“And that was when Mr. Bailey groped you?” the human resources manager’s face showed no trace of emotion. He had put a box of tissues on the table, setting it down with a dull thud. The tissue sticking up looked like a staircase that went nowhere.
“Yes,” Megan said. “He closed the blinds, locked the door and cornered me.” She tucked a lock of straight brown hair behind her ear. “He grabbed my breast with one hand and reached the other hand under my skirt.”
Tom Bailey never closed the blinds in his office. The three women had to test the blinds, late one night, just to make sure they actually worked.
Megan had her breasts groped in the high school nurse’s office. She had thrown up during swim practice, and her coach, Mr. Hannity, had felt her up as she lay on the cot. It turned out she had the stomach flu. When her mom came to pick her up, she said she wanted to quit swim team.
Claire had been raped at a party her freshman year of college. By Darren Gaines, a wide receiver on her college’s football team. At least that’s what she figured had happened. He kept feeding her blue plastic cups of spiked punch. Red punch in blue cups, like their team colors. She woke up with no panties and the beginnings of a UTI.
Dawn’s professor in her computer science graduate program propositioned her. He closed his office door and kept moving closer. She backed up till she was against the window. When he tried to kiss her, her elbow smashed the pane.
“How many times did this happen?” Doug, the human resources manager, asked.
“Only that one time,” Megan said.
In reality, each of them had more than one story. Hands brushing across their asses on the subway. Men pressing erections against them at concerts. Guys masturbating in cars and trying to lock eyes with them as they walked by.
The human resources manager wrote on his legal pad.
“Thank you for your candor, Ms. Steinbaum. This sounds like a very trying experience. We’ll be doing our own internal investigation. We’d appreciate your discretion for the next few days.”
“Discretion?” Megan asked. “You want me to keep my mouth shut?”
“We simply want an opportunity to—”
“When I complained to the CEO that Tom bullied me, this company did nothing. When I complained that he called a female client a ‘bitch’ and a ‘cunt,’ this company did nothing. But now that it’s escalated to sexual assault, I’m expected to be discreet? Someone should have told Tom Bailey to be discreet.”
She stalked out of the office, her heart beating hard.
Before she even got to her desk, she had the cell number of the reporter for the Canopener.
Megan closed the blinds of her own office as she dialed.
The reporter answered on the third ring: “Vanessa Markham.”
“Yes,” Megan said. “I work for a large tech firm, and I’ve been a—a victim of sexual misconduct. I’d like to go on the record.”
Megan picked up her coffee cup to take a sip, but her hands were shaking so much that she spilled it down the front of her dress.
Megan wiped at the spill, suddenly recalling the swim coach’s hands sliding across the smooth fabric of her swimsuit.
“Are you OK?” Vanessa Markham asked.
“Just more upset than I expected,” Megan said.
“Of course you are. Nobody should have to experience what you’re going through.” Markham’s tone was warm, understanding. It made Megan uneasy.
They spoke for over an hour. Markham invited her to write an account for the outlet’s new series, “First Person Plural: Women, Work, and Sexual Harassment.” If she finished it by tonight, Markham would get the editor to run it tomorrow.
Megan walked out of her office, slightly dazed.
In the cubicle outside, her assistant stood up. “Megan, they’ve been calling to see if you’re going to the 2:30 presentation. The CEO thought maybe you’d be off for the rest of the day?”
Megan shook her head but then remembered the spill on her dress. “Will you call and see if either Claire or Dawn has a blazer I could borrow?”
“I have a spare dress,” her assistant said.
Shayana was black and definitely plus-sized. She had two kids. Megan ran every morning to maintain her size 6 figure from high school.
“No offense, but I don’t think it’ll fit me,” Megan said.
Shayana laughed. “I kept one of your dresses in the office when I first picked up your dry cleaning, remember?”
In the meeting, Megan made brief eye contact with Claire and Dawn, offering them each a quick nod. She carefully avoided Tom’s eyes.
After the presentation, he made a big show of yawning.
“I had hoped for better,” he said. “But since we’re so close to deadline, they’ll have to do.”
In the photo that accompanied the next day’s “First Person Plural,” Megan sat on the edge of her desk. She had on a teal blazer over a teal-and-gray dress. Claire had taken at least 50 photos. Megan didn’t smile, but she had lined her lips to make them look fuller. The light caught her cheekbones. Her gaze was open and challenging.
She was wondering if maybe she should have used one of the smiling photos when Tom slammed her door open.
“What kind of bullshit is this?” he asked, brandishing his cellphone. “I’m not interested in your pathetic tits. You make up a story because you can’t hack it here with the big boys? You lying bitch.”
Doug, the HR manager, rushed in and began to pull him out of the office. “Tom, for fuck’s sake, will you just keep your mouth shut? You’re only making it worse. Much worse.”
Her colleagues gaped from their cubicles or the doors of their offices. Shayana was wide-eyed and had shrunk back in her chair.
Megan grabbed her coat and purse. “Shayana, I’m out for the day,” she said over her shoulder.
The next morning, the CEO called a special meeting. “It has come to our attention that—” He cleared his throat. “Usually, personnel matters are confidential, and employee misconduct is handled more discreetly, but in this case certain allegations have been made public, so we will be treating them a bit differently.”
He picked up a piece of paper. “I’m quoting from a public article in ‘First Person Plural.’
“‘My manager, Tom Bailey, sexually harassed me at the design company Dizongle. When I went to my CEO with the bullying and the hate speech, he did nothing. I have no faith that they will deal with the harassment any differently.’” He looked up from the paper. “Two other employees have come forward with very similar complaints. Tom has been fired. I want everyone to know that this company will not tolerate sexual harassment. With multiple allegations, we think it’s pretty much a wrap. Does anyone have any questions?”
No one did.
The following day, “First Person Plural” ran an account by Dawn and Claire. Megan read the piece on the train in to work. She had photographed the two women in front of a brick wall near the office. As the team’s designer, Claire looked the part in a magenta vintage suit with a pair of cat-eye glasses, her blond hair pulled back in a bun. Dawn wore geek-chic glasses and a dark blazer, her curly hair loose to her shoulders.
“Of course we complained,” Dawn said. “Tom Bailey was verbally abusive from day one. The CEO did nothing. This is about how corporate America is hostile toward women.”
When Megan got to her office, Shayana was waiting.
“Do you have a minute?” Shayana asked as Megan opened her door.
“Sure,” Megan said, and closed the door behind Shayana.
“Um, I was wondering … ” the assistant began.
A courier knocked on the door with a client contract for Megan. Shayana signed for it and handed it over.
“Thanks,” Megan said. “What was it you wanted to ask?”
“I was wondering,” Shayana said. “Could I get the name of that reporter?”
“Which one?” Megan asked.
“From ‘First Person Plural’?”
“Oh, wow,” Megan said. “Of course.” She found the contact and texted it to her assistant.
“Shayana,” she asked, attempting to copy the compassionate tone that the reported had used. “Have you also been sexually harassed?”
Shayana nodded. “By Tom.”
That night, Megan didn’t open the Champagne she had brought.
“I can’t believe it,” Dawn said. “Did she say anything about what happened?”
Megan shook her head. “Just that it was Tom.”
“Of course it was Tom,” Claire said. “He was such an obvious misogynist. He just hadn’t supervised us long enough to try anything. Our story was practically a pre-emptive strike.”
“I just—” Megan began. “Something about it gives me the creeps. All that time we were making something up, and it had really happened to the woman standing next to me.”
“We did her a favor,” Claire said. “We made it safe for her to come out and tell her story.”
“Yeah,” Dawn said. “We got a creep fired. And your assistant didn’t feel alone anymore and could come forward with her story.”
“Everybody wins!” Claire said.
They clinked wine glasses.
The next day, Megan had an alert set for “First Person Plural.” When the story posted, she was in a lunch meeting with Claire and Dawn.
The three of them gathered around Claire’s computer and read the story.
In Shayana’s “First Person Plural” photo, she had long, jet-black hair and skin the color of a coffee bean. Her bright blouse and pants clung to her thick, hourglass figure.
It described their old office from before the merger. It didn’t have windows, and Tom had called her in often. He would expose himself, and sometimes he had blocked the door and masturbated.
Megan read the comments section:
“How come she waited to come forward?”
“Why doesn’t her story match the other women?”
Those were the polite ones.
“She’s obviously lying. How could anyone believe that he had an erection while looking at her?”
“Single mom? More like welfare mom trying to cash in.”
“Those first three girls? Totally fuckable. But this black bitch. No way.”
The following day, “First Person Plural” ran another account by a black woman about Tom exposing himself. She was a couple of shades lighter than Shayana. She wore extension braids and had her arms folded across her ample chest.
A meme soon began to circulate of a black woman taking a polygraph test with Shayana’s head photoshopped on it. FAIL!
A number of people commented that the body of the woman was too thin to be Shayana.
For the rest of the day, there were dueling hashtags—#BelieveBlackWomen vs. #BlackWomenLie—wherein various people told stories of how black women had lied to them.
One comedian’s YouTube video went viral.
“Hey,” he said. “They can both be telling the truth. Come on, guys. Don’t you rank women in your life? There are those that you wanna actually touch. And others where you’re like, stay a few feet back. Just watch me while I jack off.” He mimicked masturbating. The video was watched over a million times and had tens of thousands of likes. The masturbating part got made into a GIF.
“We can’t be responsible for every asshole on the internet,” Dawn said. “And honestly, I don’t know why she needed to go and tell her story. Tom had already been fired. We had done all the heavy lifting.”
Monday at work, Shayana’s face was blotchy. She forced a smile. “Look, I don’t think I can keep working here much longer. I just want to know that I can get a good recommendation from you. Obviously, I won’t be getting one from Tom.”
“Of course,” Megan said. “You’ve been great. That’s why I put you up for that promotion to get on track to be a designer.”
Shayana sighed. “I don’t think so. Folks here are never gonna see me that way. I’ll just get another assistant job somewhere else. Outside of tech.”
“Please,” Megan said. “I hope you’ll reconsider.”
“What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Shayana asked.
“This was your fucking idea,” Claire said. “You talked us into it. You were so certain we could get away with it.”
“Let’s play this out,” Dawn said. “You go back to Vanessa Markham. You tell her we lied but that Shayana is telling the truth. Do you think your assistant will stay at this company and her life will be happily ever after? No way. But what we do know is that we three will become the poster girls for lying bitches.”
“Have a seat,” Megan said to Shayana, unsure what she would say next.
Slowly Shayana lowered herself into the chair that faced the desk.
“We were lying,” Megan blurted out.
Shayana’s brows knit.
“Tom was a dick in every other way, but he never touched us. We made it up to get rid of him. I had no idea he had really—I should have known. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want you to quit.”
Shayana closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair. The laugh that came out was sudden and bitter but then became more full-throated.
“I had wondered,” Shayana said. “I had wondered why he did something so different with you all. Cosby drugged everybody the same, no matter what color. Louis CK jacked off in front of everybody. R. Kelly liked them young. I kept asking myself why Tom did different with the white girls. But he didn’t. Of course he didn’t.”
“At least don’t quit, OK?” Megan said.
“I’m done with coming in here,” Shayana said.
“What if I moved the promotion into our division? You’d just be working with me, Claire and Dawn. What if I allowed you to work remotely?”
“I’ll think about it,” Shayana said.
“Can she even fucking design?” Claire asked.
“She will by the time she leaves,” Megan said.
“Unbelievable,” Dawn said.
“Six months,” Claire advanced toward Megan. “And you’re on your own to teach her to design. Don’t ask me for so much as a helpful hint.”
That night, Megan drank the Champagne alone.
Aya de Leon teaches creative writing in the department of African-American studies at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, Justice Hustlers: Uptown Thief (2016), The Boss (2017), The Accidental Mistress (May 2018) and, out in 2019, Side Chick Nation, about the hurricane in Puerto Rico. She blogs and tweets about race, gender and culture at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.com.