30 August 2012

The face

His was a hard face to miss, for reasons I didn't understand. You know how you notice someone -- in a bus, on a corner, standing  in line -- and you can't figure out why? It was like that. 

He wasn't particularly distinctive. Handsome in a bland way, like a second-tier actor in 1950s movies. A clean, square jaw, well-proportioned features. Brown eyes, fair hair, short nose. He'd play the up-and-coming lawyer or junior executive, Rock Hudson's buddy, say, and get the spunky ingenue in the end. 

He wore pair of glasses with frames like mine, square and black. I wondered if he looked a bit like me, or like a relative of mine, and maybe that was why I'd pick him out in the line of trumpet players in the jazz band or among the baritones in the choir. 

Because he was a star at his high school. He played jazz trumpet well, and went to all-state jazz band, too. He played solos, smoothly. He sang in a pleasant, old-school baritone, so beautifully that he took the lead in musicals and performed solos during choir concerts. He even had a featured act in once, crooning All of Me, à la Sinatra. He was smart enough to invite a cute girl in to the act and make it a duet.

Besides acting and singing and blowing the trumpet, he made short films. He earned top grades. He was accepted to NYU.  I wished him well, from a distance, relieved that I wouldn't be puzzling over why my eye was drawn to him.

Then I heard a rumor: He raped a girl at a graduation party. I didn't believe it. I don't believe many rumors, particularly those spread by teenagers. He didn't seem the type, either. He had girlfriends. Wasn't a kid who'd sequester himself in front of RedTube or World of Warcraft. 

And, two kids, drunk: maybe he was a jerk, and pushed things too hard, but it probably stopped well short of rape. Maybe she decided she didn't like sex with him. Maybe someone hated him and wanted to trash his reputation out of jealousy.

Other rumors surfaced about other rapes.

Then he confessed to that rape at the party. He received a light sentence: three years, probably as part of a plea deal. The details were murky, because he hadn't reached his eighteenth birthday. The local paper, usually eager to spread around a bit of muck, was quiet on this one. The plea spoke of familial money, discretion, skilled lawyers and a compliant DA. They couldn't blot out the crime, but they did what they could.

If, God forbid, it had been my daughter . . . well, let's not talk about it. I don't want to think about it or imagine it. Just two points. First, I believe in retribution more than I believe in justice. Justice is fine for people I don't love. Retribution would only be the beginning for someone I care about.

Second, say what you will about the old-fashioned patriarchy, but one point gets missed. In the old days, and today, among my blue collar relatives, if you mess with our sisters, wives or daughters, you would get hurt. Chivalry didn't mean just opening a door in time. It meant protection. When protection failed, it meant retribution. The men would assemble and take care of business. It still happens. You beat our sister, our daughter, our cousin, you receive a beating in return.

This does not address the central problem of violence against women. But, in some cases, it might make a lesser psychopath pause. If my man here had known he would risk injury and death of his own, maybe he might not have gone through with it. He might have paused. 

As it is, he's losing a chunk of his upper-middle class dream, which is pathetic, but not, by my lights, nearly enough.

The woman he raped wrote a memoir about it, about her process of survival. This was a topic more congenial to the newspaper's editors, who published a front page story about her healing and recovery and so on. 

I wish her well. I hope she continues to recover. My cousin, who was raped by a stranger who broke into her apartment late one night, still hasn't gotten over it. Some women tougher, resilient, manage. 

If you read between or through the lines of the article, you realize just how brutal the rape was. A rotated hip joint. Other injuries are alluded to, but glossed over in favor of the healing slant of the story.  But enough is there that I can say, without melodrama or without  exaggerating, that the guy, that suave baritone and fine musician, was also an evil motherfucker.

And the only clue I had was that vague disquiet when my eye was drawn to him rather than the other kids on the stage.


Back when serial killers were in vogue, a book came out called The Killer Beside Me. A woman who'd known Ted Bundy for years wrote about her experiences with him as well as what she later learned about his gruesome career. She knew him as a co-worker and friend. He was handsome, witty, a great guy. 

Who just happened to butcher young women for fun.

We tend to ridicule the chumps on the TV news who babble on about what a regular guy he was while in the background, backhoes dig up corpses. We'd know, we think. How could you not know? 

The mug shot and the pictures that will run of the monster in his prison jumpsuit will further confirm our self-regard. That guy? Total killer. We ignore that nearly everyone looks like a murderous freak or pervert in their own official pictures. Check out your own driver's license, and tell me:  what conclusions would someone draw if they saw that on the evening news? 

Villains don't come equipped with handlebar mustaches that they twirl or flat 100-yard stares and gnarly tattoos. Of course, we know that. But we also forget or don't quite realize that they come with no tell-tale signs at all. Perhaps, at most, we might experience a certain disquiet, a whisper of worry.

And, even though we hate to admit it, we expect evil to be glamorous. No matter what we may have learned as adults about the "banality of evil," hundreds of tales and movies and myths have either reinforced or trained us to believe that some terrible beauty surrounds evil, some incredible magnetism. 

Maybe we believe that to excuse ourselves when we fall short of our own better impulses. 

So I learned a lesson, one that's hardly a secret. 

To pay more attention to the disquiet that intrudes.

To recognize that this disquiet could come from that Bosnian next door who sees his chance and kicks you out the house your family lived in for a few generations. Or the Hutu who picks up his machete.

Or the high school kid with a great future ahead of him.

Or, finally, the one in the mirror.

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