It was late summer and the mornings, as Pastor Ethan would say, ‘had a little bite’. We were gathered to see and appreciate evidence of God’s aesthetic sensibilities and say silent, personal prayers. Most days the dawns were good, we could hear native birds from around the river bend. I watched the bottoms of the fat clouds blush. Sitting on the yellow grass, I looked at our cabins arranged in a horseshoe shape around the rec hall and the dining hall and I felt remote from them. Before true daylight, the river looked gold instead of brown.
On the hill, Pastor Ethan would give us pep talks. We were 16, we were ready to become leaders, and we had to be spiritually ready to lead. Pastor Ethan made church sound like a spiritual gym. ‘Has your spirit worked out today?’ We would all become spiritual strongmen, Lou Ferrignos and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of Christ. We had to, in order to be spiritually ready to lead.
My spirit was pathetic. Every morning I would look at Isaiah Wozniak, his profile kissed by God’s light. The first morning I saw him like that I knew I was a goner. I said to God, Isaiah Wozniak is the only real evidence of your good taste that I have ever seen. Isaiah’s eyes would be closed while his lips were moving. His face had the expression of a Jesus in a pietà, which is to say it was relaxed and anguished at the same time. If I had known about sex, I would have understood that he was experiencing pleasure. This morning I was close to him. I felt the thrill of being close to the body of someone else when only minutes ago that body had been in its underwear, asleep. Maybe naked.
I said to God, I’m sorry, I knew you had good taste before this. I watched the lips of others moving. I said, You have to make him love me or I’ll die. Amen. The love I felt for Isaiah was so instant and consuming that I knew it was God’s plan. Everything in history had led up to this moment. I privately thanked God for the fossils in the earth beneath my butt. He had put them there so that I would be sitting on them when I fell in love! I felt deeply connected to those fossils. I tried to really give myself to the activity of praying by imitating the supplicant postures around me. We all stank like the insect repellent and campfire smoke from the night before. I breathed in this stink with open-hearted joy.
I roomed in a cabin with four other girls, which was irregular. Each cabin was identical and only slept four people, with two bunk beds made of smooth, wiggly logs either side of the window. I shared my cabin with Bethany Marshall, Mia Sullivan, Kaylee Kellerman and Rachel White. Those girls had been my friends for a long time. We went to school and church together, met for Bible study one evening a week, went to the mall most Saturday afternoons and ate frozen yogurt there. Our parents were friends, and we were often in one another’s homes. The thing about our cabin that was different from the other cabins was the camper cot, which was assembled in the narrow hallway between the bathroom and the closet. I slept on the cot. I had to remove my sleeping bag and stow the cot away under one of the bunks each morning so that my roommates could access the bathroom. ‘And the closet,’ Kaylee had said. ‘What are we supposed to do, live out of our suitcases like hobos?’
Sleeping on the cot was kind of okay. If one of my roommates had to pee during the night, they would climb over my body very quietly, their bodies extending more than they needed to so that they could avoid touching me or anything I touched, like my pillow. Their dark outlines moving above me made me think of spiders, slow and made up mainly of limbs. Stacked in their bunks at night, Mia, Rachel, Kaylee and Bethany would whisper to one another until they eventually fell asleep. They always whispered about other people at the retreat. Like for example, there was this rumour that Pastor Ethan’s cabin was deluxe and had hot water. Also that he had wi-fi and FaceTimed naked with his hot wife, Ana, who was the singing leader at our church. Mia whispered boldly that it would be so easy to FaceTime somebody naked from your own bedroom without your parents ever finding out. But Pastor Ethan and Ana were married, so it was different, I thought. I never said a word while my roommates were whispering. I would lie quietly, listening, letting them pretend they thought I was asleep.
During the long, hot days of the retreat, I became aware that my roommates must have had many private conversations without me. Whenever we were alone together, they acted like I was much younger than they were. They talked about secret things—they had code words for periods (‘Ed Sheeran’) and French kissing (‘going to Boost Juice’) and masturbating (‘feeding the cat’). Sometimes they asked me to do things for them, even their rostered chores. When I showed up to fry bacon for Mia’s breakfast shift, Pastor Ethan congratulated me on my selflessness and generosity. ‘Those are virtues possessed by Christ himself, Alicia,’ Pastor Ethan told me. But I didn’t feel proud of myself, because I figured Jesus probably wouldn’t have fried bacon to earn the right to sunbathe after lunch on the same rock as his roommates.
I mean, everyone was nice to me. Whenever the lens of a phone’s camera was pointed in our direction, one of my roommates’ arms would snake around my shoulders, evidence of our friendship. At home, I was in Kaylee Kellerman’s carpool and there was a photo on my parents’ mantel of Bethany Marshall, Rachel White and me as preschoolers in matching Three Wise Men costumes at a church Christmas pageant. What I’m saying is nobody ever told me I was ugly. It just got to a certain point where it was obvious that other girls possessed some extra, tacit virtue that I lacked.
Lying on my cot, I had a clear view of the window between the bunks. This window framed the arcing peak of the dawn prayer hill so neatly, as if our cabin had been pointed at the hill by an architect’s hand. We were about to start our last year of high school, and I was haunted by this feeling that evidence of careful design was everywhere around me, that nothing in my life could possibly be accidental. I watched the hill from my cot every night, and thought about how in a few hours I’d be sitting on it, watching Isaiah Wozniak and his unselfconscious prayer. I felt aches that echoed around my whole body.
The female leaders at my church all looked like they could be models. It was my heart’s desire to be like Pastor Ethan’s hot wife, Ana. When she was only 12, she had performed a song while hanging from a wire at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Pastor Ethan was always reminding us about that. ‘Never forget, your faith can take you to great heights.’ Wink. I wanted to sing onstage at church next to Ana every Sunday, wearing one of those flesh-toned headset mics like I was Britney Spears in Vegas. Nobody would ever see Ana up there and think there had been a mistake. When Ana sang, the spotlight would shine on her swaying body. She looked really pretty. You could tell everybody in the congregation was thinking, Wow, God, I’m impressed. Pastor Ethan always gestured to Ana after she finished singing like he had just awarded her the title of Miss Universe. It was true that beauty was fleeting and pursuing it was vain, but if it helped you do God’s work, it was definitely okay for you to get a salon blow dry every Sunday before church. The vanity of it was cancelled out, like the cost of a work-related expense against your tax return.
I was used to my reflection, to the pimples clumping together across my cheeks and forehead like bunches of poison berries. My ugliness was so obvious that I felt misunderstood by the entire world. The world thinks that all ugly people are the same and that they want the same thing, which is to become hot. I wanted to be chosen for it. I wanted beauty to be my job in God’s name, my sole purpose on this earth. The leadership retreat was going to help us each figure out what path to take in life, so we would never make mistakes in front of everyone and embarrass God.
After lunch everyone would go back to their rooms to change into their bathing suits. I draped a towel over the closet door and hid behind it so that nobody would see my body. Hidden in this way, I heard Bethany, Mia, and Kaylee whispering about Rachel.
‘Where is she,’ Bethany whispered urgently, like it was possible that maybe Rachel had fallen down a crevasse.
‘You guys,’ Kaylee said in a bored voice, not even bothering to keep quiet. ‘She’s going to Boost Juice with Eli Parker. She goes every day after lunch, there’s like this hollow gum tree behind Eli’s cabin.’
Mia and Bethany were squealing. Maybe Rachel and Eli would get married and FaceTime naked like Pastor Ethan and Ana. When I tried to picture how being married and naked would make FaceTime different, all I could imagine were my parents’ discussions about gas bills and work and the grocery store, but without any clothes.
‘Alicia? Is that you there behind the towel?’
I poked my head out from behind the towel and said, ‘Yes. It’s me.’
‘Did you hear?’ Bethany asked. ‘About Rachel and Eli?’
I looked at Bethany’s face. She looked so earnest, like I could say something that would actually matter to her if I wanted to. It was against the rules, Pastor Ethan’s rules and God’s rules, for Rachel and Eli to be making out inside a hollow tree. If I wanted to impress God and receive my dream life, I would have said something to Pastor Ethan. But I wanted to impress Bethany and Mia and Kaylee and Rachel, so I acted like I didn’t care.
Mia laughed. ‘You’re so weird, Alicia,’ she said.
‘Whatever,’ Kaylee said. She was sitting upright on a top bunk. I watched her flop dramatically against her mattress. ‘Have you ever noticed that Pastor Ethan looks kind of like Bradley Cooper?’
‘Ew, Kaylee! He’s like, 40,’ said Mia.
Pastor Ethan would often remind those of us who had done something weird, something like swearing or being jealous or wearing booty shorts, that our souls were like white sheets that could be stained. ‘There’s no such thing as Napisan for your soul,’ he would say.
‘He’s hot,’ Kaylee said. ‘It doesn’t hurt to look. It’s like, I’m admiring God’s hard work?’ She held her hands to her chin, the way people pray in the movies. ‘Ten out of ten,’ she said theatrically. ‘Thank you, Lord, for our hunky pastor.’
Mia and Bethany started squealing again. I poked my head back behind the towel.
After dinner every night we gathered in the rec hall. Pastor Ethan would talk to us for a while and then one of us would get up onstage and speak about our experiences at the leadership retreat. I thought Pastor Ethan was using our testimonials to figure out who among us might become his protégé. Probably what was actually happening was that everyone around me was building a sense of community, and I was so deeply not a part of it that I didn’t notice.
On the first night, Bethany took the stage. Nobody even asked her to, she just did it. Bethany looked like the sexy sister from Modern Family. She was the one who had been in trouble with Pastor Ethan earlier for wearing booty shorts. She’d said to him, ‘But it’s hot, Pastor Ethan, and my only other pants are yoga pants.’ She was sent to our cabin and came back out wearing the yoga pants. So I gave her my fawn capris to wear, and she let me sit next to her at dinner.
Bethany was wearing the fawn capris that first night when she got up on stage. The calves poking out the bottom of the capris were shaved smooth, and bronzed by the sun. She wore strappy silver sandals and her toenails were painted orange. Her hair hung loose. It was dark and shiny, and had dried in soft waves from swimming in the river water. I kept staring at her calves. I knew I would never wear the fawn capris again.
‘It was really hard for me to get up here tonight,’ Bethany said. ‘But I just had this calling and I trusted it and so here I am.’ She smiled at us in a kind of cute supplication. ‘Some of you already know that I really love to sing. I just …’ She paused and looked towards where Rachel, Mia and Kaylee were sitting. Mia was nodding. ‘I just feel like I’ve been gifted with this like, voice, and it has to be for a purpose. So I think I want to work really hard on my singing, I think that being here with you all has helped me to figure out that singing is what God wants me to do. So thank you so much, guys.’
Mia started clapping and wooing. Rachel and Kaylee joined in, and I joined, too. Everyone else joined in. Isaiah Wozniak joined in. He was sitting in front of me. The only words Isaiah had spoken to me so far were these ones, when I handed him a spoon: ‘Oh, thanks.’ My clapping and wooing felt fake. The hairs on the back of Isaiah Wozniak’s neck were pale, but I could see each individual one, and they were long and coarse like a grown man’s.
Pastor Ethan was on the stage next to Bethany now. He didn’t need a microphone because, on account of God’s plan for him to become a pastor, he had been gifted with a loud voice that he could project without one. He thanked Bethany for her bravery and suggested she lead everyone in song right now. In my head I said to God, Fuck you. Then, straight away, I said, I’m sorry. That kind of language was inappropriate. I still love you. Amen.
It seemed to me that only one person would be able to become a star and lead the entire congregation in song. When Ana grew too old to remain truly beautiful, I wanted that person to be me. Bethany’s voice trembled a little when she started to sing, but it became strong and clear very quickly. I could see how, if you were someone else, the trembling could have been endearing.
I guess I was doing all my roommates’ rostered chores out of humility and love, and not because any of us were bad people. We didn’t use the words ‘weak’ or ‘selfish’ at our church unless we were talking about people who had the devil in their lives. We were strongmen of the Lord. How could those people be us?
With my roommates’ additional workloads, I began to leave dawn prayers early every morning to fry bacon and spread butter on toast; I had to leave our leadership seminars early to lay lunchmeat on fluffy white rolls. I would stand at the back of the dining hall during testimonials, boiling water in an urn and arranging piles of assorted teabags according to their different flavours. My favourite job, though, was standing at the buffet in the dining hall and using a giant pair of tongs to place cobs of shiny, buttered corn on plates. It was Isaiah Wozniak’s job to grill and shuck the corn at dinner, and even though it got caught in my braces I always took a whole cob.
During all of these chores, I thought constantly about the hairs on the back of Isaiah’s neck. I had looked at them without his knowledge or invitation. I recalled their specific texture. I fixated on their almost vulgar thickness and watched his head turn, his mouth talk, his body lean. I imagined scenarios in which he came to me, perhaps to commend me, as Pastor Ethan had, on my selflessness. At the buffet, while I tonged the cobs of corn, I examined every yellow kernel closely. Each individual one was an object Isaiah had touched, had watched carefully, had judged ready to be eaten.
Pastor Ethan had thought at first that what I was doing was gracious and compassionate. Now he approached me and commented on my zeal. ‘Alicia,’ he said, his voice warm with praise, ‘you’re a natural volunteer.’ He pointed out how often I was working with my hands, how much satisfaction I must derive from helping others. ‘Isn’t that right, Alicia?’
I said something. I don’t know what. ‘Yes, sure. I love it, Pastor Ethan.’
There was a smile on his face I had never personally received before. I thought about what Kaylee had said about him: it was true, he did kind of look like Bradley Cooper. He asked me if I had thought about applying for the church’s summer mission program. ‘We’re building a school in Senegal,’ he explained. He handed me a small photocopied leaflet, a one-sided piece of white paper. ‘You’d be a great fit. I’ll write you a recommendation.’ He told me that I should get up onstage that night to speak. ‘You should be proud, Alicia,’ he said to me. ‘Serving others is an honourable purpose.’
I thought about how dirty my hands would be in Senegal. Nobody there would look at me and think, wow, God, I’m impressed. There would be nowhere to sing. The leaflet showed photographs of white people in baggy shorts and practical outdoor sandals giving the thumbs up with groups of African children. The same white people painted murals of trees and handed out illustrated Bibles. I thought about what the perks of a life of servitude might be, and all I could come up with was invisibility. I said to God, I have that one already.
I’d developed a bad sunburn on my nose. That night, when it was my turn to speak in front of everyone, the sunburn entered its peeling phase. This really grossed my roommates out, especially Kaylee. She flipped when she found little flakes of my nose skin lying around: on our cabin floor, on her black fluffy slides, sticking to the amber-coloured cake of soap that didn’t belong to me but which I had been using anyway.
‘That,’ Kaylee had said wretchedly, holding up the soap, ‘had sentimental value. And now I have to throw it in the garbage. Thanks, Alicia.’ Later, Rachel told me Kaylee had cried about the soap in private, when I had been preparing lunch rolls, because she had bought it on holiday. I wanted to apologise to Kaylee, but I felt too disgusted by the nature of my own problem to bring it up in a conversation.
That night in the rec hall I stood backstage while Pastor Ethan gave his evening sermon. For the first time, I fully comprehended that my whole fate was going to be something I would absent myself from, a lifelong out-of-body experience. I said to God, Is it too late for us to talk about changing your plan for my life? I knew that it was. He had given me all those pink-and-gold dawns, but they hadn’t been enough.
‘You may have noticed Alicia’, Pastor Ethan was saying now, ‘preparing your breakfast, or handing you a cup of tea after the evening service. She’s one of those among us who possesses the God-given trait of modesty, whose hands were born to do the humblest work of the Lord, whose heart desires to give its riches to those in need.’ I felt myself curling into a dry, disgusting husk, a chrysalis of myself. ‘Everyone, welcome Alicia to the stage.’
There was polite applause. I stepped one foot on the stage then the other, keeping my eyes down on my sneakers. The applause stopped. I was silent, and the room was silent. Our silences bounced off each other for a while and I let them. Nobody stopped me. Then my body acted without any instructions from me. It lifted the microphone to its mouth and spoke.
My body’s voice was different from my own voice. It was scratchy, it sounded like a bird’s foot on a roof. It said words I had never thought, like it had a private mind of its own stored outside of itself in an unknown location. ‘When I came here I thought I knew what kind of path my life would take,’ my body said, ‘but it’s not the path I was given.’ I looked up from my sneakers and saw my roommates in the second row, whispering to one another.
I kept speaking in that weird, scratchy voice. ‘Now thanks to my time serving you all at this retreat and thanks to Pastor Ethan’s wisdom, I know that I will be applying for a mission trip to build a school in Senegal. But I don’t even know how to build a school. I’ve never used a drill or a hammer. And also, I get sunburn really easy.’ I pointed to my nose. ‘It’s probably pretty sunny in Senegal so I guess I just have to trust that God will protect me from the sun, because if I died from melanoma I would be a pretty bad missionary.’
Nobody laughed, but my roommates had stopped whispering. It was the first time in my life that people were truly paying attention to me, and I wanted it to stop. ‘Anyway, there’s something I do know how to do, which is sing. It hurts my feelings that God didn’t choose me for the life I wanted. But I’ll get used to it, because God doesn’t make bad plans. I guess I just wanted to say farewell to that life, so.’ I remembered how, when Bethany had meekly suggested that she wanted to sing, Mia had nodded at her with encouragement and Pastor Ethan had stepped onstage and told her that she should do it. Right now, everyone in the room was just staring at me the way you would stare at a bug doing something disgusting. They were staring with the need to know what happens next even though you know it will be distasteful.
I picked my favourite song from church, one that Ana often picked for us, and I sang. In my opinion, my voice was very good. I knew that I was doing something others would regard as weird and embarrassing. I knew, and I didn’t care because I understood that it wouldn’t change anything. I finished the song, and nobody clapped.
Very slowly and gently, like it was a baby animal, my body put the microphone on the floor. When it connected, the speaker behind me thunked; I repossessed my body and looked straight into the eyes of Kaylee, whose face was the face of a person suppressing a laugh of ridicule. I saw, behind the people in the back row, the urns of water that I was supposed to boil so that I could make cups of tea for everybody and hand them out. I walked towards the urns at a normal pace, seeking the familiar comfort of routine, but when I heard the voices of the group behind me I guess I just started running.
I went to the prayer hill and sat in my regular spot, on top of the fossils. I thought that if someone sat on my cot right now and looked out of my cabin window, they would see me sitting here. I felt lonely. I stared at the moon and told myself on a loop, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. I cried, and some flakes of skin fell from my nose onto my lap.
Pastor Ethan found me there while I was still crying. He came to me alone. I registered very quickly that that meant we were alone together. I wondered when Ana’s first time alone with Pastor Ethan had been. I wondered if she had ever cried in front of him. ‘Alicia!’ Pastor Ethan’s voice reached me before his body did; he walked as vigorously up hills as he spoke in front of crowds. He was acting genuinely concerned for my welfare, which made me feel instantly vulnerable to him in a way I had not felt towards any other human at that place. Maybe he thought I was special, maybe my specialness was why he wanted me to go to Senegal with him.
He sat down on the damp grass beside me. ‘Have you been here this whole time?’ he asked.
‘It’s been at least an hour! It’s cold out. Here.’ Pastor Ethan took off his jacket and placed it on me so that the jacket’s shoulders were over my shoulders, and the sleeves hung either side of my torso like two slack flags. I pulled the jacket around myself. It was a faux-denim bomber jacket and smelled of grown man. In my mind, I said the words pour homme. They tasted on my mind’s tongue like things that were for adults: coffee, olives, after dinner mints.
‘Thank you, Pastor Ethan,’ I said. My voice was small and piteous and revealed the crying I had been doing.
‘Don’t thank me,’ he said. ‘It’s my job. Actually,’ he winked, ‘it’s my calling.’
Pastor Ethan repositioned himself on the grass a little, so that he was partially reclining. He was leaning on his elbows, and one bare forearm almost grazed my calf. I noticed that the hairs on his forearms were fair, like Isaiah’s. All of them were pointing in the same direction, golden grass in a gentle breeze. ‘Alicia,’ he said. ‘You know you can trust me, right?’
Pastor Ethan’s face was cute in profile. I imagined my roommates talking about me back in our cabin. ‘Where is she,’ they would say. ‘Did you hear? She’s going to Boost Juice with Pastor Ethan!’ I tore a blade of yellow grass into small pieces. I said, ‘Of course I trust you, Pastor Ethan.’
‘I want you to know you can talk to me about anything that might be going on in your life. Anything difficult, anything at all. I’m here to help you in your life as well as in your faith.’ He smized. ‘A friend.’
I sat quietly for a while. I dwelled on some images. I thought about Bethany Marshall and my fawn capris, which I had seen her putting away in her suitcase as though they were her own. I thought about Mia Sullivan and how she claimed she would not be afraid to FaceTime a boy naked while her parents slept, even though she knew that God did not sleep and would never. I thought about Kaylee Kellerman throwing her soap in the garbage, and how she had looked at me with unmasked disgust; I thought about Rachel White holding Eli’s hand in front of everyone, even at meals. My roommates had distinct and beautiful lives, and my own life could only slink between theirs like vermin.
‘Pastor Ethan,’ I said. I noticed that he didn’t turn to look at me, and I appreciated the privacy. ‘I want to ask you. Do we have to live the lives God chooses for us?’
Pastor Ethan kept looking in the direction he was looking. He started nodding firmly to himself, as if he had just strongly agreed with his own thoughts. He sat up straight, and I registered the withdrawal of his forearm. ‘Alicia,’ he said, and he wasn’t using the friendly voice any more, but the deep, bouncy one he used onstage. ‘God’s issued you a challenge. It’s natural to have doubt. Even Jesus doubted God’s plan, remember? But he prayed for strength and clarity. And that’s what we’re going to do now.’ He looked at me, and under his gaze I felt weak and pathetic. ‘We’re going to pray.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
Pastor Ethan pointed his chin upwards and drew in a deep, primal breath.
My mouth had formed the shape of a ‘P’ and then froze, tight and full of air, like I was going to address Pastor Ethan but already knew before I started doing it that this actually wasn’t a great time. Pastor Ethan was having a personal audience with God. His eyes were closed and his mouth was moving. I listened closely, past the night-time sounds of the river and the bugs, and I could hear the thin, whispering line of his voice. He was saying, ‘Pshsbhsh hhbyyyhs bhhbskskbhs hhshbs.’
I leaned back a little, using Pastor Ethan’s giant jacket as a kind of pillow. I looked up at the flapping gum leaves, which obscured most of the stars. I picked at a tuft of grass. I brushed some flakes of nose skin from the silky nylon lining of Pastor Ethan’s jacket. The whispering sound blended into other sounds, the wind flapping the leaves, the water licking the rocks. All the sounds were God, and all of them were having a private conversation without me.
On the last day of the retreat, I sat on the rock with my roommates. Mia and Bethany had all this coloured yarn and were weaving matching ankle bracelets, Mia said, ‘to commemorate this precious time’. Mia had taken a length of yarn and measured the diameter of my ankle, which meant I would get one too. The ankle bracelets were pink, green and yellow with a kind of zig-zag pattern. Rachel was already wearing hers, and she’d been swimming, so we knew the ankle bracelets were waterproof.
‘I’m never going to take it off,’ Rachel said. ‘If it breaks I’ll keep it in a jar.’
I was wearing long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat. We were watching the boys doing cannonballs into the river. Other girls from the retreat sat on other rocks, and this thing had developed where every boy would dedicate his cannonball to one of the girls.
‘Kaylee!’ called Jesse Mellon, and jumped.
‘Rebecca!’ called Noah De Vries, and jumped.
‘Rachel!’ Eli Parker called, and jumped. Nobody was surprised about that, since we all knew by then that Rachel and Eli were an item.
I had noticed a mineral vein in the rock near my thigh. If I moved my fingertip sideways over the vein, I could feel the contrasting textures: rough, briefly smooth, then rough again. In my head I said to God, Is this a metaphor for something in my life? I rubbed the mineral vein over and over, feeling like a clairvoyant. I felt like the rock was the tip of an iceberg, and the iceberg was the earth, and the earth was my only friend.
Lucas Waterhouse called out Mia’s name, and she threw sand at him. He tickled her pink foot as he emerged from the water, and she whispered something to Kaylee. Then it was Isaiah’s turn to jump.
‘Bethany!’ Isaiah called. He jumped. I rubbed the mineral vein.
The last person to jump was Micah Farmer. I had never talked to Micah, not once in my life. But when he jumped, he called out, ‘Alicia!’ Everybody could tell that his heart wasn’t in it, but it was the right thing to do.
Emma Marie Jones is the author of Something to Be Tiptoed Around. She is a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.