(Page 2 of 4)
On screen, Caitlin sat doodling at the defense’s table. The lawyers were arguing at sidebar and Jana’s Twitter feed was going wild: how dare the accused appear bored? Caitlin had a heavy lower lip and a thin, unbowed upper lip—a perpetual pout, undisguised now by makeup. Despite appearances, I felt sympathetic toward her.
“She says it was self-defense.”
“IF it was, she could’ve run away,” texted Jana. “Or let him hit her—and then not gone back.”
“Let him hit her?” My sister had been addled on painkillers.
“He’s dead. Dead = worse than bruised,” Jana texted. “She had choices.”
“She was afraid for her life.”
Jana shook her head, typing. “She said it happened before. IF that’s true, she knew he wasn’t going to kill her.”
“Maybe that’s not how it seemed, that night. Maybe it seemed like her only hope was to fight back. That’s just instinct, isn’t it, to fight back?”
Jana had looked at me then—not at the television, or her phone. The other side of the sectional seemed a long way away. The prosecutor resumed questioning the defense’s witness and I thought Jana was going to ignore me. Then my phone buzzed. “No,” she’d texted. After that, I had no more questions.
* * *
I was the one my sister called after she left Kyle, after she drove to a highway motel where she hoped he wouldn’t look for her. I still lived in Boston, then, and that call was the first indication I’d had that anything was wrong. But as soon as she said he’d hit her, I felt like I should’ve known. At holidays, on vacations, I should’ve been paying closer attention—to Kyle’s gestures, comments, attitudes—everything. I should’ve been there for Jana before she found herself in some cheap motel room. She was holed up in Michigan and I was a thousand miles away, snug in Massachusetts, where I’d lived for more than a decade. “I’ll fly you out here,” I told her—I wanted her as far from Kyle as possible. She’d never had any distance from him, had dated him off and on through high school and then again after college, when they both moved back to our hometown. They got married at twenty-four. “Drive to the airport right now.” But she wouldn’t budge, a cat caught up a tree. And so I went to her as quickly as I could. I stayed with her in that motel room over the weekend, holding her phone so she wouldn’t take Kyle’s calls (she asked me to do so, then begged each time to answer); I helped her find a new place to live. I went to their house while Kyle was at work and packed Jana’s things. When I had to fly back East, after using up all my personal days at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was hardly present in my own life. Kyle had abused her from the beginning, Jana finally confided. “In high school?” I’d been away at college during those years, but I remembered my mother’s concerns, shared over the phone: Jana was too serious about Kyle; she might be sexually active. I’d mocked those worries afterward, imitating my mother’s nasal accent (an accent I’d only recently learned to hear) as I lay with my boyfriend in my narrow dorm bed. “Since we got engaged . . . ” Jana said. “Making the guest list … there was a mutual friend I didn’t want to invite, because we hooked up once. And Kyle—was surprised by that, let’s say. He was upset.”
“It’s normal to be jealous,” she’d argued, after I was back in Boston and she was on her own, moving between work and her new apartment, not telling her friends she’d split from Kyle, not talking to anyone except me. “I’m not proud I messed around with other people. I wish I hadn’t.” I kept my phone on at all times, back then, calling her from the closed stacks. Kyle knew where she lived, she mentioned. They’d had dinner a couple of times. She wasn’t opposed to spending more time with him, she said. He seemed really lonely. I was visiting her as often as I could, leaving my cat under the care of successive friends, taking three-legged flights at odd times in order to afford airfare. When a position opened at the community college, back home, I applied. I was afraid not to. Staying at Jana’s apartment for my interview—those three bare rooms, filled with only what I’d managed to pack, plus the cheap furniture we’d bought that first week—I couldn’t tell whether she really lived there, or whether her life looked one way when I was there, and another when I was gone.
“Do you see him much?” I’d asked, the night after my interview. We were making dinner, realizing as we went how many kitchen goods Jana had forfeited.
She shrugged. “A few times a week.” She was chopping an onion with a steak knife.
“Do you see other people?” I watched her fingers, so close to the blade.
“What—now you think I’m a slut?” She chopped faster.
“No,” I said. “What I meant was, do you see other people socially? And, Jana—I would never use that word.”
“No?” She looked at me, resting her knife. “Not even if it was true?”
“Slut is a hypocritical misogynistic slur.” I said. “You know that. Nobody who matters would think badly of you if you started dating again.”
“I’m married—not divorced.” Her eyes watered, though her fingers remained intact. “Slut is what I’d think. So drop it, Irene.”
Maybe I should’ve dropped it for good—maybe I should’ve kept my distance and let her work it out according to her own timeframe and logic. But I’d seen the bruises around her right eye, down her neck. That first week, I’d watched them turn from purple to yellow—like how many other bruises I hadn’t witnessed? I got the community college job, working at their library reference desk; I gave notice in Boston. Before I’d even unpacked in Michigan, I took Jana to see a divorce lawyer. That first appointment was just a conversation, explaining the process—but the lawyer followed up and I followed up even more persistently. I pestered Jana, really, and finally she filed. I helped Jana to correct an unfortunate misstep. Caitlin Martin hadn’t had a sister or even any close friends. She had only her own hopes that Brian would change, the bouquets would return, the abuses stop. Look what happened, I had to stop myself from telling Jana, every time we watched the trial. Look what I spared you from.
* * *
Caitlin’s attorney approaches her again, more rumpled after the recess. He can’t have been sleeping, though his clothes and his crooked comb-over suggest otherwise. He clears his throat wetly. “Miss Martin, in the months leading up to December 11, 2008, did you and Mr. Davis have any other notable fights?”
The prosecution objects to the word “fight”—they contend that Brian was taken unawares on the night of his death—and Caitlin’s attorney rephrases: “Did Mr. Davis use physical force against you in the months leading up to December 11, 2008?”
Caitlin nods. “This one time, probably in October, he let me borrow his car. I was supposed to fill it up afterward but I didn’t have enough money, so I got just a couple of gallons. More than I used—but Brian got real mad. I hadn’t ‘respected our agreement,’ he said. He grabbed my arm and threw me down, right on his driveway. It still hurts sometimes.” She rubs her bicep.
“Did you see a doctor?”
“I couldn’t afford that.”
“So nothing went on record. Were there other physical incidents?”
“Yessir. He got real upset whenever I messed with his stuff. Like, if I put wooden spoons in the dishwasher or used the wrong sponge on the counter. He’d make me pay for those things.”
“What did that mean—pay?”
She shakes her head, biting her fat lower lip. “He’d always say I wasn’t worth much—I only made $12 an hour with the temp agency. Less than a whore, he’d say. So if I did something wrong he’d decide how much it was worth, and I’d have to do—things—until I paid him back. Sex things.”
“But you had a consensual sexual relationship—this was a game?”
She closes her eyes. “I wasn’t supposed to say no.”
“Did you enjoy this arrangement?”
She shakes her head, then remembers—“No.”
“And did you have sexual relations, outside of this system?”
“Not really.” Caitlin pulls a tissue from the box on the witness stand. “I was always doing something wrong.”
“Miss Martin, why did you stay in this relationship?”
I look at Jana, writing steadily. She’s fashioned a narrow French braid across her hairline, pinning it behind her left ear. It’s a hairstyle we’ve admired on models, in magazines—something I’d never have the dexterity to do, even if my hair was long enough. With her hair pulled back, I can see my sister’s expression, intent on the proceedings but unchanged by that question.
“I loved him,” Caitlin says. Her Disney eyes widen, as though she’s surprised that this, at least, isn’t obvious.
“Did you believe that he loved you?”
“Oh, no.” Caitlin shakes her head. “I wished—but I wasn’t in his league. I only figured he might stay with me if I did what he said to.”
Now my sister rolls her eyes. It is disgusting—the whole truth, or this scripted version of it.
“Did you feel that being with him, even under the circumstances, was better than not being with him?”
“Yessir. He was the first person I’d known in a long time that had goals. He was—thinking about the future.” Her voice breaks.
“Miss Martin, are you ready to talk about the night of December 11, 2008?’
“Yes,” she whispers. “I can talk about it.”
HE CAN’T, my sister scrawls. #JusticeforBrian, I supply, reflexively. The whole truth is that I’m not sorry he’s dead, that smirking blond salesman from the evidence photos, broad and fit and tan. It’s easy to imagine him talking clients into more expensive homes than they can afford; easy to imagine him intimidating a damaged person like Caitlin. He was popular in high school, his friends have told the gossip magazines. As if that’s a virtue.
* * *
When Jana divorced Kyle, her lawyer suggested filing a restraining order. It was standard practice, the lawyer said, used to demonstrate irreconcilable differences. I was surprised to learn how easy it was to get a restraining order. Just ask, just offer a reason that you don’t want someone near you, and the court will make that reason official. The order isn’t enforced, of course, unless the person holding it contacts the police. So for Jana to have this thing on record didn’t really mean much, as I tried to persuade her. Still, she couldn’t fathom “doing that to Kyle.” I don’t know whether she told him that this idea had been proposed and that I was behind it; I don’t know what she told him, about me or anything else. But when, for two weeks straight, I was followed home from work by a black Dodge Charger, I filed a restraining order against him myself. After that, as long as I was near Jana, Kyle couldn’t be. He knew this, having received notice of the order; my sister knew it, too.
Naturally our parents were confused by my sudden move back to Michigan. They’d enjoyed visiting me in Boston, walking the Freedom Trail and wandering Mount Auburn Cemetery. My life there fit their idea of me as the bookish daughter, become a librarian in a craggy, quaint city. I couldn’t betray Jana by telling them the whole truth, so I told them something else—that I was ready for a change, wanted to be near my sister, missed Lake Michigan. All of which was true. I didn’t tell them about Kyle, and I didn’t tell them the other thing: that it was exciting to let go of my Boston life and its routines—to just let go of what had grown familiar. It felt freeing, at first, as though I could become someone new and help my sister transform, in the process. But we neither transformed nor reverted to the easy companionship of our childhood. It was hard being around Jana during and after the divorce. She was sullen or frantic, rarely engaged by our conversations and activities. And I hadn’t given enough thought to what my choices would mean between me and my parents. When, that Christmas three years ago, Jana had explained that she and Kyle were separated, my mother turned to me. She didn’t say anything, but her feelings were there on her face, her recognition of what I’d kept secret. My parents had always encouraged the two of us to stick up for each other, but it was clear from my mother’s glance that this wasn’t where she’d expected that loyalty to lead. “You could’ve come to us,” my mother said. “You should have.” She hugged Jana but looked at me. “Honey, I’m sorry.”
If anyone actually started over, after the divorce, it was Kyle. For a few months following the proceedings, he continued to haunt us—a gleaming black shadow far in my rearview mirror; a spate of weepy messages on Jana’s voicemail. The few friends I’d reconnected with in our hometown passed along stories: he hooked up with a twenty-year-old, got thrown out of a bar downtown. We didn’t fact-check these rumors. Or maybe Jana did; maybe she was still seeing him sometimes—I can’t say for sure. But the summer after the split, Kyle left town. He moved to Colorado, we heard; all Jana knew was that she woke up one morning to a call from her building manager. Some guy had left a bunch of boxes for her, and could she move them out of the lobby ASAP? When she opened them, she found that Kyle had packed up every item from their wedding registry. Some things were unused, others well-worn. Kyle loved her, Jana insisted, but he’d relinquished everything that represented their six-year marriage. I was glad these boxes had been left without a note, in a humble rather than grand gesture. Kyle was gone; my sister could start over. That very afternoon she bought her giant beige sectional and a queen-sized bed.
* * *
When court adjourns for the day—our final day in Orlando—we’ve heard Caitlin’s description of the events of December 11, 2008. She’d tried and failed to turn on Brian’s bedroom television. “He kept screaming about the receiver,” she testified, “but there was no ‘receiver’ button on the clicker.” She’d attempted to turn the components on manually. But “do it right!” he’d yelled. He threw the remotes at her, striking her on the temple with one, nicking the drywall with another. “That made him mad,” she testified. He didn’t care that he’d hurt her, only that he’d hurt the house. “You’re going to pay for that,” he’d shouted—and for once, she said no. She ran from the room but he ran faster, blocking the front door. “Where are you going?” he’d taunted. “You have work to do, girl.” He’d taken her purse, her phone, holding them out of reach. She tried the landline. Caitlin described Brian laughing at her—the phone wasn’t hooked up.
“He said I still didn’t know how to use a phone. He said firing me was the best choice he’d ever made. I remember him taking off his belt.” On the witness stand she stopped, shaking her head.
“Then what happened?”