Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

 

1. Black Friday

 

After Thanksgiving dinner with her mother, grandmother, and siblings, she goes to the house, alone. She doesn’t expect him to be home yet; earlier, he’d called her directly on her cell phone—something about a witness’s suicide attempt, he was at St. Vincent’s, he said, he would be home late.

 

Maureen listens to tired resignation of his voice, laced with pain familiar in dullness and hinting at regret, and she holds the cell phone very carefully, as if the fragile metallic husk really contains some essence of her father. Of everyone in the family, Maureen believes that she is most sympathetic to him right now. The twins are too young, too confused and Kathleen too absorbed in nascent teenage dramas and trying too much to appease their mother—who, of course, has her own side of the story, shrouded in recrimination.

 

At the house, the refrigerator is bare save for takeout. Stacks of mail dot the kitchen table, resembling some impromptu architectural model: shambling inner city towers among the sleek modernist salt shakers. A lone coffee cup, a hard brown patina encrusting its bottom, sits in the sink. She turns off the light and sits for a while at the kitchen table, in the darkness, as her father always did on those nights when he had insomnia, when all the things he wouldn’t tell his wife clogged his mind as rotting leaves do a water-logged gutter. A trapezoid of light from the window stretches in glowing penitence along the linoleum floor, a martyr to memories.

 

She wonders if he still sits here at night sometimes, watching the light’s movement across the floor. She wonders what new thoughts torture him now.

 

*

 

It happens the next day, on Black Friday. In the morning they eat bagels and drink orange juice. He guzzles coffee. He’s tired, but he’s promised to take the twins into the city to see Santa at Rockefeller Center.

 

He says goodbye without a word: His hand curls tenderly around her neck and he kisses her forehead. Always, in the midst of whatever battle that raged between them—she was the rebellious one, the one who always challenged him—there have always been these small, essential exchanges of love, now seemingly fewer and far between, if only because the pull of adulthood appears to lead her away from simple affections. Everything seems more complicated now.

 

And then, in the middle of a day spent at halfhearted cleaning attempts and watching an E! True Hollywood Story marathon on TV, Olivia knocks on the door.

 

When Maureen opens the door, Olivia is gazing on the empty parking space and stating the obvious: “Guess he’s not here.” But she lingers with an almost imperceptible swaying, like a flag in the lethargic tumult of a dying breeze. Maureen wonders if she’s been drinking. After Alex Cabot was murdered, there were several occurrences of what her mother had always called Olivia’s Little Crises:  Late night calls informing her father that his drunken partner needed a ride home, or had been punched in the nose by an irate off-duty beat cop from another precinct, or just needed to hear a sympathetic voice as she slurred off to sleep, all of these incidents quite different from the mild ethical dilemmas of her “junior detective” years—those moral quagmires of over-identification with victims that had almost endeared Olivia to her mother. Almost.

 

“No, he’s not,” Maureen replies. Guess you should have called.  “But…” She trails off and, in silent invitation, steps aside.

 

Olivia’s height and the bulk of her jacket conspire to make her more physically dominating than usual—she fills the kitchen with her presence, like a wary animal attenuated to different if not entirely unfamiliar surroundings.

 

“What’s up?” Maureen leans against the sink, aware that Olivia’s dark eyes—a detective’s gaze, trained in ruthlessness—take in everything but her.

 

Olivia shoves her hands into her pockets—she wearing faded jeans, perfectly tight in all the right ways. The puffy down jacket, on the other hand, may suit a skinny gangsta wannabe, but not a white woman over 35. “Ah. I just wanted to talk about the case with him.”

 

It’s always the case. Maureen can’t count how many times she’s seen them together throughout the years, her father and Olivia: late nights in the low light of the kitchen, solemn heads bowed toward one another, like priests charged with a sacred duty. “Want some coffee?”

 

Olivia runs a hand through her shaggy hair. “Sure.”

 

And somehow the possibility is borne in that moment, a fragile poisonous bubble, disguised in a seemingly innocuous offer of coffee. The unexpectedness of the moment makes Maureen doubt fantasies constructed over the course of several years, elaborate scenarios that have since been rehauled, revived, and refined. It’s not supposed to happen this way, is it? She’s supposed to seduce me late at night, in the abandoned squad room, while Dad is in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal shotgun wound sustained while single-handedly breaking up a child porn ring—and while she’s wearing that black leather jacket. It can’t happen this way. Can it?  She pulls a mug out of the cupboard—the one that screams WORLD’S GREATEST DAD in ostentatiously serifed letters.

 

Kathleen always gives him the shittiest gifts for his birthday.

 

If it’s a sign, it’s not a good one. Here you are, wanting to seduce the partner of the World’s Greatest Dad. Go you.

 

Olivia fills the space between them with idle questions: How’s school? How were midterms? Does she like it?

 

Maureen answers just as perfunctorily as she dumps ground coffee into a filter. What she wants to say is, I know what you are, I know you loved her, I know you’re lonely.

 

The coffeemaker’s orange light blinks, the percolating sputters to a start, and she wants to go on and on: I’ve wondered what it would be like to touch you. I’ve wondered if I could mean anything to you. I’ve wondered if I could save you from yourself.   But Olivia is saying something about milk, and Maureen’s thoughts careen to Alex Cabot, who had milky white skin and an aristocrat’s profile and who looked good even in the grainy front page Daily News photo that loudly proclaimed her death.

 

Olivia sits a carton of milk on the counter.

 

Maureen stumbles, aware that she is too close—that Olivia is a cop who, no doubt like her father, possesses preternatural instincts akin to a superhero’s, who can detect desire in the merest flicker of an eyelash. Can leap tall deviants in a single bound!  She is giddy with possibility, and slowly all inhibition is immolated in the rush of desire. Blindly she reaches out to steady herself and her palm ends up against Olivia’s stomach. Flat. Smooth. Soft. “Sorry.”

 

Olivia gives the closest approximation of a smile she can muster these days: A tight, quick, too-neat twitch of her mouth. “S’all right.”

 

Do you know how much I’ve thought of you? Do you know what I think about you?

 

Her hand wraps around Olivia’s—innocently, or perhaps not, Olivia returns her affectionate squeeze—her hip bumps Olivia’s thigh, and when she mutters “sorry” one more time, those eyes, sadly arresting as a gaze from a Byzantine icon, finally meet her own and hold her. She leans into Olivia and desperately hopes the dry tinder of their lips nervously brushing together will catch fire. 

 

Olivia pulls back, blinking, as if swimming out of a dream. And Maureen tries again, because she’s wandered too far down this stretch of imagination to be easily deterred. Her fingers tucks into Olivia’s hair, brushing the borderline of her scalp. She kisses harder, breathes life past Olivia’s parted lips, and it all comes together. Olivia presses her against the counter and fills the emptiness of her hands and her life with willing flesh. Even while  kissing Maureen’s neck she is murmuring I can’t do this but she doesn’t stop, and even when she stops and pulls away abruptly, Maureen reels her right back in: hand snaking up Olivia’s chest, cupping her neck, kissing her again, exacting a promise: “Tell me you’ll see me again. Tell me you’ll meet me somewhere. Anywhere.”

 

She marvels at the sensation of a small sigh unfurling inside her representing release, freedom, and a juggernaut of other emotions—prominent among them lust, worship, envy (of who, she’s not certain. Her father? Olivia?), and sadly, betrayal—and distilled into two words ringing inside her mind: At last. She wonders what it will be like. And she wonders if this is really what she had wanted from the very first.

 

2. The Accidental Lover

 

Coincidentally, the first time she laid eyes on Olivia was the first day that Michelle Horowitz, a daring girl with a pierced bellybutton that Maureen desperately wanted to cultivate as a friend, had ever mentioned smoking pot to her. Maureen had a morbid fear of marijuana. More precisely, she feared her father’s bloodhound-like instincts: the maniacal quiver of his nostrils, the relentless glint of his bright eyes. When he was suspicious, he was relentless; while it made him a great detective, it also rendered him a first-class, pain-in-the-ass dad. That day, she was thoroughly convinced that when she arrived home he would know that she had been merely thinking about smoking dope. Her thoughts would linger in the air, a rancid perfume as perfidious and distinctive as the odor of pot itself.

 

So she’d burst through the kitchen door, determined to make a run of it and hide upstairs until dinner, but the spectacle of her family was an obstacle course: Mom chopping vegetables, Dad uncorking wine, Kathleen bitching about school, the pop of the cork like a warning shot across the bow, her father’s “stop right there” tone: Hey, where do you think you’re going? Dashing through the dining room, she could not make herself stop—even at the sight of a strange woman loitering nervously at the dining room table, trying to look interested in some Gameboy thing that Dickie, the fucking brat, was shoving at her.

 

The woman was lanky, attractive, with dark hair and even darker eyes. Her eyes.  There was something about those eyes, bottomless black in contrast against the beige wall, against the last whimper of daylight. She wore a baggy dark suit that made her look like a college kid on her first job interview: Trying too hard to be grown-up.

 

Maureen caught the woman’s glance. That’s right. Movin’ on. Nothing to see here.

 

Dad’s new partner. No wonder Mom was jealous.

 

The dinner went well. Olivia was polite, reserved, acutely aware of judgment. As such she maintained an inordinate interest in her partner’s children throughout the meal, even though Dickie threw a rubber ball at her head (“Hey, Olivia, catch!”), Lizzie dropped mashed potatoes in her lap, and Kathleen kept asking the nosy kinds of questions their mother usually asked (“You have a boyfriend? You should, you’re pretty.”). Maureen contemplated getting in on the interrogation herself by asking this doe-eyed, baby-faced wonder girl if she had ever shot a “perp” before. She refrained; she could get away with a lot, but—here she looked at her father, who was watching her closely, for he knew all too well the multitudinous ways she could be a brat—she knew she wouldn’t get away with that.

 

Afterwards, Olivia shook hands with her mother like a career diplomat, smiled handsomely, and left.

 

And Maureen went into stealth mode; the older she got, she better she was at it. It was a necessary state in the Stabler household, a way of parsing truth from her parents’ lives, particularly the truth about what in fact constituted a second life for her father—his job. After everyone dispersed, she sprawled low and out of sight on the couch, pretending to watch TV while her parents cleaned up. To obfuscate conversation, her father clattered the dishes noisily. He needn’t have bothered; Maureen’s hearing was keener than his clumsy attempts.

 

“…nothing to worry about,” he was murmuring.

 

Her mother’s light, sarcastic tone: “Who’s worried?”

 

“I’m just saying. Even if I were, and I’m not—” He stumbled over words. “Because I think…”

 

“What?”

 

A long pause. “I think she’s…”

 

Maureen didn’t know if her father made some vague hand gesture, mouthed a word (and what word would he use? Maureen wondered. Gay? Lesbian? Carpet muncher? ), or if her mother caught his meaning unassisted.

 

“Oh.” Her mother’s tone was one of flat wonder. “Really?”

 

“Didn’t you think so?” He paused again. “It’s just a feeling.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Doesn’t talk about guys a lot.”

 

“A lot of women don’t talk about guys a lot.”

 

Another pause. Maureen could picture her father’s shrug, that particular twitch of his broad shoulders indicating both acceptance and dismissal. “Yeah. I know. But, like I said, I’ve got a feeling.”

 

Her mother chortled. “God, Elliot, are you telling me you have gaydar?”

 

So tantalizing was this piece of speculation that Maureen missed the rest of the conversation; she turned this bright shiny piece of information over and over in her mind like a seemingly innocuous bit of evidence that had become staggeringly crucial, examining it from every angle she could possibly think of. Was he exaggerating, just to put Mom’s mind at ease? How could he tell, anyway? For all his professed open-mindedness was he somehow disappointed? Was it a blow to his ego? She knew him well enough to know how much he loved a woman’s attention; whether or not he would ever admit it was far from the point, or so she thought.

 

And why? Why do I care?

 

*

 

The bartender at the Three of Cups Lounge smiles and sits a rum and Coke in front of Maureen. In the handful of times she’s been at the bar, he’s never carded her.

 

But then, he’s never carded Jen either, who is even younger. Jen is lapping at the broad rim of martini glass containing a cosmo, and eyeballing her friend. “Who the hell are you hooking up with later?”

 

“Um.” The ice bumps suggestively in a cool samba against Maureen’s lips as she downs half the drink in one long swallow.

 

“Mark?”

 

Maureen groans.

 

“Andrew?”

 

Maureen makes a face, not unlike the one she pulls when she has diarrhea.

 

“Jordy?”

 

“No. Who said I’m hooking up with anyone?”

 

Jen giggles with abandon. “You don’t have to. ‘Cause you? Are so transparent.”

 

Maureen says nothing. She drinks to soothe her nerves, she drinks for courage to do the one thing that she believes will split her life open. And even though she thinks of it in precisely those terms, she does not even entertain the possibility that it could be a bad thing.

 

As the bar band performs bad REM covers and Jen flirts more with the bartender, she decides the following: It has nothing to do with her father. It has nothing to do with the separation. It has nothing to do with the fact that her mother has told her so many times, God, you are so like him, Maureen—meaning that like her father she has a short temper, a passionate love of lost causes, and a consistent, unflagging desire to always make things right. It has nothing to do with the tragically misguided belief she possesses that she and only she alone can somehow fix Olivia; the fact that her father can’t, and Alex Cabot couldn’t—if only because, perhaps, she didn’t have enough time to do so—is the mysterious fuel of her blind faith.

 

And somewhere between Saturday night and Sunday morning she tastes Olivia’s mouth again, this time it’s a whiskey-ripe plum, sour-sweet, and Olivia’s hands are restless yet focused upon her body—there is a twitch present in Olivia’s long limbs that reminds Maureen of the old film she saw during a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art: Jackson Pollock stalking his canvas like a matador with a bull and the short, sharp flick of the painter’s muscular arm that spoke of art’s unpredictability, of innate violence channeled elsewhere. Intimacy, too, could be unpredictable. Maybe that was all sex was. A sublimation. A sublime sublimation. An accidental creation from lust and history and hopes both true and false and perhaps some form of love, all of it painted upon the body.

 

None of this, of course, will make sense in the light of Sunday, when she’s sober and sticky with sex and wondering what the hell she’s done, when she’s looking into Olivia’s face and noting the touch of sorrow’s gravitas in the bold lines of her tense jaw and in the dark plummet of her eyes.

 

But now Olivia’s face is pressed into her bare stomach. Olivia inhales her skin and slithers with taut elegance down her body, not unlike a pair of stockings peeled away from willing, willowy legs.

 

Aside from obvious things, she didn’t think it was that different from being with a man. When Olivia laid on top of her, she thrust her hips up and Olivia groaned with rich abandon into her neck and clutched her tighter, poring a desire so dormant for so long into Maureen, who knew that no matter how good or bad it was (and currently she was leaning toward the former), it would set a standard to which she’d adhere for life—a lascivious slave to the past.

 

Not unlike Olivia herself.

 

Afterwards, the digital clock methodically ticks off numbers in a quest for 4 a.m. Olivia is sprawled belly down on the bed, face buried in a pillow, her deep breaths bordering on snoring. Maureen contemplates leaving, going back to the dorm; thinking of anything else beyond that is too much. Instead, she sinks back into the sheets, her tiredness masquerading as a determination to accept consequences in the light of day. Because in the blurry boundary between Saturday night and Sunday morning, nothing is ever clear.