By Maxine Mayer, 2/13/00
YEAR 2007, CANADA:
He stays close. Always close.
But he never hovers except with good cause. When I am injured. When I am… hurt in other ways. Then, he hovers, as a good friend might. Perhaps, should…. Acceptable hovering, only that.
But essentially, he simply stays close. However bizarre are the actions he must perform in order to do so. “Bend and flip and change.” That lyric sums up all the bizarre things Ray Kowalski has done, that he might stay close. To me….
* * *
I am certain he notices, as do I, the changes time has wrought in me.
Sergeant Benton Fraser, R.C.M.P.
Consigned to a desk, for the most part, due to injuries, due to aging….
I walk more stiffly than ever, my spine a rigid thing, my skin a tight embrace which holds me together….
My hair is dark, still, though shot with gray, and completely silver at my temples.
I’ve put on weight. Not much. But too much for a hunter. Too much for a mountie who chases criminals. Too much for a savior of victims.
Ray Kowalski remains as he was the day I met him. Sleek as a greyhound. Wiry and tough and slender and alive.
In the past, our energies … meshed. Different but complementary.
Now, I could not keep up with Ray, even if my life depended on it. Or his.
* * *
I don’t know why I’m thinking about this. What set it off, in my mind.
Perhaps, my birthday.
Fifty. I turned fifty this week.
I know well that I would not have lived to fifty - would have found a way to die when I was consigned to a desk a few years back - had Ray not stayed close.
I shiver. My tunic, my boots, my greatcoat - all a little tight, now - don’t seem to warm me tonight.
I stare out the window of my small private office and think about Ray.
* * *
It took Ray quite some time, years, to adjust to his new life in Canada. For us to find a modus vivendi in the north. But Ray knew I wanted to stay, wanted to be home, however hard for me it was, to return here. To come “home.”
With my tacit gratitude, Ray ignored his own difficulties adjusting, subordinating his needs and desires to mine.
And we thrived.
Found a place to live. Not true north. Not true south. A smaller town than Ottawa, a larger town than any I’d grown up in. So utterly not Chicago that the comparison couldn’t arise, ever.
Found employment for Ray. First, as a private investigator working for another man. Then, as word spread that Ray Kowalski was the man to hire if you wanted something done right, with integrity and dispatch, without needless questions or judgments or criticism, things got easier for him. He founded his own investigations company, and I helped him when I could, with his paperwork, with his bookkeeping, and of course, with his cases.
That idyllic time lasted four years. Then, I was injured. Irreparably. Permanently. And I couldn’t help any longer with his cases, except with ideas.
Ray didn’t miss a beat. Went on alone, successful and respected. As if he’d never needed me at all.
Of course, he had needed me, at first. In the past. And then, one day, without warning, it was I who needed him. And he was there.
Close. Very close.
* * *
We live in the same housing complex, each with our own small apartment, a few doors from each other. Have done, since I was transferred here years ago.
A good arrangement, affording each of us his privacy.
Ray Kowalski has had three love affairs since we were partnered in Chicago. He met each of the women here, in Canada…. After we stopped searching for the Hand of Franklin.
After nothing was said concerning our feelings for one another, during our search for the Hand of Franklin….
* * *
I have had one affair – with a man – since those days. When Ray went back to Chicago to be at his mother’s hospital bedside, and ultimately, to attend her funeral.
I was surprised to find how little it bothered me, to be “unfaithful” to Ray, whom I love with all my heart. And how little it satisfied me, and how little it pleased me, sex with someone – anyone – other than Ray…. Perhaps I should have been surprised that I was satisfied, pleased, at all….
It didn’t last. Couldn’t. Ray was coming home. My affair was over before Ray’s plane left the runway at Chicago O’Hare.
* * *
I give Ray a great deal of credit, for trying. He is not a man who likes to be alone. He is a man who either connects or doesn’t connect. There is no half-way for him. Yet he is also a man of exclusive love. And he loves me. So… I give him credit for trying - three times thus far - to make an intimate connection with someone else, someone other than me.
I was sorry when he couldn’t. He was sorry, too. I comforted him as best I could. Ray would say I might have done more. But I didn’t. And he accepted that. No doubt, he told himself that feeding our obsession with each other would be counter-productive. Unhealthy.
Or told himself that the last thing he needed was to get closer to the “freak,” to have more of me than he’d already saddled himself with….
* * *
I am fifty years old. Ray is forty-seven.
I am old. He is still young, vital, alive.
When will he leave me? When? Cut his losses and leave?
Why do I think he will leave me soon? He hasn’t, until now.
I am having one of Ray’s hunches.
* * *
“Great party, huh, Fraser?” Ray asks me cheerfully, when he joins me in my office, coming to pick me up for our supper engagement at our favorite restaurant. Another in a string of fiftieth birthday gifts he has arranged for me over the past few weeks.
“Yes, it was. I was particularly pleased to hear Francesca’s voice on the phone. Thank you for setting that up, Ray.”
“Nothin’ to it. Just called ma Vecchio and got Frannie’s new phone number. Hop, skip, jump from there. She was – well, you know Frannie.”
“I do, indeed,” I reply with a smile. “Still, hearing her voice after so many years, the gossip about our old friends, brought back memories. Good memories,” I add.
“That was the whole idea, Frase,” Ray tells me with a grin.
“Very successful, then.”
I look at Ray, a careful gaze, and notice the few threads of gray in his hair. He has stopped bleaching it. Now, it is a soft honey-gold color, very pleasing to the eye. He is still young, true, compared to me. But the grooves in his brow, the lines around his eyes, the deeper lines from nose to mouth all attest to the fact that ten years have passed since we left Chicago and came to Canada. Time has passed for Ray, too.
I am suddenly frightened. My… premonition haunts me. I ask without thinking, “Is everything all right, Ray?”
He frowns, looks surprised. “Yeah, sure, guess so.”
“Everything?” I press, wanting to know, wanting my anticipation to be over with. Wanting to skip to the next phase immediately, so I can suffer my loss. I have no patience, now.
“Yeah. Business is good. Well, you know dat, doin’ the books ‘n all.”
“And… Ruth? Is everything all right between you and Ruth?”
“We’re cool, Frase.” He runs his fingers through his hair. “What’s the matter? It ain’t like you to ask questions about my love life. You hear anything? Ruthie say somethin’ to you?”
“No, no, of course not, Ray. Ruth would never speak to me about you, you know that.”
“On the money, there, Fraser,” he says with a wistful grin. “Can’t get none a my girlfriends to be friends wid ya. Just too jealous, I guess.”
“You cannot deny that they have good cause to be jealous of our friendship, Ray. It is the first thing they learn about you, and all that they hear about, while you are… involved with them.” I pause. “When your relationships end, our friendship is the last thing they see, as they leave.”
“Wow! Color the red guy blue! What’s the matter, Fraser? That’s a downer, even fer you.”
“Just… “ I shrug. “Just ‘telling it as it is,’ Ray. Apart from your family, and Stella, your relationship with me is the most significant one of your life. And the longest lasting. Outlasting Maude, Carol, and now, Ruth.”
“Yer gettin’ ahead a yerself, Fraser. Ruth and I are tight –“
“Ruth and you are nearly over, Ray. You might not know it. She might not know it. But I’ve observed the signs often enough to be quite certain.” And more softly, gently, I tell him, “I’m very sorry, Ray. More than I can tell you.”
Slowly, Ray turns away from me, walks a few steps across the small office, decides on a chair – my chair, it turns out – and sits. Sits straight, not taking advantage of the backrest. Is silent for a minute. When he starts to speak I ball my fists, dig my nails into my palms, willing myself to say nothing, show nothing, except what Ray wants to see and hear….
“Truth is, Frase, Ruth and me –“ He stops, takes a deep breath, steeling himself, and starts again. “Ruth and me, we’re gettin’ married. Couple months, maybe. June, prolly. Moving east, ta Toronto. Her folks live there.”
I don’t know what I expected to hear, but that was not it.
I don’t reply.
“Take her a while to get away from her job. She’s gonna get a transfer ta the company’s Toronto branch, if she can. Me – well, you’ll help me wid the relocation, right? The paperwork? Settin’ up a new office there, transferrin’ calls, advertisin’, like dat? Right, Frase?”
All, all spoken as if his concern and mine is with his business, his clients, money.
I bite back the first response that leaps to mind, which is “no,” such a harsh, emphatic “no” as I’ve spoken only twice to him in our lives.
Stifle, too, the bizarre second thought which comes to mind, that he will ask me to request a transfer to Toronto, so we can continue to be close….
Good that I did, because his next words dash that foolish idea to the rocks.
“I’ll… I’ll miss you, Fraser,” he tells me, blue eyes filled with immeasurable pain, loss, and finality.
“And I, you, Ray,” I answer automatically, thankful beyond belief for this familiar, dear, true and utterly inadequate phrase.
He lets out a breath. “Whew! Didn’ know I could do it, Frase. Tell ya dat. Ruthie said I’d never do it.”
I smile. “Well, as you see, Ruth was wrong. You did it. And survived.”
He stands and quickly comes to my side at the window, where I am still stationed. Puts his hand on my forearm. “You’ll be okay? I mean, you’ll be okay, right?”
“Of course I will. A bit … at loose ends, for a time, no doubt. But ultimately, I’ll be fine. As will you be, Ray.”
“You’ll be lonely,” he tells me, shaking his head, regretful.
Not regretful enough to change his plans, but regretful for the pain he will cause me.
“For a time, yes. I will be lonely, Ray. No question.” I smile again, from my heart. “It’s worth it to me, if you are happy.”
“Happy? Who’s happy?” He grins. “Ruth and I are good together. She’s a good person. Wants some a da same things I want outta life. She’s smart and sweet, and not too high an’ mighty ta look up ta me. Not like Stella. Ruth thinks I’m an okay guy, she loves me. But –“
“But she tol’ me she can’t live here. Won’t marry me an’ live here. Ya know why. Hell, ya said it, two minutes ago. Ya psychic, Frase?” Another big grin. Doesn’t reach his eyes, but a grin, nevertheless.
“Perhaps I am. I was… considering the time we’ve spent together. That it has more than likely prevented each of us from finding someone -” I sigh deeply, then continue, “- right for us, someone to love. Especially you, Ray. It’s time. Time for you to move on. Ruth is right. This is… long overdue. Forgive me for… keeping you close. It was… inexcusably selfish of me to do so.”
“My choice, Fraser, not yours.”
I nod. “Perhaps.”
We stand like that another moment, then Ray takes his hand away from my arm, walks a few steps. Looks at me again.
I tell him quickly, “I’m very hungry, Ray. What time is our dinner reservation for?” I ask, to prevent more talk. Entirely too much has been said already.
“About now, Fraser. But –“
“Would ya take a raincheck? Ruthie will be wonderin’ how this turned out.”
“Say no more. Tomorrow night, then?”
“That’d be great, greatness! Thanks, buddy!” he tells me, relieved by my quiet acceptance of his news. Of my imminent loss.
At this point, at least, he is relieved.
Soon, when he has time to think, he will be alarmed.
Because Ray Kowalski knows me as no one else does, or ever has, since I was a child.
Ray knows me.
Which is why he always stayed close.
He will be alarmed, very soon.
And rightly so.
* * *
After Ray leaves my office I button my greatcoat and take my gloves with me as I venture out into the night.
I walk my stiff, old man’s walk. For miles. Chilled to the bone but rock-steady in my determination not to return to my apartment. Not to turn around. Not now.
As my throat closes, as the tears flow, as the time passes, the conviction grows within me that I do not wish to return to my apartment – or my life – ever.
I walk until I’ve left our town, well past the outskirts, where some folks have built cabins, poor shelter against the elements.
I walk until I come to the woods. Until all I can see as far as I look are the naked trunks and branches of trees in winter….
Until no sound but the night sounds of the forest reach my ears, and I taste nothing but cold air and hot tears in my mouth….
I know he will get over it. Ray Kowalski is nothing if not resilient. He will bear the scars of our friendship, our love, for as long as he lives. But he will get over … this, I tell myself repeatedly as I raise my service revolver and press it against my temple. Drop it lower, to my stomach, when I think of Ray. He will not be pleased if I destroy my face, I know.
As well as I know that he will get over it.
Wishes to get over it – our friendship, our love.
Will be happy with Ruth….
I need not suffer my loss. No need.
“Be happy, Ray,” I whisper. A prayer.
“Be happy, Ray,” I think, as I drift into darkness….
* * *
“Dat was close, Fraser,” Ray tells me. The first words out of his mouth when I open my eyes.
“Not close enough,” I whisper, immediately taking in my surroundings. Hospital. I am in hospital. I am alive.
“Fuck dat. What da hell were ya thinkin’, ya idiot!” But there is more affection than heat in his voice.
“I was thinking that if I went back I would ask you to stay.”
“So? How bad would dat a been?”
“Pretty bad, Ray. You would have stayed.”
“You betcha, Benton-buddy,” he tells me with a grin. “How bad would dat a been?”
“You deserve a life….”
“So give me one!” he retorts. When I simply stare at him, he asks, “You think I’d a gone wid Ruthie, if you died?”
“I – I don’t know.” And I don’t. I hadn’t thought that far. That my death would have destroyed Ray’s relationship with Ruth more surely than anything else. “I’m sorry.”
“You coulda said somethin’,” he repeats, “pissed” at me as only Ray Kowalski can be.
“Nothing to offer you, Ray. Nothing at all. Just… more of the same. Not good enough….” My throat is dry. I feel ill, positively wretched, and lonely, so very lonely.
Ray tells me, “Ruthie transferred to Toronto while you were recuperating. She’s gone.”
I take a deep breath, the sharp physical pain matched by my emotional pain. “When will you join her?” I ask.
“Join her? I ain’t joinin’ her, Fraser. I’m stayin’ here wid you.” He shakes his head. “What’s wrong with you? You – you are so dumb I don’ even know why I waste my time talkin’ ta you.”
“Indeed, I don’t know why you waste your life with me, Ray. I promise you, I don’t know.”
“Look, Frase, don’ play dumb wid me. We’re just gonna go back ta da way it’s always been, you and me, a duet. That’s all. I made a mistake, tryin’ ta change dat. Shoulda known better. Did know better. Jus’ bein’ contrary, like my teachers usta call me.”
“Ray, I promise I won’t try to… do away with myself again. Please, go to Ruth. Go with her, Ray. Be happy, I beg of you.”
“Ya don’ get it, do you, Ben? I am happy. Here. Wid you. Always was. Let my head get twisted around, thinkin’ what I had wasn’ enough, wasn’ right. But it was right. Enough. What I need.” He shakes his head. “Ya did good, Ben. I’d a figured it out after a couple months, out there in Toronto. Woulda come back ta ya. Woulda killed Ruthie, if I done that.” He smiles. “But – ya shoulda said somethin’. Why ya always gotta go ta extremes?”
I am silent for a long time.
He hasn’t called me Ben in years. Now, he has called me Ben twice in a row.
All he needs? All he wants? Enough?
“I don’t understand, Ray. You believe you would have come back home, come back….” I don’t know how to put it. I try again. “You believe you would have left Ruth after a few months and returned here, to your life… here?”
“’course I woulda. No question about it,” he assures me.
“Because I love you.”
“That’s not enough, Ray. We both know it.”
“You really don’ understan’, do ya?”
“I was… slippin’ away, all those years ago, back in Chicago. When we met. Losin’ … myself.”
“You are very strong, Ray. You would have recuperated from… Stella. From your divorce. Your strength would have returned.”
He smiles. “No. It wouldn’ have returned. I was dyin’, Fraser. Worse than you. I – I was almost there, almost ready to eat my gun. Slip-slidin’ away, like the song says….”
“No, Ray, it wasn’t like that. You were turning your life around. You were a wonderful officer, a good man. In time, you would have made peace with Stella, with yourself. Grown strong again.”
“No. I wouldn’ have. Not without you. You’re the one. I knew dat back den. I stayed close, close as I could get, Frase, not fer you. Fer me.” He licks his lips. “I jus’ fergot. Dumb.” He smiles at me, that sweet smile that never fails to make my spirit sing with an upsurge of love for him. “What a way ta remind me, though. Don’ do it again.”
“It’s not enough, Ray. What we have, what we share, isn’t enough. For you or for me.”
“Ray, I know it’s not enough, but please don’t leave me –“
“It is enough, Fraser. I won’t leave you.”
“Thank you.” I swallow. He notices, gives me a sip of water. “Ray?”
“Yeah, Ben, what?”
“I’m getting old.”
He chuckles. “Sure you are!”
“No, really. I’m getting old. Soon, I will be too old….” I let my sentence trail away, because I don’t know how to say what I wish to tell him.
“Too old fer what?” He appears to be genuinely puzzled, which is not surprising.
“Too old to… get closer… to you,” I manage to say.
“Closer? We can’t get any closer than we are, Ben.”
“Yes, we can. Most certainly, we can.”
“Ya don’ need ta do dat, Fraser,” he tells me firmly, catching my meaning. “I’m stayin’, no matter what. I shoulda never even thought about leavin’, ta begin wid –“
“Ray, I want us to be closer,” I insist.
“Hey, Fraser, it’s been more than twelve years. I woke up an’ smelled the coffee years ago. It ain’ what ya want. I’m good wid dat. Don’ worry. Ya don’ need ta make promises ta keep me here. Ya don’ need to shoot yerself, either. I ain’ goin’ no place. I promise.”
“I want it, Ray. I want us to be so close that even death could not part us.”
“We’re already that close, ya freak,” Ray says softly.
“No. We’re not. Not yet.”
“Well….” He blushes.
“But if you wish it, we will be that close, soon.”
“Coulda been today, if ya hadn’t taken it inta yer head to shoot yerself, idiot!”
“Yes, it could have been today. But it will be soon, I promise you.”
“Pitter patter, Frase,” Ray says, gracing me with his biggest grin. Then he bends and places a quick, chaste kiss on my brow.
“Pitter patter, Ray,” I reply, pulling him close, kissing his mouth.
* * * * * * * * * *
Note – “Bend and flip and change” is a lyric from the wonderful song “Ride Forever” which was written by Paul Gross and David Keeley. You can hear Paul sing it on their CD, “Two Houses.”
* * * * * * * * *