I made a joke the other day on the phone to Autumn: I don’t know which is worse, Provo or Los Angeles. She didn’t get it, and of course she didn’t because she’s living in an idyllic Connecticut wonderland, wearing elbow-patch sweaters and knee-high socks. (She is; don’t kill the fantasy.) LA is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just massive. I grew up near San Francisco, so I know big cities, but LA is a different thing entirely, and UCLA is a city within a city. From above, Westwood Village is this dense network of arteries and arterioles within the huge LA vascular system, sandwiched between Wilshire and Sunset. It took about three weeks here before I stopped feeling like I was drowning in an urban ocean.
Mom, Dad, and Hailey drove out here with me in August in what I think we would all describe as the worst road trip in the history of time. At various points, I’m sure we each prayed for the zombie apocalypse to wipe out our loved ones. Bottom line: Hailey does not do well in confined spaces, Dad drives like a blind grandparent, and none of us agrees on music.
Moving on: Orientation was a blur. There was a lot of training on how not to be a rapist or die of alcohol poisoning, both of which I think we can agree are good things to cover. We heard about the honor code—a quaint, well-intended suggestion compared to the iron-clad monstrosity imposed at BYU. Three weeks later and I’m not sure I remember what’s even in it, because clearly no one listened.
I was assigned to live in Dykstra Hall, which apparently isn’t bad because it was renovated a few years ago. But given my lack of any previous experience in the matter, I can only say: It’s a dorm. Twin beds, separate bathrooms for males and females, with a long row of showers on one wall and a long row of toilets on the other. Laundry rooms. Wi-Fi. My roommate, Ryker, is easily the wildest person I’ve ever met. It’s like the universe said, Oh, you want to leave Provo for something a bit more lively? Here you go. Bad news: He parties pretty much constantly and reeks of beer. Good news: He’s hardly ever here.
We don’t need to declare a major until sophomore year, but I’m pretty sure I’m going premed. Who knew, right? The science programs here are great, and if I minor in English, it’s a great balance course-load-wise. Look at me, being proactive.
Science was an obvious choice, but I think we all know I can’t move too far away from English, either. One, because Autumn has trained me so well, it would almost be a waste to leave that behind. But two, writing tapped something in me I didn’t know was there. Maybe something will actually happen with this book. Maybe it won’t and I’ll become inspired again and write another. Whatever. Writing is a tie—however tenuous—to him. I can admit now that I need that.
He’s still there in nearly every step I take. At the first party I went to, I played the social game and met a couple of people, had some beers, flirted here and there, but went home alone. I wonder when I’ll be past this constant ache and actually want someone else. There have been situations where I think, If it weren’t for Sebastian, I probably would have hooked up tonight. But I want him. As crazy as it sounds to think this book is only for me—especially after everything—it feels safe to say it here: I haven’t given up hope. His reaction to seeing me in the bookstore has stuck with me. And he drew a mountain emoji in my book. He loves me. I know he does.
Or, he did.
And being here is different more than just on the scale of the city; no matter what’s happening in the rest of the country, LA is a gay-friendly town. People are out. People are proud. Couples of every combination walk down the street holding hands and no one even blinks. I can’t imagine that happening on the average street in most small towns, definitely not in Provo. Mormons are generally too nice to say anything to your face, but there would be a gentle gust of discomfort and judgment carried on the wind.
I don’t even know where Sebastian ended up going on his mission, but I’m worried about him. Is he having fun? Is he miserable? Is he stuffing a part of his heart into a lockbox just to keep the people in his life happy? I know he can’t be contacted, so I’m not texting or e-mailing, but just to release the pressure valve in my chest, sometimes I’ll type something up and send it to myself so at least the words can get out of me, stop stealing my air.
Autumn told me that his mom was going to host some public Facebook party for the letter opening, but I couldn’t stomach it. I assumed Autumn lurked on there, following the action, but she swears she has no idea where he ended up. Even if she was lying, though, I made her promise not to tell me. What if he’s in Phoenix? What if he’s in San Diego? I wouldn’t be able to keep from driving there and trolling the neighborhoods for Elder Brother, the hottest guy alive, with his floppy skater hair and white shirtsleeves, riding a bike.
Sometimes, when I can’t sleep and can’t stop thinking about everything we did together, I imagine giving in and asking Autumn where I can find him. I imagine showing up wherever he is, seeing him in his missionary uniform, and his surprise at seeing me there. I think I’d make the trade: I’ll convert, if you’ll be with me, even in secret, forever.
• • •
The first weekend in October, I call Auddy like I always do: at eleven on Sunday. There’s always the pain at first, the stab wound inflicted by the familiar pitch of her voice. Oddly, even as hard as it was saying good-bye to my folks at my dorm, saying bye to Autumn was harder. In some ways I hate that I didn’t tell her everything sooner. We’ll have other safe places, but we were each other’s first safe space. No matter what we say or what promises we make, it changes from here on out.
“Tanner, oh my God, hang on, let me read you this letter.”
This is honestly how she answers. I can’t even reply before she’s already put the phone down, off—I presume—to retrieve Bratalie’s latest manifesto.
Her roommate is a total drama queen, actually named Natalie, who leaves passive-aggressive notes on Autumn’s desk about noise, tidiness, the lack of toothpaste sharing that should occur, and the number of dresser drawers Autumn is allowed to occupy. Fun fact: We are also pretty sure she masturbates when she thinks Autumn is asleep. This isn’t related to anything, really, but I found it genuinely fascinating and required a lot of detail before I would agree with the theory.
Her phone scrapes across a surface before she returns with a bright, “Ohmygod.”
“A good one?”
“Maybe the best so far.” Auddy takes a breath, laughing on the exhale. “Remember how I told you she was sick earlier in the week?”
I vaguely remember the text. Our box gets pretty busy. “Yeah.”
“So, it’s related to that. Okay. ‘Dear Autumn,’ ” she reads, “ ‘Thank you again for bringing me breakfast the other morning. I felt so sick! I feel like such a jerk for saying this—’ ”
I laugh incredulously, anticipating where this is headed. “Oh my God.”
“ ‘—but I can’t stop thinking about it, so I just need to get it out. The fork and the plate were both dirty, with crusty stuff. And then I thought, Did Autumn do this on purpose? I hope not. I know I can be fussy sometimes, but I want us to be as close forever as we are now—’ ”
“Wow, she’s delusional.”
“ ‘—so I thought I would simply ask. Or maybe I just wanted to let you know that I knew, and if it was intentional, that was sort of nasty of you. Of course, if it was an accident, just ignore this. You’re so sweet. Xoxo, Nat.’ ”
I scrub a hand over my face. “Seriously, Auddy, find a new roommate. She makes Ryker seem mellow.”
“I can’t! From what I’ve seen of others changing roommates, it’s so much drama!”
“This isn’t drama?”
“It is,” she agrees, “but there’s an element of the absurd to it too. It’s objectively fascinating.”
“I mean, I get her letter about cracker crumbs. I’ve been warning you about this for years now. But a dirty fork and plate when you’re bringing food to her sickbed?”
She laughs. “It’s as if she doesn’t eat at the dining hall. The dishes are all pretty sketchy.”
“How dare they! Don’t they know they’re Yale?”
“Shut up. How’s LA?”
I look out my window. “Sunny.”
Auddy groans. “Good weekend? Anything interesting?”
“We played Washington State yesterday, so a bunch of us went to the game.”
“Who would have pegged you as a football fan?”
“I wouldn’t say fan so much as aware of the unspoken rules.” I lean back in my desk chair, scratching my jaw. “A few guys over in Hedrick were having a party last night. I went with Breckin.” My first and closest friend so far, Breckin escaped a small town in Texas, and by some strange coincidence is (1) gay and (2) Mormon. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. He’s also smart as hell and reads almost as voraciously as Autumn. I’d have a crush if my heart wasn’t already taken. “Pretty fun day. I don’t know. What’d you do?”
“Deacon had a race yesterday, so we did that.”
Deacon. Her new boyfriend, and a deity on the rowing team, apparently.
There is a small curl of jealous heat there. I can’t deny it. But mostly, he sounds like a pretty cool guy. He’s Irish, and totally infatuated with Autumn, so I already like him. He even texted me last week to ask me what I thought he should get her for her birthday. Recruiting the best friend: smart move.
“I miss you,” I tell her.
“I miss you too.”
We exchange Thanksgiving travel details, promise to talk next week, and ring off, with love.
For about fifteen minutes after we hang up, I feel blue.
But then I see Breckin in my doorway with a Frisbee.
“Which one this time?” he asks.
Thanks to a pitcher of vodka tonics and a Breaking Bad marathon one night in my room, he knows everything.
“Both of them.”
He waves his Frisbee. “Let’s go. It’s nice outside.”
• • •
There have been a few moments in my life when I think I’ve felt a higher power at work. The first was when I was six and Hailey was three. It’s my earliest clear memory; I have fuzzy ones from before it, of throwing pasta or staring up at my ceiling at night while my parents read me a book, but this was the first where every detail seems to have been tattooed in my mind. Mom, Hailey, and I were in a T.J. Maxx. The racks were rammed so close together and stuffed with clothes, it was nearly impossible to pass between without rubbing against something woolen or silken or denim.
Hailey was being playful and silly, and hid a couple of times in a rack Mom was sorting through. But then she disappeared. Completely. For ten minutes we ran around yelling her name with increasing hysteria, digging through every rod, shelf, and rack in the store. We couldn’t find her. We alerted the saleswomen, who called security. Mom was hysterical. I was hysterical. I’d never done anything like it before, but I closed my eyes and begged—not a person, not a power, maybe just the future—that she was okay. Only a few weeks before, I’d learned the word “kidnap,” and it seemed to rewire my brain so that I viewed everything through the lens of a possible abduction scenario.
I felt better when I said it over and over—please let her be okay, please let her be okay, please let her be okay—and maybe that’s why it always made sense to me later, when Sebastian said he felt better when he prayed. I knew I was helpless, but it still felt like my good intentions had power, that they could change the trajectory of whatever had happened to my sister.
I’ll forever remember the calm that washed over me. I kept chanting it to myself, and went and hugged Mom while the saleswomen ran around hysterically, and my calm transferred to her, and we just stood there, breathing in and out and silently believing that she was nearby somewhere while security barked orders through their walkie-talkies and the saleswomen checked every back room. We stood there until Hailey popped out of a dusty clearance rack in the very back of the store, wearing an enormous, proud grin and yelling, “HAILEY WON!”
There have been other times too. The feeling that there is someone warning me away from the ocean on a day the beach is eventually closed for dangerous riptides. The soothing relief of being so upset about something and, in an instant, being able to stop looping through the catastrophic scenarios and breathe in and out—wondering what it was that put the spiraling panic on hold and reminded me to unwind. Sometimes they’re small moments, sometimes they’re big, but I’ve always felt they were just part of being human, of being raised by thoughtful humans.
Still, being raised by thoughtful humans doesn’t explain what happened that Sunday afternoon. Breckin and I went outside, Frisbee in hand. It was amazing out—seventy-four with no wind, no clouds. The weird marine layer that hovers until lunchtime had evaporated, and the sky was this unreal blue, the kind every tourist notices and mentions. Breckin’s bright green Frisbee cut through it, back and forth between us. We dodged people on the lawn, apologizing when the Frisbee landed at someone’s feet or—once—hit their shin. We started with the sun to our left, but as we threw, and chased, and caught, I ended up with the sun directly in my eyes.
I’m probably romanticizing it now—in fact, in my more atheist moments, I know I’m romanticizing it, though in other times, I’m less sure—but in hindsight, I see the pattern of our game as this looping, meticulous Spirograph. With each of Breckin’s throws I caught, I shifted in a matter of precise degrees: ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, until I had rotated exactly ninety degrees from where I began.
Everyone has a gait, as unique and recognizable as a fingerprint. Sebastian’s gait was always upright, unhurried, and careful: each step as even as the one before. I knew his shoulders—wide, muscular—and the way his head sat on his neck—chin up in a sort of graceful bearing. I knew that he walked with his right thumb tucked loosely into his palm, so that it always looked a little like he was making a fist with his right hand while his left hand hung at his side, relaxed.
And there he was, but backlit. None of his features were visible, just his walk, coming toward me.
Breckin threw the Frisbee, and my wide, searching eyes caught the heart of the sun, and the disk sailed straight past me.
When the bright spot finally dissolved from my vision, I looked past Breckin again. The figure was closer now, but it wasn’t Sebastian after all. It was someone else with great posture, chin up, a loose right-handed fist.
A close match, but not him.
I remember learning in biology in eleventh grade that the neurons that signal pain, called C fibers, actually have some of the slowest-conducting axons. The sensation of pain takes longer to get to the brain than nearly any other type of information—including the conscious awareness that pain is coming. The teacher asked us why we thought this might be evolutionarily advantageous, and it seemed so simple at the time: We need to be able to escape the source of pain before we’re debilitated by it.
I like to think this is how I was somehow already braced against the pain of realization. In this case, the blinding sunshine reached me first, warning me of the painful signal ahead—hope. Reminding me that of course it couldn’t be Sebastian. I was in LA. He was somewhere else, gathering souls. Of course he wasn’t there.
He is never going to be here, I thought. He is never coming back.
Was I okay with it? No. But missing him every day for the rest of my life was still easier than the fight Sebastian had: to stuff himself inside a box every morning and tuck that box inside his heart and pray that his heart kept beating around the obstacle. Every day I could go to class as exactly the person I am, and meet new people, and come outside later for some fresh air and Frisbee. Every day I would be grateful that no one who matters to me questions whether I am too masculine, too feminine, too open, too closed.
Every day I would be grateful for what I have, and that I can be who I am without judgment.
So every day I would fight for Sebastian, and people in the same boat, who don’t have what I do, who struggle to find themselves in a world that tells them white and straight and narrow gets first pick in the schoolyard game of life.
My chest was congested with regret, and relief, and resolve. Give me more of those, I thought to whoever was listening—whether it was God, or Oz, or the three sisters of Fate. Give me those moments where I think he’s coming back. I can take the hurt. The reminder that he’s not coming back—and why—will keep me fighting.
I picked up the Frisbee, tossed it to Breckin. He caught it one-handed, and I hopped side to side, elbows out, reenergized. “Make me run for it.”
He lifted his chin, laughing. “Dude, watch out.”
“I’m good. Throw it.”
Breckin jerked his chin again, more urgently. “You’re going to hit him.”
Startled, I tucked in my elbows, wheeling around to apologize to whoever was there.
And he was there, maybe two feet from me, leaning back like I might in fact elbow him in the face.
Losing control of my legs in an instant, I sat ass-down on the grass. He wasn’t backlit anymore. There was no halo of sun behind him. Just sky.
He crouched, resting his forearms on his thighs. Concern pulled his brows down, drew his lips into a gentle frown. “Are you okay?”
Breckin jogged over. “Dude, are you okay?”
“W-w-w—” I started, and then let out a long, shaking exhale. “Sebastian?”
Breckin slowly backed away. I don’t know where he went, but looking back, the rest of it was just me, and Sebastian, and an enormous stretch of green grass and blue sky.
Oh God. The sweetly cocky grin, the joke everyone can be in on. “Yeah?”
“I swear I just imagined you walking from clear across the quad and thought God was giving me some life lesson, and not twenty seconds later you’re standing right there.”
He reached out, took my hand. “Hey.”
“You’re supposed to be in Cambodia.”
“Cleveland, in fact.”
“I didn’t actually know. I just made that up.”
“I could tell.” He grinned again, and the sight of it set about building a scaffold around my heart. “I didn’t go.”
“Shouldn’t you be in Mormon jail?”
He laughed, sitting down and facing me. Sebastian. Here. He took my hands in his. “We’re working out the details of my parole.”
The banter fell away in my head. “Seriously. I’m . . .” I blinked, light-headed. It felt like the world was too slowly coming into focus. “I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“I flew to LA this morning.” He studied my reaction, before adding, “To find you.”
I remembered the day I found him outside my house, flayed by his parents’ silence. Panic crawled up my neck. It was my turn to ask, “Are you okay?”
“I mean, LAX is sort of a nightmare.”
I bit my lip, fighting a grin, fighting a sob. “I’m serious.”
He did a little side-to-side nod. “I’m getting there. I’m worlds better seeing you, though.” A pause. “I missed you.” He looked skyward, and then back at me. On their return trip, his eyes were glassy and tight. “I missed you a lot. I have a lot of forgiveness to earn. If you’ll let me.”
Words were a jumbled mess in my head. “What happened?”
“Seeing you at the signing really threw me. It was like being shaken awake.” He squinted from the sun. “I went on my book tour. I read your book almost every day.”
“It started to feel like a new holy book.” His laugh was sweetly self-deprecating. “That sounds crazy, but it did. It was a love letter. It reminded me every day who I am and how much I was loved.”
He inhaled sharply at this, and then added, voice quieter, “A few weeks after I came home from New York, my letter came—my mission call. Mom planned this huge party. There were probably fifty people coming to our house, more waiting to watch on Facebook.”
“Autumn told me. I think she watched it, but I wouldn’t let her tell me anything.”
He swallowed, shaking his head. “We didn’t do it in the end. I told my parents that night that I didn’t think I could go. I mean,” he amended, “I knew I could talk to people about the church, and my testimony, and what Heavenly Father wants for us.” He bent, pressing his mouth to my knuckles, eyes closed. It felt like worship. “But I didn’t think I could do it the way they wanted: tied off from you, and them, and trying to be someone I’m not.”
“So you’re not going?”
He shook his head, his lips brushing back and forth over the back of my hand. “I withdrew from BYU too. I’ll probably transfer somewhere else.”
This time, hope beat every other reaction to the punch: “Here?”
“We’ll see. The advance on my book is giving me some breathing room. I have some time to think.”
“What about your family?”
“It’s a mess right now. We’re working our way back to each other, but I don’t know what it will look like.” He tilted his face up, wincing. “I don’t know yet.”
I want this burden, I thought. And maybe that’s what just happened. Maybe I earned it. I want to be at least partly responsible for showing him that what he might lose is outweighed by owning his life, completely.
“I’m not afraid of having some work ahead of us.”
“I’m not either.” He smiled up at me, bared his teeth against my hand, and with his playful growl, blood rushed hot to the surface of my skin.
I took ten seconds, eyes closed, to calm down. Breathe in and out, and in and out, and in and out, and in and out.
And then I leaned forward, pouncing, tackling him. He fell backward in surprise, and I landed on top, staring down at his wide, sparkling lake-eyes. My heart pounded against my breastbone, pounded against his, banging on the door to be let in.
“You’re here,” I said.
“I’m here.” He looked around where we stretched out on the grass, instinctively hyperaware. Not a single person was paying any attention.
So he let me kiss him, just once. I made it a good one, though, offering up my bottom lip.
“You’re here,” he said. I felt his arms slide around my waist, hands linking at my lower back.