On my eleventh birthday, I wore Mom’s turquoise blouse. My whole body was flushed from a track meet, and I was concerned about sweating into the silk as Dad and I whipped along the freeway with the windows down. I’d placed in several races – even won the eight hundred. Dad shouted above the highway ruckus; he praised my starting stance and the way I’d caught the lead runner’s wind like he’d taught me to. But as soon as we parked in the hotel parking lot, he was uncharacteristically quiet. We tap-tapped in our dress shoes across the asphalt parking lot, where the fresh tar appeared liquid in the July heat.
Inside, the velvet wallpaper and frosted light fixtures that blurred the large windows overlooking the river were formal enough to shut us both up. Dad nodded to the menu.
“Choose a drink,” he said. But his nervousness made me worry – we’d never ordered drinks at a restaurant before. I watched him closely as I asked the waiter for a mocktail and said a very precise thank you. Dad could be unpredictable when he perceived ingratitude, carelessness, disrespect. As he was head of the household, all our actions reflected on him. But rather than any kind of reprimand, his nervousness became clear when he pulled out a black velvet box from his jacket pocket. He set it on his plate before he fished out a scroll that had fit like a tube inside his jacket as well. With no room on the table to roll it out, he left it with the cutlery as he opened the velvet box to reveal a ruby ring.
“This belongs to your future husband,” he said quietly, almost out of one corner of his mouth. “On your wedding day, you’ll give it to him as a sign of your lifelong faithfulness. Your purity.”
Formal language from Dad was unfamiliar territory and it took me a minute to wrap my head around the fact that I was looking at my first ever ruby – even if it officially belonged to my future husband, wouldn’t it be mine for just a while? The server set down my sweaty mocktail as I plucked the ring from its velvet cushion. Dad handed off his plate so he could press the contract flat on the table. He read aloud the large, printed script as I matched the ruby to the sweaty pinkish-red of my drink, but when the swirl of pomegranate ebbed close to the edge of the glass, my heart hammered too loudly to hear his exact words. I slipped the ring on my ring finger; it hung loose and heavy, and Dad handed me a pen.
On the line meant for me, I signed as a future, mature version of myself, but also as an eleven-year-old binding myself to some mystery man. I signed as a promise to remain a virgin until my wedding day. Logistically, I’d only ever officially signed the back of a paycheck before, when I’d deposited my earnings from Dad’s fishing tackle shop. This line was longer, with lots of space around it, and the sum of my letters looked adult, official – my handwriting matched my mother’s. Dad signed on the line meant for God, then rolled up the contract and returned it to his jacket.
“I’m the moral head until your husband takes the lead,” he added. “It’s how God intended things to be.”
I blushed. Dad knew I knew I was pure, and this whole thing suggested I could somehow not be. I didn’t even know how the undoing could happen, but I believed the ring would protect me from luring men or tempting them to fornicate. Like the ancient Burmese embedded rubies into their left sides for invincibility in battle, the ring on my left hand would keep Satan off my skin. Still, a steady stream of terminology careened in on me, words organizing themselves in my head as the new me: harlot, wife, stumbling block, virgin. I made space for those words, let the contradictory haze settle in my forehead as I focused on the formal table settings, knowing had sin not been in my nature, I wouldn’t have needed the contract.
Near the end of that summer, Ange and I were naked to our undies and hidden by an expanse of cordgrasses and king devil hawkweed as we lay on the path we’d trampled through the vacant lot between our houses. Our hands were calloused from the months of springing around on all fours – I remember I could stick a safety pin through the thickest part of my palm with no pain. I passed her a melted ice balloon and we took turns puncturing the cold latex with the pin, dribbling cold water over our foreheads as dandelion wishes swayed with the sough of an unexpected breeze. Smoke from neighbours’ barbeques wafted over and the tall grasses moved softly like a concert, dark butterflies skimming over the flowering stems. I let the cool water trickle from my face to the rim of my ear as under my vision, my hazy ribs expanded, wing-like.
“I’m not coming to middle school,” Angela said. As her words sunk in, I sat up and watched her squirt balloon water into her mouth. Her hair was spread like a fan around her head, like a crown.
“I’m moving to my church school, so I can grow up pure.” She said it calmly, but I perceived the lynx – the viciousness we let roar when hidden away in that lot only we inhabited. Her eyes flashed like I wouldn’t see until six years later when she was writhing in her hospital gown. But her words were exact; she was already reconciled to the idea.
I hadn’t seen the new school on their huge church property up by Mount Hood, where the fog was thick and smoke-like, and an army of blackish evergreens loomed through the steamy windows that framed the church pulpit. I tried to imagine a school day inside that building, where unintelligible murmurs swam through the muggy air. I’d almost fainted one Sunday. Maybe my discomfort had been a premonition that I’d been too young to place.
I slid my palms up the stalks of some razor-edged grasses. I’d never known desperation before – to be overtaken by yearning, and crippling fear of loss.
“Mom wants more for me,” Angela continued. “Kids here in Childers get into sex and drugs.” My pink balloon expelled a small puddle as my heart also released something – a sound, a whir, a sentence. I wondered who of our classmates were headed for ruin. In our neighbourhood, there had been garage parties with loud rap playing. Everyone knew two girls had lifted their shirts for the boys to see. Most of the good kids were Catholics or Mormons, which was the enemy hiding under false disguises. Pastor Julius said their old traditions could scare the Holy Spirit right out of you. Unlike their formal priests, Pastor Julius hadn’t even finished university. Rather, guided by the Holy Spirit, he took us forensic-like through the Bible so we could cultivate true godly lives. Jeremiah was the only other kid who went to my evangelical church, which was not Pentecostal like Angela’s. At church, he and I clung together as representatives from the flat part of Childers, which was on the poorer side of the river.
“Can we still meet here, after school?” I asked, as panic gave way to the first flexes of grief.
“Maybe,” Angela chuckled with her air of knowing. Her raspy voice.
“Will we still move to New York when we’re eighteen?”
“That’s a long time away,” Angela sighed.
Grandpa, who had raised me for six years with his different kind of religion, which was basically no religion at all, had crafted a story Ange and I truly believed: she and I would be wild women on the loose in the big city, where the possibilities would be endless. I was sold on a place where I assumed we’d be free to run on all fours like the lynxes we were. As soon as Mom caught wind of our fantasy, she changed the narrative – my destiny, she explained, was either a missionary or pastor’s wife. But despite our parents reclaiming our futures from Grandpa’s unholy, even if beloved, grips, Ange and I had held tight to the wilder fantasy. Now she was letting it go.
A little bird hopped along the path wagging its cinnamon stick tail. A grasshopper that I would have usually caught perched on a dried-up skinny blade.
“How many kids in your new school?” I asked. Ange rolled her head, slowly, her cheek welted with crisscross impressions from the flattened grass.
“Not sure,” she said.
Intent on weeding out the impurities I would now be facing alone in my sixth-grade classroom, I homed in on Cristen, who had always understood broader things than our primary school curriculum. She wore colourful prints and two braids and challenged our teacher on everything – her parents were liberals, Mom said. Then I remembered how Brandon had chased us around the cul-de-sac only days before, when we’d stuffed our water balloons down our swimsuits like boobs. Even though we’d fallen on my front lawn with laughter at the time, the suggestiveness of it struck me as newly mortifying. Had Mom seen? I sat back on my knees and sought a deeper breath.
“Everything is changing,” Ange said, responding to the same train of thoughts. “We have to take things serious now. You know, we should be wearing our purity rings rather than running around on all fours.”
My skin festered with the idea of change. Tears did nothing to cool my puffy cheeks. All those afternoons Ange and I had spent with Grandpa, and the hours we’d spent tending our secret lot – that borrowed square of dishevelled paradise, where time had always felt thick and dreamlike – congealed into a feeling I could hardly gulp down. Sweat dripped along my hairline and down my naked spine.
Naked. I jumped up and ran to the wormy apple tree where I’d draped my dress over a low hanging branch. Angela, who was now destined for better things, sauntered behind.
How will I turn out? I worried. But my determination not to lose my best friend stirred deep in the marrow of my bones and I knew I wouldn’t fail her. I would grow up pure, too. Not just for her, but because if pure was what God wanted, I was going to do it right.
“Faith doesn’t grow in a bubble,” Mom explained that night, as I sat next to her on the sofa and twirled my purity ruby around my ring finger. “Better to be a light in the darkness than to only be surrounded by likeminded Christians.” Her gummy-worm scar bobbed over her throat as she recited Matthew five-sixteen, reminding me that she saw things differently than everyone else in our community, probably because God had worked a miracle when He saved her life after her car accident. But she was impatient with my heartbreak; she resorted to one of her straight-to-the-point-no-matter-how-much-it-hurts lines: “Cut your losses. Angela isn’t worth the tears.”
I clung to the idea that Angela would miss me. Knowing she would hate her church school, I waited in the lot every afternoon, stomping our path into submission, examining the fruit of the diseased apple tree. I made the last of the buttercups into tiny bouquets with bunches of white clover. It was mid-September when I finally caught sight of Angela’s car rounding the bend. I hopped on my bike, which I’d propped outside the fence so Ange could see I was there, and raced to her drive; eagerness pumped through my lungs, my face was lit with hope. But when Angela stepped out of her car, she met me with a haughty look, like I’d betrayed her with my inadequacy.
“When can you meet at the lot, Ange?”
She didn’t even glance at her mother, who waited by the front door with a bag of groceries. “It’s just an old lot, Wesley. They’ll build on it soon.” A slight huff betrayed her hidden emotion – for a second, I clung to that undeliberate sound that meant she was still in there, I could still bring her around. But she followed it with an irritated shrug. “We’ll see each other, you’re right around the corner.”
I swung my leg over my bike and rode furiously back across her front lawn. Tucking through the loose planks that allowed us into the lot, I climbed to the strongest branch on the apple tree and sobbed. Throughout the summer, I’d listened to the early morning birdsong while Ange slept above me on her bed, feeling her room was a place I belonged. Desperate not to lose the secrets we’d shared, our futures we’d envisioned through details Grandpa had gradually provided, such as: you’ll have spaghetti in Times Square, you won’t swim in the river, you might miss the moon, I was glued to my place in the tree that had truly been ours.
“Show us the rubies,” Angela used to demand of Grandpa in return for her help in the garden. Then we would spread out a picnic blanket and Grandpa would produce the little silk bag of tiny Burmese ruby shards he’d been given by a dying British soldier in World War II. He’d empty the exotic shards into his leathery, dirt-lined palm and hold them out for us to admire. I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise, he’d recite from ‘The Sunrise Ruby’, a poem by Rumi. Is it still a stone, or a world made of redness? It has no resistance to sunlight. Even those small stones had seemed to soak his palm in puddles of red. When Ange had held them, greediness had buzzed up and down her skin.
As the deepening sky started to play peek-a-boo with dusk, I gave up my place in the apple tree. Dejected, I hopped down and rolled my bike back through the fence planks. The growing recognition that Ange had not just left school but had also left me, roused my defences. She had chosen to go along with this separation – we hadn’t been ripped apart like I’d thought. Thinking of what to do, I crossed the street in pursuit of my bedroom and caught the hazy form of Grandpa ambling towards me, who was unmistakable with his bow-legged limp and bald head. I stopped to right a fallen John McCain sign in the lawn next to me and waited for Grandpa to approach.
“I didn’t know you were here, Gramps,” I said. Wary for a moment of his alternative beliefs, I considered passing him by. But his deep bellow, his Wesley-girl!, made me want to collapse into him, and I did.
“Let’s check on the rubies,” he said after a minute, nudging me along. Since I could remember, Grandpa had taught me to hunt shades of red – in wild strawberries, Heuchera garden borders, the salvia that delineated the edge of Brandon’s yard on the other side of the cul-de-sac. He said he was training me in colour for my future as a gemmologist. Someday, I’d go to the Gemmology Institute of America and specialise in Burmese rubies. But he was also training me to love the world, he said, to be of the world, reflected by and within it. We agreed the best shade of scarlet came in late summer with the Love Lies Bleeding, which Angela’s neighbour grew in masses.
“Let’s not get close, Gramps, I don’t want Ange to see me.”
“Ah, there they are,” he said, limping across the road as if he hadn’t heard me. Reluctantly, I rolled my bike behind him.
“Remind me, Wesley-girl, what makes a good ruby cutter?” he asked as we stood before the spectacular bunches of dripping crimson tendrils.
“A good cutter blends the colours from each axis,” I said. “One which would be orangish, and the other purple. The cutter blends them into one perfect shade.”
With his crooked stance, Gramps turned to face Angela’s living room window. I squirmed with discomfort, but his emanating love pulled me in, as always. I squeezed his hand and let out a sigh I didn’t know I’d been holding in.
“Sure thing this wasn’t Angela’s doing. But she’s not the kind to let it get the best of ’er,” he said.
“I’m going to be pure, like Angela,” I said. “So when we’re eighteen we can live together in New York.” My ruby hung too loose on my finger, so I turned it to my palm and squeezed. In the twilight, I could see Grandpa’s shining, playful eyes. One side of his mouth curled into a half-smile as we sauntered back in the direction of home.
“Life is like a lapidary. Youse gotta let it hone yas, so yas colour turns out right.”
“Same in Christianity,” I said. “God’s the refining fire.” It was a metaphor we’d practiced widely as children, whenever anything hurt – like the consequences for lying or disobeying.
“Ya don’t say,” Gramps said, unbelieving. “Well anyway, that Angela’s got a lotta pride. Don’t let it get ya down.”
But I couldn’t understand why a girl with so much pride wouldn’t fight. Gramps had to be wrong – Angela had to have agreed with her parents that I wasn’t good enough. The thought that I might be just like everyone else in our godforsaken Childers Middle School made my skin prickle against every fibre of my nearly too-small summer clothes. So I prayed and prayed and prayed, until God became as vivid to me as my favourite memories – and a better friend, even, than Angela. Even if His face was a direct copy from the painting that hung in my parents’ bedroom, various sensations indicated His approval of things, His love and assurance that I was doing everything right.
It must have been hard for Grandpa when my parents co-opted our ruby dreams for their own purpose. When he and I finally examined the gemstone with his old German loupe, I could see the coloured glass filling empty pockets in the stone. If they’d been going for the purple-red of a Burmese ruby, I noted, Alexandrite would have been a closer shade – but only at night, under incandescent conditions.
“It’s a pretty ring…” Grandpa said. We were sitting at his dining-room table, comparing my purity ring to a bouquet of Heuchera Ruby Bells.
“Do you think it’s a pink sapphire?” I asked.
“Could be, could be,” he mused.
“It doesn’t really belong to me.” I was glad to say it, like that fact protected the sanctity of our ruby bond.
“Maybe it’s just as well...” He glanced over at me with a mischievous look in his eye and we burst out laughing.
I longed to know what would happen when I gave my future husband that ring. Where would God find the one for me? Mom said our covenant with God was the real marriage, and husbands were just a shadow. That’s why if you were to lose your purity, you’d also be cheating on God, she said. My purity was the only thing that mattered – the ultimate gift for my husband, for God, and myself.
Poppycock, Grandpa said under his breath when I explained this to him. The ultimate gift is Grandma’s come-hither eyes.
Those words came back so clearly when we were seventeen and Angela was swaying on her knees and groaning, subsumed by her innate power to push out that illegitimate baby. As I watched her fight for survival, a rage simmered somewhere deep in my belly – deeper, even, from a little chapel space in my hip-flexors, where a fire was burning through those repressive beliefs that had so long protected it. In the exact moment I felt those walls tumbling, heavy and scorched, Angela’s face relaxed from its red exertion.
“Get ready to get the hell out of this town,” she said.