Elegant_Background-5

Ryan “R.C.” Bowden left Elmira, N.Y. on his favorite day of the year—the day the coats come off, when women show their shapes and some skin. This was shortly before Mon Cher Alphonse closed its doors for good and three days after he took the bus to Corning to see Elisabeth’s father where, after an alarming allergy attack in the man’s office (“What did you spray on those plants!?!?”) and proclaiming he could not be bought, he allowed as how he’d always wanted to try his luck in L.A.

A month later in Los Angeles, charged with murder, his court-appointed lawyer withdrew after he touched her “inappropriately” and he then asked his second public defender to get him an astrologer and a psychic. The lawyer was more concerned with the alibi witnesses: Rosa García, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Marisa Hagopian, cogent but unlikely to be favorably disposed.

Rudy and I were interviewed by detectives as well as by the A.D.A. and the defense. We knew R.C. That’s why I can’t let it go.

* * *

“It was a false spring,” Elisabeth said later. “The dogwood and wisteria froze. The coats went back on.”

Same here in L.A. where the air early in April smelled like spring but felt damp and cold like fall.

Now, on these glorious days in May, I keep going back to the house in Van Nuys where R.C. lived briefly with Shannon Wozniak, Marisa, and Cody Steele (who considered him unexceptional: “your typical frat boy, all about getting drunk and getting laid”). Where Elisabeth Miller has been staying, sleeping on the couch, since she flew out after hearing of the arrest on TV. I tell Rudy I’m going to visit Rosa, which is true.

When she shuffles to the door, crying out for Ryan, I say “It’s me. Cati.”

“Go away,” she says, and so I do, and I go straight to the house next door. Where Ryan—R.C.—lived.

* * *

In this household, Shannon does temp work. Sometimes the phone rings with an assignment; mostly, it doesn’t. She and Cody go to the occasional audition. They go to the health club—”That’s where you make connections,” says Cody, though he also says he’s had better luck at A.A.

I don’t know what they live on.

“It was Wednesday,” says Marisa. But she’s mostly at home or at the library working on her dissertation. Without classes or an office to go to on a schedule, it has to be easy for her to lose track.

“It could have been Tuesday,” says Elisabeth. The others don’t like her but she’s paying a share of the rent without even being asked.

“He’s the kind of damaged person,” says Marisa, “who damages anyone who’s close to him.”

“Unless,” says Elisabeth, smug, “you know to take care of yourself.”

Marisa tugs at her braid and I sit there, listening, thinking how strange it is that R.C. is at the center of their consciousness and lives while it’s becoming more and more clear that he has no center of his own. It’s also strange that I don’t want my husband to know I’m here. It’s not that he’d disapprove. He never does.

I keep a lot from Rudy lately so I don’t have to be confronted with his tolerance. He doesn’t know I’ve visited R.C. in jail.

I sit across from him. It’s magnetic. Not that I feel an attraction to him. It’s more that in his presence a disconnected piece of me stirs, pulls closer, closer till I can almost believe it will snap into place.

There’s something about being big, tall, and good looking that makes a man think he was born to a special destiny.

The way R.C. sees it, everyone benefited. No one got hurt.

“How’s Rosa?” he says, like he cares, and maybe he does. “She’s a nice lady.” Rosa has fired another home health aide: “She looked like a nurse. People were going to think there’s something wrong with me.”

But it’s easier to say, “Rosa’s fine.”

* * *

Mitigate: to make less severe, less painful. Less hostile. But in my work, this only refers to asking the judge to go easy on punishment.

If I were writing a mitigation report—which I am not; he is not a client of our firm—it might start off something like this:

CURRENT OFFENSES:
stalking, murder in the first degree with special circumstances.

SOCIAL HISTORY: Defendant was born in 1981. His parents, Joseph and Paulette, agricultural workers in New York State’s Southern Tier (bordering Pennsylvania) were among the poor, rural population derisively referred to as “apple scabs” (after a type of orchard blight; no reference to non-union labor). According to his mother, they were repeatedly told throughout their public school years that formal education for “apple scabs” was an unnecessary waste of time and taxpayer dollars. She (unlike her husband) did complete high school. The graduating class was recognized with a special field trip to Albany where they were introduced for the first time to elevators and escalators—this, mind you, in 1972. At the time, she was already pregnant as the result of rape which took place while employed during the pear harvest at a local orchard. She gave the baby up for adoption.

* * *

I’m not working from depositions under oath or affidavits by the way. Just conversations. Joseph, dying in the prison hospital, was not available to talk. I rely on Paulette for his story. He is illiterate, she told me on the phone. (Though I called several times we only had one real conversation. Usually one of the kids answered and said she wasn’t feeling well, or she answered, too drunk to make much sense.)

Joseph enlisted or was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam, returning to the Southern Tier region in 1975. After a period of drifting and short-term employment marked by significant alcohol and drug abuse (for which he served his first prison term), he reconnected with Paulette when they met at a local tavern. By then, 1980, seasonal orchard work was mostly in the hands of immigrant Jamaican labor and Paulette had found employment on the cleaning crew at the state hospital for the criminally insane, a job she was anxious to leave as the ammonia fumes set off asthma attacks. They married soon after she became pregnant and named the baby after the actor, Ryan O’Neal. The boy always preferred to go by the initials, R.C.

The marriage was a volatile one but five more children were born. “We couldn’t afford them,” according to Paulette, but her husband’s alcoholism, having rendered him impotent most of the time, she’d stopped bothering with contraception. Did she consider abortion? “I don’t think you could get one where we lived.”

Paulette chooses to stay home rather than visit her son in jail or attend his trial—if you can call it choice when she has no money to make the trip and has children to care for, if you can call it care.

R.C. became the man of the house whenever his father was in jail, mostly short stretches, until the conviction for armed robbery in 2000 sent him to the state penitentiary in Elmira where he will almost undoubtedly die. They’d been renting in an unincorporated area when Joseph got the idea they needed to buy the place. Oil companies were exploring for gas. Property-owners were negotiating leases and royalties. All a man needed was capital, and so he got drunk and took his shotgun to the Mobil station.

That’s when Paulette moved to Elmira with the kids so they could see him in prison on visiting weekends. “Elmira has a bad reputation in some quarters because of us,” says Paulette. “Prisoner families. White trash.”

The marriage was most amicable whenever Joseph was locked up. When he was home, he beat Paulette often and called her “savage” and “squaw.” (Paulette denies being of Mohawk ancestry but R.C. did apply for college scholarships and admissions on diversity grounds and was angered when told he did not qualify.) Paulette defends her husband, citing his frustrations. “He couldn’t read or write and they passed him grade to grade till it came time to graduate high school and then they wouldn’t let him.” As for her son, “He got the G.E.D., not the Regents”—the full academic diploma.

The family of seven lived in a two-room rental steps from the malodorous Chemung River. Paulette took to burning scented candles in the house. Everyone coughed from mold and mildew. The children were bitten by rats—this in R.C.’s account and Paulette’s. Elisabeth, though she only saw the place from the outside, concurs it was “an awful depressing dump.”

* * *

If I were writing a mitigation report for myself, I’d say It was an accident. She didn’t mean it.

Mitigation is a growth industry here in California where the word “zealous” is an understatement when it comes to prosecutors. They love the death penalty. They love life without the possibility of parole though they sometimes must settle for an indeterminate life sentence of 45 years to life; 60 years to life; 85 years to life. Defendants will pay anything hoping to win some sympathy. The more I fail, the more work I seem to get. Extreme sentences just make other defendants more desperate.

“He deserves what he gets,” says my husband even though what R.C. gets may be a lethal injection and this from a man who I thought opposed capital punishment.

“Rudy, think where he comes from. His father is in prison dying of cirrhosis. His mother is home drinking herself to death.”

“Boo hoo,” said Rudy.

“Doesn’t it bother you the real killer may still be out there?”

Where Rudy comes from: Guatemala, where he survived a brutal dictatorship and mass murder. His history made my own distress seem trivial and at first I liked that. Now I think Rudy just gave up. Nothing bothers him because he has no faith that things can get better. That a person can change.

“R.C.’s the oldest child,” I said. “The other kids expect him to save them. He didn’t even know how to save himself.”

“I won’t insult animals by calling him one.”

My husband is a surgeon humbly calling himself a mere mechanic who works on people instead of cars. Now this begins to seem like false modesty. He’s like all the others, playing God, thinking he who saves lives is also entitled to take them.

But I’ve been getting used to it, the way the most gentle of men rage against any member of their gender who kills a woman, as if they all had something to prove.

And I’m getting used to the way the new generation of women—“girls”—is willing to sit around for hours talking about men. Why not? Think tanks and institutes employ some of the best minds of the nation to sit around studying the enemy. But why, I want to know, why aren’t we talking about rightwing broadcasters and their lies? Is that too obvious? What about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf? Why aren’t we talking about coal mine operators with no respect for human life? Why aren’t we looking out there?

“Why aren’t we talking about my $120,000 in student loan debt?” says Marisa.

“You should have moved to a civilized country where education is free,” says Elisabeth.

I ask Cody for a refresher on the Serenity Prayer—the things we can change, the things we can’t, “the wisdom to know the difference.”

Then I listen as they talk about R.C.

“What can you possibly say about a man who always calls when the charge is so low on his phone, you have to strain to make out what he’s saying?” And the background sounds: the rush and echo in the bowl, the diving splash, a couple of pings, the roar when he flushed, the son-of-a-bitch, this was on purpose, Elisabeth thought. It had to be. “He wanted me to picture him, phone in one hand, cock in the other.”

But she merely finds this amusing. Smalltown life must have bored her half to death. She is so young: Elisabeth with her blood red lipstick, the Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox she carries as a handbag, the ruby stud in her nose that looks more like the blood of a popped pimple than a jewel. Maybe R.C. was an accessory, too. But to her credit, she’s loyal. She paid for the astrologer and a psychic. She wanted to pay his bail but it was set at $2 million and they didn’t want a trust fund; they wanted real estate. She said at first she’d stay for the trial. I told her I’d be surprised if it began before next year. “You mean he stays in jail till then?” So much for a speedy trial. (Why don’t we talk about that?)

Elisabeth doesn’t think he did it. “Our last night together? I called him names. I hit him. He never hit me. Never even raised his voice. I never saw the slightest hint of violence.”

I don’t think he did it either.

“He’s a pathological liar,” said Elisabeth. “He’s a con man. He’s not a killer.”

“But Dewi was going to expose him. That could have been the stressor,” said Shannon. She’s apparently watched too many episodes of Criminal Minds.

“He came close to killing Shannon,” said Marisa.

* * *

The only one who’s dead is Dewi DeLanda. Sympathy for the accused doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the victim. Dewi: the new face of America where the most exotic features now represent the girl next door. Willowy, soulful, racially ambiguous. Star quality, they said. She wasn’t one of those indie film actresses with character in her face instead of beauty. Her skin, they said. Her luminous skin. In a city where women in the industry are joined at the hip with their makeup artists, there to fix the face any time a camera appears, Dewi had the glow, she had that skin in real life. And a voice like cream poured from a pitcher, rich, sensuous, wholesome. Dewi DeLanda was strangled in the parking lot of the Brentwood Country Mart the night of Tuesday, April 20. The news reports called her “an aspiring actress” much to Shannon’s displeasure: “She had small roles in major motion pictures. She was recurring on a primetime series. If she was aspiring, what does that make me?”

Everyone should aspire. I do, though too often I’m not sure to what. R.C. aspired to escape the circumstances that could have defined him. He aspired to be who he wasn’t and so the “girls” try to figure out who he is. I listen.

According to Elisabeth and his mother, during his brief attendance at community college, R.C. enrolled for a degree in criminal justice, not as surprising a choice as you might think given that prisons are the main provider of stable employment in the region.

He told Marisa he had a degree in psychology.

He told Shannon he’d studied at the Culinary Institute and was the chef at Mon Cher Alphonse.

“Waiter,” said Elisabeth. With the restaurant closing, he feared he’d have to return to his old job, collecting the carcasses of dead horses and cattle, bringing them to the plant where the bodies were rendered, turned to tallow and hide.

In L.A., he became, first, a person of interest. An obvious suspect. He kept changing the story he gave the police.

“Yeah,” said Elisabeth, “he lies. He’ll convince you Monday is Tuesday and black is white, just for the hell of it. Just to show he can.”

Now he’s the defendant.

There’s no physical evidence he killed her. No eyewitness. It’s all circumstantial. And in spite of what R.C. claimed, it’s unlikely they even met.

Talk talk talk. Shannon finds out Marisa had sex with him twice.

“He told me—” Marisa began. “Oh the hell with it. Never mind what he told me.” She wears a single braid over her shoulder the way my little sister did. Meredith chewed on the end of hers when watching TV, till our mother cut her hair short to stop her. Marisa tugs hers when concentrating or, as now, put on the spot.

“He’s a rat,” said Shannon.

“They get a bad rap,” said Marisa. She’s getting a Ph.D. in animal behavior and ethology and ought to know. She told us about an experiment. To get food, the rat had to press a lever that gave the rat in the next cage a painful shock. The rats went hungry rather than hurt another rat which suggests that rats are more ethical, more empathic, than people.

When I repeated this to Rudy, he said, “The rat in the experiment might have been a particularly moral rat. It doesn’t tell you much about rats in general. Most men don’t kill. That one did.” He kissed the top of my head in a patronizing way, but at least he was willing to see rats as individuals.

I see R.C. as a little boy with both parents drunks. A world of blackouts, missing hours and days, excuses, stories, lies. Is it possible a child can grow up never knowing there’s such a thing as truth? His lies not premeditated, but rather a creative ability to improvise, filling in the blanks with whatever comes to mind. Words don’t have the same weight to him as for me.

“Even if he did it,” said Elisabeth, “I’m sure he doesn’t feel guilty. Doesn’t that mean he’s not guilty? If he doesn’t know right from wrong?”

If you don’t think you’re guilty, the only outcome of punishment is rage.

If you do think you’re guilty, punishment can’t be escaped, only deferred. So a person might conceivably live with only one foot in her own life, uncertain, and waiting.

In the county jail, they’ve taken away his earrings. They’ve put him in a jumpsuit. The glass separating us is dirty. I see him through a blur and I smell prison disinfectant and men’s sweat, the oxymoronic and inescapable odor: antiseptic filth.

If you live with no consciousness of what you’ve done, if you’re missing that part of your past, how can you be accountable? Without your past, have you even got a self? What do you do with someone who’s a figment of his own imagination?

“Are you all right in here?” I ask. “Are you safe?”

“I’m Mohawk,” he says. “No one’s gonna mess with me.”

As though self-invention is self-defense. Survival. Sometimes something you don’t know is dangerous turns out to be. And me, I can’t stop staring at his hand, his strong fingers around the neck of the phone.

“How’s Rosa,” he says. “Everyone else was just after their pound of flesh.”

“What do you think I’m after?” I say.

He smirks. “Rudy’s a lot older than you.”

“I am not asking anything from you,” I say. “No pound of flesh.” I think of Rosa, holding his pillow and breathing his scent, mijo. “It might do you good to know not everyone wants your body.”

“The State of California wants my body. The State of California wants to tell my body when to stand up and when to lie down. When to eat. When to shower. When to shit.

“Why are you here?” he says.

* * *

Which is the same question Marisa asks.

“I was visiting Rosa and I thought I’d stop by.”

(Rosa’s niece has asked the agency to send a “hunk,” but for now, Milagros is on the job and taking Rosa’s abuse. She serves us coffee.

“I never believed the lies,” says Rosa as she pours sugar onto the table.

“The sugar, Rosa,” I say.

“Yes, I take two,” she says and pours more. “You didn’t believe either, did you?”

“That he killed her?”

“Millions. They said he killed millions.” She is agitated until Milagros hands her a rag doll. She is serene as she rocks it and whispers, “A good man. A great man, mijo” and I realize she’s not thinking of Ryan Collins Bowden but—oh my God—of Stalin.)

“My God, but you girls need Al-Anon,” says Cody. “Co-dependent! Someone needs to tell you you’re not supposed to figure him out. You’re supposed to work on yourself.”

“That’s what I’m doing,” says Shannon. “How can I work on myself if I can’t figure out what happened to me with him? Before I moved out here,” she says, “I called an old friend. She said she’d introduce me to single men. What were my criteria? Easy, I said. No substance abuse, no one who’s racist or homophobic.”

“And he should prefer having sex to watching TV,” says Marisa.

“My friend says, ‘I understand why you feel that way, but you realize how much you’re limiting yourself.’”

We all laugh.

“So what happens?” says Shannon. “I end up sleeping with a murderer.”

“We don’t know that,” Elisabeth says.

“At least he wasn’t homophobic,” says Cody.

“Oh my God,” says Shannon. “You too—?”

“No,” says Cody.

“Or racist,” says Elisabeth. “Though you’d expect him to be. He could have been a skinhead or white supremacist. I always gave him credit because he isn’t.”

* * *

According to Cody, men like stupid women.

“And stupid men?” asks Shannon.

His tongue plays briefly on his lips. “Among other qualities.”

According to my daughter, women like bad men. Kira’s ideal is House, the pathological doctor on TV.

She is so young. I don’t want her to be like Elisabeth, young enough to believe that taking a sick relationship in stride proves how strong, adult, and independent she is. The more trouble R.C. gives her, the more she’s impressed with herself. Elizabeth was engaged to marry an MBA candidate at Cornell—until she met R.C.

“House is not good relationship material,” I tell Kira.

She echoes me. “Relationship material? Mom, you don’t talk like that. And you like the bad boys.”

“Your father?” I say. “Anyway, like isn’t the word or the emotion,” and she gives me a look, something like superiority or contempt, like the look R.C. must have seen on Shannon’s face sometimes, and I remember holding baby Kira in my arms thinking it’s only natural she’ll grow up to be a teenage girl who hates me.

“What about you?” says Marisa and I’m startled to be asked.

“I’m married.” The words sound strange. If you asked, Who are you? I would say I’m Cati, not I’m married, and now I wonder if I’m about to be envied for this random status, or dismissed.

“Why am I single? I had sex with him,” says Marisa. “Doesn’t that count as stupid?”

“You seem superior even when you don’t mean to,” says Cody. “And you, Shannon—you’re wearing a nurse’s cap.”

“Nurses don’t wear caps anymore.”

“Metaphorically. Anyone can see you’re fucked up that way—ready to take care of people.”

That was how they met. At the pool, both staying in temporary housing at Oakwood. Shannon in bikini, R.C., as always, a hunk. Not much swimming that day. Lots of splashing and drinking. R.C. walked her to her room, took her in his arms.

“I thought, like, Wow!” she says. “Then this other girl shows up. Drop-dead gorgeous, and R.C. suddenly says he doesn’t feel well.” Shannon thought it was bullshit when he turned, walked away, left her at the door. When he collapsed to the ground, of course she felt guilty.

It was Shannon who knelt over him and called 911, screaming about cardiac arrest and asking herself why the hell she’d never learned CPR. She pulled on some clothes and went along to the emergency room. “They wouldn’t admit him, I figured because he doesn’t have insurance.” The real nurse told her R.C. was just drunk, she should take him home and let him sleep it off. “But even if he was drunk, people can go into a coma. He could die.” Shannon tucked him into her own bed and sat up beside him all night, watching and listening to his every breath.

R.C. opened his eyes once, complaining of headache. She gave him an aspirin. She missed an audition, sitting beside him until he woke again late in the afternoon. He didn’t remember a thing. According to Shannon, after she explained, he took her hand. “He says I saved his life and no one ever in all his years ever did for him as much as I did.” When he complained again of headache, she offered the aspirin. “He freaked out and started yelling at me that he was allergic. So I told him I already gave him one. He says, ‘I just thanked you for saving me when you could have fucking killed me!’

“God,” says Shannon. “It was just guilt upon guilt upon guilt.”

A couple of weeks later, after they both moved into the house in Van Nuys, he came out of the bathroom one night with a pill in his hand, looking for bottled water.

“Wait!” Shannon tried to stop him. “What’s that?”

“An aspirin.”

“Don’t!”

“What are you talking about?” he said, and swallowed it.

“Yeah, he’s a pathological liar,” said Elisabeth, with a shrug. “It’s like he can’t help it.”

“It’s called confabulation,” said Cody. “You have blackouts. You have no idea what happened. You fill in the blanks and make it up. It’s what we drunks do.”

So there’s a word for what I imagined.

Elisabeth sighed. “It’s like he’s doomed to inspiration.”

* * *

She visits him in jail, too.

“What do you talk about?”

“I tell him I love him.”

“Does he say he loves you?”

She answers, without hesitation, “He’s under a lot of stress.”

The most conventional lie of all, and he can’t say it.

* * *

Rosa has her own idea about R.C.

“We were leafletting at Boeing. Or maybe it was Seal Beach? Vander … vander … Vanderberg.” Her eyes dart. “They came and beat us. They beat him over and over. His head. They beat him over the head.” Rosa and her alternate reality. Why on earth did I ask her? “I brought him home. You know he can’t take care of himself.”

* * *

“He told me he had a degree in psychology,” said Marisa. “He said he was here to take a job in advertising. After years of running rats through mazes, he said he knew what made people tick.”

If people are equivalent to rats and if you can flatten out and stereotype the rats, I think. But I don’t object out loud. The larger question is why R.C. would tell lies when he was bound to be found out. It’s not like they wouldn’t notice soon enough he had no job. It’s not like Marisa and Shannon weren’t going to compare notes.

“All impulse,” said Elizabeth. “He doesn’t even realize when he’s lying.”

“Premeditation,” said Marisa. “He figures the probabilities. It’s statistical.”

“And whose dissertation,” asked Cody, “would be done if she could get the statistical chapter right?”

“The point is, does he get what he wants often enough? In spite of.”

“I pitied him,” said Shannon. “Then it became contempt. He must have sensed it.” And when she fell apart—which she did—the sexual frustration was mixed with self-loathing, that she could be in thrall to someone she’d come to despise. “What kind of person lets herself fall that low?” she said. “I deserved what I got.”

* * *

When I visit R.C., he’s sometimes angry, mostly baffled. He, with his highly developed sense of honor which assures he’s always ready to take offense.

What would it feel like to feel no guilt, no shame?

“Sociopath,” says Rudy.

No wonder R.C. feels cheated: Sociopaths in this society usually do well.

He lies about everything.

I always told the truth—the factual truth—but never how I felt about the facts.

I’m trying to understand what I’m trying to say.

I’m trying to say what I’m trying to understand.

I’m trying to understand what I feel.

I feel okay, but coping is not as admirable as it might seem.

* * *

“I’m okay now,” says Shannon. “Really. I’m really okay.”

* * *

Elisabeth met him when her father took her to dinner at Mon Cher Alphonse. He thought it was great that a rundown town like Elmira had a fine French restaurant. All these people fleeing New York City moving into the gingerbread Victorians on the Near West Side. Most transplants don’t take. Mon Cher Alphonse closed in less than a year.

The place stayed open long enough for R.C. to pass Elisabeth a note while her father had his head down signing the check.

“You don’t want to know what it said,” she says.

The night before R.C. left Elmira, the week before the restaurant closed its door for good, the waitstaff threw him a party. When Elisabeth showed up, he was back in the kitchen, pressed up against Wendy.

“It’s how he is,” Elisabeth says.

(On the phone, Wendy said, “He wanted to spend the night with me, but Elisabeth was driving him to the airport in the morning so he couldn’t.”)

“Why do you even care about him?” asked Marisa. “Your letters would come with lipstick kisses on the envelope.”

“Don’t,” said Shannon.

“He’d mutter about the rich bitch and throw them out unread,” said Marisa.

“So how come he was going to send for me once he got settled?”

“Or so he said.”

“He phoned me at least once a day to say how much he missed me.”

Elisabeth cried.

Marisa tugged her braid. “I’m sorry,” she said. (Later she told me what she’s really sorry about is sleeping with him, guilty that she hurt Shannon.) “It’s a hard truth but I think you should know.”

“It’s not that,” Elisabeth said, “It’s just that I feel so sorry for him.”

* * *

“Everyone benefited,” Elisabeth said. “That’s what he always said. I was lucky my parents couldn’t stand him. If it hadn’t been for R.C., I would’ve been caught up in the whole family thing, all the time. I would’ve been trapped.”

The stories we tell ourselves.

“You were telling us about the party,” Shannon said.

“The chef baked him a special cake. Hazelnut cream. He spat out the first mouthful. Said he was allergic to nuts. Of course he wasn’t. Everyone felt terrible,” she said.

* * *

I don’t feel bad about Rosa. Rudy and I were there but it was the niece who told him he could stay. All Rosa lost was a few hundred dollars and she doesn’t even know it.

Early in her life, Rosa rejected Jesus in favor of Marx, and even Stalin, but in ‘68, when she opened the Centro Aztlán, La Virgen de Guadalupe presided—to reassure parents that their children would not be corrupted, and anyway, Rosa still revered Guadalupe as a symbol of her identity, her race. Rudy and I have contributed to her youth center for years and met her once or twice at fundraisers. Then just this April, we were on the hunt one afternoon for the best handmade tortillas we could find. A strange day. We had to detour around where a Hazmat team was cleaning up a spill of what turned out to be Alfredo sauce. We pulled into the lot at a strip mall when we saw the words hechas a mano and the Guadalupe mural on the wall. There we spotted Rosa, older, hair undone, running her hand over the image.

I went to her. “I’m sure you don’t remember me.” If I’d had any idea, those are not the words I would have chosen.

Rosa stroked the Virgin. “She looks familiar. Do you know her?”

“Rosa,” I said. “Can we drive you home?”

She told me she lived in Las Vegas. It was Rudy who had the idea to ask for her phone. He called the number on speed dial: “Niece.”

The niece, Vanessa, gave us Rosa’s address—in Van Nuys, not Las Vegas. “California pulled her drivers license. She thinks Nevada will give it back to her.” She met us at the house. “She lives in her own reality. And every time I get her a home health aide, she fires her.”

We never did get our tortillas. When R.C., duffel bag on his shoulder, came storming out of the house next door, Rosa noticed him first. “Look! Look!” she whispered. “Wow!” Then “Hello!”

He walked up the path, shaking himself like a wet dog. “They’re filming porn in there. I won’t put up with that crap.”

Mijo,” said Rosa though as far as we know, Rosa never had children. “Come.”

Vanessa asked for ID. They talked a while. Rosa did need someone. Inside, the place wasn’t as bad as it seemed at first: what looked like piles of cockroach body parts turned out to be the hulls Rosa spat out while snacking on popcorn. The house didn’t need much help, but she did.

Rosa showed R.C. to his room.

* * *

The only pornographic sight next door to Rosa had been R.C. walking around the house naked.

“The show-off!” said Cody.

He climbed into Shannon’s bed but wouldn’t make love. She paid the rent. R.C. said, “I can’t be bought” (which is what he said to Elisabeth’s dad before he took the $10,000 check).

The money he arrived with didn’t last. He asked to borrow bus fare to go on job interviews, but he spent it on Variety, People, and Us. (“Maybe he’s the normal one,” said Elisabeth.) He turned the pages so quickly, Shannon thought he was speedreading. Then she realized he just looked at the photos. Barely literate, she thought. How on earth did he get through community college?

“Professors took an interest in me.”

Female professors, no doubt. She’d assumed he’d had affairs with them but more likely he just turned them on with the promise. He wasn’t bought as long as he refused to deliver whatever it was he was being paid for.

As far as Shannon was concerned, the relationship should have been safe. She’d been in love before, she said. She’d been hurt. An arrangement was better. R.C. had free rent, steady sex. He was welcome to take advantage of her, she thought, since self-interest would keep him from hurting her.

“There’s the flaw in your logic,” said Marisa. “He’s poor, right? Look how they vote. Self-interest?”

* * *

Why was it in his interest to stay in touch with Rudy and me? One night after he’d moved in with Rosa, he invited us to dinner. On our way over, my cell phone rang. “Could you pick up some parmesan.” He called again asking for bread. We already had the wine. Rudy and I exchanged glances, but said nothing.

At the house, the parmesan went into the refrigerator. He shelved the wine and bread. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t understand. While Rudy kept Rosa occupied, I joined R.C. in the kitchen as he sautéed a pan of liver and onions. (Even Rudy couldn’t eat it.)

I felt uneasy enough to lift the lid of the cookie jar where Vanessa had left $300 for emergencies. The jar was empty.

“I had an emergency,” R.C. said. I stared at him. He stared back. He said, “You have beautiful breasts.”

* * *

Which still doesn’t explain why I can’t let it go.

Shannon only thinks she has.

* * *

“Yeah, okay, I’m fucked up,” Shannon said to Cody: “Doesn’t that count as stupid?”

“No. You’re still in control. You’re not fragile. Men like damaged women.”

“I’m as damaged and broken as anyone.”

“The point isn’t to be fragile. It’s to look fragile.”

I think Shannon does look fragile, like one of those tremulous victims you just want to slap.

“Look, I knew it wouldn’t last,” she said. She would’ve dumped him sooner or later. “But not yet!” Back at Oakwood, the sex was great—the passion, the urgency, but after a while you start to want some tenderness. R.C. wasn’t capable of that. “At least not with me,” she said, looking from Marisa to Elisabeth.

Marisa looked away. Elisabeth laughed. “Tenderness? No.”

* * *

Rudy is capable of tenderness. But he has limits. I just don’t know what they are. My husband left his country behind and never looked back. He cut all ties. That means he tolerates up to a point, but once the line is crossed, there’s no turning back.

What is it that cannot, must not, be forgiven?

I’m sure something I do or don’t do has to be too little or too much.

“Just tell me,” I ask him. “Tell me.”

* * *

“What do you want from me?” Shannon asked R.C. “What am I doing? Or not doing?” What made him want her, and then not?

After the first time they had sex, he said he’d get her onto the Fox lot. “He offered to show me Marilyn Monroe’s dressing room.” She knew it was bullshit, such a parody of L.A. bullshit she assumed he was joking. (“Though how did he know it was in Building 86?” Anyone who reads fan magazines and crap like People … )

“He just wanted to do something nice for you,” said Elisabeth. “And because he couldn’t, he made it up.”

When he asked for a ride to LAX to search for the luggage containing the only copy of the rough cut of his film, Shannon believed him.

The film was called French Service. It was a romantic comedy he’d written and directed and charged to five different credit cards. It starred, he said, Dewi DeLanda.

The airline denied knowledge of any missing luggage. R.C. didn’t have a claim check. (“Of course not! They made me gate check it!”) He was devastated more than angry. How would he break the news to Dewi? “We watched her on TV together,” said Shannon.

How would he ever pay off the debt? The luggage, the film, were lost for good.

“How could you check something so valuable?” she wanted to know. “Why wasn’t it in your carry-on?”

He looked so hapless. It’s just the way men are, she thought, especially men as good looking as this one. They’re used to everything going their way. They can’t imagine anything can go wrong.

He took her hand. He ran his thumb over her knuckles. They stayed in bed for the next couple of days till the space opened up and Shannon moved into the house in Van Nuys. R.C. phoned her. Next thing she knew, she was inviting him to move in.

When Shannon finally asked him to get out of her bed and sleep on the couch (where Elisabeth still smells his scent in the cushions), “He’s like all surprised. Like, Why? He looked at me like I’d betrayed him.”

“I’m the one who got him to move out,” said Cody. “I come in one night and he sits up and lets the sheet fall off his shoulder.”

“Great shoulders,” said Elisabeth.

“’Can I ask you something?’ he says. ‘When you go to an audition, don’t you feel like a piece of meat?’ I thought, that’s it, he’s got to go.”

“But I’m the one who told him,” said Shannon. “He packed and stormed out. But first he looked at me and said, ‘I thought you were my friend.’”

* * *

What Shannon really feels guilty about is that she’s the one who told R.C. about an interview in which Dewi DeLanda said she liked to shop at Diesel Books. The clerk there remembers a lot of people started coming in after the interview but R.C., he said, went further than most, coming in repeatedly, asking about Dewi, saying they had worked together. R.C. is also remembered at Frida’s Tacos and Reddi Chick where he’d order food and sit for hours in the courtyard, watching, waiting.

“Dewi was uneasy about it,” according to the bookstore clerk, “because she said she’d never heard of this guy or his film. She was a beautiful person, friendly, down-to-earth. I hope he gets the lethal injection.”

* * *

I don’t know what the words mean anymore: guilty, not guilty. If I could be like R.C., words would be music, sound waves, whatever sounds right at the time. (Sometimes it’s just stupidity like the time the court stenographer rendered Amended Complaint as A man dead complaint.) I think I know what injustice is but I no longer know what people mean by justice.

I want things black and white and clear as much as the next person.

* * *

But what you say ain’t what you get.

* * *

“I love him,” says Elisabeth. “That gives me clarity.”

* * *

PERSONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS

In evaluating the total life circumstances of this defendant, we can say he’s like a rat in a maze who’s learned the fastest route to the reward.

“He’s not a metaphor,” said Rudy. “He’s a killer.”

Accuracy before truth: “Like a rat,” I said, “is a simile.”

* * *

In a city where Dewi DeLanda (as I’ve heard from Shannon) performed for free at several small black-box theatres, her work onstage is never mentioned in the nonstop TV coverage of her death.

In a city where the ideal is to be perfectly odorless, R.C., who may or may not have killed her, used a balsam gel to spike up his short black hair. He showered with Irish Spring, leaving him so scented you could tell with your back turned or eyes closed when he entered the room. Shannon is embarrassed to admit (though obviously can’t hide it) that she now uses the soap he left behind. “I don’t want him back, but I still like to smell him on my skin.”

Ironic. His model of reality doesn’t pass the smell test.

Three earrings—one diamond stud and two small rings—in his right ear. “Right side, ‘cause I’m straight.” Maybe in Elmira. In L.A., is there any significance these days to which ear you pierce? Contact lenses. “I have to,” he told Shannon, as though he had a particular disorder of the eye. But, “my eyebrows don’t line up. When I wear glasses, whatever I do they look crooked.” He arrived with several thousand dollars and three tuxedos. “Ready for the red carpet,” he said. In Elmira, he owned one tux, needed for his job.

Elisabeth’s father offered him the money to go away. “You do realize the relationship is unsuitable.”

R.C. didn’t get angry. Arrogant, maybe. He said, This is the U.S.A. in the 21st century, not some English novel.” So he did learn something in school.

“You are a waiter,” said the man.

“French service,” R.C. said, with pride. Before leaving, he bought two more tuxedos and got a tattoo on his right bicep. Not what you’d expect: a little girl holding a flower.

We grow up with those songs: The man who can’t offer riches gives his heart.

“The night he cooked dinner … ” Shannon rolls her eyes.

“The night I was making pasta,” says Marisa, “he comes into the kitchen and covers the pot with the lid. I removed it. He looks at me in disbelief and says, ‘Are you the one who’s lived in Rome?’ Not exactly a lie. He didn’t exactly say he’d lived in Rome. He certainly implied it.”

Tonight it’s Cody who’s making the pasta. “Are you staying for dinner?” he says. It isn’t an invitation. I want to say I’m harmless, but I just hover, waiting to hear more.

“He was always talking about his French restaurant,” says Shannon. “Then he cooked dinner for me one night. Liver and onions.”

“Sweetbreads,” says Elisabeth. “Les rognons.”

“No. Liver and onions. I mean he was really trying. I felt bad I just couldn’t eat it.

* * *

“Mostly,” Shannon said, “I was careful not to humiliate him.”

“R.C.?” said Elisabeth. “He’s been humiliated all his life.”

* * *

To mitigate a sentence. To mitigate what amounts to nothing more or less than retribution. Revenge.

* * *

“You don’t believe in change,” I say to Rudy. “I can’t accept that.” My husband has no faith in governments or in people. And what have I managed to change? Nothing.

He tells me a good relationship is when you live with someone whose imperfections don’t bother you too much.

But I don’t want to be accepted. I want to be better.

“I chose the imperfections I’m willing to live with.”

“Then you should have married someone like Elisabeth.”

“Who?”

I’ve forgotten he doesn’t know. Lately I find myself in places and situations and with people I don’t tell him about. Not that I think I’ve done wrong. “Neither one of you really gives a damn.”

And it doesn’t even bother him that I said that, or that I’ve done things lately that could have turned out badly, acting on impulse. It all seemed to make sense, like the child who held her clothes against the electric heater until the flames burned down the house from which her sister failed to escape.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says and maybe means it. A lot of words are just words. A lot of promises are broken. Not everyone feels the same way about being lied to.

He says, “I love you, Cati.” I don’t even know what that means when the woman he says he loves is someone I don’t care for.

“Something would have to bother you. Something would be too much.” But how do you put into words something you haven’t felt yet? “Just tell me.”

All he says in return is Cati, my name.

* * *

“You don’t tell us anything about you,” says Shannon.

Elisabeth says, “You’re like the person who stays sober when everyone else is wasted.”

“Designated driver,” I offer. I want to assure them I’m harmless.

“No. The bitch who watches and judges and silently laughs.”

“Cody doesn’t drink,” I say.

“But he’s got a problem. What’s yours?”

* * *

Sometimes I think it’s not guilt but lack of faith in the solidity of things.

* * *

THE TIME-LINE
Evening of Sunday, April 18: Felice confronts Shannon who confronts R.C.

Early morning hours of Monday, April 19: Shannon attempts suicide.

Tuesday, April 20: Murder of Dewi DeLanda. Marisa confronts R.C.?

Wednesday, April 21: Or Marisa confronts R.C. now? Why would she wait a day?

* * *

I was unable to track down “Felice,” but here’s Shannon, transcribed from tape:

This woman comes to the door. She asks my name and I tell her. She says, “Good, now we can get a restraining order against you.” She says I’ve been stalking R.C. I tell her the relationship is over and if she wants him, she’s welcome to him. She says, “Relationship? He doesn’t even know your name.”

I tell her we lived together for weeks.

“In your fantasy,” she says. She tells me he’s afraid of me. Me? I saved his life. I show her photos on my cell phone.

“PhotoShop,” she says. “Are you taking your meds?”

I push past her. She’s grabbing at me screaming Restraining Order and R.C. comes into the entryway. He acts like he doesn’t even know me. Then he gets all kind and concerned. He puts his arms around me. “Do something for me,” he says. I thought I’d already done plenty. “Get help,” he says. “I don’t know who you are or what your mental health history is, but you need help.”

“Do you see the kind of person he is?” I say to Felice. “We were living together. Some nights he didn’t bother to come home. I knew he was fucking around. I had to fight with him to get him to use a condom. I hope you do. You don’t know where he’s been.”

I say to her, “The one time he tried to do something nice, he took money from my purse and went out to buy food to cook me dinner. You know what he made? Liver and onions. Would you eat liver and onions?”

* * *

No. That, at least, I’m sure of.

* * *

It’s a lie that no one got hurt.

Shannon stumbled back across the yard and driveway, back into the house. Sometime around the midnight hour, she stumbled into the bathroom just to look at her own face, and what she saw was two shellshocked eyes surrounded by blur. Being lied to, being lied to again and again is a form of torture. It tears the fabric until the world spins away from you, leaves you in empty space. The night flying past. The room tiltwise, the room dropping. Shannon was plunging, flying apart at the seams. She didn’t hate him as much as she hated the desire she still felt for his body. Her palms against the mirror to steady herself, all she saw was him, R.C. standing right there, the only time she ever saw him think. He touched the soul patch beneath his lip, covering it with his hand, shave it or no? Then, her tears falling and to her horror those tears were as much about his pain as about her own.

I think she just needed to fix reality in place, to make the shifting stop.

She reached for the razor.

“I’m okay now,” she says.

That night, Marisa found her.

* * *

I used to tell my story over and over again—the fire I started, my sister’s death—till through the words, the repetition of fact, I became not me, but a bloodless representation of my life.

“I know you didn’t do it,” I say to R.C. “Please just tell me you feel bad about something.”

“Bullshit!” He vibrates with self-righteous anger. I watch him walk away, a body of such husky grace and power, and I think of Shannon, of her disappointment, her shame and anger when he left her at the door only to collapse minutes later on the pavement. This time, he doesn’t fall.

* * *

It’s no lie that I do visit Rosa though she doesn’t recognize me. So what? I just start talking. “Rosa, if a person has maybe once done something that can never be made right … If it happened suddenly, inadvertently, but the result is just the same as if she did it on purpose … Once a person knows she’s capable, we’re all capable, of so much damage, what happens to such a person’s footing?” I think the world isn’t solid then, when you can’t know what your words or acts will do. And I think Rosa isn’t listening. “It’s too random,” I say. “If we hadn’t seen you and driven you home and just at that moment, R.C. was coming out the door …”

“Ryan!” she cries. “Ryan! Ryan!” Milagros brings her the rag doll. She clutches it. She rocks and whispers. As long as she’s holding the doll to her heart, Rosa is serene.

So is Marisa, her conscience untroubled. “I went next door to have it out with him. He says, ‘What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at yoga?’ My yoga class was Wednesday night, so I said to him, no, today’s Tuesday. He said, ‘What do you mean? Today’s Wednesday.’”

“That’s what he does,” says Elisabeth.

“So how can you be sure?” I say. “It could have been Tuesday.”

“Wednesday,” says Marisa. “Just like I told the police. I wasn’t with him when Dewi was killed. I’m absolutely sure it was Wednesday.”

The astrologer doesn’t remember him which I don’t believe—how many consultations does he do in jail with high-profile defendants?—but he allows as how Mercury may have been in retrograde.

The psychic won’t repeat what she told him. Client confidentiality. “But do you want me to contact Dewi?” No! She held my wrist and both of us could feel my blood pulsing. “You want answers you’re not going to find.” Then she said, “Think of the maze as essential to amazement.” She held out her palm for the fee.

* * *

We pay for this: The perilous consolation of words.

Diane Lefer’s most recent novel, The Fiery Alphabet, set in 18th-century Italy, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire, was published in September. Sixteen years ago, she was hired to write mitigation reports but the job evaporated before it began. She has, however, facilitated writing workshops for incarcerated youth and for men on parole. Her books include California Transit, which received the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal. www.dianelefer.weebly.com

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