Since my sister, Erica, and her husband, Jeremy, had moved to Dallas as newlyweds, Erica had precious few opportunities to teach me everything I needed to know about young adulthood. “Everything I needed to know” consisted of religion instruction—which Erica didn’t trust my parents to properly execute—and Cross Country training. As a former Cross-Country captain and current die-hard Christian, Erica cared immensely that I followed in her fast and holy footsteps. Erica became rapacious during our twice-yearly visits, transforming my Christmas breaks and summer vacations into periods of intense self-improvement.
“Things are different in high school,” she warned me one morning, twisting her hair into a ponytail as we left for a four-mile run. “You’re going to face spiritual struggles you can’t even imagine.”
Toweling herself dry after a post-run shower: “You might feel a little different than the other kids at school. I can only remember one boy from my high school—besides Jeremy, of course—who really walked with the Lord. It was a really awesome thing to see, but still, it was only one boy.”
Over diet sodas in a café: “I won’t lie to you about sex. It’s tempting, it really is, and there were times when it was such a struggle for me and Jeremy. That’s actually why we didn’t wait until after college to get married. After six years, we just couldn’t hold out anymore.”
When Erica’s lectures ended, we read our Bibles together in silence. Erica suggested I read Galatians, and Jeremy popped in periodically to ask if I had any questions about the text. He’d just completed his first year at the Dallas Theological Seminary and was brimming with answers.
One afternoon in early July, my family and I decided to explore the downtown strip of the little Arkansas city where we were vacationing. We meandered over the cracked sidewalks, our skin sticky from the humidity, our noses assaulted by the tarry smell of car exhaust. Erica kept ducking into the nicer-looking shops, hoping to steal a reprieve from the heat. I followed her into Kathryn’s Antiques and Jewelry—a musty box of a place, all glass shelves and narrow aisles, the kind that made me acutely aware of my elbows. It was the kind of shop that sold birthstone necklaces and hand-blown glass kittens.
“Sissy, come here,” Erica hissed, poking her head out from behind a display in the middle of the store. “I found the perfect thing for you!”
I stepped carefully around a precariously placed glass vase. “Yeah?”
“A promise ring,” Erica said, holding up different bands and examining them. She gravitated toward the white-gold ones, the ones like her own wedding ring. “You don’t have one yet, do you?”
I shook my head.
“That’s great, then. You want one, right?” Erica didn’t look up as she plucked another band from its velvet pocket. “I like this one; it’s a little less flashy. Not as big. What do you think?” She slid the ring onto my finger. The delicate band was adorned with a heart bisected by a cross. Erica was already asking Dad for his Mastercard.
At first, I loved how the ring volleyed sunlight skyward whenever I moved. It was only when I shut myself in my hotel room’s bathroom that the ring struck me as menacing, no longer kissing me with sunlight but spotlighting me, policing me with anemic fluorescent light.
I plunked myself down on the toilet and pulled at my underwear. Stamped across the fabric, in red and blue and green and yellow and purple, was: all I want for Christmas is everything. The underwear was too thick for July, too tight for my ballooning butt, too threadbare to still be wearing. Plus, it made me recall the godless materialism of the holiday season, a topic that made my pastor’s ruddy jowls tremble when he railed against it. My promise ring winked ominously as I fumbled with the roll of toilet paper.
The hotel’s pilly toilet paper came up rusty. Not bloody, the way My Body, My Self had said it would, but sickly brown. (Wink-wink-wink went my promise ring.) I frowned at the three misshapen blots that stained the center of my underwear. I thought: I finished Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret four years ago! I’ve given up on my period! Shouldn’t it have given up on me?
My church friends had all gotten their first periods years ago. Lizzie had busted out of her 34C bra the previous summer, and Sara was always talking about cramps in the same excited tone she talked about MTV’s reality show The Hills. Esther had even gotten her period before sixth grade!
They couldn’t be real, those penny-colored blotches, but they were. They were mine, given from God. They were God, or rather God’s message, telling me—no, warning me—that He had His eye on me. That He was more vigilant than Erica; that He was closer than the ring on my finger.
Mom was thrilled when she heard the news. She insisted that I’d “finally start to thin out” now that I was “a woman.” Erica showed me how to use applicator-less o.b. tampons, conveniently forgetting to mention that 99.9% of women use applicators—which, I would find out a decade later, make the job down there much easier. Dad kept grinning and making comments like, “Should I order a Bloody Mary with dinner?” and “Maybe the restaurant will have red velvet cake!”
But I stared stoically at my promise ring and shut out my family’s chatter and understood that nothing—not my period, not my virginity, not my impending high-school career—was a laughing matter. How could it be, when God’s eye was smothering me, when I was one slip of His hand away from suffocating?
I abandoned my jog mid-stride, letting my shoulders slump and my hands clutch my hips as I surrendered to the hill. Erica had said Cross Country would challenge me, had canopied her voice over the he-hers of my asthma attacks to warn me about it, and still I was unprepared. August was scorching Centre County mercilessly, its heat only relenting for murderous thunderstorms that forced our two-a-day practices inside. The coaches worked us just as hard indoors, though, commanding us to hold planks and V-sits until our bodies gave out on the gritty gymnasium floor. The worst part of practices, I decided, was whatever our coaches were demanding at the current moment. There was no easy, just different shades of pain.
“Come on, don’t quit now,” Tina said, appearing out of nowhere. I had noticed her a few miles ago, running slowly and laughing loudly with the other captains. Tina never broke a sweat at practice, yet managed to run sub-23-minute races, her blond ponytail a shock of lightning as she tore from the starting line. She exuded strength like no girl I knew, not even Erica. Erica couldn’t do a pull-up or hold a three-minute plank or secure a scholarship to West Point.
I shuffled my legs to match Tina’s stride and we crested the hill together, pressing forward into the endless humidity. Tina spoke since I couldn’t. “It really does get easier,” she said. Her hazel eyes were sprinkled with gold.
I made a hangdog expression and Tina laughed. “It does,” she repeated. “I remember my freshman two-a-days—terrible. But you get used to it.”
I shook my head, willing air into my lungs. “Even Gigi?” I’d never met anyone with a more terrifying gaze—or more muscled quadriceps—than our assistant coach.
Tina laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about Gigi. I’ll protect you from her.”
I blinked. I liked the thought of Tina protecting me. I liked it a surprising amount.
When the run finally ended, Tina and I stretched in the shade of a big oak tree. The boys’ team jogged past us, their skeletal chests translucent in the morning sunlight.
“They’re so weird,” Tina said as one of the boys shouted, off-key, the lyrics to an old ABBA song. The other boys joined the caterwauling in an ear-splitting avalanche of noise.
“Kind of cultish,” I agreed. “They always move in a big pack.”
“You have no idea,” Tina lowered her voice. “John Walker told me they shower together. After practices. Like just blast music and all run in there together.”
My eyes widened, imagining the mass nakedness: waves of flesh undulating in the pink-tiled room, Spartan except for the rusted spigots spaced along the walls.
“John Walker,” I echoed. I’d heard about boys like John, even though as senior class president his social circle spun as far from mine as possible. “Isn’t he—?”
Tina nodded, watching the boys disappear from view. “Yup.”
I folded over for a hamstring stretch, grabbing handfuls of grass in my flushed palms. “And that’s not awkward? The shower thing?”
Tina bent down too, her ponytail cascading close to my cheek. “Who knows. All he told me is it’s like one big dance party.”
Tina and I didn’t discuss John Walker or his sexuality again, but I found my mind skulking back to that conversation many times when Tina and I changed into our running clothes or waited in line for the bathroom. I wondered how the boys could sing and holler and dance together naked, and then make eye contact in the hallways the next day as if nothing happened. As if they hadn’t gyrated together as the faucets rained overhead, as if they hadn’t laughed and sang lay all your love on me in the midst of each other’s exposed bodies. Then I wondered about Tina and me in the shower, if we could rinse our hair and sing songs and then wave hello afterward as if nothing had changed. I wondered if Tina’s hair would glint like bronze as the water saturated it, if it would cling to the nape of her neck and the curve of her shoulder blades. I wondered what Tina would do if I traced the water as it streamed down her back. Would her skin shiver with goosebumps? Would she push me away? Would she pull me in?
I started keeping my Bible on my nightstand, and then in my locker at school. I needed it for the same reason I needed my purity ring: I needed to remind my roving mind of God’s omnipresence. He was hearing my thoughts—all my thoughts. And I didn’t need another inauspiciously timed menses to make me understand that He was displeased.
Erica’s phone calls kept coming every week, doggedly as the dawn. When Erica’s voice danced in my ear, I closed all thoughts about Tina behind a hermetic seal. I felt sure Erica could detect sin in my heart. I couldn’t understand why I was struggling with impure thoughts. I was at Erica’s old school, on her old Cross Country team, settled in her old bedroom. And I had her constant advice to boot. How could all that not be enough?
For my high-school graduation present, my two best friends and I took our first vacation without our families. We couldn’t stop giggling as our bus barreled toward New York City; everything seemed hilarious in the wake of our adventure, from the bushy-bearded Hasidic Jew who offered Julia bubblegum to the stranger who fell asleep on Mary’s shoulder.
Have a great time sissy, Erica’s text read. Can’t wait to hear all about it.
I was surprised that Erica had remembered my trip. Ever since Jeremy took a job at a ritzy law firm and Erica traded her engineering job for stay-at-home motherhood, their lives had constricted to almost exclude me. Our relationship survived best when I visited: I could accompany them to the church where Jeremy volunteered as an elder, could babysit their daughter while they hosted Bible study, could deejay the Veggie Tales music while Erica made dinner. I’d return from those sojourns exhausted, albeit proficient in speed diapering and Bible quoting.
Julia shook the back of Mary’s seat, her elbow nearly dislodging the cell phone from my hands. “Move back with us,” she whispered, tapping Mary on the shoulder. Mary’s seat partner hadn’t stirred when the driver sped over a pothole or jammed the brakes before a merge, and his head hovered dangerously close to her shoulder again. “Just sit on our laps. You weigh, like, ten pounds.”
“I was waiting for you to ask,” Mary smiled, maneuvering out of her seat and crawling over Julia to sit on my legs, her back flush to the window. Her buttocks dug into my thighs, their needle-sharpness the only downside of her lithe dancer’s physique. “And you won’t regret it because, wait for it—” she clawed through her purse “—I’ve got mangoes!”
I laughed as Mary waggled a Tupperware container in my face, popping its lid to display the slivers of yellow fruit. Mary and I had first bonded over fruit during lunch hours in the darkened eaves of the auditorium. The first time she invited me to sneak up there for secret meals, I marveled at the foods she packed: plump raspberries, electric-green kiwis, dewy sections of blood oranges. I loved most when she brought blackberries. She would pluck them out of the Tupperware, fat and glistening, and roll them around her mouth, her eyes fixed on me as I rambled about my day. She listened to every word I said, drawing me out on taciturn days and laughing with me on ebullient ones. Sometimes when we’d eaten all the food we sprawled out over the worn carpet and gazed at the unlit spotlights. Sometimes I’d roll over and tickle her taut stomach, whisper teasing words in her ear. Teach me to be a sexy ballerina, I’d say between giggles. Sometimes she’d tilt her face so her olive cheek kissed the carpet and say, come to dance class with me.
But only sometimes. Other times, our friends joined us, and on those days we sat up straight and chewed our food quickly and discussed AP tests.
“I also brought a loaf of sourdough,” Mary said, rummaging through her bag, her long honey-colored hair tickling my forearm. “Just in case.”
“You would, Mary.” I made a teasing face and poked her thin waist.
“I feel carsick,” Julia said, her head lolling on my shoulder. Her eyes closed, leaving Mary and me virtually alone.
“I’ll put these away,” Mary whispered in my ear, nodding at the mangoes. “We learned in Physiology that even talking about food can activate the salivary glands.” That was what I loved about Mary: she had the answers to everything. To the rest of the world, she probably looked like a normal seventeen-year-old girl, but in my eyes, she was ethereal, effervescent.
By the time we arrived at Hotel Carter, Julia looked alarmingly pale but at least she’d kept her breakfast down. We’d booked our dingy room for the low price, not the atmosphere; we’d decided the Times Square location mattered more than luxury. We’ll have to check for bedbugs first thing, Mary had warned when she filled out the reservation information. I’d twirled her hair around my finger, insisting everything would be fine as I watched the brassy strands reflect the light overhead. I always fiddled with Mary’s hair; sometimes she cascaded it across my legs, closed her eyes as I braided and unbraided it to the soundtrack of a Broadway musical. Les Mis and Cats were her favorites.
New York overwhelmed me, but not Mary. “All these people,” I said, pushing back my cuticles as we cut a path through the congested sidewalks. “I feel like I’m in one of those movie scenes—you know, when a character has a panic attack? And the background noise gets louder and louder until the person can’t even think?” So Mary grabbed my hand and navigated us both around the bustling sidewalks, teaching me how to weave around slow walkers and dodge the snaking food-cart lines. In the shadow of a skyscraper I noticed how truly short Mary was—5’2’’ seemed more significant back home; it seemed on par with my 5’9”, on par even with the clouds. But, in reality, Mary was way below the clouds, down on earth with everyone else.
And so was I.
On our last night in the city, Mary, Julia, and I retired early to the hotel.
“We’re such dorks,” I said, drunk with laughter. “Going home when it’s still light.”
“And yet all I want to do is get in my PJs and have a slumber party,” Mary said, hooking her arm through mine.
Unbelievably, I was the one who suggested what happened next. I shocked myself by voicing my idea; Mary shocked me with the alacrity of her agreement, effortless as water flowing downhill.
“I’ve always wanted to do something,” I said shyly as we sat cross-legged, all three of us crowded on Mary’s bed. “Like…like a rite, or a baptism, or something.”
Julia blinked. In her signature deadpan voice, she asked, “What?”
But Mary didn’t laugh at Julia’s joke. Instead, she looked me straight in the eye. “How so?”
I was thinking of a book I’d read, a paperback whose pages I’d fingered until they felt soft as skin. I was thinking of the book’s three heroines, the ones who swam naked to a rock in the middle of a lake and made offerings to the gods and goddesses. I’d always wanted that sort of magical life, a life where best friends smoked pot and sneaked out in the middle of the night and swam nude under a full moon.
My idea was crazy, mortifying, irrational.
And Mary agreed to it.
We were doing this, I rationalized to myself as Mary turned the bathtub faucets, because we both loved mythology. As the showerhead sputtered to life, I told myself: we’re doing this because Mary once confided to me that the Icarus story terrifies her; because one night, when we were messing with a Ouija board, she squeezed my hand and whispered, imagine being burned by the thing you loved most. When all you wanted to do was see the sun. As steam thickened the bathroom air, I convinced myself that The Rite was only happening because of New York, because of the deliriously sinful energy of the city, because of the anonymity, because of the people with crazy-colored hair, because of the strip clubs and streetwalkers. Because I hadn’t brought my Bible on this trip, and because Erica would never expect I’d step into the shower with another girl, and because maybe if I did it once…I’d what? Be cured? Be damned?
Julia read a magazine on the bed and laughed uneasily when Mary and I stripped down to our underwear.
“I’ll grab extra towels,” I said.
“I’ll take my contacts out,” Mary said, reaching for her makeup case.
I froze mid-step. “Wait, what? Mary!” I fumbled for my own contact solution. “You need to tell me these things! If you take yours out, I can’t leave mine in.” What would it have meant, I worried, if I’d seen Mary’s body when she hadn’t been able to clearly see mine? Why hadn’t I thought to remove my contacts?
“Okay, I’m jumping in,” I said, screwing the contact case closed. I needed to escape the drafty hotel room, needed the blistering heat of the water and the muggy, torturous-on- asthmatic-lungs air. I needed out of my head for a while.
Mary and I barely fit in the narrow stall together. We had to grasp one another’s shoulders for balance every time we rotated out from under the spray. It took Mary a long while to lather her hair, to knead the shampoo throughout, to rinse it away. By the time she finished, her shoulders flamed from the hot water. It was my turn to rinse the shampoo from my hair, but instead of trading places with me, Mary lingered under the showerhead, letting the water stream down her temples and suspend prismatic in her eyelashes. Thin, hot tributaries meandered down her breasts and hipbones, carving sinuous little paths I wanted to trace. But I didn’t. I raised my eyes, noticing how Mary’s hazel eyes hesitated before daring to meet mine. I wondered who besides Mary’s parents had ever seen her naked and soaking wet; I assumed no one had, and I marveled at the grace of being allowed into such an intimate moment. My throat bow-tied closed as if I were in the throes of another asthma attack, but this time I didn’t panic and hope for it to end.
“Switch,” Mary whispered. And, eventually, we did.
We never discussed The Rite; neither with one another nor with Julia, who didn’t look up from her magazine until we’d both donned our pajamas, until I’d hung the last towel.
On the bus ride home, with Mary balanced on my lap, we talked about college: what we hoped, expected, feared. We talked about our friend Sarah who was taking a gap year in Morocco, about how maybe she’d meet a handsome African boy and stay there forever. Julia fell asleep and Mary and I talked about other boys, the boys we imagined for our friends and the boys we imagined for ourselves. I told Mary that I hoped to meet a nice Christian boy and marry before age 22, just as Erica had. Mary said she couldn’t dream of marrying that young. My thighs prickled and numbed under the weight of her wraithlike figure, and by the time the bus pulled into our hometown, I’d forgotten that, just last night, my entire body had crackled with life.
Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University concentrating in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Superstition Review, Sonora Review, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. In 2016, she was awarded Best of the Net for my essay “The M Word.”