Spotlight Excerpt from ‘We Are Everything at Once’
This novel excerpt was written by Cameron Price in Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ 12-Month Novel Generator
After dropping out of a Christian college in the rural Midwest, queer youth Gus embarks on a mission to find his estranged great aunt. With only fragments of her diary and portentous dreams to guide him, Gus seeks to reunite with the only blood relative who shares his experience of otherness, and to understand why his family has kept her existence a secret.
Like Justin Torres’ We The Animals , Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt , and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous , We Are Everything At Once is a novel that explores the lengths we go to find belonging and ourselves, and whether breaking cycles of generational trauma is even possible.
[Context: A diary fragment. Margaret — Gus’s great aunt — is reflecting on her first love Alice from her college years. She later loses touch with Alice through an unexpected and traumatic separation.]
I met Alice in university. We’d become friends because we were both unhappy, and happy in our unhappiness as only two young people can be. We felt every injustice of the world as a personal slight and as such took pleasure in calling it out together. Liberated from the houses of our families, we were exercising our voices for the first time. Between courses, we would run to and from the library in the cold, bumming cigarettes from the boys, and gossiping about our classmates behind the outbuilding where we could smoke without getting caught.
I was inwardly thrilled to be at university. I had fought hard to make it through those doors, just to get away from home and learn in peace. But I delighted in Alice, wanting to mirror and mimic her every move. She was irreverent and glib, sharp and unafraid. Alice was boyish almost, keeping her hair as short as possible, and wore virtually no make up. She took no pains with her appearance, and it made her glow. The opposite of everything I had been taught.
“Do you think they talk about and mock us as much as we mock them?” said Alice. The academic dean walked by, and she walked five steps behind him, mimicking his rotund waddle as passersby laughed. When he turned around wondering what was so funny, she abruptly about-faced and calmly walked the other direction, winking at our classmates mischievously.
“I’m sure of it,” I’d said, laughing. “Especially you.”
We spent the winter laughing at nothing, completing our reading and assignments at the last minute, and walking arm and arm down the wintry paths, ducking into rooms when we couldn’t feel our faces.
On a particularly dreary day, wind and snow flurries whipped past the stone buildings of campus, and across our legs like glass whips, sending a damp chill into the center of our bones. Our dorm was still a ten minute walk away, and we couldn’t bear the wind any longer, and shouted to be heard.
“Here!” Alice yelled through the gale, as we passed the chapel. She grasped the front door with both hands and pried the heavy oak panel open.
We crept into the chapel and slammed the door shut. We gasped and touched out frozen faces to make sure they were still intact. In the chapel, rows of candles burned low, presiding over the empty structure. Not a soul. We walked through slowly, momentarily grasped with a spontaneous solemnity, running our fingers over the walls and pews, letting them dip into the grooves of the masonry. The hush stone surrounding us swathed us in a chrysalis of quiet, and we could barely hear the wind. The chapel was pleasantly toasty, and we settled in a back pew, overlooking the empty pulpit and the crucifix, where Christ was having his moment of sublime suffering on the cross. In the uneven light of the candles, it looked as if Jesus’ blood was glistening in a pool before him on the floor. Alice leaned back and put her arm along the back of the railing, her hand resting on my shoulder. I drank in the dark open cavern of the room, the wind echoing into a night that felt almost holy because of its cloistered stillness.
“I never believed in God, but this does feel awfully nice. Maybe this is God.” Alice said, leaning her head back and staring up into the stone ceiling, swallowed in shadows. “Do you think what Christ’s followers actually wanted was a shoulder to cry on?”
“Isn’t that what we actually all want?”
Alice leaned onto my shoulder, and I could feel her hot breath on my neck.
I shuddered but did not flinch away. Something about her breath, alive, beating, wet, stirred something in me. She stared hard at the crucifix, Jesus’s downcast eyes, and the crown of thorns pricking him, jewels of blood adorning his brown, as I too fell into parallel stillness. Alice tipped towards me, and put a finger lightly on my cheek.
“You’ve warmed up,” she said softly.
The candles burned. The wax dripped. Christ’s blood remained frozen in time. Alice’s lips grazed mine, and I felt my breath catch in my throat, afraid to mingle my breath with hers, unsure if I would be able to untangle our life forces from each other as soon as they mixed. Her hair was sweet, like dried rose petals and summer grass.
I did not resist but melted into a muddled state where all I could feel was softness pressing in around me. Alice grasped my waist and leaned in. My stomach turned circles, as the room swam out of focus.
A scrape boomed through the silence.The heavy door of the chapel creaked open, and in that moment Alice pulled away and launched her body away from mine on the pew. I breathed heavily, and hastily wiped at my mouth as if the past fifteen minutes could be erased with a wipe of a hand. In came the night janitor.
“Man, thought this had been locked up. Evening ladies.”
Alice turned, quickly. “We were just leaving. Weren’t we?” She kicked my boot lightly. We got up and hurried past the janitor, who seemed completely unphased. I could not bring myself to make eye contact and bolted past him, following Alice as she slid through the chapel door. When we were both outside, we started running and Alice laughed into the night, the wind ripping the sounds out of her throat, so it sounded like she was speaking through a wall.
“That was close.” I couldn’t think of anything to say. We looked at each other for a moment in the dim light, an inscrutable smirk on Alice’s face.
“Let’s go home,” she said, and we walked back to our dorm. Hours later as I was trying to sleep, I kept touching my lips. They still felt like they were tingling. When I closed my eyes, I could see the murky glow of the chapel candles. I smelled rose petals. And if I squinted, I could see the floor covered in Christ’s blood.