Colors of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka dance on her olive skin, sunlight filtering through their flags. We sit with coffee between us at the local prayer house in the bookstore, while further in the building, diligent worshipers pace, kneel, cry.
But we are not pacing. We are not kneeling. We will be crying.
We’ve been laughing about nothing and everything for at least an hour. The coffee is now lukewarm, and as the exchange dies down, the only thing that drowns out the silence is screeching milk and cherished memories…
…Kidnapping my best friend on his birthday to watch one of the most disappointing sunrises in history.
…Napping on a mini-golf bridge after watching the elderly powerwalk through the mall.
…Dancing besides a pond under the moonlight after bailing out on Homecoming — the silence and discarded Chik-fil-A wrappers far better company than the beating music and throbbing bodies.
I smile as the memories return. Every moment meaning so much…
…meant so much.
“This has to end. We’re going in separate directions.” I don’t look up from my not-hot coffee.
I coach myself with the wisdom of an adult as the painful words exit my mouth, unable to be redacted.
But I’m not an adult. I’m sixteen.
You don’t think about mature things like marriage and kids and careers and all those heavy but lovely things at sixteen. You’re barely thinking about college. Instead, you should be thinking about the latest video game that just came out, the acne that refuses to go away after you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on skin care, the cliques at school that you both hate and want to be a part of, what homework you forgot about over the weekend, and, most importantly, cute, annoying, immature love.
But not for me. It’s always been heavy.
Love. It’s no joking matter. It’s for keeps. It’s for a future together. For marriage. It’s for propagating the world with more of your acne-ridden spawn.
So this had to end.
I take a deep breath. I muster courage. I act mature.
“We’re going in different directions. You want to move to Africa and be a missionary, and I want to move to the city. I love you, but we’re eventually going to have to part ways, and that’s not fair for either of us. We need to stop now before this hurts worse than it already will. I can’t be your boyfriend, but the man who gets to be your boyfriend down the road will be so lucky to have you. You’re amazing! We’re just not going in the same direction. We need to end this.”
Silence floats between us. Then comes the foreshadowed crying.
Through soggy eyes and a weak smile, she looks at me and says, “Thank you… of all the things you’ve done, this is the moment I have felt most loved and cared for by you because you fought for my heart.”
I smile back at her, matching her tears. Of all the moments, of all those unforgettable moments, this is the one that she felt the most cared for — the moment we say goodbye.
We get out of the car. Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka are nowhere to be seen. Tonight, there is only one flag: the United States stands at half-mast. Someone has died.
There’s barely any wind. Just enough to have the cleats knock against the pole, clanging as we walk towards the prayer house doors.
My dad leads me forward. His pace is quick and determined.
“Pick it up.” He calls but doesn’t look back. His gaze is fixed on the door.
I quicken my pace but don’t look up. My eyes gaze at the ground, and my hands fidget in my pockets.
I don’t want to be here.
The two of us enter the main prayer room where he points to a chair, telling me to take a seat.
Still no eye contact.
He exits the room, leaving me alone with nothing but a massive globe slowly rotating for company… well… that and a pungent smell.
It’s hard to describe. But anyone that’s been to the prayer house knows it well. I grasp for the source of it. Clean sweat or sweaty cleaner. Makes sense.
Thousands of men and women have laid prostrate in this room, sobbing into that dated carpet. For years, desperate teens have paced and rocked and jumped till sweat danced down their bodies, joining the tears. They both find a final resting place in that rug.
Faithful custodians have attempted to remove it, day after day, but it hasn’t worked. The smell refuses to leave, only now the salty musk is accompanied with a hint of freshness.
The mingled scents produce a comforting affect; it’s as if hard labor will bring about cleanliness, as if simple tears and sweat will produce purification.
That’s why my dad had brought me here — to purify me with sweat and tears, to make me clean, to make me straight.
That’s right. My dad brought me here, to the house of prayer, to “pray the gay away.”
It was the only thing he could think to do after catching me looking at gay porn just moments prior.
“What are you looking at, Brandon?!” The screen had frozen while my heart did nothing of the sort. It threatened to burst out of my chest, just like my secret, a secret so dark and shameful, I had been hiding it for five years.
But here it was. Frozen. In the open. For my dad to see. And I was terrified.
“Brandon. What. Is. That?!” His finger pointed to the screen, shaking in rage. He kept asking the same question over and over and over again, as if asking it enough would change the answer: his son was looking at gay porn.
But the relentless questions didn’t resolve the problem. He had to find a different solution.
The prayer house.
My dad returns, looking directly at me. He finally looked at me. But he didn’t meet my eyes. It’s as if my sin were his. He doesn’t say a word. He touches me on the shoulder and motions me to follow, leading me out of the main room into a side corridor.
He opens a closet and closes it behind us. The irony is palpable, stronger than the clean musk.
And there he prays. But he never says the word “gay,” as if saying it would make it real.
Instead, he closes his eyes, and looks with his soul to a reality he wants to see — a straight son, and maybe if he prayed hard enough, sweated long enough, and squeezed those eyes so tight, tight enough to form tears then maybe the reality in his mind would become real. Maybe his son would be made clean.
But just like that clean musk, the smell refused to go away. The gay refused to go away. And as the father prays, his son stands in shock. Frozen. Exposed. Like the men on the screen. But now it’s him. Sitting in a closet. Again.
Outside my windshield, hundreds of American flags flap violently in the wind, just like my stomach.
It’s as if I had swallowed an entire hive of bumblebees — they refuse to be still as questions knock in my chest.
What will it be like?
What do I do?
Should I be wearing something less nice?
Were skinny jeans too much?
Am I caring too much about what I wear?
Should I care less?
Does he care?
Should I pretend like I don’t care?
What’s that smell?
We had been talking via text for weeks, never hearing each other’s voice. Then, we mustered the courage for a phone call, never seeing each other’s face. Then, we FaceTimed, never letting our bodies touch.
But now it was time. Now he was on his way to meet me. Now I was panicking.
At the prayer house.
The prayer house where I broke up with my girlfriend.
The prayer house where my dad tried to pray me straight in a closet.
And now, the prayer house where I was going to meet up with a man for my first gay date.
The bumblebees refused to be silent.
Is this what it’s supposed to feel like?
Am I supposed to feel this much?
Care this much?
Ask this many questions?
Did I put on deodorant?
Do gay guys care if you wear deodorant?
Do they want you to smell nice like girls do? Or do they want you to “smell like a man”?
I sit in my Jeep in silence. My mind, nothing but silent. The flags whip.
Then his Jeep appears in the distance.
My stomach lurches as the bees swarm louder.
Am I really doing this?
What will everyone think?
Do I even want this?
What happens if it goes poorly?
What happens if it goes well?
WHAT HAPPENS IF IT GOES WELL?
I really can’t remember if I put on deodorant!
He pulls up adjacent to me.
We roll down our windows together.
The bees stop.
The questions stop.
And all that can be heard is the thunder of the flags as they violently thrash as two men hold each other’s gaze.