As some know, I'm working through the (now basically third) draft of a novel composed of short stories that will come out this fall. Thankfully, I've already received the headstart through a publisher, and I have an editor.. but every 3rd or 4th Thursday, I'm putting up some rough drafts.. some have been through an edit, others are revised but they are definitely not the finished product.
Still, what they are is true. At least, as well as I can remember them, they are true. So, if you're after fiction, this isn't that, but so far at least some have enjoyed the read. :)
This is a later chapter, which deals with the court experience after being mugged. Brief summary from earlier chapters: Having finished a first round of rehab (about a month and a half) which helped recover from around 60+ closed head skull fractures from a baseball bat and having been stabbed a few times, I found myself back in School with a trial to attend.
I've went through a lot of the draft chapters, but some of the commentary here lately has reminded me of this one, so here goes. Some minor commentary on the political side that won't be part of the final is at the end ;)
Being stubborn though was at least one trait of mine that I definitely kept, and it seemed to me that going back would be the same as admitting defeat. My mind kept rapidly strategizing how to turn defeat into a victory sometimes with good information, sometimes with bad information. Unfortunately, a lot of the information that I had in my head wasn't "real". It wasn't magical or insane.. well, I hope it wasn't insane.. but I knew they were not real. I stared into the mirrors across the floor from me and all I could focus on was the spurt of blood rolling from my ear. It wasn’t really happening. Or maybe it was really happening. Could it be happening? My sea legs were knocked out from under me as I rushed to a restroom down the hall. I knew that it wasn’t real. I really did understand that it wasn’t real. Rehab had told me they couldn't be real. It felt real though, it had all the trappings of reality, and more and more often I found myself talking outloud to a reality that didn’t exist. Was I losing my mind?
I sat staring in the mirror and prepared myself to go upstairs and absolutely lie my ass off. I wish I could say I would be in that "good group" of kids, but here I was trying to travel for the university again.. and the truth was just too difficult. I did not want to talk about the truth in front of anyone, because the truth was not something I could really handle. That is the hidden benefit of licking your wounds in a basement studio. You have the entire staircase to concoct together a set of “I feel fine” lies and bullshit to baffle people with, in case you need to talk to anyone before you get out the door.
I would love to say that I was a great person with lots of sympathy, but frankly, most of the people who lived in reality would tell you that the way I was handling the situation would be best associated with the fact I was a dishonest jerk. I wish I could say more to people, but the fact I was completely prepared to not talk about the kind of drugs I was prescribed or the difficulty I was having in keeping it together would make saying anything else a fraud. Lies, it seems, yield a lot more comfort than telling people the truth when the last thing you want to talk about in the world is the truth.
Being in rehab did provide some benefits, especially when it came to how to view the world. I really didn’t remember most of the details of that night. So many of the details I did remember could not be true. So, whatever I said anyone may – or may not – have been truthful.
I sat at the bottom of a stairwell and realized that the walk up the stairs would not be comfortable. My legs still hurt and a simple one story walk would be a challenge. The pain of walking the stairs unfortunately was just a start to the long walk, about two miles to the courthouse. Climbing the stairs I knew I just wanted to get out of the building thought my headphones on and be alone with my thoughts and my Walkman. As long as I would be away from other people, that would be all I needed.
My parents had asked if they should come up and go to the courthouse with me for any trials or sentencing. "Should we come up?" I walked out of Nichols hall and I thought about whether or not I should have said yes, but I had no interested in that happening. I don't remember if friends asked if they should go, but I'm sure if I had asked they would have. If any had, I think I would have told them not to come.
I walked around the park where it happened, making sure not to walk through it as I had that night. What kind of witness did anyone expect, when I couldn’t remember anything that actually happened. With my Walkman on and a mix tape that a friend gave to me, at least for the thirty minutes ahead, those pesky facts didn’t matter.
The walk to the courthouse gave me time to think it all over, get a feeling for what I wanted to say. I would be the best witness who knew absolutely nothing imaginable. I could be sympathetic, sad, whatever the prosecutor wanted. It would be an acting gig, as simple as that. Just go with the script, that’s all that mattered.
Sitting in an empty courtroom on the benches that fill the gallery for about an hour gives you quite a bit of time to embrace your surroundings. The first row gave me a complete view of the courthouse and reminded me of home. The benches in the courtroom stretched out like every pew in every Catholic church I had ever been in; only the missals and a kneeler were missing. A crack in the wood went down the center of my bench in a long snaking line I could trace with my finger.
I traced the wood on the bench and thought about the pew my family sat in as a child. Good memories though don’t last that long and the more my fingers traced the crack in the wood the more my mind drifted .. it always began the same, with the feel of that taste, that copper taste of pennies filling my mouth as blood filled it. Closing my eyes I couldn’t escape the image I held in my mind of holding hand to my ear to prevent more blood from coming out. I didn’t even know if it was real, but it felt real. It was the only thing I could remember, and suddenly I had lost myself in my own thoughts, lost track of time, I was just.. lost. I was dreaming. I was awake. This is what I wanted to talk about but I couldn't. Maybe none of it was even real.
I didn't hear anyone come in, I should have heard someone come in, but I stopped paying attention some time ago.
"I didn't hear you come in, are you waiting for the district attorney?"
"Well, I need to meet someone about a case later today. I don't know how it's going to turn out. So, you know, just talk and stuff with someone."
She was older than I was, her curly brown hair matted down as she sat down in the pew across from me. “Oh.”
"Are you here waiting too?"
When you are sitting in a courtroom that is prepared for a trial you are involved with, sharing information does not come easy. This stranger however was willing to trust me with some information at least. “Yeah, just here for a case in a bit. Are you on the docket?”
She ruffled through her purse looking for something and stared at the courtroom doors. "It's I don't know it's not anything I guess. I don't know if I want to go ahead with it. I'm going to see if maybe I don't have to go ahead with it."
"Oh just something simple"
Her agitation level reminded me of a small child trapped in Sunday church, looking everywhere and nowhere all at once. "Kind of. I don't know. It wasn't you know. It wasn't what it was." She smiled weakly at me and continued, "I'm just here to convince the prosecutor to drop my case."
"Just something simple, though? I mean, that should be easy."
Talking to someone who was a stranger was like slipping into a warm tub, it was comfortable, it was warm, it was easy. They didn't know me, I didn't know them.. they couldn't prejudge what I was there for and there wasn't all the baggage of knowledge that comes along with even a casual relationship. I few quick lines of dialog and the meeting could just drain away and there wouldn’t be anything left for me to worry about. I felt compelled to ask “What happened?” As soon as the words left my mouth I knew the conversation was over.
"Just something that got out of control. I don't know. I'm going to wait for the prosecutor. It was good to talk to you."
I never saw her again. I was left to sit in silence and stare back at the pew where I sat. I had know idea who they were, but I remember that conversation so well because I remember wishing it would go on, just to distract me. It wasn't meant o happen. While this place reminded me of church, it definitely wasn't a confessional, and I wasn't someone who could elicit a confession. The thought that chased through my mind was simple: DH Lawrence can kiss my ass.
Of course a wild thing doesn't feel sorry for itself is because it doesn't have the reasoning skills to realize how absolutely fucked things are. Despite all the bullshit analysis of my middle school teachers, the thought of "no self pity" seemed stupid and foolish to me at the moment. I spent my time fixated on something I simply couldn't remember, and the only seeming relief I had from it that day boiled down to a random conversation with a total stranger. I was lifted out of my funk by talking to a stranger. I was waiting for her to tell me some horrible reason why she was there, because I really needed some good schadenfreude about then. She could have talked longer and if her story got worse the happier I was going to be about it – another sucker in the same boat with me. What kind of terrible person was I, rooting for her misfortune?
"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself"
Before the sentencing hearing, people began trickling in. I wouldn't have family or friends there. It would just be the district attorney sitting on my side of the court. On the other side of the room would be the family and friends of the person who had pled guilty in my case. His family slowly filled their pews in the courtroom, and all the eyes turned to look my way.
It was a typical Midwestern family, and they came in their Sunday best, suits and dresses. My knees were still swollen and I had walked to the court in a shirt and sweat pants. I looked over at his mother crying and realized that my worst day was over but hers was just beginning. Her son would soon be sentenced to a real, adult prison.
With 15 minutes before the case was set to begin, the district attorney and others began to setup the courtroom. The tripod of evidence went up before the courtroom, pictures and information the prosecutor would want to ask the defendant about in sentencing. It was up to the judge to determine sentencing, and we wanted a long sentence. Bringing home how serious the event was would be important. The goal of all of it was to remind the judge of the severity of the incident. It would help the family of the accused accept that the sentence the prosecution had asked for was just in light of what happened.
I looked across the courtroom and could see his family, seemingly good people in every way who couldn't make eye contact with me. We couldn’t look directly at each other but I knew my presence in the courtroom for them was the reminder of the day something went horribly wrong for their son. It wasn't his first crime. It wasn't even his first violent crime. It was the crime that would be his first sentenced as an adult.
The black tripod didn't reveal its contents but I knew that there would be only one real photo there. It would be the photo of me during admission to the hospital after an ambulance ride. Blood gushing from my ear, nose and eyes, my face black and blue. Teeth broken and the look of death. I knew that for the next few minutes, his family would see the photo. The sentence he would plead to, seven to ten years was indeed fair. I stared at the photo and to the empty pews on my side of the trial and I was reminded only of everything lost. The photo would stare back at me with dead eyes and tell me: you can't be that person ever again. It was as though that reality that I lived in prior no longer existed. This was the new reality. I had wanted to think that the empty benches on my side of the courtroom were my choice. And they were, but it was also a sign that I wasn't going to bring the past along with me into the new world. I hadn't asked and no one came. This was the new reality, starting all over, and the past wouldn't come along with me.
We all rose as the judge walked into the room and we prepared for the hearing. The prosecutor walked over to me, "You don't have to sit out here, you can sit behind us if you want, if that's you know, better." The cracked pew was home now, my seat was warm and no matter where I moved in the courtroom nothing was going to improve.
I can't remember how it went, it was like a blur. I remember looking into the gallery and seeing the mother of the convicted cry as her son blamed lack of love for his violent outbursts. I remember sitting on the stand and saying that I just wanted him to be responsible.
I walked back to campus, and for the last time in my life I cut through the city park. It had happened here. I didn’t want to avoid it today, closing this chapter meant walking by where it happened. I couldn't remember that night, but I wanted to remember that night. I wanted to never remember that night. I wanted to remember it forever. I wanted to remember it the way I remembered it. I couldn't remember it the way it happened.
The spot in the park where it had happened, the place that police had marked in the diagrams was easy to find. The grass was starting to green and with the sun out I could sit and stare and think. It was one of the few times I ever really gave in. "Be tough, I thought. You can move on, put this behind you."
For whatever reason, I couldn't move on. I couldn't put it behind me. The world had changed and while it was a story for a while, it was no secret that it wasn't a story people really wanted to think about. Earlier in the day a friend had confronted me: “You’re milking this, you need to get over it.” But I couldn't get over it, no matter how hard I tried. I couldn't get used to the feeling that this was the world I would live in now.
Of course I felt sorry for myself. I felt ashamed for feeling sorry for myself. Move on, it could be worse. I could have died. My friends had moved on, family had moved on, why the hell couldn’t I just get up and move on? What was so wrong that I could get up and just put it behind me?
"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself"
With the trial over, it was time to go back to the day to day. But as I walked out of the park, I knew my stay in Manhattan was over, at least for a while. I needed to get away and recharge my batteries.
The spotlight of a violent crime is pretty bright right now. Assaults. Murders. Rapes. And for a while, society stands up and people pay attention. But after awhile, it goes away. In some ways it's good. In some ways, it leaves you with no one who really quite understand what's going on.
I see people on TV who have been victims of violent crime and I feel for their tragedy. The world for those people have changed forever. No passing of time can take things back, nothing in the world can undo what has happened. We all deal with it in our own way, but no matter how many years past, it's a part of us.
It's something outsiders don't understand. It's not their fault, it's easy to say "move on". They just haven't been to the same zip code as you've been. Three times in my life I attended violent crime victims meetings. It's an interesting collection of people. Five years, Ten Years, 20 years after things happen, people sometimes feel the need to show up. People who lost family members. Abused. Hurt. Or a witness to a tragedy. It's a world people can't relate to on the outside. No matter how you get through it, you get through it. But you never get "over" it. It just becomes part of you.
January is a month that is traditionally rough for me, and today is the day. January 22, 1995. Someone once told me that hanging onto this and not "letting it go" is just tiring. "Get over it, it happened move on." But of all the victims of violent crime I've known, we'll all tell you that we do in fact move on. I don't dwell on it every day. I don't sit and stew on it every day. But January 22 of every year is a day for me a lot like an anniversary or a birthday. Maybe I don't remember it the way I did early on but I never forget it either. And that's the nature of violent crime. 18 years ago, it happened and my life changed. I'm reminded that 17 years ago, in my one attempt to go back to the city where it happened I struggled with depression and mood swings so bad I lost my roommate and ended up.. well, it wasn't pretty. I left a new shell shocked girlfriend of the moment to help pickup the pieces and figure out why I couldn't get through it.
Fourteen years ago, the person who stood trial in this case escaped Hutchinson, Kansas prison, and a Kansas State Trooper to come to my door and tell alert my wife and myself that he had escaped but I was likely "safe". The fear and panic hit me like a brick and helped wreck a job I really loved and destroyed friendships because for a few months, all I could think about were the events that January.
The past 18 years have been good to me, far better than I could have imagined at any of those moments. But every January I find myself doing a lot of walking.. because at night, 18 years later, I still think about it.
It's the thing people don't quite get. For the families of any violent crime, it's the thing they will never forget. Years will go by. Decades will go by. But those days will always be with them. We celebrate birthdays every year as a celebration of life and we make it part of our traditions. We celebrate holidays to bring joy to our families. For victims of violent crime, there are other days on their calendar for the rest of their life: The day "it" happened. The day "it" went to court or not. The day they were found guilty or innocent. They day they were released from prison.
I read a story recently that Obama had to hurry to get something done in regards to Sandy Hook and Aurora before the public forgets. "Let's move on." I've known a lot of victims of violent crime, and I can tell you for them it's never really over. It's not easily washed away. It's part of who you are.
It's a club I hope no one else joins. But every year, there are new members. Victims of assault and rape, victims of violence and hate, people who've been abused and people who have lost loved ones.
Once I committed to writing a book of short stories based on other works, I had three stories that I've never shared with any anyone except for those very close to me. There are two stories I have only told to groups anonymously that I always said: "I will struggle to write this". This is one of those.
It's terrible to say but people who have been a part of a violent crime quickly feel as though we have no one to talk to about it. It's part of what brought me close to RAINN, an organization devoted to people who "suffer in silence".
There is a fear that if you talk it makes you weak or self centered. That people really don't want to hear what's in your mind. "Get Over It" It's a societal mantra. It's been X long on any crime, move on. That's how we like to think about it.
It was 8 years ago a friend came to me at a client and cried, revealing to me that valentines day for her was so hard because she was raped on Valentines Day sometime in the mid-eighties and didn't come forward. It was 20 years later but she couldn't stop thinking about it every Valentine's Day. Her family didn't want to hear about it and she didn't have anyone she could talk to about it. But on that anniversary it was the thing her mind couldn't forget.
It's our own club, I suppose. How we deal with it, who we talk to about it, and what we say. It's a special club. It's a club I hope you never join. It's one that if you know someone who's a member, you know it all too well. Sometimes we don't want to talk. Sometimes it's all we can talk about. It doesn't make us good people or bad people.
It simply is the person we have become. The people who have been through shooting tragedies and assaults in the last month have had the public spotlight. Time will pass. And they will move on as best they can. But it always stays with you. No matter where you go, no matter how far you go, it will always be with you. It gets better, but it's never forgotten.