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Guilty in America

by Carmen Firan [USA]
translation from Romanian by Iris Butnariu [MTTLC student]
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It was not Tuesday, nor the 13th, but since morning I had the feeling that things would not go well at all. The lawyer told me at the last minute that he could not come with me to the court house, a minor setback and I will get off easy and should not worry if I repeat what he had taught me to say. It was exactely what made me even more nervous. I had not slept all night thinking about how the judge’s gavel would do bang his grand desk: Guilty! And God knows what would happen next. That was not why I had come to America.

However, it seems I had dozed off in the morning. The judge had a huge head like a bird of prey, he was standing above me and from the height of his desk, he shot flames out of his nostrils, and he hit me on the top of my head with his beak that was hard as a rock. I woke up with a terrible migraine, the top of my head hurt, I put my hand there because I was worried, I carefully looked in the mirror, but I did not see any mark from the beak of justice. I prayed to my mother who had been with God for many years, just as I always do when I have a problem, convinced that our loved ones who have passed away look after us from a place where sorrows and sadness seize to exist. And mother has always helped me.

Then I started to carefully think about what I would wear, while continuously repeating in my head the lines that the lawyer had told me to learn by heart and not to let myself be intimidated, and that they try to get rid of all these criminals who crowd the courtrooms everyday. A cold chill down my spine. So, I am a criminal. Things are taken seriously in America, and the word crime is frequently heard. It is also a crime when you take a life, or when you cheat, steal and even lying is a crime. Not to mention my case!

I eventually decided to wear an impersonal and sober dress, straight and simple, neither long nor short, of a grey shade that seemed regretful enough. I intentionally avoided black in order not to seem highly elegant, or white, the color of subliminal innocence, the naughty red, fresh and joyful, green or yellow, the color of shy surrender, no flower prints, God forbid jewels, I did, however, hide my watch very well under my sleeve, as it too was inappropriate. Naked arms could have seemed offensive, and they were not even as beautiful as Michelle Obama’s. Maybe one of my friends who was kind of mean, was right, you should start going to the gym after a certain age.

I picked the right shoes. I thought I should look like a conscientious clerk from the revenue office and the thought of it made me dizzy. The revenue office was to me the best example of the kafkian world of bureaucracy and the absurd from which I immigrated, of the impending guilt of any innocent person who could be caught red-handed at any time. Back then, it was full of black cats, lizards and all sort of sneaky beings that could humiliate or put you in the slammer despite having justice on your side.

Apostrof magazine conducted a survey on fear once to which I too responded through an essay which involved Kafka and Durenmatt only to beat around the bush about the fact that I did, in fact, live in fear. I was afraid of any form of authority of the totalitarian system, from the militia and justice to the revenue office, and I felt like a criminal every time I demanded these kind of institutions to respect my rights.

America is a whole other story. A normal world, where the individual is respected and the institutions are created to serve him not to crush him, so I had nothing to be afraid of. With this invigorating thought, I tried to breathe relaxed and I took a deep breath. Nevertheless, it is common sense that the individual too has to be fair, to obide by the laws… but had I done so? My breath stopped halfway, I did not finish my thought and I pressed my hand against my chest to stop my heart that had gone wild. I was told before that I care too much, but I could physically feel how the vital steam which pulsates inside the body was now accumulating in my stomach, it would afterwards wildly rush up and gasp in my temples, or it would go down at full speed mellowing my knees.

I had taken my car for a check-up a day before, refilled it and washed it, although I was not sure whether I should have left it a bit more dusty or not. It is not a good thing to draw attention on yourself, this I also knew from my native country where at least after they had satisfied their thirst for gossip, they would ignore you by pretending you do not exist. Well, you do exist here, exactly the way you are, you are noticed here with all your mistakes and achievements. It was not about an achievement in my case. I had made a mistake and I would have to pay for it.

I had a long trip ahead of me over, three hours in the north of the state of New York. The hearing was scheduled for seven in the evening, but God knows how long it would last, and then three hours to return. I took water and chocolate with me and I wanted to slip a small cross in my purse for more safety, but an old New Yorker woman’s words drummed in my ears: “In this town you should wear the cross in the back”. It was shortly after I had immigrated and I did not understand what she meant, moreover I was not a big fan of necklesses with crosses and virgins anyway. I left the cross on the table in a corner, although New York had nothing to do with the small town I had to go to and of which nobody had heard nothing about, somewhere in the countryside, where people actually only go to church and hunt rabbits, wild turkeys and deer.

The migraine would not go away so at the last minute I made myself a turban out of a fine head dress and I wrapped it around my head thinking it would protect me in the car as I would have to drive many hours with the window open, like any East European who cannot stand air conditioning and can easily become a victim of the draft. The word victim made me feel uneasy as my mind was already besieged by the wording I would say in front of the prosecutor, policeman and judge, plus God knows how many others that will be in the courtroom: “We were visiting with some friends when my husband who is a doctor got called to the hospital immediately…”

My lawyer had insisted that I be brief, clear, not give many explanations and details and especially avoid metaphors or give away useless details. It would seem hard for someone who comes from a culture of metaphors, where if a language is not plastic then it is poor, where details and parables, ambiguity and exalted gestures, sprinkled with a bit of humour and diminutives count enough as to break the communication barriers and to unwind the atmosphere in order to create a false familiarity. But I had learnt my lesson in America. “ How are you?” “I’m fine.” “How about you?” “I’m fine, thank you.” Should I also add that he was a gynecologist, that the patient needed an urgent Caesarian that she had gone into premature labour, she also had a cyst that complicated the surgery, the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, it was a matter of life and death?

I imagined the lawyer making faces especially at the “matter of life and death” part, which was part of the category of metaphors that he despised, so I looked in the mirror one more time, the head dress made me look repentant yet noble, oh, had I known what it would bring me!- I grabbed my keys and got into my car feeling as though I was going on the front.

I was uptight all the way as I drove on the highway with my eyes fixated on the speed marker, because I did not want to exceed the regulation speed and I was also all ears at the hoarse voice of the robot-woman of the GPS that was telling me which way to go, how many miles I had until I had to turn right or left. I knew a shortcut that would get me directly on Whitestone Bridge highway, so I plucked up the courage, and I ignored the GPS for a while. The authoritarian woman from the small device leaned against the bord of the car was frantically insisting that I get out at the next exit, but I took the liberty to go my way and I felt the voice getting angry, then gradually becoming disappointed by my options, then exasperated and eventually ironic, giving up teaching me any further because I continued to make mistakes. I think I heard her even say Guilty at one point! And I really did feel guilty of another disobedience.

Wondrous things, these GPS! They take you anywhere, anytime, somebody told me that he had found his parents’ graves in a cemetery by putting in the address of the alley where they had been buried. And still, where will all of this take us? I-pod, I-pad, I-phone… I in English means me and after that comes hell. A neighbor of ours, not even a teenager, but a 45 year old man, told us with bloodshot eyes from exhaustion but in 7th Heaven how he had stayed 16 hours in front on the Apple store in order to be one of the first happy owners of the newest model of I-phones, the I-phone 4, that has the memory of an elephant and millions of pixels that can swallow the distances with a pantagruelic force and you can do anything with it. Our neighbour is single and it seems like his I-phone can substitute even people. We will probably be swallowed by our own civilization, choked by our own digital personalities that have gathered our universe into a small black box to which we cling our lives like blazes. No wonder I dreamt of the apocalypse on my way to the Courthouse in Ghent town where I would hear the gavel bang into the nutwood or beechwood of the desk: Guilty!

After more than two hours and a half I eventually got on a national road with two ways, just like those in Romania. Only it was trafficless. It elbowed through the meadows and wooded hills that were perfect for grazing, through horse ranches, vineyards and apple orchards, the woman’s voice had calmed down, I listened to it obediently as I had the feeling like I was heading home not going to be convicted. Home is where you spend the night. Only, God forbid I should sleep there! The scripts varied, some said that for exceeding the regulation speed by 21 miles you could get 4 points in the driver’s license and raise your car’s insurance by a few hundred dollars, others would take away your driver’s license and maybe even make you do a few days of community service, or God knows maybe they have cells there, and depending on the judge you can either go home or get a few days in jail.

That is why you need a lawyer, to negociate for you. That way, you do not have to give the money in the courthouse, instead you give it to him and go home without a worry in the world. In this country, any man that has self respect takes his lawyer everywhere. Everywhere. A world of exact rules based paradoxically on mediators and negotiators.

The sun had slipped into a nook, dragging all the light with it. I had turned the headlights on and I could see the phosphorescent eyes of the animals from the bushes on the side of the road. No settlements, not a soul to be seen. What if the satellite had gone crazy and this GPS really was directing me to Hell? Any road will take you there eventually, I heard my old filosophical friend mumble cinically, he was now institutionalized in a nursing home which he saw as a second-rate brothel.

There were a few houses here and there as though they were randomly thrown on both sides of the road and the robot woman’s voice victoriously let me know that I had reached my destination. I stopped. Pitch dark, as it usually is in the countryside. No trace of the courthouse. The only thing I could spot was a small building with a signboard so tiny that I could not make out the writing on it. Luckily, an overwheight and toothless woman was just coming out of the house from across the street to call out for her dog. “ Do you know where the courthouse is?” “That’s it.” And pointed towards the modest building that could pass for a primary school at most. “Are you sure? The courthouse from Ghent?” She nodded, bored: “That’s the courthouse as well as the city hall. Take your car in the back.”

I was fine. And there was nothing scary about the courthouse, it even looked suspiciously humane as it stood there covered by the gentleness of the night. I suddenly felt resentful towards the defeatist mentality I had grown up with. I would have gotten a pair of wings myself but I did not really feel like flying. I parked the car in the back of the building where there were other cars and heat still came out of their engines which meant that they had just arrived and I stoically entered a small hallway which lead to two rooms, one of which was obviously the courthouse, once on a platform I spotted a man in the well known black robe through the opened door. I looked more carefully. The gavel was missing though. How will he be able to account for me being guilty?

Just as I was plucking up some courage, -when you jump into deep water you have to paddle with both hands and feet – I pictured the crowd from the courtroom that was waiting to be called by the judge and I froze. A middle-aged man with a filthy undervest and arms covered with tattoos, a black woman with earrings in her nose, a young man that looked like a drug addict and was dressed in leather from head to toes and had chains hanging out from everywhere, a moon struck blonde that was dozing off on another woman’s sholder who had short hair and a fierce look, an old man with long hair and a scar on his left cheek, a tender and lean asian man who approached me and told me that he got pulled over by the police for another crime while he was on his way here, and at last a large policeman who watched over everyone as if they were his children which he had taken out to play.

My dress was blatantly in contrast with the crowd. They were all accompanied by a lawyer who spoke on their behalves so that their look was as absent, as though they were at one of our party meeting we used to have. I felt provincial as I feel many times when I come to Bucharest and I understand nothing.

I heard my name being called out in the other room and a lively man whose head was shaved invited me in. I handed him the letter my lawyer had written for me and who was now absent from the rack and while he went through it with his expert eyes, I relived the moment that I got pulled over for exceeding the regulation speed.

Evil hour. I pulled over and I looked through the rear-view mirror as the policeman approached us, stopped by the open window holding his gun and warned me not to step out of the car. He looked as though he was on a dangerous expedition, a whole arsenal of canes, chains, lanterns, grenades, knives, guns were hinging on him, he could arrest the whole world with that.

I handed him my driver’s license and tried to tell him that I had an emergency I had to take care of, but he would not listen, instead he turned around, still holding his gun, went back to his car and brought me the citation to go to court. I would have imagined a huge fine, but they do not give you fines for crimes like these here, they call you to court not in the town you live, but where you got pulled over, even if it is hundreds of kilometers away from home, and the punishment can be much bigger…I kept thinking of my dad and the number of times he got pulled over in Romania, for various reasons and how everytime he started talking with the policeman, apologizing, or gave him something and how everytime he got away without getting a fine. Policemen here are usually like rocks. They even gave mayor Giulliani a fine, when he was still the mayor.

The man with a shaved head looks at me suspiciously: “What kind of name is this?” “Romanian,” I answered him without losing my nerves. He analyzes my face carefully and thoughtful. “Romania?” “Yes, Romania,” I excuse myself with half a smile which I am not sure is appropriate. It is clear he does not know where to start. He then sets his eyes on my head dress: “Since when have you been driving?” He must think I am muslim, I thought and so I gently unwrapped the head dress in front of him as gracefully as possible. Not that it helped. “I have been driving a car for thirty years and I have never commited any crime, it was an emergency this time…” I told my poem exactly the way my lawyer had instructed me to but I was talking to myself because he was not listening, he scribbled something on my citation with his left hand the way all Americans write. “My wife has a head-dress like yours.” Could this be good? What if they did not get along and he holds a grudge against her? “But you look better without it.” “Thank you.” He gave me my citation back and told me: “I changed your crime to irregular parking. Just because it was an emergency, because if it was not…It is all I can do. Go see the judge” I did not quite understand but I felt as though I should feel grateful towards him and so I smiled at him and waved the head dress goodbye.

I went into the other room, the policeman in the corner took my citation and gave it to the judge and I sat down next to the other criminals. Now comes the important part, I said to myself, it is all up to the judge, a small God who can exempt or ruin destinies. Look at O.J. Simpson. Only personal karma can establish a balance between sin and punishment in the end. Parasitic thought that made me nervous again.
They call for me. I approach the small improvised platform where the judge sits at a desk, not a wooden one, but one made out of shiny plastic. The whole idea is that he can look down on you, that you seem smaller and that you look up and pray to the heavens by going through his black robe and afterwards through the ceiling which was stained from the last flood. Many uncertain things in this world and all of them can change over night, only the sky is sure to always be there. No worry, it can always fall on your head unexpectedly, just as it could happen to me now.

I had better stay away from metaphors, the lawyer is right, this is not the time nor the place, not to mention that it would not make any sense?!

“Did I pronounce your name correctly?” the judge asks on a humane voice and I cannot help but roll my eyes and nodd. He too will start to look Romania up on an imaginary map without however being able to visualize anything. It would have been better had I been French, but there is nothing I can do now. Although in these small American towns where patriotism beats geography French are not vey loved. I am better off being Romanian, I am more mysterious. I straighten my back, look up noble and ready to fight.

The judge quickly reads the illegibly writing of the man before him and then addresses me with an authoritherian voice: “Do you agree that you have parked irregularly?” I stay quiet. Did I ? “Do you agree?” It sounds like a marriage proposal. “Do you understand my question?” the judge raises his voice. English does not seem to be of any help to me. What if I agree and I get into even bigger trouble? Then he will approach me differently. “How do you plead?” The confusion is even bigger. I see him smile and I do not know if it is pity or irony. I fear ridicule out of all. And I was close to it. “How do you plead?” the judge insisted, and was it me or was he about to lose his patience?

I withdrew. I was guilty of one thing or another, so as I stood there looking at him as though I was drowning and was asking him for help, I started saying: “Gui…” He waved his hand like a conductor, encouraging me to go on, there you go, the people in the courtroom were holding their breaths and in their minds they said it with me: “Guilty!” I said it victoriously and everybody was relieved. “Go to the pay-desk, pay 75 dollars and you are free to go.” Freedom? This word had not been so important since the revolution.

At the end the judge looked me in the eye and lowered his voice: “I read Cioran.” I looked at him as if he were crazy. I swallowed drily and said Oh! In an appreciative manner and then I acted distracted. Say something about Ghent! Uncapable of muttering another word, I nodded “Thank you!” and I headed towards the pay-desk as though I walked on water. The judge smiled at me and instead of pecking the top of my head with his beak of steel, wished me a pleasant evening and a safe trip back home.

The humiliation was greater than the punishment. That night I dreamt of a bird of prey with its wings wide open. He used his beak to tear out pages from On the Heights of Despair* and scatter them across the ocean.

#
* reference to On the Heights of Despair a book written by Emil Cioran a Romanian philosopher who lived in Paris. See also The Temptation to Exist a book by Cioran, translated by Richard Howard, with an introduction by Susan Sontag.

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3 Comments

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