They want us to know that we’re special — we are children of God. We’re sitting in the church’s recreation center. There’s a modest stained-glass window in the middle of the left wall; its reflection falls on the right: colors jumble and mingle, the outline of a cross shines, like it’s protecting us from ourselves. We’re allegedly guilty of sinning, defying God’s will. There are five of us. I’m the only one who’s been here before.
They want me to know that they’re happy to see me again, but they hope it’ll be the last time I visit under these circumstances. I want them to know that I go by Lee now.
We sit in a circle with seven metal chairs with built-in burgundy cushions. Father Longley asks that we bow our heads and close our eyes. Before we introduce ourselves, we must thank God. “Without Him, we are nothing,” Father says.
I bow slowly, braids falling around my face, close my eyes briefly and then open them, squinting. I stare at my bare nails, wishing I had taken the time to slick sunset yellow polish onto my nails before the flight. But I was hoping Mummy would change her mind.
After the prayer, Indie the youth counselor, suggests we go around the circle and introduce ourselves by our names, ages, home islands. “Throw in a fun fact,” Indie smiles, revealing slightly crooked teeth that shine against her dark skin. A round pot is growing in her belly. Her head is full of wool-textured hair sprouting grey and black strands. It’s shorter than it was last year; it clumps against her scalp rather than reaching for the sky. She looks like a schoolboy in need of a haircut. I like it.
I raise my hand. She nods her head towards me with the same smile. “Would you like to go first, Lee?”
I swing my hair over my shoulder as I pull my hand down. “I can, but I was gonna suggest we include pronouns.”
Indie looks at Father Longley for guidance; he doesn’t look at her at all. Father says, “If others want to, they can. But it’s not required.” He crosses his arms over his stomach with a little huff and settles in the chair. He’s never been my biggest fan.
“Well, I’m Lee.” Everyone watches me. “I use they/them pronouns.” I start with this to see if Father will huff again. He doesn’t, but he blinks a few times like he’s steadying himself. “Seventeen, from Nassau and I have a cat name Jingle.” I pause and Father motions to the boy next to me, his hand large and fat. The boy doesn’t speak, so I continue. “This my second time here. Didn’t really work the last time but the food good and Eleuthera nice so I back.” Some of the campers stare blankly at me, others keep their heads down.
The boy doesn’t acknowledge Father Longley’s eyes and hands. The girl on my right takes the opportunity to introduce herself as Rachel (she/her), a sixteen-year-old pianist from Freeport who’s been sent to camp because of a misunderstanding. “I’m not a lesbian,” she says. “I’m not even bisexual. I’m strictly into boys. My friend and I were just practicing because we hadn’t kissed anyone before and we wanted to know how. I should be sent home because someone else might need to be here instead of me. It’s rude of me to take up space.” Rachel enunciates every syllable in a high, defensive pitch. She runs a hand through her blonde hair and says, pleadingly, “If you could just call my mom and explain that to her, I think she’d let me come home.” Before Indie can respond, Father Longley motions toward the person next to Rachel.
“How about you, Blue Shirt?” Father Longley raises his predominantly grey eyebrows. He doesn’t risk being ignored this time. His nose flares and I notice that his nose hairs, also grey, poke out beyond his nostrils.
Blue Shirt looks down at his shirt for confirmation. He looks up. “Arthur, dred.” He shrugs as if we should all know this. “Sixteen. From Nassau. He.” His long body slumps into the chair.
“Don’t forget your fun fact,” Indie says.
“Aw yeah. Ise run track.”
“Which races?” Rachel asks.
“Two and four.” He shrugs again.
Rachel tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I do high jump. And sometimes the two, but I’m not that great.”
Two other boys introduce themselves: Ryan and Thomas (both he/him) — one from Eleuthera, the other from Nassau. Ryan’s fun fact is that he was born with the umbilical cord around his neck and his parents blame his “deficiencies” on that. For a second, I wonder what Mummy would be like if she had something to blame. I would probably be in a doctor’s office, the nurse shaking her head on the way out after weighing me and checking my pressure. Thomas, the quiet one, has a black belt in karate.
We’re all over fourteen and under eighteen. I experienced my first (unrequited) love at fourteen. Jess. Her laugh sounded like birds teasing each other: playful chirps from high up, unreachable. She had the warmest brown eyes; I still think about falling into them like a worm falls on damp soil searching for a home. I wasn’t sure how to approach her; I just knew I wanted to kiss her. I took a chance one day, told her I thought she was the cutest girl in our grade.
If my life were a fairytale, even for just a while, Jess would have kissed me beneath the tamarind tree. She wouldn’t have cared about the people watching and wondering. But life has never been that idyllic. Jess glanced over her shoulder and whispered, “Thanks, but ine really intuhda gay ting. Christine might be doe.” I watched her walk away, her hand clasped around her arm. I stood there with my hand at the back of my neck, my bag heavy on my shoulders, my stomach rumbling, empty.
Once introductions are over, Father and Indie inform us about the success of this camp. Longley begrudgingly adds that I’m the only person who’s ever had to come back. They’re doing the Lord’s work, they insist.
“You’ll return to your parents as new children.” Father Longley glances at me. I smile — every tooth on display. He continues, “God’s light is waiting to shine on you.” He points at the stained window. We all look, our eyes absorbing the radiance of this manmade brilliance — blinding, unavoidable. “You’re here for a reason. You might not understand that now, but you will soon. Indie and I look forward to guiding you towards God’s will and wisdom.”
They serve us tuna and grits the next morning. There’s a long wooden table set up like a Sunday buffet with a pan of grits — a tiny can-fire flailing beneath it — a pan of tuna, and a paper plate with lime wedges. If this is what they want to feed me I don’t mind humoring them. I don’t really have a choice. Mummy refuses to buy me a ticket home before the two weeks are up.
After breakfast, we gather in the same circle. Father Longley asks us to open our hearts to God. I close my eyes and imagine his God coming down from a cloudless sky with a scalpel and a dummy swiped from hell for demonstration purposes. Longley’s God would slam the demon onto the floor and our bodies would follow in sync, making the room vibrate. He would make an incision on top of our hearts, skin and self coming undone, blood spewing out of our chests, thick like the grits above the can-fire. He would remove our deflated hearts and breathe life into them — His lips circular as he blows, like he’s whistling. Our hearts would be specks in His hands. Specks that, when given life, would pulse and groan like babies fresh from their mothers, eyes shut and umbilical cords tense around their necks. Then, He would flip the dummy onto its stomach and our bodies would follow. Our chest wounds would ooze slowly onto the tiled floors. Using the back as a cutting board, He would take the scalpel and leave a barely noticeable slit in our hearts. No other entity would manage to shrink into it the way He could. Once it’s done, He would stand us up — still soiling the tiles with our gritsy blood — and hand us our hearts: groaning, pulsing, open.
“Put it back in.” His voice would ricochet, cracks forming in the colorful window. None of us would fumble; we would place our hearts back in our chests with ease. The dummy would dissolve through the stained tiles. Father’s God would laugh, I think, like a whisper or a choke. The room would become nothing but light — hot and bright, the stained-window reflecting onto us all — and He would ascend.
I wonder if this is what they want.
After lunch, Rachel asks me to meet her in our room — an office converted into a ‘cabin’ with three mattresses on the floor. The boys are in the ‘media’ room, which is just a room with a small television. After lunch we have free time until dinner, except on Wednesdays and Sundays when we have one-on-one check-ins with Indie, and Fridays when we participate in youth group. We’re encouraged to use our free time to read or journal about our experience, our thoughts and how they’re changing, but people typically walk to the beach, nap, or watch television. Because I’m curious and wouldn’t mind being friends with Rachel, I go find her.
She’s sitting on her mattress, arms folded across her chest, left leg shaking.
Rachel looks up, unfolds her arms, stills her leg. She spanks the mattress like it’s a rude child, inviting me to sit. “I need your help.” Her lips are pursed together.
I appreciate her frankness; I like people that don’t withhold, don’t leave me parched and waiting. I sit and turn to face her. “Wassup?”
Rachel claps her hands together softly and her eyes twirl like she’s getting into character. “Indie doesn’t want to call my mom and tell her I shouldn’t be here, so I need you to help me prove that I’m straight.” Her hands are flailing, like she’s searching for something. “Like I said yesterday, my friend and I were just practicing. If I really wanted to kiss a girl, like, really kiss a girl, then I would do it and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Want to know why?” She sticks her neck out, tilts her head. She’s waiting for me to reply.
“I don’t know. Why?” I ask.
“Because if I were gay then I would be fine with that. I’m not having an identity crisis. I’m not homophobic either, Lee. I’m literally an ally.” She speaks as if her thoughts can’t be debated.
“Good to know…”
“I need you to kiss me.”
I look around the room, checking for Indie’s hidden feet or a peek of her schoolboy hair. “This a test or somethin?”
Rachel grabs my head and turns it back towards her. “No. Indie went home to cook dinner or something. I need your help. Technically, you’re not a girl, but you’re not a boy either. But you used to be a girl and you look like a girl, so if you tell Father Longley and Indie that we kissed and it didn’t seem like I was into it, then they’d believe you. And then I could go home.” For once, her words are rushed.
“You right. Ine a girl or a boy.” I shake my head. “And ine kissing you.”
She looks surprised — her eyes widen and roll. She adjusts her ponytail, pulling it over her shoulder and tossing it back several times before she leaves it alone. “Not your type, huh?”
I sigh and fold my hands together. “I just don’t wan my first kiss to be with someone ine know like that.” She pouts. “Why you don’t just ask one uhda boys?”
“Wait, you might be onto something. But which one should I ask?”
“You know une have to change if yune wan to, right?” Rachel avoids my gaze. She twirls her ponytail between her fingers decorated with silver rings.
Finally, she says, “I’ll figure it out.” She glances around the room, still avoiding my eyes. Specks of dust dance around in the air. Desks and chairs are stacked against the walls, leaving the floors empty except for our mattresses and luggage in the corner.
“Ugh, this room is depressing. You wanna go to the beach? We could walk over together.” She pauses. “Don’t worry, I won’t try to kiss you.” Rachel finally looks at me, waiting. I think it’s her version of an apology.
I nod and smile — my version of forgiveness. She walks over to her suitcase and digs for a swimsuit. I flounce onto my mattress.
I lied. I would kiss a stranger.
Ryan is sitting next to me the following morning. He crosses his legs the way Mummy once insisted I sit in public. She would say something about a young lady’s purity managing to keep her afloat and keep boys at bay.
Indie’s leading today’s session. She wants us to discuss why we’re here, to open ourselves up more. The more we open up to each other, the more likely we’ll heal and lean into God’s love without shame. “Be honest about your load and He’ll lighten it,” she says.
To make us feel more comfortable Indie tells us about her family struggles. “I was unsure about having children for a while. But the more I opened up to my husband and other family and friends, the clearer God’s plan became, because my support system prayed for me and reminded me to seek God. Everyone needs a support system pointing them in God’s direction, especially when we’re uncertain. That’s what you all should be to each other: support systems,” Indie says. Now, she and her husband are dedicated to training their son up in the way of the Lord. “This is one of the ways I honor God: through my family. Genesis 1:28 says, And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” I look over at Ryan’s notebook. He’s drawing Indie, except her head is massive and the rest of her body just dangles from it.
Indie asks Ryan to share first. He uncrosses his legs and stuffs his yellow pencil between the pages of the book and closes it. “My mummy send me here. Someone from her work did tell her bout it, Ms. Turner or someone. She did tell my mummy that her gayest grandson, whatever that mean, came home straight after he bin here.”
“HJ Turner. I remember him,” Father Longley says. “He was reluctant at first, but when he finally felt God, he said he’d never been more relieved. I believe he’s engaged now.” Father smiles; I didn’t think he was capable of such things. Ryan says nothing; he crosses his legs again and opens his sketchbook, the pencil tight between his fingers. Father sips from a bottle, coconut water slipping between the gap of his smirking lips.
Thomas goes next. “Well, I’m here cause my dad finds it odd I haven’t been on a date yet. Tried to explain that I just don’t want to right now.” He pauses and adjusts his posture. “I don’t think I’m gay though. Sometimes romance, especially in high school, feels too complicated. I’d rather just chill with my friends. I considered dating once though, just for my dad to calm down, but I didn’t think it’d be fair to the other person.”
“Sounds complicated, Thomas. Do you think you deserve to be here? Do you think we can help you?” Indie asks.
Thomas fiddles with the brim of his cap, his fingers long, nails stubby. “Probably not, but it’s not too bad here. I just want my dad to stop worrying.”
“We still hope you make use of your time. There’s always something new to learn,” Indie says. “Arthur, what about you? Would you like to share?”
Arthur sits up. “I straight.”
“Share, Arthur,” Father says. Arthur glances back and forth between Father Longley and Indie. Indie nods at him.
“Ine really have nothin to say like dat.” He sucks his teeth. “My parents find out I kiss someone I shouldn’ta kiss.” He slumps into the chair again, shame pulling at him. “Like Thomas say, ine mind being here yanno. The food solid. I just wan my life go back to normal once I reach home.”
“What’s normal for you?” Indie asks.
“Normal is when my parents een being weird and whispering in the kitchen and wybe like ine there. When my daddy could actually look me in my eyes, bey.”
Sadness floods into the room with the colorful light. I raise my hand, trying to escape it, trying to fashion it into something else. Indie nods at me. “This my second time here and I still don’t understand how this s’posed to work. Talking about why we here and opening ourselves up to y’all version of God don’t make me feel uplifted or healed or give me no kinda clarity. It just kinda sad,” I say. I notice Ryan’s head tilt up.
Indie begins to speak but her voice is drowned out by Father Longley’s exhale. “Coming to God isn’t meant to be easy, Aliah.” Spit stalls in my throat. Ryan closes his sketchbook. Indie leans and taps Father on the shoulder, but he ignores her. “Having faith isn’t easy when everything in the world is telling you to turn the other way. You’re not the first person to feel that way and you won’t be the last. You have to stop caring so much about your personal desires and think about what God wants for you, what God requires of you.”
Before I can speak, Ryan says, “For one, their name is Lee. And for two, how you know what God wan for someone else? How that even get ya business?”
I want to say something about God loving us all, about God creating us in Their image, not Father Longley’s or Indie’s, but nothing sounds right. Nothing sounds like enough to make him understand. I wonder if this is how he feels around all of us — unsure, spit-stalled, tongue-tied. If it is, he hides it well.
“God called me to the altar, and I answered. That is how it became my business. Anything else Ryan and Lee?” He spits my name from his tongue. I look around. Rachel furrows her eyebrows and rotates her finger, prompting me to say something. She looks crazy.
Finally, I say, “But how can you tell us what God wants for us? What about God telling everyone to come as they are? How do you believe that and still do this year after year?” I trace the circle with a pointed finger. Frustration rises in my throat; I am beginning to choke on this resistance.
Ryan bursts into something like laughter. It bounces off the walls with spite, with tenacity, with sadness. Everything he holds and hides stretches between us, all of us. I can feel it in the slit of my heart. I sit up in my chair, eager for Father’s response. He says nothing and sips his coconut water, his nose hairs poking, his body stiff.
Indie clears her throat and says, “We’re not here to judge you all. We just want to help everyone become the version of themselves that God envisioned.” Her eyes, frantic and desperate, remind me of Mummy’s.
Mummy has looked at me with bitter desperation ever since I told her I’d discarded the name she gave me. Her eyes are always searching for the person she wants, begging for her ideal me to manifest — hoping for this version of me to disintegrate. Hope would emanate from her eyes whenever I wore bikinis to the beach or did my makeup on the weekend, my imperfections powdered and concealed. She’d hold my face in her hands and tell me how beautiful I looked, that I was too pretty not to be her daughter. I wanted to stay there, my face safe in her palms, but I would pull away and tell her that I can do all those things and be non-binary. But she doesn’t want a child. She wants a daughter.
She searches in my eyes for someone I cannot be, not even for her sake. I pull away from her, struggling to convince her of who I am. We’re both begging for the other to see. Frantically searching for acceptance. For love.
I don’t realize I’m crying until Rachel’s long arms are around me. From the shelter she’s created, I hear Father Longley excuse himself.
Indie dismisses us early, says that one-on-one check-ins are rescheduled for tomorrow.
At the beach later, I sit and stare at the sky, a witness to the way it merges with the ocean. Their blues — baby and aqua — can’t get enough of each other. Or they can’t escape each other. Even reflections of the clouds — white and satiated — find a home in the water. The longer I look, the less I can tell where the sky ends and the ocean begins. Nor do I want to.
Rachel walks over to me; she’s holding hands with Arthur. Thomas and Ryan trail behind them. In an oversized t-shirt, Rachel looks like she woke up on his side of the bed. Arthur looks normal — his shoulders slightly slumped but still tall, his Nikes scuffed, well-loved. If they weren’t using each other to hide from themselves, I would think them a cute couple. Their long limbs complement each other so well.
“Feeling any better?” Rachel asks as Arthur sets a towel down for them. Thomas and Ryan set down their own towels. Thomas wastes no time kicking off his sandals, tossing his shirt to the side, and jogging to the shoreline.
“Nothing the beach cyan fix,” I say. “Y’all a thing now?” Arthur shrugs. Rachel nods. “Been cured ay?”
Rachel begins to speak but I hold up a finger. I look at Arthur. He looks back and forth between us and sighs. “Tryna be,” he says. Ryan is sitting down now, his eyes hidden by heart-shaped shades.
“I listenin,” I say. Rachel pulls her massive t-shirt off and throws it onto the towel. She runs.
“Don’t drown na,” Ryan yells after Rachel. We watch her feet kick up sand with every stride.
Arthur laughs. “Guess she een wan hear me talk bout it. But anyway, it’s like ise saying earlier dred, I gotta try for my parents cause if they don’t feel like I change then tings ga always be weird, bey. And ine wan that. You feel me?” He looks down at us, waiting for a response. I just nod. He continues, “I prolly een ga see the bey I usta like so it een ga matter no how.”
“You ga end up liking someone else eventually. You only delayin destiny, boo,” Ryan says, his head towards the water, watching Rachel and Thomas float.
“He een lie,” I say.
“No bey. It’s about willpower. Ine tryna lose my family over no nigga. I jus gotta stick tuh what God intended.” I think Arthur’s talking to himself more than he is to us. Ryan shakes his head and stands.
“Too hot for alla dis,” Ryan says. He waves a hand, dismissing the debate, and walks to join Rachel and Thomas in the water.
“I don’t think that ga really help you in the long run, but I understand. I guess alla us understand, even if we don’t always wan admit it,” I say. I think of Jesse, her arm protecting her body from me. I think of my mother’s eyes, her hands warm against my cheek: frantic, desperate, waiting.
Arthur adjusts his hat and cracks his neck. I watch the veins in his neck surface — bold and tense before they retreat. He removes his shoes and sets them at the edge of the towel, like rocks, like anchors. Rather than reply, he follows Rachel’s lead by pulling his shirt over his head and reappearing as something else. He flees toward the water.
I don’t blame them. From far away, it feels like if anyone runs fast enough, they could find their way into the comforting arms of the sky and its overfed clouds. We could all come out — dripping salty from the love of the ocean, refreshed by the breath of the sky — reborn.