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“Could you be a little more specific when you say ‘erratic behavior’?”
The lawyer smiled with well-practiced patience, perfectly pitched understanding in his voice as he elaborated.
“Yes. Could you give us some examples of what you describe as your wife’s erratic behavior over the last few years.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly,” the man nodded.
Donna Cressy sat in the straight hard-backed chair, her back rigid, not touching the wood, and watched the man in the witness stand, the man to whom she had been married for six years, Victor Cressy, age thirty-eight and five years her senior, continue to grind what was left of her self-image into fine flecks of ash (human remains from the cremator’s oven), to dissect every phrase she had uttered during their life together, every tone, every nuance until there was nothing left but his interpretation of how it had been. She almost smiled—why should their divorce be any different than their marriage?
She looked at his face and wished she could be like some of those women she had often read about who, when they looked at a lost or former lover, wondered what they could have seen in him in the first place. But it was all still there to see—the conventionally handsome, even kind face, with its brooding blue eyes and almost black hair, the sensitive yet commanding set of his features, his full mouth, the imperious yet curiously respectful tone of his voice.
“She stopped driving the car,” Victor said, almost wondrously. Obviously something beyond his comprehension.
“What do you mean? She just stopped?” the lawyer probed. “Had she had an accident?”
His lawyer was good, Donna admitted to herself. Victor had said he was the best in Florida, which hadn’t surprised her. Victor had to have the best. It was a quality she had first admired, then learned to despise. Funny how the things you loved could turn so quickly into objects of scorn, she thought. Funny how a road-weary lawyer with a well-rehearsed client could still manage to make everything sound so spontaneous. Her own attorney had told her that a good lawyer never asked a question for which he didn’t already know the answer. Her lawyer was also considered to be good—though not as good as Victor’s.
“No. She never had any accidents in all the years I knew her,” Victor answered. “She’d been driving since she was sixteen and as far as I know, she’d never so much as dented a fender.”
“And when you were first married, did she drive often then?”
“All the time. In fact, I bought her a car, a little Toyota, for our second anniversary. She was thrilled.”
“And she just stopped driving one day?”
“That’s right. Suddenly, she just refused to get behind the wheel.”
“Did she offer any explanation?”
“She said she didn’t want to drive anymore.”
Victor’s lawyer, a Mr. Ed Gerber, raised his eyebrows while simultaneously furrowing his brow and pursing his lips. Donna thought that must be hard to do. “When exactly was that?”
“About two years ago. No. Maybe a little more. It was around the time she got pregnant with Sharon. Sharon’s sixteen months old now, so, yeah, I guess it was about two years ago.” His voice was deep. Thoughtful.
“And she hasn’t driven since?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“And to the best of your knowledge, nothing happened to cause this decision?”
“That’s right. I—” he hesitated, as if debating with himself whether or not to continue. “I once saw her get behind the wheel of the car, about a year ago when she thought I was still asleep—”
“Still asleep? What time was it?”
“A little after three a.m.”
“What was she doing out at three a.m.?”
“Objection.” Her own lawyer. Mr. Stamler. The same height and weight as Mr. Gerber. Approximately the same age. Interchangeable, except that Victor had told her Mr. Gerber was better.
“Sorry. I’ll rephrase that. What was your wife wearing at the time, Mr. Cressy?”
“And where were the children?”
“Asleep. In the house.”
“Would you describe exactly what you saw that morning.”
Victor looked perplexed. Donna could see his confusion was sincere. Forgive them, Father, she found herself thinking, for they know not what they do. Victor had sworn to tell the truth. And he was telling it—as he saw it. As he knew it. His truth, not hers. Her chance would come later. Her last chance.
“I heard the front door close and I looked out the window to the carpark and I saw Donna unlock the car and get inside. I remember being astounded that she would even be thinking about driving again, and then even more surprised that she would be going anywhere at three in the morning. That was long before I found out about her relationship with Dr. Segal, of course.”
“Objection. There is no proof that Mrs. Cressy had any intention of going to meet Dr. Segal that morning.”
“Sustained.” The judge. The same height and weight as both Mr. Stamler and Mr. Gerber. Perhaps twenty years older.
“Did Mrs. Cressy, in fact, go anywhere?”
“No. She put the key in the ignition and switched on the motor, and then she just sat there like she couldn’t move. And then she started to shake. All over. She just sat there and shook. Finally, she turned off the motor and came back inside. I went into the living room to see if she was okay, and I could see she’d been crying. I asked her what was wrong.”
“And what was her answer?”
“She told me to go back to bed. And then she went back to her room.”
“Her room? You had separate bedrooms?”
Victor looked deeply embarrassed by the admission.
“Why was that?”
“It was what Donna wanted.”
“From the beginning?”
“No. Oh, no.” He smiled. “We have two children, remember.” Mr. Gerber smiled in consolation. It seemed even the judge smiled. Only Donna remained unmoved. “No, she, uh, she told me she wouldn’t sleep with me anymore on the day she found out she was pregnant with our second child.”
“Did you consider that announcement strange?”
“Only a little. She’d been saying no for quite a long time by that point. Except for the odd occasion.” His smile was puppy-dog sad. Donna wanted to punch him in the mouth.
“So your wife refused to have sexual relations with you?”
“Yes, sir.” Almost inaudible.
“Did she give you a reason?” Why was he so concerned with reasons? Donna wondered.
“At first, she used to say she was just too tired, what with looking after Adam—he’s four now.”
Donna stared at Victor with disbelief. He had once told her he could sell sand to the Arabs, and it was true he had been Prudential’s top insurance salesman for the past five years running. But before her eyes she had just witnessed the almost total transformation of a Yankee from Connecticut transplanted to Palm Beach, Florida, only eight years ago, into a born and bred good ole boy from the South, his voice even hinting at a mild Southern drawl, and she had actually believed in this new identity. “She used to say she was just too tired, what with looking after Adam”—she heard his voice silently repeating. “What with looking after Adam!” Victor Cressy had never used the term “what with” in his life before. And that final little sentiment—“he’s four now,” tacked onto the end of the thought like so much country molasses. And she had fallen for it! The way she recognized the judge was falling for it as well. For a moment, she felt panic and looked around her shoulder for Mel. He was there. He smiled but he looked as puzzled as she felt, and as she turned back to face the witness stand, she felt something she had not allowed herself to feel since she had decided to leave Victor—that he might win after all. Not the divorce suit—she didn’t care who was granted the divorce, being branded an adulteress didn’t bother her (she had committed adultery, after all), but what had suddenly traveled from Victor’s mouth to her ears in that mellifluous near-Southern drawl was the very real possibility that she could lose her children, the very things that had sustained her these last trouble-filled years, the only things that had kept her sane.
Not according to Victor. “Then, of course, she was sick so often.”
“She seemed to have one cold after another, and when it wasn’t a cold, it was the flu. She’d be in bed for days.”
“And who would look after the children?”
“Mrs. Adilman from next door. She’s a widow, she would come in.”
“Was Mrs. Cressy seeing a doctor?”
Victor’s smile was a neat mixture of irony and regret. “At first she was seeing our old family doctor, Dr. Mitchelson. Then he retired and she wasn’t seeing anyone except for her obstetrician, Dr. Harris. Until she met Dr. Segal. Then suddenly he became the family practitioner.”
“Dr. Melvin Segal?”
“He began treating your wife?”
“And my children.”
“They had no pediatrician?”
Victor’s voice raised itself in anger for the first time that morning. It was very effective. “They had a perfectly good pediatrician. The best. Dr. Wellington, Paul Wellington. But Donna insisted, and she was very adamant about it, that Sharon and Adam go to see Dr. Segal.”
“Did she offer an explanation?” Again he wanted explanations.
“None that was satisfactory.”
The lawyer paused. Like the wanderer in a poem by Robert Frost, he had come to a fork in the road. He had been offered two paths to follow and he could choose only one. He could travel the road to adultery, or the more erratic, as he had earlier phrased it, trail of Donna’s behavior. He opted for her sanity, or lack of it, as he hoped to prove, since he had already started out in that direction, and, unlike the poet, he recognized he could always double back later.
“I’d like to return to Dr. Segal in a few moments, Mr. Cressy,” Mr. Gerber continued, unfurrowing his brow and doing something weird with his lips. “Right now I’d like to concentrate on those of your wife’s actions you found strange. Can you give us a few more examples?”
Victor looked over at Donna, then lowered his head. “Well,” he began slowly, “there was the period just after Sharon was born that she hated the way she looked and decided to change the color of her hair.”
“That’s not so unusual, from what I understand about women,” Mr. Gerber said, chuckling lightly with condescension. Victor was smart enough not to join him. He tolerated his lawyer’s well-timed interruption, then continued with his story, the narrative picking up gradual speed as it rolled to its conclusion.
“No,” Victor agreed, “it wouldn’t have been unusual, and at first I didn’t think anything about it, except that I always preferred it long and natural, and she knew that.” Pause. Let it sink in. She deliberately altered something that was already preferred. “At first, she just put streaks in it, so that it was still brown but with a few blonde highlights. That wasn’t bad, but after about a week, she decided she didn’t like that any better than plain brown, so she had it frosted, which made it almost all blonde streaks with just a little bit of brown. Then she decided that if she was going to have long hair, it might as well be all blonde and so she had it done really blonde, almost white. But then she complained that the sun kept turning it yellow, so she had it turned strawberry blonde, and then a few weeks after that, she changed it to red.” He stopped to catch his breath. Donna remembered the red. She had hoped to look like Tina Louise. Instead she came out looking like Little Orphan Annie. “The red didn’t last any longer than any of the others, so she had it done auburn and then black. By then her hair was such a disaster in terms of the condition it was in from all the bleachings and colorings that she had to have it cut. So she cut it to just above her shoulders, and put it back to its natural color, like how she has it now, and she looked terrific, and I told her so, and the next morning, she came down to the breakfast room and at first I didn’t recognize her. She looked like an inmate of a concentration camp—she’d cut her hair herself so that there was practically nothing there, and she was so thin.” He shook his head in bewilderment.
“What did her friends think of all these changes?” his lawyer asked.
Her lawyer sat poised to object at the slightest hint of hearsay.
“By this point,” Victor continued carefully, “she really didn’t have many friends. Certainly, none that ever came to the house.” Effective pause. Surreptitious glance at Mel. “Mrs. Adilman did ask me if Donna was all right once.”
Victor waited to be led; his attorney readily, though subtly, did the leading.
“What did you think of all these changes, Mr. Cressy?” his lawyer asked.
“I just kept hoping that it was something she was going through after the birth of the baby. I’d heard that women sometimes went a little crazy after—”
“Objection, your honor. Really—”
“Sustained. You’re on dangerous ground here, Mr. Gerber.”
Mr. Gerber was suitably humbled. He lowered his head and asked his next questions without raising it.
“Did things improve with time?”
“No. They got worse.”
Donna felt her foot going to sleep. It’s always darkest before the dawn, she remembered her mother once telling her. She shook her foot, felt the nerve ends tingling, and smiled with the recognition she still had nerve endings that could tingle, that she was still alive. She saw Victor’s eyes narrow—he had seen her smile and he was questioning it, disapproving of it. Fuck you, she thought, wishing she could yell it aloud, knowing she couldn’t. Not if she wanted to prove herself a fit mother, to be able to keep and raise the children she had watched come into this world.
Victor’s voice was droning on about some real or imagined slight she had done him, humiliations she had wrought. She refused to have people over, to entertain any of his associates or prospective clients, and when they went out to parties, she was often sarcastic and rude, putting him down unmercifully. Either that or she would go to the other extreme and not say anything all night. It was a nightmare; he never knew how she was going to react. Neither did anyone else. And then there was that business about cleaning the house.
Victor made the story sound as if he were hearing it for the first time himself. “It started after Sharon was born and she had to get up in the middle of the night to nurse her. Sharon would cry around two a.m. and Donna would feed her and then put her back to bed, but instead of going back to bed herself, she’d start to tidy up. She’d clean the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, even the kitchen floor sometimes. When Sharon gave up the two a.m. feeding—which she wasn’t long in doing—Donna still got up every morning around two or three and cleaned the house for at least an hour. Once, I went into the kitchen and she was standing there washing the dishes.” He stopped, then continued sadly, “And we have an automatic dishwasher.”
Who was this crazy lady they were talking about? Donna wondered. Because undoubtedly Mrs. Victor Cressy had been a crazy lady.
She suddenly found herself thinking back to the first time the concept of hell had become a reality for her. She had been about twenty-six, living on her own, dating a lot of men, relishing her freedom and independence. A group of the people she worked with at McFaddon Advertising had decided on a Fourth of July picnic weekend at the beachfront home of the parents of one of the employees (his parents summered in the North), and she had been included, having a wonderful time until she was assigned to the kitchen clean-up crew and spent the hours from midnight till two a.m. washing dishes in the sink, the automatic dishwasher having decided to get in the holiday spirit and take the weekend off like everybody else. As she had stood there, her hands sinking into the hot water and overabundance of suds, watching the revelers return with yet another armload of dishes just when she had thought she was through, she had been reminded of a book she had studied in college, and one she had recalled often since, Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. According to the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus had angered the gods for reasons which had escaped her then as they did now, and he had been condemned to spend the rest of eternity pushing a large and monstrously heavy rock up to the top of a huge hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom just as he was reaching the summit. Camus had asked the seemingly ridiculous question, was Sisyphus happy? More ridiculous still, he had concluded that yes, Sisyphus was indeed happy because he knew in advance that the rock would never reach its destination, that he would always be forced to carry it just so far and then watch it backslide, that there was no hope of his ever succeeding. And in abandoning hope, he had gained his salvation; by knowing and accepting his fate, he became superior to it. Donna had pondered these existential theories of existence as her hands went in and out of the water, and she had decided as yet another sinkful of dishes emerged from beneath the bubbles, that if, in fact, there was a hell, and each person was assigned his or her own particular and private hell, then hers would undoubtedly be eternal kitchen duty. The thought of having to spend forever at the kitchen sink, coming to the end only to find another load waiting, brought home to her the concept of hell, its possible reality, in a way that no amount of Sunday sermonizing could ever have hoped to accomplish. For the first time in her life, Donna Cressy had feared death.
And now here she sat in the starkness of the courtroom and heard herself described, accurately she had to admit, at least superficially, as some maniac for cleanliness who woke herself up in the middle of the night in order to wash the dishes her automatic dishwasher was perfectly able to handle. Did she sound like a woman in control of her life? Did a woman whose hair coloring traveled from Gloria Steinem to Lana Turner to Lucille Ball to Dorothy Lamour to Mia Farrow—anybody but herself—in the space of a few months have any right to supervise the development of two young children with perfectly healthy heads of hair?
Not according to what she had just heard. And there was more much more to come, she knew. They hadn’t begun to talk about Mel, about her immorality. They had thus far avoided any detailed mention of the children themselves. Victor was only the first witness to be called. There was doubtless a long string of witnesses to follow, all to condemn her in tones varying from outrage to pity. She had only herself. Once again she found herself smiling ruefully—why should their divorce be any different from their marriage? Then she noticed the judge was staring at her, silently questioning her smile, so incongruous under the circumstances. He thinks I’m crazy, she said to herself, as the judge banged his gavel and adjourned the session for lunch.
Victor was standing beside her before she could even think of rising from her chair, his face full of gentle concern.
“Can I talk to you for a few minutes?” he asked.
“No,” she said, standing up and pushing her chair back. Her lawyer had already moved to the back of the courtroom where he was talking to Mel.
“Donna, please, don’t be unreasonable.”
She looked genuinely surprised. “How can you expect me to be anything else? You expect the lady I just heard described by your very own sincere mouth to act with reason? As usual, Victor, you expect too much.” She began to scratch at the top of her left hand above the thumb.
“Rash back?” he asked.
She stopped scratching. “Something you forgot to mention this morning. Oh, well, the day is still young. I’m sure you’ll get around to it.” She wanted to stop but couldn’t. “Oh, and you forgot to tell him I have hemorrhoids from reading on the toilet despite all the times you warned me against it.” She slapped her hand. “Bad little girl.”
He grabbed her hand. “Donna, please. Look what this is doing to you.”
“Please let go of me.”
He let go reluctantly. “I just want to spare you any further pain and humiliation this whole mess is going to cause you.”
“Are you going to drop the custody action?”
He looked genuinely distraught. “You know I can’t do that.”
“You don’t seriously believe I’m not fit to raise my children?” she almost shouted. Mel and Mr. Stamler looked in her direction, Mel instantly moving toward her.
“They’re my children too,” he reminded her, “and I’m only doing what I feel is right.” Mel was at Donna’s side.
“You won’t win, you know,” Donna said with more conviction than she felt. “The judge will hear my side of the story. He won’t let you take my children away from me.”
Victor looked from Donna to Mel with undisguised hatred. When he looked back at Donna, any concern his face had once held had vanished. His voice had lost any trace of Southern gentility, was unabashedly Northern and cold like a biting Chicago wind. “I promise you,” he said, spitting the words into the air between them, “that even if you win, you’ll lose.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Donna asked, but his back was already to her, and seconds later he was gone from the courtroom.
From the Trade Paperback edition.