The house was three stories tall, sitting at the end of a long and curving hill on a dead-end street. The paint was blue and fading, and when I rode my mountain bike home from campus, I could see the top story of the house over the railing from the cross street. There were seven of us living there my senior year; all fellow teammates on the rowing team. We got up early and stayed up late, each of us in different classes and different majors, riding to the dock together in the pre-dawn hours to get to practice.
I claimed the bedroom on the top floor, a cozy alcove with a slanted ceiling and decent carpeting. Our landlord, Bill, was young (and handsome, my roommates and I thought) and he took good care of his investment. College kids lived up and down that street, a relatively quiet area away from the rollicking parties of the fraternity houses on the other side of campus.
Across the hall from me, my teammate John made his home in the other room on the third floor. John was a tall, gangly rower with dark-rimmed glasses, wavy hair, and a rich, hearty laugh that I enjoyed. We got to be friends, talking across the hall and cooking dinner together in the kitchen. He introduced me to a friend of his, Paul, who would visit often. Before long, Paul would call the house and ask for me by his nickname for me: Peaches.
My roommates would laugh as they handed me the phone (pre-cell phone days) and rib me.
“Hey, PEACHES, it’s your boyfriend," they would call out, and I would smile and speak to Paul, flirting for the benefit of my roommates.
The only thing was… Paul was John’s boyfriend.
John came out to me in one of our conversations on the third floor, revealing that Paul was more than just a friend; he was falling in love. He gave me his trust, but he wasn’t ready for the rest of the house to know, especially our other male roommate. He wasn’t ready for the rest of the rowing team to find out, with the stigma of being the only gay man on the team.
So I played the duplicitous part, acting like Paul was interested in me, and I genuinely enjoyed his company and his phone calls, prepping to come over to visit John. Paul was charming and stylish, and great fun.
It didn’t occur to me how difficult that time of his life could have been for John.
It didn’t occur to me that he was going through some very challenging emotional changes.
It didn’t occur to me that he was confused and still immature.
One day, I picked up the mail from the floor, where it had landed after the mailman unceremoniously dumped it every day. A red stamp bearing the word “DISCONNECTION NOTICE” on the envelope from the power company caught my eye. Although it had John’s name on it, I knew that it was a notice for our house, and was alarmed enough to rip it open.
My eyes popped open when I saw on the bill that we were over $800 in arrears. How could that be? John had been collecting our money for months, and he was in charge of making the payments.
With another roommate, I confronted John and asked him for an explanation. He broke down and admitted that he had taken our money and used it for himself, intending to pay it back, but didn’t. Angrily, my roommates and I didn’t speak to him for anything but very cursory conversation for awhile, even after he paid it back. We all felt duped. And after we all moved out at the end of the year and I graduated, I never saw John again.
Until a few months ago.
I had heard that John moved to Austin, and I ignored his Facebook friend request. Twenty years later, all I could remember was the stolen money. After all the talk about forgiveness and kindness and love, I still shut him out. I felt guilty, but couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap.
One day, I was helping at a conference in Austin for a book signing for Glennon Melton, and I arrived early to set up. I introduced myself to the woman at the counter as Kristin Shaw, and a tall man spun around in his chair at a workstation nearby and said, “Kristin? Kristin Vander Hey?”
It was John.
For a moment, I was stunned and said, “Yes. Yes, it’s me.” And then I slowly turned away. I avoided his eyes.
A month later, a message from John appeared in my inbox.
“I have been contemplating whether I should contact you after seeing you. I am sure I was visibly shocked at the time, because that's what I was feeling. After the event was over, I came across your door prize card.
Unfortunately, you did not win a door prize that night, but I randomly pulled a card from the fishbowl after I completed the door prize drawing and it was your card. After telling one of my coworkers about our connection and the story about how I ruined several friendships as a roommate. She thought it was fate that allowed your card to be randomly chosen by me.
I frequently think about the year we lived together. I was in such a personal struggle with my sexuality and feeling out of place in general. I made several very poor choices in all aspects of my life. Regret is such an uncomfortable feeling for me as it is for most people. With a lot of growth and therapy, I forgave myself for that time in my life, but I don't think I ever apologized to you or anyone else I lived with.
I am sorry Kristin. I was a jerk.
I am legally married to the guy I have spent the last 13 years with in Austin. My husband and I are in the adoption process and waiting on a baby now. My life is very good and I am happy.
I wish I had taken the opportunity to come back and talk to you after the book signing. The event kept the store busy on top of it being a Friday night so I was distracted most of the night.”
He opened the door for me to forgive him, but to also for me to ask for forgiveness for being an insensitive jerk, too. And I responded that evening:
“It was a shock to me as well, and I'm afraid I didn't handle it very well. You see, I talk a lot about kindness and forgiveness and love in my writing on my blog and at The Huffington Post, and I surely didn't exhibit that. Seeing you, I was instantly transported back to our house in Cincinnati with our roommates, and opening the utility bill with the overdue charges, and confronting you about it.
But if I look again, I can see a lot of great times, and laughter, and our rooms at the top of the house where you shared your secret with me before you were ready to come out.
Thank you for the apology - it was so long ago, but it is very kind of you to reach out. I'm sorry I was not kinder to you when I saw you.”
Thank you, John. Thank you for the chance to be a better person, too. That house on Glendora Avenue still had lessons to teach me, even twenty-some years later.