Los Angeles Review of Books

I WAS SAVED around a bonfire the summer I turned 13.

I’d spent most of camp making box-stitch plastic lanyards and climbing trees, but now the counselors — a smattering of college students, and a pastor — fed us s’mores and encouraged us to think about everything we’d ever done wrong. Around me, a miasma of grieving sobs thickened as other middle schoolers recalled their many sins. I stood up; ready for the fresh start I thought I needed.

A “Certificate of New Birth,” presented to me the next day, was printed on thin, grainy paper and marks the exact moment of conversion at 10:20 p.m., well past my then-bedtime.

Afterward, I was the anti-hipster, as earnest about Jesus as I could possibly be. I walked around with a patch on my backpack that said “Ask Me Why I’m a Christian.” I wore a ring that said “True Love Waits.” I went to church, and liked it. I believed Jesus was my savior, that he had a personal stake in my salvation, as personal as my parents’ love for me.

Nothing bad had happened to me in my life. Not yet.

¤

A year later, in my freshman year of high school, a boy — much older than me, but a boy just the same — took my hand and made me touch him. Then he touched me. We were in a science classroom with long black tabletops and ridged silver nozzles. He was just rough enough, and though I didn’t want to — though I tried to pull away — he persisted. I didn’t know I could insist otherwise. When it was over, I walked outside and waited for the after-school bus to pick me up and take me home.

Afterward, I took this event — which I had difficulty naming — and put it down as a lapse in judgment. It made it easier, somehow, to think of it as a mistake on my part. I saw him in the halls almost every day — which caused me to shake my right hand like it was burning — until he graduated at the end of the year, and was gone. This what happens, I reasoned, when you flirt.

My problem, I decided, was purity, or lack thereof.

My friend Karla and I bought a book called And the Bride Wore White, a guide to remaining sexually pure. Three chapters of And the Bride Wore White are titled as follows: “Satan’s Big Fat Sex Lies,” “Satan’s Second Big Fat Sex Lie,” and “Satan’s Biggest, Fattest Sex Lie.” The book explained to me why condoms don’t work, why everyone isn’t “doing it,” and that oral sex is just as bad as intercourse. The author painstakingly outlined her own sexual foibles and missteps, honesty that I appreciated. I was ready to learn. I read the book steadily — during study breaks, walking through the hallways, before I went to sleep. Karla and I met at her house and talked about the different chapters while her mother brought us garden-grown beefsteak tomatoes that looked like hearts. We swore to strive for purity in every way possible. No more touching. No more being touched.

¤

My family and I were members at a United Methodist congregation, but the United Methodist kids were not nice people. They were unfriendly and cliquish in a way that I could never articulate to my mother. “Why don’t you hang out with some of the kids from church?” she would ask me. She never seemed to understand the nuances of my social discomfort, and I didn’t want to explain.

So I joined my school’s Bible Study, populated almost entirely with the teenagers from a local Evangelical church. I loved them, even though their beliefs were more severe than mine. One week, a group of them argued with me that God doesn’t hate gay people, but doesn’t want them to do what they do. Another meeting was completely derailed when someone drew a chalk diagram of decaying buildings on the board to demonstrate to me how entropy disproves evolution. They had a certainty I envied. I both admired their zeal and was scared of it.

I was also confident they were wrong about these points. I didn’t believe in a God who rejected love or science. I reasoned Genesis was figurative, metaphorical. I could imagine the swirling chaos, the madness that God would one day knit together to form, eventually, this classroom, with me inside it. Turmoil, gathered into purpose.

¤

I had crushes. Crushes were okay as long as you didn’t fantasize, as long as you didn’t let the crush decenter God from your life.

There was the boy who I’d been in love with since the fifth grade, who’d played my husband in a middle school production of Little Women and had recently turned the corner from awkward to handsome. And there was the skinny Mormon transfer student, one-half of a set of twins. I sent away for and read the Book of Mormon — hoping to impress him with my ecclesiastical knowledge — and tried to learn Magic: The Gathering — a hobby of his — but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t interested in me, no matter how many hours I spent wrangling with sincere Mormon missionaries over the phone or organizing a red and white deck that never won a single game.

My problems, though, were more complex than unrequited crushes. I was afraid to touch boys — all men, really — but I wanted them anyway. And when my thoughts strayed into the realm of sexual fantasy — hazy tableaus of kissing, harder and harder — I apologized to God for my impure thoughts. Sorry, I said, for letting boys jostle Him off His pedestal.

I also sat catty-corner to a girl in English class. She had faint freckles on the bridge of her nose. We both loved the movies Fried Green Tomatoes and Moulin Rouge, and talked about them almost every day. I liked her in a way that made me excited to go to class, even more excited than I was normally, but I didn’t understand why, exactly. I had a crush on her without having a name for it. I sat behind her and stared at her freckles and imagined kissing her mouth. She was such a good friend and so fun and so smart I wanted to rise out of my seat and say, “To hell with Hemingway!” and haul her out of class — to some end I couldn’t quite visualize. I didn’t pray about my feelings for her; it didn’t seem necessary.

¤

Sometimes, I’d have nightmares that I died, and learned that the Evangelical kids’ God was my only option, and I’d done everything wrong. I went to hell in these dreams, of course, which never looked like the Bible promised — an abandoned shopping mall in the desert, the dusty space beneath my parents’ bed in my childhood house, the bottom of the ocean — but always felt eternal and lonely.

¤

Although I hung out with the Evangelicals, I still dutifully attended the United Methodist church with my parents. When I was 16, a new associate pastor was rotated into our parish.

His name was Sam Jones.

When he introduced himself to the church youth, I felt a kick deep in my pelvis. He was handsome — with straight sandy hair that jutted out over his forehead and a goatee. He was a little pudgy but only just. He had a wedding ring. And when he shook my hand, he looked directly into my eyes.

Turns out, I’d been waiting for that.

Sam was around a lot. He participated in youth group events, alongside his normal church duties. He gave smart, politically progressive sermons that caused grumblings amongst the older congregants, which delighted me to no end. Within days of arriving he knew my name and used it whenever we ran into one another. Sometimes, I would linger after service to speak to him about his sermon. He talked to me as if I was an adult.

I guess I’d been waiting for that, too.

¤

Later that year, an opportunity arose to go to Lichtenburg, South Africa, for several weeks. Our church had connected with a local Methodist congregation, and was looking to run a youth camp for the church’s children and teenagers. A group of adults — 10 or so, including Sam — decided to go run the camp. My interest in my church had been renewed by Sam’s presence, and I’d been more active ever since he’d arrived. The group invited me to go with them.

At home, my parents argued. They say couples always have the same fight over and over, and in our house there was a fierce ongoing battle about my father’s relationship with his family, and the way they treated my mother. The fights were varied — shouting matches that carried throughout the house, hissed arguments over the dinner table, slammed doors that seemed to get louder every time. I was terrified they were going to get divorced. I spent my school days swallowing mounting spasms of anxiety. So yes, I wanted to go. Yes, I wanted to work with other teenagers. Yes, I wanted to go to another country. Yes, I wanted to be away from my life.

We left on New Year’s Eve, and at some approximation of midnight — the plane and time zones advancing together into the future — I drank champagne with Sam in the flight attendant vestibule as we soared over the black ocean. When we arrived at our destination — evening, local time — I slept for a few hours and then woke up jetlagged, staring out into the dark for hours until birdsong signaled dawn.

I had never been so far away from home. All of us stayed on a sprawling farm outside of town, in the owner’s guesthouse. The property was palatial, with a pool and a white fountain and a gate running along the road. The campers, ranging from my age, 17, down to nine, stayed in a converted barn. I ran an arts-and-crafts elective. We sang contemporary hymns and played guitar. We built bonfires and told spontaneous confessions around them, though the call-to-Jesus of my own conversion was absent.

Boerboels — a giant South African dog breed that resembles mastiffs — roamed the grounds. There was a new mother with distended nipples and a loping gait, and her children. We watched her massive puppies grow while we were there. The owner of the farm grew crops of sunflowers, and in the fields their luminous heads bent toward the sun. We had left a frigid Northeast midwinter. Here, it was summer. The land around us was so flat you could see black thunderclouds slit through with lightning in every direction; storms so far away they never arrived.

After the campers went to bed every night, I would sit with Sam and we would talk. He spoke of his faith, and how he struggled with his own imperfections — pride, and jealousy, and, his voice dropping low, lust. “I’m supposed to be a man of God,” he said. “But I feel so weak. I feel like every day I fight against my instincts, and half the time my instincts win.”

He put his head into his hands. I reached out and touched his arm, and he didn’t shrug it away. When he spoke next, I felt the vibrations of his voice in my fingers. “I’m supposed to lead all of these people and be an example, but sometimes I wonder if I’m the right person for the job. Maybe it should be someone better.”

This, too, was what I’d been waiting for. I had spent so much time with the Evangelical kids and they had never spoken with such humility. They had been terrifying in their legalism and self-righteous in their judgment, but I’d never heard such honesty about their own weaknesses.

“Sometimes, I don’t know what God wants from me,” Sam admitted. “As a leader, and as a man.”

I wanted to cry. I thought about what’d happened to me my freshman year, how awful I’d felt, how guilty. I considered my own lusts and shortcomings. I’d been wondering what God wanted from me, too: as a Christian, and as a girl.

¤

One night we took our sleeping bags outside and slept next to each other, separately, under the stars. I’d never seen a sky like that, unstained by city light. There was the Milky Way, starmatter smeared across the black. It throbbed like a pulse. Satellites spun past. Planets gleamed. In the morning, I woke up and, inches from my nose, a dung beetle pushed a small brown ball through the grass. I am normally terrified of insects but I was cracked open, ready for wonder. In the beetle’s determination and slow progress, I saw beauty.

Sam and I would get up early and swim at dawn. He had a rectangular insulin pump attached to his abdomen. This vulnerable detail tugged somewhere strange in me. We played around the edge of the glassy pool. He would unhook his pump, and permit me to push him in. When he came up from the blue, he’d grab my ankle and drag me in with him. We swam around each other, circling. It felt special; pure, even. And a little dangerous.

¤

I’d never told anyone about my sexual assault. I’d barely put a name to it. But when I came home from South Africa, I felt as if the protective wall I’d constructed around it had lost its shape: a rotten jack-o’-lantern kicked inward. I couldn’t account for the sudden rushes of panic, the images that rose up, uninvited. I shook and wept as if the trauma was fresh. I couldn’t sleep. This old thing was after me, and I felt powerless in its path.

On a rainy afternoon, I sat in Sam’s office.

“I have something I need to tell you about,” I said.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“This is confidential, right?” I said. He frowned and nodded, and then stood up and closed the door behind me.

“It’s just — when you talked about feeling weak —”

He didn’t look away from my face.

“It’s just that this thing — happened. Before. A few years ago. I was with this — this guy. A senior. And he — made me do some things. Did some things to me. I didn’t want to. I was just — and this whole time I’ve thought, wow, I was such a bad and weak person but now — I don’t know, I just. I don’t even know what to do anymore. I thought I had it under control but I don’t.”

When I looked up he was coming toward me, and held me more tightly than anyone ever had before. I was upset and aroused. He felt so strong.

“Help me, please,” I said. Anything to keep his arms around me.

“I will,” he said.

¤

My mother didn’t like that I called Sam by his first name.

“He’s Pastor Sam,” she said. “Or Pastor Jones. Like you refer to Pastor Anna.”

I did call Pastor Anna by her title. I adored her. She was an older, single woman, brilliant and progressive. She gave me articles like “Who Wrote Luke-Acts, and Why Did She Do It?” and wore rainbow stoles to National Conferences. She seemed like a woman who knew who she was in the most complete way.

But what I couldn’t explain to my mother was that Sam wasn’t just my pastor, he was my friend. The boundaries that should have been up between us — minister/congregant, adult/teenager — had completely dissolved. I would just sit in his office for hours, the door always closed. He gave me permission to swear in front of him, which I did, profusely. “Fuck that fucking fuck,” I’d yell, new to profanities. “That asshole. That shitty asshole.” Sam would watch me from his office chair, rocking against its hinges.

Eventually, he insisted on meeting outside of work. I felt a strange rush of pleasure at this revelation. I was flattered. We had, it seemed, moved past the trappings of our circumstances, of our incidental relationship. He met with parishioners during office hours, with the door standing open. But now, he met me at diners at two in the morning, and I saw his face in the reflection of darkened windows. Sometimes, I drove to his house and waited for him to get dressed so we could go out. If his wife wasn’t home, he’d change in front of his open door as I looked and didn’t look, and then we’d drive to local restaurants and he’d buy me hot dumplings or grilled cheese sandwiches and I’d try not to cry too loudly. Once, I fell asleep in the booth, and he waited for me to wake up.

“I wish I could go to a bar,” I’d say. “And, like — drink. Really drink.” I had never been drunk but I imagined it as a wonderful blur — the same kind of forgetting that happens in the moments after waking up, before your life comes rushing back into you.

“You’re 17,” Sam would remind me. He rarely mentioned my age, but when it happened I could see the gulf of time between us, and I hated it.

His words were a mantra that repeated in my head. It’s going to be okay. It’s not your fault. You’re not a bad person. God loves you. God loves you even though you’re not perfect. I love you. (My heart jumped, here, but I knew it didn’t mean quite what I wanted it to mean.)

My parents continued to fight. I heard my father cry, an unsettling occurrence that I never experienced before or since. My mother confided her grievances to me, disclosures that made me feel uncomfortable. About my own anxieties, I remained silent. My grades, once stellar, were plummeting. A concerned guidance counselor called me in about a D in chemistry. “You’re normally a straight-A student,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing.”

And this thing that had happened to me glowed singularly and harshly. It interfered with my sleep and made me jumpy. I couldn’t look at it directly.

Sam called it my rape, once.

“It wasn’t a rape, exactly,” I said, because I’d looked it up.

But in my head I thought of it as the littlest rape, a white dwarf star that had collapsed on itself and was burning, burning.

¤

I wanted him. On top of all of this, I wanted him. I knew he was married, but it didn’t seem to matter. He told me that his wife couldn’t get pregnant, and they’d stopped having sex altogether. Maybe that was what I sensed in him: something caged, unfulfilled. He radiated desire. I wanted to kiss him, I wanted him to hold me, I wanted to associate sex with something besides fear and guilt. I wanted my life to be shaken up, to go from being who I was to someone renewed. Carmen, unafraid of sex. Carmen, in a relationship. Carmen the adult.

In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with a finger over the solar panel — fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether. Sam, though, seemed to run on his own hunger. I wanted to be like that.

¤

My mother didn’t know any of these details. But she was not a stupid woman, and had her suspicions. One day on my way out she stopped me at the front door.

“It’s not appropriate, with you seeing Pastor Sam all the time,” she said.

“I’m going out,” I told her.

“Not with my car, you’re not,” she said. “He’s a married man. You don’t understand, but it’s inappropriate.” Her arms were folded over her chest in a way that inspired rage.

“He’s my pastor,” I said. “My spiritual mentor. Are you really going to keep me from my spiritual mentor? What kind of a Christian are you?”

“You’re not to go in our car,” she said, backing up so I couldn’t leave.

“You don’t know anything,” I told her. I went out the back door, and then went and sat in the front yard. I texted Sam.

Ten minutes later, he was idling just past our driveway in his Jeep. My mom watched me through the window as I got in and we drove away.

¤

The summer after I graduated from high school, I turned 18. I was finally the adult I’d always wanted to be.

¤

I wept the last time I saw him. I was going to college but I didn’t want to be so far apart. He assured me he was just a phone call away. “Plus,” he said, “DC isn’t that far. Maybe I can come visit.”

In college, I had my first kiss, my first grope in the dark, with a dull man who had a hell of a smile. His roommate had moved out in the beginning of the year and had never been replaced. He was in a terrible alt-rock band whose lyrics were laughably melodramatic, but he smelled like cologne. He felt safe. Afterward, I felt strange about the encounter. I’d never done so much sexually that I wanted to do. And now, I didn’t feel bad or evil or wrong. I just felt nice.

I called Sam. I went to the hallway in the middle of the night so my roommate wouldn’t overhear. He asked me what had happened. I told him, one detail after another. He didn’t refuse any of them; he listened until I was done.

“What should I do?” I asked him, the question slipping out of my mouth before I could stop it. Until that moment I’d been secretly excited, bolstered with the newness of a man’s stubble across my face, hands that went where I wanted them to. But in Sam’s silence, which carried a whiff of disapproval, I recalled the sin of it.

For the first time, he didn’t seem to know what to say. Where there had always been smooth advice that felt right and good and clear, now there was reticence. Hesitation.

“Ask for forgiveness,” he said, finally.

“That’s it?”

“Don’t do it again.” He sounded tired.

 “I miss you,” I said.

“I miss you, too,” he told me.

¤

A few weeks later, Sam stopped responding to my calls.

I went about my normal routine, but his coldness hovered around me, chilling everything. Was he angry about my hookup? Was he — jealous? I panicked. Maybe he had lost interest in me. Maybe I’d crossed some invisible line, committed some unforgivable act. I sent him a few emails, spaced at what I hoped were ordinary intervals. He didn’t respond.

A few weeks later, my mother called me.

“Sam Jones has been fired from the church,” she said.

“What?”

“The rumor is, he was having an affair with a parishioner,” she said. “A woman he was giving marriage counseling to.”

I sat down on my narrow dorm bed and leaned against the white cinderblock.

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

She sounded faintly triumphant. “Believe it.”

I called Sam. His phone rang and rang. I couldn’t believe that he could do such a thing, and then I hated myself for judging him as I would never want to be judged.

As the voicemail message played, a small-girl-jealous part of me wondered — if this is what he’d really wanted — why he hadn’t chosen me. I’d been there. We’d been so close. He could have done it, and I would have, happily. “Call me,” I said, trying to steady my voice.

“Please. I need to talk to you.”

I took a train back home. I drove to the parish house. It was dark, but I knocked on the door anyway. When he didn’t answer, I went home and emailed him again.

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t shut me out. Or if you’re going to, just tell me, tell me so that I’m not dangling in this in-between place. You stood by me when my world was falling down around me. Please let me do the same for you.”

His response was one line. “Carmen, I’m okay but things are confusing. I have to go, the library is closing. Sam.”

I never heard from him again.

¤

I found out later that he’d surrendered his ministerial credentials, left his wife, and moved from the suburbs to a small apartment in town. I heard that for a while he was on a landscaping crew and living with the woman who’d left her family for him. I tried searching for his new phone number and email — I realized too late that all of his contact information had been through the church, and was now unusable — but his name was so frustratingly common, it was impossible.

Pastor Anna had lunch with me at Red Robin near my house. I ordered a hamburger and shredded my onion rings without eating them. Anna told me Sam was very sick. I picked up a dessert and drink menu and pretended to read it. I didn’t realize I was crying until my tears dripped onto the Formica table. “Look what he’s done to you,” she said. She gently pulled the menu away from me. “Just look.”

But she couldn’t know that he had all of my secrets and he had absconded with them, and left me. I felt like I was deep in a fairy-tale forest, and he had been a confident guide taking me to my destination, the unsteady flame of an oil lamp and his instincts moving us through the darkness. Then just like that, the lantern went out, and I was in the inky blackness, alone.

¤

I went back to DC. I studied photography and wrote bad stories and bad poetry. In my sophomore year of college, I figured out I was queer, that I liked men and women. After this, I felt like I’d looked over and saw another universe, another version of the world running parallel to mine. I saw a timeline where my assault hadn’t happened and I’d avoided religion and never met Sam and knew what it was to like women from the earliest stirrings. I was still me in that world, but I felt like I felt now — grown up, after a fashion. Like I knew what I wanted. Like I’d always known what I wanted. I gave myself permission to love sex, to be sexual. I stopped flinching when men touched me.

I lost my virginity my junior year of college to a heterosexual couple, friends of mine who guided me through it all gently and with laughter and pleasure. After they broke up, I pined for the woman. We kissed and watched movies and kissed more and eventually she rejected me on a beach studded with the clear bodies of dead jellyfish, telling me she didn’t think she was gay. I ran children’s birthday parties at a paint-your-own-pottery studio and sold dildos at a sex-toy shop near the Virginia border. I finished school early and moved to California. I dated a former Marine with clear blue eyes and anxiety about his approaching 30th birthday. He was selfish and stupid but devoted to his pet rats, one of which had seizures at night and died right after we broke up. I slept with a programmer closer to my age on our second date. He was gorgeous and technically brilliant and taught me new ways to come. I fell in love with him, even as he pulled away. We broke up. I waded through a tar pit of heartbreak. I kept writing. I casually dated a string of men. There was another programmer, a kind man who went with me to movies and slept in my bed and let me touch him in the pitch black of the planetarium. Then there was the astrophysicist who picked me up and fucked me against walls and warned me about the world’s impending helium shortage. I learned you could have dozens of sexual awakenings, each one different than the last. Every time, I learned something new about my body, about who I was. I felt like I was making up for lost time.

I moved to Iowa and fell in love with a woman, a fellow writer who consumed me utterly, alternating sweetness and adoration with violence and manipulation. She made me happy. She threw suitcases and shoes at my head. She told me she’d burn down the world for me. She called me a “cunt” and drove so fast I was sure we were going to die. She introduced me to her parents. I locked myself in her bathroom as she screamed and threw her body against the door. The first time I broke up with her, she begged me to come to a motel where she was staying and when I collapsed to the ground in tears she leaned over me, pressed her nose into my hair, and asked if I’d changed my shampoo. I finally got away: from that room, from her. I took a trip back to California and hooked up with some exes. I sold most of my religious books and thought very little about Sam. After many years of trying, I went from being a woman who wrote to a writer, full stop. I sold one story, and then another.

¤

I had made a forest of my own beliefs, and lived in it. Here’s how I left: I stripped away the trees.

My first god was a mishmashed Frankenstein of my imagination, made up of scraps from the Methodist kids and the Evangelical kids, of my upbringing and my worst fears. Later, when Sam abandoned me, I tried to believe in a God who loved and still left his creations. I could not. For a while, God was a faint, hazy presence, and then even that evaporated.

In time, the trees scrolled back. I’d made that forest up. Perhaps I’d needed to go through it, to be the person I became. But to realize that it wasn’t real? That took living.

Now, I was still alone, but at least I could see in all directions.

¤

Last summer, I was eating dinner with my parents and asked my mother how her day had been.

“I substituted at the elementary school today,” she said.

“How did that go?” I asked.

My father didn’t stop eating, but his eyes flicked upward at her. My mother is a fierce and mercurial woman, and I could smell the thunderheads gathering as surely as if my hair was lifting up from my skin.

“I saw Jennifer,” my mother said, in a faux-casual voice that fooled no one.

“Jennifer who?” I said.

“Jennifer, Sam Jones’s wife,” my mother responded. “His new wife. She teaches there. She asked about you.”

My stomach jerked. “What? Why?”

“You mean, why would she ask about you?”

“Yes.” I’d never met her, not once. How would she even know my name?

“I guess because of Sam,” my mom said. Her voice was frigid.

The danger was clear, now, but I needed to keep going.

“What about him?” I said.

The table jumped as my mother slammed down her fork on the glass top. “The whole fucking church thought you were the one who caused all that. They thought you were the one he was having an affair with.” I sensed her emotions swinging wildly between protectiveness and rage, between defense and anger at a decade-younger version of me. “Everyone was coming up to me, ‘We’re so sorry to hear about what Sam did to Carmen, we’re so —’ Everyone thought it was you. Everybody. It wasn’t but everyone thought so.”

Then she sat back in her chair.

“And the South Africa trip,” she continued, her voice a little more measured. “So inappropriate. You came back and spent all that time with him. I told him to stay away from you, but he didn’t. God knows what —” She didn’t finish.

“He never did anything to me,” I said, and as I did I couldn’t believe I was defending him. I thought about trying to explain everything, but it was too much. Too complicated. And I’ve never been one to share much with my parents.

She picked up her plate and took it to the sink. I still don’t know if she believes me.

¤

I emailed Pastor Anna. I haven’t stepped inside a church in years, but I still think of her as Pastor Anna. I asked her about Sam. I tried to play it off casually, but she sensed the wound. I did not mention to her that I was an atheist now. I felt as if that would be admitting something.

She told me he was back in ministry again, in a nearby college town.

I googled him, and there he was: a staff member at a local United Methodist congregation. In charge of teenagers. I watched a video of him on the church’s YouTube account, playing guitar in their band. He’s a little older and a little fatter than I remember, but it’s him.

I think sometimes about going and sitting in a pew there, one Sunday. I don’t know why. To fuck with him? To see his face? If he did see me, would he understand why I was there?

I guess I wouldn’t know myself.

¤

I’m living with my girlfriend, now. She is petite and luminously pretty: a little Jane Russell, a little Olive Thomas. When she’s thinking about something, she tilts her chin upward for a moment, tugs on her lip with her incisor, and then comes back to earth and says something thoughtful and perceptive. I love her. We watch marriage equality blossom in one state and then another, and then another. We read memoirs about the struggles of gay and lesbian activists in the ’90s — our lifetimes, our childhoods — and realize how lucky we are to have been born precisely when we were; to have crawled out from beneath our pasts and found each other.

True love doesn’t wait for anything, as it turns out.

¤

I found my purity ring not too long ago, tarnished and buried in a container of bric-a-brac. I’d kept it accidentally, carried it through five different moves to three different states. It was never more than a few feet away from my joys and heartbreaks.

I took a picture of the etching on the band — a photographer’s instinct to preserve even my most foolish choices — and went to throw the ring out.

I paused over the trash can. After a few seconds’ thought, I turned around and tossed it into my jewelry box: a reminder never to make promises I don’t need to keep.

¤

Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, AGNI, Granta, NPR, The American Reader, VICE, Women’s Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly round-up of reviews, essays, & interviews.

Not a member? LARB is reader supported. Join today and get LARB in print.