Jack and I waited as long as we could to say goodbye. He sat next to me in the car as I drove to his brother’s house at 2:00 a.m. to drop him off. We didn’t speak. His voice would be the Band-Aid over a wound. My voice would be an evaporating echo. Nothing I said at this point could keep him here.
The last time I drove to Jack’s brother Derek’s house was for a birthday party.
The last time I drove this road alone was my freshman year on my way to Lynchburg General for a migraine.
The last time Jack and I drove this road together, we rolled the windows down and screamed along to AFI’s latest album Crash Love.
“God, this feels so fucking good,” he had said. He stuck his head out the window into the sun like a Labrador. I laughed, imagining his glasses flying off and breaking to pieces beneath the car behind us.
Jack sighed beside me.
I sighed too, but quietly, through my nose, in an effort to fight back tears.
My sophomore year at Liberty University, I enrolled in all online courses and moved off campus with a family from my church. Jack moved into my old dorm room. He wore a plain t-shirt, khaki shorts, and Birkenstocks.
I imagine I said something like, “My grandmother has those,” trying not to sound like an asshole.
He laughed and ran his hand through his bedhead. Our glasses were the same rectangular shape. “They’re popular where I’m from in Vermont,” he said.
In a way, I don’t remember meeting him, because we moved into friendship instantaneously: taking trips to the store, attending Convocation (mandatory church services) together, going out to dinner. I remember in the first moments of our friendship when I played AFI’s song “This Celluloid Dream” in the car on the way home from Walmart. Jack gasped over the punk guitars and Davey’s cutting vocals.
“This is my favorite band,” he said. He started singing along.
I turned up the volume and yelled along with Davey and Jack.
I pulled onto campus. It was Spiritual Emphasis Week, when Liberty hosted Pastor Clayton King to deliver sermons in the arena every night on deepening your spiritual life, or “walking with God.” The first night, Jack and I sat on the floor seating in the low lighting. King took the stage after the worship band played a few songs to “prepare our hearts” to hear the message. He walked back and forth in the spotlight, talking too loudly, sometimes yelling about how God wanted us to work toward perfection because we weren’t good enough as we were.
King made jokes about “girly guys” who cared too much about their hair or what they wore. Jack and I fit both those categories. He began many phrases with “Real men [football] [mud] [girls] [cars] [gym] [sweat].” Jack sat unflinchingly, as if King looked him dead in the eyes, his angry fist trembling inches from Jack’s jaw. But hundreds of students walked to the stage to confess their newfound faith or to get right with God.
As the students walked forward, the worship band played a song called “Marvelous Light.” Together, 13,000 students sang, Into marvelous light I’m running, out of darkness out of shame. I tried to keep myself from crying because of the burden I carried that felt less and less like sin. I hated crying for a religion I didn’t know if I supported. I started to hate the men who spoke on behalf of God.
After we left the arena, Jack shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his chinos.
“Dude’s a fucking arrogant phony,” he said.
Clayton King had the power to challenge students to try to do right by his God this week, myself included, but I tried not to care. Screaming along to AFI, along with atheistic Davey, freed me from the self-righteousness so easily attained during Spiritual Emphasis Week.
I turned down the radio and told Jack I wanted to tell him something.
He raised his eyebrows.
I hesitated. I didn’t really how to phrase what I wanted to say, so I said, “I prefer...uh...men.” The last person I’d confided in, Cam the RA, had betrayed my trust.
His blond brow furrowed as he cocked his head at me.
I was relieved I couldn’t continue looking at him since I was driving.
“Dude, I don’t give a fuck about whether or not you’re gay or whatever. That shit’s not important to me.” He said it didn’t make me any less desirable as a friend.
I confessed to Jack because I didn’t want to lose a friend I could grow to love. The church advised against associating with people like me who lived in sin simply by existing, as emphasized this week by Clayton King.
“And fuck anyone who makes you feel that way.” He pointed his finger in my face. “I mean I’ve had sex before,” he said. “So what?”
The way he spoke, the topics we discussed, were so contrary to the conversations Liberty considered appropriate. Already I felt we created our own space within Liberty’s persuasive culture.
I asked if he’d at least enjoyed himself. He said no and that he’d had to fake his orgasm.
He said he had a scar on his dick from when he was born. It was attached to his stomach. The doctor had to separate it. Now the scar goes down the whole shaft and makes it hard to get off sometimes. “Anyway,” he said. “I was getting tired and her moaning was grating the fuck out of my ears. So I faked it.”
I loved the unashamed way he spoke about himself and his sins.
He raised his hands. “Sometimes you just have to fake it, you know?”
“Trust me,” I said. “I know.”
I parked my car in front of the dorm on East Campus in a space that overlooked Highway 460 and a fraction of the expanse of Liberty’s campus: The dome-shaped arena, the columned academic building DeMoss, all the smaller residential halls, and the gray-blue mountains set in the distance. I didn’t know if I wanted to be here anymore, but doubting would be another taboo sin I carried. First step, doubt. Then: unbelief.
How many people didn’t care about Spiritual Emphasis Week, or Bible study, or thought Clayton King was a fucking phony? More life existed outside Liberty’s world. I probably didn’t belong here, but I didn’t know what to do about it. What would come of my friendship with Jack should I choose to leave this school?
We walked up the four flights of stairs to his dorm room, where his roommate Curtis sat hunched over at his desk working on homework. He picked up his computer and moved into the common area, ducking as he walked through the doorway.
I read the spines of the books on his desk—all Oscar Wilde. Two copies of Dorian Gray, a drama collection, a biography, a scholar’s commentary. I ran my fingers along the books’ vertebrae.
Jack lay on his bed. “I would love to be an Oscar Wilde scholar,” he said. “I’m just not sure how.”
I wanted to know what about Oscar Wilde he loved, if maybe Wilde understood him in ways he wouldn’t share, if maybe Wilde saw him for who he wanted to be.
I sat up in Jack’s bottom bunk writing a paper on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” My post-1500s British literature anthology splayed open to the poem about a scandalous love. He sat at his desk facing the window. A copy of The Old Man and the Sea lay open and upside down like a tent beside his computer.
I grew tired. My comforter lay folded at the end of his bed. We had been spending all our free time together. Then I started sleeping on a loveseat in his dorm room. After the loveseat became too uncomfortable I moved to the floor beside his bed, the only stretch of floor that could fit me.
He turned to me. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Why don’t you sleep in my bed with me?”
When my brother Tyler and I were kids, we’d shared a bed for what felt like years. My best friend Josh and I shared a bed many times, to my parents’ discomfort. Jack’s nonchalance made simple what might appear off-putting in other male friendships. He didn’t care about being caught, which might be enough to send us to Liberty’s support group conversion therapy.
After half an hour, Jack and I brushed our teeth and went to bed. I crawled in first and slid my legs under the sheets. I covered myself with my comforter so there’d be no blanket-stealing. The soft sheets and mattress pad reminded me of my bed, the one I’d shared with Josh a few times. Jack took off his shirt and lay beside me. He smelled a little like sweat, a little like his Black Walnut cologne. My arm rested on his. His knee touched my leg. I sank into the sand of his skin and slept soundly through the night.
Jack and I woke to our 7:00 alarm. My body draped over his, my head on his chest. His chest hair tickled my nose. After Jack turned off the alarm, he took a deep breath. My head rose as his chest expanded.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Hi.” I rolled on my back.
“What was that?” he said. He sat up and looked at me. “You sound so manly.” He tossed back the covers, stood, and stretched. “I’m going to call you Mandrew.”
I stretched in bed, remembering every morning in grade school my grandmother would tell me to stop stretching because she didn’t want me to grow, and here I was sharing a bed with a boy at Liberty.
“You can call me whatever you want,” I said.
I climbed out of bed and ran water for the shower. Jack pulled on jeans over the boxer-briefs he wore to bed and opened The Old Man and the Sea. After I stepped out of the shower, we brushed our teeth. He threw some forming cream into his hair to maintain his bedhead look. I flat-ironed my bangs to straighten a wave, then tousled my hair with molding wax.
Mornings like this became our routine, but it was one we had to keep secret. I didn’t mind. I liked something that was only ours.
The dust of Spiritual Emphasis Week settled like smoke on furniture. It set up the entire semester by pushing students deeper into Liberty’s culture. Every sermon, every moment between songs in worship sets, we heard how imperfect we were without God, but how we must try to be perfect like him.
Jack and I worked on papers in his room instead of attending prayer groups. He began an essay on Oscar Wilde for his Introduction to Literature course, but while his fingers pressed the keys I saw a tenseness in his eyes and lips. I sat in his bed with my legs under the covers, half in a cocoon.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He didn’t stop typing or look away from the screen.
A moonbeam lit the cover of the Bible on his desk like a holy light. He glanced at it. I wondered if would open it and pray for his sins to be washed white as snow like the Bible said. Cam, the RA, gave a mini sermon tonight during hall meeting about blamelessness: “God deserves our best,” he said. “And I know for myself, I hardly give Him what He gives to me.”
Did Jack find our friendship sinful? Was something resurfacing that he had repressed years ago? The pressures of Liberty sought to unmask everyone’s deepest sins and feelings associated with them. Last year I thought I had to confess my homosexuality to Cam in order to overcome a sin that started to control me.
I started to tell him that he could tell me anything, that I wouldn’t betray his trust like Cam had mine.
But as soon as a sound came from my throat, Jack said, “Let’s go to bed,” like he knew what I would say; he knew me better than anyone. He shut his computer, took off his shirt and pants, and lay beside me. My body relaxed after he sighed and sank into the mattress. I wanted to hold him in my arms—perhaps my touch could save him—but I inched away, waiting for his leg to graze mine and rest.
The night I drove Jack to his brother’s house, we were the only car on the road. Time froze the way it does when the heart begins to ache, when meaningless words shape in the mouth but feel so stupid.
I thought this journey appropriate for 2:00 a.m. after the school year ended. Nobody would ask why we disappeared. Nobody would wonder why Jack never returned to his room. We moved under the cover of dark, of time, of the city stripping itself of its evangelical mask as 13,000 Liberty students traveled home for the summer. Jack and I were the naked city. We were as inseparable as AFI’s core members Davey and Jade, like binary stars orbiting around the same center of gravity. People we knew on campus, and people we didn’t (I was sure), perceived us as a package deal.
I didn’t have to drive him. I could have chosen to be angry when he decided to transfer schools, but I didn’t know how. The Bible says love is not easily angered. It also says, When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Anger would have been a childish response. I already depended on others to love me while my current faith and the world as I learned it washed away.
No one but Jack truly knew me and loved me anyway.
When I turned down Westerly Drive, where his brother Derek lived, I could have exploded; that’s what happens after the gravity collapses on a star system—neither can carry the weight of their grief any longer.
I jerked off in the shower almost every day, trying to make it quick so Jack didn’t notice. I didn’t care anymore that God watched me. It was that sometimes I thought of Jack, and other times Cam, but I knew I couldn’t attain what I desired with my eyes open. God disappeared like semen down the tub drain; I no longer chased after him.
Jack and I left Convocation with the mass of students heading to class or lunch. We normally ate in the dining hall with friends, but today he wore the same expression as the night before. He gazed out toward the dorms, but he seemed to be looking out to somewhere else, somewhere through the edge of campus and beyond.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. He said he was going to go back to the room to read the Bible and pray. The months I’d known him, he hadn’t done either.
“Sext me when you’re on your way back,” he said. “I might be up for something later.”
He punched me on the shoulder, what my dad would call a “love tap,” then walked away, ignoring the calls of our friends who saw him nearing the tunnel to East Campus.
I sat with our friends at a long table in back of the Rot, next to a girl from the sister dorm I didn’t know all that well. Danielle sat across from me. She brushed her blond curls aside before eating her last chicken finger.
“Where’s Jack?” she asked. “Why’s he acting so depressed?”
“He’s stressed about a paper,” I said. I looked at the open seat beside me, one that friends kept open because they knew Jack and I always sat together.
She sipped from her Dr. Pepper, noting it was the time of the semester everyone was stressed. She left to get seconds.
After Danielle disappeared into the dining hall, the girl next to me leaned over to me.
“I know we don’t know each other that well,” she said. “But. . . are you and Jack in a relationship?”
I loved people getting used to the idea of me romantically involved with a guy, whether it was Jack or not. “We’re just friends,” I said.
“People think you are.” She tossed her brown hair in a big motion, though her hair wasn’t pretty enough to display like she thought, just how she thought gossiping with me might yield a bigger reaction that she received.
“People can think what they want,” I said.
I sipped my water. I peered into the belly of the Rot to see if I could find Danielle. I needed her to come back and save me from this conversation before this girl prodded too deeply.
“You two are cute though,” she said.
I wanted to tell her I knew that, but she didn’t need to know more than she already thought.
I saw Danielle walking toward us with a quesadilla.
“What’re you guys talking about?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
The girl glanced over at me, but I acted like I didn’t notice.
Liberty invited Clayton King back to speak for Convocation. Students filled the basketball arena so tightly that some had to sit on the stairs. Jack and I sat with the guys from the dorm on the right side of the stage. I knew the ritual of Convocation in my bones, when to sit, when to stand, the length of each worship set. Religion lost its meaning the more I was forced to participate. Perhaps that was the reason my Bible collected dust on my nightstand.
When King took the stage, he pointed house left at a girls’ dorm. He said the girls had called him to come pray with a dorm-mate. He asked a girl named Anna to stand.
“Anna struggles with homosexuality,” he said. The crowd gasped. He said Anna gave him permission to share her story, then he announced, “Anna has been cured of her homosexuality.”
The students in the arena clapped and cheered.
Jack grabbed my knee. “What the fuck is going on?” he said. He stared into my eyes, perhaps searching for answers he hadn’t found. “They don’t think she’s really cured do they?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I wondered if it was true that I could be cured. Could sin be healed, or was my homosexuality something I was born with? I wanted to eradicate my homosexuality so I could feel God again, but sleeping next to Jack provided a sample of what I wanted the rest of my life to look like.
He let go of my knee. I wished he wouldn’t. The lights and the heat of bodies flashed on my face. The cheers stabbed my abs. Why was I here? Who could save me while God was gone?
Jack and I drove down Timberlake Road, looping back toward campus on 460. He had burned me a copy of his new favorite album Easy Wonderful by Guster, and we listened to his favorite song “On the Ocean” on repeat. I remember the lyric, I think we’re taking on water, so understated in chorus with the smooth tones and bubbling instrumentation. The anxiety of water filling the boat, a possible capsize, sounded so beautiful. How did one handle the sinking feeling? Who did we call on to save us in moments like that? Jack turned to me at the stoplight in front of the mall, suddenly back into his reserved self. He turned off the radio.
“Do you feel like a fucking phony being at Liberty?” he said.
I guessed sometimes I did, but I asked what he meant.
“Dude, we’re going to church fucking five times a week and for what? People in the Bible were dancing and tearing their clothes and shit, and everything we’re participating in seems to be some watered-down bullshit. Something’s not right about Liberty.”
I’d thought about this but distracted myself with friends and school. If I confronted the issue, then the lens through which I viewed life would crack in all directions. My worldview already started to acquire hairline fractures with the admittance of being gay.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” I said.
Jack lifted his hands from their place on his thigh and balled them into fists. “After Cam spoke in hall meeting about biblical manhood or whatever I have been plagued with guilt.” He was almost yelling now. “I’ve been so horny that I burst a fucking blood vessel on my dick jerking off in the shower.” He signed, calming down in a way that I perceived as resignation. “I’m also not growing into the person my parents want me to be, and I feel like a massive disappointment.”
I knew what he meant. I had been avoiding the way I felt like letdown of a son. My dad reminded me how much he hated that I gave up basketball by favoring Josh, my football-playing best friend from home, the one who I would share a bed with, the one who in bed whispered to me about how much I meant to him. But my dad didn’t know any of that. He only saw the gym sweat, the muscle, his ease with a ball.
My dad didn’t care about my arts degree. My stepmom only called when she thought I did something wrong or when I needed to pay my phone bill.
I felt certain they would disown me if they knew I was gay.
“Do you feel like they wouldn’t love you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to explain.”
I let the next words linger, not because I didn’t believe them, but because I didn’t know if they were true. “I’d rather them not love me than be disappointed in who I am.”
Jack nodded, then propped his elbow on the door and rested his head in his hand. “It all fucking sucks.”
I thought I heard him choke back the beginning of tears.
I played AFI. The giant “LU” monogram stitched into Liberty Mountain guided our way back to campus. We drove with the windows down. The fresh air pulled at my hair. It rushed through my shirtsleeve and down my torso like a cyclone.
“I’m going to transfer schools,” he said. The words rang like a sour note in a guitar solo. He told me at the end of the year he was leaving for Castleton in Vermont, closer to home, on his own turf and away from this. “I can’t come back here,” he said.
Away from this, I thought. Away from me.
“I don’t want you to leave,” I said.
We didn’t talk as I turned down University Boulevard, or when I crossed the bridge, or when I parked in front of the dorm. We sat in the car for a moment, knowing our time was now limited. I felt like I could throw up. He opened the door and left without looking back.
One night shortly after our drive, Jack and I lay in bed after a night of writing papers. He sat up while I lay on my side facing him. We talked in the dark about his plans to leave, how he hadn’t told his brothers yet. He said he didn’t care what his brothers thought, though I think he did. I think he cared what everyone thought and being at Liberty showed him he wasn’t like everyone else.
I had rolled over toward the wall, half-asleep, when Forst used a butter knife to break into our room and turn on the light.
“What the fuck do you want?” Jack said.
Jack and I hated Forst. He’d thrown a water balloon from his dorm window at a girl carrying cupcakes to her friend’s birthday party. The balloon burst on the side of her head. She fell on the blacktop. Her cupcakes splattered and rolled down the hills. He played metal music late into the night and bragged about shaving his chest.
Upon being caught, Forst leaned back and put his hand on his hip, smirking. Such a “bad boy.” He began to explain himself, then stopped and squinted.
“Hold up,” he said. “Are you two in bed together?”
“Yup.” Jack’s confidence surprised Forst, who took a step back. “Got something to say about it?”
Forst faltered. Then said, “I’m going to tell everyone.”
“Go for it.” Jack flicked him away. “Go jerk off with your roommates to your metal music. And turn the light off on your way out, you piece of shit.”
Forst, speechless, turned off the light, closed the door, and disappeared.
The night returned to the dark calm of before, but we had been seen. More people would probably talk, but I didn’t care. Jack lay down on his back. His knee found the back of mine, and we fell asleep.
On what would be Jack’s and my last night together, he slept over at my place, and in the dark morning we drove to Bedford to the foot of Sharp Top Mountain. We stood at the bottom of the trail, a light fog hovering over the black entrance. We hiked, something he missed about Vermont, another reason he wanted to move back. I hurt, both from the intensity of hiking and from knowing that I would have to say goodbye to Jack soon. I stopped and sat on the boulders in clearings to catch my breath and drink water.
He laughed. “We’ve only hiked half a mile.”
We hiked the mile and a half to the top. We stood on a boulder that provided a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge. The sun crept over a crest to the east as if God was slowly opening his eyes from a night of sleep. He saw Jack and me together, looking into the sky, and I gained a bit of hope that Liberty wasn’t a dead end.
Up here, the wind moved uninhibited. Up here, no one pressured me to believe in a certain God or to think liking boys was wrong. We may not have had the world then, but we had each other, the mountains, and the sunrise.
We stood together, our shoulders brushing.
“You ready?” he said.
I wanted to say no, one more moment with you, but I said, “Yeah, let’s go.”
On the way home, we ate at Waffle House. Across the table, Jack patted his stomach. “Baby meat, this is the best morning I can remember. Let’s do this again next time.”
“It wouldn’t be the same if it was with anyone else,” I said.
A next time—the promise I held on to.
At 2:00 a.m. I pulled into Jack’s brother’s driveway. I turned off the car and looked over at Jack, who hung his head, then grabbed his bag and opened the car door. I opened my door. We stood in the dark on the gravel between the car and the house. Jack dropped his bag on the ground and stepped into me. We wrapped ourselves around each other, my breath a wayward stone kicked from the driveway.
When he inhaled, he rattled. A small sound escaped from his throat, then a choke.
A tear ran down my cheek. For the first time in a long time, I felt close to God: holding a man I loved, both of us crying in the dark.
“Goodbye, Mandrew. I love you.”
We loosened our holds, then took a step away, then let go.