After you got kicked off the mission field, you asked if you could stay with me.
You were passing through Brooklyn anyways. Just for a few days, before you went back to your parents’ house. We could catch up and talk, like Carrie and Samantha.
Of course I said yes.
It always begins like that—
My mother was concerned. Hannah was kicked out of Slovakia , she said. (It was actually Slovenia.) For drinking. That’s what her mom told me. You’ll keep an eye on her, right? Maybe it’s better if she just goes home.
Of course, I said. We’ll have a good time.
It was always—of course, you know all of this, Hannah. In high school, I was the one who bought red nail polish, and took you to the mall, and showed you how to layer tanning lotion so it didn’t streak. After church, instead of going to the monthly potluck, we would go to Sonic and order foot-long hot dogs and watermelon slushies. Remember?
Your mom thought I was a harlot. The tip-off was the red nail polish, which you weren’t supposed to wear.
Other things we weren’t supposed to do: Watch Harry Potter , listen to Britney, sneak Franzia boxed wine.
Your mom always used old-time words, like it was still the 1950s. Once at a Bible study, she prayed for her cousin to turn to Jesus and stop fornicating.
Well, it wasn’t just her. At the Saturday morning ladies Bible study, all of the other women, my mom too, held hands and nodded and said, Yes, Jesus.
My first serious girlfriend broke up with me right before I graduated from college. Once I walked and got my diploma, I went home to Oklahoma for a few weeks to recover and apply for jobs. Really, I ended up watching reruns of Friends for a month.
You were working at a camp for the summer. Your mom was returning some Tupperware to my parents’ house. When I answered the door, she saw I had been crying.
She asked what was wrong. I couldn’t think of a lie fast enough, and I said I had been thinking about the shooting at the gay nightclub in Orlando, which was true too. I said it was personal.
She said, What do you mean?
I said it affected people I cared about.
She said, Oh, you mean your brother?
I just blinked at her. A part of me had assumed that my mother had shared the truth at their weekly Bible studies.
Your mom took my hand there and then and prayed, Lord Jesus, please heal James of his homosexual desires. Help him say no to the forces of evil.
Clutching Tupperware lids, I tried not to laugh, and started crying again instead.
You see, she knew my brother James had dropped out of school, and she connected general failures with gayness. She thought he was gay.
Let me know if there’s anything I can do, she said. I never corrected her.
So you said you wanted to visit me in Brooklyn, and I knew it wasn’t about alcohol.
I had followed your flood of social media posts when you first went overseas: Baroque castles, the Alps, and zlikrofi, which you said was like ravioli. You were doing the Lord’s work in Ljubljana.
I had noticed repeated posts with another intern with auburn hair. I noticed the posts slow to a trickle, then stop. Then, of course, your message.
The one thing you wanted to do in New York was go to the Met. I worked at a public relations office in Midtown and on my lunchbreak we ran north.
You had a checklist: Van Gogh, Monet, Manet. You were very focused on the Impressionists.
Come on, I said, once you got through them, and led you to my favorite exhibit.
The first time I saw the painting, right after I moved to New York, I was transfixed.
The woman stands tall, sheathed in a black velvet evening gown. She’s looking over her shoulder, away from the viewer. Her skin glows. The palette is lead white, rose madder, vermilion, viridian, bone black.
John Singer Sargent originally painted her with one shoulder strap pushed off, and he almost got kicked out of the Paris Salon for doing it, I said. He called her Madame X.
Scandalous, you giggled. Also: It kind of looks like that Kim K photo.
Later, lying nose to nose in my bed, we listened to the sounds of the traffic through the open window. It was like middle school sleepovers all over again.
I told you I had just broken up with my second serious girlfriend. Okay, she broke up with me. She thought I was still stuck in Oklahoma and trapped by my homophobic upbringing. She thought I should go back to therapy—not ex-gay therapy, the real stuff this time. I had wanted to tell her—
You told me you had stopped seeing the guy from high school who had stayed with you through college.
I wondered about that, I said.
You told me you really felt called to the mission work in Ljubljana. You still believe in God. But it wasn’t a good fit.
I know, I said.
You asked me what else I liked at the Met, and I mentioned a painting in the Impressionist wing, a plein aire of a woman sunbathing naked in the park.
I need to tell you something, you said.
It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Of course.
You told me that in Slovenia, there was this girl. You began spending all of your time together. You were friends, right? You decided to take a weekend trip together to Croatia. You kissed.
You told me you felt terrible about it. No offense, you said quickly. But you’d never done anything like that before. You know the verses as well as I do: Flee from sexual immorality. Be above reproach. Do not lie with a man as with a woman; that is detestable. Et cetera.
But, you didn’t really want to stop, either. And when you got back to the mission in Slovenia, you kept sneaking around with her.
And then your pastor found out. Before you entered the mission field, you had signed a covenant swearing off tattoos, drunkenness, premarital sex and homosexual activities. The pastor said you had betrayed his trust and sent you home.
You told your boyfriend. He told you he still loved you, and you realized you didn’t love him.
The girl keeps texting you, but you haven’t answered. She says she still wants to see you. You’re not sure if you do.
Am I gay? you ask me. Or bi? Whatever.
You lean in and press your lips against mine. Of course: I let you. I kiss you back.
And then I roll away.
Jesus, I say. That’s not how it works.
I get up and go to the living room and lay down on the futon, but my feet hang off the end and the noise from the hallway bangs through the wall.
I go to the bathroom. I lay a towel down in the tub and climb in and eventually I fall asleep with my head next to the bottle of strawberry shampoo that you had brought.
Once my second serious girlfriend asked me, as she was writing her master’s thesis on medieval literature, how I would define friendship. A friend is someone who sticks closer than a brother, I said, offhand, remembering Bible verses from Sunday school. A cord of three strands cannot be easily broken.
Jesus, where do you get this stuff? she said.
A few hours later, I hear you wake up and begin opening cabinets, trying to find tea. You have a flight to catch, back to your parents who still think you have a drinking problem.
In high school, after I came out, my parents made me go to reparative therapy. I was supposed to discuss all of my sinful thoughts and the lack of positive feminine affirmation in my childhood.
You offered to drive me to the appointments. We would go to the correct strip mall, but instead of walking through the tinted door of Live Hope Christian Counseling, we went to Dairy Queen and drank milkshakes for approximately twenty-five minutes.
It was the most scandalous thing you’d ever done. Also, lying to your mom about why I was in therapy.
Once, sitting in the vinyl booth at Dairy Queen, you told me how pretty you thought Keira Knightley was.
If I wasn’t a Christian, I think I would be gay too, you said.
I should have said, Obviously. Or I should have told you then that that wasn’t how it worked—or explained the spectrum, or asked more questions, or whatever—but in small-town Oklahoma, what did either of us know?
I was just trying to survive, and stay in touch with you.
Sleepovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, first kisses, countless Sundays trying to sit still in church: always together, right?
My parents figured out that I was skipping therapy. We didn’t see each other again for a while.
Slowly, my parents relaxed. They met my girlfriend. Eventually, they liked her. You did, too.
Then there was college, and relationships, and your mission trip.
I get up. You make me toast. We look out of the window and listen to the traffic.
Finally you stand up and grab your worn duffel bag, a relic from that dumbass Christian dance team we were both on. Anyways, thanks for letting me stay, you say.
So, stay in touch?
I said yes, but I haven’t heard from you since.
So I went back to the Met and got a croissant and a postcard with Madame X on the front. It’s the version Singer Sargent originally painted, with the shoulder strap slipped off. I click open my pen and write your address on the back. I’m writing to tell you, of course.
We’ll stay friends, right? you said on high school graduation day.
Sure, I said.
I meant to tell you, all those times, of course. Of course I know you like women, sometimes. Of course I know we’ll still be friends. Of course you can stay. Of course I’ll be okay, and of course you will be too. Of course of course of course.