The paintbrush scraped softly along the old wood of the dresser. Aqua blue paint - the same color as the sea off the coast of Capri. Visiting the Amalfi coast, Pompeii, and Capri had been their big family trip after they’d been in Italy for a few years. All the kids came and they took the train from Rome to Naples, peering through the graffiti on the windows the whole way. Capri had been a favorite for everyone - it’s where he took the picture of Kathy that he kept on his desk. They were on the hotel’s patio, she wore no makeup, a floral dress, and a chunky pearl necklace he thought excessive but she called fashion. He snapped the picture just as the wind drew a strand of hair across her forehead.
She’d been so happy on that trip. He’d been happy. Or as close to it as he could manage.
“Thanks for helping me, Dad,” Kathleen said as she dipped her brush into the paint can sitting between the two of them. He was sitting on the floor of the house in Queens that Kathleen shared with three other people, carefully running the paintbrush along the legs of a dresser she’d picked up at a thrift store for way more than it was worth - in Elliot’s opinion, anyway. But, she liked it and painting it with her meant they had something to do together other than stare at each other over a table and remember that Kathy was dead.
“Any time, hon.” Elliot took a deep breath and then asked, “You hear from Dickie?”
“We texted a few days ago. He’s, ah…he’s still pretty pissed.”
“Yeah, well, what else is new?” Of all the Stabler children, Dickie was the one who ended up with Elliot’s temper and penchant for going off half cocked. He was also the one most likely to hold a grudge.
“It hasn’t been easy on any of us. He’s just…” Kathleen trailed off.
“Yeah.” Elliot knew his son was grieving. He also knew that the only thing the younger Stabler knew to do with that grief was channel it into anger. It was something Elliot understood too well - he had the bill to fix the holes he’d punched into the hotel room walls to prove it.
But, if Elliot was being honest, what Dickie was angry about was the thing Dickie had been angry about for a very long time.
How about you? Ever sleep with your partner, Detective?
He had been irritated that he had to pull his father out of an argument with Olivia and get him to the hospital when Kathy woke and it had gone downhill from there. Then the intervention happened and Dickie had stopped speaking to his father. He showed up at the arraignment for his mother, but he was jumping into an Uber as soon as the family cleared the throng of press on the courthouse steps.
Out of the corner of his eye Elliot could see Kathleen dutifully painting, focused, working, as if the task at hand would be enough to get her through. She was like Kathy in that way - a woman who knew how to endure. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, an action Elliot caught himself doing all the time. Maureen and Eli were so much like their mother, and Dickie and Elizabeth took after Elliot, but Kathleen? Kathleen was the perfect mix of the two of them.
“You got something to say?” He asked. It didn’t come out harsh, just open, matter of fact. Ever since she’d been diagnosed as bipolar, and everything that happened after, the relationship between father and daughter had morphed, changed. She wasn’t just his baby girl - she was an adult. And he respected the hell out of her for her dedication to her mental health and her unflinching dedication to living her life as openly and honestly as she could.
That part - the open, honest part - that was all Kathy. He was still working on it.
“It’s just…If I ask you this, I want the truth. Promise me you’ll be honest. Please.”
Elliot stopped painting and glanced at his daughter, his brush hovering near the dresser. A fat drop of blue paint fell and splattered onto the drop cloth covering the floor like the first raindrop from dark clouds.
“Back when…when you were partners with Olivia…” Kathleen put her brush down and stared at her hands, picking spatters of blue paint off the skin around her nails. She was struggling to keep her composure and she chewed on her bottom lip. “Did you sleep with her?”
Kathleen’s eyes met his again - big blue eyes filled with tears. Earnest eyes. Eyes so ready to be betrayed by the first man she ever loved. Elliot felt his own eyes well up. He set his brush down.
“No,” he said in a whisper, the lump in his throat an insurmountable obstacle. Elliot grabbed her hand with both of his and held it tight. “I may have been a crappy husband, but I was faithful to your mother. I never cheated on her.”
“That’s what I told Dickie.” A tear slid down her cheek. “He never believed me.”
“He’s stubborn,” he said, his voice low. “He gets that from me. I don’t know how I can make him believe me. I know he’s angry, and I get it…I remember how angry I was at my father. He cheated on my mother constantly and I’d have to watch her cry, because he never tried to hide it. But I swore I would never be like that. I wasn’t going to do that to my family.”
Kathleen knotted her brows and cocked her head. “I’m not saying this to upset you, but…You did do that to us. That’s why Dickie is so mad. You never had to hear Mom crying on the phone to Aunt Carol because she was convinced you were sleeping with Olivia, or hear her slamming doors and cabinets because yet again you were out on some stakeout with her instead of home with us. But we did. We heard it all the time. And, ok, you never cheated on Mom. But…it didn’t have to be physical to be an affair.”
But it wasn’t your life, it isn’t your life. You’re living your father’s life all over again.
His blood turned icy in his veins. He had spent a lot of time lying awake in the top bunk of bunk beds he shared with his brother listening to his parents fight because Joe Stabler had come home again stinking of another woman’s perfume. Had his own children lived through a version of this, where the argument wasn’t about the actual evidence of cheating but the nagging suspicion that there was something more than professional courtesy taking root between her husband and his partner? Had his own children lived through a years-long one-sided argument he wasn’t around enough to have?
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
"But it did.”
“Kathleen, I chose your mother. I chose our family.”
Kathleen smiled a sad smile at her father, the same kind of tight-lipped smile he used to give her when she was naive and young and dealing with the disappointment of learning about the reality of an unjust world.
“You know what mom told me when you took the liaison job? That she thought you took it because somewhere deep down you were hoping it would bring you back to Olivia.”
The dark, hidden truth of her statement hit him square in the chest. He would never have allowed himself to consciously think something like that. But Kathy had known. She’d known his truth even as it hid itself from him. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. It was if he lost the capacity for language in the face of what she laid bare.
Kathleen picked up her brush and started working on the dresser again, a sure sign that she was done with the conversation for the day. She would continue on. Survive. Endure. If only Elliot could find it in himself to do the same.
“What do you want for dinner?” She asked, as if she hadn’t just broken the fragile reality he had lived in for the last 10 years - the reality where his wife didn’t realize that he never stopped loving his former partner.
But, plot twist…there’s someone else. Another woman. Who’s the one true love of his life.
Elliot shrugged and picked his brush back up. “Whatever.”
They continued painting in silence.