Chapter 4: The Decision
The church’s youth group meetings over the summer were infrequent at best. It was mapped out to have at least one meeting a month over the three months the students were out for the summer, but this year had been different. They aimed to do two times a month one on the first Thursday and another on the third Friday.
Friday was coming quicker than Charlie was comfortable with. He had been thankful for the time he had to himself during the last meeting. Thankful he had missed it, especially because he couldn’t handle the intense judgments amongst the youth. He couldn’t bring himself to outright say that it was fully intentional. It just stemmed from a lack of understanding of who he was, of how he interacted with others, but even then he didn’t fully know who he was. Questioning whether he was gay, well that didn’t seem like a great time to go to a gathering of the church’s youth.
Everett might be there though. Knowing Everett he would’ve been forced and resentfully obliged. He had to talk to Everett. His whole thinking about talking to Dax had been foolish. They would force him out and he just didn’t want that. He wasn’t fully sure if he was gay or not. All he knew for certain was that he wasn’t interested in girls, at least not romantically. That had to be a sign pointing in that direction, right?
Waiting in the church’s basement, in one of the Sunday school classrooms, the time kept ticking away. At least the couches were comfortable. The only thing he could do was wait. He was early, too early for his taste. Nobody else was in the room. Had he not been anticipating the meeting to start, he would’ve been at peace. As it was, he felt antsy, unsure of what to do. He simply waited. The only thing he knew was that he couldn’t mention anything, not even a hint of what he was going through, working out internally. He needed to talk, but not here regardless if Everett showed up or not.
The door opened, startling Charlie. Bennie, a girl his age, coyly walked in and sat down next to him. Bennie’s family lived in town over the summer as an escape from the city. In his frenzy over finding himself, he had completely forgotten how excited he was to see her again. He counted her as his only friend at the church, and even then she wasn’t year round. She was dorky and shy. She wore glasses and seemed content with being a kid as long as she possibly could. It was a trait Charlie wished he could emulate, but feared he simply didn’t have.
“Hi Charlie,” she said breathily. It was obvious that she was nervous and her nerves started to carry over to his. There was nothing to be nervous about. He didn’t like girls anyways.
She continued, “I missed you at the other meeting.”
Something was different about her and it was obvious. He tried his hardest not to stare at her chest, but it was so evident that she had matured since last summer.
Her cheeks flushed, which thankfully diverted his eyes away. “Charlie, you’re making me blush.”
“I’m sorry, I, I didn’t mean to,” Charlie flustered.
“No, don’t apologize. I like the attention, when it comes from someone as sweet as you that is,” she added with a slight laugh.
Charlie couldn’t help but laugh too. A smile slowly crept onto his face, plastering himself with happiness. It was unexplainable. He had missed her so. He no longer wanted to talk with Everett. He only wanted to spend time with Bennie, whatever that looked like. It might not be so difficult to be a part of youth group for the summer after all.
Sitting down on the couch, she folded one leg underneath her. He looked into her eyes for the first time since she had arrived. He could see her eye color. She had hazel colored eyes.
“You’re not wearing glasses,” he observed.
Bennie raised her eyebrows. “Glad you noticed. I just got contacts on the first day of the summer.”
“Well you look great. I don’t know how much my opinion counts on these sorta things.”
“They count for more than you’d think,” she added nonchalantly.
She was captivating and even though she didn’t show any enthusiasm for his thoughts, he was thrilled by the fact that she cared enough to say so. He was important to her. Why it was crucial for him to feel wanted and appreciated by her, he had no clue. It was important and it was exciting. He felt like he was on top of the world. All of his problems vanished. It seemed like nothing else existed. The only reality was the friendship between him and her.
“I’ve really missed you, Charlie.”
“I missed you too,” he mumbled. He meant it too, despite the fact he had completely blocked her out of his mind, but it was forgivable. He was processing through a lot and even then he still didn’t have any answers, but there was something about being with her again that caused him to forget everything he had been worried about. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall it to mind at that moment.
“I wish you would’ve written this year, like you promise to at the end of every summer,” she teasingly chastised him.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry. School gets-”
“Busy? I know,” she said gently cutting him off.
“You could write too, you know? The blame shouldn’t fully be on me.”
“You’re right, but every time I start, I just can’t force myself to mail it off. I’ve probably crumpled a hundred fully written letters out of fear.”
“What do you have to be afraid of?” Charlie asked floored.
“That you wouldn’t write back.”
Charlie’s heart sank. She was so insecure about their friendship. If only she knew how much he cared about her, how much fun they had together, how much her friendship meant to him, but he couldn’t push forward. All his worries rushed back in an instant. There were still too many unanswered questions.
“You’re right,” he finally responded. “I probably wouldn’t’ve.”
“Do you think we’ll ever see him again?” Dax asked Keith as they fed the gators in the pond from a great distance.
“I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Keith responded placing his hand on Dax’s right shoulder.
“All I was trying to do was to get him comfortable with the idea of being gay. I wanted him to avoid everything that I went through.”
“I know you did and I love you for it. Your heart for him is very touching.”
Dax wiped a tear away from his face. “I’m not as good with helping others come out as you’ve been.”
“You told him that, didn’t you?” Keith asked conclusively.
Dax nodded, ashamed to admit it verbally.
“Did you ever think that he just wanted you? That all he wanted was to talk it out with you? It’s been pretty obvious that he connected with you more than he ever connected with me.”
“I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it,” Dax said staring at the water. The patches of red during feeding time no longer bothered him as the years of running alligator farms kept tacking on.
“What do you think? Did you ever have the feeling that Charlie was gay during our interactions with him? I’ve gotta say, he never sent me those vibes and I’m usually right about those things, but then again he opened up to you more.”
“No, I didn’t think so, but if there’s anything that irks me the most it’s when people incredulously react to someone coming out. I believe it’s possible even if I didn’t catch onto it right off the bat,” Dax said emphatically.
“What if he’s not gay?”
“What?” Dax asked flabbergasted. “How can you even say that?”
“Honestly, I think he’s just questioning. I think he’s just confused. Your enthusiasm caused him to run away.”
“We don’t know that,” Dax retorted defensively. “He might have just had to run off unexpectedly.”
“I think that’s exactly what happened, but not for the reason you’re claiming. He’ll use any excuse as a scapegoat because he’s afraid to talk about it.”
“How could you be so judgmental, Keith? You don’t understand what it’s like to go through a difficult coming out process. Your parents expected it, mine…” Dax paused to gather his composure. “Well, we’ve talked at length about it.”
“Ok, let’s for arguments sake just say outright that Charlie is 100% undeniably gay, which I still don’t think he is.”
Dax rolled his eyes completely annoyed and bitter that Keith didn’t acknowledge his annoyance to the whole conversation.
Keith continued, “Look, all I’m saying is what if he’s not ready to come out yet? What are you going to do, force him out of the closet?”
“How could he not be ready if he told me?” Dax asked genuinely.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” Keith asked shaking his head. “He’s going through an identity crisis right now. All he needs from you is to listen without judgment or help. Ok, maybe coming out as gay is the answer to his identity problems, but what if it isn’t? What if he’s just a little slower than his peers entering into puberty? You remember what the pressure felt like to like girls in sixth grade, don’t you?”
“Don’t remind me. I still feel scarred by middle school.”
“Exactly. Let Charlie take his own time. Stop interjecting and simply be the listening ear that he’s asking you to be. Only give advice if he asks you directly and even then proceed with caution.”
“I just don’t know. Nobody believes or even questions if they’re gay unless they truly are.”
“Wow, Dax. You have a lot to learn. That’s simply not true. A lot of people question and sure a lot of people who question are, but there are others who question that may be bi or just curious. Stop placing people in boxes. Don’t label others. That’s the first thing. I can’t believe how you can be so close-minded about the human experience at times.”
“Whatever,” Dax said walking away from Keith.
“No!” Keith yelled out, which caused Dax to stop dead in his tracks. “Not whatever. We never walk away from an argument angry at each other.”
Dax looked over his shoulder at Keith. “I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. It just brought up a lot of bad memories and I-”
“I know. It’s ok.”
Dax walked over and hugged Keith. They gazed at the pond together. Smiling at everything they had accomplished over the years, they turned to face each other.
“Am I forgiven?” Dax asked sheepishly.
“You never have to ask for forgiveness with me. Break out of that tired habit. We never walk away angry, that we need to keep in check, but the concept of forgiveness is for people who are less evolved. We don’t need anyone else’s moral compass when we have each other. We don’t hurt each other and we take care of each other well. That’s all that counts. It’s all that matters.”
“Ok, I just forget is all…”
Keith nodded looking back at the pond.
“Magnificent, huh?” Keith asked.
“Yeah, and I’m not referring to the pond,” Dax responded.
Dax chuckled at how badly his one liner came across, but Keith took it well. Sure it was corny, but he didn’t think it was possible for him to smile any brighter. He couldn’t imagine what his life would look like without Keith. Keith kept him grounded in reality and challenged him in ways that made him angry, but also reminded him how deeply they cared for one another. Keith had been there when no one else was and helped him through the darkest time in his life. He would never go back there. Promising himself to recommit to his standards, he internally swore that he would never step inside a church building again, but all that was over now. He had nothing to worry about. It had been over for years. Keith brought him genuine happiness. How could anyone frown upon that or wish them ill? He wished with all his might that whatever celestial being lived above would grant Charlie with as much happiness in a partner as he felt being in a relationship with Keith.
Reid sat on the edge of his seat as he devoured commentaries on the Bible passage he was preparing to preach on at church. Every week the thought of preaching, teaching a congregation full of people utterly terrified him. He didn’t want to mess up. He couldn’t mess up. Too much was riding on him getting the message exactly right, to challenge fellow members of the church, of the faith, and to encourage them, all while staying true to the text and analyzing what he felt God was saying through each verse. The pressure was immense and he didn’t handle it well from week-to-week.
One of the only ways he knew how to relax was to go out and have a drink. Bar, restaurant, it was irrelevant as long as he had a little alcohol, not enough to make him drunk, but just enough to cause him to relax and forget the pressure for an hour or so. Things were different in Midvale though. Everybody knew everybody. Midvale was a summer town and the local businesses, of which were very few as every year several more businesses were forced from bad debts into disclosure. He just couldn’t go out bar hopping here. People would be overly critical, judgmental. His congregation wouldn’t understand that he wasn’t drinking to get drunk. The local bar surprisingly had stayed open, despite the townsmen boycott every March. St. Patty’s Day had become a day of debauchery, he’d never deny that, but this town pushed against the holiday to a whole new extreme. Midvale was a religiously observant town. Being the pastor of the nondenominational church, which stood up against the Episcopal church, wasn’t always a blast. He hated the idea of fighting between denominations. It was petty, foolish and misguided anger. He instantly berated any of the members of his church if he ever heard them badmouth another sect of Christianity.
He wanted alcohol so bad. He closed his laptop. He had done enough work for the sermon today he tried convincing himself. He was certain he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. The metaphorical cinderblocks that seemed to weigh down on his shoulders were applying enough pressure, he was concerned his shoulder would dislocate.
A knock at the door shook him back to his senses. He felt fully awake again and alert, the pressure forgotten in an instant. Opening the door to his office he saw Charlie standing before him.
“Charlie, I must admit I never expected to see you stop by my office again, but I’m really glad you came. Can I help you with anything?”
Charlie seemed to struggle with his words, which always prompted memories of Reid’s own speech issues as a child. He could never properly pronounce ‘r’ or ‘s’ until the third grade and boy was he ridiculed for it.
“Ca-, ca-, can, can we talk for a little bit? I have a question and I didn’t know who else to turn too.”
Reid was touched by Charlie’s vulnerability and impressed by the trust he showed in seeking guidance. “Absolutely, come on in,” he said beckoning Charlie to take a seat across from him.
“I’m scared to tell you the truth,” Charlie admitted. It took a moment for Reid to process what had been said, Charlie had been so soft-spoken.
“When people seek forgiveness from others, from God, it can be a terrifying concept. The fear of rejection or if anything would change dynamically, but trust me when I tell you this. You never, ever have to fear telling the truth to God. I don’t want you to have to worry about telling the truth to me either. These conversations don’t leave this room, promise.”
Charlie nodded, but Reid noted that he still evaded eye contact.
“What do you think about homosexuality?” Charlie asked outright.
Reid chuckled aside, trying to prevent Charlie from noticing. “That’s a great question,” Reid responded unable to stop laughing.
“I don’t seem to get the humor in that question, sir.”
Reid composed himself, collected his thoughts, and replied, “First off, never call me sir. Sir is for old people and thankfully I’ve got a long time before I get there,” he raised his eyebrows. “Thank God,” he whispered to the side.
“Sorry, Reid,” Charlie responded, clearly uncomfortable with calling him by his first name.
“You didn’t have to apologize for that,” Reid retorted with a smile. “Before we get into my thoughts and what I believe the Bible says, why don’t you tell me what you think?”
“You see, I, I just don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants it to be fine, but I’m not fully convinced it is. I just had a friend tell me he was gay and it got me thinking…”
Reid nodded his head. “Go on.”
“Well the way he described it was that you weren’t interested in girls romantically and well, see I don’t really fit that category. I don’t know how to relate with the other boys in my class, especially not the other boys at church. It, it got me thinking that I might be gay.”
Reid reached over the desk and patted Charlie on the shoulder. “I am so proud of you for being so honest about what you’ve been going through. I can’t think of a single other person your age that would be this open about their feelings and I wanted to thank you for that.”
Charlie nodded, this time locking eyes with Reid. Reid detected the slightest hint of a smile.
“You’re 11, right?”
“Yeah, I turn 12 in July.”
“That’s great, exciting time in your life.”
“Not really,” Charlie bluntly replied.
“All right, then. Listen, Charlie, I didn’t notice girls in a romantic way until I was 14. Don’t jump ahead of yourself. It’s perfectly normal for boys not to notice girls in a romantic light at 11 or 12. If you continue to have doubts, or think you’re gay once 14 comes around, we can have a more intense dialogue then.”
“I want to know what you think now.”
Reid shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re ready for that conversation and it seems like you’re not fully sure yourself. You want me to say one thing, something you inherently know I won’t say, but you also don’t want me to say it. I don’t get it.”
“Whatever,” Charlie said standing up while leaving the room.
Taken aback, it took Reid a moment to compose himself again. Charlie left angry with him and that was not the way he intended for the conversation to go. He’d be dwelling on this conversation for the rest of the week.
Everett had been thrilled when Charlie asked him to seek enlightenment in the forest. He wasn’t sure what Charlie was seeking but he was glad that Charlie was open to receiving direction from nature. Uncle Reid would never understand where he was coming from and had no desire to seek understanding. No, his uncle did nothing but condemn. It was good to walk outside in the forest, to be out in the open air, outside the grasp of what he viewed to be an oppressive society.
As they walked side-by-side each other in the woods, Everett contemplated why Charlie had been distant lately. Ever since he had come out to Charlie he had done nothing short of avoidance. It made Everett feel lower than dirt, like the scum of humanity to be rejected by that when he had been so open, so honest about his reality. Deep down Everett knew he wanted acceptance from others. It was a debilitating weakness. Nature embraced him with open arms and that should be enough. Screw everybody else. He was fine the way he was and if no one else in this disturbingly religious community could see that, well then it was their loss.
Everett cursed under his breath. He was being stupid. Of course he needed other people to help him. As in tune with nature as he felt, he knew he didn’t always read it right. He wasn’t infallible, although he often thought he was, a trait he carried over from his uncle. Charlie seemed open-minded. He seemed like the most open-minded person in Midvale. He at least was aware that other people thought and believed differently and he was all right with that. It was a concept that was lost on practically everybody else in Midvale and it made Everett sick to his stomach thinking about how difficult the next few summers would be for him visiting Uncle Reid if he had a boyfriend who visited him for a weekend.
“This is a good place to stop,” Charlie said interrupting Everett’s train of thought.
“It’s as good a place as any. If you felt led to stop here, then we obediently shall stop.”
“Yeah, all right then…” Charlie responded mystified.
It hurt watching Charlie respond so disdainfully, but it was to be expected. Nature called out to people all the time. People had such limited imaginations that they refused to hear the call. Charlie heard nature speak to him, of that Everett was certain. However, Charlie didn’t know it was nature that was speaking to him yet. He would learn soon enough as long as his eyes and ears remained open and vulnerable to reception.
“You have my undivided attention,” Everett prompted.
Charlie sighed and put his hands on his hips. “I’m scared to admit what I’m thinking.”
“This is a safe-place Charlie. It’s a judgment-free zone. Always.”
“You know, when you said that, that being gay meant you weren’t interested in girls romantically…”
Everett nodded, internally asking nature to help him reveal his true thoughts.
“I realized that, well, that describes me too.”
It was as if the world was paused around him. Everett always knew there was something different and fascinating about Charlie. Could this be it? Was it simply that Charlie was gay? Everett tried to picture himself with Charlie, on a date or kissing. He swallowed trying to stop upchuck coming out, the thought repelled him so much. He didn’t want Charlie like that. The right guy would come, he hoped, but Charlie most definitely wasn’t it. No, he must be fascinating for another reason.
“I’ve been thinking,” Charlie continued, “that I might be, you know, gay. It scares me and I could be totally wrong, but I don’t wanna be wrong about this. If this were true, I could get out of the grasp of my parents. Sure, they’d give up on me, but at least I’d be free.”
Everett shook his head. “That’s not a reason to be gay. There are no reasons to be gay. You are or you aren’t. It’s as simple as that.”
“Yes, but how do you know?” Charlie asked again.
“It’ll be revealed in time. Trust me on that. You’ll develop feelings for girls, or you won’t and until then you probably won’t fully know the truth.”
“I was wondering if we could try something.”
Everett died inside, begging internally with everything he had that Charlie wouldn’t kiss him.
“I was wondering, well, could we kiss?”
It felt like walking on thin ice that gave way. He must proceed with caution, keep his head above water. He didn’t want to discourage Charlie from exploring the thought of being gay, but he didn’t want to encourage any romantic thoughts his way either.
“I don’t think so,” he finally responded, sounding harsher than he intended. “I just don’t think that’s a good idea. You’re not ready to make that step. Plus, I just don’t view you in that way and even if I did my heart couldn’t take it if you discovered in that moment that you didn’t feel the same way about guys that I do. It’d be too much to bear.”
Charlie started to cry. Everett was at a loss for what to do. He liked Charlie, just not in a romantic way, obviously. He wanted to keep him as a friend, but he didn’t know if that was possible. This revelation was such an imposition on their friendship. He wasn’t sure if it could sustain this pressure. He didn’t feel like he had led him on, but maybe he did. There was no easy answer, no right decision, only a slew of bad ones and the countless repercussions that would abound based on how he proceeded. He had to make a decision because it was incredibly awkward to just stand there and think while Charlie cried a river. The only thing left was to leave. Charlie would be fine in the long run, he hoped. There was nothing he could do to help him now. He knew it would look horrible and Charlie would probably never speak to him again, but he walked away and left Charlie as he balled in the midst of the forest.
The water glistened as the sun’s light refracted off the transparent surface. A slight breeze blew on the unbearably hot day. Charlie waded out into the glade. If his feet were a little wet, he could cool himself down. The last several days had been extremely difficult for him. The water was one of the few things that brought him peace.
Charlie had never felt more alone in his life. Every person he talked to genuinely wanted to help him, he fully believed, but they refused to hear him out. He couldn’t deny that he might or might not be gay. He just wasn’t sure. If he put all of his weight on this, what should be such a trivial thing, but in many ways consumed and defined others, he wouldn’t be able to stand the pressure, the ridicule from his peers at the church. As long as he lived under his parents’ roof he would have to attend church and that church in particular. Sure, Pastor Reid challenged him and in a way he liked that, but he also felt like trash at the end of every conversation. It wasn’t a feeling he particularly enjoyed.
Reminiscing to the previous summer about how much had changed, he thought back to who his best friends were. Matt, John, and Eddie had been the closest friends he ever had and he relished their friendship, their input into his life. They prodded and poked each other, had stupid quips, but that was normal, or so he thought. Over the course of the year Matt’s parents had changed churches and he had become distant fearing the rejection that comes from transitioning between churches. Matt eventually dropped out of public school altogether opting for home schooling instead. Last Charlie had heard the family moved out of town because Matt’s father’s business had shut down. He wanted to be there for Matt as they moved away, but he was not invited to the going away party, which was excluded to church members only.
John and Eddie discovered the confusing world of girls last fall when middle school began and dances set the social standard. Charlie had no interest in any of these things and John and Eddie just jeered at him for it. He hadn’t noticed girls in that way. He didn’t think of them in that way. He thought it might be impossible for him to see girls in a romantic light. He just didn’t understand why this had to happen to him. He didn’t know who he was and no one was standing by his side trying to help him work it through. No, they only wanted him to bend the way they preferred him to bend. They didn’t want him to be himself, his true self, whatever that was.
Charlie took off his shirt and tossed it onto the sand. He went up to his neck in the water, took a breath, and dove underneath the surface. He tried to see if he could swim to the bottom without having to go for air, but he was unsuccessful.
Next thing he knew, someone was swimming up beside him. It was Bennie. He smiled grateful for her company. She splashed him in the face uncontrollably giggling. He grabbed her head and dunked her under the water. When she surfaced she burst out laughing.
Her arms linked around his waist. His heart began to pound. The natural response was to put his arms around her shoulders. She shook her hair. Tiny droplets landed on his face. His mind began racing. What could this mean? What should he do?
“Hold me up!” she called out frightened as she started to sink, but gleefully laughed in spite of it all.
She let go of his waist and put her arms around his shoulders. They both kept afloat grasping each other’s shoulders.
“You know, you’re quite the swimmer, Charlie,” she complimented him.
This couldn’t possibly be innocent, right? She wasn’t into him. It was just friendship. It had to just be friendship, but his heart beat faster with anticipation. His adrenaline was telling him otherwise. He had been oblivious. He had noticed girls before, the right one just hadn’t lived in the area.
“You know there’s a youth group dance at the bonfire next Friday. I wanted to ask you in a unique way…” she paused. “Will you go with me to the bonfire, please?”
“As in a date?” he asked.
She remained silent.
“As in that you like like me?”
“Yes,” she admitted under her breath.
She had more confidence than any other girl he knew, yet now she lacked it. It was the oddest thing he had ever seen. It was as if he hadn’t followed the script she set out in her mind and she wasn’t good at improvising.
He nodded at her. “Yes, I’d like that.”
She let go of him splashing him in the face two more times before she swam away.
He watched her go not knowing where she came from or where she was going next. All of his self-doubt about who he was, it had vanished in an instant. He was ecstatic that he finally had an answer. Thinking on Everett, his heart sank. Everett had to live through the ridicule of being open about his gayness in middle school. This was now something Charlie knew he would be avoiding. Dax would be heartbroken, but he didn’t think he could tell him about Bennie anyways. Dax would assume he was talking about a guy too. His mother would be ecstatic to hear he wasn’t gay, but this only made him feel worse that he felt any sort of relief when he realized he wasn’t. Poor Everett. He would be his friend through thick and thin. Nothing would change that, but he still couldn’t deny how elated he felt. He splashed the water with his arms outstretched, watching the huge splashes and subsequent ripples in the water. His mind confirmed what he knew once she grabbed his waist. He had made his decision. He was definitely not gay.