...and into the Fire
... and into the Fire
A PRIDE MONTH Personal Essay by Andrew Sarewitz
It was past time to meet: we'd been communicating for eight weeks. If he couldn't commit, I would move on. When I first saw the "friend request" on Facebook, I don't deny it was my shallow and immediate attraction to his image that motivated me to respond.
The profile photo framed a white man with dirty-blond hair looking to be in his late twenties with a collared oxford fully unbuttoned, exposing a sculpted six pack. He was gorgeous in a vein closer to a porn star than to Hubbell Gardiner. The other baiting information was his originally being from West Orange, NJ, where my parents lived, and close to where I'd grown up. Still tentative, I wrote asking, do we know each other? His answer: I think we met through mutual friends a while ago. I touched the "accept" button. After exchanging a number of messages, I typed that I wasn't comfortable sharing personal information on Facebook.
I have a few email accounts that include one I use for my writing, one for paying bills, another for general correspondence. And then one that displays an alias to protect my identity. I use that address primarily for online sexual correspondence. Though he knew my real name from Facebook, this is the address I gave to the boy with the killer abs.
The pen-pal intimacy was established rapidly: sharing too much, at least from my side. He pulled a brief disappearing act. I assumed he was questioning whether or not to continue toward something substantial. After a few days a long email came, but with no explanation for his radio silence.
Two months in, the end to autumn was at countdown. I knew he was coming east for the holidays and I threw down the ultimatum that he come find me or end it. I had no interest in continuing a cyber love affair. The following day I received his email. I only had to read the first sentence to unleash an ice spear down my spine. My terrorist had returned, disguised in fine linen.
cat.fish /'kat*fiSH/ verb informal
to lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional persona.
This wasn't simply an online catfish, as humiliating as that would have been. Seventeen years after his unremitting blitzkrieg, the man who had stalked me re-emerged.
I haven't written on him. I didn't want to invite his resurrection. Almost no one in my life knows his name, if they know about him at all. And I'm afraid. Not solely of being threatened, but for what I have become capable of. And to put this presumption to rest, it does not feel therapeutic talking about it.
Opening that chapter, circa 1991, I was rebounding from a rebound. In a nightclub he approached me from behind and started up a conversation. His cloaked introduction may be relevant to underscore because I would not have looked his way in a gay bar, where attraction is a prerequisite, not personality or compatibility. He was quick witted and very intelligent.
When I got home that evening, he had left a message from a phone in his car. At the beginning of the 1990s, that seemed impressive. I would pay a heavy price by returning the call.
We would talk on the telephone a lot. I no longer remember how many weeks it lasted. I don't know the count, but we saw each other in person fewer days than I can add on one hand. We had sex once. In his defense, I wanted to be in a relationship and said things I shouldn't have and didn't mean. I can't pinpoint the catalyst but his behavior began to decline to childish, accelerating toward overbearing and desperate. He heard what he wanted, how he wanted to hear it, and reacted aggressively. The evidence of implosion arrived in the form of a fanatical multi-paged letter. After reading it, I was done. We had a final phone conversation where I told him he destroyed too many boundaries and I was ending things. He was pleading petulantly. I replied in a parental tone that he needed to leave me alone. He said he didn't know what to do. Haven't you ever felt this way before? he asked me. Yes, I said, when I was in my teens.
I told him not to contact me for at least a month. I hoped he would just stay away entirely. One month to the day my phone rang. And now began the submersion into obsessive, which eventually went to insane. The onslaught came in many forms. I never knew when it was coming or what to expect. I put great effort into pretending this wasn't actually effecting me. As the emotional toll compounded, I contacted a friend who is a psychiatrist to ask advice on how to handle him. If I seriously never wanted to engage with him again, she suggested that I send a non-emotional letter saying I would no longer be part of any communications. She gave me fair warning that if I did respond to future gestures, it would signal to him that I wasn't genuine about ending things. I assured her I was.
My letter didn't free me. It unleashed a declaration of war.
No rabbits in boiling water, but psychological warfare all the same: unpredictable and unrelenting. There were long letters, faxes, and phone messages at all hours. He slipped a Christmas card under my apartment door with no postage stamp. And then a red rose delivered to my place of work accompanied by a single, hand-written word I didn't recognize and couldn't find in the dictionary. He came to my office several times—once while my mother was there. He showed up at the guesthouse in Key West where I was vacationing. And on a Friday afternoon while I was alone at work, a weather report was faxed to me warning a Category 4 hurricane would be making landfall shortly, causing incalculable destruction.
I erased the phone messages as soon as I heard his voice. The blinking red light on my answering machine became an enemy. Some letters I did open, but most I threw away still sealed. I don't know how I decided which ones to read. One sentiment I can't let go came from a typically protracted message: I know you think I'm trying to drive you crazy. Believe me if I wanted to, I could.
He'd find solid defense in his actions. I received a letter shortly after he crashed my vacation refuge. He claimed to have previously sent a note saying he intended to visit Key West at the same time I would be there, unless I objected. Since I hadn't responded, it wasn't his responsibility.
I began to lose a secure piece of myself to the day-to-day anxiety. I went into survival mode, where fear becomes the norm, and I traveled through that mine field accordingly. I did all the recommended things. I changed my phone number, talked to the police, and moved twice. I considered buying a hand gun. I didn't. I might have used it.
And then this. One Sunday while at work, I heard the fax machine activate. I read the message. It was from him. It said he needed to tell me something important and didn't want me to hear the news through the grape vine or from mutual friends, (which we shared none as far as I know). It went on to say he was sending a letter by Federal Express and I should read it. I automatically assumed this was because he had contracted AIDS. And though we only had sex one time and there had been no penetration, he would have thought it ethical to tell me. On a Tuesday, I got home from work and found a white cardboard envelope outside my door. Pulse pounding, I peeled it open. I unfolded the stationery, took a breath and read it carefully. I read it a second time in disbelief.
It was an invitation to a concert. His concert. He'd have a car pick me up at the airport and bring me to the theater so that I could see him perform. I burst out laughing. If nothing else, this was confirmation that his narcissism was worthy of awe.
Before I met the Stalker, I dated a man named Ben who worked for his family’s business at a Manhattan hardware store. He was handsome and very masculine. One night while we were out at a bar playing billiards, a pretty blonde man approached us. Ben automatically put his arm across my chest in an act of protection, like a driver might when stopping short if a child was in the passenger seat. The stranger said hello to Ben, then came up to me and proceeded to tell me in pornographic detail the violent ways Benjy liked to have sex. Since attitude and words are my arsenal of weapons, I unblinkingly held his stare and blandly thanked him for the enlightening information. Ben took my hand and asked me to leave with him. I said I'm not intimidated by that little shithead. Please, said Benjy. Let's just get out of here.
We climbed into Ben's pick-up and he drove me home in silence, until I broke it. What the hell was that? I asked. This was a young man who was stalking him. They had dated for a short period of time. Ben had ended things but the blonde wasn't taking no for an answer. He would send flowers with threatening notes. He sometimes would wait across the street from Ben's apartment or follow him as he was leaving work. And Ben didn't want to talk about it. I couldn't understand how he allowed this little twink to level so much power. I said, why don't you just beat the crap out of him? Or, I'll do it for you! Ben said, please Drew, leave it alone. He doesn't have a normal sense of logic. He thinks I'm infringing on his rights by asking him to stay away from me.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I said, Jesus, Benjamin. Take control of your life!
The barrage began to dissipate over time. "Time" being years. Now and then something would show up at my door. Rarely anything that felt threatening, but always breaching invisible wounds. The final face-to-face began in a nightclub bathroom where the person taking a leak next to me said, funny how you run into people in the strangest places. I responded, hilarious.
Following me out of the bar and grabbing my arm, he insisted we talk. After a few minutes of puffed chests and arduous confrontation, he said he accepted we'd never be friends but we should at least be able to bump into one another without my running away. When the words, "accepted we'd never be friends," registered, an unexpected strategy came clear. I disarmed his offensive by simply, calmly putting up my hand. Stop, I said. It's over. Really. If you see me somewhere, you can feel free to say hello and I'll say hi back. It's okay.
He looked at me slightly confused and theatrically said, phew! I said good night and left. He didn't follow.
He may still have sent a Christmas card the following winter. When the twin towers were attacked on September 11, he left a phone message—which was no surprise. I called his voicemail and formally introduced myself with first and last name, thanked him for his concern, and said I was fine. The end...
Until I accepted a friend request on Facebook nearly a decade later.
Take control of your life. Advice I handed out with an ignorant intolerance before I understood it. Then the tides turned on me. I don’t know that I can illustrate how an uninterrupted loss of control affected me longterm. I cautiously compare my symptoms to PTSD. You won’t see it, but something as mundane as finding voicemails make me silently panic. And when my apartment buzzer sounds, I jump and involuntarily brace myself. Even after all these years.
When I asked writers and friends to look at this story, I was struck by the amount of familiar empathy, particularly from other gay men who confided they too had been through similar experiences. Like survivors of every kind, I stupidly thought I was rare. As diverse as cultures, the edges span from text bombardments to violent confrontations warranting restraining orders and protection. For those who opened up to me, the majority still want or have found love and companionship. But the thread everyone held in common was not wanting to talk about it. Not to friends and not to a therapist.
I have searched to lay cause and reason at the steps of modern gay sociology, where I live in full color. Our social behavior is exemplified by clubs, bars, online connections, impersonal hook-ups, and anonymous comfort. But my plain answer is: whomever the casualty, the stalker is to blame. However, stalking is not exclusive to any community. Celebrities and rock stars have been targets. We don’t hold fame responsible. Do we hold being gay responsible? Now there are weapons burgeoning the new frontier of social media: a two-dimensional contact that thrives on immediate and indiscriminate gratification. Firing one hundred-eighty characters may have opened another method of attack, but the wreckage is the same.
As a gay man, as a man who has been stalked, I live my life well; that’s not the same as living it fully. Not trusting my instincts has derailed my ability to let someone close enough to love deeply. And to be loved in return. But I’m working on it.
When I read the confession for his Facebook forgery seventeen years after the stalking began, I responded. Don't ever contact me again, mother fucker. I should have known. He had written that he would respect my wishes and leave me alone. So far, he has. In going public, I’ve endangered that reprieve. It still scares me, but I think it’s time.