I spend all of my free time every weeknight frantically doing a find and replace for the names “Tanner,” “Tann,” and “Sebastian.” Tanner becomes Colin. Sebastian becomes Evan. Everyone I go to school with gets a new, generic name. Autumn becomes Annie. Fujita becomes Franklin, and the class becomes an honors chemistry lab.
I realize it’s an exercise in futility. Even when I save the book in a new version, where “Colin” is actually interested in “Ian,” one of the LDS students in the class, I know my changes are sloppy and unconvincing at best.
Friday after school, with the first four chapters printed and tucked under my arm, I walk from my car to the front door of Sebastian’s house. I would swear under oath that their doorbell is the loudest in existence. At least, it feels that way as soon as I’ve depressed the button. My pulse takes off without looking both directions; my nerves get slammed by an eighteen-wheeler.
But there’s no going back now. I am about to enter Sebastian’s house. The bishop’s house.
This isn’t really my first rodeo. I’ve been inside Eric’s house before, but his place is more LDS-lite. Eric’s senior photo now hangs where the portrait of the Savior used to be. They still have a framed photograph of the temple on the wall, but they also have a coffeemaker, like civilized people.
This all means that part of the anticipation I’m feeling is the same way an archaeologist might feel before a big dig in Egypt: There’s going to be a lot to unearth here.
Heavy footsteps land on the wood floors inside. They’re heavy enough to make me wonder whether it’s Mr. Brother on the other side of the door, and then I panic in a burst because I got my hair cut and put on my best clothes and what if instead of looking passably Mormon I look super gay?
What if Sebastian’s father immediately sees my intentions for what they are and sends me away, forbidding his son from ever talking to me again?
My panic spirals. I’m clean but don’t look particularly clean-cut; I’m obviously in lust with Sebastian; my dad is Jewish—is that bad? There aren’t a whole lot of Jews in Provo, but since we don’t really practice anyway, I never considered how that might make me more of an outsider. God, I don’t even know how to use the word “covenant” correctly. I feel sweat pricking at the back of my neck, and the door is swinging open. . . .
But it’s only Sebastian, with a kid in a headlock under his arm.
“This is Aaron,” he says, spinning slightly so I can see his brother better. “This is Tanner.” His brother is lanky, smiling, and has a head of dark floppy hair: a miniature version of his big brother. Well done, genetics.
Aaron pushes away and stands, extending a hand for me to shake. “Hi.”
“Nice to meet you.”
He’s thirteen, and here I am wondering whether my handshake is sufficient. Mormons just seem so fucking good at these things.
I let go and smile, resisting the urge to apologize. The cursing is going to have to stop, even if it’s only in my head.
Almost as if he can tell there is a silent Chernobyl happening inside me, Sebastian ushers Aaron back inside and then tilts his head for me to follow him.
“Come in,” he says, and then grins. “You won’t catch fire.”
Inside, it is immaculate. And very, very Mormon. It makes me wonder how similar this is to Mom’s childhood home.
Up front, there is a living room with two couches that face each other, an upright piano, and an enormous framed picture of the Salt Lake Temple. Beside it is a framed painting of Joseph Smith. I follow Sebastian down the hall, past a curio cabinet with a white statue of Jesus with his hands outstretched, framed photos of their four kids, and a wedding photo of his parents dressed completely in white. The two of them look like they’re barely out of puberty, if I’m being honest, and the wedding dress nearly climbs all the way to her chin.
In the kitchen, as expected, there is no coffeemaker on the counter, but to my eternal delight, on the wall just by the kitchen table is a huge eight-by-ten photo of Sebastian standing on a brilliant green lawn, smiling from ear to ear and casually clutching a copy of the Book of Mormon.
He catches me studying it and clears his throat. “Want something to drink? Root beer, Hi-C . . . lemonade?”
I break my attention away from the photo to look over at him in the flesh—somehow so different here in front of me: eyes more guarded, skin clear even without photoshopping, stubble shadowing his jaw—and as ever my eyes are drawn to his splotchy cheeks. Is he embarrassed, or excited? I want to learn each and every one of his blushes. “Water’s fine.”
He turns, and I watch him walk away before returning my attention to each of the framed wonders in this house. Such as a document in a heavy, gilded frame, entitled THE FAMILY: A PROCLAMATION TO THE WORLD.
I never see stuff like this. In our house, you’d be much more likely to see a liberal manifesto nailed to the wall.
I’ve read to the fourth paragraph, where the LDS Church proclaims that “the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife,” when Sebastian presses a cold glass of water into my hand.
I’m so startled, I nearly knock it onto the floor.
“So, this is interesting,” I say, working to keep my tone neutral. I’m torn between wanting to finish reading it and to somehow unread everything I’ve already absorbed.
I’m starting to understand what Mom means about protecting me from the church’s toxic message.
“There’s a lot packed into that one page,” Sebastian agrees, but from his voice I can’t tell how he feels about it. I knew all of this before I came over here—that is, sex is for heterosexuals; parents are obligated to teach their children these values; no sex before marriage; and above all, pray, pray, pray—but seeing it here in Sebastian’s house makes it feel more real.
Which makes everything I’ve been feeling a little more unreal.
I’m left momentarily dizzy by the realization that Sebastian’s family aren’t just enjoying the nice idea of this. They’re not just visualizing an idealized world; they’re not playing a game of Wouldn’t-It-Be-Nice-If. They genuinely, truly believe in this God, in these doctrines.
I look over at Sebastian. He’s watching me, eyes unreadable.
“I’ve never had someone over before who wasn’t a member,” he says. The mind reader. “I’m just watching you take it all in.”
I decide to go for pure honesty: “It’s hard to understand.”
“I wonder if you opened the Book of Mormon and just read a bit of it, whether it would speak to you.” He holds up his hands. “I’m not recruiting you. I’m just curious.”
“I could try.” I don’t really want to try.
He shrugs. “For now, let’s go sit down and talk about your book.”
The tension of the moment snaps, and only after it’s gone do I realize I’ve been holding my breath, muscles clenched all over.
We head into the family room, which is much cozier and less sterile than the living room up at the front of the house. Here, there are countless framed photos of the family: together, in pairs, alone leaning against a tree—but in every single one, they’re smiling. The smiles look real, too. My family is as happy as they come, but during our most recent photo session, my mom threatened Hailey with a closet full of colorful sundresses from the Gap if she didn’t stop sulking.
“Tanner,” Sebastian says quietly. I look at him, and a slow grin spreads over his face until he breaks, laughing. “Is it that fascinating?”
The way he’s teasing me makes me realize I’m acting like early man emerging from a cave. “Sorry. It’s just so adorably wholesome.”
He shakes his head, looking down, but he’s still smiling. “Okay, so about your book.”
Yeah, Sebastian. About my book. My book about you.
My confidence bolts, leaving the scene of the crime. I hand over the printed pages. “I don’t think it’s great yet, but . . .”
This makes him look up at me, interest lighting his eyes. “We’ll get it there.”
Well, at least one of us is optimistic.
I lift my chin, gesturing that he should dig in. He smiles, holding my gaze and offering a teasing “Don’t be nervous” before he blinks down to the pages in his hand. I watch his eyes flicker back and forth, and my heart is a grenade in my throat.
Why did I even agree to this? Why did I try to rewrite the class sections? Yes, I wanted to spend time with Sebastian today, but wouldn’t it be so much easier to keep this a secret from him until I know where he and I stand?
As soon as I have the thought, I realize my subconscious has already won: I wanted him to look for himself in it. So much of this is taken from our conversations. I’m here because I want him to tell me which love interest he wants to be: Evan or Ian.
He nods as he finishes, and it seems like he goes back and reads the last section again.
I do not expect him to say, “I have some time this weekend. I could help then.”
This is probably a terrible idea. Yes, I’m attracted to him, but I worry that if I dig deeper, I won’t like him.
But that would be for the best, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to get some time outside of this class, to get an answer to my question: Could we even be friends, let alone more?
He swallows, and I watch as it moves his throat.
“Does that work?” he asks, pulling my eyes back up to his face.
“Yeah,” I say, and swallow. This time he watches. “What time?”
He grins, handing it back to me. “Wow.”
Wow? I wince. Obviously, that means it’s horrible. “I feel like an idiot.”
“Don’t,” he says. “Tanner, I really like it.”
He nods and then bites his lip. “So . . . I’m in your book?”
I shake my head. The pin is pulled from the grenade. “No one we know. Well, except Franklin is a stand-in for Fujita, obviously. I’m just using the class as the structure.”
Running a finger under his bottom lip, Sebastian watches me for a few quiet seconds. “I think . . . I mean, I think this is about us.”
I feel the blood drain from my face. “What? No.”
He laughs easily. “Colin and . . . Ian? Or is it Evan, the TA?”
“It’s about Colin and Ian. Another student.”
Oh God. Oh God.
“But,” he starts, and then looks down, blushing.
I struggle to hold my cards close to my chest. “What?”
He flips to a page and puts his index finger there. “You had a typo in Tanner here. Right where I think you mean to put ‘Colin.’ It didn’t pick up on your search and replace.”
The same stupid typo in my name I always make. “Okay, yeah. Originally it was about me and some theoretical person.”
“Really?” he asks, eyes lit with curiosity.
I fidget with the binder clip I’d used to hold the pages together. “No. I know you’re not . . .”
He flips to another page and hands it to me.
I curse under my breath.
With his hands laced together in front of him, Franklin rocks back on his heels. “Seb has a very busy schedule, of course”—I mentally groan. Seb— “but he and I both feel that his experience can benefit each of you. I believe he will inspire you.”
Seb. I never did a search and replace for the nickname.
Sebastian’s about to say something else—his expression is impossible for me to read, but it doesn’t look like horror—when a voice rises from the doorway.
We both turn and look up at the sound. I want to kiss the woman who has derailed this awkward hellhole. His mother, I recognize from the photos, steps into the room. She’s petite, with dark blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a simple long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I don’t know why I was expecting some frumpy, floral sister-wife dress and a giant Molly Mormon bow in her hair, but my synapses quickly rearrange themselves.
“Hey, Mom,” Sebastian says, smiling. “This is Tanner. He’s in the Seminar this term.”
His mother smiles at me, walking over to shake my hand and welcome me to the house. My heart is still jackhammering around inside my ribs, and I wonder if I look like I might pass out. She offers me something to drink, something to eat. She asks what we’re working on, and we both mumble out something blah, blah book-related without looking at each other.
But apparently our answers were sufficiently wholesome because she turns to Sebastian. “Did you call Ashley Davis back?”
As if on their own steam, Sebastian’s eyes flicker to me and then back. “Remind me again who she is?”
Her clarification makes my stomach plummet to my gut: “The activities coordinator.” She pauses, adding meaningfully, “She organizes the singles ward.”
“Oh. Not yet.”
“So,” she says, smiling warmly, “make sure you do, okay? I’ve told her you’ll be calling. I just think it’s time.”
It’s time? What does that mean? Does it bother his parents that he’s nineteen and doesn’t have a girlfriend? I thought he wasn’t supposed to be in a relationship when he left on his mission.
Do they suspect he’s gay?
He starts to speak, but she gently cuts in, answering some of my questions. “I’m not saying you should grow attached to anyone. I just want you to know some . . . people . . .”—Ugh, she means girls—“so that when you come home—”
“Okay, Mom,” Sebastian says quietly, blinking to me and away again. He smiles at her to remove the insult of his interruption.
She seems satisfied with this answer and moves on. “Have we received your promotional schedule from your publicist?”
Sebastian winces, shaking his head. “Not yet.”
His mom’s smile droops, and a furrow takes up residence on her brow. “I’m worried we won’t have time to coordinate everything,” she says. “We still need to do your paperwork and coordinate with the MTC. If you leave in June, you’ll be cutting it close. We don’t know where you’ll be going, so we assume you need three months at the center before you leave.”
In any other house, this detailed planning would have me making a crack about spies and Agent Q and pens that turn into machetes. Not here.
But then something clicks. My brain suddenly feels like Mom’s old Buick. She would always push the accelerator before the motor turned over, and the engine would flood, needing a few extra seconds to clear. It takes me the same amount of time to realize Sebastian and his mom are talking about this summer.
As in, when he’ll leave Provo for two years.
The MTC is the Missionary Training Center. He’s leaving in four months.
Four months used to feel like an eternity.
“I’ll ask her,” Sebastian says. “I’m sorry. When I last checked in, they told me they would be getting me an itinerary with my tour stops as soon as it was done.”
“We have so much to do before you go,” she says.
“I know, Mom. I’ll follow up.”
With a little kiss to the top of his head, she leaves, and the room seems to be swallowed by tense silence.
“Sorry about that,” he says, and I’m expecting his face to be tight, but when I look at him, he’s smiling broadly. The awkward conversation between us is gone. The awkward conversation with his mom, too. “So much to coordinate. I need to get her this stuff soon.”
“Yeah.” I pinch my lower lip, trying to figure out how to ask what I want to ask, but the move distracts him, and his smile slips as he watches me touch my mouth.
I don’t know what it is about that tiny break, but—much like his reaction when he admitted coming to see me that day with the boat—it says so much.
It says so much because the smile seemed real until he looked at my mouth, and then it just totally shattered.
The room is full of unspoken sentiments. They hang over our heads like rain clouds. “Where are you going?” I ask.
He looks back up at my eyes, and the smile is nowhere to be seen now. “Oh. After my book tour? I’m going on my mission.”
“Right, right.” My heart is a hundred marbles rolling on the floor. I don’t know why I needed him to say it out loud. “And you’re not sure where you’ll be assigned?”
“I’ll find out in July, I think. As you heard, we still need to send in my papers, but I can’t do that until the book comes out.”
Missions, from the outside, are hard to understand. Young men—and women sometimes, but not as often—leave their homes for two years to be sent to a location anywhere in the world. Their job? Make new Mormons. And not the sexy way, at least not yet. Missionaries make new Mormons the baptizing way.
We’ve all seen them, walking or riding bikes in their clean trousers and pressed, short-sleeved white shirts. They come to our doors with bright smiles, tidy hair, and glossy black name tags and ask whether we’d like to hear more about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
Most of us turn them away with a smile and a “No, thank you.”
But my mother never says no. No matter how she feels about the church—and trust me, she doesn’t let them talk about the Book of Mormon to her—they’re far from home, she said back when we lived in Palo Alto. And it’s true; many of them are, and they’re on their feet all day, pounding pavement. If we invited them in, they’d be as gracious and lovely as you can imagine. They’d take lemonade and a snack, and their gratitude would be effusive.
Missionaries are some of the kindest people you will ever meet. But they will want you to read their book, and they will want you to see the truth the way their church sees it.
While they’re gone, they aren’t allowed to watch television, or listen to the radio, or read anything beyond a few church-sanctioned texts. They’re there to dive deeper into their faith than they ever have, to be alone and become men, to help grow the church and spread the Gospel. And they aren’t allowed to leave a girlfriend behind. Of course they aren’t allowed to engage in any sexual behavior—certainly not with members of the same sex. They want to save you, because they think you need saving.
Sebastian wants to be one of them.
I can’t get the thought out of my head, and we’re sitting here in his house, surrounded by the truth of it—of course he wants to be one of them. He is one of them. The fact that he so easily saw himself in my book, that he knows I have feelings for him, doesn’t change that one single bit.
I don’t even care about the farce of my novel anymore; I’d let him see the original version, the version where I clearly can’t stop thinking about him, if he would promise me to stay.
He wants to go on a mission? He wants to leave here and commit two of his best, hottest, wildest, most adventurous years to the church? He wants to give his life to this—really give his life?
I stare at my hands and wonder what the hell I’m actually doing here. Glitter-heart Paige has nothing on me. I am the King of Naive.
I look up at him. He’s staring at me, and it’s clear he’s said my name more than once.
He tries to smile. He’s nervous. “You got quiet.”
Quite frankly, I have nothing to lose. “I guess I’m still stuck on the part where you’re going on a mission for two years. Like, it just hit me now that’s what you’re doing.”
I don’t even have to break it down further for him. He totally gets it. He gets the subtext, the I’m not Mormon; you are. The How long can we really be friends? The I don’t just want to be your friend anyway. I see it in his eyes.
And instead of brushing it aside or changing the subject or suggesting I learn the art of prayer, he stands up, tugging down the hem of his shirt when it rides up on the side. “Come on. Let’s go for a hike. This is a lot to digest, for both of us.”
• • •
There are a million trails headed up the hill, and when it’s nice out, you’ll usually pass someone on each one of them, but Utah weather is unpredictable, and our warm front is long gone; no one is hiking.
We have the outdoors to ourselves, and we trudge up the sludgy hillside until the houses in the valley are just tiny specs and we’re both out of breath. Only when we stop do I realize how hard we’ve both been pressing up the trail, exorcising some demons.
Maybe the same one.
My heart is pounding. We are clearly headed somewhere to capital-T Talk—otherwise why not just put away the schoolwork and turn on the Xbox?—and the possibilities of where this could go make me feel a little insane.
It’s going nowhere, Tanner. Nowhere.
Sebastian sits down on a boulder, bending to rest his arms on his thighs and catch his breath.
I watch the rise and fall of his back through his jacket, the solid muscle there—but also the straight posture, the unique poise of him—and absolutely defile him in my head. My hands all over him, his hands all over me.
I want him.
With a small growl, I look away and into the distance at the BYU Y monument embedded in the distance, and it’s honestly the last thing I want to see. It’s made of concrete, and in my mind is a total eyesore, but it’s revered in town and on the BYU campus.
“You don’t like the Y?”
I look over at him. “It’s fine.”
He laughs—at my tone, I think. “There’s an LDS story that the Native Americans who lived here many years ago told the church settlers that angels had told them whoever moved here would be blessed and prosperous.”
“Interesting that the Native Americans don’t live here anymore because of those settlers.”
He leans forward, catching my eye. “You seem really upset.”
“I am upset.”
“About my mission?”
“I’m certainly not this upset about the Y.”
He falters, brows flickering down. “I mean, didn’t you know that’s what most of us will do?”
“Yeah, but I guess I thought . . .”
I look up at the sky and cough out a laugh. I’m such a moron.
Was there a time I could have stopped this train of feelings from barreling into my bloodstream?
“Tanner, I’ll only be gone two years.”
My laugh is so dry it’s dusty. “ ‘Only.’ ” I shake my head, blinking down to the ground at my feet. “Well, in that case, I’m totally not upset anymore.”
We fall into silence, and it’s like a block of ice has been dropped between us. I am an enormous jerk. I’m being such a baby right now; I’m making this endlessly awkward.
“Can you at least call me when you’re gone?” I ask. I don’t care anymore how crazy I must sound.
Sebastian shakes his head.
“E-mail, or . . . text?”
“I can e-mail family,” he clarifies. “I can go on Facebook but . . . only for church-related stuff.”
I feel when he turns to look at me, and the wind whips across my face so hard it hurts, but it also feels like the sky trying to slap some sense into me.
Wake up, Tanner. Wake the hell up.
“Tanner, I don’t . . .” He rubs a hand on his face, shaking his head.
When he doesn’t finish the thought, I press. “You don’t what?”
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”
He’s fully staring at me, brows pulled down low. But it isn’t confusion there; at least I don’t think it is. I mean, I know he knows. Does he just want me to say it? Does he want me to say it so he can explain gently why us being together is impossible? Or does he want me to admit how I feel so he can . . . ?
I don’t actually care why. The words are this heavy boulder in my thoughts, in every waking thought, and if I don’t just let it roll straight out of me, it’s going to crash around and break everything delicate inside.
“I like you,” I say.
But when I look over, I see that these words aren’t enough; they don’t clear away the expression on his face. “And I know your church doesn’t allow that kind of feeling.”
He waits, so still, like he’s holding his breath.
“It doesn’t allow for guys to have feelings like this . . . for other guys.”
He breathes out a barely audible “No.”
“But I’m not LDS,” I say, hardly any louder than him now. “In my family, it isn’t a bad thing. And I don’t know what to do about how I feel or how to stop feeling this way about you.”
I was right. This doesn’t surprise him at all. His face clears, but only long enough to cloud in a new way. Every feature grows tight. I wonder if maybe he wishes that I hadn’t said anything at all, or that I’d just pretended that he was my new favorite dudebro and I would miss platonic hanging out and fumbling through this stupid book project with him for the next two years.
“I . . . ,” he starts, and then exhales in a controlled stream, like each molecule of air is coming out single file.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I tell him. My heart is racing. It’s a fist punching, and punching, and punching me from the inside. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “I only wanted to explain why I was upset. And,” I add, wanting the ground to open up and swallow me, “also why my book is basically about how it feels to fall for you.”
I watch his throat as he swallows thickly. “I think I knew.”
“I think you knew too.”
His breath is coming out so hard and fast. His cheeks are pink. “Have you always . . . liked guys?”
“I’ve always liked whoever,” I tell him. “I really am bi. It’s about the person, not the parts, I guess.”
Sebastian nods, and then he doesn’t stop. He just nods, and nods, and nods as he stares at his hands between his knees.
“Why wouldn’t you just be with a girl, then?” he asks quietly. “If you were attracted to them? Wouldn’t it be so much easier?”
“That’s not something you get to choose.”
This is so much worse than I ever would have guessed. This is even harder than telling my dad. I mean, when I came out to him, I could tell he was worried about how the world might treat me and what kinds of obstacles I would meet that he would be unable to help me navigate. But I saw that reaction masked beneath the firmest discipline. He wants me to be accepted and does everything he can to hide his fears from me.
But here . . . I was so wrong about this. I shouldn’t have said anything to Sebastian. How can we even be friends after today? I have the melodramatic thought that this is what it’s like to have a heart broken. There’s no shattering; there’s just this slow, painful fissure that forms straight down the middle.
“I think . . . I’ve always liked guys,” he whispers.
My eyes fly to his face.
His lower lids are heavy with tears. “I mean, I know I have.”
Oh my God.
“I’m not even attracted to girls. I envy you that. I keep praying I will be at some point.” He puffs out a breath. “I’ve never said that out loud.” When he blinks, the tears slide down his cheeks. Sebastian tilts his face up, looking at the clouds and letting out a sad laugh. “I can’t tell if this feels good or terrible.”
My thoughts are a cyclone; my blood is a river overrun. I scramble to think of the best thing to say, what I would want someone to say to me right now. The problem is, him admitting this to me is huge. It’s not the same as anything I’ve ever faced, even with my family.
I go with my first instinct, the thing my dad said to me: “I can’t tell you how good it feels that you trust me.”
“Yeah.” He looks over to me, eyes wet. “But I’ve never . . .” He shakes his head. “I mean, I’ve . . . wanted to, but never . . .”
“You’ve never been with a guy?”
He shakes his head again, quickly. “No. Nothing.”
“I’ve kissed guys, but honestly . . . I’ve never felt like . . . this.”
He lets this sink in for a beat. “I tried to change. And”—he squints—“to not even let myself imagine how it would feel . . . being with . . .”
This is like a punch to my solar plexus.
“But then I met you,” he says.
His meaning hits me even harder.
I’ve been pulled out of my own body, and it’s like watching this from across the trail. We’re sitting on a rock, side by side, arms touching, and I know this moment will be seared into my history forever.
“The first time I saw you,” I start, and he’s already nodding, like he knows exactly what I’m going to say.
My chest squeezes. “I never felt that way before.”
I turn to him, and it happens so fast. One second he’s staring at my face and the next second his mouth is on mine, warm and smooth and it feels so good. Oh my God. I make some guttural sound I can’t control. He makes it back, and the growl turns into a laugh because he pulls away with the biggest smile the sky has ever seen, and then he’s coming in to kiss me more and deeper, his hands on my neck.
His mouth opens, and I feel the tentative sweep of his tongue.
Light bursts behind my closed eyes, so intensely I nearly hear the popping sound. It’s my brain melting, or my world ending, or maybe we’ve just been hit by a meteor and this is the rapture and I’m given one last perfect moment before I’m sent to purgatory and he’s sent somewhere much, much better.
It isn’t his first kiss—I know that—but it’s his first real one.