– Chapter 3 –
The random “chastity checks”—a concept that, even now, sounded alien and nefarious to Maranatha whenever she tried to explain it—began during her junior year. It was February and things were already at an all-time weird by then.
Back in October, Jacob Rich, who’d sat behind her two years ago in French, had been held after school in a private detention for a full week, just before Thanksgiving break. No one had ever been pre-assigned a week’s detention. Usually, when you were written up for disobedience in class, the penance for most infractions a simple hour or two of eraser-clapping and bible verse memorization.
Jake had found a letter from Principal Harris in his locker. No one knew exactly what it said—Joe never told—but everybody around him in the hall noticed the way his olive skin flushed as he read. And after he finished, he shoved the leaf of school letterhead between his jacket and backpack, slammed the locker door, and fled to the nearest bathroom.
Maranatha had always liked Jake, with his soft voice and fluttery fingers. She liked how easily he blushed and how he seemed to always be near to help her scoop up her books when someone deliberately bumped her hard enough to knock them out of her hands. His long eyelashes reminded her of perching butterflies. A tiny mole inked his right cheek, like a drawn-in beauty mark.
She couldn’t imagine him doing anything that would warrant a week’s detention.
After Jake got the letter, Maranatha noticed a few immediate changes. He stopped wearing the sweater vests he’d favored, in lavender and sea foam and peach, and took to sporting blacks and greys and Rockport boots. His full loose curls had been cropped much closer. Stubble sprouted on his usually clean-shaven face. And within a month of his detention, he’d asked some freshmen to be his girlfriend.
Maranatha was perplexed, almost enough to risk public humiliation by asking Demetria if she’d heard anything. But answers came soon enough. During the basketball unit of gym, she overheard the girls who’d faked periods gossiping about Jake on the bleachers.
“… but I thought he was gay.”
“He was, but Principal Harris and some other teachers and church elders prayed it off him.”
“Why would that take five days, though?”
“I heard it was seven—the number of completion.”
“He must’ve had a whole lotta spirits on him.”
“’Legion, for we are many….’”
The basketball walloped Maranatha’s bicep. She stumbled and the group of girls swiveled at the thud. Hurriedly scooping up the ball, she kept her head down and shuffled back to the fold of players.
That night, Maranatha didn’t sleep. Her mind was too busy conjuring images of Jake, surrounded by crusty old faculty insistent on loosing him of the gaggle of green gargoyles clinging to his argyle sweater vest. She asked herself where in the building would their teachers have most likely staged a seven-day exorcism, and after careful deliberation, she decided it’d all gone down in the band room where, when the demons trembled at the name of Jesus, all the cymbals on the drum sets would clatter.
Maranatha was terrified of evil spirits. At sixteen, she hadn’t yet considered that they might not exist. Years of testimony services filled with accounts of saints who’d chased away writhing black wraiths, stalking the heels of their beds, had convinced her of an ominous unseen world where fanged and noxious creatures with beady crimson eyes just waited for inroads to materialize and drag you back with them.
Poor Jake, she kept thinking as she tossed in bed. She imagined his face contorting, lips pulling at the corners like Silly Putty, eyes stretched wide as hackey-sacks, flickers of fear and rebellion, innocence and evil, cackling joy and sobbing sorrow. She pictured their hulk of a principal, with his wild tufts of bozo hair jutting out around a bald pate, slapping Jake’s forehead over and over until the boy was near-delirious and no more “delivered” that he’d been before.
She felt bad for him, if he was gay (she’d never really considered it), because while there were many outlandish things she believed, the curability of gayness wasn’t one of them. She didn’t think Jake could be rebuked into heterosexuality. She’d never told that to anyone; she wasn’t sure she was right. Maybe our attractions were the result of invisible imps controlling our hearts and minds. Or maybe we were supposed to repress the things we thought and felt for the sake of obedience to the bible.
All she knew for certain was that an exorcism masquerading as detention was a frightening idea. If the principal and teachers could do that, they could do anything.
So when they began months later, the random chastity checks didn’t come as much of a surprise. They started in response to the sudden departure of Shellie Parsons, who’d transferred without much notice or fanfare after David Boyd got her pregnant. It wasn’t a secret, though no one knew for sure if she’d been expelled or if she’d left voluntarily. After Shellie was gone, the students had waited for an assembly to be called. They expected a purity lecture, a public recitation of 1 Corinthians 6:18—Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body—and, perhaps, the distribution of the sacrament.
Instead, the administration kept eerily silent about it all—that is, until girls starting being called, one by one, to the nurse’s office. It wasn’t often; it happened, maybe, once every week or two. But the crackle of the intercom persisted—for months—and the girls who were called rarely returned to class that day. Not until rumors began surfacing about what went on in the nurse’s office did the students begin referring to the spontaneous appointments as “chastity checks.” As far as they could figure, the checks seemed random. Not every girl was called. And there didn’t seem to be any consistent pattern among those who were.
Maranatha’s number never came up, which was just as well. She was already a covenant-breaker. She’d learned this in her fifth-grade health class, where her teacher, Sister White, told the them all that a woman’s hymen was as sacred a physical gift as she’d ever be given (at least before she was married). “The hymen is the gate that guards a young woman’s virginity. It’s a symbol of her covenant, her promise to remain virtuous and chaste for as long as she’s single. As long as it remains unbroken, she can prove that she has guarded herself against the sin of fornication.”
A year before she took health class, when she was eight, some girls had dared her to climb a jungle gym, shaped like a whinnying horse. The metal frame of the horse-jungle-gym was painted sunflower-yellow. Its highest point—the top of its head—was about twelve feet from the schoolyard grass. The horse’s hind legs were planted in the splotchy grass, while its front legs were frozen in a mid-air kick.
She took each rung slowly, clinging to the curving bars that formed the horse’s hind legs and its tail and its mane. The higher she got, the more relaxed she became. She started thinking of what school would be like the next day. Would conquering a feat no one thought she could make her popular? At the very least, would it get these girls off her back?
She made it all the way to the top, straddling the rungs near the bars that had been curved to resemble ears, before she realized that the crowd was beginning to thin and the girls who remained hadn’t stopped sneering in light of her accomplishment. Her shoulders slumped a little, at the thought of the long climb back down. She took a few precarious backward steps and heard someone mutter, “Her mom’s a whore….”
She slipped, landing spread eagle on the metal. Pain seared through her while a cluster of loud snickers erupted below her. She managed to scramble back to the ground. After limping home, she waited for the ache to wear off. It never did. It would be hours before she went to the bathroom and discovered she’d been bleeding.
For years, she tried not to think of the jungle gym in the schoolyard or the way her mother had looked at her when she demanded to know what had what happened. Forgetting was impossible.
Maranatha had never so much as kissed a boy’s cheek. The last time she held a boy’s hand was when she was seven and the boy who broke her arm offered his. Even so, she felt sullied somehow.
You weren’t allowed to believe in accidents at Holy Pentecost Academy. When bad things happened, you were to examine your life for sin. Chances were, one of your transgressions was to blame. For Maranatha, a broken hymen at eight years old portended a life of promiscuity. It made all those whisperings about how she spent her weekends—in the backseats of cars or pinned to the wall behind the discount movie theatre—a bit more believable.
When she thought too long about it, she couldn’t decide whether she was relieved or depressed about never having been summoned to the nurse’s office. How were you supposed to feel when no one cared about your chastity?