The summer I was eleven I became a Christian, my best friend since I was five called me up to say she hated me, and I rode down my cousin Tara’s driveway on a skateboard resulting in a wound that looked like someone slathered raspberry jam all over the left side of my butt.
Alice was my best friend and then the one who hated me. She and I became Christians during our time at a sleep-away camp called Lake Geneva Youth Camp. I’m not sure why Alice became a Christian, but I did it because I was afraid of going to hell and also of dying. And while I don’t remember LGYC saying much about Heaven, I do remember being shown maps of hell during Chapel and I knew I wasn’t interested in hanging out there. I wasn’t too keen on hanging out in Chapel after the hell tours, either.
But I asked Jesus to come into my heart, an idea that gave me the willies (Would I be able to hear Him now? Will He tell me what to do? And what not to do?), and a few weeks later, after we’d returned home, Alice told me she hated me.
We were on the phone when she did it. I remember because my mom had recently surprised me with a phone. It was red and had a “hold” button on it. Let’s say a friend called and wanted to know if I could come over and play. Instead of throwing the headpiece down on the bed or covering it with my hand when I yelled, “Mom? Can I go over to so-and-so’s house?” I could just press “hold” and put the receiver down. Like a secretary.
My mom said I could keep the phone in my room and that’s where I was on the day Alice said she hated me. We were discussing whether or not The Fresh Prince and Wil Smith were the same person. I was under the impression that he was two different people. I tried to tell Alice that Wil Smith was a look-a-like. “He just really likes the Fresh Prince and wants to act like him,” I told her. She told me I was wrong, and I, not being one to pursue an argument said, “OK. You wanna come over?”
“No,” she said. “Because I hate you.”
And then she hung up.
What I remember most about that moment was feeling my mouth crumple out of a smile. It happened slowly, the realization lingering as though I experienced the sadness physically, first. My breath caught as though I had been socked in the stomach. Tears formed and dripped down my face. It was like my body was telling my brain, “Callie is sad. We’re trying to let her know.” I can even remember holding onto the phone long after Alice had hung up because my fingers ached when I let go. By then, my mom was in my room trying to make sense of what happened.
I can remember where I was when I became a Christian, too: in a stall in the girls’ bathroom at camp. I’d snuck out of a Chapel service, overwhelmed at that morning’s message. I put the lid of the toilet seat down and sat on it, lifting my feet so my chin rested on my knees. “I don’t want to go to hell,” I whispered to my legs, and then raised my head towards where I thought Heaven was. I looked at the ceiling and saw spiders with bodies the size of my knuckles in the shadowy corners, motionless. I got the chills and looked back down at my knees.
“Dear God,” I tried again, “I mean, Dear Jesus, I don’t want to go to hell. Will you come into my heart? Amen.” I lifted my head thinking I’d see Jesus in the stall with me. Maybe I’d hear a choir, or feel more at peace. None of that happened, and I figured I’d done it wrong, so I kept asking until the day Alice told me she hated me and then I stopped.
About a week after Alice no longer wanted to be friends with me, my mom told me we were going to Rockford, Michigan, a little town about three hours North of Chicago where my Aunt Lucy, Uncle Bill, and cousins Jake and Tara lived. I was surprised when my mom walked into my room holding two bathing suits asking which I’d like to take on our trip. It was just a couple of weeks before school started and my mom liked to wind down the activities and get my brother and I on a school schedule. Now, when I think back on it, I think my mom was trying to take my mind off of what happened. Since that phone call, mostly what I did was sit in my room staring at my red phone with the “hold” button trying to figure out what I’d done wrong.
“We’re going to Michigan?” I asked.
“Mmm, hmm. A last hoorah before school starts,” my mom said, folding both bathing suits and laying them on my bed. She walked over to where I was sitting – at my desk looking at my phone – and put her hand on my head. “OK?” she asked, and I nodded. She ran her hand through my hair and squeezed my shoulder. A fresh batch of tears formed so that I couldn’t see the letters that made up the word “hold.”
The last night of summer camp at Lake Geneva was “Testimony Night.” This was the time when all the campers who became Christians that week could tell their story of the moment they accepted Jesus into their hearts.
It seemed to me that everything we did that week: the songs, the Bible stories, the plaque painting and lanyard making, all led up to this evening. Everything we did at camp was saturated with a lesson about Jesus, even our swimming lessons. “Remember this for Testimony Night,” the counselors would yell as we splashed into the brown-green water, and swam towards the diving dock, the pebbly shore becoming smooth the deeper I got until I couldn’t touch the lake’s floor.
The night Alice and I were to give our testimony, our counselor, Mrs. Midgeinski, suggested we start with singing but our regular piano player wasn’t available due to it being her night to serve in the kitchen cleaning up dinner.
“We can’t sing without a piano,” Mrs. Midgeinksi said. She surveyed us, a mixture of glorious anticipation and reverent strictness on her face. She made me nervous so I studied her black socks and noticed one was pulled slightly higher on her knee then the other. I leaned over to share my observation with Alice when Mrs. Midgeinski asked if any of us played the piano. Except she said it like this, “Is anyone a peenist?”
I remember my eyes growing wide when I looked at Alice and she glanced at me long enough to let me know that she too, thought this was the best part of our sleep-away camp, but then stared straight ahead: her face a solemn sweet.
“We need a peenist, ladies!” By now, the black sock that was higher had slipped to Mrs. Midgeinski’s ankle and I thought I would die if she asked for a piano player again.
“Do we have any peenists in the room?”
“No, Mrs. Midgeinski,” Alice said. “We’re all girls.”
I collapsed into laughter, my shoulders shaking, tears streaming down my face, and my belly stinging from the giggles. Gasps came from the campers around us. Heads turned, tongues clucked, one girl, I think she must have been Mrs. Midginski’s niece, said, “This is NOT appropriate on the evening of our testimony!”
Mrs. Midgeinski, who I don’t think got the joke, pulled up her sock and walked over to me and Alice.
“You girls,” she said and leaned in so that I could see the hairs on her chin. My mom was always telling me, “Callie, when I get old, don’t let me drool and don’t let me wear my facial hair. We are Greek, Callie, and some Greek women like to wear their facial hair.” I wondered about Mrs. Midgeinski’s ethnicity as she told Alice and I that if we couldn’t behave ourselves we would not have a chance to give our testimony.
This seemed like incentive to misbehave as far as I was concerned. I had no testimony. I wasn’t interested in telling the group that I accepted Jesus in a bathroom stall while spiders lurked overhead. But I didn’t have the guts to misbehave so while my fellow campers stood up to share their good news, I sat on my hands pinching the back of my legs so I wouldn’t think about Mrs. Midgeinski asking for a peenist.
Later that evening, after we all went to bed in our respective cabins, I heard Alice crying in the bunk below me. Alice had nightmares frequently and at sleepovers, the best way to calm her down was to check whatever it was she thought a monster was behind: under the bed, the closet, the toybox. At Lake Geneva that week, I’d checked our bathroom for her, and lifted up the shades to make sure nobody was leering in the window. “We’re OK, Alice. We’re safe,” I whispered so the other campers wouldn’t wake up.
“Thanks,” she said and we’d go back to sleep.
I walked down the ladder of the bunk and walked to the side of it expecting to shake Alice a little so she’d wake up and tell me what to check on. But Alice wasn’t asleep. She was sitting cross-legged, her hands folded in her lap and her head hanging.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, sitting on the floor next to her. I reached out and put my hand on her back.
“I miss my dad,” she sobbed.
This confused me. We were going home the next day. Why would she be homesick now? I rubbed her back a little, unsure of what to do. I said, “One more night and you’ll get to see him tomorrow.” This made Alice cry harder.
“No,” she said.
“No?” I asked, but Alice didn’t say anything. She cried and cried and I sat next to her, my hand on her back. After a while she lifted her head from her knees and looked at me.
“Don’t tell anyone about this,” she said.
“OK,” I said, but I wasn’t sure what there was to tell. “I won’t say anything,” I added.
The next day, we packed up silently. I attempted a few statements, but Alice would just shrug or say, “Yes,” “No,” or, “Hmmm, mmm.” I gave up after a while, confused and wondering what I’d done to upset her.
On the drive to Rockford, I sat in the backseat watching the Chicago skyline disappear as we rounded the lake, and wondered about that last night at camp. Did Alice think I told people that she had been crying? Is that why she hated me now? If she’d only asked I could’ve explained that I never told anybody. Would that have made a difference?
“Turn forward, Callie,” my mom said as she drove. I turned around to face the factories of Gary, Indiana. I wished I could take back whatever it was I did so that Alice didn’t hate me and we could be friends. What was wrong with me? What had I done?
At Lucy’s, we spent most of our time in the pool until Jake, my older cousin, he was fourteen then, decided diving off the board was too easy. He left and went inside and Tara and I thought we had the pool to ourselves until he showed up on the roof of the house.
“Get outta the way, Tara!” Jake yelled.
“Why?” Tara screamed back. “You can’t jump off the roof! That’s stupid!”
“I’m doin’ it! Get outta the way!”
I was swimming towards the ladder to get out, fully believing Jake would jump. He’d need a running start to clear the pavement with the grill and the hammock, and that’s probably why he’d turned around and was out of sight again. I didn’t want to be in his way when he came sailing through the air and smashing into the pool.
“Tara,” I said, “you should get out. Jake could crash right into you.”
“I’m not going anywhere. That jerk thinks he own the pool, and I’m not getting out just because he wants to hurl himself off the house.” She started swimming towards the center, then floated on her back. “He’ll just have to watch out for me.”
I turned around, afraid to watch.
“HERE WE GOOOO!” I heard Jake yell and turned around to see him mid-air against a blue sky, his limbs still in motion as though he was running.
Tara screamed and swiftly swam to the shallow end of the pool.
I watched Jake land in the water then bounce back with an, “OPA!” Then he was laughing and woo-hooing and trying to splash Tara and I. “I TOLD you I could do it! That was awesome! I’m doing it again!”
“JAKE!” My Aunt Lucy screamed and Jake scrambled out of the pool, on the other side of her; a deft choice, I believed.
“Did you just jump from the roof of the house into the pool?”
“YES!” Tara confirmed.
“Are you crazy?”
“YES!” Tara said again.
Jake was banned from the pool for the rest of the day. “Go find something else to do that isn’t insane,” Lucy told him. He went and got his mop-ed out of the garage.
“And you two,” Lucy said, “it’s time to get out. Your skin is all shriveled. You need a break.” In my family, we waited an hour after eating to go swimming – torture – and we had to get out of the pool when we looked like raisins.
“Can you believe Jake did that?” I asked Tara as we toweled off.
“Yes. He’s always doing stupid stuff. I’m surprised he’s still alive.”
Tara and I walked up the hill to the front of her house and sat down on the driveway in front of her garage, letting the heat from the sun finish drying our bathing suits while we watched the water drops from our suits shrink slowly on the cement.
“I’m not ready for school to start,” Tara told me, leaning back on her hands and lifting her face to the sun.
“Me neither,” I mumbled and sunk my head so it rested between my knees. I didn’t want to talk about school because every time I did, I started to cry. Tara wouldn’t have cared if she saw me cry, but I didn’t want to think about Alice, or how I was going to find the courage to walk into the same classroom as her in the fall. We sat in silence for a few minutes when Tara asked, “You want to do something fun?”
Fun sounded good. I hadn’t had fun in a while. I stretched my legs in front of me and touched my toes then asked what Tara had in mind.
“Want to ride down my driveway on Jake’s skateboard?”
Tara’s driveway was not like the driveways in the Chicagoland area. If you had one, which we didn’t, it was about five feet long, just enough to shoot your car into a garage. Tara’s driveway was not small. It was the anaconda of driveways. It took a good three minutes to drive it in a car. If my Aunt Lucy asked us to get the mail, it would take Tara and I a half an hour to walk to the mailbox. Also, the driveway is downhill the entire way. When Tara brought up fun, I was thinking of a game of catch, perhaps a round of Go Fish while we sipped lemonade on her deck. Not skateboarding.
“I don’t know how to skateboard,” I told Tara, hoping that would be an adequate enough response aside from saying, “I’m scared.”
“You don’t need to know how,” Tara said as she walked toward the garage door and lifted it up. “We sit on it together and ride down the driveway.”
“What about Jake?” I asked. “He doesn’t want us messing with his stuff, does he?”
Tara dragged the board behind her and said, “He’s not here. He’ll never know.” She slammed the board on the ground then put a foot on top of it to keep it steady.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” she asked. “We fall off the skateboard? We’ll be inches from the ground. No big deal.”
I looked at the driveway. It’s long, snake-like body loomed in front of me. I could see as far as the first curve but that was all. The rest disappeared and all I saw was grass as tall as my shoulders waving slightly in the breeze. I looked back at Tara whose brown hair was beginning to dry. One side was sticking out while the other was slicked back behind her ears.
“Front or back?” she asked.
“Back,” I said and stepped forward.
I sat on the board, and promptly complained because the top of it was gritty.
“Gritty’s good! Our butts are gonna stay on better. You ready?”
“I’m ready,” I said. I lifted the foot that was on the ground, and tucked my legs so that they were touching Tara’s back. We began to roll.
The wheels from the skateboard were loud and scratchy at first but it didn’t take long for our ride to become smooth. And fast.
Our first ride down, we made it half-way and crashed into the grass on the side of the driveway. We realized too late that we weren’t wearing shoes and the only way to stop would be either to drag our bare feet along the cement, or direct the skateboard towards the grass.
Up until the point where I had to choose between losing a foot or flinging myself into dry summer weeds, I was laughing loudly as we raced forward. Just as I can remember the smile leaving my face after the dreaded phone call, the speed, wind, and the sunshine are palpable as I think about that afternoon with Tara. I remember the laughter relieving me of something. The sadness of losing a friend was still there, but it was as though laughing allowed the sadness to take a break for a bit.
Tara and I fell face first when we landed. There was silence for a second except for the skateboard wheels revolving round and round.
“You okay?” Tara asked, not bothering to lift her head off the ground.
“I’m OK. You want to do it again?”
I thought about it for a second. My knees were throbbing. I’d probably have nasty bruises on them, but that crazy fast feeling was still pulsing through my body.
“Let’s do it again,” I said.
Tara got up, grabbed the skateboard and my hand. Together we ran back up the driveway. At the top, Tara threw the skateboard on the grass and ran into the house. She came out with a bag of Skittles and two Cokes. I was feeling brave and as Tara handed me a pop I asked her if she remembered my friend Alice.
“Of course. I’ve known about Alice since Kindergarten.”
I looked at my Coke can and circled the lid with my finger. Alice was an old friend, I thought.
“She called me up this summer and told me she hated me.” I cracked the top open and brown liquid bubbled to the top.
“What?” Tara had a look of disgust on her face. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” I took a drink of the sugary fizz, and enjoyed the feeling of it rumbling down my throat and into my belly.
“Did you guys have a fight?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so. I don’t know what I did.” I took another gulp of Coke.
“Well, what were you talking about before she said it?”
“Whether or not the Fresh Prince and Wil Smith are the same person.”
Tara nodded. “Up until last week, I thought he was two different people, but Jake showed me on the credits of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ that the Fresh Prince is played by Wil Smith.” Tara took a drink then said, “He raps and acts.”
“So Alice was right,” I said, fiddling with the tab.
“And she hates you because of it?”
I looked at Tara whose face was crinkled up in confusion. “That’s the stupidest reason to hate someone I’ve ever heard!”
I laughed and for the second time today enjoyed being in the middle of the sadness and laughter. Just like on the skateboard the emotions I felt seemed to pillow me between them, keeping me safe as I went down a path I wasn’t sure about.
Tara ripped open the bag of Skittles, and poured some into her hand. She took out the yellow ones and gave them to me. They were my favorite. “You know what we should do?” Tara asked through a mouthful of candy.
“Let’s put Skittles down the driveway and then dodge them on the way down!”
I chewed on a couple of Skittles for a second, then said, “Like a slalom?”
“Exactly,” Tara said.
I swallowed the candy and said, “Let’s do it.”
It took a while to place the Skittles along the driveway, and as we worked, I asked Tara about Jesus.
“Are you a Christian?”
“Yup. We did that at camp over the summer.”
“Us, too. Except I’m not sure I did it right.”
“Ask Jesus to come into my heart,” I bent down to put a Skittle on the cement. “I didn’t feel anything afterwards.”
“I don’t know. Every other girl at camp gave their testimony and said they felt peace or saw Jesus. That didn’t happen so I’ve been asking him every day since. Except after Alice called. I stopped asking after that.”
Tara shook the Skittles bag to get the last of the candy.
“If I were you, I’d start asking God to make it so Alice gets stung by a hornet or hit with a baseball bat.”
“Nothing so she’ll die,” Tara waved her hand in the air dismissively, “You know, just mess with her a little.”
Tara put a red Skittle down, stood up and said, “That’s it. Let’s head back up.”
As we walked, Tara told me she didn’t feel anything either when she became a Christian. Her admission made me feel better.
“I liked those camp songs, though,” she said. “You know that one that goes, ‘Father, I adore you?”
“I like that one,” I said and we began to sing it together, walking in a slight breeze so that the wind lifted my hair up briefly. We sang in a round and the pavement we were walking on warmed my feet.
When we got to the top of the driveway, Tara dragged the skateboard from the grass to the beginning of concrete and set it down. “You ready?” she asked sitting down in the front. I sat down behind her and tucked my legs in as I had done before. “I’m ready.”
We began to move and promptly rolled over the first Skittle.
“Shoot!” I said.
“LEAN LEFT!” Tara commanded and I moved to the left as we glided to the side.
“STRAIGHTEN UP THEN LEAN RIGHT!”
It felt like a dance: left, straighten, right, straighten. Soon, Tara stopped calling and we could feel when to weave side to side. Without saying anything, we both hunched forward to gain speed. When we leaned to the side, we got so close to the ground I could feel the heat from the tar rising to my arms. But we were dodging all the candy! I pretended Tara and I were in the Olympics. This event was the “Skittle Slalom.” As we rolled, I imagined our families cheering us on as we raced for the finish.
When the last Skittle came into view, so did Jake. He was on his mope-ed coming straight for us.
Tara immediately rolled off the board, leaving me by myself going what felt like 450 miles an hour. Heading straight for Jake, I had a decision to make: dodge the Skittle, or dodge Jake. I chose the Skittle.
I leaned forward on the skateboard to steady myself, then leaned to the right for my last obstacle. As I rounded the Skittle, Jake went the other way and we simultaneously missed the candy. It was beautiful. I could hear Tara scream behind me, “WE DID IT!” I was a hero. I was so proud of myself, I screamed, “WOOOO HOOO!” but realized too late that I hadn’t cleared Jake entirely. There was no time for me to do anything. He and I would collide.
The coolness of the shade from Jake’s bike surrounded me for just a moment, but brushed off my shoulder as soon as I slammed into his back wheel. I felt the heat of the blacktop and a throbbing pain up and down my left leg.
I heard Tara running up behind me, and Jake dropping his bike then leaning down towards me.
“Shoot,” I said through sobs.
“Shoot? Shoot?!?! Callie, look at your ass!” Jake was giggling nervously. “If there was ever a time to say, ‘shit,’ now’s it!”
“You looked like a cartoon skidding down the driveway,” Tara observed, and that sent the three of us into hysterics. I could see my tears fall to the ground but I couldn’t tell if they were sad or happy tears. It felt good not to know.
Three weeks later, I started sixth grade. Alice continued to declare hatred for me, but one day in late October I got a note from her written in shaky handwriting. “I’m sorry for what I did,” the note read, “can we be friends again?” And then, “I found out this summer my parents are getting divorced.”
That December, I was the Angel Gabriel in the First Presbyterian Church of River Forest Christmas Pageant; the most coveted of all roles because he spoke. But I forgot my lines and ran out of the sanctuary and into the bathroom, slamming the door of the stall and crouching on the toilet so no one would see my feet. I sat crying and my golden headband fell to the floor and a spider skittered away from its thud.
Did Mary have any clue what Gabriel was going to tell her, I thought as I watched the spider make its way to the next stall. Had she started to feel differently before he stepped in and explained what it was she would do? And afterwards, was she afraid? I would’ve been terrified, I thought as I picked up my headband.
I left the stall and pushed the door to the bathroom open. I didn’t feel like going back to church, but I smelled smoke from the candles, and heard the beginning notes to “Silent Night.” This was my favorite part of the service, when we balanced candles and hymnals, watched for dripping wax and sang about shepherds quaking at what they now know. So I walked to the back of the sanctuary and stood, watching the light flicker and remembering that I was supposed to begin with, “Do not be afraid.”