One of the old questions I’ve had to confront is why I’m still alive.
In college I became instant friends with this guy, the kind of friendship you form when you’re nineteen and don’t have boundaries and it’s the first time you’ve met someone who really, really gets all the things about you that scare everyone else away. The problem was that he had even worse boundaries than I did and, I suppose, he thought he understood me better than he was capable of doing.
At any rate, I became uneasy with him, but as I began to draw away he grew intrusive, invasive. He used the campus computer system to track where I was studying; he told me how he would stand on the sidewalk outside my window and look up at the lights, from which he could tell whether I was home alone (single desk lamp) or whether my roommate was present (overhead fluorescent); he befriended other people in my dorm and asked them to report on me; he bothered my friends.
On Halloween he stopped me in the lobby as I headed to the basement computer lab to write the take-home midterm for my ancient philosophy class. He gave me a book of ghost stories, which was thoughtful. Then he said he had something else for me but he needed to give it to me privately. We walked down a few stairs, and he held out a box of scalpel blades.
He said he wanted me to have them so I could cut without risking an infection. Based on previous conversations we’d had, I thought he was encouraging my suicide — a suicide I was desperately trying, at that time, not to commit.
The way I remember it, I threw my hands up in front of my face and pushed at the air. No, no, I said, I can’t take these. No.
Something broke in his eyes.
He tucked the scalpel blades back into his coat and apologized and shuffled away. I subsumed my panic long enough to write with reasonable fluidity about the ideas of ancient Greeks whose names I’ve long since forgotten. And a few weeks later he got kicked out of school for an unrelated infraction that I’ve only recently realized might have been in response to the rejection from me. Because it was a rejection, and he knew it.
A year or so later, my roommate and I were watching a TV show on stalking, during which the host interviewed an FBI profiler. He said the moment of crisis comes when the stalker is given a clear, firm “No.” That, he said, is when they either fade away or they become dangerous.
Why did mine fade away? Why didn’t he become dangerous? He could, in that moment of rejection, have opened the box of scalpel blades and stabbed me. He was eight inches away from me, one riser down on the staircase. There were people around but no one could have intervened in time to stop him.
I never really weighed that question until this year. Until I encountered someone else who behaved in ways I found menacing but who didn’t fade away when I gave him a clear, firm no. Until I was alone in my car late at night with my dog and my God, and that question stared me in the face and wouldn’t go away.
Why didn’t he kill me?
Sometimes I wished he had. Sometimes I cursed him because he hadn’t. I thought about all the days and months and years I’ve wasted in meaningless jobs, the fact that I landed in a career path that’s closed more doors than it’s opened, the exhaustion and sorrow of watching other people go on dates and become engaged and marry and have kids while I remain alone, seeing other people get promotions and buy houses and go on exotic vacations while I live paycheck to paycheck. How am I supposed to believe I have worth and value to anyone? But if I don’t, what’s been the point of any of it?
Why did I walk out of that stairwell?