A friend of mine that served two tours in Afghanistan once told me that he would spend the entire day in the blistering desert heat filling sandbags with his small portable shovel. While the rest of his friends relaxed and killed time between orders, he would stack these burlap sacks of sand higher and higher, hoping that as each inch of protection ascended from the ground his pleading with God would stop once fragments of shrapnel came scattering from the enemy. It didn’t matter how many blisters stained his once soft hands—when bullets were being sprayed in his direction, he could only plead with God.
“And that’s why building a wall is pointless” he said with a smirk. He leaned and choked a little with his cigarette planted between his lips. I watched tears drip from his eyes and dive into the red solo cup he held in his left hand as his head bowed slightly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say” I squeezed my beer can so tightly it began to form an indent.
“You don’t got to say anything. There’s no difference between you now and me behind those sandbags.”
I heard the screen door slam behind him as he walked back into the party. I sat for a while staring into the blackness outside, wishing I had a cigarette to mask the contemplation.
My eyes watered from rage as I sat in the clerk’s office scrolling through digital photos of a woman who was in need of shelter from her abusive boyfriend. The cheekbone under her left eye was sunken in—a direct result of having the bone shattered by a blunt object. Her eye was swollen shut but the opposite eye was puffy from tears. I thought about her sitting on the floor of her bathroom taking photos of the remnants of her face.
“Jesus Christ.” Another intern named Chris came up behind me with a fresh mug of cheap coffee. I continued to scroll through the photos without speaking. He stood behind my chair breathing heavily as I continued to see the fingerprint bruises on her arms, neck, and thighs from being raped.
“I forgot you like cream in your coffee” Chris muttered. I sipped from the mug politely, completely forgetting that he had done something thoughtful for me.
“Did you read the PR yet? Dude says she injured her face slipping at work.”
“Where’s the file on his mug shot?” I replied coldly.
“RPD didn’t arrest him, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to detain on an assault charge.”
I slammed my palm onto the desk. “RPD is filled with a bunch of community college idiots who know how to do ten pushups and recite the fucking alphabet.”
“My dad’s RPD and I don’t understand why you’re always getting so emotional over cases. She’s a junkie, Steph! You’re so quick to insult police officers but you get all worked up over a fucking drug addict!”
“Junkie or not, he doesn’t deserve to be let off with a fucking warning just because people like your fucking dad think she’s not worth the paperwork!”
I rubbed my eyes as I heard him storm out. I pulled up the police report and began to cry once I saw that she had two children, ages eleven and eight.
“What to do with you kid?” My advising public defender sat across from her office desk with an unpleased expression slapped across her face.
“I’m sorry, those photos—”
“Should be treated with absolutely no emotion or bias in terms of the case” she cut me off sternly.
“I’ll send Chris an apology” I replied timidly, feeling like a child in trouble with the principal.
“I think that would be best. Can I offer you some advice?”
I looked up, embarrassed by how close to tears I was.
“In this field, you can’t always go around telling everyone what you think—even if it’s right.”
I nodded and stood up. I turned around before hearing “that woman isn’t your mom, and that defendant isn’t your father. The sooner you stop imposing yourself on these people, the better off you’ll be.”
I turned to face her, instantaneously deciding that the termination of this “selective” internship was worth offering her a piece of my mind.
“Save it. You’re a hell of a kid and you’ll make a damned good lawyer but I mean it. You cut this out now, the better off you’ll be up here” she tapped the side of her head.
“Chris dehumanized her.”
“Chris didn’t grow up like us.”
I still have dreams about the cot that felt like it was filled with straw and covered in piss. I was too afraid to stir and accidentally wake my mom, who had finally fallen asleep after hours of crying. Coughing, sniffling, and the wails of babies echoed in the damp room. It was like a storm shelter but for women fleeing the torrential downpour of abusive boyfriends and husbands. I kept promising myself that one day I would be strong enough to protect us all — financially, physically, emotionally. Soon I would grow up and be the hero I was meant to be. I would become the support beam for my mom, who had no family in the states and was forbidden to contact her family in Korea from my father. I’ll make him sorry, I repeated to myself. I’ll have my revenge.
“When are you going to stop hating me Steph?” My dad asked at the luncheon following my great grandmother’s funeral service.
I shoved my fork into the plate of pasta and looked up.
“You aren’t good enough for hate.”
My aunt cleared her throat and swallowed a gulp of red wine. “Stephanie honey, maybe we should get you a drink from the bar?”
I cried on the drive back to my apartment, desperately attempting to convince myself that they were tears over the death of my great grandmother. They weren’t. I eventually pulled into the parking lot and smeared away the evidence of all emotion. I walked in and smiled at my roommate who was cooking.
“You’re out early” she grumbled and cursed at the time.
“Yeah I had some last minute writing to do.” I shrugged and shut my bedroom door behind me, wondering if I’ll ever stop filling and stacking sandbags.