by Maxine Mayer 8/1/99
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[Major spoilers for the "due South" episode "Strange Bedfellows" and probably minor spoilers for other episodes as well. RayKowalski/Fraser pairing. These characters belong to others, not to me. Rated "R" for mature themes. Archive at will, but let me know when and where, please. Feedback happily accepted at . Thank you kindly. No explicit sexual material herein. Sorry!]
It has gotten to the point where I can't bear to look at him. I find myself avoiding his face, his eyes, glancing off into the distance when I reply to his questions or comment on something he says.
I can't bear to look at him.
In repose, every millimeter of his skin speaks. Anger, joy, the capture of a joke no one else knows was made, fear of something no one else notices....
In movement, his face fractures into a million parts, each telling its own intensely personal story.
I've come to the point that if I look at him, I'll need to leave....
And I don't want to leave. Not ever.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Are you feeling any better today, Ray?" I ask, then bite my lip. I ought not to have brought it up. If he's feeling better, if his anguish has dulled in this short amount of time - the hours between last night and this morning - I'll have made him remember. And if he has not slept at all, or worse still, dreamed dreadful scenarios concerning his ex-wife Stella and another man, he won't want to talk about it with me. No more than he wished for my company last night.
"Yeah, I'm good, Frase," he says, bouncing along beside me, energy personified. Out of the corner of my eye I note his quick happy grin, respond to it automatically, and wonder for a moment whether I'm unhinged. Surely, last night he was - devastated.... "I've made up my mind. For good. It's all behind me now, I'm facin' the day eyes forward, no lookin' back - pitter patter, let me at 'er -"
"At who, Ray?" I ask, momentarily falling back on my mask of innocent incomprehension, that I might betray none of my mystification.
"At 'er, at 'er - at the *day*, 'course," he replies, explaining with his hands, grinning, bouncing harder, striding faster, so fast I need to run to keep up. The police station is crowded, as always, but he swerves around each obstacle, each person, magically avoiding their shoulders, their feet. Colliding with no one. I, on the other hand, bang my shoulder into a corner as we turn to enter the bullpen.
I watch him thud into his chair and swivel a bit to and fro. I join him in the "guest" seat, more sedately, taking off my hat and using it to occupy my hands. "Does that mean - you've come to believe what you told that man last night? That you're putting the past behind you, at last?" I ask hopefully.
"Bingo, Fraser," he says, beaming at me. I shut my eyes for a moment, then open them again. He has said a few more words - I've missed them, in the awful, beautiful moment, in the beam. But I can supply them.
I reply as if I'd heard. "That's very good, Ray. Dwelling in the past can only make a person unhappy in the present, and rob them of their future. I'm happy for you." I pause, then go on in the manner of a friend. "If there's anything I can do to help, please know, I'd be - delighted - to assist you in any way I can."
"Well, Frase, actually, there is somethin' you can do."
I lift an eyebrow, stunned at the way his mouth has pursed, twisted into a devilish grin. "Tell me, Ray. Anything within my power -"
He cuts me off. "I wantcha to come with me - on a trip - just a little trip. Coupla days, a week, maybe. I gotta get away for a while. So's I can settle things inside me, ya know? I don' wanna be alone." He waits a second for my reply, and when I remain mute, all my questions in my eyes, he adds, "If ya can't go, Frase, I understan' - I mean, you got a job, I know that, I get that -"
Disappointment shines from every inch of that face. So quickly, he has accepted a refusal that I've not even voiced, it takes my breath away. It has become a reflex with him - "yes m'am, no m'am," the manner in which he responds to his ex-wife - a reflex that suits him ill. His acquiescence bears no resemblance to my own, which is so differently motivated, however similar it appears to be.
I'm so angry, suddenly, at Stella Kowalski, more than I was before. I know I'll never be able to look at that woman again without wishing to harm her, hurt her, as she's harmed, hurt, Ray.
I swallow my rage and reply in my most serious tone, standing to do so. "I'd be honored to take a - a road trip - with you, Ray. I'll let Inspector Thatcher know right now. I can be packed in a few minutes. Would you mind if Diefenbaker comes with us? It might take some time to find a temporary dwelling for him, if his presence would be inconvenient. Did you plan to drive? Or take a bus or train? In that case, of course, Dief would, of necessity, need to remain behind, since I could scarcely manage to make arrangements for his transport on a bus or train in a few minutes -"
He puts his hand on my sleeve as he stands. I know what he'll say. He'll say, "Yo, Fraser, slow down, yer babblin'." And indeed, that is what he says.
He follows up, of course, with something routine for him, yet always unexpected by me. "Ya mean you really would come with me? Ya don' mind?"
"I'd like it, Ray," I reply softly, my quiet reassurance drawing from him the slow happy smile I love.
"Well, great, then. That's great. Greatness." He repeats himself, and I know he's stunned by my acquiescence and suddenly at a loss for words because he hasn't planned this far. Hasn't a clue where he wishes to go, or how, or via what sort of transportation. Or that the dream of getting away - but not alone - of a road trip with a friend, could become an actuality. Hasn't planned this far because he expected me to say no.
And he's standing there, one hand on my arm, and I watch him deflate, like a spent balloon.
And that's Ray.
He's gotten what he's asked for and now he has no idea what to do with it... he's so unaccustomed to success on a personal level. He's actually uncomfortable, I see, now that he's achieved his goal - to "convince" me to come with him.
I think, perhaps, he doesn't need to take the trip, any longer. Or at least, that he believes he was too hasty, too precipitous. That running away - that's how he sees it, of course - isn't the answer after all.
In my need - in my hope that my need coincides with what might be best for Ray - I rush to make our trip real. Because I believe it is *not* running away, but starting over. "You didn't answer me, Ray." He looks up, frowns, quirks an eyebrow. "About Diefenbaker - can he come with us? Is that feasible?"
"Yeah, sure, Frase, we'll be drivin' so Dief's good," and with another smile, this time to reassure *me* he adds, "wouldn't be a real trip without him, would it?" A wider smile, turning into his most fierce grin, fractures his face, and I respond with a small smile of my own.
"Well, then, I should be getting back to the Consulate. I'll ring you here when I've made arrangements on my end. Have you spoken with the Lieutenant yet?"
"Nah. He'll be fine with it. I got time comin' to me. Vacation, sick days, whatever. I'll tell 'im somethin' - my folks are on fire, my house died, somethin' - Welsh is good. He won't give me flak."
"Very well." I turn to leave then remember something important. That I hadn't thought of it before speaks volumes for my state of mind. "Ah, Ray?"
"Yeah? What? Second thoughts?"
"No. I simply wished to inquire as to the direction you're contemplating - north or south. For purposes of selecting clothing to bring."
He squints, stares at me for a moment, as if he's wondering whether I've got some ulterior motive to my question. Then he shakes himself, shakes off his insecurity, bites his upper lip for an instant, and replies, "North, Fraser. I figured we'd drive north. Whaddaya think?"
I smile. "North it is, Ray. I'll call you."
I make my way out of the police station in a state which is no doubt as much of a daze as Ray has ever achieved. I'm going on a road trip with Stanley Raymond Kowalski and Diefenbaker, heading north. Could anything be more unexpected? Or wonderful?
I doubt it.
Surely, in a few hours, I shall know for certain.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It's fairly warm in the car. Ray's GTO, while buffed to mint condition both inside and out, is not air conditioned. I've taken off first my leather jacket, then my white Irish cableknit sweater, and finally, my best plaid button-down shirt. I'm happy that I had the foresight to wear a t-shirt underneath those layers - a white one, at that. It reflects away the heat and has the added advantage of making me feel free, unencumbered. As close as I've ever come to experiencing the joy others seem to feel when they take a vacation. I've never truly understood the concept. Always lived my life with the same intensity of purpose and level of - action - whether on the job or off. I don't suppose I've ever "relaxed" in the way other people understand the term.
But I'd relax now, if I could. If Ray weren't driving with the intensity he brings to a high speed car chase, albeit not with the same uneven pace. We've been on the road for three hours. We've left Chicago far behind, cruising at well over seventy miles per hour on the Interstate Highway. Ray hasn't said more than a phrase or two - I wouldn't dignify his words with the description "sentence" - to me since we left the city limits.
He's tense, brooding. His hands grip the steering wheel as though it might escape his grasp, detach itself and fly out the open window should he let go for a moment. His foot on the gas pedal is unrelenting. If I didn't know differently, I'd imagine he had a specific destination, one where he expected serious developments might transpire. Unfortunately, this is not so. It's only Ray, regretting his wish, regretting my acceptance, regretting that he's in one place rather than another. Regretting his life. Always.
Never in the right place at the right time, in his heart and mind. Always, somehow *wrong* - and inescapably tasting the bile of that out-of-place-ness.
Who he is, what he is, where he is, always in question, at risk. "Up for grabs," Ray would call it.
I'm nearly overcome by Ray's tristesse. I take a swift breath to dispel my empathic response to his mood and try to pry him out of it.
"Ray, do you have a map in the car?"
He startles. Where were his thoughts?
"A map? Sure, in the glove compartment." He starts to reach over but I'm faster and he pulls his hand back, but doesn't replace it on the wheel. Instead, he runs his hand through his hair and asks, "What for? Ya think we're goin' wrong? I ain't lost, Fraser."
"Not at all, Ray. Nothing like that. I'm simply a bit hungry and thought we might discuss where and when we'd like to stop for a bite to eat. Dief is hungry, as well."
"Yeah, of course. Hunger. Hunger is good. Food is good." He glances over and sees me smooth out the map and turn it proper side up. "Where we now, Fraser?"
"From the last sign, I'd estimate we're no more than ten miles from a little town called Zepher. But you see -" and I lean toward him and move the map to where he can see it " - this side road should take us to a town closer by. I'm confident that they will have a diner, or a fast food establishment." I sit back on my side. "Of course, it's possible that taking a detour will lengthen the time we must wait before finding a restaurant. Sometimes country roads are not the shortcuts they seem. I remember once, on a trip up north, I decided to get off the highway and make my way via side roads to a little town -"
"Can the stories, Frase," Ray interrupts. "I'll try the side road. It's gotta be more scenic than this, anyway. And we still got a few hours before dark so we won't get lost."
"Yes, Ray, that's true. Sunset's precisely -" and I glance at my watch.
"Nevermind, Frase," he cuts me off again, irritation creeping into his voice and manner, and my heart hurts, for an instant.
In that instant I wonder whether I will ever achieve what Stella Kowalski so obviously and effortlessly retains. A level of patience and forebearance from Ray. True, I've only seen them together a few times, but he never loses his temper with her, never raises his voice in anger, never becomes impatient. Only - quieter, even more still than his usual demeanor around the woman.
And suddenly I realize I don't want that. And fervently wish never to have it - Ray's patience, forebearance, silent acceptance.
Because it's a measure of his pain, his misery, which Stella causes.
I never want that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
How simple my needs and desires and hopes have become.
I need and wish and hope only for Ray's happiness. That he might feel free to be himself around me.
I'm aware that this is actually impossible - his temper and impatience notwithstanding.
He cannot feel free nor be himself around me because he doesn't know me. He's mistaken about me. Imagines me to be other than I am.
Imagines me to be better than him.
I have not been alive for nearly forty years to no avail. I'm well aware of the impression I give, how I look, the deceptive perfection, the beauty that lures - and repels - with equal force. I'm quite aware.
It's the curse I live with every day. It's the shield I need never buckle on, my protection from all other souls. My - second skin....
It's what makes me a fine prospective friend for volatile men and women. It facilitates companionship while precluding love.
In this instance - with Ray - it makes possible offhand, unguarded remarks about friendship and partnership. Even - love. On both sides. Takes the sting from the words, frees them of innuendo, strips them of double entendre, gives them one meaning but not another. I remain sane because I can tell the truth in the secure knowledge that no one - least of all Ray - will actually *hear* the truth.....
He is my friend, my partner, and I love him.
That is the truth.
He doesn't know it, so I'm safe.
He offers friendship, partnership, love. And it means nothing more than that, to him. So I'm safe.
My mind wanders as I watch the trees we pass. I imagine there will come a day, a moment, an instant, when Ray - always clever, always intuitive, prevented only by his suffering from "knowing" already - will hear the words I speak and know the truth.
The moment of truth.
The moment I'll lose my freedom, this freedom-in-a-prison-of-lies, and be forced to leave. Leave *him*.
I do not contemplate that moment with anything less than dread - indeed, terror.
I get a grip on myself, my thoughts. That moment must never come. Never.
I must be strong.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We do reach a small, dusty diner fairly quickly. I bring water and a meal to Dief who remains outside, then join Ray at a table in the back by a window. We order our meals and beverages and eat in silence for a time. Then, when I've despaired of his ever speaking again, and wonder at my own impossibly empty mind, the desertion of thought and speech, Ray drops his half-eaten hamburger onto his plate and begins to mutter - a defense of sorts.
"Ya know, Fraser, I don' always do that," he says, looking up at me and then, quickly, away.
"Do what, Ray?"
"Follow Stella around. Ya know, like, stalk her, like she said. I don' do that. I never did it before."
"I believe that."
"Yeah, well, it's true. It's just - I heard from my mum about this new guy she was seein' and he sounded so - regular. A real do-gooder, with a life, a career, hopes fer advancement. An' it - scared me. Stella never took up with anybody like that before, since we broke up."
"I - couldn' help myself. It scared me. He was - opposite to me. Ya know, somebody on the fast track. Goin' someplace. Doin' somethin' with his life. Like Stella. I - I just got scared. It won' happen again."
"You don't need to convince me, Ray. I believe you when you say you've put the past behind you. It might take a little time, but it's well worth the effort -"
"You're a real good friend, Frase, ya know that?"
His interruption and remark startle me but I recoup and answer quickly. "I try to be, Ray. Your friendship, our partnership, means a great deal to me. I'm alone, too, in Chicago. It's - good - to have someone I can count on."
"Sometimes -" Then he stops, chokes up. Seals his lips in a tight line.
"Sometimes, what, Ray?" I ask, concerned.
"Sometimes -" Then he laughs - a short bark of a laugh - and goes on. "Sometimes I wonder what I really want from you."
"I don't follow." I surely do not follow. But in my heart, I do, and I experience terror as my mind goes into overdrive.
"I mean, you and me - whadda we got in common? I mean - you're - perfect. And I'm a screwup. But I keep hangin' onta you. Maybe - yeah - using you. Like ya owe me a livin' or somethin'. It's not right."
"You're making no sense, Ray." But he was making perfect sense. Awful sense. He was coming to the moment, and it was too soon, too soon....
"I'm makin' perfect sense, Fraser, and ya know it!" he explodes. Then drops his voice and hunches his shoulders, drawing closer to me across the table, making as if to grab my wrist, holding back at the last moment.
"No, you're not," I insist coldly.
"I am!" he hisses. "I'm usin' you - like you were some dog of a girl who's got the hots for me. To take the edge off Stella. To distract me from Stella. To make the time go by. Why ya let me do that, Frase? Huh? It's not right. Ya gotta know that."
"I - I never felt you were using me, Ray. I don't think you are, now." I'm scampering now.
"Whatta ya gettin' out of it, Fraser? I drag ya away from yer work, your life. Take ya on a trip with me then don't say two words to ya all day - it can't be fun for ya. Why ya let me do it? It's not fair."
"No, tell me the truth, Frase. Ya feel sorry for me, right? I don't blame ya. But yer too good for that - ya got better things to do than babysit a screwup like me. Ya shouldn' let me do it to ya."
"Ray - stop. Now."
I startle myself with my vehemence. I certainly startle Ray, who pulls back as if I'd struck him.
His eyes open large and his mouth opens and shuts. He stops. He shakes his head. He says, "What? Talk to me, Fraser." The self-pity, the whining are gone from his voice. He is serious, now. He believes he has hurt me in some way and that galvanizes him. He no more wants to hurt me than I wish to hurt him.
Unfortunately, it appears we will both be doing a great deal of harm to one another, all too often and all too soon.
"You - I - I'm not 'babysitting' you, Ray. I am taking a trip which I very much want to go on, with a person I care about deeply. I hope it will be a pleasant - not to say, wonderful - journey for you and for me. I'm not being 'put upon,' by any means. Perhaps -" and I think for a moment, then go on - "pehaps I need this more than you."
And I don't know how to answer. "I - I'd rather not say. At this time. If you please."
"Rather not say? Rather not say? I pour out my guts to you and you'd 'rather not say,' Fraser?" His eyes blaze. "Okay, fine. We won't talk. I'll drive ya back to the city." He starts to rise.
I'm not in control of myself. Reflexes take over. I grab his arm and pull him back into his seat. "Don't."
"If ya can't talk to me, I'm not takin' ya with me. That's final." He settles into his seat. He's gotten the message - I want this trip. So he knows I'll say *something* and isn't afraid of what he'll hear. Poor Ray. He should be afraid, very afraid.
But no. I won't do it. Won't tell him the truth. I can't.
I let out a sigh, for all the world as though I'm going to "come clean" at last, and begin to speak.
"Very well. I'll tell you what I mean."
"Ya better," he says darkly, his "threatening" persona to the forefront. How well I know that's just a posture....
"I will. As you know, Ray, psychological fitness tests of a routine nature were conducted at the Consulate recently. While they are, as I described, routine, nonetheless, I was - concerned - about my mental state. It may be a joke to some, that I appear to be 'unhinged' at times, but I can assure you, it's no joke to me. Nor to the Canadian government, in the person of Inspector Thatcher."
"You're not crazy, Fraser," Ray states simply.
"No. Apparently, I'm not. My mental state was deemed 'acceptable' by the psychologist. And while Inspector Thatcher appeared to be relieved when she advised me of those results, she nonetheless recommended I consider a short vacation. As she put it, a change of scene. For safety's sake."
"Yer boss tol' ya ta take a vacation, Fraser?" He grins, relieved. His entire body relaxes and he appears happy again.
"Yes, precisely. So - your offer to take a road trip with you came at an opportune moment. I daresay I wouldn't have gone anywhere at all, had you not requested my company. So you see, Ray, it was - fortuitous in every respect. Perfect timing."
"Opportune, daresay, fortuitous - got any more big words ya wanna pull out, Fraser, while I'm sittin'?" he asks with another quick grin.
"No," I reply, as if considering. "Nothing more."
"Okay, then. Let's hit the road. Ya finished with that, right?"
I glance down at my sandwich - I've taken exactly one bite. "Let me ask the waitress to wrap it up. I can eat it on the road. Or Dief will."
"Yeah, good. Get that coffee into a styrofoam cup, too, wouldya? If you don't drink it, maybe I will."
"Yes, Ray, I'll do that."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I'm aware that I've protected myself with my tall tale about Inspector Thatcher and the psychological tests. But I assuage my conscience by assuring myself that I've protected Ray as well. He needs a friend he can trust. He emphatically does not need another person whose presence confuses or disturbs him. Therefore, he does not need to hear certain truths from me.
In fact, I conclude, he will never need to hear those particular truths from me.
So I can continue traveling with Ray - on this road trip, on our journey through life - without telling him anything *true* about me, whatsoever.
It seems he'll never need to know that I'm not "perfect" at all.
That suits me very well. It brings me back to myself. Right into my second skin.
And, for a time, I feel lighthearted as we drive north.
Until I turn to look at him.
And find that I can't bear to look at him, because just then he looks at me and smiles.
And his eyes light up.
And the setting sun makes his skin glow golden and his eyes shine dark....
And my heart turns over in my chest....
And I discover that I can't breathe....
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I look away quickly.
"Whatsamatter, Frase?" he asks. "You okay?"
So it begins all over again.
With a heavy heart and a gentle measured smile which I wonder he doesn't notice never reaches my eyes, I reply, "I'm fine, Ray. This has been a wonderful trip, so far, for me. And Dief agrees. I hope it's been good for you, too."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ F i n i s ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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