In the concept stages, the ocean sounded great; when Stella rolled over one night and whispered at his ear, let's live on the beach, the idea even seemed kinda romantic. It would be just the two of them, down on one of those white sandy beaches with the palm trees and the bottle green water, and they'd have beach chairs and sunglasses and the kind of self-satisfied smiles that people who lived on the ocean always seemed to have. Ma could move into one of those fancy retirement communities where everyone did everything for you; she'd always hinted about wanting to live closer to Aunt Lena, anyway, and he could set her up real nice with all his back pay from the year in Vegas. Frannie could be a cop's secretary anywhere, and she'd love the beach. Maria and Tony were probably Chicago lifers, but that'd give him an excuse to get back to the city now and then; it all worked out.
Yeah, the ocean sounded great. And at first, it was great; they stayed in a hotel for two weeks while Stella searched for a house, living off take-out and snack food and whatever they could scavenge from the hotel vending machines. By day, Stella was all business, but at night, she could unwind with the best of them; a couple days into their stay, he even got her to bowl. She wasn't very good, but neither was he, so their scores sort of balanced out, and something about bowling or bowling alleys apparently got her all hot and bothered. The one time he did land a spare, she planted one on him next to the ball return and they high-tailed it back to the hotel.
Forget great; the ocean was fantastic.
Only, a month after Stella put up the curtains in the overpriced beachfront condo she'd picked out, he got a call. Ma was bawling on the other end of the line, just bawling, and Maria was shouting in the background: "See what you did?" Frannie was bawling too, just loud enough and far enough out of sync with Ma's heaving sobs for him to know that there was a second crier.
"Ma?" She just kept bawling. "Ma, is someone dead?" More bawling. "Who is it? Is it Tony? Oh, God, did something happen to one of the kids? Ma?" Neither of those possibilities raised the general level of weeping, so he discounted them. "Ma -- is it Benny? Did something happen to Benny?" Still no change. "Aunt Lena? Uncle Lorenzo? Uh -- I don't -- is it Great Aunt Rafaela? I thought she died last year, but maybe it just seemed like--"
"Ray!" Maria finally snatched the phone away from Ma, thank God. "Ray, you have to come back to Chicago!"
"Who died?" Sure, he shouted at her, but someone was dead, after all, and listening to his mother cry was hell on Ray's nerves. "Maria, who was it?"
"What? No one. No one died." She sounded a little weepy, herself. "Ray, you have to come back to Chicago. Frannie is pregnant, and Ma is freaking out."
"What?" He was going to kill whoever had-- "How did that happen?"
"I assume it happened the usual way, Ray," Maria snapped, damned near making him blush. Now, there was a mental image he didn't want. "How soon can you come?"
He wasn't ready to move on to travel plans just yet. "Who was it? It wasn't -- it wasn't Benny, was it? 'Cause I love him, but I swear to God, I will beat the shit out of him if--"
There was a scraping noise on the other end of the line, like she was trying to cover the phone with her hand. "Frannie, it wasn't Benton, was it?"
He could hear Frannie's shriek clear as day, right through Maria's hand. "What? No! Give me the phone!"
Instead, the person who seized control of the phone was Ma. "Oh, Raimundo--" And then she was off, saying words he'd never even heard his father use, and Frannie went back to sobbing in the background.
In the end, he didn't go back to Chicago, but Ma and Frannie didn't relocate to the sunny south, either.
He made sure to be extra flip on the phone for a few weeks, so they wouldn't know he was disappointed. He even half-convinced himself that he wasn't disappointed; after all, being young and retired and living on the beach with Stella was kind of like being on an extended honeymoon, and he'd always loved Florida. The sun, the clubs, the women -- okay, maybe not the women, not anymore, which meant definitely no clubs, but the sun, sure.
Unfortunately, the sun got real old real fast. He did the beach bum thing for a while -- snazzy towel, sand-clogged radio, suntan oil -- and then Stella peeled off his swim trunks one night and burst out laughing, which put an abrupt end to his sunbathing period. From the waist up, he had the best tan of his life; from the waist to mid-thigh, he was white as a ghost.
"Oh, honey," she said, clutching his swim trunks as she laughed, "Ray -- how did you--"
As much as he loved to hear her laugh, he didn't want her to laugh at him while he was naked. He wasn't about to strip down for a tanning booth, so instead, he invested in a beach umbrella and started slapping on SPF40.
Sunbathing wasn't the only thing that got old fast; the whole concept of an extended honeymoon turned out to have a shelf life of about a month. Stella was theoretically retired, too, but in practice, that meant she was on the fast track to partner at some high-class law firm; he hardly ever saw her during the day.
He didn't exactly whine -- that wasn't his style -- but he did hint here and there that he was the most bored he'd ever been in his entire life. After a couple weeks of hinting, she came home one day with an enormous set of golf clubs and a fishing rod, which was her none-too-subtle way of telling him to get some good old-fashioned retired guy hobbies.
He put the golf clubs in a closet, and told himself that that was the end of that: retired or not, he wasn't sinking that low.
He gave fishing a shot, and remembered too late that fishing only made him feel bad for whatever unlucky fish got caught on his line. He'd gone ice fishing with Fraser once, and Fraser had silently mocked him for an entire day after Ray had insisted on freeing their catch. Fishing in Florida was even worse; there were more people around to see him toss the fish back in, and they weren't as subtle with their mockery as Fraser had been. Plus, one of them turned out to be a cop, so the icing on the cake was that Ray got cited for fishing without a license. He didn't tell Stella that part of the story, but he told her enough to make her agree to let him sell the damned rod.
He tried swimming, and remembered too late that he hated the taste of saltwater. He'd gone into the ocean exactly once as a kid, on one of those family pilgrimages to Aunt Lena's; swimming in ocean water had tasted like a whole box of table salt had upended right on his tongue. That wasn't the only thing he hated about ocean water, either. Lake water was always a little chilly, even in July -- but in Florida, sometimes the water was warm, which invoked bad memories of community pools.
In a fit of desperation, he finally dragged out the golf clubs and started using the country club membership Stella had paid for. Most of the other guys on the course were retired like him, but way older; the ones his age were all white-collar types, doing business while they golfed. Ray figured out pretty quick that he wasn't the only shitty golfer in Florida, which made him feel a little better; in fact, some of the really rich guys were even shittier at it than he was, which made him feel a lot better.
After his first game was finally, blissfully over, he headed up to the clubhouse for lunch, thinking he'd get a nice big BLT and a seat near a window overlooking the green; while he ate, he could contemplate the death of his youth and self-respect.
When he walked into the dining room, a young guy in a nice suit and silk tie waved him over.
Ray was pretty sure he wasn't being hit on -- the guy was acting way too casual for that -- so he walked over, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hi, I'm--"
"The infamous Ray Vecchio." The guy looked positively delighted to see him. "I've seen your picture -- Stella has at least three of them on her desk."
Stella had pictures of him on her desk?
"Well, I--" He rubbed the back of his head, feeling more than a little bit awkward. "You work at the firm?" That was one hell of a stupid question; the guy obviously worked at Stella's firm. "I mean, of course you--"
"Sit!" The guy enthusiastically waved at all the empty chairs. "I'm meeting some friends, but I'd love it if you joined us -- Stella will die when she hears."
Against his better judgment, Ray sat.
Stella was disproportionately thrilled with what had happened, so Ray went back to the club the next day, and she was so thrilled with that that he started to make a habit of it. Within a week, he'd figured out which people at the firm had club memberships: just the assholes, apparently. The guy in the nice suit had an attitude that made Louis Gardino seem like a saint by comparison, and his friends were even worse.
"You need to do something, Vecchio," they'd say, making vague, tipsy gestures; on their fucking lunch break, all the drinks were hard liquor. "It isn't enough to retire young anymore; you have to make your retirement pay. Invest! Become an entrepreneur! My cousin in California retired at 27 and opened a lounge in LA, and it's fabulous--"
They were idiots, but even so, it wasn't the worst idea he'd ever heard. He counted up what was left of his Vegas stash -- Ma was never going to move to Florida anyway, that much was clear -- and bought the bowling alley where he and Stella had gone out on their first Florida date.
He expected Stella to be pissed, but she wasn't; she just laughed, and laughed some more, and then finally, she said, "As long as I get free shoe rentals, Ray--" And she just kept laughing.
Ma and Frannie flew down to visit shortly after that, and were singularly unimpressed by the bowling alley. Ma made a point of being unimpressed by everything Florida had to offer, but she was real nice to Stella, so Ray decided against getting pissed off when she said things like, "Raimundo, what do you live here for? You can visit Lena any time you want," and, "Raimundo, you can get oranges anywhere. Come back to Chicago -- I'll buy you oranges at the supermarket, very fresh."
Frannie gave him a lot of attitude, too, but her annoyance was more general; at six months pregnant, she already looked big enough to pop, and she wasn't going to be caught dead in a maternity swimsuit. "Just look at all that beach," she complained, "all those guys, and me, like this--"
It was pretty strange to see her like that, but he was too smart to tell her so; he knew from experience that she had a wicked right hook.
When he dropped them off at the airport, he practically had to pry his own arms off Ma, and then he hugged Frannie and couldn't quite let go. She put up with it for about a minute, and then she whacked him on the back of the head and said, "Geez, Ray, are you trying to squeeze the baby out of me?"
"I love you, too, Frannie," he said, when she pulled back.
That apparently caught her by surprise, because she got all misty, and then Ma started making faces like she was going to bawl; so Ray muttered a few more goodbyes and fled, before any crying could commence.
A couple months after their visit, he sold the bowling alley at a profit, and some big-shot investor promptly tore down the entire block and built a shopping mall.
The idiots at the club thought he was some kind of secret investment genius, but in reality, he'd just gotten bored with the alley. He was kind of pissed that they tore it down -- "Remember the first time we kissed here?" just wouldn't be as romantic when he said it inside the Gap -- but he wasn't really pissed enough to care, and a few weeks later, he bought a coffee shop on impulse. He hung on to that for all of six weeks before selling it at a profit to some guy who wanted to open a Starbucks, and then the whole thing started to get kinda addictive; a couple months later he flipped a bookstore, and three months after that he was the proud owner of a fancy Italian restaurant.
The restaurant wouldn't sell, though. It wouldn't sell, and wouldn't sell, and before he knew it the place was more or less his; he was stuck with it, and he hated it. He was up to his eyeballs in ledgers and pay stubs, he hardly ever saw Stella, and he never had enough time to get away to Chicago. He hated being a restaurant owner, he hated living on the ocean, and he missed Chicago like breathing. He missed the weather: the way the lake froze over along the shore, the way the city looked just after a blizzard, the way he felt like a little kid every time he got snowed in. He missed Benny, who was so integral a part of Chicago that Ray couldn't imagine he'd actually stay in Canada forever. He missed Welsh, who'd been so solid a rock for so many years that doing anything without him felt like jumping without a parachute. He even missed Elaine, who'd become an actual cop while he was in Vegas and was working some crazy beat on the south side, and Huey, who wasn't all there anymore, and maybe never had been. He missed his family--
God, he missed his family.
He talked to Frannie over the phone more than he ever had in person. She could chat his ear off if he let her, and most days, he was inclined to let her. He just sat there, the phone caught between his head and his shoulder, and did paperwork while he listened to her run on about work and Ma and the baby and the weather and whatever else popped into her head. His second year in Florida, she got pregnant again, which made him feel like shit for not getting up to see the first one yet. She went on and on about the new one too, even threatening to call it Benito or Benita, depending.
He was pretty sure she was joking about that.
His conversations with Ma were shorter; she got a little more pissed at him every day for not calling it quits in Florida and moving back home, and it got to the point where the only words they exchanged that weren't the slightest bit terse were I love you.
If Stella knew he was unhappy, she didn't show it. She was doing great at the firm, and everybody loved that Ray owned a fancy restaurant. He'd thought that said restaurant ownership would have one up side -- he wouldn't have to eat at the club with those idiots from the firm anymore -- but Stella abruptly decided that they were all going to be friends, and Ray got stuck seeing them all the time anyway.
The idiots from the firm threw the kinds of parties that were populated by people who viewed dieting as an extreme sport and knew what kind of overpriced wine went with what kind of hard-to-find cheese. The old Ray, the one who'd had ideas about country clubs and yachts but hadn't been too familiar with either, he would've been real impressed with his own presence at those kinds of parties. The new Ray, he was sick of country clubs and viewed yacht ownership as the last, best sign that someone oughta be taken out back and shot, and he hated the fancy parties and the kinds of people who attended them.
But Stella referred to those kinds of people as "our friends," so he went to the damned parties and made nice with the regulars, and he didn't even yell when she started inviting her friends out to the restaurant.
"Our friends are coming over for dinner, Ray," she'd say, which meant that he had to save the best seats in the house for the snob factory and bring around the head chef, like the guy was some kind of sideshow exhibit. Stella's friends liked it when the head chef condescended to them, but if Ray ever got the guts to act like an asshole to them, they'd be offended; it was an impossibly unfair double standard.
Afterward, he always called Frannie and reenacted the whole night for her, complete with character voices.
One party blurred into another, each dinner was the same as the last, the ebb and flow of the restaurant never changed, and at some point along the way, he stopped pretending he was still trying to sell the place, stopped trying to send Stella signals to tell her he was unhappy, just stopped.
He put some of Ma's recipes on the menu, put a big neon sign that said Vecchio's over the door, and occasionally made noises to Stella about buying a fucking yacht.
Then, one day -- could've been a Tuesday, could've been a Friday, they were all pretty much the same -- a guy walked into the restaurant with a gun strapped on under his jacket.
Not only did the guy have the nerve to come into Ray's restaurant packing -- he was swaggering around like he owned the place. Ray knew guys like that; he knew them from Chicago, where he'd busted them every chance he got, and he knew them from Vegas, where they'd usually worked for him. Even the lowest goon on the totem pole knew how to swagger just that way; it set his teeth on edge, made him want to put the guy through a fucking wall.
The guy spotted Ray across the restaurant, and he sure as hell noticed Ray noticing his piece, and Ray felt more awake and alert than he had in ages--
And then the guy smiled, all friendly-like, and walked over to shake Ray's hand. "Ray Vecchio, right? Detective Medoro."
Ray felt like an idiot.
"Nice to meet you, Detective." He started to force a smile, and found he didn't have to; the smile was already there. "You here on an investigation, or just looking for a plate of the linguine special?"
"More like a box of the special." Medoro rubbed a hand over his hair, his smile turning almost rueful. "The captain has always wanted to try this place, I guess, and -- well, to be honest, there's this conference in San Diego, and only one detective from our division gets picked to go--"
"Say no more," Ray said, grinning like a damned fool. He was an idiot. How many times had he and Huey and Louis swaggered into a place just like that? "Have a seat, I'll set you up."
The next day, he got two more: Detectives Reese and Vasquez, who just happened to have overheard that the captain liked the linguine at Vecchio's. There was a conference in San Diego, see, and only one detective got picked, and could the linguine be ordered to go?
He didn't tell Vasquez that Reese had already been there; that would've been bad for business, and no fun, besides.
The day after that, the captain himself came in, and what looked like half the division crowded around one table and burned through all available quantities of the linguine special.
By the end of the month, Ray operated what was quite possibly the safest restaurant on the peninsula. He got cops in for lunch, cops in for dinner, cops in for late-night drinks; the wine-and-cheese herd thinned a little more each week, fleeing for hipper pastures.
Stella pretended not to notice what was going on, but they got invited to fewer and fewer yacht parties -- like Stella's friends were afraid that blue collar was some kind of catching disease, and maybe Ray was a carrier. That suited him just fine, but Stella got weirdly passive-aggressive about it, and sometimes he found himself wondering if shit like that was Stella's early warning system, and if Kowalski had gone through the same thing before she'd finally kicked his skinny ass to the curb.
He spent more and more time at the restaurant, with the cops. They were real polite to him at first, Mr. Vecchio this, Mr. Vecchio that, but then someone found out he'd been a detective in Chicago, and all hell broke loose.
"You should've told us, Detective," the captain said, like that was still Ray's title, like Ray was one of his guys. Ray wasn't sure what difference it would've made if they'd known, but he smiled and nodded anyway. "Medoro, over there? First time he came back from your restaurant, he swore up and down you were with the mob. Stopped just short of running a background check on you."
Medoro went redder than the sauce on his rigatoni.
"Well," Ray said, nice and casual, "actually, I was undercover with the mob, for a year in Vegas--"
He was up until closing, telling stories about Vegas, and Chicago, and most of all, Fraser; none of them really looked like they believed his Fraser stories, but they ate them up, just the same.
It was the most fun he'd had in two years.
After closing, he called Frannie from his office in the restaurant, more than a little bit drunk on a heady combination of his own house wine and the nearly forgotten feeling of fitting in.
She was half-asleep when she answered; it sounded like he'd woken her up. "Hello?"
He smiled, clutching the phone. "Frannie?"
"Ray?" She yawned real loud, probably exaggerating for effect. "Do you know what time it is?"
"Listen, Frannie -- tell Ma--"
"If you woke up the baby, Ray, I swear--"
"Frannie." He waited until she was quiet, and tried again. "Tell Ma I'm coming home for Christmas."
When she spoke, her words were hesitant, but he could hear her smile. "Really?" And then, hardly missing a beat: "What about the restaurant?"
"I can close the damned restaurant for the holidays, Frannie." He tipped his chair back, which made the room spin, so he closed his eyes. "I want to see your kids."
He fell asleep just like that, with the phone still pressed to his ear.
In the morning, Stella woke him up by prying the phone out of his hand.
"Mmphmm," he said, which roughly translated to, hey, good morning, sorry I didn't come home last night, I love you, don't divorce me.
"Same back." She settled on his lap, which untilted the chair a little too swiftly for Ray's rather delicate condition. "Did you have fun last night?"
"Too much." He rubbed his eyes, trying not to look directly at the office lights. "I think Vasquez and I uncorked half a case of the red, just the two of us."
Stella smiled, her fingers circling tiny wine stains on his shirt. "Does that mean you're making friends?"
He smiled back, just a little; too much movement, and his head would split right open. "I think so. Either that, or the local PD thinks it's going to get a bulk discount one of these days."
She looked incredibly relieved, and that look made his chest ache. Maybe she'd been picking up on his signals, after all; maybe he wasn't the only one who'd been worrying about messing up another marriage.
He stood up, wrapping an arm around her waist to pull her upright along with him. "What time is it?"
"Almost ten," she said, not even glancing at her watch.
"Then we've got an hour 'til the restaurant opens." He kissed her, just a quick, barely-there kiss; he was going to have to eat a whole pack of mints before it could get any further than that. "Come on."
She let him tug her out of the office and halfway out of the restaurant before she finally asked, "Where are we going?"
"Just up the road," he said, and smiled. "I've got this spot in the mall I want to show you."