Tenet Number One: Make a promise to your dad to be a virgin until you’re married and don’t have a lot of boyfriends.
– from A Guide to Squeaky-Clean Balls
At first, the pledgers at the chastity cotillion were all chatter and chuckles and “Your tiara’s so gorgeous.” We forgot to fret about parents, our ministers, the Man Upstairs, all the cock-and-bull we might one day spill to veil what we’d truly been up to: burping the monkey, tickling the beaver, playing Vatican roulette. As we waited for our photo shoots, we sipped punch near the generous dance floor, trying and failing to reach the spiked bowl. That early part of the gala when the reverends welcomed us, everything was fun, celebratory. Listening to the ensemble play delighted us until the lead sang, “Don’t give your sweet kiss away / Save it for me.”
We stared above, below, crosswise. Dead center our eyes met and we turned to look at our doting dads, so dapper in their tuxes. Our fathers watched us from the lavish hors d’oeuvre table, eyes aglow with pride. “Thank you, God,” Bill said. He stood beside a tray of canapés blowing fingertip kisses to his daughter Amelia.
Amelia and her dad came to the cotillion from his breeding service in Ohio. In Cincinnati, the employees at his cattle-reproduction business might look askance if they saw him now, giving his daughter a charm for her bracelet, a locket in the shape of a heart. Amelia, her legs and spine long and straight as history, smirked when he asked for the key, and triple-smirked when he told her, “On your wedding day, I’ll give this to your husband.” Bill’s workers would chide him: This from a man with five kids by three wives? Compared to our dads, we daughters looked tender, naïve in our high heels, shiny as new Cadillacs, in our floor-length gowns, our crowns and ornate up-dos. Bill lifted Amelia’s chin. “I’ll shield your heart,” he said, fingering the charm. “I’ll love you as you’re supposed to be loved.”
Amelia’s gray eyes turned slate as winter dusk. “Gatekeeper of my hymen,” I overheard her whispered rejoinder, “owner of my fertile land.” A tent of wrinkles appeared on Bill’s smooth forehead.
So much for telling your dad what he wanted to hear, I thought.
“Yes, we live in a culture of chaos,” I heard one of the reverends say to Bill as I waited for a fresh glass of punch. “But these daughters are neophytes. We don’t want to confound them.”
I almost yanked his collar but refrained. I noticed his spiked punch on the bar beside my glass and made the swap.
A while back, when the invitations were announced from our pulpits, our ministers encouraged us to attend. The vows, they said, would keep us safe as we headed on to life beyond secondary school. At the chastity cotillion, we’d meet other high school grads and, not only would we receive oaths from our fathers, but we would also cross our hearts and hope to die before our papas and God.
They wanted to protect and bond with us, to transmit values to us, they wanted to keep us from acquiring STDs. We felt sure our love for our paters would blossom at this gala. So did they.
We’d landed at “Protect Your Lass Pristine Gala” that afternoon, part of a teen club, roughly the size of a cheer-leading squad. The reverends had arrived the day before and met us at our limos, bearing temptations, the first inkling most of us had that jewelry was involved. Inside the hotel lobby, picking the perfect purity ring with the best bible inscription wasn’t easy. These would be the rings we’d wear until we said “I do.”
Not crazy about any of the cruciforms or hearts, I wandered into the hotel gift shop and picked a perfume-on-the-go ring. A gentle twist of the oversized peridot, my birth stone, and it opened to reveal a solid fragrance that smelled richly of sun-baked oranges—sophisticated with a touch of whimsy. After I charged it to my dad’s credit card, not thinking to ask his approval, a deep voice called my name, “Hannah.” When I saw my dad waving a black band in the air, there was a momentary pause: No way would I anchor my finger with that ugly hunk of stainless. But Dad, sensing my dislike, didn’t push it. He simply nodded, asked to see my selection then elevated his brows higher than I’d ever seen him hoist those hairy caterpillars before.
Reverend Roughacre, a minister with the erect posture of a confident man, shook our hands, patted our shoulders. We pledgers walked beside our pops smiling, returning his hearty welcome. Our fathers, glad for this chance to relax before the gala, followed Reverend Roughacre to the patio.
We had just settled into a row of poolside lounge chairs, sipping lemonade, studying each others’ bling when Roughacre’s entourage appeared and sat at an umbrella table, discussing, pointing, before approaching us. Bethany, the pledger nearest me, a pale indoor girl with strong notions of what she wanted in life—her tee shirt read, No Trespassing on This Property / My Father is Watching—was telling me about her dance troupe, Classy Dolls, that her dad directed. When she saw the reverends coming toward us, she paused to rub gloss over her lips. Reverend Roughacre smiled gently as he bypassed her saucy grin to stop at her dad’s chair. After inspecting Bethany’s ring, he scribbled something on a form that he tucked inside her jewelry box. “The culture of chaos is everywhere,” Reverend Roughacre said. “But this ring will boost Bethany’s immunity.”
Bethany kissed her father’s cheek. “I love you,” she said coquettishly to robust-looking Ned, stroking his hand and braiding her fingers through his.
The rest of us pledgers blinked and gulped. We sensed an alteration in the expectations of us, a shift we couldn’t identify, though Roughacre could.
Amelia had a fierce response after Reverend Roughacre refused to autograph her form. “What?” she said. “One boner and I’m doomed?”
Watching her huff away, clapping her hands as if dusting them off, Bill right behind, I felt a fondness for her.
“We live in a culture of chaos,” Reverend Roughacre said as he closed in on my dad. “It takes some girls time to step into this society with the strength and passion they need to lead their generation.”
No doodles appeared on my ring form, either, and, like Amelia, I had an acute reaction; unlike Amelia, mine was silent: I’m no saint. And I won’t feel a smidgeon of regret for choosing musk over a finger-truss.
Tenet Number Two: Be a man of virtue and responsibility; shepherd, escort, pray over your daughter as the high priest in your home.
Before the invocation, after the waiters filled every pledgers’ flute with fizzy apple cider and every dads’ with champagne, Reverend Roughacre led off with a toast. “Young ladies, we want you to know how precious you are.”
Tin-tin-nabulate went our glasses. “That you are very much worth waiting for by a man who wants to marry you.” Chimety-chime-chime. Before the tinkles subsided, he added, “Always remember, true love waits.” The lusty applause that followed, despite the muffling effect of our fingertip-to-elbow gloves, made even Amelia grin. And my fondness for her grew a notch.
Reverend Roughacre stepped forward and tapped his flute with a spoon. When everyone quieted, he put his glass aside, raised his hands high over his head then brought them down in a gesture of prayer. “Heavenly Father,” he began, “with today’s peer pressure, absent parent figures, and epidemic levels of AIDS, we ask you to protect our daughters from unhealthy relationships and to offer them their fathers’ hope, love, and security.”
As the reverend rambled on about God creating Adam’s helper Eve, Amelia whispered to me, “Papa do preach.” I grinned and she pressed on, “Here’s the straight poop: Ninety percent of boys choke the salami; the other ten percent don’t have arms.” She whipped out a hand to cover her mouth, her face full of glee, but not before I caught her charismatic delight and had to fight back the bubble of laughter that rose in my throat. Amelia breathed, “Sixty percent of girls paddle the pink canoe; the other forty percent expect you to believe it takes them that long to bathe.” Another bubble frothed forward, one I liberated after Amelia’s codicil, “It’s an acquired forte,” until an elbow in the ribs, gentle, from my dad flattened that raucous orb.
We pledgers were seated in the silver ballroom, picking at our chicken Florentine, trying to explain what we were doing here. A waiter rested a tray of poured wines at a nearby table and Amelia, seeing our dads in the bar line, nabbed one apiece. I folded and refolded my napkin, said, “Not all boys think intimacy’s a big game,” feeling guilty for saying “intimacy.” “Some boys think it’s one of the most natural, beautiful—”
“Things money can buy,” Amelia cut in. She threw her head back and hooted. Observing her laugh that way, showing her real McCoy, was like beholding a person in the buff: What you see is what you get. After draining her glass and filching Bethany’s, Amelia divulged, “I found my brother’s porn stash, the hard facts he calls it, hidden under his jock straps, and did I get a hanky-panky tutorial.”
Bethany, a deep V above each eyebrow, fiddled with a charm on her bracelet, identical to Amelia’s. “This locket is a symbol of our fathers shielding us from naughty trash like that, until our husbands become our protectors.”
“To get their support, they have to deadbolt us?” Amelia said.
As our faces flickered to find the connection, into my mind floated a vault, where a girl stored all her messy desires until the day a man came along with a phallic key. This picture startled me. Because what if I wanted to say, Tough noogies, that’s my key? Then I felt that same effervescence burble up my throat, but since Amelia wasn’t chuckling, I held in my laughter like breath under water, nearly drowning with the need to regain my sangfroid.
Trying a different tack, I blabbed about a girl at school who’d been assaulted by a boy she knew. “If she were here tonight, could she pledge or would she be disqualified?” I felt guilty for saying “assaulted.”
“Used goods,” Bethany announced consummately.
I considered this. After school, a boy had followed my friend into the girls’ restroom and was feeling her up when the janitor walked in. And that excluded her from this Disney of gala balls? A glitch in my gizzard prompted an audible, “Huh?”
Amelia nibbled her asparagus. “Here’s what I don’t get,” she said. “Why throw a party to tell us our genitalia’s theirs, and they’ll give it back when we marry a good Christian boy?”
“We’re not dogs in heat,” Bethany said. “And we’re not out there breaking hearts. Sex is so overexposed.”
“It’s like this,” Amelia said. “Queen for a day then turn in your clitoris.”
“It’s like this,” Bethany said. “We give ourselves as wedding gifts to our husbands. We tell them, ‘Here’s this great treasure you can take from me.’ So, until that night, keep your flower safe.”
An imp of mischief possessed me, and a thought that had never before come to me fully formed bulled into my mind: If we’re wedding gifts to our husbands, then sex isn’t just a part of us, it’s all of us, or at least the most important part. But all I could manage to say was, “Even smooching’s out until we’re at the altar.”
“That’s it,” Amelia said. “We don’t own our lips, our vaginas, our ovaries. He does.”
“That’s not it,” Bethany said. “Here’s it: If we have sex before marriage, we get used, betrayed, we get lied to.”
“Prickly pickle,” a waiter said.
We emitted a united groan, all but Amelia who, after flashing him a smile that could have powered the entire hotel, said, “What to do? Lie to our dads when we violate the contract, or be lied to by our boyfriends? Sign a pledge and wear a ring that leads down that straight and narrow aisle, or find out what it means to call the shots without a man involved?”
“Don’t spoil our joyful soiree just when our dads are dating us, teaching us how men should treat us.” This from Bethany.
Her tone was a hard knot inside me and reluctantly I agreed with Bethany, not so much convinced as outwitted, until Amelia rallied with, “I wonder, when our moms said ‘I do,’ if they signed on for daddy’s princess dating their hubs?”
Had my mom signed on for that? Would the two of us end up vying for my dad’s attentions?
Most of us had been brought up believing we would marry men like our dads, that our spouses would first earn our fathers’ approval before they’d be allowed to court us. But what if we didn’t want to date our dads until he decided Mr. Alter Ego had come along? Would we have to choose between Romeo and a second father? How much fun could it be to live like a nun who vowed chastity and married Jesus? Ewwwww.
The pledgers were worried about Bethany.
“I feel like royalty, all dressed up, and dancing with my dad, who loves me so much,” Bethany said during dessert.
Sure, we all wanted to feel secure in our fathers’ love, but if we subtracted “dad” from Bethany’s words and replaced it with boyfriend or husband (or lover!) didn’t it sound like Bethany and her dad were being intimate? “But Bethany,” we said, “he’s your dad.”
Still, we’d agreed to this gala. In our vows, we’d pledge to conquer our urge to merge. Being around the reverends, Roughacre in particular, and the other pledgers, many of them pros—serial pledgers Amelia called them—who were here to renew their vows, some for the third or more times, encouraged us. No weaseling, I told myself, no backpedaling.
But if Bethany had any second thoughts, she managed to channel her inner Victorian and ice those doubts. She hummed, blocking out Amelia’s voice when she joked, “Chastity belt fittings immediately following this big ball o’ crazy,” and countered with, “Saving sex for marriage saves you from getting a divorce and from a husband who cheats.”
Ned came over, smiling, and sat beside Bethany, an arm wound around her waist. “Hey, doll,” he said softly. “I love you, baby.”
I admired the genuine affection I heard in his voice, from a military man, no less. But I couldn’t shake the idea that in her halter dress, her artful make-up, her hyper-fastidious coif, Bethany looked disconcertingly like a wife.
“That pair of lovebirds is warped,” Amelia muttered.
“Ame,” her father sighed.
Then Reverend Roughacre asked Bethany to have a talk with Amelia, instantly boosting Bethany to best pledger status.
After the wedding cake was cleared, we pledgers went in search of a restroom to primp before the program. Roughacre and a few other reverends were outside the ballroom sorting flowers. We stopped to whiff the fragrance and admire the arrangements.
“You’re the best daughter here,” Amelia started in on Bethany. “I saw tears in your eyes during the invocation. I heard you tell your dad you wanted to be more beautiful to him than anyone else in your life.”
“Bethany’s joining our Virgins for Jesus circle,” Roughacre said from behind a bouquet.
“My dad loves me,” Bethany said. “And I love him.”
“Sure,” Amelia said, “But does he have to own your uterus just to bond with you?”
There was a pause before Bethany burst into courteous laughter. “He loves me unconditionally,” she said.
“As long as you cede control of your fallopian tubes.” Chalk one up for Amelia.
Bethany pursed her lips. “God requires this of me,” she said. On her face, we could see emotion struggling with reason, but sentiment won out and she said, “The Almighty will reward me for my faithfulness.”
I wanted to back Bethany, after all, I saw how proud my dad felt, but I was puzzled. Like Bethany, I liked getting dressed up, the limo, all the fuss, but as pledge-time got closer, I didn’t like the idea of associating my dad with sss-ss-s-x.
Bethany headed for the ladies’ room. “I trust my dad,” she said. “He’ll teach me how to have a marriage based on trust.”
Did I trust my dad? Did his love come with strings attached? I was one of the iffy pledgers. Not calling myself nobility, not studying the kind of hard facts found under jock straps, either. But I loved my sweet dad, which wasn’t hard to do, and I knew he only wanted what was right for me.
Some pledgers hated Amelia, but we all hated Bethany. At the bathroom mirror, as Bethany caked on more mascara, we avoided her. “All boys want is to score,” she said, “but I will resist all defilements.” I acknowledged Bethany, but I didn’t say anything. Listening to her perplexed me, but not Amelia, who hummed a few bars from “You Don’t Own Me.”
After Bethany left, battling a frisson of fear, I asked, “What happens to a girl who makes a promise that might hang over her head when she’s older?” at last expressing my own bafflement. I’d read Pledge Your Virginity. I knew that only marriage to Mr. Better Half would protect me from danger and disease, from betrayal, from unwanted pregnancies.
I took in my reflection, my tinted lips, hazel eyes, my spiffy dress, convincing myself that my father really did know best.
Amelia seemed to consider my question as she misted cologne, a sad look on her face, then she loudly recited number seven of “Pure Amour Revolution”: “Here’s my cell phone. Call my dad. Tell him what you want to do. If it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me.” I liked her even better then. She, too, had concerns that boys were pushy and that her dad could safeguard her.
“How’d you get so insightful?” I asked.
“My best friend senior year was the go-to girl,” Amelia said. “Papoosi like us, tots verboten from x-rated sex ed class, would ask her the most lunkheaded questions: Could they get pregnant if a boy peed in a pool? Will toilet paper catch all the goo if we stuff it up there?
“Is Moby Dick a venereal disease?” I aped just to see her face, a picture of delight.
“Before my best friend, I’d been coasting, eyes half closed. She showed me a broader worldview.”
“Then why come tonight?”
“So there’d be at least one sane person here.”
Tenet Number Three: Man’s arousal is so physical, indiscriminate, effortless, supersonic, and imperious that his release from sexual tension comes across as psychologically peripheral, largely phenomenal: no big deal.
The reverends were worried about Amelia.
After Roughacre introduced the guest speaker, David Pillow from Traditional Values Coalition, and after Dr. Pillow said, “Chastity comes much harder to men than to women. It’s no secret that the undisciplined male sex drive is monotonously predictable and frivolous,” Amelia quipped, “If we give head, technically we’re still virgins, right? I mean since there’s no penetration?”
Our stomachs tried to crowd into our left ankles.
“You don’t want to say that,” Bill said quietly.
Pillow ignored Amelia, but his speech seemed to turn a corner as he persisted. “You must practice biblically-based sex, refraining from all forms of sexual intercourse until you are in a committed faithful marriage with your husband.
“For example,” he said, “let’s think about a car, your dream car. As you drive it home from the dealership, you notice there are steering problems, and it has many more miles than you’d thought. Also, it’s been in a few wrecks. Now think about your own sexual purity and what it will mean to your future spouse.”
Many pledgers nodded their understanding and agreement, but Amelia looked stumped. When he finished, she asked, “So, like cars, women are meant to be steered?”
“I wouldn’t ask that,” Bill said in a low voice.
Our hearts were attempting to crawl out our ears, when Roughacre came to Pillow’s rescue. “This culture contains a monolithic pervasive evil that must be resisted and shunned.”
Amelia braved on. “By car wrecks, do you mean women can’t learn from their mistakes?”
Amy!” Bill cried.
Now it was Pillow’s turn to save Roughacre’s bacon. “Sex is an incredible gift within the marriage covenant, but it destroys the lives of those outside God’s plan.”
“How about invading our own privacy?” Her voice was full of pride and sass.
“In this culture of chaos we promote a culture of chastity,” flabbergasted Roughacre nearly shouted. “Auto erotic behavior—”
“Petting? Frenching? Anal sex? We’re all adults here—yeah?”
Every organ in our bodies shutdown, though some of us laughed the laugh of astonishment until we wet ourselves.
Bill’s voice was a mere tissue of sound.
After a gaping silence, Pillow piped up. “Careful. Don’t let your passion for showboating lead you into blasphemy.”
“Culture of chaos,” the other reverends repeated. The same scary words that had been running hamster circles in our heads since before we’d arrived at the hotel.
I could have discouraged Amelia, but the truth was I liked the long view she took. Her challenges deserved more thoughtful responses. She was brave and funny. But if I joined in her provocations, wouldn’t I embarrass my dad as much as she had Bill? Wouldn’t the reverends dislike me? Wouldn’t God?
Shortly after Pillow’s talk, we met our first practiced pledgers. They were refining waltz steps for the rug-cutting that would come later. Agog with curiosity, we smiled at them, though they made us leery. There were so many indecorous questions Amelia might pose: If your muff belongs to your dad until it belongs to your husband, when does it belong to you – after your maracas are long enough to tuck inside your waistband? Do you really want to hog-tie yourself to that odious promise? Because if it backfires, you can kiss your resale value ta-ta.
Amelia’s queries? I was freaking myself out!
While Bethany chatted up the hard-liners, Amelia said to me, “These machachas spout the party line, but where’s the rush and amour propre if you can’t weigh the pros and cons, can’t trust your own judgment, can’t take care of yourself?”
On the heels of that acumen, came an insight of my own: Maybe this pledge business was a less rad Shariah law, a mental burqa. You flout an arranged marriage, you shame the family, you get stoned to death, or maybe hanged. Naaahhh.
As a string quartet played softly, we watched the light-footed repeaters gussied up in strapless dresses, their snug fit seeming to send a mixed message. “I know why they keep boomeranging,” Amelia said. “It’s the philosophy of the peacock—the chance to expose their purity.”
She had a point but, flummoxed, I began wondering if the gap between what our dads wanted for us and what we daughters wanted for ourselves was such a wide one. Was it a bad idea for our dads to be engaged in our lives and promise to practice what they preached? Weren’t parents supposed to set the bar high? Besides, all the pledge basically said was sex is serious, don’t be reckless.
Amelia, observing a father-daughter pair book-ending a piano, mooning into each others’ eyes, got in the last word. “Why put our purity on a pedestal to connect with us? After all, our sex lives are none of their business.”
Tenet Number Four: Women do not actually want sex, but rather romantic love.
After the set-up for the keynote was cleared away, and while the reverends installed a cross adorned with a white sheath and a thorny crown, Bethany sidled up to Amelia and me. “Aren’t you in seventh heaven?” Amelia sipped an umbrella drink from a goblet bigger than a chalice.
I thought Bethany’s question over, wondering if Bill’s admonishment had encouraged her to risk addressing Amelia.
The push in Amelia’s eyes was enough to send Bethany reeling, but Bethany persevered. “What the reverend and doctor want us to grasp is that we don’t have to seek a man. We’ll be found.”
A prince in pursuit, I thought. Will the slipper fit?
“Amelia!” Bethany hollered as Amelia poured her drink inside Bethany’s cleavage. “You social jerk! Hannah, grab a towel!”
But I turned around and went in search of my dad. I wanted him to feel good, needed, honored. With happy anticipation, I felt ready to commit. I was almost sure of it.
Seven tiny ballerinas in white tulle floated in, followed by seven older dancers, carrying trays of velvet jewelry boxes, though my sub par ring was not among them. After dedicating their piece to the fathers, they jete`ed and arabesqued to the lyrics, Your faith, your love / And all that you believe / Have come to be the strongest part of me / And I will always be your baby.
Baby? An idea began niggling, one I tried to ban, but it wouldn’t be squashed: We’re not all adults here. We pledgers can be bambinos for the rest of our lives. I felt queasy.
A couple of reverends, standing in front of the cross, formed an arch with two long swords, intersected at the points. After Roughacre asked, “Fathers, are you ready to war for your daughters’ purity?” and they sent up a unanimous “Yes!” and after Roughacre announced, “These fathers are prepared to bear swords and war for the hearts of their daughters,” dads and their girls began parading beneath the rapiers. As the pledgers placed white roses at the foot of the cross, the fathers offered quiet blessings, and the photographers, in a syncopation of hushed praise and clicking shutters, splayed on the floor all around, angled for the best snaps. Before long, a heap of cream-colored buds were wilting beneath the outstretched arms of the crucifix.
Amelia stood with Bill on the sidelines, deadly serious, sipping from her chalice, watching. Bill looked downhearted.
Soon, all the pledgers and their fathers were kneeling and Roughacre announced that Bethany and Ned would initiate the exchange of vows.
Under the mirrored ball, under the bisected swords, hands gripped in hands, Ned, devilishly good-looking, faced Bethany, looking like angel food, and fluttered one hand over his chest, a mimed heartbeat, reminding us that, at its best, marri–, the father-daughter relationship is loving and gracious. One of the sword bearers handed the blade to Ned, and he touched each of Bethany’s shoulders with it.
“So medieval!” From Amelia’s domain.
Roughacre extended a quill to Bethany and she signed the covenant then Ned pressed Bethany close and recited, “I, Bethnay’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.”
Roughacre smiled at the beaming couple before opening the small box so Ned could slide the purity ring on his daughter’s finger. Their faces seemed to glow in the changing light of the candles.
Before long, it was my dad’s and my turn. Copying Ned, my dad held out his hands to me. Unlike Bethany, I didn’t budge a millimeter. When Bethany’d asked earlier if I felt happy, I’d wanted to tell her, so I could believe it, too, that I no longer resisted signing the abstinence document. Surely, I’d wanted to ask her, That would put me at ease, right? Now, standing across from my dad, scared spitless, I felt like a crutch, a prop, like I was the least important person in this equation, invisible, as if what I wanted was as irrelevant as what a car wanted. Caving and rebelling were struggling in the battlefield of my heart, but my fear of mortification outstripped my desire to claim myself, so I remained mute. Still, if I signed away a part of me that belonged only to me, what was I? A chunk of prime real estate, a fine young filly, or worse, some namby-pamby lamebrain? And most disturbing: At eighteen, if you’d been asked, Dad, would you have signed a purity pledge?
So there it was: my big fat foot would never fit inside the princess’ slipper. I had steering problems. I had wrecks ahead to learn and grow from. Sweat beaded at my hairline and tears pricked as my dad, unwilling to wait any longer, moved toward me.
But before our fingers touched, Amelia was beside me grousing, “You pervs need rehab!” Then she tossed her drink down my decolletage. I jolted, stunned.
“What the hell!” my dad yelped, swiping the sheath from the cross to mop me up.
“We’ll be telling your reverend about this,” a serial pledger said.
“Yeah?” Amelia said. “Get in line.”
I felt so grateful to Amelia at that moment. I wanted to tell my dad, Roughacre, everyone: I can’t surrender myself and all my druthers to my father. What would I be then? I mean, who?
I wanted to clap and bellow, Shake-shake-shake! Shake your patootie! Shake your booty! I wanted to invite Amelia to a popcorn-tv-athon: Sex and the City, Mad Men, Nurse Jackie. But I did none of those things.
I waited for what seemed many minutes while my dad and the reverends, Bethany and Ned, all the pledgers and their fathers watched for my reaction. I wanted to gush: Don’t look down on Amelia. She’s blunt but she’s smart, while I’m the one who’s a quart low.
But what I finally said loud enough for all to hear was, “Amelia, look at this mess,” as I squeezed droplets from my dress. Her eyebrows rose up, two whips, and I wanted to cry loud and wet with the pain of regret; instead I said, “I almost signed the plea–. Now I can’t.” I hoped my dad, Bethany, the reverends would hear a snippet of sincerity in my voice.
“Yes, look at that mess,” Bethany echoed, her arms folded over the stain on her own dress.
“Culture of chaos,” Roughacre said as the reverends moved in on Amelia. “Just look at that mess.” Severity rearranged every reverends’ face. We all strained inside our get-ups and frippery.
In the silence that followed, I could imagine the war being waged behind Amelia’s forehead. At last she blurted, “My mess? I’m not the one bullying maidens into whooping it up over their dilemma as kinky chattel. I’m not promising bogus protection of damsels’ sex organs. You haven’t one scintilla of right to—”
Ahhh, the holy terror in her had won.
Two reverends latched onto Amelia’s elbows and began escorting her from the ballroom while she hollered, “Loco tribe of horny freaks! Your geegaws and commitment games turn girls into sexual wheelers and dealers, the oldest profession—”
Bill, looking as if twenty years had been yanked out of him, didn’t follow his daughter right away, but came up to my dad and me. “Accept my apologies, please” he said, and there were tears in his voice. “A limo’s been called. We’re going back to Nashville.”
From the corridor came Amelia’s last hurrah. “And thus, Western society is saved, and purity reigns for all women. The KKK would be proud. Ditto Warren Jeffs. Double-ditto Strauss-Kah—”
I watched the reverends shake out the sheath and hoist it back onto the cross. As the fathers and pledgers realigned, I felt disheartened, knowing I’d betrayed Amelia when all I’d wanted was to thank her for stopping the pledge. And now she was being banished.
I told my dad I needed to change, that I’d be back in a jiff. But I knew I wouldn’t.
Tenet Number Five: Men, being of the mind, overcome their bodily desires with their minds, while women, being of the body, must guard their bodies from the invading force of masculine sexual desire.
In the lobby, I watched from a window as a limo pulled up and Bill, after enveloping Amelia in a wrap and straightening her drooping tiara, helped her into the backseat. Bethany was at the window, too. After the chauffeur closed the door behind Bill, I looked from the limo to Bethany to my ringless hand, which seemed naked and homely beside hers.
Bethany turned to me. “It’s better this way. She excited everyone.”
“Titillated,” I said.
Inside the hotel room, I filled the tub and poured in liquid soap. I laid my aromatic ring on the side then lit a candle and slid beneath the bubbles to my chin. I rested my head against the cool tile and recalled the annual carnival at my grade school. Every spring my parents volunteered to man the Duck Pond game, a no-brainer that required netting a rubber duck from a baby pool and finding the prize that matched the scrawled number under the bird’s tail. It was meant for tots, but kids of all ages, even adults, played. Toward the latter years of tending that booth, I became struck by how solemn the players looked as they listened to the directions and by how so many required encouragement that they were performing well, as if, momentarily, they had become dependent as puppies.
I didn’t want to be leashed to my dad’s coverall strings. I wanted my own threads.
I twisted the peridot, sniffing, mulling over a newsflash Amelia had shared about a woman who, for her wedding anniversary, had her maidenhead reinstated so her husband could master a virgin again. Which begged the question, What did the wife get out of it? Amelia replied by crooning, “You hold the key to love and fear…It’s there at your command.”
Did she surrender to his command, I wondered, because she saw herself as just a container for her man’s needs? But what about her own?
What about mine?
That’s when Amelia’s stats came back to me, “The other ten percent don’t have arms.” I took stock of my own two hardy limbs as, against my will, I began feeling aroused down there, that place, like a foreign country, with strict border controls. But did that stop me from trespassing, from melting, from shivering and going breathless, slowly discovering, slower, slowest, my most hush-hush territories?
Wrapped in a fluffy hotel robe, I was rinsing my ruined dress when I heard my dad’s key in the door.
“You smell good,” he said.
I held up my hand and waggled my ring finger.
“Boys will pursue you just to smell you.”
“Pursue me, woo me, butter me up, fall face-down dead of love.”
“That’s what you want?”
“Or Rapunzel’s clone? That.”
“Hannah, I only want you to be happy.”
“Far in some peculiar future.”
From the airport, my dad and I rode home in a taxi. I wore cut-offs and a tee shirt; so did he. I looked forward to seeing my mom, but I worried what she’d say when she saw my distinctive ring and no signed pledge.
When the driver dropped us off, my mom came out to meet us. She slipped an arm around my shoulder. “I want to hear every detail,” she said, taking my hand to inspect my finger.
As I released the cap to share my treasure, I began scripting my Fourth of July resolution. “Mom, Dad, sit down,” I resolved to say. “I’ve made an important decision.”
And then, before telling them some small piece of truth about who I was choosing to become, I’d have the satisfaction of seeing a look of startled respect on both their tender faces.