Title: "Walking Between Worlds" 3/4
Genre: PG13, romance, coming out, 50s, postwar, San Francisco
Summary: Go back in time to the years right after the war, before B.J. and Hawkeye were Gentleman Doctors, when the boys were stepping out of their shells into all the world could offer. Part 2 of a 4 part arc.
Part of the Gentleman Doctors series
Part 2/4 of the How it Happened arc
Read: How it Happened Part 1: When the Wind Blows the Stars
"Walking Between Worlds"
Dottie's husband was home from the Merchant Marines for Christmas, so the Pierces converged on her small house for a big holiday dinner on the 24th. Bill, Hawkeye's cousin and childhood hero, was there. Hawkeye had never told Bill or anyone else what he told Sidney Freedman when he started having psycho-somatic sneezing fits in Korea. He just didn't think anyone would take a thirty year old trauma seriously, so he kept it to himself. Bill was oblivious that any time had passed since they played as children; in a lot of ways, Bill was astonishingly simple. Hawkeye wondered if his cousin had ever discovered that his best friend from college had been Hawkeye's first boyfriend. Probably not. Hawkeye imagined the chaos he could cause by telling him -- perhaps over mulled wine and chestnuts after the children were tucked into their beddy-bies -- with the wanton glee of a pyromaniac sizing up a paper factory.
Bill tried to engage Hawkeye in a sociopolitical debate about the appropriateness of the French occupation of Vietnam. Hawkeye was impressed. Someone had been reading his National Geographic. Hawkeye wondered why it took him this long to notice that Billy didn't talk so much as perform. He wife hovered at his elbow, fetched him a drink, and didn't have any evident opinions she cared to express on her own. Hawkeye bitterly regretted any Pierce family similarities between them, and vowed to stop talking trying so hard to be the loudest person in the room all the time.
"I don't know, Bill," Hawkeye answered his cousin's persistence, "I guess I just feel that democratic bullets are less useful than a Communist blanket. Or a school -- or a food market. Excuse me."
Dottie's youngest was screeching. Hawkeye picked up the kid whose droopy drawers informed all that a loaded diaper was coming through. (He'd worked in Bellevue, poopy children had nothing on poopy old people.) He held the toddler in front of him, enjoyed watching Bill flee, and took the kid into the quiet nursery. At least stinky two year olds knew that killing is bad.
Hawkeye tried not to think of other babies as he wiped and powdered his nephew's bottom, kissed his hands and made faces. Not just the kid from the bus -- oh no, his talented brain could torture him coming and going, eight ways to deliverance. There was the Amerasian baby he'd left at the monastery in that bare wooden cradle (in his nightmares, the child was ignored and died of thirst as he drove away); undersized infants he'd delivered to undernourished prostitutes; starving babies failing to thrive in families who couldn't feed their older children, but he wasn't allowed to distribute prophylactics to prevent the conception of another burden.
Dottie's toddler was pink, healthy, with a curly tuft of blonde hair and bright, round, blue eyes. He'd want for nothing his whole life. He even got squares of store-bought cloth just to be pinned on his tushie, a bin to keep the dirty ones, and they were taken away by a driven delivery service every few days. Such a wealth of resources devoted to the business of poop.
And there was mined, powdered talc for his butt kept in a cardboard canister, more toys bought for this third child than the town of Uijeongbu ever saw, tiny t-shirts and a lace christening gown, furniture built just for this brief period of his life. The consumerism was obscene. So many things bought for one tiny creature. Why was this child so precious and other children got by without enough milk or clothing? Hawkeye lifted his clean and diapered nephew onto his shoulder, knowing in his bones that this child who wrapped his hand around his tie was special and wonderful. Just as every Korean woman knew about her own children.
The toddler was too excited by the holiday to be held. He wriggled and wanted down. Hawkeye set him on his feet and he toddled past all his toys, out the door, to the hall and the people, spotting the nibbles arrayed on the coffee table in the living room.
So Hawkeye wasn't his engaging self at the Pierce family get-together. Some -- his great-aunt, for one -- would even call him rude. When Uncle Horrace came home from France with half his leg shot off, they gave his moods a pass. But Hawkeye's problems were invisible. He had nightmares; who didn't. He didn't like being around kids; he was a bachelor, he wasn't expected to like children. He wasn't fun; well, they said, he'd get back to his old self soon. Just like that, like there was a button.
It was family. They loved him in that way you love someone you saw grow up but only talked to about work and everyone's health and occasionally monstrous, devastating tragedies. He hadn't even written to a lot of the cousins and second-uncles during his soldiering years. He intended to write everyone as a way of getting out the word of the injustice of the war, but eventually whittled down to Dad and sometimes Dottie. Not even Bill, who told him to buck up and do his bit against the Commie hoard. He was tired -- or drunk -- and when he had time to put pen to paper, he didn't know what to say to most of them. "Today I dug through fifteen digestive systems and I think I've got mildew in my toes again." Only his dad would see the humor in that. If Hawkeye couldn't entertain someone with his letters, he'd have opened a vein with the nib of his fountain pen.
There comes a time, Hawkeye thought as he prowled the periphery of the living room, when home is the place you don't fit in. Why couldn't he sit down with Dottie's husband and watch football? Because the drone and the noise made him jumpy. He didn't like television, it made him feel guilty, like he should be doing something more important instead of sitting there passive. He didn't want to babysit the kids or talk to Dottie, whose conversations led back to children. He felt the memory of his nephew in his arms and cringed. He missed liking children, hoped one day he could again. He wasn't sure if he wanted his own, but he didn't like not wanting children because of something that happened to him.
This day was really getting to be too much. He found his dad alone in the study.
"I was waiting for you to come in," Dad said.
Hawkeye filched his cigar without asking. A whole one of these was poison to his dad's heart. Dad didn't argue, at least not verbally; they bickered in body language and telepathy borne of twenty-five years together.
Dad said, "Son, you have become a shell of the capable man I used to be proud of."
Hawkeye was expecting something like that. "Terribly sorry, Dad, I'll try to fill up my shell to everyone's satisfaction. How's a pastry bag for a filling device sound to you?"
"Don't be smart."
"Can't help it, was born too smart."
"You certainly were," Dad said to the ceiling. "When are you going to stop playing around?"
Hawkeye flopped into an overstuffed chair. All this reunioning had put him in an adolescent mood. "What's eating you?"
Dad didn't have to look at him for Hawkeye to feel pinned by his accusation. "You are. I've never seen you with this zero ambition -- this laziness. What are you doing here, Ben? Is this your life now? Lancing infected boils and delivering babies in a small town?"
"Well, why not? It was good enough for you."
Dad reached over, snatched the cigar dangling from Hawkeye's fingers, and pointed at him with it. "Listen, kid. I've never told you this and if you bring it up later, I'll say I was drunk: Every man wants to see his boy do fifty percent more interesting things than he did. You're better than this town. You're better than private practice. I didn't go to a top drawer research school, I went to state that didn't even have a teaching hospital. And I sure as hell didn't intern at the best goddamned hospitals in New York and Chicago."
"Dad, there's nothing wrong with --"
"So help me, Ben, if you stay here I'll find a way to have your medical licensed revoked, if that's what it takes to get you out from underneath my shadow. If you have to start at Bellevue washing bedpans, I know you'll bounce back. But not if you're spinning your wheels here."
Hawkeye wanted a drink. He covered his eyes with his palm. "What if I go crazy and choke and get fired?" What if I try to kill myself and spend the rest of my life in the bin?
Dad sat on the arm of Hawkeye's chair. "Then you'll come home. Or I'll go out and stay with you until you feel better."
Hawkeye looked up, amazed. "You would do that?"
"Don't you know you're the most important person in my life?"
Hawkeye flopped over into his father's lap. Dad laughed and ruffled his hair like Mom used to. "You're the wonderfullest dad in the world," he said through the lump in his throat.
Dad laughed. "I know. And you will be too."
Hawkeye sighed. "Dad . . ."
Hawkeye started with the bus. It felt good to tell someone other than a doctor; it made the awful night seem smaller, less important. That baby's death hadn't been his fault, if only he could remember not to feel guilty about it. Think of all the babies you saved, his dad pointed out; it wasn't the point, but it was something. Dad, who had a pretty big ego himself, honed in on that Pierce's failing in logic: it was pretty arrogant to think that his trauma was the biggest thing in the picture. What about the mother who had to carry her grief and guilt her entire life? If Hawkeye was feeling badly, he ought to remember her burden.
The bus led to B.J. Not everything, just enough clue Dad to the concept that Hawkeye's youthful experimentations weren't youthful and were so much practical training for later; Hawkeye explained about Trapper, too. No, it wasn't wartime stress, there had been men in peacetime -- don't tell Billy. And there had been plenty of women. Somehow, Hawkeye thought the conversation would have been easier if he was only interested in men.
Hawkeye hadn't been afraid of telling him, exactly, but was sorry for bursting his dad's dreams of grandchildren.
"Why are you telling me this now?" Dad said. "Do you have -- a special kind of friend?"
Hawkeye couldn't help laughing. His scientific father sounded like a Victorian maiden aunt. "Because this isn't going to go away, Dad. I know you always thought I'd just grow up and get married, have kids -- I mean, I really have tried, I know you wanted me to be a nice, normal guy with a family --"
Dad smoothed his hair as if Hawkeye was a child. "Son, no. I want you to live your own life, not Bill's or mine. Why do you think I'm trying to throw you out of town?"
Hawkeye laughed. "Well, gee, Dad, I was thinking you wanted your monopoly back."
"No, just my house -- mostly my kitchen. If I have another boiled cabbage and roast beef supper of Dottie's, I may choke."
Hawkeye went serious. "Does she make liver and fish?"
Dad considered his response. "I think I best protect you from the truth."
Hawkeye moaned. "When I get to Chicago, I'll send you real food -- a gallon of sauce and a whole rack of ribs."
"Don't forget --"
"-- the coleslaw," they said together.
Hawkeye reached into his jacket pocket. "Dad . . . there's something else. You remember when B.J. was here?"
In his hand was his most recent letter from Beej, postmarked almost a month ago. Hawkeye hadn't opened it. He didn't know what to do about his old friend. Dad didn't need all the details to know these weren't flighty feelings his son was having.
"What does your, ah, friend Ezra think?" Dad said.
Hawkeye eyebrowed him. "Dad, Ezra and I have never slept together."
Dad let out a breath. "Oh, thank god. Ben, I just don't like that man, never have. I know you two are close and he's been a good friend to this family, but there's things that happened before you were born -- there's reasons he had to run away to New York when we were young, he gave a girl a terrible reputation."
"Because he's queer?" Hawkeye interrupted.
Daniel shook his head. "No -- he lived with a woman, he's not a homosexual. I wish you wouldn't use crude words."
Hawkeye laughed. "Dad, Ezra is more flaming than a forest fire. Lots of queer men were married at some point in their lives -- B.J. just got divorced."
Dad stole back his cigar and took a long drag. "This is getting better and better. Are you sure this is a good idea? Getting involved with a nearly-married man?"
Hawkeye propped his chin on the heel of his hand. "Who said I'm involved?"
"You did, when you carried that letter in your pocket for --" Dad looked at the postmark, "-- a month. I just don't know what kind of life you can expect to have with this boy. Be realistic now. Do you think you can show up on his doorstop and confess your heart to him? He's got a child, Hawkeye. I just don't think a man in his situation will throw caution to the wind, take you in . . . aw, hell. Ben?"
The room faded away. Instead, Hawkeye saw a green -- no, yellow -- house turned golden in the California sun. He saw mornings with pancakes, evenings with martinis and records, long Sunday afternoons in bed. Saw himself reading bedtime stories to a school-aged little girl in her jammies. Remembered a standing invitation.
"The world doesn’t spin on love, Ben."
But Hawkeye didn't hear his father. He wandered out to the snowy porch as he read the letter in the glow of the Christmas lights.