A Tongue So Forked It Splits
If it wasn’t speaking in tongues, what were we doing?
The first worship service of summer youth retreat was dragging toward an end. A hollow gymnasium, by a lake in the woods of north Idaho, rustled with the whispered supplications of teenagers entreating God for a gift only he could give. We had split into smaller groups, scraping the legs of our metal folding chairs across the concrete floor as the fifty or so of us turned to face one another in circles of seven or eight. We squeezed each other’s sweaty palms. Our eyes squinted to slits, unsure whether to expect the Lord to manifest inwardly or outwardly. Slowly, Alicia Wells, who had led praise songs on her guitar earlier in the evening, picked out a soft tune, hoping to drown out the pendant lamps that droned obnoxiously above us. Their pale orange glow crept through the open double doors on either side of the room, into the dark and sticky August night.
I didn’t want to be out there, but I didn’t want to be sitting here either. As everyone around me sought the face of God, I had a sinking feeling that I, for one, wasn’t going to find it.
Beside me, my friend Kayleigh, the smartest girl I knew, was kneeling in a show of reverence that I had to give her credit for. She was much more committed than I was to the roles we had played in turning this typically upbeat service into a fervent prayer meeting. My gut was refusing the undercooked pizza that I had swallowed beforehand, gripped by the munchies. I still tasted the salty, squirmy dough.
Granted, we didn’t have to smoke the rest of the joint I had produced when I reached into my pocket to give her gas money from my parents. It was the third joint I’d stolen for us from my older sister’s underwear drawer, and I thought it would be a fun way to memorialize our last time coming here. Kay was ambivalent, but I didn’t want to throw it away, and neither of us wanted to get caught with it. Besides, it was just a little roach. We polished it off easily behind the tennis court while everyone else was distracted, carrying duffels and sleeping bags to cabins. We stubbed it out on the backboard and buried it in the dirt before making our way to dinner. Who would have guessed we’d still be so loopy when Pastor Wells took the microphone and preached from the Book of Acts about the coming of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, and the evidence of speaking in tongues? It was during his closing prayer that Kayleigh and I took one witless look at each other and lost it.
It spilled out in sing-song tones of strained laughter. I didn’t think we were being all that loud, really. Maybe it was the high that kept us from realizing that the room had gone quiet after a few seconds. We couldn’t have been at it for very long. Maybe a minute, tops, before we noticed that all eyes were fixed on us. The lights buzzed above us like hornets, and my breath caught, waiting for the sting of punishment for being a disruption. But the craziest part was that Pastor Wells took our giggled nonsense, erupting from an inside joke, so seriously. He swiftly called for those closest to us to lay hands on us and pray for the Spirit moving in us. To guide our tongues and to bring forth divine interpretation. In short order, he asked the rest of the group to join.
In fourth grade, our Sunday school class made a game of that particular passage in Acts, when the apostles started babbling in unfamiliar languages. Jesus' apostles had been hiding in an upper room, distraught at Judas’ suicide, confounded by the ascension of their Lord, and awaiting the new companion Jesus had promised. A mighty wind blew around them, and suddenly they began to speak with other tongues. The public thought they were drunk. Tell ten-year-olds to spend fifteen minutes slurring speech at each other as a fun way to bring stuffy Bible stories to life, and they’ll pitch into fits of laughter for the rest of the hour.
Get a couple of seventeen-year-olds going, and suddenly all that nonsense carried actual meaning—for its inscrutability rather than its substance. Surely the stink of weed should have given us away to everyone in our immediate vicinity. Ryan sure seemed to think something was up. He was sitting at the end of our row, and I caught the stunned look on his face as Pastor Wells turned the evening toward intercessory prayer. His eyes bulged, and he twisted his neck to stare me down. I’d noticed a sour expression as I filed past him toward my seat at the start of service, but that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence with him. Tall and lean, he was an intern training to be a youth pastor, and he buzzed his hair because it was already receding at twenty-five. My attraction to him was strictly circumstantial, as he was one of maybe three guys in the whole church with a decent body. Still, he was particularly strict in observing our denomination’s charismatic beliefs, to remain in Pastor Wells’s good graces, as both an apprentice, and as Alicia’s boyfriend.
As Ryan shouldered his way over to crouch in front of where we sat, he gripped my shoulder firmly enough to leave a red thumbprint on my skin. I realized that it wasn’t only my furtive leers that had made him scowl. For the next thirty minutes, the room prayed hard. The worst part was everyone waiting for an interpretation that wasn’t coming. I avoided Ryan’s gaze and begged God not to let anyone hear the gurgling in my gut, especially Micah Thompson, who stood behind Ryan with his hand stretched toward me but touching only air. I could see dark hair wisping from the pit of his tee the way his arm hung there. Beside me, Kayleigh lifted her hazel eyes to the ceiling, letting go of my hand and raising her freckled arms to heaven. Becca Warner, now free of Kayleigh’s hand as well, placed hers on Kayleigh’s shoulder. I let mine dangle at my side. Ryan’s determined grip was all that kept me from running out into the night.
Normally I spent as little time in my cabin as possible. After three years on this retreat, I knew better than to hang out with the boys in a space designed for roughhousing: sealed concrete floors to slide across, wooden bunks to climb, vinyl sleeping mats to swing wildly, not an adult in sight because we were coming into adulthood ourselves and trusted to behave. Plus, there were the smells, the musty fog of changing bodies and poor ventilation that grew denser after every game of Bump or Horse in the gym. I tended to spend my free time at the long cold cafeteria tables playing Snap and Go Fish with Kayleigh and the girls. But tonight, I crouched in my bottom bunk with my headphones on, Coldplay’s Parachutes spinning in the Discman, as I tried to read Invisible Monsters inconspicuously amid the commotion around me.
After the service, I had told Kayleigh I wasn’t feeling well and hurried out. Ryan had turned to face Pastor Wells momentarily, giving me the opportunity to slip away without getting cornered. My high had vanished, and I felt only nerves trembling in my gut. There was always the chance they’d come find me here, just as easily as the cafeteria, but with the wild rumpus building toward the Capture the Flag game later, I started to think I had successfully faded into the background once again.
Until: “Are you gonna play, Levi?” Micah Thompson appeared, ducking under the top bunk to give me a ruddy, open smile.
“Oh, you’re reading—sorry!”
Before I could pull down my headphones, he retreated, but not very far. He reached into the top bunk beside mine and dragged his backpack to the edge. He unzipped it and started pulling out dark-colored clothing.
“I’ve got black sweats and an almost-black t-shirt!” he shouted to the others, who had slowly turned from scrimmaging to conspiring about strategy.
The game promised to span the full campground, with the east-end cabins teaming up against the west-end cabins, which included ours. Long as my legs were, I wasn’t a strong runner, nor was I particularly sneaky, so I avoided activities like this, which weren’t really sports but relied on many of the same principles: speed, agility, teamwork. I was eager to see the game begin, though, because it meant I might be able to return to the boy’s bathroom in peace. I had stopped there on my way back from the gymnasium, to see if I could relieve some of the cramps working their way through my belly. Instead I found one of the two stalls occupied by someone actively using the toilet and the other crowded by his friends who were pouring water over the partition, snickering as he cursed them. Sitting on my bunk, listening to music, reading a book, my discomfort had subsided, but it was still foremost on my mind until Micah unbuckled his belt and dropped his cargo shorts.
It was over in an instant. He wasn’t wasting any time that could be better spent in gameplay. But the image of his dark-haired thighs and belly-button, interrupted by a worn and bunched pair of gray boxer briefs, fixed in my mind. His black sweatpants did nothing to deter my reeling imagination either. They must have been a size and a half too small. I stayed as still as I could, grateful for the shadows shrouding me from scrutiny. But I started again when Micah’s face reappeared.
“Do you want to play? We could really use another guy.”
His eyes were blue and his cheeks rosy; straight, even teeth except for his sharply pointed canines. We weren’t friends exactly, but we’d become friendly in the last year or so, taking Spanish in a class his mother taught. She always seemed vaguely disappointed that her son didn’t take a greater interest in her mother’s language, but I was an excellent student, and she often placed us in groups together. As a result, Micah became more comfortable around me—my reedy voice and unnaturally orange hair—than most guys ever do. And I developed a crush.
“I’m not very good,” I said, and he laughed.
“It’s just for fun.” He pointed at my book. “Is that the guy who wrote Fight Club? That movie was awesome.”
I nodded. “This one is even better.”
He smiled. I loved his teeth.
"So, what if we have you guard the flag. When someone from the other team gets close, chase them away. It’s easy.” He shrugged. “But only if you want to.”
I agreed, thinking that I’d get a chance to impress him. I didn’t know how I’d manage it, but I guess I believed what I’d seen on TV, where the pale, nerdy misfit makes a crucial save at the end of the game. For the next two hours, though, I stood in the dim lamplight outside our neighboring cabin, kicking the dirt around a resilient patch of crabgrass and cursing the waves of urgency that now pressed against my lower intestine. The flag was a stained, torn dish towel that had clearly hung from a nail for this game many times before. Whenever I thought it might be quiet enough for me to slip away to the restroom, shouts and whoops would rise up in the darkness, echoing across the grounds. I could see shapes moving, sprinting, one direction then another—over by the cafeteria, then through the yard—but nobody ever came close to me or the flag until Tony Stephenson, sweaty and out of breath, came to inform me that we’d won and the game was over. The bathroom wouldn’t be peaceful again until lights out, and it was well after midnight before I was at peace.
Until that night in the gym, Kay and I had never been conspicuous or noteworthy. We blended in, at school, at church; we came as a pair so that neither of us could be seen clearly, rounding out each other’s edges, a stereoscope offering the illusion of depth. Our theology talked about being members of a body, and we were just that. Tonsils or adenoids, or whatever other pairs wouldn’t be missed if removed. When we met wearing hoodies in the cool yard on the way to breakfast, as we always did, we whispered to each other.
“I didn’t really feel anything, and then I couldn’t stop once you started—no, you started it—it was definitely you. Because I was level and then all of a sudden—”
Everything was fine, everything was normal, but then all of a sudden. All of a sudden, it just came over us. All of a sudden, it was like we were watching ourselves from above. All of a sudden, we had no control. We would swear, it felt like nothing until all of a sudden.
We always ate at the far end of the third cafeteria table back from the kitchen and generally kept to ourselves. That morning, though, we caught more than one curious glance over powdered eggs and pancakes. It was impossible to talk here as we had done since we were barely old enough to speak. Inseparable and protective, we understood each other and the world through a church that promised us another world, one untouched by the faulty schemes of men. It was true that the larger we—we believers—believed that those so moved by the Holy Ghost might speak in unknown languages. And our personal beliefs were unquestioned enough as to feel prefabricated. Our parents, humble but devout, passed theirs along to us, and now we bore the spiritual fruits of their labor—less like seeds planted and more like caches over which they fussed. So anyone who witnessed our behavior last night might presume that a mantle had been passed, that we were coming into our own, raised up righteously by parents who feared the Lord. Such evidence of our blossoming faith made Pastor Well’s arrival at our table a foregone conclusion, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand and his thinning hair slick from his morning shower. His face still appeared fresh and bright, but close up, it showed signs of creased age in his pink features.
“How are you two this morning?” he asked, groaning softly as he crouched to meet us at eye level.
“Fine,” we replied hesitantly.
He invited us into the counselor’s office, between the cafeteria and gym, where we found Ryan Creeley and Brenda Warner—Becca’s mother, and one of the parent chaperones for the weekend—waiting for us. In a room that would feel crowded with three, the adults situated themselves into a tight semicircle around a small wooden desk while the two of us lowered our heinies onto the rough, orange upholstery of repurposed dining chairs, their metal-framed backs angling into an inverted V.
They wanted to discuss last night, and it made us recoil into queasy speechlessness.
“It’s clear the Holy Spirit was at work in you two,” Mrs. Warner began, her voice as thin and earnest as her frame.
A shadow of a scowl crossed Ryan’s face.
“We want to spend some special time in prayer with you,” Pastor Wells added. “And to counsel you in this miraculous moment of your faith journeys.”
Ryan remained quiet. It was obvious he harbored skepticism. But there wasn’t a lot of space for an intern to contradict the pastor and a deacon’s wife in our little evangelical bubble, either. The Warners were pillars of our church. They owned a big house in a chichi development on the South Hill. Mr. Warner played guitar on Sunday mornings, Mrs. Warner led the women’s ministries, and Becca sang solos sometimes. They were the closest our kind got to a power family, and Ryan had only just begun his leadership training.
“There needs to be an interpretation, though, right?” he ventured after a short pause.
“Now, Ryan,” Pastor Wells cut him off.
He took the disappointed tone parents do when they’re not mad, and I wondered if he was frustrated more by Ryan’s lack of faith or by the possibility that he might soon replace him.
“It’s not their responsibility to interpret—it’s God’s. We just have to keep listening.”
“You’re anointed,” Mrs. Warner told us. “Vessels.”
“Blessed,” the pastor agreed.
Their insistence made it difficult to speak, so we just nodded until they laid hands on us and closed their eyes. The guilt pressing into our diaphragms as they prayed felt worse than the most intense altar calls, end-of-service passion plays when we grieved private transgressions in maudlin company at the platform steps. Mine usually had to do with my fantasies about Micah, and I knew Kayleigh tended to pray about that time she let Max touch her boob and stick his tongue in her mouth under the bleachers two years ago. These were sins we confessed to each other and God but then allowed to slip away, forgiven and forgotten. In this way, we fashioned a sanctuary of two, a place in which, if allowed, we’d eagerly dispose of our behavior last night as well. A sacred experience unnecessary to speak about because we had both been there. Our mouths moved, nonsense spewed forth, and some people got carried away.
But like most sanctified spaces, its boundaries were designed by fear of the unknown rather than any deep understanding. Boundaries like that corrode over time anyway, and with Pastor Well’s hairy knuckles gripping my shoulder and Mrs. Warner’s small, wiry fingers trembling on Kayleigh’s, I felt our private inner sanctum become invaded and crumble to the earth. Through hovering eyelids, I saw Kayleigh shudder out a quiet sob.
It was unclear what the adults hoped to accomplish in this little prayer circle. When the three of them ran out of ways to repeat Lord God, guide these young people’s hearts and tongues, we all said Amen softly, solemnly. Kayleigh laughed self-consciously, sniffed, and wiped her eyes.
“I don’t know where all these waterworks came from,” she said.
“That’s the Father,” Mrs. Warner said, a maternal grin stretched across her narrow face. “He’s moving in you two. I can smell His alabaster perfume all around you.”
I tensed, smelling only stale coffee and years of harsh cleaning chemicals, but relaxed again when Pastor Wells dismissed us to join the others. Morning chapel would be starting soon.
“You should enjoy yourself—it is your last summer after all. Go for a hike after lunch, or take one of the canoes out. I think Ryan will be setting up the Blob by the dock around then.”
Ryan nodded, his expression still unnerving me as if he’d been there when I saw Micah in his underwear.
“But this isn’t over,” Pastor Wells continued, “the three of us are here to answer any of your questions about baptism in the Holy Spirit, whenever you need us. Okay?”
We nodded, and the two of us made our way back into the sunshine, leaving the adults behind for what I assumed was a short, private assessment of our spiritual muster before joining the rest of us for chapel.
“I’m afraid to let everyone down,” Kayleigh admitted, a concern I repeated back to her as we stepped into the gym again for another hour of singing and Bible study.
I’d been afraid to let everyone down since I first noticed some other boys had started growing armpit hair in the fifth grade.
After lunch, we signed out a canoe from the boathouse. She got in, and I pushed us out, hopping over the water’s edge just before my sandals would have touched.
“We have to tell them the truth,” Kayleigh said.
But that would mean fessing up to smoking pot, which we stole from a sibling and her boyfriend. And it wasn’t the first time. It’s not like we were addicts, just curious, harmless experimentation, but the chain reaction of culpability would be explosive. The possibility Ryan had mentioned the distinctive funk of weed to the pastor could not be ignored, either. It was hard not to feel cornered, even as we rowed farther and farther onto the lake. For a long time, these were moments I sought out above all others. I thought they could be my salvation. In her car, as we split our time between high school and early college courses, back as far as the platform of the slide in my yard as children: laughing, gossiping, confessing our deepest fears. Friends, neighbors, classmates, churchgoers—our connection from the outset transcended words. If there was one girl I could imagine spending eternity with, happily, I was sure it was her.
Then, my dearest friend, the person I knew best, asked, “How do you think they’ll react when they find out God spoke through us when we were high?”
By now, we were safe, far enough onto the lake that no one would hear. As it was, we only heard the beach when its shrieks reached a harpy pitch, delayed across the distance between us and the bodies launching one another from the inflatable Blob into the cold water.
“We were high,” I echoed.
“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” she quoted, distantly, from Romans. “Didn’t you hear Mrs. Warner say she sensed the presence of God around us?”
“Don’t say her name like that. She’s a prayer warrior.”
“She said she smelled alabaster.”
“Like what Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet with.”
“Alabaster is stone. It was the jar she carried the perfume in.”
She stuck out her tongue at me sideways, looking back momentarily as she lifted her oar, and it dripped cool on the naked skin of my knee. On the water, I felt scorched by the sky and smothered by familiar humidity. Hot air I’d grown up with, so you’d think I would be used to it. But I hadn’t expected it could come from her.
Slowly it dawned on me that our overnight turmoil was dilating into divergent shades of agony for us. All this time, she was privately stitching our shared experience into the beliefs set before us since the beginning, a rationale that promised to be least disruptive, even if we must atone for sins against sobriety. And for a moment, the possibility appealed to me. It rang with innocent hope, and I tried enviously to see it her way. Imagine an eager, permissive God who would exploit any available resources to reach his faithful and comfort them.
I could not: not after years of kneeling at the altar in prayers that have gone unanswered. But could I pretend? The world was cruel, and this teenage indiscretion hardly warranted inflicting such disappointment upon our community. Crestfallen gazes would be everywhere as news of our false witness spread like mold over stale bread. Already we held back truths from everyone but each other—truths about purity, the occasional puff, and what I had assumed till now was a shared sense of deepening alienation. What harm could come from at least playing along, embracing the perception of anointedness until the congregational limelight shifted? Already that summer, rumors of scandal seeped down the long pews: divorce, an unwed mother, an unconsummated emotional affair between prayer team leaders. These and others sat atop the vague disappointment leaking from assurances of a new heaven and a new earth, both long overdue. Our drama stood out as a ray of hope in times growing more desperate by the day. How long could it possibly be until another broke through—a miraculous cancer recovery, a soldier safely home from Afghanistan, a viable pregnancy after years of barrenness and miscarriage?
Kayleigh continued to insist our actions were working good, so we must be called unto God’s purpose, as we rowed back to shore. All the while, I wondered what God’s presence really smelled like. Probably something more potent than mineral but still deeply rooted in the earth. The open water of the lake smelled alive but unremarkable. An atmosphere one knew only if they were familiar with it already. But to the rest of us, it rendered blank.
Back in the gym for the final night of the retreat, my stomach was yet again tight and unsettled, but I couldn’t blame our dinner of overcooked hamburgers. I sat on a hard, folding chair between Kayleigh, like always, and Micah, like lightning striking. Alicia Wells led us in praise songs before her dad took the microphone to talk.
“I had something else prepared for tonight,” he explained, “but in light of last night’s service, thought it would be better if we talked about the Gifts of the Spirit. As you all come into full maturity both physically and spiritually, you are going to discover Him working in your lives in unexpected ways.”
Somewhere behind me, I heard Brenda Warner hum in agreement. Two rows ahead of me, Ryan sat with his arms hanging over the backs of the chairs on either side of him, where Tony Stephenson and Brent Anderson sat, two guys everyone understood to be his favorites. They played basketball, went to movies together, and altogether acted more like best buddies than a leader and two students. It bothered me, even though rationally, I didn’t want to spend more time around Ryan than absolutely necessary. It was the principle.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kayleigh picking at her fingernails, so I instead chose to focus my attention on the shape of Micah’s knee out of the corner of my other eye. It seemed chiseled from stone, its surrounding muscles and tendons hardened by alternating seasons of football and track. At a glance, his whole body looked lean and unremarkable, but close up, there were sinewy marvels that I wanted to keep all to myself. It was overwhelming, though, to be sitting this close to him. Because I wanted it to mean something that it didn’t. There was no way he saw me the way I saw him, and his kindness, as a result, felt like pity, compassion for the outcast, a Jesus obligation.
And yet it was kindness I craved, nonetheless. Kindness I had quickly accepted after my canoe trip with Kayleigh, when I had returned to my cabin and found Micah gathering clothes and a bar of soap into a towel.
“Think I’m going to try to sneak in a shower before dinner while everyone else is still playing,” he announced when he saw me.
I had been thinking the same thing, so I muttered, “Me too,” and sheepishly followed suit. He didn’t seem bothered by my company and even joked about how awful it would have been to walk in on one of the dad chaperones—or God forbid, Pastor Wells—naked. It was just us in the showers, a wall of four spigots and a long bench facing them. He didn’t flaunt himself, nor was he coy when he undressed and stepped into the erratic stream of lukewarm water. I had never showered in anything but strict privacy, so I tried to match the same casual posture he’d cultivated through years of playing sports. I hoped that if I kept lathering and rinsing and repeating for a normal amount of time, he wouldn’t notice my hands shaking, my speech failing, my gradual retreat into a heady fog that continued to roll through me as we toweled off, made our way to dinner, and then found our seats in the gym.
Watching Micah’s knee sway absently as Pastor Wells spoke, I wondered if it had been a dream. That I had gone back to the cabin and napped instead. But no, like a second thought, the vision of Micah in full glory insisted upon itself. So much so that I was not paying attention to the service at hand, until—rising from her metal folding chair next to mine, burping its feet across the cement floor and bringing a quiet, contemplative room to utter silence—Kayleigh opened her mouth and spoke.
Echoed syllables in the hollow gymnasium ricocheted as a chorus; a single voice splintered by the cold environs of exposed concrete, mile-high rafters, and the shiny teeth of an eager people ready to accept anything that appeared to make good on a hope so long deferred.
Amid the clatter of one tongue flapping, arms around the room rose. Hands turned upward in supplication. Slowly, Alicia began picking out the tune of “Hang on to You” by the Christian rock group Delirious on her guitar, breaking my fugue and spinning me toward the disillusionment that had been stalking me all weekend. All eyes bent toward us. First her, then me.
I shut my eyes and bowed my head. I imagined myself years from now, conjured an image of me sitting on a firm dining room chair so that when I opened my eyes again, I would see a boyfriend or husband opposite me, smiling, thinking how funny I am for taking a moment to pray over my food like I haven’t done since I was a kid. If I imagined hard enough, I could almost see him reach a hand across the table to hold mine. Except, there was now a warm, uncertain hand in the neutral center of my back, pulling me out of this premonition and back to reality.
As much as I desired Micah’s touch, and though I had fantasized about how his hand would feel against my body, in this moment, now, it felt tepid, tentative, clammy even through my t-shirt—not at all the solid, soothing hold I craved. When what I needed was a firm, tender embrace to lift me out of this despair, his hand was all heat and no pressure. I was hot already, waiting for change, transformation—in me or my surroundings—my armpits sweating and my stomach rolling as if ready to vomit.
But nothing came up. No food, no words. Nothing.
Only Kayleigh’s mouth produced this time, and it dawned on me that we were indeed separate people after all.
The silence that followed was oppressive. I kept hearing Ryan’s demand for interpretation ringing in my head. If I opened my eyes, I knew I’d see scorn written across his face.
A minute passed. Then two. Then: Ruth Gentry.
I had to look to be sure, but there she was, standing on the far end of the second row, hands raised and quivering. She was giving an interpretation. Or what the rest of us could only assume was one.
Nearly drinking age and still attending youth group with nervous fourteen-year-olds, Ruth took twice as long to speak her part. And she embellished each mention of God the Father with a throaty reminder that he is a jealous lover, a lurid sobriquet that resonated discomfortingly throughout the pubescent gym, considering that the prophetic message in question had more to do with hope for a new age, the perfect world to come once we managed to cast off the shackles of our wretchedness.
In a church body fixated on the second coming of Christ to end suffering here on earth, it was a predictable missive for how wildly fresh and effervescent Kay’s glossolalia had been. I swallowed hard and felt an emptiness in my chest.
“I’m suffocating,” I said in the car as we drove back home on Sunday. Like every year before it, the forecast broke a hundred, and the cloying smell of her Ocean Breeze air freshener seemed to melt to all surfaces. The air conditioner couldn’t keep up. “Can we roll down the windows?”
But the freeway noise overpowered the stereo, and the wind blew around loose wrappers and receipts, so we closed them again.
“They think I’m broken,” I said finally.
Although she rebuffed the idea, I knew she understood. I knew everything about her, and she knew everything about me, and we knew this community saw sinfulness in those whose blessing seems to have faded. Mine happened to be obvious, unconcealable. Hers were more humdrum, ordinary, forgivable. That morning our grimy breakfast table had been unusually crowded as our peers slapped down their grim paper plates loaded with burnt sausage and pancakes, naked desperation written on their faces, hoping that Kayleigh might teach them how they, too, might be used by God for public spectacle.
“It just washed over me, and I knew I was in God’s hands,” she told every new person who asked.
And with every repetition, I pulled a little more inward so that I could avoid being seen clearly beside her radiance.
“It just wasn’t yours to interpret,” she said charitably. “He chose Ruth Gentry, and she humbled herself and obeyed.”
Never had I heard an unkind word from her mouth. In my heart, I knew she believed this. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“And I know what you’re thinking,” she continued, “I wasn’t high this time.”
“No,” I laughed. “You need me for that.”
“But I knew it was true because it felt like I was,” she went on. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this kind of relationship with God. It’s finally here, and it’s better than anyone ever told me it could be. Nothing could be more pure or intimate.”
She wiped wet cheeks and kept driving. Right then, I gave up the question of whether or not I believed her. It was clear that she believed in what she was doing, with honesty I have found in few people since. Even though what she was clinging to undid me, my options were to believe that she believed herself or to believe that she was meticulously building a future in which she knew I would play no part. I loved her too much to believe she could be cruel. My best friend wouldn’t hurt me like that. Ocean Breeze doesn’t smell like open water, but we call it that because we need names that overwrite disappointments.
In the coming weeks, Kayleigh became increasingly popular among families like the Warners, and Ryan took special interest in her too. He seemed much more comfortable with the idea of one talkative girl in his youth group, not two. So, I quietly asked for more shifts at the ice cream shop that conflicted with church services and Bible studies. Kayleigh and I grew apart as the school year started, but only as much as two fingers on the same hand or how some people’s earlobes are detached. Micah didn’t take a second year of Spanish, so I saw less of him, even though I still thought of him all the time. In a way, it made me sad, like seeing him naked had been a transgression for which his absence became the consequence. I knew that was stupid, though. He waved at me in the hallways, even though he never sat near me in church again. Whatever guilt I felt was the equal and opposite reaction to the glory Kayleigh felt. I knew she wasn’t putting on an act for anyone, but I was tired of the one I’d been performing for as long as I could remember.
In truth, I never once felt anything like she described until I was in the foggy backseat of a coworker’s car the day after Thanksgiving. There were four of us sharing a joint when the two up front leaned against one another and made out.
Beside me, he fidgeted, then sized me up without turning his head. A minute later, he looked at me and said, “I’m not gonna do that.” When I shrugged, too loopy to verbalize a response, he rubbed the front of his jeans and said, “But.”
In the moments that followed, I felt a rush, something warm flowing through me, despite the cold weather, with urgency I had only heard rumored. Looking back, maybe I was susceptible because of the pot, but as my tongue moved, all of a sudden, something washed over me. Like a new heaven and a new earth, long overdue, a ray of hope in a time growing more desperate by the day.