In the South they call it True Love Waits…
Once every year we were gathered from our houses,
herded like goats into borrowed county school busses,
and driven to the Athletic Centre of the nearest
hanger-like mega-church. The genders were segregated
upon arrival, the boys in one enormous shed,
the girls in another, my rapist among them,
and the hundred or so inmates of the orphanage
were intermingled with the residue of thirty different
Sunday Schools creating a froth of children of many
different ages, united by one thing; they were richer than us.
I was dressed in a used Fila tracksuit
which the girls in my house, in a mood
that was temporarily benevolent,
insisted was fabulous; like a skinny,
white Missy Eliot. Leesha had been
at my hair again, practicing for her upcoming
exam in cosmology, a thing I often suffered for.
I sported short mouse-coloured corn-rows
and stood out a mile in this sea of Lacoste.
The athletic centre stood two stories tall,
but was high-roofed internally, completely hollow.
Four full-sized wooden basketball courts
occupied the floor-space, collapsible metal
bleachers lined every wall. There were two
working toilets for three-hundred adolescent females,
and a fully-stocked, caffeine-free kitchen to provide
us with food; primarily hot dogs.
Towards the rear of the building, underneath the baskets,
someone had set up a high, hollow stage that reverberated
drum-like whenever anyone stood on it.
We were instructed to stack our belongings
against the hidden benches, piles of backpacks
and rolled sleeping bags lined every wall.
I remember looking for windows, finding
only air vents and that vast people-filled space
which smelled so strongly of menstruating children
that my mouth watered and my feet ached
with the desire to flee them.
Soon the room was heated, fuggy
with the stench and sweat of many bodies,
cut with a sweet citrus perfume.
After what felt like an hour, but was really twenty minutes,
a tall skinny man mounted the stage and began haranguing us,
via microphone, about our virginity. He was dressed like a man
used to starched business suits attempting young-casual.
Pressed khaki trousers, a blue shirt buttoned up
to prominent Adams apple. His ears stuck out, rounded,
hyena-like, and reddened perceptibly as he spoke,
comparing us to, of all things, bananas.
‘Who here likes bananas?’
A confused silence from the audience, whipped up
into shouting by a few rousing gestures, ‘You all like bananas!
They are nature’s candy, after all. So firm and sweet, so good
in your mouth! What if someone offered you a banana right now?
You would take it, right? Say thank you?’
He was pacing now, working himself into a lather.
The hairspray he used must have been
incredible, a hair hardly stirred.
‘But what if someone offered you a banana
that had been partially eaten? A gross, half-chewed,
used up fruit covered in a strangers saliva.
How would you react to that? Would you be willing to eat it?’
Children were shouting now, in disgusted agreement.
‘You girls out there today are like bananas.
I hope that you are good ones, firm and sweet,
so juicy and clean. You can only give yourselves
to a man like that once. If you maintain your virginity
your husband will have you the way that he wants you,
pure and unused.
‘Otherwise, if you are not careful,
if you filthy yourself, or allow anyone to touch you,
you will be giving your husband something defiled,
mauled over. And what man would want that?’
He shook his head sadly. ‘No man at all. Certainly not
your Father in Heaven. God wants you pure.’
I thought about the way that Talon had touched me,
and clenched my fists so hard my fingernails bit
into the palms of my hands, branding them
with livid arcs of fire. I had my own ideas, already,
about cleanliness and God. Years spent
among parishioners had taught me that one
can attend church three times a week
and know little of Christ. I remember who,
given the option, our Lord chose to hang out with.
He went on, still pacing, trailing the lead to the microphone
like a long rodent tail, ‘If you want Jesus and your husband to love you,
come up on this stage,’ he gestured at the carpeted step leading up to him,
which his assistants were climbing with large cardboard boxes.
‘Come up here with me and sign this pledge. Swear to God
that you will not sully your virginity before the time comes to wed.
‘That you will not ever sleep with any one or allow
anyone to touch you, before your father
walks you up that aisle and gives you into
the keeping and protection of the man
who is to be your husband. Remember, all of you,
that your virginity is not really yours. It belongs
to your husband, though you might not yet know him.
It is God’s gift for him, and you do not own it. You keep it safe.’
I had enough body issues to last a lifetime,
and my rapist had not been a man, but the idea
that I could never own myself was repugnant even then.
Still, this man was a minister. And God speaks
through many different tongues. As keyed up
as I was, as ashamed, as frightened, I had room
for one thought: If I sign this paper and give myself to God,
maybe for life, there is a chance that He will give me
a little protection and make the raping finally stop.
And that is why at the end of the harangue
that I more than half disbelieved in, I climbed
those stairs one by one, took a pen in my hand,
and signed my name to paper.
On the way down, as I left the stage in that throng,
a fat woman in a black t-shirt emblazoned
with a yellow cross gave me a small silver ring
implanted with a gray fleck of diamond.
She slipped it loose onto the third finger of my left hand.
I wore it like the shield it was until long after
I escaped from the orphanage and finally began growing.
Eventually, my mother had to use a pair of pliers
to cut it off and restore my circulation.