I look up from my son who’s breastfeeding when I hear the quick knock on our hotel room door. Tina covers us with his baby blanket and kisses me before she pulls away and peers through the peep hole. “It’s Lieutenant Duffy.” She pulls back the door chain and unlocks the bolt before opening the door.
Lieutenant Duffy smiles tightly as she says, “Hi, Tina. I… um, can we come in?”
Tina steps back and Duffy enters, followed by two policemen, one of them Tasha. Tasha seems very nervous, her posture rigid as she says, “Hey guys. I’m glad you’re okay.”
Tina furrows her brows and her eyes meet mine before she addresses Tasha. “Tasha, is something wrong?”
Tasha sighs heavily and meets Tina’s eyes, then mine. They’re laden with apology as Duffy answers for her. “Tina, why don’t you take a seat? I’m afraid we have some bad news.” My heart falls into my toes and Tina steps haltingly up to the bed, picks up Rory, and sinks down next to me, taking my hand. Duffy clears her throat. “We were able to corroborate your story and deem this an accidental death. Even if it hadn’t been, the California Home Protection Bill of Rights gives you reasonable cause to kill an unlawful intruder if there is reasonable fear for your life or that of one of your family members. However, it also states that the district attorney has the right to present evidence to a jury that contradicts the threat of the intruder should they so choose. The DA, Merle Rothman, has expressed the wish to press charges on behalf of the state.”
Something niggles at the back of my mind as Tina’s tremulous voice asks, “So… what does that mean?”
I feel my heart rate start to pick up as her words sink in and settle low in my now swirling stomach. Chance starts to fidget and I lift the blanket covering him to make sure he’s okay. I begin to realize it’s my emotions that are upsetting him and will myself to calm down. He settles down and starts feeding again but I have to close my eyes and breathe deeply to keep my cool as I hear Duffy confirm my worst fears. “It means that I have no choice but to arrest Bette. I don’t want to, and I’m sorry… but that’s the law.” Tears well in my eyes as I gaze at my son who’s suckling. How am I supposed to leave them? They’re barely four days old…
I feel my hand squeezed painfully tight as Tina says, “You can’t do this… she’s just had a major abdominal surgery. Our-our children are four days old and they’re breastfeeding…” I feel her get up off the bed and pace anxiously. I look up to see Tasha gazing at me with anguished eyes as Tina starts to vent. “Some insane woman harasses us, breaks into our home, threatens to kill us with a gun, frightens and intimidates us, nearly kills one of us…” She gestures to me. “…literally, and you’re going to arrest the person who stopped her, who protected us?! This is outrageous!”
Tina starts shaking she’s so angry, and I want to as well, but my emotions are too frazzled to respond in a coherent fashion. Something again niggles at the back of my mind and I furrow my brows. “Duffy, what did you say the DA’s name was?”
She lets out a sigh as she repeats, “Merle Rothman.” Merle Rothman… Merle… I close my eyes and release a heavy breath as the name and all it entails hits me like a brick to my face. My mind pulls back the curtain over my fuzzy, alcohol-tinged memory and I cringe. The lounge lizard…
Tina’s somewhat calmer voice breaks me out of my thoughts. “Why is the DA doing this? If it’s clear that it was self-defense and Bette had the right to protect her family by law, why pursue it?”
I fix my tank top and lift my drowsy son to my shoulder, patting his back as I look to my wife and answer, “Because I pissed her off.” Tina looks to me confused and I sigh as I open my mouth to explain.
I signaled to the bartender for another rye manhattan and watched as she started mixing enough for six of them in the shaker. Smart woman. I had been here every night for two weeks since I broke it off with Candace, my routine of getting deliriously hammered and stumbling away to hail a cab never changing. I had no idea what I was looking for in this lounge or what I expected to find at the bottom of countless martini glasses, but I wasn’t finding it, and I was resigned to the fact that I never would again. It was sort of like a trip to the fridge to satisfy an unspecified craving. You keep going back to the appliance hoping that what you’re looking for will jump out at you every time you open it, but alas, it never does. It’s always the same shit that was there just moments before, and it will never be anything you want. I guess that’s human nature; to keep going back to what you don’t want when what you need isn’t available, not anymore. I had made sure of that…
The bartender chuckled under her breath as she listened to the conversation of three business women sitting at the end of the bar, and poured my drink, setting it and the shaker in front of me. I sighed, relieved, as I immediately took a sip and thanked her with a large tip. She rested her elbows on the bar and motioned me forward with her finger.
I’m not usually one to follow orders, but the gleam of mischief in her eye and the five other manhattans thinning my blood gave me cause to oblige her. I leaned in and she pulled in close to my ear asking, “You’re Bette Porter?” I nodded and heard the smile in her voice as she continued. “This is so not a feminist thing to say, but, there is a group of women over at the end of the bar…” She jerked her thumb to my left. “…who have you meat-tagged like nobody’s business.”
I pulled back and furrowed my brows at her. “I’m sorry…?”
She chuckled and explained. “Meat-tagged – it means that they’ve marked you as a hot item.” I rolled my eyes and she continued. “Those girls are lining up around the block to get on your dance card.”
I took a sip of my drink with a bored expression before saying, “Great. My neighbors will love that.”
She grinned at me and shrugged as she said, “FYI,” before pushing back off the bar, winking, and walking away to serve other patrons.
I snorted and downed the rest of my drink, letting the cold, bittersweet liquid settle hotly in my stomach, mirroring the bittersweet cold filling my soul. I poured another and just as I was about to take another long pull, I saw a hand appear in front of my face. I tracked the length of the orange-tinted skin of a badly fake-tanned arm with my perpetually blurry eyes until they landed on the face of an older, dark-haired woman wearing far too much lipstick. Her dull hair was teased to give the impression that it had body, the strands coarse and messy-looking, but none of these things seemed to register in her mind because the smile on her lined face was confidently cocky. Her voice was scratchy and oddly masculine as she said, “Bette! Hi. Merle Rothman.” Her overall effect was like that of a reptile that had been chain smoking in the desert sun.
I reached up and cringingly took her hand, hoping that she’d go away quickly if I just let her make her move and move the fuck on. “Hi.”
Her grip was firm, her hand slightly scaly as she said, “Hi, we’ve never met, but…” She presumptuously sat down on the stool next to me and I felt myself get agitated. “…I was hoping we could change that.” Her lecherous grin showed the lipstick stains on her teeth and crinkled the deep ridges that marked her forehead and eyes. I may have been made a pariah in my chosen circle, I fucking deserved that, but I wasn’t desperate, at least not for anything outside of Tina and the series of drinks that awaited me. And getting any better acquainted with this lounge lizard would be a whole new level of low, even for me.
I felt her rough hand graze up my thigh and gave her wide, angry, and disbelieving expression. Who the fuck was she to put her hands on me? I grabbed her manly hand and pulled it away, squeezing it roughly while the group of women she was with earlier looked on and giggled. “I think you’re mistaken. I don’t remember inviting you to sit, let alone permanently damage my psyche by touching me with your scabby hand. Not interested…”
Her dark, almost black, eyes turned cold as she leaned into me. “You obviously don’t know who I am, and considering the washed up joke you’ve become in lesbian circles, you might consider this encounter my attempt to do you a favor. Perhaps you should reconsider.”
I snorted and chuckled mockingly. “Consider getting all of your cracked, dry skin removed by a sand blaster and put a paper sack over your face, but even then I doubt there’s enough alcohol in the world. Sorry, but even this washed up joke isn’t that desperate.”
She stood and placed her slimy hand on my shoulder as she leaned in and said, “I’ll remember this, Bette. No one… treats me this way. You’re going to be one sorry bitch.”
I gazed at her with all the self-loathing that had only just begun to well in my soul, my voice shaking with the intensity of it as I said, “What makes you think I’m not already?” I roughly shoved her hand off my shoulder. “Huh? What makes you think I’m not already?”
Her eyes were as hard and cruel as my own as she stared at me for a moment. Finally, she turned and strode off confidently, the waft of stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume left in her wake choking me. Her friends were still giggling as she approached but they went silent when she arrived and threw a bill on the counter. She gave me what was probably one of her most intimidating looks before turning and exiting. I sighed with relief as I turned back to my drinks, further drowning away any sense of self.
Tina sits down on the end of the bed and stares at me incredulously. “You can’t honestly believe that she’d be so pissed about getting turned down by a total stranger in a bar one night, that she’d try to pin murder charges on them…”
Duffy clears her throat. “Well, she’s notoriously power hungry and her reputation means everything to her, but I’d have to agree with Tina. She might want to slap you on the hand or humiliate you socially, Bette, but to try and convict you of murder…”
I sigh. “You’re right, but that’s the only encounter I’ve had with her. Why else would she want my head on a plate?” No one answers for a long moment because no one has an answer. There could be any number of reasons she wants me. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. She wants me arrested, and I don’t have a choice. Duffy clears her throat again and I meet her eyes. “Are…” I swallow hard. “…are you taking me in… now?”
Duffy nods her head. “Unfortunately, yes. I don’t have a choice.”
Tina starts to cry. “Please, Lieutenant, Tasha… there has to be another way…”
Duffy swallows hard and steps towards me as Tasha says, “Tina, I’ll make sure she’s taken care of. Nothing’s going to happen to her while she’s in police custody, I promise you; I’ll make sure of it. There’s just nothing we can do until she has an arraignment.”
Duffy meets my gaze and I can tell that she hates what she’s about to do almost as much as I do “Bette, I’m sorry, but we have to take you in now. Merle expects you booked within the hour or she’ll push for a warrant. You don’t want that, believe me.” I nod my head and kiss my sleeping son as I pull him from my shoulder and lay him on the bed. My hands shake with the will to hold onto him as I try to pull away. It’s nearly impossible, but somehow I manage to slowly get to my feet, Duffy reaching a hand down to help me.
I stare, dazed, into Tina’s frightened eyes as Duffy reads me my rights. “Bette Porter-Kennard, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?”
My voice is cracked as I simply answer, “Yes…”
Tina walks up to me and I take her in my arms. Her hold is desperately tight despite the child between us. “I’m going to call Joyce right away and we’ll meet you down at the station. We’ll figure this out.” She leans back and strokes my face. “I won’t leave you there, I promise…”
I dip my head down and kiss her, trying to hold on to even a shred of my dignity. I nearly break as I lean down and kiss Rory, the dammed up tears making me shake violently as Duffy, Tasha, and the unknown policeman escort me from the room.