Two Degrees of Separation
When Starsky was seven years old, he told Lucy Petrovich he loved her more than his toy cars. She stuck out her tongue and went back to playing with her dolls. At nine, he made a declaration of undying devotion to Allison McIntosh. She sat in front of him in Mrs. Miller’s grade four class, and shared her Oreos with him at lunch every day. In June that year, her family moved to Cincinnati and Starsky never saw her again. In grade seven, it was Linda Soriano, a small blonde with a big smile who shared his love of baseball. They traded cards and first kisses and one afternoon under the bleachers, he told he loved her. She hugged him and told him she loved him too. For Valentine’s Day, he gave her his Stan Musial rookie card and a heart-shaped box of chocolates. She broke his heart when she sold the card for $100 at a shop downtown. He never mixed baseball and love again.
The summer he turned sixteen, his uncle found him a part-time job at a garage changing oil and pumping gas. He met Debbie Kaminski that summer. The first time he saw her, she was sitting at the wheel of her father’s white Cadillac convertible, her long blonde hair pulled back under a red bandanna that matched her lipstick. She smiled at him when she said "fill it up," and wrote her phone number and the message “Call me” on the back of the ten dollar bill she paid with. She was two months older than Starsky and had learned everything she knew about boys from the pages of Seventeen magazine. It took him a week and three root beers to get up the nerve to call her. Two dates and one back seat later, he was in love.
He was still in love with Debbie in his senior year. And as far as he could tell, she was still in love with him. Whenever he thought of his future, she was always in it. So was his best friend Matt. Starsky had met him at school a week after moving there to live with his aunt and uncle. He was still angry with his mother for sending him there, and hurt that she never really explained why. “Please, Davey, just for a few months,” she had pleaded as if he really had a choice. Grownups were like that, asking you do things they knew they would make you do anyway. His aunt was okay, though she couldn’t cook for shit, he confided to Matt the first night he came to dinner. Matt was so different from him, quiet and serious and so damned polite, it was scary sometimes. But he liked him; Matt knew when to talk and when to shut up. Within a month, they were inseparable.
One Friday night in a few weeks before graduation, Matt came to see him at the garage. He sat in the front seat of the old Chevy while Starsky changed the spark plugs. Matt fiddled with the radio, trying to find a station that played something they both liked. He settled on "Teen Angel" and Starsky sang along. When the song was over, Matt turned it off and told Starsky he needed to talk to him. He said it was serious.
“Geez, you breaking up with me, Mattie?” he joked from under the hood.
“No, but Debbie is.” It came out low and angry.
Starsky poked his head around the hood to look at Matt. He expected to see a goofy grin. He expected to hear “Gotcha!” But he knew by Matt's stricken look that he was serious. Starsky held his breath.
“Shit, Dave. I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that. I had it all planned. I didn’t tell you, but I got accepted at Yale, pre-law, like we hoped. Debbie and I are getting married in August. She’s going to come with me to college. She’ll work while I go to school and then when I finish . . .”
Matt’s confession was a flood that threatened to pull Starsky under.
He slammed down the hood. It rocked the car and Matt flinched.
“Sounds like you have this all figured out. When were you planning on telling me?”
He leaned forward and spoke to him through the windshield. He concentrated on keeping his hands flat on the hood, both feet on the concrete floor.
“I am telling you.”
“And Debbie? Where is she?” He couldn’t breathe. Why hadn’t he seen?
“She wanted to come. But she didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Too late. How long?” He spat out the words.
“How long what?”
“The two of you. How long?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me. How fucking long?” He slammed a fist down on the hood and Matt jumped.
“Since Valentine’s Day. Dave, don’t . . .”
Starsky came around the side of the car and grabbed a fistful of shirt and pulled Matt out of the front seat. “You little shit. You helped me pick out the locket I gave her. Why?”
“You cancelled at the last minute. You said you had to work.”
“Don’t you dare make this my fault. I did have to work. Ronnie was sick.”
“She was upset and came to see me and we were talking and then it just sort of happened. I’m sorry, Dave. You know what she’s like. God, I’m sorry.”
His voice was shaky and Starsky saw tears welling in his eyes. He let go of his shirt and pushed Matt back against the car.
“Why are you crying?” Starsky shouted. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be crying here! You won! You got the girl!”
“I didn’t want the girl, Davey. I settled for the girl.”
“What are you talking about?”
Matt didn’t answer him. Instead he reached out and put one hand behind Starsky’s neck and pulled him toward him. Matt closed his eyes and kissed him hard on the mouth. Starsky felt the wetness of Matt’s tears on his own face as he struggled to get away. Starsky raised one arm and reached behind his head to pull his hand away, but Matt’s hand turned and opened and in the next minute their fingers were interlocked and Starsky was kissing him back, parting his lips, offering him his tongue. He pushed Matt up against the car, his hips grinding into Matt’s growing erection, his one free hand fumbling to undo Matt’s belt buckle.
Starsky had the buckle undone and his hand on the zipper of Matt’s jeans when he heard the garage bell ring as a car slowed and stopped in front of the pumps. He heard a man’s impatient voice call for service. Then he heard himself swear and tell Matt to get the fuck away from him. He didn’t look back as he went outside, and Matt was gone when he returned.
They reached a kind of unspoken truce that let them get through the last few weeks of school. Starsky avoided them as much as he could, and when he couldn’t, he was polite. When school was over, Matt dropped by the garage once or twice and they made awkward conversation about college and the wedding. They never spoke about what had happened, but it was always there between them and it seeped like acid into every conversation until there was nothing left to say.
Matt came to see him one last time a week before the wedding. He pushed his way passed Starsky’s aunt and into his room, his anger and hurt filling the air like static. He held the wedding invitation in one hand and waved it at Starsky. “Why did you send this back? Why aren’t you coming? You said you would.”
“I lied,” he answered, daring Matt to call him on it.
He got up from the bed, went to the dresser and found a T-shirt. He was sure Matt would see his hands shake as he pulled it quickly over his head. He crossed his arms and tucked his hands under his armpits. Matt watched him silently.
“Dave, I’m sorry.”
The anger was gone, but the hurt lingered in Matt’s voice. “I would call it off tomorrow. You know I would. If . . .” Matt reached out a tentative hand towards Starsky’s shoulder.
Starsky backed up against the bed and out of reach. “If what?” He hated the taunting tone of his own voice.
“Look, just come to the wedding. Please.”
“And then what? We all go out for burgers and pretend everything’s like it used to be? I don’t even know what ‘used to be’ is anymore.”
The words hung in the air between them. Matt moved toward him, then held out his hand and dropped the invitation. They watched it flutter silently down onto the unmade bed. Matt shoved his hands deep in his pockets, hunched his shoulders forward, and headed back to the door.
Starsky followed him. He leaned against the door, one hand on the knob.
“Mattie, wait.” His voice was hoarse. He turned back and Starsky felt a sharp pain when he saw the hope written across Matt’s face. Finally he said evenly, “Look, you love Debbie. Marry her. I would.”
Matt exhaled slowly, blinked once, then turned and walked down the hallway. Starsky watched as he pulled a hand from one pocket and swiped it quickly across his eyes. At that moment, Starsky wanted to go after him, to say that he forgave him, to ask for his forgiveness. To tell him that he understood, even when he didn’t. But he let Matt walk away and went back to lie on the bed.
In the dark later, as his hand slipped down inside his open jeans, he wondered how and when it had stopped being about Debbie.
On the day of the wedding, Starsky watched from the back of the church, confused by his need to be there. Matt stood stiffly by Debbie at the altar, his blond hair bleached white in the light. Starsky tried to guess how much nagging it had taken to get Matt into that hideous pale blue tuxedo. He had never even seen him in a tie before. He felt a knot tighten around his heart as he watched them say their vows. After Matt slid the ring on Debbie’s finger, Starsky saw him look up and scan the crowd; the ghost of a smile passed over his face when he caught sight of Starsky standing against the back wall. Starsky smiled slightly and nodded. When it was over, Starsky slipped silently out of the church and out of their lives.
Starsky never did go to college like he planned. He joined the Army in the fall and after that, the police force. He settled into his partnership with Hutch. They shared a rhythm, a synchronicity that he had never felt with anyone before, not even Matt.
He had women when he wanted them. He bought them roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, but never a ring. Once or twice he met someone he might have married if things had turned out differently.
Less often, he went looking for what Matt had offered. He would leave his badge and wallet in the drawer beside his bed; tuck a few twenties in his back pocket, and drive north until the bars and the men looked unfamiliar. He would sit at a table by the wall, nurse a beer, and look for someone willing to give him what he wanted. He never asked for their names, never made small talk. At home, emptying his pockets, he would sometimes find a phone number scrawled across a napkin that someone had shoved there. He tossed them in the trash and never went back to the same place twice.
It happened gradually for Starsky, the shift in his feelings towards Hutch. For him, sex with men had always just been sex, and he never confused what he did with love. It was always raw and rough and fast. Easy cum, easy go. But what he felt for Hutch was different and it scared him. It felt like love.
He wasn’t willing to risk their friendship, so he said nothing. But eventually, the wall he built between what he wanted and what he had, started to crumble. Starsky tried to identify the moment, the one he could put his finger on and say “that one, that’s when it started all going to hell,” but he never could. All he knew was that the more he wanted Hutch, the farther he pushed him away. At first, Hutch acted hurt and confused. But as the months wore on, Hutch retreated, his arms raised in surrender to an enemy he couldn’t see. Starsky knew that soon there would be nothing left between them but the ghosts of what might have been.
The irony that they should be finally ripped apart by someone like Kira, that stupid, self-centered little bitch, wasn’t lost on Starsky. And that it should happen on Valentine’s Day was almost too perfect. That night, after they arrested Joey Webster and the paperwork was finished, he drove home alone. He collapsed on his couch in the darkened room and began to work his way through a six-pack and the heart-shaped box of chocolates he had bought for Kira the day before. He wasn’t planning on stopping until he was too drunk or too sick to go on. The dust from the explosion at the dance hall floated off his clothes every time he moved. He expected when he got off the couch, there would a mark around where he laid, like the chalk outline at a crime scene.
He drifted off to sleep, and when he woke, his back aching and his head pounding, Hutch was sitting in the chair opposite the couch. He held a beer in one hand. He felt the familiar tightening in his chest, the ache in his groin that happened every time Hutch came into view. Even now. After everything. In the shadows, Hutch looked like he did when Starsky had first met him. The darkness had erased the lines in his forehead and around his mouth. Starsky wondered how many of those lines he had been responsible for.
Hutch reached behind him and turned on the lamp. Starsky noticed for the first time the bouquet of red roses that lay across his lap.
“Roses, Hutch? I didn’t know you still cared,” he quipped.
“Neither did I,” Hutch answered.
“But they needed a good home, so here we are.”
Hutch went to the kitchen and filled a pitcher with water and the roses and left them on the counter by the sink. He went back to sit in the chair.
Starsky pulled himself up on the couch. “You broke up with her?”
“Yeah. The flowers were for her. You?”
“Yeah. The chocolates were for her.” He nodded at the box. “Want one?”
Hutch shook his head and wiped a hand slowly across his face and brushed back his hair. He sighed, “Starsky, we need to talk.”
“You breaking up with me too?”
Hutch scowled. “Shut up. I need to tell you something.”
Starsky rose unsteadily from the couch and went to find the bottle opener and another beer. He leaned against the sink and fingered the rose petals. Hutch stayed silent.
He drank half the bottle in one go. “Let me guess. You want to tell me you slept with my girlfriend?”
“Starsky, knock it off. Come sit down.”
He settled again on the couch, bent forward and held his head in his hands.
Hutch took a deep breath. “I followed you a couple months ago.”
Starsky’s head shot up, “Followed me? Where?”
“On one of your drives. Up the coast.”
He felt the air being sucked out of him and fought the instinct to flee. Hutch came to sit by him on the couch but Starsky couldn’t look at him. He knew. And he’d known for months. He waited for the anger.
But Hutch’s voice was gentle. “How long, Starsk? How long have you been doing that?”
“As long as you’ve known me. It only used to be once every few months. But lately…”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“At first it didn’t have anything to with you, with us. It was just me. And then later, when I wanted to tell you, I didn’t know how. And I’d have to tell you why.”
“Tell me now, Starsk.”
“I was looking for you.” It felt so strange to say it out loud, after all this time.
“Did you ever find me?”
Hutch laid a hand across Starsky’s shoulder. It felt good. He hadn’t touched him in months.
Starsky looked at him and said quietly, “For an hour sometimes, if I was lucky.”
“And if you didn’t?”
“Lately? I guess I just took it out on you.”
Hutch took his hand away and stood up. He went to stand by the window.
“God, Starsk, you’re like some fucking martyr. Pining for me. Then hating me for not wanting you. When you never even asked.”
“I didn’t hate you.”
“You were starting to. I was starting to hate you too.”
And there it was. The first true thing they had said to each other in months.
Hutch came back to sit by him on the couch. “It’s like we keep missing each other somehow,” Starsky said.
“Like with Kira?”
“Why’d you do it, Hutch? I said I loved her.”
“Yes, I did. In my kitchen.”
“No, I meant you didn’t love her.”
Hutch shook his head.
“Then why did you want her?”
Hutch reached out with one hand and turned Starsky’s face to look at him.
“Starsky, listen to me. I didn’t want Kira, I settled for her. Do you understand? I wanted you.” Hutch leaned forward and kissed him softly on the cheek. “So I got as close to you as I knew how. I went where you went. I fucked what you fucked. I imagined her fucking you. It was two degrees of separation. The best I could do. I’m sorry.”
Starsky looked at him, a smile beginning to play at the corners of his mouth, “Can you say that again, in English, this time?”
“The next time you want to go for a drive up the coast, Starsky, drive to my place instead. You won’t have to look for me anymore. I’ll be there waiting. Is that plain enough?”
It was enough for now. Starsky lifted a hand to the back of Hutch’s neck and pulled him towards him. With a small sigh, he pressed his mouth against Hutch’s, and his mouth opened to take him deeply in. Starsky felt everything at once; he memorized the rough feel of Hutch’s stubble against his skin, the taste of beer on his lips, the feel of Hutch’s hair against his hand. It was like everything Starsky had imagined it would be, and like nothing he had ever felt before.
“Hutch, how long have you . . .?”
“Not tonight, Starsk. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. You need to sleep. I need to sleep. We’ll figure it out in the morning. C’mon. I’m taking you to bed.”
Starsky laughed. “I’ve waited seven years to hear you say that.”
“Then one more night won’t kill you. Let’s go. I’m tired.” Hutch pulled him up off the couch with a smile.
“You gonna bring me roses next Valentine’s Day too?”