His bottom lip quivers as he rises before the judge, the jury, and the television cameras. He is your son, your only child, and recently turned eighteen. In his new navy blue suit and tie—the navy blue suit and tie you bought him with the money you and your wife had saved for his first semester of college—he reminds you of his six-year-old self, a high blush and a hairless face.
As you watch him, your chest tightens, your left arm goes numb, and you wonder if forty-five is too young to have a heart attack. Your son is being tried as an adult, and you wish you could trade places with the attorney you can’t afford; a man with a wizened white beard, his hand resting on your son’s back. You want to be close to him, your son, to hold him.
Your wife squeezes your hand and whimpers. You want to hold her as well, despite her threats of divorce, the accusations that it was you, you who failed to raise your son to be a proper man. You glance across the aisle at the girl and her family; her father, holding her as she wipes her eyes. You want to believe that she perjured herself, trying to save face for the bad decision she made after she left a party, drunk, with your son. Your want to believe that she consented, and your son—in a terrible moment of unchecked passion—bit the girl’s breast and repented. You want to believe that you’re all decent people, parents and children alike, and that something occurred that night, in a bathroom behind a locked door, something as ambiguous as a Rorschach Test—and it was something utterly unknowable, something mired in reasonable doubt.
And now, as the jury stands in front of your son, and your wife’s hand is sweating and her breathing is labored, you watch your son. The boy you coached in Little League, the second baseman and lead-off hitter on your last-place team you managed; the boy you taught to whistle through an acorn; the boy you taught to jump-start a car with a stick shift by pushing it down a hill; the boy you taught to tie a Windsor Knot, something your father taught you. This is your son, and you know beneath the banter and bravado there is a sensitive boy. Someone you’ve been proud to call your son—an honor roll student and an average athlete and a boy who writes poetry but is always too macho to share it with anyone other than you and your wife and, allegedly, the girl across the aisle. And you know—and this is what startles you from sleep—he won’t fare well in prison, being so young and fresh-faced and hardly needing to shave.
You wonder, as you squeeze your wife’s hand and ignore the tightening in your chest, if he did it, if the events happened the way the girl, talking through choked sobs as she testified, explained them. You wonder if you had a daughter, and she was your only child…
“Has the jury reached a decision?” the judge asks, peering over her bifocals.
“We have, Your Honor.”
The bailiff takes the slip of paper from the head juror and hands it to the judge, who reads it, stone-faced, and hands it back. Your wife whimpers. Your son squeezes his eyes shut, bites on his bottom to keep it from quivering. For a second, the courtroom is as airless as a catacomb. The head juror clears his throat. The television cameras click, pointed at your son.
Your heart beats with your son’s— And you are back to a Christmas morning, your son smiling, silver wrapping paper wadded around him. Later, as your son played his new video game, giggling, your wife asked if you wanted to try for another, but after the tests and procedures, the false hopes and expenses, you eventually had to tell her you were happy to have one. The proud father of a son.
As the head juror reads the decision, your son’s head drops, like the tendons were cut from his neck. When he turns to you and wails and your wife wails, your legs give—your chest tightens.