Jon cursed under his breath. That was the only way he was cussing these days. It was amazing all the little ways that having a child changed your life. And, of course, the big ones too. He had made sure that he was in bed and pretending to be asleep each of the past two nights when Alicia came home from the diner.
And each morning, they had woken with their bodies entwined. Legs and arms laced and interlocked. His cock hard against her stomach, her head in the crook of his shoulders and neck. It boded the question: how long could they go on like this?
Yesterday had been his first full day with his little girl. No school to interfere. They had watched cartoons on television. He was shocked to learn that these days there were half a dozen children’s channels that ran the things twenty-four-seven sometimes — no more Saturday morning before noon.
He had made them cereal for breakfast as they watched an atrocious remake of one of his childhood favorites. But Hope had not seemed to care. He had to find the originals and educate his daughter on the fine art of comedy, mystery-solving teens, and fake ghosts.
Then he had walked, and Hope had biked to the diner for lunch. They spent the afternoon playing in the park. Dinner was again at the restaurant. Then home to bath, read, and bed. He was not sure who was more tired, Hope or him? Being a parent was not as easy as it seemed.
And if he heard it once, he heard it a dozen times: when can I have a baby brother or sister? Of course, with both her teacher and her best friend’s parents pregnant, he supposed it was no surprise. The problem was the decided lack of baby-making action. Or even the discussion of them. For all he knew, Alicia had changed her mind. Maybe she was not interested in…
But her body was. That much was for sure. The heat and wet that seeped onto his leg in the morning. The way that her nipples hardened and brushed against his chest each night. Of course, that could have nothing to do with him. He had no idea how long it had been for her. But not even masturbating in the shower before bed each night seemed to keep his dick under control.
“Fuck,” he whisper-cussed as he gave up and pulled the knot out of the tie. That was at least half a dozen attempts now. But none seemed comfortable.
He had dragged Hope out shopping this morning after cereal. Just to buy the dress shirt, slacks, and tie. Even back home, he had nothing appropriate for an occasion like this. Not only did he usually not go places with this many people, but this formal shit had never been his thing.
How many times had his parents dressed him in some monkey suit worse than this and dragged him to some society or political thing? At least, he had not had to force Hope into a dress. In fact, he had rewarded her with a new one for putting up with the old man’s decided lack of shopping skills. It was she who had picked this get-up, in fact.
Soft, warm hands reached around his shoulders. Their gazes met in the mirror as her hands covered his. He jerked the virtually useless left one away. That was the problem. Tying a tie was always challenging enough, but it was almost impossible with just one good hand. Yeah, he needed to talk to the damned docs again.
Her fingers tugged the tie free of his grasp. “You don’t need it. In fact, you could have worn jeans and a t-shirt. This isn’t a formal affair.”
“Now, you tell me,” he sighed. “And I dragged that poor kid out this morning for this crap.”
Alicia chuckled, “She finagled a new dress out of the deal, I see? She already has you wrapped around her little finger.”
He blushed at the accuracy of her words, “It doesn’t do any harm.”
“I’m not saying that.” Her hands on his shoulders turned him around. She unfastened the top two buttons. The damned shirt felt quite a bit better. “I don’t remember my father. And I barely saw my mother and her new husband once they got married. I guess I just think it is cute.”
He nodded. The silence stretched out uncomfortably between them. Was this what life was to become? Sexually charged tension, unspoken words, and only a child in common? How could he live like this? Close but never touching the woman he loved.
She had said it was not formal, but she looked stunning with her hair up in some loose ponytail thingy. Whisps of it fell free about her face and neck. She wore a flowy hippie-type dress made of thin cotton material and sandals. As usual, her face was practically devoid of make-up. Not that she had ever needed such artifice. Alicia’s beauty, like their daughter’s, came from within.
“We should get going,” she turned and grabbed a light sweater from the closet that they now shared.
After that first night, she had cleared out a section in it and a couple of drawers for his things. Though most of that space was still unused. He should go back ‘home,’ pack up some of his stuff, and close up the cabin. But maybe he was avoiding that. Maybe things were just too tense in this new situation to be comfortable with that.
“The ceremony is at their ranch just outside of town,” Alicia said. “I’ll drive.”
Did she realize that he could not? Well, technically, he could. But it was not a skill that he had bothered to relearn. Most of the time, he was happy to stay on his mountain alone. He preferred walking into the nearest town on the rare occasions he needed something.
And when he needed to come here to the VA, he just got one of those car services to bring him. It was another of the arguments that the doctors had made for amputating his arm. With a prosthesis, he could learn to do so many other things, including driving again. Back then, it had not seemed such a big deal. But now, with Hope, he was finding all those things he could not do with his damaged arm more frustrating.
Yeah, he needed to talk to the docs.
Alicia smiled as they approached the circle of chairs set up behind the sizeable ranch-style house. Steve’s home was several miles outside of town. Its seclusion and the scenery were to be envied. The desert had a beauty all its own. Especially now.
People thought of the desert as dead. But it wasn’t. It was teaming with life. Cactii offered flowers as lovely as any rose. Insects, snakes, lizards, and so much more. Maybe she was just prejudiced. After all, she had lived on the edge of it her whole life. Still, nature called to her, calmed her as it always had.
Hope spied Amy and a couple of other children from her school. She raced off to join them. Alicia caught sight of Chris’s wheelchair and noticed Kacey next to him. She walked towards them. Jon could follow if he wanted. The man had practically ignored her the whole way here, chatting with Hope as she drove.
Things could not continue like this. She could not imagine living with this kind of tension for the rest of her life. The thing was, she shouldered much of the responsibility. She was the one that had chickened out when Jon dared to address things honestly. She did not have the words then or now to express how she was feeling. To reach him, convince him that the scars on his physical body did not change how she felt about him.
She forced a smile as she approached her friends, “Where’s Noah?”
“He has training exercises this weekend and couldn’t get out of them,” Kacey replied as she looked over Alicia’s shoulder.
What did she say? How did she introduce him? It was just another reminder of the uncertainty in this situation. Thankfully, Chris saved her the trouble.
“Hey, buddy, this is my partner, Kacey. Kac, this is Amy’s dad, Jon.”
Jon brushed past her, extending his good right hand while hiding the damaged one behind his back, she noticed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Chris has told me so much about you.”
“Don’t believe any of it,” Kacey laughed as she took his hand. Her eyes moved to Alicia’s, “I can’t wait to hear the story behind this one.”
Lucky for her, a pretty young woman and what appeared to be her two beefy bodyguards chose that moment to step through the arbor of wildflowers, which would be the center stage for the ceremony.
The odd thing about them was that each of the buff guys had a brightly colored baby sling wrapped around his shoulders, and cherubic little heads peaked out of them at the audience as if this were an everyday experience for the babies.
Alicia breathed easier as she signaled for Hope to join them, filling the vacant seats next to Kacey and Chris. The girls had barely settled into seats next to one another when the familiar melody and classic voice began to blast the message ‘love is all you need’ from somewhere behind them.
The small crowd of around fifty people seemed to turn as one to look over their shoulders for the source. They were greeted by the sight of the tall, classically handsome man with dark hair in a custom-made suit. On his arms were two glowing brides.
Sarah was swathed in a tight-fitting straight cut and heavily beaded cream dress that flared about her shapely calves. Her long dark hair was swept back from her face and off her neck, secured in a fashionable chignon. Atop her head was a silver and diamante tiara. Her make-up was impeccable as she held tightly to her husband’s right arm.
Mandy was almost the complete opposite. Her white dress was a loose, gauzy confection that flowed in waves about her rounded fecundity. Her blond hair flowed about her shoulders and face. Her head topped with wildflowers, and in lieu of designer heels, she was barefoot, making her seem even more petite compared to her two tall and glamorous partners.
The commonality for all three was the glowing look of love on their faces as they walked the make-shift aisle between the rows of seats. Each looked at the people around them, smiling and occasionally nodding at someone. Mandy even lifted her bouquet of wildflowers in a wave to Amy and Hope.
By the end of the song, they had joined the unusual assembly under the bower. The pretty young woman that Alicia had first noticed stepped forward. Her voice was surprisingly strong for someone so young and ethereal-looking.
“We welcome you all to this special celebration of love between these wonderful people: Steve, Sarah, and Mandy. I know that this may seem unusual for some, or perhaps most of you, odd even. But I grew up the only child of the most amazing single mother who taught me that, as the song said, love really is all you need. My mother’s message and life went beyond that. They were a testament to the fact that Nothing Done In Love can ever be wrong.”
The woman looked to the two men on either side of her, exchanging secretive smiles with each. “Even for me, that message was not always easy to learn in a world that for millennia has placed strictures of religion and law upon love. That has defined it so narrowly as only between one man and one woman. It is not easy to be different. To openly love as the goddess wills you.”
She smiled at Steve, Sarah, and Mandy as she continued, “It has been my privilege to get to know this family over the past few months through the relationship workshops that our center operates. So, it was my great pleasure when they asked me to officiate at this commitment ceremony.”
“I know personally that such is a bittersweet experience. While we come together today to celebrate love and life, it saddens me that this cannot be a formal union. That while in my mother’s lifetime, we have come far enough in expanding those old definitions of love to recognize that it is not merely men who love women and women who love men. But that sometimes it is men who love men and women who love women. I am proud to live in a country that finally recognizes that.”
She paused and sighed, “But I am saddened that we have not yet come to realize that love is big enough, deep enough, profound enough to encompass more than just two people. For some of us, love is shared intimately between three, four, or sometimes more people. That rather than dividing us with jealousy, such relationships can bind us tighter. That love can be like ropes where more strands bring greater strength.”
“It is my deepest hope that I will live to see the day that families like Steve, Sarah, and Mandy and my own can enjoy the same legal standing as marriage.” She smiled as she looked around the crowd, “But until that day comes, The Danvers Foundation will continue to promote unions such as these with the words of my mother…”
“Nothing Done In Love can ever be wrong.”
“But this day is not about our center, my mother, or my family. It is not even about the greater issue of equality for polyamorous families. It is about three people. Three individuals who have struggled against personal and societal norms to come to this point, to the revelation that love is all that matters. It is all we need.”
“It is their story to share with you and their love we celebrate this day. Steve.”
Alicia felt the tears forming in her eyes. If only it were as simple as this woman said. She and Jon did not even battle those societal stigmas as Steve, Sarah, and Mandy did. Or as Kacey, Noah, and Chris. But despite being just one man and one woman, it seemed that sometimes love was not enough.
At least not to break through some walls, she looked over at him. Would she ever be able to convince him that her love was more significant than those scars? That all she wanted was him.
The man behind those blue eyes whose pain had bored into her mind and heart across the table in the diner that night. Blue that had deepened to midnight swirls as they touched that night, two souls reaching out to steal something so precious. And in the process create something equally beautiful, she reached out and brushed a soft curl back from their child’s cheek.
She wished it was that simple for them.
Jon felt her eyes on him. His throat tightened as the vaguely familiar man stepped forward. If only it were that simple. If only he were man enough…
“Thank you all for coming today. Some of you know me, know my personal struggles. For others, I may look vaguely familiar. That is part of the curse I have borne my whole life. Being the son of a great man is never easy. Being the gay son of the greatest Marine general of a generation was and is the only life I have ever known.”
Hands reached from behind the man, feminine ones on each shoulder. Steve turned and looked at each of the women, smiling.
“It was never easy. I think I always knew I was different. And no matter how hard I tried to be the son that my father wanted, it was never enough.”
He paused and looked down at his shoes before continuing, “By the time I hit puberty, I knew. I knew that I was not attracted to girls like the other boys. I was blessed and cursed to come of age in a time when there was an active homosexual movement. At least, I had a word, something that described how I felt for the first time.”
“But still, I pretended. I tried to deny who and what I was. To please my father mostly. But moving from place to place like we did, living on one military base after another, there were no opportunities to network with others like me. At times I thought I was the only one. The only gay kid around.”
“Then, we moved here. The first people I met at my new school was this flaming queen and her studious best friend.” He turned and held out his hands to the women, “And for the first time in my life, I felt accepted. That I was free to be me. At least around them.”
“I don’t know what might have happened to that fucked up kid. Oops, sorry, Mandy. I forgot about the kids.” He looked out at the audience, “Sorry, kids. I’m sure many of you have heard that word before. You know I should not have used it. At least not here. I apologize.”
Hope’s teacher smiled and winked at her children as the man continued, “I don’t know what would have happened to that messed up kid if it weren’t for the two of you. You both have always been my anchor. My rocks. The only people I felt safe being me around. You were my best friends, and you still are.”
“You were there by my side. You, especially Sarah, encouraged me to face myself, my fears, and my father. When I finally found the courage to come out to my parents, it was the two of you who were there for me, shoulders to cry on.”
“That song says love is all you need. But there is something else, something we need alongside that love, maybe it is part of it, and maybe it is different. But love without acceptance is meaningless.”
“I know that. I have spent all my adult life coming to terms with the words, ‘you are still my son, and I will always love you, but I can’t accept what you are.’ I can’t tell you the damage those words did. But, my girls know.”
Tears spilled over the man’s eyes and down his cheek as he addressed Sarah. “So, it is unconscionable what I put you through, sweetheart. I, of all people, should have understood how important that acceptance was when you came out as transgender.”
“But I was selfish and as small-minded as my father. All I could think about was me – how I was losing my lover, my husband, how everything would change now. I am sorry. You deserved so much better. So much more than I gave you. Nothing I say now can make up for the hurt I caused you then. All I can promise is that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make that up to you.”
“You are the person I love. Your laughter. Your joie de vivre. Your smile. The way you always see the good in people, even me. It is your soul, your spirit, that I love. It was not easy for me to understand that, to get to the point that I realized your body is just a container for that. And it does not matter. Yes, in this case, my eternal love, whether you are called Marcus or Sarah, does not matter. I love the person you are inside.”
Jon’s throat tightened at those words. The idea that a physical body did not matter, that love was more important than all that, struck to his very core. If only that were true.
Alicia felt those words like a hot knife cutting through butter. Never had she heard it better put into words. That was precisely how she felt about Jon. If only she could find some way of making him believe it.
Steve turned slowly to Mandy. “You have always been there for me. For us. Our best friend. But not until this past couple of years have I understood what that meant. The way that you fit perfectly between us. How you could see both sides without ever taking one. You were always just there.”
“And I took that for granted too. I discounted the value of that friendship simply because, for me, it was not sexual. But, sweetheart, as wonderful as it is and can be, there is more to life and love than mere sex. You showed me that too. And in the process brought us all closer. That too is love.”
“Sarah and I are not complete without you. And this baby is just a physical representation of that. We will always be eternally thankful to you for being a part of our life. An equal part.”
Steve took their hands and brought them to his lips, first kissing the back of Sarah’s hand and then Mandy’s.
“My girls. You complete me. You bring me peace. You comfort me. You challenge me to be a better man. I love you both the same and differently. And I know in my heart now that what we share, as unique, as different, as unfathomable as it is to this world, is, at its core, love. Deep and abiding love.”
“Thank you both for sticking with me. For teaching me what love really is. For never giving up on me even when I pushed you away. Thank you for loving me.”
Was that what it took? Was it as simple as not giving up? As loving him, being there, and showing Jon that she was not going anywhere?
And if it was, did she have that strength? Could she withstand more rejection like that night in the desert? Could she find it inside herself to try again?
Catching a glimpse of his damaged hand wrapped around their daughter’s shoulder, Alicia knew it was not a choice. She had no other option. As Steve said, they belonged together. Why else would Jon have been saved? Why else could she never move on, never be interested in another man?
And Hope? She needed them both. But not battling and insecure, she needed them whole and united. If this world was to become a better place, if humanity was to evolve, stop sending boys and men like Jon off to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the greed and hubris of others, then that woman was right. We needed to recognize that love was the power that bound us all together.
The love of a mother for her child. The love of a woman for a man. Or a man for a man. A woman for a woman. Or any combination of that. Love was love. How and with whom we shared that was no one’s business except our own and our partners.
That was the world she wanted to leave for Hope. A world where her daughter, where everyone was free to love who they wanted. And in this case, that began by modeling what love was. By finding the power within herself to take that risk.
Alicia reached over. She placed her hand over Jon’s badly damaged one. He looked up at her, and she wanted, or perhaps needed, to believe that he understood. That he was trying to meet her halfway.
Hope looked up at them. She beamed from within as her tiny hand covered theirs. Yes, a three cord strand. That was what they were. What they would grow to become was still an open-ended question, but this was the beginning.
Jon brought the bottle of cold beer to his mouth and drew a long swig. It was a refreshing contrast from the stifling desert heat that was reaching its zenith. He stood on the edge of the artificially green lawn looking out at the stretches of seemingly barren sand and rock. Was there some hidden meaning in that? That was just one of the myriad of questions that he had been trying to come to terms with since the ceremony ended three beers ago.
Hope, Amy, and a handful of other children from their class ran about, playing, and laughing. Alicia had drifted into conversation with a group of women, mostly centered around the woman who had officiated this unusual ceremony.
As an outsider, he was still trying to figure the complexities of it all out. He had quickly managed to realize why Steve looked so familiar. He was a younger version of the man under whom Jon had served for most of his decade in the Marines. Jon knew the high standards the man had as a commander. He could not imagine what it would have been like being his son. Especially his gay son.
Of course, he had learned earlier that Sarah was transgender. She had been born with a penis, but that never felt right. He had not known though that Steve and Sarah were married. Well, he supposed technically, Steve was married to Marcus. He shook his head, too many beers to come to terms with that one.
But it was like the woman said, did any of that matter? Love was love, right? And he had seen enough of this world to know there wasn’t enough of it to go around.
The thing that he was struggling with most, though, was that moment. When Alicia had reached across and touched his hand, or what little was left of it. The way she had looked at him. He could almost feel it. Love. Real love.
Not that he was sure he even knew what the hell that was. While he was not gay, he could most definitely identify with Steve when it came to being a disappointment to your parents. He was stuck right in the middle. A perfect older brother who excelled at everything. Academics, sports, and leadership. The sweet baby sister who was the apple of everyone’s eye.
Then there was Jon. Too active. Not focused enough. Too opinionated. Always getting his good clothes dirty. Never using the right fork. Hell, it was a fork; what did it matter which one you used for what?
And he certainly did not want to think about his first marriage. Had he ever loved her? Or was it all just another rebellion against his family, the great Tyler name? Had she felt that? Was that what had driven her into the arms of his best friend? Or was he giving them too much credit? Was it nothing more than too many long deployments and lust? Did it matter? No, he had never loved his wife.
No, only with her, with Alicia, had he caught fleeting glimpses of what he believed was love. But how did someone like him know? Was it love he saw in her face this afternoon? Or was it pity? Resignation maybe? Trying to make the best of things for Hope’s sake?
And it was damned sure they needed to do that. It was the least they owed that little girl. The very least she deserved was two parents who put their differences and needs aside and did what was best for her. But was that enough for him? Could he settle for that? Especially with Alicia, the woman he loved? And he was more confident now than ever that he did love her.
“Looks like you could use another one,” Jon turned to see Chris holding out another bottle of beer. But then he drew it back, “Wait, you aren’t driving, are you?”
Jon shook his head, “Nope, one of the things the docs say this arm ain’t good enough for.”
Chris nodded and passed him the other bottle. “You still thinking about letting them amputate it?”
“Yeah. I know I should, but knowing and doing are sometimes two different things.” Was he talking about the surgery or other, more significant issues in his life?
His friend sighed and joined him, staring out at the desert in silence for a long moment. “There comes a time when you gotta take the risk, bro.”
Was his friend talking about the amputation or those more significant issues? Did that matter? “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but fuck, I’ll blame the beers. I’m scared. What if I make the wrong decision? The wrong choice?”
“Like you think you did that day?”
How had the man known? How had Chris cut to the very core of what was bothering him most? How could he ever again trust his ability to make the right choice when his decision had cost his friends, good men, their lives?
“Man, sometimes all we can do is play the hand that life deals us. Sometimes the cards don’t go our way. But life isn’t a card game; we don’t get to fold when we’re out of money or luck. I’ve had too many fucking friends fold in this game. I’m not gonna blame them. Hell, knows I’ve thought about folding a few times myself.”
“The thing is that sometimes life does deal us a winning hand. But even then, it is up to us to decide how we’re going to play it. Do we go all-in? Or do we fold our full house aces high to a pair of deuces because we’re afraid of betting too much and losing?”
“You’re the only one that can make that decision, dude. But for what it’s worth, your old lady is over there pumping that New Age guru for information on how to make someone realize that you love them, not their appearance. What you say we take our asses over and break up the girls’ club?”
Jon brought the bottle to his lips and drained it. Dutch courage, maybe? But he wanted so desperately to believe that what his friend said was true. That what he had glimpsed in her eyes was real. But Chris was right, this was the highest stakes poker game he had ever played, and the thought of losing was paralyzing.
The funny thing was the thought of winning was almost as scary. Did he still have it inside of him to be the man she needed? A real husband this time. And a father. To Hope…and to any other children they had. Hell, he was behind schedule on that one. Seven wasted years and they had at least five more to add to the brood.
Yeah, Alicia was mini-vans, half-a-dozen kids, a cat, and he definitely wanted a dog. A nice big one. Not a Saint Bernard. It wouldn’t be fair with this heat. A golden retriever or collie, maybe. Hell, he was planning dogs and kids already, and he had not made love to his woman in seven long years. That needed to change. And the sooner, the better.
Might as well not bother with the damned condoms this time. They hadn’t worked with the no-strings shit. Besides, a new baby brother or sister could not come fast enough for Hope. Yeah, sometimes life did deal you a winning hand. But you had to have the courage to go all in. And come what may, this hand he was betting it all.