A story about a guy who grows and learns to see his life and socialization differently.
|I parked my car on Horatio Street and walked two blocks to the Espresso-ive Cup coffee shop. Steve waved to from a small table near the back as I walked in the front door. I smiled and nodded in his direction before walking to the counter. The barista, a short girl with brown hair whose name tag identified her as Sandi greeted me cheerfully. “Welcome to the Espresso-ive Cup! What can I get for you today?”
“I’ll just take a large iced tea,” I said. I was thankful that this shop didn’t choose fancy names for its various sizes.
“Yes, please.” I wondered how the young woman managed to stay so exuberant despite dealing with customers all day. I’m sure more than a few of them could be irritable and downright irritating. If I was being honest, I’d admit that I could be less than pleasant on a particularly rough day, myself.
“That’ll be $3.25!” I handed her exact change and stuffed another dollar bill in the glass jar that someone -- perhaps Sandi herself -- had painted the word “TIPS” on using bright purple paint and a crude attempt at cutesy lettering. “Thank you very much!” she chirped. A few seconds later, she returned a 32 ounce glass of tea with two lemon wedges perched on the edge. I thanked her, snagged a couple packets of artificial sweetener and a straw, and made my way over to Steve, sitting across the table from him.
“Hey man, glad you could make it,” he said, sipping at some concoction in an oversize mug and topped with whipped cream.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long. Traffic was a bit heavy,” I said, as I stirred the sweetener into my drink, then picked up each lemon wedge and gently squeezed the juice out of it before dropping it into the glass as well.
“Maybe five minutes, nothing to worry about it. How was your weekend? I missed you in church, by the way.”
“I had a pretty good weekend, I guess.” I tried not to look too guilty about missing church.
“I take it you had a date?”
I almost spilled my tea, so I set down the glass. “Huh? What do you mean?”
Steve smiled and placed a hand on mine. “Relax, Curt. I didn’t mean it as an accusation. It’s simply an observation that whenever you go out with a guy, you seem to miss services that Sunday.”
I shifted uncomfortably. I had been vaguely aware of the pattern, but I hadn’t realized it had become marked enough that others were noticing it too. “Ah, I see. Well, to answer your question, yes I had a date on Friday night. In case you’re wondering, no, I did not sleep with him.”
Steve smirked. “I wasn’t wondering, for the record. You know I don’t care what you do, and I think that it stinks that many of the other folks in church -- especially some of the leaders -- are hawking your every action and being so suspicious of you.”
I forced myself to relax. I knew that what Steve said was true. I was too used to getting put on the defensive by other church members and I had gotten preemptively defensive with Steve. That was unfair to him. “I know. I’m sorry I snapped.”
Steve shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I understand. Truth be told, I’m surprised you don’t snap more often than you do, guy. I don’t think some of the others realize just how patient you’ve been in light of how hard they’ve pushed you. I am curious though, why do you tend to skip after a date? I hope it’s not because of guilt.”
I took took a long pull on my drink as I pondered how to answer him. “I won’t lie to you. Part of it is guilt. But I think the bigger part is that I don’t feel guilty and I start to resent those in the church that think I should. It’s hard to have a pleasant time with a great guy and then face a bunch of people who expect you to feel ashamed about it.”
Steve nodded. “I can certainly understand that.”
“Yeah.” I took another drink. “Though this time, I’d say it’s more about confusion.”
“Well, in a lot of ways, the date was highly enjoyable, but I felt conflicted about the whole thing. I went home that night feeling very unsure about how things went. It was frustrating.”
Steve rested his chin on his hand and pondered what I was saying. “You mean you weren’t sure if the date was a success or might be leading to a second date or something?”
“Exactly. Plus I was wondering if I messed everything up. Turns out, there’s a chance that I might’ve. The guy told Patty -- she’s my coworker, if you remember -- that I seemed to keep showing interest, only to back away.”
“Oh man, that has to be rough. So you were feeling pretty down on yourself, I take it?”
“Yeah, I could say that.”
“And because you were feeling confused and down on yourself, you skipped church.”
“Steve, are you about to lecture me? No offense, but that’s the last thing I need right now.”
He sat just looking at me for a moment. “No. But I will say that I’m concerned. When you’re feeling like that, church should be the best place for you to go.”
I grimaced. “I know. It’s dumb of me.”
Steve shook his head, “I know Pastor would agree with you. I know he’d expect me to agree with you, too. But I just can’t. I’m not sure the problem rests with you. At least not entirely.”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Look Curt, when my Tanya and I were having relationship problems last summer, church was great for me. I was able to talk about not only the arguments we were having, but my own fears and insecurities in the relationship with numerous church people. I was able to take comfort in the fact that no matter how things seemed at the moment, there was someone who would listen to me and understand me. Sure, they might try giving me advice -- and let me tell you, some of that advice was or at least seemed pretty lousy at the time. But at least they all meant well, and I had a sense that my troubles and concerns mattered.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I remember that. And I can see where that would be helpful.”
Steve grabbed my hand. “Don’t you see, Curt? You don’t have that luxury. You don’t feel -- and in many cases, with good reason -- that you can bare your soul about these things with church members. You know that if you try to tell someone about your experiences with this guy and how you feel about it all, you’re likely to get a lecture on holiness and God’s purpose for sexuality and how you really shouldn’t be dating men anyway.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I know all that. Why do you think I don’t do it?”
Steve shook his head. “Sorry. I got passionate there. But here’s my thing, Curt: That’s a problem. You shouldn’t just get a bunch of lectures. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who would ignore your very real concerns and ignore them in favor of lecturing you on what they feel you should do is doing you a huge disservice. We’re failing you as a church, Curt!”
My jaw popped open as I sat there and allowed Steve’s words to sink in. I had often felt unable to trust my fellow churchgoers, but I never expected anyone else in the church -- especially a straight guy -- to validate my misgivings. Yet here was Steve, doing exactly that. A thought occurred to me. I lowered my eyes and spoke softly. “Patty thinks I should consider changing churches.”
If Steve was shocked our outraged by the idea, his tone didn’t show it. “To a more gay-affirming one?”
“Yeah. She keeps suggesting I check out the MCC over on Avery. Or her own Unitarian church.”
“Why haven’t you taken her advice?”
I looked up at him in surprise. “I can’t believe you agree with her!”
“I don’t.” He paused, then shrugged. “I’m just not sure I disagree with her, either. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’d love for you to stay with our church. I think it’s a great place. But we’ve already established that the members there are failing you in some pretty serious ways. And while I and a few others are trying to change it, that’s not helping you right now. So yeah, if you need to look elsewhere for the support you’re not getting, then I totally get that and wouldn’t blame you one bit.”
I pondered what he said. “I checked out the MCC a few years back. It was a nice place. But they don’t have the kind of lively worship that we have at Anointed Waters. And from what Patty tells me about her church, they’re worship is much more low-key too.”
“And the worship style is an important thing to you, I take it?”
“More important than getting the emotional support you need when it comes to your love life and romantic frustrations?” I sucked in a deep breath, held it, and then slowly let it out. I didn’t have an answer for that one. After a moment, he continued. “I’m not saying go someplace else. I’m not saying stay either. I’m just suggesting that you need to consider your options in light of what’s most needful to you.” He looked at me as if to see if I had something to say. When I gave no indication that I did, he continued. “Anyway, I didn’t ask you here to talk to you about your church attendance. I actually wanted to run an idea by you and see if you might be interested.”
“Yeah. As you know, the big church Easter event will be coming up in a few months. Jessica -- she’s one of the youth ministers -- and I have been talking about having the teens help build and decorate scenery for it. The only problem is, while we have a couple people who can help with the construction side of things, none of the adults have any artistic ability.”
I chuckled. “So you’re trying to recruit me?” I resisted the urge to jest that traditionally, recruiting was supposed to be my job.
“Well, yeah. We know you have plenty of talent. I’m sure you’d be a great help and an inspiration to the teens who would be helping you. Jessica says some of them are pretty good artists as near as she can tell, but lack experience, confidence, and direction.”
“If you’re looking for confidence and direction, you may be barking up the wrong tree.”
“But you certainly have the experience. Besides, I’ve seen the things you’ve envisioned and followed through on in your artwork. You have more direction than you give yourself credit for.”
?“Well, maybe you and the teens can help each other in that department,” he said with a grin.
I laughed. “It does sound like it would be enjoyable. I just have one question. How well do you really expect this to go over? I mean, suggesting that I work with teens.”
Steve paused as if it was his turn to gather his thoughts. “I won’t lie to you. I think it’s going to take some convincing on some people’s parts.”
“Like Pastor’s?” I suggested.
“Yeah, case in point. And I suspect that even some of the congregants -- like some of the teen parents will also have their concerns and won’t be shy about expressing them. That’s why I went to Jessica first. I figured she’d love the idea, and I was right. She just about flew out of her seat to start setting things up when I brought it up with her in private.” I smiled, wondering if Steve realized he admitted it was his idea alone, rather than the joint idea he originally made it sound like it was.
Steve continued. “That was a couple weeks ago. Since then, she’s actually talked to the parents of a couple of the teens, who also love the idea. I guess one of the teens in question got a peak at your sketchpad and has been raving about how good you are ever since. Don’t look so surprised, Curt. Everyone who sees your stuff thinks you're amazing.” I studied my glass intently as the blood rushed to my face. Steve teased, “Modest artists! I tell you! But anyway, so now Jess has about six or so parents on board with the idea. A group of us are going to present the idea to pastor and some of the other leaders next weekend. Assuming you’re interested in volunteering, of course.
I pondered. It had been a while since I’d really done anything with my art outside of work. The idea was appealing, as was the the possibility of sharing the experience with other people. “Yeah, I’m in. But why? I mean, you know this could be a bit of a battle. So why go to bat for me like that?”
Steve shook his head and patted my hand. “Because it means that we’ll have some fantastic props and scenery for the program this year. Because it means that some of our teens will get a chance to develop their own talents and work with a professional artist. Don’t scowl at that, you are one. Because it’ll give you a chance to contribute something unique and special to the church. Because it may help more people see you as more than the “gay guy” that they’re not really sure about. In short, because it represents a win-win-opportunity for everyone involved.”
I considered his arguments and found I couldn’t deny any of them. “Okay. I’m in.”
“Good. Now you just have to decide if you want to be with us when we present the idea to other church leaders. You’re more than welcome to be there, though I’ll totally understand if you opt out, believe me.”
“Thanks. Can I get back to you on that one?” My mind was already swimming with the pros and cons of both choices.