A Catholic confirmation retreat is the last place I’d want to spend my weekend. Especially knowing that if these people knew the real me, I would not be accepted. I don’t know if I believe in any of it anyways. Let’s just say that God and I haven’t been on speaking terms lately.
We’re out in the country, canopied under pine trees stretching up to the clouds. Cicadas haven’t stopped shrieking since we arrived.
I am in Hell.
The drive out of the suburbs on the church bus took an hour. I had nothing to look at but trees and fields along the way. My stomach won’t stop growling, and everything is just so irritating—from the Christian rock music playing on someone’s speaker, to the prayer circles all around me. I don’t know how much more I can take of these counselors. They’re all seniors from school, and they keep promising what a great time we’re all going to have.
Give me a break.
I know I shouldn’t complain. It beats having to stay home with Mom and Dad. A few days ago, I had the genius idea of coming out to them. Needless to say, it did not go well. Dad has hardly spoken to me since. Our conversations reduced to one-worded exchanges. Mom stopped inviting me to run errands with her and she acts like the whole conversation never happened.
I miss how things used to be.
As I’m reaching for my duffle bag from the bus’s storage compartment, Mateo and I catch each other’s glances. He’s always looking at me every time I look at him, or maybe it’s the other way around. We share the same Sunday School class, but we’ve never spoken with each other, and I hardly see him at school. He’s been reserved ever since he came out a year ago. I wish I could ask him how he does it every day. How he shows up to school knowing everyone is silently judging him—secretly hating him. Maybe he’s someone I should talk to. Maybe he’s the one person who would understand what I’m going through.
Mateo turns his focus to the trees, and I watch as he disappears into the crowd.
I know I’m kidding myself. Just because we’re both gay doesn’t mean we’ll have anything else in common.
My duffle bag is tagged with my name and cabin number.
Vincent Reyes, B-3
I make my way over to the cabins, stepping over the pinecones scattered around. Once inside, I’m surprised the cabin’s interior is not one giant sleeping quarter with rows of bunk beds like in the movies. Past the entrance is a long hallway with multiple doors, each having their own number like a hotel floor. Cabins of the twenty-first century, I suppose. Room three is where I find the elusive bunkbeds.
Two guys walk in as I claim my bed. One is dressed in a yellow Ralph Lauren shirt, with blonde hair gelled to volume. He says his name is Jason, and he reaches to shake my hand. I meet his firm grip. He shakes my hand like he grew up practicing how a real man should shake another man’s hand.
Dylan is my other roommate, with thick calves like he lives on a soccer field, strutting in dressed in a white tank top showing off his toned biceps.
“What school are you guys from?” Dylan asks.
“St. Anthony’s,” Jason answers. The private Catholic school with an Ivy League tuition. All the students there are pretentious Bible-thumpers, always sipping out of Chick-fil-A cups.
Dylan says he goes to Lake Shore—another one of the rich schools.
“Miller Creek,” I say.
They each strain a smile.
We claim our beds as the rest of our roommates see their way in. I withdraw my worn copy of Hamlet from my back pocket and gently tuck it inside my duffle bag. The play isn’t required reading for school. I love Shakespeare. Reading his work helps tune out the world around me. I read my favorite line over and over on the bus ride here. “To thine own self be true.” I recite the line in my head like a prayer, hoping one day I will be brave enough to follow his words.
Dylan, Jason, and I head out to the main hall for orientation. Chairs are lined in rows on maroon carpet inside the meeting room. The host, a blonde Argentinian woman with enough pep to compensate for the zombie-eyed teens staring back at her, promises us a wonderful weekend.
I doubt her assurance will hold up.
We’re lectured on the rules of the grounds and what is expected of us. I scan the packed hall seeking familiar faces, but I see none. It’s what I get for signing up for the last retreat of the semester when everyone said to go in the summer before school started.
“And since this was an actual incident a few years ago, I have to say, you’re all divided between pinks and blues for a reason. When it’s lights out don’t make purple,” a camp counselor says before quickly adding, “Or dark blue, or dark pink. That’s not what we’re here for.”
I continue to look around the room, wondering where Mateo is.
We’re released with an hour of free time before the lights-out curfew. Everyone is restless and eager to storm out of the hall. I don’t have anywhere to go, so I stay put until the crowd clears.
In my cabin room, I fish out my little baggies of homemade trail mix. For the first time ever, I’m prepared for something. I decide to take my feast elsewhere because there’s no way I plan on eating in the cabin where everyone else will want me to share.
This is the real Hunger Games.
Jason opens the door as I’m reaching for the knob.
“Dude, wasn’t it weird how they kept emphasizing on sex?” he asks me as we pass. “Purple, dark blue, dark pink… do they think we’re going to be having orgies or something?”
“I know, right?” I respond, avoiding his eyes.
Jason’s mouth opens like he wants to say more, but the door shuts on him. I wait for a second to see if he steps out to continue talking. The door doesn’t open, and I carry on.
He was probably just trying to make friendly small talk, and I don’t want to know what his opinion might have been about the possibility of people wanting to make dark blue or dark pink.
I end up on the walking trail, where the world seems so much quieter
Finally, some alone time.
I only hear the soft crunch of gravel beneath my feet, and the crickets hiding in the shrubs. The sky glitters with a million stars. I’ve never seen this many before.
Up ahead on the trail, is the silhouette of a person squatting down. They must have heard me approaching because they turn in my direction and stand up.
“Sup,” I say. “Out for a walk?” I regret my words as soon as they come out. Why else would he be out here?
“Yeah,” Mateo says. “I just needed a break from… all of that.”
“Me too,” I say. Mateo smiles, allowing me to see how perfect his teeth are. “I’m Vincent,” I tell him, reaching out my hand to shake his.
“I know,” he says. His voice is hesitant. “We’re both in the same CCE class.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, scratching the back of my neck. “It’s been a—”
“I’m Mateo,” he reaches his hand forward. My grip meets his.
“It’s nice to officially meet you, Mateo.”
Our hands stop shaking, but our hold remains. Mateo’s grip is gentle, his skin soft and smooth in my palm. We stand like this holding each other’s hand, bridging us together, in the middle of the woods—eyes locked on each other, and I start to see how cute he really is. His short hair, dark brown with gentle curls, and the dimples in his cheeks when he grins are enough to make me lose my train of thought. I don’t remember which of us let’s go first.
I clear my throat. “What were you doing just now?”
“I was checking out this flower. Look,” he turns to where he was squatting and points to a deep violet flower in full bloom. I don’t know much about flowers, but I can appreciate its beauty. “It could be a Columbine,” he says. “But I can’t tell because it could also be a Clematis.”
“You really know your flowers,” I tell him, having no idea of the names he listed.
“Thanks. My mom’s a florist. I help with her shop sometimes after school.”
Mateo brushes his hands along his jeans and shifts his focus up to the sky, playing with the strings of his hoodie. I look back at the cabin lights behind us. Dylan and Jason are talking to some girls at a picnic table not too far from where the trail starts. I wonder if they’re hoping for a chance to make purple at some point this weekend.
“It’s nice to finally be alone,” I say aloud.
“Could you really say we’re ever alone when we have the whole world around us?” Mateo asks.
I didn’t think Mateo was so philosophical. If I had to guess, I’d say he borrowed that line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“What?” Mateo asks, anchoring me back from my thoughts. I blush.
“Nothing.” I pull out my trail mix and offer him some.
“Really?” he asks.
I nod and extend my handful of the few small pouches forward.
“Thank you,” he grabs a pouch from my palm. “I’m starving.”
Mateo picks out the chocolate pieces first.
“I do the same thing,” I say.
Mateo says he loves chocolate. Already we have something in common. We sit on an old wooden bench along the trail as we finish eating. I want to talk to him about coming out since nobody else is around. We have this private space all to ourselves. If there’s ever a good time to talk to him, it’s now.
“Was it hard when you came out last year?”
Mateo takes a moment to think while looking down at the gravel. His eyebrows furrow, and he grips the edge of the bench.
“If it’s too personal, I understand. I’m sorry if I—”
“No, no. It’s fine,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s just that no one’s ever asked me that. I guess my answer is both yes, and no? I knew that I was tired of feeling like my whole life was a secret.”
“How’d your parents take it?”
“They asked a lot of questions,” he answers, twisting the small plastic bag between his fingers. “Too many.”
“Did you feel cornered?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says. “Like it was an interrogation. Why are you asking me these things anyways?”
“No reason,” I lie, but Mateo doesn’t believe me. “It’s nice to know there’s someone who… understands. Look, if you ever need to talk, I’m here.”
The corners of Mateo’s lips curve up and he places his hand on my shoulder, sending an electric chill down my arm. “Yeah. I understand, Vincent. Thank you.”
We walk the rest of the trail together, talking about random things like if this were Camp Half-Blood which Greek god would be our parent.
“You’re definitely a son of Persephone,” I tell him.
“What?” he asks. “Why her and not Athena?”
“Because you’re good with plants and like nature.”
“Well, you’re definitely not a son of Hades,” he says. “If anything, I’d say you’re a son of Apollo.”
“Why Apollo?” I ask.
“Because you like Shakespeare,” he teases.
“How do you know that?”
“I saw you holding Hamlet when you stepped out of the bus earlier today.”
“So?” I try not to blush, but my face gets hot.
“Apollo is also the patron for poetry,” he tells me. “And we’re past our Shakespeare unit in school.”
“Alright, you got me,” I say, holding my hands up. “I like Shakespeare. Speaking of patrons, have you decided on your patron saint for confirmation?”
“Yeah, I have. I’m going with Saint Valentine,” Mateo answers.
“I just like the story of him secretly marrying couples. I interpret it as a euphemism for marriage equality.”
“Blasphemous!” I tease.
“What about you?” he asks.
“Saint Christopher,” I say.
“Everyone picks Saint Christopher,” Mateo says. “Basic much?”
“Shut up.” I gently shove him.
We barely make it back to our cabins before the curfew. We tell each other goodnight before going our separate ways.
Some of the guys in the cabin hall are trying to see if they can step their way up to the ceiling with their backs pressed against the wall and their legs stretched straight across the hallway, forcing their feet into the opposite wall. Dylan is nearly at the top and everyone else is cheering him on. Jason asks where I’ve been and says that they were looking for me, wanting to hang out. I lie and tell him I was praying at the chapel.
I duck under Dylan’s legs and hurry into my room where I throw myself onto my bed, thinking of the night Mateo and I had as I fall asleep.
I dream in visions of dark blue.
Mateo and I meet outside of the dining hall before breakfast. We didn’t plan it last night, but there he is, standing outside the dining hall with his hand holding onto his forearm. His skin looks like it’s glowing in the morning sun, and when he sees me, his smile shines. I try not to think of the butterflies in my stomach. It’s definitely just hunger.
I’m relieved for swishing my mouthwash longer than usual to ensure I won’t have morning breath around Mateo.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Morning,” Mateo says.
Hours go by of lectures and small-group discussions before we have a break.
Dylan, Jason, and I decide to play a game of basketball on the camp’s court. I used to believe I was a decent player, but Dylan is on another level.
“Do you play for Miller Creek?” Dylan asks after making another shot. “I’ve never seen you the few times our schools played each other.”
“No,” I answer as I try to catch my breath. “I used to freshman year but that was it.”
“Why’d you quit?” Jason asks.
“I needed to focus on school,” I tell them. During my time on the basketball team, I was beginning to realize my attraction to guys. I didn’t want to admit it then, and it confused me. I didn’t know what to do. I started taking out all my anger and frustration on the court. Over time, Coach decided it was best if I left the team. I still hear echoes of Dad’s angry lecture the night he found out I was off the team.
Dylan and Jason nod and don’t ask any more questions. More people start to join in, which I take as my cue to leave.
I change my shirt back in my cabin room and apply a fresh layer of deodorant. There’s a lake nearby and I’m curious about it, even though we’re not supposed to go there for liability reasons. I follow the same trail where Mateo and I met last night.
A part of me is disappointed when I don’t find him crouched down studying flowers.
The lake’s clear water is tranquil. Surrounding it are mountains covered in pine trees. I inch my way closer to the shore, stepping over dry pine needles and snapping twigs. A soft splash off in the distance pauses the birds’ song.
I follow the direction of the splashing. This goes against everything I’ve learned from horror movies. I force my way through dry shrub and come face to face with the culprit, who I’m relieved is not a machete-wielding killer.
“Hey!” I shout in a deep voice, hands cupped around my mouth.
Mateo’s reaction is priceless. He jumps like a startled cat, dropping a handful of stones into the lake.
“Jesus Christ!” he says.
I laugh as I carefully step down closer to him. “Caught you red-handed.”
Mateo shakes his head, picks up another rock, and throws it out into the lake where it sinks after a large splash.
“Don’t just throw it down at the water,” I tell him. “You got to have the right motion in your arm. Watch.” I pick up a rock and place it in his hand. His fingers curl over mine for a brief second before I remember to pull away.
“You want a curving motion as you skip it,” I say, standing behind him and guiding his wrist through the motion a couple of times with my hand. I try to not focus on the sweet smell of his hair, or how close his body is to mine. “Now you try.”
Mateo uses the motion I taught him, and the stone skips twice before submerging.
“It also helps the smoother the rock is,” I say.
“Like this one?” He hands me a small, dark stone. Our hands brush against each other in the exchange.
“Who’s the nature boy now?” Mateo teases.
“Yeah, right,” I say looking down at my watch. “Hey, lunch is in a few minutes. Want to head back now? You can join me at the table if you want.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” he says, smiling.
The guys from my cabin are already seated when we arrive. Mateo and I take the last two seats next to each other. Jason looks back and forth between us.
“Vincent, where’d you disappear to?” Jason asks. “We were looking for you at the cabin.”
“Nowhere. I was just out on a walk,” I answer. Mateo sneaks a glance at me. I turn and face him, noticing the confused look in his eyes. He doesn’t speak at the table.
We have more Jesus lectures with group discussions on topics such as premarital sex, abortion, choosing our patron saint, and what it truly means to be confirmed Catholic which occupies most of the day. I manage to endure it all by tuning everything out—a skill I’ve developed at home.
Our closing activity is an anonymous Q & A. We’re given small strips of paper to write down any questions we may have about our faith and confirmation. A small black box with a slit on top sits at the front of the room where Ms. Adams, the Youth Group director and leader of the retreat, plans to read the questions aloud before answering them. I fold my paper and slide it into my pocket since I don’t have any questions—none that are meant for Ms. Adams, that is.
At dinner everyone at the table is quiet. Mateo sits beside me again, but he and I haven’t spoken since lunch.
His silence is killing me.
“God is good!” Ms. Adams calls out to the mess hall.
“All the time,” everyone, excluding myself, responds.
“All the time,” Ms. Adams continues.
“God is good,” the crowd finishes.
“I’m just letting y’all know that we have fruit cups for dessert, and they just finished putting them out,” she announces. “As usual, ladies first.”
The girls get in line, and the rest of us join shortly after. Mateo doesn’t follow. He stays seated, spreading the rice around on his plate.
When it’s my turn in line I ask if I may grab an extra cup “for my friend.” The woman serving doesn’t skip a beat and hands me a second cup.
Maybe this is weird, and I shouldn’t have gotten one for him. What if he’s allergic to pineapples? What will this look like to him and everyone else at the table? We’ve only known each other for a day.
Whether I like it or not, it’s too late to back out.
“Hey, I didn’t know if you wanted one, but I got one for you just in case,” I tell Mateo as I sit beside him and hand him the fruit cup.
“Thanks,” he says. “You didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to,” I say under my breath, just loud enough for him to hear. “Do you want to hang out after this?”
Mateo nods, and we agree to meet up after dinner.
In my cabin room, there’s a clasp envelope resting on top of my bed. Ms. Adams promised us a surprise after dinner. This must be it. The envelope has my name written across it in purple sharpie. Everyone else has an envelope with their name on their bed as well. Nobody else is around so I open mine and pour out the contents inside. Three letters come out. One is from Ms. Adams writing about how proud she is of us all getting confirmed next month. The other is a fake letter from Jesus. The last letter is from my parents.
My heart beats faster as I begin to unfold it and read.
We’re so proud of you for getting closer to confirmation. Your grandma and grandpa keep telling us they can’t wait to fly over for it. We know God is always watching over you. If you keep your trust and faith in Him, then you’ll overcome anything—even what you told us the other day. We know how hard and confusing it can be growing up, especially in these times with what they show in the media. Just know that God has a plan for us all, and we just need to be patient. We would like for you to speak to Father John when you get back. It will really help you settle out what you’re confused about. Just think about it for now, okay? Stay focused. We know you’ll keep the Reyes flame burning.
Love, Mom & Dad
It feels like the walls are closing in on me; like it’s getting harder to breathe with each breath I take. Without thinking, I crumble up the letter and tear it to pieces.
I need fresh air.
My chest is heaving. I slam my fists into the bed, and I do it over and over, again and again until I’m out of breath and throwing the pillow across the room. I want to scream with the full capacity of my lungs.
I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t ask to be different—to feel alienated by my own parents. Do they care if I’m ever truly happy, even if it isn’t by their standards? I don’t want my life to be this way, but I can’t keep denying it either. I don’t want to feel like I’m broken. Like I’m a mistake. How am I supposed to believe that I was created in His image if at the same time people who are like me are called abominations? Perverts. Pedophiles.
Yeah, God, that’s a good one. Love Your sense of irony.
I’m supposed to be the one who accepts the teachings, but I’m not accepted by the congregation. I’m taught that who I love and who I’d want to marry isn’t valid. Well, screw that.
I am who I am.
A knock at the door brings me back. Jason is standing in the door frame, still gripping the handle.
“Is everything okay?”
“No, man. Everything is not okay.”
Jason’s eyes go down to the floor, seeing where the shredded pieces of the letter fell, then back up at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, then clear my throat. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. That wasn’t fair.”
“It’s cool,” Jason says. He steps inside, closing the door behind him. “Talk to me, dude. What’s up?”
“Look, I really don’t want some Jesus-lecture right now. Please.”
“That’s fine, because I wasn’t going to give one.” He sits on the bed across from mine. “To be honest, Vincent, I don’t even believe in God.”
He nods and lets out a shaky breath. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell my parents.” He looks up at me. Silence. No one else enters the room, leaving the moment private to only us.
I don’t know why I blurt it out, but right now I don’t care.
Jason flashes a half-smile and lets out a soft chuckle. “No offense, dude, but I had a suspicion. You and that other guy seem pretty close. Are you two…?”
“Mateo? No, no we’re not together,” I say, and I imagine what that might look like. Mateo and I together as boyfriends. Boyfriends. The word scares me, but I like the sound of it. Boyfriends. “I hope you find a way to tell your parents. Hopefully it goes better than when I came out to mine.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says. “Is that why…?” he looks over and points at the torn letter.
“Yes,” I answer, and let out a weak laugh. Jason does the same.
He picks up a piece of the torn paper and flips it to the back. He digs into his duffle bag and pulls out a pen and starts writing on the piece of torn letter.
“Look, I know we go to different schools, but here’s my number in case you want to keep in touch.”
“Thanks, Jason,” I take his number and give him mine in exchange.
“Want to go out and play basketball with the rest of the guys?” he asks.
“Thanks, but I think I need to see Mateo.”
Jason grins and pats my shoulder. “Good luck, Vincent.”
After Jason leaves, I pick up a torn piece of the letter and the pen Jason left on his bed. I begin to write.
Jesus Christ, are You there at all? I’m cold and lost, tired of seeking lost answers from a silent God. Please, can I have a miracle? Jesus Christ, where are You now, and where have You been? Are You someone I can turn to, or am I alone?
Mateo and I meet at our spot on the trail where we met on the first night.
“Sorry I’m late,” I tell Mateo as I jog toward him. He’s kicking the gravel with his heel. It’s chilly tonight, so much so that I can see my breath.
“It’s fine,” he says. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Nothing really,” I answer, taken aback by his cold tone. “I just wanted to hang out with you.”
“Why?” I repeat.
“Yeah. You didn’t want the others to know we were hanging out earlier so what is this? Am I your little secret? Someone for you to screw then—”
“Mateo, no. It’s not like that,” I say.
“What is it then?”
“I like you,” I confess. “I do, but everything is so confusing right now. I’m stressed about my parents who don’t want to accept that I’m gay. They want me to talk to the priest as if it’ll change anything and I’m scared, all right? I’m scared I made a mistake telling them. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Mateo uncrosses his arms and sticks his hands in his pockets.
“I’m sorry, Vincent,” he says. “I didn’t know.”
I wipe the few tears away with my sleeve. Mateo puts his hand on my shoulder. He looks me straight in the eyes, then pulls me into an embrace.
I let it all out. Everything I’ve been holding in, I release muffled into his shoulder. My breaths are shaky, and my legs are jelly. Mateo tightly wraps his arms around me for support. I don’t know how long we stand like this, and I don’t care. Eventually, I pull away so I can meet his gaze. In his eyes, I know that he sees me. And I see him.
“I’m so ready for this stupid retreat to be over.”
Mateo laughs, and so do I.
“Come on, it hasn’t been that bad,” he says, and we start walking along the trail.
“Seriously though, thanks for making this retreat bearable,” I tell him.
He stops and turns to face me but doesn’t say a word.
In my head I hear the echo of my own prayer, “To thine own self be true,” and I kiss him. Mateo smiles and blushes, looking down at his feet.
“I’m scared,” I whisper.
Mateo reaches for my hand and grips it in his. We stand like this beneath the moon and the stars, as the fireflies blink and the crickets sing.
“I don’t know if you believe in Him or not,” he starts to say. “But regardless, someone needs to tell you. God has your back, and I do too. You know that, right?”
I don’t know where I stand with believing in God, but I think I do want to believe that maybe He is on my side after all. Or Her. I don’t know. I guess that relationship is for me to figure out one day at a time.
We decide to sit at an old gazebo by the lake, resting our heads against each other. It’s weathered and beaten. White paint is chipping away, exposing the rotten gray wood underneath. There’s only the sound of crickets and an owl somewhere deep in the woods. If we could stay like this forever it would be enough.
But for now, we’ll start with tomorrow.