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New York City Criminal Court Building, Room 1317 Friday, December 4, 1992, 9:30 a.m.
Worried the jury will misinterpret my seeming calm for contempt or worse, my lawyer, Benjamin Marks, tries to make me understand that I need to show grief or exhibit sadness. If I can’t, if I don’t, he’s not sure he can put me on the stand when the time comes. And if the jury doesn’t hear me testify, Benjamin is not certain they will acquit me.
He says it exactly that way—not certain they will acquit—instead of just saying they might find me guilty.
But the female members of the jury will understand why I am numb. They will recognize me as just another woman who has loved a man too much. There are so many of us—not proud that we put a man first, of the sacrifices we made or of the prices we paid—but we know that if we had to do it over we would not do it any differently.
Of course I should have known better, but I got lost in the man named Slade Gabriel. And, although I might appear calm now, I’m not. I’m paralyzed.
Since Gabriel died, I’ve lost all feeling. Only take shallow breaths. I can’t concentrate. And I can’t cry.
Although aware of Judge Bailey welcoming the jury in his orator’s voice, the bailiff, an elderly black man with a limp standing at attention and the clerk typist’s fingers silently lifting and landing—I’m unable to link any of this ordered activity to me or my life.
Why aren’t Gabriel’s paintings hanging in this musty courtroom shedding their luminous light instead of the dirty tarp stretched across thewall hiding the mural of justice that Judge Bailey has just explained to the jury was damaged by a leak? Gabriel’s paintings would explain everything.
“It is not the law in need of reparation in this room—simply the painted representation of her holding her scales,” the judge says to the jury—the blur of faces that I cannot focus on. Not now. Not yet.
Instead I study the stretch of fabric. Edges unraveling, gaping like a badly hung drapery, the canvas, which smells of mildew, casts a dull pall, unrelieved by the weak winter light coming through the windows. Outside, the wind blows and bare branches tap, tap, tap against the panes, rattling the glass.
Judge Bailey finishes his introductory remarks, takes off his gold rimmed spectacles, wipes them with a clean white handkerchief, replaces them on the bridge of his beaklike nose and nods to the assistant district attorney. “Miss Zavidow,” he says slowly, savoring the ceremony. “Would you care to make your opening statement?”
From the moment the assistant district attorney rises, she focuses all her attention on the jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, Slade Gabriel is unable to come forward and speak to you of the circumstances surrounding his death, unable to point his finger at his lover, Genny Haviland, and say she did it, she murdered me. And so on his behalf, I point my finger at Genny Haviland and say she did it; she committed this gross and unholy crime.”
Linda Zavidow partially turns away from the jury box—each man and woman following her movements with their eyes. Lifting her arm, she energetically points across the courtroom toward the defendant’s table, at me.
Rubbing the palms of my hands up and down the sleeve of my black cashmere sweater, I try to relieve the itching that has started up again and, at the same time, try not to open any fresh scabs.
What a clever choice the D.A.’s office made when they assigned Linda Zavidow to prosecute my case. A man up there might seem like a bully; a less attractive or older woman might appear envious of me. But Linda Zavidow, like me, is in her late thirties. With her soft green eyes, chin-length shining blond hair, and a wide wedding band on her finger she can get away with saying almost anything. Ultimately it will come down to her against me, won’t it? And compared to Linda Zavidow I am dark, brooding, untamed; and certainly capable of—how did she just refer to it?—this gross and unholy crime.
“Over the next week or so,” Linda continues, “my job as the prosecuting attorney will be to show you how deeply, how obsessively, Genny Haviland loved Slade Gabriel and how that love turned into an equally great hate—so great it motivated her to kill him. I will fill in the background, set the scene, and present the evidence: a jigsaw puzzle of information for you to piece together.
“It won’t be easy for you. You’ll hear many hours of testimony from witnesses who will each swear to be telling the truth. Your job is to question each answer you hear. What seems plausible? What doesn’t? Which witnesses are telling the truth? Which aren’t? What does each have to gain? Or to lose?
“These questions will be most crucial when it comes to the defense’s argument. Mr. Marks will have you believe Genny Haviland’s story is reliable. But I contend it has been completely fabricated; not the truth at all, but a lie concocted to save her life.”
Linda looks at me. As per Benjamin’s instructions, I meet her eyes so she has no choice but to be the one to look away when she turns back to the jury.
She wants them to believe it’s only the answers that matter, but from making films I know it’s the questions that shape a story and move it in either one direction or another. By now, Linda’s already talked to every witness and discovered which questions to ask and which to discard in order to elicit the right answers.
But what about all the other questions?
What about my questions? What does it mean that for the last four months I have been unable to say good-bye to Gabriel? Unable to mourn him? Why is it that although my future is in jeopardy, I am only able to think about the past with him? Gabriel once cautioned me that by trying to dissect what bound us, each to the other, I would trivialize it and make it suspect. He said our connection would defy time, that even if we tried, we would never be able to completely let go of each other.
During the years we spent apart, I had gotten used to missing him but that was simply missing someone who wasn’t physically with me—he was still on this planet, just keeping some other place warm. Now he is not even a body buried somewhere, but ashes emptied out of a plane window, caught in the wind, blown far away.
“Although I have described this crime to you during jury selection,” Linda Zavidow continues, “I would like to repeat it to you now as designated jurors with all the responsibility that implies.
“The Grand Jury of the County of New York by this indictment accuses the defendant of the crime of murder in the second degree, committed as follows: The defendant acting alone, in the County of New York, on September 18, 1992, knowingly caused the death of Slade Gabriel by drugging him with a narcotic and then suffocating him to death.
“This is a case of cold-blooded murder—” Linda says and then stops as if she’s too shook up by her own words to continue.
Beside me, Benjamin Marks shakes his head, disapproving the assistant D.A.’s theatrics while behind me, my father breathes deeply. I, always in tune with my father even when we’re angry with each other (as he is with me now), can almost believe his breath is being expelled from my mouth. It’s killing him that he has not, cannot, protect me from this. But to do that, he would have had to be a different father and a different man.
“As a woman who has been in love,” Linda’s voice softens, “my heart goes out to Genny Haviland. What a fantasy Slade Gabriel must have seemed when she first met him twenty years ago! A successful artist. An attractive, charming, sensual man who was part of her parents’ world. How could she not have idolized him? So imagine, if you will, how traumatized Genny must have been when this man proved not to be a fantasy at all, but a narcissistic, egotistical artist who didn’t always treat the people who loved him well. Throughout their relationship he was cruel to Genny. Irresponsible. Ultimately impregnating her and then insisting—no demanding—she abort their child despite her own wishes and beliefs.
“But since when, ladies and gentlemen, is being selfish just cause for murder?”