by Rachel Browning
Before you defend me, you’ll need context, which means I must start with the day I met Mrs. MacGillivray and began renting a room from her on Van Bleiswijkstraat in The Hague, where I had taken a job with the International Criminal Court. And you should understand that, whether it was jetlag interfering with my powers of perception or my crippling denial preventing me from breaking an agreement, I believed I could handle things, despite my initial misgivings. Besides, the rent was cheap, and my options were limited.
She was kind enough to drive me from the train station that blustery January morning, pronouncing my name Freeederick as she shook my hand, her clasp surprisingly firm for someone so slight, her silver bun bobbing in time with her arm. The way she careened through the teeming, rain-soaked streets felt like swimming through a gritty fishbowl. Immediately, she began rattling off her life’s story, the personal details of which ranged from the somewhat relevant to the downright disturbing: her husband and sons had all “abandoned” her for the United States; the “oppressive” Dutch government had forced her into early retirement, which is why she rented rooms to foreigners; and her Indonesian father had been executed by the Japanese during WWII – “his head cut clean off!” She then requested my next-of-kin information should I “pop off” during my stay – whether out of genuine concern or past experience, I don’t know. I considered her manner nothing more than harmless eccentricity.
However, once we’d arrived at her imposing three-story home, trudged up the groaning staircase to my top-floor room, I should’ve dismissed myself the moment she began reciting the rules of the house. I was to stay in my room at all times – the downstairs library and sunroom were off limits. I could use the bathroom and kitchen only when she wasn’t using them, and I had to keep my room unlocked so that she could verify that I was keeping it tidy, making the bed, holding the thermostat to her preapproved temperature. She even demonstrated how to flush the toilet – the toilet – and insisted I show her I understood. After listening to her litany of instructions, I desperately wanted to scrap the whole arrangement.
And so, you might ask, why did I stay, even as things got progressively weirder? Why didn’t I suck it up, walk away, lose my deposit?
The answer is complicated.
I had been known to run, to abandon commitments, burn bridges, some might say. It’s how I ended up here. Indeed, running was all I’d ever done, and I never let people in. So, at that moment, I asked myself, was it so bad that she had all these quirky rules? Maybe seclusion and time for introspection were what I needed, regardless of whether I lived up to Mrs. MacGillivray’s Rules of Occupancy. I followed her tedious instructions like a desperate schoolboy.
But yes, I knew she was inspecting my every movement, coming into my room when I wasn’t there, remaking the bed, rummaging through my things, refolding my sweaters, helping herself to the view from my balcony and God knows what else.
And I had to find new ways, day after day, to avoid her endless grilling. What exactly did I do at the Court? Did I not have any friends? Had I thought about taking the train to Amsterdam, touring the Red-Light District?
I mean, really! The old harpy didn’t need me to explain why I kept a low profile; neither do you.
What I meant to say is that she knew what I was up to. That I was representing war criminals.
You understand that my job included cross-examining victims and witnesses, devaluing and undercutting the stories of children torn from their homes and forced into war. Children who, nourished only by cocaine and gunpowder, raped and terrorized and chopped off the limbs of those they’d been taught were their enemies.
And yes, I admit that in the evenings, while she paced about her own room, presumably tallying the various ways I’d failed to follow her precious rules, I downed bottles of cheap Chilean wine to remove the taste of blood and gunpowder from my mouth, to forget whom and what I represented at that Court, the monsters I had to befriend to defend.
And still, she had the gall to collect the empty wine bottles piling up in my closet and, every few days, line them up in front of my bedroom door like some passive-aggressive intervention.
So yes, at first I played along and recycled the bottles, but after a while, it became such a fucking hassle. It was none of her damn business how I spent my days or how much I drank. Why did she feel the need to go into my closet when there are children fueled by gunpowder and cocaine chopping off the limbs of other children?
Can you answer that?
Look. If she’d just stayed out of my room, left my things alone, perhaps we could have coexisted. Perhaps if she hadn’t been on my balcony stroking my sweater against her face. I asked her politely to give it back – three, no, four times, you understand.
Her eyes looked the same after, which I wouldn’t have expected. At once incensed and inquiring. But her blood ran darker than the red of my sweater; it cradled her head like a hood over the graying snow.
Now, I understand that your job is to defend me. We speak the same language, you and I. And you want me to say that I was out of my mind, didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t tell right from wrong. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps. But I won’t say it. Because that would be running, and running is all I’ve ever done, and I don’t run from things anymore.
Rachel Browning is an attorney, writer, and musician originally from Houston, Texas. Her short fiction has appeared in the online journals Every Day Fiction and The Write Launch. Rachel currently lives in Maryland with her wife and twin daughters.