February 6 2006
The sound of the ring pierced his soul like a spear. As he listened to the sound of the phone ringing his mother’s line, he was surprised that it would be this difficult to try calling her. He wished that she would just answer so that he could go ahead and hear her voice to see just how difficult it was going to be. The challenge of facing her and his father at dinner tonight would be gauged by how hard it was to have this conversation with her. Finally, the ringing stopped and she answered. With an uncertainty in his voice, he began to speak to her.
“I almost thought you weren’t home. I was calling to talk about dinner tonight.”
“Tonight?” she questioned.
“Yeah, we were going to go and have my birthday dinner tonight, weren’t we?”
“No, that’s tomorrow night, Jim. Friday night, remember?” His mother responded with a hint of concern in her voice.
“Oh yeah, I must have gotten confused. Tonight is Thursday isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sweetie. Tomorrow is when your dad and I are coming to see you and take you out to dinner. We’re actually headed to the movies now. Would you like to drive down and join us? We can always go to a later showing so that you will have time to get here.”
Jim was a little dazed. He was the type of person who would never get something like this confused. This had shocked him. To make matters worse, he had just mentioned to Bryce that they were going tonight. This was a little embarrassing.
“Jim, are you still there?” He heard his mother respond.
“Oh, umh, yeah, mom. I’m just remembering now that it was Friday and not tonight. You’re right.”
“Well, did you hear my question to you?”
“No, I think I was deep in thought there for a moment.”
“Are you okay, son?”
“Oh yeah, mom. I just forgot for a moment here that we were not going until tomorrow. It was a busy day at the church today, and I guess I got my days confused. Besides, someone is here and he is gonna join us tomorrow night for dinner.”
“Who is that?”
“You remember Bryce from undergrad school don’t you?
“Oooooh yes!! I thought you hadn’t heard from him in a while?”
“Well, he is moving to Atlanta for a new teaching job this fall and he looked me up and called me today. We talked and he is here now. He is gonna join us tomorrow night. I hope that is okay.”
“Its more than okay. Tell him we are gonna look forward to seeing him again. I will tell your dad. I am so glad that he is gonna be there in the city soon. You guys were such good friends and I think it will be good for the two of you to reconnect. You can help him learn his way around town.”
“Yeah, he is pretty excited to be coming this way. He can fill you in on all the details tomorrow at dinner. Tonight, he and I are gonna catch up.”
“So where are we eating?” Julia questioned.
“Let’s go to the Sundial in the Westin Peachtree.”
“How did I know?” She laughed.
The conversation between the two continued for a few more moments, and Jim made the necessary “Can’t wait to see you” comments to his mother and the call ended. What bothered Jim more than anything was getting the dates mixed up. Ordinarily he was right on top of things and would not make those kinds of mistakes. He knew that his mind was running in a million different directions and that must be why he had gotten confused. He stood there for a few moments with a look of disgruntlement on his face. As he turned around he noticed Bryce standing in the doorway that led into the hall.
“I overheard parts of the conversation. I thought that we had dinner plans for tomorrow instead of tonight, but I was gonna just go with the flow. Jim, you seem frustrated and worried, and you’re writing a pretty descriptive story with the look on your face. I have noticed something was odd since I got here, but I just didn’t want to say anything. Are you okay?
“Yeah, man. I mean it was just a little mix up with the dinner plans. That’s all. I’m sure that lots of people do things like that all the time.”
Bryce looked down at the floor. He was standing there leaning against the doorframe with his ankles crossed and his hands in his pockets. “I know, Jim. And it is not the mix up that bothers me. I make those kinds of mistakes all the time too. It’s your reaction to it and the look on your face that bothers me now. What has been bothering me since I got here was that look in your eyes. Jim, I still know you well enough to see when something is bothering you. I can read it in your eyes. You ought to know you can’t keep anything hidden very well. Your expressions, the look in your eyes-they’re like tattletales. They open your little box of secrets and scatter them. Do you need to talk about something?”
“It’s okay. I’m just really stressed out right now about a few things at the church. It’s just adjusting to the pressures of being a senior pastor-that’s all. I can handle it.”
Bryce just nodded his head and smiled at Jim. “I understand,” he said.
Jim thought that it would be best to get out of the house for a little while and he asked Bryce if he would be interested in going out for dinner instead of staying in and preparing something. Bryce agreed that it was a good idea and the two decided to hop in the car and find a suitable place. After a few moments of debating where they would like to go, they finally settled on a popular steakhouse in the Midtown area. The restaurant was not very crowded so Jim thought that it would be a nice, quiet place for he and Bryce to catch up on old times. There were lots of things to plan for since the two of them would be sharing a house soon, so that was bound to be a topic of conversation as well.
Jim parked the car and the two walked in the front entrance and were greeted by the host, a good-looking young man in his twenties. As he walked them to their table, Jim could not help but notice the nice shape the host had. His nice firm bottom commanded Jim’s attention, and the pleasant smell of his cologne teased Jim’s nose a time or two as well. Jim knew that he had to be careful because Bryce was not an ignorant person by any stretch of the imagination. A look here, a look there, and Bryce would know what Jim was doing. Spooking his friend and soon to be roommate was not what he wanted to do at this point. Jim looked from side to side and smiled at the people seated around the room as the host walked him and Bryce to their table. Jim had decided that it was wise to be on his best behavior and not give in to any temptations to steal a glance at something that would make his friend suspicious.
After they were seated, Jim and Bryce began to talk about the logistics of sharing a house. As they talked, Bryce had many questions on things like bills, household chores, and such, but gradually, as the conversation waxed on, the two began to talk about the many exciting and fun things to do around Atlanta. Jim even managed to get in a plug for his church in the hopes that Bryce would come and join him there. He thought that this would be fun. For a moment at the table, Jim actually began to smile a little, something that he had not done a lot of in the past few days, actually the past few weeks for that matter. Yes, for a few moments it was as if Jim was free from all the shackles and chains that bound him and he was able to enjoy these moments with his old friend. As Bryce excused himself from the table to visit the restroom, Jim sat there thinking how pleasant this evening was and how pleasant things might be now that Bryce was here. He smiled to himself as he thought about it. These positive moments were rare for Jim because for the past few weeks it seemed that no matter what he did there was this cloud hanging over his head. He knew what the cloud was. It was the tension, the dichotomy that grew from the spiritual battle and doubt raging inside his mind. He didn’t think there was anyone in the world that could understand his pain. He was a man who loved God dearly. He owed God his soul, his heart, and his mind. All that he had in his life, his job, health, family, and friends were blessings from God. What he could not figure out was whether these feelings he had about other men were from God as well. Was he created this way, or was it a curse from hell? Therein was the dark cloud. Inside that dark cloud raged the storm of passion and desire he had for Phillip. Each and everyday this storm sent lightening down upon him. He could not escape it.
Bryce returned to the table and found Jim deep in thought and smiling.
“Hey there Reverend. What has a hold of your mind?” Bryce asked.
Bouncing back to reality, Jim breathed deeply and replied, “Oh just thinking how great it is gonna be to have you here to talk to and hang out with in town now. I mean, the church and my duties there are all great and I am so thankful to have them, but from time to time I need to get away from it all and have some non-church conversation. You know, about things that aren’t related to my job.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It is gonna be a lot of fun. I think this is one of the most wonderful cities in the world, Jim. I remember coming here from time to time when we were in college. Things have changed, and the city has grown, but it still excites me,” Bryce replied.
“Oh yeah, it can be a great place to live.”
Jim was happy that his old friend was there. The storm clouds didn’t seem as dark as they once were. But just as quickly as the light began to shine on Jim, the light flickered. As Jim and Bryce sat at their table talking, in walked love and pain all rolled up in one person-Phillip. He wasn’t alone. Standing behind him as he talked to the host was a beautiful, blond, young woman. She had the look of innocence on her face and a smile that would warm even the coldest of hearts. The two stood there waiting for the host to gather two menus and lead them to their table. Jim’s heart began pounding immediately. His breathing grew shorter and he looked down at the table hoping to avoid being seen by Phillip. As he stared at the table he couldn’t help wondering whom the girl was that was with Phillip. Suddenly he realized that Bryce was across the table from him and he wouldn’t be able to explain his reaction to this if he didn’t look up and try to maintain composure. Just as he lifted his head to look at Bryce and say something, he heard Phillip’s voice.
“Hey, Jim. I see we have the same tastes in restaurants after all.”
This was not good. Jim had hoped the hot, young object of his desires and love would not see him and walk on by. He didn’t want this tonight, not with Bryce there. He thought that things would be better, but they weren’t. Having his old friend there did nothing for the feeling he got in his gut for Phillip. It only made it worse because now, in addition to dealing with this feeling and trying to disguise it from Phillip, he now had to disguise it from Bryce. He cleared his throat and managed to piece together a few words that had absolutely no chance of masking the nervousness and despair out of which they came.
“Hey there, Phillip. I suppose we do,” Jim said forcing a smile.
Jim noticed Bryce smiling at Phillip and casually looking back at him, so Jim knew there had to be an introduction. He managed to put one together.
“Phillip, I would like to introduce you to my friend from undergrad school, Bryce. He is going to be staying with me when he moves to Atlanta this summer to take a teaching job here in the city. “
Bryce reached for Phillip’s hand. “And Bryce,” Jim said with a little rattle in his voice, “this is our youth minister at the church, Phillip.”
The two men exchanged pleasantries for a few moments. Then, as Jim knew he would, Phillip turned to the young lady standing to his right and smiled. “Jim, Bryce, I would like to introduce you to Cassandra. She and I have been seeing one another for a few months now.”
The world stopped turning for a moment for Jim. Daylight turned to night, sunshine turned to rain, and the springtime turned to a cold, hard winter. Jim swallowed what seemed to be the side of a mountain in his throat. He wasn’t ready to hear this. He knew that eventually Phillip would start mentioning a love life, but this was so sudden, and it came just as he thought he was going to be okay. This was cruel. Why had this happened now? Why did he have to be in that restaurant when Phillip walked in with this woman? His heart was beating faster and faster. He was sure he was turning a little pale and that everyone there noticed him. He had to escape the situation. Suddenly, he stood up and said very abruptly, “Excuse me everyone.” Then he headed off to where the restrooms were without saying anything more. Once there, he sprinkled his face with cold water from the faucet. Afterwards, he stood there looking at himself in the mirror. Oh no, he thought as he looked at his flushed face covered with mist. I look like hell and it shows. And the way I just jumped up like that, everyone will wonder what the hell is going on with me, especially Bryce. Phillip will know for sure something is wrong. I CAN”T KEEP DOING THIS IN FRONT OF HIM, he thought. Jim knew he had to get back out to the table. But he didn’t want to face Phillip and the new girl he was with. He would make up some excuse to leave. As he made his way back through all the tables filled with people, he noticed that Phillip and Cassandra were still standing there at the table. Bryce had a concerned yet confused look on his face. Jim had hoped Phillip would be gone when he returned, but he wasn’t. He was still standing there, and he looked as beautiful as he ever had. Jim knew he had to come up with something and quick.
“I’m sorry for rushing off like that,” Jim said.
“Jim, are you okay?” Bryce asked.
“I’m fine, really. I just needed to wash my face in the bathroom, but I am okay. Don’t worry.”
Bryce didn’t appear to be buying it. He looked curiously into Jim’s eyes as he sat there. For a moment it was a little uncomfortable for Jim. It was almost as if Bryce was reading Jim’s mind.
“Cassandra, Phillip, I hope I didn’t upset you.”
“Oh no,” Phillip said, “We were just worried you might be sick.”
“Well, I just needed to rinse my face with water. I felt lightheaded as if I were about to vomit. Now that would not have been a good first impression for this lovely young lady here.” Jim smiled at Cassandra hoping to deflect any suspicion that might be going on in anyone’s mind about why he appeared so nervous and unsettled in front of Phillip. He looked back quickly at Bryce, and his friend’s face had now evolved from concern and confusion to just confusion.
“Please, don’t worry. I will be okay. I have just not been feeling that well lately and it was a little stuffy in here so I decided to get some cool water and splash my face in the men’s room. Apparently it worked.”
Jim realized this was obviously a lie. The room was actually somewhat cool. That was the bad thing about springtime in Atlanta; the days were fairly warm, but the nights could get cool and even lapse into a chill. The restaurant had not turned on the heat, so there was no stuffiness at all in the room. Nonetheless, Jim tried to be as calm as he could, but his stomach still had those damn butterflies in it that he got every time Phillip came around. Then, slowly, Phillip placed his hand on Jim’s shoulder as they stood there. As Jim felt the warm touch of this magnificent creature in front of him, those butterflies inside him turned into a herd of cattle that felt like they would march right up his stomach and burst through his chest, dragging his heart with them as they exited. Jim held his stomach and swayed.
“Jim,” Phillip said, “You don’t look so well. Are you sure you’re okay?”
As Phillip said this, Jim could smell the scent of the cologne Phillip was wearing. This made more than his heart race and his stomach flutter. Now something else was stirring and his pants were not the kind that concealed the excitement within very well. Jim quickly pulled back and turned to Bryce.
“Phillip is right, Bryce. Maybe we should go.”
As he said this, he looked at Phillip and said; “I will see you at the church. Nice to meet you Cassandra.” Then he headed for the front door not even knowing if Bryce was behind him. He just knew he had to escape the situation. He smiled as best he could at the host and managed to piece together an explanation as to why they were leaving without eating. As he opened the door and walked outside, the cold night air of Atlanta hit him in the face. He turned to see if Bryce was behind him. He wasn’t. Instead he was standing there talking with Phillip. It appeared that Cassandra had already gone to a table. Bryce and Phillip were both looking at him and talking about him obviously. Then, Bryce shook Phillip’s hand, and without smiling, he nodded and walked toward the front door. Jim knew what that meant. The two were worried and, more than likely, Bryce would be calling Phillip to update him on Jim’s condition. Oh boy, Jim thought, if only Bryce really knew my condition. Jim had thought that he could drown these feelings for Phillip and the tear he felt in the fabric of his faith once Bryce arrived. He would throw himself into rebuilding this friendship with Bryce and helping him make the transition to Atlanta. That would take his mind off his problem. What he really hadn’t thought about was that by doing this, he was actually running from the issue rather than facing it. He remembered what his father had once told him. “Jim,’ he had said, “If you run from your problems, you are only giving them room to grown.”
Jim thought about that statement as he stood there waiting for Bryce to come outside. Boy was his dad right, and this problem really was growing. It was like a deadly tumor growing inside of him, and if he didn’t deal with it, it would consume him. The night air with its crisp chill wrapped itself around Jim. No matter what, it seemed that lately, Jim could not escape the cold.