I was back home from New York by early December. My parents picked me up at the airport. On the ride home, they sat up front and I sat in the back. Our conversation was about how nice it was to see Christmas lights and how high up people were building on the mountain. They didn’t ask anything about my time in New York, I didn’t volunteer anything, and it was understood by all of us that my time there was going to be a brief mistake I needed to silently move on from.
There was some inverted pollution trapped in the Salt Lake Valley, and the soft curls of white smoke gave the snow an unfocused cottony blur. Only when we exited the freeway in Pleasant Grove did I notice how much it had snowed—plows had formed walls of snow nearly as tall as I was alongside the roads.
When we got home, I said hello to my sisters and then carried my bags downstairs into my old room. There were a few new pictures on the wall, mostly of my brother in his suit and nametag before he left to Ecuador to serve on a Mormon mission. My mother had painted over the various punk lyrics and slogans I had written in marker on the walls, though she used white paint, and you could still see hints of words—“Unity,” “Against All Authority,” etc.— if you looked closely. With the slogans painted over, the room had a ghostly, institutional quality, as if it had been prepared for a new son to move in. Instead, it got a slightly older version of the same one.
Back in my old bedroom, the lack of progress I’d made as an adult to that point closed in on me. It was as if I had stayed still in my parents’ basement for the past two years—twenty years old but no different than I was when I graduated high school. Since then, I had completed one year of college with bad enough grades that I lost my scholarship and had to drop out. I had moved to New York looking for purpose, but found myself lonely and out of place; I never engaged with the city the way true adventurers are supposed to. And even though it had been years since I’d stopped going to church, I was still a virgin.
This was one thing in high school; I had a brutal case of acne at the time and no ability to think of anything but that when talking to anyone. But by this time the acne’s only remnant was some scarring on my shoulders, and I had pretty eyes and was skinny. In the reflection of bus windows, I looked handsome enough to almost convince myself that I was the person I wished I was. If any of the New York stories were true, uglier guys than me were definitely getting laid. At the same time, I had lain in bed under the covers at my old apartment with a girl named Melissa and held perfectly still until we talked ourselves to sleep.
Growing up, I always assumed I would lose my virginity on my wedding night, and though I outwardly cited the possibility of premarital sex as one of the big perks of not going to church, it didn’t actually feel like one. I hadn’t learned much from living in New York, except that in temperament, I was basically just a Mormon who never went to church. (This was especially so when I didn’t have the money to buy pot.) Though I learned to talk a decent game about the importance of sex-positive paradigms, inwardly I was still shocked by the sexual openness of my peers there, who could talk about their bedroom experiences in well-lit places during normal daytime hours without hushed tones. Not only did I feel like I would be a virgin forever, I felt uncertain whether I wanted to change that or not. Some of my conflict probably owed to the effectiveness of abstinence rhetoric. Thanks to some visual aids, I knew they told girls that, as virgins, they were peaches—but after having they sex became rotten peaches. That message seemed to be for girls primarily, but the image of rotten fruit stayed with me. I remembered the advice given to me by my uncle to ensure that I would stay pure until it was time to go on a mission: “Just tell yourself that she’s cut down there.” When I was thirteen, I was slipped a pamphlet about how to quit masturbating that included the advice to think of festering worms every time you felt aroused. My friend Brad, who claimed to have slept with Kylee, “among others,” told me that sex was just “lust and hormones, man,” but it felt much bigger than that. I never would have admitted it out loud because I knew the kinds of eye rolls such a melodramatic pronouncement would trigger, but I felt that any path I chose was going to lead to a regret I could never undo, whether that meant staying a virgin forever, getting married for the wrong reason, or having sex and feeling like a rotten peach afterward. And even that line of thinking ignored the reality that nobody was lining up outside my bedroom to make the dilemma real.
Right before I moved back home, I applied online for a job as a “vacuum specialist” at Utah Valley State College, the school where I’d lost my scholarship. They needed someone right away, after the last guy had been fired for sleeping on the job. The manual instructing how to use the vacuum was already on the desk when I showed up for my interview; I’m not sure what it would have taken for them to not hire me. I worked eight-hour shifts, with one hour for lunch. The smoky December dusks seemed to always arrive right as my shift ended, and I’d ride the bus home in the dark.
During my break, I would walk to the Sinclair gas station across the street from campus and get coffee and a sandwich for lunch. A few on-campus restaurants were still open, and the gas station smelled of sulphur, but I didn’t want to see anyone I recognized and have to explain where I’d been or why I was back.
One day on my walk to the gas station, a slant of sunshine moved between clouds. It felt as if I hadn’t seen the sun in days, and though it was still very cold outside, the sun’s rays gave the illusion that it was getting warm. The sun also began to melt the snow that had been weighing down the branches; heaps of it softly thumped the sidewalk below. The salt that had been sprinkled over the sidewalks glimmered, making the sidewalk look like a magic path showing me the way. I ate my lunch at my usual table in the gas station.
I was vacuuming the basement of the liberal arts building later that afternoon when Amy stopped me. She had dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a black hoodie. I was stunned when she interrupted my vacuuming; usually that only happened when someone wanted to point out that the portable vacuums we carried on our backs looked like jet packs or the backpacks from Ghostbusters. I was somewhat familiar with Amy from my days as a student; we had one class together, a history class, in which we were once placed in the same small group assigned to give a presentation on World War I. I still had her phone number, given to me for the purposes of that project. I had called it once before moving—a superfluous call, ostensibly related to our class but transparently not so. During our conversation, she was distracted by something her sister was doing and mostly talked to her.
In the hallway, she asked what I’d been up to, and I pretended that my time in New York had been more exciting than it had been, but that I’d regrettably had to move home to go back to school. We talked about what we were doing over the holidays—both of us were staying in town with family. She told me to give her a call if I wanted to commiserate about it and then walked away. I remember she turned around after she was about twenty feet away to tell me, “Nice vacuum, by the way.”
Pushed by the desperation and boredom of spending all my time in my parents’ basement, I did find the courage to call her. I took the phone out to the basketball hoop where no one could hear me, and we talked about her summer trip to visit family in North Carolina. The lightning storms were unlike anything she had ever seen.
I began skipping lunch at the Sinclair in hopes of running into her. It never worked—it was still Christmas break, and she was probably just picking something up that one time—but somehow eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone in an empty classroom was still less bleak than the gas station. In the evening, on the phone, I talked to Amy about how strange it was to be in a classroom when no one was there—devoid of the exchange of ideas and information, the cheap construction of the liberal arts building really stood out.
“If you want,” she said, “I’ll come eat with you next week.”
I chose the nicest room in the building that day—one on the second floor with a view of the parking lot. Amy met me there with an egg salad in glass Tupperware that she brought from home. She was again wearing a black hoodie and a lot of mascara. I couldn’t remember seeing her wear makeup before.
“So, how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked, unable to think of anything better.
“One brother, four sisters. You?”
“One and two.”
“Mormon, I presume?”
“Oh yeah. You?”
“Since the days of Brother Young.”
“Yeah. Do you have big Christmas plans?”
“Not really. Everyone’s grown except one sister, and she’s 17.”
“Same. What will you do for Christmas now that nobody’s a kid?”
“We’ll just pretend we still are and do it the same as always.”
About a week before Christmas, after my shift, my mother asked me if I was ready for “another crazy night” at Aunt Angie’s. I hadn’t gone last year since I was in New York, and I’d forgotten about that tradition.
“Oh, I don’t think I can go this year,” I said.
“Why not?” she said.
“I’m just a little tired after work…” I said.
“Well, you haven’t been going out much lately. I just thought it might be nice for you to get out.”
That was true: all I did when I wasn’t working was brood in the basement, call Amy, or go for long walks uphill toward the mountains, as far as I could get before I got too cold or tired.
“Yeah, I know. But I don’t know if this is the best night.”
“I see. It’s just that with your brother gone, it might be nice to try to do something as a family—what family we have here. And you weren’t able to go last year . . . ”
“All right—I’ll go.”
Because I had forgotten about the party, I had saved myself from having to dread it all day; however, now that it was near, the full horror of the party drenched me at once. Usually this party involved musical numbers, a nativity, and this year, I assumed, a lot of judgmental questions about what I was doing with my life. Every family brought a plate of cookies or brownies and descended down the stairs into Angie’s basement-turned-preschool-turned-party-headquarters with Mickey Mouse illustrations teaching kids how to count still lining the perimeter of the walls.
On the way, we picked up my great aunt Ina, a name that registered with me in language only—not as a face or even a blurred image. She was old and her husband had passed away earlier in the year, and so she was going to spend the holidays with us.
Her house in American Fork was tidy but dusty. A black cat walked around the corner. “I put the catnip out for that little devil, and he just rolled over in it,” Ina said. She fed the cat; we locked the door and left.
In the car, she asked about my brother and how his mission was going. My dad started to answer. For my part, I hardly ever wrote my brother and didn’t really know how he was. His first letter to me from Ecuador was a detailed description of a celebration that involved the burning of effigies—he noted the size, heat, and brightness of the fires all around. But his emails from there became more focused on the proselytizing efforts, and it was hard to get motivated to write him when I knew he would eventually turn that gaze my way. I was thinking about what I might say to him in my next letter when Ina managed to turn around in her seat and look at me. “How long until we’re going to have another missionary in the family?” she asked. I mumbled something unintelligible—but in a cheery tone—and looked out the window. My dad changed the subject. I could hear the wind outside. Snow whirled around the car and seemed to move back up into the sky.
The snow slowed the commute, and it was dark when we parked on the street a few houses down. We walked into the house, down its throat to the congested basement, warm from excessive laughter and too many bodies. We were just in time to catch the other Michael (my cousin) playing “Silent Night” on the piano.
Since we were late and there was already musical entertainment in the room, my mom wouldn’t feel pressure to provide a family musical number of our own, which put me more at ease. Other Michael finished, and it looked like the nativity was next. Kids were herded into the storage room to prepare the re-enactment. From the age of six until the age of twelve—the minimum cutoff year for kids no longer required to participate—I was the wise man who brought Jesus gold in that pageant. Joseph had always been reserved for the other Michael. The angel wings were too sparkly for boys, the barn animals had been rendered unnecessary since the year my cousin Seth became overzealous with his part and kicked a dent in the piano, and my cousins Beth and Aslen insisted on taking two of the three shepherd parts every year because they liked leaning on the giant candy canes and pretending they were real canes. That left the option of the third shepherd and the wise men. But gold wise man was by far the best role of them all, in my opinion. “Wouldn’t you like to bring frankincense or myrrh to Jesus?” Aunt Angie would sometimes ask while adjusting someone’s angel wings. “No, thank you.” Gold wise man had no lines and the least complicated costume—a round red hat and a plastic treasure chest. The other two wise men had purple, Heffner-style robes to wear, and they had to carry around fragile ornaments that someone guessed could hold frankincense or myrrh. All I had to do was leave that chest at Cabbage Patch Jesus’ plastic feet at the appropriate time, and then I could lean into the background and start counting down the minutes, knowing the worst was over.
I didn’t recognize most of the child actors this year. Angie’s husband Darrell always read the Bible version of the birth of Christ. (There’s a version of the same story in the Book of Mormon, as well.) While he read, I was thinking through a rolodex of unrelated things: when we were going to get out of there, if I would ever have sex, what I was going to do when we got home, and my brother in Ecuador. I wondered how long it would take him to be engaged when he got home and guessed it would probably take about six months. I imagined his fiancée: Her name would be Annette. She would be a Timpview High graduate who now went to BYU. She would have strawberry blonde hair and freckles and would enjoy dancing, including ballroom and country line dancing, which my brother would eventually also take up, his “charm” compensating for his linebacker build and lack of skill. They would meet in a Mormon singles ward. My brother would notice her during church, then talk to her during a weekly activity, possibly involving the making of stilts. He would mention to her that he was taking night classes at UVSC and working full-time in order to become financially and academically eligible for BYU. He would say that he wanted to go into real estate, that he had a true testimony of the church, the strength of which he only discovered on his mission. She would look into his brown eyes and see that he meant it.
I was thinking about how he would propose to her—deciding between hiring a horse and carriage and wearing knight-in-shining-armor apparel, or taking her up to the top of Mount Timpanogos and proposing there, as my parents had done—when the scripture ended. The sequence seemed faster than I remembered, and Christ’s birth as a whole felt anticlimactic as I had tuned out of most of the build-up. Besides, it was only 8:30. My dad then went upstairs and brought down a dozen roses that he had been hiding somewhere and presented them to Aunt Ina. He said he remembered how Ina said her husband Earl presented her with a dozen roses every Christmas. Ina started to cry and break everyone’s heart, including mine, even though I still had no idea who she was.
After we felt we had observed the necessary period of looking at our feet in silence, my older cousins and uncles started gathering around the chips and brownies to talk about BYU’s bowl game and the Jazz’s chances this year. The kids hovered around the Christmas tree investigating gifts. My mom was laughing with some of the other moms and my sisters were coercing the other Michael into playing another number on the piano. My dad stuck by Ina. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Most years I would have staked out a corner with my brother and waited it out until mom was ready to go. The rest of my immediate family was detained. I loved to talk about the Jazz, but my cousins and uncles were prone to unnecessary hand-on-the-shoulder advice when talking to someone younger, especially someone not committed to going on a mission, so I crossed that possibility off and waited by myself on the couch.
After a few minutes my aunt Rachel was next to me. Her appearance was cartoonishly sudden for anyone, especially a person holding a baby in her arms and pregnant with another.
“Would you like to hold Caitlin?”
“Actually, thank you, but I am not that good with babies. Thank you, though.”
“Come on, go ahead and hold her. She likes you!” she said, and lifted Caitlin up to my face, as if that were some kind of proof.
“Wow, she is really adorable. But actually I don’t know. I don’t really know how to hold babies,” I said.
“Come on, here you are,” Rachel said, and handed Caitlin over. “There, see? She likes you!” Rachel stood up and left me. I held Caitlin in my arms and stared into her face. She was pretty fat, surprisingly heavy for a baby. She smiled, and it was cute. Rachel was probably on the opposite side of the house by now and I knew that I would be looking into Caitlin’s face until she started crying or until my mother stopped “visiting” and was ready to go—and I wasn’t sure what to do about that. Put my thick, villainous eyebrows to use and start making scary faces at her, hoping she would react badly and have to be taken away by someone more competent? Start trying to make eye contact with my mom, who might realize my discomfort and feel she owed me one for coming in the first place and break away from visiting a little earlier than usual? I stared at the baby. She stared back.
That’s how long we stared at each other, and after a while, as though hypnotized, I was glad to have her. Her presence gave me the appearance of having something to do. My mom finally came by and picked Caitlin up. She was still wearing her Christmas sweater and I wondered how she wasn’t sweating. Once she found Rachel’s husband to take Caitlin, we left. I emerged from the stuffy basement, waved goodbye without making eye contact, moved fast to the coat pile and finally out the door and into the cold, black winter air which felt new and open.
When we got back to my parents’ house, I went straight down into the basement. It was still early—not yet ten p.m.—and I was not at all tired. I looked over the VHS tapes down there; before my brother left for his mission, he had purged the house of all movies with any hint of bad language, sex, or violence, and now my viewing choices were limited to Disney movies, The Sound of Music, or Little House on the Prairie.
I took the cordless phone downstairs and called Amy to see what she was doing. She answered and said her family had just finished their nightly scripture study. I told her about Angie’s party and she asked if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. This felt like a big step—the first time we’d be in the same place at night—and I responded to the question like a benchwarmer not expecting to play might. I said, “Uh, well, okay.” Did I have a car? No, but maybe I could get one.
I went upstairs and told my mom that Brad was having some people over to his new house in Orem. In truth, he was currently living in the same house he grew up in, along with his sister, as his dad had remarried and moved. He slept behind her couch instead of on it because he was too tall. But my mom didn’t know that.
“I don’t know. It’s supposed to get kind of bad out there,” she said, looking out the window.
“I’ll be careful. If it gets too bad, I’ll stay the night over there.”
She thought about it, and then I reversed the guilt she had used on me earlier to talk about how I finally wanted to leave the house, and for once, I really felt like it. “I’ll be back by eleven, unless the roads are too bad, and then I’ll just stay the night. I’ll be sure to call,” I said.
She moved her head to the side, her signal for the reluctant go-ahead.
I’m not sure what Amy told her parents, if anything, but she was already standing outside in the snow when I picked her up. She was likely out there a while, as I wasn’t used to Alpine, and it took me a while to find her house. I took her to Denny’s. The music there was country Christmas covers.
We talked mostly about our families and about church. Like me, she hadn’t been for a few years, didn’t have much faith left, but felt very defensive about the religion because her family was so devout.
“Even though my heart isn’t in it, it feels like an arm or a leg or something still is,” I said.
“I recommend cutting that back to no more than a toe,” she said.
We got three refills and an English muffin each before the waitress told us her shift was almost over and hinted that maybe ours should be too. Amy asked me if I wanted to go look at the lights, and I called my mom from Amy’s cell phone and told her I was going to spend the night at Brad’s. Amy called her house and made her own excuse—but I don’t know what it was, since she made the call outside while I was paying the five dollar check.
After Denny’s we drove around for a while. My family’s Astro van was terrible in the snow, and I panicked every time it slid diagonally toward a stoplight. Thankfully, the roads were nearly empty. The neon colors of State Street were absorbed by the snow. Still, I was desperate for a place to stop. There was too much snow on the ground to reach the summer canyon spots. Amy knew of a back road that wound above the Lindon cemetery, but that was closed off as well. I didn’t really want to drive the van on neighborhood roads that might not have been plowed and salted. We eventually made our way to the summit where you could hike to either the G Mountain or the waterfall, where I had been dozens of times. That the Astro van made it up there was a Christmas miracle—it fishtailed a couple of times, and I was wondering what I would tell my parents, not to mention Amy’s, if the van ended up in a snowbank up there—but I drove steadily and it lurched forward. We made it to the summit, the only ones up there, and I parked the van facing the city.
Thanks to a grove of trees, that viewpoint only gave glimpses into the city through the empty branches, and the views shifted and closed with the wind. It was snowing, and I looked through the windshield up into the sky. I kept the car running for the heat and the music. The singer’s voice was piercing and sweet and sad and almost unbearable, but when I moved to turn it off, Amy stopped me. She offered me some vodka from a flask she kept in her backpack. I hadn’t had anything to drink since I’d come home from New York, but that sounded like something I could do and I took a few eye-squinting swigs of it.
The windows were fogging up and I felt the urge to step outside. Amy stood up and slipped between the front seats and into the middle section of the van, which was two more bucket seats. “How do you move these back?” she asked while pulling on the lever. The lever on the seat she was sitting in was broken, but I moved into the back and showed her that the other, root beer-stained seat could lean back. I demonstrated by pulling the lever. She moved over to my side and on top of me. We kissed for a while with her knees arching over my hips. She put her hands under my shirt, and her hands were cold as she slid them up and down my chest and ribs. After a few minutes of this I started to feel a scratchy, slow sort of sadness move up my spine, and I thought about the tree branches moving in front of the moon and city. I stopped and she asked, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, thinking over my options.
I could slow this down. Negotiate my way down the icy hill. The snow would cover my tracks. Maybe Amy wouldn’t take it personally; maybe I could explain to her that I felt the urge to get married first; maybe she would understand; maybe she would even marry me, one day. Or I could stay.
I was feeling a buzz from caffeine and alcohol. I could see the snow touch the windows and melt. The night was getting deeper, and the wind was picking up. I didn’t want to commit to a decision, so I just looked out the window and tried not to think. It didn’t work. I was a virgin in my hometown. I had this choice to make.
Amy held my hand and said, “Chill. Have some more vodka.”
All I knew about how seduction happened I learned from movies—and often those scenes shifted to montage as soon as they got started. I had no idea what to do, or how one thing could lead to another, how leaving my hand on her shoulder could lead to her sliding it under her shirt, how her hair could drip onto my face, how I could feel the smoothness of her back, how she would awkwardly help me get my shirt off, and we both would have goosebumps, the sight of which would cause me to move to the front to crank the van’s heat higher, how she would get a condom out of her backpack as I did so, and we would return to where we were, with her on top of me, how all the windows would fog up and we hoped we were the only ones stupid enough to drive where we were, how she could laugh about it afterward but not in a cruel way, and then we could talk for the rest of the night because both of us had said we were spending the night elsewhere and neither of us could go home.
Michael William Palmer’s work has appeared in Georgetown Review, The Collagist, Bellingham Review, and numerous other publications. He lives in Forest Park, IL.