As the young woman took a step onto the almost-empty A train and asked Ethan what was probably a simple question, his heart skipped, stomach instantly knotting. He answered, “I’m sorry, what?”
Her eyebrows drew close, and she repeated herself, but she was turning her head as she spoke, looking up above the subway car doors—probably for a map of stops, which was in vain on the A train—and the words were lost in a mumble of indistinguishable sound.
She still had one foot on the platform, unwilling to commit. She held out her hands in frustration, thin eyebrows raised. Again, she said, “Mumble,” but this time he also heard “Fulton.”
“Yes, it stops at Fulton!” he said.
As the doors closed, she skipped aboard, just as a guy approached from farther down the car, saying something Ethan missed in the roar of metal as the train picked up speed.
The woman gave Ethan a quizzical smile, shaking her head, like, Why did you have to make that so difficult? Then she said something to the other man, nodding and smiling at him before taking a seat, the guy retreating back to the end of the car.
Face hot, Ethan slouched on the orange plastic. At least she hadn’t gotten too mad. Metal screeched and crashed again, and he winced, the noise amplified by his hearing aids. Hearing someone talk could sometimes be impossible, but trains rattling and banging, jackhammering and construction, engines roaring, busking mariachi bands droning—all that Ethan could hear at a painfully loud volume on his daily commute.
When he got off at Times Square to transfer to the Q train, the station somehow always full of people even midday in January, he hurried past a group of young men dancing, their music throbbing in his ears.
When an accordion player got on the train, along with a group of teenagers shouting and jostling each other, Ethan couldn’t take it anymore. Seriously, what fresh hell was this? Since when did people give money to hear the freaking accordion?
He just wanted to fantasize about his wedding and honeymoon in peace. And maybe play a little pseudo Scrabble on his phone to calm his nerves.
Why should I be nervous anyway? It’s all going to be perfect. Michael and I are finally on the same page again. Even though—
No. He wasn’t going to let the doubts creep in. Everything was going to be perfect.
His left hearing aid was bugging his ear anyway, so as the bastard accordion player neared, Ethan turned both his aids off and eased them out of his ears and into the little case he carried, which he zipped into the pocket of his puffy winter coat.
Ahhh. The volume of the world was turned way down when he went “off the air,” as his boss put it. Ethan wasn’t what the docs called “profoundly deaf” without his hearing aids, but sounds were muffled—especially speaking and noises of a higher frequency. His current diagnosis was still in the moderate hearing loss range, but leaning toward severe rather than mild.
Being out in the world without his hearing aids on made his stomach acidy, but New York City was just So. Fucking. Loud. At least with his aids out the music and shouting kids faded into a hum of distant white noise, and he was grateful.
The flash of gratitude was of course immediately followed by a long gnaw of guilt since the more he turned off his aids, the less stimulation his hearing nerves received, which could affect his ability to recognize the nuances of speech.
He could still hear that someone was speaking without his aids, but it was only a vowel-filled murmur, the clarity of the words frustratingly out of reach. His devices helped a lot, but most people talked way too fast and he regularly had to ask people to repeat themselves. Day after day, it was exhausting.
That was part of why he hadn’t wanted to plan a big wedding. The thought of trying to hear and talk to all those caterers, reception hall folks, and guests would take all the joy out of the day.
In college, doctors had assured him there was nothing he could have done differently, and that a genetic anomaly was to blame for him losing his hearing. They insisted the one time his ears had rung after a Jay-Z concert hadn’t been the culprit. Still, Ethan wondered sometimes, and he obviously wanted to do everything he could to keep the quality of the hearing he still had.
But he’d spent all morning struggling to follow along during a video conference call, and it would just be a wall of noise on the train anyway. Shouldn’t the kids have been in school?
He snorted to himself at the thought. Michael sometimes said—with varying degrees of affection depending on his mood—that Ethan had become a grumpy old man when he lost his hearing. Maybe he had. Most twenty-seven-year-olds seemed to still like partying and goofing around, but he was glad to ignore the kids and the accordion’s wailing as the train rattled across the Manhattan Bridge. He played the word “kumquat” for twenty-five points in his game, vaulting him into the lead against his best friend, Todd.
Ethan’s boss in accounting at Anderson/Fromm Investments had sent him home early as a wedding gift since she’d blanked on organizing a shower for him. He’d actually been relieved to avoid a party, although he appreciated the sentiment.
He really did—the people he worked with were nice, and he liked them. But he’d honestly rather skip gathering with them in a boardroom to open a card of well wishes as he smiled awkwardly, followed by small talk he struggled to hear while they all ate overly sweet grocery-store cake.
One of the reasons he’d gone into environmental accounting was to be left alone with his spreadsheets and numbers and international government regulations. He created reports on the most cost-efficient ways for the company’s offices around the world to use energy and reduce overhead. Ethan had to admit he wasn’t much of a people person now that he was hard of hearing, and he’d never really made friends at work the way he probably should have.
Michael, always plugged in socially between work, his extended, tight-knit Chinese family, and a seemingly endless parade of casual and intimate friends, said Ethan should simply try harder, like he used to. He still didn’t understand how much of an effort social situations were now.
As the train rumbled through Brooklyn, Ethan breathed through the flare of resentment. Michael tried, he did. They’d both been extroverts when they’d met, and it was hard for him now that Ethan found socializing so much more exhausting. But Ethan was trying to go out more, and Michael was trying to get used to staying in sometimes. Compromise was what a relationship was all about, right? That’s why they were so good together. That’s why they were so in love.
His insides went all gooey remembering how Michael had woken him with a blow job that morning. Ethan had wanted to skip work and kiss him all day, but at least now he’d be home early and they could get back to it. After all, they were going to be newlyweds soon. Plus they were still making up for lost time.
Ethan breathed through another pang of guilt. The past was the past, and he couldn’t change it. He was finally through the tunnel of his depression, and their relationship the past year had been completely rejuvenated. Even if socially they didn’t have as much in common as they used to, their sex life was better than ever. That went to show that they were right together.
A shiver of lust ran through him as he glanced up to check which station the train was pulling into. Maybe he and Michael could spend the afternoon in bed before the pre-wedding party that night. Ethan would have preferred no party at all, but compromise and all that. They definitely had plenty of time to get naked first unless Michael had too much work on his plate. But it was the Friday afternoon before their wedding and honeymoon trip, and he was a freelancer, so hopefully he could knock off early.
Closing his eyes, Ethan imagined Michael’s glossy black hair between his fingers, the metal stud of the piercing in his tongue, smooth and exciting against Ethan’s tongue…and his skin, and his long cock…
Before he popped a boner, Ethan opened his eyes and went back to his phone, where the countdown clock app on his home screen announced:
00001 DAYS UNTIL WEDDING AND HONEYMOON
It was actually happening. His stomach swooped, and his smile must have appeared lunatic to anyone watching him. Not only was he marrying the boy of his dreams, like his mom had wanted him to, but he had three glorious weeks off work for their Australian honeymoon.
They were doing a ten-night bus tour down the eastern coast of Australia from Cairns to Sydney, and then a week in Sydney in an Airbnb condo. They’d do some sightseeing and have lots of sex. Life had given Ethan plenty of lemons, but he and Michael were finally making some goddamn lemonade.
As the train neared Prospect Park, he pulled on his hat and gloves, still grinning to himself. He should put his hearing aids back in, but it was only a few blocks to the apartment. Exiting to the street, he was careful to look both ways, swearing as he splashed into a deep puddle by the curb, his black leather Oxfords instantly soaked. The slush blocked the sewer grates, creating gutter lakes. Ugh, Ethan was so over winter, and it was only mid-January.
But it didn’t matter because soon—tomorrow!—he and Michael would be married and heading down under for sun and sand and koala bears. Adrenaline fizzing through him, Ethan crossed the street and took a flying jump onto the curb to avoid soaking his shoes again.
Some people thought January was a weird time to get married, but he and Michael had agreed to a courthouse ceremony followed by a late lunch. Ethan’s mom had always said it’s not the wedding that matters, it’s the marriage. This way they could spend most of their money on the honeymoon.
Ethan had actually been shocked when Michael agreed to a small wedding, considering a seven-course gourmet meal and massive reception was more Michael’s speed. But then he’d been surprised when Michael had accepted his proposal in the first place. Michael had always sneered at the heteronormativity of marriage in the past, but with love came compromise, and he knew marriage was important to Ethan.
It made him feel so safe and loved to know that Michael would go outside his comfort zone to make Ethan happy. Honestly, most guys would have dumped Ethan’s sorry ass a long time ago, but not Michael. Despite the frigid air, Ethan’s chest warmed with gratitude and affection.
I’m marrying the boy of my dreams.
After the ceremony, they were going to a trendy little fondue place in Park Slope called Dip as a nod to Ethan’s mom and grandmother, who’d come from Switzerland. Since they were renting the whole restaurant for a couple of hours, the owner had agreed to turn off the background music. Aside from Todd, the guests would pretty much just be Michael’s friends and immediate family.
It had taken some convincing to get the Wongs on board with a low-key ceremony and lunch before Ethan and Michael headed to the airport for their evening flight. But once he and Michael compromised and agreed to an additional wedding reception in the spring with Michael’s extended family and the Wongs’ family friends, which was somehow hundreds of people and required renting out a banquet hall in Buffalo, they’d stopped shouting and started smiling.
Ethan probably wouldn’t be able to have a conversation at the banquet hall without saying, “Pardon?” or “I’m sorry, can you please repeat that?” about a hundred times, but he was used to nodding and smiling and pretending. He usually just laughed agreeably and hoped no one was asking him a question.
But he’d do whatever it took to make the Wongs happy. While they hadn’t been exactly ecstatic when he and Michael first moved in together, they’d come around and were good people. Besides, they’d be his family now too, and he wanted them to have the wedding reception they’d dreamed of for their son.
Ethan missed his parents with a familiar pang. Not for the first time, he wondered what they’d think. Not about him being gay or getting married—they’d been a hundred percent supportive of that. Just what they’d think of him. When he thought back to being a kid and teenager, he’d been so outgoing. He’d had so many friends.
Even after his parents died, his friends had been a massive comfort. He’d thrown himself into dating and partying, going to concerts, and playing soccer. Now he had to take out his hearing aids if he exercised so the sweat wouldn’t damage them, and loud music was torture.
Maybe he wasn’t as much fun as he used to be, but surely his parents would like the man he’d become? Especially now that he’d emerged from the depression he’d sunk into for so long after his hearing started to go. All his parents ever wanted was for him to be happy. And he was! He and Michael had stayed together through everything, and now they were about to start the rest of their lives.
He waited for a streetlight, anticipation bubbling up. The ceremony and receptions didn’t matter. What mattered was that he and Michael were committing to each other. It hadn’t been an easy road, but they’d managed it together. And if Michael didn’t seem quite as excited about the honeymoon—even though it had been his idea since he knew Ethan had always wanted to go to Australia—that was totally okay.
Since college, Michael had often talked about going to Ibiza for the ultimate party vacay. Staying up all night dancing, and sleeping half the day with a hangover, then doing it all again. Ethan would have done it to make Michael happy, but Michael had insisted on Australia for their honeymoon, saying if it was what Ethan wanted then it was what he wanted too.
And if Ethan didn’t quite believe him, that was fine. It was good to be loved by a man who was putting him first. He smiled to himself again, doing a giddy little skip despite the wind gusting, the temperature dropping as the day continued.
But what if we have a shitty honeymoon because Michael hates the trip? Is that a bad omen for our marriage? But then why did he insist on it? Why—
He was just being paranoid. Michael regularly told him to stop overthinking things and just be. So Ethan would, goddamn it.
The one-bedroom apartment he and Michael shared in Prospect Park was of course nowhere near the actual park, but the area was relatively peaceful compared to midtown. Not that they could afford midtown anyway. The three-story building desperately needed fresh paint and stairwell lights that didn’t operate on independent whims, but the apartment itself was roomy (by NYC standards) and gorgeous.
Michael was a graphic designer and had amazing taste. Even though Ethan didn’t love the cool color palette of gray and black with an icy touch of blue, it was very stylish. Everyone who came over remarked on how their apartment looked like it came out of a magazine.
There was no elevator, and Ethan hummed to himself as he climbed the three flights, briefly scowling at the flickering light on the second-floor landing that would apparently never be fixed. Often it went out completely, which was definitely a fire code violation.
Inside the apartment, he tossed his coat on a hook, unlaced his shoes, and left them on the mat to dry, shoving over a couple pairs of sneakers. Grimacing, he peeled off his damp, clammy socks and spread them over the heating grate. He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, which he kept trimmed at the back but a little longer over his forehead and the tops of his ears to disguise the plastic casings of his hearing aids.
Rubbing at his sore left ear, he went through the little foyer into the living room, surprised that Michael wasn’t at his desk. Michael worked from home, and the far end of the main room held his sleek desk and design boards. He’d left a sketchbook open, and Ethan paused to admire the clean lines of the design for a new brand of Chardonnay.
Maybe Michael had run out to get lunch from the Mexican place at the corner. Shit, Ethan should have texted him and picked it up on his way home. He’d just change quickly out of his suit and text to meet up with him. Waking up his phone, Ethan was faintly aware of a low noise as he pushed open the bedroom door, which had been left a few inches ajar.
He stopped dead, staring into the room.
Michael hadn’t gone out to grab fish tacos and the amazing guac and plantain chips from Pepe’s.
No, Michael was in bed on his back, and he wasn’t napping. He wasn’t alone. Someone else was there—riding him, spine arched and lips parted on sounds too soft for Ethan to hear. Michael’s eyes were closed, his mouth open with faint moans. They both appeared unaware of Ethan’s presence, and Ethan stood there like the biggest loser ever, blood gone to ice in his veins, as he watched his fiancé fucking someone else.
Michael gripped the meaty buttocks of the muscular blond man taking his cock. That the man in question was Todd, Ethan’s best friend since they’d met in Psych 101 at Buffalo State, sank in a few horrifying, soul-obliterating moments later.
Ethan wasn’t sure if he’d said it aloud or not, but apparently he had, because Michael and Todd seized up and jerked their eyes to him in the doorway. Ethan didn’t need to hear Todd’s exclamation—he could read his lips clearly: “Holy fuck!”
Todd scrambled off Michael, and now they were talking too fast and frantically for him to understand a word even if he’d had his hearing aids in. Michael’s face was flushed crimson, his high cheekbones accentuated more than usual. He reached out his hands pleadingly, like Ethan was a wild dog he was begging not to attack.
As if he could ask for anything, splayed out on their bed with a condom still on his hard dick. His dick that had just been inside Ethan’s best fucking friend.
A drum of fury and hurt pounded through him along with a hissing sound in his mind, and Ethan wished he could wake up from whatever fucking nightmare he’d stumbled into. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening. He stood there useless as they implored him, his cheeks going hot with shame.
He shouted, “I can’t hear you!” and hated himself.
Ethan had to retreat into the hall to fish his fucking hearing aids out of his coat. An awful, sticky mess of humiliation made his eyes burn with tears. For a moment, as he jammed the ear molds back in and hooked the beige plastic housing behind his ears, he considered leaving all together, his legs shaking with the urge to run as hard and fast as he could.
He whirled around and stormed back into the bedroom to find Michael and Todd now on either side of the bed tugging on their clothes. Michael’s dark hair, which he wore shaved on the sides and gelled up on top, was spiky. Ethan shouted, “What the fuck is this?”
After zipping his jeans, Michael reached out. Ethan jerked back and thwacked the back of his head on the door frame. Face creasing with apparent concern—which made Ethan’s blood pressure fly even higher—Michael stretched out his hand again.
“No!” Ethan’s chest rose and fell as he struggled to catch his breath. “Don’t touch me. You’re never touching me again.” A spasm of grief gripped him as the truth of his own words set in. This can’t be real.
The concern on Michael’s face morphed into hurt, his eyes welling. “Please. Let us explain.”
Ethan had to laugh or else he might wail or scream. He stared at Todd, who stood on the far side of the bed, his pale face beet red and his blond hair sticking up. His black shirt was buttoned wrong, one side hanging lower than the other.
“How?” Ethan looked between them. “You were going to spend the afternoon fucking in our bed, then show up tonight at Rollertown, like—like nothing? Like this was nothing?”
Since Michael had gone along with a quiet little wedding, Ethan had suggested they do a party the night before with all Michael’s friends. Even though the music would be too loud, Ethan had figured that with ironic hipster roller skating, at least he wouldn’t have to worry much about being part of conversations.
“We never meant to…” Michael shook his head, and then words burst out. “We didn’t mumble, but mumble have to mumble!”
“What?” Ethan clenched his fists. “Talk. Slower. I can’t fucking understand you. You always talk too fast! No matter how many times I tell you!”
A flash of irritation passed over Michael’s face before his Adam’s apple bobbed and he visibly took a breath. He was a few inches shorter than Ethan’s six feet, and he had to look up at Ethan. “Sorry. I said we didn’t plan this. And you have to understand how much we both love you.”
Ethan could only laugh again, his chest hollow. “Do I? Is that what I have to understand?” Bile rose in his throat. “We’re supposed to be getting married tomorrow. Tomorrow! How could you?” A sickening realization slammed him like a sucker punch. “This…” He shook his head. “This isn’t the first time, is it?” He knew it in his bones as they stammered and glanced at each other, Todd’s face turning so red Ethan would have been worried in other circumstances. You know, if he hadn’t just walked in on Todd fucking his fiancé. “How long?”
Michael mumbled something, then caught himself and enunciated. “About a year and a half. Well… Closer to two years, I guess.”
Ethan slumped against the door frame, knees weak, the air whooshing from his lungs as if he’d just been kicked in the gut. “Before I proposed?” He’d asked Michael to marry him on a warm July night six months earlier as they’d strolled along the High Line hand in hand. “Oh my God, I’m such an idiot.”
“You’re not!” Michael insisted. He said something Ethan didn’t pick up, and then, “You were finally getting happy again. I just… I didn’t want to…”
The humiliation ran even hotter. “Is that why you said yes? Because you felt sorry for me?”
“No! It was because I love you!” Michael insisted. “I do. We both love you.” He looked at Todd. “And, mumble.”
Todd nodded eagerly. “We never wanted to hurt you. We fought our feelings for so long—”
“How long?” Ethan asked, dreading the answer, his jaw so tight he thought it might snap. Todd and Michael shared another glance, and Ethan wanted to smash their faces.
He’d never hit anyone before, but he could imagine his fists crashing into them and blood spurting out of their noses. No matter if he was scrawny and not as strong as either of them. He wanted them to hurt.
Michael answered, “After college, when we all moved to the city… You were so miserable. And obviously we understood why. Losing your hearing sucked. It took you a long time to get a job, and you really shut yourself off. Shut yourself up. You didn’t want to go out, you didn’t want to make new friends. You were angry all the time.”
Ethan couldn’t deny it. He’d been depressed as hell after his diagnosis, not to mention surly. He couldn’t afford therapy, and it had taken a good four years for him to come to terms with it. He waited for Michael to go on.
“We both wanted to support you and hang in there, but it was hard, Eth.” Michael’s eyes shone with tears. “It was really, really hard. I leaned on Todd a lot back then. We leaned on each other. You were so distant.”
“So it’s my fault?” Ethan croaked, his stomach churning. “You know, I wouldn’t have blamed you for breaking up with me. I told you that you should!”
“I couldn’t!” Michael glanced at Todd. “We couldn’t. You would have been alone. We couldn’t do that to you.” He dropped his head. “But mumble.”
Ethan spat, “I can’t hear you when you don’t look at me.”
Rolling his shoulders back and exhaling a long breath, Michael met Ethan’s gaze. “Todd and I fell in love.”
Fuck, Ethan was going to vomit. “You want to be with him and not me?”
That imploring expression returned, and Michael motioned with his hands as he talked. “I want to be with both of you. I love you both so much.” He looked at Todd, who nodded. “We’ve been talking about how it could work—how it could actually be really amazing.”
“Amazing?” Ethan wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “How what could be amazing?”
Michael’s face lit up with hopeful excitement. “How we could be a family together.”
“Together,” Ethan echoed. “Is that what you said?”
“A lot of mumble these days,” Todd said.
Todd repeated more carefully, “A lot of people are poly these days.”
“Poly?” Ethan stared at them. “You want…a threesome?” He and Todd had never been anything but friends, and it would be like fucking his brother. His brother who had betrayed him.
“No, not like that.” Todd laughed awkwardly, his gaze skittering around. “Like, we could both be with Michael, and we could be a family together. You’re my best friend. It could be great!”
Ethan stared some more. Finally, he said, “Together. So, we’d both fuck Michael, and you and I would be what? Like sister wives in some cult?” He felt so hollow he couldn’t even laugh.
“A lot of people are really happy in polyamorous relationships,” Michael snapped. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Our society is so judgey and heteronormative, and if you can open your mind—”
“I’m not judging other people!” Ethan’s rage exploded again, shattering the numbness that had crept in. “If being poly makes other people happy and everyone is on board, great! But that’s the catch, right? Everyone being on board? Everyone fucking knowing about it? When were you going to tell me? You were waiting until we got married to spring it on me?”
Michael flushed and at least looked ashamed. “You’ve just been so much happier this past year. And you were excited about Australia and mumble.”
“So it’s my fault again for being happy? For being excited about our fucking honeymoon? Right. Seriously, why did you even say yes when I proposed?”
“Because I love you!” Michael reached out before letting his hand drop. “I truly love you. We were babies when we got together. We were twenty, and we didn’t know shit. I didn’t know shit about myself. I’ve realized I can’t do monogamy. But I do want to marry you! I mean, why shouldn’t we get all the perks straight people do? And it meant so much to you.”
Ethan wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “All the…perks?” A memory surfaced, and a brick dropped in his stomach. “You were really excited about getting on my health benefit plan at work. Is that…” Another sting as the humiliation sank in with bigger hooks. “Did you fucking say yes to get my benefits?”
“No!” Michael insisted, but he rubbed his face, averting his gaze. “But you know, I worked two jobs when we moved here. I supported you.”
“That’s true,” Ethan agreed dully. “So this is…payback?”
“No. I love you, but I need more than just you. I love Todd too. I want to be with both of you. I know it’s important to you to get married because of your mom—”
“Don’t talk about my mom! Jesus, you were, what?” Ethan’s throat ached. “Doing me a favor by marrying me? I thought we loved each other.”
“We do!” Michael’s dark eyes were wet again. “We do. We can still be together. It could be amazing. We can have a different kind of family. I know we should have talked to you about it—”
“Before I walked in on you fucking? Yeah, THAT would have been nice.” He looked between the two people he’d relied on most in the whole world. He barely had any family left, and it had been Todd and Michael he’d trusted with his soul when his world came crashing around him.
Todd apparently couldn’t look at him now, his head down. Ethan wanted to scream at him to be a man and face him, but another part was glad the fall of Todd’s floppy blond hair was obscuring his lowered face. That face had always meant safety and dependability, and the betrayal was too much to process.
Ethan spat, “You both lied to me. For months. Years! I know I wasn’t easy to be with.” His throat thickened, his voice cracking as he fought tears. “I know I was messed up for a long time, but how could you do this to me?”
“Mumble mumble!” Michael exclaimed. “Please. I know this is a shock—”
Ethan backed out, stumbling through the living room to the front door. He grabbed his coat and jammed his bare feet into the sodden Oxfords. Michael and Todd followed behind him, both of them talking, the words lost in a slurry of sound Ethan couldn’t distinguish.
As he opened the front door, Michael grabbed his arm. Ethan tore himself loose so violently he careened into the wood with a painful thud. “You two were everything I had!” he screamed, his throat aching. Turning, he lurched for the stairwell down the hall.
They didn’t follow. He wasn’t sure if he was glad, or if that hurt even more.
His fingers and toes were soon numb as he walked aimlessly. He hadn’t grabbed his hat or gloves, and the wind whipped across the park. His hood kept being blown down, so he gave up on it. His hearing aids were zipped in his pocket again, the world dulled and distant. People rushed by, some walking dogs.
Ethan wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing there on one of the slushy paths staring into space when someone touched his arm. He jerked away, almost falling on his ass. He opened his mouth to scream at Michael and/or Todd to leave him the fuck alone when Clara came into view, her red lips forming his name and the sound of her high voice only an indistinct murmur.
Her thick, dark eyebrows drew together, and she said his name again with obvious concern. Looking at his ears, she tapped her own—currently covered by Mickey Mouse earmuffs—questioningly. Ethan wanted to simply shake his head and walk away rather than talk to Michael’s sister, but she’d only ever been kind.
She’d helped calm the family down when Michael had come out, and had been a steadfast friend when Ethan had withdrawn from the world. Clara was supposed to be his new sister.
He’d really been looking forward to having a sister.
With icy fingers, he managed to put his hearing aids back on, flicking the little switches to activate them. He said, “Sorry.”
Clara smiled tentatively. “It’s okay. I thought that was you over here. Didn’t mean to startle you.” She glanced around. “What are you doing?”
“Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“It’s my study afternoon.” She motioned to her backpack. “Figured I’d get in a few hours of MBA crap at your place and dump my books before the party. I’m so ready to roll to some classic rock.” She grinned at her roller skating pun.
Fuck, the party. “I…”
Her smile vanished. “What is it?”
He tried to laugh. “Does Michael know you’re coming over? Because he’s been a little busy this afternoon.”
Clara stared in obvious confusion. “What’s going on?”
Saying it out loud made the pain intensify like an electric shock. He still couldn’t believe this was real life. “I walked in on Michael and Todd in bed.” He wished he didn’t have to hear his own words.
Her jaw dropped. “I… What? Oh my God!” She opened and closed her mouth a couple more times, and then her shoulders sagged, her eyes going soft. She said something else, but a bus roared by and her words were lost in the rush of sound.
He had to ask, “Can you repeat that?”
“Never mind.” Two words Ethan absolutely hated with every fiber of his being. She shook her head, her face creased in sadness. “I’m so sorry.”
That her shock was so short-lived sent an awful suspicion screaming through him. He stepped back. “Did you know?”
“No, I swear!” She sighed miserably. “But I suspected.”
“Wow.” He shook his head. “I really am the world’s biggest moron.”
“No, you’re not! My brother is.” Clara reached a gloved hand for his arm. “Let’s go somewhere and talk. Okay?”
Ethan let her pilot him out of the park and into the nearest coffee shop. He shuffled to the corner in his puffy coat, his bare hands tingling now that he was inside. The tips of his ears and toes stung as they defrosted, his left ear still aching from his hearing aid.
The jarringly upbeat pop music playing in the background filled his ears, but at least the place was half empty. Packed restaurants and cafes were so noisy Ethan usually only heard half of what people were saying. On autopilot, he sat with his back to the cafe and switched the mode on his hearing aids so the noise behind him was filtered out. It didn’t work perfectly, but it helped.
Clara came to the table and put a cup of coffee down in front of him. After taking off her coat and sitting on the padded seat along the wall, she stirred one creamer and half a sugar packet into the cup. The fact that she knew how he liked his coffee thickened Ethan’s throat, and he fought not to burst into pathetic tears.
She was still wearing her Mickey Mouse earmuffs, and when she realized, she took them off with a self-conscious chuckle. “I know, I’m too old for Disney at thirty-one, but I’ve always had cheesy taste. According to—” She broke off.
“Michael’s a snob,” Ethan said. It was true, but Ethan had always found it endearing. Well, sometimes. “I like your Disney stuff.”
“Thanks.” She toyed with the teabag string hanging out of her cup, tucking her bobbed black hair behind an ear with her other hand. She was still wearing her office clothes, a pink blouse and brown slacks. Her lip gloss matched her shirt. “Wow. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this.”
“I guess I’m not open-minded enough. Michael wants to be polyamorous, he said.” Ethan unzipped his coat enough to tug at his tie and loosen it.
“And he never mentioned it before now?” she asked incredulously, her jaw tightening. “I’m going to slap him upside the head. For fuck’s sake.”
“You saw it coming, though. Right? I didn’t.” Ethan picked up his paper cup but didn’t drink. The heat made his thawing fingers tingle painfully. “I should have. Todd’s all buff and hot. I’m just…meh. Beanpole.” I should have known this was coming. Why would Michael want me when there are guys that look like Todd?
It was easier to think about the ways he’d failed to physically measure up than to consider the ways he might have failed as a person. Because Michael had supported him while he’d been depressed. And even after Ethan had come to terms with his hearing loss enough to use his hearing aids and get a job, he still hadn’t been the guy he was before.
Fine, I’m different now, but is that so bad? Why the fuck didn’t he just break up with me? How could they go behind my back? For two whole years?
Ethan blinked back to attention, realizing Clara was speaking. “I’m sorry, can you say that again?”
She briefly squeezed his hand. “Ethan, you’re totally hot. You have amazingly thick, like, chestnut hair, your smile is to die for with those dimples, and you’re not a beanpole! You’re lean, like a swimmer. Todd can keep his bulging muscles. Also his lack of mumble mumble. God, I really wanted to be wrong. I mumble Michael mumble. I love my brother, but mumble.”
The chatter from a group of girls who’d just sat at a nearby table had Ethan straining to hear. She must have recognized it on his face because she said, careful to enunciate, “He’s a coward.”
Michael—a coward. Ethan had never once thought of him that way. He was a snob about fashion yet a geek about video games, a terrible cook and a generous tipper. He was so many things, and “coward” had never flickered across Ethan’s mind.
He thought of how Michael had held him for hours after he’d stumbled home from the audiologist after his diagnosis in complete shock. Shit, he was going to cry.
He took a few breaths before whispering, “How did I not know? How was I so blind? He and Todd—they… They were…everything to me. Always there for me when things were so bad. I was going to marry him. Tomorrow. I…” The reality settled onto him, the weight of it making it hard to breathe. “I’m not getting married to the boy of my dreams. Like my mom…” He rubbed his face, missing the comfort of his parents so desperately he was afraid he’d weep. When he had a grip on himself, he said, “It’s not happening. It’s over.”
“But… Maybe after some time, you guys could work it out. I know you’re in shock right now, but…”
He could see Todd and Michael in his mind—sweaty and passionate, Michael’s dick inside Ethan’s best friend. They’d have showered and Todd would have left, coming back that night to head over for the pre-wedding celebration.
In fact, now Ethan remembered that the roller rink party had been Todd’s suggestion. He’d said how much Michael would appreciate it, and they’d laughed about how hipster it was to roller skate to the Eagles and Steve Miller Band, and surely some Lynyrd Skynyrd and Zeppelin. Todd tended bar at a place where the drink menu came in a cassette case, so he certainly knew hipster.
Ethan’s breath stuttered, a pang of grief filling the hollow shock inside him, pressing into every pore. Michael and Todd were in love with each other. “I can’t believe how good they are at lying. How they could deceive me like that for so long. I trusted them.” It was almost worse that they’d kept their secret because they felt sorry for Ethan and didn’t want to hurt him. How pathetic was that?
Clara’s eyes swam. “I don’t know how they could do it either.” She muttered something, shaking her head. Ethan didn’t bother to ask her to repeat it. It didn’t matter.
“I’m not getting married tomorrow. It’s not happening.” Ethan pressed his palms against his eyes. “And fuck! All the money we spent on the honeymoon.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “I didn’t get cancellation insurance. God, I really am an idiot. Everything’s canceled. My wedding, my honeymoon. My life.”
“No, not your life. Eth, I know you’re hurting, but nothing’s canceled, hon.”
“The wedding is. I can’t marry him. Not now. Not ever.”
“Yeah, okay.” She swiped at tears. “The wedding’s definitely canceled. I don’t blame you. But your life isn’t over, okay?”
“You’re right. I know.” Ethan hung his head, even if he didn’t quite believe his own words, he knew he couldn’t say things like that without scaring people. After he’d spiraled into depression, he’d learned that much. And he didn’t want to scare Clara. “But fuck me, I need to actually cancel everything for tomorrow. And where am I going to stay tonight? Shit, where am I going to live? Is Michael going to move in with Todd? Is Todd enough for him? Do they fuck other guys together?”
Humiliation overwhelmed him, so hot he had to unzip his coat. “I bet they do. They’ve had this whole other life. And I’ve never been a part of it. I encouraged them to go out clubbing with each other since I hate it now. I was so glad they were friends independently of me.” He barked out a laugh, his throat raw. “One big happy family, huh?”
Clara said something, and when he stared at her blankly, she sniffed, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. “I’m so sorry. If you need a place tonight, you can come stay with me, okay? I don’t want you to be alone.”
He loved her for offering, but he knew her parents were staying with her for the wedding and that would be insanely awkward. “Thank you. I’ll be okay. I’ll figure out tonight, and tomorrow night—” A fresh wave of horror washed over him as reality sank in bit by bit.
So many times he’d imagined snuggling with Michael on the long flight to Sydney, both of them taking their first trip overseas. Doing it together as a married couple. Starting the first day of the rest of their lives with a grand adventure, their bellies still full of fondue.
“I’m not going to Australia after all.” Saying it aloud didn’t make it hurt any less, and it still didn’t seem real. None of it did. Did he have to call the airline to cancel, or did they just not show up? Did people do that?
“You should still go!” Clara leaned across the table with bright eyes, taking hold of his hand. “That’s your dream trip, right? Don’t let Michael take that away from you with his selfish bullshit.”
“What, go by myself?”
She spoke too fast for Ethan to pick it up. When he jutted out his chin and squinted quizzically—one of his nonverbal cues that he hadn’t heard something—she said, “Why not?”
“Because it’s pathetic?”
Clara gripped his fingers. “Why? Michael cheating on you was pathetic. People go away by themselves all the time.”
“I can’t just go alone.” How was this happening? How was this his freaking life?
“But you—” She broke off and shook her head. “I’m sorry. You’re still in shock. I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m trying to salvage something good out of this and that’s probably not what you need right now. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I know you’re trying to help.” He clung to her hand. She’d been so good to him all these years. At least he’d been able to talk to her. His chest tightened. “I’m really going to miss you, Clara.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks, and she stifled a sob. “Don’t say that. Maybe we can still…” But apparently she couldn’t finish her thought, because the reality was that no matter how much of a cowardly asshole he was, Michael was her brother. They sat in awkward silence until Ethan hugged her and escaped outside as the bitter cold set in.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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