Photo by Eflon/Flickr
By Kase Johnstun
In late January 2016, I walked through customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport after spending nearly a month in Barcelona, Spain. I’d spent my time there at JIWAR, an international artist residency, writing and drinking wine and looking out over Calle Asturies from my thin balcony.
In transit back to Utah, my phone, back on my U.S. cellular plan, dinged with local news notifications that had been blocked while in Spain. I scanned through them with a tiring thumb: car crashes, house fires, burglaries, and Mormon news.
A mug shot stopped my scrolling. My thumb hovered above the screen that showed a photo of someone I once knew well, someone I had once loved. It had been seventeen years since I’d seen her, even a photo of her, but I knew her, the way I know the lines to my favorite childhood movie though I haven’t watched it in decades, belting them out without thought. And I got dizzy. A warmth rushed upward to my head when the flush of adrenaline tapped into my bloodstream.
There was no mention of her name in the notification’s basic font that sat on my screen, only the mug shot and the headline, “Woman facing felony charges for fraudulently filling hundreds of prescriptions.” It was her face, but the bright eyes and smiling dimples and smooth skin that I remembered from our youth—from our early twenties—were gone. A grayness covered the photo, and a sturdiness in her gaze peered off the screen. She was no longer the young woman I loved romantically, but she also wasn’t the woman who I’d hoped had spent seventeen years laughing and smiling and being in love with her husband and not getting arrested on felony drug charges. I had found all these good things in life, and I had wished she had too.
I’d met her during my college years.
We did the same thing, took care of students with disabilities. I was a job coach for students my own age, eighteen- to twenty-two-years-old. She was a group home manager.
I spent my days piling students into a van, singing horrible nineties pop music on the way to our job sites, and working with them to dip chicken in batter or collect recycling for Sister Stephanie or straighten cereal boxes on supermarket shelves.
At the end of the day, I waited with them while their parents or group-home facilitators picked them up at the rim of the school’s roundabout. We waved goodbye like we’d never see each other again. Our hands flailed in the afternoon sun. The next morning, we’d all high five in the parking lot like team members running through a human tunnel. It was a fun ritual.
She would wait outside to take students to their home, to bathe them, and to make them feel a sense of family until they fell asleep at night.
They loved her. They rushed to her, threw their arms around her, many of the young men holding on a little too tight and a little too long. She’d roll her eyes and wiggle out of their grasp and give them a smile. They competed for her attention, as did I. She was pretty, but it was the way she laughed and shouted and lived life so unfiltered that drew me to her.
I’d asked her out a few times before she said yes, and when she finally did, we spent eight months together. For the most part, we laughed when we were together, the world—and the people in it—existed only for our entertainment.
She once told me about her uncle who, when he got hungry while sitting on his lazy boy and watching old episodes of seventies sitcoms, would ring a tiny bell and yell “chili” to his wife, who would then bring him some chili. It was horrible, and we both knew it, a domineering man and a subservient wife fulfilling his gross needs, so whenever we noticed a relationship in public like this, we would ring a fake little bell and yell “chili.” It was a way of saying, in public and right in front of men like this, “Are you seeing the way this asshole treats his wife.”
We laughed a lot.
But she had a sadness to her that hid behind the outwardly funny, boisterous, and giving personality that she wore everyday.
One night, after we had gotten close, after we had gone on a night hike on the trails of the Rocky Mountains, she pulled a photo out of a hiding place in her car. She held the photo close to her chest.
“I have kids, twins,” she said.
There were a few moments before she spoke again.
In those moments, I’d thought about how well she had hidden them from me, how well she had kept them a secret. I wondered where they were when I visited her at parents’ house where she lived. I wondered where they were when I just popped by one afternoon to say hello—had she seen me coming and stuffed them in a closet or a hamper or in the back with the dogs?
I understood keeping them from me, a young man who had sworn up and down that he never wanted to get married or have children.
But then she spoke again.
“They’re three now,” she said.
I remained quiet, still wondering where she had hidden them.
“I gave them up,” she said. “It was the only thing I could do. It was my first time having sex and their dad is not someone I would want to raise them. He didn’t fight the decision.”
She ran her fingers over the photo, letting the tip of her skin rest on the young children’s faces, a photo mailed to her from their adoptive mom.
“I miss them everyday,” she said.
The sadness hung on her for a few more moments before she shoved the photo back in its protective spot in her car.
I reached to give her hug, but she pulled away and made some crack about not being a cry baby or not being so needy or not being pathetic. Just as she put the photo away, she had somehow tucked the sadness away too.
In all my relationships before I got married, there was a moment when I knew that relationship would not survive much longer. With her, it came one Monday night when I visited her at her parent’s home. In Utah, with Mormons, Monday night is family home evening. It’s the night of the week when the family gathers together to pray, to eat dinner, and to invite elders over to lead discussions about their faith.
That night, right after dinner, her father asked us all to join him in the living room. He was a kind man. He asked us all to kneel down to pray. The very blond, pale portrait of Jesus that hangs in every Mormon household hung next to the just-as-common painting of the Mormon Temple. My immature self started to get angry.
At the time, when I had just barely broken the twenty-year mark, I felt offended that this man would ask me to kneel down to pray to the “Heavenly Father” of the LDS faith when he knew I was raised Catholic. Now, having just barely broken the forty-year mark with a family and a home of my own, my perspective has changed.
It was his home. It was Monday night. He had all of his children there. I would not have adjusted my family’s weekly ritual to suit the needs of a kid with a marijuana leaf necklace hanging around his neck and a five-inch long goatee dropping from his chin, the ratty thing crinkling in his fingers while he played with it nervously.
I knelt, doing my best to be respectful. Her dad reached out for his wife’s hand. They had all closed their eyes. Mine remained open to watch the wave of hand clasping approach me. My girlfriend reached out for mine, gave me a little smile, and grabbed it, rubbing her thumb across the backs of my fingers.
The prayer began, and I watched them, their devoutness in their prayer. All I wanted to do was to break the chain and walk away. The anger and resentment of my twenty years growing up in Mormon Utah as non-LDS growled in my gut, consuming me. And the rubbing of the thumb across the back of my fingers felt like acquiescence. They were kind people. I was immature.
I knew at that moment, however, that we would never last, and six months later, three months after I had tried to break up with her on the rocky Irish shores north of Dublin where she had met me at the end of my long backpacking trip across Europe to celebrate graduating college, and only two months after I had left Utah for Kansas to begin graduate school, we broke up over the phone. It was one of those relationships that took a departure to end it, but once the departure was made, both of us knew it was over.
“I just thought you would convert eventually,” she said to me. I think we both knew that I wouldn’t. It was the kindest break-up I had ever been through, and I believe when she hung up the phone, just like I did, she considered me a friend and wished the best for me.
We had never broken each other’s heart, not romantically. We had moved on, loving the person who gave us something in life, who, like my wife and I talk about over a couple of glasses wine, helped us find each other—to show us what we did and didn’t want in a lover. The heartbreak, for me, finally came when I saw her sadness in her gray and flat eyes in the mug shot on my phone.
Something had gone wrong somewhere along the way for her, and it hurt in the place in my heart reserved for long-ago lovers.
KASE JOHNSTUN lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. He is the author of rereleased Beyond the Grip Craniosynostosis (McFarland & Co). He is the co-editor/author of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front (The History Press). His essay collection Tortillas for Honkies was named a finalist for the 2013 Autumn House press Nonfiction Awards. He is the literary chair for the Ogden City Arts Advisory Committee and hosts a literary podcast called LITerally where he interviews authors about all things publishing and writing.