by: Kristen Bakalar
I waited in the hallway, pacing back and forth outside the door, my feet methodically alternating between the black and white tiles. I attempted to conceal the anguish and the heartrending terror I felt. Despite the intense anxiety of what was coming, I somehow maintained control over my quivering legs.
I walked over to the window of the 16th floor and peered out into the neighborhood park. Hundreds of working people were taking their morning stroll, enjoying the bright September day. There was an elderly woman feeding the small birds while sitting alone on one of the many park benches. Behind her, a man pulled out his morning bagel while reading the Wilmington News Journal. He peacefully crossed one leg over the other, as he became more entranced with the local news. Scanning the park’s activity in an attempt to escape my mind, my eyes fell upon my parents who were sitting in the park directly across from the court building; Dad was politely reading, but Mom was staring at the large entry at the front of the building, waiting anxiously for a recognizable face to exit. My nervousness immediately turned to anger. Though I conceded to allow them to accompany me to the state, and even the city, I did not want them near the court room, nor did I want them to be a part of this difficult day. The reaction my mother had to the news when I first delivered it years earlier was enough to have her exiled from my life completely. I felt content simply reporting back to them the results of the trial, after the emotional journey had ended, after all the poignant moments had dissipated back into the confines of my mind, and after my impenetrable emotional wall was securely back in place. The image of my parents attempting to tenuously walk the delicate line of supporting me through what could be the most difficult time in my life, forced the rage and resentment that had once subsided to erupt inside of me. By them simply being that close to the building, it made me feel violated in a new and profound way. The deliberate pacing I was once doing evolved quickly into a sporadic, sadistic stomping accompanied by irrational thoughts and expressions of frustration.
The door opened, and I heard my name called. Though my feet felt as though they had cemented themselves to every black and white tile and succumbing to that direction seemed unbearably impossible, I somehow moved forward. Step by step by step, my discomfort mounted, while the heat from my body radiated as I got closer and closer and closer to the cold empty chair. My vociferous heartbeat pounded from within and it seemed as though the buttons on my shirt were moving with the intense screaming inside my chest. The dam behind my eyes continued to build as each second passed; I was nervous it would break. The sweat was consuming my body, but it wasn’t a normal sweat. There were no drips running down my cheek, no beads forming on my forehead, and the color of my shirt hadn’t changed under my arms. This sweat was more agitating; I was squirming and fighting to get it off of me. I was panicking and felt under attack by the silent sweat that was steaming out of the pores of my skin.
The door through which I entered was on the left side of the courtroom, about halfway between the judge and the audience. I walked in behind the accused and his devious defense attorney. I was flooded with memories of meeting the defense earlier in the day. During that interaction, I instinctively ducked behind the prosecutor to avoid shaking his hand. I became fearful of his delicate blue eyes and his perfectly combed dirty blonde hair; traits that would, under different circumstances, provide comfort. I walked deeper into the room, approaching and passing the jury. I felt all 24 eyes gaping at me, their commiseration echoing through the confines of the courtroom, but purposely diverted my attention to the witness box. I landed on the stand and sat down in the chair. I blankly stared into the courtroom, bypassing the prosecution and the defense that was directly in front of me and located my friend in the audience; a pillar of comfort in my moment of agony. I caught the strong yet sympathetic eyes of my supportive comrade sitting in the front row; as difficult as it was to let her sit in the courtroom, I was thankful that she was there, yet mortified by the details of my story that had yet to unravel.
There I sat, in the lonely chair that so quickly became the focal point of the courtroom. The defense attorney walked to the stand and delivered pictures for me to study and then identify: the location of the attack. However, the area looked different, and I panicked yet again, unsure of the angle that was being played out in this trial. I was weary of the questions, fearful that someone would make an effort to trick me into saying something wrong. I focused on the details of each picture, noticing how much the scenery had changed in just three short years. I could barely see the old paper mill that once stood prominently amongst the pine bushes and overgrown grass plants. I identified the sidewalk that I strolled down innocently when I was traumatically interrupted, and I saw the old white house just on the edge of that wooded area.
I peered out into the courtroom, scanning the many faces peering back at me. I made eye contact with few, but eventually stopped at the defendant; the demon; the depraved. I recognized his stocky stature and immediately remembered him standing behind me, just slightly taller than I. I instantly recalled the amount of chest hair he had, his clearly identifiable mid-Atlantic accent, and the copious and overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke. I remembered my legs quivering beyond my control, and feeling as though an outside force was keeping me from breaking, falling, and collapsing. I thought back to the tone of his voice, the choice phrases he used, and his eloquent balance between violence and passion. That day, however, evoked a new emotion inside of me, induced by a distinct and profound experience. That day marked the first and only time I have ever seen his face.
A multitude of emotions attacked me as I sat on the stand, and the pity from the jury grew with each word that came out in my testimony. I heard the quiet empathetic cry of a middle aged woman in the back row of the jury and I grew sadly jealous; I wanted to cry. I felt almost as exposed that day as I did the night of the attack. My recount of the horrific details, though fully clothed sitting on the stand, felt strangely similar to when I was lying naked, being violated in the woods that night. When I whimpered during the attack, I was slapped in the face, so confronting the man who left the handprint on my left cheek just three years before made it difficult for me to be that vulnerable once again.
I worked incredibly hard to keep my impervious armor polished, but the shakiness of my voice and visibly short breaths did not fool those who closely watched me. Inside I was just a girl, yearning for someone to hold me, care for me, and protect me. Outside I was a grown, young adult; successful and accomplished; strong and independent. The dichotomy of these two worlds met on the stand, as I shared my painful story with the room full of strangers. And in a way, with the sea of unfamiliar people along with the friends and family supporting my resilient spirit, I found it oddly comforting that though I was defenseless the night he attacked me, it was he who was on the defense that day.