The Only Living Boy in New York by Stellaluna
The moon is full, and the East River shines like alabaster under the 3:00 a.m. streetlights. He's in his usual spot, leaning on the Promenade railing, the wind a constant cold gust against his face. Funny thing, tonight he doesn't feel tired, not even a little bit. He will in the morning, he knows that; he'll pay for pulling this all-nighter the same way he always does. By mid-afternoon he'll be dizzy from the combined effects of caffeine and No-Doz, and will have to make an effort not to grind his teeth, thinking maybe, maybe tonight he'll catch a couple of hours in between reviewing his never-ending caseload.
For right now, though, he's wide awake. He's been going over his evening out (his first one in he can't remember when) in his head, and he's coming to the conclusion that it was a successful venture. What impulse drove him to ask Stella to grab a bite to eat he still doesn't know, but he's not sorry that he did it. He does know that she wasn't expecting the Garden or a parade of show pooches, but it was worth it just to see the expression on her face when he handed her a hot dog.
He caught her studying him several times throughout the evening, any time she thought he wasn't looking, and knows that she was trying to figure the thing out. If she had been surprised by his invitation in the first place, she seemed to have been equally shocked by his lack of tie. She never asked him to provide any concrete reasons for what she no doubt sees as a very sudden change in demeanor. Being Stella, that she didn't ask doesn't mean she wasn't wondering.
Over their long time together, she's become expert at ferreting out even those things he's most unwilling to reveal; he's been equally expert at dodging the question. If the past few years have put the occasional crimp in her bulldog tenacity, at least as it concerns him personally, it has never faded away entirely. He can imagine how the evening might have gone, had she given free rein to her curiosity.
So why'd you suddenly get a happy, Mac? She'd say that to him, or something just like it, and for all the disavowals he might have made from that point on, he knows he would have been sunk the second she opened her mouth. The woman just does not let go of things.
He shifts his position against the railing, flexing tight joints, then, after a moment, decides to break the nightly routine just a little bit more, and goes to sit on one of the benches that line the Promenade. Better, he decides as he settles in. The bench is cold, a chill right through his clothes, but the wind isn't as sharp back here.
There would have been no answer he could have given her, he thinks. Not just about why he decided on the friendly overture, but on the entire situation in general. Sometime over the holidays he realized that he had grown weary of the sidelong glances he still gets in the department and out in the field, and of the unspoken concern of his closest colleagues, Stella and Danny looking at him and then away and sometimes at each other, all raised eyebrows and shrugs, and he would like them to know that none of it has ever escaped his notice.
This is part of it; he has an intrinsic distaste for gossip, particularly when he's the subject of it. The thing is, with Stella it's not about gossip. It's not that she doesn't indulge; he's heard her whispering with Aiden enough times, or trading rumors with Danny and Flack over rounds of drinks. What she doesn't do is talk about him. He knows this without having to look into the matter, or make inquiries. She just doesn't, ever. The Mac Taylor rumor mill comes to a dead halt when it makes its way to Stella. He's heard gossip of his own, in fact, suggesting that people have stopped repeating their stories and suppositions to Stella for fear of getting slapped down.
So there's Stella, and there are the many things that have gone wrong in their lives, and she's loyal to him even so. It's something for him to keep in mind. Her reasons for being so are, along with his reasons for tonight, inextricably bound up with their history together. That, then, is what he'll have to look at it if he's ever to be able to clarify the situation to himself.
He's a big believer in letting the past stay the past. It's to his eternal dismay that long-over events have a nasty habit of cropping up when you least expect them. He's further troubled by questions with no easy answers, or with answers that seem muddled, overly emotional, not based in straightforward fact. When confronted with such a conundrum, it's more likely than not that he'll be unable to leave it alone; it is, he's convinced, both gift and curse.
Talk it through, he tells himself. Were Stella here, he'd turn to her and say the same thing, adding the clause with me to the end of the sentence. She's not, and this isn't something he could go to her with anyway, so instead he'll need to work it out in his own head.
Though he's still looking across the river, he's no longer seeing the January skyline.
Interpreting evidence isn't just a matter of gathering all the pieces, but of knowing how far back in time you need to look in order to make them fit together properly.
New York in the early '90s is a city in transition; this is what he thinks from the first day he arrives. It's fitting that he's come here at the end of one career and the beginning of another. That he is not a civilian, even now, pleases him; that he isn't in Chicago pleases him even more. He settles himself in and sets about building a name and place for himself.
For the first time in years, he has a sense of stability in the physical space that he occupies. Every morning when he gets up, he's in the same bed, the same apartment. The same city and the same state. He's slept in so many different beds since his eighteenth birthday, which maybe sounds like the beginning of a Penthouse letter, but it's nothing like that at all. He's almost always been alone, and in uncomfortable beds with recalcitrant springs.
He no longer comes awake in the pre-dawn dark and has to try to remember where in the world he might be. He can remember huddling against the wall in a ship's berth, with the far-off sound of engines a constant thrum beneath his cheek, or lying on his back in a barracks cot in Beirut or Kuwait City or South Carolina. Through it all, the sense of dislocation never left him, and it took him some time after his discharge to grow accustomed to its absence.
Now he has a wide, comfortable bed in an apartment in New York City's meatpacking district, with a mattress he picked out and paid for himself, and if some nights he gets home much too late to really appreciate it, or finds himself lying there hour after hour with wide-open eyes, at least it's a sight more comfortable than the places he used to find himself. He can turn on the light and read, or flee to the comfort of the couch and Turner Classic Movies if all else fails.
His first years with the NYPD are uneventful. He catches a couple of lucky breaks, and is aware that the brass are pleased with him. It bodes well for the future. With that in mind, he also begins taking forensics courses at NYU, determined that he'll go as far in the department as he can. On weekends and on the rare occasions when he finds himself with a free hour or two, he devotes himself to a more informal education of his own devising: the task of learning the ins and outs of the city.
He'll walk a Manhattan neighborhood until the grid of streets makes sense to him beyond their orderly numerical layout, not satisfied until he can reel off the demographics of Gramercy Park or Spanish Harlem without pausing to think, or until he can call to mind the order of stores on a given section of Columbus Avenue or Mercer Street. Other times he'll pick a subway line and ride it from one end to the other, noting the stops on the downtown 4 or the uptown F. Books on history and local politics now line the shelves next to his criminology and science texts.
With few hours in the day left unfilled, the years begin to go by quickly, and he doesn't have time to think about things like a social life or friends. These have never been his main interests anyway: too much opportunity for messy complications. He is aware in a vague sense that he should at least go out on a date occasionally, that it's what you do, but he always manages to forget this in the wake of the latest case, or latest department upheaval.
He meets Claire on St. Patrick's Day, a day when anyone with sense is out of Manhattan. He himself has plenty of sense, but he also has to work, and so he steels himself to deal with braindead frat boys from Connecticut and suburban office workers from Long Island, all of whom have much less tolerance for alcohol than they believe themselves to possess, and most of whom neither have, nor would ever own up to having, shanty Irish in their bloodlines.
After his shift is over, he allows himself to be talked into going to Molly O'Grady's for a round of beers. It's the last thing he wants to do, this particular bar the last place in the world he wants to go, but he's angling for a particular promotion right now, and so lets his ambition win out over his irritation with the holiday. He sits at the end of the bar with his captain and a revolving selection of fellow detectives, and laughs in all the right places at their jokes about Chicago and Mrs. O'Leary's cow.
He doesn't know when the group of suits comes in, but he notices the little blonde when she leans across the wooden countertop and asks the bartender for a Bellini. She gets a blank stare in return, and then the bartender makes a show of consulting his battered drink mixing guide before he sets about preparing it.
She stands and bites her lip, blushing, and then looks over at him in consternation. "Wrong drink to ask for on St. Patrick's Day, I guess."
Wrong bar, too, is what he thinks, but says only, "I guess," ignoring the smirks and elbows of his fellow officers. And that would be the end of it, except that later on in the evening, when they're the only two people in the place who are even remotely sober (her co-workers are well into their fifth or six round, red-faced and shrieking with laughter; his are increasingly foulmouthed and all but passed out around the bar), she comes over and talks to him again.
She's bright and attractive and interested in him, and so at the end of the night he finds himself asking for her phone number. After that, it's all much easier than he ever would have expected. She works in finance and has nothing at all to do with either the police department or the military; in fact, she knows next to nothing about either profession, has never known anyone who's in what she refers to as "the service." But she's curious and her questions are perceptive.
The first time he takes her back to his place, her smile falters just the tiniest bit when she gets her first look at his neighborhood, and again at the sight of his apartment; this is several years before the meatpacking district becomes trendy, and he has never been able to do anything with his living quarters other than to make them neat and functional.
Sex is something quiet and private; this has been as much a matter of necessity as of personal belief. He has to remind himself, that night and many after, that Claire won't be gone when he wakes up in the morning. (Sometimes she can't stay, or he can't, because of work the next morning, but mentioning this up front and leaving with a kiss and a promise is very different from slipping out of the apartment like a thief in the night.) He dislikes public displays of affection as a matter of course, but brings himself around to thinking of their lovemaking as a gradually evolving process, something that can be at least acknowledged and appreciated. It's not a business transaction, or something conducted in quick, gasping secrecy in an alleyway or locked room.
His promotion to head of the Crime Scene Unit happens the same year as his marriage, so they end up with multiple reasons to celebrate. The ceremony goes off without a hitch; he stands blushing at the altar in his rented tuxedo (he shot down suggestions that he wear his dress blues), and Claire glows in her dress, and if there are few guests sitting on his side of the church, it's still a very good day.
He looks at himself in the mirror one morning some weeks later, as he adjusts his tie, and thinks that now he has it all: a lovely wife (one who has nothing at all to do with guns or military maneuvers or DNA sampling) and real authority in his career. He no longer has to make something of himself; he's made it. What he doesn't have is a friend, but all in all, it's a nice status quo he's created for himself, this sharp delineation between work and home life.
Stella is a revelation.
He hires her when they're shorthanded in the department and he's in desperate need of a detective with some experience, someone he won't have to guide and watch over every step of the way, and her arrival proves to be a godsend. She's looking for a transfer from narcotics, and is well-informed and enthusiastic about current forensics trends. He suspects that she's going to be trouble, but she makes enough of an impression that he's willing to overlook this, and worry about any behavioral problems later.
He discovers, quickly, that she's one of the best criminalists he's ever encountered. He also discovers that she's, bar none, the most confounding woman he's ever met. He can't figure the constant flow of jokes and wisecracks she seems to always have at her fingertips. Gallows humor isn't something he's unfamiliar with, and he knows the importance of detachment in their line of work, but this is something else altogether. She seems to make the jokes, not as defensive shield or as an attempt to be one of the boys, but for her own private amusement. There's a smile she gets on her face after she tosses out a sarcastic remark that he comes to recognize as a signal that she's just made herself laugh, very much, and after a few months of working together, he catches himself beginning to look for that smile.
He has a vague suspicion that he should call her into his office for a talk, tell her that her crime-scene comments are inappropriate, but he doesn't. He settles for stern looks, instead, and says nothing about it to her. She seems almost to be testing him, or at least looking for a reaction of some sort, but he maintains his professionalism. As time goes on and he begins to understand her sense of humor, he finds it more and more difficult not to laugh and, knowing this would be fatal, sometimes has to resort to biting the inside of his cheek just to keep a straight face.
Finally, after she's been working for him for maybe a year, he cracks, and lets a smile get out, and after that she's merciless. Her cries of joy over his newfound sense of humor would be insulting if she didn't look so honestly delighted, and when she hold her hand out to him and introduces herself, as if they were just meeting for the first time, he thinks: Now. Now is when we sit down and I give her a long-overdue lecture about professional standards. Nip this in the bud.
He doesn't; he smiles and shakes her hand and plays along with the introduction scenario, instead. Though they do sit down together that night, it's over two pint-glasses of beer at McSorley's. They talk about their department backgrounds, and about his time in the Corps; and after he listens to her bemoan the current state of her love life, he tells her about Claire, too. She smiles, and says that he's lucky; outsiders don't always get what it's like to be on the force. He agrees, with both statements.
It becomes a natural thing for the two of them to grab a beer after their shift is over, or a quick bite to eat during the occasional down-time. He finds that he talks to her as he would to a fellow soldier, to someone who has been through the wars. And in her own way she has. She has stories from her years in narcotics that make his scalp crawl, and one night, one very late night, she tells him about St. Basil's Orphanage. "It didn't take me long to figure out that the nuns were better than foster care," she says, and her smile doesn't reach her eyes
"Amen to that," he tells her, and is relieved to see her light up at the small joke.
He sometimes wonders at fate's ironic twists. The last thing he ever wanted was a friend in the department, and now he's got one, and that friend is a woman, to boot. He's never considered himself a sexist, has never thought that a job done by a woman will be any less than a job done by a man, but he also hasn't ever considered the possibility of this kind of platonic relationship.
There's Claire, of course, who is still--he thinks--as open and honest and bright as the day he met her, but their relationship was never predicated upon expectations of friendship. It was attraction from the start, which quickly turned into dating and then into a deeper commitment. He loves and trusts and is grateful for her every day. His closeness to Stella doesn't change that, but neither does his marriage change the fact that Stella's presence in his life has given him a new perspective to consider.
It's not so unusual, he supposes; his entire adult life, or near enough, has been spent in boys' clubs, all his bonds with men. Stella, while avowedly unsentimental and--as far as he can see--not the least bit interested in traditional romance, is also very much a woman.
She has a straightforward, determined attitude about prying into what he considers his personal business that makes him, more often than not, tell her what she wants to know. Sometimes the prying gets to be a bit too much, such as the times she goes into more detail than he wants to know about her latest sexual exploits, or when she demands he give her the male perspective on blowjobs. He attempts to head these conversations off at the pass; sometimes she lets it go and sometimes she doesn't.
She also, for all her brashness, seems to show genuine concern for and interest about whatever's going on in his life, and he finds that, before he has a chance to reconsider, he's sharing those sentiments. By the time he remembers to warn himself that getting too close to anyone in the line of fire is a bad idea, it's far too late to go back or to undo the bonds which have been established.
Claire gets a new job and a hefty promotion, and they move into a West Side co-op. Things are going equally well for him at the lab, and these late '90s years are, all around, pretty close to being as good as things can get.
It's with the turn of the millennium that things begin--not to go bad, nothing that drastic, but maybe to turn a bit. It's nothing very unusual, he guesses; he's been working long hours and so has Claire, and it takes him a little while to realize that they've been going too many days in a row, too often, without seeing very much of each other. Claire comments on this on occasion, and protests that even when he is home, he's distracted. He attempts to smooth this over, and when he points out that she's just as career-driven as he is, she doesn't pursue the subject any further. Everything is fine, he tells himself; it's all just fine.
One night in the spring of 2001 he decides to take a cab home; it's past midnight and he's too weary for what's sure to be a long, dull subway ride. On the way, he gets out his cell to check in with Stella, who's been stuck handling a nastier-than-expected rape and murder down on Orchard Street. She sounds as weary as he feels, the dispirited tone in her voice entirely unlike her. He lets her talk about the overwhelming evidence and about how the perp is probably going to get off on an infuriating technicality, and tries to reassure as best he can.
Finally she's quiet for a long minute, then says, voice dull and flat, "I don't know why we even bother."
He looks out the cab window at the lights of Central Park West. "The same reason I re-upped my tour of duty all those years," he says after a pause. "Because some things you have to keep fighting for."
He expects her to tell him to quit it with the cliches and stop quoting the Corps recruiting manual, but all she does is sigh, and then says that she needs some sleep, and that maybe she'll get over it after a shower and a solid eight hours.
"You're a good soldier, Stella," he says, just before she clicks off.
It's the highest praise he can give.
He sees a light shining under the apartment doorway as he walks down the hall of his building, and is surprised; usually Claire is long in bed by this time. He pauses outside the door, and after a moment hears a muffled voice: Claire's end of a phone conversation, he realizes.
"No," she says, and laughs. "No, of course not. I just--yes, you do. He's still at work...I don't know. He hasn't called. You could--"
This is all ambiguous enough; what isn't is the hurried, "I have to go," when he slides his key into the lock. By the time he walks into the living room, she's sitting on the couch with spreadsheets laid out around her.
"Working late?" he asks.
"I thought your shift was over at 11:00," she says, not looking up from her laptop.
"Got stuck doing a CODIS search," he says, hanging up his jacket.
"I don't suppose you could have called."
He doesn't answer.
One of these tiny upheavals would mean nothing, but they happen again and again, all spring and into the summer. By the end of July, he's spending far too much time in his office with the door shut, having fierce whispered arguments on department time, on department phone lines. There are certain questions he doesn't dare to ask, certain questions which he deflects every time Claire brings them up. He notices that Stella has begun to study him with concern, and turns a blind eye. Everything is fine, just fine, and he intends to keep it that way.
Everything, of course, is not fine, it's pretty fucking far from fine, and he learns this on a sunny Tuesday in September, in a more pointed object lesson than anyone ever deserves. The day itself is dim in his memory: confusion and shock set in quickly that morning. He goes on automatic pilot so that he can do his job and function, and in that he's not much different from a lot of other New Yorkers on that day, whether they're on the force or not. He remembers smoke and dust and sirens, shouted orders over the radio and a cell phone he couldn't make work no matter how many times he tried, a billowing cloud of white that spread to envelop the entire southern end of the island.
The weeks following aren't much better, one funeral after and they all blur together after a while, never even enough time to send his dress uniform to the dry cleaners in between services. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his people, listening to the priests and the rabbis read their masses for the dead, and the sound of bagpipes is something he still hears in his dreams.
The night of Claire's funeral, he goes up to the roof of his building to get some air and to get away from it all, needing to stop looking into the shocked faces of her parents and sisters, the memorial service almost worse than anything else that's happened.
He takes a deep breath for the first time in what felt like hours and catches the tang of smoke and dirt in his throat, the smell that hangs over the entire city like a mass funeral shroud. The idea occurs before he can stop it: That is two buildings, and thousands of people who are never going to come home, whose bodies may never be recovered. You're breathing in their corpses. Any other time, he would have dismissed such a thought as silly and morbid, but now it leaves him gagging, and he sinks to his knees as he loses the contents of an empty stomach.
The concrete edge of the rooftop is sharp and cool against his burning forehead, and he thinks maybe he'll just stay here. He doesn't know how much time passes before he hears the click of the rooftop door behind him, and he gets to his feet, bracing himself to deal with his in-laws.
It's Stella, instead. He hasn't, he realizes, seen much of her lately; if she's been around, he hasn't noticed.
She walks over to him and, instead of saying anything, holds out a bottle of beer--grabbed, he guesses, from the food spread Claire's father had arranged for. He takes it. It's probably not the best thing for his stomach right now, but he doesn't really care.
He clinks the bottle lightly against her own before he takes a drink, and the two of them stand side by side in silence for a long time, gazes fixed on what's left of the downtown skyline.
Much of the rest of that fall is spent in a fog. He goes to work and does his job, and that's really about all he can handle. There are departmental murmurs about compassionate leave and grief counseling, but he ignores these. He has work to do. He thinks, later--when he stops feeling as if he has to wade through fog just to think at all--that this was probably for the best. He remembers little of those next few months, and what he does recall is taken up with the endless demands of the job.
He is aware of Stella hovering around the edges of his life, but he says nothing to her that isn't work-related, and she seems to have adopted--for the time being, at least--a policy of backing off. While she may be leaving him to his own devices for the moment, he knows this state of affairs won't last forever, and he's dreading the time when she makes an attempt to pick up where they left off.
Now that he knows, or has been reminded of, the uncertainty of the world and the inevitability of things ending, he is appalled by his own behavior over the past few years, that he allowed himself to lulled into such a false sense of security. That he let himself be...drawn in. It's a mistake he's determined not to make again, and so, ten days before Christmas, when Stella tries to talk him into going out for a group drinking session, and then for dinner, just the two of them, he puts her off. When she persists, he tells her to fuck off, getting right up into her face, and feels a cruel, dull flash of pleasure at the hurt shock in her eyes. He's never sworn at her before, not like that, and it's more satisfying than he ever could have imagined.
He ends up feeling guilty about that incident, of course. Stella never says another word about it, doesn't even bother to pick a fight with him, and it's that more than anything, maybe, that drives home for him how hurt she truly is. He makes an effort, as much as he's able, not to lash out at her again, and over time they achieve a fragile state of equilibrium. It's never the way it used to be, but he tells himself that this is for the best, for both of them.
He is, after all, a soldier above all else.
He opens his eyes wide, blinking at the river and the moon and the skyscrapers across the water. Sitting here and dreaming for...however long it's been, and he thinks that he might just possibly be frozen to the bench. All his limbs have gone stiff again, and when he gets up, he can hear his joints creak like an old man's.
He paces the wide, silent walkway, and he thinks that he understands his own motivations a little better now. He doesn't want to go back to the old days, not precisely, though he does miss them more than he cares to admit. Much as Stella has been his constant for so many years now, he still believes he was right to back off from their closeness in the fall of 2001, right to recognize dangers he should have been cognizant of all along.
There are other things to consider, however, like her loyalty, and the sense he has that such dedication should be rewarded. More than that, he's tired of being this tragic figure, this source of whispers and murmured asides. He was never meant to be that kind of person; he cringes at the thought of it, right down to the fiber of his being.
He doesn't want to be that person; he wants to be the man who Stella used to look at with good-humored affection and trust. That was a man who had his shit together, who could run the crime lab and still hang onto his personal integrity, along with some semblance of a personal life. Hard work has let him achieve all the other things he's wanted out of life; there's no reason why it can't work in this instance, too. Let Stella look at him with confidence, and everyone else should follow suit.
He should go back to his apartment soon, try to get in an hour or two of lying in bed, if not sleeping, before he has to get up and go into the lab, but he lingers on the Promenade. By the light of the moon, the water is slick as glass, not a ripple in it, and both the streets and buildings seem to shine from within, as if they have achieved a hard-won peace. The people are out there somewhere, too, and soon enough they'll be murdering each other again, but not now, not right here.
For now there's only him, and the dreaming city, and fog rolling in from the East.