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"You never tell him you love him."
It caught me off guard when Ma said that. So I sputtered, "What difference does it make? He knows how I feel about `im." In fact, it was mainly because of Hutch that we were visiting Ma in the first place. He'd been all depressed about having to have surgery again on his shoulder from when he was shot by that teenage girl six months ago. It never healed quite right, and some part of his insides had been rubbing against his collarbone, and when he moved his shoulder a certain way, it was real painful. The pain had gradually gotten worse over time. The doctors said everything should be fine now, and Hutch had had his stitches taken out right before we left for New York. I thought he could enjoy a little R&R away from home. So, being his partner and best friend - to say nothing of looking forward to seeing the family - I'd made arrangements for a little vacation.
Ma rocked back and forth in that chair she'd owned since I was a little tyke. In fact, I could never remember that New York apartment on 86th Street not having that chair. She said, "Sometimes it's good to say it, anyway."
"Ma," I protested, "I hear what you're sayin', but you don't understand how it is between guys. It's different than what it's like between you and your friends, or between family members."
Her voice hardened just a little... like it did when I was a kid and she wanted me to do something, and I'd start tryin' to find all sorts of reasons why I didn't have to. Her chair rocked faster. "He speaks of love when he talks about you. He says it all the time. Even to you directly."
Well... okay, that was true. But... "Of course, he does, Ma. Hutch has always been... you know, real open about that kinda stuff. He's comfortable with it."
"Why aren't you, too?" She asked it like she really wanted to know, like she was maybe thinking that somehow she'd raised me wrong if I felt funny about telling another guy that I loved him.
"Ma, it's just not that big of a deal. Why are you making a big thing out of it? If Hutch was suffering or something because he needed me to say it, he'd tell me." I nodded my head to emphasize my point. After all, it sounded good, didn't it? And in the two seconds it took me to say that, I couldn't remember a time when Hutch had needed something but hadn't told me.
I think she realized she'd hit my stubborn streak. Now she looked off to one side, and it dawned on me how much grayer her hair was since the last time I'd seen her. It made her seem more frail. But her voice was still very forceful... but also gentle. My mamma has always been a gentle person. "He's such a nice boy. Very sweet. He has very good manners. His parents must be very, very proud of him."
Geez. The last thing I wanted to talk about was Hutch's parents. Because Mom would get all upset if she knew that Hutch had a distant relationship with them. So, I said, "Yes, I know, Ma, Hutch is an angel. Mr. All American, all the way. Blond hair, blue eyes, sophisticated, athletic, breeding, and all that jazz. He's so damn perfect that you'd never guess what a grump he can be in the mornings, or the disgusting stuff he eats sometimes, or how he can play the meanest jokes on you. I know you have to look real hard, but he ain't perfect, Ma."
I guess my voice had gotten just a little loud, because now she was consoling. "Of course, dear. Nobody's perfect and we shouldn't expect anybody to be." She got up and sorta pinched my cheek as she walked by me. "It's no wonder he's grumpy in the mornings, if he has you for a partner. Your father used to make me grumpy in the mornings, and you're a lot like him."
I blinked at her as she went into the kitchen. I was always anxious to hear anything about my father, because I only have a limited number of memories of him. And saying I was like him was a compliment, even if it meant I made otherwise perfect people like Hutch grumpy.
She put on those huge oven mitts and took the lasagna out. It smelled fantastic. "I told your father many times that I loved him," she said. "But, still, once he was gone, I felt like I'd never said it enough." She looked up at me. "No one can ever be told too many times that you love them."
I grinned at her, knowing then how I could make her happy. "I love you, Ma." I held out my arms to her.
A big smile broke out on her face, and she stepped sideways to hug me halfway, because she had some silverware in her hand. She kissed me on the cheek and I put both arms around her, trapping her. Just then the door rattled and the next thing we knew Hutch was standing there in his jogging outfit.
"Uh...," Blondie looked a little embarrassed, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Nah." I released Ma so she could go back to her cooking. "Mom and me aren't shy about our feelings for each other." It occurred to me just then that maybe I shouldn't have said that, because that was exactly the point Mom was trying to make. But I wasn't sorry I'd said it as soon as Hutch's face went soft all over. This was the second time he'd come out to New York with me, and he always seemed real comfortable around my family. In fact, he once said that my family felt more like a family to him than his own family.
Nevertheless, Ma had scored a point. And she was going to capitalize on it. She started stirring something on the stove, and she said, "The Starsky men aren't very vocal about saying `I love you', so you have to take all of them you can get."
Hutch sorta laughed as he closed the door behind him. "Sounds like a good idea." Then he sniffed the air. "Dinner smells great. Lasagna?"
"You oughta be a detective," I told him. "How was your jog?"
"Hard enough to work up a good sweat." He headed off to the bedroom he and I were sharing.
"Set the table," Ma ordered.
I did while Hutch took a shower. The bathroom was between Ma's bedroom and my old bedroom, and Hutch wasn't shy about walking between the rooms with just a towel around his waist. That's what I mean about him feelin' comfortable.
"How come Nicky's not here?" I asked her. Things had never been the same between us after his trip to California, but we were still cordial with each other. He had his own apartment on the east side.
Ma looked at me. "Didn't I tell you? Today is his girlfriend's birthday. There's a big party at her folks' house."
"Oh." I really didn't mind. We'd already visited with Nicky a couple of times since arriving four days ago, and since there was some polite tension between him and Hutch, I wasn't exactly missing his company.
"I wanted your Aunt Edna to join us tonight," Ma was saying, "but her sister-in-law is in the hospital. She might be able to come tomorrow night."
That was fine. A whole slew of relatives had visited since Hutch and I had arrived, and I was lookin' forward to it bein' just the three of us at dinner.
* * *
Dinner was nice and afterwards we settled down to playing gin rummy, `cause Ma loves it and it gave us time to shoot the breeze about nothing in particular. Hutch looked more relaxed than I'd seen him in a long time.
Two hours of playing cards, plus a coupla glasses of wine apiece, did us all in and we were ready for bed about ten o'clock. My bedroom only had twin beds, one definitely more comfortable than the other. I had insisted the first night that Hutch take the comfortable one in deference to his surgery. He'd wanted to flip for it, so I made sure that I "accidentally" dropped the coin before he could see that he lost. But I frowned like he'd won right before I dropped it, and that seemed to satisfy his ego that he'd gotten the good bed fair and square.
When we were all settled after turning in, I heard Hutch roll over like he was goin' right to sleep. The first few nights, we'd talk a little before drifting off... usually joking about my relatives... stuff like that. But Hutch sighed heavily and the bed creaked as he rolled over and everything was silent. And so I lay there in bed, thinkin' about the evening with Ma, and how nice it was with just the three of us, and what she'd been sayin' while Hutch was out jogging. And, like it or not, I got to thinking and wondering why I'd never wanted to just come right out and tell Hutch I loved him, especially since he'd said it to me quite a few times over the years. I mean, after all, wouldn't it be sorta natural to say, "I love you, too" after somebody says to ya "I love you"?
So, I thought about it real hard... Hutch and me. And after running a bunch of memories through my head of moments when I'd felt particularly close to Hutch and what I'd felt like doin' or sayin' at those times... well, I figured out pretty quick why I'd never said "I love you". The reason was because I said it all the time. Not verbally, but in a zillion other ways. Like, smackin' `im on the rear when I wanted to emphasize a point, or doing something stupid so he could laugh at me, or holding him when he was really down or hurt or somethin'. I mean, weren't those things saying "I love you" just as strongly - maybe even more strongly - than speaking the words?
I closed my eyes, satisfied. For about two minutes. Because then I got to thinkin' that the same thing could be said about Hutch - all the ways he showed me he loved me - yet, he still said the words sometimes, too. Even though it wasn't necessary.
I suppose, when it gets down to it, it's never really necessary to say the words. But I guess it's a nice thing. I mean, I never minded hearin' it from Hutch. Not that I woulda thought he'd felt any less about me if he hadn't said them.
So, anyway, I got to thinkin' about how he might react if I up and told him someday, "I love you." I pictured his face as I imagined myself sayin' it, and I guess I figured he'd look at me funny and sorta grumble, like he wondered what was wrong with me since I was actin' outta character. He might even joke and laugh at me, because he couldn't handle being told that to his face.
That last thought practically had me sitting up in bed. Because there it was: The Truth. The reason I had never told Hutch I loved him.
And the reason is because it would make him uncomfortable. Honest. Sure, he can say it to me like nothin'. But when the shoe is on the other foot... well, I just know he'd feel embarrassed and bashful and stuff like that. And I don't wanna make him feel that way. And that's something people like Ma would never understand because all they see in Hutch are those gorgeous good looks and all that well-bred politeness and Mr. All-American wholesome boy. They don't know all sorts of other things about him... things that he keeps hidden. Things that he allows only me to know, or to see.
The ironic thing is that, layin' there, thinking about all those little private things about him that only I knew... well, I found myself thinkin' I love you, Hutch. Because I felt so warm all over, I mean. You know, like I just wanted to protect him from everything in the world... all those private places inside him... so that they could never be exposed to anyone who would cause him harm.
I heard the other mattress wobble and there was sorta this groanin' noise, and I knew it meant that Hutch's shoulder was botherin' `im. `Cause he wouldn't take his pills because of... well, somethin' that happened to him once. I mean, Hutch hasta be practically delirious with pain before he'll take pain medication, even if it's something that isn't from the opium family of drugs. So I lay there, listenin', wonderin' how bad it was gonna be.
The box springs creaked again and I knew he'd rolled over onto his back to take the pressure off his shoulder. I was tempted to go and find his pain pills in my suitcase - since I knew he probably didn't put any in his - but then I remembered that since he'd drank wine while playing cards that he couldn't take any medication, anyway.
I lay there for a while, listening to his tight, quiet breathing, and I felt annoyed with him for having gone out jogging. He hadn't been bothered by his shoulder so far on the trip, and things coulda stayed that way if he wouldn't have done anything to rattle it. And even though jogging mainly exercised his legs, his shoulder muscles were active, too.
So, while I was feeling annoyed with him for having done this to himself, I was also tryin' to think of what I could do to help. The apartment was hot, because it was a warm New York night, and the fan in the room could only do so much. I knew Hutch had to be even hotter, tossing and turning like he was. So, I wondered if my puttin' a cold compress on his head might make him a little more comfortable. Hopefully, comfortable enough to fall asleep.
I got up and slipped out the door. I went into the john and got a washcloth from the cupboard and ran it under cold water. I wrung it out and came back to our bedroom. After I slipped the door shut behind me, I had to feel around in the darkness until I found the standing lamp in the corner. I switched it on.
Hutch raised his head, squinting, and frowned at me. "What's wrong?"
"That's what I should be askin' you," I told him. "Your shoulder's bothering you, isn't it?"
He sorta plopped back to the mattress. "Yeah, a little," he admitted, closing his eyes like he hoped it would make the pain go away.
I stepped closer and could see the sheen of sweat on Blondie's forehead. There was a little space on the mattress and so I sort of wriggled into it as I sat.
His eyes flew open. "Hey!" He looked sorta indignant, which looked sorta funny.
"Calm down," I scolded. I slapped the washcloth on his forehead. "Just tryin' to make you a little more comfortable. Move over."
His cheeks billowed as he let out a big sigh. Then he scooted to one side, and I moved up a little on the bed. "Just try to relax so you can fall asleep," I said.
He swallowed but didn't say anything. But he turned his head toward the wall and closed his eyes.
"You shouldn't have gone jogging," I couldn't help but point out.
He kept his eyes closed. "I had to do something. I've been goin' stir crazy since the surgery."
"Yeah, well, you coulda just gone for a walk or somethin'. Or at least taken your pills before you went out."
He smiled triumphantly. "I didn't bring my pills."
"Yeah, well, I did," I told him, feeling superior. "'Cept, now you can't take them since you've had wine, dummy."
For a long time he didn't say anything. His eyes were still closed, but finally he replied, his voice soft, "Sorry to keep you awake."
Ah, gee, it's impossible to be firm with Hutch when he stoops to bein' all contrite. "Yeah, well, sorry the fan doesn't work better."
"Feels good," he muttered.
I pressed the washcloth more firmly against his forehead. "Just think pleasant thoughts and maybe you can fall asleep. I'll wait."
A mouth corner twitched, like he was amused, because I knew that he knew that I knew that it's hard to fall asleep when someone's watching you. He suggested, "Can you turn out the light?"
I got up and turned off the lamp in the corner so that the room was dark. I stuck my hands out in front of me until I felt the mattress, and I sat back down. I reached out again, felt his ear, then his cheek, and when I touched the wash cloth I picked it up a moment and turned it over.
He made a little noise like it felt good.
It's real funny what takin' care of someone can do to you. I mean, if you care about a person, you just want to make everything nice for them, and you get all fuzzy and soft when you know you're doin' something nice for them. I guess that's what's meant by it being more rewarding to be doing the giving. I knew Hutch was still awake, and I said, "Ma was scoldin' me before you came in." I hadn't planned on bringing it up, but it just seemed right somehow, especially with it bein' dark.
"About what?" he asked, his voice as soft as mine. He also sounded a sorta amused again.
"She says I never tell you I love you to your face."
He snorted, definitely amused. "That sounds like your mother." His voice was warm.
I had a real strong urge to touch him right then, so I felt along his arm until I found his hand. I squeezed it. "Yeah, well, I was tryin' to explain to her about... you know... how it is with us and you don't need me to say stuff like that." I could hear the question in my own voice, even though I hadn't intended for it to come out that way.
He squeezed back. "Did she believe you?"
"Well, you know," I shrugged, "she still thinks it's important to say the words. And, you know, she pointed out that you say it to me."
He pulled his hand away from mine, then patted me real gentle on the top of my hand. "It's okay, buddy. I don't need to hear it."
It made me feel even warmer and fuzzier that he understood that it's just not - well, natural - for me to say things like that to another guy. But Hutch was special to me. Real special. And he deserved something real special in return. "Well," I said as casually as I could, because I knew I was about to do something crazy, "just so there's no mistake...."
I leaned down, and as I did so, it occurred to me that it would be pretty embarrassing if I missed my target. And, sure enough, my nose bumped into his nose. But from there, it was pretty easy to move down, past his mustache, and plant my lips on his.
I wasn't sure it was really a kiss. Just more like touching my lips to his. I'd never done that to any guy before. That made it a special thing between Hutch and me.
When I straightened he laughed, bashful-like, and then said, "I hope that doesn't mean you're turning a new leaf on me."
"No," I said, but I realized then there was an even more important point to be made. "But even if I was, you'd still be my partner, wouldn't you?"
I guess he'd had his eyes open, since they must have adjusted to the darkness. Because when he reached up to me, he found my hair with no problem. He sorted of rested his fingers in it. "Of course, I would." Man, his voice was so soft. Like he was feelin' fuzzy all over. I bet he'd forgotten about the pain in his shoulder.
And I knew for sure he'd forgotten about it when he pressed on my head with his hand, and I realized what he wanted. I leaned down, resting my cheek against his bare shoulder, but it was really awkward, so I sort of stretched the rest of my body out, but there wasn't much room on the mattress.
He had his arm around me, and he shifted more to the side, so I had more room. I relaxed against his shoulder.
Man, it was nice. His hand was rubbing along my bare back, real casual-like.
He stopped rubbing and his arm rested across my shoulders. "I love you, buddy," he said.
Ah, man. He said it sincere, too - I mean, not just because we'd been talkin' about it.
I didn't want to move, because I was so comfortable, but it was impossible not to reply to him. I raised up on a forearm, then bent down to give his lips another peck. "I love you, too."
Believe it or not, it took moment before it dawned on me that I'd actually said it, said the words. And I waited, thinking something momentous was gonna happen.
But he just sorta chuckled - that bashful sound - and I guess it was easier for him to take than it otherwise woulda been since the lights were out. Then he said, "There. Now you can tell your mother you said it."
I guess I could also tell her it truly wasn't that big a deal. I mean, I'd been right all along because it didn't change anything between Hutch and me. I mean, it's not like he felt more loved by me than he'd already had.
I waited a moment, just to make sure there wasn't going to be any dramatic consequences, then I snuggled back down against him.
See, the problem with Hutch and me has always been that once we start getting touchy-feely with each other, we don't know how to stop. It's like the telephone has to ring, or someone has to walk into the room, or one of us hasta go to the john... otherwise, we'd never part. Because it feels too good, I guess. I mean, it's like... if you're all snuggled up against Hutch, why would you ever want to move away?
I had almost drifted off when I heard him make a little noise, almost like he'd almost drifted off, but then was startled awake. Unfortunately, I knew why. "Your shoulder still botherin' you?" I asked.
His voice was tight, like he was annoyed. "Yeah."
I looked over at the clock. "Hey," I told him, "I think there's been enough time for the alcohol to work its way through your system. It should be safe to take your pills now."
He didn't answer. I know his pride was injured because he didn't want to take any pills, but pain is pain. So, he stayed silent.
I left the warmth of the bed and felt around for the lamp. After turning it on, I knelt down to my suitcase and found the bottle of pills. I then slipped out the door to the kitchen and filled a glass of water.
When I returned, he still had the cloth on his forehead and he was looking sorta contrite. I didn't say anything - just handed him the glass, then a couple of pills. He raised up a little on his elbow and swallowed them down. I watched him, thinking that I'd kinda-sorta kissed those same lips that were now pressed against the glass. And I felt all warm all over, knowing that he and I now had that special little secret between us.
He held the glass out and I took it and put it on the nightstand. Then I turned out the light. In the darkness, I hesitated, wondering if I should return to my own bed or sit with him until he fell asleep.
I decided that, as much as I would have liked to pamper him a while longer, I knew that it'd be a little weird if I pushed it; made idle conversation or tried to snuggle up to him again. Besides, he really needed to sleep.
I returned to my bed and faced away from him. I listened to him take a deep breath, as though he was making an effort to relax and let the pills do their thing.
As I drifted off, I was thinkin' that I didn't want to tell Ma. Even though it woulda made her happy, all the things I'd told her earlier were still true, and I really wanted to take the past few minutes between Hutch and me and put them in a glass of memory and keep them and hold them forever. Just for us.
And I found myself wonderin' if, sometime in the future, we'd have more quiet times when it was dark and we felt safe to do things that we'd never do in daylight.
Things that would just be between Hutch and me.