I love billboards because I love the highway because I love long road trips because I am a sucker for nostalgia. Nostalgia for an Americana that I never lived that maybe never existed is like a short cut to eliciting emotion about my own past, or maybe it’s more like a crispy clean saccharine coating for memories that are more complicated to process. We drove everywhere when I was a kid because we couldn’t afford to fly. There were too many of us and even before then there wasn’t money for plane tickets. So we drove through the mountains up to the pacific northwest to see one set of grandparents and we drove halfway across the country from the midwest to the southwest and back again to see another set of grandparents so many times and I loved every miserable moment of those trips. Robert and I drove too, in our early years, all over the desert, not because we couldn’t afford plane tickets but because we had nowhere to go. We used to pick destinations at random, for no reason. Let’s go to Wilcox! Let’s go to Casa Grande! Let’s go to Bisbee! Let’s go up to Phoenix for the state fair! It was on one of those trips that we saw the greatest billboard of my life, a campy horror-esque advertisement for THE THING. What THE THING was we had no idea, but we had to see it. The billboard told us we had to. And then we saw another billboard and another and another after that, each one announcing with increasing urgency that THE THING was drawing nearer. We followed the billboards, they were on the way to whatever small whatevertown we were headed to that day, but we would have blown right past our destination in search of THE THING if it had come to that. When we finally made it to the home of THE THING, one of those gas station/souvenir store outposts in the desert, we followed the signs to the back of the store and saw that we’d have to pay $2 for the thing. Robert lost all enthusiasm but there was no dampening mine, so I went in, and wandered through a labyrinth that wound well behind the store, marveling at all manner of chintzy artifacts and treasures but also walking quickly because I needed to get to the THE THING and finally I did and it was everything I ever dreamed.
We sat on my dorm room floor, huddled around a Tupperware dish, an immersion blender, a bag of frozen mixed berries, ice, and a stack of plastic cups. There was also a handle of tequila, the only evidence that we were trying to make margaritas, not fruit smoothies. It was Friday night, a few weeks into our freshman year of college, and I was with Saira, Danielle, and Jamie. Saira and Danielle and I had been best friends since since tenth grade, though the strength of our relationships had been tested over the last few months, and would buckle before the semester was through. Jamie had gone to high school with us, too, but we didn’t know her as well. Unlike the three of us, she’d lived her whole life in the same town, and she’d run with a more popular crowd than we did. She was small, with straight, shiny blond hair. She was on the student council and hung out with athletes. I only knew who she was because her dad and stepmom were in my parent’s ward. I never saw her at church, and figured she lived with her mom. We’d connected over the summer when she’d learned that we were all going to UofA, and that our dorms were near each other, and now here we were, mutilating a perfectly good bag of frozen fruit together on the floor.
Having Jamie around made me nervous. She was fun and friendly, but I didn’t like sharing my friends. I didn’t know how to share them. Danielle and Saira and I had been through a lot over the last few years, and I didn’t know how to balance our intimacy with the topical friendliness you extend to someone you don’t trust. And I didn’t trust her. She was Mormon, like me, and I had no idea what she made of our evening’s plans, or if she questioned why I was keeping the bottle in my room and manning the blender. I also felt a nagging sense of obligation to stay sober with her, which was irritating. This instinct was born out of politeness more than out of religious loyalty, because I suspected it couldn’t be fun to watch your three new friends get trashed without you. Because I had no practical experience in turning down libations, I muddled through my preparations without acknowledging either my conscience or my social anxiety. The cheap blender wasn’t liquefying the berries the way a food processor would, only chipping bits of raspberry off of larger chunks. And it wasn’t making a dent in the ice. I decided to switch tactics and used the handle of a butter knife to break the berry cube into a few blocks, which I then mashed into cups. This was as close to smoothies as we were going to get, and smoothies were as close to margarita mix as we knew how to get. I poured a glug of tequila into three cups and paused over the fourth, glancing up at Jamie. “Do you want to drink?” I asked skeptically. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” so I poured, and then the four of us toasted, drank, and gagged, because the berry slurry I’d concocted was nowhere near sufficient to cut the sting of the bottom shelf liquor we were now choking down.
Four hours later, we were huddled together on the ground again, this time in the parking lot next to a 7-Eleven, shielding Jamie from the street while she emptied the contents of her stomach into the dirt. After margarita night didn’t turn out as planned, Saira and I had stumbled out of the dorm looking for adventure and boys and better drinks, and found a fraternity party that said they would let us in, even though we had no Greek affiliation and were unconventionally attractive at best. We called Danielle and Jamie and gave them directions to join us. For me and Saira, the party was disappointingly uneventful. There was no music, just a mass of people talking in the courtyard of a big white stucco house. I saw one of my neighbors from back home, a tall band geek named Kristen. We talked about our parents, which made the night seem almost wholesome. None of the fraternity brothers showed any interest in speaking to us, and the keg never materialized, so we decided to take off for the second time that night. We didn’t think twice about leaving our friends. For one thing, we didn’t know better. We hadn’t seen anything threatening at the party and, as the daughters of Muslims (Saira) and Mormons (me), didn’t have enough experience to know that frat parties are inherently dangerous for young, drunk women. We were almost home when Saira’s phone buzzed. It was Danielle, begging us to come back. “It’s Jamie. She’s too drunk. They’re making us leave.” Saira and I bitched incredulously the whole way back. What were they thinking, getting so rowdy they got kicked out of the party?! Danielle had sounded really worried, though, so we ran while we bitched. Back at the house, we found our Danielle sitting with Jamie out front, Jamie slumped against Danielle’s shoulder. A few guys hovered behind them, and started yelling as soon as they saw us. We ignored them, and knelt to look at Jamie, while Danielle quickly explained to us that the guys had taken them into a bedroom, and fed them drinks, practically pouring them down Jamie’s throat until she was couldn’t move. Then, when they realized the girls were too drunk to respond to their attempts to hook up, they’d gotten pissed and dragged them out. That’s when Danielle called us. Saira was livid. She screamed right back at the guys, “You can’t do that to girls! You can’t force alcohol down their throats; look at her, she’s tiny!” as she pointed at Jamie. I directed my attention to getting everybody back home. Saira and I put our arms around Jamie and hoisted her up. She could walk, and talk, but didn’t remember anything about the last few hours. We dragged her home, stopping for just the one pit stop puke behind the 7-Eleven.
After we got everyone to their rooms in one piece, and over the next few days, Saira and I talked incessantly about how scary the experience must have been for Jamie and Danielle, how horrible those guys were, and how we would never leave each other in that situation again. We beat ourselves up for missing the danger. We excoriated our parents for our sheltered teenage years that we blamed for our naivete. Privately, I felt especially guilty for my part in corrupting Jamie. Every good Mormon kid knows her role in social situations is to be a good example. If I’d passed on the booze, Jamie might have felt comfortable enough to do the same. Certainly if I’d never stumbled out of the dorm looking for trouble she would never have ended up at that party. I felt like those guys, screaming at us in the middle of the night. They should have known better than to force feed shots to somebody who was already wasted, and I should have known better than to offer the first drink to an unwitting Mormon girl. I did know better, but I did it anyway, and Jamie ended up on the verge of alcohol poisoning with sexual assault lurking in the corner. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but a few days later she bounced back to my dorm room like nothing had happened, asking “Where’s tonight’s party?”
As I got to know Jamie better, I learned that she was not as squeaky clean as I’d thought. In fact, she’d been way wilder than me in high school. She had stories about partying with our hometown’s resident hardcore band and then doing improbable things like getting knocked out in a bounce house, with all those flailing limbs. I gathered that at some point between her sophomore and junior year her parents had intervened and she’d cleaned up her act and aligned herself with the popular Mormon kids I’d seen her sitting with in the cafeteria. I allowed this information to ease my guilt. I hadn’t corrupted Jamie. Her rebel years were what I wanted mine to be; instead, I spent my senior year getting stoned by myself and zoning out in front of the television until somebody ratted me out to my parents over spring break. I spent the rest of the school year detoxing, seeing a counselor at LDS Family Services, and counting down the days until I could move out. Clearly, Jamie could teach me a thing or two.
As the semester marched on and my relationship with Saira and Danielle underwent the strain of transition, I spent more and more time with Jamie. Saira and Danielle spent most of their time studying for our honors chemistry class. I was in the same class, but was also lazier and found myself with more time to kill. Jamie was always available. We were unlikely friends, with next to nothing in common besides Mormonism. She was an unquestioning Republican because that’s how her parents voted; I was an increasingly staunch (and obnoxious) Democrat. She was an ambitious chemical engineering student with a clear career path; I was a dreamy English major with unspecified plans; she was flirty and confident; I was introverted with a tendency to be overly serious. Still, I liked being with her. She drew a carefree silliness out of me and we spent many afternoons dancing to tinny indie rock blaring from her laptop speakers and cracking up over stupid jokes. As a thin blonde girl, Jamie also opened up doors I’d never realized had been closed. Boys wanted to talk to her. She asked people to do things for her for no other reason than she wanted them to and they inexplicably said yes. Which is a roundabout way of saying she was really good at getting drugs and alcohol. She pinpointed the men in the drugstore who would buy us booze. She found the freshman living in Coronado dorm who would sell us a bottle of high-end vodka that wouldn’t last two weeks and enough weed to last all semester. She was also generous to a fault. She let me keep the weed in my room even though I always smoked when she was in class or visiting home for the weekend. She borrowed her mom’s van for a camping trip with Saira and Danielle and let us hot box the car on the long, winding drive into the White Mountains. More than once she gave me money that it hadn’t even occurred to me to figure out a way to pay back.
But access wasn’t the most valuable thing Jamie offered. There were plenty of kids selling fun and drugs. Jamie provided something they couldn’t, and that was validation. Mormonism made us different. We weren’t just two college kids making mildly risky life choices; we were breaking with a way of life that demanded strictest obedience. Our parents wouldn’t just be worried if they knew the truth; they would be profoundly disappointed. We weren’t just experimenting; we were gambling with our souls. Jamie understood all that. She understood what it meant to flee a stifling life, but not be able to shake the mindset that made such a life possible. I had other friends who’d made a cleaner break, who’d stopped attending church, moved in with boyfriends, and never called themselves Mormon again. That wasn’t me and Jamie. You couldn’t keep us out of a church if you tried. We were like drunks who couldn’t stop calling our exes, except our ex was Mormonism, and he wasn’t technically an ex. More like on-again off-again. We shared our first joint next to the dumpster behind the LDS student center on campus because it was the safest place either of us could think of. We went to church hungover and lingered for the Sunday afternoon potlucks. We showed up at game nights, flirted with boys at Family Home Evening, an activity that never paid off with Jamie by my side, she was so much cuter than me. We made a game of sniffing out other deviants. It almost always backfired. We met a spacey girl at a pool party who we could have sworn was high but turned out to just be dumb. One night toward the end of freshman year we hit up an ice cream social and met a particularly interesting and good looking guy. His name was Jason, and we stood around with our Styrofoam bowls making pretentious small talk. He read Dostoevsky and thought String Theory was fascinating. I was sweating in the May heat, but was also being particularly charming, and thought I might actually have a chance until I saw Jamie whip out her phone and get his number. I turned on my heel and walked out. It was moments like this that I missed Saira and Danielle. I wouldn’t have to explain to them why that bothered me, and besides, we never liked the same guys. I sent Jamie a passive-aggressive text from my room. “I really liked that guy we were talking to . . . .” She responded immediately. “Then come back, he’s still here! I got his number so we could find out about more activities at church.” I wondered why I was still withholding my trust, nine months after she went all in with me on the margarita sludge and forgave me when it ended in disaster.
A few days later we texted Jason. After some initial “I’m busy-ing” we managed to extract an address and invitation to hang out. We rolled up his driveway slowly, taking in the gravel lawn and concrete walls, not unusual for Tucson, but a far cry from the red brick buildings and olive tree-lined sidewalks on campus. We smelled pot as soon as we stopped up to the front porch. The windows weren’t even open. “Bingo,” said Jamie, as she flashed me a wolfish grin. When he let us in, Jason did not offer any explanation for the smell. Instead, he offered us a seat on a futon and put himself in a desk chair across the room. All of our chemistry from earlier in the week evaporated in the seedy apartment. Jason kept looking back at his computer. We’d clearly interrupted his studying, or gaming, or whatever he was doing. The mystery of the marijuana was solved when a bedroom door opened and a slightly older guy, presumably a roommate, stepped out in a cloud of smoke. The roommate told Jason he was taking off and Jamie and I shared a look that said “too bad.” It became apparent that we would not be getting high at Jason’s house, and also that there was no way to leave gracefully, us having just barged in and forced him to hang out twenty minutes earlier. Jamie asked Jason if he wanted to come to a party with us at our friend Ryan’s house and he said yes. Well, friend is an overstatement. Ryan worked the front desk at my dorm and liked a bunch of the same bands as me and we’d been to his house all of three times. Party is an overstatement, too. There were less than ten people, mostly guys, sitting around the living room when we arrived. They offered us red wine in mugs, which Jamie and I accepted, and which Jason disappointingly declined. Jamie and I folded ourselves onto the second futon of the night while Jason perched uneasily in a dining chair across the room. His location made it hard to talk. As did his utter unwillingness to engage. After a few stilted attempts to start a conversation, I turned my attention to Ryan, who had asked if I’d heard the new Aimee Mann album. My eyes lit up. Music was one of the few things I didn’t need to be drunk to talk about, and I adored Aimee Mann. Ryan waxed on: “There’s definitely a harder edge to the new album than her last….” I took issue with that. “Her last album may have been melancholy, but there was some incredible solo-work with the electric guitar. She isn’t exactly a folkie.” “Just listen,” Ryan said, as he jumped up and put on the album, and I realized what he meant. The first track was more driving than the perfectly self-contained pop ditties of her last album. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice Jason leaving until he was halfway out the door. “Wait!” Jamie called and we rushed after him. “Where are you going?” “I’ve just got to go,” he said. “Well let us give you a ride, at least. We drove you here! You’re not that close to home.” “I can walk.” He took off down the street. I felt like a jackass. I wondered if he left because we were drinking or because we were ignoring him. I thought about his roommate and how I’d never seen Jason at church before that week and wondered if it had been hard for him to make himself go. I hoped he didn’t derail as easily as Jamie. I stared at my mug of wine and realized that this was the first time I didn’t want to finish my drink.
The summer between freshman and sophomore year did a number on mine and Jamie’s friendship. First, I hit her up for money to buy drugs that never materialized. That was bad but not unfixable. I told her I’d pay her back. But then I screwed everything up for her. My dad smelled smoke on me when I came home late one night and went through my purse while I was sleeping. I woke up in the morning to him sitting next to my bed holding a pipe in his hands. He grilled me about what I’d been using, how much, and with whom. He thought I’d been clean for over a year, and it crushed him to have to tell my mom I wasn’t. I told him I’d been getting high with Jamie. I thought it would make him feel better, knowing I was with a neighbor, a friend, a member of the church. It didn’t occur to me that he would feel obliged to tell her dad or that her dad would threaten to cut her off financially unless she submitted to random drug testing for the rest of the summer. I spent the next month feeling like a horrible person; Jamie spent the next month standing in lines at a drug testing facility and praying she wouldn’t lose her tuition money. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but after she somehow, by the grace of God, passed the first drug test, she bounced back into my life like nothing happened. “We may not be able to smoke, but we can still drink! Where’s tonight’s party?”
In August we went ahead with our plan to move into a house off campus together, along with Danielle and Natasha. Natasha was a friend of Jamie’s from the chemical engineering program. She was blonde, blunt, busty, and brilliant. She was a lush, too, and, like me and Jamie, had a complicated relationship with her faith. She also favored the boyfriend analogy. “It’s like . . . God is my boyfriend,” she explained, tracing a stick around in the gravel after a particularly rough night, “and I love him,but I just can’t stop myself from cheating on him all week long.” I was surprised. I didn’t think Catholics had a problem with drinking, which was, for the most part, the worst thing we did.
By contrast, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Mormon dietary code–called the Word of Wisdom–which prohibits drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, and tea. The irony is that, historically, members of the early church did not treat the Wisdom as a commandment so much as a nice suggestion. Joseph Smith kicked back with a beer, perhaps from his fully stocked home bar, in Nauvoo. Brigham Young, the second president of the church, ran a distillery in Utah. Ladies in the Relief Society fermented their own peach wine. It is said that, back then, the biggest threat alcohol posed was to the pocketbooks of the Saints at a time when everybody’s resources were needed to build a new Zion. Young’s distillery kept the money from flowing out. Over the years, the Word of Wisdom, originally sent by “greeting,” “not by commandment or restraint,” morphed into a strict test of fellowship, a boundary drawing tool. A cup of coffee a day will keep a member out of the temple, out of heaven, and out of the fold.
Our new house was on Elm Street, and living there was like a nightmare. We drank and smoked and drank and smoked and took pills when they were around. We hosted parties and hit up other parties and broke into swimming pools and drove around town drunk and were inappropriate with each others boyfriends and made out with each other and and fought and bitched our way around ever-shifting alliances. Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the nightmare.
Jamie got into a serious long-term relationship with a Mormon man, and stopped partying with me, except whenever he wasn’t around. We still went to church together, sometimes hungover, sometimes high. Sometimes we got so high we forgot to go to church and ate burritos instead. Sometimes we looked at each other and said, What the fuck are we doing? Jamie would swear she was going to quit, and tell me that I should too. You have no idea how good it feels, she said, in reference to the first time she went back after straying from the church, back in high school, how it feels to be clean. I knew she wasn’t talking about being clean from drugs; she was talking about her soul. And she was right. I knew what it was like to abstain from drugs and alcohol against my will, but I had no idea what it was like to be free. To be forgiven. We knew we couldn’t change our ways in Arizona, so we would fantasize about transferring to Brigham Young University, up in Utah, for a fresh start. We would be different in the mountains. We would be pure. We would finally be the Mormons we were supposed to be.
Of course BYU was just a pipe dream. At the end of sophomore year, we let our lease on the Elm Street house expire, but not before I sublet my room for the summer, to another party girl who trashed the place and ran up bills for all the utilities that were in Jamie’s name. Natasha and Danielle moved into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood and Jamie and I saw the opportunity to get out of dodge, not together, but in different directions as fast as we could. Both of us finished up our four years at the UofA, but we only saw each other two more times. Junior year, I went to a housewarming party at Jamie’s new apartment. I brought my new boyfriend, didn’t get drunk. We left early, after chatting awkwardly with Jamie about her shower curtain and the White Stripes. Senior year, we met at my request in the parking lot of the LDS student center, where we’d smoked that first joint together three years prior. I gave Jamie a check for all the drugs and utilities I remembered I owed her plus a little more for the things I forgot.
It took me nine more years to get sober, and may take nine more than that to make things right with Jamie. After college, I went back to the church and then left again. As far as I know, Jamie never went back at all. I don’t know if she’s sober; I doubt she needed to be. I just hope she found what she had before I sent her spinning off course. I hope she got clean and by clean I mean free.
long pointless drives, late at night
talk of better lives, light and physics.
My favorite friend always seemed to see
the particles like I did
and we hoped their patterns wouldn’t change.
I hoped that sobriety would last.
And I appreciate that winter
maybe for its lack of gray
colder air blew clear and crisp between
bars of light, far beneath a pristine sky.
Daytime drives with my dad and
talk of school plans, and John Prine’s guitar.
I hoped my playing would impress him.
And I appreciate that winter
in a final sort of way.
Elliott Smith kept time for me
those days I liked staring at the ceiling
watching shadows and the fan
vaguely spin and move my things around.
I hoped their images would not fade.
FOUR YEARS sober today. Not drinking isn’t hard anymore. That wasn’t always the case. For years, not drinking was impossible. Then, for many long months, it was excruciatingly difficult. Now it’s easy. Life isn’t easy, but not drinking is. Here’s the thing I didn’t know, though. Life is better now. I thought a sober life would be the most boring. But it’s not! Quitting the thing I thought I loved the most opened the door to having all the things I actually love the most. Peace of mind. A happy family. Solid friendships. A job I love. Hobbies! I don’t think not drinking makes you a better person. (Though if you’re anything like me it might. Booze/drugs had a way of making me lie/cheat/fight/steal/hurt/generally annoy everyone around me.) I didn’t quit drinking to become a better person. I quit because I wanted a better life. And I got it! I’m not here to convert you though. I’m here because for years and years I thought I was the only Mormon girl who couldn’t stop drinking and the only party girl who hated herself in the morning and my whole world opened up when I realized I wasn’t alone. If the last four years have taught me anything it’s that neither are you, whatever your thing is.
Growing up, I spent way too much time worrying about the impact that Mormonism would have on my dating life for somebody who didn’t go on a lot of dates. In a lot of ways, my parents were not typical, by the book, Mormons. Perhaps the simplest way to explain my family’s commitment to the church is like this: we went to church every Sunday, but never on vacation. We never drank coffee but the Dr. Pepper flowed so freely that I was surprised when I moved from Ohio to Arizona and heard a seminary teacher refer to it as “sin juice.”
But there was one area where my parents were practically fundamentalists: boys. In Ohio, school dances started in sixth grade, so my friends were going to dances for two full years before I was allowed to join them when I turned 14. This was so embarrassing to me that the one time a boy asked me if I would be at a dance, in seventh grade, I just said yes, and then when he called me from the pay phone at school to ask where I was, I lied and told him that I had been there earlier, but that I got sick and had to leave, and hadn’t he seen me there?
My parents were equally firm on the rule that I wasn’t allowed to date before I turned 16. Or, at least, I think they were. Nobody actually asked me out between the ages of 12 and 16, so I didn’t have the opportunity to put the rule to the test, but they reminded me about it often enough, simultaneously amplifying my embarrassment about my datelessness and ensuring that I knew they would never budge on the rule.
When I did start dating, my parents constantly reminded me about the importance of going on group dates, warned me against the dangers of just “hanging out,” and, most importantly, drilled it into my head that I should only date boys who “shared my standards,” which, of course, is a nicer, less exclusive, way of saying don’t date outside the church. All of these rules were just build up to the biggest, most important rule, which was not so much a rule as a deeply ingrained fact of life: I would get married in the temple. Of course I would. In my mind, that was what Mormonism boiled down to, and even though I started chafing at the boundaries of Mormonism early on, getting married in the temple was the one thing I knew I would do. When I was in high school, my best friend, a half-Canadian/half-Egyptian atheist with a strict Muslim father challenged me on this certainty constantly. “What if you fall in love with somebody who’s not Mormon?” she would ask, incredulous. I would swear back, “I just won’t.” “But how can you be sure?” “I just am…”
You know where this story is going, right? I fell in love with a non-member. Of course I did. His name was R and he was funny and sharp and artsy and shorter than me but had these amazing arms. I was 19, he was 20. He wasn’t the ideal non-member, just waiting for the missionaries to share the good news of the gospel. No. He was an atheist. He didn’t like organized religion. He’d read Krakauer and, you know, the internet and he had some serious questions about Mormonism. Not the kind of questions I wanted him to have, like “What happens after we die?” or “Does God have a body?” I could have answered those questions. No, he had questions like, “How could Joseph Smith have carried all those gold plates?” and “How did they end up in upstate New York if the Book of Mormon went down in Central America?” “Why is the Angel Moroni so buff?” He asked harder questions, too, like “Why didn’t God answer my prayers when my brother died?”
I couldn’t answer those questions. I was too naive to realize it was because they were unanswerable. I thought it was because I just didn’t know enough about the gospel. I wasn’t the picture of a good Mormon girl when we met. Shortly after I turned 16 and proclaimed to my best friend that I’d never fall in love with somebody who wasn’t Mormon (a conversation during which I also swore I would never give a blow job because that sounded disgusting), my life took a hard turn. By the time I met R, I hadn’t been to church regularly in over two years and on the rare occasions that I did make it to my student ward I was either hungover, high, or still drunk from the night before. I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to get loaded and then go to church. I guess something in me just couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I didn’t know if I believed in God anymore, but if I did, I knew that he looked like Heavenly Father. This is what I told R the first night we met. I told him that I didn’t know what the future held, but that for me, it was Mormonism or nothing. Mormonism was how I was raised and it was how the world made sense.
The beginning of our relationship was an intense, storybook romance. That first night we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking about our baggage and our shared obsession with Bob Dylan. Our second and third dates were also middle of the night affairs, eating hashbrowns and pie at the dingy Waffle House diner on the edge of town, and then driving into the desert to smoke clove cigarettes. Our third date found us at the Waffle House again. It was 2005, which happened to be the year that the Waffle House was celebrating its 50th anniversary and giant posters are hanging across windows on two sides of the restaurant were emblazoned with the slogan “Here’s to the next 50 years!” There are two old guys on the signs and they are raising their coffee cups in a toast and I think they are funny so I lift my own mug of bad diner coffee and read off of one of the signs, “Here’s to the next 50 years!” and give R a cheesy grin, waiting for him to laugh. He just stares at me, until it slowly dawns on me that the signs were only visible from my seat and he thinks I am a psychopath toasting to our next 50 years the morning after our first kiss.
He did some pretty embarrassing things early on, too, though. The first time he drove up to visit me at my parent’s house, a few hours away from our college town, he was so excited to see me that he left his Ford Ranger parked a full three feet away from the curb, driver’s side door hanging, and keys in the ignition. Later that summer, he used all of the airline miles he’d accumulated when his family lived abroad during his teenage years to come visit me in New Orleans, where I had an internship. Remember when I mentioned that it was 2005? The week he visited happened to be the week that one of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast right before Katrina landed. The city was evacuated, but we couldn’t afford a rental car with the exorbitant insurance rates for drivers under 25 so R found us a room in a tall hotel and we stocked up on junk food. We probably would have died if that had been Hurricane Katrina, but Dennis turned out to be a bust, so instead we spent the weekend wandering around the French Quarter in the drizzle. That was also the weekend that I asked R what would happen if we got pregnant and he said, we’ll have a baby and name it Dylan.
One of the things I liked best about R was that he rarely drank and didn’t get high. It was also the most annoying thing about him because I wanted to do those things all the time. Spending time with somebody who had such a healthy relationship with substances made me realize that maybe I didn’t. Being with him made me want to be a better person. After we’d been together for about a year, I decided I wanted to go back to church. Cue flashbacks to middle school, when I was so embarrassed about my religion that I pretended I was at the school dance so I wouldn’t have to tell my boyfriend I couldn’t go. I was terrified that R would want to break up with me if I started practicing again, or that he would resent me for tricking him into a relationship with a freaky Mormon. So I made my religion as unobtrusive as possible. I would pray silently in my head as we lay next to each other in bed. I would make up excuses to stay at my house on Saturday night and wake up early for sacrament meeting and be back at his house with two iced Americanos from the drive through espresso shack before he woke up. I would read the Book of Mormon surreptitiously while he was in the shower, slamming it shut and stuffing it in my bag when he walked in the room.
My parents loved R. They didn’t even mind that he wasn’t Mormon, because they saw how much happier, not to mention healthier, I was with him. Of course, they wanted him to join the church. And, if I’m being honest, I did, too. Being in a serious relationship with a non-member who wasn’t taking the missionary discussions and had no intention of doing so put me in a weird no-man’s land at church. I was attending a single’s ward, where almost every other member’s single-minded focus was on searching for his or her eternal companion and getting to the temple. Except for me. I’d already found my eternal companion and I felt like my life was moving forward–since I’d met R, I’d gone from a being a drunk and a drug addict to landing a prestigious internship, working as a teaching assistant, and deciding to apply for law school–but I couldn’t figure out where the temple fit into my future. In fact, when I pictured my future with R, I drew a blank. Without a temple marriage, what was there?
We started having these intense conversations about the church that would end in me begging him to just read the Book of Mormon already and pray about it. I was certain that the Angel Moroni would sweep in and uncross our stars. I also asked him to meet with the missionaries, but he never got past clicking on the “Chat with a Missionary” button on mormon.org and signing off in frustration when the missionaries couldn’t answer his questions about the church’s racist past.
The conversations got easier as I kept going to church. I accepted callings that forced me to talk about the church with other people (ward missionary, gospel doctrine teacher), and so I re-learned the language of Mormonism. Eventually I learned how to talk about it with R, too, without feeling crushed by disappointment every time he rejected my invitations. I even convinced him to start parking his bike at the institute, telling him it was safer than the bike racks on campus and reassuring him that nobody would talk to him. I took this as a good sign that he actually did it. I didn’t know what to do when faced with evidence that he still wasn’t comfortable at church, like the time that he showed up at the institute wearing a t-shirt that he’d borrowed from me. It had the name of a painting company owned by a family in my parents’ ward on it, and they were known for printing up tons of shirts and passing them out for free to all the teenagers in the ward for fun and for free advertising. Lang Painting, it said. So one day R showed up at the institute wearing a Lang Painting shirt, and a group of kids, including a set of missionaries’ accosted him. “Hey, you know the Langs?” “Uh, no, this is my girlfriend’s shirt.” R tried to tell them he wasn’t Mormon, mistakenly thinking this would make them lose interest in him, rather than piquing it. They were particularly interested in the fact that he was dating a Mormon, and took this as a sign that he would be an easy target. They progressed from complimenting his shirt to asking him if he wanted to take the missionary discussions in five minutes. He ran out of there and when we talked later that night, he was pissed.
Other times, R seemed like he was softening toward the church, and I LIVED for that. Once, after I moved into a new ward, he came to watch me give a talk. He sat in the second row, over to the side of the chapel, and I sat on the stand. The person speaking after me, a man of course, said a few words about how everybody in the room of a child of Heavenly Parents, and is loved by them. After the meeting, a girl I knew who was sitting near R told me that she saw him tear up when he heard that and she knew, she just KNEW that he felt the spirit. Of course she blew it by pouncing on him immediately after sacrament and asking him to take the missionary discussions.
One of the reasons I was so obsessed with whether or not R would join the church is because of my patriarchal blessing. I got it when I was 14 from my grandfather, who was a stake patriarch, right before he died. I ignored it at first, because it was not particularly interesting, but when I came back to church after those years of wandering through the wilderness, it took on totemic importance. I carried it with me from apartment to apartment, reading it when I felt lost to remind me that I had divine worth, even after all the bad things I’d done. I didn’t know what to do with the promises about my future. I was afraid that I’d fucked up so badly that I’d forfeited the right for them to come true. One thing my patriarchal blessing said was that I would have the opportunity to be married in the temple to a companion of my choosing. I hated this phrasing. It was so imprecise. It didn’t say I would get married in the temple, it said I would have the opportunity. What if I already blew this opportunity? What if I was in the process of blowing it by wasting my best years with R, a boy, actually, by this point, a man who had no interest in or ability to taking me to the temple?
Years passed without the situation resolving itself. After graduation, I moved to Michigan for law school, and R stayed behind to finish an extra semester required by his journalism program. We didn’t split up, but shortly before I left we had the most depressing conversation of our relationship, where we took a long walk through the desert wash behind our house and I told him that I couldn’t see a future with him, not because I didn’t want one, but because I literally couldn’t see what it would look like, and we both cried. After he graduated, while I was plugging away in my first year of classes, he went on a soul-searching solo bike trip around the country from his parents house in Texas to Manhattan. I asked him to take a Book of Mormon, but he said he didn’t have enough weight on his bike. We still didn’t break up but I wondered if we would ever live in the same city again.
In summer 2008, his bike broke down and he ran out of money and he decided to join me in Michigan. He got his own apartment even though most couples that had been together as long as we had would be living together. He stayed even after the local newspaper folded and he couldn’t find a journalism job and ended up working in the restaurant industry. He stayed even after my faith journey back to Mormonism led me to start excising the fun things from my life one by one, first coffee, then booze, then sex. He stayed even after I got an internship in Chicago and left him alone in the small town that he’d moved to only to be with me. Over time, I realized that while they may not be on par with converting to Mormonism, the sacrifices R made to be with me were no small thing. He left his family, his friends, he gave up his career, and he supported me 100% in every thing I did, no matter how weird he thought it was. That had to count for something.
About a year after R followed me to Michigan, my younger brother got engaged to a girl he had known for less than 6 weeks in 6 weeks. He would be the of my siblings to get married. My mom called to tell me the news. She wanted me to be in the temple for the ceremony. I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t even close to be temple worthy. I was also angry. If I couldn’t go to the temple with the love of my life, I wasn’t about to go without him to watch my brother marry a stranger. That was a turning point for me. I realized I wanted R more than the temple. My mom sensed what I was thinking about and brought up something I hadn’t thought about in awhile: my patriarchal blessing. “Your blessing says that you will have the opportunity to marry the companion of your choosing. I know you’ve already chosen.” She didn’t exactly sound thrilled–her voice was breaking–but it was remarkable that for all these years I’d been focusing on the temple part of the blessing, when she was focusing on the part about it being my choice. And I thought they were the orthodox ones. R proposed a few weeks later.
I still didn’t know what our wedding would look like. Neither did our families. His parents wanted an open bar and my parents wanted the whole thing to be dry. We decided to piss them both off by doing a toast with champagne and Martinelli’s non-alcoholic apple cider. We ended up getting married in a tiny chapel in the middle of the desert. Moments before the ceremony my dad pulled R over to the side and said “R, I want to tell you something.” R steeled himself. My dad continued. “Doesn’t this church look exactly like the one in Kill Bill.” R decided not to take the reference to the extremely violent movie where the entire wedding party including the groom is brutally slaughtered as a threat. We got married in a vaguely religious ceremony performed by the bishop of my parents’ ward. After the ceremony, we exited the chapel to Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
At some point in the next year or so, I was sitting in Relief Society listening to a lesson about the temple. The teacher was a wedding photographer because of course she was (that’s one of the two professions that Mormon girls are foreordained to do, the other one being seller in a multi-level marketing company) and she was talking about how she sometimes photographs non-LDS ceremonies and it breaks her heart because she can tell that the married couple knows something is missing. There is no light in their eyes.
That’s what I was afraid non-temple marriage would be like. I thought it would be like living a B-version of life, or painting with a paler set of colors. I pictured my life the way a sober alcoholic first pictures a future without booze. But my non-temple marriage taught me that this is bullshit. My marriage taught me that love is love to the point that when the church amped up its anti-gay agenda, I knew I had to leave. My marriage taught my family, too. A few years ago, I visited my family back in Arizona and my dad told me with tears in his eyes that he knows R and I will be together forever, temple marriage or no. That’s right, my former bishop, former CES teacher dad told me that he doesn’t believe the ordinances are necessary. He told me that he and my mother are thankful every day that I married R, because he is perfect for me, and because he such an incredible stay-at-home father to our daughter, Dylan, and that he is all of those things precisely because he’s not Mormon. He’s right of course. I wouldn’t be who I am without the church and R wouldn’t be who he is with it. I don’t go to the Mormon church anymore, but I thank God every day that I found R and managed see past what I was taught to build a family with him.
I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.
I’m writing this from the backseat of a cab, heading back home. I’ll probably get motion sick before I finish. I can’t read in car. I can barely tolerate looking at my phone, not even to send a text or scroll through Instagram or get directions. I feel like I’m going to puke in under a minute. It’s remarkable, if I think about it, how much my life has been shaped by this predisposition toward motion sickness. That’s what it is, I found out: a genetic predisposition. I found out from one of those 23andMe DNA tests. Anyway, some my most unpleasant, most humiliating, most unpleasant experiences have involved motion sickness. There was the time I broke my toe in college and couldn’t walk across campus so I tried to take the school shuttle from campus health to my dorm and it should have taken ten minutes max but I didn’t know the route and it was over 100 degrees outside (I went to college in the desert) and I’d been up all night high on opiates and finishing an essay and now I was in excruciating pain and lost and dehydrated and the bus was just making me ill. Another rider took pity on me and offered me water. He must have seen how sick I was. Or maybe I begged him for a drink. The plastic bottle he handed me was clearly used, refilled, with warm water that was tinged with brown, like maybe it had been used for coffee or tea before. I drank it down. I was so grateful. Another time I got so overheated and sick on the CTA I had to get off like six stops early and strip off my winter layers and just stand there underdressed on the platform in the cold until I’d recovered enough to reboard. That’s actually happened a bunch of times. Now when I take a slow train line, I try to remember to bring ginger chews or some hard candy to suck on. Snacks and water. I am like a baby. It’s sort of pathetic. And then there were all the times I drank too much. Puking in other people’s houses, cars. Puking in my own house, my own car. Puking in the gutter. In the end, it was the hangovers that took me out of the game. They were just so epically bad. Spinning on bed. Head in the toilet. Weak stomach for days. I wonder if I even would have ended up in AA if I could hold my booze better, physically, I mean. If I wasn’t such a lightweight. I guess we’ll never know.
Well, I made it home. I feel okay. I’m feeling like a dummy for ordering oysters at the airport for dinner, but I guess I never learn.
Today was a travel day, a quick trip down to North Carolina for work. I thought for sure I was going to miss my flight, but I didn’t. I like to be at the airport a full two hours early because I am an anxious traveler (fine, and anxious person) and also a typical Taurus in that I live for creature comforts so if I can get to the airport with enough time to buy a coffee and a snack and settle in with a book or do some window shopping, I am generally much more amenable to the idea of being forced to spend hours of my time between places that I want to be. So, ideally, I would have been in a cab by 3:15 pm to make my 6:00 pm flight (because Chicago traffic is a miserable nightmare always), but I wanted to see D for a few minutes before I left, so I offered to do school pick-up, which is at 3:35 pm, and then we walked home and talked about books and rocks and the fun night she has planned with her dad, and we got home at 3:45, and it took me another 15 minutes to book a cab because I had a last-minute freak-out about which shoes to pack and kept swapping my Cole Haan oxford heels for tall black riding boots boots (I could give a shit about fashion for the most part but I appreciate clothes with an autumn sensibility) and then realized I needed to change my socks and pack extra socks (I get sweaty feet, yo), and I kissed my family goodbye several times because I kept thinking I was ready to go and then redoing my bags and having to say goodbye again, and then no Lyft drivers were close to my house, and I didn’t get in the car until 4:15, by which time traffic was already rush hour-y and my driver kept making confusing and confused-seeming turns, but I not going to complain because he got me to O’Hare right at 5 and the security line was semi-light and I had time to use the bathroom and refill my water bottle before strolling up to my gate as they were boarding my group– group 4 to be exact, because I am not fancy!
The flight was fine. I was nauseated from the cab ride that was all detours and hungry because it was dinner time, so I ate a giant blueberry muffin from Whole Foods that my husband thoughtfully sent me off with. I used to eat these muffins almost every day on my maternity leave and haven’t had one in years and I forgot how good they are, all crumbly on top and gooey, almost undercooked, in the middle. Toward the end of the flight, when the plane started to descend and my sinuses were blowing up with pressure the way they always do, a toddler in the row behind me started in with the shrieking. It was piercing and terrible but the poor girl looked so exhausted and so sad with fat tears rolling down her round cheeks that reminded me of D’s when she was that age. D is an awesome flyer now, but she always threw at least one screaming fit per flight until she was about three. Watching the wailing kid and her inexplicably mellow mom made me miss D. Traveling alone is easy, but lonely.
The hotel was just a short drive from the airport. Like, less than 10 minutes. Cities where things are close and easy to get to are weird. The main entrance at the hotel opened right up into the restaurant, which had an unexpected party vibe. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was definitely a business party vibe, with lots of bros and shiny-haired women in suits drinking beers, but it was a lot more activity than I usually see at a Marriott on a Monday night. It was like a really late, really fun happy hour. I had planned to eat at the restaurant but all those people and all those beers felt just a little triggering so I ordered a caprese salad at bar and grabbed a bag of chips from the sundry store and took it all back to my room. I am eating and writing this now. I watched four videos of D and her dad eating ice cream sundaes and playing board games. He planned a special “sleepover” for her to make things fun while I am away, which means he has to sleep on the bottom bunk in her room. That is the price of being a fun dad. I am going to read and eat candy and starfish on this clean white king-sized bed. That is the beauty of being a working mom.
I’ve turned the corner into my fourth year with the United Methodist Church, so surely I’ve been in attendence on All Saints’ Day before, but I have no clear memory of it. There is something about a bell, but it’s vague. The church calendar, it seems, takes some time getting used to. Or, more likely, it takes the body longer to acclimate to the pace of Christian life than the mind (wrestling with the new theology from day one) and tongue (learning the new language on the fly). Who knows where my heart is in this transition. Miles ahead or years behind, I’m sure. So today is All Saints’ Sunday and I’m a foreigner to this quality of grief. I’ve lost hardly anyone that wasn’t supposed to go. So I’m quiet in Sunday School, so quiet A asks if I’m okay, but I am more than okay, I feel terrific, just listening and learning from people who know more about death than I. The services are as usual, though the choir director brought saxaphones in for the day, and they are loud and jazzy. The children come back to the group for communion and gather on the steps in front of the sanctuary, which is different. I see D in her shiny winter hat watching Pastor Grace bless and break the bread intently. She serves the children first. I approach the table–it’s an open table, which means it’s okay that I’m not technically a member of this church, okay that the church for whatever stupid pedantic reason does not recognize my Mormon baptism–and take the bread, dip the bread, eat the bread sweet with Welch’s grape juice, walk down the stairs. I find D and we head into the courtyard, join the congregation huddled around the labyrinth. It was cold this morning and still is, but the sun is shining. D’s hat looks like a disco ball. We stand with my friend J and her daughter L in the fluffy hot pink earmuffs. The pastors take turns reading the names out loud, the names of everyone lost from our congregation this year, and it guts me because I knew some of them, but none well enough. I know enough to feel that some of them should be here still. After each name, a clear bell, the silence. The pastors move onto the names of those that the members of our congregation have lost, the parents, and grandparents, and brothers, and sisters, and children, and friends. There are more bells. J weeps. And then we sing in Latin, a three-part round. D learned the words in choir so she sings too. Something about peace. We file inside, upstairs to retrieve the electric tea light all the kids got today from the children’s chapel room upstairs. I try to hug J, but we are both walking, and it’s awkward. We go back downstairs into the Great Hall for fellowship. D brings me a handful of broccoli, “all the broccoli they had” and instead of chiding her, I eat it. We pack sack lunches for the soup kitchen. D and L run to the stage to play. J and I lean against the stage, drinking coffee, talking about her brother, talking about our husbands, talkimg about our kids. We are all saints.
1 ginger beer, 1 glass cyanide-looking tarragon flavored Russian soda pop, 1 glass vanilla orange Russian soda pop, 2 glasses liquid raspberry kompot, 1 shot bitters, 3 cups hot black tea, 1 non-alcoholic beer (to wash down the salted fish). No water. Not one sip of the beer, wine, champagne, vodka or cocktails that flowed for six hours straight.