When Reverend Harris retired and moved back to the Carolinas it didn’t strike me as the beginning of anything. Reverends were old. The word itself, rev-er-end, seemed to be a final destination, an ending, a stage of life occupied by coffee hours, evensongs, and perhaps a baptism from time to time.
The day the new reverend was chosen had my grandmother and the other church ladies on the phone half the morning. When we sat down to lunch she declared that it would be the Pennsylvanian after all, which was just as well because he was so handsome. My sister and I interpreted this to mean handsome in the way that an old man in a nursing home is considered handsome when he dry-cleans his cardigans and buys glasses that suit his face.
My mother laughed.
“Are you going to put the moves on the new Reverend?” she teased.
My grandmother pursed her lips and took a sip of her coffee. It was barely noon and she was already on her fourth cup.
“He’s actually gay,” she said, pleased that she had sat on this piece of information until now. “He’s a bit of a radical.”
I doubted that many radicals belonged to the Episcopalian Church, but I held out hope. I imagined a grandfatherly homosexual who had lived through Stonewall and the 80s and found out in the end that God had always been the most important man in his life. He would give great sermons — full of anecdotes and wry jokes that would make all the church ladies feel a little naughty. A cult of personality.
It rained on Reverend Harris’s last Sunday and we sat away from our usual pew to avoid the draft. Impatience consumed me as the organist dragged out the opening hymn, probably to impress the new reverend who was undoubtedly fussing with his thin white hair and his chasuble before making his entrance.
The organ swelled and the acolytes entered with candles and the banners swayed after Reverend Harris, who maintained a face of rogue humor even at ten o’clock service.
“Here he comes,” my grandmother whispered so only my sister and I could hear. The banners parted and I was sure there had been a mistake. The man striding under the organ was handsome, tall and broad-shouldered with a close-cut beard and a perfect hairline. He followed Reverend Harris up to the altar and took a seat beside him. “See,” my grandmother hissed, her eyes sparkling.
Walking up to Reverend Gabe after the service I felt like a stonecutter being presented to the king. He smiled as he shook each of our hands, beaming at whoever happened to be in front of him. He made you feel as if he could see a part of you so perfect, so good, that you could never feel bad about yourself again. A year shy of his thirtieth birthday, outgoing and demure, confident yet soft spoken, Reverend Gabe was unlike any man I had ever met. His sermons were fearless, leaping from his childhood isolation in the Catholic Church to his coming out story to his work with homeless LGBTQ youth in Los Angeles. He spoke about meeting Palestinian activists in Jerusalem, about Roman Imperialism in the Bible, about abortion, and voter rights, and Mother Teresa setting up hospices for men dying of AIDS in the 1980s. The church ladies did not twitter. The members of the choir did not stop to open a bottle of water or sift through their sheet music. Children begged not to be sent off to Sunday school. No one in the youth group checked their phone. No one moved while Reverend Gabe illuminated the work of the Lord which was, at that moment, unfolding all around us.
I wanted to get closer to him, and the next week, when I went up to the altar for communion, I crossed my arms over my chest for a blessing. I closed my eyes as he walked over to me. Reverend Harris had always placed a hand on your shoulder while he prayed, but Reverend Gabe brought his thumb to my forehead and moved it across my skin in the sign of the cross. Every experience I’d had with men up until that time paled in comparison to his touch. I went around for the rest of the day feeling like I was marked, as if my forehead had become a flaming heart, burning like a forest of frankincense trees.
When I heard Timmy Donnelly had gotten strep throat and wouldn’t be able to do the reading that Sunday I scrambled to take his place. My grandmother laughed, saying she had never seen me so excited to go to church, but my mother glanced at me with a concerned expression. Things were changing so quickly it was hard for her to gauge how we were doing.
The Friday before I did the reading we ran into Maureen in the parking lot of the church and she brought up Dad’s new family. I could see my mother smiling so hard it looked like her face was going to break and my grandmother making a mental note about how she was going to make Maureen pay for this conversation.
Reverend Gabe was carrying a few boxes of hymnals from his car and I ran over to help him. We walked up the stairs together, past the Sunday school, and the rector’s room, and the receptionist’s desk. Reverend Gabe’s office was a perfectly round little room with a stained-glass window of a fish. There was no desk— just a wooden table with two chairs and a vase of daffodils.
“Those were a gift from Mrs. Ramsey’s garden,” he said. “Nice, aren’t they?”
“She has quite the green thumb,” I said, trying to sound cavalier.
“She’s been incredibly kind to me.” He smiled down at the yellow blooms with sad eyes.
I wasn’t sure what to say so I took a seat, hoping he would sit down next to me.
“I hear you’re into photography,” he said.
“I’m decent with a camera.”
“What do you like to take photos of?”
“Men mostly,” I said, so unprepared for how forward it sounded that I shrunk back into myself the moment I said it.
“Why?” he asked, entertained but somehow far away.
“They interest me I guess,” I managed. “I like capturing them.”
“Like exotic birds,” he mused.
“Or the moment, I mean. I like capturing the moment.”
“That’s a hard thing to do. You must be quite gifted.”
My face melted like a steering wheel in the sun. I waited for him to say something else but he had become transfixed with the window again.
“Is everything ok?” I asked finally.
“Oh,” he said, turning back. “I’m sorry, I guess I have a lot on my mind.”
“I’m getting ready for a funeral.” He stared at his hands. “I’ve never done one before... I suppose I’m still searching for what to say.”
“When is it?”
“We’re not sure yet. The woman, she’s, well, she’s been sick for a long time. She told me a few days ago that this was the end of the road for her. I don’t think her family knows.”
He sat down next to me, massaging his temple. The sun was setting and the fish seemed to be swimming in the stained glass.
“I love that window,” he said.
“The fish is an ancient symbol. When Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire they used the fish as a sort of code for meeting spaces and community. It was a way for them to show who they were when they had to hide it from everyone else. I guess you could say it speaks to me personally.”
“You mean about being gay,” I said.
“Yes,” he laughed.
“I think you’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.” I tried to look him in the eye while I said this but he was looking at his watch.
He smiled weakly and looked out the window towards the parking lot.
“We should get you back to your grandmother before she gets in a fist fight.”
After that my love for Reverend Gabe became rhapsodic. I wrote his name everywhere — on sketch paper and old receipts, on my stats homework, on bus schedules, and college acceptance letters. I wrote his name in different fonts and different colors, in my schedule planner, on my arm in black felt-tipped marker, carved into the bark of a sycamore tree, traced in the steam on the bathroom mirror after I took a shower.
A few weeks later my sister got sick and wouldn’t get out of bed. My grandmother took her to the doctor’s, and when they got home my sister was in tears. My mom carried her to her room and we all stood around her bed, waiting until she could calm down enough to talk. She sat up slowly and took a glass of water from my hand, holding it up to her mouth and swallowing it in big, painful gulps. When she was finished she set it down on the nightstand and stared at the pattern on her comforter.
“I miss Dad,” she said in a small, far away voice, as if it was traveling back to us from a distant planet, picked up on an old satellite dish. My mom nodded and held her close, rubbing her back in little circles like when we were little. I looked up at my grandmother, guarding the doorway, her face hard. Dad used to be the one who took us to the doctor’s when mom had to work.
That night my grandmother dispatched me to get some eucalyptus-scented vapor rub to put on my sister’s feet while she slept. The drug store was only a few blocks away and I walked down Third Street — past the record store that used to be a hardware store and the Italian Deli that was now an artisanal ice cream parlor. Something caught my eye through the window and I stopped before realizing it was Reverend Gabe. He was sitting at the counter in a pair of jeans, next to another man in a fitted suit. Reverend Gabe got ice cream on his nose, and the man in the suit licked his thumb and wiped it off. He gave a little smile, moving the man’s hand away with his own and holding it under the counter.
I backed away slowly. I needed to get a handle on my facial expression. If I looked like I had been crying people would talk. The cashier asked if I wanted a receipt. I kept my voice level. I got home and asked my mother how her day was at work. My voice barely shook. I gave the vapor rub to my grandmother. Dragged the recycling cans out to the street. My sister was already asleep. I went up to my room and turned out all the lights. I sat on the floor and tried to make myself cry, my head swimming in the dark, but nothing happened.
The next Sunday I said I had caught my sister’s cold and needed to sleep in. The Sunday after that I said I needed to work on a project, and the Sunday after that I said I needed to volunteer at the Animal Shelter to get service hours for the National Honor Society. My weeks became a relentless hundred-meter dash towards an excuse to get out of going to church. It felt like my whole life was hurtling towards Sunday, and I escaped only to find myself trapped again the following week. And the week after that. After a month my mother became concerned, but my grandmother said I was just being a teenager and that they shouldn’t cramp my style.
The school year was almost over and I was going to graduate in May. I didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or another. I hadn’t gone to church in almost two months and by then people had stopped asking.
The week before graduation, my mom came home with a small box wrapped in sky-blue paper.
“It’s a gift from Reverend Gabe,” she said. “He asked me to give it to you.”
I held it for a moment. It was heavy. I slid my finger under the crease in the wrapping paper and pulled up the tape. It came apart beautifully. I opened the box. It was a paper-knife — incredibly thin and silver. I ran my finger over the tip which was pointed but not sharp. The handle was the shape of a long fish with beautiful, individual scales.
I picked up the card, staring at his round, loopy handwriting.
Congratulations Jonah — I am so excited for you to enter this new chapter in your life. I hope this bookmark will serve you well, and remind you that the peace of the Lord is always with you.
I could see Reverend Gabe writing at his little table. I could see him creasing the blue paper with his thumb, wrapping the box. I could see the window, and the parking lot, Maureen cornering my mother, my hand touching Reverend Gabe’s when I took the box of hymnals from his arms. I could see my father taking me to the doctor’s office to get a booster shot. The large trout he had mounted on wall of his office before it got turned into a guest bedroom. I used to sit next to his desk and stare at its glass eyes, its dull, speckled scales, its gaping mouth. My dad used to suck in his cheeks and pucker his lips like a fish and chase me around the room. I felt the paper-knife fall out of my hand as I sobbed into my mother’s shoulder.
“I know,” she said, helping me walk over to the couch and sitting down next to me. She began rubbing my back in little circles. “I know.”
I pulled my legs up to my chest, struggling to get the words out.
“He’s getting married,” I gasped.
“I know,” she said.