Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Billy Joel - The Stranger
There’s a stranger driving your car.
You should know him. He’s your partner. You’ve laughed with him, and you’ve cried with him. You’ve
held him while he bled, and he held you while the drug crawled through your veins. You’ve raged at him, and –
though it’s never acknowledged openly – you’ve made love with him. You know every inch of his body, more
intimately than you know your own.
But today the light in his eyes has flickered out. Your best friend has gone away, and you don’t know this person who’s
taken his place.
You study him, wondering if it was a mistake to give him the keys. There are dark bruises under his eyes and he’s paler
than he should be. There’s dirt on his neck, a tidemark of tap water splashed on his face, obliterating the tracks
of the tears you’d seen earlier. His hair is plastered down around his ears, still damp, the dark curls sticking to
The remoteness of his expression is making you uncomfortable. You look away and find yourself staring at his hands. His
knuckles are skinned and raw, the newly formed scabs pulling tight and cracking as he grips the wheel. A drop of blood is
forming a bright bead, and as you watch it breaks and trickles down the back of his hand.
A filament of righteous anger worms its way into your core. Everyone has off days. Everyone screws up sometimes, and anyway
you’re not prepared to admit that this was one of those days.
It’s his problem if he heard the gun go off. If he thought they’d executed you. You were doing your job, and
doing it well. His overactive imagination isn’t your fault.
To hell with him, you think, as he pulls your car up in front of his house.
You’re waiting for him to get out, so you can slide across the bench seat and take control of the wheel. All you want
to do is drive yourself home, get into bed, and pull the covers up over your head. Maybe tomorrow the stranger will be gone
and your best friend will be back. You hope so, because it’s fucking lonely without him.
He’s still sitting there.
You contemplate throwing him out of the car. He’s an inch or two shorter than you, but stockier - low center of gravity
- and he’s a dirty fighter, the kind who goes for thumb holds and wrist locks. Normally you’d be sure he wouldn’t
try any of that on you, but this is a stranger.
“Come up with me,” he says.
Even his voice sounds different. Deeper. A moment later, the realization of what he wants hits you like a fist in the gut.
No way, you think. I don’t want this. No.
“Yes,” you say, because this stranger has your best friend’s face. And because you do want him, even if
all you can have tonight is this unreasonable facsimile of him.
You stare at his back as you follow him up the stairs to the landing. Blue windbreaker, faded jeans. His sneakers are caked
with drying mud and something darker that might be blood.
He argued against you going undercover in the first place. He said it was a chump’s game, too risky, and there were
better ways to bring the turkeys down. Even Dobey thought it was a bad risk. But you were confident you could pull it off.
There’s a word for reaching too far, for over-estimating your abilities. You’re still searching for it when he
unlocks the door. Then he turns around to look at you and the prickle of apprehension you feel is all you need to trigger
The word is hubris.
It’s hubris that gives you the courage to cross his doorstep. It’s hubris that convinces you that you can handle
You close the door, reminding yourself to breathe. There’s no danger here. He’s still your partner, after all.
His mouth slams into yours, driving your head back against the door. You feel your skull collide with the wood, and then
his lips are bruising yours, his tongue in your mouth. You hear a snick as he reaches behind you to shoot the bolt, and then
a moment later you feel him trying to undo the front of your shirt. A button pops off, hitting the floor with a plastic click
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen. Sex is something you both pretend you didn’t plan. It’s
an accidental combustion of alcohol and affection after an evening on the couch watching the game on TV. It’s a tumbling,
laughing, teasing romp, simultaneously inconsequential and momentous.
To do it like this, sober and angry...
You wrench your head to the side, breaking contact. Your hand on his chest, you straight-arm him away from you. He nearly
falls, but catches himself quickly. He’s panting, his eyes dark and his fists clenched.
It’s all wrong. It’s another mistake in a long line of mistakes today. You turn and reach for the lock, thinking
you’d both be better off if you went home. But you’ve forgotten who you’re dealing with.
It’s the first rule of the streets: never turn your back on a stranger.
He hits you like an express train, driving you up against the door with enough force to make it rattle. He wrenches your
arm up between your shoulder blades. Agony explodes in red and black behind your eyes and you yelp.
The sound startles both of you, but you recover faster. You stomp down hard, crushing his toes beneath your heel, feeling
his forehead collide with your back as he folds forward with a gasp. His grip loosens and you twist free.
You can leave now. Slip out the door and never look back. But he’s on his knees and the pain on his face is entirely
out of proportion to his mashed toes.
“Please,” he says.
He’s not the friend you’ve been missing. Not yet.
But you can almost see in his face someone you used to know. And you don’t want to be alone tonight so you undo your
holster strap and the rest of the buttons on your shirt. Your shirt and your gun end up on the floor by your feet, and you
begin unbuckling your belt.
As you step out of your jeans, you think you should be self-conscious about being the only one naked in the room. But you’re
You’ve done this under the cover of dark, and under the forgiving influence of alcohol.
You can do this in daylight, without excuses.
He’s a stranger.