She’s forgotten him.
Forgotten his entire family.
She’s a blind woman with a gun pointed at his head every time he walks into the room. She doesn’t want him anymore; doesn’t even like him, anymore.
“You must be looking forward to getting home, captain Benson.”
He has his back turned against her as he faces the window of the hospital room. Outside screams a hollow picture of the city that never sleeps. Its late afternoon and traffic has just peaked, he can see the miserable little orbs of vehicles moving ever so slowly, slower than the last two weeks, slower than Olivia’s memory.
“Dr Petall, you’ve seen inside my head, literally. You can call me Olivia.”
From behind, he can hear her pack the rest of her belongings into a small suitcase, the heels of her boots lining the marble floors as she sails the room, drifting from one side to the other, eager to dock back home.
He won’t move.
He can hear her zip the last of her days here in the hospital, and then she stops, and like a victim to the road, he can feel her eyes bore into his back as they wait out a green light, and maybe she might say something, or maybe she will just ignore him, like she has been, and wait for him to initiate the move.
The doctor flips through the last of her discharge papers.
“Thank you doctor.”
“My pleasure. If you ever need anything, Olivia… You know where to find us.”
“Of course. I must admit, I hope to never be here again.”
She could say that again.
“Fair enough. You’ve had a rough time, but your recovery has been excellent.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely. Your physical therapist thinks you’re on the road to running a marathon. That’s high praise.”
Elliot can almost hear her grin.
“Of course, your neurologist would disagree. I understand you’re scheduled for regular appointments?”
“Yes. She wants to keep an eye on the headaches.”
“That’s good. I understand that it’s been difficult, with all that you lost in the car accident.” The doctor skirts around the topic like it’s a disease, he’s noticed.
“You mean the loss of all her memories?” Elliot snaps, facing the two.
The doctor hates him, everybody here, hates him. Elliot doesn’t give a shit.
“Not all of my memories, Elliot.” Olivia bites back, eyes aflame. “Just the last two..”
“Two years of them. I know.” He shifts on his feet, looking outside again.
“Don’t mind him. He’s in a mood.” Says Olivia.
Elliot rolls his eyes.
“No worries. I’ve been around a lot of spouses in my time, and your husband is actually rather patient.”
Elliot’s eyebrows perk up at that.
“He’s not my husband.”
He gives Olivia a moment with Lucy as he carries bags to the bedroom. Noah had swimming followed by ballet in the afternoon, and he seemed to tumble straight into his mother’s pillow as soon as the moon showed face. Elliot can hear Lucy and Olivia’s muffled voices in the other room, and then the front door closes, and silence.
He plants her toilet bag in the bathroom, shoes in the closet, bag on the corner side chair, and he’s tucking the blanket over Noah’s shoulder when the heavy breeze of another presence enters the room.
Having done this with her child 30 something nights in a row, he’s so used to being alone; it takes his breath away to see her here, eyes open.
She was leaning against the door frame, gaze flickering with the barest hint of love before it snowballed into detachment.
“You know, it still surprises me how often he wants to sleep in my bed. Even at that age.”
Mothers and sons.
“Eli was the same. Didn’t stop until a few years ago, but don’t tell him I said that.”
She offered a polite smile as he neared the door, but she looked away as soon as his gaze met hers, like he had bruised a perfectly intimate moment with his closeness, which of course wasn’t true, for no matter how far he retracted in the name of love, she would still hate him.
“Elliot, I know things have been… difficult lately but I do really appreciate you looking after Noah.”
She was speaking from her core, he could see it in the way her palm touched her chest, as if she was about to gift him with a little piece of her heart. And yet her face was emotionally detached but still so precious to him, her aloofness unable to overshadow the beauty of the soul he knew lurked beneath.
“Liv. Don’t worry about it.” he touched her shoulder, squeezed past and left her alone in the dimly lit hallway. He would never admit it out loud, not to her of all people, her who was somewhat fragile and unknowing for the moment, but it sort of offended him whenever she thanked him using Noah’s name, or for these simple things that made absolute sense to him. He loved that kid like he loved his own, more than his own, sometimes, because Maureen was right. Noah was perfect and easy, and he never brought much trouble, and even when he did his fists were the same shape as his mothers, which made Elliot love the kid even more.
It takes Olivia longer to follow him through the rabit hole. He’s fishing through the refrigerator in search of something real for her to eat, when he realizes what she’s doing.
Olivia stands in the middle of her apartment, hugging her arms like a cold child stranded in a desolate paddock, her gaze is searching and terrified, and brilliant. For a humble moment, fear eats away at the back of his throat and he has to force it back down in lieu of shedding a single tear. Everything is new to her, even the forcefield to which she calls home.
“Hey…” he whispers softly as to not startle her. “You okay?”
Her eyes met his and for a brief slow moment, he felt known again, but then she broke his gaze and with it his heart.
“Yea.. just a little overwhelming ‘s all.”
He felt himself sigh. “Anything I can do to help?”
She rubbed her eyes, shook her head and then trailed her finger absentmindedly along the wall. “At some point the old me had the whole apartment re-painted but I don’t remember doing that. It’s almost like I’m in a different house.”
“It’s just a lot of changes. And I’m really trying to remember, I am, but it’s all very blank.”
She’s in a coma, Detective. She may never wake up.
“I feel like somebody has come along and wiped all my memories away.”
Dad, I’m worried about Liv. She doesn’t know who I am.
“I feel like I’m drowning, like a weight is pushing me down.” She adds.
I love you.
“And there’s people all around trying to pull me up, but they all want me to be somebody I’m not. Sometimes when I think about it, I just want to stay in the water.”
Elliot drops his head, closes his eyes. It’s all too much.
“Elliot. I think we need space.”
His pulse climbs and his vision gets a little dizzy, he feels his feet move across the room. “Space. What does that look like?”
She drifts away from him again, and suddenly they’re standing on opposite ends of the apartment, with his back to the door. “Distance. Time, you know, to figure out who I am on my own. I need to do that before you and I… talk.”
“Talk? What do you want to talk about?” and why couldn’t they do it now?
“About where you’ve been for the last eight years, Elliot.” She spews.
Ten. He aims to correct. Eleven now. But she’s still living in 2020.
“Ask me anything Liv, and I’ll tell you.”
“I know you want us to piece the puzzle back together, but I’m not ready.”
Patient, El. You have to be patient. Mama said to him just last week. Like a child on steroids, he doesn’t quite know what that means.
“My whole life has been a puzzle. I think I just need a break. I’m sorry.”
His life, he thought, was a never-ending road of I’m sorry’s. Not once did he imagine that he’d be on the receiving end of hers.
He grabbed his keys, coat.
“Can I hug you? Before you go I mean.”
Elliot spins, she makes his head swim.
“This is gonna sound strange but my neurologist, she’s a good doctor.”
“I’d hope so.”
“I can’t go back to work until she signs me off. She said I could start by doing things one would normally do. Like taking Noah to the ballet, he likes that now, apparently. And going for walks in central park, Rollins said I do that too.”
“Yeah, you do.” But he could’ve told her that himself.
“She thinks it might help jog back my memory. And I thought about you, given that we were... whatever we were. Maybe I could hug you, that’s what couples do, right?”
“I… wow. That’s a lot. That’s great, Liv.” He scratches the back of his head. He was proud of her for making such bold steps into recovery, and she was showing effort in getting back to who they were, but he didn’t want to begin this road predicated on lies.
“Look if I’m being honest, and I know how this sounds, but we didn’t do a lot of hugging.”
“Oh.” She seemed surprised by this. And maybe, he thought, hugging was something she did with her ex-boyfriends, the ones who made it to bed and not to her heart. Maybe that was the etiquette of the woman from two years ago, the same who supposedly stood before him now, but that wasn’t exactly true when she was with him. They weren’t a couple, they were partners.
“What did we do then?”
Her long legs were crossed over the other as she stood with the weight of her right shoulder to the kitchen wall, and her arms were folded like a woman on a mission, and she was staring at him as if he were the keeper to all her secrets.
Elliot looked away nervously; his eyes landed involuntarily on the sofa. He felt his cheeks grow flush.
“Seriously?” she yelped a moment later, jaw hanging to the floor.
“What? I didn’t even say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. Geez.” She palmed her face and shook her head, mortified. He watched as she pushed herself off the wall, raided the fridge for juice and began to poor herself a glass.
She still wasn’t looking at him when she said, “Is that all we did? What about eat, drink, a movie, work? Normal stuff?”
The judgmental huff in her throat made her sound like a disgruntled mother learning of her teenage daughter’s wrongdoings.
He barked out a laugh.
“Yes, no?” she was desperate for an answer.
“We didn’t have a lot of time on our hands Liv. You know, between work, the kids, life, work. We were rarerly ever alone, but when we were..” he shrugged, and finished it there.
Her cheeks went tomato red. He grinned to himself and began to pace the floor comfortably, pretending to take interest in the photo wall of people he hadn’t yet met, but knew the names of.
“And what else?” he heard her ask.
“Kids.” He said, simply, like she would know what this meant, and then he remembered that she had no memory, and his feet drifted to a slow halt.
“We spent a lot of time with the kids. You and Noah would come by for dinner. We’d go for walks in the park, the four of us.”
“Right. Sex and kids. That seems like a great start to new relationship.” Amnesia had made her honest, lately, and noticeably funny, he thought. Like the accident had activated a comic switch in her head and made a grand debut of Olivia Benson in stand-up comedy. Dark comedy, obviously.
“If I recall, you didn’t have many complaints about it at the time.” He muttered.
“Isn’t that relieving.”
Definitely dark comedy.
They took it slow in the first few months of dating. Though they never called it dating, but it was so slow, so boringly slow, that when the clock stroke ten and mouths began to collide like two horny teenagers on their first ride, there was no end in sight. When they had privacy, sex was all they wanted, sex was all they needed, and the weeks leading up to the car accident were no small exception.
But now, now she could barely look at him.
“Well, this is embarrassing.” Olivia muttered, tackling a chug of juice, her cheeks weren’t so much red as they were pink now, like she’d been standing under the sun for far too long. He’d do anything, he thought, to hold onto this image of her embarrassed and fucking perfect under a pile of scarlet colors.
“Look, I know you just said you wanted space, but the twins have their fifth birthday this weekend at the apartment. It’s a little thing; we’re trying to shield mama from covid. Anyway, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to. But if you could bring Noah that would be… great. Or I could pick him up.”
“Yeah.” She smiled, a genuine one this time. “I’ll bring him, no worries.”
Elliot did a double take.
“Really?” he added, quickly. “Ok, cool. One of the kids will drop him off, afterwards. And don’t worry about getting any presents.”
“What’s their names?”
His head shot up. “Huh? Who?”
“Oh right.” He relaxed. “Kieran and Seamus.”
“And should I stay?”
Of course she should stay. “Only if you want to.”
“Maybe for like five minutes? Just to see if any rain falls.” She tapped the knuckle of her head like it was a bucket, and he felt overwhelmed with love because even though she seemed to be burning bridges, he could see that she was only trying to swim toward one.
Olivia followed him to the exit, a great yard away but tailing him nonetheless. He stopped at the door, she with him.
“So, any plans for the next few days?” he breathed aloud.
Olivia’s face was intimidatingly motionless. “You mean aside from regaining my identity? The apartment is a bit dusty; I might give it a clean out.”
“Good idea. Let me know if you need anything?”
The corners of her lips lifted slightly. “Distance, El.”
He nodded, forgetting already. “Right, of course. Of course.”
When Liv and Noah arrive, the first observation he makes is the oppressive tension that ropes her body like a demonic month in 2013. She hides it well from his kids, and his mother, who do their absolute best to greet her with gentle hands. There was an Oscar worthy rehearsal before her arrival, what to say and what not to say described in laymen terms, but all of their strategizing got tossed out of the window when one of the twin boys knocked into her legs. Kieran looked up at her like so many others had before.
“Hi Livia! Thank you for our gift.”
She looked down at the boy with her mouth parted in an open smile, but her hands were up in the air like she’d just been touched by a complete stranger.
“You’re welcome.” She said, awkwardly. Kieran scrambled off into the living room, leaving them alone.
Olivia’s gaze filed through familiar faces, stopping only at one.
“Uh, Liv. This is my husband, Carl.”
She shook his hand, “Hi. Olivia Benson.”
“I know.” He smiled warmly and grimaced when Maureen elbowed his rib.
A loud roar erupted in the corner of the room, Eli had just won a game of cards, Noah reached up to give him a hi-five, seemingly the only happy individual out of a very disgruntled audience. “You cheated!” Lizzie screeched.
The apartment was crowded and loud and pretty much like this all the time. He snuck a glance in Olivia’s direction, she looked overwhelmed, not by the tension but by the noise. He only wanted to wrap her in his arms and carry her to bed.
“Can I take your coat?” he asked.
The timer on the stove made a noise, his mother and Kathleen scampered off.
“Actually, I was wondering if we could talk, outside? Gotta go.”
“You’re not staying?” asked Maureen. Liv offered a smile that faded around her eyes.
“I’m afraid not. I have a work thing. I’m really sorry.”
It’s a lie, Elliot knows from a conversation with Fin earlier that she’s been exiled entirely from the precinct until doc returns her with the key. But this is the least of his concerns.
“That’s okay. Leave Noah here, Kathleen’s already agreed to take him home. She lives in Manhattan anyway.” Elliot assures.
“Ok great.” She sighs, relieved, but her mind is still outside. “Can we talk?”
The crease in Elliot’s brows thicken, he nods.
She bids goodbye to his mother, his kids, blows a kiss in Noah’s direction, all while moving obscenely fast. Brushing past Carl, she says absentmindedly. “Nice to meet you.”
The kitchen goes quiet, even his mother perks up at that, but Olivia is already out the back exit. He sighs.
The door closes behind him, and a great condensation bleads inside the windows, creating a gated blur between his fortress and her, and suddenly only he can see the woman in front of him. For the first time in forever it is through a lens of binary terms, as if she is either an enemy or a lover and nothing in between. When did they become those people? He thought.
“Is everything okay?”
She huffs out a loud breath that is unmistakably hostile.
“I know this is the wrong time to do this, but I feel like I’m going mad.”
Elliot panics internally, images of hospital beds and psych wards and a boy in a carrot suit flashing like a lightning bolt in his head. Everything he touches turns mad, somehow someway.
“I’m really trying to understand you here Elliot, I am. But at this point my eyes feel like they’re going to bleed out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This!” she pulls out a piece of paper from her back pocket, shoves it into his chest. He recognizes the manila lining like old scar tissue. His chest begins to constrict in a muted but distinct panic. Fuck.
“I was cleaning out my closet this afternoon, and this came out. What the fuck is it?”
He pictured his therapist sitting in a cream-coloured chair. Breathe, said the ghost doctor.
“Forget the bullshit about the sweet, devoted man you wish I had, cause I know a lie when I see one, but – what we were to each other was never real? That felt like a real punch in the gut, Elliot.”
“No. I’m not done. Tell me, was any of it real? Our partnership – real or not real? The lies – real or not real? Your abandonment. The car accident. The amnesia – real or not fucking real? Tell me. Am I losing my mind?”
“You’re not losing your mind. And yes, everything good about us was real. You were my partner, the only person on earth who understood a single vessel about me..”
“Oh, what an honour! Do I get a gold badge?”
“It’s true, Olivia.”
“Save the monologue, please. Did you practice that one in Italy with the great cathedral staring down at you?”
Threaded with bitterness, he actually laughs at that.
“You’re unbelievable! Unbelievable.” She shook her head, started to pace the concrete.
This is the argument to which she deserved a year ago, but trauma was fucking trauma.
“Can I speak now?” he asked, calmly.
She threw her hands up in the air, go ahead, she said. And it was hopeless, mostly due to his abandonment of God until recently, but he held his hands up in a prayer, like she was his holy shrine, and he told her who wrote the letter, and why it was written, and which line he wrote, and why he gave it to her, in the end.
Olivia was blandly motionless, a lion statue.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, feeling, anything.”
“I feel pain.” Her voice finally broke but her gaze remained cold. “I feel pain for the old me. The woman who put your needs before her own. Who kept this letter in her closet even after it hurt her.”
“Christ..” he felt sick. “I’m sorry.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I imagine you know about Lewis, now.” He flinches at the name, like she’s taken a match and thrown it to his face and the parallel makes absolute sense to him, for he’s thought of this cold gruesome act more than he can account for.
“Right. You do. When did you find out?” she dug her hands into the pockets of her coat, chin lifted with pride and steel. “Was it last year? Or last decade? Tell me.”
“Two months ago.”
Her eyebrows shot up in surprise with tiny little dots making solid connections in her eyes.
“Before we slept together.” She concluded.
“You say that as if you remember it.”
“Trust me, I don’t.”
“Right.” He paced away from her a little.
“Tell me how to fix this Liv, and I will. I’ll do anything.”
She looked at him, sometimes, like she was looking through a window shade from the outside-in, but never actually wanting to see inside. This was one of those moments. A defining moment to which he thought, would never leave him.
“I don’t know where to begin.” She says, it feels like dejavu. “But all I know is that I can’t do this anymore.”
You need counselling, Elliot.
“What?” he heard his voice from a distorted mile away, it sounded like somebody had mangled his throat.
“I think the space will do us some good, don’t you?”
Her eyes go wide. He realizes then that he’s said it out loud.
“Okay.” Were her last words, scratching the bridge of her nose and walking away, already.
She’s breaking up with him, he realizes. The sky is falling down and flowers are dying at their feet and she’s leaving him. Really leaving him.
“I’ll always be your friend.” Olivia says, “I’m not cutting ties, I could never.... I just need time. We both need time, El.”
He doesn’t say anything, he can’t even move. Time feels irrelevant in conjunction with the elaborate war that has been their partnership. There was 23 years and now there is this, and this feels like annihilation at its finest. Feels like déjà vu and payback.
Olivia simply shuts the gate, walks away.
He’s still dazed when he stumbles back into the house. Music is playing, children are laughing, candles are burning and small dots of light dance between his eyes.
“Oh wow, those are so cool. Did you say thank you?” he hears Maureen say. The twins are opening their presents. One gives Noah a hug while the other rattles the box in his ear.
“Can we open it now, mommy?”
“What is it?” he hears his mother say.
“A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Kids edition.”
“Mom got it.” Noah says, chewing on one of Bernie’s pastries.
“Fancy. We love puzzles don’t we dad?” Maureen says.
My whole life has been a puzzle.
He meets Bernie’s eyes from across the room, she’s always been buckets of colour in a white empty room, but her blue eyes darken into pity and she knows, knows.
Mothers and sons, he thinks. The forgotten ones.