Title: Prelude

Rating: T

Spoilers: Takes place in between "Out on a Limb" and "Lost in America."

Summary: Ray now came home to someone, to a friend.

Part I

March 2006

Ray hadn't had much to eat—Oreos, lots of bad coffee, one of Neela's toxic cookies out of pity. It was dizzying finally ending his day and stepping into that apartment, like he'd spent the entire shift twirling around non-stop in a swivel chair. The lights were left off, all the windows opened with their curtains gently hugging the breeze like sails. He could hear traffic noises and smell the night air.

He could also hear the shower running from the bathroom directly across from him, an orange glow of light emitting from underneath the bathroom door. She was home, as he expected her to be. Most days of the week, their shifts were ending around the same time. They started and ended days together. She was supposed to be done with her shift several hours before him today; although he had heard she'd stayed a couple of hours late to tie up loose ends.

Dropping his bag in front of the door, he switched on the lights for the living room, slipped out of his coat and put it absentmindedly onto the loveseat. There was a newly opened bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on the coffee table, next to the empty pizza box from a couple of nights ago. She had already succeeded in cleaning him out of his tequila. It was official. He was living with a bona fide wino.

As he leaned over to pick up the box, the bathroom door opened and she stepped onto the carpet, toes curling into its old tufts.

They looked at each other blankly. She greeted him, her voice sounding thick.

"Hey."

The sash of her blue bathrobe was wrapped tightly around her body. Hair clinging and coiling against her scalp and her face. Her lips looked small, like flower petals, her entire face emanating that same softness.

He smiled at her. "Hi."

Not long after they first moved in together, he had walked into her bedroom to see her standing there totally naked, hair damp from a shower as she was digging through her top drawer for clothes. Neela looked up at him, understandably mortified. Mirroring her expression, he apologized like a child after breaking something expensive, swiftly turned around and nearly walked into the door on his way out. They wouldn't be able to make eye contact for the entire day.

Even though she never actually reproached him for it, he felt the need to rationalize his momentary lapse of "cohabitation etiquette." He could come up with the usual reasons. He was in a hurry. He was tired. He wasn't thinking. He hadn't lived with a girl before. It was a door knob; he was used to turning those kinds of things. Although, yes, he had some common sense, for the most part, so he knew better. Ray realized he hadn't expected her to be naked. Ever. It was just the way she was, as if she were incapable of it. No wonder she looked at him like he was a child. Of course, Abby thought it was hilarious, adding that it was an opportunity, an ice breaker, if you will. After all, football players saw each other naked all the time. Maybe it helped boost team spirit.

"We're not getting any hot water in the shower." Neela began to walk over to her bedroom, as he headed toward the kitchen with the pizza box.

He dropped it near the door. "Lovely."

She yelled from her room. "I found your phone. Also, that girl called."

"What girl?"

After having a just delightful conversation with the girl on the El (Neela had made the mistake of answering Ray's cell instead of letting it go to voicemail), she couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't come out derisive.

"Her message's on the fridge."

Instead of looking at what was on the fridge door, seemingly cluttered with every flier, note and other spare pieces of paper they'd ever encountered, he opened it and frowned at the contents inside.

"We don't have any eggs left." Or anything else, for that matter.

She came out of her room, head tilted, and toweling her hair with both hands.

"I know. I tried making an omelet. I just couldn't get it right, so I took a shower instead."

He looked the kitchen over. It looked like someone had tried to make breakfast in the middle of a robbery. Neela wasn't exactly Julia Child, but she knew how to make an omelet. Ray wondered whether the Jack Daniels came before or after cooking.

He turned around to look at her. "Bad day, again?"

"Yeah." She didn't look at him, instead tossing the towel over her shoulder and turning on the television to CNN. She looked for the remote.

"Well, bollocks."

This made her head turn, the faintest grin growing at the ends of her lips.

"Are you making fun of me or have you just been spending too much time around me?"

"Can it be both?"

He put both of his hands against the countertop, pressing his weight against the counter, and shooting a smug smile at her.

Suddenly, the phone rang. It was the land line. Nobody ever called the land line except for telemarketers and other people they didn't know; didn't want to know. It was an unsettling, alarm-like noise and made Neela nervous, even though she knew there was no reason to be. They both became quiet.

It reminded him of how extremely quiet he would get when his mother and father fought, like a recurring nightmare that he could never quite make sense of, no matter how many times he had it. He felt as though every bad human emotion were settling within the walls of the house. Ray would act as if his world weren't detonating pitilessly around him: he sat at the kitchen table, his spoon fiddling with soggy cheerios, or repeatedly changed the stations on the television without even being aware of what was on or just stared hard at the homework that was in front of him. His parents' fights always scared him into doing his homework, as would other things. He thought it maybe had to do with a kid's understanding of karma. Bad things happened to him because he wasn't trying hard enough, like he didn't deserve to be happy.

In the middle of the third ring, Ray picked up the phone. He was closer to it.

"Hello."

"Hello," a woman's voice replied. "Can Neela talk? This is Michael's mother."

He stared down at his left hand on the countertop and wondered if it was weird to call your daughter-in-law only to have her roommate pick up. He wondered what they thought about him.

"Sure," he said evenly. "Hold on a sec."

Neela moved toward him, letting the remote slip from her hand. "Who is it?"

"Mrs. Gallant."

That sounded strange. "Mrs. Gallant" was technically standing four feet away from him.

Her body relaxed a little as she took the phone. Neela was the last person to ever deserve the bad things that happened to other people. Sometimes he wondered if she felt the same way he did as a kid about the things that happened in her own life. She had that mutely self-impugning streak. Ray did know some things about suffering quietly.

His mother had boyfriends. Some of them were okay. Some of them would make Clemente look temperate. Some of them came back. A lot of them came back with their Jekyll and Hyde acts. The first time he hit a man, it was out of some long-dormant and furious impulse boiling in his gut. He couldn't take it anymore. It was so the man would never hit his mother ever again. It was so that he would never have to watch another man do that to her. His mother didn't fucking deserve it. After that, the man never stepped foot in their home again, but he left with such a god-awful, malevolent smirk, like he actually planned on coming back for them.

He didn't think about those days as much now. His mother was relatively happy and settled in Baton Rouge. He hadn't seen his father in years, wherever he was now. Everybody learned to keep their distance.

Ray now came home to someone, to a friend.

When he saw her drift back into her bedroom with the phone against her ear, he looked at the kitchen again, figuring he might try cleaning up.

Oh, holy shit. That was quite the omelet she wanted to make. The multitude of knives and forks made some sense, but what exactly was she doing using so many spoons? Ray picked up an unclean bowl, looked at the sink, took another thorough gander at the entire space, thought fuck it, and did what he usually did in these situations. Lightly tossing the bowl on the counter, he grabbed a beer out of the fridge, and plopped himself in front of the TV.

When he'd watch the news with Neela or catch parts while doing something else, that "fuck the world" anger from when he was younger would plummet back into his chest. He wasn't sure if the anger was just fatigue at this point. Neela watched the news regularly, also absorbing every bit of print she could get her hands on. He sensed she didn't want to anymore. There was a point where you didn't want to hear how many more had died today. He knew that she considered it her duty. The least that she could do was to know. Even then, she and her husband rarely discussed the things said on the news. They focused on other things, as if they were sitting at home together. They talked about the future, the past, anything but the present.

Neela reappeared with the phone in her hand, having changed into a sweatshirt and pajamas. She looked worn down.

"Michael's parents are thinking of visiting in a couple of weeks or so." She sat down on the couch next to him, pressing folded legs against her chest. "They haven't set a date yet, but I'll let you know." The way she was talking about it, you'd think they were both their in-laws.

They kept their eyes on the TV and then the question just tumbled out.

"Have you talked to your parents lately?"

Immediately, he felt mean, almost spiteful for asking her that. This wasn't a question he needed to ask, because he could probably figure out the answer.

"I've spoken to Naina." Naina was her youngest sister— baby Neela, a sophomore at Columbia. Naina was also the conduit being used for communication between Neela and her parents. "You might be happy to know that she wouldn't stop asking about you."

Ray laughed. "Did I ever tell you that your sister has very astute taste in men?"

Naina had briefly visited her sister about a year ago. The three of them went out to dinner and she left with a not-so-secret crush on Ray. She insisted to her sister that he was "bloody gorgeous, you daft fool."

"She also spoke about marching in some anti-war demonstration down Broadway in late April. She's saying that it could be pretty big, maybe 300,000 people."

"You ever think about doing something like that?"

"Sometimes."

She glanced up at the ceiling and back at the TV. A thousand emotions swept across her face. She let out a muffled groan and buried her face within the space between her chest and legs. And, there it was—the creeping existential despair, her own issues of the day, the week, probably the last few months that'd been boiling in her gut.

"What?"

Neela lifted her head frustrated. "Nothing makes sense."

He twitched. "Why does everything have to make sense to you?"

"Things just need to make sense. People get to live when things make sense."

It was a case she'd been working on. He suddenly knew it, he knew some things about it, but this was the most he'd be able to get out of her at this point. All of a sudden, he stood up, almost jumped, and patted her knee gently.

"Get dressed."

Still sitting, she peered at him as if he'd just suggested the opposite. "Why?"

He turned off the television. "Because CNN is bad for you."

Neela unraveled herself from her position to turn around and moved onto her knees, hands clutching the back of the couch. "What are you talking about?"

His long, thin legs stepped around the apartment in a nonsensical pattern. As if they were being taught how to waltz. He seemed to be looking for something. "You said you found my phone?"

"Ray."

"We're getting ice cream."

"We have ice cream at home."

"Neela." He looked down at her, like he were talking to a little girl, as if he were about to take her chin with his thumb and forefinger. "We're getting ice cream. And, I want my phone."

"It's nearly ten o'clock."

"Stop talking." Ray walked away from her and moved lithely into his own room.

"You trying to cheer me up?"

"I'm trying to cheer me up. You may tag along."