The fineness of the ass of a law clerk should not register on the mind of a married, fifty-something superior court judge, but register it certainly did, with ringing clarity. The ringing came after Doris slammed the back of her skull into her office door jamb after jerking away to avoid being caught admiring Matthew Stevenson’s derriere.
Wincing, Doris shuffled to her desk and sat gingerly in her seat. Her left hand moved automatically for the bottom drawer where she kept a bottle of aspirin, while the fingers of her right circled her mug of now-cold green tea. Single-handed, she opened and shook two tablets out of the bottle and capped it. Those ten-plus years of violin lessons paying off, she thought wryly. Doris filled her mouth with cold tea, tilted her head back, dropped the pain reliever in her mouth and swallowed. The acrid taste of dissolving aspirin hit the back of her throat. She rose and crossed the thick pile of the Persian rug to stand at the office window.
Doris stared at the foot traffic in the court house plaza below. Dark-suited figures ladened with briefcases and files hurried with single-minded determination along their proscribed paths, like so many ants, to their respective offices and hearings, court appointments and judicial offices. Charcoal grey, navy blue, an occasional spot of subdued burgundy and a flash of white. Nothing colorful, nothing fresh to lighten the landscape except for those visitors who didn’t realize there was an unwritten dress code – no bright colors allowed. Doris crossed her arms and her vision shortened to behold her own reflection in the glass, clad in the sober black of a judge’s robes.
Sober as a judge. She sighed and moved back to her desk. The undignified sound of her body plopping heavily into the seat of her chair, the surprised burp of air against leather, made her crack a smile. She pulled the case file at the top of her docket toward her. Conner vs. Johanssen. Drunk driving case – some fool, texting his girlfriend, had rear-ended a drunken fool who had slammed on his brakes at a green light to let a line of black dogs that only he saw cross the road in front of him. Really, both of them deserved a swift kick in the butt, but instead they wanted to expose their stupidity to everyone in a court of law to decide who was more deserving of “justice,” meaning a chunk of insurance money. Doris pushed the file away and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes closed and she wondered again when (not whether) she would be appointed to a federal judgeship. Federal cases had to be more meaningful than deciding which of two idiot drivers was more at fault.
Why did she really want an appointment to a federal bench? The more Doris thought about it, she concluded it was simple: she deserved it. She knew the law inside out and had the bravery to apply common sense to what was written in the law books. And she had epitomized the whole “sober as a judge” image since birth. She had lived a blameless, orderly life – not just doing everything that was expected of her but doing it right. Not just right – exceedingly well. At the age of four she lined up her stuffed animals on her bed by size, giving the older toys precedence over the newer acquisitions. At eight she helped care for her younger sisters Lily and Gina, everything from occasional diaper changes to preparing lunches to supervising their homework as they became older. Doris was a natural overachiever: high school valedictorian and All-American volleyball player, concert master of the Stanford symphony orchestra and summa cum laude graduate. She stayed on at her alma mater for law school, edited the Law Review and was appointed to the superior court before her thirtieth birthday. Still married to her college sweetheart, an M.D./Ph.D. research scientist who ran a laboratory at UC San Francisco and raised three brilliant Ivy League sons, two at medical school (Harvard and John Hopkins) and one finishing his first year at Yale Law, well on their way to emulate their parents’s successes.
Responsible. Upstanding. A role model to younger women who aspired to hold a high-level career and raise a family. Doris was positive proof that yes, a woman could succeed in both the professional and domestic realms. And she was sick of it.
No, that wasn’t true. The judgeship and all the attendant respect – that she truly enjoyed. She still got a kick out of sweeping through the chamber door to the court room, robes swirling, an avatar of justice. One Halloween, she’d donned a Darth Vader mask before making her entry, and the audience had busted up. She had that combination of humor and competence that made her a favorite with the courthouse staff. Her bailiff William adored her, brought her presents for her birthday and said he hoped his daughter would turn out to be “an African-American version of Your Honor.”
As for her sons, she felt only love and pride in them. Tad, Harris and Ben had been equal parts challenge and joy to raise. The trials – setting the back end of the garage on fire with an improvised Bunsen burner, ingesting copper sulfate and puking up bright blue goo, throwing a dry ice bomb into the pool that blew out the underwater lights upon explosion – they were small prices to pay in light of the resourceful, inquisitive and adventurous men they were becoming. Doris thrilled to see them establish their own identities and paths in the world. No, she wouldn’t change anything about her boys – they were perfect.
And there was Simon. She had met him during Orientation Week freshman year and had been attracted to his calm demeanor, sharp intellect and the delicious way his lips curved when he smiled. A month later, drunk on illicit beer and hormones, they had fallen into bed after a dorm party and never been apart since. Simon was her first love, first lover and husband of 30 years. She had always been faithful to him and she would probably go to her grave having slept with only him during her entire life.
Herein lay her problem.
Doris hadn’t had a date with anyone who wasn’t Simon since Bush Senior was President. The fact had never bothered her before, not even registered until Matthew showed up at the beginning of September, five months ago. Doris had taken on Matthew for a clerk as a favor to his father Greg, an old study partner from law school and the Stevenson of Ellis and Stevenson, one of the City’s leading family law firms. Not that it was a hardship for Doris – Matthew had graduated in the top five percent of his class at Hastings and earned glowing recommendations from his instructors. Their one-hour interview had been a formality – Matthew overly polite and confident in his Brooks Brothers suit and Doris lobbing easy questions about his interest in judicial procedure and his plans for the future. It was on his first day at the courthouse, fresh from a summer excursion to Chile with his girlfriend, that the tanned and blond young Stevenson left an impression on Doris. She noted his All-American water polo player’s physique, the way his teeth gleamed in his smile when she assigned his first case to research. Which was ridiculous – several of her sons’s friends were very handsome young men, better-looking than Matthew. Two or three of them, according to her sister Gina, were “abso-fucking-lute Adonises.”
So his physical beauty didn’t explain why Doris was going all Mrs. Robinson over her clerk. Her interest had started after the holiday luncheon and gift exchange, and Matthew had been her gift giver. Later Doris wondered whether he’d actively searched out the person who’d pulled her name and traded giftees. Those coworkers present at the restaurant had hooted and whistled when Doris had unwrapped the small book of love poems by Pablo Neruda. Bemused, Doris flipped through the slim pink and gold volume, and she vaguely heard Matthew’s voice over the catcalls, “Melissa and I visited his house in Isla Negra. She studied Spanish literature in college, and she got me into his poetry, it’s really fantastic. You should read them with your husband.”
After the luncheon Doris returned to her office and tossed the book on the high top of her bookcase. She would have forgotten about it and the entire event if the next day during the first court recess William hadn’t made one of those comments that old friends or older coworkers can tell each other and avoid harassment claims, “That boy, your clerk. He’s into you, Your Honor.”
She scoffed. “He’s not, he’s young enough to be my son.”
“Uh huh. How would you feel if one of your boys gave a book of love poetry to his boss?”
Doris stopped looking at the file on her desk and peered closely at the smooth, dark face of her bailiff, who stood calmly under her scrutiny. He’s serious, she realized. Doris trusted William’s judgment of human character, relied on his acumen of reading emotions to keep her court safe. He could identify troublemakers before they became disruptive, appeared at the side of overwhelmed witnesses to escort them out before they fell apart on the stand. That night Doris climbed the bookshelf housing the California Penal Code and retrieved the dust-covered poems of Neruda and put the book in the bottom drawer of her desk, which also held her outdated copies of People Magazine. A few days later the insidious thoughts started, usually when she was tired or distressed or just bored:
· She thought about her youngest sister Gina who had divorced that philandering jerk John eleven years ago and was currently dating Boyfriend Number 30+. Doris used to scorn her sister’s serial promiscuity and felt pity that Gina couldn’t know the stability and contentment that came from a solid monogamous relationship.
· Now she wondered if Gina ever pitied her for her lack of sexual experience.
· Doris pitied herself for her lack of sexual experience. But there had been no time to get any, so to speak.
Doris had discovered she was pregnant two weeks before graduating from law school. Rather than waiting the five years she and Simon had planned, they had driven to Las Vegas almost immediately after she received her diploma in Kresge Auditorium, chosen a neon-lit chapel just off the Strip and gotten married. The couple waiting next in line to get married served as their witnesses. Doris and Simon spent two nights in the Wedding Suite of the Circus Circus Hotel (“if we’re getting married in Vegas, might as well go for the full cheesy effect!”) before driving back to the Bay Area so Simon could resume his dermatology rotation.
It was the craziest, most spontaneous and uncharacteristic stunt Doris had ever pulled in her life. The uproar from her father and Simon’s parents – denied their opportunity to see their eldest children married off in grand style at Memorial Church followed by a full-blown, ten-course Chinese banquet – had gone on for days. Simon and Doris weathered alternating parental bouts of bitter disappointment and weepy recriminations. Their unified response, delivered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, always stayed the same, “Look, we saved the cost of a huge wedding that will be better spent on paying off our student loans.” They didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy – why give their already upset parents more momentous news?
Only the new couple’s siblings accepted, even cheered their impromptu wedding. Lily had sighed and said, “I didn’t get to design your wedding dress, but I’d love to make you an anniversary gown.” Gina, fifteen years old and cheeky beyond her years, had quipped, “Maybe you can make a wedding dress for Doris’s second wedding!” Doris’s impulse to pinch her youngest sister only subsided when Gina hugged her and said, “Just joking, you and Simon are meant for each other. Congratulations!”
The afterglow of the surprise marriage and unexpected wedded bliss caused occasional giggling fits in Doris as she studied for the bar exam. Six weeks after the elopement she miscarried. Lying in the hospital bed after the D&C procedure, Doris had started to laugh, a hysterical jag that prompted the resident on duty to sedate her.
Doris opened her eyes and caught sight of the silver-framed family photo at the corner of her desk, taken on her and Simon’s 25th wedding anniversary. She pulled the photo close and ran a finger over the glass-covered expressions frozen in a happier time. The boys standing behind their parents, dressed in suits and beaming from younger versions of their father’s handsome face. Simon wore the same huge grin, with its parentheses of dimples, his arm wrapped snugly around her waist. Doris herself wore a gentler, more subtle smile, her overall self-satisfaction in life more apparent than simple joy in the milestone date. She looked younger than her age, maybe in her mid-thirties, the hours spent doing Pilates apparent in her slender figure.
She set the picture down, her right hand lingering on the edge of the frame. What if she and Simon had waited the five years before getting married as they'd originally planned? Her pregnancy had forced them together, so she’d never experienced true independence. Perhaps Doris would have grown into a different person and realized Simon wasn’t her soul mate. Maybe they would have gotten married anyway, but there could have been some breaks in their relationship. She might have dated other men, at least had more than one sex partner, before coming back to Simon to start their life together. Now she’d never know, and that big “what if” was driving her nuts. Sex with Simon had always been good, but how do you know what chocolate or vanilla ice cream might be like if you only eaten strawberry all your life? She’d missed the chance to taste Neopolitan.
With a quick flip she slapped the photograph face down. The tinkle of breaking glass made her suddenly aware of what she had just done. Doris lifted the frame and stared at the tiny clear shards littering the teak desk surface. “Oh, fuck!”
A light tap on her door made her start guiltily. Doris looked up to see Matthew’s head in the doorway, an impudent smirk slapped across his face. “Uh, Your Honor?” His knowing expression from having caught her swearing made Doris redden. She shot him a look, the one Lily called “the glare of Minos,” but before she made eye contact his gaze slid to her desk and he became serious. “Your court is ready to be called to order. I’ll take care of that for you.” He nodded at the breakage.
Doris rose from her chair and grabbed the pile of case folders. “Yes. I’d better go. Thanks, Matthew.” She crossed the room and walked straight into his broad chest and almost fell. Muscular arms encircled her and tightened, as if surprised to feel under the billowing and concealing judge's robes a toned and feminine body. Doris tensed and, eyes wide in alarm, her face twisted reflexively toward Matthew just as he stumbled and dipped lower to secure his grip. Her lips brushed against the corner of his mouth.
As soon as Matthew regained his footing he released her, almost dropping her again, as if he'd been zapped by an electric jolt. Doris staggered away and recovered her physical balance. “Excuse me!” she squeaked, further roiling her emotions. “Good God, I'm so sorry!” She had no idea how it had happened. Her thoughts swirled, from utter chagrin at her clumsiness to the unspeakable thrill of forbidden physical contact.
They stared at each other with shocked and equal intensity. “It's okay,” Matthew finally murmured. His hands lifted toward her a moment then fell back to his sides and turned the movement into a shrug. No harm, no foul, the gesture said, but his red face and shaky breath conveyed another message.
Heart pounding, Doris continued to stare. Did those blue eyes hold a gleam of complicity? No, she knew he would never speak of this, ever mention it to another soul. His innate chivalry made him all the more adorable.
She should apologize again. She should make a joke and walk away. She should fire him and find a new clerk, a homely woman this time.
She wanted to grab him and kiss him again, except do it fully and thoroughly.
“Are you okay, Your Honor?”
Doris blinked. Uncertainty and not a little anxiety tinged Matthew's usual “eager to please the boss” expression. She took a deep breath. It was an accident. It wasn't anything. It will never happen again. The last thought deflated her. “Yes, I'm fine.” Doris walked rapidly to the door leading to the court room and flung it open. Her ears, burning with embarrassment, caught the sudden hush of voices in the gallery, William’s bass voice calling, “All rise… court is now in session.”
“Oh fuck,” she murmured again as, robes swirling, she swept in and mounted the stairs to her bench.