I die before I turn thirty, from what starts out as a mole on my thigh that my girlfriend finds while going down on me; it's in the shape of a cross, of all things, and my girlfriend says, "You should tell your mom," and then we laugh until we aren't making any noise, under the covers, with some feeling like meanness but also guilt. The next morning, sitting on the toilet seat, I poke at the edges of the mole with my fingernail until it starts bleeding. My girlfriend gets out of the shower and fishes a clump of her hair out of the drain; she sees me picking and asks, "Why are you doing that?" I say, "Maybe it will change shape, into an angel." The mole scabs, heals, gets bigger. I go in for a pap smear and a doctor sees the mole and then another doctor diagnoses it as a malignant melanoma, and I go through chemo but still it spreads to other parts of my body. Much later I don't know where my girlfriend is any more but I am really sick and I am going to die with my mom sitting in the hospital bed with me, her legs crossed over mine, even though the nurse tells her she isn't supposed to be in the bed. She says to the nurse, "I don't have to listen to you." I close my eyes and open them and I see that God is very much like my mom had said he would be: not a body, not a man exactly, but light, in the shape of a human at least, but taller. I am trying to see his face, but he is turned away from me. So I am waiting for him to turn around, my hands gripping the bar of a gate that should probably be warm because it's glowing white, but it's just cold, and I am thinking, none of these things can mean anything good.
When I am thirteen my friend Samantha spends the night with me almost every Saturday, before we go to church in the morning with our families. With her in my bed, I don't sleep very well. I wake up with her face an inch away from mine; her breath smells like something sweet and bad, like old milk or rotten fruit, and her body is too hot. Sometimes I can't really tell if I'm dreaming or if I'm awake, but one night I am so hot from her body next to mine that I think I am going to throw up. I think about getting out of bed, rushing to the bathroom to rest my forehead against the cold toilet seat; but this time I wake Samantha and I ask her to touch my back until I don't feel like I'm going to throw up any more. "Sure," she murmurs, not as confused as I think she should be.
"Tell me a story while you do it," I say.
"That's what my mom does when I don't feel good," I say.
"Okay. What do you want me to tell a story about?"
"What do you think hell would be like?"
"Why are you asking about that, of all things," Samantha says. Her fingernails are long, longer than most girls our age who bite or peel. When she touches the fabric of my T-shirt, not even my skin directly, I am already shivering.
"I was just thinking about it."
"Okay," Samantha says, still not very confused. "My uncle died a few years ago. He had lung cancer. He was an atheist—he was always arguing with my mom about evolution. I was in the room when he died, sitting with my mom. She was holding my hand. He died and the room smelled like. . . . like, you know."
"Like . . . like when someone craps their pants."
"Yeah, it was. Before he died, he was talking a bunch of nonsense, no one could understand. Then he kept asking for a glass of water. The next day my mom told me he was asking for water because he was so hot, because he was probably already in hell."
"That's funny," I say.
I am almost asleep again. The story isn't funny at all. Samantha's fingers move from my back to my neck and then to my forehead, where she pushes my bangs away from my face just my mom would, too, but maybe this is just the part that I am dreaming.
Our church youth group takes us on a retreat out of town. We travel in a bus with a dirty bathroom in the back that is starting to overflow by the end of the trip. We stay in cheap hotel rooms and some of us sleep on the floor. Samantha and I share a sleeping bag. The retreat is held in a stadium, and several pastors speak about how we should be on fire for God. Boys and girls our age sing special music, or play the guitar or the piano, or sometimes read their poetry. Samantha and I whisper we will write a dumb poem about love, using flowers as metaphors, and we will read it in front of everyone and no one will understand how stupid it is except for us. We don't really write the poem though. At the end of the retreat, one of the pastors asks everyone if they really are saved. If you die tomorrow, are you sure you would go to heaven? There is a bright overhead light shining on the pastor, though he doesn't look that holy to me; he has a goatee and a big stomach like a pregnant woman. He invites us to come up to the front of the stadium to re-commit our lives to Jesus. Some of the girls cry. I go up because I am never sure.
After that retreat, I can sleep with Samantha in my bed but I can't sleep when I am alone. I imagine going to hell because maybe I am really not saved, and I am stuck in a place where it is always dark and I am always hot, and other people are crying. I keep wondering when I will get out but then, like getting kicked in the stomach, I understand I will never get out and it will be like this forever.
After midnight, I go into my parents' bedroom. I wedge myself in-between my mom's body and my dad's body. My mom wakes up but my dad doesn't. His breathing is heavy though he never snores. My mom sleeps with a mouth guard, because she grinds her teeth at night, so when she talks to me she sounds funny; she can't really pronounce her S sounds. "I don't understand why you don't think you're really saved," she says. "If you believe in Jesus, then you are a Christian."
"What if I don't really believe? What does that actually really mean?"
She takes out her mouth guard and gets her Bible from on top of her nightstand. She opens it. She has so many passages underlined. We read some of the underlined passages together until I am calmer.
I go in their room so many times that my mom says she thinks I should talk to the pastor at our church. So one Sunday afternoon, after church and Sunday school are over, I go into his office with him and he reads some of his Bible to me and he explains what it means to believe in Jesus. He says the things that everybody else says. He is standing up and I am sitting down. I don't want to look at his face so I just stare at his crotch the whole time, the way the fabric is wrinkled and bunches up.
I am too old to keep going into my parents' room. I am turning fourteen in a month. One night I imagine that hell smells like the toilet on that bus from the retreat—after it's been used by all the boys who sit in the back and throw crumpled up pieces of paper at the girls—where the dirty air goes into my nostrils and stays there, even when I am out of the bathroom and off the bus. In hell it will smell like that forever. In my room I look at the clock, it's past midnight, and I don't go into their room.
My new boyfriend Ben wants to take me to go see a movie in the theater with him. At home I wait for his car to pull up in the driveway and I sit in the living room on the floor, in front of our fireplace, and I read a novel about Christians in the Roman Empire who got eaten by lions. It's raining outside and I want to stay inside, and a part of me hopes Ben just never shows up.
My mom is standing behind me on her tip toes; she is dusting, and she has a feather duster on a pole to reach the blades of the ceiling fan. The feathers are white, and when she pulls it back down they are covered in dark gray fuzz—almost black. She asks me how I like book I'm reading; she's read it too, it's one of her favorites. The author has written a whole trilogy about the Roman Empire, and my mom saw her speak once at a women's Bible study conference, several years ago. "Really nice woman," she tells me. "But sad—she has had a very tragic life."
"Did everyone in her life get eaten by lions?" I ask, trying out the irreverence I have recently discovered in Samantha, who has started wearing black eyeliner, making out with her boyfriend and thinking about doing more, and doing unusual things to her skin with a kitchen knife.
"No, her son is gay."
"That's not really a tragedy," I say. I have been reading so much in books that I hide under my bed about other things than Christians in Rome, and Samantha is so beautiful when she tells me her terrible secrets, refusing eye contact or her voice shaking or asking me to reassure her; I am beginning to believe that I know more than my mom does.
"Well, I think it's a tragedy."
"No, a tragedy would be like . . . if I died in a car accident when Ben was taking me to the movies." I entertain the idea, a little pleased by the dramatic image of my mom crying when she receives news of my death, my father embracing her, Samantha showing up at my funeral in even darker eyeliner than usual, deep scars up and down her wrists from where, exactly, she grieved me.
"But at least I would know that you'd be in heaven."
"You know her gay kid wouldn't go to heaven?"
She doesn't say anything, except when she starts dusting her work desk, she looks out the window and says, "Your boyfriend is here." I get up from the floor and open the front door, and I see Ben's car in the driveway. The windshield wipers are going back and forth furiously but even so I can't discern the shape of Ben's body inside because the glass is so blurred by the pouring rain. I don't want to go out there—I don't want to get inside Ben's car and hug him like we do now whenever we see each other. At first I think I will say to my mom, "I want to stay here with you" but then I know that is not true. When I say goodbye she is in the kitchen, picking off the dust from the feathers above an opened trash can, piece by piece.
Samantha has a new friend, Deborah, who lives down the street from her. Deborah is a few years older than us and always smells like cigarette smoke and perfume. The three of us walk to the gas station a few blocks away from Deborah's house to buy cappuccinos. Samantha and Deborah do most of the talking—gossip about their neighbors—which boys are cute, whose parents are having affairs. I keep my arms crossed around my chest. Deborah says to me, "You are so tiny and quiet," but in a nice way, and she keeps bumping into me on purpose and then laughing. After the third or fourth time she bumps into me, I can uncross my arms and laugh too. When we get to the gas station, Samantha asks us what flavor we want, and goes inside to buy our drinks. Deborah and I stand outside and she fishes out a lighter and a cigarette from her pocket. She starts smoking.
"You could get caught," I say.
She looks down at me. She is a lot taller than me. "Oh, right," she says. "You're so good."
I make a face at her. "I wish I was good."
"No, you are," she says. "I can tell. You're good." She says it this time like it's some kind of serious compliment, and I want to believe her.
She asks me if I've ever kissed a girl, and I say I haven't kissed anyone. She asks me if I want to. I say okay. She throws away her cigarette on the ground and steps on it. She touches my hair and kisses me. I kiss her back because for a second I don't care about hell, or heaven, or God, and I didn't know that was possible—to feel something so that you stop thinking about what happens when you die. Samantha comes back out of the gas station, the three coffee cups in a cardboard holder. I pull away from Deborah and I don't think Samantha notices.
Samantha says, "I got us the biggest sizes."
Deborah says, "We're going to be awake all night."
Hell smells like burning trash, and even though it's dark I still can see other people around me; some are falling onto the ground and some are standing still like they will never do anything else except stand still. Up close, nobody's face looks like a normal face. Where the insides of their eyes should be white they are brown. I keep walking; maybe I'll be able to find something better if I walk far enough, but my feet hurt, and I don't know what I'm looking for—really there is just nothing here except this, dark space and empty strangers. I try to call up someone in my memory. I want to think of my last girlfriend, but I can't reach her, not even in anything like a dream, and all I know about her now is that she left and then I kept finding her hairs on my pillow and they were suddenly very ugly to me; and the girl before her, I try to remember if she had freckles or not, if she closed her eyes when I fucked her or if she kept them open. I don't know. When I am out of lovers I try to think of the one person left, my mother—there was something about the way she spoke to me at night that was different than in the daytime—but that is gone too. There is something hard in my throat and I can't swallow to get rid of it. I can remember the thing my friend told me about her dying uncle who wanted a glass of water. When it wasn't funny before, it's funny now, because I am really thirsty, because this was a story someone already told me.