Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

First Love

FirstLove My first week at Ricks College started just two weeks after I returned from my Mormon mission in January of 2000. I spent my last months as a missionary in rural Delaware, and I just no longer gave a shit. By the end, I was going through the motions, knocking on the doors and following the rules, for the most part, but I stopped praying, studying the scriptures, and journaling. I realized by that point that a cure for homosexuality was just not possible, no matter how dedicated I was or how many people I converted.

I lived at home with my mother and little sister during that first semester. I slept in my old bedroom, four walls that felt so familiar. The same painting of Jesus on the wall, the bookshelves full of bagged and boarded comic books, the same clothes in the closet. It smelled the same. The air hit the walls in the same way. But I was different. I was 21 now.

I got a full-time job working at a call center for a pyramid company, a place where customers signed up to receive monthly orders for a fee, as they worked on signing up new customers on a monthly basis so they could unlock new benefits. The shifts were busy, but they paid a bit above minimum wage, and I needed the cash. Full-time school plus a vehicle and insurance and gas money, well, it was going to add up over the next few years.

And so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I drove the 45 minutes from Shelley, Idaho to Rexburg, Idaho in my little two-wheel drive red truck. It performed well enough, except when going up hills, or in wind, or in the snow, but I made it work.

I signed up for 15 credits that first semester. I’d start with the basics, working toward my declared major in Social Work. I had English, History, Introduction to Acting, Men’s Choir, and a Book of Mormon class.

It felt amazing to be on campus. There was an energy in the brisk winter air, a group of like-minded youth, people who mostly looked like me and believed the same as me. The buildings bore the names of prominent Mormon leaders from the past. It was common for classes to begin with prayer and sometimes hymns or a scripture shared that was relevant to the chemistry or classic literature or algebra lesson. In this learning environment, we already knew that the Book of Mormon was true, there was no need to debate about it, so a study of the American Revolution could automatically, and without argument, include the history of the Nephites. I was hungry for knowledge. And, if I’m honest, for escape from myself.

My best friend, Jesse, from high school was already a student there. We got together for lunch every day I was on campus. After lunch, we headed out into the courtyard where we could, and I quote, “Scope on girls”. We used a 5 to 10 rating system for the girls that walked past. I know it was supposed to go one to ten, but we seemed to have an unspoken agreement that putting anyone below a 5 felt cruel. Mormon college girls everywhere. Blondes and brunettes, tall and short, leaner and heavier. We commented on the ones who wore too much make-up, or the ones that didn’t realize how pretty they were, on the ones who seemed to have good solid testimonies and sweet spirits. We laughed about how some of the girls were probably there to get married, but how they likely wouldn’t find anyone before they turned 21 and so they would just end up going on missions themselves. Once in a while, we saw a girl as young as 18 or 19 pushing a baby carriage, walking toward married student housing. Jesse said he couldn’t wait for that, finding a girl to carry his children. He said that, but I knew what he meant, that he was very excited to be able to start having sex and hopefully soon.

One day, over lunch, Jesse asked if we could sit in a remote corner of the lunchroom so he could talk freely. He was wearing a green t-shirt with wolves on it, and it was very tight. He had a muscular chest, big shoulders and arms, and an insane smile. I made sure I was looking right into his eyes as he talked, but that wasn’t necessarily easier. His blue eyes were piercing. He was so damn handsome.

“Dude!” He always called me dude. “So there is this girl Ava from my science class. She’s a total 9. Blonde hair, perfect lips, amazing body. We were flirting and she gave me her number and we texted a bit and then Saturday night she basically booty called me. She told me to meet her in the Gardens. She had to sneak out cause it was past curfew at the dorms, but we met there and made out for like two hours. And then like back in my car for another two hours. It was the hottest make-out I’ve ever had, like ever. She kept like sucking on my tongue, like it was a popsicle. Like I was just sitting there forever like ‘bleeeeeh’ and she’s just sucking on it. It was weird but awesome. And then she had to hop the gate to sneak back in. It was so so hot. I think I’m going to ask her to the dance this weekend, but I’m going to have to wear like four extra pairs of briefs over my garments cause I’m totally gonna end up getting hard dancing with her and that would be so awkward if she noticed. Dude, it was so amazing. How about you, have you been macking on any girls, or are you still part of the VL Club?”

I put on my familiar grin, the same one I’d been using since high school in conversations like these. VL Club stood for Virgin Lips Club. And yes, I was still a part of it. “I just haven’t found the right girl yet.”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Dude! How long are you going to wait! You’re 21 and you haven’t even kissed a girl yet!”

He kept talking, listing all the girls from high school that he remembered, girls that, according to him, I could have made out with if I wanted to. But he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. It was him I wanted to make out with. I met Jesse when I was 15, back when things at home were going so bad. He transferred into school my sophomore year, half-way through the semester, after his parents’ divorce. He was super cute. And he was nice to me. We hung out all the time. He considered me his best friend. I hadn’t really had one of those before. And the next two years had been full of video games and movies, double dates, pizza, church activities, and sleepovers. He talked about hot girls constantly, and always wondered why I didn’t. There were times back then when he would sleep over and share a bed with me. He’d lay next to me and my heart would thump so hard in the darkness. I was aware of his body right next to mine, his breathing. He slept in a pair of briefs, that’s it. I could just reach over and grab his hand, or his leg, or his—And the very thought of that had always left me nauseous because I knew it was so wrong. I just wanted him. I wanted him to notice me. I wanted him to want me in the way that I wanted him. But it would never happen. It couldn’t. I was broken, designed wrong. I couldn’t ever let him know how I felt. He’d never be making out with me in the gardens on a Saturday night and bragging about it the following Monday. I’d never suck on his tongue like a popsicle in his car. He’d never go on a date with me and wear four extra pairs of briefs to hide his arousal. He wasn’t gay. He was normal, and I was the one who was broken. I was in love with a guy who couldn’t possibly love me back, and I was so ashamed that I couldn’t even talk to God about it. I couldn’t even put it in my journal, because what if my future kids read this about me. This was cruelty in its sharpest form, it felt like. It felt unbearable.

Jesse hit my arm with a closed fist. “Dude! Where did your brain go just then? Look over your shoulder, ten o’clock. There are like eight hotties all at one table, all of them are eights or above. Let’s walk over there and introduce ourselves.”

I looked over. The girls noticed us looking and some of them smiled, Jesse and I smiled back. I turned back to Jesse. “Look, I’ve got a paper due in English, actually. I should head to the library and finish it before class.” There I was with another excuse about why I wasn’t dating women. I was so used to lying now, to others and to myself, that it didn’t even feel like lying anymore.

Jesse punched my shoulder a little harder. “Priorities, elder!” He still called me ‘Elder’, a term he had used during his own missionary service to the other guys around him. It was almost a term of affection for him. “This is what is going to happen. This weekend, we are going on a double date. I will set you up. Me and Ava, you with one of her roommates or something. And you will finish that date with a kiss. You’re just gonna lean over and kiss her right on the mouth when she’s least expecting it. And I will watch you do it. You got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” I laughed outwardly, but the second I walked away, my smile died right there on my face, and a deep furrow settled between my eyebrows. I remembered being 11 years old, a full decade before, and my best friend Jason at the time making me stay after school and shoot basketball until I finally made a basket from the free throw line. I’d been making excuses, finding reasons not to play with him because I hated sports, but he told me I wasn’t leaving that blacktop until I scored one basket. “We’ll make a man out of you yet!” he had said to me then. Or my brother, when I was five, telling me I had to kiss a girl to be a real man. Or my mission president just a few months before saying that the Lord had a beautiful wife in store for me as a reward for being a faithful missionary. It all felt eerily similar to Jesse trying to force my first kiss. “And I will watch you do it,” he had said. I walked away from that conversation, deeply angry and horribly ashamed.

That weekend, I got mysteriously ill and couldn’t make it on the date. The rest of the semester passed. We continued scoping out girls at lunchtime. Jesse went through a few girlfriends. I moved to campus and became Jesse’s roommate, sleeping one bed over from him. And I started drowning myself in everything. I worked full time. I took 18 or 21 credits at a time. I auditioned for school plays so I could perform in the evenings. I went on dates and to dances and I was perfectly respectful to every girl, but still no kiss. I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t scared, I just wasn’t wired for it, it grossed me out. I respected women, liked them so much, but there was nothing romantic or chemical for me there. I desperately wanted to be cast as the romantic lead in a school play so that I could force myself to finally kiss a girl, but it never happened. In fact, I wouldn’t kiss anyone until I was 27, and that would be the girl I would marry. We dated for six years, off and on, and I kissed her for the first time on the night that I told her I was gay.

Jesse and I went on to be roommates in college for the next three years. He slept in his underwear, he walked around nude, he had girls over. And in time, I somehow just got over my crush. It went away, it died inside me like my hopes for a future where I would be happy. Being gay wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t make myself straight, so what else was there except to keep going on, lying and being sad.

In 2004, Jesse got married to a gorgeous woman from California, and I was his best man. I stood at his side smiling, posing in the photos. At the reception, he pulled me aside and gave me a huge bear hug. “Dude!” he whispered. “I got married! I’m about to get so laid!”

And I was happy for him. How could I not be? He had it all now, the wife, the temple marriage, the future eternal family, and the best friend still at his side, cheering him on. The best friend that he knew better than anyone. The best friend that he didn’t know at all.

City of Trees

CityofTrees.jpgThe colors are more muted than I remember. It’s still pretty, but the greens, browns, and blues seem to dull at the edges and blend in to each other.

I remember the first time I drove to Boise as an adult. I had only been here a few times as a teenager, on trips with the high school band perhaps, but at the age of 23 I packed my little red truck full of my things and drove from southeastern Idaho to southwestern, and along the way the potato fields, volcanic rock, and white capped mountains shifted to green trees and brown hills, beautiful but a different kind. The Snake River moved from one side of the state to the other along with me.

My life was so different in 2004. After over two years at a Mormon-run school, which had followed a two year missionary service, I had spent a summer mourning my life (and my inability to cure my homosexuality) at a little mountain theater, playing roles in mediocre plays, walking trails, and reading books in isolation. Now, Boise beckoned, a brand new world. I had a scholarship, I found a cheap apartment, and I could always make friends in my new Mormon ward. Life was full of possibilities.

I was shifting from an all-Mormon campus to a secular one. People wore shorts here, and smoked cigarettes. They had beards. There was much more ethnic diversity (if still not much), and I sometimes saw gay guys now, which just baffled me and scrambled my senses. My first teacher in my first class used the word ‘fuck’, and my history professor told us that the Bible had no historical accuracy. I was stunned, intrigued, and ready for a new life.

Now, in 2018, Boise feels… safe. It’s not like home. It’s been too long since I’ve been here. I’ve changed too much. But it feels quaint, open, protected. It’s been nearly 15 years, and the city has changed as much as I have, but it’s still the same. The same buildings, the same river running beautifully behind the same picturesque campus, the same streets winding around the state capitol building. But the people are all different, occupying the benches, paths, and corners where I used to dwell.

Memories come haphazardly, quietly, non-intrusively. The apartment where my little sister told me she was gay and I yelled at her in response. The parking lot where the mentally ill client threatened my life. The gazebo where I saw two men kissing, and I knew that I would never be able to find love like that. The greasy burger joint where I would order a triple cheeseburger and a giant package of onion rings. The hotel where I studied social theories in between checking in clients. The tennis courts I worked in, where I should sit anxiously at the desk knowing that all of the male athletes were one locker room away. The institute classroom where the teacher taught us all about the Plan of Salvation, God’s grand scheme, the one I didn’t fit into. The therapy office where the counselor said he thought being gay was the source of my depression, and I stormed out in fury. The library room where I spent an entire weekend polishing a policy paper on the death penalty, it later being published in a professional review. The charity home I worked in, where I was once caught watching porn after hours. The Mormon temple where I attended services every week, trying to prove to God I was worthy enough. The city park bench where the girl I’d been dating told me abruptly that if I didn’t finally kiss her it was over. The town hall where, as an actor, I played a dead body for a drunken crowd, and a woman in a nun costume, who was part of the audience, came up to the stage and grabbed my ass, saying to laughter “I have to make sure he’s dead.”

Walking the streets now, I can only wonder what my current life might be like had I come out back then, at 23, when I began to realize what a gay life might mean for me. I would almost assuredly have still finished college with the same degree, and worked many of the same jobs. I would have found plenty of support. My family would have adapted, after their initial grief and pain. I would have left Mormonism and started dating, finding connections and strength along the way. I would never have married, would never have broken hearts when I later divorced. But then my sons would never have been born. Would I have been a parent still? Would I have settled down with one partner and built a life from the ground up? Would I still be acting and singing? Would I have traveled the world? Would I be living in Seattle, San Francisco, London? Would that extra ten years of happiness, of life, made a substantial difference?

In an alternate universe somewhere, Boise, this City of Trees, represented a different path, a jumping off point that changed everything, and I hope that the Me in that universe is as happy as the Me in this one is right now.

Another Broken Heart

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December, 2001

The show was a big success! As I walk my date, Erica, across the parking lot to her apartment, she tells me how much she enjoyed watching me in the production, and thanks me for inviting her. It felt great having a beautiful girl there watching me. It felt good to show off to the other cast members and to my roommates that I could date a beautiful girl. Before the play, we’d had a fun dinner at my house and played some games with my roommate and his date. And this is actually the fourth date I’ve been on with Erica. She’s an amazing girl. Talented, plays the violin, has a beautiful voice, and has a solid testimony. She even took me to meet her family over the Thanksgiving break, and they were wonderful people. I can tell she really likes me, and I like her back. I feel like we’ve really got something here.

Plays and productions are a really big deal in Rexburg, Idaho. BYU-I prides itself on talent and on stellar performances, and I’ve carved a niche for myself in it the last few years. Despite an extreme lack of self-confidence, I have become a talented actor, singer, and even comedian in a number of productions. I’ve made a lot of friends and have had some recognition, including my picture in the paper a few times. It feels great to be special. I’ve done a lot of story-telling to live audiences, both on and off campus, like I did tonight. I’ve performed with the choir in general conference, and got to participate in a beautiful cantata that we spent countless hours preparing for. I’ve been in plays and sung solos for live audiences, and I’ve had great feedback and reviews. I even formed an a capella group and we sang live and for groups of beautiful girls.

On top of all of that, I’ve worked hard at staying out of debt through college. Loans have taken care of tuition and books, but I have paid for all my food, housing, and insurance with paychecks. When money has gotten tight, I’ve donated plasma to get extra cash. I’ve been a stellar student, active and organized, and I’ve flown through school with a high GPA, enjoying each of my classes.

All that said, though, I’ve become an expert on walling off my emotions. Everyone feels that they know me, but I have this secret self that I keep hidden. My dear cousin recently said it best when, after a cast party, she told me “Chad, it’s like you are everyone’s friend, but nobody’s best friend.”

As we get closer to the apartment door, Erica grabs my hand. Four dates, and I haven’t held her hand yet. I told her on our last date, when I sensed she wanted that, that I move really slowly, and she’d told me that she was happy to take things slow. I feel anticipation from her tonight in greater waves, though. She’s expecting something. I feel that familiar pit in my stomach grow now.

I’m a great date. In high school, I pretty much always asked out girls I felt bad for. But lately, I’ve been asking out girls I’m intrigued by and interested in, girls that I could see making a good future wife. Even though I’m not physically attracted to them, I have found girls with attractive personalities, and girls I like emotionally. I’m always very attentive, funny, and fun. I plan out elaborate events and make meals and spoil my dates rotten.

We get closer to Erica’s door now and I feel my stomach pulse with anxiety. Erica, still holding my hand, turns to face me. She’s a bit shorter than me and has beautiful red hair. A few snow flakes rest lightly in her hair, and on the lashes above her beautiful blue eyes. She looks into my eyes and I can sense her heart racing, but it is for a completely different reason than mine is racing for.

“I had a wonderful time tonight.” I feel her clutch both of my hands now. She’s ready, and she’s telling me it is time now to kiss her.

I look away. I can’t meet her eyes. Can I do this? It’s just a kiss. I’m 23 years old now, and that is long enough to wait. A first kiss for me, but just a kiss. I like Erica, she likes me, it’s just a kiss. Any other guy would just lean in and kiss her right now. Do it,Chad! It’s just a kiss! A real man would maybe even make out with her. Then he’d tell all his friends about it.

“I had a nice time, too.” Did she sense the panic in my voice? Be careful, I tell myself, or she’ll know something is wrong.

Multiple times in acting roles I have hoped I can be cast as the leading man, not only so that I can prove that I’m a normal guy, but also because I want a chance to kiss the leading lady on stage, just to show I can do it. Then that bridge would be crossed and it would be easier for me to kiss a girl on a date, at least I hope.

I can’t do it, I can’t! I pull Erica in for a hug, releasing her hands and squeezing her shoulders briefly. “Thanks so much for coming out tonight.” I grab her hand in an awkward handshake, then, and begin to step back. My eyes catch hers again, and she looks shocked and saddened. She looks like I’ve rejected her. She must be feeling like she’s not desirable or something. Why can’t I desire her? I mutter another thanks and then begin walking quickly away.

I hear Erica’s door open as I move down the sidewalk. One of her roommates is waiting just inside, and I hear her excited chitter. “Did he do it, did he kiss you?” And then the door closes.

I reach my car. Erica’s response should have been, “Yes! He kissed me and it was magical!” Instead, I picture her running off to her room and crying out “No! What is wrong with me?”

I sit in the car for several minutes watching the snow fall. Rexburg is so cold in December. I hurt Erica tonight, and I didn’t mean to. I should run up to her door and tell her I’m sorry and then just kiss her. I’m going to have to do it some time if I ever want to get married, have a family, and do everything God expects of me. Why couldn’t I have just done it? I curse myself all the way home.

And I never call Erica again.

It’s months later when I get her wedding announcement.