Over twenty-five hundred miles, the canopy dwindles until the desert is close enough to swallow it. I had the sense that we were climbing, but am disoriented when mountains explode like the rocky humps of dinosaurs wakening from ancient slumber. We stop in a whirl of chalk, catch our breath. Salt Lake City shimmers above the hard pan, so why do veins of snow tumble from the peaks?
Though we won’t smell the sulfur until the next morning, we see it twist upward from the Lake. I point to a sign that reads, “This is the Place.” It’s a misprint, must be. This is the place, all right. She locks my arm and giggles.
We know nothing of the survivors who steered the lip of Emigration Canyon, who were eager to forget the western Illinois town where they left Joseph Smith charred and castrated, who waited for a feverish Brigham Young to declare, It is enough. Drive on. Signs are everywhere, but we don’t read them.
My girlfriend supports herself on her knees, asks what kind of trees are these: maples, oaks? No one seems to know. Despite our anxiety about the uncertain length of our stay, when I distract her with the white stone obelisk, we are left with the optimism of forging our lives here together. We ask a woman walking her dog to take our picture, make ridiculous faces.
Later, my girlfriend brings home a pamphlet about the glorious white settlers killing red people because God told them to clear the land. We use the pamphlet to light the stove, but manifest destiny is infectious. I wake to see her glassy eyes burn the ceiling, and not long after, she moves back to the house we left behind. When learning the laws that govern a new environment, I know that sometimes the first is the harshest. I also know that rules require us to question ourselves and occasionally, to sacrifice, and sometimes we disappoint each other because we can’t.
My job is to compile affidavits. The University of Utah could become the first public institution to teach a course on Mormon history. Our firm has a reputation for generating paperwork, and my boss volunteers us because he earned his law degree at the U and his wife wants to be closer to her family. Here, the rules are simple: keep the camera in focus, convince respondents not to murder the microphone I clip to their shirt, drink plenty of water.
How have the Mormons contributed to the development of the United States? The ideologically entrenched speculate on the rigors of L.D.S. history.
One Friday morning, I spend four hours with a judge from the Third District who serves on the Ethics Advisory Committee. We alternate reciting the Constitution until he is satisfied the phrase, “separation of church and state,” does not appear in it. My eyes spot with ultraviolet scrawl. My hands vibrate with coffee, which normally I drink alone. I feel nauseous every time I see a danish. On my time off, I suppress the desire to interrupt strangers who debate the Mormon question; most of all, I grow weary of being twisted.
Mormons like parties and, by mistake or out of pity, I am invited to one. As with any social gathering, the rules are stated only after they’ve been violated: show up by nine because everyone goes home at midnight. Don’t dance after two because it is illegal. Avoid beer because it contains a lower percentage of alcohol (a lesson learned after an evening spent bouncing outside the host’s bathroom door). Only bring hard liquor that can mix with Coca Cola; as Mormons own a small percentage of the company, it is both an act of blasphemy and of contrition. Be swayed not by a siren, but if you are; be satisfied with only a kiss.
I hear the advice, but instinct takes over the moment I spy a girl emitting signs of distress: she chugs from a turquoise plastic cup, acts like she drank cough medicine, has to be propped by a friend, exclaims VIVA . . . something to announce the necessity of a refill, keeps time with an unlit cigarette.
A woman my age with the face of a teenager asks me to dance. We bump shiny legs, reek of salt. In the dark, I am intoxicated with the heat of my weightlessness. Here, a guy like me is considered a talented dancer. A.C./D.C. is on, but not too loud. I see the Mormon girl flit eyebrows at her friend, then someone plays the Spice Girls for the third time this hour, and I flee a slew of rumpled navels.
The Mormon girl leans against the porch’s railing, drowns under the stars. Her bottom lip is unsealed. The earth-tone dress and purse accentuate a figure built for softball.
I shake hear slippery hand, observe the red imprints of wood that will remain tattooed on her elbows for the evening, learn that she’s a graduate student in library science at the U.
She says, “My parents wanted me to go to the Y, but. You know.”
I have no idea, which makes her cough before the smoke would flow past her palate. When I ask why only the devout attend Brigham Young, she squints one eye. When the cigarette’s half-done, she makes a path of the peppered ash, rubs her nose with her thumb, and says, “I’m not like über-Mormon or anything. The way our leaders treat women?”
The grid of downtown glitters. A breeze coats us with sand. When I don’t understand one of her terms, she leaves a wet imprint on my forearm, laughs like a donkey.
For our first kiss, I apparently catch her in mid-sentence. Then she grabs my belt and twists until the jeans constrict my knees. She sighs on my face, beats her arms against my shoulders, presses her hard chest against mine, bounces on my hip until I pick her up, and for a time, I bask in the triumph of succeeding where many others had warned me that I would fail.
A board squeaks in the next tenement. She asks if I’m sure I live alone. I fold her shirt, see the sacred garment (what she calls “Jesus Jammies”), wave my hand over the rapid hitches of her chest, drink the steam that boils off her stomach. She unbuttons my shirt, but both of us feel the defensiveness of her move, and soon she fades like a boat edging over the horizon. The toilet runs in the other room. I rub her head, remove her socks, cover her with a blanket.
Come morning, I make breakfast. Every time I turn, she smiles late, as if I caught her about to brain me with a container of orange juice. She drags her fork through the eggs and potatoes, but doesn’t bring a bite to her mouth.
I say, “Not hungry?”
She wrinkles her nose like I’m the mother of a girl who invited her to a sleepover.
I say, “I had a great time last night.”
She claps my cheeks. I don’t know how to react to the force of her affection, so I hold onto the spatula, hear eggs plop on the carpet. She leaves and I eat her portion over the garbage. At some point, she left her number on my refrigerator.
We pass the Temple, a house of stone and spire, the geographical center of the city. Private security is there to remind me not to breach the fortress of prayer unless I want pepper spray in my eyes. The rules for a second date are complex, for they commit me to a forty-five minute car ride and an afternoon with her family.
She says, “Marriage is like, I’m not there yet, you know? I want the college life first. My undergrad was all about trying to please my parents, God, and stuff, so.”
We slip between ten-to-twelve-thousand-foot slabs of granite and she tells me about her best friend who married a man two months after she met him and now they’re pregnant. Her closest sister is two years older and has four children. I learn that Mormons like biblical names such as Minroy, Joseph, Zaydon, and Derral, and her brother-in-law prefers quiet nights to read the Harry Potter books.
She says, “It’s like, what can I do to make a man like that happy, you know?”
Her headlights snap winking strands of clouds. Indolent cattle huddle beneath a solitary tree. At Kimbalt Junction, we follow the signs to Heber City. I notice a sandwich shop is closed and she says everything is closed. Most folks are in Salt Lake on account of the Pioneer Day Parade. She points to Deer Creek Reservoir, a murky sapphire that expands and brightens until we arrive at the property of her great-grandfather’s cattle farm.
Balloons waver in the deep cobalt sky. Her dress is boxy and conservative, makes her seem heavier than she is. She wasn’t joking: her family comprises at least seventy people. In the backyard, we interrupt a game of volleyball with girls on one side, boys on the other. Young children squeal beneath her embrace; they wear replicas of nineteenth century formal wear.
The girl touches the back of my neck, cackles when her fingers come away with a coat of perspiration. She says, “There are beverages in that cooler over there? We also have some caffeinated ones, if you want. Remember. It’s your choice.”
I say, “It’s all good.”
She says, “You really don’t drink, do you?”
A woman rubs excess lipstick into her fingers and says, “Oh? And do you follow the Words of Wisdom?”
The girl says, “Auntie, he doesn’t know what that is.”
One of the older gentlemen adjusts in his chair and exchanges a look with the aunt, who says, “I tell you, he’s almost there. He’s a dry Mormon. We just got to make him wet.” She taps my jaw with her fist, chuckles.
The girl says, “She means to baptize you. You know, with like. Water?”
Her mother is squat, hard-muscled, appears to be in her mid-thirties. Her father makes a joke about his facial hair. His wife rolls her eyes and he says, “There is nothing in the Scriptures that prohibits the wearing of a beard. A beard does not equate a want of cleanliness, nor is it unhealthy.”
I learn about F.H.E.’s, Family Home Evenings, which happen every Monday. First there is song, then her father leads a prayer. Most bow their heads, wedge their hands in their armpits. A cousin, newly-minted to the Aaronic Priesthood, leads a short lesson about the importance of good behavior and accountability. We break into groups, solve a puzzle, close with another song and another prayer. The girl and her sisters bring a basket of raisin cookies to each table; the final ritual is a snack.
For dinner, we load our plates with hot dogs, hamburgers, egg and potato salads. Relatives slap hornets before they realize what they are. Her father plucks something from his beard, and says, “Yes, and what are your intentions with my daughter?”
Her sisters erupt in protest. They insist the question is rude and combative.
Her father says, “I didn’t mean, well. Maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned, but that’s what your mother’s parents asked me on our first date. Heck, I even converted for . . . us.”
The girl’s eyes bounce. She says, “Our intentions are not. To walk the what-have-you.”
Her father follows her gesture to the foothills, tongues the roof of his mouth. He says, “What you’re saying is, you’re exploring. As friends.”
Her mother rubs her daughter’s back, and says, “Your father’s just asking. You’re doing all these exciting things, like going to Masters school, and we’re curious is all.”
Her father says, “No one’s judging you, sweetheart. It’s your decision.” A surge of wind propels a napkin over my shoulder, and I can tell he feels bad, because later he will call me over to ask open-ended questions like what I do for a living, how depositions work, if I traveled yet to Southern Utah.
Her mother says, “You know, he does dress like our teenage boys. Big T-shirt, baggy shorts, hiker’s sandals. I don’t know what you call them, but you hike in those sandals, right?”
Over the arguments, I say, “I walk in them, sure.”
One of her brothers says, “Would you be interested in taking lessons?”
I say, “Hiking lessons?” and her family bursts into hysterics, gleam as if I timed the perfect joke.
The girl says, “He means having someone come over and talk to you about the Book of Mormon. My brother’s real good at it.”
Her mother waves her hand to shoo a lone cloud hovering over the reservoir, and says, “What we believe probably seems silly to someone like you, but. That’s what we do. Just look at it here. We got our Bethlehem over there, our Mecca over there, our Stonehenge, and up above, the Forbidden City, all rolled up into one.”
The girl says, “The Walmart of religions.”
Her mother says, “Right. Except we’re waiting for Christ to return.”
The mountains flare pink. A rocket shrieks skyward, pops weakly. Her father invites me into the gloomy interior of the house, snaps a light, hands me a photograph of himself when he didn’t have glasses. In the picture, he grins and squats, cradles a shotgun in his elbow. Smooth red stone towers over him. They resemble craniums, rock statues weathered by wind and floods. Beneath his knees is a fox, its fur dusted from the tumble.
For those who accept the risks, the path to a Mormon girl’s virtue is fraught with tedious perils, stops and gos, backs and forths. I don’t know if this is a rule, per se, but I decide that since my girlfriend never sat still long enough to watch a movie, I would assess this girl’s compatibility by schooling her on classic films. Part of my preparation involves scrubbing the copper waterfall off the back of the toilet. Girls appreciate those details, don’t they?
She’s curled her hair, lathered her chest with glitter. We open the wine she’s brought, leave it to sweat on the countertop.
I say, “I like to watch movies pitch-black.”
She wiggles on the couch and says, “Yay.”
Because my volume only goes so high, I invest a lot of energy into ignoring distractions. Also, because the film is my choice, I model the rapt and silent behavior I would like her to adopt in viewing it. She is neither. Her head dips. She sniffs. Something rattles in her throat. At first, she won’t look at me. The central light is painful, ages us fifteen years. A pink sheen coats her eyes like a second layer of skin and we have yet to arrive at the sad part of Gallipoli.
She says, “I met with my Bishop.”
I say, “Is that?”
She says, “Our ward leader, and our Church Father.”
I have nothing but toilet paper to offer, which she wraps around her hand but fails to detach from the roll. She buries her face in the webbing between her thumb and forefinger, leaves a damp imprint of her eyelids and nose.
She says, “Older friends in my ward warned me about the temptations. I thought I was so smart. That I could survive the U? And, ugh. The people like you.”
I say, “Pardon?”
She says, “My mother wants me to come home. My professors think so too. I’ll return once I get my head. Settled.”
I say, “You told your Bishop, and your teachers, about me? How did they?”
She grabs my hands and says, “Nunno. I put this on myself.”
I say, “And they understood?”
She winces from a cramp and my eyes wander to the envelope I received two days ago. My girlfriend sent it along with an offer to buy my share of the house. Six percent above markup, she highlighted, but the enjambments and jargon of legal vulgate make me suspicious. For weeks, my wrists have been stiff in the afternoons. I can’t stretch the ache out of my back.
Around midnight, a knock bursts my dream. I weave between fog and spider webs, use the burner’s pilot lights as a guide. When I answer the door, the Mormon girl poses and waves.
She says, “I don’t know what got into me, right?” A blue scarf runs off her shoulders. She rubs her triceps when she hears a car swish through the last of a late rain, sees that I left the window open. A light halter top exposes her crinkled midriff and a violet tattoo that’s been lasered off.
I say, “No biggie.”
The girl clamps onto me, ignores my insistence to be released so that I can brush my teeth. We are sullied before the heat floats in my stomach, the earnest nervousness I remember from the first time I shared a moment involving the body parts that I had grown shy about. My head bakes. I sense her body flare with goose bumps.
She says, “I can’t. Not that.”
When she flexes her thighs, my hand is trapped. At first, the space is tight between her jeans, then painful. She squeezes her head with both hands, and says, “My Bishop says I can’t.”
My instinct is to be defensive, but I recover enough tact to lie about my disappointment. She stares at her shirt as if at a loss to explain its name and function. When my door slams, I sleep on my back until dawn breaks through the Wasatch.
Four nights later, my room is filled with purple light. I can’t see my feet, but I hear the dull cracks of tiny bones when I let her in. She struggles to free her head from the neck of her shirt, drops her bra on my thin and frayed carpet. From the twilight, she grabs my hand, shows me how to caress her stomach, and says, “Look. No Jammies.”
This is the first time I’ve seen her warm and brown belly in its entirety, and I need a moment. She leads me to my bed. I stop her so I can run my fingers over her ribs.
She says, “I figured it out. My Bishop says making out will send me to hell. But if we don’t kiss more than three times in a row, how can we be making out, right?”
The perfection of her curves clouds my thoughts. I drown in her strawberry perfume and the way she hitches every time I put my lips on her skin. Carnal delight seems like a small concession to the grinding immutability of her principles. We fumble with the cold metal of her belt, and she counts. After two, my nose comes away with tears. Her feet pound my mattress.
She says, “I can’t believe I’m twenty-two. I must, I have to. Think, stupid. Think. Maybe, if you met my Bishop? You could, I don’t know, rap about the Church? That lesson we talked about? You never know; he might change his mind.”
How can I tell that I’m making progress? Because my sight bores into a tunnel. Colors drain from my vision and on occasion, I see in black and white. Children suffocate in fires, miners are trapped two thousand feet in the earth, foreigners commit genocide. A downstairs neighbor growls about the newborn kittens she found on the side of the road. They mew at her feet, thump on the carpet, attack her shoelaces. My neighbor doesn’t understand how people can be so indifferent to the suffering of others. Would I like one? I don’t explain that with victory so near, I can’t muster the compassion, that all I have left is geared toward the psychology of my own survival.
Of course, I experience setbacks, one of which my boss discovers. One Monday, he calls in reference to an affidavit he’s about to fax the judge, one he expected Friday afternoon, not two-thirty-four this morning. Eight pages takes about ten and a half minutes to read, though he struggles through some of the more complicated dependent clauses, skims the dense passages, questions the veracity of my syllogisms. Even though I am confident the premise is sound—that I need to recognize I’m in a contract with this girl, and so long as I remain impartial to her emotional outbursts, one day I will be waved home—hearing the manifesto aloud exposes the bulkiness and circuitousness of the narrative. We debate the baseball analogy for sex; he thinks it’s hackneyed, I like its simplicity. By the time he finishes, I fine-tune the logical landmines, slash page seven, imagine what the second draft will look like.
My boss clears his throat and he says, “Should I be worried?”
In late March, snow caps the mountains. A friend from home is on the phone, one of the mutual ones who probably didn’t choose me, but on occasion he calls, perhaps at my girlfriend’s urging (?), to ensure I don’t lay in the unknown pauper’s section of some Salt Lake-front cemetery. He listens to the rules, munches on something crunchy, offers an addendum.
He says, “Corrupt her.”
I say, “You think?”
He says, “If she is seduced, she’ll have no choice, see. Those churches never want damaged goods.”
Later, the girl opens my door without knocking, stores her bagged groceries in my refrigerator. After one of her jokes reminds me, I recount the conversation.
She says, “That’s funny, because my ward girlfriends hold strategy sessions.”
I say, “About me, why?”
She says, “About how to convert you. You’re blond and blue-eyed. You’re polite and soft-spoken. You don’t smoke, and you wear khakis. You’re almost on our side already.”
My boss telephones to announce that the depositions, and thus our jobs, have been completed, my lease will expire, and next week, I am free to return home. He warns me not to disclose a monetary sum of the settlement, offers to serve as a reference. The next day, I read that the U’s Department of History will integrate L.D.S. history into Modern American History, from Reconstruction to Present. The news that someone lives in my house with my girlfriend, and the slow acceptance that I have nothing to return home for, denies me closure, a certainty reinforced by a chance encounter with the Mormon girl at the grocery store.
She lifts her glasses, squints at the nutritional information of a rice packet, keeps one hand balled in a hooded sweatshirt. Some pudgy doofus trips over a stand of chewing gum and, while no one reacts, she leans on her knees to belt laughter. He dusts his jeans, holds up his hands as if the shoppers applaud him. When they kiss, something stabs my heart. They hold hands and I hide in the aisle with the diapers. From her friends, I learn that to celebrate his return from a two-year mission, they will marry. I replay her father’s words, wonder if they meant not to intimidate, but to protect me from this very betrayal, take out my anger on the possessions that won’t break when I fit them into boxes. Clothes first, then the winter bedding. The dishes will have to go last.
My door is open when she enters. She’s lost the girlishness I remember, looks thinner than when we first met, and tragic. Though a conspicuous mustard splotch stains her breast, she wears an earth-tone dress I recognize from our first night. I say what I think and I typically think the obvious.
I say, “You’re getting married. Tomorrow.”
A neighbor stomps by with an armload of laundry.
I say, “Is he nice? Does he treat you well? Realize you think about progressive issues and are sensitive to tragic films?”
These questions make me feel observant of her in a way no one else has been before. I grow accustomed to the idea that I’m a sensitive and altruistic victim. When I pierce the thin veil of her shirt and see the sacred garments restored to her wardrobe, I stop rationalizing the flood of my sadness as a necessary precursor to her happiness.
She crosses her arms, and says, “Buzz kill.”
I say, “Guess it’s happening at the Temple. Guess I’m not invited.”
She says, “You’d be an unhappy Mormon, like my Dad is sometimes. I would’ve made you, and that’s not right. No more coffee? You like hate corporations, but that’s our structure. We believe in gold plates and vote in one block. When my Mom meets a stranger, she mentions that she’s a volunteer for the Stake’s Clerk Office and has four daughters and four sons, one of whom goes to the university’s Single’s Ward. You want to watch me become that?”
A smell leaks into the room and renders me nauseous, reminds me of the time I was a sadistic eight-year-old who burned yellow jackets with a match. My feelings for her distend from my body like a tooth that lingers from its last nerve. Rage swoons over me, targets her dogmatism and her failure to follow anything other than what’s when proscribed for her, ideas never prescribed to me. I fantasize about becoming her husband, about packing the pounds and watching sci-fi movies while she sheds baby fat on the elliptical beside rows of slippery, tan moms her age. The fear surges, reminds me that my isolation will become permanent and that I will be stuck between my life here and the wreckage waiting for me when I return home.
Desperation and her pity upend me, and in my argument for her to reconsider, I say, “Sometimes it takes a while to know if an idea is good or bad.”
Too late, I realize that I was the substitute for the groom while she learned to make mistakes around a man. The following day, she will meet her loser fiancée in the Temple, and their spirits will be consecrated together forever, but she spends the remainder of the evening with me. Some time in the violet’s early morning, I wake to her clammy hand finding mine. She slings my arm over her hip. The heater ticks. Her hair tickles my nose. Heat gushes through her clothes. I fill her mouth. She bites my wrist, holds me until dreams drive us apart.
When the sun touches my eyes like fingertips, I wake chafed and alone. She left the remainder of her warmth in a groove of my sheets and her smell on my pillow. For an hour, I’m sure she left a note somewhere for me to find. I throw on clothes, walk up the Avenues. Above Tenth, I punch through the fog. A deer tears grass from the stalk, flicks her ears. Sometimes up here, a family man shoots a cougar in his backyard. I watch the sun pour over the skyscrapers, wait for the liquid gold to warm me in the ways I need to be warm now. The Temple’s spires catch each point of light, as does the golden trumpet in Moroni’s hands. For the first time, I see that the mountains cradle the city.
Brendon Vayo’s work appears or is forthcoming in Ocean City Review, LIT Magazine, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, and The Fictioneer, among others. He works at American University. When he’s not reading or writing, he prefers to hike the trails in the greater D.C. area.