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Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 21

Sherry helped me overcome my peculiarity by allowing me to make mistakes. The beginnings of a relationship are awkward and stilted for peculiar people. We don’t know the right things to say; we worry about our clothes and hair; we aren’t sure how much touching is appropriate; we have no way of understanding body language and non-verbal come-ons. Flirting is a foreign language. These are painful for most teens, even those who pretend they’re not, but there was an added level of difficulty for pentecostal teens. Just making friends with outsiders is tough because the culture in which you grew up makes you a pariah and makes you feel awkward about the motions of life that normally lead to friendship.

Back when I believed in a god and devil, I would have been forced to say that Sherry and Mel were on the devil’s team. The automatic acceptance, the graciousness with which they offered themselves, the ease with which they yielded their bodies, and the apparent sanity and balance in their personal lives helped me believe that my church grossly misunderstood the Jezebels about whom they preached. These girls weren’t Jezebels. They were teenage girls who had a sense of their own bodies, a command of their own sexuality, and a guilt-free choice in the matter.

I was nearly 40 before it occurred to me that a 2000-year old text written in a culture in which 14-year old girls married 30-year old men wasn’t the best treatment of the ethics of human sexuality. What of the women I knew, my students, who wanted to finish a graduate degree before marriage? Were they compelled to save that “precious gift” until marriage, even if they married at 25 or 27? How much easier is it to tell a 12-year old to remain a virgin if she only has two years of childhood left? How much more draconian and perverse to tell an 18-year old college freshman that she will need to keep her hymen intact until she finishes that graduate degree?

The girls on my block were different in some ways than Mel and Sherry. For one, they lacked the confidence that comes from being attractive in the head-turning sort of way. Second, they were first our friends, because the hormones that led us to orgiastic hide ‘n’ seek games wouldn’t develop immediately. It was only after knowing them for a couple of years that we all began to develop our hormones and our naughty bits. The friendship and trust were already there. It seemed a natural extension to experiment with people we already knew well, who knew our faults and strengths, who laughed with and at us, and who knew we weren’t rapists or perverts, only hormonal boys.

The experiences were heady, but they weren’t intoxicating. They were the first, tentative, clumsy steps toward understanding ourselves and our bodies. Pentecostalism was still sick with that disease which causes a belief that humans are embodied spirits waiting for their release to be with Jesus in paradise. In fact, we are at least our bodies. We may be more, but we are certainly our bodies, and our ability to navigate the world, to understand the world, to thrive in the world is tied to embodiment. We learned who we were to some degree in those clumsy touches, feral gropes, and desperate clutches. Our comfort with each other allowed us to map our growth on each other’s bodies, and we found there no trace of whores or profligates or Jezebels; rather, we found friendship and embarrassment and joy and release.

Mel, more than Sherry, was a categorically different experience. I didn’t have the luxury of knowing her first as friend. She was stunningly beautiful. She was confident, assertive, and irreligious. In short, she was everything I’d been told to avoid throughout my upbringing. And when she kissed me, I didn’t give a shit who sat upon the throne of the universe; all I knew in that moment was that a beautiful girl wanted to be with me--the pentecostal kid with stained teeth, shitty K-mart shoes, cheap JC Penney jeans, and a load of eschatological baggage that led me to sweaty nightmares about the antichrist’s kingdom. I was no Sampson, but this was assuredly a Delilah, and I was willing to be shorn if it meant five minutes of her attention focused on me as if I was someone worthy of her notice.

My Sunday School teachers were right in one sense; lust certainly leads to a falling away, but it was my quickly considered opinion that the falling away was more than compensated by the rapture attendant with her attention. The other rapture would have to wait, and wait it has, for forty-five years, so far.