Every Breath You Take
There was a 30-minute wait at the Old Spaghetti Factory last night, so we decided to kill some time at the bookstore up the street. As we walked in my gaze passed over a rumpled older man in a faded windbreaker smoking a cigarette near the doorway. For a second our eyes met. I quickly looked away and continued into the store, my heart pounding.
It was my stalker.
Stan and I worked together at a small social service agency years and years ago, back when Chef and I were in our 20's, childless and living in a third-floor apartment overlooking the Nordstrom's parking lot downtown. I liked him well enough at first, especially the way he livened up our weekly meetings with a steady stream of sarcastic commentary, but mostly I thought of him as sort of a sad sack. He'd been divorced for years, lived alone in a crumbling converted military barracks by the train tracks and didn't appear to have much of an outside life. He came to work each day in a dented old car, dressed in threadbare ties and shirts straining at the buttons, and gave off the resigned air of someone who has just given up.
The workers at the agency were a close-knit group and we often gathered for lunch at a Mexican restaurant near the office. At one of these meals, I happened to mention how frustrating it was that Chef and I had completely opposite schedules and did not get to spend as much time together as we liked. At the time he was going to culinary school and waiting tables at night and on weekends. It wasn't an easy period - I was asleep when he came home at night, he was asleep when I left for work in the mornings, and each night I either came home to an empty apartment and ate dinner by myself or I hung out with my friends Ken and Tim at the gay bar they liked to frequent next to the 7-11. I eagerly looked forward to the time that we could be like a normal married couple: sitting down for dinner together each night, watching movies, having long talks in bed. In the meantime I felt at loose ends - I was married but didn't really feel like it because I was on my own so much. Of course I knew it was only temporary, and it certainly was nothing that would threaten our very solid union - I just got sick of the situation sometimes and needed to vent. But I think that was all it took to fuel Stan's fantasy that I was a neglected wife in need of his rescue.
After that lunch there was a marked change in his demeanor towards me. He started paying close attention to what I said at meetings, pulling me aside afterwards to give me advice on certain cases I was struggling with. That alone wasn't a red flag - I was more concerned when he began to regularly inform me what my horoscope predicted each day, often going so far as to cut out particularly "noteworthy" ones and leave them in my mailbox. I asked him point-blank once why he was so interested in my astrological chart, and he laughed it off and said he did that with everyone. I told him not to bother in my case because I thought astrology was complete bull and I refuse to read horoscopes on principle. The horoscopes stopped appearing. Instead, he began to barrage me with newspaper and magazine articles that he felt related to me in some way. Reviews of books I might want to read, articles about bands I may have mentioned in passing, lots and lots of Jewish recipes and columns about Jewish holidays . . . all with Post-It Notes saying "I thought you'd find this interesting!"
Things hit the fan one afternoon when we were working on a report together at the office. As we mindlessly entered data into a spreadsheet, he began telling me how he had a side business designing and creating custom silver jewelry. "You would look great in silver," he remarked suddenly. "In fact I designed a couple of pieces with you in mind." He flipped open the sketchpad on his desk. I nearly passed out at what I saw. For pages and pages, my name and my initials were arranged into intricate bracelets, brooches and charms. This evidence of his obsession made my blood run cold.
I was too shocked and freaked out to say anything to him, and I didn't feel I could approach my supervisor. What was I going to say, Stan keeps reading my horoscope to me and designing jewelry using my initials? Instead I instinctively cut him off completely: I didn't sit near him at meetings, didn't look at him, avoided any projects that involved working with him. Of course he noticed. That is when the phone messages started. Dozens of them almost daily, on my voice mail at work:
BEEP! ... This is Stan, I just want to know if there is anything wrong. Did I do something to make you mad?
BEEP! ... This is Stan, can we meet for coffee this afternoon? I just want to talk to you, that's all, and find out why you are ignoring me.
BEEP! ... This is Stan, I've left several messages and you have disregarded all of them. If you can't see your way clear to answer a simple phone call, well, you're not even worth my time. Consider our friendship over!
BEEP! ... This is Stan, I'm really sorry about my last message. I don't want our friendship to be over. I just want to know why you won't talk to me. Why won't you talk to me?
I know, I know. I really should have brought this to the attention of someone in management. Why didn't I? Partly it was because deep inside I felt pity for this sad, deluded, pathetic old goat. I didn't really want to get him fired. Nor did I wish to get mired in a complex investigation of the issue. At that time I was very actively seeking a career change, for unrelated reasons, and I hoped in a short time I'd have a new job and the whole problem would be behind me. It almost worked, too - within weeks of my job search I was offered a position at the recruiting firm where I am still employed.
But because I never informed my previous boss of Stan's creepy behavior, she thought we were still friendly and saw nothing wrong with telling him the name of my new place of employment and even providing him with my email address there. Oy. He emailed me Chanukah and High Holiday greetings, and sent a big package full of books to the office on my birthday, which I immediately pressed on my baffled new coworkers. He left a voice mail requesting that I meet with him for an "informational interview" (apparently he'd developed a strong interest in the exciting field of technical recruiting), then left an angry, profanity-laced message rebuking me for refusing to answer his request for an interview, then another message apologizing for bothering me at all. I didn't respond to any of this, on the theory that if he failed to get the attention he was seeking, he'd eventually leave me alone.
It took a long, long time, but it finally worked. His emails petered down to breezy little greetings once or twice a year: "Hey, it's me, ran into Deb and Sue last week and they said to say hi, email me when you get a chance!" I ignored those too, and at last he just gave up entirely. I hoped maybe he had started dating someone, or perhaps even moved out of the area. Eventually I stopped thinking about him at all; he just became a distant figure from my past, a cautionary tale about sharing too much personal information at the office.
As I hustled my kids into the children's alcove of the bookstore, I worried that he might come in after me, and wondered how I should handle it if he did. Should I nod politely, ignore him completely, pretend I had no idea who he was? But after a few minutes I realized I was safe - no way was Stan, who always hid behind the safety of emails and phone messages and "anonymous" notes left on my desk, going to have the nerve to approach me while I was surrounded by my husband and kids.
Still I felt uneasy, thinking he might be out there in the shadows, staring at us through the window. I briefly considered escaping through the rear exit of the store, but I dismissed the idea - I'm not afraid of him. If anything, he's the one who should be sneaking off, ashamed and embarassed.
And sure enough when we went outside, he had disappeared into the dark of the night.