1st Place Short Story Contest: Finding You - Emma Zimmerman

Updated: Aug 15

On the day I met Alec, I wore a pink They Might be Giants tee, the same one my aunt had worn in the eighties — the sleeves cut off and the bottom tucked into denim that flared at the bottom like a ballerina’s skirt. I bet he’d never heard of that band, They Might be Giants. Still, he followed that shirt, hot pink flashing through the rows of fried cheese curds and bunches of kale at the Madison Farmers Market. He appeared — again at the garlic, again at the cheese curds, again at the jam samples, again and again.


“They might be giiiiiiaants,” he called, annunciating each syllable slowly, like a doped-up surfer with his long, beachy hair, as he followed me away from the market and onto State Street. “Hey, They Might be Giants. I keep running into you!”


He told me I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And he said it like that, too: “I’m sorry, but you’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” Although, looking back, I was decidedly a girl — with my flat chest and jutting bones and the tweed grocery sack I swung over my shoulder, because it screamed urban sustainable, but not in a corporate, Whole Foods sort of way.


Maybe he knew that the type of girl I was — the type who wore a nerdy band tee from the 80s — was also the type who would get angry if he called her a girl. Maybe he thought I was the type of girl he could get away with calling beautiful on a street corner. Maybe he knew I’d roll my eyes, ask if he threw that line at every girl he met on the street. Maybe he knew that, deep down, I’d be flattered.


What he didn’t know is that I couldn’t get our encounter out of my head. There was something about his voice, the way he simultaneously slurred and slowed his speech. Either stoned or stupid, I thought. But there was something else, something about his eyes — their wide intensity. The way he looked at me as if we were two characters in a black and white movie, thee kind that crackles on a tv screen.


When he asked for my number, I told him I didn’t live in Madison; I was just meeting a friend and leaving after dinner. He stood there staring at me with those eyes, his brown hair falling in waves from his head before grazing the top of that muscle-hugging, white t-shirt.


“But it was nice meeting you,” I said, as I turned away from him and headed back to the market.


I would tell my friend about him when we met later that day. I would even tell my mother about him — in that brush-it-off way that a twenty-year-old tells her mother about things. Some creepy dude following me around the market. Some lame pick-up line. Either stoned or stupid, I would repeat, laughing.


Months later I would repeat those words again, this time pleading with myself, begging, you were not flattered.


***


Taylor was not flattered. Not by the muscles and not by the flirting and not by the slurred words — certainly not on the first day she met Alec, at the UW-Madison library. The library, not the farmers market, was the spot. Alec’s spot. The year was 2015 and she was a sophomore in college. Taylor remembers Alec as a campus celebrity — a creepy campus celebrity. But most of all, she remembers his eyes.


Later, as a student-journalist at UW-Madison, Taylor will cover the Alec Cook case. The motivation behind this project is not hard to discern. Taylor is a sexual assault survivor herself. There was the assault in college and the rape in high school—the latter of which happened on the night of her senior prom. Although, she will not name it as rape until many years later. Not until she has quit journalism and is working as a mental health professional at HeartSupport, an organization in New York City that blends music with therapy.


“Something happened on prom night,” she will say to a colleague. He is leading her though a trauma-focused session, and she begins to describe the events of that night—of prom night, six years before. There is a white lacy dress. There is makeup and there is a black flower in blonde hair. There is a first drink. There is a boy who is not her date. And then there is her body and the boy who is not her date’s body, and there are one too many bodies, blurry bodies, and she is passed out and there is smudged makeup and crumpled blonde hair and, “Taylor, you were raped,” her colleague will say.


Taylor never reported either of these assaults — not the one in college and not the rape that was not yet “rape” until someone — not Taylor — named it as rape. In the prom scenario, she was drinking for the first time. She was passed out. She was wearing a lacy dress with a toil skirt. The court would ask her about those drinks and that dress. The court, she believes, would tear her apart.


And perhaps it is these two facts — that of her own assaults and her wariness of reporting—that drew her to cover the Alec Cook case. She wanted justice. She wanted to tell survivors’ stories. In part, it seems, because she could not tell her own.


So, Taylor covered the case for The Tab, a college-centered online publication. Then, she covered it for Teen Vogue. No, that cannot be right. The word is not covered. Taylor was overwhelmed by this case, she was consumed by this case, she was tied, inextricably, to this case. Taylor, like me, is haunted by this case.


***


By September 2016, the farmer’s market encounter seldom reentered my mind. Not until October. Not until sweaters replaced band tees, dining halls replaced farmers markets, and I was back on a college campus in Iowa, 250 miles from Madison. The next time I saw Alec’s eyes, they were pixelated. An iPhone screen. A morning alarm. The soft hum of a fan. Crusty eyes from too little sleep. October glow through the window. A finger dragging over blurry headlines, blurry updates — email, New York Times. Bargaining with myself to get up, get dressed. Blurry Instagram, blurry Facebook. Suddenly, my finger landed on an image, no longer blurry. It was a mugshot—long brown hair, eyes that seemed to stare right back at mine. Either stoned or stupid.


Alec’s mugshot had been shared by a girl I barely knew from high school. Somehow, I remembered she went to UW-Madison, reminded every-so-often by Instagram squares: a Badger’s hat at a tailgate, a Swiss Mountain dog in a red and white bandana.


“Thankful this animal is being brought to justice,” she wrote.


Alec was arrested on October 17th in a Madison apartment, charged with four counts of sexual assault. Within days, additional women came forward to add to the claims. He would eventually face 23 criminal charges involving 11 women. The charges would include second-, third-, and fourth-degree sexual assault; strangulation; suffocation; false imprisonment; and stalking. Inside Alec’s apartment, Detective Grant Humerrickhouse found a small leather notebook, sealed in a sterile plastic bag, it held systematically formatted entries: women’s names and what he hoped to do to them.


***


Three years before Alec Cook was arrested, a young woman went for a jog on the east side of Madison. She finished running and climbed the steps of her new apartment on Winnebago Street. There, she was approached by a teenage boy with downcast eyes. The boy’s name was Adore Thomas. He followed her up the steps and asked for a glass of water. What happened next remains disputed. In court, the young woman will testify that Adore raped her. He will admit to beating her, and to a planned attempt at robbing her, but will deny claims of sexual assault. Both Adore’s case and Alec’s case will fall into the hands of Dane County Circuit Judge, Stephen Elke.


There are a few similarities between these two cases: Alec Cook lived in Madison. Adore Thomas lived in Madison. Alec Cook was accused of rape. Adore Thomas was accused of rape. Alec had no prior criminal record. Adore had no prior criminal record. Alec’s case was tried by Judge Stephen Elke. Adore’s case was tried by Judge Stephen Elke. The women harmed by Alec and the woman harmed by Adore will face scrutiny in court. They will be asked: what did you wear, what did you drink, what did you say, dream, think, plan, want? Both the women and the woman will fall under one statistic: 92% of reported sexual assaults are proven to be true —which is affected by another statistic: nearly 70% of sexual assaults go unreported.


At this point, the similarities stop. It is more telling, perhaps, to look at the differences:


Alec Cook was a white man. Adore Thomas was a black boy. Alec was a 20-year-old white man at the time of his arrest. Adore was a 15-year-old black boy at the time of his arrest (although, he would be tried as an adult in Wisconsin court). Alec grew up in the wealthy town of Edina, Minnesota, and was raised by two parents. They lived together in one home. Adore grew up in Norcross, Georgia, and was raised by his mother.


Alec Cook left Minnesota to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Adore Thomas left Georgia to live with his brothers and their father in an apartment in Madison. In letters to the court, Alec will be a star student, a best friend, and a good neighbor. In a news article, Adore will be a video game-obsessed teenager from a violent and broken family. Alec will be defended by two attorneys, paid for by his family. Adore will be defended by a state-appointed assistant public defender. To Judge Stephen Elke, Alec’s crimes must be considered alongside his character and his need for rehabilitation. To Judge Stephen Elke, Adore will receive a “severe punishment” for a “very severe crime.”


Alec Cook will be sentenced to three years in jail. This amounts to seven months for each woman he harmed. Adore Thomas will be sentenced to twenty years in jail. This amounts to twenty years for each woman he likely harmed.


***


The year is 2018 and Alec Cook has just been sentenced to three years. In the parking lot of a courthouse in Madison, Taylor bangs her head on the steering wheel. It is pounding by now — her head and also her pulse and also the music from the radio of some car parked down the street, which is all of a sudden too loud and her head too loud and everything, everything too loud. Taylor fumbles with the latch on her purse, realizing how sweaty her hands are. Then, the phone is in her hand, and she is dialing her mother’s cell phone number. It is a curious space to inhabit — that of the college woman — old enough to cover a sexual assault case and young enough to memorize her mother’s phone number, fingers moving faster than tears in times of crisis. Her mother picks up after two rings.


“Mom,” says Taylor. “How?”


***


I have spent six years following Alec Cook’s story — Googling, emailing, reading, typing, and re-typing again. It is not until 2021 that I learn of the boy (the other boy? The man?). It is not until 2021 that I learn of Adore Thomas.


What else can I say? How else can you see? Eleven proven sexual assaults. One likely sexual assault. One white man, one black boy. One white judge. Three years for Alec, twenty years for Adore, and a lifetime for the women they hurt. When I Google Alec Cook’s name, I toggle through search-engine result pages. When I Google Adore Thomas’s name, I find two articles. One of them is blocked by a paywall on Madison.com. I must text a friend who lives in Madison, ask him to copy and paste the article, and email it to me.


I exit out of the article on Adore Thomas and Alec Cook’s eyes—his mugshot—stare back at me again.


***


“Those eyes,” says Taylor. “I will never forget those eyes.” The year is 2021 and we are seated at a coffee shop in the financial district of Manhattan—a place with a separate to-go coffee counter for the downtown briefcase crowd, extensive seating, and all the nut and grain milks one could dream up. At a table tucked into a back corner, there is a berry scone and an overpriced kombucha and two women who have never met before and yet, who remain haunted by the same eyes. Taylor has just come from teaching a spin class and dons the sleek athleisure typical of Manhattanites, albeit less black: teal leggings and a slouchy, off-white sweatshirt. Still, there is something ostensibly non-New York about her. Perhaps it’s the way she picks at a flaky scone, rather than sipping on some matcha-double shot concoction; or the way she stretches one leg out on the chair beside her, as if watching a movie with old friends. I think it is mostly the way words escape the confines of her mouth, ungated. This story is weighty, a five-year burden. It must run free.


“There was nothing in those eyes!” she exclaims.


After Alec Cook’s sentencing, Taylor grew skeptical of journalism, just as she grew skeptical of sexual assault reporting, and just as she grew skeptical, hateful even, of the justice system. When Taylor graduated from UW-Madison she moved to New York City. She began working at HeartSupport and teaching spinning classes on the side. She got her master’s in clinical mental health counseling. The best way for her to help survivors, she believes, is through therapy.


In a coffee shop in Manhattan, I want to know: when does the Alec Cook case return to Taylor’s mind? Anytime she sees a news story about sexual assault, she says. Anytime she hears a sentencing. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement, she would refer to the case. She would remind her family members what it means to be a rich, white boy in America. She would remind them that, in this country, justice is inseparable from money and race.


I want to know: when does Taylor think of the survivors? Constantly, she says.


Often, she thinks of Judge Stephen Elke, as well. There is a date marked in her iPhone calendar, reminding her when to vote against his reelection. She thinks, too, of Jessa Nicholson, one of Alec’s attorneys—the ruthless way she tested the survivors’ memories. The way she dug into trauma, carving deeper and bloodier wounds. And to what end?


What does this case say to young women? Why would a woman ever report a sexual assault after watching this case? Taylor asks this of her mother, her friends, and of herself. She asks this of me.


Would Taylor advise women to not report their sexual assaults? When I probe this question, I can hear the uncertain weight, the answer forming on her breath. Her exhale is a deflating balloon, equal parts forceful and slow. She pauses.


No, she says. No, never as a therapist. She would never suggest that to a client.


“But I didn’t report my own sexual assaults,” she says. “And I’m glad I didn’t. I stand by that choice.”


***


Alec Cook was released from jail last summer. I hardly knew him; I never sat in a room beside him or entered his name into the contacts of my phone. Our sole encounter lasted five minutes, if that. And yet, I have spent the last six years searching for him. I have searched for him in the smallest of details—in the games he played as a child and the words he wrote in his high school yearbook. I comb through news articles, courtroom videos, and social media pages. I pull up Google Maps and type in the address of his college fraternity house, zoom in on the accompanying image, and grasp onto the smallest details—the banister with its tan bricks and faded marks. For what I am searching, I do not know. If I had not walked away from him that day in Madison, I think he still might cling, like grains of sand on the shell of me. I might still be trying to lose him, to find me instead.


When the waves of obsession break, I sometimes forget — a month or two will pass. And then, there he is — a repetitive thump heard in the middle of the night, faraway, near silent, and yet, teasing my mind from sleep. I try to write about Alec until I cannot. I try to forget about Alec until I cannot. Then, it is 4am and I am awake and staring at a computer screen, his mugshot and a gargantuan word document in front of me once more.


Each time I write about Alec, I am twenty years old again, and I am back at the Madison Farmer’s Market — my tweed sack, my Birkenstock shoes, and my bony shoulders poking out from the sides of that pink band tee, its frayed fabric more appropriate for the torso of a toddler than that of a young woman. In 2016, I wore a smaller body — still young and insecure enough to crave the feeling of hunger, like a lullaby, humming deep inside my gut as I drifted off to sleep later that night. And I wonder, did he seek out girls who held themselves as if they could control everything? As if they could control everything by controlling themselves? Did it make him feel powerful, to take control?


For a time, my obsession with the details of that day seemed self-centered — that monster crossed my path, followed me, spoke to me. Me me me. It took me a long time to decode my obsession; to discover that part of it lay not in the me, but rather, in the why me? Or perhaps, the why not me? I will memorize countless nothings of Alec Cook — the lakes he swam in, the games he played with neighborhood kids. And yet, there are women whose countless somethings will not live, but fade — pure mystery — and they are the ones whose mothers stayed up late to hear the back door close when they arrived home from high school dances, who color-coded their notebooks before their first college classes; who spent weeks in hospitals recovering from PTSD, years in therapy, decades fleeing intimacy, the ones who did nothing wrong, and yet, who will walk this earth for the rest of their lives carrying the weight of that man. And those women are not me.


And what of me, Alec? Oh, I’m perfectly fine.


I was only slightly traumatized when that face on the street became a mugshot, the front page of a newspaper, and an image that flashed across the tv screen in my college weight room.


But I am fine, and I will be fine, and I will eat and sing and dance and drink too much wine and go on too many Hinge dates with men whose names I don’t remember; run too far down deserted streets while alone in unfamiliar cities; watch a high school girl in cutoff jeans be hit on by a man twice her age on a train in New York City. Wonder if I should step in. Say something. Anything. But I won’t. Usually, I won’t. Instead, I will watch him get off the train and watch her stay on the train and hope that she’ll live to survive all her future encounters with future versions of him or you. Hope she’ll live to face only the standard grab-bag of girlhood traumas—a low grade eating disorder, a manipulative boyfriend — but nothing too serious or deadly. I will think of her sometimes, sure, when I reach that stop on the train or when I’m shopping for jeans. Will you think of her, Alec? When you’re shelving cans at the grocery store or watching a sitcom on the couch with your mother? Or is she just another line, scrawled in the crinkled pages of a leather notebook?

 

Emma Zimmerman is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her journalism has appeared in Outside, Runner's World, Trail Runner, Women's Running, and Taproot Magazine. Her literary nonfiction was awarded the 2021 PRISM International Creative Nonfiction Prize and the Lighthouse Emerging Writers Fellowship. Emma holds a BA from Grinnell College and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at New York University.

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