Mountains, Valleys, Plains

By Verlaine

 

I come up out of sleep with a gasp, wide-awake, vague dream memories of horses and mountains already fading away. I don't know what woke me, but as I turn my head to see if I've disturbed Starsky, I realize he's not there.

 

For some reason, the sight of the empty space beside me generates a panic that sets my heart pounding and sweat breaking out all over my shoulders and forehead. Memories of the movie we saw tonight, and whatever was in my dream, and memories from long ago—twenty-seven years next month, a saner part of my mind whispers—all swirl together, so that for one horrifying instant, I'm not sure if he ever really was there.

 

The fugue, or whatever it is, only lasts a heartbeat, and then reality kicks back in. My eyes light on his shirt draped over the bedside chair, his wallet and keys on the dresser, his glasses and watch on the nightstand. The cover on his side of the bed is rumpled and thrown back.

 

I flop down onto my pillow, unable to hold back a gasp of ridiculous relief.

 

He's here. He's been here.

 

He's just not here right now.

 

Carefully, I push myself up on my elbows again. My heart's slowing down, but I'm dismayed to realize my arms feel weak and I'm clammy with sweat.

 

"Just great," I grumble, as I haul myself to my feet. "Try explaining that to the guy at the ER. 'See, Doc, I woke up and my partner wasn't in bed with me, and I panicked and gave myself a heart attack.' Starsky's gonna kill me."

 

By the time I make it down the hall to the bathroom, the shakes have subsided, and I'm feeling chilly and more stupid by the minute. I strip and splash cold water in my face until my head is clear, and I'm really shivering. Then I pull on my robe, and head downstairs to look for my partner.

 

There's no lights on anywhere, no TV droning in the living room or computer humming in the study. I'm getting worried again, and this time it doesn't feel so irrational. My nightmare of embarrassment at being dragged to the ER over a panic attack is being replaced by the nightmare of having to drag Starsky to the ER over something a lot more serious.

 

Just what could Starsky be doing in the pitch dark in the middle of the night?

 

And where's he doing it?

 

I'm standing in the kitchen, looking around helplessly, when a creak from the back porch catches my attention. I look out the window over the sink to see Starsky sitting in the rocking chair, his feet up on the porch rail. For a second the relief is overwhelming, and then it's swamped by irritation. Not for the first time, I understand why a parent's gut reaction to seeing their kid escape a nasty accident is to wallop them a good one on the butt.

 

What the hell's he doing out there?

 

Just as I open my mouth to snarl something unpleasant, I see a soft glimmer of crystal rainbow in the moonlight. He's got a glass in his hand, and as he lowers it down to the floor beside his chair, I hear the clink of ice cubes.

 

Starsky will drink anything, from chocolate milk to beer, out of any container that's handy. The only exception is hard liquor. He doesn't indulge often, but when he does, he always gets down one of the cut glass tumblers that he inherited from his grandmother Lewinski. There's only three left of what was originally a set of eight, and one of them has a sharp chip out of the rim that makes me wince every time I look at it. Too easy to imagine a careless lip or tongue sliced by that razor edge.

 

He treasures those glasses, not because they've got much intrinsic value, but because there's so little he has to tie him back to the past. The Starskys and Lewinskis didn't bring much when they came over from the old country, and over the years even the most cherished possessions ended up being sold when times got hard. The glasses, some photographs, a set of linens embroidered with his grandparents' initials—not much of a tangible legacy from a whole family.

 

Not that I've got much either. My parents' wedding china and silver could furnish a small restaurant, and I won't inherit so much as a teaspoon.

 

I shrug. World well lost, as far as I'm concerned.

 

Now that I know what I'm looking for, I see the bottle of scotch sitting in the shadows by the microwave. I get down another one of the glasses, making sure I avoid the one with the chip, and pour myself a short one. I don't know why Starsky's sitting out in the dark drinking, but I figure one of us probably needs to stay sober. For tonight, I'll be the designated thinker.

 

I open the porch door, making enough noise for Starsky to hear I'm coming so he can pull himself together if he needs to. I ease down in the glider beside the rocking chair and swing my legs up carefully so I don't start swaying.

 

Starsky looks over at me, but doesn't say anything, just lifts his glass in a silent toast. I return it and take a sip of my drink, settling back to watch the moonlight and shadows playing tag over the back yard. Despite my worry, now that I know he's alive and doesn't appear to be damaged or traumatized, I'm willing to back off a little and let things develop in their own good time.

 

"You okay?" He gives me a rueful half smile. "Sorry I woke you."

 

"Wasn't you. A dream woke me." I take another sip. "How about you?"

 

"Never got to sleep." Another half smile. "Think maybe we shoulda listened to me and gone to see that Bruce Willis flick instead?"

 

"I'm sorry. I didn't think it would be so . . . so—"

 

"Depressing?"

 

"I was going to say irritating, but . . . well, yeah, I guess you're right. Depressing." This time I take a gulp.

 

Starsky leans his head back and closes his eyes, balancing his glass on his stomach and tapping his thumbnails along the edge in a restless rhythm. Each note falls clear and hard, almost as visible as a diamond in the moonlight. When he speaks again, his voice is low and troubled.

 

"Kinda puts a new light on Butch and Sundance, huh?"

 

"At least Butch and Sundance stayed together."

 

"So which is worse? Watching the person you love die right beside you? Or hearing about it when it's too late?"

 

For a second I'm tempted to tell him that my recollection is they both suck rocks. Instead I chug down my drink, and decide, to hell with designated thinking, I need a refill.

 

As I pass the rocking chair, he reaches out to grip my hand. It's just a squeeze, but the touch is enough to deflect something that could easily have erupted as bitter anger into a pang of old grief. The second drink I pour isn't any bigger than the first one.

 

I return to the porch to find Starsky's snagged the glider, and is sprawled out like a cat, glass once more perched on his stomach.

 

"Hey!"

 

"It's bad for your back, you know that, babe," he says with an unrepentant grin.

 

"You fall asleep there and I'll leave you to twist up like a pretzel."

 

I claim the rocking chair—which really is better for my back—and we go back to silent contemplation of the yard.

 

Eventually Starsky heaves a deep sigh. "Think we coulda lived like that? Hidin' and sneakin' and marryin' women just for cover?"

 

"We did live like that a long time," I remind him.

 

"Yeah, but that was before we figured it out. Caught the clue bus," he adds in a perfect imitation of Rosie Dobey, rolling his head slightly to grin at me.

 

I chuckle, and then sober. "Maybe that was their problem. They didn't catch the clue bus. They thought it was just a . . . a physical thing. By the time they realized it meant something, they'd started down a road they couldn't turn the bus around on."

 

I feel a surprising touch of sorrow, far more than when we were in the theater. Then, I'd been impatient, almost angry at the two men so willing to accept convention and loss instead of daring to take the risk to reach out. Yet, looking back, how close had it been for us? Could we have passed each other by because we let fear close our eyes?

 

"Coulda missed it, easy," Starsky says.

 

How many years has it been since I've been surprised when Starsky knows what I'm thinking, and can say it more clearly that I can?

 

Still, I protest. "Aw, c'mon, Starsk, the way we feel—"

 

"Ha!" he interrupts. "Me, New York tough guy, you, Minnesota Lutheran? Think you woulda cracked if that last round of pneumonia hadn't freaked you out so bad you were nearly as delirious as I was?"

 

I shudder. The memory of that night is almost worse than the morning in the garage. Sitting beside Starsky's bed, watching, helpless, as the fever spiked higher, knowing he might die regardless of what won the battle between antibiotics and germs. It had ripped open something inside me that I'd been unconsciously shoring up for years. The next morning, when the fever broke and Starsky, almost too weak to open his eyes, groped for my hand, I'd lost it completely, babbling, crying, kissing his stubbled cheek.

 

Love isn't a cure-all—not for gunshots, or illness or the prejudices of society. There'd been a long hard row to hoe for us, both physically and mentally, and it had taken years before things settled back into some version of normal. But no matter how bad things got, I had an anchor to cling to: the moment when Starsky, eyes glassy but totally alert, fumbled the oxygen mask aside and wheezed out, "Lips up here, dummy."

 

Starsky reaches over and gives me a nudge. "Could we have lived like that once we'd been together?"

 

"No." That I've got no doubt about at all. "Jealousy would've killed me."

 

"Killed me, more like." Starsky chuckles, then lowers his voice to TV announcer gravitas. "Cop and wife killed by partner in bizarre love triangle. Film at eleven."

 

"That really isn't funny," I tell him, unable to hold back a shudder. I hadn't really understood it at the time—none so blind as those who will not see—but I still recall the first night with Kira, standing in her front hall, and maybe for as long as five seconds I hadn't been quite sure if I was going to kiss her or strangle her.

 

"Hey." Starsky gives me another nudge, this one with a little more oomph. "It was a long time ago, and the wench is dead. Or something like that."

 

I shake my head. "You're giving Collandra a run for his money tonight, aren't you?" I look down at my glass for a minute. "How about you? Could you have stayed in the closet?"

 

"Nope." Starsky's voice is firm, but completely matter-of-fact. "I respect you too much."

 

I sit straight up in shock, my glass tipping and spilling the remains of scotch onto my feet. We do say "I love you," not a lot, but enough so it isn't a complete surprise to hear it. But I've never heard something like this from him. Numbly, I set the glass down on the floor beside me and put my hands over my face.

 

"Hutch?" Starsky sounds alarmed. "What's wrong?"

 

"Jesus Christ!" I raise my head to glare at him. "I confess to homicidal jealousy and you say you respect me?"

 

"Tomato, tomahto." He shrugs, then eases his feet down and hoists himself into a sitting position. I can hear his joints creak. He groans in protest, holding out one hand, and I reach over to pull him upright. His hands come down on my shoulders and stroke gently. "Would you bother feelin' jealous if you didn't respect me? Would I be worth it?"

 

I feel a flush of shame. "It's always so easy for you to think the best, isn't it?"

 

"Had plenty of practice." I hear a soft sound of amusement. "If it makes you feel any better, I see red every time Jimmy down at the bagel place checks out your ass."

 

"He what?" I jerk away and stare up at him.

 

"Gotcha!"

 

"You do at that." I tug him in close for a hug. "C'mon, you old fart. Let's get you back to bed before your joints seize up completely."

 

He cuddles right up, resting his head on mine, and tightening his arms around my shoulders.

 

"Aw, Hutch," he coos, "all these years and I still get all goosebumpy when you sweet talk me like that."

 

And then he reaches down and pinches my butt. Hard.

 

I yelp and jerk back, losing my balance. I've still got enough weight on the rocker so I at least flop down into it and don't end up in a heap on the floor in my puddle of spilled scotch. As I go down, I grab Starsky with one hand and the chair with the other, and end up with him landing heavily in my lap.

 

"Ow!"

 

"Oh, jeeze, Hutch, you okay?" Starsky scrambles to his feet and then unabashedly gropes my crotch. "Didn't squish anything, you know, important, did I?"

 

I bat his hand away. "Dickwad."

 

Starsky starts to laugh, but when I glare at him he hastily smothers it into a fake cough. I gingerly hoist myself to my feet, and he puts his hand on my spine, rubbing gently.

 

"You sure you're okay?"

 

"Yeah. Let's get back to bed, huh? Before one of us ends up in traction?"

 

"Best idea we've had since supper."

 

Starsky grabs both our glasses and zips into the kitchen. I hear a couple of clinks, and the sound of water in the sink, and the cupboard door opening and closing.

 

I pause to take a last look back at the garden and porch. Suddenly I'm reluctant to go in. I know the kitchen like the back of my hand, but now, compared to the moonlight on the garden it seems too dark, full of shadows and memories that have nothing to do with this little house and the life we've shared. Some of them come from a dangerous shared past, some of them are fears of a future that can only have one end, when someday there will be an end to sharing, whether good or bad. The moonlight isn't much, but more than anything I want to stay out here and not face that darkness.

 

Starsky looks out the window, then comes to the door and points one long finger at me, eyes deadly serious.

 

"Swear to God, Hutch, if I hadn't come through, and you made some kind of a fuckin' shrine out of my jacket—" he breaks off, shaking his head. "I'd'a come back and kicked your ass from here to San Diego."

 

"I'd've probably met you half way."

 

With a little growl, he pulls me close. We stand in the doorway, wrapped in each other's arms, half way between the dark and the light

 

"They've been good years, haven't they?" I whisper, hungry for reassurance.

 

"Hey, hey." He cups my cheek. "They're not over yet, not by a long shot. Ma's eighty-seven and still makes her own kolachy. And your dad's workin' on being the oldest guy to hike the Appalachian Trail. We've got some good genes going there."

 

"Ever thought we should introduce them?"

 

"Ma and your dad?" Starsky's voice rises about an octave and a half. "Bite your tongue!"

 

"Got a better idea." I lean in. "How about you bite it instead?"

 

Starsky laughs, a good hearty belly laugh that shakes us both, and suddenly the shadows in the kitchen seem to shrink back to their normal proportions and become just the appliances and furniture accumulated over the years together.

 

He sputters one last chuckle and then tugs my hand. "C'mon, you big bald blintz. Let's show those cowboys what it really means not to quit each other."

 

 

web site hit tracking
Internet Services