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I became a cop because after I was raped in college, there was no justice, no follow through. I quit being a cop and became a private investigator for roughly the same reasons.
PIs are largely jaded ex-cops who aren’t great at following orders. Pile that on top of me being a woman who first declared her allegiance to both bisexuality and feminism at age 14, and you’ve got a weird recipe: self-righteousness and the ambivalence that comes from being both against “the man” and deeply believing in justice. Yeah, I’m a mess.
There are some stereotypes that are worth resisting (like cops eating donuts) but others that I just have to shrug, laugh, and admit: yeah, that’s me. Do both gay and straight people steer clear of bisexuals because of the stereotype that we’re feckless sluts who can’t make up our minds? Yes, and that’s fucked up, but also me. Is there a script that expects private investigators to be down on their luck alcoholics who talk a mile a minute and say witty things all the time? That’s me on my better days (the witty part anyway). Do assault survivors build up protective walls around their emotions and lash out at people who are just trying to be intimate with them? Damn, this one stings. I swear, I tried therapy after college and I’ve called my share of rape crisis centers, but I don’t really want to uncork that bottle of swirling darkness. I’d rather push it down with brown. Obviously, whiskey is my drink of choice.
The case I’m working on right now is one of my specialties. My client is kind of a last woman standing in her situation. Her new girlfriend had a stalker ex-girlfriend who had hit her a few times when they were together, though the new girlfriend didn’t find out these details until after everything went down. The stalker ex also happened to be a cop – this is more common than you think, but I won’t spew a statistic at you. The stalker found out about the new girlfriend and spun out into a rage, went MIA on her shift and bailed on her bewildered partner, drove over to her ex’s new apartment, and tried to murder both of them. Succeeded with the ex, shot the new girlfriend in the shoulder with her service weapon. Simmered down slightly and then went back to her precinct and calmly told her colleagues what happened. Not owning or denying what she did exactly but reporting it as a thing that happened. Her fellow cops put her in gentle custody – closed door on her own cell, not locked, hot dinner ordered in.
Oh yeah, I’m not so much a whodunnit kind of detective. In the overwhelming majority of my cases, it is no damn mystery. Could these survivors call hotlines and get social workers to support them through some legal process? Yeah, absolutely. But I work with folks who have chosen violence and want vengeance. And really, I’m okay with that.
So my client – she knows that this is a pretty open-shut case: there’s identification of the suspect, a confirmed weapon, a motive, a confession. But there’s a cop involved, so it’s paid administrative leave for a murderer while everyone else picks up the pieces. My client understands that this case will travel through the court system, and it’s my job to try to figure out what would feel like justice to her and the victim’s loved ones.
This summer morning, I woke up sticky and on the floor of my office which is technically an art studio, and I’m not supposed to live there but, hey, this is Brooklyn. Empty bottle on the desk. Chair toppled over. Not an uncommon wake up. I looked at my phone – 7% battery left, ouch – which said 6:23. I felt all proud of my early wakeup despite whatever happened last night, but then I realized that it’s actually PM and not AM. I laughed at myself and then heard the earworm of the screaming vocals of an early aughts hardcore band I used to see play at the Pyramid on Sundays: “Is it AM or PM or AM? It’s all the same!!”
There’s a grubby note in my handwriting on the desk that says “Gleason’s.” The boxing gym? Sometimes the biggest mystery I have to solve is what the fuck I was thinking the previous night. Nope. Nothing there, just a blackout void. But this little crumb of a clue I left myself, I am gonna follow it. I move my creaky ass to the drop sink in the studio. I think the person who rented it before me was a potter, but now the sink serves as a graveyard for moldy coffee cups and a source of cold water to splash on my hungover self.
Though the deli downstairs stopped serving breakfast at noon for normal people, they fired up the griddle and started making my baconeggncheese as soon as they saw my face haunting their doorway. Relationships like this one, with the bodega owner who will make me breakfast any time of day and will begrudgingly sell me beer between three AM and noon on a Sunday even though they aren’t supposed to, they are what make life in New York livable.
The smell of Gleason’s triggered my sense memory. There’s nothing like that smell of armpits, the particular kind of sweat that swells between glove and fist, and disinfectant that doesn’t really mask the other smells but makes your nose hairs prickle.
Even though I haven’t been a regular at the boxing gym in years, as soon as I walked in, I heard exuberant men’s voices greeting me: “Bamm-Bamm! Where you been?” Yeah, my boxing gym nickname is from that little boy in the Flintstones. I got it because when I boxed here, I put my hair in a high pony on the top of my head and wore a lot of leopard print. More accurately, the girl Flintstone is Pebbles, but that’s a stupid name for a boxer.
All this is a hell of a lot of exposition. I might be procrastinating because digging into this case, any case that I handle, is sure to bring new waves of vicarious trauma into my life. So here we go.
“Hey guys, you know an Alvarez who boxes here? Lady cop from Dyker Heights?”
This elicited a chuckle, so they know her. She’s a dyke from Dyker Heights, that’s the joke.
“She in some kind of trouble?” one of the men asked. He knows the answer but wants me to say it.
“I’ll say. She – allegedly – lost it and shot up her ex and her ex’s new girlfriend. Killed the ex, fucked up the new girlfriend. I heard she boxes here, one of the boys and all that. Wanted to find out if she gets friends, visitors, spectators here. I’m looking for character witnesses.” I was intentionally vague. I used the word allegedly to imply that maybe I’m working with the defense, and as a former cop and a queer myself, that I’m invested in my colleague’s well-being.
“Yeahhh…” one of the older guys started slowly, squinting a bit to jog his memory. “Lately there was a little blond thing, Kelly something? She’d come out and chew gum, flip her hair. We’d yell at her for hanging on the ropes. She gave Alvarez a lot of goo-goo eyes, but she’s a flirt all around. Alvarez made real clear to the guys here that Kelly was her girl.”
“Any idea where she hangs out other than here?”
“She’s a waitress at Pedro’s, Mexican joint around the corner. I think they met there.”
It really was too easy to get all this info out of these guys. Since I’d come through the door, bullshitted with them and gotten the deets, I think the bell had rung maybe twice. So that’s, what, six minutes of sparring? Didn’t even need to connect with anyone’s headgear, just did a little bit of dancing, stayed on my toes.
“Thanks, guys.” I turned to go.
“Bamm-Bamm! Don’t be a stranger!” yelled a man from across the gym.
My client Meghan (she tells me to say it Meee-GAN) is pretty banged up and staying with her grandmother in Bay Ridge after leaving the hospital. It’s a weird thing – she hadn’t been dating her now-deceased girlfriend for very long at all, wasn’t even sure how compatible they were. It’s not like they’d U-hauled or anything. They were having sleepovers, going on cute dates, still dressing up for each other. Meghan knew that Arianna had had a recent rough breakup but didn’t know details. Now their relationship is forever forged in tragedy and elevated in a kind of weird way. They were just hanging out, and now Arianna is dead. Meghan has to pretend she and Arianna liked each other more than they probably did because it sucks to die when you’re not even in love.
The day after my visit to Gleason’s, I hauled myself up the stairs to Meghan’s grandmother’s fourth floor walkup apartment to give her the info. It could’ve been a text, email, or phone call, but I find these situations best lend themselves to face to face conversation. It’s the gravity.
“Good morning!” I told Meghan and her grandmother with an amount of cheer that surprised all of us.
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” Meghan greeted me back. “You were supposed to be here three hours ago.”
I shrugged. I had no excuse, but I had info she wanted, and her traumatized, bullet-holed ass wasn’t going anywhere right now anyway. Netflix binges and grandma treats, that’s what she’s had going on.
I related what I’d learned back to her and told her I also cruised by Pedro’s and sat at the bar awhile, drank a frozen margarita and chatted to Kelly and her coworkers. Then I dropped my professional advice. “This is a bit wild and only really works if Alvarez is in custody, but I’m wondering if it would feel like justice to you to date Kelly. She’s flirty, she’s freaked about what’s going on with her new boo, you’re her type, she could use some comfort from a kind butch. But you’d have to heal up first. It’s too obvious who you are if you’re walking around with your arm in a sling and a recent bullet wound in your shoulder.”
Meghan absorbed this for a beat and then a sly grin started to spread across her face. It was grinchlike, evil delight as she thought about hitting Alvarez in her most insecure spot. I’d hit the mark.
“You think it’s doable?” she asked.
“Yeah – both doable and diabolical. Does that feel like justice to you?”
“I mean, I didn’t think anything ever could feel like justice after this. But maybe. Yeah, just thinking about it feels pretty satisfying.”
I nodded, proud but concealing it. To be honest, at this point in my career, the lines between justice, revenge, and redemption are kind of a mess. I knew that when nothing happened to my rapist after I reported him to the college we were both students at, and then I ended up dropping out while he graduated with honors, I felt like justice had not been served and that the institutions set up to help me just weren’t efficient enough. I thought I could help fix that when I became a cop and eventually worked in the sex crimes unit. I was wrong.
When I quit to become a PI, it was a burnt-out retreat. But I also thought that since I had learned the system, seen the underbelly that was more like a croc with leathery armor than tender puppy skin, I could help survivors punch back better. I wanted to help folks gouge out the shark’s eyes, to continue to extend this animal metaphor. If you jab a shark in the eye after it bites you, you still have a chunk of your leg missing, but you fucked up the shark too.
I know the solution I’ve offered Meghan is a dark one. It will not make her feel better or at peace; it might actually twist her insides a bit more. But it might make her feel electrified with the power to negatively impact someone else’s life and mental state. And that seems like the best we can do.
Audacia Ray (she/her) is a queer femme whose essays and stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Guardian, Necessary Fiction, and Stone Canoe. She was an editor of $pread magazine and its respective best-of anthology published by Feminist Press. She spends her time in Brooklyn and also lives part time in the Catskill Mountains in a cabin that has a labyrinth in the front yard.