I needed her to tell me that it was okay to doubt, to yearn, for the lyrics in our headphones to mean something sacred—with or without God.
Our connection was fast and undeniable. In those days, we’d fill every line on sheets of college-ruled paper and pass them back and forth between and during classes. Each note was covered, front and back, with our observations and musings, and we’d sometimes fold so many pages together, the paper would tear. These notes catalogued our every thought. In particular, our thoughts about boys. Our safe desires.
It was safe to study the movement of our crushes’ shoulders, necks; to recount the whiff of pheromones when they slid by our desks; to detail the strange wonder of watching them roll up their sleeves. Certainly, it was safe to gush over them while leading a prayer circle by the flag circle that morning—the most erotic thing of all. My crushes were nearly always arbitrarily chosen. I wanted to test out what desire was supposed to feel like, with my best friend there to help me calibrate its morality. There was safety in the covenant between friends: “This is who I am. Is this who you are too?”
It was safe, too, to watch A Walk to Remember twice in one night, to pause it to study a tendon in Shane West’s neck and talk, joking but not joking, of pressing our lips to his skin; it was safe to marvel at the contour of his arms as they encircled Mandy Moore.
“Do you think it’s okay for her to sit between his legs like that?” I asked of the moment that made my heart do backflips, when the chaste lovers in A Walk to Remember held each other close, gazing at the stars.
We didn’t have an answer. My identity had always been wrapped up in being smart, and so had hers. Maybe there was safety in finding someone who could win the school’s geography bee but couldn’t pinpoint the line between right and wrong where desire was concerned.
Together, we spent hours scrolling through Josh Groban message boards, bearing witness to the lust of women who could’ve been our mothers. I’m not sure what exactly made us spend our time on those message boards. We did love Josh Groban’s music, and we did find him attractive. But what compelled us to read forums of which we weren’t members, to the point that we recognized several usernames and profiles? I don’t have a clear answer, but I think it was a way to learn what adult desire looked like, without any real danger of shocking ourselves in the seedier corners of the Internet. We knew there were dragons, so we’d venture only so far.
We were safe but on the edge of danger. When Josh Groban started dating January Jones, we obsessed over will-they-won’t-they, only it was have-they-haven’t-they. We couldn’t believe that someone we had built up in our minds as a perfect Christian man could fall prey to lust. Surely he knew sex was worth waiting for, right?
When a different friend told me she’d kissed a boy with tongue, I asked earnestly, in early adolescence, if she thought they would get married someday. I said touching tongues sounded suspiciously like glue.
Having sex before marriage was presented as akin to adultery: You’re cheating on your future spouse. The youth pastor told us how sex with his wife was an act of fellowship, a way to worship God together, and sex outside of marriage was a desecration of that holy act. We’d learned from church and from those pledge cards that we were only as good as our worst desires. At my church in Texas, there had been little talk of Hell. In Clarksville, Satan was always right around the corner. No, not even that—he was right there, between the ears, instilling those unspeakable dirty thoughts.
I remained largely disinterested in dating anyone all the way through high school. Maybe it was easier that way, in order to stay unambiguously in the right. But this wasn’t entirely about the long-standing effect of abstinence-only education and twice-weekly reminders of hellfire and damnation. Actually acting on desire often felt beside the point. I was interested in other things, like books and theatre—or, above all else, my friends.
We’d learned that sex was glue, but the all-consuming power of best-friendship in middle and high school seemed an even stronger adhesive that put the pieces of myself together. My best friend left Tennessee after eighth grade, and I was bereft. Rightly or wrongly, I never quite felt like I fit in at school. But at church, there was exactly one criterion for fitting in: belief. My best friend and I had gone to church together, of course, but when she moved, it became my life.
I asked my parents if I could get baptized, despite having been baptized during infancy. I no longer believed that counted, because it hadn’t been a conscious choice on my part. I needed to show that I was saved. This was one of the few times they pushed back against my newfound fervor, and I’m grateful they did.
While the structure of my days shifted after my best friend moved—no more long notes, no more nights scrolling through forums—we remained closely bonded through our likes, our dislikes, our fears, our obsessions. Even when she moved to Europe two years later, we’d spend hours on the phone. By that time, we were also staying connected online.
Like so many growing up in the early 2000s, I recorded my daily life and preoccupations in excruciating detail on LiveJournal. From 2004 to 2010, I mentioned my best friend by name 272 times. I marvelled at our similarity: “She is the ONE person I actually feel comfortable around. We’re, like, exactly the same. You all know.”
We even sounded the same: “I have the exact same voice as my best friend. once i carried on an entire conversation on the phone with her mom, and her mom thought i was her the whole time.”
So often, I felt that we were speaking through each other.
But at school, I wasn’t sure who to be. I was part of First Priority, a daily prayer circle, but I was also getting heavily involved in theater. Yet as my self-image became less tethered to a single person as my mirror, I began to notice cracks in the reflections that my friends projected onto me. When they offered me a world filled with R-rated movies and songs about sex, I could somehow see myself there too. But the mirror was all fogged up with cosmic uncertainty: “Who am I and where will I belong outside the church’s walls?”
Church was free from questions of identity and belonging that seemed paramount at school, at an age when I so sorely needed a break from trying to figure out who I was and what I truly valued. It offered its own mirror world, as an alternative to the secular. It was so easy to remove any moral ambiguity by opting for church-flavored everything.
You want to celebrate Halloween? Sure, you can have a haunted house, so long as the terror comes from seeing sins enacted in the lead-up to a teenager’s untimely death. Instead of dodging chainsaw-wielding clowns, you’ll walk through a room filled with smoke and hidden space heaters, simulating Hell. And in the end, you’ll take a pamphlet on how God can save you from this fate if you make a public profession of your belief.
And absolutely, you can blast punk rock, as long as you got the CD from Lifeway Christian Store.
When I recognized something of myself in the punk and emo albums that I’d hear at friends’ houses, I had to wonder what it meant—for my eternal soul, sure, but, more importantly, for a social life centered on the church—that I was attracted to men mumble-singing about sex. But I could simply go to Lifeway Christian Store and buy albums in the same genres, and instead of earthly love, the music would praise the divine.
In September 2004, I filled out a LiveJournal survey that asked me to list “12 Good Bands in Your Opinion.” I listed Switchfoot, Seven Places, Spur 58, Relient K, 12 Stones, Kutless, Casting Crowns, Downhere, Building 429. I cheated and added two solo artists, Jeremy Camp and Josh Groban. My best friend had always been cooler than I was. Her list wouldn’t have resembled mine. She was already listening to Death Cab for Cutie. But she wasn’t in Clarksville, where being Christian felt like an all-or-nothing proposition. Be Christlikeor lose all your friends, except the one who lives across the ocean.
When Seven Places—named for the seven places Jesus bled from for our sins—performed at our church, I told my LiveJournal followers, “They were really good and the lead singer was very good looking, so that was good and I got a CD.” See? You can buy a CD because the singer’s hot, so long as you learn the words and let them change you.
I can’t pinpoint what exactly happened in the last few months of 2004, but I do know that I was finding my footing in the school’s theatre program, and, by then, my best friend and I were reading philosophy books together. We had both found anchors outside of the church, though questions of belief still remained. Whenever we visited each other—which happened at Christmas—we brought each other CDs. We went to Best Buy or Borders and spent hours listening to music on those communal headphones.
She’d been the one to introduce me to Josh Groban, and, again, she was broadening my musical horizons. We’d sit and read the liner notes instead of forums. Instead of crying over how the godly girl turned the bad boy good in A Walk to Remember, we cried over a chord that hit us right in the feels. We were feeling instead of being told how to feel. Music showed me how, and it offered a shared way of knowing. It showed me that I wasn’t alone in my doubts, in my changing beliefs.
In December 2004, I filled out another LiveJournal survey, which asked me to list my favorite musical artists. Josh Groban was still there, but the long list of Christian bands had given way to Hoobastank and Death Cab for Cutie. In the same survey, my favorite songs included “Gifts and Curses” by Yellowcard and Death Cab’s “The Sound of Settling.”
In November 2005, I wrote, “One year ago, I started to like reading and be interested in interesting things, as opposed to things I liked just because I was supposed to like them.”
After my best friend moved, her family paid extra for a phone plan with unlimited long distance. I would speak to most of my friends from the kitchen table, the curly cord stretched across the room from the cradle mounted to the wall. But I talked to my best friend on my parents’ portable handset, behind closed doors. I told her what CDs I wanted to buy on my next trip to Borders. I listened to Yellowcard, Dashboard Confessional, Straylight Run, Death Cab for Cutie. I leaned into the world outside of church, and music was a window to that world beyond. In it, I saw goodness, beauty, and truth. It felt like all the things I’d been searching for in the sanctuary. It was complicated. There were no simple answers about the world and what it was supposed to be.
We were feeling instead of being told how to feel. Music showed me how.
The music made my heart ache.
I told my best friend that. She said the same thing. We didn’t talk about God much anymore, though we still wondered what was right and wrong.
When she moved away, I decoupaged a photo frame with black-and-white photos of us. Inside, I place an Aristotle quotation that we’d learned from A Walk to Remember: “What is a friend? It is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” So far, that had held true, despite the distance.
One day, I was lying on my back on my parents’ bed with the phone held to my ear for who knows how many hours. My best friend and I were both quiet, breathing. We’d do this—give ourselves a rest instead of a goodbye. Only this time, I wasn’t resting. I remember my ears buzzing as I broke the silence to ask, “Do you ever wonder if you actually believe in God?”
I know I phrased the question that way—“Do you ever wonder if you actually believe in God?”—as if one’s own beliefs could scarcely be known, only wondered at, until they were reflected back to you—through religion, sure, but also friendship and, increasingly, music.
When my best friend was the first to get her hands on Dashboard Confessional’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, she said I shouldn’t get it because it had sexual content. So I didn’t get it. For a while.
But in March 2005, I wrote on LiveJournal that another friend and I sang all of “Hands Down” in homeroom. That was the song my best friend had warned me about. I felt it, every word, deep in my ribcage. I’m sure singing it in public felt illicit, and singing it with a friend forged a certain bond, a shared understanding of the bounds of decency.
But I wasn’t afraid to tell my best friend that I liked that song, and she wasn’t afraid to say she also knew every word. Each time I thought my changing moral compass would crack the mirror, it didn’t. In fact, each new confession brought us closer. We talked for hours on the phone most weeks, but there were things I was still afraid to say. I see now that our shared, evolving taste in music did a lot of the talking for me.
Figuring out who I was and what I believed had been easy, at least when it came to assembling my public face—I did what the church told me. After I stopped looking for answers there and, at least in part, began finding them in emo music, a period of trial and error ensued. I put on my identities like I tried on clothes—squinting at myself in the mirror but never really knowing how something looked until I opened the door and got a second opinion. The person who had always been my go-to mirror was far away, and, by asking about belief, maybe I would push her even further away.
In December 2004, I wrote about going to church for the last time. “Wrote about” is putting it strongly. On LiveJournal, I posted a plan for the week, which included “Wednesday: Church.” I wonder if I knew it was the last time. In October 2005, another LiveJournal survey asked if I went to church, and I wrote, simply, “No.”
In the intervening months, I posted the full lyrics to “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie. The song lasts nearly eight minutes, but the lyrics aren’t long. There’s an interlude in the middle, a trancelike, almost prayerful repetition: “I need you so much closer.”
My best friend was across the Atlantic. She, too, had bought the album named for that song. Every word of the album spoke straight into our souls, but we agreed that “We Looked Like Giants” was the notable exception, as it detailed sexual experimentation outside the bonds of marriage. In private, though, I listened to it. I must have listened to it a lot, because, nearly twenty years later, I still know every word. I bet she does too.
That night, and so many of the nights following, I still needed my best friend to be my mirror. I needed her to tell me that it was okay to doubt, to yearn, for the lyrics in our headphones to mean something sacred—with or without God. I rationed my breaths as I waited for her to say whether or not she, too, wondered the way I did about the thing that had so long been our North Star.
When she finally answered, “Yeah, I do wonder,” it sounded like something holy. It landed between us, not with a thud, but like the intervening notes of my new favorite song.
Kate Finegan is a writer and Split/Lip Press novel/novella editor living on Treaty Six territory in Saskatchewan. Her work has been supported by Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. You can find her on Twitter as @kehfinegan.