I pull the headphones from Angie’s head and smile as she lets out a soft snore. Tucking the covers a little tighter, I pull back and gaze down at my daughter. She’s a beautiful girl and she will be a beautiful woman, quite possibly a heartbreaker, quite possibly like I used to be. She is just like me, in more of the harmful ways than I wish to admit. But, just like me, she has Tina to help her grow with the temperance I am only just learning. Perhaps she will be the me that I should have been… the me that I am now. I can think of no better legacy.
I lean down to kiss her forehead and set the headphones on her nightstand. As I straighten, I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye and look over to see Tina gazing at us from the threshold with a sad smile on her face. It’s been two days since the jury deliberated and while I know they don’t deliberate over the weekend, we received no answer yesterday. And these two days have been like a hospital stay where you’re waiting for someone to die. Our connection is still weak, but it’s still there. Something tells me that not even death could sever it, and if I’m honest, it frightens me. It’s just so damn scary to have your life and happiness so bound up in the people you love, but that’s the price you pay for standing in the passion of love’s radiant warmth. A price that I still believe, with all the conviction I have in me, is more than worth it.
I step over to Tina and she begins to move away, almost as if she’s running from me, but I grab her hand to stop her. She turns, eyeing me questioningly, and I can see the worry and fear bound up in her soul. We’ve reached an understanding regarding the choice that I made. A choice that I’m still unsure about but was far too compelled to deny. I hate what that choice, this trial, my very past, has done, but I don’t feel like it was really a choice. I had to. Something in me needed this; I just wish it hadn’t been at the expense of her feelings. And while she knows this, and has understood this, it has hurt her so deeply that I feel her pulling away from me.
I make sure that I’m open and honest as I step up to her, take her in my arms, and bury my face in her neck. She’s a little stiff at first but she finally wraps her arms around me, holding me close and sighing as she nuzzles her face into my breast. I breathe in her lavender scent and she grips me even tighter. Her voice is muffled and small as she says, “I’m sorry. I know we’ve talked about it and I understand why you felt you had to, but I just can’t… shake it.” There is a long moment of silence as I hold her. I can tell that there is something else she needs to say, something more than facing the possibility of my incarceration that’s troubling her. But that same intuition tells me that she can’t bring herself to really face it… to give it life… to give it substance… to make it real with words.
I furrow my brows, my throat tight as I ask something that’s plaguing me. “Do you… do you still love me, T?”
She shudders with a choked sob and burrows in deeper. “I can’t believe you’d even ask me that, let alone wonder.”
I exhale a heavy breath, somewhat relieved. She’s right. These insecurities are my own. I just feel so… “I’m sorry. I’ve just felt so distanced from you. It’s… it’s scaring me, T.”
And just like that, I realize that it’s not the love or the connection I have to her that scares me, it’s the potential loss of it. It’s not like when she was in the coma. Losing her physically wouldn’t sever us from one another, not completely. Losing her emotionally would. She sighs, leaning back in the circle of my arms to gaze up at me. “I know. I feel it, too.” She closes her eyes for a moment and shakes her head in frustration. “I can’t help it. I’m so scared to be close to you right now and then lose you. I just… I don’t know how to shake it.”
I feel a hot tear track down my cheek, my voice choked as I beg her, “Try? Please… I need you right now… more than ever.”
Her expression is sad and I can see the struggle taking place behind her eyes as she takes my hand and leads me up the stairs. The house is unnaturally quiet as I follow her into the en suite. She releases my hand and I reluctantly allow it as she starts to fill the tub with warm water. Her movements are determined and sure as she removes her clothes and a conciliatory calm settles down around us as I do the same. I step into the deep water and watch as she enters, shuts off the faucet, and positions herself between my legs, turning to her side and pulling my arms tight around her as she snuggles in tight against me.
The warm water, her nakedness, her vulnerability, her embrace… they all envelop me and soothe away some of the pain of the last few months. I feel our connection get stronger and it happens – everything I needed and everything I’ve been putting off. I cry piteously as she slides her hands over mine, holding me tighter, holding me together, in this moment of intense release. It stirs the grief inside of me, reaching down so unfathomably deep within me that I am flayed open and turned inside out as I drown in it. It takes a lot out of my weary soul to face it, to go through it, and it seems to go on forever. But once the worst of it has passed, once my head is above the current, I take in a huge, live-giving breath and feel the first tendrils of relief seep into my soul.
My voice is thick with emotion. “I’m so sorry, T. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
She squeezes me, her voice low and soft as velvet. “I know that, Bette. I know that, and I support you, it’s just that…”
It’s her turn to mourn and I hold tight to her as her own anguish floods out and disappears into the tide surrounding us. I want to know what it is, this thing that’s more than the obvious that she can’t even give a name to. “What, T? It’s just that… what?”
She shakes her head and her words are soft but resonate with dread. “I-I’m not even sure what it is, Bette. I’m sorry. I just feel…”
She can’t say anymore and I nod in understanding, though I have no idea what it is I understand. She starts to weep again I join her unabashedly. I’ve never mourned with someone this intensely, not even Tina, not even about our son, and not like this. And while I feel our connection get stronger and take on new facets for the suffering and passionate vulnerability of this moment, I can’t help but resent it for happening.
It shouldn’t be like this, but I guess that’s the nature of passion. It lies in all of us, sleeping… waiting. And though unwanted, unbidden… it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us, guides us; passion rules us all and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments: the joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace; but we would be hollow… empty rooms – shuttered and dank. Without passion… we’d be truly dead. And through some fortunate misfortune, we are alive with the glory of love, especially in this moment.
The doorbell rings and I furrow my brows as I step up to and peer out of the side window. It would seem that everyone I know is standing in a crowd on my doorstep. The jury has been out for a total of five days now, and while Tina and I have fallen back into our routine, the atmosphere hasn’t lost any of its somberness. Our friends have been stopping by to check on us, especially Alice and Dana, but even they know that nothing can lift this heavy cloud shy of a verdict. It doesn’t even need to be favorable at this point. Tina and I are prepared for a negative outcome. It’s the anxious waiting and not knowing that have sucked the air from the very earth.
And it’s for this very reason, this lack of any means to fix the melancholy surrounding us, that I can’t understand what is happening on my front porch at this moment. The doorbell is rung again, this time like the operator is having a siezure, and I break myself out of my confusion to unlock the door and open it. I barely have time to move out of the way before Alice pushes through and the horde behind her descends like a plague of locusts.
Alice steps up to me, a mischievous grin on her face. “Al, what’s going on?” I watch as people file in: Shane, Carmen, Kit, Malcolm, Ming, Tom, Duffy, Helena, Dylan, Papi, Tasha, Tom with someone woman I’ve never met, and even Ricky. Papi and Tasha are carrying a card table, everyone has alcohol or food of some kind, most of them are dressed for the pool, and all of them scatter throughout the house and onto the patio in various stages of preparation for a party that I don’t remember authorizing. I look back to Alice incredulously as Dana shuts the front door and steps up to us.
Dana is wearing a wide, toothy smile that crinkles her nose and Alice is smug as she grabs my arm and pulls me after the herd. Our progress is fast and I’m too dazed to struggle as I take in the animated chatter and laughing that’s going on around me. We stop abruptly at the threshold of the patio doors and Alice turns to face me. She crosses her arms over her chest, her gaze unyielding and determined as she says, “Enough moping, Porter. I brought the cavalry and you’re going to cut loose tonight.”
I hear Angie squeal and watch over Alice’s shoulder as she jumps into the pool where Malcolm, Tom, and Ming are waiting for her. I open my mouth to speak but I can’t find words as I see Tina, standing at the side of the pool laughing at our daughter’s antics. She turns to me, her burnished face gorgeous and glowing with happiness, and I feel my heart flutter.
I can’t help the grin that blooms across my features, or the tears that well up from my heart, or the quick movement of taking Alice in my arms and thanking her. I look back to Tina to see her delicate eyebrow raised and crowned with a genuine smile that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to see again. It’s a sight for sore eyes and I squeeze my best friend a little tighter.
Alice pulls back and breaks the hug, smiling coyly as she says, “Sheesh, Porter. You’re getting soft in your old age.” Alice takes Dana’s hand and I watch as everyone sets about the business of livening up this house and this atmosphere, taking some of the heavy, stifling weight from our shoulders and helping us carry it. I feel overcome with love and joy and make my way to Tina by the pool. She’s wet in my arms, but her skin has been warmed by her last hour with Angie in the sun. I kiss the nearest freckle on her shoulder and sigh as she holds me just as tightly. The words tumble from my heart and my mouth and I don’t even try to hinder them. “I love you, T.” I close my eyes and breathe in her sun-kissed skin. “Thank you.”
She sighs, but I can tell that it’s one of release, not despair, and the sound of it is a balm to my soul. “Don’t thank me. I had no idea. But…” She pulls back and strokes my cheek gently as she gazes through my eyes and into my very soul. “…I love you, too Bette. We’ll get through this… won’t we?”
I can see that the uncertainty and anxiety are still there; I can feel it too. The pendulum is still swinging above our heads but I don’t care, and right now, neither does Tina. I grin at her, throwing in a wink for good measure, and knowing what I say is true even if I can’t fully believe it yet. “Yes, we will.”
I look back on my sleeping children one more time before shutting the door behind me. They were passed around by doting aunts and uncles all afternoon, and it exhausted them to the point of falling asleep an hour early. Tina and I may pay for it when the sun rises tomorrow, but knowing that the issues that Tina and I are facing didn’t get a chance to touch them today is worth any future sleep deprivation.
Tina takes my hand and we slip down the stairs to find everyone lounging by the pool in various states of enjoyment. Papi, Tasha, Tom’s friend – whom I learned is his boss, Jamie – Alice, and Dana are playing a riveting game of poker around the game table. I was surprised to see Tasha, considering the circumstances, but we spoke earlier; and while she didn’t say much, she assured me that she doesn’t hold anything against me for my outburst or blame me for her breakup with Alice. And while I don’t know her all that well, I know that she’s a good person, and I genuinely hope that she will still come around once in a while. Besides, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Jamie was interested in her. Everywhere Tasha has been this afternoon, Jamie has been right there, laughing and enjoying herself. I didn’t realize it, but apparently Jamie, in addition to Tom, is the one to thank for all of the NO H8 support we’ve been receiving during the trial proceedings. She seems nice, and Tom raves about her, so I’m sure we’ll see more of her as well.
Tom and Ricky seemed to hit it off, but not in a romantic way. They spent most of the afternoon chatting and I swear I heard them make plans to go boy watching at one of the better clubs off of Santa Monica. I know Tom, Malcolm, and Ming are very close friends, but I’m glad that Tom is branching out. Ricky is a truly kind and generous person, despite all of his diva tendencies.
Dana and Alice had me to the brink of frustration earlier. They were being so casual and almost professionally civil to one another, that I was about to slam their heads together and hope they got stuck that way until they figured this mess out. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that they had been being discreet for Tasha’s benefit. That was until I caught them leaving the bathroom together and stealing a kiss in the darkened hallway before parting ways and rejoining the group. When they finally noticed me, there was a long intense moment before I smirked and went about the business of taking Angie to her bedroom. I laughed as Alice passed me and said, “Not a word, Porter.” I’m thankful that I don’t have to superglue them together and hope for the best. They seem to have worked it out for themselves… just as it should be.
Duffy and Helena are bordering on drunk, both of them for obvious reasons. Each day must be a struggle for Duffy after everything she’s been through. And Helena, well Dylan’s left the party, and I’m fairly certain that their relationship is officially over. I like Dylan, and Helena has become one of my closest friends despite our rocky start, but part of me believes that if you don’t want to commit to your partner, that they’re just not the one, the soulmate, the forever, like my Tina is for me. And if you’re settling or you don’t feel it, it’s my firm belief that you’re wasting your time. I also believe everyone has a someone, and will find them in this lifetime if they can wait and hold onto that hope. Either way, they want to drown their sorrows, and at least they can do it together. I know that there is still hope for both of them, no matter how tragic their lives have been.
Malcolm and Ming are curled up in a lounge on the other side of the pool stargazing and talking. I’m overcome with love for this wonderful man and I am privileged to call him my brother. He has been nothing but a blessing since that day he walked into my office, and I have no doubts whatsoever that he will only continue to enrich our lives in the future, whatever it holds. He is indescribably precious to me, just like Kit.
Tina and I take a seat at the bottom of the balcony stairs and I sigh. Kit. She’s in the kitchen cleaning of course. She has been less forgiving than Tina for my recent choice, a choice that I will admit was selfish. But I know that the only reason that she’s so upset with me is because she loves me. I just hope that she can find it in her heart to forgive me, no matter the outcome. No, I know she will. It will just take time, and time’s all I have at this point.
I feel a small, warm hand snake over my thigh to link around my arm as delicate fingers intertwine with my own. I lean in and press my lips to Tina’s temple, closing my eyes for a moment to take her in. I feel stronger and more connected to her today than I have all week, and it feels good to have a source from which to draw some strength, however tenuous that connection is. I know it could pull apart at any minute with one word: guilty. But I won’t think on it just now.
I turn my head and rest it against Tina’s as we take in and enjoy our family in comfortable silence. I’m taking a night off from it all, and I have Alice to thank for that. No matter what happens, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate in this life. As I’ve said before, fortune favors the brave. Let’s just hope that this last grasp at bravery pays off.
Seven days may as well be as long as single moment in the grand scheme of things, but from where I’m sitting in my home, in our nursery, Rory suckling from my breast, seven days feels like an eternity. The jury is still mulling over the facts of my case and I feel like I’ve been suspended in limbo. Tina, Joyce, and I have made all of the necessary arrangements in case I am to be convicted, but there is really no way to truly prepare. Part of me knows that it is unlikely that I will walk away from this, but there is still a shred of doubt, a small ray of hope, that cuts through that knowledge. As hopeless as it seems, it is in humanity’s collective genetic makeup to be hopeful anyway.
I gaze down into Rory’s precious face, and I know that I stand to lose everything, but I also stand to gain everything. Either way, it’s out of my control, and for the first time in a very long time, I don’t care to have full control. I have done the best that I can. I may be helpless to fix it all, but I get the sneaking suspicion that nothing needs to be fixed.
I’m more thankful than I ever have been in my life. I have learned a lot about myself in the last five years. I’ve learned that I prefer being open to being closed off; I’ve learned that I can’t control everything and how to function despite that lack of control; I’ve learned what it means to be a mother; I’ve learned what it means to be a spouse. I’ve learned how to forgive, and I’ve learned what it really means to love someone. Love is, by definition, sacrifice – at least by my estimation. I’ve learned that there is nothing that I wouldn’t sacrifice for my family. Yes, that includes Candace. And yes, that even includes me. I know now that I won’t feel guilty for sacrificing to protect them ever again. It is both a privilege and duty to love.
I glance next to me to see Tina feeding Chance from one of the pumped bottles, and I know that she and this family are more than worth it. In that last five years I have asked myself the questions that can either enslave or liberate, and I have found my answers. More importantly, I’ve chosen to be liberated.
Yes, it is a choice, a terrifying choice. Sometimes the unknown is scarier than the horrible complacence of the known. For me, I had been doing things one way, the wrong way, for so long that once I made the choice to face the unknown, to look for something better, I was paralyzed in my newfound freedom. This freedom left me confused and wondering: where do I go from here? It was then that I realized that in order to change, to find better, I had to start from the bottom. I had to lose everything and completely rebuild. It was a long and arduous process of peeling away all the layers of façade and bravado to get to the core of my being, and when I got there, I found myself wounded and infected.
It’s the first step that’s always the hardest, especially into the unknown. It’s a leap of blind faith, but I took it anyway. That’s the beauty of starting from scratch. There is nothing to lose from that point. So I did it. I opened up those wounds and painstakingly cleaned away the infection so that I could finally heal, knowing all the while that bleeding through it, hurting through it, was the only way to reach the second step.
I shift Rory to my shoulder and smooth my hand over her back. She’s getting so big and I feel like time is fleeting. Everything changes so fast. I knew that change is the only constant, the only reliable variable in this life, but now I realize it and feel it deep down in my bones. How ironic that change is so difficult for humanity to face, when in fact we face it on a moment-by-moment basis. But seeing it, seeing your true self, that is the essence of growth and change.
For the longest time I felt like I was gazing at myself through a glass darkly – my image distorted and indistinguishable. How could I change when I couldn’t even see what needed to change? Again, it took blind faith. But once I started, it’s that change, that clearing away of the infection, that polished the mirror to a high-gleaming shine, revealing the true nature of everything, and revealing not just the change, but the process of growth and the result of endurance, all in a single crystal-sharp image. It showed me exactly what I needed to see, exactly who I really am, and exactly who I want to be.
Who am I? I asked that question just two days ago, and now I can say unequivocally that I truly know. I am a mother and a child, a wife and a paramour, a protector and a refugee, a lover and a fighter, but most of all, I’m human – flesh and blood tightly wrapped around a framework of bones and controlled by synapses that fire randomly through a small organ that cannot comprehend its own existence or operation. I think Walt Whitman was describing human nature when he said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes… mostly earth.’ That is the human condition. And as such, I have accepted that I am just a person, a human, and utterly flawed.
That’s the point to all of this – a lesson; a cruel lesson, but a lesson nonetheless. And here is the answer I have found: everything is flawed but there is hope. For me, that hope is my family, my perfectly flawed family, and that hope is a waking dream. I live it every minute of every day, consciously and unconsciously. All the changing, the lack of control, the pain, the suffering, it’s all the answer and it’s all the question. We are human. And that’s why the best we can do is to make a choice, take a chance, and just hold on.
That’s what it takes, the ability to change but also the ability to endure. I know it and I can prove it because I did it. I changed my heart; I changed my mind, and I changed my life, and then I held on through all of the despair and self-loathing. I found the will to try and, through pain and tears, I was successful. I just had to care; I just had to try, especially when it was most hopeless. Why try? Well, it’s very simple in its complexity – life lingers and hope endures, but only love lasts forever. That is the be all and end all to a life worth having.
And for all of my ramblings and stray thoughts, I finally realize that I have been going about this all wrong. I do not need to shed my past. My past has helped to shape the person I am now, and I love who I am now. It is both relevant and irrelevant: relevant because it shaped me, irrelevant because I am not that person anymore. The person I am, my true self, is getting to her feet, with her wife, to put our children in their cribs, and is no longer running or offering a pound of flesh. There is nothing more I can sacrifice to show my love for myself or this family. The very best thing that I can do is to be thankful for a past that helped me to realize who I am and what I was missing, and gave me the courage to look straight into a bright future, even if it’s fleeting.
Just as we set the babies down, the phone on the dresser vibrates. Tina is closer to the device, so she reaches over and retrieves it, gazing down into the caller ID for a long, silent moment. I step up to her to take it from her loose grasp, and feel my heart drop into my toes as I see Joyce’s name on the screen. I’m running on pure adrenaline, my heart thudding against my ribs as I dazedly answer the call. “Joyce?”
“Bette…” There’s a long pause. “…the verdict’s in. We need to get to the courthouse as soon as possible.”
I swallow hard, my voice hoarse and my tongue dry. “Should I, um… should I bring… anything?”
Joyce sighs. “If it is a guilty verdict they will remand you into custody immediately. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but if you want… just in case… you can bring some socks, underwear, a toothbrush, deodorant, those types of things…”
Tina is gazing at me and, as I finally lift my eyes to meet her worried ones, I can tell that she heard Joyce’s muffled words in the too-quiet room. “Okay. Malcolm’s home, so we’ll get him over here to watch the children and meet you down there.”
Tina goes pale and turns to leave the room, and all I can do is stare after her even when she’s out of sight. “Alright. See you soon. And, Bette…?”
I somehow manage to croak out, “Yes…?”
“Try not to worry. We have options if it’s bad news.”
I chuckle mirthlessly and turn to look at my son, his eyelids fluttering with dreams, and a single tear escapes my eye. I release a deep breath. “I’ll try. Be there soon.”
I end the call and force myself not panic; I force myself not to grab my children and wife and run; I force myself not to break down and sob. Instead, my hands tremble as I run one of them through my hair and make my way to the bedroom. Tina is sitting on the edge of the bed, facing away from me and gazing out through the balcony doors. I approach her hesitantly, afraid that if I touch her or break the silence, she’ll disappear like a mirage.
As I step closer I see her shoulders shuddering with quiet sobs, and my own heart shatters into a trillion pieces that scatter and tear through all of my other organs. “T…?”
She stands abruptly, keeping her back to me to hide her tears as she swipes at them in frustration. She heads quickly for the closet, returning moments later with a leather satchel and placing it on the bed. She’s like a whirlwind moving about the room and depositing items that I’ll need inside. “I um…” She clears her throat. “…I’m not exactly sure what you’ll need.”
“T… it’s okay.” I want to go to her but she’s frantic as she makes her way to the bathroom.
She returns, dumping a few more items in the bag. Her words are quick. “I mean, what will they let you take?”
I step closer to her but she’s gone quickly. “T… it’s okay.” I make another move towards her but she dodges me, avoiding my eyes.
She heads over to the dresser, opening the top drawer and pulling out several pairs of underwear and socks. “This will get you through a few days, if they let you have it.”
“Tina, please… it’s okay.” She ignores me, placing the clothes in the bag before heading back into the closet.
She comes out with some of my plain tee shirts and tank tops, stuffing them in the nearly overflowing bag as well. “I can bring you other things if we forget something.”
She tries to shut the bag, yanking the zipper roughly and I move closer to her, my voice heavy with pleading. “T… it’s going to be okay…”
She pulls harder on the zipper, getting more and more frustrated by the minute. Her voice is stilted and rough as she struggles. “We just… we need to make sure… that you have… what you need.”
She tugs furiously on the stubborn closure, roughly hitting the side of the bag to deflate it as intense anger and frustration leak from her eyes and hands… and her very heart. I put my hands over hers to stop her. “T… I promise, it’s going to be–”
She shoves the bag hard, breaking my grasp and knocking it off the bed where the contents spill out. Her wet, anguished eyes finally meet mine as she shouts. “Stop saying that! It’s not going to be okay, Bette!”
She’s trembling as she gazes up at me and I feel completely dismantled as I reach out to comfort her but she moves away from me. She folds her arms over her chest, hugging herself and I worry that I’ve managed to lose her. We stand here in silent communion for long moments, knowing that there are no words to fix this, no touches to soothe this pain. She calms down and I see how utterly broken she is, how utterly broken I’ve made her.
The guilt of it is staggering as she nearly whimpers, “It’s not going to be okay, Bette. Even if you don’t go to jail, Kelly’s not going to give up. You know that. It’s…” She sobs uncontrollably, falling heavily onto the edge of the bed, and I finally realize the darkness that’s been eating at her this past week. “…it’s one thing to be separated from you, but always worrying and never knowing…” She looks up at me with desperate pleading in her eyes. “I can’t do that, Bette. I can’t know that you’re in danger and not do anything to stop it! I can live with you in prison. I’ll hate it, but it’s doable… but that…” She shakes her head jerkily. “I can’t live with that, Bette. I just can’t…”
I kneel in front of her, sliding into the space between her legs and running my hands up her thighs until they’re resting on her hips and I’m nearly hugging her. She tangles her fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck and rests her forehead down against mine as she cries piteously. I almost envy her in this moment. I close my eyes and release a deep breath. I’m too numb to cry.
“Then we’ll figure something out, T.” She clings to me more tightly. “Listen…” I pull back and gaze at her. “We have to handle this one thing at a time, okay?” She nods haltingly. “Right now, let’s just find out what the verdict is. Once that’s done, and we have a clear understanding of where we stand, we’ll talk to Duffy and figure the rest out. If there’s a way, she’ll know it, T.” She nods again and I wipe the tears from her flushed cheeks. I gaze hard into her eyes, my voice low and serious. “I promise you that we’ll find a way.” She releases a deep breath and smiles sadly, burying her face in my neck and squeezing me so hard that I can barely breathe, which is a good thing right now because it distracts me from the intricate mess of a promise I just made, a promise I have no idea how to keep.
The Lexus pulls up to the curb and I squeeze Tina’s hand a little tighter as the bright lights of the photographer’s cameras flash and sting my eyes. The steps in front of the courthouse look infinitely longer and frighteningly steeper today, and I swallow hard at what I’m about to face. I look to Shane in the driver’s seat and she reassures me. “Carm will go with you guys. I’ll park the Lexus and be right in.”
I nod and Tina’s voice pierces through me, “Come on. We’d better get in there.” I gaze into her eyes for a moment, realizing that this may be my last minute alone with her. Panic wells up in my guts and my heart starts to race. I can’t breathe and I want to run, take Tina and leave the country. Fuck, I must have been insane! What was I thinking? Tina pushes the haphazard curls out of my eyes and strokes my cheeks. The cameras in the windows are still blinking all around us as she leans in and kisses me sweetly. There is comfort and love in that kiss and while I feel infinitesimally better, I don’t know how to make myself move.
Tina’s eyes are warm and I want to fall into them as she says, “You can do this. We’ll get through it, remember?” I can see the swirling emotions she’s holding back and I hate them, but I’m thankful to her in this moment. If she breaks down, I’m most certain to follow. I nod my head mutely and take a deep breath, releasing it slowly before grabbing the handle and pushing the door open.
A cacophony of noise deafens me and I feel slightly claustrophobic as time slows down and the media swarms in around me. I’m frozen in place, the world shrinking in, and I wish for the earth to open up at my feet and swallow me whole. Tina puts her hand in mine and I look down at it dazedly. I almost can’t even feel it. I just feel intensely alone in this moment, even with the media circus raging around me.
My ears are ringing and I watch as Carmen starts cutting a path through the throng of vultures in front of us. Tina pulls me after her and it takes everything I have not to trip as questions are shouted, lights shutter spasmodically, and the enormous staircase seems never-ending.
When we finally reach the top, I see Joyce and Whit holding the doors open for us. We slip inside, Shane running to catch up with us, and the doors thankfully shut out the noise and the crowd. I take a deep breath, but my relief doesn’t last long as Whit steps up in front of me and says, “Bette, they’re waiting for us.”
I still can’t find my voice so I nod and he leads us down the hall. I can’t seem to get a grip on my thoughts or even fully realize what’s happening. All I can feel is the hole punched in my chest at the thought of letting go of Tina. She’s pressed up tightly to my side and I’m grateful that the media allowed in the courtroom didn’t wait in the hallway. This is bad enough without the whole world watching. We pull up in front of the double doors and I realize all my time has run out. As much as I’ve hated the anxious waiting of this last week, I just want to go home and hide… maybe wait forever and hope that it never comes. Tina’s voice is pleading as she addresses Whit. “Is there no way I can be inside with her?”
Whit shakes his head. “I’m sorry… both of you. Normally, since you won’t be testifying again, you would be allowed, but Compton has made it clear that witnesses are not allowed in the courtroom at any time during the proceedings.”
Tina swipes at her eyes and takes my hands in hers as she faces me. It’s every ounce of strength I have to face her, but I manage, just as she is somehow managing right now. My composure doesn’t last long and I find myself clinging to her so tightly that I’m worried I’ll crush her. She doesn’t seem to notice and I don’t think I could loosen my grip if I had a mind to, which I don’t. I’m fairly certain I don’t have a mind at all right now. “I’ll be in the office waiting. I’m not going anywhere.” I nod, my only viable form of communication as of this moment. “No matter what, I will see you again today. I’ll find a way, Bette.” I nod again, unwilling to let her go.
We stay this way for long moments, neither willing nor able to let go; but fate, God, the world at large, whatever you choose to call it, doesn’t seem to sympathize as Whit touches my arm. “Bette, it’s time.”
I force my stiff muscles to loosen so Tina can step back. She does so hesitantly and I kiss her softly, holding onto her hand until the last minute as the double doors are opened and I disappear inside, shutting her out behind me. Shane walks beside me and I’m so thankful for her today. We told everyone what was happening after we received the phone call, but there just wasn’t much time. We were fortunate to find Shane and Carmen at home and of course, being who they are, they dropped what they were doing to be here. The others are on their way.
Shane touches my shoulder, her eyes intense, and I smile sadly at her as she breaks away to take her seat right behind me. I continue to move forward, this short aisle seeming to span on for miles. Camera’s and faces are trained on me and I force myself to look forward. I finally reach my own seat and nearly collapse into it, gripping the desk in front of me as tightly as my tendons will allow, and taking deep, frantic breaths. I can’t pass out. I need to bone the fuck up and face this.
I turn my head and see Merle smirking, her dark eyes flooding my already overwrought system with rage. I should be thankful to her. The anger gives me the ability to focus, gives me the will to straighten my spine, square my shoulders, and push all of the anxiety, fear, and grief into a hard, compressed brick at the bottom of my stomach. More importantly, it gives me the will to face this with a modicum of grace. I stare at her, letting her know that even if I am convicted, there are no winners here today. Just being who she is, she’s already lost.
“All rise! District one criminal court is now in session. The honorable Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” The air is sucked from my lungs as I force myself not just to stand, but to stand tall. I jut out a proud chin, distribute my weight evenly on my locked knees, and control the shaking in my hands by clasping them in front of me.
Judge Compton waddles to his seat and hikes himself up into it like a chubby child into a highchair, and I feel a bead of sweat gather on my brow as the bailiff booms out, “The jury will now enter!”
I turn, facing this jury as they file in. If they are going to judge and condemn me, they had better be prepared to look me in the eyes while they do it. They each take their seats and I grip my own fingers tighter as Compton starts. “We’re back on the record. I understand that the jury has reached a verdict. Is that correct?”
There is a chorus of, “We have, your honor,” from the jury.
“Please fold the verdict form and hand it to the bailiff.” The bailiff retrieves the form and walks it over to the judge. Corky opens the paper and I watch a red flush gather on his cheeks, but I can’t tell if it’s from repulsion or elation. He passes the form to the clerk and turns back to the jury. “Madame foreperson, how does the jury find?”
The woman who passed the jury form to the bailiff focuses her attention on Compton and that bead of sweat in my hairline starts a torturously slow, salty trek towards my eyes. This is it. My future is whimpering at her feet in this moment, and I swallow the bile trying to climb up out of my throat. The foreperson’s voice is harsh and seems to come from a place far away as I detach myself from the situation. “In the case of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard for the charge of murder, we the jury find the defendant…”