A story about a guy who grows and learns to see his life and socialization differently.
|As I unlocked my front door, my phone went off. I glanced at the screen, noting that I had a new message on OKCupid. I blinked, as I hadn’t talked to anyone or had any new suitors express interest in a couple months.
I walked through the house, closing the front door behind me and stepped out the back door, letting Katie out on her run. Then I unlocked my phone and pulled up the dating app and the new message. It was from a new guy who introduced himself as Nate. He was rather cute. He explained that he was 20 and a sophomore at the local college and that he was drawn to my profile because I mentioned that I was an artist. I read through his message. He seemed to be quite charming and witty. He mentioned that there was a new art exhibit opening at the small gallery on Hamilton this weekend and wondered if I would be interested in going with him to see it.
I checked my calendar. I was free both Friday and Saturday night. I wasn’t sure why a young cute guy was looking to go out with me, though. I thought most of them wanted to date someone younger than 25. I let Katie back in, still trying to make up my mind.
“What the heck,” I finally muttered to myself and started punching in a reply:
Hi! The exhibit sounds cool. Is it yours or one of your classmate’s? You never indicated. You also never indicated which night you were thinking about going? I’m free both Friday and Saturday evening, so either one works for me.
You sound like a cool guy. I hope to talk to you soon.
A few minutes later as I was fixing myself a cheeseburger, my phone went off again. It was another message from Nate. “Sounds great, Curt! Can you meet me at Del’s Kitchen at 6? I’ll treat you to dinner before we go to the gallery if you’re game.”
I sent him back a quick message telling him that I’d meet him there. After that, we exchanged phone numbers. I finished my dinner and watched “Eating Out” on Netflix, pleased to think that I had another date so soon after the disaster with Bill. Maybe Patty was right after all. Maybe making a mistake now and then wasn’t as horrible as I originally thought.
The next day, Patty and I sat at her cubicle eating lunch together. I had just told her about Nate. She was now looking at his OKCupid profile on my phone. “You’re right, he’s downright adorable.”
“Yeah, I know. But do you think he’s too young for me? I mean we’re talking about an eight year age difference.”
“Well, it might be an issue in the long run. I mean, he’s still in school right now. I’m sure you remember how differently you looked at things back in college than you do now.”
“Yeah, my point exactly.”
She held up a finger to quiet me. “But that’s a problem for the long run, Curt. Right now, you haven’t even met him. And you’re going to have dinner and see an art exhibit together. There are no wedding bells in hearing range.”
I huffed in protest. “I know that!”
“Are you sure? Because quite frankly, you’re not acting like it. For a first date, age doesn’t matter. So I suggest that you forget about the age difference and just try to have a good time.”
I took a breath, biting back the argument I had been forming. “Okay. I get it. I’ll just try to have a good time.”
“Good. And be sure you take protection with you.”
“Patty! I thought you said it wasn’t that serious?”
“Who said anything about serious? I’m talking about sex.” I scowled and she laughed. “Look, I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just saying that he’s cute. He seems to be into you based on the messages you let me read. And you seem to be into him enough that you’re already worried about whether things can actually work out. So you could find yourself swept away in a moment of infatuation in passion -- assuming you relax enough to let it happen, of course. So prepare for that possibility, okay?”
I sighed. She had a point. I’d only been sexually active with a few guys, but a couple of them had been one-time spur-of-the-moment encounters. It would be better if I was actually prepared for the possibility this time, rather than having unprotected sex in the heat of the moment and the resulting panic like I had in the past. Finally, I spoke. “Okay. I will. I don’t plan on letting anything happen, but I’ll make sure I’m in a place to play safe if I change my mind.”
The rest of the work day passed without much incident and I was soon packing up my stuff to head home. I was just heading to the door when my cell phone began playing Steve’s custom ringtone. I stepped out onto the street as I hit the connect button. “Hi Steve. What’s going on?”
“Hey, what are you doing Thursday night?”
I ran through my memory for a second before answering, “Nothing that I’m aware of. I’d have to check my calendar though. Why?”
“Well, you know what we talked about yesterday at the coffee shop?”
“Yeah. Don’t tell me that you’ve already set up a meeting with Pastor. I still haven’t decided if I want to be there.”
Steve’s laugh was loud enough that I pulled the phone a couple inches from my ear. “Oh, heavens no! I figure it’ll be at least a week, if not two, before we can see him. But Jessica and I have been talking to the parents we got on board. Well, Mr. Smith suggested that we should all get together, meet you, and talk with you before the meeting with Pastor. Everyone thought it would be a good idea. So we’d like to grab a quick bite with you on Thursday if you’re game.”
“Give me a second.” I pulled up my calendar on my phone and touched Thursday’s date. Nothing showed up. “Yeah, Thursday should be fine. But is there any reason for this? I mean, I thought everyone involved was on board. Don’t tell me the Smiths are having second doubts.”
I could imagine Steve’s smirk as he spoke. “Oh heavens no. If anything, Mr. Smith has been your biggest advocate. However, he made the point that if everyone spent some time with you and knew you a bit better, they can talk about you to Pastor as if you’re a person, rather than just the issue.”
I felt a slight lump in my throat as realization struck. “So, they all know I’m gay?”
“Um, Curt? Most people in church at least suspect. You don’t come to church wearing rainbow tee shirts, mind you. But you’re also pretty open about who you are and it shows. And before you ask, not a single one of the parents you’ll be meeting on Thursday cares about your sexual orientation or your love life.”
I smiled to myself. Steve always seemed to know exactly what insecurity was about to bubble up and tacked it directly. “Okay. It sounds good. I’ll see you on Thursday.”
“Good. I’ll get back to you with an exact time and location. Take care of yourself until then.”
“I will. Thanks, Steve. Bye.” I hung up and walked to my car, trying to decide how to keep from feeling like I just said yes to a job interview. They always made me nervous as well.
Thursday night, I pulled into the parking lot in front of the small diner Steve told me about. I walked in the front door. A middle age woman standing at the register glanced over and said, “I’ll be with you in just a moment, hon.”
“Actually, I’m looking for my friends.”
“Oh, you must be Curtis. Yes, the rest of your party is already seated. Just head toward the back of the room, you’ll see them.”
“Thanks.” I walked around the counter. After about ten steps, I spotted Steve. There was a young blonde woman -- Jessica, I guessed -- sitting next to him and waving frantically at me. Four other people -- all appeared to be middle-aged -- sat with them. I smiled nervously and walked over to the table. “Hello,” I said as I took the only empty seat at the table.
“Curt! So glad you could make it, pal,” Steve said, standing and leaning across the table just enough to shake my hand. “Allow me to make introductions. This is Jessica.”
“Actually, we met,” Jessica said.
I studied her face at a moment. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t remember.”
“I’m not surprised. It was at a church social mixer and we only talked briefly. You seemed somewhat nervous.”
“Yeah, I don’t do crowds very well.”
Steve added, “And for Curt, a crowd consists of any group with more than six people.” The whole table laughed. I felt my cheeks warm a bit. Steve continued. “These are Mark and Andrea Smith. They have a sixteen year old daughter name Becka.”
Both shook my hand. Andrea said, “Becka raves about your sketches on a regular basis, Curt. She says she’d kill to be able to draw people as well as you do.”
“Oh, so she’s the teen that saw my sketchbook?”
“Yes, indeed,” Mark offered. I smiled. I think I remembered Becka now. I had left my sketchbook in the pew one Sunday morning after service while I talked to a few friends. I had noted a dark haired teen girl sitting where I had been as I returned to pick it up. Before I had gotten fifteen feet from her, she saw me and took off quickly. That had been almost six month ago. I felt a bit of pride to learn that she was till talking about what she saw after all that time.
Steve redirected my attention to the other couple who were rising to shake my hand. “This is Stan and Shellie Anderson. They have a fourteen year old son named Kirk.”
I shook their hands as well. I didn’t recognize them, nor was I aware of any interactions with their son. “It’s a pleasure to meet both of you,” I said.
“Likewise,” Stan said. Shellie simply nodded her head. Everyone sat back down.
“The Carters were unable to make it, unfortunately,” Steve said. “However, I believe you’ve spoken with them and their seventeen year old son, Brian. So they know you fairly well already.”
I nodded. “Yeah, we used to attend the same Bible study. Brian’s quite the artist, himself. Some of the landscape paintings I’ve seen by him are incredible. I’ve never been that great with paints, myself.”
Steve said, “But his work with pastels and and charcoal is amazing.” I buried my face in my menu, trying to hide my cheeks, which I was sure were turning bright red by that point.
Our waiter, Kelly, stopped by and took asked if we were ready to order. “We’ve already decided what we want, Curt,” Andrea said. “Do you need a couple more minutes, though?”
I glanced at the list of sandwiches. “I think I’ll just have the chicken club and an iced tea.” I didn’t want anything too heavy. Everyone else gave Kelly their order, and she scurried off.
Stan spoke up, “So tell us, Curt, when and how did you start doing art?”
“You know, I’d say it was about in sixth grade. Our school’s art teacher, Mrs. Landis introduced us to pencil sketches with still life. Most of the kids quickly sketched the apple that Mrs. Landis had set on their desk. But not me. I ended up taking the whole forty minutes, carefully shading my drawing. I wasn’t even happy with it when the class was over. Mrs. Landis took a look at my work and just about shrieked with delight. She ended up encouraging me a lot after that.”
“That’s interesting,” Andrea said. “So did she provide you with opportunities after that?”
“Oh yes. She encouraged me to come to her room whenever I had a free period. I’d even sneak out of classes where we were just watching a movie or otherwise doing something that wasted time. She introduced me to various media, too. That’s how I discovered pastels and charcoal, which are still where I’m best skilled.”
“What other media have you worked with?” Jessica asked. “Both oil and water paints, and pen and ink. I’ve done a little bit of sculpting with clay too, but I tend to stay away from 3-D media. And to be honest, anything that requires a chisel or other sharp object is something I should avoid.”
Shellie asked, “Do you feel you have anything you can offer someone who works with those other media.”
I nodded. “There are always those things abstract principles that are universal and have little to do with the specific medium being used. Understanding light and shadow and perspective is always important, for example.”
Stan said, “You also do computer generated art, don’t you? I think Steve mentioned you work for an architecture firm.”
“Yes, I do. I often render computer images of a building or interior design that our firm is proposing to potential customers.”
“Do you enjoy it?” Jessica asked.
“It’s an enjoyable job. I get to explore my creative side on the job, yet am able to support myself. Quite comfortably, if you’ll forgive me for bragging.”
Mark chuckled. “Maybe you can talk to Becka about that. I want to encourage her to keep drawing, but at this point I think she either plans on making a living of it or has romanticized the notion of being a starving artist.”
I smiled. “I had a few classmates like that in college. One of them, his name was Sean, even lived the lifestyle for a bit after college. After about a year of considering Ramen noodles a gourmet treat, he ended up getting a job in sales.”
Stan snickered and Shellie glared at him. Stan pouted. “What? He said lifestyle. I thought it was funny.”
Shellie rolled her eyes and turned to look sympathetically at me. “Please forgive him, dear. He has a rather juvenile sense of humor at times.” She glared at him one more time. “Most of the time.”
I smiled. “It’s okay. If that’s the worst comment I face tonight, I’ll consider it a fantastic dinner.” I paused and made my expression more serious. “Though, since the topic’s come up, maybe it’s time to address the elephant in the room.”
The rest of them looked at each other, looking unsure of how to proceed. Finally, Jessica broke the ice. “Actually, none of us consider it an elephant in the room, Curt. We all know you’re gay. It’s a fact, and we all accept it.”
Andrea added, “Are you currently seeing anyone?”
I hesitated for a second. “I’ve been on a few dates here and there, but I’m currently single.”
Andrea said, “Well, you know, I have a cousin who lives a few towns over. He’s probably five years older than you and would find you adorable.”
My jaw dropped and everyone laughed. Mark shook his head looking at his wife. “Always the matchmaker!”
Stan spoke up next. “Glad to know it’s just not my wife that does that. Shellie spent all last night trying to think of someone she could set you up with, Curt.”
“I certainly wasn’t expecting this,” I said.
Steve grinned at me. “I told you it wouldn’t be an issue guy. Granted, the Carters feel a bit differently than either of these couples, but you know they adore you.” I nodded. The Carters had made it clear last year that they believe gay people -- or same-sex attracted, as they called them -- should live a life of celibacy if they don’t feel they can marry someone of the opposite sex. However, they also made it clear that they knew I had to follow my own conscience and that they loved me and supported my journey wherever it led me.
Kelly and another waiter came to our table with our food on trays. They passed out our food and as they left, Steve spoke up. “Jessica, would you like to say the blessing?”
She nodded and we all bowed our heads. “Lord, we thank you for this time together. We thank you that you’ve given us this opportunity to get to know Curt better. Help us to grow together in your love. Help us to build Your family here, a family that welcomes and honors all its members. Be with us as we enjoy this food you have graciously provided us with, and for which we are thankful. Amen.”
Everyone responded with their own “Amen” and I squirmed in my chair a bit. I wasn’t used to someone expressing such gratitude for me in prayer. I prayed that my cheeks hadn’t reddened noticeably.
After finishing a mouthful of chicken, I turned my attention to Andrea. “So Mrs. Smith.”
“Andrea.” She interrupted.
“Yes, Andrea. I take it that Becka draws, then?”
“Yes she does. She also does some watercolor painting, but she loves working with her ink pens most of all.”
I nodded. “Working in ink is both rewarding and challenging. In my experience, it’s one of the least forgiving mediums to work with. With charcoal or pastels, there’s at least a sense that you can erase a little bit, depending on how dark you’ve gone. Of course, you still may have imperfect smudges if you go that route, but when ink dries, your usually stuck.”
Mark volunteered, “We noticed that. For the first few months that she started drawing with pen, we’d find every wastepaper basket in the house filled with half-completed and crumpled up drawings on a nearly daily basis. Andrea and I started to worry about how much art paper was going to cost us. My foreman job at the bottling factory pays pretty well, but we’re not exactly rolling in dough.”
I smiled. “Yeah, we artists tend to forget just how much our supplies tend to cost, at least while it’s not us who have to pay for them.”
Stan spoke up. “That’s the one thing I’m thankful for when it comes to Kirk working with clay. Until he gets something he wants to keep, he can just smash it all up and reuse the same clay. If we had to toss out the clay used in every failed attempt, I imagine I’d need to quit my job at the print shop and go into law.”
Shellie added, “You and me both. Of course, it still happens. Remember when he made that mask, paid to have it fired, then decided five days after he got it back that the mouth wasn’t quite right?”
I laughed. “We artists tend to be our own worst critics. Kirk sculpts? That could be useful for certain props and other set-pieces.”
“That’s my cue,” Jessica said as she pulled out her oversized purse and started rummaging around in it. She pulled out a small booklet stapled together at its center and handed it to me. “That’s the script we’re using this year. I managed to snag you a copy so that you could look at it and start thinking about ideas.”
I accepted the script and thumbed through it almost absentmindedly. “I’ll do that. Of course, it would help if I had an idea of what the kids I’ll be working with have done and what they’ve found they’ll be good at.”
Shellie’s gaze became thoughtful. “You know, I had assumed you’d just tell the kids what to do. It never occurred to me that you might actually take their abilities into account while planning.”
I wrinkled my nose slightly, astonished at her surprise. “Well, it makes more sense to me to do it this way. I mean, it’s my understanding that one of the reasons for doing this is to encourage the teens and help them gain confidence in their abilities. It seems to me that the most effective way to do that is to focus on and utilize their strengths.”
Steve chimed in. “Curt’s always been good at seeing and bringing out the special and unique talents of others. It’s one of the reasons I recommended him for this job. Truth be told, he’s quite good at seeing the potential in just about anyone and encouraging it. Well, anyone other than himself.” I stuck my tongue out at Steve at that last jab and everyone laughed.
Shellie said, “Well, I think Kirk’s friend Sandy will also be looking to help. She’s twelve works in clay as well. Plus she does papier mache and some drawing as well.”
Andrea thought, “Becka’s often talked about Mindy’s painting skills. I think she’s seventeen. I have no idea what kinds of paints she uses.”
Everyone began mentioning other names and I started making a list of what skills I might have to work with. I was getting excited.
The rest of dinner went well. What time we didn’t spend discussing the upcoming project, they spent inquiring about my job or my other hobbies. Of course, there was also talk of Bible studies and various sermons and other church activities. By the end of dinner, I was feeling quite comfortable around all of them.
Eventually, we all said our goodbyes and Steve walked me back to my car. As we got near, he said, “That went really well. How do you feel?”
“Excited,” I answered honestly. “I hope Pastor and the other leaders go for the idea.”
“Well, we’ll see him sometime next week, probably. Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
I thought for a moment, staring at the nearby street sign. “I’m sure. That meeting would be too nerve-wracking for me, I think. In the end, I think my nervousness might lead to me getting defensive, which would be bad.”
“You have a point there. I just wish Pastor could see for himself how incredible you are and what a great job you’d do at this. But we’ll be sure to talk you up as much as possible.”
“Thanks,” I opened my car door, then paused. “On another note, are you free for a small favor tomorrow night?”
“Probably. What’s the favor?”
“Well, could you run by my place sometime between ten and midnight and -- assuming I’m not home, of course -- take Katie out?”
His smile broadened. “Another date already? Must be you didn’t chase Bill off like you thought, then.”
“Actually, this is a different guy. No, I’m not holding out on you. I just haven’t had a chance to tell you about him.”
“Ah, okay. Well, I look forward to hearing all about it. And yes, I can take care of Katie for you.”
“Thanks, Steve. You’re a real friend.”
“You’re well worth being a friend to, Curt. Don’t forget that.”
“Thanks. Have a good night.” I ducked into my car and started the engine. Steve stepped back and I closed my door and shifted into gear. It was time to head home and get things ready for tomorrow.