Have You Seen Me Lately?
Have you seen me lately?
Can you tell me what you see in me?
Have you seen me lately?
All I see is what I used to be.
- Keri Noble
Starsky had been with him every minute since they arrested Forest. His clothes were in Hutch’s closet, his toothbrush by his sink. He bought Hutch’s groceries, cooked his meals. Slept on his couch. Talked him through the worst of it. Sometimes it was too much, and Hutch angrily pulled away from him, like a lion against a leash.
One sleepless night during that first week, he tried to explain it to Starsky, to himself.
“I always thought people made a choice about how they dealt with bad things. That they could choose to get better.” He paused and rubbed at his arm. “I’m scared, Starsk. What if I don’t get to choose?”
“I’ll choose for both of us then.”
They sat on the couch—blanket and pillow discarded on the carpet beside it—and he looked at Starsky in the dim light that seeped through the blinds. His face was bone-weary, with small creases around his eyes that he’d never noticed before. Hutch felt the familiar tightness in his throat and the burn behind his own eyes, but he didn’t cry. Wouldn’t cry.
“You can’t babysit me forever.”
“It’s not babysitting. Think of me more like Mary Poppins.” Starsky smiled. “I’m your spoonful of sugar.”
He felt the warmth of Starsky’s palm against the back of his hand. “How long will you stay?”
Starsky took a long breath. “Until the wind changes.”
He woke in the morning with his head resting on Starsky’s thigh. Starsky slept on, his head thrown back against the couch, his throat naked and exposed in the thin, early light. Hutch pulled himself up slowly, careful not to wake him. They weren’t lovers, no matter how much Hutch had wished for it. But in all these years, there had been no murmured confessions, no embraces in the dark, no touch that promised more than comfort. He watched him sleep, the need for a fix doing a jittery dance in his bones, and added Starsky to the list of things he wanted, but couldn’t have.
Hutch hadn't thought there would be scars. But there they were—small raised circles of white on white that stopped him in his tracks every time he saw them. In his tracks. He smiled at that, or what passed for a smile these days—a small tightening of the skin around the mouth that never reached his eyes.
One evening, two weeks after it was all over, after yelling at Starsky to leave him alone and then begging him not to go—Hutch finally said it, his voice as sharp as splintered glass.
“I hate them.”
Starsky turned to face him “Who? Forest? Monk?”
He shook his head and ripped open his cuff, pushed up his sleeve, and held out his arm to Starsky.
“These . . . I hate these.” The scars were barely visible in the lengthening shadows.
Starsky ran his hand down the inside of Hutch’s outstretched arm.
Hutch locked his hand around Starsky’s wrist and felt the steady pulse under his thumb. He held Starsky’s gaze, searching his face, his body taut as a bow string.
“What do you see? Tell me.” His voice was angry, insistent. “What do you see?”
“Hutch. . . I . . .” Starsky said, his voice trailing off. The silence was heavy between them.
Hutch let go and looked away, the anger gone as quickly as it had come. Starsky lifted a hand to his face and gently turned him back around, thumb brushing lightly against his mouth. Hutch closed his eyes and leaned into the warmth of his hand. Then he stepped back, sank down onto the couch in front of the television, and let the sounds and flickering images of other people’s made-up lives wash over him.
They sat together each morning at the small table. Each morning Starsky offered toast, cereal, eggs. Hutch declined them all politely; it was part of the script they acted out. He would watch Starsky eat and wait silently for his coffee to do what it never could, no matter how much he drank. He would think then of other silences when there had been nothing to say, but now the silences were filled with all the things that couldn’t be said.
He’d never told Starsky exactly what had happened in that small house with Monk and Forest, not in any words beyond vague allusions, a conversation that trailed off into nothing.
Starsky had only asked once, soon after Hutch had come home. “Do you want to tell me about it? Tell me what you remember?”
Hutch had stood by the window, staring into the darkness outside, and tried to tell him. He had started to talk about the needle and his fear, about the blindfold and the beating, but each new sentence had felt like standing on a cliff, falling into blackness.
“I wanted it, Starsk. I still want it.”
“You needed it, they made you need it. That’s not the same.”
“You don’t understand . . .” He’d rested his head against the window and closed his eyes against his own reflection.
Starsky saw him falter. “It’s okay. Maybe later.” He hadn’t asked again.
“Fresh air won’t kill you, you know,” Starsky said around a mouthful of toast and jam.
“I never said it would, Starsk, I just don’t see why you think I need it. There’s lots of air in here.”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “We’re going out later. If I have to drag your ass out of here kicking and screaming, we’re going out. It’s been three weeks.”
Starsky had toast crumbs on his shirt. Hutch resisted the urge to lean across the table and brush them off.
“Where exactly are we going?”
“Fine. I love out. Out is one of my favorite places.”
Later, he watched Starsky wash the plates and bowls from his own breakfast, watched the steam rising from the sink, and listened to his low chatter about getting new spark plugs for the Torino and a new recipe he’d try that night. He carried the coffee pot back to the table to fill Hutch’s cup, the dishtowel slung over one shoulder, his hair still damp from the shower. Hutch felt something inside him lighten for a moment—like sunlight shining through a crack in a dirty window—and asked Starsky if the kitchen was closed yet. He felt like cereal.
Starsky laughed. “That’s funny, you don’t look like cereal.”
He filled a bowl with granola and milk and set it on the table. He lingered behind him for a moment, and trailed one hand across Hutch’s shoulders as he crossed back to the sink.
Looking back, Hutch knew that was the moment he would remember—the one that divided his life into before and after, then and now.
Hutch went back to work a week later. Desk duty until he was steadier, stronger, Dobey told him. He spent his time taking calls and filling out reports until the room would grow too small, and Starsky’s concern too overwhelming. Then he would escape outside alone, lean against the garage wall and smoke, a habit he’d given up years before.
It was two more weeks before he would wear short sleeves, and then only because Starsky bought him a new shirt. He handed Hutch the bag with a tentative smile and a quick “Happy birthday” when he knew it wasn’t. Hutch didn’t want to open it, didn’t want to disappoint Starsky when he was trying so hard. But he did well. He held it up, admired the color, the material, the workmanship. He thanked him profusely, if not sincerely, then quietly hung it at the back of the closet.
The next morning it was on the bed when he came out of the shower, laid out neatly beside his pants like a bride’s trousseau. He looked down at his left arm, the scars barely visible in the early morning light, and knew he was going to have to wear the damned shirt.
He hadn’t thought he ever could, but sometime that afternoon he forgot about the scars. Sitting at his desk filling out reports, he forgot to keep his arm turned in, forgot to lay it flat against the desk when someone walked by. Forgot that his skin was too tight. At six, Starsky asked him, like he did every night, if he wanted to go to Huggy’s for dinner and a game of pool, and he forgot to say no. Starsky shrugged and started to say, “Well, maybe tomorrow …” Then he stopped and smiled and looked so pleased that Hutch forgot all about Forest and Monk.
On the way home in the car—windows rolled down to catch the breeze—Hutch hummed along with the radio and talked to Starsky about their new case. Stopped at a red light ten minutes from home, Hutch suddenly felt warm fingers on his own, and looked down in surprise. He exhaled sharply, the sound of his own breathing loud in his ears. He turned and saw Starsky staring at him intently. The driver behind them blew his horn—the light had turned green—and Starsky lifted his hand back to the steering wheel and eased his foot off the brake. Hutch let his hand drift to rest on the worn denim of Starsky’s jeans and they drove the rest of the way home in silence.
He lay in bed later and watched Starsky undress by the couch, his skin flashing silver in the moonlight. He felt something in him settle, like aftershocks following an earthquake. He’d spent years waiting for a sign from Starsky. Something concrete he could point to and say “see, now, that’s what I mean, it’s not just me.” Why had it taken him so long to realize that maybe Starsky had spent years waiting for a sign from him too?
“Starsk?” He threw back the sheet and sat up in the bed.
“Come here for a minute. Please.” Hutch waited, his heart pounding.
“Yeah?” Even after all this time, Starsky’s voice was still tinged with worry. He crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “You okay?”
“I think the wind has changed.”
Starsky tilted his head sideways and looked confused. Then disappointed.
“You want me to go home?”
“No. I want you off my couch.”
Before he could remember one of the thousand reasons why he shouldn’t do this, before Starsky could say no, before he could change his mind, he leaned forward and wrapped one hand around the back of Starsky’s neck, pulled him close and pressed his mouth hard against his. Starsky gasped and then Hutch thought that maybe he’d got it wrong after all, that maybe he was the only one who’d ever wanted this, but then decided if this was the only chance he ever got, he was going to make it the single, longest, best damned kiss there ever was. And then he stopped thinking—for probably only the third or fourth time in his whole life, Starsky said later—and just kissed him. He slipped his tongue between Starsky’s lips and the taste of him, the wetness of his mouth, the feel of his tongue, hit him like nothing ever had. He made a sound like a groan deep in his throat.
Starsky finally pulled away, and Hutch waited for it—the speech or the punch or however Starsky would choose to tell him that he was out of his mind—but all Starsky managed to grate out was, “air . . . I need air . . .” like a drowning sailor. He took a great, gulping breath and pushed Hutch back onto the bed with a low growl until he was on top of him, one knee nudging up against the inside of Hutch’s calf. Hutch kissed him again, and this time Starsky kissed him back, and Hutch wanted to laugh because it was so fucking right that Starsky should kiss the way he drove—hard and fast and more than a little dangerous. Then his hips started moving against Starsky’s, their erections pressed together, and his hands reached up and around and pulled Starsky closer to him.
“Holy shit,” Starsky panted in his ear and ground against him again. Hutch thought how it was different, this feeling of pushing in against something hard, when he was used to soft, but how it wasn’t really that different, and then he couldn’t think at all.
“Fucking cyclone,” Starsky muttered later. He was staring at the ceiling, breathing hard, his head pillowed in his hands.
“Yeah, it was kinda . . .”
Starsky laughed. Like he hadn’t laughed since before it all started. “Not a cyclone dummy, the Cyclone. It’s a roller coaster at Coney Island.”
Hutch leaned up on one elbow and stared at him. “A roller coaster?”
“When I was a kid, all I wanted was to ride the roller coaster at Coney Island. We used to take the subway there every Sunday in the summer. We’d eat hot dogs and play catch on the beach and go swimming. Every week I’d ask to go on the Cyclone and every week my mother said no. She thought it was too dangerous for kids. My father would’ve taken me, but Ma made the rules—about me and Nick anyway. I used to like to stand at the turnstile and watch the kids in line. The girls always giggled about how nervous they were, and the boys acted like it was no big deal. But they were just as scared as the girls were—you could tell by the way they kept glancing up at it, how their eyes got wide when they heard the screaming. Eventually I thought I’d spent so much time wanting and imagining it, when I finally got to ride it, it would be no big deal. I’d ridden it a thousand times in my head. I knew how it would sound, I know how long it would last, I even how exactly how fast it went.”
“So? Did you get to ride it?”
“Yep, weekend I turned ten. My mother finally decided I was old enough. My father took me because Nick was sick, and I remember it was really hot and he wanted to go for a swim first, but I whined until he agreed we’d ride the Cyclone as soon as we got there. Then I told him I wanted to sit alone in the front row, and he said I could if we never let Ma find out. God, I must’ve been a pain in the ass.”
Hutch smiled. “You still are. Was it like you expected?”
"Yes and no. I’d been imagining it for what seemed like my whole life. I’d gone over ever detail in my head. But what I could never imagine was how it felt. How the sound fills your ears and the wind blows your face raw and your heart is pounding and your stomach is ten feet behind the rest of you. But mostly how you never want it to end because it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
“I know.” Hutch said it with quiet certainty. “That’s how it was for me too.” He suspected Starsky knew he wasn’t talking about the Cyclone.
Starsky rolled toward him. His fingers trailed through Hutch’s hair, smoothing the short strands against his neck. “Remember that night when you showed me your scars and you asked me what I saw?”
Hutch closed his eyes for a second and shook his head. “Starsk . . . I never should have . . .”
Starsky lifted one finger and pressed it against Hutch’s lips. “Shh. . . I need to say this.” He took a long breath. “When you asked me what I saw, I know I didn’t answer you right away. You’d convinced yourself that you were a junkie, that you somehow deserved what you were going through. Some fucked-up idea about loyalty and betrayal and I knew you didn’t want to hear the truth. You wouldn’t have believed it anyway.”
“That you are the bravest man I know. That you never stopped fighting. That I love you. Always have.”
Hutch lifted Starsky’s hand and kissed his palm. “I love you too, you know.”
“Yeah, I sorta figured that out.” Then he grinned like the ten year old kid he used to be. “Wanna go for another ride?”
Hutch liked the sound of that. Always.
Have you seen me lately?
Tell me what you see.
For Rae’s companion piece vid, also named “Have You Seen Me Lately,” go here: http://leaningbirch.com/videos.htm