Get high at five. That was the rule. Strange for a couple of youth group misfits with no rules. The Ten Commandments were nothing more than some dude’s barking dogs to keep his sheep in a manageable herd. Even those got broken. Rules are always some lines that somebody wrote to make somebody else march in the same direction without crossing their feet. “Wrote” is past tense. I learned that rule in English class.
Our five o’clock high was made possible by Sandy having sex with a guy named Bill on the bathroom sink around 4:30. A sink so big she could have been baptized in it as a baby. I stood outside the door for the duration of the meeting and promised not to listen. Sandy turned on the other sinks’ taps to drown out the noise, kind of like you do when you’re taking a dump in a bathroom at somebody else’s house and don’t want the people mingling outside to hear. I could still hear a rhythmic smacking in unison with the running faucets, though. Steady as a drowning heartbeat. The smacking got louder and more violent, and then both noises were swallowed in a great, cymbal-like crash. A pipe burst, porcelain cracked, things gushed. Bill twisted a knob and turned off the water supply to avoid a major flood. They emerged from the bathroom looking like the chubby kids at pool parties who won’t remove their shirts while swimming. Clothing as skin. Skin as clothing. Water tends to smother whatever it soaks.
The sink never got fixed. But Sandy did. Have your teenagers spayed or neutered, Bob Barker would have said. Not that she would know who Bob Barker was. It was the era of Drew Carey. Also, Sandy’s parents never permitted a television in the household. Top Box for Anti-Education, was the catchphrase. They heard TVs could ruin a Magnet school brain. They were more enthusiastic about the Internet’s potential for learning. Sandy learned how to barter for weed on CraigsList with the promise of sexual favors. Her parents were misinformed about the capabilities of the Internet. They were misinformed about a lot of things. Maybe TV wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. At least if she were watching Jack Bauer on a television screen, Sandy couldn’t ask him for his gun. Or Google shirtless photos from his summer beach vacation.
The problem with the sink was that it was in a church bathroom. The problem with Sandy was that she had sex inside of a church every week to acquire weed. Five happened to be when Fayetteville First United Methodist youth group commenced on Sunday evenings. SUVs and sedans piddled through the parking lot, doors opening before cars could come to a recognizable halt, and 20 to 30 teenagers filtered through the church doors. Some wore Polos and loafers they’d admired on the frames of local college students. Others wore white New Balances and those Christ T-shirts you always find on clothing racks in thrift stores several years later. The group consisted of the Bored and the Believers. Comfortable household income and consistent social rejection were the team captains when it came to choosing sides.
Bill went out the sanctuary door while most of these kids shot basketballs downstairs in the rec center. A church has many entrances and many exits. The weed he left behind came in a crinkled Ziploc. Bill always labeled the plastic baggie GREAT BARRIER REEFER with a Sharpie, the same way my mom labeled my sandwiches for school. TURKEY. HAM. CRUSTS DETACHED, BUT INCLUDED. The weed was called Great Barrier Reefer because it constructed a cosmic fence that divided mind from body like heaven from earth. Mind was the numerator. Body was the denominator. Math becomes more engaging when it borrows the hands-on approach of the sciences.
Me and Sandy smoked the weed about 30 feet outside of the sanctuary while everyone else was downstairs enjoying freeplay. There was a rule in our town that no business could serve liquor within 500 feet of a church. We adopted a similar rule by giving ourselves the 30 foot cushion. It seemed like an appropriate buffer for any suspicious smells wafting their way back toward the building, as well as for any visibility of smoke from inside the church. We only ever made rules when we were breaking rules. Our way of keeping illegal activities organized so that they could remain secret. Sandy did some twisting with her hands and some licking with her tongue and rolled us a joint out of a chewing gum wrapper. She was real talented at making joints. I imagine it was the same talent that got her the weed in the first place. We passed the joint back and forth, my right hand to her left, like a metronome keeping the beat for the world’s most patient pianist. In between puffs we stared at the stained glass windows on the sanctuary wall, scenes of Christ bending to hopeful farm animals, curious about what miracle he may contain in his clenched fist. From our perspective, Jesus appeared to be crying in all of the windows. Maybe the tears were just smudges and the windows hadn’t been cleaned in a while. No one seemed to pay much attention to the outside of the church. Only the inside got noticed.
At the church across the railroad tracks, Jesus was black. He didn’t have a beard and looked more like a boy than a man. Kind of like some kids at school, the ones who didn’t play football anyway. We visited the church once and cooked them breakfast — biscuits, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, grits. It was the same shit we ate every Sunday morning at Fayetteville First United, but apparently this church was poor and all the other local churches took turns cooking them breakfast on Sundays so that the kids could have at least one dependable meal outside of school lunches. We attended their service afterward, too, to demonstrate “goodwill among the brothers and sisters of Christ.” I remember Kyle Mackey laughing out loud when he saw the picture of black Jesus hanging in their sanctuary. Brother Brad hit Kyle’s arm and told him to hush, but he was smiling when he did it.
In history class one time while studying Hinduism, I saw a picture in our textbook of what looked like a really blue Jesus. Mixed with Goro from Mortal Kombat.
“Do you think anyone ever punched Jesus?” I asked Sandy.
I had mortal combat on the brain now.
“Well, there was the whole flagellation and crucifixion thing. I imagine a Roman soldier gave him the backhand a couple of times during that process.”
“Well yeah, but I meant more like a fist fight. Like he accidentally stepped on somebody’s sandal, and that person didn’t know who he was, so they clocked Jesus.”
“One who adheres to the Christian doctrine would hope that Jesus held his ground and turned the other cheek.”
“You mean turned away from his good side?”
“Good side? He’s not a celebrity, John-Mark. He’s a martyr.”
Martyr. The word was familiar. It sounded like the public transit system in Atlanta that I used to ride with my dad to Braves games when I was a kid. I couldn’t think of the definition, though. Only associated names. Malcolm X. Joan of Arc. Che Guevera. Ghandi.
“Actually, they might be one in the same,” she said.
Back inside the church, floating like angels and smelling of Springtime Febreze, me and Sandy caught the end of a single-file line that curved into the dining hall. Taco Night was the main attraction. Inside the hall was a collapsible plastic table covered with separate containers of skillet beef, Ortega shells, shredded cheese, iceberg lettuce, melting sour cream — all the staples. Set up a few feet away from the buffet table were even more collapsible plastic tables, arranged in no particular design. Kids who had piled their plates with shells were already filling in the ten fold-out chairs arranged neatly around each table, scrambling to reach an empty seat in the general vicinity of someone in their friend group. A few even skipped the meal line altogether just to claim an in-demand chair next to the most popular person in the group. Placement at the table seemed to be more important than the supper itself.
Personally, I found a certain freedom in a build-your-own taco bar that I wasn’t willing to forfeit for primetime seats, even if that meant I got stuck at the final table, where Dustin “Homeschool” Higgins sat alone at the head. As teenagers, we were never granted opportunities to make decisions if someone more qualified was available to make those decisions for us. Established, card-carrying adults told us what was the singularly correct course of action and where exactly that action would take us, using the Bible as an atlas, taking us down a road with no foreseeable landmarks. But there was an empowering freedom of choice offered by this meal, and all you had to do to cash in on that freedom was wait your turn patiently and walk through the assembly line in an orderly fashion, acting more similar to the product on the belt being assembled than the factory employee doing the labor. The product achieves more freedom in its movement, while the worker remains rooted like a tree. I’m not entirely sure who sees more daylight.
The meal might have been organized by my parents. It might have been Chase Newman’s parents who did the cooking. My memory isn’t what it used to be. I was more focused on the tacos in front of me. Also, Sandy’s ass. God bless sweatpants. Whoever prepared the meal stood proudly behind the buffet table, offering help wherever it wasn’t needed, making their adult presence known, seemingly to reassure other adults or themselves of their purpose rather than us kids. Other volunteering parents stood nearby keeping to each other, like nodding wallflowers during our taco bar tango.
While spooning salsa onto my paper plate, I caught the end of a conversation between Mrs. Mahoney and Mrs. Allen. Or maybe it was Mrs. Thornton. Anyway, they were saying something about a Jewish guy who had recently married a girl from the church and had chosen to convert to Christianity, as simply as if converting from the metric system to standard English. Rarely at youth group did I ever hear anybody actually talk about the mystery of God. Maybe a five-minute devotional from Brother Brad about Jesus being the gateway to heaven (Sandy called it “objectification”), but then it was all basketball and tacos. What with teenagers and attention spans. Me and Sandy were the only ones who discussed spiritual life freely as a theoretical topic. We usually spoke in questions.
The adults made idle talk like they hadn’t had a close friend in years. I imagine it was the same stuff they chatted about during our soccer games. Newspaper coupons. Walking trails. Primetime TV sitcoms. I always got the feeling that they showed up to their kids’ events to observe how everyone else’s kids behaved, each convinced that the future was doomed because of their own offspring’s bad habits. But there was a glimmer of hope in Scott Lundy’s table manners. A possibility of redemption in Lindsey Wade’s 4.0 GPA. David Dwarsky scored a hat trick in every single match because he practiced in his backyard, non-stop, for five hours a day, while their son sat on his ass playing Halo and chugged a 12 oz. can of Mountain Dew right before sitting on his ass some more during the entire playoff game.
Everybody’s parents felt like they were getting the short end of the stick. But they were all drawing straws from a fistful of coffee stirrers.
Me and Sandy took seats opposite each other at Dustin’s table. Having only one friend at youth group is convenient for these situations. While I was picking some lettuce off my tacos, everyone bowed their heads in unison. Brother Brad started to say Grace. He was prone to getting carried away.
“Dear Father, we ask that you bless these tacos…and these Oreo cookies…”
Everyone had their eyes shut tight, as if something inside their head was trying to escape, and their eyelids were blocking the only portholes to freedom. Me and Sandy looked at each other across the table and then pulled out our cell phones. Group prayer was the perfect time for secret conversations. Everybody else was withdrawn to their heads, having a coordinated chat with God, so we could get away with talking to each other unobserved, on a different medium. We texted so God couldn’t hear us.
“…As Jesus provided for those who most needed it, may we consume earnestly the food set before us…”
From: I wonder if Jesus knew on the day the cookie debuted that “Oreo” would eventually become a racial epithet.
“…We’re truly thankful, Lord, to have this food cooked by your eternal flame, rather than the raging fires of hell…”
To: Do you think people in hell figured it out so that it no longer sucks down there? Just a few bonfires and a 24/7 party?
From: You’re assuming they allocate time in hell into things like 7-day weeks.
“…And that we may remember each and every day the ultimate sacrifice your son made, so that sinners like us may live lives unburdened by…”
To: On the seventh day, God awoke from his siesta to invent tacos. And sweatpants.
The Internet is like an invisible planet that everyone visits without exactly knowing how they got there. It’s a lot like heaven in that way. Yet on this invisible planet there are no homes. Instead, there’s an infinite number of clubhouses, and you can establish a clubhouse wherever you want, and no one is granted access to your clubhouse unless you allow them. Brother Brad isn’t allowed. Our parents aren’t allowed. No one is allowed. Not even God.
We relocated to one of our alternate holy grounds after dinner — an open aluminum awning where the church vans were parked, located about 40 feet from the church’s back entrance. The vans were 12-seaters, condom-shaped and manufactured in the era right before “mini” became a popular precursor. Me and Sandy sat on a rear bumper, divided by the tailgate hitch, taking hits from a fresh joint. Above our heads a vandalized window decal read “Fayetteville First Methodist: Followers of Chris.” Youth group membership had noticeably decreased lately. Brother Brad took us on more weekend road trips to stoke interest, but nobody really picked their heads up during the ride. We just cruised along at 10 under the speed limit — held in place by lap belts — listening to edited rap on FM radio and following Chris on two-lane highways around the South to somewhere that usually had a water slide.
Behind the parked vans was an old oak tree, one of those trees that’s too thick to hug, with all the right knots and jagged branches to make you think of your grandparents. Sandy looked at the tree as if she were trying to remember its name.
“That tree is God,” she said, finally.
She got up from the van and went to stand under its shadow. I followed.
“Because it’s old?”
“No, because it fulfilled its job requirement, and now it’s just here to make objective observations. It exhausted all of its power to create human life and then rooted itself in the countless, wooden giants of the world to watch things unfold. Stolidly. No power over anything. Not even itself. Especially when machinery gets involved.”
I didn’t know what “stolid” meant, but I trusted Sandy had used it correctly. She was Magnetic. I reached up and broke one of the smaller branches from the tree, cleanly, so that its absence wouldn’t be noticed.
“Does this mean I’m torturing God?” I asked, holding the detached branch up for consideration.
Sandy didn’t answer. Now she was the objective one.
“Maybe the branches are meant as sacrifices,” I offered, tossing it to the ground. “You know, to keep the world’s fires going.”
She was still silent. I could detect a faint rocking motion in her posture. Like an empty drinking glass that’s just been nudged.
“I don’t think God’s ever seen Kansas,” Sandy said.
She closed her eyes, as if trying to imagine what Kansas could possibly look like. I took the opportunity to work things out logically in my head.
“So, if the trees are God. And we are currently smoking trees. Doesn’t that mean we’re inhaling the holy spirit?”
I passed the joint to her. Sandy took a drag from it, stuttered, and exhaled. The smoke cloud trailed from her mouth like a comic book speech bubble the artist had shaded over with his pencil tip to prevent people from reading the message.
“Ever shotgunned somebody before, John-Mark?” Sandy asked without looking at me.
“In a video game. Halo. Usually kills them on the first try if you make quality contact, especially with their head. You have to be in real close range, though.”
Sandy inhaled smoke from the shrinking joint one more time, flicked it to the ground, and then grabbed my head, pulling it toward her own. Attaching her lips to mine. No more barrier, just great reefer. She blew the smoke into my mouth and I allowed it to fill my jaws like a party balloon. I wanted to cough it back out, but I was afraid the force might blow Sandy off her feet, so I just inhaled and swallowed instead, falling on my own grenade. I might have levitated for a few seconds from the explosion.
Sandy’s tongue cut through the smoke and wrapped around my own. I struggled to push it back — not because I didn’t want it there, but because I thought she was looking for a fight. It almost turned into a battle of wills. Our mouths remained sealed, but our tongues lashed and squirmed in a way that was loving and violent and terrifying all at the same time. It was private in there, too, what we did. An observer would only see silence in the act. But we were actually using our tongues to speak to each other. My eyes were closed. I didn’t see bottle rockets or anything. From the open church windows I could hear our peers humming one of the hymns I didn’t know the words to. Only the tune was familiar. I wondered if God had ever been kissed. Or if he knew what a human being tasted like. Sandy tasted like weed and tacos. Maybe I just tasted more of myself. Identity got a little cloudy in there. I opened my eyes briefly and broke the seal, partly to memorize the moment, partly to check if Sandy was peeking. Outside the sinking summer sun glared through the tree branches, sparkling off of them as if they were catching fire. It was about seven.