By Gabriel Boutros
He walks out of the courtroom wearing that confident smile I once found so charming. He passes me without a second glance, like I never existed.
His lawyer trails behind him, high heels click-clacking loudly past the stragglers in the corridor. Her eyes flash in my direction and make contact with mine. The expression of relief she wore when the verdict was rendered changes briefly to embarrassment. Then she’s past me, her lawyer’s robes flouncing in rhythm with her dirty blond hair, as she catches up with his long-striding figure.
“Did a great job,” I whisper to her back. “Again.”
It’s my fault. It’s always my fault.
Too slow with supper. Too soft on the kids. Too nosy about what wasn’t my business; what I thought was my life.
And my fault for waiting a week before calling the police, because maybe this time, he’d change. For not remembering if he hit me with his left fist first, or his right. For letting his cold, angry glare make me forget everything I wanted to tell the judge when I should have been standing strong and confident at the witness stand.
“No credibility,” his lawyer says. She looks like she’s barely out of high school: pink cheeks and a little baby fat she’s never gotten rid of. She talks about me like I’m not there. She’s not even condescending to me; she has simply forgotten my presence in the pleasure of listening to her own voice.
I sit in a sterile, blue-grey room, surrounded by a half-dozen strangers, as my honesty, my integrity, even my sanity are discussed as casually as yesterday’s hockey results. She dissects me, like a medical student poking and prodding a dead body. My carcass: subject of much comment and lightly-veiled derision in room 6.11 of the Palais de Justice de Montréal.
Palais de Justice.
Substitut du procureur-général.
Centre d’indemnisation pour victimes d’actes criminels.
I have difficulty understanding the words in French, and they make everything sound so technical, impersonal even. But I guess they’re better words than “punching-bag”. Better than “laughing-stock.” Better than “lazy bitch, clean up this fucking pig-sty.”
For too long those words hadn’t really mattered. I’d forget them as soon as they were spoken. It was always easy to forget, to go back. Home was where the bruises healed.
The judge clears her throat, a pleasant looking woman around my age. She hardly looks in my direction as she renders her judgment. Her thin fingers flip the pages of her hand-written notes back and forth, looking for the words that are supposed to make me understand.
“Two conflicting versions,” she starts telling me. My word against his. “Reasonable doubt,” she mentions. She can’t make up her mind. “Burden of proof,” she adds. His lawyer ran circles around the over-worked prosecutor.
It would be easier if she’d just say she didn’t believe me. Why the legalistic mumbo-jumbo? I want to yell out, “Tell me you think I’m a liar, dammit! Don’t tell me you think he probably kicked the crap out of me, but that it doesn’t ‘meet the requisite standard of proof in a criminal trial.’ Don’t tell me you’re letting him walk even though you know what he did. Don’t tell me I went through all this again for nothing.”
But I say nothing, and that is really my fault. I sit stone-faced as he gets up and gives his lawyer a quick squeeze on her arm. The prosecutor tries to get my attention with her eyes, but I can’t look at her. She shrugs, turns back to the judge and picks up somebody else’s file folder. She has another trial ready to go.
The social worker who’d been sitting next to me is gone now. Was that her who’d patted my hand seconds ago? Has she gone off to hold the hand of another woman in the crowded waiting room? Would she lie to her too, tell her that this was going to make everything better?
I eventually make my way to the elevator, pressing the button for the St. Antoine Street exit. He’d gone this way only minutes before.
I briefly fantasize that we take the elevator down together. He’d probably hold the elevator door for me, smiling that smile of his again. He’d be solicitous, ask about the kids, about my health. He could be very thoughtful when things were going his way. He’s a generous winner, I’ll give him that.
In my fantasy I pull a knife out of my purse and stab him in the heart with it, watching his bright red blood pour over my wrist and all over this nice blouse I borrowed from my sister because since he left I can’t afford to buy myself anything decent and I wasn’t going to show up in court looking like a bag lady. But then, I have no knife in my purse, and he’s not on the elevator with me anyway.
I can’t put the courthouse behind me fast enough. Modern, in the way ugly and soulless used to be modern, it sticks out like a black eye on the face of Old Montreal. I’m on the street walking west to the Place d’Armes metro station. The day is warm, and the sun shines heedlessly on me. Around me, people smile and chat as they walk. Office workers, government employees, old Chinese ladies pushing toddlers in umbrella strollers: the world hasn’t stopped turning just for me.
The subway car is packed: I will not be left alone with my thoughts on this metro ride. I stand holding a pole, jostled by a group of teenagers who file noisily in. Two of them are holding hands. They stand next to me, their backpacks digging into my ribs as, blissfully unaware, they kiss and giggle their secrets to each other. I remember when that was us, when there wasn’t this empty space with me everywhere I went. But my memory’s a liar, and I push thoughts of him away.
I look away from the young lovers and through the graffiti-etched window of the metro at the fluorescent tunnel lights flashing by blue and white. The flashes look like rockets. Or toy light sabers. I think of my two boys at home. Justin is just a baby, conceived the last time we tried to make up. Samuel is almost six, and he’s the canary to the coal mine of my moods. Last week he caught me crying for no particular reason, just because staring out the window at everybody else’s lives makes me cry sometimes.
“Don’t worry, mommy,” he intoned as gravely as his reed-thin voice would allow. “If daddy doesn’t come back, then I’ll marry you.” He pushed an old Winnie the Pooh tape into the machine and sat on the floor to watch it, keeping one eye on me to see if his words had the intended comforting effect. I laughed in response, he’d taken me by such surprise, and fished a Kleenex out of my pocket to wipe my nose.
The teen-age girl suddenly yells “stupid prick”, tearing my attention away from my living-room window and the best offer I’ve had in years. Her boyfriend has moved a few feet away to join two other boys who bray their laughter back at her. Maybe she just learned that boys don’t always play nice, a lesson that comes to some later in life than to others. She’ll survive, though. We always do.
When I reach my apartment building I sit on the stairs leading up from the dimly-lit lobby and cry. I didn’t expect to cry. Although I cry easily of late, it surprises me every time.
I wipe my face with the back of my hand and climb the two flights to the empty apartment. It has felt empty for months, despite the love of two boys who fill the cramped space with their noise each day.
Samuel’s school bus won’t drop him off for another two hours. Justin is in 3B with Marie-Thérèse, who clucks and coos over him like he’s her own chick. I told her I had no idea what time I’d be back, that I might be in court all day. As it turned out the legal system was more efficient than expected, ripping me to shreds with time to spare for lunch. Let nobody complain to me about the delaying tactics of lawyers.
I find a spot on the sofa that isn’t covered with stuffed animals and Hot Wheels, and let myself fall into it. I have to go get Justin, but I sit listening to the emptiness I can’t get used to. I should wash my face, so maybe Marie-Thérèse won’t know everything as soon as I step through her door. I wish I was strong enough to hide my troubles from others, yet I’m glad she’s there so I don’t have to.
Eyes closed, I lean my head back and let out a long sigh. I hate myself for it, but I wonder if he’s seeing anyone.