Fernando Alvarez Died
Fernando Alvarez died.
I read it in the obituary section of our daily newspaper. A brief notice – succinct, neutral, little more than a paragraph. He died in his home. Alone. Who dared find him? Anyone?
As soon as I read the notice, an image popped into my mind. Not of Fernando, but of myself years earlier, beautifully attired in a green and red paisley dress, waiting at my desk in my office during the early hours of the morning, trembling, wanting it all to be over, wanting Fernando to disappear forever from the fourth floor of Mason Hall.
I worked with Fernando Alvarez for four years. He was a professor and I was the academic advisor in the department where he taught, a job for which I was not specifically trained, but a position that I gratefully accepted in order to supplement my husband’s academic salary and my own sporadic free-lance theatre endeavors. Fernando’s office was next door to my own and for the first three years I worked there, he and I exchanged affable greetings as well as stories of my three children and his youngest child, Manuel, an almost blind boy who came to the office with him every other Friday.
The walls of Fernando’s office were covered with photographs of his grown children: two from his first wife in Argentina, five from his second (whom he declared the love of his life and still his best friend), and little Manuel from his third, a much younger woman, also from Argentina, who left him when Manuel was a toddler.
In our short conversations, I learned that he met his third wife in Argentina when he returned a decade earlier to visit his children there. She was the best friend of his oldest daughter and, according to him, he fell madly in love with her, wooed her and whisked her back to small town, large state university America. His second wife, from whom he wasn’t yet divorced, welcomed the third and did not object when Fernando and his young bride-to-be moved into the house next door to her and their five children, all still at home. According to Fernando, the two wives and the crowd of children lived together, side by side, quite happily. He seemed perplexed as to why this living arrangement did not successfully continue. Why had his third wife abandoned him when their little one was at such a tender age? Why had his second wife left for a job in Washington, D.C. after the last of their brood had gone to college? Why was he so alone?
Fernando insisted he was close to each of his children. They worshipped him, he believed, and he adored them, especially the youngest, Manuel.
Yet in our conversations, I noticed that, with the exception of Manuel, he did not refer to his children or his grandchildren, except to note that he had them. As time went by, I understood that he and his offspring rarely, if ever, communicated. I also noticed that few people entered Fernando’s office. No colleague stopped by to chat, no student lingered at his door.
When my husband fell terminally ill, I struggled to maintain my duties in the department, but my focus was on my dying partner and my precious, vulnerable children. My husband, Bob, endured five brain surgeries, two experimental clinical procedures, and many months hospitalized and away from our children. I was always with him, so my time was diminished with the children, and even more so in regard to my job. After sixteen months of illness, at the age of forty-eight, Bob died at home. I was forty-five. Our children were sixteen, twelve, and nine years of age. Left without him, we were a devastated clan, a family torn, clinging to one another.
On the day of Bob’s funeral, I donned the lovely green and red paisley dress he had given me one joyful Christmas morning years before. It was a faux suit but with a flowing skirt, at once feminine and tailored. I had worn it only on extraordinarily special occasions and when I did, I felt gorgeous. His funeral was indeed a special occasion, but I felt anything but gorgeous. I knew that later I’d have it dry cleaned, then put it away forever. Save it, but store it. I didn’t feel that I could bear to wear it ever again.
After Bob’s death, it took me a few weeks to find my way back to work. My two youngest children fell ill, my oldest son simply fell away -- from me, from his siblings, from his friends, from school, from life. I was stunned, grief-stricken, aimless. My relationship with Bob had endured for over twenty-five years. We met young, married young, attended graduate school together, traveled extensively on practically nothing, and finally had our first child after eight years of marriage. Bob’s academic pursuits left us debt-ridden and financially struggling, but we ploughed through those encumbrances and deeply, tenderly loved one another and our children.
When I at last returned to work, I discovered my attention span ran no longer than ten minutes. Rather than take the elevator, I walked the four flights each morning, for it helped me to briefly focus and it tired me in a manner different from the way my sleepless nights and befuddled days exhausted me.
Months of distraction passed before I felt an adolescent-like energy awaken in me. Suddenly, I believed I understood the complexity and power of simply existing, of being alive. I walked five miles or more per day. I jogged. I danced alone in my bedroom while I waved two ten pound weights above my head as if they were feathers – the door locked, the music so loud I could hear nothing that was going on in the rest of the house. I lost the weight I had gained during my husband’s illness. My arms grew strong and toned. I wore belted dresses and showed a tiny bit of cleavage. I pierced my ears and sported dangling earrings. I drove too fast. I drank too much red wine. I was filled with a frantic vitality that seeped from every pore of me. Raw and vulnerable, open and wounded, disconcertingly (for the first time in my life) fearless, I was grateful to have survived, grateful to be alive.
People react to such vigor.
And Fernando Alvarez decided I was the next woman for him.
In the mornings, soon after I climbed the four flights of stairs to the fourth floor, he lingered at my door, searching for topics of conversation. At first, I was flattered by his attentions. But at the time, I was flattered by the attentions of many – men, women, children who reached out to me in pure forms of sympathy and compassion and others who simply responded to the intensity of my new-found energy.
Weeks passed and Fernando inched into my office, standing too close to me, his face hovering above mine as he leaned toward me and touched my arm, my shoulder. Although he offered no words of sympathy, I nevertheless thought he was trying to cheer me, soothe me in his particular way through his attentions and suggestions. I considered him a grandfatherly colleague and friend. Later, but before he began to say things, I wondered if and when I began to date again, for I knew I would, I would find men twenty years older than me interesting. But I often thought in such ways. Would that plump fellow be attractive to me in a year’s time? Could that younger man, the non-traditional student, be someone I could date in a year, after I was better, after he graduated? Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t that be a relief, a liberation from the sadness I had endured?
Then Fernando began to say those things.
“You and I are the same,” he whispered one day, beside me at the Xerox machine.
“How so, Fernando?” I asked, gathering my copies and attempting to move around him.
“I lost three wives to divorce, and you lost a husband to . . . whatever . . .”
I stopped, shocked. “Death, Fernando,” I said. “I lost my husband to death.”
“Whatever,” he said again, shrugging his shoulders, shuffling away.
Another day, I stood in the doorway to my office, speaking to a student. When Fernando exited the elevator, he moved toward my door while the student retreated. I backed into my office. We were face- -to-face, too close, as he completely blocked my doorway. He squinted his eyes, inches away from my own. “I got an ugly face,” he said. “But I got a wunnerful body.” He placed his hands on his hips and shimmied a little while I stood, alarmed and transfixed, speechless. I didn’t move. I stared at him until at last, seemingly embarrassed, he walked to his own office as I rushed through my door into the corridor, feeling as if I had escaped someone ill-intentioned, something malevolent.
A few days later, I spoke on the telephone to a friend, arranging a place to meet for lunch. When I hung up, Fernando stood again in my doorway. “Going to lunch?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, sensing what was coming.
“I’ve been thinking of inviting you to lunch,” he said.
I was silent.
I remained silent. He stood, smiling rapaciously.
“Well,” I smiled, not wanting to hurt his feelings, “Not today!”
As I rose to gather my things, he shrugged his shoulders and ambled off, not saying another word. But at the bottom of the four flights of stairs, he waited for me. “I thought I’d walk you to your car,” he crooned.
This was the first moment I fully accepted that Fernando’s attentions toward me were not platonic or paternal. I chided myself. How had I not figured it out? Were my powers of discretion so weak, so clouded by grief, so muted by intense energy and distraction that I could not notice what was so clearly there before me?
I began to hear stories about Fernando. How he spoke to his wife in a tone of blatant misogyny at a dinner party, behaving toward her as if she were his servant, or worse, an unruly, unloved, maltreated dog. How he jumped around on the sidelines of the soccer fields, his sons playing, he cheering them on while his same wife, the second one, sat on a lawn chair nearby, her eyes shielded by sunglasses on an overcast day, her arms encased in long sleeves, her legs in long pants on broiling hot days. Yet the bruises and cuts and bumps still peeked out from the edge of the glasses and the cuffs of her sleeves and pants.
At the end of the semester, in a casual conversation with others, I mentioned that I was considering buying a house, perhaps in the fall. I was urged and instructed by many to refrain from making any huge changes in my life or the lives of my children until a full year had passed after my husband’s death. With a few months short of this hard and momentous anniversary, I began to explore possibilities.
Fernando, alone in his office as always, overheard this conversation and almost immediately appeared in my doorway. “I gotta house I can sell you!” he announced.
“Do you?” I said politely. He nodded exuberantly. “Well, give me the address and maybe I’ll drive by and take a look,” I said, knowing I was not interested in the house he was speaking of, the very house where he had put the third wife next to the house of the second wife, after he had of course divorced the second to marry the third.
“Oh no, I’ll take you there. We’ll go together, and I’ll show you everything about it. It’s a wunnerful house,” and again, he shimmied a little, as he had the day he spoke of his body. “I’ll give you my phone number,” he went on, walking to my desk and hovering above me, edging closely, his face moving too near my own. He wrote his number on a piece of scrap paper and placed it in my hand, curling my fingers around it. As he strutted off, he looked back over his shoulder and flashed his best smile, “Call me soon! I’ll pick you up!”
Straightaway, another colleague appeared at my door, looked over his shoulder as he urgently walked toward me, sat on the edge of the chair next to my desk, and whispered, “Molly, I overheard your exchange with Fernando. Please, please under no circumstance must you go with him, or even meet him at his house. Under no circumstance must you go there or anywhere, for that matter, with him. Understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
A few moments later, Kelly, the chair of the department, came into my office. “Molly, I hear that Fernando has been, well, speaking to you in a certain way . . . would you call this harassment?”
I stared at him. “I don’t think so. I mean, I can handle his comments.”
“Would you like to make a complaint?”
I continued to stare at him. “It’s the end of the semester,” I said. “I won’t see him until the fall, and really, his comments are suggestive, but they’re not, well they’re not outrageous.”
Kelly looked askance. “Document it, O.K.? Write down those things he says that make you uncomfortable.”
I agreed. But word spread. Others had noticed Fernando’s attentions toward me and so they appeared, warning me of what he did to women, what he had done to his wives, how he behaved toward his female students.
Most of the instructors, including Fernando, disappeared for the summer, and I did not give Fernando Alvarez another thought. But in August, when the university fall semester began, he idled in my office doorway yet again. As I sat in my office chair, behind my desk, looking up at him as he muttered, “Hello! You didn’t call!” I knew I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him. I stood and walked purposefully toward my door, toward him.
“Excuse me, Fernando, I have a meeting.”
He dramatically flattened himself against the doorframe.
“By all means,” he said, bowing and extending his arm, as if he were rolling out the red carpet for me. “How was your summer, by the way?”
“Good, and yours?” I asked, not making eye contact with him and walking on, beyond him, into the hallway and down the stairs.
For three weeks I was polite, detached, cool. When he attempted to engage me, I walked away from him, out of my office if he cornered me there.
Then one day, as I opened the door to the stairwell to leave for the day, I heard someone shout my name.
“Molly!” I stopped and turned toward the source of the voice, attempting to discern who it was. The corridor was crowded with students and professors at the end of the day, chatting in clusters of two or three. Through them, I saw Fernando, his eyes catching mine. “You’ve changed!” he bellowed, waving his hand over his head.
“Yes!” I said, raising my voice. “For the better! I’m healing!”
I didn’t linger to hear his response. I dashed down the four flights of stairs, a little shaken, hoping that I was free of Fernando at last.
The following week, late on a Friday morning, with no one in the office except me and the two secretaries, a distressed student exited the elevator and crossed the corridor to my office.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I need to talk to someone. Can I speak to you?”
As the young man took a seat, I noticed his hands shaking uncontrollably.
“It’s about Professor Alvarez,” he said, his voice unsteady. “I just left his class. I walked out. I have to tell you, he’s mean to all of us, but he’s especially mean to women. A few minutes ago, he took a girl out into the hallway and screamed at her. We all heard what he said. He called her names. He degraded her. She began to cry, and she was still crying when he brought her back into the classroom. She failed to turn in her project that was due today, but she showed up for class. I couldn’t take it. I had to leave. He did the same thing to another girl in class last week. Exactly the same.”
I steadied myself. “Well, you should speak to the chair of the department about this, but it would be better if the young women involved would come forward.”
“I don’t know if they would,” he said. “All of the girls are frightened of him.”
I heard the elevator door open and turned my head to see Fernando walk past my office. Then he backed up and peered in, first at the student, then at me.
His eyes returned to the student as he roared, “YOU!” and pointed his finger at him. “You stupid idiot. Get back to class NOW! NOW! You have no right . . .” and he entered my office, charging the student, his arm raised as if he were going to strike him.
“Fernando!” I said, rising and standing between the two of them. “Stop it!” Fernando halted, his hand above his head. I took the student’s arm. “You need to leave,” I said, gently pushing him toward the door and out into the hall. I turned to Fernando, “And you need to leave as well, Fernando.”
He stepped out of my office as if he were going to his own, and I stepped in, the student safely on the elevator. He then turned back to me and filled the doorway, as he had so many times in the past. “Molly!” he said, and I turned fully to face him. He pushed his face into my own, bending slightly over me. His pupils disappeared as he spoke to me in a growl, covering my eyes, my cheeks, my lips, my nose in his spittle. “You are a worm,” he said, an almost inhuman moan following his words. “You are dirt under my feet. I could step on you. I could crush you. You worm. You nothing.”
I stumbled back, away from his eerie, threatening gaze, his quaking with rage body, and the spray of his saliva. Through the doorway I edged past him and staggered to the departmental office where Rose, the department secretary and Nancy, Kelly’s secretary, stood stunned.
Fernando hesitated only briefly, then came after me. I don’t remember if he pressed his body maliciously against mine, or if he stood a distance apart and continued his torrent of abuse. I know I kept backing away and finally turned away, locking eyes with Rose, the older of the two secretaries. I gathered myself. I turned back to him.
“Return to your class, Fernando,” I said firmly and fiercely.
He stopped. “What? You dare to speak to ME in such a manner . . .”
“Go to class!” I demanded, hearing my voice rise in both fear and anger. “Get out of here NOW!”
Fernando looked from me to Rose to Nancy and back to me, staggering away from us before he turned to the elevator and hit the down button forcibly. It’s difficult, however, to make a dramatic exit on an elevator and so we stood, glaring at one another, silent now as the elevator made its slow ascent to the fourth floor, rang merrily, and parted its doors for him to enter.
When the door closed, only when it closed, I turned to Rose and Nancy.
“Are you O.K.?” Nancy asked.
“I think so.” I felt my knees give. I stood for a moment, took a few deep breaths, found my way back to my office, closed my door, locked it, and sat before my computer.
I attempted to detach myself. Somehow, I wrote in plain language what had transpired: the student, the conversation between the two of us, the entrance of Fernando, the interchange between the three of us, and then the threatening and abusive language of Fernando. I did not exaggerate. I did not say what I thought, that if Fernando could have hit me without legal recourse, he would have done so.
When I completed what I hoped was a factual report, I printed it, copied it, and inserted it in the chair’s mailbox.
I called a friend. She said, “Come,” and I fled the fourth floor, the empty faculty offices, the flustered secretaries.
By the time I reached my friend’s house, I could not stop crying, and I couldn’t stop talking, repeatedly describing the confrontation. Ironically, I felt guilty. Had I led Fernando on? When Fernando first began to pay attention to me, I was flattered. In my freshly widowed state, possessed of a desperate but what many called “charming” energy, I received flattering attentions from many men, but none so suggestive or insensitive as Fernando’s. Soon I was no longer flattered, but annoyed and then cautious. Had I not given him clear messages that I was not interested in him? Now I was terrified, for I understood that his verbal violence toward me had nothing to do with the student. The student’s presence merely motivated Fernando’s words and actions toward me, a woman who resisted his advances. And perhaps, for whatever hidden reason, this was a reflection of his attitude toward all women.
Bewildered and babbling, I sat at my friend’s kitchen table until it was time to collect my children from the school bus. I remember her kindness, her reassurance, and her sympathy, but I remember little else about the remainder of that day. I must have gathered the children. I know I visited my neighbors, sat on their porch, drank a beer and told them the story.
In the evening, over dinner, I warned my children, as gently as possible, about Fernando. And I know on Saturday morning I awoke in a cold sweat, terrified that Fernando would show up at the door of my house and, this time, physically harm me, physically harm my children.
The day crept by. My sons went their separate ways and my daughter was invited to a neighbor’s home to play.
I visited the same friends I’d seen the afternoon before. They lived less than half a block away, and, as usual when the children were away and I too was out, I left the back door open. But as I sat with my neighbors, again rehashing the events of the previous day, I realized that my level of anxiety was extreme and I needed to be at home in case Fernando walked into our house, awaiting whomever arrived, his evil intentions toward us honed to transform into actions. As I ran home, I told myself my fears were irrational, yet as I dashed through the back door into an eerily quiet house, my fear was loud, intense, burning me up from the inside out. Why had I left the door unlocked under these circumstances? Why had I been so careless?
I called my daughter’s name. Nothing. Something felt wrong. So wrong. Someone was in the house. Or had been. Again, I called her name. Again, no one responded.
I bolted from the house, rushed down the street, and there she was, still playing happily with her friend. “Mama?” she asked, alarmed, noticing my frantic expression.
We walked home. I dreaded re-entering. The boys had returned, the television was blaring. They looked up as we came in. All seemed normal. Still, I searched every corner, every crevice of our huge old house. No one was there, except us.
We were safe.
For now. I would keep the doors locked. I would make a key for each child.
The next morning, Sunday, I again awoke sweating, my heart pounding. I jumped from my bed, checked the children, checked the locks on the doors.
I looked up Kelly’s home telephone number and called him. He had not returned to the office on Friday afternoon. He had not read my report.
So I told him.
“Fernando’s the kind of person who would quietly come up to the fourth floor with a machine gun and shoot us all,” he said.
He asked me if I’d like to come with my children to stay at his home with his family. For a moment, I almost accepted his invitation. I had been alarmed enough to call him at home, but was I terrified enough to gather my children and retreat to his house? Forty-eight hours had passed since my confrontation with Fernando, and he had not appeared at my door or in a corner of my house or in the recesses of the basement. Was I overreacting? Was I imagining the severity of this situation?
“Thank you, but no. I have friends nearby. I can go to them if necessary,” I assured him. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, even though I did not see how I could return to the fourth floor of Mason Hall the next morning.
On Monday morning I awoke petrified of what I would find when I rose from bed. Had Fernando gained entry to my house, harmed my children, killed my cats? Again, I assured myself I was overreacting and, after checking the children and searching the house, I dressed to go to work. But as I drove to the university, I decided not to go to Mason Hall, but to the University Police instead. I walked in, explained Friday’s events and, when I was done, the policeman asked, “Is this man from a South American country?”
I nodded. Clearly, others had complained of Fernando, reported him, sought help where, I soon learned, there was no help.
Fernando had not struck me, had not physically harmed me. As a result, the police could do nothing. I could claim sexual harassment, but I needed documentation, and that would not go through the police, but through a university office.
From the police station, I telephoned Kelly, who I presumed had now read my account. When he understood where I was, he first hesitated, then his voice grew cold. “Why did you go to the police?” he asked. “We can handle this in-house.”
But I had begun the process. I was afraid. My office was next door to Fernando’s, and it was clear to me that Kelly, for whatever reason, was no longer sympathetic to what I had endured or supportive of my efforts to right the wrong.
So I left the police station and went directly to the University Ombudsman. When I barged into her office in tears, she was calm, cautious, and ultimately sympathetic. I struggled to control my emotions. With Kelly’s change of attitude and the inability of the police to take action, I felt powerless and vulnerable. What was I to do? Would my position as an academic advisor be plucked away from me? I needed my job, not only for financial reasons, but because it provided me a sort of cradle, a support as I found my way out of loss, grief, and confusion. I was forced to interact with others in a manner that was anything but self-absorbed. I was partly responsible for a few hundred students and their academic careers.
Would this be taken from me?
The Ombudsman wanted a copy of the letter I’d written to Kelly. But it was on my computer in my office. I’d not taken a copy with me when I left Friday early afternoon. But the thought of returning to the fourth floor of Mason Hall paralyzed me.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
Very few people were there. The secretaries bustled behind the front desk and a few faculty office doors were open. Kelly’s office door was closed, a sign that he wasn’t in. I unlocked my door, glancing apprehensively at Fernando’s door, also closed, beside mine. I flipped on my computer and printed out a copy of the letter. With no further ado, and with merely a nod at Rose and Nancy, we left.
That week I stayed home except once when I met Kelly in front of Mason Hall and he accompanied me up the elevator to his office. I had so wanted to return to work that week, to what had been the safety of my office, the bustle of business on the fourth floor. But I knew if I did, nothing would change. All would continue as it had, and it would be me avoiding Fernando, not him avoiding me. I knew too that our students would continue to experience abuse and humiliation from him, as they had for years.
In Kelly’s office, I re-enacted the interaction with Fernando. The more I spoke, and I was extremely emotional, I sensed that he grew less and less convinced. I saw him physically recoil from me, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his office chair sliding back away from me as I spoke.
At the end, exhausted, I sat, knowing full well I didn’t want to hear what he would say. He huddled in his chair, the broad desk between us, his face red with anger. “The secretaries, both of them, said you were the aggressor in this situation. You were the one who instigated this. It was you who screamed at him, hurled abuse toward him, not the other way around. He has his issues, I admit, but he’s been a good faculty member and he’s respected by his colleagues.”
My mouth fell open. I was riveted by fear, confused by anger and a sense of injustice and betrayal.
“Personally,” he said, “I think you’re both sick, and you both need help. Now tell me, what are your intentions here?”
I stood. “I have written a letter, expressing the changes I need in order to work here. The Ombudsman will deliver it.”
I slipped from his office, confused and struggling to understand why Kelly had changed so in his attitude toward me and this situation. Had Rose and Nancy truly said I was the instigator? Did they lie? Had I been the one to misperceive? Had my dismissal of Fernando from my office been a form of provocation? Had I, as Kelly implied, wanted a fiery confrontation? Instinctively, I began to count the number of men on the fourth floor who had worked closely with Fernando throughout their careers. I could only surmise that they were attempting to “protect” Fernando as he neared the end of his run.
Clearly I was a threat.
And clearly, there was some sort of consensus amongst them that the threat should be squelched.
And Rose and Nancy? The lowest priorities were Rose and Nancy, Rose in her seventies and Nancy stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Neither of them were paid well, neither of them could afford to retire, and neither of them would easily find other work.
I found my way home and amended the letter I had already begun. Only this time I made crucial demands. Fernando would be removed from the fourth floor. I demanded he never be allowed on the fourth floor or in my presence again. If student concerns arose in regard to him, someone else would deal with them. I then gave the letter to the Ombudsman and she delivered it to Kelly.
For the remainder of the week, I waited. At one point, I felt like returning to the fourth floor, finding Fernando in his barren office, entering it, sitting across from him and apologizing to him. Apologizing if I had “led him on,” apologizing for his own sad past, apologizing for the horrible, humiliating consequences it produced for each of us. Apologizing, in effect, for his behavior and my response to it.
It was an irrational impulse and I knew it, and I knew I wouldn’t do it. I wanted calm. I wanted my life back, not as it had been before Fernando’s accost of me, but my life as it had been before my husband fell ill and died. Comfort. Security. Safety from individuals, mainly men, with agendas. Bob and marriage and partnership protected me from all of that.
What I wanted was what I couldn’t have.
On Friday, Kelly telephoned me. Although he wouldn’t meet the demands of my letter, he thought perhaps I wouldn’t have to worry about it because during the week, in my absence, Fernando had submitted his retirement papers. He would be gone by the end of the semester – early December. But, Kelly asked politely, would I be able to deal with him until then, especially if certain “rules” were initiated?
The “rules” involved me signing a document, as would Fernando, that stated that neither of us would contact or speak to the other. We must always avoid each other, not be in the same room together, even the corridor, or the mailroom, or the workroom. If a student situation required collaboration or discussion between the two of us, Kelly would intervene. Fernando and I would never again interact.
The document, Kelly explained, would be written in such a manner that neither one of us would be blamed or held responsible for what occurred. In truth, it had been a sort of combustible event, one that erupted out of nowhere, out of nothing. Unless I wanted to cast blame on an old man at the end of his career, I should sign the document, steer clear of him, and be done with it, free of him by December.
I waved my white flag. I surrendered. The vision of normality called me, and I agreed to sign the document.
On Monday morning, I wore the dress that I wore to my husband’s funeral one year previously. As I drove to work, I felt as if I was attending another funeral, one that marked the death of the supportive and easy come and go atmosphere on the fourth floor of Mason Hall. The death of what I felt were healthy, collegial relationships. The death of my innocence. I’d been lucky in my interactions with men, and no man had ever behaved toward me as had Fernando, or as had Kelly.
When I arrived at my office in my funeral garb, I sat somberly at my desk, the door locked, waiting. My mind was muddled. I was exhausted, frightened, and ashamed. Why, I asked myself, why was I ashamed? Had it been me, in the end, who was to blame for all of this?
When the tap came at my door, I opened it to Kelly, he as somber as I.
We sat across from one another, me behind my desk, he in the chair where students sat. I read the document and I signed it. There would be no punishment for Fernando. As stated in the document, no one was to blame. Rather, we both were equally responsible for the “misunderstanding.”
When it was done, Kelly hesitated. He looked down at his hands, now holding the signed document. “I’m sorry if I did what I shouldn’t have done, and I’m sorry if I didn’t do what I should have done.”
I said nothing. I only looked at him until he uncomfortably rose and left the room. I followed him to the door, locking it behind him. I felt mingled shame and relief. Should Fernando have been ousted in embarrassment rather than retired with some modicum of respect? Had I done the right thing in succumbing to a faulty document, even though – presumably – he would never again abuse a student? And women? Should I have fought his abuse to the bitter end? Should I have challenged Kelly, who feared what was right more than he feared what was wrong? In my succumbing, did I display the same lack of character as had Kelly?
As planned, Fernando retired at the end of the fall semester. We managed to avoid each other, but I ceased to go to work early or stay late or even leave my door open, as I had done the four years I had worked there. Students were forced to knock, then I rose and opened the door. After a student left, I locked it. Only two faculty members came to my door during the semester to check on me. One asked, “Are you OK?” Another said, “Everything OK now?” In conversation, no one referred to the incident, or to Fernando, or to me. I never filled out leave papers for the week I was away, and I was never asked to do so.
Instead of a retirement party for Fernando, one day before finals, faculty and staff brought snacks and placed them on the counter in the workroom, which was on the other side of my office from Fernando’s. No one made a speech. There was no ceremony. No congratulations. No words of commendation or appreciation. Only chips and dips and bottles of Sprite and Diet Coke to mark his departure into retirement.
When he was gone, he was gone. Someone else immediately moved into his office and another individual was hired to replace him. As far as I know, he never returned to the fourth floor of Mason Hall, at least not while I was there.
Yet I often saw Fernando in the community, pedaling his old bicycle through the streets of our town, standing in line at the bank, sitting alone on a bench at the mall, buying a soda and a bag of chips at the grocery store. He was always alone. Always. As the years passed, he grew a bit stout, his hair long and gray. The last few years he abandoned the bicycle, following the same routes on foot as he had biked.
And then, one late summer morning, before the obituary appeared in September, I drove to the local farmer’s market on a particularly busy Saturday morning. Because the parking lot surrounding the market was crowded, I parked a few blocks away. As I crossed the street, a car pulled up to the intersection. The late morning sun shone in my eyes, but I saw that the driver of the car was a man making an elaborate rolling and waving gesture with his hand, motioning for me to cross. After I crossed, I sensed the car turn and slow beside me, almost to a stop. “Ladies first,” a voice flirtingly rang out from within. I turned, already saying “Thank you” when I saw the driver was Fernando. As soon as he saw my face, he turned his head and pressed on the accelerator, distancing himself from me as quickly as possible. It had been almost thirteen years since we’d last spoken on the fourth floor of Mason Hall.
I can’t say I felt shaken, seeing him face-to-face, speaking to him – even inadvertently after all of those years. I can’t say I didn’t feel shaken, either. In the years since, I had finally begun to not necessarily avoid him when I saw him, but rather simply pretend I did not know him. As he aged, he seemed a pitiful figure, a harmless and lonely old man. I reminded myself he had been brutal to me, insulted female and male students beyond measure, and physically battered his many wives, probably other women as well.
When I read the obituary a few weeks later, I admittedly felt relieved. Never again would I bump into Fernando about town, or be concerned as to how I would or would not react to him if I did. But I felt something else, something that surprised me. I felt sorrow. Not sorrow because he was gone, but sorrow for what had occurred between us, and sorrow for the kind of human being he was. In the obituary, I read that his mother’s name was Fernanda.
He had been named for his mother.
At birth, there was nothing horrible or mean or cruel or despicable about Fernando. He had been a fresh, innocent baby and his parents named him, for whatever reason, after his own mother. A tender salute to her, or so it seemed to me.
What sorrowed me was Fernando’s transformation from an exquisite, harmless newborn to the forlorn and alone old man he was at the end. And in between? Those battered wives, battered children, battered women, battered students, battered colleagues, battered me . . .
I survived Fernando with no physical mark, but with the mental and emotional understanding that such men exist. Such men wield what they view as their God-given rights over women and creatures, perceived or misperceived, as weaker, more fragile than they. And yet . . . Fernando was named for his mother. Fernando had been a child, born to a world that would groom him to be what he became, then forsake him so that he died rejected and alone, unloved by those who should have loved him best, in a dim apartment with no one to notice or care he was gone.