Thirty pounds.

In the spiffy tile hallways of the Howard County Circuit Courthouse in Ellicott City, the rabble are debating just how well the Jenny Craig plan is working. (Monica Lewinsky has not even finished testifying and the CBS radio reporter has already filed a fatty report!)

Imagine being 26 years old and the world is hanging in suspense over how much you weigh, and only as a side attraction does it care about who may or may not have illegally tape-recorded what you said 7 billion years ago on the scariest day of your life.

You have no idea how newsy your weight loss is. Reporters debate it. ("Not even 20 pounds," sniffs a bony gal from a TV station; "No, I think more like 40," says a potbellied observer.) They finally reach a tentative consensus at 30 pounds. (We still think she's lost more, by the by.)

It's, like, Oh my God. Does this court appearance make me look fat?

They sneaked her in the back door of the joint yesterday morning, not long after sunrise. Outside, the crowd was having a remedial Monica session. So much we've forgotten, and new characters to add to the stew. (The Bridge Club! Which is Kathy and which is Kathleen!?)

Can 1999 really have contained so much of the saga--the impeachment, the soft focus of Barbara Walters, the Andrew Morton book, the "Saturday Night Live" appearance, the rest of the books, the embroidered purses? Oh yes it can.

So we have all the ingredients--it's like a class reunion for the press scrum--but things are no-nonsense out here in the Maryland burbs. In the ongoing pretrial hearings to ascertain Just How Evil Is Linda Tripp, yesterday's proceedings moved with the kind of efficiency usually seen only in prime-time drama. Wham-bam. The judge, Diane O. Leasure, reminds you of the Annette Bening real estate agent character in "American Beauty"--gung-ho, winning. She said we'd start at 8 a.m., and bang, we do. State prosecutors and Tripp's attorneys approach the bench and then Lewinsky is called to the stand.

And then, nothing.

And 30 more seconds of nothing.

The judge actually giggles, then shrugs.

It's as if Lewinsky's remaining seconds on the fame clock must be savored this way. Does she still exist? Did we only dream her? Is she dust? Earth to Monica: Where is the one the New York Post referred to as the "portly pepperpot"? Where is she who lives in Greenwich Village and West Los Angeles? Where is that maker of girly, e-commerce purses, that flipper-over of sport utes, that present girlfriend of former David Letterman gag writer Jeff Boggs?

Another awkward moment and she appears through a gray door.

Ah, Monica.

She wears a knee-length black blazer and matching pants, and chunky-heeled black pumps. She carries one of her own totes. She glumly strolls up to the place where she often looks best--the witness stand, word made flesh. She states her full name ("Monica Samille Lewinsky"--it sounds like she calls herself "schlemiel") and gives a Wilshire Boulevard apartment address in L.A. as her home. She was born to be a voluptuous cartoon. That giant head of Wonder Woman-thick hair has grown out since the unfortunate shag of March--hair the kind of black that comic-book inkers would fill in with blue, to make it look more black. And the same crinkled nose and Josie and the Pussycats-bright grin. She is ready. Bring it on.

We are still willing to wallow in it because there are a few things we want from the narrative, and never got. Justice? Sure, whatever. It all feels like yesterday's news except: The protagonists never stood in the same room and faced one another; comments were never directed or deflected. We've survived on vibes and lawyers alone. In a bitch-slap world, we go on longing for something more "Celebrity Deathmatch." (We never get that. Linda Tripp is at home, according to her attorney, Joseph Murtha, working--telecommuting to the Pentagon like normal people. Monica is working, too. Her job is Being Monica.)

The prosecutors gently nudge her through that day she saw the Feb. 2, 1998, issue of Newsweek, when she and the rest of the world first read transcripts of a conversation that, in the contested storyboard, occurred on Dec. 22, 1997, and was surreptitiously recorded by Tripp.

For about a half-hour, defense attorney Murtha tries to poke some holes in Lewinsky's recollections. Poor boy. As if Monica hasn't faced Torquemada. He exhibits letters from her attorney anyway, indicating that maybe Monica doesn't have it quite straight in her head. "Can I ask my lawyer a question?" she asks, interrupting Murtha. "You can ask me a question," he says.

"You're not my lawyer," she says, almost flirtatiously.

How we love it when she plays this way. Never so in-over-her-head as we think. She even asks the judge, politely, for a potty break. She returns to the stand and recovers nicely. She knows when the worst days of her life were, in what order, and what they felt like and where it led. She doesn't budge.

To budge would be un-Monica. Everyone tells her to wait: Hollywood agents tell her to wait out the 2000 elections and then seek a softer, more Oprah-esque approach to endorsement deals. Paparazzi tell her to hold up, Monica, don't always run straight for the car. Even the Jenny Craig program is about measured patience, the opposite of these faddish all-protein diets: A white-coated counselor meets with you each week, and sensibility is the strategy. You eat 60 percent carbs, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat--around 1,500 calories a day. You're loaded down with frozen entrees for the weeks ahead. You practice lifestyle changes a pound at a time, and when and if you finally get there, they ring the bell for you and applaud.

Wrapping up his cross-examination, Murtha claims Lewinsky had "completed" her immunity deal with the Office of Independent Counsel. She quickly corrects him, with an exasperated smirk.

"I haven't completed it."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he says, and maybe he is.

She nods. She seems to be saying it goes on forever.

She is thanked and excused and disappears again by minivan into mere bold type, gossip column suggestions of getting on with life. The reporters are reduced to chasing across the parking lot Linda Tripp's babe-magnet son, who'd watched from the back row.