each time I talk to God
- Anne Sexton , Praying On A 707
“you’re the one who demands to know:
Why do I suffer? Why am I ignorant?...
it is your turn to address it, to go back asking
what am I for? What am I for?”
- Louise Glück, Mother and Child
"Let me try again and talk to you directly."
-Joan Didion, Blue Nights
Your mother dies when you are 34. A fall down drunk, who literally fell down, drunk.
She was 56. In your mind, the people responsible for the death of Serena Benson are Serena Benson, the distillers of Stolichnaya, and the man who raped her. You have a sneaking suspicion you helped, but that’s a thought you won’t let linger long enough to fully form.
You are a dutiful daughter. You arrange her affairs, execute her will, wear black to her funeral, sort through her things and pack her life in boxes. Aside from the bar she kept on top of a credenza in her living room, there are bottles hidden everywhere; under the sink in the kitchen, on the top shelf of her closet, in a decorative vase in the hallway, even some travel-sizes tucked behind her copies of Hemingway in the wall-to-wall bookcase. You pour the vodka down the drain and try not to let the burn of alcohol in your sinuses get to you; after all, you knew she’d been drinking again, even after her latest two year stint of white-knuckle sobriety. You take home some clothes and photos but, mostly, you take home her books. You’ve grown past the resentment you felt for them as a child, when it seemed like they were the only things she loved.
Her phone service is the last thing you disconnect because, for a long while, you find yourself calling it every night. You pull your sheets up over your head and put the cell to your ear; there is a dial tone, ringing, the static of the voicemail, and then, there is her.
You’ve reached Serena Benson. I’m sorry to have missed you. Please leave me a message, and I’ll return your call as soon as possible.
You’ve reached Serena Benson. I’m sorry to have missed you. Please leave me a message, and I’ll return your call as soon as possible.
You’ve reached Serena Benson. I’m sorry to have missed you. Pl-
You’ve reached Serena Benson. I’m sorry.
- Your mother hated you.
- Your mother loved you.
The trick is to hold them both in your mind at the same time without letting them drive you insane.
The first time you’d met a Stabler child, it had been Maureen. She was a willowy string bean with honey blonde hair and coltish energy, a girl-woman in a school uniform, the top two buttons of her shirt undone. She’d followed behind Elliot while he led her to his desk, a pit stop in between school and the ballet class he’s supposed to drop her at in 45 minutes, and then sat awkwardly in his chair while he went to find her something to eat. You had loved her on sight in a way you can’t explain, a feeling in your chest like a helium balloon inflating, and thought so that’s what having a father is like.
You’re familiar with the concept, of course; seen them in school from afar, dropping their kids off. The occasional sleepover. Later, parents visiting your roommates in college, a few of your professors with children of their own, grandkids even. And at your age, it’s part of the dating pool too, men who have kids, though you do your best to avoid them. But this is Elliot, your Elliot, inside it. Fatherhood. An opportunity for anthropological study. With Maureen he looks different; larger, sturdier, gentler. Evidence, maybe, of it down to the way he carries himself - Elliot, another kind of “on duty.” Dad is a different part to play than partner; one is a title, the other an institution.
His daughter, meanwhile, perused the squadroom with a put-on casualness, a teenager pretending to be comfortable in an unfamiliar place, and you’d smiled at her, leaned over to offer her your hand.
“Hi, I’m Olivia. Your dad’s new partner.”
She’d sized you up in a quick, assessing glance then shook your hand in return. Her nails had been painted with glitter polish. You knew, instinctively, with her megawatt smile, that this girl was popular in school.
Over Maureen’s left shoulder, you’d seen Elliot ambling back, with bagels left over from this morning and a plastic packet of cream cheese tucked in the crook of his elbow. With them side by side, you are struck by the resemblance, especially around the chin and the cheekbones. But the hair and the eyes? Well, those belong to Kathy.
The nurse at the front of the women’s clinic desk looks exhausted. It is late in the afternoon, so you can’t really blame her. You’re tired too- last night was the third in a row you didn’t sleep. The first two were to finish a paper. The third one, because it was the night before today.
She takes the paperwork from you and looks it over dispassionately. When she gets to your age, she looks up and scrutinizes your face behind her thick framed glasses.
“ID please, hon.”
You slide your license across the counter to her, stiffening your spine for the fight you feel coming. But, she just scans, and then nods.
“Okay, nineteen. You’re above the legal age, so you don’t need consent in the state of New York. But you should have someone ready we can release you to when it’s done. Do you have a roommate, or a guardian who can take you home?”
“My roommate can take me.” You say, even though you haven’t talked to her yet. You hadn’t even told her about buying the drugstore pregnancy test. All of this feels big and scary and strange, unreal, like you’re a marionette and someone else is pulling the strings, or like you’re watching it happen to someone else in some lifetime movie of the week. You haven’t even told your boyfriend yet, and he’s as much a part of this as you are.
The nurse hands you an information packet, and schedules you a physical, and then the actual appointment for a week from tomorrow. You’re not sure what to feel; it’s not what you expected. Professional, matter of fact. You’d expected judgement, barbed questions about protection and your “options”, expected to have to fight for it. You’d prepared arguments, points and counterpoints, how you’re so young, how you haven’t done anything yet, how your mother had to put her education on hold until she could work things out, how she’d wanted an abortion but couldn’t get one, and look how that turned out. Instead, you have an appointment for a physical, and a packet. In the end, she’d made her choice, and this one is yours, but you’re not sure why it feels so strange.
At home, you lay in your twin dorm bed and run your palm slowly over your belly. It doesn’t feel any different. You don’t feel any different.
You stare at the ceiling, and try to stop thinking.
On Saturday, you start to bleed. On Monday, you take the one leftover pregnancy test shoved between your headboard and your wall. Only one line appears.
Sonya Paxton’s grave looks like every other one you’ve ever visited in your life, only surrounded by enough flowers to fill a florist’s shop. You stand in front of it and try to breathe, in and out. You’re so tired you feel you could almost collapse in the grass above where her body’s buried, but stay on your feet because you know that would bring Elliot running over from the spot he’s idling. You have an urge to say something - maybe to whatever’s left lingering of Sonya, maybe to someone else - but you’re not sure what words could ease the ache in your chest. You envy Elliot his faith sometimes; he at least has his hail marys, his our fathers, for times like these. You’re not sure what your equivalent is. Instead, you leave a bouquet of red roses nestled in with the rest.
Before leaving the cemetery, you have him stop at another, more familiar headstone. You have only come here a handful of times in 12 years, but know where it is by heart. He asks you if you want him to come with you, and you say no. This part of you, your life, belongs only to you.
The headstone is close to the ground, and you have to kneel to run your fingertips over the raised engraving. Beloved mother. It’s a lie, but a kind one, and only of omission. Yes, you’d loved her. There’s more to that story, but a revisionist history on an epitaph is a gift you can give her and live with. Just like holding Sonya while she'd aspirated blood into her lungs had been something to give too, even after you'd known there was nothing anyone could do. You'd held Sonya on your knees until you'd felt her grip loosen, until you'd felt her heart stop, and hadn't let go until Melinda walked in to find you still kneeling next to Sonya's body, keeping watch. You hope, desperately, that someone had done the same thing for your mother at the bottom of the subway steps. That she hadn't died alone.
You place the second bouquet. White lilies, for peace.
Elliot looks more ragged every time you see him. You notice it in the set of his shoulders, the circles under his eyes, the way he doesn’t ever seem to know exactly where he is. You’re the daughter of a woman with trauma left to fester, recovering from PTSD yourself, watching this man stumble through it like a blind bull in a china shop. You want to kill him, and you want to kiss him, but mostly you just want him to see a goddamn therapist. When you talk, it’s always one step forward, ten steps back, and you want to scream with frustration. But, then, he’ll go and say something that drags the full weight of what he was to you, is to you, out of the padlocked box in your brain you keep that relationship in. Something like:
“You’re a good mom.”
And in that voice. The soft one you remember from sitting on his stoop at 5AM, a cup of tea warm in your cold hands. Déjà vu even in the statement; he’s said this before, or something like it. An echo of a memory, reverberating in your skull.
They didn't see me as prime parent material.
You’d make a great mom.
Damn him. He’d been the one to nurture the idea you could do it, and then left before it happened. And yet, he’s here now, in your car, amongst your son’s detritus, and you can’t find the words to tell him what it means to you to hear him say it.
He’s a shambling mess, barely keeping it together, but maybe there are still grace notes left in this cacophony of a man.
When Kathleen comes to you later, wired, eyes beseeching, talking to you like you’re the last option she has in the world, you remember being Eli’s age and watching your mother eaten alive by her own misery. You think of Noah, who won’t ever bear the sins of either your father or his own. You think of Maureen, of Lizzie, of Dickie. And Kathleen, in front of you, full-grown and radiant and stable, spearheading her father’s mental health crisis like a PTA project.
You want to help, because even though you don’t say it to her, you’ve been where she is now. However, you also know this is a bad idea, because you’ve also been where he is now twice over, and almost put two in someone’s skull both times. And Elliot Stabler? Well, he’d blown up both his own life and yours, once, to stay out of emotional water he’d judged too deep. You can’t envision a scenario in which this will go well; all roads seem to lead to you managing his fallout, once more for old time’s sake.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
Against your better instincts, you look her in the eye and promise “I’ll do my best.”
You don’t say the God, help us part out loud.
What feels like a million years ago, you used to joke, sometimes, about baby fever with Jeffries. Two professional women, unattached, over the age of 30, surrounded by the worst of the worst the male sex had to offer? It was only natural it would eventually come up, even if it was just to kvetch.
Over the years, you slowly become attuned. In grocery stores, you see mothers with their children riding in the carts, feet dangling. Kids run through parks on summer breaks, eat popsicles, hot dogs, ice cream. A family around the corner has a big white dog, and one especially cold spring their daughter wears fuzzy earmuffs the same color to match. Downstairs, one of the boys is learning piano, and practices after school. You watch the Stabler kids grow in glimpses, like a zoetrope. It must be nice, you think, to move through the world seeing only that, the quotidien, mundane pleasant parts, without knowing the other side of the coin. And you? Well you’re not a civilian, not-knowing was never really in the cards for you.
The house they found the body in yesterday had a piano too. The girl was seven. The blood had oxidized already by the time they’d gotten to her, into a deep ugly brown. You’d watched the expression on Elliot’s face harden, and known he was thinking about Lizzie.
And the rest of your career? Well sometimes it reads like a greatest hits album for the worst of the human race.
You keep a girl named Maria on the phone, and then dig her body out of the ground. After Gitano, you have nightmares about Ryan for years. And then there’s Gia Eskas, who your heart had bled for. And in Oregon, Brittany, and a fort. June Frye, Marnie Foster, Sierra Walker, next to images of a dark brownstone full of dead children, a pregnant 12 year old in a hospital bed at St. Catherine's, and on and on, too many to keep count of, hundreds of names and faces that you feel guilty for letting blur together.
It’s days like that you catch a glimpse of the baby in the cart at the grocery store and think the woman who carried him is the bravest person you can imagine. You want to assign them a detail of a couple plainclothes beat cops to make sure they’re safe, at least until he graduates high school.
When the adoption agency denies you, it’s a body blow. But then the next case is one involving a minor, and somehow, despite the thrumming, raw pain of it, when you see the mother fully break down in the middle of the bullpen, there’s a moment of there, but for the grace of god, go I .
After all, what scares you about the idea of kids isn’t really you. It’s everyone else.
The last time you meet a Stabler child, you’re helping his mother deliver him in the middle of 151st street. He’s a screaming, bloody, beautiful bundle of skin and organs and fluid, and he’s alive and perfect. You love him with a fierceness that rushes through you like lightning, white hot. You know, instinctively, that you would die for him, unquestioningly, happily. You would kill for him too. And then you get an object lesson moments later when Kathy starts coding with her baby on her chest. You hold her son in your arms and try to keep the adrenaline jitters from rattling him too much, hoping that Kathy hasn’t had to make the decision you realized you would about 30 seconds earlier.
But Kathy lives, and Elliot Stabler Senior hugs you in the hallway to tell you all things he can’t say out loud, and you let yourself melt into him, if only for a moment. His son is safe, and you were there. Elliot Stabler Junior came into this world to a mother who loved him, and a not-mother who did too.
In spite of everything, you could at least give them that.
Calvin is tired.
You’d gotten home late, and this is where things started to go wrong. You don’t finish getting dinner on plates until well into the evening, and by then he’s tired and hungry. He’s a good kid, but stuck between boy and preteen, and you can see him grappling with the trauma and the overwhelming experience of trying to work through feelings that are too big and confusing to wrap his head around. It sneaks up on him sometimes, especially when he’s like this. It’s always the little things that it manifests in, just like it does for everyone.
Tonight, it’s a picky eating thing. No gourmand yourself, you’ve been trying to be good about meals, make sure to buy him yogurt packs and snacks, apples and peanut butter, to cook at least three times a week so he can have leftovers. No more dust on your pots and pans, no more takeout every night. You’ve even gotten one of those fancy meal delivery services to make it easier, and it’s been working so far. Only, he has trouble with the greens, namely that he hates them, and Vivian had apparently been a pushover when it came to the cruciferous veg. You try to cut her some slack, seeing as recovery probably gave her other fish to fry, but it really doesn’t help when he’s on the verge of a meltdown.
“But I hate these!”
It’s brussels sprouts tonight, and he’s getting upset, his cheeks flushing the red of stop signs, of fire trucks. Normally you can calm him down, but he’s still working himself into a lather and you’re starting to panic a little. You would do anything for this kid, but the problem is you just don’t know what.
For a second, you almost pick up your phone and hit three on the speed dial, pure muscle memory, before your brain catches up. You haven’t had a phone with speed dial in four years, and the number it would call you had disconnected in 2001. You have found yourself doing this for the first time in a decade, now that there’s a kid in your apartment. The question how did you handle…… always on the tip of your tongue.
You reach over the counter, and take his hand.
“Hey, hey. Honey, it’s alright.”
He faces you with a misery that only children crying over brussels sprouts are capable of, and you want to hug him so badly it hurts.
“We can work this out, okay?”
He pushes at his plate again, shakes your hand off, and lays his head down on the counter, a sound halfway between a sob and a sigh wrenching out of him. You almost miss what he says next, since he moans it into the crook of his elbow,
“I want my mom.”
You reach over once more and cover the crown of his head with your hand. He doesn't lean into it, but doesn't push you away again either. You start to stroke his hair. It feels like strands of silk under your palm.
You open your eyes.
Still here. Iron bed frame, wood-panelled walls and a mattress that would ignite with the sheer force of your will if that meant anything. When was the last time he dosed you? The cuffs have made your hands go numb, and this is the worst nightmare you’ve ever had because even after you wake up it’s still happening. Your head hurts, your body hurts, your soul hurts, and there’s no way out. You’re an animal in a trap, steel around your limbs and a predator circling.
You’ve lost time, but think it’s somewhere around day three because you’ve run out of people to ask the universe to find you. Your squad, both past and present, gone through the mental rolodex of every single law enforcement officer you have run into in your 20 years. You’ve considered the ones you didn’t ever want to think about again, too, before starting on civilians. And then, deeper still, as the hours kept ticking by and you burned and blistered and ached and Vivian Mayer screamed and screamed and screamed and the hope just kept slipping through your fingers like sand. Elliot. Elliot. Elliot where are you. You said always. You said for better or worse. And, after that, there’s no one left.
Now, you start asking for the dead.
My mother. I want my mother.
And then, when you open your eyes again, she’s sitting on the bed to your right, looking at you. You feel her cool hands smoothe across your sweaty forehead like she’d done precious few times when you’d been feverish as a child.
You remember sitting at the back of her classroom, swinging your legs when they were too short to touch the floor, watching her gesture with them as she taught. Elegant white birds, fluttering against the green of her chalkboard, talking about Plath. She’d been so beautiful in that room sometimes it had made your heart hurt, because she could be so ugly everywhere else.
And then, he’s back. Lewis enters the room with a can opener and a crooked smile like a door hanging off its hinges, like a death’s head in old paintings - too many teeth, holes where eyes should be.
It’s going to hurt, honey.
Serena Benson’s eyes were green and your eyes are brown and you did that punnett square when you were in ninth grade biology class. Right now you taste blood and salt and vodka, and that was always her drink, her poison, and you’re thinking that this experience, if you live through it, is going to make you understand her in ways you’d never wanted.
I can’t do this, mom. I can’t, I can’t.
He’s a tall man, and cuffed down like this you’ve never been more intensely aware of the physical fact of your body. Serena Benson had a monster, and you’ve had more than your fair share of your own, but now there’s another, here in the room with you, and after everything the sheer unfairness of it is a banshee scream in your throat. In a fair fight, you’d peel the skin off his bones or die trying, but this isn’t anything close. It’s you, trapped in yours
Serena’s face is hazy. You try to focus on it, see it clearer - her wide mouth, the arch of her brow, the curve of her chin, the fall of her hair. When was the last time you had seen her in person? Is it the drugs, or that the memory of her is fading, growing less sharp?
He drops over you like a weight. Like an eclipse. Like an anchor, dragging you down, drowning, full fathom five. Metal, gun oil, powder, grief; your service weapon is between your teeth and the fear is sour on your tongue, horror so visceral you can’t deal with it, can’t cope, your entire body electrified with revulsion. Words are coming out of your mouth like sobs. You look over him, up, desperate, anywhere, to find her, something to hold on to.
Mama please please please please
Serena’s thumb caresses the top of your cheekbone.
Out of the ash, Olivia. Remember how I taught you?
You remember. You remember her smile. You remember her with a book of poetry, in the middle of her classroom. You remember holding her hand over a dinner table. You remember the sting of her palm on your face. You remember her at the other end of a broken bottle. You remember what her ribs had felt like against the toe of your shoe.
O my enemy. Do I terrify?
The furies, they were women too, born from drops of blood. And blood had made you; you’d learned your rage at your mother’s feet. You think, even as the weight of him on top of you crushes the air from your lungs, that you feel her take your hand.
Herr God. Herr Lucifer. Beware, beware.
It’s her voice, always, in your head.
I rise with my red hair.
He’s undoing your belt buckle. Serena kisses your temple. And then, you feel some give in one of the bed frame rails.
Eat him alive, baby.
You bare your teeth.
Two more truths:
- You hated your mother.
- You loved her so much you dedicated your life to fighting the thing that took her from you before you ever had a chance.
- You have always been afraid of becoming her.
And a wish:
- You want for things to have turned out differently.
You’re 57 today.
There will be cupcakes and balloons, a small party. Birthdays are serious business, with a kid in your life. This year, Noah will be ten, and Noah, the miracle of him, makes something even as simple as the act of being alive, still, worth celebrating. You have to be honest; reckoning with the original sin of your existence has gotten easier when he seems so happy to see you all the time. He doesn’t care why you’re here, just that you are.
It’s odd, to have it be special, after so many years of being indifferent at best, painful at worst. It had always been a hard time for Serena, when you’d been growing up. If she was on an upswing, she’d take you shopping, or out to a fancy lunch, and you’d watch her grit her teeth when the waiter handed her the wine list. If it wasn’t, she’d hole herself up in her bedroom with a bottle of Stoli, and that was if you were lucky. Later on, it got less fraught; you could count on Elliot to bring you a cupcake from your favorite bakery, or for a kitschy card to get passed around the bullpen with well-wishes from everyone. In your time with Brian, he’d been especially sweet; your first birthday after the abduction he’d met you once with forty-six red roses and an annotated copy of Twelfth Night with by the roses of the spring, I love thee so written inside the front cover. You hadn’t known he had it in him, Brian of the beer and football school of manhood, and you still keep it on your bookshelf next to your mother’s Tsvetaeva collection.
This year, Noah has been trying to hide a present he’s been working on for a few days, and you’ve been gamely trying to keep from discovering what it is so he can actually surprise you. It's difficult though, because his favorite stash spot is behind his laundry basket, and you keep stumbling onto it every time you go to do the wash.
57. This is the first year that you will be older than your mother ever was.
It’s uncharted territory. Ahead of you are all the years left in your life, but no model, even the most imperfect, to follow for what comes next.
In the mornings you’ve taken to examining your face in the mirror, looking past your inner critic to see what’s really there. As you’ve gotten older, you think you maybe favor her more; the pattern of the crow’s feet around your eyes, the curve of your chin, the downturn at the edges of your mouth, the way that your skin is settling over the bones of your face. And, of course, some things that don’t; you are free from alcohol bloat, have more laugh lines in your cheeks, can carry healthy weight on your frame in a way she never could, have been spared the way her voice rasped as she got older from the drinking.
Elliot enters the bathroom behind you, sleep-mussed and languid. He’s promised to grill Noah hot dogs, and then promised you the finest steak his money can buy.
He comes up behind you, settles his hands on your waist, and drops his chin onto your shoulder.
“Happy birthday to you.”
In the mirror, you smile back at him, and lean into the embrace.
“Yeah, happy birthday to me.”