Content warning: Homophobia
My family is moving today, and they're not taking me with them. From the bottom of the staircase I watch them shuffle in and out of rooms, hear them opening cupboards and drawers and closets, double and triple checking. My mother moves with the passion of a triathlete, crossing items off her laundry list. When my father trudges down the stairs and bumps into me with a heavy cardboard box, I am the one to apologize. For being in the way, for taking up space, for driving them out of this place.
They tell me they're going to Texas, that the final chapter in the Gospel of Mississippi has come to an end. They speak of Texas wistfully, sigh when they utter its name. But it's only two states away. It can't be all that different from here, right? I try to tell myself that I probably won't be missing much.
My kid sister, Nadine, emerges from the kitchen, scooting a big box marked 'Fragile' across the carpet. Sweat stains sully the underarms of her shirt. The box hits a snag in the rug, causing the glasses inside to clink. My sister nearly jumps out of her skin when I ask if she needs any help. The clinking is louder this time.
Pausing by the front door, panting and red-faced, Nadine gawks at me. Then she glances over her shoulder, out the doorway, and when my eyes follow hers we spot our father shoving another box in the back of the U-Haul. He claps his hands, squinting in the July sunshine as he makes his way back to the house.
"It's okay, Billy," she whispers. She bends down to lift the box and her hair covers her face like a curtain. The sound of her voice is distant and faint, like it's coming through a tin can telephone. Dad has instructed her not to talk to me today. Quickly, she adds, "I'm fine, really," and she marches to the moving van, passing our father at the doorway.
It was Dad who told me this morning that I wouldn't be joining them in Texas, that I would have to find someplace else to call home. He said he just couldn't have me living under his roof anymore, not after what happened two months ago with Jonah. When asked where I was going to stay, he shrugged and said, "Where I am going, you cannot follow." I recognized the words from the Bible, gleaned from the countless Sundays spent listening to my father deliver his sermons. Before I could place their origin, he said, "Look, I don't know where you're going to stay, but it sure isn't here."
My box of belongings sits at the edge of the living room, banished to the corner like it's in time-out. Clothes, books, bedding, games, everything I've called my own for the past fifteen years. All stuffed neatly inside a cubic three foot box, packed and ready for a trip I won't be making. On top of the box rests a black leather-bound Bible, a parting gift from my father.
"I'll be praying for you, Billy," he'd announced when he placed the Bible there. He was using his pastor's voice, booming and all-knowing and a little smug. "As God is my witness, I'll be praying for you."
It isn't hard, when you hear that conviction in his tone, to imagine my father in his prime. Every Sunday when I was a kid, we would sit in the front pew at church and watch Dad work his magic at the lectern. He delivered confident homilies, flooding every inch of the building with the gospel of the Lord, his voice rising high as heaven, his stole swaying as he preached. My father talked and people listened—that's just how it was. He spoke often of 'salvation' and 'forgiveness' and 'atonement,' words whose meanings I've come to doubt.
Perhaps because he referenced forgiveness so much, I was expecting him to look beyond the rumors that circulated through our church and our town. Because that's exactly what they were: rumors.
And they weren't true. Not entirely.
Everyone had their own version of what happened between me and Jonah. And that was the problem. My father never knew which one to believe, whose side to take. He only knew he couldn't trust my version, not when he'd heard the story secondhand to begin with.
But if you want to know what really happened, here's the truth.
Two months ago, I had my first kiss.
We were in gym class playing basketball, me and Jonah and the other freshmen. Against their better judgement, someone threw me the ball and I ran for the hoop, jumping to make a three-point shot. The ball bounced off the rim, and in the next second it felt like someone had dropped an anchor on my ankle. My foot hit the ground at the wrong angle and took my body down with it. My ankle was swollen before the gym teacher could even blow his whistle.
When he asked for someone to help walk me to the nurse's office, Jonah Gleeson alone volunteered, one hand raised to the ceiling. I tried to steady my breathing as he crouched down beside me, shoving his curly brown hair in my face. "Put your arm around me," he commanded. And my arm moved of its own accord, draped itself around Jonah's neck. His skin was hot to the touch, leftover warmth from the basketball game. A single thought crossed my mind: So this must be what Hell feels like.
We hobbled down the hallway together. He smelled of sweat, and when he spoke there was the faintest whiff of peanut butter on his breath. Jonah chattered without end about the basketball game, left no room for silence to breathe between us. When we were almost to the nurse's office, he looked at me and asked, "You feeling better?"
I replied by squeezing his neck a little tighter. He smiled and before he could speak, I said, "Why did you offer to walk me?"
He blinked twice. "Huh?"
My face felt like someone set it on fire. I forced myself to continue. "I mean, you could be back at the gym finishing your basketball game right now, instead of lugging me around."
He blinked again and stopped walking, the movement so abrupt that it almost landed me back on the ground. I held on tighter to Jonah and heard him say, "Well, because we're friends, aren't we?"
"Yeah, we're friends."
Not really, I thought as we resumed our stroll. Unless being friends meant sharing a few of the same classes, occasionally being paired together for group projects, and not getting into fist fights with one another. No, Jonah was just another boy. A boy who happened to make me turn the other way whenever he caught me staring at him in class, sure. A boy for whom I'd switched around my schedule so that most of our classes overlapped. Okay. Well, maybe that's friendship. Maybe it's something else. I didn't know.
"And because," he informed me as we reached the nurse's office, "I like you."
The words echoed through the empty hallway. A hard lump formed in my throat. Without thinking, I took a step with my bad foot. Pain seared through it, and I let go of Jonah and pitched forward. And then my body was dangling above the cold floor, held in place by Jonah's sturdy grip on my arm.
"Man, are you always this clumsy?" he asked as he pulled me back upright, a dopey grin glued on his perfect face. "Or are you just—"
He would've kept talking if I hadn't put my lips to his. He would've gone on and on and on, when all I really wanted was this. Just some quiet.
My eyes were closed when I kissed him. Maybe that was a mistake, because after a few seconds my balance wavered. Catching myself against a locker, I saw Jonah gaping at me, eyes wide, mouth open like a fish. Finally silent.
But then he spoke. "No." He said it with a shake of his head. One word, and it echoed through the empty hallway too. He pressed his fingers against his lips and backed away. I was still standing there alone in the hallway when the nurse poked her head out and asked if I was feeling okay.
As it turned out, Jonah liked me, but not like that. And then not at all, a fact that became abundantly clear the next day. I didn't understand why people were pointing at me and speaking in whispers until someone stopped me in the hallway, puckered their lips, and made loud kissing noises.
That's it. That's all that happened. Honest. I didn't touch him like everyone thinks. We didn't have sex. It was just one kiss, a stupid mistake. Plenty of kids make them. Then again, plenty of kids don't have the local pastor for a father.
It isn't hard to imagine my father past his prime. We still go to church every Sunday, but his magic charm has evaporated. When we sit in the front pew, I feel the eyes of the other congregants on my back, hear their whispers before we stand to sing hymns. When Dad delivers his sermons, he speaks meekly, looking out at the glazed-over eyes of his parishioners. My father talks and no one listens—that's just what it has become. And when he preaches about 'sin' and 'gluttony' and 'lust,' he stares at me.
To him, I am a bad son and a worse Christian. And the sooner he leaves me and this town behind, the better.
My family takes a break from moving around midmorning. Nadine says she's hungry. The kitchen is barren, ran through like a battlefield, so Dad drives the family station wagon down to the convenience store to buy some sandwiches. After he turns down the block, out of sight, Mom treks to our neighbors' houses to issue her goodbyes. Nadine and I observe her from our porch swing. Our knees knock together as we gently sway.
Our neighbor across the street is handing Mom a farewell gift basket when Nadine asks, "Are you gonna be gone for long, Billy?"
I flinch and hope she doesn't notice. It occurs to me that maybe Dad explained things differently to Nadine, that maybe she thinks I'm going to be away at summer camp or staying with a friend. She's looking at Mom, not me, and her face gives nothing away.
Eventually, the answer she receives is "I don't know."
"Will you come visit us? We can probably play Parcheesi and hide-and-seek in Texas like we do here."
I plaster a smile on my face. "Sure, I will." I bump Nadine's leg with my own. She's got this look on her face like she's not buying what I'm trying to sell, so I add, "I promise."
She smiles and heaves a sigh of relief. "I'd like that," she says. "I really would."
"Just make sure you don't go too far," I say. "I can't come visit you if I can't find you."
She repeats my words. "I promise."
As Mom steps off our neighbor's porch and reports to the next house, Nadine turns to me and says, "I don't want you to go, though. I'll miss you when you're gone."
It's hard to look my sister in the eye. What do you say when a ten-year-old tells you something like that? Beats me. So I say nothing.
Instead, I surprise myself by hopping off the porch swing and marching inside the house. The remaining moving boxes are clumped together in the kitchen, where the dining table used to be. I give each box a little shake when I pick it up, try to guess what's inside—Dad's written collection of his past sermons, or Mom's plethora of cookbooks, or Nadine's stockpile of Barbie dolls. Then I head outside, into the sunshine, and deposit it in the back of the U-Haul.
Nadine has lost interest in our mother's escapades. She watches me with the same rapt attention she reserves for The Pink Panther Show, her eyes unblinking, trailing my journey from house to U-Haul to house. She doesn't offer to help, and I don't ask her.
When half of the kitchen boxes are in the U-Haul, I slump against the front door and let my body slide to the floor. Sweat rolls from my hair to my chin. You never realize how heavy moving boxes can be until you have to carry twelve of them in a row. As I'm sitting there catching my breath and inspecting the house, finally noticing just how empty it all looks, that's when I see it. It sits there in the corner of the living room, untouched.
My box of possessions with the Bible on top.
And it looks just like the boxes in the kitchen. No difference, no way of telling what's inside. Just cardboard and some packing tape and the promise of a better future.
Pushing myself off the floor, I stand and cross the living room. The box is like putty, nearly slipping in my shaky grasp. Somehow it survives the trip from the living room to its new home in the U-Haul, where it joins the other remnants of our family's broken life. The black Bible takes my place beside Nadine on the swing.
I am clearing the last box from the kitchen when Dad pulls up to the curb, holding a single PB&J. "That's all they had at the gas station," he tells me, beckoning to Nadine. She snatches the sandwich from his hand. I choose not to question my father, opt not to ask about the half-empty bottle of Coca-Cola resting in his cup holder.
My father starts toward the house when Nadine, mouth sticky with peanut butter, says, "Everything's done, Daddy. Billy got the rest of the boxes already."
Dad stops mid-stride and whirls around to meet me. Something washes over his face for a moment, and it almost looks like the atonement he spent so many Sundays advocating. He licks his lips. Then he awards me a nod of his head and says, to Nadine, "I'll go get your mother and then we can go, kiddo," and he's off across the street to collect Mom.
Nadine taps my shoulder while I watch him leave. When I turn around, she's standing on her tiptoes and she's got half of the PB&J sandwich in her hand. An uneven line runs down the side of the bread where she ripped it.
"Take it," she demands. And as she drops the piece of bread in my hand, she giggles and imitates our father, saying, "This is my body, broken for you."
They are the sweetest words I've ever heard. And when the taste of peanut butter hits my tongue, I think of Jonah.
Half an hour later, after Mom has secured all her gift baskets and sympathy cards in the station wagon, after Nadine and I have shared one last hug, I stand in the driveway and listen to the hum of the U-Haul. The driver-side door hangs open, waiting for my father, who is locking our front door. He has not asked me where my moving box is.
The front door closes behind me and as my father passes me, he pauses. "Goodbye, Billy. I'll be praying for you," he says, and I thank him as the U-Haul door slams shut. He pulls out into the road, Mom and Nadine in tow, and then they're off.
I wave goodbye as they fly into the distance, driving down the road into forever. And I swear, just as they're turning down the block, Nadine sits up straighter in her seat and waves from the back window.
Then our street is quiet, miles and miles without noise. The sun is in full force now and the oak tree in the yard doesn't provide enough shade, so I retreat to the porch swing. I hold my Bible close to my chest.
And sitting there, rocking gently on the swing, the rest of the passage that Dad quoted finally comes to me. It's from the Gospel of John. I flip through my Bible until the words appear. Because the thing is, my father left out the best part of that verse, the sentence right after Jesus tells Saint Peter, "Where I am going, you cannot follow." Because then Jesus says: "But you will follow later."
I read the words over and over until my eyes hurt. I close them and hope my father will remember the rest of this verse sometime in the future. Maybe right now, stopped at a red light across town, or maybe he'll realize it halfway to Texas. Or maybe it'll come to him when he's unloading the U-Haul and he sees there's one more box than expected, something in his house that doesn't belong.