Redlands, CA, March 2003
Stacy may or may not have "kind of" had sex. She told Meg, James, and me one morning before class as we stood casually by the lockers, cradling paper-bag covered books close to our chests.
"Last Thursday," she said. "And now my period is a day late."
"What do you mean, kind of?" I asked, certain that Sunday school had taught her nothing, and maybe a quick health lesson could clear this all up before the bell. What she described was pretty much second base. I rolled my eyes.
Stacy was a sucker. She'd been talking about her wedding since middle school. While the rest of our group sat sulking and shit-talking in the back of the auditorium during chapel, she sat up front and sang all of the worship songs. And now, she took off her promise ring for the first guy who said "I love Jesus." I wished I could have said I was surprised.
Meg reached into her locker and pulled out a yellow spiral notebook. It was slim and bent. Spelled out in Sharpie on the cover, and positioned next to a smiley face sticker, was a title: Love Lives, Rarr! Names of approved authors were documented in a small column on the left-hand side of the cover: Morgan + Meg, and + Stacy and + James + Kristen and also + Becky + Jessica. She passed it to Stacy.
"I didn't want to say anything," Stacy's entry began, "because I didn't want you guys to think I'm a whore. He didn't cum, he just put it in for a minute. But we didn't use a condom. Anyway I'm pretty much still a virgin under technicalities. And yes, we're getting married and we're madly in love."
The Walk Home From the Subway After Work, October 30, 2009
This story ends a week ago when a pigeon hit me in the face on West 99th. I was thinking about music and exodus. I was thinking about confessing, and wondering if it would help, if I could ever be clean.
I've started collecting dead birds. The steps in front of my building, 105th, 114th, the steps behind my building. Sometimes it is only a wing. Once there was blood. Sometimes I don't notice them until I've passed, and I stop to decide if she was number four or five. I do not consider anything else about the bird. Andrew says it's like the beginning of a horror movie, when the main character sees omens in everything, knives seem to shift themselves in the kitchen and curtains breeze without wind. I know this is Biblical. I know they are plagues and I am also a plague. I never learned what to do to make them stop, or when it will end, or who should be set free.
The Yellow Notebook
Like everyone else in high school, we wrote notes. They were standard: J looks cute today; I can't believe Mr. H told me to be quiet in government class; I just discovered this new band The Clash they're so punk (something Stacy would have said); I'm hungry where should we go for lunch?
Honest-to-god crushes and significant romantic developments related to said crushes were absolutely reserved for discussion in The Yellow Notebook. Since Stacy had a steady, fairly boring boyfriend, Jared, she didn't often have much to say. But that was too bad for her. Once, when she tried to slip in some comments about that week's Gilmore Girls episode, I immediately wrote, "The Yellow Notebook is not the place for Gilmore Girls gossip." It was strictly business.
By lunchtime that day, it was clear that Stacy had really committed to the idea. Instead of asking us to lend her money, like usual, she demanded we pay for her lunch because she was "eating for two." And by that afternoon, it was clear that I wasn't going to let this go any further.
Still a virgin, and stranded at Christian school without sex ed, I knew nothing about pregnancy tests—which one was best, or whatever. But somehow after school we—rather, I—managed to scrape money together to buy one, pile into my car and head to my house where we could put the invented crisis to rest over a couple of iced teas: Meg and I smirked condescendingly as we waited in my room, Stacy an absolute wreck a few feet away, behind the bathroom door.
Sitting cross-legged in a tiny circle on the shag rug in my room, Meg calmly read every instruction on the pink and white package before handing it over to Stacy and sending her to the bathroom. She stood up and walked out silently, eyes focused soberly on the carpet, and closed the door to my room behind her.
The Friendly Place
This was around the time I read The Bell Jar and discovered Bette Davis on Turner Classic Movies, drowning in the suburban aesthetics and pocked with Biblical cautioning. I saw birds in the orange groves and felt my eyes glaze over.
Redlands, California is known for its oranges and churches. In Redlands, the houses line up in clean rows. Front yards are neat green squares. The sun is involved in every day, pressing on spotless sidewalks, the tops of shiny cars. Eyes glaze with tracts of artificial grass. Shit is extremely pleasant.
The city of Redlands has two names: The City of Churches and The Friendly Place. Neighbors consult one another about lawn care methods. Things and people in The City of Churches are ideal. Neighbors do not let neighbors see them cry.
The first time I went into the house next door, I realized it was exactly like our house, but everything was in reverse- rooms on the left were instead on the right, the staircase was on this end of the house instead of that end- and everything smelled different. There are only three houses on my street, and they are repeated like this one two three one two three one all the way around the cul-de-sac.
House number five brings us white chocolate bark at Christmas. House eleven is where we get Girl Scout cookies. When I was younger, we had block parties during the summer. We stuck a grill in the middle of the block and chatted politely with people we usually only waved at. We did this twice. Since then, everyone keeps to themselves. There are people inside these houses, but they are too unimportant to name here.
My parents are these people. One Sunday morning after the 3 a.m. showing of Jezebel, I woke to the sound of my father cutting the grass at the same time as the neighbor father. They discussed types of fences and gossiped about other people on the block. I heard the neighbor father give my father advice on how to trim the ivy around our doorway. Later I asked if we could keep the ivy growing wild around my window, almost creeping in through the sill to choke me.
This is all about assimilation, how it feels to sink into a place, to become the orange groves. Dogs wake up. Mothers make coffee to sit in van cupholders. Somehow, after a time, carpools arrange themselves.
The Other Thing
Stacy's test was negative, and we allowed her to put on a show of relief for a moment before I moved our lives along. "Now can we talk about prom?"
"You guys, our lives are so ironic!" Stacy wrote in The Notebook the next day, following my morning entry, which began "STACY ISN'T PREGNANT so I'm gonna talk about Jake and his beard."
"When I talked to Jared he was happy and relieved. But he felt embarrassed that I told you guys that his penis was big and that doing it was difficult. I still haven't thrown away the test. It's in my car, and I don't know what to do with it!"
This was the beginning of the end with Stacy. Soon afterwards, I only saw her between classes. She wanted whatever she already had, and I wanted that other thing, whatever it was.
Last week a friend asked, "Do you think about it a lot? Sin?"A daughter of two socially-conscious liberals, from a home where fundamental organized religion was "frowned upon," her mouth was wide open when I told her that I literally constantly think about sin. It makes me feel sick. It feels so good to be bad.
Redlands, CA, Spring 2006
Things heated up with the temperature. Spring predicted rebellion: James finally came out, we all became fairly interested in the science of giving blowjobs, and we didn't just laugh at the rules of our Christian Academy—we totally ignored them. It was Stacy's pregnancy "scare" that first got me thinking: What will we be like without rules?
The power of God, Bible class said, would help us battle these desires and pursue lives that were humble and pure. If you want to cry, pray harder, we were told. Imagine my delight in finding the power of God in a blue and white pill. Imagine James's relief in finding out that the power of God was something lifted from his chest.
When James came out to his parents, he told me, he was sitting across from them at a booth in Coco's, where we often used to go to have omelets and chicken fingers and pie, and watch the old people. "I'm gay," he said. They said no, he probably wasn't sure, maybe he should sleep with a few women first and figure it out, did he even know what it meant? He told me at that point he clarified: "I have sex with men!" using his stage voice, inviting gray heads throughout the restaurant to turn and stare.
When I started taking Prozac, I got an itchy feeling. Now, as an adult, I describe this as "anxiety." Back then, I described it by the way I rolled around on the white carpet in the living room, unable to do anything else. I tried three medications that summer. I did not read any of the seven books for 10th grade Honors English Literature. I wasn't even sure if I would make it back to school in the fall.
All I really wanted was rain. To wake up and not see blue skies. For flip-flops to be inappropriate. To acknowledge the mothers who were drunks, the eighth graders on cocaine. The Bible says to confess, but everyone else says make your dark hide and slither, make it a warm beer and a cigarello on a ledge above Interstate 10, overlooking the park.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015) and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). She lives in Brooklyn and at morgan-parker.com.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]