Sasha told me the rumor was I hadn’t gotten my spiritual gift yet because I wasn’t saved. The most popular girls at our boarding school St. Zelda’s had the most mystical spiritual gifts—speaking in tongues, prophesying, visions. Sasha’s gift was telling the future, so she felt she had the authority to tell me how to be popular.
“Getting saved will help,” she said. “Like wearing pink on Wednesdays.” I wanted to high five her for the Mean Girls reference, but I’d noticed that popular girls weren’t effusive outside chapel, especially not in the cafeteria. They saved their emotions for proclaiming they’d had divine visions.
Instead, I channeled Regina George. “Stop trying to make popular happen,” I said. Sasha raised her eyebrows and snort-laughed like I’d just made a dad joke. It was corny, and I would lose street cred (if that were a thing here) but I was happy she’d laughed a little. I hid my smile in my sandwich, made with Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted bread. Since she’d gotten her gift, Sasha didn’t always laugh at my jokes.
I didn’t need to be saved—I’d already been baptized—but I missed Sasha, and I envied her confidence. She mostly hung out with the popular girls now. They discussed their visions before lights out: He was glowing! He glowed for me, too! Sasha had been saved when she was four. The other girls were saved, the pastors were saved, even the pizza delivery guy was saved (a school requirement) and I wasn’t. I wanted to be sure like they were. I wanted to trust in things I couldn’t see, like they did. Faith brought them so much peace. I wanted peace—someone to carry me on the beach during hard times, one set of footprints, like in that saying on that poster in our dorm common room.
If I let Sasha save me, we might be close again. Like when I got caught making out with the boy from our brother school St. Marco’s, and she told the pastor she’d asked me to practice kissing him like it was a recon mission. It’s Song of Solomon, she’d said. She quoted 1:2 at the pastor as he walked away, embarrassed: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
So I followed her down to the river at the edge of St. Zelda’s after lunch.
The river was quiet and still, brackish water hiding manatees and alligators and the alligator hooks that hunters had set, where we’d seen a baby manatee get caught and drown. I swatted at a mosquito and—for once—got it, brown blood streaking my arm.
Normally, girls got saved by altar call in the chapel on campus, with a chlorine pool for baptisms at the front. I just needed to say some words, let Jesus into my heart. I didn’t need to get death-rolled by an alligator to prove my love for Him. I told Sasha this.
“Drama and majesty,” she said. The pastor said this at the Easter pageant every year, to get our energy up for the crucifixion scene, when the apple cider vinegar from the sponge the Romans held was churning our stomachs, and our feet hurt from standing for hours in fake-distressed sandals from Goodwill.
“Drama and majesty,” I said. But I was afraid.
We waded into the water through the trampled grass of an alligator’s nest. I prayed for safety. We shuffled our feet along the river bottom so we wouldn’t slip on the slime. I hoped pond scum wouldn’t get into my bathing suit. Waist-deep, we stopped. Sasha held my hands lightly on the surface of the water.
“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” she asked.
I’d been baptized when I was a baby—oil and water and renouncing the devil. But now, my doubts slithered in like water moccasins: Why were we supposed to have faith like children if we weren’t children? Why did God let the Holocaust happen? Loneliness whistled through me and pimpled the skin on my arms. Maybe anxiety was giving me goosebumps. Ten feet away, an alligator hook bobbed in the current.
Sasha frowned. “You good?”
I nodded. I needed Him. Her. Something bigger than me.
“He welcomes you,” she said. She put one hand on the small of my back and another on my shoulders. She told me to hold my nose, and then she tipped me backward.
When I opened my eyes underwater, I couldn’t see anything. I prayed nothing would touch me, chanted Exodus 3:5 over and over in my head: Do not come any closer. Something brushed my legs. For a moment I was looking down on myself, like God might, and watching alligators circling just below the surface, just beyond the tips of my fingers and toes.
I kicked Sasha’s shins and we both went under. It wasn’t deep, so we surfaced quickly, more scared than anything. We stood in the middle of the river and tried to breathe. She put her forehead on my shoulder and I gripped her forearms.
“Jesus,” Sasha said.
Was she affirming His presence? Was she scared? Did she doubt like me?
“Yeah,” I said, puzzled. Hopeful.
We walked up onto the bank and I picked pond scum out of my hair. I waited—I expected to feel like I had after my first period: nervous and important and part of a secret club. Bearer of a new responsibility. But, I didn’t feel any different. I waited for a sign, and watched the straps of Sasha’s bathing suit dampen her t-shirt as we walked back to the dorms. As we got closer, we could hear Casting Crowns, the popular girls’ favorite band. Sasha walked faster. I waited for my gift—I tried to see into the future, but I saw nothing except the Algebra II test next Tuesday. I tried speaking in tongues, but my mouth was dry.