"The first order of business is to determine hardship," thunders the judge, his black robes closing around him like beetle-wings.
Suddenly, the courtroom, which had been buzzing with pages turning and anecdotes being swapped, with the unzipping of bags and the unclamping of purses, nose-blowing, gum-chewing, and the constant rearranging of body parts in tier upon tier of hard wooden seats--is silent.
"This will be a three-day trial," continues the judge. "Hardship will, if approved, allow any one of you to be excused immediately from court." A few hands shoot up--including mine.
"I don't know if you would consider this a hardship, your Honor?" I hear myself ask.
The judge lowers his glasses a notch and peers down at me from the platform. I almost buckle. But I made a promise and I must keep it.
"My son needs me," I meekly confess.
The distant rustling of the judge's sheaf of papers is the only sound in the massive, high-ceilinged room other than an occasional hacking cough and its shy echo.
"If I don't leave in twenty minutes, he's going to miss his driving test."
Excused, I pray he'll say. Or even hardship denied. I'll still be blameless. I'll have done everything I possibly could.
Instead he asks, "Are you certain you want him to take the test?" His voice projects easily into every crevice of the courtroom.
"My son got his license five years ago," he announces, a slight smile playing upon his lips, "and he still isn't paying his own car insurance."
The citizenry leans in my direction. But I am stunned by the question.
The judge, who has an eviction case to preside over, impatiently turns from me and scans the room, searching for true hardship. He calls on a Vietnamese woman in her forties with penciled-in eyebrows and a svelte, low-cut dress. En masse, two hundred prospective jurors rotate towards her as the judge commands her to stand up. She tells him she can't afford to leave her beauty salon for the minimum two days the trial will be in session. She has no one to work for her. She will have to close her salon. She won't be able to pay her rent.
"Thank you," interrupts the judge. "You may sit down."
A middle-aged Caucasian woman with a paunch and a crutch raises her hand and slowly, painstakingly manages to stand up. She takes a deep breath and is about to speak when my cell phone, in violation of court order, blasts out its ominous ring-tone: the first four bars of Beethoven's Fifth.
I know without looking. It's my pimple-picking, high-school-hating, hip-hop-worshipping son, anxious to learn if I've been dismissed from Superior Court so I can chauffeur him to his one o'clock DMV appointment. My hands spring into action, unzipping pocket after pocket of my backpack, scurrying in and out like beach crabs.
"I'm in excruciating pain," I faintly hear the Caucasian woman say.
Meanwhile my phone keeps bleating. Heads turn this way and that, torn between a tale of human suffering and a hapless mother's embarrassment. The ring tone stops, and then begins again, its shrill notes ricocheting like pinball shots against the six sides of the court. Inexplicably, the judge refrains from inquiry. The woman on my left twists in her seat and eyes me as if I were a criminal.
Finally, mid-ring, I locate the phone. The ringing stops just as I grab it. The judge extends and lowers his arm like Moses, causing the aggrieved middle-aged woman to plump down into her seat.
I look at the screen. One missed call.
A young, pinstriped Chinese-American man rises to his feet. "I've got a non-refundable round-trip airline ticket to Barbados," he says. "My flight leaves tomorrow."
I glance at my watch. My son's appointment is in forty-five minutes.
The judge nods and faces the full court. I watch in horror as he extends both arms wide, his beetle wings unfolding to their full expanse, a sure sign that his tolerance for claims of hardship will soon come to an end.
"He's counting on me," I blurt out.
In a blink the judge's wings fold back into his body and he bends towards me. It's an oddly intimate gesture, as if the two of us are sitting in a café waiting for our lattés.
"What school does your son attend?" he asks, the courtroom's dim fluorescence glowing on his hairless pate. I tell him.
"Can't he change his appointment?" he continues sotto voce.
"Yes," I admit.
I have always been incapable of lying -- even fibbing -- in or out of court.
"Yes, he can, but he made reservations. He would have to wait another three weeks."
My son's first failed attempt to get his license had been more than a month ago. I had stood in the DMV parking lot with tears in my eyes and watched the back of his head- the one I still massage at his request at bedtime-as he deftly put on his left hand turn signal, then steered the test car smoothly into the busy street, away from me.
"You're absolutely sure you want your son to get his license?" the judge persists.
I look up at him, my mind welling with memories: my first-born straddling my hip as I dance to Feliciano's Oye Como Va late into the night; my hand glommed to the little red bike seat as my four-year-old wobbles precariously across the blacktop; that same kid in elementary school clobbering me in Monopoly.
Am I sure? "Yes," I nod. Of course not, I think. The throng of potential jurors, plaintiff, defendant, even court stenographer, have shifted their weight so as to comfortably view the unfolding drama.
"What's your name?" he asks, holding his bifocals over the official list. I tell him.
"Here you are," he says, tapping my moniker.
He abruptly lifts his head and calls out, "Any more hardships?" as if time, which had clearly stopped, had suddenly grown restive.
No one speaks. The judge begins to go over the seat numbers for prospective jurors. Number 1: Bibleheimer. A buxom woman in a tailored, black pantsuit stands and proceeds to her station. Number 2: Bullock. A post-postmodern twenty-something with clown-red hair and three rings through her lips plunks herself down next to Bibleheimer. I get edgy. Then I hear my name. I am number 3.
"It's fate," barks the judge from his perch. "You can tell that to your son."
I settle into my new position. There's no way I can make it to the DMV now. The buxom woman looks sympathetically in my direction.
"I'd be so mad," the pierced redhead snarls in my ear.
I must alert him. My son's adulthood will have to wait. I bend over in my chair and pretend to tie my shoe. Surreptitiously, I phone him. No service. The judge continues to call out names and numbers. How is it possible that there is suddenly no reception? Number 7, says the judge. Number 8. I try again. The second ring breaks up like a strangled cat.
The judge has just called out number nine when my cell phone's famous melody again plunders the room, sounding even louder than it had the first time. The captive subjects of the judiciary system spin toward me.
"Mom," he whines, sounding young, almost girlish, "are you going to make it?" I start to whisper but the call breaks up. I shake the phone. Nothing.
"Is that him?" the judge demands.
"Yes..." I await my punishment. No one moves. I imagine my son at home throwing himself onto his bed over and over.
"He wants it that bad?" No one seems to breathe.
"Then go!" The judge's voice booms out causing dozens of itsy-bitsy sounds to escape -- a purse shifts on a lap, a shoe slides a fraction of an inch towards its partner.
"Go," he cries out again, "if he wants it that much." Awkwardly, swiftly, I assemble my things.
"Wish him good luck," he adds as I exit the jury box.
I look up and out at the waiting masses. Everyone is wishing him good fortune; even the beleaguered defendant wants my son to pass. Someone grabs my arm as I flounder by knees and trip over shoes. I turn.
"Put it into drive," a silver-haired lady whispers loudly. "Tell him that after the reverse test, he needs to quickly shift back into drive."
I race to my car and maneuver like a madwoman through crowded city streets. My son jumps into the passenger seat. I don't skimp with my iron foot.
"Sorry," he calls out his window as I cut someone off. He seems astounded at my uncharacteristic boldness. "I can't believe you're not slowing down for yellow lights!" Incredibly, my first-born and I make it to the DMV on time.
A pock-faced man waves him over. They scoot into the front seat of an innocuous state-owned car, which soon disappears around the street corner. I am left alone in the parking lot, drenched in sunlight. I turn my face towards its warmth. Closing my eyes, I remember with guilty pleasure the relief I felt when the judge first called my name-as if a three-day trial could have actually postponed my son's chin hairs and impending baritone. But the real trial is here. On this graffiti-stained bench, I feel it. First the license. Then a car, a dorm room, an apartment. In the distance, I hear the faint sound of cars and motorcycles accelerating and braking. Minutes blend and dissipate into thin air.
"I didn't make it."
I spin toward my son's voice, anxious to console. He strolls up in his saggy jeans and XXXL white T-shirt, his dark eyes sullen. Suddenly he recants, "I passed!" he whispers in my ear. He hops into the driver's seat of my car without asking and calls his best friend. I hear the other boy screaming through the cell phone as I climb into the passenger seat.
Year after year, I've chauffeured my son wherever he needs to go. Today he drops me off.
That evening, I hear him struggle to parallel-park in front of the house. I listen to his light-footed steps and the grate of his key in the lock. Upstairs, I wait. But he does not come to me. I walk downstairs to his bedroom but don't go in. I want to know everything about his first independent voyage. Yet I can't bear to see the incontrovertible evidence of rapture on his face.
Perhaps this is what the judge had meant. "Are you sure?" he kept asking.
I imagine him now, home with his family, his black robe lying like the shell of a monstrous insect on the floor. He has already crossed the threshold that looms before me.
I knock softly on my teenager's door.
"It's open," he says.
I enter and see him stretched out on his bed beneath the dark, penetrating gaze of Tupac Shakur, rubbing the silken edge of his blanket as he has done since he was born. I see no sign of jubilance.
I want him to say something first but he doesn't.
"How was it?"
"What?" He turns his head slowly toward me. "Oh, driving." He lays back onto his bed, his slender frame almost ephemeral in the lamplight.
"It was hella weird," he says, and points to his back, signaling he wants the usual goodnight massage-"I was out there and it was like...I was totally alone."
Sitting down next to him, I realize that I am not the only one lurching toward a precipice. My fifteen-year-old son is on the verge of entering a vast and unfamiliar world without me. Softly, I sift my hands through his hair, the way he likes it.