I was an innocent, a fairly naïve girl for a seventeen-year-old, working in a diner after school and on weekends. It was my first job after doing odd jobs with my father, helping my brother with his paper route, or babysitting. This was the first time working for an actual boss, surrounded by strangers. It was exciting, and a bit of a learning curve about how the world worked.
I was newly thinner, having worked hard dieting to get rid of my baby fat, but I was still just a little bit chubbier than other girls in school, and completely flat-chested. It made me feel insecure about myself, and I was like a newborn colt, shyly testing out my thinner self in the world.
Up to this point, the only older men in my life, besides my father, were neighbors, uncles, friends of my father or authority figures, like the principal at school. They would all treat me as my father’s daughter, and speak to me as a child, or at least be respectful and friendly. There was never any sense of anything inappropriate in their treatment of me, and I was pretty much unaware that there could be. Men just didn’t do things like that.
With that in mind, you can imagine my surprise, fear, and disgust at having older male customers eyeing my body, or making comments about it, with a look in their eye that betrayed bad intentions. I was incredibly uncomfortable with this new and unwanted attention, when the boys my own age wouldn’t give me the time of day. I didn’t know what one was allowed to say, when after all, “the customer is always right”. No one said or did something so obvious that I felt in the right to say something to them, or be able to go to my boss for help, so there didn’t seem to be a remedy that I could think of. I realized, to my great disillusionment, that older men couldn’t be trusted to just be friendly and respectful. Men my father’s age could have sexual designs on someone like me, a terrible and disgusting realization.
With this in mind, I clung closer to my workmates, and began to feel a subconscious “us against them” feeling about the customers. I was still friendly and helpful, and I was raised to be and as my boss expected us to be, but there was definitely a guard that came up. These people can’t be trusted, but the men and women I work with will have my back, I thought.
One of my co-workers was a lanky, greasy-haired dishwasher, probably late 30’s, who reminded me very much of guitarist Steve Cropper in the Blues Brothers’ movie. There was something behind his smile, something mysterious to me, that made my inner alarm bells go off. But on the surface, he was just a nice guy I worked with, who smiled a lot and cracked jokes to make the day go by faster. He was a little bit of an enigma, as I couldn’t understand why someone who seemed smart enough would be working as a dishwasher. Not that there is anything wrong with that job, but I kind of thought he could be doing something more with his life.
One weekday dinner shift, we were very slow. The last diners left before the place closed, and I was the only waitress there. We closed on time for a change, and I was finishing up the little chores that we did at the end of the night. Since we were so slow, the cook, dishwasher and I had been joking around and having a fairly relaxed shift. As I was in the back of the restaurant, tending to the bread warming station, the dishwasher came out of the back of the kitchen, and chatted with me for a moment or two. Suddenly, he closed in on me, sort of bent at the knees a bit to lower himself down to my height, and cornered me against the wall. At first, I thought he was joking around, so I didn’t even attempt to defend myself. He put his arms against the wall around my shoulders, and kissed me hard, a big sloppy kiss.
I was shocked. Disgusted. Afraid. I didn’t know what to do, and it happened so fast, I had no time to avoid him. I had only recently gotten the idea that a grown man would do that to someone my age, but I didn’t think that one of my co-workers would do such a thing to me. After all, it was “us against them”, and he was supposed to be part of the “us”. What did I do to make him think he could do that? Why would he betray me this way?
So many things raced through my head, and I don’t even remember what I said or didn’t say. I ducked under his arms and raced away, because I didn’t want him to continue. I do remember the smarmy, self-satisfied smile on his face as I wrangled myself out of his arm cage. I can’t remember the rest of the night. I felt vaguely guilty, like somehow it must’ve been my fault, I must’ve somehow made him think that I wanted that to happen, even though I couldn’t imagine how. As an adult woman now, I am flirty and love to banter with men and women alike, but at that time, I was truly an innocent, virginal girl. But the shame was palpable, and the disappointment and disgust immense.
I continued to work there for many months afterwards, completely avoiding entering the kitchen except to put in orders - but I never told anyone. I’ve never told anyone until now. Sometimes, women hold onto these secrets because they have so many mixed emotions about them, or they are afraid they will not be believed or will be told that they are making too much out of it. Also, there is nothing anyone can do to make it un-happen. It happened – and it changed me.