Tommy was a wizard with the yoyo. His hands whipped around at record speeds as he flung his spinning blue orb up, up, higher, higher, higher, higher…before letting gravity slam it towards the ground. He used the momentum to purposely guide it backwards—a rookie move, actually—and onto its string, creating an impossible knot that only the best competitive yoyoers could defeat.
Could Tommy slay this epic monster of a move? It truly did not matter to me.
I was caught up in my own battle: It was a Friday night, and here I was again, sitting on a dirty church-basement linoleum as a Jesus nerd forced me to watch his yoyo freestyle. Am I not supposed to laugh? I looked around the room, trying to catch someone’s eyes, but they were all smiling proudly up at Tommy above. As always, I was the only one who found this all a little weird.
I had never heard of competitive yoyoing before Tommy launched into his excited solo a few minutes before, and, honestly, I would’ve been okay living in ignorance. He was already spazzing out about it by the time I arrived, speaking frantically with his hands in a way that only Italians and homeschooled geeks do:
“And, gosh, it was so cool. I mean, man you gotta join me next time. All the people and the moves and the collector’s items. And it’s right here in Pittsburgh. Come on, dude—come to my club meeting next week,” he begged breathlessly to Bella, the innocent looking blonde batting her eyes next to him.
“That’s so cool! I’ll ask,” she said sweetly back to him. Bella’s voice always made my skin crawl in annoyance.
“Wait, what are you talking about?” I interjected.
“CYOA: Competitive Yoyoing of America.”
“Oh,” I responded awkwardly.
Please don’t tell me more about this.
“Tommy, you should show her your routine!” the girl crooned.
God, shut the fuck up, Bella.
“Oh yeah! Watch this!”
And, that’s when Tommy went on the longest, most excruciating yoyo solo that I had ever fucking seen. He swung his little blue yoyo out like a switchblade, stabbing at imaginary aggressors. He became King Tut, walking like an Egyptian as the yoyo danced above his head. He was an exotic dancer, moving his rigid rectangular hips as the yoyo crashed towards the floor. He was a cowboy and the yoyo was his bucking thoroughbred. He was the devil incarnate, because this was truly living hell.
When he finished, he took a big dramatic bow, and we all cheered heartily—pretending that this was the greatest thing ever. God, I hope I wasn’t the only one pretending to be impressed. That would be so embarrassing for those Jesus nerds. I get that they want to be nice…but seriously…do I really need to be nice about competitive yoyoing?
“Did you like my routine?” he said softly as he pulled me aside.
His sweaty blonde hair had escaped from his ponytail.
“Yeaaaaah, it was definitely interesting! I’ve never, personally, been able to yoyo.”
God, he looked like Paul Revere.
“Oh my gosh, let me teach you!”
The alarm bells in my head began to ring. The British are coming! The British are coming!
That took him aback. We kinda just stood there in silence for a few seconds. He broke the silence:
“Are you coming to that concert next week with us?”
“The Christian Rock one? Uh, probably not.”
“Why?! You gotta! Crowder and KB are playing!”
“I don’t know who those are.”
“HOW ARE YOU UNEDUCATED?! Does this seriously mean you don’t know ‘Church Clap?’”
“Yeah—I like, don’t listen to Christian rock.”
I might’ve been at a youth group, but that didn’t mean that I was a dork.
“But, oh my gosh, it’s so good. The lyrics,” he opened his mouth to sing.
Oh no! He opened his mouth to sing! He launched into a high pitched screeching singing voice:
“Gimme that God Almighty, That good ol’ Bible, That old school—”
“Stop, stop, stop, stop! I know it! I know it!” I lied.
I know it’s a sin, but I had to save myself.
“Yeah, but anyways, this concert is always so much fun,” he remarked as his face became serious, “It would just be you…and me…,” he noticed my face turn white, “and a sea full of other believers,” he quickly corrected himself.
Jesus, I had to shut this shit down. Perhaps that’s why I felt motivated to say the following:
“I don’t believe in God though.”
“What the heck do you mean?” He was offended.
“What do you not get? I said it straight up: I don’t think God is real.”
“Why are you even here then?” His eyes were daggers. “It doesn’t make any sense why you’d come to a Bible Study if you thought it was all fake.”
I’ve been coming to our youth group forever. What else was I supposed to do? Hang out with the meth-heads in the back alley? I didn’t say that to him though.
“Why would I come here if I had a better option? Rubix cubes, yoyoing, and the New Testament aren’t exactly the funnest Friday night plans. If I was allowed to be anywhere else, I swear I wouldn’t be here.”
He knew what I actually meant. His eyes were brimming with hurt, and he opened his mouth, but paused and closed it again. I had just rejected him. His lips were pursed in angry thought.
“But, like, you get it, I mean—” I stammered, my cheeks getting hot.
I felt a little guilty.
“You know, my brother has an incurable disease,” he interjected purposefully.
“Uh, what, okay?”
“He has an incurable disease.”
I had known Tommy forever, but I didn’t know that.
“What does that have to do with God? If God was real, why would he give your brother an incurable disease?”
“So that He can cure it and we can proclaim Him,” Tommy spat.
I was getting flustered.
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
He’s seething with anger now.
“Well, you know what? After this week, then don’t come back,” he spat, turning away, “Don’t sit by me during the movie.”
He left, and I was alone.
The Princess Bride was flashing across the screen in front of us, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the devastated expression on Tommy’s face when he sulked away.
Tommy has never really been real. He’s always been a caricature of a Jesus freak—shamelessly droning on and on and on about Christian rock, yoyoing competitions, Dr. Strange, rubix cubing, and other weird nerd shit. But for the first time, as his hurt doe eyes cement themselves in my brain, he feels so real. And I feel so guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have rejected him like that.
Whenever he talks, it’s always with this endlessly innocent stupid dopey smile. It was there when he was yoyoing. It was there last week when we were serving dinner at the soup kitchen. Hell, it was even kinda there when we were talking about Abraham almost killing his damn son. But, this is the first time I’ve ever seen his face drop completely. His signature smile was still missing when I looked at him now. How awful of a person do you have to be to break Tommy?
I still don’t believe in God. And, I definitely did not appreciate his reference to his probable crush on me. I think that Tommy’s delusional and that nothing truly all knowing or all good would make someone suffer needlessly with an “incurable disease.” But, for the first time, Tommy’s unusual evangelistic zeal made sense: he was terrified.
It is terrifying: when the pediatrician’s professional smile scrunches into concerned pursed lips; desperately waiting for the phone to ring with that one glorious word—”negative;” feeling your thoughts get trapped in your throat because it’s just too hard to tell people; the awkward silence that shrouds every conversation, because what are people even supposed to say to you anymore; the chronic pain that keeps you up at night; those horse pills that ruin the taste of every meal; the drip, drip, drip, dripping of the IV as you waste away—incapable of even pulling yourself to the bathroom; the chokes as your visitors try to try in vain to silently contain their sobs, but they can cry out loud for all you care, because you are too weak to comfort them anyways. Everyone knows that you won’t make it through the night. You know that you won’t make it through the night. And that’s terrifying: grasping that everything—all the suffering and pain and hospital bills and effort—might just be for nothing.
I should probably apologize.
Westley and Buttercup kissed on the screens in front of us. The credits rolled. Tommy got up. He didn’t look at me. God, why won’t he look at me? This all would be so much easier if he just made eye contact.
I noticed his prized yoyo laying abandoned on the ground and grabbed it as I left. I ran my fingers over its smooth surface. To my surprise, it actually felt sort of nice in my hands.
I stalked him down the stairs, so close I was almost stepping on his heels. Yet, still he wouldn’t turn around. The agonizing silence was only broken by the quick clop, clop, clop, clopping of our feet as he tried to outrun me. Was I so awful that I needed to be outrun?
“Tommy—” I broke the silence as we opened the chapel doors onto the street, “Wait up! I have your yoyo, and I want to talk to you!”
We were alone. (Except for Meth Head Steve, of course. Steve was perpetually passed out on the church steps.)
Tommy turned to me, our eyes meeting momentarily. His were black.
“I have your yoyo. You promised you would teach me how—”
“I have to go,” he said gruffly, swiping the yoyo from my hands, leaving behind only a tingling feeling of emptiness, “Thanks.”
He was in his car now.
“Tommy, wait!” I cried desperately, “Jesus said you have to forgive me!”
“Jesus isn’t real though. You said it yourself,” he spat back as he slammed the car door.
His words reverberated through my head as I gazed into oncoming traffic. It was just me and Steve. I was alone. And my heart hurt with unshakable guilt and self-loathing.