Diet and Exercise
by Nik Ditty, aka britwizz
With inexpressible gratitude to Kass and Sal for editing, hand-holding, knuckle-rapping, and exhibiting endless patience.
(An entirely optional gen prequel to this story, "Analysis And Therapy," can be found at
Don’t let anybody tell you dying doesn’t change your life. Anybody saying that has never died, so shoot ’em first and then ask questions. If they still have the same way of looking at things, ask their surgeon why he didn’t take their head out of their ass while he was operating on the bullet wounds.
I’m careful what I eat. When I drink, it’s water, soda, tea and sometimes coffee, nothing stronger. I work out more than back in the days when a pair of pretty legs capped off by jogging shorts was my motivation to start running. Now I swim instead, and all it takes to get me going is the chance to prove to Hutch that I can do it.
I’m different. Not the man I used to be.
But Hutch still loves me.
The night Hutch took me to El Cerdo Lleno, he didn’t look much like a guy who’d lost a bet. When I showed up, he looked more like he’d just kicked Farrah Fawcett out of bed ’cause Jaclyn Smith was coming over and all he had to do to woo her was change the sheets before she got there.
Instead, of course, the only brunet knocking down his door that night was me.
I thought his clothes were just a little on the dressy side until he handed me the tie. I almost backed out there and then; most of the places that I eat at are happy if you have a shirt and shoes on when you order. I’d never eaten tacos in a tie.
I’d done worse, though, and had worse done to me and lived to talk about it. So when Hutch said, “You ready?” what else could I do but answer, “I was born ready.”
Hutch turned on the radio while driving, not the PD issue Motorola but the AM/FM tuner that none of us are supposed to have. He kept the volume turned down low, making it impossible to recognize the songs, a background buzz just loud enough to be annoying—I don’t know why he bothered—but every now and then I’d pick up hints of Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac or Little River Band from out of the stream of tinny whispers.
The restaurant is way across the other side of town from Ocean Avenue, and in a neighborhood you wouldn’t think to find a classy place to eat. But there it sits, El Cerdo Lleno, making Chez Hélène look like a roadside diner.
Valet parking, maitre d’, and we had reservations; I was feeling guilty long before they brought the check and bowl of complimentary mints. After all, I’d picked this place. Waiting to be seated, I had a sudden change of heart.
“Okay, Hutch, you called my bluff,” I told him. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll swing by Paco’s Taco Shack on the way home.”
Hutch just slapped me on the arm and grinned. And that was great, a blast of sunshine coming after forty days of steady rain. I’d sacrifice my principles just to catch a glimpse of that and even keep the stupid tie on.
The waitress gave us each a menu, gold-edged pages bound in leather like the books they never let you check out of the library. I started to skim through and thought it looked a little hinky. Call me old-fashioned but I like to know the price of things up front. And like Ma always tells me, if you gotta ask you can’t afford it . . . or maybe it was Hutch who told me that . . .
Anyway, I read the menu through a second time and caught on to the fact that everything was listed and described in Spanish. I understood one word in three, maybe, the basic stuff—taco, nacho, guacamole—but the rest was a mystery to me.
And Hutch must have known I didn’t have a clue, but all he did was read the whole long list out loud from starter to dessert, like he had problems making up his mind. And every now and then he’d say something like, “Pollo . . . that’s just chicken, right?” as if he needed confirmation, or he’d run through every one of the ingredients of something and say, “Well, that sounds good . . . ”
The funny thing about Hutch is, even with his college education and his background, he never tries to make out that I’m less than he is. Oh, sure, he puts me down—or used to—but I play up to that side of him on purpose; it’s just part of our schtick. And then there’s this one time we played a game of hide and seek that got a little out of hand. The idea was to prove who was the better cop. Blame it on a bust gone bad and both of us acting like a coupla kids that day; the combination nearly killed him.
I guess if nothing else it proved that both of us should ride the short bus in to school, ’cause after that we still did lots of really stupid stuff. Got in each other’s faces when we should have simply walked away or tried going solo when we should have hung together.
But nothing that he’s ever done was meant to make me feel I’m dumb.
He stretches me—my mind, I mean—like muscle. The therapist I used to go to could give you a spiel on all the proper anatomical descriptions. He had this model of an arm with rubber bands that flexed and then eased up, depending on whichever way the arm was moved. Me and Hutch, we’re just like that. When we’re working right we’re like that arm in motion: push and pull and give and take.
I like to think that when I’m at full stretch, it gives Hutch chance to ease up on himself and vice versa. A lot of what I brought into this partnership, you’d never find in any college course. That’s not meant as a put down, that’s just how it is.
Funny . . . I just can’t get my mind around the change in tense.
Drop Hutch in the thick of any high society setting, he’ll fit right in. Take him to a ballet or an opera and he not only knows the name of every tiptoe high kick move, he knows the music, even knows the words. He can pick the perfect wine for any meal, any time, and knows there’s more than just one kind of caviar. Me, I didn’t even know what caviar was the first time I tried it and I sure as hell didn’t know how to eat it. Hutch showed me and didn’t bat an eyelid at my ignorance.
But that night, at El Cerdo Lleno, he looked all around him like he was Alice fallen through the looking glass. I didn’t get why he was so impressed. Menus aside and the fact the décor looked like the inside of the don’s mansion in an episode of Zorro, it was just another fancy restaurant. Though there was something about the young kids working there; none of them looked like the usual Hollywood hopeful type, waiting for the TV western to come back and put them on the road to fame and fortune. I heard one kid speak fluent Japanese to a table of businessmen behind me. At least I think that's what it was. The diners were. Japanese, I mean.
Then Hutch told me the story of the restaurant and how it ended up in such a rundown part of town. Turns out that the guy who put up all the money grew up in the neighborhood, and now that he’s made his pile, he wants to give the local kids a better break. As long as they stay working at El Cerdo Lleno, he’ll foot their bills through school to college and beyond, on top of paying more than minimum wage. But the moment he finds out that they cut school, do drugs or drink, he puts them on probation. They screw up again, they’re history.
“Usually,” Hutch said when he was done, “I have a problem with despots and dictators, but you gotta hand it to this guy, he keeps the kids in school, and that’ll give them more than just a fighting chance to build a future . . .”
And that’s Hutch to a “T”. Like me, he wants to bust the bad guys, lock ’em up and throw away the key. But more than that, he looks for some redeeming feature in the kids that we pick up. He likes to think that given half a chance everybody can step out of the shit they're in and come up smelling like roses.
I’ll never know exactly what went through his mind the time he looked down the barrel of a gun held in a young girl’s hands before she pulled the trigger trying to blow him away. Forget the bullet he took, the impact wasn’t to his chest.
“—as for his anti-gang program . . . ” he went on.
He lost me after that. I was struggling through a plate of enchiladas, two burritos already under my belt, literally: I could feel the waistband of my slacks begin to strain. And Hutch just rambled on, looking so goddamned happy I didn’t even need to know the cause.
The man must have a hundred different kinds of smile and when they’re firing right I swear that I’ve seen people stumble off the sidewalk into traffic at a glance. But there’s this private sly/shy smile he has I can’t describe. It’s like he’s peeling back the layers, right down to the heart of him. And man, that’s something else. You haven’t lived until you’ve been on the receiving end of that.
And that’s the look he gave me all through dinner, like he was pleased to watch me eat my way through half his paycheck. Pleased to share a pitcher of iced water with me, knowing that the meds I’m on don’t let me have a beer. Pleased to be half-strangled when he tried to swallow past his tie. Maybe he was happy just to break out of routine; between the job and trying to get me back into working order I figure his social life pretty much died when I did.
Under the circumstances, paying attention to him was the least I could do, and I didn’t even manage that half of the time that night. I kept saying, “Huh?” whenever I realized he’d stopped speaking, to the point where he started getting that look on his face. As if I’d popped open an incision again or had an infection or a couple degrees of fever.
I hate that look.
So much for my grand ambitions.
I’d told Hutch I wanted one of everything the menu had to offer; I didn’t even make a dent. Two burritos—one with chicken, one with steak—plus three enchiladas and a plateful of their nachos with “the works” and I was beat. Half the nachos went into a takeout box, and I got another box when Hutch said that I’d earned apple empanadas for dessert. He’d even spring for ice cream on the way home.
I didn’t get the ice cream in the end. Hutch checked in with Robbery before we left the parking lot, and Tyler, his lieutenant, said they had a tip on some big case. He didn’t say he needed Hutch to come in, not exactly, but since the transfer he’d cut Hutch an awful lot of slack . . .
I took a cab.
I never did find out how much our dinner cost. I hope it wasn’t too much, but Hutch had every right to ask me for a refund; after four hours sleep I spent the next six in the can, two kneeling, four sitting . . . shitting. Money down the drain.
When Hutch stopped by—the man can’t dance but he has perfect timing—he showed up just as I was pitching off the porcelain to one side. He propped me upright, and when I nearly fell the other way, he hauled me back to bed and dusted off my old bedpan. I could’ve cried.
“This,” he said, “or I take you to County.” He didn’t have to say another word. I took the metal monster from him, shoved it where it had to go. Which wasn’t where I felt like shoving it, if you get my drift. He plumped my pillows, pulled the covers up around my neck, and found me a big piece of Tupperware to puke in if I had to.
I must have gone to sleep not too long after.
Later on, Hutch woke me with his banging around in the kitchen. He said that he was making tea. Sounded more like he was beating pans together for the hell of it. It pissed me off—I had the right to die in peace this time—and so I told him. He came at me then, waving a ladle like he was a cut-rate Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Told him that, too. And that my head hurt. And my guts. And my butt, like someone put a blowtorch to my asshole.
So he said he’d go get his Colt and plug me, give me a new asshole between my eyes so everyone would know exactly what a shithead looked like. He looked mad enough to do it, too.
My wit sometimes amazes even me; I think I told him to go fuck himself ’cause obviously he hadn’t had a better offer if all he had to do in his off duty hours was bug the hell out of me. I’m pretty sure that’s what I said.
God in his mercy must’ve knocked me out again at that point.
When I came to, Hutch was still there.
He spent the next eight hours, give or take, nursing me through dry heaves and the cramping clenches of my emptied gut and making me drink tea, getting me to swallow chicken soup he’d made from scratch. And that’s on top of glass after glass of water. But you know what they say: what goes down, must come up . . . or something like that. It’s weird but the water was the worst of it, dripping down into my guts like nitro, blasting up and out of me. And Hutch cleaned up each time.
But some of my new liquid diet must’ve made it to my bladder after all, and I knew I was never going to make it to the bathroom—hell, it felt like I was never going walk again. . .
There’s nothing like peeing in a bottle to put you in your place; there’s nothing like having a friend who’ll rig you a bottle to pee in to tell you that, as places go, yours ain't so bad.
Hutch put a hole in an empty milk jug and handed it to me.
“Watch that edge,” he told me, pointing to the hole. “We wouldn’t want you cutting off your dick,” he added, heading to the kitchen again.
I inspected the facilities. A quart jug should have been enough, but at that moment I felt I could piss a gallon so I yelled after him.
“It's not big enough!”
A pause . . . and then he hollered back, “It’s plenty big enough; I've seen your dick.”
And to be honest, the size of the hole he’d cut out? It was pretty flattering.
When I was done I said, “Hey, Hutch,” half-hoping that he wouldn’t hear me. But he strolled right in and took the bottle, emptied it and rinsed it out, then brought it back again.
How are you supposed to thank a guy who does a thing like that for you? You start off by letting him treat you like you’re five years old and then stop acting like you’re four. You behave yourself: drink when he says drink and eat the soup and crackers and dry toast. And when he slaps some pills into your palm, you swallow them without complaint, even the big blue one that’s “just a multivitamin” but leaves a taste like chalk and something bitter in your mouth.
And you say “thank you.” A lot.
The next time I woke up, still crappy, eight o’clock had come and gone and I was all alone. I figured Hutch had finally gone home to bed but called his name a couple times to check. On the nightstand was a metal pitcher. The ice inside had mostly melted but the water felt good going down. I had myself a glass or two, but now that I had nothing left inside me it ran right through.
The plastic bottle wasn’t gonna cut it.
I shoved the covers off and found the floor, one foot at a time. The muscles in both my legs felt like they’d been sucked right out, but all the bones were still intact enough to keep me upright as I staggered to the bathroom. I had to sit to pee so that I’d have the strength to make it back to bed when I was done.
And once in bed again I realized I was close to starving . . . only I didn’t have the energy to spare to even crawl in search of supper. And Hutch was gone.
I was hungry. I was alone. I was hungry and alone. The kitchen was a mile away and I had legs that felt like noodles . . . which made me even more hungry. For noodles. Chinese, Italian, it didn’t matter; I wanted noodles. And someone to cook them for me. And I wanted them five minutes ago.
Instead, I had another cup of water from the sweating pitcher and curled up like a dead bug underneath the covers.
The bed dipped at the corner right behind my head, and I pulled up the covers he'd pulled down and tried to shut him out.
“Hey, buddy, feeling better?”
I said, “Go away, Hutch. I’m having me a pity party.”
“Party, huh,” he answered. “Good thing I brought some balloons.” I turned over and looked up and he had. Well, balloon, singular. It had Murray’s Carpet Sale! printed on it and was the same nasty shade of blue as the pill he made me take earlier, but they say it’s the thought that counts. I liked his way of thinking; he brought me a balloon.
“There’s ice cream, too,” he added, ’cause he knows by now what makes me tick. Hutch and me, we pride ourselves on our integrity as cops, but I can still be bought and ice cream never fails to win me over.
I wriggled round in my cocoon till I was sitting upright. He had a tray already set, a bowl of ice cream, cookies and a mug of lemon tea with honey. He placed it on the covers on my knees and said, “I think you need the sugar but when this is gone you’re sticking to the diet. Oh, and Mexican is off the menu.”
And I nodded, not a word of protest. See?
I told you I can be bought.
“What time is it?” I asked him.
“Nearly midnight,” he said. “Sorry it’s so late. I tried to get back sooner.”
I chowed down and Hutch sat in a chair and drank some tea or coffee while I ate. Neither of us spoke but every now and then I’d look up from my tray and find him watching me.
Sometimes, after I was shot—hell, most times—I was so fucked up and hurting . . . I’d go so far down inside myself, I could miss the fact that he was hurting too. That he was just as raw as me, in different places. Bleeding out invisibly.
And other times, I’ve looked into his eyes and seen a man about to kill for me or die for me, his pain and rage all tangled up together. But as I watched him while I ate my supper-breakfast-midnight-feast, his soft expression got to me and made it hard to swallow.
Hutch has got a heart as big as a barn, but even someone city born and bred like me knows a barn has only so much space in it. Outside that, there’s this whole world of caring, but once you’re taken into that big heart you’ll never feel more loved.
I guess I’ve got the best stall in the place, and then there’s Huggy, Dobey and his family, Sweet Alice, maybe, folks like that. His mom’s there, but I sometimes get the feeling that she comes and goes—her choice. He tries real hard where she’s concerned, but I don’t know . . . she’s “flighty,” Ma would say. Married three times so far, and since the last divorce it seems like there’s a different beau for every season. When Hutch talks to her she always fills him in on all the gory details. No guy needs to hear that kind of thing from his own mother. But Hutch and even Hutch’s dad think the world of her—the old man still takes care of her, financially, for old times’ sake. She loves them back in her own way.
I think having a mother like that made him how he is: unconditionally loving, unflinchingly kind . . . and just a little flaky sometimes.
Seeing I was done with eating, Hutch got up and took the tray and handed me another pill. “Try and get some rest,” he said. “I’m gonna crash on your couch for a few.” And he rested his hand on the top of my head, not ruffling my hair or anything, just resting there and following me down as I squirmed back under the covers.
I told him, “Night, Mom.”
And he said, “Go to sleep, shithead.”
Yeah, he loves me. Unconditionally.
So, a day after thinking I’m dying again, here I am back in the land of the living. I did sleep for a while, because Hutch told me to, and it was nice while it lasted. But the sugar in my belly wouldn’t settle and I used my Tupperware for purposes the manufacturer had never dreamed of. Still, I feel a whole lot better for it. Pretty lively in fact, for two in the morning.
It’s weird how sometimes things are seen most clearly in the dark; I do a lot of thinking in the dead of night. I’ve done a lot of thinking in the last few hours, ever since I got my shit together, if you’ll pardon the expression. Whatever made me sick has cleared my system. Funny how it’s cleared my head, too, and my way of looking at things.
Now I think I’ll get up.
I take the bowl and empty it, rinse it clean, then head back to the kitchen. My legs are in full working order and even with the lights out I don’t trip and fall or anything. I can hear Hutch sleeping on the couch—not snoring, just breathing with a little whistle in it—and figure he’s so zonked that the radio won’t bother him and turn it on real low. Some guy on there banging on about the Ayatollah and America’s obligation to world peace. Exactly why I hate “talk radio”—Hutch must’ve been listening to it earlier—but I leave it on while I make coffee and a sandwich that I eat while standing watching Hutch.
People say stuff to me all the time, like, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.” And they can’t, because it isn’t something they can measure in days or weeks, in pints or so many milligrams so many times per day. They can’t calculate it by counting stitches, or by multiplying voltage by the number of times those paddles were used. They just can’t figure it.
But I can. It’s been right there in front of me the whole time and not in any of those things. In Hutch. It’s in his face and the map of new lines there, and in his hair and my knowing that soon I’ll start calling him the Silver Sirniki instead of the Blond Blintz, which doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s how much gray is mixed in with the gold these days.
Sprawled on his belly on the couch, head resting on one arm, his face looks pillow-soft, a little squished, and I know before it happens that he’ll wake up with his skin all full of creases—more new lines he doesn’t need—from the sleeve of his jacket. His hair is every which way; it reminds me of tumbleweed, and if there was a breeze I wonder if he’d up and blow away like one, he looks so barely there, just holding on.
I take a cup of coffee with me, moving closer, to sit in the chair near his feet.
I notice there’s a hole in one of Hutch’s socks, right at the heel, and the pale skin pushing through looks like a bubble forming, a blister, a birthing . . . something fragile. Vulnerable. And suddenly I wonder if I’m seeing him the way that he’s seen me before, and sometimes sees me still.
I know he sat for hours in the hospital when I was so far gone it looked as if I wasn’t going to make it. I know ’cause Huggy told me, Dobey told me, the nurses told me, and I know because my heart told me that’s where he’d be. He was there so much as I was healing that when he wasn’t there I’d feel it, even fast asleep.
But now I’m getting better—maybe just two-thirds the man I used to be but twice the man I was a month ago—and he’s only with me half the time. And hell, I’m getting jealous of the time when Hutch gets busy doing other things, like working.
Time creeps by. The coffee’s gone and dickwad on the radio is driving me insane. He’s switched from Iran to a rant on Patty Hearst and her release from jail. That’s old news now; who gives a crap? I want to wake Hutch up and tell him “talk to me” and “be awake while I am” and “just be with me . . . ”
Always be with me.
I want to put that smile back on his face, the one he wore the night he took me out to eat. I want to see him look at me as if he isn’t scared that suddenly I’ll up and die on him before he has a chance to stop it. I want him not to feel he owes me something to make up for the things he gets to do that I just can’t these days.
Now, I’m not saying what he does is done from any sense of obligation. “Survivor’s guilt” is nothing but a term my shrink threw in the mix because he doesn’t know a single thing about what makes Hutch tick. And lately Hutch is all we seem to talk about.
’Cause I’d already told him everything about the shooting, and what it’s gonna mean to me to quit the force if I don’t get my shit together. We’ve talked about my mother and my father and my brother and my uncles, aunts, the neighbor’s dog . . . so eventually I had to mention Hutch.
Our partnership: the years before the shooting, from day one at the academy through the years in uniform to getting our detective’s shields and working as a Zebra unit—that’s been covered. Done to death. Our friendship, our off duty hours—been there done that, too. And then we come round to Gunther again, complete the circle. And suddenly I’m spilling out my guts for someone else’s delectation. It’s made me look at things a whole new way.
I’m conscious, in that whole new way I’ve got of looking at things, of how much I love Hutch, because I’m looking closer at the things he does and seeing, like it’s for the first time, how much Hutch loves me.
In the hospital for instance, even when the doctors acted like they couldn’t do enough for patient Starsky, D.M., Room 4-12, it was Hutch who did exactly what was best for me.
He’s the one who got the extra blanket for my bed and put it double at the bottom when I said my feet were cold. And then massaged my legs to get my circulation going. He made sure the Jello that they brought was red, not green or yellow. And then he’d spoon-feed me an extra bite or ten when I said I was finished eating. He saw to it, too, that Ollie slept beside me every night but disappeared before the morning rounds began—I still don’t know exactly how he managed that trick ’cause there’s no way they let Hutch stay there all night, every night. Just no way . . .
And no way would I ask another living soul to do some of the things he’s done for me. Nurses, sure, they do that stuff when it needs to be done, ’cause that’s their job. The sight and smell of pus won’t cross their eyes or make them gag in any case. They always had a lot of other asses besides mine to wipe, and when I cussed or screamed or fuck it, ended up bawling like a baby, they had that whole “professional detachment” armor around them.
But Hutch, all he had was his love for me to get him through.
Ever since the shooting I’ve had the pick of city-funded shrinks, and they’re all nice folks for the most part. But for the last month or so, I've been having sessions with the only one of them I didn't hit it off with right away. The one I nearly busted in the mouth on my first visit just because I thought he got a little out of line. Hutch said anyone who got that much of a reaction out of me had to at least be on the right track. Sigmund, as I call him, got me talking and I needed that, Hutch said. Of course, if I’d just told him whose name came up right before I lost my cool, then maybe he’d have had some second thoughts about me going back. But it turns out he was right about the guy.
So anyway, this Sigmund makes me keep a journal. I haven’t had to write this much since elementary school when Miss McDonald made us write a “How I Spent My Weekend” essay every Monday. But then the weird thing is, he doesn’t even ask to read it. He tells me I should read it to myself while I sit waiting for our session. Then we talk, not even necessarily about my latest entry. I guess it gets me thinking about what’s been on my mind, the way I’m feeling.
Take this entry I just wrote for instance:
. . . Hutch is sleeping, looking like a painting. Not one I could point to in an art book at the library or tell you what it’s called ’cause it’s hung in a famous gallery. It’d be a piece that’s done in pastels, maybe watercolors, by a local artist or someone who died a hundred years ago in Paris without ever selling anything. Looking sort of faded, washed-out shades of gray and blue, it ought to have a caption underneath, in French, something that would sound poetical but translate into “man who’s getting lots more sleep now than he’s had in months.”
I wish I could paint like that, just for my own secret pleasure. No one else would get it—what’s so special anyway about a guy with rumpled clothes and stinky feet who's slobbering a little bit into his sleeve.
I bet that looks poetical in French. I put my composition book away.
Hutch wakes up and sees me watching him.
“Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” he asks me.
So I confess, “I puked that pill back up about an hour after it went down.”
He rolls over, scrubbing at his face with hands that move twice as fast as the rest of him. “Jesus, Starsk,” he says, “You okay?”
“Better now I’ve got someone to talk to other than the radio.” I stick my hand out, steadying him as he slowly rights himself. We stay like that for several minutes; I hold on, and Hutch just lets me.
Now he’s up, I figure that there’s room for two and move to sit beside him on the couch. He doesn’t give an inch of space, so I’m wedged in between him and the couch arm. Snug, like we just took a sharp turn in the Torino and he’s slammed up against me. It’s so familiar, such an ordinary thing . . . why is it my skin feels suddenly like I just slipped into a tub of too-hot water?
“You okay there, Starsk?” he asks, and now I’m not just sweating slightly; I can feel my face turn red. “Maybe you should ease up on the coffee—”
I wonder if he smells it on me; we’re that close. I wonder if he’d like to taste it on me too . . .
“So,” he says, “You and this guy on the radio . . . the two of you got something going on that I should know about?”
“He’s a jerk,” I tell him. “Can’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground. Don’t know why they pay him. Don’t know why anyone would listen to his crap.”
I’m rambling like I’ve got a fever, saying the first thing that pops into my head so I won’t say what’s really on my mind. And that’s a big mistake ’cause now I’ve got Hutch looking at me way too close. But then he eases up—I must have passed inspection.
“So what are you, his captive audience?” Hutch says. “You know, the radio’s got this thingamajig you turn to change the station. Or did his voice just get to you; you couldn’t tear yourself away—”
I cut in, my failsafe failing, “Stockholm Syndrome . . . that’s the name they give it when a hostage falls in love with whoever’s got them, right?”
Hutch must not be up to par because instead of asking where I’m coming from he simply says, “Falls in love, or empathizes with. Why?”
“Is there a name for when a patient falls in love with his nurse?”
“Probably,” Hutch says, considering. “People like to think up names for things. Categories, labels. They can put their little world in order better that way.”
I sigh and turn to look him in the eye, willing him to jump onto the same rail that I’m riding. “I think I got it.”
“The nurse thing . . . the whatchamacallit syndrome.”
The room goes silent in a way it’s never been before. No need for a pin to drop; at that moment I know I could have heard a pin just be. And Hutch does this . . . chameleon thing, his face changing color, going pale then red, but he’s not leaping off the couch or punching my lights out, so . . .
He says, quietly, leaning up against me. “Hey, buddy . . . maybe you should get a shower, if you’re feeling up to it.”
Not the most romantic thing that anyone has ever said to me, but I can tell it’s not meant as a put down, not even as a way to brush me off. A stall, maybe?
Yeah, I’ll buy that. And I don’t mind at all. In fact, I say, “You first.”
There’s a part of me that’s never gonna make it past thirteen. Hutch says that it drives him nuts ’cause that’s the me that kicks somebody’s chair away when they’re about to sit, or pours about a pound of sugar in their coffee the second their back’s turned.
So when he comes out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, rubbing his wet hair roughly with another, and he says, “It’s all yours,” just at the exact moment when the first towel slides off his skinny hips to the floor—just for that moment I want to say, “Nah, it’s okay. I got one like that, only bigger.” Or even, “Shouldn’t rub your hair that hard—it’s starting to wear out in back.”
Only I say, “Think I’ll have me a bath.”
About that bath . . .
Once you’ve been in hospital a time or two, the novelty of flowers disappears. The cards and candy last a little longer—and only if somebody hides the candy—but even so, I’ve seen it all before. It’s nice, I’m touched, thanks for coming. You know the drill.
Anyway, the guys at work, instead of buying all the usual crap this time and knowing I’d be laid up for a while, they got it in their heads to buy me one big gift. I think Hutch put them up to it and if it sounded just a little weird, well, he can be pretty damn convincing.
So that’s how come my gift from the department was a bathtub. And not just any kind of bathtub, either.
Minnie Kaplan’s husband is a plumber, built like the son of Kong but he’s a real nice guy. Which is good, considering the way that me and Minnie play together. His name’s Butch—what else—and he calls Minnie “Kitten.” He says that every day I flirt with her she turns into a tiger in the bedroom. Now, there’s a mental image I don’t need!
Butch installs the tubs at spas and all those fancy hotels springing up along the Bay. Big tubs, deep tubs, tubs with all these jets and nozzles, top end of the range. Sometimes there’s a ding in one, a scuff, a speck, a tiny little flaw and then the client turns it down. That leaves Hank a tub he’s bought and paid for he can’t use. The best that he can do is sell it off at cost.
Now, that might sound a cheesy kind of gift, but when I come home from the gym with every muscle in my body screaming, there’s no place on God’s green earth that’s better than that bathtub.
I think it’s even big enough for two people to fit in it.
I get the stink of sweat and sickness off my body, run the jets to soothe my aches and pains, then wrap up in a bathrobe; I’m all set to play the grand seduction scene. But Hutch has made good use of his time, too.
On the table there’s a glass of orange juice, a bottle of my pain pills and some toast—I guess it’s all for me ’cause there’s my blue balloon tied to the nearest chair—and Hutch comes from the bedroom with his arms full of my dirty sheets. Eat your heart out, Jaclyn Smith, ’cause Hutch just changed the sheets . . . for me.
He looks around, looks everywhere but where I’m at and dumps the laundry in a corner before coming over to sit down. He’s dressed in boxers, plaid ones, red and green like Christmas, and a T-shirt.
While I eat my toast, he opens up the bottle and sets a pill down on the table right beside my glass.
“I don’t hurt,” I tell him but I take the pill and swallow it; if he wants to bitch me out it sure as hell won’t be because of that. “And I’m not delirious,” I add. “I meant exactly what I said.”
He nods because he thinks he knows it’s just the fever talking, couldn’t possibly be me.
“I pick up prescriptions for you, buy you juice, and now you think you’ve got the hots for me?” It’s amazing how he keeps his voice so even. “Maybe you’re not getting out as often as you should. Maybe I’ve been crowding you.”
I point out that I never said I had the hots for him. “I said that I’m in love with you, I think.”
“You think that you’re in love with me.”
“No, I think I said that. Said I love you.”
“Starsk, you know I love you, but—”
I cut him off. “I hate it when you say that, Hutch. What’s the ‘but’ for this time?”
He looks a bit embarrassed and I don’t blame him; it’s not every day your best friend puts you on the spot like I just did.
“You need to get out more,” he insists. “That’s a lot of what you think you feel right now. It’s like you said, it’s Stockholm Syndrome. There’s hardly a minute of the day when I’m not on your case or in your face or calling you or—”
“Funny, I was thinking I don’t see you near enough.” And that’s the trick to reasoning with Hutch; you cut him off. You knock down all his walls of logic before he’s got half his bricks in place. “I’ve got used to having you around, I guess.”
If I thought I stood a chance of lightening the mood with that remark, I know I’ve blown it half a second later. Hutch looks like I’ve punched him in the gut and I can see I’ve underlined the point that he was making.
“It’s not good enough,” I say. I’m way too loud, and he looks at me sharply. “Every time you go I know that I don’t want you leaving here. I hate it when you go to work, ’cause you might run into somebody else. Somebody in one piece who won’t need you like I’ve needed you till now, somebody you’ll think is offering you love, not gratitude.”
“Are you sure that’s not what this is? Gratitude?”
“Am I grateful? Sure I am.” I answer my own question and his, too. But that’s only the tip of an iceberg bigger than the one that sank Titanic. “I’m grateful to the EMTs who got me to the hospital before I croaked. I’m grateful to the doctors who pulled out all the lead and sewed me up. I’m grateful to the nurses and the candy stripers, cleaning staff, the people in the kitchens—”
He’s smiling. This is not the part where he’s supposed to smile.
“I’m grateful—more than grateful—to all those people, Hutch. But I don’t love them.” He’s still smiling. At me this time, not because he thinks I’ve just said something funny. This is good. “You’ve made me the center of your universe. Is it unbelievable that I feel the same way too?”
I can’t get a read on his expression and he’s got his hands tucked out of sight; he does a lot of talking with his hands. I wish he’d say something.
“There’s all different kinds of love, Starsk. What you’re saying—you mean—you’re talking about us . . . the two of us . . . being partners in a whole new way. Being intimate . . . ”
The way that he says “intimate” starts a weird sensation in my belly, a sort of curling warmth, like eating soup when it’s twenty below outside.
“Hutch, you’ve held my hand, you’ve held my head when I was puking, you’ve even held my dick before. It don’t get much more intimate than that.”
“You had IV’s in both arms and made them take the catheter—”
“You held my dick.”
I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m accusing him of something, but Hutch ducks his head all of a sudden, staring at his lap, his hands or something. It makes it hard to understand what he says next. I ask him to say it over.
“I was always waiting for some crack from you,” he says, his forehead scrunched from the way he’s trying to look at me without sitting up. “About me getting fresh.”
Which reminds me . . . “Getting fresh sheets for the bed just now, that wasn’t a come on?”
And there he
goes again, head down, eyes down; I’m scared I’m losing him. Before he slips
away completely I reach underneath the table, grabbing for the nearest hand.
Two hands, in fact—he’s got them knotted round each other in his lap. Knotted
round . . .
“Jeez, Hutch . . . talk about carrying concealed.”
That gets his attention, like my hand does brushing up against his crotch. I’m not surprised he’s looking so uncomfortable. I can feel how bad he needs to get off, but more than that, I know he needs to get things off his chest.
“Talk to me,” I tell him.
“Sorry I got pissed,” he says, surprising me. “Earlier, I mean. You were sick and I just pitched a bitch for nothing. I tell myself that nothing’s changed . . . ” He meets my eyes at last, and much more easily than I expect with my hand where it is. “I want to think that you’re the same . . . that everything’s the same . . . but it’s not.”
I wait ’cause that’s not all of it.
When Hutch was bitching at me yesterday, there was a part of me that said, just like old times. Then everything blew over, the way it always used to, and I didn’t give our argument much weight. It never dawned on me till now that he was mad, not at me, but for me.
“I was ready to call the Health Department, you know that? About the restaurant . . . only there’s never been any report about them, about food poisoning, about people getting sick from eating there.” Aha . . . “You got sick from eating the same kind of crap you’ve always eaten—”
“Because I’m not the same,” I finish up. It’s not hard to read him after all, not when he gives me the big print version. Mad . . . and scared to death; I guess I’m lucky that he didn't ship me right back to the hospital, he was that scared.
I squeeze his hand; it’s supposed to be a way to reassure him but what I didn’t think about was what that little gesture does to my knuckles, curling them right into his balls. He jumps a little, then holds my hand a little tighter, keeping it exactly where it’s at even as he’s saying, “Don’t.”
I’ve pushed my luck with Hutch a lot over the years, pushed his buttons, even punched him out a time or two. But nothing that I’ve ever done before has been as dangerous as this . . .
Lunging forward from my chair, I get right up in his face. His eyes look wild; he’s like a suicide who’s just stepped out onto the ledge still figuring which way to jump and if he’s really going to. He’s gotta know whatever he decides I’m going with him.
I keep my eyes on his the whole time, up until the second that I’m forced to tilt my head to get our mouths to fit together. I want to see I’m heading in the right direction. He doesn’t give an inch, doesn’t flinch, doesn’t blink or shrink from me, just waits until my lips touch his, and then moans whatever’s on his mind into my mouth.
It doesn’t sound like a complaint, just loud at this close range. I could do without distractions so I hush him with my tongue. He jumps again, jamming hard against my hand, coming right out of the chair . . .
Oh, shit, I’ve done it now.
Question is: what’s Hutch gonna do about it?
He reacts, finally, his hands flying up like startled pigeons and then he’s got my face pressed between them and he’s kissing back like I’m dying and he’s giving up all his air to me. There’s a hard urgency in the way he’s holding me, the way his mouth covers mine completely—lip-lock, fuck, it’s an airlock—but we’re deadlocked ’cause at this angle, as hard as he’s kissing me, I still have gravity on my side. And I press back.
I don’t know when I first know we’re losing it, the balance. I’m not sure it ever dawns on me at all ’cause I’m still going forward at an angle, and Hutch tilts back but not away until the chair that he’s in hits the point of no return. Suddenly there’s this almighty crack; the legs are giving way.
Hutch’s inward breath lifts me and I fall as the air escapes again. I look down. My hands appear to be the only part of me in contact with the ground, planted either side of Hutch’s head. I don’t remember the maneuver but at least if he’s out cold it’s not from making contact with my thick skull. It’s not much by way of consolation, but at this point I’ll take any comfort I can find.
“Comfortable up there?” he asks me.
I’m so grateful I could kiss him. In fact I think I will, but then his hands are pushing at my chest and I can’t reach.
“Oh, no, Romeo,” he says, “If you can’t find a better place than this to have your wicked way with me . . . ”
Talk about incentive. I’ll overlook the fact the bastard’s laughing at me, but I’m contemplating sweet revenge another day even as I scramble backwards, trying to find ways to push myself off him without pushing off on him too hard. He says “nnngg” and “oof” a couple times, depending whereabouts my knees or elbows land, but then I’m crouching in between his ankles, both of my feet firmly on the ground.
“Hand?” I offer, reaching out. He takes it, lets me pull him till he’s sitting up and looking just a little surprised.
“You’ve been working out,” he says.
I shrug. “Sex is just like tacos,” I reply. “Give me motivation, I’ll move mountains.”
I’m grinning like an idiot. I can feel it in the way my cheeks are aching, and I see it in his eyes. I’ve already laid it on the line; there comes a point in any situation where nothing you can say or do can make it any worse.
“So we’re moving right towards the sex part, then . . . no foreplay?” Even sitting on the floor among the wreckage of my chair, his boxers sporting an impressive wet spot, Hutch sounds like . . . I don’t know what he sounds like. A child bride, maybe, married off to seal some treaty or in payment of a debt. He can’t think he owes me this.
And it’s not restitution that I’m offering him, either.
“Don’t let this hair trigger fool you,” he cuts in, one hand covering his crotch. “I’ll be up for anything you care to name.”
“I figure when you take someone to dinner,” I say, overlooking all the time between that night and now, “the least you should expect is that you’ll get some, as a ‘thank you.’”
Hutch comes back with, “Never thought of you as easy.”
And I’m not. Even getting off the floor right now is hard; I’m hard.
As I get to my feet, I say, “I thought we’d maybe start off slow. I could jerk you off or—”
“I can do slow, too,” he says, finding that his own feet can support his weight, “in spite of evidence against it. Did you ever hear of tantric sex?”
“You leave my tantra alone. I’m not that kind of girl.”
His expression serious, he points out, “Starsk, you’re not a girl.”
“I wouldn’t want you thinking I don’t know exactly what we’re doing here.”
“Hutch,” I say and try to put my hand up to his face. It’s only now I realize that it’s still held in his. “I know what we’re doing, what I’m asking, and I know exactly who I am and who you are and what we are and everything . . . not exactly sure of the mechanics of everything . . . but I know.”
Hutch steps back, looking at me full in the face, my hand still in his. “You know, huh?” To prove a point I take a step towards the bedroom, walking backwards, leading him. All those months of working out are wasted; I’m getting no resistance. He says, “D’you know if there’s a chance we’ll try that kissing thing again?”
I notice that he’s got his free hand pressed against his back and I frown as I say, “You sure you want to risk that? My kisses can be pretty devastating.”
He drops his hand which shows he knows exactly what I’m thinking, and says, “If we try it lying down this time, at least we won’t have far to fall.”
On the threshold, I remind him, “Babe, I thought I told you once already: I’ve already fallen.”
“Dying changed my life,” I say, and Hutch just grunts an answer. “What? You don’t think that I’m different?”
“Based on what? The fact that you just sucked my brains out through my dick?” Hutch says. He hasn’t moved for twenty minutes now. I wasn’t worried. Lying here with my head resting on his belly, I can hear his heart just fine and hear him breathing.
“But what a way to go,” I tell him, and okay, I’m feeling pretty smug about it. Who knew you could learn so much about the right technique for sucking someone’s dick just by spending your whole adult life on the receiving end? And the noises that Hutch made as I was busy turning his life upside down . . . I say again, who knew?
I’m still out of breath—I’m not the man I used to be—and if I was a racehorse they’d say I’m broken-winded, but I think it’s more a case of getting broken in. I just need some practice.
I really want to kiss him but I think I oughta go and brush my teeth first—I swallowed and I have to say that it’s an acquired taste. Like caviar. Like some of the stuff on El Cerdo Lleno’s menu, which wasn’t near as good coming up as it was going down.
And, speaking of going down . . .
“Hey, Hutch . . . just how worn out are you?”