CHAPTER 1

 

 

September 2015

 

MY EYES opened at 5:58 a.m., and I reached out from the covers to click off the alarm. After all these years of waking up at the exact same time, I should’ve probably dispensed with the alarm-setting routine. It served merely as a ritual, but I couldn’t quite shake the fear that as soon as I stopped setting it, I’d oversleep.

The dead weight of a brawny arm rested against my hip, and as I reached down to reposition it, I traced my fingertips along the skin, gently brushing Brett’s arm hair. It being the weekend, I allowed myself to fantasize for a moment about snuggling up against his bear-like body and sleeping for an extra hour or two. It’d been years since we’d lazily spooned like that, wasting away a morning in bed together.

Had I become this old already? I now thought of the precious moments of tenderness with my husband as a waste of time? No, of course not. It’s just there was so much to do. Our lives had become so busy, and this weekend in particular, with all the kids home, would leave little or no time for romance of any kind. At least not for the dads.

Rolling over to my other side, I stared into his sleeping face. Every magnificent line, every crease and wrinkle, told a story, and I knew them all. I’d long ago memorized every inch of this man, and I cherished every subtle change, internal and external. We’d evolved together, become a single entity comprised of two strikingly contradictory individuals. He the strong, protective one who sprang forward on impulse, not just pursuing his dreams, but vaulting toward them to capture and conquer them… and I, the pragmatic, reasonable one who measured every step, providing a voice of reason to counter his rashness. Yet I’d have it no other way. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone, and over the course of the previous three decades, my love for him had matured, blossoming into a timeless treasure I held within the most sacred place of my heart.

God, had we been through some shit, especially back in the day. I hadn’t thought I possessed the strength or wisdom to sort it all out. Not only had we battled external forces that seemed intent upon our destruction, but we also waged wars within ourselves… and between us.

All the qualities that had first drawn me to Brett eventually became the characteristics that most irritated me. His arrogance and egotism, though hot and sexy in his youth, seemed petty and boorish as he began to age. I got tired of watching him flex in front of the mirror and of listening to his bragging. And he, of course, grew weary of my anal retentiveness, my neediness and emotionalism. Yet we managed to slog our way through those periods of buyer’s remorse and at a certain point, though I’m not sure I can really put a finger on exactly when it was, I realized how much more I loved him.

The sizzling heat of our early romance had long since faded and was replaced by something far cooler. And when I say “cool,” I mean it in more than one way. The fire was still there, but it was more of a low, steady heat, burning like a pilot that fueled our long-term love affair. The intensity of my love for Brett had not diminished. It had somehow consumed me in a way that words always fail to appropriately convey. We no longer had to “make” love. It was already there, thriving and evolving, more powerful than ever before.

And the annoyances that irked me during that period of self-doubt eventually became endearing to me once more, but this time in a far different way than when I’d first met and fallen in love with the drop-dead gorgeous, all-star quarterback back in high school. Now I teased him about the obnoxious, overly aggressive way he drove. I lovingly mocked him when he checked himself out in the mirror, frowning at what he obviously regarded as unattractive belly fat, but that I affectionately rubbed and called my “little honey pot.” He still left his dirty socks and underwear on the carpet where he’d carelessly discarded them after changing. He still lacked table manners and got a little irritable and impatient, and he was absolutely incorrigible when the Detroit Lions or the Miami Marlins were not winning.

Our relationship had come full circle, from initially sizzling with passion, to easing into a comfortable, contented state and ultimately evolving into an almost utopic blend of serene security laced with moments of unbridled, down-and-dirty, hip-thrusting climaxes. My attraction to the man never waned, never for a single second over the past thirty-three years.

That’s not to say we hadn’t been tempted, both of us. And though I’d love to say our love for one another had immediately transformed us into mature, trusting partners, this wasn’t exactly the case. I’d struggled in those early years, often fearful he’d stray from me. My lack of faith spoke more of my own insecurity than it did of the man I loved. What was a hot jock like Brett doing with a nerd like me? He could easily find someone better, someone more within his league.

My God, I fell in love with him at fourteen. He was my one and only, and for me, that was more than enough. But what about Brett? Could I really expect a guy like him to be faithful and exclusive to me? Hyper-masculine jocks like him were not programmed to be monogamous. In those early years, I’d mentally and emotionally prepared myself, expecting at any moment I’d discover our love affair was too good to be true, that he’d found someone better, that he’d grown tired of me, that he’d decided to trade up for a nicer model.

It never happened. Instead we grew together. Somehow, by the grace of God, he put up with my immaturity. He endured my insecurity, not begrudgingly by chastising me for my annoying self-loathing, but rather by assuring and reassuring me how deeply and wholeheartedly he loved me. He helped me see myself through his eyes, and God, it was an amazing view.

He should have taken me over his knee. Well, there were times he did exactly that, but that’s another subject altogether. But it wasn’t until I was twenty-three—we’d been a couple for eight years at that point—that it finally struck me like a lightning bolt. Brett wasn’t one to become emotional. He freely and proudly expressed joy and anger, but raw emotion—heartache, grief, sadness—he kept bottled inside him.

“You do realize how much it hurts me when you say things like that,” he said, turning to me so that I saw the mistiness of his eyes followed by the stream of a teardrop trailing down his cheek. He referred to a comment I’d made about myself, another of my self-deprecating put-downs.

“No,” I whispered. “Brett, baby, I’m sorry….”

“You have to have faith in me, sport. When you say this shit about yourself, about how I’d be better off with someone else, it kills me. It fucking kills me! Why? Why do you constantly doubt how I feel about you? Why do you always think the worst of me… that I’m looking for an excuse to cheat on you or something?”

I shook my head as I moved toward him. “No, I don’t doubt you. It’s just….” I exhaled and raised trembling hands to my face. “It seems everyone I’ve ever loved has left me, and I keep thinking… fearing… that you’ll be next. What we have together seems like a dream. A fairy tale or something, and I keep waiting to wake up.”

He reached for me, pulling me against his chest. “Pup, you need to start enjoying your dreams and quit worrying about when they’re gonna end. Otherwise, you’re going to ruin it… for both of us.”

And he was right. I’d been sabotaging my own happiness.

Lying there beside him twenty-five years later, I knew the man I married had been right about a lot of things. And even back in high school, when everyone thought he was nothing more than another dumb jock, I knew better. He certainly was no literary genius, and to this day he can’t correctly explain what a pronoun is, but he’s the brightest, wisest, most decisive and self-confident man I’ve ever known. And he’s mine. He’s my dumb jock.

I placed my fingertips against his cheek as he softly moaned and pried open his eyes to look at me.

“Happy birthday,” I whispered.

“What time is it?” he croaked, his words mangled by his body’s insistence upon more sleep.

“It’s too early,” I said, trailing my fingertips down his neck and onto his shoulder, then ghosting them down the length of his arm. “But I have to get up, start getting ready for the party. I’ll make you breakfast in a little bit, and serve it to you in bed.”

The corners of his mouth rose, though his reclosed eyelids didn’t even flutter. “You spoil me,” he said.

“Yes, I do.” I slowly pulled my hand away from his arm and slid it beneath the covers. “In more ways than one.”

His eyes popped widely open as my hand wrapped around him.

“Oh, I guess you are up,” I said, then giggled.

Before he could respond, I leaned into him and pressed my lips against his while using both hands to roll him away from me so he lay flat on his back. The kiss awakened my own arousal, and as I felt his hands against the bare skin of my buttocks, I drove my tongue into his mouth, completely ignoring his morning breath.

“Today’s your fiftieth birthday,” I said, gasping as I pulled back to stare down into his eyes. “And you’re just as sexy as the day we met.”

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” he said, grinning.

“It’s true,” I said, then continued to kiss him, starting with his lips then working my way down his chin, burrowing my face into the crook of his neck, then descending farther onto his hairy chest. My necklace, the same one he’d placed around my neck some thirty-plus years prior, dangled down, brushing his bare skin, as I continued to shower him with kisses. “Don’t you remember how I used to worship you back then? After every game I was right there, ready to drop to my knees.”

“I remember,” he said. “God, how could I forget?” He moaned as I gently bit down on his nipple.

“Oh, well I was worried. I know the memory starts to slip after a certain age.”

He laughed.

“So I think maybe I should remind you. Keep it fresh in your mind.”

“Uh… okay.”

I slid farther down his body, descending beneath the covers. “Just relax, baby,” I said as I looked up at him. “Happy birthday.” And then I swallowed him.

“Fuuuck!” I felt his hands on my shoulders. “Birthday head is so fuckin’ sweet.”

 

 

June 1982

 

“I HATE having to wear this tuxedo,” I complained to Elaine. “I see now why they call them penguin suits.”

“Shut up,” she countered, “at least you don’t have to wear a fuckin’ dress.” We had just finished preparing the salads for the dinner and were standing in the kitchen. We had all of the tables set and the napkins folded. There were four other students who would be serving with us. The main course entrée was either prime rib or roasted chicken. As we served the salads and rolls, we were to ask each guest which entrée they preferred and then serve it to them.

Elaine had already assured me she would see to it that I not have to serve Brett’s or Coach McDonald’s tables. As I peeked into the auditorium, I realized they were both sitting at the same table up toward the front. Brett’s parents were also there at their table with them. Apparently Mr. Willson was a good friend of Coach McDonald, which was probably why he’d been so quick to dismiss Litzenfowler a few weeks ago.

While we were serving, I was very careful to remain at the back of the auditorium, waiting on only the tables in the rear. I didn’t even look up to see if Brett had noticed me, though his presence was the only thing I could think about. Forty-five minutes later, we finally had all of the entrées served and then began clearing. Afterward we just mingled through the crowd refilling waters and coffees while the awards presentation was in progress.

My sarcastic remark to Brett about the award ceremony being merely an opportunity for the jocks to pat themselves on the back proved to be very much true. It was quite sickening as Coach McDonald and the athletic director called each recipient forward, droning on and on about how remarkable their performance had been. Brett received recognition several times. He had won awards for his all-season passing record and for making it all-state in football as well as varsity baseball. He also was recognized when they called the entire football team forward to receive their awards for winning the division championship.

We were now two hours into the evening and had almost all the tables cleared, when, finally, Coach McDonald stood at the podium to announce that it was his honor to present the final award of the evening. I sighed with relief, thanking God it would soon be over.

“Every year the athletic department of Boyne City High takes the time to painstakingly review the performance of all its participants in virtually every sporting event category”—I wondered how long it had taken that buffoon to memorize those polysyllabic words—“and we single out one particular athlete to recognize for outstanding performance. This year’s recipient is a young man whom I have had the privilege of working with since he was in middle school. He has been our star quarterback for our championship football team, has gone all-state in both football and baseball, and has held all major passing records within our football division. Although he and I have had our ‘situations’ this past year where we did not always see eye-to-eye, I am pleased to see not only the fine athlete he has become but the outstanding young man he is as well. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating our athlete of the year, Boyne’s very own hero, Brett Willson!”

The room burst into enthusiastic applause as it suddenly became clear to me why Brett had made it such a point to tell us about the sports banquet. He probably suspected he would be up for this award and wanted to show off in front of me. What a fuckin’ ass. It was almost more than I could take as I picked up a carafe of water and headed back toward the kitchen. I stopped in my tracks, though, when I heard his voice.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.” His voice did not sound confident and cocky as I expected it would. I almost laughed, realizing he had a case of stage fright. I turned back around, suddenly wanting to witness the spectacle. “I am honored to be recognized with this award,” he continued. “I know that in most cases this award is presented to seniors, and I am only a junior. Believe me, I am very much aware of the fact that I have competed with some very outstanding athletes here at Boyne, and it is really an honor to be chosen from such a pool of candidates.”

Oh Christ, this was obviously a rehearsed speech. Brett did not talk like that. I turned back around and headed again toward the kitchen doors.

“Wait!” he said. The entire audience stared at him, puzzled, many turning to look in my direction, trying to figure out to whom he was addressing his command. “Please wait!” he repeated, almost imploringly. I stopped and turned to look at him as he stood behind the podium, now trembling.

“I want to say something,” he then said, “that is not a part of what I had planned on saying…. Oh God!” He sighed heavily into the microphone. “I don’t deserve this award, and I am not going to accept it.” Coach McDonald stepped toward him, making a move to interrupt him, perhaps thinking it was simply undue modesty on Brett’s part. Brett held his hand up to him, motioning for him to keep his distance.

“Coach McDonald just introduced me as being a ‘hero.’ Well, I have to tell you honestly, this is not true. I am no hero. I may be a pretty good athlete, but there is nothing heroic about it.” Tears now streaked his cheeks as he continued. “Two and a half months ago, a teacher in this school was fired. I am sure that many of you know about the situation. The teacher was Alan Litzenfowler, an English teacher who had graduated from Boyne and had come back to teach for the past three years. I bet that a lot of people here think that I must have been pretty happy to see him go. He really busted my chops in his class. I actually failed freshman grammar twice under him. But you are wrong if you think that I wanted him fired. Mr. Litzenfowler was fired not because he was a bad teacher, but because he was different.

“Last fall one of our fellow students died suddenly and tragically. I’m sure that in this size town, most of you know the details. This student killed himself. He did so because he was different. Every single day of his life he was ridiculed, made fun of, picked on—by jocks like me… and you.” He looked out into the audience.

“I’m not a hero,” he repeated. “I stood by while these things happened and did nothing. I saw one of our Campus Life group leaders expelled from her church because she was different, too. Even then I said nothing. Then finally I gave up the one single person in my life that I love with all my heart, just because I was afraid that all of you would think I’m different as well.

“I am different!”

I stared at Brett, my mouth agape, and began taking small steps up the center aisle. I had set down the carafe and was holding my hands up to my chin, on the verge of trembling myself.

“I am gay.” The entire audience was stunned, Brett’s parents staring up at him in shocked disbelief. Tim Williams sat at an adjacent table with his date and stared, his mouth open even wider than my own. Poor Mandy Myers, Brett’s date for the evening, was now crouching in her seat.

“For so long we acted like gay people didn’t exist in our community. We simply pretended that we didn’t know anyone who was ‘that way.’ Well, I want to tell you something: there are plenty of us who are that way, myself included.

“I’m standing here tonight asking for forgiveness. I’m sorry for all of the lies, for all the times I crawled off in the corner and hid instead of standing up for what I knew was right. I’m sorry most of all for abandoning the one person who actually made it possible for me to even continue playing sports in the first place.

“It is with great honor that I humbly turn over this trophy to the person who really deserves it, my hero: Jeff Irwin.” He picked up the trophy and held it out in front of him, as if handing it to me. He looked at me then, directly in the eye, mouthing these words: I love you, sport.

From the very back of the room, I heard Elaine applauding, and a few others in the crowd joined her, some standing on their feet. Most of the audience remained seated there in stunned silence as Brett descended from the stage and walked toward me, handing me the statue he was holding. I looked up at him through my tears as he reached in his tuxedo pocket, removing the gold necklace. He gently reached around my neck and clasped the chain as I stood there staring up into his beautiful face.

Not even looking, I held the trophy to my side and let it fall to the floor, wrapping my arms around his neck as he grabbed me around my waist and kissed me, right there in front of God and everyone.

 

 

THE END BEGINNING

 

A FEW raucous cheers accompanied the smattering of applause around us, but as we broke from the kiss, my full attention remained directed on his heart-stopping face. I looked up into his eyes, my own flooded with tears, and echoed his sentiment.

“You’re my hero, Brett Willson. I love you so much.”

McDonald had returned to the podium and was trying to regain control of the ceremony as Elaine and a few others from the crowd made their way over, forming a circle around us. Their pats on our backs and words of encouragement drowned out the sound of the coach trying to smooth things over. His nervous laughter and assurance that the whole thing had been nothing more than a prank did little to convince the audience Brett had been joking. His statement had been sincere, perhaps the most honest words he’d ever spoken.

Elaine stood before me while Brett draped his arm protectively around my shoulder. She held the trophy I’d dropped, awkwardly thrusting it toward me while wiping away tears with her other hand.

“Girlfriend, your face is a mess,” I teased. Black streaks from her mascara gave her a creepy Goth-like appearance, but I didn’t care. She’d always been my closest friend, and now here she was sharing the biggest moment of my life.

“Shut up, love,” she said in her most authentic British accent, then pulled me into a fierce hug. When she pulled back, she forced me to take the trophy. “I’m so proud of you,” she said, then turned to face Brett.

“I’m sorry I’ve been such an ass,” he said.

She cleared her throat and smiled. “You’ve most certainly been an arse. No denying that, but hey, what you did tonight was simply marvelous.” She clapped her hands together, her body jiggling as she bounced on the balls of her feet. “Gimme a hug, will you?”

A tall, beanpole-like jock, one of the athletes from the basketball team, appeared behind Elaine, then stepped around her to get to Brett.

“Matt,” Brett said, his expression instantly sobering as his Adam’s apple bobbed visibly in his throat. “I… uh….” Brett held out both arms at his side, palms up, and shrugged. “What more can I say?”

“Nothing, man. You said it all, and it was so cool. I’m proud of ya, man.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” He reached forward and delivered a manly pat to Brett’s shoulder, then looked down at me.

“Hi,” I said, adjusting my glasses as I sidled a tiny bit closer to Brett.

“So you’re the genius?”

As I began to shake my head, Brett and Elaine spoke in unison. “Yes!”

Before I could protest, another face emerged from the crowd. Brett’s father had pushed his way through the throng and suddenly appeared before us, an intensely stern expression on his face. His eyes locked with Brett’s, and for a moment, I feared the man would strike his son.

Instead he stepped closer. Grabbing hold of Brett’s shoulders, he pulled him into a hug. I stepped back, raising my one free hand to my mouth, and gasped as I witnessed the father and son embrace.

“I’ve been a goddamn fool,” his dad said.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to look into the face of Brett’s mom. Dressed to the nines for the occasion, she appeared elegant and classy, but her puffy eyes and tear-streaked cheeks belied the fact she’d lost her composure during Brett’s speech.

“He’s a stubborn man,” she said of her husband. “Like father, like son, they’re both bullheaded.”

“I can’t live a lie anymore,” Brett said as he pulled back from his father’s hug.

“Son, I’ve been so scared of this moment, of what everyone would think when word got out. And you… you said, ‘what the hell, let ’em think what they want. I’m gonna be who I am.’ That took a lot of guts, and I should’ve had the balls to tell those small-minded bastards where to go and how to get there.”

“It’s okay, Dad,” Brett said, now misty-eyed again. “Does this mean you’re gonna let me keep the Beemer?”

Both his parents laughed as Brett looked over to me, apparently unaware of what was so funny. I smiled at him and took hold of his hand once again.

“Yeah, you can keep your car,” his dad said.

“Good, ’cause my boyfriend and me have some celebrating to do. We just won an award, ya know.”

When I first met Brett’s parents, back while tutoring him in English, I felt welcome in their home, almost like a member of the family. They’d been so ingratiating and generous, and his mother especially had made me feel appreciated. Everything changed rather abruptly, though, when they began to suspect the true nature of our relationship, when all the dreams they’d harbored for their son were suddenly in jeopardy. I became a threat to his happiness, to the fulfillment of his goals. I became an obstacle, impeding any chance their son might have to live a “normal” life.

And on that night of miracles, when Brett took the stage and revealed himself to our entire world, I wanted to believe his parents’ apparent epiphany was genuine, but I still feared the worst. Had they sincerely changed their minds, or were they merely saving face in front of the townsfolk?

As time passed and I developed a personal relationship with Brett’s mom, I learned that acceptance of her son’s sexual orientation had been an ongoing battle. As his mother, she’d known, or suspected, for most of his life. She’d known about Brett’s friendship with Terry, his first true love. When everything came to a head, it was Brett’s father who’d put up the resistance. He’d played a part in getting our school’s only openly gay teacher terminated. He’d also threatened to more-or-less disinherit Brett, and he even grounded Brett from using his car. And of course, Brett had been forbidden to continue seeing me.

A combination of his wife’s persuasion and witnessing his son’s public display of bravery had indeed sparked an epiphany within Mr. Willson. And though at first I remained a bit guarded and skeptical, I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I also felt a whole lot better about releasing the bitterness and anger I harbored within myself. Forgiving both of Brett’s parents was perhaps far easier for me than one might imagine, simply because it felt so much better than hate.

 

 

WHEN BRETT pulled the Beemer into our driveway, I saw Gram step over to the living room window, peeking through the curtain to see if she recognized the car. Of course she would, and I worried for a second it might alarm her. But when I saw her walk back over to her recliner and reseat herself I knew she’d probably already figured out I’d made amends with Brett.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe what an idiot I’ve been, how much time I wasted.” Brett squeezed my hand as he turned to look me in the eye. “I love you so much, sport. God, I missed you.”

“You weren’t an idiot,” I lied. “You had a lot of shit to deal with.”

“And you didn’t? Your mom, all that crap with your dad and brother, and then what happened to Shane—”

“Brett….”

“And then Mr. Litzenfowler getting fired, and your friend Kaye being kicked out of her church—”

“Brett!”

He took a deep breath as he continued to look at me.

“Will you please just shut the fuck up and kiss me?”

His kiss back at the school had certainly been passionate, yet it was undeniably public, thus not exactly intimate. As he leaned over the stick shift, he used one hand to cup the back of my head and pull me into him, our mouths connecting. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply, savoring his scent as his tongue danced with mine. It felt in that moment we’d left our bodies, transcended to another plane, and I wondered if this entire night had merely been an incredible dream.

My whole life the previous year had seemed surreal. Far too much had happened within such a short time period, and with so many rapid changes, I wasn’t sure what to believe in anymore. But I believed in him, my hero. Brett had stood up at that podium, not merely in front of an audience of strangers, but amongst the people who’d known and admired him. And he’d declared his love for me.

That wasn’t how things normally occurred, at least not in real life. Gay people didn’t come out of the closet like that, especially not gay athletes. My heart swelled with pride as I kissed my studly jock hero, and I wanted nothing more than to show him exactly how much I still idolized him.

I reached across the seat, past the stick shift, and slid my hand into his lap, groping for him. He sighed when I found his arousal, then pulled back, looking into my eyes. He smiled, then kissed me once more, this time softly.

“No, not this time,” he whispered.

Startled, I pulled my hand away and opened my mouth to speak.

“For all these months you’ve worshiped me, sport. Oh my God, you’ve made me feel like I’m sort of… well, a god or something. But I told you back at the banquet, you’re the hero. You’re my hero, and it’s my turn to worship you.”

“Brett….” I began to object, but he reached in front of me, using his powerful arm to push me back in the seat. He pressed a button on his door, and I felt myself beginning to recline. “Brett! We’re in the driveway!”

“And it’s dark….”

“But my gram!”

“Is watching TV. She can’t see us.” I felt him unlatch the button on my pants.

“Oh, Brett,” I whispered, right before I felt him touch me in my most private region.