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Rock into sand

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Elliot moves through New York streets without any destination in mind. It’s dark outside already, the sun surrendered its post in the sky to the moon about half an hour ago. He is not sure what he hoped to accomplish when he started this promenade, but he feels unmoored and it fits his mental state to be drifting aimlessly through the city.

He must have been walking for quite a while because his legs are starting to feel the distance he’s covered. So when Elliot comes across a bench in front of a small church, he decides to rest his weary limbs there. It’s a relatively quiet little corner of the perpetually bustling city. As he sits and looks around, he decides the place is peaceful. Not that it has the power to give him peace of mind, though.

Elliot fixes his gaze on the steeple of the church and thinks it’s ironic that in all his years at SVU, with all the horrors he witnessed, he never once faltered in his belief in God, but now — now he is not sure what he believes anymore. Religion has always provided him with a roadmap to life. Occasionally he strayed of course. But he trusted this roadmap, relied on it for directions whenever he found himself at a crossroads. Elliot doesn’t trust that roadmap anymore. Or maybe it’s his interpretation of the roadmap that is wrong, he thinks.

Elliot’s musings are interrupted when someone plonks on the bench next to him. When he looks, he finds an elderly kind-faced priest sitting to his right.

“I hope you don’t mind if I join you, son,” the man says.

“Of course, father.”

The priest furrows his bushy brows a little. “You alright, son?”

“No. I don’t think I am,” Elliot admits. It’s not his church, it’s not his priest, but something about the man makes Elliot want to talk. “You got time, father?”

“Can spare some, if you need help, son.”

Elliot is not sure where to begin.

“I need guidance for I have lost my way.” Elliot confesses eventually. “Or, perhaps, I’ve never even found it. My mother certainly thinks so.” He laughs a little, morosely. “I don’t know what to do. How do I fix things, how do I make the right choices, the right decisions? A old friend told me yesterday that I should stop running in every direction except for the right one. But the truth is, I don’t know which one is right.”

His thoughts are so jumbled, that it’s hard to structure a coherent narrative. He looks at the church again.

“Everything in my life is falling apart. It feels this way, at least. Like every major decision I’ve ever made brought me here, to this point where my world is crumbling to pieces. I acted irresponsibly, I did what I wanted to do — it ended in disaster. I acted responsibly, I did what I had to do — it ended in disaster.”

Elliot falls silent. Asks himself what it is that he is trying to achieve with this confession. But before he can continue, an upbeat tune breaks the silence. Elliot looks at the priest, because that’s where the sound is coming from. The old man is trying to fish something — a mobile, Elliot guesses — from somewhere under his black robe. It is indeed a phone.

“Sorry, son. That’s my wife. Gotta answer real quick. Can’t worry her.” He answers the call. “Sweetheart… Yes, dear I am... Yes, I will be home soon... Wine?.. What do you need wine for?.. Ah, I completely forgot. Yes, we should celebrate… Alright, I love you. See you in a few minutes.”

Elliot continues to stare at him. “You are not a priest,” he states finally.

“A priest?” The man seems genuinely surprised. Elliot raises his eyebrow and looks at his attire pointedly. “Ah, the robe, of course. I am sorry, my boy. That’s just a costume. I am an amateur actor. We were rehearsing a play earlier and I… Never mind. Didn't mean to confuse you, lad. I can’t speak on God’s behalf, I am afraid, but there is something I want to share with you, if you’ll allow me. Maybe it will help you as it helped me a long time ago.”

Elliot stares at him, half-annoyed, half-amused, finally deciding he has nothing to lose. “Sure. I apologize for unloading my problems on you.”

“Oh, no worries, no worries. You see, I can relate. I spent most of my life making one bad decision after another. Got married too young because I was an idiot and got a girl pregnant. Then I decided to be responsible and make that marriage work. For the children, I used to tell myself.” The man chuckles self-deprecatingly, while Elliot struggles to keep his poker face in place. “Trapped myself and my first wife in a toxic loveless union for ages. Got stuck in a job I hated because it would’ve been irresponsible to give it up and chase my dream. At some point I started drinking more than I should’ve because my life was suffocating me. Almost lost my son to drugs because I was so lost myself.

“Then I fell in love with this amazing lady.” The man activates the screen of his smartphone showing Elliot a picture of an elderly woman. She appears to be in her 80s, like the not-priest sitting next to him, but her age doesn’t diminish her elegance and beauty. “I spent years being afraid to pursue her. See, I wasn’t sure she could love me back, so I chose to keep my feelings to myself and be her friend. Turned out she did love me, and I kept hurting her over and over again by choosing every other woman and their mother instead of her. My cowardice cost us 20 years of happiness.”

Elliot looks at the church, at the dark sky above and back at the man. Although there are notable differences, the parallels in their life stories are uncanny, and he begins to suspect there is some sort of divine intervention at work here.

“I could go on and on, recounting all the ways I screwed up,” the man continues. “But I’d rather share with you a piece of wisdom that allowed me to find happiness. Years ago, when I was at my lowest, my very old, very devout but very unorthodox aunt told me that I was allowing the wrong organs dictate my life. God is love, God is honesty and God is courage, she told me. And of all the organs in a man’s body it’s the heart that is responsible for those, my aunt said. Not the brain, not the stomach, not the instrument between one’s legs, she stressed. The heart. When you are making a decision, listen to your heart, my aunt urged me. You are a good man and it will not lead you astray, she promised. If you are living a lie, your heart will ache. If you are being a coward, your heart will let you know. If you love something or someone, don’t run from it and don’t hide it, for it’s a gift from God and it is in your heart for a reason.”

The old man smiles warmly at Elliot and he can’t help but smile back a little. “I don’t know if any of this is useful to you, son, but for me… well, I turned my life around when I started listening to my heart and allowed it to guide me. Perhaps my aunt’s unorthodox interpretation of God will help you too. Well, I have to run, buy some nice wine for my missus. May love, honesty and courage show you the right path.”

The not-priest gets up and Elliot does too.

“Who are you?” he asks. Then catches himself, because that sounds rude. He offers his hand.
“Elliot Stabler.”

The man shakes his hand with a grin. “John Stanton Sr.”

Elliot fishes out a card from his jacket and holds it out. “I am a detective with the NYPD. I hope you never need my help, sir, but if you do, feel free to give me a call.”

“A detective!” John Stanton Sr. exclaims as he takes the card. “Then at least one of the three should not be a problem for you, should it? Courage — I am certain you have that one in abundance.” The old man winks at him and scurries away, leaving Elliot feeling lighter and more hopeful than he’s felt in a very long time.