The morning following the first day of orientation I rolled over and depressed the button on my alarm clock before it had even beeped twice. There was no need for me to roll over and try to sleep again. I knew it was hopeless, had known since about 4:30 a.m. that refreshing unbroken sleep wasn’t on the menu for the night. I was too tightly wound from the day before, my dreams filled with images of the Bird Man running on his toes, his arms outstretched in a mimicry of flight. In dream after dream I had watched him, awed and frightened, as he crossed the bridge over the Mississippi River, careening closer and closer to the edge. In normal waking hours the sight of the homeless man pretending to be a bird hadn’t been that terrifying, but as it was a nightmare, different rules applied. In the land of dreams my feet had been known to turn into lead and sometimes I lost my wits and just couldn’t make it to the school bus. In that aspect my nightmare didn’t disappoint—there were no walls on the oft-used walking bridge and no railings to keep the Bird Man from falling to his death with his arms outstretched. I thought about the way the Mississippi looked from the height of the bridge, like a crouching blue beast that could drown you or sweep you far beyond the reach of help or care. It could be said that the Bird Man, whatever his true name was, had already been swept away, but I wasn’t worried about him. I was worried about me.
If I was feeling a little on edge lately, I had my reasons. That summer I had started a new job and a new relationship. Neither had gone well. I had also started driving my first car, a used, fluorescent orange, 1976 Plymouth Horizon stick shift that liked to break down in traffic, and I was riddled with concerns about the future. I was heading to college carrying the weight of expectations-my parents hopes for me, as well as my own. What was I going to do with my life and how long did I have to figure it out? Would my dad really kick me off the front porch with his cowboy boot the way he’d always said? High School had been an ordered world, governed by bells, schedules, administration, rules, teachers, and parents. College was…well, different. It was, to use my mother’s phrase, “a different animal.” It was hard to know what to expect.
My Mom dropped me off at the University again in front of Coffman Memorial Union with the understanding that she would pick me up there after work. Once inside, I followed signs that led me to the Great Hall in the basement of the building. I could see already that today would have a different flavor from yesterday. For one thing, there were no tours scheduled, meaning the mentally ill and homeless population would likely not be on display. For another, the cute boy sporting the beret and the scowl were nowhere to be seen. Not that I cared. Who needs to be around someone like that? I thought to myself as I scanned the crowd. Speculating that the day might be boring and wondering if I would need to get a Coke to fight off drowsiness, I found a chair and sat down.
Once again, the day took a left turn.
I was comfortably ensconced in my chair, scribbling notes about available University services, when our speaker, an upperclassman named Dave, said something that pierced my drowsy note-taking daze: “I was with my girlfriend at my dorm when a guy who met us in the hallway squeezed her breast.” I immediately woke up. What? Did I hear…’breast?’ I opened my folder, barely stopping myself from looking for breast squeezing on the agenda. Really, how did we get here? Meanwhile, Dave was still talking: “We found out who he was and reported the incident. Because we took action, both he and his parents were informed of his charges that weekend. So girls, you don’t have to put up with being sexually harassed.” At the conclusion of his speech a woman took the floor and, in what I considered a stunning change of topic, started talking about the novel, Gone with the Wind:
“In our culture we’ve been taught to think that women don’t get to say no or that when they are overpowered by a man that they like it. Consider what happens in Gone with the Wind. There is this grand scene that everyone remembers from the movie: Rhett kisses Scarlett and carries her up those wide red stairs against her will. He takes her to bed and he rapes her…You know the part where Scarlett wakes up the morning after and she’s smiling? Well, it doesn’t really happen like that. It only perpetrates the myth out there that women enjoy being raped, being forced into sex…”
I listened, dismayed. I had thought the day had taken a left turn, but really we were in the midst of an all-out skid. Gone with the Wind was one of my favorite books. When my high school English teacher looked down his snobby nose at the story, I took up the cause and argued the merits of the book. I’d read it twice, talked about it with my mom, and watched the movie several times. I believed with conviction that whatever his problems, Rhett loved Scarlett, loved her terribly. But—he raped her? I’d been at the University only two days and I was learning so many things already, none of them academic. I added the mental pictures of the drunk squeezing Dave’s girlfriend’s breast and the image of Scarlett O’Hara waking up with a happy smile the morning after to the memories from yesterday. Then the woman who had dragged Scarlett and Rhett into the arena of sexual ethics said something that I’d rather not remember with another mental image.
“Girls, you have the right to say no. Even if his penis is only an inch from your vagina, you still have the right to say no and he has to listen to you!”
I was still mulling over this declaration when I noticed that we had all moved down a little further in our chairs. Thinking it over now, I wish that I’d remembered the study groups. Once again the information I really needed had been overshadowed by shocking sights and language, especially considering that the closest I came to a sexual experience for my first three years as a student was when someone handed me a condom and wished me a “safe Friday night.”
At last the day was over. My head aching from the tedium of sitting through endless speakers and completing reams of paperwork, I exited Coffman Union and headed for one of the benches by the bus stop. I looked at the sky, squinting at the blanket of bright white clouds. I caught some movement in the corner of my eye and shifted my gaze. It was a guy, riding towards me on a red ten-speed bicycle. As he neared me, he slowed, his wheels making a familiar ticking sound. “Hi,” he said, “my name’s Stan.” A native of Poland, he had come here to go to college–and to date as much as possible, I surmised. With no further preamble, he gave me his phone number with the hope that I might call him sometime and accept his invitation to visit his apartment. It was probably the kindest gesture I’d experienced during the last two days, but as I shyly looked into his broad, homely face, I knew I would never be interested in his offer. Just because he had asked didn’t mean I had to go, I thought to myself. Inside I was rolling my eyes at the object lesson: I did have the right to say no.
Just then my mom pulled up. I told Stan goodbye and headed to the car. “Who were you talking to?” my mom asked as soon as I’d gotten in.
“Oh, some guy who wants me to visit him at his apartment,” I answered, fingering the scrap of paper he had given me. His name and phone number were written in an untidy scrawl and they smeared a little as I worried the paper between my thumb and forefinger.
“Are you going to?” I could tell from her voice that she didn’t think it was a very palatable option.
“No,” I said tiredly, as I leaned back against the seat.
The words were barely out of my mouth when Stan rode his bike in front of our car at the red light. He raised his arm and waved like a beauty queen on a parade float. My mom huffed a laugh at the funny sight.
I sighed and relaxed in my seat. I was ready to go home. Just before we pulled away I turned my head to look out the passenger window. The boy in the beret was sitting where I had been on the bench. He met my eyes and smirked.