I was fourteen the summer my father wrote the Book of Abominations. We lived in the Swartzes’ cabin by Lake Chippewa for two months, and Father spent his mornings face down in the living room, muttering loud prayers for divine inspiration into a dark green rug covered in a pattern of Canadian geese. Burning incense could be found on every table, looking exotic on the rustic furniture. Father always said incense was the breath of prayer. I watched my father grow thinner as he despaired of ever finishing the book. He claimed God gave him revelation in pieces, but told him he was unworthy to receive it in whole. That’s why we were at Lake Chippewa so he could fast, pray, and become worthy.
His spiritual breakdown was the best thing that had happened to me in years. I could spend mornings, entire days even, without him taking notice of me or demanding to know if I had memorized any scripture lately. My mother didn’t count as an adult presence either as she suddenly became obsessed with becoming Mrs. Richard Murphy.
The Murphys owned the cabin next door. Mrs. Murphy was a woman of country clubs, Ralph Lauren, and Italian shoes. She had the type of beauty that is the sum of many perfect details: delicate cheekbones, golden hair in neat french twists, and a voice just soft enough to cause men to lean in to hear her. When we moved in, she brought us a pie. It was still warm, and it had gooseberries in it. I had never even heard of gooseberries, and I suspect my mother hadn’t either, but we were both impressed that Mrs. Murphy not only knew what they were, but knew how to bake with them. My mother began cooking meals as exotic as the small town grocery store could supply, she tried new hairstyles for the long chestnut hair Father forbade her to cut, and once, I caught her practicing her walk with one of Father’s self published Bibles on her head.
I couldn’t be too ashamed of her because if Mother wanted to be Mrs. Murphy, I wanted to be Anne Murphy, who was my age but years ahead of me in experience. Anne had her mother’s pale hair, but her beauty was not the elegant sort; it was an All-American beauty. Big blue eyes and a confident smile. I met Anne when I snuck into the backyard to read a forbidden issue of Seventeen. I sat in an old tire swing and took the “Are You Ready to Go All the Way?” quiz.
“What are you reading?”
I looked up to see a tall blond girl wearing a gingham halter top and denim shorts.
“Seventeen,” I said.
She frowned down at the page. ” ‘Are you ready to go all the way?’ I don’t need to take that quiz. The answer is yes.” She sat down on the grass and stretched out long tan legs. “That’s why I can’t wait to start high school in September, to meet older and more mature guys. How old are you?”
“Fourteen.” I’d just had a birthday the previous week. “I’m Kristina.”
“Anne. My family’s cabin is next door.” She pointed with her thumb. Her nails were painted hot pink and she wore silver rings on several fingers. “Did your parents buy the cabin from the constipated old couple that used to own it?”
I giggled, but it was a nervous giggle. I hoped my status as a Non-Cabin Owner wouldn’t count against me. “No, the Swartzes still own it. . . and they’re still constipated. They’re letting us stay here as a favor.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here rather than the Swartzes. Last year, the old lady actually pulled me aside and said she thought my bikini showed an indecent amount of skin. Can you believe that? I told her my mother would be the judge of that, not some old prune who didn’t know the first thing about me. ‘Course I got grounded for a week for calling her a prune, but it was worth it.”
There was a strong chance that my father would do something similar to her. Hopefully, he would be too consumed with his Project Most Holy to notice a teenage girl traipsing around in a two-piece.
“She’s a strange woman,” I agreed. “Last week in church, she told me to beware of boys, that they would try to put their hands up my shirt.”
“That’s a bad thing? Damn, no one told me.” Anne giggled at her own joke. “So, your family? Are you Amish? Or Baptist?” She gestured at my long white skirt as she said this.
Amish? I was perfectly aware that my clothing was horrible, but no one had ever mistaken me for an Amish girl. And we did have a car parked in the driveway, a rusty station wagon it was true, but still a contraption that ran on gasoline rather than hay.
“Um, no. My dad is a pastor though.”
“What kind of church?”
“Non-denominational.” This was the term that my Great-Aunt Grace used when she didn’t want to explain the strangeness of my father’s religion to her friends. I learned its usefulness at a very early age.
“Oh. We saw you moving in—my mother and I—and we were wondering because of all the long skirts. So, you want to come over? Mom baked chocolate chip cookies. They’re still warm.”
“I’d love to.”
It began to rain soon after we went into Anne’s cabin. We spent the day watching TV, eating junk food, and talking about what we thought high school would be like. Anne was an only child, and I found I liked being in a home where there wasn’t the constant sound of little kids running down the hall or sporadic shouts of “Unfair!”
I learned that Anne had prepared for the summer by purchasing a kaleidoscopic array of bikinis while I had prepared for the summer by checking a kaleidoscopic array of books out of my local library. I hadn’t started the summer with a great deal of optimism. My siblings, who ranged in age from one to eleven, were too young to make interesting companions. Also, my parents’ strictness eliminated the possibility of any sort of independence. I’d had daydreams certainly, dreams of first kisses by the lake under a canopy of Fourth of July fireworks, but I never expected anything interesting to really happen. They never did, you see. Not to me.
Breakfast with my family was always a bit like feeding time at the zoo: Baby Bethany shrieking occasionally, orange baby food sputtering from her mouth; Mother rushing around like a mama bird, all but dropping food directly into our mouths; Lily and Jeremiah shoving each other around, growing territorial over the Count Chocula.
“Lillian,” my father said, “young ladies don’t behave like that. Young ladies are quiet and submissive if they hope to get married some day. Do you want to be an old maid like your Great-Aunt . . . This age dances with Death, dining upon Despair and courting Excess. This must come to pass. All the abominations of the world will come to pass.”
He was doing this a lot lately. It was becoming alarming.
“Mom!” Lily said. “Jeremiah took the last of the good cereal. I don’t want to eat Wheaties!”
“I’m going to go over to Anne’s if that is all right.”
No one was paying attention to me. Father was scribbling his newest revelation on a paper towel and Mother was arguing with Lily. I slipped out the back door after leaving my half full cereal bowl in the sink.
Anne and I would drink coffee in the mornings. We’d sit on her deck in tank tops, trying to get a bit of early morning sun while caffeinating ourselves to the level necessary for a giddy, sunburned, hoping-for-a-crush summer. Often I forgot we came from different worlds, that Anne was adored by her fellow members of the cheerleading squad as I was merely tolerated at my school. I knew that if we attended the same high school, we wouldn’t be friends. The wouldn’ts didn’t seem to matter here where we were the same: teenage girls looking for fun.
I’d been at Lake Chippewa for three weeks now, and Anne and I spent most of our days together either at her cabin or at the beach. I’d made up excuses for why we couldn’t spend time in my cabin. The baby was fussing. My mother had a migraine. I thought I would die if Anne ever caught my father talking to the carpet.
“So,” Anne said, “Rob Santino’s parents went back to Grosse Pointe for a wedding, so he’s got his cabin all to himself for a while. He’s having a bonfire tonight. Do you want to go? All the boys there will be sixteen or seventeen.”
“I wish I could, but my parents would never let me.”
“So sneak out. Rob Santino. Of the six-pack abs. I know you like his abs as much as I do. I’ve seen you drool, you little slut.” Anne finished her coffee, then leaned back in her in lawn chair, looking at me through sunglasses.
“It’ll be nighttime. He’ll be wearing a shirt, I’m sure.”
“Yes, but if he gets drunk enough, you might be able to touch his abs without him noticing.”
I laughed. “I wish! Unfortunately, I can’t sneak out as long as I’m sharing a bedroom with Princess Lily. I swear, she lives to tattle.”
“Would they let you spend the night at my house?”
I thought for a moment. My parents were nothing if not cautious, but I could see how they had been won over by the ladylike manner Anne could display when it suited her.
Soon after, Anne and I headed to the gas station. Billy the Creep had the morning shift which meant Anne could buy her cigarettes without having to convince one of the older kids to do it for her. Anne said that she had let Billy feel her up at a party the previous summer, so now she could always buy cigarettes on his shift and she occasionally got them for free.
I loitered in front of the magazines while Anne talked to Billy. I preferred to stay away from him. He was a scrawny eighteen-year-old who worked at a gas station full time, having decided not to go to college. I knew it was silly to be intimidated by him, but I always felt as though he was mentally undressing me.
“Hey,” said a blond guy to me. He looked about my age, and he was stocking up on Doritos and Mountain Dew. “I’ve seen you around. You’re Anne’s friend, right?”
“Yes, I’m Kristina.”
“I’m Jared. I’m two cabins down from Anne. Are you going to the bonfire tonight at Rob’s?”
“I’m planning on it.”
“See you there then,” he said and went to go pay.
As he left, I found myself wishing I’d thought of something clever to say to him. He was cute, and I was the girl in the long denim skirt. Cute boys don’t talk to girls who wear long denim skirts. It’s an unwritten law. If a girl is unfortunate enough to wear a long jean skirt with sneakers, then the cute boy won’t acknowledge her existence even if she trips and falls on her face (and when you wear long skirts, this can be a danger). There will be no, “Are you all right?” in such a scenario.
“You ready?” Anne asked me, a new pack of Marlboro Lights in her back pocket.
“Here, take Mrs. Murphy this bouquet,” my mother said that night handing me a fistful of wild greenery.
I frowned at it. “You want me to give her some weeds?”
“Wildflowers, Kristie, wildflowers. The Murphys are a very proper family. I’m sure both Mrs. Murphy and Anne bring small gifts every time they are invited over to someone’s house.”
“It’s a sleepover Mom, not a dinner party.” The bouquet didn’t look any better on closer inspection. There some bright yellow flowers that looked much like dandelions.
“Sleepover or dinner party, you’re still a guest and ought to behave as one. Remember, no elbows on the dinner table. Always refer to Mr. and Mrs. Murphy as ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am.’ And don’t speak unless you are spoken to.”
“This is not the nineteenth century. The children should be seen and not heard rule is a bit outdated.”
Mother put her hands up. “Wealthy people can be funny.”
“Louise! We’re out of incense!” my father called from the living room. “I can’t pray without my incense.”
I picked up my sleeping bag and headed out the door, weeds in hand. I didn’t know where he thought she’d find incense around here unless he expected her to rob the cabin of a wealthy hippie.
I started to head towards the Murphy’s.
“Kristie! Over here!”
The voice came from behind the Murphy’s shed, Anne’s favorite spot to smoke, and I followed it.
“What’s that?” Anne said, gesturing at the bouquet with her cigarette.
“Weeds, I think. My mother said I should bring your mother flowers. God, it looks like she let the baby pick these.”
“Bit of advice: don’t bother. I don’t know what would win out, my mother’s politeness or her hatred of ugly flowers, but spare her the trauma.”
“Got it.” I placed the weeds on a pile of firewood.
Anne threw her cigarette down and rubbed it into the ground with her foot. “Come on, Mom said we could order pizza. Do you like mushrooms?”
We ate our pizza on Anne’s bed, something my parents would have never approved. I could definitely tell my mother that I kept my elbows off the dinner table.
“I love pizza. Too bad it’s so fattening, but I have a month until I have to get into my cheerleading skirt,” Anne said.
In the shapeless clothes my parents insisted I wear, no one would be able to tell if I gained or lost 10 pounds. As it happened, I’d never had a problem with my weight.
“So, what are you going to wear to the bonfire?” Anne asked.
“Um. . .” I didn’t actually own any non-embarrassing clothes.
“Do you want to borrow something?”
I ended up wearing white jeans with the red gingham halter that Anne had worn the first time I met her. Looking in the mirror, I realized looked like an ordinary teenager. My own clothing always made me look a year or two younger.
“My mom,” Anne said, “is always buying makeup at the Lancôme counter, and she passes all of the free gifts on to me. Try this lipstick on.”
I looked at the fuchsia color doubtfully.
“It’s a bit of an old lady shade, I’ll admit,” Anne said, “but it’ll look softer by the fire, and this stuff goes on really well. You can wear plenty of lipstick and still make out with a guy without him complaining that he can taste your lipstick.”
Was I going to be making out? I had figured that Anne would be, but it never occurred to me that I might. Of course, I had told Anne that I had kissed three guys. I claimed to have had two boyfriends. I’d used the names of a friend’s ex-boyfriends so I could keep my stories straight and said that I’d kissed the third guy at a birthday party. There was no danger of the lies backfiring. My home was separated from Anne’s by two counties. Our high schools wouldn’t even play each other in football.
Evidently, she must have believed me. Anne probably had boys lining up to kiss her in kindergarten, and undoubtedly she believed it was impossible to reach the age of twelve without kissing a boy.
Since Anne ended up doing her own face as Crayola bright as she did mine, I figured she must have been right about the effect of firelight. We left the cabin looking like tramps, and Mr. and Mrs. Murphy didn’t seem to even notice.
I’d only had alcohol once in my life. In the seventh grade, I had made friends with Mary Ellen, a girl who lived in a trailer park and dated high school boys. I had been friendless, and Mary Ellen had been shunned by the entire female population of our school so we became friends by default. One day, Mary Ellen and I skipped gym and drank peach schnapps in the girls’ locker room, tucked back in the shower area where no one would think to look in the middle of a class period. I had liked the schnapps, as it had tasted a bit like fruit juice that burned, but I didn’t drink as much of it as I had pretended to, and had been perfectly sober for my next class.
It was wine coolers this night, not schnapps. When Anne and I got to the bonfire, we stuck together for the first fifteen minutes. We sat, our heads close together, and talked about the people there and who we thought was interested in whom. We both had wine coolers in our hands, but we sipped from them only occasionally. I was proud to be there with her, like an ordinary high school girl who went to dances and parties. Although Anne did talk about all the boys there in a voice that carried, I knew that in spite of this, she was cooler than I could ever hope to be. Soon afterwards Derek Barrett—Anne’s summer boyfriend, not to be confused with the school year boyfriend she planned to dump as soon as she met a guy with a car—lured Anne towards some bushes.
Then I sat by myself on the log, tracing pictures into the sand with a twig. I knew I looked silly, but I didn’t know anyone there and didn’t care to spend my time staring at people who knew what to do with themselves during a party.
“Hey there.” It was the cute guy from the convenience store.
“Hi.” I tried not to look too relieved. “It’s Jared, right?”
“Right. And you’re Kristina?”
We start talking about schools for a while. Jared was going to be a tenth grader, and he claimed that if you could survive ninth, you could survive anything.
“Maybe, it’s not so bad when you’re a girl,” Jared said, “but for guys. . . At my school, the varsity football team spends the first week giving freshmen guys swirlies.”
We tried to discuss extracurricular activities.
So, you play sports?
Not even cheerleading?
Are you in S.A.D.D.?
Drama club? Debate team? Student council?
Well, that’s good, at least.
It was a topic on which I had nothing to say. I could opt for the truth: “I’d like to join some clubs, but my parents are deranged and think that if I spend non-class time around boys, they might try to feel me up.” Or maybe not.
“So, how do you feel about guns?” Jared asked.
I had a feeling this wasn’t the sort of conversation that guys and girls usually had at high school parties.
“Guns? Like handguns or hunting rifles?”
“Um.” You point them, you shoot, and they go boom? “I’ve never used one, but I don’t have any strong opinions on them, I guess.”
“Oh well, some girls don’t like them. My dad just got this really sweet rifle the other day. An antique. You’ve never seen anything so beautiful in your life.”
Jared spent the next fifteen minutes telling me about his father, a history professor who has published dozens of articles on the Civil War, and how important he is in the NRA and how all the other NRA members have to go to him for advice.
“So, this one guy bought what he thought was a genuine Civil War rifle. Paid a fortune. And my father tells him. . .”
I concentrated on looking fascinated. I leaned forward slightly, nodded my head every now and then, maintained eye contact. At some point, I became aware that Jared had asked me a question, but I had no idea what it was, as I had been so concerned with my body language.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.
“Can I kiss you?”
The next thing I knew, his tongue was in my mouth. Is this supposed to be so slobbery? I wondered. I wanted to pull away, get some air, but I didn’t. I had nowhere to go.
In the morning, I left Anne’s cabin early, saying that my mother wanted me home by nine. Instead of heading back to the cabin, I found an empty stretch of beach and stripped down to my swimsuit. I closed my eyes and let the wind dry my tears. For the first time, I wanted the summer to be over. I didn’t want to be the girl who told lies about ex-boyfriends and school friends. I didn’t want to be the girl who had a lousy first kiss. I wanted to go back to being invisible again.
After a moment, I began walking into the lake and broke into a clumsy breaststroke when the water became too weighted. I swam out as far as I dared and held myself underwater until my lungs were screaming with pain. I wanted to forget the ever perfect Anne. I wanted to forget Jared. I welcomed the pain and distraction it brought me. I imagined my limp body floating up to the top, then gliding back and forth with the waves like a swaying pendulum. My eyes would be wide, vacant, and blue as the sky, my lashes jeweled with water drops. I would be beautiful in death as I had never been in life. Tranquil beauty. Virgin corpse.
What was I doing?
I’d swum further out than I ever had before. I struggled, panicked, flailed my arms weakly, and accidentally gulped in water. Surface. Air. Life. I gulped in air only to go under again. The water felt thick and heavy, like I was struggling through syrup. Beach. That way. My disobedient arms wanted to be at rest, too weak for the challenge of reaching shore. My feet kicked clumsily like those of an infant taking flat-footed steps. My throat burned from the water, and my lungs couldn’t get enough air. What felt like a lifetime later, I stumbled on to the sand. Everything hurt. Stones and shells dug into my thighs and belly. I had granules of sand in my eyelashes.
“Mama, what’s the matter with that lady?”
I cracked my eyes open to find a blond toddler standing over me, framed by fierce golden sunlight.
“What happened? Are you all right?” the young mother asked me. When I craned my neck back, I saw she had another child in a stroller.
“Yes, I’m sorry to frighten you.” I didn’t know how I found my voice, but it sounded hoarse, foreign. “I tried to swim across. Silly, I know. I won’t do it again. I wanted to see if I was good enough to make the swim team this year.”
She kneeled next to me. “Where can I find your parents? God, you’re nearly green!”
I sat up painfully. “Please, no. They. . . they don’t like me to swim alone. I know I was foolish, but I won’t do it again.”
She frowned. “We will stay with you until you are stronger.”
My legs and arms were still tired, but my breathing was becoming normal. The toddler drew pictures in the stand with a stick while the mother sat by me and spoke of normal things, of barbeques and berry picking and Independence Day fireworks. My life started to return to me, and I found myself wishing my mother was more like her.
When I returned into the cabin, my eyes were no longer bloodshot and my hands were full of shells to prove I had a perfectly ordinary morning.
“Cursed are those who seek after the pleasures of the flesh for they are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.”
I stepped around my father who was in his usual position on the floor.
Mother was making strawberry-peach cobbler like the one Mrs. Murphy liked to make. Just a few days before, Mrs. Murphy had shared a cobbler and pitcher of lemonade with our family.
“How was the sleepover?” she asked.
“Fine. Anne won the Monopoly tournament.”
I went into the room I shared with Lily and ordered her to get out. When she just glared at me over the top of her Nancy Drew book, I gave up and teetered for a moment before tipping on to my bed face first, causing sand to shower on the pillow and blankets.
“What’s the matter with you, freak?” Lily said. “Become a sand monster?”
I pressed my sand monster face into the pillow. In the living room, my father was pressing his own face into the rug, offering it his revelation, and drowning in his unworthiness.
Stacy Wennstrom is a senior nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2007, Stacy Wennstrom