Kowalski
by Pares

for cherryice

People ask her why she kept his name. People ask her why she took it in the first place. She never answers, just gives a long cool stare until the speaker fidgets and looks away.

When she took his name, she had been twenty-one. Ray had asked her to marry him when they were both nineteen (in point of fact, Ray had asked her to marry him when they were twelve), but she'd made him wait until they were old enough to drink at their own wedding. He'd had nothing to give her, really. Nothing but two rings and his name. Even after the divorce, she'd kept all three.

Stella Kowalski nee Palmer had taken Ray's name because she liked it; she liked how it sounded, she liked what it stood for. It was a blue collar Polack tough guy name. It came with Ray's tense shoulders, his boxing stance, that little wag of his head that said You wanna take a swing at me? And she'd wanted just a touch of that. There was more to being a lawyer than courtroom polish, and if she wanted to get anywhere, she'd need to have some Chicago steel under that string of pearls.

It had served her well, that touch of steel. Ray's cop face and her cool lawyer eyes and their last name.

Even when she'd first thought about divorcing Ray, she'd never considered changing her name. Part of that was practical-— she'd battled to get where she was, and people knew her as ADA Kowalski. Part of it was simple courtesy; her mother had always told her it was devastatingly rude to return a gift given in good faith. And partly, she felt she owed it to Ray. His name was who she was, now. She'd grown up with Ray, and she'd taken his name and used it to carve herself a place in the world of crime and punishment, and if keeping it left Ray some hope that one day he could win her back... Well.

For a year after they'd finalized it, Ray had come around maybe every two months or so and she'd let him in. They made love on her couch or in her shower and in the morning she'd always shown him the door. Once the year had passed (Ray had spent what would have been the first anniversary of their divorce going down on her in the back of his car) she had stopped answering the door.

*

He'd been in Canada over a month when Frannie stopped her in the hallway. She'd been at the 2-7 refusing to cut a deal with Gelman's lawyer. She hadn't been interested in dealing with a man who had siphoned off the pensions of over two hundred employees—- she wanted him to rot in prison until he was too feeble to feed himself. To go gray on the Inside. (Get a nice striped tan, right through the bars. Ray used to say that.) That was justice.

"Hey," Frannie had said.

"Ms. Vecchio." Stella fought the impulse to check her watch.

Frannie squinted at her and cocked her head.

"Look, last night? My brother told us that you two are getting married, so you can call me Frannie, you know. If you wanted."

Stella paused; frankly, Frannie made her nervous. She had given Stella not a few flinty looks after altercations with her ex-husband at the station, and now that she'd somehow decided to marry into the family (again-— after all, she'd been Ray Vecchio nee Kowlaski's wife once, too) she wasn't sure how to go about getting to know them. Ray's family had known her since the seventh grade, and Ray hadn't had any sisters to appease.

"I'd like that," she said. "And please, call me Stella."

Frannie didn't smile, but her face softened and she gave a decisive little nod.

"He really loves you, I can tell." Frannie said, after they exchanged awkward looks and Stella risked a glance around the hallway for anyone who might be listening. "And I trust him. Ange was really great. But they didn't work out."

"That happens sometimes." She was wary; Frannie might have an allegiance to Ray's first wife that might prove problematic for her.

"Yeah," sighed Frannie. "I was married once. When I was nineteen. Joey Traccione."

"That's young to be married," Stella offered.

"He was older and I was stupid. He drank," she said, and there was something hard in her voice.

Stella surprised herself by saying, "Ray drank." Frannie's eyes widened. "But he stopped. A few years before we broke up. And he never hit me," she added.

Frannie's mouth thinned and she ducked her head. Stella touched her shoulder and met her eye; she had to let Frannie know she hadn't been bragging.

"I was lucky. But if he hit you, you were smart to get out of it. So many women stay, so many women think they have to let it happen."

Frannie's eyes were dark with gratitude, and Stella noticed for the first time how very small Frannie was. In previous meetings, she'd hardly spared Frannie any attention at all, except to notice that she certainly had no problems making herself heard, but now, with Frannie looking up at her, with her big eyes and her Vecchio nose, Stella found herself thinking of children, the children she'd never had with Ray, the children she didn't plan to have with Ray Vecchio.

Then Frannie blinked and that tough little take-charge person was there again.

"So, are you keeping your name?"

"Yes," Stella answered crisply. Ray already knew, and he had no problem with it. He'd only known her a month, but he seemed to know all the important things about her, and he seemed to understand them better than her first husband ever had. She had wondered about that, about perspective and childhood and first love.

There was a silence like the hush of a church before the wedding march played.

"Why'd you keep his name, anyway?" Frannie looked like she already knew, somehow, and so Stella answered her.

"I loved him."

Frannie's expression was expectant, so Stella gave her the whole answer.

"I still love him," she admitted. She met Frannie's eyes and saw that Frannie didn't look surprised, or outraged on her brother's behalf. She looked satisfied, relieved.

"Good," Frannie said simply. "Now I can let you marry my brother." She took Stella's arm, hooking their elbows together companionably as she led them down the hall. "Unfortunately, that also means that you have to come meet the rest of the family. Come to dinner tonight, and bring a nice California red. Ma likes red wine, but if you bring something too pricey she'll think you're trying too hard to impress her. Now, Maria, she likes Chilean chenin blanc, but if you bring two bottles, Ma's gonna think you drink too much--"

END


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