Words By Jason Villemez, Art By Kiyoung Kim
When he got to his parents’ house, Sam threw his suitcase in his room and headed straight for the pantry. He’d quit swimming his sophomore year but never stopped the high-calorie diet, and five years later he had put on forty pounds. He was starting to look like the chubby guys he found himself always drawn to. Sadly, those types of guys were never drawn to people like him.
He heard his mother shuffle into the kitchen and sit down at the counter, which Sam knew was code for her desire to talk, to share her concerns. He grabbed a tin of almonds and waited as she looked at him. He wished she would just spit it out, and though he had an idea of what was coming, he wouldn’t pry it out of her.
“You don’t have to testify,” she finally said. “If you don’t want to do it, just let the lawyers know. Or I could tell them for you. You don’t have to put yourself through all this.”
“I want to do this, Mom. I can handle it.” “Well, you know your father would prefer you withdrew.” She scooted closer to him as if she feared being overheard in the empty house. “Just remember that you’re not the one on trial. Nobody is there to judge you.” She got up and poured Sam a glass of sweet tea. “Of course, you’ll be fine, honey. We’re just worried for you, that’s all.” A few days after the initial fervor died down, when Jeffrey had been booked and released on bail, Sam’s mother had called him in a sort of withheld panic, asking if Jeffrey had ever done anything inappropriate with him. Of course not, Sam said, and then she acted as if it was a silly question from the beginning. But she wanted to be absolutely sure that if he ever needed to talk about anything, anything at all, he should always, day or night, feel free to call her. She meant well. She wanted to understand. He too, even with all the time he and Jeffrey spent together, couldn’t make sense of what happened. When the news first broke he’d unfollowed The Washington Post and The Capital Gazette. He didn’t want to know what people were saying.
Around dinnertime, Sam’s father walked in. He put his briefcase on the sofa and walked over to give him a hug.
“Doing okay, Sammy?”
“The lawyers are going to walk me through everything tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s good.” For a while none of them said anything. His father pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the top of his forehead. Like Sam, he’d never acclimated to the D.C. humidity. He put his hands in his pockets. “I wish you’d have talked to us before you agreed to do this. If he’s found guilty you’re forever the guy who vouched for the rapist.”The story had made the front page of the Metro section a week after the team won their first state championship. The girl involved chose to remain anonymous. Sam’s mother said that such accusations didn’t happen without merit, that most people were not so malicious. Yes, they are, Sam thought. Even though he didn’t know Jeffrey’s accuser, he had known plenty of bratty, spoiled swimmers who complained about everything: the challenging sets, the long weekend meets, the sit-ups they had to do before they could go home. He wouldn’t put it past one of them to get pissed off and instigate a rumor that then spiraled out of control. Yes, the world was full of spite.
“Why do you assume he’s guilty?” Sam said. “He hasn’t been on trial yet. At least wait until then to judge him.”
“Oh honey, that’s not what your father meant. We’re just looking out for you. Whatever happens, the verdict will be public forever. There will be a record of everyone who testifies. We want you to understand that.”
“I’m not talking about this anymore.” Sam shut his eyes and sighed. “Just let me get some work done. I have projects to finish.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
He’d moved to Buffalo after college. The cooler weather did him good, the distance between him and home. He enjoyed the rule-based world of software testing. Once he understood fully how a program worked, he typed up his notes and moved forward. He was always busy, and he liked it that way. Too much time to think always left him adrift. It was easier for him to disappear into the rhythm of his typing, the sea of keystrokes, the comfort of code.
Late into the evening, Sam took a break from coding and went downstairs. His father was reading Esquire and soaking his feet in an herbal footbath; his mother was channel surfing.
“Sorry, about earlier.” Sam sat at the far end of the couch. “The lawyers don’t want me to overthink things. I’m not supposed to convince anybody that he didn’t do it. I’m supposed to tell people what he was like when I was in high school, what I thought of him. That’s all. You don’t need to worry about me. I want to do this.” He stared up at the ceiling fan and watched the blades spin around and around. His phone buzzed. A text from one of his work colleagues, asking when he would be back. In a few days, he typed.
Sam thought of Jeffrey and wondered what he was doing, if he was milling about in his house, if he felt scared or angry or just alone. They’d kept up with each other over the years. Sam perused the team’s Facebook page and would get occasional emails from Jeffrey asking how things were going at college, or wishing him happy birthday, or congratulating him on the latest race. Even though Jeffrey was no longer Sam’s coach when he quit swimming, Sam still felt like he was letting Jeffrey down.
Jeffrey had come to Rockville High School during Sam’s sophomore year. He looked young for thirty-four, effervescent like nothing Sam had ever witnessed in an adult. He seemed to want to be there, as if his job nourished him. During practice he yelled out the sets with gusto, and he would always do the post-swim stretches along with them, to prove that he respected them and all they could do. Sometimes, when they did squats, Sam could see flashes of Jeffrey’s underwear. It didn’t matter that Jeffrey was out of shape, that his stomach hung perpetually over his belt when he crouched down on the pool deck. He and Jeffrey were probably the same size now. Sam wondered if Jeffrey would even recognize him.The team once went to a meet in Richmond. They had just finished up dinner at an Italian restaurant next door to a Hooters. When they were supposed to make for the van and head back to the hotel, the team, like a singular, gelatinous mass, shuffled into the Hooters instead. They had all heard about the famous waitresses there, but most of the boys had never visited one before.
Sam broke away from the group and slid into the van alone. When Jeffrey got into the driver’s seat and saw only him in the rearview mirror, he laughed. Together, they waited for the team to finish ogling. Sam told Jeffrey that he simply wanted to concentrate on the next day’s events. But he also hoped that Jeffrey would see him in that moment as an adult and not a silly, overexcited teenager. For those brief moments, they could be equals.
The law offices of Devlin and Kirk were bustling for a Sunday. John Devlin and his paralegals had found Sam’s name in several old newspaper articles, including one where Jeffrey complimented him on his performance at the All-County meet. Surely Sam could vouch for Jeffrey’s character, Devlin had said. After all, he was a kind, successful, trustworthy guy. The staff had vetted Sam’s social media accounts and he had come out clean. Sam found the word clean unsettling, but then he remembered the nature of the internet: everything was on it. Dirt was everywhere.
A secretary took him to a glass-walled conference room with a marble table and rows of sparkling water. He was told it would take a couple hours to walk him through everything that would happen in court, but he would be free by noon at the latest. It didn’t matter much. He wasn’t in a rush to get home.
Devlin’s paralegals walked in. It was their job to run through the list of procedures, standard behaviors, and little things that Sam should remember when he took the stand. Devlin would be in a little later so they could practice some mock testimony. They handed Sam a binder to flip through and asked if he was ready.
“Go for it,” he said.
Don’t wear a suit. A suit would appear patronizing and disingenuous when he most needed to come off as natural, a young person at ease. He should wear something innocuous, respectable, like a polo shirt and khaki pants. When paired with a short haircut, that ensemble would make him look the right amount of trustworthy.Walk up to the stand, without shuffling, and sit down gently. He would be addressed as Samuel—more professional sounding than Sam—a 24-year-old computer scientist on whom Jeffrey had made a life-affirming influence. They would use terms like life-affirming in order to describe Jeffrey as someone who helped people, not ruined them.
Don’t worry about people staring. Get used to it. The judge, jury, defense, the crowd, and the reporters would all examine him, his facial expressions, his movements. He would probably feel warm under the heavy lights, and in that case, he should sip some water and answer when ready, but he shouldn’t wait too long to answer, or people would think he was hiding something or cooking up a lie. The truth needed to spill off him, drip by drip. Regarding eye contact: Sam should focus on one spot and stick to it. He should never look up or down. That would paint him as wishy-washy. A safe spot to rest his eyes would be the wall behind the jury.
When the prosecution gets their turn, remain calm. There’s no shame in being there—though they would try to distort everything, try to plant in Sam’s mind and the minds of all in the room that Jeffrey selected his job as a swim coach solely to prey on young people. They were going to use some upsetting language. Perverse. Abnormal. Prey. They were going to say Jeffrey had never helped anyone. Sam should try to block all that out and stick to what he knew. He knew more than anybody about Jeffrey, about the way he pumped his fist after a good race, about his goals for the team, his reasons for getting up in the morning. Sam remembered everything, because that’s what you do when you care about someone. And he cared a great deal—even if no one, Jeffrey included, had ever noticed.
Jeffrey’s accuser was a female student, a senior at the time, who said he spoke aggressively to her and then assaulted her in the women’s locker room. Her lawyers hadn’t made public any other details. But whenever Sam tried to place Jeffrey in such a scene, to imagine it happening as the reports said, he failed. Something like that would not happen.
For one thing, Jeffrey was never aggressive. Sam couldn’t remember who’d initiated the sex, one summer afternoon at Jeffrey’s house. The swim season had ended. Sam was heading to Cornell in a few weeks. The two of them arranged to meet up so Sam could return a book Jeffrey had lent him. He hadn’t thought about saying goodbye. The house was in North Bethesda, ten minutes from the pool. They sat on Jeffrey’s couch for a while and talked about college, how Sam would spend his remaining few weeks packing, studying, staying in shape.
“You have to spend time with your friends,” Jeffrey said. “It’s easy to forget people. Too easy. I haven’t kept in touch with anybody from that time, though it’s been a while for me.” Sam couldn’t think of anyone he wanted to see before he left. High school was already far behind him, a distant wake blended into the shore.
“But you still remember your classmates, right?” Sam asked. “It’s only been what, ten years?”
Jeffrey laughed joyfully, deep, from the belly. “You’re funny. I should call you up when I get sad.”
He hadn’t meant it as a joke; he’d simply gotten the number of years wrong.
But Sam felt a delight from Jeffrey’s laugh that ran through him all the same. They sat together. They spoke about the swimming world championships in Shanghai, how the towering glass arches that bookended the pool looked like sailboats, how they wished they could go there and cheer on the best of the best. Then their hands were touching. Sam knew nothing of how it all worked. He wasn’t sure what would happen when he touched the soft hairs along Jeffrey’s forearm, when Jeffrey’s fingertips grazed the inside of his wrist. But it felt as real and right as anything he’d imagined, any of the fantasies he entertained in his bed at night.
“Are you okay?” Jeffrey said. Sam saw the stubble on his cheeks, the lazy, relaxed shape of summer. He wanted to feel the texture, to run his hand along the lines of Jeffrey’s jaw. They shared a kiss. Jeffrey stood. Sam rose to meet him. He followed his every move, mimicked everything he did, though less skillfully. He hoped that Jeffrey would forgive his inexperience.
They lay together atop pillows and clothes that hadn’t fallen to the floor, limbs entwined in a repose that Sam had thought impossible, a perfect silence he wished would never end. Jeffrey had been gentle; nobody got hurt. Sam had turned eighteen a few months prior. He wanted it.
In the aftermath they showered together, consumed and happy. Jeffrey seemed content. He soaped Sam’s back and kissed the suds away. He laughed when Sam got another erection, and jerked him off with pleasure.
He suggested they remain mum about all that happened, because even though Sam was no longer a student, there were still teammates of his who Jeffrey would have to coach when the new season started up. Sam obliged; he would have done anything for him.They saw each other one more time before Sam left, at the summer pool that Jeffrey managed for some extra cash. They shook hands, drew each other in for a hug, and Jeffrey told him to stay in touch. It was between the two of them. If only Sam had been five or six years older, he might have been in a position to say let’s do it again sometime, or let’s have a drink or grab dinner. But Jeffrey knew him when he was just a clumsy kid. That’s how he would remain in Jeffrey’s mind.
A man rapped on the glass door. Sam looked up. Devlin smiled at him and stepped inside. He wore a gray suit and an oxford shirt with no tie—perhaps since it was the weekend—but otherwise looked very lawyerly. He was tall, with broad shoulders and sparkling teeth. Sam smelled cologne and gagged a little.
“Well there, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Samuel.” Devlin’s hand was warm, almost comforting. “Thank you for doing this. Your testimony will really help Jeffrey, your speaking to his good character as a coach, but more importantly, as a man.”
“How is he doing?” Sam asked.
Devlin gave him a cautious look, as if the subject should be left untouched.
“As well as expected. I think the jury still needs some convincing.”
“I hope I can help you all.”
Devlin walked over and muttered something to the paralegal hovering in the doorway. He pulled out his cell phone and typed as quickly as Sam had ever seen an adult do in all his life. When he finished, he put the phone back in his pocket and smiled.
“Good, that’s what we want. Just be honest. That’s all you have to do.”
“Is Jeff here?” Sam asked.
The last time Sam and Jeffrey had communicated, Jeffrey wished him a happy 24th birthday on Facebook, and Sam had replied back and asked how he was, if he might want to meet up some time over the summer. Then the allegations came out.
“He’s at home, resting.” Devlin thumbed through some papers on the desk. “Samuel, tell me something. Is there any reason why Jeffrey would be against you supporting him? Anything we need to know?”
Sam shook his head. That afternoon was between only the two of them. No one else. Sam always kept his promises.
“Great,” Devlin said. “Just stick to what all happened, and we’ll be fine.”
Late in the evening Sam paced around his room. He reached under his bed and pulled out a wooden letterbox, one that he built, sanded, and polished in ninth-grade shop class. A thin layer of dust covered the top. Sam opened it and sifted through the postcards, notes from friends, letters from grandparents, birthday cards from oft-forgotten cousins. He pulled out a plain white envelope. Jeffrey had given Sam a letter after the last practice of senior year. Most of Sam’s teammates had already put high school swimming behind them. Sam remembered stuffing the envelope in his backpack and waiting until he got home to read it.
Years later Sam still thought of the letter often and remembered what Jeffrey wrote, his neat, careful penmanship, the curves of his signed name:
Swimmers like you make coaching worth it . . . you’re a model athlete . . . I enjoyed working together. Your friend, Jeffrey.
He put the letter back in the box. Better to be a friend than nothing at all.
He hardly slept. Aside from the occasional creak from his parents’ room and the sudden whir of the pipes from a flushed toilet, the silence unnerved him. He had forgotten the lumps of the bed, the smells and sounds of the house. Without the chlorine wafting up from his swim bag, without the utter exhaustion from workouts that allowed him to pass out as soon as his head hit the pillow, it seemed an altogether foreign place.
The courthouse lobby had a high ceiling and a white marble floor, and the clacks from women’s high heels reminded Sam of chalk hitting a blackboard. He texted Devlin’s paralegal that he was in the building. His courtroom was at the far end of the building on the second floor. All the other rooms were full. Lots going on in the world. What had all those people done wrong?
He walked slowly, trying to hide the sound of his footsteps. He sat on a bench outside the big double doors, wondering about what his father had said, that his reputation would be ruined if Jeffrey were found guilty. Sam wasn’t aware that he had a reputation. In high school, even in college, he never joined any clubs aside from swimming, and the swimmers were never cultish like the football or soccer teams. Most of them found spaces in different groups. He flew under the radar, his body folded in the fray of the smart yet unremarkable students, and that was that. He never had to defend himself from anything.
He rehearsed what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to say it. He checked the notes he’d typed on his phone. Clear, calm, confident answers. A text popped up from his mother. Are you there yet?
Yes, he replied, then switched off the device and slid it back into his pocket.
“Sammy Nesbitt. I thought that was you.”
“Oh. Hey, Lissy.”
She was one of the popular tribe and hadn’t been particularly kind to him when they were students. She’d once made a lewd comment about his body when they were freshmen and it had taken Sam months to get comfortable walking around the pool deck again. She always seemed to relish her time in high school. He took no solace in seeing her.
“I didn’t know you still lived here,” he said.
“I coach the girls’ team now. After what happened they decided the teams needed separate coaches.” The woman looked up and down the hallway, then leaned in closer to him. “I always knew something like this would happen. He was a disaster. My sister knows the girl it happened to. The girl told her that Jeffrey flirted with her and she turned him down, and that’s why he did it.” Sam began to say something, but Lissy kept on talking about how disturbed Jeffrey was, how he deserved everything he got. After a while Sam couldn’t look at her anymore. He felt sick to his stomach.
“Need to make a phone call,” he said and excused himself.
The restroom was empty. He hovered over the trash bin, and when nothing came out, went to the sink to splash his face. He had to do this. He wanted to do this. When he felt nauseous before big races it usually meant he would swim well. It was part of the process. It meant that he cared about the result. Sometimes, when he got particularly stressed about a swim, Jeffrey would help him stretch, massage the knots out of his shoulders, and remind him to just do what he’d practiced, to merely repeat the thousands of laps he’d done before. Muscle memory, that’s all you need. Don’t overthink it. Winning is never easy. Your body knows what to do.
He crept back into the hallway. Devlin’s paralegal paced back and forth outside the door, head down, phone in hand. Sam approached him.
“What happened to you? You texted me ten minutes ago. Are you all right?”
“Can I ask you something?” Sam said. He forced down the rising knot in his stomach. He hoped he didn’t retch on the stand. “Do you think he’s guilty?”
The man looked him over. He straightened the collar of Sam’s shirt, undid the top button, smoothed the fabric around the shoulders. He told Sam he would be great on the stand.
They entered the courtroom quietly and sat in the back row. The room reminded Sam of a Catholic mass: the wooden seats, the lecterns, and the stillness that so often lulled him to sleep in his youth. He saw the judge, a portly man with a receding hairline, probably around his father’s age. He scanned the jury—an even split between male and female, mostly middle-aged except for one man who looked near seventy. Sam noticed Lissy in the row ahead of him. He didn’t recognize anyone else in the crowd. He looked over to the defense table. He couldn’t see much. The back of a head, mottled hair, a hunched body.
Sam heard his name called. He stood and, just like he was told, everyone turned to look at him. He kept his lips still. Not upturned, not down. Neutral. He would hold it together; he just needed to get up there. He stared at the clock behind the judge, the focal point for his tightrope walk. He thought of all the times Jeffrey had cheered for him, waving his clipboard at the end of every race.
When he got toward the defense table, he took a quick glance over. Don’t look at him, Devlin had said repeatedly, don’t look at him. But Sam couldn’t help himself. It had been too long; he wanted to see his face, see what the last six months had done to him. His eyes were sunken, his body gaunt. He had on a blue tie and white shirt, school colors. Sam couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Was he shaking his head? Scanning the room? He looked crumpled, like a dropped doll.
Sam took the oath and sat down, keeping his back straight. Devlin walked slowly towards the stand, head bowed and hands together, as he said he would. To set the tone, he would open with basic questions about Sam and his life. Simple, nothing invasive. All Sam had to do was be sure of himself. He’d never been described that way before. In birthday cards people said thoughtful, or loyal, or kind, or they just drew little heart shapes. A person could be all of those things without being confident.
“It meant a lot to you,” Devlin said, “being on the swim team. It helped you respect yourself.”
Respect was one of the buzzwords Devlin had mentioned. Sam knew they would try to use it as much as possible, especially paired with certain others: esteem, independence, and understanding. The language, Devlin had said, would shape what everyone thought; the words would set Jeffrey free.
“Jeff said my hard work was important,” Sam said. “He said I was doing something not many people could do. He said the hard work was worth it—you know, waking up early, staying late at night, not getting to go out on the weekend like a normal kid. He kept telling me that I was doing a good thing, that I was a good person. He said he was on my side. I still think about the things he said to me, whenever I need comfort.”
“And in those three years, did Mr. Lowell do anything inappropriate, or did he make you feel threatened in any way?”
It was more of a statement than a question. Sam could have simply shaken his head and the point would have been made. But he had been coached on what to do in this moment. This was the only reason they had wanted him to give an in-person testimony rather than write a statement. It was a risk they were willing to take, so long as he was able to deliver.
“Never. No. He—”
Sam was only supposed to say never. One word, then stop talking. He turned red. What now? He sat there with his mouth slightly open, looking to Devlin to tell him what to do. He was ruining everything.
“It’s all right,” Devlin said, “keep going.”
“Jeff never would have harmed me. That’s all I wanted to say.” Sam looked over to the defense table. Jeffrey’s head was angled down, as if he was just barely able to hold himself up. He was looking at the floor. Sam wished he could say something to him.
“He. Never. Would. Have. Harmed. You.” Devlin took a long look at the jury and returned to his seat. The prosecutor stepped up, not once taking his eyes off Sam. Devlin said the man would try to plant things in his head, to try and alter the story. Sam’s only response should be to answer truthfully.
“It sounds like the defendant made a real impact on you, Sam.”
“Your honor,” Devlin said calmly, “the witness’s name is Samuel.”
“My apologies. Samuel, then. You said that you looked up to Mr. Lowell, that he taught you a lot about yourself. Did he treat you differently than he did other members of the swim team?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“That’s curious, because I have an Instagram snapshot here, taken in 2010.”
The lawyer handed a copy to Sam. “Can you tell us who is in this photo?”
“The men’s swim team,” he said. It was from the winter invitational in Richmond, Sam’s senior year, when the team got obsessed with the Hooters and abandoned the van. He didn’t remember who had taken the photo. Sam and Jeffrey were at the end of the row.
“Mr. Lowell has his arm around you, as you can see. And you still claim that your relationship to the defendant was no different from any of the other team members.”
“He put his arm around other members of the team?”
“Yes. He did that sometimes.”
“It seems to me that when a coach puts his arm around a young person with hardly any clothes on, that action crosses the line. Abnormal, you might say.”
“It’s a swim team. You don’t wear clothes when you swim.”
A few people in the audience chuckled. Sam wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Probably good. People like to laugh. The lawyer looked displeased.
“Did Mr. Lowell ever touch you in an inappropriate manner?”
The laughter in the room splintered off. Devlin yelled out in objection, but the judge just as quickly told him to sit back down. Sam could answer the question.
“Of course not. He wouldn’t do that to anyone.”
“And you and he never met outside of normal practice hours?”
“Yes, we did. Sometimes I saw Jeff at the Friendship Heights pool. He coached a summer league.”
“Were you a part of that league?”
“No. I went to that pool to swim by myself.”
“So, you were spending more time with him than other members of the team.”
Sam wanted to reply, but the lawyer quickly shifted to the newspaper articles, the same ones that Devlin and his team had seen before they contacted Sam. He read some sections of them out loud. Devlin said he would do that. He would try to prove Sam’s bias, that Sam was blind to the truth. A few times when the man was reading, Sam looked over at the defense table. Devlin gave him a firm nod and made an okay sign with his hand. Jeffrey still looked about to cry. Sam tried to find a sympathetic face in the crowd, one that could calm him and carry him through the rest of the questions, but there were none.
“You’re openly gay, aren’t you, Samuel?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
The lawyer looked surprised, as if Sam’s answer had been a challenge to him. He moved closer, a body length from the witness stand. He smelled like plastic, like dried hair gel.
“That’s good. Good for you. And when you were in high school, did you talk to anyone, your parents, Mr. Lowell, about your sexuality?”
He hadn’t told anyone, not his parents, not anyone on the swim team. He had considered telling Jeffrey, the night of the Hooters incident when they were alone in the van, but he couldn’t work himself up to it. One of many unfulfilled moments that he wished he’d seized instead of retreating to his bubble. He avoided the subject for the next three years. He lied when his parents asked if he’d made friends with any of the girl swimmers. He sat in church and nodded when the priest talked about the importance of mothers and fathers and familial bonds. Even with Jeffrey he made sure to speak more deeply, to look only at Jeffrey’s face when they debriefed after a race.
Nobody suspected a thing.
“But was Mr. Lowell someone you would have considered telling, if you had told someone about yourself?”
“I suppose so. I trusted him.”
“And were you ever sexually attracted to Mr. Lowell?”
Sam squirmed in his chair. He knew the question might come up—Devlin had suggested it was possible—but he still wished he didn’t have to answer.
“No, I never saw him that way.”
It pained him to say it. He hoped that Jeffrey understood it was all for show.
“Thank you for your honesty, Samuel. Tell me, when did you graduate from Rockville High School?”
“So, seven years before the assault took place?”
“Had you been in contact with Mr. Lowell after you graduated?”
“We kept up with each other on Facebook. We emailed sometimes.”
“But you never saw him after you graduated.”
“No,” Sam said, fully aware of what he was doing. It would be fine. He could handle the weight of what he’d done. Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.
“I’m just trying to understand,” the man said, “why someone who hasn’t seen a person in many years would put themself through this very intense, stressful process—”
“—to defend someone who is clearly disturbed, clearly out to prey on young people, someone who sexually assaulted an eighteen-year-old girl in a locker room.”
“—because he didn’t do it!”
Devlin had told him not to pass judgment, not to talk about the accusation. Sam wasn’t there; he couldn’t possibly know what had happened. His opinion didn’t matter. He wasn’t any smarter than the jury. Debating guilt or innocence would only alienate them. And that would be poison. Just talk about what kind of person he is. That’s all Sam had to do. Do that and he could help Jeffrey go free.
“And tell us, why do you say so emphatically that Mr. Lowell is clean of all this?”
“Jeff is, he’s…”
A voice from the crowd. “Please, stop this.”
Jeffrey stood up, his hands on the table as if it took intense effort for him to support himself. Everyone turned to look. Sam had nearly forgotten what he sounded like. He still had that same gentle tone that he’d used to console Sam when he’d swam a poor race. “You have to stop this. He’s just a kid.”
His voice cracked. The judge commanded him to sit and be silent.
A kid? Maybe he had forgotten that Sam was twenty-four.
“Go on, Samuel,” the lawyer said. “Why do you believe the defendant is innocent? Help us understand.”
It wouldn’t take much. A few sentences about what they did at Jeffrey’s house. That would be enough. Questioning his sexuality might put doubt in the jurors’ minds, call suspicion on every grenade thrown so far. Sam exhaled all the breath from his body. He looked back over to his friend. He wanted to say something to him, to have a normal conversation again, like they’d done hundreds of times before. But all Jeffrey did was shake his head.
“Answer the question, Samuel.” The prosecutor slowly backed away from the stand. Sam forced himself to swallow, to take a moment before he responded.
No. A promise was a promise. That afternoon would stay between them.
“He wouldn’t have done something like this. He couldn’t have. He’s a good person.”
“You see, Samuel, that’s what you want to believe. But the image you have of the defendant doesn’t match, in any way, what happened here. Whatever you might have thought of him, Samuel, that’s not who he is. You never saw the real him.”
Sam shut his eyes tightly, but he couldn’t keep them from welling up. He couldn’t look at anyone.
“This must be hard for you,” the lawyer said. “I’m sorry.” He nodded to judge and jury and spiffed up his jacket as he returned to his side of the room.
Sam stepped down. He returned to the back aisle and leaned against the wall. He was going to faint. But he couldn’t leave until the next witness was called up; the jury would be looking at him until then. He needed to be stoic. He looked over at Jeffrey, but he couldn’t see his face anymore. He wished he knew what was going through his mind. He wished he could go over and apologize. When he finally got outside and onto the sidewalk, he bent over as if he would throw up again. But all he did was stand there, staring at the pores of the concrete, trying to compose himself so that he could go home.
That evening, the family had a big dinner together. He did not tell his parents what he had said or what the prosecutor said. Just as they started piling up the dishes, one of Devlin’s paralegals called. Devlin wanted him to know that he had done fine, and that the prosecutor came off as a bully, which could play in their favor. Sam was not to worry about any of it. He’d done a brave, brave thing. Sam asked how Jeffrey was doing.
“He’ll muddle through,” Devlin said. “You were a great help to him, Samuel. You should be proud of what you did. It’s hard, telling the truth.”
On the flight back he did nothing but work. Even at home in his kitchen, while he picked at a frozen meal, he continued to test a meditation app for pets. He thought he might cry sometime, at the right moment. He wouldn’t force it. But nothing came.
When the news broke, Sam was at the office. He knew what the jury would say. He didn’t need to read the articles. No use having it shoved in his face. He chugged a nutritional shake for lunch and walked to the smoking balcony, which was always empty. He pulled out his phone. He wanted to see Jeffrey. Maybe there was a photograph after the verdict. But he found nothing online. Sam pictured him standing there wordlessly, a blank expression on his face, his body still. No fear or doubt, empty eyes, standing tall. A respectable way to be.
An envelope arrived for Sam a few months after Jeffrey began his sentence.
It had huge black stamps from the corrections facility. It arrived on a Wednesday. Sam knew it was coming. Jeffrey had mailed it to Devlin, and Devlin had mailed it to Sam’s parents, who called Sam asking what to do.
His mother told him about the newspaper articles detailing the trial and his testimony, about the court sketch of him looking upset on the stand. One reporter had found his email and written him for a comment, but Sam deleted his messages. There was nothing else he could say. Jeffrey would be locked up for at least ten years—almost as long as they’d known each other.
They would be two different people by then. Whatever they’d shared, whatever they once had together, was over.
Sam thought, proudly, that he might never open the letter. He would leave it in his desk and, slowly, it would lose its power over him. He would start to date again. He would meet a man who made him feel as if his past life didn’t matter at all, and they would have lazy days in bed that would thwart the passage of time so much, the letter would become a relic from another place, a place that didn’t matter. That would be the sensible thing to do.
He made it a year, around the time that anniversary posts showed up on Facebook celebrating the justice that was served.He’d gone on a few dates with a colleague, a software engineer around his age. At dinner one evening, the man asked about the trial, if the article in the Post was correct that Sam had tears in his eyes when he left the stand. Surely the reporter was exaggerating. Sam tried to explain what happened, but somewhere in the middle of it all he grew tired and let his words trail off. He saw his father shaking his head, the messages from classmates telling him to fuck off, the pictures of the empty pool that saddened him more than it should. And when he thought of Jeffrey sitting silently in the courtroom, not looking at him, Sam got up, left the restaurant, and went home.
He looked at the cloudy sky and counted his steps one by one as he walked, the same way Jeffrey had taught him to count strokes when he did laps. The idea was that if you knew exactly how many to take, if you knew exactly where you were in the water, you could swim with your eyes closed. Understand something well enough and it becomes effortless, an extension of yourself. That’s where true joy lies. That’s where a person should strive to be.
The envelope was where it always was, beneath his tax records, social security card, birth certificate. He slid his finger underneath the edge and tore a straight line along the flap. He lay the paper on the desk. The penmanship was crude and quick, single-spaced, in black ink. There was no date.
Dear Sam, I’m sorry for what I put you through. You’ve done nothing wrong, you never have. That afternoon should not have happened. I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me.
Throughout his life, Sam had never prayed. And yet, until he read the note a second, a third, a fourth time, until he read it aloud and heard the words in the air, he’d still hoped that something, some presence, some force either earthly or divine, would lead him back to that afternoon, to the two of them enjoying the sight and sound and smell of each other, sitting on the couch, debating the greatest swimmers of all time.
He put the letter in the waste bin and lay down to sleep. In seven hours, he woke and once again threw himself into his work. He found things to keep him busy. He masturbated that night in the shower and let his thoughts linger. He wondered about Jeffrey’s words, and if the two of them were thinking of the same afternoon, or if he’d gotten it all wrong from the beginning.