[For Salieri, who asked for stories about the importance of small things. Edited most excellently by Kassidy Rae.]
Ken liked going to Rudy’s. It wasn’t as fancy as some of the restaurants his parents took him and his sister to in Duluth. It was a private club outside the city, north on Highway 4, toward Island Lake, and in reality it was kind of seedy. But it was where his parents had met, and so, once in awhile, they still went there for dinner.
First there was the drive, stiffly sitting in the back seat next to his sister, dressed in Sunday clothes. He remembered watching late summer sunlight flicker gold through the trees along the roadside. The light would slant across the occasional rocky glade or creek, turning the world into a Constable painting. Around every curve would be something new, no matter the time of year. The world seemed huge and full of possibilities. And then finally they would reach a small gravel lot surrounding a plain low building with its single blinking sign proclaiming the place as Rudy’s.
For Ken, going in was like catching a glimpse into adulthood. There was ritual to it: the solemn passage of the brown paper-wrapped bottle from his father’s keeping to the bartender’s care, the paper umbrellas ensconced in every drink, his father ordering for the table without consulting anyone. And his parents would always dance.
He remembered his mother on these nights as the rustle of grey satin mixed with the scents of Shalimar and Aqua Net; his parents dancing easily to Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald. At twelve he was too young to understand in a visceral way, but his parents’ effortless, matching steps intrigued him, the reflection of years of familiarity with the movement of another body. And he wondered if he would ever be that way with someone.
After dinner, there would be one dance where he was expected to squire his mother across the floor while his father took his sister’s hand. She’d giggle and stand tip-toed on his shoes as he moved her through the steps.
Ken remembered feeling stiff and awkward, never really sure how his feet were supposed to go or exactly how to lead. But his mother would smile down at him and say that someday he would find a girl that would be easy to dance with. And then he’d know that she was the one for him.
“And Ken,” she told him one night, kneeling slightly to look him in the eye. “Make sure she’s a friend. The one you love should be your best friend. Because friendship will carry you through when even love won’t.”
He remembered nodding solemnly at her and then being caught in her warm embrace for just a moment.
On the way home he’d sit in the back next to his sleeping sister and listen to his parent’s soft conversation as the car moved smoothly through the dark. He was already starting to pull away from them, to struggle against his father’s autocratic rule; but on these nights he allowed himself to feel safe in the darkness, wrapped in his parent’s soft voices, the murmur of the radio and the faint green glow of the dashboard lights.
Hutch surfaced lethargically out of the dream, some part of him clinging to that long-lost sense of warmth and security. He cautiously opened his eyes and placed himself in late afternoon, judging by the length of the shadows sprawled across his bed. Even more cautiously he moved his head, waiting for the headache to slam into being from somewhere behind his eyes, waiting for Marianne’s screams to start echoing in his brain again.
It didn’t happen.
Hutch was confused. He thought back to the night before and remembered being drunk. Ponderously, pitifully drunk. It had taken a lot of whatever they had been drinking to dampen the screams. He should be incredibly hung over, but somehow, he didn’t feel too bad.
Huh. Must have slept past it. Well, thank God for small favors. He carefully stretched but felt only the slight ache in joints that have slept too long, the strange time displacement of waking in the early evening. He lay still for another moment, listening to the quiet sounds of someone moving around the apartment.
The awareness of his partner settled deeply within him, the way it always did, and Hutch caught at a sudden memory of careful hands, hidden by darkness, removing his clothes and tucking him in. And there had been words.
“That’s it, Hutch. Lay it down. Just for a little while, partner. Just lay it all down. Sleep.”
Hutch wasn’t sure but he thought he also remembered those hands on his skin, stroking the hair off his face in a soothing rhythm. He shook his head a little and let the memory go. He listened and tried to place Starsky by his movements. Kitchen sounds. The scents of garlic and tomato. Starsky cooking?
Suddenly his partner was there, somehow knowing he was awake.
Hutch looked up at Starsky’s shadowed form, backlit by mellow gold. It was hard to see his eyes.
“How ya feel?”
“Good. You’ve got enough time for a shower if you want, before dinner’s done.”
Starsky left, going back to whatever mysterious cooking thing he was doing, and Hutch rolled carefully out of bed, still half expecting pain to kick in.
It did hit him a little in the shower; the water pressure stung against the bruised flesh on his face, and as he moved around the ache in his ribs woke up some, but it was nowhere near as bad as before. He shaved carefully around his mustache and thoroughly brushed his teeth. As he wrapped himself in bright orange terrycloth he almost felt he’d been able to wash away the days and weeks that lay behind him. Almost.
He padded back out into the main room in bare feet and moved up behind Starsky to see what was cooking.
“Hey, no peeking. You can see it when it’s done.” Starsky didn’t bother to turn around. He just picked up a glass of icewater off the counter and handed it back to Hutch as he continued to stir. Steam billowed up around him, and he stepped back with a startled curse.
Hutch chuckled a little and took the glass with him to get dressed. After the first sip, he realized how thirsty he was and quickly drained it, wiping a few errant drops off his chin and then pulled on a set of sweats and straightened up his bed. He carried the empty glass back out to the sink and seeing a small pile of dishes on the counter, began to set the table.
Starsky was over by the turntable and soon some old jazz song swirled through the room. Hutch stopped, felt a little dizzy. He stood frozen with a handful of silverware and watched Starsky move smoothly back to the kitchen in time with the rising voice of Sarah Vaughn. Something in his chest felt strange. Heavy.
“Wh-where’d you find that album?”
Starsky turned and looked at him shrugging a little. “It was in your stack, down toward the bottom. Just thought it would go good with dinner. Why? Don’t you like it? You can change it if you want.”
“No, um . . .” Hutch tried to pull himself together. “It’s fine; just surprised me a little. Didn’t remember I had that one, that’s all.” He started carefully placing the silverware next to the two plates, suddenly hyperaware of Starsky’s movements as he checked the timer and pulled something out of the oven. “Sassy was my mother’s favorite singer.”
“Yeah? My mom loved Sinatra.” Starsky brought some matches over to the table and lit the candles Hutch hadn’t noticed. “Have a seat, Blintz.”
Hutch sat and watched dumbly as Starsky neatly swept up his plate and carried it over to the stove, his stride swaggering just a little to the beat of the music. Hutch pictured the way Starsky moved on the street, how they moved together. For the first time something in him put it to music, overlaid it with the memory of his parents dancing.
My God, Mother. It’s not a her; it’s a him! Hutch could do nothing but let the stunned realization hit. All these years. He’d never, ever, seen this one coming. Or had he? The knowledge settled quietly in the place where Starsky’s name lived. It felt like a truth he’d always known.
Then Starsky was laying pasta and eggplant in front of him with an expectant grin, and Hutch could only grin back.
“Wow, Starsk. This looks terrific.”
He watched as Starsky sat across the table from him with a little flourish all his own and began to eat. Hutch blinked a little and looked down at his own meal, wondering how he’d ever be able to force food past the swell of emotion inside. He picked up his fork and began to cut into his dinner as Starsky started talking about some weird article he’d read, and then Hutch looked up at his partner’s lively face and realized that for now understanding was enough. This one singular moment was everything. And he laughed.
Over in the corner, Sarah continued to sing, timeless and serene.