I wrote a short story, a little LDS romance. It turned into a gesture of remembrance for the September 11 attacks, just in time for the 20th anniversary. Here it is.
We lie side by side, silent.
In love? No. In fear then?
I feel her body heat and I hear her breathing.
Together but not touching.
Could these work as song lyrics? A poem?
Footsteps approach and I feel fear. She probably feels relief.
Well we all agreed to this.
I take these kinds of things much too seriously. But I should feel relieved, like I expect Sherry does. I don't think she expected that I would be the first to find her. I know I didn't. And I almost turned away when I did, meaning to avoid the others in their search and come back later when a couple of them had joined, but she told me to get in here, and for the past couple of minutes I've been trying to figure out what she meant by her tone of voice.
Right now she almost sounds like she could be sleeping.
The footsteps draw nearer and stop. Now another voice:
“Well well well, what have we here?”
Torgersen crouches and looks in. “Hola, Macmillan.” She pronounces the double-l Castilian fashion.
“Torgersen.” I pronounce the g Castilian fashion too.
Not “Hermana,” not any more.
“Oh that's right,” murmurs Sherry, “the mission buddies.” She clears her throat. “Get in here April, and everybody keep quiet.”
Torgersen clears her throat too, sits down while she puts her hair up, and then lies down and slides over to my side.
A man lying with two women, in the dark. I can hear the polygamy jokes now.
“Comfy?” whispers Torgersen.
“Sh!” hisses Sherry.
“Okay.” And we're lying still again, no moving, no talking, waiting to see if Torgersen's voice carried enough to bring any of the others.
Hush, hush, keep it down now, voices carry . . .
These are the kinds of things that come into my head: frequently distracting and unhelpful. How can I take control of them? I might tell myself something happy, like:
At least nobody is talking about Afghanistan. I’ve had to bite my tongue plenty of times with this bunch. Invade Afghanistan? Have they not learned from history? No, I’m not a History major, I’m an English major. We’re the liberals around here.
So much for happy thoughts. But come to think of it, I haven’t heard Torgersen talk much about Afghanistan either. I wonder what she thinks, how she feels. I know how I feel, I’m still trying to compose my thoughts and opinions. It seems that many of my peers already have these firmly set.
It would be nice if Torgersen and I were alone here, just for the chance of talking about this, and other important things. Come to think of it, maybe Sherry would be up for that, if we weren’t hiding.
Right now the air feels like a blanket smothering all speech. Maybe I’m the only one who feels that, maybe I’m the only one who thinks of the weight of the building above us, of dark cramped spaces under buildings . . .
But besides all that, I’m a 21-year-old man who has the insane and useless luck to be laid out on the floor between two pretty women on a Monday night at BYU. At other universities people like us would be getting drunk – and laid.
You know what? I'm proud of this: that instead of all that we find enjoyment, excitement, meaning, in these games that others might find childish. Torgersen was there when I heard the talk about enjoying simple things as a mark of spiritual refinement. Having since read the Tao Te Ching I believe that even more, also since babysitting my young nephew. I never saw myself as likely to be good father material until recently.
What are the draft rules for married men? Fathers?
See where my thoughts are drawn, lying here between these two women – next to this particular one.
I keep re-directing my thoughts. I am so glad to be in a culture where single adults' idea of a good time is to play childhood games. Just three weeks ago we played Capture the Flag in a park, in the sparse snow. It was the first time I'd done it since I was a Boy Scout, the first time with girls. Torgersen and I were on the same team and she freed me once with a touch on my shoulder. I haven't been at peace since. Continuing to refer to her by her surname is a defense mechanism, for me at least, in my own mind at least. I tell myself she just called me by mine to be funny.
I think I can smell her perfume. Might I ever be fortunate enough to smell her sweat?
Can they smell me? Are we picking up each other's pheromones?
Now she's chuckling, very quietly, and Sherry shushes her again, for we hear more voices echoing in the corridor leading to this hiding place. I know these voices and I know why Torgersen is chuckling. If any two in our group were to defy the rules and pair up to look together, it would be Tim and Darlene. Now I do turn my head to the left and look at Torgersen's dim silhouette, and I take a chance and speak.
“Esos dos se casan dentro del año.”
“A lo mejor.”
“Keep it down, you two!” whispers Sherry. She really is taking this game seriously. But whether it's our noise or just the deductive reasoning of Tim and Darlene applied to the finite space of this building, here they are, and we hear Darlene whisper:
“See? I told you.”
“That’s quite the tight spot.” Tim's vocal cords are vibrating but he’s almost quieter than Darlene.
“Well get in here then, and cozy up.”
“And stop these two from speaking Spanish,” whispers Sherry.
“There are secret combinations everywhere,” says Tim, and Darlene giggles.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“World domination,” says Torgersen.
I'm feeling foolish for what I said to her. Was it useful – that is to say, did it serve a purpose of endearing me to her? And so I don't mention out loud how I notice that she used exactly the same words I would have.
“Scoot over.” Sherry's elbow nudges from my right. I scoot over. Sherry has spent time in big cities where rubbing shoulders with strangers on bus and subway is an everyday thing. The pressure of her shoulder on mine is impersonal. I think she's drawn her hands onto her chest, mummy-fashion, and I've got mine like that too, even though I want to have my left one down, and I want to clasp April Torgersen's right hand, secretly there in the dark. I want April Torgersen to roll onto her right side and nestle in and I'm not going to keep thinking about this right now.
“Tim, you get in here next to me. That way I'll know you two aren't getting up to anything.”
“Boy girl boy girl then,” murmurs Tim, “the natural order.” And with scoots and shuffles, Torgersen is right next to me, with a touch of shoulder and hip that I'm telling myself is not personal, and then we're quiet again, none of us getting up to anything.
Stop us from speaking Spanish to each other? I want to whisper something to April but I can't think of anything in any language. By rights it should be Torgersdatter, or however it goes in Danish or whichever language it is. I haven't asked her which one it is yet. That would have been a good sort of get-to-know-you question when we met out there in the field, but somehow at the time it would have felt like flirting. In truth we barely spoke, and the one time when we exchanged more then polite greetings it was all about how long we'd been out, what areas we'd been in, how the people were there and so on. The only personal question I ever asked her was where she was from and her answer of Perry, and my calculation that she would go home six months after me - and therefore is almost exactly a year older than me - those thoughts were constantly at the back of my mind for the next year. They never quite left in the year since I've been home, but somehow I figured we would never see each other again, and so those thoughts faded into background dreams . . . until that Sunday, in the new year: there she was, her face and arms still tanned from the tropical sun. Bienvenida Hermana. Glad you made it back, after the attack.
I actually said that, and she laughed, and I’ve spent the following weeks telling myself I should have hugged her. I know I’m still recovering from that shock, those towers collapsing. Right as it was happening I heard someone quote from the hymn: “Babylon the great is falling, God shall all her tow'rs o'erthrow.”
In a moment of shock I cast about for security and grasped at moral superiority, but then we saw and heard all that happened. Now? Again, I know how I feel, but how do I think? Nothing is certain. I don’t like the country involved in another war. Pray for our troops, they say. One of my companions is over in Afghanistan now. Here’s a prayer for all of them:
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard
All valiant dust that builds on dust
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word –
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
With this world the way it is we should all be hugging each other, touching each other more.
The first time I saw April Torgersen in jeans was that Capture the Flag game, and even after being home for six months and going out on dates and walking around campus surrounded by pretty women, I was not ready for that. Those jeans looked like they'd been tailored.
I guess it made it easier to call her by her first name though. We've used first names with each other about half the time since then, back and forth, I haven't figured out what's making the rhythm yet.
I remember the rhythm, oh, the rhythm we made . . .
No, I don't need that song in my head right now. I want to turn my head, put my right hand on her face and kiss her, so I think I ought to dispel the tension by elbowing her in the side and saying something chummy. But nothing's coming. It's not like we were old pals, we were just in the same mission and saw each other a handful of times, that's all. There was that time I heard her speak and didn't tell her how it impressed me. I told my companion: I turned to him and said: wasn't that a great talk?
I loved Elder Harner: he just nodded, no smirk, no eyebrow quirk.
I worked with several sister missionaries, and I felt comfortable saying I loved several of them. I spent two years in my sexual prime focused on dividing out the different kinds of love, sifting them out of carnal appetite. Sure, Torgersen had a nice face and voice, but like all the hermanas she wore roomy, utilitarian jumpers. Tonight she's wearing those jeans again.
Should I try to write songs? I'm an English major after all. You know, the people who don't know what to do with their lives. What is April Torgersen going to do with her life? I haven't even asked her about her major. Would she find an English major good enough? Would I change it if she asked?
And now more footsteps approach. How many more can we fit in here anyway?
“After years of waiting, nothing came. And you realize you've been looking, looking in the wrong place.”
“Is that Radiohead?”
“Shhh!” hisses from all around, and now it's Torgersen's elbow in my ribs.
“Sorry,” I whisper. “Was I really that loud?”
When I was a boy I played hide and seek at my friend’s house. His older sister, who was about 10 years older than us, came into the room where I was under the bed. She was eating something and she made such loud smacking sounds I burst out laughing and gave myself away. I’m not very good at games like this.
I read somewhere in one of those motivational philosophy books that God’s more of a Sardines player than Hide and Seek.
The guy who just found us crouches, still humming. I know his face but forgot his name. I didn't know he listened to Radiohead: “Pakt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” from their latest. I'll have to talk to him more.
“Hi guys, looks like you've got a good crowd already. Should I stand outside and point?”
“No,” whispers Tim, “get in here.”
“Everybody roll onto your left sides,” whispers Torgersen.
“Ooooh,” croons Darlene.
“Okay, I hope we all like each other. Sherry, are you okay back there?”
“Yeah, I wanna snuggle Luther.”
I did not expect that.
“Come on then, don't be shy.”
Sherry's hands press on my spine, her knees touch the backs of my thighs.
A whisper from in front: “Ready, Luther?”
“Come on in, April.”
What else is there to do, except to keep my hands in front of me, no matter how badly my right hand wants to stretch out and encircle her waist as she snuggles in? And now is that her bra strap pressing into the backs of my hands? What's going to happen with knees and thighs? Her figure is generously curved, particularly behind.
“Oops! Sorry.” She shifts forward an inch.
“'Ta bien.” I grit my teeth. How much more can I adjust my own hips? Now I'm ready for this game to be done.
“Can't you guys make any more room?”
“Not unless you want us to break the Law of Chastity,” says Sherry from over my shoulder.
Darlene laughs: a full-on peal of echoing mirth, and then it's all up: each of us is laughing and the sound must carry through the whole building.
Also when I was a boy, my family used to make laughing lines, heads laid on bellies. It only took a little chuckle to start us off. For the moment I can forget anything specifically about April Torgersen and imagine we’re all in the huddle of chicks under God's own wings.
And I know I'm laughing from equal parts humor, tension and grief.
Of course it's not long before the rest of them show up, and with more laughter and jokes they start pulling what's-his-name and Darlene out of our hiding place.
“Clever hiding place, Sherry!”
In the hurly-burly, April pushes her back more firmly to my hands for a good three seconds. Then after scooting toward the entrance, she rolls over to face me and extends a hand.
“Make a chain. Grab my hand and Sherry's.”
We make our way out and it still feels like family. Except, when we've stood up, April grabs my shoulders and turns me around. “Let me get the dust off you.” Swat, swat. I'm a suspect and an officer is frisking me, or my big sister is dusting me after playing outside.
No, April Torgersen is using her hands to remove dust from my clothes. The movements of her right hand are precise and efficient, but some are targeting my backside, and her left hand is planted firmly on my shoulder, with no hesitation.
After her deft task is done and proper, she lets go my shoulder.
“Now you do me.”
There are pivotal moments in life that don't come announced with fanfare – this is another bit of wisdom from our mission president – nor do they give much time to decide. You have to be ready when they come, so you can just act.
Maybe time is slowing down, like song and story says, but however it is, I don't hesitate, I don't even think twice about her words. Brace hand on shoulder, then . . .
Of course the dust is not only on the side but on the back too.
So my world narrows: in this moment, my task is to move my hands with such precision that the unavoidable contact with that ample bottom is utilitarian, above reproach.
“Hey, is that allowed?” I don’t remember this one’s name either.
“Come on Tim, dust me off too!”
“Someone needs to get Sherry, she bore the brunt. Look at her!”
“Oh, you're looking at my butt, are you?”
“Stacy, you do it!”
Darlene's sudden loud cackle startles me as I'm finishing April's left calf, and I stumble. Her hands are up, letting her hair down, and her reaction syncs with my balance correction to make a scene I wish I could see. I get an elbow on my head, some softness that I'll be thinking about in boring classes and late nights . . . The confused tangle ends with us holding each other's forearms, and as I look in her brown eyes I see the laughter that I hear from the others.
“Oh, just hug already!” says Sherry. “Here! Stacy?”
I don't pay them any attention: I'm watching April, so I see the split second where her mouth quirks, she drops my arms and starts moving in. I still get my arms around her first.
We hold each other for a moment amid cheers; I feel her body relax and lean in. I look over: Stacy the Radiohead fan and Sherry are locked as tightly as Tim and Darlene, though instead of kissing like those two, they're looking our way and grinning.
“Gracias, hija de Tor-kher.”
She laughs and squeezes hard for a moment, then we draw apart and April says all right everybody let's go get hot chocolate.
Maybe the Castilian was a retreat, as is her taking the lead of our group now. But I keep pace as we walk out of there and I remember the squeeze and the flash in her eyes, and I'm not going to let myself doubt what they meant.
Coats on and out into the frozen night, the talk turns to the Olympics up in Salt Lake. Stacy and Sherry aren't walking together, neither are the other two, but of course Tim and Darlene are holding hands.
I look over at April and see her breath steam in the night. She looks at me and our eyes meet again.
“Come on Luther, I'll race you to the car.”
Thank you Sardines: you’ve done your job.