Capacity for self-sacrifice in the face of compelling circumstances
(Creative response to ‘Dancer’ by Alden Nowlan)
A cold room. People — lots of people. And noise. Whispers; they are whispering about her, she knows. The voices echo around her as she walks down the aisle, soft as the hiss of a snake and just as venomous. Their eyes unravel her as she makes her way to the table where her attorney is waving to her with a forced smile and worried eyes. The girl is very aware of her heart beating in her ears, and of her cheeks slapped red with shame. “Don’t cry,” she prays. “Please don’t cry.” She looks around the room, panic threatening to choke her as it rises deep in her windpipe, the lump in her throat as hard to swallow as bullets. Looking for a way out, she searches frantically for an exit, a door–anything, yet all she finds are the stained glass windows high up on the wall, more intimidating than they are beautiful. The light is tainted as it filters in through the purples and blues of the picture. She isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be depicting, but she thinks it looks a little like the Statue of Liberty.
The sunlight is smooth against the flesh of the near-naked girl, the outlined halo of her body bright and airy in contrast to the thick atmosphere of the room. She glistens in the dying light, electric crescendos pulsing through her spider-like veins and impassioned eyes, as she watches him watching her from the bed. How grown up she feels, dancing for him in nothing but her underwear, swaying to the lusty hum of invisible jazz. The music is the soundtrack of the farewell to her childhood — she waves it goodbye languidly as it slowly filters out of the half-closed blinds.
Her attorney is whispering something to her now. Something reassuring like, “Don’t worry, this will all be over soon”, or “If you need to stop at any time we can,” or “I know this is hard, but you know you need to testify — you don’t want him to go to jail, do you?” She was only half-listening anyway, for it was then that he walked in. She desperately struggled to meet his gaze. “Look at me. Look at me. Why won’t you look at me?” He sat with his head bowed, staring at his cuffed wrists. He looked tired. Worn out. Like he hadn’t slept in weeks. He looked even more pale in contrast to his carrot-orange jumpsuit, this amber branding out of place on his strong frame. All of this she noticed, but the only thing that mattered was how – He. Wouldn’t. Look. At. Her.
Their eyes met from across the classroom when he looked up from his book. He was reading Wuthering Heights, and seemed to be very enraptured with his story until she cleared her throat quietly. She traced her lips with the end of her rust coloured pencil, and, grinning at him devilishly, took the length of it into her mouth and moved it in and out, in and out, just like she’d seen all those famous actresses do in the Hollywood movies. He choked on his coffee — which was surely cold by now — and quickly went back to reading. She giggled to herself, for as her gaze shifted back to her test, she saw him peak over the top of his book to regard her carefully, laugh quietly into his coffee mug, and sigh with what was an unmistakable longing.
The bailiff called for everyone to rise as the judge walked in. She was older, perhaps fifty, with half-moon glasses so far down her nose that it surely defeated the purpose of having glasses in the first place, for she stared coldly over top of them. The girl looked over again, trying subtly to capture the Defendant’s attention. He still wouldn’t look at her. A length of time passed, as the prosecutor commenced her opening arguments. A few others spoke. The jurors watched and judged, silently. Finally, she heard her name be called as the first witness. Her life wouldn’t be the same after this. But everyone already knew that. As she rose from where she sat, her attorney caught her arm;
“We all have to make sacrifices,” she said, “do this for him if you can’t do this for yourself. Do you understand?”
The girl nodded.
She wearily made her way toward the bailiff who was asking her if she would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She said she would. She took her seat on the stand. Her heart pounded rapidly. Tears threatened to well in her eyes. And he still wouldn’t look at her.
The prosecutor scrutinized her for a few moments.
“What is your relationship to the Defendant?”
“I am his student,” she said quietly.
The prosecutor told her to speak up.
“I said I am his student,” she repeated, voice wavering in her attempt to keep it steady. There was a collective gasp in the courtroom. She could feel the tears coming now, pricking her eyes like a bee’s sting. She looked to the Defendant once more, begging him to look at her, to give her some reassuring wink, to acknowledge her existence.
“And, as his student,” the prosecutor continued, “did you have an inappropriate connection with the Defendant?”
He shifted in his seat, coughed a little, still staring at his shackled wrists.
His eyes on her, watching her walk down the corridor, holding her gaze. Electricity in the air. A slight smile playing on the bowstring curve of his lips. This game they played was so exciting — it made her feel alive, like she mattered. Like she wasn’t just a little girl doing grown-up things.
The girl remained quiet.
“Did you engage in any inappropriate activities with the Defendant?”
His fingertips grazing her arm as the bell rang for the end of class. His touch was like wildfire. He had wanted to talk to her about her essay on Pride and Prejudice.
Again, the girl said nothing.
“Did you have an affair with the Defendant?”
His hands in her hair. Undressing her. Growling her name.
“I-I don’t understand the question,” she whispered quietly.
The prosecutor smiled bitterly.
“It’s really quite a simple question with an even simpler answer. Did you or did you not have an affair with the Defendant?”
There was a buzz in the courtroom now. A low hum that vibrated in the spaces in between her ribs and in the cavity behind her heart — tears stung her eyes again, only this time she couldn’t hold them back. She cried freely as she spotted the Defendant’s wife staring daggers at her, stoic, with her arms crossed, back painfully straight, and a tissue clutched tightly in one of her fists.
The morning after. She had woken up and watched him sleep, mumbling every now and then. He looked so peaceful — all messy hair and high cheekbones, his face unmarked by lines of worry in his slumber. She had gotten up to look around his room. On the dresser was a picture of him and his wife. She examined it for a moment, and then placed it back in it’s spot, face down.
She’d known that he was married. And, she hadn’t cared. How selfish, she thought. I’m stumbling in the dark now — groping at the echoes of the innocent shadows that I have been trying to get rid of for my whole life. But now that they’re gone I want them back. She thought of her friends. Remembered how many times she’d blown them off to be with him; when they were painting their nails and gossiping about who’s dating who at school, she was off fooling around with their English teacher. She knew they would be watching this on the news at home with disgust in their eyes and harsh words ready on their tongues. The whole school would be frenzied the next day, she knew that for sure. People always jump to kick you while you’re down.
She knew she had to testify — that was a given. She didn’t want either of them to face charges. And, besides – a tainted reputation is a petty price to pay when people’s lives could be ruined.
She could see her mother crying in shame at the back of the courtroom, her head buried in her hands, and she couldn’t bare to think of her mother disowning her for good.
Her mother hadn’t said anything when she found out. Not at first. She sat on the couch in a baffled silence, ignoring her daughter’s ashamed sobs and apologies. She had begged her mother.
“Please!” she’d cried, “Please say something, Mom!”
Her mother had said nothing.
“Mom, I need you right now more than I ever have! Please! Just say something!”
A tear had rolled down her mother’s cheek.
“Get out,” she whispered.
“I said get out! Get out! You little whore, get out of my house!”
“Mom please! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–”
“I didn’t raise you to be a slut! I want you out of this house tonight. I’m going to run an errand. I expect you to be gone by the time I get back. Go live with that perv of yours.”
With that, she had gotten got up calmly, and left the house.
The courtroom was silent. No one would meet her gaze. She was sobbing, now. She had never felt shame like this before–this pressure in her lungs, this pounding in her head–she had never felt more like being swallowed whole by the ground. But it was important for her to continue with the testimony, if she didn’t want to face charges too. She looked to her attorney for support, but was met with a look of quiet remorse and a shaking of the head. She looked again to the Defendant. He still wouldn’t meet her gaze. In fact, he was avoiding looking at her altogether, she was sure of that.
She wiped her nose of the back of her hand and tried to calm her breathing. She had to finish her testimony. She looked around the room for a few moments. On second thought, the stained glass looked less like the Statue of Liberty and more like the Virgin Mary. She looked into her face and found solace there.
She took a shuddering breath.
His lips on her’s, whispering, growling a rough ‘I love you’.
She looked to him as she counted down the seconds in her head before she spoke.
One. He’d told her she was mature for her age. Said he’d never met any woman like her. That word had made her heart soar –’woman’.
Two. Once, she had to hide from his wife in his closet because she’d come home from work early. His wife never found out. He had laughed about it after with the girl, couldn’t believe they’d gotten away with it. He found this game of secrets and lies so exhilarating.
Three. It had started off with innocent flirtation. Him teasing her in passing, writing funny notes on the assignments he handed back, a light brush of the shoulder, or noticing when she’d cut her hair. Holding her gaze just a little too long, a lingering hand when passing out tests. But just like all innocent things, this little game — this dance — grew tainted with time.
Her attorney looked at her sternly. “Remember what I said,” she mouthed. The girl drew in a sharp breath. She remembered what she had been told, whispered it under her breath. Do this for him, she thought, give up everything for him one more time. And, with that, she sadly waved goodbye to the last remaining little slivers of her childhood, bracing herself for this hurricane of shame that she was about to hurl herself into.
“Yes,” she breathed. “I had an affair with the defendant.”
And it was then, and only then, that he looked at her.