In class, I ask my 11th graders the question: is it better to be loved or to love? We spend an hour discussing each of their responses. Prior to this incredibly unrelated question, I had asked the kids to tell me about a time they had been a good ally to someone as a warmup to the begin class. After tales of loyalty to their peers, friends, and siblings, the students wanted to keep talking. “Please, Flores!” they begged as I contemplated forgoing the usual notes on World War 1.
“Well, what about the notes?”
“We can do them Friday”
I crinkled my face uncomfortably, knowing that it would not be the end of the world to postpone the lesson. They all stared in anticipation. Wide eyed, prepared to plead their case.
“We could do a friendship circle” I caved.
“What is that?” Nick, a broad-shouldered boy with black rectangular glasses asked.
“It’s like a conversation but everyone has to participate, no phones out and we all answer the question.”
The students nodded, some of them grinned.
“BUT we have to vote on it. Raise your hand if you’d rather do the notes?”
A few kids gave me an incredulous smirk; C’mon Flores, you know we aren’t doing that! Jokingly, my dramatic eyebrows stood with shock, and I replied, “all those in favor of a friendship circle?” It was unanimous.
“Okay well, before we do that, we at least need to finish our homework for the week. I will set the timer for 15 minutes and everyone, everyone needs to finish their homework quiz”.
Obediently, the class began whipping out their Chromebooks to log into Canvas. While they worked, I googled: best deep questions to ask. I scrolled through them until I landed on the one.
It’s a December day in SLC, Utah. The year is 2020. There’s a chill cutting across the sleeve of my black jean jacket. I glance quickly at the metal lettering that reads “Encircle” across a concrete bench. The sun’s orange glow has disappeared, and everything is purple, soon to be bleeding into black. As I walk up the steps to face the door, my nerves crawl up my chest. When I reach my hand to turn the knob, whose gilded gold petal detail excites me, I know what waits on the other side is for my good.
The house breathes fresh baked cookies as I enter. There’s a staircase almost immediately in my path and to the left and right two entrance ways to lead into other rooms of the home. I glance above my head to see a stunning chandelier, offering the most magnificent white lighting. The shine leads my eye to the grey walls. From them grow a flowering vine that appears like stone relief carvings. Frail looking leaves stand still, so thin. It’s then I notice a tall white man with even whiter hair who greets me and asks me to sign-in using the iPad. I redirect myself toward him and the iPad. Facing left (and I’ll never forget this) I lift my gaze for only a moment to peer into the kitchen dining area of the home.
Chloe stood looking back at me.
Of course, I didn’t know it was them at the time. Nevertheless, I instantly thought, I want to know them. Our gaze broke and they continued walking through the kitchen. I received a tour from a small, incredibly fit man. At the end of explaining the history behind the home and the services they provide for LGBTQIA youth & young adults; he removed his mask to adjust it. Without any filter, the words flew out of my mouth,
“Wow! You are gorgeous!”
“Oh, well thank you... you are too.” His regal brows gently lifted, and his dimples appeared gracefully. I gaped at him. His stunning white teeth were aligned symmetrically, and his almond eyes were large. The bridge of his nose was small but perfectly proportioned to his face.
“Lin, I’d like you to meet Chloe, my assistant director.”
I turned to see Chloe walking up to my left. I smiled behind my pink floral mask. They introduced themself. We made prolonged eye-contact and the words we exchanged were not remarkable, but their beautiful dark eyes were.
For the next four months, I volunteered at the LGBTQIA resource center, almost exclusively on Mondays for service night. Chloe had been promoted to home director so on the rare occasion they weren’t too busy to chat, I felt drawn to their presence. I found myself walking to where they were working and calling them my friend before we had even exchanged numbers. One service night, when I was cleaning the library with this older volunteer named Deidre, who had only spoken of her good-for-nothing-homophobic ex-husband, Chloe entered to see if we needed help. They lingered as we dusted the shelves, piles of queer books between us. Deidre droned on to Chloe about her hurt arm, explaining why I was lifting and replacing the texts.
“You know, those aren’t in the right order” they pointed to the black binders I was organizing on the top shelf. Thinking quickly, I replied coolly,
“I am not good with numbers and…you are distracting me” my eyes fixed on theirs.
Blushing under their mask, they thanked us for our hard work and exited the room.
After this exchange, Chloe and I had few interactions. The home was too busy for us to have any alone time. That is, until naked-lady-night. Me and probably 6 other volunteers sat around the long rectangular marble table. I was chatting with Liz and Shannon, two older lesbians who had been together for 5 years. They were advising me about teaching.
“Teaching at a university comes with a whole other set of issues” Shannon explained.
“But I guess my issue is that there is no room for growth. I desperately want more money, but I really love teaching” I whined.
“Did you know we still can’t afford a house? We live in an apartment” Liz confessed, grimacing weakly.
“After taxes and the expenses of living, I likely make what you make” Shannon was a professor at the University of Utah.
“Well, that changes things.” I felt defeated. We continued talking about the challenges of research and the pressures to publish. Others gathered and joined in on the conversation. Looking away, I heard the door and saw Chloe standing to greet someone. The person was leathery or possibly wearing a light brown sweat suit. I couldn’t tell. Chloe had let them in, and the person went down the hallway on the left side of the home. The person reappeared to the back bathroom, and I realized they were completely naked. I got up as the other volunteers continued chatting and meet Chloe across the home in the music room. This room featured a grand piano with cushioned benches to sit and listen to the music. An enormous Colby Sanford painting hung to face the audiences, at the back of the pianist.
“Hey, do you need help?” I ask Chloe, who was staring down at the floor.
“Yeah, that would be really nice” they looked up at me, “I gave her a shirt, but I don’t have any pants for her”.
“I’ve got a whole bag of clothes in my trunk; I’ll go grab some”.
Chloe, astonished and elated, questioned, “do you”?
“Yeah, I’ll go get them.”
When I returned, we sifted through the bag looking for pants.
“She’s locked herself in the bathroom” Chloe said this quietly. Holding some old Express dress pants and ratty jeans, Chloe went to knock on the bathroom door.
“Ma’am, we have something for you”
The woman grunted lots and spoke in an unidentifiable tongue but eventually opened the door and snatched the clothes from Chloe, leaving the door wide open. Chloe gingerly grabbed the knob and shut the door. I was impressed with their ability to make eye-contact with a naked-lady without shuddering; meanwhile, I sucked my cheeks together and averted my gaze from the naked-lady, totally uncomfortable.
“So…what did I miss in the training today?” I inquired while we waited for the naked lady.
“We talked about the art of empathic listening. I have something for you since you missed it”.
“Oh, really?” I exclaimed, uncertain and excited at the same time. Chloe pulled from their chino pocket a small pin.
“What is this?” I say unimpressed and confused.
“It’s an Oatly pin”
“Okay, but why?” The pin had a carton of oat milk being poured into a rainbow.
“They sponsor us, so I got one for you”
“Just for me?” I asked unconvinced.
“Jake was giving them out to people”
“So, it isn’t just for me?”
“Well, this is the only one that I have”
We laugh over this and joke back and forth for a while. We spent the next thirty minutes being mutually freaked out over all the things we have in common. Not stupid stuff like favorite food or hobbies but about being in Texas during the same time, joining the Mormon religion at the same age despite being from different states, and having similar family situations. I stand close to them to talk so I can hear through their mask.
“I should probably go check on her and tell her she has to go.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yeah, that would be nice”
Chloe knocks on the door firmly and announces she must go now. The woman says no and that she’s just waiting on something. The woman aggressively swings the door open and is still unclothed.
“You’ve got to leave now, we’re closing in 15 minutes” Chloe held the bathroom door open with their long arms. The woman’s matted hair and tattooed wrinkled body raced through the house angrily. On her way out she seized the bag of clothes, clenching it to her body. She sat outside on the concrete bench speaking to herself. Chloe and I watched her through the big expensive windows and sorrow filled the space between us.
“Should we call the police? It is going to rain”
“Probably” Chloe replies. I walk over to them and they take a long breath, pulling out their phone. I place my hand on their shoulder as they call. Chloe accepting the affection, looked up at me wordless, but I don’t remove my hand. I don’t regret it.
In class, all the kids have shared their responses to the question: is it better to be loved or to love? Most of the males have said it is better to be loved. The females vary their answers, but Keilie’s stands out to me. She says it is better to be loved because then you know it is real, people are fake and can deceive you. Penelope counters and says but if you truly love someone and show it to them then you’re more likely to receive it back from the person. I joke to all the kids who said the former: “who hurt y’all? What’s your childhood trauma?!” the class erupts in laughter.
“Well, I think that was a fantastic friendship circle. It seems like we all need to go to therapy, talking to you Nick” he laughs and shrugs.
“Wait, Flores you have to go” this comes from Audrey.
“It was part of the rules, everyone participates” Deegan adds.
“Okay…well…” I think for a moment. Chloe’s smile appears across my face. Their octopus tattoo lays below my breasts in a hug from behind.
“I think I’d rather be loved because I spent so many years only loving. I am ready to be loved.”
The class nods and I am grateful for naked-lady night.