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Head Under Water
Leslie Anne Leasure

The first time I saw Maggie McAllistar was at lunch. First day of freshman year. She was sitting alone with a brown bag and a book. This was one of those long folding lunch tables with the attached round orange seats. I sat across from her. We were assigned seating.

Her lunch was olives, sweet pickles, crackers and cheese. Mobile relish tray. In a bag.

"I think olives taste like sin," she said. She wasn't looking at me. She was looking down at her book, rolling an olive between forefinger and thumb.

I set the Styrofoam tray with the square of pizza down in front of me.

"Sultry and oily," she said and looked up at me. "Sin should taste like that."

I didn't know what to say to that. "You think?"

She held an olive out to me, to my lips and I pulled back, then shrugged and bit down. I was used to pitted black olives, or the green Spanish ones with the pimento worm. I about broke my tooth on the pit. "Ouch," I said.

"No. You have to suck the meat off around the pit," she said. "I'm Maggie."

I took the olive from her fingers and peeled it away from its seed. I thought it tasted like brine. "Zayne."

"That's a funny name."

The painted concrete block walls were light blue, and there was a stretch of butcher paper with crayon animals in a crayon jungle. It is a sharp moment. This first meeting.

"You're right," I said. "About the olive."

She had corkscrew curl red hair and pale yellow eyes, transparent eyebrows. "Do you have Mr. Finnigan for science?"

"Yeah." Pizza did not taste like sin, I thought.

"The year of the frogs," she said. "That room smells so bad. It makes me sick."

"Did you see that movie? The one about frogs taking over the world?" I opened my milk carton and glanced at the girl missing photo. The photos were always the same color as the rest of the carton, and it looked like a negative in red ink. One of those t-shirt silkscreen jobs.

"I thought it was spiders?"

"No, that's a different one."

"Ugh. Or there was the one with the snakes." Maggie wore a black leotard, a russet gypsy skirt and black leg warmers. "Of course, they're all spin-offs of the classic Hitchcock movie."

I chewed my pizza and nodded like I knew what she was talking about.

"You know, the Birds."

"Oh," I said. "Yeah."

She unzipped the baggie with sweet pickles and I wondered what she thought those tasted like, but she just ate them without saying anything.

"So, are you new?" I asked.

Maggie zipped the empty baggie, pausing to push the air out, then rolled it into a long roll. "Yeah. My parents are getting a divorce. So Mom moved back here. We were in Brookline."

"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't know anyone who had been divorced and didn't know what to say. I offered my own tragedy. "My mother died when I was born."

"I'm sorry," she said. "How'd she die?"

"Stroke." I paused. "Why'd your parents get divorced?"

"Young secretary with blood red fingernails and no soul," Maggie quoted her mother. "I don't get to see him much."

Maggie stayed only two days. She was transferred to Philips Exeter by the time the clothes were unpacked.

In high school I flunked make-up, dressing, and dating. I started working for the high school newspaper, writing articles about the marching band and the movement against Styrofoam trays. "Like mother, like daughter," Joan said, not impressed.

My father nodded as though he wasn't surprised. I don't know whether he figured since Tom had followed him, I should follow my mother or that I was just like her that way.

I also started waiting tables at Fowles the summer after freshman year. Fowles was half-magazine stand, half-luncheonette with Lions Club gumballs at the door, and a tank of peanuts and cashews basking under a heat lamp. Hot Nuts! painted across the glass. In the winter, I warmed my hands there.

I loved that job. There was something about waiting tables that made it easy to talk with people. Waitress personality. Enough of those on television to give me a script for life. Kiss my grits. Say honey a lot. Imagine yourself with a blonde beehive and thick forearms. It was like a dance, choreographed moves from tables with plates and cups, laugh here, crack a dirty joke with the pizza guys.

But school was a different story. Every day I thought someone would figure it out. Someone would see this disgusting thing that I felt like I was. Gym was the worst. I stared into my locker, worried if I looked up, then they'd think I was checking them out. At lunch, I was loud about my string of boyfriends.

They weren't even boyfriends really, not the kind who would take me to football games or give me their varsity jackets. Mostly they were older guys, cooks from Fowles. I lost my virginity at 14 with the wheel cook, Jason West. He talked, worked and drove with a Camel stuck to his bottom lip. I was surprised he wasn't smoking when we had sex. His mouth tasted like nicotine and beer. We did it in the prep refrigerator after closing time -- forever making me associate heterosex with the smell of cut peppers and onions in plastic bins. I thought his dick felt like a wet rope, only alive. I was startled when it twitched, but didn't tell him. I acted as if I had done it all before, planning it carefully. I had read all the dirty parts in Lace, Forever, and often sneaked Tom's copies of Penthouse. Innocence was for Brittany and Tiffany. I'd hang out at Jason's after work, smoking cigarettes, drinking and making out with him. His kisses were sloppy, and I didn't like how his body felt against mine, but there was this oblivion that came during sex. It wasn't love or even lust, it felt like dying, or like I was somewhere else, separate from my mind. Sometimes I'd run around with the other cooks, but Jason didn't say much about it. He didn't want to get into trouble -- he was 25 and I wasn't legal.

"I'll take what I can get," he said, rubbing his thick thumbs over my nipples. He did that a lot. He'd pull out his handcuffs and clip my wrists to the metal slats of his bed, and then play with my tits. "You like that?"

"Yeah," I said. It was the same way I felt with Charlie, disgusted and compelled to keep going.

"Bet you'd like it if I fucked you in front of the other guys, huh?" He pinched my nipple and slid a hand down to my crotch. "Maybe we'll do that sometime."

"Maybe," I said and disappeared.

In school, I sat at tablet desks, jotting notes and reading. Mr. Sciata, the substitute math teacher who had lost an arm in WW II, could draw a circle on the black board like a compass with his remaining arm. I wondered if his shoulder was like rubber, that it could spin so smoothly. Each circle was perfect, and we measured radius and diameter.

Newburyport High School stood on a hill and was U-shaped and brick. It looked like a private school, with its gilded bell tower and Corinthian columns. The windows were framed with wood and stuck in late spring, swollen with heat. Mr. Goullette taught Latin and wandered the halls a shadow man, lost like his language. We learned about the revolutionary army, the Boston tea party and how the town was home to the first Chinese ambassador and to famed abolitionists.

The old woman janitor paced the halls checking passes and busting the smokers in the girls' room. Across from the front door was the trophy room, where metal and marble collected dust and photographs became ridiculous with changing fashion. Mr. Hill, the English teacher, worked as a postman over summer breaks.

Ida Tarbell took down Standard Oil in history class, and when I read Sinclair's "The Jungle," I resolved to become a vegetarian. The school newspaper printed monthly, and I wrote stories about musicals and plans for a new middle school. I wanted to write about something exciting. I was waiting for another Vietnam, but the war was cold and we all waited for the morning after.

The book I remember the most was the Grapes of Wrath, although when we read the Old Man and the Sea I thought of my father. I did reports on Nicaragua and argued for the Sandinistas. My teacher misquoted Winston Churchill, "If you are not a liberal when you are young you have no heart. If you are not a conservative when you are old, you have no brain."

I read about nuns being executed in El Salvador for hiding people in church and I imagined the near abandoned rectory at the Immaculate Conception filled with refugees. The commercial fleets fished and fished the Outer Banks. My father sold the Merrilee to pay off the larger trawler.

Brittany and Pete were the perfect high school couple. She got on the cheerleading squad, and he became quarterback. They passed notes in study hall; Brittany dotted her "I's" with hearts. We cut out pictures of men from Seventeen and taped them to the inside of our lockers. I walked the halls, counting lockers and waiting for my life to start. In the trophy room, I found a picture of my mother in a group photo of the old newspaper. I visited her sometimes, after school or if I got there early. At lunch, I would sneak out and smoke behind the stadium, sharing cigarettes with some of the punk crowd. I couldn't seem to dress like they did -- neon bangles, back eyeliner and ink penned jeans -- but they liked me anyway. I felt most at home there. It seemed as though they understood that normal was made up and that nothing was really right.

The eddying currents of students in the hallway after lunch felt somehow anonymous. As if we were all walking in a city and unknown to each other. There were some shouts up and down the stairwells, and a buzz of conversation. Couples would kiss and grope each other in the corners, sometimes, even right in the middle of the streaming hallways. Pressed up against lockers, hands in each other's pockets, and someone would yell, "Get a room!"

I was lonely and tagged along with Brittany and Christy for contrast. I was their pet project, a jester in the court of popularity, I thought. Love was meant for them, with their heart dotted i's and matching colored Reeboks.

The Jesus Man never told me his name. Black roses and a sort of longing, when I think of him. He played guitar on Inn St., crouched on the speckled granite blocks that clustered around the cylindrical fountain. They had turned the water off for the season. Water freezing on brick wears the red away.

The punks stood Sid-and-Nancy-like on the stones, exchanging cigarettes, lighters and hair molding tips. I didn't know who he was playing for -- them or me.

Fanatics always have beards to hide any doubt. He was no different. He wore thin-stripped corduroys too short for sitting, a white t-shirt and a brown jacket.

I brought him coffee, kindness in anticipation of the punks turning ugly. An apology for my generation. He nodded to me as I set the cup down beside him. He was a good singer, fair on the guitar. I backed away and returned to the bench where I had been reading. I watched him over my book. He wore a wooden cross on a leather strap as a necklace. It was a child-like cross, thick and blocky.

It's the eyes that seduced me. Or maybe it was the attention. With my visions of women soft against my dreams, and my imminent damnation, I acquiesced to his testimony.

I wanted him to walk on water and was disappointed when the puddles darkened the canvas of his sneakers. I imagined giving him a blow-job and I thought his girlfriend probably played the tambourine.

He was 20, but seemed younger. From one of those Midwestern "I" states -- Iowa, Idaho, Indiana -- out in the middle of corn. I imagined him trying to explain all that sky. Must be God. Nothing else to distract him.

The Jesus Man told me a story as we ate the bagels I bought. He talked with his mouth full about a Christian family in the Soviet Union. The parents were martyrs, insistent upon their faith with no denial. They had learned from Peter's betrayal and the cock never crowed once. So as the story goes, the KGB killed both parents and sent the 12-year-old daughter to a gulag. Where, in return, she sent the KGB agents a black rose.

"Where did she get a black rose in the gulag?" I asked.

"It's because she forgave them, that's the greatness of Christ's love." He ignored me.

"I thought black roses were what you send your boyfriend when you want to break up with him," I said.

"Do you believe in Jesus?"

"I guess so."

He took my hand. "Will you pray with me?"

I shrugged and looked at him across the matchbook-balanced table and held his hand as he looked down at his garlic bagel and called upon Jesus.

People crowded around, choosing bagels, as I waited for a miracle. He looked expectantly at me.

"That was nice," I said. "I have to go."

Outside the air was cold and salty and smelled like snow. I kept thinking about what the Jesus Man said. The greatness of Christ's love. Forgiveness. It seemed like a set up. God knew we would screw up and need forgiveness and then come crawling to Him. What kind of God needed that? I thought there must be something more than that. But even so, God belonged to people like the Jesus Man or Joan. Not me. I walked past the brick and glass storefronts, out to the river and looked across it. The few boats buoyed and remaining seemed too still on the water. Maybe it was just that God loved everyone except for people like me.

The Jesus Man stayed at the YMCA when he was not on Inn Street. He only had three shirts, one sweater and two pairs of pants -- the brown cords and a pair of battered blue jeans. From what I could tell, aside from the guitar and a Gideon Bible, that was it.

"So, what is your name, anyway?" I asked him.

"It doesn't matter."

This seemed suspect. Like he was trying to go incognito. All of the apostles had names. All of the saints too. We didn't hear a lot about Jesus at CCD, but I thought you were allowed to have a name, even with a vow of poverty.

"I am just the instrument," he said to my silence. "His messenger boy."

Sometimes he seemed silly and full of himself, whatever his name was. When I told him I was Catholic, he put down his green pleather Bible and took my hands. "So have you been saved?"

"Well, I've been confirmed," I said.

"That's a commitment to church, not Christ." He released my hands and bowed his head. Praying again, I thought, bored and fascinated.

We were at the part on Inn Street again, and I was embarrassed for him. I edged a bit away and lit a cigarette. I watched his mouth move. His beard was redder than his hair and was starting to fill in a bit. I wondered what his parents were like.

"Zayne -- would you accept Christ as your personal savior?" He asked me earnestly.

"Well. What do you mean by that?"

"You come forward and say you accept Jesus. You commit towards working on salvation and then you're baptized."

"That's it?" I had pictures of my baptism from when I was a baby. The priest held me over what looked like a marble birdbath and poured oil and water on my head. "I've been baptized already."

"That doesn't count," he told me.

Joan had told me about Protestant baptisms. They involved rivers and getting your clothes wet in front of people.

"Yeah, well. I don't think so," I said.

"But Zayne, unless you accept Him, you'll perish in eternal torment."

"Why do you always sound like a bad televangelist?" I asked him. "Who even uses the words eternal torment?"

"It's in the Bible, Zayne." He was too serious.

I thought about how this was how you knew you were listening to Christian rock -- it was like the Christian thesaurus -- words like wisdom, holy, sacrifice, eternal didn't usually pop up in regular songs. I supposed it was how they all knew what each other was saying -- it was like a kind of code. For this, there was a language, not a silence.

"I don't want to know where," I told him. He would flip the thing open at the slightest provocation and then read from it. He did this all the time. And he didn't read very well. He tripped over words. "So where's this church?"

He told me it was a small church, not even a building, but a group of people. They were still looking for a church. He said that the Baptist Churches in town were filled with hypocrisy and did not follow the word in deed. That's what he said. We would do the baptism in the house of one of the church members.

The thing was, even as weird as I thought he was, even as fanatic and crazy and outright ridiculous as I thought he was, there was something about him that made him seem alive. Most of the time I didn't feel that way. I felt like a zombie, wandering from school to home without purpose or desire. I felt asleep and he was awake and I wanted that. Posing for Charlie and messing around with Jason made me feel this rush, but it wasn't like being awake, it was like electrocution. It gave me energy and it felt like death. I didn't know when the feeling of constant dread started being what I woke up to, I only knew that I felt disgusting and that there was something so horribly wrong with me that there were no names for it. I wanted to be saved from that feeling. It seemed like it would choke me. I imagined Jason reaching out for me and me smiling at him serenely and pushing him away, saying, "I've found Jesus," instead of me following this desperate need for the oblivion he gave me. I imagined saying no to him and meaning it.

I closed my eyes and said, "Yes, I want to be saved."

He grabbed my hands again and said something like Hallelujah or Amen or something. I felt like I was stepping off the edge of the world.

"We'll do it Sunday," he said.

Church was held in one of the old row houses off the shabbier side of Water St. It was three doors down from Jake's Bar, and even on Sundays, the place blared with AC/DC and the smell of stale beer. George and Elizabeth Brown rented the house. They had 6 children and didn't believe in abortion. One of the Brown's I knew from school, Darren. He was sullen and didn't participate in the service. He stayed up in his room and I could hear the bass of an old Doors album. He was one of the people we mentioned, when praying for the sinners. We sat in a circle in the living room. There was a painting of a soulful looking Christ staring up at the top corner of the frame. This was an easier picture to stare at than the bloody crucifixion at the Immaculate Conception. There wasn't enough space on the couches and recliners, so they brought in kitchen chairs, vinyl backed with the foam sticking out like unruly hair. With the dusty furniture and the heat clicking on and off, I felt a bit like we were at a séance.

Every time I started to try to count the various religious knick-knacks Mrs. Brown collected, the Jesus Man would reach over and squeeze my hand, as if he knew I wasn't paying attention. I satisfied myself with staring at the cross-stitched house blessing that hung across from me. They handed around stale vanilla wafers and I took a fist full. Everyone took turns reading from the Bible and Mrs. Brown gave us her testimony. It seemed like a boring conversion to me. She had been a cocktail waitress at a 99; she told us about her sinful outfits and her bouts of drinking and promiscuity. But Jesus came to her when she was strung out on speed. "He just lifted me up, he just lifted me up and carried me out of that hell hole," she said, her eyes bright with tears. She had met Mr. Brown, married and lived happily ever after, or would have if not for the abortionists and the pornographers and her disobedient son.

The Jesus Man talked for a while about how John the Baptist had baptized Christ. John had felt unworthy, he said, but Christ hopped in that dirty river and was dunked like everyone else. There was something else he said about lambs blood and sacrifice, but it all seemed a little confusing to me. I imagined a bunch of people in togas standing around the edge of the Merrimac, which didn't seem right. Maybe there had to be a desert and palm and fig trees. Maybe it had all been a mirage.

"And now," the Jesus Man said. "And now for those of you that would like to give yourselves to Jesus. Please stand up and come to Him."

He stood up and tapped my shoulder. "Zayne told me that she wants to be saved. Praise Jesus."

They all praised Jesus and one young woman starting crying. Then, they all got up and we followed the Jesus Man down the hallway to the bathroom, where there was an old claw foot porcelain tub filled with water. He stood at the lip of the tub and held his arms out to me. "Zayne, Zayne, come to Jesus," he said. I walked towards him, feeling sick. They all crowded in the doorway. He gestured to the tub. "Get in," he said with that smile of his. There was no going back. I looked at him, at the tub full of water and their expectant faces behind me and suddenly I just had to throw up.

I pushed past the Jesus Man and knelt at the toilet and puked great heaves of vanilla wafers and the remnants of the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast. I sensed that the Jesus Man was standing there helpless, not sure whether I had become Linda Blair in The Exorcist and my head was about to spin around and spray them all with vomit. Finally, Mrs. Brown stepped forward and gave me a warm towel and patted my back. "Praise Jesus," she said and flushed the toilet.

I wiped my mouth. The Jesus Man's hands were lowered and his fingers were twitching. I stepped into the tub encouragingly, and knelt, still in my jeans. There was a collective sigh of relief from the doorway. He snapped into action, placing his hand at the back of my neck and thrusting my head under water.

"I baptize you in the name of the Father," he said. I took a breath and he pushed my head under again. "I baptize you in the name of the Son," he said. I took a breath and he pushed me under for the final time. "I baptize you in the name of the Holy Ghost."

I opened my eyes under water, maybe expecting to see the Holy Ghost, but I just saw tub. I came up, my eyes full of water, and could see their bodies standing around me. For a fleeting moment, they were shimmering in this light and I wondered if maybe I was seeing angels. But then I dried my face, and it was all gone.

Mostly I felt embarrassed, but I had wanted it to work. It was as if being saved was a magic trick and I was a skeptic who wanted to believe. When we finished, I felt no different. Just wet. The rabbit was hidden in a secret compartment, the deck was stacked and I was still damned.

I started having these nightmares about apocalypse. The rapture would come and everyone would be taken but me. I'd be walking through endless mist, kept company only by shapeless memories, left behind like a forgotten thing. The air that held time would be gone and thousands of years worth of sin would exist simultaneously. It was like walking through madness. Millions of conversations hanging in the air, waiting for response. All the questions asked just before the trump sounded and I had to answer each one. Sibilant and strange echoing in grayness. I had lost the power of speech.

These dreams were like the ones about nuclear war -- only in the war dreams, the sky was layered with red death. No one was saved in these dreams. Their souls would be standing silhouette against buildings, lost even to the angels.

I'd ride my bike on the double yellow line in the center of the street, breathing the poisonous air as if it were water. I'd go into church, where the body shapes were blasted into the pews like chalk outlines from police shows. The priest shadow holding a chalice, transubstantiation, substantiated -- Jesus trapped in the Eucharist remaining uneaten. Forever lost. Like the signs on the old clam shack after the nuclear plant came on line in Seabrook. No escape possible. Five beaches and one two-lane road in a meltdown. Salvation lost.

I didn't return to the church at the Browns. I avoided Inn Street, and tried not to think of the hope that I felt just before my head was under water. There was no point.



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