Exclusive Excerpt: A Priest’s College Boyfriend Shares His Story in Sean Gandert’s American SaintBooks Features sean gandert
Is Gabriel Romero a saint or a fraud? It all depends on who you ask.
Sean Gandert’s sophomore novel, American Saint, follows Gabriel’s trajectory from poor kid to miracle-performing priest. But not everyone buys Gabriel’s authenticity, and each chapter offers a different interpretation depending on which narrator is calling the shots. Gabriel, however, is committed to his path, as evidenced by the book description:
Raised in a poor neighborhood in Albuquerque by his mother and curandera grandmother, Gabriel Romero grows up fervently religious, privately conflicted and consumed by what he’s certain is the true will of God. A radical activist determined to enlighten the consciousness of a country losing its way, Gabriel starts his own church. His slogans go viral. His protests make him either a hero or an anarchist in a polarized America, and his miracles—if we believe what we see—cast him as either a charlatan or a saint. But Gabriel knows that, above all, to ensure lasting faith he must do something truly memorable. For that, he will see his divine mission to its startling end.
American Saint hit shelves this week, and we’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt below.
“This, the second chapter of the book,” Gandert says, “introduces Gabriel’s college boyfriend, Joshua Whitehurst, who goes on to play a crucial role in the novel and Gabriel’s life trajectory.”
Love the excerpt? Then you’ll want to purchase the novel here. You can also read an excerpt from Gandert’s debut novel, Lost in Arcadia, here.
What I’m going to tell you is a love story, because those are the only stories worth telling. What I’m going to tell you is also a tragedy, because the story is true. Believe me, if I could tell you anything else, if I had the heart to change the ending or even some of the details along the way, then I would. But I’m tired now, and those parts of the past that I used to lie about, even to Gabriel, even to myself, I don’t have the energy to twist anymore. I know who I am and what I’ve done, and all that matters to me now is that the story is told right.
I wouldn’t meet Gabriel until college, but I need to go back further than that if you’re going to understand me. The best way I can think of to explain how things were is with our old photo albums. Picture this: a mother and father. Twenty-four and twenty-six, respectively, both with golden-blond hair, wide smiles showing straight teeth. One pair of blue eyes and one of brown, but both with the same happy glint. Their faces look tired, especially hers, but nestled between them is a perfect baby boy, with wisps of the same hair and a hint of the same smile, though with green eyes from parts unknown. This is the earliest photograph of me, taken by a nurse sometime after I was born. An almost too-happy couple, the sweat on their faces and circles under their eyes the only things not quite advertisement perfect.
The next photograph: me again, but now standing at six or so years old. Beside me my younger sister, Grace, sunlight shining on our two heads. I’m wearing an all-white suit with a cornflower-blue shirt. Grace wears a matching dress and headband, her hair whipping behind us in the wind. We’re posed directly in front of a two-story, all-white house with a pitched roof—the only one in the neighborhood, though you couldn’t tell from the photo. Behind us, a green lawn and a red door that pops against our clothing. Completing this world of straight lines and symmetry, we stare directly at the camera lens. Behind it, my mother is taking our picture while we wait for my dad to come out of the house so we can head to my aunt Debby’s wedding. From the look of things, you’d think we lived in the Midwest in the fifties and not a desert in the nineties, but all that is outside the frame, and my mother was careful to keep us tightly inside its four perfect edges.
One last image for you: thirty kids sit in three rows in front of a blank gray background, and a black felt sign with slotted letters says MRS. ROMO’S 4TH-5TH GRADE CLASS AT DOUBLE EAGLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. I’m seated in the second row, third to the right. I’m older now, though still a kid. Prepubescent, and my hair is combed and held down with gel so it looks solid and smooth like a helmet. Most of us are white, though there are a few light-skinned students in the third and first rows who look like they might be Hispanic. Back then I didn’t really think about those things, so I couldn’t tell you whether they were. It’s the last photo we have where I’m smiling that same smile as in the first two, but if you look for more than a second, you’ll probably notice that I’m putting bunny ears behind the head of the boy next to me. I can still name maybe half these students if I tried, but the only one who really matters is Samuel Stiles, the boy with the bunny ears and the brown collared shirt, a cautious look on his face halfway between excited and afraid.
Sam was not my best friend at the end of elementary school or in middle school—a designation that seemed to have the utmost importance back then—but we were part of the same group of guys from Double Eagle who hung out before school, during lunch, and whenever we could meet up after the final bell rang. By seventh grade, these groups were practically codified, who the skaters were or the cholos or the drama geeks. My group’s thing was that we were all from well-off families and played in either the school orchestra or the band.
Right before winter break there was the big holiday concert, where all the school’s music groups played together in one squeaky, warbly display of uneven tuning in the gym. Sound bounced off the high roof and cinder-block walls in a way that made it difficult to make out what songs even the advanced groups were playing, let alone their time signatures, but it was still a big event that everyone’s parents attended in suits and jewelry as if we were in Carnegie Hall. It was a gala, decorated with paper cutouts and disjointed lighting, reserved seats and social hierarchies. I didn’t give a crap about any of it, except that afterward all my friends, Sam included, would be staying over at my house for a sleepover.
We lived in that same house I asked you to picture earlier, well kept by weekly visits from a lawn service and maid. Both my parents worked full-time and didn’t have the energy for that sort of thing, but they still knew what they liked: clean, airy spaces, white paint that showed the slightest smudge, and toys placed neatly into their boxes at the end of every day. While I’d been to many sleepovers, this was the first time I was allowed to have anyone over at our house, to interrupt that quiet and sanitary haven with my friends’ bombastic energy for more than a few hours. Mom and Dad didn’t mind entertaining adult guests, but they disliked any children who weren’t their own. Sam and the three other boys who were staying over that night had all been vetted. My mom knew them, knew their parents, their GPAs. They were all “nice boys” and gave her no reason to suspect they would trash the house.
I went to so many sleepovers when I was young, from elementary school on through high school, that they mesh together in my brain, a thousand and one nights of staying up until sunrise, of worn pajamas and crumb-scattered rugs and acquaintances sharing their deepest, most intimate selves until the morning, when all would be forgotten. I couldn’t tell you what video games we spent the evening playing, or what we ate, or even precisely who was there. But that’s because none of that really matters. What does is what happened after the lights went out.
Outside, snow coated the ground like a down comforter. Inside, the heater roared. Everyone except me had lined up their sleeping bags in my bedroom so that their heads were as close together as the room’s furniture and geometry allowed. This made it easier to whisper, even though our discussions would inevitably rise in volume as the evening continued. We lay there in the dark, waiting the requisite dozen or so minutes that it would take to feel safe, each of us feigning sleep in case my parents checked on us. Listening for the telltale signs of their door closing, and soon afterward, the toilet flushing, signaling they were down for the evening.
Metallic clangs from the overhead vents interrupted our ritual. This continued for several minutes, and we could hear my dad stomping around, yelling something rendered unintelligible by the door’s muffling. Hot air stopped blowing altogether, and five minutes later I heard a light knocking.
“Guys, sorry to wake you,” said my mom, cracking open the door. I remember feeling embarrassed that she was wearing an ill-fitting white bathrobe atop her oversize pajamas, her hair up in rollers. “But the heater’s gone out for the night, so it might get cold. Josh, if you want to show everyone where the linen cabinet is, so they can get blankets out, that would be fine.”
I thanked her but waited until she was gone before I asked whether anyone wanted to take her up on this. Although it was still toasty, we pulled a pile of blankets from the closet, but since my sister and parents had apparently already grabbed what they could, there were only four older and frankly uglier blankets for us to choose from. Sam said it was fine, he didn’t need one, so we made do and marched back to my bedroom.
The night took its usual turn as we talked about girls, games, classes. Drinking, drugs, rumors that Marcia the piccolo player had gotten pregnant. Worries about death, the afterlife, and whether any of that even mattered. Completely exhausted, and with only the moonlight seeping through the shades keeping the room from complete darkness, we could say anything without fear. There was laughter and ridicule, sure, but the normal rules about what was up for discussion disappeared into this strange liminal space. Eventually we drifted off to sleep, not because we had to but because of a consensus that there was nothing else to be said.
At this point, it still seemed like a normal sleepover. But then I woke up to a hand against my shoulder. The room was still dark, the only sound someone snoring lightly. I opened my eyes, and standing above me, shivering, was Sam. He wore a pair of plaid boxers that did little to hide a long, scrawny body that had suddenly grown since the beginning of the semester. He looked frightened, unsure. Confused, even. He looked beautiful.
“I’m cold,” he said in a whisper so light I might have imagined it. “Can I…?” He pointed at my bed, and it took me a moment to respond. Was he really asking for this? I nodded and did my best to remain impassive.
Sam slipped beneath the covers and lay behind me. I didn’t know why he was doing any of this and began sweating with worry about what might happen if someone else in the room woke up and looked over. I wanted him to leave, to disappear altogether, but also for him to stay and wrap his arms around me. He did neither, but his left arm rested on my side, and I could feel his warm breath brushing past my ear. If I could have turned around and kissed him, I would’ve, but I thought any slight provocation might ruin this, either sending him back to his bed or disrupting the silence enough to wake our friends. So I did nothing.
As we lay there perfectly still, time seemed to stop. He smelled sour and almost smoky at the same time, and because I couldn’t turn around to look at him, that’s my main memory of that evening. His smell enveloped me, overwhelmed me, and I wanted to become part of it, to take a swim in a pond filled with that curious perfume. I’ve never found a man since who smelled quite the same as Sam did that evening, though Lord knows I’ve tried.
I don’t recall falling asleep again, but I remember waking up in a panic. Beams of light flooded from the borders of the shades, and I could see my friends still asleep in roughly the same positions as before, with one exception—Sam was on the floor again, as if he’d never left his sleeping bag.
The rest of the morning played out as usual. So did the following day, then the following week at school. Whenever I tried to make even a veiled reference to that evening, when I knew we were alone, Sam ignored me. Gaslighted me. Pretended it had never happened. I got so frustrated that I nearly asked him about it directly, point-blank…but I could never get up the guts.
Eventually Sam ignored me entirely, left the school band, and took up shop. Then he went to high school at the Academy instead of La Cueva like the rest of us, at least that’s what I heard, and I never saw him again. I had many more sleepovers after that, and in each one I waited for another Sam to join me, planned and hoped and prayed that someone else might lay with me while the soft moonlight caressed our heads. Rest his hand on my side without squeezing, without moving further than I was comfortable with, all the way until dawn. Smell sour and smoky in just the right combination. But it never happened.