Back Then
by Lori N. Kem

Back then, it was the thing to do -- you date for awhile, get comfortable, sleep together, and pretty soon you're walking down the aisle. Doesn't matter that you aren't sure what you want to do when you grow up, i.e.., even though you're twenty something and still at loose ends. You get through high school, a three-year stint in Uncle Sam's peace-time party (and make it all the way to corporal, uh-hem); try your hand at criminal justice (and poetry to impress) at City College and do well enough to get the hunk a sheep skin. Now it's time to put up or shut up. So you marry the girl and enroll in the academy and study your ass off and come home one day after eight months of "wedded bliss" to find the one who promised to "keep herself only unto you" in the shower with some red-headed guy, soapin'up each other's bones.
So, you take your hurt and bury it like a man, and vow you'll get back at her, the bitch, and you cat around yourself until the two of you realize how stupid the game is and split for good, after a year -- getting your marriage dissolved the day you get your city-issued revolver is an interesting paradox -- but you move on.
Being a beat cop in the late sixties and early seventies is entertaining enough -- you see things you never thought you'd see from people you never thought would behave as they are and you slog through each day knowing that you've done the right thing because you feel real good about yourself and life for the first time in about a hundred years. You date a lot of women, nice women from nice homes, down-n-dirty women from one movement or the other who peak more than just your curiosity, and finally fall honest-to-God in love with one of the nice ones from Astoria, named Gloria, and you make up a little song for her and she's charmed and says she loves you, too. You can't get married in the church on account of your divorce, but she's okay with that, and she just knows that you'll be captain by the time you're forty because you're already studying for Detective -- never mind that being behind a desk all day would drive you nuts -- you bask in the pride she seems to have in being with you and you waltz her down the aisle hoping this time everything's okay.
Four years, one shield, and two kids later, she's bugging about the sergeant's exam. You take it. You fail. Not just the exam, mind you, but her. Take it again, she says -- you know you can do it. What if you don't wanna be a sergeant? Then you're not the man she married. Where's your ambition? It was her ambition, you tell her. You just wanna be a good homicide detective and a good father to the girls and a good and faithful husband to her. Not enough, you see in her eyes. Not nearly enough.
So she goes back to school and takes a lot of night classes, and you sit home with the kids and miss her. She's got a right, you tell yourself, and you really like spending time with the girls. Then you get a sitter one night and go out with your partner and who should be cozyin'up to a bearded guy in a damn tweed jacket in the corner of Vinnie's but little Miss I-Gotta-Study-Again-Tonight-Don't -Wait-Up. And your partner tries to ignore it and you split and go to a bar for three or ten beers, and you do wait up, by God, and you have it out. Just a fling, she says; just a mistake and she'll make it up to you, honey, she's so sorry. He's a professor and she was taken with his mind. Yeah, okay. Sure, they had sex, but it wasn't love. She loves you, after all, you chump.
Things are okay for almost two years and she's present and accounted for almost every night, and you forget the pain because you really love this woman and these daughters and your job and your house and life is pretty damned good; so she starts in with the sergeant's thing again because she's sure you don't want to stay where you are, "just" a detective, and you tell her, yes, you do, because you hate the administrative bullshit and you're happy with what you do and can't she please be happy with you, and if it's the money you'll take a second job tending bar or waiting tables or something, but that would be so degrading to Gloria from Astoria, who has, unbeknownst to you, begun to love another professor for more than just his mind this time and she goes back to her night classes that last from the time you get home 'til two in the morning and you sit home with the girls, until enough becomes too much and you get Mrs. I'd-Love-To-Keep-Watch-The-Girls from two houses down to come in the evenings and you start going out in search of a little education yourself, finding plenty of "strange" who'll laugh at your jokes and rub you up right there in the booth at Vinnie's for the price of a coupla shots. Sad, laughing women who are probably pretty under the make-up and booze puff, and who will take you back to their walk-ups and brownstones and places in the East Sixties for a lay so bad you hardly remember it but which both of you think is great because the bottle that was full when you got there is empty now. You always go home at night and get up in the morning, for the girls, like they don't know, but they play along 'cause they love you and what else can they do when Mommy and Daddy are assholes.
You discover that there is something at which you truly excel. Vodka becomes the light of your life and finally after eleven years of "dreaded bliss" you stumble out the door, out of your daughters'lives, out of your marriage to the only woman you ever loved, the one you'll never be good enough for.
In the now-foggy past it was the thing to do -- love, honor, and cherish. Now, you ambitiously try to keep it together during your shift until you can get a real drink and relax. You see your girls on your days off, but their mother starts taking them to their grandma's in Connecticut to ride horses on gosh-she-forgot-it-was-your-day-to-see-'em, and ol'Dad can't compete with ol'Paint, so pretty soon it's you and the booze, for you've branched out to scotch and gin along with the vodka; and your own horses, the ones that run at Belmont, and the pool stick and women who don't care if you ever make sergeant as long as you can make it to the liquor store and back.
You really loved her, though, Gloria from Astoria, so much that you can't even blame her.
After an illustrious career as drunk of seven years of so, as you climb the twelve steps, holding onto the banister, white-knuckled, all the way, you take the sergeant's exam again and pass -- ace it -- and refuse the promotions that occasionally come around because you only took it to prove you could, prove it to yourself, you say, not her. What she thinks is not important anymore, you tell yourself, but finally fess up to the guy in the mirror and stick a copy of the test scores in with her alimony check. Just so she'd know, you coulda been the man she thought she married.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda, you think ruefully, and take it back out of the envelope and throw it away.
Everybody thinks you never "got ahead" because of the booze. Hell, Don Cragen's a ex-alkie and he's a goddamn captain of a special anti-corruption force. No, you never made Sergeant or Lieutenant or anything but Detective 'cause, dammit, that's who you are. It's taken years of pain and loss to make you realize it, years, and a woman you loved after Gloria from Astoria, who loved you, too, but who wanted a home and a family, and you'd been through that hell twice, and your oldest was, what, thirteen now? You loved her -- you gave up the bottle while she was there to help -- but no more. No more.
Christ Almighty, you think. Why isn't it just enough to have me -- me -- Detective Leonard W. Briscoe, a man who wants with all his heart to love and be loved by a good woman; no cheating, lying, raggin'each other to death? No trying to change the other one, just loving and living and fucking like two kids in the back seat of a your dad's Chrysler, and laughing and finally dying about a month apart, like lots of old folks do, 'cause one just don't wanna make it without the other.
Hell. Never again. You'll shack up, maybe. Date and screw around one at a time. No looking to hurt anyone. Have a few laughs and let the kids bury you in some plot the PBA pays for. Not next to their mom, though. Not in Astoria. Not in St. Michael's -- with Gloria.
Ah, shit. If you'd made sergeant way back then you coulda been retired by now.


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