07 November 2010

I will not let you in

Where does one draw the line? It's always the question I face in blogging and in real life.

The story I've been wrestling with is the story of the boy who wouldn't take "no" for an answer and who grew up into the man who wouldn't take "no" for an answer and who finally got scary and weird enough to really frighten me.

Recently, I've been reading Shreve Stockton's account of dealing with a stalker. He found her through her websites and began his campaign of harassment through email. Reading her story has left me in awe of her courage, but it also opened the door to nightmares, to memories I try to keep at bay. And my story is different: he was no stranger, but someone I knew, and his behaviour escalated over the course of 10 years.

He started when I was 15 and it seemed so innocuous.

He was just another kid. Remarkable mostly for his snide and arrogant self-assurance. He was in my freshman English class. I gave him no thought at all.

It wasn't until our sophomore year that I really spoke to him. My friend LS and I spent our afternoons in the school library, finishing our homework, talking. People would come and go, hang out with us for awhile, move on. He came and sat at the table where we were working one afternoon. It turned out that we had similar taste in music and books. Then, he got my phone number from another person, and started calling me. It was all very innocent, friendly even. Eventually, he asked me to go out with him. I declined. While I thought he was interesting to talk to, he was not the sort of person I would have ever considered as boyfriend material, partly because he had a well-defined mean streak, partly because I didn't find him at all attractive.

And initially, all seemed well. We talked about books and music and movies and Monty Python. We talked about teachers and classes. Then he began spinning fantasies that revolved around me. I asked him to stop. The fantasies became uncomfortably suggestive. I stopped taking his calls.

He persisted at school, but carefully. I was polite. He got a girlfriend. I was relieved. Then the girlfriend began calling me at his behest for "advice," which confused me. They broke up and he informed me the girlfriend was a ploy to make me jealous. I was furious and reiterated that I didn't want to date him.

It sounds like a soap opera, doesn't it? Stupid teenage drama. That's what I thought, too. Books, movies, pop songs, the purveyors of fantasy, make it seem that being the object of someone's obsession is somehow alluring, at least until the crazy really manifests. It's not. It's denigrating, aggravating and time consuming. There is nothing nice or desirable about it.

Senior year, I started dating ML, a boy I knew from the school newspaper, and it was the first time that one of my relationships turned a bit more serious. We were a couple.

That's when things started getting ugly.

He found moments to denigrate ML publicly, to ask crude questions about our relationship. I called him out for his bad behaviour.

He told me that it was all my fault that he was behaving badly. But he backed off, and once we finished high school, I didn't hear from him for nearly three years.

My relationship with ML continued for a time after we went off to different colleges, but eventually ended. I'm not sure how he got wind that ML and I were no longer seeing each other, but he showed up at my parents' house the first time I visited after ML and I called it off.

Initially, I was pleased with opportunity to catch up on our friendship, but his behaviour soon became quite off-putting. He began by criticizing my hair (short, after years of hanging nearly to my waist), my weight (the slim side of normal for my height, but a few pounds heavier than the stage weight I'd maintained for dancing), my clothing. College had changed me, he declared. He didn't like what he was seeing, the person I'd become. And then he wanted to know if I'd changed my mind about going out with him.

I told him firmly that I was willing to be friends with him, but that I had nothing else to offer him. Then out of the blue, he asked if I'd consider marrying him in the future, despite the fact he'd had no contact with me for years. I told him it was very unlikely.

When I returned to school, he began to call frequently. He asked me again to marry him. I told him no. He didn't want my friendship, he told me decisively. He could prove his devotion, he was sure of it. But he wanted a relationship with me, or nothing. If I lost him altogether, it was all my fault.

Then it's done, I told him.

And I thought it was. He vanished again.

It was eighteen months later when his behaviour became alarming.

One afternoon, my mother called me to tell me that he'd shown up at her house, looking for me. He got my address and phone number from her and then told her that he was planning to go to California over the weekend to find me. Something about his demeanor, something he said that carried an implicit threat, really distressed her.

"I'm afraid he's going to harm you," she told me. I'm not sure what frightened me more: that she thought he was going to hurt me, or that the same thought had already occurred to me.

I stayed with a friend that weekend, so I never knew if the threatened visit was just that, or if he did show up. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at work one morning after having taken a vacation day, and one of my coworkers told me that a man had come looking for me while I was gone.

"He said that another man had asked him to check up on you," she said. "They're friends of yours from high school?"

The man who'd come to pay me a visit was someone who'd gone to the same high school with us. He'd come at the behest of my stalker, to what end, I was never certain.

Everyone I knew was told not to give my address, phone number or place of business to anyone.

I'll never know how he might have guessed that I'd returned to town for graduate school, but one night when I was working on an assignment in the library, he came up behind me, and announced in a loud voice, "I've been waiting for this moment for three years."

I gasped, a not unusual reaction to someone sneaking up behind one and yelling.

He said angrily, "Don't be melodramatic. You expected me."

Which I very much hadn't, of course. And his behaviour was so bizarre that the woman I was studying with wanted to get campus security. I told her not to worry, and agreed to meet with him at an off-campus watering hole, a very well-known and busy place.

He wanted to talk, and he told me about his life in those intervening years, unsatisfactory jobs, a failed marriage. He bragged about the lengths he'd gone to in order to keep tabs on me. How he'd sent various people after me to keep an eye on my activities. How he planned to drive out to California to try to find me. A grand, romantic adventure.

"I'm getting married," I told him.

His face fell.

"In December," I said with finality.

That was the last time I saw him.

I still have nightmares about him, worry that he continues to lurk in the shadows. Given his propensity for reappearing after years of absence, I was uneasy for a long time. Given his uncanny ability to find me, to know when I'd gone through changes in my life, I hired a private detective to help me clamp down on my personal information, and I remain vigilant, removing every trace that I can. The Internet makes that so much harder, but fortunately, I started that project before the Internet.

I went back through years of journals, looking for my response to what he was doing at the time this was going on, because of course, what eventually transpired colored my memories of the situation. I hoped that I'd see no evidence that I'd ever treated him as more than a friend, that I'd never given him any reason to hope for something different. And curiously, he shows up in my writings almost not at all until his behaviour got out of hand. While I carefully dissect full conversations with boys I liked over the years, he gets an occasional cursory mention in much the same vein as those mentioning my other friends.

I questioned--and still do--posting this. It's not out of some desire for revenge, for a way to be hurtful toward someone who did a bang up job of hurting himself. My dearest wish is that he finally found someone with whom to share his life, someone who appreciated him in a way that I never did or could.

I suppose that what I hope for myself is some way to understand what seemed an ordinary situation that got extraordinarily out of control. I am not some femme fatale, just a rather painfully ordinary woman who likes nice relationships without drama. I don't understand manipulative behaviour, or someone's need to control someone else. That's not love, not a partnership.

Even now, reading this over, I hear his voice: "It's all your fault." "You've blown this out of proportion." But reading over my journals, the conclusion I came to was that I never took it seriously enough.

Go listen to some good music: "Get Out of My House" from the album The Dreaming by Kate Bush. Read fast. I can't guarantee this one will stay up.

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