I remember holding my viola, so I must have been returning from orchestra rehearsal when my roommate told me, “The weirdest thing happened. Some guy called for you, asked for you by your full name, and then when I told him you weren’t here, he hung up. And then he did it two more times. Except the last time, before he hung up, he said, ‘Tell him I’m watching him.’” I remember putting the viola down, on the ground, next to my feet, and answering the only way my nineteen year old brain could process this information: “What?”
My roommate’s energy had been manic throughout his recap. Now he started to relax, as if my presence and the opportunity to relay such strange events to anyone were a source of comfort. I sat down on our couch and asked him if he was fucking with me. “No way,” my roommate answered. About an hour or so later, we were nested in our work when he called again. My roommate was working on an economics problem set, I suppose, while I was working my way through a translation (this is how I remember the story based on our respective majors). We’d calmed ourselves down by coming up with a very reasonable explanation for the calls: some prankster had probably just looked up a random name in the student directory and had decided to mess with that person, and he was probably frustrated by my not being home.
I let the phone ring four times. We could have paid an extra five dollars a month for caller ID service, five dollars more for voice mail, but we’d declined those options. We had an answering machine hooked up to the phone, and callers were greeted with the opening lines of the Silver Jews song, “Advice to the Graduate.” The machine picked up, and the message was simply a dial tone. He’d hung up. A minute later, the phone rang again. I convinced my roommate to pick up. “Hello,” my roommate said. He turned to me and mouthed, “It’s him.” “Yes he is,” my roommate said into the phone. “Who’s calling?” He handed me the phone and whispered, “I think he said his name is Beam Beam.”
I took the phone. “Hello,” I said. There was no response on the other end. After a few seconds I said, “Hello,” again, louder this time. “Hello,” I repeated myself.
“I’m watching you,” the caller said.
“You’re watching me?” I asked.
“I’m watching you,” he said again, a bit softer. “I’m watching you,” now almost a whisper. “I’m watching you,” he repeated. “I’m watching you,” again, but in an even softer whisper. Then he hung up.
During medical school, I took a writing class at the undergraduate campus. The teacher was not very invested in the class. I don’t think he read any of our stories before workshop. Instead, he asked that day’s author to read his or her story aloud, and then as a group we’d critique the piece. He never gave written feedback on our stories, just a few tidbits of wisdom during those group discussions. One of his stock comments was, “There are only two types of stories – the hero goes on a journey and the stranger comes to town – and I’m not sure you’ve figured out which of those you’re trying to tell here.” I didn’t know he was paraphrasing Tolstoy and thought the comment was both brilliant (in its analysis of the general art of storytelling) and lazy (in that he was able to lob this critique at pretty much anyone’s story). His other consistent comment was actually phrased as a piece of advice. When someone submitted a story about a college student, he’d sigh and say, “Don’t write about anything that’s happened to you until you have at least five or ten years distance from the event.” In those five to ten years, he suggested, we’d figure out if our current adventures really deserved documentation.
I am almost twenty years out from that night when someone told me, in progressively hushed whispers, that he was watching me, and I wonder if I should have given myself so much distance before trying to chronicle those events. I am concerned by some inconsistencies. For example, I had three roommates, because I lived in a two-bedroom, four-person suite. We all shared a single phone in our common room, so where were my other two roommates during this time? And I can’t be sure if all of the initial calls happened one night or, instead, were spaced out over two or three consecutive nights. I know they started when I was at orchestra rehearsal (either a Monday or Wednesday night), because I remember holding my viola when my roommate first told me about the calls, but I can’t be entirely sure if the next calls came later that night or the next night or even two or three nights later. I remember walking to class the next day, whenever it was that he spoke to me, and being worried that someone would jump out from behind a bush and attack me. I remember swiveling my head, like a surveillance camera, especially when I was alone, and those fears are my clearest memory. What I can’t figure out, and perhaps this is because I am recalling these events from a thirty eight year old’s perspective, is why my nineteen year old self didn’t call the police that night. Why did I wait until Beam Beam called me again, a few weeks later, before I reported the calls?
This is probably the best place to introduce Corie, because I believed then, and still do now, that he was Beam Beam, despite a number of inconsistencies to this theory. Corie insisted on his name being pronounced Kuh-rie (rhymes with “a lie,” coincidentally) when I shared a room with him in the summer between freshman and sophomore year. We were both working in a summer school teaching program in a fairly rural community outside Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. To keep costs down, local families were asked to house the faculty, and so Corie and I shared a guest room (formerly an attic space) in the home of arguably the nicest family I’ve ever met: Mr. Holton, Mrs. Holton, their son, Josh (who also taught in the program), and their daughter, Jodie. On the first night, lying in the darkness of the guest room, Corie asked me if I was awake. When I answered yes, he said, “Good. I need to tell you something.” He waited for me to say okay. “You should know that I’m gay. I mean, you might have guessed already, but I just wanted you to know. Is that going to be a problem for you?”
I answered as quickly and confidently as one year of a liberal arts education at a very liberal school could allow me. “Of course not,” I said. I was nineteen, though, so I also felt the need to follow-up with a joke. “You should know that I’m straight,” I said with a laugh, so he knew it was a joke.
“That’s obvious,” he said derisively. “But I think Josh and Jodie are gay,” he continued, “and I think their parents know that, and if they find out I’m gay, that’s going to really upset them, because then they’ll think that I’m the one who turned out their kids.”
I told him his analysis was ridiculous. “I don’t know why you think they’re gay. How you can know after just having one meal with them?”
“Oh please,” he countered. “When you’re gay, you always know who else is gay in the room. It’s like being black.”
I didn’t feel equipped to counter that argument because, in addition to being gay, Corie was black. “Okay,” I said, “well, the other thing is, even if you’re right about Josh and Jodie, Mr. and Mrs. Holton seem pretty cool. They don’t seem like the type of people who would be angry about their kids being gay.”
“Well, that’s your opinion,” he said, “because you’ve never been in this situation. I’m just asking you, please, don’t tell anyone I’m gay.” I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone and went to bed thinking how absurd this request was, because Corie – in the way he dressed, walked, and talked – seemed to be doing an impersonation of the “Men on Film” skit from In Living Color.
At dinner the next day, Corie had a change of heart. He announced to the table, “I am a homosexual,” and then asked if anyone could drive him to the bus station on Saturday morning, so that he could go to New York City to march in a gay pride parade. Upstairs in our room, later that night, I said to Corie, “Things seemed to go pretty well at dinner, don’t you think?” “Oh yeah,” Corie said, “they’re all very cool. I could tell they’d be cool.”
The summer program began the following day. In addition to our teaching responsibilities, we were also given two students to mentor. The program director suggested we call them beforehand, introduce ourselves over the phone, and make plans to eat breakfast together in the school cafeteria the next morning. As this was my second year in this kind of program (I’d worked in a Massachusetts school the year before), Corie asked if I could go first, so he could see what kinds of things I said on the phone. When I was done, he told me I should have talked more to the parents.
“These kids are thirteen and fourteen,” I said. “They’re old enough to be responsible about school and talk to their teacher on the phone.”
Corie disagreed. The key to getting through to at-risk kids like the ones we’d be teaching, he instructed, was to go through their parents, because these kids respect their parents more than their teachers. He was an education major at a small school in Chicago that I’d never heard of, he reminded me as he reached for the phone. “By the way,” he said. “I’m going to have to use a fake voice when I speak to the parents, okay, so don’t listen to me. Read a book or put on headphones or something.” His voice, thus far, had been high, nasal, and sing-song in its cadences, as if he were parodying a homosexual for some antiquated comedy performance. Now, on the phone, he talked in a slow, deep, Barry White-esque voice. I pretended to read while he asked to speak to Mr. and Mrs. Dominguez.
He introduced himself as Kaw-rey (rhymes with “Laurie,” i.e. the expected pronunciation of his name) and not Kuh-rie (rhymes with “a lie,” again). He told them about his education training and how he planned to be a role model for their son this summer. He never asked to speak to Benny but just told his parents to make sure that Benny showed up on time in the morning and looked out for a six-foot two black man wearing a red shirt.
Corie turned out to be an awful teacher and an equally awful roommate. At night, our conversations became more and more truncated, whittled down to a few practical exchanges about who would shower first in the morning and what time we’d leave for school. Otherwise, he spent hours on the phone talking to his friends from Chicago. I tried to leave the room, for his sake and mine, but usually the phone calls lasted well past when I went to sleep. I’d lie in bed, facing the wall, hearing Corie take turns gossiping about his friends back home and the other teachers in our program, of which he was convinced more than half were either gay or bisexual. He also frequently bashed our program director, Jessica, who was trying to force him to teach “her dumb-ass, old-fashioned way,” and whose poor management skills could, in his opinion, be easily remedied with “one good fuck,” which unfortunately he was not inclined to provide.
Jessica had already approached me in private about her concerns regarding Corie’s classes. “He hasn’t made a syllabus yet,” she said, “and we’re already into the second week.” She bit her lower lip. “When I ask his students what they learned in class, they just shrug their shoulders.” She asked me if I ever saw him working on lesson plans at night, and I tried to answer as honestly as possible. “No, but we’re rarely in the same room. He generally stays in the bedroom, and I work in the kitchen.” She went on, not satisfied with my answer. “He’s not doing lesson plans. He’s already told me that. He says that he doesn’t believe in too much scheduling, because it stifles the creative flow in his class.” She sighed and added, “We’ve never had to ask a teacher to leave.” At Jessica’s request, I tried to broach the subject of lesson plans with Corie, but he blew me off. “Please,” he said, “just please. I’ve done student teaching in some of the most ghetto high schools in Chicago. I think I’ll be fine with a bunch of thirteen year olds from Pennsylvania.” He sneered and picked up the phone to call one of his friends from Chicago.
There are problems with this account. Corie should be more a sympathetic character. For example, I would sometimes imitate his voice, mostly to myself in the bathroom or when I’d jog on weekend mornings, but sometimes aloud to other people, including other teachers in the program, and even once to Josh Holton, who looked disapprovingly at me before offering a courtesy laugh. We had a sex education afternoon session at the school, during which the students were split into two groups (boys/girls) and encouraged to ask any question they had about sex. So as not to embarrass any of the students, questions were submitted anonymously on index cards. I never saw the girls’ cards, but the vast majority of the boys’ cards were variations on the same question: “Is Corie gay?” On July 4th, he didn’t want to go with me to the local high school to see the fireworks. “I don’t feel comfortable in this town,” he said. He went, anyway, because Mr. and Mrs. Holton asked him, and he didn’t want to offend them or their neighbors.
“I have to run to the bathroom,” Corie whispered to me one night. “Talk to Grace for a few minutes.” We’d been living together for almost three weeks, and Grace was his most frequent Chicago call. He often started with her and then moved on to someone else only if Grace had to cut their call short. He handed me the phone and left the room.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” Grace said. “So you’re the roommate?”
“Yes I am,” I said.
“Well lucky you,” she said. We both laughed.
“Corie’s not too bad,” I said. “At least he’s very clean.”
“I can’t believe he’s making y’all call him that.” She punctuated the sentence with a laugh. “That’s not his name.”
“It’s not?” I asked.
“It’s Corie,” she said, pronouncing his name like Laurie. “He’s just messing with you. He’s a pathological liar.” She must have sensed some unease on my end of the line, so she switched topics. “Corie says you’ve been macking on some girl over there. How’s that going?”
I was so thrown off by hearing his name pronounced the more traditional way that I almost didn’t register her question. I was in the midst of a surprisingly successful flirtation with one of the other teachers, Kate, who lived in the area and was blonder and more beautiful than any girl I’d ever dated. We’d been “macking” (I didn’t have the words for it then, nor do I now, so borrowing Grace’s slang seems entirely appropriate) for just over a week, and already the topic of sex had arisen. Specifically, she’d asked me how many girls I’d slept with during my first year of college, to which I answered three, which was three more than the correct answer. Kate and I had kept our “macking” quiet, or so we thought, but here was Corie’s friend as well-informed as, I now assumed, all of my co-workers. “It’s going well,” I said. “I guess it’s going well.”
“You sound sweet,” Grace said. “You really like this girl, don’t you?”
Before I could answer, Corie entered the room and took the phone from me. “It’s my calling card,” he snapped at me. “Don’t use up all the minutes.” He then laughed at something Grace said on the phone and replied, “Oh, please! He’s not licking it, and he’s certainly not sticking it.”
Some things I learned about Corie: He was twenty-three, not twenty. He’d dropped out after only one semester at the school in Chicago that I’d never heard of, and he’d been out of school for almost a year and a half when we lived and worked together. He had a son. I don’t know his name or who the mother was, but I sometimes wonder if Grace was the mother, because of how nurturing her voice was on the phone. He told Mr. and Mrs. Holton that he was using a pre-paid calling card for all the long distance calls back to Chicago, but, after we’d left their home, they received a telephone bill exceeding $400. He could barely speak a word in Spanish, although his application touted native speaker fluency. He left the program after four weeks, just before we were due to move out of the Holton home and into another family’s guest room. He said his grandmother, back in Chicago, was sick and in the hospital and probably going to die. He needed to return to her and the rest of his family. He hoped everyone would understand. He said he’d return in one week but never did. The phone number on file was disconnected when Jessica tried calling him. She admitted there were some concerns, going in, about his commitment to the program. Apparently, during his phone interview, Corie had confided in her about his son and about how much he’d miss him during the summer. Typing that sentence, I just realized that the son may have been as real as the pre-paid calling card.
Some things Kate never learned about me in the fourteen months we dated: I told Corie that she went down on me on our first date, and his response was exactly what I was hoping to hear (“She sucked your bird? Oh my god! I can’t believe this! You got your bird sucked before I did?”). I was in a fairly innocent, above-the-waist only relationship with a local high school senior for two months in the fall of freshman year; I’d shared a few drunken kisses with someone from Boston University on a dance floor; and I’d flirted with and later masturbated to a classmate in my Catullus seminar. These were the three girls I visualized when I told Kate, on more than one occasion, that I’d slept with three people during freshman year. During sophomore year, when Kate and I were roughly midway through the tenure of our relationship, I walked a friend home late at night and, perhaps as a thank you, she kissed me on the front steps of her dorm. I kissed her back. We went back and forth for ten minutes, and then she asked me if I wanted to go upstairs with her. She knew I had a girlfriend, so it was easy for me to use that as an excuse. In fact, Kate was visiting me that weekend, which I told my friend.
One thing I never learned about Kate until our fourteen month relationship ended: She had sex with two other guys during those fourteen months.
“Give yourself at least five or ten years before you write about something,” that teacher once said. I’ve written about Kate before but never in the context of Corie. We were all liars.
I thought Corie was Beam Beam because he called me that same night. In this version of events, I came home from orchestra rehearsal, my roommate relayed the strange calls, another call came in an hour or so later, Beam Beam told me he was watching me, and then, five or ten minutes after he’d hung up on me, the phone rang again. I made my roommate pick it up. “Hello,” my roommate said. “Yes, he’s here. Who should I say is calling?” He passed the phone to me, said he couldn’t pick up the name, but it definitely wasn’t Beam Beam.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” said the voice on the other end of the line, a deep bass that I recognized immediately as Corie’s talking-to-the-parents-of-his-students voice. “Do you know who this is?”
“It’s Corie,” I said, and I felt silly about using his fake pronunciation, but I did it anyway. He shifted into his nasal, high-pitched tone as he laughed and asked, “How did you know it was me?”
He told me he’d found my number through my school’s online directory. He asked me if I was still with “that little girl,” meaning Kate, and I told him yes. I asked him why he left, and he told me his grandmother had died, and it was too much work arranging her funeral and mourning with his family to go back “to that stupid summer school.” I brought up the astronomical phone bill he’d left for Mr. and Mrs. Holton. “I thought you said you were using a phone card.” “I know,” he said. “I know. I do feel really bad about that. I guess the card wasn’t working.” I knew it was a lie, but I was enjoying our conversation and so relieved to be distracted from Beam Beam’s calls that I didn’t press him on that subject any more.
Eventually, I told him about the strange calls I’d received that night. “What did he sound like?” he asked. “Like this?” He said those two words in a creepy, whisper-like voice that shook me. “Did he sound like this?” I asked him if he had placed the calls. “Of course not,” he said. “Why would I do that? That’s so childish. I can’t believe you’d even ask me.” I found myself apologizing, and then our conversation dried up, and soon I was off the phone wondering when was the last time I’d had a midnight phone conversation with anyone other than Kate.
I have a nineteen year old stepdaughter, a sophomore in college, who’s the exact same age that I was when I received those harassing calls. If she told me someone had called her and told her in a menacing whisper that he was watching her, I would call the police myself. If she told me she eventually laughed it off, went to bed, went to class the next day like nothing was wrong, I’d think she was lying or crazy. But that’s what I did. I went to bed that night convinced that Corie was Beam Beam, and I still think he was Beam Beam today. Even though two or three weeks later, Beam Beam called again, said the same words over and over in a whisper decrescendo: “I’m watching you, I’m watching you, I’m watching you, I’m watching you.” This time, my roommate insisted on telling the police. I told him he was over-reacting, and he told me I was scared.
Two campus police officers came to our room twenty minutes later. One stood in the middle of the room listening to my story. The other paced around the room, soaking in our living conditions: the video game console, the empty beer cans strategically lining our windowsill, a Reservoir Dogs poster on one wall facing off against a John Coltrane poster on another wall. “Yeah, this guy has been calling a lot of students lately,” the one who’d heard my story said when I’d finished. “Sounds exactly like the same guy, although I don’t remember him using that name before. He usually doesn’t give a name. But it’s the same thing he’s said to others. ‘I’m watching you’ and stuff like that. We’re pretty sure he’s harmless.” He told me that if it happened again, they could try to trace the call. “But it’s probably not going to help because he usually calls from a pay phone.” The other officer finished his survey of our room and added, “Just be careful, you know, don’t walk alone in the dark, the usual stuff.” He sounded so calm, so nonchalant. “He’s never done anything but make these calls.”
Faced with this evidence, it was hard to stick with my theory that Corie was Beam Beam. Yet when I walked to class the next day, nervous that someone would jump out of the bushes and attack me, the attacker I pictured was Corie: a stranger coming to my town. I have two distinct memories of those nervous walks, though. After the initial series of calls, I was looking for Corie, almost (but not totally) hoping he’d show himself. After the second call and the visit from campus police, weeks removed from my conversation with Corie, I deliberately tried to find packs of students behind whom I could walk. I didn’t want to be completely alone. I never walked to class with friends, and I wasn’t desperate enough to change that habit entirely.
Two decades later, I remember those walks, those calls, those people, because I am listening to Bret Easton Ellis talk about his stalker at the beginning of his weekly podcast. The police downplayed the threat that this woman posed to Ellis, but his fiction writer’s mind morphed her into a more dangerous assailant. He was lying to himself, I suppose, as much as I was lying to myself when I mitigated the danger of my stalker, chalking up the harassment as just a silly prank by my roommate of four summer weeks. Again, even now, writing this reminiscence, I firmly believe Corie was the caller despite fairly objective evidence that he wasn’t. My memories refuse to give up the lie, because the lie keeps me safe. Ellis saw himself as the hero going on a journey, while I wanted to see myself (and still do, I suppose, no matter what version I retell) as just a player in some other stranger’s story, regardless of whether that stranger was Corie, Kate, or Beam Beam.