He had these pants. They were red. Borderline maroon, but leaning toward red for sure. Imagine those red pants on a tall, lanky runner’s build. Somewhere around 6’3”ish. I thought, who wears red pants like that? Brave.
That was my first memory of him. We joked about those red pants and other things any chance we got. Working in a cubicle farm that served an online retailer was far from exciting, but our little team of coworkers-turned-friends made it as fun as it could possibly be. We were all college-ish age, most of us taking classes and working that job. We worked second shift, and all the rest of the world wasn’t available when we were. So we spent a lot of time with this group of folks. But I spent most of my time with Jeff, the red pants guy.
Jeff quickly became My People. I am not even really sure how. We both liked to talk and debate and wonder. He was all engineering-y and outdoorsy, and I was all artsy and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Our little coworker-friend group got into all kinds of shenanigans. Once we persuaded our boss (who called us her Dream Team) to let us take a day off for “team-building” and she actually went for it. We spent hours canoeing in the middle of a work day, laughing our heads off, and nearly drowning about 478,082,374,001 times. It was purely awesome.
We would drink Disaronno amaretto on the rocks. Once in awhile, he and his roommate Chesley would force me to watch Monty Python movies, which aren’t even the slightest bit funny to me even after the whole liter of amaretto was empty. British accents + dumb humor. Kill me now.
We’ve gone tubing in the winter, where I nearly got a concussion. We’ve lived it up as tourists in Vegas. We’ve driven to the top of Pike’s Peak and speechlessly walked through Garden of the Gods in Colorado. We’ve been to a tiny place called Filthy Wilmas. True story, people.
Since we were both young, fun people who went everywhere and did everything together, folks who didn’t know us naturally assumed we were a couple. This presented a pretty significant problem for us since, like most young, fun single people, we were in the trenches when it came for the search for a significant other. Most folks would have just done the obvious and started dating their friend by default, since they were always together anyway. But that just wasn’t us. We both knew we were each other’s Fill-in.
noun: a person or thing acting or serving in place of another; a substitute
At some point we even started calling each other Fill-in, because regardless of how everyone else looked at us, we knew that’s exactly what we were. We were placeholders, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
Although we were fulfilling an important role as friends, we were really filling in for someone else in the future. Our friendship was instructive, in an unspoken way. When we laughed at each other’s jokes, we were teaching one other how important humor really was for a lifetime. When we had long conversations (with or without Disaronno) we were training each other to be good listeners for the one whom we would listen to forever. When we gave truthful (and sometimes hard) advice, we were practicing honesty with our future partners. It’s nothing I could have articulated back then, but looking back now it seems so obvious. Thanks for the training, Fill-in. It’s coming in handy big-time.
One September day, after Jeff had already moved cross-country to take a job with Intel, I called him with some bad news. I found myself at a difficult crossroad, completely the result of my own poor choices. I had already made up my mind about what I was going to do, but I needed him to know what was going on. Of the handful of close friends who had any idea what kind of life-changing moment I was standing in, he was the only one who told me he thought I was about to make a mistake. He was the only one who was brave enough to tell me he thought I could do better than what I was about to do.
I didn’t take his advice, and that is something I’ll always regret. But if I’d learned nothing else, I had at least learned that I had one person in my life who wouldn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear.
There was something else about this guy. He was a believer. He talked about God and I knew he believed in Jesus. Like, the whole shebang about Jesus. He knew that any talk of God was the last thing in the world I wanted to hear, but when he spoke about it I never felt as if he was being pushy or judgmental. He was just sharing what truth was to him. This whole thing didn’t compute for me. How could someone be all about God and still drink cool beers and enjoy snowboarding? I mean, was it even possible to be normal and fun and all about Jesus? I wouldn’t have believed it was, except for Jeff.
About a year after my poor decision-making skills left a big scar on my life, I was in a very funky place. We were running up our phone bills again with a long conversation that spanned East coast to West. Something had been building in me that I’d been trying to shove down for a long time, but I was finally starting to talk about it. I was pushing questions onto Jeff like I never had before, and I could tell it was making him uncomfortable. I was asking him things about heaven and hell and God and being a good person that had him backed into a corner. I am certain he knew where all this was headed, and I was starting to get kind of belligerent about this whole God thing with him, which I’d never done before.
He was standing on the edge of hurting a friend’s feelings with the truth. But lovely people, when a person you care about is asking you for the truth, you give it to them. What he said that night told me that the thing I was missing in my life was Jesus, and that there were simply no other answers to my questions.
When our conversation ended, I wasn’t sure if Jeff and I would ever talk again. Truly. (He said the exact same thing.) But I knew he had been completely, totally honest with me. And that was refreshing, even if it stung momentarily.
I set out on a journey to figure this business out. I always thought anything to do with Christianity was backward, sketchy, and boring. And I discovered that for some people (usually the loud ones) that is the case. But none of those things were associated with this Jesus that Jeff followed. None.
Jeff had opened the door and let me discover for myself that Jesus was the answer to all these dang questions. Every single one of them. And He still is.
Jeff gave me my first bible over a decade ago. I still carry that one…now wrinkly, torn, and tattered. Missing the maps and half the concordance. But I don’t care. I don’t think I will ever get rid of it. Because it reminds me of my friend Jeff and my very ragged search for truth. And how he was an integral part of it. Of who I am today.
When Jeff came to visit for the first time after I was married, he took my husband aside and had a conversation with him. He made a point to tell him, man to man, that we’d been friends—and only friends—for a long time, but he was glad I’d found the one whom he’d been filling in for all that time. Mad respect for that moment.
Now my lady-reader-friends, before you go asking me for Jeff’s number because he sounds like such a great guy… simmer down. He’s all settled down now. He is married to an incredible little redhead who couldn’t be more perfect for him. Her name is Mckayla and I don’t think I could have handpicked a better gal for him myself. She’s brilliant, beautiful, funny, and outdoorsy(!!!) They still live on the West coast and have now gifted the universe with the most gorgeous, chubby little baby boy that you’ve ever seen. Aunty Krysten is madly in love from afar. I’m so happy for their little family and the way they are following after God together. I
secretly obviously want them to move straight to Ohio tomorrow so I can hang out with them both and drink pumpkin beer and pretend Ohio winters are as fun as the ones in Oregon.
Young ladies, if you find yourself in a situation where you have a close friend of the other gender, and he makes you laugh and respects you and encourages you and all that, just pump your brakes. Don’t get all girl-stupid and jump to conclusions. You might just ruin everything. Ask God for a wider lens and zoom out all the way. Just chill for a minute and realize that maybe, just maybe, this person is your Fill-in. You probably have a lot to learn from him. And you–and your future–will be better for it.
Thanks again, Fill-in. I think you did an awesome job.