Today, we are proud to bring you “Friendly Crossroads” by Lydia Conklin, the next installment in our New Voices series. This story chronicles a youth group retreat in New England in the mid-’90s, from the perspective of Corey, a high-school freshman, who often sees the world more exactly than the teenagers and adults around her. It is a story about coming out and coming of age, told in detailed, direct prose. Read on. You won’t regret it.
“After all, how could she know anything for sure? One day she might kiss a girl and find the saliva bitter as detergent.”
The youth group was on the way to a retreat west of Boston. Corey sat squeezed in the back of the station wagon, her elbows on her knees and her fingers pushing spirals into her temples. She watched Meredith Styles, the group’s guest, who was up front with Bill, the leader. Meredith Styles was a recent college graduate in the church, along on the fall retreat to issue an award called the Coming of Age in Unitarian America Award. They’d collected Meredith at a plain clapboard house in Lexington.
“So these are the brave youth,” Meredith had said upon entering the car.
No member of youth group had met Meredith Styles before, and yet she was to issue the only award Corey had ever heard of in First Parish Church. Corey leaned forward toward the front seat, away from the mindless jabber of Maxine and Jen beside her. She wanted some clue as to the criteria for the mysterious award, but Bill had Magic Smooth Rock 94.3 turned up all the way. Meredith’s red shrub of hair remained frozen no matter how catchy the tune, never nodding to the beat, never swiveling to chat with Bill. Corey wouldn’t have chatted with Bill if she were up front, either.
Corey calculated from road markers that the Friendly Crossroads retreat center was only twenty miles from the church in Lexington. Bill and his wife Janet, who was along as a chaperone, were deliberately disguising this fact. The two-car caravan meandered, stopping at any overlook or shallow New England canyon they happened by. They lingered in a drugstore in Waltham, choosing Wonder Bread and a block of bright cheese for lunch. They ate the sandwiches without condiments in an arboretum near Thompsonville. But it was a ruse, a triangulated journey, designed to convince the group they were traveling some great distance, both spiritually and physically. In reality they remained in the eastern portion of the state, within biking distance of First Parish.
The trick worked, was the thing. When Corey walked across the colored leaves, matted over the lawn of the retreat center, she felt far from home. The center was on several acres of field, which fanned out into a fringe of woods. Though they had left Lexington at two, the sky was already striped pink.