I keep texting Sitara. We talk about sex, about Grindr, about hating ourselves and about God. We talk about wanting to be desired, and then, we talk about wanting to hurt ourselves.
And I break down at my desk and have get up and half-run from my desk, to go sob in a bathroom stall. Because I hadn’t realized that.
I had told myself that it didn’t matter that I looked in the mirror and thought “You disappoint me”
It didn’t matter that I looked myself in the eyes and thought “I don’t think you can do it.”
Didn’t matter that I leaned in close and with my eyes on mine thought “I don’t think you deserve to succeed.”
And said, out loud, a quiet, heartfelt, mutter:
“fuck this stupid bitch”
I didn’t know I hated myself.
I hated me.
When I was first messaging him, I’d asked the first guy I had sex with how he would fuck me. It was just sexting, just me playing, trying to get off (I was obviously never going to go through with anything). His response had been rough. It had been brutal.
“Good” I’d thought.
It's just what I'm into, just a kink, the kind of thing I wanted to hear. I told myself.
The only pictures he ever sent me were of his dick.
I knew that was suspicious. The thought “He’s probably catfishing me” floated through my mind at least once. I remember it.
I told myself he aroused me because he was assertive. I told myself I was into this because I liked having someone else take charge. I told myself I left the house and got on the bus and walked to his apartment because I was just so horny.
But I was there because I thought I deserved to be punished.
Like a dog getting its faced rubbed in a carpet soaked with its own urine.
And I didn’t pick him because he was assertive, and not because I was attracted to him.
I’d picked him because I thought he would hurt me.
Because I deserved to be hurt just for wanting to have sex at all. I deserved to have something in me broken, because I wanted someone to touch me, and to kiss me, and tell me I was pretty. So I found someone who would break it.
And two months later I cried in a bathroom stall, cradling a phone that still had Grindr installed on it, and I texted out “I don’t want to be a monk anymore.” I didn't want to keep pretending I didn't want all those things. And I don't think I wanted to flagellate myself anymore.
And she told me that God loved me, but that I would have to learn to live in a body, that this wasn’t going away. But that I could love my body too. I could learn to live with the desires that I felt. That there wasn’t anything wrong with them.
And for the first time I believed her.
I didn’t actually. I can live with some of them, I told myself. I can love parts of my body. The others I will still hate, the others I will still abhor. But I think my heart started moving down a different course.
And she told me to grieve, because part of me was dying (the nice little Jewish Alex, the goody two shoes who went to church every Sunday and read his shiny bible). Because part of me already had.
And we texted, and slid into jokes, into safe territory, and I (ass numb— crying in a bathroom stall was not as convenient, safe, fulfilling, or romantic as the rom-coms and chick flicks had made it out to be) got ready to go out and head back to work.
And then she said
“Not that I’m saying THROW YOURSELF OFF A CLIFF AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS but also I kind of am saying that. Have sex. Have sex preferably with someone you find attractive and be honest as you fuck (because it’s a one time thing why not) and try and figure out what you like and actually enjoy yourself.
Explore this thing with as much sanity as possible and meanwhile keep a very careful eye on your motives. Cuz it may be that you are using the secrecy as an excuse to hide and deny your sexuality rather than accepting it (and the possible rejection of those around you) and living with it as a part of yourself.”
And I read that and thought “that’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard”. And then I read it again.
And it felt like Jericho fell around me.
And all of a sudden these walls were crashing down around me, walls I didn’t know I’d built, walls I’d forgotten were there, this prison and this cage that I’d lived my whole life in and thought was the whole world.
And then in a rush, there came this feeling— in a rush as the walls fell, this feeling—of fresh air surging in and overwhelming heavenly movement—this feeling of peace and safety and grace.
This peace, like nothing I’d known and like everything I’d craved for the past three awful months. Peace, and something that felt a little like freedom, and something that felt like hope.
I couldn’t figure out what was happening.
This was crazy, this was wrong, this was heretical, but—
But this was real. This was real air, this was real peace, and from the very deepest part of my soul I knew it: this was god. This was God.
And it didn’t make any sense.
It didn’t make any sense.
And it broke me and I started sobbing again, and crouched on the toilet with my pants around my ankles I looked up at the stall door and all I could think, and all I could say was “Who are You?”
All my life I’d followed a god who followed the rules. Who set them out and expected you to follow them, to unearth them with careful study and reason and instruction and occasional revelation, and follow them to the letter. Do you love Him? Obey His commandments.
So I did. I did my best. I built a theology, I built a careful structure, delicately balanced and ornately impressive, with an answer for everything and more open places to build when more rules arrived.
I followed all the rules I knew. I followed, and I built, and I didn’t question more than I needed to and I did a good job. I was a good Christian. I followed all the rules.
Until I couldn’t anymore. Until I was a faggot instead.
And then on the bus ride home from work, that same day, I got an answer to my question. I had asked “Who are you?” And I got an answer.
And all of a sudden God was vast and striding, and all my theology and rules and obedience and all the structures of everything I had built melted like wax before the coming of the Lord.
And God was infinite and unknowable and huge, huge, huge.
And he did not give one shit about what people had said He thought, about what I thought His commandments were or what rules I thought I should follow.
And I realized I had never known Him at all. I had known what other people had told me: I had known what other people had told me to read, what other people had told me to hear, what other people told me was safe to think and feel and believe. But I didn’t know Him. I had never known Him. And I still didn’t now.
He was bigger than that, than the God I'd known, bigger than the rules and the strictures and the commandments. He was different from that, He was more than that. He didn’t care who I thought He was or who I thought He should be, what I thought He should do or say or want or be. He was vast, and eternal and terrifying and He did not care what I believed He was.
But he did care about me.
He cared about me.
He knew me.
And I was so small. So, so small, and He was so, so big.
And He cared about me.
And in that moment, of terror and awe when I suddenly realized I was so, so small, I could also feel it. He cherished me, and held me gently.
And it didn’t make any sense, it still doesn’t make any sense, but deep inside me, in lines along my bones, drawn down through my veins and my nerves, I could feel, I can feel—it’s true.
He loves me.
Nothing made any sense.
In that bathroom stall, I’d texted Sitara, I’d told her I couldn’t figure out why, but that advice sounded really good. But I didn’t trust myself to know for sure.
But, in an eerie little coincidence, I was going to be seeing my pastors that night. The same one’s I’d talked to before, who’d told me their theology was a little different from mine and to call them at any time of the night.
So I would talk to them, and see what they thought.
And that night I walked into bible study and I asked Ashley if we could talk.
And she took me on a walk around the block, and I spilled the whole thing, and if she hadn’t been 8 months pregnant she probably would have jumped up and down.
And she told me that I was going to get to be normal, that I was going to date, and have sex, and enjoy it, and get married to someone who loved me and who I was attracted to and this little flair of panic went off in my chest and I told her no, no, my theology hadn’t changed but—but at the same time:
With that little flair (of panic, of dread), a little blush of hope and desire and something else started to bloom in my chest. And— maybe, I said.
And it felt like heresy and brimstone just to say that one word but,
And we walked, and I said something about “And I might meet a nice girl and none of this will matter anyway.”
And Ashley stopped, and she looked at me, and she said “Alex, I don’t think you’re bisexual. I think maybe you need to think about the fact that you might just be gay.”
And that made me angry. “You don’t know me, how would you?” I thought. “We haven’t even talked about this, nobody gets to tell me my sexual orientation but myself.” But I didn’t say anything. And this other thought ran through my head too. “What did I let slip? How did you figure out?” And I started to wonder about that too.
And we kept walking, and we kept talking, and after a while there wasn’t much more to say. And Ashley turned to me and said.
“Alex, this is great. I think you’re going to be a healthy gay man.”
And I said,
It kicked out of me, guttural and harsh, everything in me recoiling in disgust. I couldn’t be that. I wasn’t part of this, not my community— not my people— this had just been a couple of big mistakes, this wasn’t part of me, this wasn’t me and I didn’t want it, I wanted to be bi, I wanted to be straight, I wanted to be just like everyone else and leave this dirty, disgusting part of me behind, slice it out like a tumor and leave it behind. But—
And Ashley came to a very full stop and turned to me and made me face her.
“No.” She looked at me. “You are. You are going to be a healthy gay man.”
And I didn’t say anything this time. But I couldn’t stop my face from sneering, with disgust, with disbelief.
“I think you should say it. Out loud.”
And I looked at her. And I tried to open my mouth, tried to work my lips and my throat and my lungs. And for almost a minute I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t make those words come out of my mouth.
Finally, with my eyes on the ground, I managed, in a whisper that was barely out loud. “I’m going to be a healthy gay man.”
And then she made me say it again, louder. And then again, but this time not looking at the ground. And then again, one more time, looking her in the eye, and saying it out loud, real words. And every time I felt that same stutter, felt the words catch in my mouth and in my throat, every time that I had to say it out loud.
But I did it.
And I looked her— I looked anyone, any other person— in the eye, and I said out loud. “I’m going to be a healthy gay man.”
And this feeling swelled up inside me and I swallowed it back, in the middle of the street on a Thursday night with people around, and we went back inside and the evening carried on.
And later that night, in the filthy basement apartment I was subletting, I stood in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, and looking myself in the eye, I whispered— quiet, quiet, quiet, so that my roommates wouldn’t hear— "I’m going to be a healthy gay man.” And then later, in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark: “I’m going to be a healthy gay man.”
I don’t really remember everything I felt, looking up at the ceiling, those words buzzing on my lips. I knew I'd just said something that I couldn't just take back, but I don't know what I thought of it. I think I was scared, but I don't really know. I don't think I knew what I felt, I don't think I could pull it apart and name all the pieces, dissect and catalog them in their separate trays. I don't think I wanted to. But I remember I cried a lot.
And I think maybe a little of what I felt was hope.
That was the last time I installed Grindr.
Nothing had really changed, nothing I could really name or put my finger on. Everything I believed was still the same, nothing about my circumstances was altered.
But God had moved.
And it was different.
It felt like something was waiting, like there was something, something strange and frightening and maybe beautiful on the horizon, and this time when I deleted Grindr, I didn’t reinstall it. It didn’t feel like I had to.
Something was on the move. Something was different.