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Hope Chest

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What she wanted, what she really only wanted all along, was just a ring. No, not just a ring -- the ring. The kind of ring that comes along once in a lifetime, the kind that cracks the cement if you drop it and blinds small children, the kind of ring that people notice, that they can't help but notice.

She's been sitting in her bedroom for thirty years, hiding bridal magazines under her mattress like they were porn and hemming her skirts shorter by quarter inches every month and wanting someone to notice her. Half her life, she wakes up feeling good; she does her makeup and her exercise videos (once upon a time it was Jane Fonda, then Cher had a video, and then there was Tae Bo and Buns of Steel and belly dancing and Pilates, and she's fucking gorgeous and about half her life she knows it), and she's not afraid of anyone or anything, fights dirty and always holds her head up high. The other half her life, she just sits up here, in her bedroom with the Raggedy Ann dolls and the white canopy over her bed where nothing has changed since she was five years old, and she listens to the voices travel through the duct-work, old women with querulous voices criticizing each other in Italian, telling the same old stories about whose pasta is soggy and whose husband was good for nothing before he was dead in a box, God rest him.

The other half of her life, she feels like she's disappearing in front of her own eyes. She can't cook worth a damn, and she doesn't even have a husband for the aunts to complain about, unless you count Pauly, who you probably shouldn't, because that was four months, nine years ago, and even to her it seems like a disjointed dream.

Pauly proposed to her on a boat ride at the Navy Pier. She said, "It's so beautiful, don't you think?" and he said, "No, baby, you are. We should make it legal, what do you say?" It seemed romantic, at the time. They ran away to Vegas on Memorial Day weekend -- a long weekend, Pauly had an extra day off from repairing city buses -- and they got married, and he gave her a ring with a huge round garnet in it, and that was the realest that Francesca ever felt in her entire life. She could see it out of the corner of her eye no matter where her hands were, and she imagined that come Thanksgiving she'd be down in the kitchen with the rest of the married, grown-up women, that she would feel ready for her life. That she wouldn't be the same skinny girl who fell down the stairs in her borrowed heels on prom night, who was never as good in school or at piano lessons or driving a car or doing anything at all as her older sister was, who none of her brother's friends ever wanted to be seen with, even though she could feather her hair better than any girl in the neighborhood. With Pauly's ring on her finger, she thought she'd proven something, and that now people would have no choice but to notice her after all.

By Thanksgiving, her husband was gone, and on a particularly bad day, she chucked the garnet ring into the lake off Navy Pier. It was a cheap piece of crap anyway, and it hadn't been magical at all. She wanted a real ring. She wanted a diamond. She was sick of never having anything that wasn't a little bit fake and didn't even fool anybody anyway.

As far as men went, Francesca didn't expect much from them. Maybe if they didn't laugh at her if she tried to say something interesting she'd read in the newspaper, or if they noticed when she changed her perfume or didn't just grab onto her breasts first chance they got. Maybe if they were sweet to her mother when they picked her up, or if they didn't act all put upon when she wanted to see something black-and-white and romantic instead of some dumb Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Maybe if they didn't think that traveling meant to Indianapolis on a business trip, or maybe if they would just hang around for a little while and not just never come home one night or ever call ever again, that would be more or less an okay man.

And there were a few of those more or less okay men, but in the end none that really mattered. None that ever gave her a ring, until she was thirty years old and still a little girl with a canopy bed who wasn't ready to start her life, who wanted to be a police officer and knew for sure that she wouldn't be afraid of any gun in the world, but was frozen stiff with terror at the idea of telling her mother. No more or less okay man had ever changed Francesca's life, or given her anything of any real quality at all.

But she still wanted the ring. In fact, the smaller men got in her eyes, the bigger a ring she started to want.

There was one man -- one really quality man, completely real and the kind who sort of couldn't even help changing people's lives, right and left, willy nilly. And he blew her curve completely, fell so far off the deep end of okay that sometimes all she could do was lie on her bed and convince herself he was real -- handsome and quiet, someone who listened, someone who took things seriously, who knew things about the world, knew things about things that Francesca was barely aware existed. If Fraser had given her a ring, she would have looked him right in the eye and said, "I don't need this, I just want you." And that was love. That was all the love in the world to her.

Of course, she knew he wouldn't give her a ring. She didn't know when to shut up sometimes, but that didn't make her stupid. And maybe it was hard to read what was in Fraser's eyes sometimes, but Ray was a menu, just flip him open and look around until you spotted what you were looking for, and even if she wasn't looking for I don't need this, I just want you, it was hard to miss when it was written on someone she'd known for her whole life.

All Ray's jewelry was still in the house. Watches, necklaces, rings. He was wearing someone else's stuff now, and sometimes Francesca would sneak into his room -- because it was forbidden, because her mother believed that protecting her son meant protecting everything he'd ever touched -- and spread his things out across his bedspread. Real gold, real diamonds: Ray didn't buy fakes, and if they were stolen, then -- then Francesca understood. He was an okay man, her brother, and he never got and never would get the things he really, really wanted, so what could it hurt to have some things -- just a few things -- that were nice?

And if one time she sat on the floor at the foot of her brother's bed and held a silk shirt up to her face and cried for two hours, just on and on like there was no end to it, until her head was pounding like the first hangover she ever had after she learned to pick the lock on her father's liquor cabinet -- if she cried so hard that makeup bled into the silk and ruined it worse than the Delmonicos could get out even after they spent all that money remodeling and upgrading their dry cleaning equipment -- if she broke the rule about pretending all the time, even in her own head, that she didn't have a brother who was missing, disappeared, dead--

Why was that a rule at all, anyway? To protect him, to protect the other Ray, for everybody's own good? Or just because that was all she was ever supposed to do: wait and pretend? Didn't everybody deserve to have something that was real?

The next morning was a Monday, and she dropped the shirt off at the Delmonicos' and came to work ten minutes late, in dark sunglasses, and sat quietly down at her desk to check her e-mail. Fraser was standing like a hatrack outside the Lieutenant's door, and there was a man with his feet on her brother's desk, which Ray never would have done, he never would have got mud on the desk. Francesca put one hand on her stomach, because she hadn't eaten breakfast or dinner last night and she didn't feel well, and stared at the blinking cursor, prompting her for a password she'd just changed on Friday and now she couldn't remember.

The smell of coffee distracted her, and she looked up into the shadow that had just fallen over her keyboard and her hands. "With a bit of maple syrup," Fraser said, holding the styrofoam cup down to her. "My grandmother swore by it for low spirits."

"Yeah?" she said, taking the coffee. "My father swore by whiskey."

"She recommended that for exposure to extreme cold," Fraser said. Then he stood there, watching her as she sipped her coffee, like he couldn't go away until she gave him an answer to what he couldn't ask. She tried to smile at him, but it looked fake, and it only made little frown lines appear between his eyebrows. He could wait forever, though.

"I'm fine," she said. She took a deep breath and pushed her voice upward, high and bright and easy, and said, "I went to Vegas over the weekend with some girlfriends. I lost a lot of money there, you know?"

And he did know; she knew he knew because he flinched -- not a lot, but it was real. He put his hand out and gave her shoulder a light pat, and when he moved his hand she yanked the sloping shoulder of her top so that the spot on her skin where his hand had rested was covered up. For a second there, she'd felt half-naked. Ashamed, almost. "You work hard," Fraser said, "and you're quite good at what you do. I have no doubt that you'll earn it back in time."

Mounties, no matter what anyone said, could lie. Francesca knew that.

She always did know more than people gave her credit for, when it came to Fraser. She thinks maybe she always knew better than her brother did, just how far hoping would get you.

But the point of Fraser was that he was worth being in love with, and Francesca, who was bone-weary of things that were just a little bit fake, could live with that. Just that.