In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The first one I remember came to visit my mother after our father left. It wasn’t that she said or did anything different than the other female Home Helpers. She told my mother to trust in the Father, to keep saying her prayers, to keep raising all of us (we were six boys and three girls, me the youngest son) just the way she’d been taught. She gave my mother a slip of paper to use at the central storehouse for beans and lard and flour and powdered milk. When my mother cried, our Home Helper held her close and stroked her hair as though she were the mother and my mother, the child.
I saw all of that and I saw how even in the plain clothes women wore in those days, even with her shining hair pulled back in a long braid, even without any of the makeup some women wore, she would make a man, or even a boy, think things that weren’t right. I saw how she filled out those plain clothes. I imagined how her hair would look if it were all loose about her shoulders. Later, I would kiss the back of my hand and imagine it was the soft skin of her breasts. I was only ten. You can’t tell me those thoughts are normal in a little boy’s mind. You can’t tell me she didn’t have a part in them being there.
Our family made out okay. It was the late fifties, and where we lived people still helped each other. We had clothes for school. Come September, we each had a new pair of shoes. My older brothers and sisters went on, most to mission, one to work, another to college. They stayed true to how it’s supposed to be — got married, had kids. As the house emptied out, my Mom took a part-time job, just enough to boost our tithe, to allow us a movie now and then. Except for those wicked thoughts that troubled me off and on, everything was peaceful. It was the way things should be.
Our Home Helper left. I guess she moved south, maybe down to Mesa, maybe to Flagstaff. We go where the elders send us. They assigned us a new Helper, a man. I liked him. He’d play ball with me or we’d go for walks. As I got older, he’d tell me more and more of the things I needed to know to be a man. He told me that it was wrong when I thought of the other Home Helper. He told me that when I had those thoughts to know that women were just like that. They couldn’t help it, though sometimes it seemed they did it on purpose. But if I prayed to the Father and kept my hands to myself, I would be okay. Someday, when I was older, I would be glad my body worked like it did. I would get to enjoy in my marriage what was rightly mine.
It helped till my second year in high school. Until then, boys, girls, everybody was pretty much the same. We studied together. We went to youth group. They had dances for us at the meeting hall. They knew we needed something like that. It was wholesome. Sure, every now and then, I would get those urges, but I’d pray, take a cold shower, dwell on how wonderful it was going to be with my wife.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I saw the next one. Mr. Thomas, our history teacher, got called out of class to go to the hospital; his wife was having trouble delivering their sixth kid. We were alone for a while in class before the substitute teacher came in, but nobody got out of line. We knew what we needed to do. I had my head in my American History book. I ate up the parts about how our grandfathers came out here, went up through that place called Hell’s Gateway, built narrow roads right into the cliff faces, and didn’t give in, no matter what. I heard the door open and glanced up. I’m ashamed to say I actually felt how she looked, right where I shouldn’t. I think my face must have gotten red, because she looked at me and smiled. And that made it worse — actually the worst, if you’re a man and you remember and you know what I mean. How when you’re young and a guy you can just let loose, you can completely lose control.
She wasn’t blonde. She didn’t have blue eyes like the Home Helper. She was tall and thin and her dark hair curled around her long face. It was her mouth that was the trouble. She had soft, full lips. I started to think about her mouth on places other than my mouth. Where would that come from? Not from me, not from any part of my normal life.
So I prayed some more. The Father must have been listening, because she was only with us that one day, though I carried visions of her with me a lot longer. I was on my knees every night for a month, thanking him. It wasn’t that she said anything or that she dressed the way some women do; no, she was kind and she seemed pretty smart and she didn’t act forward or pushy. I think some women just have something in them.
They can’t help it! I’m not sure they’re supposed to be any different. I think they’re part of the test. When they do what the Father wants them to, when they keep themselves pure and clean and gentle, then they aren’t a test.
Senior year I started seeing one of the younger girls. She lived down the road from my mother and me. We waited for the school bus together, and because she was kind of plain, not ugly, but definitely plain, it was easy for me to talk to her. She wasn’t stuck-up like some of the really pretty girls. She didn’t have that troubling way about her. At first.
Her name was Becca. I’m sad to say that though she did not become my wife, she was my first. There’s no word for that first one. For the girl you lost your virginity to. I remember how soft she was under my hands. I remember that she just kept moving; it was as though she couldn’t stop herself. I thought she would. Stop herself. Stop me. I swear I did, right up until the second, that long, long second when it was, suddenly, too late.
I had my heart set on college. I’d won a wrestling scholarship. My future was clear and straight ahead of me. And then, that one thing happened. For two weeks, we waited for the bus in silence. I couldn’t look at her. Every now and then, I’d catch her sending me a sad glance, but I just kept my eyes straight ahead. I was praying the whole time. I was watching the bright desert sky. I knew there could be miracles. I believed they started in the sky. I watched and prayed. But no voice boomed at us. No angels appeared. All you could see was the brightness and, now and again, a jet trail, like a seam, a place the brightness could open if the miracle ever happened.
The miracle was nothing like you would expect. It came on a gray Friday morning. We were standing there in that miserable silence. I watched the tops of the junipers shivering in the late March wind.
“It came,” she said. I heard her sniffle. I heard her blow her nose. Those were the last words she ever said to me. A few weeks later, I started dating one of the pretty girls. We never touched except at dances and then I held her carefully away from me. When I took her home, I kissed her cheek. I kept it that way. It wasn’t easy. I saw that even the plain ones could get to you. I was scared to death of what a pretty one could do.
Becca wrote me once. I’d been at college for a few months. They’d sent her on to nursing school. I guess she must have gotten lonely. There was a big-eyed kitten on the front of her letter. I can still see the white kitten, the rosebuds, the blue ribbons, the gold fancy letters that said, “God loves you.”
Inside she wrote about some troubles she was having at school, about how different the other girls were, even though they were from our same religion, even though they’d been supposedly taught the same things. She said she’d gone to some kind of mixer, where they met boys from the medical program. She said she’d been shocked at what those boys said, what they seemed to want.
“I miss being near you,” she wrote. “I have never met a boy of such high morals as yours.”
I treasure that. Especially now that my wife Devorah is dead. You might think Devorah dying would be a terrible thing for a man like me. We had been together since my junior year of college. She’d been there, through thick and thin, through the move to the East, to a city on a lake whose sky was as gray as home’s had been blue. That was hard for both of us, no sun, clouds hanging over you, rain and mist like walls closing in. We’d gone through the news that there would never be any children, through her going back to school and beginning to have those ideas about what was right in bed, about what she deserved. We even went to see a counselor.
We’d been in therapy, which had to do with feelings, making quality time for each other and negotiating and things like that, for about six weeks when Devorah found out about the cancer. At first, she had some hopes. It was in her breast. They tried radiation, then chemotherapy. Finally, they ran some tests and told her it had entered the bloodstream. They told her the best they could do was lessen the pain.
She was unbelievably angry. I’d never seen a woman so angry. And though I reminded her about what we believe, about the comfort in the Father’s arms, she just got worse and worse. The angrier she got, the more she talked about wanting to live now. She said that a lot, “I mean to live now!” Living, to her, seemed to mean that the lust part of her got totally out of control. The dying, the living, somehow they were all tied up in what we did in bed. I got so I wouldn’t do anything at all. Not that I couldn’t, no, I could just fine. I wouldn’t. It made me sick to my stomach. I started sleeping out on the couch. That way nobody got hurt.
Yes, there were parts of her dying that were awful. There were parts that were hell on earth. You wouldn’t believe what she looked like at the end — the wig, her face like a yellow skull, the way her eyes burned. I don’t think either of us expected that. She kept asking me if she was still pretty. She had been a beautiful woman, I’ll give her that. When she asked me about the prettiness, I lied. I had to look away, but I told her what she wanted to hear.
What came out of her mouth once the cancer got to her brain was unbelievable. If it hadn’t been for Beth, our Home Helper, I don’t know if I could have made it. Beth gave and gave. She had that selfless quality you see in some of our women. That’s why now, now that it’s all over and Beth is my girlfriend and she is wanting more, I can’t seem to find a safe place to stand.
Once Devorah was decently gone, I told Beth how it had been, how Devorah had showed those ways, how she had wanted to do things that weren’t right. Beth understood. There was that sweetness in her. She was happy just to have supper together, to watch movies, to maybe hold hands, maybe cuddle.
She used to hold Devorah when my wife didn’t want me to hold her anymore. I’d come in and they’d be in the big bed that had been our marriage bed. Beth would have her arms carefully around Devorah. Sometimes Beth’s face would be wet with tears. Devorah never cried. There, in the circle of Beth’s arms, her face would be like the face of a witch. All bony, her mouth either tight or wide open in a silent scream, her eyes burning. I swear, her eyes became red. The doctor said they were bloodshot from all the hemorrhaging, from the pressure of the tumor, but that isn’t how they looked to me. They looked unholy. They looked like they were on fire.
That last month, Devorah did not speak to me. She babbled. She spit out things so evil you could nearly see them. Even with as many strange things as she had proposed to me, I never guessed she knew what she knew. We had to tie her hands down. She kept throwing off the covers, she kept pulling up her gown. She touched herself all the time. Toward the end, I never went into her room. Beth stayed with her. I sat in the living room, on the hide-a-bed. I plugged headphones into the TV. I prayed for Devorah to be released. I prayed for the cancer to take her voice. More than anything, I would pray for morning to come, for gray light to break in the east window. That was like a blessing to me. It meant I could leave. It meant I could go to work.
Only if you’ve gone through something similar — a death, a bad marriage, a kid gone rotten — can you know how work is sanctuary. I have a good job. I run a recruitment program for a little college, so my sanctuary is doubled. Not only do I have a really nice office and a secretary who is more watchdog than typist, but I also get sent lots of places — most recently, to a big foreign-exchange meeting in Holland.
Beth wanted to go, but I needed to be alone for a while. I think I just needed some time and space to sort things out. It’s only reasonable that Beth and I marry. She’s a good woman. She is exactly what you want to come home to. It’s not considered good for a man of my faith to be single for long. There’s also the possibility of children. Devorah’s cancer robbed me of that. Beth is healthy. She’s young. She wants more than anything — next to being my wife — to be a mom.
It was good for me to get away. A few years ago, when they first started sending me to other places, I stumbled into a strange kind of personal mission. Because of the way we travel, staying in good hotels, usually in the center of town, the opportunities kept presenting themselves.
It started when I began noticing all the prostitutes who hang out around hotels, even good hotels, really fancy ones. I got so I could spot them on the street. I think the Father gave me a special understanding of this sort of woman. Frankly, it’s not that hard. You know how some women have that quality. A few times I made a mistake, but it was easy to tell early in the conversation. Aside from a few embarrassing moments when a woman thought I was trying to pick her up, I made out just fine.
I would start talking, or sometimes they approached me. You wouldn’t believe how easy that happens. We are expected to present a professional appearance on these trips. I look like a successful businessman. I’d kid around. After a while, the conversation always went from generalities and jokes to man/woman topics and then, usually, the prostitute would actually suggest something. I would ask a question or two till I was sure. And then, right when she started to get this sly smile on her face, right when she reached out to touch me, I told her what I thought. I would name her. I would say exactly what she was. I used the crudest language I could think of. Lots of times, the woman wouldn’t move. I had her. See, they can’t act too conspicuous. She’d just be frozen there. I’d tell her that even if she offered what she offered free, I would no more take advantage of that than I would drink sewage. And then, every time, I would laugh. I laughed right in their faces. I would turn and walk away and I would still be laughing.
We were in Amsterdam. You would not believe what a strange city it is. There are places that are so clean and orderly and perfect that you can feel the Father’s hand in everything. Then there are other places that are nothing but Satan’s works: teenage kids with dead white skin and punk hair, smoking drugs right in front of you; beggars, hippies, and radicals with signs and pamphlets that they try to force on you; men dressed up as women, so beautifully you could get fooled; dealers trying to sell you drugs you’ve never heard of. Worst of all, there is a place where they let prostitutes work right out in the open. Women sit up in the windows of these houses. They are dressed like you might imagine, satin bras and high-cut panties, so you can see their nipples and their butts. Some are dressed like brides and little girls and angels and nuns and any other sick thing you can imagine. The government allows this. Men go there, and boys, and even women. I was going to talk to one of the girls, but I saw a hand reach out and touch her shoulder and she was gone.
I was still staring at the empty window, at the stuffed animals and dolls that were lined up on the sill, when a woman appeared next to me.
“Hello,” she said. “I think you are American.” She smiled. Her English was really good. She was dressed in a gray business suit and high heels. She didn’t wear much makeup and her reddish hair was fluffed out around her attractive face. I took all that in right away. For a second, I thought maybe she was another person from the conference. Maybe she had lost her way. Then she smiled, and I knew she was one of them. My body knew. In that quick rush of heat, I knew.
“I’m Morgana,” she said. “I’m a hometown girl. You don’t meet many of us.” I turned as though I were leaving. She walked alongside. It was almost sunset and the light was soft and gray. She was really beautiful. Here I was walking in this romantic setting with this beautiful woman. For half a second, I felt sad. I don’t know where that came from.
“You know this town?” I said.
She stopped and leaned against an old iron bench. I leaned next to her, careful not to touch her, careful to be just close enough. “You could show me around,” I said. “I have never been here before.”
“What would you be looking for?” she asked. She seemed perfectly serious.
“I’d like to find a decent hamburger!”
She laughed. “You are American,” she said. “I could show you around to something much better than hamburger.”
“I am American,” I said back. “There’s nothing better than a hamburger.” She laughed again. The light was fading fast. Her eyes were huge. They were pale, green maybe. The sunset caught her hair. It burned copper. I didn’t want to get to the good part too fast. I was having fun. I can admit that.
“Well, perhaps, what do you call it, a Big Mac?” she smiled. “Yes, that would be it, a Big Mac.”
“That might be,” I said.
“So, you will buy me a drink,” she said. “And we will discuss this Big Mac business, or anything else you like.”
“I don’t drink,” I said.
“A good old American Coke then,” she said.
“Not that either,” I said.
“Ah, lietje,” she said, “what do you do?” She looked me right in the eye. I was standing with my back to the west. Her pupils caught that last red light the way a cat’s would.
I can’t explain what happened next. I felt a power rise in me, up through my body, rushing clear to my mind, and I started in. I was quiet at first, low toned, the words simple, not crude like usual, more like I was telling her what was wrong with her the way you might try to help a friend. I felt a kindness toward her. Almost affection.
Then, a mist drifted up in front of my eyes. It started gray. It began to burn, to get redder and redder and the words I heard rolling from my lips were like the words my grandpa knew. They were holy words, words of the old prophets. Wanton. Strumpet. Whore. Sister of the serpent, angel of evil, Satan’s bitch, vessel of filth, pestilence of desire, demoness eater of the soul.
Through my words, rising like vapor, I could see her. She was pale. She kept those glittering eyes on my face, I kept my lips moving. I could feel the words burst up from my gut, up into my chest, sounding there, as though I were a bell or a drum or a trumpet. I half-expected to see the words as flames, as angel tongues, as rivers of lava pouring out of my heart. I was on fire. I was a burning mountain. I was flame and all its cleansing, flame and all its purifying, flame and all its power and pain. In one last showering of white heat, I felt everything burst out of me, the memory of the wicked shining hair of the Home Helper, the teacher’s mouth, Becca’s awful, wonderful softness under my hands, the stain of Devorah’s touches, the smell of her cancer, Beth’s eyes as she moved against me in our good-night hug. All of that, every sight and scent, every longing, every touch and every holding back, erupted and I fell silent.
I was gripping the bench so hard my fingers ached. My knees were weak, my throat sore and dry. Morgana looked at me.
“Schaamt u zich niet,” she said.
“I don’t know Dutch,” I said. I sounded drunk.
“Aren’t you ashamed?” she said. “Look what you’ve done.” She stared at me. I didn’t know what she meant. I wondered if I’d hit her. I wondered if she thought we were playing one of those sick games perverts play.
“Look,” she said, and pointed to the front of my pants. I saw the stain spreading and spreading.
“You are truly a freaky one,” she said. She glanced up and down the street. I couldn’t look. I heard a silence that frightened me. I imagined the other whores slowly walking toward us, swaying their hips, glancing at the cars that cruised by. Morgana took my chin in her hands and made me look at her.
“You should pay me,” she said. “It’s only fair.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. I was having trouble talking. I felt hollow. Fragile. Not quite numb. “What would that make me,” I said, “if I did that, if I paid you? It was an accident. It was your fault. I could have you arrested.”
“Not here,” she said. “Not now. You are in a foreign land.”
“I can’t pay you,” I said. “I am not that sort of man.”
She laughed. “I tell you what.” Her accent thickened. “I vill call over my girlfriends. I vill show them. Ve vill decide. Vat do you say?” She tugged on one of the chains around her neck and pulled out a silver mirror. She held it so I could see myself, first my face, then my belt buckle, then the stain.
“Look at your pants,” she said. I turned my face away.
“How much?” I said.
“One hundred fifty,” she said. “American.”
I paid her. I paid her what she asked. I watched her count it. Then, and only then, did she really smile at me. I looked down at myself. She smiled again, and then she showed me a back way to my hotel. She left me at the corner. I made it to my room without anyone noticing. I took a shower and buried my pants in the bottom of the wastebasket.
By morning, it seemed not much more than an odd story. I’d named her, I’d taught her the wrongness of her life. I’d shown compassion. Even the accident was no more than an accident. I remembered that the Father moves in us in mysterious ways. It was a kind of power. I take comfort in that.
The only part I’m having trouble with is this: she helped me. I do wonder about how she did that. About why. These are the kinds of questions that can burn in your mind a long, long time.