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LYING IN WAIT
I've always been a strong believer in keeping your eyes on the road while driving, but I couldn't help but glance periodically to my right as the Torino threaded its way through the Thursday mid-morning traffic. It was a nice, sunny September day. Traffic was sparse, but I found myself driving carefully, not trying to dodge any yellow lights. I'm not sure why, because I don't think I was doing Starsky any favors by stalling the inevitable.
He was all hunched down in the passenger seat, the same old blue jeans, a pale blue t-shirt, and his blue windbreaker. He'd asked earlier what he was supposed to wear, and I told him it didn't matter, considering he'd be taking it all off in a short while. Of course, the major difference in his appearance was his lack of a weapon, which had been left at home. But his shades were pulled down over his eyes, and his mouth was wearing that little frown that had persisted there the past two months. In his lap was his little blue duffel bag. He presented a pathetic picture. But I'd run out of encouraging words some time ago, so I wasn't saying much at all. Besides, words don't work with him as much as just being there.
We stopped at yet another light, and I reached over and patted his shoulder. "Hey, watch those frown lines. You'll get wrinkles."
He made a heavy sigh, like he was apologizing for not being in the mood for a retort.
"Just think, Starsk, a few hours from now and it'll all be over." Of course, it really wouldn't be, but I was thinking about the part he was most afraid of.
"Yeah, sure," he pouted. Assuming I survive it, I know he was thinking.
We were silent as we continued from light to light, then he suddenly looked over at me and asked, "How come in, all this time, you haven't said anything?"
I didn't know what he meant. "About what?"
"About how my gall bladder got full of stones in the first place."
"Oh," I said, "you mean your poor eating habits that I've been ragging on for years?"
I shrugged. "Being operated on is punishment enough, isn't it?"
He perked up a little then. "Well, Doc didn't say it was necessarily from my eating habits. I mean, some people get lung cancer even when they've never smoked."
I sighed wearily. "Starsk, if you're determined to go back to your same old food habits after this is all over, it's not like I can stop you. I'd just tend to think something like this would make you reconsider some of your ways. But I'm not going to sit here and lecture you about it." I hoped he was grateful that I hadn't lectured him at all, especially since it had been damned tempting.
Well, in a way it had. In another way, I felt downright sorry for him. It didn't seem right. My buddy has had his body torn open by bullets, and then torn open some more by surgeon's scalpels looking for those bullets and trying to repair the damage they'd caused. And all those scars stemmed from the line of duty. So it wasn't fair that now Starsky was going under the knife again, for no reason other than that his gall bladder decided it liked to create little stones. And unlike those other times, when the surgeries were a frantic matter of saving his life, in this case he'd had two months to think about it.
It had all started a while back with him going through bouts of not feeling well. It was never anything serious enough to keep him from work, or to in any way incapacitate him; but he'd just up and say, out of the blue, "I don't feel very good." It was usually an hour or so after he'd eaten. When I started to nag him about seeing a doctor, he quit complaining. Then when it was time for the annual departmental physicals in July, I guess the way he answered some of the questions on the form alerted the doctors. They made him take some tests, and the next thing we knew he was being scheduled for surgery, two months hence, to have his gall bladder removed.
It didn't matter that it was a routine operation, didn't matter that the doctor said it was one of his favorite surgeries "because the patient always feels better afterwards" -- Starsk was still scared out of his wits from day one. And it's not that I blame him. The idea of having someone cut into your body, especially when there's nothing seriously wrong with you, is something that no human being in their right mind would look forward to. On the other hand, making it into more than it was wasn't going to solve anything. So, I tried to be as encouraging as I could.
But Starsky still insisted on seeing an attorney to update his will "just in case." I told him he was being morbid, but I have to admit it came at a convenient time. We'd been meaning to get a Power of Attorney for each other, and just never had gotten around to it. One night, maybe six months ago, we'd started talking about how our affairs would be handled if one of us died or was in a coma. We agreed that we wanted each other to have that responsibility. And that included making the decision to pull the plug, if one of us was in a vegetative state. It's not easy talking about things like that, and we both downed a fair number of beers during the conversation. Before the night was over, we'd gotten maudlin and were sniffling and clinging to each other. Neither of us wanted to ever be a vegetable, but we forgave each other in advance that night for taking a long time to pull the plug, if the one left behind was having a hard time coming to terms with letting the other go.
We used to have different attorneys, of course. But mine moved out of state, so it just made sense to have Starsky's lawyer, a Mr. Anderson, handle my affairs, too. That way, one person would have a better chance of understanding how important we were to each other, and therefore not cause any hassles for the one left behind. So, Starsk and I went to see him earlier in the week. I have to admit, after all these years my partner still surprises me sometimes. He's usually such a little kid. But when the situation calls for it, he can be so mature that it's mind-boggling. And as we sat there in Anderson's office, carefully going through each of our wills, detail by detail, Starsky was so attentive and involved in what was being said that you would have thought him some kind of Harvard graduate, blue jeans and all. I was real proud of him.
After leaving the building, Starsky had asked me, "So, whaddya think? Anderson's pretty cool, huh?"
I glanced at him as we made our way to the car. "I think he thinks we're queers."
He seemed surprised at that, his innocent expression contorting itself into a puzzled frown. But Starsky didn't dwell on that aspect. Instead, he said, "Well, even if he does, it's not like it's gonna affect how he handles our affairs."
He needed reassurance, so I went to the point. "Right. I didn't mean otherwise. I just think he thinks that we're queers."
Starsky sighed then, as we reached the car. "Well... it doesn't bother you, does it? I mean, since when have you ever cared what other people think?"
"I don't. I'm just saying he thinks we're queers." I shrugged. "He's great, Starsk. I trust him. It's good having all that stuff taken care of."
Actually, the problem with taking care of things in case of your demise is that once you have everything figured out to your satisfaction, it suddenly dawns on you that you have to die before any of your plans can be carried out. I've always thought there was something weird about that.
Of course, Starsky's mind in recent weeks hadn't been on anything else but dying. He kept pointing out the stories he'd heard -- people not waking up from surgery because they were put under too deep; people having a cardiac arrest even in the midst of a very simple procedure; patient records getting switched and having something removed that wasn't supposed to be removed. In fact, as a prime example of the latter case, Starsky has told me no less than 80 times about the man who went in for an appendectomy and had his penis removed instead.
"They cut off his dick, Hutch," Starsky kept saying. "He went to court over it, but he ain't never gonna get his dick back. It got tossed out with the trash."
I finally got so sick of listening to that story that I told him, "Starsky, if they accidentally cut off your cock, I'll still love you, anyway. All right?" He finally shut up after that.
But he was still scared, and grew more so as the dreaded day approached. Of course, I stayed with him last night. He wasn't supposed to eat or drink anything after seven o'clock, so I was there to make sure he didn't, though I knew he wouldn't dare take a chance on disobeying doctor's orders and causing something to go wrong. But I stayed there anyway, because I knew he'd need someone to complain to about the injustice of it. And he did complain -- but not nearly as much as I'd expected. He was too busy worrying himself silly about everything that could go wrong. And of course he didn't get any sleep. And that meant I didn't, either. There's drawbacks to being so closely tuned to each other.
Finally, we were at Memorial. I drove around the parking lot twice before finding an open space. I pulled the Torino into it, and as we got out, Starsky looked at the tomato for a long time, like he might never see it again. He'd been that way earlier in the morning.
"Oh, no," he'd insisted, "we aren't taking that heap of yours to the hospital." He looked me right in the eye. "This could be my last ride, you know. I want to take the Torino."
All my protests about how full of nonsense he was died on my lips. I'm not sure why. It just suddenly didn't seem important to argue with him about it. But I didn't want him behind the wheel in the mood he was in. "Fine, but I'm driving." He didn't say a word, just got in the passenger seat.
We walked into the main receiving area and followed the signs to the check-in counter. Starsky pulled out all his paperwork from two days prior, when he'd gone in for some sort of "pre-admission" thing, where they took samples of his body fluids and did other routine tests, and had him fill out most of the forms. So, he didn't have to spend much time at the counter. Then we were told what room he was assigned to and where to find it.
It was on the fifth floor. We didn't talk as we rode the elevator, but I was glad that when the doors opened the floor appeared to be newly remodeled. We checked in at the nurse's station and were led to the room. When the arrangements had first been made, Starsky had asked for a private room, even though it meant he'd have to pay himself for the difference between that and a regular room. But we knew it would be worth it. In addition to not having to deal with a roommate, it had been our experience that visiting hours aren't as strongly enforced in private rooms.
Once in the room, which also looked new and therefore a little more welcoming than most, the nurse, Holly, looked at her watch and said, "You're scheduled for surgery in about 45 minutes." She indicated a white pile at the edge of the bed. "Get completely undressed, put this on, and I'll be back to take your temperature and start an IV."
Starsky took a deep breath. "I have to take off my underwear, too?" He was dead serious, though considering how many times he'd been in those hospital smocks, he surely already knew the answer. But I couldn't blame him for asking. If the doctors don't have to be naked during surgery, it's never made sense to me why the patients have to be, if the surgery isn't in that area of the body.
Holly smiled a little. "Well, you can hang on to them a while if you want, but they have to come off before we take you downstairs."
I liked her right away. She seemed to understand how vulnerable people can feel in hospitals. It wasn't like she was laughing at him.
After Holly left, Starsky sat on the edge of the bed and started pulling off his windbreaker. I busied myself with taking his things out of his duffel bag and putting them where I thought they should belong -- his toothbrush, his pj's, his robe, his razor, some comic books. When he was bare-chested and working on his jeans, I took the smock from the end of the bed and unfolded it. "Here, pal, put your arms in this."
He paused from where he'd been pushing his jeans down his legs, and slipped his arms through the sleeves. I started tying it at the back while he finished with his pants. I tied the last of the little straps just as he was taking off his socks. I picked up his clothes and straightened them out while he laid back on the bed, his hands resting across his stomach.
He was still plenty uptight. After putting the clothes away in drawer, I sat in a chair beside the bed, listening to him sigh heavily.
"It'll be over soon, buddy," I told him.
I think he wanted to answer, but all he could manage was a loud swallow.
While he stared at the door, waiting for the nurse to return with the dreaded IV, I thought about how naive I'd been when the doctor had first announced that Starsky needed surgery. Honestly, I thought he'd be like a kid. And most kids tend to be excited about the idea of being hospitalized. They relish getting so much attention. It took me a while to realize that Starsk had already had far more than his fair share of hospitals -- he was very adult in that respect.
The nurse came in with her arms full tubes and needles packaged in plastic. Starsky swallowed again and looked in my direction. I leaned closer to him, placing my hand on his arm.
"Are you right or left handed?" she asked.
Holly leaned down to insert a thermometer in his mouth. She seemed to realize how nervous he was, so she didn't say anything, just went about her business, working with his right arm. To tell you the truth, I'd prefer not to be in the room when they put IV's in. I see enough ugly sights in the course of my work that I don't need to watch a big, long needle being stuck into a relatively healthy person. But I knew Starsky would find my presence comforting, so I decided to stay put. I thought hard about something to say that would distract both of us from what she was doing.
I patted his left arm. "Sure you don't want me to call your mother?" I asked gently. We'd gone over it and over it, but he didn't want any of his relatives notified until it was all over. He kept insisting that he didn't want to upset or worry them, but I think the real reason was because he didn't want to have to exhaust himself by putting on a brave front. After all, Starsky doesn't like letting his weaknesses show. That's reserved for me.
"No," he mumbled around the thermometer. "But you can call 'em right away -- soon as the doc tells ya it went okay." Then, as he looked at me, his eyes widened and watered just a bit. I knew then what the nurse had just done.
I squeezed his arm again. "I'll call them. But you know they're going to be mad that I'm calling them after the fact."
He shook his head, and I could see him gradually start to relax, now that the initial sting of the IV needle was passing. The nurse took the thermometer, and he told me, "No they won't. Remember, I did tell them I was havin' surgery, I just didn't say when."
Small difference, if you ask me.
Holly said, "I'll call down now for a gurney." She left again.
Starsky took a deep breath and tried to settle against the bed. Slowly, his eyes moved to his right arm and then up the tube to the apparatus with the upside down plastic bag. He swallowed again.
"It's gonna be okay now, partner. Just a little bit longer."
He stared at the ceiling a moment. Then, with a sense of urgency, he said, "Hutch, I wanna take my underwear off now, before she comes back."
I don't know why we bother so much with our modesty, when we're in situations where we have so little control of it. But I guess Starsky taking off his own underwear -- rather than waiting for her to tell him to -- was his way of stubbornly maintaining a small degree of control over his own body. Or maybe he was just afraid his underwear was dirty and he didn't want her to see.
He was working, one-handed, beneath the smock. And I couldn't stand to watch him struggling, so I leaned over the bed and pulled at the opposite side. A moment later they were free, and I pulled open the nearest drawer and tossed them in.
"Thanks, buddy," he breathed a sigh of relief.
It was in the nick of time, for the door opened, and she entered, leading the way for a gurney and two accompanying male nurses.
Starsky gripped my wrist. "Hutch, you mean what you said? If they cut off my cock, you'll still love me?"
I would have been embarrassed, except he was talking low enough that I don't think they heard, plus I knew he was just downright scared.
I leaned close to him and brushed my hand back through his hair. That always soothes him. I whispered, "Of course I will. What do I want with your cock, anyway?"
Then he grinned crookedly, like it struck him for the first time that that prized part of his body didn't have anything to do with me. "Oh. Oh, yeah."
I had an urge at that moment to tell him I loved him. But the image formed in my head of a Hollywood drama, and people only tell someone in a hospital that right before they're going to die. So, I didn't think it would be the best way to send him off to surgery.
I kissed him instead. I'm not really sure why. I guess because I was hoping to distract him from his fear, and I wanted to give him something to ponder while he was waiting to be put under. It was just an impulse, and over in an instant. But in that instant I realized how dry his lips were. I felt bad for him, being so afraid. And I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty that I was abandoning him to the wolves.
The nurse patted the gurney. "Can you move over here? You need to get rid of your underwear, too."
"Already did," Starsky announced. He glanced at me one last time, then he got out of bed, and I and the nurse helped move the IV stand as he pranced to the gurney and hoisted himself up.
They were throwing the sheets over him and starting to roll the gurney toward the door. "I'll be right here, buddy, when you wake up," I called after him.
Holly told me which operating room it was, and were I could wait. I went to the elevator, alone.
* * *
It's a funny thing about hospitals. They tend to get on your sentimental side. Something about all those people in one building, none of them feeling very well. Some of them will never come out. I suppose probably the only happy place in hospitals is the maternity ward. But then I suppose that can also be the saddest place if your child isn't born healthy.
The hospital, of course, had a main chapel, but each wing also had its own little chapel area. My throat always tightens when I walk past one of those; I'm not sure why. I guess because I know the only people that will use them are those who are praying for a loved one to pull through. Because there wouldn't be any reason to pray if someone you knew was going to be fine.
I reached the waiting room that was specifically for the families of those having surgery. There was only one other group of people there, and from snatches of conversation I gathered that their little girl was being operated on for something. I sat down and leafed through a magazine. After over a half hour had passed, a nurse came in looking for the family of David Starsky.
I got up and she said that the operating room he was scheduled for had just been freed up, so he was taken in a moment ago. I thanked her for the information, but in actuality I was annoyed. That meant he'd been laying there all this time, thinking about what they were going to do to him. As though he hadn't had enough time to worry these past two months.
I sat down again and leafed through some more magazines, but then gave it up and just stared at the wall. And all of Starsky's fears drifted back to me, only now they were mine instead of his.
And things really did go wrong sometimes. It's just that none of us wants to think it'll happen to us. And I began to think: what if they did put him under too far, and he couldn't wake up in recovery? What if his heart did stop beating? Lord knows, it had happened once before. He was lucky that time. Maybe, finally, his luck -- our luck -- had run out. I imagined myself calling his relatives and trying, calmly, to explain it to them.
And the story about the guy who had his cock accidentally removed was true, too, but I know Starsky labored on that just to cover up the fact that what he was really most afraid of was downright dying.
I scoffed at myself, wondering why I was letting myself get carried away with those thoughts. Starsky had been in enough near-death situations that it was foolish to harp on the "what-ifs" of a simple operation. Of course, the operation itself was really the easy part. It was the days after that were going to be most difficult, and I hadn't let on about that because I was trying to keep Starsk's spirits up. But I called up an old girlfriend and asked her about it, because a friend of hers had had her gall bladder removed. I was told that the first few days afterwards were so painful that the friend had been in almost constant tears. Starsky's doctor, in so many words, had hinted at that. Gall bladders were difficult to get to, and they had to go up underneath the rib cage, so more areas of flesh were disturbed than in most other routine surgeries.
And I also hadn't dwelled on it because I hadn't wanted to think about it. Really, God, Starsky's already suffered enough in his life. Just because his spirit has always overcome is no reason to knock him down again.
I finally gave up trying to sit in the waiting room, and resorted to pacing up and down the hall. But then I found myself reluctant to stay away from the waiting room, in case someone was looking for me there with some news.
I shouldn't have worried so much. Once I sat back down, it was over in an hour. The other family had left, and it was just me there, in that big room.
Finally the doctor, fresh in his greens, appeared. "You're here for David Starsky?" he asked.
I stood, nodding, and went up to him.
"It all went very well," he said quietly. "There were quite a bit of stones, so it's a good thing we got the gall bladder removed. We have no reason to foresee any complications at this point. If you want to go up to his room, they should be bringing him there in the next twenty minutes or so."
I thanked him and headed for the elevator, feeling on top of the world. All those fears -- both his and mine -- had been so foolish. I couldn't wait to tell him so.
Once I was back in his room, I sat down and made the phone calls to the relatives he had carefully designated -- his mother, his uncle Al, and his Uncle Frank. They all expressed surprise -- they didn't know the surgery was today -- and I told little white lies about how the hospital was booked up, but suddenly there was an opening so Starsky took it while he could. I told them I had to keep the conversation short, because Starsky was being brought up any moment and would need his rest.
It was much longer than the twenty minutes that the doctor had said. But, eventually, the door opened and a group of quiet nurses wheeled in the gurney.
"He's not feeling any pain," Holly smiled at me. "They injected the incision with an anesthetic."
Well, that was all fine. But it would wear off eventually.
I stood and looked at Starsk as attendants lowered him to the bed. His eyes were closed -- like he was deeply asleep. But after he was in bed, they suddenly opened wide. "Huh?" he said loudly, like someone startled him.
I wasn't close enough to touch, because the nurses were still working with the IV tubes and other stuff. But I whispered, "It's all right, Starsk. It all went just fine."
Holly moved close to him. "Mr. Starsky, if you're tired, go right ahead and rest. Just go to sleep."
"What happened?" Starsky demanded, his voice still carrying that startled quality.
The male nurses were leaving with the gurney, and I pulled a chair close to the bed and took my buddy's hand. "Starsk, the surgery is all over. Everything is fine. You're going to be fine. Go ahead and sleep."
His brain seemed to focus then and his voice was softer. "Hutch?" He was looking toward me.
I squeezed his hand. "Right here, pal. Everything's fine. You came through like a champ."
"A champ?" His voice was high-pitched and I knew he had no idea what I was talking about.
I moved out of the chair and squatted by the bed. I stroked back through his hair. "Go to sleep," I whispered to him. "I'm going to be right here, keeping watch. Go to sleep. Go to sleep." I repeated it over and over, my voice getting softer and softer. And it seemed to be working, for his face relaxed and he seemed to be sleeping deeply, or as deeply as he could. Even with all the drugs, no one I've ever known has ever slept soundly in a hospital.
I glanced up and blushed when I saw the nurse looking at me with a tender smile. I don't know why I was embarrassed; I guess because I wasn't used to Starsky and me being watched like that. I never expect other people to understand about us.
Quietly, she said, "He'll probably sleep for a while now. It may be a good opportunity for you to take a break and get some rest yourself."
I considered it, but shook my head. "I promised him I'd be here when he woke up." But I did go to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.
* * *
As I said, no one ever sleeps soundly in a hospital. Over the next few hours, Starsky woke up periodically, but just to grunt something or say something that made no sense whatsoever. I would concentrate on encouraging him back to sleep, and throw in a few words about how he was doing great. That seemed to work, but a nurse came in every now and then to check his blood pressure, so that woke him up, too. I've never understood how hospitals expect people to rest.
It wasn't until it was dark out -- past seven -- that he seemed to wake up for real. His voice was low, strained, and weak. "Hutch?"
The room was dark and I moved closer to the bed. "Hey, there, buddy, how you doin'?" I grasped his hand.
He swallowed with difficulty and I leaned closer so he wouldn't have to try so hard to talk. I got a whiff of his breath, and it had that nauseating, dry quality that stems from breathing the anesthetic. Of course, smelling it on another person isn't near as bad as smelling and tasting it throughout your own body. He whispered, "What time's it?"
"About seven-thirty," I told him. "How you feelin'?"
He grimaced. "Man. Really hurts."
I pressed the call button. "I'll see if the nurse can get you something." Then I squeezed his hand. "The doctor said it went great, Starsk. It's all over now."
He mumbled, "Don't feel like it's over."
I felt real bad for him then.
A different nurse -- I guess Holly's shift was over -- came in and I said, "He's in pain. Can you give him anything?"
She nodded, then started fussing with the IV, then took his blood pressure again. After that, she put a thermometer in his mouth. Then the lights came on and a lady came in and cheerfully announced that she needed a blood sample. While that was going on, the first nurse left. Starsky looked pale and miserable and just sort of stared straight ahead with his eyes barely open. I kept squeezing his hand, but I think what he wanted more than anything was to be left alone.
The first nurse came back with a new IV, and as she was setting it up, the vampire lady left. Then the nurse said, "Do you need to use a bed pan, Mr. Starsky?"
He seemed to have trouble comprehending her, so I leaned down to him. "Starsk, do you have to take a leak?" He blinked slowly, like he was thinking about it, or like he didn't want to think about it. I looked up at her. "Why don't you bring one and I'll help him if he needs it."
She left again and I watched my partner, waiting to see if he was going to give any indication one way or another. We were both pros at assisting with bedpans. It was like a pact we had, helping each other with those sorts of things if at all possible -- and Lord knows we each have had plenty of experience -- and then the nurses didn't have to be involved. Using those things are humiliating enough, but when a close friend is the one who is...uh, handling you, then it makes it a bit easier to tolerate.
She brought one in -- well, really it was just a plastic bottle, which made a lot more sense than those cold, archaic silver things -- and left it on the side tray. "Don't pour it out," she instructed, then turned.
"Uh, can you get the light?" I asked her.
She nodded and shut off the light as she left, leaving the door open just a little ways.
Starsky seemed to be breathing deeply again, so I relaxed in the chair beside the bed. But after a few moments he stirred, and I squeezed his hand so he'd know I was there.
"Still here?" he breathed deeply.
I squeezed again. "Right here, pal. Feeling any better?"
He swallowed thickly. "Little bit."
At least the drugs were working. He shifted without really moving, and I ventured, "Need to piss, buddy?"
"Huh?" he breathed. Then he swallowed. "Yeah. I think."
"Let me give you a hand," I said, getting up. I reached for the bottle, then brought it beneath the covers. I found everything easily, for I'd learned to not be shy a long time ago. After all the awful bodily ejections Starsky had put up with from me after what Ben Forrest's cronies did, there was nothing I wouldn't do for my buddy.
"All ready, pal," I told him.
His face sort of twisted, then he said, "Don't know if I can."
"Relax," I told him. "Don't try to force it." Really, there's few things worse than trying to piss under pressure. I leaned closer. "You know something, buddy?"
"What?" he grunted.
"I can vouch for a fact that all the parts are still there. The surgeon didn't accidentally cut them off."
I really didn't expect my statement to register with his drugged brain, but Starsky giggled almost right away.
"You're all intact," I clarified.
He snorted some more -- like he was being careful not to laugh -- and then he sighed gratefully and I felt the plastic of the bottle grow warm where I held it.
"Tell me when you're done."
He didn't say anything for a long time, and after a minute had a passed I wondered if he'd fallen sleep. But I had to be sure before I moved. "All done, buddy?" I whispered.
"Yeah," he whispered back, his voice laden with weakness.
I carefully disengaged the parts, then carried the bottle toward the bathroom. I turned on the light and sat it on the sink, trying not to notice that disgusting orange color that piss seems to have when you've been on IV's. It just looks so alien I've always found it nauseating, even when it's been from my own body.
I spent two seconds washing my hands, then switched off the light and went to sit in the chair beside the bed. Starsky was breathing pretty deep and I stared out the window at the star-filled sky. I stared at it so long that I started to feel insignificant.
I turned to my partner. "Yeah, pal?" I whispered, leaning close.
"Go on home. 'm jus' gonna sleep. Go home."
I could hardly disobey an order like that, and I was weary of the hospital. It amazed me for the zillionth time how Starsky, even when off his feet and weak and hurting, still managed to place my needs above his own. Sometimes, that made me feel even more insignificant than a sky full of stars. And sometimes it made me feel like a king.
"Okay," I squeezed his hand. "Do you need me to do anything for you before I leave?"
He made a grunting noise that I took to be a negative answer.
I took his hand and placed it on the call device. "If you need anything from the nurses, just push the button. Okay, pal?"
He was still breathing deeply. "'kay."
I placed my hand on his forehead. "I'll be in tomorrow before I go into work."
He barely nodded.
I stood looking down at him in the dark, reluctant to leave. It's always hard, wondering if he might need me at some point when I'm not there. He'd survive, I knew, but it always left me with the feeling that I wasn't doing my duty as his partner...best friend...whatever one chooses to call us. I don't think I know anymore. There's no word to describe what's between us.
And I had the urge to kiss him again...just a peck on the forehead. Starsky accuses me sometimes of thinking too much, so I gave in to the impulse and planted one just beneath his curls. "I love you," I whispered as I pulled back. It was okay to say it now.
He made a little grunt, the corners of his mouth barely turning up.
I patted his cheek with a touch so light that I barely felt his skin. "'Night, buddy." I walked away without looking back.
* * *
Things were different in the daylight, when I went back early the next morning. He looked awful, like someone who hadn't felt well for a long, long time. I would almost say he was irritable, except he hardly spoke. I didn't feel quite so bad leaving him to go to work, because I don't think my presence was doing anything for him. He was too wrapped up in his misery and pain.
When I went back in the evening, it was even worse. It seemed like his body was just reaching the full realization that it had been through something traumatic. Of course, they had him pumped full of drugs, but drugs can only do so much. He was full of complaints and was downright irritable as he tried to get more comfortable -- barely shifting this way and that as much as possible (which wasn't much) -- but it seemed like the forces of the Earth were plotted against him. His IV even came loose and the nurse had to come in and re-connect it. He told me to fuck off when I offered to help him piss again, but then gave in grudgingly when he couldn't wait any longer. I have to admit, I probably was a little less sympathetic than I should have been, but it was mainly from my own frustration that there was really nothing I could do for him. I left after only a couple of hours, because I felt like my presence was only giving him something else to be mad at. But I felt a little guilty and called him before I went to bed. He answered on the third ring and sounded more mellow. He didn't act like anything special had taken place earlier, and just said he was tired and going to sleep and hoped I had a good day at work. He also gave me a full report on all the visitors and phone calls he'd had during the day. I refrained from pointing out that I hoped he had treated them better than he did me.
The next day was Saturday but I had to work to make up for spending all day Thursday at the hospital. I wasn't able to visit until evening. It was a 180-degree turnaround, for Starsk actually seemed a little bit cheerful. He said the nurse had made him sit up in bed a few times, and though it hurt like hell, it was progress. While I was there, he made the Ultimate Big Step and with the help of both the nurse, and me walked to the bathroom. I stood there with him to make sure he wasn't going to fall, and after we got him back in bed he said he wanted to trade his smock for his pj's. I helped him get into them, and when he was lying back in bed, he seemed relieved and downright talkative. I sat with him while he had his dinner, which he didn't fuss too much about. We talked about inane things -- the case I was working on, the personalities of the nurses, gossip that his relatives had shared. I noticed that he would sort of look at me, then suddenly dart his eyes away. I thought it was probably because he was faking how good he felt. I didn't have the heart to point it out to him, but I stayed there until nearly eleven o'clock, when he fell asleep.
On Sunday morning I took care of some errands and dropped by the hospital at about one o'clock. Huggy was there, and Starsky looked a lot more relaxed in bed, and I was relieved that he was past the worst of the pain.
"Hey, man," Huggy greeted.
"How's he doing?" Of course, I was asking Huggy, but my eyes were on Starsky. I noticed then that they'd taken the IV out, giving Starsk free use of his arms.
"Doc was here before lunch," Huggy said, "and said he could probably go home the day after tomorrow." Starsk was visibly grinning at that bit of news. Then the Bear's mouth formed into a frivolous smile and said, "The man here just got encouragement from one of the nursing staff to fart himself into oblivion."
You can always count on Huggy for crudity. I moved closer to the bed. "Yeah, hospitals love for you to make those gastro-intestinal noises."
"Said it would show that his lower body was 'waking' up from the anesthesia," Huggy went on, like I hadn't ever been hospitalized before. Then he picked up his jacket. "So I think I'll leave, before Starsky-man takes her advice too much to heart."
Starsk giggled good-naturedly, but it was a little forced. I think he was sick of whatever discussion there had been on bodily functions. He's grown up a lot the past few years.
Huggy turned at the door. "See ya tomorrow, my man."
Starsk gave him a little salute. "Thanks, Hug."
I settled into the chair next to the bed and pulled off my jacket. "You're feeling lots better, huh?"
"Better," Starsky emphasized, like he was still a ways from being up to par. "They made me get up and walk around; wasn't as bad as I thought."
"You get a lot of visitors already?"
He grinned. "Yep. And Ma called twice."
"Twice?" I laughed.
"Yeah. I think she was afraid I was lonely."
"But you weren't, were you?" I asked hopefully.
He sighed with pleasant fatigue. "Not hardly. It's been a busy morning; gone by pretty quick." He'd been looking at the ceiling, and now his eyes darted to me. "What about you?"
I shrugged. "I went to the greenhouse and bought some plant food, changed the oil filter in my car, picked up a new lamp to replace the one that broke last week."
He nodded, but his expression was distracted and I knew he really wasn't listening. When I stopped talking things got silent.
I put a hand on his arm. "Hey, partner."
He looked at me quickly, and then he turned his face away. It was the same way he'd been reacting to me last night -- looking at me, then looking away. I frowned and tightened my grip on his arm. "Hey, buddy," I beckoned softly, "what's up?"
He tried a smile, but it was very forced. And then he swallowed hard, like there was a big lump in his throat.
I moved from the chair and sat on the very edge of the bed. My heart started beating against my chest. "Hey, pal," I said with desperate cheerfulness, "did the Doc give you bad news or something?" I had a horrible vision of gangrene having infected the scalpel wound, or something ludicrous like that.
He looked back toward me, but wouldn't meet my eye. "Oh, no, nothing like that," he said in a tone of apology. Then he tried another unconvincing smile. "Everything's okay, Hutch."
I leaned closer and tried to keep my voice light. "Then what?"
With his chin, he nodded toward a little clear bottle resting on the tray on the other side of the bed. "Guess what that is?" I knew from his tone that what was in the bottle had absolutely nothing to do with what was on his mind, and he was trying to use it as a distraction.
It's very unusual for Starsk to have difficulty speaking his mind, so I let him off the hook and reached over him to take the bottle. It had a blue, plastic lid, and it looked like little dark brown gravel-sized rocks were in it. "What is it?" I asked as the answer dawned on me.
"The stones from my gall bladder," he replied, turning to look at me.
"Ah, Jesus, Starsk," I scolded, "you aren't actually going to keep these, are you?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. Kind of a souvenir, you know?"
He had enough souvenirs from hospitals, Lord knows. Most of them were carried in the form of scars.
"Kind of hard to believe those little suckers were inside my body," he went on. "Kind of gross, huh?"
I twisted my mouth. "No kidding."
His voice filled with humor. "Take the cap off and see what it smells like."
I admit, for an instant, human curiosity got the best of me and it was tempting. But then common sense kicked in, and I quickly put the bottle aside. "I think I'll pass."
He giggled. "It's smells awful. I thought Huggy was gonna throw up."
The image of he and Huggy passing the bottle back and forth to satisfy their childish curiosity made me wonder if Starsky really had grown up at all the past few years. And, I guess, I part of me hoped he never would...at least not completely.
"Would have served you two right," I told him as firmly as I could manage. "Really, Starsk, considering where it came from what did you expect it to smell like?"
He shrugged again, and when he blinked rapidly, I knew moving his shoulders had irritated the wound.
"Still pretty damn tender, huh?"
"Hurts like hell if you want to know the truth."
I laid my hand on his shoulder. "Then lie still."
He took a deep breath, and when his head was turned away, it reminded me that something was still on his mind. I massaged his shoulder with two of my fingers, trying to tell him that I was ready to listen. After yet another swallow, I whispered, "Hey, you gonna tell me what's on your mind?"
He glanced at me, then said, "Can you close the door?"
Despite my determination to be as positive as possible toward him, I knew I was frowning as I considered his request. It was hard not to worry as I got up to do as he asked. It had to be something pretty earth shattering for him to be so concerned about privacy.
After the door was completely shut, I moved back to the bed and tried to steady the pounding of my heart. Starsky is usually so forthright when something is bothering him. The idea that there was something that he was having trouble telling even me could only be something unpleasant. I tried to brace myself for the worst -- without being sure what the worst could be -- but my voice was still soft when I returned to the edge of the bed. "Okay, all secure," I told him with a forced smile.
He met my eye a moment -- as though in thanks -- then quickly looked away.
"Hey," I beckoned, reaching to lay my hand on his hair.
He blinked a few times and took a deep breath. But he didn't say anything.
The silence was starting to eat at me, and I prompted, "Hey, come on, pal. You're making me nervous."
His mouth twisted into an apologetic smile. "Sorry. I don't mean to."
I slowly stroked those thick curls. "What's going on?"
He swallowed again, staring toward the door. "It's real hard to say, Hutch."
The rate of my heart doubled, and I felt myself growing distant, even as I continued to pet his hair. Everything around me seemed to exist at the far end of a long tunnel. I tried to keep the fear out of my voice as I ventured, "Is it something to do with me?"
"Yeah," he answered roughly. "With us."
There could only be one thing about us that would upset him so much that would be so hard to say. I blinked, trying to understand how it could happen. Had I hovered too much? Come on too strong? Was I too needy? Was I too pragmatic? Had I insulted his precious car once too often?
We'd had so much together. Perhaps, truly, it had been too special.
My throat had gone dry, and my hand no longer moved, but just rested there. I would never blame Starsky for anything, no matter how much it might hurt. I loved him too much, understood him too well. It was puzzling that he would want to talk of such an important matter when he wasn't at his best, but maybe these last few days in the hospital had been the icing on the cake for him -- had proven what he'd already suspected... that I needed him too much, wanted to care for him to the point of aggravation, spent too much time with him, smothered him.... Everyone needs a little freedom now and then.
I bowed my head, waiting to be hit with a pain that I would need all my strength to combat. But there was still silence, so I managed -- and I don't know how my voice came out so clear -- to say, "What about us?"
I guess my tone gave away too much, for he turned to look at me. And he smiled a little. "You don't have to make it sound like a death sentence."
Death. It had been on his mind so much lately.
I wanted to tell him that he had no right to tell me how it should sound. For me, it would probably be the closest thing to death itself. And yet, I didn't want to speak, for I didn't want anything I said to interfere with what he needed to say. I owed him that, at least.
He hadn't turned away again, and I felt his hand come up and rest on my cheek. It was moist and warm. His voice was, too. "Hey, I'm starting to wonder if you already know what I'm gonna say." He seemed fascinated by that. Then a hint of humor. "That would sure make things a lot easier for me."
It was strange that he was the one in the hospital, the one having a difficult time speaking what was on his mind; and, yet, he was comforting me. It seemed, between us, I was always the one in need. I couldn't even imagine how draining that must be for the one person who loved me without condition.
But love sometimes didn't go hand in hand with day-to-day life. Despite what the poets write, love didn't always conquer all.
He dropped his hand, and then turned away. "I guess you aren't going to make it easier," he said blandly. Then he shrugged a little. "I guess it's just as well that I spell it out." He took a deep breath. "Wouldn't want there to be any misunderstandings."
It was so like Starsky. So fair.
As I continued to stare down at the form outlined by the sheets, he sighed and began, "See, buddy, I've been thinkin' a lot. And when you throw in things like Anderson giving you the impression that he did... well, it kinda gets me to thinkin' even more. And I'm tired of just thinking, Hutch."
My eyes had narrowed, I knew, as I tried to sort it out. "Anderson...?" I finally whispered, wondering why Starsky was choosing such a convoluted path to speak his mind.
"Yeah," Starsk replied firmly. From the corner of my eye, I could see him looking toward me again. "You know, you were so sure he thought we were queers."
So what? I wanted to ask. What did that have to do with my having taken so much from Starsky that I'd finally drained him dry? Instead, I just said, "And?"
"Well," he hesitated again, "it's just been kinda making me feel like we need to put a lid on this thing. I mean, end it one way or the other."
I cringed then. Or at least my insides did. I could feel all my internal organs start to shrivel up and twist themselves into knots.
Suddenly, his hand was on my forehead, his fingertips stretching into my hair. "See what I'm saying?"
I couldn't speak.
And then his next words contained the flavor of apology...and an edge of fear. "I guess I thought I'd bring it up now, since I'm in the hospital. And, well, I figure even if you were freaked out by the idea you wouldn't go off and leave me." Then a sheepish, "Kinda like blackmail, huh?"
Leave him? Why would he be worried about me leaving him if he was going to push me away?
He swallowed thickly and I knew he was looking away again. "I keep wondering if it would really be all that different," he said. "I mean, I keep trying to figure out what it would be like." Then a hint of humor. "It's kind of hard to imagine." A long pause, then, "So I guess I'm sayin' I think we should just give it a try."
Despite my fear -- and, God, so much pain -- I thought I had been following along pretty well. But suddenly everything was confused, and I realized I was shaking my head back and forth...like it would really clear my brain and make everything crystal clear.
"Oh, boy." Starsky's voice was a mixture of humor and fear. "I have freaked you out, haven't I?"
It was too much. I suddenly looked at him, and found him looking at me. "W-W-What?" I managed. Then, before he could answer, I said, "Speak English, buddy. English." Surely, there was never a more important moment than this to share a common language. My heart was still beating like crazy, but it wasn't so much fear now as confusion and anticipation of whatever new knowledge was about to follow.
His mouth dropped open, and he seemed a bit chagrined, maybe even a little annoyed... like he was being backed up against a wall.
I took his hand, squeezed it firmly, and softened my voice. "Buddy, just come out and say what's on your mind." I squeezed harder. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it." I started feeling hopeful then, that maybe I'd misread it all along.
He seemed deflated, like it suddenly dawned on him that I hadn't understood a word he'd said, and he was going to have to start over.
I tried to help. Gently, I told him, "Maybe you can start with what you meant about Anderson." That was something I needed clarified real bad.
"Well," his voice was small, and his eyes dropped to the bed, "I just think that -- that.... Well, I think that, when you think about it, Hutch, we've got everything all ready for our deaths. I mean, everything is all set up."
Death. Always death. I closed my eyes, even as I squeezed his hand more.
"So...I figure maybe it's time we started thinking about life."
My eyes snapped open, staring at him. He was staring back, and even though I still hadn't any idea where he was headed, I suddenly found myself emerged in a sea of hope.
But then his eyes lowered, and his voice was timid. "Hutch, if Anderson was right... would it be so wrong?"
I admit, it took a moment for it all to click into place. Anderson. Wills. Death. Life. Queers.
I should have been scared out of my wits. If I'd had any sense I probably would have been. But the only thing I was aware of was that Starsky wanted...me. And I felt ashamed of myself -- and enormously relieved that Starsky would never know what I'd thought he was going to say, when he'd first started talking about "us."
No, this was the complete opposite. My God, I think he was saying he wanted to spend his life with me.
And all I could do was hold his hand and stare at him, my heart wanting to jump out of my chest -- reach out and grab him and hold him and never, never let him go.
His eyes were searching mine. "It wouldn't be wrong, Hutch, would it?"
"No," I whispered to reassure him. And as I said it I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. Just what -- exactly -- were we discussing?
He gulped. "Do you understand now what I'm sayin', Hutch?"
My eyes lowered as I made myself search for an answer. My God, did I have any idea at all of what he was saying? What it meant?
But he was the one most afraid at the moment, and my first priority was to set his fears to rest. Then we would be free to deal with the rest. So, I straightened, squeezed his hand, then just held it within both of mine.
I nodded and managed a smile. "I think so." The room seemed so quiet around us, it was hard to believe we were in a hospital room...that anyone could come walking in at any moment. I hoped no one would.
Calmly, I suggested, "Why don't we start with how things would be different than they are now?" It was a dark tunnel that we were passing through -- a long dark tunnel. It seemed I was so far away from what was being said, like it was something happening outside myself. I wasn't sure I could get too close -- though I wanted to -- but I was sure as hell interested in the outcome.
Starsky wet his lips, looked down a second before looking up. "Well, you know how you said, after I get out of the hospital, you would probably stay with me a few days to make sure I was okay?" His voice was so quiet. I nodded. "Well...maybe it should be more than a few days." He breathed. "Maybe we should make it permanent."
It seemed, right then, that his suggestion was both my greatest hope and my greatest fear. I'd never thought of it, but now that he had laid the idea out in the air, I realized how much I wanted to capture it, hold it. But it seems that whenever you possess something that precious, you're always afraid of losing it.
He was looking at me anxiously, waiting to see what I would say.
Gently, I asked, "Are you talking about me sleeping on the couch?" I was aware it was unfair of me to require him to have all the answers, but I wanted to be sure.
He gazed at me for the longest time. Then he shook his head once and whispered, "No."
It was then that I knew the true meaning of being at a loss for words. So I tried to let my expression speak for me, reassure him that leaving was the last thing on my mind.
But his voice trembled. "It's okay, isn't it, Hutch?"
I wasn't sure what he meant. Okay that he had those feelings? That it would make us 'queers'? That society in general would frown upon us? Perhaps he meant all those things, and a dozen others.
I took his hand, rubbed it, squeezed it. Then brought it to my lips and kissed it. "Yes, it's okay."
He seemed to relax then. And in a casual voice that strangely contrasted his earlier reluctance, he quietly said, "I think we should talk about it...how it's gonna be."
I had to smile. "Sure you're up to it?"
He made a little shrug-like motion. And then there was a knock on the door.
We looked at each other, and I whispered, "Later," just as Captain Dobey stuck his head around the door.
"Captain," I greeted.
"Hutch, Starsky," he came into the room, carrying flowers. "Sorry I haven't been able to stop by sooner."
"S'okay," Starsky told him.
The captain took another chair, and I suddenly felt claustrophobic and wanted to get out of there and sort through it all. But I didn't want Starsk to think I was running away. It's just that I knew Dobey would probably want to chat awhile, and since it was the middle of Sunday afternoon, there would probably be more visitors, and it could be forever before we were alone again.
I stood. "Well, I think I'll get going."
Through the corner of my eye, I saw my partner's face fall. I laid my hand on his shoulder, squeezed it gently. I waited until he met my eye. "See you later, pal. I'll be back by this evening."
That seemed to soothe him, and he nodded, a twinkle in his eye.