Sweat beads at the powder-blue nape of my dress and rolls down my back – slowed only by the training bra my mom insisted on buying me this spring. “Are you ready to go inside?” she sighed and looked me up and down that morning – acknowledging that my body was developing into a woman’s, bearing less likelihood to the little girl she would always see.
But why is it so hot in this chapel? It is August, but the committee added central air conditioning last summer, courtesy of the Bible School fundraiser. Grandma joked only certain gals (using words I would be grounded had I dared repeat) were the type to sweat in church – and I am only 15. Grandma couldn’t mean me, right? Maybe it is the glaring fluorescent lights over each pew, flooding all of us sinners so we couldn’t possibly hide our shame in God’s house. If not that, is it the preacher’s sermon bringing heat to my cheeks and shame in my heart?
Or it truly is an act of God. Will the flames of hell burn right through the floorboards beneath my feet? Then everyone will know my sin.
I am a normal teenager, but just like Father Landon says, none are without sin, except Jesus. Still, on three occasions, I felt irredeemable guilt.
The first time, I was in the 2nd grade and had tripped Rebecca Williams down the bus steps for pinching my little brother in the lunch line (but maybe she deserved that one). I asked God if she was just a jerk in my prayers, but I haven’t had a clear divine answer just yet.
In the second event, I was in the 4th grade. I had stolen an extra bag of candy from my Aunt Maggie on Halloween – and very carefully slipped it under the sleeve of my Scooby-Doo Halloween costume and said not a word. When we arrived back home, I had forgotten my secret – and when I took off my jacket the stolen goods came crashing to the floor – a damning piece of crinkling evidence. After a swift swat, and a teary-eyed phone call to apologize to my aunt Maggie, I cried myself to sleep and begged God to forgive me.
The last time, the one I will refer to as the Big One – was the week of eighth grade spring semester finals. To celebrate our passage from junior high to high school, the PTA had organized a lights-on, modestly dressed, dance, inviting 9th-12th grade students. All the girls were excited, rambling on about the dresses their moms had bought from one of the two formal stores on Riddick Street. I hesitated about a school dance. Would someone ask me? And then I would have to dance with them? While I was beginning my journey to womanhood, I had not been decidedly boy-crazy. I wouldn’t be permitted to date until college, anyway.
Two days before the dance, I was escorted by my vicarious mother to the store to choose my attire. She frowned at several gowns, poking and prodding at my shoulders, chest, and thighs – “Ah, that’s what it is. You’re growing up, Sammie. Stay here.” She quickly exited the dressing room, and left me there shirtless, in my childish floral print underwear, arms across my chest. It felt like an eternity. She returned, bearing the ugliest bras I had ever seen, soft pastels with god-awful cups reminiscent of the shoulder pads on my grandma’s Sunday blouses. This must be what Hell is like.
How the heck am I supposed to put this thing on? I struggle while my mom observed, almost amused, at the fawnlike movements of her daughter’s first brassiere experience. I stood, arms stiffly at my sides, while she assessed me once more, satisfied with her labors. This would be the only exchange we had about puberty.
I chose a powder-blue, modest option, with ruffled cotton material, falling just below my knees. My mom explained to me in the car that due to finances, it would later be my church dress. I nodded.
On the day of the dance, I left school and headed home with a sense of dread. No one had invited me, yet I felt somewhat relieved. I was scheduled for a sleepover at my best friend Madison’s house, after the dance, and my mom had my bag packed for me. After dinner, she put me through torturous routines, barrel-curling my already curly hair (and somehow making it frizzier) and applying mascara and tinted cherry lip balm. I looked absurd – but luckily, she had only burned my ear once, this time. Once we pulled up at the school, she grabbed my face, and said “Now, look at you! You’ll have the boys asking you left and right.” I faked a smile. Mom kisses my forehead and I say goodbye. “Samantha!” she shouts, leaning out of the window to give a big wave. I cringed, and two juniors stared at me.
I was chaperoned to the door by the eighth-grade math teacher, and PTA volunteer, Mr. Trill. “Hello, Sammie, I… like your hair,” (Liar). Madison greeted me at the hall entrance to the gym excitedly. “I can’t WAIT for the sleepover tonight!” I agreed and we pushed open the heavy doors, side by side, while the outro of Cha-Cha Slide boomed from wall to wall of the gymnasium. The décor wasn’t half-bad, the high school sophomores had arranged it, but dollar store balloons and a backdrop can’t distract from the weird smell that would only be described as “high school boy feet” meets “rubber dodgeball.” Well, I suppose only Jesus is a miracle worker.
I am separated from Madison immediately by two seniors, Brian and Jesse. I roll my eyes as they playfully pinch and knock shoulders with Madi. Of course, they would be immature enough to invite a freshman girl like Madison to the dance. A bunch of jerks honestly. While I saw their intentions as strange – for Christ’s sake, they’d be freshmen in college next year, Madison welcomed the older boys fighting for her attention. I shrugged it off, her choice.
I cross the dance floor to the snack table, where they had an array of desserts and finger foods. Very few looked appetizing, and not one as good as my mom’s cooking. I stood there, uncomfortable, my new bra itching my armpits (or was it the deodorant?), and waited for something to happen. Three songs pass and the punch has hit my bladder, the dance floor still barren as the night is just beginning. I head to the bathroom, watching Madison be spun around to a slow song. Was it Brian she was dancing with this time? Or Jesse? I couldn’t tell. I swing the door open and hear a hip-hop song rattle against the outdated bathroom stalls. Should I just stay here, in the bathroom? This is embarrassing. My best friend has a date (or two of them, much to my displeasure).
I pull out my cell phone and click my mom’s contact number. Perhaps I should just have her come and get me, this whole thing is so miserable. I am startled by the sudden whoosh of the door as four girls waltz into the restroom, whispering and laughing. I ruffle my dress back down while I stand, it is apparent I cannot stay hidden here. It’s not like I was crying or anything!
I wash my hands and step up to the mirror, startled by my appearance. The hairspray my mom coated my hair (and the inside of my lungs) with, was already wearing off. I turned to the girls, who had made their way into the bathroom for gossip and comparing dates – “John tried to touch my BUTT!” – followed by gasps and laughter. I interject - “Hi, any of you guys have a hair tie?” I gesture upwards to the mess on my scalp as two of the four turn around to look at me, and one gasps “oh my gosh. Here, Kristen, give me your hairbrush?”
In a whirl, my hair is transformed from terrifying to somewhat approachable – a fashionable high ponytail and bumped-up bang that my mom couldn’t attempt. I expressed my gratitude, and the girls ask me to dance. I spent the remainder of the dance with this group, and I felt safe. They also didn’t seem too interested in being vulnerable dance partners to the boys of their 10th-grade class and viewed the 9th-grade boys as wet specimens.
At exactly 9:00, the last song is playing, and I go to find Madison, who is holding hands with both Brian and Jesse, swaying side to side to the music. “Oh man, I don’t like those two,” I think to myself, irritated. “Are you ready to go after this?” She agrees and we meet at her dad’s sedan. We ride the five minutes to her house and as her dad gets out of the car, she leans into my ear and whispers “I have a secret sleepover plan.” I look at her, a little surprised, to which she nudges me, and we head inside. What is this plan? Sleepovers are the same every time – snacks, manicures, and late-night conversations. We have since elementary school. Once inside, we are greeted by her parents and our three classmates, fellow sleepover attendees. Our classmates, Jordan, Sarah, and Jennifer all surround Madison. I know they’re not here for me, I am not as popular as Madi.
We make our way to Madi’s room, a tidy space with trendy hot-pink bedspread and lime-green walls. Madi’s family has more money than mine. After settling in, Madi introduces her Secret Sleepover Plan. At exactly 11 o’clock, her parents would be asleep. Her dad worked 12-hour shifts and her mom took a doctor-prescribed sleeping pill – and not even Lucifer himself could wake them from their bedside. I felt sick. Madi details the plan, eyes wide – we would be outside at 11:15 p.m., where Brian and Jesse would be waiting for us, ready to take us to a freshman party in Jesse’s mom’s van. While I feared the consequences if we got caught, I wasn’t a chicken. I would deal with it and stay quiet.
After a fuss for us girls to get ready, (including using stolen makeup and clothing from collective moms and sisters) and Madi carefully, with almost surgical precision, helping me put on a sparkly lip gloss, it was now 11:04 p.m. Every passing minute seems to slow time and my stomach is filled with anxious butterflies.
We exit Madison’s window, quiet as mice, except for a couple of giggles, and ran fast down the drive. I was stone silent. We get in the van and Madison looks at me and whispers, “If this is going to be fun; you have to trust me!” Our eyes lock, and she pats my shoulder, sitting on my lap as the van only had six seats. I felt increasingly tense with her on my lap, I would have preferred she had a seatbelt. Brian puts in a CD, Madi is safe on my lap and she’s singing, joking, everything was going to be just fine.
We arrive at the party, and my anxiety is replaced with confusion – there are so many people here! Students, dropouts, and a couple of weird, older people who stood out among the sea of teens. Madi grabs my hand and YANKS me to the beer pong table. We watch one game, and she flirtatiously grabs her dates to play against us. I am clueless at pong, but I have played cornhole at fellowship barbecues, and Madi is a natural player. We lose, but at this time, I have taken 5 sips of my first beer, ever, and my stomach is warm. The beer tastes flat and lukewarm. My legs feel heavy, but Madi is encouraging me to keep drinking and be cool. Her smiles and praise keep me going. I can’t let her down.
After our 4th game, we’ve had a measly one victory and lost three matches. The boys call it a win.
They strut over to approach Madison and me – “You two wanna go out to the woods and explore?” I look at Madi’s reaction, she seems intrigued, so I follow her in the direction of the adventure. I have had two beers, and it is dark, but Madi will keep me safe. Right?
We reach the property line into total darkness – to bypass the barbed wire fence – carefully, as I have on Madi’s mom’s pink yoga pants, and we’ll be dead by dawn if I rip them. We enter a path in the woods only lit by moonlight and Madison’s laughter. I linger closely behind when a suspicious feeling twists my gut. Is this a setup?
Jesse takes Madi further, leaving Brian and me to stare at each other awkwardly. He says a quiet “Oh, hey.” He crunches his face, an expression only seen in forbidden romance movies. I cringe internally when he leans in for a kiss. His lips meet mine and I knock him back – his mouth tastes like tobacco chew and Budweiser. “Jerk,” I scoff and keep walking – Madi’s house is only a mile away – I think I know where I am. I check my phone to see that it’s 12:38 a.m. Undoubtedly, my mom is asleep – so I continue pushing forward.
I feel a hand wrap around my wrist, and in my upset, I throw my arm directly left to avert the unwanted grasp and I realize the person trying to stop me is Madison.
I turn to her, “Why did we come here?!” She intends to soothe me, “Aren’t you having fun? I’m sorry, Sammie…” to which I shake my head. Jesse interrupts, burping and tossing his beer into the woods (rude), and turns to face me. “I know why you’re mad… Madison is cuter than you. And you’re in love with her, right?” He chuckles, cruelly, and cracks open the beer from his other hand. “So, Madi should just kiss you, not me.”
And here comes the Big One - Brian catches up with us, out of breath. At that moment, Madi laughs, grabs my shoulders, and closes the distance between my face and hers. She waits one, two, three seconds… she’s a much more experienced kisser than I, and slowly removes her lips from mine, also vanishing what remains of the sparkly lip gloss she so carefully applied to my mouth hours earlier – and she lets out a small giggle. “Not bad for your first real kiss,” she says.
My face is on fire. My legs are on fire. Madison just kissed me, for fun. It felt wildly different from Brian’s drunken, dry lips encroaching mine without my consent, minutes before. I can’t collect my thoughts. Is it possible I am in love with her? No. God forbid it.
I stumble two steps back and plead – “I want to go home. Please take me back, Madison. I just want to go to sleep.”
Brian, visibly annoyed, says “whatever, Jesse. They aren’t what we’re looking for.” Madison’s jaw opens, diverting the blow, and says “Okay, Brian, we’ll leave you alone. It’s not like you’re that great, anyway. And your beers are warmer than piss.” Madison pulls my arm for the umpteenth time that night and leads me back through the darkness to the amber glow of the party’s bonfire. I am entranced by her confidence, her wit – but am I entranced by her kiss?
No, that can’t be right. Father Landon would condemn me in Sunday service and shame my family.
But Madi… her family wasn’t religious. Did she kiss me as a prank? Was it to impress those two idiots?
I simply don’t know. I am tipsy now. I call out to Madison, guiding us back to the gathering, that we should leave. She turns to me, “I have another way home. Don’t worry, Sammie.” We return to the beer pong table. We’re offered more, ice-cold beers. I drink 2, then 3. I am drunk from the alcohol and Madi’s presence – she is so confident, so cool. She sails me along with her and I am subject to devotion. We are losing every game of pong, and I don’t care.
Getting back to Madi’s that night is blurred from my memory – the only remnant is several more kisses in the back of some freshman’s car, and my body being alight with excitement. Safely back in her bedroom, I sobered up. I looked to her, fast asleep, sharing her twin bed with me. I felt a conflicting mix of guilt and satisfaction.
Perhaps even though he was an asshole, Jesse was right. While his ridicule echoed in my head, I hoped he was wrong, yet I was terrified that God already knew.
Now, as summer concluded, Madison and I have had many adventures, drunken nights, and countless secrets. That is why I am here in my powder-blue dress, sweating in a pew. This specific type of sin makes the daytime gossip in our little town – so, I will remain silent. Not even in my prayers do I dare mention it. I can’t help it, still, in each Sunday’s sermon, I am the worst sinner of all. I am petrified that under these beaming fluorescent lights, it will become apparent that I am headed to hell. I fear that hellfire will burn through the hardwood, through the carpet, to absolve me to ash and brimstone, leaving my hymnal behind. Since I was baptized within these walls, I have been told in explicit, excruciating detail what hell contains for people like Madi and me.
If we’re damned, then so be it.
Maybe I don’t care what God thinks of Madi and me, after all, He never answered me before. Even righteous Father Landon - with his harsh lectures on hell appears to have sweat under his collar before the congregation today.