Starsky turned to smile at his lover, who was sitting at the scrubbed kitchen table frowning at the day book open in front of him.
“You need to wear your glasses.”
“You need to write in something clearer than a thumbnail dipped in tar. What’s this say for Sunday?”
Starsky came to look.
“Barbecue at Gil’s. Clear as a bell.”
“If you say so. That’ll be nice - Zac loves going there.”
“Plenty of trees to climb.”
“Maybe we can tire him out for a change.”
“You mean running two miles along the beach with you and Viking doesn’t?
“Viking and I are both slowing down-Zac’s speeding up!”
Hutch’s hand went down to caress the black and white dog leaning against his knee. Viking was ten now, and no longer the bolt of spotted lightning he had once been.
Starsky caught the gesture and moved to drop a kiss on the blond head.
“He’s got a lot of years in him yet, honey.”
“Yeah, but...” Hutch caught himself with a little shake. “Anyway, we’ve got a Parent/Teacher consultation at 1.30 on Thursday.”
“Great. I’m free that afternoon. You can bring Zac to pick me up after and we can go do something …...”
“I know you’re free- that’s why the meeting’s scheduled for then. Mr Adams wants to see both of us.”
“Oh no! We agreed. You do school stuff!”
“I know. But he said it was important we both came this time- there’s something he wants to discuss”
“Ah, shit. It’s the two dads thing, isn’t it? If the other kids have been giving him a hard time, I swear to God I’ll......”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. He may just want to confirm that Zac actually has two parents....”
“I told you, babe. Schools and me-we just......”
“I know . Don’t worry- I’ll do the talking. Did you know your noodles are boiling over?”
With an oath, Starsky leapt back to the cooker, and, laughing, Hutch went to find their son. The six year old was lying on his front on the floor of the den, his nose three inches from a book, a pack of playing cards in his hands. For a while Hutch stood quietly in the doorway, unwilling to break his concentration despite the insistent voice from his own childhood telling him that Zac’s chosen position was bad for his eyes, his clothes, his posture and the book. As he watched, however, the cards suddenly flew across the room, and the book would have followed it if he had not taken two long strides and gathered the child firmly into his arms.
“Isaac-you must not throw books!”
The little body was rigid, and he took the clenched fists in his hand to stop them battering at his chest.
“I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”
“Card tricks are hard. You’re doing very well-you did it perfectly this morning.”
“I’m not! I didn’t! I just can’t do it! Dad showed me, but...”
“He’ll show you again. And you’ve got the book.”
“I HATE the book! Books don’t WORK!”
Hutch managed to ignore this heresy, once again thinking back to his own childhood, and remembering the frustration of things not working out the way he saw them in his head.
“Come and have dinner, then.....”
“I don’t want any dinner!”
“You still have to come.”
“Well, because otherwise you’ll be hungry later. And Dad’s made your favourite, so it’d be rude not to come and eat some. We’re not rude to each other in this family.”
For a long moment he held his breath-sometimes his insistence on good manners seemed more trouble than it was worth. Then suddenly, the tense little face relaxed into a sunny grin and a hand slid into his.
“All right, papa. And then dad’ll come do magic with me.”
Hutch looked down into his son’s sparking green eyes.
“Smile at him like that, buddy, and he certainly will.”
The grin spread a little more.
“I know. Especially if I eat the noodles.”
Later- much later- showered, in pyjamas and in Starsky’s case, clutching a glass of milk and a plate of cookies- they collapsed on the sofa to watch the news.
“Remind me whose idea it was to have a kid.”
“Oh yes. So it was.” Starsky grinned. “I always have the best ideas! Just didn’t expect to have to deal with a 6 year old with your IQ, that’s all!”
Hutch laughed. “So you think he’s mine, then?”
The cookie in Starsky’s hand stilled halfway to the glass.
“I thought we’d agreed not to think about that til we have to.”
Hutch reddened-cursing the fact that in his forties he still blushed like a teenager.
“Well yes. But you do think about it, surely”
“No. We agreed we wouldn’t, so I don’t.”
Starsky’s voice was unexpectedly cold, and Hutch began to panic a little.
“I’m sorry. I try but I just can’t stop myself.”
“So why did you agree?”
Hutch felt the chill- and the panic increased. Floundering for a moment, he realised that as always with Starsky, only complete honesty would do.
“Truth? I thought we’d know the minute we saw him.”
For a moment., the chill remained. Then with a sudden laugh, Starsky pulled his lover into his arms and kissed him.
“I might have known! Your brain must have gone into overdrive when it turned out he was a mini-Melissa!”
Hutch nodded shamefacedly, and earned himself another kiss.
“Oh man, I love you and I love that hamster wheel in your head!”
“It won’t be long until we need to find out anyway. The way he’s going he’ll be asking questions any day now.”
“I know. I wish we didn’t have to. I’d like to leave that envelope sealed up in Gil’s office forever.”
Hutch hesitated a moment, then took a cookie, broke it in half and dipped it into Starsky’s glass.
“Hey- there’s plenty milk and cookies in the kitchen!”
“I only want half, and yours always tastes better.”
“Getting crumbs in my glass....” Starsky grumbled, pushing the plate a little closer, smiling as Hutch absent mindedly took the other half cookie.
“Starsk-we talked about it at the time, but tell me again why you didn’t want to know.”
“I just wanted him to be ours-not yours or mine. I didn’t want anyone to know, not even Gil. I mean, I knew Gil had to do the test in case of something medical happening, and that meant he’d know, but I didn’t want him to.”
“Oh babe- he’ll always be ours!”
“I know- but.....anyway, he’s so clever he’s got to be yours, Mr Class Valedictorian…..”
“It was no big deal-it came easy to me.”
“That’s what I mean. Remember you at the academy- all you had to do was look at a book and you aced the test. Me? I only got through because you coached me.”
“The book part, anyway. You dragged me in your wake through loads of other stuff.”
It was an old, comfortable argument and they settled into it comfortably as they settled into the sofa- Starsky stretched out with his back against the arm, Hutch leaning against his chest. As he leant, Hutch felt that chest rumble with laughter.
“What’s so funny?”
“Remember the night we made Zac? You all solemn with your choir boy face heading off to the bathroom with the little cup thing as if we were doing some sort of momentous science experiment.......”
Hutch blushed again. He remembered. Starsky had grabbed him, laughing. “Oh no you don’t, blondie. I’m doing that. And you’re doing me. Straight couples have fun making babies-why shouldn’t we?”
And it had been fun. They had laughed as they kissed and cuddled and jerked each other off, struggled with the size of the cup, nearly spilling the precious fluid,”No worries, we’d just have to do it again” then laughed again as Starsky sealed the vial up, shook it, and produced a bundle of pink and blue ribbons decorate it.
“You nut! Melissa’ll change her mind, she’ll think we’re too insane to have a baby.”
Suddenly solemn, Starsky had met his eyes, no hint of laughter left.
“No. Melissa will know that we’re making this baby with as much love and joy as we know how.”
Hutch lay back against his lover, remembering how they had stood for a long moment, looking into each other’s eyes, holding the vial between them before Starsky rushed off to deliver it. Then he turned his face for a kiss.
“How do you feel about an early night?”
“I’m not tired”
“Neither am I.”
That was the moment a wail of combined rage and fear rose from Zac’s room. Starsky sighed.
“Great timing that kid has. I know the deal. You do homework and I do nightmares. Go get ready for bed. I’ll be in soon. Don’t start without me. Well, maybe get started a bit......”
Starsky headed towards the ever increasing yells, then turned round.
“We’ll ask Gil for that envelope on Sunday.”
Thursday afternoon found Hutch sitting on the wall outside the school in the sun, watching his partner park his dark blue official car in a “staff only” space. He smiled in anticipation-he’d been asleep when Starsky had left for work early that morning and he was looking forward to seeing him-but the greeting froze on his lips. Starsky had smartened up a little since the old days on streets, but this was something else.
“What you looking at? Had a meeting with the Chief this morning.”
“Since when have you worn dress blues for a meeting with the Chief?”
“Since today. Don’t look at me like that. It doesn’t do any harm to remind people is all.”
“Starsky, you’re not interrogating Mr Adams!”
“No. He’s interrogating us.”
“Just go easy, OK?”
“No push and shove? Not promising, babe. If I need to stand up for our kid, I’ll do it.”
“Remember, we’re all on the same side! Anyway- it makes me happy- you look sexy in uniform!”
“Shut it,Hutch....someone might be listening!”
Hutch was about to tease some more, when a look in Starsky’s eyes stopped him, and he settled for a reassuring pat on the stomach.
“Soon be over.”
“Can’t be too soon for me. These places make me feel....” Starsky shivered a little and edged closer to Hutch as they moved down the brightly painted corridor. Hutch could feel the tension radiating from him and wondered at it. He knew that school had been difficult for Starsky, but he had never been able to find out more than “I was good at football. And shop. But I sucked at everything else and they didn’t account for much” or “Me and the whole school thing never really clicked. And maybe being Jewish didn’t help.” Any more probing got him nowhere-producing some version of “Nothing more to say, babe- water under the bridge.”
Resolving to try again in the not to distant future, he pulled open the door, and ushered Starsky into their son’s bright airy classroom. The young teacher came forward, hand outstretched and smiling.
“Good to see you, again, Mr Hutchinson.”
“And you. This is Zac’s other father, David Starsky. Starsk-this is Joss Adams.”
The teacher’s eyes widened slightly at the uniform as he offered his hand.
“Welcome, Mr Starsky.”
“I am sorry-Captain Starsky. Won’t you take a seat?”
Used to the routine, Hutch perched on a child sized chair. Starsky hesitated, then, to Hutch’s loving amusement, sat on a nearby table.
“So. How do you two feel Zac’s doing?”
Hutch opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, Starsky said “That’s why we’re here, surely. So you can tell us?”
Ah, shit, thought Hutch-he’s getting antsy already. Sending a silent “Softly!” message he smiled at the teacher.
“He’s learning a lot, he has plenty of friends and he’s happy to come to school. What else can I tell you?”
Mr Adams doodled a complicated curlicue on his pad.
“We have some concerns, and I wanted to discuss them with you both as early as possible-so we can think about how we can work together.”
Hutch felt Starsky tense, and wished he was close enough to put a cautioning hand on him.
“Zac’s been involved in an increasing number of ...altercations with his classmates...”
“I knew it! It’s because of our family set up, isn’t it? I swear to God......”
“Captain Starsky, this is California. You’re not the only unconventional family in this school. You’re not even......” Adams’ dark eyes flicked over Starkey’s uniform and Hutch’s blue button down, chinos and tassel loafers.....”the most unconventional. And I assure you we do not tolerate bullying-and that definitely includes comments on other student’s family background.”
To Hutch’s relief, Starsky subsided, although he knew that his partner would have something to say later about teachers not knowing everything that went on in the dark corners of the school yard.
“So, what is the problem, Mr Adams?”
“Have you noticed that Zac can get very frustrated when things don’t go his way?”
“He’s 6 years old!”
“Yes. But I think there’s more than that. He has lots of friends- but he finds it unusually difficult when they don’t want to follow his lead. To be frank, they usually do-he has a lot of charisma. I believe it’s thanks to you, Captain Starsky, that I have a class of budding David Copperfields- but if one of them wants to do something else it can get tricky.”
“Tricky? What does that mean?”
“I think it’s also thanks to you that Zac is handy with his fists.....”
Hutch hastily stepped in, shushing Starsky’s response with an almost imperceptible gesture- a legacy from their days on the streets.
“I’m sorry about that, Mr Adams. We’ll certainly speak to him about fighting and keeping his temper. Is that all?”
“No. I also wanted to talk to you about his academic work. You must be aware that he is very bright indeed.”
Starsky had obviously decided to opt out of the discussion, rather to Hutch’s relief.
“Yes- I think so. He certainly soaks up information. Who knew there was so much to know about about Mars? And black bears?”
Mr Adams added some more curlicues to his pattern.
“We did a series of assessments earlier in the week. Zac’s results were very interesting-but unusual. It showed his IQ as very high indeed and his facility with numbers is significantly above the normal range for his age. However his reading age is well below where we expect it to be. Frankly, he can hardly read at all.”
“That can’t be right. He loves books!”
But Hutch was thinking.
“Starsk- he loves stories. He loves being read to. And he loves books with lots of pictures. That encyclopaedia Kiko gave him. That’s all pictures.” Hutch’s mind was starting to piece things together. “And on Monday he said that he hated books-that books don’t work. Mr Adams, what are you telling us?”
The curlicues grew more complicated, and Starsky’s knee began to jiggle. Hutch longed to put a hand out to still it.
“Mr Hutchinson-Captain Starsky, have you heard of Attention Deficit Disorder?”
That brought Starsky angrily to his feet.
“Are you saying our son’s retarded? Because.....”
“Starsk, no! Hush. Let Mr Adams talk. This is important”
“Thank you. We’ll need to do more tests, but it certainly looks as if it’s a likely diagnosis. The impulsiveness, the intense focus, the difficulty with handling frustration. And crucially, the issue with the written word.”
Starsky was quivering- but he was now close enough for Hutch to lay a gentle hand on his arm.
“I really find it hard to believe that he can’t read. How did we not notice?And isn’t it your job to teach him? How come you didn’t notice? ”
“You say he likes to be read to. Zac has what we call an eidetic memory. That’s not uncommon in kids with ADD. It means.....”
“I know what it means.” Starsky’s voice was tight. “Excuse me-that’s my pager.”
He was out of the room, slamming the door before Hutch could say a word. He let out a long held breath and turned back to the teacher.
“I’m sorry, he’s on call this afternoon”
“I understand. I’ve got some books here you can borrow-will you come back when you’ve read them and we can discuss the way forward?”
“I think that’s a good idea. Thank you.”
Hutch was getting to his feet, when Mr Adams stopped him.
“This doesn’t make any difference, Mr Hutchinson. Zac is still the same loving, funny, clever child you gave breakfast to this morning. And he’s still a delight to have in my classroom. All this means is that we can find ways to give him an easier life.”
His vision blurring for a second, Hutch shook Mr Adams’ hand, and, metaphorically shaking himself, went to find Starsky.
He tracked him down to the end of the empty school yard where the trees that regularly destroyed Zac’s clothes were. He was sitting on a picnic table, back against the wall, eyes suspiciously bright. Hutch’s heart lurched with love as he approached, and moved an Oxford shoed foot to make room to sit.
“Pager something important?”
They were silent for a while. In the distance was the busy hum of purposeful activity that characterised the school, but down here amongst the trees in their own little bubble they were alone.
“Got a handkerchief?”
Hutch dug in his pocket and handed one over. Starsky dried his eyes and blew his nose.
“Guess there’s no need to open that envelope now, huh?”
Hutch considered pretending not to understand, but rejected the idea. Always honesty with Starsky.
“Did that sound like you?”
“Yes. Except that not being able to read made me stupid or lazy, not someone who needed help. And losing it in the school yard got me beaten by the teachers and beaten up by the other kids. And my eidetic memory-don’t look like that- how do you think I always knew all the details of every case we handled?-got me called a cheat. They didn’t know how I was doing it-they just knew I was cheating. Because I had to be, right? How could the ugly, dumb kid actually know stuff?”
Starsky mopped at his eyes again, and Hutch put his big hand round the ankle next to him.
“S’OK. Water under the bridge.”
“What happened next?” Hutch asked softly.
“Dad got shot, I went off the rails. Mom couldn’t handle me and the next thing I knew I was on the bus to California. No discussion. Just shipped out. I was so angry, Hutch. So much rage. And so much grief-but I didn’t know that then. I went to school here for a week. Long enough to get the stupid and lazy label back. I wouldn’t go any more, but I’d been there long enough to make some shit connections and I was sinking fast. Then the Blaines moved in next door and John started his boy’s club. Uncle Al gave me an ultimatum. He’d get me a job with Merle and if I stuck to it and went to the club I could stay. If I didn’t it was Children’s Services. I don’t know if he would have gone through with it, but it certainly gave me a jolt. John discovered I couldn’t read-and he didn’t think I was stupid or lazy or worthless. He just kept working with me until I could.” He gave Hutch a hint of a smile. “And as you know, once I started I never stopped.” Starsky fell quiet, then sighed. “Oh,man, Hutch, I wish I’d known then that there was a name for it.”
There was a long silence. Then, very quietly,
“Don’t you fucking apologise. Don’t you DARE apologise for anything you are!”
“But I made Zac the way he is…”
“Yes you did. You made him funny and brave and clever and loving and adorable and naughty and witty and everything that makes him Zac. Maybe his brain might work a little differently to the norm, but so does yours, and I’ve loved you for twenty years and him for six. And I love you both a little more every day. And I’ve just thought of something! Maybe now Zac can explain you to me. Because I think we should grab him out of class and go for ice cream and I really want to know what it is about mint and liquorice as a combination that appeals to the two of you.”
He caught his lover’s eye, and raised one eyebrow a fraction of an inch-All OK? A hesitation, then an infinitesimal nod - Yeah, nearly there.
“It’s the chocolate sprinkles brings them together.” Starsky got to his feet and patted Hutch just above the belt buckle. “You just wouldn’t understand, single dip peach sorbet man.”