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September 6, 2019 Youth Group Essays, Nonfiction

The Pastor and Marguerite

Melissa Mesku

The Pastor and Marguerite photo

Near the end of 7th grade, Marguerite started wearing steel toe Doc Martens and dressing in all black. At lunch, she sat in front of the school office, chanting demoniacally. At P.E., she cursed and tore at her fishnets as if they needed more holes. Between classes, she stomped down the halls, growling and ripping pages out of the Bible. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought she was getting into Goth. But I knew better. She was up to something.

I really shouldn’t have cared. Marguerite had been so shitty to me, I had every reason to break up our best-friendship. There was the time she convinced my mom to let her in my room when I wasn’t home, and then proceeded to steal my diary, make posters of the most embarrassing pages, and wheat paste them all over school. And the time at The Wherehouse when I’d saved up for a cassingle, and she convinced me to buy “Shoop” when what I really wanted was “Come Undone.” I bought Shoop, of course, but then she stole it and called my house for weeks, playing it and rapping over it with a fake accent.

I want to say I hated her. But she was so over the top, I was in awe. She did whatever the fuck she wanted, which is how I wanted to be. Still, when my mom would remind me to say my prayers at night, I had to vent. “Dear God, did you have to make Marguerite such a bitch?”

I never told my parents how bad Marguerite was because they’d have stopped letting me hang out with her. My mom was so overprotective. She hardly let me go outside, even just to play with the neighbor kids. She cracked down even harder after the boy up the street went and offed himself, Kurt Cobain style. She was so watchful, like I might slip through the cracks. But she always let me go places with Marguerite. Marguerite’s mom was a teacher and her dad ran the church. That was proof enough for her to think Marguerite was an angel. The irony galled me. Marguerite was the only real danger I faced.

A week before summer break, Marguerite stopped coming to school. Our friends Anna and Nazanin figured she was just ditching class. But when I summoned the courage to ditch class alone, I couldn’t find her. The grocery store a few blocks away, where we did most of our makeup stealing and Sassy magazine reading, was curiously Marguerite-free. The orange groves, where bad kids went to fuck or smoke meth, was full of garbage and couches—no Marguerite. I wanted to run into her. But I was also afraid. If she got any leverage over me, like knowing I was ditching, she’d probably sic the principal on me like she did that one time we were caught graffitiing the bathroom and she told the counselor they were my Sharpies when really they were hers.

When yearbooks went on sale, my mom gave me forty dollars. I’d put the money in my locker, which was kind of dumb because Marguerite also had the combination. When I went to get it, though, the cash was still there, tucked in my P.E. shoe where I left it. I should have been relieved, but I panicked. If Marguerite didn’t take the money, it meant she was really gone.

I bought the yearbook and everyone signed their platitudes and stock phrases—“Stay sweet, don’t change!” “Have a kick-ass summer!” But it kind of sucked because if Marguerite wasn’t there to rip it all apart, what was the point? I was the sheltered one, I was sensible and fearful. She was the wild one. I needed her to show me the way.

On the last day of class, Anna and Nazanin found me and told me the news. Marguerite hadn’t been ditching school. She’d been pulled out of school—by her parents.

“Her dad said they sent her to a Christian camp,” Nazanin said.

“What are they going to do to her?” I asked.

“I don’t know, make her sing and pray,” Anna scoffed. “In white shorts and Reeboks.”

* * *

The summer burned on, slow and boring. I wasn’t allowed to leave the front yard, so I was left playing stick hockey in the grass with the neighbor kids, a bunch of children I’d be embarrassed to be seen with. That’s where Marguerite found me one scorching hot day. She leaned against a palm, too cool to come any closer. In a billowy white skirt and Docs, she was like a mirage.

“Come to my house!” she called out.

Thank fucking god, I thought. My mom waived me on, smiling.

Over at Marguerite’s I tried to find out what happened, but she didn’t say much. She put on an Amy Grant tape and we made collages. She didn’t make fun of me for playing stick hockey. She didn’t yell when her mom brought us cookies. She just thanked her, politely, and quietly continued cutting up Seventeen and YM. It felt weird. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Come to youth group tonight with me,” she said.

Shit. “Um, I’ll see if I can,” I said, and booked it out of there.

I didn’t broach the topic to my mom that night. Whatever had happened to Marguerite was a mystery. All I knew was I didn’t want it to happen to me. Amy Grant, seriously? It was like Christian camp broke her. Is a girl like a horse in the Western movies, where they just ride your ass until you obey? Is Christianity like brainwashing, or a lobotomy, where the interesting part of you gets removed and you don’t remember you even had it?

* * *

Eventually boredom won out. A few days later when Marguerite asked me to go to youth group again, I asked my mom for permission. I thought it would be an easy yes. It’s church, after all, and my mom is very Christian; she listens to Amy Grant all the time. But, for once, it was my dad who didn’t want me to go.

“Organized religion, hon—why would you want to go and do that?” he barked.

I wanted to tell him, “I know—you should see what they did to Marguerite!” but I shut up. He went on for a while, warning me about groupthink. He had a point, so I said nothing.

The next night I tried asking again. This time, his reply was, “If you want to love God, you can do it right here at home. You don’t have to go to some building.”

He was right, but I needed to win this one.

“It’s just an hour, and it’s Marguerite’s dad’s church for Christ’s sake,” I said.

I guess I picked the right words. The following Tuesday, I was practically sent to youth group.

* * *

A week later, Marguerite, her brother, and I all piled in their family van. Marguerite made her dad play a bootleg MxPx tape as we drove around picking up Anna and Nazanin.

When Anna climbed in the back of the van, I whispered to her, “Have you been to church before?”

“Hell no,” she said.

“Has Nazanin?” I asked.

“Are you serious?”

At least I wasn’t alone.

After her dad dropped us off, we all stood in the parking lot facing Marguerite. She stood alone and watched as the van left. The minute it was out of view, she turned to her brother, gave him a big thwack, and said, “If you say one fucking thing, I’ll kill you.” She left us there and marched toward the building on her own. I looked at her brother, stunned. He didn’t seem surprised.

We shuffled in, the three of us and the brother. The church was an old barn-like building, but modernized, with soundproofing, huge speakers and spotlights in the rafters. A six-man band stood on an elevated stage. The place was packed; there were at least two hundred kids there. I started to panic. It hadn’t occurred to me I might see people from school here. What would they think? I’m not Christian. I’m not not Christian, but I’m not Christian. I’m agnostic—I had learned that word on my own a few months before.

Nazanin, Anna and I clung together in the back, trying to locate Marguerite without actually walking around. The band played one more song. Everybody was standing and watching like it was a real concert. Then the pastor walked out. It wasn’t Marguerite’s dad, but a young guy, maybe twenty years old. He had a goatee and spiky hair, and tattoos on one arm.

“He kind of looks like Jared Leto,” Anna whispered. He didn’t, but I knew what she meant. He was good looking enough that it felt immoral for him to be a pastor.

He spoke for a while. I tried to zone out and let it wash over me, lest I listen too hard and become an immediate convert or something. I looked around wondering how church works. I had never been anywhere with so many people except a school assembly. Certainly nowhere with this many kids my age, kids who voluntarily went to a place. Why are they here? To listen to a band no one’s heard of? To sit around and gossip like we do at school? That doesn’t sound very Christian. So… they come here to be with God? I thought about what my dad said. And my mom, who always talks in Biblical parables and grew up going to church, but has never once taken us. I never really thought about these things. Now I had a lot of questions.

“We come here to be with each other, to live in truth. To speak truth, to ask and answer in truth,” the hot pastor said.

Did he answer my question without me even asking? Crazy. I made a mental note to tell Anna and Nazanin.

“We come here to ask the big questions and when we hear an answer—when we hear that answer, Lord, that’s You speaking.”

I shivered and crossed my arms. “No, that’s you speaking,” I thought.

“And when I’m not sure, Lord, I ask that you be patient with me. That you keep speaking those sweet words of truth. Because maybe I’m not ready, Lord. Maybe I’m living in fear. Maybe I can’t hear the Good Word because there are so many bad ones in my ears. But I’m listening, Lord. I’m listening.”

I felt like he was saying a prayer for me. I didn’t know how I felt about it. I don’t want a prayer. I don’t want anything but freedom, and Christianity isn’t freedom, it’s rules. But I was moved. His words made me see myself as I was: a kid who’s unsure. A person who’s always listening but doesn’t know exactly what it is she hears.

After a long while, the pastor went backstage and the band started up again. The kids swayed in time with the music, closing their eyes, raising their arms up high. Anna lifted an eyebrow at me, and we slipped out the door without a word.

“That was weird,” Anna whispered.

“Are you going to tell Marguerite that?” Nazanin asked.

“No—it wasn’t bad-weird. Just weird,” Anna said.

“I’d do it again,” I said.

“You liked it?” Nazanin asked.

“I haven’t decided,” I said. “But it’s better than sitting around at home.”

“And the pastor’s fine,” Anna said.

The music faded into a long round of applause, and then the doors opened and people started filtering out. Marguerite was still nowhere to be seen. We milled around the parking lot and ran into her brother. Right when the van pulled up, Marguerite marched out from behind the building and climbed straight in. She sat in the front bench, arms spread wide like Jesus H. Christ. We climbed in the back behind her. Her dad made small talk, asked how we liked it. We didn’t dare ask his daughter where the fuck she’d been.

* * *

I didn’t say much about youth group to my mom. I could tell she was curious but didn’t want to get in the way of a potential miracle taking place. I let her wait. But I was bursting inside. Not with the Good Word, but with the prospect of a weekly night out with friends. I had to play it cool.

I called Marguerite a couple times, something I rarely did. I wanted to know what was going on with her, but I only got the answering machine—a recording of that stupid Shoop tape. She was driving me crazy: she barely speaks to me, yet she wants me to come to youth group, and then she doesn’t even hang out? I had the feeling she was playing me again, but I couldn’t figure out how. Was this a cult, and her dad is a psycho priming us for brainwashing? Was she a Satanist and this church thing is just a smokescreen? Did she really find God and then magically become a nice, quiet girl? That, somehow, seemed the least likely of all.

The following Tuesday I was back at youth group. It was just me and Anna; Nazanin didn’t come. Marguerite disappeared again the minute we got there, so Anna and I whispered fake gossip about her while the band played.

“She’s out in the orange groves, biting off chicken heads in the moonlight,” I ventured.

“She’s masturbating with a crucifix while her head spins around backwards,” Anna said.

“She’s backstage like a groupie, doing it with the pastor,” I said, and Anna made a weird face. Not bad-weird, just weird.

* * *

The summer at home settled into a rhythm. I played Nintendo and hung out with my little sister. When my parents were at work, I watched things I wasn’t allowed to watch: a lot of boring MTV and horrible talk shows like Ricki Lake and Richard Bey. I read a couple books. I considered reading the Bible now that I was going to church, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up—it depressed me too much. My mom was always reading it, usually late at night after fighting with my dad. He’d yell and say mean shit, she’d cry, and like clockwork she’d be back at the kitchen table, sniffling over the tissue-thin pages. She treated the Bible like a fortress, like it wasn’t paper, but stone. She retreated. But I stayed to fight. Someone had to. Plus, I had to learn. I learned how to summon the lowest register of my voice, my toughest, most manly growl, and project it louder and louder until he had to listen to me. But it exhausted all of us. I couldn’t imagine being my mom, staying married because God says you have to. She talked often of how she took solace in the Bible. Of course she did.

All this is to say I didn’t leave the house much, and it was no picnic. I never saw friends, except for Tuesday nights. Marguerite pretty much ignored me, but I wasn’t about to jeopardize my big night out by getting on her case. She was kind of like my dad: somehow free to be a total asshole. I had a lot to learn.

Youth group was the highlight of my week. The band would play, which was pretty cool—I’d never seen live music before. Between the pop punk on tape and at church, I could now tell which sounds came from which instruments. The tinny sounds were part of the drums; some cheating happened with the keyboard, if there was one, and for some reason there were too many guitars, but it sounded great and was fun to watch. The pastor—I had mixed feelings about him. He seemed nice enough. But something was off. Maybe he was too young. Or maybe it was just Anna. She was developing this horrible crush on him. It was embarrassing for me because it wasn’t embarrassing for her. She’d stand there staring at him and when he looked our way, she’d straighten up and stick her boobs out. Remarkably, nothing he said seemed to go in her ears; if I ever I mentioned something from the sermon, she was genuinely surprised, like she’d never even heard him. I was kind of glad—it would have been weird if all of a sudden she got into him and Christianity. It would be hard to tell if it were for real.

Over the last few weeks, we kept hearing at youth group about this big back-to-school night coming up. Some famous Christian hardcore band was supposed to play after the sermon. Hundreds of kids would come from all over for it. They said the place gets so packed they let you sit in the rafters, and up on each other’s shoulders like it’s Woodstock or something. Anna started talking about what she was going to wear. She was so into dreaming about it she didn’t even mind when I rolled my eyes. We were all supposed to bring a friend, the more the merrier. I was sure the night would be embarrassing, so I didn’t even consider it. What was I going to say—I’m not really even Christian, but come with me to a youth group party? No way.

When the night finally came in late August, Anna brought Nazanin. We were all together again and there was an excitement in the air. At least a couple hundred new kids came that night, a lot of them high school age and therefore cooler than us. Everyone wore their new Vans and Converse All Stars and back to school clothes. A bunch of girls wore spaghetti straps, somehow knowing, magically, that the dress code would be lifted for that night only.

I tried to hang back and maybe skip the sermon. There were so many kids, there was no way we were all going to fit in the main hall. But, no—everyone crammed in. I squeezed my way through the doors, losing my friends in the crowd. The place was so full it hardly mattered. It was madness, just heads, rows and rows of heads, no elbow room, the air getting sweaty. The hall was thick with sound, hundreds of kids talking, and then the lights went low and the atmosphere changed. The drummer started in with a simple beat, but quiet. Some people near the front cheered. I couldn’t see what they were cheering for but then I heard the pastor’s voice and everyone erupted again.

“We’ve got some new souls here tonight, Lord,” the pastor said.

People whooped and hollered from the rafters.

“Let’s welcome them into the arms of the Lord!”

The place went wild and the band kicked off a song. It was one I’d heard a few times now. In the split seconds when everyone sang along in tune, it sounded like you could touch it, like you could physically feel it reverberate in your ears, your body, maybe your soul.

Packed as tight as we were, the crowd moved together. For every person standing still, there was someone else jumping, pogo-ing, half-moshing or straight up dancing. I ended up swaying with everyone without even trying to. It felt great.

I thought about all the times I’d heard this song here and crossed my arms, not moving to the music. Not letting the music move me. Why was I so skeptical? Why was I such a hater? Dear God, why am I such a bitch?

You’re just afraid.

I didn’t know where that answer came from. But it felt true.

Why am I afraid? I asked.

You just don’t know who to trust.

My eyes started to well up out of nowhere. It was true, I didn’t know who to trust. I thought of my mom, the sweetest, kindest, most loving person in the world, but I’m afraid to be like her because she’s naïve, she gets trampled on. I thought of my dad, the only person who could protect me from the world but who doesn’t know how to protect me from himself. I don’t know who to trust. Marguerite, my paragon of freedom, had probably left us for God. But still, look at me—I’m alone and practically dancing here and I have tears in my eyes and I’m not even embarrassed! I never trust but I really want to. The world and a million other things—I want to trust in all of them.

“The Lord is here with us tonight, can you feel it?” The pastor spoke over the music.

Is that what I feel? Is it the Lord?

“Who’s going to open up their heart tonight and let the Lord in?”

My heart is open. I can feel it. It’s never open. This can’t be a coincidence. This—

“Now is the time. Raise your arms with me and let the light of Jesus Christ into your heart!”

I raised my arms.

“I accept Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as my Lord and Savior,” the pastor said. “Say it with me.”

“I accept Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as my Lord and Savior,” I said, my heart flooded, tears streaming from my eyes.

“I believe he died on the cross for my sins,” the pastor said. “I repent of sin, and from now on will let Jesus show me the way to eternal life. Amen!” 

“Amen!” I shouted back.

I couldn’t believe it. I was saved! I felt overjoyed, so full of life. The pastor kept talking, the music kept playing, and my mind just raced. I didn’t see this coming at all. I can’t believe it. How did this happen? I feel so lucky. But, wait, there is no luck—it’s Jesus Christ. Oh my god. Wait—my God. Everything is different. Wow. I feel like I won the lottery—no—like I won life. Like I just became alive, truly alive. Born! Born again. So that’s what that means. That’s me! I laughed and cried, shaking my head in disbelief.

The whole thing happened in less than a minute, but it felt like I lived my whole life just to get there.

When I became self-aware again, my arms were still up. My face was covered in tears. Yet I felt no embarrassment. I felt open, exalted. Free. I kept my arms up high. Two minutes ago when I wasn’t a believer, I thought people looked stupid like this. Now I get it. I’m with God. There’s no room for bullshit social embarrassment. I’m operating at a higher level. I’ve matured. I have more serious concerns now, I guess, like how to start building a new relationship with Jesus. Oh my God, I have so much to learn.

When I ran into the girls outside, I blurted out that I just got saved.

Nazanin and Anna gave me a big hug. They were supportive, but I could tell they didn’t really get it. When the van showed up and Marguerite appeared, I gave her a friendly smack on the arm and told her my news.

Her eyes grew wide. “Let’s talk tomorrow, OK?”

* * *

So far, I had avoided talking to my mom about youth group because I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t a believer. I knew it would make her sad, like she’d failed as a mother. But now that I was saved, I had nothing to hide. Was this freedom? It kind of felt like it.

Still, I thought it prudent not to tell her the exact circumstances. Better she think it happened as a gradual process rather than a revelation with the lights down low and hundreds of bodies given over to pop punk. I don’t want her doubting me, or thinking too hard about what all goes on at youth group. So I casually mentioned my salvation in conversation, and then asked to go to Marguerite’s so we could “do some Bible study.” I had no idea whether that’s what Marguerite had meant, but it was plausible.

I don’t think I ever went over to Marguerite’s unannounced, let alone let myself into her room, but I did this time. Something about being saved had emboldened me. I wanted to get to the heart of things.

She was blaring an MxPx tape and jumping up and down in a taffeta dress when I walked in. She didn’t miss a beat. She grabbed me by the hands and had me jump with her. When we were out of breath, she yelled, “Mosh pit!” and lunged at me. The next song was even more furious and we jumped and pushed and threw each other around until the tape ended.

It seemed like the Marguerite I knew was back. This was the first great thing that had happened since I was saved, and I was overjoyed.

She motioned for me to come closer, and with her other hand, she turned the tape over and pressed play.

“Magnified Plaid,” she yelled over it.

“What?” I yelled.

“The band—let’s go see them!”

“OK!”

“Tonight,” she yelled in my ear.

I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go out again; I just went out last night. I shook my head and mouthed, “I can’t.”

She nodded back gravely: “You have to.”

She had a point. I may not get out much, but when I do, I end up acquiring eternal life. I should go out more often.

I told my parents I was going to youth group again, which was kind of true—it’s a Christian punk show, practically the same thing. At sunset some boys Marguerite knew pulled up in a truck and we were off.

The show was in the parking lot of a trucker motel near the freeway. I was almost sick with excitement—I had never gone to a show before, never flat out lied and went out at night, and had never gone with friends to a place this sketchy. This was the second great thing that had happened to me since I got saved, and I had God and Marguerite to thank.

When we arrived, I grabbed her by the arm. “You’re always leaving and I don’t know why. Don’t ditch me tonight, I’m alone here.”

“I won’t. I promise,” she said. Maybe she was a bit scared, too. The place was a deserted row of down market motel rooms and a big asphalt lot. A hardcore band was playing on the blacktop, and about thirty people milled around, mostly guys, all high school age or older.

Marguerite walked us past the clusters of tattoos and cargo shorts and toward the thick part of the crowd. When they noticed us, they moved aside. Up at the front, everyone was tightly packed. In her steel toe boots, Marguerite stomped and lunged into the guys, trying to start a mosh pit. The guys played along and pushed her around while I tried to stay on the edge. Once I saw we weren’t the only girls there, I let myself get jostled in. I was on high alert, but also tried to lose myself like I had before, lose myself so that anxiousness wasn’t the only thing I felt. Every time Marguerite jumped, I darted in the space she opened up.

* * *

The band stopped just after sundown. I was still in the pit. Hot, disoriented, and covered in a bunch of guys’ sweat, I looked around for Marguerite. Everywhere were men. Tall guys, bigger than me. I couldn’t see over them. I was trying to squeeze my way out when someone pushed me—as if we were moshing again, only with no music. Then someone shoved me from behind.

I flew forward, crashing into some guy’s back. He turned around to give me a shove. I slid past, praying the music would start again and make all of this normal. A final arm grabbed me on the way out. I shouted my best dad-fight shout at him and he let go.

In the dark, I circled the crowd, trying to find her. I didn’t care if she was smoking or drinking or flirting with some guy, I just needed to know she hadn’t left me here. Goddamn Marguerite!

When the sodium lights came on, I finally spotted her. She was standing outside the doorway of a motel room. Inside the room was someone I recognized. My stomach dropped. In the half-light, he looked like he always did, like Jared Leto, too hot to be our pastor. Marguerite stepped in toward him. The door closed.

I felt like I’d taken a steel toe boot to the chest. She’d left me out here after she said she wouldn’t. She had planned this whole thing and left me in the dark. And all so she could, what, screw the pastor? I was so angry I wanted to cry. But in that wide expanse of asphalt, there was nowhere to go without drawing unwanted attention. I walked around alone, fuming. When I heard another band start up, I channeled my best Marguerite, marched back in the crowd, and threw myself in the music.

Sometime later, Marguerite found me. I’d been sitting on the tailgate of the truck. A hardcore band was now playing; drunk guys had shown up and the pit had grown too violent. She sat next to me. She took my hand. I thought she was going to apologize, but then she leaned in and whispered, “We met last year. I got myself sent away to camp because that’s where he works. Then I got my dad to hire him here, as the youth group pastor, so we could be together. He needs me so he can get closer to God. He’s teaching me how. Do you hear me?” She pressed her mouth against my ear and hissed, “It’s nothing like the Bible. It’s fucking amazing. Don’t judge—I’m still a virgin; the ass doesn’t count. We do it five, ten times a day. Afterward, he cries and repents. We cry together, talking to God.” She squeezed my hand, hard. “You have no idea how it feels to be this holy. No one does.”

I yanked my hand away from her, shrugged her off my shoulder. It was the first time I rebuffed her, and the last. She left my side and skipped toward the pit, holding her middle finger behind her.

In a year, I would lose God, too, when I realized the salvation I’d experienced was not divine but merely the music, the crowd, my own desire to transcend. But that night, I felt him there, in the growl of the singer, the depth of the drums. I watched Marguerite kick and push and get tossed around alone. The music felt open and free in a way I had never heard before. Without the confines of the church hall, the sound reverberated everywhere, wild and loose. It ripped the night open leaving a million places to slip through the cracks.

 

image: Kristin Trammell


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