My origin is sand. My origin is the smell of sunscreen drying on the long drive home. My origin is the waves you hear as you lie down that night, the pillow cold on your face, your cheeks bright and flush from the day’s sun. My origin is unmelted particles of glass.
My origin is Mississippi. I live inland now. I’ve been away some years. I’ve been plotting a sealess escape since I came here: there are no oceans here to steal away to when the end comes. I plot my escape by side roads. There are ways to flee on foot, by car, by bicycle. There are ways with friends, there are ways alone. In each of them, I head to the sea.
In Mississippi there are easy escapes. One drives north. One flees Katrina. One stays with family.
There are also other escapes. One drives hard to the shoulder when a tanker flips on the interstate. One locks the doors while waiting for the light to change outside the Hard Rock’s parking garage. One brings pepper spray for the men who carry tire irons and shout I’ll wipe that smile right off your face, faggot.
In those early days after Katrina, my mother was told by the doctors at her hospital to escape. Cholera is coming soon. This is the opposite of Christ is coming soon. Go north. Stay north. The land beside the sea is faltering.
Everywhere the land is faltering. We are a listless burden on the edges of the earth. We stand on the shore when the storm has passed and look out into the water, waiting for another one to come. We are gathered in a single place, despite the warnings. We have been told to disperse.
In April at fourteen I skipped Sunday school and walked downtown, the sidewalk covered with shade from the live oaks, bees humming in the azaleas. I was unhappy. I wore the watch my grandfather gave me and knew when to meet my mother before the service. I walked slowly on the gravel driveway. Every escape must have its plan.
A friend’s father asked me another day in Sunday school to wash his son’s feet and I refused. He looked at me sadly. Even our Lord washed the feet of another. I am not the Lord, I learned.
Years later I drove past what had been a pier. Except the what-had-been-a-pier was only rocks and water: as if the surf and shoreline hadn’t cared about that place. It was strange, in truth. That pier was the first place I’d felt a boy’s hand on my own, or at least a boy’s hand that had wanted to touch my own. It was on the third plank back from the edge, that edge that jutted far into the sea, our hands not clasping, our hands not holding each other, only touching: my hand splayed behind me as I leaned back on my arms, my knuckles white, his hand behind him too, his fingers softly touching mine. If they had told me the pier would be torn up and tossed across the highway, I would have gone there first. I would have taken that plank and brought it home with me. Wood floats, after all. I could have held it when the waters came and then we would have floated to the surface. His hand like a ghost on my own, my arms reaching all around the plank while the sea rushed in and tore my house away.
Yes, my house was torn away. Yes, my things were washed away. My mother spoke to me in confusion: Now where will I get a couch? You see, in those early days all the couches had been flooded. There it is: no one for twenty miles had a usable couch. What is society without a couch? We were no society then. We were wandering expressions.
There was a day in January when the trains were heard again. Maybe they’d been heard before, I don’t remember. Only one night there was a train in my dream. I said to my mother: There was a train in my dream. It was carrying onions. She said: I heard it too. Mine was carrying Bibles. Bibles for the poor. I looked out her window and thought: What do the poor need Bibles for?
Each week in the fall during high school there was a football game. My friends were chosen to give the prayers on the intercom, until one winter when the Supreme Court said it was not allowed. The next Friday our principal came out before the game, the moment when a prayer was usually said, to talk to us. We’ve been ordered, he said, to end our prayers. We were groaning in the crowd. The persecutions had begun. Sometimes, he said, the forces that control us are too strong. The end was arriving. Sometimes, he said, the ones in power have the final say. We gripped each other, strangers holding hands. I saw the coach was on his knees. But not here. We had all been looking down. Not while I’m in charge. Then we were looking up. We’ll pray in this stadium until the Feds come storming in to arrest us all. And then we all were praying, a thousand voices speaking words in no harmony, words in no unison.
My origin is a place where strangers pray beside each other on bleachers in the loud rattle of disharmony. Three of my friends were gay until their families pressed them into being with a woman. They are all married now. That thing is everywhere in Mississippi, that strain of prayer that claims to heal the wounds that made me crave another man. Some say it is a weak father. My father disagrees. Some say it is an overbearing mother. My mother disagrees. Some say it is the way you’re born. My parents disagree. But they are searching for an exit. So am I. Stage left, stage right: we are opposites.
One week my mother speaks of rehabilitation camps. These are places, she says, where you can rest, where you can pray, where you can listen to the Lord. I learned years ago that I am not the Lord. Why should I listen for him? I say to her: Mother, there is no god. She falls into her chair dramatically. Forgive my son. I turn my head to the side: Who are you talking to? Forgive him, Lord, he knows not what he says. I would speak to her if she would listen. Not to this invisible company of fools.
There was a day in high school when the preacher from my new church turned to me, as if I had been forgotten. Child, he said, you will do great things. When his daughter married a man at six months pregnant, he drove away. One night, a quiet drive up north. This was before Katrina. He left in time.
When I was asked to wash his son’s feet and I refused, he thought I had forgotten Christ’s act. I remembered. I have read the Bible more than twenty times. He asked me because I was the most Christlike, he said. He was certain I’d say yes. And I said no. I will not kneel to touch your child’s feet. I will not unlace his filthy shoes. I will not reach out and remove his rancid socks. I will not take the water you’ve provided and rinse his sodden feet. I will not take your yellow bar of soap and hold his toes between my fingers. I will not cleanse them with the basin you have brought for me. When he scolded me before the others, he said: I only wanted you to say yes, I never would have made you do it. Like God who gives a test to Abraham: I never would have made you do it.
I go back to Mississippi. It is the weekend and I go to the beach. The places are changing: the sea has forgotten what was washed away. When the end comes I will take a boat into the shipping lanes and sail until the earth is forgotten. I will live at night beneath the meteors whose names I’ll never know. They will burn like our planet’s pyre as everything is slowly forgotten. But I will remember. I will remember what I should have always known: that all our failings are required. At last, there is nothing to sustain, nothing in the midst of all these ruins.