Volume 32, Number 4

Kind of a Saint

Peter Bernstein

I’m in the seventh grade, and I’m picked on mercilessly at school. I’m picked on more than stuttering Robbie, who can’t even say his first name without adding about a hundred R’s. I’m picked on more than Daniel Sodderson, with his clubfoot and gimpy leg. I’m picked on more than anybody. I should tell you I’m fat, but it’s not really my fault. My mom always puts two times the amount a normal person would eat on my plate at dinner and breakfast, and she pouts if I don’t eat it all. I don’t have a dad to stop her. I’m a single-parent kid.

I don’t have any friends, either. At lunch time I sit by myself in the corner of the cafeteria and keep my head down. In a way, it’s humiliating to eat all by yourself, when everybody else is with their friends. When the embarrassment becomes too strong, I skip lunches and go into one of the stalls in the bathroom, close the lid on the toilet, and just sit there for the duration of lunch, reading a book. Since I don’t like the idea of eating my lunch in the bathroom, I throw the lunch in the garbage on my way out, so my mom doesn’t know I skipped lunch. Sometimes when I do go to lunch, one of my persecutors will come up behind me, put one arm at the top of my chest, near my neck, and one arm at the bottom of my back, and pull me backwards. Without the leverage, I can’t sit back up straight. They hold me back like that, and then another one of them will grab my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, open it up, and smoosh the peanut-butter side of the sandwich into my hair. Everybody just stands there laughing. All their pretty girlfriends, too, looking on, giggling. It’s humiliating. At assemblies, I get spitballs spat at me, or somebody puts a sign on my back that says, “Chris is gay.” I always sit in the front seat of the bus, behind the bus driver, because if I go near the back, I get picked on. It’s embarrassing.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because I want to illustrate how kind it was when Alicia—or so he called himself—befriended me. I was in my usual spot, in the corner of the cafeteria, eating by myself, and he came up to me and sat down across from me.

Alicia wasn’t normal. He was a boy trying to be a girl, but despite that fact, he was still one of the cool kids. He hung out with the alternative group. The kids that painted their nails black and died their hair black. Even though Alicia was really a boy trying to be a girl, nobody picked on him. They left him alone because he had a group.

Alicia had a boy’s face, but he had the haircut of a girl. He had bangs, with tailored hair falling down delicately on the side of his face. The back of his hair was done up in a kind of bun, with loose strands that he had obviously arranged to fall onto his neck. He was dressed kind of like a girl, too, with a girl’s tight shirt on. On special occasions, he wore a dress to school. I’d seen him wear it. But even with the dress, nobody made fun of him; he had his alternative group to back him up.

I was looking down at my lunch despondently when he sat across from me. I looked up, shocked, wondering what he wanted.
“How’s it going, Chris?” Alicia asked me, pulling out his lunch.


“I just thought you could use a little company,” Alicia said. “I saw you sitting here all by yourself.”

“I always sit by myself.”

He laid out his lunch on the table and started to eat. Pudding, a sandwich, a bag of chips and an apple. I looked at his face. Even though it was the face of a boy’s, it had a girlish quality. In those first few moments, looking at his face made me feel a bit confused.

I gazed over at his alternative group on the other side of the cafeteria.

“Why aren’t you with your group?” I asked him.

“Like I said, I thought you could use a bit of company.” He paused, thinking, and then said cheerfully, “So, what’s your favorite subject?”


“Mine’s art,” he said. “When I get older, I want to be a painter.”


“Yeah, I want to be a painter like Jackson Pollock. Paint big, abstract paintings.”

“That’s cool.”

“My uncle is a painter. He lives in New York and has art shows all the time in Manhattan and Greenwich Village. He paints abstract, too. He’s kind of a hero of mine.”

“Sounds like art runs in your family,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s in my blood. I can feel it in my veins, coursing through. A lot of times, when I’m sitting in math class, I have visions of huge canvases in my mind’s eye. I see myself standing in front of them, with a pallet in one hand, painting. I have visions of the images I want to create.”

It was immediately consoling to have somebody to talk to, especially somebody who was cool. It didn’t bother me that he was a boy trying to be a girl; he was somebody. I felt an unusual sense of security. From my vantage point in the corner, I could see the whole cafeteria spread out before me. All the different groups: the jocks, over by the stairs, with their pretty girlfriends; the drama geeks, with their eclectic attire; the losers, just guys without any girls, playing cards while they ate. There were people lined up at the kitchen with trays, backed up, forming a serpentine line. Looking at everybody, they all seemed less threatening with Alicia sitting across from me.
After a moment’s pause, Alicia said with uncommon enthusiasm, “So, what’s your favorite subject?”


“So you like English,” he said. “What was your favorite book that we’ve read so far?”

The Catcher in the Rye,” I said.

“Me too. Here, do you want my pudding. I don’t want it.”

He slid the pudding over to my side of the table. I looked at it, and then said, “Sure.” I
started to eat it.

“I’m trying to stay trim,” he told me. “The pudding will make me fat.”

Then he looked away, not wanting to embarrass me, seeing how fat I was.

“Yeah,” he said, “I want to be an artist. Our art department sucks, though, because all they have is acrylic paints. No oils. All the great artists painted with oils and not acrylics. It’s too bad our art department is so weak.”

We had a nice, lively conversation for a while. I felt deeply grateful for his company. I kept expecting him to go back to his group, but he stayed with me throughout the entire duration of lunch.

At the end of lunch, he said, “Do you mind if I sit with you tomorrow?”

“Not at all.”


At dinner that night, I sat with my mom over mashed potatoes and steak and told her that I had found a new friend at school. My mom, I should tell you, is a devout Christian. We go to church together every Sunday. She’s always reading the Bible in her spare time and quoting scripture. She’s tried hard to instill the word of God into me, reminding me of the words Jesus spoke.

“Yeah,” I told her at dinner, “I have a new friend. I was sitting there by myself at lunch, and he came up and wanted to sit with me. He’s really nice. It was so easy talking to him. He’s really excited about life.”

“Good for you, Chris,” she said, “what’s his name?”

“His name’s Alicia.”

Her fork was midway between her plate and her mouth, and she froze when she heard me say his name was Alicia. She put the fork back on her plate and looked at me searchingly.

“Say that again, Chris,” she said.

“His name’s Alicia.”

“Chris,” she said, pushing her plate away from her a few inches and folding her hands on the table, “it sounds like you’ve fallen into bad company.”

“He’s nice, Mom,” I said. “Honestly, he’s the nicest person I’ve ever met at school. He’s been nicer to me than anyone. He’s just a little, well, different. He’s a boy, but he considers himself a girl. I don’t mind. He’s cool. He makes me feel safe.”

My mom put her hand up to her cross and rubbed it for a moment. She always put her hand to her cross when she was thinking of the right words to say.

“Chris,” she said, “if he’s a boy that’s trying to be a girl, that’s an abomination in the eyes of God. Homosexuality is a grave sin, perhaps the gravest sin. If he talks to you, it’s your responsibility as a Christian to tell him that what he’s doing is a sin, otherwise you’re condoning it. You become an accomplice to his sin. You have to be up front with him and tell him that he’s sinning.”

“But he’s been nicer to me than anyone in school. I want him to continue to be my friend.”

“That doesn’t matter. Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”


“And do you believe the words of the Bible?”


“Then you have to tell him.”

“I wish I didn’t have to tell him,” I said. “Maybe somebody else can.”

Then my mom got gravely serious. A terribly stern expression came over her face. She stopped rubbing her cross and folded her arms on her chest. She stared at me for several moments without saying anything, frowning. She forgot about the meal we were eating. Finally, she said, “If you don’t tell him, you’re part of his sin, and you know what the punishment for sin is, don’t you?”


“Yes, hell.”


But I didn’t want to tell him. The next day Alicia came up to me at lunch time and sat across from me. He smiled and said, “How’s it going, Chris?”


Why is he being so nice to me? I wondered. He must be the nicest person in school. Is there some ulterior motive that he has? It doesn’t seem like it. He just seems plain nice.

“You know,” Alicia said. “You shouldn’t be so shy. You should come over to my group sometime and eat with us.”

I didn’t respond. Such an idea seemed impossible.

“Really?” was all I could say.

“Yeah, just come over and eat with us. We won’t make fun of you. All of the people in my group are freaks. We welcome everybody. We don’t discriminate. We’re all freaks. You can come over anytime.”

I didn’t say anything. I ruminated on the idea.

He scanned my clothing, and said, “Maybe you could use some cooler clothes.”


“Yeah,” he said. “If you want, I can go to the mall with you and help you pick out some cooler clothes. Something a bit more alternative. You may like it. It’s kind of fun, being a freak.”

“You’d go to the mall with me?”

“Sure. Why not? It’d be fun, to help you pick out clothes. I love going clothes shopping.”

I took a bite of my sandwich. I thought about what my mom said, about the punishment of sin being hell, but couldn’t bring it up. Instead, I breached the subject by another side.

“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Alicia?” I said.


“Have you always considered yourself a girl?”


“How? I mean, how did that happen? You’re not a girl, right?”

“I have a penis,” he said, “if that’s what you want to know. But ever since I was a child, I’ve identified myself as a girl. I played with dolls. I wanted to dress in girl’s clothes. My friends were girls. I hated sports. I wanted to join the Girl Scouts. I’ve always thought of myself as a girl. When I get older, I’m going to take estrogen, so I can grow boobs and look more like a girl.”

“Wow,” I said. It was overwhelming. I didn’t really have a lot to say.

“Does that make you feel awkward?” he asked me.

“No, it doesn’t.”


We spent the rest of the lunch period together, talking happily. It felt like an angel had come down from heaven to sit with me and protect me. After that day, he always sat with me during lunch. Sometimes he would try to convince me to come over to his group, but I couldn’t. It was just too hard and unusual. Plus, I was shy. I wasn’t used to hanging out with a group.

At assemblies, he would often sit with me, and when he was with me, the bullies never shot spit balls at me. He would stop and talk with me in between classes if he saw me in the hall. One time, in between classes, he said, “Chris, come with me, I want to show you some of my art.” And we walked quickly to the art department. He brought me over to one of his paintings. It was an abstract painting. It looked a bit like the swirl of a galaxy, though with more colors.

“It’s amazing,” I told him. He smiled and clapped me on the back.

“Thanks,” he said. “Look here. Good paintings rely on complimentary colors. Do you know what that is?”


He held up a color wheel, pointing to the colors. “Complementary colors are opposite colors on the color wheel. Like red and green, or yellow and purple. When you use those colors together, it makes the painting pop.”

Then he pointed at his painting, holding his finger an inch from it, tracing the design. “See,” he said, “I’ve used purple and yellow in this painting. Those are pretty much the only two colors I used. That’s why it pops out.”

I smiled, and we stood in front of the painting for a while. Other students passed by behind and in front of us, even some of the bullies, but I felt safe, standing next to him.

Even at recess he would sometimes find me sitting alone at the edge of the baseball field, reading a book. He would stretch out next to me on the grass and start talking about his uncle in New York, and how he wanted to move to New York to live with him.

“I can’t wait to get out of this one-horse town,” he said, “and get to New York. It’ll be so liberating, to walk the streets of Greenwich Village. To be amongst progressive people. To go to poetry readings and art openings.”

“I hope you get there,” I said.

“I will. Maybe I can make an arrangement in high school to move there and start going to school in New York. People are so close minded in this town. They don’t understand anything about sexuality.”

“I’ve never been to New York,” I said.

“You’ll have to visit me when I’m there.” Then he laughed and elbowed me softly in the ribs. “But first we have to get you out of that Dallas Cowboys t-shirt into something cool.”

I pulled up a dandelion next to my hand, looked at it, then threw it away. There were some jocks out on the baseball field, hitting the ball, but they posed no threat. They didn’t even look our way, and even if they hit the ball in our direction, we were too far out for it to reach us. I leaned back and breathed, then said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Alicia?”


“Why are you so nice to me? I mean, nobody in this school has ever been as nice to me as you.”

He turned to me, propped up on one elbow, and said, “Because you’re alone. I’ve always had a big heart for people that are alone. I’ll be walking down the sidewalk, and when I see somebody sitting alone on a bench, looking sad, I go up to them and start talking to them. Just out of the blue. I’ll start having a friendly conversation. When I’m at the food court in the mall, and see somebody eating alone, I’ll go up to them and ask them about themselves. I go to my grandpa’s retirement home and talk to the old folk who seem alone. People aren’t supposed to be alone. People are supposed to be together, to be friendly. I’ve always befriended people who are alone. It’s my nature.”

“I see,” I said. “You have an amazing nature.”

“Thanks. It’s how I’ve always been.”

I looked over at him when he finished talking, stretched out in the shade of the maple at the edge of the baseball field. I looked at his fancy, girly hair do, his face with its slightly girlish features, his feminine clothing, and it all seemed completely natural to me. I had grown accustomed to him. I didn’t tell him any of the things my mom wanted me to say, though it weighed on my mind heavily.


It was a Sunday, and church had ended. I was standing at coffee hour, eating a donut by myself when Pastor Tom came up to me. Pastor Tom was a tall, stout man, with broad shoulders and a huge, muscular chest. He came up to me and laid a heavy, firm hand on my shoulder. Pastor Tom always confessed that he used to be a sinner, and he had tattoos all over his body to prove it. That’s why he always wore long sleeves shirts, even when it was a hundred degrees. But one time, during a work party and Mrs. Doyle’s house, when he was trying to pry out a rhododendron bush with a shovel, sweating, I saw him in a t-shirt, and he had a big tattoo of a naked woman on his forearm.

Anyway, he came up to me, towering above me, and laid his hand on my shoulder.

“Chris,” he said, “your mom tells me you’re having trouble at school. She asked me to talk to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She says you’ve made friends with a transgender youth.”

I nodded, not saying anything. Suddenly, my palms started to sweat, and I felt like running away from him, but he kept his hand on my shoulder.

“Are you a believer?” Pastor Tom asked me.

“I am,” I said. And I wasn’t lying, I really did believe in Jesus. I believed in the Bible. I believed in the lake of fire. I believed there would be a resurrection, a judgement and God would separate sinners from the saved. I believed it all. It was my upbringing.

“This transgender friend of yours…” Pastor Tom continued, “have you told him that what he’s doing is a sin?”


“You have to. I know it’s hard. Remember, Chris, Jesus said to love everybody. You can still love this transgender friend and tell him the truth at the same time. But—” he paused and squeezed my shoulder a little tighter— “even though you don’t hate him, you must tell him. You have to tell him that what he’s doing is sinful. You have to tell him that it’s an abomination in the eyes of God. By not telling him, you remain an accomplice to his sin. It becomes your sin, too. And if it’s your sin, you’ll suffer the same punishment as him.”

“The same punishment?” I said.

“Yes, if you don’t tell him that what’s he’s doing is wrong, you’ll be responsible for his sin. God will make you responsible for his sin. And you know what happens then?”

He didn’t have to say. I knew. Hell. I nodded.

“Think about it carefully, Chris,” he said. “Do the right thing, even if it seems painful. Just get it over with and do it.”


That night I laid in bed and meditated on hell. I thought about all that Jesus had suffered to redeem mankind, and how I was betraying Jesus by not telling Alicia the truth. I thought about Alicia’s soul, how kind he was and what his fate would be if he didn’t repent. I could help him repent. I could save him from the lake of fire. Pastor Tom said I was responsible for him. Maybe Alicia would listen to me. Maybe he would take it to heart, if I told him he was sinning. Maybe he would change. Maybe I could save him. I meditated on it for a long time and resolved to tell Alicia in as gentle a manner as possible that what he was doing was wrong. I’d get it over with. Maybe he wouldn’t care, and he’d still remain my friend. Or then, maybe he wouldn’t like me anymore, but that was just a chance I had to take.

So the next day at lunch I resolved to tell him. He sat across from me at usual, smiling and pulling out his lunch.

“One of these days,” he said, “I’m going to get you to come over to my group. It’s just a matter of time until you break.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“It’s inevitable,” he said. “Nobody can remain alone forever. Do you like being alone?”

“Not really.”

“I didn’t think so,” he said. “That’s why you’ll eventually break.”

He took a bite out of his sandwich and then looked back at his group. One of his friends saw him and raised his hand in greeting. Alicia waved back, then turned towards me.

“It’s just a matter of time until I get you past your shyness,” Alicia said again. “Didn’t I tell you my group is composed of freaks. We don’t judge anybody.”

I didn’t say anything for a while. A tightness formed in my chest. My palms started to sweat. All of a sudden, I was uncomfortable. I was going to tell him.

“Alicia,” I said, “I have something important to ask you.”


“Do you believe in Jesus?”


“Do you believe in God?”


“So you’re an atheist?”


I thought about it for a moment. So, he was an atheist. No beliefs whatsoever. It was going to be hard to communicate my beliefs to him.

“Well,” I said, “I believe in God and Jesus, and I feel like I have a duty, as your friend, to tell you something.”

Alicia stopped eating. A worried look came over his face. His eyebrows knitted in concentration. It looked like he was bracing himself to hear something painful. I hated to see that expression on his face.

I looked down at my food as I talked, unwilling to meet Alicia’s gaze. “As your friend,” I said slowly, “I want you to be saved. And in order for you to be saved, you need to know that homosexuality or transgender behavior is a sin. You have to become straight.”

I didn’t look up at Alicia for a long time. I was scared that he would be angry or hurt, and I would lose him as a friend.

Finally, he spoke, saying, “Do you think I’m attracted to you? Is that what this is about? Because I can tell you absolutely that I’m not attracted to you. I have a boyfriend. He doesn’t go to this school. I met him on the Internet.”

“I don’t think you’re attracted to me,” I told him.

“So what’s the problem?”

“What you’re doing is a sin,” I said again. “You have to become straight. My pastors says that what you’re doing is an abomination in the eyes of God.”

I finally looked up at Alicia. I didn’t want to. I was afraid of how he would react. I studied his face. He had a sad countenance. He wasn’t angry with me, he just looked sad.

“Well,” he said, and then trailed off. He began packing his food back into the brown paper bag from which it came. “Well,” he said again. He finished packing up his food. He took his backpack out and put the brown paper bag in it. He looked me in the eyes for a few moments without speaking, and then dropped his eyes to the Cowboys logo on my shirt. “Well,” he said again, “if that’s how you feel, I guess I better go.”

“You don’t have to go,” I said. “I just thought I’d tell you. We can still be friends.”

“No, really,” he said. He patted his hair nervously, making sure it was all in place. He felt one of the strands that came down on the side of his face, adjusting it. “Really,” he said again, “if that’s how you feel, I think I better go back to my group.”

He got up slowly. He had a poised expression on his face, like he was holding his expression by a force of will. Then he looked over at me and smiled weakly. “I’ll catch you later, Chris,” he said. Then he walked back to his group. I watched him navigate through the tables, until he arrived back with the alternative kids. He sat down next to one of his friends and started talking to him like nothing bad had taken place. I wondered if he had already forgotten me. At that moment, I knew I had lost my only friend, my guardian angel.

He said he would catch me later, but he didn’t. I would see him around school, but he didn’t look at me. When I passed him in the hall, I would wave, but he only looked down at the ground. In art class, he set up his easel on the other side of the room from me. He stopped sitting by me at lunch. I sat by myself, occasionally looking up at him with his group, where he was talking happily. I started to go and sit in the bathroom stall at lunch periods again, reading. He never spoke to me again, not even a simple hello. Not even a look. I’m not too stupid to know what he thought. He thought I was a small-minded bigot.

A few years have passed between now and then, and I’m in high school now. High school is a lot easier than middle school. People are nicer. Alicia doesn’t go to my high school. Maybe he moved to New York with his uncle. If he did, I hope he’s happy with the other progressives. I really do. When my mind turns back to him, and what he, or her, tried to do for me, I think Alicia was a kind of saint.