“Babe…?” I feel a hand stroke through my curls and open my eyes just in time to see the beautiful face above me moving in so close that it becomes abstract. Her lips are warm and the kiss far too short, but it leaves a smile on my face as her features again come back into focus. She returns my smile and I reach up to stroke the edge of her full lips. She kisses the pad of my thumb, her voice low and gentle as she says, “Kit brought dinner and everyone’s here.” She strokes me again. “How are you feeling?”
I take her hand and interlock our fingers, gazing at the delightful contrast of her skin against mine. “I’m sorry about earlier today, T. It’s only the first day of the trial and I’m already having panic attacks.”
She strokes my forehead with her free hand. “You’ve been through so much, Bette. Most people wouldn’t get as far as you have already, let alone be able to face what’s ahead. You’re not indestructible; you’re just very good at picking up the pieces. Don’t feel bad for having a moment or two… hundred.” I chuckle and she grins. “You’ve earned them. It doesn’t make you weak, just human.” I bring her hand to my mouth, kissing it reverently before pulling myself up to a sitting position. Tina stands and holds her hands out to me and I take them without thought as I throw my legs over the edge of the bed and settle into a sitting position.
I pull her to me and press my face into her stomach, wrapping my hands around her thighs and just holding on to her for a moment. She cradles me against her, tangling her hands in my hair. “You never did answer my question.”
I press my cheek against her and furrow my brows. “What question?”
“Are you okay?”
I sigh and lift her tank top to place my cheek to the warm, taut surface of her silky skin. “I don’t really have a choice, T.” I kiss her belly button and rest my hands on her hips as I gaze up into her burnished face. “I know that once this is over, I will be. But until then… I’m just…”
The words that describe my mixed emotions won’t come and finally she leans down. I close my eyes as she kisses me. It starts innocently and reassuring but quickly becomes deeper and passionate. She keeps her face impossibly close even as she breaks away, her lips soft against mine as she asks, “What do you need to make you feel better?”
That’s a loaded question, but ultimately there’s an easy answer. “You… just you.”
I feel her grin before I see it. She stands to her full height and steps backward, tugging me up by my hands. “Well, you’ve got me. And I’m going to take care of you until this is all over. My first act as your overprotective wife is dinner.” I sigh, following along after this miraculous creature as my swirling myriad of emotions take a backseat to deep contentment, at least for now. “Then, I’m thinking a long soak together in a hot bubble bath after the kids are asleep. And then…” She stops tugging me and moves closer, running her hands up my arms to link them behind my neck. “…once you’re relaxed, I’ll take advantage of you until you collapse in my arms and hold you as you sleep.”
I smile at her. “That sounds… perfect.” I dip my head and kiss her again. There is no end to the love and adoration I feel for her, but it’s overwhelming in moments like these. They seem to be a perpetual state of being anymore. My thoughts escape my mouth without hindrance. “I love you, T.”
She takes my face in her hands and pulls my head down, resting her forehead against mine. “I love you, too.” She holds me this way for long minutes before linking our fingers and I follow her down the stairs.
Everyone’s on the back patio in various stages of activity, but the dark cloud hanging low over my friends and family is nearly visible. Shane and Carmen are setting the table as Kit sets out the food and Dana pours wine.
Malcolm, Ming, Tom, and Angie are settled on the sun lounge near the pool, chatting in a subdued manner. Helena and Dylan are sitting in a lounge adjacent to Alice and Tasha. Both couples look distanced, the six inches between them may as well be a chasm. They exhibit a dense air of foreboding as Alice and Helena each hold a baby and make small talk. Dana is surreptitiously glancing at Alice as she works, overfilling a wine glass when Tasha catches her eye. Tasha and Dylan’s expressions are of lost longing as they gaze at their partners whom seem determined to ignore the issues weighing them down. Dana cleans up her mess and I realize that my family is falling apart. It’s heartbreaking and so needless.
Is this how they felt when Tina and I split up? It’s like watching a train wreck. You don’t want to see what you’re about to see or know what you’re about to know, but you can’t look away or wash it from your mind. You’re glued to the tableau as tragedy unfolds and it kills a part of your soul. I feel Tina squeeze my hand and I realize that I can’t take everyone’s needs upon myself. There’s nothing I can do to fix things for them. It’s all I can do to keep my own life together, and I haven’t done that well. At the end of the day, only they can make things right, but I can’t help but feel helpless irritation. Have they learned nothing from my life? From Tina’s? Can’t they see that force doesn’t work in matters of the heart? Can’t they see that being unhappy is no way to live?
A part of me is angry with Alice and Helena, and even Tom. Just like me, they have what they want right in front of them, but unlike me, they don’t choose to see it through; unlike me, they have the time and freedom to actually experience it. I have fought so hard to have this family and I could lose it for no reason. I don’t have the time that they do, and they choose to waste it, take it for granted, allow fears and insecurities to give them nothing but an empty and miserable life.
I look at the hand linked with mine and drift my gaze up over the soft muscles of Tina’s forearm, the light freckles on her shoulders, the smooth expanse of slender neck, until I’m gazing into hazel pools of radiant light that make my soul fall willingly to its knees in supplicant surrender. If no one else learns, at least I have. My past is just that, my past. And as much as it clings to me, I don’t live there anymore. I’m not that person anymore. And Tina knows. God help me, she knows me and loves me, and my heart bursts with a joy that is overwhelmingly dampened by the trial and the noticeable struggles of those around me. All I can do to help my family is to live and lead by example. Show them what they’re missing and hope it inspires them to not only find it, but embrace it. I only wish that I felt like I had the time to fully explore this life I have helped to build with my wife, my Tina.
Tina pulls up against me, tucking her head beneath my chin as her arms wrap around my waist. How much humans take for granted. How much we flounder unnecessarily when all we need is right in front of us. No amount of wealth or talent or possessions can fill the void that is inherent in all of us. We are made to love each other. We are made to live and help and complete each other. I close my eyes as I breathe in her comforting lavender scent, and promise myself that I’ll never take her for granted. Fortune favors the brave. I have been brave, and I’m holding my fortune. Who knew it could be so fleeting? I may not get to live my dream, but I am fortunate to have learned and lived and loved so much in such a short amount of time.
Angie finally notices us and immediately climbs down out of Tom’s lap. She runs up to us, wrapping her arms around our legs. I release Tina and pick her up, settling her in our embrace. She leans her head on my shoulder and her voice is small as she says, “Everyone’s sad.” I close my eyes. Children are far too observant for the limitations of their understanding. She leans back, her full lips pouty as she asks, “Why?”
Tina strokes me soothingly as I choke back my tears. “Today’s just been a hard day, babycakes. That’s all.” She sighs and I muss her unruly coif of black curls, allowing the love I have for her to smile out from behind the melancholy of my thoughts. What can I even say to assuage her fears? I don’t know if it’s going to be okay or if it’s going to work out. I just don’t know what helpful platitudes wouldn’t be an intentional lie at this point.
Kit’s voice breaks me from these thoughts as she calls out, “Okay, let’s eat.”
Everyone makes their way to the table, Alice and Helena settling the babies in their seats while we settle Angie in her high chair. We all sit, Tina and I pulling up tightly next to each other. The atmosphere around the table is subdued and heavy, and I start to feel angry… unreasonably angry. There’s little talk as we sit around the table and eat quietly, which is a good thing on my part. I’m certain nothing good could come from my mouth at this moment.
About halfway through this mockery of a family meal, Alice says, “I still can’t get ahold of Duffy. I’ve probably left fifty messages.”
I set my fork down, cleaning my mouth with one of the white cloth napkins, clearing my throat, and looking to Alice. “Al, I think you should just let it go.”
She eyes me like I’ve misplaced my meds. “Bette, this could help you…”
I take a sip of my Perrier, trying to stop myself from having an outburst or episode. “How, Al? How is it going to help? I’ll still have a bigoted judge and a vindictive DA after me. Kelly will still buy and sell people, and for whatever reason, people will always want to take me down.”
“Well, we could move for mistrial, couldn’t we?”
I nod, my anger getting the best of me. “Right. We could move for mistrial; then someone else will put me and my family through this hell again, albeit through the proper channels, prolonging an inevitable outcome. I don’t want that. I just want to be done with this. I want it over with.”
Alice leans back, glowering at me. “You sound like you’re ready to just go to pris–”
I stand, throwing my napkin down and glaring at her. “Not here, and not now, Alice.” I gesture to Angie who’s stopped eating to listen. Kit stands and takes her from the highchair, walking her into the house without a word. Alice’s expression turns contrite but I just can’t let this go. “Alice, is that really what you think? You think I’ve just given up… after everything? You think I want to be separated from my family?” I snort out an incredulous laugh. “Do you know me at all…?”
She throws her hands up in frustration, her voice slightly higher. “Then what is happening, Bette? Everything you do and say is… defeated. This isn’t like you…”
I exhale heavily as I gaze at her. “I’m fighting this as hard as I can. I’ve been fighting this for what feels like an eternity. I’m tired – exhausted really – and I’m fed up and angry with this attitude that everything’s okay. You know it’s not; you just don’t want to face it. And honestly, it’s so fucking frustrating that you have a chance at everything that I want but you take it for granted.” I gaze around at everyone. “All of you. You don’t seem to realize what’s right in front of you. You have time that I don’t, but you don’t want it. Well I do! I want that time… I need it, but mine is about to be stripped away from me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! You could have anything you want! You have the time to make that happen, and you’re wasting it!”
I feel Tina’s hand settle in my own to calm me but it doesn’t work as Alice’s voice further grates on my nerves. “What do you mean by that?!”
Oh, please! She’s fully aware. I stare her down and she shuts her gaping mouth before turning to look at Dana who’s playing with the food on her plate. Tasha sighs and shakes her head. I look to Helena and I don’t have to say anything more to her either. She knows as well. She looks to Dylan who takes her hand and gazes hard into her eyes. I finally lay my eyes on Tom, and decide that this one is going to be vocal. “And you… you had a sister who loved you and welcomed you back with open arms. You had a family that cared about you and you turned away the minute things didn’t go your way. You were depressed? Seriously? You had love and support and the time to see it through, but chose not to! What I wouldn’t give to have it that easy… to have time… just time!”
I gaze at the faces around me, my jaw clenching and unclenching with the force of my anger. “You have everything I want right in front of you and you ignore it. What’s worse is you tell me it’s going to be okay. Well, it’s not. Things won’t be okay unless a fucking miracle happens. Don’t you see that?” None of them are looking at me or listening and tears well up in my eyes, tears for myself, for my family, and for the mess everything, everyone, has become. Long minutes of silence pass this way before I nearly shout, “Look at me!” They finally look up and I hold my hands out at my side. “I’d give anything to have the time you have! Stop ignoring it! Stop wasting it!”
Tina stands and pulls me away. I feel the anger ebb and burn out in my guts, leaving them sour and roiling as the tears start to fall harder. She pulls me up to the master bedroom and sits me on the edge of the bed. Sobs rack my body as her warm arms encircle me. I cling to her, my voice choked as I say, “I’m sorry… fuck. I’m just… I’m so sorry.”
She strokes my hair. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, it’s okay to cry. You can cry with me.” Neither of us says anything more for a long while. I feel my emotions start to settle into a place of numb indifference and it scares me. All of this is just so terrifying. “I’m just so scared, T.”
She kisses my temple. “I know, baby. I know. I’m scared too…”
I lean back and look up into her tear streaked face, my heart dropping into my toes. She’s been so steady, so calm, so available to me… for me. She smiles sadly. “It’s okay to be scared. I think… I think we’ve been trying too hard to swallow these emotions; we need to stop pretending like we’re not hurting. Positive thinking and confidence are vital, but so is letting all of this negative stuff out.” She strokes the curls from my eyes. “Maybe if we do, it won’t be so bad. We’re in this together. That’s worth something, right?”
I lean forward and kiss her full, wet lips, sniffling as I rest my forehead to hers. “It’s everything, T.” We hold each other for long minutes and I realize that I do feel better, but I’m certain I just alienated half of our family in the process. And Angie… fuck. That was irresponsible of Alice to start that in front of her. I could have handled it better. “I shouldn’t have said those things.”
She buries her face in the hair at my neck and exhales heavily, ruffling my curls and tickling me. “They’ll get over it.” She kisses the skin at the crux of my neck, her voice pensive and soft. “I hadn’t considered it, but you’re right. Time is far too short and life far too precious to waste any of it.” She pulls back, taking my hands and placing them in her lap as she gazes into my eyes. “They’ve been here, watching you, they’ve seen everything you’ve been through, everything you’re going through, and somehow that lesson is wasted on them. Maybe they needed to hear that. I know I did.”
I furrow my brows. “What do you mean?”
She plays with my fingers. “I’ve been avoiding thinking these things. It’s like I’ve been trying to convince myself that it can’t happen. But it can, and it might. You might be taken from me.” Tears gather in her eyes and she starts to tremble. “I-I can’t let that happen, Bette. I just can’t.”
I pull her to me as she begins to cry in earnest. I close my eyes against the anguish of knowing how badly I’m hurting those that I love and aside from that, I can’t help but consider that maybe there is no escaping my past. There has to be a way to be done with it. There has to be a way… but… but what if the only way to stop hurting them is to leave them? I love them so much. I need them. The thought of leaving them isn’t even comprehensible.
I feel like a hole has been punched through my chest and there’s no way to stop the sickening grief and fear that are trying to fill it. What the fuck can I do? What’s the right thing? Does that concept even exist? I cling tightly to Tina, and let all of the hurt surface. There’s just nothing I can do to stop it and even if the right thing is to find a way to leave them, how could I ever possibly see that through? I couldn’t. There has to be a way through this. There just has to be…
I gaze out at the greying sky from our balcony, absently twirling the rings on my finger as another day begins to dawn. I breathe deeply of the dew laden air; the scent of Tina’s blooming rosemary is thick on the warming breeze and it’s calming. I take in my surroundings, the smells and the quiet of the anxious city that’s not yet fully awake help me to realize how insignificant all of this is. No matter what happens, life will go on. The earth will still rotate on its axis, inexplicably suspended around the yellow sun that is just about to peek up over the Hollywood hills. I have my lasting legacy. It’s soiled with tears and blood and heartache, but it’s nothing compared to the grandeur of eternity, of endurance, of life.
I squint my eyes as the first ray of the ancient globe reaches up above the horizon in the East. There is truly nothing new under the sun. It has seen it all, and despite everything, it endures and fosters life even as it perpetually consumes itself in its own fire. I feel a connection to this life and the knowledge it contains. I know I have stardust in my lungs, that all life begins where another ends. I know that birth is in essence destruction, and that is what I face – destruction – like everything else before me. I can choose to handle it with grace, or I can fall apart and feel as if it’s all for nothing.
I can’t help but chuckle at myself and my silent philosophies, but it’s true. Life is like a Monet. Up close it’s messy, undefined, and impossible to fully understand. But as you step back, look on it with unassuming eyes, view it in its entirety, there is a sense of understanding that inspires peace. I take another breath and allow some of that peace to soak into my soul. For a moment I feel truly free and then I realize that each breath of free air I take is laden with fear and worry. The pendulum of my past is still there, swinging at my neck as it slices through the air, threatening to snuff me out as it lowers every… single… day. Struggling is exhausting and futile. It’s time to just lie still and accept what comes. Face it with grace and endurance. If there’s hope, all I can do is step back and allow myself to see it.
The shrill call of the alarm clock inside startles me and my loosened rings slip from my fingers as I jump, rolling across the wooden slats right up to the edge of the balcony where they teeter. I step forward on reflex to grab them, sending vibrations through the boards and causing them to fall completely. I’ve never been the superstitious sort, but I can’t help but wonder if this is an omen. I lean on the railing and peer over the edge. It’s still too dark, and I don’t see them. Panic starts to well up in my guts.
Fuck… If I had just thought for a moment before trying to grab them, I may not have lost them. And just like that, it hits me in a random moment of clarity. I was scared they’d fall and in my haste to stop them, I pushed them over. I’m afraid, afraid of more than losing my rings, afraid of more than losing my freedom and my family; I’m afraid that I’m destructive. That if I have something good, I feel compelled to destroy it, despite the fact that I’m not trying to.
I close my eyes and force myself to calm down, to think before I act. “I’ll help you find them.” I turn to see Tina approaching, a worried expression on her face as she puts a hand on my hip and brushes the haphazard curls from my face. Her finger strokes beneath my left eye and she sighs. “You didn’t get much sleep.” No, I didn’t. I smile dejectedly and she links our fingers. I follow her down the stairs and we both set to looking for the rings.
“I’m sorry I dropped them, T. It was careless of me.”
Tina opens the back patio doors and retrieves two flashlights from the laundry room. She hands me one and starts checking the potted plants as I look around the deck and under its overhang, nothing but wood and dirt to catch my attention. “It’s okay, babe. They’re just rings.”
I stop and look at her dumbfounded. Just rings? They symbolize our commitment, our future… She grabs something from the pot she’s searching and stands abruptly exulting, “Ah ha! Found them.” She clicks off the flashlight and grins as she walks up to me, taking my left hand in her own and sliding them back onto my finger. She strokes her thumb over them, gazing at my fully adorned finger adoringly. “When I gave these to you, they were a sign of my love, commitment, and fidelity to you, but that’s all they are, Bette. They’re a sign. Signs lead the way, but they’re not the destination or the journey. With or without them, I’m yours.” Tears well in my eyes as she leans down and leaves a sweet, lingering kiss on my finger. Her eyes are glassy and deep as she gazes up at me. “Soul to soul, yours in life and death… remember?”
I reach up and stroke her cheek, realizing just how right she is, remembering our promise, my promise. How could I even consider being away from her? How thoughtless, rash, and irresponsible I can be in my haste to fix things… even to this day; I still have a long way to go. “Of course, I remember.”
I take her in my arms, burying my face in her neck and feeling a sense of renewed determination. It may be selfish, my love, my need for her and our family, but it’s an act of giving just as much as taking. We hold each other for long minutes before she pulls back, her voice soft as she says, “I know you’re scared about today… so am I. It’s okay and it’s understandable. But you need me, and I’m not going anywhere, just like I need you and you aren’t going anywhere.” She holds up her finger with the smaller, matching rings. “You promised me, and I believe you despite my fear.”
I nearly crush her as I pull her to me and kiss her with abandon. It goes on long minutes and I’m only moments from taking her back upstairs when we’re suddenly interrupted by a sleepy Angelica snuggling against our legs. I grin down at my daughter before meeting my wife’s eyes. It’s as true today as it was years ago, and I don’t hesitate to say it. “You honor me today… you exhilarate me and you revitalize me.”
Tears gather on her delicate lashes as an incredulous eyebrow arches and I reach up and touch it with wonder. She kisses the palm of my hand as she exhales heavily. She bends down and picks up our eldest daughter who snuggles right up on her shoulder. She leans in and kisses me again before saying, “I love you.”
Angie’s sleepy voice chimes in. “Love you, too.”
A grin splits both of our faces and I take Angie from Tina’s arms, kissing her round cheek. Tina strokes her unruly coif of curls and says, “I’ll take care of breakfast. You’ve got this one?” I nod and kiss her again before turning to go get Angie dressed. There’s a sharp smack to my backside and I can’t help but chuckle. She is by far the only person on earth who would get away with such a thing.
Angie leans over my shoulder to gaze at my behind before meeting my gaze with a wide-eyed expression. “Did you do something bad, mama B?”
I hear Tina’s warm laugh from the kitchen and shake my head, grinning at my daughter. “No, babycakes. Your Mama T is just a sadist.”
I hear a cabinet shut and a loud, “I heard that.”
I laugh, but it doesn’t last long as Angie asks, “What’s a say this?”
My steps falter a little bit and I stop as I stammer, finally choking out, “It’s, um… that’s just your Mama T’s way of saying goodbye to me. Kind of like a love pat.” I pat her bottom, tickling her a little bit as we continue on our way. She giggles and I’m thankful for her still short attention span. I help her pick out her clothes for the day and get her dressed. The pendulum above my head inches a bit closer, but I refuse to worry over it and focus on my daughter, one of the four loves of my life.
“All rise. District one criminal court is now in session. Judge Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” There’s a rumble of soft movement as everyone stands and I watch as the loathsome man enters the room and climbs up into his seat. The walk into the courthouse through the throngs of protestors and media was much more controlled this morning, but it was still overwhelming. I had very little time to calm myself with Tina before the bailiff came to retrieve me.
“The jury will now enter!” We wait quietly while the other twelve individuals enter and I can’t help but feel impatient. I am ready for this day to be over, all of this to be over. I reach into my jacket pocket and retrieve my photo, glancing down at the happy family and reminding myself to relax, to consider things before I react. I make a conscious decision to square my shoulders and hold my head high, placing the photo in an easily visible place on the monochromatic surface in front of me.
Fortunately, the judge doesn’t make us wait. As the last of the jurors takes his seat, the judge calls out, “You may be seated.” The occupants of the room all lower as one and he continues. “Calling the case of the People of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard. Are both sides ready?”
Whit and Merle stand, Rothman again taking the lead. “Ready for the People, your honor.”
Her voice is like nails on a chalkboard against my ear drums and I sigh. I may need earplugs to get through the rest of this ordeal. Whit’s smooth, melodically English accent helps to quiet my anxiousness as he replies. “Ready for the defense, your honor.”
Corky leans back in his chair, smug but ultimately lazy and listless as he nods his head. “Let the record reflect that the judge, jury, counsel, and the defendant are present. The jury is reminded that they are again under oath. You may call your next witness, Ms. Rothman.”
Merle stands. “The prosecution calls Catherine Rothberg.” The same song and dance from yesterday is repeated as the bailiffs work in conjunction to get the new witness sworn in and seated next to the judge. I haven’t a clue where I met this woman and I have no recollection of sleeping with her. This seems to be a recurring theme. It’s little defense to claim that you’re too drunk to remember all the women you’ve slept with.
This woman is older than Nadia. Her demeanor and attire suggest poise, grace, elegance, and arrogance. I’m not even remotely attracted to her and I lean back in my seat, trying to place her, trying to remember. Even while intoxicated, there has to be attraction, unless, of course, you’re to the point of blacking out. I continue to scrutinize her but nothing is coming to mind. It’s like looking into a mirror. We look very different physically, but everything else is far too close to home, at least to how I used to be. Even at my most self-absorbed, I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck my emotional clone.
Merle approaches her and I wait, hoping for a flicker of recognition in the testimony. “Ms. Rothberg, thank you for joining us today.”
Catherine crosses her leg over her knee, resting her folded hands there and nodding. “I’m glad to be of assistance.” I’ll bet she is.
“Ms. Rothberg, do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”
“Yes. I knew her as Bette Porter.”
Merle paces in front of the witness stand, arms linked behind her back. “How do you know her?”
“I met her at a bar several years ago, and we spent an evening together. I’ve seen her randomly since, but we’ve not spoken to or even acknowledged one another.”
Merle stops and looks to Catherine. “What happened the evening you met?”
Catherine sighs. “I was with a friend of mine, Miles Doull. It was after the Roll the Dice premiere and we had gone to one of the local bars to celebrate. Bette approached our table and bought us drinks. She seemed nice, educated, and we were having a good time. Her reputation preceded her, but I figured so long as we kept things light, it couldn’t harm anything. About an hour later, Miles got a text from his girlfriend and left. I wasn’t ready to leave and neither was she, so we decided to stay. I got up to use the restroom and when I came back, she had ordered us new drinks. I didn’t think anything of it and we continued to talk and laugh as we drank. It was actually quite enjoyable. After I finished my drink, I started to feel strange… dizzy and slightly nauseated. The next thing I know, I wake up in some sleazy motel, naked and alone.”
I feel a sharp pang of pain explode in my right hand as it slams onto the desk of its own volition, followed by a dull, loud cracking sound that echoes throughout the room. The items on the desk in front of me rattle and a choked sob of fury escapes my tightening throat through clenched teeth. Joyce starts to pound me on the back and it causes me to cough. She nudges a bottle of water towards me and I pick it up, hoping that the activity of opening the bottle and nearly downing its contents will help release some of the straining tension coiled in my muscles. I nearly crush the empty bottle and Joyce removes it from my hands, leaning to whisper. “Calm down.”
Right. I’ve just been accused of rape and I’m supposed to be calm. I can’t remember her at all and I’m aghast at what she’s saying. She’s accusing me of date rape… date rape… I have never, ever, had to coerce or take advantage of someone to satisfy my baser needs! There were far too many willing women.
I gaze at Catherine, trying to find the source of this blatant lie, but there is no clear indication. Something is terribly wrong here, but I can’t find her in my memory, not even a hint, and I have no way of proving that I’ve never seen her before in my life. I feel sweat bead up on my brow. The sheer, unadulterated ire her accusation inspires makes me physically ill. I grip the arms of my chair so tightly that they groan and Joyce looks over at me. She meets my eyes and the warning is clear.
I close my eyes and sigh as the water settles like sludge in my guts, churning with the distress and rage that is corroding away at my esophagus. I nod to Joyce and consciously force my body to relax into the seat as I pry my fingers free one-by-one.
The room is deathly quiet and I look up to see everyone gazing at me, the judge leaned forward, his fingers folded over his desk. His beady eye twitches and I meet him with a coldness of my own. His voice is seething in hope as he asks, “Was that an outburst, Ms. Porter-Kennard?”
Joyce pats me on the back again and answers for me. “No, your honor. She just choked.” He quirks a slight grin at me before leaning back. “See to it that she doesn’t choke again.”
He finally tears his gaze from mine and Merle’s voice scrapes against my ear canal. “Ms. Rothberg, are you saying that the defendant drugged and raped you?”
Catherine’s expression is implacable as she says, “I can’t prove it. I was passed out, but I’m willing to testify that I believe she did.”
Merle nods and starts to pace again. “Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“I had no way to prove it. Besides, I knew her reputation. Seeking to bring her down might have ended in my death, just like Cand–”
Whit stands. “Objection, your honor.”
Merle grins disconcertingly. “That’s okay, Catherine. You mean to say that you were frightened that she would physically harm you?”
Catherine nods. “Yes.”
“Why were you frightened?”
“What is her reputation?”
Catherine sighs, her demeanor no-nonsense. “She’s cold, abusive, and distant.” She purses her lips in an attempt to hide a smug smile. “I mean, everyone knows why her wife left her.”
My head lolls forward a little bit as the world shrinks in around me. How…? How could anyone know? Tina would never tell. She thought she was to blame. And I wouldn’t tell either. Well, I told Shane, Dana, and… Alice… Oh, fuck. Alice didn’t… I close my eyes, taking deep breaths as I try to force this panic attack aside. Merle’s voice breaks my reverie. “Why did her wife leave her?”
Judge Compton goes on another tirade. “Ms. Rothman, I cannot instruct the witness, but you will refer to this other woman as the defendant’s partner.”
Joyce stands. “Your honor, the State of California recognizes–”
The judge bangs his gavel before pointing it at Joyce. “We’ve been over this, counselor. Wife is defined as being in relation to a husband. I have reign over what is said and how it’s said in this courtroom. One more outburst at my choice of terminology and I’ll find you in contempt and have you removed from these proceedings indefinitely. Do you understand?”
Joyce doesn’t budge for a long moment, as if she’s contemplating whether setting him straight is worth a short sentence. I’d personally stand and put him in his place, but I have a wife and children; I can’t afford the luxury of a righteous outburst at this point, however much my blood is boiling in my veins.
Joyce finally sits and I lean over, a little smug as I repeat her words. “Calm down.”
She grins at me and shakes her head as she leans back in her seat and Rothman continues. “You stated that you were afraid to alert the authorities because of the rumored circumstances surrounding the defendant’s breakup?”
Catherine nods. “Yes.”
Whit stands. “Objection, your honor. A rumor is hearsay.”
Merle turns to the judge. “The whole point of a reputation is based on hearsay, your honor. We understand and freely admit that rumor is not fact. But the witness states that she was scared for her life because of this rumor. Her presumption of what the defendant was capable of is a key factor in establishing the reason she didn’t go to the police.”
Corky’s eyes gleam, his tone genial as he says, “Overruled.” He turns to Catherine with a grin. “You may answer the question, Ms. Rothberg.”
Catherine relates this information so easily and disconnectedly that it appears to be scripted. “Word is that she cheated on her partner and when her partner found out, she physically and sexually abused her to the point of leaving. I didn’t want any part of a situation like that.” A chill runs down my spine as she finishes. It was scripted. I can feel it in my very bones.
Merle grins. “Thank you. I have no further questions.”
Merle walks to her desk and the judge sneers at Whit as he stands. “Does the defense have any questions?”
Whit nods and steps forward. “Yes, your honor.” The judge crosses his arms over his chest, as if he wishes to be threatening, well, as threatening as a hobbit can be. Whit walks up to the witness and a little of my nervousness returns. “Ms. Rothberg, you stated that Bette approached you at the bar.”
Catherine nods. “Yes.”
She answers smoothly. “The Foxtail.”
Whit stops and cocks his head at her. “Are you sure it was The Foxtail?”
Catherine smirks. “Yes.”
“And where in the bar did you spend the evening?”
Catherine seems bored and irritated. “By the bar, on the first floor.”
“Did you leave that area at any time before officially leaving the bar?”
Catherine’s voice is biting and harsh as she says, “No.”
Whit walks over to Joyce who hands him a disk. He takes it to Merle and says, “Your honor. We move to enter exhibit number 197 into evidence. It’s video surveillance from the bar at The Foxtail for the night in question.”
Merle stands. “The People object, your honor.”
Compton sighs and motions them all towards the bench, and I watch as Joyce joins them. Today has been worse than I had imagined. I lean forward and collect the image of my family from the surface in front of me, and stroke Tina’s face. I’d give anything to have her here with me just now. Although, I’m glad she wasn’t here to witness Catherine’s testimony. Aside from the rape accusation, the fact that she knows the details of that terrible night is disconcerting. I certainly hope that it wasn’t Alice who let this information leak. I… I just don’t think we could recover our friendship from that sort of betrayal.
I look up as Joyce retakes her seat next to me and grins. I decide to keep the image of my family firmly in my hands, a tangible link to my sanity, as I scrutinize Joyce’s self-satisfied face. So this video is okay? I lean towards her and whisper, “Why is this tape okay, but the one of Nadia wasn’t?”
She sighs as she quietly answers, “The tape of Nadia, while on public property, was a private exchange that happened without her knowledge or consent. Since this tape shows absolutely nothing, Merle couldn’t have it thrown out.”
I shake my head. It’s all so… ridiculous. But if this will help my case, of course I’ll take it. I watch as Whit, having loaded the disk, clicks the mouse a few times on the central computer and a video feed pops up on the screens. “As I stated, this is surveillance from the bar, The Foxtail the night of the Roll the Dice premier. Ms. Rothberg, can you please verify that this is the bar in question as well as the date and time in the lower left-hand corner.”
Catherine leans forward, her demeanor slightly nervous, but her expression inscrutable as she says, “Yes, this is the bar and the correct date and time.”
Whit continues. “Is this where you were located in the bar?”
“Please point out on the screen where you were seated.”
Catherine stares at the screen and stammers a bit before the corner of her mouth quirks up. “This camera doesn’t cover our table. We were there…” She points to the left bottom portion of the area. “…just off the screen.”
Whit paces to the left a few steps his head lowered. “You’re certain you were seated there?”
Catherine leans back, satisfied. “Yes.”
Whit tries again, pointing to the location she’s specified. “You’re certain you were seated here, out of the camera’s reference?”
She sighs and drawls, “Yes,” as if it’s two syllables.
Whit shakes his head. “Ms. Rothberg, that’s not possible. There is nothing beyond the camera’s point of reference but a wall. No seating… no table… nothing. Where were you seated?”
“We were there, in that corner. I’m not sure what they’ve done to the décor since, but there was seating there. You just can’t see it.”
Whit points at the door at the other end of the bar. “Is this the bathroom you used?”
“What time did you meet the defendant at the bar?”
Catherine’s gaze turns stony as she watches Whit step forward and wait for an answer. “I don’t know, maybe midnight.”
Whit fast-forwards the tape to midnight and we watch. I never enter. “This…” Whit points at the only entrance. “…is the only entrance to the bar. My client couldn’t have entered another way. Where is she?”
“I’m not sure if it was exactly midnight.”
Whit nods and hits fast-forward again, only it goes much slower. Two hours pass, people coming and going, none of them me. “Okay. How long were you at the bar?”
Catherine is glaring daggers at Whit. “I don’t know, maybe two hours.”
He rewinds the tape to eleven o’clock and plays it at the quicker speed. He lets it play until closing and Catherine never enters the bathroom. “Ms. Rothberg, you are not seen entering the bathroom and my client is not seen escorting you from the bar. Can you explain this?”
Catherine is seething at this point. “No.”
“Ms. Rothberg, I remind you that you are under oath and penalty of perjury. Did you or did you not go into this bar, at this time, on this this night, and have an interaction with my client?”
Catherine nearly shouts but controls herself at the last moment. “I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been a liar.”
Whit nods. “What sorts of things have you been accused of?”
Merle stands. “Objection, your honor.”
Whit waves his arm dismissively at her. “Withdrawn. Ms. Rothberg, what motel did you wake up in?”
“A place called The Pine Lodge on the outskirts of Sunset.”
“You referred to it as ‘sleazy’ in your testimony. What did you mean by that?”
Catherine’s crossed leg is bouncing in agitation as she calms herself and replies, “It means that it’s cheap and probably offers rooms by the hour. It was detestable.”
Whit walks over to Joyce who offers up a spreadsheet. “The defense would like to enter exhibit number 168 into evidence.”
He hands it to Merle who looks it over and hands it back angrily. “No objection, your honor.”
Whit places it under the projector and I look at a month’s worth of my account history. “This is my client’s credit card statement. The information you’re looking at is an entire month, including the night of the Roll the Dice premier here.” He points at a specific date. “As you can see, there is no charge for The Pines Lodge, however, if you look at the other lines, you can see charges for rooms at high end hotels, mostly the Huntley and the Chateau Marmont.” He looks at Catherine and I can’t help but smile as I watch her divert her eyes. “Ms. Rothberg, how did she pay for that room?”
“I have no idea. Maybe she paid in cash.”
Whit walks back to Joyce and goes through the motions of entering another piece of evidence, another piece that Merle can’t contest and it shows in her reddening features. The document lights up on the screens. “This is the booking log from The Pines Lodge for the night in question. No one by the name of Bette Porter or Catherine Rothberg is checked in that night.” He looks to Catherine. “Management states that everyone is required to show identification in order to book a room. How would my client book a room without showing identification, Ms. Rothberg?”
At this point, Catherine is reaching and she knows it, but she can’t admit she’s perjured herself. She stammers until she finally says, “Maybe she used an alias. I can’t answer these questions for you. All I know is I woke up there, with a headache and naked, and she was the last person I had seen.”
Whit paces. “So, let me just make sure I understand your testimony, Ms. Rothberg. You saw my client at The Foxtail, sat in an area that is nothing but a wall, neither you nor my client were seen entering, using the restroom, or leaving, and you spent the night in a motel room that goes against my client’s normal booking habits without having paid or shown identification. Is that what you’re saying?”
Catherine’s voice is rough with anger and her leg is shaking so fast I wonder if she’ll gyrate herself out of her seat. “I guess it is, because that’s what happened.”
Whit sighs and nods, glancing at Joyce who makes a note on the legal pad in front of her. I lean over to watch her scribble down, ‘Countersue Catherine Rothberg for defamation and punitive damages.’ I want to scream in exultation, but this day is far from over. I’ll celebrate my small victory later. “Ms. Rothberg, what do you do for a living?”
Catherine sneers. “I’m independently wealthy.”
“How did you come by this financial independence?”
Catherine’s reply is petulant. “I like to gamble.”
“What sort of gambling?”
“Primarily horse races.”
Whit nods. “What else?”
Catherine smoothes her skirt over her knees, visibly willing herself to calm down. Her voice is innocent as she says, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Whit walks to Joyce and the process of adding evidence starts over, however this time Merle objects. I watch Joyce meet Whit and Merle at the bench and a long, heated conversation ensues. I sigh, turning to see Tom, Dana, and Shane in the gallery just behind me. Tom is again wearing the ‘NO H8’ shirt and I can’t help but feel glad he’s here. If it weren’t for him, the walk into the building would have been so much worse this morning. The God Hates Gays protestors were here and I get the sinking feeling they will be for the remainder of the trial. He smiles sadly at me, and I look to Dana and Shane’s faces. They mirror his smile and I find comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in here, though I can tell that they’re concerned as to how Catherine, or anyone for that matter, knows about the night after Provocations.
Joyce settles next to me and I turn my attention forward as Whit puts another document under the projector. It blows up on the screen and Whit speaks. “This is your bank statement for the last year. I had your account information blocked out, but you can see your name at the top. Please verify that that is your name.”
Catherine’s leg starts to shake again as she verifies. “That is my name.”
Whit steps back and looks at the large screen at the front right of the room. “There’s a lot of erratic activity but…” He starts flipping the pages and pointing at the balance. “…you never took more than 500,000 from the account, leaving it with no less than two million at all times. Is that correct?”
Whit then turns to the second to last page. The account was wiped. “Can you explain what happened to the entirety of the account, Ms. Rothberg?”
Merle stands. “Objection, relevance.”
Whit turns to the judge whose vein is throbbing in his forehead. “The relevance is that Ms. Rothberg was made destitute up until the day before she agreed to be a witness for the defense.” He flips to the last page where two million was deposited back into the account. “If this information is not questioned, how can I test the legitimacy of her testimony, let alone help my client determine if she wishes to countersue and hopefully convince the deputy DA to file for perjury.”
The judge stops Whit. “You’re out of line, counselor. Objection sustained. The jury will disregard the last statement.”
Whit puts his hands up, collecting the documentation. “No further questions, your honor.”
The judge looks to Catherine. “You may step down, Ms. Rothberg.” Catherine is barely escorted from the room before the judge looks to Merle. “You may call the next witness.”
Merle stands, glaring at me as she says, “The People call Katerina Ivanova.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose between my forefinger and thumb. Who the fuck is it now? I half expect the abominable snowman at this point. The same bailiff that just escorted Catherine out brings in a petite woman. Hell, who am I kidding? She’s a twink. She might be twenty-five, with wavy shoulder-length hair that reminds me slightly of how Tina’s used to look, only her hair is auburn. She has a small build like Tina’s as well and I remember her. I was in New York on business, and it was just after Tina left me. I found her at the Starlight in East Village. She had been eye-fucking me from the back end of the bar all night and I saw her right away. That’s how I remember her. I hadn’t started drinking yet. She reminded me of Tina. After several drinks I accepted my fate and danced with her before taking her back to my room. I just couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t even look her in the eye through most of the night, pretending instead that she was my wife.
Why on earth Merle would want her testimony is beyond me. I woke early, took a shower, and when I got out she was gone, along with all my cash – about three hundred dollars’ worth. She’s just so young… fuck me, please tell me she was at least of age five years ago. I lean back in my seat, determined to calm down as she’s sworn in and seated. It’s all so redundant. Merle steps forward and begins her litany of questions, always starting the same. “Ms. Ivanova, thank you for being here.”
Katerina seems frightened and nervous, and I almost feel bad for her, almost. Her eyes are wide as she clears her throat and says, “Thank you, I guess.”
“Ms. Ivanova, do you know the defendant, Bette Porter?”
The girl meets my eyes for the first time and swallows hard as she nods. “Yes.”
“How do you know her?”
She clears her throat. “Several years ago, I was… at the Starlight in New York. She came in and… we, um…”
“Ms. Ivanova. It’s okay. You aren’t on trial here today. Just tell us what happened.”
She nods rapidly, swallowing again. “I was hooking…” She sits up straighter, her eyes intensely serious as she says, “…which I don’t do anymore.” I feel my eyes widen and my jaw drop as she continues. “We noticed each other right away. She had several drinks at the bar before finally picking me up. We danced, and then went back to her hotel room. She paid for a full night, and I left the next morning.”
I’m certain I would have choked again if Joyce hadn’t anticipated it and put her hand on my forearm, squeezing it painfully as she slid another bottle of water over to me. I tear into this one in much the same manner as before and Merle continues. “So she agreed to have sex with you in exchange for money?”
Katerina nods. “Yes.”
“Did anything else happen while you were there?”
She shakes her head nervously. “No.”
“Did she say anything to you during your encounter?”
“Um, no, she wouldn’t look at me, and she was a little… rough, but other than that, nothing was unusual.”
“Thank you. No further questions, your honor.”
Whit stands and unbuttons his blazer as he walks forward. “Ms. Ivanova, why were you at the Starlight that night five years ago?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “I was looking for a trick.”
“You mean you were looking for a paying customer?”
“Are you a lesbian?”
She shakes her head. “No, I’m bi.”
Whit exhales heavily at her inability to effectively communicate. “You mean that you’re bisexual, and have no sexual preference in a partner?”
Compton looks to her annoyed and while it kills me, I have to agree with his next edict. “Please say, ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ Ms. Ivanova.”
She cowers a little and nods. “Sure… I mean, yes. Okay.”
Whit paces to the right. “How long had you been a prostitute by the time you met my client that night?”
“Um… maybe, two years?”
“And in all your time as a prostitute, how often did you have female customers?”
“I don’t know, not much.”
Whit nods. “Just a ballpark figure. Approximately how many women in those two years?”
“I guess I’d say, like five.”
“So, most of your clientele were men?”
“Yep, I mean, yes.”
“And how many men had you slept with in that time?”
She rolls her eyes, laughing a little bit. “A lot.”
Whit sighs. “Approximately how many men?”
“Maybe, like a hundred.”
Ugh, I can’t believe I touched that. I’m fortunate I didn’t get an STD. “So why were you at the Starlight, a lesbian bar, if you were looking for a customer? Wouldn’t it have been more lucrative to go to a straight bar and find a male?”
“Oh, well, I didn’t go to the Starlight looking for a trick. It was a slow night and I needed a break, so I went in there for a while.”
Whit nods. “You said you noticed my client right away?”
She smiles. “Are you kidding me? The whole place noticed her.”
Whit grins disconcertingly. “How do you mean? She stood out?”
Katerina gestures to me. “Well, yeah. Look at her. She’s gorgeous, and obviously loaded. She’s a trick’s dream come true.”
Whit paces to the left. “So, she could have had her pick of anyone there?”
She chuckles again. “Oh, yes.”
“Were the other women at the bar prostitutes?”
She shrugs. “I don’t think so.”
“So, she was in a room full of lesbians; she could have had her pick of anyone there for free, and she chose to pay you?”
Her eyes go wide again and I wonder who bought this testimony just like they bought the last. There’s no way it was Merle. Two million is hardly chump change. Katerina stammers. “Well, yeah… I guess she did.”
“I don’t know…”
“Okay, so you danced. And then what happened?”
“She took me back to her room.”
“Did you talk while you danced?”
“Did you talk when you got to the room?”
“What was said?”
“Um… I’m not sure. She had a really nice room. I think I said that.”
Whit nods. “Did you say anything else?”
She shakes her head. “Not really. She sorta just, got down to business.”
“Did you discuss rates?”
Katerina stammers a little bit. “Not really. I just–”
“How did she know an amount?”
She points to me again. “She’s rich. I didn’t think it would matter to her.”
Whit nods. “So she made a good mark?”
She stutters a little bit. “W-what do you mean?”
Whit’s voice gets louder as he gestures to me in much the same manner as she did. “Well, you said so yourself, she’s a trick’s dream come true. She’s beautiful and rich. You could tell just by looking at her, right?”
“Yes, I mean–”
“Did she pay before or after?”
Whit changed gears so fast that she has to stop and think for a moment. “After.”
“How much did she agree to?”
“Do you often accept payment after?”
“Why her? Why was she special?”
Katerina fidgets in agitation. “She was a sure deal. I wasn’t wor–”
“She was a sure deal. What does that mean?”
“She was good for the money!”
“And she agreed to pay?”
“But you never talked about payment?”
“No, I mean, yes!”
Whit starts pacing again and Katerina leans back in her seat, her breathing heavy. “So, you didn’t discuss money, but somehow left with three hundred dollars after the act?”
Merle stands. “Objection, your honor.”
Whit smirks at her. “Withdrawn. No further questions.”
The judge excuses her and I hope for a break, which he grants. “The court will take an hour recess for lunch. The jury is reminded of the admonition and those involved in the trial are to remain on the premises.” He bangs his gavel, drops below the line of his bench, and scurries away before the bailiff can even call out for us to stand. We do anyway and the jury files out as well. I turn immediately to Tom, Dana and Shane and we push our way through the media, across the hall and into the quiet sanctuary of the small office where my wife is waiting with open arms.
I breathe her in and absorb the warmth of her skin and love. It is a most welcome relief to be out of that room and away from all of the nonsense people are spewing. I know I have to tell Tina what’s been revealed, but I almost can’t bring myself to do it, that is until I see Alice. I could very well be jumping the gun here, but I can’t imagine Shane or Dana saying a word. Alice, however… her mouth is notoriously and perpetually flapping in the breeze.
Alice furrows her brows at me and I realize I must be judging her before I’ve heard her out. That is precisely what is happening to me in that courtroom, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I take a deep breath and force the ire in my system down. I’ll hear her out first. I just hope she can be honest. Mostly, I just hope that the truth isn’t as terrible as I’m imagining.
Dana, Tom, and Shane tuck themselves on the side of the room, hands in their pockets, and Tina leans back in the circle of my arms to gaze up at me curiously. I sigh as I look down at her and realize there will be no actual break in this hour. I take Tina’s hand and lead her to the table and we take a seat. Alice and Dana settle across from us and Carmen, confusion written on her face, leads Shane to the table as well. Tom sits hesitantly next to Tina and silence ensues.
I try to gather the words racing through my brain and Carmen finally breaks the dense atmosphere. She stands and walks over to a medium-sized, insulated bag and brings it to the table. “I brought homemade tamales.” She opens the bag and a wonderful smell fills the room as she pulls out small paper plates and forks.
She takes a plate and puts two tamales on it, passing it to Dana who passes it down to Alice who passes it to Shane. This continues for a moment before Alice can’t stand it anymore. She looks me in the eyes and asks, “What the fuck is going on with you guys?”
I sigh and decide the first step is to focus on telling Tina. Carmen passes me two plates and I pass them along, thanking her as she sets one in front of me. I turn to Tina, taking her hands in my own and facing her. “T, one of the witnesses, Catherine Rothberg, she knew about the night after Provocations.”
Tina’s face goes blank for just a moment. It’s like the calm before the storm before fire ignites in her eyes and she nearly shouts, “What?!”
She doesn’t wait for an answer as she turns to Alice. She squeezes my hands, glaring at Alice accusingly, and Alice goes immediately defensive. She tosses her fork down and crosses her arms over her chest, her eyes slits and her voice low. “You automatically assume it was me? Thanks for the fucking vote of confidence…”
I can’t help it, I’m thinking it too, and I still wonder. I gaze at her hard, trying to read her reaction as I ask, “Did you?”
She leans forward, her voice so high it’s nearly a shout. “No! Fuck…!”
She collapses back against her seat, turning her face away from us, angry tears leaking from her eyes. She swipes at them in frustration, sniffing as Dana puts her hand on her shoulder in comfort. I watch her carefully. Is she crying because she’s hurt or because she’s guilty? She finally turns to look me in the eye and I can tell that she’s just injured. I sigh. “I’m sorry, Al–”
She puts her hand up to stop me. “Just… don’t. I get it. But it wasn’t me.”
I look to Dana and Shane. Dana swallows a huge bite of tamale and says, “Don’t look at me.” My eyes move to Shane who lets her head fall to the side, her expression bored. Her eyes are deep and piercing as they say, ‘Seriously?’
Tom had no idea before today, so I leave him to his Tamales and and frown as I sit back with a sigh, throwing my hands up and asking, “Then who was it? The only people who knew are in this room.” I look over at Tina to see her crying quietly. I hate this, so much. It’s intensely painful to watch her suffer so needlessly. I reach over and tuck a lock of corn silk hair behind her ear and stroke her cheek with my thumb. She meets my eyes and I can see the intense tincture of mortification and anger in the hazel depths. “I love you, regardless of what other people think or know.”
She smiles sadly and turns to kiss my palm. I watch as she visibly relaxes into my touch and out of nowhere I’m struck at the soothing effect I have on her. I can’t help the smile that lights my face. She’s shown me nothing but love since she woke from her coma, but this is the first time I have literally seen the positive, calming influence I can provide for her. It’s… utterly thrilling. Her eyes are open and honest, and I watch the fire in them smolder with adoration as she rejoins, “Then it doesn’t matter.”
I lean over to her and she meets me halfway, sealing a vow of soul-rending affection with a warm, chaste kiss. I curl my arm around her shoulders, resting it on the back of her chair as she nestles her head against the crux of my arm and plays with the fingers of my other hand.
I hate what I’m going to say, but it needs to come out. “T, there’s more.” I feel the heavy sigh and continue. “Catherine accused me of drugging and raping her, and the other witness, Katerina… something… I don’t know, Russian, claims we made a… transaction.”
Tina chuckles lightly before saying, “You’re a gorgeous, powerful, successful woman who has to drug and pay women for sex… and I’m the virgin Mary.”
We all laugh softly and I bury my nose in her honey-hued hair, kissing the soft tendrils at the crown. “So you don’t believe them?”
She brings my hand to her lips, kissing my knuckles. “I’d believe anything you told me. You’d never lie to me.”
The startling honesty in her voice sinks into my chest, piercing my heart with joy and the heavy weight of responsibility. I’d never intentionally lie to her ever again or betray her trust, but now I realize why. She has so much faith in me; harming that faith, even inadvertently, would be criminal. She has stirred my soul on a profound level for the second time in only a matter of minutes, and I’m certain she’s not even aware of it.
The part of my soul that has been overflowing with love for her abruptly stops. It stops because the bottom has fallen out; it has fallen out and washed away all of my wrongs and regrets, all the lingering shame and sorrows, and it leaves nothing but her, just her, my wife. I feel a warm, tingling sensation start in my ribs and spread to the soles of my feet, and I realize that I am absorbing the excess, expanding to make room for her. I feel… indestructible, alive, and whole. I can face this. I will face this. She has faith in me, and that faith is a fundamental, maybe even organic, part of me now.
Joyce, Whit, and I sit again at the desk in our little corner of hell, but I’m light; I’m free, and I’m ready. My Tina is with me. Not just a glossy photo of the most beautiful family on the face of the earth, but a gentle humming that vibrates in my soul and makes even this drab, uncomfortably warm, and hostile environment feel vibrant and inviting. She has always been my home, but now I carry home with me.
Merle stands and starts again. “The People call Alice Pieszecki”
Alice’s head is high, her posture straight. Her girlish pumps click on the linoleum floor and her fifties-style curls dance about her shoulders as she makes her way through the center of the gallery. The bailiff holds the low door for her and she makes her way to the clerk. She is sworn in and seated, and Merle seems very satisfied as she steps forward to have her chance at someone that actually means something to me. “Ms. Pieszecki, thank you for being here today.” Alice crosses one leg over the other, crosses her arms over chest, and leans back, a defiant and smug expression on her face. She says nothing in return, just waits, and I stifle a chuckle as Merle clears her throat and continues. “Do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”
Alice’s expression remains placid as she replies. “Yes.”
“How do you know her?”
“She’s my best friend.”
“How long have you known her?”
“About thirteen years.”
Merle nods and paces to the left. “Did you have any romantic involvement in that time?”
“Yes. We dated for about six weeks.”
Alice rolls her eyes and I can’t help but join her. “Yes, six weeks.”
“Why such a short amount of time?”
“There was no Zhuzh.” Merle stops and cocks her head at Alice who again rolls her eyes as she continues. “You know, zhuzh…?” She gives Merle the once over and sighs. “Well, maybe you don’t. It’s a common term used to identify that spark or chemistry two people share.” She glances at the judge with a smile as she says, “Mrs. Porter-Kennard and I didn’t have it.”
The judge seethes and realizes he’s trapped. He can’t tell a witness what to say and I hope Alice gets in a number of ‘Mrs.,’ before her time on the stand is through, just to spite him. I quirk a grin and settle back in my chair. Even if Merle twists something Alice says, it should be a fun show. Merle soldiers on, her gravelly voice scratching out, “Did she have chemistry with Tina Kennard, her current partner?”
Merle paces again. “Did they meet while you two were still together?”
“No, shortly after.”
“Did the defendant cheat on you?”
Alice’s expression becomes incredulous. “What? No…”
Merle leans in. “Are you sure she didn’t cheat, Ms. Pieszecki?”
Alice hesitates a little bit and I furrow my brows. No, I didn’t. So why is Alice taking forever to answer? She finally leans with a reply, though it’s not the glowing endorsement I had hoped for. “If she did, I’m not aware of it.”
”Ms. Pieszecki, you’re under oath. Did you suspect her of cheating at all?”
Alice pauses to consider Merle for a long moment, taking her time to frame her answer. “You know what? This whole thing… this whole thing is a crock. It’s a frickin’ witch hunt. I mean, you’re trying to say Bette’s a murderer because she had some issues in her past… with lame, trumped up evidence? I’m sorry but I could just as easily say that you’re an abusive, manipulative liar, Ms. Rothman, with a propensity to cheat because of the first-hand knowledge I have with your reputation.”
Corky unleashes his authority at Alice, who leans away from the mild spray of saliva. I can’t help but cringe. “That is enough, Ms. Pieszecki. You will answer the questions respectfully or I’ll hold you in contempt.” Merle’s dark eyes flash with white anger as she looks at Alice, and her nostrils flare so large I imagine smoke shooting from the openings. I could hug Alice right now. She could out Merle right here and now, but it won’t help my case at all. The last thing I want is to have a mistrial and have to go through all of this again with another prosecutor. Merle was arrogant in selecting Alice as a witness given their ‘history.’ Either that, or she has no recollection of their encounter. Given Merle’s furious, scabby visage, I somehow doubt it’s alcohol-induced amnesia.
Merle stands up straight in an attempt at intimidation to counter Alice’s placid smile. “What do you do for a living, Ms. Pieszecki?”
“I own a website called OurChart.”
Whit stands. “The defense is aware of this evidence and has no objection, your honor.”
He sits again as Merle pulls up the site on the main computer, and the Chart is immediately brought up on the screen. “The People move to enter exhibit number 126 into evidence.” There’s a moment of silence as she waits for the website to finish loading. She brings up the chart immediately, bypassing the homepage and pop-up ads. It’s a good thing too. Corky would have indulged in a little lesbian soft-core thrill, I’m sure. “Ms. Pieszecki, please explain what we’re looking at.”
“It’s a chart that shows… encounters, everything from romances and one-night stands to twenty year marriages. Anytime you get a group of gay girls together, you are almost guaranteed that someone’s slept with someone else, who has slept with someone else, who’s slept with someone else in that room. Name any lesbian you know. I could link her to me in like, six moves. Maybe you, Ms. Rothman.”
Merle ignores Alice’s jab and pushes on. I can tell she’s ready to get this done. “So if I type in a name it will bring up all of the sexual encounters for that individual?”
We watch on the screen as my name is typed in, bringing up what appears to be a small galaxy, with me at the center. Rothman comments, “One hundred and twenty six.” She delightfully pulls up the names of the three witnesses as she says, “Let the record show that Candace Jewel, Nadia Karella, Catherine Rothberg, and Katerina Ivanova are all listed under Bette Porter’s sexual encounter profile.” She closes the website quickly. “I have no further questions, your honor.”
The judge doesn’t even ask as Whit steps up to Alice. “Ms. Pieszecki, how do these links occur? Do the private parties link themselves, or do you substantiate the encounters prior to showing a link on your site?”
Alice grins as she says, “If you bring up my profile, I can show you how it works.”
Merle stands. “Objection, your honor. Ms. Pieszecki’s profile is irrelevant.”
Whit responds quickly. “It’s relevant to the reliability of the information that’s just been added to the record, your honor.”
The judge seems to consider this request, from perverted or pure curiosity, I can’t tell. I assume his dislike of me outweighs his growing uneasiness with Merle. “Objection sustained. Please just explain the process, Ms. Pieszecki.”
Alice smirks. “The information is in no way substantiated. It’s a social networking site at its core, just like Facebook or Twitter. The major difference is that the primary focus is lesbians, and sexual interconnectedness. Any registered user can create a profile and link it to any other registered user’s profile. It’s just not possible to substantiate them all. However, if a registered user does not agree with a link that’s been made to her profile, she can remove it herself.”
Whit tucks his hands in his pockets. “So you’re saying that anyone could create a profile, and connect it to anyone else’s profile, but that does not mean that the sexual encounter actually happened.”
Alice nods. “That’s correct.”
“Thank you, Ms. Pieszecki. No further questions, your honor.”
The judge excuses Alice and she grins at me as the bailiff escorts her from the room. The judge’s voice moves things right along. “The prosecution may call the next witness.”
Merle’s already standing, most likely very relieved at how lucky she was to barely dodge Alice’s bullet. “The People call Juanita Jewel to the stand, your honor.”
I lean my head back and close my eyes. Wonderful… just wonderful. I have to face her mother. A bailiff steps through the back double doors of the gallery, an elderly, grey-haired woman holding tightly to his arm as they slowly but surely make their way to the front. Her cane is old and her clothing is threadbare and I swallow the lump in my throat. What I’m about to hear can’t be all that good. If it had been Angie… I’d hate her killer, regardless of whether it was deserved. And she does hate me; I can see it shining out of her deeply set, dark eyes and weathered face. Her stare is as cold, utterly cold, and it seems so out of place for such a wizened, and what I imagine is a normally inviting, countenance.
She’s sworn in, her English broken but intelligible. Her voice speaks of a hard life, but a proud one nonetheless as she’s helped into the witness box and carefully lowered into the seat. Merle approaches her, her demeanor that of supreme comfort, and sympathy and I have to hold back a gag. Is there not a genuine emotion anywhere in her repertoire? “Mrs. Jewel, thank you for being here.”
The old woman’s face is like a stone mask as she nods. “You are welcome. I want to be here.”
Merle relaxes her voice, and what should be empathy comes out as a stomach-churning wheeze. “Mrs. Jewel, have you ever met the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”
“Did your daughter, Candace, ever mention her?”
The old woman’s jaw quivers a bit, her eyes shining with unshed tears as she says, “Yes, my daughter talk about her all the time.” Merle reaches into her blazer pocket to retrieve a tissue from a small travel pack in her pocket, handing it to the sniffling woman, a quiet, “Gracias,” received in return.
Merle’s smile is sickly sweet. “You’re welcome. Take your time. Do you need anything else?”
Juanita shakes her head and sniffles again. “No.”
Merle nods. “What had your daughter said about the defendant?”
“She-she say that she in love, that she going to settle down and start a familia… that I would soon una abuela.” She smiles sadly. “She was my only child…” Her hands shake as she wipes at her tears and anger seems to take hold of her. “She talk about this woman, this Bette, all the time, for five years! Bad things kept happening to her property, and at her work, but she was smart, and talented, and so… beautiful.” She sniffs again and sighs. “She moved to New York City for a time, to make some money, so she could be with this woman, her love. She was strong, she was…” Her voice breaks. “…so happy…”
Her tears start to fall and it’s several long moments before she composes herself, Merle providing another tissue. My heart aches for her. Candace had lied to her, just as much as she had lied to herself. And now, over something so senseless, this innocent woman has truly lost what I stand to lose. I don’t wish that on her. It’s infuriating that Candace cared so little for her family that she jeopardized her life, but it’s worse to see Merle taking advantage of her grief. “Mrs. Jewel, what happened to her things, to her job here?”
“Her things were being… destroyed?” Merle nods and Juanita continues. “Things like her car, and her work tools, they would go missing. When she worked somewhere, she would come the next day and see her work ruined. Soon, she couldn’t get any more work. And then…” She cries harder for a moment, her voice broken and choked with sobs as she finishes, “She came home once and someone had hurt her. She had… bruises?”
Merle nods again and she sighs, collecting herself before Merle continues. “Mrs. Jewel, did she ever say why these things were happening?”
The old woman nods. “Yes, she say someone wanted to keep her and her love apart, so they were sending her a message.” Her voice turns desperate. “I try to stop her, to tell her to stay away, but she would not listen.”
“And this all happened before she went to New York?”
“Did you talk while she was in New York?”
“What did she say to you during your conversations?”
“She say that she was doing very good, that she had a wonderful boss, and she was making good money.”
“And you believed her?”
“Oh, yes, of course. She never lie to me. And she was sending me money so I could live, so it must be true.”
Merle nods. “Did you see her when she got back from New York?”
Juanita smiles sadly. “Yes, she say it was time to be with her love. She was happy, and so was I… as much as I could be.”
“What do you mean by that?”
She sighs and makes the sign of a cross on her forehead, chest, and shoulders. “I do not want to speak bad of the dead, but she was a… a lesbian. Her love, this Bette, is a woman. I had hoped she would find a nice, young Puerto Rican man to start a familia.” She sighs, her eyes taking on a faraway look as a fantasy that will never come to pass plays across her features. It lasts only a moment and she frowns. “She did not want that. I do not understand it, but I was happy to at least see her happy, even if it was not as it should be before the eyes of God.”
She makes the sign of the cross again and Merle soldiers on. “Mrs. Jewel, I do not wish to speak ill of the dead either, but I have to ask you… did Candace ever, in all the time you knew her, exhibit signs that she was mentally unstable or capable of hurting someone?”
The old woman’s dark eyes go black with anger. “No! Never! She had troubles with the drugs when she was a girl, but she grew into a kind woman. She did things for our neighbors, helped people in need… for free. She never say bad things about anyone and I know…” She points at her chest, her voice hard with resolve. “…I know she would never, ever, hurt anyone.”
Merle smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Jewel. I have no further questions.”
Whit stands and Compton doesn’t even look at him as he steps forward, his voice so fluid and graceful compared to her harsh, thick accent. “Mrs. Jewel, I’m sorry for your loss.” She nods, sniffling and Whit continues. “I don’t wish to speak ill of your daughter, Mrs. Jewel, but I have a duty to present the evidence to this court, and in order to do that, I have to ask some questions that might be upsetting for you.” She stops and stares hard at him for a moment before nodding her head with a resigned sigh. She straightens up in her seat and prepares herself, and I’m glad Whit took this tack with her.
He smiles warmly and begins. “I know that when it comes to children, parents can be very protective of them. It’s understandable, especially under these sad circumstances, but I need you to think back on the conversations you had with Candace about my client.” Whit gestures to me and her dark eyes follow his arm until they lock on my own. I have nothing but sympathy for her, and I do truly regret the circumstances of this trial. I wish that it had happened so differently. I hope that she can see that much, know that much. She seems to soften a little bit before looking down to her lap. “Did she ever say anything about their relationship in a negative light?”
She wrings the Kleenex in her hands and sighs heavily as she thinks back. Several long minutes pass before she finally speaks up. “She say that they in love, that they going to start a familia. I-I don’t remember anything… bad.”
Whit nods. “That’s okay, let’s try this a different way. How did she act while she was speaking about Bette?”
She seems to consider this for a moment and replies. “She was… just… so happy… so very, very happy. I do not know how else you say…”
Whit nods. “I understand. What would she do when she was excited?”
“Oh, she talk for hours about her love while we watch the television. She was… so full of life that she could not hold still.” She smiles, a distant look in her eyes. “She wanted their first child to be a girl. She wanted to name her Angelica…” She pauses for a moment and sighs before meeting Whit’s eyes. “That’s a beautiful name, no?”
Whit smiles in return. “It is. What else would she do?”
“Uh, she was a carpenter, you know?” Whit nods. “Very talented, my daughter. She would draw the pieces she was planning. These wonderful things would come from her mind and she could draw them just as good. She always signed them. She was proud of her work, as she should be. She left them everywhere!” She laughs. “I loved them, though. When she came back from New York, she signed them Candace Porter. She was proud of her love and they are some of her very best. I-I framed them after she was gone.”
She swipes at a lone tear dribbling down her cheek and Whit offers a tissue from his own pocket. At least his offering seems sincere as she accepts it. “Mrs. Jewel, did you see any drawings that were different? Not work-related?”
She thinks for a moment and then starts nodding. “Yes. There were one or two of a beautiful woman. I assumed it was her love. These… I did not like so much. It was still hard for me to accept her… choice.”
She sighs and Whit prods again. “Were there any other types of drawings?”
She shakes her head. “No… most of the time, she took pictures if it wasn’t one of her projects.”
Whit’s voice is gentle. “What kinds of pictures?”
She sighs and meets my eyes again. “There were some of her…” She points to me. “…and another woman, a blonde woman, doing things… to each other, things only a man and a woman should do to each other.”
Whit nods. “Mrs. Jewel, do you still have those pictures?”
She shakes her head. “Oh, no, she cut them up and threw them away. I think, she was upset but she said that she and her love had worked it out, that it would be fine and she was so happy…”
“You said before that she was very happy and excited when talking about Bette. Was she different when she was cutting up those photos?”
“No, not really. She seemed happy. It was… less… but still happy.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jewel. I have no further questions.”
The bailiff escorts her away and the judge calls out, “That’s all for today. We’ll reconvene at eight a.m. tomorrow morning. The jury is reminded of the admonition.” He bangs his gavel and we all rise as instructed by the bailiff’s booming voice, and I smile over at Whit. He is, quite literally, the very best I could hope for.