It would be far too generous to describe the Teen Talk meeting in the basement of Braggford Holy Cross as “Friday night fun,” but my aunt’s enthusiasm had risen too tall to be crushed when she told me that the esteemed Christian anti-drug use pamphlet maker Clora Mae Willman would be leading weekly discussions on substance abuse. Her brochures were given out for free by the morbidly overweight receptionist at the church. Confident that the prospect of spending my Friday night in a church basement with a devout Christian pamphlet writer would spark excitement in my spiritually-impoverished soul, my aunt whipped out a few of the pamphlets to show me what an incredible experience I would have.
My aunt was particularly enthralled by these pamphlets: they employed the deliberate racial diversity that was trendy in algebra textbooks in the 90’s (Ho Fung is on a train going 60 miles per hour while JaQwan is on a train going 70 miles per hour, if JaQwan is in Sacramento and Ho Fung is in Denver…), and also made use of once-popular slang had not been used in the past decade. In my personal favorite, a white boy in gangster clothing approached a black boy in a wheelchair, asking, “Yo homedawg, you wanna go smoke some weed?” In response, the boy said, “No can do, homeskillet, I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my savior and he says that being clean is da bomb!” The token Asian friend proceeded to fist-bump the righteous paraplegic as they proceeded to participate in some drug-free activities.
The dreaded Friday finally arrived. The door of the parish recreation room was adorned with a homemade poster for that night’s event. Attendees were greeted with the image of a beer bottle, the label obscured by a detailed drawing of Satan, and the top of the poster announced, ” Holy Cross Teen Talk: Drugs, Alcohol, and the Spiritual Ramifications of Substance Abuse” in bold green Comic Sans font.
The meeting was set to begin at 5:00, and a painfully slow trickle of arrivals began at 5:04. By 5:15 the number of attendants had peaked at a grand total of nine. With all nine of us slouching in the metal chairs, our fingers jabbing at our cell phones, Clora Mae Willman began the meeting. She wore a pair of viciously unflattering drugstore pantyhose, two shades deviant from her pallid skin tone. A helmet of soldier-stiff curls was securely locked in place with a near-lethal dose of hairspray.
“This meeting’s going to be off the hook, as you kids say these days,” Clora pronounced carefully. The nine of us smirked, complete strangers tied by our shared condemnation of 90’s slang. “Let’s introduce ourselves.”
There was Kevin with the glasses, Amara with the curls, Jason and Hannah in the white shirts, a rather questionable character named Derek in an embroidered poncho, Dean with the black jacket, Katherine with the bad perm, Annie with the black widow spider tattooed on her neck. We were different save for our matching expressions: blank, bored eyes drilling into the dust-speckled walls.
First, she explained that we were “empty cups, spiritually dry, waiting to be filled by the grace of Jesus” and that it was her “responsibility to hold the pitcher of Christ.” She said this with a great sense of responsibility, waiting for the epiphanic awaking across our faces. We looked her straight in the eyes, unaffected. Next, she explained the spiritual repercussions of drinking and drugs, because “there is no room in Jesus’ heart for those who bring poison with them”. She was perfectly prepared to “pluck us from the ever-burning furnace of temptation”, and nervous glances darted around the room. I didn’t smoke, or even drink. What am I even doing here, I thought to myself.
Clora proudly passed around a stack of pamphlets, featuring a Latino boy in glasses and plaid pants and a girl of ambiguous racial origin in a basketball uniform. This one was focused on the use of alcohol.
“Alcohol is the sweat of Satan, children, and by bringing such a substance into yourself you are polluting the heart of Jesus that houses us all.”
This sentence alone sparked a number of responses from the obnoxious boys in the room.
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s sweat, Miss Willman, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t touch anyone else’s body fluids.”
“Don’t you think that it would do more damage to the liver of Jesus, Miss Willman?”
Her wrinkled lips, coated in nauseatingly pink lipstick, straightened in a disapproving frown. Her mouth looked tired, weary from responding to prayers in the loudest voice possible every Sunday at church. She seemed convinced that shouting “WE LIFT THEM UP TO THE LORD” instead of saying it at a reasonable volume would rack up some extra Brownie points with God.
“That’s nonsense. All of it.” The words were shot from Dean’s morally parched lips, and his deep brown eyes met her beady blues.
“The Lord hears all, Dean, especially blasphemy uttered in his house,” countered Clora.
“Well, drinking can be a stupid idea, but not because of what Jesus would think. We risk hurting ourselves, not the ‘heart of Jesus’. I’m pretty sure that Jesus’ internal organs will be just fine if a teenager has one drink.” Dean had risen from his seat, and with him his voice had risen too.
I shared an uneasy glance with Derek, the kid in the poncho. This woman looks like she’s about to implode from pure fury. This is ridiculous, all of it, everything she said. And why is this kid wearing a poncho?
“As you fill your body with alcohol you leave less and less space to be filled by the Lord. He will know what passes through your lips, Dean, and he will certainly punish you accordingly.” Clora’s voice was syrupy sweet, eerie.
“What do you even want from us?”
“To commit yourselves completely to purity, no matter what the cost. To be willing to sacrifice anything for the Lord, to enlighten the ignorant about Jesus Christ, especially when they don’t know that they need help. This world doesn’t need more alcoholics, and it certainly doesn’t need more atheists,” she answered, shuddering at the last word.
“So you want us to go around acting like we’re better than everyone else just because of religion? You’re saying that God won’t forgive kids that make mistakes, that we take one drink and we’re doomed, condemned to some fiery furnace under the subways to buddy up with Satan and all of them?”
“God only forgives those who devote themselves fully and recognize their role as the superiors of the Earth and work to bring others into His firm embrace,” she said, her voice tight like a pulled string. She rocked back and forth in her synthetic leather heels.
“Yeah, you would know, because you’ve met him, because you’re so much more special than the rest of us, so he told you it’s okay to tell people what he thinks of them, right?” His voice was dripping with sarcasm.
“Dean, I realize that this information may be painful to receive, considering your troubled upbringing, but it is crucial that you do understand the repercussions of your–”
“My troubled upbringing? How sensitive, considerate of you to think of that, Miss Willman. Really, it is quite wonderful on your part.”
Dean laughed coolly and stormed out of the room, each heavy step a sting of lightning.
“Troubled upbringing,” he spat at the ground as he departed. The door slammed behind him violently like a clap of thunder.
“I’m afraid that our friend Dean has found himself in a barren field of sin, and he knows not the way out.”
Classic teenage smirks made their way around the room. Dean’s friends attempted to swallow their laughter.
She brushed the golden cherub pin on the lapel of her 3-ply polyester blazer, dusting away the incident off like she would push away lint or atheists. She spoke for half an hour longer, but I could hardly focus. I could think of no words to describe her besides insane. A certifiable, crazed glint sparked in her eyes as she told us about seeing angels as she prayed. Katherine with the bad perm, drinking in her words like Eucharistic wine, pressed for details. Then chills ran through my body as she announced that we would close with a pledge.
“I will remain lawful and pure and will refuse to accept the beverage of the devil into my body. If I make a mistake I will go to no one but God for consolation, and am willing to sacrifice anything for my Church. I accept the responsibility to enlighten the impoverished souls that do not know God, whether they are aware of their spiritual poverty or not.”
The oath was not so much repeated as it was mumbled reluctantly with downcast eyes. I didn’t even mumble it, and stayed silent with my eyes facing the walls.
Clora touched her crunchy curls, clearly pleased with herself. “I’m so glad to to have herded you toward the heavenly path, to have awakened you all tonight.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m still asleep,” I remarked bitterly.
She clearly hadn’t heard my comment as she sat there grinning in satisfaction and touching her cherub lapel pin, confident that she had succeeded in eradicating our spiritual thirst.
Margarita Gayla, Age 15, Grade 10, Marymount School of New York, Silver Key