My father converted to Evangelical Christianity during the year he was hospitalized after a malfunctioning piece of exercise equipment broke his neck. The snow kept him housebound in his wheelchair after he got out, so we moved to Tucson. The saguaros around our new house swelled fat in the rainy season and consumed themselves for the rest of the year, their flesh shrinking until their ribs stood out like fluting on a column.
In Tucson, I went to a private Evangelical school. On the first day, a man appeared in my classroom. “I’m Principal Rhodes,” he said, writing it on the blackboard. “That’s spelled with p-a-l at the end, because the Principal is your pal!”
I was only seven years old, but I understood this was a mnemonic device, not an assurance of friendship. My teacher had already explained the school’s disciplinary system. She wrote our names on construction paper pockets that hung beside her desk. Each pocket held green, yellow, and red slips. If a student misbehaved—talked out of turn or ran in the breezeway between the classrooms—the teacher pulled out the green slip and tucked it behind the others to display the yellow one. Another infraction would disappear the yellow and reveal the red, and the student would be sent to the Princi-p-a-l to be paddled. Hand-carved from a hunk of wood, the paddle hung like a plaque behind his desk.
My own pocket boasted unchanging green. But I understood the lesson. No matter how good I seemed to be, the Principal knew that red mischief lay underneath.
In our final year at the school, when we were twelve and about to be out of the reach of the Principal’s paddle, he found other ways to convince us to keep to the rules. Once, he came into our classroom holding a large heart cut out of pink paper. He called Becca up to him and she walked across the floor of the “portable”—a trailer home towed in to hold students as the school expanded. Hollow underneath, it echoed under our steps.
“Becca,” the Principal said, “this is your heart. Your heart is the most precious gift you can give your husband.” Becca looked at the heart, nodding so that her hair waved back and forth behind her head. She used to wear it in a ponytail sticking straight up from her crown to look taller.
“Now, let’s say that you kissed someone,” the Principal continued. “Someone like… Benji.” Everyone giggled—even the teachers used to joke that Becca and Benji would make the perfect couple. They were the smallest and liveliest members of the class. The sound of tearing paper interrupted this giggling as the Principal ripped off a lobe of the heart.
“If you kiss Benji, you give him a piece of your heart. And another piece to another boy whose hand you hold, and another if you go on a date …” The Principal’s fingers tore at the heart, plucking out pieces in sync with his words. He held up the unrecognizable remnant.
“Becca, don’t you want to give your husband your whole, beautiful heart?” he asked. She nodded again, looking at if she would cry if she spoke. Around her feet were scraps of pink paper the Principal had crumpled and let drop to the floor.
Evangelical educators often use physical objects to make abstract lessons more memorable. The Principal’s construction-paper heart was one such object lesson. He handed what was left of it to her, and she took it reluctantly between her small fingertips.
I sat, stunned. Becca was innocent, but I was not. I had plucked apart my own heart to give myself a moment of pleasure. I had not just tolerated kisses. I had demanded them.
In the deep end of the pool in my backyard, out of sight of the windows, I would hover in the water, one hand pressed to the pool’s rough lip. I would tell the girl who lived next door that she was a pirate and I was a captured maiden.
“Rape me,” I would say. She would press her cold lips on mine. Close-mouthed kisses that made my lips ache, caught between her teeth and mine.
After the object lesson, I stopped asking the neighbor girl to play. I hated that I still thought about her. I was convinced my body was dragging my soul to damnation. And so I tried to save myself by throwing myself away.
Sometimes, instead of our neighborhood church’s sparsely attended weeknight youth groups, I would be sent to a larger church’s meetings. Maybe my father hoped I would meet a nice boy, like one of my church camp friends, who was engaged by 14. When she turned 16, she married; at the reception in her parent’s backyard, we ate cupcakes frosted with rainbow sprinkles.
One evening at the large church, the youth pastor came in flourishing a plastic grocery bag. He told us to sit in a circle on the floor and announced that we would play “pass the tongue.”
There were so many kids that our circle pressed into the corners of the room. The youth pastor upended the plastic bag and dropped something dark, about the size of a loaf of bread, into the lap of the boy waiting beneath him. It landed on his bare leg with the smack of flesh meeting flesh.
The boy threw it at the girl next to him, and the thing flew around the circle toward me, closer and closer until I saw that the youth pastor had meant what he said. We were passing a tongue. Raw and rough with lumps on its surface, ending in an incoherence of deep-red gobbets where it had been hacked out of a cow’s head. The tongue’s tip whipped as each one hurled it away and onto the next, as if it were still probing the corners of a vanished mouth.
The tongue landed on my knee. I twitched with disgust and it slid to the floor, licking my leg as it fell. I made no move to pick it up. The youth pastor gave a cry, half encouragement and half rebuke. The boy next to me reached down and sent it continuing around the circle.
Refusal brought too much attention, so I was ready the next time the tongue came towards me. I snatched its grey-white tip and felt the weight of its inner meat slide down in the sheath of its skin. I lifted it high so the other end would not touch me and passed it along.
Eventually, the youth pastor repossessed the tongue and stretched it out along a table.
“Isn’t this a great big tongue?” he asked. “Our tongues are such itty-bitty things!” He bent down until his mouth was level with the tongue, stuck out his own, and waggled it.
“Even though we have such itty-bitty tongues,” he continued, “it’s so hard to control them! We curse, we say nasty things. But even a stupid cow can control its big tongue. Think of this tongue when you feel tempted to let your own tongue loose! Ask God for strength to control your tongue. Make sure everything you say is right with Him.”
Everything I said. Everything I did. Everything I thought.
A visiting youth pastor came to preach at the school. He walked on stage and held up a wadded diaper. “Anyone want to smell this?” We laughed incredulously.
“My baby daughter filled it right up!” He unstrapped the diaper and turned its blurt of shit towards us. The kid beside me, who was always drumming complicated rhythms with his forefingers on his knees, had gone still. His mouth hung open.
“You think this diaper is disgusting,” the youth pastor continued. “But I have to tell you—I’m feeling this weird desire to stick my nose right in there and give it a big sniff.” He swirled the diaper up towards his nose as if it were a glass of wine.
“It smells wonderful!” he shouted. “Anyone else want to come up and give it a try?”
“No!” we screamed.
“But it smells so good,” he coaxed. “This poo-poo smells so delicious that I’m going to have to taste it.”
We were frozen silent. He smeared the diaper up and down over his face, wiggling his whole body in pleasure, smacking his lips and coming up to shout “yum yum!” before plunging back down. Then he wiped off his face, laughing, and called a student to the stage.
“It’s chocolate!” the student called. “Chocolate sauce!”
The youth pastor folded up the diaper and explained that our desire would convince us that sin is delightful when, really, we would be consuming filth. We couldn’t trust ourselves. In fact, we would know something was sinful precisely because of how much we desired it. If we succumbed to sin’s momentary pleasures, we would damn ourselves to eternal pain.
After school, I wandered in the alleys that stitched together our neighborhood. The fronts of houses were watchful, but the backs looked unguarded, like the faces of sleepers.
The deeper I wandered, the wider the alleys grew, as the shallow drainage ditches that ran along them collected into a great central wash. It was dry except in late summer, during monsoon season. Then, the tension of a building storm would grow all morning, making my eye sockets feel shallower and pinching the webs of skin at the bases of my fingers. In the late afternoons, the clouds would rush together and bursts of rain would hit the impenetrable surfaces of the city. Inches fell in minutes. If unconstrained, the water could swipe away the foundations of buildings. The alleys were there to channel the rain into the trough of the wash, where the water churned for a few minutes and then drained away.
I never went down into the washes. My father said they would fill with flash floods without warning, from rainstorms I couldn’t see in the mountains surrounding town. Even when it hadn’t rained for months, I was afraid of the eagerness of the waters. I only crouched at the edges of the washes, peering down at the debris of long-ago storms.
In those empty afternoons, I never saw anyone. Sometimes I imagined the Rapture had happened. God had called all the faithful Christians up to Heaven. I was left behind, alone with my impure heart.
I used to think I was scaring myself with this thought. Now I know it was a promise. That there would come a time when I no longer needed to guard myself.
When I was a student at the school, everyone I knew was Evangelical. My family, my friends, all my authorities. I thought they would love me only as long as I loved God. And to be loved was to be obedient. I obeyed and obeyed. I wanted to be flat and controlled instead of a body with a wash running dirty with desire in its heart.
But then I graduated. I went to a public high school and made friends who didn’t care about God at all. In this new community, my belief fell away, just as I used to hope God would make my doubts fall away. My father and I stopped talking about God. Mostly, we just stopped talking.
I no longer needed my disguise. But I had worn it so well that I could not fully remove it. I had learned my lessons about desire and sin. Whenever it seemed that a girl was flirting with me, my mind emptied to a static fuzz. My vision narrowed to a pinhole. I almost stopped breathing.
I learned many lessons about love and desire during those years. A quarter century since I last went to church, the blood of my every arousal still flows into the channels these lessons carved into my body.
Lately, I’ve been trying to thaw myself when a woman shows interest. I want to take her hand and tell her what I want. It is not easy. I thought I was hiding my true self from those who would not understand it—my parents, my teachers, God. But I hid so well that I’m not sure how much of myself I can recover. Treasures, no matter how carefully hidden, crumble with time. Now, I am brushing the dust from fragments. May my desire again flow, up from wherever it has sunk.