- 2003 -
Ashleigh and I first really noticed each other on a dirty street in Saltillo, Mexico. The sun was setting.
I remember the last bits of light that day peeking through the strands of her hair as she moved, captivating me like the unexplored regions of a map. Her smile, the glints in her eyes when her silhouette laughed –– those were all mysteries waiting to be discovered. Those were the first stitches in a tapestry we would later set out to weave together. Saltillo was our genesis.
The two of us ended up in the Mexican capitol of Caohuila as if by divine appointment. In the previous year, we had each found our different ways, by different means, through the doors of First Baptist Church in Lamar, where we both began attending youth group. We barely knew the other existed then. Her friends had invited her, my friends invited me. She was a freshman in high school, I was an eighth-grader. Her parents were traditionally Mormon, and mine were agnostic, at best. Even in a small town like Lamar, our two worlds weren’t privy to much overlap.
The summer before I started high school, the church presented the youth an opportunity to join a mission team to Mexico. And Ashleigh and I, in our own separate ways, found ourselves swept along in the prospective adventure of it all. I raised money, signed waivers, got immunizations and all that. I laboriously memorized verses from John and Romans in hopes that I might be able to spout them back out at opportune times to the natives.
I had been a Christian for almost a year then. Ashleigh would later say she converted only days before leaving on the trip. In some regard, I entered her life around the same time Jesus did, which wasn’t at all a healthy comparison.
The mission group spent countless hours spread out between two fifteen-passenger vans before arriving in the dusty slums of Saltillo, coated in rubble and filth. Even during the long trip, Ashleigh and I hardly acknowledged each other. She mostly floated around with her high school companions, and I spent almost every second with Daniel, one of my best friends.
Together, Daniel and I made it a point to cause our fair share of trouble — that’s what made us such close friends. At work projects, we threw buckets of wet cement at each other. At our bunks, we uncovered a den of scorpions underneath the sleeping mats and organized cockroach-hunting expeditions with machetes we’d bought in the marketplace. And while on the road, we made a pact to purchase and eat one bean burrito at every gas station we stopped at, with the sole intention to eventually stink up the vans as best we could. I think that when you’re in eighth grade, you can often measure your friendship with someone by the amount of trouble you get into together.
And strangely enough, it was trouble also that first drew Ashleigh and I to each other.
The group often had downtime in the late afternoons before dinner, which we usually spent resting or goofing around in the streets, climbing concrete walls or visiting nearby house vendors. One evening, we found a discarded football and started playing catch.
Catch was my thing –– I’d always loved sports. So I stayed in the street for a long time as people came and played for a while and lost interest. Daniel and I played; John and I played. And then all at once I found myself alone with her. The sun began to set.
We tossed the ball back and forth as the sky exploded behind her, igniting the dirty air above the city and all around us in flame. We laughed at the wonder and rhythm of it, the new king and queen of that moment.
She threw it to me, I threw it to her. The sun! She threw it to me, I threw it to her. The sky! She threw it straight into the windshield of a nearby suburban. A crunch echoed off the surrounding buildings.
We stood silent in the streets for a few glowing moments, looking around the tangerine village for any witnesses. Slowly, I went over and wrenched the ball free from the broken glass. Ashleigh snuck over to stand beside me. Silence. No one was watching.
We locked eyes and burst into laughter –– that loud, free kind of laughter that only new friends are able to share together.
We never told anyone about the broken window until we made it back home. The secret bound us up so tightly to each other that we couldn’t help but continue to cause trouble together for a long time afterwards, placing prank calls, shooting tapioca balls out of car windows, dancing in public places, getting engaged and married at age 20.
Whoever said that secrets can’t make friends must never have really shared a good secret with anyone. Dear secrets are the money you invest in the bank of your friendships, trusting that they’ll be taken close care of.
But whether they’re taken care of or not, dangerous things start happening when you keep them to yourself. One of my very favorite song lyrics goes like this:
Carrying secrets to your grave is impossible to do
The secrets carry you
Cooped up secrets shepherd you to the slaughter — maybe not necessarily to your literal death, but in the very least, the death of you to the rest of the world.
When kept in the dark, my secrets developed an expertise at speaking in whispers, convincing me that the only person I could depend on was myself, and the only safe place in the world was my own heart, which I continued to reinforce like the concrete house we built in Saltillo. As a result, my friendships were thrust into darkness, my family relationships became strangled, and the girl I came to know that day in Mexico eventually began to feel as if she’d never known me at all.
- 1994 -
A couple of missionaries visited our house when I was very young — about five years old or so. I don’t remember it very well, but I’m sure Mom or Dad turned them away fairly quickly, probably even before I could see them. The only evidence I had of their visit was a videotape they managed to leave behind — one of those low-budget Jesus movies that followed an American Christ around the ancient world while he preached into the camera lens.
It must have been left discarded on the coffee table or the kitchen counter somewhere, because I ended up finding it. And at that stage in my young life, you couldn’t leave such things around me. Movies, video games, television shows –– I was infatuated with it all.
I remember pulling the tape out of its sheath and asking Mom to turn the television on. She hesitated, I remember, but I paid no mind. She did that with a lot of the movies I wanted to see, and I always saw them in the end. We popped the Jesus movie in and began to watch. I sat cross-legged on the floor, my neck craned upwards to the screen.
I didn’t make it very long. I probably saw about five minutes or so before falling asleep. It most certainly wasn’t turning out to be as exciting as I’d hoped.
Swimming in and out of dreams about wedding parties, water-walking, fishing nets, and the like, I spent most of the movie in a nebulous haze where fantasy blurred with reality. I just couldn’t seem to latch onto the story of it all.
But then the shouts and screams started; they were what finally roused me.
When I opened my eyes, I found the hero strapped to a post, crying out in pain. A bad guy stood behind him, raising a whip, lowering it with snap to tear and injure…
Then, tired and bloody, he rose up by his superhuman strength and began carrying that beam of wood, that railroad tie, through the stirring crowds. Were they sad? Were they angry? I couldn’t tell. They should be sad, I decided, but some of them were still yelling.
“Mom, what’s happening to Jesus?”
“They’re putting him on the cross.”
He stumbles. Another man comes along and helps the hero carry the wood beam. I don’t know if I like him. Shouldn’t the hero be able to carry it alone?
“They’re testing him.”
He throws the beam down, collapses. Two other men show up there, too, carrying their own beams. They’re bad guys. But he’s not like them, I think — he can’t be. Why would the hero die with the bad guys?
“They have to know whether he’s God’s son or not,” Mom continues. “If he lives longer than the other men on the crosses, then they’ll know for sure.”
“They’ll know what for sure?“
“That he’s the son of God.”
A hammer falls. The hero screams. They’re raising him up, in front of everyone, like a flag, like a horrible flag on a pirate ship.
“Mom, what are they doing…”
The people are still there, gathering around. Some are crying. Some are screaming. They are definitely angry, not sad. I feel the hot sting of tears in my eyes.
“What are they doing, Mom? What are they doing to Jesus!”
Pandemonium. Rain. Tears. A storm.
Mom turns the television off. The last image I can make out through puffy red eyes is the hero floating dead in the sky, his head limp to one side. I cry, because I know he’s gone –– not like the other heroes. He’s really gone. Gone to that place no one comes back from.
Mom pulls the tape out and throws it to the very back of the shelves to collect dust — a place even I won’t go looking for it. Then she wraps her arms around me, cradling me on the floor until the shock passes and I start feeling a little less shaky.
“It’s alright,” she whispers, ruffling my hair like she always does to calm me.
“It’s scary,” I say.
“I know it is.”
I try collecting myself in her embrace, but even at my delicate age, I can’t shake that penetrating feeling that I might be somehow irreversibly changed.
“I don’t want to die like that.”
“You won’t, babe. You won’t have to die like that.”