Chapter One

Plans

“YOU REALLY don’t have to do that,” Brandt said into the phone. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he was supposed to be vacuuming while Donnelly was out shopping for dinner.

“What kind of best man doesn’t throw a bachelor party?” Brandt’s brother Liam replied. “Look, the best man has three essential duties: ensure you get to the church on time and relatively sober, make a toast at the reception that will be both touching and embarrassing, and throw a bachelor party you won’t remember but the strippers will never forget.”

“I’m not really into the whole ‘get drunk and throw up on a stripper’ kind of party, Liam. I’m sure you enjoyed it at the bachelor party Noah threw for you, but—”

“That’s all I’m trying to do. Pay it forward. Noah did it for me, I did it for him, and now it’s our turn to do it for our little brother.”

“Wait, Noah’s in on this too?”

“Hell yeah. And since he’s basically been in baby jail for the last six months, he’s wound up pretty tight. He’s looking forward to this like Grandpa looks forward to martini hour.”

Brandt sighed. “It’s not as simple as that,” he said as diplomatically as he could. “It’s kind of complicated because of—”

“I know, I know,” Liam interrupted. “I’ll be honest with you, Ethan. I’ve never even been to a gay wedding, much less a gay bachelor party. But how much different could it be? It’s still a bunch of guys hanging out, having a little drink, getting into a little trouble. I don’t see why that’s so complicated.”

Brandt paced back and forth across the carpet he was supposed to be cleaning. “If you don’t see why it’s complicated, well, start with the whole stripper thing. How would that work, exactly?”

“What do you mean how would that work? There are guy strippers, aren’t there?”

“Yes, there are. But while I appreciate how accepting you and Noah and everyone have been, I don’t think you’d really enjoy watching guys take their clothes off.”

“But, isn’t that what gay people do at bachelor parties?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. Gay marriage has only been legal for a couple of years, and I’ve only been to one wedding.”

“The one where everyone got poisoned and one of the grooms died? I’m thinking yours is going to be much better than that.”

Time for a new tack. “Look, here’s the thing,” Brandt said. “This party, if you insist on throwing it, isn’t going to be a gay bachelor party. Yes, the two people getting married are bachelors, and some of our groomsmen are gay, but you and Noah will be there, and a couple of our friends from college, and you all are straight, last time I checked.”

“Marianne will be relieved to hear that,” Liam replied with a laugh.

“And then there are people like Will, who doesn’t really count as straight because he’s married to Lucas, but he wasn’t gay before they met. And the same is kind of true for me and Gabriel. So it’s pretty complicated.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Then, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why are you getting married?”

Brandt paused, not sure what his brother was getting at. “Because Gabriel and I love each other, and we want to be together, and we’d like to make it official.”

“You could do that at the courthouse. Why have the big wedding?”

“Well, first, it’s not a big wedding. It’s just family and some friends.”

“It’s a wedding, Ethan. It’s more than just having some people over, and you know it. So why are you doing it?”

“Because it’s what people have always done to have their relationship recognized by everyone.”

“Exactly. You’re doing it because it’s what has been traditionally done. You may as well admit the tradition is important to you. And part of that tradition is the bachelor party.”

Brandt closed his eyes. “I get that, but the tradition depends on everyone being straight and everyone thinking the bachelor needs some kind of last hurrah before chaining himself to the same woman for the rest of his life, with strippers to show him what he’s going to be missing out on. That’s not really the case here, is it?”

Liam laughed. “You mean you aren’t giving up women forever? I’ll have to let Gabriel know about that.”

“Stop it, asshole. You know what I mean. Gabriel and I aren’t the traditional straight bachelors—we aren’t even the traditional gay bachelors. What we have is kind of unique, and that’s why the bachelor party idea just won’t work.”

“It will work, and I will make it work, and that’s the end of it,” Liam said in his stern firstborn tone.

Brandt slumped onto the sofa. “Fine. But I want you to remember when we’re picking ourselves out of the glitter-covered wreckage of this party that I warned you it wasn’t a good idea.”

“You worry too much, little bro. Now go make the citizens safe while I make plans.”

BRANDT AND Donnelly sat on their back patio eating dinner with their friend Malcolm.

“How’s the cafe doing?” Donnelly asked as he passed Malcolm a platter of grilled corn.

“I think it’s catching on. People who have been coming for years keep telling me how nice it is to have someone sprucing it up a bit. I convinced Casey to come in for a couple of weeks to help me get the bakery up and running, and I really couldn’t have done it without him. He can’t work for me because he’s on a wrestling scholarship, but he helped me hire and train a baker. Now I can work on getting the lunch menu going.”

“We’ll have to stop by soon and see for ourselves,” Brandt said.

“It’s not like I’ve spent every day hoping to see you there or anything,” Malcolm said with a pout.

“All right, all right, we’ll come by soon,” cried Donnelly, laughing.

“How’s the wedding planning going?” Malcolm asked, cutting into the steak Brandt had expertly grilled.

“The wedding is in great shape,” Brandt answered. “It’s the bachelor party that has got me worried.”

“Why?” Malcolm asked. “I thought the bachelor party was supposed to be the best man’s deal?”

“It is,” Brandt said with a slow shake of his head. “My big brother Liam is taking care of it, but it’s kind of tricky territory.”

“Why is that? Booze, strippers….” Malcolm shook his head. “And that’s about it, right?”

Brandt sighed. “When was the last time you went to a bachelor party, buddy?”

“Last year. Buddy of mine from college.” Malcolm chuckled and shook his head. “Man, that was a night.”

“Was this buddy marrying a man or a woman?” Donnelly asked.

“A woman.”

“And the strippers were…?”

“Women.” Malcolm answered, grinning at the memory. “There was this one who did this thing with a Ping-Pong ball and a kazoo that was just amazing. See, she—”

“Probably better left to the imagination,” Brandt blurted. He closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, did the person throwing the bachelor party know you’re gay?”

“Yeah, I think so. It didn’t really come up.”

“Not with strippers like that,” Donnelly said. “I don’t think it would come up for me either.”

Malcolm cackled with glee, and the two men fist-bumped over the table.

“I’m trying to be serious here,” Brandt griped, “and I’m surrounded by teenage boys making boner jokes.”

“Sorry, Ethan,” Malcolm said, sounding almost contrite. “Seriously, it wasn’t a problem for me. I was just along for the ride, and I think all of the other guys at the party were straight. Honestly, it was kind of hot to see them get all worked up over the strippers. A dozen straight bros tugging at their crotches while trying not to notice everyone else doing the same thing? You could cut the tension with a knife.”

“But we have a much more mixed group,” Brandt said, doggedly pursuing the topic. “There’s my brothers, who are throwing the party, and Gabriel and I are both having a friend from college in the wedding party, and they’re all straight. Then there’s Will, who’s married to Lucas, but before that he was straight. And then Bryce and Nestor, who are probably a ten on the Kinsey scale.”

“I know Bryce and Nestor are somewhat flamboyant, but I thought the Kinsey scale only went up to six—and that’s completely gay,” Malcolm replied.

“Yep. They would be a ten,” Donnelly said, laughing.

“So they wouldn’t go along with a standard-issue bachelor party?”

“Bryce and Nestor are somewhat excitable,” Donnelly explained.

“Excitable?” Brandt snorted. “Remember what happened when we made them sit down and watch Brokeback Mountain all the way through?”

Donnelly turned to Malcolm. “They had only seen the part in the tent and the two and a half seconds where Heath Ledger is naked. They could describe every frame of those scenes but hadn’t bothered with the rest of the movie. We thought it was important for them to have the full context.”

“You have never heard such wailing and carrying on,” Brandt continued, shaking his head at the memory. “Nestor just collapsed into a catatonic state, and it took fifteen minutes to coax Bryce out of the bathroom, where his keening was enough to wake the neighbors.”

“Well, you have to admit the end of that movie is kind of hard to take. I cried when I first saw it, and I’d read the original story in the New Yorker, so I knew it was coming.”

“But they weren’t crying about the ending,” Donnelly said. “We hadn’t even gotten that far.”

“What did it, then?” Malcolm asked.

“Anne Hathaway taking her shirt off,” Brandt deadpanned.

Malcolm’s mouth dropped open. “The sight of boobs had that effect on them?”

Brandt and Donnelly nodded.

Malcolm shook his head. “I’m as gay as the next guy, but Anne Hathaway? Om-nom.”

“Bryce and Nestor didn’t see it that way, I’m afraid,” Donnelly said, chuckling. “They screamed like Death himself had come for them. Wearing a polyester robe.”

“Okay,” Malcolm said, once he’d stopped laughing. “So no strippers for Bryce and Nestor.”

“Oh, they’re connoisseurs of strippers, but the male variety,” Brandt replied. “But I don’t think my brothers and our college buddies are going to go for that.”

“Why not?” Malcolm asked. “Gay guys have to put up with boobies being shaken at them all the time, and not just at bachelor parties. Movies, TV, advertisements—sex sells, and it’s almost always women who are the sex doing the selling. Having straight guys go to a bachelor party and look at male strippers would be progress. I think it would be good for them.”

“I’m not sure they’d see it that way,” Donnelly remarked.

“I’m sure they’re very nice people, but I have to ask. Why shouldn’t they ‘put up’ with something we would find sexy? Why do we always have to accommodate the straight folks?”

Brandt and Donnelly exchanged a look.

“That’s an excellent question, Malcolm.” Brandt took a bite of steak and turned back to Donnelly. “We have some stuff to figure out.”

Donnelly nodded but with a look that showed him to be less than confident. “Lucky us.”

DINNER HAD been cleaned up, and Brandt and Donnelly were preparing for bed. Donnelly flossed while Brandt washed his face. Then Brandt stood upright and looked at Donnelly in the mirror as he dried his face.

“Should I just tell Liam to forget the bachelor party?” he asked.

Donnelly pulled the floss out of his mouth and tipped his head thoughtfully. “Don’t you think that would be kind of disappointing for him? I haven’t known him my entire life, like you have, but what I do know is he takes being your big brother really seriously.”

“Why do you say that?” Brandt asked, leaning back against the counter.

“Do you remember last Thanksgiving, when your uncle’s new wife made that joke after dinner?”

“Yeah, that was pretty awkward. I would have thought Uncle Phil would have given her the heads-up that telling gay jokes wasn’t going to endear her to the family.”

“And remember later that evening when Liam’s car wouldn’t start and he asked Uncle Phil for help?”

“Uh-huh,” Brandt replied, suspicious of where this was going.

“Well, when they didn’t come back after a few minutes—and you were helping with the dishes—I went out to see if they needed more help. Now, Liam made me promise not to tell you about this, but I think you should know. Before I even got to the driveway I could hear voices—angry voices—so I stopped before rounding the corner of the house. Turns out Liam’s car was fine; he just wanted to get your uncle alone for a little talk. He asked your uncle to let her know she had offended everyone with that joke, and your uncle told him to mind his own business. I have never seen Liam get angry—he’s normally so even-keeled. But as I peeked around the corner, he lunged at your uncle, grabbed him by the collar of his jacket, and got right in his face. Told him unless he and his wife were prepared to stay the hell away from the gay jokes, he should just leave right then. Your uncle gave it right back to him. Said he’d never accepted that you were gay. It was just a phase, and once you came to your senses, you’d be normal again.”

“He really said that?”

“Yep. And then your brother got really quiet. He said he loved you, and he was proud of you, and he wouldn’t stand for anyone being in the house who didn’t feel the same way. It got really tense there for a minute—looked like they were going to come to blows. But your uncle backed down, and that’s why he and his wife seemed really quiet after that.” Donnelly put his hand on Brandt’s arm. “He loves you, Ethan. And I think throwing this bachelor party is his way of saying he’s happy for us. He wants everyone to know he accepts us and our marriage just like anyone else’s in the family.”

Brandt looked into the reflection of Donnelly’s eyes in the mirror, and when he spoke again, his voice was soft. “You know, when I told my family about us, I was worried about Liam’s reaction most of all. He’d always kind of been my idol growing up. He’s always said he supported me, but I didn’t know how much of that he was saying because he thought it was what I wanted to hear. It’s kind of amazing to know he would take on Uncle Phil. That guy’s always scared me a little.”

“I don’t want to pile on, but I think you need to consider how he would feel if you said he couldn’t throw you a party. It would be like you were rejecting his love and support. I know it’s going to be awkward, but sometimes things are awkward in the service of a larger goal.”

Brandt nodded and hung up his towel. “I guess you’re right.”

“You forgot the last part,” Donnelly said.

“What last part?”

“As usual. I’m right as usual. I’d have thought you’d have had that down by now.”

“Brush your damn teeth and come to bed, will ya?”

“Well, if you’re going to get all romantic…,” Donnelly said with a saucy wink.

“THANKS FOR taking the time to have lunch with me,” Brandt said as he sat at the table, opposite Will in his sleek sport wheelchair.

“I think you’ll discover I can always find time for a lunch invitation,” Will replied with a smile. “Delilah’s at such a clingy age right now, I think it does us some good to spend a little time apart once in a while.”

“How are she and Dylan doing?”

“They’re great, thanks. Dylan’s got a big part in the school play, so he’s turning into quite the prima donna. Lucas says he was the same at that age, so I guess there’s hope he’ll come out of it.” He looked around the cafe. “They serve lunch here now?”

“As of this week they do. A friend of ours moved here from Woodley and bought the place. He started the bakery up last month, and now he’s adding lunch. The guy works like crazy, but he’s really good at what he does.”

“Ethan! So glad you could make it,” Malcolm said as he strode up to the table bearing plates. “And this must be Will, whom I’ve heard so much about.”

“Will, this is Malcolm, the mastermind behind the new café.”

“Pleased to meet you, Malcolm,” Will said, extending his hand, which Malcolm shook energetically.

As always, Brandt was struck by the massive muscles in Will’s arm. His training for the biathlon in the Paralympic Games kept him to a rigorous workout regimen.

“Let me know if I can get you guys anything else,” Malcolm said as he hurried back to the kitchen.

“Seems like a nice guy,” Will said as he picked up his sandwich.

“He is. It’s really great he got the hell out of Woodley. That’s no place for anyone gay. Or sane.”

“He makes a fine sandwich,” Will remarked. “And are these homemade potato chips? I could be in real trouble now that I know this place exists.”

Brandt laughed and tucked into his own meal.

“So, I have a question for you,” Brandt said after they were several bites in.

“Aha! I knew there was an ulterior motive,” Will cried, then laughed. “Fire away, and I’ll do what I can.”

“Did you have a bachelor party?”

Will sat back in his chair, clearly surprised by the question, but then he knitted his brow thoughtfully. “Um, at the risk of sounding like a slut, which time are you asking about?”

“Either, or both, I guess. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk with you. You’re the only person I know who’s been married to both a woman and a man. I wanted to get your thoughts about having a bachelor party.”

Will nodded. “I see. I guess my checkered marital history is pretty rare, but I hope it will eventually seem less freakish as marriage equality evens things out.”

“We may have a long way to go on that front,” Brandt replied. “So, did you have a bachelor party?”

“For marriage number one, Juliet and I were just out of college and the first of our social group to get married. I had a lot of buddies who were really excited about finally getting to have a bachelor party, and they did it up big. Well, as big as our entry-level salaries could handle. Most of the money was spent on cheap, high-proof alcohol and a couple of pretty skanky strippers from a club out by a truck stop down the interstate. I guess I should call them erotic performers, because taking their clothes off was just the beginning.” He shook his head at the memory. “At one point they both had their fingers completely—”

“Feel free not to offer any details,” Brandt interrupted, holding his hand up.

Will frowned at him in exaggerated judgment. “Can’t stand to even hear about women now that you’re with Gabriel?” he wondered sarcastically.

Brandt thought about this for a moment. “Actually, I don’t know. I thought maybe it was all of the training I’ve had about sex trafficking and ugly things like that, but I guess it really comes down to not wanting to be reminded of who I used to be.”

“Wow, that turned serious,” Will said compassionately. He looked at Brandt for a long moment, studying his face. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Brandt replied a little warily.

“Imagine you’re in a strip club, and the woman performing is the most gorgeous vision you’ve ever seen. She moves like a goddess, and she tosses her top at you, and then she rides that pole like she’s trying out for the Olympics as a sex gymnast. As a finale she lays herself in front of you and slides her thong down. Her ass is round and smooth, and she twerks it right at you. Then—”

“Stop,” Brandt said, his voice rough. “Just stop.” He turned away and took a couple of deep breaths before looking back at Will. “Why would you do that?”

“Because we’re the same, Ethan.” Will’s voice was low and serious.

“What does that mean?”

“It means what I just described gives me the same feeling it gives you. That old tug in the privates that defined our sexuality from the time we first discovered sex. When we fell in love with men, we had to rewire our idea of sex to accommodate the emotional connection we had made.” Will cast a quick glance around the room, then lowered his voice further. “I know it’s not politically correct, but I honestly believe the original wiring cannot be completely disconnected. You will always feel that twinge for a beautiful woman. I know because I feel it too. It doesn’t mean you are being unfaithful to Gabriel or that you aren’t fully committed to him. There are people who grew up gay, and even if they fell in love with a woman, they would still feel that pull when they see a hot guy; that’s how they’re wired. And that’s how it is for us; we have straight wiring and gay emotions, and that duality is the price we pay for the love in our lives.”

Brandt was stunned. “I had no idea—”

“That I felt it too? It took me a long time to get it figured out. Spent a lot of nights wondering what it meant that I still had dreams about women, and why I don’t have the same reaction to Ryan Gosling that Lucas does. At first I thought it was just going to take more time. But a couple of years passed, and nothing changed. Then, when Dylan was a baby, I got us into a group for new parents. It was essentially a mom’s group, because I was the only stay-at-home dad. And let me tell you, I quickly gained a deeper understanding of the term ‘MILF.’ Not that I was tempted to actually do anything about it, but it was a weekly reminder that the sexual identity I had thought was part of my past was still there. God, that year was rough.”

“What did you do about it?” Brandt asked.

Will chuckled. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. I wish I had a magic bullet for you, one that would give you boner immunity from women and make Mr. Gosling the man of your dreams, but there isn’t one. I’ve come to the conclusion that even though I love Lucas more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone, and sex with him is amazing, I will always respond to women on a physical level. And if you think about it, that’s not any different from any married man. Just because you’re committed doesn’t mean you’re all dead inside. If people stopped being dazzled by beauty when they got married, no one would ever get a divorce or have an affair. A happier world, maybe, but a less beautiful one. And certainly a less human one.”

“Ugh,” Brandt sighed. “This is a mess.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you and I are apparently unique in the entire experience of mankind. We hear all the time that sexual orientation is biologically determined and cannot be changed, and that sexuality is not a choice. But you and I grew up straight and had relationships with women, and then we each met a man who we were willing to set that all aside for. A lot of people would say that couldn’t happen.”

“I’ve had people say that very thing to me,” Will said. “Rude people, even if they may have been simply trying to understand it.”

“Here’s the thing, though. You and I are the conservative’s wet dream. We chose. We are living proof that sexual orientation can be chosen. And that’s a huge problem in the struggle for equal rights because if people can choose to change their sexual orientation, then there’s no essential sexual identity, and thus no basis for a claim of equal rights. They’ll say we made a lifestyle choice.”

Will looked at him for a moment. “That’s pure horseshit, and you know it.”

Brandt smiled. “You’re a straight shooter, Will. I’ve always respected that about you.”

“You’re right that we represent a problem for the way most people think about sexual orientation, but they’re the ones with the problem, not us. We’re not the ones judging people based on who they sleep with. If everyone could just stop caring about the kind of sex people have, then it wouldn’t matter whether it was biology or choice. It would just be sex, and who cares?”

Brandt shrugged grimly. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon. People love to put others in boxes and then assign value to the boxes. And the fact that we seem to have chosen to jump from one box to another makes us… dangerous? The problem is that we are most dangerous to a cause I hold dear. So if I want to help the cause of equality, I can never tell anyone I chose Gabriel over every woman on earth because I love him, not because I am biologically determined to love men.”

“Does he know how you feel? Does he know you chose him?” Will’s voice was suddenly low and intense.

“He does. It was a hard thing to tell him, but I had to try to find a way to make him understand.”

“And does he?”

Brandt nodded. Their understanding was beyond the words he had at his command.

“Then that’s all that matters. No one else needs to know, so it doesn’t matter whether they would understand it or not. He knows, and that’s enough.”

Brandt was silent for a moment, absorbing this. “Does Lucas know?”

Will nodded. “He was there for me right after Juliet left, and he actually tried to talk me out of falling in love with him. He had had a bad experience with a straight guy once and swore he would never let that happen again. I think he was expecting me to leave at any moment for the first year we were together. It finally sunk in when we decided to have kids and got married.”

“I feel silly asking this now,” Brandt said sheepishly, “but did you have a bachelor party that time?”

Will shook his head. “Because gay marriage wasn’t legal yet here, we had to go away to get married. Our marriage license was meaningless here until legalization, but at least we had it. It was important for us to do it before we had kids, to give them a proper legal framework. Romantic, right? It wasn’t until we got to the courthouse that I realized we were actually getting married. So the idea of a bachelor party didn’t really come up.”

“But if you did have a party, would there have been strippers? And of what gender?”

Will smiled slyly. “I am really glad I never had to make that decision.”

“Crap. Thanks a lot, buddy.” But Brandt put his hand on Will’s. “Seriously, thanks for talking today. You helped me a lot.”

“We have to stick together, Ethan. There aren’t many like us.”

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” Brandt said with a sigh.