“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.