“The jury has reached a verdict.” I look up at the courtroom deputy, a woman of about forty with coal-black,, obviously dyed hair. In her wrinkled yellow blouse, she walked to me and smirks. Maybe she isn’t really smirking at me. I don’t know her, maybe she just looks that way at everyone. (Please, please, please, let this be my imagination! Don’t be so paranoid.) My chest tightens as I respond, “Okay.” She turns around and rushes back through the courtroom door, her scuffed pumps clicking as I watch her retreat. I arise to find my client, Mary, and notice that my hands quiver and my knees feel weak. I inhale deeply and walk down the hall where Mary sits with her mother.
“We need to get back to the courtroom. They have a verdict.” I try to walk at a steady pace toward the imposing courtroom doors. I don’t want my client to see that I am nervous. Bad form. She and her mother walk behind me, Mary grabbing her mother’s arm, as I swing the heavy wooden door open and hold it for them. People are gathering. I open the gate to go to the counsel table, with Mary behind me. Mary’s frumpy mother, Alice, dressed in polyester slacks and a blouse, lumbers over to the spectator pews.
The counsel table is fairly cleared, since I have a compulsion to neaten things up while waiting for a jury, not a normal inclination on my part. The only time I can recall the need to straighten up is while waiting for a jury. Weird. I search under the table in a file box for a pad and pencil and find them neatly by the exhibits. As I set the pad on the table, I steady myself. I look at Mary and try to smile. Mary looks scared and right now I don’t want to comfort her. That’s why I had her bring her mother. I just want this moment to end. I feel dread, and I can’t shake the feeling.
The judge, looking somewhat disheveled enters the courtroom through the door from his chambers, straightening his long, black robe. “Let the jury in.” The deputy moves to the door leading to the back hallway and slowly opens it. The jurors are lined up behind the door, ready to be seated. I look away. I don’t want to see their faces. I don’t want to know if they are looking at me or my client. Frankly, I wish I were unconscious, or anywhere but here.
Everyone seems to move in slow motion and my heart pounds. The judge bellows, “Have you reached a verdict?” A middle-aged man in a tie in the second row, holding papers, responds, “We have, Your Honor.” The courtroom deputy moves toward the man, her arm outstretched. Everything is moving in slow motion. It reminds me of when I was in a car wreck and saw the other car running the light and heading toward me and I could not move in time. I felt paralyzed. Slow motion. She takes the papers to the judge.
The judge examines each page. It’s almost as if I can see his lips move. Hurry up, dammit! My heart cannot take this much stress. I avoid turning to look at Mary. I don’t want to be strong for her right now. Just read the damn verdict!
“On the claim of Mary Gutierrez against Morris Trucking Company for sex discrimination, we the jurors find in favor of . . .” Here, the judge pauses. I don’t know why they do that. Too much television courtroom drama. Read it, dammit. The judge finally states, “Morris Trucking Company.”
The cannonball tears into my chest and I unsuccessfully try to steady myself. Instead, I physically recoil. I hope no one saw that. I take a deep breath and turn to Mary, her eyes filled with tears. “I am sorry,” I whisper, hoping my voice does not betray how devastated I feel. What else is there to say? Sorry, I fucked up that cross-examination, sorry you didn’t tell me of your affair with your co-worker, sorry I am just not a good enough lawyer. Sorry. I hate feeling sorry. And angry. Here comes the anger. I hate feeling anger. Push that back down.
The defense counsel, all three of them, are high-fiving each other with the human resources director of their client. I wonder who will be buying their drinks tonight. God, I don’t want to shake their hands. He’s coming over, shit! Rage is building. Stem it, now!
“You tried a good case,” the asshole four-eyed bald, ugly excuse for a human being says with his right arm extended. “Congratulations,” weakly escapes my lips as I look at my shoes. What a wimp I am. Mary is right behind me. He turns to Mary, “It was nice meeting you. I am sorry about the circumstances.” He extends his arm to her, she looks at it and turns away. What do you expect, asshole. You fire her ass because she complains about her boss grabbing her ass, and you fucking get away with it. I make myself smile at him and turn away to talk to Mary.
“Mary, we can appeal. We can talk about what we can do next.”
“I don’t want to think about that now.” She starts to cry. “Thank you for representing me. You did a good job.” No, I didn’t. Don’t tell me that. I sucked. I failed you. “Thank you,” I respond. I want to get out of here. I need to leave.
I gather up the boxes and place them on the dolly. Mary starts to help. “That’s okay, I can get it.” Her mother opens the gate to come and help.
A look of pain flashes across her face. I feel horrible, now I’ve made her feel bad. I need to get out of here. “I’m leaving, Mary. I will call you next week.” I give her one of those patting embraces, the kind of hug you give when you feel uncomfortable. I can’t help it. I need to get out of here. As I exit the courthouse door, I feel as though I can finally breathe for the first time in a week. I inhale deeply and leave.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I was enthusiastic, when I believed I could change the world. I thought I could make a difference, at least I deluded myself into thinking I was making a difference. I was a child of the Sixties, for crying out loud. Civil rights mattered, protesting the Vietnam War mattered. Nothing today seems to matter much. I need a drink.
I drive back to the office. Thankfully, everyone has gone for the day. My desk is a mess, piled with unopened mail. There are piles of papers and files all over the glass table. It is overwhelming. I roll the boxes into the office and leave them inside the door. I turn out the lights and make my way over to the couch and collapse. Now I wish I could cry, just to get the emotional release, but no tears come. No relief. I need to divert my thoughts. I don’t want to obsess about the trial, nor about the unpaid bills. It’s too much. I don’t want to call anyone or talk to anyone. I don’t want to go home. I want to not exist. I lay here not knowing what to do. The panic begins to seep into my brain and then quickly sweeps all over my prone body. I bolt up. The panic will pass, I know it will pass. Please, let it pass. I don’t want to think about the rent, or the mortgage or the college bills. Right now, I need to escape. But, I don’t. I drive home.
I push the button inside my car to open the garage door, knowing that Ava, my dog, my little dog pound mutt, will hear the door lifting. Oh, to have the life of a dog, at least a modern day dog. I would gladly be neutered or spayed in exchange for a carefree existence with free food and shelter and people who care about me, but expect very little from me.
I have always been the one to take care of others, ever since my parents’ divorce when I was twelve. My brothers were younger and depended on me, and I didn’t let them down. As long as they needed me, I felt loved and important. Derek is now an architect in L.A., and I see him every year or so. He never married and lives the good life, sports cars, international vacations, a beautiful house. Not the same brother who, at age six, would grab my leg to prevent me from going out to play without him. Back then, I was his world. At least Eli lives closer. He is just one year younger than me and lives in Omaha. He and his wife Bev run a sporting goods store. I don’t think Bev likes me much. Bev, who openly declares she hates lawyers, always adding, “Except you, of course,” has not aged well. She is down-right frumpy and nasty. I personally think their store would do better if Bev would get off her fat ass and exercise and lost some weight. It’s poor marketing to have a sporting goods saleswoman looking like she spends half of her time in the kitchen or in front of a television. I think Eli gives in to her just to keep the peace. I am afraid that Eli is not very happy. Intellectually, I know that I am not responsible for his unhappiness, but I hesitate to admit I feel guilty about him, like if I had been a better sister/mother, he would be content. I really miss him Eli, especially our long talks as teenagers and young adults. Eli and I had all of the same teachers in school, I just had them first. We were both in the accelerated classes, but we were two very different students and even different children. Eli was shy and quiet and excelled in Math and Science. I was the loud-mouth poet. When we were kids, I tried to protect Eli from bullies, but I guess I didn’t protect him from a bully wife. I am afraid Eli chose Bev because she reminds him of me, and I really do not want to think about that.
I always do this, when I feel bad, I start to think about all of the bad things in my life. Sometimes, I just work myself up into a panicky dither over as little a disappointment as a gain of two pounds. Losing a trial warrants a much greater hysterical reaction than a mere weight gain. If I’m not careful, I could end on the edge of a cliff tonight, if only in my imagination.
As I open the door from the garage to the kitchen, there is Ava, wagging her auburn tail and running in circles because she is so happy to see me. I love Ava because she loves me unconditionally. It wouldn’t matter if I was a bag lady, Ava would love me just the same. I am glad that Hannah, my daughter, who is now 24 years old, begged me to adopt Ava eight years ago after Hannah volunteered at the animal shelter in her “I like animals better than people” period. Although, Anna is living in her own apartment and in graduate school, faithful Ava remains.
“Hi, baby!” I exclaim as Anna, wildly encircles me enraptured by my mere presence. I rub my hands all over her fur, “Here’s Mommy’s baby! Come here, baby! Mommy needs a hug,” and I grab the 65 pound dog and encircle her in my arms as she licks me with her long wet tongue. This feels good, although I know the feeling is fleeting.
“Joan, are you home?” my husband Steve calls out. I grunt. I know I should be nicer to him, but I am not in the mood to be “nice’ and here finally is a way for me to vent my frustration, although I don’t want to consider the long-term consequences of using Steve as a punching bag.
I walk into the kitchen, a large room that could be beautiful if I refinished the cabinets and replaced the cheap green flooring and out-dated counter tops. The room needs a complete scrub, but I don’t want to think about that.
“How is the trial going?” Steve calls from the family room where a noisy basketball game is blaring from the television. I hear the obnoxious “AAAAAAAH” sound the time clock makes and the cacophonous crowd cheering and my head begins to hurt.
“Can you please turn that crap down! I can’t even think.”
“What happened with the trial?”
I look at Steve and say, “We lost.”
“What? Do you think I am lying? I said we lost.” Damn, I am such a bitch. Just like Bev. I walk to the bedroom, as Steve follows in his tee-shirt and jeans. At least he has a shirt on today. It drives our son Max crazy when Steve walks around the house shirtless, with the slightest beer belly coated in silver strands of hair hanging over his belt.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I really don’t want to talk about the trial right now. I just need some time.” I lay down on the bed which Steve had made that morning. The room is blue because I was in my “blue” period twenty years ago when I decorated the bedroom. I like sage green now, but don’t have the energy nor the means to redecorate. Steve mumbles okay and walks out of the room as I slump on the bed.
Being alone was probably a bad idea. Laying on this bed, unprotected by distractions, is dangerous. My mind goes to the many improvements needed to the house. I need a maid, too. Well, we still have a healthy mortgage on the house because of all of the refinancing we have done to keep the firm afloat during the last 25 years. There is little equity, if any, in this house. That leads me to my real panic. The firm is having such a horrible year, with this loss and others, and, for the first time in a long time, we’re behind in our bills. I assumed the Gutierrez case would settle before trial, but I had not anticipated a stingy defendant and a stubborn client. Now she has nothing. She is not the only one with nothing. Forty percent of that settlement was supposed to be mine. If I keep thinking about this, I am going to induce a panic attack.
The phone in the bedroom rings, and I freeze. What if it’s another bill collector? What do I tell them? I am not going to answer. Let the credit card companies sue me. I imagine the embarrassment when my colleagues notice the lawsuits. Well, it could be worse, I tell myself. No one’s sick. My heart begins to pound and I feel jumpy. I grab the keys to my car and walk out of the bedroom.
Steve looks at me quizzically and says, “Where are YOU going?”
“I am tense and need to go out for awhile. Maybe I will find a movie.”
“Do you want to talk?”
After thirty-three years of marriage, I can find nothing to say. “No, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” I leave, drive around and come home and go to bed. Chapter 3
(Go through 1970s and 1960s)
I remember when I was thirteen years old and everyday the major television stations, then all we had was network tv, reported campus riots protesting Vietnam. It was 1966 and I paid little attention to the news, especially since my mother had announced she was remarrying and I felt personal dread that seemed so much more important than what was going on in the world. It seemed logical to me that if these college kids did not agree with their college’s policies, they should just transfer. Life was pretty much black and white, good and evil. There were cowboys (good) and Indians (bad). John Wayne fought the bad guys in the movies, and he was one of us, one of the good guys, I did not have moral dilemmas, I was a kid. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was fifteen and had little conception at that time of the man’s importance nor of the upheaval of traditional white middle class life in the Midwest. On the day of Dr. King’s assassination, school was canceled and I hoped to be able to ride the bus downtown and go clothes shopping. Little did I understand that there were race riots and it was not safe to ride the bus. It was two years before it dawned on me that there were more important problems in the world than those of my family’s.
But when the realization came, it hit me hard. As I got closer to college age myself, I began to identify with the protestors, both against the Vietnam War and against racial bigotry and discrimination. I became aware of the world around me, even as my mother’s, and my, world at home was disintegrating. As my mother survived the beatings by my gentile, redneck stepfather and finally succeeded in extricating us from her marriage, I began to recognize real injustice in the world, both at home and abroad. I knew what it felt like not to fit in. In fact, my mother and my grandmother fled Nazi Germany to escape religious persecution, which would have ultimately led to their demise had they not left. My mother had not fit in in Germany, she did not fit in with the semi-affluent Jewish crowd in the Midwest of the United States, and she did not fit in the Bible Belt in Middle America. I did not fit in either. I was Jewish in a Christian land, my father gone, my mother being abused, and I was chubby, the kiss of death for society’s acceptance of an adolescent girl. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a good time for misfits, me among them.
Being a misfit is what led me to this job, always fighting, always the misfit, always in turmoil. No fat cat lawyer career for me, no sir. Beating the establishment in a case almost made me feel accepted, sort of. But living in a constant state of battle creates battle fatigue, even for those of us who have never handled a weapon more sophisticated than our tongues. Chapter 4
It’s been six months since I lost the Mary Gutierrez case. She and I decided not to appeal, because we would probably lose. At least that is what I told her. We probably would lose, but that used to not stop me. I had a really good record in the Court of Appeals until President Bush was elected and revamped our judicial system with his appointments. It’s almost impossible for a plaintiff to win an appeal in federal court now. I used to fight and win a lot more. I was the warrior for those courageous souls who fought against the big corporations or the bullies in power. Now, I am so afraid myself. I could have gone into a more lucrative area, but I have never been practical.
I am nervous about the appointment I have this afternoon. I am much more likely to take on a tough case if I meet with the prospective client in person. It is hard to reject someone with whom you have spent time. I think I am depressed, and that realization depresses me. It paralyzes me, really. I am not functioning well, but I still have a lot of responsibilities.