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“Would you like lime or cherry?”
Betty Mason smiled as she lined up paper cups in front of the two ice-filled glass pitchers of Kool-Aid. Vacation bible school was something I always looked forward to as a boy. Stories of Jesus can nearly take your breath away when you pair them with crafts that included the creative use of popsicle sticks, glue, cotton, and glitter. As I watched the ice fog over the glass pitchers – incapable of making a choice between my favorite flavors – I heard a voice from behind me. “ We’d like two cherries please!”
It’s my first memory of Kathy (although she argues we’d met before that.) Her mother and Ma-Maw had been friends, and Kathy recalls a little tow-haired boy peering shyly from behind his Ma-Maw’s housecoat. But it’s this day, the first day of vacation bible school, with her big bright eyes and red Kool-Aid stained lips that cement my initial memory of her. And it was the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship.
Kathy and I became instant comrades, sharing a trust that we always knew we could count on. As we grew, giggling over the latest fashion, hair, makeup and Steve Hinton’s dreamy eyes. He had thick jet-black lashes so thick and long that we were convinced they touched his brows.
Kathy held a sense of adventure and freedom that I didn’t possess. It was fall and the acres of green corn had turned like fall leaves on the tree. She wanted to drive my dirt bike through the fields on our farm. I had no real affection for that bike other than for the fact that it had a purple seat that seemed to have flecks of glitter that sparkled brightly when the sun hit it just so. However, all the other boys my age seemed to clamor for dirt bikes, and so when my Father suggested one for me, I pretended to care. I thought it might please him that I would want something so conventionally boyish and masculine – maybe he would like me then?
I’d been given explicit rules never let anyone drive that bike but me. Kathy however, had been so persuasive, as girls tend to be. Spontaneity was a stranger to me and I was not prepared for the intoxicating feeling of freedom riding behind Kathy. Holding onto her waist and flying through that cornfield was nothing short of glorious! So in the moment, I was barely aware that Kathy was going too fast to make a turn. Breaking through rotted barbwire and pulling three fence posts out of the ground. Not until we were lying flat on our backs did I understand the urgency. We were unharmed but watched as the horses make a quick escape through the fields running towards Pike Forest Road. I don’t believe I ever ran faster than on that day, busting through those long golden brown stalks to get PaPaw’s help before my Father found out. “Boy, you broke through that Goddamn barbwire.” I think PaPaw moved faster than I’d ever seen that day as well. Retrieving the horses and replacing the fence posts, my Father never did find out any different.
That night, we loaded up our pick-up truck with our church’s youth group for a fall hayride. Kathy and I huddled together in the left corner right behind the truck cab. Cold, crisp air and a bright moon behind us we were wrapped in flannel. Kathy, pulling out her lip-gloss, created this intoxicating- aroma of fresh hay and cherry. I was immediately reminded of that little girl with the Kool-Aid stained lips. Leaning my face towards hers, so close I could feel her warm breath on my cheek, “Can I have some gloss?” Kathy clearly knew me better than I knew myself at this moment in time. Smiling, she dabbed some cherry gloss on my lips with her finger while thanking me for not telling PaPaw how she was the one responsible for diving the bike through that barbwire. “Thank you for taking the blame, and for being you.” The shimmer on Kathy’s lips reflected under the moonlight looked beautiful. However, it caused me to question myself. “Is the gloss too much on my lips? Does it look as though I’m wearing lipstick?” She smiled, assuring me though on any other boy, perhaps…But on me it was just perfect. I smiled knowing with Kathy, I didn’t have to pretend. I could be me.
Kathy and I would both soon discover breaking through barbwire wouldn’t always be so easy to repair as that day with PaPaw. People like to reminisce about a simpler, less complex time, forgetting what was once considered scandalous in a small conservative town. Through soft tears Kathy told me she was pregnant. Sixteen and scared of the unknown, with two years of high school left. Wanting to be a strong and supportive friend I held her hand and we cried together. Wondering how her parents would react – others too – but especially her parents, Kathy went to an abortion clinic. Using a friend’s older sisters drivers license, before photos were on them. She would later tell me it was like being awake in a horrible dream. Waiting, lost in her thoughts “Can I do this? I don’t know if I can do this? This is my living baby inside me.”
Finally realizing they were calling the ‘alias’ name, many times, Kathy approached the counter. They were ready to take her back for the procedure.
“I can’t do this”
As they handed back the fake ID, Kathy recalled opening her wallet and a forgotten laminated Bible verse fell to the floor. “I will always be with you and never forsake you.”
It’s been forty-plus years since Kathy and I broke through the barbwire that very first time. We’ve shared a friendship that’s endured change in both our lives. Kathy lovingly confesses how she knew I was gay from the moment she understood what that meant. Explaining how she knew I needed to discover and come to terms with my orientation in my own way and time. Her loyalty unwavering and love knows no bounds. Even today, we find ourselves lost in conversation, from past to present with the same ease that we shared as children. She tells me how she can’t imagine what her life might have been without her beloved son Jason. How being a young mother, it sometimes feels as though you are growing up together, side by side with your child.
And once you both come through to the other side and can look back….it forms a bond so special that it feels almost magical. As she talks, I can recall her first time bringing Jason to church after he was born. I was worried Kathy would be nervous walking into church that first time. It took real guts. Rigid and unsympathetic attitudes can open the door to shame. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was the mantra, and especially when your sin is obvious for everyone to see. But sometimes silence is equally suffocating. We sat together near the back as we had countless of times throughout our youth. Though on that morning we didn’t giggle or pass notes. Pastor Bierce wouldn’t call us out like earlier times when we would disrupt the service with teenage whispers. Kathy and I were still so young, yet we already seemed to be far away from those childish and childlike ways.
That morning we sat in church together. Jason was between us, sleeping in his tiny carrier on the wooden church pew. Looking from mother to son, I smiled. The change in Kathy was so apparent. Today, I can only imagine the strength and resilience required to be a single mother. It takes strength and resilience no matter what era it is, but especially during that time. For myself, I had no idea the trials and truths I’d soon be facing.
We survived that dirt bike ride. The rotted-through barbwire hadn’t cut and scarred us that time. Now, Kathy had broken through real barbwire and was holding her head high. I would have my own barbwire to break through. But looking at Kathy and Jason, I knew I would survive too. I would hold my head high. I would not be forsaken.