Memory Extant

 

 

And a ship with eight sails could come ‘round the bend

Or a herd of bull charging stoplights red,

I’d be blind…
—Rufus Wainwright, “Danny Boy”

 

 

1. They Fuck You Up

 

2000 BC {Before Cabot}

 

There were men. There have always been men. If nothing else, it was a constant. But sometimes, in the solace of afterthought, the safety of retrospection, she felt tender emotions for them. Some of them, anyway.

 

Tenderness, however, had nothing to do with why she was in the club, sweaty t-shirt plastered to her back, torso steaming in the leather coat that she dare not remove. The coat was new—and expensive, hence her reluctance to part with it. In a rare moment of self-pampering she decided she needed something, a gift to herself, for sticking out SVU—hell, for sticking out NYPD. She couldn’t imagine being anything other than a cop, but that didn’t mean there weren’t days when she wanted to walk away from it all or, even worse, eat her gun.

 

She ran a hand through her hair, still unaccustomed to the shortness after so many years of long hair. Without a doubt the style was fucked up, but she didn’t have time to find a decent hairdresser to tame the wildness. Soon, she thought—if only because she wasn’t certain how long she could endure Elliot’s teasing about her “ducktail.”

 

Tonight it didn’t matter. She had the coat. She had the body. It would only be a matter of time. The darkness turning under artificial light, the music, the smoke, the sweat—these elements of nightlife would ensure her success. And if the city truly lived at night, she was one of its veins: The passage of days coursed through her, nourished her, renewed itself ceaselessly, charged her with a restlessness that had led her to this bar at—Olivia glanced at her watch—1:30 in the morning.

 

A woman with long blonde hair, of indeterminate age, parked herself against the bar and next to Olivia. Pretty in a nondescript way, she was clearly in party mode, cradling a cigarette and a drink in one hand.

 

“Ahhh, fuck. They play such shit music now!” exclaimed the woman.

 

Olivia quickly dubbed her “Anonymous Blonde”—it was a tad more concise than the “Female Caucasian, 5’4”, about 120 pounds, henna tattoo on wrist, white sleeveless t-shirt, blue jeans” that initially ran through her hopelessly cop mind. Anonymous Blonde was close enough that Olivia could smell her sweat and her perfume. Cheap. Well, you’re trying to pick up someone in a bar. What do you expect, Chanel No. 5?

 

Anonymous Blonde looked at her while lighting a cigarette. “Never seen you here before,” she shouted at Olivia. She flung back a sheaf of hair, glowing saffron-orange under the club’s saturating, shifting lights.

 

“First time,” Olivia yelled back.

 

The woman grinned. “First time ever?” She raised a suggestive eyebrow.

 

“No.” Olivia shrugged. “Just a long time.” A year felt like forever; she wasn’t sure if this perspective had been colored by life in SVU or not. Okay, it’s official: You’ve been a cop too fucking long.

 

“Let me guess. You finally got tired of guys.”

 

Yes, Olivia thought reluctantly, there was that, but there were other things too. “No, I guess I was just scared a little.” She paused, wondered why she was telling something this personal to a nameless stranger, but there was an odd kind of liberation in doing so. She pretended to watch the swarming bodies on the dance floor, a hive of women in thrall to the honey of drums and bass. “Women are really intense sometimes. Too intense.” It was tempting to lapse into some sort of “Men are Mars, Women are from Venus” type of nonsense, but Olivia refrained. Obviously women were different—but she wasn’t quite sure how or why, and it scared her. 

 

Anonymous Blonde snorted derisively and exhaled cigarette smoke that barreled through the candy-colored night. “Yeah, women. They can really fuck your shit up.”

 

Not surprisingly, this made her think of Abbie Carmichael, who’d once said something similar to her, sans the obscenity. Not that Abbie couldn’t curse like a truck driver when motivated to do so. Jesus. Abbie. What would have happened if you’d stayed?

 

Mercifully, however, Olivia managed not to think of Abbie later while fucking Anonymous Blonde in a black-lacquered bathroom stall reeking of smoke and piss. But even later—stumbling out of the club at three in the morning, the musk of sex shrouding her fingers, toilet paper clinging to her heel, and more than a little pissed by a not-so-mysterious stain on her new coat—Abbie Carmichael was on her mind again. As much as she tried to shove it away into the darkened corners of her mind, into neatened little mental boxes with sharp edges that deterred her from opening them, the past never ceased its continual spillover into the present.

 

2. Blood and Beauty

 

1999, AC {The Ascent of the Carmichael}

 

All the boys in the precinct loved Abbie.

 

And really—thought Olivia, watching Abbie Carmichael flick a dart toward the battered old dartboard at McGinley’s—who could blame them? Their temporary ADA stood maddeningly close to her as she played darts with Elliot, who, in proving that he meant business and would give his competitor no free pass because of her gender, had sleeves rolled up and tie tidily tucked into his shirt.

 

This, however, didn’t stop him from flirting all evening long with the beautiful Texan. If there was one thing Olivia was learning about her partner, it was that, despite the ring on his finger, the man enjoyed flirting. They were still at the honeymoon stage in their partnership, still reveling in the newness of one another, so that Elliot’s sudden attentions to another woman made Olivia feel, ridiculously, like a jilted wife. Just imagine how his real wife feels, Liv.

 

But then there was Abbie, standing right next to him, graceful, lean, proud—a thoroughbred quietly unaware of her beauty. Just who am I jealous of?

 

Elliot tossed a dart and groaned as a couple of “porkbellies”—Abbie’s derisively imaginative term for fat, apathetic career cops—rolled in.  “Stayyyy-bler!” one of them shouted. “Get your ass over here!”

 

“Old buddies from my uni days,” he muttered apologetically—to Abbie, and not Olivia. “Gimme a few minutes?” He grinned.

 

“Take your time. I’ll try tutoring your partner on how to throw a dart without hitting anyone.” As he walked away, Abbie crooked her index finger at Olivia, beckoning like a Southern siren.

 

Powerless to resist, and hating her own predictability, Olivia stood up from their table, knocking pretzel crumbs off her pants. “I didn’t hit anybody,” she protested—again.

 

“Damn close. Not good luck to hit the bartender.”

 

“I apologized!”

 

“You don’t throw a dart like a football, Detective.” Abbie rolled a dart between her fingers, and with shocking speed grabbed Olivia’s hand and jabbed the sharp tip of the dart into her middle finger.

 

It all happened so quickly that Olivia didn’t react to the pain until seeing the dot of blood budding upon her fingertip. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Olivia yelped, neither angrily nor loudly enough to capture anyone’s attention.

 

Abbie grinned in a manner that some might find dangerously charming and seductive; Olivia only found it crazy and annoying. “It’s for good luck.”

 

“Good luck? I hope it works, Counselor,” Olivia growled, “‘cause I’m about a second away from kicking your ass. That thing is filthy.” She nodded at the dart’s metal tip. “I’ll need a tetanus shot.”

 

“Oh, c’mon, I sterilized it in the tequila shooter first,” Abbie scoffed.

 

“That makes me feel so much better.”

 

“Listen.” Either booze or the freedom of being outside the office (or perhaps both) thickened Abbie’s accent considerably, and to Olivia’s annoyance it conspired with that crazy grin to make Abbie damnably attractive. The ADA, however, seemed oblivious to Olivia’s epiphany and continued. “My best friend growin’ up was part Indian—a half-breed if you wanna be politically incorrect about it. Her old man was Choctaw. He was a real gambler, always in a bar somewhere, beatin’ some poor bastard at cards or pool or darts. Well, sometimes my friend and I would go lookin’ for him, and we’d usually find him in one of his dives, and we would just hang out with him and watch him work his thing. Hell, it was the only way she could see her old man, you know? He practically lived in those places. But whenever he played darts he’d go up to the prettiest woman in the joint and jab her real quick with a dart. Then he would tell her that the blood of a beautiful woman would make his aim true.” Abbie punctuated the story with another grin.

 

Olivia flushed, hoped the burning she felt along her face wasn’t terribly noticeable. Her throat tightened. I can’t believe I’m falling for this bullshit story. I can’t believe I want to kiss you for hours just because of it.

 

“If I hit that bull’s-eye”—Abbie’s dark eyes strayed to the pockmarked dart board—“will you go out with me after this?”

 

“Where?”

 

“Anywhere you like, Ben.”

 

“’Ben?’” Olivia scowled.

 

“You need a nickname,” Abbie retorted with mock solemnity. “If we’re going out—“

 

“Who says we’re going out?”

 

“—if we’re going out,” Abbie repeated, “I should be calling you something perhaps a little less formal than ‘Detective’ or ‘Olivia.’”

 

“Okay, fine, but for Christ’s sake….”

 

“Well, what can I call you?”

 

“You can call me Liv.”

 

Abbie hummed, contemplating it—and her. “I dunno. I think I like Ben better. It pisses you off. And you’re pretty damned cute when you’re all pissed off.”

 

“Don’t you think most women are?” Olivia sipped her beer, foolishly hoping it will offer some kind of cooling clarity.

 

Abbie grew thoughtful. “Could be.”

 

“Maybe that explains why your friend’s father was running around stabbing women with darts. Sonofabitch should’ve been arrested.”

 

“You’re such a cop, Ben.” Abbie turned from her and went John Wayne on the dart board, squinting at it with languid contempt. She pitched a dart through the air and it landed within the hallowed circle of the bull’s-eye. She whooped triumphantly.

 

This cry of victory finally reclaimed Elliot’s attention. He swaggered over, staring in disbelief at the dart board. “I’ll be goddamned. Now, if I didn’t know you better, Counselor, I’d accuse you of cheating.” He grinned boyishly at Abbie. “Do it again.”

 

Olivia rolled her eyes—and wisely withdrew her hands from within Abbie’s stabbing distance.

 

“What?” Half-amused, half-puzzled, Elliot looked at his partner.

 

Later, after Elliot lost another round of darts and finally went home, they went downtown to a greasy little restaurant in Chinatown on Bayard Street that had the best scallion pancakes ever—or so Abbie had proclaimed. Afterward, they walked through streets laden with garish exotica and knockoff designer merchandise, and wandered in and out of tacky shops bejeweled with dust.  

 

In one of these sad, musty stores Olivia found a small box, lacquered black and etched in gold with patterns of ocean waves; white and gold silk cords bound up the presumably empty treasure inside. She was cupping it appreciatively in one hand when Abbie noticed it and nodded her approval. “Lovely,” she murmured.

 

“Intricate detail,” Olivia added. She was borderline pretentious, as if she were trapped in an art gallery and forced to comment on a beauty keenly felt within her blood, but otherwise intangible, inexplicable, inaccessible to her. Is the beauty in the box or in the woman? She looked at Abbie.

 

“And somewhat mysterious at the same time,” Abbie continued. “All in all, it’s a like a woman.”

 

Olivia playfully shook the box. “All bound up with no place to go? And essentially empty?”

 

Abbie laughed. “Okay, it’s a lousy metaphor.” She touched the box, lowered her voice. “Buy it.”

 

Olivia handed it to her. “You should buy it for me. You make more money than I do.”

 

“Oh Jesus, it’d break your bank account, wouldn’t it?”  Abbie waved the box at the small, elderly proprietor, who had been eyeing them suspiciously since they came in, laughing too much, standing too close, pretending that every cautious, calculated touch was mere, meaningless affection.

 

Not long after that Olivia stood in a shadowy hallway in Abbie’s apartment building, mulling over the eternal dilemma perfectly summed up so perfectly in the old Clash song: whether she should stay or she should go.

 

She’d thought she’d learned her lesson with Brian Cassidy—flings with coworkers were casual disasters in the waiting. But Abbie’s reckless confidence was contagious, and the gift of the Chinese box lay tucked in her coat pocket, nestled against her hip like a foundling seeking warmth. So when Abbie laced her arms around Olivia’s waist and her lips unfurled soft, tremulous breaths against Olivia’s cheek, Olivia firmly decided that this was a disaster worthy of embarkation. 

 

3. The Chinese Box

 

2002, Year of the Blonde

 

No one, however—not even Abbie—that she ever met possessed the utterly unshakable confidence of Alex Cabot. The arrogance that she would have found distasteful in a man had a bizarrely seductive pull when embodied in the beautiful blonde ADA. She liked Cabot’s cocky strength, her fierce intellect, her relentless will. She also liked the way Alex crossed her legs, the lines of her throat, the suave depths of her cultured voice—not unlike Daisy Buchanan’s in that it sounded “full of money.” Most of all, she liked the way Alex looked at her, raking her with a restless gaze rich with unspoken intent, silently throwing down an emotional gauntlet that she probably wanted unchallenged:  I want to get inside you. Take that as you will. And Olivia would have been happy to leave it all at that—heated glances, too-impassioned arguments, awkward silences that expressed a wealth of feeling better than words ever could—save for Sam Cavanaugh and the tears that Alex Cabot shed over the boy.

 

Olivia always knew her role: a hopeless conflation of the personal and professional—the protector, the concerned friend, the one-who-always-dived-in-without-hesitation. After Sam’s suicide attempt, the confrontation with his mother in the hospital, and the brief meeting at the stationhouse, Alex disappeared for the night—far too quickly for anyone’s liking.  Elliot and the Captain made vague noises of concern, and Olivia knew what that translated into: Go find her, go talk to her. You’re the sensitive one. You know how to do it.  So she sought out Alex—predictably claiming sanctuary in her office—and she thought she knew how it would play out. She would make all those perfunctory, stridently gentle “it’s not your fault” comments, backed up with gentle arm squeezes and intense eye contact; then Alex would do the stoic thing, her jaw would harden with great resolve and she would take responsibility and plow on—even though her eyes would be soft and haunted with regret—and she would somehow find a way to successfully prosecute Roy Barnett. 

 

In the end she did find a way to get Barnett; it wasn’t ideal, it was far from pretty, and it nearly cost all of them their jobs. But Alex did it. That night, however, when Olivia found her, Alex stood alone in her office, dazed by grief, crippled by responsibility—I now know what it feels like to have an albatross around your neck, she later said to Olivia—face brightly anointed with the tears that were a penance for pushing Sam too hard, for that final grain of sand, so embodied in her careless comments, that buried him alive.

 

The inconceivability of Alex crying momentarily paralyzed Olivia: Shock trumped empathy. She could only stand in the doorway, hands stuffed in pockets, feeling as awkwardly nervous as a teenage boy confronted with the great hope that he may finally get to ask the star cheerleader to dance. Because a breath of possibility now existed in Alex’s darkened office, hung suspended among the shuttered Venetian blinds and the glowing desk lamp, the penumbra of which settled around Alex like gold dust. This fissure of vulnerability gleaned in Alex’s armor was responsible for it. Something could change between them.

 

When Alex finally noticed her loitering in the doorway, she seemed neither surprised nor ashamed as being caught in such a state. It seemed as if she expected the inevitability of the moment, this opening up.  

 

It was all the encouragement Olivia needed. She stepped across the threshold and inadvertently married herself to this particular fate. She said don’t cry. She let Alex place herself, like a gift, within her arms. She allowed Alex’s tears to glide along the corded terrain of her throat and gather in the dry hollow at its base.

 

She didn’t know how long it went on; frankly, she didn’t care. At any minute something could break the fragile moment into a million pieces and she would have to kill somebody or curse God or renounce whatever cosmic power for ending it, because she was holding Alex Cabot and breathing in her hair, her skin, and it was all mindblowingly perfect.

 

Then Alex abruptly pulled away and pressed the heels of her hands against her cheekbones to stem the final tide of tears. “Oh, shit,” she said.

 

Olivia blinked. She’d never heard Alex swear before, at least nothing she could remember other than an occasional damn.  It was extremely odd and strangely thrilling at the same time.

 

“I’m so sorry.”

 

Olivia’s embrace slackened. “Why?”

 

Alex swiped at her face with a sweater sleeve. This gesture, along with the tears, made her look considerably younger, almost girlish. “I’m just—crying all over you like an idiot.”

 

“It’s okay.” Olivia patted her coat pockets for tissues that she knew weren’t there.

 

 “No, it’s not.” Alex swallowed, cleared her throat. “Nothing is okay.”

 

She knew what Alex was really saying; it hung in the air between them. It will never be okay for Sam. Ever. “Maybe it’s not right now,” Olivia replied, “and maybe it’s going to take us a lot longer and a lot more work than we ever imagined, but I’m telling you, this guy is going to fuck up. We’re going to nail him, one way or another.”

 

Numb and cried out, Alex stared past her. “I wish I were as certain as you are.”

 

“It’s—I—“ Olivia had no idea why she did it, or even how it happened, but the next thing she knew, she was touching that beautiful face, her thumb sweeping over the angular crest of Alex’s cheekbone. “I should go home. You should go home.”

 

A shadow of puzzlement flitted over Alex’s face before she nodded.

 

Abort! Abort! Terminate mission! You’re in too close again.  “Uh. Okay. Goodnight.”

 

Outside she stood on the corner, her upturned coat collar a flimsy protection against the frigid wind, and hailed a cab after a cold, miserable 10 minutes. Of course, she hadn’t really expected Alex to come down. She knew Alex would stay in that office until she had some plan—any plan—to save the case. Right, but what the fuck were you doing in there?

 

Inside the taxi, the driver looked at her without really looking. “Where you going?”

 

“Oh, shit,” Olivia finally said.

 

*

 

“I’m afraid you don’t understand, Mr. Marks.” Alex re-crossed her legs, leaned forward in the chair. As usual her light tone effortlessly carried its steely core of don’t-fuck-with-me menace. “The offer stands only if the information you provide to us results in the successful prosecution of Paul Danton.”

 

Olivia caught Elliot’s eye as the defense lawyer conferred with his beleaguered client. The Bitch is Back!  

 

Amidst the tide of hasty whispers, Alex sat back confidently. Her month-long suspension as a result of the Barnett case was over. During that time no one in SVU had neither seen nor heard from her, and so she had rematerialized into the life of the squad like a vengeful genie, prosecuting with renewed vigor; this week alone she’d won two cases. She remained remotely cool as ever, and it drove Olivia utterly insane. You cried in my arms. I was ridiculously close to kissing you.  One woman’s intimacy was another woman’s embarrassment, she thought—something to be stashed away as if it were a dead body, or incriminating evidence.

                                           

Joey Marks nodded in defeat and once again assailed the hearing of everyone present with his thick Bronx accent. “Awright, awright. I’ll tell you what I know.”

 

Elliot smirked, tapped the table with a pen. “Okay, let’s take a statement.”

 

Ten minutes later, Marks had spilled his guts and was gone, Elliot was updating the Captain, Alex was off to get the warrant, and Olivia stood alone in the darkened interrogation room, staring at the dirty, closed blinds and desperately hoping that a moment of solitude would make her palms stop sweating and would make her stop thinking about how goddamn good Alex looked today—gray suit, black blouse, tight skirt. Stop it. I don’t have time for this. I have to run those license plates with the DMV before we—

 

A clicking heel echoed in the empty room. It was Alex, standing in the doorway, hand tightly clutching the strap of her briefcase.

 

They looked at each other.

 

“I forgot to tell you something,” Alex began.

 

“What?”

 

Alex stepped in, closed the door. And locked it. There’s a lock on that door? There’s a lock on that door! In three steps she closed the distance between them and Olivia knew exactly what she was going to do. Regardless, she found it endearing that Alex carefully deposited her briefcase back on the table and neatly placed her folded glasses atop it before taking Olivia’s face in her hands and kissing her.

 

If she thought holding Alex had been the pinnacle of perfection, kissing her was even better—it was a symphony, encompassing all tempos and all movements into sexual paradox: slowly fast, gently rough, languidly urgent, all of it culminating in a demanding retreat.  At this point Olivia had ridiculously high expectations for the sex—if indeed it came to that. Her hands slid under the gray jacket, encountering the tender strength of Alex’s frame, the suppleness of muscle, the fragility of ribs. In her job, she always confronted death. Here, within her grasp, filling up her hands, was life. But it was not such a simple, melodramatic matter as oblivion or salvation; there was only the all-encompassing net of recognition: This is happening. At last. This is me. And this is you.

 

Alex pulled away, smiling slightly, self-consciously. Her hand swept casually through Olivia’s hair, as if she’d been doing it for years, as if she already owned Olivia body and soul. But she registered the dazed look on Olivia’s face and panicked. “Oh, shit,” she blurted.

 

Again, with the adorable swearing.

 

“You didn’t—I mean, I haven’t misread your signals, have I?” That hitch in her voice was a charming hesitancy, a quality Olivia had never heard before. “Were there signals?”

 

Only Alex would follow up a display so intense and so emotional with an offhand comment so deliciously wry. It was a purely Alex way of being, and it made Olivia stray even closer to the irrevocability of falling in love. “No. You haven’t misread anything.” To her ears, her own voice sounded different—husky, strained, scared.

 

“For a long time, I’ve been afraid. I thought that you didn’t like me.” Alex gave a sad, self-deprecating smile.

 

“Uh.” Again Olivia became aware of her hands, now curling snug against Alex’s slender hips, and instinctively flexed them. Alex’s eyelids fluttered pleasurably. Until the day she died, she would remember the wavering of those eyelashes—like a flag of surrender—and the slow, sensual cloaking of those beautiful eyes. “I do like you,” she whispered.

 

Alex’s fingertips fell like a wind against her cheek. “Do you want to?”

 

The question trailed vaguely, and like many a case she’d been on, this trail lead to not just another question needing an answer, but many: Do you want to pursue this? Do you want to risk ruining our working relationship? Do you want to risk exposure? Do you want me to risk my political future for you? Do you want to dwell in the land of the secret? Do you want to ache every time I walk out of a room?

 

A thousand yeses hissed in her blood and so she opened negotiations; the whispers that followed twined together in gentle collusion.  “When?” Olivia released the question into Alex’s eager ear, and took the opportunity to sample an earlobe.

 

Alex shivered delightfully. “Tonight?” she offered shakily. “Around seven?”

 

The warmth of Alex’s hands sliding along her shoulders seeped through her shirt, her skin, her bones. “I can’t. What about tomorrow?”

 

“I’m in court all day. Then I have this—thing I can’t get out of.” Alex nuzzled her neck in a lazy, feline manner, an eyelash dusted her artery.

 

“A thing.”

 

“Not a date,” Alex assured her. “Cocktail party.”

 

“Ass-kissing.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So it is a date.”

 

Alex laughed softly, sighed, rested her head against Olivia’s collarbone. “God, you feel good.”

 

Olivia did not trust her voice.

 

“I have to go.”

 

“Yeah. Me too.”

 

“We can talk later?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She kissed Olivia quickly on the cheek, shouldered her briefcase as a soldier does his pack just before marching off to war, and left.

 

They drifted on a current of Talking About It for several weeks; work interfered too much. There were more kisses in the empty interrogation room at other times, a couple makeout sessions in a bathroom stall, a too-quick, awkward coupling on the couch in Alex’s office which ended with Olivia fleeing the office, Alex’s panties stuffed in her coat pocket, and all the while quietly damning Liz Donnelly to hell for banging on the door at a particularly inopportune moment, like a Stanley Kowalski in a third-rate production of Streetcar.

 

Then weather grew warmer, the cases less complicated. It was as if, as the morose and bored Fin put it, “the freaks took the summer off.” Some summers were meant to never be forgotten, and for Olivia this was one of them. It was one season, one string of memories that she would always happily remove from the Chinese box inside her head.

 

Even within that perfect summer with Alex, Sundays were particularly sacred, flawless in their perfection: Paper and brunch in the morning, making love in the afternoon, rising in the cool of the evening. Then the bittersweet ascent of the work week over a late dinner; Alex would grow quiet as her thoughts turned toward the chess match that was her job, plotting cases and strategies within the unfettered silence of her own mind.

 

One Sunday proved more memorable than others. Alex lay between her legs, head resting upon her stomach, hair raging like a blonde fire across damp, salty skin, hand wrapped around her wrist, the hard edge of a palm pressed into Olivia’s veins.

 

“I don’t know what to do.” Alex’s smoky voice glided through the blue lens of twilight.

 

“About what?”

 

“About you.”

 

Olivia swallowed nervously, thickly; instinctively, her entire body followed this rolling motion like a wave. “What’s to do?” You have me. You have me the way you want me, don’t you? On the side. Like a mistress. And I do it—why?

 

Because I need you too much.

 

Alex stirred. Blonde hair pooled and tickled her stomach. “I suppose you’re right.” Lips, dry and cool, pressed into Olivia’s hip, plotting an indelible yet invisible course along her skin, like colorless bruises—Alex’s kisses were the sweetest punishment, if only because they left her craving more.

 

I want you too much.

 

She slithered gracefully up Olivia’s body, until they were face to face; Alex’s entire weight rested lightly upon her, and a curtain of blonde hair bent softly along her cheek and jaw. “I just want to make sure I keep you. Think of it as being proactive.”

 

“That sounds—lawyerish.”

 

Olivia tried joking because she was quietly unnerved, always, by the way Alex committed her to memory—with looking, touching, tasting. No one had ever made such an all-encompassing effort to know her in this sense. No one ever seemed to care about watching her face as she came, nor ever observed how the hairs on her forearms raised when her neck was kissed or her ear nibbled upon in a certain way, nor touched her for the sheer pleasure of seeing a muscle ripple or hearing a gentle sigh of contentment.

 

I love you too much.

 

Alex was gazing at her now, quietly cataloging another post-coital moment. “I have something for you.”

 

Olivia blinked. “This is beginning to sound like bad porn.”

 

Alex laughed. “Only to someone with a dirty mind—“

 

“—a detective on the Freaky Sex Crimes Squad, you mean.”

 

“Exactly. You’re much more imaginative than your run-of-the-mill homicide detective, I’m certain.” Alex kissed her, crawled over her, and grabbed something from the nightstand. She placed a small wrapped package, a perfect four-inch cube, on Olivia’s stomach, where it bobbed gently with each gentle breath.

 

“It’s not clothing,” Olivia said with mock disappointment.

 

Alex stretched out next to her. “I’ve created a monster—a shameless clotheshorse. And how do you know it’s not clothing? It could be the world’s tiniest bikini.”

 

“I wouldn’t put it past you, pervert.”

 

“It’s nothing terribly exciting, I’ll admit.” Her fingers slid over Olivia’s thigh, leaving gooseflesh in their wake. “But are you going to open it?”

 

As much as she pretended otherwise—if only because she thought it was what other people expected of a dour, always-serious police officer with a troubled past—Olivia did take a childlike glee in receiving gifts. She had, however, dropped all pretence in the matter with Alex, who delighted in spoiling her with unexpected gifts—a jacket, a pair of boots, a sweater, a necklace, a book. Greedily she tore away the flowery, faux William Morris wrapping paper, pried open the small cardboard box, pulled out a fluffy blob of tissue paper, peered too quickly into the box and saw—nothing. “Y’know, I am past the point of having to stuff my bra.”

 

“Oh, I’ve noticed that,” Alex purred. “You’re not being very thorough, Detective. Look again.”

 

She did. There was something in there—a tiny red Chinese box, no more than an inch and a half in length, stippled with gold characters.

 

“It’s a box for your box—that one you have on your coffee table.” Alex smiled. “It looked lonely. There was nothing inside it.”

 

Awed by its fragility—much as she was with Alex’s—Olivia touched it carefully. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” Her voice felt tight. She meant the compliment.

 

But Alex remained unsure. “You do like it, then?”

 

“Of course I do!”

 

“I know it’s not much.” Alex took the box, critically examined it, and sat it back on the nightstand, as if somehow rejecting it in Olivia’s stead.

 

“Alex, everything doesn’t have to be a leather jacket or a rare edition of Lolita.

 

“You’re easy to please.”

 

“I’m not so different from other people.” Even as she said it, Olivia knew it was wrong.

 

“Now, I don’t believe that for a moment.” Eagerly, Alex slid on top of her again, and slipped a hand between their bodies in a quest for the wetness that she knew would be present between Olivia’s thighs. “You’re not like anyone else.”

 

4. Past the Point

 

2002, Autumn Dreaming

 

It was easy to blame the shifting of the seasons; nonetheless, Olivia wasn’t sure how it happened. One argument too many, perhaps, one cancelled tryst too many, one rough case too many, one drink too many, one public engagement with Trevor too many.

 

But four scant months later, they were not seeing each other outside of work—or only seeing each other in order to hurl drunken accusations and complaints or to glower quietly with silent need, both of which usually resulted in kissing, groping, regret, and a gentle command from one to the other that she should leave.

 

So in this world where Olivia felt both loved and not loved, where serial rapists received the lightest of sentences, where men murdered their wives with glee, where child molesters saw their actions as imbued with the most profound love, it hardly seemed surprising that after one Friday night spent at the gym and anticipating Chinese takeout, Olivia would find Abbie Carmichael, in a strapless black evening gown under a cashmere coat no less, waiting outside her apartment building, staring up at her window.  

 

“I’m not home,” Olivia called.

 

Abbie blinked. Because of the darkness, it was hard to tell if she blushed. “I reckon not.”

 

Ah, she’s pulling out the stops, using the accent for maximum charm. “What the hell are you doing here, Abbie?” Olivia stopped short, bounced the gym bag against her hip.

 

She said it with just the right amount of teasing affection, because Abbie smiled with relief. “You mean here in New York or here on your street, trying to stalk you?”

 

“Both, if you don’t mind.”

 

“I love my job, but it does entail a certain amount of what they call schmoozing.” Abbie paused. “Y’know, I never heard that word until I moved to New York. The first time someone told me I would have to schmooze at a party, I thought it was gonna be some sort of drug thing, like freebasing.”

 

“Freebasing is more fun,” Olivia interjected.

 

Abbie laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Shall I pretend you didn’t say that, Detective Benson?”

 

“Please.” Olivia chuckled along with her. After weeks of silent suffering, it felt good to laugh again. “So you’re in New York on business.”

 

“Yep. I know it doesn’t look like it.” Abbie gazed self-consciously at her dress. “We’re—headhunting. Well, I guess recruiting would be a better term for it.” She rolled her eyes.

 

“Do they give out toaster ovens?”

 

Abbie grinned. “As always, Ben, your rapier wit comes shining through.”

 

“Well, sure. That’s why—“ Olivia stopped. It would be pointless to bring up the past.

 

“—that’s why I fell for you?” Abbie snorted with gentle derision. “I wish to God I knew what it is about you….” She shook her head. “Have we done enough banter now? Can I ask you nosy questions?”

 

“It’s never stopped you before.” Olivia said it gently, without recrimination.

 

Surprisingly, Abbie did not go for jugular, and began with awkward politesse. “Well—how are you?”

 

“I’m okay,” Olivia lied.

 

“And Elliot?”

 

“He’s good. Freaking out about his daughter’s college tuition, though. ”

 

“And what—he’s got about four others to send to college?”

 

“Three, actually.”

 

“Poor man.” Abbie smiled; her teeth glinted briefly in the dark. “Are you seeing anyone?”

 

“Technically, no.” Olivia glanced at the pavement and slurred out her messy history with Alex Cabot in nine banal words: “There’s someone, we kinda broke up recently—it’s complicated.”

 

“Usually, when it’s complicated, that means it’s a woman,” Abbie retorted wryly.

 

Olivia allowed her silence to be a confirmation. Yeah, women. They can really fuck your shit up.

 

“Of course,” Abbie continued her cross-examination, “it can also mean that it’s someone you work with.”

 

Objection. Counsel is hitting too close to home. Olivia’s jaw set stubbornly.

 

“Maybe it’s that pretty blonde who handles the SVU cases now? I had lunch with Jack this afternoon. He told me her name—you look surprised. The man knows everybody and everything that goes on in the DA’s office, I always told you that. So I did a walk-by…went by her office.” Mischievously, Abbie raised her brows.  

 

When worlds collide: My fucked-up past with my fucked-up present. When she put her mind to anything, Abbie was as relentless as a dog with a bone. Things with Alex were screwed up enough; Olivia didn’t need to seriously wonder if the two would soon be dissecting her considerable flaws and shortcomings over long, martini-soaked lunches. Don’t you hate the way she leaves her dirty underwear on the bathroom floor? Or her penchant for “quickies” against the door when she doesn’t have time to do you properly? “Abbie, don’t.”

 

“Don’t what?” Abbie leaned into her; Olivia caught the scent of scotch, mingling bitterly with Abbie’s perfume. She hated whiskey of all kinds. When her mother drank, it was always whiskey.

 

“It is her, isn’t it?” asked Abbie.

 

Olivia said nothing.

 

“She’s beautiful,” Abbie said it quietly, to make amends, but couldn’t resist a tiny jab: “She’s awful skinny, though.”

 

“And what, you weigh four hundred pounds?”

 

Like any good lawyer trapped by common sense, Abbie changed her tack. “Jack said she’s from old money. It’s no goddamn wonder she can work on an ADA’s salary and dress like that. I bet she has pearls and a trust fund and she drags you to the opera.”

 

Olivia frowned. Granted, Alex never wore the pearls, rarely touched the trust fund, and only once dragged her to the opera (Turandot—Olivia, hopeful for a swordfight, nonetheless fell asleep just after the overture), but it was all true. These things were the aristocratic pink elephants in the room of their relationship: Alex was the daughter of a minor yet talented classical pianist and a highly respected judge with a pedigree going back to the Mayflower. She was the offspring of a rapist and a drunk. When alone with Alex, these differences rarely crossed her mind; it was just them. But under the cold, microscopic glare of the real world, it looked like they didn’t have a chance in hell of keeping it together.

 

And this was why she let Abbie stand particularly close to her, why she permitted Abbie’s hand to curl suggestively around her arm. “Your manners have always been lacking, Benno.”

 

“What?”

 

“You could invite me in. For a drink.” Abbie squeezed her arm for emphasis. “Just a drink. I promise I won’t attack you. I’ll just present my case.”

 

“Which is?”

 

Abbie smiled condescendingly, as if it were patently obvious. “Why you should have dinner with me tomorrow.”

 

*

 

The rainstorm burst like gunfire along the windshield, each exploding drop a translucent starburst, blurring what little clarity she still possessed. Olivia touched the window, tracing paths between pearly raindrops that she could not really touch.

 

The sedan idled, double-parked, in front of the courthouse. Elliot was having a day in court; they would have just enough time for a late lunch spent going over a case file before driving out to Staten Island to grill a witness. Through the shimmering rain a figure rapidly approached the car—not a man, but a woman. And she knew only one woman with a long, lilac scarf, its color a defiant, bright stroke that filled the sketchy lines of a rainy, gray flannel Wednesday.

 

The door opened, a gust of sharp autumn air filled the car like a thunderclap, and Alex sat down beside her. She pushed back the scarf that had protected her head—and somewhat poorly at that, Olivia thought—from the rain. Damp filaments of blonde hair framed her face.

 

“Care to go for a drive?” Alex said it lightly, failed to smile.

 

“Where’s Elliot?” She didn’t bother keeping the irritation out of her voice.

 

“I asked him to take a cab back to the precinct.”

 

“He doesn’t like cabs.”

 

“I told him we were planning his birthday party.”

 

“His birthday is in six months.”

 

“He was impressed with our foresight.”

 

“Jesus Christ. You think he’s not going to figure it out?”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“You’re the one who always thought it mattered,” Olivia accused quietly. She turned to glare at Alex and was taken aback by how the color of her eyes stood out in sharp, agonized relief against the muted gray curtain of day. In these emotionally charged moments—fighting, fucking, pleading her case—her eyes always shone like this.

 

“Just drive,” Alex whispered, “please.”

 

As the conversation veered further and further out of her control, Olivia clutched the wheel for dear life. “It’s raining too hard.”

 

“I could drive,” Alex offered lamely.

 

Olivia looked at her again. She’d only been in a car with Alex behind the wheel just once, and it had been more than enough; the ADA drove like a stunt driver off the set of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She wrapped a hand around the gear shift and violently launched the car into drive. The traffic was sparse and soon they were flying up Sixth Avenue—insofar that anyone could ever fly up Sixth and in a rainstorm, no less—crossing over to the West Side and driving through the Park. All the time without saying a word, until Olivia finally pulled the car off the road, just under the Southwest Reservoir Bridge. While foolish and valiant joggers and bicyclists passed them by, unconcerned, the rain continued, unabated.

 

She could not look at Alex—not out of shame, but fear. Fear of what an evening with Abbie Carmichael had confirmed.

 

She had sprawled seductively on Olivia’s couch, a long leg swinging with the wariness of a cat’s tail. One hand cupped the delicate bulb of a wine glass, idly swirling the wine just so, the other held the Chinese box from so long ago. “You kept it.” 

 

Olivia wiped damp palms on her sweatpants, stared at untouched wine. “Yeah.”

 

Abbie untied the silken cord, opened the box, and smiled—strangely bittersweet—at its contents. “My Lord,” she drawled, “it reproduced.”

 

Olivia said nothing.

 

Abbie’s dark eyes feasted upon her. “She gave it to you, didn’t she?”

 

“Does it matter?” Olivia’s voice was husky, defiant.

 

After gently closing the box, Abbie’s fingers skipped along its smooth edges. “When the smallest of gifts lay claim to memories that already existed…” She shook her head, laughed at herself. “Don’t mind me. I had too many at that party tonight. Jack’s got me back on the scotch bandwagon again.”

 

“Abbie—“

 

“I think you’re in love with her. Are you?”

 

Olivia’s mouth moved, but no words came out.

 

“If you can’t say one way or another, you’re in deep shit, Ben.” Abbie leaned over and kissed her gently upon the cheek. “Well, then. I think dinner might just be a matter of two old friends catching up.”

 

“I’m sorry.” It was all Olivia could think to say.

 

“Don’t be. If anyone deserves that brass ring, it’s you.”

 

The rain blurred the trees, the bridge, and their respective shadows; the windshield was an impressionist painting of her immediate world that she could get lost in; in fact, at that very moment, she desperately craved that oblivion. Not that that was unusual; to Olivia, escape from the past always held a particularly strong appeal. If anything, she loved Alex for that alone, for immersing her in love, for her ability to make Olivia forget who and what she was.

 

Alex spoke, struggling to sound casual. “You ran into an old friend this weekend—or so I hear.”

 

“They should change the name of Hogan Place to Peyton Place,” Olivia muttered. Even though they were parked and the engine off, Olivia’s hands remained firmly upon the wheel. “The last time I checked, having dinner with someone isn’t a crime.”

 

“No,” Alex concurred gently. “It isn’t. But—”

 

“I knew there was a ‘but’ in there somewhere.” Olivia sighed, leaned back in the seat. “There are always arguments and counterarguments with you. I fucking hate lawyers,” she spat with sudden vehemence.

 

“That doesn’t explain why you can’t seem to keep away from them.” Alex couldn’t hide the amusement in her voice.

 

“No. It doesn’t.”

 

She could feel Alex’s eyes on her, could sense the shadows of the day falling over the handsome angles of her face. She exuded the same intensity she employed in the relentless grilling of defense witnesses. Was this just another case to be won, or was Alex so determined to draw the truth out of her? Or, as with so many things, did the reality fall somewhere between the two?

 

“So that’s what this is all about?”

 

“I—“ Alex hesitated. “Yes. I wanted to see you.”

 

“And maybe find out if I slept with her?”

 

“I haven’t asked.” Alex tried to smile. “You should admire my restraint.” Emboldened by Olivia’s silence, Alex moistened her lips and continued. “You feel something for me. I know it. I’ve seen it in your face. I’ve missed seeing it, as a matter of fact, and I’ve needed to know if it’s still there. Because you must know I feel the same way about you.”

 

Was this as close to a declaration of love as she would get? “What are you saying to me?”

 

Alex stumbled, unwilling to give away too much. Quid pro quo. Is the deal off the table now, Alex? “We need to work this out somehow.”

 

“How the fuck are we gonna do that, Alex?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“You know what? That’s not good enough.”

 

“Then what is good enough?” Alex countered angrily. She slapped her hand against the dashboard, breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and tried again. “‘A ship with eight sails coming around the bend? Or a herd of bulls charging stoplights red?’”

 

Olivia gaped at her. “That song. You remember it.”

 

“Of course I do.” Alex softened. “How many times did you sing it that night?”

 

Unknowingly, Alex gave her the gift of that summer night all over again: a small dark club, a couple bottles of wine, a pretty gay boy on stage singing songs of unrequited love, Olivia singing loudly, drunkenly, in the taxi back to Alex’s apartment, much to the dismay of the grumpy Pakistani cabbie. She had completely forgotten herself that night; oblivion was hers. But even in that much-desired state, she never really forgot Alex. She couldn’t.

 

In spite of herself, in spite of it all, Olivia smiled and shook her head. “You think quoting a pop song is gonna fix everything, huh?”

 

“Maybe this will.” Alex twisted in the seat, leaning closer, her face still damp with rain. Olivia could smell the spring in her hair—trees, earth, flowers. Then her mouth was on Olivia’s, sweetly probing, gently persistent, her hands tangling easily, as they always did, in Olivia’s hair. “We can’t stop trying.” She whispered this imperative into Olivia’s mouth.  

 

“Well,” Olivia replied, breathless between kisses, “I can’t argue with that.” Her heart pounded ridiculously hard and for a moment she wondered if it wasn’t love she was feeling, but a heart attack. Or a panic attack. Or angina. Whatever it was, she felt certain that, at this very moment, she could die happily.

 

“You can’t argue with what? The kiss or the reason?” Gently Alex cupped the back of Olivia’s neck and began massaging it.

 

“Both, I guess. But I bet if you kissed judges like that, you’d win every case hands down.”

 

“Of course. Why do you think Petrovsky likes me so much?”

 

“That’s an image I can do without.”

 

Alex gave a short laugh.

 

Olivia closed her eyes; the massage was too relaxing. She listened to the rain’s steady beat, lightly accompanied by Alex’s breathing.

 

“Olivia.”

 

“Yes?” It was a struggle to open her eyes again.

 

Alex’s gaze was steady. “I won’t give you up so easily.”

 

 

5. Dust into Gold

 

2003, The Year of Forgetting

 

At the hospital a nurse finally shamed her into washing her hands. Water, rose-tinted, swirled down the drain. But the red ridges of blood that had seeped into the crevices around her nails did not, would not go away. She noticed this in the waiting room, as Elliot held her hand and said things only half-heard. She caught the gist of it: He knew, he had known for months, he was sorry, he would tell Alex’s mother.

 

She looked at him. His eyes were blue, so impossibly blue. Like Alex’s. A damp stain spread along the front of his shirt. It puzzled her until she remembered: Crying. She had cried in his arms while waiting for the doctor. Now they knew, and she felt nothing.

 

She didn’t remember the drive home. Elliot refused to leave at first. He made her tea, tried to get her to eat. She lay on the couch, stared at the ceiling, and silently cursed him for taking her gun. Eventually, as night turned into morning, she was lulled to sleep by the sound of Elliot quietly talking on the phone with Kathy. I love you, she heard him say. She wondered if anyone would ever say that to her again.

 

When she woke, Elliot was gone. But, however strangely, Munch was there, an incongruous presence sitting in her favorite chair, reading a newspaper; it was the first time he’d ever been in her apartment. When he noticed she was awake, he rose from the chair, folded the paper, and sat down gingerly on the edge of the couch, near her feet.

 

“Suicide watch?” she rasped at him, too exhausted in every way to be properly outraged.

 

Munch patted her leg as a grandfather would—or so Olivia, who never had a grandparent, imagined. He shook his head. “Sitting shiva,” he said softly. He was as inscrutable to Olivia as anyone could be, but she saw hope in the pained half-smile he offered, empathy in his shaded eyes: You will get through this. “Do you need anything?” he asked.

 

Olivia’s eyes strayed to the coffee table, to the Chinese box that had sat ignored for months, only silently greeted by her whenever she deigned to come home. The layer of dust coating the box dulled its natural intensity.

 

“The box?” Munch tilted his head toward the object in question.

 

She nodded.

 

Munch leaned over the end of the couch and picked it up. With a small flourish he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the dust before giving it to her. He watched as she turned it over in her hands, wanting to ask the obvious question with the obvious answer—Did she give it to you?—but not insensitive enough to do so. Instead, he patted her leg again. “Let me get you some water.” He disappeared into the kitchen.

 

Alone, Olivia opened the black box. The tiny red box sat inside, as it always did, desiccated and empty as a dead heart. She did not cry; there would be time for that later. Now was the time to fill that limitless space within her hands, as morning light would fill a dark room—gradually, achingly, and by hoarding every memory she possessed of Alex, every memory extant. Within that box would exist the alchemy of thoughts turned tangibly into the corporeal, of the dead returned to the living.