Temptation & Guilt

This excerpt is composed of flashbacks to Cinnamin’s ex-girlfriends, and the struggles she dealt with as she became the person who Naali could eventually fall in love with:

 

Naali was so different from the other girls I had been with. Of course, without them, without my restrictive life in Michigan, I might never have found my way to Naali. I might never have thought to go to Hawai‘i. To get as far away from home as possible, only to find that it had never been home.

Before I’d told Lucas the truth, I could ignore it. But once I’d said it out loud, I could not escape it. I worried constantly that someone would find out. With each of the first two girls I was with, rumors about me spread. My parents knew about both of them, but thought that we were only friends. When I asked if Bethany Wolf could spend the night, they were so happy that I finally had a girl friend. It strikes me as funny (although they might find it disturbing) that all those nights they were worried about Lucas taking my purity away, and yet they welcomed Bethany into our home, not knowing that she went straight to my bed.

The first time I saw Bethany, we were at a party. My parents had gone out of town for the weekend, leaving me to babysit Billy, so all I had to do was wait for him to fall asleep before I left. Lucas wanted to go to the party as an attempt to raise our social status at school, and I went to back him up. I wore my most revealing outfit: a white tee-shirt under a sleeveless dress that only went down to my knees. I had braided my hair and pinned it up in a bun, so it would not look so long. We had not been having much fun, since we did not know any of the other kids there. But then Bethany sat next to me on the couch and, without even introducing herself, kissed me. I heard cheers go through the crowd of teenage boys around us. It was my first real kiss, and it tasted like vodka.

After a few minutes, Bethany came up for air. I thought I saw her look at one of the boys who had been watching us, but that might just be my mind filling the moment in. She scribbled her phone number on my hand before staggering a few steps away and puking in a potted plant.

The next day I debated calling her. On the one hand, Mom and Dad were out of town and might never know she’d been there. But, on the other hand, Billy always woke up earlier than me in the morning, and he would have told our parents that someone had been over if he found out. I was forced to call and ask their permission, and they agreed much more readily than I had anticipated.

That night, after Billy was asleep, Bethany wasted no time before we were making out again.

“You know what would make this even hotter?” She crooned against my lips.

My stomach lurched. I worried she was going to suggest taking it further, which I was not ready for.

“Isn’t this hot enough? I think this is pretty hot. We should just keep doing this.”

“We should take pictures of us doing this.” She leaned over the bed and pulled a disposable camera out of her bag.

“Why?”

“So that, when I’m at home, I can look at them and really remember this.” She started kissing my neck and I gave in. I was in new territory, and it did not cross my mind that she might be anything but honest with me.

We only went to second base that night, and still I woke the next day feeling nauseated with guilt. I almost told Billy that we were not going to church, but I knew our parents would hear from the pastor if we were not there.

“‘Keep your father’s commands and do not forsake your mother’s teaching,’” the pastor read the passage from Proverbs with a deep and foreboding voice.

My mind went back to lying in my bed with Bethany. In the darkness we were just two bodies struggling to get closer, with the occasional flash of a camera illuminating our sins.

“‘For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light, and the corrections of discipline are the way to life, keeping you from the immoral woman, from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife.’”

Her tongue was smooth, smoother than I had expected. My face flushed at the memory of having it in my mouth. I glanced around, sure that every accusing eye in the church would be fixed on me. But they continued to face forward, most with a vacant expression, excepting a few who were listening fervently to the pastor’s words.

“‘Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes, for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread, and the adulteress preys upon your very life.’”

I tried to shut his voice out. I tried to shut the memories out. I did not understand why I wanted these things if they were so bad for me. I did not understand why I could not just fight against them. I did not understand what was wrong with me.

“‘So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.’”

My parents trained me well. I knew that I was not supposed to be the way I was. I feared getting caught. But even when I thought there was no way for my parents to find me out, the guilt still gnawed at my brain until I wanted to claw it out.

What my parents never stuck around to see, however, was how peaceful I was once that guilt was gone. Naali was so at ease with herself, and she and her family were so at ease with me, that I was able to accept that there was nothing wrong with me after all. It bewildered me, at first, that they could be so comfortable knowing that their daughter slept with women. But once I was used to it, I was just jealous. Every act of kindness they showed us turned me more against my own mother and father. I began to hate them, and so I stopped caring what they would think of me when I told them the truth.

While I was in high school, though, the one thing I worried about more than anything was that the truth would somehow make it to my family. The Monday after Bethany spent the night, I was called into the principal’s office. I opened the office door to see Bethany already sitting in a chair facing him.

“Can one of you girls tell me what these are?” Principal Howard asked when I was seated next to Bethany. He slid three small, white, rectangular sheets across the desk.

Bethany just shrugged. I reached for them and flipped them right-side-up. Almost immediately I turned them over again, face hot. I looked at Bethany in disbelief.

“What did you do?”

She shrugged again.

“Miss Wolf was passing these photographs around in her algebra class. I would like to know what, exactly, they are doing in my school.”

“I wasn’t passing them around,” Bethany countered, “I was just passing them to Matt.”

“They had to make it past fifteen other students before they got to Mr. Adams.” Principal Howard looked mad now. His face was bright red, but I suspected not as red as mine.

“Why?” I could not even look at Bethany anymore, choosing instead to study my hands intently. I used my fingernails to make half-moon shapes in my skin and focused on that pain instead of the prickling behind my eyes.

“Matt’s into girl/girl. I’m into Matt. So when you totally went for me at the party on Friday, I thought this could get his attention. He’s super hot. If you want to join, I’m sure he’d be down.” She grinned.

I dug my fingernails deeper into my skin, trying to block out her words. But the tears I had been holding back spilled down my cheeks. I could not bear to look at Principal Howard; I did not know how Bethany could, after saying those things in front of him.

“Miss Wolf, you can wait in the hallway. I’d like to talk to Miss Smith alone for a moment.” When the door closed behind Bethany, Principal Howard continued, “I’m sorry, Miss Smith. I assumed you were both responsible for the photographs being passed around. Otherwise I would have spoken to you separately.”

I must have been just as invisible to the principal as I was to my fellow students. How else could he have thought that Ethelfleda Smith, quiet outcast, could have been responsible for something like that? I had never even had detention before.

“I’m afraid I will have to talk to your parents about this. I’ll call them this afternoon to set up a conference.”

My head snapped up. “No, you can’t.”

“I don’t have a choice. These photographs could potentially be considered child pornography.”

I felt like he had knocked the wind out of me. His words were as powerful as if he had used a fist.

“There’s no way around discussing them with your parents.”

“You don’t get it. They’ll kill me. I’m not exaggerating – they will kill me.” My stomach hurt so badly I wrapped my arms around it, trying to squeeze it into submission.

Principal Howard’s face told me clearly that he thought I was just being a typically melodramatic teenage girl. He picked up the phone on his desk and dialed; I saw my life flash before my eyes.

“There’s no answer.”

My tears fell more rapidly with my relief. “They’re out of town.” In my panic I had completely forgotten.

Principal Howard frowned as he replaced his phone on the hook. “Well, I’ll have to speak to someone. When will they be back?”

I wrung my hands and considered the question. I knew my parents were coming home the very next day. I had been able to reach them all weekend. I knew that Principal Howard could easily call them at their hotel that day, and set up an appointment to discuss my doom before the end of the week. And so I did something that would save me, but that would also cause me even more crippling guilt: I lied.

“They won’t be back for weeks. But Lucas Lawson’s parents have been watching over my brother and me. I’m sure they could stand in.” I did not know what I was saying until I heard the words leave my lips. I had no idea whether they would tell my parents or not. But it was already too late. Principal Howard called them and they were in his office as soon as school was out that day.

Lucas and I waited in the hallway. He rubbed my back and told me jokes as I held my head in my hands. When Lucas’ parents finally came out of Principal Howard’s office, they walked us to their car without saying a word.

I got a lecture that night about how careless and immature I had been. Mr. and Mrs. Lawson did not say anything about the fact that the other person in the photographs was a girl. Lucas said it was because they had never encountered anyone like me, had never questioned what the church told them. They must have had trouble connecting the evil people our pastor warned us about with the girl who had been their son’s best friend since kindergarten, the quiet girl who always said “please” and “thank you” when she came to visit. They told me that they had promised Principal Howard that they would tell my parents as soon as they came back into town, but they never did.

Mom and Dad might have noticed how quiet I was for the next couple weeks after they came back from their trip. I felt that I could not face them. I felt like an intruder in my own house. And after word got out about the photographs, school was no longer a refuge. People stared and whispered when I walked down the halls. I caught one word in undertones more than others. It was a word that I never allowed myself to repeat, even in my thoughts. I finally knew how Lucas had felt all those years, and I wished I could go back to being invisible. There were many days that he and I spent at the coffee shop down the street rather than subjecting ourselves to their torture. I was always sure to keep my grades up so my teachers would not call and tell my parents that I had been playing hooky.

I would not have been able to survive if I had not had Lucas. Being with him was the only time I could be myself, the only time I was not overwhelmed by guilt and worry. That is, until my senior year, when a new girl came to our school.

#

When Nicole started at my high school, she and I clicked right away. She was open and friendly, making up for my need to be left alone. I met Nicole on her third day at our school, since I had spent her first two days at the coffee shop with Lucas. During lunch she just came and sat down right next to me and introduced herself. We became inseparable. She told me later that she had singled me out because she had heard the rumors about me. Nicole was from California and was used to having an entire community of out teens at her high school. In her mind, finding me was the first step to creating a similar community at our school. The community ended up being the two of us and our allies: Lucas, Nicole’s sister, Krissy, and Krissy’s new boyfriend, Brian.

I remember how terrified I was to ask my parents’ permission to go camping with Nicole. I worried that they would notice how much time I spent with her and become suspicious.

“Heavenly Father, please bless this food and bless all of us – please keep us from giving into our evil temptations. And please help us to remember that it is only by your grace that we are able to live and eat this meal. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Billy and I knew not to begin eating until the prayer was over. But even after the words had left Dad’s mouth, I was too nervous to eat.

“So Nicole invited me to go camping with her family this weekend. Would that be okay?” I forced myself to speak casually.

“Who is going?”

“Just Nicole, her sister, Krissy, and her parents.” I crossed my fingers under the table, trying not to think of Brian and Lucas camping with us or of Nicole’s parents reveling in their teenager-free house.

“How long will you be gone?”

“Just until Sunday afternoon.”

“You’re going to miss church?”

“No, of course not. I can come back early Sunday morning.”

“All right, Ethelfleda, you can go. But we’ll have to talk to Nicole’s parents about it first.”

“They’re already up there. Nicole, Krissy, and I are meeting them there after school on Friday,” I recited the excuse Lucas and I had practiced. “But they wrote a letter for you, telling you where we’ll be and everything.” I knew this plan would never have worked if my parents had not already met Nicole’s parents, but I still was not sure it would be enough.

After dinner Dad looked over the letter Nicole had forged earlier that day, and agreed to let me go, as long as I was back in time and looking presentable for church on Sunday.

I made sure to bring my lucky red backpack, which worked the first night (although it’s luck must have taken a break for the second).

That weekend was the best of my life up until then. Nicole and I had a small tent to ourselves, and we enjoyed our privacy to its fullest extent. Somehow, I did not feel guilty afterward.

The next night, however, brought my giddiness back down. We were sitting around our campfire, enjoying the last few rays of sunlight coming through the trees. Krissy and Brian were catching small sticks on fire, blowing them out, and using the still-burning ends of the sticks to draw designs in the air. Nicole was on the other end of the campsite, getting the marshmallows.

“Guess what happened last night?” I whispered to Lucas.

He just looked at me inquisitively. I gave him a pointed look and could not keep from smiling.

“You didn’t—? With Nicole?”

I shushed him, but nodded nonetheless.

“That’s great.” Lucas remembered to whisper this time. “How was it?” He raised his eyebrows at me.

“Lucas, you can’t ask me that.” I swatted his arm. “But it was really—”

The next thing I knew, I was in the dirt and Lucas was on top of me. He was using both arms to hit around my shoulders and neck. I found out later that when Krissy had blown the fire off the end of her stick, a spark had landed in my hair and ignited. Lucas had tackled me to the ground before I had even felt the heat from the fire as it quickly spread closer to my face. If it had not been for Lucas, I could have been horribly burned. But because he acted so quickly, my hair was the only casualty.

Of course, I could not tell my parents that, since they did not know Lucas was on the camping trip. So I returned home, hair suddenly falling only a few inches past my chin (although the longest chunk reached as far down as my shoulder blades). My parents were furious. Especially because we still had to go to church. Mom did her best to tie my hair back, but I nonetheless earned plenty of pointed looks from the other members of the church. We went to a salon that afternoon so it would not look so ragged, and the stylists told us that it might never grow back. I found myself not being so upset by this information. All that hair was heavy, and it felt good not to have its weight on me anymore.

As the edges were cut away, an actual style began to take shape. I stared at the mirror as my face stopped being one of a pathetic, shy little girl, and turned into the face of a girl with attitude. The stylist used a blow-dryer to flip out the ends, and even wearing my most modest dress, I looked like a different person. I looked like a movie star.

Nicole could not resist me.

#

But my honeymoon period with Nicole did not last. Once we started holding hands in the hallways at school, the whispered rumors stopped being whispered. Anonymous students complained to the principal, who made a new school rule that same-sex couples could not show public displays of affection because it was distracting in our learning environment. I started getting threatening phone calls. Every day I worried that someone else in my family might accidentally answer one of those calls intended for me.

I could tell the pressure was starting to get to Nicole. I had been dealing with it for almost two years by that point, but Nicole was used to a school with teachers who stood up for her. She started taking her anger out on me, snapping at me for little things that had never bothered her before, and turning every argument into a fight over whether or not I should tell my parents the truth about us.

“When are you going to come out to your parents?”

I nearly choked on the sandwich Mom had packed for my lunch.

“They are going to find out sooner or later, especially with all these idiots heckling us. If you tell them before they hear it from somewhere else, you’ll be much better off.”

“They’ll kick me out, Nicole. What, am I going to come live with you?” I tried to laugh it off, but my question came out sounding much more accusatory.

“You know, if you didn’t hate yourself, maybe these other kids wouldn’t hate you so much. Maybe they’d leave us alone.”

“I don’t hate myself.” But I did not believe it.

“You do. That’s why you’re so nervous around everyone. You’re scared they’ll hate you as much as you do.”

“Back off, Nicole.” Lucas came to my rescue.

“No. I’m sick of this. I can’t take it anymore. Why are you happy just lying down and letting people push you around? Tell them who you are.”

“I can’t.” My voice was small, directed at my uneaten sandwich on the table.

“Then I can’t either.”

Nicole walked away. Her parents transferred her to a private school after that, and I never saw her again.

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