When we pick him up from his house, he is surprised to see us. Perhaps a little confused. I stand at the front door, my partner out by the street. His mother answers the door, her hair a frazzled, grey and black mess, pulled tight into a low pony.
“What is it you think he’s done, Detective?” she asks, looking me in the eyes. I meet her gaze. A small gold chain hangs low into her buttoned-up breast with the cross pulling heavy against her neck. I am six again, eyes wide with sympathy telling my father a lie. I know what my strengths are. I can make nice, make things look better than they are. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I do not hesitate.
“As I said on the phone, his DNA came up in this case.”
“Well, he would never,” she says.
“No, of course not.” They never do. “I’m sure there is some explanation, but that means I need to talk to him.” These situations are hairy. One wrong word and she can invoke her son’s right to Miranda, stopping me cold.
“He is only seventeen, you know.”
“Yes ma’am,” I say, without the slightly more arrogant and sarcastic, ‘Which is why I am even discussing this with you.’ Instead, I point to my car under a tree. “We parked down the street like you asked,” I say. “And I won’t put him in handcuffs until I get him to my car.”
She is worried about the neighbors. Of course she is. This is about her after all. What will they think when her son is carted away again? His shoplifting already ruined her reputation on her street, but surely he’s no rapist. Still, she looks back and forth between neighboring houses, perhaps seeing the idea of people inside, even though it is midday and they are probably all at work. And then he is standing behind her in his unlaced sneakers.
“Go then,” she says. “I’m sure he will tell you how all of this is just a big misunderstanding.” She reaches behind her son and guides him through the door. “Go.”
As promised, my partner and I walk beside him until we get to my car and the handcuffs come out.
“Sorry, Justin,” I say, holding them low so he can see. “It’s policy.”
He turns around without saying a word, his hands held close behind his back as if in prayer. Clearly, not his first time.
We talk of school and church and his mother’s fury, and yet, the car ride speaks nothing of the allegation. I get to know him. He gets to avoid the elephant in the car.
“How are you doing in school?” I ask.
“Fine,” he says.
“Got a favorite subject?” my partner, Dave, asks from the back seat.
“Math,” he says, and we speak–if you count the odd yeah or no coming from his side of the conversation–of decimals and new math and how one and one make two, and I think of this later when I present him with the evidence that brought me to his door; how one in one quintillion makes a boy turn eighteen in jail.
By the time we get to my office, he is no less stressed than when I stood at his front door. I sit him in the room with the chair closest to the door, Dave and I sitting casually as if this is just another conversation. An illusion that he is free to leave and that this truly is a misunderstanding. I ask him if he knows why we are here. He feigns ignorance. I read him his Miranda rights, and he tells me he understands. I ask him about this time last year. He cannot remember. I ask him about his route to school and back again, that certain area where he met that certain boy.
“I’m not gay,” he says, but there has been no mention of sex, no mention of nature versus nurture, no mention of the cross around his mother’s neck and the sin she wants to wash off of him each day. Just a simple question before the accusation, and he remembers everything the way he wants to remember it though he is not old enough to keep track of lie upon lie, not savvy enough to compete with us, in this box of carpeted walls, where everything he says is recorded, watched and spit back at him with smiles and understanding, and the only rules are known by those who brought him here.
“Nobody said that, Justin.” I reassure him. “No one thinks you’re gay.” But of course we do. Or at least trying on the hat for a day. Just to see if it fits.
“I like girls,” he says. “I have sex with them all the time.”
“You have a girlfriend, then?” Dave asks.
And he looks at the floor and then follows the seam of brown carpet up the wall and to the ceiling.
“Not right now, but a friend.”
“With benefits, I suppose,” I finish, and he nods in agreement. “But the DNA,” I counter. “What of that?”
Age seventeen or seventy-one, it takes time to Out someone. A boy is still a boy is still a boy until he can finally say the words, which Justin cannot. Only a rationalization and denial to himself. The room enjoys many conversations of denial. It wasn’t me. It must have been planted. I know how you guys operate. I watch CSI, you know. I would never, he would never, we would never. Never. Never. Never. Until this one time. She wanted it, he wanted it, I wanted it, we wanted it. They tell me the moon is the sun and the sun is the moon, and we sit in this room until it finally sounds ridiculous, even to them.
“He told me his name was Andy,” Justin says. “He said he did it all the time.”
“He said that?”
“Well, I mean, not in those words, but I could tell.” Justin squirms in his seat. “What are you going to tell my mom?” he asks.
“How did it happen?”
“How did what happen?”
“It wasn’t even sex. Not-” he says, trying to explain his side. “Not for real anyways.” And we go round and round like children singing Old MacDonald; here a lie, there a lie, everywhere a lie, lie. But his denial does not mesh with science and logical reasoning, and so it all comes out in small little admissions, bit by bit.
“It was only oral, because I knew he was younger than he said.”
“Well, I figured, you know. He didn’t know what to do.”
“Maybe that’s why he said you were forcing him.”
“I didn’t force him to do anything,” Justin says. “I didn’t even use my dick.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, because he was so young. So I used my thumb instead. So it wouldn’t hurt.”
That is the way of these interviews. No phone books. No bright lights. People really do want to tell the truth. They only lie because they are scared. I want to thank him. For being earnest. For all of the detail. Too much not to be the truth. I tell him that.
Of course, none of it matters. The truth, I mean. I can’t help him out of this. No matter how much I want to. The law is the law. I tell him how fourteen is too young to even ask about sex.
“But I told you. It wasn’t sex.”
It is here where I lay all the cards on the table. He remembers the who, the when, the how, and even though his seventeen-year-old brain cannot grasp it, after all the ins and outs, the backs from front, what he has told me is indeed against the law. The upside down, while now right side up, is still upside down.
“What are you going to tell my mom?” he asks again, tears running down his face. He is ashamed. Not of the sex, but of the boy, of himself, of his nature. He is a child, afraid of ripping off a Band-Aid for fear of the pain it will cause. It is once again ancient Greece, a young Socrates meeting up with other younger boys willing to learn. How does the rap song go? Willing to get in the driver’s seat, willing to turn? Besides, Justin still likes girls. He just hasn’t the game to play with them.
“She is going to find out eventually, Justin. He’s saying you forced him.”
“But I really didn’t.”
“Then why would he say you did?”
“I don’t know,” he says, leaning into his seat. “ But it’s what I would do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, if someone saw, or he started to feel bad about it, and he didn’t want anyone to know. I would say it was forced too.” Justin bends over crying now. “Even if it wasn’t. Because it wasn’t. I didn’t hurt him. He just said he had to go and he left.”
And my job isn’t so great anymore. The tools I have to break through the lies don’t feel as good. What has happened when I feel sorrier for the guilty than I do for the innocent, when they both start looking the same?
“I guess that makes sense, Justin,” I say patting him on the back. “But I already tried to get him to tell me the truth and he isn’t budging.”
Justin sits up straight again. His tears wiped dry. He asks me what happens next and I tell him about juvenile rules. The twenty-one days in jail. The sex crime segregation inside. How he needs to listen to the guards when they tell him to do something.
“But first, I need to call your mom,” I say, standing up, his head tilting up to look at me and my partner as we move towards the door. “Tell her what’s happening.”
“Right now? You’re going to tell her right now?” he asks. His voice echoes fear. Dave keeps walking towards the monitoring room to shut off the video.
“It’s policy, remember. You’re seventeen.” And in truth, I do not want to make that phone call. I know what I’ll hear. Not her son. What had she done wrong? As if any of it had anything to do with her. Why was God punishing her? And what can I say to her that won’t turn into a religious debate? Who was she to judge? Do I need Jesus to come down and ask her to cast that first stone to make her understand that she is no better than him, or me for that matter, setting kids up to fail in a system that is flawed. Justin is seventeen, and now facing the same amount of years in jail. If not more. He doesn’t need a mother to judge him when there are so many others just waiting in the wings.
I know the system. Close enough to eighteen, he will be direct filed, kicked up to adult court. What has he done, really? In the eyes of all those who have no idea what it is really like down here, in this carpeted confessional? They have no idea what real life is. They don’t get to listen to all the lies from both sides. What gets said in this room, with the victims, with the suspects, everyone, isn’t really what it sounds like even though it is exactly what it sounds like. The boys were just playing tug of war in the woods. That’s sounds harmless enough. Kids will be kids. Part of me wants to sit with him. Tell him it will be okay. I spend so much of my days almost preaching to my suspects about telling the truth and now here I am, wanting to tell him a lie.
Justin lowers his head again, wiping tears with a flat hand against his cheek. Trying to man up when his world is falling apart around him. “Can you do me a favor, Detective?”
We don’t do favors. Miranda doesn’t allow for it. A defense attorney would love for me to try. Extend my hand in real friendship. Give him something for something. Quid, pro, quo is a very slippery slope in my world.
My hand is on the doorknob. He wants time to compose himself. A drink of water. A trip to the bathroom, perhaps. I think of my own son, still too little, still too, everything. “What’s that, Justin?”
He turns his face up to mine, dry now, but still not ready for what’s next. “Can you tell my mom it was a girl?”
He Said, He Said was originally published in J Journal magazine last fall. See the link on the right side of my home page to get a subscription.