There used to be a Bible verse hanging up in Marianne’s house, on the empty spot of wall at the top of the stairs, to the right of Isak’s bedroom door. It was needlework, done on a white evenweave canvas, decorated with stitched green ivy. There’s lots of religious decor around the house, especially now that Terje doesn’t live there anymore, but none of it sticks out in Isak’s mind quite as much as that specific embroidery.
Isak remembers being 13 years old, in front of the canvas on his knees, begging God to please fix me, fix me, fix me. He remembers pleading for God to make His plan known, to let Isak know he was made normally (fearfully and wonderfully made) and that he would be okay and loved. He prayed for answers for so many years, and never got any.
He was convinced he was broken for most of his life. Year after year, he was taught the evilness within the way he looked at boys. With the way he thought about them. The way they made him feel, and how he made himself feel at the thought of them. He remembers passing by a table one day after the sermon–it was just outside of the sanctuary, and it was for visitors or newcomers. Between a bowl of mints and a bowl of hard candy, there was a pamphlet for conversion therapy amongst countless other pamphlets. He’d been too paralyzed with fear to pick one up in front of others, absolutely positive that his homosexuality was glowing like a neon sign above his head, but he got one later, when the church was empty. He still remembers the cover. Hope For Homosexuals!
Isak doesn’t think about it as much anymore. He’s not a practicing Christian, he doesn’t ever see his mother’s home anymore, and he has a boyfriend. A wonderful boyfriend, who kisses away any fear that love could ever be wrong. Isak doesn’t think about it because he doesn’t feel the need to.
(He thinks about it sometimes, when it’s really late at night and Even is snoring softly behind him, and Isak feels like the million eyes of God are on him.)
He doesn’t think about it, but around Christmas time, it’s hard to distract his mind from it. Even has decorated the entire apartment (he did it on the first day of December, the nerd) and keeps playing Christmas carols and singing along at a volume way past appropriate for an apartment building, and he kisses every single one of Isak’s frowns away. It works.
It’s what he’d been doing all evening. They’d spent the day with Marianne, and it was so much more relaxed than Isak could’ve ever hoped for. They went to dinner and then walked around a bit, window shopping and going for hot chocolate. Everything had been fine, and the night ended with Marianne pulling out a small gift-wrapped box and handing it to them with a comically large smile. They hadn’t opened it in front of her. They’d come home and Even had turned on Christmas music and set off to make dinner while Isak did homework.
But Isak opened it about two minutes ago, and he hasn’t even taken anything out of it. There’s a small decorative cross, like the one that hangs above the front door of Marianne’s home. Also Isak’s Bible from his childhood, frayed at the edges with a cracked spine, from endless nights of reading it and trying to find the answers God seemed to be refusing him. Below that, a picture frame, containing a photo of Isak, Even, and Marianne standing on the steps of Sagene last Christmas. And, below all of that, needlework wrapped in a thin piece of tissue paper. Isak recognized it the moment he saw it.
“What is it, baby?” Even asks, emerging from the kitchen with a dishcloth between his hands and the aroma of something tomatoey following close behind. Isak looks up at him, and Even’s face falls as he realizes something is wrong. “What?”
Isak touches the box with the tip of his index finger, like he’s afraid the cardboard will burn him if he touches too long. “Just some stuff from when I was growing up. And a picture of us, framed.” He takes out the picture frame and hands it over, watching as Even breaks out in a smile. “You should put it on my nightstand.”
Even scoffs, “Yours? Why yours? Maybe I want it on mine!”
It’s a gift from my mother, Isak almost says. It’s on the tip of his tongue. “You can put it wherever you want,” he says instead. And he shrugs, turning back to the box.
He doesn’t know why his mom thought to give him all of this. The picture makes sense, of course. The cross, too. His childhood Bible… A bit surprising, but he supposes he understands the sentiment in giving it to him for Christmas. But the embroidery is what really throws him off. For all his mother knew, he never gave it a second thought. And the private thoughts he did give it certainly weren’t anything positive.
Part of it warms his heart. All of this religious stuff with the photo shows how she truly and wholly accepts him, loves Even and loves him and loves them, together, as one. It’s hard not to love Even, of course, but still. The picture of them in front of the church Isak was baptized in is, quite possibly, the nicest and most heartfelt gift Isak has ever received. Perhaps that’s why the other parts of it confuse him so much. Because everyone and everything that these items stand for don’t feel the same as Marianne does.
Even’s hand smooths across his shoulders, tucking him under his arm. Isak sinks into the embrace, leaning his head against Even’s. “I was just teasing,” Even murmurs into Isak’s hair, pressing a kiss there. His hands are empty now, and Isak doesn’t have to look to know the photo is on his nightstand. “Do you mind if I have a look?”
“No,” Isak whispers.
Using his free hand, Even lifts the cross out of the box. It almost fits in the palm of his hand, only slightly too long. He turns it over a couple of times and then looks to Isak for explanation.
“My dad’s Catholic, and he always had crucifixes all over the house. There’s, like, certain places you’re supposed to have them. Over the head of every bed, over every doorway. I guess it’s a tradition my mom’s just held onto, even though she isn’t Catholic. That’s not a crucifix, though.”
Even hums. “That’s kind of cool. How two people of different religions can come together and find a cohesive way to worship.” He turns the cross over again in his hand. “Where do you want to hang it?”
“They’re both Christians, it was hardly much of a conflict of interest. More of a slight inconvenience, really. And we’re not hanging that up.”
“Isak, we have to! It’s a gift.”
“Well, I’m not putting it over the head of the bed.”
“Fair enough,” Even laughs, glancing over at the bed. Their bed. Just saying that still makes Isak’s heart skip a beat. “I don’t think Jesus would be too happy about being placed above the bed that we regularly fuck on. You know, with His aversion to premarital sex and all.”
Isak snorts. “Yeah, the premarital sex is God’s problem. Not at all the fact that we’re actively practicing homosexuality. Absolutely nothing to do with His whole ‘thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind because it is an abomination’ spiel.”
Even smirks. “Baby, I love it when you talk Holy to me.” Isak rolls his eyes—he can’t help it—and takes the cross out of Even’s hands. “We should hang it above the door, then. You know, to bless all of our visitors so they don’t get contaminated by us living in sin.”
“I don’t think that’s a thing.”
“It could be a thing. Have you read the Bible?”
“Cover to cover,” Isak says honestly. Even looks at him like he’s ready to laugh, but upon seeing no trace of joking in Isak’s expression, just widens his eyes. “Years of active church participation, Ev. Not only have I read it, I’ve annotated most of it.” He sets down the cross and pulls out his Bible, handing it over.
Even holds it like it’s something precious. The black bonded leather is peeling on the bottom half of the spine, and it looks ready to peel in others, but Isak’s initials are still bright in gold on the bottom right and the pages are all still stuck to the binding. Even flips it open and gawks at all of the highlighted lines and scribble in the margins, all of the notes Isak had taken at Bible studies and Sunday School classes and youth groups all the way through the age of 16.
“This is amazing,” Even murmurs, as he flips through the pages. Isak shrugs, looking away. The cross is still sitting next to him on the table, and Isak thinks about how he would live if it were hanging up. How he’d stare at it, how it’d stare back. How suffocated he’d feel with the eyes of God watching him.
That was always the worst part. Hearing through sermon after sermon how God is always there. He’s always watching, waiting, judging. He sends down His son to die for our sins, to guilt people into obeying His every word. How can you disobey Him, when He’s given His son for you? How does one live without worshipping Him and His Glory, when He’s sacrificed so much for us, His children? How? Isak can hear his pastor now, can hear the talk of temptation and greed and lust and sin, can hear the promises of hellfire.
Growing up, he was always so scared. He was scared of sinning, of fucking up and going to Hell. He’d tried so hard to pray for some magic fix-it, for God to tell him how to change the one thing about himself he hated more than anything.
If God is always there, if He loves us more than anything, if He created us in His image, if His plan for us has always existed, why would He make Isak gay? To lure him into temptation? To watch him crumble and collapse under the weight of himself, to watch him fall to his eternal demise? God has no mercy for those who don’t turn to Him.
“What is this?”
Isak turns, sees the chapter Even has opened up to. Romans. Tucked safely inside, right underneath the verse, “Because of this, God gave them over to sinful lusts,” is the pamphlet he’d picked up years ago. It’s folded and faded and Isak can barely stand to look at it.
Hope for Homosexuals!
“A pamphlet I picked up when I was younger. About how to deal with having a gay child as a Christian. And about, as my pastor called it, reparative therapy.” He’s honest because there’s no use lying, but then promptly takes the Bible back. He doesn’t remove the pamphlet from its pages, nor does he try and stash away the Bible where they’ll forget about it. Isak sets it on the coffee table and then stands up, picking up the cross. “I’m going to put this above the door.”
“I’ll be right back.”
The cross is lightweight enough to be held up by a thumbtack, so Isak decides not to bother with a proper nail. He twists the thumbtack into the wall and then hangs the cross, and then steps back to admire it.
He remembers the crucifix over the door at Marianne’s house. It’s wooden, with a golden depiction of Jesus on it. Isak has seen that exact crucifix in every Catholic household he’s ever been into, including Mahdi’s. This cross is wooden, but there’s no Jesus figurine, and it almost feels wrong. Like it shouldn’t be hanging up without Jesus on it, truly watching over him.
He comes back into the living room and sits down next to Even again. Even had put the box aside and set up Netflix instead—a peace offering. Isak is a sucker for Even’s cheesy apologies, so he just slumps into Even’s side.
“What about your food?” He asks.
“It’s fine,” Even murmurs, as if Isak has any idea what that means. “It can sit for a few. I have time.”
Isak sits for exactly five minutes and twenty-seven seconds of Even’s stupid movie before he slides off of the couch and onto his knees between Even’s legs. Even barely has a second to ask what’s going on before Isak is cupping him through his sweatpants, pressing open-mouthed kisses that leave damp spots on the gray fabric.
“Baby, what are you—”
Don’t question it, Isak thinks, rubbing his palm over Even’s dick again to cut him off. It works, but Even keeps giving him these concerned eyes anyway, and Isak doesn’t want to see it. He doesn’t want Even to look at him like that, like he’s any different from the Isak he was before they opened this gift. He doesn’t want Even to look at him differently just because of this. He has enough religious guilt to carry, he doesn’t want to hold onto the guilt of being the one to change things.
He doesn’t want religion to have that power over him anymore. Fuck sin, fuck repentance, fuck forgiveness (and more importantly, fuck begging for it). Fuck church and the Bible and God and Jesus and Mary and Joseph and Judas and the Disciples and fuck all of it. Fuck all of it. His head might start spinning if this anger fades out.
Isak gives Even one look, tries to convey his desperation and his crawling skin, and Even’s questions turn into moans and then rapid nods as Isak asks for consent to get his cock out.
Isak sucks him down to the back of his throat almost immediately, fighting the gags.
Heavenly Father, I come to You admitting that I am a sinner.
“Fuck, Isak,” Even moans, his hands hovering above Isak’s body like he doesn’t know where to touch. They finally settle on his shoulders, where he squeezes so hard that Isak swears there will be bruises there in the morning.
I am choosing to turn away from sin, and I ask You to cleanse me, by Your blood, of all unrighteousness.
Isak feels the tip of his dick nudging the back of his throat again. Clearly, Even does, too, because his right hand moves to Isak’s hair. He knots his fingers in Isak’s curls and pulls—
I believe that Your Son died on the cross to take away my sins, and I call upon the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior and Lord of my life.
“I’m close,” Even pants out, using the hand knotted in Isak’s hair to try and guide his movements. Isak moans into it, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. He feels like he could come from this, if Even just keeps pulling his hair and moaning all pretty for him like that.
Even does. He pulls on Isak’s hair and even fucks up into Isak’s mouth with these small, aborted little thrusts and Isak is dying. Absolutely, positively going to die.
He’d go to hell, if he did.
I wish to be free from sin and full of the righteousness of God. I choose to follow You, and I ask that You fill me with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Isak comes, too.
Afterwards, when Isak has changed out of his sticky boxers and brushed his teeth and Even has put the food away for later, they sit down in front of the box again. Isak feels intense shame mixed with intense anger—shame for what he did, and anger that he’s been made to feel that way. It’s like he’s torn between wanting to fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness and wanting to fall to his knees and say fuck you and do, well, what he just did.
He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. On either end of the spectrum, he’s never going to be good enough. Never fucking enough.
Even is patient with him. He takes out the embroidery and asks if Isak wants to hang it up, and doesn’t push when Isak says no.
Isak will never want that needlework hanging up in his house. Ever.
“It used to be on the wall at the top of the stairs,” Isak says, while Even is probably mid-thought of how weird and fucked up Isak is. “I used to read it all the time, everyday on my way to and from my room. When my parents weren’t home, I would kneel and pray in front of it. Clearly it didn’t work, because I’m still fucking gay.”
“I’m glad you’re gay.”
“Me, too.” Isak shrugs, grabbing his Bible and pulling out the conversion therapy pamphlet. “I wish other people felt the same.”
And Isak starts to cry. Not loud, messy sobs that leave trails of tears and snot down his face and rattle his lungs, but the quiet kind of crying. Tears slowly dripping down his face with hardly any sounds other than whimpers and sniffles. So quietly that Even doesn’t notice at first, leaving Isak to wipe at his own cheeks. He rips the pamphlet in half, and then keeps ripping it smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s unrecognizable.
Even wraps him up in a hug and doesn’t ask questions. Isak figures he doesn’t have to ask, because he already knows. He knows Isak better than Isak knows himself, most of the time.
“I love you,” Even whispers into his shoulder, rubbing his hand across Isak’s back. Isak’s sure he doesn’t mean to, but the pattern the palm of his hand is tracing is going up and down his spine and then across the expanse of his shoulders—a cross. “I love you so much. I wish there was something I could do to take this away from you. I would hurt a million times over before I ever let anything hurt you. I love you.”
“I spent my whole life wondering why God didn’t love me,” Isak admits. “Mom always said that just because God doesn’t answer our prayers or just because we’re going through a tough spot, it doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us. But she didn’t know… She didn’t know.”
“She knows now.”
Isak nods, thinks of the photo on his nightstand. He holds Even tighter. “I hate that I grew up being told I’m going to Hell. It’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it? When I was eight, I didn’t know what love was and I’d never left Oslo and I couldn’t even tie my own shoes properly and yet I was being confronted with my own mortality. Or, my own immortality. I was told God hated me for liking boys before I even knew what liking boys meant. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just bitter.”
“You have every right to be.” Even pulls back, cups Isak’s cheeks and wipes his tears. “I don’t know what I believe, but if there is a God up there, I know He loves you. And every Christian who’s ever told you otherwise is wrong. God’s whole thing is that we should love everyone, always. He is love and He is acceptance. And if that’s important to you, that’s what you need to remember. And if it isn’t, then fuck the church and fuck God and fuck the Bible. I love you more than any of them ever could, anyway.”
“I don’t know what’s important to me.”
“You don’t have to know right now. It’s okay. As long as you know that I love you.”
“I do know that.”
“Good.” Even smiles, presses a soft kiss to his lips. It’s short, and gentle, but there’s so much love in it that it warms Isak’s whole body. “Whatever you decide and however long it takes you to figure it out, I’m right here. You’re not alone. Not anymore.”
Isak looks at the needlework where it rests on the table. Reaches out for it, runs his fingers over the black stitch words.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28-30
“There is no rest for the wicked,” he mumbles.
“You’re not wicked,” Even soothes, taking Isak’s hand off of the stitching and placing it over his heart. “I love you.” Isak realizes he hasn’t said it back.
“I love you, too.”