Starsky’s been sent to see plenty of bodies in plenty of ratty hotels, but this? John Blaine was his friend. A good friend, who taught Starsky half of what he knows and puts out on the street every day. A family man and a damn good cop. So he’s already in pieces when Hutch strolls in to announce John came back here last night with a trick – a male trick.
First instinct: no way. Not John.
Second: if it’s true god knows he’s not the first to keep that kind of a secret, and keep it well.
Third: he wishes John had told him. Knows why he didn’t. Respects it; regrets it too.
Hutch is hovering, aware that this grim scene is a lot for his partner to take in, even if he has no idea why. The scrutiny makes Starsky feel itchy and he hustles through the rest of the clean-up, ducking eyes, trying not to listen to the whispers from the uniformed cops getting their gossip on, just eager to get the hell out of that hot lousy hotel room and into some air.
Hutch follows, clinging like a limpet.
‘I’m sorry, Starsk. It’s a hell of shock for you.’
Starsky’s not in the mood for nice, or polite. ‘You talking the dead part or the gay part?’
‘Both. Either. You tell me.’
Starsky makes it to the car, makes it to opening the door with Hutch waiting on the other side – but he stops, bumping the driver’s side closed again.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he shouts across the car roof.
Hutch looks infuriatingly innocent as he folds his arms on the top of the Torino, leaning his chin on them. ‘Nothing. Just – you’re mad. He was a friend, sure, but he lied to you. Kept a whole chunk of who he was hidden away. It’s got to hurt. I’m trying to help you let it out.’
Starsky knows in any other situation he’d be grateful, and in this one he wants to punch Hutch in the mouth. He needs to watch himself, because there’s a way you can be when you’re in grief for a friend and then there’s full-on irrational red flag behavior, and he does not trust himself to land on the right side of that right now.
‘I’m sad for him, ok? Not because he lied; I know why he lied. I’m sad he had to die like that. I’m sad that in his world that’s the risk that comes with trying to live your life, cause you gotta do it behind closed doors.’
Starsky climbs into the car and revs the engine, desperate to get gone.
‘That’s a pretty generous interpretation of a cop picking up a hooker off the street,’ says Hutch, climbing in and barely hitting the seat before Starsky hits the gas.
‘Oh, is that so? Where the hell do you expect him to turn, huh? You, you want to go out, meet someone – you go to a bar, you smile, you try to make a connection on the dancefloor, buy a drink. You get talking. Maybe you go home. Maybe it works out and you’re still dating a year later, wedding bells a-ringing. Maybe it works out and you went back to yours, had some fun, the end. No harm, no foul.’
‘You seem to have come around to him being the gay playboy pretty quick, Starsk. His wedding bells rang twenty years ago, that doesn’t count for anything? And trust me. If I’m going home with a girl, you won’t see money changing hands.’
‘And why’s that, huh? It ever cross your mind that for people like him, the options are slim to none? He’s a cop, for god’s sake. Even if he could breeze into one of the two gay bars in this town without getting flagged, it’s not going to be worth it; not once someone clocks him two weeks later and he’s swimming in heat.’ Starsky takes a breath, wondering if he should stop; wondering if he’s already over a line; wondering what John would tell him to do right now if he had his time again and feeling sick at heart about the conversations they’ll never have.
He tries to slow it down, explain it so Hutch will understand.
‘Imagine it: all you want is a date. Dinner and a movie. Dinner and breakfast, why not? Except there’s no way that happens for you. Ever. So you dial a number and someone shows, who you know’s going to like you for the full 2 hours or whatever you paid for, and leave discreetly after. Why wouldn’t you?’
‘Not to mention breaking the law. He’s an officer – was an officer. He’s meant to be better than that. What you’re talking about like it’s a date, like a nice little arrangement – it’s seedy, it’s sordid, it’s exploitation of vulnerable young men.’
Starsky sets his jaw. ‘Hey! We spend half our lives talking to working girls. They’re making a living and we don’t pull em in for that, never have. You never tell them they’re seedy or sordid or whatever the hell else you want to say. You respect they got reasons. Maybe that life is their best life. So what’s so different?’
‘You know what’s different. The girls, they’re in a stable; they’re looked after. Those boys – you want to tell me they volunteered for sex work? And along comes your buddy, twenty, thirty years older, asking for it in return for a few lousy bucks. It’s disgusting.’
Starsky turns the wheel sharply and slams the brakes, pulling up with a jerk at a random sidewalk.
‘Which part?’ Starsky demands, because he’s not letting him sit there and say that, even if he is his partner. ‘Which part, Hutch?’
‘You’re being ridiculous.’
‘Two men. That’s what’s different.’ Starsky waits for Hutch to argue, and instead gets a mutinous look – but no disagreement. He’s not misunderstanding. He’s getting it loud and clear.
Starsky grips the wheel, closing his eyes. ‘Get out of my car. Get out of my car, Hutch.’
‘This – we’re in the middle of nowhere!’
‘I said get out.’ Starsky’s vibrating with anger, and he doesn’t want to but he’ll throw Hutch out with his bare hands if it’s needed.
Apparently Hutch can tell, because he flings the door open and climbs out.
‘I thought you were better than that, Hutch,’ Starsky calls out of the window as he drops into drive.
‘I thought John Blaine was better than that,’ Hutch answers, slamming the door and almost losing his fingers as Starsky speeds away.
Hutch hails a cab home, showers to cool off, and spends twenty minutes crashing around his kitchen burning things in irritation before he produces a pathetic supper of rice and greens with sesame.
His partner is an idiot. Of course it’s a tragedy when a man dies like that, same as when one of their working girls or junkies turns up dead. He just happens to think you have a responsibility as a cop not to live a high-risk lifestyle. It’s not prejudice. It’s fact. Blaine living that way – it opened him up to blackmail, exploitation, even just a sorry end from a night gone wrong. The rules are simple, like priests. Cops don’t get to be gay. There’s an end to it. Whatever his rep, Blaine wasn’t the good guy of legend after all.
Starsky will calm down, once the pain wears off. He’s smarting from knowing a man he saw as a mentor and a friend had feet of clay; someone it turns out he barely knew at all.
He’s halfway through washing up when there’s a rap at the door.
‘Hey,’ says Starsky, hands in pockets when he opens it. ‘You around? I need to talk to you.’
Hutch would rather eat that crappy meal over again if he’s honest, but he knows his partner takes things hard, and it’s not exactly common for him to throw Hutch out into the street. He’ll accept an apology with grace and offer up whatever support the man needs.
Starsky accepts a beer, but takes one sip then holds it tight, refusing to sit.
‘Hutch, I threw you out of the car because I was mad, and confused, and I didn’t know what I wanted to say. But I drove around some, and now I know. And I want you to listen, really listen, ok? Because you’re my partner. You’re my best friend. And I haven’t been straight with you, for reasons I thought were cool, but after this – after John – I can’t do that. I don’t want you feeling like I feel, not ever. Like I could’ve been there. Like I could’ve been a better friend. And – maybe that’s not how this is going to go down, because I don’t know you like I thought I knew you, but I guess that goes both ways.’
He looks bereft and distressed, staring down into his beer bottle.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Starsk.’
Starsky breathes deep, eyes closed. When they open again they’re dark and looking directly at Hutch with an intensity he rarely sees.
‘When I was talking about John going to bars, picking up guys, having no choices: that wasn’t my imagination talking. I know, Hutch. I know what it’s like to walk into a place you know you’re not safe in, where you might get clocked, where you might go home with the wrong guy. I know how it feels to be in that corner, where all you want is a connection and getting it means taking a chance that’s way past what you’d choose to.
‘And in the interests of clarity, when I say I know what it’s like, I mean I really know. I’ve picked up a man in a bar. Gone back to his place, or a hotel. Left the next morning, no shame, very happy. Not once. Plenty of times.’
It’s a good thing Hutch is already sitting because he’d be rocked off his feet otherwise. He doesn’t know whether to laugh the man out of the door or call him an ambulance for the psychotic break he’s clearly having.
‘Starsk. You’ve been my partner for damn near five years. Is this a joke? Late April Fool? You hound every woman you set eyes on. What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Yeah, I chase women. I like women. But I don’t only like women, Hutch. I’m talking about a secret I kept. From you, from everyone. Like John. And maybe I would’ve kept it forever but – god, Hutch. He died hurting, he died alone, thinking no one in his life would accept what or who he was and I hate that. I hate that me being quiet meant we never shared it, what it means, being a cop and being that way. I don’t want that. I don’t want that for me, I don’t want that for us.’
Hutch recoils, setting his drink down hard enough to spill foam from the bottle’s neck.
‘Us? What’s that’s supposed to mean? You think I want to join in? You trying to recruit me for the team?’
Starsky’s eyes go dark. ‘I don’t hit on straight men. Never have, never will.’
Hutch’s mind works overtime, rethinking every sloppy double date, every late night when they crashed in each other’s apartment, reassessing every touch, every fond word in the heat of the moment. His partner has vanished, in an instant. Starsky couldn’t have torn this partnership up more effectively if he’d set off a bomb.
‘I don’t believe you. You’re telling me you never even thought about it?’
Starsky shakes his head, his throat working. ‘I just came here to be honest. I wanted you to know who I am, as a friend. Not the version I clean up for the rest of the world. The real me.’
Hutch stands. ‘You can take the real you, and stick it. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be anywhere near it. Now get the hell out of my apartment.’
Starsky hesitates, like he’s hanging onto one last second of the old life he just lost.
Then he nods, sets down his undrunk beer, and leaves.