Bloody Baptism

The first time I was knocked unconscious, I came to in the baptismal font.

So this is what they mean by seeing stars, I thought. I had visions of childhood cartoons pass through my brain, especially violent Looney Tunes cartoons, where the charming villain characters, like Sylvester the Cat and Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote, would get bashed in the head and then look dazed while yellow stars twirled around their heads comedically. Except this wasn’t so funny.

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My vision was black with little sparks and flashes to it as I came to. I knew it was only seconds, but time stood still, and I couldn’t remember what had happened.

It was Sunday morning, and I was in the baptismal font. I could remember that much. Elder Fowler and I, mismatched missionary companions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a baptism scheduled for this very morning. We had been working an inactive Mormon family who had a 9 year old boy named Wesley, and we were baptizing him after church today. It was kind of a celebration service for me. After four months in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and two particularly trying months with Elder Fowler, who was the single most bizarre person I had ever known, I was being transferred to the big city of Philadelphia soon, and it was wonderful to close out my time with a baptism.

Elder Fowler and I had only had one other baptism, a man named Glenn together, a Pennsylvania Dutch man with a wife and three teenage children, who worked in a hardware store in Shoemakersville, forty miles north of us. Glenn had been a dream to teach, and he had been baptized swiftly, but he had quickly quite coming to church after his baptism, citing family problems and work commitments as excuses for his inattendance, and he had asked us to stop calling him weeks before.

I realized I was on my hands and knees as I started to come to. And then I realized there was something splashing, a dripping sound. I held my hand up to my head, which I suddenly realized was badly aching, and felt something wet there. My vision cleared a bit more as I pulled my hand down and realized it was bright red with thick blood. I was bleeding, my head was bleeding. I rushed to my feet and then was beset with terrible dizziness and fell back to my knees. I almost passed out a second time, and the world spend worse than before. Standing that fast had been a huge mistake. Don’t panic, I thought. Stand slowly.

I breathed evenly. My sense of self started to return as I pushed myself back into a sitting position. Church had started, and the ward congregation would be singing hymns in sacrament meeting right now. In fact, if I tuned in I could hear them. I had come to the other side of the church and into the baptismal font to prepare it for the after-church baptism. Once the faucets were turned on, the font would take a little over two hours to fill with waist-deep water so that Elder Fowler could baptize Wesley. Before turning on the water, I had taken some wet paper towels and had wiped out the bottom of the font, cleaning up small patches of dust and dirt so that the water would be clean. Then I had gone to turn on the faucet. I had dropped a paper towel, had bent to pick it up, and then while standing up again I had hit my head on the sharp jagged edge of the box around the faucet. That was what had knocked me unconscious.

My vision cleared completely and I could see small pools and drops of blood around me, and I looked down to see them on my white shirt and on my blue tie. Blood was trickling down the side of my face, but not profusely, just slowly and steadily. I got to my feet, with my hand on my head, and took several seconds for the dizziness to clear before moving. The font had a small set of stairs on either side of it, each leading to a bathroom where those being baptized could change after they had been submerged. Without thinking I made my way up the closest stairs and entered the room at the top, happening upon the girls’ bathroom.

Amy, a teenage girl in the ward, stood there popping a zit in the mirror when I entered, and she gave a small scream at my reflection behind her, a bloody missionary. She turned to face me.

“Elder, are you okay?”

My head was throbbing and I muttered the only words I could think of. “I–I need a mom.”

Twenty minutes later, with a different shirt on, some T-shirt from the back of someone’s car, and a rag held to my head, I rode in the passenger seat of Brother Miller’s car, sitting on a trash bag in case I bled more. My head was still bleeding, but only lightly now. We made small talk as he drove me thirty minutes into a larger city, where there would be an emergency room. There, I presented them with my missionary medical insurance card, and the doctor took a look at my injury an hour later. Three hours after that, I left the hospital with part of my head shaved and four brand new stitches in my head.

That night, I took some pain meds and laid down as Elder Fowler used his hand puppet, Chihuahua, to tell me about the baptism. He cooked cinnamon rolls to try and help me feel better, and played his favorite music, the soundtrack from Mary Poppins. I wrote letters home and laid there in the apartment thinking of how only a year had passed so far on my mission, and yet it felt like a small eternity. I still had another year to go, and I still had to be knocked unconscious one more time.

I sat there, my head whirling to the sounds of spoonfuls of sugar making medicine go down, and I wondered what God wanted me to learn this time, a thought that had been occurring to me more and more lately.

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Talking Truth with Ruth

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“Elders, take a seat,” Ruth said, indicating a red lawn chair and a wooden folding chair that sat next to each other in her haphazard living room. I took the wooden chair, having learned months before, the hard way, to avoid sitting on furniture that was upholstered, as it was more likely for bugs, like bed bugs or lice or, worse, scabies, to have made homes for themselves in upholstered chairs and cushions. Elder Fowler sat next to me, tall and strange as usual, looking like he would rather be napping. He wore a bright yellow Tweety-bird tie.

Ruth moved about the room a bit, checking things at random, looking under a couch cushion, opening a drawer, then scampering into the kitchen to check cupboards and crannies. “I swear they were here again last night, messing with me like usual. It happens every Tuesday.”

Elder Fowler tucked his fake plastic thumb back in his backpack, having just completed a poorly executed magic trick for Ruth at the door, something she had delighted in. I watched Ruth open the fridge, where her rows of plates, cups, and silverware were stacked. She then looked in her oven, where she had rows of canned food, all of the labels removed from them, lined up. She rarely purchased perishable foods, but when she did, she kept them in a cooler in her small garage, freshly packed with ice. Her kitchen drawers were mismatched collections of pens, tools, books, and papers. She kept her keys and money under the couch cushion, keepsakes in her dresser, and her clothes folded into cardboard boxes in her garage.

“They come in every Tuesday at least,” she said, still checking her spaces for accuracy. “Last night, they changed my alarm. I’m positive I set it for 6 am, yet when I woke up late this morning, I checked and realized it was set for 6 pm. They didn’t want me to wake up on time.” She closed a cupboard too loudly, poked her head into the garage, and then rejoined us in the living room, plopping onto the sofa. “I’ve told you how sometimes they move my things around. They will hide my remote control, or place the pen I was just using in the fridge. I don’t know why they keep messing with me, and I also don’t know how they are getting in. I keep the doors locked firmly. Always.”

Elder Fowler and I had met Ruth a few weeks previously, and had been visiting her a few times per week since then. He and I were a mismatched set, a missionary companionship that never should have been. I was the Idaho Mormon kid, secretly gay and suffering through it in silence, trying my best to be a good rule-following missionary; he was a tall and obese Arizona boy from a single-parent household, likely also gay, although he never told me, with an incredibly strange worldview and bizarre habits that he regularly showcased for others. He had strange habits like making Catholic sign of the cross on doors before he opened them, singing Mary Poppins songs in evening bubble baths, kissing a purple hippopotamus that he wore around his neck for lunch, and speaking to strangers with a strange hand-puppet he called Chihuahua. When we knocked on doors, he would use Chihuahua to speak. “Hello, we are the missionaries from he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he would say with his two middle fingers meeting his thumb as a flapping mouth while his pointer and index fingers stood straight up in the air like ears. When the doors closed in our faces, he would drop the ears straight down, making a puppy whimper noise.

Ruth herself had ordered a copy of the Holy Bible by calling a phone number set up by the church on television, and we had been sent to deliver it to her. When we had asked if she would like to learn about our Church, she had eagerly invited us in.

Ruth was in her early 80s, and she had a vibrant and complicated life. It was clear to see that early dementia had set in, but it didn’t stop her from living loudly. She volunteered at the local senior center, walked animals at the shelter, read avidly, and kept in touch through hand-written letters with many loved ones. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, and proud, and had loved religion all of her life, through her rocky but happy childhood, through her two difficult marriages, through her career stops-and-starts, and through the raising of her two children. She regularly visited different local churches, and she found solace and refuge in her relationship with God.

Some version of me felt special for teaching her, having planned out her destiny already. She would be an end-of-life missionary success story for me, something to write home about and tell my family about. I would be the one to help bring the truth to this good woman who had searched for it her whole life. Teaching her made me feel special, gave me a sense of goodness. It made me feel like my work  mattered, like I wasn’t wasting hours every day knocking on doors only to have them closed in my face repeatedly.

Ruth talked far more than she listened. Our lessons with her, which might normally take an hour with someone else, would instead last for 2-3 hours. She asked questions about God and church and Mormon belief structures about family, scriptures, and the afterlife. Just as we would begin to answer, she would spout her own theories on life and religion, sharing openly about her decades of life experience. She’d been born just after World War I, and had lived through the Depression, through the Great War, through McCarthyism and Viet Nam and Civil Rights, through the hippie movement, through Reagan, through the Gulf War. She spoke on gender inclusion, on race, on being a grandmother. She was delightful, and eager, and just the right amount of crazy, and she was fascinated by us, two 20 year old boys who had set everything in our lives aside in order to live in the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch city of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and deliver Bibles to people in the hopes that they might want to join our church. She laughed about the fact that a woman in her 80s was being asked to call boys six decades her junior ‘elder’, and she often smiled as she said the word.

That day, we taught Ruth about our beliefs on the restoration of the gospel, about how after the death of Jesus Christ, God had taken away the truth of religion from the Earth, leading men to form religion based solely on their understandings of the truth. We taught how Christian religions had formed, divided, and expanded over hundreds of years until God had seen fit to restore religion in the early 1800s to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. We taught how while all people are inherently good, they can only receive the full truth of God by being baptized Mormon and following the Mormon teachings.

Ruth stayed uncharacteristically silent through much of our lesson that day, taking it all in. I watched her settle down from her agitated state into her deeply thoughtful self. After Elder Fowler, who used Chihuahua through part of the lesson, making Ruth giggle, finished his part of the presentation, the room was silent for a moment. Then Ruth leaned forward, speaking.

“So you are telling me that out of all the religions I have ever experienced, from Methodist to Catholic to Presbyterian, and all of the wonderful times I have had in my life with the Bible, you are telling me that it is all completely fabricated and wrong, that all along the only true religion in the entire world has been the one you two were just lucky enough to be born into?”

I smiled, my heart swelling with the holy spirit. “Yes, that’s correct. You’ve had a wonderful life, and now God has sent us here at this time in your life to help you find the true and everlasting gospel.”

Ruth gave a skeptical look. “But if I hadn’t called that phone number on my television for that free Bible, then we would never have met.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I said, as Elder Fowler watched, silent. “But God works in mysterious ways. And as we talked about the first time we visited you, if you can gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon through prayer, then you can know that everything we are teaching you is true, and then we hope you will be baptized.”

“Elder Anderson, I was already baptized.” Ruth clasped her hands in her lap, sitting back again. “When I was a baby. My mother saw to that. I have no need to get baptized again. I’ll gladly visit your church, and would love to keep visiting and talking with you both, but I’m not about to betray my mother’s wishes by canceling my original baptism with another one. I admire your convictions, but I have plenty of truth already.”

There was a heavy silence for a moment, that Elder Fowler piped in. His voice went high-pitched as he muttered the world “Awk-waaaaard,” drawing out the last syllable.

Ruth laughed, delighted. She found Elder Fowler charming, constantly. He gave me an ulcer that pulsated every time he spoke. “Don’t you worry, elders. You’ll find other people to baptize. Then you’ll have success stories to write home to your mothers. Now, enough for today. Are you hungry?”

Without waiting for an answer, Ruth got up and stepped into her kitchen, indicating that we should follow. “Let’s eat.” She opened her oven, showing us the rows of canned food, silver and label-less. She didn’t want those who were “messing with her” to be able to know what was in each can. She explained that she had a system; she kept all entree items on the left, side dishes in the middle, and desserts on the right. She grabbed three separate cans and set them on the counter, then got a can opener from the top of her fridge, along with some paper plates and plastic forks from a shelf in the garage.

As she hummed, Ruth opened the three cans, revealing the contents of our lunch. Canned salmon, pink and fleshy, in oil for the entree. Sliced string beans in water for the side dish. And for dessert? Cherry pie filling. She scooped equal contents on to three plates, zapped them each in the microwave for one minute each, then sat back down to eat with us in the living room, asking questions about our lives before we were missionaries. The salmon was terrible. The scalded pie filling was worse.

A few weeks later, I left Kutztown, and was sent to live in Philadelphia for nine long months. Ruth and I stayed in touch, becoming pen-pals. She wrote long missives about her life in lined blue cursive, generally writing on random stationery she had collected over the years. I received a letter from her every week faithfully, and wrote one back, over nearly a year. It was a strange relationship, but one I enjoyed, a bright light in my boring daily existence as a missionary. Around ten months later, after I had left Philly and moved to Delaware to finish out my missionary service, I stopped hearing from Ruth. Several letters from me went unanswered. Then I stopped writing. Three months later, after my mission was over, I had returned to Idaho and had started college. Then I received a letter in the mail.

The letter was from Ruth’s daughter, a woman in her sixties. She informed me simply and succinctly, that Ruth had died from a heart attack. She wrote: “While I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet you in person. I want you to know that my mother spoke of you frequently in our conversations. She often slipped from confusion and lucidity, and she felt your letters gave her continuity in her final months. You brought her much joy at the end of her life, and we will be forever grateful.”

I set the letter down, blinking a couple of tears from my eyes. I had tried to bring some truth to one old woman at the end of her life. And instead, she had given truth to me.

 

Living with Mister Bean

BeanHe looks like Mister Bean, I thought.

The first time I saw Elder Fowler had been at a zone conference a few months before. He didn’t quite fit in with the other elders, and I think he liked it that way. He was a big man, around 6’4” and 280 pounds or so, with a strange face that he frequently contorted into bizarre facial expressions purposefully. He had the standard missionary gear on, white shirt and tie, slacks, and black shoes, but he wore characteristic ties, with bizarre patterns or obscure cartoon characters on them. During that first meeting, while the other missionaries ate sandwiches and chatted with each other, Elder Fowler sat over in the corner solo, blowing bubbles from a pink container, like a child would in a park. No one really interacted with him because, well, he was blowing bubbles.

I had been in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for two months when I got the call that Elder Free would be leaving and Elder Fowler would be my new companion. My brain scanned itself, remembering the bizarre bubble-blowing, and I felt a sense of dread come over me. Living with a person like Fowler would not be easy. I had no idea what I was in for.

Living with a companion was difficult. We shared the apartment, the car, even the bedroom. We weren’t allowed alone time, ever, except to shower. Sharing space with someone like that, with no breaks, was trying even when perfectly suited for each other, but living with someone that was difficult to be around, with no breaks, with no reprieve, with no recreation… I knew I was in for a major challenge.

The first day in our apartment, Elder Fowler entered the apartment singing show tunes. He opened a bag, calling it his Mary Poppins bag (Mary Poppins was his personal hero) and removed a series of bizarre items that he placed around the apartment, things he would use ritualistically every day thereafter. He had a stuffed winged bat that he hung from the ceiling over his bed that he kissed good night before bed, three purple ceramic hippopotamus figures that matched the small plastic purple hippopotamus he wore on a string around his neck, a collection of cooking supplies (like a rolling pin and cookie cutters) that he would use to make elaborate baked breakfasts every morning (stuffed French toast, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, and thick pancakes), a small CD player that he played Disney soundtracks on, and a large bottle of bubble bath.

Elder Fowler was impossible to talk to. He avoided basic questions about himself, constantly engaged in banter that proved impossible to respond to, and he burst out singing frequently. He blew bubbles while he walked, made the Catholic sign of the cross (father/son/Holy Ghost) before opening any door (and he opened a lot of doors), tried doing terrible magic tricks for strangers, and had a laugh that ranged over several octaves in just a few strained breaths. He was generally silly, not happy but silly, and on a few evenings per week he would lock himself in the bathroom for a bubble bath, during which I could hear him splashing and singing. I looked forward to his bubble baths as they were the only breaks I had from him.

I was determined early on to be a good companion for Fowler. He casually mentioned how his other companions had teased him before this, and how he had a difficult time fitting in, and I certainly knew how that felt. Toward the end of our companionship, two months later, he soberly mentioned how he hadn’t counted on that aspect of missionary work, confiding how he had not fit in with peers most of his life and he had hoped that would go away on his mission, but how instead it had only intensified, leaving him more isolated and lonely. I grew to admire how much effort he put into being an individual. He was almost definitely gay and struggling to change, just the way I was, and I empathized with him there, too. And so I was determined to be the nice guy, which meant no criticism, no telling him to change, no rude comments or angry looks. And I succeeded, every hour of every day, clenching my stomach tightly every time he made the sign-of-the-cross, every time he kissed the bat good night, and every time he had a conversation with his purple hippopotamus necklace.

Outside of the bizarre complexities of Elder Fowler, missionary work remained much the same, but with shocking twists that constantly tested my patience. We knocked on doors like usual, trying to find people to teach the gospel to. Fowler had unique approaches. When a stranger answered the door, instead of introducing ourselves, he would use a fake thumb with a hanky stuffed in it or a few face cards to try and grab attention with a poorly executed magic trick. At other doors, he would hold his pointer and pinky fingers up in the air, and use his other three fingers extended out from his hand to form a mouth. He would then talk through this strange hand puppet, flapping his fingers and thumb together as he spoke in a high pitched voice from the side of his mouth. “Hi there, I’m Elder Chihuahua of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints! We want to teach you!” When the person inevitably closed the door in our faces, Fowler would drop the pointer and pinky fingers straight down and make a dog’s whiny noise, indicating his disappointment.

After several weeks, Fowler began to relax around me a bit, letting his facade of strangeness drop from time to time. The weather grew colder as he grew warmer, opening up about his life a bit more. In the early days, when I asked questions about him, he would either avoid them or directly refuse to answer. Over time, he began telling me about his childhood in Arizona, about his father leaving when he was a kid, about his mother’s struggles to make end’s meet.

One night, as we hit light’s out time, after he kissed his stuffed bat and climbed into bed, he lay down in the dark and asked if he could share something personal with me.

“This isn’t something I share with many people,” Fowler said, serious, his voice low. “When my mother was working at her job while she was pregnant with me, she became very sick and weak and she fell. When she woke up, an angel came to visit her, and it was the angel who told her to name me. A lot of people assume my first name comes from the Bible, but it is actually not in the Bible. I’ve never heard of anyone else having my first name. Anyway, the angel told her that I had a great destiny in my future, and sometimes I don’t know what that means for me, but it’s a lot of the reason I chose to come on a mission, because I’m supposed to do something really amazing. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is really special to me.”

As he drifted off to sleep, I sat thinking of my own upbringing, similar in many ways. My mother had talked at times of Heavenly visions, had told me I had a destiny to save souls, and I too had wondered why I didn’t fit with those around me, wondering if my destiny somehow caused me to be set apart from others. I felt a strange kinship with Fowler that night, isolated and divinely inspired all at once, and I wondered if we were more the same than we were different. Then I heard him whispering good night to his purple hippo again and instead clenched my ulcer tightly.

Small Rebellions Among the Amish

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There were several different kinds of Amish people in south-eastern Pennsylvania. Some used the names of their families or particular sects, others were completely different religions, like Mennonite or Quaker, but followed many of the same customs. The ones we saw most wore dark colors, the women with long hair and in long dresses, generally with bonnets; the men in dark pants and shirts and generally with beards. They drove down the side of the road in black buggies pulled by horses, with only reflector lights on the back of the vehicle (as per the state law); they used black so as not to draw attention to themselves, and they would ignore waves or honks as the cars drove around them. The ones I spoke with were kind, direct, and very peaceful. They asked to not have their photographs taken and politely refused to discuss anything about religion (we were missionaries after all, what else did we have to talk about). Occasionally we would stop at an Amish store front, where simple products lined the shelves, most homemade on the farm, everything from hand-carved dolls to hand-churned butter.

Over time, I came to see the other types of Amish. Some drove more colorful cars and had cell phones, claiming they could use technology but only for business. Some were Amish six days per week, but had days off and would come into town in blue jeans and wearing make-up. Many were formerly Amish and had stayed in the area, forming families and learning to interact with others. These kinds of Amish seemed more real to me, they could be just a bit rebellious within their strict faiths. In my time there, I met many Amish, but never taught any of them about the gospel.

I lived in Kutztown, Pennsylvania for three months as a Mormon missionary. Kutztown was a tiny town of about 5000 people, named for its original founder, George Kutz, a few hundred years before. On its outskirts was Kutztown University, which had a population of about 10,000 students, tripling the town’s population by its proximity. Our geographic area, as missionaries, extended around the town by dozens of miles. We had a car in this area, but we were only allowed to drive so many miles per day. If we had to drive to the other side of the area, say to Shoemakersville or Mechanicsville, then we wouldn’t be able to drive on the day following or we would exceed our allotted mileage, having to then be on foot to stay within the rules.

When I arrived in Kutztown, I had been a missionary for 8 months. My early mission had been fraught with forced attempts to fit in, with the mission rules, with the other elders, within myself. But I had just come from a period of time when I no longer cared and I had just let go, largely due to my last companion, Elder Benjamin, who had been so relaxed and easy-going about life. Now here I was in a new area, another isolated one without other missionaries around, and I was the senior companion. I felt like I had something to prove here, in an area that hadn’t seen a lot of baptisms for some time. I wondered if this is the place I might make a difference. And as far as I could tell, there was only one major barrier to tremendous success as a missionary…

My new companion was beautiful. Elder Free was half-Japanese and half-white, and he looked like a guy who could star on a Disney Channel feature, or who could perhaps be a model for an underwear or swimsuit company. He was compact and strong and muscular, with beautiful brown eyes and perfect hair and a wide smile, and it was impossible to not be constantly distracted by him. He was extremely straight, and had a very cool girlfriend back home in Idaho that the wrote to constantly, but he was also unintentionally flirtatious and charming, and he walked around in his underwear shirtless far too frequently. We shared a room, and an apartment, and there wasn’t anyone else around, and it was impossible to not be attracted to him.

I had worked through most of my mission (and, well, through most of high school and after) trying to suppress any sexual energy at all in my life. When I noticed an attractive man, I would simply shut my thoughts off, distract myself, or start praying or singing hymns to turn off the thoughts. I wasn’t always successful, but thus far in my mission I had almost entirely avoided having sexual fantasies, and I had barely struggled with masturbation. But now there was Elder Free, walking around and smiling and laughing and looking beautiful, and it was nearly impossible to shut my hormones off. I found myself getting up extra early and doing push-ups and opening windows to try and clear my thoughts, but I was a 19 year old young man and it was almost impossible.

Still, I worked us hard. I came up with the idea to start doing massive amounts of missionary service in an attempt to win over some of the locals, many of whom were very proud Pennsylvania Dutch families who were friendly but unwilling to discuss religion. I got special permission from the mission president to increase the amount of service work we were doing from 2 to 12 hours per week, and he agreed to give us a shot. We started volunteering in a local nursing home and in the city library, and we offered more frequently to mow lawns or shovel walks or help people move. Elder Free and I both appreciated the exercise it gave us. In addition, I started making calls at the local university, and we got permission to leave copies of the Book of Mormon out for some of the students who might want to read it. We knocked doors and visited members in all of the other working hours, but we rarely taught discussions and we didn’t have any baptisms.

I tried implementing consistent healthy missionary patterns with Elder Free. I would set the alarm for 6:30, read my scriptures and journal, and encourage him to wake up at the same time, but he was reluctant, needed more sleep than me, and liked sleeping in. After a few weeks, he was less responsive and started sleeping until 9 every morning, and I just let it happen, not wanting to push the boundaries, which helped me keep that sense of peace that I’d had with Elder Benjamin, but also made me feel like a bad missionary for not sticking to the rules more frequently. Mostly, though, I enjoyed time to be alone in the morning while he was asleep.

One morning, at 7 am, I could hear Elder Free snoring in the next room, and I felt a streak of rebellion run through me. I put on an old pair of jeans and a sloppy white T-shirt, took off my missionary tag, and went outside. By myself. I was by myself, for the first time in months. I walked down the stairs and onto the sidewalk outside our apartment, my heart thudding in my chest, hoping beyond hope that I wouldn’t see anyone who knew me. I concocted an excuse to use in case Elder Free woke up, that I had to run out to the car for something. But instead, I walked. I walked, feeling free and excited. I walked down the block. There was barely anyone out and no one recognized me. I turned the corner, and kept walking. I made it all the way around the block. And then I walked around the block again. I passed a window, casually glanced in, and saw a gorgeous college-aged man, shirtless, sitting at his desk studying. I walked by again, then again. Fifteen minutes had gone by, and no thoughts of God’s judgment had passed into my brain. I just felt… normal. For just a few minutes.

I walked back into the apartment, and Elder Free was still asleep, and I had a powerful moment of feeling like I had gotten away with something. I had a surge of sunshine in my soul, and realized I needed more of that, more feelings of freedom. Not egregious sins, but ways of clearing my head and releasing the pressure. The next morning, I went out to the car in the early morning, and listened to the contemporary radio station, hearing artists like Ace of Base and Ricky Martin and Paula Cole and Natalie Imbruglia and Smash Mouth. I felt myself again, and made sure to turn the station back off before heading back inside. I started purchasing comic books, checking out books from the library, and scanning newspaper headlines. Then I purchased a GameBoy, with a Pokemon Gold game, something I could easily hide but play in the mornings or evenings to feel more normal. Lastly, I bought a small beta fish, another major rule violation, and I named him Caliban.

I heard of other missionaries breaking rules, some of them major and some minor, and I began to understand why. Some had small television sets, some would go to movies, some would have sleepovers at the homes of members of the ward. Some traveled outside their zones to do fun things, and would lie about the lessons they were teaching. Some got tattoos. Some dated women. I was used to keeping secrets (I was gay, after all), and I was exhausted with feeling like I didn’t fit in. If I could keep my brain busy, maybe I could survive this after all.

Suddenly, I could relate to those relaxed Amish sects even more.

Benjamin and Bernard

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The roads in northern Delaware were the flattest I had ever seen. They stretched on and on as we rode our bikes, and I would sometimes wish for hills so that my legs could get a break on the downhill portions.

Elder Benjamin and I were fast friends, and it was a nice change after the last few companions I had had, the last one having been verbally abusive. Elder Benjamin was a dopey looking guy from New Mexico with a prominent forehead, giving him a Neanderthal-like appearance. He quickly won me over with his sense of humor and easy-going nature.

On our second morning as companions, I had walked out to the living room in our apartment, where Benjamin was eating cereal and milk with a spoon out of his chest cavity. He had had a surgery when he was younger that left a large collapsed area in his chest area. He was lying on his back and he had poured corn flakes and milk into the chest cavity, directly on his skin, and he was now eating it with a spoon. It was startling, and baffling, and hilarious, and I liked him immediately.

Elder Benjamin was relaxed about missionary work. He carried a frisbee in his backpack and we would toss it around the park during the hottest parts of the day, two white guys in white shirts and ties, just hanging in the park. Benjamin had a magical effect on me. All of the inner torture I had been placing on myself to fit in, to push myself harder, to not be gay, to be more spiritual, to baptize more people, to be better, to be different… it all went away and instead I just found myself living in Delaware with a friend. There was no sexual tension, no premises of worth or worthiness, just an easy-going friendship that blossomed unexpectedly and quickly.

Benjamin had a girlfriend back home who was attending Ricks College, and she turned out to be roommates with one of my high school friends. The two girls would send us care packages. We played board games, we listened to music, and we made friends with many members of the local Mormon wards who would invite us to their homes or take us out to dinner, and everything was easy. A few evenings per week, we would wear jeans and T-shirts and bike over to the local Barnes and Noble and just hang out reading books to get out of the heat, incognito, no one knowing we were actually missionaries. I read through stacks of old 1960s reprinted Spider-Man comic books. I felt relaxed, and the world felt wonderful for the first time of my entire mission.

One day, Benjamin and I went out knocking doors, but after walking a few blocks, we realized we were lightheaded and dehydrated. We called the mission president, and he encouraged us to just stay home that day as the heat and humidity had raised to unhealthy levels, and we were out on foot. So he and I started strategizing new ways to do missionary work that would keep us in air-conditioned environments. We volunteered at the local library a lot, and spent more time in member’s homes.

Benjamin and I came up with creative ways of doing missionary work. We started going through the records of people who had been taught by missionaries in the past and calling up people to see if they wanted to learn about the Church again. We made hundreds and hundreds of calls, over and over, for days at a time, crossing names off of lists as we found disconnected phone numbers and received many many rejections. Hours of phone calls over the following week proved completely fruitless. That is, until we reached Bernard.

Bernard was a rather pathetic man with a heart of gold. He was in his mid-forties and looked like he was 65. Bernard had grown up in rural Delaware, where he hadn’t finished high school. He’d married young, fathered a few children, then ended up in jail for the first time for drunk-driving and robbery, and he never saw his wife and children again. Bernard then spent the next several years in and out of jail, over and over, always ending up back there for the same reasons.

Five years previously, Bernard had been cell mates with a man named George, a Mormon man who was in jail for fraud at the time, and George had taught him all about Mormonism. When Bernard was out of jail the last time, he had met up with the missionaries briefly, learned about the Mormons, but he had gone back to jail for a few years, and now he was out again.

When we visited him for the first time, he was living in a small one bedroom apartment. He had a bare mattress on the floor, two folding chairs, some dishes he had purchased at the grocery store, bare walls, and one small guinea pig called Princess who had full reign of the apartment. He was doing temp work, mostly construction projects. He had no family, no friends, and he was just enjoying his freedom before he returned to jail again, which was inevitable in his own mind.

We taught Bernard, and he liked what we taught, and he agreed to be baptized in our first meeting. He came to church on the first week, and he saw George there, and there were huge hugs and smiles in their reunion. Bernard kept coming to church, and within a few weeks, he was interviewing with the mission president, who had to approve his baptism because Bernard had been in jail.

Bernard passed the interview, and after knowing him for only three weeks, he was baptized by George. I wrote home of my huge success story, seeing one former inmate baptize another, feeling like I was changing the world. Over a year later, when I returned home to give my missionary report, I told Bernard’s story first, considering it a major success. He was an easy baptism, a ready soul.

Then two months later, he went back to jail.

Elder Benjamin was my companion for two months only, then I was transferred to a new area, but we remained friends throughout my entire mission. Later, I learned how with other companions he had been going on dates with girls and breaking other serious rules. But he remained his happy self, and I was forever grateful for how he calmed me down, and gave me a brief amount of peace in two years of pain.

Emergency Transfer

Transfer

When our mission presidents changed, everything else changed too.

My first seven months as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the geographic region of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had been headed by President Wagstaff, a Washington-based Mormon businessman. Wagstaff had a dry wit, a soothing voice, and a way of speaking that could both inspire you and leave you beyond sleepy. I had had three interviews with him during my time there, where I sat down and told him of my mission, of my personal progress, of my worthiness and obedience in following the mission rules. He had a way of looking right into my soul and seeing me there, and he could tell I was in pain. He left me with counsel about taking care of myself and focusing on my relationship with God. He was kind and understanding and good.

And then his missionary service was over, and he was replaced by President Michie, a silver-haired salesman from Utah. Michie had a constant smile and a jovial joking nature. He turned everything into a joke and a competition. The first time I met him, he spoke to a large group of dozens of missionaries and, in order to inspire us to spice up our work, he told us he was launching “Operation: Cleveland.”

“Elders and Sisters, I recently learned that Cleveland’s missionaries are getting more missionaries than we are!” He spoke loudly from the podium. “That’s just unacceptable! Cleveland! What is in Cleveland. We are in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our nation, the home of the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell! We can beat Cleveland!” He pounded a fist on the wooden desk in front of him as he spoke. “So we are launching Operation: Cleveland! The group of missionaries here who can get the most baptisms, the ones who beat the Cleveland average, will be invited to my home for a pizza party! You have one month to baptize as many people as you can!”

Even then, I was baffled, as saving souls through baptism somehow felt like selling used cars. But Michie had to come in and stake a claim, inspire others, rejuvenate with energy just like he was taking over as CEO of a company that had been struggling. It was worth trying out. After all, I had only had a few baptisms in my entire mission, and a third of my time was nearly over.

As so one day, I got a shocking call. I was being sent from Salisbury, Maryland, where I had been struggling with depression and apathy, and I was being sent north to Newark, Delaware, where some other companionships were being disrupted in an “emergency transfer”. Transfers were held every few months or so, but emergency transfers only took place when there was either a medical emergency or a missionary was being disciplined (sometimes sent home) for a serious rule breach. This was the latter.

It took me a few days to figure out what had happened. Two missionaries in Newark, Elders Schurr and Thomas, had been assigned two brand new missionaries to train. But Schurr and Thomas, who lived in different apartments, had been lazy and complacent about their missionary work, and the new elders were growing frustrated. So one night, when Schurr and Thomas had decided to go to a baseball game instead of doing missionary work, someone filed a complaint with the mission presidency, and Michie needed to shake things up. The new missionaries were moved out of the area, and two other elders were sent in to make repairs. I was now being sent to Newark to be companions with Elder Schurr while the new elder was being sent to Salisbury with Elder Black. I was surprised, but happy. I needed a change.

Elder Schurr turned out to be a massive jerk. He was short and squat with bright red hair and a perpetually angry expression. When left alone, he could relax and focus on whatever project he was working on (a puzzle, a video game, a book, all not authorized within missionary rules), but he seemed annoyed at general conversation, and downright mean when it came to missionary work. On top of that, he felt angry and humiliated by the emergency transfer itself, and seemed to blame me for it. He had four months left on his mission, and he had no wanted to go home now, but stayed, knowing he would feel humiliated by his family were he to leave early.

On our second day together, I woke Elder Schurr at nine am (he was supposed to be up at six) and asked if he wanted to study the scriptures together. “Do I look like I want to study the scriptures?” he asked me, then went back to sleep until 11.

Later that day, as we got into the car, I asked where we were headed, and he responded with, “If I wanted you to know where we are going, then I would tell you.” We drove in silence for a few minutes, then he pulled over the car and looked directly at me, anger on his face. “Look, I don’t like this arrangement at all. But you need to understand, I’m in charge here. We will do as I say, when I say it, and you won’t ask any questions. Just shut up and show up and we are going to be just fine.”

I stayed silent for a few days, internal and angry and feeling like I deserved the verbal abuse. It was easy to return to those patterns. In high school, I had had an abusive stepfather who spoke to me that way, cornering me, making me feel like things were my fault, calling me names and making demands. I quickly realized that speaking up, no matter how kindly or how good my intentions were, it only make him angrier, and the same held true for Elder Schurr. But after a week, it became unbearable. I wouldn’t play the victim anymore.

So I reported him. First to another elder, the district leader, who was unsympathetic, then to the zone leader, who seemed annoyed but took my complaint. And then a few days later, the APs came in to visit. The APs, or the Assistants to the President, were widely respected elders, our age, men called to the highest leadership position within the mission and thus believed to be the most worthy. They spent a day with us, splitting us up focusing on missionary work.

I spent the day with Elder Gonzalez, a ridiculously handsome Hispanic American elder, who was charming and friendly and happy. We knocked on doors, laughed about life, and talked about our families, and I felt hope again that the mission could be more than just monotony and failure. I admired Gonzalez, because he was friendly and handsome and a good missionary and he cared about me. I felt immediately drawn to him, and that only intensified throughout the day, and I felt so intensely lonely at the thought of being back with Elder Schurr soon and so far away from my family and failing as a missionary with few baptisms and at being so far from God and at still being gay despite all my efforts. I so desperately wanted to be held, to be understood, to be seen. Toward the end of the day with Elder Gonzalez, I turned to face him in the car and told him how much I trusted him and how nice he had been. When he looked back at me, my heart had thudded, and I realized I wanted to touch him, to kiss him even, my entire body and spirit wanted that.

But Elder Gonzalez got out of the car and walked inside, gesturing, “come on” as he did, and I immediately shifted into panic. What was wrong with me? Had he sensed that I was gay, that I was attracted to him, that I had wanted to kiss him? What was wrong with me?!? Even if he didn’t know, God did, and how was I supposed to open up to healing and to having the spirit and to being a good missionary if I couldn’t even control my thoughts? I was a missionary, here to spread God’s word, and I was acting worldly!

That night, the APs left, and Elder Schurr angrily told me that he knew that I had complained and that I better not do that again. He had put on a good show for the AP he was with, assuring him that he was a hard-working and happy missionary and that things were going great in the area. That night, I fell into a heavy sleep, tears on my pillow yet again, and I didn’t pray again. I knew I couldn’t hide from God, but I was simply in too much pain to pray.

I stayed nearly silent for two more weeks until Elder Schurr was transferred, unexpectedly, out of the area. I had been out 8 months then, my mission was one third over, and I was about to be made the senior companion for the first time. A leadership boost. Maybe Elder Gonzalez had seen something in me. Maybe God trusted me. Maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Maybe I could be a good missionary after all.

Crab Claws and Salisbury Stake

SalisburySign

“Just pull the trap up and get yourself a crab!”

I stood on the dock in the Chesapeake Bay and pulled the salt-caked rope up, up, up, yanking the crab-cage out of the deep ocean water. My companion, Elder Black, watched over my shoulder as we lofted the cage onto the dock. There were six crabs in the cage, all black and red colors, and they were hideous, alien and insectoid all at once. Briny and craggy and ugly. Brother Smith instructed us how to open the cage, reach inside, and grab it by the back of the shell to avoid getting pinched, and everything in me screamed not to do it, but I did it anyway, grabbed a crab and tossed it into a pot, and Brother Smith laughed heartily at my clumsiness.

Back up at the house, Sister Smith chatted with us, boiling potatoes and setting the table as she asked us the standard questions that all members ask missionaries. Where are you from? How big is your family? How long have you been out on your mission? Have you had any baptisms lately? And we gave our standard answers.

Elder Black was from Boise, Idaho, and he was a skinny man, prematurely bald, with an easy-going nature and an easy laugh. He was easy enough to get along with. He was going home from his mission in a few short months and he had little interest in missionary work any longer, but we went through the motions without ever getting particularly close.

We were living in Salisbury, Maryland, a far cry from Allentown, PA, where I had spent the first six months on my Mormon mission. The air was thicker, more humid, and the ground was impossibly flat. We had a car this time, and that was a blessing as I had been on foot before, but we could only drive a set number of miles per day, and we had a huge geographic area to cover. If we drove to the other side of our area, to small towns like Princess Anne, and then drove back, we wouldn’t be able to drive the next few days, as our mission president logged our miles. Mormons were scarce down here, and many had to drive over an hour each way to get to Church. The wards here were spread out, and they made up the Salisbury Stake, a term we had plenty of laughs at.

Elder Black and I were pretty isolated, with no other missionaries around except for one pair about 20 miles away. We didn’t get many breaks from each other. We played board games, had light conversations, and hung out in book stores sometimes in the evenings to pass the time. I had developed a habit of reading old Spider-Man comics there, and it let me escape the difficult reality of being a missionary in the hot humid weather.

We had had some bizarre experiences doing missionary work, with very little success. On the eastern shore of Maryland, I was faced with a completely new version of America, where men spoke in deep drawls and worked from home breeding dogs and growing apples, and where the small towns seemed to propagate poverty and a lack of dental care and bodily hygiene. Two Idaho farm boys walking around, skinny in their white shirts and ties, knocking on the doors of trailer homes on dirt roads, leaving Books of Mormon on doorsteps with our phone number written loosely on a card tucked into the book.

The days felt endless, and I had gone quiet inside. My prayers had diminished, as had my expectations. I just felt loose, and lost, and lonely.

Brother Smith got the crab pot ready on the stove, and then tossed the four crabs in the pot to boil. We could hear the ugly creatures scream as they perished in the heat, and I wanted to throw up. I hate killing animals, and I hate eating animals, and I have always had a particular aversion to sea creatures themselves. Brother Smith mixed his own Old Bay seasoning and generously applied it to the pot, moving the dead crabs around it it, and then we sat down, the four of us, for our crab and potato dinner.

The Smiths showed us how to use a small hammer and a special fork to crack open the shells, to shred the claws and extract the meat from inside and to pick the shell remnants out. Food didn’t come much fresher than this, but I didn’t want to eat. It would be rude not to, I told myself, and so I tore open the little carcass and pulled the soft white meat out, mixed it with potato and gravy, and swallowed it as quickly as possible, all the while making small talk at the table.

Having a dinner appointment with members was rare in this area. Usually I ate toast, cheap spaghetti, peanut butter sandwiches, cereal, or Ramen noodles, so this was a nice treat, but I could barely stomach the food. I made amiable conversation through dinner, and soon it was over.

That night, while I was reading in the bedroom, I heard Elder Black on the phone, talking to Elder Lynn, one of the other missionaries in our district, the ones who lived 20 miles away. He spoke softly, but I could hear every word.

“Look, I’ve got to have a break, man. Really. He’s driving me nuts. He’s a nice guy, but I’m going crazy here. Can we just trade companions for a few days? Let Elder Lunt handle him for a while.”

And so a few days later, I spent time with Elder Lunt, a clumsy elder in another area, another boy from Idaho, in a different city in eastern Maryland, this time on bikes. He was friendly and it felt nice to have a change of pace for a few days, but the emptiness didn’t go away.

After the two days was up, as we waited for Elder Black and Elder Lynn to return, Elder Lunt proposed playing a prank on our companions. We would hide the bikes outside and  then hide in the apartment. When our companions entered, they would think we weren’t home and then we could jump out and scare them. And so he hid under one of the beds and I hid in the front closet, closer to the living room. When Lynn and Black entered, they were talking softly. I could hear them, Elder Lunt couldn’t.

“Where are they?” Lynn was angry. “They were supposed to meet us here.”

Elder Black piped in, laughter in his voice. “Hey, man, let’s just enjoy it. At least let me enjoy it. That means I get a few more minutes without Anderson here. Seriously, he’s driving me mad. He talks all the time but doesn’t say anything at all. He’s super annoying. And I know he grew up with a bunch of women, but he’s sensitive and all feminine and sometimes I wonder if he’s gay. He’s not a bad guy or a bad missionary, I just can’t stand him. I bet Lunt is hating life right now.”

Just then, Lunt rushed out of the bedroom. “Surprise! Oh man, we totally got you.”

There was a painful pregnant silence as we drove home. Elder Black knew I had heard him, and neither of us said anything. I just went to bed, turned on my side and faced the wall, hot tears running down my cheeks. His words burned in my soul. Annoying. Feminine. Sensitive. Driving me mad. And that most dreaded word of all. Gay.

I realized as I lay there that I had stopped praying the past few days, and I considered praying and asking God for help. But h’=e’d been silent for so long, why did I think he wouldn’t be silent now? I kept myself silent in return.

The next morning I rose and made breakfast, all smiles and pretending everything was okay. And then two days later, I was shockingly transferred north because another missionary had broken a serious rule and a change had to be made. I was being sent in to clean up the mess.

When I said goodbye to Elder Black, he was stoic and kind. He shook my hand with a firm grip. He told me I was a good guy, a hard worker, and that I had a good mission in front of me. He told me to keep up the good work.

And then I got in a car and headed north to Delaware, the taste of crab still in my mouth.

Crab.jpg

Dear John…

 

Dear John

“Your companion is gay? Whoa, I can’t imagine what that must be like for you. That’s so creepy! If he does anything, what will you do? I would probably just punch him.”

I felt my stomach hollow out as I read those words on the page. My companion Elder Burke was in the shower, and I’d fallen into the habit of reading his letters from home while he was in there. I did this partly from boredom, partly because I can be nosy sometimes, and partly because I wanted to know what he thought about me, and this seemed to be the only way to find out.

Elder Jasons had been sent away just a month before, and I had now been in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a Mormon missionary for five months total. I felt stunted. Though I had successfully baptized a few people, being a missionary wasn’t what I had thought it would be. Instead of heroic and full of success and spiritual experiences, it was heavy-laden and monotonous, and I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Elder Burke certainly hadn’t helped that.

Elder Burke, my third companion in the field was a tall, athletic Utah boy, blonde and muscular with a huge smile and a receding hairline. He was easy-going to a fault, borderline lazy. He struggled to wake up for the day, every day, was reluctant to put any initiative into finding people to teach, and couldn’t really carry on a conversation. I avidly disliked him, not because he was a bad person, but because he wasn’t Elder Jasons, the companion I had felt so safe with and accepted by. Burke was kind, but I felt judged by him, and I was so weary of feeling judged. My sense of safety and acceptance was gone, and replaced by tense silences.

My attitude toward Elder Burke had turned sharp and annoyed rather quickly. I kept setting my alarm for the 6:30 hour and I would diligently rise and study my scriptures while he slept in until 9 or 10. I started writing more letters home, complaining about my lazy companion, and I knew my time wiht him would be fraught with long silences as we trudged the streets; somehow the long days felt even longer now, to the point of being unbearable. I started buying comic books again, something I had relied on at home to help me escape reality, and although they were against the rules, they helped my morale; reading the X-Men and the Avengers let my brain be inspired by story-telling and super-heroics, I just had to make sure and hide them, like other missionaries would hide a Playboy magazine, so that no one would see I was breaking the rules.

Elder Burke had a girlfriend back home, a cute blonde girl with red lips and a petite frame, named Heather. And Heather wrote him a letter every day. He literally got a letter from her every day, and two on Monday since there was no mail on Sundays, and they were drenched in perfume and lipstick kisses. In addition, she sent him packages weekly, filled with photos of her and products with her photo on it. He had a calendar with photos of Heather on every month, he had a pillowcase on his bed with a picture of her printed on it, and he had notebooks sent by her with pictures of her glued on every page. She sent homemade cookies and cassette tapes that were two hours long with her recorded voice on it, telling him about her day, her work, her family, and with constant reminders that she loved him and would marry him when he got home.

I was accustomed to Heather’s daily letters now. She wrote every letter in a different color, from pink to blue to black to green, and she would fill two pages top to bottom with the details of her life. Needless to say, she was constantly on Burke’s mind. He wrote her back once per week or so, and sent her a cassette tape back every other week, but he talked about her constantly, how he had this beautiful girl back home and he couldn’t wait to marry her so they could finally have sex and start a normal life. So seeing her suppositions that I was gay, something I was trying so hard to hide, so hard to cure, it felt like I was exposed, like my stomach was full of ice water suddenly.

I was a ghost of myself all that day, making no efforts to talk or to be open with Burke. He noticed the difference and asked me if everything was okay, and I reassured him that it was, that I just wasn’t feeling well.

But that night, I couldn’t sleep. I waited until Burke started snoring, and then I went out into the living room, turned on a desk lamp, and penned a letter to Heather herself. I introduced myself to Heather. I told her I was from Idaho and that I was a new missionary. I told her that I had been eating breakfast while Elder Burke was in the shower and that I had accidentally seen her letter sitting on the desk, and that I had read her words wondering if I was gay.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m definitely not gay. Sometimes people think that. I think it is probably because I grew up without a dad and because I had a single mom and five sisters growing up. I’m not feminine or anything, I just don’t like sports, and I like music instead. And when I was back home, I dated girls all the time.” I wasn’t reassuring her so much as I was reassuring myself. “I won’t talk to Elder Burke about this, but I just wanted you to know. Please don’t say anything to him about it because that would be awkward. You seem like a really nice person. I hope this finds you well.”

I closed my letter, placed it in an envelope with a stamp, and mailed it that night, wondering if I would come to regret it.

A few weeks later, I got a letter back from Heather. It was short and she was kind, telling me of course I wasn’t gay because I was out here on a mission, and that meant I was a good person. She hoped that Elder Burke was sharing cookies with me, and wished me well. I didn’t write her back.

She might have told Elder Burke about my letter, but he never said anything. He just started hiding his mail after he read it, carefully protecting it so I couldn’t read her words anymore. And I went farther in my shell, pretending things would be fine.

After Elder Burke and I had been companions for two months, with no baptisms, I was transferred out of Allentown, and sent to southern Maryland for the next part of my mission. I had been in Allentown six months, a full 25 per cent of my overall missionary experience, and I needed to leave, I needed a change of scenery. I was beginning to get the sense that my entire mission was going to be like this, hard work and not fitting in, homesickness and depression and hiding being gay. I had very little hope it would be any different.

Two months after I left Allentown, I learned from Elder Burke that Heather had dumped him abruptly with a ‘dear john’ letter. She had married another Mormon guy, a returned missionary she had met at college and had married after only knowing him for two weeks. Burke had burned all of her letters and photo-laden swag in a large bonfire. He had an empty, angry look in his eyes, and I felt guilty that news of their breakup had brought me excessive amounts of joy.