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Gold Medal Flour, North Star Blankets, and Grain Belt Beer

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First thing in the morning, the first thing he sees, Zach's face, looking too awake, saying, "Happy anniversary." Kissing him. Blurry smile. That's great, but it's too early. Rolling over and going back to sleep.

Second thing in the morning, kicking one of the dogs off the bed. Muttering an apology. The dog doesn't care.

Third thing in the morning, actually waking up. Good morning. Getting to his feet, going downstairs. Zach has made coffee. Leaning close, kissing Zach, saying, "Happy anniversary." Enjoying how Zach kisses back, tasting like black coffee. Four years of waking up to this is just a beginning.

He fixes his own cup of coffee, sweet with hazelnut creamer. The day is actually starting. It's the Fourth of July. Or it's just another Monday. There are still things to do. Ryan might want to take the holiday off training, but Zach won't, so he won't either. Maybe they'll take a nap, maybe they'll go out on the lake later. But the lake will be busy today, and they have all summer, they don't need to be out on the lake today with everyone and their mother.

Maybe they'll do something patriotic. Maybe they'll have sex.

"Do we have plans to see fireworks tonight?" He asks. He likes fireworks. He loves America. He deeply appreciates his right as an American to see fireworks.

"I still want to go to the thing at Rachel's unless you really don't want to."

He had forgotten about the thing at Rachel's. He is not looking forward to the thing at Rachel’s, but Zach wants to go. "Nah, that sounds good."

Rachel is one of Zach's city friends. They've known each other since high school, which is a very long time. They are all getting older. Ryan doesn’t think he met Rachel until a couple of summers after Zach graduated, but by now he’s known her for a long time. She’s good people. She’s a good friend. Her and Zach talk. This spring during the playoffs when Zach was hurt she brought over a casserole. It used zucchini like noodles and was kind of weird, but it’s the thought that counts.

"She says the view is going to be great,” Zach says. It probably will be. She just moved to a new place downtown and is celebrating by having people over to see the fireworks from her balcony. “And the radio is doing a thing where it put together a medley of Prince songs that are going to sync up with the fireworks, it should be cool.”

Ryan nods. He’s probably spent more time listening to Prince this summer than the rest of his life put together. That’s what happens when someone dies. Somedays Minneapolis isn’t a big city, somedays it has to brag about it’s heros. Minnesota loves it’s brightest stars — Ryan can empathize.

Zach smiles at him. So bright. Ryan still has sleep in his eyes. He needs more coffee. It’s the Fourth of July, but they still have things to do.

Summer training. They push each other. When Ryan’s at the farm he does his own thing, when he’s in the Cities he does what Zach does. It’s probably good for him.

They don’t clean up after working out, they go straight to sex. They’ve still got it. They know each other’s bodies. Ryan doesn’t have to think. The way Zach pushes back, the way Zach lets him in, it comes naturally to them. Incredible.

Showers after that. Zach takes the master bath, Ryan goes down the hall. No distractions. He gets ready for the party. Shaves, cause Zach likes that. Clean shorts and a faded USA Hockey shirt from the bottom of the drawer.

“You look good,” Zach says, moving around their bedroom, getting pretty. Prettier.

Lunch. Then a whole afternoon to lie around the house. Zach’s reading. Ryan falls asleep on the couch. A quiet afternoon at home. Why would they want to leave this?

Zach wakes him up by more or less sitting on top of him. “You ready for a party?”

Ryan doesn’t open his eyes. He pulls Zach closer. Right here is very nice. “Yeah, we need to go see the fireworks.”

Driving downtown is terrible. Rachel’s building has parking, otherwise Ryan would say fuck it and turn around. They could watch fireworks somewhere else. They’re resourceful. It will be a good party.

It’s a nice part of downtown, right by the river and the Guthrie. Mill City District. It’s historic. Rachel’s new apartment is under the old North Star Blankets sign.

Most of the landmark signs along the river are for products that still exist. You can still bake with Gold Medal Flour and drink Grain Belt Beer. Not so with North Star Blankets. They folded a long time ago, leaving behind the sign and not much else. As far as Ryan knows the shared name with the hockey team is entirely coincidental.

He and Zach are alone together in the elevator. A minute of quiet before the explosions. Ryan rubs his thumb over the inside of Zach’s wrist, an absent minded movement.

Rachel answers the door. There’s hugging. She’s so excited to see them. Ryan likes her enthusiasm. She is a good person, a good friend. It is good to go to parties she throws. Repeat as necessary.

“You want a drink?” She asks. “Let me get you a drink, we made cocktails, they’re awesome, I read about them in Cosmo.” It sounds like Rachel has already had a couple. “Zach, I need to give you the grand tour. The views are to die for, I love it. I’m still trying to make the space work, but there’s so much potential.”

Rachel has him by the hand, ready to whisk him away. Zach slows her for a second. He leaves a hen peck kiss on Ryan's cheek. “I’ll find you later, okay? Have fun.”

Ryan nods. He's going to have fun. Repeat as necessary.

It isn’t a big party, maybe a dozen people, half he knows, half who seem noddingly familiar, though they could be strangers. Sometimes Twin Cities people have this look, where he’d swear he knows someone he’s definitely never met. It isn’t a Cities thing really, it’s a midwest thing, but in Madison there are fewer false positive. It’s a smaller town and he actually does know everyone.

Talk talk talk. Introductions are made. He doesn't need Zach to make him comfortable. People are only people, and he might not like them, but he won't let that make a difference. They're all friendly. It's a Midwestern thing, the skill to fake it.

He talks for a while, finds himself a beer. Repeat as necessary, drink responsibly. He talks about baseball, the Brewers, the Twins. The Twins can make anyone look good. These aren’t bad people. He doesn’t need to argue with them.

Ryan misses Rachel's old boyfriend. Justin had been an asshole, but Ryan understood him. Justin was obvious. He was a lawyer. He played golf, wore a lot of hair gel. In high school he played hockey for one of the southern suburbs, Ryan forgets which. He wasn’t very good.

Not that it matters.

Rachel met Justin at college in Northfield, then they moved up to Minneapolis. He did law school and she got her MBA. When Ryan drove over to the Cities to spend summer days with Zach he’d run into them at barbeques or a bar nights, all smiles and ambition.

Zach thought Rachel and Justin were going to get married. He didn’t think it was a good idea, but he thought it was going to happen. Everyone thought it was going to happen.

Ryan only heard about the breakup second hand, but his understanding is that Justin thought they were going to get married too, and that after the wedding Rachel would start working forty hour a week with no overtime. They’d buy a house in a southern suburb, then after his next promotion Rachel could have a few babies. Clearly Rachel had different ideas.

Ryan respects that.

He has the house in the suburbs, is waiting for the kids, but that isn’t for everyone. And he has a partner who’s going to share the load. Rachel made a good choice.

He just wishes she hadn’t chosen Garland.

The new boyfriend is an asshole, and Ryan doesn’t understand him. He isn’t obviously an asshole like Justin had been, he seems like a nice guy, but Ryan’s got to trust his gut — the guy’s an asshole.

Another lawyer, who does something with the county or the governor that Ryan never bothered to remember. He’s got a smug smile and always wears button downs that look they’re supposed to be wrinkled. Tousled. He’s got this little beard.

The whole moving downtown thing is a moving in with Garland thing. It’s a nice apartment, but not worth it if Garland and the place are a package deal. Zach thinks Garland and Rachel might get married. Getting married is what people their age do. They settle down. He and Zach haven’t had the wedding, but they’re committed. This is the anniversary of how committed they are.

Happy anniversary to them.

Ryan doesn’t want to be at this party. Not really. He also doesn’t want to be anywhere that Zach isn’t. He’s almost having a nice time.

He is pretty sure Garland thinks he’s an asshole too. This doesn’t bother Ryan. They don’t need to understand each other for their partners to be friends.

He makes his escape, out to the balcony, close to the sky. He watches the sun go down. The sky turns all different colors, pink and gold in the clouds. Once it’s dark there’ll be fireworks. He loves fireworks.

He likes being up here and watching everything. The river’s right across the road, with the Stone Arch Bridge stretching across it. The street and the bridge and the park on the river bank are all packed with people. There are families, and bicyclists, and food trucks. Ryan would rather watch the crowd than be in it. To the left there’s St Anthony falls, all dammed up but still impressive. To the right there’s mill ruins, and the Guthrie thrusting it’s dick out into nothing. He doesn’t get to downtown Minneapolis a lot, and doesn’t usually see it from up high. He watches as the natural light fades, and is replaced by electricity and flashing bits of color, a city in action, illumination in motion. A hell of a view. Maybe even worth moving in with a new asshole and throwing a party to show off.

Zach finds him out there, leans on the railing next to him, side by side. The party is right behind them, but it hasn't swallowed them up.

Zach steals a sip from Ryan's beer, then makes a face. "You're drinking Grain Belt?"

Ryan nods. He's drinking Grain Belt. That was the only beer he recognized, and he doesn't mind it. Zach shouldn't look disgusted. He didn’t used to be so picky, but they aren’t so young anymore.

“Of course you’re drinking Grain Belt,” Zach says. He does this thing where he sighs and smiles at the same time — Ryan knows it means that Zach loves him. Zach steals another sip of his beer, even if he is judging it.

“The cocktails Rachel made are so much better than this. They’re red white and blue, of course.” Zach says that like it should be expected, which: sure. Most days drinks shouldn’t be blue, but it’s the Fourth of July. Drinking vividly colored booze is very American, even if it isn’t something Ryan wants to do. “You should try them, but not really, cause I don't think you'd like it very much, and also I want you to drive me home.”

“I think we can do that,” Ryan says.

Zach isn’t drunk yet, just tipsy, flushed. It’s a good look on him. “There was blueberry vodka. And grenadine. I love grenadine.”

“I know you do.”

Zach steals a third sip of Ryan’s beer.

“If you keep drinking that you’re gonna have to stop making fun of me.”

“Well, I’d have to start making fun of you for something else, but we don’t want that. You might actually get insulted.”

Ryan snorts. Not likely. “Go find another one of Rachel’s cosmo drinks and leave me to my beer.”

“Fine, I will. You want me to bring you another? There’s better stuff too, I could make sure it isn’t too weird. I know you don’t trust Surly after the weird coffee one, but I know what you like.”

“Nah, I’m good with this. It makes me feel patriotic.”

Zach shakes his head, but leaves him to it. Drinking shitty beer on the Fourth of July makes Ryan part of a proud American tradition.

Drinking shitty beer makes him feel like a kid. It reminds him of being underage, parties in Madison, Milwaukee, so much shitty beer in his youth. Worse than this even. At least this is local, almost iconic, with the old Grain Belt sign. Ryan can’t see it from here, but it’s just across the river, on the other side of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

He can only see parts of that bridge from here — the arches, the swoops of its suspension. There are green lights on the cables that stand out as it get properly dark.

With the sun set the sky is ready for a show. Soon now. Ryan hates waiting. It gets to quarter to ten. They get the music going, louder than Ryan would want. Garland struggles with the audio set up, but Ryan isn’t going to offer a hand. He doesn’t want to argue. He’s just waiting for the fireworks.

The balcony is starting to get crowded, people settling in for the show. Zach finds him back, standing close. The night has cooled down, with enough of a breeze that it isn’t sticky. Perfect weather for Zach to stand this close to him. Even if it was warmer they’d probably be this close anyway.

Ten o’clock rolls in. The music changes, a DJ announcing the start of Red White and Boom. What a terrible name. Ryan couldn’t be more excited.

The fireworks are amazing. Ryan loves fireworks. He loves America. He loves the city in front of him, the river and the bridges and the trees and the falls. He loves that four years ago today he and Zach decided to come here and build a life together. He loves that this used to be a mill town. Right next door they used the power of the Mississippi to transform grain into flour that fed the nation.

He loves all the different sorts of fireworks. There are low ones just above the river, and ones that burst high in the sky, and some that explode and look like smiley faces expanding outwards before dissolving. Those ones are kind of tacky. Ryan likes them. They’re fun. It’s summer. This is what the Fourth should be — loud and chaotic explosions in the sky. The music is blaring. Prince wants someone to know that they’ve got the look. They’re a hot thing. This is what it sounds like when doves cry. It’s a sign of the times.

Purple’s one of the harder colors to make fireworks in, but it seems like there’s a lot of purple this year. Or maybe Ryan’s just imagining that cause purple fireworks would fit better. There’s been a lot of purple everything this summer. If you mix red white and blue you’d get a shade of purple, more like lavender, but still, purple enough.

Prince would die for you, but he’s dead already, and it’s just a song, playing too loudly at a party Ryan didn’t want to go to. But he adores Zach, and there’s nowhere he’d rather be. He gets to watch the fireworks, and he gets to hang out with Zach, that’s all he needs. The soundtrack doesn’t matter much.

The grand finale comes around. A barrage of gunshot sounds followed by lights in the sky. It’s beautiful. Almost overwhelming. The last assault, a stunning crescendo.

And then it’s over.

No more fireworks.

The music’s still playing, the crowd hasn’t disappeared, but the part of the Fourth of July he likes watching is over.

Ryan would like to go home, but they should wait for the streets to clear out some. There's a cop car on the road below, no siren but the lights are on, reminding everyone of law and order. Probably isn't doing any good, just for show. The whole Stone Arch Bridge and the banks of the river are flooded with people, all trying to leave at once. He’d like to go home now, but not as much as he’d like to stay out of that crowd.

They’ll hang around for a while longer. Zach wanders off to get another drink. It seems like everybody’s drinking more than him. He likes to keep his head clear, and has the metabolism that getting drunk takes some effort.

He doesn’t really want to talk to drunk people tonight, or maybe he doesn’t want to talk to these people at all. They’re boring enough when they’re sharp, impaired he’s even less interested. He stays leaning on the balcony, watching the city.

If he and Zach lived in Minnesota when they were young he wouldn’t have minded living downtown. It’s sorta pretty, and has a lot going on. All the kids they play with like it, and he understands why, but he’s outgrown any thrill a city center holds. He didn’t grow up on one, but he’s got a farmboy’s heart. He needs room to spread out. That’s the American dream — a couple of acres and long driveway. An American dream anyway, he knows there’s more than one.

It’s the one he and Zach decided on. The house in the suburbs, with a big back yard for the dogs to run around, room for kids once they get around to it. Eventually. They’ve got time.

Someday they’ll take their kids to the fireworks, and act embarrassingly mushy with the excuse that it’s their anniversary. That future Fourth of July party sounds more fun than the one he’s stuck at.

Zach finds him again, saves him. Zach’s always going to find him, always save him, or he’ll be finding and saving Zach. That’s what having an anniversary to celebrate means.

There are people around, which would normally mean they keep their hands to themselves, but it’s only a small party. Ryan trusts Zach who trusts Rachel to pick people worth trusting.

It’s the Fourth of July and he wants to get his hands around the man he loves. Kisses are not fireworks, that’s an overplayed metaphor, that’s something romantics say, and Ryan is not a romantic, he’s just in love. Kisses are not fireworks, but they’re related. They’re in the same family.

It’s not a lot of kissing. Just the right amount. They’re probably getting close to the Fifth of July, and then it won’t be their day anymore. They should celebrate it while they can.

Ryan feels better after that. He can make small talk again. He’s sure there are things in the world that are sadder than the Minnesota Twins, but no one at this party can seem to think of any. Ryan isn’t even trying, just nodding along.

When Zach finds him, and says, “You should take me home,” Ryan doesn’t know if he’s ever been more in love. He’s been in love for a good long time, but it keeps on becoming more, with no sign of leveling off.

Sometimes escalation is alright.

They find Rachel to say goodbye, it’s been a beautiful party. Ryan shakes Garland’s hand because he isn’t the asshole here. Maybe his grip is firmer than it needs to be, but those things happen.

Driving out of downtown is terrible. The Gold Medal Flour sign is blinking above them, the lights cycling through phrase. GOLD MEDAL FLOUR in neon yellow letters, one word, then two, then all three, then back to the start, just GOLD with empty space below.

Home soon. The last thing of the night. Falling asleep next to Zach, waking up next week Zach. Today is the four year anniversary of their decision to do that all the time. Tomorrow it will be four years and one day. The day after tomorrow, four years and two days. Two days after tomorrow, four years and three days, and so on and so with. They'll get to five years and there will be fireworks again. Ryan loves fireworks.