The author in a red dress in a Second Line processional through the French Quarter. (Laurence Kretchmer)

Hit on the head

For five years, I was haunted by a violent crime and a broken relationship. Then came a twist I never expected


Sarah Hepola
May 19, 2012 3:00AM (UTC)

When I saw the date of Charlotte’s wedding, I felt like I’d been hit on the head. What were the chances? Of all the days to get married – of all the cities to get married in – my friend had chosen the exact date that I met Nick, in the city that I met Nick.

I suspect most couples don’t know the exact date of their first encounter. But then most couples probably don’t have a police report.

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It took me a few days to decide to contact Nick. I’d been wrestling with that urge for five years now. My inbox was a shame trail of gushy letters typed after midnight, impulsive notes dashed off in the afternoon. All of them had cutesy subject lines, like the titles of Raymond Carver stories, but they should have been labeled the same thing: “Do you love me again? Have you changed your mind yet?”

But one evening in March, I sent Nick an email. My hands were trembling as I typed. It was subject lined “things you may or may not remember,” and this is what it said:

“My friend Charlotte is getting married in New Orleans on May 13, and I will be going. May 13 also happens to be the day I met you, six years ago on Royal Street with a lump on my head the size of a lime. (Life is WEIRD, right?) I'd like to see you. Is that possible?”

I hadn’t seen Nick since he came to New York City in the spring of 2007. The morning he left, we woke early and watched an episode of “The Wire,” and then he walked me to the subway in my Brooklyn neighborhood. As I descended the steps he remained at the top, peering down and smiling. He did this whenever we parted, a habit that unnerved and delighted me at once. I’d wave him away while I stood in the security line at the airport – you can go now, I’m OK – but he would just stand there. Not going anywhere, he seemed to be saying, although that was clearly a lie. A few weeks after the New York trip, he called one Friday night and ended our relationship.

“You deserve someone who can be there for you,” he said.

I responded in the most articulate way I could muster under the circumstances. “Oh, fuck off.”

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The story of how I met Nick is one I have told many times. I have told it at parties, and in essays (even in this publication), and so I might as well tell you now.

It begins six years ago, when I was in New Orleans for a different wedding. I was walking along a quiet stretch of the French Quarter with two friends around 1 a.m. when a kid yanked my purse and, when I didn’t let go, clocked me above the left eyebrow with a pistol. Nick was the detective on the case.

“That’s so romantic,” people sometimes say, although I can assure you it was not. It was violent and horrible, and flirting was the furthest thing from both our minds that night as I rattled off a description of the kid while holding an ice pack to the side of my head. (OK, it was not the furthest thing from my mind. I did look for a wedding ring. He had one.)

It never occurred to me that anything would come of that case. This was a year after Katrina. Bodies were still being found in abandoned attics. But eight months later, I received a photo lineup in the mail, and I was surprised to discover that even after so much time had passed, I knew exactly who the kid was, knew it in my bones. Four months after that I was flown to New Orleans to testify at a pre-motion trial. I mean, life is WEIRD, right?

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When I came back to New York, I was seized by a feeling that I should send a present to the recently separated detective who sat with me after the trial while I tried to shake off a grief I could not articulate. (I sent him the first season of “The Wire.”) That gift sparked a correspondence that lasted for six months. A few weeks after the kid pleaded guilty and got 15 years, I returned to New Orleans to see Nick.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” I told him once, sitting on his puffy leather couch in the nondescript one-bedroom where he’d moved after the split from his wife. “That kid gets a prison sentence, and we get each other.”

“That’s cute,” he said, threading his fingers through my hair.

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“That I care about that kid?”

“That you think life is fair.”

Around the time we began corresponding, Nick moved to the homicide department. It was grueling, thankless work. Little romance in that, either, though I romanticized it anyway, besotted as I was by true crime and mafioso grandeur and David Simon. At the time, I wrote a blog about pop culture for a sex site. Of course I wanted to hear about guns and blood spatter. Nick, meanwhile, was happy to hear about pop culture and sex. We were the perfect escapes for each other, and we had both been searching for open hatches.

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When people write about falling in love, I tend to cringe for them, because love requires a delusion that is deeply personal and impossible to explain to the world. So I’ll just say that I have doubted every relationship I’ve ever had, until that one. I was absolutely certain that Nick and I were meant to be together, and I was right. I just failed to specify how long.

When Nick broke up with me, I was devastated. Stunned. Nothing he said that night made sense to me, because it ran so contrary to the 500 conversations we’d had about how the other one was stitched into our DNA.

“The way I felt about you changed,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

If a duck calls you up one night, and tells you he’s an elephant, what do you say? How do you respond?

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I responded the best way I knew how. “Oh, fuck off.”

In the five years that have elapsed since that conversation, we have spoken only a handful of times. We have tried to be friends – he missed me, I knew that – but then our conversations would lead me down the same sorrowful path, crying in my Stella Artois, and I’d grow incensed when he didn’t return an email or call me back.

I dated other men. Kind men, whom I quite liked. But in that eye-rolling way that is native to sensitive types, and writers, and alcoholics, and hoarders of memory and other people’s affection – of which I am batting a thousand – I held on to Nick, to the idea of Nick, to the hope represented by Nick through five years of recession woes, drinking problems and personal catastrophe. I did crazy things, which I can only admit now because I don’t do them anymore: I slept in his police shirt. I got insanely drunk one Sunday afternoon and called a dozen friends, begging them to convince me not to call him. Oh, the drama. Oh, the sturm und drang. Self-pity that could rattle the cupboards.

While I bled openly in public, he remained behind a fortress of stoicism. He is as much a cop as I am a drama queen. I don’t mean to say he is callous, because Nick is a tender person. His favorite movie is “Casablanca.” I have found this to be true of other cops, who manage to wall off some soft patch of sentiment behind the barbed wire fence. One night we were at the bar when I saw him talking with great passion to another detective. I figured they were discussing a case. Turns out, they were talking about their love for “The Notebook.”

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But the few conversations Nick and I did have were a tangle of “do not cross” tape. I asked him things like, “How are you?”

He said things like, “Great.”

I said things like, “Great?” with a bit of eager anticipation, hoping he might sketch out a more detailed portrait.

Instead, he would say, “Yup.”

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There was one thing Nick told me during the breakup that did make sense, and which I held on to with both fists. He said, “I met you at the wrong time.”

I’d be walking along the Hudson River one Saturday afternoon and those words would float up into my head. Well, what would be the right time? And when I moved from New York back to Dallas, a 90-minute flight between us, those words returned. Could the right time be now?

I scoured the landscape for signs that we were supposed to be together, or that he still thought about me. A New Orleans fleur-de-lys insignia at the restaurant where I was dining: What could that mean? A book about an NOPD murder crossing my desk: Why that, why now?

It was ridiculous, it was pathetic – let’s all agree as a group – but I could not stop clinging to the notion that the universe would bend itself so that our lives would entwine once more.

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And then came Charlotte’s wedding.

I sent Nick an email late at night, when I suspected he’d still be at his desk, and by the time I woke the next morning, he had sent his response. Yes, he’d be happy to see me again. Lunch, drinks, whatever. It was exactly the answer I anticipated, which brought tremendous relief. But what came next blindsided me.

“If she’s free, can I invite my wife?”

So much can happen in five years. When I took those long walks along the Hudson, I used to wonder if Nick had remarried. I made up so many stories about him, and that was certainly one of them. What she might look like. Who she might be. I also wondered if he’d gotten back together with his first wife, the on-again, off-again high school sweetheart he married at the age of 22, three years after they had a baby together. Divorces take a year in New Orleans, and our relationship tracked exactly with that time period. He broke up with me the same week his divorce was final.

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Even now I don’t know if the email he sent refers to his first wife, or his second wife, or his third wife or his 40th, because I could not muster the nerve to ask. The fact that I find it easier to write an essay on this subject is one of a thousand strange quirks that makes me who I am. The fact that he will not tell me any of that stuff until I ask directly is one of his.

In the days that followed his email, though, something shifted inside me. It calved like a glacier. It burst like the prick of a safety pin held up to the swirly rainbow curve of the world’s largest bubble. I would have told you this was impossible. I swear to God I thought I would spend the rest of my days clinging to that stupid blue police shirt, a modern-day Miss Havisham, but now I felt different about him, much as he had once felt different about me. I did not hate him. In fact, I adored him. But I did not want to see him again. The longing was gone.

I emailed Nick a week later. The subject line read, “on second thought.” I told him I thought it was a bad idea that we see each other. I told him I had been mistaken.

I had been mistaken about so many things. I’m not just talking about Nick now. I’m talking about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives: That it is absolutely going to be this way, or it is absolutely going to be that way. It is fated. It is doomed. It is destined. It is done. I have believed so many lies about myself, for so many years, and closed the lid to lie down inside those coffins. I thought I could never stop drinking, but I did. And I thought I could never be happy in the city where I grew up, but I am. And I thought I would go to my grave crying for the cop in New Orleans who didn’t love me back, but I don’t feel that way anymore. In fact, I feel kind of grateful. I’d be a horrible cop’s wife. Are you kidding me?

We don’t know how our stories end, and the greatest plot twists are the ones we never saw coming. There is a line that I love. “God is a first-rate novelist.” It’s from Richard Price’s introduction to David Simon’s book, “Homicide.”

So I went to New Orleans, six years to the day after I’d been pistol-whipped, but that date has a new significance to me. Charlotte’s wedding was so lovely. It was full of personality, and color, and the peculiar language shared by two people as their lives interweave. After the ceremony, we paraded through the French Quarter behind a brass band in a Second Line procession. As we passed crowds watching us on Chartres, I kept wondering if I might catch a glimpse of Nick. I did not. But somebody did run into Leonardo DiCaprio. (Life is WEIRD, you guys.)

The next afternoon I took one last stroll through the Quarter before heading out of town. I snapped a picture of the sign on Royal Street, the same street where I had been mugged, the street where I first told Nick I was in love with him. That street is a knot of complicated meaning to me.

I couldn’t help laughing at the big ONE WAY sign hanging right below it. I know it doesn’t mean anything. But I took it as a message from the universe that it was time to move on.


Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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