I assume there is some secret code buried in Sebastian’s invitation to dinner. Maybe this is his way of reminding me that we have to be careful. Maybe this is the only way he can express his anxiety about my book and its potential to out him. Because, seriously, nothing gave me as clear-cut a picture about how different our home lives are than going to his house did; even he witnessed my fascination.
But then there’s the matter of what we did on the mountain. We kissed, and it wasn’t a simple kiss or accidental peck, but a kiss, with tongue and hands and lips and intent. I can’t even think about it without feeling like I’ve been submerged in warm water. He could barely look at me without blushing as we walked on the trail. Is this dinner plan complete insanity?
What is he doing?
I scrutinize my reflection in the mirror across the room. My clothes are new, so they fit at least—I grew so fast for a few years that my sleeves were always a touch too short, my pants hovering just above my ankles. I’ve changed my shirt seven times, and with my haircut, I think I look pretty good. I’m worried I’m too casual in a short-sleeved Quiksilver button-down. Still, to dress up in a shirt and tie would feel sort of presumptuous, like this is a date or meeting the parents.
Which it isn’t. At least, I don’t think . . .
“So, are you two like . . . together?”
Hailey leans against my doorway, arms folded over her chest as she judges me from across the room.
I look down at my shirt again. “Who the hell knows.”
She clucks her tongue at me, pushing away from the door to flop gracelessly on my bed. “They won’t like that kind of language.”
I swear under my breath because, dammit, she’s right. I have to be better about that.
“You don’t know if you’re together, but you’re having dinner with his family? That’s weird.”
“How did you know about it?”
“If it was supposed to be a secret, you might want to rethink talking about it with Mom and Dad in the middle of the house.”
“It’s not really a secret, but . . .”
But it is.
Hailey nods. Apparently she doesn’t need me to explain, and it’s nice to see a flash of her not being a self-absorbed brat. When we decided to move here, my parents sat her down and made it very clear that her discretion is everything. Even I could see Mom’s panic as she tried to explain to Hailey that outing me in a fit of rage somewhere would be disastrous. The rest of the world wouldn’t always be as understanding as we were raised to be, especially here in Provo.
Bending to pick up the rest of my clothes, I remember that Hailey and Lizzy are in the same grade. “I’ll get to hang out with Lizzy tonight. I’ll tell her you said hi.”
Hailey wrinkles her nose.
I laugh, putting T-shirts back in drawers and hanging up the rest. “You’d be surprised to hear that they’re all like that.”
Hailey rolls onto her back and groans. “She’s always smiling and saying hi to everyone in the halls.”
“What a monster.”
“How can someone be that happy being Mormon?” In her words, for the first time, I hear our blind bias. “I’d want to punch myself.”
I haven’t spent any time with Lizzy, but I feel a prickle of protectiveness toward her anyway. “You sound like an ignorant dumbass.”
Seeing my phone charging on the nightstand, she picks it up and types in my passcode. “Bet she wouldn’t be so happy if she knew you wanted in her brother’s pants.”
“Shut up, Hailey.”
“What? You think they’d still be inviting you to dinner if they knew? To them you’re the devil trying to lure their son to hell.”
“They don’t really believe in hell,” I say, grabbing for my phone. “Don’t say that kind of stuff.”
“Oh, is Sebastian tutoring you in Mormon, too?”
“Actually, Mom told me that. I’m just trying to get to know him better, and that means understanding where he comes from.”
Hailey sees right through my self-righteous act. “Of course, of course, that’s what I mean. Is he sharing the part where they’re on the verge of accepting gay marriage? Or where they’ve admitted what a cruel and horrible mistake conversion therapy was?” she asks, laden with sarcasm. “He’s not going to miraculously realize he likes you more than God or Jesus or Joseph Smith. This is a bad idea.”
Her words poke at some vulnerable thing in my chest. I lash out, grabbing my phone from her hands. “You’re a dick.”
• • •
Sebastian’s house isn’t any less intimidating the second time around. From the outside, you can tell everything you need to know about the family inside: It’s white and tidy, scrupulously maintained but not overdone. It looks welcoming and safe but also like I might mess it up somehow, break something, leave fingerprints somewhere . . . perhaps, for example, on their eldest son.
The Brothers’ Suburban sits inside the open garage, and a newer Lexus is parked farther down. It must belong to the grandparents. I see my reflection in the passenger window as I pass, and the tension in my nerves doubles. How will I make it through dinner with the most clean-cut family in Provo without outing myself as the lovesick boy I am?
Maybe Hailey was right: This is a really bad idea.
I brace myself before pressing the doorbell. It echoes through the house before Sebastian’s voice rises from inside: “I got it!”
Thrill kick-starts in my chest.
The door swings open, and the sight of him sucks up every bit of oxygen on the porch. I haven’t seen him since class, when things were weird and silent. He wouldn’t look at me then, but he’s definitely looking at me now. Any neuron in my brain that worried whether I should be here melts into gray matter goo.
Pulling the door closed behind him, Sebastian steps out onto the porch. He’s in dress pants and a crisp white shirt that he’s unbuttoned at the collar. I see smooth throat and collarbone and the suggestion of his chest just out of sight. My mouth waters.
I wonder if he had a tie on. Did he take it off for me? “Thanks for coming,” he says.
Desperation takes over my pulse, and the thought of doing something to lose this pushes a blade of pain between my ribs. I want to immediately reassure him that I plan to rewrite my entire book, but go with “Thanks for inviting me” instead.
“Okay,” he says, taking a step forward and motioning to the door. “So this is probably going to be boring. I just want to warn you up front. And I’m sorry if they start talking about church stuff.” He pushes one hand into his hair, and it makes me think about how it felt to do that on the mountain. “They can’t help it.”
“Are you kidding? Look at me. I love church stuff.”
He laughs. “Sure you do.” With a deep breath, he smooths his hair down, straightens his shirt, and reaches for the doorknob.
I stop him with a hand on his arm. “Is this weird, or is it just me?”
I know I’m fishing for some indication that he remembers what we did, that he liked it.
His answer makes my whole goddamn week: “It’s not just you.” His eyes meet mine, and then his face breaks into the most amazing smile I’ve ever seen. No family portrait inside has been a witness to this one, not for a second.
On impulse, I blurt: “I’m starting over with my book.”
His eyes go wide. “You are?”
“Yeah.” I swallow thickly, choking on my pulse. “I can’t stop thinking about . . . that . . . but I know I can’t turn it in.” Anxiety about the prospect of starting over and the thrill at seeing him bubble together in my stomach. The jittery sensation makes it easier to lie. “I’ve already started something new.”
I can tell this is what he wanted to hear, and he brightens instantly. “That’s good. I can help you.” He gives himself three seconds to look at my mouth before pulling his gaze back up to mine. “Ready?”
When I nod, he opens the door, giving me one last encouraging look before we step inside.
The house smells like fresh bread and roast turkey, and because it’s slightly colder outside than in, the windows are steamy with a layer of condensation fogging up the glass. I follow Sebastian past the small living room in the front—Hello again, picture of hot seventeen-year-old Sebastian. Hello, multiple Jesuses. Hello, oppressive plaque—and down the hall to where the space opens into the family room on one end and the kitchen on the other.
A man I can only assume is Sebastian’s dad is watching TV.
He stands when he sees us. He’s taller than Sebastian by maybe only an inch or two, but with the same light brown hair and easy way about him. I’m not sure what I was expecting—a more intimidating posture, maybe?—but I’m unprepared when he reaches out to shake my hand and hits me with the same knee-buckling smile.
“You must be Tanner.” His blue eyes are bright, and they twinkle with an easy sort of contentment. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
He . . . what now?
I shoot a questioning glance to Sebastian, who is pointedly looking the other way.
“Yes, sir,” I say, quickly correcting with, “I mean, Bishop Brother.”
He laughs and places a hand on my shoulder. “I’m only Bishop Brother in church. Call me Dan.”
My dad wouldn’t approve of me calling a parent by their first name, ever, but I’m not about to argue. “Okay. Thank you, Mr.—Dan.”
An older man descends the stairs. Dark hair curls over the tops of his ears, and despite the austerity of his suit and the beginning of gray at his temples, it makes him look younger, even mischievous. “Aaron needed some Lego assistance. When he asked how I knew what I was doing, I told him it was because I have an engineering degree. Now he’s set on getting an engineering degree to build Legos forever. Whatever works, I guess.”
Sebastian steps up to my side. “Grandpa, this is Tanner. A friend from the Seminar.”
He inspects me with the same bright blue eyes. “Another writer!” he says, and reaches out to shake my hand. “I’m Abe Brother.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” I say. “And Sebastian’s the writer. I’m closer to a monkey given free access to a keyboard.”
Dan and his father laugh, but Sebastian stares at me, brows drawn. “That’s not true.”
I mumble some laughing version of “If you say so,” because—honestly—the fact that I could only write about what was literally happening to me day to day and then let him read a badly bastardized version of my book is still mortifying.
In the kitchen, Sebastian introduces me to his grandmother, Judy, who asks me if I live nearby. I think it’s code for What ward are you in?
“He lives over by the country club,” Sebastian explains, and asks if there’s anything we can do to help. When they say no, he tells them we’re going to work on my manuscript.
Panic dumps ice water over my skin.
“Okay, honey,” his mom says. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. Could you ask your sisters to start washing up?”
With a nod, he leads me back down the hall.
“I didn’t bring my new manuscript,” I whisper, climbing the stairs behind him and doing my best to keep my eyes on my feet and not on his back.
At the top, the hallway splits off in two directions.
I watch as he stops in front of Faith’s room. Inside, it’s a fluffy pink and purple monstrosity with signs of preteen angst bleeding through at the edges.
He knocks and leans in. “Dinner soon, so wash your hands, okay?”
She says something in reply, and he steps out.
“Did you hear me?” I whisper, a little louder now. “I didn’t bring my new manuscript.”
Have I made a huge mistake by implying that I’m already working on something new? Is he going to want to see it soon?
He glances over his shoulder at me and winks. “I heard you. I didn’t invite you here to work.”
“Oh . . . Okay.”
Sebastian’s grin is wicked. “I guess I should give you the tour?”
I can already tell there’s not much to see—upstairs it’s a dead end with four doorways—but I nod.
“My parents’ room,” he says, pointing to the largest of the rooms. Another photo of the Salt Lake Temple hangs above the bed, along with a framed print that says FAMILIES ARE FOREVER. School photos and vacation snapshots line the walls; smiling faces beam from every direction.
“Bathroom, Faith, and Aaron. My room is downstairs.”
We descend to the main floor, before turning the corner and starting down another set of stairs. Our footsteps are muted by the thick carpet, and the voices from upstairs grow quieter with every step.
For a basement, it’s pretty bright. The stairway opens to another large carpeted family room with a TV, a couch, and beanbag chairs at one end, a small kitchenette at the other. A few doorways sit off to the side, and Sebastian points to the first. “Lizzy,” he tells me, and moves on to the next one. “This is me.”
My heart is in my throat at the possibility of seeing Sebastian’s room.
Where he sleeps.
Where he . . .
I’m disappointed to find it’s so neat. I’ll have to file away my thoughts of Sebastian and rumpled sheets for another time. A row of soccer trophies line a shelf above a BYU Cougars flag. A bright blue foam finger emblazoned with a giant Y sits propped in a corner. I imagine him at one of the games, screaming along with the crowd, grin wild, heart hammering.
Sebastian stands near the door as I make a short circuit around his room, not touching anything but peering closer at photographs and the spines of books.
“I’m sad I didn’t do more snooping at your house,” he says, and I look back at him over my shoulder.
“Next time,” I say with a grin. I’m struck momentarily dumb by the awareness that there will be a next time. “I’ll admit I was surprised to be invited over for dinner with your family, after . . .” I search for the right words, but know he gets my meaning when a flush rises from his neck to his cheekbones.
“Mom likes to be involved in who is coming and going,” he explains. “I don’t have a lot of friends over.”
“I think she wanted to get to know you better.” He quickly holds up his hands. “No recruiting. I promise.”
Another question pushes its way out of me. “Do you think she thinks I’m . . . ?” I let my rising eyebrows finish the sentence for me.
“I don’t think it would ever occur to her. I think she just wants to know my friends, especially if she doesn’t know them through church.”
The way he’s watching me sets off a game of pinball inside my stomach. Breaking away, I look around. There are books everywhere: on shelves and stacked near his bed, in small piles on his desk. Alongside his computer I see a leather-bound Bible in a zip-around cover. His initials are embossed in gold on the top.
“Um, those are for church,” he explains, taking a step closer. He slips it free of its case and flips through the delicate pages.
He lets out a small laugh. “It’s called a quad,” he says, and I take it from him again, feel the heft in my hand.
“That is a lot of rules.”
“When you put it that way, yeah. I guess it is.” He leans across me to open it, pointing to a table of contents. “But see? It has more than one book. There’s the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.”
I blink up, surprised to find him so close. “Have you read it all?”
“Most of it. Some of it more than once.”
My eyes go wide. Without question, these books would put me to sleep. I would be the worst Mormon. I would Rip Van Winkle my way through life if I had to endure it.
“When I have a question,” he says, “I know the answers will be there.”
I glance back down to the book. How can he be so sure? How can he have kissed me on the trail and still agree with what’s in here?
“So, how is this different from just the Bible?” I feel like I should know this already. I mean, I’m not familiar with the Bible, either, but I am pretty confident they’re not the same.
“You don’t really want to hear this, do you?” His posture is self-conscious, a little unsure.
“Maybe just give me the Mormons for Dummies version.”
Sebastian laughs and takes the book from my hands, turning to the right page. We’re standing so close, and I’m thinking about moving closer, realizing that if anyone came in and saw us like this, they’d simply think we were reading Scriptures together.
“The Book of Mormon is another testimony that Jesus lived, that he was the son of God.” He blinks over to me, checking to see that I’m listening. Seeing that I am, he bites back a smile and returns his attention to the book in his hands.
“It would be what came after the Bible, and outlines our Heavenly Father’s plan for His children.” Looking up at me again, he says quietly, “His children being us.”
I laugh. “I got that part.”
His eyes flicker to mine for a moment, amused. “The Doctrine and Covenants contains the revelations Joseph Smith and other prophets received from God. It’s a way to receive guidance from modern prophets in modern times. This one,” he says, flipping to the back, “is the Pearl of Great Price, which is said to be a record of the prophet Abraham in Egypt as a young man. As the church grew, they saw a need to put the stories and translations and history in one place, so more people could learn from it. These books are tools, in a way. If you read and sincerely pray, you’ll find answers and guidance and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the words are true.”
I don’t realize how intently I’m listening until I look up to see him watching me again. It’s not that I agree with any of this, but there’s something about his voice and the strength with which he believes it that has me hanging on every word.
“You’re good at this,” I say, but my mouth has gone dry. “Have you considered . . . I don’t know, going on a mission and teaching this stuff? Get yourself a sign that says ‘gone baptizing’?”
He laughs like I’d hoped he would, but now that we’ve touched on the subject of his mission, I want to ask more. Where does he think he’ll go? What will he do there? Who will he be with? Are there any loopholes in this no-contact thing? Will there be any space for me in his life at all?
“Briefly,” he says with a grin. The moment grows quiet and his eyes flicker down to my mouth.
Has he thought about our hike as much as I have? It’s the last thing I think about before I go to bed and almost the first thought in my head when I open my eyes. I want to kiss him so badly, and if the look on his face, the way his breathing has picked up is any indication, I think he wants it too.
• • •
Everyone is at the table when we reach the dining room. There are four chairs on each side and one at each end for his parents. Sebastian takes the empty seat nearest his dad, with me to his left, Lizzy and Aaron next to me, and his grandparents and Faith on the other side.
The table is covered in plates and bowls of food, but nobody is eating. I realize why when Sebastian taps his foot against mine, nodding to where his hands are clasped in front of him.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” Dan begins, eyes closed and chin bowed to his chest. I quickly mimic the action. “We are thankful for this food and the bounty You have once again placed before us. We are thankful for the loved ones and new friends You have brought to our table. Please bless this food to nourish and strengthen our bodies and minds so that we may do right by You. Please bless those who cannot be here, and may they find their way safely back. We thank You for this, Lord, and ask that You continue to bless us. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
A hushed wave of amens move around the table, and just like that, the quiet is gone. Silverware scrapes across dishes, and plates are passed in a rush as everyone dives in. Faith wants chicken nuggets, and Aaron wants to know if his dad will play catch with him after school tomorrow. Lizzy is chatting about Young Women’s Camp coming up.
I inspect the drink choices on the table in front of me: water, milk, strawberry kiwi Shasta, and even worse, root beer. Absolutely no caffeine. I pour myself a glass of ice water.
Dan hands Sebastian a platter full of turkey, and smiles over at me. “So, Tanner, Sebastian tells us you’re originally from California?”
“Yes, sir. Palo Alto.”
Sebastian takes some meat, and holds the platter for me, giving me an encouraging smile. My pinky finger grazes against his. I’ll feel that brush of contact for hours.
Abe leans in, catching my eye. “California to Utah? That must have been quite a change.”
I laugh. “It was.”
Tanner’s mother looks at me sympathetically from her end of the table. “I can’t imagine going from sun almost all year long to gloomy winter and snow.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” I say. “The mountains are beautiful here, and we would get a lot of fog at home, anyway.”
“Do you ski?” Judy asks.
“A little. We usually go up to Snowbird or the Canyons at least once a year.”
His mom jumps back in. “With your whole family?”
I nod, reaching for a bowl of cheesy potatoes and scooping some onto my plate. “Yeah. There’s just the four of us; I have a younger sister, Hailey.”
Sebastian’s mother hums. “Beautiful name.”
“My parents are both pretty outdoorsy,” I tell them. “My dad loves to bike and my mom runs.”
Sebastian’s dad swallows his food before asking, “What do they do, exactly? Sebastian said you moved here for your mom’s job?”
That Sebastian has been chatty.
I take a sip of ice water and set down my glass. “Yes, sir. She is the CTO for NextTech.”
Various sounds of interest pass around the table.
“When they opened a satellite office here, they wanted her to run it.” More pronounced sounds of interest. “She writes computer software. She’d worked for Google in California, and left to come here.”
“Wow,” Dan says, impressed. “It must be quite a job for her to have left Google. I hear they’re very good to their employees.”
“And his dad is a physician at Utah Valley,” Sebastian adds. I look over at him and grin. He sounds braggy, like he’s proud.
Judy’s eyes go wide. “I volunteer there every Wednesday! What’s his name?”
“Paul Scott. He’s a cardiac surgeon.”
“I know exactly who he is! I don’t spend much time on that floor these days, but he is the nicest man. The Jewish cardiologist, right?” she asks, and I nod, surprised that she knows him but also that her identifier is that he’s Jewish. “So attentive, and the nurses love him.” She leans in and whispers dramatically, “And quite handsome, if I do say so.”
“Grandma! Do you love Tanner’s dad?” little Faith asks, scandalized, and the entire table laughs.
“Now, you know I only have eyes for your grandpa. But I’m not blind, either,” she says with a wink.
Faith giggles into her cup of milk.
“That’s right,” Abe says. “She saw me at a church dance and hasn’t looked away since.”
“Mommy, you and Daddy met at a dance, too, right?” Faith asks.
“We did.” Sebastian’s mom looks across the table at Dan. “I asked him to Sadie Hawkins.”
The little girl shoves a bite of food in her mouth before asking a garbled, “What’s Sadie Hawkins?”
His mom goes on to explain, but all I can think about is what she just said. When she’s finished, I turn to his dad. “You guys dated in high school?”
“We did,” Dan says, nodding. “We met when we were seniors and married shortly after I came home from my mission.”
My brain screeches to a halt. “You can do that?”
“We’re told not to keep a girlfriend while we’re on our missions,” he says, smiling at his wife, “but there’s no rule against writing letters once a week.”
“As if you could tell these two anything.” Judy looks at the younger children and adds, “Your dad won’t like me telling you this, but you should have seen the love notes he used to write your mom. He’d leave them in his pocket and I’d always find them in the wash. They were crazy about each other.”
The rest of the conversation blurs around me. All the other complications aside, if we could keep in contact while he’s gone, that wouldn’t be so bad. Two years isn’t that long, and I’ll be at school anyway. Maybe by then the prophet will have had a revelation.
It could work, couldn’t it?
For just a moment, I feel hope.
Dan pulls me out of my fog. “Tanner, does your family attend synagogue in Salt Lake?” He looks over to Abe. “I’m trying to remember where the closest one is.”
This is awkward. I don’t even know where the closest synagogue is.
“Well, let’s see now,” Abe says. “There’s Temple Har Shalom in Park City—”
“Too far.” Dan shakes his head as if he’s decided himself it’s unsuitable for us.
“Right, and the city has a handful—”
I decide to nip this in the bud. “Actually, no, sir. Sirs,” I amend, to include Abe. “We don’t attend temple services. I would say my parents are more agnostic at this point. Mom was raised LDS, and Dad isn’t very Jewish anymore.”
Oh my Jesus, what have I said?
Silence swallows the table. I’m not sure which gaffe was more artless: that I admitted my mom is ex-LDS, or that I so casually referenced dropping a religious faith like a hot potato.
Sebastian is the one to break into the quiet. “I didn’t know your mom was LDS.”
“Yeah. She was raised in Salt Lake.”
His brow is drawn, his mouth a gentle, wounded line.
His mom jumps in brightly. “Well, that means you have family locally! Do you see them?”
“My grandparents are in Spokane now,” I tell them. I have the foresight to not mention that I’ve never met them in my eighteen years, and mentally high-five myself. But it means my mouth is left unattended and is off running: “But my aunt Emily and her wife live in Salt Lake. We see them at least once a month.”
The only sound at the table is the vague shifting of uncomfortable people in their chairs.
Oh my Jesus, what have I said again?
Sebastian kicks me under the table. When I look at him, I see that he’s struggling to not laugh. I barrel on: “My dad’s mother comes to stay with us a lot. He’s also got three siblings, so our family is pretty big.” I lift my water, fill my mouth with it so I’ll shut up. But once I swallow, one more bit of mania manages to escape: “Bubbe still attends synagogue weekly. She’s very involved. Very spiritual.”
Sebastian’s heel lands on my shin again, and I’m sure he’s telling me to calm the hell down, maybe even that I don’t need to be connected to religion to be accepted. Who knows. But it certainly feels that way. Everyone here is so put together. They eat neatly, napkins in lap. They say “Please pass the . . .” and compliment their mother’s cooking. Table posture is across-the-board impressive. And, maybe more importantly, rather than asking me more about my parents’ backgrounds or about Emily, Sebastian’s grandparents deftly move away from my verbal diarrhea, asking about specific teachers and upcoming sports events. The parents offer gentle reminders to their kids to keep their elbows off the table (I swiftly pull mine back too), to go easy on the salt, to finish their vegetables before they ask for more bread.
Everything stays so aboveboard, so safe.
Our family seems almost savage in comparison. I mean, we aren’t knuckle-dragging, monosyllabic oafs, but Mom has been known on occasion to tell Hailey to “knock it the hell off” at the dinner table, and once or twice Dad has taken his meal into the living room to get away from the sound of Hailey and me bickering. But an even more noticeable difference is the closeness I have at home that I only really understand now that I’m here with this warm but docile group of strangers. Over spaghetti and meatballs, the Scott family has been known to have an in-depth conversation about what it means to be bisexual. Over Bubbe’s kugel, Hailey actually asked my parents if you can get AIDS from giving a blow job. It was horrifying to me, but they answered it without hesitation. Now that I’m thinking about it, if Sebastian came over for dinner, I’m pretty sure Mom would send him home with some bright, affirming bumper sticker.
Maybe those kinds of dinner conversations—minus the blow job talk—happen here behind closed doors, but I don’t think so. Where my parents might dig a little deeper in an effort to understand Sebastian and his family, I’m not really surprised that nobody asks why my mom left the church or why Dad no longer goes to synagogue. Those conversations are hard, and I’m but a lost sheep passing through their obedient flock, most likely impermanent. And this is the bishop’s house. Happy, happy, joy, joy, remember? Everyone is on their best behavior, and nobody will pry or make me feel uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be seen as polite. From my experience, Mormons are nothing if not polite. This is who Sebastian is.