by Michael King
For Forever. I met Robbie almost two years into a four-year chapter. When we met, he was a graduate student hoping to pass his final exams and find meaningful work, and I was a hall director that had been assigned to get him from place to place through a busy twenty-four hours of interviewing. I don’t remember much about my earliest impressions, except that he spoke in a language I understood. To him, stories were vital, life was rife with lessons, and there was meaning in everything.
Our friends are people who come into our lives and, by nature of knowing us, change the pathways ahead of us. There are friends, however, who will manage to transform the story preceding them. Friends who make it hard to remember the selves we were before.
I have lived the past year in constant company with the idea of conclusion. My fourth and final leg of this chapter, this year has several time brushed me through ‘lasts.’ Perhaps to prepare our skin for the bruising, Robbie and I’ve talked about it at length. Who we’ve become to one another, the stories we’ll build moving forward.
One day, while running, I listened to the song ‘For Forever‘ from Dear Evan Hansen. The lyrics pulled my mind and heart to my friend, somebody who found me in the days after I’d lost my footing, pulled to the Earth, a raw and broken mess. Over the run, I choked back tears; I sent it to him, and he choked back his own. What a strange and remarkable love we share.
Together, we embarked on a ‘For Forever’ day –– a trip to Indianapolis, in search of sky and light and honest friendship. Coffee and music, swapping stories and laughs, searching bookshelves and city streets for another adventure to find ourselves in. Try as I might, my writing won’t do the day, won’t do this friendship, justice.
All I can say is that finding a friend who’s willing to see and stay with the heaviest, messiest parts of me has transformed everything. My notions on love, courage, stories –– everything.
Indiana. I didn’t give much thought to Indiana until I left it for the first time. Growing up, my siblings and I would stand at the edge of the yard, grass giving way to farm soil, and survey the sprouts reaching their way to the sun. (We hoped for corn, which stretches much higher than soybeans, perfect for impromptu mazes and adventure.) My hometown is small, amicable, and warm, one of many Indiana towns where ‘everybody knows everybody’ and lives are framed in stories of high school football fields, cars parked on backwoods roads, and a whole lot of ‘nothing to do around here.’
In 2011, I accepted a summer internship at Columbia University in New York City. On my first night, sitting in a hot room and listening to the shriek of a fire truck, I felt so far from home. I called home with a shaking voice, but gathered the courage to stay. That summer, I fell in love with New York, but I also grappled with how to tell my own story to new people. What does one say about being from Indiana?
Indiana has taught me to give people a second look. Hoosiers have a habit of shrinking our stories, dismissing our own magic before somebody else does it for us. We seem to think of ourselves as ‘simple people,’ but our quiet complexity yearns to be seen, known, believed. Growing up in our ‘nowhere towns’ gives most of us a strange and unshakable calmness, an ability to find joy in quiet moments and mundane adventures. On a trip to Target and Kohl’s, we talk with loves ones about their lives, fears and hopes, what the neighbor’s doing with the tire swing, whose kid just accepted a baseball scholarship.
Politically, Indiana runs red, primarily out of evangelical Christian affiliation, but also out of the idea that change should be considered before implementation. The story of so many Indiana towns is the story of factories that built families and then dried up and cracked apart; their rusted shells loom throughout our cities. Even today, college students who grew up in Indiana remark that they ‘never met a gay person’ before college, confess with a dropped town that their towns were ‘about as white as they could be.’ Kindness and a desire to do good prevail, but fear of seeming ignorant and uninformed often keeps people at bay from learning about difference.
Being from Indiana, for me, means writing a complicated love letter. I placed my roots in a high school marching band that laughed, labored through sun and cold to make art, sweated through T-shirts and hoped our magic could be seen. My teachers pushed me to write, believing in my stories and encouraging me to go for them. Most of my family calls, and will always call, Indiana home, and I can promise you their spirits are tremendously complex, beautiful, and human.
As a gay man who broke past Indiana barriers to share myself, loving Indiana has meant giving it a second look. Yes, Mike Pence hails from the Hoosier State, launched a success story of politics and power through consistent messages of holding back progress, silencing queer narratives, and holding the circles of Christian people and queer people out from one another. And yet I have found a community of allies and friends, hailing from Indiana, placing rainbow stickers outside of businesses, searching for the words and ways to say ‘you are loved.’ After the election of Donald Trump, a friend and I traveled to the Indianapolis Airport to demonstrate resistance toward the proposed Muslim ban, hoping to put love where hate was being lifted, and we showed up to a community of passionate people.
I’m not ready to publish my next steps, not yet, but I can tell you this: Indiana will always be home. It’s as ingrained in my being as anybody’s home can be sewn into theirs. No matter where I travel, where this story pulls my feet to wander, this heart will constantly beckon these eyes to give humans a second look. For better, for worse, this land made me. My roots will always rest in Indiana soil.
Doing a ‘For Forever’ Thing. Armed with a loose plan and a taste for the sun, I walked Robbie all over Indianapolis. Stepping onto Mass Ave, sweat gathering at our backs, we scanned storefronts in search of a bookstore. We passed a tattoo shop, and Robbie asked me what I would get if we just decided to get tattoos. I laughed, and we pressed onward.
Later, standing at Indy Reads Books, a bookstore and nonprofit dedicated to promoting literacy in the Hoosier State, I fell in love with what Indiana can be. I thought over the tattoo I’d long been considering –– the outline of Indiana, somewhere I might look and remember my roots. Something to stand as a love letter to my home. I looked up, saw my friend, and realized we would need to get a tattoo that day. Something ‘For Forever.’
I told him we should go get tattoos, and he only needed a second. ‘Okay,’ he said, and we made our way to to a Mass Ave tattoo shop. On the way, I asked him what he would be getting, and he said he wanted to get an outline of Michigan, his home state. I revealed I’d been planning on getting Indiana, and we laughed. We figured people would think one of us copied the other, but we didn’t care. At the shop, we took turns watching each other get a symbol ‘For Forever.’
For my own, I chose my right forearm, another visible reminder as I make my way through this story. I asked the artist if he could do the outline ‘in stitches,’ like the symbol was woven in and out of my skin. I laid back, each short line a small sting, and again felt the impending conclusion of a chapter. Nearby, my friend stood over, every bit the guardian he has proven himself to be. For that moment, we both felt forever.
I’ll close with lyrics from a different musical, The Last Five Years, specifically with a line that both sheds more meaning onto this tattoo and rescued me from days I felt difficult to love. They ring poignant again today, here, now, on the eve of everything:
I stand on a precipice; I struggle to keep my balance;
I open myself, I open myself, one stitch at a time.