The temperature drops below 50 degrees but I ignore it. I square my shoulders and drop them three inches. We are sitting across from each other at a picnic table in the park in the middle of nowhere, my best friend and I. I breathe deep to will myself away from the cold.
I envy my best friend. For every moment that I am transparent, he is opaque. For every time I shiver, he laughs unhindered, seemingly oblivious to the cold.
At this point, we’ve been friends for about a year. I saw him speak at a pro-life conference—yes, a pro-life conference—that my youth group attended. He is a big fish in a small pond—one that prides itself on being not just “not of” the world, but separate from it entirely. At the conference, I had listened to his golden tongue for only five minutes and my soul had jumped, like an unborn baby at a familiar voice.
It is only 2005, but in the following year we exchanged internet articles about willpower and Buddhist monks who lower their blood pressure at the whim, and about placebo effects that are more real than medication. I am the strongest person I know until I meet him. I realize I’m human and I’m not quite sure I believe he is. We became such fast friends because we have our lives under the control of a cult, and we’ve been trying to figure out what parts of our life we can take back under our control.
And now the church moms were gossiping pleasantly about our own future of homeschooling babies.
There was something about him I hadn’t found anywhere else, but I hadn’t quite figured out what it was yet.
So now we sit in a park on a chilly mid-September Wisconsin day. We are here to talk. We are here because we are friends. We are here because we never shirk to challenges; we never shiver, even when it is cold.
We have been arguing, which is what we always do. We switch sides; we play devil’s advocate, just for fun, and I never know where I end and he begins. We have played this game so many times we take our places like old pros, and I have never loved anyone more than I love this 17-year-old blossoming narcissist right now.
We have been reviewing Scripture. We’re not sure what parts we still believe in but we don’t know anything else yet. So that is our framework and I am winning. I am righteous, and I speak the truth in love. I explain my verses. I cite my research. I know how to weave words he didn’t realize he’s been using and twist them ever so slightly to bend to my will. I explain Pavlov and triggers and willpower. I talk about addiction and redemption, abstinence and sobriety.
I am perfect; I’ve never argued better, and I know I’ve got him.
But I’ve been watching him the whole time and I realize his body has shifted. He shivers. I hesitate. I don’t understand—so I try to walk my words back, try to soften their edges a bit. I know better. I have fought worse things than he and won. But I love him, so I wait.
“Dearheart,” I say, using our nonsense term of endearment that hearkens back to a simpler land of lions and witches and wardrobes, “you know I wouldn’t say anything but—I’m so scared. What if they’re right? I can’t lose you. I can’t. There’s no world that ends with you in hell. It can’t be. I’m so afraid. I’m not trying to hurt you but—what if they’re right?”
He looked straight at me.
“You think you’re scared? How do you think I feel?” His voice isn’t bitter. It’s desperate.
I realize it’s not the cold he’s shivering from. I know no one on this planet with a willpower like this. And there’s no contingency I haven’t considered and no world I can imagine that he hasn’t already parsed.
He’s gay. He is gay.
When you’re 17 and you believe in a philosophy so strongly, one that if true means your best friend goes to hell, a struggle ensues: one that feels like a battle between good and evil. Doubly complicated when you love him—and everyone around you, including his mom sees your friendship and prays that he’s finally found the right woman. It’s so easy in those moments, when you are struggling to reconcile feelings and philosophy, to forget that the one sitting across from you is a human being too, struggling with the same feelings and the same philosophy.
And here I had been trying to make it about me—my feelings, my fears. I had no idea up until that moment that I’d never considered his.
Before I had the language to think about privilege, my friend exposed mine to me. So I did what felt very unnatural to me at the time—I shut up. I listened.
And I didn’t try to win anything.
Jessica Newsome is a social worker who lives in Chicago, IL. She is not attached to any other writing projects at the moment but to read her outdated blog you can visit renaissance-muse.blogspot.com. Or you can try to follow her protected Twitter, @jess_news. She’s currently working on a better way to connect with readers.