"If you're going to reckon with the past," I said, "you might as well reckon with all of it."
I was talking to an old friend as we sat in the living room of a house that ten of us had rented for the weekend. It was a Friday night, and we were in Baird, Texas, population 1,500. The house was old and creaky, its style dating back decades, but it had room for several couples and their small children. I slept on one of the couches. Baird sits twenty miles outside of Abilene, population 117,000 and home to Abilene Christian University, from which my friends and I had graduated ten years earlier before stumbling out into the world. We were back for our class reunion, and as a group we’d rented the house as a way to spend as much time with each other as possible throughout the weekend. Maybe because it felt safer, too. Going back to a place you used to know, and that used to know you, is always unsettling: you can see your own ghost walking around. You find yourself making idle talk with people you used to see every day but to whom you haven’t spoken in a decade, and you realize at the start of every single one of these conversations that it will be impossible to convey to the other person the many ways in which you’ve changed since graduating. And you know that they’re having this realization, too, though that doesn't make things any easier, and you feel that every detail about your job sounds ridiculously boring. There’s a reason people drink at these things.
I was talking with my friend because I'd been on the fence about getting up early the next morning to attend a breakfast for alumni from my social club, ACU’s version of fraternities and sororities.[footnote]ACU does not participate in the national Greek system, instead offering “social clubs” for students that simulate the experience to a degree. It winds up being another way to make students feel different from their peers, and many of the activities social clubs perform, though accepted as tradition at ACU, make little to no sense elsewhere.[/footnote] I was reluctant to go to the breakfast because I’m not as comfortable with the fraternity mentality as I was when I was in school, but I ultimately decided that there wasn’t much point in driving the 350 miles from Houston to Abilene if I wasn’t going to attend each of the handful of events that would involve people I knew, or had known. So like I told my friend: I might as well be honest about where we all came from, even when it’s hard to do.
I don't tell most people that I went to ACU. Not that I feel I got a bad education: on the contrary, I had some fantastic professors and some wonderful classes, especially in my junior and senior years, when I was working through upper-level coursework that proved to be among the most challenging and rewarding of my time there. But whenever the subject comes up, I usually just say "I went to school in Abilene" and move on, adding that I moved to California upon graduation and then back to Texas a few years later. I turn the college into a point in a story, not a destination in its own right, and it's because I know I'll wind up shuffling my feet and wanting to apologize for the fact that I went there. I feel like doing this because I’m nervous and embarrassed by the way that people from my background traditionally have and currently often do treat members of marginalized communities — specifically gay men and women. There's a rampant, pointed homophobia in evangelical Christianity and on my old campus, and though I have shed those cruel and cloistered ideologies in the years since, I was as much a part of it in my time as anyone. I entered college fearing and disliking gay people, and I let the word "fag" cross my lips as an insult on a regular basis. So many of us did. When talking with other young men in my social club about one of our rival groups, we’d dismiss them with “They’re fags” and not blink. I hang my head now thinking about those moments. I was well into my junior year before I started the slow process of changing my beliefs. I spent a semester in Los Angeles that proved crucial, and I came back restless and frantic. I suddenly felt uncomfortable with myself, and with what I’d been doing, and I wanted to destroy it all.[footnote]I was young and somewhat in love and exhilarated by a future I could just barely touch, and I seemed to experience every feeling at maximum intensity. In other words, I was 21.[/footnote] I wrote a column in the school paper about the way homophobia was damaging people of faith inside and out, ending with a dramatic line in the sand that suggested I would refuse the label of “Christian” if it meant embodying a position of segregation and intolerance. I was angry and afraid, and though I believed the words, I was also borrowing some of them, including thoughts and phrases from an influential professor in California. It was the closest I could get to what I wanted to mean. I didn’t know what I felt, but I knew I didn’t like it.
Gay rights became an issue I returned to before graduation. During my senior year, I interviewed several gay students for a feature story that the paper's editor wrote about their lives and what they had to deal with on campus. I still remember the details of the stories they told me, about shame and torment, verbal and physical abuse.[footnote]The story was pulled by administration the night before it was set to run, in an act of cowardice and shame that still upsets me. But the university’s president is also the paper’s publisher, and as such, we had no recourse.[/footnote] I no longer believed that being gay was somehow wrong, and of course I still don't — this seems like a silly and obvious sentence to write in 2015, but it goes against everything I was brought up to think and that, by college, I’d believed for so long, and accepting it at that time meant taking another step away from my old life. Those steps always look small after you've taken many more, but in the moment, they're taken with trepidation. With each one, you shear away another layer of skin.
My club breakfast was scheduled for 6:00 that Saturday morning. The drive into Abilene was dark and wet — the storms from Friday night hadn’t finished blowing over — and the downtown neighborhood that housed the venue was deserted except for the men ambling two and three at a time into a meeting space that had been converted for the occasion with cheap folding tables and chairs. I saw a few men I hadn’t seen in years, many of them from my pledge class or from those just a year or two removed in either direction, and we sat together and ate bad eggs and thick biscuits. The atmosphere at these breakfasts is a little like that of a conference of sadistic zookeepers who have assembled to inflict mild distress on the animals. The boys of that fall’s pledge class were lined up in an adjoining room, standing in a silent row, eyes closed, each one pressing his nose to the back of the boy in front of him — in the spot below the nape of the neck, between the shoulder blades. “Nose to back!” would go the call during pledging, and we’d stand in a row, inhabiting an intimate space.
Homecoming weekend is a grueling one for students pledging a social club, and Friday night is usually a sleepless one: tradition holds that Friday night is when the pledges build a float for the following morning’s parade, and after the parade, the pledges attend a special weekend chapel service[footnote]ACU holds chapel services five days a week at 11:00 a.m.; student attendance is mandatory. On Homecoming weekend, an additional service is held Saturday morning at 11:00 for alumni, and pledges also attend this, as they are required to cheer for homecoming queen nominees belonging to sister clubs.[/footnote] and, later, the Homecoming football game. So the boys standing there had been awake for at least 24 hours. They looked to be on another plane of existence.
At one point, we alumni went around the room introducing ourselves with name, hometown, and pledge class title. One of our boyish traditions has each pledge class come up with an acronymic name for their group with twin meanings: one clean, one crass. For instance, you might name your class “ROC Class,” with the three-letter designation standing both for “Rely on Christ” and “Respect our cocks.” This is the kind of asinine but community-forming thing that repressed 19-year-olds do. Several younger men said that their pledge group was called "NBD Class." I didn’t know what they meant, but I didn’t think much of it, nor of the scattered laughs that came every time it was mentioned. I doubt I would’ve learned the meaning at all if I hadn’t happened to see the current club president that night at my own graduating class’s reunion dinner — he was a volunteer there in some capacity, handing out name tags. He explained that “NBD” meant, honorably, “No Big Deal,” while the alternate version was “Novas Bang Dudes.” A “nova” is what the pledges of our rival club are called, so the point here is that some of these young men, our “enemies,” are gay. That’s the entire joke, as it were.
Yet statistically, some of those boys are bound to be gay, and if not in this pledge class, then certainly in last year's or the one before. And the same goes for my club. Several men I knew in college, from my club and others, have come out since graduating. When I was in school, rumors swirled about my club’s “reputation” in the late 1980s, when membership dwindled to just a few students before the club was “rechartered” with an altered name and broader appeal. I could’ve asked the young club president: Do you really think there aren’t young gay men among you right now, in your club, in your dorm, in your college? Men who are living in nine kinds of agony because of where they go to school and what they are told they should or shouldn’t feel? You think you didn't pledge with gay men? Didn't eat with them, sing with them, watch the game with them? Haven’t hugged them and wept with them? Do you have any idea how cold and hard and regressive it is to keep falling back on the same stereotypes, homophobia, and attitudes of fear, shame, ostracism? Do you know the torment to which you subject these men who have done nothing wrong? Do you know what they already deal with? Do you know how many men from our club and others have come out? Are you bound by grace and mercy?
But I didn’t say any of that to him. And I didn’t even think it, either. Not then, when he told me what “NBD” stood for, not when I was with my friends later that night, not on my drive home across the state. Not for days and weeks. It slid away.
If it’s easy to become offended and upset by someone’s behavior, it’s that much harder to be aware of your own complicity in unconsciously modeling that behavior. This kid didn’t need to be scolded or shamed, but he did need to have some direct, gentle questions asked of him. Like those asked of me when I was his age, and like I didn’t do when I had the chance to help him. It would be so simple and (seemingly) righteous to rage against this young guy and his ideas and his jokes, but the words would taste like filth in my mouth, because every condemnation would be a lie: a smug way to pretend the fault is all his for saying these things, and not mine for not telling him about the error of my own ways. That the problem is all with them, and never with me. That my silent beliefs are morally superior to someone else's spoken ignorance. I could have shared so much with him from my own experience. To excoriate him without thinking about my place in that chain — without acknowledging that I’d stood in his place and made the same jokes just a few years earlier — would be dishonest and disrespectful to every man and woman I’d wronged. No one is the worst thing they’ve ever done, but only because we live with the opportunity to atone for those things. What are we if not made of such memories?
Six months later I sat in a hotel ballroom north of Houston and listened to stories about a dead friend.
He’d gone to ACU, and he was a member of my social club. He was two years behind me at school, and he was gay. I’d liked him quite a bit at school, and I even remember giving him the hard sell about pledging. He was musically talented, and I viewed his joining the club as a way to give us an asset in the musical-themed medley competition the clubs performed every spring.[footnote]Don’t ask.[/footnote] I got to know him a little when I was a junior and he was a freshman, and I spent more time with him when I was a senior and he was a sophomore, which was the year he pledged. He was kind and funny and sweet. I last saw him in 2006, two years after I graduated, when I returned to campus for my younger sister’s commencement. He and I exchanged a few Facebook messages and comments over the years, but that was it. I didn’t know he was sick until late last year, and I didn’t know the extent of his cancer until it was too late. Most of us didn’t. He was 30 when he passed. A few weeks later, a scattering of friends and family gathered to eat together, lift a cup in his honor, and share stories about their time with him.
I’ve been trying to remember if there was a time before I knew he was gay, or if I ever cared about it one way or the other, and I can’t recall. Because I met him in the fall of my junior year, so close to the beginning of my own change of heart, it’s likely it never entered my mind. Then again, while I was conducting research for that doomed newspaper story and interviewing gay students, it didn't occur to me to talk to him. Was it because I forgot, or because I didn't know? It's lost to the past. I got to know him better my senior year, but even thinking of those days, I can’t summon up a memory of thinking of him in terms of his sexual orientation. Either I always knew, or I’ve forgotten learning. But what stuns is that I became friends with him only a couple of years after I casually tossed around homophobic slurs, and even though those two years can contain lifetimes when you’re that young, I still have trouble reconciling that version of myself.
I was one of the few people in attendance that night from my graduating class. Most of the other alumni there were two years younger than me: a gap that would mean nothing if we met now, but one that still somehow segregates us all in our minds when we talk about each other and our college experience. They had bonded to each other the way I had with my own friends. I sat and listened to them talk about their jobs and families, and then listened as they told stories about the departed: his quirks, his passions, his joy. I didn’t have a story to share, so I sat and tried to honor those who did. They wept and held each other, and I watched them as they took turns going up to the podium at the front of the room to talk about their short time with this young man. Sometimes I couldn’t look at them. Bearing witness almost felt like too much.
It was past 10:00 that night when I left. I made my way to the parking garage and fell into place at the elevator bank behind a figure in a black suit. I thought for a moment I recognized him, and I realized I had a memory of seeing him walk into the hotel as I drove past the front doors and headed for the garage. He was a priest. He waved goodbye at someone already moving further into the garage’s ground floor, then hopped into the open, empty car.
“There’s plenty of room!” he said to me, smiling. His voice took on a joking tone: “Unless you’re gonna hurt me!”
This is the kind of idle joke you sometimes hear when you’re big, like I am. I shook my head and said, “No, I’m incredibly weak, so it wouldn’t work out well for either of us.” This was close enough to humor that he laughed.
“I’m glad the rain stopped,” he said. “The good news is I don’t have far to go. Thank you, Jesus!”
I laughed a little at the idea of a priest giving thanks for easy weather. He seemed harmless. He was young — I wouldn’t put him past 40 — and he had brown hair, cut modestly and held in place with light product. His voice was an agreeable baritone, and he carried a notebook in his hand.
We stepped out of the elevator into a vestibule on the roof, which led to a set of double-doors to the lot outside. I made more small talk as we walked about also being thankful for a break in the rain, since I had 40 miles between me and home. We both turned to the right outside the doors to head to our cars. I was walking beside him instead of ahead or behind, walking the way you do when you’re with someone you know, not a stranger. I started talking before I was really sure I would.
“I was here for a memorial service,” I said. “A friend of mine from college. He was 30.”
We kept walking as the priest caught up, repeating pieces of what I’d said. “You said a memorial service?”
“Yeah. To remember him. He was 30. Anyway, just, if you could, say a prayer tonight for him.” There seemed no place to start, so I came at it from every direction.
I hadn’t been aware of it, but we’d stopped walking. We were halfway down the row of cars next to the vestibule. I repeated my petition for prayer. The priest asked me about my friend and his life, and I told him some of what I knew. A car three spaces down started up and drove away, but after that it was quiet. The priest was backlit by the giant security light: I kept seeing his face and losing it again, blinded.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Daniel,” I told him.
“I’m Darren,” he said, holding out a hand.
I told him about my friend, and how young he’d been, and I discussed in generalities some of the suffering he’d endured. I asked if he could pray for some kind of peace for him, and for me. And at some point I started to weep. I couldn’t speak any more, and I looked away, out over the dark trees, waiting to be able to talk again. Here. It had to happen here. This weight on me, this sadness, rolling off my shoulders. How young he was. What he'd been put through. What we do. “I’m sorry,” I said, sounding like I’d had the breath knocked from me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t have articulated what I was sorry for, but it seemed like the only thing to say.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s my job.” And he didn’t say this like a joke, or like he was rolling up his sleeves to go to work. He was kind. He said it to say, that’s why I’m here. This is what I do.
“I can see you all loved him,” Darren said. Then he told me that God loves me. I told him I knew that, and that I believed in that. I just needed peace. The tears slowed, and I wiped my eyes. We stood and didn’t say much. No one came, no cars drove by. The night was cool.
“Can I pray with you?” he asked me. I nodded, and Darren stepped closer. I think he put a hand on my arm while I stood there, but I don’t remember. He prayed for me, and for the friend I’d lost, and for all of us. I wanted to sit down, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to touch his face. Everything seemed too awful, and I felt so tired.
“What church are you with?” I asked him after. I didn’t know if this was a dumb question, but I couldn’t remember how many outfits were fitted with clerical collars. “I’m a Catholic priest,” Darren replied. I nodded.
“You know,” he said, “we just had Easter Sunday, but on the Sunday after that, we in the Catholic church celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. And on that day, we ask” — he counted on his fingers — ”we trust, and we show. Mercy.”
After a few minutes, clusters of people started showing up, heading for their cars: couples in formal wear, families in swimming gear. It was as if a breath had been released, and time, no longer stopped, had started moving again. I don’t remember everything we talked about. I thought during the prayer about getting his card or at least his contact information, but some part of me forgot. We said our goodbyes, and he wished me peace and rest as we parted. I got in my car and pulled out, passing him as he sat parked in his spot, his hand out over the wheel to wave farewell to me. That's the clearest image I have of him, more than the fragments of his face: an open palm, fingers out, almost reaching. I drove home in the rain.