At fourteen you receive a small cedar chest, the size of a jewelry box. In it is a white envelope. Inside the white envelope is a white handkerchief with a delicate crocheted edge. Inside the white handkerchief is a note on heavy white stock from your teacher, saying she is happy you are saving yourself for marriage. She says that nothing will grant you greater happiness than to be sealed to your future husband in the temple, that Heavenly Father is proud of you for devoting your future to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Which is another way of saying, when you are a Mormon girl your future begins early.
The future is not just about who you marry but who you marry for time and all eternity. Time is one thing. Time is here and now, entwined with earthly pleasures. A dry summer afternoon. A walk to Erickson’s to buy mascara. Eternity, though, is something different. Not of this time. Not of this earth.
Forever means that in the temple, you and your husband-to-be, dressed from head to toe in white, will receive secret names and take holy vows and then, in the hereafter, if your husband precedes you, he will call you to the Kingdom of God, using your secret name. You already hope that your secret name will be your grandmother’s name, Rebecca. And if not Rebecca, then your middle name, Elizabeth. Both are beautiful. Both are easy to remember.
And if you die first? No one has said anything about that. But you are a Mormon girl, so for a long time, you assume it will all work out. You believe this. You want this. Eternity, when you are a Mormon girl who is sixteen, then seventeen, is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to fear. You stare out the window of the backseat as your parents drive away from your grandparents’ house, passing wheat fields and unpainted barns. You think of your grandfather who has trouble getting up out of his chair.
Forever is nothing.
As long as someone remembers your name.
The name of the bookstore was the Cosmic Aeroplane. And next to Cosmic Aeroplane was the Blue Mouse, a tiny shoebox of a movie theatre on First South, the city’s only art house. The Blue Mouse showed foreign films, which, taken together, were a slow, quiet study in complexity and ambiguity. It didn’t matter where the films were set—Japan, Spain, Egypt, or France—the families and towns all seemed the same: provincial and sophisticated; entirely reasonable and monumentally messed up. To watch the screen was to see that lives everywhere changed with dizzying speed and at the same time moved at a glacial pace, a gorgeous sight to behold for a Mormon girl, now grown, like me.
In one film, a girl opened and closed the gate to her older cousin’s beach house at the start of summer and again at the end. The bookend scenes took forever as she got out of her cousin’s car and unlatched the gate, then latched it closed once her cousin drove through. Nothing in the duration of the film, over the course of that teenage girl’s summer, changed. Yet that was the year she learned about love—something I knew because I’d read it in a synopsis of the film. The love part I knew nothing about. But the slowness, the sameness, the time it took to unlatch and latch the gate—I understood that.
He was tall and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He worked at Cosmic Aeroplane and seemed impossibly brainy, selling books and riding around town on his red ten-speed bike. I used to see him sometimes flying down First South.
I was flattered when, after a few silent months, he talked to me, first asking me if I liked Kurt Vonnegut, then Albert Camus. I wanted him to ask me about Virginia Woolf or D.H. Lawrence instead, two writers I’d read and didn’t understand yet but felt sure I would one day, maybe one day soon. But he didn’t ask, so I answered honestly, telling him Vonnegut and Camus weren’t really my favorites.
Well, he said, smiling, you just can’t be pleased.
Over time we talked more. About movies. About books. About whether or not I could be pleased, the joke becoming more pleasurable each time since I was (and he must have sensed this) a young woman very easily pleased. By foreign films at the Blue Mouse. By black and white postcards on sale. By the stories of Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble that I bought and read in my pink childhood bedroom in my parents’ basement, where I still lived at twenty-two. And maybe most easily, I was pleased by the man behind the counter and the light flirtations and the bookstore, which smelled of rebellion, of incense, of pot.
I was shy and careful and unremarkable in every way: neither fat nor thin; neither pretty nor hideous; neither smart nor stupid. I was a model of liminality. I had dropped out of college midway and was now trying to finish. I had been given a big boat of a car by my parents and should have been grateful but instead was embarrassed. I used to park that Ford Elite four blocks away from Cosmic Aeroplane, hoping no one would see.
Finally, after months of small talk, the bookseller asked what I was up to one night. I said I was going to the Blue Mouse to see such-and-such a film. And he said, oh, he was interested in seeing such-and-such too. So maybe he would see me next door? And this is how we ended up sitting next to each other in the dark, reading subtitles, watching the slow Scandinavian plotless plot unfold against a backdrop of sparsely furnished rooms and a landscape of eternal snow. I was not so naive as to imagine this was a date but hoped it might be a prelude to something more.
We used to run into each other at the Salt Lake Roasting Co. now and then and drink coffee together. He was originally from Provo, Utah, and had studied American literature at Brigham Young University. He came from a big Mormon family. His parents were strict. My parents, by contrast, were not strict. What they were is a study in opposites: one a believer, the other an atheist. No one cared much whether I went to church or not. But I cared. Staying, I told him, didn’t seem right, but neither did leaving. I had not been to church in a year. Did he understand? He said he did. Our coffee, itself a small sign of our quiet rebellion, turned cold on calm winter nights. Sometimes we stayed till the coffee shop closed. He unlocked his bike outside. He walked me to my enormous car. He did not make jokes about how I could not be pleased.
When you were a Mormon girl, your future was mapped. You knew that one day you would live in a two-story brick house, that the house might be on Emerson Avenue or Logan Avenue but wherever it was, there would be a vegetable garden in the backyard, a soft-spoken priesthood-holding husband inside, ginger-haired children you drove to swimming practice and piano lessons and skiing trips on the same slopes where you learned to ski so many years before. In addition, you would probably have a cabin in the mountains, one with a lofty fireplace in a family room spacious enough for everyone to stretch out and play Monopoly. And on Sundays? You would all sit together on one of the front pews, sharing hymnbooks, the older kids holding the younger ones in their laps.
And when you’re not a Mormon girl?
Even when you’re not a Mormon anymore and no longer a girl, you remain a Mormon girl. You will never be cool. You will never be hip. This, despite all the trying, all the wearing of black, all the drinking of wine, all the casual swearing, as if you cannot help yourself from saying fuck. But your timing is off. Your timing will always be off. There’s something funny about it, something sweet. Your best friend—she who exists inside a predicament just like yours—will call you up to say, well, that’s that. Irony is out. Earnestness is back in. She’d read as much in a magazine. Can you believe it? she’ll say. Just when we got the hang of it, all that irony.
Finally, I finished my classes at the university and found a job and moved out of my parents’ basement to a town north of Salt Lake City, an old railroad town. My apartment had three wooden arches in the living room where I imagined the nuns who used to live there hung pictures of Jesus Christ, their betrothed. I put up a poster I’d bought at a museum in Washington, D.C., Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” a woman’s figure wrapped in on herself. Across the street from the apartment building was a Baptist church with a neon cross outside that lit up faithfully. Every night, three steady beats: Jesus. Saves. Then together, Jesus-Saves.
I watched from my window late at night, counting the beats, shedding the skin of one life as I began another. I was twenty-three years old. I felt very young. It’s true, I missed the church of my childhood, the one I hadn’t visited in two years, the one where, long ago, I’d sat on a wooden pew on Sunday afternoons, between my mother and sisters. My father stayed home to watch The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, smoking his pipe and reading the paper as Boris and Natasha created all sorts of trouble and Rocky flew through a cityscape.
As the bishop stood at the pulpit I waited for the moment I could open the hymnbook, dark as a lake. I played with my mother’s charm bracelet, looking for the one with my name and my birthdate etched on gold, the one dotted with a tiny ruby chip, then moving to another, then asking her what stone is this? I pointed to the one near my oldest sister’s name.
Sapphire, my mother said, whispering.
And this one? I asked, pointing at another stone, amethyst for my other sister, the middle child.
Shhhhhh, my mother said, putting her arm around me, the charm bracelet sliding up her arm, disappearing out of reach.
When you grow up Mormon and then you leave, you understand that yours will always be a town divided. On one side of town are the churches of your youth, on the other the movie houses and coffee shops. On one side are Mormons, on the other, those who are not.
At twenty-four you are writing for a daily newspaper, which means all day long you are meeting people, talking to them on the phone, going into their workplaces and homes. You learn to read these people as insiders and not, watching carefully for the hint of temple garments under a T-shirt or who drinks a Diet Coke with ease or who talks of meeting up sometime for a beer. There are a thousand small signs to say who belongs and who does not, who once belonged and now does not. The question is—the question was—belonged to what?
In my apartment complex, there are two older women, unmarried or widowed—I never learn which—who live below and across from me. Rose on the first floor gets dressed up to walk downtown to the department store, ZCMI, every day to have lunch in the Tiffin Room with her friends. Marla on the second floor screams at night, blaming the Mormons along with her pots and pans. On the first floor lives a young man named Brian who works the midnight shift at a local radio station. We begin talking, first in the hallway, then in his apartment, then mine. One night he knocks on my door and hands me a pot of dirt. In a few weeks, small green shoots begin to show and by summer the basil stretches toward sunlight, happy on the kitchen windowsill.
There are those who leave the church with arguments and slamming doors and tears and excommunications. And there are those who stay, whose pains are suffered privately. There are those who are gay and those who are straight and those who don’t know what tags fit and what tags don’t and those who disagree with the politics of the church in this place, with the fact that it’s hard to tell those two apart, and then there are those who look as if they stayed but actually left years ago.
And in the years to follow I come to understand that for some of us, leaving is not dramatic but neither is it simple nor easy to understand.
Why did you leave?
For a long time I dodge the question, believing that my problems, because they are mine, transcend the overarching religion plot, that my problems, in fact, have nothing to do with religion at all. But lately I have wanted to get to the crux, which I suppose goes something like this: I could not quite imagine my future, let alone all of eternity, there.
It is a complicated place, I said, a place like any other, a place like no other, a place where you can float in the Great Salt Lake indefinitely.
This is what I told him, the man I live with now, when we first met. I was forty-two years old. We sat on a red couch, the windows open to California air. I told him about my hometown, my history, my family, my childhood church. I wanted to choose the words carefully. I did not want him to misunderstand, or to ask why I left because, although I did and although I would make the same choice again and again and again, I did not think of myself as someone who left. Instead, I thought of myself as someone who simply had not found a way to stay. I did not want him to box me in, to make me answer questions of either/or, to make me choose, because I could not choose—who can?—between those old neighbors, earnestness and irony.
To my surprise, he listened carefully.
So I talked some more. I told him about my grandparents, my father’s father who came from Denmark, who wore striped overalls, who traded horses for a living, and my mother’s father, who worked in the lumberyard, who died young. I told him about my grandmothers who crocheted pillowcases and canned pickles and raised all those kids. I told him how my mother had, as a child, helped her father build a new ward house, brick by brick. I told him stories of my neighbors growing up, of the man down the street who predicted the end of the world, citing a date that came and went each year. No one said a word. There was, I told him, something funny in that, something dear. He laughed when I laughed and when I was done, in the silence between us, that lovely pocket of silence when things can go so many complicated ways, he said, it’s part of the human story, isn’t it? Faith? Which seemed exactly the right thing to say.
Words sturdy enough to build a house.
And now? Now there are nights when we’ve finished the soup he has made and we’ve eaten the bread he baked that morning and we’ve talked about our days and our plans for tomorrow and it’s so sweet that I think who wouldn’t want this to go on for forever?
And who can say it will not?
In that small cedar box I received as a girl, a spiritual hope chest I see now, only in miniature, I kept a booklet common to Mormon girls. It was called Behold Thy Handmaiden. On the cover was a quote from Luke: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” In it were descriptions of the handmaiden: The handmaiden of the Lord is filled with SPIRITUAL AWARENESS. She lives in a spiritual home where harmony, love, and beauty dwell. The handmaiden of the Lord is blessed with special gifts of tenderness and concern for others. SERVICE AND COMPASSION are part of her everyday existence. The windows of her soul are open wide as the handmaiden of the Lord rejoices in being alive and part of a world filled with wonder and beauty. She seeks for beauty wherever it is found. . . in life. . . in books…in a song. . . or in prayer. The booklet begins and ends with the same words: Ready now am I.
One weekend, the bookseller and I took a trip together to a Shakespeare festival in Southern Utah. We went to a matinee of “Much Ado About Nothing,” then, after an early dinner, we drove up into the canyon in the dark. We’d planned poorly. We had no tent but we’d brought sleeping bags. I had a new car by then, a small two-door Toyota, whose stick shift I had learned to drive while leaving the dealership. If it’s too cold, I said, we can always sleep in the car. But it wasn’t cold.
We slept silently, side by side on that summer night, waiting for the small chip of red to appear over the mountain at daybreak and relieve us of long hours spent under chaste and eternal stars.
Of all the postcards I bought at the Cosmic Aeroplane, I have saved only two from that period of my life as I have, over the years, moved around. One is a black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe, her head thrown back as she laughs, revealing a long line of neck and cleavage. The other is the iconic black and white photograph of Jimmy Dean, a black turtleneck rolled up, covering half his face, only his eyes and forehead and spiky hair showing. I used to think the two photographs were studies in opposites: his concealing, hers revealing. One seemed sensual because of its concealments, the other vulnerable because of its revelations.
But now I’m not sure.
Conceal or reveal. Cover up or disrobe. Stay or go. Maybe the photographs are a study in something else: the beauty of a certain in betweenness. Or maybe what I am trying to say is that home and away sound like the same sad song to me, now that I’ve lived away from Utah for longer than I stayed.
Once, the man from Cosmic Aeroplane invited me to his apartment. Before turning the key to that little blue door, he said he’d lived on First Avenue for three years but had never invited a woman over in all that time. I took that to mean this was something special, that I was special.
When I crossed the threshold, here’s what I saw: thigh-high stacks of newspapers, a maze of newspapers, newspapers that grew from the hardwood floors like crops of corn. There was no furniture, no place to sit. The newspapers were all I could see, a whole room full of them, several years’ worth of editions of the Salt Lake Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle.
Why are you saving them? I asked, staring at the newspapers, which seemed to me then and now like a strange work of art, one without the subtitles attached yet.
He smiled. The moment stretched out forever.
I might want to read them again, he said, some time in the future.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country (University of Iowa Press, 2013), a memoir set in Japan. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Pinch, The Sun, Hotel Amerika, The Southern Review, Ascent, AGNI, The Normal School, The Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Winner of the Rona Jaffe FoundationWriters’ Award and fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the Djerassi Writing Residency, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California. (updated 6/2017)