In the summer of 1985, at a Bible retreat on Bear Mountain Resort, near San Bernardino, California, I lost my virginity. This was around the time of the Great Wheeler Fire in the Ojai Valley and the smell of scorched wood hung thick in the air for weeks after. A serial arsonist was suspected because of similar brush fires that summer. It had been an unusually hot and dry season, even by California standards, and in some places, like Bear Mountain, the heat rose to record levels. She was a mixed-race girl from the Sacramento branch of our church, who had a bleeding rose tattoo on her lower back, and whose mother had sent her to the retreat as a last ditch effort to salvage her reputation as a good Christian parent. She was fourteen and I was fifteen.
Our church comprised a network of born-again Christian communities that stretched from South Korea across Europe and found it's most devoted home in North America. The Korean Evangelical Baptist Church had branches in major cities throughout the United States and one in Toronto, Canada, all united by a single mission: to save as many souls as possible before the Second Coming of the Lord, which coincided exactly with the start of World War III and was always imminent. Every Sunday afternoon, my mother and I would sit in a rented church in Toronto’s east end to watch Reverend Kwan give a sermon in Korean from a 14” television set propped on top of the altar. It was a sermon he had given the previous Sunday to his own congregation in Seoul, then copied onto VHS tapes and distributed abroad by air the next day.
The three-hour sermons were full of doomsday scenarios and took on an especially terrifying aspect because, unlike the melodramatic Jimmy Swaggart, they issued from a cheerful soft-spoken man with a monotone delivery. Reverend Kwan looked and sounded more like your eccentric widowed uncle mumbling to himself in the corner during a family gathering than a prophet of doom. And though he lacked a Messianic quality, it did little to ease my anxiety about the impending Apocalypse.
Often, in my pre-teen years, I would toss and turn in my bed, thinking about the video’s transit. What if it was lost at a Canada Post sorting station or misdirected to a remote Muslim sect in Uganda? What if the video was en route, but only after the Armageddon was well underway? Was there a place, a kind of Purgatory like my Catholic friends conveniently had, where kids like me could find refuge until all the death and destruction was over with and we could be shuffled to eternal safety? I would stumble into the living room in the early morning hours and switch on the TV, praying under my breath that the world had not fallen apart while I was asleep. Soon I would hear my mother come down the stairs. From the kitchen, she would say, “The Time is coming. You better be sure you’re saved.”
I arrived in California with an aggravating cough, a carry-over from a nasty case of bronchitis I had had the previous winter. Most of the time, I stayed in my cabin between morning and evening services, and read from the Book of Revelation while others swam in the pool or kicked the soccer ball over a parched field. Occasionally one of my friends from Toronto would come to check up on me, but most of the time I was left alone to read or sleep to the drone of cicadas outside my window.
On the third day of the retreat, I heard a distant knock on the screen door. From my bottom bunk, my eyes slowly focused on a girl standing over me. Her cropped dirty blonde hair hung just above her shoulders and she wore a look of genuine concern on her face. I had seen her before on the grounds but never bothered to say hello. There was something about her face that was strangely familiar and exotic at the same time, and some of the boys in my cabin found her odd-looking. When viewed from one side, she looked as Korean as any of the others at the retreat; but if you focused intently from another angle, she could have easily been mistaken for a native of any European city. Her name was Janet and she was a bit on the tomboyish side. She wore denim overalls, rolled up to her knees, and an over-sized white tee shirt under the suspenders.
“Eat this.” She laid a tray with chicken congee on it beside me on my bed. There was an unexpected maternal note in her voice.
“It’s too hot for this.”
“It’ll make you feel better. My mother used to make it for me every time I pretended to be sick and she pretended to be a mother.” She took a seat on the floor and looked around the spartan room. “You weren’t at service this morning.”
“My lungs,” I said.
“Yeah, your cough doesn’t sound good. Must feel awful." She gestured for me to eat, so I put a spoonful of congee in my mouth.
After a long moment, she said, “You haven’t asked me if I’m saved.”
“None of my business.” She seemed pleasantly surprised by my answer and then asked me if I was saved.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I don’t think you are.”
“How would you know?” I began to cough. “You don’t even know me.”
“I can just tell. For starters, you didn’t ask me if I was saved, and it’s the first thing everybody around here asks when they meet. The other thing is that you think that it's none of your business and that’s pretty cool. The girls in my cabin, it’s all they talk about: when they got saved, who their Witness was, how they can feel God’s love in their hearts. Really corny stuff.” She paused for a moment. “I’m not saved, but you probably knew that already.”
I didn’t know if she or anybody else at the retreat was saved or not, despite what they said. All I knew was that being saved was something very private, like masturbating. You were either doing it or you weren’t and it was nobody’s affair except your own. In truth I didn’t know a damn thing about her and, at that moment, was afraid to ask. As it turned out, she was the only child to a Korean mother and a German father. She grew up in a white-washed suburb of Sacramento, not unlike any other you see outside major cities in the U.S. or Canada.
“Wonderbread kids,” she said, describing her classmates at school. “Breakfast Club types.” Her mother, the only Asian woman in their neighbourhood, attended our church every Sunday, but her father believed that God was dead. So, she grew up in a house that celebrated Christmas, with the gifts and turkey dinner and brightly-lit tree but never any mention of the “Jesus stuff”.
A week before the retreat, she had broken up with her boyfriend, a senior on her high school football team, whom her parents disapproved of because he owned a hunting rifle. In the winter, he would take her across state lines in his pickup truck, deep into Oregon country, looking for deer.
“He never picked off any deer, but I saw him shoot a badger once. It jumped around in a circle, screaming, and then dropped dead. After that, whenever he went out hunting, I sat in the truck and listened to the radio.” There was chanting coming from the swimming pool, followed by a big splash and some cheers.
“He was a nice enough guy most of the time. Had a knuckle for brains, though.” She chuckled at this, then looked away and went quiet. I took another spoonful of congee. “All he wanted to do was- you know. Was obsessed about it, actually.” She played with the buckles of her suspenders. “For me it was never a physical thing. But he never got me. So, I told him I didn't think it was going to work out.”
I could feel the congee working inside me and was beginning to feel better. We talked some more: about the fires and the heat; her dream of one day building a snowman in Alaska; returning in the winter to ski the slopes of Bear Mountain. Then it was time for her to go. She was on lunchtime dishwashing duty.
“Bring that back when you’re done, okay?” she said, pointing to the tray. I nodded my head and listened to the screen door shut behind her.
That evening, after the sermon in the Hall of Psalms, Reverend Kwan gave a brief talk to the youth about The Fall. He spoke of the sinful nature of sexual desire and why even infants, from the moment they are conceived, are infected with the disease of Original Sin. He asked us to become heroic Christians, like Jesus and Paul, and to turn away from the lustful ways of the modern world. With self-restraint and control, we could live the type of pure life that God had envisioned for all his children here on earth. Many of the youth in the front row nodded their heads and murmured "Joo-yo", which means "Jesus" in Korean.
Later, we all convened in the Worship Room, where a stuffed six-foot black bear stood guard at the entrance, its sharp paws raised above its head. Those who had recently converted were asked to take the stage and share their Testimonies. The first one was a boy, around my age, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who described his life before being born-again. He used to be a sinner, he said, but the details were too much for him to get into. There was passing mention of him flipping through adult magazines at his parents’ convenience store and watching a pornographic film at his friend’s house. Then one day, a verse from the Bible came to him in his sleep. It was from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, verse 6: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit. He repeated this verse three times, deepening his voice, and lulling himself into a kind of trance. He was convinced that it was God speaking to him directly and he knew right then that he was saved, that he was no longer a sinner because Jesus had died for him on the cross and washed away all his sins. Furthermore, the Voice had instructed him to be nicer to his parents and his girlfriend, a petite girl who happened to be sitting on the floor in the front row, wiping tears from her eyes. At one point he looked over at her and began to weep. A chorus of Joo-yo’s and Amen’s filled the room. One of the youth group leaders, waiting in the wings for moments just like this, walked onto the stage with a box of Kleenex. I looked around the room for Janet and saw her by the door, leaning against the bear’s stomach and looking bored. Our eyes met and she mimicked like she was about to be mauled by the bear. She then gestured with her thumb to meet her outside. I pretended to be having a coughing fit and rose from my seat.
The air was gauzy from the humid heat. Three college types, the dreaded Supervisors, whose job it was to patrol the grounds for wayward teenagers, were chatting at the edge of the swimming pool and smoking cigarettes. They quickly stubbed them out when they saw me standing in the pool of light from the open door. One of them held his hand over his eyes and waved at me. It was Leo, my bunkmate, the theology student from New Jersey who was always sermonizing to the boys in our cabin. On the first night of the retreat, he went on about the difference between the Old and New Testament Gods. It was his opinion that the Old Testament God was better suited to deal with our lost generation than the New Testament one.
I heard a faint whistle to the right of the doors. When the Supervisors huddled together to light up fresh cigarettes, I slipped behind a bush. I saw the back of Janet's white tee shirt as she climbed a dirt trail that ran parallel to the ski lift and into a heavily wooded area. I followed her, hugging the dark walls of the main building. The trail was covered with bracken fern on both sides and the occasional stream orchids staring out at you like stunned hummingbirds. When the ski lift station came into view near the top, the blue-black sky opened and a giant Jeffrey pine tree rose up against it. A bat dipped in and out of sight. Soon I heard the tinny sound of a transistor radio and followed it. She was sitting on top of a large rock by a small man-made pond, partially hidden behind a cluster of cattails. I was wheezing and drenched with sweat by the time I reached the rock.
“I came up here the first night to listen to some music and this was as far as I could go. Over there,” she pointed beyond the barbed wire fence, “is private property. On a good night, you can get a clear signal from L.A.” She fiddled with the knob of the radio and stopped at a FM station that was playing pop music. From where we sat you could see the calm inky surface of Big Bear Lake to the north and the lights of San Bernardino shimmering in the distance to the south-west.
“This where all the bears come out to dance?”
“There hasn’t been bears here for a hundred years, silly boy. The Christians shot all of them when they built this resort.”
“Your boyfriend would have liked that.”
“No, I think he would have been too scared and run off.” she said, and after a short pause, “and it’s ex-boyfriend” Her voice emphasized the “ex” part. In the darkness, I could only see the whites of her eyes, looking down at the pond. There was the thick sweet scent of vegetation by the water and charred wood in the air. We both sat silently for a few minutes and listened to the radio. Tears For Fear’s Shout was on.
“That boy’s testimony creeped me out,” she said at last. “Looking at a porno magazine- that’s his idea of sin.”
“What’s your idea?”
“My father says there’s no such thing as sin. He said that Christians invented the idea to make people feel guilty about everything.”
“You’ve never felt guilty about something you’ve done before?”
“Once, my friend, Alice, and I, stole mascara from a drugstore. But I didn’t feel guilty because I thought I was sinning. We just broke the law.” The conversation turned to Reverend Kwan’s talk.
“What kind of God is that anyway? Throwing them out of the garden just because they had sex. I’d be horny too if my husband was walking around naked all day. He should have made clothes for them on the eighth day.” She laughed, then her tone turned serious. “Let’s say you had a daughter, would you yell at her and throw her out of the house because you found her having sex in the basement with her boyfriend?” Her voice was charged with emotion when she said this.
“It’s because they discovered their own nakedness. They ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” My words came off sounding like I was reading from a telephone directory.
She sighed. “What does that mean, anyway? They ate a fruit. That’s what the Bible says.” I said nothing in response because I didn’t think she got it, but in truth, I didn’t know what all the fuss around Original Sin was about either. Something about it just didn’t feel right to me.
“I loooove this song,” she said, kicking off her shoes. It was Valen Halen’s Jump. “Makes me want to get up and throw my body around.” She got off the rock and began to dance in her bare feet. She bounced around from side to side and it reminded me of a child all alone in an inflatable forest at a carnival. She jumped high into the air with her hand reaching for the sky every time David Lee Roth belted out the word “jump”. She grabbed my arm and yanked me off the rock.
“Show me your moves, Mister-I-Think-I'm-A-Born-Again-Christian.” I couldn’t connect with the music so I simply mimed her movements, tossing my head from side to side like she did and jumping when she jumped. I stopped when the cough came on and rested at the base of the rock. During the long guitar solo, she did a circular motion with her upper body like a dizzy cartoon character with a ring of fire around its head.
She kept dancing like this for what seemed like hours but may have only been for five or six songs. I was amazed by the amount of energy she had. It was as though her body was saying “enough!” but some deeper force was driving her on. At one point, during Depeche Mode’s Master and Servant, she took off her shirt and tossed it to the ground. She had on a small black bra with a silver lining along the bottom of her straps. Sweat glistened on her shoulders. When the song was over, she knelt down by the edge of the pond, her cheeks burning and her eyes bright from all that dancing. She scooped up some water and wiped her neck and face. She took another scoop and drank from it.
“Want some?” She held out her cupped hands.
“No thanks.” I told her that I thought she was a really good dancer.
“My mother made me take ballet classes until I was twelve. I hated ballet, but I loved to dance anyway.”
When the sky began to lighten and a mist covered the surface of the pond, we headed back to camp. We walked back down the trail and at a steep part she reached out to hold my hand. She kept holding on to it even when the trail was flat and she didn’t need my help. At the bottom of the hill, she gave me a long hug and kissed me on the cheek and I could feel the heat coming off her body. I just stood there and didn’t know what I was supposed to do. My emotions were all mixed up. I wanted to tell her to not go, to hold me a little longer, but instead I said nothing. She walked toward the girls’ cabins on the other side of the soccer field. When she turned in the middle of the field and waved at me, I waved back.
I entered my cabin through a back door where the floorboards were less creaky and tiptoed to my bed. Everyone was asleep, but I kept repeating in my head the lie I would tell if someone woke and asked me where I had been. I was helping one of the deacons clean the men’s washroom in the main hall. I slipped under the covers with my clothes and sneakers still on. On the bunk above me, Leo was snoring. It was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own heart, which was pounding like an Indian war drum. In less than two hours, there would be the call for breakfast. I closed my eyes and visualized her climbing out of her bunk, brushing her teeth with all those born-again girls at the communal sink, and making light chatter on the way to the dining room.
We met at the same place and time the next night. The air was a bit cooler than the night before and every once in awhile the moon peeked out from behind the clouds. My lungs were calmer, and even with so little sleep, I felt energized. As I neared the summit, I saw her fidgeting with the radio again, this time in a small clearing under a pine tree.“Batteries are dying.” She put the radio down and reached out her hand to me. She put her head on my shoulder and we sat there lost in thought for some time.
“I want to show you something,” she said finally. She stood up, turned her back to me, and pulled down her shorts to just above the curve of her hips. At the base of her spine was a tattoo of a rose in bloom and what looked like tears dripping from the thorns. “I did this on a dare. It’s a navy tattoo.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s just a rose. Not everything has to mean something,” she said, pulling up her shorts. She raised the volume on the radio when a song called Secret came on. And like the night before, she got up and began to dance in her bare feet. She spun around and around with arms outstretched.
"Do you know what “OMD” stands for?” She was referring to the name of the band.
"Do you know what “OMD” stands for?” She was referring to the name of the band.
“Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark.”
And before I could say "what does it mean?" she stopped dancing, put one hand on her hip and a finger from her other hand over her pursed lips in mock frustration. When the song was over, she collapsed into my lap. All the energy from the night before seemed to have been sapped from her. She lay down and used my thighs as a pillow, staring up at the sky.
“You know anything about stars? Like where the zodiac signs are and stuff?” I told her I didn’t. She turned her head, her nose just grazing my belly. “I don’t believe in that stuff. I mean, how can stars tell you what kind of person you should marry or how rich you will be or when you are going to die? It’s just a bunch of hydrogen and helium atoms. And there’s billions of them up there. You think any one of those stars care what we do down here? If I was a star, I couldn’t care less what earthlings did down here.” She spoke in a hushed tone, as though she didn’t want to waken someone who might be asleep on the other side of the tree or to an infant that wasn’t there- the two of them conspiring against the world of adults, who make up superstitious things like zodiacs and horoscropes, all the goodness and innocence concentrated in that tiny space between her mouth and my belly.
It was at that moment that she noticed something from the corner of her eye. She raised her head from my lap and put a hand up to my chest to make me stay still. There was a line of greenish lights coming towards us. The Supervisors. She shut off the radio and we scrambled on our hands and knees toward the pond. There was only the sound of the breeze moving through the trees. After some time, she peeked between the cattails and then fell to the ground, laughing. I looked through the cattails myself and saw, rising and falling over the fence, what appeared to be hundreds of fireflies, their tails flickering on and off. We watched in silence as they formed a canopy over our heads and went down the other side of the hill, toward the camp. It reminded me of a photograph of the Northern Lights I had seen once in a National Geographic magazine.
“Sweet Jesus,” she said. “There must be thousands of them.” It was something to see and we knew neither of us had ever seen anything like that before or ever would.
When the stars reappeared in the sky, she turned the radio back on. A song by Thompson Twins was just starting. She hummed the opening melody and sang along with the chorus. She was back to her old self again.
Whoa oh hold me now,
Oh, warm my heart
Stay with me
Let loving start, let loving start…
When the song ended, she reached around my head and kissed me on the mouth.
“I'm sick,” I said and turned my head away. She ignored this and gently pushed me on my back. She pressed her mouth over mine again, this time probing with her tongue. She took one of my hands and guided it inside her shorts.
Midway through our lovemaking, when she was still on top of me, her body suddenly stiffened. Her face turned ghostly pale and her eyes rolled upwards, the brown irises completely disappearing behind her eyelids. When her eyes returned, she tried to steady them on mine and when she did, it left a strange feeling in my stomach like I was able to see right through her. She looked away. Then she got off me, curled up like a ball by the rock, and began to sob. Something had gone off in her mind and I didn’t know what it was or if I should do anything about it. When I reached out to touch her shoulder, she pulled away and sobbed some more and shook convulsively. In that moment, I felt a deep chill enter my bones. I didn’t understand it then, but I think it may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t really know her, that I might never really know her, and that perhaps nobody on earth could ever really know anyone else. And yet at the same time I felt that I could never live without this feeling, this strange mystery about another human being that fed some cold and hungry creature within me even as we went about our business under stars that didn’t give a shit.
When it was all over, she picked up her clothes, and mumbled an apology. I told her it was okay, that she had nothing to be sorry about and that she could cry if she wanted to. But she was done. She stood still for a moment, gripped my shoulders with both her hands, and looked deeply into my eyes. It was like she was searching for something in me again that may or may not have been there.
We returned to camp, saying nothing the whole way, and for the remaining two days of the Bible retreat, she avoided me.
Back at the cabin, I told Leo what had happened on the hilltop without mentioning Janet's name. It was very late, approaching dawn, and he was sitting on the porch, reading from the Bible. By the way his face lit up darkly, it was as though he felt wronged by another party but was gracious enough to ignore it. For a moment I thought that my story was boring him. But looking back now, I see that my experience must have profoundly moved him. It was as though he was recalling some lost detail of a scene in his mind: a boy and girl seeing their own nakedness for the first time and being chased out of the Garden. Flashing across his gleeful mind was a narrative of innocence lost, exile, and sin. For him what happened on that hilltop was not some innocent tryst between two teenagers; it was a spiritual crisis. When he looked at me, he must have seen the face of a lone survivor as he walked away from a plane crash, a towering inferno behind him.
* * *
Memory is a funhouse mirror- everything that passes through it distorts. Reality becomes poetry. All these events took place a long time ago, and they never happened quite the way I remembered them at the time. Like the night we made love. Her eyes were not limpid and vulnerable the moment I entered her; they were probably closed. The inside of her thighs were not as transluscent as the thighs of a Rodin sculpture; there were blemishes on them. The nipples of her breasts did not spring up to meet my mouth; they were indifferent. It was not languorous love-making; it was pubescently brief, with furtive glances, anxious groping, incoherent limbs.
By winter of that year, I left the church once and for all. At first, I feigned sickness on Sundays and my mother just let me be. But after a month of this, she began to raise questions about my faith- questions I simply answered with a shrug. She could do little but walk way, shaking her head. I was content to be one of those condemned corpses cleaving eternally to the banks of the Lake of Fire.
Years later, when out of nowhere I received an email from Janet, it did not surprise me. Her message was touched with that familiar melodramatic tone, Oh, how I have missed you, my dear, yet I could feel a genuine tug of longing just beneath the surface of the words. I responded immediately because, in part, I was curious about what she had been up to all these years, but another part of me also wanted to hear her take on what happened that night on the hilltop.
She was an administrative assistant, she wrote, for a Republican Congressman in her district in Sacramento. She ended up marrying her gun-toting boyfriend, the one with the knuckle for brains. They had one child- a girl- and failed to produce any more. She had miscarried twice. She taught yoga on the side and practiced mindfulness meditation three times a week at her local Shambala Centre. Her parents divorced soon after she left for college and her father eloped with a woman half his age to Costa Rica. She visits her mother at the same Sacramento house she grew up in from time to time, but keeps a supportive if arms-length distance from her. Her mother is still a follower of Reverend Kwan, dead now for many years, and plays re-runs of his sermons in her bedroom with the curtains drawn.
In one of her last emails, she wrote the following:
“You’re a very peculiar person. You have this natural gift for celebrating the light creative sides of people, but you are actually drawn to their dark, destructive side. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but I feel like there was something dark in me that attracted you that night. And it scared me. Every once in awhile I think about that arsonist who started all those brushfires that summer (remember the fires and how hot it was?) In my mind, I imagine this arsonist as a young boy, playing with matches for the first time and how, as he grew older, it became his obsession. It was never the warmth of the flame that drew him. It was something else, some cold intense part at the center of it. He also saw beauty and possibility in a conflagration, where the rest of us only saw destruction and devastation. That night, I felt I had to turn away from you because you reminded me of that arsonist. In some funny way, I feared that you would be consumed by something that wasn't really there inside me. For years I used to wonder if you ever saw my light side. The side of me that just wanted to play and dance and be mindless. To just forget about life and stay in the present moment.”
In my final email, I thanked her for her insights and how right I thought her intuition about me was back then. I did have a weakness for a person’s darker aspects and subsequent relationships would only corroborate her views. I told her that the night on the hilltop with her would shape my views about women and relationships in ways I could have never anticipated, and that looking back on it there was nothing about the trajectory of our brief relationship that really surprised me now. The truth, I told her, was that very little surprised me when it came to that band of young seekers who never did find what they were told to be looking for. And I know now that I was one of them.