by Dustin M. Hoffman
The Lawyer’s back was killing him so instead of going back to the office he went straight home from court. As soon as he entered his apartment, he saw his daughter’s boyfriend stealing handfuls of CDs, mostly, absurdly, classical. His first thought was, Hasn’t the punk ever heard of Napster? His second was, I’m surprised he even remembered to lock the door behind him. Justin whirled around with a theatrically menacing look on his face; it was apparent he was high. He had been loading the CDs into a pillowcase as though he had seen a B-movie about robbers the night before and thought he might want to try it out. Had The Lawyer’s back not been throbbing so even the slightest movement was uncomfortable, he would have cracked up. This had been happening lately, laughing at things not meant to be amusing. Just yesterday one of the junior partners had asked earnestly whether the murder of Daniel Pearl had changed his mind about the War on Terror, and The Lawyer started chortling like when he was a kid at Queen of Angels and the principal would ask if he wanted a paddling: a self-defeating laughter at what then seemed—with the little he knew of the world outside of Boston Catholic schools—the most ludicrous thing he had ever heard.
He sat down on his couch, not without some difficulty. Justin was still gaping at him but hadn’t dropped the pillowcase. It seemed evident by the silence that Justin was looking for a way out of the situation, which struck The Lawyer as fortuitous. He said, trying not to sound smug, “Look, how about you never call my daughter again, and just get the fuck out of here and keep whatever’s in that pillowcase. Though I’d suggest a grocery bag if you don’t want the doorman to call the cops. They’re in the pantry.”
Justin muttered, “No way, man. No way I’d ditch Rachel like that.”
That did him in. He almost snorted in laughter.
Then the second guy came out of the bedroom, carrying The Lawyer’s laptop in one hand. In the other was a gun. He approached so hastily that it did not occur to The Lawyer to feel fear until it rushed up his throat too late to choke him because the blackness had already hit.
Rachel was still upset about the videotape. She had found it two months ago, and since then everything was different. Before the tape, The Lawyer’s daughter had not seemed overly interested in boys. She had been a young fifteen, not the way he remembered high school girls from his own youth, but that had been during Vietnam, when the weight of war and change had clung to people like quicksand, making them want to throw off their clothes, float away on drugs. Now it seemed things had gone backward; even baby boomers had become reverent, well-behaved children, toting out their flags and pressing their lips tight against any criticism of the status quo. His teenage daughter was almost like a child of the 1950s—it never seemed to occur to these kids that the way they’d been raised, all the emphasis on “protecting the children” and “children first” was just a way to train them to behave like pedigreed dogs fresh from obedience school. They were so full of their own preciousness, their own supremacy, that they seemed to feel no need to rebel.
The Lawyer suspected that if Rachel’s mother were alive, she would have greatly approved of this turn of events, and this, irrationally, irritated him. Despite never having been particularly rule-abiding herself, Leigh had nursed faith in odd things—had, for example, once spent six months in voice lessons to remove the traces of her Brooklyn accent in an attempt to better fit into Chicago Gold Coast society. At first he had told himself Leigh was being ironic—that she was a born actress always adopting a new role—but he eventually had to accept that she believed in a certain cultural hierarchy … believed, in an almost pure sense, that might made right. She habitually emptied herself out of whatever resin clung to her of what was not mighty enough to be worthwhile. Maybe this post-9/11 world, the eradication of ambiguities, this Right vs. Wrong, where good children held bake sales for the families of the World Trade Center victims and, in the next breath, for the troops invading Iraq, would have made sense to her. That Leigh was the one who should be here to see it instead of him was so obvious that he had stopped thinking it consciously long ago. The fact of her death continued to feel like a heel jabbed purposefully in his ribs—a slight against him.
The Lawyer could not move his arms. His left eye felt sticky as if with fever; when he finally forced his lids apart he saw himself: tied to his dining room end chair with an assortment of his suit ties, each triple- or quadruple-knotted—Justin must not have trusted the silk’s ability to hold. He tried to stand, but no, they had gotten his feet too. His eyes were open now but still unfocused. Across from him they watched him, staring like he was a bomb that might spontaneously explode. The taller, not-Justin one waved his gun, gesturing in The Lawyer’s face, “Fucker’s awake.”
The Lawyer said, “You have got to be kidding.”
“You better shut up, asshole,” Justin said.
“For Chrissakes!” The Lawyer was surprised at the volume of his own voice, louder than his sense of vision. “You don’t want to break up with my daughter—you wouldn’t take your loot and run because you want to see her again—and now, what, I’m supposed to believe you’re going to shoot me in the head? Get out of here!”
“What the fuck’s he talking about?” Not-Justin asked.
“Nah, man, he started telling me, like, just don’t call Rachel no more and if you leave right now I won’t call the cops and that shit. Like I was gonna believe him.”
The Lawyer sighed. “This isn’t a movie, you stupid little prick. People don’t want to deal with the police in real life. What, do you think they’re really interested that you stole some of my toys? Now this—tying me up and holding me at gunpoint …”
“This guy’s a bastard,” Not-Justin said.
“He’s a lawyer,” Justin explained.
“Man, we shoulda got out of here.”
“Finally,” The Lawyer said. “Somebody with half a brain.”
The gun came down on the side of his head again.
Rachel notices that Margaret is squirming in her chair. From the way Margaret is holding the pages, though, Rachel can’t tell where she is in the story. The videotape? The gun? The introduction of the other Margaret? It occurs to Rachel that she should have e-mailed the story in before her session, so she wouldn’t have to sit here and watch. But she wanted to watch, really. If for no other reason than for the minutes it is eating up, so that by the time Margaret finishes, there won’t be much time left on the clock until Rachel’s fifty-minute hour runs up. This way, Margaret won’t have much time to interrogate her. She thinks of something she heard her father say once, Love is a constant interrogation. It is not something he would make up—her father is not poetic—but though Rachel has flipped through all the books on their bookshelves, she has never found that quote. Not that Margaret, who is paid to interrogate Rachel, loves her or anything.
She forces herself to keep flipping through the pages of a New Yorker, like somebody who knows anything about New York. Like somebody without a care in the world.
Why hadn’t it occurred to The Lawyer that his daughter might come home? Christ, what kind of person was he, mouthing off to these stoned kids like he had something to prove, not even thinking of what would happen if Rachel walked in the door? His daughter could be high strung, and if she lost it, started yelling, or tried to leave, who knew what would happen?
The Lawyer had read a novel recently, a Booker Prize winner, where a man and his daughter were trapped in their home in South Africa with criminals who raped the daughter right in front of the man. It had not been hard to read; for better or worse The Lawyer was not that kind of man, the kind to worry about things abstractly, to take things personally. He liked disturbing books, though he rarely had time to read fiction and mostly kept it to major prize winners people brought up at dinner parties. He had thought of Rachel not at all while reading the book. The daughter in the book was a lesbian, and if anything he had been reminded of a young woman he had not seen in years, the sanctimonious and overprotective sister of a former lover of his, since he had heard through the mutual grapevine that once bound his family to theirs that this sanctimonious sister was now gay (or, more likely, had been all along). She despised him for what she believed he had done to her sister who had been his lover, and though he vastly disagreed with her assessment of things, he had never fully made peace with her hatred of him. This had been a complicated, almost torrid episode of his life, his entanglement with these two beautiful, much-younger sisters, but because it had happened very shortly before Leigh’s fatal car crash and Rachel coming to live with him full-time, it remained largely unprocessed and therefore raw and mythical, also sad and embarrassing at the same time, so he didn’t care to dwell on it, though he had greatly enjoyed the book that reminded him of the sisters just the same.
What time was it? The Lawyer was having a hard time remembering the day of the week, which would help him pin down Rachel’s schedule and whether she might bound through the door at any moment to find him bleeding from the head, tied to a dining chair, and feigning unconsciousness because he had determined not to carry on speaking, but realized he would be unable to keep his mouth shut unless the other two believed he could not hear them. Otherwise they would incite him, and he was annoyed at himself for it, for how he could be incited by two sixteen-year-olds with a combined IQ probably not surpassing 150, putting himself and possibly his daughter at risk.
They were talking about how to get Rachel to run away with them: whether they would have to force her, or whether she would go by choice. Justin had acknowledged that her coming of her own free will necessitated not killing their captive, and Not-Justin grudgingly agreed. They postured for each other. The Lawyer suspected strongly that neither of them had ever killed anything more than an insect and that if they thought they might have to they would bolt out the door, and this almost roused him to open his eyes and declare himself awake and tell them the only way to escape prison would be to kill him, so that they would get out of his apartment and he could get to the bathroom to down two or three Vicodin and go to sleep, confident that his head injury would stave off, for once, his habitual insomnia. But he knew that sometime in any scenario he imagined, there would be the point in the story where he had to explain to Rachel what had happened, and so he kept his eyes shut now, thinking, trying to imagine how to best do this, willing her not to enter the apartment but, because of the videotape and how she’d been toward him since, somewhat secure that she would not as the sun was still out; to return now would be much too early to provoke him or make him worry, which, these days, was what their relationship was all about.
Though he hadn’t moved in at least twenty minutes, the blood dripping from his head became more of a steady trickle. All the knots his captors had made in his various Armani ties began to blur together until they became wavy masses of gray, blue, red. Panic rose in The Lawyer’s chest in a tachycardic rhythm; he felt his body jerk upright and the two boys turned toward him, the gun moving in synchronicity with their youthful, feline bodies. It looked beautiful for just a moment, and The Lawyer flashed on a phantom image of his daughter’s tall, somewhat ungainly but young and lovely body writhing under Justin’s and possibly the other boy’s, as the barrel of the gun met the eye less obscured by blood and blocked out the vision of anything else except that clearly he was going to—
Wires protruded from his arms. At first The Lawyer thought Justin and Not-Justin had found the stash of telephone wire he still occasionally used to tie up his lovers, in a kitchen drawer where it always appeared organic, not contrived like pulling fur-lined handcuffs out of a bedside table (though he had handcuffs too, old ones from when he used to do magic in high school, but since the videotape, they were well-hidden). This enraged him—now whoever eventually arrived to untie him, whether Rachel after the boys had gone or maybe even the police, would no doubt cut the telephone wire with his kitchen scissors, and it would be impossible to explain to anyone, least of all himself, why the thought of his telephone wire being cut to shreds made him feel dangerously closer to tears of frustration than he had thus far, made him raise his head to scream at these assholes, goaded on by the darkness he saw faintly out a window that indicated Rachel might be home soon and so he had to push this thing to its conclusion quickly, before she arrived, even if what she arrived to was his brains splattered all over the wall. He heard his voice say, “This is bullshit. Go ahead, shoot.”
“Oh God.” It was Margaret’s voice. Had she come over—his arm jerked, and he felt it move—the telephone wire wasn’t tight enough, not a good job at all—no, no, pain blinding in his side like a bright light.
Hey, hey, it’s all right, they’re gone. You’re in the hospital. Can you see me? Look.”
He obeyed; it seemed the simplest thing to do. She was there, Margaret, in a chair next to a bed his body was stretched out in. The wires were tubes—IVs, protruding from his veins. His arms could move relatively freely now, but his torso felt glued to the bed like a leaden mass. His eyes blinked rapidly trying to clear the fog.
“I don’t feel right.”
“Honey. You’re on a morphine drip. Enjoy it.”
“I don’t know exactly. You were robbed I guess—they said—”
“No. Know that. Why—here.”
“God. Baby.” She never spoke this way to him. “You were shot.”
“The bullet went through your ribcage. It’s a miracle it didn’t hit your lung or anything vital. You could have died, but you’ll be fine.”
He looked like his mother. Couldn’t see himself, really, just the hazy tubes and his own shadowy arms, but it didn’t matter—he remembered what she looked like near the end, so weak in the hospital bed and hooked up to everything the doctors could find. She hadn’t even been forty—he’d outlived her already by six years. It was inevitable, the body’s decline, whether accelerated or gradual: this was what you came to, these tubes and somebody murmuring endearments at your bedside if you were lucky, somebody who generally called you by your given name in the civilian life where you stood on your own legs, no IVs, no bullet holes in your flesh, who never called you honey or baby even when she climaxed, who was more of a friend than a lover because that was all you could handle now and maybe all she could too for reasons of her own. His mother had died at thirty-nine, her body declaring war on itself with the cancer, but the three of them—him, his kid brother, and their father—had lurked around the hospital the entire time, almost slipping away with her when the time came. His father started drinking after that and never stopped, and The Future Lawyer had wrapped his car around a tree with booze once too, but walked away with nothing but a scar on his knee. He liked Margaret a lot; if nothing else he felt a disproportionate gratitude that she was not emotionally messy, was smart and caustic and easily annoyed by men, and preferred her solitude like a cat, only wanting to be petted on her own terms—his affection for her was genuine if not deep—but how the hell had he come to this, to her body being the only one next to his on a hospital bed? His wife was dead; it didn’t matter if they had divorced five years prior; from the moment Rachel, their first child, was born, Leigh had become his wife forever. Where was Rachel? Had Margaret and the doctors been unable to track her down, or was this her message to him, this absence? A form of payback more successful than skipping curfew?
Under the threadbare sheet, his body was wrapped in one of those hospital gowns. He had not been in the hospital since he was seventeen, after the car crash. He avoided doctors—his health, other than the bum back, had been impeccable, always. You were supposed to go, supposed to don your gown and have the doctor ram a finger up your ass, especially at his age, but The Lawyer always counted that as akin to the way you were supposed to hang a yellow ribbon on a tree or go to church on Sundays: his mother had done those things, but it hadn’t helped. He had taken it for granted, despite the early deaths of both his parents, that he would thrive physically until at least his late sixties or seventies, and then—it had never been so much a plan but just a gut knowledge—he would just decide when enough was enough. Maybe by then there would be grandchildren or some other incentive to make a reasonable amount of discomfort and indignity worth the price, but you had to know when to cut your losses—he had always known that. Almost always. He’d never planned to wrack up hours in a hospital bed. He thought now, with a self-important shame that seemed adolescent to him, that he would never want to fuck Margaret again since she’d seen him like this.
He sat up hard, this time enough so to tug at what he’d imagined, in his morphine haze, were his old telephone wires.
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Forget it!” Margaret almost swatted him back down against his pillows. “Jesus, you can’t even walk. Leaving isn’t an option.” Then, her litigator-voice evaporating: “Hey. Are you okay? You had a rough time, huh? It really shook you up.” Her tone held a glint, amid the concern, of bemusement, and he remembered abruptly why he liked her, why he trusted her. “You sound,” she told him, “… kind of hysterical.”
“I feel pretty hysterical,” he said quietly, closing his eyes again.
She was silent, accepting this. He didn’t say the part about how, the moment Not-Justin had pointed the gun at his bleeding head, he knew it wasn’t bullshit, that a bullet was about to gush into his brain. The kid must have panicked, lowered the gun just enough to save his life at the last instant—The Lawyer didn’t remember the pain of impact, any knowledge of where he’d been hit. He knew only that when the gun’s barrel poked him in the eye, like a kaleidoscope through which he would see the last prisms of his life, he felt a frightening absence of fear. The moment was brief—too brief to linger on Rachel or anyone—but his sense of impatience that this drama needed to end before his daughter got home did not recede or amplify. Though he realized his actions might be construed as being willing to die for her, he had not thought in terms of missing her, or even so much of the fallout his death might cause her. Yet neither had the prospect of his imminent death offered any relief—he had, other than that reactionary drug-and-alcohol-induced bout with the tree, never been suicidal, never found life unbearably painful or longed to flee it, though he often felt blank, indifferent, in need of some stimulation to jolt him, yet generally too cynical, too practical to actively seek out anything chaotic enough to actually do the trick. He had believed, often with a certain self-satisfaction, that he’d spent his raging emotions as a young man on a mother he adored to Oedipal proportions, that by the time he reached adulthood, he was done with those childish notions of love—not incapable of enjoying life’s pleasures, certainly, but perhaps a bit inured to its sentimental pains.
Urbane, his young lover, the not-lesbian sister used to call him. Mockingly in part, but with another part also needy. She had admitted near the end, I can’t trust myself anymore, but I can trust you because you’ll never lose your head completely. And before her, Leigh whispering into his ear at night, My little Vulcan, sweetly, without malice, because he never wept, rarely raised his voice—but then after they lost their second baby to SIDS, she had left, screamed, You don’t know how to grieve! Still, all of that was meant to disappear the moment you stared down the barrel of a gun. It was supposed to melt away, the reserves, the defenses, all your neurons firing at once: I want to live!
How does the story end? What do you do with the protagonist when his epiphany has happened without him?
Margaret looks up. She is not finished yet, Rachel sees that much. She says only, “I think it would make more sense—I think you and I would both be more comfortable—if you sat in the waiting room,” and Rachel stands up and walks out.
The videotape was simple. The Lawyer could see it as if he had filmed it yesterday. His young lover, the lesbian’s sister, her body nearly emaciated, no longer the body of the professional dancer she’d once been, but of a junkie. Bent over his dining room table. Throughout the whipping, the camera remained focused on her face, not the more pornographic back view (there would be plenty of that later on). The telephone wire he’d bound her with was invisible, because he usually tied her hands under her body so that she couldn’t start waving them around in an effort to cover her back, buttocks, and legs when the pain became too intense for her to control herself any longer and play along. He stood behind her with the belt she had delivered to him from his closet, the leather doubled over, about half his body in view as he delivered the blows to her ass. The videocam chronicled her slow descent: the way she first tried to hold her face regal and impassive—how she succeeded, no doubt due to her years of classical dance training, almost amazingly through the first series of loud snaps on skin. Then began the twitches of her lips; the sweat breaking out on her brow; her efforts to look away from the camera’s eye as she eventually broke, struggling, screaming even before she would succumb to the weeping, but then bawled, snotty and spitty as a child, as he went on and on. The camera did not capture the blood—not until later when he untied her and there was a glimpse as her body lowered to the carpet.
The Lawyer had not filmed his lover in order to watch the scene alone later, to jerk off to the memory of it—though at times over the past four years he had done just that. No, he had done it to show her. It took some time to set the camera up right, and he’d almost given up, afraid of ruining the mood before the whole production even began. But the impulse to play it back for her later, to witness within her the constant intense battle between shame and arousal as she watched what he had seen—it was that desire that spurred him on: to have her know he could see her that way at any time; to have her see her own transformation from beauty to something ugly and broken down, in hopes that she would understand the power that held for him—maybe even that she could explain it to him. At least he knew she would share his fascination. They were the oldest story in the book—yet The Lawyer had felt powerless before it at the time, had succumbed to the belief that what was between them was utterly unique, not the usual older man on a power trip, the usual young woman with punitive Daddy fantasies. He had let himself believe that they were transcending … something. With her, there had been no distance, not so much between the two of them (there had always been that, no matter what game they played to eradicate it), but between him and himself.
She had found the videotape. Rachel, snooping in a box high in his closet, not curious about his life but about her mother’s, hoping for some relic of Leigh. Instead there was her father beating a ninety-five pound woman. He’d had the bloodstains professionally removed from his carpet the next day (Rachel being twelve at the time of the filming, not yet living with him). The truth was, he hadn’t even watched the damn tape in two years, maybe more. Why hadn’t he just thrown it away? He imagined Rachel staring at it, rewinding over and over like some CNN junkie after the Twin Towers fell; he imagined how a young girl’s life changed in an instant like that. Still, he hadn’t been able to act contrite in the way she needed him to. He wasn’t sorry. Christ, that wasn’t what it was about. All that blame came later, from his lover’s now-lesbian sister. He’d tried to explain to Rachel, just as he’d tried to explain to that sanctimonious young woman who hated him, but just like the lesbian sister, so sure in her righteousness, so sure of the blacks and whites of the world, his daughter had turned away from him. Had screamed, “How would you like it if somebody did that to me? Would you say we were just consenting adults then?” And he should have said a zillion other things whether he meant them or not, but what he’d said was, “You aren’t. When you are, we can talk about this. For now, you’re the child and you play by my rules.”
When had he started sounding this way—some member of the cult of childhood innocence? He had always tried to treat his daughter as a thinking person, if not exactly an equal. Never a possession to be trivialized, protected from truths, bossed around. But soon after the videotape, she started coming home with boys, coming home late. Before Justin there had been another. The Lawyer hadn’t taken it overly seriously. A boy that age wanted to get laid, sure—but he worried about AIDS. He’d even debated with himself as to whether he should leave Rachel condoms in her room but hadn’t gone so far as to do it. But the rest, no. Not these kids. Even if they were trying to play-act at what Rachel had seen on the tape, The Lawyer had felt reasonably certain the appeal of it would be lost on some horny sixteen-year-old boy. Too much work for an only vaguely sexual payoff. If there was one thing having … perverse—his young lover had liked that word—bedroom tastes assured you of, it was that most others did not share your worldview.
And, indeed, he’d been right, but not in the way he expected. In her haste to emulate his perversions, to punish him with them, Rachel had topped them. What had been for him a powerful, transcendent violence became, in the hands of an angry boy with one foot dropped out of school already, a plot to kidnap a fifteen-year-old girl after shooting her father with a gun.
The office door opens. Instead of leaving them on her chair, Margaret still holds the stack of papers in her hands. Staring into the waiting room, Margaret looks as though she expected to find it empty, as though she has never seen the girl in it before. Rachel thinks Margaret is probably not aware she is waving the papers back and forth nervously but gently, like a fan. The laser-jet letters on the white paper flash like an old-fashioned cartoon strip in the low office light. Rachel watches them, the way they form together to construct her life and not-her-life.
“Come in,” Margaret tells her, her voice a bit unnaturally loud and cheerful in the quiet. Rachel resumes her position in her usual chair. She feels buoyed by Margaret’s artificial tone, suddenly confident that they will be artificial together now, that this is something she knows how to do. Then she will get to go home.
Margaret’s tone, though, changes as soon as her skirted behind makes contact with her expensive but worn-down chair. “I don’t know,” she says like a defeated medical student staring at the brain scan of a fatal tumor, “what I am supposed to do with this.”
“What do you mean?” Rachel asks, purposefully obtuse. “It’s not like you can grade me or anything. This isn’t school.”
“No,” Margaret consents. “My dilemma is whether I should show this to your father. Since you’ve made no effort to hide his identity, and even used my name in the story—though I need to say for the record that this woman isn’t me, that I’ve never had any relationship with your father other than a professional one …” She seems to lose her train of thought, says abruptly, “Were you under the impression that your father and I were having an affair?”
Rachel shrugs. “Not particularly.”
“Then you used my name to get a rise out of me? Maybe to encourage me to show your story to your father? Is that what you want?”
“Hmm.” Margaret at last puts down the stack of papers, on the end table. “I’m not sure. I think maybe you do. I think you hope to manipulate me into embarrassing your father by showing him this and asking him if it’s true, and doing, in a sense, your dirty work—but I don’t want to do that, Rachel, at least not yet. Not until you tell me if it is true.”
“What do you mean if it’s true? My dad hasn’t been shot in the head recently by any of my boyfriends!” A high, tinkly giggle. “You know my mother died, you know my baby sister died when I was six. Yes, my father’s mother really got a brain tumor and died before she was forty—he had that accident too, with his car, you can ask him. Yeah, I have an uncle who lives in Oregon—he’s an orthodontist or a chiropractor or something. I haven’t seen him since I was a baby. He and my dad aren’t … close …”
“Do you see, Rachel, that your response here tells me that you’re playing games? I don’t mean to gloss over your pain, especially about your mother’s death, but you know full well that I was asking about the videotape.”
“You want to know if I found a videotape of my dad torturing some twenty-year-old girl?”
But Margaret doesn’t flinch. The air in the room feels stagnant. “For lack of a better way of putting it. Yes.”
Rachel throws her long legs over the side of the chair. “Of course not.”
“Why, of course not? You seem to know an awful lot about it.”
“I know my dad, don’t I?”
Silence. The vaguely New Age music on the office soundtrack has run out, signifying that her time is up. Margaret doesn’t move.
“There are numerous things I want to say when you say that, Rachel. The first is that you seem to know your father rather too well, if what I’ve just read is factual on any level. The second is that you say it isn’t true, yet you use your knowledge of your father as justification for the story’s plot. How can both things exist at once—if the story isn’t true, then how can your knowledge of your father be the impetus for your writing it?”
Rachel snorts. “Yep, you’ve got me there.”
“All right. All right, Rachel. I guess we’re going to have to have a session with your father then and ask him what he makes of this. Is that what you’d like? I’m not trying to break with your confidentiality—I’m trying to give you what you need. You don’t have to lie to me or manipulate me … I’m here to help you. Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
“Then wait,” Rachel says, “don’t call him in yet. The story isn’t finished. I got stuck—I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”
His bandages were gone by the time his daughter was allowed visitors, but due to the rain, The Lawyer found he moved slowly up the walk, the ache in his side more acute today than in recent weeks. He said to his new wife, “Her psychiatrist is named Margaret too,” and his wife said, “Oh, is she Korean?” His wife believed that because of Margaret Cho and herself, all women named Margaret were Korean, which The Lawyer found inexplicably endearing, perhaps because when he was growing up in Irish-Catholic Boston, almost every girl he knew not named Mary was Margaret, and perhaps because it was one of the only times he remembered Margaret was Korean, since in every regard she practiced the same bland Americanism—albeit a secular, humanist, northern, urban, blue state Americanism, which was becoming its own ethnic minority—as most women he knew did, regardless of their origin. But he only said, “No, I think she’s Irish,” at which point Margaret said, “Does she have an accent?” The Lawyer laughed mildly and said, “Irish people only have accents in Dublin and Shirley Temple films,” and then Margaret laughed and affected an Irish accent, badly, which made The Lawyer grateful for her presence and her efforts to put him at ease, and at the same time regretful he had brought her, for what she intruded upon a situation that was irrevocably his.
But in the lounge, the Irish-American psychiatrist told them that Rachel had refused his visit. They had not driven overlong to reach her—only to the North Shore suburbs—and the day was still young; they could go out and do something on their own now, like newlyweds, like a childless couple. Yet it would be a month before The Lawyer had another opportunity to see his daughter, and anxiety rose in him sharp as bile. He had not been in the same room with her since they took her from the courtroom like a stranger, a stranger who had killed a man—a boy really—to avenge him, yet now would not speak to him still. There was so much he had wanted to ask. Even the story of how she’d shot Justin precisely. The prosecuting counsel had argued that he’d given her the gun freely, that she’d tricked him by pretending to be thrilled he had tried to kill her father for her, and that she wanted to be like Bonnie and Clyde and said he would have to teach her to shoot a gun. This was not a young girl afraid for her life, the prosecutor had specified. This is a calculating young woman who used her sexual charms to lie and manipulate her way into a revenge killing—who stood, once Justin Wildgoose had given her the gun and maybe still laughing, spun around and fired point blank into his head, killing him instantly. Had his friend Alex Fox not run from the scene in time, it is probable that the defendant would have killed him too. But no: it seemed improbable—something out of a Quentin Tarrentino film to The Lawyer—yet all the defense counsel had managed in response was that this was a girl who had already lost her mother and infant sister, that the loss of her father, too, had caused her to “snap.” Her father did not die,, the prosecutor reminded the judge. He is right here in this courtroom, none the worse for wear. The defendant knew that, or could have known it if she had gone to see him in the hospital instead of going out like a vigilante to enact her own justice. Her father could identify his shooters and would live to do so, and even as we speak Alex Fox has been incarcerated—but Justin Wildgoose paid with his life. The Lawyer had felt lightheaded then; he was, despite the prosecution’s arguments, a bit the worse for wear. If not for that, Rachel might have been tried as an adult—he might be walking through a metal detector at a prison instead of waiting in a mauve “visiting day” chair here at a private hospital. There were still so many questions he had for Rachel, and now she would not see him, and it would be a month before he had the chance to try again.
Yet if he truly wanted to ask the questions, why had he brought Margaret here? Wasn’t she the buffer? Could Rachel know Margaret had come, the same way she knew—somehow—where Justin and Alex had been hiding?
It felt increasingly and increasingly like something out of Kafka. His daughter had become a psychic anticipating his next move, a queen never letting her pawns move far enough on the board for him to reach her. Was she protecting him, or protecting herself from him, or merely punishing him still?
Margaret put her hand on his shoulder and said, “She’s been through so much. It’s shame, you know—she’s humiliated to face you after what she’s done. She’ll come around. You have to let her go at her own pace. It’s the only way to help her now.”
Which Margaret said this, though? It’s all right: take your pick.
After the camcorder stopped filming, his young lover had fallen asleep with her head on his lap. It had reminded The Lawyer all at once of riding a train with his mother. He was not sure where they’d been going, since in the childhood of his memory they rarely left their small apartment cluttered with his mother’s piano and his father’s books, he and his brother venturing only as far as the street outside for games of Kick the Can and, later, Mean Teacher, in which he and his brother played nuns and coerced the neighborhood girls to pull down their underwear for a paddling, since girls were rarely hit at school and didn’t know the boys, when sent to the principal’s office, kept their pants on. While his lover slept, The Lawyer had sat on the bloodstained carpet, leaning against the wall, with the open on his other leg, the one not hot and moist from her pale, feverish face. He sat, his mind playing with memories of his own small head on his mother’s leg—hers not bare as his was but covered in one of her stiff floral dresses—and playing, too, with things not yet happened that already bore the quality of memory: the way he would eventually throw caution (let’s face it, good sense) aside and ask this sleeping girl to move in with him; the way they would both, at first, pretend that this could save her, as though he were qualified to save anyone; the way it would not work in some colossal manner that would burn everything out between them and make a civilized slip back toward a casual if kinky affair impossible; the way she would disappear in some way—suicide or Europe or marrying some safe man she did not love or disappearing into a youth drug culture where he could not follow—and how he would remain here, on the floor of his apartment, aging while she remained frozen in memory. He would believe afterward that, with her, he had lived so utterly in the moment—but in truth he had spent many of the nights they shared thinking of what had been with his mother and what was to come with this self-destructive girl nothing like his mother. When his lover woke amid weak sunlight, the Reader was turned to exactly the same page as four hours earlier, “News of the Weird,” and she had smiled at him through the pain of her scabbing welts because she needed to think of him as a man who would read the paper impassively after beating a woman bloody in his living room, and while at times he was that kind of man, he was not where this particular woman was concerned, and that was why it was all so destined to go awry, to swing so out of control.
His daughter, that long-ago evening, was still living part-time with her not-yet-dead mother, yes. Safely removed from everything. As his lover had nothing in common with his gentle mother, so his daughter seemed to him to have nothing in common with this doomed bird stretched out over his legs who needed him to hurt her so she would not have to hurt herself. (It was not victimization, whatever her lesbian sister later claimed: it had been collaboration, collusion, a taboo bond, perhaps, but a real and voluntary bond just the same.) Only later, after Rachel came to live with him, would he wonder obsessively whether he’d been wrong: whether what he had done to his by-then-gone lover and a smattering of other women over two decades would come back to haunt him through Rachel. Whether she would become a woman who craved pain simply by her proximity to a man who had made a minor career of doling it out. He had worried about this sometimes to the point of regretting everything, even and especially the night of the videotape itself—berating himself and watching his daughter cautiously, year after year, careful to, like the man his ex-wife chided him for being, never display any strong emotion in Rachel’s presence: to seldom raise his voice, to always remain calm.
And look—look!—he had succeeded. His daughter had not become a victim of some predatory man like himself!
His daughter had become a killer.
Margaret’s eyes turn now to the clock. It faces only her chair so that Rachel can never tell what time it is when she is in this office, this room she has visited so frequently she can barely remember any period in her life when it was not so. Margaret has been the only woman in her life for years now, since her mother died when she was twelve; her baby sister and grandmother are dead; her father, though she suspects he has mistresses (fuck-buddies, her friends would say), never brings anyone home. Her psychiatrist is the only woman Rachel ever even sees her father talking to. Margaret is attractive in a middle-aged way, not stunning like Rachel’s mother in a way that transcends age. Rachel herself is not beautiful like her parents, though she has the lovely power of youth and knows, when she chooses, how to use it. She will grow into a Margaret, not a Leigh, not a Mary like her maternal grandmother. She hopes to grow into a Margaret because it is among her superstitions that Leighs and Marys are rarely permitted to grow old at all.
“Why Daniel Pearl?” Margaret asks now, and Rachel is surprised. She had forgotten about Pearl, no longer understands the rationale behind her own reference. She blinks.
“You must have been …” Margaret counts on her fingers—therapists are no good at math—“yes, fifteen when he was killed, just like in this story. Why that year—why are politics a backdrop in this story anyway? What do they have to do with the video?”
“There is no videotape,” Rachel reminds her.
“Yes, all right then,” Margaret concurs. “Still, what does—um—secular humanism in the blue states have to do with any of this?”
Rachel doesn’t know the answer—maybe doesn’t even know the this. Lately she has been feigning Republicanism in order to tease her father, who thinks today’s youth is derivatively conservative in a facile way because they have been handed every excess and freedom too easily. She explains, “My dad’s been bitching and moaning about Bush’s re-election … I guess—he talks politics a lot, even though he isn’t very political. Most of the attorneys he works with are total conservatives, but he still likes to think of himself as a hippie. It’s kind of quaint and retro—the way he really seems to believe it, you know, matters. You can tell he’s from a pre-Nixon era, like no matter how cynical he acts, he hasn’t figured out they’re really all just crooks.”
“So you’re mocking him?” Margaret asks. “With Daniel Pearl? I’m not sure I understand.”
“No,” Rachel admits, “that’s not it.”
“Why that year, two years ago, when you were fifteen?”
Rachel chews a strand of dark brown hair, watching it turn black.
Margaret says, more loudly, “What are you going to miss when you get to Stanford, Rach? Is there anything here, or are you glad to leave it all behind?”
“It’s not gladness,” Rachel tells her. “I’ll miss my dad. You know he won’t really come visit me much. He’ll think I need my freedom, blah blah blah. I won’t come home either because I won’t want to bother him.” She looks urgently at Margaret, narrows her eyes. “You’ve known me for five years,” she prods. “It’s just a story—you’re the one who told me to write a story about my family. You do realize, right, that I”—she sputters—“I didn’t kill anyone!”
“Of course,” Margaret says quietly now. “Yes, honey, I know.”
“I was reading that book—that novel, Disgrace—my dad hasn’t read it. He doesn’t read novels. The lesbian girl, from my story I mean, she used to be my babysitter when I was little. My dad went out with her sister for a while. I had a crush on the lesbian sister in my pseudo bi phase when lesbianism was all the rage.” She laughs. “She was the only lesbian I knew! And you remember Justin. From my stupid-boys-were-all-the-rage phase.”
“Oh.” Margaret brightens a bit. “I see.” Talking almost to herself.
Rachel stands. She is too tall for this office now. She will have to avoid coming home at winter break and summer—she won’t fit into this room anymore.
They hug. That sort of thing is permitted, now that the sexual-abuse scares of the early 1990s have mainly passed and instead people are afraid of bigger things: of terrorism and the Patriot Act and the death of Irony and small pox and Donald Rumsfeld. What comes around goes around. People are allowed to hug their shrinks again.
As Rachel turns to leave, Margaret calls out, “I know the videotape is real, Rach. I know you found it—I know that part of the story is true. Believe me, hon, I know better than anyone what a sharp cookie you are, but you’re only seventeen. There are things you just couldn’t … I won’t tell your father. I realize you don’t want him to know.”
Rachel stands, frozen in the moment. In the narrow, shadowy opening of Margaret’s doorway, she sees so many things at once. The way her mother’s red curls fell over her face like a curtain that never lifted long enough, then fell permanently: dark. Her father sitting monk-like on the floor with a stack of legal briefs, the apartment silent because she is no longer there to urge him to a chair, remind him of his bad back. The women who will fuck him on their couch in her absence, until he is too old for that to happen much or at all, but Rachel will still be gone. The Pacific, not far from Stanford: the first ocean she will see without her father beside her, its vast expanse rendering her life for the first time comfortingly small. A tidal wave of hair, pale yellow, roaring across her father’s lover’s skinny back as she turned her head sharply back and forth—one long, solitary strand dragging along wet skin so that when it returned to the camera’s focus, falling over the girl’s face, the edge was tinged bright red with blood. Rachel’s heart pounds: an ocean of blood inside her, trying to get out. She closes her eyes in a momentary magical panic: maybe she can disappear, too, like the girl from the video. Then thinks about what she should say, how she should deny it, and what it will mean about her life if the videotape is real. What choices will be left her: to be another woman in her father’s body count, or to become a predator somehow, too. How it will mean she cannot come home over college breaks, because he is bad and will hurt her, even though she loves him and he never has. How her feet feel bolted to the earth fighting this tide even as her head screams Run!
She manages to open her eyes, but she says nothing. She does not even close the door.
This story first appeared in MAKE #10, “At Play.”
Gina Frangello is the author of two books of fiction, Slut Lullabies and My Sisters Continent. She is also the Executive Editor of Other Voices Books and fiction editor of the online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown. ginafrangello.com
Aya Yamasaki is an LA-based graphic designer and illustrator. She has worked with clients sucj as Golden Age and Kavi Gupta Gallery as well as international clients, Untoco, Tokyo and Jbros, Seoul. She also designs as Paperstore with Carson Fisk-Vittori, using salvaged objects to produce simple and playful products. paperstore.tumblr.com