Back when these events transpired, we consisted of three lawyers representing two plaintiffs against one defendant. We were, then as now, made up of two males and a female, the female of medium height, one male taller than average, one male shorter. Both the male lawyers were older than the female lawyer by in one case, seven, and in the other case, ten years. Only one of us, however, had blue eyes. And only one of us was in love with the other two simultaneously, to her great consternation and guilt, as all three of us were married, but none to the other. Hence, once possible source of difficulty for her.
The case was ponderous and slow-moving though not terribly complicated, legally speaking. The theory of liability was straightforward; even a child could comprehend it, and in actuality two children already had. No, in our case it was not the law that was causing our increasingly troubling reliance on several rounds of stiff drinks in the early evening and several rounds of antacids later on. It was rather, the facts. In the end, had any one of us been asked if we felt we had done the right thing, the answer would have been not yes, but a glare of outrage that the question had even been asked, and perhaps a violent cuff or two to the side of the questioner’s head. On our way this morning to the small, cold and windowless room we now sat in, we had driven together, singing long-memorized childhood standards to relieve the tension we all felt. We had, by way of example, upon arrival at the designated meeting place, arm in arm, skipped across the underground parking lot while whistling “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
Thus fortified by silly notions of camaraderie and invincibility, we sat across from the villain, whom we only in public termed “the defendant.” We were there on that heartbreakingly beautiful late spring morning — the kind of morning when even had we been working on a less distasteful set of facts, we would rather have been anywhere else — to ask him questions about what he’d done to two little girls, our clients, aged 9 and 12 when he started, aged 11 and 14 now. The natural beauty outside — redbuds and Japanese magnolias, falling camellias — was to us that morning like a knife in the chest. We had just the night before come back from a visit to the girls’ current home, a grim apartment in Little Havana, furnished with a couch and chairs upholstered in bright gold plastic, molded to resemble brocade and velvet. The girls’ mother sat out in the kitchen while we talked to them, then the girls went to the bedroom they shared with their mother while we talked to her. Our talk was intended to help them feel that what they were going through now, the legal system, was not as bad as what the villain had taken them through. But the villain’s lawyers, also three in number, were trying to convince both girls and their mother that what the villain had taken them through was, in fact, the best of all possible worlds, and that the uncertain future they now faced was simply a result of their own stupidity and greed.
After the psychic shoring-up session at our clients’ sad, ill-lit lodgings, we had departed hastily for the bar at our hotel. One of us, as it turned out, was unable to handle her drink as well as the other two — though all three of us drank more than the AMA preaches, though not, perhaps, more than the AMA actually practices when faced with the sort of evening we had just experienced and were trying to bury in the way a dog buries a nasty, rotting piece of meat that said dog knows will be needed the following day for its very sustenance. Indeed, one of us was so incompetent at the art of self-medication by drinking she made inappropriate remarks to the other two of us, remarks involving her shameful, growing adulterous sentiments toward the other two, and though the eyes of the second two softened and grew misty and mutually receptive to the first’s silly, childish emotional exuberance — and one laid a tender hand on her wrist while the other stroked her cheek — they nonetheless raised to her as gently as they could the issue of how negatively our spouses might react to such sentiments, fully realized in all their permutations. Besides, the possible effects on our case loomed, immeasurable and frightening.
From the beginning we’d agreed that if we’d been casting directors for a Hollywood movie, we couldn’t have found a better physical type to play our villain. He was tall, well over 6 feet, and hulking, with a belly that strained the buttons on his shirt and spilled over the waist of his trousers. His skin was pale and so were his eyes, a faint blue behind thick lenses. Even his hair helped us — thinning, the color of burnt toast, combed greasily back off his forehead and swirled neatly behind his ears, but curled up in the back as if it couldn’t bear to be a part of him and would have jumped off at the first chance.
He’d met the girls’ mother when she was on the verge of becoming homeless. He discovered later, to his satisfaction, that she was always perched on that edge, that he could forever hold her in his hand as long as that hand was gentle and lined with cash. He moved them into his fine house, a low-slung, four-bedroom ranch in the suburbs of Miami. His family home was far, far north, and he’d long ago fled the harsh winters for our near-tropical climate. The brief, almost nonexistent winters we enjoyed led to the closets of young girls such as he favored being full of short-shorts and tank tops, and in, say, February, when his mother and his brother and sister (his father was dead) shivered inside their wools and furs, and drove haltingly along just-plowed, still-icy roads, he could climb into his Corvette convertible, top down, his thin, lank hair fluttering gaily as he drove, usually humming, to find his favorite sights at any city park. For free. He could look as long as he liked, newspaper over his lap, and no one had any idea what he was really thinking.
As lawyers, we thought we were familiar with how most people, even people not as far off the beaten path of normal human desire as our villain, are nonetheless filled with bizarre, inappropriate, even disgusting impulses. We believed we understood how everyone is, underneath the legally complex bounds of civilized adulthood, in many respects still the naked, screaming, bloody baby ejected suddenly and not altogether politely from mama’s throbbing womb. As lawyers, we possessed staid, naïve notions that because we had already experienced myriad cool, appraising looks in boardrooms and courtrooms, (in combination with startling internal questions of our own, seemingly unrelated, sudden pulsing engorgement), nothing could truly touch us, make us feel, by mere legal contact, soiled. How wrong we were.
The day he met our girls and their mother, he’d spent the afternoon pursuing one of his favorite hobbies. Top down, cruising in his car, trolling for the bright yellow buses that never failed to stir his loins. He’d follow behind one, fly unzipped, smiling at the young faces gesturing frantically to him behind the glass windows marked “Emergency Exit.” The kids loved his car. He loved the kids, and that was what nobody else seemed to understand. He loved them more than anything. Their clear eyes and bright, uncomplicated peals of laughter were what drew him to wake up each morning, were what made life not a chore but a gift from God.
The day we sat across from the villain, what appeared to offend him most was the nervous gaze of the court reporter. Maybe dressing the way he always did, in an open-throated shirt, his neck, wrists and fingers hung with heavy, 18-carat gold ornaments, had been a mistake in judgment. He met our eyes shyly — trying to use his best manners. Had he used that shy, hesitant gaze the first time he approached our girls? Had he, by reason of blushes and stutters, brought out their still-developing maternal instincts? Had they seen him as nothing more than a big, rubbery doll of a man? Had he clasped his wrists the way he hung on to himself now? For dear life? What part of his life was dearest at this moment?
We, in our turn, met his eyes with blankness, hiding our feelings, our ultimate goal — we wanted to inspire in him only trust. We were, for the next few hours, dedicated to convincing him we had no malice toward him, no, simply the same heartfelt weight of concern for his girls — our girls now — that he’d always maintained. We differed only in how we wished him to express his deepest feelings toward his beloveds. We simply wanted to redirect his fingers from the clasp of his own member to the clasp of an ink pen. All he had to do, to satisfy us, was sign a check representing a sum equivalent to all he now possessed. It was no more or less than the great love he’d always felt for them, for all of them, all the dear children who’d brought such golden light into his otherwise empty days. He was worth millions.
Our girls had been shocked when he first made his desires known to them. Shocked not in the sense one is shocked by a car accident, but shocked in the way one is shocked the first time it is made plain that one will be required to someday provide food, clothing and shelter for oneself. His desires for them quickly brought material comfort to their mother and to them. At first, the knowledge of their importance to him brought them a sort of heady pride, a child’s pride at having found in the soil a shiny gold coin. For a while, there was no great weariness at his requests. For a while, our girls still felt it was worthwhile to each day shower, brush their teeth, and comb their hair. It was, at its best, a game, a stage play, a dream. They would feel something click over in their heads, and suddenly the hands on their bodies would be outside the real. What happened against the skin of their bodies in the villain’s king-sized bed atop his black sheets happened in another country; a parallel universe.
We knew their seduction had been a gradual procession from blushes, hesitations and startlement to coy fumblings undertaken first under cover of a cheerily false, overgrown childish abandon, then beneath a camouflage of compliments and toys, shopping expeditions to the nearest air-conditioned mall wherein nothing was refused, nothing. If our villain refused them nothing, how weakened became their own ability to refuse! He had become quite skilled at fulfilling the ache that seemed to start in his toes and rise up to his scalp. His entire body loved those girls — his kisses covered them like a fine mist of semi-tropical rain.
When the teachers at school sent home notes advising the girls’ mother to assist in ensuring their personal hygiene, how delighted he was to purchase fine soaps and bathing salts, sponges and silken wash mitts. Neither he nor their mother, busy in front of her TV, saw the circles under the girls’ eyes, the listlessness which every day crept deeper into their skins, as symptomatic of anything other than transient sleep deprivation or chronic growing pains. The girls were, despite the recent flimsiness of their appetites, growing like kudzu vines after a good hard rain. All was well in the quiet house.
The villain and our girls’ mother were, as a result, quite alarmed when the child welfare worker showed up one afternoon unannounced. Our villain was napping in his dark, cool cave of a bedroom, covered only from the knees down by the sheet which yet retained a certain pleasant odor and stiffness from the previous night’s adventure. Mother was engrossed in a particularly compelling news broadcast of the Pope’s South American tour when the doorbell rang. She was stout and somewhat put out at having to leave her seat as she huffed her way to the door. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses could be such an annoyance.
The social worker stood on the doorstep in the bright afternoon sunlight, mopping her forehead with her bare hand, and then drying her hand on the side of her slacks. As soon as the girls’ mother answered the door, the social worker felt something hard to describe, something which she would, with great reluctance when pressed later by the district attorney, label nausea. She felt nausea as she stood looking at the girls’ overweight, unkempt mother, but she could not be sure if it was due to the heat, the greasy chicken sandwich she’d wolfed on her way to this visit, or the physical presence of the mother herself, a short, stocky, large-breasted, flat-footed creature with no discernible joie de vivre.
Now, in our tiny deposition room, our villain began to perspire as we questioned him. He remained of good cheer, evidenced by an easy, toothy smile and an absence of muscle tremors. We asked many things which in ordinary onlookers might have produced discomfort. We asked hundreds of detailed questions involving the breasts, buttocks, mouths, hands and genitals of both the villain and our girls. Every possible mathematical combination of the body parts mentioned had to be imagined, catalogued, and inquired into.
But our villain’s lawyers, though he had already been criminally prosecuted and sentenced under a plea-bargain, instructed him after the very first question to invoke his rights against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment, using those simple, nearly poetic words we had studied in school and grown to love — but would never love again — hiding behind those words as behind a hideous, absolute shield. His lawyers stared at the table, unable to meet our eyes. Surely their job was worse than ours, at that moment. Because the villain wanted so badly to tell us, he wanted to explain that he had never, ever done anything to harm those beautiful children. He only wanted to tell us how much he had, and would always, love them. His body trembled as his lawyers touched his arms to keep him in his seat. Our bodies trembled as we continued our litany of questions, preserving for the record his only defense.
We couldn’t, as we had imagined, pierce the villain upon our lance of questions like knights on chargers, and thus protect our girls from exposure to cross-examinations by his white-glove law firm’s most skillful roster of evil, carrion-eating dragons. We could not keep him — by virtue of the Constitution — from further harming the children we sought only to recompense for the harm he’d already inflicted. We might now be forced, if he would not voluntarily settle the case, to put his victims upon the witness stand only to be reminded in excruciating detail once more of the very things we wanted them most to forget. What we didn’t know, at that moment, was he would the following week agree to settle the case, not, unfortunately, for every cent he possessed, but for enough of his funds to cut short his career as lethal sugar-daddy. What we heard, we heard only from our girls. In private.
Please, he had said, the first time, when he made “love” to them both within a half-hour. Please. His words flayed the girls open like a rawhide bullwhip across their chests. I need to, he had said, curled up on the bed next to them like a baby. His hands reached, grasped, fumbled, and then grasped again. He unbuttoned their shirts, unzipped their pants. The sensation was at once terrifying, sickening and pleasurable. Our girls turned their eyes away, looking out the windows, down the hall. Their dread and revulsion butted up against his sickness, his addiction. He left the door open, the curtains flung wide. It was a beautiful spring day outdoors that day — full-blown white camellias fell off their perches with heavy, helpless plops at short intervals just on the other side of the window-screen next to the bed. The flowers had to bloom, had to engorge each formerly folded petal, to force themselves open toward the light, the slow-moving caressing wind. The girls tried to see him as a bee forcing its way into a closed flower, a male bee burdened by his own desire, his own weakness, and his own ignorance.
After the villain’s deposition was over that day, he somehow made it to the door before any of us did. He stood in the doorway waiting, his hand out, as if a greeter in a department store. His palm was soft-looking, glistening with perspiration and as we glanced at it we saw not a hand, but a weapon carrying the stain of everything we already knew he’d done with it. Ladies first, the villain said with a smile. Then, while that unfortunate member of our trio shook hands with the villain, the other two slipped by him with relief and gratitude toward the first. His flesh turned out to be hotly moist, unpleasantly springy, and what we found out later, as the three of us walked arm in arm to the bar on the corner — the two who hadn’t shaken the villain’s hand supporting the weight of the one in the middle who had — it seemed his touch (no matter how much scrubbing with soap and water so hot it seared the flesh had taken place immediately afterward in the washroom of the courthouse) his touch had made all of us feel irrevocably soiled. Like we’d shaken hands with the Devil.