Here’s my number
Btw it’s Tanenr
Um, that should be Tanner.
I can’t believe I just typo’d my own name.
Haha! This is how I’m typing in your contact info.
(See what I did there)
I grin down at my phone for the next twenty minutes, reading the text exchange again and again. The phone is stuck to my palm; I’m sure my parents are wondering what I’m doing—I can tell by their concerned looks over the dinner table.
“Put your phone down, Tann,” Dad says.
I slide it facedown onto the table. “Sorry.”
“Who are you texting?” Mom asks.
I know they’re not going to like it, but I don’t want to lie. “Sebastian.”
They exchange a look across the table. “The TA?” Mom confirms.
“You can read it.” I hand her the phone. “You could do that anyway, right?”
Reluctantly, she takes it, looking like she expects to see much more than she will. Her face relaxes when she sees the harmless words there.
“This is cute, but, Tanner . . .” She lets the rest of it fall away and looks to my dad for backup. Maybe she isn’t sure how much credibility she’ll have while she’s still wearing her rainbow PRIDE apron.
Dad reaches for the phone, and his face softens when he reads it, but then a cloud crosses through his eyes. “Are you seeing each other?”
“No,” I say, ignoring her. “Jesus, you guys. We’re working together on the project.”
The table falls into a cloying, skeptical silence.
Mom can’t help herself. “Does he know about you?”
“About how I turn into a troll at sunset?” I shake my head. “I don’t think so.”
“Tanner,” she says gently. “You know what I mean.”
I do. Unfortunately. “Please calm down. It’s not like I have a tail.”
“Honey,” Mom starts, horrified. “You’re deliberately misunderstanding—”
My phone buzzes in front of Dad. He picks it up. “Sebastian again.”
I hold my hand out. “Please?”
He returns it to me, frowning.
I won’t be in class this week.
Just wanted to let you know.
My chest seems to splinter, a fault line splitting straight down the middle, and it battles with the brilliant sun blooming there because Sebastian thought to text me with a heads-up.
Yeah. I just have a trip to New York.
Are we doing this? Are we casually texting now?
Haha! I’m sure I’ll look lost the entire time.
When do you leave?
Mom sighs loudly. “Tanner, for the love of God, please stop texting at the table.”
I apologize under my breath and stand, sliding my phone faceup onto the kitchen counter before returning to my chair. Both of my parents have that surly, aggressively quiet thing going on, and a glance at my sister tells me that she’s living her best life watching me get in trouble for once.
Amid the scraping of silverware on plates and the sound of ice clinking in glasses of water, a thick awareness swirls around the table, and the resulting self-consciousness makes my stomach tighten. My parents know I’ve had crushes on guys before, but it’s never been a reality like this. Now there’s a guy, with a name and a phone. We’ve all been so cool about it, but I realize, sitting here at this silent dinner table, that there are layers to their acceptance. Maybe it’s easy for them to be so cool about it when they’ve all but told me I’m not allowed to date any guys in Provo. Am I allowed to have crushes on guys only once I’ve graduated and who my parents select from an acceptable pool of intelligent, progressive, non-LDS males?
Dad clears his throat, a sign that he’s searching for words, and we look at him, hoping he’ll pull this plane up in time. I expect him to say something about the elephant in the room, but instead he lands squarely in the safe zone: “Tell us about your classes.”
Hailey launches into a retelling of the injustice of being a sophomore, how she’s a midget with a top-row locker, how disgusting the girls’ locker room smells, and how globally annoying guys are. Our parents listen with patient smiles before focusing in on the things they actually care about: Mom makes sure she’s being a good friend. Dad mostly cares that she’s busting her ass in academics. I check out halfway through her braggy answer about chemistry. Having my phone ten feet away means that 90 percent of my brain is focused on wondering whether Sebastian has replied and whether I can see him before he goes.
I feel jittery.
To be fair, meals are a peculiar affair anyway. Dad comes from an enormous family of women whose primary satisfaction in life is the care of their husbands and children. Although the same was true in Mom’s LDS household, in Dad’s family it centered on food. The women don’t just prepare meals; they cook. When Bubbe visits, she fills our freezer with months’ worth of brisket and kugel and makes quiet, mostly well-intended observations about how her grandchildren largely survive on sandwiches. Over time she has outgrown her disappointment that Dad didn’t marry a Jewish woman, but she still struggles with Mom’s work hours and our resulting reliance on takeout and packaged food.
And despite her antireligion worldview, Mom was raised in a culture where women are traditionally in the homemaker role too. To her, not packing our lunches every day or joining the PTA is a feminist rallying cry.
Even Aunt Emily struggles sometimes with guilt over not focusing a bit more on the making and keeping of her home. So Mom’s compromise was to let Bubbe teach her how to prepare certain dishes, and she tries to make a huge batch of them every Sunday for us to have throughout the week. It’s a questionable endeavor, but we kids are, if nothing else, sporting about it. Dad is another story: He’s picky about food. Even if he considers himself as liberal as they come, he still has some traditional holdouts. A wife who cooks is one of them.
Mom watches Dad eat, gauging from how fast he shovels it in how good it is. That is to say, the faster he eats, the less he likes it. Tonight Dad barely seems to chew before he’s swallowed. Mom’s normally smiling mouth is turning down at the corners.
Focusing on this dynamic is helping distract me, but only barely.
I look over at my phone. Having left it screen-side up, I can tell a call or text has just come through: The screen is lit. I shovel matzo ball soup in, scalding my mouth, until my bowl is clean, and excuse myself, standing before either of them can protest.
“Tanner,” Dad chides quietly.
“Homework.” I rinse my dish, slotting it into the dishwasher.
He watches me go, giving me a knowing glare for throwing the only excuse at him that he won’t debate.
“It’s your night for dishes,” Hailey calls after me.
“Nope. You owe me because I did bathroom duty last weekend.”
Her eyes communicate the mental bird flip.
“Love you too, hellcat.”
Running up the stairs, I dive into my texts.
My heart spasms, tight and wild. He’s sent me five.
I leave Wednesday afternoon.
I have meetings with my editor and the publisher on Thursday.
I haven’t met the publisher yet. I’ll admit I’m nervous.
It just occurred to me that you’re probably eating dinner with your family.
With frantic fingers, I reply.
No, sry, my parents made me put my phone away.
I’m so happy for u.
I type my next thought and then—with my breath held high and tight in my lungs—I quickly hit send:
I hope u have an amazing trip
but I’m going to miss seeing u in class.
I wait a minute for a reply.
He’s not stupid. He knows I’m bi. He has to know I’m into him.
I distract myself by scrolling through Autumn’s Snapchat: Her slippered feet. A sink full of dishes. A close-up of her grumpy face with the words “current mood” scrawled beneath it. Finally, I close my social media and open my laptop.
I need to know what I’m dealing with here. Growing up in California, I knew Mom’s family was Mormon, but the way she used to talk about it—in the rare moments she even did—made me think they were some weird cult religion. Only once I moved here and lived among them did I register that I knew nothing except the stereotypes. It surprised me to learn that, although other Christian faiths might not agree, Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. Also, a huge portion of their free time is spent performing service—helping others. But other than their no caffeine, no booze, no cursing, and no humping rules, it all still seems like a vague cloud of secret churchiness to me.
As usual, Google helps.
For all my jokes about Jesus jammies, it turns out garments aren’t just a modesty thing; they’re a physical reminder of the covenants they made to God. Also, the word “covenant” is everywhere. In fact, the church seems to have its own language.
Within the LDS Church, the hierarchy is exclusively male. This is one of the things Mom is spot-on about: Women get screwed. Sure, they’re the ones who make babies—according to the church, an integral part of God’s plan—and can serve missions if they choose, but women don’t have a lot of power in the traditional sense. Meaning they can’t hold positions or make decisions that influence official church policy.
The biggest piece on my mind lately—other than the Sebastian/garment question—is the one thing in the world that will make my mom’s blood boil: the LDS Church’s terrible history concerning gays.
The church has since condemned the practice of conversion therapy, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, or ruin many, many lives. From the bits I’ve gathered from Mom, here’s the basic situation: An LDS individual would come out to their family, who would quickly ship them off somewhere to be “fixed.” This type of therapy involved institutionalization and electroconvulsive shock therapy. Sometimes medication or aversion conditioning, which sounded okay until I realized it meant they would use drugs to make the person nauseated while viewing same-sex erotica. The Internet tells me that more “benign” versions included shame conditioning, or retraining in stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, dating therapy, hypnosis, and something called orgasmic reconditioning, which—just no.
When Aunt Emily came out twenty-eight years ago, her parents offered her a choice: conversion therapy or excommunication. Now the Mormon Church’s stance on queer stuff is clear as mud.
According to any church statement you can find on the matter, the only sex that should be happening is between a husband and a wife. Yawn. But surprisingly, the church does recognize a difference between same-sex attraction and what they call homosexual behavior. In essence: guys feeling attracted to other guys = we’ll look the other way. Guys kissing guys = bad.
The funny part is that, after these lines in the sand that basically insist a gay Mormon put their nose down and be unhappy and unfulfilled their entire life in the name of God, most church statements also say that all people are equally beloved children and deserve to be treated with love and respect. They say that families should never, ever exclude or be disrespectful to those who choose a different lifestyle . . . but to always remind those who choose differently of the eternal consequences of their choice.
And, of course, everyone who lives here knows the big hoopla that made the rounds on the news a couple years ago: a change in a handbook that said members in same-sex marriages would be considered apostates (or defectors from the church—thank you, Google), and that children living in those households should be excluded from church activities until they’re old enough to renounce the practice of homosexuality and join.
In summary: love and respect, but only if you’re willing to live by their rules . . . and if not, then exclusion is the only answer.
See what I mean? Clear as mud.
From somewhere on my bed, my phone vibrates. Since I’m alone in my room, there’s no one to see me actually dive into my covers to retrieve it.
I’m around BYU all day tomorrow.
And then, while the screen is still lit up with his first text, another comes in:
And I’ll miss seeing you, too.
Something is happening between us. Something has been happening between us since our eyes met on the first day of class.
I want to see him before he leaves town. I don’t care what Mom says. I don’t care what the doctrine is.
After all, it’s not my church.
- • •
Provo High has a closed campus at lunch, but it’s an official thing that nobody follows. Campus is surrounded by fast-serve restaurants like Del Taco and Panda Express and Pita Pit. Four days out of five we skip out and grab something easy.
I’ll admit that I know Sebastian is an English lit major (it didn’t take a huge amount of sleuthing to get there), but I also know—because he told me at the library—that he likes to hang out in the Harris Fine Arts Center because it’s quiet.
Today at lunch, I buy enough Panda Express for two.
Before I moved to Utah, I heard a lot about the church from people who, admittedly, have never been a part of it. They marry their daughters off when they’re twelve! They’re polygamists!
They don’t and they’re not—polygamy has been banned since 1890—but because of my mom, I knew that Mormons were just people, and I expected Mormon teens to look like anyone else on the streets of Palo Alto. What’s crazy is they don’t. Really. They look like the upper end of the bell-shaped curve in terms of polish: They’re clean, their clothes are especially modest, and they are exceedingly well-groomed.
I look down at my old Social Distortion T-shirt over a blue thermal and mostly intact jeans. I would not feel more out of place on the Brigham Young University campus even if I put on a purple chicken costume and moonwalked across the quad. It’s early in the term, and there is some sort of youth program happening outside the main student center. It’s a lot of long skirts and modest shirts, straight trimmed hair and genuine smiles.
A few guys play Frisbee; one of them drops it and yells out a placid “Gosh darn it!”
A trio of girls is playing a hand-slap game accompanied by a song.
BYU is exactly like I imagined, and also probably exactly like its founders hoped it would be, even a hundred and forty years later. It’s only across the street from Provo High, but it feels like a different world.
Inside the Harris Fine Arts Center it’s surprisingly dark, and quiet. Modern architecture makes the space feel more “austere engineering” than “art building,” and the upper levels are open in a rectangular frame, looking down on the ground floor. Every sound—my footsteps across the marble, a murmur of voices coming from upstairs—echoes across the entire atrium.
Sebastian isn’t at any of the lounge chairs or small desks dotting the second floor, and in hindsight my bag of food seems embarrassingly overconfident. I wonder whether there are cameras tracking my movement, whether the BYU cops will come in, decide I don’t belong here, and gently escort me out of the building, wishing me safe travels and promising to pray for me when they leave me at the campus border.
After a few minutes on the third floor, I’m just about to leave and stress-eat two lunches worth of questionably Asian food when I spy a pair of red Adidas peeking out from beneath a desk.
Walking over, I declare, “I have plenty of the world’s least healthy lunch to share.”
Sebastian startles—and in the time it takes him to turn around, I beg myself to go back in time and never have done this. At the beginning of this school year, a freshman gave me an envelope and then actually ran off in the other direction. Bewildered, I opened it. Glitter poured out onto my shoes, and the letter inside was full of stickers and looping handwriting telling me she thought we might be soul mates. I didn’t even know her name until I read it at the bottom of the note: Paige, with a glittery heart sticker dotting the i. I don’t think I’d realized until that moment how young fourteen is.
But standing here, waiting for Sebastian to speak . . . I am Paige. I am an emotional infant. It suddenly feels creepy—or absolutely immature—to be here, bringing him food. What the hell am I doing?
Slowly, he pulls his headphones off.
I want to fall over in relief: His red cheeks tell me everything I need to know.
“Tanner?” He grins, so wide. “Hey.”
“Hey, yeah, I . . .”
Glancing back at the clock on his laptop screen, he makes the obvious observation: “You left campus.”
“Actually, no.” Blinking back over, he gazes at me in mild confusion.
“I . . . brought you lunch.” I glance down at the food in my hand. “But now I feel like I’m breaking the law.”
Peering closer at what I’m offering, he says, “Panda Express?”
“Yeah. So gross, I know.”
“Totally. But, I mean, since you’re already here . . .”
He grins at me. It’s the only invitation I need.
I open the bag, handing him a takeout container of noodles and another of orange chicken. “I also have shrimp.”
“Chicken is good.” Opening it up, he moans, and it causes my entire body to stiffen. “I’m starving. Thank you.”
You know those moments that feel so surreal you have a legitimate Am I really here feeling? Where you’re not just using hyperbole but, for a breath of a second, have an out-of-body sensation? I have that right now. Standing here with him, it’s dizzying.
“My dad calls this Fatty Fat Chicken,” he tells me as I pull out the chair beside him and sit down.
I blink, working to get my brain and my pulse under control. “I won’t tell him if you won’t.”
Sebastian laughs. “He eats it at least twice a week, so don’t worry.”
I watch him tuck in, using a fork, not chopsticks, neatly managing to get a pile of noodles in his mouth without greasing up his chin. There’s something Teflon about him: He always looks pressed, clean, sanitized. Looking down at myself, I wonder what impression I give off. I’m not a slob, but I don’t have the same immaculate sheen.
He swallows, and a million pornographic images fly through my head in the ten seconds before he speaks again.
“What made you come over to campus?” he asks, then neatly maneuvers a forkful of chicken into his mouth.
Is he fishing? Or does he really think I’d come over to BYU for any reason other than to see him? “I was in the neighborhood.” I take a bite, chewing, swallowing through my smile. “Came over to campus to dance and sing some songs.”
His eyes twinkle. He doesn’t seem to mind that I’m not LDS, let alone mocking it a little. “Cool.”
I look down the hallway, toward the windows facing the quad. “Are there always people outside just . . . celebrating?”
“No, but it’s a pretty happy place.”
I lean in, grinning. “Someone actually said ‘Gosh darn it’ out of frustration.”
“What else would they say?”
He’s fucking with me again. Our eyes snag, and hold. His are green and yellow, with these razor-sharp flecks of brown. I feel like I’ve taken a running leap off a cliff and have no idea how deep the water is.
Finally, Sebastian blinks back down to his lunch. “Sorry I left so abruptly the other day.”
I think that’s all I’m going to get on the subject, but somehow, the way he can’t look back up at me, the way color blooms again across his cheeks tells me so much.
Something is happening between us, holy shit.
From one of the floors below us, an older man’s deep voice rings out. “Hello, Brother Christensen.” In turn, this Brother Christensen murmurs a polite reply that drifts up to us, and as they move farther away from the atrium, their voices echo away.
“Wait.” I look back at Sebastian, realization dawning. “Are you an elder yet?”
He swallows before answering. “No.”
This is amazing. “Sebastian Brother. That means you’re Brother Brother.”
He grins, thrilled. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to make that joke. People at church are too nice to do it.”
I hesitate, unable to read the spark in his eyes. “You’re messing with me.”
“Yeah.” If possible, his smile widens and carves out a space in my chest when he breaks, laughing happily. “But I think it’s even better that Lizzy is Sister Brother.”
“Does she think it’s funny?”
“We all do.” Pausing, he watches me for a few seconds longer, like he’s trying to puzzle me out and not the other way around, before bending and taking another bite of food.
I think I’ve screwed this up. I have such a weird impression of Mormons as bland, serious, and secretly evil. It seems impossible to me that they would make fun of themselves this way.
“I’m being an asshole.” The word just slips out of my mouth, and I wince as if I’ve just cursed in a cathedral.
Sebastian shakes his head, swallowing. “What? No.”
“I’m not . . .”
“Familiar with the church,” he finishes for me. “Most people aren’t.”
“We live in Provo,” I remind him. “Most people are.”
He looks up at me steadily. “Tanner, I know the world isn’t represented in Provo. We all know that. Besides, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, it’s likely that the non-LDS kids in town don’t share the best side of the church when they talk. Am I right?”
“That’s probably fair.” I blink down, poking at my mostly untouched lunch. He makes me so nervous, in this giddy, excited way. When I look back up at his face, it almost hurts where my chest pinches. His attention is on his next bite of food, so I’m given a handful of seconds to stare at him without shame.
A weak voice tries to reach me from the back of the crowded room in my head: He’s Mormon. This is doomed! Pull back. Pull back!
I stare at his jaw, and his throat, and the skin I can see just below, the hint of collarbone.
My mouth waters.
“Thanks again for this,” he says, and I snap my eyes back up, catching the glint in his as he watches me realize I’m busted for ogling him.
“You really never snuck off campus?” I ask in the world’s most awkward segue.
He chews another bite, shaking his head.
“Part of me wants to hope you misbehave a little.”
What did I just say?
Sebastian laughs, coughing through a rough swallow, and washes it down with a sip of water from a bottle on the table near him. “I did skip out once.”
I nod for him to continue, shoveling some food into my mouth in the hopes that it will calm my uneasy stomach and lunatic mind.
“Last year I had an orthodontist appointment, and when I came back, class was nearly half done. We had an assembly after that, then lunch, and”—he shakes his head, blushing that goddamn blush—“I realized no one would be looking for me. I had three hours to do whatever I wanted.”
I swallow a bite of shrimp, and it goes down rough. I want him to tell me he went home and googled pictures of guys kissing.
“I went to a movie by myself and ate an entire box of Red Vines.” He leans in, eyes full of that teasing shine. “I had a Coke.”
My brain is tangled: Cannot compute. Which emotion to drop into the bloodstream? Fondness or bewilderment? For the love of God, this is Sebastian at his naughtiest.
He shakes his head at me, and in that instant, I realize I’m the naive one here.
When he leans back and lets out a laugh, I’m screwed. Totally ruined.
I can’t read him. I can’t grasp him.
I have no idea what he’s thinking and if he’s messing with me or if he really is this good, but never before have I wanted so fiercely to lean forward and put my mouth on someone’s neck, begging them to want me.