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September|October 2003
The Practitioner By Benjamin Smith
The Real Harm By Gabrielle S. Friedman
Standard bearer By Fred Strebeigh
A Bigger Tent By Katharine Mieszkowski
Profiling's Gender Gap By Daniel Brook
Coming Out to America By Tyler Maroney
The Love Charm A Story By Eugene Volokh
Ex Offender By Robert J.
In Defense Of Prostitution By Heidi Fleiss as told to Nadya Labi
My Gay Divorce By Laurie Essig

The Love Charm

A Story By Eugene Volokh

In all of Los Angeles, there are only three reliable love charms. This is far too few for a city that needs many more. One was bought 20 years ago by a real estate developer, who is reputed to be deliriously happy. The less said about the second, the better. The third is the subject of this story.

Ellen Silber was a young associate in a downtown law firm. She had done well at Harvard, landed a prestigious clerkship with a federal appellate judge, and started practicing at age 25, making $165,000 a year.

The hours were long, but Ellen liked the work and felt confident in her talents. Nor did she feel that the job compromised her morally: She went into law partly because she liked the idea of organizing life around a set of rules, and she was happy to be an honest cog in the legal machine. At 30, she was a few years from being considered for partner; but when she told her friends that she wasn't sure about her prospects, it was mostly a show of humility coupled with a slightly superstitious nature. Deep down she knew she would succeed, as she had at nearly everything else.

Ellen, however, was not successful at love. She was not unsuccessful at it: She had had lovers, and still remembered some of them fondly. Her heartbreaks were few, and faded fast. She was ambivalent about marriage and children, so the possibility of never finding Mr. Right led to mild concern rather than terror. She had a modest but adequate number of good friends, modest but adequate occasional flings, and a more than modest house in the Hollywood Hills.

But over the years, Ellen realized she found it hard to get really excited about a lover. She met many smart, successful men, but with each she felt something was missing—they looked good on paper, but she just didn't feel enough of a spark. She had considered that she might be too picky, but considering this didn't make the pickiness go away: The few times she talked herself into liking someone proved disastrous.

Then, two weeks after her 30th birthday, her best friend Michael died. Michael had been fighting cancer on and off since childhood. Ellen became close with him when they were classmates in ninth grade and he was very sick. Befriending him seemed like the right thing to do, though they had little in common; but after he got well, she found that his kindness and cheerfulness made him a perfect confidant, and over the years they stayed close. One reason she returned to Los Angeles after law school was that Michael lived in L.A., with his wife Janet.

Ellen was very serious about being loyal to her friends, but she was a woman of few illusions, and she knew that Michael had been no great catch. His illness, which seemed likely to recur, would itself have given some prospective wives pause; but beyond that, he wasn't especially attractive, ambitious, funny, or even intelligent. He had a high school education and worked as a night manager at a Denny's.

Janet, on the other hand, was beautiful and brilliant—when Michael died, she had just gotten her biochemistry Ph.D. One need not be a cynic to realize that such marriages are rare, even when the man is as sweet as Michael. Nonetheless, though Janet was far less kind and forgiving than Michael, both seemed crazy about each other. Janet's love for Michael was a pleasant mystery to Ellen, a little romantic miracle; contemplating it warmed her heart.

Shortly after the funeral, their mutual friend Bob gave Ellen a package that Michael had entrusted into Bob's care. Ellen was surprised that the package contained, of all things, a small salt-and-pepper-shaker set. Each shaker was a gavel, with the holes of one arranged in a letter "S" and the holes of the other in a "P." This is a present to give a lawyer for a housewarming, not something a dying man gives his closest friend as a keepsake. "Do not use until you get further instructions," the attached note enigmatically ordered.

Then, a few weeks later, she got an e-mail through one of those Internet services that lets you send reminders to yourself or to friends on a particular future day. The e-mail read:

Dear Ellen:

Sorry for this message from beyond the grave; even death is more complex in the Cyberspace Age. By now we will have said our goodbyes, so I'll get to the point. I've had more happiness in seven years with Janet than most men have in their whole lives, and I owe it all to a love charm I bought from a gypsy woman (how cliché) who owns an antique shop: the salt and pepper shakers that Bob should have given you.

I was insane about Janet at the time—remember my crying into the soup about her at Empress Pavilion—and would have done anything to get her; and, sure enough, as soon as I smuggled some salt and pepper from the shakers onto her plate (I won't tell you the lengths to which I went to do that!), she fell in love with me. Now you know why she was willing to have me; that's not self-pity, just the truth.

You may wonder why I didn't leave the shakers to Janet (that is, assuming you're not wondering whether the cancer had eaten my brain in my last days). It would have been the fair thing to do, though she might have hated me if she knew what I had done.

But from what the gypsy told me, that would have been pointless. The shakers won't work if they are given to a lover or a former lover; to anyone who is related to the giver by blood; to a person over the age of 40; or to a natural redhead.

You are none of the four. You are my best friend. I want you to find love, too. So the shakers are yours.

Love, always and forever,

ELLEN'S FIRST REACTION TO THE NOTE WAS NERVOUS LAUGHTER. Surely this was a sick joke that someone was playing on her. But that someone had to be Michael—who else would know both about the shakers and about that dinner at the Chinese restaurant?—and Michael never played practical jokes, not about important things and not on her. So maybe Michael's disease had affected his mind; but she had visited him often in his last days, and he had always seemed lucid.

When Ellen first got the shakers, she put them in the glass-fronted cupboard in her dining room, out of respect and affection for her friend. After the e-mail, though, their presence began to disturb her. If what the message said was true (which, of course, was impossible) then Michael had done something very wrong by forcing Janet into his arms. Yes, the alleged spell had made Janet happy to love Michael, but it would still have been a way to control her will—a sort of rape, Ellen's legally trained mind concluded.

But thinking this about Michael, whose decency she had always cherished, made her feel disloyal to his memory: Surely the note must have been simply the product of an illness-induced delusion. Ellen couldn't move the shakers out of the cupboard, since that seemed symbolically unfaithful; yet so long as the shakers were there in plain sight, she couldn't get them out of her head, and thinking about them was making her miserable.

She considered seeing a psychiatrist, but how could she explain the bizarre story without sounding like an idiot? So she did what she, trained as she was in systematic, lawyerly thinking, had always done when faced with her toughest problems, professional or personal—she wrote herself a little memo on a yellow legal pad. The memo, which she burned shortly after finishing, went like this:

1. Michael had always been my closest friend, and one of the most honest people I have ever known.

2. If Michael had done what he said he'd done, then he acted very badly.

3. Michael's story must be false, because there are no such things as working salt-and-pepper-shaker love charms sold by gypsy women!

4. Still, in some corner of my mind I have this fantasy that the story might be true, and this is coloring my memory of Michael by making me doubt his goodness. (She couldn't bring herself to write the rest of her reasoning, which was that for many women like Janet—including herself, she feared—voluntarily marrying someone like Michael was only slightly less improbable than falling victim to a love charm.)

5. It is disloyal for me to go on thinking this way, since the story is clearly false.

The last item, which took her an hour and three false starts to commit to paper, said:

6. I therefore owe it to Michael's memory to test the shakers, so I can prove to myself that the story is false, and dispel my foolish doubts about my best friend.

ITEM 6 OCCUPIED MORE AND MORE OF ELLEN'S MIND as the days went by. Its mix of rational deduction and wild credulity, coupled with recklessness and topped with a dollop of sheer perversity, captivated her.

She started to fantasize about slipping condiments onto the meals of handsome strangers. She wondered what would happen if someone caught her doing it: How would you explain putting salt and pepper onto someone else's plate at a dinner party? "The food here is so bland that I just knew you'd need it spiced up a bit"? Or would the man be so nonplussed by her weird action that he would just pretend it hadn't happened?

A few weeks later, Ellen found herself putting the shakers into her purse and realized, to her horror, that it had become only a matter of deciding exactly when she would run her experiment. Once she almost salt-and-peppered the food of a striking, brilliant young investment banker, before she recoiled from the possibility that she actually wanted the charm to be effective. Once she nearly did the same to a toad of a senior partner whom she secretly loathed, but was held back by what she later realized was the fear that the charm might work.

Finally, at a friend's cocktail party, another guest—an average-looking but moderately bright criminal-defense lawyer—used some turn of phrase or made some gesture that somehow reminded her of Michael. At that moment she felt the resolve materialize inside her. A few seconds later, when the man had turned away, she surreptitiously took the shakers from her purse, hid them in her hand, and snuck some salt and pepper onto his appetizer plate.

The man showed not a glimmer of romantic interest in her during the whole evening. Ellen returned home elated, a heavy burden lifted from her mind. Over the next few days she thought fondly of Michael, laughing at herself for even considering such a stupendously irrational story, and crying over photos of Michael, Janet, and herself in better days.

A week later, the hostess phoned Ellen in a state of great excitement. Sorry for being so slow to call her, the hostess said, but she had been traveling, and had gotten home to four messages from this very nice fellow she knew, who seemed quite smitten with Ellen; could she give him Ellen's number?

ELLEN WAS MORTIFIED. Obviously, the enchanted seasonings, like ordinary salt and pepper, took time to digest; her victim must have been stricken after he came home, and had been obsessed with her since then. She naturally said "no," but as fate would have it, she ran into the man at a law firm function two weeks later—lawyers travel in small circles. He was as polite as could be expected from a man seized by supernatural forces. Knowing that she was entirely to blame, she couldn't refuse him to his face.

On their second date, she had sex with him. This was early by her standards, but, being a practical woman, she realized that eventually her conscience would force her to ease his misery; and he was passably attractive, and it had been a while since her last lover.

The man was obviously utterly thrilled by the act, which made it nice for her at the time—and, objectively, he behaved like the perfect boyfriend. He complimented her. He paid attention to little details about her tastes. He learned which flowers she liked and sent them to her at surprising times.

But of course the pleasure couldn't last: Even if she could have come to like him under normal circumstances, she felt trapped and resentful. Hearing her friends tell her how lucky she was to have someone so devoted only made it worse.

Ellen tried to break up with him, but couldn't go through with it. The charm made him keep loving her just as intensely as in the first flush of his infatuation, no matter what she told him. He called. He sent her letters. He showed up at her doorstep. What could she do? She couldn't very well call the police and have him arrested for what was her own fault.

There must exist, Ellen concluded, an antidote: What the dark powers can do, the dark powers can undo. Feeble logic, but it was all she had, and she made herself a deal: So long as she was working on finding the remedy, she could go on with the one-sided love affair without too much revulsion or despair. The solution was just around the corner, and hope (and, she let herself realize, regular sex) made the waiting tolerable.

Michael, fortunately, had rarely left Los Angeles in his adult life. Ellen therefore began to visit antique shops all over town, neutrally describing the accursed shakers and seeing if any of the dealers showed signs of understanding her plight. This project, she quickly realized, would take a long time. She took days off from work; some at the firm grumbled, but she knew that she had a good reputation with the partners, and would be forgiven.

Once a week she'd see her spellbound man, but the rest of Ellen's spare hours were spent going from store to store, building an ever-growing list of antique dealers, present and past, whom she had yet to see. Some dealers realized she was desperate for something and tried to con her, but they failed, because they didn't know what she was really looking for. Good lawyer that she was, she gave little away in her questions.

Then one day she walked into a little storefront in Hollywood. Bric-a-brac sat haphazardly on the shelves. The place smelled musty and looked unpromising. But when she mentioned the accursed shakers, the dealer (neither a gypsy nor a woman, but a balding, bearded white man in his early fifties) smiled knowingly. "Oh, you have the shakers?" he said. "I was wondering when they would turn up. I'll sell you the elephant creamer for $30,000."

Ellen scowled and turned to leave, wondering whether the dealer was trying to fleece her or, more likely given the ridiculous price, mock her. But then she heard him say, "There are, I'm told, only three reliable love charms in Los Angeles. A real estate developer has owned one for 20 years, and he's tremendously happy. I've heard little about the second, and apparently that's for the best. The third has fallen into your life, and I think you would pay a lot of money for the antidote."

Thirty thousand dollars is indeed a lot of money, even for a partner-in-the-making at a big firm. Ellen considered her options. She could dump the guy and let him live with his broken heart, perhaps for the rest of his life; but she had tried this, and her conscience wouldn't let her. She could make the best of the situation and marry him, but then she'd soon come to hate him.

She actually tried to give him the shakers and have him sprinkle the magic stuff on her food—after all, if she were in love with him, too, then there'd be no problem. But it didn't work, as the gypsy woman had warned Michael.

She could bargain with the antique dealer, but he knew that Ellen was desperate. So one day she paid him $30,000 for a creamer that was shaped like a little elephant and that would supposedly make any person fall out of love in under seven hours.

FIVE HOURS AFTER DRINKING MONDAY MORNING COFFEE at Ellen's house, her beau looked at her picture on his office desk and frowned. Yes, she was pretty, but somehow not as gorgeous as he'd remembered; smart, but somehow that wasn't so important any more.

And why did she so often seem annoyed when they were together, as if he were doing something wrong? He deserved someone who would treat him better than that. He dithered about whether he should call it off or try to talk it over with her; but at their next meeting they were both so palpably unenthusiastic that the parting came naturally.

A month later, when Ellen's relief was replaced by remorse over what she had done to him, she met him for lunch and told him the story. At first, of course, he was sure she was lying, but the story did explain what in retrospect seemed so mysterious: Why did he fall in love so fast and so deep? Why did he fall out of love equally quickly? Why did she yield to his approaches but, as he now saw with his newly cleared judgment, never seem happy that she yielded? And her willingness to tell him this story, a story that didn't reflect well on her, vouched for her credibility: Why would she say all this, unless, as she explained, she felt she owed him the truth?

Once he came to believe her, he naturally began to hate her for what she had done to him: for the humiliation of making him beg her when she'd tried to break up with him, and for the deeper humiliation of tampering with his free will. But he was, after all, a defense lawyer and a fair-minded man, so after a while he saw the mitigating circumstances. She didn't know the love charm would work. (What sane person would have?) She wasn't trying to get anything out of him, not money or apparently even affection. She spent lots of time and money to undo what she had done. She didn't have the heart to just leave him heartbroken, though other women might have.

And she gave him her body, and few men can really resent a woman for that. It was a very nice body, and nothing feels as good as sex with someone with whom one is completely infatuated—even if in retrospect the infatuation was a fraud.

He was not, after all, so badly treated by Ellen Silber; he came to think well of her, and wish her well. It meant a lot to Ellen that he (mostly) forgave her.

Ellen no longer remembered her old friend Michael with the same affection, and she regretted that. She still couldn't find a man she could love, and she regretted that, too: At times, she wished that she could get a charm to make herself fall in love with someone, rather than the other way around. But mainly her life and her thoughts returned to a more mundane state; that mostly made her comfortable, though to her surprise she sometimes felt she might regret it a bit as well.

One night, a few weeks later, Ellen had an unusually vivid dream. She was in court. The judge was the man for whom she had clerked, a widower with a heavy Russian accent and a love of the absurd. Ellen was explaining why Illinois law rather than California law should govern a particular insurance contract, when the judge interrupted.

"Ms. Silber," he said (as usual, it came out "Seelberrr"), "you are not trying an insurance case here. You are the defendant. You have been convicted of second-degree preternatural seduction, and of unlicensed distribution of ensorceled substances. I am about to sentence you."

She didn't know what to say. She wanted to deny everything, but of course the charges were true. She knew she was guilty. Her former boss knew she was guilty. She looked at the jury, who, surprisingly, were still empaneled, though the trial was over. The jury consisted entirely of her former lovers. They knew she was guilty, too.

So she asked the one question that was on her mind, because she was somehow back in law school, and thought it would be on the exam: "Why only second-degree?"

"Because of the 1986 amendments to the statute, of course," the judge told her. In her dream, it made perfect sense. A quiet peace came over her as she prepared to hear the sentence.

But the judge, she saw, wasn't talking to her any more. He had risen, and approached the table at which Ellen's lawyer, a tall woman with short gray hair, was sitting. He and the lawyer kissed passionately. Ellen suddenly knew that her lawyer had somehow used the shakers, too, at precisely the right moment.

The judge understood that he had been bewitched: He had just presided over Ellen's trial, and heard the whole story. In her dream, though, he didn't care. He and Ellen's lawyer walked out of the courtroom hand in hand. "I suppose I'll have to declare a mistrial," he told Ellen as he left. Can mistrials be declared based on post-verdict misconduct?, she thought. The prosecutor got up from his table, waved fondly to the departing couple, and turned to Ellen. "Tell the jury, please, what you have learned from this incident," he said.

Ellen was silent for a moment and then, with a confidence that surprised her, faced the jurors. Some of them had loved her; a few, long ago, she had loved. "There is a lesson to this case," she said. Each of her ex-lovers took out a legal pad and a pen and got ready to take notes, but the lesson proved to be short enough to remember: "If you find yourself gripped by sudden, inexplicable love, think carefully about what you are doing—as if you can."

Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law, last wrote for Legal Affairs about slippery slopes.

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