24 Frames Per Second
In the college town on the edge of nowhere, they talked about film as if it still mattered.
Perhaps because there was nothing better to do.
She had grown tired of reading, and TV was nothing more than a flashy narcotic that held tantalizing glimpses of that other life now forever gone—she never realized how many TV shows were set in New York. It made what was merely bittersweet into something unendurable. All that was left for her in the evenings was eating pizza and going to lectures in the dusty auditorium.
The bearded professor—a vision in rumpled corduroy—at the lectern on stage was talking about Jean-Luc Godard. Lulled to sleep courtesy of a frame-by-frame deconstruction of Pierrot Le Fou, she awoke to an annunciation from this most unlikely of angels: “Godard says that cinema is the truth, 24 times per second.”
Her head lolled back and she stared at the vast expanse of the auditorium’s dull beige ceiling.
All that remained for her was truth, scattered in random snapshots of memory. And all of these frames featured Olivia Benson, a hopeless captive of her mind—a vision of beauty at 24 frames per second in this, a sadly disjointed story, a minor modernist novel gone seriously astray. She always fails in imposing order upon the messy sequence of events, on these random fragments. As the memories rise like smoke within her mind once again, she wonders—what will she remember first? What will she remember last? Will a consummation be tacked on at the end of her remembrances as if it were the culmination of a cheap potboiler romance?
Were they a cheap romance, period? The weary detective, the lady lawyer—they were built for film noir and acted accordingly.
Appropriately enough their first kiss occurs at night, near a dark alley, after a lot of drinking, and it’s only appropriate that Olivia gives her a wary-wounded Sam Spade squint just beforehand, as if trying to figure out what the hell kind of game Alex is up to, as if suspecting the inevitable, unavoidable blow that will follow.
Fifth Avenue glows magically with holiday lights and mostly cheerful, overburdened shoppers slogging through gray snow-slush.
Olivia is wearing a black watchcap, one that she’s stolen from Elliot. No sooner does she steal one from him then he buys another, and no sooner does he buy another then she loses the one she’s just taken and has to steal the new one. “I hate fucking Christmas. It’s ridiculous, commercialized crap.”
“Well, then.” Alex hesitates. Oh, to hell with it. To hell with it all. She stops, snares Olivia in a hug, surreptitiously dropping a small gift in Olivia’s coat pocket. “Merry Fucking Christmas.” She limns Olivia’s lips with her tongue, the heat from their open mouths steaming in December’s frigid air.
She holds Olivia’s wrist tightly, not knowing if she wants Olivia to stay or to go. If she holds on just tightly enough she knows Olivia will stay. But if she presses too hard Olivia will leave. Alex quietly hopes for a sign, hopes that skin and bones and tendons will speak to her own and then, and only then, will she know what she really wants.
Or maybe I am holding on so tightly because my hand will shake if I don’t?
Finally she chokes out the words she’s wanted to say for months. “Come home with me.”
In Italy there is a particular quality of light that occurs in the late afternoon; the word lambent seems invented for it. It is a soft shimmering, the air possess a vibrato so intense so that not feeling it, not seeing it is an impossible, intangible sin.
No such light exists in New York—this is what Alex has always believed. But at this very moment in her office, she rediscovers the rare pale gold of this light along the planes of Olivia’s face, a softness that attempts to smooth the beautiful, knotted look of concentration on her face as she plows Alex’s skirt up her thighs and two fingers dive below the boundary of her panties.
This surprising light turns the depths of Olivia’s eyes from impenetrable dark to golden amber. “Take them off,” she murmurs.
When she’s finished fucking Alex the sound and fury of Liz Donnelly’s impending approach is in the air. Gently, and with a defiant, sensual slowness, she smears her glistening fingers across Alex’s lips, a simple gesture that ensures both shocked silence and indelible memory.
Then she’s gone, drawling a “Hello/Goodbye” to Liz in the hallway.
Alex’s shaking hand hovers over her mouth, afraid to touch, afraid to taste this essence of herself that sweetly glosses a mouth already red-ripe with kisses. She imagines the pose as something belonging to a demure geisha. Yet she feels neither modest nor professional. She feels like a woman marked and claimed, a woman who, only seconds before, was shuddering and gasping while deep in the thrall of an orgasm that has left both a satisfying soreness and a trickling dampness between her legs.
Liz barges in, slamming a fat file on the desk. “What’s wrong? Forget about a sale at Bergdorf’s again?” She turns to leave, but not before cutting Alex with a sardonic look. “Oh, I forgot. You have to be in a slumming mood for Bergdorf’s.”
They wrestle and grapple upon the bed in a pseudo-fight to determine who will go out and buy the Sunday paper. Even at play there is a seriousness about Olivia, a certain unbowed intensity. When she pins Alex's wrists to the mattress, it’s a Pyrrhic victory—Alex knows she’ll relent and go get the paper anyway. Yet in her moment of quasi-triumph she looks at Alex with a curious tenderness, as if finally seeing this woman beneath her for the first time.
In the mornings Olivia is a sprawl of dusky limbs, sublimely tortured and twisted within the soft prison of sheets, as if she fought sleep as passionately as she did everything else.
And in those very same mornings where Olivia lay captured by sleep, the bathroom mirror holds epiphanies for Alex: a new bruise here, violet and blossoming, an old bruise there, fading like a sunset. A sense of wonder spins around her head, a daisy chain of dizzying contradictions: You can’t do this and you need to do this. You can’t love her, you don’t love her versus you must love her, because why else do you do this?
She touches her own face, trying to mimic the precise way Olivia traces her cheekbones, wondering if, in this way, it’s possible to chart how different she was from, say, a year or two ago—and wondering what exactly those changes were.
She’s pressed against the headboard, so close that the wood’s pale grain is a vast tundra, a landscape of bleak desert. She’s holding on, taking it from behind, allowing Olivia set the pace and the tempo. The dildo slides in and out, just slow enough to work her into a barely controlled frenzy. But there is no control. “Control is letting go,” someone said to her once (old friend from college, actually, who later became a therapist and would analyze Alex on the fly over coffee and bialys at her favorite deli on East 83rd)—a contradiction that, in her current state, she can’t even pretend to contemplate, let alone fully understand.
She lets go, she unravels, she begs. “Please.” She hates the note of near-sobbing in her voice, yet loves the state she is in.
Olivia grasps her hips even more tightly. Her flesh is liquid, pouring into those merciless hands. More bruises.
“Please?” Olivia’s voice is low, beautifully mocking. “Never thought I’d hear that from you.”
“But then—“ The rhythm slows down to a languid, excruciating waltz, a tantalizing ebb and flow, the cock moving in and out. “—you’re always so nice when you want something, aren’t you?”
Twenty pleases later, she comes, white-hot and hard, hand slamming repeatedly into the headboard.
Roughly, Olivia straddles her; a heavy weight that sears Alex as she desperately grips the thighs surrounding her. Then she wraps a fist in the soft silk (yes, it’s silk, isn’t it, you wouldn’t wear rayon, would you?) of the marine blue shirt that Olivia wears and pulls. Two buttons pop off immediately, falling like pieces of hail against Alex’s cheek. Pearls before swine?
It isn’t until the fourth or fifth time they fuck that Olivia is actually sober and does not smell of alcohol, of smoky bars, of an alloy composed of gunpowder and blood and death. She misses the smell and even the taste, the metallic tinge of violence clinging to her palate.
Another call, another vic, another ruined Saturday morning. Olivia sits on the edge of the bed, pulling on boots. Her hair is damp from the shower, sticking out here and there in soft spikes, like an otter’s fur. Sleepily Alex reaches for it, wants to touch it, drops her hand, and wonders why she doesn’t. She knows. If am I affectionate you’ll think I care for you, and I do, but it scares you, and if you’re scared, you’ll become even more remote and distant than you already are. And you know what? I’m scared too.
Her hands are so beautiful and so strong, regardless of the task they perform—no matter if they are on Alex’s body or inside it. Appreciatively rubbing the cuff of Alex’s red velvet shirt between thumb and forefinger. Making coffee. Typing a report. Gripping a pen. Slamming a clip into her gun.
Olivia’s hand rests lightly upon the doorknob. “If I say it—will that change anything?”
Over the summer her hair has grown out; her bangs, no longer boyishly cute, are a wild fringe and when she dips her head low they fall over her eyes, a wave devouring a lost, mysterious island.
“Only if you mean it.” Alex closes her eyes so tightly that she gives herself a headache—as if she weren’t already well on her way to having one. “Christ. Don’t you know how to be with anyone?”
Eyes still closed, she feels a breeze declare Olivia’s departure.
The idea of socializing with her coworkers to such a shocking degree was anathema to Alex. Or perhaps it was just the dim reality of being forced to go to Queens. But she wanted to “make nice” to the squad (per Creagen’s indelicate suggestion), she wanted to prove that she was not the heartless career whore they all pegged her for, that she was a nice, down-to-earth person who would prefer sitting in Elliot Stabler’s sticky-hot backyard eating mediocre barbecue rather than lounging in her air-conditioned apartment eating Thai takeout and rereading Cicero—which, of course, is precisely what she wanted to do with her Sunday.
Her pilgrimage to the outer borough is rewarded when she sees Olivia in the Stabler backyard—jockeying with the host for the honor of being grillmaster—wearing tight cutoff denim shorts and a tank top. She even finds the battered Old Navy flipflops—the left one precariously held together with duct tape—endearing.
If I ever manage to seduce you, I’m definitely buying you new sandals.
They collide against the door and it takes all of Alex’s strength to pin Olivia there before sliding down her body, liberating t-shirt from pants, and kissing the soft contours of her muscled stomach before clenching a bit of Olivia’s belt between her teeth. Never before, never again will she want it this desperately—to be on her knees in front of someone, to be the supplicant before a sexual savior.
The trousers hit the floor, along with the belt buckle that goes chink, and she buries her face into a dark mass of neatly trimmed hair. Perfect, she thinks.
She’s walking away from Alex—head low, leather jacket glimmering against the matte black of night. The anger burns off her as in an oil lantern—it fuels the rage of her light.
For want of treasure, her hand pries open Olivia’s thighs. Her thumb burrows through the soft brush of dark pubic hair, swirls teasingly around her clitoris like a shark around a lifeboat, and draws a damp line from the clitoral hood to the cleft of her ass.
Then there is the bold pronouncement of her collarbone as she throws back her head, bracing herself to come.
In the safety of night—particularly while cradled in the arms of vodka—Olivia will tell her things. She will talk about her mother. She will talk about old boyfriends. She will talk about women she desired. She will talk about the cases that have marked her like so many transparent scars. But on this night, with her face sweaty and warm between Alex’s breasts, she will offer only the cryptic prize of one stark sentence: “You are so beautiful I can’t stand it.”
In the hospital, she watches Cheryl Avery’s bloodied, battered body being wheeled away, and then there is the sensation of failing, of falling, with nothing but the meager comfort of Olivia’s fingers brushing across her own. What else could keep her standing, what else could stop her fall?
The rich hues of the Shiraz almost match Olivia’s dark eyes. “Candlelight,” she says wryly.
Alex pours the wine and thanks God for Dean and Deluca; she hasn’t had to cook in about three years. “You don’t like candlelight?”
“You’re getting romantic on me.”
“God forbid I should display any kind of innocent affection for you.” Alex laid a napkin on her lap. “Quick—let’s go have meaningless, degrading sex to make everything ‘normal.’”
Olivia arches an eyebrow, sips her wine. “Again?”
“Do you know how close I am to strangling you with my napkin?”
She laughs and reaches across the table, laying a hand over Alex’s wrist, her thumb brushing against veins. “It’s really nice. Thank you.” She looks down; this mere drop of her head transforms her from a tough NYPD detective to a shy, continually disappointed woman unaccustomed to anyone making the slightest fuss over her. “I didn’t think I rated,” she murmured.
Alex’s throat tightens but she manages to force out the words, if only because of their supreme importance: “You rate.”
If she never heard the sound of someone’s heart breaking, she hears it now. No voice, no lament, nothing has ever articulated such raw pain to her. The moment she hears these broken chords in Olivia’s voice she knows it’s a bad idea and she’s grateful for the painkillers that have sweetly glazed every nerve ending in her body. Wouldn’t it have been better for Olivia just to assume she’s dead? Mourn and grieve for what was lost in a proper way, in a way that would allow her closure and the ability to go on with her life? Find a better, more suitable lover?
Selfish? Yes. I want you to find me again. No matter where I am, no matter my name. Find me, Olivia. Or I’ll find you.
Then the van doors close. No credits roll, there is no music, and the darkness peels away this last frame of her former life.