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Don't be afraid to knock on the door

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Michael’s long strides slow as he walks across the pool deck toward his office.

The long, lean body making wake in lane 7 is unfamiliar to him.  The man’s strokes cut through the water with precision Michael appreciates and he’s not going to lie and say he doesn’t appreciate the well–toned biceps he catches glimpses of through the churning water.  He finds himself unconsciously counting the strokes as he nears the wall and feels unexpectedly gratified at the perfect cadence of his dolphin kicks.

Back in his office he tries to concentrate on the neat stacks of paperwork fanned across his desk, but he finds his gaze constantly drawn to the body gliding through the water.  The swimmer has flipped to his back and is attacking the backstroke with the same precision he was applying to the fly.  Michael mentally compliments his technique, and the washboard stomach he glimpses beneath the sluicing water.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he hasn’t had the time lately to do a lot of thinking about dating.

The phone on his desk rings and his attention is drawn away from the pool and back to paperwork and the phone call he’s been waiting for.

He spies the guy one more time, on land this time, wrapping a towel efficiently around his waist and disappearing into the locker room.  Michael takes a step toward the door before considering exactly what he’s going to do, follow him in the locker room to see if he’s as good looking as Michael imagines he is?  Introduce himself?  Compliment his strokes?

But the alarm on his iPhone is going off and as much as he wants to stay and see what happens next he’s got other places to be.

* * *

“Hey, Michael.”

It’s a long–legged blonde.  Michael saw her 3 days a week in the drop off line last year but seriously – all he can tell you is that she has a sister, or a cousin or something in Madison’s class and a stripper name – Bambi? Chantelle?  She’s loitering around the fence with a couple more parents, waiting for the soccer coach to let the kids go.

“Hi,” he says, nodding at her. Then he stuffs both his hands in the deep pockets of his Ravens hoodie and tries to look busy watching the children.

Andrew, the coach, has gathered the kids in a circle around him – a grass–stained and sweaty circle – and is talking to them, not surprisingly, about listening and how listening applies to teamwork.  Michael wonders absently just how much of the message is actually getting across, especially since in his experience five and six–year–olds never shut up.

“Michael, I wanted to ask you something,” she’s closer now, leaning against the fence next to him and clicking her long hot pink nails against the fence.

“Sure,” Michael looks across the sports complex and tries to pick Madison’s bobbing ponytail out of the group of older girls running suicide lines on another of the fields.

The hot pink nails tap against his arm this time and he turns.


Ethan is standing in front of him, soccer shorts hanging past his knobby knees, both shoes untied and sweaty hair sticking up in all directions.

“Hey bud,” thankful for the save, Michael drops to a knee and efficiently ties both shoes before wrapping a hand around Ethan’s head and grinning at him. “You got a backpack?”

Ethan holds it up and rolls his eyes, Michael makes an impish face in return and grins, “Let’s go get Mads.”

“And then it’s taco Tuesday,” Ethan spins in a circle and punches the air, backpack lifting off his body in a moment of pure joy.

Michael turns back to Brandy, [Brandy??  God he is seriously going to hell] to smile apologetically and finds her mimicking some kind of shampoo commercial, sliding a hand through long strands of blonde hair with a blissful look on her face.

“Sorry – we gotta jet,”

She smiles back thinly.  Michael shrugs and with a low half–wave swings Ethan, backpack and all, up and onto his back.

Madison’s practice runs about 10 minutes longer once they’ve made their way over to the sidelines .  Michael and Ethan entertain themselves with the soccer ball tucked in the bottom of Ethan’s backpack.

“Hi superstar,” he grins when Madison skips up, seven year old girls scattering across the field in groups of one’s and two’s and families grouped together wandering toward the parking lot.

“Hi Uncle Mikey,” she smiles, dimples winking into the lopsided smile he recognizes from a lifetime of Phelps photos.

“Mads,” Ethan tugs at Michael’s shirt until he’s perched on his back again, “Mads!  It’s taco Tuesday.”

“I know,” Madison turns one perfect cartwheel as the overhead lights in the complex start to flicker on.  “Can we get ice cream and watch a movie after tacos Uncle Mikey,” she smiles slyly and slips her cold hand into Michael’s.

“You can do one of those things,” Michael squeezes her hand for a second before continuing, “and I bet if you guess hard you can figure out which one.”

“Ice cream!”  Ethan shouts, letting go of Michael’s neck to throw his hands out in glee.

“Can we make taco sandwiches?” Ethan says asks wrapping his arms back around Michaels’ neck and nuzzling his cold nose against Michael’s neck.  Ethan smells like grass and fresh fall air and little boy and Madison is smiling with her hand tucked in his as they make their way through the early–twilight toward the car and Michael wonders if it’s possible to pause time.

“I don’t think taco sandwiches are a thing bud,” Michael clicks the button to unlock the doors to the SUV and Ethan slides to the ground.  He accepts the backpack Ethan shrugs off and reaches over the back seat to produce a sweatshirt and 2 water bottles.  He passes the sweatshirt to a now shivering Madison.  She pulls it on as she slides across the seats and Ethan climbs into his booster.  After both kids are belted in Michael distributes water bottles and climbs in the front seat.

They listen to Lady Gaga on the way home because it’s Madison’s week to choose, and as he’s drumming along on the steering wheel Michael realizes he knows all the words to Bad Romance.  

He wonders if musical diversity is really a good thing.

Dinner comes together quickly, Michael browns hamburger while Ethan sets the table and Madison shreds cheese.  They chat lightly at the dinner table about the kid’s day at co–op, the upcoming school year and chapter book they’ve been reading at bedtime.

As they’re finishing up Madison drops the bomb.

“Everyone’s moms were talking about you at soccer again today Uncle Mikey,”

“What were they saying,” Ethan locks his feet around the legs of his chair and chases salsa around his plate with one last chip.

“They all like him. They said he’s hot.”

Michael wishes he could be surprised by what’s coming out of her mouth, but the truth is, when it comes to conversations that take place around her, especially about family, she’s a little sponge for information.

“Who thinks I’m hot? And where do you hear about that stuff?”

“Everyone,” she rolls her eyes, and honestly Michael wishes she had never learned that, “Jackson’s mom, Eva’s aunt who was picking her up, Andy Brown’s twin sisters.” She shrugs like it’s the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard. “They all want to know why you aren’t dating?”

“Dating!” Ethan shrieks and reaches for more chips.

“No one at this table is dating,” Michael raises what he hopes is a suitably threatening eyebrow as he pulls the chips away from Ethan and folds the bag.

“And more importantly Miss Madison Elise,” Michael stands and starts to clear the table, “let’s never listen to gossip again,” he wags an eyebrow until Ethan cracks up and pulls open the dishwasher.

“Fine with me,” Madison loads her plate and stands on tiptoes to run the water and wet the sponge for wiping the table.

Michael shakes his head as he loads the leftovers into Tupperware and listens to the kids bicker about ice cream while they finish clearing the table.

* * *

The hot lap swimmer is back.

Michael’s working.  Technically.  He’s grabbing an hour at the pool to catch up on email and sign a stack of papers that feels about 14 feet high.

Madison is with Hilary and his mom – getting pedicures or something.  Something girlie.   Michael is not especially adept at the girlie part of parenting.  He’s learned to navigate hair styling and clothes buying and thank god Mad’s only 8 because he’s certainly not yet equipped to navigate dating or puberty.  

Ethan is at the table in the corner of Michael’s office with what Michael hopes is a Tupperware contained disaster of Legos and Michael thanks heaven for little boys with shaggy haircuts and skinned knees and close clipped fingernails.  

Lane 7 in afternoon free swim is distracting him from both the potential Lego catastrophe and the kids growing up catastrophe as well.

He counts the strokes.  Taps his foot to the cadence.  Holds his breath unnecessarily in the turns.

Ethan hops off the chair and presents him with a Lego robot.  There’s a quick and vicious war between the Lego robot and the plastic brontosaurus left abandoned on some other visit.  Michael’s desk phone crashing to the floor is the only casualty.

They leave before free swim or the planned hour is over.  The perfectly timed backstroker is still dominating lane 7.  But it’s the dog days of summer vacation and, potential catastrophes aside, they have Orioles tickets.

* * *

Back to school preparation goes like this.  Michael turns the kids loose in the school supplies section at Target in mid–August.  He picks the boring things off the list like Kleenex and paper and glue and each kid picks out their own folders and binders and they escape with everything on both lists and minimal carnage.

Michael spends an hour on Friday night with Ethan perched on his lap and the laptop on the kitchen table browsing and $170 and 3 days later an entire Ethan–sized wardrobe appears on the front doorstep.  Ethan favors pants with cargo pockets [where he stashes boy things like rocks and toy cars that end up mysteriously mixed in with all the laundry], shirts with stripes and anything sports themed and is far more concerned about how many pairs of sneakers he can convince Michael are necessary for Kindergarten.

Madison is harder.  She gets a couple of things in the Old Navy shopping spree, jeans mostly and socks.  In return Michael spends most of an excruciating Thursday at the mall playing endless games of Fruit Ninja in chairs outside dressing rooms at Hollister and Gap Kids and whatever the hell Limited Too is called now.  

Madison tries on most of the store, doesn’t throw a tantrum when Michael says no to the t–shirts that are scandalously low–cut for a second grader, doesn’t ask for anything with a provocative saying on the front [Gramma Debs has feelings about her grandchildren’s attire] and smiles when Michael slides his credit card across the counter warily.  By the end of the day the back of the SUV is loaded with kid–tested, parent–approved shopping bags, Madison’s face is absolutely giddy with excitement and Michael has never wanted a beer so badly in his entire life.

They pick up Ethan from his best friend Erik’s house and make for Red Robin where Michael opts for the biggest burger they have and a reasonable sized beer.  He’s an adult after all, and shoe shopping is next.

Everyone comes away from shoe shopping with two pairs of new kicks [including Michael – nobody ever said he could resist a good pair of sneakers] and Michael is happy they’re already set in the backpack and lunchbox department and that home is their final destination.

The night before school starts there’s a lot of nervous energy in the Phelps house, Madison has to be cajoled into eating 3 bites of everything on her plate at dinner [house rules], Ethan bursts into tears when Michael reminds him to brush his teeth post–bath and Michael feels like it’s a miracle when they’re all piled in Madison’s bed freshly bathed and brushed and pajama–ed and ready for their nightly reading aloud ritual.

Ethan interrupts the first 2 chapters every five minutes until Michael and Madison have answered all the questions about school his five–year–old mind can possibly think of.  Michael reads extra chapters until both sets of eyes are drooping and he can lever himself off the bed and carefully lift Ethan for transfer into his own bed.

By the time Ethan’s tucked in, Madison has rolled to her stomach, stretched to the edges of her bed and conked out completely.  Michael turns out the light by her bedside, switches on the nightlight in the jack–and–jill bathroom the kids share and goes out to the family room to have a very quiet first–day–of–school meltdown all his own.

* * *

He worries all day at work, a distracting burning in the pit of his stomach that started as soon as he dropped off a practically giddy Ethan and a nervous Madison off at the front door of the school.  Anything that takes him away from those two monkeys makes him want to wrap their entire lives up in bubble wrap and hide them away somewhere far away where nothing and no one can ever touch them.  Where they can live in a world where there’s never any disappointment.

Then he imagines his mother’s disapproving face and realizes that there’s probably no tropical deserted island in his future and school and work is where it’s going to be for the next 13ish years of his life.

It turns out all his worry is for naught.  Madison bounces into the car and proceeds to chatter for the entire 20 minute car ride without taking a single breath.

Ethan takes his turn at the dinner table, waving his silverware around and chirping for the whole of dinner about how awesomely, fantastically, amazing his teacher is.  Madison argues passionately that her teacher is the most awesome and it dissolves into a fight that Michael has to referee and results in 10 minutes in neutral corners [bedrooms] and then hugs and apologies all around.

Michael grins and lets the burning pit of doom in his stomach recede.  It appears they’re all going to survive this school year.

* * *

Sometimes it feels like Michael’s life is firmly divided between 2 completely different worlds.  There’s the life of Michael pre–kids and the life of Michael post–kids.

Pre–kids Michael worried about split times and public perception and how to have a life while simultaneously achieving everything he wanted in the pool.

Post–kids Michael worries about school lunch nutrition and when to say no and when to say yes and how to convince his kids to always come to him with their problems while simultaneously making sure they don’t walk all over him.  And he tries to do all of this while not causing irreparable damage to young minds.

Pre–kids Olympian Michael was up before the sun swimming endless laps with a kickboard, to be followed by endless laps with his hands as fists and endless laps racing against the clock in his head.

Post–kids Michael is up before the sun too – but he has a whole new set of knowledge, a whole new set of skills.  He knows to start with Ethan, Ethan wakes up slowly so it works better if you wake him up and then leave him to stew in his disdain for morning while you go wake up Madison.

Michael loves Madison in the morning, she’s a stubborn kid – headstrong and full of ideas, and so whip smart that sometimes Michael thinks she’ll be challenging him before she’s even out of elementary school.  But in the morning she’s still the snuggly little kid Michael remembers resting on his chest when she was just a baby and pulling into his arms to watch movies when she was a squirmy toddler.

He rests a wide hand on her back until she rolls over and pushes her hair out of her eyes.  The clouds clear from her baby blue eyes and she smiles lightly.  He leaves her sprawled on her back, knowing that unlike her brother she won’t curl up and go back to sleep.

In the kitchen he lets the dogs out in the backyard, laughing to himself when Stella is out like a bolt of lightning sniffling the entire yard for potential overnight changes while Herman trundles out at a far more sedate pace.  He pours his first cup of coffee and goes back into the family room to turn on the news.  Sprawled in his favorite chair he watches the weather, considers his day and waits for his favorite part of the morning.  

The light footsteps come soon enough; Madison stumbles through the door, ragged yellow baby blanket dragging behind her like Linus.  Without a word she climbs into his lap and snuggles tight against his chest, he rests his chin on the top of her head and wraps the blanket more tightly around them both.

Half an hour later the house will be a whirlwind of action, two weeks into school they’ve settled into a comfortable [if chaotic] morning routine.  Michael knows there will be negotiating with Ethan about getting out of bed and the battle of wills that is fixing Madison’s hair and everyone will accidentally forget to brush their teeth.  

The greatest Olympian of all time will commence with the making of school lunches, PBJ for Madison and a quesadilla for Ethan.  There will be missing shoes and favorite socks and homework and backpacks.  They’ll all be piled in the SUV by 7:30 dogs fed, shoes on, teeth brushed and headed for school.  

But first, there will be this, twenty minutes of silence with his best girl in the pre–dawn light.

* * *

Madison’s favorite teacher’s aid is running drop–off and both kids pile out of the car with waves and a chorus of love you’s and have a good days and on the drive between school and the pool Michael equally savors the quiet and misses the chatter from the backseat.

He realizes when he’s pulling into the parking lot that alone in the car he’s been singing along unconsciously with Demi Lovato [Ethan’s choice this week].

The pool is different too.  He isn’t training, he’s working.  And that’s only the beginning.  He has a part–time secretary who takes messages for him and manages his schedule and coordinates with Octagon and the Foundation and for the next 6 hours the closest he’ll be to in the water is the chair in his office.

Michael’s secretary’s name is Alice, she’s a frightening efficient, totally awesome graduate student who Hilary recommended for the job.  If pressed Michael could spend weeks naming all the ways she makes his life and the Foundation and the pool run better.  But there are 2 things she does that help the most, she screens his phone calls and she makes sure he leaves on time to pick up the kids from school.

* * *

Thursdays are pool days for the kids.  They ride the activity bus to Meadowbrook and pile off and crowd noisily into the locker rooms and between the hours of 4 and 6 the pool will be full of shrieks and laughter.  

Ethan and Madison both take lessons, though Uncle Bob is doing his best to convince them to swim for NBAC too.  Michael is clear on this, they’ll know how to swim and they’ll learn from teachers he hires and trains and they’ll always have the option to compete, but no one is going to force them to do anything.  Whatever their family history, racing is not necessary to be a Phelps.

On this particular day Ethan’s playing a game of post–lesson Marco Polo, dodging and weaving in the shallow end with a group of boys he’s known since Michael was the only dad in Waterbabies.  Madison elects for a post–lesson shower and curling on the couch in Michael’s office with a book.

Michael gives Ethan the 5 minute warning with a quick spinning finger above his head as he stands and talks to Bob on the damp pool deck.

Dinner is heaping plates of spaghetti and garlic bread and the usual salad stand–off followed by spelling words for Madison at the kitchen table while Ethan colors the pages of a packet Michael recognizes as having something to do with ocean life and Michael hand washes the pans that can’t go in the dishwasher.

When he’s done with the dishes he checks Madison’s spelling words and she writes the 3 she missed 10 times each while Michael and Ethan read 2 books together.

The kids are in bed by 8:30 and Michael’s asleep on the couch by 9:15.

* * *

He hasn’t seen the hot lap swimmer in weeks.

He walks the pool deck when he’s there during lap swim, usually one quick sweep, just to see.  But all it gets him is catcalls from the practicing NBAC racers and winks from the retired ladies gossiping in lane 7 with their kickboards.

He tries not to be disappointed.  He’s never even seen the guy’s face.

* * *

The night of open house at the kid’s school Hilary does pick up after swim lessons and hangs the button–down shirt and jeans Michael forgot in the morning chaos on the doorknob of his office.

Michael showers quickly in the locker room at Meadowbrook and tries to remember Madison and Ethan’s teacher’s names.  He should probably know this – especially considering his mom is the superintendent of the district – but apart from knowing that Madison’s teacher makes him sign the little fake–day planner thing where she writes all her assignments and Ethan’s teacher makes him fill out a weekly reading log, he can’t actually produce anything else about their teachers.

He laughs to himself as he drives across town to the school, Michael Phelps, 18–time Olympic gold–medalist, headed to meet his niece and nephew’s elementary school teachers, in London he’s pretty sure not even Bob Costas could have predicted this one.

After he finds a parking spot he spends a minute bracing himself.  He’s been Ethan and Madison’s guardian for nearly 4 years.   Whitney and Bob’s car accident was headline news, as were their wishes to have Michael raise their kids.  

The photos of the funeral were online, not even lawyers could stop it.  Debbie Phelps, face hidden by sunglasses, hand shielding Madison’s face from long lenses as they hurried into the church.  Michael following close behind, Ethan tucked tight against his chest and almost completely hidden by a blanket.  And Hilary hands on hips, sunglasses pushed into her hair hanging behind to glare straight at the cameras.

Some decisions that followed were easy, a bigger house, in a gated community.  Because Michael had chosen fame [kind of], but his kids certainly hadn’t [oh god, his kids].  A leave of absence from the Foundation to spend time with family [because it had been weeks before Debbie could let any of them out of her sight even for a minute].  Learning to change diapers and soothe the baby and cuddle a confused 4–year old.  Some things were infinitely harder [learning to be a dad].  Michael wouldn’t say the transition has been easy, can’t imagine anyone ever saying that losing a sibling and a friend and the undertaking single–parenting is easy, but he also can’t imagine doing anything other than just exactly this.

When he signs in at the door he gets a schedule of the evening events [helpfully filled in with teacher names, thank god], a packet full of start of the school year information and a set of emergency contact forms to fill out for both kids.

Michael follows the crowd toward the auditorium for the opening presentation and grins when over the heads of most people he sees his mom.  Debbie Phelps is greeting parents as they walk into the auditorium.  She’s dressed in what Michael will always refer to as her “first day of school” wardrobe, a pantsuit and scarf wrapped artfully around her neck and smiling brightly as she introduces herself over and over again.  When he reaches the front of the line he sticks out his hand to introduce himself, “Michael Phelps,” like he doesn’t have dinner at her house every Sunday night.

Emotions race across her face, too fast to identify but he picks up sadness and loss and happiness and pride all in about 2 seconds and without batting an eye he gives her what she wants.  With the hand he still holds he pulls her in to wrap his arms around her and kiss her cheek  “hi Debs,” he murmurs against her cheek, inhaling the same perfume she’s worn every day since he was 11 and allowing the familiar scent to settle the nerves he’s not prepared to admit he has.

“Oh you,” the emotions clear from her face and she cups a hand against his cheek and smiles at her youngest child.

“Hope your speech is good,” he pulls back, smiles his lopsided smile, “I’m taking notes.”

Her laughter follows him through the door.

40 minutes later Michael makes his way to Ethan’s classroom [3–K, Lochte on the schedule] and tries to blend in with the other parents.  Once he’s inside he grins at the large, brightly colored space where he imagines hours of Kindergarten energy is expended, the bulletin board with cut–out, kid–decorated fish labeled with the names of the kids in the class and the familiar little person–sized lockers that line the far wall.  There are tiny tables and tiny chairs at one end of the room and nervous looking [normal–sized] parents crowded on the rug in the middle scanning the room for their children’s spot at the tables.

Michael finds Ethan’s name and spends a minute considering how exactly to fold his limbs to fit into the chair.  Finally giving up he pulls the chair out and kind of collapses into it, his knees crack and there’s really nowhere to stash his size 14’s but he’s distracted by the family portrait Ethan has left him.  

The three stick figures are clearly not to scale, Michael spends a minute trying to decide which of the short–haired figures is him and which is Ethan, finally deciding he’s the one with bigger hands and feet.  Luckily Madison is distinguishable by the hair pulled into a mess of circles on the top of her head.  The drawing is complete with Herman and Stella – helpfully labeled for identification, a soccer ball that reaches the roof of their blue house and what Michael thinks is probably a kickboard [or you know, a headstone, but Michael is going to believe it’s a kickboard].

Of all the things Michael isn’t expecting from this night, the first he thinks of is that he hadn’t expected Ethan’s kindergarten teacher to be a man.  He has fond memories of the grandmother–like figure who taught him to read and tie his sneakers and Madison’s teacher had been a bubbly brunette former–cheerleader turned Teach for America volunteer who had come to Sunday dinner at Debs with a bunch of other teachers a couple of times during the year.  

And he’s certainly not expecting Mr. Lochte of room 3–K to be quite so good looking.

Mr. Lochte is about Michael’s age, tall and blonde–haired and blue–eyed and crazy excited about school.  This is obvious as soon as the bell rings and he bounces through the door to hand out copies of his classroom expectations.  While everyone is trying to read the stack of papers Mr. Lochte lets loose a grin that Michael catches out of the corner of his eye and makes his heart skip a beat.  While they’re all overwhelmed with an array of colored paper he launches into some kind of combination teaching philosophy slash pep talk about how smart all their kids are and how excited they all are to learn and how excited he is to meet the parents behind his “little genius dudes and dudettes.”

Michael estimates that Mr. Lochte says awesome no less than 40 times in the 25 minutes he spends talking.  The bell rings to signal the change of classes from Kindergarten to First Grade and he quickly adds “and of course please feel free to call me, email me or stop by, all my info is in your packets!”  

Michael has 20 minutes before he has to find Madison’s classroom [1–2, Kelleher] so as parents start to drift from the room he spends some time checking out where Ethan spends most of his days.

There’s a corner stacked with pillows and bean bags and a bookshelf that’s positively overflowing with books, a brightly colored carpet with letters and numbers in the center of the room and a huge fish tank that fills almost one entire wall.

Mr. Lochte nods enthusiastically when he catches a glimpse of Ethan’s drawing, now safely added to the stack of paperwork Michael has gained throughout the night.  “So you’re Ethan’s dad,”

“Uncle actually,” Michael corrects, “but he calls me dad.”  That garners an eyebrow raise, but no questions – and Michael’s thankful for that.  “Michael,” he stretches a hand to shake.

“Ryan,” his hands are big and warm and Michael is certainly not checking out his kid’s Kindergarten teacher, “Ethan’s awesome in class.  He’s super sharp for his age – and,” the quicksilver grin is back and Michael’s heart jumps again, “it’s not every day I have a kid draw his entire family in their underwear.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re Speedo’s actually,” Michael blushes, “and I think Madison’s wearing her soccer uniform,”

“You ARE that Michael Phelps,” Ryan grins and leans back against the desk.  “I saw your name on my parent list, but figured,” he trails off and Michael waits for the inevitable discussion about London or gold medals or Beijing or retirement.  “That would make the infamous Gramma Debs I’ve heard so much about – “ the bell rings as Ryan trails off shaking his head in amusement.

“The superintendent – yea,” Michael gathers the papers he’d set down to shake Ryan’s hand and makes his way toward the door.  “It was nice to meet you Mr. Lochte – Ryan.”

“You too,” Ryan shakes his head again before pushing off the bookshelf and following Michael to the door.

Michael steals one more look back through the crowd as he’s walking to Madison’s classroom.  Ryan’s right where he left him, leaning against the doorframe smiling to himself.

* * *

Saturdays in September and October are dedicated to soccer.  Michael imagines that somewhere there are families that dedicate Saturday to yard work, or grocery shopping or weekend trips to look at fall leaves or something.

His family has always been dedicated to sports.  And so they’re up early on Saturday mornings and the back of Michael’s SUV is full of camp chairs and coats and blankets and umbrellas and 2 soccer bags that are stuffed with a variety of clothes ranging from tights and sweatshirts to shorts and tank tops.

Michael packs bananas and Gatorade and about 3 pounds of orange slices and a volume ton of granola bars and brings himself about a gallon of coffee.

“Did you see my goal Dad!” Ethan’s enthusiasm is contagious as he and his teammates run through the human tunnel created by their parents’ arms.

“I did!  Nice work Eth,” Michael high–five’s him before wrapping an arm around his shoulders and leading him off the field.

“Mr. Lochte says go big or go home,”

“Does he,” Michael distractedly looks over the mountain of stuff they’ve accumulated on this field and the distance to the field where Madison’s game is about to start.

“Yep,” Ethan climbs into one of the chairs and sets to work making himself a nest of blankets complete with a stash of granola bars and his favorite blue Gatorade.  Michael considers forcing him out of the chair and making him help carry their belongings to the field where Madison’s game is about to start.  But Ethan pulls his hood up over his head and pulls the blanket more tightly around him and Michael gives up.  He pulls on Ethan’s soccer bag as a backpack, puts the soft–sided cooler in Ethan’s lap and carries the whole chair, Ethan included, toward the other sideline.

“He says we should always do our best – because we’re awesome dudes and dudettes just the way we are,” Ethan looks around at his chair’s new location before resting his head against the arm of the chair and pulling his hands into the sleeves of his sweatshirt.

Ethan manages to sit still for about 20 minutes of Madison’s game and then he’s up and out of the chair and running up and down the sidelines and picking up with a gang of kids hanging out in the space between the two adjacent fields behind the line of spectators kicking a soccer ball around and practicing their headers and trying to teach themselves to bicycle kick.

Madison’s team is good this year – the first year since she’s played where they’re finally getting some idea of the strategy that goes with playing soccer.  Michael grins to himself and pours another cup of coffee.  This development will no doubt make Madison happy since her little competitive spirit has been alive and well since she first learned that there’s a winner and a loser.  Pure Phelps that one.

Madison scores 2 goals and sits out most of the second half – wrapped in a blanket on the sidelines with her two best friends.  After the game Michael and Ethan form the last link in the human tunnel Ethan’s tiny arms stretching to meet Michael’s much longer limbs.

They meet Debbie for a late lunch at P.F. Chang’s.  She’s still obsessed with the food and Madison is addicted to the lettuce wraps.  There’s a lively reenactment of the preceding soccer games and hugs and kisses for kids and grown–ups and then it’s home for a late afternoon in the backyard where Michael mows the lawn and dodges dogs and kids and the soccer balls that come his way.

* * *

He sneaks out on Sunday mornings for lap swim of his own.  Hilary takes over kid duty for the time he’s gone.  She lets herself in the front door and drops back to sleep on the couch before he’s even pulled the car out of the garage.

The pre–dawn sky reminds him of making this drive to Meadowbrook a thousand times to swim the day away.  Today he’ll swim for less than 2 hours.  He’ll push himself in spite of having nothing to prove.  He’ll race only against the clock in his head.  He’s retired.  A former Olympian.  A father.

The girls at the front counter stand up straighter when he walks through the door.  He waves them off with a wink and a grin and ducks into his office to strip.

He pointedly doesn’t think about his choice to swim in lane 7.

He dunks himself quickly and swims slow easy laps to warm up.  The gentle pull of his muscles relaxes his mind.  He doesn’t notice as the pool fills and the other early morning swimmers get their strokes in.

He swims sets that are second nature, switching easily from stroke to stroke, speeding up and slowing down at intervals only his brain can translate.  When his mental alarm goes off he swims an abbreviated warm–down and hops out of the pool and makes for the showers.

Michael throws on a pair of mesh gym shorts and a hoodie against the morning cold and walks barefoot back across the pool deck for his shoes.  He’s a few steps away from his office when he realizes his lane has been claimed.  By the hot lap swimmer.  His steps stutter and he has to fight not to pause and watch.

The girls at the front desk are quietly professional when he walks back out to his car.  He doesn’t stop to look at the log of who’s in the pool.

* * *

Michael gets one free night a month.  It’s scheduled weeks in advance and color coded on the horrifyingly intricate Google calendar that he maintains to keep up with soccer and swimming and Phelps Foundation events and appearances and school stuff for both kids.

The calendar is the brainchild of Hilary.  After several panicked phone calls for last minute babysitting she sat down and inputted all the obligations he was maintaining and created a color scheme for each kid and then went one step further and added her schedule and their mom’s schedule and with the whole thing synced on his iPhone Michael feels a lot like he’s in possession of the one calendar that rules them all.

He hasn’t dated seriously since London, doesn’t really want to [hasn’t found anyone worth it] the rainbow of color on the Google calendar tells the tale of the time he doesn’t have to devote to one more person in his life.  

The free night remains a novelty, a time to do whatever he wants.  Sometimes he stays home and stares at the wall, sometimes he thinks about the possibility of maybe going on a date, sometimes he goes to whatever local sporting event is in season and sometimes, like tonight, he wrangles up some friends and they find their way to a bar.

“Wait,” he looks twice at the good–looking guy standing next to him in well–fitting jeans and a soft–looking t–shirt, “I know you don’t I.”  He squints at the dirty–blonde hair and blue eyes and shakes his head when he realizes.  “You’re Mr. Lochte.”

How on his one night off he ends up leaning against a bar next to Ethan’s Kindergarten teacher is something he’s going to have to think about.

The guy blushes and Michael grins, he’s better looking than Michael remembers from Open House, and Michael remembers him being pretty good looking.  “I can just be Ryan when we aren’t in my classroom.”

“How are you dude,” Michael gestures with his beer, “I barely recognized you out of your teaching clothes.”

The smile slips across Ryan’s face almost unwillingly and Michael has the crazy desire to just press his lips against it quickly, to see what it tastes like.  “Sometimes after school we do go out in our teaching clothes.  We call it choir practice and,” Ryan trails off, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you that occasionally the kids drive us to drink.”

Michael’s mind flashes to the hundreds of swim parents he sees parade through the pool every week, the parents who try to convince Bob that their averagely talented kids are Olympians, the parents who can’t take no for an answer.  “Your secret it safe with me,” Michael smiles lopsidedly, “and my bet is that it’s the parents who really drive you to drink.”

“I have no comment on that one,” Ryan tips his glass back.

“So but seriously,” Michael leans against the bar and waits for his pitcher of beer to be delivered, “what are you doing here.”

“I live in the neighborhood,” Ryan shrugs, “I don’t know very many people besides the other teachers at school and I don’t have cable, so I walked over for a beer and to watch the game and so when my mom Skype’s to tell me she’s worried I don’t get out of the house I can tell her I have.”

“I can do you one better with the meeting people thing dude,” Michael gestures to his group of friends sitting in the corner.  “C’mon over.”

Michael grabs the pitcher from the bar and tilts his head until Ryan picks up his drink and follows him across the crowded bar.

“This is Ryan,” Michael doesn’t introduce him further, and Ryan sits down in the empty chair at the other end of the table to a chorus of introductions.

By the time they leave Ryan has made fast friends with most of Michael’s friends and Michael has learned via eavesdropping that Ryan is originally from Florida, came to teach in Baltimore because it was the first offer he got, he’s one of 5 kids and can hold his own whether the conversation is about rappers, football or lifting regimens at the gym.  He mostly likes Baltimore, likes his job and the kids [he winks at Michael on that one and Michael’s thankful for the dimly lit bar to hide his blush], he’s scared of how his Florida blood is going to react to winter but he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Michael has mostly kept himself separate from the conversation, he finds himself torn between wanting to know more about this person, who is becoming somewhat infamous in his house, and knowing that he’s walking a thin line drinking beer with the man who is charged with teaching his kid to read.

They leave the bar together when the game ends and Michael can’t help but bump lightly into Ryan as they wait to file through the doors.

Michael remembers the warmth of his smile all the way home.

* * *

As long as Michael can remember Sunday has meant family.  There have been different incarnations of Sunday family time throughout his life, sometimes it meant family lounged around the living room, eating pizza and watching football after swim practice, sometimes it meant family at a crowded restaurant after a swim meet but especially after the divorce Debbie Phelps had been focused on Sunday being dedicated to family.

After the accident Sunday was one of the few things that stayed the same, when Michael was all but living with Debbie and trying to figure out what exactly to do with a one–year old who had only recently learned to say Mama and a four–year old who just barely understood that Mama and Daddy were gone forever and Uncle Mikey was the one left standing in their place.

Things are better now and though they see Debbie and Hilary throughout the week Sunday remains a sacred family day.  This particular Sunday had started with a mid–morning trip to the aquarium and now Michael is stretched on the leather couch in Debbie’s living room with Ethan tucked between the back of the couch and his side and the Ravens game on mute in the background, Hilary and Madison’s heads are tilted together reading in the lazy afternoon sunlight and though her family is empty of 2 members – Debbie’s heart is mostly full.

The dinner table is full of chatter.  Debbie pulls her patented teacher–principal–kid–ninja moves and the discussion is full of Mr. Lochte this and Mr. Lochte that.  At home Mr. Lochte has been a subject in between Ninjago and dinosaurs and “Legos Dad, oh my gosh Legos.”  Hearing his kid chatter on about his teacher makes Michael wonder if Ethan wants to trade Michael for the teacher Ethan can’t describe as anything other than “seriously Dad, totally awesome.”

Madison earns an evil principal [superintendent] eyeball when she rolls her eyes at Ethan’s enthusiasm about school – but Mrs. Kelleher is reading the Little House books aloud to her class and even though Mads has read the entire series twice she’s practically exploding with the fact that she knows what happens and the fact that she got to lead her class to the cafeteria twice this week.

They leave after dessert in a rush of kisses and hugs and with a pile of leftover lasagna that Michael is totally hoarding for his lunches this week.

* * *

Soccer ends and swim team starts up in full force and despite his insistence that under no circumstances do either of his kids need to swim competitively, they both end up swimming for NBAC and Uncle Bob and a recently graduated and relocated Auntie Allie.

Michael ends up helping out as some kind of semi–assistant coach slash meet manager slash he’s–an–Olympic–gold–medalist slash it’s–safer–for–him–on–the–pool–deck–than–in–the–stands which means extra hours at the pool, but the kids were there, so he was already there.  So really, it’s not a hardship to blow the whistle and run the stopwatch and lead drylands once in a while.

Lane 7 doesn’t sit empty.  But the hot lap swimmer doesn’t make any appearances at swim team practice.

* * *

Three months into school and things are going mostly smoothly and that means he’s not expecting the call [but if he’d checked the laws of the universe he probably should have been].

The secretary from the school delivers the pertinent information quickly and efficiently but still Michael can’t process the words, he catches a few, dodgeball, enthusiastic, Erik and Ethan, maybe a little concussion.

Michael can’t guarantee that he didn’t run every red light between Meadowbrook and the school.

Ethan’s smiling in the nurse’s office despite holding a frog shaped ice pack against the angry red knot on his forehead.

“Dad!” He shouts and Michael notes the wince that comes along with the greeting.

“Hi bud,” he crouches down to cradle Ethan’s head in his hands.

“I ran into Erik in PE,” Ethan stretches his neck up and Michael pulls back the ice pack to drop a kiss on his forehead.  “We went crash – it was totally crazy.”

“Totally,” Michael agrees lifting Ethan carefully to rest him in his lap and reapplying the ice pack.  “How’s the noggin’ feeling.”

“I don’t even have a headache at all – Mr. Lochte says it’s a miracle.  Erik’s mom already came and got him.  Do I get to go home?” Ryan shows up in the door to the nurses office midway through Ethan’s chatter, like he has some sixth sense for when his name is spoken.

“Hey,” he nods to Michael before crouching in front of Ethan.  “I brought your lunch box and backpack Ethan – I think you’re headed home for the day.”

“But I can’t leave without the eggs,” Michael looks up panicked, wondering if there’s something seriously wrong with Ethan’s brain – he can’t for the life of him imagine what eggs have to do with Kindergarten.

“I’ll email the directions to your dad,” Ryan assures him while mouthing “art project” over Ethan’s head.  “You can do yours at home and bring it back in.”

“Dad,” Ethan leans his head back against Michael’s chest, “I’m a little tired.”

“I know bud,” Michael swings the miniature backpack over his shoulder and hefts Ethan onto his hip, “we just have one stop to make on the way home.  But this is the deal Eth, you have to stay awake till we’re done.”

“OK,” Ethan nods minutely against Michael’s neck half–heartedly waving to Ryan over Michael’s shoulder.

He’s on the phone with the pediatrician before they’re out to the parking lot.

The diagnosis is, as suspected, a very mild concussion.  Ethan’s cleared to sleep for short periods of time and Michael gets directions on checking for reactive pupils and a list about a mile long of completely terrifying symptoms to keep an eye out for [blood from the nose or ears – seriously].

He shoots Ryan an email after he’s set Ethan up on the couch with his blanket and pillow and the teddy bear Hilary bought him when he was still a newborn.  Michael figures it’s the nice thing to do – to let Ryan know that Ethan’s fine, just a little bump and no worse for wear.

He’s just being nice.  Really.

* * *

Michael goes to end of the quarter parent teacher conferences and sits across from Mr. I’m–crazy–attractive–and–wearing–a–tie–Lochte and discusses the concussion and Ethan’s social skills [off the charts – seriously this child] and the fact that he’s crazy good at math but still mixes up is b’s and his d’s [and sometimes p’s and q’s].

He does not pull Ryan across the table by his tie.

He does consider it.

His meeting with Mrs. Kelleher is similar – Madison is reading at well above her grade level and doing fine in all her subjects.  Mrs. Kelleher notes that Madison is not as comfortable with math as she is in language arts subjects and is also somewhat more competitive than most of the other second graders [Michael can seriously hear his mother wondering sarcastically aloud where Madison could possibly have gotten that trait.]

He does not consider pulling Mrs. Kelleher across the table by her beaded cardigan.

Michael figures if you combined his 2 kids they’d be a super genius, crazy fast swimming, soccer playing robot machine.

The kids are in bed by the time he gets home and he spends an hour chatting with his mom who’s curled up on the couch in his family room holding a cup of tea against the chill and rain outside and anxious to hear exactly how her grandbabies are doing in school.

“So it seems like they’re both doing OK,” is how Michael wraps up his report.

“Of course they are,” Debbie stretches to set her mug on the table and grins fondly at her youngest child.  Michael nods vaguely and stares into space until Debbie prods softly, “were you really worried they wouldn’t be?”

“I just,” Michael turns, his face open and honest in a way that reminds Debbie that he has years of PR training from his life before, “sometimes it’s good to hear from an unbiased source that I’m not ruining them ya know.”

Debbie laughs a little at that but considers his face, “you would never, could never ruin those babies Michael Fred.  As long as you love them, which any fool can see you do, everything else is secondary to having a loving home.”

“Sometimes I wonder why Whitney and Bob chose me,” Michael gazes out the darkened window at the rain and rubs a foot along Stella’s sleeping side.  “Sometimes I think Hilary is so much more organized, so much more together than I could ever be.  Hilary wouldn’t forget lunches or permission slips and everyone would always have clean socks.”

“Oh Michael,” Debbie tucks the blanket more tightly under feet and sends up a quick prayer to whoever is listening that she can find the right words for this one.

“Whitney and Bob chose carefully.  You always choose carefully when you’re thinking about your children’s future.  And they knew what I know – whoever was the kids guardian, wherever they lived, there was always going to be a full Phelps family of support.  The kids were never going to lose either Auntie Hilary or Uncle Mikey or me.  We were going to be the village for Ethan and Mads.”

Michael nods into the darkness, eyes still focused on the reflection in the window.

“But Whitney and Bob knew you – they knew what a wonderful father you’d be and that you’d love their kids just as if they were your own.  And Hilary would have too.  But I think your sister knew, as I know and as Hilary knows, that you needed those kids, and the kids needed you.  The socks and the lunches and permission slips don’t matter one iota.  Hot dogs and mac and cheese for dinner don’t matter.”  Michael draws a deep, shaky breath before she continues.  

“What matters is that you tucked them both in before you ever came down here to sit and talk to me.  Your first priority is always making sure that both Ethan and Madison know exactly how much and how far and how forever you will love them.”

“Sometimes I miss Whit so much,” Michael admits, “I imagine her looking at the kids and being so proud of all that they’ve done, and I wonder how I can ever be enough.”

Debbie feels the tears burn the backs of her eyes, because losing a child is a pain she struggles to even define with the whole of the English language.  But she draws a deep breath and knows that she needs to be the one to put an end to this unexpected melancholy turn.

“You are enough Michael,” she reaches over to tuck her fingers under his chin and tips his head to kiss his forehead.  “I know you’re enough and Hilary knows you’re enough and Whitney believed in your ability to be enough.  So stop holding your breath and wondering when you’re going to ruin the kids.  Kids are resilient, Ethan and Madison maybe even more so than any of us can ever know.  But they’re yours Michael, and you’re theirs.”

Michael smiles softly at that and drops his head against his mom’s shoulder and lets her hold him up for just a minute while they watch the drops of rain chase down the window.

* * *

Their lives are remarkably Lochte–free for the next month – Michael tries not to tack on a tragically to that remarkably.  Ethan’s chatter doesn’t die down about the famous and fabulous Mr. Lochte and Kindergarten has pajama day, dress up like what you want to be when you grow up [firefighter – Michael is seriously not sure where Ethan gets these things] and rep your favorite team day [Michael should probably be embarrassed at the stack of Ravens gear his kid owns – but he’s not].

Allison provides some Lochte–relief.  Or tries.  She has the innate ability to sense when he’s tied in knots over something [someone] and she exercises her lifelong friend card by alternatively mocking him and trying to get him to admit the real truth.

In turn he hops in the pool a little more often to give her the training push she needs but will never ask for.  He pushes his muscles and his mind and when they’re done in the pool they round up the kids and order pizza and eat on the living room floor much to Madison’s delight.

Michael privately wonders how much easier it would be if he were straight and could happily marry Allison and never be alone again.

He confesses this unintentionally to her at some sort of swimmer bonding house–party thing that he didn’t even want to go to, he goes home to sulk when she laughs so hard beer comes out her nose.

She sends him a text message the next morning assuring him that she will always love him and his kids very much, but she’s not going to be anyone’s easy way out.

He beats himself up because he made her think she was second best.  She beats him up because sometimes he’s so self–flagellating he doesn’t take things for the hilarity that they’re worth and move on.

* * *

So of course the next time hot lap swimmer shows up in lane 7 Allison pauses on the deck to watch his strokes.

When she looks up she sees Michael leaning against the door frame of his office watching as well and her eyes widen in realization.

“It all makes sense now,” she bumps his shoulder and heads for the showers.

He feels weirdly exposed, his secret revealed.

* * *

Michael would be lying if he said he hadn’t suggested the same bar on the off chance that they might see Ryan again.  Admitting it makes it harder to claim that he’s not a little obsessed with Ethan’s kindergarten teacher.

It turns out he didn’t need to bother because some of his traitorous friends have become friends with Ryan and once they’re at the bar someone texts him and suddenly there he is, filling the chair next to Michael this time with crazy disheveled hair and a faded Gators hoodie.

“Dude did we wake you,” someone down the table hollers.

“I was laying on the couch soothing my woes with Skittles and reality TV,”

“What woes,” Michael tries not to jump on the word.

“Horrible date,” Ryan shakes his head and accepts the beer, “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad date, definitely similar to Alexander’s day,”

“Did she not come with a prize?”  Michael picks up the familiar refrain from one of the books in Ethan’s rotation, “sing too loud?  Wear plain white sneakers or was there just kissing on TV?”

Ryan smiles tiredly and Michael wants very much to cuddle him and remind him that everyone has bad days [and bad dates – but Michael isn’t really sorry about the bad date.]

“It was just,” Ryan pauses and scrubs his hands across his face, “it was a long day of kindergarten and so I was flustered and running late and we went to a place with a 4–page wine list and linen napkins when all I wanted was a burger and a beer and then he talked about his super exciting banking job and how important he was.”

“He was,” Ryan takes a solid gulp of beer and a deep breath, “just not what I want I guess.”

“Well thank god we called you,” Drew slides the half demolished nachos plate down the table, “you’re amongst friends now.  We don’t have burgers, but we do have beer.”

Michael rests his arm against the back of Ryan’s chair and lets the conversation wash over him.  His mind is clicking through the subtle pronoun shift Ryan has just executed.  He’s not trying to be overt, he’s not trying anything really, except trying to resist running his hands through Ryan’s hair to find out if it’s soft as it seems.  He’s also trying not to jump for joy.

“I have got to find another bar to go to,” much later the nachos are completely gone, Ryan’s slurring a little and leaning against Michael’s side, “it’s bad enough that your kid is in my class, but your mom, dude, your mom is my boss, and not just my regular boss.  She’s like the big boss, the bossiest boss.”

“I’m totally telling her you called her that,” Ryan’s face pales and Michael hurries to fill in the blanks.  “I promise I won’t tell her it was you dude, seriously, but the next time she’s looking at me like I’m corrupting her two favorite grandchildren because we had cake for breakfast I’m going to reminder her that she’s the bossiest boss.”

Michael pointedly doesn’t volunteer to walk Ryan home.  He and Ryan alone right now will not end well – well in Michael’s dreams it ends in orgasms – but Michael wants Ryan to go willingly to the orgasms, not accept them because he’s had too much beer to know better.

Instead Drew and Paul are taking him home – while Michael hitches a ride with the other group, in the other direction.

“You’re wrong you know,” Michael’s waiting for the light to change when Ryan calls his name from between Drew and Paul, “you’re doing a great job with those kids.”  As he jogs across the street to catch up with his friends Michael’s face breaks into a grin and he waves.

“Haven’t accidentally killed anyone yet!”

* * *

Michael figures there’s a limited number of times in which it’s appropriate to send a text message to your kid’s teacher [who you are not stalking].  But when you learn on the way home from swim practice that said kid CAN READ – Michael figures that fatherly pride takes precedence over appropriate teacher parent relationships.

They get dinner from the McDonald’s drive–thru – because Ethan read the sign unprompted and asked for a McFlurry and seriously when Michael actually sits down to think about it he’ll be thankful they weren’t driving past the Mercedes dealership because he would not have hesitated to buy a car for a five year old.  Instead all it costs him is 2 chicken nugget Happy Meals and a Big Mac and fries and he solemnly swears to extra laps in the pool [to a god that looks distressingly similar to Nathan Adrian in a lab coat.]

The message he gets in return from Ryan is mostly exclamation points and refers to Ethan as “the coolest little dude” and Michael doesn’t see it because Ethan is showing off his reading skills in the bathtub sounding out the ingredients on the shampoo bottle with a teetering pile of bubbles stacked on his head.  He sees the message when he’s climbing into bed and certainly does not smile to himself or think momentarily about someone other than Jon Stewart as his evening companion.

* * *

“I’m not going to lie – I’m starting to feel kind of mortified that every time I see you I’m either drinking or purchasing alcohol.”  Ryan looks sheepish when they run into each other in the soda aisle at the grocery store.  

Ryan’s cart has a case of beer, a 12–pack of Mountain Dew, 4 steaks and a 3 pound bag of Skittles in it.  Michael’s cart has is full of things like fruit snacks and apples and bread and milk.

“Dude, we keep seeing each other,” Michael shrugs and leans against the cart, “I’m worried that you’re going to think I’m following you.”

“No kids tonight?” Ryan raises an eyebrow.

“They’re in the cereal aisle,” Michael admits, “fighting over Cocoa Puffs versus some other brightly colored sugar cereal.”

“I’m a Lucky Charms guy myself,” Ryan continues down the aisle, pausing to wait while Michael loads Ethan’s chosen blue Gatorade and Madison’s favored Grape into the cart.

“Frosted Flakes for me,” Michael grins, “that was as sugary as the cereal got in the Phelps house.”

“So you’re righting our parents’ wrongs.  I like that dude.”  Ryan bumps his shoulder as they turn the corner to the cereal aisle.  Where Ethan and Madison are having a standoff right smack in the middle of the store, a box of Cocoa Puffs clutched in Ethan’s hands and a box of Reese’s Peanut Butter cereal at Madison’s feet.

“Mr. Lochte,” Ethan squawks, momentarily distracted from his cereal defense by the complete novelty of seeing his beloved teacher outside the walls of his classroom, “what are you doing here,”

“Getting groceries Ethan, obviously,” Madison rolls her eyes and unceremoniously dumps the Reese’s cereal in the cart.

“Hey,” Michael’s voice is sharp, “you know better than that young lady, we don’t talk like that to anyone, or roll our eyes,”

“But honestly Uncle Mikey,” he silences her whine with a look this time and she looks at her shoes.

“Also,” Michael continues, “you and I both know that Reese’s cereal is not on the approved list,”

“But,” she looks up again, an indignant mini–teenager, “I want it,”

“Your Uncle Nathan will hunt me down if I let you get this cereal Madison,” there’s a hint of grin at the mention of her favorite of Michael’s swimming friends, “seriously, Mads,” Michael crouches down to talk to her, “he knows the First Lady and we had Hamburger Helper for dinner last night, you gotta help me out a little here.”

“Sugar cereal is a Sunday morning only treat,” Michael admits as they head toward the front of the store, peanut butter cup cereal compromised with Ryan’s signature Lucky Charms and a box of Honey Nut Cheerios for school days, “we have sugar cereal and wear PJ’s and watch cartoons on the DVR.”

“Want to adopt me,” Ryan winks as he veers down further toward the self–checkout lane, “because that pretty much sounds like the best Sunday ever.”

Michael is distracted by wrangling kids and unloading groceries onto the belt and trying desperately to ignore the skipping beat of his heart.

* * *

It's strange for Michael to consider the nature of his kids. Bob’s big into the psychology thing, and his mother is basically a pillar in the education community, so Michael knows about Nature vs. Nurture and the unending debate about how kids turn into the people that they do.

It’s Madison who inherited the quiet, competitive intensity Michael and Whitney are known for.  Ethan is the free–spirited kid who truly isn’t concerned about winning or losing, only that his friends are safely in the lanes around him.

It figures that Ethan is the naturally fast swimmer.  He’s the one who flies off the blocks with absolutely no fear, who cuts through the water he drives his body towards a wall with what Michael can only describe as complete and utter abandon.

Madison is the one who works hard, the one who gains her speed by constantly outworking everyone in the pool.  Even the toughest sets for Bob end in Madison wanting to go one more.

Madison is intense in a way Michael recognizes from his own childhood. He imagines her visualizing the lane lines on her shadowed ceiling when she’s falling asleep, cherishing the graceful silence that comes from dolphin kicks underwater when the real world becomes too much.

It's Ethan who is a total enigma to Michael.  Ethan has fun at swim meets.   He bounces around the ready room like a pinball and giggles his way onto the blocks and into the pool.  The social butterfly kid views it as a social event an opportunity to meet a ton of kids his age that comes complete with free time and fun and medals.  

Ethan’s attitude about winning and losing is as baffling as anything for Michael.  But somehow he’s still the kid who runs straight for Michael’s arms the first time he wins a race.

Michael isn’t entirely sure how he gets from his spot behind a table and a barrier with the coaches to the sidelines but suddenly Ethan is wrapped in his arms and tucking his wet head against Michael’s neck and literally his entire front is going to be soaking wet and he couldn’t possibly care any less.

“I’m so proud of you Ethan,” he kisses his temple, nosing along the edge of his swim cap where he swears that under the chlorine he can still smell the little boy smell he loves so much.  “Seriously I love you so much,” Ethan’s wiggling against him as his little friends chase each other excitedly across the deck toward the precarious stack of their towels and sweats and the next set of swimmers are lining up on the blocks but Michael can’t help but give Ethan one final squeeze before setting him down.  He squeezes his eyes for a moment, savoring this moment with his boy.

As he’s walking back toward the chair he glances into the stands as he’s done literally hundreds of times in his life, and just like so many of the other times he sees his mom and Hilary wiping tears from their eyes.

Nature vs. nurture be damned he loves these kids to the moon and back.

* * *

It turns out that grocery shopping on Friday night is a thing that both Ryan and Michael participate in.  So the next time they see Ryan at the grocery store it’s a dark early November Friday night and he’s very respectably buying bananas, corn flakes and milk.  Michael, on the other hand, has a bag of chocolate chips, 2 boxes of funfetti cake mix, frosting, bacon and an overjoyed Ethan in his cart.

“Mr. Lochte!” Ethan yells, glaring like a 5 year old menace when Michael shushes him.

“It’s my birthday soon,” Ethan yells, “you should come to – “ Michael muffles the yelling with a hand over Ethan’s mouth.  

“Eth, dude,” Michael keeps his hand over Ethan’s mouth while Ethan continues to mumble.  “Ethan,” Michael aims for stern and must land somewhere in the vicinity because Ethan’s lips at least stop moving.  “We’re in public.  I’m going to take my hand away,” Michael uses the hand over his mouth to force Ethan to nod, “and we’re going to talk with inside voices,” he moves Ethan’s head in a nod again.  “Ready,”

As soon as Michael’s hand is gone Ethan draws a deep breath and Michael claps it right back over.  “Inside voice,” he tries for a serious look.  “I’m trusting you.”  Ethan nods on his own this time.

Ryan appears to be biting the inside of his cheek to keep from cracking up.

Ethan draws a deep breath again but grips Michael’s hand with both of his and starts talking, in a thankfully normal tone of voice, but a speed that’s bordering on completely indecipherable.  “MrLochte, it’salmostmybirthdayandwe’remakingfetticupcakesforschoolandmyclass!  I’mgoingtobesixMrLochte.  DadandIaremakingcupcakesforschool!”

Apparently satisfied with his report Ethan regards both Michael and Ryan with piercing blue eyes.

“That,” Ryan reaches for a high five, “is awesome dude.  Birthday cupcakes are totally the coolest.”

“And,” Ethan grabs the container of frosting and holds on, “instead of a Chuck–E–Cheese party I’m having a slumber party with Erik and Cam and Robbie.  And we’re going to watch movies and stay up super late.”

“Super cool!”  Ryan exclaims meeting Michael’s gaze of Ethan’s head like he knows exactly the caliber of bullet he dodged avoiding a Chuck–E–Cheese birthday party.  “So it looks like you’re short a Phelps here – where’s Miss Madison?”

“Sleeping over with Gramma Debs,” Ethan kicks his feet against the side of the cart.

“So just 2 dudes out on the town huh,” Ryan winks at Ethan before quirking that jaw–dropping smile at Michael.

“We’re going for pizza and then home and watching Cars,” Ethan announces, “you can come.”  He waves to a woman trying valiantly not to stare as she pushes her cart down the aisle and looks up expectantly.

“Mr. Lochte’s probably busy Ethan,” Michael steps in quickly.

“Mr. Lochte is grocery shopping on Friday night,” Ryan bumps against Michael’s shoulder, “he could probably carve out some time for pizza with two of his favorite guys.”

They split up to checkout and agree to meet at Matthew’s for pizza in 40 minutes.

At home Michael throws the bacon in the fridge and stands in the kitchen debating the pros and cons of changing into a nicer shirt.  In the end he’s not sure he can pull off the lie if he changes – so it’s his oldest, most comfortable worn–in jeans and a soft gray t–shirt for what his brain helpfully supplies is he and Ryan’s first date.

Then he slaps himself, because you can’t go on a date unless both parties have agreed to go on a date.  This is dinner, with his kid, and his kid’s teacher.

He and Ethan rock out to Young the Giant on the way to the restaurant and Michael relaxes.  Marginally.

Ryan texts Michael that he has a booth in the back and Michael hoists Ethan onto his hip to navigate the crowded restaurant.

Ryan’s sitting in the booth looking vaguely intimidated by the menu and slightly nervous.  Michael grins and plops Ethan on the cushioned bench and sliding in after him.

Ethan fills the awkward silence with his usual endless chatter while Michael and Ryan stare at each other and when Michael finally grins and nudges Ryan’s shin they pick up the thread of conversation and fill in Ethan’s stories.

The panic returns to Ryan’s face when the waitress steps up to the table for drink orders.

“A Sam Adam’s please,” Michael grins and taps the menu on the table, “and 7–up for the shorty.”

“That’s me,” Ethan informs the waitress with a smile.

“Rolling Rock,” Ryan meets Michael’s eyes with a half–smile.

Michael and Ryan decide on an Everything Pizza and Ethan gets a kid–sized pepperoni.  Ethan chatters happily about school and swimming and his friends and the dogs and Legos and Michael seriously can’t help but just look at the kid and grin.

“I want to play the Birds,” Michael looks at Ethan expectantly and waits while Ethan pokes at Michael’s pocket and looks at him pleadingly and then produces a giant grin.  “Dad, can I play the Birds please.”  Michael reaches into his pocket and produces his iPhone.  Ethan laughs to himself and launches Angry Birds in Space.

“Only till dinner comes Ethan,” Michael warns, and Ethan nods distractedly.

Michael is surprised then at how easy it is to talk to Ryan.  His life is not full of grown up conversation.  He can speak intelligently about various Lego sets, princesses, the current status of Barbie and Ken’s relationship, My Little Ponies and swimming mostly.  But with Ryan he finds himself telling stories about the characters at the pool and from coaching and Ryan shares stories about student teaching and growing up in Florida.

Before he knows what’s happening dinner has arrived and they’re simultaneously decimating most of the pizza and a second beer each.

Ethan eats 3 pieces of pizza and drinks most of his 7–up before announcing he’s full and when the waitress produces a stack of scratch paper and a bundle of crayons he’s off to the races drawing a stack of pictures of Legos and dinosaurs and fish and what Michael thinks is maybe a swimming pool complete with flags and blocks and lines on the bottom of the pool.  When he passes it across the table Ryan fills in a school of purple fish swimming in one lane and an alligator in the next.

Ethan climbs around the booth to Ryan’s side to narrate his pictures – Ryan wraps his arm around him and at the sight of their two heads ducked together Michael has to take a deep breath.  Seriously, he’s really working on maintaining his dignity here and not reaching across the table to kiss Ryan.  But his heart can’t help but clench when Ethan curls against Ryan mid–story, eyes drooping as he pops a thumb in his mouth and trails off midway through the story.

Ryan and Michael pick up talking again and Michael gestures with his now–empty beer bottle as the restaurant empties around them.

After they pay the bill Ryan doesn’t even flinch before he hoists Ethan against his shoulder and leads the way out of the restaurant.  Michael feels almost helpless as he watches Ryan deftly load Ethan into his car seat while Michael stands by the side and watches.

“I guess your night is going to be Pixar free,” Ryan grins after he closes the back door of the Tahoe.

“Yea,” Michael jams his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels.  “Thanks for coming to dinner.  I had a good time.”

“Me too,” Ryan grins and Michael really wishes he could figure out if it counts as a date if your almost 6–year old also attends.  “We’ll see you next week for cupcakes.”

“Yep,” Michael reminds himself how inappropriate it would be to kiss Ryan after what he’s not even sure is a date and reaches in his pocket for his keys.

“Have a good night,” Ryan reaches for a handshake and Michael pulls him a little to slap his back and it becomes kind of a hug, kind of a handshake and mostly awkward.

“You too,” Michael says against Ryan’s shoulder before he pulls back and through some kind of totally failboat maneuvering catches Ryan’s lips for just one second.

It turns out he doesn’t care if he’s going to hell, or if it’s totally inappropriate, because Ryan’s breathy little gasp is going to fuel his fantasies forever.

“See ya,” he bites his lip to hide his grin and reaches to open the car door.

“Bye,” Ryan smiles wide and open and waves as he jogs toward his car.

If Michael rests his head against the steering wheel for just a second at least it’s dark.  There’s no one there to see him.  Ethan’s still asleep in the back.  And he makes sure to lock the doors.

* * *

Funfetti cupcakes with Ethan’s chosen fish–sprinkles and candles for everyone to blow out are a hit in Kindergarten and Michael and Ryan alternate between trading playful shoulder bumps and flirty touches and being completely and utterly awkward with each other.

Debbie stops by the school to wish her favorite [only] grandson a happy birthday and pins Michael with all–knowing eyebrows and the Mom–stare that means they’ll be talking about this later.

Michael shrugs and hands her a cupcake.

After the birthday celebration Michael tags along with Debbie to the office where she picks up her mail and has a quick chat with the principal.

The eyebrow–promised conversation comes over lunch.  After they’ve thoroughly discussed the kids [both doing very well], Hilary’s new boyfriend [the jury’s still out], foundation work [busy but thankfully keeping him close to home for now] and Ethan’s upcoming birthday sleepover [Michael’s stockpiling sleep now in preparation].

Debbie doesn’t hesitate between topics.

“Michael you cannot date him,”

“Cannot date who Mama,” he spreads dressing over his salad and looks up to see her concerned face.

“Ryan,” Michael tries and fails to look innocent.

“Ryan is Ethan’s teacher,” she tries again.

“Yes,” Michael grins.

“You cannot date Ethan’s teacher,” Debbie looks at him seriously.

“I’m not dating Ethan’s teacher,” Michael looks at her and Michael is an adult, he has kids of his own for God’s sake.  But it turns out he’s not immune to the patented Debbie Phelps truth–stare.  

“We had dinner once,” he admits, “I see him at the grocery store, I’ve seen him twice at Geno’s downtown.”

“That’s practically dating for you,” she looks at him accusingly.

“All but one of those times were unplanned meetings,” Michael protests, “we had dinner with Ethan, after we saw Ryan at the grocery store, Ethan invited him.”

“You realize that if I look at this and squint my eyes just a bit you’re dating,”

“Mama if I look at this and squint my eyes I’m stalking him,” Michael stares at her until she cracks up.  “Neither are true.  He’s a nice guy, he taught my kid to read, he’s crazy good looking and yes, if someday we decide to go on a date that will be a decision we make as two adults.”

“I hope for your sake that decision occurs after Kindergarten graduation.”

Michael frowns and tries not to think of that little gasp [so hot] or Ryan’s skin [always warm] or exactly how many days of school are left [about 100, he will admit to counting in a moment of weakness].

* * *

Ethan’s birthday party is complete and utter chaos.

Somehow 4 boys seem like 400 boys when they’re running up and down the stairs like elephants and getting the dogs riled up and playing a game that seems to involve blankets as capes and weapons built meticulously of Legos and a lot of hiding in the pantry – and one attempt by Erik to hide himself in the dryer [seriously Michael loves the kid like his own, but he has to put his foot down somewhere].

They take a break for dinner – hot dogs mixed with Mac and cheese by special birthday boy request plus chips and salsa and a salad – because Michael may not always get the parenting thing right – but Mac and cheese and chips means that everyone eats a salad.

After dinner hostilities resume and footsteps thunder across the hardwood floors upstairs.  After one especially impressive crash Michael goes upstairs to make sure no one is bleeding or unconscious.  He finds that they’ve moved to sliding in their socks down the hallway – screeching and balancing and sliding so hilariously that Michael sits at the end of the hallway for 20 minutes and takes about 500 iPhone pictures of 6–year old boy bodies hurling down the hallway toward him.

Hilary and Debbie and Madison show up for singing happy birthday and cake and the opening of presents.  After the requisite sugar and presents high has receded the boys dedicate themselves to an hour of video games [Michael sets the timer – he knows too well that they all have a lifetime of sitting in front of the TV yet to come].

When the timer dings the boys help inflate 2 air mattresses in the family room and Michael brings down all the guest bedding he can find, plus Ethan’s bedding and an old comforter that’s waiting to go to Goodwill and arranges the dining room chairs and a king–sized sheet to set up an air mattress–movie watching fort that all 4 boys proclaim “totally awesome.”

Michael delivers a giant bowl of popcorn mixed with M&M’s and water bottles full of OJ and 7–up and the boys settle down to watch Madagascar – with big plans to make it through all 3 movies before the night is up.  Michael settles on the recliner in the living room – close enough to hear what’s going on in the family room, but far enough away to convince 4 boys that they’re practically on their own.

At 2:30 in the morning Michael stumbles upstairs, all of the boys are passed on in the nest of blankets and pillows in the family room.  They’ve made it through Madagascar and Madagascar 2, but no one managed to survive for Madagascar 3.  The kitchen is clean and the wrapping paper detritus is in the trash can in the garage and Michael really and truly cannot wait to collapse into his bed.  

The next morning everyone heads home at 11, a parade of parents picking up bleary–eyed, zombie children who are running on sheer adrenaline and the sugar high that comes from being stuffed full of chocolate chip pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs.  

* * *

The slumber party catches up with Ethan that afternoon, by 3:30 he’s cranky the way he was at 2 when he missed even 5 minutes of his precisely scheduled afternoon nap and Michael’s eternally grateful that they’ve managed to run the errands that absolutely had to be completed and Ethan can have his meltdown in the quiet and privacy of Gramma Deb’s house.

There’s 10 minutes of unexplained [over–tired] crying into the couch cushions – Michael thinks vaguely that Ethan might be upset about the gray toes on his socks – and without any warning there’s complete silence and he does a faceplant into the tear soaked couch cushions, completely asleep.  Michael carries his sleeping form to the guest room and tucks him under the blankets.

“Uncle Mikey, can we go swim,” Not 20 minutes after he collapses into a chair in the living room Madison drapes herself over the armrest and looks up at him from her prone position.

“What just you and me,” Michael grins down at her.  “Let’s check with Gramma and make sure she can hang out with sleeping beauty.”

Madison claps a hand over her mouth to smother the giggles.

It’s one of those afternoons that Michael knows he’ll want to commit to memory, the familiar smell of the pool, the strange emptiness between the early morning swimmers and the late afternoon swimmers, Madison’s giggles bounce off the walls as Michael stands chest deep in the water and watches her strokes.

He tries to teach her while still making it fun – he wants Madison and Ethan to both love the pool the way he always has, to make it a family affair the way his entire family had when he was growing up.  He thinks over and over again how totally awesome it is to be here, with these kids, doing the things he loves most.  And so there’s no film room here, no drylands, no dissection of strokes and analysis of pull power.  Instead they practice pushing hard off the wall, kicking strong through the dolphin kicks and holding their breath for one stroke longer than they had before.

They stop for milkshakes after showers and sing along with the radio all the way home.

The family birthday party is significantly more low–key.  Debbie makes Ethan’s favorite dinner – meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans and they sing happy birthday again.

Max and Madison both fall asleep in the car on the drive home, lulled by the rhythmic sounds of driving and the motion that was one of the only things that put either of them to sleep when they were tiny.  

Michael turns the radio on low and tries not to watch them sleep in the rearview mirror all the way home.

* * *

"I think I’m secretly dating my kid’s teacher,” Michael confesses to Allison over beer and wings.  

He’s not ready to tell her that he’s spending his free Saturday night with her instead of out with his friends because he’s having trouble trusting his ability to be around Ryan without shoving him against the wall and, well, ravishing him.

“Why secret,” Allie builds the Olympic rings with the condensation from the bottom of her beer glass.

“My mom,” Michael sighs.

“This is the dating a teacher while your kid is in the class thing?”  Allie fills in the blanks.

“Yes,” Michael wonders if people will stare if he rests his head against the table.

“So move Ethan into a different classroom, kids are resilient, Ethan probably more so than most.”

“But isn’t that why I shouldn’t do it,” Michael reaches into the basket for another wing.  “Ethan loves school, he loves Ryan as a teacher and seriously – he’s had enough turmoil in his life.  How the hell am I supposed to say, also, sweet nephew of mine, who I love very much, you are moving to a different kindergarten class because as much as I love you, I really want to hop in the sack with your teacher.”

Allison looks momentarily stricken by his phrasing before she bursts out laughing and Michael very much wants to crawl under the table and die.  

“OK,” Allie takes a deep breath and works herself under control, “I think probably that is not on the list of things you should say.  But if that’s really how you feel,” she dissolves again into a series of giggles and indelicate snorts.

“Seriously Als, if I did not love you like a sister I would abandon your ass right now with the bill and no ride home.”

“MP,” she takes a sip of her beer and Michael sincerely hopes that it’s all going to come out her nose, “first of all, and I say this with all the love I can muster at this very moment, you are such a drama queen,” she reaches to grip one of his hands in hers, “but seriously, let Auntie Als tell you what to do.”

Michael rolls his eyes at her and signals for another beer.

“You like this guy right,” she tugs on his hand to get his attention, “you actually enjoy being around him, want to get to know him sort of like, not just jump his bones like.”

“Yes,” Michael sips his fresh beer and looks at her warily.

“Then wait it out,”

“But,” he considers the whininess of the words that are about to come out of his mouth and then the beer speaks for him, “I want the bone jumping too.”

“The bone jumping will be there honey and it will be better if you wait then if you uproot your kids life for casual sex.  You know why?”  He shrugs, because he doesn’t actually want to know why.  But of course that doesn’t stop her.  

“Because you’re a long term guy, I don’t want to be the one to break it to you, but your casual relationships are long–term relationships.”  Michael sputters at that.  “Seriously,” she pins him with a look, “if you can list for me the last time you had casual sex with someone, I will eat the basket the wings came in.”

And the thing is, Michael would dearly love to see her gnaw on plastic.  But it turns out she’s right.

* * *

Hilary shows up at dawn the next morning.  She knows her brother better than anyone, recognizes the ever present itch to be wet in his eyes when he came home last night.

Michael runs into Ryan coming out of the locker room while he’s still breathless from one final fly lap and hustling to the showers.

Ryan’s wearing a tragic pair of briefs, black and gray plaid with hot pink flowers, and carrying his goggles and swim cap.

Michael can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the swim cap that bears Ryan’s last name along with a stylized alligator.

“When exactly are you supposed to tell a gold–medal swimmer, greatest Olympian of all time, dad of one of your favorite students that you did some competitive swimming in college,” Ryan shrugs and smiles, “it wasn’t a subject that came up at Open House, but I swam for Florida in college,”

“I had no idea,” Michael shakes his head, “Were you any good?”

“Decent,” Ryan allows, “not an Olympian, but I did OK.”  Mr. Jenkins, 87 years old if he’s a day and a Meadowbrook fixture for Michael’s entire life, nods to them as he shuffles by with his kickboard tucked under his arm.

“What’d you swim,” Michael’s trying to stop the third degree, but it turns out his mouth keeps moving without his consent.

“Back, free – a little medley for some spice,”

“I had no idea,” Michael shakes his head again.

Another person makes their way past and Michael shrugs apologetically, Ryan gestures toward the pool, “I better get my lane, before it’s full of kickboarders.”

“Good seeing you dude,”

“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” Ryan winks and tugs his cap on as he walks away, the Gator tattoo on his shoulder flexing with the movement.

Michael turns one time before he disappears around the corner and watches Ryan slide into lane 7.

* * *

Michael’s never been a huge fan of self–deprivation – if he wants Twinkies, he’ll eat the Twinkies.  But sometimes, especially since the kids, it’s a necessary evil.

Hilary and the kids are in a puppy pile of blankets and pajamas and Madison’s Hello Kitty pillow on the couch.  Once he’s home the morning routine is in motion and there’s no time for a timeout and some quick internet research.  

Instead there are waffles and sausage for breakfast and Hilary sticks around until about noon when they all relocate to Debbie’s for Sunday dinner.

That afternoon, when he’s piled on the couch with Ethan and Madison watching Lemony Snicket, wrapped in the blanket his mom tucked around them all, drifting between awake and asleep his phone buzzes in the pocket of his hoodie.

Good to see you today MP, the text reads.

The second text bubble follows seconds later, feels like my swimming secret has been let out of the pool :)

The smiley face makes him snort a laugh and warrants raised eyebrows from his mom.

The lazy day marches into dusk, after dinner they head for home where Madison rushes through 2nd grade homework and Michael manages her time as well as getting ready for the week at school.  Swim bags and school bags are packed and clothes for Monday morning are laid out.

By the time he climbs into bed, Herman’s warm body is already curled on top of the covers in a ball of bulldog snoring.  Once he’s adjusted the blankets and set his alarm he finally allows himself what he’s been waiting for all day.

He feeds Ryan Lochte + Florida + swimming into the Google search in his iPhone [and tries to avoid glancing around his empty bedroom like someone is going to bust out of the closet and catch him creeping around on the internet looking for information on his kid’s teacher.]  Ryan’s mostly spartan Wikipedia page fills him in on the basics, graduated 2007, major in elementary education with a minor in physical education, member Florida Swimming and Diving team.  The awards are more impressive than Ryan indicated or Michael expected, SEC champion, All–American, NCAA champion.

The articles are more interesting [and picture filled] and Michael immerses himself in Lochte–lore learning about his family, his Gator pride, his skills in the pool, the human interest stories providing ample opportunity for the gathering and filing information away for further reference [stalking, he imagines Hilary saying.]

He turns off the light and plugs his phone in and drifts to sleep with Ryan’s smile flickering on the back of his eyelids.

* * *

Michael’s phone buzzes itself off the edge of the table Saturday afternoon after New Year’s.  Mads is spending the night at her best–friend–this–week’s house, Ethan is firmly entrenched on the family room floor with about 2000 Legos he got for Christmas and robots and cars and spaceships all in the process of being built and Michael is reading Sports Illustrated and watching college football in his recliner.

His heart speeds up when he sees Ryan’s name on the screen.

Ryan’s talking fast but Michael gets the basic impression, Ryan’s in Florida, coming back to Maryland tonight, his ride from the airport bailed, his flight’s in at 9:30, he wouldn’t be calling if he didn’t need a super huge favor.

“Seriously dude, not a big deal,” Michael assures him.  Because really, it’s not like he’s going to say no here.

Ryan says he’ll text him the flight information and as soon as Michael puts the phone down Ethan straight up loses his shit.

“Dad,” he bounces straight into Michael’s lap, “was that my teacher Dad, Mr. Lochte’s name is really Ryan Dad.  Was that him?  Dad.  Why is my teacher calling you Dad?  Dad.”

The only reasonable response to this is to hang Ethan upside down by his bare feet until his face is practically purple from the inversion and the unstoppable giggles.

Ethan tries his hardest to stay awake to see Ryan, but as usual the car proves to be his sleep kryptonite and he’s asleep before they’re even out of their subdivision.

Ryan’s waiting by the curb at arrivals, tanned and wearing clothes that aren’t at all practical for January in Baltimore.  Michael flashes his lights and pulls into the inside lane.  Ryan dodges the cars, pulls open the back to dump his duffle and hops in the front seat.

Ryan’s smile is so bright Michael has to resist the urge to lean across the console and kiss him.

Traffic from the airport is light and the car is quiet. Ethan is fast asleep in his car seat and Michael and Ryan sitting quietly beside one another.   

Michael doesn't know what to do with his hands. He taps them against the steering wheel along with the beat of the radio, he taps them against his thigh. He rests an elbow against the center console and tries not to make it look like he wants to rest a heavy hand on Ryan's thigh. To curl a hand against warm solid skin and follow the curve down between his legs.

Ryan makes it worse when he reaches over and taps twice against the top of Michael’s right thigh.

Ryan gives him directions to a totally average apartment complex and Michael slides into a 15–minute parking spot and hops out with Ryan.

“Thanks for the ride MP,” Ryan slings his bag over his shoulder and glances in the backseat where Ethan is asleep. “I know it's not the easiest but you seriously helped me out.”

“Not a big deal,” Michael bumps fists with him and starts to open the car door.

“Seriously,” by the light of the streetlight Ryan's face is shy as he brushes his lips against Michael's. A soft flutter. A little pressure. Ryan smiles against his lips and rests a hand against Michael’s’ side between the zip–up hoodie and the t shirt Michael’s wearing .  He leans forward once again and presses a thumb against Michael’s hipbone. “Thanks,” he mumbles against Michael's lips and then turns to scamper up the stairs to his apartment.

“Seriously.” Michael mumbles to himself. It takes him 2 tries to get the Tahoe into drive.

* * *

Madison’s birthday is in mid–January.  She’s still young enough that Michael always tries to do something that’s not at all holiday related for her birthday.  They spend a weekend making the most intricate cupcakes Michael has ever seen in his entire life, which her second grade class makes short work of [Michael kind of wants to shout – “do you realize how long it took to make those!”]

They go to dinner at Debbie’s.  The birthday girl requests hamburgers [barbequed by Michael in what is seriously a BLIZZARD], homemade french fries and ice cream cake [honestly child, it’s JANUARY] and there are birthday presents [wrapped in birthday paper, Michael has rules about presents not being wrapped in leftover Christmas paper].

This year Debbie and Hilary managed to score two tickets to Princesses on Ice.

“Seriously Uncle Mikey,” she squeals when she opens the tickets and bounces out of her chair with such glee that Michael has to scoop her up and spin her in a tight circle right there in the dining room.

By the time they’re driving home she’s already planning her outfit and Michael seriously didn’t know that princesses on ice skates was this big a deal.  Thank god he has 2 smart women in his life to help him realize that what his 8–year old wants is princesses, all the time.

Unfortunately there’s the perfect storm of babysitters on princess eve and Hilary is out of town and Debbie has a school board meeting that she absolutely positively cannot miss and Allison is flying off somewhere to do some advertising scheme that has the most convoluted photoshoot Michael has ever heard of [something about jumping off the blocks in capes?] and if he didn’t have it on good authority that she loves his children almost as much as she loves him, he’d seriously wonder if she just didn’t want to hang out with Ethan.  But nevertheless Michael is worried that they’re either going to have to scalp a ticket for Ethan [can you scalp tickets to Disney events?  Will Mickey hunt you down] or they’re not going to go and the greatest birthday present ever is  going to turn into the final straw and his 8–year old will never love him again.

Until Ryan offers to hang out with Ethan for the night.

Michael hems and haws and seriously – Ryan spends enough time with kids as it is.  He doesn’t need to babysit the kids in his class.  But Ryan insists and seriously Michael is no match for blue eyes [Ryan’s or Madison’s] and Princesses on ice skates.

* * *

“Have fun you two,” Ryan leans against the wall, casual in jeans and bare feet.

“And don’t stay out too late,” Ethan yells and then collapses on the floor in a peal of giggles as the door closes.

Michael and Madison go to dinner at The Olive Garden and Madison swings her sparkly red–shoed feet in the chair while she twirls her spaghetti.  They talk about chapter books and school and princesses and swimming and whether they should get a third dog [Michael is firmly in the no camp, Madison is considering it].  

Madison is completely enraptured by the entire spectacle of Princesses on Ice.  Michael spends most of the second act trying to figure out how on earth you become a good enough ice skater to skate [and dance!] while dressed as Minnie Mouse.

Walking to the car Michael and Madison discuss in great detail her favorite princess [Cinderella, obviously], Michael’s favorite princess [the horse from Tangled, who is not a princess] and the practicality of Cinderella’s exceptional sparkly ice skates and of having a herd of mice to assist in day to day chores [Michael is in favor of any help he can get, Madison is anti–rodent, even in cuddly Disney form].


Ethan’s asleep when they get home and Madison doesn’t even argue for a later bedtime, she just brushes her teeth, curls up in her faded Cinderella pajamas and is asleep before Michael has even turned on the nightlight.

 * * *

“Thank you, seriously dude,” Michael sits on the couch next to Ryan and tips his beer bottle in silent salute, “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“It was not a hardship,” Ryan grins, “we made my specialty dinner of nachos in the microwave, watched the end of a college football game, hollered at some refs, he showed me his Angry Birds skills on the iPad and then we played the flashcard game.  We brushed teeth and read a selection of books that were unfamiliar to me for once and then he passed out and I snuck out to watch TV.”

“Seriously though,” Michael wants to belabor the point, “with Hilary out of town and my mom at the school thing you were a lifesaver.”

“Anytime,” Ryan waves a hand, “he’s an awesome kid and I’m not just saying that because I taught him how to read.”

“I’m lucky,” Michael closes his eyes, “they’re both awesome.”

“They’re lucky too.”  Ryan knocks his knee against Michael’s, “you seriously do so well with them Mike,” Ryan leans his head back against the couch cushions.  “I can’t even imagine being in your situation, but seriously you pretty much rock it.”

“I don’t always,” Michael admits, “it was pretty much a disaster at the beginning.  I could barely get us all out of bed and onto the couch.  Sometimes we still don’t change out of our pajamas all day.  And even now, I have a ton of help, my mom and Hil.”

“I’m just telling you,” Ryan sets a socked foot on the table, “both my parents coached growing up and sometimes I feel like I grew up surrounded by examples of how not to parent.  Your kids, there’s no question in their minds whether you love them, no question that you’d do anything for them.  And seriously dude,” Ryan takes a sip of his beer, “that’s winning at parenting.”

“Thanks,” Michael smiles softly.

They finish their beers in silence, knees touching just enough that Michael’s heart races.

In the foyer of the house, with his kids sleeping in bedrooms just upstairs Michael crowds Ryan against the door and kisses him.

Michael’s fingers slide into Ryan’s hair—and Ryan’s hands cling to his hips, pulling until their bodies are wedged together.

“Shouldn’t be doing this,” Ryan pants as he slides a hand down Michael’s back and up under his shirt to tease at the soft skin at his side.  Michael doesn’t answer because Michael is busy sucking on Ryan’s bottom lip.

“God I know,” Michael cups his hands against Ryan’s hips and wonders if he can squeeze hard enough through jeans to leave bruises.

“Seriously – it’s in the handbook, don’t date parents of kids in your class.”

“I’m not going to tell,” Michael leans back so Ryan knows just how serious he is about this, “I would never – “

Ryan silences him with a kiss that slips quickly from soft and sweet into blisteringly hot and Michael forgets about handbooks and his mother and his children and probably even his middle name.

“It’s your fault,” Ryan whispers, “the untucked shirt and loose collar is totally killing me here.  I was done after I saw you all put together, seeing you taken apart makes me want to lick you.”

“I want to take you upstairs, get you naked and spread you out on my bed,” Ryan gulps at that and the motion distracts Michael with the desire to explore his entire neck with his teeth.  “But the kids have soccer in the morning and my mom’s coming over to go with us.”

Ryan wilts at that and seriously Michael has never considered that his own mother would be able to cockblock him.  He’s a grown man, in his house, across town from hers, the house that he owns, with his kids upstairs tucked safely in their beds.

“How many days left in the school year,” Michael worries the skin behind Ryan’s ear and Ryan rocks his hips against his thigh again.

“Little less than 80,” Ryan grins and presses their lips together.

Michael’s gratified to learn that Ryan’s smile pressed against his lips feels just as good as he’d imagined.

* * *

They subsist on texts for the next month or so – seeing each other once in a while in the pickup line and sharing a smile.  But Michael is committed to not getting Ryan in trouble.  Mostly.

Michael calls Ryan one night to get some clarification on a homework assignment after he and Ethan have a serious fight about how much reading Ethan thinks he’s supposed to be doing and how much reading Michael thinks he’s is supposed to be doing.  His call goes to voicemail and Michael leaves a message that’s punctuated by a door slam from Ethan and some unsolicited commentary from Madison about his parenting skills.  

Michael hangs up the phone and for the first time in at least a year sits on the edge of his bed, focuses on drawing slow even breaths and counts slowly backwards from 50. When he’s done he scrubs a hand across his face comes back out and settles Mads at the table with her math workbook and knocks on Ethan’s door.

Ethan is laying on the top bunk, face red and blotchy with tears, clutching a stuffed penguin against his chest.  Michael gingerly navigates the ladder and flops next to Ethan.

“I’m sorry I yelled Ethan,” Michael starts, because if there’s one thing he’s learned about being a parent it’s that sometimes you have to apologize first, even when you know you’re right.

“I’m sorry too,” Ethan sniffs, “but that’s what Mr. Lochte said dad,” Michael claps a hand over the whine slipping out of Ethan’s mouth.

“We’re going to agree to disagree on this buddy.  I love you and tomorrow when you’re at school you can check in with Mr. Lochte and we’ll talk about it tomorrow after swim – OK.”

“OK,” Ethan agrees.  “Maybe we can watch TV instead of books tonight,” he rolls over and grins hopefully.

“No TV on school nights Eth, you know that,” Michael wraps his arms around Ethan and pulls him against his chest, “you are such a brat,”

Madison joins them on the top bunk and while they’re laughing and horsing around Michael gives thanks that he’s an Olympic athlete because seriously if this furniture was some kind of Ikea shit there’s no way the structural integrity could handle an adult and 2 kids on the top bunk.

Ryan calls back after everyone is asleep, when Michael is still trapped between being madly in love with his children and stewing a little about how he should have handled the homework disagreement situation.

He ends up spilling the whole story to Ryan and after Ryan finishes laughing about Michaels’ interpretation of the reading assignment versus Ethan’s interpretation, Ryan assures him that apparently most of the kids in the class misunderstood what they were supposed to be doing and the assignment was going to be reassigned next week with better directions.

Michael crawls into bed after peeking in on the kids one more time and plants his face in one of his pillows.  He’s sure Ryan can tell that he’s collapsed in his bed and barely paying attention to the conversation but he lets Ryan keep talking, low and soothing after a night of annoyingly unexpected parenting challenges.

At one point he shifts against the comforter and realizes that his dick is about three–quarters hard just listening to Ryan’s voice.  Of course once he realizes it’s all he can focus on and then he has to focus even harder on not reaching down and just rubbing his dick a little while Ryan’s slow voice washes over him.

Ryan ruins it all [of course], “dude, I think this might be the first phone conversation I’ve had in bed in the last 5 years that hasn’t ended in phone sex.”

“Oh really,” Michael replies slowly and seriously he could clear his voice all day and it still wouldn’t be able to help the gravelly, turned on tone of his voice.

“Cheating,” Ryan’s voice is suddenly breathless and Michael flops over on his back.

“I’m just trying to help,” he’s not sure he’s ever laughed in the middle of trying not to have phone sex.  Ryan laughs too and that’s the point at which his brain turns off, “I don’t want to ruin your streak.”

“I’m feeling weirdly psychic that I made Carter sleep on his dog bed tonight,”

“Why’s that,”

“Because he’d normally be lying next to me on the bed, and that makes this a little awkward,” Michael gulps, because apparently they’re really doing this and wow, that’s a little unexpected.  “So you should tell me what you’re wearing,” Ryan’s voice quiets just a little and Michael’s surprised at how intimate it feels.

“Flannel pants,” Michael slides a hand along his thigh.

“That’s it?”  Ryan’s voice rises a little higher and Michael chuckles.

“I feel like I should explain that it’s not actually deliberately sexy, there was a slight laundry emergency and it resulted in a complete lack of boxer briefs,” Michael smiles sheepishly.  “But I did take off my shirt while we were on the phone,” he doesn’t admit to that being part of his plan to let Ryan’s voice mostly soothe him to sleep.

“I wish I slept naked so I could drop that bomb on you,” Ryan laughs, “but it’s too fucking cold here to do that.”

“I like thinking about you with clothes on,” Michael admits, “because I like thinking of getting you out of them.”

“Jesus MP,” Ryan groans.

“True,” Michael wraps a hand around his dick, just holding but enough to be a sensory tease.

“I like thinking about you going commando,” Ryan admits, “especially because it means I could tuck my hand in your pants at any point and just find you.”  Michael groans back and moves his hand minutely.  “Are you touching yourself MP?  If I was there I’d be touching you.”

Michael shoves his pants toward his knees and wraps the hand back around his dick.  “Ryan,” he’s already breathless, fuck that’s embarrassing, “this is not how I imagined this phone call going.”

“That’s too bad,” Ryan’s breath is much more controlled, “because it isn’t how I thought this conversation was going to go, but it was how I hoped this conversation was going to go.”

“Really,” Michael spits out, hand on dick forgotten for a moment.

“That’s not like something to freak out over dude, since that night against your front door I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t spend a fair amount of my time in this bed thinking about you.”

Michael gasps again because something about Ryan’s easy honesty turns him on even more than knowing that he’s lying in bed with his hand wrapped around his dick, thinking about Michael.

Michael’s trying to keep his little noises to himself.  He’s a grownup, with 2 kids in the house, he’s good at getting off without any noise.

Ryan on the other hand is noisy, gasping and moaning and biting off little noises that are going straight from the phone to Michael’s dick and making him insane.

“Are you close,” Michael grinds out, because it’s embarrassing, but the combination of his hand on his dick and Ryan’s noises and the basic knowledge that Ryan’s on the other end of the phone touching himself has him so, so close and he wants to know that Ryan’s going to be there sometime in the same vicinity he is.

“Yes,” Ryan breathes into the phone and that one single word pushes Michael straight over the edge.

Things are normal after they clean up and if Michael stops to think about it he’ll wonder about the fact that he just had phone sex with his kid’s teacher, after calling for clarification on a homework assignment and now they’re talking about the Ravens defense like they’re friends.

His mom is going to kill him.

* * *

After that they have a lot of phone sex, it’s like the seal is broken and it’s the one thing they can actually do without a babysitter and secret service levels of covertness.  Michael’s nights are full of this – Ryan tucked in his bed and Michael in his, kids asleep, dogs kicked out of the bedroom and Ryan’s low voice rolling across the phone lines, voice casual as he talks through just exactly what he wants to do to Michael and exactly how he’s going to go about doing it.

The problem with phone sex is that Michael becomes intimately familiar with what Ryan sounds like when he comes, but so far he’s been forced to imagine what he looks like when he comes.

* * *

And of course that’s when Debbie casually mentions that she’s going to invite Ryan to Sunday dinner [because she is a horrible traitor who cannot decide whose side she’s on].

Ethan is practically euphoric that Ryan is coming to Sunday dinner – Debbie sends him outside twice to do laps around the house to try and relieve some energy.  When the doorbell rings he flies off the couch to answer – Michael follows, because hello, it could be a serial killer and Ethan is certainly not going to check who it is before he throws open the door.

“MR. LOCHTE!!”  Ethan yells, like he hasn’t been waiting all afternoon for this one guest to arrive.  “I’m so excited you’re here, Gramma made my favorite and for dessert there’s pie, but only if you eat your salad, but it’s OK because Gramma buys the special Ranch so it’s not as bad as Dad and we’re going to watch football and there’s pie.”

“Dude, Ethan, take a breath, let him come in the door at least,” Michael throws Ethan over his shoulder and shakes Ryan’s hand before leading him into the fray.

Ryan, it turns out, has the same kid–whisperer talents that Debbie has and suddenly Ethan is actually willing to help set the table and doesn’t have to be cajoled to sit still and takes 3 bites of his vegetables without being prompted.

Ryan manages to charm Debbie with some kind of down–home southern charm that Michael really did not need to know he possessed OK, but he’s all ma’am this and ma’am that and when Debbie says “please Ryan, call me Debbie.”  He blushes and mutters something about making sure his mom never hears.

Hilary holds back a little bit, but before long she’s fallen under the Lochte–spell and has the calculating look in her eye Michael knows from experience means something embarrassing is about to happen.

After dinner they sprawl in the family room and Ryan entertains the kids telling a clearly edited story about growing up with 4 siblings and the exploits of he and his brothers.

“It’s nice that you’re close,” Debbie passes plates of peach pie a la mode out before curling in the corner of the couch with a cup of coffee.  “Family is important.”

Ryan nods in agreement, “I think they’d probably be happier if I moved closer and got married and had some babies,”

“Babies,” Madison chimes from her spot at the coffee table, “my friend Andrea’s mom just got married and she’s having a baby.”

“My sister has 2,” Ryan grins, “but that doesn’t stop her from trying to set me up every chance she gets.”

“She wants you to be happy,” Hilary looks pointedly at Michael, “all any sister wants is for her brother to be happy.”

“I don’t date,” Ryan admits to Hilary, “I go on bad dates.  Plus I have 17 of these characters to contend with,” Ryan ruffles Ethan’s hair, “not a ton of time for extracurricular activities.”

“Swimming is our extracurricular activity,” Madison stands up and starts to stack the plates.

“Oh yea,” Ryan holds onto the silverware while she stacks, “here, you take this and I’ll carry the plates.”

While Madison is enthusiastically chatting Ryan up about the intricacies of flip turns in the kitchen Michael and Hilary have an entire unspoken conversation.  Hilary pins him with her eyebrows while Michael shrugs and looks accusingly at their mother.

Michael walks Ryan out after dinner and when they’re shielded by cars in the driveway he presses him against the side of his car and nips at his lips until Ryan’s nuzzling at the junction of his shoulder and he’s managed to shove a thigh between Ryan’s legs and seriously public or private he could serious not care any less right now.

A car driving down the street forces them apart.

“Shit,” Ryan lets out a breath and leans in for one more kiss, sweet this time when he mutters his goodbye, like they hadn’t just been dry–humping against the shiny exterior of Michael’s car.

“Seriously,” Michael agrees and runs a hand through his hair as he watches Ryan drive away.

If anyone notices his bitten red lips when he comes back inside – he’s thankful to say they keep it to themselves.

* * *

After Sunday dinner their relationship goes back to being weirdly like a long distance relationship with the added bonus of a lot of phone sex and also seeing each other in the drop off line at school and sometimes the pickup line after school and sometimes passing each other on the pool deck averting their eyes and pretending that Michael isn’t going to dig his feet into the mattress and moan Ryan’s name when he’s alone in his bedroom with his hand shoved down his pants something like 5 hours later.

When they aren’t having freakishly hot phone sex they’ve started having actual conversation, they watch Sportscenter together and talk about top plays and commercials and scores like they’re sitting next to each other in Michael’s bedroom instead of across town from each other with only the phone for company.

Ryan makes Michael laugh and rewards his laugh with a low rumbling chuckle that wraps warmly around Michael’s spine and makes him wonder what his lips would feel pressed against that smile, what that rumble would feel like tucked under his cheek instead of through a phone tucked between his pillow and his ear.

* * *

In April they develop a somewhat clandestine plan.  Michael pointedly does not refer to it as “a sex plan” anywhere but in his head.  But that’s what it is.

Michael scans the master calendar, picks out a free Friday, texts the date to Ryan and pointedly doesn’t make plans.  Hilary comes over to babysit and when she asks what his plans are he just shrugs and grabs his car keys.

Ryan opens the door before he can knock, like he’s been watching the parking lot for Michael and Michael walks straight through the door, pushes Ryan against the wall and shoves his tongue down his throat.

They have sex for the first time with Ryan bent over his round kitchen table and Michael isn’t sure if he should be thankful or worried that Ryan keeps condoms and lube in the drawer next to his dishwasher.

But then Ryan’s sliding a hand down to jerk his own dick and Michael’s ducking down to run his tongue along the bumps of Ryan’s spine then Ryan’s coming and he’s swearing a blue streak and clamping down on Michael’s dick and Michael buries himself one final time, hips tight against Ryan’s ass and comes too.

They stand there catching their breath and Michael bends to press a kiss against the gator on Ryan’s shoulder and Ryan groans again and Michael is thirty–mumble–mumble years old but his dick seriously twitches.  Ryan chuckles low and dirty and Michael is having trouble remembering that this is the person who spends day after day opening 17 cartons of milk and reminding 6 year olds to tie their shoes and zip up their coats.

Weeks of phone sex means they’re pretty intimately familiar with what one another likes and when they’re finally collapsed on Ryan’s giant bed Michael cannot stop marveling at the fact that he gets to actually do those things now.  He doesn’t just get to hear about how lubed up fingers in Ryan’s ass makes him completely insane, he gets to be the one who lubes up his fingers and sets to making Ryan completely insane.

He wants to tease Ryan forever, imagines days dedicated to just fingering him, but his dick is solid as a rock and as much as he wants to know if Ryan can come from just his fingers he wants to fuck him again just as badly.  There’s something infinitely better about finally, finally doing this in bed together and Michael makes Ryan roll over so he can watch his eyes roll back in his head when Michael’s dick bottoms out again and again.  Ryan clutches his shoulders and scores his fingernails across Michael’s back and gasps his name until he reaches between them to fist his own dick and Michael drives deep one more time and somehow they manage to come together.

There’s also something sort of incredible about how well they know each other.  Ryan knows the way Michael’s voice changes as he gets closer to coming and uses this to work him up and up and up and then guide him down and then work him up again.  He keeps it up until Michael is practically sobbing and writhing against Ryan’s totally filthy sheets and when Ryan bends down to suck the head of Michael’s cock gently and the motion slides his fingers against Michael’s prostate well, Michael’s not going to guarantee that he doesn’t actually black out just for a second.

He’s mostly careful about marks, there are kindergarteners at school and 2 children at home and gossiping teachers who Michael knows from experience are almost freakishly observant.  This doesn’t stop Ryan from exploring Michael’s entire body with his tongue before sucking a hickey above the Olympic rings on Michael’s hip.  Michael retaliates with a perfectly placed set of teeth marks just low enough on Ryan’s shoulder that they’ll be covered by a shirt.

He knows there’s a time limit on this – Hilary’s home with the kids and he certainly can’t just blow her off and spend the night having crazy–hot sex, much as he wants to.  What he really wants is to just lay on Ryan’s totally trashed sheets until the clock indicates morning sex is the only appropriate response.  But right, responsibility means he has to go.  

In his mind Michael imagines that the last round before he has to go home will be slow and maybe romantic.  But instead it’s frantic, as if they both know that it’s probably going to be weeks before they can do this again and Michael finds himself driving hard against Ryan wondering if he can imprint himself in Ryan’s skin forever.

“I think you actually fucked me through the mattress dude,”

“Sorry,” Michael bends to kiss his shoulder as he buttons his pants.

“Don’t be sorry,” Ryan grins, “I’m only sorry that we can’t somehow convince your child to drop out of school so we can do this every night.”

“I know,” Michael catches his lips for a gentle kiss, “I’m selfish and I don’t want to give you up anywhere.  I want you in my bed and I want you to be my kid’s teacher.”

“So we’ll keep it a secret,” Ryan rolls over onto his back and shrugs, “it’s not that much longer.”

* * *

True to his promise – it isn’t that much longer.

On June 11 Michael sits again in a chair not designed for someone over six feet tall and tries to pay attention to his truly adorable child.  Ethan is standing between his two best friends, wearing a cap and miniature red gown, swaying back and forth singing “in first grade,” to the tune of Empire State of Mind.  

But really Michael’s brain is working overtime trying to figure out what the heck happened to the chubby baby Ethan was 4 days ago and trying to figure out if it’s appropriate to ravish your kid’s kindergarten teacher as soon as the last day of school is over

He manages to wait 3 days.

* * *

They do manage to wait an entire year before Ryan moves out of his shitty apartment and in with Michael and the kids for good.  It’s Madison that finally sways the decision, telling Michael in all her nine–year old wisdom that everyone laughs more when he’s around.

She’s right.

Ryan weaves himself into their lives like he’s never belonged anywhere else.

Morning is still chaotic, there are still lunches to be made and socks to be found and everyone has to get teeth brushed and headed out the door with all the necessary accoutrements.

But now there are 2 grown–ups in the equation and some days swim practice happens at 6 am and Michael and Madison are out the door long, long, LONG before the sun comes up.  Ryan and Ethan have Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast and go to school together and when Michael drops Mads off sometimes he’s lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of the guy who fell asleep and drooled on his shoulder last night instead of watching Sportscenter.

Sometimes when they get home from swim practice Ryan pins him against the sink in the kitchen and kisses him.  This usually results in Madison peeking her head in and groaning about “you guys” and love and how freaking disgusting the entire thing is.  

And then one of them has to follow her into the other room and have a discussion about being careful who you say freaking in front of young lady because Gramma Debs will go postal if she hears you say those words.

They sit around the table together for dinner [like a family – Michael’s brain helpfully supplies].  Ryan helps Mads with her Math while Michael and Ethan run through a set of flashcards.

Ryan is the requested bedtime story reader at least 40 percent of the time now.

Nobody wonders absently at soccer practice about why Michael isn’t dating.

There’s someone else in possession of the master calendar [and another set of colors for Ryan’s activities].

There’s a framed photo on Michael’s desk at Meadowbrook – and one that mirrors it on Ryan’s desk at school – the frames are simple wooden squares [Debbie refers to them as “man frames”], the photo was taken by Hilary in the pandemonium that followed the last swim meet of the year.  All 4 faces are jammed in the frame, Michael and Ryan are crouched down with the kids between them, both kids with medals draped around their necks.  It’s not a perfect photo , Madison is rolling her eyes, Ryan’s head is midway between looking at the camera and being thrown back in laughter and Michael’s looking down the line at both kids and Ryan like he cannot possibly believe how he ended up lucky enough to be in this situation.

Michael can’t help but love everything about it.