Sebastian texts me before bed every night and first thing every morning. Sometimes they’re as simple as Hey.
Other times they’re longer, but barely. Like the Wednesday after dinner at his house, he sent me a note that said simply, I’m glad we agree on the situation.
I take it to mean we’re definitely together.
I also take it to mean we’re definitely a secret.
Ergo . . . we’re a little homeless. My house is now out of the question. His house is definitely out of the question. We could hang out in my car, but not only does that feel too shady, it feels dangerous, like we’d be inside a fishbowl with a sense of privacy and no real walls.
So—beginning the weekend after we’re busted in my room by Dad—at least twice a week, we hike. Not only does it allow us to get away from prying eyes during a time of year when no one else is out on the mountain, but—at least for me—it helps burn off the extra energy I seem to be carting around. It’s cold as hell some days, but worth it.
Things we have done in the two weeks after he whispered the word “boyfriend” into a kiss:
- Celebrated our one-week and two-week anniversaries, in the cheesiest way possible—cupcakes and handmade cards.
- Stealing knowing glances in every Seminar class we’re in together.
- Passing off letters as subtly as we can—usually under the guise of handing him pages of “my book” to read and him handing them back. (Sidenote: My book is flying out of me, but it’s still not the one I’m supposed to be writing. Thinking about it sends me into a spiraling panic. Moving on.)
- Rereading the letters until the paper is practically falling apart.
- Finding creative use for emojis in texts.
Things we have not done since he whispered the word “boyfriend” into a kiss:
I know it’s hard for both of us to be able to feel closer without feeling closer, but everything else is so good right now, I won’t let the lack of groping pull me down off cloud nine.
Autumn takes a page off the stack of handouts going around the room and drops the pile onto my desk, pulling me out of my fog. Sebastian is at the front of the room, bent over a notebook with Clive and Burrito Dave. It doesn’t matter that Clive is dating Camille Hart and Burrito Dave is dating half the junior class. Jealousy spikes sharply between my ribs.
As if he can sense the fire of my stare, Sebastian glances up and then quickly away, blushing.
“Do you . . . ?” Autumn starts, and then shakes her head. “Never mind.”
“Do I what?”
She leans in, whispering, “Do you think he likes you? Sebastian?”
My heart trips over her question, and I force my attention back down to the laptop in front of me, typing the same word over and over again:
Thursday is three days from now, and when we’re going on our next hike.
“How would I know?” I ask. Casual. Unconcerned.
Maybe I should ask Sasha to prom.
Fujita makes the rounds, checking in on us to see how we’re progressing with word count, character arcs, plot development, pacing. It’s March 10, and we’re supposed to have twenty thousand words written, as well as our critique buddies picked out. I have more than forty thousand words written, but they’re all this—and I can’t turn this in.
Autumn didn’t want to work with me—everyone but me was surprised by this—so I lack a partner and am going to fly under the radar with this as long as possible. I should have known better though. Despite his hippie, messy-literary-dude vibe, Fujita is on top of the details.
“Tanner,” he says, coming up behind me so stealthily that I jump, slamming my laptop closed. Laughing, he bends in close, stage-whispering, “What kind of novel are you writing, kid?”
If I had my way, it would go from young adult to pornography, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. See also: secret, homeless relationship.
See also: must start new book ASAP.
“Contemporary,” I tell him, adding in case he saw my string of Thursdays, “I’m just a little stuck today.”
“We all have days when it flows and days when it doesn’t.” He says this loud enough for the benefit of the entire class, and then leans in again. “You’re on track otherwise?”
“Surprisingly,” I say, “yes.”
Depending how you look at it.
“Good.” Kneeling down, Fujita comes eye to eye with me. “So, it looks like everyone else is paired up for critiques. Since you’re on track but struggling today, I’m going to have Sebastian give you feedback.” My pulse trips. “I know he’s been talking to you a bit about your idea, and in the absence of an even number of students in the class anyway, that seems like the easiest way to go.” He pats my knee. “Work for you?”
I grin. “Works for me.”
Fujita and I both look up as Sebastian materializes at our side.
“I was just letting Tanner know that you’ll be his critique buddy.”
Sebastian smiles his easy, confident smile. But his eyes dance over to me. “Cool.” A pair of perfect, dark eyebrows rise. “That means you’ll have to show me what you’ve got so far.”
I lift my brows in return. “It’s pretty bare.”
“It’s okay,” he says breezily. “I can help you find the shape of it.”
Autumn clears her throat.
Fujita claps us both on the back. “Great! Onward!”
Sebastian slides a folder onto my desk. “Here are some of my notes from our last meeting.”
My pulse sprints out of the starting gate, and my voice shakes when I try for a casual, “Awesome, thanks.”
I feel Autumn’s attention on the side of my face the second he walks away.
Without looking over at her, I ask, “What’s up, Auddy?”
She leans in, whispering. “You and Sebastian just had an entire conversation in sexual innuendo.”
She goes quiet, but her intentional pause is a living, breathing thing between us.
Finally, I meet her eyes, and before I look away, I wonder whether she sees it all there. I know it’s written on my face as clearly as it would be on a banner in the sky:
SEBASTIAN + TANNER = A BOYFRIEND THING.
“Tanner,” she says again, slowly, like she’s nearing the end of an Agatha Christie novel.
I turn in my seat to face her. My skin is on fire beneath my shirt, chest hot and prickly. “I think I’m going to ask Sasha to prom.”
How was your weekend? Did your family end up going down to Salt Lake?
This weekend at the Brother house was insane. It seemed like our doorbell was constantly ringing. We had a few Primary activities at church on Saturday. Lizzy and I were helping run it, and trying to get twenty six-year-olds into a single-file line is like trying to work with feral cats. Plus, I think Sister Cooper gave them candy when she finished her activity with them before ours, so they were wild.
I got home late on Saturday and went up to my room and thought about you for about two hours before I could fall asleep. Well, I thought about you, and prayed, and then thought about you some more. Both activities make me feel amazing—the more I pray, the more confident I am that what we’re doing together is right—but then I’m also lonely. I wish we could be together at the end of days like this, talking about it in the same space rather than through these letters. But we have this, at least.
And we have Thursday. Is it crazy I’m so excited? You might have to control me. All I want to do is kiss, and kiss, and kiss you.
When are you going to let me read the new book? You’re good, Tanner. I’m dying to see what you’re writing now.
I’m heading off to campus and will be in class for the Seminar today to give this to you. When you finish reading it, just know that I was thinking about kissing you while I was writing this sentence (and all the ones that came before it, probably).
I read it about seventeen times before tucking it into the deepest pocket in my backpack, where I will hold it until I get home and can put it in a shoe box on the top shelf of my closet. (Now that I think about it, if I die today, a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet is where my parents will probably look first for clues about what happened to me; I should find a better hiding place.)
I let these meandering thoughts distract me from the uneasiness I feel regarding Sebastian’s curiosity about my book.
Don’t get me wrong: I actually love what I have so far. But I have to face reality: At this point, I’m not going to have a book I can turn in. So far, that truth has been this repellent magnet, and my thoughts bound freely away from it. I’ve told myself again and again that I can demonstrate that I did it, give Fujita some sample pages before Sebastian appears in the narrative—under the request of confidentiality—and ask him to grade me on what he sees. Fujita is a pretty laid-back guy; I think he’d actually do this for me. Or, I can admit to Sebastian that this book is still about us and have him press to grade some of the projects, mine included, under the guise of taking some of the work off Fujita’s hands.
But what if Fujita doesn’t go for it? What if he won’t give me a passing grade based on the first twenty pages or so? I’ve been writing in a fever. Since I crap-edited the first four chapters for Sebastian, I haven’t changed any details, not even our names. In the present version, it’s all there in stark black-and-white for the world to see, and I don’t want to change it. The Seminar. Bishop Brother. Our hikes on Y Mountain. My parents, my sister, our friends. I know Sebastian needs me to, but I don’t want to hide.
- • •
He’s waiting for me at the trailhead at three on Thursday. We have only a few more hours of daylight, but I’m hoping we can stay out later tonight, stretch this into the darkness. I know he doesn’t have any classes until after lunch tomorrow, and I’m happy functioning on little sleep.
“Hey.” He shakes his head, flipping his hair out of his eyes. My skin hums. I want to press him up against a tree and feel his hair slip through my fingers.
God, we are idiots, grinning like we just won a gold medal the size of Idaho. His eyes are impish, and I love this side of him. I wonder who else sees it. I want to think what I see right here in his eyes is his one, pure truth.
“You brought water?” he asks.
I turn halfway to show him my CamelBak. “The big one.”
“Good. We’re going up today. You ready?”
“I’ll follow you anywhere.”
With an enormous grin, he turns, charging up the path and into the thick, rain-damp brush. I follow close behind. The wind picks up as we climb, and we don’t bother with small talk. It reminds me of going to a seafood buffet with Dad when he took me to a conference in New Orleans. Dad got this intensely focused look on his face. Don’t eat the filler, he said, meaning breadsticks, tiny sandwiches, even the beautiful, tiny-but-flavorless cakes. Dad made a beeline for the crab legs, crawdads, and seared tuna.
Breathless small talk right now would be breadsticks. I want to feel Sebastian’s body right up against mine the next time he says anything.
Most people hiking Y Mountain stop at the enormous painted Y, but after we arrive there a half hour into our hike, we continue, leaving the town sprawling below us. We head where the trail narrows and continues south, then turns east into Slide Canyon. Everything is more rugged here, and we watch our step more carefully to avoid stinging nettle and scratchy brush. Finally, we reach the area of the mountain where there is pine tree cover. We need it less for shade—it’s getting colder, in the high twenties now, but we’re bundled in jackets—and more for privacy.
Sebastian slows and then sits under a thatch of trees overlooking Cascade Mountain and Shingle Mill Peak. I collapse beside him; we’ve been hiking for well over an hour. Any question I had about whether we’d be here together at night has been put to rest. This is farther than we’ve hiked together on a weekend, let alone a weekday, and it will take us at least another hour to get home. The sun hangs low in the horizon, turning the sky a heavy, seductive blue.
His hand slides into mine, and he leans backward, pressing our joined fists to his chest. Even through his puffy jacket I can feel his body heat. “Holy . . . that was a hike.”
I stay seated, leaning back on my other hand to balance and stare out at the canyon. The mountains are dramatically green with patches of white snow. Their sharp peaks and smooth rock faces are dotted with trees. It’s so unlike the valley below us, where everything seems to be dotted with TGIFridays and convenience stores.
I turn, looking down at him. The temptation to crawl over him and kiss him for hours is nearly impossible to resist, but there’s also something pretty great about being able to just sit here and hold hands
He brings my hand to his mouth, kissing my knuckles. “Can I read it?”
It came at me so fast. I was expecting it, but still. “Eventually. I’m just . . . It’s not done.”
He pushes to sit. “I get that. You just started it, right?”
The lie is starting to turn me black inside.
“Actually,” I say, “I’m having a hard time beginning. I want to write something new. I do. But every time I sit down at my laptop, I write about . . . us.”
“I get that, too.” He goes quiet for a few breaths. “I meant what I said. What I read was really good.”
“So, if you want, I could work on editing it? Making it less recognizable?”
I’m sure he’d do an amazing job, but he’s busy enough as it is. “I don’t want you to worry about it.”
He hesitates, and then squeezes my hand. “It’s hard not to, though. You can’t turn that book in to Fujita. But if you don’t turn in something, you’ll fail.”
“I know.” Guilt flashes cold across my skin. I’m not sure what would be worse: asking for his help here, or trying to start all over.
“I like thinking about us, too,” he tells me. “I think I would like editing it.”
“I mean, I could send you what I have in chunks to work on, but I don’t want to send it to your BYU e-mail.”
I can tell that a separate e-mail address had never occurred to him. “Oh, right.”
“You can make a new Gmail account, and I can send it there.”
He’s already nodding, and it accelerates as the implication of this seems to hit him more fully. I know exactly what he’s thinking: We could write e-mails to each other all the time.
He’s so adorable, I hate to burst his bubble.
“Just be careful what you do at home,” I tell him. “My mom created the Parentelligentsia software. I know better than most how easily they could track every move you make.”
“I don’t think my mom and dad are that tech savvy,” he says, laughing, “but point taken.”
“You’d be surprised how easy it is,” I say, half proud, half deeply apologetic to those in my generation who’ve been hosed by my mother’s first invention. “It’s how my parents found out about me . . . and my interest in guys. They installed the software in our cloud and could see everything I’d searched, even if I cleared my history.”
His face goes ashen.
“They came to talk to me about it, and that’s when I admitted I’d kissed a boy the summer before.”
We’ve alluded to this but never spoken about it freely.
Sebastian shifts, facing me. “What’d they say?”
“Mom wasn’t surprised.” I pick up a rock, tossing it over the edge of the cliff. “It was harder for Dad, but he wanted it to be easy. He deals with his feelings on his own time, I think. The first conversation, he asked me if I thought it was a phase, and I said maybe.” I shrug. “I mean, I honestly didn’t know. It’s not like I’d been through this before. I just knew that I felt the same when I looked at pictures of naked guys as I did when I looked at pictures of naked girls.”
Sebastian flushes bright red. I don’t actually think I’ve seen his face this heated before. Has he never looked at naked pictures? Have I embarrassed him? Amazing.
His words come out a little garbled: “Have you had sex?”
“I’ve been with a few girls,” I admit. “Only kissed guys.”
He nods, as if this makes sense.
“When did you know?” I ask.
His brow furrows. “Know what? About you being bi?”
“No.” I laugh, but bite it back because I don’t want it to come off as mocking. “I mean, that you’re gay.”
The confusion on his face deepens. “I’m not.”
“Not . . . that.”
Something seems to catch in the spinning wheel of my pulse, and it trips. For a breath, my chest hurts. “You’re not gay?”
“I mean,” he says, flustered, trying again, “I’m attracted to guys, and I’m with you right now, but I’m not gay. That’s a different choice, and I’m not choosing that path.”
I don’t even know what to say. The sensation inside me feels like sinking.
I let go of his hand.
“Like, you’re not gay, you’re not straight, you’re . . . you,” he says, leaning forward to catch my eyes. “I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I’m me.”
I want him so much it’s nearly painful. So when he kisses me, I try to make the feel of him sucking my bottom lip block out anything else. I want his kiss to be the clarification, the reassurance that a label doesn’t matter—this is what matters.
But it doesn’t. The entire time we kiss, and later—when we stand and hike back down—I still have that sensation that I’m sinking. He wants to read my book, the book about falling in love with him. But how can I send my heart to him when he’s just said, in no uncertain terms, that he doesn’t speak its language?