Everybody Else's Girl
We must overcome the notion that we must be regular...it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre. -- Uta Hagen
Stella finds the pamphlet on her desk when she gets back to the lab after a long morning of watching Sid autopsy a DB they'd pulled from the Harlem River the night before. It's only 2:00 and she's already exhausted, but it's been an ordinary day up until then, and she has no flash of warning beforehand, no premonition about what's waiting for her. Instead, she's thinking about a cup of coffee and a few quiet hours in the DNA lab, and she assigns no importance at first to the paper placed carefully on top of her keyboard. She picks it up without really looking at it, glancing at it as she drops a stack of slides into a tray. Then she reads the words on the cover again, really seeing them this time, and she freezes as the meaning registers in her brain.
She wants to recoil, to fling it from her as if it's something unclean, but her fingers won't unclench. She reads the title again.
Domestic Abuse and Men Who Batter: Facts for Women. The pamphlet is small and stapled together, and has been issued by New York State. An 800 number and a website address are printed on the back. She takes in these details in the same detached, half-remote way she would begin to process the facts about a particularly brutal scene.
Stella stares at it, heart racing, and as she does, she realizes that her breath is starting to come in shallow gasps. This was left in her office on purpose, left where she couldn't help seeing it as soon as she walked into the room. Not an accident. Not part of the paperwork for some other case. Nothing but a message meant specifically for her. She weighs it now against the palm of her hand, the cover crumpling between her fingers. Another moment passes, and then she turns and leaves her office, and goes down the hall. Her throat feels like it's locking up, and she wants to scream, but she keeps her lips pressed together as she walks.
Mac, who's typing something, glances up only briefly when she comes into his office. "Oh, good. I was wondering if you had the trace results for - "
"You fucking asshole." Mac jumps a little at her words, and then again when she slams the door, and stops typing. He looks up again, shock and anger in his eyes, and starts to say something, but she cuts him off. There's a red mist rising in front of her vision now, and it's nearly a relief to give in to the rage.
"You don't say a word to me for months, and then you leave this little surprise for me?" She paces back and forth in front of his desk. "You fucking chickenshit coward. How dare you. Is this what you think of me? Because if it is, that's just fucking beautiful, Mac."
"Stella - "
"What am I supposed to do with this, Mac, you tell me. Say thank you? If you think for one second that I'm going to be grateful for this, or that it's supposed to do me any goddamn good when you won't even talk to me - "
The coldness in his tone cuts through her rant, and she stops and stares at him. He looks both furious and confused, and the latter gives her a momentary flash of doubt. "What?" she asks.
"Would you mind telling me what this is all about?" he says.
"As if you didn't know."
"I'm in the dark here, Stella. I was working and you walked in and started yelling at me. Other than that, I'm at a loss." He stands up. "What's that in your hand?"
She looks from Mac to the pamphlet, and then flings it at him. It clings to her palm for a moment, then peels away and drops to his desk. "There," she says, and has to fight the urge to wipe off her hand on her pants leg. "Refresh your memory."
Mac's face changes as he reads the front of the pamphlet: he's still angry when he looks at her again, but now there's something else in his gaze, too, either puzzlement or sorrow. "This - where did you get this?"
"You left it on my desk," she says, but the tug of doubt grows stronger. Whatever else he is, Mac's not disingenuous. Not like this.
The expression in his eyes makes her heart kick in her chest again. "No, I didn't," he says, and his voice is much too quiet.
"But - "
"Do you really think I would have?" he asks.
She tries to think. Tries to push past the fury that's still choking her, and look at the thing objectively. This isn't Mac's style, she realizes. Of course it isn't. He ignores difficult situations as much as he can, and he's been shutting her out all summer - and maybe even longer than that. But anonymous messages aren't his thing. Heat rises to her face.
"I thought - I don't know what I thought," she says at last.
Mac comes around the desk. "Let's sit down," he says, and walks over to the couch. She hesitates, then joins him.
"This was on your desk." He looks down at the pamphlet again.
"Yes. On top of the keyboard. It was there when I got back from interviewing witnesses from the Sloane case."
"And you don't know who might have - "
"No idea," she says. "I didn't see anyone near my office when I came in. All I can tell you is who it's not. Not Hawkes or Lindsay. Or Danny." Or Flack, she adds silently.
"No." Mac shakes his head.
None of the people she works most closely with, then; they're both in agreement on that. It's a relief of sorts, but it comes as cold comfort. Dozens of people work here, and they all know what happened with Frankie. Any one of them could have left it. Misguided good intentions, she wonders, or a deliberate act of malice? Either way, the same sick anger twists her gut when she looks at the pamphlet again, though the initial shock is starting to fade.
"I'm sorry that someone felt the need to do this," Mac says. "Whatever their intentions..." He pauses, and Stella realizes that he must be asking himself the same questions she is about what thought process might have gone into the act. "...Whatever their intentions, it was inappropriate, and when I find out who did it, I promise you I'll make that very clear."
"You're not going to make a big deal out of this, are you?" she asks.
"Stella, this is serious," he says, looking surprised.
"I know," she says, "but I don't want it getting turned into some big public thing."
"Look, at the very least, it's an invasion of your privacy. At worst - "
"I know that, Mac."
"At worst," he goes on, as if she hasn't spoken, "it could be harassment. I can't ignore that."
"This is the first time something like this has happened," Stella says. She'd been subjected to plenty of questions, and especially after she first came back to work, and plenty more whispers and curious glances that she wasn't supposed to notice, but this is the first anonymous missive she's received. Now, just when she thought everyone was starting to forget, to look at her as just Stella again, or Detective Bonasera. "I'm surprised it took this long," and she can't help the faintly bitter tone she hears in her own voice.
Mac sighs and looks away. It occurs to her that he hasn't quite met her eyes this whole time they've been talking. "Stella, you know, if you want to talk to anyone - "
"We've been through this," she says. "I passed my psych eval months ago. I'm not going back to the department shrink. I don't want that on my record."
"Remember that our health plan covers counseling," he says. "It wouldn't have to be official, or even be noted in any of your files."
"No," she says. "I don't need it. And if I ever decide that I do, you won't know about it." For a moment she thinks he's going to ask why not, but then he just nods.
"All right, Stella. It was just a suggestion."
"Even if I did talk to someone, do you think it's me somehow? Do you think I need to figure out what I did wrong?" She realizes that she's extrapolating without corroborative evidence, and further that she needs to shut her mouth before she tells him anything she'd rather keep to herself, but the words spill out anyway.
"That's not my point," he says. "And I don't think you need anything that I wouldn't suggest to anyone else who'd been through a traumatic experience. I realize the situation changes because you were dating Frankie, but - "
"Enough, Mac." She gets to her feet. "Spare me the lecture; I've heard it before."
"I just - "
"You're a fine one to talk. When was the last time you spoke to anyone about your traumatic experiences? Or about anything important at all?" She stops talking abruptly and backs a step or two away from the couch. Her earlier anger had faded a bit, or at least redirected itself, when she'd realized that Mac didn't leave her the pamphlet, but suddenly she's furious again, with no real idea of where it's coming from. All she knows is that her hands are shaking and her chest feels tight.
Mac looks up at her. There's anger in his eyes again, but she could tell him a thing or two about what anger really is. "Stella, that's unfair."
"Mac, in this situation, you know shit about what's fair and what's not." She takes a look at her watch. "I'm going to go for a run. Don't worry, I'll have my cell if anything comes up."
He stands up as she walks toward the door. "I'm not sure you should leave until we finish talking about this."
She pulls the door open. "We are finished talking about it. Why don't you just concentrate on what you're good at, and fuck off when it comes to the rest of it?"
Lindsay, who's standing just outside the office with a printout in one hand, blinks at Stella in surprise. "Should I - "
She's an innocent bystander, but Stella just says, "Excuse me," and walks past her.
The locker room is empty, which Stella views as a small blessing on a day that's turning out like this one is, and she changes her clothes in silence. She's just pulling on a sports bra when the door opens and Lindsay walks in, looking nervous. "Hi, Stella."
"Lindsay." She reaches for a t-shirt. "Just so you know, that wasn't directed at you earlier."
"I figured. Don't worry about it." Lindsay continues to hover at the end of the row of lockers, biting her lip. "Mac told me what happened," she says at last.
"Son of a bitch."
"Of course he did," Stella says, and sits down to pull on her socks and running shoes. Maybe he hadn't been able to avoid it. Still.
"I didn't see who went into your office," Lindsay says. "I wish I had."
"Forget it," Stella says. "It's over with. I just need to go run and clear my head, and then I'll get back to those tests."
"Sure. No. Take your time." Lindsay fiddles with a padlock, twisting the dial aimlessly. "You know what's one of the worst things about living in a small town?"
Stella looks up at the unexpected question. "No Starbucks?" she says.
Lindsay smiles. "No. We got one of those out at the mall the year I graduated from college."
Stella tugs her laces straight. "The lack of privacy?"
"That's part of it," Lindsay says, "but it's not the very worst."
"I give up, then."
"It's that everyone thinks they know who you are," Lindsay says. "Better than you know yourself. And once people have made up their minds about that, they're done with you. They figure they've got it all down, and from then on you need to stay in that role." She sits down on the other end of the bench. "Even if what they see is only a little part of you, or totally off-base. I guess things are easier that way for a lot of people, if they have neat categories for everything. But when you know they've got it all wrong...well, that's not so easy to deal with."
"Yeah. I think I know the feeling," Stella says. "Too bad there's nothing you can do about it."
"Except if you know the truth," Lindsay says, and she looks so earnest and young that Stella doesn't know whether to hug her or grab her by the shoulders and share a few home truths of her own. "And the people who matter will figure it out."
If only it were that simple. Stella gets to her feet, smoothing the hem of her t-shirt. "Thanks, Lindsay," she says.
There must be something in her voice, because Lindsay frowns. "Stella, I just - "
She holds up one hand. "I know. And I appreciate it. I just need to get out of here for awhile."
"Sure." Lindsay gets up. "I've got to get back to it anyway. But if you...well, if you need someone to lend an ear, you know where to find me."
"I do." She nods as she backs toward the door. "Thanks again. I'll see you later." She thinks that Lindsay is about to say something else, but she doesn't wait around to find out what it might be.
Out on the street, Stella pushes her way through the crowds in Times Square to the 49th Street station. The afternoon is murderously hot, and she's hemmed in on all sides by the constant flow of tourists and locals, the press of strangers' bodies and the stink of diesel fumes all around her. The station is no cooler, like the inside of a blast furnace, but the train, when it comes, is air-conditioned, and she rides two stops to Fifth Avenue with sweat drying on her face, her clothes already damp. She won't think about anything until she gets to the park, she tells herself, and she doesn't.
Central Park South is no cooler than midtown, but it is less crowded, at least once she fights her way free of the subway throng. There's a sense of waiting, of anticipation, in the glassy shimmer of the horizon line and in the stillness of the air. Another endless August afternoon, and there's no breeze at all; the trees don't stir, and the water in the duck pond doesn't ripple. Stella walks until she gets to one of the jogging paths and then sets off, trying to pace herself. Once she's into a rhythm and is focused on nothing but the slap of her feet against the ground and the steady in-out of her breathing, she lets herself start to think again. Lets her thoughts flow freely.
Fucking hell. Fucking hell Mac, and the goddamned pamphlet and whatever asshole left it for her, and all the rest of it. It's all tangled in her mind, all of a piece; and even though she wonders now how she could have thought Mac was the one who left it, she doesn't feel as guilty about her accusations as she probably should.
Because it's all part of the same spectrum, really; the way Mac has been treating her all summer is a point on the same continuum on which the pamphlet exists. They're just different ways of putting her in her place, of other people trying to impose their definitions on her. Whoever left the pamphlet sees her as a battered woman, or maybe as a murderer, and what was left on the keyboard is a clear message that this isn't going to change any time soon. Four months ago she pulled the trigger on her gun and saved her own life, but what she thinks her anonymous message-sender wants her to remember is the tug of the needle as the cut near her eye was stitched up, the bruises on her face and body that took weeks to fade.
She wonders if it would make any difference if they knew that it was the first time Frankie had ever hit her, that he'd never so much as raised a hand to her before that. He'd been frequently jealous of her time spent at work, or with colleagues and other friends, and sometimes dismissive, in a vague sort of way, of her work and her opinions. He'd been in love with the sound of his own voice. Ordinary vices, small vices, but she still wonders if they weren't red flags even so. She's studied the psychology of abuse, and she knows how patient a serial abuser can be, how it's a slow process of wearing the abused down until finally fighting back no longer even presents itself as an option. She'd always sworn she'd walk the first time a man ever struck her, and, in an awful way, she'd even kept that promise.
But what she doesn't know is if that wearing-down process was taking place all those months without her ever noticing, and the possibility appalls her. If she can't trust her own judgment, then nothing is certain, and who knows what other things she may be overlooking?
And then there's Mac. Mac, who refuses to talk to her about anything important, who refuses to really see her. He's gone out of his way to act like nothing is wrong, like nothing has changed. In the first hours after she came back to work, she'd taken that as a good sign. Then he'd lectured her about recidivism in domestic abuse victims and sent her off to do ballistics tests, and she'd seen his attitude for what it really was: a refusal, a denial of her. For all that, on the surface, he treats her as if everything is normal, there's a different story lurking underneath. He thinks that she is different after all, that this thing with Frankie changes or defines her, and this is the same belief that must have inspired whoever left the pamphlet for her.
She has no idea how Danny and Hawkes and the others think of her now, and she doesn't really want to know. They treat her like they always have, but that's no guarantee. She misread Mac and misread Frankie - and her distance from Mac started a lot longer ago than April, if she's being honest - so why not the others, too?
Nothing is certain anymore. That galls her as much as the way everyone wants to write her story for her now, and wants to tell her who she's supposed to be. The message has been made clear, not just today, but over and over again.
You are not who you were. Everything you know is wrong. Everyone knows but you.
Sweat is pouring down her body now and the muscles in her shins are starting to ache, but she pushes herself on. Lindsay was halfway right, she thinks, or right up to a point. People put you in their little boxes, and God help you if you try to stray from that. But she's not convinced that knowing the truth herself makes a damn bit of difference, much less that anything changes if those closest to her know the truth. She's not even sure that they do know the truth; there's no comfort there.
She's even less sure that she does know her own truth.
Her cell phone rings, and she steps off the path to answer it, out of the way of the other joggers. "Bonasera."
"Are you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay. I've just been running in 110% humidity, what do you expect?" She tries to modulate her breathing, fanning herself with the neckline of her t-shirt.
"That wasn't - " There's a pause, and she hears Mac sigh. "Where are you?"
"In the park. What's going on?"
"Double homicide in Forest Hills. The bodies were dumped on the tracks at the Continental Avenue station."
She winces and hopes that a train wasn't involved. "So you need me on it?"
"Both of us," he says. "Everyone else has cases I can't pull them from. Lindsay will run any tests you had scheduled for this afternoon."
"I'll get a cab," she says. "I should be back in about twenty minutes." She's already walking back toward Central Park South.
"All right," Mac says. "I'll grab your kit, so you'll just have to shower and change."
"Got it. So I'll see you soon." She's about to hang up, but then he speaks again.
"And Stella, about before - "
"Let it go, Mac. I already have." She crosses her fingers against the lie.
"I just wanted to say that maybe we could go out for a drink one night this week," he says. "It's been awhile."
Stella holds up her hand for an approaching cab. "Great. Sure." The drink will never happen; she knows that without having to think about it. "I'm getting in a cab. Be there in a bit." She hangs up before he can say anything else, then says, "1585 Broadway," to the driver and leans back against the seat. The afternoon has changed nothing, resolved nothing, but then, she hadn't expected it to. She only wanted to clear her head, the way she told Lindsay, and she thinks she's managed to do that, so she'll regard the last hour as a success.
You are not who you were.
Even if she's not, she can't - won't - stop fighting. Even if she keeps on seeing Frankie's face every time she closes her eyes for the next fifty years, and even if Mac never looks her in the face again, and the rest of the NYPD whispers murderer and victim behind her back whenever she walks by. She's more exhausted than she's ever been in her life, and she thinks that she may be fighting for nothing, but she still doesn't get to stop trying. Doesn't get to let the assholes win. No matter that the futility of it makes her want to sleep for a hundred years.
Stella watches the buildings go by as they creep down Broadway in the heavy midday traffic. She can't see a way out of it, so she's got to live with it, and if only she had some way to know for sure that she wasn't still making mistakes that would later come back to haunt her, she thinks that she might even be able to find a way to live with herself, too.