(This essay was awarded 2nd place in the Memoir/Personal Essay category of the 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition)
I sat at the defendant’s table next to my attorney, shivering in the relentless air conditioning. Annex B was a dingy, cramped back-up space that was used when all the nicer courtrooms were taken. The fluorescent lights left an empty glare on the rows of plastic yellow chairs. The audience was sparse, mostly strangers awaiting their turn to walk the plank. An elderly Bailiff dozed along the wall near the empty witness stand, his head resting against the outdated paneling.
“Are you ready for the ruling of the court?” The judge asked from his bench, putting on his reading glasses.
I sat up straight and stopped breathing. What? He hadn’t even taken a recess. He hadn’t even deliberated, or pretended to. He shuffled some papers and I stared up at the disapproving gray brick of his face. My heart was a waterfall, swelling in my throat.
It was okay. It was going to be okay.
“Yes your honor,” said Debbie cheerfully. “We’re ready.”
That was the other attorney, sitting at the table opposite from us, next to my husband. Her crispy little manner and practical square heels filled me with dread.
“We’re ready,” echoed my attorney, unimpressed, and with a touch of sarcasm.
“Well then,” said the judge, as if he was circling a crossword or ordering a large fry, or reciting a prayer at a funeral that nobody had bothered to attend. “Have the temporary legal custody be with the father.”
Something was inbound. Something was urgent. Be with the father, with the father, the father. This meant something. I waited for the follow-up, for the addendum, for the explanation of the real answer. Then my husband’s mother cried out from the back of the courtroom, a joyous gasp, a lone triumphant cheer meant to imply her martyrdom, meant to bury a knife in the softest part of my back. A shot had been fired, the horses exploding violently from their gates, spooked and confused, crashing into the stands, trampling people under their powerful, bloody hooves.
“Child support, she makes $14.00 an hour, so we’ll base her payment on that,” the judge continued, talking to someone. “I’ll allow a deviation for her travel expense for visitation.”
Deviation, visitation, what was this, like a searing light, like the white seam of a tidal wave pulled taut along the horizon. I stared at it from the shore, paralyzed, spellbound. The life-giving sphere of my little snow-globe sky was peeling back like burning paper, the air sucked out of my chest and into the vacuum of a black, starless outer space. This was not safe. We were all unsafe here. I watched my attorney’s pen, poised on his memo pad, trying to write. Stuck, sticking, strike through – the tiny wet tip tried and failed to thread the first letter of a single word.
“The two of you work on that some,” the judge rattled on, “and see if you can agree on that. If you can’t, call me for a conference and I’ll help you get the answer to that.”
The shame and fear was gathering above me, it belonged to me, it had come for me, unpeeling over my head as a mighty, ten-foot shockwave of galloping black water that would snuff out everything I had, everything I loved. All of the bright, quiet mornings where my baby’s sleepy eyes adored me as he suckled my breast, our pale skin pressed together as one soft, luminous body. This darkness rolled over us now, it was here to splinter the rocking chair where I’d held him, to sweep it all away, to tear apart my little green kitchen, as tender as a stalk of celery, where I twisted my daughter’s white hair around my knuckle, braiding it before breakfast, where I wiped the jam off her smooth skin with the edge of my sagging maternity shirt.The punishment had converged on me, on me alone, with every eye in the courtroom watching as it blotted out the iridescent soap bubbles I blew until I was dizzy, my son chasing them as they rose softly into the dry sky, thinning and effacing like my womb, like my swollen body that ached and arched and writhed with a pain so great I couldn’t even make a sound, bursting, releasing a baby ribboned with my tears and my blood, the broken seal of my love.
“Anything else?” The judge continued. “There’s currently health insurance with the father, is that right?”
Across the room: “Yes your honor.”
“Continue that. Anything else?”
“Your honor, I think we can work out when the children get turned over to the father,” Debbie bubbled, falling over herself. “I think we can work out the return.”
So nice and neat, like formalities before an execution, but who would hold them when they cried? Who would wake in the night to pull up their blankets? Who would touch the rise and fall of each of my three sleeping babies? Who but me?
The children were not adequately cared for, my husband had told the court. He’d stumbled a bit over the script they’d fed him. I don’t think she was… watching them… not adequately.
Strange and matter-of-fact, the sound of those words, of him looting and laying waste to me, to six years of my life. But this was a court of law, where truth would prevail over this sickness, where justice would never bow for a performance, no matter how convincing.
She told me she wanted to kill herself, he’d said aloud, the words echoing.
Looking down on my head from above, I could see my wrinkled Wal-mart blouse coming untucked in the back, because it never fit right to begin with. The sparkly pink clip in my side-parted hair. How could I have worn these stupid things, these hallmarks of guilt, of a mental case. Of a female.
I remembered that day. He’d come home from work and found me crying in the kitchen, stirring a foaming pot of macaroni. I’d dried my cheeks with the back of my sleeve, the baby balanced on my hip.
Just put a gun to my head, I’d whimpered to him, over the dinging stove timer.
Oh my, he’d replied, the whites of his eyes growing wider. Oh, my.
I should’ve watched my words. I should’ve kept quiet and hummed along like a dishwasher, like a perfect wife who gave everything and never broke down. But I hadn’t known. I thought I’d married a country song. I thought love would catch me when I fell. I thought God was smiling down on me from heaven.
I lowered my head into my attorney’s ear, straining to pull my voice out from under the twisted wreckage.
“Hank,” I whispered, clutching the arm of his suit, “did I lose my kids?”
He didn’t look at me. His pen was scribbling notes, monitoring the chit-chat, as if any of it mattered.
“Hank, did I lose my kids,” my dying plea repeated, “did I lose my kids. What happened.”
“Yes,” Hank finally whispered back, expressionless, his eyes locked on the judge. “I don’t know how.”
I had. I had lost my babies. They were no longer mine. I was barren. I was a coastline of utter destruction. And out the window to my left, just over Hank’s shoulder, the lifeless and unseeing industrial landscape remained unmoved, ambivalent as God. A round shrub grew in a patch of dirt one story below, in the dark and towering shadow of the courthouse, where no grass survived. It lived on the other side of the glass, in a world I no longer recognized, or wished to be a part of.
I want out, I whispered to it, to the shrub. I want out. I didn’t want this place anymore, this so-called earth, these false walls parading as reality. If I had lost my children, then it would lose me in return. I was tapping out, tapping out, my spirit rising to seek the open window, to squeeze out through any forgotten crack as the car drifted down, down, down to the dark abyss of the sea bed.
The shrub did not move. My body, like God, did nothing. It merely crumpled, unheroically, into my lap. Trapped inside, tears washed over my hands like blood.
“Allow whatever visitation they can agree on,” the judge said, stacking up his papers, closing his crafty little laptop, as it had already granted us the correct answers to life’s most challenging questions.
“Thank you Judge,” said Debbie the attorney, foaming with friendliness over her pile of slaughter, exuding the counterfeit calm of a woman who excels at imitating men. “We’ll work on that.”
“All rise,” said the Bailiff, stirring from his slumber.
All the bodies in the room stood at attention. Hank gestured to me, insisting, and so I rose from the dirty flecks in the chipped tile floor like a dead woman, a canopy of flesh on a pyramid of bones, just in time to see the back of the judge and his black superhero cape ducking out the back door, skittering away from the scene of the crime so he could ride into the sunset, impervious to the shadow of a doubt, beyond the reach of a second thought. He had the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but all he really wanted to do was get home for supper. He did not appreciate being kept here, five and-a-half minutes late.
The room stirred with movement and chatter, as I lowered my body into the coffin of my chair, into despair, into the punishment for sins I had never committed, but for which I would now pay dearly. Beside me, I could hear Hank putting his files into his rolling briefcase. A few of my friends approached the table to offer condolences. Seeing them filled me with shame. I could already see it in their eyes, seeds of doubt. The malignant consensus of my guilt that would spread unchecked in the hallways, in the phone calls between those eager to admit they always had a bad feeling about me, the suspicion implied in the wake of my hollow minivan, arriving and departing the school bereft of my children. They would console me in public now, distrust me in private later. Because now, I was a visitor, not a mother.
I waved them away with my hand, turning to hide my face.
“No,” I managed. “I can’t.”
They stood awkwardly, wondering what to say, until Hank wheeled his things away from the table, and they decided to recede with him. It was such a relief, the semi solitude. The end of their eyes on me, on all that was left of me.
I wanted to stay in this chair until the world was gone, until not a soul remained in the courthouse, until I could crouch in the shadows like the shrubbery, like an animal, dodging the flashes of passing headlights. I would wait here until every eye had closed, every staring head was jettisoned to the far corners, so I could slip out unseen, safe from the pretend pity and gleeful conquest that loomed on the flushed face of my mother-in-law.
When they were all gone, maybe I could get up and face my penance with dignity, alone. I would walk calmly into the gaping jaws of my new life, to a bed where hell awaited, and sleep fled. Where I would glimpse my betrayal, the unfathomable meaning of visitation, and weep until I vomited. Where I’d lay on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, pinned against the spin of the earth, staring down a universe so vacant it was laughable. Infinitely ordered, divinely just, and also flushable, safe for septic tanks. It offered nothing as I suffocated. It was overcome by a sheet of paper, ink-stamped “Truth” and nailed by its neck to a statue in the town square, on each page the Story of Me, and every word a lie.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011