You asked me to be a witness in the trial.
I owed you my life and so I said yes.
What does one wear to a rape testimony? Your lawyer and I debated this endlessly. Nothing too tight, nothing too baggy, nothing too ratty, nothing too expensive, something sexless yet attractive, a suit jacket perhaps, but nothing flashy, a light navy was best, black was too morbid, too dark. I wanted to seem serious but not angry, definitely not vengeful; maybe glasses were a good idea, but the frames had to be simple, nothing flamboyant, nothing too gay, nothing that might trigger juror prejudice. Something to wear while the world decided if I had been raped.
Something that said: Believe me.
I dreaded our rehearsals for the witness stand. Your lawyer’s endless questions. What did the basement look like? How many men? What did they do to you? I never slept, barely ate. Walked through the world a husk, disconnected from my body. Pain was the only thing that cut the numbness. I picked the skin around my fingernails with my teeth, tasting the blood on my tongue, repeating the process until all my digits were crusted in scabs.
Finally, the day of the trial arrived.
When I saw Richard in the courtroom, I snapped. He was a nightmare brought to life, sitting stone-faced with his team of defense attorneys. I recognized the fury in his eyes—I’d seen it before, of course—and I felt his rage burn a hole in my back as I walked up to take the stand. The courtroom shifted its attention toward me, expecting me to tell the story I’d told only three people—you, your lawyer, and my mother. Expecting me to explain my private hell in a public forum.
“When did you first meet Richard Shriver?” your lawyer asked when I was settled.
It was the simplest question of all, one we’d rehearsed and rehearsed during our months of prep. But staring at Richard, I suddenly forgot my lines. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes, praying that when I opened them, this would all be over, and the trial would dissipate like the edges of a bad acid trip. When my eyelids at last fluttered wide, I saw your lawyer’s stricken face.
“Perhaps you didn’t hear the question,” he said, straining to keep an even tone. “I asked, when did you first meet Richard Shriver?”
My mouth refused to move.
“Jonah, do you need a minute?”
“Jonah, when did you first meet Richard Shriver?”
“In 2009,” I finally managed, my voice dry and timid. Relief softened his expression. We had returned to our script.
“And what was the nature of your relationship?”
“I . . . I guess he was my boyfriend.”
“But that relationship changed over time, did it not?”
Panic lifted me out of my body. My consciousness floated by the ceiling fan. I clenched my fists tighter, clenched them until the scabs cracked and seeped blood. “I . . . don’t know.”
Your lawyer frowned. Richard’s features shifted as well, assembling into a strange expression of pleasure. A familiar postcoital grin.
“But it did change, didn’t it?”
“Richard . . .” I trailed off.
“Richard loved me,” I blurted out, surprising everyone, including myself. Whispers rippled through the courtroom. Your lawyer returned to your side for a hushed consultation.
“No further questions, Your Honor,” he said finally.
This is how I survive, I thought. By withholding my story.
How could anyone attempt to discredit a testimony that didn’t exist? How could the press exploit the absence of a story? At worst, I would be cast as a malfunctioning witness, a minor character in the larger drama of the trial. A blip in Richard’s history. A Wikipedia footnote.
Richard was now smiling in my direction. It was the same smile he’d used when he told me he loved me, the smile that kept me by his side, the smile that had once promised me a world beyond my own. Richard’s attorney stood for cross-examination. His eyes shone with Christmas-morning joy. I was a gift ready to be torn open.
“You say you loved Richard?”
“And he was your boyfriend?”
“And did he abuse you?”
Even better than withholding my story: creating a new one. And I could, if I did enough Olympian-level mental gymnastics, believe it to be true. Here, with all these people as witnesses, I could say that Richard did not abuse me. And if a whole room of people believed it was true, then maybe the media would believe it as well, and if the media believed, then maybe the whole world would believe. And if the whole world believed that I had not been raped, then maybe that would be enough. Maybe that would make it true.
“Did he rape you?”
“No,” I said, avoiding your gaze.
“Did he abuse anyone else during the course of your relationship?”
“No,” I said, watching my answer register on the faces in the crowd.
“So you never witnessed Richard Shriver or anyone else rape, sexually assault, or abuse anyone.”
“No,” I said. Adrenaline stung my spine.
“Why, then, would your friend here accuse Richard of these horrific crimes?”
“For the money.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because he told me himself.”
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
That was it. I was left alone on the stand. Free to go. With my new truth. My new identity. No longer a victim. No longer a tragedy. I was Jonah, reborn.
Then I snuck a glance in your direction, saw you sobbing in your lawyer’s arms. Suddenly, the entire lie collapsed as quickly as I had built it. I knew that what I’d done was ...