“I think I’ll call you Esther Bigley,” I said as I pushed the paddle in the lazy river, directing the canoe straighter in the water.
Esther turned toward me in the boat, laughing. “Okay, but why?”
“I was in a story-telling group at BYU-Idaho when I was there. The director wrote all of these funny little one-off stories about monsters and fairy tales. And in one of them, there was a townsperson character named Esther Bigley. Just seems like a fitting nickname.”
She laughed and gave me a challenging look. “Okay, fine. You can call me Esther Bigley if I can call you Chad Bigley.”
I extended a hand, in a mock formal fashion, and shook hers. “You have yourself a deal.”
“Chad Bigley! You’re in Washington D.C.! We must get together!”
I had spent the morning walking miles, seeing sights and reflecting along the way, looking at the grandeurs of Union Station, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court. And now, standing there in the promenade, was my old friend Esther, who I hadn’t seen in 14 years. She looked gorgeous, thin and athletic, with beautiful blonde hair and a stylish white rain coat.
I gave her the hugest hug. “Oh my god, you look incredible!”
“So do you!” We were practically shouting as we embraced. We walked across several blocks together, talking about our life changes, and how happy we both are with our lives. It felt absolutely wonderful seeing her after all this time.
That summer at Mack’s Inn Dinner Theater had drug on and on, through rehearsals and work days. Esther was playing the lead character in Calamity Jane while I played the cross-dressing actor Francis Fryer, and we both had parts in the other show, the Unsinkable Molly Brown. The cast was a group of mostly Mormon kids, struggling to fit in, a group of cool kids and nerds, jocks and returned missionaries. We put on our shows for older crowds of people and families who were camping in the Idaho forest. They crammed their plates full of food then sat at tables and watched our productions from uncomfortable chairs.
Esther and I became friends early on, somehow feeling like kindred souls, a bit older and wiser in ways than the others. We made buttered toast and played board games, drove to local cities to explore, and talked about life.
She had come to Macks Inn from BYU-Provo, where she had gone to school in theater; I had come from BYU-Idaho, where I had been a social work major who had also acted in several productions. Her family was from Pennsylvania, where I had served my mission. We had a lot to talk about.
Once, while sitting at a table next to Esther during a rehearsal, our hands touched, and neither of us moved our hands. As the director droned on, I had thought about how this would be the perfect little summer romance, this cool theater girl who was quirky and hilarious and who seemed to like me, and how our hands touching like this should have sent sparks. But I kept finding my eyes drawing to the director himself, a straight married man, as well as a couple of the other actors, both who had girlfriends. I had mentally kicked myself, wondering why I couldn’t just make myself like girls, why I couldn’t just be normal.
I pulled my hand away.
“Tell me about your life! I want to know everything!”
Esther picked a French fry off her plate and dipped in ketchup while I took a large jaw-full of black bean burger. She lit up as she told me about meeting her new boyfriend and how she had just moved into a small Virginia town to be with him. She talked about the insanity of pursuing an acting career in an insular town for over a decade. She told me about her work, and about his work, and about her family.
A moment of silence passed and I smiled at her. “You look happy. More than just happy. Like you are happy with your life, and you are also doing things that challenge you, and that you are loving your present. The boyfriend, the job, the challenges, the world around you, all of it. Your countenance, it’s–you look great.”
She smiled broadly. “I am happy! But you look happy too!”
I ate another huge bite and finished chewing before I spoke. “I am. It has taken me years to get to this spot. But life is good now. I’m out of debt, the kids are thriving, and while Utah isn’t ideal, I get to travel often and find connections like this wherever I go. I am making up for all that lost time.”
“Isn’t it crazy that we had to wait until our late thirties to find happy?”
“Yes! But late 30s is so much better than 50s and 60s.”
We shared a smile and kept eating.
One day, hanging out on the couch with Esther after a show, we were watching Strictly Ballroom, one of her favorite films. She was working on her college thesis, an in-depth examination of all three of Baz Luhrman’s films, including Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. She talked about her theories of his film genius often.
Esther and I sat near each other, but not overly close. She started talking again about the acting community at BYU, and how it felt to be one of the older girls in the program (though she was only 25) and the pressure there was in the church college to marry and settle down. I laughed with her, and shared my usual story of being so focused on school that I didn’t take a lot of time to date, and how the gospel was the most important thing, and that I would get married eventually.
“You know, I knew a couple of gay guys at school. Close friends of mine. They aren’t out or anything, you can’t be there, but there are a lot there, especially in the theater program.”
I got goose bumps on my arms and my heart started thumping. Could she tell I was gay? I was so careful at hiding it. I mentally cursed myself–this is why I didn’t let people get close to me. There is no way she could tell, could she?
Esther kept talking. “One time a gay friend and I made out. It was fun, just pure fun. I mean, I know he isn’t into girls, but we just did it for fun. He was a good kisser, too.”
My brain was spinning a thousand miles an hour. Why was she telling me this? Was she saying that she could tell that I was gay and that she was cool with it and maybe she wanted to make out? I still hadn’t kissed a girl, should I? Or was she just talking, being friendly?
I stood up abruptly. “Well, I better get going, I’m feeling pretty sleepy, good night.” I rushed out of there, into the dark mountain night, kicking myself and wondering if I would ever have a first kiss.
I gave Esther a big hug after zipping up my jacket.
“Do you want a ride?” she asked me.
“No, I want to walk through the city some more. It’s my last day here. But it has been amazing to see you. Truly. This was wonderful.”
We made promises to get together next time she was in Utah. I turned back as I started walking away.
“See you soon, Esther Bigley.”