In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Almond Milk
Jonny Townsend

[p.63]I opened the letter from Elder Deiana, smiling in anticipation. We were discouraged from writing to anyone within the mission so we would neither waste time nor spread gossip, but I was glad Elder Deiana had broken the rule. He was doing well, thank goodness, he said in the letter, but life just wasn’t the same in Pescara as it had been in Rome Four with me. There was even a P.S. from his companion. “I don’t look forward to meeting you,” wrote the companion. “I’m so sick of hearing about you that I’d probably punch you in the face.”

How sweet. Deiana missed me. I opened my journal and looked at a picture of him. I sent all my photos and negatives home to Mississippi since I had to be able to carry everything I owned here in Italy in just two suitcases, but I did keep a photo of Deiana. I’d taken several, one of him in jeans studying outside on the balcony, another of him knocking on a door while we were tracting, and yet another of him on a bus. But the only one where his face was clear was the photo of him in his pajamas in bed, his knees bent, his legs halfway up in the air from having just plopped down on the mattress. He was looking directly into the camera, looking directly at me, and smiling. In bed. His legs in the air.

Oh, no. I felt a tightening in my crotch and immediately began [p.64]rehearsing the words to a favorite hymn. “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning! The latter-day glory begins to come forth!”

Damn. Almost an entire month without any sexual fantasies. At least I’d stopped this one before it went too far. I’d been sure that serving two years as a Mormon missionary would change me from feeling gay, but the time was quickly drawing to an end, and I was still wishing … still wishing …

“We thank thee O God for a prophet, to guide us in these latter days!”

I read the scriptures for the next several minutes before my companion, Elder Stuart, called everyone into the kitchen for lunch. Elder Stuart was a good companion, nice and a decent worker, but no one could replace Deiana, and I didn’t expect Stuart to try. Deiana had been very nurturing to me, even though I was the senior companion and had been out far too long to still need to be milk fed. But he had in fact fed part of me that had remained unnourished, and while I was no better at the work now, and no better at putting up with jerky missionaries, I still felt stronger somehow.

I’d managed not to talk about Deiana endlessly since he left, despite wishing we were still together. In some missions companions stayed together six months or more, but here it was only a month or two. Of course, if I’d stayed with Deiana six months, it would have killed me to leave him.

Arriving in the kitchen, I sat next to Elder Stuart, who sat nearest the stove. “What do you have planned for this evening?” asked Elder Stahl, our senior zone leader, as he began to eat. He asked us our goals each morning during devotional and checked up on us each evening when we came in, but sometimes he liked to pressure us in the middle of the day as well.

“We’re converting a family,” said Elder Stuart, smiling. It was a private joke between us, to always tell Elder Stahl more than we really expected, because Stahl always said we weren’t ambitious enough. We really did have plans to teach a young family, but Stuart had pushed it up one notch for Stahl. Deliberately lying was the only way we could please some of our leaders. Stuart and I pretended we were “joking” rather than lying, so we could believe it was Stahl who was wrong in demanding our lies. But I knew we were both wrong, that something just wasn’t right in a system that demanded lies over truth for the sake of a good appearance.

[p.65]”You have an appointment?” asked Elder Stahl.

“Of course,” said Elder Stuart.

“We told you that this morning,” I reminded him.

“Oh, that’s right.” He continued eating, but I knew more had to be coming since he hardly ever spoke to me without insulting me in some way.

“Well, what are we going to do about the work visit?” asked Elder Ballantine, the junior zone leader.

“I guess you can take Elder Stuart out to teach the family,” said Stahl. He turned to me. “He’s a greenie,” he explained, as if I didn’t know my companion was new to the mission. I made up games all the time to make learning the language and missionary lessons more fun, wanting to make his missionary childhood nicer than mine had been, hoping to mother him just a bit in a positive way. “He needs the teaching experience,” said Stahl. “So you and I can go check out some referrals. ”

“That sounds good,” I said, trying hard to make my smile look real. “That means we’ll be teaching, too. Still something good to write in my journal.” Elder Stuart touched my leg under the table to let me know he understood I was still playing the game, turning the referral into a teaching appointment, to show my positive attitude.

“You spend too much time in that journal. You should study more.”

“It’s a commandment to write in our journals,” I said.

“We’re here to be good missionaries. You just use your journal as an excuse not to work hard.”

And you use the work as an excuse never to think, I wanted to say but couldn’t. If Elder Deiana were still here, I was sure I could have gone on to say it. I needed to be that strong by myself, though, and felt angry that I wasn’t.

Elder Stuart and I both knew that Stahl just wanted the work visit to keep me away from teaching. His secondary purpose, I suspected, if the teaching went well, would be to persuade Stuart that the following lessons should be entrusted to the zone leaders because of their experience. They’d thus be able to tally up the baptism as their own, but, more importantly, they’d actually have the experience of working with the people and watching the Holy Ghost work on their spirits. I wasn’t sure which was more important to the zone leaders. They apparently did have the Spirit with them, however, since they were in [p.66]fact good baptizers. Maybe it was best after all that I wouldn’t be teaching the family tonight. It was certainly more important for the church to grow stronger here in Rome than it was for me to have a spiritual experience.

Just before he had to leave, Elder Stuart came up to me in the bathroom as I was urinating. “I won’t let them take our family,” he whispered. “If the lesson goes well, I’ll tell the family I’ll be coming back with you, and I’ll take out my appointment book and not let Elder Ballantine schedule anything.”

“Just have a good time tonight,” I said. “If—”

Elder Stahl came into the bathroom then, heading for the sink to brush his hair, which didn’t need brushing. “I’m sure Elder Anderson can pee by himself,” he said casually, looking into the mirror as if he were barely aware of us.

Elder Stuart left me as I zipped up, and he moved over toward the sink. “Need any help with your hair?” he asked. Elder Stahl gave him a cold stare, so Elder Stuart shrugged innocently and left the bathroom. Elder Stahl then looked at me, his eyes resting just a second too long on my now covered crotch, as if he were looking for evidence that my companion had touched me.

I hated being inspected by other men. I’d seen so few other men naked that I was never sure there truly wasn’t something distinctive about a gay body. When I was about twelve, I’d peeked through a crack in the bathroom door at my grandparents’ house, trying to catch a glimpse of my grandfather, but a glimpse was all I got, and it wasn’t enough. Elder Stahl already made critical comments about my lack of muscles, calling me a mama’s boy, since I didn’t lift our homemade cement weights along with some of the other elders. I knew he didn’t like my body, and I didn’t like him looking at it.

I was sure Elder Stahl was one of those people who could spot someone gay in an instant, and I felt constantly intimidated, afraid he’d one day blurt his suspicions out loud. I always had that as a general fear about everybody, which was wearying enough, but he amplified the fear, and spending time with him was downright exhausting.

I remembered when I’d discovered masturbation at thirteen how excited I was. Though I hadn’t read any church literature on it yet, I was still sure it was wrong, but I couldn’t keep myself from doing it every day that first month. Then I made a second discovery, much more terrible—that this white stuff left a stain. I realized it when my [p.67]mother came to talk to me one day and sat on my bed beside me. My red chenille bedspread was in a clump at the foot of the bed, and my mother absentmindedly pushed it aside so she could sit. Then she stared a second, lifted it toward her face, and said, “This smells like … people.” She looked at me, and I knew that she knew.

After that I only masturbated in the shower, but, even so, there was evidence, because sometimes in the middle of the night I’d dream about a man and wake up to find wet, sticky underwear. I was mortified, but Mom always did the laundry, so I knew she knew what was happening, and all I could hope was that it wasn’t just gay boys who had dreams. When my folks were gone, I checked my dad’s underwear drawer, and every last pair was spotless. Was that because he was grown or because he wasn’t gay? Several times out here in Italy, I’d had those dreams, but at least I got to do my own laundry now, and, fortunately, the material my Mormon undergarments were made of, bemberg, didn’t stain like cotton did. Still, it was amazing how much energy I spent guarding my laundry bag and checking my undergarments before changing clothes in front of my companion. God, it was natural to have those dreams, wasn’t it? It just couldn’t be right to have to live in such constant fear of nature, but I did, and I felt that fear again now, though I hoped I’d learned how to mask it well.

“Do I pass inspection?” I asked. Six hours with Stahl this evening, from 3:30 to 9:30. It was days like this which made two years seem an eternity. Elder Stahl didn’t reply and continued brushing his hair, so I squeezed past him and headed for the door.

“Wash your hands, Elder. You’ll be out there representing the church. Don’t be disgusting.”

He refused to move away from the sink, however, so I finally leaned over and washed my hands in the tub.

I stopped feeling fear then and felt anger instead. Even if Elder Stahl were perceptive about sex, he surely could never suspect me of being gay. Whenever he looked at me, he must see instead my utter hatred of men, since that was about all I felt when I was in a room with him.

We had to take two buses to get to the first address, given by someone the zone leaders had talked to in a park outside their tracting area. I knew Elder Stahl was grading me on my referral-taking performance this evening, and, though this was my least favorite missionary activity, I wondered if I should do it for the evening just to [p.68]avoid his criticism. But as I saw a man at the second bus stop, I simply didn’t feel like talking to him. Elder Stahl was the leader. I’d let him lead, let him be the first to approach someone. Maybe I wouldn’t do any street approaches even if he did do a few. Show him I wasn’t going to be bullied.

The man was about thirty, with dark hair and a moustache. He was dressed neatly but casually, and he kept glancing at me, trying to read my nametag.

He didn’t smile, but he didn’t look mean, either. He looked a little bit like Deiana, which was probably why I finally moved over a few feet and spoke to him.

“We’re missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ,” I told him. He nodded. “I figured. You the guys who don’t believe in blood transfusions?”

“That’s Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I explained. “We believe in science and medicine.”

“Really? Science like evolution?”

“Well, that’s a little complicated. We’re kind of in the middle on that one.”

The man laughed. “How can you be in the middle? We either evolve or we don’t.”

“We don’t believe in evolution,” said Elder Stahl, joining us.

The man nodded. “That’s what I figured.”

“That’s not quite true, Elder,” I said. Then I turned back to the man. “Would it be okay if we came over sometime to explain it all more fully?” The man thought for a moment. “Will you two come? I’m not sure which one of you to believe, but I want to hear both sides.” “Sure,” I said, though 1almost considered passing up the opportunity rather than meet those demands.

The man told us his name was Sandro and gave us his address, asking us to meet him around 9:00 that evening. I smiled at that, grateful not to have to work a second evening with Stahl. “See you then,” I said as he stepped onto his bus, which had graciously arrived just in time. It was awkward to conclude a conversation and then still be stuck at the same bus stop for five more minutes.

“Elder Anderson,” said Stahl after the bus pulled off, “don’t ever contradict me in public again. That sets a very poor example.” We soon caught our bus and checked out our first referral. No one was home. We took another bus and checked out a second referral. [p.69]The wife was home but the husband was out. Could we come back the following evening? Elder Stahl said yes, and we walked to the next address, or tried to. It was the address of a stationery shop. No one inside had heard of the man who’d given Stahl the address.

We taught a partial lesson at the next address and were told that was enough. I expected Elder Stahl to comment about my lack of spirit at the meeting, though he himself had done the actual teaching, but he said nothing, and we went on to check out the remaining two referrals. Nothing.

“Time to start tracting,” said Elder Stahl around 6:30. “We can still teach a lesson before checking out your referral.”

“We can teach two,” I said. “There’s time.”

He looked at me coldly. “We’re nowhere near our tracting area. Are we near yours?”

I shook my head. “Guess we’ll have to do some ‘spirit tracting.’ Where does the Spirit tell you we can find a family?”

“Peru?” I suggested, knowing of the phenomenal baptism rate in many South American countries.

“Funny. Lead the way.”

We tracted out two nearby buildings without receiving so much as a callback, but I was relieved that Elder Stahl’s door approaches were no better than mine. I used a couple of his so he wouldn’t try to teach me his way, but neither his nor mine brought us any luck.

“The Spirit told you to come over here?” asked Stahl as we entered our third building. “What Spirit are you listening to?”

“Did you ask for guidance?” I returned. “Feel free to be inspired.”

“Don’t try that crap on me,” he said, “trying to make this my fault. I’m the zone leader, and it’s my responsibility to train you to be a better missionary. And that means not doing all the work myself but making you do it. Parents don’t do their children any favors by refusing to teach their kids how to work and be responsible. So get us in a door.”

“Yes, Daddy.” I didn’t get us in a door, though, and neither did he. We’d already taught the partial lesson, which meant we’d already had as much success as anyone usually did in one evening. Finally, around 8:30, we headed over to check out the referral we’d taken at the bus stop.

Sandro opened the door when we arrived around 8:50 and ushered us in. A friend of his, Alberto, was also there. “I told him about [p.70]you, and he wanted to come,” Sandro explained. “I hope that was all right. ”

It would be so nice to baptize one of these guys, so Stahl would leave me alone for a while. Elder Stahl asked Alberto to offer a prayer before we started, but as he prayed, I realized I had just hoped to use these men as ammunition against Stahl, treating them simply as objects. I guess I knew they’d be happier in the church and so I was thinking of them, too, but I knew this wasn’t what had inspired that thought. I opened my eyes during the prayer and stared at the plastic covered flip charts in my lap.

I used to be a nice guy before my mission. I was almost sure of it. But maybe I’d only been nice because I’d never truly been under any actual pressure. It was how one acted under pressure that showed one’s real character.

And just one evening with Stahl made me see these men as statistics. It made me not want to teach them well, so they wouldn’t want us back, but that too was selfish, to avoid giving them the gospel to protect my ego. Yet while I knew it was my fault for letting Stahl’s pressure make me more selfish, it seemed there had to be something wrong with the kind of leadership I’d experienced my whole mission which made that kind of selfishness almost inevitable.

In fact, the whole idea of the mission was to use other people, to baptize others to prove ourselves to God that we were worthy of the Celestial Kingdom. Well, one companion had told me he’d come because his parents had promised to buy him a nice car if he completed a mission, but most came to score Celestial points. We said so openly, as if this were something to be proud of. I’d felt selfish that my private goal had been to use my mission to cure myself of being gay, but I only wanted that so I’d be eligible for heaven, so wasn’t it all really the same thing? We came to “help” others, thinking really only of ourselves.

I wished Deiana were here. He’d made me feel human. He’d broken his share of the rules while we were together, drinking tea, keeping us out after 10:30, talking to girls, and other things which irritated me, but at the same time I’d finally stopped feeling I had to obey every single rule perfectly, an idea hard for me to accept. But I knew I’d have to break the mission rule next Preparation Day and write him a letter back for the one I’d received today.

Alberto finished praying, and I started the lesson, talking of Joseph Smith’s first vision. The two men looked at each other doubtfully. Then [p.71]Elder Stahl talked about the restoration of the priesthood and the translation of the Book of Mormon.

It was my turn to go on from there, but Sandro stopped me. “That’s all very interesting,” he said, “but we really have more scientific questions. ”

“Like evolution?” I asked.

“Yes, but other questions, too. Do you believe in a soul? How was the world created? Is there life on other planets? Do you think sex is natural? Do you think homosexuals are born that way? Do you believe in birth control? Is it natural for a man to have sex with more than one person? You do believe in polygamy, don’t you?”

“You seem to be pretty preoccupied with sex,” said Elder Stahl. “Sex is natural, and it’s probably natural to have sex with as many women as you can, but the scriptures tell us we must overcome the natural man and live by a spiritual law.”

“And homosexuals?” asked Sandro.

“That’s not natural,” Elder Stahl replied. “It’s against both natural and spiritual laws.”

“Well,” I said, looking at Sandro and avoiding Elder Stahl, “it probably is natural to homosexuals to be homosexual, but … ”

“But you guys can have six wives and it’s okay,” said Alberto.

“We don’t practice polygamy,” said Elder Stahl.

“But we used to,” I said.

Elder Stahl turned to me and said in English, “Let me handle this, Elder.”

Alberto looked miffed that we’d said something in another language and went to the kitchen. Elder Stahl explained to Sandro about polygamy, then about temple marriages, and finally about eternal sex available through a successful temple marriage to those worthy couples who obeyed all the commandments while on Earth.

All the commandments. That was never going to happen for me. It was odd, but the idea of eternal sex was one of the main goals I had in keeping the commandments. As much as I knew I wanted it now as a virgin, I couldn’t imagine facing an eternity without it. And yet eternal sex seemed like rather a bizarre goal to be at the top of the list, reserved only for the most righteous of the righteous. Sex as an incentive for good deeds, as our main incentive even for missionary work. Part of the rest was certainly godhood and creating planets, but peopling those planets by providing spirits entailed billions of sexual acts, and I knew [p.72]from talking with other elders that this was something they looked forward to, whether it was with one wife in heaven or twenty, and most believed in polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom, even if they never admitted that to their girlfriends back home.

I remembered my Sunday school teacher telling our class of fourteen-year-olds that if for no other reason, we should stay in the church and be good so we could have eternal sex. It was a way of keeping us in line sexually, to threaten to take sex away from us. It was a relief that sex was seen at least somewhat positively in the church, since so many religions saw it almost always in a negative light, but our view still didn’t seem fully positive. And though I did want that sex for eternity, it still seemed that something must be wrong with a philosophy that offered sex as its ultimate reward.

“Only those who’ve been married in Mormon temples will have sex for eternity?” asked Sandro. “What about Catholics? What about people who just live together for twenty years?”

Elder Stahl began answering those questions, but even to me the answers sounded weak. If people didn’t have a chance to be married in the temple still lived a good life, they’d have the chance to have a temple marriage performed vicariously for them. So, yes, Catholics could have a good, eternal marriage, but fornicators, even if they really loved each other, wouldn’t have any rights eternally. As I listened, I realized I wasn’t sure any longer if I even wanted to be with a wife eternally. I might be happier in a lower kingdom of heaven, where I could just be friends with people like Deiana. I was sure being with him had been more satisfying than sex with a woman would be. Maybe things did all work out for the best.

Alberto motioned for Sandro to join him in the kitchen, and I wondered for a second if he were poisoning some drinks for us, since he didn’t seem to like us, and I heard him stirring a spoon in a glass. He came out a minute later, but Sandro stayed in the kitchen this time. “He’s preparing some Lattè di Mandorle for you,” Alberto explained. “I tried, but I can never get it just right.”

“Almond milk” was delicious, a thick white syrup mixed in a glass of water, tasting like the icing on wedding cakes. I rarely had the chance to drink it, but I was suspicious, since cyanide was supposed to taste like almonds. Once someone had spiked a drink for us with alcohol, and though I’d never tasted alcohol before, I knew something wasn’t right and I stopped drinking. But for goodness’ sake, these men [p.73]couldn’t have known ahead of time they wouldn’t like our answers. Most likely, they were trying to show they were nicer than we were, serving people who stood ready to bar them from heaven. If I had a choice, I’d certainly prefer their company eternally to Stahl’s.

Sandro came out a few moments later with four glasses, two of wine and two of almond milk. I took a sip, and it didn’t seem quite normal, but it was okay, probably only my imagination, and I figured that to die as a martyr was better than living a mediocre life; in fact, it was what I’d prayed for most of my mission, so I went ahead and drank it all. Elder Stahl was slower but drank his, too, as he explained how sex wasn’t dirty but sacred.

“But why can’t two people who deeply love each other share that sacredness even if they aren’t married?” asked Alberto.

“Because if they truly love each other, they will get married and make a formal commitment,” Stahl replied. “And if they’re engaged, they’ll show they have the strength to withstand adultery by withstanding fornication.”

Alberto rolled his eyes, though this was one of Stahl’s answers which did make sense to me. “What about homosexuals?” He demanded. He and Sandro looked at each other, and it finally dawned on me that they were both gay. I wondered how I’d missed that. I’d just thought they were liberals. I looked to see if Elder Stahl had noticed.

“You need to repent and find a good woman,” he said. He’d probably noticed right away.

“And avoid all sexual fulfillment,” said Alberto. “No, thanks. If God gave us sex organs, I think he expected us to use them to the best of our ability.”

“Sexual fulfillment now or sexual fulfillment for eternity,” said Stahl. “It’s your choice.”

“God only likes people if they’re married?” asked Sandro. “He cares about the fall of a sparrow but can’t care about me if I’m not part of a family?”

“Homosexuality is a manifestation of a deeper spiritual rot,” Elder Stahl said calmly. “If you don’t cut out the dead tissue soon, the gangrene will spread throughout your system, and there is no recovery from a total spiritual death. Most homosexuals are already spiritually dead. I can’t judge them, but I expect most of them will be cast into outer darkness with Satan because there’s nothing left to salvage.”

[p.74]The two men looked stunned for a moment, and then Alberto laughed. I knew what Elder Stahl said was right, but I still felt as though I’d been stabbed or scalped or had my fingernails ripped off. But none of that really described the feeling I had when I heard church leaders talk of gays. Once when I was a boy, I’d put a broken plastic toy in a campfire and then poked it with a stick. The toy melted onto the stick and kept burning, and I marched around triumphantly with my torch, until a tiny drop of plastic dripped off onto my head. The burning, searing pain was intense, but after I ran inside and stuck my head under the faucet, all my mother could find was a tiny blister the size of a pea. That was the closest pain I could associate with how I felt when hearing what God thought of me. It felt like burning plastic was dripping inside my chest. And yet I knew that when church members said these things, they truly had no clue of the pain they inflicted, seeming surprised if anyone ever acted hurt. If people felt pain, it was their own fault for doing something wrong. It was simply the realization of their sin and its consequences that caused their pain.

“God seems to be a bit of a pervert,” Alberto said. “He seems awfully focused on my penis.”

“God cares about all sin,” Elder Stahl said stiffly.

“And yet the only children I’m allowed to teach are my own,” said Sandro. “I can’t just be a good uncle, or a good elementary school teacher, or help society in other ways. I absolutely must bring children into the world.”

“God made the commandments, not me,” Stahl replied. ”I’m just here to tell you about them. It’s up to you to follow them.”

It felt awful hearing the men ask the same things I’d asked myself over and over. Stahl was so cool and collected, so sure he was right. He sounded right. And yet I knew that there were plenty of families where the parents didn’t have family prayer, or always teach the kids the right principles. Those families weren’t overly praised, but they were still respectable, just by the mere fact of being a family. It was almost as if God was saying, “He used his penis in her vagina, as I intended. The rest we can work out.” It did seem hard to accept at times.

And these two men looked so good together.

Oh, but that was Satan tempting me. I looked at Elder Stahl. I needed his strength. I hated the idea of needing him of all people, but I couldn’t let my pride keep me from the truth.

[p.75]”What if I told you that when I prayed and asked God if he approved of my being gay, he gave me a wonderfully warm and confirming answer’?” Sandro said it sincerely, as if such a thing could have really happened.

“Then I’d say you were praying to the wrong source.”

Alberto laughed again. “These guys have their minds made up,” he said to Sandro. “If they don’t like the evidence, they just claim it doesn’t exist.”

“No,” said Stahl, “you’re the ones doing that. The evidence is all around you.”

“You know,” Sandro said, shaking his head, “you act like sex is the most important part of a relationship, or the only part. It’s good, but really, we know lots of couples who have been together for years, and the most important thing—”

“Don’t try to justify it to them,” Alberto interrupted. “It’s demeaning.”

Sandro sighed heavily and patted Alberto’s knee. Then he turned back to us. “What it boils down to,” he said, “is that you believe in a God who would let us experience the joy and beauty of sex and of a loving, committed relationship, and then would deny it to us for eternity, while we know there are others up there in heaven who are having sex all the time. This God would want us to have a perfect memory of our lives as our punishment, would want us to remember what love and sex had been and what it had meant for us. And just because we didn’t understand the rules, or because we were weak, or because we made a few mistakes, your God would punish us for millions and billions and trillions of years for those few mistakes we made over thirty years. I don’t think I want to know any more about your church. You can leave now.”

“I can tell you in the name of Jesus Christ that—”

“I said you could leave now,” Sandro repeated. “I’m hardly going to stop loving this man because some kid told me that his cruel god said to.”

“You guys are lovers?” I asked. I hadn’t figured that out yet. I thought they were just friends.

“Shut up,” said Elder Stahl in English. He stood up, and I did, too. God, how I wished I could talk to them. I wondered if I could bring Elder Stuart here another day, if Stuart would tell anyone we’d come. I wished I could come alone. I needed to talk to them. Even Deiana I [p.76]couldn’t tell everything to. I wondered if there would ever be anyone in my life I could really talk to. These men apparently had talking, friendship, and sex. That was certainly too much to hope for, but I thought I could settle for no sex if I could just really talk to someone. Deiana had been the closest I’d ever come, and that was pretty satisfying.

I realized then that Deiana was exactly what I’d been hoping for when I came on a mission. Yes, I’d wanted to serve God, but I also wanted to have a deep, good friendship with other men. It was why I could look so forward to a mission that other nineteen-year-olds in the church dreaded. The most miserable aspect of my mission hadn’t been the lack of success in the work but the lack of decent men to become friends with.

I truly loved the church, though, and so did Deiana. I could have become a Catholic priest or joined the navy if all I wanted was male company. Neither experience would be much more miserable than this one. It was sharing the company of someone who loved the same things I loved that made the miserable things like Stahl bearable. Yet despite the love I felt for the church, I was glad Deiana had broken a rule to write me, and I knew I wouldn’t feel the least bit guilty by doing the same thing. Loving the church and loving the rules wasn’t always the same thing. Of course, it was apostasy to think that way. Our eternal exaltation rested even on the smallest of rules, we were constantly reminded. And yet it felt very “right” to be “wrong” at times. Something just wasn’t fitting into place.

Sandro opened the door to the apartment, and Elder Stahl and I stepped out into the stairwell. Then Alberto came to the door. “So you really don’t want to stay and have sex with us?” he asked mockingly.

“Alberto,” said Sandro.

“Well, you know we have to tell them.”

“You are so disgusting,” said Elder Stahl.

“Is oral sex a sin?” asked Alberto.

“Yes,” said Elder Stahl.

“Not for married couples,” I amended, shrugging. It was another positive aspect of Mormonism that virtually all sexual acts inside of a loving temple marriage were acceptable. It was so good to see that our church leaders weren’t small-minded about these things. It was another proof that the church really was true, even if I didn’t understand everything about its rules.

[p.77]”So you don’t even want to watch?” asked Sandro, and Alberto looked at him oddly. Sandra shook his head and then suddenly pulled me back into the apartment and shut the door. Elder Stahl banged on it and shouted. I was too surprised to do anything. Were they going to rape me? I knew I should feel upset, but instead I felt my penis becoming erect, and I hoped they wouldn’t notice. I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it, naturally, but maybe it was an answer to my prayers. Maybe it would be so unpleasant that it would actually destroy all homosexual desire. Finally, finally, God was coming through for me just at my weakest moment.

“I can’t go through with this,” said Sandro.

Oh, no, please, you have to, I wanted to say. But I knew I was still just being wicked. I knew I was always going to want this. The wave of depression made me go flaccid instantly.

“You wimp,” returned Alberto.

“I’ll tell this one,” said Sandro. He put his hand on my shoulder. “We shouldn’t have done it,” he went on, and I wondered again if they had poisoned us. “It’s just that we get so sick of religious people. You have to understand, we go through so much.”

So I was going to be killed on my mission, after all, and by a gay person, of all things. It was just too appropriate. God, knowing that because of my gayness my only chance for exaltation was martyrdom, chose my own failure as my ticket to heaven. After coming this far, however, it was still a little irritating. If God was going to let me be killed, he could have done it months ago before most of the crap I went through out here. Of course, maybe he had to wait until I realized for sure that it was impossible for me to change. That was something now that I finally understood.

“It’s okay,” I said.

Alberto laughed. “What’s okay? You don’t even know what we’ve done.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Alberto covered a smile and then hid his head against Sandro’s shoulder. Sandro looked at me and then looked down at the floor. “We masturbated into your drinks. You drank me and your friend drank Alberto.” Alberto tried to smother his laughter by burying his face in Sandro’s back.

“He’s not my friend,” I said.

“I do think we should tell that guy,” Alberto managed to say.

[p.78]”I’m really sorry,” said Sandro. “It was juvenile of us.”

“Fuck ‘em both,” said Alberto.

I remembered as a teenager the first time I tasted my ejaculation. It had made me gag. But I’d heard that gays had oral sex, and I just had to know what it was like. The next several times I tried to taste it, I gagged again. But I kept trying every once in a while, fantasizing about another man, pretending I was taking him in my mouth, wishing someone would seduce me.

There was one very cute weatherman on the Weather Channel, and, if no one was home, I knew when his shift was, so I’d turn on the T.V., masturbate while looking at him, and then sometimes quickly put my ejaculate in my mouth, pretending it was from the guy on T.V. I always felt like a degenerate sleaze afterward, knowing no one else could possibly be as perverted and disgusting as I was, and yet somehow the idea of physically becoming one with another man was more satisfying than repulsive, and I kept fantasizing, wanting to pray for the experience to become real one day, but never daring to actually pray for such an abominable thing. Living with missionaries all the time hadn’t filled that emotional need, and I’d been very good about not masturbating and about controlling my thoughts out here, but now with Stahl, of all people, I’d had the experience I’d wanted for ages. I felt closer to Stahl for a moment but then instantly felt more distant from him than ever.

He was still banging on the door. “I’m going to call the police,” he shouted.

“Oh, shut up, Elder,” I said loudly. Then I turned back to Sandro, wondering if I didn’t tell Stahl, if I could bring Elder Stuart here one day and ask Sandro if I could have the same kind of drink I had last time.

No, that would be a sin. But could I enjoy what happened today without its being a sin? I should feel mad and tricked and violated, while instead I felt glad I had Sandro rather than Alberto inside of me. I felt … I felt good. And I knew suddenly that I wanted to have this feeling again sometime.

This must mean, though, that being gay wasn’t entirely sexual. Sandro and I hadn’t done anything more than shake hands, and yet we’d had a sexual experience that was deeply emotional. If the emotion was the most valid part of that union, how could the church say it was simply lust? Something just wasn’t right.

[p.79]But maybe I wasn’t able to think clearly right now, not right after my drink had been raped.

I laughed out loud, and Sandro and Alberto took a step back. “Sorry,” I said. Then I shook hands with each of them. “Life is too complicated for me to know if I should be mad or not.” Sandro looked at me intensely, and I suppressed an urge to kiss him. “I guess I’d better go now. Thanks for an interesting evening. You won’t feel slighted if I don’t write about this in my letter home?”

“You have our address.” Alberto winked. “You can write to us.”

Of course, I could never write down my full feelings and have the danger of someone ever finding it. My one comfort was knowing that if I ever committed suicide, no one would be able to know why.

Alberto leaned over and shrugged. “Maybe your friend is right. Maybe homosexuality is really wrong. After all, if God had meant for a man to be fucked, he’d have given him an asshole.” He laughed, but Sandro shook his head. Alberto shrugged and kept chuckling. “I’m sure he’s never heard it before.”

It wasn’t funny, though. It was people like Alberto who made me think the church must be right, that homosexuality was indeed low and vulgar. But people could also make heterosexual sex low and vulgar, so that didn’t prove anything. I didn’t know what to think.

“Why couldn’t you have just poisoned us?” I asked.

Sandro smiled. “Good luck, kid,” he said, patting me on the shoulder again. “I hope you really do believe in evolution. It’s the only thing that’ll keep you from becoming extinct.” He opened the door, and I joined Elder Stahl in the hall. We started downstairs immediately, passing a couple of people peering out their doors at us on the next landing.

“What happened in there?” Elder Stahl demanded.

“They just said they’d had sex with a Mormon missionary once, and they wondered what became of him.”

“Who was it?”

“They didn’t say.”

“Well, that’s not very helpful. How can I report that to the

president? We can’t let gays go around representing the church, can we? Are you sure they didn’t tell you his name?” ”I’m sure,” I said, “but you can always go back and ask them yourself.”

“Funny.”

[p.80]We left the building and walked briskly along the street to a bus stop. “Do you have to report everything to the president?” I asked.

In an almost emotionless voice, Elder Stahl answered. “I’ll have to report that you don’t think so.”

Then, remembering what he’d said this afternoon, I added, “Will you write about it in your journal?”

“Something that filthy? I don’t want my kids reading that one day. You want your kids to read that?”

“We can’t protect children forever. Knowing the truth is surely better than lying. Isn’t that why we’re out here, because leaving people in ignorance isn’t the Lord’s plan? How can our kids make real decisions without knowing what life is like?”

“I’m not telling my kids about this. You’re disgusting.”

“Well, you tell the president and I’ll tell my journal. Fair enough?” I would also tell Deiana, at least about some of it, just to see what his reaction might be. I wouldn’t know I couldn’t talk to him about everything unless I tried. Of course, I could never say everything about tonight even to my journal, but even broaching the subject would be so liberating. Unless Deiana reacted like Stahl. It just didn’t seem fair that I had to risk so much for the chance of receiving some tiny bit of decency. But taking a risk was the only way to receive any decency at all, so what choice was there?

The first bus that passed wasn’t ours, so we waited silently for the next. I thought about the brief two months Deiana and I had spent together, and how I knew even at the time that that experience made the rest of my mission worthwhile. We’d probably never see each other again, but would finding a more permanent friendship after my mission like the one I’d had with him make my whole life worthwhile? It was too much to think about.

I had to clear my mind again, so I began humming the tune to a hymn. “Ye Elders of Israel, come join now with me.”

Elder Stahl looked at me disgustedly, and I smiled in return, humming along until I came to the refrain. “O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell,” I sang out softly. “We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell.” Elder Stahl stared off down the street, looking for our bus, and I hummed the tune again as I rehearsed the second verse in my mind. But I stopped then, not going on to the third verse, my other thoughts refusing to be kept out.

My mission was supposed to make me a better person, I thought, [p.81]seeing Deiana in my mind in bed in his pajamas. It wasn’t a sexual image this time, however, but a comforting one. Why did feeling close to another human being make me feel so alone? Why would anyone want me to feel bad about being close to another person? Something just wasn’t right.

I joined Elder Stahl, glad our time as companions was almost over, and looked down the street, wishing I were with Deiana, and looking forward to being with Stuart again soon. I stood next to Stahl, alone, waiting in the dark for the bus.

“This has certainly been a miserable evening,” muttered Elder Stahl. “Every time I have to work with you just wears down my soul.”

Listening to him almost made me sick. I felt my stomach churn, but remembering what was inside my stomach in some bizarre way calmed me. “Well, don’t force yourself to work with me,” I said. “The Lord doesn’t expect a seasoned missionary like you to be able to put up with the strain. That’s why he gave me a greenie.”

“I doubt the president will let that last much longer, after I tell him about tonight.”

“The president’s in charge of this mission? I thought it was the Lord. I’m sure he knows exactly what happened tonight.”

“Don’t you give me that crap. You think you’re so smart.”

“No,” I said, “actually, I think I’m pretty slow. But I’m catching up.” Elder Stahl looked too disgusted to say anything, so I went on, hating myself for being so petty but unable to resist. “Why don’t you show me how spiritual you are by taking a referral before we get home?”

“I already told you,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’m supposed to make sure you know what you’re doing. That one referral you took tonight was evil. Why don’t you try to redeem yourself before we get home? Think you can take a referral at 9:30 at night?”

I thought about playing my exaggeration game again by replying, “I can get two,” but the time for games seemed to be over. “I don’t know if I could or not,” I finally said. “I know you can’t, though, or you’d do it to show me up. Frankly, I just don’t care to try anymore.”

“I’ll have to report that, Elder.”

I smiled. “I feel like a late bloomer sometimes, but I do wonder how old you’ll be before you grow up.”

“That’ll be quite enough, Elder. I can have you transferred to the[p.82] boondocks if I want. To Sassari or Pescara. You better show some respect. ”

I was too sick of him to want to hear his voice any longer, and as he so obviously needed to have the last word, I let him so he would be quiet. He could cause trouble for me with the president, but as I hadn’t violated any mission rules, there was only so much they could do. It did mean, however, that I wouldn’t be able to risk going with Stuart to see Sandro again. It didn’t matter, though. I had enough to think about for a while with just the one visit.

I believed that Stahl was a jerk, but I believed the church was true. I believed that homosexuality was wrong, but I wanted nothing more than to be able to be gay and be Mormon. That could never be, and yet I couldn’t give up either one.

Suddenly, I wished I’d never run into Sandro. It hurt my head too much to think about things which were impossible. Figuring a way out of this was impossible. And when things were impossible, the only thing left to do was think of a church song.

“I’m the one that writes my own story. I decide the person I’ll be. What goes in the plot, and what does not, is pretty much up to me.”

The bus came, and soon we were back on Franco Sacchetti. “Just a minute, Elder,” I said, directing Stahl to the bar that was about to close. We often bought milk and cookies here for a bedtime snack. Elder Stahl rolled his eyes but followed.

I bought a bottle of Lattè di Mandorle, and though Stahl couldn’t possibly know why, he still glared at me. I shrugged. “My companion has a lot left to experience out here,” I said. “I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I neglected almond milk. You can have some too if you want. ” Elder Stahl turned away in disgust and, carrying my bottle, I followed him back home.

“You need a souvenir to remember tonight?” asked Stahl in the elevator on our way up, scowling at the bottle in my hand.

I looked at him and couldn’t help but laugh. “Imagine, Elder, how much you could contribute to the world if you used all that energy you spend in hating me for something positive instead.”

“Imagine if you

“Oh, Elder, get a life already,” I said. “And don’t do it by sucking mine out of me. Get your own life. I want to keep mine for myself.”

“I’m going to report your insolence, Elder.”

[p.83]I laughed again. “Do it then and leave me alone. You’re nothing but a daddy’s boy, a president’s boy. So go run and cry to him.”

The doors opened onto our floor and Elder Stahl pushed past me to leave first. ”I’m through talking to you,” he said.

“Thank God,” I returned. I knew I shouldn’t provoke him, but I couldn’t seem to help it. I felt every bit as petulant and arrogant as Alberto had been tonight. I felt injected with a new energy that wouldn’t let me go back to what I was, though I didn’t think the new me was going to be much of an improvement. Following Stahl to our apartment, though, I knew I’d better try to calm down. I had four more months left, and as miserable as it had already been, they could make it worse. Maybe I’d tell the president that Sandro had told me he’d spiked my drink, and I was belligerent due to the alcohol. My whole mission was a lie, anyway; what did it matter if I lied a little more?

Elder Stuart greeted me at the door with a smile and a tap on his pocket planner to show me he’d gotten a return appointment. I smiled back and handed him the almond milk, explaining how to make it and then heading straight to our room, asking him to tell me about his evening in the morning. I kicked off my shoes, pulled off my suit, and plopped right in bed, though it wasn’t even 10:00. I could feel I was going to need a full night’s rest to face the next day.

But lying in bed with the lights off, instead of falling asleep I saw Sandro’s face. And then I saw even more of him. This time I didn’t try to kick out the images but let them come inside of me. It felt good, and not only sexually. But eventually I tried to clear my mind, and just before 10:30, Elder Stuart came back into the room. He quietly undressed and slid into his bed. For the first time I let myself fantasize about him, too. Then I felt guilty. Even if I could ever accept my gayness and accept the idea of finding a real and complete friend, I could hardly justify promiscuity, and yet I had just fantasized about two different men, one of whom was already “married.” Maybe it was true, then, that gays were all degenerates, and just letting myself go for a few minutes had already pushed me further down that road.

I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I was excited, and scared, and most of all tired. Four more months. And instead of going faster, the last few seemed to absolutely drag by. I felt very tired. All this time, and I still didn’t know if I was going to make it. It was a tiring thought.

[p.84]I let my fingers caress my nipples lightly, feeling the symbols woven[p.84] into my undershirt over each nipple, one to remind me to stay on the right course, the other to remind me that the Lord expected us to live strictly following his rules. “God, what in the world do you want from me?” I asked silently. I put my arms down beside me and tried to focus on the blackness I saw when I closed my eyes, and I cleared my mind the way I often had to at night, chanting silently to myself. “Nothing. Nothing. Blackness. Nothing. Nothing. Blackness. Nothing. Emptiness. Emptiness.” After a while I finally fell asleep.

JOHNNY TOWNSEND is a college English instructor in Louisiana. He has previously published fiction in Christopher Street and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He lives in New Orleans.