His soft hair tickles my neck as he leans against me on the worn, deep pink couch on the porch of my best friend’s house in the neighborhood our college town calls The Fort, the site of a notable Civil War battle.
I know his hair is soft because he told me that people always comment on its softness. He told me that, according to his mother, it’s more or less the same level of softness he had as a baby. I also know because he begged me to touch it, to run my fingers through its length.
I flash back to my sophomore year of college where, impossibly, this same man stands in front of a lecture hall, cracking jokes in between lecture slides. He is young, personable and charming. He's a good teacher who seems to care about his students – a relatively easy "A." And the tiny crush I harbor is just an added bonus.
It's this familiarity that has me excited rather than cautious when we match on Tinder in early August, right before my senior year starts.
I've just returned from a summer internship in New York City where I enjoyed a brief, but successful Tinder experience with a 23-year-old banking intern from Belgium. The Belgian gave me my much-awaited first kiss, and I'm still reeling from a newfound power and sex appeal that are foreign to my six-foot-tall, overweight body.
So I message my former professor, now in his thirties. He tells me I look familiar; I admit I took his class.
“Is that why you messaged me?” he asks. I consult my friends who are at the bar with me. Play it coy, they encourage.
“No,” I lie. “I just thought you were cute.”
The banter quickly turns sexual, and I try to keep up. I say words I’ve never used. I pull phrases from books and fan fiction I read as a teen. He hints at a fetish for voyeurism, and I admit that his position as a teacher is a turn on. I feel like I'm drowning in this person I'm pretending to be -- this self-confident girl with tons of experience. Someone who in no way resembles me.
He sends me his number and says he is at a friend’s house having a few drinks. He’d like to meet up. We text throughout the evening. My friends are as giddily excited as I am at how daring, and yet harmless, it all seems.
Meanwhile, he gets steadily more intoxicated. His texts grow sloppier, intensifying with lengthy statements about getting dumped recently, and there are proclamations of his arousal. At some point, there is a shirtless selfie.
By the time he’s ready to meet I’m back at my friends’ house and they've all gone to bed. He asks to come over, but I feel weird about inviting him inside. I don’t live here, and everyone is asleep. The porch will be safe. I text him the address.
Shortly after, I see him coming down the street. He climbs the stairs and I look at him, trying to seem cool. I wonder if he thinks I’m pretty, or if he thinks I’m fat.
He settles into the couch beside me, and attempts small talk.
“So when did you take my class?” he asks.
“A couple of years ago, I think… I remember getting a 100 on your first test,” I laugh and immediately wonder why I said that. Truthfully, I know why.
I’ve always been a teacher’s pet. In elementary school it was a default position because my mom taught second grade. I roamed the halls after school ended at 2:45, and stopped to help in classrooms or chat with people. They all seemed like extra parental figures. When my mom was busy, they lavished me with attention, and so I worked harder to attain it.
I liked teachers because, unlike some of my classmates, they seemed to see past my body. I was a tall, chubby kid who grew into an even taller, overweight adult. But I was smart. I kept up with current events. I was funny and self-deprecating (usually at the same time). I could write.
My high school and college years can be summed up as one desperate attempt to prove that I was more than my body -- a plea for everyone I knew to ignore the way I looked. During my junior year of high school I’m pretty sure my entire self-worth was based on the grades my AP English teacher gave me on essays. In college I joined clubs, was involved in campus ministry, aced my classes, and became the editor of my campus newspaper.
Now I sit with my former professor/Tinder date. He says nothing about my weight.
Instead, he rather abruptly takes my hand and places it on his crotch, gently moving it in circles. I lean in to kiss him -- to make this all seem somehow normal -- but he pushes me away. He says he only kisses people he’s dating. That stings, and I jerk my hand back.
“OK,” I think I say. I assume it ends here, but then he unzips his pants and takes out his penis, even as he says how scared he is of STDs and people seeing what we’re (he’s) doing. He touches himself, and I'm paralyzed because this is only the second penis I’ve seen in my life. I'd also very much like him to put it away.
He sounds normal, but he has to be wasted. This man next to me is worlds away from the person I respected at 19. I don’t know how to tell him to stop, and he doesn’t seem to want me to participate anyway -- just to watch. He asks me to touch myself, but I can’t. I won’t. I think he gets it then. He zips his pants. Again, I expect him to leave, but he sits up and begins talking.
He talks about his ex, how her parents didn’t like him, how he feels depressed, and how he's not sure if he wants to continue teaching. He has me touch his hair. He rests his head on my shoulder while I try to console him, while I remind him what a good teacher he is, and tell him it’ll all feel better soon. He holds my hand. He talks about his childhood; how he’s always been smart and successful, but it’s never felt like enough.
Finally, he leaves. I watch him walk back down the steps and back toward the direction of our college.
That night I text a good friend from high school about the experience, and resolve not to have anything more to do with this guy who obviously has serious issues. But the next day the professor texts me. I'm more flattered than I should be, even though the conversation is mostly small talk. We begin texting nearly every day -- always with the same beginning.
“How’s your day? ;-)”
Then classes start and the messages quickly grow tiresome; they do not hint at a future, sober, real date. In a rare moment of boldness I text him and ask if he actually wants to meet again, because his texts are wasting my time. He says he does, and I feel inexplicable relief that I have not chased him away; I’ve grown used to his mundane checking in.
Then he starts texting late at night. “Still up?” at 3 a.m. Sometimes he texts this at 4 or 5 a.m.
If I am, he says he’s drunk and/or playing video games and/or horny. He says he only leaves his apartment to go to class. I start to feel the burden of whatever depression he is experiencing. I wonder if I should tell someone or if he’ll do something serious to himself.
I walk around campus in fear of seeing him, wondering if he’d recognize me sober, and (if he did), if he’d be disappointed at the way I look. The tension between concern and self-consciousness leaves me distracted. Going to class feels like walking through a mine field, or playing Frogger on an old computer where I'm just waiting for the car to hit me.
But then it happens. I'm sitting on a bench in the hallway and writing an article for the school newspaper before my next class. I hear a “Hey!” and look up. There he is, smiling and asking how I am.
“I’m good,” I choke out. He asks how my classes are going and I ask him the same.
“I’m teaching a class that I have to get back to. See you around!” Two minutes, maybe three, and I'm still reeling. I want to cry.
He doesn’t text me that day, and I’m unsure why I thought he would or why I wanted him to. I spend the next month in exquisite torment. I look for glimpses of his hair in the hall, and wait for him to text me just to remind me that he knows who I am. Some nights when I’ve been drinking I text him: “Still up? ;)”
He texts me back less and less often. Suddenly, I'm the desperate one, the addicted, the directionless.
One day, I confess everything to a friend over coffee near the building he works in: all of the confusion from that first night, the torture I’ve been putting myself through, and the nightmarish joy of seeing him around campus. My friend and I get up to leave and there he is. I'm trying to decide whether to look at him or not when he catches my eye for a second, frowns slightly and nods as we pass.
He doesn’t text anymore.
I’ve since deleted the texts and the pictures -- those remnants of a strange technology-fueled flame that played at my deepest weaknesses. My life is going well. I'm progressing toward May graduation with ambitions of New York City and working in journalism in tow.
I’ve told the story of the time I matched with my professor on Tinder several times. It's kind of a grotesque party trick that always leaves people open-mouthed and almost in awe of me. In those moments, I feel powerful, charming, seductive and confident.
It’s a strange paradox. There’s something unnerving about him, about how easy it was for him to make me feel powerless. It's unsettling how easy it was to make me forget my boundaries, or feel like I didn’t need to have them in the first place. I realize it was unprofessional of him to set his age parameters low enough to attract college-age women, and then to burden me with his personal problems.
I found out later his ex-girlfriend was a student, and that I’m not the only other student with whom he has flirted. And I feel repulsed by this man who takes advantage of his position of power.
But when I recount that night, I leave out the shame, the alcoholism, and the self-inflicted hurt and insecurity. I'm recast in my head, not as victim, but as a kind of cool girl. I see myself as if from outside of my body -- the tall, average-looking girl with almost no experience who, if only for a moment, got with her handsome teacher.
His last text to me is in early October. “Still awake?” he asks. I'm lying on the roof of the same friend’s house, exactly 10 feet above where the professor and I sat on that weather-worn couch. One of my best friends is beside me now. We're spread out on a blanket, the air chilly rather than humid. I can almost forget it ever happened, except for the glowing phone by my side. My friend notices and asks who the text is from.
“No one,” I reply and delete the message.