The Last Year of Being Good — Garrett Pletcher
The summer after I graduated high school I went to my first house party. A childhood friend, Matt, was throwing the party because his parents were out of town for the weekend. That meant we could do whatever we wanted as long as the house was still standing when they came back. The house was large, two-stories, and surrounded by fields. There was a pool in the backyard, with nighttime lights and a diving board. We had plenty of alcohol even though all of us were under 21. Matt had a guy buy the alcohol for him and then didn’t invite him to the party, which was an asshole move in hindsight. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, probably because I was a teenager and teenagers are proven assholes.
I brought cigarettes because I was 18 and that was the coolest thing I could contribute to the party, and also because I followed a guy on Twitter who I thought was cute and he smoked. Or he at least took pictures with cigarettes. I brought Marlboro Menthol 100s—the exact kind that he smoked. Menthols are fucking terrible by the way—as I learned that night—but still, I felt that I had achieved something. That I was becoming someone of my own making, my own decisions.
Growing up, I spent most of my time doing church things. My dad was a youth pastor at the First Baptist Church in town. He led a bible study every Wednesday; organized community activities for the youth group; traveled to camps, conferences, and concerts—anything that would keep teenagers engaged. My family began moving early on Sunday mornings to get to the church service, after which was Sunday School, then home for lunch, a short nap, and back at church for a small-group bible study and the night service. On Wednesdays, there was dinner and activities for kids, teenagers, and adults. As I got older, I was also involved in Bible Club at school, which met once a week. Then there were church fellowships, and bible study dinners, weddings and funerals of church members, mission days, and various meetings. These were things my dad, as a minister, had to attend, and I, as his kid, subsequently often attended.
Being a preacher’s kid came with its own set of challenges. Everyone expected me to be “good” all the time. I felt that if I wasn’t “good,” it would never be forgotten. The problem with being “good,” though, is that everyone has a different idea of what “good” means. But what did “good” mean to me? It meant always questioning what I was doing and who was around to see me do it, and what they would think, and who they would tell. Ultimately, “good” was whatever appeased those around me. I spent so much time working to live up to everyone’s definition of “good” that my own identity was left half-formed, buried within, unexamined. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of goodness and it would take years to unravel.
There is comfort in evangelical Christianity because you are presented questions and then given answers. The answers make sense and often have lengthy, complex theological explanations attached to them. Everything is known. The world turns in black and white, in right and wrong, in good and bad. The Bible gives all the answers (as interpreted by sound Baptist theology) and cannot be argued with. If you don’t like what it has to say, you take it up with God. There’s pride and privilege in this “don’t question anything” ideology. If you were to ask me now, I’d tell you that questioning should be central to anyone’s faith, but questioning means doubt and doubt, in the Baptist world, is not very welcome. At church, everyone seemed to think the world’s problems were solved, but I can’t remember ever thinking the same.
I had a natural curiosity about the world but it was hard to see outside the isolated environment in which I lived. My life was carefully curated and packaged with a sheen of perfection. If I wanted to watch a movie, we checked Plugged In Online, a website created by Focus on the Family for parents to screen movies, TV shows, and albums for unwholesome content like sex, foul language, drugs, even rude jokes. As I got older, I would look up the most “adult” movies or TV show I could think of to see what dangerous treasures they held. Even if I couldn’t see the movie, there was a thrill in reading about the explicit sex scenes or fifty F-words uttered. My parents worked hard to expose me only to what they deemed appropriate. To my parents’ credit, I think, there were no hard and fast rules. Each piece of media was judged on its own terms so that nothing was off the table without first being given a chance. However, there was one thing that couldn’t be so easily curated: the internet. It could be controlled to an extent, sure, but increasingly that became impossible—both because I got my own laptop (a hand-me-down from my dad) and because the internet was evolving into the center of everything. With the internet I began to discover life on my own and what I discovered was that life wasn’t as figured out as I had been led to believe.
After graduating, I noticed my parents let me stay out later and seemed to ask fewer questions. Even though I would be living at home when I started college come fall, my parents acknowledged that I should be given more freedom. They didn’t ask any questions when I told them I was staying at Matt’s. Pre-graduation me was never so lucky. My parents knew what happened at house parties and besides, what would people think if they saw the preacher’s kid at one? That’s why it was my first party.
On the night of the party, the weather was perfect. Days in a Florida summer can be miserable—everything drips with sweat and the humidity returns every May, ratcheting up the intensity until you’re looking for any excuse to stay inside. The moisture in the air drenches everything—sticking clothes to bodies, hair to faces, grass to legs. Bugs run wild, set free by the wetness of the Earth to do as they please. Summer days are a visceral, miserable experience, but if you’re lucky, something magical may happen at night. As the sun moves out of sight and the sky darkens, the air begins to cool, just a bit. Just enough. If summer days are hell, then a summer night may just be heaven, and this summer night was definitely heaven.
Outside, Matt’s dogs chased us around the yard, excited by all the new faces. Matt hooked up a phone to the pool house speakers and a heavy bass line began shaking the wooden walls. Someone rummaged through the fridge in the pool house and reappeared with Smirnoff Ices.
“Those are my parents’ drinks,” Matt said, but reached for the first one, popping the lid. He shrugged. “Hopefully they won’t notice.” We took the drinks with us to the pool, sipping and splashing around.
Eventually, we made our way back inside. I don’t remember how much we drank, but it was enough that I led a sing-along at the piano of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop.” I was obsessed with that song. The video for it depicted a somewhat surreal house party. Just as the chorus hits, fake pink blood squirts out of a hand with the knuckles pulled back, as if the fingers were cut off. In the next shot, mannequin fingers sit on the counter in a pool of pink as a girl smiles at the camera. Hands roast marshmallows over lighters stuck in a candelabra. Miley licks a doll that looks vaguely like her in the swimming pool. She stalks through the hallway with a giant coat and wild glare in her eyes, a taxidermied animal in one hand and another being tugged along behind her. A man eats a sandwich of money. The video seemed like Miley’s declaration of independence. She was telling everyone that she could do whatever the fuck she wanted, which seemed to include everything that was bizarre, sexual, and inappropriate. The video gave me a rush whenever I watched it. Maybe I didn’t want to be Miley, exactly, but I wanted the freedom extolled in the video. I pounded the chords on the piano as everyone shouted the lyrics as loud as possible. We sang and chugged our Smirnoff Ice, happy that for this brief moment in time we didn’t have to exist in a world of pasts and futures, but only the present.
Savannah, my best friend, added her own drunken runs and riffs as she swayed beside me on the piano bench. Only months ago, we’d tried to date. I don’t know why—by that time I was well aware that I was gay. Maybe deep down I thought if I gave it one last try, I could be fixed. I’d decide that—hey—I actually do like girls. Savannah and I would marry, find a nice home in Chipley, and settle down with two happy kids. My parents would be happy and my church would be happy. It would be perfect, safe, and most importantly: good.
After two months of weird flirting, a couple of dates to the movies, and a prom proposal, I texted to tell her that it wasn’t going to work out. This was the shittiest way imaginable to end things, but as has been well established, teenagers are assholes. I realized that I was really fucking gay and I had to get out as soon as possible. There was a month or so of little interaction between us, circling around each other in choir and lunches with friends so that we didn’t have to speak directly to each other. I think we both knew why I called it off so suddenly, but to talk about it would make it real, and I wasn’t ready for that. We moved on in record time—both deciding, I guess, that our friendship was more important. Plus, it was too late to find new dates for prom. On prom night, we took pictures on a street side in Panama City Beach where a woman let down her car window and congratulated us on getting married. It was only then that I realized Savannah was in a white dress. We gave each other a knowing look and laughed while my mom swooned at the idea of us getting married. Now we sang together at the piano as if all of that had taken place decades before.
Matt pulled down a bottle of whiskey from a kitchen cabinet and insisted that we all take a shot. I agreed, far too confident in my shot-taking abilities. The whiskey burned in my throat and exploded back out onto the floor as I rushed towards the sink. Savannah ran over to me with an eggplant, giggling. We sunk to the floor and snapped a selfie, the eggplant held between us like a prize. (Yes, an eggplant. The easy metaphor here doesn’t escape me.) In the picture, our hair is disheveled and half-wet from being in the water, our smiles just a little too big, and our bloodshot eyes are a little too wide.
We look like we recently got hooked on meth, Savannah said later.
It’s a picture we bring up regularly, because it’s always good for a laugh. The truly wild thing is that I can’t remember why we took the picture. I can’t remember what was said or how we ended up on the floor or where the eggplant even came from. The picture has taken on a life of its own. It’s not just a picture, but a placeholder for the feelings of that night, an easy reference for who we were then and how we lived.
Around 2 AM, the party began to wind down. Matt and a friend lounged on the couch, another person passed out on the floor. Savannah and I found ourselves outside on a porch swing, sharing a Black & Mild, in a haze. Everything that wasn’t in our immediate radius seemed to disappear. All that was left were the stars, the sound of nighttime bugs, and us, as if we were the only people on Earth. Savannah pushed slowly with her feet so that the swing moved back and forth, back and forth, like when I was young and my mom would rock me to sleep. We didn’t talk for a while, listening to the creak of the old swing. I began thinking about graduation and the future, the friend beside me and the secrets I’d kept hidden. Suddenly, I felt the need to tell her everything. Was I hypnotized by the gentle sway? Or was it just that I’d spent so long inside a cocoon of my own making that another minute felt unbearable?
I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. Once a secret is told, everything shifts. You involve another person, who may or may not like the secret, or may or may not keep it. Everything could fall apart. Maybe you want everything to fall apart.
Just tell me. I know you want to. Just say it, she slurred, a lilt in her voice.
I considered the irony—that the girl I thought I could date a few months before would be the first person to know the truth.
And I said the words I had never spoken out loud before. My lungs felt empty, as if the oxygen had escaped with the words. My hands shook with both excitement and fear. I looked over at her. For just a second, nothing. And then she smiled and nodded.
I know. I know.