Kimberly Campbell invited me to her house for lunch. We had absolutely nothing in common, but we lived on the same street. Proximity is everything when you’re five years old.
Kimberly was the prettiest girl in kindergarten. She had long flowing blonde hair, and always wore homemade dresses—dark green or red plaids, complemented by colorful tights and smart black-and-white saddle shoes, or shiny patent leather Mary Janes.
Every weekday, Kimberly and I walked to school together. She stopped at my house first, then we picked up Marianna and Cindy, and the four of us scampered off to kindergarten, adult-free, except for the crossing guard.
With her strong, tanned arms, Kimberly could swing from ring to ring on the monkey bars and turn cartwheels. And she always won at hopscotch. By age five, Kimberly already had a fan club—girls who wanted to be her best friend, and boys who wanted to kiss her. Kimberly was the envy of every girl in kindergarten, especially me.
I was short and chubby, with buck teeth and an out-of-control pixie cut. The only reason I ever wore a dress to school was that the principal wouldn’t allow girls to wear pants. But after school and on weekends, I tossed the dresses on the floor and gleefully sported stretch pants and my favorite green-and-white striped tee shirt that metamorphosed into an imaginary guitar whenever I strummed its horizontal stripes.
When Kimberly was playing house, or planning a wedding for her Barbies, I was climbing trees, making mud pies, or playing hide-and-seek with Gordon and John, the identical twins next door—until one of them decided to show me how he could water a plant from several feet away using a mysterious appendage. Unfortunately, his mother caught him and blamed me for his transgression, permanently exiling me from their yard. I was a problem child.
One Saturday, I ran down the sidewalk to Kimberly’s and knocked on the front door. Kimberly’s mother, a cigarette dangling from her lips, invited me in. Lunch was already on the table. I sat down with Kimberly, her little brother, and Mr. Campbell, a tall muscular man with a dark tan, chiseled face, and shiny black hair.
Mrs. Campbell extinguished her cigarette stub in the kitchen sink and joined us at the table. I immediately stuffed a large forkful of tuna casserole into my mouth.
“STOP!” Mr. Campbell yelled. “We have to say grace.”
“What’s that?” I asked, through a mouthful of tuna.
With my fork still suspended in mid-air, I watched incredulously as the family folded their hands into their laps and bowed their heads. Mr. Campbell recited, “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By his hands we all are fed. Give us Lord our daily bread. Amen.”
“What the hell was that?” I wondered. This time I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut.
The family began to eat, slowly, methodically, quietly. This scene was a far cry from the lively weekend lunches at my house, where my parents discussed politics, school, and books as we chowed down on our bagels, lox and cream cheese.
I was relieved when lunch ended. Miraculously, I remembered to wipe my mouth with my napkin and say thank you.
When it was time to go home, Kimberly’s father escorted me to the door and followed me down the driveway, where I nervously tripped and fell hard on my knees.
“GAHDAMMIT!” I shouted.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” Mr. Campbell wagged his finger at me. “You should remember to pray to God every day!”
I struggled to my feet and brushed off my scraped knees. “What’s God?”
Mr. Campbell held his arms up in the air, his hands positioned as if to catch a giant beach ball.
“GOD CAN HOLD UP THE WHOLE WORLD!” He roared, as he shook his arms ever upward. “AND THE DEVIL IS ALWAYS BEHIND YOU!”
I spun around, saw nothing, and ran home as fast as I could. I burst into my house, where I found my mother sitting in the living room reading the New York Times.
She lowered her newspaper. “Hi honey! How was lunch? did you have a good time?”
“What’s God?” I asked, breathlessly. “What’s the devil?”
“Shit! I mean, um… something people believe in.” My mother lifted me onto her lap and brushed my unruly bangs out of my eyes. “How do I explain this? Okay, here goes. A lot of people believe that a magical being called God created the world, and if you don’t pray to him, an imaginary creature called the devil will drag you down to hell, which is a scary place they think bad people go when they die.” She wrapped her arms around me reassuringly. “Don’t pay any attention to that nonsense. We don’t believe in God, and there’s no such thing as the devil or hell.”
I lay awake that night, wondering how the devil could take you down to hell. Maybe through the toilet. Maybe the devil’s hand came up through the toilet bowl and pulled you down the pipes. I started running out of the bathroom whenever I had to flush the toilet lest the devil drag me down to hell with him.
The next day at school, every time I heard a noise I’d spin around, wondering if the devil was behind me. When it came time to sit at my desk, I carefully wiped off the chair with my hand to make sure the devil wasn’t lurking there, and then sat down quickly before he had the chance to sneak under me.
A few Saturdays later I heard a knock at our front door. My mother got up to answer it and there was Kimberly, her face streaked with tears.
“What happened?” my mother asked. “What’s wrong?”
Kimberly pointed to her back. My mother turned her around and gently lifted her green plaid dress as I watched, worried. There were angry red welts, where Kimberly’s father had whipped her with a belt. I stood in stunned silence as my mother treated Kimberly’s wounds, and offered her comfort.
There was no Department of Child Protective Services in those days; parents had the right to discipline their children however they saw fit. There was nothing we could do but offer our friendship, and maybe some prayer-free lunch.
A few months later, my family moved to a new neighborhood. I didn’t see Kimberly again until middle school, but by then we traveled in different social circles. She was a popular girl, a cheerleader, the kind of girl who could go to a school dance and be the center of attention. I was a wallflower, happiest on my bike, hanging out with my best friend, or just reading a book. I no longer ran out of the bathroom when I flushed the toilet. After all, the devil did not live in our house; he lived at Kimberly’s.
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