I had always denied him Christmas. Well, not denied it, exactly - but resisted it. The meaning has been lost, it's just a push for money, all that same old shit I'd always told him. And he's Jewish! Yet every year, he'd basically guilt me into getting him a gift anyway, but I'm not too shy to say that the goofy grin that would spread across his face when he realized I didn't really forget made me feel a bit - ok, mushy - inside.
Every year I'd grudgingly allow him to put up a small tree (and they got bigger every year), string my apartment up with lights, and sleep over on the floor on Christmas Eve, just like a kid, with his sleeping bag and a pillow. He always looked so very young, sleeping under the tree at three in the morning when I finally would slide that package for him next to the one for me. The one that's been there since before the tree was decorated.
And then he would wake me up ridiculously early, bouncing on my bed and offering me juice, coffee, eggs - anything to get me up and going, which I refused to do until at least seven o'clock. He would whine and flop down beside me on the bed, poking at me when I ignored him, sometimes dozing back off himself, and again I could watch him sleep and find his youth recaptured, and maybe a bit of my own old childish and innocent Christmas beliefs.
But all that changed the Christmas after Terry died. It was like the holiday spirit died with her the day Starsky and her family buried her. That year, it was me who put up the tree, and me who dragged him to help with the decorations. It wasn't until I put his Harry Simeone Chorale album of "The Little Drummer Boy" on the record player that he bounced back a bit, smiling at me when the baby Jesus smiled at the drummer boy. "Pa-rum-pa-pum-pummm....", he sang. "Me and my drum."
"You're Jewish, Starsk," I teased him, as I did every year.
"So was the drummer boy, Blintz," he answered, as he did every year. But it wasn't the same.
He became increasingly grumpy at work, too, slamming the file drawers around and not even trying to be the dramatic action author in writing his reports. Captain Dobey didn't know whether to be relieved or worried about that. He harrumphed but didn't say anything. He knew what was up and we eyed each other over Starsky's head several times that week.
Christmas Eve came and he hadn't mentioned one word to me about his gift. After work, when I asked him if he was staying over, he shrugged, slumping back in his chair after finishing another one of those "just the facts" reports.
"I dunno. Probably not."
"Aw, c'mon Starsk. I know how much you love it."
He looked up at me as I walked around the desk to face him. "Yeah, but you don't."
I admit it, I wheedled him. I didn't want him left alone tonight. "Come on. I made those cookies you like. You can even leave some out for Santa."
The barest touch of a smile tugged at one side of his mouth. "Yeah?"
I put my hand on his shoulder - a better argument than any words - and bent down to get eye-to-eye. "Yeah. Now come on."
He heaved a sigh. "Okay, Blondie. Give me a minute to clean up here. I'll meet you at the car."
I squeezed his shoulder and left him to grab my jacket from the back of my chair. At the door, I turned for a moment and looked at him, alone in the squad room late on Christmas Eve. He had pulled his wallet from his back pocket and was staring at a photograph.
I didn't need to get close to know who was in the picture. I bit my lip and silently left.
After a very quiet ride home in the Torino we had a very quiet dinner, which he barely touched, and after I rolled out his sleeping bag and fluffed his pillow, I sat beside him on the couch. He was staring blankly into the blinking lights on the tree that changed the color of his eyes: red, green, bluer than his own blue. He wasn't with me, though. He was somewhere down memory lane.
"No," he answered honestly. "But I'll live."
"You want to talk about it?"
He shook his head. "Nah. Go on to bed. I'll see you in the morning."
He looked at me then, his gaze still somewhat distant, but he reached to squeeze my hand and gave me a small smile. "Yeah, I'm sure. Go."
I squeezed back and headed for bed.
My little travel alarm rang beneath my pillow, muffled so only I could hear it at that ungodly hour, but I was quick to turn it off. I hadn't slept, worrying about Starsky and his current state of mind.
As I did every year, I tied my robe and crept out to the living room to put his gift under the tree. He had inserted himself into his sleeping bag, but instead of being curled up asleep, he was lying flat on his back with his hands linked on his chest, staring up into the needled branches, the glow of the lights dancing across his face.
His eyes swiveled to me. "Hey."
"How come you're awake? You're supposed to be asleep for Santa to come," I teased, sliding his red-wrapped package next to the one he'd brought for me. I was touched to know I hadn't been forgotten in his misery, Grinch that I am.
"He can't bring me what I really want." His voice was strained, barely above a whisper, and he turned back to stare again into the lights.
I sat down beside him on his sleeping bag and took one of his hands between my own.
He looked back at me then, eyes full of unshed tears. "We had plans for this Christmas. We were gonna get the biggest tree we could find and cover it in popcorn strings an' lights an' have a million gifts under it..." He gulped, trying to draw in a breath. "She loved Christmas, too...and she didn't care that I'm J-Jew--."
I tugged at his hand, pulling him up to a sitting position so I could wrap my arms around him and hold him tight. His shoulders hitched, once, twice, and then his arms clutched at me, his grief a weighted blanket that surrounded us both. We rocked together for a long time, his sobs muffled into my shoulder. My own tears fell: for him, for Terry, for Gillian, for myself. I opened my eyes to blurred reds and greens, a watercolor image of happy holidays washed away with the next blink. At that moment, I wondered if we'd ever have a good Christmas again.
Finally he pulled away, snuffling and wiping his eyes. I leaned towards the tissue box on the side table to snag a few, and gently dabbed at his face before offering him some. He took them and blew a honking sound that sent us both into hiccupping giggles, then collapsed back to his pillow, dragging me down with him.
He tucked my head beneath his chin and against his t-shirted chest, fingers tangled in my hair, his other hand anchored to my own.
For several long minutes I listened to his heart beating solidly beneath my ear, punctuated only by the occasional sniffle, and we both watched the lights until the next thing we knew, we were waking up and it was morning.
"Coffee, Starsk?" I asked him, my living, breathing pillow.
"Ain't that supposed to be my line?" he replied, shifting to his side and effectively dumping me off. I turned to face him and rested my head on my arm.
"Well, this year's a bit different."
He grinned a bit sadly but didn't answer. We watched each other for a long moment, with me feeling like I should say something about last night and him looking like he was thinking the same thing.
I smiled. "Anytime. And I mean that." I rolled to my knees and stood up. "I'm really going to make some coffee now. You want some?"
He sat up and ran a hand through his hair, scratching his head and making the curls stand up. "Yeah. Please."
"Okay. No peeking at your present, now. Wait for me," I warned, and was gifted with that special grin I had seen so rarely in the past weeks.
When I returned with his coffee, done up just the way he liked it, he'd rolled up the sleeping bag and had seated himself cross-legged on the sofa, looking under the tree but not touching. I gave him his cup, set one of his Christmas records to play on the turntable, and settled beside him with my own coffee. He leaned against me, shoulder to shoulder, and I pressed back, acknowledging his need for affection on this day of all days.
"You ready?" I asked him, nodding toward the tree. There were a few other things under there for us, from his mom, the Dobeys, Huggy.
He grinned at me, The Ghost of Starskys Christmas Past crossing over his face, and dropped to the floor on hands and knees to pass me a package.
Surrounded by paper, ribbon, and items varying from scarves to fruitcakes, we found ourselves with only two gifts left - the ones we had for each other. He handed me mine and took his into his lap as he resumed his place on the couch beside me. "You first," he said, smiling at me in that shy "I hope you like it" way.
I opened it to find a new shoulder holster - mine had been threatening to come apart in rather important places and Starsky had noticed. It was a really well-made one, and he'd even had my initials burned into it: KH.
"Oh, Starsk. Thanks. Thanks so much," I told him, reaching out to squeeze the back of his neck. "It's fantastic."
"Good," he grinned. "Can't count on you to cover my back if your gun's fallin' out all the time." His attention turned to the small box in his hands.
I set aside the holster and scooted closer to him as he opened it. Tearing the paper away and lifting the lid, he extracted an ornament from the wads of tissue paper I'd packed it in. "Starsk, I-I know this Christmas has been hard for you. And I know that you won't ever forget her. And I don't want you to."
His Adam's apple bobbed in his throat as he turned the tree-shaped metal decoration in his hands. A round window on one side displayed a photograph of the two of them, Starsky and Terry, laughing and holding a bottle of wine at the park, the sun shining on their hair and their faces glowing as they gazed at one another - never so happy as they were right then.
He didn't say anything, and I cleared my throat, worried I might have upset him even more. "I knew you and she had plans for this year and I - well, I wanted to be sure that she was here with you, in some way."
He grabbed me then, ornament still in hand, pulling me close until he could kiss my forehead and then press his face into my shoulder while his tears fell again - but this time, I could tell they were grateful ones. I put my arms around him and held him, just as the night before.
Ever since that Christmas, he's been pretty much back to his regular self. He still nags me about the gift he knows he'll get, but I no longer needle him about crass commercialism, and he doesn't sleep alone under the tree. Actually, he never sleeps alone, period, for we share a home and a bed now, and have for many years - but that's a story for another time.
But every Christmas Eve, we camp out under our tree, beneath the ornament he always hangs first, and every year, we hold each other tightly and he thanks me for giving him Christmas.
December 4, 2006
Feedback gladly welcomed. One may reach the author at email@example.com.
Notes: Thanks to Libra Three for beta. Dedicated to Sithdragn, for her generosity.