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November 7, 2020


Haylie Swenson

The first night of the rafting trip, it’s decided that the youth group is sufficiently virginal to be allowed to sleep, co-ed, under the stars. A baker’s dozen of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old Mormon kids shake out sleeping bags and settle in, giddy with permission (one of the few intoxicants most of them know: these are good kids, obedient). Once the adults are asleep, though, the conversation gets more daring. The titles of rated-R movies, illicitly watched, are traded. Swears are sworn. The kids ask each other in low voices, What’s the worst things you’ve ever done? They even talk about sex, sort of. One of the girls, more obedient than the rest, feels anxious about this, but she tries not to show it.

“Do you think Brother Allred is naked in their tent?” The girl’s friend, lying next to her, whispers. The girl’s friend is not as anxious as the girl herself, which the girl both admires and resents.  

“Gross!” the girl says. “No.” Then, her heart hammering in her chest, she says: “Maybe Sister Allred.”

“Hmm,” says the girl’s friend. A few sleeping bags over, Josh Benson makes a fart noise. She says, “How often do you think Brother and Sister Allred have sex?”

The girl pulls her pillow over her face, but she’s already picturing the slide of skin on skin, the vague bulge of Brother Allred’s thing, Sister Allred’s breasts. The small of Sister Allred’s back.   

She turns away from her friend. “We’re going to get in trouble.”

When they get too loud, one of the adults does indeed shout at them from the mysterious recesses of their tent, but there’s no teeth to it. The adults, too, are lulled by the river and the stars.

* * *

The next day is for the river. The Rogue winds through southwest Oregon, a dry corner of a wet state. The water is freezing, even in August, but that doesn’t stop the kids from pausing between rapids to jump in, pushing each other out of the boat on the way, or from clambering onto any friendly cliff and taking the plunge. Cliff jumping is a rush, the girl finds. The hesitation, the leap, the fear as time stretches on the way down, the shock of the water—it reminds her of why she loves roller coasters. A couple of times, when she hits the water just right she feels water shoot into her vagina, through her bathing suit. That never happens on a roller coaster.

She watches the faces of the other girls who jump to see if it happens to any of them, but their faces betray nothing.

The girl doesn’t like any of the boys in the group, but she is fascinated by them, or maybe just by the fine mist of sex that hangs over the air when teenagers gather. Dimpled chests. Chaste one-piece suits that still wink cleavage. Water guns wielded with phallic intensity.      

The thing about rivers is that you can only resist them for so long. The day is over before the girl is ready, even though her skin is puckered into permanent gooseflesh and the sun is starting to drop below the trees.

They pull their rafts on a wide sandy beach near a parking lot where some of the parents are waiting in sun-warmed cars. There isn’t anywhere to change, so the girl is sitting wrapped in a towel with her head against the window when it happens: hot water trickles out of her ear. The unexpected heat, the sensation of something leaving—it feels so good the girl almost gasps. Years from now the girl will still love when this happens, how the river, the sea, the pool will hang on inside her until it doesn’t. And even after the girl has become less afraid of all the things that can enter and leave her body (blood, shit, vomit, other people’s hands and mouths and things, babies); even after the girl has begun to think of herself as the thing that leaves (the church, the boy, the life she thought she’d have, that day on the raft); even then, that sudden hot rush of water will still make her want to gasp with pleasure.

But she doesn’t, here, now. She just sits quietly with the knowledge that something has breached the boundary of her body for the second time that day, and that she doesn’t hate it.