Most of you may know this story, but it’s worth telling again, in honor of the impending Valentine's Day. Chelsea courageously copes with the emotional scars I still bear from my many years of post-mission dating in Utah County. The following recounts my first, and most traumatic, dating experience upon returning from my mission.
Dating in Utah County is completely unique to anywhere else on Earth. Take, for example, the RM factor. Returned LDS missionaries return to their home life and schooling not unlike a newborn entering the world. They're all a little shocked about what's going on around them, have wide, unblinking eyes, are almost completely incapable of social communication, and need to be slapped periodically to remind them to breath. At least, it was that way for me. They also return trailing a habit that was indoctrinated and ingrained in them each moment of each missionary day--a complete and utter terror of the opposite sex. Hugging even your own sister is a little weird when you first return. The problem is that to everyone in LDS culture, an unmarried RM is a loose cannon. To them, it seems few if any RM's can long survive the traumatic rebirth into real-life if they are single. The longer he goes without a girl's hand clasping his own, the more likely he is to watch Family Guy, drink Doctor Pepper, or swear. Therefore, it becomes the duty of every faithful Latter-day Saint to line up their returned missionary brothers and sisters. (I think it's in the D&C somewhere.)
I think whoever termed it "lining up" had an execution in mind. It feels a lot that way sometimes. Take my first "line up" experience upon returning home:
“Stuart! Welcome back! This is your old home teacher!”
“Brother Martin! How are you doing?”
“Really well, thanks! Just wanted to call and welcome you home. Also, I was wondering, we’re going to be having leftover pie on Sunday night. Would you like to come help us out with it? I think it would be good for us to hear some of your mission stories.”
One of the first things I learned upon returning home was a returned missionary is happiest when talking
about his mission. “Absolutely Brother Martin! I’d love to!”
“Sounds great, Stu. We’ll plan on you at 7:00”
The following Sunday Brother Martin came up to me in church. “We still on for tonight?” He was a grizzly man with a stout body and firm handshake. He intimidated me like crazy.
“Absolutely! I can’t wait.”
“Well, we’re excited to have ya. Oh, by the way, I’m going to have a niece there I want you to meet.”
My stomach rose and my heart sank. They met somewhere around the bottom of my lungs. “Oh, um, ok. Great.”
His eyes twinkled. “See you tonight.” And he walked away. The Machiavellian bastard.
That night, I went down to my room to get ready and, on my bedside table, spotted my missionary tag bearing the title “Elder Back.” It had gotten me through some pretty uncomfortable moments. I couldn't help it. I grabbed it and put it in my pocket, a little black, plastic security blanket.
I showed up on the doorstep. This time my heart had seemed to migrate to the top of my throat. I had just spent two years knocking on doors. Why was my hand so hesitant to touch this one? I knocked heavily. It swung open. “Stu, come on in!”
I stepped into the Martin living room. There were couches one two of the walls and a series of plush chairs on the third. On the left side of the room sat the girl’s family—three younger sisters and austere looking parents. In the chairs to my right sat the Martin family—Brother and Sister Martin and their son. On the couch on the far wall sat a pretty, but nervous girl with blue eyes and long blonde hair. She was flanked on either side by what I immediately deduced were her grandparents, definite progenitors of Brother Martin, powerful, stocky, and rough.
In the middle of the room, some distance from the fourth wall, sat a single kitchen chair. It might as well have had a nameplate reserving it for me. I sat down. “Sarah, this is Stu. Stu, Sarah,” Brother Martin said, not without a slight flourish.
“Good to meet you,” I said as I shook her hand. It was protocol. I shook hands.
“You too,” she said.
Then there was an awkward silence. I wasn’t sure what the procedure was here. Preach My Gospel didn't cover these situations. My sudden impulse was to ask someone to pray, but I luckily swallowed it.
“So,” I asked, feigning comfort, which more likely sounded like desperation, “Um, do you do anything for fun?”
She smiled. “Yeah. I love tennis and singing. I also love to read. How about you?”
“Hey, I like to read too! Have you read anything good lately?” This was going well.
“I recently just reread Pride and Prejudice again. It’s my favorite book.”
“Hey! I read Austen in high school.”
“Oh really? What did you think?” she was excited. This was going really well.
“Wasn’t a big fan, really,” I said. As the words were coming out of my mouth I realized I was making a dire mistake. She looked a little affronted, a little crestfallen, and a little annoyed. I was a little mortified. I tried to recover. “Well, um, I mean, it’s just that I don’t understand the way girls think all that well. I didn’t really get it.”
The smile stayed on Sarah’s face, but her eyes fell distant. Hushed murmurs of disapproval wafted from the audience. I had the distinct feeling that Sarah’s passion for tennis had come from her family. They were quiet spectators quietly watching our volley. Neither of us was winning.
“So, do you have any pets?” It wasn’t yet 15 minutes in. I had absolutely no idea what to ask. She told me about her pet cat at home, but that she wasn’t a big animal person. “I love animals.” Crap! Where’s my filter? The score fell to 30-love, Sarah.
25 minutes in: “Have you ever been to Washington?” I was playing to my strengths with this one.
“D.C.? Or Washington state?”
“I haven’t. I heard it’s pretty, though.”
“Oh man, it’s so pretty. I seriously miss it really bad.”
“Do you not like Utah at all?”
“I thought I did until I went there.” That sinking feeling I get when I say something stupid had by this time turned into a sort of dull ache.
“Oh. Well I’ll have to try to visit someday.”
There was an awkward silence.
40 minutes in: “So what’s your favorite book?”
At our next awkward silence, I realized in horror that I had been out of anything constructive to say for over half an hour. I had been off my mission for 9 days. There wasn’t a lot of common ground to cover. I grasped at the small black tag in my pocket, willing for it to strengthen me. I suddenly got a flash of inspiration. I was good with kids! I was totally comfortable around kids! I turned to her sister, who couldn't have been any older than nine.
“And what was your name?”
“Jessica,” she said, blushing.
“Jessica, how old are you?”
“8? So that would put you in 3rd gr. . . “
A grizzled voice cut me off mid-sentence, “Hey, you’re here to talk to her!” It was Sarah’s grandpa, making a rough gesture in her directions. She was also blushing.
The awkward silence that followed was so intense, my tag started to bend in my pocket from my grip.
Ten minutes later, out of sheer boredom—it certainly wasn’t out of mercy—Sister Martin said, “Well, who would like some pie?”
I ate my obligatory pumpkin pie, and stumbled out of the house. Is it any wonder that eight years later, I'm still recovering?
"Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway" -John Wayne