Cathy Vandewater gets more than she bargained for from an unpaid internship

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I was two weeks into my unpaid internship at a film production company when I met the owner, Doug.

This is what I knew about Doug:

1. He owned the company.

2. He liked Fresca (the one perk of the job was supposed to be free soda, but we were unofficially forbidden to touch the Fresca, which was sometimes the only brand in the machine).

3. He preferred to work in the main room where he could stare at the interns, who toiled at a long, unfinished work bench.

The first time I saw his face (not just a flurry of movement in or out of the office), he was peering at us over a copy of Entertainment Weekly. “You guys look bored,” he said. I sat up straighter in my wobbly chair and began typing furiously. The mighty Doug had spoken.

Countless other interns had failed, they told us, the three twentysomethings who showed up to work on Mondays and Wednesdays—a failed sportscaster, a cocky theater major getting school credit and me—but those who succeeded, they promised, those who emptied the garbage and read spec scripts with equal zest, would get the Golden Ticket—Doug’s letter of recommendation.

I ate it up. I needed that recommendation. Plus, I read in Doug’s copy of the New York Times on the “intern table” that bankers were committing suicide. It was a very scary time.

By October, I had gotten the hang of tying the trash bags properly and aced my first big assignment: driving Doug’s truck to a rental place to drop off some equipment, even though I’d never driven in Manhattan before.

As a reward, I was invited to work as a production assistant on a commercial shoot on Long Island—the jackpot of intern tasks—where I helped costume and set designers pin things and arranged the craft services table that interns were not allowed to eat from. On the drive home, the crew stopped for ice cream. Doug turned to me and asked for my order. “And what do you want, Cathy?”

I was shocked. He knew my name.

In December, Doug hosted an intern appreciation night for those of us who were still in school and finishing our internships for the semester. It was the unofficial “last night to impress Doug and get him to recommend you,” so we took his invitation for drinks seriously. The men came in button-downs and ties, a far cry from the T-shirts and jeans we wore to work. I donned a conservative but dressy black cocktail sheath and curled my hair.

At the bar, I was seated across from Doug, which was embarrassing because I couldn’t tell if he’d remembered me.

By our third round, it was clear that he did.

“You,” he said. He turned to Jason, the new intern, a bookish Brown University student, who sat next to him. “You’ve been sniffing around Cathy, huh?” Jason turned eight shades of red. “You’re a nobody,” Doug said. “Don’t try to play big man around me.”

The conversation shifted, and I signaled to Jason that we should go for a smoke.

“What is this?” slurred Doug as we left the table. “I told you—I know when these things are going on,” he told his assistant.

“I think he’s jealous that we talk,” Jason said as we puffed in the cold. I laughed. “Why would he be jealous? He doesn’t even know me!” I said. A flash went off. The sportscaster intern, Mike, ran off laughing, clutching a camera. “Doug, I got it!” he yelled inside.

We decided to go to another bar. I was getting unsteady in my heels, but a few people were heading home, so it was a smaller group. I thought I might even get to talk to Doug alone and ask for his recommendation. I hopped in Doug’s car with Jason and a few others.

We ended up at, of all places, a grimy basement lesbian bar. Doug’s choice. I felt horribly out of place but ordered a beer and tried to look at ease leaning against a pillar as the others played pool. Doug sidled up next to me. “You know,” he said, cupping his drink, “I think it’s about time…”

He said something else very quietly. I tilted my head toward him, smiling politely. “What was that?” His head dropped toward me and his open mouth locked onto my neck.

He sucked. Hard.

“Ahh!”

I shoved him off, shocked, wiping his spit from my throat. My neck burned from his sharp stubble. I paused for a moment, looking for help, but I couldn’t see anyone’s face in the dark bar. I finally turned and ran out the way we’d come in, stumbling onto the icy sidewalk in heels. Jason followed me.

“Did you see that?” I screamed, rubbing furiously at my neck.

“Yeah, everyone saw,” he said.

We stood in the cold for a few minutes before he offered to go back in with me to get my things and go home.

I was digging for my purse under a sticky table when Doug came over with his palms up, looking very contrite. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Let me just explain.” The music was loud, and as I stood with my arms crossed over my coat, he leaned in so I could hear him. “I just wanted to say…” he started. He suddenly flopped forward onto me and pressed his mouth all over my neck and collarbone, moaning.

“Get off!” I screamed, shoving him as hard as I could. He trailed behind me as I fled, grabbing at my shoulders like a zombie as I shrugged him off, swatting behind me.

I fled to the subway, where, finally alone on the C train platform at 3 a.m., I sobbed.

I went to work on Monday, sure I would get some sort of backup—because, as Jason had said, everyone saw the incident—but people didn’t even look up when I said hello. By noon, I was so hurt and bewildered by the silent treatment, I told the producer I worked under I quit.

I left a note with a few choice—yet classy—words for Doug, but I never got the piece of paper I wanted from him: a recommendation for my three months of good, uncompensated work.

I guess I got a different kind of “experience.”

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  • EAFM

    That’s awful. You should’ve told him off to his face since you won’t be seeing any of them again.

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