I sat on the table and leaned back, pressing the weight of my upper body into my wrists. My long blonde hair itched my neck, so I flipped it away from my face. In sync with the movement, my oversized hoodie slipped off my shoulder, revealing my bare skin and thin-strapped tank top. I pretended not to notice and continued to drink my soda.
Trevor, Lucas, and Connor cornered me in the open air surrounding the table in the University Center. Trevor was a devout Greek Orthodox Christian; Lucas, a future Episcopalian priest; and Connor was agnostic and, like me, cynical of Christianity.
Lucas, overtly secure in his sexuality, stepped between my legs, close to my body, and moaned, “Oh yeah!” We all laughed in amusement. Lucas stepped back, “I’m just kidding…I like the ‘D.’”
“Yeah you do,” Connor said sensually as he ran his open palm down Lucas’ chest. Lucas slapped it away before Connor reached his belt. Trevor and I watched, intrigued, but not surprised in the slightest.
“I miss Gabe so much. Oh my glob!” Lucas exclaimed. “I was telling Jessica earlier how horny I am—I just want to cum so bad!”
I laughed out loud, remembering our exchange of offensive messages. “Remember, though, Lucas, you can just cum on Jesus!”
Trevor and Connor could only manage expressions of shock and three words, “What! Wait, what?”
“Lucas and I were talking about orgasms earlier and when he said he wanted to orgasm until Judgment Day, I said he could cum on Jesus…Happy Judgment Day!”
“Cum get me Christ!” cries Lucas.
The room roared with our laughter as listen-loos sat offended in the corner. Trevor covered his mouth and pointed at me when he remembered our conversation from lunch. “Oh my god, Jess…” Trevor flattened his hand in the air, palm down, and waved it up and down. The movement jogged my memory and I lost control of the intensity of my laughter. “You guys, Jesus hand jobs.”
Trevor did the motion once more. Connor covered his mouth and curled over in laughter while Lucas stood with his mouth oval-ed, taking in the glory of the hilariously wrong moment.
“Oh my god. We’re all going straight to hell…” I said aloud as our abdomens cramped and our lungs slowly inhaled back in rhythm.
Once we were finally calm and content, I hugged Connor and Trevor, and kissed Lucas goodbye.
When I arrived home late that evening, I found Tasia, sitting alone at the kitchen table, eating cookie dough. “Hey Tasia. How’s it going?” I said with easiness.
“I’m okay. Michael did an alter call at Ignite tonight and I got hit with a lot when everyone prayed for me.”
I molded my face to show more concern than I felt. “Hmm, well, are you okay? Can I do anything?”
“Hah, no.” Tasia added a ‘W’ to the end of the word for emphasis. “I need Jesus to tell me what the F— to do with my life!” She replied with both laughter and frustration.
I chuckled. “Wait, but I thought you were all set on joining the navy—you did the interview and everything.”
Tasia raised her eyebrows, widened her eyes, and pursed her lips. “Nope. Not anymore.”
After a short pause, Tasia jumped down the rabbit hole I considered to be God’s voice and began explaining her, or God’s, reasoning.
I went to bed that night with my head a hurricane of thoughts. I knew from where my blasphemy stemmed. That night, I was back in Rwanda, and my trauma was reawakened in my dreams.
Jesse sat across the table from me, in the restaurant neighboring our apartment in Kigali, drinking bottomless coffee from a cup made in China. We were surrounded by a thousand rolling hills and the world was painted red with clay. My harsh features and lack of coloring isolated me in this world of Rwandans and their rich, blackish-brown skin. Jesse’s slightly darker complexion and large features allowed him a few extra millimeters for integration. As a Russian, Ukrainian, ethnic Jew from Oakland, Jesse was the last human I expected to meet in Rwanda. He stood six feet, four inches tall with a dense, figured frame and he carried himself with charisma and confidence.
Jesse was bold and never afraid to engage with another person. My busy mind flashed back to our first interaction: Knowing I was a Christian, Jesse began our conversation with the question, “If God promises to provide for his people, then why isn’t manna falling from the sky?” I sat stunned, staring at Jesse’s black Godzilla t-shirt, frantically searching for an answer.
It was only a week later that this question took life in my mind as a dangerous intruder. In Murambi, on the grounds of the abandoned boarding school in Butare, I reached my peak of dissatisfaction. Nineteen years earlier, 50,000 innocent people were given over to the torturous hands of death on that ground. Years later, Murambi was made into a genocide memorial containing old clothing, cleaned bones, and preserved bodies of victims. The whole bodies, in their ultimate state of victimhood, preserved with nails, skin, hair, and facial expressions, were traumatizing. I walked through the filled classrooms, carefully and mournfully examining each of the 200 victims. Some were deformed from machetes and clubs, missing limbs or positioned to cover the remaining pieces of their slashed skulls. The children were preserved in the fetal positions they were found in after having their heads smashed against walls. Some bodies even maintained positions with their arms reaching outward, as if begging to be pulled from the sea of terror they were drowning in.
Several weeks later, the memories flashed in sequence as Jesse sat calmly with his coffee across the table and as I began to speak. “Where was God during the genocide? Because the God I know—knew, wouldn’t want the genocide to happen…He would be suffering with the victims but also working to stop the murders…” I processed out loud, explaining my thinking to Jesse as he listened intently. “I thought God was good. But the God I know doesn’t fit with the genocide; the two things don’t, they can’t, work together…”
Jesse’s deep green eyes were hinted with golden undertones and I could see a deep compassion in them. “You’re right. Those things don’t work together. But, do they have to? Do you have to believe in the Christian God? Do you even believe in that God at this point?”
“I mean, I thought I did. But now, it doesn’t make sense.” I leaned my elbows on the table and forcefully touched my fingertips to my temples. “I want to, because it’s what I know, but I don’t think I can anymore. If I just keep believing, that means I have to pretend like the genocide was okay, even though it wasn’t. That means I’m intentionally allowing myself to be ignorant and desensitized to what I’ve seen here. I can’t do that.” My arms began to wave violently in the two-foot radius around my chest. “That doesn’t give the victims any respect or acknowledgement and it makes me just like the people in Ignite—I can’t just believe something because someone tells me it’s true anymore. I don’t know…What do you think? How are you reconciling this?”
Jesse’s eyes sparked with excitement as he straightened his tall back and leaned with ease into his chair. “I see God in everything. I see God in the victims. I see God in the perpetrators.” Jesse leaned forward again, placing his hands softly on the red, checkered tablecloth, and paused for just three or four seconds. “I see God in the machetes. I think God is a part of all of us and we are all a part of God.” Jesse developed a calm air of wisdom as he continued on, “suffering—even the suffering of the Rwandan Genocide—is a part of the world, and it always will be.”
I found myself taken aback by his answer and angered by my own misunderstanding that the genocide was inescapable. I sat still, tightly holding my small mug of African Tea with both hands, while my eyes worked tirelessly to decipher the checkers on the tabletop. Jesse watched my reaction carefully and with amusement. A smile eased its way into his words. “In Buddhism, there is a cycle of life, Samsara, that is dependent on both compassion and suffering. Suffering is necessary to life. This is one of my favorite parts about Buddhism because it’s so real and so beautiful. Suffering sucks, yeah, and it’s scary as fuck, but it is the greatest teacher.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I agreed, uncomfortable with the weight of the truth I was now holding. Suffering is a fantastic teacher. I’ve always believed that… My thoughts jumped from God to His people at this reminder. “But what about Ignite and my community back home? What am I getting out of being shamed and disowned by the people I claimed as family?” I’m a Bible study leader. I’m the fucking worship leader. How could they— why don’t they care? So much for 1 Corinthians 13. My heart rate pulsed harder as my wounds dug deeper. “More than ever, this is the time they should be here, but they can’t even manage to ask me a single question. These Christians, God’s people, my friends, are only discussing my ‘purity’ behind my back—they care that I’m living with you but they don’t give a fuck about my heart. What the hell is that? What am I getting from that?” I can’t believe I used to be one of them…
My muscles eased some tension when I noticed Jesse’s strong posture and wide, relaxed shoulders. “I don’t know, you tell me.”
I could tell that Jesse was pushing me intentionally, but I momentarily pondered the question anyways. “Love. I’m learning love.” Suddenly, my body felt weaker and a harsh ache sliced its way down my chest and into my core. I maintained my composure.
The slightest hint of a smile immediately made home in Jesse’s lips as he leaned forward with intrigue, resting his stubbled chin on his knuckles. “Hmm, what do you mean?”
“I’m learning love. I’m learning what it means to truly love another human being and, and it’s clear that what I’m being shown is not love. So, I am learning how to love by experiencing the opposite. I’m learning what love is not.”
“Yeah! That’s right!” Jesse finally smiled wide enough for me to see his teeth, tinted yellow from his excessive coffee intake. “Wow, Jessica! You are one of the strongest people I know, for asking these questions and for taking this on. You’re walking straight through the fire and you’re just chillin’ in the flames. Girl, you’re the shit!”
I leaned back in my chair and smirked with an awkward self-awareness. “Thanks, Jesse.”
We let a moment of silence interrupt our conversation. Jesse’s hair had grown long in Rwanda, into a coarse, Jewish afro, and I ran my fingers through it as I leaned in close to kiss him. I held his forehead to mine as I said another full and heavy “Thank you.”
“Mmmm, I love you!” Jesse relaxed into his chair, carrying a look of pride and amazement over his thick, bushy eyebrows. “Jessica, you’re amazing. I find such solidarity with you—you and I are both exiles of the dark.”
My body grew stronger as Jesse took a final breath and returned to sipping his coffee. He shot me a sly glance over the cream-colored porcelain mug, as if he were an old spy withholding a metamorphic secret. We both directed our eyes to look out over the balcony and onto the bustling hub developing in the middle of East Africa. Red dust mingled with oxygen and bus fumes, giving the garbage-free concrete and disparaged brushland a softer hue. We were both awestruck at the world we had found ourselves in. Rwanda was no ordinary place to fall in love.
In five months on Rwanda’s red soil, I began to dismantle the character I had named God—this God, the man in heaven who showed me magic and the savior who set me free from the chains I could only sometimes see. Nothing but the blood of Jesus could blind me so wholly.
Nearly a year later, my eyes had been smeared with mud and I was no longer as cynical about Rwanda and about God. I found some peace and healing—living as a survivor with unhealed wounds. I developed the ability to look deeper into myself and examine my past; who I am, what I believe, and how to belong.
With Jesse, my walls were sand; I was unguarded. And still, he loved me. I was different, and I still felt settled, like I belong with him.
I remembered back to a time when my belonging was as consistent as the waves hitting the shore. Back to a time when my longing for a place and people to call home, left me broken, divided unevenly in two.
The boys took turns with me; I was never standing by myself. Joey, Alex, Jonathan, and Nick each traded off the duty of keeping me entertained. I was either with one of them or all of them when we were together as a group. As if I were a puppy for them to play with they would tease me before we went out on our walks.
We had all met at Alex’s house in the neighborhood just behind mine before leaving. I walked the three blocks out of my cul-de-sac, around the old junior high coated in chipped blue paint, and over the decorative sidewalk pebbles to his driveway where I was met with snickers and suspicious glances. Eventually I was welcomed inside where we caught each other up on the last twenty hours we hadn’t spent together and ate Nutella straight from the jar.
Between spoonfuls, Jonathan turned to me, with considerate interest and asked, “so, what have you been doing so far this weekend?” Pleasantly surprised by his interest, I smiled awkwardly and responded with my schedule of homework and television. Nick chimed in sarcastically, “you didn’t do anything else Friday night? You weren’t with a boy were you..?” Everyone laughed and I giggled along. “No…”
I pushed myself off the couch, setting my spoon on the table, and walked towards the bathroom. My body tensed as they watched me cross the carpet and swivel my hips around the corner. I closed the bathroom door and looked in the mirror. Letting out a deep sigh, I stared foreword. My eyes moved from my waist upward, pausing on my small but notable breasts and on my heavily made-up face. Just relax. I look pretty good tonight…I can mess with them a little.
After patting the grease from my skin and adjusting my blonde hair so that it fell exactly right across my shoulders, I turned towards the toilet and began to unbutton my jeans. Just as I pushed the thick material past my thighs I heard voices outside the door. I fearfully pulled my pants on as fast as possible and stood, re-buttoning them. I calmed my adrenaline and listened to the subtle clinking of metal inside the doorframe. I reached for the handle, flung the bathroom door wide, and stared at Joey and Alex who were crouched down on one knee, with a credit card in hand. They looked up at me and smiled, “hey Jess!” Alex’s big brown eyes reflected the innocence of a child and Joey exposed the guilty deceit of a shameless juvenile.
Later, after sitting through this week’s pick of zombie movies, the five of us drove north. We swerved Alex’s car down the windy Richmond Beach Road, past Spin Alley where we once all had our birthday parties, and past a line of human-sized birdhouses that underscored the clouds. We piled out of the car and walked across the parking lot towards the patch of trees we called a forest. Over the two-by-fours and through the sticky mud, our shoes sank and squished until we scratched through the blackberry bushes and onto the concrete. The bridge stretched far over the train tracks and into the horizon.
The bullfrogs croaked their goodnights as Joey winked, “you’re really…developing, Jess.” I crossed my arms as we walked into the night, towards the ocean. Joey and I walked close as we all made our way across the patterns of rocks strewn across the shore. As our destination grew closer, I noticed the long, thick wood piled along the edges of the untrimmed grass. Has this always been here? Too focused on the wood in the distance, I lost my balance on the rocks and tripped forward. Joey’s dense body caught my fall.
We occupied the driftwood forts well into the morning, while I learned the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised, laughed ashamedly at racist and dirty jokes, and blushed beneath the shadows.
Just a few weeks later, I stood on the same beach, my feet buried in the sand.
“Blondes not bombs? What does that even mean?” Sarah asked me behind her dark, glazed eyes. I looked down at my blue t-shirt, slightly too small for my developing body, and focused on the inch of midriff peeking out, instead of the yellow letters Sarah had concentrated on.
“It’s the lyrics to a song: ‘If every soldier in the wo-orld put down his weapon and picked up a woman; what a peaceful world this world would be-ee-eee…’ So, blondes not bombs! You get it?” Sarah glanced back at me and smiled with a look of confusion and disgust while I turned my fading smile back to the shoreline and off of my exposed abdomen. It was too cold for shorts but just warm enough so that the sun called out beads of sweat from my hairline.
The waves crashed as Grace, Jenn, and Rachel chattered about their silly shenanigans from the eight-hour bus ride to Ashland—piled onto a worn out school bus, all thirty of us kept ourselves entertained with eye-spy games, M-A-S-H, and sleep. We awaited the adventures of leaving home instead of the profound insight of Shakespeare’s greatest works. I plopped my body down with the movement of the bus next to Grace and began to tell her about my past weekend with Joey. I recounted to her my memories of his eyes, the way he smiled, his seventeen-year-old insults, and his subtle movements that revealed the truth of our relationship. I scrunched my nose and grinned just at the thought of this chase. “Awww Jessdex!! You and Joey…ahhh!! You like each other…” Grace trailed off into a series of words and noises. The look on her face revealed both joy and disbelief, as if my life was her guilty pleasure. At least for the moment, she lived vicariously through my flirtatious stares with an older boy.
With our arms around each other, the five of us walked through the sand, our feet wobbling together in solidarity. On our way back to the car, we stopped near the bridge for a small snack. We ate the plump and juicy blackberries from the vine, bursting with a deep burgundy color, as we laughed together about our newly stained fingertips. I had always found the blackberries irresistible, and even knowing their seasonal blooms would stain my lips that afternoon, I put on lipstick anyways.
Soon enough, we giggled our way back to the parking lot where my small white car was patiently waiting. My early birthday present was the girls’ only separation from the ominous eyes of ever-present parents. Jenn adjusted the front seat to fit her short body and the others climbed into the back. Rachel continued her story about Alex’s strange sense of humor.
To fuel the gossip, I laughed and mentioned Alex’s joke from a few days before: “Oh my god, Jess, I jizzed in your backseat!” Jenn looked over at me with a smirk. I looked to my rearview mirror for a reaction and saw only giggling blank faces. Did I go too far? Do they not think it’s funny? Should I not have laughed when Alex said this the other day?
“Haha what the heck is jizz? That’s not even a real word! Alex is so weird!” cried Grace from the rearview. I looked back to the road and drove carefully home. They don’t understand…but then again, I didn’t either.
I crept quietly onto the back porch and climbed up the siding. I swung my leg over the wooden rail and squinted towards the sun, taking in the misty gold that was dominating my view. A slight breeze picked up, just gusty enough to blow a few dandelion seeds my way, and I closed my eyes, tilting my head back. The transparent arms of something fluid grasped my body. My middle drew in as my lungs expanded. My muscles grew tight and then relaxed into a peace that overtook me. A drop of salt escaped the confinement of my eyes. It was as if my most intimate partner had loved me, from my waist up. I opened my eyes and thought of Jesse. I whispered to him across the country, “Ndadukunda. Cyane Cyane, Cyane.”
I focused back on God, feeling settled for the first time in over a year. Like a puzzle piece wedged between its counterparts. Like a baby nuzzled into the breast of its mother. Like the sand being moved by the sea. I belong here. I turned back to the sun and waited for the wind. It blew gently over my shoulders, caressing my chilled skin. “Thank you. I love you too.” I said out loud, staring at the clouds drifting by.
I closed my eyes again, imagining myself standing naked on the flames of the sun. For an instant, I saw Jesus, before he faded into the fire. God took my hand and twirled me, more gently than he did in Rwanda. And Jesse watched with love and patience, smiling from the moon.
 Translation: I love you. So much, so much, so much.