Thirteen

slowly unwrapped the package’s thick brown paper wrapping. My fingers trembled ever so slightly as I cut the tape and opened the lid. Inside the box was a letter – a kind, sweet, lighthearted, handwritten note from Dylan. Below that was a stack of pictures, shots of the two of us together taken before I’d left, plus a few of him taken on a recent family vacation. Filling the remainder of the box was an oversized plastic bag stuffed with chocolate chip cookies … my favorite.

Shit.

You know you’re not standing on high moral ground if you’re annoyed at someone for mailing you cookies.

I still had a boyfriend back home. It was something I had conveniently forgotten to mention to almost everyone … including, occasionally, myself.

I felt bad about keeping Cole a secret from Dylan (not to mention keeping Dylan a secret from Cole). But through a stunning display of justification and denial, I still didn’t really think of what I was doing as “cheating.”

Cheating was signing for special FedEx packages while your husband was at work. Cheating was holding private meetings in the confessional while your wife was at choir practice. Cheating was late night messages to your illicit romantic partner sent from your marital bed.

I was just dating two boys. Everybody dated at least two boys, right? The timing was just a little overlapped. Clearly, this wasn’t a fidelity issue. It was a scheduling issue. No point in getting all judgey over a technicality …

I had known things were over with Dylan before I left. I just didn’t bother to discuss that with him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I figured things would just naturally burn out over time, given the distance that now hung between us.

This passive avoidance of conflict was my modus operandi at the time. I applied it to my home life, my spiritual life and my love life. If I’d had a motto in those days, it would have been, “Truth is over-rated. No fuss, no muss.” Looking back now, it looks an awful lot like cowardice.

But my plan wasn’t working, as evidenced by this heartfelt box of deliciousness.

I bit into a cookie and melted. So chewy. So sweet and salty. I momentarily reconsidered my decision.

No. I couldn’t stay with Dylan because I wanted to be free to explore, to live my own life and to date new people. Even if I had wanted to stay together, I couldn’t. I was Mormon and Dylan was not. As much as I did not want this to be a factor, it was … in a big way. I had been cautioned for years against dating or even developing close friendships with non-LDS people, who could influence you to fall away from the church and its teachings.

If you dated a non-member, you might someday want to marry them. Then you couldn’t marry in the temple and form an eternal family. (As I mentioned earlier, the LDS church considers only marriages that are sanctioned within the temple to be eternal. They believe the temple ceremony binds husband, wife and any subsequent children together forever. Outside marriages sanctioned in any other location are binding only until death. Afterwards, you are on your own.)

Consequently, you would be unable to attain the highest level of salvation. (Mormons believe that there are multiple levels of heaven, differentiated by desirability. The highest is the Celestial Kingdom, followed by the Telestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial kingdom and finally Hell or “Outer Darkness.” The more closely you adhere to church teachings, the higher you go, like a posthumous game of Chutes and Ladders). Marrying outside the church would jeopardize not only your ability to make it into the highest kingdom, but that of your children and grandchildren forever. So… no pressure or anything.

I had begun dating dylan 18 months before despite all this. I didn’t buy all the warnings and he was cute. That was enough for me. But that didn’t mean it could last.

I had formed my own beliefs in several ways, but the looming threat of my future family’s ultimate dismantling was still a frightening reality to me. After a lifetime of religious conditioning, I was acutely aware that if somebody was wrong in this equation, it was me. It certainly wasn’t the church. The church was infallible, unquestionable, untouchable. I could disagree, but ultimately, that was meaningless. The church was still true, whether I bought it was or not.

Besides, it wasn’t like I could just leave the church. It would have been devastating to my family. It would have separated me from them on a very personal level forever. Likewise, although I was nowhere near ready to get married, if I were to marry a non-member, my family would have been distraught. For them, any wedding I might have outside the temple would be a cause for sorrow instead of celebration.

My cousin, who was not actively involved in the church, had gotten married a few years beforehand to a wonderful man who also happened to be a non-member. They were wed in a beautiful hilltop ceremony on a bright, summer day. Wildflowers were in full bloom, standing out like sparklers against the dark backdrop of an imperious mountain range. It was breathtaking.

They had asked a family friend, who also happened to be an LDS bishop, to officiate. The bride and groom stood before him, flanked by my cousins and I in our matching blue dresses as the Bishop moved through the usual ceremony. He then closed by saying, “This wedding is wonderful, but I hope that one day you will choose to go to the temple to make your marriage eternal.” My heart fell for them. Even on this happiest of days, it wasn’t good enough.

Everyone had whispered as the day approached, “How sad that it can’t be a temple wedding. Maybe this is the best we can hope for … for now.” This temporary, earthly marriage would have to do. They could only hope that in the future the couple would make the right choice, become active in the church and choose to make their marriage eternal.

Throughout the following years, the newlyweds were constantly pressured and enticed toward church activity. Every aspect of their lives was scrutinized under the microscope of, “If only they were active in the church … then everything would be better.”

Every failing or difficulty was viewed in this light. If they struggled, it wasn’t because they were young or because it was perfectly normal to do so. It was because they weren’t active in the church. It was always like this for anyone who had stepped away from the church. I didn’t want that cloud of toxic smoke hanging over me for the rest of my life.

These issues combined with my own longing for freedom had caused me to shut the door on any possible future with Dylan.

Still, the thought of breaking his heart was unthinkable to me. Also, I didn’t want to feel badly about myself for hurting him. It would be so much better if we just grew apart naturally, if he chose to go his own way. So I waited for what I assumed would be the inevitable course of nature.

 

This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.

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