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Surviving the Love Bomb

Having phone sex in a bush behind a library on the fourth of July stopped me from converting to Mormonism.

“…putrid
Infancy,
That can and will forbid
All grist to me
Except devaluing dichotomies:
Nothing, and paradise.”

— Philip Larkin, “On Being 26”

Formal systems of religion lie outside my upbringing and experience, but I find it hard to stave off the sense of intervention that characterizes ones decline and ones rise. It is a matter too deeply felt to be a godless act.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Colloquially speaking,“love bombing” is a coercive outpouring of support. Marketing teams love bomb customers. Politicians love bomb voters. Sirens love bomb sailors.

But sociologists reserve the term for exhibitions of unconditional acceptance geared toward indoctrination. Military recruiters, for instance, might love bomb a potential recruit—first by emphasizing the military’s exclusivity, then by asking questions that presumably speak to the newcomer’s idealized self-image, implying that he is one of few eligible to join. 

The recruiter says, “You can’t be in the military unless you’re very, very strong—like Hercules.” And then, “How long have you had such enormous and impressive muscles attached to your body?”

Cults do it, too. And like any organization eager to enlist worshippers, certain religious groups (especially historically young religions, such as Scientology, born-again Evangelicalism, or Mormonism, whose very existence depends on conversion) will love bomb probable converts by exaggerating similarities between the group and the other, always in a way that promises acceptance and forthcoming exaltation. 

In general, such tactics work best on the lonely.

*

I had never been lonelier. I lived alone, had very few friends, and worked seventy hours a week, for very little money, under the management of a physically affectionate boss named Wally, who occasionally wept in front of me about strained relations with his wife. 

Our company was Wally’s brainchild. He’d pitched it to investors as “a newspaper website (a newspaper, except it’s only online),” during a time when newspapers already had websites. His underlings included one full-time employee (me) as well as seven very exhausted, unpaid interns, who I assume (and hope) were independently wealthy because they all went to Sarah Lawrence, which is the most expensive college in the world. We were in a recession. Since graduating college, nearly everyone I knew had already been fired at least once. But acquiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans was often as easy as clicking a button that read, “I accept my award!” I felt lucky to have a job.

In general, the interns and I wrote articles that had no real angle, because the site had no niche, which in turn led to an online audience of about 20 or so people, mainly comprised of our parents. It had been funded, like my boss’s ranch house in the suburbs, entirely by his father.

“I’m on anti-depressants, are you? Everyone should be.”

Most days, Wally sat at his desk surfing the Internet, ignoring texts from his wife while the rest of us wrote terrible pieces that answered questions like, “Which bodily fluids can you send via mail?” I often caught him reading his own pieces, published years before, on online newspapers that people knew about. I thought he was very successful. My starting salary was one thousand dollars per month before taxes and the website’s profit margin remained steady at zero dollars. So, to supplement Wally’s slowly dwindling trust fund, the interns and I often jumped on unethical odd jobs for the “tutoring agency” with which we shared a Brooklyn office. The agency charged rich families in the tri-state area two hundred dollars an hour to consult on college applications, and we “ghost wrote” the personal essays for free in exchange for Wally’s office space.

“It has been a month now since the surgery,” I wrote in one such essay, under the byline of a girl who had recently undergone simple Lasik. “Occasionally, I hear my mom’s voice cautiously suggest that we add a few more colleges to my list—specifically, ones with amenities for the blind.”

I got into a lot of colleges that year. 

Wally had to be home for dinner every night to eat with his family, but before he left us to our voluntary overtime, he always gave an extremely quiet motivational speech about how we had to keep the ship from going under.

“These projects might keep us afloat—Gupta, Abraham, Pinker,” Wally whispered, looking pale as he listed the names of college-bound, teenage clients we had never met, before slipping away to the elevators. “Please. I don’t want to lose my job.”

His reliance on us, and his perpetual fear of economic failure, made the interns and I feel grown up and important. It never occurred to me to ask for a raise, because I assumed that, if I did, Wally’s family would starve. Late at night, after Wally went home and the tutoring agency people turned out the lights, we talked in the dark, our faces lit by laptop screens, about what an “opportunity” it was to have the freedom to write what we wanted, and put it online—the word “exposure” was thrown around a lot, usually when Adderall was available—and we all agreed that Wally was a great guy for trusting us with his “brand.”

*

To save money I commuted four hours each day from a guesthouse in New Jersey that I’d found on Craiglist. I lived behind a towering, red-brick mansion for almost zero dollars. The guesthouse was the mansion’s miniature twin. Both resembled the dollhouses that I noticed in the cellar one day while doing my laundry. 

My landlord was a pleasant-seeming woman named Maude, who liked to garden. She was petite, blonde and spritely, and lived in the Main House with her college-aged daughter, Elizabeth, who was home for the summer. She was more than willing to tell me about herself, which I liked, because often our stories contain secrets, and I adore secrets. I discovered that the mansion and the guesthouse and Maude’s ability to constantly garden had been secured through Maude’s thirty-odd years spent running what turned into a multi-million dollar corporate sweatshirt business, which she’d sold prior to the recession—a period during which few corporations needed swag because they’d all gone bankrupt. I found stacks of sweatshirts in every closet emblazoned with the names of economic casualties.

When I first arrived, Maude said that she and Elizabeth had just welcomed a houseguest named Salina—a former weight-loss instructor who had worked at a fat camp in Hawaii, and now lived in Salt Lake City, where she worked part time as a personal trainer. Maude alluded to the fact that Salina been contracted for the summer to help Elizabeth lose weight. I said I looked forward to meeting both of them. Maude smiled and disappeared inside.

I left early in the morning and returned late, so at first it didn’t seem strange to me that I hadn’t yet met Salina or Elizabeth. After being screamed at by strangers all day to walk faster, to get out of the way, to fuck off—or, occasionally, to go “touch butts with your sister” (shouted at me by a schizophrenic street person), stepping off the commuter train onto the sidewalk of Maude’s chirping, picket-fence little town felt like paradise. I was too intoxicated to harbor suspicion. She provided me with towels and Egyptian cotton bedding. The guesthouse lacked certain amenities, including a kitchen, so she hauled a microwave and mini-fridge into my room. I bought a book called The Adventures of Microwavable Cooking. I used the toilet as a garbage disposal and washed dishes in the gigantic shower in my private bathroom. Usually I took pride in these endeavors. I felt abstemious and handy. Maude welcomed, invited, intoxicated me. She wanted me to call her Auntie Maude.

 

But then weird things began happening to my body. I had grown up eating Hot Pockets, but after years of eating semi-normal college cafeteria food, my intestines had apparently gotten snobbish about Chef Boyardee, which is to say that the microwavable meals were giving me explosive diarrhea. I mentioned to Maude that I really missed cooking, and she said, “Fine—maybe you can use the Main House kitchen—we’ll talk about it.” I waited for our talk, and ate sandwiches. I knelt on the floor of the guest house with white bread and generic-brand Jiffy and Smuckers, and used whatever book I was reading as a cutting board. By the time I’d finish a novel, it was sticky with jelly.

“Stop by the Main House anytime—you know, to use the kitchen, cook, say, ‘Hi’,” Maude reiterated. “At the very least, come for dinner.”

I quickly tabulated how much money I could save per dinner. I considered the nutritional value of semi-regular meals that were neither microwavable nor freeze dried. 

“How about now?” I asked. 

“We’ll talk about it soon,” she said.

The guesthouse was not entirely mine. I slept in an enclave off the entryway, partially separated from the communal shoe rack by a walnut paneled room divider. Up the stairs from me: Maude’s office. Across the hallway: the living room that Maude used for her yoga practice. She came in at odd hours. Once I woke at two o’clock in the morning to see her silhouette in the doorway, backlit by the moon. “I can’t sleep so I’m going to do some Vinyasa,” she shout-whispered.

I tried to drag the room divider to fully block the sightlines between the front door and my bed, but once stretched wide enough, it always fell. No matter how I accordioned it, you could still see my coverlet. It was hard to focus on the work I brought home, knowing she could throw open the door at any moment, so I hung out a lot in the bathroom. I used the toilet as a desk and occasionally breaked from work to take long showers. The shower was bigger than my bed, and included a plastic bench that I could sit on while shampooing. In my mind, the only thing more luxurious than waiting for Wally to take his lunch break so I could re-watch one of two films involving my celebrity crush (an indie-film actor-director whom I’ll call Magnus), involved hunkering down on that waterproof chair. I stared into the shower blast and imagined myself as a naked queen on her throne, being carried on the backs of slaves through a thunderstorm, staring defiantly into the face of Rain Gods. Because I did not pay for water, wasting it made me feel wealthy. I flushed the toilet more than was strictly necessary, and began showering three times a day, anointing myself over and over again, just because.

Then I learned my naked throne had once been a medical device for Maude’s late mother. The bathroom was big because it was wheelchair accessible. She had died in my bed.

*

Shortly after moving in, I returned to the guesthouse to discover that all my stuff was missing. It had already been a long day. Wally had been “freaking out,” and had dragged me by the hand into the windowless conference room to sob over a combination of his longtime hypochondria (his kid had what seemed like allergies, but might very well be a contagious virus), his general loneliness (his wife was mad), and the fact that our Internet newspaper still wasn’t making any money (zero dollars).

“I’m sorry about your kid,” I said. 

“Thanks.”

“If he’s sick, your wife is probably worried about him.”

He shrugged. There was also the overarching concern, he said, that he might have to fire all of us.

“What?”

“Don’t worry,” he cooed, tucking his chin to his chest to smile and stare. “I would obviously let you know way ahead of time, I’ve got your back, Hale.”

I’d noticed that boys who’d gone to prep school were prone to calling me by my last name.

“Should I work harder?” I asked 

He rolled his eyes like we were both overreacting. “It’s fine.”

I nodded, went back to my desk, chewed up some of an intern’s Adderall, and spent the rest of the day frantically writing dumb pieces about prescription drugs and fecal matter—as well as this one piece that I actually sort of liked, about Temple Grandin’s “squeeze machine.” Grandin had invented it to self-soothe and desensitize herself to human touch. She was autistic and didn’t really like people but still needed hugs.

Persephone, the Adderall intern, read a study about the squeeze machine aloud to me, so I could work faster.

‘“The squeeze machine’ applies lateral, inwardly directed pressure to both lateral aspects of a person’s entire body, by compressing the user between two foam-padded panels…It can be used to reduce required doses of psychostimulant medications—”

“Are psychostimulant medications like Adderall or like anti-depressants?” I asked her. As my unpaid underling (slave), Persephone had also become my Google.com.

Persephone gnawed her cheek and jiggled her knee so violently that it hit the table and rattled the orange plastic bottle of amphetamine tablets. “I dunno, who cares? Pub the piece, move on, write another, do it all again tomorrow. I’m on anti-depressants, are you? Everyone should be.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” I asked.

“Yeah, duh—don’t you remember my piece about us washing our strap-on with the wrong stuff and giving each other yeast infections? I’m totally in love or whatever, so what.”

So I wondered why she needed antidepressants. She had love, and, in my mind, love solved everything. I took antidepressants because I slept with the ghost of Maude’s dead mother, and had no real romantic prospects aside from maybe building myself a squeeze machine.

“That’s sad,” Persephone said. “Maybe you should do online dating. Also, you should know the squeeze machine is patented. You can’t just build your own squeeze machine without, like, forms.”

Andrew Solomon, a psychologist, professor, and author, says depression is often triggered by humiliation. I had been joking about building my own squeeze machine, but the fact that Persephone thought I had not been joking (and that, in addition to my lack of intimacy with actual humans, I could not even (hypothetically or legally) engineer some Frankenstein monster machine to cuddle me) threw me into mental crisis.  I’m familiar with depression. And in fits of it, I’ve always resorted to magical thinking. So as Persephone typed furiously, I began reading online horoscopes. And as days passed and that didn’t succor me, I started to pray.

I prayed at night, and on the train, and in the bathroom at work, and in the shower, where I stood instead of sitting, to give Maude’s mother some room to be a ghost. I wanted a good job, and lots of money, and love. I mumbled about it very quietly to whomever was listening with my fingers crossed. I stepped over cracks and avoided ladders and worked on the piece about Temple Grandin. In my slog through malaise via prayer and superstition, I’d begun to think of Grandin as a kind of cult figure. She had adapted the philosophy behind her squeeze machine to soothe cattle bound for slaughter. She had essentially created religion for cows.

“This is boring,” Wally said, while reading my Temple Grandin piece. “But I like the part about how lonely you are—maybe you should rewrite it, make it about the last time you had sex—yadda yadda—and really zero in on that last time. Make it a full scene. Really visceral.”

“I don’t know,” I said. The last time I’d had sex had lasted five seconds. There was not much else to say. 

“And then maybe the angle should be, like, casual intimacy with a machine,” he continued. “Like those sex dolls, frame it as a hook up, like you’re not an autistic person, but you still want the squeezing, and maybe it turns you on—hey, maybe you could visit one of the sex doll factories. Or we could find Temple Grandin and you could try to hook up with her?” 

“Wally, are you on Adderall?” 

“Write about having sex,” Wally said.

“I already wrote about my IBS,” I said.

Wally shrugged. “I’m not publishing this.”

I exhaled sharply, feeling useless, and went back to my desk to draft a short, needlessly confessional piece about my sad experiences with premature ejaculation.

“I’m actually part of the LDS church?” she said. “Latter Day Saints? We don’t swear or drink caffeine or say, ‘Jesus,’ or ‘God,’ you know? It’s just our thing and, like, these shorts—they’re not bike shorts, they’re actually special Mormon underwear. For modesty. That’s probably so dumb.”

When I returned home, I unlocked the door of the guesthouse and gasped, thinking I’d been burgled. That morning, my clothes had been scattered on the floor with dirty dishes and tattered novels. I found the dirty dishes in the shower, still dirty. My clothes and accessories were arranged neatly in one of the coffin-shaped chests. A note rested on my pillow asking me to tidy up after myself—to make the bed and keep the room clean. Maude had gone through my stuff, which was fine, I guess, but made me feel very tired. 

For the next few days, my boss made a joke of offering to be my hug machine. They say depression is physical and can actually give you a fever, and it’s true that I felt delirious. Wally’s voice sounded muffled. I’d get hyper-focused on some personal essay for a girl in Connecticut and the world would sort of fall away and then I’d scream when someone said my name—thinking, I guess, that I was the only person left on earth. Wally told me to cheer up. He smiled and brought me mugs of coffee when no one was looking. He encouraged me to take Vitamin D.

“The recommended dosage is 1,000 IU,” he said. “But I take 5,000. You should take at least 3,000. You’ll be radiant, healthier.”

I nodded.

He drew his chin to his chest, staring down at me with hulking fondness. He was six foot five, with a massive red beard, and beady green eyes, like a colossal leprechaun. 

“You’re already so pretty,” he said.

“You too,” I said.

He looked sad. “You’re not going to quit, are you?”

“What?” 

He started asking me that a lot: “You won’t quit on me, will you?” juxtaposed with the gentle, semi-regularly reminders that I was an at-will employee and it was within his right to fire me at any moment without severance.

Wally’s back and forth between complimenting me and roping me into his doomsday anxieties—between needing me, and softly threatening me—bound me to him. In the quiet of the stairwell, he talked about the business crumbling, my job potentially evaporating, and I reassured him. He over-shared and I matched him: I told him about my celebrity crush, Magnus, the writer-actor, director. I told him I wanted to fall in love and he told me a man would be a fool not to want me. I told him I wasn’t always attracted to men—that sometimes it went in the opposite direction—which was true, but I said it knowing what affect it might have. He said it made him feel better to know I might date women, because the thought of my dating another man made him jealous.

I hadn’t yet unlearned to take those sorts of things as compliments. I knew nothing of emotional affairs. I was immature, naïve, and perhaps in my loneliness I simply needed some kind of company so badly that I blinded myself to the inappropriateness of our supposed friendship.

I let him hug me and make jokes about the squeeze machine, I listened to him, rapt, as he talked glowingly about how he envisioned my future, and about the stress of being a husband and father. I let him hug me while he cried about his hypochondria, and he began saying to me in a whisper, “We have to be good, Hale.”

I hugged him back. I promised to be good.

I lied. 

*

On weekends, Maude worked tirelessly on her gardens. Her favorite spot seemed to be the shady, untamable patch of dirt behind the guesthouse where nothing grew. Sometimes I woke to the sound of her stabbing at the earth outside my window. I often locked eyes with her through the pane, wondering how long she’d been staring at me like that with a blade in her hand. I still hadn’t met the daughter, or the weight-trainer. At night I searched for their silhouettes in the windows. I went outside to find Maude and tentatively follow up, again, on her invitation to dinner. She squinted up at me, one gardening gloved hand shielding her eyes from the sun, and nodded—that was it—before going back to the weeds. So I waited for the invitation, I prayed for love, I ate my sandwiches.

Later that weekend, I lugged my trash bag of laundry to the azalea bush that grew over the iron doors to the cellar, and descended the rotted steps to the washer dryer under the Main House, swatting cobwebs from my hair.

“Whoa,” someone yelled.

I screamed, Elizabeth screamed. “You scared the shit out of me,” she said.

I put my bag on the floor.

“Sorry.”

She smiled pleasantly, said, “Whatever,” and began folding a towel. She looked like a Renaissance painting: clear fair skin, shiny dark hair down to her waist, blue eyes. I guess, given the purported existence of a fat-camp-instructor-for-hire somewhere in the house, I’d expected her to be terribly obese, or a Bertha-in-the-Attic type—all wild-eyed, with rotted teeth and bloody fingernails, someone that Maude kept inside for a reason. Or maybe I’d unconsciously assumed that she did not even exist—that Elizabeth and Salina were merely disturbing figments of Maude’s imagination.

“Here, I’m done with this one,” she said, stepping aside to let me load the washer. 

“Thanks.” 

“What do you do in there all day?”

“The guesthouse? I’m hardly ever there.”

“I guess I shouldn’t talk. Most of the time I’m locked in my room, anyway.”

“Doing what?”

She shrugged. “Movies. Read, sleep, go on my phone. Anything where I can keep the door locked. Luckily I’ve got my own bathroom. And I developed this rope and pulley system so friends can send food up the window.” 

“Really?” 

“No.” She laughed. “But you’ve met my mom.” 

“Which movies?”

She mentioned the ones I re-watched at work when Wally took his lunch break. I told her about the celebrity crush on Magnus. She asked if I wanted to come upstairs.

“Salina and I are having breakfast,” she said. “Salina made some weird thing but I’m having Nutella toast. If they try to push one more glass of salt water on me I’m going full ballistic. Salina drinks it to cleanse her system, which just means diarrhea. Anyway, I’m not allowed to have chocolate but Mom’s in her craft attic, so she’ll be a while.” She glanced at me. “I’m sure Mom told you about Salina. The trainer who’s here because I’m fat? Mom didn’t even tell me she was coming.”

“You’re not fat,” I said. 

She patted a pair of white, cotton underpants. 

“Whatever.”

I followed her upstairs where the gleam of high-end appliances hit me like lightning. Salina sat on a stool, elbows propped on a reclaimed butcher-block island, nursing the large glass of salt water. She had green-gold eyes, and the body of a trainer. I grabbed an English muffin and a knife for the Nutella, and then passed the jar to Elizabeth, who curled her finger into it.

“Like an animal,” she joked, but her teeth clacked together before she could taste it.

“Sorry,” she whispered to someone over my shoulder, and I turned to see Maude, glowering at us from the hallway.

Elizabeth wiped the chocolatey finger on one leg. “I thought you were doing a collage.” 

“I was,” Maude said. Her eyes darted between the food in my hands and the food Elizabeth’s plate. Salina quietly excused herself. Maude fixed her gaze on me. I felt my face getting hot. Elizabeth appeared to be in some kind of fugue state.

“I was afraid of this,” Maude said to me. “You are officially taking advantage.” 

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

“Those English Muffins belong to us.”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“Good,” she said. “Elizabeth, throw the Nutella outside.”

I sat frozen on my stool, and once we were alone, Maude said, “When I was your age, I had a multi-million dollar business, and a husband.” I nodded, got up to leave with dignity, and immediately started to make those mortifying guttural sounds that connote boogers and emotional phlegm. I crossed the back yard and sequestered myself in the bathroom of the guest house to weep into towels.

An hour later, someone knocked.

“I managed to sneak out,” Salina said.

She held out a box.

“It’s a hot plate. So that you can make nice meals for yourself. My friend Daria drove me to Walmart.”

I held it in my hands.

“Do you maybe want to go for a jog?” she asked. “That always helps me after a big cry.”

As we jogged around the park, Salina talked endlessly without ever getting out of breath. We gossiped, and laughed, and then—I’m not sure what it was, exactly—she said something that prompted me to exclaim, “Jesus!”

Salina cringed at His name, and I hated the ensuing silence. So I said, “Sorry,” without really knowing what I had done, and she said, “It’s okay.” I decided to cut the remaining tension (as girls do when they are not apologizing endlessly to one another over nothing) with a forced compliment. I scanned her for something else to praise that didn’t involve her perfect breasts, or ass. The silence dragged on. I noticed white bike shorts poking beneath her running shorts, and said, “Nice bike shorts.”

She laughed, slowing to a halt.

“Oh, they’re… not.”

I waited.

“I’m actually part of the LDS church?” she said. “Latter Day Saints? We don’t swear or drink caffeine or say, ‘Jesus,’ or ‘God,’ you know? It’s just our thing and, like, these shorts—they’re not bike shorts, they’re actually special Mormon underwear. For modesty. That’s probably so dumb.”

She started jogging in place. 

“Religious underwear,” I also started jogging in place. “Like, they’re magic?”

“It’s special material that’s been blessed.” She pulled a white cotton cap-sleeve through the neck of her tee shirt. “It comes with a tee, too. They’re really comfortable.”

She smiled.

“You should come to church with me some time. Maude doesn’t bug me about it. It’s the one thing she doesn’t bug me about. Or maybe she is giving off subtle bugging vibes, and I just don’t let it bug me. You could have a break from her gardening outside your window on the weekends.”

“You noticed that?”

“There are so many cute single boys at church. And the members have like a million barbecues. And after the service tomorrow there will be tons of free food and soda. And boys.”


The next day I sat on a pew between beautiful, athletic, self-disciplined Mormons, unable to believe what I saw. It turns out that those who have never touched alcohol, coffee, or a cigarette in their entire lives, and who exercise to achieve the same relative calm afforded by such substances, achieve full physical perfection. Because many of the Mormons in attendance were unmarried, and therefore virgins, they throbbed with sexual energy. They glowed.

“So, just follow along, and don’t stress, just do what you feel,” Salina said into my hair. 

A young man walked to the front of the room, and everyone applauded, including me. Strangers behind me reached forward to pat me on the back. I didn’t know what was happening, or why they were touching me. But I liked it.

“Is that the pastor?” I asked quietly. 

“No, services are led by members of the church. We switch off.”

“That’s so cool.” 

I’m not sure whether I actually found this cool, or if I simply wanted to see this man, who’d gotten up to talk to us about God, completely naked. He could have sacrificed an animal up there and I would have nodded and smiled and clapped. During his sermon, I stared at him and I went to a nude beach in my head that was populated by everyone around me who was not wearing a wedding ring. When I snapped out of it, the congregation was breaking off into small groups, based on age, to talk about the Bible, and their feelings. I loved feelings! A girl in my group named Daria started to cry at one point because she loved Jesus so much. She was beautiful. I was moved. 

When it was over, Daria, Salina and I proceeded to the basement for food, and nearly everyone came up to me, asking how I’d enjoyed it, telling me they loved my dress, my hair, my freckles. Upon hearing that I didn’t have a car, and needed cheap groceries, Daria offered to drive me to Walmart every week to stock up, so that I didn’t have to buy the expensive microwavable food at the artisanal grocery closest to Maude’s house. (“You’re the one who helped Salina get me the hot plate!” I exclaimed, and we hugged.) Another woman told me about a six hundred dollar per month substance free apartment in Manhattan. Her daughter was looking for a roommate. “Substance free” rang a certain bell. I asked the woman if you had to be Mormon to live there. She cocked her head as if she had to think about it. 

“Well,” she said. “Everyone who lives there is.”

“Oh.”

“My husband knows people at ESPN,” she continued. “Salina mentioned you’re a writer. Maybe that’s the sort of place you might want to write for?”

My eyes widened. “I mean—”

“Oh Barbara,” someone teased her. “Don’t be so modest, your husband virtually runs ESPN.”

Other congregants also offered me leads on jobs. This was the height of the recession, and with only two exceptions, all seventy-two of the attendees that day were gainfully employed, having secured jobs through what was apparently a wide network of healthy, soberly productive and high-powered Mormon professionals.

“How do you know all these people?” I asked Salina after Daria dropped us at Maude’s driveway. “You don’t even live here.”

“The coolest thing about being a Mormon,” she said, “is you have a community that’s as nice to you as family no matter where you go. You’re never lonely! Did I tell you I’m a convert?”

“No.” 

“I’m a convert!” Salina said.

The she grabbed my arm and whispered, “It’s so fun, Kathleen, you should totally do it.”

She made it sound as casual as a Zuumba class. I liked hanging out with her (or maybe I was just sexually attracted to her). But in any case, in that moment, if there had been papers there that said, “I will be Mormon forever—even after the sweet kiss of death rockets me into outer space, where I will live out my afterlife sitting in an Adirondack chair on my late husband’s planet (Mormon men inherit planets)—honestly, I would have signed them.

Salina put an arm around me and squeezed. “I know you’re lonely,” she said quietly.

I always thought big decisions stemmed from reasoning, research, planning—an immature example being: not moving to New York until I got a job that paid nothing and secured boarding at an extremely inconvenient distance from that job. But it turns out the impulse for rebirth is driven by more haphazard crises. The most commonly cited emotion prior to conversion is anguish. 

“Is conversion, like, complicated?” I heard myself ask. 

After church the following weekend, Daria drove Salina and me to a Mormon barbecue. 

“I love parties,” Daria said, adjusting the rearview mirror so she could make eye contact with me. “Don’t you, Kathleen?”

I laughed. “Duh.” I was already starting to talk like them, eschewing swear words in favor of phrases I hadn’t used since my midwestern childhood: “Goodness gracious!” “Duh!” and, “Oh, fudge.” Being with Girl Mormons in my age range had started to feel like a giant Babysitters Club come to life. A forgotten dream.

“I think I ruled out religion because I thought it was stupid, like non-intellectual,” I remarked to an old friend over Gchat. “But now I realize that’s just a snobbish, sad way to go through life.”

Daria parked outside the Romanesque pillars of a mansion that looked a lot like Maude’s, only bigger. The door had been propped open, and the hosts, a Mormon couple in their fifties, immediately hugged us. They had five kids, and were the nicest people I had ever met. Out back, volleyball nets had been set up, and there was a metal bathtub filled to the brim with caffeine-free sodas. The folding tables were covered in oilcloth gingham print tablecloths. Attractive married Mormons held paper plates of potato salad. Gorgeous young virgins tickled and wrestled each other on the trampoline. The air was thick with unkempt hormones. I shoved pie into my mouth. 

“See how nice everybody is,” Salina said, gesturing at the Herculean boys eyeing her from the trampoline. I waved, but they glanced away. I waved again, and they turned their backs on me to tackle Mormon girls.

“Why won’t they look at me?” I asked, wondering if I should have brushed my hair, or looked in the mirror.

“Oh, because you’re not Mormon,” Salina said. “They can’t marry you, right, so why flirt?” 

She tickled me and I yelped, unused to human touch.

“Converting is fun,” she said. “And whatever you’ve heard about us probably isn’t true—like, polygamy for instance. That goes against the church, and has for many years. Mormons are mormonogamous.” She leaned in close. “Even being gay is fine!”

“Hm,” I said, choosing to interpret that last part as a signal that she was gay, and that we might, at some point in the future, become lovers. “Look, Salina—”

“Hey!” Daria screamed. 

She sprinted over, holding a diet root beer. “I forgot to tell you,” she said to me, “if you have any questions, even if they feel weird, just ask us.”

“Yeah, totally,” Salina said. “Jesus is our savior, but I guess you could honestly say that we also worship each other.” 

“When humans are at a crossroads, unlikely friends can prove to be the light!” Daria said. 

Before I could respond, she and Salina ran off to play. I reached for another root beer, and one by one, with the synchronicity of dancers, couples broke away from their conversations to talk to me. They remembered my name. Attractive older women offered me warm, homemade cookies as big as my face.  Men who looked like Mitt Romney reiterated their wives’ suggestions about entry-level positions at major publications. I discovered that so-and-so had a cousin whose best friend was hiring at Hearst. 

But upon learning that I had no concrete plans for conversion, the implied offers evaporated, and whoever had made them simply trailed off, smiling, and reached into a purse or pocket for a business card.

“Call us when you want to attend church in Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

“Fudge,” I muttered.


“Kathleen,” someone called.

I turned to see two strikingly handsome guys wearing white shirts, ties, dark slacks, and nametags: John and Josiah. 

Josiah laughed. His teeth were very white. 

The pants were pleated around the crotch—billowy. I wondered if they had been specially tailored to be roomy for a reason.

I pressed the sweating soda can against my cheek. “Hello,” I said. 

“We’re the Mormon elders—Josiah and I here just finished our mission trip,” John said. “Do you know what that means?” 

“Like Peace Corps?” 

“Basically we’re like that guy in the musical on Broadway, in New York City.” 

“Oh, right.”

“None of us have seen it—you know, because of the cursing.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Elders means we help people understand,” John said. “It’s a step on Jesus’s path, comes before marriage but after high school.”

I cleared my throat, unable to stop thinking about how “marriage” in the Mormon community is a basically euphemism for “sex.”

“Some people here have been telling us you’re interested in Mormonism,” Josiah said, when I said nothing.

“We’d like to hang out with you,” John said. 

“Really?” 

“Would it be okay if we stopped by the guesthouse, so that we might answer any questions you have about our faith?” 

I started to ask how they knew that I lived in a guesthouse, but then I trailed off, distracted by the sight of Salina, who was now being carried like a baby by a young man who resembled Adonis. It had been so long since I had pressed my naked stomach against someone else’s. During rush hour, the warmth of a stranger’s arm on the subway had begun to feel electric.

I wrote down my address.

*

The next afternoon, while the interns and I generated essays that would admit several eighteen year olds to Ivy League colleges, Wally discovered my celebrity crush’s website. 

“Hey, get over here,” he G-chatted me.

I walked two feet to his computer.

“Your favorite guy, Magnus—his personal website is insane,” Wally said. “He offers to sell his sperm to any woman of the white race for a million dollars.” 

He leaned back in his swivel chair.

“I bet he would think you were cute.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Why don’t you see if it’s real? Send him that show-offy Facebook profile pic. The one of you diving at the pool. In the bikini.”

“It’s not show-offy, it’s a joke. It’s from faraway and I’m clearly about to belly flop.”

“It’s clearly meant to make other women feel bad. Look, if you go through with this, and it’s good, and Magnus takes the bait, who knows what it might lead to? It’s great Gonzo—go see if you can actually get him to agree to give you his sperm in writing. I’m one hundred and fifty percent positive it’ll go viral.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

I hesitated. How would writing a piece about trying to convince my eccentric, celebrity crush to impregnate my Aryan womb with his one million dollar sperm register with my new Mormon friends?


“Now,” Wally said. 

To my surprise, Magnus responded immediately. He said that the sperm thing was maybe-real, maybe-not-real—but before we got into that, he wanted to see more pictures of me.

“Hey, Wally.”

He took his time getting up, crossing the short distance between us in deliberate slow motion. To me, he looked like a giant baby taking his first steps. But I could tell he was taking the moment seriously, and I got the unusual sense that, in fact, he was sort of watching himself see me see him—enacting that part in the movie where slow motion starts, and the indie soundtrack shifts to something tender.

I think that’s when it clicked in my brain that he felt sorry for me. In his mind, I had a crush on him, and he was walking that way, slowly, with that weird face that people only make when they look in the mirror, to let me drink him in—to give me what he could. Hale, we have to be good: his way of telling me, “You’re cute,” and, “Maybe in some other life,” but, “Not now, sorry, babe.” 

The humiliating part was that I’d thought the reverse was true—not that he loved me, but maybe that I was some kind of distraction, or a muse, or a best friend—the longed-for confidante that he told me I was whenever he wiped his eyes and said his wife refused to understand him or his newspaper. But in fact, he thought he was giving me something by allowing me to take care of him. He had convinced himself that I needed to be let down gently, with the consolation prize of his constant, wretched company. So, he marched toward me on big, leaden legs to give me a long look, and in that moment, I hated him.

“Well, well, well,” he said, leaning over my shoulder to finish reading the email from Magnus. “Yeah, uh, let’s put the kibosh on this one, cool?”

I could smell the hard-boiled eggs he’d had for lunch. 

“Why?” I asked. 

“I just don’t think it will be a good piece.”

“But he wrote back to me. You said—”

“I just don’t like the idea anymore.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Sorry Hale. Let’s grab lunch?”

I mumbled something about a dentist appointment, and spent the hour wandering around Brooklyn in humid garbage heat. I kept thinking about what Wally had said to me that one time in the stairwell—about feeling jealous that I might date a man. He wanted me for himself, but only in the sense that he wanted me to want him, and wanted no one else to have me.

I returned to the office flushed and angry, and went straight to the women’s bathroom to take pictures of myself. Magnus wrote back asking for my phone number. I sent it to him. We arranged to talk on Independence Day.

*

These secret plans provided some psychic distance from the increasingly very real prospect of the conversion. Salina and I kept hanging out. Daria took me to Walmart. I ate better food. Church was fine. The elders came by and brought me a Bible that I didn’t read.

“I think I ruled out religion because I thought it was stupid, like non-intellectual,” I remarked to an old friend over Gchat. “But now I realize that’s just a snobbish, sad way to go through life.”

“So the planet thing doesn’t bother you?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that the women don’t get planets?”

“I don’t know,” I repeated. I was used to not having my own place.

“Well, FYI, it’s brainwashing,” he said. “Wikipedia it. The steps are all the same—cults and religious conversion. The root beer, the hot dogs? Brainwashing.”

“I think that’s a little hyperbolic,” I responded.

“It’s a love bomb,” he said.

Then a gay friend asked me whether I was ready to think of gayness as a disease. I hadn’t known that Mormons thought of it that way. Actually, I hadn’t looked into anything about what they believed. I’d simply drunk in the relationships, the acceptance, and the decaffeinated beverages. None of it had felt real to me. Even the prospect of becoming one of them seemed to promise immediate gratification rather than long-term change.

After the next service, I sat down next to Salina in the church’s rec area, and handed her a plate of macaroni. I watched her eat and said, “I thought you said being gay was fine.” 

A short thread of cheese dangled from her bottom lip. “I mean, it’s fine with me,” she said, eating a forkful. “But. Officially, it’s like alcoholism. It’s a problem, a lifelong struggle, but one that you seek to overcome. Blah, blah, blah.”

I opened my mouth, ready to get into a lively debate about social justice. But then I looked at her tits.

“What did you mean that you’re fine with it?” I asked.

She shrugged. 

“Want to come with me to the fireworks tonight?”

I had plans that night to speak to Magnus.

“Yeah,” I said.

In the car ride home, I stared at Salina’s fingers, spread between us on the back seat, kept thinking I’d reach for her hand, and hold it. But I didn’t. We pulled into the driveway, and found Maude waiting for us. Maude announced that she wasn’t paying Salina so generously so that Salina go around socializing and partying with her tenant.

“Elizabeth hasn’t lost a single pound,” she snapped—and then she fired Salina in front of me.

They disappeared inside.

“Seriously?” I called after them.

Alone at the guesthouse, I watched the sun set, feeling suffocated near the deathbed. I saw a light go on in Elizabeth’s bedroom, and through the window I saw a dark silhouette, a glimpse of dark hair. But then another figure appeared behind her and the light was extinguished. 

An hour later, I was doing dishes in my shower, checking the time on my phone—nervous about Magnus—when Salina showed up at the door.

“Still coming?” she said. 

“I mean, sure, but what about Maude?” I said.

“Look, she’s scary, but not almighty. And anyway the flight she booked doesn’t leave until tomorrow.” She looked at her phone. “Daria’s picking us up in twenty minutes. Did you pick your outfit?”

While she riffled through my clothes, I took a deep breath and finally reached for her hand. She turned, smiling—“What?” she said, and led me to the armchair.

She sat down and I crawled onto her lap, and she wrapped her arms around me, and squeezed.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said. 

“You should come to Utah,” she said.

I listened to our breath, fast and out of synch.  

“I live with all Mormon girls, the rent is so inexpensive—”

I reached for her cheek and tried to kiss her.

“No,” she said firmly, and pursed her mouth.

I should have felt crushed, and maybe I did, but not enough to stay home. So Salina and I silently rummaged through my clothes, found something vaguely patriotic, and walked down the driveway to meet Daria. I noticed that Elizabeth’s light was on again. She was staring down at us from her bedroom window. I waved at her, but she closed the blinds.


On the picnic blankets at the edge of the little league fields, Daria asked how old I was. 

“I mean, you totally don’t have to say,” she said, “It’s just sometimes I feel weird about not being married, right? And that it makes me feel better to be around you, a little, because you’re obviously older, right? —And you’re not married?”

“Right,” I said. 

As the first fireworks squealed and sparked against the starlit sky, she and Salina clapped. My phone buzzed in my pocket. The screen said Restricted. 

“But it’s starting,” Salina said, when she saw me stand up to take the call. She shouted to be heard over the fireworks. “It’ll just get better and better.” 

“It’s urgent,” I said, and sprinted across the field. Fireworks exploded overhead.

“Magnus?” I said, catching my breath on the sidewalk.

“Hi,” he said.

“Jesus”—it was the first time I’d cursed in weeks—“I can’t believe you really called.”

“Well, I did,” he said. “Here I am.”

“Wait,” I said. “Let me find someplace private.”

I crossed the front lawn of the library, and found a quiet spot behind the building. I slid to the ground, scratching my back against the bricks.

“So,” he said. 

“So,” I said. 

“The offer on the website, obviously you must know it was a joke, performance art,” he said.

I had not known that. 

“Sure,” I said.

“But,” he said, and left it there.

“But?”

“Maybe we could meet,” he said. “But. I Googled you and all I found was this website. This terrible, terrible, needlessly confessional website—and you can’t write about me, okay? — Not about this phone call, not what I say to you, not what we do if we ever hang out—you gotta promise me. Fine?”

“What would we do if we ever hang out?” I said.

He laughed. 

“Well?” 

“Well, what?” he said.

I sat there picturing him in one of his movies—the large, weird boots, the tight pants. He had off-kilter features.

“Well, what are you wearing?”

“You first,” he said. 

I looked down at my outfit. I wore a red t-shirt and mannish navy blue shorts.

“I’m wearing a dress,” I said. “It’s very small—barely a dress. Lots of my body is showing.”

“You haven’t done this before,” he said.

“My body is basically naked,” I said. “And I want you.”

“Oh yeah?” 

“Yeah. I want your fucked up, crooked face, and your weird fucking body, and your hands all over me.”

“I like that.”

“Good.” 

“What else.” 

I pressed the phone to my ear, kicking off my shorts, and said something cliché about how wet I was. The stifled desires of a long hot summer squirmed in my belly. I could hear Magnus breathing. In high school, right before bed, my last minute prep for an exam involved imagining myself fucking whatever teacher was administering it—no matter how ugly he or she was. I reimagined myself shoving Salina into the armchair instead of following her there. Magnus described how, if he were there with me, he’d shove me up against a wall and pull off my little panties. I laughed and told him, “Whatever”—to just keep talking. He said he’d like to grab my little waist and lift me up using only his cock. 

Everything up until that moment had felt so surreal and removed; the Mormons wanted my body for God, my boss wanted it for no one, Salina didn’t want to want it—and even with Maude, I felt like her rage, and the body dysmorphia she’d projected onto her only kid, seemed to feed on comparisons drawn between Elizabeth and other girls. Maude wanted to extract from my body whatever made me thin and implant it into her daughter.

But what did I want my body for? Mainly, Magnus’s descriptions of what he’d do to me reminded me that I had one. So I spread my legs in the dirt, and decided the afterlife could wait. Somebody needed to deal with me. Everyone had been giving me blue balls. With just one gravely voice in my ear, I could picture them all.

When I finished, he said, “What about meeting in Manhattan?”

“I might write about this,” I said, dazed.

He cursed under his breath, and a long pause he said, brusquely, “Do me a favor and wait a few years.” 

“Bye,” I said. 

“Good luck,” he said.

I texted Salina and Daria saying I’d walk back, and returned to the guest house to another note on my pillow: “Again would appreciate”—and then a list of things that Maude would appreciate. Salina knocked on the door. I crawled under the covers and pretended to sleep.

I lay there for hours, replaying Magnus’s deep voice, and scrolling Craigslist for the cheapest New York City apartment I could find. In those desperate, drawn out minutes approaching midnight, I even seriously considered some of the “rooms” that were actually curtained sections of kitchens and included caveats about how rent could be reduced in exchange for “human company.” 

But then I found it: a disgusting room in deepest Queens, in a crowded apartment with five other people. My room was slightly larger than a queen bed, and overlooked garbage cans. There was a “trigger warning” about feral cats liking garbage. It was $500 per month, with no up front fees. 

I quickly called the sweet, nineteen-year-old NYU student, who was so desperately trying to find a fifth roommate in order to avoid more credit card debt that he offered to video chat with me as soon as I emailed him at three in the morning. We met bleary eyed over pixelated windows. He said, “As long as you’re not a serial killer, it’s seriously just fine,” and we agreed I could move in that day. I unpacked the chests, left an envelope for Maude, stuffed my things into a garbage bag, and talked to myself all the way to the train station—practicing a speech for my boss, in which I’d ask for a raise. I faked choked up noises and a sniffy nose. I knew his language, so I would cry in front of him, and it would work. 

I climbed the train platform feeling exhilarated. The sun was coming up, birds were chirping, and men holding briefcases were smiling at me, and I was smiling back. Being in transit has always made me feel productive and successful—I guess because there’s the assumption that wherever I am going might be better, whether or not that’s true. So I boarded, and I found a spot near the window, and I pulled my knees to my chest, and squeezed. I know why Temple Grandin built her hug machine, because I’ve been on conveyor belts headed for inevitable, unanticipated chaos, but wrapped in my own arms, I have managed to feel safe.

Some details have been changed to protect identities.  

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