I followed the brick walk up to the Grace Baptist Church. It was small, but there was something cozy and welcoming about it. Maybe it was the beautiful daisies and vines that were growing all around it, almost hugging the little building. As I neared the entrance, I heard music. I stopped on the steps and listened for a second. I wasn’t sure what to expect inside but I took a deep breath and then quietly slipped between the wooden doors.
The pews were filled, and I looked for a back row where I could slide in unnoticed. Then an older Latino man approached me. He smiled warmly, shook my hand and gave me a bulletin. He led me to a back row, and I took a seat. There didn’t appear to be an altar but instead there was a simple table. The pastor was a young black man, tall and slim. He was dressed in a white and gold robe and wore big round glasses. As I sat down, I heard him reading from Psalms. To his left stood the choir, all dressed in beautiful blue robes. I scanned the faces until I found Simone, standing on the end. She was looking right at me and winked. I smiled back and settled into my seat.
Simone’s church was far less ornate than my Catholic church. There was no communion, so the service didn’t focus on the Eucharist but instead the reading and preaching of Scripture. The sermon was longer but lively and people were very engaged. I actually enjoyed the hymns they sang, especially since they were accompanied by instruments. At the end of the service, Simone stepped forward to sing a solo.
Her voice was soft but strong. I recognized the song, we sang it at my own church.
You call me out upon the waters...The great unknown where feet may fail...And there I find You in the mystery...In oceans deep...My faith will stand
I sat back and closed my eyes, letting it wash over me like a gentle wave. As I listened to her, I realized that this was the same song at the end of my reoccurring nightmare! But it was so soothing that I just let my fear slip away and I was overcome by a feeling of peace.
And I will call upon Your name...And keep my eyes above the waves...When oceans rise...My soul will rest in Your embrace...For I am Yours and You are mine...And You are mine
When she finished, the pastor made some brief announcements and then a final benediction. Then people started to filter out. I sat in my pew, waiting for Simone. She came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. Behind her was Marcus and her mom. I stood as they approached.
“Hey, Jonah,” Simone said, smiling.
“Hi. Hello, Mrs. Hayes, Marcus.”
“Thank you for coming today,” Simone’s mom said. “We’re going to breakfast at the diner up the street, would you like to join us?” she asked.
I looked at Simone and her brother, both were smiling and nodding.
“Sure, thank you,” I replied.
“Alright, we’re off then.” She walked ahead, taking Marcus by the hand. He turned and looked back at me, making a goofy face.
“So, what did you think?” Simone asked as we headed outside.
“You were amazing. You got this audition, piece of cake,” I said enthusiastically.
As we walked up the road to the diner, I listened as Simone talked about which song she should sing for the audition. But I kept thinking about her song in my dream and what it all meant. The feeling of peace that her song had brought me was undeniable.
Inside the coffee shop we placed our breakfast orders and waited. Simone, Marcus and I all talked and joked and drank orange juice while Mrs. Hayes scrolled through her cell phone. Simone was obviously annoyed by this. And just before our food came, Mrs. Hayes went outside to answer a call. When she returned our food had arrived but without sitting down, Mrs. Hayes asked the waitress to give her a to-go bag for her pancakes and then gave Simone money to pay for everyone’s breakfast.
“Wait, Mom, where are you going? Aren’t you eating with us?” Simone asked.
“I can’t, honey, I have an issue at work. I have to leave. I’m going to head into the office now. Jonah, it was nice to see you again. And Simone, please stay with your brother until I’m done. I’ll see you at home in a couple of hours.”
“I thought we were going to the beach today?” Marcus protested.
His mother sighed. “I know. But I really have to deal with this. I’ll try.” She kissed the top of his head and rushed out the door, forgetting her pancakes.
Simone was pissed. She slumped into her seat and picked at her food. I tried to improve the mood.
“Hey, why don’t you guys come surfing with me and my dad today? He’s done at the shop at noon and then we’re going to the beach.”
“Yeah!” Marcus exclaimed.
Simone sighed. “Alright, I’ll text my mom after we’re done eating.”
“Cool. We can go to our surf shop and get you both some gear.” I offered, trying to be upbeat.
Marcus shoved large chunks of French Toast into his mouth while also coloring. He was as tall as me and had just finished sixth grade back in New York.
“Slow down, Marcus, you’re going to choke. You shouldn’t inhale your food.” His sister lectured.
He ignored her, obviously not interested in taking human bites, and kept at his coloring. Simone stared off, looking distant and sad, ignoring her food. After a minute Marcus looked up at me.
“Are you in my sister’s grade? Because you’re pretty small.”
Simone rolled her eyes at her younger brother. “Marcus,” she scolded.
I knew my face turned red, but I tried to act indifferent. “I am. But there’s a lot more oxygen down here. Probably why I’m so smart.”
Simone smiled a little while Marcus eyed me somewhat suspiciously. “I get it,” he said.
“What are you drawing?” I asked him.
“A whale,” he answered.
Simone picked up a blue crayon and started filling in the whale. Then Marcus looked up suddenly and exclaimed, “Your name is Jonah! Like Jonah and the whale. That’s what I’m drawing, see?”
And he turned his picture around so I could see a small man inside the whale. Simone explained, “Before the regular service, Marcus goes to Religious Ed with the younger kids, in the basement. They were hearing the story of Jonah and the Whale before church.”
I smiled. “My grandfather was a lector and that was his favorite story from the Bible. He used to tell it to me all the time. My parents let him name me after it.”
“Really?” Marcus looked at me intently. “What’s the lesson of the story?”
“The lesson? Oh, well, I haven’t thought about it for a while, but I’m pretty sure…”
Marcus interrupted and stated with confidence, “You can’t escape God’s will.”
“Marcus, you didn’t let Jonah finish,” Simone scolded again.
I looked at Simone. “I think he nailed it.”
“Marcus will be teaching Religious Ed next week if you want to stop by,” Simone said sarcastically.
I laughed a little and then began spreading jelly on my toast. I noticed Marcus staring at me.
“What are you running away from?” he asked.
“Ah…say that again?” I suddenly felt intimidated.
“The lesson. You can’t escape God’s will. It means you can’t run away from your life. We’re all running away from something. And I got my sister all figured out. So, what are you running from?” He persisted.
“Oh…um…nothing.” I tried to act casual.
“No way.” He insisted.
“I’m not buying it.” He put his crayon down and crossed his arms over his chest, studying me.
“Well, not to be impolite but…”
He interrupted. “What’s impolite? Like not polite? Rude?”
“Exactly,” I replied.
“Well why don’t you just say rude?” he asked.
I tried to lighten things up so the exchange didn’t feel like an inquisition. “Because I guess when you’re small like me, you look for ways to feel bigger.” I said, putting on a fake smile.
“Using big words won’t make you bigger, you just come off as a nerd.”
“I can’t help it if I’m smart.” I countered.
“Oh you’re so important,” he shot back.
“No. I just read a lot.” I explained.
“Shut up, Marcus.” Simone interrupted.
Marcus rolled his eyes at his sister and then looked at me. “Whatever. Sounds like you’re running from being small. You have to face that bro. That’s what God is asking you.”
And then he turned back to his French Toast and coloring.
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t believe this sixth grader had schooled me and figured out my life in one minute. I tried to make light of it. I leaned into Simone and whispered, “Wow, he’s a force.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Part of his charm.”
“I guess it’s an acquired taste,” I said.
“I’m right here you know.” Marcus chimed in, irritated.
We continued to eat. Simone still seemed sour about her mother leaving. She doodled on her placemat with a crayon and didn’t say much.
After breakfast we walked to the surf shop, I tried to make conversation, but she seemed distracted.
When we got there, Marcus immediately went over to check out the surfboards. Simone was looking at bathing suits. I went to find my dad. He was taking inventory in the back while a worker named Keith manned the front desk.
“J-man. What’s good?” Keith greeted me cheerfully and we bumped fists.
“Sup dude. Dad in the back?”
“Yup. You headed to Rincon later with your pop? They’re peeling.”
“Akaw bro. Maybe Leadbetter. My friends are grommets.”
“Got it. Have fun in the foamies. Watch out for ankle busters.”
I gave Keith the shaka sign and headed toward the storage room. Keith, like all the guys who worked at the shop, talked to me in surfer slang ever since I could remember. It was another language in itself. They all treated me like a little brother.
“J! How was church? Does Simone have golden pipes or what?” He was studying a clipboard.
“It was good. She’s really good. Amazing actually. We just had breakfast up the street. Dad, can we take Simone and her brother surfing with us this afternoon?”
“Sure. A couple of groms?”
“Yeah. Actually they’ve done surf camp on the east coast, Montauk.”
“Ditch Plains? Very rad. Okay, so why don’t you grab a couple of soft boards and spring suits from camp supply. And we can head over to Leadbetter for some beginner waves. I just need another ten minutes to wrap up inventory.”
I went back out to the shop to fit Simone and her brother for wetsuits and found Simone sitting in the window, on her cell phone. Marcus had moved on to the skateboards.
“Hey. Do you want to check out some wetsuits? Find something that fits?”
Simone looked up from her phone and I could tell she wasn’t happy.
“Is everything okay? You aren’t your usual annoying self.” I didn’t know how else to cheer her up.
Simone smiled a little. “It’s my mom again. She promised to take today off but now she has to work for a few more hours.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” I pushed a little display sign over and sat next to Simone.
Simone stared out the window, not looking at me. “I thought moving out here would mean things were going to work out with my parents. But it’s as messed up as ever.” Her eyes welled up with tears. And I had no idea what to say.
I looked down at my feet. “Anything I can do to help?”
And then it spilled out of her. “My parents are these big-time corporate lawyers. They work a lot. Too much. They give us the best of everything. Private schools in New York, expensive vacations, anything we want. The surf camp in Montauk? That was ridiculous money. They also rented a house on the beach. But they hardly came out to see us. We had a nanny.”
“Wow. You probably just want to spend time with them.” I said quietly.
She shook her head in agreement and tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Now I don’t even know if they’re going to stay together. I think my dad was having an affair with someone at his firm. And we were all supposed to move out here for a fresh start. The plan was my parents were going to open this new office together. Build their own firm. But I think my dad is staying in New York now. Maybe for a year, maybe for good. I don’t know. My mother is freaking out and trying to set up this new firm all on her own.” She wiped her eyes.
“Does Marcus know what’s happening?” I asked. Not sure what else to say.
She laughed a little. “Do you think anything gets by Marcus?”
“He knows something is up. He’s on the scent.”
“Like a bloodhound, I bet.”
She nodded and then looked back out the window. I wanted to tell her that my parents had separated for a short time, but it eventually worked out. That we had struggled for money for a while, but again, it worked out. I wanted to tell her I was bullied and in therapy because I was caught sitting on the window ledge of the boys’ bathroom, considering suicide. I wanted to tell her I knew about pain too. I wanted to really open up and be honest. And I wanted to hug her and tell her that I would stick by her. But I couldn’t. I didn’t.
Then she looked at me and said, “You must think my family is really messed up. Yours seems so cool.”
“No, not at all. We’re not perfect.” I said, missing my second chance to really connect with her. Running away, as Marcus pointed out.
“Alright, so we don’t have to be home for a few more hours now. Where do we try on the wetsuits?”
“Okay, follow me.”