I think I was pretty bored in my early teen years. One reason was that we lived in a rural setting on Vancouver Island. It was idyllic, but who needs sublime beauty when you’re fourteen. (As a younger child it had been different—weekends and afternoons were spent colonizing the forest and rocky shoreline, my brother and I building entire worlds for ourselves between catch-and-releasing coin-sized crabs on the stony beach and nights spent in our treehouse.) The closest town was Sidney, whose population of ten thousand had a median age of fifty-six, and whose speed limits rarely exceeded thirty kilometres per hour. It was not in walking distance. The best things in town for sub-sixteens (read: non-driving) were a five-pin bowling alley called Miracle Lanes and the Dairy Queen. These were only youth hubs in the eyes of parents, who would hand over a twenty and drop their kids off in town for a Saturday afternoon of what they thought would be bowling and Blizzards, but would most likely be a dime bag, Doritos, and Mountain Dew down by the pier. The older ones with cars would park in the Safeway parking lot at night, loitering and showing off their sound systems.
Another reason for my boredom is that I disliked school. I disliked it from day one. This had nothing to do with the content of the classes—I was able to engage with the material and excelled in all subjects except math, which was a major contributor to my boredom. Negotiating the perplexing interactions with other children stressed me out. As a small child I wore short hair. This and my shyness, combined with a surname that rhymes with hamburger, made me a prime target of the popular mouth breathers. The resulting low self-esteem would follow me until the end of middle school, when I grew tall and willowy and began to resemble an adult, at which point I still didn’t fit in. North Saanich Middle School looked like a correctional facility, which I suppose it was in a way—a brutalist grey cube to contain a few hundred kids aged eleven to thirteen. My theory then was that they wanted to keep us away from the rest of society, hide us, and perhaps in the meantime they thought we’d destroy one another. I began skipping class in grade six, a habit I kept up until the end. In my grade-twelve year I had the highest tardy rate and lowest attendance rate in the school. I marveled over the printout—pages and pages, double-sided—that the vice principal gave me. The trouble administration must have gone through to itemize each of these marked the record in my eyes as an accomplishment.
I was fourteen and in my first year at Parkland Secondary. It was a year after I shed my insecurities in favour of a sense of invincibility, a year before an unknown girl in an LA Kings half-zip pullover jacket and a knuckle duster would punch my lights out at a bus stop in front of the school after I refused to give her my bus fare, and eighteen months before I would drop out of school for a year after writing a letter to Principal Bunyan outlining the flaws I’d identified in the system and explaining that I therefore didn’t see the point in my being there any longer. I was a young woman of few words. I liked to wear worn-out Birkenstocks (retrieved on numerous occasions from the garbage can near the back door of the house, having been spirited out of my closet in the night by my father), olive green combat pants, and long-sleeve knits. My favourite food was ice cream sandwiches. I played on the senior volleyball team.
I had recently become friends with Erika, who was similar to me in that she was very tall, born in 1982, and played senior volleyball, and dissimilar to me in that she went to another school, never smoked pot, and attended a Christian youth group. I liked her, and she liked me, and when I was around her and her churchy friends I felt, for the first time perhaps, as though I was a part of something—as though I belonged. They were so nice! And happy! With no traces of apathy! Also, she was normal: she didn’t talk about Jesus all the time, she didn’t wear floral smocked dresses with Mary Janes. Actually, I thought she was cool: she liked grunge, played guitar, and because of youth group she had older friends, some of whom were what I then called hotties. So when Erika invited me to a youth retreat one weekend, cryptically—deceptively?— known as The Happenings, I decided that it sounded like a good idea. I certainly had nothing better to do.
I arrived at St Mary’s church hall on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by a short woman with a soft, rosy face and slightly upturned nose, her thighs packed tightly into bona fide mom jeans. She wore battered Reeboks, a Cosbyish sweater (can you still say that, in light of, you know, everything?), and a headband pushing her flat brown hair into a little swell at her hairline. Attached to her sweater were two pins, one that read Peggy and another that read GOD has a plan for YOU. She approached me with a basket of pins that looked similar to her Peggy pin.
“Are you Alison? I think you must be Alison! Welcome to The Happenings.”
I smiled and nodded and pinned my pin. “Where should I put my things?”
“Sure, dear! Just go in this door, turn right down the corridor, and you’ll see Jason standing at the bottom of the stairs. He’ll show you.” Her smile was vast, and I felt very welcome. She hugged me. Our pins touched. I had grown up going to church on Sundays with my family, and it had been nothing like this. There the adults were brittle and judgmental, the hymns austere and funereal, the other kids were weirdos, and the church hall smelled like old coffee and stewed fruit.
I walked down the corridor under the condemnatory eyes of sepia-tinged pastors past, until I reached the stairs.
“Hey. You Alison?” I didn’t answer for a moment. It was a hottie. Already. Six-three, blue–green eyes, square jaw, even a goatee (hey no judging—this was 1996). “I’m Jason.” He hugged me. It was an earnest hug, close and long. He worked out for sure. When he let go, he produced a large green pompom that hung limp at the end of a length of yarn. “Warm Fuzzy!” he said as he slipped it over my head. I looked down at the sad green sphere dangling in front of my sternum, then back at Jason. I frowned.
“What is this?” It sounded like three stern little sentences.
“It’s a Warm Fuzzy,” said Jason, undeterred. “It’s, like, a good feeling. You’ll give them and receive them over the course of the weekend. They represent caring and love.” I saw another kid run past the window wearing a whole knot of these things, ten at least. He looked clownish, and loved.
“Right on,” I said, and followed him up to a small room that had two sleeping bags already laid out on the floor.
“You can drop your stuff here. You’re sharing with Erika and Miranda.”
I thanked Jason. He did that thing that guys sometimes did, like two quick snaps and a clap wherein an open hand meets the closed fist of the other one in a flourish of swinging arms, that somehow seemed cool. He said, “Later,” and walked out. I dropped my backpack onto the hardwood floor, already a little bummed that there weren’t even beds. I thought of my churchgoing grandmother and the two centimetres of bathwater she made my brother share at bathtime when we stayed with her as little kids—somehow sleeping on the floor made sense.
“Watches please!” Peggy made her way around the circle in which we all now sat, and I watched everyone surrender their timepieces, tossing mine in with the rest when it was my turn. Erika whispered to me that this was her favourite part, escaping time for two days. I liked that perspective and immediately adopted it. It made it all seem so edgy. A tiny girl with blonde hair, pink-rimmed glasses and a Miranda pin looked on the verge of tears as she rested her watch—the last one—on top of the others. “Don’t worry,” said Peggy. She held Miranda’s gaze. “We’re on God’s time now.”
There was an icebreaker in which we had to introduce ourselves with an adjective that began with the first letter of our first names, and that we felt best described us. Peggy started.
“Perky Peggy!” Her face was more flushed than before, and now that she was sitting cross-legged on the floor her jeans made me think of sausage casings. Porky Piggy. I knew it was unkind, but I couldn’t unthink it.
Generous Jason. I resisted the urge to object to this clear flouting of what I thought were very basic rules.
I chose Authentic for myself. Yes, we all know that it’s an impossible claim for a teenager, but I reasoned that no one could argue with it, although I’m not sure why I thought someone might try to.
I felt badly for Wacky William when it become apparent, moments after he’d spoken it, that he regretted his choice. He patted his cowlick nervously and smoothed the collar of his navy blue polo shirt.
After a rundown of the weekend’s activities—singing, eating, free time and a series of talks—we were given time to get to know each other. Upstairs I sat with Erika and Miranda, who turned out to be our age but was still waiting for gruesome hand of puberty to strike. She wasted no time in getting to the good stuff.
“How do you guys feel, you know, about having strange thoughts?” She wrapped both hands around her mustard yellow Fuzzy and squeezed.
“Like what kind of thoughts?” said Erika.
“The thoughts that are not what God wants you think. The bad ones or the weird ones that maybe the devil gives you.”
Having never thought of my thoughts in such binary or biblical terms, I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had just nodded and said something like I totally know what you mean, to save Miranda the embarrassment that ensued.
“Do you mean thoughts about guys?” I said, thinking of Jason and not feeling guilty for a second.
“No, no, not guys. I mean sometimes, when I’m with my friends at school, I start staring at their breasts, and then I can’t stop staring at them.” Her face flushed and Erika and I just looked at her. She was physically immature, and because of that I could understand her curiosity, but whatever her reasons, I didn’t think it was strange. Before I could say so, two kids lurking in the doorway started to laugh and Miranda ran from the room.
After dinner it was time for music. When Jason brought out a guitar I almost melted. I sat on my own on the fringes of the circle. I didn’t know any of the songs. Jason started strumming. He closed his eyes. He began rocking back and forth. People began to sway. He sang a cover of “Flood” (WARNING: before clicking the link know that it is truly terrible, and the video has substantial kitsch factor, and it may get stuck in your head) by a Christian band called Jars of Clay. I was compelled by the darkness of the lyrics: But if I can’t swim after forty days / and my mind is crushed / by the crashing waves / lift me up so high / that I cannot fall / lift me up … and keep me from drowning. I felt conflicted by Jason’s singing. At first I thought he was attempting tricky harmonies, but it soon became apparent that he was tone deaf. This was a major buzzkill. When he finished everyone clapped and hugged and exchanged Warm Fuzzies. I got a brown one and an orange one. He began a new song. This time everyone sang, and by the end of the hour I knew all the words to “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Jesus Loves Me.”
Later, when we went up to bed, Erika and I discovered Miranda’s things were gone. Erika said she heard that Miranda had been picked up a couple of hours earlier. I hadn’t even noticed, and I wondered if those were regular hours or God hours.
I woke in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose, skirted my mound of Warm Fuzzies and went downstairs, hoping to pilfer a snack. I followed the dark corridor, the framed faces ghostly, hints of their eyes trailing me. Before I reached the kitchen I noticed a glow issuing from beneath a closed door at the far end of the hall. I pushed the door gently and it opened. Seated in the centre of the room were three teenagers I’d never seen before, holding hands and chanting in whispers. In the corner Wacky William and another couple of kids were bent over a low table, surrounded by scissors and balls of yarn, a pile of Warm Fuzzies on the table between them. Wacky William looked up at me, his eyelids heavy. One of the chanters opened his eyes and smiled at me, then closed them again.
It was the middle of the night. I looked at my wrist as if there were a watch there. No one said anything, so I backed out of the room and went back to bed, my shoulder blades pressed against the polished floorboards.
Day two was tedious and I felt disturbed. Breakfast was stewed fruit. William and the others from the midnight Fuzzy factory wore vacant expressions, bags under their eyes. I gave all my Fuzzies away.
The “talks” were little sermons delivered by speakers in their late teens. One about the masks we wear to hide our true selves from the Lord, another about facing the darkest parts of ourselves. This involved asking volunteers to publicly dredge up their worst memories, and opened the floor for others to express sympathy and advice. Everyone would then encircle the person, touching or hugging him or her. Two people left the room in tears. Jason gave a talk on being in a canoe with this father, and the canoe capsized but somehow he was alive.
“I was seriously drowning and the waves were crashing, and I could like, feel him lift me out of the water.” Everyone was rapt by Jason’s account of his near death experience, having clearly forgotten the words to the song he’d bastardized the night before. I looked at Erika and rolled my eyes. She mouthed the word bullshit and smirked.
As the weekend went on The Happenings revealed itself to be a kind of porn—everyone getting off on each other’s teenage melodrama and piety. The more dramatic it all was, the stronger the sense of belonging, even if “belonging” meant hugging it out through crocodile tears to the tune of made-up pain. I was young and more than a bit apathetic, but I felt in my bones that there was something perverse about what I was witnessing. It was clear that my minimal hugging and lack of indulgence in the theatrics of the weekend had made me a pariah. Any Fuzzies I received were pity Fuzzies.
That night, long after lights out, I said to Erika, “This blows, right?”
“It very much blows.”
She wasn’t surprised when I told her what I’d discovered the night before.
“Oh yeah I know, you found the prayer squad. There are people in that room praying in shifts all weekend. They’re praying for us. Plus, they approach kids and tell them they’ve been ‘chosen’ to help make the pompoms. It’s weird. I had to do it last year. It kind of wrecks the weekend for you.”
“Hey, do you want to get out of here?”
We escaped through the window. Erika had left her shoes downstairs, so we each put on one of my Birkenstocks and walked into the centre of Sidney. When I asked her why she bothered with this type of thing she said she didn’t really know—they were her friends and this was her world. “Plus,” she said, “What else is there to do?” We turned left on Beacon Ave and walked the main stretch.
Some grade twelve skids were hanging out in the Safeway parking lot with a brown and gold ’85 Chevy Van, a Too $hort decal emblazoned across the rear window, bass rattling the chassis. I could just make out the tinny classical music playing outside the 7-Eleven across the street, a recent initiative to keep loitering teens at bay. The Normandy Restaurant was shut up tight, the next day’s early bird special in tight cursive leaning against the window. The smell of the sea rode a breeze up from the pier.
“Shit,” said Erika. She slid her foot out of my sandal and nudged it towards me. It was as if she was saying Here’s your bad influence back. A white hatchback turned in from a side street and approached us. We stood still in its high beams and when it came to a stop, Piggy and Jason got out.
“Here they are, Mom,” said Jason. Traitor! We were busted.
It turns out I wasn’t saved by The Happenings. Over the years that followed I went on to do far worse things than a midnight meander through sleepy Sidney. I lied to my teachers, deceived my parents, indulged my interest in older boys, went to parties and took hallucinogens with older kids, dropped out of school. But I don’t think I was worse than those youth group kids, the ones who judged, who feigned acceptance, who bullshitted each other, who hugged and hugged. There was no substance there. No empathy. There was a brittle emptiness, a void in which young people practised conforming.
Back at the church I was taken into the chapel and Erika was sent back to the room. I was escorted to a pew and a group closed in on me: Piggy, Jason, and some people I recognized from the prayer squad. They each closed their eyes, put one hand on me, and reached the other up in the air. They were reaching for God. I began to panic, and they began to pray.
[I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, and I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details.]