The day Starsky started looking for a new apartment was the day he remembered the conversation with Hutch about the interior decor of his bedroom.
It had been during one of their carefully-offhand dating debriefs in the Torino en route to a call, a couple weeks before Hutch met Gillian. Starsky was midway through complaining about the disappointing outcome of his previous night’s excursion to the roller disco — not somewhere Hutch was likely to go in search of romantic entanglements, since any entanglement he had with wheels attached to his feet would most likely be the kind to land him in the Emergency Room. He’d dated safely and sedately at a movie theatre the night before.
Starsky, predictably, had scored with his slinky roller moves and all had been going well until the interested party turned out to be not such an interested party once she saw his bedroom.
“She called it tacky, Hutch, can you believe that? Said it wasn’t her idea of fun to get naked on the set of a low-rent skinflick, camera or no camera.”
Hutch smothered a laugh.
“Well, Starsk, you do have mirrors on the ceiling above the bed. And at the head of the bed. And the foot. I mean it’s not exactly subtle. A girl could feel self-conscious.”
“Just ’cause your bed is straight outta ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ John-Boy.”
Hutch had ignored him and just looked out through the windshield for half a minute or so. And that was when the real conversation happened.
“You know, Starsk, I always wondered about that big red sign on your bedroom door. You know the one—“
Starsky hit the turn signal as they approached the junction. “Stop, Look and Listen Before You Cross the Line.”
“—yeah, that one.”
Starsky’s eyes were wide with innocence. “It’s a railroad sign. I like trains.” He checked his mirror as he turned onto Main, then looked across and winked at Hutch. “And when they go into tunnels.”
Hutch slapped him upside the head with a force proportionate to the fact that Starsky was the one driving the car.
“Ow! Would you quit that?”
“So you’d admit that having that sign on your bedroom door is a touch suggestive? Bit of a nod and a wink?”
Starsky shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s a conversation-starter.”
“Oh god, you probably have seduction lines all worked out for those traffic lights too, don’t you?” Starsky opened his mouth to answer and Hutch held up his hand like a stop sign. “No, don’t tell me. I’m better off not knowing.”
“With moves like that you’ll knock it out the park next time Dobey busts us down to traffic duty.”
Hutch ignored Starsky’s smirk. “I just wondered if that sign was working for you or against you. Like with your date last night.”
“I don’t see what you’re getting at here, Blondie. Is this some kind of New Age psychic interior decoration wisdom?”
“It’s just… I imagine if a person was thinking maybe they wanted to go to bed with you, but then in order to get to the bed they have to go through a doorway with a big red warning sign about crossing a line, that might be a thing that stopped them from actually making it to the bed. With you. Never mind that your bed thinks it’s auditioning for the Playboy mansion…”
At which point they’d arrived at the robbery-in-progress and Starsky had thought no more about it. Then, at least.
Two weeks later, their world was spun off its axis when Hutch fell ass-over-tit in love with another beautiful blonde, propelling them from action-adventure mode into a tragic melodrama worthy of Rock Hudson directed by Douglas Sirk with a melancholic soundtrack of sweeping strings.
It was Gillian who had called Starsky out on the nature of his feelings for Hutch, recognised their frightening strength and power, given them a name — twice, no less — that he hadn’t dared use before, not even to himself. You love him too, don’t you?
It was only later, as he held a sobbing Hutch in his arms while his jaw throbbed from the impact of Hutch’s fist, that Starsky had thought to question whether she’d meant he loved Hutch as well as she loved Hutch, or he loved Hutch as well as Hutch loved him, and by that time it was too late to ask. She’d been pretty clear about the strength of it, though. He couldn’t shake the memory of the yearning in her voice when she’d talked about how lucky Hutch was — “In one lifetime you have two people love you so much.”
Either way, the Gillian affair had put things in a new perspective, shown Starsky the unsettling reality of exactly what he would do in a pinch to protect Hutch. Putting the Torino up for sale was one thing, but putting others at risk? It made him ill at ease in his own skin, in his own apartment. Now each time he looked at the phone on his wall he remembered calling Hutch, then Huggy, as he struggled with the heavy weight of what to do with his new-found knowledge that Gillian’s life overlapped with their current case in ways that she certainly hadn’t shared with Hutch, ways that would pop all those red balloons their dream world was filled with.
These days Starsky lay awake thinking of every possible way to take care of Hutch, how to make him feel safe and at home in hopes of easing his grief and anger just a little. There must be some way to demonstrate his— OK, love for the man that would be less destructive than his ill-judged offer to Gillian of money for a boutique if she left town that had set in motion the chain of events that culminated in her murder.
It didn’t help that his own place had never felt too safe since the night that Bellamy had broken in and drugged him in his bed before injecting him with poison. Now, between Solkin’s vendetta against Hutch and Starsky’s kidnap by Simone, life seemed kinda stuck in melodrama mode — assassins on their tail more than once, girls in danger they often failed to protect. It wasn’t a life that let anyone sleep easy, with or without mirrors on the ceiling reflecting the demons back at you.
He and Hutch started staying over at each other’s places more, whether for practical help with bandaged hands, to keep nightmares at bay or through a simple reluctance to let each other out of their sight when life seemed to have so many plot twists in the offing.
Starsky had been so much on edge that when he saw Hutch shot in a bulletproof vest, his mind had just tipped right over, zipped straight past his knowledge of the protection Hutch was wearing and seen what he’d been dreading all these months as the bullets ploughed into Hutch’s chest and swirled him backwards through the plate glass door. When Starsky had thrown the crowd of rubberneckers bodily aside to find Hutch alive it had felt miraculous, a reprieve, but then when Hutch and his car had vanished only a few weeks later he’d been plunged into terror once more. No safe havens in this timeline.
Racing hell for leather down the slope to the wreck of Hutch’s car, at a breakneck pace that risked every bone in his body, he’d had a sense of being pulled into a whirlpool. Was it too late? What would he discover? Finding Hutch passed out but still alive he just had to touch, feel the weight of the blond head in his shaking hands (later he would remember his first aid training and get chills at the risk he had taken). Hutch struggled to speak, but Gillian’s voice rang in Starsky’s head over and over. So much. At times like this they didn’t say it, not in words, but it glowed in the air all around them.
Once Hutch was safely in hospital, stuck in traction to straighten out his leg from being trapped under a car for two days and nights for crying out loud, Starsky remembered two conversations, with Gillian and with Hutch, and went apartment hunting. Spring was in the air and green shoots spoke of new beginnings, fresh possibilities.
When he saw the tree he knew he’d found the place. Hutch, lover of driftwood, would get a kick out of a home with a tree growing through it. He’d be comfortable there. Starsky really wanted him to be comfortable there. A small creek out front with the gentle sound of running water. Hutch liked water, the canal at the cottage and the nearby surf at Venice Place. No door to the bedroom, just a run of open shelves. And most importantly, no big red sign. No line to cross. That was important.
Move the obstacles and maybe a person might find their way.
There was one thing left to do, a love letter in the form of a battered old car that looked straight outta the junkyard; though thanks to Merle, Starsky knew it would drive well. It pained him to buy it but that, surely, was the point.
Love you, buddy, terrible taste and all. Want you to be happy.
“Where are we going?”
“Taking you for a little stroll.”
The smooth roll of the chair along the corridor — down in the lift, jolting slightly on the way out — felt strange to Hutch, looking out at the world as he was from what would have been slightly below chest height under normal circumstances. The concussion from the accident had settled, his desperate thirst now just an unnerving memory but he still felt other-worldly, anchored only by Starsky’s hands behind his shoulders, steering the chair with a racing driver’s assurance.
Over the past weeks Starsky had kept him supplied with paperbacks and crosswords, brought him flowers and pot plants, taught him clock patience and poker tricks, made some ridiculous smoothie that had turned out to be banana daquiri. Today, he’d shown up wearing a big smile and Hutch’s red sweater and sweet-talked the doctor into this brief jaunt to the ‘hospital cafeteria’ on the grounds of Hutch’s mental health, to soothe his frustration at not going home for a few days yet even though his leg was now pinned and cast and no longer strung up to the ceiling.
He’d sacrificed a pair of Hutch’s best jeans by slicing up one leg to accommodate his cast and bundled him up against the spring chill in turtle-neck sweater and jacket. Now it seemed they were deviating from the route to the cafeteria and heading out into the sunny car park. Fresh outdoor air hit Hutch’s face for the first time since his rescue. Was Starsky springing him from hospital against doctor’s orders? It didn’t seem the safest move, much though he longed for it. And they had just gone straight past the Torino. He needed more information on this ‘little stroll.’
“What for, Starsk?”
That wasn’t helping. “What for?”
“I wanna let you take a peek at your new wheels.”
Hutch could hear the grin in Starsky’s voice. His heart sank.
“Oh, Starsky, you know I love you, but our taste in wheels don't exactly match, you know?”
He tuned out Starsky’s salesman patter as he looked around for whatever souped-up boy-racer monstrosity was waiting for him, though his heart did give a silly little jump at just because I like your face. Then he saw it. Nondescript beige, with one dented grey panel over the left front wheel. Dip in the roof (not made by Hutch’s ass this time). Splotches of maroon on the hood. Covered in dust.
Hutch’s heart soared with delight. That Starsky would bring him such a thing made him feel seen. Loved. Like he’d been wrapped in a warm, soft blanket. Like Starsky wanted to turn back time and stop him getting hurt.
That was the thing with Starsky. Hutch might sneak in the occasional “I love you” under cover of a “but” thrown in for insurance. Starsky never said it. But if you looked for it, if you could keep your eyes and your heart open to it, his actions spoke for him. Right now his actions were yelling. Starsky’s actual voice sounded less than certain as he asked,
“What's the matter? Don't you like it?”
Hutch lurched a little on his crutches and gathered himself to reply.
“Starsky… It's beautiful. It's… It's just beautiful.”
Starsky grimaced. “That’s what I was afraid you were going to say.”
With Starsky hovering at his elbow Hutch loped around the car to admire its battered beauty from all angles. Reaching the back windshield he read ‘Condemned c.1847’ written in the dust, replacing the previous model’s ‘WASH ME’.
“Starsk, you made an intellectual joke! ‘Circa’ and everything.”
“Hey, I’m not just a pretty face. Now be a good boy and get better quick so you can drive it.”
Hutch didn’t see Starsky much the next few days. Still, that was OK. Starsk was working, of course, and he explained he was busy moving in to a new apartment and cleaning the old one to get his deposit back. Hutch felt more content in his own company now than he had in the aftermath of the accident, anyway. The knowledge that Starsky had bought him the terrible, wonderful car sat in his chest, glowing, like molten gold; an amulet against the vulnerability he felt at being so immobile, at the mercy of the forces of the world outside.
Sometimes he limped over to the window to gaze at it in the car park. He revelled in telling the nurses that he was looking at his new car and laughing at their shocked expressions when he pointed it out.
When the day finally arrived for Hutch to leave hospital, Starsky showed up and drove him in the new terrible car back to Starsky’s new place to be looked after for a few days, helped out with physical therapy and shopping and getting around.
Starsky bounced in his seat with excitement as they approached the apartment.
“You’re gonna love it, Hutch. I already moved some of your plants so I can water them more easily. You know — the high maintenance ones, the ones who like lots to drink and romantic music. I could put a sign above the door: “Chez Starsky — R&R for Hothouse Flowers.”
Hutch’s reply flew out of his mind as he caught sight of… yes, there was an actual tree growing through the building in front of him. A living tree bent through the apartment like Starsky refusing to sit straight in a chair. Somehow it made perfect sense that Starsky, the man who defied all spatial norms, would find an apartment like this.
It took a little while and some shifting around to get Hutch up the outside steps. After some precarious swaying they ended up with the solution of Hutch shifting up one stair at a time backwards on his ass, Starsky’s manic cackling wearing down Hutch’s frustrated grumbles until he joined in with the giggling. After all, given that the house had a tree growing through it, everything was a bit crooked anyway. Why shouldn’t they find new ways of doing things, co-operate to get the job done? It all felt more like Sesame Street than a poignantly tragic Hallmark movie. He and Starsky had never been more Bert and Ernie than they were in this moment.
Hutch thought again of the big red sign outside Starsky’s bedroom. In the last week, when he’d been ready for visitors-who-aren’t-Starsky, Rosie Dobey had seized the opportunity of one of her favorite grown-ups being temporarily immobilised and turned up with her mom and a pile of picture books — Ezra Jack Keats, Rosemary Wells, Maurice Sendak. Hutch and Rosie had passed a happy hour in the company of Peter and Willie and Benjamin and Tulip and Max and Mickey, finishing up with her favorite, 'The Sign on Rosie’s Door'. Now, reaching Starsky’s new front door with the cute little hatch in it — not the greatest for security, but never mind — Hutch thought to himself, if you want to know a secret, knock three times. Not that either of them had got the nerve up to knock much more than once for secrets, not so far. But there was time again now, however much he’d thought they’d left it too late as he gazed up at the night sky…
Starsky nudged him.
“What you smiling ‘bout?”
Hutch shook his head a little, clearing his thoughts.
“Oh, just thinking about Rosie babysitting me the other day.”
“Yeah, Rosie’s worth a smile anytime. So, tell me, whaddya think?”
Starsky flung open the door with a flourish and the place opened up ahead of Hutch. He limped across the threshold on his crutches and looked around.
Warm wood-panelled walls… open shelves in the kitchen… low wooden coffee table. Striped Mexican blanket on the bright blue couch, hanging plant… French doors and balcony, plenty of art — TV of course, big wall-mounted speakers. Coffee percolator on the kitchen counter, a small desk with drawers and pigeonholes; an open wall of shelves leading to the bedroom, with a record deck, a white horse ornament, books…
Hutch hadn’t noticed in the other place just how many books Starsky had.
“So, do you like it?”
Somehow, Starsky’s voice had the same note in it as when he’d asked if Hutch liked the car. Maybe— Hutch stumbled a little on the crutches, thought distractedly that maybe the warm honey feeling of happiness in his chest would spill over, drip onto the floor. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
“I like it. But where’s the big red sign, Starsk?”
“Oh, back in the old place. That’s OK, I don’t need it.”
“What? No ‘railroad memorabilia’?”
Starsky winked. “Ah well, you’ll just have to buy me some more pieces for my train set.”
“That bed looks a little saner that your old Playboy extravaganza, buddy.”
“Yeah, confining the Playboys to one shelf these days.”
“So I see.”
“All amenities provided. You can try the bed for yourself tonight anyway.”
Hutch’s heart leaped and plummeted all at once. He swallowed. “Um Starsk…”
“It’s OK, I don’t mind taking the couch for a few nights. I got two good legs after all.”
Hutch shrugged, not an easy feat on crutches. “Well, if you can sleep without a hall of mirrors, I guess…”
Starsky grinned and gently manhandled Hutch on to the new blue couch, Hutch co-operating because after all, being manhandled by his partner was never a bad thing. Coming round to the sensation of Starsky’s hands stroking his face, taking the weight of his head when he’d found him under the car had been possibly the most welcome sensation Hutch had ever felt.
Starsky headed for the kitchen. “You want coffee? I’ll make coffee. Bring you some plants to fuss over, if you want.”
What Hutch wanted was for Starsky to sleep with him in the new bed, but his leg was aching and anyway he was too shy and tired to ask. He looked around the room again, at the warm wood and lambent colours, the openness of it all.
He could picture them, together, in this space. Maybe it wasn’t time yet. But they’d get there. He reckoned they could get there. Just needed some patience, keep the faith…
Starsky placed a mug and an African violet on the coffee table in front of him.
“Man, you look beat. OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.”
Starsky kicked off his sneakers and eased Hutch out of his jacket, bending to pull the boot off Hutch’s right foot. He piled cushions at one end of the couch and gently swung Hutch’s legs up. Then before Hutch could move, Starsky squeezed himself into the gap behind him.
“Starsky, what are you doing?”
“C’mon, dummy. Lean back.”
Hutch found himself suddenly cradled, Starsky’s knees bent up on either side of him, his back against Starsky’s chest, Starsky bearing the weight of his exhausted body like he’d held his head in his hands back in the ravine.
“That’s it. Give it up, Hutchinson. Time to rest.”
Hutch leant his head back on Starsky’s shoulder, turned his face into the warmth of his neck and closed his eyes. Telling secrets could wait for another day. For now, they were home.