The bitch murdered my brother. If she couldn’t stand him, why didn’t she just divorce him? Damn it, I told him to avoid Jewish girls.
Look, I come from a Jewish family so it’s not like I’m prejudiced. I just prefer Gentile women. Like Brenda’s friend Veronica Poplin. Veronica and I hit it off at Shawn and Brenda’s wedding, but the affair was doomed once the bride poisoned the groom. I mean, how could you date a girl whose best friend murdered your brother, no matter how hot she was?
I don’t deny killing him. Just look at the facts: He was alive one minute, dead the next. My husband of four days departed while dining with me in a dimly lit booth at Go Fish Grill, my favorite seafood restaurant. An autopsy revealed that Shawn Regal died of a lethal dose of horse tranquilizer. Microscopic remnants of the animal sedative were found on his dinner plate.
I hadn’t intended to kill him. All I wanted to do was cause severe stomach cramps, maybe a day or two of agonizing food poisoning. But dealing with any kind of poison is a risky venture and I was prepared to pay the consequences if something went wrong. Something went wrong all right, as wrong as something could possibly go.
Shawn ordered the Chilean sea bass with red wine risotto and tiny white asparagus. I had the steamed cod in bok choy, and we were sipping an expensive, delicate Riesling. I made the decision to finish my steamed cod after Shawn had already conked out, and this faux pas didn’t go over well with the press. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in letting good food go to waste. Shawn had already devoured his sea bass, so I calmly finished my cod. I could have ordered dessert, but out of respect for the lifeless body next to me, I passed. Did the press mention that? Of course not. And let me state in black and white: This restaurant has a tiramisu to die for.
Just before the heartless one’s heart stopped beating, his head leaned back on the burgundy leather booth. On first glance, it appeared as if he’d fallen asleep. “Too much wine?” our attentive server Tessa quietly asked, observing my comatose companion. I told her my hard living husband had too much everything.
I became a beaming bride and a grieving widow in less than a week.
It was during the second week of my sister Brenda’s trial when I grasped the magnitude of the case. We were all aware of the presence of the media outside the courthouse, but none of us had any idea how far-reaching this trial would become. Every time someone appeared on the witness stand, his or her face graced the cover of the following day’s newspapers. Then the public determined who deserved their attention and who didn’t. The people they liked would appear in print and on nightly news programs while those they detested would vanish from sight. The process was astonishing. Were people this starved for entertainment? Brenda’s trial became their daily ritual, and the players in the trial became overnight celebrities.
Every morning outside the courthouse, a large gaggle of women, all ages, races and sexual orientations, gathered ‘round and chanted “Free Brenda!” They bravely held signs and banners that read Prison’s No Place For a Princess and Acquit or Eat Shit! I waved to them and flashed the warmest smile I could muster.
It was gratifying to have good people on my side. It made me feel less alone in the cesspool I’d gotten myself into. But I was alone, and nobody was coming to my rescue.
I couldn’t undo what I had done. If given the chance, I would’ve put a bit less poison into his meal. That way, Shawn would have writhed in pain for several hours if not days, but eventually he would’ve gone back to feeling normal and sleazy instead of dead as a fish floating on the surface of Hudson River.
The wedding of my sister Brenda was a magnificent affair. The only thorn? A tall, gorgeous, high cheekboned blonde named Ingrid Vilhelmsdotter.
“I thought he was finished with the Finnish girl,” I said to my sister.
“He is,” Brenda explained. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t be platonic friends, right?”
“Uh, right,” I said, remaining unconvinced. Knowing my sister better than just about anyone else, I was certain she remained unconvinced as well.
What young, breathing couple doesn’t make love on their wedding night?
We tried very hard, but hard was unfortunately lacking. Shawn couldn’t perform, blaming his lack of get-up-and-go on the excitement and nervousness of the wedding night. I had my doubts.
“You were gone for half an hour during the reception,” I said. “Where did you go?”
“I don’t remember,” he responded, his eyes avoiding mine.
“Everyone was looking for you.” I reminded him that lawyers are professional liars and he needed to tell me the truth the whole truth and nothing but the goddam truth if he had any hope this marriage would last beyond the night. I threw a Tic-Tac into my dehydrated mouth, then tried a different tactic. “Whatever it is, sweetheart,” I tenderly said, “I love you to death and we’ll work through this together.”
He hesitated for an interminable length of time. When he finally spoke, when he confessed his crime, his eyes remained on the foot of the bed as if he were reading off a TelePrompter. “Ingrid and I went for a short drive in her new car,” he said. “The Volvo V50.”
A short drive. He and a voluptuous Swedish goddess. In her V50, a model known for its comfort and versatility. “We did it one final time,” he said, “for old time’s sake, you know?”
I explained, rather calmly (I thought) in light of the situation, that “for old time’s sake” traditionally meant enjoying a toast or singing a nostalgic song, not having sex with a leggy Nordic beauty in the back seat of her Swedish SUV. “There are certain rules of engagement you just don’t break,” I said.
“You’re right. I’m very, very sorry.” Shawn promised me, swore on his actual knees, that sex with Ingrid Vilhelmsdotter would never happen again. Without missing a beat, I promised him that our marriage would be annulled as quickly as possible.
“You’re joking, right?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t joke on my wedding night, Shawn.”
“What’ll we tell our guests?” he asked.
“Here’s an idea,” I said. “How about the truth? We’ll explain that during the wedding reception, the groom rubbed a woman’s vulva in her Volvo and that woman, as it turned out, wasn’t the bride.”
“Do we return the gifts?” he asked, more concerned about the wedding presents than he was about ending his marriage to the woman he supposedly loved.
“Well Shawn,” I said, “frankly I don’t think I can part with those stainless steel asparagus tongs.”
“I have a confession to make. I’m the one who killed Shawn Regal. It was me, Patsy Kilpatrick, who poisoned the handsome bastard.”
This was the announcement I voluntarily made to the national press.
“I had a love/hate relationship with Shawn Regal, just like Brenda Bernstein did. He broke my heart the way he broke Brenda’s. He obviously chose Brenda to tie the knot, but I still adored the guy and hoped to be with him someday, somehow.
“Yes, Brenda was sitting with him at the restaurant the night he stopped breathing, but it was me who snuck into the kitchen and poisoned his plate of food with the lethal tranquilizer. I decided to confess because the truth is very healing. If anyone is wondering, I’m wearing Stella McCartney and the pumps are Kate Spade. No questions, please, and I ask you to respect my privacy at this terribly trying time.”
I explained to my very perplexed client that in high-profile cases, you can expect at least one or two certified lunatics to come forward and confess to the crime, people who have a frantic, pathological need for fame. It happens every time, and the press swarms around these narcissistic sociopaths. The tabloids cover their every move until it’s revealed that their story is bogus. Then they vanish from sight, and a week later nobody can remember their name.
Brenda’s reaction to the Patsy Kilpatrick episode was a combination of amusement and incredulity.
A quick investigation of Patsy showed that she was an actress, real name Ruth Ann Rott, originally from Peru, Indiana, with a resumé that included a regional TV commercial for hemorrhoid cream, a national commercial for deodorant, and a flop of an off Broadway musical about Jacques Cousteau called Water!
The publicity-hungry Patsy was using the trial merely for self-promotion. But frankly, so was everybody else.
At least one good thing happened since the Bernstein bitch poisoned my brother. I got a call from someone at People magazine and they wanted to include me as one of their Fifty Most Beautiful. Photo shoots, interviews, morning TV appearances, the works. It was weird how everybody involved in Shawn’s killing was making a killing for themselves, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. Because of my good looks, I was determined to stretch my fifteen minutes to at least a couple of hours.
“I have something exciting for you,” my mother said as she pulled an item out of a brown shopping bag. “The latest issue of Time magazine. Have you seen it?”
“No,” I said. To my astonishment, it was my face, the face I’ve known intimately for thirty-one years, that was gracing the cover. This weekly space, ordinarily saved for heads of state, rock stars, movie stars, breakthroughs in medical science, and stories like How We Became Human, Dropout Nation and The Radical Mind of Thomas Jefferson, featured me, Brenda Bernstein! I knew that some journalist from the magazine interviewed my mother, Veronica and Grace, but it didn’t dawn on me that the piece might become a cover story. (I declined to be interviewed as I’ve declined every single offer.) Underneath my face were the words: Women Who Kill.
Lovely, I thought. Would any female be happy about going down in history as one of the Women Who Kill? I really wish they’d come up with a better title. Some people might’ve thought I went on a carefree shooting spree, gunning down anyone in my path. Others might’ve lumped me in a category with “Squeaky” Fromm and Aileen Wuornos. I was not a woman with a .38 Special. I poisoned one solitary time under one specific circumstance. Thankfully, the article itself explained the real story, and in the end I came across in a fairly sympathetic light — as a strong, confident woman who decided to put my foot down when my husband’s behavior became intolerable. According to the piece (and to several women-on-the-street who were interviewed), it doesn’t get much worse than a groom having sex with a woman other than his new wife while his wedding reception is taking place.
The piece obviously painted a ghastly picture of Shawn. In fact, no one in the Regal family was presented in a flattering light. His brother Byron was called “a spoiled rich pretty-boy with no obvious talent except attracting some of New York’s hottest women” and mother Isabel was described as “one of those wealthy East Side doyennes who wants to be taken seriously as a patron of the arts but all she’s really serious about is what to wear for lunch at Café Des Artistes.” Even the Regal patriarch, Murray, was mentioned; his decade-old scandal which ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound seemed especially tragic now that his oldest son was dead too.
I bought all the issues of Time from the corner newsstand, around thirty of them. I proudly told the guy behind the counter, “That’s my daughter on the cover.” He looked at me strangely, then he says to me, “She’s a woman who kills?” I told him to shut up and read the article. Then I went to another newsstand six blocks south and bought up all those issues too, around forty of them. You’d think they’d give you a discount when you buy in bulk, but they do not. “Times are tough,” the scruffy guy behind the counter said.
The magazine chose a gorgeous shot of Brenda for the cover and there are some gorgeous pictures of her inside: her sweet sixteen party, her college graduation, a date with Shawn at some fancy restaurant taken a week before she poisoned him, Brenda in court, Brenda being led to prison. She looked beautiful in every shot, and it was fun to compare the different hairstyles she had through the years.
How many people can say they have a daughter who graced the cover of Time? No matter what, my little girl made the world stand up and pay attention. Not everyone might agree with what she did, but she sure got noticed. I brought two dozen issues to the courthouse and had Brenda sign them. Put one in a lovely glass frame and what a fantastic gift it would make!
Time and time again I declined to be interviewed by Time. I had no interest in seeing my name or face on any printed page. My mother, on the other hand, as well as a half dozen of Brenda’s acquaintances, would’ve paid the publication to be included.
What does this say about us as a species? Would most of us grab hold of fame like starving vultures? Is the possibility of stardom so powerful that it overshadows everything we value in our lives? Maybe we read too many tabloids, watch too much television, and care so much about the rich and momentarily famous that we long to be one of them. My reticence was the exception to the rule, and this was ironic because back in the day I would’ve loved the attention. But at this point in my life, quite frankly, I was astonished and ashamed at the behavior of just about everyone I knew.
Out of curiosity, I Googled my sister’s name. I was astounded by what I found on page after page after page: fan sites, photo galleries, bios, daily blogs, mug shots, memorabilia, quotes, transcripts, lists, analyses, late-night jokes. There were YouTube videos and TMZ reports. Someone even researched our family tree and discovered we were related to Pearl S. Buck, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Glenn Beck. (That’s a Buck, a Bach, and a Beck.) A guy was peddling a book called What To Expect When You Poison A Spouse. It was hard to believe the Bernstein clan (and Brenda in particular) had become so utterly fascinating to the world at large.
By the end of week number three of my sister’s trial, I prayed this wouldn’t go on much longer. But I had a strong suspicion that some other more publicity-hungry people hoped it would last forever. The following day, I got an offer to pose for the cover of Maxim.
The offer came from out of the blue: a hosting gig on a new dating series in development. The producer saw me on MSNBC and thought I had what it took. The show involved pairing up the brothers and sisters of people who were savagely murdered. The idea was that these guys and gals have gone through so much pain that they deserve to be matched up with other people who’ve lost a sibling in a violent death.
The fact that my brother was poisoned by a horse tranquilizer obviously qualified me to host the series, but I asked the producer, Winnie Zing, why she chose me out of all the other surviving siblings. “Because you’re hot,” she said. “If you can’t make a girl forget about her murdered sibling, no one can.” (I wondered if I’d have to fuck her at some point as a way of showing my gratitude.)
To be honest, hosting a game show wasn’t my top choice for my first job in the biz. I would’ve preferred a good part in a movie or even a second banana role in a sit-com. But the money was great and I thought the exposure would’ve been awesome.
The show was originally called No Slain, No Gain. Then it was changed to He’s Dead, She’s Dead. Then the powers that be finally decided on Mating After Murder. I thought that had a great ring to it.
Brenda Bernstein and I sat next to one another in our sixth grade class until I asked Mrs. Voskevic if I could move to the back of the room.
Our bitter rift began when Brenda refused to believe I was named after the Mona Lisa. The enigmatic woman in Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting is supposed to have been Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. My parents were aware of this art history trivia because Gherardini is our family name. When I was born, they decided to give me the first name of Lisa.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Brenda thought I was making the Mona Lisa story up to draw attention to myself. What she failed to realize was that I didn’t need to invent stories to draw attention to myself. Being the prettiest girl in class (in the whole school, actually), I received more attention than I could handle. It was obvious Brenda was consumed with jealousy. She was also jealous that my father was a millionaire real estate mogul and that my hair wasn’t frizzy and my family had a summer house at the lake.
It was a cold, snowy day when the incident took place. I was eating lunch in the school cafeteria along with everyone else. I took a sip of my grape juice and it tasted funny so I immediately took a bite of my egg salad sandwich to drown out the taste. But I was really thirsty so I took a few more sips of the juice. Then I felt sick, so sick that I had to be rushed to the hospital.
When I wasn’t looking, someone had poured purple ink into my glass of grape juice. If I had taken a few more sips, I would’ve perished. My two precious children would not have been born. I wouldn’t have been happily married, and then miserably divorced. To this day, my tongue is slightly blue in color. Brenda never admitted doing the deed but I always felt she was the culprit. The girl had a penchant for poison. When I heard that she was on trial for killing her newlywed husband with a horse tranquilizer, I felt I had to come forward and enlighten the jury. I knew this woman was poison personified.
The prosecution was thrilled that Lisa Gherardini was delivered to their doorstep as a living, breathing example of my poisonous instincts. With her testimony, many felt that the final nail had been hammered into the Brenda Bernstein coffin.
It’s mind-boggling that someone who was a total bitch at age nine could be an even bigger one at thirty-two. You’d think life would’ve softened her, age would’ve had a mellowing effect. Instead, Lisa Gherardini hardened: her features, her personality, maybe her arteries for all I knew and hoped. Behind that phony smile, beneath that jade necklace and those cosmetically enhanced breasts resided pure evil.
Every few minutes she glanced over at me with the most rancorous expression. I wondered what kind of person holds a grudge for more than twenty years?
Even though the jury seemed to look down at what I did to Lisa in elementary school, they appeared amused by it. Grace Lefkowitz-Caprice, on the other hand, seemed like she was ready to strangle me.
When Lisa was finished, she stepped down and walked out of the courtroom with a petulant swing of her hips. For a fleeting moment her eyes met mine, and she could tell I was hoping her ex-husband would poison her.
Her testimony caused irreparable damage to the defense, Grace explained. I asked her if she could attack Lisa’s character and credibility the way she did with that lunatic Patsy Kilpatrick. “We’ve researched her,” Grace told me. “The woman’s record is as immaculate as her Armani suit.”
“Are adults responsible for what they might’ve done when they were eight?” I asked.
“Not necessarily. But their actions add another shade to their character. Your character was undoubtedly damaged.”
During Lisa’s testimony, I experienced what some might call an out-of-body experience. I was able to step back and get an objective view of what was taking place. There was a certain splendor and grandiosity to the courtroom proceedings. All these people, the jurors, the lawyers, the bailiff, the courtroom deputy, the court reporter, the judge, were gathered together on account of me! I felt intimidated by the spectacle, the pomp and ceremony. I felt small and unworthy, like a novice violinist suddenly playing with the London Philharmonic. I wanted to stand up and shout, “I’m not worth all this trouble!” But I knew there were certain people present who felt that I was. These enemies had a single, powerful purpose: to put me away for life.
Two days later, a press release made the rounds: Lisa Gherardini had become the new spokesperson for Welch’s Grape Juice.
I informed my client that the jury had reached a verdict.
In all my years as an attorney, I had never been so unsure of a jury’s decision. Usually my instinct is right on the money, but this time I wasn’t placing any bets.
The only thing going for us was the public. Masses of women who’d been emotionally hurt or blatantly humiliated by husbands and boyfriends were seriously rooting for Brenda; her case had become a cause célèbre. Brenda Bernstein was a new feminist hero, a strong, passionate woman of conviction who put her foot down when her newlywed husband performed an unforgivable act. No matter how many times the jury was told to ignore the public outcry, it was virtually impossible to do so. The outcry was deafening. Brenda’s face was everywhere. She had become synonymous with equality for women.
Luckily, the women outnumbered the men on this jury, seven to five, and they seemed particularly gruff and no-nonsense. Yes, these seven badly dressed grouches were a blessing.
Twelve random citizens had decided my fate. We’d never had a conversation, never spent a weekend together, never shared a meal, yet this dirty dozen held the key to the rest of my life. In a flash, we were all back in court, hearts pounding, pulses racing.
“This has been an extraordinarily difficult and complicated case,” Judge Kestenbaum declared. “The media coverage has been overwhelming. Everyone involved in the trial became a media celebrity, and some have parlayed their newfound fame into book deals and on-camera careers. This is a case that will certainly be noted in the history books as it has been widely discussed in the tabloids.
“Science tells us we only use ten per cent of our brain. The speedometer on a car informs us we can reach over two hundred miles per hour even though the speed limit is sixty-five. The law limits our speed, but the law doesn’t limit our brain. We all think we know what it means to be guilty. Doesn’t it mean the accused has done moral or legal wrong? If so, what exactly does ‘not guilty’ imply? We should ask ourselves: Just how innocent are the innocent?” At this point, nobody knew what this woman was babbling about, and several people suspected this trial had caused the honorable judge to lose her grip on reality.
“Will the foreman please stand?” Judge Kestenbaum finally requested. The foreman of the jury, in a short sleeve white shirt and clip-on tie, stood tall. “Has the jury unanimously agreed on a verdict?”
“Yes, we have,” he proudly announced.
“Do you find Miss Brenda Bernstein guilty or not guilty?”
“We, the jury,” he said, “find the defendant, Brenda Bernstein…” And for some ungodly reason, the goon paused. For what? Dramatic effect? Was he auditioning for a production of Twelve Angry Men? Why would someone pause at that crucial moment? Punching him in the face was all I could think about, no matter what the verdict was.
“…we find Brenda Bernstein…not guilty.”
A deafening cheer swept over the courtroom like a giant, cleansing wave. I felt hands and arms and fingers on me, voices coming at me from all directions. The ordeal was over. Fini. Das ende.
I was now yesterday’s news, and I couldn’t have been happier.