She sat on the dingy bus, feeling sleepy and cold under the yellow fluorescent tube lighting. Outside, an amorphous black suburban landscape rolled past, the only significant lights belonging to nondescript strip malls. Her mind for the moment empty of interesting thoughts, the girl kept a side eye on the grizzled homeless man who sat too near to her. She kept a firm grip on the outward signs of her anxiety. When she stepped off the bus and began trekking home up vaulting hills of McMansions, she stared at uneven patches of darkness in the shrubbery and kept her ears open for rustling.
Trotting up the steps to her house, she retrieved the key from her pocket, and relaxed the first few levels of her frantic awareness.
The television quacked and the house smelled like Tex Mex. The fluorescent light from the kitchen was white and clean. She wanted to race up the pink-carpeted stairs, to swaddle herself in the warm envelopment of bed, and to think about the beautiful things she had seen. But first, she had to present herself.
Children squealed at the sound of the shutting door, and attacked the girl. Jaden and Jordan clamored at her waist for the mythical leftover cupcakes they were convinced she always possessed on Wednesday nights. Meanwhile, Jaylynn tugged at the doll in Jordan's cruel grip. Out of the pure white kitchen of strip lighting and pine-upholstered cabinets swayed the girl's mother, bouncing baby Jacob on her huge hip. The girl reflected with a sense of dread that her mother's hips seemed to take up half her body.
"So, how was tonight? Did you-all do something fun?" the woman asked.
The girl had prepared for this.
"We put together care baskets and took them to a bunch of people: Sister England, Sister Wyeth, you know… and Sister Thompson…"
"Oh, good... she is such a sweet spirit," the woman cooed.
Sister Thompson had Downs Syndrome. The girl had wondered before why the women on whom her mother dropped this verbal kiss were usually overweight or developmentally disabled.
Yet the woman kissed with none of the snidery from which the original comment had surely sprung, and with all the sincerity of recitation.
"…. We talked to them for a while," the girl continued. "They told us we were lovely Daughters of God and bore witness to the peaceful spirit we brought into their homes."
Her mother's face broke into a smile, and her eyes got small and crinkly, like she was about to cry. She often looked like this.
"That's wonderful. Did you have a good time?"
The girl thought seriously about this. She responded truthfully.
"Yeah, I guess. I think I made a break-through."
Her mother's spidery mascara eyes widened towards her daughter mechanically, and her bubblegum pink lips stretched thin in a you-go-girl smile. The daughter remembered this expression of her mother's washing over her after she received her period for the first time.
"Wow. Keep up the good work, Jennifer. You'll find your place with the girls eventually."
Jennifer's mother swiveled on her pelvic axis and swayed back to the kitchen to feed Jacob. Jennifer climbed the stairs to the warm dark of the second floor bedrooms, lowering all of her defensive awareness, and felt a bit sick.
An hour later, after removing her make-up and contact lenses, showering, and brushing her teeth as she had obediently done three times a day for every day of her life, she knelt by her bedside. She tried harder and harder to penetrate the dark void, to feel something - anything at all - call back to her.
"Dear Heavenly Father," she whispered. "We thank thee for this day. We thank thee for our food and family and for keeping us safe as we traveled home today. We thank thee for sending us the Gospel… well, not really, but… yeah, I guess so. Heavenly Father… I lied to my mother. But only because she wouldn't understand the truth…. or appreciate it. Do I have to repent for this?"
Jennifer scrunched her eyes even tighter, but saw only multicolored sparks in a muddy abyss. A chill ran up her spine, and she wanted to attribute it to the hand of the Holy Ghost, but as ever, she did not possess the confidence to conclude this.
How come everyone else always knows, and I can never tell? What did I do wrong? Maybe I was a coward in the pre-existence.
I better repent, just in case.
OK, Step 1: feel remorse. Do I feel remorse for skipping Church activities to go see a weird movie? Well, kind of, but only because I knew the whole time I was doing something wrong, something I wasn't supposed to. That counts, right? Yeah, it should – does anybody else get this technical when they're repenting? Step 2: confess to God. Well, I'm doing that right now. Step 3: ask God for forgiveness. Ditto. Step 4: confess to those you have wounded. Well, I can't do that. She'd never let me out of the house. And why should I tell her? The fact that I didn't go to mutual won't hurt her if she doesn't know.
But then how do I pass off this step?
The question grew large in the silence around her, like the weighty philosophical enquiry that it was.
If lying to her mother was a sin worthy of repentance, then why was repenting for it so hard? For crying out loud, repentance was a list of steps to pass off, like household chores. But it was easy to make her bed, empty the hamper, and vacuum the rec room… why was it so much harder to summon up remorse? To be a good girl and meekly give up her ticket to discovering something unusual…
…and insanely beautiful and worthwhile. Honestly, I feel like dancing, but nobody's gonna get up and dance with me. I don't get it.
Look at how screwy you are, Jen: you can't even get yourself to do the right thing this time… 'cause the right thing doesn't feel right. I guess I'm evil.
In the midst of her fevered reverie, Jennifer had ended up sprawled across her duvet. She scrambled under the covers and curled into fetal position. She closed her eyes to welcome the sweet sleep. To legions of teenage American girls, sleep is the only realm in which they may reclaim the personal authenticity of which puberty and the accompanying male gaze robbed them.
It was then she remembered that she hadn't finished her prayer.
There is no way I'm leaving this warmth to kneel on the floor.
Gosh, Jen, you're just racking up the unworthiness points tonight, aren't you?
She contemplated her predicament for a long moment, before moving her lips softly while still in bed: "And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."