workers getting romantically involved, unless they are in a supervisory relationship or unless the attention is unwanted, in which case it becomes sexual harassment — a dismissal-worthy offense. But the love letters, the stupid mix cd — surely my attention was welcome. How could it not have been? He consulted a divorce lawyer for god’s sake. Half the time contact was initiated by him. But there is more to consider.
Though an administrator, my faculty home was in Women’s Studies. Within feminist circles, the mantra is generally, “Believe the victim” because historically with sexual assault, victim-blaming has been the rule. And while most sexual assault is committed by men against women, we urge people to remember that men can and do get sexually assaulted and it is even harder for them to come forward because it is shameful to be a victim within the constraints of normative masculinity.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, incidents of false report are estimated to fall somewhere between 2 and 10%. And here I am, about to claim that a man who had the “courage” to come forward was lying.
Finally there are clear terms, clear parameters, and laws to protect us. They are laws that could have protected the young girl I once was, doggedly pursued by men twice my age, finding out where I live, leaving presents on my windowsill and writing letters to my parents. But those laws have become just another weapon in the arsenal of men whose path crosses mine.
He must know that this attack, this lie, could have repercussions far worse than the fear my stalkers once inspired. I feel the walls of my tiny office closing in on me. I peer out my doorway, worried someone saw the police at my door. There is always more to lose.
I feel the walls of my tiny office closing in on me. I peer out my doorway, worried someone saw the police at my door. There is always more to lose.
* * *
I hire an attorney. She is successful in having the restraining order withdrawn. She also receives a significant chunk of my single mother savings. And I worry what will happen if someone conducts a background check; while my former lover agrees to withdraw the complaint, I’ve been told the record of it will remain.
At the courthouse, though we speak at a distance and only through our attorneys, he decides to return a handmade gift I’d given him (a carved rubber stamp). When I ask his lawyer about the $500 camera I’d also given him, he walks a few yards around the corner to speak with his client. The lawyer returns and says simply, “He’s already sold it.”
Twenty Seventeen: In My Office With the Door Shut
I’ve resigned from my administrative post, mostly for the sake of my daughter. The hours are simply too long and inflexible. In the end, the neither the job or the salary was as important as the time I was losing with her. And the politics…
After more than seven years, I still don’t have many friends or sources of support in Colorado. My trust has been eroded from granite into sand. My idealism is tarnished. At work I hide in my office to stay out of everybody’s way. Listening to news on my laptop, the cadence of voices on NPR soothes me, no matter what horrible reality they describe. Between classes, I listen while staring blankly at my Caribbean blue wall.
When I returned to teaching and moved into this office, facilities, bless them, painted over the enormous school logo that covered that wall. The university has a worthwhile mission, but I don’t feel the need to make it my own anymore. I picked the color that now covers that mascot. When I have a free moment I can now sit for a few moments while looking upon the color of an azure blue sea I have never seen.
* * *
Summer comes. Though I am not paid, work never ceases. I review a pile of texts sent to me by publishers. Dutifully, I consider each for use in my courses. The process is tedious. I hold yet another volume in my hand but despite my weariness, the author’s name catches my eye…it’s familiar. But why? Curious, I search for it online.
The author is my second stalker. Now 71, he still resides in Santa Barbara. In his author photo, he appears relaxed. His tall, lanky frame leans against a wall outdoors somewhere, perhaps at that former convent.
The other stalker and the man who accused me of rape, both having left me with a legacy of anxiety and wariness that endures, have thankfully not reappeared.
At least I hope they haven’t.
Life Beyond: Legend is the Soil Where Truth Grows
The path in my dream is familiar. I walk along it draped in scarves of red, orange, and yellow like the vanishing sun. Subtle breezes lift one, covering half my face. A tall man, as familiar to me as this path even after so many years, approaches. His stride is confident and relaxed. While old, even frail, his mood is buoyant. Life has clearly been good to him.
We draw near. It becomes apparent that he doesn’t connect me to his relentless pursuit of a young girl long ago. He pauses. “You are lovely,” he says.
Pulling the stray scarf from my face I ask, “Even now?”
Curved, a smile as gentle as it is grotesque, my mouth has transformed — a fresh surgical incision sliced from ear to ear.
For women, smiling can be unavoidable, even in the worst circumstances. We smile to hide fear. We smile to conceal self-worth bruised yellow and purple. We smile at strangers chiding, “You’d be so pretty if you smiled,” never questioning their right to dictate our behavior.
Spirits break in ways devastatingly specific, each orchestration of destruction tailored to individual vulnerabilities. Finally, with knives, anguish endured while smiling is engraved onto our faces. For most, compared to injuries already inflicted, the pain is insignificant.
But once again, the message of my smile is lost, just as my words are often ignored or deliberately misconstrued.
The tall man gazes upon me in the fading light of dusk, noticing nothing. Oblivious to my mouth, its gaping wound, he sees what he wishes to see. “Yes, you are beautiful,” he affirms. Never has he looked upon me and seen anything but his desired delusion.
* * *
In Japan, if you happen to encounter the slit-mouthed woman, they say she will kill you mercilessly with scissors. Though I awaken before my dream reaches that moment, I can almost feel the cold steel of scissors still in my hand.
Sandra Mizumoto Posey is an Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexualities at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her published work includes academic articles on ethnographic research, pedagogy, and workplace issues, humorous essays, and creative nonfiction. Inevitably, no matter the genre, they are inevitably intensely personal. She earned her Ph.D. in Folklore at UCLA.
You can find her here for more downloadable articles and stories by Sandra.
Here excerpts and comics from her forthcoming book Post-Apocademia.
Here for an ongoing reposting of Sandra’s weekly comic from the nineties.
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