Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Life Story: Perplexity

"There is nothing you could tell me that would shock me," my dad would always tell us as we sat as church youth groups under stars at Lake Powell or in A-frame cabins at Young Women Camp. My dad was the bishop of our ward for five years of my middle teenage years. He would encourage us to come into his office and talk to him about our thoughts, worries or sins. His greatest outreach as a bishop was to be for the youth, the impressionable minds navigating values and morals in a world that didn't support such things.

Every time he said this to us, under stars or peaked roofs, I'd feel pride in my father. There was no shame in the way he spoke to us youth, encouraging us to be comfortable as complicated humans with complicated hearts. Even when he wasn't a bishop, I was the closest to my parents when they presented me with an open-minded view of the world.

Then I'd think of all the things I could tell my father that wouldn't shock him,

"Dad, I drank a beer."

"Dad, I shoplifted some clothes."

"Dad, I'm pregnant."

But even though I imagined such sins, I knew I was a good girl who followed the promises I made at baptism and--seemingly more important--kept all the rules of my culture. I went to every church youth activity, sometimes as a youth leader and sometimes as an obedient follower. I showed up and enjoyed myself, mostly because I liked flirting with the young men and impressing the adult leaders with my self-important charm.

Then one year my dad asked a recently-divorced, twenty-one-year old neighbor to be one of my young women youth leaders. She was unlike all the other adult leaders, in many different ways. She moved to Utah from Hawaii where she had lived for a few years as a newlywed. She liked sports and crafts and had lots of friends who would camp out at her house, always coming and going, eating and celebrating. And her smile was this huge entity that filled up her face when she was happy or proud of us.

We all loved her. We took to her like thirsty girls, showing up at her house to hang out, wanting to spend the afternoon, like her older friends, lounging about laughing and talking. Most of the leaders we had experienced in our lifetimes were more conservative, young married women who shared their time at BYU and quiet nights with their husbands. We liked those leaders too, but they didn't enchant us as much as this leader. She was a promise that life--no matter how old we grew--could be evolving chapters of excitement.

After a summer spent with our leader, camping on church trips, learning to tie knots and build fires, I cultivated an especially close bond with her. I desired more and more of her attention, and she was really generous with her time. When high school started I'd wake up early to meet her down the road where she lived, we'd walk the neighborhood and after school we'd meet back up at the park to play tennis. Sometimes she'd let me drive her car, a green Subaru with a sticky manual transmission, good practice for my upcoming driver's license examination.

On some days I'd show up at school and find notes from her in my locker, enthusiastic words always punctuated by slightly smeared smiley faces. Some nights we'd go to dinner, just the two of us, laughing and building our stash of inside jokes. This attention made me feel so incredibly special. I thought about all the girls in the ward who wanted this friendship, I was so special, look at me, driving her car, being fed, notes in my locker.

High school had been a disappointing transition for me. My friendship group split in two, several of the girls started dating the older boys and went to parties (worthy of a bishop's visit!) I made a terrible mistake by admitting my crush on a jerk who returned the favor by calling me "Shamu" daily as I walked red-faced down main hall. I never understood how my petite frame--curvy as it was--could be compared to a huge whale, but I got the message. Loud and terribly clear.

My leader never cared about the shape of my body, she always complimented me on being smart and clever. She was the sunshine in the dreary days of adolescence--her kindness filled the craving I had to feel important. Our age difference (which was only five years, but seemed so much bigger in our respective places) never mattered to her. Plus, she wasn't like my other friends who sometimes seemed more like competition than comrades.

Then one day it occurred to me that I was in love with our leader. I thought about her all the time, at night I imagined sneaking out of my house, running down the yellow-lit street to her blue house, into her room to sleep next to her. And I knew if I did this, if I ended up knocking at the window in the dark of the night, my voice identifying my shadow, she'd let me in. She wouldn't turn me away, I knew it.

Soon after this realization, while on a walk with her through the white-washed family housing on BYU campus, I was so overcome with love for her, I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She turned to me and laughed, like it pleased her, but surprised her too. Immediately I felt shame--like the crossing of a line, part of me wanted to run away with her and part of me wanted to go back home and be a little girl again, the girl on the morning of my baptism who promised to never do anything bad.

"Dad, I am in love with a woman."

How would that not shock him?

Though they also loved my leader, my parents understandably wanted me to engage with friends my age, share the same experiences, go to dances and have a social life. With their encouragement--sometimes heated in its portrayal--I picked up my former social habits. The boys my age were becoming more mature, more respectful almost. I made some new friends, loyal girls with wider views and better ideas. I stopped wanting to sneak out at nights, I forgot about wanting to run away.

But I always thought about her, I always wished I were older and things were different. My learning to move on from the relationship with my leader broke my heart and I was sad for a long time about it.

By my junior year in high school my leader had moved from our neighborhood, I went onto AP classes, social clubs and my most coveted editorial position with the school newspaper. By winter I was mesmerized at the charismatic boy who'd soon become my high school sweetheart. I suppose love leads you to a safe spot and leaves you when you are unsafe. When my relationship with my leader was no longer safer than my relationship with the boy, my heart went with the boy.

I remember being surprised by the discovery that attraction isn't necessarily a linear experience, but instead a fluid one, that comes and goes, that takes forms and shapes you can't always control. I never examined my sexuality--which way it leaned--because it just came to me and I let it in, and when it grew heavy, I let it out, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

And I am grateful I had parents who didn't operate on fear as standard procedure.

It wasn't until five years later, when I answered the ringing doorbell at my parents house, a college sophomore home for an afternoon of refueling, I saw my leader again. She appeared on the doorstep, a bandanna on her head, sandals on her feet, short hair, almost unrecognizable from the youth leader I knew years before. There was just a subtle hint of the sunshine she was to me, barely there when I searched her face.

"My girlfriend had to work at the hospital in Provo today. She said she'd be here for a few hours, so I thought I'd come down and say hello."

We went for a drive, she told me had met her partner ("She looks just like Hugh Grant") after she moved from our neighborhood. After years of deep struggle both emotionally and spiritually, she was out. We talked about our friendship, the feelings she battled too at that time. She explained her past, abuse and pain, hurtful, terrible experiences I didn't know before, and even if she'd told me, I wouldn't have understood. I thought about my dad on that car ride, how you can live in a world that no longer shocked you, how compassion and retrospection replaces perplexity.

"I had women relationships long before I met you," she told me. "I tried to be straight, I even married a man to prove it, but I couldn't do it. And now I won't go to heaven for this lifestyle, but at least I am honest with myself."

I will never forget her saying that, how she won't go to heaven for being honest.

I'll never believe it.