The first time I did it I was seventeen. Johnny and I had been planning it for months. It was a Saturday, and the sky was that kind of crazy deep-blue that makes you think of tea cups, then your mother, and before you know it you’re sitting under an imaginary apple tree watching your imaginary dad mow the imaginary lawn. But it’s all a lie. Really you’re just standing in the mall parking lot after your shift at the corn dog stand, wearing a long, flowered dress because you think it’s the right thing to do and wishing your bra wasn’t dirty.
You smell like batter and dogs; he smells like Fahrenheit and cigarettes, but it’s not really you, hell, it wasn’t even me. You were waiting for him, thinking about gathering rosebuds, thinking about how one day you’ll remember this day and forget what the sky looked like, thinking what if he tries to kiss me and now he’s sitting in his truck with your door open.
“You coming?” he says, but you’re a girl you never thought you’d be, a smiling girl with her hands folded in her lap, the kind of girl who says, “Sure is,” when he says, “God, it’s hot,” so you roll down your window, but then you’re her again.
“Trig sucks, huh?” she says, because it’s not you that’s saying it. You love trig; you dream in triangles; you suspect you’re psychic, but you can’t tell Johnny because you met him at Wednesday night youth group and you’ve prayed with him and you’re going to do this thing together.
This thing’s not sex. You might’ve thought it was sex, because of the whole way the day started with “The first time I did it I was seventeen,” but you’re almost eighteen so you’ve been having sex for years, and now you’ve stopped, you’re a born-again virgin, you’re a Leo, you’re hungry for something more, so you’ve taken to taking the body of Christ in your mouth and going on this kind of roadtrip with Johnny, but his name isn’t even Johnny. You’ve got a flair for drama. You think this kind of thing should be done with a guy named Johnny, but he’s got one of those names that could go for a guy or a girl. Terry. Kelly. Pat. And it’s not even a truck, it’s a hatchback Honda, and you’re not even you, you’re her.
She smiles again; she’s fiddling with the cross that hangs between her breasts, rubbing it with her thumb and forefinger.
“Should we pray?” she asks and before you know it, he pulls the car over on the side of the road. He turns toward her, knocks his knee on the gearshift.
“Shit,” he says, then, “Sorry.”
You smile but remember her. “It’s fine,” she says.
“You want to or should I?” he asks, and you grab his hands and she bows your head.
“Dear Lord,” she says, “Please protect us today on this journey to see your likeness at the Christ of the Ozarks. Please know he is not a false idol but was built by believers. Keep our minds pure and our eyes toward you. Let us be safe on the road, unless, of course, your will is for us not to be safe, and then, let us not be safe. Not our will but yours be done.”
“Amen,” they say together and look into each other’s eyes.
He coughs, turns. “Well, all right,” he says. “In the name of the Lord, let’s rock and roll.”
“In the name of the Lord,” she says and you want to ask her to stop smiling like that, tell her she’s much prettier when she doesn’t show her teeth, but instead you think of what the papers will say when God has his way with you:
***CORN DOG GIRL KILLED ON TRIP TO CHRIST***
***STEEL MAGNOLIAS STAR MAIMED DURING JOURNEY***
***BORN-AGAINS FOUND DEAD***
You start thinking about the hitchhiker you’ll pick up, you can already see his eyes. They remind you of Brother Jim’s eyes. Brother Jim of the “hidden nickel trick” when you were a kid. Brother Jim giving out candy. You figure you have three options with the hitchhiker. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book. You can 1) turn to the end of the story because he’s sliced both you and Johnny up, and your bones are in some duffel bag heading to Arizona, 2) turn to page 34 because you and Johnny end up “saving” the poor bastard and he’s weeping like a baby in the back seat and swearing off liquor. You’ll be waving at him outside of a Love’s station while Johnny’s inside stocking up on pecan logs. Maybe you’ll see a sunflower and close your eyes, lift your arms up to the sky. You’ll sing Spirit of a Living God in the parking lot, and Johnny’ll sneak up behind you. He’ll be more handsome than when he went inside. The price tag will dangle off his brand new Rayban’s. He’ll look like Tom Cruise in Top Gun and taste like Gobstoppers.
And then there’s 3. You’re too young really to know what 3 is, but you can feel it in your bones, deep, deep down, and you know you’ll pick 3. It’s not that you want to kill Johnny with the hitchhiker, and you might not even have to. Could you leave him on the street? He’d tell. Could you tape his mouth shut and tie him to a metal chair?
But 3’s not even really about Johnny. You’ll figure it out. You and the hitchhiker. Some sort of unspoken yes. You’ll ditch Johnny somehow, and you and the hitchhiker will be sitting in Morocco drinking what the locals call magic. The two of you took the boat over from Spain. He’s clean-shaven; you’re starting to show your age, just around your eyes, but it’s showing.
“I have to do it,” you tell him.
“Please don’t,” he says, and you leave. Your bare feet hit the hot red tile and you walk away. You go to the jungle, the cities, the rain forest. You watch naked virgins dance around on rainmaking night. You end up in Portugal, laughing at some guy from Singapore’s jokes. He takes you to a nightclub, you wake up in Paris.
You’re in a café. You paint still lives of dead men on the streets. You dream in shapes you’ve never dreamed of. You fly to Rio where the real El Christo is. And when you’re staring out at the sea, you remember screwing sticks into hot dogs back in the day. You say things like “God, it feels like a hundred years ago,” then Johnny puts his hand on your leg and your back on route 66 making your pilgrimage.
“Pretty dress,” he says.
You’re her again. You’re the seventeen year old born-again virgin. He takes his hand away.
“Thank you,” she says.
“What are you thinking about over there?” he asks.
“Oh, just things.”
“You still baby-sitting for the pastor?”
“Every Thursday,” she says. “I just love those kids.”
But, you know better. Yeah, the kids are good, but it’s already started happening. The pastor’s already started giving you rides home after baby-sitting, showing up at the mall because he just had to have another one of those corn dogs. They’ll ask him to resign in a couple of months. He’ll go quietly, move to Kansas City to sell pharmaceuticals; his wife will forgive him. People will whisper, not because you did anything, just because you must have done something, the pastor was such a good man, you must’ve done something to lead him on. Last week he bought you a Dr. Pepper and asked if you’d ever been molested. He wanted to pray together, hold hands and pray together. Next week, he’ll ask you to bow heads with him because of all the “unnatural desires” he’s been having. He’ll cry, reach for you, hold you. “You’re such a beautiful girl,” he’ll say, and you’ll go home and vomit, but first you’ll cry into his shoulder. “The spirit indeed is willing,” he’ll say, “but the flesh is weak.”
And you know it’s true, even sitting in a little hatchback, playing with your cross and making small talk with Johnny who’s rambling on about how he thinks Jesus would’ve been a smoker, and Peter, too.
“The original Marlboro man,” he says, and you laugh because it’s actually kind of funny. You’re surprised that Johnny’s kind of funny. You look over at him, and he’s not all bad, but it’s not even you anymore, and it’s not her either. Her with her big smile, you with your big dreams and your crazy talk, acting like God’s some kind of sin. It’s me. All me, and it’s all good.
There’s music on the radio, and the wind’s blowing through my hair. You didn’t even notice the wind or the sweat gathering on the back of your thighs or how strong Johnny’s hands look on the steering wheel. You didn’t put your arm out the window and pretend it was a wing, watch the thin blonde hairs fly back with the air. You were too busy dreaming up ways to get out of town.
But me, I take it in. Me and Johnny. Johnny and me.
“How do you spell your name anyway?” I ask him.
“Just like everybody else, I guess. I mean, I’m a junior. My dad’s a Kelly, too.”
“Cool,” I say.
My feet are on the dashboard. I’ve started bumming cigarettes. I figure if Jesus would’ve done it, it’s not so bad. The sun’s coming in at all sorts of angles.
“I hope we make it before dark,” Kelly says.
We play games for a while. The cow counting game. The find-a-letter-on-a-sign game. Your basic stuff. I’m waiting for Antiques so I can get my “q,” when we see it.
“Wow,” is all we say.
It’s beautiful. Huge and beautiful. Crazy gold. Majestic. You wouldn’t believe your eyes.
I have to tell you about it, because you’ll probably never be in the northwest corner of Arkansas. You’ll probably never taste a Dairy Queen peanut butter parfait off of a guy named Kelly’s spoon.
But this is the way it goes, this is the way it happens: you’re driving along thinking about God knows what. Your hand’s out the window. You’re laughing, you have no idea what’s about to happen. Lots and lots of trees and satellite dishes, stray dogs and burnt down barns. Then you see it. There’s a mountain rising from the earth and rising from the mountain is this gigantic Christ figure, arms lifted into the sky. You probably think I’m crazy, but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of thing that makes you breathe. I mean, at first you hold your breath, and then you breathe, and you can hear yourself breathing and breathing starts to make sense like you’ve finally figured out what all the breathing is about.
You’re sitting in the parking lot and Kelly gives you a sweatshirt. You try to ignore the people with the cameras and the hats. Kelly comes around and opens your door, takes your hand. You walk up about a thousand steps, and you wish for a minute that you hadn’t worn your new sandals because they’re giving you a blister, but then you remember the crucifixion. You remember the thorns and the nails and think only a second about the rosebuds that you thought of when you were standing in the parking lot and you wonder if you’ve already forgotten what the sky looked like this morning, but you haven’t.
You and Kelly are on your knees. And you pray. I mean, you really pray, because it’s all so much bigger than you, and it’s not about holding hands with Kelly. You’re not even holding his hand. You have separated from each other. He is kneeling at the right foot of Christ, and you are at the left foot.
I don’t know what you pray for, but you pray hard. You pray for your mother or the pastor or that you can always remember how it felt at this moment when you were safe and small and the things of this life didn’t matter. You pray to stay pure; you pray Kelly will kiss you and you’ll travel around the world; you pray to not pray about selfish things; you pray until the sun is almost gone.
Then you take Kelly’s hand and walk back to the Honda. You’re quiet for a while, you mention a thing or two about the stars, but mostly you just stare out the window or into the rearview mirror. You play with the cross that dangles. You tell yourself it’s a bad habit; you need to stop. He asks if you’re okay and you say, “So good,” but you have to pee so he pulls into the Taco Bell.
You hate the lighting. You get a bean burrito and Kelly makes some “Good for the heart” joke. You think about your own heart pumping blood through your body and your physics teacher’s heart and the hummingbird’s heart, how it beats 1,260 times per minute, and it’s all so beautiful you don’t want the night to end.
But it’s going to end, sweetheart. Trust me. Nights always end, and I wish I could tell you what will happen, but I’m just as lost as you are.
Maybe there will be a hitchhiker, some sweaty-mouthed maniac who has never even heard of Brazil. By morning, your face, with its big, watery eyes and its fat red lips, will be plastered into the paper, somewhere between the cantaloupe coupons and the pantsuit ads, and all week the kids at school will act like they liked you.
More likely, though, you’ll end up having sex with Kelly. It’ll be so bad the windows won’t even steam. You’ll get a cramp in your leg while you’re doing it. And it will hurt like hell, but he’s nice enough that he won’t ask why you’re crying. Next Sunday, the pastor will call you into his office, say a bunch of crap about how you’re supposed to be a role model, about how we must not give into our earthly desires while he stares at your cross and you wish you were dead.
But maybe, it’ll all be different. Maybe, it won’t be fucked up.
Imagine this: you put your head on Kelly’s shoulder and fall asleep. The wheels spin on the smooth road beneath you and you dream of things that are round. Apples. Rings. Kelly hums quietly beside you. You think you could love him. You feel him kiss the top of your head, but you pretend you’re asleep. When he gets to your driveway, he wakes you, gently.
The moon is whole; the kitchen light is on. You worry for a second that something is wrong, but you let yourself in anyway. Your father, who has returned after all these years, stands behind your mother who is sitting at the kitchen table. He brushes her long dark hair; her eyes open at the sound of your footsteps. She smiles.
“Hi, goose,” your father says to you.
Don’t question it. Give them kisses. Pour yourself a tall glass of milk. Walk carefully up the stairs. Breathe. Don’t fall. It will be awful if you fall. Blood. Ambulances.
Please listen to me: you must remember the broken floorboard three stairs from the top. You don’t want to die like this; you’ve never even seen the ocean. It’s a ridiculous way to go.
But if, by some crazed miracle, some wild hair in the heart of the universe, some small gift from something so much bigger than either of us will ever be, you do manage to live, be thankful. Get down on your knees and be thankful until it hurts.