Waiting in line to enter the priest’s sacred confessional, I feel high off the possibility of being saved. In my bride-white dress, I rehearse my line: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” I practice my dance: bowing my head, recounting my sins tearfully, and averting my eyes towards the crucified martyr on the church stage for a grand finale. When I’m finally called in, I’m taken aback by the openness of the confessional; it looks nothing like it does in movies, where there’s a film of black metal lace separating you and the priest. Nope, here I am, sitting in a pew across from the man I’ve been hearing drone on about the gravity of sin since I was eight years old… there’s his sweaty upper lip, his pale white skin, his thick, judgy eyebrows… there is his face, undeniably man.
So, yeah, I get cold feet. Instead of recounting every sin I’ve ever committed, including the mortifying ones like, “Two years ago, when I was in the fifth grade, I stumbled across a lesbian porn link on a Glee community forum and definitely didn’t turn it off by the time I was supposed to,” I lie. By omission. I tell him about the time I stole $20 from my mother’s coat pocket to buy smelly erasers and the Guinness Book of World Records at the Scholastic Book Fair, about how my cousin Jenna* and I sometimes gossip about people behind their backs, and about how I’m disrespectful to my parents. At the end of confession, the priest tallies up my sins before taking them directly to God so He can check out the sin menu and let the priest know how much they’ll cost me. This whole process takes maybe fifteen seconds—God gets a lot of orders for salvation, so His staff is trying to cut down their return time. My sins are, as expected, measly, and the ten Ave Marías and fifteen Padre Nuestros combo He orders takes me only five minutes to complete. I’m out the door while the kids who went in before me are still kneeling in the pews, their fingertips kissing each other in prayer.
I feel like an imposter, a walking sin in a supposedly purified body, and I wonder if it’ll show at my first communion. Will I reject His body and blood? Will my body start convulsing like in The Exorcist, and will everybody know I’ve squandered my chance at absolution? Will God who sees all know my intentions, or choose to see only the gravity of my sin? In lieu of answers, I fall back on calculations. If stealing is worth ten Ave Marías and talking back and gossiping is worth fifteen Padre Nuestros, then lying to a priest during a sanctioned confessional can’t be more than what, three rosaries? I know the Bible states you should share your sins with your fellow man so they may be healed, but isn’t God the perpetual healer? What’s the need for the priest, the fleshy middleman? I want another way; I want to bargain directly with God.
The second I recognize I’ve committed a sin, I’ll start praying to absolve myself. Ten Padre Nuestros for daydreaming about beating my sister up after she told on me for sneaking out to build a fort with the neighbors, and ten Ave Marías for lying in the first place. Fifteen Angel de mi Guardias for standing idly by as the kids in my class picked on Hannah Bell, a girl who had been nothing but kind to me. The toll for blushing when my best friend sits on my lap, for wanting to know what a girl’s fingers feel like laced in mine? Maybe that’s unforgivable. All I can do is try to exterminate the sin in my thought patterns before it manifests into my body and heart. I don’t pray for forgiveness; I pray to be different, I pray to be fixed.
It’s my sophomore year at Yale, and I haven’t called on God in years. I don’t believe He’s listening anymore, but I do believe in the power of mystical experiences, which is why I’ve decided to take shrooms at noon on the Lord’s day. It’s the Sunday after Harvard-Yale, the biggest football game of the year, and my best friends Val, Jay and I are ending the weekend with a trip. We marvel at how the shrooms’ greying trunks curve upward to meet their tiny, magical domes. We laugh at the thought of intentionally poisoning ourselves to watch the walls of our common room dance, and then we rip them into tiny pieces and chew them up anyway. They taste like cardboard or the shell of a sunflower seed; we take turns sipping at a bottle of Nesquik to wash the bitterness out of our mouths, and then we wait for time and space to melt away. After what feels like thirty minutes, we start to wonder if we should’ve taken more. We keep asking each other, “Do you feel anything yet?” The answer is mostly, “I don’t know” until it’s “Holy shit, yes.”
The first thing I notice is that Jay’s eyes are gleaming impossibly black. They’re not where they usually are, but moving around, getting bigger, pushing all her other features away to accommodate their widening gaze. Jay looks like the Disney villain version of herself, and I can’t look at her face in fear of freaking myself out, so I look down instead. The toe of my sock draws circles on our shag rug, and the motion calms me down until I realize that the rug’s moving, too. There are little white caterpillars made of looped yarn crawling over its cushy blue sidewalk. When I point this out, nobody laughs. Instead, Val squints her eyes and gasps, “Wait… I see that, what the fuck?” and I know that we’re in it, whatever this is.
With our shoulders kissing, we lie down on the rug to stare at the night sky of our ceiling, illuminated purple by the blacklight bulb we switched out with our regular for the occasion. One minute we’re laughing at how the cracks in the ceiling make an outline that looks like Kermit the Frog, and the next we’re sitting up and we can’t stop crying. We’re sitting in a triangle formation and I swear I see a laser-red line running through our palms, connecting us to each other.
Val tells us about the supply-closet-made-study-space where she did her homework at home, the only place where she could get some peace and quiet in the garage she shared with her family. Jay discloses that she isn’t able to sit through African-American studies courses despite being a prospective major because it’s too painful having to historicize her grandparents’ suffering. I tell them why I didn’t visit when a priest was giving my sister her last rites, because I couldn’t give her permission to go, because I needed her. I tell them about how I still wonder if that has helped keep her longer on this plane, somehow, and about how grateful I am. We bear witness to each other. An illusion spell has been broken; I now see that our bodies are just containers separating us from each other, and that when we leave them we’ll realize we’re actually all one.
The next time I take shrooms, it’s an act of desperation. It’s three months out from my first trip, I haven’t seen the sun in a week, and I’m feeling a little delirious. Even my curtains are looking strange, like they might be in love from how many hours a day they’ve spent embracing each other. Today marks two weeks after the beginning of spring semester, but I’m trying not to think about that because then I’ll have to deal with the fact that I spent the majority of this time depressed in my dorm room. Instead, I’m avoiding the topic, and avoiding the world while I’m at it, too. I’ve gotten it down to a calculated science. It takes me four seconds to swipe an email away and return to Hulu, where I’m working through all seven seasons of Dance Moms. It takes three seconds for my phone screen to light up and then dim again after a text message floats in, and another two seconds to hit Do Not Disturb and turn off the offending light. It takes thirty seconds for a call from my mother—who’s just a few blocks away, nursing my sister back to health in the East Rock studio apartment I’d spent the majority of winter break in—to go to voicemail. Even my reflection misses me.
I would have languished in my cave forever, but the food I keep stashed in my desk drawer has run out and my bank account can’t survive another UberEats order. It’s time to brave the dining hall. For someone who just wants to disappear, the dining hall’s long table—a bunch of wooden tables forced together to make one big, social, dinner table—is the scene of nightmares. I imagine walking into the dining hall and seeing rows of smiling faces attached to necks that curve upward in laughter and shoulders that press right up against each other… walking in, and seeing all those smiling faces turn towards me, their grins growing impossibly wider… sitting among them and letting my lips stretch over my teeth in solidarity… under the smile, I’d feel like the villain in a horror movie, faking that I’m a part of this normal world before somebody realizes something just isn’t quite right with me.
That doesn’t happen. I almost manage to get out unseen until I’m scraping my food off my plate and run into Charlie, one of my friends. “Dude, how have I barely seen you?” I sigh, shopping period, you know how it is. Running everywhere. Charlie smiles like they understand, but they don’t. I make a move to slip past them, but they’re quicker, and say we should walk back together. On our walk back, they tell me they’re planning on taking shrooms tonight to deepen their relationship with their partner, and that they have extras. They ask me if I want them. I almost say no, but I’m tired of feeling like this, so I say fuck it. I say yes.
The shrooms somehow taste worse than the first time, but maybe that’s the added bitterness of taking them alone. I wash them down with a cup of room-temperature Tazo mint tea and lie down on my bed to stare at my ceiling. I know the shrooms are kicking in when I start wondering if the ceiling is looking at me, too… if it’s judging me or cheering me on, saying, “There’s a whole world out there for you, Alex, right outside the Saybrook gates!” I know the shrooms are really kicking in when I start feeling like a dark entity is peering at me from under my eyelids every time I shut them, like it’s invaded me, a serpent coiled at the base of my belly waiting to strike. I bite down my nausea and try not to close my eyes for too long to avoid the darkness slithering around under there. I turn my overhead light on for the first time in weeks because my fairy lights aren’t illuminating enough corners, and then I plop down on my bed and stare at the hexagons and triangles moving around on the ceiling. I’m anxious, but I’m alone. To distract myself, I go to Spotify and put my Daily Mixes on shuffle. All of a sudden: a beautiful, tinkling melody.
I’ve just seen a ghost, the memories I hate the most… Reflections I fear, were something I forgot were real… The voice extends its arms to me and my chest opens up to accept its embrace. A little view of the past, I promise all of this is not gonna last… The patterns on my ceiling dance to the beat, and the yellow overhead light suddenly looks like a sunrise. Ya no quiero que llores, the universe is gonna give you muchas flores… The voice tells me not to cry, but I’ve been storing tears for weeks, and my dam is buckling under the weight of this promise: that it will get better, that it is not forever. I close my eyes to invite the world of darkness into this moment with me, and it gifts me a vision of my childhood self. A little girl, small and mighty, who thinks she’s not enough because a priest on a stage told her the way she loves is wrong. Enough. For years that word has lodged itself between the gaps of my teeth like a piece of popcorn kernel I can’t get rid of. It’s become a permanent injury in my mouth, forcing my tongue to accommodate its presence. I have not expressed myself as myself; I have been too afraid and ashamed to love myself as I am. In this moment, I don’t feel either of those things, only acceptance, and my arms wrapped around my shoulders, wrapped around the shoulders of the little girl I once was… the little girl I am, somewhere, still.
This gritty, bright pink Moon Sand is a map outlining the roads inside of ourselves. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to my cousin Jenna and me, because we are high as fuck. I’ve never taken acid before, but the world looks bright and open, and Jenna’s hands are careful as they knead the sand into a shape that resembles her heart. We’re sitting on a park bench in my hometown as the Santa Cruz mountains turn to ash a few miles away, and we’re not supposed to be breathing this air, but it’s three months into the COVID-19 pandemic and the whole world is a biohazard, so screw it. Those mountains where we went to Science Camp, kissed banana slugs, wiped our asses with leaves—irretrievably damaged. The world we called our own, the one we thought couldn’t be taken from us, where we could embrace a friend on the street and bare our teeth at a stranger—gone too. Here we are, back in Watsonville: Jenna and Alex, the duo we’ve always been.
Jenna and I are potted plants sprouting alongside each other in the same familial garden, but our soil is not the same. My father cuts fruit into tiny pieces as an offering to me. My mother braids my hair and lets me nap in her bed when I’m feeling lonely. Jenna’s dad, my uncle, Facebook messages her once a year for her birthday, usually a few days off. Her mother says things like “I hit you because I love you” and “don’t make up nasty rumors about your stepdad because you’re jealous of me.” I’ve always known that there’s something about the way she grows into the world that I will never understand. Right now, she tries to show me with her hands.
Her palm folds over into a fist and some Moon Sand seeps out between her knuckles. She says, “This is me. There’s never been enough space for me. I’m always making myself small to fit in places where I’m not wanted.” My eyes fixate on the grains of pink sand between her knuckles as they separate from the mass held in her fist, and I watch them fall to the ground through the holes in the picnic table. I want to get on my hands and knees to pick up every grain I can find and put her back together, but I don’t. Instead, I turn her knuckles over and nudge her palm open. The Moon Sand tumbles out onto my hand and I flatten it out into a little tortilla. I say, “This is me. I’m always being spread thin. I’m never enough despite how far I reach.” Her eyes are watery, but they glisten with warmth, and when she takes the Moon Sand from my hand, she holds onto my fingertips for a few seconds before letting go.
I feel a strange comfort in seeing the way the Ocean moves. With my feet in the sand and the lingering taste of shrooms in my mouth, I stare out at her tides, coming and going, approaching and retreating, a beautiful war-dance by a Goddess, and I feel impossibly small. I dip my toes in the shoreline and imagine the waves pulling me into a tango, and suddenly I’m approaching her and then retreating, too. The Ocean could choose to embrace me fully at any moment, to pull me into her center, to dip me under the wave of her arms, to make my body live inside her forever, and I would have no choice but to conform to her shape. Normally, this thought would send me into an anxious spiral, and I’d fall down and down, conjuring up new and increasingly terrifying scenarios along the way. But right now, with my head in the psychedelic clouds, I feel calm. I feel like I’ve tapped into something real. My ant-like place in this big world might be insignificant, but it is mine. Whatever happens, this moment, and every moment I have lived, this life, it’s mine mine mine.
This revelation arrives after months of feeling like not even my body is my own. It’s August, pandemic-fatigue has taken on a whole new meaning, and I haven’t been able to trust since March. I came to the beach with Jenna and my sister, Mariana, to get out of the house and socialize without the risk of exposing myself and my family to COVID. I’ve spent the past few months trying to protect myself from the possibility of my body’s betrayal—tiptoeing around my room in isolation and, for the first time in years, praying. With my knees touching the ground, a rosary wrapped around my fingers, and my vision locked with the downcast eyes of la Virgen de Guadalupe, I ask for protection. During this summer tinged with the world’s sickness and mourning, I pray to be an exception, I pray to be safe. I say amen, I say please amend the story, I say “Madre, please protect me from what I have seen and will see.” I want to look away, I want not to suffer. It’s a human desire, but it’s a stupid one. Life has no bargaining system; we cannot control how much we suffer or how that suffering comes to us. In trying to, we give the possibility of pain the power to cause it; only the act of surrendering to the tides can absolve us.
Out of nowhere comes the wail of a siren. Over a megaphone attached to a park ranger’s truck, a message comes towards me: “Please evacuate the beach, this is not a drill! Evacuate the beach immediately.” This is not a drill, this is it. With my eyes locked on the sea and seawater pooled around my ankles, I accept my fate. I curl my toes into the wet grittiness of the sand and wait for a giant wave to emerge from the Ocean’s depths and, for once, I’m not scared of what could happen. I feel grateful to have gotten a chance to be Alex; she is beautiful, and I will never live her life again, although I might live others. When I leave this body, I’ll know I am eternal. The world works in this way, regenerating itself; everything in it is God, creator of all things. I will become food for the algae and the fish and the saltwater; the pieces of me that are alive will cease to be for a moment, but they will create more things that are alive. And my soul will go wherever it is that souls go, to the place where the ancestors live, where prayers float up to meet them.
*All names in this story, except for mine and my sister’s, are pseudonyms.