Thursday, December 3, 2009

The One That Got Away

Every once in a while, I wonder about Jouni.

During the summer of 1986, I was on a summer internship in Helsinki, Finland that had been arranged through BYU. This was the summer I almost committed suicide. It was my last summer as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By the time I met Jouni I was past my suicide crisis. I had received a revelation from God. Revelations, actually. God knew that I was gay, and it was OK. God did not condemn me. His love for me was greater than my fear and shame and self-hate. I was to leave the LDS Church for a time. I did not need to worry about what that would mean for me or for my eternal family. God would take care of everything, of all of us. We would all be all right, and everything would eventually work out. (As, in fact, it did.)

My chosen path out of the LDS Church was to request membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. When Pastor Swanson of the International Evangelical Church in Helsinki, Finland asked me how I would like to be baptized, I told him that I believed in baptism by immersion. So (perhaps to punish me for making him get wet too!) he proposed baptizing me in the chilly Baltic Sea, during the course of a congregational retreat at a seaside retreat center owned by the Lutheran Church.

It was at the retreat that I met Jouni.

Jouni and I were both in our early twenties at the time. He was absolutely gorgeous, the perfect Scandinavian blond, ruddy cheeked, with a somewhat delicate build. Without fully understanding my own feelings at the time, I fell completely in love with him. We spent every available minute of the retreat together.

The evening after my baptism, this being Finland, there was a communal sauna. As is traditional in Finland, sauna is taken in the nude. (Finns are actually a bit taken aback if you wear a swimsuit!) Jouni and I remained alone in the sauna together long after all the other participants had left. We skinny dipped in the Baltic Sea (also a Finnish sauna tradition to cool off by dipping in the nearest body of water). It remained quite innocent, though I was aware of how attracted I was to him, and nervous about how my body might betray me under the circumstances.

It was during the sauna that Jouni asked me to come visit him at his home in the country. So later that summer -- just before I returned to the U.S. -- I rode a bus to the tiny village where Jouni was living with his parents.

Jouni's English was about as good as my Finnish (and neither of us had quite mastered the other's language), so our communication was an interesting mixture of both English and Finnish. Not the smoothest conversations! But it didn't matter! Somehow we managed to fill the hours in his farmhouse and walking around in the woods together with talk about family and friends and school and -- of course -- religion.

At one point, we were alone together in his bedroom talking. He told me he had something he wanted to read to me. Jouni was in music school, and he wanted to read me a letter he had received from a fellow music student. The letter was written in English -- by a non-Finnish, male foreign exchange student. Jouni had not been reading the letter for long before I realized it was a love letter.

He read it to me quite matter-of-factly, without a hint of disgust or condemnation. The letter spoke very frankly about longing to hold him, missing the sweet times they had had together, and so on. When he had finished reading, Jouni looked up at me as if to say, "See? There. I've told you. What do you think?" I realized he was coming out to me.

I was actually sort of paralyzed by the realization. So he was gay. I was too. But I had only just barely come to accept this fact about myself. Was Jouni coming on to me? Here we were, alone together in his bedroom, sitting on his bed, him staring wordlessly into my eyes, waiting for me to respond to this revelation. But then I also thought, perhaps by reading me this letter, he meant to show me that he was taken; he already had a lover, longing to see him again, aching to hold him. So was this his way of telling me I was out of the picture? And even if I had wanted to act on this revelation, this was a line I couldn't imagine crossing. I still had to figure out what it meant to be gay before I could think about acting on it.

So I just sat there, doubtless with a kind of deer-in-headlights look. I sighed, and fidgeted. I may have muttered some innocuous phrase like, "That's nice you have a friend like that" or something else painfully awkward. The subject changed, and then we decided to go for a walk.

When it was time for my bus to leave back for Helsinki, Jouni and his father accompanied me to the bus station. As I was getting ready to board the bus, Jouni asked his dad to take a picture of us together, which he did, while Jouni wrapped his arm tightly around me, pulling me into his side and interlocking my leg with his. Then, before saying goodbye, he practically knocked me over throwing himself at me in a full-bodied hug. We held for a very long time, and it was only then, just as I was leaving, I realized he felt something for me far more than just casual friendship, and I wished I were staying longer.

That was the last time I saw Jouni. We continued to correspond for a time after I returned to the U.S. I sometimes dreamed of going back there to see him again. But I never did. And eventually the correspondence stopped. All I have left to remember him by are a few letters and the picture of us his father had taken, which Jouni later sent me.

I look back at myself 23 years later and I think, How Dense Could I Have Been?

I've also wondered, what might have happened had we ever become more than just friends? Would I have claimed Finnish citizenship? (Finnish law would have made that relatively easy because of my mother.) Would I have lived happily ever after in the Finnish countryside with my blond musician with the delicate smile and the ruddy cheeks? What would I have missed here?

I don't regret my cluelessness (too much). And the messy, joyful, crazy, blessing-filled life I have now is so much greater a gift than fantasies about the love that once escaped me long, long ago in a land far, far away. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the Atlantic).

Still, I can't help but wonder what's become of Jouni. I hope he's happy.


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

There must be something about the pull of someone the other side of the Atlantic. I have only been completely and truly in love once in my life and it was with someone I met while living overseas, in the UK, while I was there teaching. I, too, only have a handful of pictures and things now by which to remember her.

Love and respect, always, to you and yours!

Bored in Vernal said...

Where's the picture??

J G-W said...

slp - I've often reflected on what my experience with Jouni taught me about myself -- about my spiritual, emotional, and sexual maturation process. You literally do kind of have to be "ready" for a relationship. I was definitely not "ready" at the point when we met. But his friendship, and the way he opened up to me was also such an important milestone in my own coming out process. I think I will always be grateful to Jouni for that, even if we were "destined" never to be more than just friends for a very brief time in both our lives.

I think that's why I wanted to share this story. It's really about the process that we all have to go through on the way to becoming who we become...

BIV - You know, I thought about that. But I kinda figure I need to respect Jouni's privacy, and not publish on the "World Wide Web" something that would potentially out him.

J G-W said...

(At least not without his permission.)