I sit on the chair, angled toward the judge, freezing because the heat is broken and try to remember what I was told: look at him when you answer the questions. Speak clearly and loudly. Be friendly.
I am prepared. I am over-prepared. I have spreadsheets and timetables. User-friendly exhibits.
Just answer the questions directly. And remember.
Look at the judge.
First question: Please describe the events of March 20th 2012.
David, my lawyer, is short, shorter than I am without his lifts. He dresses well in a dark suit, hair slicked back, beard so thick that at 9:30 am he needs a touch-up shave. He stands when he addresses me, but angles his body toward the judge.
I open my mouth to answer and inhale, swift and painful, reminding me of the whooping cough that still lingers.
“Objection!” My ex-husband’s lawyer, Joseph, pops up out of his seat. He’s a hobbit, a troll, a morsel of a man who relies on sleaze and “relationship” to win cases rather than facts and organization. (Compare the scattered papers on his table to the overlapping scale-like pattern of manila files laid out in sequential order in front of David). I look to David for guidance, inhale frozen. The barest hint of condescension passes like a cloud shadow across David’s face then disappears. These two men, David and Joseph, used to be partners. David threw Joseph out. But the Judge–he goes to the same synagogue as Joseph. Joseph coached his son in T-ball. It’s complicated.
The Judge, just to my right asks with gravelly, unmasked irritation that I consider to be ominous for this early in the day, “On what grounds?”
Joseph, a fidgeter, a self-proclaimed ADD sufferer and machine-gun chatterbox, rapid-fire responds, “The question is too broad. The events have nothing to do with this case. We don’t have time for a story here. This isn’t what all this is about…”
The judge holds up his hand and Joseph shuts his mouth so swiftly it makes a “pop.” He is instantly contrite. He is malleable. He is a bad boy and will do whatever the judge wants. I think, He is an imbecile.
The judge sighs and it’s hostile. “Let’s just…” he uses his robed shoulder to scratch his chin. I look at David for a hint. Is this how it always goes? The Judge looks up. “Sustained. Can we just skip to the point?” He’s looking at me and I see it, how he sees me. I’m not here seeking justice with a capital J. I’m not here trying to find the truth. I am simply one more body in an endless parade of he-said/she-saids sitting before him and it’s clear he really could not care less about my “story.” He is not at all interested in “What happened on March 20.”
“Let’s just,” he sighs with the bottom eyelid droopiness of someone who has had Too Goddamned Much of this Shit. “Let’s just get to the point. What was the offense?”
I look at David. There are no tealeaves in that teacup. I can read nothing from him. I think, What was the offense? and the answer hides out in my memory. My body distracts me. I am cold. I open my mouth. I say, “Well,” and I see the Judge’s face pinch. “We were in a four-way meeting: me, David, Alex and Joseph, and we were there to talk about Child Support.” I focus on the paneled wood of my cage, the witness box. “We were discussing issues because Alex used to pay me one check and I covered the expenses but now he has reduced the amount so much that we have to talk about the expenses…”
“Hold on!” the judge puffs, an air punch in my gut. I look at him. “Was that offensive!?” I am rattled. His face is the pink hue of umbrage. His words smear with a cocktail of fatigue and sarcasm. Is he really shouting at me? He continues, “Was it OH-fensive that you were in a four way meeting discussing expenses?”
I mentally stagger. I am trying to tell my story. I am trying to frame the offense. I am TRYING to be helpful, and we have only been here for five minutes. I look at David. Nothing.
“Get to the offense,” the judge says, leaning back in his creaky padded chair.
I sit up taller in my hard, wood, cold chair angled toward him so I can be respectful. So I can speak to him while answering questions. I am trying to be a good student. I collect myself. His arms fly up.
“Is there a problem?” It’s loud. Louder than the shout. Like a boom but not a boom. I startle. I look at David. I flush. My face is hot, though my hands are white and ice. I hear the squeak of my grinding teeth. Asshole. I think it.
“I…..” I look down. I scroll past everything David told me to say. Everything we practiced. I fast forward over Alex’s hostile body language, his middle finger up on his forearm like high school, his mouthed “fuck you” (can’t prove it), his refusal to pay for his son’s education and tutors and everything else and I skip right to the only concrete provable witnessed thing we have which, in that instance, is…
“He said, ‘because you SUCK’ and then David ended the meeting because he said he would not sit here and have his client abused.”
There is silence.
“Your ex husband said ‘because you suck.’” the judge repeats.
“Yes, and David ended….”
“Right,” he cuts me off. And then the Honorable R. Stephen Evans, Judge in the Court of Common Please of Montgomery County, PA, family court, writes, “You Suck” on a piece of paper on his desk.
He places his pencil carefully down. He leans back and sighs. He looks around at the high ceilings, the crown molding, the cracks in the plaster.
“Is anybody else cold in here?” he says to no one in particular. And then, to his court clerk, “Are you cold?”
“It’s freezing in here,” she says without looking at him, and that is the first time I notice her. Fifties, short hair, rough-hewn voice, narrow shoulders. “I called physical plant but I don’t notice a difference yet.” She sits behind a desk as old as the building.
“Do you notice a difference?” The judge directs this question to his bailiff, a quiet, nothing of a man standing well off to the side. Long ago retired cop, I think, and somebody’s grandpa. Maybe a lot of somebody’s grandpa helping to keep the household afloat with this sort of job.
Joseph pipes in with a piccolo voice, “Your Honor, it’s quite chilly. I’d be happy to run downstairs and check with Burt to see what’s going on. If it pleases Your Honor.”
I’m sure you would, I think. I’m sure you would be happy to do a lot of things if it pleases his Honor.
“No Joseph, that’s not necessary. Thanks.” And there it is. Their buddy-hood. “Dawn can do it. Dawn?” The clerk gets up and brushes something from her bulky wool skirt. Her hand reaches to her crotch and she tugs her pantyhose like a wrong side of the tracks flip-off, then starts to waddle toward the door.
“Strike all that,” the Judge says leaning forward to eye the stenographer, situated just under his bench. From my vantage, I can only see the top of the stenographer’s shiny, fringed head and the elegant silver-quick movement of his fingers. We all turn our eyes to the door to wait for Dawn. There is a lingering dust-in-the-light period of silence in which everyone does nothing.
And then Dawn comes back.
She shrugs once to the Judge and sidles toward her desk. The stenographer’s hands lift, curved fingers resting on the keys like a concert pianist and David, standing like a sentry beside his table, takes one step forward.
“What did you find when you returned home from the meeting,” David asks quickly, before Joseph can say anything, before the judge can further disapprove. “When you got home. What did you find when you got home?” I turn to face the judge, rule follower that I am, and speak clearly.
“I received two emails.” The judge shifts in his seat. This bores him.
David approaches quickly, silently in his soft leather man-stilts, nimble and smooth. “Exhibit A” he says, and hands me a piece of paper I had xeroxed for him. “What is the date of that email?”
“March 20th 2012.” I am quick about it.
“2:03 pm” The judge spies me without looking at me.
“Cut to the offensive part,” he reminds. I scan the email.
“Um…” I say. The resounding voice of my dad echoes in my head: Um is not a word!
I say in my clearest voice, “He called me dog shit.” The Judge stiffens.
“Please read the whole sentence.” I clear my throat of the whooping phlegm and wish for a napkin. My sleeve. Anonymity. I read from the e-mail.
“Your true nature has shown itself very clearly for years……I happen to detest dog shit.” The Judges face transforms into stippled maroon flesh, like a spanked thanksgiving turkey out in the cold. I chance a glance at David. A mask. I look back. The judge scrawls, “I happen to detest Dog Shit.”
“And the other e-mail,” he breathes through his teeth. I wonder, “Why is he annoyed now? Aren’t we getting to the point? Aren’t we doing exactly what he wants?” David glides up like a deflating Mylar balloon, soundlessly above ground, and hovers in front of the witness stand.
“Exhibit B.” He hands me my copy.
I know my job now. I had been, after all, an A student.
“This email is dated March 20th and was sent at 2:08 pm.” I project my voice. I look up at the judge in anticipation of more questions. I get it now.
Judge Evans speaks up. “What’s the offense?”
I scan the email. There is stuff in here about spring break expenses. Trading off of kids. But the main thing? He put that in the subject line. I speak clearly, enunciating each word.
“I. Will. Pick. Her. You. Cunt.” Evans looks puzzled. I clarify, “I believe he meant to say I will pick her up, meaning from school, you cunt. I had asked him if he was going to pick up our daughter from school. There’s a typo in there.” I point to it. Judge Evans looks over the tops of his half glasses at Joseph. He starts to write on his paper but stops after the first c and slams his pencil down.
“I’d like to see counsel in my chambers.” The judge gets up, not waiting for response, and disappears Gandalf-like behind a door. David strides behind him and Joseph follows chattering to David who doesn’t turn his head. I look around. The stenographer has quieted his hands on the keys. Dawn, the clerk turns around in her seat and looks at the huge, opaque windows. She rubs her hands together and then tucks them under her thighs. Again we are bathed in silence.