I don't want to be in Queens today. I'm in a low, maudlin mood and this place is only gonna make it worse. Not that I have anything against this particular borough, it's just that her parents live here, several blocks down from a witness I must interview. I have work to do and I can handle this proximity to the past, to the remains of a dead friend's life. She'd be embarrassed for me if I couldn't cope.
I know how to deal with this -- I just won't look at their building as I drive past, won't think back to the times I went inside that building with Toni pushing at my back, teasing me for my unfounded fears of disappointing her folks. I didn't want to say the wrong thing, to make them question what she saw in me. I wanted to be good enough for them. For her.
They were nice people, forward-thinking and old world mellow at the same time, with only their daughter's happiness in mind. At those dinners, we drank gallons of table wine, ate obscene amounts of meat and pastry, and laughed nearly every other minute. Toni held my hand under the table. Her family's pride in her and love for her was boundless, and every time she looked at me with laughter in her eyes, they loved me for making her smile.
We met at work, of course, since that's the only thing we had in common. Three major drug cases in as many months, long nights at the office buried in paperwork and take-out cartons, and somehow we managed to have fun. Toni was just as much a self-righteous crusader as some say I am, and we clicked merrily along, putting away pushers and suppliers, patting each other on the back for a job well done. We clicked. I can't explain it any better.
One late Friday night, she gave me a ride home and walked me to my door. Skating along on a gloss of tequila and mutual admiration, I leaned in and kissed her. We didn't part company until 7:42 a.m the following Monday.
I held her interest for a time. She liked my voice at three in the morning, said it made her think of warm wool and single-malt scotch. She liked my western omelet's, made with an excess of tabasco sauce. She once called me an "emotional myopic" with a "skewed self-perspective," but also said I had "a lucid heart" and a face she "wanted to kiss flat." She never said she loved me, and I echoed her silence on that matter.
She was too smart for me. She spoke four languages, knew the history of the world, and could quote sixteenth century French poetry while blind drunk. I could only counter by stumping her on college football trivia and singing the Longhorn fight song. She was too good for me, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she figured that out and walked away.
It's two-thirty now, which means I have ninety minutes to find my witness and get his take on things before he leaves for work. I don't feel ready to talk to him yet, and I can't keep driving around thinking about her.
I pass a bar and the festive neon signs in the window catch my eye. Heineken. Bud Light. Glenlivet. I need a drink. I park the car and go inside. The place suits my mood -- dark and warm and stinking of liquor and smoke long gone. My plan of avoidance has fallen away, so I surrender to the urge to think it all out, all the way to the end.
We didn't have long together, a few months at the outside. I was transferred to assist Jack McCoy and Toni zipped out of narco just after I left. We saw each other only on weekends, always with the plan of getting out of town, finding some quiet B&B in Connecticut, leaving the office grind behind.
That never happened. Saturdays were spent in her bed or mine, just making love with unsettling urgency until we fell asleep. Sundays were devoted to getting ahead on Monday's work. I don't remember when we stopped talking, but I recall being uncomfortable in the quiet and sensing an end. I never felt like I deserved her anyway, so I left it up to her to put a stop to it. Mute and cowardly, I waited for her to leave me. I waited to let her go.
Toni came to the office on a slow Tuesday afternoon and dropped the other shoe. When I saw her in my doorway, visiting unannounced, I knew what was coming. She closed the door behind her and I waited for her to say what I couldn't. "I like you so much," she said, "but we both know this isn't going anywhere. You shouldn't waste your time on me, Abbie. You can do better."
That's exactly what she said. *I* could do better. Toni was trying to let me off easy, but her words stung me like a lie. I *couldn't* do better. No one else would understand my passion for my job, would let me fade in and out with the tide of cases, would pin me to the mattress and make me scream it all away, then hold me until my shame burned low and my strength returned.
I still didn't know what to say to her. She was too good for me. I never felt as if I deserved her attention, so her dumping me was not a surprise. She was jittery when I went to her with my arms open, but she let me hold her and touch her flame-red hair one last time. I think she kissed my throat, or tried to, but the door opened just as her lips touched my skin. She pulled away, stepped out of my arms just as Jack peeked in for a brief conference.
I didn't introduce Toni, and Jack didn't ask who she was... or why my door was closed. He did shuffle his feet a bit and apologize for failing to knock. Toni brushed past him and walked out of my life without saying goodbye.
Months later we were teamed on a big case, prosecuting high-level members of the Russian mafia. It was awkward at first, seeing each other again, but that passed when we realized that the case was more serious and dangerous than anything we'd ever done. It required our full attention. We worked side by side for weeks without addressing what had gone on between us.
Toni was brimming with energy and passion; she cared so much about the victims, about bringing the bad guys down, that her own risks became a secondary concern. She wasn't worrying enough, so I worried for her. I called her every night to make sure she was home and safe. Sometimes we would chat for a few minutes, usually about the case.
During one of these calls, she asked me if I was seeing anyone. When I said no, she went silent for nearly a full minute. She said she missed our Saturdays, and that sometimes she thought she could still smell me on her pillows. My neck flushed hot and I wanted her all over again. I could tell she was scared and lonely and I wanted to be with her, to make it all go away for a few hours. Before I could say anything, she cursed and laughed and bid me goodnight. I listened to the dial tone for a while before hanging up.
As we prepped for court the next day, she virtually ignored me and made sure we were never alone together for long. She was embarrassed, perhaps, over what she said to me on the phone. Maybe that contributed to her recklessness, for after our defeat in court that morning, Toni did a remarkably imprudent thing -- she stood toe to toe with a multiple murderer and threatened him. She disappeared right after we left the courtroom. I called her place that night and got no answer. I took my worries to Jack and he took me seriously. We put the word out that she was missing, and shortly got a call from the police. Jack drove me to the safe house where our young material witness and his mother were staying, where Toni had been recorded as a visitor earlier in the evening. I followed Jack inside the apartment and stopped cold three steps in.
ADA Antonella Ricci lay on the living room floor with her throat ripped open. Her eyes were glassy and vacant, dead. I knew there were other victims, an innocent woman and a brave child, but I couldn't see or think past the woman who lay at my feet. I felt my gorge rise and ran from the room. I made it down to the first floor landing before I threw up.
The boy lived and his mother died. Jack wouldn't make the child testify again and our case died, too. But we knew who did it and we willfully bent the law to make them feel some fear, some pain for their crimes. We worked hard and felt Toni's absence every minute. Jack risked his job to bring the murderers down, and I will always respect him for that.
Following the conviction of those responsible for Toni's murder, I mailed the court slip to her parents here in Queens. I should have taken it to them myself, but my stomach clenched and quivered at the thought of seeing them in such horrible circumstances. I wanted the happy memories of my time with their daughter to stay intact, and I knew weeping with them would rip it all asunder, change it into something poignant, larger than it should be.
It wasn't a grand romance or even a close friendship. We respected each other, we worked well together. For a time, we tried to expand beyond that. We wanted to find other things to talk about, and to ease our loneliness with the illicit comforts of a warm body to touch and hold.
We failed badly on the former count and succeeded too well on the latter. It held us together too long to call it casual sex, not long enough to call it a relationship. We each occupied a small space in the other's life, and we parted when we reached the limits of that space. We never said goodbye, only goodnight. See you tomorrow. Maybe things will be different tomorrow.
I look at the empty whiskey glass in my hand and I recall sliding that hand into her, watching it disappear, hearing her sigh my name. I touched her as deeply as I could, and it was never deep enough. She was too good for me. Too smart, too beautiful, too far above me. I couldn't touch her deep enough.
I wonder about that last phone call, when she admitted that she still thought about me. I think about how immediately my longing for her surfaced again, how I wanted another chance. Most likely, it wouldn't have been any different than the first time. We would have screamed and grappled and sweat ourselves to sleep and woke up with nothing to say. But maybe she wouldn't have stepped up to that bastard in court, maybe she'd still be alive if I had been brave enough to go to her that night, told her that I wanted to try again.
It's three now and I need to see my witness. I chew three pieces of strong peppermint gum to overcome the smell of Glenlivet as I head back to my car, flapping my coat to shake the stench of cigarettes. I look across the street and blink at an unexpected sight. I can see the brownstone from here, the building where her parents live.
I hadn't realized I was so close. I honestly thought it was further away. I'm wrong about distance sometimes, always thinking something's down the road, around a corner, out of sight and out of reach. I should pay more attention to where I really am, or I'll end up hopelessly lost someday.
With a sigh, I realize that I still don't have the guts to go see Toni's parents. I drive off down the street to find my witness. Back to work, back to the way things are instead of the way they were or could have been, had I been braver or smarter. Had I been able to touch her deeply enough.
She was too good for me. Too smart, too cultured, too beautiful. Like trying to hold the moon in your arms. Too far above me.
I look to the dash for my witness's address and realize I left it in the office. I've already forgotten where he lived. Guess I'm already lost.