Saturday, May 9, 2009

Five Dollars and Twenty Four Cents

I am the only person I know who regularly gets money in the mail and hates it. The envelope gives it away. If it was post-marked Publisher’s Clearing House and was the size of an ice cream truck I might feel differently but the letter today is from the State Department of Corrections, Offender Obligation Unit. I don’t want to open it. The girl who takes karate lessons and punches until her knuckles bleed wants to just rip it into a thousand tiny pieces and throw them into the spring wind to catch in somebody’s lawn and eventually be made into a nest. But the practical part of me needs to know. I tell myself that I need to open it because there may be important information in there like when his parole is up and if he’ll get his name off the sex offender registry and if he’s moved to my state or reoffended or… What I really want to know is how much I’m worth.

Today I’m worth five dollars and twenty-four cents.

Back when the verdict was rendered and the plea was bargained and the sentence was imposed, nothing was said to me of money. That came later when my victim’s advocate asked me for my receipts. “Receipts for what?” I asked. The State had paid for my plane ticket to testify and I’d stayed with my brother and his wife. I hadn’t even incurred any food costs as I was too white-knuckled black-curtained panicked to eat. “Oh, he is going to pay you some money dear,” she answered cheerfully. “Certainly you have expenses he has caused.” Can you put a price on mental anguish?

He offered to pay me, once.

“You’re making too big a deal out of this,” he said gruffly, returning to his plate stacked with cheesecake and pie that he had pilfered from my roommate’s wedding buffet. I was a bridesmaid. He was not invited. My roommate hated him. Which was probably why he had made an effort to show up. He probably wouldn’t have come if I had asked him to.

“What you did last night,” I stammered. “It was…” I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t even have the words to talk about it then. Later I would call it the worst night of my life. That day - the Day After - I rubbed my fresh bruises that would not be entirely hid, even under all the makeup I’d caked on them and finished, “It wasn’t right.”

He shrugged. “It’s not what you think it was.”

“What was it?” I pleaded, honestly wanting him to answer the question for me. How could I not know what had happened to me? Tell me.

“It was nothing. Just a mistake we made.”

I knew enough to know that was not the right answer. The only mistake I had made was falling asleep. My mind latched on to the only tangible piece of evidence I had. “You ripped my bra!” It sounded so silly and dramatic when I said it aloud like that and yet it was the one thing I kept coming back to. It hadn’t felt violent when it was happening and yet he’d literally torn my clothes off me as I cried and screamed. Hours later as I sat on my floor numb and shaking, I kept twisting that bra over and over again in my hands and staring at the damage. It was one of those white utilitarian numbers that girls wear when they do not mean for their undergarments to be seen. And yet the thick straps were stretched and torn until both were broken completely apart.

Anyone who has ever worn a bra will know that this is quite the feat. The hooks may break, the underwire may pop out an embarrassing moments, sometimes even the thin spaghetti-type straps will snap at the point they are sown in. But this? This was something else. Some of my other clothing was damaged too but it was the bra that bothered me most. Particularly since it was the only white bra I owned and I needed it to wear under my cream bridesmaid’s dress the next day. Another bridesmaid had helped me pin it together in the bathroom of the reception hall. It took 6 safety pins to make it wearable. And they were digging into my skin as we spoke. Later I would put that bra, replete with safety pins, in my box - the box of evidence I hid in case he ever made good on his promise to kill me.

“Oh, I’ll buy you a new one,” he laughed. “How much do you need?”

“I don’t want any money from you.” That’s what I told him that day and that is exactly what I told the court representative after his sentencing for my assault and the later, more horrific sexual assaults of two other girls.

“I’m sorry honey but the judge ordered him to pay reparations. It’s part of his sentence.” She mistook my silence for something else and continued, “Don’t worry, he won’t be mailing it to you directly. They’ll just garnish it from his wages and the Department of Corrections will send it to you.”

“I don’t want his money,” I repeated flatly.

“Surely you have therapy bills,” she said kindly but with an edge. I was taking up too much of her time with my obstinancy.

I gritted my teeth. She knew I did. She had actually arranged for me to see a therapist. And I’d saved all the receipts like she told me to. But I refused to give them up. There are a lot of reasons I didn’t want him to pay for my therapy. First, I didn’t want to think of my therapist as being on his payroll. Second, the payments - even in their sterility - still tied me to him. Every time he saw how much his check was garnished would he think of me? Think to himself, “Heh, big therapy month for Charlotte. Glad to know I’m still giving her nightmares!”? No thank you.

Despite my protestations, the checks began to arrive as the dictates of justice will not be thwarted - not for offenders and apparently not for their victims either. The universe demands proper pentinence from me for my stupidity on the night in question. The letters became my own personal government-sealed hell. PTSD on ecru stationery. Part of their torture is their randomness. Of course I got nothing while he was in prison. The way I knew he was back on the outside was the arrival of the first check, surprising me on a bright sunny day like a punch to the stomach. For several months I got large-ish checks that left me feeling like an underpaid prostitute and then I got nothing for months. Sometimes the checks were big but more often they are small - but always they are random.

The other problem is their starkness. Take this most recent check for instance. $5.24 arrived after more than a year of nothing. A year of forgetting to be nervous when I checked my mailbox. A year of not hiding ecru envelopes and wadded security-coded papers only to accidentally stumble upon them months later. A year of peace. I started to wonder. Had he been out of work this whole time? Did that mean he had gone back to prison? What if he had done it again but nobody told me? Perhaps he’d finally gone crazy. Maybe this my cut of his gambling winnings. Maybe he was homeless, living out of his car again. Was I taking $5.24 out of a beggar’s cup? And why was the amount so small? Was he working as a fruit picker? Was he unable to get a decent job because of his felony record? Were his problems, after all, my fault - just like he’d always claimed?

I never cash the checks. It’s not that I don’t intend to - as my sister pointed out I could just donate the money to a women’s charity - it’s that I just can’t stand to deal with them. To deal with him. I don’t want to sign my name to the back of a piece of paper that has his name on the front. No matter what he said that night, what happened does not bind us together forever.

The supreme irony of all of this is that of the three victims who testified against him, I am the only one who explicity refused money from him. And to this day I am the only one to have ever received the checks. He couldn’t resist getting in one more blow.