Sarah K. Lenz
THE ’72 BUICK Skylark, painted split pea soup green, reminded me of a tank. At twenty-five years old, it showed its age, built before miles per gallon ratings and fiberglass bumpers. The peeling vinyl of the faux ragtop exposed the car’s rusting scalp. My parents bought the car from Aunt Gail for $75 when I was 17. Soon after I got it, my youth pastor, Jon, offered to repaint it, a spray enamel baptism. I dropped the Buick off with him. When I returned, Jon had peeled away the remaining vinyl and painted the body caution-tape yellow with two black racing stripes setting off the car’s curves. Above the rear fender, Jon had painted a small, black cross. I thanked him for his good work.
“Your car will be a witness to others,” Jon said. The Buick’s transformation was beyond what I could have imagined. The small cross in particular pleased me very much. Few kids at my school were Christians. Since I didn’t fit in anyway, I proclaimed my testimony boldly. As Pastor Jon said, “Following Christ sets you apart.” So did driving a bright yellow Buick at a high school where most kids drove tan Hondas. Above the cross, I added my own final touch, a bumper sticker that said, “Got Jesus?”
Every Wednesday evening I drove 30 miles over gravel roads flanked by ravines to the Evangelical Free Church. Though my mother was hesitant to let me drive so far after dark, she thought it important that I go to church, so she gave me permission. I loved the freedom I felt driving those country roads. I’d edge the speedometer needle up to 70, the loose gravel striking the undercarriage with dull pings. In that desolation of cornfields and cow-pastures, it was rare to meet another car. When I did, I’d see them coming for miles, plumes of dust trailing like whirling dervishes behind them.
I made friends easily at church. Youth group was one of the only places I could be with other teenagers who believed in Jesus. We went on camping trips together, raised money for homeless shelters and ran food drives. My family had just moved into a new district the year before, and except for my boyfriend Sean, I had no friends at my new school.
I met Sean because of my first close call with the Buick. I was on my way to school, speeding on the curve at the creek bridge before the gravel road merged with the state highway. Yielding to the oncoming traffic, I braked too hard. The car fishtailed. Dad had taught me to always turn into a skid. I cranked the wheel. The car slid to a stop, perpendicular to the road, pointing at a ravine full of thistles. I narrowly avoided plunging through the guard-rail into the creek below. My terror faded, replaced with pride. I kept the car on the road. I knew exactly what I was doing. I arrived at school late and the secretary signed my tardy slip and issued me after-school detention. Sean was the only other offender doing time that day.
I had admired Sean from afar because he didn’t dress like the other kids. He’d dyed his long hair Kermit green not long after I had dyed my own hair blue at a weekend youth group retreat. Sean wore grunge flannel and Vans skater shoes with wild, checkered shoelaces. We stood out among our preppy peers.
“For detention today you’re going to pick up garbage on the front lawn and the parking lot,” Principal Schaefer said, handing us latex gloves and garbage bags. “After you’ve filled your garbage bags, report back to my office.”
As I picked up a Snickers wrapper near the flag pole, I asked Sean what he was in for. He told me that since he had no one to wake him up in the morning, he was constantly tardy. His dad was a long-haul truck driver. His mom worked the night shift at a city post office 60 miles away and didn’t get home till after he had to leave for school.
“This is my tenth detention this month,” he said.
After detention he asked if I’d drive him home. Before he got in the car, he admired the Buick’s paint job. “But you should decorate the inside of it, too,” he suggested. We stopped at the Whoa and Go gas station, where he bought a Mountain Dew and a glittered peace sign sticker from a vending machine. Without asking me, he affixed the sticker to the glove box door. “There,” he said. “It’ll be the start of our collection.”
Over the next week, every day after school Sean and I worked on decorating the Buick. He rigged up Christmas lights to hang from the windshield, and I trimmed the top of the dash with pink fur. The door of the glove box was now plastered with a collage of stickers. I loved the car’s uniqueness. It thrilled me, too, that Sean and I were creating something together. We started spending a lot of time together, often in his parents’ basement, making out and dry humping on the red and gold shag carpet between the over-stuffed tweed chair and the pool table. Sean and I came close to losing our virginities to each other, but fear of sinning always stopped me.
It amused and baffled Sean that I took my religion so seriously. Once he bought me a bumper sticker for the Buick, which in a looping font and red glitter said, “Jesus Freak.” I knew that’s how everyone saw me, but the label had begun to feel stifling. I refused to paste the sticker on the car, and instead tossed it into the glove box, where it was soon buried under Sean’s Marilyn Manson tapes.
Most adults I knew disliked Sean. He had ADD and his aloofness pissed off teachers. Our classmates just ignored him. My mother hated that I was seeing Sean but his biggest flaw, in her eyes, was that he was a nonbeliever.
My second reckless driving incident happened a few weeks later. Our weekend dates consisted of cruising the strip down the main drag from the Whoa and Go gas station to the city park at the far edge of town. One evening, at the stoplight at the corner of Eighth and K, Angie Smith, from my homeroom, pulled up next to me in her mother’s Dodge Reliant. I never liked Angie. She wore dark plum lipstick and I considered her a thoroughgoing slut, not to mention that she was an Episcopalian. At the stop-light she gave me the stink-eye, revving the Reliant’s engine. I looked over at Sean, his handsome face glowing pink from the lights on the dashboard. He didn’t have his driver’s license yet and I wanted to show him I wasn’t always the goody-goody he thought I was.
The light changed and I stomped on the gas pedal. Our squealing tires must have alerted a nearby cop. Two blocks into the race, I saw the twirling cherries and pulled over.
“You’re in so much trouble,” Sean said. Was I imagining it, or did he sound relieved? For once he wasn’t the one pissing someone off.
I rolled down the window as Officer Madison approached. Everyone in town knew Chuck Madison. He and his two kids were fellow Christians. He looked like a blonde rat. The narrow mustache above his large teeth twitched as he handed me a $200 ticket. Before he walked back to his police cruiser, he said, “Girl, your bumper sticker says, ‘Got Jesus?’ The way you drive I sure hope you have the good Lord on your side.”
As for having Jesus, I’d started to wonder a few weeks before at a church sleepover. “Avoid even the appearance of sin,” Pastor Jon’s wife Mary had said. “Don’t put yourself in situations where you’ll be tempted by the flesh.” In a tangle of sleeping bags and pillows, a dozen high school girls and I crowded around her on the basement floor. As she flipped through the gilt-edged pages of her leather-bound Bible, the diamond on her engagement ring flashed in the fluorescent lights. From Colossians she read, “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, and lust. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self.” She paused then, looking at us with eyes so big, brown, and dewy they reminded me of Disney’s Bambi.
“My old self lost her virginity when she was still in high school,” Mary said. “To this day it’s my biggest regret. Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
As the other girls gazed up at her in shock or fidgeted uncomfortably with the zippers of their sleeping bags, I stared down at the carpet. Mary Simcox was pale, puffy, with crooked teeth and dull frizzy hair that made her confession all the more striking to me, since I could not imagine anyone wanting to take her virginity—let alone Pastor Jon, whom all the girls in my youth group had a crush on. Jon was only twenty-four, tall and muscular, with a dazzling, impish smile. Mary hadn’t even saved herself for him. In spite of this, he’d loved her enough to marry her. A miracle, it seemed to me.
Mary went on to explain that God had already chosen our husbands for us, and that we must keep ourselves pure until God revealed our spouse. If we didn’t cling relentlessly to our virginity, we risked future rejection by our devout, hypothetical spouses.
“God knows your desires,” she said—meaning, I assumed, that God knew exactly which man would satisfy me physically, which had become the main desire on my mind.
“Jesus forgave my sins on the cross,” Mary went on. “I thank God every day for protecting me. I could have gotten pregnant, or a disease.”
Not only did she break the deal, she hadn’t even used protection.
Just a few days before, Sean’s older sister, Erin, had given him a condom. He showed it to me, a cerulean circle wrapped in clear cellophane, the kind of novelty condom they give away at Planned Parenthood. A blue band of anticipation. Whenever I wanted to unwrap it, Sean assured me, he would be ready.
The next morning, after powdered sugar donuts and Styrofoam cups of Sunny Delight, Mary and Jon took us to a rundown school auditorium. A banner there proclaimed, “True Love Waits.” We sang a song asking the Lord to prepare us to be “a sanctuary, pure and holy.” Then the auditorium lights dimmed, replaced by the glow of an overhead projector. On a screen set up on the stage were the words we were supposed to speak.
Out of the darkness in front of the stage, the minister’s voice rose, saying “You are about to commit to something you will never regret.”
I wore one of Sean’s flannels. As I bowed my head, I smelled his smell: a combination of must and Cool Water cologne. My thoughts immediately drifted to our last make out session—after which I’d taken the red and black flannel I was now wearing. His kisses had been urgent, his tongue seeking mine. I realized then that everyone around me was speaking. My head jerked up. I looked at the screen.
Students: Because I believe God has a plan for my life, I commit to purity and abstinence from this day until my wedding day.
I imagined Sean slipping his lean shoulders out of his shirt and standing before me half-naked. Then he took off my shirt and bra. We clung to each other, feeling the warmth of skin against skin for a moment before he bent down to kiss my upturned, rigid nipples.
Minister: Sex is an incredible gift within marriage but it destroys the lives of those outside God’s plan.
I imagined slipping out of my jeans and pulling my panties off, while Sean began fingering me, gently at first, but then harder and harder.
“Let us pray,” the minister said. Two seats down from me, Jon and Mary sat holding hands. At the end of the prayer, we all joined together: “Amen.”
One afternoon about a week later, Sean and I were making out in his bedroom. We slowly stripped off layers of clothing down to our underwear. Each touch and response felt like learning a new vocabulary, a secret language we coined only for each other. He pressed against me and I felt him, hard beneath his boxer shorts. He nuzzled my neck and whispered, “I want you so bad.”
I thought about which was worse: having sex and regretting it or not having sex and regretting it. My desire pulsed. “Go get the condom,” I said.
Having intercourse for the first time didn’t hurt as much as I’d heard. There was very little blood. The ache of having Sean inside of me was full, but as quickly as it rolled through my body, it faded, replaced by something sweet and luxurious. Afterward, I lay on my back on Sean’s waterbed, looking at the glow-in-the-dark stars he’d pasted to his ceiling, our bodies rocking gently on the waves set in motion by our ecstasy. I hadn’t climaxed, but I had reached another kind of precipice. It was a feeling not altogether different from what I’d felt after my first incident with the Buick, the sense of danger mixed with pride. I marveled at how good it had felt to give in to desire, and at my daring in having done so.
When I went home for dinner that night, I fully expected my mother to know what I’d done. But as she sat across from me eating forkfuls of Hamburger Helper, I realized that my secret was mine alone. It seemed a shame to have to keep this marvelous transformation to myself. Take off your old self indeed, I thought, my whole body aglow with iniquity. As for having sinned against God, like most abstractions, guilt was easy to shrug off for the time being. God wouldn’t ground me or take away my Buick.
The following Wednesday before going to youth group, I stopped at Alco Variety Store to buy condoms. Amy Billman, who was in my gym class, worked as a cashier there. I put the box of Trojans on the counter, and handed her a crumpled, ten-dollar bill thinking smugly, Now at least one person knows. I had heard how dangerous sex outside of marriage was, but I felt invincible and unscathed.
That night, driving home from church after dark, I smelled spring on the air, loamy and damp. The gravel roads were soft at the edges, suspended between thawing and freezing. I sped, inching the speedometer up further and further to make curfew. When I took a curve too fast on the wash-boarded road, the Buick slammed sidelong into a ditch.
The impact threw me across the seat and I struck the passenger door shoulder-first. I stayed there for a moment, the car wedged into the ditch at a 45-degree angle, the right side of my rib cage aching. I crawled upward on the front seat to the driver’s side door and heaved it open. Standing in the middle of the desolate road, I looked over my beloved Buick, its headlights illuminating the swampy weeds. I walked around to the back, where the driver’s side rear wheel spun five feet above the ground. In the glare of the tail-lights, the “Got Jesus?” bumper sticker burned red. Had some divine providence kept me from rolling the car and being killed? Or had the Lord turned His back on me, his wayward lamb, and let me crash in the first place?
A neighbor pulled the Buick free with his tractor, but shortly before he arrived I remembered the condoms in the front seat. I scrambled back into the car and buried them deep into my backpack. Aside from a dent in the front fender, the Buick was fine, but I was shaken. It seemed so easy to lose control.
The last time I had sex with Sean, the condom slid off him and stuck inside me. When I pulled it out, it collapsed—a deflated balloon. I was furious. How could Sean have been so careless? How had I been? Two weeks later, when my period failed to arrive, I thought, I’m pregnant. Each time I visited the bathroom and saw the spotless white cotton of my panties, I had a reminder of my sin. I’d wanted a new life for myself, but I hadn’t considered how easy it was to make one.
Instead of sharing my worry with Sean, I dumped him. “We can’t have sex anymore,” I told him. “It’s a sin.” But what I really meant was I don’t want to wreck my life with a teen pregnancy. Sean said he was sorry, for what he didn’t even know yet. I couldn’t find the words to tell him I might be pregnant. Anyway, it was too late to turn back, I told him. His chance had slipped away.
I had hoped that once I broke up with Sean, I’d feel better. But now I was crushed by the realization I had broken his heart. The day after I dumped him, Sean came to find me at the local bowling alley where I worked. He stood at the shoe rental counter, the air thick with germicidal spray, and looked at me with such deep anguish on his face that I wanted to reach across the counter, hug him, kiss him, and tell him I loved him. But the terror of getting in trouble, of possibly being pregnant, made me stand my ground. This is the flesh tempting me, I told myself. You’re protecting your sanctuary.
In the days that followed, my mother noticed my nervousness and asked me what was wrong. She’d caught me in my room trying to read Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. We sat side-by-side on the pink, ruffled bedspread that suddenly seemed absurdly juvenile.
“If I tell you what’s wrong,” I said, “will you promise not to be mad?”
My mother nodded, but looked skittish.
“I’m afraid I’m pregnant,” I said.
As I explained what had happened, I couldn’t control my tears.
“Oh honey, if you are, we’ll deal with it,” she said and hugged me.
What she meant by “deal with it,” my mother never explained.
I thought that if I cleared my conscious with Pastor Jon, if I explained that I broke the True Love Waits pledge, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so crushed. When I arrived at the church to meet with Pastor Jon, he walked me down the hall and closed the heavy oak door to his office behind me, and sat at his desk.
“So—what’s up?” he asked, smiling.
“I lost my virginity,” I said, thinking how strange it was to use the word lost, as if virginity were a precious object, as if it was something I had thrown out without thinking, or smashed to pieces with my carelessness. The word lost reminded me of taking a wrong turn, of sliding off the road.
Jon’s smile faded. Through my teary eyes I couldn’t tell if what I read on his face was concern or disappointment.
“It’s over though,” I added as an afterthought, tears flowing. “I broke up with him.” Jon nudged a Kleenex box across the desk toward me.
“I want you to pray with me,” he said. “We’ll pray for your forgiveness, Sarah. God always forgives if we ask him.”
I tried to suck up my sobs long enough to listen to Jon’s prayer. Was I crying out of shame or over losing Sean? I really loved him. I didn’t regret having sex with him half as much as I regretted my recklessness. Not even that. I regretted not having gotten away with it.
Ten days later my period came. Either my mother saw the newly opened Tampax box in the bathroom, or she thought I learned my lesson, but she never spoke of it again. Except for Jon, no one at church knew. Sean got the next girl he dated pregnant. Stephanie was a grade below me, and during her senior year, she gave birth to his son. I had graduated high school by then and went away to Grace College of the Bible.
The fall of my first semester at Grace I totaled the Buick. My boyfriend at the time, James, a True-Love-Waits Christian who refused to go any farther than holding my hand, rode shot gun. At a traffic light at the bottom of a hill, the driver of a pick-up truck didn’t see me stopped until it was too late and rear-ended the Buick. The bumper buckled and the ‘Got Jesus?’ sticker tore in two, while the rear fenders caved in like a crushed pop can. While we waited on the shoulder of the road for a tow-truck, James said, “You look like you need a good scream. Go ahead, scream as loud as you can. You’ll feel better.” I took a deep breath and released a sound deep from the back of my throat, which rolled out of me in an unbroken stream. I screamed at the traffic rushing past us. My face flushed red with anger as I screamed at James, who I knew would never be the lover I wanted. I screamed at myself. I screamed until I was hoarse, and then I screamed more, until finally, I felt some sort of release.
Near the end of spring semester, after breaking up with James, I was expelled from Grace College for sneaking a boy into my dorm room overnight. Not long after—sick of the guilt and shaming—I stopped going to church altogether.
My roommate that last semester was engaged to a classmate she’d been dating for only two months. Amanda had told me she took the True Love Waits pledge, and she even wore a silver promise ring on her left hand. One night as we got ready for bed, I saw her pop a pill from a birth control compact.
“I’m still a virgin,” she explained. “I just want my body to get used to being on the Pill before the wedding. We moved the date up. Have you ever been on the Pill?” she asked.
“No,” I answered a little too forcefully. Amanda knew I wasn’t a virgin.
After we switched off the lights, from her top bunk she asked me, “Does it really hurt the first time?”
“It hurts,” I said. “But you’ll survive.”
Sarah K. Lenz holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska and an MA in literature
from Boise State. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review and Connotation Press.
She has been a regular contributor to Connotation Press’s “From Plate to Palate” column and co-star of
the online cooking show Spatula. She currently is an MFA candidate at Georgia College.