My dad is sitting in his standard green scrubs at the breakfast bar when I get up on Saturday, curled around his bowl of oatmeal like it’s the keeper of life’s great secrets. It’s only when I move closer that I realize he’s asleep.
He jumps, knocking the bowl across the counter before he scrabbles for it clumsily. He leans back, clutching his chest. “You scared me.”
I put an arm around his shoulder, biting back a laugh. He looks so crazily disheveled. “Sorry.”
His hand comes over mine, squeezing. With him sitting and me standing, I feel enormous. It’s so strange that I am as tall as he is now. Somehow I got none of my mom’s features. I am all Dad: dark hair and towering height and eyelashes. Hailey got Mom’s stature, coloring, and sass.
“Did you just get home?”
He nods, digging his spoon back into the bowl. “A patient came in around midnight with a punctured carotid. They called me in to surgery.”
“Punctured carotid? Did he make it?”
He answers with a tiny shake of his head.
Oof. This explains the stooped posture. “That sucks.”
“He had two kids. He was only thirty-nine.”
I lean against the counter, eating cereal out of the box. Dad pretends to not care. “How did he—”
My stomach drops. Only last year my dad told Hailey and me about how three of his best friends from high school died in a car accident right after graduation. My dad was in the car too, and survived. He left New York to attend UCLA and then moved to Stanford for med school, where he met and married my formerly LDS mother—much to the chagrin of his own mother and extended family back home in Hungary. But because of his time away, whenever he goes back to Upstate New York, the loss of his friends feels fresh all over again.
It’s one of the only things he and Mom ever fought about in front of us: Mom insisted I needed my own car. Dad thought I could get by without one. Mom won. The problem with Provo is there is absolutely nothing to do, anywhere, and it’s not walkable. But the good thing about Provo is it’s incredibly safe—no one drinks, and everyone drives like an octogenarian.
He seems to notice only now that I’m dressed and ready for action. “What are you doing up so early?”
“Going to work on a project with a friend.”
Crap. Why did I say “friend”?
I should have said “person from class.”
“Sebastian.” At Dad’s unsure expression, I add, “He’s the mentor in our Seminar.”
“The kid who sold the book?”
I laugh. “Yeah, the kid who sold the book.”
“He’s LDS, isn’t he?”
I look around us as if the room is full of Mormons hanging out, not drinking our coffee. “Isn’t everyone?”
Dad shrugs, returning to his cold oatmeal. “We aren’t.”
“What are we?”
“We are liberated Unitarian Jewstians,” Mom says, gliding into the room in her yoga pants, her hair in a high, messy bun. She sidles up to Dad, gives him some disgusting, lingering kiss that sends my face deep into the box of cereal, and then makes a beeline for the coffeepot.
She pours her mug, talking to Dad over her shoulder. “Paulie, what time did you get home?”
He studies the clock again, eyes blinking and squinted. “About half an hour ago.”
“Torn carotid,” I summarize for her. “Didn’t make it.”
Dad looks up at me with a disapproving frown. “Tanner,” he says, voice low.
“What? I was just toplining it for her so you didn’t have to go through it again.”
Mom returns to him, quieter now, taking his face into her hands. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but the low murmur of her voice makes me feel better too.
Hailey is a blur of black pajamas, bird’s nest dyed black hair, and scowl as she shuffles into the room. “Why are you guys so loud?”
It’s funny that she’s chosen the quietest moment to enter with this complaint.
“This is the sound of high-functioning humans,” I tell her. She punches me in the chest and tries to talk Mom into giving her some coffee. As expected, Mom refuses and offers her orange juice.
“Coffee stunts your growth,” I tell my sister.
“Is that why your penis is so—”
“Tanner is headed out to work on an assignment,” Dad interrupts pointedly. “With a person named Sebastian.”
“Yeah, the guy he likes,” Hailey tells him. Mom’s head whips over to me.
My insides turn into an immediate tangle of panic. “I do not, Hailey.”
She gives me a screamingly skeptical look. “Hokay.”
Dad leans in, more awake now. “Likes as in likes?”
“No.” I shake my head. “Likes as in he’s a nice person who can help me get an A. He’s just my TA.”
Dad gives me a wide smile, his enthusiastic reminder that, even if I’m not attracted to the guy we’re currently discussing, He’s Okay With My Sexuality. The only thing missing in this moment is the bumper sticker.
Hailey sets her glass of juice down on the counter with a heavy thud. “He’s just your TA who Autumn describes as ‘super-hot’ and you describe as a ‘splotchy boy blusher.’ ”
Mom steps in. “But he’s only helping you with your book, right?”
I nod. “Right.”
Anyone watching this exchange might think my mother is getting worked up about the fact that he’s a boy, but no. It’s that he’s Mormon.
“Okay,” she says, like we’ve just cemented a deal. “Good.”
Fire ignites in my stomach at the concern in her voice, burning a hole through me. I swipe Hailey’s glass, downing her OJ, extinguishing the flames. She looks to Mom for justice, but Mom and Dad are sharing a moment of silent parent communication.
“I’m curious whether it’s possible for a super-LDS kid and a super non-LDS kid to be friends,” I tell them.
“So, you’re viewing this as a sort of experiment?” Dad asks warily.
“Okay, but don’t toy with him,” Mom says.
I groan. This is getting tedious. “You guys.” I walk across the room to grab my backpack. “It’s for school. We’re just going over my outline.”
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
I write it about seventeen times in my notebook while I wait for Sebastian to show up where we agreed to meet: in the writer’s alcove at the Provo City Library.
When he scribbled down his e-mail address in perfect penmanship, I’m sure he expected me to ask that we meet at the Shake Shack—not Starbucks, by God—and go over my outline. But the idea of sitting in public with him where anyone from school could see felt too exposed. I hate to admit it, but what if someone saw me and thought I was converting? What if someone saw him and wondered what he was doing with the non-LDS kid? What if it was Soccer Dave, and he noticed my eyes following Sebastian in class, and the bishop asked around with some contacts in Palo Alto who told him I was queer, and he told Sebastian, and Sebastian told everyone?
I’m definitely overthinking this.
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
WE’RE JUST GOING OVER MY OUTLINE.
Footsteps shuffle up the stairs behind where I’m sitting, and I have just enough time to stand up and knock my notebook onto the floor before Sebastian is there, looking like a Patagonia ad in a blue puffy jacket, black chinos, and Merrells.
He smiles. His face is pink from the cold, but it punches me in the chest how much I like to look at him.
This is so, so bad.
“Hey,” he says, just slightly out of breath. “Sorry I’m a couple minutes late. My sister got this giant Barbie house for her birthday, and I had to help my dad put it together before I took off. There were, like, a million pieces to that thing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, starting to reach my hand out to shake his, before pulling it back in because what the hell am I doing?
Sebastian notices, extending his hand before pulling it back too.
“Ignore that,” I say.
He laughs, confused but clearly amused. “It’s like your first day with a new arm.”
Oh my God, this is terrible. We’re just two dudes meeting to study. Bros. Bros don’t get nervous. Be a bro, Tanner. “Thanks for meeting me.”
He nods and bends to pick up my notebook. I grab it before he can read the lines and lines of me calming myself down about what we’re doing here, but I can’t tell whether I was successful. He passes it off, avoiding my eyes, and instead looks past me into the empty room.
“We’re in here?” he asks.
I nod, and he follows me deeper into the room, bending to look out the window. Snow clouds hover over the Wasatch Mountains in a thick fog, like ghosts looming over our quiet city.
“You know what’s weird?” he says, without turning to me.
I try to ignore the way the light coming in the window catches the side of his face. “What’s that?”
“I’ve never been up here. I’ve been to the stacks, but I’ve never actually walked around the library.”
On the tip of my tongue is a barb: That’s because everything you do outside of school takes place at church. But I swallow the instinct down. He’s here helping me.
“How old is your sister?” I ask.
Blinking back to me, he smiles again. He wears his smile so easily, so constantly. “The one with the Barbie house?”
“Faith is ten.” He takes a step toward me, and another, and in an unfamiliar voice my heart is screaming YES, COME HERE, but then I realize that he’s indicating we should move to the table, start working.
Be a bro, Tanner.
I turn, and we settle at the table I got here early to claim—though we could have any. There is no one else at the library at nine on a Saturday morning.
His chair drags across the wood floor dissonantly, and he laughs, apologizing under his breath. With him so close to me, I get another drag of his smell, and it feels a little like getting high.
“You have other siblings though, right?”
He glances at me out of the corner of his eye, and I’m tempted to explain my question—I wasn’t making a snarky assumption about the size of LDS families; Hailey and Lizzy are in class together. “My other sister is fifteen. Lizzy,” he says. “And then I have a brother, Aaron, who is thirteen going on twenty-three.”
I laugh too politely at this. Inside, I am a yarn ball of nerves, and I don’t even know why. “Lizzy goes to Provo High, right?”
He nods. “Sophomore.”
I’ve seen her around school, and Hailey wasn’t wrong: Lizzy is an eternal smiler, often found helping the janitorial staff during lunch break. She seems so full of joy she nearly vibrates. “She seems nice.”
“She is. Faith is a cutie too. Aaron is . . . well, he likes to push limits. He’s a good kid.”
I nod, Tanner Scott, awkward meathead to the end of time. Sebastian turns to look at me; I can almost sense his smile. “Do you have brothers or sisters?” he asks.
See? This is how it’s done, Tanner. Make conversation.
“One sister,” I tell him. “Hailey. She’s actually in Lizzy’s class, I think. Hailey is sixteen and the devil’s spawn.” I realize what I’ve said and turn to him in horror. “Oh my God. I can’t believe I said that. Or that.”
Sebastian groans. “Great. Now I can’t speak to you again after today.”
I feel my expression contort into scorn, and too late I realize he’s only joking. His smile is gone now too. It vanished as soon as he realized how profoundly confused I was, how easily I believed the worst about his faith.
“Sorry,” he says, letting his mouth curl up on one side. He doesn’t look at all uncomfortable. If anything, he looks a tiny bit amused by this. “I was kidding.”
Embarrassment simmers in my blood, and I struggle to bring back my confident smile, the one that always gets me what I want. “Go easy on me. I’m still learning to speak Mormon.”
To my profound relief, Sebastian lets out a real laugh. “I’m here to translate.”
With that, we lean in to look at my laptop, reading the paltry handful of letters there:
A half-Jewish, half-nothing queer kid moves to an LDS-infested town. He can’t wait to leave.
I feel Sebastian go still beside me, and in an instant I realize my mistake: I never changed my outline. My heart plummets.
I don’t mind telling him I can’t wait to leave. I don’t even feel guilty for using the phrase “LDS-infested,” even if maybe I should. Something else overshadows all of that.
I forgot to delete the word “queer.”
No one—no one but family, at least—knows about me here.
I try to inconspicuously gauge his reaction. His cheeks are pink, and his eyes jump back to the beginning, rereading.
I open my mouth to speak—to explain—just as he says, “So this is your overall theme, right? You’re going to write about someone who is homosexual living in Provo?”
The cold thrill of relief dumps into my bloodstream. Of course he doesn’t assume I’m writing something autobiographical.
I nod vigorously. “I was thinking he’d be bisexual. Yeah.”
“And he’s just moved here . . .”
I nod again, and then realize there’s something sticky in his tone, some awareness. If Sebastian did any Tanner Scott reconnaissance at all, he would know I moved here before tenth grade and that my father is a Jewish physician down at Utah Valley.
He might even know my mother was excommunicated.
When he meets my eyes, he smiles. He seems to be very carefully schooling his reaction to this. I can tell he knows. And now my fears about Soccer Dave telling the bishop and the bishop telling Sebastian seem so overly complicated. Of course it just slipped out of me unobstructed.
“No one else knows,” I blurt.
He shakes his head once. “It’s okay, Tanner.”
“I mean no one.” I swipe a hand down my face. “I meant to delete that word. It’s one of the reasons I’m stuck. I keep making the main character bi, and I don’t know how I’d write that book in this class. I don’t know that Fujita would want me to, or my parents.”
Sebastian leans in, catching my eyes. “Tanner, you should write any book you want to write.”
“My family is very adamant that I don’t come out to anyone here, not unless I really trust the person.”
I haven’t even told my best friend, and now I’m spilling my guts in a flash to the single person I probably shouldn’t share any of this with.
His brow slowly rises. “Your family knows?”
“And they’re fine with it?”
“My mom is . . . exuberant in her acceptance, actually.”
After a pulse of silence, he turns back to the computer. “I think it’s a great idea to put this down on paper,” he says quietly. Reaching forward, he lets his index finger hover in front of the screen. “There’s a lot here in only two sentences. A lot of heart, and heartbreak.” His eyes meet mine again. They’re a crazy mix of green and brown and yellow. “I’m not sure how much help I can be on this particular subject, but I’m happy to talk it out.”
I feel these words as they scrape dissonantly across me, and scrunch my nose. “You’d be as helpful if I were writing about dragons or zombies, right?”
His laugh is quickly becoming my favorite sound. “Good point.”
It takes about twenty minutes for my heart rate to return to normal, but in that time, Sebastian talks. It almost feels like he’s aware of my panicked mental bender, like he’s intentionally talking me down, but his words seem to fall from his mouth in an easy, mesmerizing cadence.
He tells me it’s okay that it’s still only an idea, that, as far as he knows, every book starts with something like this—a sentence, an image, a bit of dialogue. What I have to decide, he says, is who the protagonist is, what the conflict is.
“Focus on these two strong aspects of his personality,” he says, ticking off on his fingers. “He is anti-Mormon and . . .”
His second finger hovers, unlabeled.
“Queer,” I finish for him.
“Right.” He swallows, curling his fingers back into his fist. “Does the kid hate all Mormons and plot his escape only to have his parents join the church and disown him once he leaves?”
“No . . .” Apparently, he hasn’t read that much into my family history. “The family is going to be supportive, I think.”
Sebastian leans back, thinking. “Does the kid hate the LDS Church, and he ends up leaving town only to be lured into another ‘cultish religion’?”
I stare over at him, at his ability to see his faith from the eyes of a nonbeliever, to actually spin it negatively like that. “Maybe,” I say. “But I don’t know that I want to demonize the church either.”
Sebastian’s eyes meet mine before he quickly glances away. “What role does his being, um, bisexual play in the book?” This is the first time he’s faltered this entire time—his blush spreads in a heat map across his face.
I want to tell him: I’m curious whether you could ever like me, whether someone like you could be friends with someone like me.
But he’s already here, already being selfless and genuine with someone like me. I expected him to show up and be a good TA, to answer a few questions and get me started while I gawked at him. I didn’t expect him to ask about me or to be so understanding. I didn’t expect to like him. Now the conflict seems obvious, and it causes something steady inside me to curl into a tight, anxious ball, because this is something even scarier to write about.
“Think on it,” he says quietly, fidgeting with a paper clip. “There are so many ways this could go, and a lot of that depends on his journey, his discovery. He starts out resenting where he is and feeling stifled by the town. Does he find freedom by staying, or leaving? Does he find something that changes his mind about it?”
I nod at my computer screen because I know I can’t look at him right now without projecting my feelings across my face. My blood is simmering with the heat of my infatuation.
It begins to snow outside, and thankfully, we move over to a couple of armchairs near the window to watch, letting the book fall away for a while. Sebastian was born here, a few miles down the road. His father is a tax attorney, called to serve as bishop nearly two years ago. His mother was in finance at Vivint before Sebastian was born. Now she’s a full-time mother and wife of the bishop, which, Sebastian explains, sort of makes her the mother of their ward. She likes it, he tells me, but it’s meant that he and Lizzy have had to step up more with Faith and Aaron. He’s played soccer and baseball since he was six. His favorite band is Bon Iver. He plays the piano and guitar.
I feed him the same innocuous details: I was born in Palo Alto. My father is a cardiac surgeon. My mother is a programmer. She feels guilty that she’s not around more, but mostly I’m intensely proud of her. My favorite band is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but I’m in no way musical.
We don’t rehash the question of my sexuality, but I feel its presence like a third person in the room, sitting in the dark corner, eavesdropping on our conversation.
Silence ticks between us as we watch the icy gray sidewalk just below the window slowly become blanketed in white. Steam rises off the surface of a vent at the curb, and with this weird, frantic lurch of my heart, I want to know more about him. Who he’s loved, what he hates, whether it’s even possible he’s into guys.
“You haven’t asked me about the book,” he says finally.
He means his book.
“Oh—crap—I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“It’s not rude.” He faces me and grins like we’re in on this same, exasperating secret. “It’s just that everyone does.”
“I think it’s pretty cool.” I shove my hands in my pockets and stretch back in my chair. “I mean, obviously, it’s amazing. Imagine, your book will be here, in this library.”
He seems surprised by this. “Maybe.”
“I bet you’re tired of talking about it.”
“A little.” He shrugs, smiling over at me. That smile tells me he likes that I haven’t asked him about it, that I’m not here for secondhand, small-town fame. “It’s added some complication, but it’s hard to complain because I realize how blessed I am.”
“Sure, of course.”
“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to live here when you aren’t raised in the church,” he says, changing the subject. “You were fifteen when you moved?”
“Was it hard?”
I take a second to figure out how to answer this. Sebastian knows something about me that no one else knows, and it makes me unsure of my steps. He seems nice, but no matter how nice you are, information is power. “Provo can be suffocating.”
Sebastian nods and then leans forward to get a better view out the window. “I know the church feels like it’s everywhere. It does for me, too. It seems like it seeps into every detail of my life.”
“I can see how it might feel suffocating from the outside, but it does a lot of good, too.” He looks over at me, and with dawning horror I see this study session for what it is. I understand why he agreed to come. He’s recruiting me. He knows about me now, and it’s giving him even more reason to reach out, to save me. He’s not recruiting me to the oiled-up Gay Bliss Club of Northern Utah, but to the LDS Church.
“I know it does good,” I say carefully. “My parents are . . . familiar with the church. It’s hard to live here and not see both the good and the bad of what it does.”
“Yeah,” Sebastian says vaguely, not looking at me. “I can see that.”
“Just . . . wanted you to know, in case . . .” I stop, wincing as I blink away. “I didn’t ask you to help me so that I could join the church.”
When I look back at him, his eyes are wide in alarm. “What?”
I look to the side again. “I realize maybe I gave you the impression that I wanted to hang out because I questioned something about myself, or wanted to join. I don’t have any questions about who I am. I really like you, but I’m not here to convert.”
Wind whistles past the window outside—it’s chilly this close to the glass—and inside, he studies me, expressionless. “I don’t think you want to join.” His face is pink. From the cold. From the cold. It’s not because of you, Tanner. “I didn’t think that’s why you . . .” He shakes his head. “Don’t worry. I won’t try to sell you on the church. Not after what you shared with me.”
My voice is uncharacteristically timid: “You won’t tell anyone?”
“Of course not,” he answers instantly. He stares down at the floor, jaw working over something unreadable to me. Finally, he digs into his pocket. “I . . . here.”
Almost impulsively, he hands me a small scrap of paper. It’s warm, like it’s been cupped in his hand.
I unroll it, staring down at the ten digits there. His phone number.
He must have written it earlier, maybe even before he left home, tucking it into his pocket to bring to me.
Does he realize this is like handing me a grenade? I could blow everything up with this, most specifically his phone. I’ve never been much of a texter, but my God—the way I feel like I want to track his moves when he’s in the classroom is like having a demon possession. Knowing I could reach out to him anytime is torture.
“I don’t—” he starts, and then looks past me. “You can text me, or call. Whatever. Whenever. To hang out and talk about your outline if you need it.”
My chest is painfully tight.
“Yeah, totally.” I squeeze my eyes closed. It feels like he’s about to bolt, and the need to get the words out makes my insides feel pressurized. “Thanks.”
He stands. “You’re welcome. Anytime.”
Our eyes meet, and I can’t believe what I’m about to say. “I definitely want to hang out again.”
His cheeks pop with color. Does he translate this correctly in his head? And what am I even saying? He knows I’m into guys, so he has to know I’m not just talking about the book. Sebastian scans my face, flicking from my forehead, to my mouth, to my chin, to my eyes, and back down to my mouth, before he looks away entirely. “I should probably go.”
I am a tangle of wires; a cacophony of voices shouts out instructions in my head.
Clarify you meant only studying!
Bring up the book!
Double down and tell him you have feelings!
But I only nod, watching him smile stiffly, jog toward the stairs, and disappear around a bend of brilliantly polished oak.
I return to my laptop, open a blank document, and spill it all onto the page.