When I Stole a Car and Drove It Straight to Church - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When I Stole a Car and Drove It Straight to Church

When I Stole a Car and Drove It Straight to Church

By Gemma Hartley


Because even car thieves have gods.

By Gemma Hartley

I was at church youth group when my mom called to tell me we were moving from the Northern California town I’d known my whole life to a desert township an hour outside Reno, Nevada. She didn’t even have the decency to tell me face-to-face.

Better I was with God than with her when the news came down, I suppose. When I imagine parenting a girl like me at 15, I’d probably have done the same thing. Let the youth pastor deal with that teen tantrum.

I watched my team lose the game of broom hockey we’d been playing, the other team victoriously running inside to claim their prize of ice cream. I could feel the world being pulled out from beneath my feet; the fact that all of this — the church, the friends, the green California hills, the hope of someday getting back together with a middle school ex — would all be stripped away in a few short months. I went into the sanctuary and cried until youth group was over. It seemed like I cried in there forever. I don’t remember how I ever stopped.

When I finally did stop moping, however, I did what we in the Christian community call “walking away from the faith.” I didn’t so much walk as I did run, headlong, into the drugs, alcohol, casual dating I’d been avoiding my whole life because I was afraid of my parents and hell. I figured Dayton, Nevada, was my hell, and it was coming for me fast. Besides, what were my parents going to do that was worse than this? My young life was now void of meaning and higher purpose.

I binge-drank myself into falling off a rooftop and throwing up in someone’s doorway. I lied about where I was all the time. I smoked pot. I wore skirts above the knee …

I was suddenly angry with God and unafraid of my parents or consequences, which, when paired with my underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, churned out “immoral” behavior with very little strife from my conscience. I realized that making out with Robby Noblet at the Wednesday Night Market with no intention of marriage was actually way more fun than carrying on a fraught preteen relationship with the constant internal battle to stay chaste in my thoughts. He was older and smoked cigarettes that made his mouth taste terrible. I was wholly intoxicated with him when we were together and didn’t care a bit when we weren’t. This was not the way I was raised.


The Author. Pre-Larceny.

Source Photo Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

I had attended a private Christian school since kindergarten. I was part of the worship band and choir. I went to church on Sundays and youth group on Wednesdays. Instead of summer camps, I attended Bible camps. I was immersed in Christian culture all the time. I knew exactly where I was supposed to stand morally, but that just made the rebellion that much more thrilling.

I binge-drank myself into falling off a rooftop and throwing up in someone’s doorway. I lied about where I was all the time. I smoked pot. I wore skirts above the knee, one which was particularly short, frayed denim with sequined appliqués and well-placed tears in the fabric. I wore that the night I stole a car with a boy from youth group.

Prone to mischief and knowing full well of my recent reputation, Wesley invited me to his older brother’s college party one night. It was far more lackluster than I expected. His brother, a youth group alum, didn’t even have liquor around as he and his friends played poker, instead opting to drink shitty beer and act more drunk than they likely were.

I was looking for the thrill of doing something subversive. I had lied and said I was at a church function, and this felt far too close to the truth. I told him I wanted to get out of there, nudged him toward the car keys his brother’s friend had left out on the counter. He swiped them and we ran out the door, my heart pounding as the engine started and we sped quickly out of the cul-de-sac. 


Once out of the neighborhood, however, we didn’t really know where to go. Neither of us had so much as our learner’s permits. A few minutes away from his house, we pulled into the church parking lot to make out, despite the fact that he was still rumored to have a girlfriend. Everyone said she looked just like me, but she didn’t. She was slightly smaller, her eyes a more vibrant green, her breasts not so half-grown, her hair always shiny and beautiful. She was just like me except slightly better in every way. Yet it wasn’t her I thought about as I sloppily sucked on her boyfriend’s neck in the church parking lot. 

I thought about the laws we were breaking, the fact that the police might catch us, that the whole damn thing was bound to come crashing down on us any second. I thought about how my world would end when my parents found out, how I’d be locked up until moving day. I felt high from the adrenaline and the satisfaction of giving God the middle finger for moving me to the middle of nowhere.

When we arrived back after our joyride, we were greeted by Wesley’s outraged father, who lectured us severely before driving me home. I waited, almost gleefully, for him to lay into me. Instead, he apologized for his son and said he wouldn’t tell my parents. 

“I thought you were a different kind of girl,” he said to me as I sat sheepishly in the cab of his electrician’s work truck. His disappointment stung, even though it was what I thought I wanted.

Turns out I had only wanted to piss off God and my parents. Now, as it turned out, the latter would never even know. And God? Well, no word yet from him either.

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