complicity

Complicity

by Reyna Marder Gentin

complicity
May, 2015

There was always a moment, right before she entered the clinic, that Hannah had an almost unbearable urge to turn and run. It was some combination of revulsion for the neediness of the women and dread of taking responsibility for their welfare that nearly propelled her in the opposite direction each day. It wasn’t rational.
Hannah was relieved when she saw that all the chairs in the waiting room were empty. There were Monday mornings when there were three or four women waiting to file for restraining orders after a violent weekend at home. For the next hour, she lay low. When she got up to use the restroom located down the long hallway, she passed through the waiting room, expecting it to be empty as before.
The woman was sitting in the corner, so still, that Hannah almost didn’t see her. Her head was resting against the wall, her bronze curls stark against the white paint, her skin so pale that she almost blended in. Her eyes closed, she might have been meditating. Hannah’s initial reaction was to retreat into her office and let the young woman rest. Perhaps she was an apparition, and would not be there when Hannah next checked. But they were often pressed for time; if Hannah needed to file a petition with the court on behalf of this woman, she should get started with the interview. She cleared her throat.
The woman opened her eyes slowly, an effort, revealing a translucent blue rimmed in red. After she registered Hannah, she immediately lowered her eyes to the floor. She looked fragile, and Hannah wondered why she was there without a friend or relative for support.
“Can I help you, Miss?” Hannah ventured, taking a very small step toward her. She felt the same sensation she had when she saw a deer near the pond in the early morning; if she approached slowly, she might get a closer look – too abrupt a movement, and the deer disappeared into the fog. The woman was dressed neatly in jeans, a sweater, and boots – appropriate for the weather, but something was off. The clothes looked slept in, or slightly unclean. When she didn’t answer, Hannah continued, “I’m Hannah Robbins. I’m one of the attorneys here. Would you like to come in and speak with me for a few minutes?” The woman followed her out of the waiting room and into her office.
“What brings you here today?” Hannah asked when the woman was seated. The woman exuded a melancholy that was palpable. Many of the women who came to the clinic were tense, anxious, angry. Certainly there were some who were also very sad – upset that their relationships had hit rock bottom. But this was different.
“Why don’t we start with the intake form. What’s your name?” She held her breath, wondering whether the woman would answer or not. When she spoke, it was almost inaudible.
“Katheryn. Most everyone calls me Kat.”
“Kat, what’s your last name?” She looked up, as though she hadn’t contemplated that anyone would need to know her identity.
“Fortunato,” she said. Lucky, Hannah thought. I hope so.
“And what’s your address, Kat?”
“32 Brook Street, in Country Gables,” she said. Hannah forced her face into a mask so as not to betray that this sad young woman lived just around the corner from her. In the three years she had worked in the clinic, Hannah had never had such a close encounter. “Okay,” Hannah said. “And what is the name of the abuser?”
Kat flinched, the word a verbal slap in the face.
“Who is hurting you, Kat? Your husband? Your boyfriend? I can’t help you unless you tell me his name.” Hannah added, “or her name?”
The suggestion of a same-sex relationship roused Kat out of her trance. “My boyfriend. Joe. Joe Petracelli.” Immediately, the look of fear and sadness washed over her delicate features again.
“Do you live with Joe, Kat?” Hannah figured she’d start slow.
“No. I live with my grandparents. I’ve been living with them for six months. My parents couldn’t deal with me. Nobody knows about Joe,” Kat said evenly, her eyes still cast down at her hands. As she was considering her next question, Hannah suddenly had a mental picture of the two older people in the house caddy corner to the pond on the other side of her street; golden retrievers on the lawn, held back by an invisible fence. She couldn’t be sure of the address, but her gut told her that Kat was a close neighbor.
“Okay, Kat. It’s time for you to tell me what you’re looking for here today. I need to know what Joe is doing that‘s convinced you to come get a restraining order.”
Kat took a deep breath, but the rest of her remained eerily still. The word “catatonic” popped into Hannah’s head. Without any further prompting, Kat started to speak, the monotone almost robotic.
“He calls my cell phone all day long. He emails me. He texts me. He always wants to know where I am, whom I’m with. Sometimes I think he follows me.” The exertion of getting the words out seemed to deplete Kat entirely. She rested her head in her hands, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees.
“Okay. So Joe is stalking you and harassing you.” Hannah was trying to picture the situation, and Kat wasn’t helping much.
“Is Joe an older man, Kat? How old are you, and how old is he?”
“I’m 21,” Kat said. “Joe is 28. He works at the library, shelving books.” There might be a bit of the age dynamic there, or not; his job didn’t scream out forceful and controlling.
“Okay. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. You can answer yes or no, and then we’ll explore the ‘yes’ answers further, okay?” Kat gave an almost imperceptible nod, so Hannah ploughed on.
“Does Joe curse at you or call you bad names?”
“No.”
“Hit you?”
“No.”
“Push you?”
“No.”
“Choke you?”
“No.”
“Threaten you with a gun, or knife, or other weapon?”
“No.” With each question and answer, Kat sunk further into herself.
“Does Joe force himself on you sexually?”
“No.”
“Has he ever physically hurt you in any way?” Hannah hoped her exasperation was not coming through.
“No.”
Hannah got up to stretch her legs. The thought struck Hannah that perhaps Kat was using drugs – Hannah was so personally naïve about substance abuse, that she sometimes missed it altogether in her clients.
Standing too close to her, Hannah asked, “Kat, are you taking drugs?” The question was perhaps too blunt, but it seemed to jar the young woman awake.
“No. I’m taking medication that causes drowsiness,” Kat replied.
Hannah was embarrassed. “I’m sorry, but I had to ask. Kat – let’s get back to the things you told me when you first came in. Joe calls you many times a day, emails you, texts you, maybe follows you.”
Kat nodded, but now she seemed hesitant, looking at the door as though she might bolt.
“When he contacts you, is he threatening?” Hannah said quietly.
“No. He just wants to know where I am, what I’m doing.” Kat replied.
“Kat, is he worried about you? Does he want to know where you are or who you’re with to protect you, or do you feel like he is trying to control you?” She was grasping at straws, but somehow getting closer.
Kat lifted her head and looked Hannah in the eyes for the first time. It was as though she was channeling all her strength to make the connection, to will Hannah to understand.
“Joe loves me. He’s trying to keep me safe,” Kat said.
Hannah didn’t make a practice of discussing the subject of love with her clients. There were men who thought that love meant trapping their wives in the house and cutting off all outside connections, and there were men who thought love meant branding a woman’s skin with cigarette burns so everyone would know to whom she belonged. Love could rarely explain how or why a relationship had faltered. But here she was, trying to fathom what love had to do with Kat and Joe, and why this woman felt she so desperately needed Hannah to understand.
She was jarred out of her own reverie by Kat’s sudden pronouncement, “I cycle.” Hannah pictured bright pink spandex shorts and a hot shot bike – her neighborhood was full of enthusiasts who rode 40, 50, 60 miles on the weekends while she and Josh sat complacently on the porch.
“I get depressed, like now, even worse, and then I get manic,” Kat explained. “It could be months between alternating episodes, or it could be days. I met Joe when I was hospitalized last year. He had a herniated disc and got hooked on prescription painkillers, but he kicked it.” As she spoke about him, she grew calmer.
“So Joe looks out for you?” Hannah felt out of her depth. She had never had a client do quite this level of turnaround.
“Yes.” Kat said.
“And your grandparents, are they okay with Joe?”
“I told you, they don’t know about him. They’d think he’s a crazy person I met in the mental hospital who’s trying to take advantage of me.” She started to cry. It was the first emotion she’d displayed in an hour of sitting in Hannah’s office, and although she didn’t quite get what was going on, Hannah was grateful.
“Kat,” she said, “the things you said about the number of times a day Joe calls you and texts you and emails you – even if he’s worried for your mental and physical wellbeing – if you find it too controlling, you can get an order telling him to stop, and telling him to stay away from you. Do you want to do that? Should I draw up the papers?” Hannah needed to move this to resolution, one way or another.
Kat had stopped crying. She looked totally drained, a wilted flower. “No. I need to go now,” she said, slowly getting to her feet. “My grandparents will be worried about me, and so will Joe.” Hannah felt a rush of confusion come over her; she had failed somehow.
“Joe’s a good man,” Kat said, without a trace of guile, as if to reassure Hannah.
“Okay,” Hannah said. “Here’s the deal. If you ever feel unsafe, you come back. I’ll make up a file with my notes, and that way if I’m not here or busy with someone else when you come in and you meet with a different attorney, you won’t have to start all over again.”
“No!” Kat yelled, despair crossing her face. “Please, just pretend I wasn’t here. I never should’ve come. Joe loves me; he would never hurt me.” Kat paced the width of the small office, wringing her hands.
Hannah was meticulous about documenting everything that went on in the office. The policy was clear: they made a file for every woman who walked in the door. How would she justify erasing Kat’s visit?
“Please, Miss. I’m begging you. I made a mistake.”
Hannah felt a chill of fear on the back of her neck. She couldn’t rip her notes up, so she folded them carefully, and put them in her bag. “It will be our secret,” she said. “Just stay safe.”
She watched as Kat walked slowly toward her, and then she felt herself drawn into an embrace so swift she wasn’t sure, later, that it had happened at all.

July, 2015

“Do you ever sit out here and say to yourself, like, is this all there is?” Mitch leaned back in the rocker with his arms wide open and surveyed the Green, letting his eyes rest on the pond, which was in its full summer slump. Josh figured it had to be a larger question. He wasn’t sure what to say.
It was late afternoon on the Fourth of July, and he and Mitch had been drinking – just beer – but slowly and steadily, for a couple of hours. Josh had hung their American flag out in the morning, and a lot of the neighbors around the pond had done the same. It all looked very wholesome, small town, America.
Hannah had gone to see her parents, and Josh was happy to have Mitch around for company. He liked Mitch, although their friendship wasn’t obvious. Mitch was focused on two things: making money, and working out. He was extremely successful at both. As they sat on the porch, Josh thought he must look like Mitch’s poor, weak, younger cousin, basking in his attention. So Mitch’s almost forlorn question caught him off guard.
“What are you talking about? You’ve got everything. Beautiful wife, fantastic kids, tons of money. What else could you possibly want?”
“Yeah, I know all that. And I am totally grateful, don’t get me wrong – I thank God everyday for my blessings. “ Mitch and Lara were good Catholics, took the kids to church every Sunday, and then had a huge Italian meal around 4:00 p.m. with the grandparents. Josh and Hannah were mostly on their own, and religion wasn’t their thing,
“Just sometimes it all gets so repetitive. And I just can’t believe that this is all I’m supposed to be experiencing – I mean, do I just sit here in the suburbs for the next 40 years and then I die? Should that be my plan?” Mitch said.
Was this about sex? The thought popped into Josh’s mind, unbidden, but with a clarity that overwhelmed him. Mitch and Lara had been married a lot longer than he and Hannah had, but even for them, in those five years, the novelty had somewhat worn off. And Hannah was so tightly wound. It didn’t bother him. He loved her. He just sometimes wished she were able to enjoy herself more, let loose. Was Mitch in the same boat?
As they sat silently rocking in their chairs and nursing their beers, the woman came into view, rounding the corner at the end of the block and walking toward them. She was young, wearing very short denim cut-offs, a scooped-neck black tank top and red converse hi-tops. Her hair was an extraordinary color, cascading curls. She seemed to be sort of half-walking and half-skipping, as though she couldn’t contain her exuberance on such a beautiful, sunny afternoon.
“Whoa,” he said under his breath. “Who’s she?”
Mitch snorted. “Pretty hot, right?” he said, looking the woman up and down.
“I guess,” Josh said.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t fucking notice.” Mitch said. “Has Hannah got you that well trained, or is she so good you can’t even see what’s right before your eyes?” Mitch seemed genuinely perturbed that Josh might have been so thoroughly emasculated by his wife that he wasn’t able to appreciate unadulterated sexiness when it walked in front of him. Mitch and Hannah had never gotten along. He thought she was prissy and arrogant; she thought he was a crude Neanderthal. They both were at least partially correct.
“Actually, what I noticed most was that she seemed to be talking to herself. What’s her deal?” Josh watched her approaching.
“She’s fucking crazy. Came to live with the grandparents – nice old people, in that house right over there.” Mitch pointed past the pond to a large split-level set up on a steep hill.
“What do you mean, crazy?”
“I talked to the grandparents once when I was jogging by their house,” he said. Mitch took every opportunity to remind Josh that he was active and Josh was a sloth. “They said she was manic-depressive, or bipolar – whatever the pc term is these days. Sometimes she’s totally morose, and other times, she’s happy as a lark. When she’s really out of control in either direction, they put her in the hospital for a while. The weirdest thing they told me is that in-between, she doesn’t remember anything from when she was crazy.” Mitch clearly found this fascinating. Josh thought it was heartbreaking.
When the woman had gone past and turned right to walk down the next block, Mitch sighed and put down his empty bottle on the small table between them. “I should be going,” he said. “Lara was talking about taking the kids out for pizza tonight at some new deep dish place. What the hell.” He appeared exhausted by the experience of seeing the woman on the street, as though she had drained him of his ability to engage in his ordinary life.
“What’s her name, do you know?” Josh asked. It seemed like it would make things somewhat better for the woman to have the solidity of a name, and not just be the beautiful crazy red haired girl.
Mitch studied Josh for a moment, as though debating whether to share this last fact with him. “Katheryn,” he finally said. “They call her Kat.” With that, he stepped off the porch and walked down the block toward his house.
Josh hated to drink alone, but he found that if he sat on the porch with a cold brew, usually someone joined him before long. When he returned from the kitchen with a Dos Equis in hand, he almost didn’t see her, tucked into the porch swing on the side furthest from the front door. It was her humming that caught his attention, sweet and throaty, like it was coming from somewhere very deep down in her.
“What have we here?” Josh said, attempting a casual greeting, but aware that he might frighten her. At first she didn’t answer – he wondered if she saw him or heard him, or was in some other place in her head altogether. “My name is Josh,” he said, quietly. “I understand your name is Katheryn.”
Kat laughed, a piercing, high-pitched laugh that startled him. “You think your name is Josh,” she said. “But I give the names. I give the names to everyone and everything – the people, and the animals, and the trees,” she said. Her words were pressured, and she sounded slightly short of breath. “Your name isn’t Josh. Your name is Carlos. And my name isn’t Katheryn. My name is Francesca, and I create everything.”
Josh sat very still, wondering if someone this ill was capable of violence. But she looked absolutely angelic, or more accurately, like an angel you might find at a playboy shoot.
“Kat, I’m going to go inside now and get you a coke, okay? It’s very warm out here,” he said. Josh went into the house, leaving Kat on the porch singing quietly to herself. In the kitchen, he took the soda out of the fridge and had just taken a glass from the cabinet above the sink when he felt her in the room. In a second, she had pressed her whole body up against his back, her chin between his shoulder blades, and wrapped her arms around his waist. He dropped the glass and it shattered in the stainless steel sink, the shards neatly contained in the basin but his every nerve on edge.
Josh turned slowly around and placed his hands on Kat’s shoulders, pushing her gently away from him. Her skin was hot, and her eyes were glassy. Before he had time to think, she ran her finger slowly down his chest from his sternum to the button of his jeans.
“Katheryn,” he said, his voice hoarse, “this is not a good idea.”
She laughed again, but this time it sounded musical and light-hearted, and Josh lost himself in it. “Actually,” she said, sounding almost rational, “this is the best idea. This is the only idea.”
Afterwards, he led her out of the kitchen through the back door, onto the deck and out the back steps, and watched as she walked, in a meandering way, back to her grandparents’ house.

November, 2015

Hannah had been negative on building the porch because she knew Josh. “Everyone has a story,” he would say, endlessly fascinated by the sheer existence of others. She knew that the porch, for Josh, would be the place he’d draw people in – anyone and everyone, with a drink or a bowl of popcorn, and an open smile. It was part of what Hannah loved about him – he was her polar opposite.
But it was quiet this early Sunday morning, as Hannah sat in her rocking chair, gently pushing herself back and forth with her bare foot and her newly painted toenails on the flagstone floor. The weather had turned cool, and the landscapers couldn’t bag up the leaves as fast as they were falling – cascades of red and yellow and orange drifting like confetti from the tall trees that surrounded the house.
At first, Hannah thought it was just more trash on the surface of the pond in the center of the Green across the street, the usual debris that her neighbor Marci (self-appointed community watchdog, retired with too much time on her hands) was always contacting the city council about. The water was shallow – barely three feet deep at its center, and there was no circulation. Once an object came to rest there — a basketball, a shoe, a tire — it usually decayed there indefinitely. On its best days, the pond was pretty, a pleasing old-fashioned country aesthetic. On its worst, during the hot summer months, it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and an eyesore, stagnant, sour smelling, and suffocated by duckweed.
Leaning forward, Hannah peered intently over her steaming mug of apple tea, trying to force the black, sparkling floating shape to resolve into something recognizable. The Green was still decorated for Halloween, which had come and gone two weeks earlier. Three or four families in the neighborhood were de facto in charge of community get-togethers, which all centered around the Green. At Christmas, there was a tasteful tree, and around Memorial Day, there was a picnic with pony rides, a jumping castle, an egg toss and a tug of war. There was a Halloween party with a costume parade – with the Green decked out in mildly alarming white-sheeted ghosts, fake cobwebs on the low-bushes, paper vampires and bats and witches hanging from the trees.
“Ouch!” she yelped, stepping on fallen acorns as she headed down her driveway and crossed the street, cursing herself for not putting on slippers. She shuffled down the small grassy embankment toward the pond, still carefully holding the mug of tea. At this hour, the street was silent; only Hannah and the squirrels scampered about. She had forgotten her glasses, and everything looked somewhat hazy as she parted the weeds at the side of the pond and stared at the black thing. She could now tell that it was a sequined material, and it was larger than she had thought. Hannah turned her head from side to side, until the shape of a dress, if a rather skimpy one, coalesced. The fabric was floating close to the edge of the pond, and the water below it looked no more than a foot or two deep.

When the screaming subsided, Hannah would remember that she had caught glimpses of a finger, a knee cap, an ankle, the curve of a breast – all glimmering in the rays of the sun as they hit the surface of the water, spotlighting a body part and then fading back to black. Her terror had brought Josh tearing from the house, his college track star days serving him well as he raced to Hannah. When he reached her, she pointed wordlessly.
Josh and Mitch pulled the body from the pond. They laid her out on the grass and Mitch felt for a pulse, then shook his head. Her bronze colored curls spread out behind her head, and she was terribly pale. The black sparkling dress was low cut and fashionably short, as though she’d been planning to go clubbing on Friday night in the city – it was hard to imagine a destination in their sleepy town that could merit such an outfit. Her make-up was smeared, and there was a small gash on her head.
When she looked away from the body, Hannah saw Josh at the side of the pond, rocking back and forth on his knees, sobbing. She had the urge to do the same, but she found herself overcome by a feeling of lethargy so intense that she could barely stand. How would they go on living here now?
By the time the police, ambulances, and fire trucks arrived, it felt like the whole neighborhood was standing on the Green, trying to catch a glimpse of the young woman they had seen, intermittently over the past eight months, walking their streets, sometimes fine, and alternately desperately sad or euphoric. Someone had gently placed a child’s bed sheet, patterned with trains and cars and trucks in primary colors, over the body, but she hadn’t been moved from the spot where Josh and Mitch had put her. There had been no CPR or life-saving efforts – she was waterlogged and silent, indisputably dead for some as yet undetermined amount of time. The blood from the small gash on her head was dry. There had been nothing the paramedics could do.
The only ones missing from the crowd that had gathered were Kat’s grandparents, who were hard of hearing and perhaps weren’t awakened by the hullabaloo right outside their door. After speaking with Josh and Mitch – Hannah wondered how Josh knew the girl’s name, but didn’t reveal that, of course, she did as well – the officers crossed slowly to the house on the hill and rang the door bell. After several attempts, the golden retrievers sounding their own alarm, Kat’s grandmother answered the door.
A few minutes later, three police officers escorted the two old people slowly down the street toward the pond. They were wearing matching red flannel robes and soft charcoal slippers, and they did not talk or cry, but emitted a low wailing sound reminiscent of the emergency crews that had preceded them to the tragedy. The neighbors who’d been sitting on the grass or idly talking stopped abruptly and stood solemnly as the grandparents approached the stillness. Another officer slowly and carefully pulled back the top of the sheet, not bothering to shield the body from the onlookers, as though the horror belonged to Country Gables as much as to Kat’s family. The grandparents nodded in unison, and then were led, holding hands, back to their house to be interviewed by the police.
It was nearing 8:00 a.m., and some of the neighbors had drifted back to their houses around the pond, to make coffee or try to fall back asleep, or to get ready for church. Hannah was jealous of those who would, in the next couple of hours, shower and put on decent clothes, drive to a nearby chapel, be greeted by other congregants, and approach their pastors for comfort and healing words. She drifted over to Josh, who was still standing with Mitch, close to the pond but just beyond the yellow police tape that now surrounded the perimeter, Kat’s body still resting there, but seeming to get smaller as the minutes passed. When Hannah put her hand on Josh’s shoulder, he jumped.
“Sorry, babe. Little on edge,” he said. The understatement was almost laughable, but the thought of levity was a long ways a way.
“Maybe we should go inside?” Hannah suggested. “We’re not doing anyone any good here.”
“You go, Hannah. I have to stay until they take her away,” Josh said. His voice was so low Hannah could barely hear him, and he had yet to look at her directly since he found her screaming on the ground hours before. She wondered what seeing something like this – not just seeing it, but being a part of its unfolding – would do to Josh, normally so optimistic and life affirming. That she’d actually been the one to discover Kat’s body in the pond almost an afterthought – a part of the story that would recede in time for everyone but Hannah, for whom it would become central.
The traffic had started to pick up as the morning slogged on, although the cars drove by slowly as they passed the emergency vehicles, still parked on both sides of the street. Hannah took one last look at Kat’s lifeless form under the sheet, and turned her back and walked toward the house. When she reached the porch she had a powerful urge to sit in a rocking chair with a cup of hot chocolate. She wondered what would have soothed Kat in those final hours – what would’ve kept her from somehow managing to drown herself in the teaspoon of a pond? Where was Kat in that infernal cycling – was she up, omnipotent and invincible as Hannah imagined she must have felt during those manic phases, or down and unreachable, as Hannah had seen her at the clinic? And where was Joe, so vigilant, in the early hours of the morning?
It was nearly noon when the paramedics finally loaded Kat’s body onto the ambulance to take her to the morgue. Those who’d remained on the Green, including Josh and Pete and Marci and Mitch, stood soberly as the ambulance drove off, no sirens blaring now, no rush. The men shook hands, as though some business had been concluded.

There would be no wake, no open casket. Just the funeral, in the middle of the day on the Tuesday of that week, some friends and neighbors there to console Kat’s parents and grandparents. And the police, outside, watching every entrance, looking for clues.
The autopsy had revealed that the cause of death was not drowning, but strangulation. The gash on her head was a red herring, but Kat’s neck was marked by telltale bruising, and the blood vessels in her sclera had burst, a common side-effect of severe pressure applied to the windpipe. She had been placed into the pond after she was dead, washing clean any fingerprints or other DNA evidence that might have otherwise adhered to her body. The detectives scoured the Green for several days, dredging the pond, looking for clues on the ground. But the leaves were so numerous that they carpeted over everything, and no eyewitnesses had come forward.
That night, after the funeral, Hannah burned the notes of her interview with Kat at the clinic.

About the Author

Reyna Marder Gentin

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Reyna Marder Gentin practiced law for many years and is now focusing on her writing. She has had many personal essays published in online journals including Kveller, Next Avenue, Grown and Flown, Mamalode and others. Reyna's short story 'A Reckoning' appears in the current issue of The Westchester Review, and her short story 'Complicity' is online at The Write Launch. She is currently studying fiction at The Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and her first novel, Unreasonable Doubts, will be published in the fall of 2018 by She Writes Press.