Summary: Can two loveless victims of life's unrelenting disappointment save one another from their own desperation before it's too late? Will what they end up risking be their first and last real crimes?
Okay, so a little exposition…
This is a drastically AU story. Besides their appearances, the characters portrayed in this story have almost nothing in common with those from the series.
Ross' life is in complete disarray. He's a recovering alcoholic with mild drug tendencies (note: by mild, I mean the occasional joint or muscle relaxant) who's divorced and has no visitation rights to his daughter because of his drug dependencies. He's living alone in a cramped studio apartment in the East Village. His only "job" entails a partnership with 2 other guys scamming small domestic shipping companies over the Internet. He's overindulged in many of life's addictive vices, including love, and lost every time…and everything.
Rachel's lifestyle matches his only in mindset. She, too, is miserable and lonely. However, she's also a high-powered stock broker living in a spacious, trendy loft on Park Avenue. She's never been married, but does entertain several different casual lovers. She's strong-willed but tragically passionless, possessing no real attachment to or sentiment for anything in her life, including her many male conquests. She was once driven by the elusiveness of material success, having never settled for less, but subsequently having never experienced much, either. Unlike Ross, she never indulged in much of anything. Now, at the age of 35, her life's come to a seeming stalemate. When she realizes that she's taken any real chances that weren't career-related, her perception of her own life becomes regretful and dismal.
"It was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood,
when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud.
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
'Come in,' she said,
'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'" -- "Shelter From The Storm", Bob Dylan OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
The Weathervane Pub 115 Avenue C New York City November 2, 2004 10:47 p.m.
He spun the gold-platted ring on the counter like a dradle.
He watched it dance across the splintered wood for a few seconds, alive and erratic and spontaneous, having flickered to life with the snap of his fingers, only to inevitably die and fall flat once time and gravity both took their toll.
Fitting, he thought morbidly, taking a swig of his beer.
A hand landing suddenly on his shoulder startled him and he turned to find his friend Jerry pulling up a stool beside him at the bar, setting a matching glass mug of beer down beside Ross'. Jerry was a business partner of his, manipulative and charming and savvy and attractively bruiting, but otherwise not the type of guy to maintain many friends. Ross wasn't sure he'd even be friends with him if it weren't for their partnership. Then again, Ross wasn't exactly maintaining many friends these days, himself.
"You still carrying that thing around?" Jerry asked, nodding towards the ring. Ross shook his head once, his neck snapping like from the involuntary jerk of a muscle spasm.
"Not mine," he whispered, just before reaching into his pocket for a cigarette. Jerry's eyes widened a bit and he cocked his eyebrow in confusion.
"Cindy's?" Ross nodded, still not looking up from the countertop.
"What? The bitch mail it back to you or something?"
"Hey," Ross cautioned, snapping his head to face his friend, his tone firm. "That's my daughter's mother." Jerry shrugged, taking a sip from his frothy beer, smiling somewhat deviously through his teeth.
"Doesn't stop her from being a bitch."
Ross bit his lip and shook his head disapprovingly, but ultimately knew he couldn't argue. He turned his attention back to the ring and sighed deeply. Jerry had almost been right. She hadn't mailed it, but rather slid it under his door sometime during the night. He'd awoken that morning to find an unaddressed envelope lying on the floor in his entryway. Its sole content was the simple gold band, slightly smaller and more delicate than his own. The envelop smelled faintly of her, but he doubted that was intentional. Cindy had never been one for sentiment. She'd never been one for goodbyes, either, so the gesture was fitting.
"You coming out with us tonight?" Jerry asked. By now, he'd lit his own cigarette, and its smoke mixed with that of Ross' above the two men. It hovered around them in an opaque cloud, like the ones all sad men in seedy bars hide behind.
"I thought I was out," Ross deadpanned, taking a drag. "Eh, maybe for you, old man," Jerry joked, knowing perfectly well they were both only 36, though Ross' constant 5-oclock shadow and sad, defeated demeanor often made him mistakable for someone 4 or 5 years older. "The boys and I are going to Masse tonight. It's Tequila Beach Friday. What do you say?"
"I say you're all a bunch of dirty old men who'll go anywhere where there're free drinks and women half your age," he rebutted, shaking his head in disapproval, but his eyes smiled with a hint of teasing sarcasm.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Jerry protested in mock defense. "Who're you calling old?"
Ross couldn't help but chuckle at this, nodding in both assent and dismissal. He ashed the spent cigarette in the small glass tray on the bar and grabbed his jacket. "I think I'm going to pass on 'Sorority Night' at Chuck-E-Cheese, but give 'the boys' my best," he finalized, patting Jerry on the back as he flopped a few bills down on the bar and swiveled off his stool.
"Oh, come on, you know you're just going to end up sitting alone in your apartment, drowning in your self-pity," Jerry called after him. Just before Ross exited the door, he turned around and smiled weakly.
"Like a real adult."
6117 Park Avenue Apartment 2000 New York City November 2, 2004 10:47 p.m.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and twisted the lavender sheets in her balled-up fists, reveling in the agonizing pleasure that was building between her thighs. She was right on the cusp. She could feel it expanding inside her, so close to overflowing and igniting her entire body with that brilliant, blinding, deafening pleasure.
She was doused in sweat, the infinitesimal droplets of perspiration making her tanned skin shimmer in the dim light of the bedroom, her body stark naked atop the covers, the muscles beneath her flat stomach quivering in anticipation. She was concentrating maddeningly hard, and she knew Colin was, too…
After another minute of nothing, she sighed deeply from frustration and opened her eyes, disappointment flooding her face. She cleared her throat and tapped Colin on the shoulder. He looked up at her and she shook her head at him. He nodded, obviously not too concerned or apologetic.
"Sorry, babe," he half-heartedly offered, climbing up the length of the bed to plop down beside her and reach for his Sports Illustrated on the nightstand. "Sometimes it just doesn't happen, you know?"
Oh, she knew. She knew all too well. In fact, it had never happened with Colin. Or Steve. Or Dan. Or Neal. Truth be told, it hadn't happened in longer than she cared to remember. She'd fake them on occasion, of course, either from politeness or embarrassment. She wasn't sure which. She'd held high hopes for Colin, with his perfectly-toned swimmer's body and accelerated proficiency in all other sexual areas. Had she been honest with herself, though, even Colin never really stood a chance. Generally gratifying or not, he was too selfish and shallow a lover (and person) to ever truly be able to satisfy her. All it took was one look at him sitting across the bed, more enthralled with that stupid magazine than he'd ever been with her, and she knew it was over. It was over with all the rest of them, too. Who was she fooling? None of them did anything for her, anymore.
They probably never had.
She got up from the bed and walked into her closet, wrapping herself in the lavender silk robe that matched her bed sheets and headed for the kitchen without a word. While waiting for the water to boil for her tea, she paused to survey her apartment.
An elevator that opened up right into a living room adorned with expensive modern art, vibrant tropical plants, immaculately polished hardwood floors, a fireplace, a spotless white sectional couch and matching chairs, a flat screen plasma TV mounted on the wall, and even a grand piano, though only one of her few friends actually played. The kitchen was huge and spotless and mostly stainless steal and cutting-edge technology. She had two more bedrooms than she needed, one of which she'd turned into her office, though she hardly ever worked from home. She had a sun room, a balcony, and a patio with a swimming pool and hot tub. She had so many things. So many things, she thought to herself, closing her eyes and losing herself in the moment.
She was only knocked back to reality by the high-pitched hissing of the kettle.
42 St Mark's Place Apartment 3C New York City November 3, 2004 1:32 a.m.
"Do you want the money or not?"
Ross was standing in the doorway of his apartment, his arm outstretched towards his ex-wife, a wad of cash clenched tightly in his fist. He never thought he'd find himself in this position, with anything tangible to offer her. It was one of the reasons she'd left in the first place. There was at least something familiar about the scene, though.
There were tears in her eyes.
"Ross, I can't take that money."
"Why the hell not? It's for Katie," he reasoned, his voice softening instinctively when he uttered his daughter's name. He could never say it harshly, no matter how indignant he was.
"I know, and that's why I can't take it. I know where you got it. It's dirty money, Ross."
She shook her head, struggling to keep her voice steady. Her lips were already trembling. The worst part was that he didn't even know why, anymore. She always cried when she talked to him, now. Always.
"Look," he stated firmly, rubbing his face with his free hand, leaning against the doorframe tiredly. "There's over $500 here. It doesn't matter where it came from. It buys food and pays the rent." She said nothing. She didn't move, only stared back, her eyes desperate and glossy and her cheeks tear-stained. His were unreadable, as always.
"We both know you're going to take it," he finally declared, as if it were the final word. And it was. She sighed and closed her eyes against the perceived dishonestly and desperation of what she was doing, and took the money.
Ross was about to close the door without another word when she stopped him, placing her hand on the door with the chipped green paint. Their eyes met again…locked. Silence pierced their eardrums. She shook her head, something almost like sympathy showing in her eyes, now.
"Why are you doing this, Ross? Why have you chosen this life for yourself?" she asked, still shaking her head in disbelief. He swallowed and averted his eyes but said nothing. "You're so much better than this," she finished.
At this, he regained eye contact, staring her down fiercely. There were so many things he wanted to say. He wanted to scream that he hadn't chosen this life for himself, but that SHE had. SHE had done this to him. SHE had turned him into this torn, fractured shell of a man. His life had been so much better. THEIR life had been better. He didn't say any of those things, though. He choked them down, along with his sorrow and regret, until nothing remained but hostility and bitterness. That was the way he liked it.
"Just not good enough to come home to," he whispered, his tone even but the intention biting. When she did not respond— could not— he closed the door.
He padded back across his apartment to his kitchen in the dark. On the way, he discarded the black t-shirt he'd been wearing for a thermal long-sleeved shirt thrown across the back of the couch. It was getting colder and the heat wouldn't get turned on in his apartment until the 10th. He supposed that was the price he paid for…not paying a price. He couldn't sleep anymore. It was something he'd just become accustomed to. It had been happening for years, slowly degenerating until he could no longer get more than 5 hours a night. He'd become close acquaintances with late night infomercials, 24-hour take-out, spy novels and pushups. He tried all of them to quell his boredom, but none ever made him tired.
After getting a glass of water, he made his way into the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light. The only source of illumination in the entire apartment was almost always the small nightlight in the bathroom. It provided just barely enough eerie yellow light to catch his reflection in the mirror. He stopped and examined himself for a moment, taking a deep breath.
The first thing he noticed was that all the late night pushups must have been doing him some good. His upper body was well-defined, especially in his biceps and chest. His skin was still faintly olive colored, even in the winter, and his eyes were a piercing green. They almost scared him, shining out so brightly in the dark. He needed a haircut, he considered. His dark brown locks were tousled and fell across his eyes. Worn black sweatpants hung loosely from his lips. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't been eating as much, lately, either. Though he was technically in better shape than he'd ever been, he knew the means was killing his body. All the cigarettes, the alcohol, the sleep deprivation, the over-working and under-eating…the pills.
He closed his eyes against the thought of them. When he'd started taking those things, almost 3 years ago, was when the insomnia had started. A friend from work— his real work, back when he'd had a real job— had given them to him when they'd both started working late into the night. He said they'd make him more alert and less tired. He forgot to mention that they were extraordinarily addicting. It had only taken a week's worth and he'd been hooked. That had been the beginning of his unraveling.
In many ways, it had been the end of his marriage.
He'd stopped coming to bed with Cindy, complaining of not being tired, and soon after that, he stopped coming to bed hardly at all. When she caught him with the pills and confronted him, he confessed everything and promised to get help. When he broke that promise…that's when the real problems began.
They stopped communicating the way they used to. A wall had been built up between them, growing denser and more impermeable by the day. Eventually, they were hardly speaking at all. He moved into the guest bedroom. The one time he actually tried quitting had been a miserable disaster, and to punish himself for the failure, he'd begun drinking. Heavily. In hindsight, they'd been divorced ever since that night he popped the first pill. In reality, it didn't happen until he came home to find her in bed with another man. He clenched his jaw and balled his fists through the aching pain and betrayal of the memory. It still hurt, even now. The image of her naked beneath the covers with that bastard would be forever branded in his memory. Sure, he hadn't known her (or himself) anymore…but he'd still loved her.
Not anymore, he thought, opening his eyes and forcing himself to meet his own gaze in the mirror. He wouldn't think about that anymore. It was in the past. He was on another road, now, and for better or worse, it was the decisions he'd made that got him here. It was the circumstance he'd have to live with, because it was all he had anymore. He'd stay awake through the lonely nights. He'd work the dirty jobs, and keep the crooked friends, and live in the seedy bars, and he'd hate himself through it all.
But no matter what, he was done playing the victim.
Shyla Lounge 72 W 70th Street New York City November 3, 2004 9:56 p.m.
Rachel swirled the olive skewer rhythmically around in the clear beverage, rotating her wrist in slow circles, staring vacantly at the half-empty glass. As her wrist moved, her three silver bangle bracelets jingled, reflecting small diamonds of light from the dimly lit lounge. She didn't know how long she'd been sitting that way.
"Anyone home?" A soothing female voice stirred her and she looked up to find Sarah, the woman she'd come with that night, sitting down across her from. She was holding a Cosmopolitan in each hand, one of which she sat down in front of Rachel. She smiled mischievously.
"Here. I thought you could use something a little more…bubbly."
"Bubbly?" Rachel smirked, bringing her glass to her lips and finishing off her first drink.
"Thank you, but I think I'll stick to the gin and tonic."
"Suit yourself. I, on the other hand, prefer to drink like a lady," Sarah teased, smiling widely before taking her first sip, licking her lips when she was done.
"Talk to me again after you've had 3 of those," Rachel rebutted, matching Sarah's smile. "You'll be about as much a lady as my Uncle Richard."
Sarah chuckled and nodded, taking another sip, surveying the bar out of her periphery. She and Rachel tried to get together at least one Saturday of every month, and they usually ended up here. It was up and coming in trendy Manhattan bars, having recently been featured in some high profile magazine for attracting the occasional celebrity, but they'd been coming here for years, long before its heyday, making them both feel about as old as dirt. Neither mentioned that, of course.
"So, tell me more about this Colin," Sarah began, giggling girlishly and bouncing, the way she tended to do when talking about men or sex. Rachel's demeanor, however, immediately fell flat. Sarah sensed this. "Uh oh. Sore subject?"
"Mmm, kind of. Actually, you know what? Not really," Rachel revealed, shrugging detachedly. "I almost wish it were," she considered aloud.
"What'd you mean?"
"I don't know," Rachel sighed, pushing her Cosmo away. She threw her hands in the air dismissively and shrugged. "I just mean…none of them are ever sore subjects."
"None of them? You mean, like, Dan and Steven and Ne—"
"Neal, and Harry, and John, and yes! All of them! None of them! I just…God," Rachel trailed off, shaking her head. She leaned forward and propped her elbows up on the table, burying her head in her hands and breathing deeply. "I just can't feel anything anymore," she finally clarified.
Sarah, a little taken aback by Rachel's somewhat of an outburst and not sure what to do, placed her hand gently over Rachel's and brought her hands down from her face. She wasn't crying, but there was a far-off look in her eyes, like she was just now discovering this about herself…seeing herself from far away. Both women were quiet for a long time.
"Has it ever occurred to you that I'm your only female friend?" Sarah finally asked quietly, a little hesitantly. Rachel rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair.
"Sarah, just because you used to be my psychologist, that doesn't mean I still need to hear this psycho-babble bullsh—"
"No, I'm serious. Is that intentional?"
"Is what intentional?" she asked, frustrated and obviously uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.
"All the men. The absence of women. You surround yourself with people who are not naturally comparable to you— who you wouldn't feel an innate competitiveness with. Do you think that's intentional?"
"I don't even think that's true, much less intentional," Rachel objected, averting her eyes.
"Do you feel threatened by women?" Sarah asked. Rachel scoffed at this, sure she wasn't serious. When she met the other woman's gaze, though, she was faced with nothing but seriousness. The direness of the conversation had quickly escalated.
"I'm sitting here with you, aren't I?"
"Yeah, and like you said, I used to be your psychologist. I already know all the dirt," she half-joked, smiling weakly. "Hey, you brought this up, not me. I'm just trying to help."
"I know," Rachel admitted, nodding. "I just don't think I see how not having more women friends has anything to do with my…other issues."
"Rachel, it could have everything to do with it. Maybe you feel threatened by women—intrinsically competitive with them. With your career at the forefront of your priorities, maybe you feel that, as a woman in the workplace, you—"
"I think that's the problem," Rachel interrupted, her voice weak and faintly sad. Faintly regretful. "My career. My career's always been 'at the forefront of my priorities'. I think that's the problem."
"You're a very successful woman in a man's world. There's nothing wrong with that."
"Maybe there is, though," she proposed, her voice more firm now. "I mean, look at me, Sarah. I'm 35, I've never been married, no kids, an endless string of unsatisfying non-monogamous relationships. It doesn't take a psychologist to see that my life isn't exactly where it should be."
"Rachel, what did I used to tell you when you brought this up, hm? There's no 'should be'. There's only 'is'. This is where your life is, and these are the decisions you've made. If you want to change something now, then do it, but there's nothing you should be," her friend offered sympathetically. Rachel nodded but her expression remained stern. She looked up from the table, her eyes glossy with the beginning of tears.
"I should be happy."