Because we were Christian girls from fundamentalist churches, we wore our dads' old, floppy t-shirts to the pool at our co-ed Christian camp. When we bobbed in the water, they puffed out around us so we looked like jellyfish with "Cancun" or "DisneyWorld 1998" emblazoned on our chests. As we tread water in our jellyfish hoods, we sometimes wondered aloud why the boys' section of the pool was roped off from ours�if it was just the temptations posed by our sore, new boobs, or if sperm really could swim long distances through water like my mom told me the previous summer.
The pool's main lifeguard was also the camp's assistant pastor because it saved the camp money and God blesses good stewardship. Pastor DeMarco's blue eyes and lifeguard shepherd's crook reminded me of Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins," except Bert probably never told Mary not to masturbate or that the earth is 6,000 years old.
During the day, Pastor DeMarco sat in his lifeguard's chair, surveying the gender-divided pool with a silver whistle around his neck and the crook lying across his lap. In the evening, he took to the pulpit and preached with sunscreen still glistening along his hairline.
To use the pool, your parents had to sign a statement that you knew how to swim, but you had to prove it anyway by taking a swimming test when you arrived at camp. On the second day, Pastor DeMarco lined all of the campers up, girls on one side of him and boys on the other, and we had to jump in, one by one, and swim the length of the pool. As you swam, Pastor DeMarco stood on the edge of the pool, curling his toes around the cement ledge, and watched. When one swimmer reached the pool's halfway mark, Pastor DeMarco directed the next to jump in and begin.
"But if any of you jump before I say when, don't think I won't pull you out," he announced every year, all five summers that my parents made me go to camp with my church youth group. "This is very serious. I need to have my eye on you the whole time, got it?"
Pastor DeMarco was a man of God and a man of his word. I could attest to that. He pulled me out of the pool during my first year at camp. Nobody told me that when it was your turn, Pastor DeMarco would say, "go," but you had to wait for him to blow the whistle. I just heard "go" and went. As I dove in, he screamed for me to stop. I hit the water before my face had a chance to turn red.
All Christian girls know what happens when they disobey, even if it's by accident. We end up pregnant, kicked out of our churches, and used as examples in sermons for what happens to disobedient Christian girls. Eventually we go to hell, where we fall for eternity in a dark, fiery pit, bound in rough chains that tear and burn our flesh, deprived of any human contact except for listening to the eternal screams of other Christian girls who are also bound, falling, and should have listened to their elders.
I thought about that as I sank to the bottom of the pool, and I thought about how a lot more goes into being a Christian girl than just believing in Christ, and when I hit the bottom of the pool, I thought about how long could I hold my breath. I'd never timed myself, which I regretted. I didn't want to go back up to the surface. It was peaceful and blue at the bottom of the pool, and it wouldn't be up there. I waited.
Pastor DeMarco hooked me like a fish a few seconds later, catching me around the torso and pulling me back onto the pool's cement edge. I closed my eyes as I lifted myself off the ground so I wouldn't see the other campers standing in a line around the pool watching me. My dad's t-shirt clung like a tarp and dripped onto my feet. My cheeks felt warm and puffy, like two hot air balloons burning from inside and rising. I quickly pressed the shirt's baggy sleeves against my face, trying to cool down and hide my embarrassment. Pastor DeMarco leaned in to meet my gaze with his Dick Van Dyke blue eyes.
"Did I say you could go?" He asked.
I could have told him that I didn't know to wait for the whistle, but if you think what happens to disobedient Christian girls is bad, you should hear about what happens to disobedient Christian girls who sass their pastors and parents. I didn't want him to think I was arguing with him. I looked down and shook my head.
"No sir," I said.
"What do you say to me and everyone you've made wait?"
"Sorry sir. Sorry everyone."
"Do you guys accept that apology?" He asked my fellow campers, but no one replied. He turned back to me.
"You go when I say 'go,' okay?"
He smiled, straightened up, and leaned against the crook like an ancient prophet with his staff.
"Okay. You can go now."
"Okay," I said, stepping up the ledge again.
He blew the whistle. This time I jumped, springing down on my thighs to gain momentum and then leaping with pointed toes. For a moment, I felt like I was soaring, and I prayed as hard as I could that God would transform my dad's old shirt into a sail and fly me away to Cancun, or DisneyWorld, or anywhere else.
BIO: Virgie Townsend’s stories have been featured or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly–The Best of the First 10 Years, The Best of Pif, Volume One, and The Best of Every Day Fiction Four. Virgie grew up in Upstate New York, the daughter of an independent fundamental Baptist and sex researcher. She now lives in the D.C. area with her husband and dog, who she suspects is an objectivist. Find her online at www.virgietownsend.com.