Out on a strip of near-rural highway spotted with car dealerships sat the dusty yellow building, flanked by a modest parking lot. On Thursdays evenings, the lot filled around 6 p.m. and stayed that way until late at night. On Sunday, there were cars all day. Passerby, if there were any, would hear the faint sound of synthesized pop gospel emanating from the structure and only then realize that it was a church.
Before my first visit, I was instructed to wear a long skirt and no makeup. My short hair wasn’t appropriate, said my friend, Brian, but he shrugged and added, “You’re growing it out, so it’s fine.” He’d given me a long list of rules at his church with which women and girls were expected to comply.
To this day, I’m not sure what compelled me to go with him. I wasn’t terribly religious and I was very firm in my acceptance of evolution as fact — something that Brian was very concerned about, he said. “I’m trying to help you get saved, and you can’t believe those lies,” he’d tell me in our nightly phone calls.
He was persistent and focused in his attempts to wear me down, and he succeeded. When a male wants something, he asks for it again and again, sowing seeds of doubt in your mind until you wonder why you were opposed to the thing in question. Suddenly, I found myself looking for long skirts while my mom and I were out shopping.
It wasn’t the possibility of heaven that appealed to me. The adherence to all these rules in exchange for eternal bliss in the arms of Jesus seemed easy enough, but the idea that I might have a close friend — perhaps even a loving husband — on Earth was the real draw. Brian’s questioning of my values and intelligence tapped into what I was already feeling. I had been bullied for being weird and different ever since we moved to the South. Brian was accepting — at least insofar as he saw potential in me, he said. Who was I turn down someone who cared so much about my well-being?
“Witch,” Brian hissed at me across the lunch table. I knew which word he’d prefer to use, but he refused to use curse words. Conveniently enough, he’d convinced himself and half the school that I was a witch, or at least that I thought I was. In the Deep South, this assertion was a social death sentence. At least they didn’t burn us at the stake any more — although that might have been preferable to torment by a bunch of ultra-conservative people who were terrified when their change came back $6.66.
I’d told Brian I didn’t want to go to his church anymore. His brainwashing efforts, which worked well enough to convince me that I was speaking in tongues and that all my pants and shorts needed to be thrown out, were wearing off, and I found the people unbreakably creepy, not cute as they’d first appeared. My intrigue and my hope for lasting love both crumbled.
He hadn’t taken me over. My copy of Origin of Species was still on my bookshelf.
Brian was enraged. He called our house regularly, but my parents refused to let him talk to me. Not to be outdone, he began a smear campaign at school, telling people that I was a stalker, that I was crazy (I’d confided in him that I had OCD), and that I believed that we all came from monkeys — none of which made me popular.
I heard the helicopter whirr overhead, and I hid myself under a tangle of dead tree roots. The piercing spotlight swam over the messy forest floor, casting tangled shadows that matched my inner state. I couldn’t let them find me: I had to get back on my own.
A few hours before, the shame and humiliation from the constant mocking at school, the rejection by the few friends I had, the accusing looks from the teachers, had all reaching a breaking point. Like a mighty blow of lightning striking a tree, all my inner resolve, my self-love, my hope, was seared and shattered. I felt the break deep within, like a thousand punches into my nervewracked gut.
I ran into the woods behind my house, eager to get away from the door upon which Brian and his family kept knocking, away from the room where I’d spent countless hours on the phone with him, thinking that he loved me. Eager to find peace among the trees.
And I did. Finally, the noise stopped, and I heard only birds chirping and the soft shuffling of branches. My heartbeat slowed. I saw a beauty I’d never seen before, in the chocolate lines of fractalized branches and the amber slices of sunbeams streaming among them. Out here, I was safe.
As twilight turned to dusk, I realized I needed to go back. It was time for supper, and my parents were surely worried. But which way was my house? I knew how to navigate by the fast-fading sun, but not which direction I’d ran.
After a few hours, the helicopter came. I didn’t want the chopper to find me and drag me out of the woods on a ladder. How embarrassing. I had to find my way home alone.
Another few hours passed, and I was ever more lost. I wondered if I’d made my choice, if I would now have to live here in the woods. At least then, I could avoid the shame of going home.
It was getting cold, though, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kicked in. With tears tingling my cheeks, I found the copter skimming across the surface of the trees, and I waved my arms. I heard the chatter of a radio, just like in the movies.
It was over.
Running away didn’t help my social capital. I became a pariah, only instead of walking the halls in what would have been blissful solitude, I was regularly mocked and harassed by my peers.
My parents made the tough decision to have me switch schools. They told me later that the administrators balked, saying that transferring students was only done in dire circumstances. I don’t know what Ma and Pa Bear said, but they got their way.
And so I switched from the shiny, beautiful Taylor Street Middle School to the nasty, run-down Flint Middle School. The rumors were not as allergic to the filthy building as I was, and I encountered the same bigoted treatment I’d just fled.
I was standing in the hall one day, waiting for my classroom to empty, when a wide-eyed boy with spiky hair approached me. I froze, remembering that he’d been making weird comments to me. He leaned close, sniffing me as though he were an animal, then rubbed his greasy forehead against my blossoming chest. Unable to move, speak, or even cry, I stared in horror as he got unbearably close to my face and whispered, “Crazy,” so close that he nearly kissed me. He and his friends giggled and ran off, and as they did, my gaze drifted to my left, where my teacher stood, having seen the whole encounter.
She smirked slightly and went into the classroom.
Flint’s gym was as dingy and small as the rest of the school, but as though making a concession for its general condition, it boasted a small basketball court. I’d shot hoops in my front driveway for years, enjoying the brief levitation as I tossed the ball, the texture of its skin beneath my fingers, the satisfying swish of the net as the shot landed.
In P.E. class at Flint, basketball was a popular choice, and even better, we could use the gym during our free period. The highlight of my day quickly became my arrival at the court. My heartbeat skipped as I approached the rack full of basketballs, choosing the one that spoke to me.
On the basketball court, there were rules that trumped all of our personal drama. The unspoken agreement was to let the game dynamic drive our interpersonal one, and as I gained skills in the sport, I felt something I hadn’t felt since Brian and I began our nightly phone calls: appreciation. Respect. Acceptance. Only this time, it was genuine.
I spent that year in a state of constant anxiety, until summer came and washed away all the rumors. My peers came with me to high school as though their memories had been wiped. Brian gained a reputation for being that “weird religious kid.” Eventually, he became homeschooled and was never heard from again. I graduated with honors, having gotten through high school with little incident.
Throughout those four years of high school, I kept with me that feeling of exhilaration I’d found as I dribbled the ball across the court, as my fellow girls called out words of encouragement, rather than hatred, as we worked together to defeat the other team. Temporary animosity faded away as we chimed in with, “Good game.” Those games were my relief from the endless torment by my peers, my outlet for my frustration, a place where I could sweat out my anger rather than cry over Brian’s betrayal.
In the worst year of my life, a simple orange ball and a fast-paced game saved me from my despair. The squeak of our shoes on the court, the vague stench of gym clothes, the thud of the balls against the shiny floor: none of these things were annoying to me. They composed my paradise in a treacherous land. And as I walked off the court that last day of school, I gave it one last glance, but I didn’t need to. It would stay with me forever.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.