Give Up: An Interlude

Oliver met me on the quad as snowfall softly pummeled the sidewalks. I slipped the whole way, feeling the silent thud-thud-thud of the snow wads, expecting a sound to go along with it. But it was completely vacant. They warned of a coming blizzard, but I did not take it seriously. A blizzard in mid-Pennsylvania was about as common as rain in Seattle, and no one could function if they took meaning to the threats. I ventured out, because I wanted to meet Oliver. He knew my secret, after all – and I knew his.

I asked to meet, and he happily agreed. It was odd though, because it was daylight, although darkened by the greyness and the snow. We never met by daylight – preferred our meetings under the guise of pseudo-social situations between midnight and 6 am. It felt like an Elementary School in twilight – familiar yet upside down. My pulse heightened, influenced by a tossing anxiety that flipped to excitement and then back again. It felt like we were moving forward – or perhaps back – and I changed my mind by the minute. I anticipated, and then I apprehended, and that ambivalence stuck until he said hi and dodged a hug. Then, I knew.

I brushed the snow off a bench nearby, swept his side as well. I knew we would need a healthy distance between us.

He wanted to give me back my secret. He wanted to give up.

He blamed it on a number of things. After careful thought, he had determined this to be a “failed experiment.” He liked girls – he said – and admitted to alcohol as a contributing factor (thought it had never been that way for me). He said he wouldn’t ever tell anyone and would appreciate it if I did the same. He had a reputation to maintain, and a rumor like this might affect his chances to date girls. Also, it was embarrassing – “We both should be embarrassed. Aren’t you?” I asked him if he had planned to tell me today, or if it was coincidence, since I’m the one who asked him to hang out-

He interrupted. He said he figured I knew what was going on when I asked him to meet.
He asked if I wanted to grab dinner. You know, to stay friends maybe.
I said I was fine.
He brought his lips together and shrugged.
He said see you around.
I said okay.

I didn’t go home that night. I remember sitting down in the middle of the commons, head tilted down at a half angle, thinking it all through. I had shed all out my outerwear onto the table in front of me into a lump of exoskeleton. He had the same secret as me, and yet we came to wildly different outcomes. I refused to believe the “girl” bullshit. He had this, and he wanted to give up for his own real reasons. And I had had the exact opposite reaction, despite having the exact same experience. How could that happen? How could one face truth and possibility and just give up? I had turned my back on all that I had learned – I had chosen feeling over faith and ignored my upbringing. I had given up on that and ruined it. God no longer wanted me, I knew. All for this, for Oliver.

A friend found me in the middle of the night on a shortcut. The commons ran through campus, so a walk from a party to the dorms often included a respite of warmth inside. He didn’t know my secret but knew something was wrong. He approached me happily, linked in arms with his girlfriend. She noticed first and asked if I wanted to sleep in their dorm that night. I agreed.

He said he didn’t know what was going on, but he loved me.
I said thank you.
He said I looked scary.
I asked how?
He said it looked like I was ready to give up.
I asked how?
He said he didn’t know but it just looked that way.
I said I was sure I would be fine.

A Better Deal: Psalms 31 – 40

(This is the fourth part of a multi-part entry. Check out the first, second, and third entries)

Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.
Psalms 32:2 (NIV)

Nicole kept her promises, just as she said she would. Happy couples tend to make plans and never account for the possibility that a break up might upend them. And so after our conversation on the concrete bench on that Autumn day, we decided to make good on all our plans – all the rehearsals and the classes together – out of both stubbornness and loyalty. She showed up ready to work at our first rehearsal of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and never made it awkward. We attended ballroom dance class together and fell for it – decided to join the competitive team on campus as partners. Our class together that semester – a “Science of the Oceans” class meant only for the poets and athletes at the university – kept us actively in each other’s lives. And it was all great. It was almost as if we had never broken up.

It was better actually.

She was my confidante during rehearsals – someone to complain and commiserate with.
She was my partner in ballroom – connected, focused, and motivated.
She was my sleeping-in friend in our science class – that’s what we called it when we both slept through the class and then grabbed lunch at Chick-fil-A instead.

We were such better friends than romantic partners.

She started coming to my apartment between classes – it was either that or trudge back to hers on the other side of campus. We watched The Office while finishing homework – laughing at the reruns like it was the first time. Ballroom competitions became a regular occurrence – which meant weekend trips and long car rides to cities all over the Northeast – Birmingham, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston. Rooms were sparse so – sure we could split one if it helps. And rehearsals stretched far into the night; who wouldn’t carpool in that circumstance? It just made sense.

Yeah, we went to everyone’s plays together. Sure I saw her opening night in Steel Magnolias – and every night after that. I don’t remember exactly when she started sleeping over, but you understand why, with all the classes together, and the weekend trips, and the hang outs with mutual friends, and – what would you have had us do? Travel separately and do it all alone… together?

Nicole knew about my “dabbling” – a not-so-clever title for my queer trysts – but it never bothered her. In fact, it was a piece of my personality that she enjoyed thoroughly – it provided her a slightly different perspective from those of all the straight dudes around her. It lowered her inhibitions. Without the prospect of a romantic relationship, we suddenly focused on things far deeper.

No, we are not boyfriend and girlfriend… Why does everyone keep asking us that?

One afternoon, between science class and ballroom practice, we sat on my couch, each completing respective assignments. I was leisurely writing a short story due for my workshop later that week – she was preparing a speech for her public speaker seminar. Neither was due tomorrow, or even the next day – no urgency. We sat in complete silence; there was no need to entertain one another. Content in each other’s presence alone…

And that’s when I realized I had a girlfriend.

An Out: Psalms 21 – 30

(This is the third part of a multi-part entry. Check out the first and second entries)

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Psalms 22:9-10 (NIV)

Campus was situated between a pair of small mountain ranges that gave the weather an evasive quality. Storms – rain or snow in nature – always lurked as a possibility, ready to threaten any outdoor plans. Late in Fall, a stable layer of clouds descended onto the valley and held on until mid Spring, creating a gray haze that enveloped the school. I had asked Nicole to meet me by the concrete benches outside our theater club’s venue, and the Seattle-like weather hung above me as I waited. It seemed too early for the perma-clouds – it was only September after all. Early winter, I thought. Couldn’t stop it.

We had made plans together. I was slated to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? near Christmas, and she had signed on to be my assistant director. We also had classes together, including a new ballroom dance venture – an easy way to get gym credits. We had plans as soon as that evening – a cast party for a play put on by our mutual friends. Everyone would notice if we came separately or not at all. Six months had passed since the laundry room night, a few less since we had made it “official.” But I could not do it anymore, so it needed to end.

She sauntered into view from around the building, and I stood to meet her. During her fifty-yard walk up, the justifications began to rattle through my brain like a Rolodex. The reasons, hidden and pronounced – not my type, too needy and overbearing, I needed space, I needed to focus on me, bad timing, bad communication, bad chemistry – I had not picked a reason yet – stay friends, take a break, pick up later, take a step back – I had not decided on an exit strategy. This was odd behavior for me; I was a “planner.” But I could not tolerate the self-analysis that such thought would uncover. I knew better than that.

She knew and said it immediately. My gaze fell to the ground – relief and more pressure. How did she know that I wanted to break up? Was I so transparent? I offered her an out if it was too awkward. She could back out of the assistant director gig with no hard feelings – I could late drop the ballroom dance class if she wanted space – I could skip the cast party that night. Nicole narrowed her eyes and smiled. “I don’t need an out,” she said with a cool defiance. “But you can take it if you need it.”

The idea of seeing her on a near daily basis, between rehearsals and classes… it felt insurmountable. Facing the failed experiment, the attempt to overcome, the loss of my own sexual holy war. And here she was saying, “You can take the out if you need it.” It was a dare.

I needed it, I needed it. I would not ask for it.

“Then I’ll see you at the cast party tonight.” She patted my thigh. We hugged loosely. She walked away, leaving me to my concrete bench.

But I would never make it to the party that night, I already knew for certain. Sure, I had indicated to her that I would man up and attend, that I would not let the awkwardness of a fresh break up impede our social plans – but silent no-showing was always the plot. Sure, everyone would notice. Sure, our friends would ask questions of her. Of course, they would build an opinion against me. But I would not witness any of it, so it would be just as easy to pretend otherwise.

Besides, I had other plans that night to keep me busy.

My phone buzzed. A text from Oliver. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months – had been warming back up to each other via texts, e-mails, Facebook messages.

He asked if I still wanted to hang out that night.
I said sure.
He asked where.
I said wherever.
He said it looked like it might rain, with the hovering perma-clouds and all.
I agreed.
He suggested his apartment.
I said I would be right over.

Whispers: 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 2

Elijah the Great Prophet. Drought Settles. God v. god. A Glorious Revealing. An Appropriate Assistant. Blood for Dogs. Taken to Heaven.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19:11a-12 (NIV)

The lure of the Summer Service Project, or “Missions Trip,” grabbed a hold of me in eighth grade. In February, Pastor Hank started challenging us to pray about the summer trip – a week in an un-gentrified part of town, sleeping in sleeping bags and weeding lawns full of dandelions and Coors bottles. Could make some friends, could get lice, could build a tan from all that sun-work. So I followed his command and prayed about it, but my mind had been made up long ago about it. My brother did it the year before, and he brought back stories of all night games of sardines and cheesy gross dares and wrestling matches on the foam pads in the pre-school room. No thought to be had or prayers to be prayed – I was going.

What compelled me to go? Was it the serving, the playing, the constant games of dodgeball? It wasn’t God.

And then the internship at my church, the idea being that I would be a “peer mentor” to the middle schoolers going into high school, and since I was a Freshman in college and all, they would look up to me. Duties included fellowship with the kids and leading small group Bible studies, and then there was the expense account to take the guys out on day trips to Six Flags and the movies. A perk involved taking a diverse group of students to Creation, a Christian version of Woodstock, but that seemed much more like a downside to me. It would be a fun summer job, something to keep me busy, long hours, and what else would I be doing? I took the job and didn’t regret it; it was a great, memorable summer.

But why did I say yes? Was it the fellowship, the leadership, the free trips to theme parks? God was involved certainly – I took this one more seriously. But it wasn’t all God.

Then there was Oliver, who came to my theater party and danced like a dancer and drank too much and hugged me for three seconds too long. It took pestering a half dozen friends before someone felt comfortable giving his number to me. The excuses I made – he told me he wanted to read a play of mine and he left his sunglasses at my house… yes I know the party was at night. But I got it. No one encouraged me to text him; this was all my doing. And I did. I invited him to hang out that evening, on a lazy Sunday night. And he said yes. And I told my roommates to scram, because I had a lady coming over. And they grinned and grimaced and took their books and left.

No one told me to do it, nothing overtly compelling came forward. No… it was a whisper that said, go ahead… you want this, can’t you feel it? The hushed voice continued and sometimes fluctuated and said, stop, do you know what you’re doing, the horror, the horror, and just as quickly it’d whip around back to, but it feels good… so it is good.

It was a whisper.

Elijah is a spiritual superstar complete with unshakable Godly loyalty and a command over miraculous events. He parts the Jordan River by dipping his robe in the waters; fire pummels the Earth with a flick of his index finger. The authors of 1 and 2 Kings record no sinful behavior on his part, which is remarkable considering his company – not only the fallen leaders who have parted ways with their Creator but also a horde of angry denizens crying out for his head. God shuttles him off to the heavens before death befalls him – the only human to be awarded such a fate with the exception of Jesus Christ himself. But before accomplishing all of these exceptional feats… before crossing the Jordan and raining plagues and blessings from God, before thrusting into the hammocks of Paradise… God called upon Elijah to climb a mountain to meet Him.

As he climbed, the wind roared against him, but we are told that God was not in the wind.
Then the Earth shook from its core, but God did not cause the earthquake.
Then a fire burst forth and swallowed the area around it, but the fire was not from God.
And when all of the muck settled, a whisper sauntered in and hit Elijah’s ear – a faint voice that commanded him.

It was God.

The Spiral: 1 Samuel 18 – 31

The Spiral began the morning after.

The light in the room felt unusually bright, and then I remembered – the blizzard that had holed us up. I rolled out of the guest room bed and approached the frosty window. The streets were clear – the blizzard turned out to be merely a dusting, so my parents would not be stuck in Boston for much longer. It needed to end anyhow, like these things do. Time to return to the normal swing of things, to enter my room and get Dan to leave, to let things be silent for a suitable amount of time, and then finally, to tell him I am just not interested in guys. The plan would work if I stuck to the script. The snow began melting as the heat cranked up from the day’s sun, and soon it would be gone completely.

Time to go Dan. And let’s never discuss this again.

It took less than a day for Dan to ask to discuss it. He messaged me that night on AOL Instant Messenger well into the evening, almost 24 hours from the initiation. I gave him the updates – slept most of the day, parents got back, hid any evidence – but he cut straight to the chase. This shouldn’t be the last time we hang out like this. I let the comment stand before he said We could be boyfriends.

I said No. The exact words… I cannot remember. There was some dancing around, some sidestepping. I know I told him I was straight (or perhaps I said, I am not gay). Whatever I said, he got the point. Our friendship ended that night, despite the promises to “stay friends,” to “stay normal.” Closet cases cannot recover from such experiences. We cannot face ourselves much less anyone else. And those with our secret… they need to go. It is self-preservation, as primal as the fight-or-flight instinct. Because make no mistake, to be gay is death.

It took a year before I took a second lap around the Spiral. My theater club in college, aptly named No Refund Theatre because all our shows were free, hosted a party every weekend to coincide with our weekly performances. When I joined the club my second day of Freshman year, I believed whole heartedly that I had met a group of people passionate about theater. In fact, they were most interested in drinking, and theater was the excuse. I had not drank since that night with Dan a year earlier, but that did not stop me from going to the cast parties to watch everyone drink.

I did not know Oliver, but I knew of him through a fellow No Refund Thespian. Oliver partook in the booze provided at the parties and insinuated himself around, gliding on sure feet and a swimmer’s demeanor. His voice hovered in a register between distinguishable ages, and his eyes changed color on a daily basis from varied contact lenses. I did not like him right away, and that was his intention. This was Freshman year at a college 50,000 students deep – he did not need to make the life-long friends yet, just the acquaintances to keep him entertained. He had a way of talking to someone just long enough to make an impression and escaping before the real connection was made. And his strategy seemed clear to me from the get go: clipped, broad conversation and repeated physical touch.I think he enjoyed keeping people at arm’s length. Be a myth, not a man. And it worked: Everyone knew of him, but no one knew him.

The party thinned until Oliver and I could not be separated any longer. We waited in line for the bathroom when he told me that he was glad to have met me.

But we didn’t really meet. I said. His eyes were blue that night.

“Well we’re meeting now!” He exclaimed, throwing his voice up a notch and back a few years. We talked for a few minutes while waiting for the bathroom, about theater and friends, college and change. He told me he danced, and I said I had no interest, but I admired it. He leaned against the wall and slid down it to the floor – drunk. He told me to join him down there, but I helped him back to his feet instead. He called me a gentleman and continued to hold my hand even after regaining his footing.

And then he hugged me. He hugged me for about three seconds too long.

Two weeks later while eating brunch – the gayest meal of the day – I sat across from Oliver and stared into his eyes, freshly turned hazel. I told him simply, We could be boyfriends.

And he said No.

Intuitively, you think a rejection might stop the Spiral, but actually it does the opposite. It launches you around at twice the pace as before.

And the moment he said no, off I went for another loop.