It was the middle of the night. As minors, my friend Em and I were breaking town curfew. We stared at each other helplessly outside the lake house, feeling stranded and exposed under the harsh fluorescent streetlamps. Without a word, we ran for it. We ducked under the cover of bushes and trees and shadows at the sight of passing headlights, terrified that strange men or bored cops would materialize at any moment.
We made it back to Em’s house without incident and snuck in through her bedroom window. We crammed into her twin bed and laid awake, hands shaking, hearts pounding, heads spiraling about the punishment that would surely come down on us.
The ringing telephone woke us the next morning.
Soon after, Em’s father called us to the kitchen. We leaned against the counters, sharp edges boring into our backs, while he condemned Em for being reckless and irresponsible.
I tried to defend her, saying it wasn’t her fault, the lake house boys pushed her into it.
He turned to me very pointedly and said, “Why are you always here?”
Em yelled at her dad for being a jerk, but it couldn’t erase the deep shame that was already seeping into my bones. I banished myself to Em’s room, afraid that I’d pushed myself on this family I’d come to think of as my safe haven. I was an overbearing deviant who’d long overstayed my welcome. But I didn’t know what to do without Em.
It was the summer between our sophomore and junior years of high school. I was a newly lapsed evangelical who was once convinced I would grow up to be if not an outright martyr, then at least God’s instrument for a plan too miraculous to imagine. Before that summer, I proudly wore What Would Jesus Do bracelets and looked forward to youth group every week. I danced alongside my church friends as we belted “hip” Christian parodies like “Pharaoh Pharaoh” (played to the tune of the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”) and “Bible Man” (the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”). Every night before bed I read my New Adventure Bible and completed the accompanying lessons on humility and virtue. I faithfully read Brio Magazine for teen girls, from which I cut a chastity vow that I proudly taped to my bedroom wall.
At school, I tried to work up the courage to invite friends to youth group and witness to them about the necessity of accepting Jesus Christ into their hearts as their Lord and savior. I bought a bible for a boy who, after I said I couldn’t date him because he wasn’t a Christian, boldly proclaimed he’d read it cover to cover if I gave him one—not expecting that I would call his bluff. Shocked when I did and daunted by the Bible’s thin pages and sheer length, he declared he would worship Satan instead. I promptly wrote about the devastating debacle to Brio’s Dear Susie column. Susie didn’t write back, but her assistant did, encouraging me to take heart knowing that I was on the right path.
I laid awake each night, tallying my sins for the day, scrutinizing every little thing I said and whether it was mean or hurtful or tactless or ungodly: I shouldn’t have called my classmate a bitch behind her back. I shouldn’t have said “bitch” at all. I shouldn’t have taken the Lord’s name in vain. I shouldn’t have talked back to my parents. I shouldn’t have watched that R-rated horror movie at my friend’s house with all those sex scenes. I really shouldn’t have touched myself in bed.
My faith persisted through the beginning of high school. By the end of my freshman year, I discovered that it’s a lot easier to be pious in the absence of real temptation. I got my first boyfriend that spring, and it was harder than I ever imagined to keep repeating “No” when he tried over and over to put his hand up my shirt, then later, down my pants. I soon found myself doing things I vowed I’d never do until my wedding night. I reconciled this by telling myself we would get married one day, so God would (probably) forgive me.
When we broke up sophomore year, it didn’t occur to me that my boyfriend had pressured me. Instead, I was left feeling not only like an irredeemable sinner, but a horribly weak person with no integrity who compromised her principles for a boy—a boy who I hadn’t even really liked to begin with and, perhaps ironically, only dated because Em pushed me to.
I felt so much shame and self-loathing that I no longer knew how to face myself, let alone my religious parents and the majority of my friends who were still devout and strong in their convictions.
I felt unworthy of God, but I didn’t know who I was or could be without Christianity. I found myself wanting, needing, to push boundaries to learn where my new ones lay. But I was still so scared of being wrong and getting in trouble. I needed someone I trusted to push me to do it, to give me permission to break the rules. And Em, my sole rebellious friend, was eager to take me under her wing.
That’s why I was always at her house.
Em and I spent that summer testing limits we never dared push before.
We snuck booze from her parents’ liquor cabinet while they slept. We poured vodka into homemade Frappuccinos and slid in our socks across the hardwood floor, laughing at our drunkenness as quietly as we could. Whether we actually were drunk, I can’t say. Maybe it was all in our heads, or maybe it was the pure giddiness that came with breaking the rules for the first time.
We crashed poker games in the basements of upperclassmen we barely knew, gambling away our money even when we actually won because we were nervous and missed something very important in the community cards of our Texas hold ’em game. I refused to show our hole cards if we lost—a tactic I believed would prevent people from being able to read us. What it really meant was that if we messed up, no one would know and they certainly wouldn’t take our word for it.
We showed off our bodies, wearing skirts and tank tops that felt scandalously but thrillingly short and low-cut. We waxed our pubic hair for the first time, sitting pants-less on her bedroom floor, coaching each other through the pain. This emboldened us to sport bikinis not only on her dad’s speedboat, but also in her used Toyota Corolla as we drove around town, frequenting fast food drive-throughs and anywhere we might meet new boys.
When we met a boy named Jay and his less-than-cute sidekick KC, they insisted on taking us for a late-night joyride in Em’s Corolla, blasting the pop punk of the early aughts. Without warning, they drove to the community college to do donuts in the parking lot, whipping the car in fast circles that left me screaming. My terrified protests only compelled them to drive faster and brake harder each time, until they lost control and crashed into the median, totaling the car. We told her parents we hit a tree stump because the roads were slick.
Each time we pushed a new boundary, a familiar, nagging voice crept into my head, telling me it was wrong, I would get in trouble, I would be a bad person. Each time I voiced my anxiety to Em, she cajoled me, just like I needed her to. I had to figure out if I still believed in that voice, if that voice even belonged to me, or if it was just one more thing that had been pushed on me by other people, making me believe that what someone else wanted—my boyfriend, my parents, even God—mattered more than what I wanted.
So when Em asked me to go to Jay’s lake house in the middle of the night, we played out what had become a familiar, well-rehearsed dance.
We snuck out through her bedroom window and ran through the cover of night across the neighborhood, thrilled by our own daring.
At the lake house, we drank cheap beer and played strip poker with Jay and KC. I objected to stripping until they egged me on. But I paid attention. I studied the community cards closely, making sure I not only won, but that I didn’t overlook my win. I dominated the game, forcing Em and Jay to strip down to their underwear and KC to undress completely, revealing a gaunt, ghostly torso and scrawny legs. He covered his junk with a throw pillow, looking, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, very pleased with himself.
I sat across from him in the living room, shaking my head, reveling in the fact that I’d only taken off my jeans. By this point, Jay was too excited by Em’s half-naked body to care about the game anymore. The two of them disappeared under a quilt at the opposite end of the couch. They sloppily made out and groped each other while KC and I pretended not to hear. I focused on beating him, and he remained hellbent on getting my top off.
Before he could succeed, Jay’s father burst through the front door. We tried to flee. But we were tipsy and our escape plan failed in less than ten seconds. Jay’s father headed us off in the kitchen. We stood there in various states of undress—KC with nothing but the throw pillow to save his dignity—feeling terrified and exposed.
Jay’s father was a hulking figure with a deep booming voice that paralyzed us all. It felt like God himself was condemning me.
Em and I crept back to her house through the neighborhood like criminals, the night no longer thrilling but ominous. If I worried about going to hell before, I could bet all my chips that I’d be damned there now.
The next day, Jay’s father called Em’s father.
Her father called us to the kitchen.
“Why are you always here?” he said.
When I got home, my mother didn’t yell at me. Instead, she looked at me with disappointment that only deepened my shame and conviction that I was a horrible person. She sat beside me on my bed, where I’d burrowed beneath the blankets, and calmly told me I was grounded. I accepted my punishment almost eagerly, knowing deep in my still rule-abiding bones I deserved much worse.
Not long after the lake house incident, calls from Em grew few and far between. Actual hangouts even more sporadic.
She went to homecoming at another high school with a new crush. This crush’s sidekick—like all sidekicks it seemed—needed a date. Instead of bringing me like she always used to, she invited someone else. My only consolation was that she asked me to do her hair. The two of us alone in her room, she confessed that she invited the other girl because I was “too pretty” for the sidekick. Part of me was flattered and buoyed by this admission, especially when he showed up later. Everything about him looked a little greasy, from his pimply face to his tangled hair.
I wanted to believe this really was the reason Em didn’t bring me to the dance. But deep down, I had doubts. Believed I must have done something wrong to drive her away. Maybe I’d grown too whiny. Too annoying. Too clingy. Maybe my friend had gotten her fill of rebellion, and she saw me as an enabler. Maybe, like her father, she could no longer stand that I was always around. I never knew, because she never said. She just drifted away until she no longer called at all.
Years later, I ran into Em’s father at a wedding reception. I was a little drunk and a lot surprised. He was affable, like we were old friends, like he’d never said that horrible thing to me, or if he had, he’d only been joking.
He wagged his finger playfully, apparently a little drunk himself. “I remember you were always getting Em in trouble!”
“Me!” I said, truly incredulous. “It was her! She was the instigator!”
I kept thinking about that exchange long afterward, because it presented me with a possibility I’d never considered: Em stopped hanging out with me not because she stopped liking me, but because her parents told her to. They thought their beautiful angelic daughter was suddenly getting into trouble because she’d made a new devious friend.
It certainly would’ve been easier for Em to pretend that were true, rather than admit she was no longer sure she believed and wanted the same things her parents did.
I can’t know if this is really what happened. This could just be a story I told myself to feel better about a painful loss that made me continue to question my self-worth. What I realize now, more years later still, is that it honestly doesn’t matter.
What matters is I needed my friend at that particular moment in my life. And I think she needed me too—the willing pushover who allowed her to explore all the adventurous and mischievous parts of herself that she was too ashamed to reveal to anyone else.
What matters is she was there when I needed someone to tell me what to do, to push me to explore who else I could be after the person I always thought I was died in my bedroom one deceptively sunny afternoon, when a boy made me believe I owed him my body.
What matters is she was there for me when I didn’t yet understand that this boy violated my boundaries, that I wasn’t a bad person, that it wasn’t my fault.
What matters is that even if I had wanted to do those things, it still wouldn’t make me a bad person.
What matters is that finally, after all these years, I’m starting to actually believe it.