The Whistleblower

Written by, Alexis Candelaria

Two things happened.

1. The assistant coach had sex with a student athlete.

2. The head coach was caught trying to cover it up.

Well, actually, three things happened:

3. I found out about it.

So what do you do when you are in this situation? The law is pretty clear on what you must do- you must report it. There isn’t any vague language or room for interpretation. My decision to inform our principal was already made for me. But my voice shook as I made that call, the enormity of my actions rested squarely in my chest as I began the call by saying, “it has recently come to my attention…”

But how did I get here? And why was I the one making this call? No less than four adults were aware of the inappropriate sexual relationship between the coach and the seventeen year old- the same seventeen year old who “jokingly” asked the other coaches to buy her a cocktail at the last banquet; who showed up in a shear dress and stiletto heels that to most adults was a plea for help. A shout, a scream, for help. She didn’t need the cocktail, she needed someone to help her. While the other coaches side eyed her and shook their heads, trying to stifle a wry grin, one did not.

He was a lonely twenty five year old whose only goal in life was to be the head swimming coach at a high school. He thought that if he had that job, he would have made it. His life would have meant something. He spoke softly, timidly, as though he wanted to reach out into the air and take back each word as it left his mouth. He only worked with the swimmers who did the Butterfly-the most demanding stroke in swimming, that required raw upper body strength with agile hip movement to propel the athlete through the water. Usually these swimmers were bulky and tall, but not her. She was lithe and elegant, and moved gracefully, swiftly through the water. He could see in her face that no one had ever told her she was a beautiful swimmer.

There was an email circulating between the coaches that detailed the affair. She’d sent it. And I imagined that she waited. And waited. And then grew embarrassed that she even sent it in the first place. What was she looking for, anyway? Protection? Justice? That’s not how these things work. That’s not how they are designed. Shear dress, remember? She asked for the cocktail. She wasn’t even a virgin anyway. She should just forget it and move on.

I’m only an assistant coach and I work on starts and turns-you know, dives and those flip turns swimmers do. I had our top boy on the block when I hear the heard the head coach say that he’d talk to her next week. I blew my whistle and watched the athlete briefly ascend into the air, stretch out his wiry body and then descend into the water. I turned and asked the head coach who he needed to talk to, and without any prompting, he pulls out his phone and proceeds to show me this email he’s been holding onto.

She asked for help. You know the first thing they ask is, Did You Ask for Help? Did You Tell Anyone? Check and check. It started that night at the fall banquet when he took her up on that drink. After everyone had long gone, back in their warm homes, with their families, she was sipping a daiquiri that he purchased just for her while he drank ice water. He offered to drive her home and they ended up having sex in a parking lot while her parents slept soundly in their 2.5 million dollar home. And he’s been driving her home almost every day since then.

I told our head coach that he had to tell our principal. He shook his head. Another athlete steps onto the blocks and calls for me. Coach, he says, a freshman with wild red hair, I’m Ready. I blow my whistle.

It’s just a misunderstanding, he said so confidently. Besides, he adds, that girl is trouble. I urgently tell him he needs to tell our principal, my voice dropping in tone. He looks at me and then quickly shifts his eyes. He will, he says, after he conducts his own investigation.

That’s how these things perpetuate, right? We do our own assessment of the situation, giving latitude to the accused and nothing else to the victim. We keep these things hidden, delete the emails, text messages, and say it was all a misunderstanding. Then we take it one step further-we force the victim to accept this. We force her to renounce all claims of harm and wrongdoing, then, just to be cruel, we turn around and place blame squarely on her shoulders. She wore the sheer dress, the hooker heels, and drank with a man nearly ten years her senior until last call on a Thursday night. She got into the car with him, he didn’t drag her, force her, jump out from behind the bushes. Besides, she didn’t even use a condom because that’s just how she rolls.

Within twenty four hours of making the call, the school fired the lonely 25 year old coach who said he never bought her alcohol. He’d never purchase alcohol for a minor, he said, it’s against the law. They removed the head coach of his duties for trying to cover it up and asked me to take his place. Me? The whistleblower?

But she wasn’t going down like that. She never wrote any email, she said, I lied and it was my fault we lost two great coaches. She told her parents it was all a lie while she drove in her white BMW with custom white leather seats. That old bitch lied, she screamed into her Bluetooth at her parents. That bitch lied and now she’s trying to break up the swim team. Even as she’s screaming at her mother, hitting her hands on the steering wheel as she drives, chipping a perfectly manicured nail, she’s still screaming for help. If I could hit the pause button in that moment for her, I could show you the fear creased just beneath the anger. I’d point just right there, where the whites of her eyes meet her brown irises, that’s where her shame lives. If I could pause this moment for her, I’d tell her, in no uncertain terms that I get it. I do. It’s not her fault, it doesn’t matter that you wore the sheer dress or those heels. It doesn’t matter that you accepted the drink and got into his car. It was never your fault.

And one day, when your older and perhaps have kids of your own, after you leave this town and the nightmares fade, you might actually believe that.

One email begat two, which begat three, which didn’t stop. Day and night parents from our swim team barraged me, asking me why the head coach was removed. Telling me I wasn’t good enough or trustworthy because they knew the head coach. They really knew him and he was a good guy. Everyone knew he was a good guy. That’s what Everyone said. Everyone said that Everyone knew he was a good guy and if anyone disagreed, we’ll, they just didn’t know him. At first I read each email, immediately recoiling at the incestuous loyalty that comes with small, homogeneous towns. I couldn’t tell them that the person everyone said was a good guy was willing to cover up rape or that this wasn’t his first time covering up for his coaches. I couldn’t say a word. Eventually, I just uninstalled my email from my phone.

The athletes wanted the coaches back too. He was their coach, they said. I was no one. They loved him, they said, and soon I was down to three swimmers in the water. Gone was my top wiry swimmer and the freshman with wild orange hair. They were gone and I was left standing. They protested, barged into the principal’s office, and demanded their coach be reinstated. Which coach? Both of them, of course! And get rid of that lying bitch.

A whistleblower. Someone who calls out wrongdoing when they see it, especially if it’s ingrained or systemic. I sit by the edge of the pool and question why I’m still here, offering to coach the children on the wrong side of history. Whose parents have emboldened them to lean into their tunnel vision, their ignorance, and never take no for an answer. But then, why am I surprised? This is how it was always meant to go. Asphyxiatingly small towns with their old money drying up like all the oceans and lakes around us, powerless to the March of time, until they see an opportunity. And for a moment, they don’t feel so powerless, they didn’t wear the shear dress or those ridiculous stilettos, and they aren’t becoming irrelevant in a world that is slowly turning against them. For a moment, they aren’t the villains.

I am.

How did I get here? Well, I blew the whistle.

This May be in Your Inbox

Written by, Alexis Candelaria

This may be sitting in your inbox and you may remember me. In 2005, we had a January interim class together in college and started seeing each other. In June 2005, I was seventeen weeks pregnant when I had an abortion; you got me pregnant, I was barely twenty years old, a junior in college. You were twenty five, too old to be a senior and still living in the dorms.

I learned I was pregnant shortly after we stopped seeing each other and was immediately grappled with indecision, even if the only reasonable one available to me at that time was abortion, the prospect was terrifying. Paralyzing to point that it took me nearly four months to book the appointment. How does one ask for an abortion? How does one tell a disembodied voice over the phone that sure, you were twenty years old but no, you weren’t sure if your parents insurance covered the procedure and no, you hadn’t talked to anyone about this and no, you weren’t interested in talking to anyone now. And yes, you were coming in alone.

I couldn’t tell you then, we’d barely known each other. And, more importantly, we weren’t speaking because you’d stop returning my calls after that one night. You see, after that night, I was a tight coil of confusion as images from that night flickered dimly before me. Dull glimpses that evaporated too quickly, but re-emerged whenever I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. The acerbic, unclean smell could summon shuttered, stilted ghostly celluloid images for a heartbeat but never give me enough information, no solace, no understanding. No peace.

So I called and I texted and when I saw you on campus, you looked right through me before looking straight away. You always smelled of cigarette smoke and cheap bar soap, that I swear I could smell it even if you were across the street, across the campus. The haunting scent of a night where bruises bloomed on my body and unfamiliar voices crowded inside my head.

The decision not to tell you was solidified when one day, early into the pregnancy, I was going up the stairs to Founders hall thinking what it would be like to tell you and whether you’d be angry or simply dismissive, and down the stairs you came, with a pretty brunette hanging on your every word. She was petite and spoke with a twang I could hear even as she laughed. A chill I would only understand later, ran through me as I passed the young brunette with wide generous brown eyes. I should warn her. I should tell her. I should tell her about the pills and bruises and all of the alcohol and how I knew it tasted strange but doubted my own assessment and kept drinking it. I should warn her, pull her into my confidence to spare her the horror of making that call, of booking that appointment.

But I didn’t. I remember the barrage of facts that stood like sentries in my mind: I went to the party willingly. I purposely chose the semi sheer top that gathered at my waist and wore the tight jeans that fell just below my belly button. I accepted his drink and flirted with him until well after midnight, one am.

People would call me culpable. The police would question my story and I’d have to admit that I couldn’t remember what happened after that drink. I’d only learn years later, it is set up like that by design. Nothing is there to protect you, only question and eventually tear you down. It hates you. It wants to see you doubt yourself, your story, your pain. It hates you. They hate you.

I couldn’t warn her. I wasn’t sure, completely sure, what I’d warn her about.

So, I kept walking. Maybe I am culpable.

I knew then, without a shred of uncertainty, I was in this alone. I’m thirty seven years old now and I still think about the day, when my friend drove me to the planned parenthood and I sat alone and quiet until my name was called. It was a two day procedure and it was inescapably painful. I didn’t know it would feel like I was being pried open by an invisible force so intent on screaming pain into me, punishing me for being so weak, so naive, so incredibly stupid. Some women offered me water and to help me out to my car. There’s a kindness born out of collective suffering. When I got home, I felt lashed with taut, hot pain all night long. It grabbed hold of me and refused to let me go, to let me breathe, it refused to let me say I’m sorry. I wanted to implore into its ears, I’m just so incredibly sorry.

When I arrived back the next day, I was put under and when I came to, I was alone again, in a room of other women, who also looked totally and completely alone. There is no sisterhood on day two, we are encased in a silo of shame and unbidden trauma that is impenetrable; within a course of forty eight hours we’d become the unknowable pariahs of an unjust, unrelenting patriarchal society, carrying around an unforgivable secret, the mark of a woman who made the loneliest decision.

You know, there was a moment, on day one, when the doctor doing the sonogram asked me if I wanted to keep the baby. I baulked-baby? I never thought of it as a baby. It was a night I vaguely remember, where I drank beer from red plastic cups and I politely turned down a handful of pills but woke up anyway in your bed with bruises on my arms and a sore rib. I was angry the doctor called it a baby, they should’ve called it what it was, even if I didn’t have the courage to. Say it. You have to say it to make it real, to let them know. Let the word roil from your bowels and deafen the world with its arrival. You must make them know.

You should know this all really happened. No, no, not in a I Think this happened or I’m pretty sure this happened. This happened exactly as you’ve read it. This is probably sitting in your inbox, unread. Tick, tick, tick.

It’s not my responsibility to extrapolate meaning, if any, from this for you. I’ve relinquished responsibility from you long ago.

Lastly, the experience wasn’t one dimensional, even if you were absent from it, it’s your experience too, on a very visceral level, it’s your story too. It’s a part of you, too.

This is five years in the making, summoning the courage to stand alongside my wounded, scarred and angry sisters to demand justice after so many years of being buried in the cold, silent ground with our secrets. Generation after generation, too many to number now.