If it weren’t for the pain, Starsky would have been fidgeting in his bed, anxious because he had something to tell his best friend that was life-changing--hopefully for both of them.
LIke we ain’t been through enough life-changin’ crap lately. So go for it, chicken little.
“I been thinkin’, Hutch,” Starsky said seriously around a mouthful of Hutch’s daily gift of contraband chocolate, today’s being peanut M&Ms.
Hutch faced Starsky as he sat on the hospital bed, his left hip and thigh against Starsky’s left leg. He quickly finished chewing a bite of his homemade granola bar and swallowed. “Stop the presses! David Starsky finally thinks!”
Starsky fished out an orange-colored candy before answering--an act that allowed him time to boost his courage rather than to feed his chocolate addiction. “I mean it, Hutch! This is important. Now wipe that smirk off-a your face, or I’ll have to stop callin’ you my big, beautiful blond.” He stuck his nose into the bag and inhaled the sweet fragrance of chocolate.
Hutch’s neck colored lightly. “Okay. I’m sorry, buddy. Go ahead and tell me what you’ve been pondering between choking down hospital food and enduring torture sessions at PT.”
Starsky paused, popped several more M&Ms in his mouth, giving his friend a look he knew was intense, so much so that he was pretty sure that was what caused Hutch to squirm against him.
“Not sure how to begin, Blondie.” The words he could hear so clearly came out soft and tentative and serious. He reminded himself he was doing this as much for Hutch, if not more, than himself. That he knew Hutch would go over the deep end if he, Starsky, got so much as a paper cut once back on duty, and worse if he really got injured. That he would do anything for Hutch. Nothing would be a sacrifice if it was something he did or didn’t do for Hutch. What a lousy way to begin, meathead. Just lay it out.
By Hutch’s brows drawing closer together, Starsky could tell that a little seed of fear had planted itself in Hutch’s belly, which was definitely not his intention. “J-j-just say it, Starsk.”
Starsky drew in a deep breath, licked his lips. “You know we talked about how Gunther lost ‘cause we both survived but for us to win, we need to get back on the streets together and we’re gonna work on getting me back in shape so I can pass the review board.” He stopped, not only to allow Hutch the chance to respond but to feed himself more oxygen. He reminded himself for the umpteenth time to speak more slowly and in shorter sentences.
“Yeah, that hasn’t changed. Not to keep repeating ourselves, but we have to--and want to--get back to where we were.”
“Well, I’ve kinda changed my mind a little.”
“So enlighten me, pal.” Hutch sounded wary.
“When I get cleared to hit the streets again, I want to do it for just one day.”
“What? You want to work just one day and then what? Quit?”
Starsky gulped at the sudden appearance of Hutch anger. Didn’t think it’d be that bad. “That’s enough of a win for me, Blintz. And I think it’ll be for you, too.”
“But you love being a cop! It’s who you are. You are the definition of cop.”
Hutch cut him off with a peeved, dismissive wave. “And then what do you do? And what about me? I love being a cop. Maybe I wanna stay on the streets. I thought you didn’t want anyone else to partner with me on a permanent basis--and neither do I. No one can cover my back like you. No one will ever be able to work the streets or a case with me like you.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Starsky asked, trying not to sound strident or pitiful. “Just hear me out; I’m not done yet.”
“Fine,” Hutch said with only a little less heat in his voice. “Go ahead. Wow me with your plans for our future without any input from your partner.” Hutch looked away, but not enough that Starsky couldn’t see the crevice between his eyes deepen to near canyon depths and his jaw muscles work frantically several times. Finally, he turned back to Starsky, who had taken up fiddling with his hospital shirt.
“It ain’t like that, Hutch. It’s like… like… a maybe. We both gotta agree, ‘kay?”
Hutch’s weighty sigh disturbed Starsky a little. “Okay, I’ll try not to prejudge, Starsk.”
Here goes. Starsky licked his lips, took a deep breath. “Ya know, we’ve been through a lot this past year or so. It’s been… tough.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” There was bitterness in Hutch’s tone.
Starsky cleared his throat. “I remember how, well, good it felt when I threw my badge in the ocean. How ‘bout you?”
Hutch sighed. “You know how I felt.”
“Freeing, wasn’t it.” Starsky said it as a statement, not a question. “Felt like I lost a lot of weight.”
“Me too, partner.”
“I’m thinkin’ we’re burned out. Runnin’ on empty. Got a bad case of combat fatigue. We’ve been in a kind of combat. People tryin’ to kill us, us sniping at each other -”
Hutch interrupted with a snort. “To be honest, I’d been doing the majority of the sniping. And that thing with -”
Starsky stopped Hutch from completing this version of his unending mea culpa with an insistent wave of his hand. “It’s the past, Hutch. All of it. We’re over it.” The remorse coating the beloved features of his best friend caused him to pause briefly. “Well, I am. You?”
Hutch ran a hand over his face, then looked Starsky square in his eyes. “I’m still trying to forgive myself, babe.”
The beginning of tears salted Starsky’s eyes. “Aw, buddy, stop beatin’ yourself up. I forgave myself and you, so it should be easy to forgive yourself.”
“I’m workin’ on it, Starsk. Just need more time than you did, I guess. Always have when it comes to stuff like that.”
“Yeah, you sure like wearin’ a hair shirt. I think maybe it’s ‘cause you got so little on your chest.” Hutch was not entirely successful in hiding a smile behind his hand as he smoothed his moustache with his thumb and finger. This encouraged Starsky to continue, pleased his attempt at levity had at least a positive, albeit small, effect. “Anyway, we were talkin’ about combat fatigue.”
Starsky turned a little to his left, barely managing to quell a grimace of pain, to better face his partner. “I’m tired, Hutch, and it ain’t just the drugs and the PT and all the healin’. I been tired for a long time. I do love being a cop, but I’ve had enough.” He paused to leave Hutch an opening for a response. When there was nothing forthcoming, not even a quizzical expression from the almost placid face, he resumed, feelings of vulnerability and passion surfacing uncontrolled.
“I’m tired--no, sick of being shot at, shot, beat up, knifed, eatin’ and sleepin’ at weird hours, hell, sometimes not even eatin’ or sleepin’ at all,” he said vehemently. He paused to catch his breath, but more to try to dampen his growing fury. Hutch’s total and compassionate concentration on him helped to tame him somewhat.
“An’ I’m sick and tired of hurtin’ people,” he said more softly than previously. “I can’t have people suffer by my hand no more. I hate the idea that I could hurt someone bad enough that they could suffer like this, like me. I don’t want that to happen to anybody, not even Gunther or his hit men. And”--he choked back a sob and shifted his eyes away from Hutch’s for a heartbeat, then emphatically and loudly--“I’m so sick of killing people! I’ve never kept track of how many, couldn’t stand to, but if it was twenty, that’s twenty-one too many.”
He paused to gather up the courage to speak his deepest fear--one that kept him up at times over the years, that threatened to permanently damage his soul every time he thought about it. “An’ now I’m… terrified of freezing in a gun or knife battle and you gettin’ hurt or dead because of me.”
Starsky rubbed his face several times to give himself time to get his emotions under control and wipe the tears that had trailed down his cheeks. When he stopped, he peered at Hutch this time and waited for something from him.
Still nothing verbal was forthcoming, but Starsky did hear a slight hitch in Hutch’s breath. Hutch looked at him expectantly, his expression telling Starsky he should continue, and that he understood.
“Way I see it,” Starsky went on, “I think you feel the same way I do. You know that philosophizer? I think it’s John Donne.”
Hutch’s eyes told Starsky he knew what he was referring to. “‘Any man’s death diminishes me.’”
“Yeah, that’s it. I’m diminished enough. Sometimes I feel so diminished I’m almost see-through.” He stopped to clear his throat, which had, not unexpectedly, tightened, given what he’d say next. “Mostly, if you bought it, and that’s so much more likely to happen on the street, I’d vanish to nothin’. Because I’d have nothin’, homeless.”
Hutch, eyes closed, was silent and still for so long, Starsky thought he’d fallen asleep sitting up. He chuckled awkwardly to himself when Hutch opened his eyes. Those sky-blue eyes shone. Starsky knew that was from unshed tears.
“Honest, Starsk, I feel exactly the way you do. And I think you’ve known it all along. I just couldn’t… I don’t know, couldn’t face up to it. Or define it. Couldn’t admit I’d be… homeless too without you. And that was so close.”
“‘Cause you love being a cop too, just like me. ‘Cause we’re me and thee. But I can change and so can you. We need to. Hell, I’ve changed more’n once already.”
“You mean you haven’t always been such a kid?” Hutch’s insult was said with affection.
That little remark helped Starsky shake the agonizing thought that he could be responsible for harm to the most important person in the world. He squeezed Hutch’s leg and grinned. “Well, some things never change. Back in Brooklyn, I was a tough street kid and brought that with me to Bay City. Huggy and me ran together, on the fast track to taking up residence in juvie hall, but thanks to Johnny helpin’ me and J.T. there for Huggy, we got on a better path.”
Starsky stopped, recalling some of the more harrowing messes he and Huggy got into, like boosting cars and going joy-riding at high speeds and showing up at a rumble with knives when the other gang had guns, and their surrogate fathers’ patience with them as they guided the rebellious adolescents to a safer and more legal life.
“You okay, Starsk?”
“Yeah, yeah. Thirsty is all. And wondering if the cat’s got your tongue, ‘cause you ain’t talking much.”
Hutch handed him the cup of water that had been sitting on the bedside table. He held the straw steady while Starsky took a long sip. Hutch finished the remaining water before replacing the cup on the table and refilling it.
“This is your show, Gordo, and I know you’re not done.”
“Sometimes, Hutch, you’re too damn perceptive for my own good.”
Hutch gave him a small smile. “Being perceptive makes for a good cop. We both have that attribute.”
“And so does having good judgment. Like when to let something go.”
“I hear ya, partner. So tell me more so I--we can make a decision.”
Starsky sighed, winced at the tug on the worst of the chest wounds. “Senior year in high school, an Army recruiter gave a spiel about the benefits of joining up.”
“One came to my high school, too.”
Starsky was thankful to finally have Hutch talking more. “Bet they hit every high school in the country. Anyway, didn’t think much about it, until I graduated and I got tired of hacking and car repair and bartendin’ and God knows what else. So, I marched into one of those offices and bam! Aimless Civilian Starsky became Private with a Purpose Starsky.”
“You reinvented yourself.”
“Yeah, I guess you could call it that.”
“Would you have stayed in if you hadn’t had the medical discharge?”
Starsky took a deep breath to steady his nerves that were jumping like magic beans at the thought that he was about to reveal something he’d never told anyone. “I actually liked the army and was thinkin’ about going for twenty. I was good at it. I realized I needed that discipline at the time. But I soured on it real bad during my second tour in ‘Nam. First tour, I was too stupid and gung-ho to know better. Good thing that ankle injury got me out before my enlistment was up.” He took a much needed deep breath, then to lighten up his confession, he said, “‘Sides, they made me keep my hair short.”
Hutch snickered, which told Starsky he was successful. “So John stepped in again and got you where you belong.”
“Yeah, the man was perceptive, too. I fought being a cop, still so pissed that my pop’s choice of profession took him away from me.” And eventually Ma and Nicky, too. Starsky shuddered at the rawness in his tone and the memory of his father bleeding out in his arms and his tears and angry screams at Grand Central Station.
Hutch took Starsky’s left hand in both of his. “I’m really glad John got you to change your mind. I owe him a lot.”
Starsky heard the rest of what Hutch didn’t say. So he filled in the blank. “Me, too. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met my best pal in the whole world and the best partner anybody could have.” He put every ounce of love, respect, and friendship in the words.
Hutch could only blink and smile faintly.
Starsky sensed Hutch was incapable of saying anything at the moment, so he pressed on. “I reinvented myself again. And I can do it again. I want to do it.” He paused briefly. “Have to, Hutch,” he said, the words cracking with earnestness. And he waited and watched Hutch think.
A long minute later, Hutch calmly, deliberately, released Starsky’s hand and retrieved his unfinished bar from his lap. He placed it on the bedside table. He brushed his hands over the table to dislodge any crumbs. Next, he took the nearly empty bag of M&Ms from Starsky’s right hand and laid that next to the bar. Then he placed a hand on Starsky’s thigh at the same time he caught his friend’s eyes again.
Hutch cleared his throat. Despite that, the few words came out tight. “Is that all?”
“Well, no. I want to talk about what you want, too. Whatcha think, babe?”
“Umm… I want to stay a cop, but now I’m not sure, Gordo. I’ve never really consciously thought about doing anything else or not being a cop, even after Lionel. I pretty much just wished things were… different.” He looked deeply into Starsky’s eyes as if searching for the truth--or at least an answer.
Starsky could see Hutch assembling his thoughts as if fitting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into a coherent, identifiable image. Hutch, he could tell, was close to something. Maybe an agreement, he hoped, or maybe planning a way to graciously tell him to go straight to hell and not pass Go or collect two hundred bucks.
When Hutch didn’t speak for a couple of minutes, Starsky said earnestly, “I do love bein’ a cop.” He paused, cleared his throat of what he thought of as soapy gravel that seemed to form whenever he became really emotional.
“But I love you--and us--more,” Starsky said with what he hoped reflected sincerely and honestly what he felt in the deepest part of his heart and soul.
Starsky watched in awe as the loved face that had been an open wound for more than a year hemorrhaged away to be replaced by fresh, relaxed, golden bliss. Starsky smiled with satisfaction and joy, as if the weight of the world he’d been carrying for so long had finally been shed.
Suddenly, Hutch’s head was nestled in the crook of Starsky’s left shoulder and his left hand was flat against Starsky’s right cheek. His body shook, and he made these peculiar, quiet sounds Starsky had difficulty identifying. So he took a guess.
“Hutch, darlin’, you laughin’ or cryin’?” With less effort and pain than he expected, he cupped his right hand around the nape of Hutch’s neck.
Hutch’s chuckle was as shaky as his body. Into his partner’s neck, he breathed, “Oh, babe, laughing and crying.”
“‘You know it’s the same release,’” Starsky sang the words to their melody.
Hutch sniffed hard; Starsky hoped it was hard enough that snot hadn’t soiled his skin or shirt.
Less tremulous, Hutch said, “Since when do you go around singing Joni Mitchell songs?”
“Oh, on rare occasions when somebody else’s words work better’n mine.”
Hutch laughed softly as he sat up enough but stayed close to Starsky’s face. “Oh, the wisdom and insight from the mouths of babes.”
Starsky’s heart leaped with hope at the huge smile of gratitude and relief in Hutch’s blue eyes--eyes that for too long had the color of a smoggy sky but now were back to a crystal clear California sky. “Does this mean you’re willin’ to reinvent yourself, us, after just one day back on the streets? Change something you love being?”
“I’m willing but I’m not gonna change what I love being.”
Starsky was perplexed by the weird, soft-spoken statement. “Huh?”
“I’m willing to change what I do. I’m gonna keep being what I love--your friend and partner.”
Starsky fought to keep from choking on the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. I’m the luckiest man in the world to have Hutch in my life. “Sounds like a plan me an’ thee can live with,” he squeezed out as he cupped his hand on Hutch’s damp cheek.