In his YA memoir, Rapture Practice, Aaron Hartzler details the trials and tribulations of his childhood and adolescence, growing up in a conservative Christian family and believing that the Rapture might happen at any time. He always knew he was a little different—and not just because, as it turns out, he was gay. Now Hartzler shares with BookPage readers the advice he wishes he could give his younger self.
1. There’s no such thing as “normal” (and if there is, you don’t want to be that).
Yes, your parents have lots of rules: no movies, no TV, no rock music—only Christian radio. You have to go to church twice every Sunday, and most Wednesday nights. You even had to sneak out to attend the Amy Grant concert with the church youth group. You have these friends whose lives you wish you had. Their parents let them do all the stuff yours don’t want you to do. You wish your mom and dad were “normal” like theirs.
You also wish you could be more “normal.” It’s not that you want to watch football instead of reading a book, or do a hockey stop instead of a toe loop. You just wish everybody didn’t think it was so weird that a guy likes literature and figure skating. Newsflash: That’s the stuff that makes you truly unique. You’re going to be so glad you like these things one day. Oh, and sneaking out to see Amy Grant? That’s comedy gold. In about 10 years you’ll mention that at a party, and . . . well, you’ll see.
2. You are an athlete (you just don’t like team sports).
In eighth grade when you didn’t make the basketball team, you played intramurals and shot a layup for the wrong team during your first “game” because team sports make you even more nervous than playing a piano solo in church. You even joined the cheerleading squad after that for four games, until the administration at your Christian school said they’d decided to make cheerleading girls-only. It’s okay. This year, your track coach is going to try to get you to run the mile again, and you’re going to tell him you just want to be the team manager and take stats because for hours before every race, you feel like you’re going to throw up.
Just know that even though you don’t run this year, you’re an athlete. You simply don’t like competition that much. You like pushing yourself one on one—not in front of bleachers full of people. You’ll get to college and figure out you like lifting weights. You’ll discover running and swimming in grad school. By the time your 20-year reunion rolls around, you’ll have run three half-marathons and surfed in four different countries. And those guys who made the basketball team? Well, you’ll see.
3. You should call that cute guy who gave you his number (and actually talk to him).
You know when you were working at the ice rink at the country club the other night and that handsome college guy came to skate with his two girlfriends an hour before closing? Remember how he didn’t really pay attention to the girls he came with? How he got to the ice, and was falling down all over the place, and when you went to help him up he didn’t let go of your hand for a long time? How he hung on for dear life while you helped him skate around the rink, and he pointed out a couple times that he’s a freshman in college and you’re a senior in high school, and you’re actually the same age? And how after a while you realized he was skating just fine, and didn’t really need to hold your hand anymore, but he didn’t let go?
That was because he liked you. Not just as a friend. He liked you liked you.
When you got to your car that night after the rink closed, you put your hand in your pocket to pull out your keys and found a pink scrap of paper he’d torn from a skating class schedule and scribbled his number on.
It’s still in your top drawer under your socks. You pull it out and look at it every once in a while. The other day, when you were home by yourself, you even dialed the number. Your heart pounded so hard your chest almost exploded, and when his answering machine picked up you were so relieved and so disappointed that you just hung up. You realized you had no idea what to say. You weren’t exactly sure why you were calling. You can’t really articulate it right now, but you sense that this little pink piece of paper is important, and even though you won’t call him again, you’ll hold onto it until you’re my age. You’re not sure what any of this means right now, but trust me: You’ll see.
4. You are doing the best that you can (and that’s all that’s required).
I know you feel guilty about lying to your parents about what you do over at Bradley’s. You tell them that you’re going to a church youth group event with him, but instead you drink beers and watch “90210” and listen to Mariah Carey and EMF and Madonna and Enigma. You tell them that you’re going over to Megan’s “for dinner” but really you go to a movie, and then downstairs to her bedroom and you make out on her waterbed. You cry sometimes because you’re so frustrated that you have to hide things from them—things that most of your friends don’t have to hide from their parents.
You wish you could be a different version of yourself for them sometimes. But you can’t. And guess what? As hard as this is right now, and as much trouble as you’re going to be in when they find out about all of the lies (and yes, they will find out), one day you’re going to look back on all of it, and you won’t want to change a single thing. Because all of this stuff that feels so hard right now is making you the man you will grow up to be. And you’re going to like him. I promise. I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but you’ll see.