Autoboyography

Chapter 16

I don’t think Sebastian really expected me to take him up on the offer. Even Autumn stared at me in blank shock when I mentioned I was going to tag along on a church activity. And yet here we are, Sebastian and Tanner, parking beside the soccer field at good ol’ Fort Utah Park.

We climb out of my car, and I follow him down the small hill to where everyone has gathered in a circle around enormous cardboard boxes, still unopened. For mid-April, it’s gorgeous out. I’m sure it means everyone will get sick when the temperature dips down into the thirties again, but right now it’s in the midsixties, and no one under the age of twenty is wearing long pants. There are pasty white legs peeking out of shorts everywhere.

But let’s be real: Unlike the teeny ass-baring cutoffs Hailey wears, the shorts on display here are pretty tame. It’s not even weird here how modestly everyone dresses, but it does make me wonder briefly what it’s like for LDS kids living in towns where they aren’t the majority.

Girls stare and fidget when Sebastian approaches. I can see a few guys, too, gazing at him just a touch longer than normal. Does he notice the effect he has on people? He’s not even leading the event, but it seems like everyone’s been waiting for him to arrive.

A few people come up, greeting him with handshakes. I’m introduced to a Jake, a Kellan, two McKennas (neither are the McKenna from school) and a Luke before I stop bothering to learn the names and instead greet every smile with my own grin and a hearty handshake. A guy around our age, maybe a bit older, comes out from a cluster of people at the back and introduces himself to me. His name is Christian and he’s thrilled I’m here to join the group. Clearly, he’s leading the exercise.

With that, we get started.

“We’re doing some service today,” Christian says, and a hush falls over the small crowd. The six enormous boxes become the focus of everyone’s attention as he walks over and leans against one. “The amenities in this park are getting old, and it seems time to spruce it up a bit.” He pats the box at his side. “This box, my friends, contains everything you need to build a table or a bench.” A grin spreads across his face. “The twist is that there are no directions, no tools.”

I look around at the group. No one else seems surprised by these rules in the least. No directions, okay, but no tools?

My mind yells a panicked But—splinters!

“We’re going to break into six teams.” When Christian says this, I feel Sebastian casually sliding away from me, and I glance over at him, but he shakes his head. “First, we need to move the existing tables and benches over to the parking lot, where they’ll be picked up by Brother Atwell’s crew. Then we build. We’ll have some pizza in a bit. Drink water when you need to. Remember, it isn’t a race. Take your time and do it right. This is how we give back.” He smiles, and something inside me suddenly feels very, very out of place here when he adds, “Now, let’s somebody say a prayer.”

This part takes me by surprise, and I catch the apologetic look Sebastian gives me just before he lowers his head.

An older teen across the circle from us steps forward. “Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing us together on this beautiful spring day. Thank you for our many blessings, for the strong bodies we will use today. Bless that we can remember this lesson and apply it in our daily lives, that we remember it is only through you that we can find salvation. Please guide Brother Davis’s aim straight and true that we may not have a repeat of last week’s emergency room visit.” A wave of giggles moves through the group, and the boy tucks his smile away before finishing. “Bless that we travel home safely. We say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

When we straighten, Sebastian’s distance quickly makes sense as Christian has us count off, one through six. My boyfriend has just ensured that we’re on the same team, getting the same splinters.

As threes, we are joined by two giggling thirteen-year-old girls, a freshman named Toby, and a junior named Greg. Toby, Greg, Sebastian, and I join the other male forces hauling away the old picnic tables. The girls stand and watch; mostly they’re watching Sebastian.

I try to imagine Hailey in this situation. She would lose her goddamn mind if we started doing some sort of manual labor without expecting her to help.

Having expected the building exercise to be pretty straightforward, I’m surprised when there are about seventy pieces of wood in the box and no clear indication what part goes where. It’s obvious that Sebastian and Greg have been doing this their whole lives. They quickly get to work sorting the pieces by size and shape, while Toby and I act as the muscle, moving the pieces where they direct us.

Sebastian reels in the girls, Katie and Jennalee. “Can you find every piece this size?” He holds up a wooden pin, approximately four inches long. They’re scattered all over the grass where we overturned the box. “And make sure there are as many dowels as there are holes in the boards, see?” He points to the place where the dowels fit into the boards, and the girls immediately get to work, glad to have a task.

“Tann,” he says, and the familiarity in his voice makes a shiver break out along my skin. “Come help me line these up.”

We work side by side, arranging the boards meant to be the table, the boards meant to be the legs. We figure out that we’ll have to use one of the shorter, heavier boards as a mallet to get the pieces in, and then we’ll use Greg’s boot to get that final board in place. The problem-solving is a blast, if I’m being honest, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the thrill of crouching beside Sebastian, feeling his body move next to mine.

Seriously, if he meant for me to come here and find religion, mission accomplished.

We are the first group to finish, and we split off, helping other groups that are struggling with the arrangement and how to use the various parts as tools. I’d be exaggerating if I said it was backbreaking work, but it’s not easy, either, and when the pizza arrives, I’m glad to see a huge stack of boxes because I am s-t-a-r-v-i-n-g.

Sebastian and I collapse against a tree, a bit away from the group. With our legs splayed out in front of us, we devour the food like we haven’t eaten in weeks.

I love watching him eat—it’s usually so fascinating to realize how well mannered he is—but here he’s all brute construction worker: The pizza gets rolled in half, and he shoves most of it in his mouth in one bite. Still, nothing gets on his chin or shirt. I take one bite and have a smear of pepperoni grease on my T-shirt.

“Motherfucker,” I hiss.

“Tann.”

I look over at him, and he smiles, but then tilts his head, like Language!

I give him a sheepish “Sorry.”

“I don’t mind,” he says quietly. “Some of them would.”

We’re far enough away that I have this sense of privacy, even if it’s not entirely real. “How long have you known everyone here?”

“Some of them their whole lives,” he says, looking out at the group. “Toby’s family moved here only two years ago. And some of the kids here are more recent converts. I think this is Katie’s first service activity.”

“I would never have guessed,” I tease.

“Come on, she’s sweet.”

“Her being sweet is totally unrelated to the fact that it took her twenty minutes to count forty dowels.”

He acknowledges this with a quiet laugh. “Sorry about the prayer earlier. I always forget.”

I wave him off and look around the field of teens with new eyes. “You ever dated anyone here?”

He lifts his chin, indicating a tall girl on the other side of the soccer field, eating near the goal. “Manda.”

I know who he means. She graduated with Sebastian’s class, and was in the student council. She’s pretty, and smart, and I never heard a single bit of gossip about her. I’m sure she would be the dream match for Sebastian.

“How long?” I ask. Wow, that question came out sharp.

He heard it too. “You jealous?”

“A little.”

I can tell he likes this. His cheeks pop with a blush. “About a year. Sophomore year to just before junior.”

Wow. I want to ask what he did with her, how much they kissed, how close they came . . . but I don’t. Instead, I say, “But you knew, even then . . .”

He looks up sharply and then around, his features relaxing once he confirms we’re out of earshot. “Yeah, I knew. But I thought, maybe if I tried . . .”

This is like a hundred pins pushed slowly into my skin. A year-long relationship is a lot of trying.

I’m not . . . that.

“You didn’t sleep with her though, right?”

He takes another huge bite of pizza, shaking his head.

“So you think you might marry a Manda someday?”

I can see exasperation in his expression when he looks up at me, chewing. Swallowing, he looks around meaningfully. “Do you think this is the best place for this conversation?”

“We can do it later.”

“I want you,” he says quietly, ducking to take another bite. When he’s swallowed again, he looks straight ahead, but adds, “I don’t want anyone else.”

“Do you think the church will change their mind about us?” I ask. I nod toward the crowd of his peers across the field. “Do you think they’ll eventually come around?”

Sebastian shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you feel happy with me.”

“The happiest I’ve ever been.”

“So you know it isn’t wrong.”

His eyes clear and finally he looks at me. “Of course I do.”

Emotion rises, thick in my throat. I want to kiss him. His gaze drops to my mouth and then he blinks away, his face red again.

“You know what I’m thinking,” I say. “What I’m always thinking.”

He nods, leaning forward to reach his water bottle. “Yeah. Me too.”

• • •

The sun is hanging low in the sky when we put everything back in place and test to make sure it’s safely assembled. People are laughing, playing tag, tossing a Frisbee around. It’s so much better than the wrestling, name-calling of the trip to the lake the other day. There’s an undeniable layer of respect to everything we do here. Respect for the community, for each other, for ourselves, for their God.

Most everyone piles into a large van to head back to the church parking lot, but Sebastian and I hang back, waving as they retreat from view.

Sebastian turns to me, and his smile slips. “So? Was it terrible?”

“I was just thinking it wasn’t bad,” I say, and he laughs at this. “I mean, actually it was pretty cool. Everyone is so nice.”

“ ‘Nice,’ ” he repeats, shaking his head a little.

“What? I’m serious. It’s a nice group of people.”

I like being with his community not because I think this would be a good fit for me, but because I need that window into his head. I need to understand why he would ever say things like “I felt the Spirit so strongly this weekend,” or how he’ll pray to find answers. The reality is, this is the language he was born with and he was raised hearing. The LDS Church has an entire vocabulary that still sounds so stilted to me, but which rolls right out of them, and I’m coming to understand that it essentially just means things like “I’m trying to make the best choice,” and “I need to understand if what I’m feeling is wrong.”

The only sounds left in the park are of birds in trees overhead and the distant hum of tires on asphalt.

“What do you want to do?” I ask.

“I don’t want to go home yet.”

My whole body vibrates. “Then let’s stay out.”

We climb in my car with the weight of an anticipatory silence all along my skin. I pull out of the lot and drive. I just drive. I don’t even know where we’re going or what we’ll do when we stop, but when we’re miles from home, Sebastian’s hand slides onto my knee and slowly inches up my thigh. Houses fall away, and soon we’re on a quiet two-lane road. On instinct, I pull down a dirt road leading to a restricted-access side of the lake.

Sebastian looks back over his shoulder as we pass through the open gate with the sign NO ACCESS mostly obstructed by overgrown foliage. “Should we really go down here?”

“Probably not, but it doesn’t look like that gate has been closed for a long time, so I’m guessing we’re not the first to try it.”

He doesn’t reply, but I feel his uncertainty in the stiff shape of his hand on my leg, the rigidity in his spine. I have to trust that he’ll relax once he sees how truly isolated it is down here after dark.

The mud grows thicker, and I pull off into a firm patch of grass, shutting off my lights and then, finally, the ignition. My car engine ticks in the silence. Outside, it’s almost completely dark except for the shimmering reflection of the moon on the lake surface. Dad always insists I keep some emergency supplies in my trunk—including a thick blanket—and although it’s getting chilly with the sun gone, I have an idea.

Opening my door, I look over at him. “Come on.”

Reluctantly, he follows.

I pull the blanket from my trunk and spread it over the still-warm hood of my car. Using a few spare jackets and a random beach towel, I make some pillows for us up near the windshield wipers.

Like this, we can lie back and stare up at the stars.

When he sees what I’m doing, he helps me arrange it all, and then we climb up, lying back and letting out, in unison, a satisfied moan.

He bursts out laughing. “It looked so comfortable.”

I shift a little closer, and the hood protests with a metallic rumble. “It’s not so bad.”

Above us, the moon hangs low on the horizon, and stars seem to hold it up by strings.

“One thing I like about this place,” I tell him, “is you can see stars at night. We never could in Palo Alto. Too much light pollution.”

“One thing you like about this place?”

I turn, leaning forward to kiss him once. “Sorry. Two.”

“I know nothing about stars,” he says when I look back up at the sky. “I keep meaning to learn, but there never seems to be time.”

Pointing, I say, “Up there is Virgo. See the top four that form that lopsided trapezoid? Then there’s Gamma Virginis and Spica—they form, like, kite strings below?”

Sebastian squints, sliding closer to better see what I’m pointing to. “That shape there?”

“No . . . I think you’re looking at Corvus. Virgo is . . .” I move his hand so it’s hovering over my chest. My heart is going to climb right up my throat and out of my body. “Right there.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he whispers, smiling.

“And that bright one, that’s Venus—”

He inhales, excited. “Right, I remember—”

“And just beside it, that tight cluster? That’s the Pleiades,” I tell him. “They’ll move closer and closer together.”

“Where’d you learn all this?” he asks.

I turn to look at him.

He’s looking at me, too, so close.

“My dad. There’s not much to do after dark when we’re camping, other than make s’mores, tell ghost stories, and look at constellations.”

“Left to my own devices, I can only ever find the Big Dipper,” he says. His eyes drop to my mouth.

“I would be pretty useless out here without my dad.”

He blinks away, looking back up. “Your dad seems cool.”

“He is.”

An ache builds in my chest because my dad is the best, in part, because he knows me and loves all of me. And yet there is this entire side of Sebastian that his dad knows nothing about. I could go home and tell Dad everything that happened today—could even tell him about lying here with Sebastian on the hood of Mom’s old Camry—and it wouldn’t change anything between us.

Apparently Sebastian has the exact same train of thought, because out of the silence, he says, “I keep thinking about my dad the other day, hugging me so tight. I swear my whole life, the only thing I wanted was to make him proud of me. It’s so weird to say this out loud, but I feel like if Dad is proud of me, it’s this external confirmation that God is proud of me too.”

I don’t know what to say to this.

“I can’t even imagine what my dad would do if he knew where I was.” He laughs, sliding a hand over his chest. “Down a dirt road with a no-access sign, lying on a car with my boyfriend . . .”

The word still sends a jolt through me.

“I used to pray so hard to not be attracted to guys,” he admits.

I turn and look at him.

He shakes his head. “I always felt so terrible afterward, like I was asking for something so minor when other people have these huge problems. But then I met you, and . . .”

We both let it trail off. I’m choosing to think the end of that sentence would be . . . and God told me you were the right choice for me.

“Yeah,” I say.

“So nobody at school knows you like guys, then,” he says.

I notice the way he avoids the words “gay,” “bi,” “queer” again. This would be the perfect time to have the Autumn/Manny/Julie/McKenna conversation, but it’s easy to skip it here. I mean, who knows what the girls heard, Manny has kept his knowledge pretty quiet so far, and Autumn promised on penalty of death to never say anything. Sebastian has his secrets; I guess it’s okay for me to have this one.

“No. I think because I’ve dated girls, most people just assume I’m straight.”

“I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t just choose to have a girlfriend if you could.”

“It’s about the person, not what I can do with them.” I take his hand, linking my fingers with his. “It’s not my choice. No more than it is for you.”

I can tell he doesn’t like what I’ve just said. “But you think you might tell more people one day? Like if you ended up with a guy, would you . . . be out?”

“Everyone would know if you came to prom with me.”

Sebastian looks horrified. “What?”

My smile feels wobbly at the edges. I hadn’t actually meant to say that, but I hadn’t not meant to either. “What would you say if I asked?”

Conflict crashes across his features. “I mean. I . . . couldn’t.”

A tiny bit of hope deflates in my chest, but I’m not surprised. “It’s okay,” I tell him. “I mean, of course I would take you, but I didn’t expect you to say yes. I’m not even sure I’d be a hundred percent ready yet.”

“Are you going to go?”

Turning my face back up to the sky, I tell him, “Maybe with Autumn if she bails on Eric. We’re sort of default plus-ones. She wants me to ask Sasha.”

“Sasha?”

I wave my hand like Not worth explaining.

“Were you ever with Autumn?” he asks.

“We made out once. It wasn’t magical.”

“For you, or for her?”

Grinning, I look back at him. “For me. I don’t know how it was for her.”

His gaze slides across my face, landing on my lips. “I think she’s in love with you.”

I don’t want to talk about Autumn right now. “Are you?”

At first I can tell he doesn’t know what I mean. A tiny line forms between his brows, marring the smooth landscape of his forehead.

But then it clears. His eyes widen.

Later, I’ll look back on this and wonder whether he kisses me right now because he doesn’t want to answer, or whether his answer was so obvious he had to kiss me. But in the moment when he leans forward, rolling over me, his mouth hot and familiar on mine, emotion becomes a liquid; an ocean fills my chest.

I find the true impossibility in writing when I think back on this moment right here, when he’s touching me and his palms are branding me, his fingertips tiny spots of heat on my skin. I want to capture it somehow, not only so I’ll remember, but so that I can explain. There’s almost no way to put into words that frantic transition, the deranged tangle we become, except to think of it like a wave on a beach, the physical force of water unstoppable.

The only thing I’m sure of in the moment his touch goes from exploratory, to determined, to purposeful, and his eyes hold steady on my face, full of thrill as I fall, is we are both thinking how good this is, how right. This moment, and the quieter moments afterward, can’t be edited. They can’t be rewritten. They can’t be erased.