Twenty-two was the year I truly blossomed into an adult. After several years of a dead-end relationship, I had broken up with my boyfriend of four years, moved into my own place, and was working full-time to pay my way through college. I was learning what it meant to be independent and tending to the wounds that a dysfunctional relationship can leave behind.
As I began my new life with my newfound freedom and independence, I started playing roller derby, quickly losing the 40 pounds that I had gained over the course of the last several years. This lead to a small boost in confidence that enabled me to throw myself head first into a social life I hadn't been able to cultivate while I was with my overbearing ex. For the first time, I felt like I was beginning to take charge of my own path, albeit clumsily.
At this point in my college career, I was a second-year microbiology student. I had switched from an arts degree and still felt a bit unsure of myself in a far more time-consuming and challenging science major. With all the changes that were hitting my life, I coasted as best I could through my fall term, attempting to get through it while I sorted out this strange new world of self-reliance. This went about as well as I could have hoped. I missed class frequently, flailed through research and lab projects, and squeaked out of the term with the bare minimum.
Winter break began, and I vowed to get myself back on track. I was reading over some of my materials for my approaching classes at my local coffee shop, determined to get the next term off to a better start than the previous one. Textbooks spread over my table, computer glowing in front of me, I heard the ping of a message popping up.
I glanced up to see the familiar face of one of my professors — the professor of my most difficult class in fact, peering at me from a chat window.
I cringed. What could he possibly want?
Flashbacks of the final in his class flew through my mind. I knew I didn't do well. I also knew my final research paper was poorly written and rushed. Did he track me down to tell me to give up on my dreams of med school? That I was possibly the worst student he had ever had? Or maybe he wanted me to know that, by all rights, I should have failed? I had skipped his class the most, as it was first thing in the morning and often conflicted with my new work schedule, so I honestly hadn't really spoken to him other than helping him move specimen to the lab a couple of times.
I hesitantly clicked on his message.
I typed back a tentative "hey" in response, bracing myself for what I assumed must be the inevitable onslaught of chiding. I eyed the screen nervously every few seconds as I tried to get back to my books while I waited for his response.
"You were in my class right?"
I responded that I was and quickly added that I had enjoyed it very much, hoping to side-step any chastising. Half an hour went by and I closed the messenger window, attempting to remove the distraction and focus. The longer I sat staring at my books, the more frustrated I got with my anxiety. Why should I feel anxious? I had a rough term, so what? It happens to everyone. What right does he have to track me down and bother me about a term that was done and over with? I passed, so who cares? Who does he think he is bothering me on social media? Is he even allowed to do that?
I had a whole tirade worked out in my head, ready to let him have it. Then he finally responded with: "I thought that was you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I didn't get the greatest reviews, so I was worried I didn't do very well presenting everything."
A slight wave of relief washed over me, but it was quickly replaced by confusion. I set aside my tirade and we messaged back and forth for several minutes. I confessed that I hadn't done as well as I would have hoped in his class, and he quickly dismissed it and said he was sure I'd do better in my classes next term. He was pleasant and friendly, but I remained hesitant.
Looking back now, several years older and wiser, I realize I was just too naive and insecure to spot a man flirting with me. The self-conscious and self-deprecating mindset that had come with being slightly overweight had not been shed with the pounds I had lost over the course of the year. At that point in my life, I don't think I would allow myself to believe that someone could look at me that way.
I didn't hear from him for several days. As weird as it had been, I didn't allow myself to dwell on it and got back to my busy schedule — until he messaged me again one evening as I was browsing the internet before bed.
He asked me if I had heard any rumors about him from other students. I told that I hadn't and neglected to tell him that I wasn't in class enough to ever be privy to the gossip. He responded by telling me that he had heard that some girls had talked about the fact that his pants were too tight and they could all see his "package." I awkwardly told him that I had never paid attention to what he was wearing.
"That's too bad," he replied. "I paid attention to you."
Part of me was uncomfortable. That part of me didn't know how to respond to this sort of attention and, frankly, didn't really want this sort of attention. I had never thought of him as anything other than a professor, and my brain wasn't capable of switching him into a whole different category of my life in an instant.
But there was another part of me that was overwhelmingly pleased — not because I necessarily wanted this man in particular to notice me, but because someone had. An attractive man had noticed me and gone out of his way to flirt with me. That part of me took over and continued messaging him, more out of curiosity than anything.
I told him simply and clumsily that I was flattered and assured him again that I had not heard any girls gossiping about him, though it became clear to me at this point that the "gossip" was an obvious ploy to bring a sexual tone to the conversation. He asked me if I was curious to know what all the fuss was about, and my assurance that I wasn't at all concerned about any of that did not seem to dissuade him. Suddenly feeling awkward and creeped out, I gave short answers amidst long pauses.
Just as I was feeling fairly confident that I had backed my way out of an awkward conversation, I heard the ping of the messenger yet again and switched back over to the chat box.
Much to my chagrin, a photo of him, fully naked with his face expertly cropped out, filled my screen.
"What do you think? ;)"
I don't know what it was specifically that snapped me out of the haze of self-doubt. I think part of it was the smugness of the message. While I had always been too insecure to tell off someone that was being pleasant, arrogance always struck a chord with me. That part of my brain that had initially been flattered by his attention was now furious that he not only ignored the fact that I wasn't interested in anything other than talking, but was expecting a positive response to his genitalia being plastered all over my screen, particularly after only speaking to me for about 20 minutes total.
I typed out a short, "I don't think anything about any of that."
I quickly closed the chat, silently scolding myself for not coming up with something more clever.
I couldn't help but think back over my time in class. Those times I had helped him move specimen between labs took on a different light. The grades I had been surprised by suddenly seemed suspect. The feeling that I had still managed to do well enough to pass one of my hardest classes despite being in a fairly tumultuous time in my life seemed cheapened. I don't know for a fact that any of his feelings had any impact on how I did in class, but the fact that I was now questioning them because the contents of his skinny jeans were now seared into my brain annoyed me to no end.
I saw him several times around after that, slinking around campus in his skinny jeans and flannel shirts. I couldn't help but wonder how many other girls were awkwardly avoiding eye contact with him for the same reason I was.
There's no dramatic ending, no traumatizing realization. I was simply a quiet, naive, newly single 22 year-old me learning that I was worthy of attention. But I certainly did not have to tolerate disgusting behavior just to get it.