There’s not much to do when all I can
is thinkin’ bout you not doing well
Don’t know where you are
It’s been way too long
“The person you are trying to call…”
A soft curse. The muffled click of a pressed switch hook. The digital crunch of numbers being punched.
“The person you are…”
Curse, click, crunch.
“Whatever you are selling I am not interested…”
“Carisi, it's me.”
“Barba?” Rafael could hear the clearly confused tone in Sonny’s voice, accompanied by the muted honk of car horns, probably from him pulling the phone away from his ear. “What number is this?”
“I am at a payphone. My phone died, and I haven’t been able to get anywhere to charge it,” Barba answered, casually playing with the change in his hand. The action looked frivolous but the reality was that nothing really was when it came to Barba.
“Wait, you were actually able to find a payphone? And you dared to touch it?”
Barba snorted. Germaphobe.
“They are still fairly common out in the sticks Sonny.” The answer was typical snarky Barba, but the softness in his voice took out the sting as he moved the mouthpiece closer.
“You okay Rafi?
“Look, I don’t know how long this call will last. I just didn’t want you panicking if you couldn’t get me, because I will probably only get to recharge my phone at night. The last thing I need is you calling the local cops on me.”
Rafael didn’t need to have picked up on Sonny’s disapproving huff to know that he was about to get lectured.
“I am gonna get you a new phone Rafi. The new green iPhone would match a lot of your wardrobe,” Sonny said decisively, in the way that made Barba either want to kiss him or throw him out of his office.
Neither of which he could do now.
“Sonny, you earn less than me. I am not about to make you max out your credit card for me. The phone still works, it is just a little temperamental now,” Barba said, a little more defensive than necessary.
And Sonny knew why.
“It hasn’t been the same since Tora knocked orange juice all over it right?” Sonny said, knowing that Barba was uncharacteristically protective over his adopted stray cat. He understood that, he was fond of her too, even if she did only seem to begrudgingly want to share her master with him.
Which is why Sonny wondered, in the most deranged corner of his mind, whether she had done it on purpose.
“Just don’t call the State Troopers on me Carisi,” Barba snipped. But just like how Rafael knew when he was about to get a telling off, Sonny knew when the older man was fronting, a catch-all gesture to mask his dislike of making anybody worry.
“Also, it is so troublesome porting stuff over to a new phone. It’s the most stupidly tedious thing when it comes to getting a new one,” Barba remarked, in a way that was meant to be brisk but fell short at the last hurdle.
A sigh. Barba wished that sound didn’t make his heart ache as much.
“It’s hard Rafi, this long distance thing. I mean, we knew it would be but...I hate missing your calls. I hate missing you.”
Pressing his head to the upper part of the phone, Barba concentrated on the feeling of the cool metal against his skin as he tried to bring under control the broad brush strokes of his emotions. Tried his best to ignore how quiet his surroundings were, the faint gold rustling of trees merging with the subdued purple sounds of Manhattan traffic.
Rafael sometimes craved solitude, but at that moment he wondered if Sonny felt as unmoored by it as he did.
“Yeah, I know,” Barba said quietly. Because there was nothing really else more to say.
“Will you be okay getting back?”
“Yeah, I called Carmen before I called you. She booked me an Uber.”
“Message me, when you can,” Sonny said, sounding more like his usual bright Staten Island self. “And just before you hang up, I am going to keep reminding you that coins? Coins ruin the lines of that expensive suit of yours.”
Now Barba wished Carisi was here so he could smack that chuckle out of his mouth.
“Bye Carisi,” Barba said before abruptly ending the call. But not fast enough to stop Sonny’s laugh from reverberating in his ear.
Sonny called, he always called.
And Barba always acted like he wasn’t trying his hardest to not pick up on the first ring. Instead he deliberately waited for three rings, fingers drumming on the table in a sharp staccato, before answering.
But somewhat hypocritically, he hated it when Sonny made him call back more than twice. Something he made abundantly clear in his frosty tone when the call connected.
Yet, Barba didn’t hate the calls. When he and Sonny had agreed to work on their relationship long distance, he had given the junior ADA carte blanche to call him whenever he felt like it.
And more often than not, Sonny took him up on that. So Rafael didn’t blink when Sonny decided to call him at one in the morning on a random Wednesday.
“Hey Rafael, I just called to hear your voice. I am not going to bother you.”
Barba could practically hear the exhaustion drip from Sonny’s words, blurring the edges of his consonants and lengthening his vowels. The lack of traffic noise in the background meant that he was still in the office.
It was a confined silence that Barba knew all too well.
“You sure?” Barba answered, shuffling his papers in a pile as he prepared to leave his study. He knew that he should be telling Sonny to go home, but the lawyer was not the type to coddle, and not the type to give advice he wouldn’t have taken himself.
“Yeah, I just wanted to remind myself that there is someone out there who works as hard as I do. Sometimes, I feel I am the only one here that gets that Rafi,” Sonny said with a heavy sigh.
“I know the feeling,” Barba replied quietly.
“Also, I was suddenly missing you. I miss having you in my bed. It would definitely motivate me to finish up faster here.”
Barba closed his eyes as he suddenly pictured Sonny sitting alone at his desk, the only source of light in the room, surrounded by clutter and files stacked like fortress walls. His silver hair loose and skimming the tops of his ears and highest part of his forehead, his blue eyes dusty with fatigue.
“Please don’t tell me you just called me to tell me you miss my dick and ass.” Barba folded in his sarcasm in between layers of want to dispel the loneliness that his lover was probably feeling.
“So crude. I think that is my hint to hang up,” Sonny said, but Barba knew that his ploy had worked. It didn’t matter the distance, Barba always seemed to know when Carisi was smiling.
“Message me when you finally do get home ADA Carisi?” Barba said, this time allowing his concern to become more obvious.
“Will do Barba, will do.”
Carisi knew Barba well enough by now. Knew when he was joking or dead serious, just by the modulation of his voice. Like how a higher inflection on certain syllables meant that he was confident of a win, or to leave him alone by the nuance in his baritone.
And Barba was getting better at judging Sonny’s. Somewhat.
It was definitely a learning curve for a man who often saw his own point of view so strongly that it left very little wriggle room for anything, or anyone, else.
Well until Sonny walked into his life and taught him that everything could do with a little give.
But then there were times where it was obvious right off the bat.
“Hey Rafi, I am sorry it’s in the middle of the night.”
His voice, it sounded like his vocal chords had turned into sandpaper.
“Sonny?” Barba jerked awake, trying not to drop his phone as he scrambled for the clock. His internal body clock knew that it was late, while his gut knew that calls at this time of the night were never good.
“Are you okay? Is everything okay?” Barba asked, willing his heart to slow down when he saw that it was four am. He knew that middle-of-the-night panicking was pretty much guaranteed to shave a few years off him.
“Yeah, it is. I mean, it isn’t okay. I mean, I am not hurt or anything. Well not physically at least, but it’s just been…”
“Sonny,” Barba said, putting as much calm as he could into his boyfriend’s name. Knowing that it was the best way to disperse whatever Sonny was feeling at the moment, like a burst of flower petals in the wind.
He heard Sonny sigh and soft shuffle of the fabric of his couch.
“Tough day, that’s all. You know that sometimes it gets to be too much Rafael,” Sonny said, the earlier frenzy replaced by quiet self-reflection.
Of course Barba did. Sonny rarely did calls like this, preferring instead to shoulder it all until it got too much. Rafael hated it when he did that, wanted to work on it when they were finally in the same city, but he did not vilify it.
It was simply who Sonny was, a burst of brilliance tempered by a handful of dark flaws.
Sometimes it was old ghosts that drove him to call, but these days it was a host of brand new ones. An out-of-state abortion case, someone forced into the closet, a high-profile predator who was almost certain to get away.
“Sonny, just one thing.”
“Never apologise for calling me. Do it again and you will be sleeping on the couch for a week,” Barba said, his shoulders finally relaxing when he heard Sonny give a small laugh.
“Just remember that for when we finally do live together,” Barba added almost nonchalantly.
They rarely spoke about the future, their future, beyond a few months. But by offering up a glimmer of what could be, well, that managed to calm Sonny down better than any words could.
Barba buried himself deeper under his duvet when he felt the cold brush his nose. Blinked as the blue light illuminated the cut folds of his duvet, instinctively stretching out his leg until he touched a furry lump and heard Tora give a sleepy mew and purr.
“I love how you sound at this time of the night.”
“How do I sound Sonny?” Barba murmured sleepily.
“Mellow, deep. It feels like sinking into an overstuffed chair hearing you speak. You sound like this after we’ve had sex, long and drawn out, long and fucked out.”
Barba held his breath when Sonny dropped his tone.
“It is what you sound like when you don’t have to worry about tomorrow.”
Rafael couldn’t remember the last time he had slept without a kernel of anxiety gripped in his fist. Only to have it come to him that it was probably when Sonny had last visited him.
“What can I do for you Sonny? What do you need?”
Another shuffle, this time accompanied by the soft flapping of curtains and the muffled thud of shoes hitting the floor.
“Just, keep talking Rafi,” Sonny answered quietly.
So Barba kept talking. He told Sonny about his day, his frustrations at work, making him laugh again when Rafael described a well-connected law clerk at his office as “incompetent as a drunk octopus, with an IQ of a turnip”.
He told him about what Tora did that day, how she waited at the gate for him like a green-eyed sentry, diligently sniffing any UberEats driver that dared to drop off his takeout. How she snuck into his room every night to claim a corner of his bed before curling up on top of his duvet, in a circle the size of a dinner plate.
He talked about his mom, leaving out her opinions about Sonny. Not because they were bad mind you, it was just hard for an only child to hear his own mother fawn over someone else’s son.
Rafael kept talking until he could hear Sonny’s breathing even out. But he kept on listening even after that, listening to the almost indiscernible electronic thrum of the phone against Sonny’s skin.
He listened until he was satisfied that the ghosts were not going to visit Sonny deep in his REM cycle. It reassured him that Sonny would be okay when he woke up.
“Sleep well carino,” he said softly, before finally hanging up.
Sometimes, it was Barba who called Carisi.
Admittedly, it was an occurrence that was few and far between, but he did do it. He was, after all, allowed to miss Sonny too. Miss his enthusiasm, his positive outlook. And he especially missed it when he was basically running on sheer determination and coffee fumes.
“Tell me I should go to sleep,” Barba barked at his boyfriend, not even bothering to greet him once he had picked up. He slumped down in his office chair until it creaked, his feet anchored on the corner.
“Barba, it’s seven in the morning for you. Go to sleep. You are a bear with an exceptionally sore head when you’ve not had enough sleep,” Sonny said, his voice firm.
“Still a better lawyer than you though,” Barba retorted.
“Ha, ha, you are especially hilarious when you are sleep deprived Rafael. By the way, what happened to your promise to not insult me before I’ve even had my coffee?” Sonny said pointedly.
“And don’t roll your eyes at me Barba.”
“I am not,” Rafael said with a roll of his eyes.
“I just need to make sure everything is sorted, this case…”
“Listen to me, you are ex-New York ADA Rafael Barba. You are brilliant and meticulous, with massive brass balls. Who needs to go home and sleep for three hours.”
Barba frowned to himself.
“Why three?” He asked, ready as always for an argument.
“Because any more and you will feel guilty for slacking. Any less and you are even more of a bitch to deal with than you are now.”
Rafael laughed, but it was a laugh buried so deep in his chest that it practically hurt.
“I wish you were here,” Barba suddenly said, a rare admission of weakness.
“I do too Rafi.”
Barba closed his eyes as a wave of drowsiness washed over him, listening intently to the silent rustling on the other end as he tried to get his bearings. Only to sit up when a thought suddenly came to him.
“Sonny, are you kissing the phone?”
Sonny was always a bad liar.
Rafael laughed again, only this time it rested much higher and didn’t hurt at all.
“I am hanging up on you Barba.”
“Bye Carisi, thanks.”
Yes, sometimes Barba needed to call Carisi. And Barba was grateful enough that he didn’t begrudge the knowing chuckle that greeted him when he called his boyfriend exactly three-and-a-half hours later.
Sometimes they forgot who called first.
It was hard to care when you were in the middle of a verbal fisticuff, the words a discordant noise as it crackled across the wires.
“I talked to your mom today.”
Something in Sonny’s voice made Barba grip the phone harder. He ran a finger round the rim of his glass as he tried to not pace in his kitchen.
“She asked me about your plans for coming back. Asked me whether you were staying there longer on purpose. And I must say Rafael, I don’t appreciate having to run interference when you don’t want to talk to your mom.”
Good, Rafael didn’t appreciate Sonny’s lengthy harangue.
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk to her Sonny. You know my mom, she always takes on more than she needs to, and worries about me more than she needs to. I love her, but her concern is crushing sometimes,” Barba explained, but feeling tired that he had to explain this to Sonny again.
Sonny could be a stubborn asshole too. Law wasn’t the only thing he had learned from Barba.
“Also, you are much better than handling her than I am,” Barba added, tamping down the ever present burn of resentment he held towards Lucia and Sonny’s fledgling relationship.
A relationship he encouraged, but didn’t fully embrace.
“Handle her? She is worried about you, I don’t understand why any of that needs handling? She is your mom Rafael,” Sonny sounded frustrated now, his annoyance over Barba’s shortcomings bleeding into emotions.
“She is your mom,” Sonny repeated after a pause. That tone, plaintive and pleading, but with just enough of a dash of self-righteousness, never failed to piss Barba off.
“I thought you liked it when I included you in parts of my life that didn’t involve us just fucking,” Barba almost snarled, slamming down his glass so hard that the cat jumped.
“You don’t get to talk to me like that Carisi. Can you just drop the good boy act, and stop being so fucking sanctimonious. You missed your chance to join the priesthood the first time you realised you liked it up the ass.”
Barba could be vindictive, he could so easily be vindictive. His eyes hard with jade-edged cruelty.
Carisi gave a short laugh.
“Again with the walls huh?” Sonny answered, sounding both exhausted and enraged. “You don’t get to switch to ‘Carisi’ when you are mad at me Rafael. You don’t have the fucking right to add distance when we are already so far apart.”
“Maybe it is good we are, because I have no idea how to deal with you when you don’t understand where I am coming from,” Barba snapped right back, mentally digging in his heels.
“Me? Don’t understand?” Carisi gave a brusque laugh. “You know what? Screw you Rafael Barba. Come talk to me when you finally get off your high horse.”
In this day and age, it was impossible to actually physically slam down the phone. But that didn’t make the abrupt click as Carisi cut off the call any less deafening, Barba’s anger crumbling like chalk beneath his instant remorse.
Barba knew he was in the wrong. Knew that he had let his stress, his loneliness fuse together into a dangerous knot of emotions that sharpened his tongue and thinned his patience.
All because he didn’t want to tell Carisi that it was hard talking to his mom when he didn’t know when was the next time he could hug her. Or that by sending someone he loved to see her, that it could make up for how much he actually missed her.
But because yielding didn’t come so easy to Rafael, he waited. And waited. Waited for Carisi to make the first move, because his lover offered forgiveness freely and with no conditions attached other than a measure of repentance.
It was past midnight when Rafael finally heard his phone ping on his nightstand, which made him exhale in relief. Another two minutes, it would have been him that buckled, and even thinking about it left a sour taste in his mouth, trudging up bitter memories of him having to constantly prove himself.
“Sorry,” was all the message said.
It was a crack, Rafael justified in his head. Truthfully, it was more like a hairline fracture, but it was big enough for him to step through. It was this rationale that made it okay for him to be one picking up the phone this time.
“I am sorry too Sonny,” Rafael said, hoping that Sonny would blame the strain in his voice on the lateness of the hour.
“I know Rafi. I had no right to doubt your feelings for your mom, and then accepting your anger at face value instead of pushing through it,” Sonny said, but there was a weariness to the way he said it that made Barba’s throat constrict.
“Why do I hear a ‘but’ somewhere in this Sonny,” Barba said guardedly, but he didn’t slip into calling his boyfriend by his surname this time.
“No ‘buts’ Rafael, no hidden surprises. The only thing you need to know is that this truce is not complete absolution. We will talk about this, just not tonight, because everything is just a bit too raw.”
Sonny was offering Barba an out, and he was still hesitant to take it.
“So there was a ‘but’ Sonny,” he said icily.
“Rafi, I miss you, you know that right?”
Rafael had thrust forward expecting a parry, only to be greeted by a hug. Sometimes, he had to admit to himself that Sonny did really know him that well.
“I really am sorry Sonny,” Rafael said, this time there was no doubting his sincerity and need to atone.
“So, let me tell you about the latest school gossip then Rafi,” Sonny said, the grin clear in his tone.
“When did you turn into charter school Access Hollywood? And more than that, what makes you think I would care?” Rafael asked, propping himself up on his pillows.
“Hey, if I had to sit through it, so do you babe,” Sonny said sardonically, before doggedly pushing ahead. “So get this, lunch lady Maggie has apparently been buying veggies in bulk but claiming they are organically grown in Brooklyn.”
Rafael groaned loudly, but he couldn’t really stop a small smile from tugging at the corner of his lips.
“I sometimes wonder about us, did you know that Rafi?”
“Colour me not surprised Sonny,” Rafael said, tipping his chair back until it came into contact with the French doors. One of the few things he actually liked about Iowa was the space, there was no way he could have afforded a balcony this big back in New York.
Well, maybe he could have afforded the balcony, just not the apartment it was attached to.
Barba knew that when he moved he was going to miss this. Sitting outside in almost near darkness, where the only illumination was the incandescent yellow of the streets and the cherry at the end of his cigarette.
This was the first smoke he had in the one year since he had quit, which he regretted the minute he struck the flint on his lighter. But Barba had found himself in a mood tonight.
It was a night that elicited images of melancholic sax solos, of jazz bars with badly mixed drinks and a perfectly tuned piano. Reminiscent of late night walks, listening to whatever scraps of music drifted by. A song drifting through an open car window, easy listening on a bodega radio, a burst of live music whenever a door swung open.
A cigarette felt like it fit. As did the 15-year Laphroaig in his glass, sooty and medicinal on the nose, salted lemon on the finish.
“I wonder about what our life together would look like. Because, I don’t know about you, but to me it has always felt like our relationship is this perpetual story of near misses and wasted opportunities. About how we always came so close, only to never make it past the finish line.”
Barba took a sip of his whisky and let it roll over his tongue.
“Do you ever think that we would be better off with other people?”
Rafael forced himself to focus on the hypothetical nature of the question, and not the sluice of hurt that washed over him.
“I do Sonny,” Barba answered honestly. “There are times when I wonder whether I should be with someone closer to my age, closer to my life experiences. Someone like Liv for instance. Someone that would fit the expectations that a lot of people have of me. And I won’t deny that it makes sense.”
“I get that,” Sonny answered, choosing not to engage with the elephant in the room. “So, if we both feel like that at times, what is the answer you tell yourself when the question comes up as to why we are doing this?”
“Because,” Rafael paused. Paused and focused on the stars above him as he slowly blew out a plume of white smoke.
“Because, I love you. And love doesn’t have to make sense, even when it does. I have no answer other than that.”
The silence on the other end weighed heavily on Barba’s chest, digging like nails into his skin. But the grip instantly loosened when he heard a soft laugh.
“Of course, you are right Rafi, as always,” Sonny said.
The nails were gone but the imprints remained.
“Why the doubts Sonny? I am not trying to dictate how you feel here but, what brought that on?” Barba asked, a sudden blast of cold wind raising all the goosebumps on his arm.
“Some things people said, just chatter that found its way to me. It doesn’t matter Rafi,” Sonny said dismissively, which Rafael decided to accept without question.
“You know what is funny though? Even though I wonder, there is this part of me that truly believes that no matter what track our life takes us, or what life we are living at the moment, somehow we will always find each other. Like rivers that split up and branch off, before finally meeting in the sea.”
That surety he heard in that moment, Barba would use it like a keystone, hanging his hopes on it like a hook.
“A Catholic who believes in reincarnation? You should turn in your Church point card Counselor,” Barba smirked.
Sonny laughed along, speaking up only when it had petered off.
“Do you remember that weekend Rafi that I came to visit? Where my flight was late and we missed our reservations and couldn’t find anyplace decent to eat?”
“Oh yeah, we ended up at that fake British pub. Still, it made good fish and chips,” Barba said. He swore that when he closed his eyes he could still remember the acrid waft of vinegar that cut through the smell of grease-soaked newspaper.
“After that we went to this open plan park? Where there was this wooden gazebo-like thing in the middle?”
“You pulled up Spotify and you made us slowdance, right there, in public,” Rafael said peevishly. He straightened up, ready for whatever smart remark Sonny was going to throw his way. Probably about Barba being as romantic as a colonoscopy.
“You looked so handsome that day. I mean you are anyway, but spotlights suit you Counselor,” Sonny said softly.
Thrust, parry, hug.
“Maybe one day I can take you dancing, proper Rafi. Where we won’t get chased off by the auxiliary police for apparently ‘disturbing the peace’. Little squint had the balls to try and give me a ticket,” Sonny said, sounding genuinely offended.
“Maybe,” Rafael chuckled, flipping an empty flower pot over so he could stub out his cigarette. It was not so dark now because the moon was out, swollen a brilliant white and hanging low in the sky.
“Hey Sonny, can that new iPhone take good pictures of the moon?”
“I heard it can, something about a new lens that takes better night photos. Why?”
“The moon is out, and there is so little light pollution here compared with Manhattan that it looks like it is inches from the house. Wish I could share the view with you.”
Barba sighed before adding, “Wish I could share a lot of views with you.”
Another pause, needle-wide this time and crater deep.
“Sounds good Rafi,” Sonny replied, and Barba chose to ignore the thickness he heard, and the thickness he felt at the back of his throat.
“Maybe, I will consider buying it,” Barba said casually.
“Tomorrow? I am Googling the closest Apple store to you right now.”
“I said maybe Sonny, maybe.”
Rafael and Sonny. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But they would always have this moment. Thousands of miles apart, but still fundamentally connected beneath the same sky.
“The person you have called cannot be…”
Barba pulled down the cradle with more force than necessary before slipping the coins back in and dialling again, watching the world go by as he idly counted the rings in his head.
He should have known really. Sod’s law always seemed to dictate that your electronic device would self-destruct the minute you even thought about buying a new one.
A final “fuck you” before leaving you stranded.
The good news is that Barba now owned something that meant he wouldn’t be stranded with a dead battery anymore. The bad news was that his secondary battery also needed charging.
“Well at least I am not out in the boonies this time,” Barba muttered to himself. But he found that he couldn’t really remain in a state of pique for very long, especially every time he looked down at his new powerbank.
Slender and silver, plus it wouldn’t ruin the line of his trousers if he kept it in his pocket. It almost looked like something out of Muji if it hadn’t been for the huge pun on the side that read “Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeal”.
It had been a gift from Sonny, of course. Came two days after that conversation on the balcony. It was so very him, practical, sleek and with his personality scribbled all over it.
But it wasn’t that which Barba really treasured. The best part of the gift was the note that came with it that said “For you to use until we can pick out your new phone together”.
It made him come to the realisation that there was great comfort in knowing that someone would always be there on the other end to pick up his call.
Even if it wasn’t on the first ring.
If I can lay down beside you
I would, I would
I hope that you are safe
and that I will see you soon