a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
“And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.”
-Rainer Marie Wilke
the waterfall slips through the cliff’s jagged peaks and pools at its base. it looks the way it feels to enter a used bookstore, tiny and suffocated between slabs of brick and buildings. or a museum, in a marble room of marble statues, at dawn when nobody is around and the sun comes through the window and hits the statues in such a light where you can’t help but think that this, this is how they were supposed to be seen. it’s the moors where the poets write and the moon you see when you look out your window. the cliffs are the bracing ribcage to the lake below. it’s the beginning and end of everything.
eliza is perched on the rocky ledge behind the waterfall, staring out at the gallery of ivy and moss before her. i am seated to her right. i run my index finger along the fine grooves of our granite throne, because maybe, if i really concentrated, i could medusa myself and stay here, in the museum at sunrise, until the only thing that exists is the sorry remnants of my consciousness. nothing but dust. i am interrupted by eliza’s sigh. “what’s wrong?” i ask.
she sighs again. “what’s it like in california?” she says. there isn’t enough lilt for it to be a question. “it’s warm,” i say. “it’s nothing like here.” in the early morning, frost dances on the tips of the grass, and a chill has settled in the cramped air. fog wraiths around my shoulders and clamps down on my bones. “i like here,” eliza says. she runs a hand over her head and smooths out her curls. the sleeves on her teal windbreaker crinkle.
“i do too.” my breath crystallizes before me. the vapor lingers for a moment before it dissolves.
she turns her head to me. “so why are you going?”
“it’s not forever,” i lie. “i’ll be home for Christmas.” i won’t.
she averts my gaze.
“what?” i wonder briefly if she can read my thoughts, or if i’m so transparent. i look down to my ribs. i can’t see them.
eliza watches the slight waves on the lake, carried by the wind. “i heard mom talking.”
she turns to me. “you’re not coming home.”
i exhale. “no, i’m not,” i admit.
there’s a very long silence where the only thing i can hear is frogs on the skirt of the lake and crickets in the trees and an occasional bird call. mist grips my shoulders tight, whispers itself into my ears and eyes and through my lips, snakes through my limbs and nestles in the spaces between bone and muscle. i wonder if it’s possible to drown in air.
eliza waits for my reply.
i pluck a blade of glass from the base of our throne. the frost has begun to melt in my palm. i want to tell her the truth. i don’t want to spoil our mother’s image. i want to tell her the truth. i watch the blade of grass fade from white to green. i want to tell her the truth.
“mom and i had a disagreement,” i say at last.
“so bad you had to move across the country forever?”
i toss the blade of grass, as far as the wind wills it to. it flutters midair, and falls to the moss next to me. “we’re just too different.” my voice is lifeless.
“okay,” she says slowly. her gaze falls to the piece of grass, indistinguishable against a blended backdrop of sage and olive, jade and juniper. when she looks up she asks, “are we too different?” “no,” i say, much too quickly. then i add, “maybe.”
silence settles in, thick as the atmosphere. a breeze carries the blade of glass away, and we watch as it catches in the waterfall’s stream and tumbles down to the lake. the air is jammed and overflowing with the words we’ve left unsaid. they press down on my shoulders, on my spine. they fill my lungs and stretch my ribs. eliza shifts to face me entirely. “you didn’t go to Church last week.”
i refuse to meet her eye. “i’m not…..i’m not entirely sure that i’m Catholic anymore.” i’ve lost sight of my blade of grass.
eliza looks at me curiously. i wasn’t lying.
i wonder how much she overheard. if she knew and was baiting it out of me, or if she sensed the change. eliza does that sometimes, like a fisherman wading deep into the waters.
hazy half-truths cave in on my ribs. they swarm my head and tell me to confess my sins.
lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.
stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.
the truth will set you free.
the truth will set me free.
i should tell her.
“the Bible doesn’t exactly....admire people like me.” the words were strangled, an ancient scripture in an unfamiliar tongue. my intestines twisted, wrapped around my ribcage, pushed my stomach into my throat, pressed on my heart. the blood in my veins sizzled and hissed and threatened to implode. it happened the same way last time i said it. i thought it might get easier.
eliza doesn’t seem to notice my hesitance. “like what?”
i inhale. my eyes close. the air tastes of sorrow. i hold it in my lungs as long as they will let me. my heart calms, my blood cools, my stomach returns to my belly. i exhale. “gay.” i open my eyes. i was expecting the lake and the forest around me to have been submerged into flame. it was the same. it was technicolor.
the creases in her brow fold, a stain on a flawless face. smooth as marble. “what’s that?” the air is lighter now. a snake slithers by my feet. he hisses to go back. take it all back. she doesn’t have to know.
love rejoices with truth.
i don’t think i can love.
love does not dishonor others.
what honor do i have?
i have the truth.
i should tell her.
“you know how mom loved Dad?”
my hands string my phrases together, back and forth, weaving a blanket of thought. “so she loves boys, right? and nanny loves grandpa. mom and nanny love boys because they’re girls.” “right.”
“and Dad loved girls because he was a boy. and so does grandpa, because he’s a boy.”
the snake slithers by again. i bite my lip. blood trickles down to my taste buds, lethargic cough medicine on a spoon. eliza sits patiently. something deep and primal in the pit of my stomach burns. i flex my fingers. a current pulses from my ribs, through my veins, to my fingertips until it breaks the skin and swells into the atmosphere. it urges the pinch of the fog to stretch, to accommodate for my Confession. the burning has spread. my lungs are on fire. my blood has boiled. my skin is on fire. my bones rattle in worry, a feeble attempt to save themselves from this violent blaze. my head is on fire. i may be melting.
eliza sits, a statue. her face is serene and welcoming, all the cadence of Mother Mary captured in the naivete of childhood and plump cheeks.
help us also to fear the fires of hell, that we may always keep away from serious sin, and live lives of goodness and virtue…
Mother Mary tells me to go on. so i breathe. the flames subside.
i summon the words. they rise, through my throat and behind my teeth, a mass of sin and fire and every ugly truth i’ve ever kept. i gag on my tongue as i spit it out. “i’m a boy...who loves boys.”
they roll off my tongue and buzz through my lips, an adagio ballet of sin and hypocrisy that the dancers have forgotten the choreography to. it slides down my throat and fills the space in my lungs where oxygen should be. i may be suffocating.
“okay.” her nose wrinkles. “that’s kinda weird, though.” Mother Mary doesn’t judge, they tell us, but she does today.
“it’s not,” i say, louder than necessary. it is. it isn’t natural.
she shrugs and traces a pattern into her thigh. “i’ve never heard of it.”
“i don’t know. there aren’t a lot here.” i’ve never met one.
“because the people don’t like it, so they don’t tell anyone.” i assume.
“why don’t they like it?”
i pick at the moss that surrounds the soles of my shoes. “because the Bible says it’s a sin.” i should end the sentence there. there’s nothing else to say. the Bible is the word of God. who am i to disagree?
i should tell her.
a hammering compulsion from my chest pushes forward with words i don’t wholeheartedly believe. “but the Bible also says that divorce is a sin, and so is shrimp, and cutting your hair.” why do i defend what wasn’t meant to be, i ask myself.
i don’t respond.
eliza’s mouth drops into a little o. she touches the frayed ends of her newly shoulder-length curls. she doesn’t look at me. the air is thin and silent. it filters through my lungs and encapsulates my ribs, fluid as water. it quells the fire.
“we ate shrimp the other day,” she says, focused on the waterfall.
“yeah.” ash settles among my ribs.
she turns back to me. “then why are only some things followed? how come we can eat shrimp but not be gay?”
“i don’t know,” i say. i don’t know. “Christianity is full of contradictions.” it is.
“can girls be gay?”
“anyone can be gay.”
she considers this for a moment. my stomach hisses with nausea.
she hates you.
she never said that.
why wouldn’t she?
she’s my sister.
your mother hates you.
your friends hate you.
your father hated you.
my father didn’t hate.
eliza clears her throat after far too many minutes. “God said to love thy neighbor.”
i shrug. “yeah.”
“that’s what Sister Katherine said. she said that love thy neighbor was all that mattered. because the Commandments are the only thing we know God wrote Himself.” she tilts her head and adds, “also thall shalt not steal or kill.”
i laugh. it rings against the cliff walls and bounces into the stream of the waterfall. “yeah.” it dies as it hits the lake.
she makes a good point.
“so not liking people for being gay is a sin. Jesus forgave sinners. that was his whole thing.” she gestures wildly as she talks, connecting imaginary dots in one overarching picture. “there’s no possible way to hate someone and still be following the word of God. Jesus forgave.”
she crosses her arms. “this is dumb,” she declares. “it’s hypocritical, right? isn’t that the word?”
“it’s hypocritical. you can’t love everyone and then hate someone. you have to forgive sinners.” “kinda.” i don’t want to tell her that they have a point. man lying with man is unnatural. they can’t reproduce. they’re anomalies.
“but mom doesn’t like you being gay?” eliza’s voice drops to a hush, muffled against the rush of the waterfall.
“no, she doesn’t.”
“so you have to move?”
“did you go to Confession?”
“yes.” my words have angles. sharp elbows that jab at my side.
“did you say your Hail Marys?”
“i don’t get it. how come that didn’t fix it?”
“you can’t fix it.”
eliza straightens her spine, rolls her shoulders. i remember the lecture Sister Katherine gave last month. if you don’t sit up straight in Mass, God won’t be able to hear you, she’d said. good posture makes a good Catholic. i’m not sure why. there’s too many rules. it’s friday and i want a cheeseburger.
“does mama know that the Bible says you can’t cut your hair? cause she took me to get my hair cut last week.”
“yes, she knows.”
her face falls.
eliza scoots closer to me and wraps her arms around my waist. “i’m sorry, Jack.”
i nod, fixing my stare on the rush of the water. “me too.”
we sit. i rub her back. the fog has recoiled and my lungs are clear. the frost of the morning has melted and the air is damp, but clear. it’s cool against my skin. it’s refreshing in my lungs.
she looks up. i meet her gaze this time. “have you told Father Michael?” she asks.
i take in a sharp breath. “yes,” i say with more edge than i mean.
“did he say gay is bad too?” her voice is a breath against the bone-sharp wind that carries through our hair.
i hesitate. i consider telling her about his offer for summer camp in utah. “yes,” is all i say.
i know i could fix it if i tried. but utah is too hot and too sunny and too dry and i wouldn’t be happy there. and what does utah have that i haven’t already done?
i look out to the mist rising off the tops of trees, off my shoulders. there’s a moss growing on an old oak. or maybe it’s ivy. it’s almost as grand as a Madonna. almost as full as life as a Madonna. Dad used to say she was so full of life. he said michelangelo captured her essence perfectly, as if he knew Mary personally. he spoke as eliza does, like he understood the world. i still don't.
he took me to see it once, the Madonna, before eliza. he said it was his favorite because the Pietà was too sad. the Pietà was my favorite because it made me feel something. it was the closest thing i’d ever felt to grief then.
michelangelo had a male lover. his name was tommaso.
they were close friends.
everyone knew they were lovers.
they were close friends.
michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. he carved the Madonna. michelangelo had a male lover. he modeled Jesus after him.
they were close friends.
michelangelo michelangelo michelangelo.
“i tried to make it go away.” my voice cracks. i don’t care. “i didn’t think it would stay. Father Michael told me it would go away if i prayed enough. i prayed to Saint Jude every day, you know what he’s the patron saint of, right?” i try to keep my eyes trained on the oak tree, but my vision blurs. i wish i was in italy. “lost causes,” eliza mutters.
“lost causes,” i nod. “and no matter how hard i prayed, whether i prayed to God or Mary or Saint Jude or Saint Dymphna or Saint Rita or my guardian angel, it wouldn’t go away.” my voice catches. i clear my throat.
the only sound is the rushing waterfall for a very long time.
she sits up, letting go of her grasp around me. “maybe you can-”
“there’s not enough Hail Marys in the world to fix it,” i snap, more sharply than i intended. she nods, slowly, then more understanding. she picks at a piece of moss.
nobody says anything for a very long while.
i decide the conversation is over. i uncross my legs and pick up my backpack. then she says, “are you going to Hell?”
i set my backpack down. “i don’t know.” i hug my knees to my chest. i’d be lying if i said i hadn’t thought about it. “i hope not.” i want to go to Heaven. i want to hear my father say my name again. he never called me jack. always john.
her head cocks to the side. “i don’t think you will,” she decides.
i smile. “thank you.”
“you never broke the Commandments,” she points out. “God Himself never said anything about gay people being bad.”
“no, He didn’t. Leviticus did.”
“Leviticus doesn’t know what God thinks. only Jesus. and Moses, sometimes.”
i give her a small chuckle. “you got me there.”
she looks me in the eye. “i don’t think you’re going to Hell, Jack.”
“thank you.” one day i might believe her.
eliza pauses for a moment. her eyes wander. “will mom?”
i take a long, deep breath. the fog is velvet and cotton in my lungs. “i don’t know,” i tell her. my ribs break and splinter into a thousand pieces as i utter the words.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.