We were both eighteen but Rebecca was hopelessly naïve. She talked about her crush, Brother Matthew, with an unbridled enthusiasm I hadn’t seen since middle school. The first time he flirted with her, she told me the story like her life was never going to be the same.
When he was “babysitting” Rebecca and her brother one night, Matthew opted to join her on the couch instead of sitting alone on the love seat. The babysitting thing was pretty ridiculous considering that Rebecca was old enough to menstruate, drive and even vote, though as a Jehovah’s Witness, she never would.
Rebecca positioned herself so that Matthew would have to prop her feet in his lap in order to sit down but he was the one to initiate further contact.
“Major contact,” Rebecca said.
I tried to look excited about her story.
“And then, this is kind of weird but he kissed my foot.” She reenacted the kiss on my foot. It seemed like something that could have been brotherly, parental even but I didn’t tell her that.
We we’re supposed to be studying the Bible that day. My mom had recently stopped going to AA and decided to become a Jehovah’s Witness instead; one cult for another, her boyfriend said. She said I didn’t have to go to all the meetings with her as long as I agreed to study the Bible with Rebecca, the daughter of the woman who was basically like her sponsor for the Jehovah’s Witness thing. So every Saturday morning for an hour, Rebecca would come over in church clothes, these terrible old lady sweaters and long flowered dresses and read out of a book called The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived. It didn’t take us very long to abandon the book and move on to my mom’s Cosmos instead.
It was like she was from a foreign country. She had never seen an R-rated movie, not even Pretty Woman, had never even seen the Wizard of Oz, because of the witch. She had never heard of Nirvana, let alone Kurt Cobain, and one time she thought I was talking about Marilyn Monroe when I mentioned Marilyn Manson. Rebecca was home-schooled from the sixth grade on and forbidden to watch MTV. She and her brother weren’t even allowed to play Mario Brothers because it had “magic” in it, like getting flower power and shooting fireballs were a way of practicing the dark arts. Maybe that’s why the Matthew thing was so huge to her–there were so many rules and restrictions–breaking just one had to be liberating.
“It was like a flash of heat was pounding through me,” Rebecca said, describing his touch.
I had already forgotten those surges of emotion, how exciting kissing could be, how intense all that stuff was when it was still new.
The second time Matthew sat on the couch with Rebecca her head was in his lap. Not like gross or anything, just her head on a pillow on his thigh. The only thing he did then was brush her hair behind her ear. Then he rested his arm on her, his hand near her hip, fingertips moving in mindless circles on her skin.
That reminded me of the seventh grade too. Back when we all had Disneyland passes and used to go every weekend to make out in the Haunted Mansion. We were a tourist’s worst nightmare, a pack of loud preteens pretending to be drunk on the small amount of alcohol we’d sneak in. Our parents took turns picking us up at midnight and on the way home I would lie against my boyfriend pretending to sleep, wishing he would do the hair behind the ear thing but he only did it once. Finger-banging he could do, no problems there, but hair behind the ear and handholding were different, things that fell away around the one month mark in middle school.
It was April when Rebecca and I started “studying the Bible” together. We were both getting ready to finish high school and it was an exciting time. I got a job as a hostess at a fancy restaurant and was starting community college classes in the summer. Rebecca was excited too, but in a different way. She was getting ready to be baptized and become a pioneer for her church. A “pioneer” is a person who spends at least 100 hours a month knocking on doors in the name Jehovah God, sharing his promises of everlasting life on a paradise earth, how we’ll all live in peace and have tigers for pets and never grow old. Brother Matthew was a pioneer and someday he was going to be an elder in the congregation. Rebecca was proud when she told me this, like him being rich in terms of righteousness was the same as being a millionaire.
Then one Saturday when she came over, Rebecca had this stupid smirk on her face. “He kissed me. I’ve been kissed. I now know how to kiss!”
“How was it?” I asked.
“It was like melting,” she said.
“Wait. How old is he again?”
“Forty-two, I think.”
“Jesus, Becca! That’s kinda fucked, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. “It’s not that bad. I mean, I’m sure we’re going to get married eventually so it’s really not that big of a deal.”
After she said that, I had one of those moments that I often had with her. I wanted to shake her and tell her that she was crazy and too naive and that things don’t just work out like that. She had that uncompromised confidence that religious people always have, like there was no doubt that good things were in store for her, like she was immune to all the shit and turmoil that the rest of us know is inevitable. It was as if divorce, adultery and perverts were these strange things from another realm that she’d never have to deal with.
It made me want to hurt her, just to let her know that evil did exist and that it was all around her. That it wasn’t Mario and Luigi that her parents should worry about.
But I never said anything.
I was only 18 and didn’t know how to say the things I should have.
Three weeks later Brother Matthew went ahead and slept with Rebecca. She was quieter about this than the kissing and the cuddles that came before it.
“Did you bleed a lot?”
We were crossed-legged on the floor, painting our nails lime green. It was over 100 degrees outside and my room was so stuffy it was hard to breathe. The ceiling fan did nothing but spin around the hot air and nail polish fumes. It gave me a headache.
“Let’s go swimming,” I said, trying to cheer her up.
“What about your first time? Was it good?”
I told her about being drunk and getting fucked by a friend’s older brother when I was 14, how it was horrible and scary.
“I mean it definitely wasn’t rape or anything but it still felt like, out of control,” I said.
She looked at me and I could tell that she knew what I meant. She’d got caught in the same place I did, where she wanted it to happen but felt powerless when it finally did, wanted to take it back on one hand but felt relieved it was over on the other.
She had to borrow a bathing suit. All I had were bikinis and she’d never worn one before. I wasn’t much taller than Rebecca but she was way curvier. She pulled her long dress over her head, revealing giant boobs smashed down by an overworked sports bra. A delicate ivory slip covered her from waist to knee.
“What is that?” I asked.
“What? My slip? It’s a slip,” she said.
“I mean I know what it is, but what is it for?” I asked.
“Don’t you wear slips under your dresses?”
I gave her a look.
“It’s so you can’t see through the dress,” she said.
“But that dress isn’t see-through at all.”
Rebecca looked at the dress on the floor and took off her slip, “I guess it’s not. I don’t know, my Mom just makes me wear one.”
This made me jealous in a strange way.
I gave her the least stringy bikini I had, it was blue with underwire in the top, which she would obviously need. When she took off her granny panties to put on the bottoms I couldn’t help but notice her black puff of pubic hair.
“Jesus, Becca, don’t you think it’s time for a trim?”
“You’ve got a full-blown 70’s muff.” I hooked one finger and pulled at the top of her bikini bottoms. She flinched. I pulled down the top of mine a little. “See, landing strip only.” It dawned on me that Rebecca probably hadn’t seen many naked women outside of herself and her mom.
“Oh crud, it’s way too small.” She tried to arrange the thick mounds of flesh that bulged out of the bikini top.
“Holy shit Becca, no wonder Matthew couldn’t keep his effing hands off you.” I untied and then retied the straps trying to make it work.
She smiled and looked at herself in the mirror. And once again that feeling came over me, that protective hatred or whatever it was. It disgusted me to think of a grown man pressing up against her body. How he must have slid his hand down and had some moment of recognition when his fingertips reached that soft patch of hair. He had to have realized that he was about to trespass upon a completely untouched territory. Then he had the audacity to do it anyway.
I gave Rebecca a big black t-shirt to wear over the bikini.
The seafood restaurant I worked at was called Harpoon Harry’s but all the servers called it “The Hairy Poon.” I had been working there for about a month when some drunk girl left her I.D. at one of the tables. I started using it to go out with some of the servers who were all in their twenties and working their way through college very slowly. They would get off at 11:00 and take me out to clubs in L.A. and then to a handful of after-hours spots. We’d dance and they’d put little pills on the tip of my tongue and then make sure I drank enough water like some warped version of a protective older sibling. Then we’d go back to somebody’s apartment. By that time the loud ringing in our ears would drown out most attempts at conversation, so we’d smoke weed and crash, or do lines and hook-up with each other. When that happened there would always be threesomes or foursomes crowded onto the only bed in somebody’s studio or loft. There’d be people on the bed and then a couch full of onlookers nodding out. Tracks of house music blended into one another on the stereo until the sun finally became bright through the windows. Then at noon everyone would head home–the raver version of Cinderella’s midnight–to nap before heading back to the restaurants and bars they called work.
It was so different from the high school and college parties I’d gone to all my life—house parties with a keg, red cups everywhere and someone throwing up on a lawn. The restaurant people seemed so glamorous and sophisticated compared to the other Orange County people I knew. They knew about drugs, food, art and endless styles of music from decades before they were born. More than anything though, it was how they just didn’t give a shit that impressed me most. That particular brand of recklessness that pop songs and people in their twenties associate with “being alive.”
I first met Trent Navajas on one of these weeknights out with the servers. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was impressed when Trent told me what he did for work, being a dancer is one thing but actually playing Aladdin in a show at Disneyland is quite another. Plus, he was gorgeous. He had to look like Aladdin after all, which meant constant shirtlessness and perfect brown skin. He was the kind of pretty that makes you feel great-looking just from being around it. Strange, infectious beauty.
I slept with him the third time we hung out, but we both realized it was better to be friends. The way he fucked was too much for me, too far beyond hair pulling and slapping. There were teeth and closed fists. It was so disturbing I talked to him about it after. He said I should have said something, that I shouldn’t have acted like I was into it. Suddenly, I was the naïve one. We both apologized.
Instead, Trent became one of my favorite dance partners. Together we’d hop in and out of places all up and down Hollywood Blvd, from The Playhouse to King King to Rock Bottom to The Echo, we knew enough bartenders, bouncers and DJs to drink and get in free almost everywhere, especially if the bartenders were gay. Gay men couldn’t resist Trent and he always flirted back. He was always ready to shout his phone number or fill out a cocktail napkin for potential drink hookups.
It was a summer of foam parties and glow sticks. Neon condoms and cyber sex. Besides going out at night Trent also showed me where to shop on Melrose and how to fray my cutoffs. I spent every meager paycheck getting wasted and buying cloths. Slinky halter-tops, glittery mini-skirts, stripper platforms. Stuff that you couldn’t wear anywhere besides a club.
It wasn’t very long before I stopped coming home on weekends and started missing my “bible studies” with Rebecca, which my mom didn’t like. She didn’t want Rebecca’s mom to think she was a bad parent. So I played good girl for a while and made sure I was home.
Most of the time we talked about sex since I was the only person she could talk to about that stuff. I kept a running list of all the things she’d never done. She had never taken one puff of a cigarette, never had a sip of alcohol, never worn eyeliner or red lipstick, or dyed her hair. And she’d never had a friend outside of church except for me.
There were two things, though, that Rebecca swore she knew for sure. One was that she was in love, 100% in love with Matthew and ready to spend her life with him. The second was that she was 100% positive that she had had an orgasm, several orgasms even. Both were hard to believe, but the orgasm thing just seemed crazy. I’d been doing it since high school and had never had one. Even when I was rolling, I hadn’t had one. That didn’t seem fair, but I was pretty sure she didn’t know what she was talking about.
Even though we didn’t really study the bible, I still learned a lot about “the truth.” That’s what they call it, being “in the truth.” Or if you were not a witness, then you were not “in the truth.” Rebecca told me that the world was going to end soon and that anyone who had been exposed to the Jehovah’s Witness religion and then rejected it– anyone who rejected “the truth” in other words–would end right along with the “system of things.” That’s what they call the world outside of “the truth.” We are all a part of the “system of things.”
We were out on my mom’s balcony one time talking about this stuff. I was smoking one of my mom’s menthols. Mom hadn’t had a drink in over a year, but still couldn’t bring herself to quit smoking.
“So what if you’re not exposed to the truth, then what happens? Like what if no one ever knocks on your door? What if you’re some kid in the middle of nowhere in Africa or New Guinea or something?” I asked, careful to exhale away from her.
“If you’re never taught the truth, then you still get resurrected and get to live in the paradise on earth,” she said. “You’re safe.”
“Then why don’t you just leave people alone?”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“If people never ever get to know anything about Jehovah, then they get to go to heaven right?”
“No, they don’t go to heaven. They just get to live in the paradise. Only the anointed 144,000 go to heaven.”
“That’s what I mean. If they never know, then they get to go to paradise. Right?”
“Well then why don’t you just stop fucking preaching to everyone so we can all go?” I smashed my cigarette on the metal rail of the balcony, watched it fall to the ground after I flicked it off the edge.
Rebecca looked away and I could tell she was trying to figure out an answer.
Something itched my throat and I started coughing uncontrollably. When I stopped she finally said something.
“I guess we just believe that the way we live is the way that brings the most happiness, so we want people to learn it and be happy like we are, that’s all.”
I pictured a hairy old man on top of her grunting and breathing heavy.
What did she know about anything?
Three months later I got a random call from Rebecca. She asked if I could pick her up. Whatever it was that she had to tell me, she didn’t want to talk about it on the phone. I knew it was going to be about Matthew and on the way there I tried to plan what to say to help her feel better.
It was early evening when she got into my car and handed me an envelope. There was a wedding invitation inside. Matthew had gotten engaged to another Jehovah’s Witness woman from a different congregation. It was hard to believe that Rebecca was so out of touch, so convinced that they were on the brink of being engaged when he was banging another woman the whole time.
Then I realized that he probably wasn’t sleeping with the other woman. The other woman got all the things that Rebecca didn’t get. Regular couple stuff–dinners out in public, day trips, talks about the future—things Rebecca didn’t even know she was missing.
I expected her to start gushing tears and snot after she told me, but instead she cried silently. I drove around, going nowhere and soon it was dark out.
There is something about sitting with someone in the near-silence of a dark car that creates a tremendous illusion of safety. It allows people to say the things they need to. Maybe it’s the way you don’t have to directly face the person you’re talking to. It’s a way of being there for someone but not being there all at once. I found out that my father was gone, that my mom had relapsed, and that my grandma had died, all in the safety and protective darkness of a passenger seat. In my case, it was usually my mom in the driver’s seat, sloshed out of her mind with a cigarette dangling from her hand. Cold air would swoosh through the window while the stench of vodka and pine tree air freshener fought to be the dominant scent. I could always feel it when her eyes were on me, and the slight loneliness that came when she looked away.
This time I was the one driving in circles. Turning at random to keep us moving. Brief bursts of suburban streetlights flashed over Rebecca in a steady rhythm. I hated that it was her who ended up in the passenger seat that night, but I knew that she needed that devastation too.
I drove us to 7-Eleven, bought a pack of cigarettes and two cups of coffee. I smoked almost half a pack as we drove down the coast.
That was the night we finally became friends. She stopped trying to preach and I stopped judging. Stopped thinking she was a religious idiot just long enough to see where we were the same, how we were both just girls, trying to act like grown-ups, pretending we had control.
The next Saturday was Halloween, so I invited her to go out with me. She lied to her parents about spending the night at another witness’s house. I picked her up so we could get dressed at my house. I was going as a gypsy with my face painted like a sugar skull. For Rebecca’s costume, I pulled out all the funky club attire I owned to figure out some kind of outfit.
Then it hit me. “Britney Spears! You can be like a Goth Britney with the school girl thing and all that.”
“What’s Goth?” she asked.
“You know those people who wear all black that are really into The Cure.”
Of course she’d never heard of The Cure. People in “the truth” are not interested in The Cure.
I gave her a plaid mini-skirt, a fitted white dress shirt that she could barely button up, and knee-high fishnets. Then I had her try on three different kinds of heels before deciding on some clunky lace-up platforms. I smeared thick black liner around her eyes and smudged it just right. Then I lined her lips with a deep cranberry color before adding black lipstick and two 80’s-style diagonals of blush.
“What if I get cold?” she asked.
“You won’t. As soon as we get a few drinks in you you’ll be fine.” I said this to see how she’d react. “Trust me, if you’re crazy depressed and truly want to forget about him, a few drinks is totally not a big deal.”
She sighed, suddenly overwhelmed. I could see her eyes water, but she blinked the feeling away.
“Trust me.” I rubbed her arm briefly, trying to console her without making a big thing of it. Then I made fun of how pale she was and gave her self tanner.
I painted my face white and used black eyeliner to paint the skull’s teeth along my lips. Then I slicked on black paint in wide ovals that covered my eyebrows and the entire area around my eye sockets.
When my face was done, it looked just how I pictured it, skeletal, angular, androgynous. A web pattern spread across my forehead and the teeth along my lips looked surprisingly symmetrical.
Before we left I doused Rebecca in shimmery glitter gel. Chest, arms, cheekbones, thighs. Then I taught her how to bend forward and position each breast for maximum cleavage.
We stopped at a liquor store before getting on the freeway. All eyes were on Rebecca and me as we walked past a line of men by the counter. She struggled to maneuver in the chunky platforms, trying to ignore the men’s eyes on her.
I picked out some raspberry vodka to mix with a bottle of Gatorade. We got in line behind a young father and his tiny daughter who was dressed like Cinderella. I smiled at her but she hid behind her father, frightened.
We parked at Trent’s house in Venice, before heading to WeHo. I introduced Rebecca to everyone and they all complimented her costume.
“Uber-hot,” said Kendra.
“Britney meets bondage,” said Charles.
“Fuckable,” said Trent.
Trent was in his Aladdin uniform. His gay friend Charles was a landlocked pirate, which meant Cowboy clothes, an eye patch, and a fake rooster duct-taped to his shoulder in place of a parrot. Kendra was a butterfly, or maybe a fairy. I asked but she just gave me this smile like it was a secret. Her wings were so huge, she had to take them off for all of us to fit in the car.
In the car I told Rebecca to close her eyes and stick out her tongue.
“What is it?” She asked.
“You’ll see.” I placed a tiny pill on her tongue.
“It doesn’t taste like anything,” she said.
I handed her the vodka Gatorade to wash it down.
Everything was crazy in Hollywood. The street was closed and packed with people. It was like a Disney parade, but with nudity and drugs. The costumes were astonishing, hundreds of intoxicated, walking works of art. I could see Rebecca slowly come into her own. She’d stopped adjusting her outfit and started staring back at the men who looked at her.
We ended up at a club. Neon lights dashed bright spears of color across the crowded warehouse. Speakers towered over us, radiating deep vibrations and beats that became the pulse of a growing amalgamation. On the dance floor we became units of one giant organism swirling and gyrating, joining and breaking apart, cells under a microscope. I felt hands on my hips and warm breath blown onto my neck. My skin became salty and slick with sweat. I moved quickly but my limbs seem to flail in slow motion. Under the flashing lights the intricate costumes and painted faces looked otherworldly. Zombies and fairies, monsters and super heroes, devils and angels—they all morphed into giant mass of glitter, wigs and skin.
I saw Rebecca dancing with Trent and the look on her face made me happy.
Then I blacked out.
I didn’t come out of it until way later when we were back at Trent’s house. I came to in a bathtub with a guy dressed as batman standing over me. He had a grip on my hair and was positioning my face in front his dick. His black speedos were pulled down around his thick thighs and his entire body was covered with dark metallic paint. I pushed him away and the paint smeared all over my hands. He didn’t put up much of a fight, just slumped down in the bathtub as I walked out.
I searched for Rebecca and couldn’t find her so I checked the bedrooms. At the end of the hall I could hear someone banging on the door, jiggling the knob like they couldn’t get out. The door opened and Rebecca rushed out and dove into the other bathroom. In the room Trent was fully naked over another guy.
I heard Rebecca dry heaving in the bathroom. The door was wide open. It smelled like piss and bile. She hadn’t eaten anything that night so nothing was coming up. She looked up at me with a dead expression on her face. Her lips were dry and cracked, her shirt was ripped open. There were scratches near her throat and blotchy patches of red on her thighs and stomach where Trent’s hands must have tried to hold her in place. Her physical state showed what had happened but more than anything her expression told the story. It was a look of utter devastation, a look I’d seen before in my own reflection, and on my mom’s face when she relapsed. It was the kind of look that Rebecca’s parents fought to keep off of their children’s faces, something she was never supposed to know but here she was.
Rebecca put her head back in the toilet and that terrible sound came from her again. There was no way I could rearrange the facts. This was all my fault, some vindictive desire I’d been hoping for.
I crouched down and rubbed her back. Held what was left of her pigtails away from the toilet. When she finally lay down on the floor I brought her water and a t-shirt and sweats from a pile of dirty clothes. I wiped the urine off of her legs and slid off her soaked underwear. This time there was hardly any hair on her.
I eventually laid down next to her on the bathroom floor. A dark blue sky was visible through the small bathroom window but I couldn’t tell what time it was. When I woke up the sun was beaming and Rebecca was gone.
I found out later that it was Matthew who came all the way from Orange County to pick her up in Venice that morning. There was no one else for her to call. She must have told him everything because only a few days later Rebecca was disfellowshipped from her congregation. Or maybe she finally threatened to tell her and Matthew’s secret and that was how he retaliated.
They do the disfellowship thing to keep their “flock clean.” My mom was the one who told me what had happened to Rebecca and what it meant. When a person is disfellowshipped no one in the congregation is allowed to communicate with them. Not their friends, family or their parents even. Just when the person needs them most, everyone is gone. I thought for sure that she would call me when my mom told me this. I practiced what I’d say to her in my mind all day, then the days turned into weeks. It was like Rebecca just disappeared. When my mom asked her mom where Rebecca was she wouldn’t say anything.
Later on I told my mom about what happened between Rebecca and Matthew. She stopped going to meetings after that, and after seeing how the whole clan went along with the shunning of wayward eighteen-year-old. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom about Halloween though, how I had served Rebecca up on a platter for two drug-addled deviants.
For a long time I’d think about it everyday, but now when I think of her I’ve trained myself to imagine that only good things happened to her after that night. That she went to college and found a man to marry and became a mother–things like that. But there is another voice in me that whispers what is more likely. Probably put a fucking gun to her head.
It says things like that, things that are hard to push out of my mind. Things that I sometimes cannot stop thinking about, that I hope are not the truth.
CYNTHIA ROMANOWSKI holds an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low residency program in Palm Desert. She is a former prose editor of The Coachella Review and a regular contributor to Lit Central OC. Her short stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Weekly Rumpus, MARY: A Journal Of New Writing and The Whistling Fire and she was recently selected to participate in the 2014 Emerging Voices Show for the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Currently, she lives in Huntington Beach, California and is at work on a linked short story collection.