Thanks are due to Purna, who enriched this piece greatly with her astute observations on, among other things, memory and the senses. And to Beth H., who challenged me to answer important questions within the text.
Objects in the Rearview Mirror
Usually it's a hot night, but not so hot that I try to crank up what's left of the air conditioning. They made great cars in the late sixties, but some parts just don't hold up so good, no matter how long you spend under the hood, how much money you sink into it. So the a/c's pretty shot; I mean, the car's thirty years old, what do you expect? Some things weren't meant to be replaced, anyway.
Anyway, if it's hot but not too hot out, and the sky is clear, and especially if the moon's up, instead of listening to the a/c whine, I just roll down all the windows. And then I drive, fast. I take the shore road and there's not too much traffic and I can really sail, maybe catch a breeze off the lake if I'm lucky. Times like those, nights like these, blasting the Sex Pistols or The Clash on the tape deck -- not original equipment, but no way I'm driving with just an AM radio -- it could be now or it could be twenty years ago, for all I can tell the difference. The night still feels the same. Still smells the same, funky Lake Michigan, gas fumes, maybe even a clean wind coming down from Canada. And sex. Yeah, the smell of sex coming from the back seat, where we were doing it because we couldn't go to her house or mine.
I must have cleaned those seats a hundred times, or, when I'd think ahead, covered them with some blanket or other to keep stains off the leather, so I know there's no way I can really smell anything. It was too long ago, too damn long ago. I know it's some trick of my mind, or something else that makes me think I smell Stella in the car.
But she's there, sometimes, all the same. In the back seat. In the mirror, looking at me with her big pale eyes, mocking me, but not in a bad way, in a way that says we're sharing something, a secret that only we know, about what only we do, here in the car. Together. Private stuff. Our stuff. And I smell her, smell us.
And then the wind will shift, or the traffic jams up, or there's a call on the radio, or the song ends and just like that it's now, not twenty years ago, over, she's gone.
And then I realize it's hot, and the a/c sucks, and I really should do something about it one of these days. Get a whole new system, maybe.
But I can't help thinking some things weren't meant to be replaced.
Not that anyone would tell the Bookman his hair looks anything but perfect.
Intimidation as a way of life. Funny how that works. Actually, it is kind of funny, funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. I never have to raise my voice. The quieter I get, the more the boys listen to me, the more they start bobbing and weaving and falling all over themselves to do exactly what I want. They don't wanna upset the boss. The Bookman. Armando Langostini.
Back in Chicago, seems to me Ray Vecchio spent a whole lotta time shouting at people to try to get them to do what he wanted them to do, and for the record, it didn't always work.
Scratch that: didn't usually work. Almost never worked. Couldn't make his father think he was worth shit. Couldn't make Ma give him space. Couldn't make Frannie or Maria respect him. Couldn't make Welsh think he knew what the hell he was doing. Couldn't make the Mountie. . . do anything the Mountie didn't want to do.
Benny. Shit. I miss him.
But I have a great life here, for a guy deep undercover. I'd swear on my mother's life, if the Bookman had a mother, that no one here has the slightest inkling I'm anyone other than I say I am. They better not have, because it's really my life I'm betting with. But I'm not worried, not yet.
Until then, until whenever I get that twitch that tells me I should get out, or the Feds pull me out, or the mob gets hip and takes me out, whichever comes first, day after day passes in the warmth of sunshine and dry desert wind, with the smell of cigars -- expensive, illegal Cuban cigars, not the cheap smokes Pop used to bite the end off of -- and the clink of chips against the background whirr of the slots. Day in, day out, pretty much the same thing. I meet with my lieutenants, talk to other bosses, make plans, gather information, give orders, pass info to the Feds, sip my buttermilk, soak up the sun, fuck Tammi or Bambi or Bunni or any of a number of showgirl wanna-bes. Most action I ever had in my life. Could fuck Nero if I wanted to; he'd let me. They'd all let me. Everyone wants a piece of the Bookman, even if it means they'd have to take it up the ass.
Sometimes I don't shut everyone out until nearly dawn. But there are nights, after I've kicked everyone out of my suite at the top of the casino, that I catch a glimpse of my face in the bar mirror and wonder who the hell I'm looking at. And if I'm really feeling the sameness of the days and the pressure and the isolation, I let go of Armando and for just a little while let myself look for me. Feel around inside to see if there's anything left of Ray Vecchio.
Funny feeling. Funny peculiar.
If I find even a shred of him, the weird thing is I get nostalgic, even for the bad stuff. The yelling. The frustration. The lack of respect. The crappy salary. The living at home. The lack of nookie. The bad memories of Pop. The being responsible for the whole damn family. The mind-numbing, soul-bruising cop's life. The endless chases. The corrupt judges. The dumpster diving. The being shot at. The being shot. The fact I only had one real friend --
Here, I don't have any.
Benny. . . what are you doing right now?
Here, I'm living someone else's life, with second-hand friends, if you can even call them that. Friends who'd rip out my throat if they smelled weakness on me.
People surround me. Don't remember ever being this alone.
Big surprise: undercover's lonely.
Shit. Can't afford to be Ray tonight, thinking too much.
Wonder how the poor schmuck's doing who got my life. It wasn't much, Ray Vecchio's life.
But I miss it. God, I miss it.
No one believes I feel fear. The humiliating truth is that I feel it nearly all the time. I'm sure Ray -- either Ray, actually -- would snort and poke me in the chest and say, "Yeah, right, you're afraid. The way you lick things you shouldn't, and stand up in front of armed felons--"
Well, no, I doubt if Ray Kowalski would say "felons." He'd use a more colorful term, perhaps "bad guys" or "perps" or he'd mispronounce "malfeasants," probably just to mock me. Whatever the words, he'd be wrong in his thinking.
I have no specific terror of ingesting harmful substances, nor more than a healthy respect and caution regarding armed perpetrators. My terror is primal, but it has nothing to do with bodily harm.
The truth is far more embarrassing: I fear my heart.
I am thirty-six years old, I can shoot the eye out of a newt -- though of course I wouldn't, I wouldn't shoot a living creature to prove my marksmanship. I can reason with criminals in four languages, five, if you count my rusty Russian. I am proficient in various forms of self-defense and, though I don't mean to sound boastful, I can extricate myself from most dangerous situations without harm, yet I am struck dumb, pulse pounding, cold sweat pooling under my arms, my face frozen in horror, by a simple whiff of perfume from a passing jogger.
It happens, suddenly, as Dief and I walk along the lakeshore; my nose catches the scent, and I am seized by a paralyzing terror.
The terror has a name. I used to believe that name was "Victoria," but I have come to realize it is a larger, older terror, a more encompassing one. True, she was the catalyst; she released it. But now I have become so fearful of its return that I live my life in rigid control of myself, fortifying my battlements, protecting my heart from itself.
It's wearying. I am constantly on the alert. I must be, or something -- some one, might slip past my guard. Janet Morse almost did. Meg Thatcher came even closer. I could have defied her order, ignored her rules, allowed myself to submit to my desire for her. Mercifully I did not. It's better this way. I am certain it is.
I must have had a lapse of concentration. The whiff of cologne takes me by surprise and my heart lurches, drop its barriers. I feel the creeping paralysis, and turn my head before it overtakes me completely. I must see her.
Thank God. Victoria's aroma, but not Victoria. Victoria was small, curved. Even paralyzed as I am, my hands retain the memory of her body, the surprising softness of her curly hair. Dark hair. Darkness inside her as well, as it turned out. The jogger is tall, spare, athletic. Almost masculine in her angularity. Not Victoria.
I chastise myself for my foolishness, start to relax, calm my pounding pulse, but as I watch, the jogger runs a hand through her short blonde hair and--
Short blonde hair. Cut to stand on end.
A second wave of terror crashes into me.
Confusion. Images swim before my eyes and overlap. What am I seeing? What do I want to see?
I'm engulfed by wrenching, conflicting emotions, devastating realizations. Only my frozen body keeps me upright. No, I beg my heart. Please.
Don't make me love.
I used to think that if Victoria Metcalfe appeared before me, I would embrace her and beg her to remain with me, whatever the cost. She allowed me to love her. Encouraged me to do so. Made me feel where I had felt nothing before.
The truth is that now I can almost imagine killing her with my bare hands. Not for framing me, shooting Dief, nearly killing us both in the process. Her crime was far worse than bodily harm, and I was complicit in it. She made me feel love. But in her betrayal she destroyed my desire to ever love again. She proved to me what I had already half-way known, that love is a bitter, painful, unendurable thing.
And now, now that I want to feel, I am too afraid.
I watch the jogger disappear around a bend in the path, but in truth it isn't she I see. I see a woman, and a man, see my past and future bound up in one, and the fear wells up inside me, to be trapped there forever, I'm afraid.
First I feel the sensation of the ground moving under my feet, then a lurching as I try to regain my balance. My heart is pounding in rhythm with the wheels. Gradually I become aware of another vibration. One stronger, and more pleasant. Much more pleasant.
I find my rhythm easily now. It carrys me along securely, the warm vibration moving up, spreading. I stop, and turn, waiting, my pulse racing. The wind pushes my hair into my face, a sharp, fresh wind that carries the smell of snow, of clean linens. There's something bright in front of me, blood red, something that warms my blood against the chill and sends a bolt of pleasure through my groin. It's moving closer, he's moving closer, and now the red resolves itself into a garment like a cape that flows out behind him as he moves confidently along the dangerous path.
I'm not altogether certain why I imagine him in a cape this time. It doesn't matter. It suits him, in any case.
His eyes smolder at me like heated sapphires. . . Overly dramatic, perhaps, that thought, but it's my dream, I'll choose what imagery I like. His hair is black, flowing, too long for regulation, and I suppose I am idealizing him. It fans out, a dark halo around his head. He's reaching for me now, and I can hear his heart race like a runaway train, the same as mine. The rhythmic vibrations inside me are building to a crest of pleasure, and just as I start to reach the top, just as his hands grasp my shaking shoulders and his burning lips touch mine--
--he falls, crying out a name I can't make out.
For a moment the wind holds him up, and then he disappears under the wheels. Horror fills me. I jerk awake screaming, my orgasm forgotten in the shock of that final image, all the pleasure gone from my. . .
Loins. I was going to say "loins." That's one of his words, one of those awkward, slightly pedantic words he uses to put me off, to put people off. Not surprisingly, it works.
The bed is unmoving beneath me. The clean smell of the wind is just my white pillowcase. The feel of his lips against mine is only a memory, one that has not faded over time. The dream is the same every time, and everything I dream really happened, except for my embellishments of costume and hair. And of course, he did not fall.
I'm still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep when I reach my office, and there he is, undamaged, untouched, greeting me with that bland expression, all business, no pleasure, not a hint in his eyes that anything ever happened between us.
I know the names people call me. I've had to be cold sometimes. A woman in my position has to be, has to fight for respect at nearly every turn. Some of the lovelier epithets have been "the Ball Buster," "Dyke" and "Inspector C--" Well, I can't even say the word. How charming. This current incarnation of Detective Vecchio calls me "the Ice Queen," but Fraser, at least, has always shown me respect.
Well, screw his respect. He told me once he knew I had a heart, one that beat just as wildly as his, but I have begun to wonder if he truly has a heart at all.
I hate him.
I want him.
I hate him.
I hate that I can't have him.
I don't want to be a cliché. I don't doubt Fraser inspires erotic dreams in others. It's just that I had thought he and I. . .
No. It can never happen again. Things are best left in the past. I made that decision, and now I have to live with it. It's just that I can't bear seeing him anymore. Can't bear seeing that none of it matters to him.
If I transferred him, I'd never have to see him again. I could send him to. . . Baffin Island. No, he'd probably love that. Some remote island off Nova Scotia, then. That would be better. Better than hearing, "Good morning, Sir," every morning, and seeing nothing in his face but duty. Better than the realization that his face lights up more when he greets his friend, or even his wolf, than it does when he looks at me. I unnerve him, but I am nothing to him.
No, wait, better, send him to Quebec, let the French have him. Let him deal with an entire city of smokers. That would serve him right.
Oh, hell. Serve him right for what? Am I that petty? Should I fire him, banish him to the ends of the earth, because he doesn't return my feelings? After all, I told him not to. Ordered him not to. And now I wish to punish him for obeying that order?
If only I didn't think my order came as a relief to him.
I need to control myself. I need sleep. I need a change of post. Something with guns. Something with bloodshed.
I will get past this. I will. But one thing haunts and disturbs me still about my dream:
Whose name does he call as he falls from the train?
Because it isn't mine.
Man, look at that. Look at that. Have to get my boots reheeled again. Waited too long this time, and the left heel's pretty much worn all the way down. Gonna start eating up the leather if I don't take care of it.
Not that I give a shit about how they look, but they're the most comfortable pair I own -- had 'em for years and I love the way they feel, how they make me feel when I wear them. Tough boots. Shit-kicking boots. Boots you wanna be wearing if you ever DO have to kick someone in the head. Love these boots.
But I have to watch them, watch how they wear down, or the left heel starts to get uneven. Didn't have that problem before I caught a slug in my right thigh back in. . . . wow, almost ten years ago now. Teach me not to be a big fucking hero. So I walk a little stiff on that leg sometimes, though no one ever seems to notice. Don't feel it or nothing, don't keep me from running or dancing or putting the pedal to the metal, but something got screwed up along the way. Only way I can tell is I wear down that left heel faster than the right one. Kinda weird, I guess.
Ten years ago. . . How time flies when you're having fun. Oh, yeah, fun. Love, marriage, divorce, undercover work. Fun, fun, fun, all the time, 24/7.
Five years ago. . .The writing was on the wall for Stella and me, she knew it, our folks knew it, everyone knew it. Even I knew it, but I didn't know, you know? Nobody wanted to talk about it. So we didn't. Took three more years to do that, and then there was nothing left to say.
One year ago. . . I was sitting in a room just like this, smelling dusty files, trying to get my brain wrapped around the guy I was supposed to be. I was thinking, this is some file this Lieutenant Welsh gave me. . . What a piece of work. Not the lieu, he's okay, seems a decent guy. This Vecchio, I mean. Got in a bunch of trouble, but nothing that stuck. Except. . . Holy shit -- shot his partner! And got cleared by the shooting team? What the--?
Never been sloppy enough to shoot a partner. Yeah, I do other crap to piss them off, but shooting them? That takes a special kind of dumb.
Not so sure I wanted to be this guy.
But what else was I supposed to do? I needed a change; that much was obvious to the most casual observer, as my old lieu used to say. He was sick of me, sick of my complaining, sick of me being so fucking depressed all the time. I know what he was thinking, that sooner or later I was going to get myself killed accidentally on purpose. Wrong, wrong, wrong -- no death wish here. No, I must like suffering too much to take that way out. Besides, if Stella ever changes her mind I want to be around.
Right. Like that's ever gonna happen.
Okay, okay, pity break's over, back to these files. Fraser, time to show up on your white horse and take me away from all this.
Fraser's like me, another lonely guy on the shady side of thirty, though he doesn't show it much. He understands. He's like my only friend, pretty much.
He was the one Vecchio shot. Hell of a thing. If Vecchio had killed him. . .
I remember thinking, Holy fuck, Vecchio shot his partner, doesn't really say why. His partner, the -- !! -- Mountie? Is this a joke?
A year later, the joke's on me. Irritates the hell out of me, he does. Sometimes I think about shooting him, too, even if he is my friend.
My partner and my friend. Fraser said that. Way he said it made me go all funny for a minute. The way he says my name sometimes. . .
Nah. Don't be a dope.
This last year's been better, though.
Here he comes. Well, good. Good. That's more like it. Let's get this show on the road!
The car is stifling. I can smell his sweat. It's not unpleasant. I merely nod and turn back to look out the side window.
I can still feel him looking at me. Next to me the window begins to roll up, and I hear him switch on the air conditioning. He won't be able to run it for long; this stakeout could last hours, and he'll destroy the battery. But for now I'm grateful for the trickle of cold air between us. I try to think of coolness, cold, ice.
Where I come from.
"Tell me something about where you come from," Ray Vecchio says, and turns up the heat.
It's our second week of officially-unofficially working together. We're sitting in his car on a stakeout, in the third hour of a four-hour shift, and he's bored. He must be bored, to ask me this without so much as one insulting remark about "the armpit of the frozen north," as he insists on calling my homeland.
Where I come from. I suppose I could tell him about Inuvik, where I spent some of my childhood. Inuvik is an odd sort of place; at least I suppose it would seem so to an American. A town not quite small enough to be insignificant. Not large enough to impress. Just the place that was, for a time, my home.
The last time I went there I didn't want to be impressed. I just wanted to go home, to hide, after the debacle of Moose Jaw. But Inuvik wasn't home any more, and it couldn't hide me.
Before Moose Jaw I actually did fairly well in towns. In Regina, I coped well enough. I visited Whitehorse, Red Deer, Saskatoon, even Ottawa, and managed not to embarrass myself. I refrained from undue gawking. I looked both ways at crosswalks. I endured crowds. Perhaps I was not comfortable, but I managed.
Moose Jaw made me want to lose myself. Somewhere, anywhere else.
The irony was, that was where I lost myself to begin with.
My posting was not, to put it mildly, a success. A Sergeant McCann headed the RCMP detachment there, and a man less suited to leadership cannot be imagined. He scarcely bothered to lead at all. Mostly he sat behind his desk and drank, his bottles filed in a cabinet under "W" for whiskey. Sergeant McCann was not what I had in mind when I imagined a career in the RCMP.
The real power lay with his right-hand man, Corporal Parnis. Most of the younger men, myself included, referred to him surreptitiously as "Corporal Punishment," a sobriquet coined by Steve Lamarc, my closest friend. To others, Parnis was "Corporal Penis." I never called him that, but I thought about it, quite a bit.
Parnis wielded his limited power like a club. Minor infractions were met with punishments unbefitting the crime: standing guard duty in a blizzard; repeating meaningless paperwork; unnecessary checking and rechecking of equipment in the pouring rain. He was a petty dictator, abusing with impunity those in his charge.
His chief whipping boy was Steve, for reasons I suspected but could not prove.
I knew Steve was homosexual. He'd discussed it with me -- never approached me sexually, just knew I wouldn't judge his preferences. Frankly, his sexuality was immaterial. He lived a celibate life, in fact, as celibate as mine was at the time, but not because he was terrified of women, as I was. Rather, he felt it was not in the best interests of himself or the RCMP to do anything that might even hint at impropriety. Being a Mountie was everything to him.
Others knew, or suspected he was gay. It didn't seem to matter; he had many friends. But somehow Corporal Parnis caught wind of this, and from that moment on made Steve's tenure a living hell. I suspect Parnis had repressed tendencies in himself that he abhorred, but I am not a psychologist and have no proof of this. In any case, the punishments he heaped on my friend were many and severe.
Steve kept his head up, and endured, though I urged him to protest. But there came a night, when, already suffering from exhaustion from too many bruising punishments, he was the object of yet another of Corporal Parnis' rages, and did object. For this "insubordination," he was ordered to stand guard all night in sub-zero weather. I stood aghast as Parnis excoriated him in front of me, and then shoved him out the door. I tried to intercede, but a look from Steve rendered me silent. He took up his post. As punishment for my aborted protest, I was ordered to patrol the outskirts of town in a jeep with a broken heater.
As I drove in endless circuits during that long night, I made the decision to enter a formal complaint against Parnis. I was uneasy. It felt cowardly to leave my friend on watch in that weather; surely there was more I could have done. But I huddled in my coat and excused my blind obedience to orders by reminding myself Steve grew up in northern Ontario. He could face a night of cold temperatures.
The next morning Steve was dead. He hadn't died of exposure, exactly. First he'd been beaten unconscious by an unknown assailant, then left to the cold.
There was no proof that Parnis had done it, but he smirked when Sergeant McCann told us the news.
There was no proof to support a case against Parnis, except the testimony of a Constable Fraser that the corporal seemed to have a grudge against Steve Lamarc.
There was no proof, either, when Corporal Parnis was beaten bloody and left in a snowdrift the night after Steve Lamarc's funeral. He was luckier than Steve; an anonymous call brought help to him before he froze.
There was proof of who stole a fifth of whiskey from Sergeant McCann's cabinet that same night, because I still had the empty bottle in my hand when they came across me, drunk, in the barracks. The rumor began that Steve and I had been more than just friends, and though there was no proof of that, it was thought best I go elsewhere. I didn't even bother to correct them. I just took a transfer to Inuvik and left.
That was the only time I drank to lose myself. Because it doesn't work. Nor, I found, does going home. There was no comfort anywhere, least of all among people who thought of me as their friend, who considered me a good man, a decent person.
I requested an even more remote posting. It was better to be alone, in the emptiness between towns, than to be alone among other people. In the open spaces of the Northwest Territories, I didn't have to face anyone. . . except myself. To face what I had done, and finally to admit to myself what I had denied so long: I had desired my friend. And I had let him die.
But I can't tell Ray Vecchio this. The only home I have now is that open, empty landscape. And so I say, simply, "Where I come from it's beautiful, and harsh, and there are very few people. It snows quite a bit. It's very cold."
He looks at me with a quizzical expression, and for a moment I brace myself for questions. He already knows all this. He won't be satisfied with that answer, though it's the only one I feel comfortable giving.
But his eyes are shrewd eyes, and he's a smart man. He reads things between my words, and all he says is, "Sounds lonely."
Oh, Ray, you are far too shrewd for me. "It can be."
And he says, kindly, "Okay, Benny. Okay."
"What?" I look up, roused from my memories.
Ray Kowalski is staring at me. "I said, are you okay?"
"Yes. Yes I am, thank you."
"Because you sorta drifted there, Fraser."
"Did I? Sorry."
He shrugs. "No prob. Hey -- 'I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.' Haha. Kinda funny, huh?"
"Yes." I can't summon the energy to smile, even at picturing Ray's expression at my knowing he is quoting Mae West. I pull the snowdrift over me again, my eyes straying to the passenger window. I am homesick for the cold, for that empty landscape. I don't know how much longer I can endure here.
"So, you want to grab some food when we're done here?"
I hear Ray as if from a great distance. The side window is fogged now, as the cool air within wars with the humidity outside. The condensation obscures the rearview mirror, just as a whiteout in the Territories obscures the terrain. You can be lost there so easily.
This time I shake my head, trying to rouse myself from the hypothermia of my heart. "I guess I'm just a little tired." Lie. Liar. "So, no."
"Oh." He sounds. . . disappointed, and I look at him, pulling myself back, despite my desire to withdraw. I've been avoiding him since the incident with the jogger. He's looking out his window, perhaps studying his own mirror. His shrug this time is a capitulation that says "I don't care," but he does; his defenses are transparent. "Thought maybe we'd get some dinner afterwards, that's all. But if you're tired we don't have to."
I've known him a year. He's often prickly, and being undercover, doesn't have many friends. He knows I've been keeping away and doesn't understand why. He'll never say so, but it hurts him.
I've hurt him, when all I wanted to do was protect myself. Well hurrah for you, Benton Fraser, you've succeeded. You've kept him at bay.
I wonder. . . Did I do the same to Ray Vecchio? Did I limit our friendship out of fear that he'd see my true nature, or the fear that I'd feel too much? Did he leave because I wouldn't let him in?
Dear God, is even simple, honest friendship too much for me to bear?
It's not the Florida part that's so surprising. I've always hated snow. It's that I've known him four days. FOUR DAYS. It's not, shall we say, my usual modus operandi.
In my own defense, I was ready to fall. I was ripe for it. And then, on a subtle waft of expensive aftershave, he sashayed in, dapper and aggressive and full of himself, and hurt, and that does something to you, the mix of pheromones and maternal instinct -- not that I ever had any before. And he. . . just looked at me, no, really, saw me, and said--
"I'm Ray Vecchio. The real one."
And that was it.
Why was that it? Was it the connection to my Ray that did it? After all this time, after separation and divorce, after all the hurt, dismay, anger and sadness between me and the man whose last name I still keep, was I pushed over the edge by the fact this man was connected to me through my husband?
That is, I mean to say. . . my ex-husband. He's not my Ray anymore.
I think the spark was new, and real. But old habits are hard to break, just as it's difficult to forget how to ride a bike, or what it feels like to dance with your first, best dance partner.
My life-long dance partner has gone to Canada in pursuit of a criminal. I'm worried about all the things that can go wrong. Why'd he have to go following after that Mountie like a. . . a dog? He's so devoted, so. . . connected to him, somehow. But Ray's like that, loyal to a fault. Well, almost to an obsession. I mean, the man is his partner, of course, but. . . well, I have a suspicion about this, but I'd rather not go there.
I just. . . I just don't want Ray to get hurt.
But I think he already is, in some way, though for once I don't feel it's my fault. The last few times I saw him, he was so quiet it worried me. I worry about him, so much, even now, though it's not my place -- or my right -- to do so any more.
Ray Kowalski believes I will always love him, but it's not entirely true. I will always love Stanley Raymond Kowalski, the skinny boy with wayward hair and thick glasses, who smelled like Blackjack gum and hair gel and who was a geek before they invented the word, who was vulnerable and silly and romantic and passionate and clever and very, very shy. . .except with me. He didn't want anyone calling him Stanley, but that's who he was. Who he should have remained.
If only we could have stayed eighteen forever.
Pointless thought. Immaterial. We grew up. He grew up, and traded his gum for cigarettes and his name for one that made him feel cool. I didn't want him cool. I wanted him the way he was, because he understood me completely, and I him. I watched in dismay as his new, tough persona slowly obscured the boy he'd been. Maybe he felt he needed to be that way because he was a cop. Maybe it was something I did to him. I don't really know, but after awhile he became so proficient at hiding Stanley inside him that he wouldn't even let me find him.
We were both to blame, because I stopped looking. I was sullen, sometimes, preoccupied all too often. And I began to realize something about him that hadn't noticed before, when my eyes were blinded by the newness of love. Ray was little slow on the uptake, sometimes, and it really bothered me.
Not that he wasn't sharp, or smart. He was so good at his job, intuitive, following obscure chains of evidence easily and developing disconcerting hunches that were nearly always right. But between us, things were different. He stopped being able to understand what I wanted. . .what I needed. He never knew what to say to me any more. Appallingly, he'd believe me when I'd tell him nothing was wrong. But sometimes you need someone to just know what you're thinking, without telling him, as unfair as that might be. By the time Ray got it, what I was trying to tell him, I'd be feeling something else entirely. Frustration. Anger. Or worse, nothing at all.
In the end, that's what really made me go. I couldn't wait for him. He didn't "get" me any more.
Maybe he was still Stanley, and it was I who changed. I don't know. I don't think I ever will, entirely.
This new man, the "real" Ray Vecchio, took one look in my eyes and his own lit up in recognition. He got it right away. He knew I was hungry, because he was, too. I hope I'm what he needs; hell, I hope he's what I need. Right now he's what I want.
I suppose I shouldn't worry about my ex any more. He's a grown man, we're not married, and even if he can't take care of himself, hopefully he'll find someone else to worry about him. Like I said, I have a suspicion about that.
I have to get on with my own plans: Florida. New start, new life, new man. Not sure what will happen. Don't know if I'll marry Ray Vecchio.
But whatever happens, I'm keeping "Kowalski." Some things are worth remembering.
You try to shield yourself from pain, but it's already inside you. It heralds your arrival and follows like your shadow. Feel it, Ben, embrace it, or it will never leave you.
I know this because we are so alike. Neither of us is like the grandparents who raised you. They were contained, orderly people, tidy and efficient, feeding your body and your brain, but not your heart. Not your heart. They loved in their own way, but it wasn't enough for a small boy with an absent father and the desperate need for love.
Just look what they did to their own little boy, your father! They taught him to cope, to contend with pain, with loss, with want, by denying such things existed. They didn't indulge him, when he should have been indulged, nor soothe him when he needed soothing. I'm sure they loved him, but they didn't tell him, didn't tolerate displays of affection. He hid his feelings, but he loved them anyway.
Your father loved you too, Ben.
And he loved me.
If I could cry, I would cry for myself, because I wasn't there to hold you when you needed holding, or teach you it's all right to love passionately, all right to be wild, all right to cry out in anguish, to laugh with abandon or scream in anger or be moody or unfair or petty. I did all of those things, Ben, gave voice to all those messy emotions, and your father still loved me. You must believe me, Ben. He loved me for them, not in spite of them. I revealed my entire heart to him, and if I had lived, in time I could have taught him to do the same. I would have taught you. But I didn't have time. We just didn't have enough time.
If I had tears, my tears would be for you too, my child, my wonderful, blue-eyed, magical, imperfect child. Imperfect. It's not a curse, Ben, it's not an insult. We're all imperfect. It's what makes the world livable. Can you imagine a world of perfect people? What would make one special, or differentiate us from one another? How could you love someone if there were no flaws, no quirks or imperfections to dote on or obsess about! Nothing to make the heart leap and cry out, This is the one I want! We WOULD be unlovable, Ben, if we were perfect. Don't aspire to it, I beg you.
You think you are like your father, but I know you better than you know yourself. You are my child as much as his -- more perhaps. My blood flows through you just as your father's does. You need someone to free you from the bonds you impose on yourself, someone to provoke you to anger, inspire you to greatness, force you to laugh at yourself, encourage you to cry, make you scream in pleasure. Love may hurt sometimes, but it should not kill your heart, or it is not love at all. Don't let the hurts of the past become your destiny. Live. Feel. Touch. Dare. Win. Lose. Love. Love whomever and however your heart tells you. If you are afraid, then be so. But don't retreat.
I love you. I love you, love you, love you, love you, love you.
Even in June the cabin is cold, and in my sleep I have flung the blankets onto the floor. Next to the bed Dief snuffles slightly, not waking up, but shifting under the pile of bedding that is now heaped on him.
I lie back against the pillow, breathing hard, uncaring about the cold. Next to the cold within me, it's an irrelevancy.
Voices. I heard voices in my dream, and while I don't remember what they said, my face is wet. Something has touched me, and I don't know if I want to remember what it was. It's better not to know, perhaps.
My arms come up to cover my face. Perhaps it is NOT better, after all. Perhaps I need to let the tears come, let my heart feel what it wants to feel. Because the effort of not feeling is killing me.
I don't know how long I can live like this.
I should have known to be careful what I wished for. In Chicago I yearned for solitude. I desired coldness. At the end, I was desperate to get away from the warm soul that was the focus of my feelings. My capture of Muldoon provided that opportunity, gave me my choice of postings, and so I came back to the familiar emptiness of the north. To the cold. I thought it was what I wanted.
Muldoon killed my mother with one blast of a shotgun, but the murder of my heart is taking much longer. Every day I wait to grow numb, but it is a slow and painful death.
My mother. . .
I have the strangest feeling, suddenly. My eyes dart around the room, seeking faces in the shadows. No. No. Her ghost isn't here, and neither is my father's. Well, his time was up, his debt paid, and he went back to her. I hope they're happy.
The thought wrings mirthless laughter from me. Jealousy over a ghost's happiness? I must be losing my mind.
No. But I am losing my soul. It's slowly freezing to death up here, withering into ice crystals. But not fast enough. Not nearly fast enough. Something is keeping me from giving over to the cold.
I am acutely aware of my loneliness, and though I don't want to feel this pain, I can't stop it this time. For some reason I think about Ray Vecchio, who hasn't been my partner for a very long time, but who returned offering the gift of his friendship as if we'd never been apart. The time he spent undercover he was alone and friendless, but unlike me he was not content to remain that way. I could not meet him halfway, dared not release the bonds that constrict my heart. But perhaps he left me a little more alive than he found me.
There is more pain in that knowledge. It wasn't enough, my meager response to his generosity. And so he found someone who wanted to be loved. Who wanted to love him.
I can't blame him, but I am absurdly jealous of him, and of Stella.
And my Ray?
I sent him home, after, though he offered to remain, wanted to remain. He stood looking at me, and when I could do no more than clap him on the shoulder and shake his hand, his eyes filled with such hurt, I. . . I could barely look at him.
He tried to make the goodbye seem casual, temporary, though both of us knew different. He held on to my hand and forced a smile, saying, "Okay, well, if you ever need me, just call."
All I could manage was, "Understood."
He pulled me to him then, hugged me with arms I would not let myself feel, whispered something I would not let myself hear, and then, shockingly, kissed me lightly on the cheek. And then he turned and was gone.
And still I did nothing to stop him.
I am bereft.
How long am I to exile myself from human needs? How absurd is it to dwell on objects and injuries of the past? Would Steve Lamarc have wanted me to live in frozen solitude because he died? Would my mother, my father? Did even my grandparents wish me to this eternal limbo? I doubt it. They were kind people. And they found each other. Surely they would not understand my need to keep the world away from my heart.
Well, perhaps Victoria wished me dead, or my heart dead. If so, then I am fulfilling her desires, and that should not be my destiny. It must not be.
I am now thirty-seven. Men in my family live well into their eighties, unless they are shot dead, like my father was. How many years of ice must I endure before the thaw comes?
I'm crying now and I can't stop, real tears, hot tears, which come from a place deep inside me that is not yet dead. They are the first warmth I have felt, inside or out, for too many years, and they sear me as they run down my cheeks.
And maybe, just maybe, the ice cracks a little inside my heart.
I can almost recall the solid warmth, the rasp of an unshaven cheek, the smell of shampoo and sweat.
There is a soft sound in my ear, a familiar, well-loved voice, and at long last I let myself hear the words he whispered to me.
Yes. Oh, yes.
And I you, Ray.
Even glaciers melt. Perhaps it is finally my turn.
The lake is to my right, the road clear ahead. Windows down. Bowie blaring. The smell of lake, car exhaust, old leather. All the old ingredients to work the spell.
Something's wrong. It's not working. There's no smell of sex, no ghosts in the back seat to meet my eyes in the mirror. No matter how hard I concentrate on the memory, I can't summon the past.
Too much on my mind tonight, and driving isn't helping.
There is someone with me tonight. If I just turn my head, he'll be there, like always, in the passenger seat. More -- I can almost smell the wool of his tunic, feel the hot breath on my neck from his wolf. It seems they're coming with me even when I'm alone.
Logic tells me he's up north, stayed there when I came home. When he sent me home. But what's logic got to do with it, anyway?
I'm pissed with myself for thinking about it. Maybe it's just the heat getting to me. I reach to turn up the a/c, but pull my hand back at the last minute when I remember it doesn't really put out more than this. Really do need to get a whole new system.
Next to me there's an open bottle of beer that I bought a few miles back and I take a long swallow. Shouldn't drink when I drive, but it's one of those nights. Feels good. There's still a few bits of ice in the bottle, which helps.
Lake is on my right. I gotta smile. I'm driving north -- must have done it subconsciously. I look at the long road ahead of me and wonder. How far could I take this road, if I followed it? Chicago, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Canada?
Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland-which-is-also-Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, None-of-it, Ontario, Prince Something Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon.
There, Fraser, I got it right.
I got it, Fraser, I get it. I finally get it. I'm sorry. I didn't get it until it was too late, until you were there and I was here.
Cold air, suddenly, in the car. Clean. Fresh. Canadian air, from across the lake, Cold wind sweeping away the staleness of the city.
Why'd you have to be so cold, Frase?
I have to pull over. It's hard to drive when you can't see.
My head hurts. I rest it on the steering wheel, the beer bottle cool against my throbbing temple. The condensation on the bottle begins to drip down my face, so I wipe it away, and wipe my eyes, too, while I'm at it.
I tip the bottle up to take another drink, and that's when I look at the amber glass, because it's really sweating now, dripping beads of water onto my lap as the heat from my hand warms the cold beer.
The last of the ice is melting inside.
Because I warmed it.
I have one of those moments, one of those dawning-clarity-hunch things, when I know something's happening, and understand what my part is in it. My hand shakes and the bottle drops, beer running out all over the seat, but I barely notice. Because my foot is on the gas and I'm gunning the engine, and my eyes are fixed straight ahead on the open road.
And that wind from the North is back again, and I hear it this time, and yes, there's a name in it.
It almost sounds like. . .
Oh, man, I hear you, Fraser. I hear you, I hear you loud and clear.
Hold on. I'm coming.