Nerve Classics

My Public Defender and Me

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I was going through a hard time, and taking huge doses of a medication that had been prescribed not for me, but for my Irish Setter. My Setter was going through a hard time too. We were both a mess. She was old, older in dog years than any human has ever lived. She reeked of chronically infected urine. I spent so much time taking care of her that I exuded the same foul odor. I’d let my hair grow, chin and scalp. My hair was all over the place. I was such a mess that the first thing my public defender said to me when we met was that I’d have to clean up before she put me in front of a jury. It was also the last thing she said to me. I don’t think she remembered that she had said it at the beginning.

The medication I was sharing with my Setter was supposed to help her sleep. It helped me to sleep, too.

As a side effect, it also removed practically all my interest in sex. But my life was in such chaos that sex was a low priority anyway. In any case, I went from sixty thoughts of sex an hour to near zero in just a month. I sat in my cubicle from dusk to dawn (I’d been put on the night shift after I became unkempt) and sex was the furthest thing from my mind. For the first time in my life I was getting almost no spontaneous hard-ons: a whole night would go by without a good, strong, out-of-the blue erection. I worried that I was damaging my virility, so I’d force myself to jack off every so often as a safety precaution. It was tough going, jacking off. Often I’d lose interest and fall asleep before I finished. And when I came, after a week of not jacking off, all I produced was a dribble and a little puddle. I would have asked my doctor about that, if I’d had a doctor.

Then I got a new public defender. My first PD handed me off to someone less likely to be repulsed by an addict in need of shearing. My new public defender — I couldn’t believe my eyes — was a dead ringer for Georgette Eastburn. Georgette was the daughter of the police chief when I was growing up, and my sexual obsession from grades eight through eleven. The constant hard-on I had during those four years was due almost entirely to Georgette Eastburn. Georgette sat next to me in French class; every single essay I wrote incorporated her in one way or another. Madame Pfeiffer warned me that she would grade me down if I didn’t get myself untracked, but Georgette was my muse. Madame couldn’t grade me down because my French was as impeccable as my Georgette-inspired hard-on was perpetual.

I had no case. This was the good news from my new PD, but it swept right past me. My PD was giving me a hard-on! I watched her lips move, but I didn’t hear a word. Georgette Eastburn’s lips: in eleventh grade, Georgette would pout and I and half the class would spurt. A zillion fantasies came flooding back while I pretended to pay attention to the hopeless facts of my case. If fate could provide me with a public defender whom I’d had wet dreams about on a weekly basis for four years running, there was hope in the world.

Could I make a play for my PD? My crime itself probably wouldn’t be a dealbreaker: I’d altered prescriptions from my vet after she’d grown suspicious of my Setter’s “tolerance” to the medication and had tightened up on the supply. I thought I had a chance, too, because ironically, at the same time that the medication was suppressing my sexual appetite, it was enhancing my ability to approach women. (I was still taking a massive dose, but legally. The detox was incredibly slow. You eased your way down, taking just a tiny bit less every two weeks.) The medication was an anxiety reducer. I wasn’t taking it to reduce anxiety, I was taking it to help me sleep. But the effect smoothed the way toward asking an attractive stranger out for drinks. In the past I had a healthy, normal level of apprehension about approaching an attractive stranger. Now I had none whatsoever. The medication totally untied my tongue. It wasn’t so different from the looseness that a few drinks gives you, except that it lasted around the clock and left me absolutely clearheaded. The lack of apprehension combined with clearheadedness made for intelligent and persuasive banter. The only problem was that while the banter enhanced my success in asking women out for drinks, I no longer had much interest in asking women out for drinks.

Still, the discovery that I could banter persuasively with attractive strangers was too intriguing not to explore, if only from the viewpoint of a disinterested observer. Most of the time the attractive stranger would say no, but every so often I succeeded where in the past I surely would have failed — on one memorable occasion, while standing in line at Walgreen’s holding a stack of extra-large incontinence underpads in my arms. It was like a reality show where the challenge is to pick up women while handicapped by some dealbreaking prop. When I did “succeed,” however, the end result never went beyond a chaste kiss. I couldn’t have brought women back to my tiny studio apartment, even if I’d wanted to. The surface of my bed was a mosaic of overlapping underpads. My whole apartment was a dealbreaking prop.

But now I was thinking about sex again, or to be exact, about my PD.

Every morning I’d take my detox dose, and then experience a phenomenon commonplace among fearful fliers. (I heard this from a flight attendant, over drinks.) Before takeoff the fearful flyer ingests a huge dose of the same med I was taking. But the med doesn’t kick in; the flier’s adrenaline is pumped up so high that it offsets the anxiety reduction. When the plane touches down, then the medication kicks in, all at once. My date described the ensuing process as “scraping the passenger off the floor.” In my bed, it was testosterone that postponed the med from kicking in. Normally it would knock me out in a flash: now I stayed awake until noon, replaying Georgette fantasies over and over, only adapted slightly to fit the circumstance of meeting with a public defender in a conference room.

I couldn’t ask Georgette out while we were still attorney and accused. But justice was as slow as my detox, and each two weeks meant losing a fraction of my Walgreen’s magic. To compensate, I fantasized like crazy during our meetings, which usually found Georgette providing me with another gloomy update. To all appearances I was present and receiving the update, but in truth I’d disappeared into a fantasy conference room identical in all respects to the one in which I was pretending to be paying attention, except that what I was receiving was — and if this sounds crude, remember that I was an accused criminal — not an update.

After endless delays, there was a break in the case. Georgette unearthed one of those obsolete statutes that usually make for nothing more than amusing trivia. The writers of the statute hadn’t done it for the benefit of unkempt Setter-caretakers, but Georgette was sure that the law could be applied to my situation. I was off the hook.

It was a bittersweet finale: I was nearly clean and sober, but once again merely average as a conversationalist with the opposite sex. Still, I took a shot. In the aftermath of the good news, I bantered about my Setter. It felt like an appropriate way to transition from my case into different territory.

When I asked her out for a drink, Georgette said no. But there was hesitation. The hesitation seemed so fraught with meaning that that I seized on it as an opening — maybe I still had a little dazzle left after all.

Georgette admitted that she’d been curious about me since we first met. The problem was, she explained, that I “pushed her buttons.”

I asked her how I pushed her buttons.

I didn’t give up just yet, but I could tell that nothing was going to change her mind. She was watching out for herself. We still had most of our session left and we filled it with a friendly conversation not so far, after all, from chatting over drinks. I learned that she had a young daughter from her marriage. I learned that she was clinically depressed. I learned that she too had a pair of dogs, littermates. She described them as a kind of comedy team whose antics were practically the only thing that could make her happy lately. She opened up to me. If only my case hadn’t dragged on, and I was still taking that unearthly dosage for which I now felt a deep nostalgia, I just might have talked her out of her qualms, buttons or no buttons.She hesitated again, and this time it was a very long hesitation. Then she told me that I pushed her buttons because I reminded her of her ex-husband. In her usual thorough manner she checked off the similarities between her ex and me, and how we pushed her buttons in exactly the same way. Actually, it wasn’t unflattering: he didn’t sound like all that bad a person. We did seem very much alike. She’d married him when she was only seventeen, they’d had a messy ending, and she just didn’t want to go down that same route again — at least not so soon.

After our friendly chat I went home and got myself cleaned up. I looked in the mirror and saw an exonerated, tidy, responsible member of society, nearly detoxed, prepared to be reinstated to the day shift. Then I celebrated the Hail Mary victory in my case by breaking my detox schedule for the first time ever. I took triple my allotted dosage, patted my Setter on the head, and anticipated an hour or two of celebratory fantasizing.

The only problem was that the chat I’d had with my PD had cast her in a new light. For the first time I’d seen her as someone who was not Georgette, who had her own life with its own share of sadness and disorder, a woman who’d been through a rough time with her ex, who had a daughter and quite possibly her own prescription to fill at Walgreen’s. She’d become too much of an individualized person to take the part of Georgette in my eleventh-grade fantasies. I tried, but it just didn’t happen. So instead I spent an hour or two of celebratory fantasizing about my not-Georgette PD. It was all completely chaste. I couldn’t launch into mindless sex with the patient, compassionate woman who had worked a miracle on my behalf. We took our dogs to the dog park and the comedy team frolicked while my elderly Setter looked on, longing for the romps of her youth. Before the fantasy went much further, I felt myself growing woozy; it had been months since I’d taken such a large dose. The dogs played some more and my PD and I chatted. And then I slept.

Fortunato Salazar lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Frigg, McSweeney’s, Mississippi Review Online, Sleepingfish, Wigleaf and other journals.