On New Year’s Day, Mother drove me to my new life. I didn’t take much with me: a dozen jars of home-canned peaches, bedding, and a garbage bag full of clothes. As we sped down the interstate I watched the landscape splinter and barb, the rolling black summits of the Bear River Mountains giving way to the razor-edged Rockies. The university was nestled in the heart of the Wasatch Mountains, whose white massifs jutted mightily out of the earth. They were beautiful, but to me their beauty seemed aggressive, menacing.
My apartment was a mile south of campus. It had a kitchen, living room and three small bedrooms. The other women who lived there—I knew they would be women because at BYU all housing was segregated by gender—had not yet returned from the Christmas holiday. It took only a few minutes to bring in my stuff from the car. Mother and I stood awkwardly in the kitchen for a moment, then she hugged me and drove away.
I lived alone in the quiet apartment for three days. Except it wasn’t quiet. Nowhere was quiet. I’d never spent more than a few hours in a city and found it impossible to defend myself from the strange noises that constantly invaded. The chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air brakes, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk—I heard every sound individually. My ears, accustomed to the silence of the peak, felt battered by them.
I was starved for sleep by the time my first roommate arrived. Her name was Shannon, and she studied at the cosmetology school across the street. She was wearing plush pink pajama bottoms and a tight white tank with spaghetti straps. I stared at her bare shoulders. I’d seen women dressed this way before—Dad called them gentiles—and I’d always avoided getting too near them, as if their immorality might be catching. Now there was one in my house.
Shannon surveyed me with frank disappointment, taking in my baggy flannel coat and oversized men’s jeans. “How old are you?” she said.
“I’m a freshman,” I said. I didn’t want to admit I was only seventeen, and that I should be in high school, finishing my junior year.
Shannon moved to the sink and I saw the word “Juicy” written across her rear. That was more than I could take. I backed away toward my room, mumbling that I was going to bed.
“Good call,” she said. “Church is early. I’m usually late.”
“You go to church?”
“Sure,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“Of course I do. But you, you really go?”
She stared at me, chewing her lip, then said, “Church is at eight. Good night!”
My mind was spinning as I shut my bedroom door. How could she be a Mormon?
Dad said there were gentiles everywhere—that most Mormons were gentiles, they just didn’t know it. I thought about Shannon’s tank and pajamas, and suddenly realized that probably everyone at BYU was a gentile.
My other roommate arrived the next day. Her name was Mary and she was a junior studying early childhood education. She dressed like I expected a Mormon to dress on Sunday, in a floral skirt that reached to the floor. Her clothes were a kind of shibboleth to me; they signaled that she was not a gentile, and for a few hours I felt less alone.
Until that evening. Mary stood suddenly from the sofa and said, “Classes start tomorrow. Time to stock up on groceries.” She left and returned an hour later with two paper bags. Shopping was forbidden on the Sabbath—I’d never purchased so much as a stick of gum on a Sunday—but Mary casually unpacked eggs, milk and pasta without acknowledging that every item she was placing in our communal fridge was a violation of the Lord’s Commandments. When she withdrew a can of Diet Coke, which my father said was a violation of the Lord’s counsel for health, I again fled to my room.
THE NEXT MORNING, I got on the bus going the wrong direction. By the time I’d corrected my mistake, the lecture was nearly finished. I stood awkwardly in the back until the professor, a thin woman with delicate features, motioned for me to take the only available seat, which was near the front. I sat down, feeling the weight of everyone’s eyes. The course was on Shakespeare, and I’d chosen it because I’d heard of Shakespeare and thought that was a good sign. But now I was here I realized I knew nothing about him. It was a word I’d heard, that was all.
When the bell rang, the professor approached my desk. “You don’t belong here,” she said.
I stared at her, confused. Of course I didn’t belong, but how did she know? I was on the verge of confessing the whole thing—that I’d never gone to school, that I hadn’t really met the requirements to graduate—when she added, “This class is for seniors.”
“There are classes for seniors?” I said.
She rolled her eyes as if I were trying to be funny. “This is 382. You should be in 110.”
It took most of the walk across campus before I understood what she’d said, then I checked my course schedule and, for the first time, noticed the numbers next to the course names.
I went to the registrar’s office, where I was told that every freshman-level course was full. What I should do, they said, was check online every few hours and join if someone dropped. By the end of the week I’d managed to squeeze into introductory courses in English, American history, music and religion, but I was stuck in a junior-level course on art in Western civilization.
Freshman English was taught by a cheerful woman in her late twenties who kept talking about something called the “essay form,” which, she assured us, we had learned in high school.
My next class, American history, was held in an auditorium named for the prophet Joseph Smith. I’d thought American history would be easy because Dad had taught us about the Founding Fathers—I knew all about Washington, Jefferson, Madison. But the professor barely mentioned them at all, and instead talked about “philosophical underpinnings” and the writings of Cicero and Hume, names I’d never heard.
In the first lecture, we were told that the next class would begin with a quiz on the readings. For two days I tried to wrestle meaning from the textbook’s dense passages, but terms like “civic humanism” and “the Scottish Enlightenment” dotted the page like black holes, sucking all the other words into them. I took the quiz and missed every question.
That failure sat uneasily in my mind. It was the first indication of whether I would be okay, whether whatever I had in my head by way of education was enough. After the quiz, the answer seemed clear: it was not enough. On realizing this, I might have resented my upbringing but I didn’t. My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me. Doctors were Sons of Perdition. Homeschooling was a commandment from the Lord.
Failing a quiz did nothing to undermine my new devotion to an old creed, but a lecture on Western art did.
The classroom was bright when I arrived, the morning sun pouring in warmly through a high wall of windows. I chose a seat next to a girl in a high-necked blouse. Her name was Vanessa. “We should stick together,” she said. “I think we’re the only freshmen in the whole class.”
The lecture began when an old man with small eyes and a sharp nose shuttered the windows. He flipped a switch and a slide projector filled the room with white light. The image was of a painting. The professor discussed the composition, the brushstrokes, the history. Then he moved to the next painting, and the next and the next.
Then the projector showed a peculiar image, of a man in a faded hat and overcoat. Behind him loomed a concrete wall. He held a small paper near his face but he wasn’t looking at it. He was looking at us.
I opened the picture book I’d purchased for the class so I could take a closer look. Something was written under the image in italics but I couldn’t understand it. It had one of those black-hole words, right in the middle, devouring the rest. I’d seen other students ask questions, so I raised my hand.
The professor called on me, and I read the sentence aloud. When I came to the word, I paused. “I don’t know this word,” I said. “What does it mean?”
There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence. No papers shuffled, no pencils scratched.
The professor’s lips tightened. “Thanks for that,” he said, then returned to his notes.
I scarcely moved for the rest of the lecture. I stared at my shoes, wondering what had happened, and why, whenever I looked up, there was always someone staring at me as if I was a freak. Of course I was a freak, and I knew it, but I didn’t understand how they knew it.
When the bell rang, Vanessa shoved her notebook into her pack. Then she paused and said, “You shouldn’t make fun of that. It’s not a joke.” She walked away before I could reply.
I stayed in my seat until everyone had gone, pretending the zipper on my coat was stuck so I could avoid looking anyone in the eye. Then I went straight to the computer lab to look up the word “Holocaust.”
I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point I’d read enough. I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure. I do remember imagining for a moment, not the camps, not the pits or chambers of gas, but my mother’s face. A wave of emotion took me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to shout at her, at my own mother, and that frightened me.
I searched my memories. In some ways the word “Holocaust” wasn’t wholly unfamiliar. Perhaps Mother had taught me about it, when we were picking rosehips or tincturing hawthorn. I did seem to have a vague knowledge that Jews had been killed somewhere, long ago. But I’d thought it was a small conflict, like the Boston Massacre, which Dad talked about a lot, in which half a dozen people had been martyred by a tyrannical government. To have misunderstood it on this scale—five versus six million—seemed impossible.
I found Vanessa before the next lecture and apologized for the joke. I didn’t explain, because I couldn’t explain. I just said I was sorry and that I wouldn’t do it again. To keep that promise, I didn’t raise my hand for the rest of the semester.
THAT SATURDAY, I SAT at my desk with a stack of homework. Everything had to be finished that day because I could not violate the Sabbath.
I spent the morning and afternoon trying to decipher the history textbook, without much success. In the evening, I tried to write a personal essay for English, but I’d never written an essay before—except for the ones on sin and repentance, which no one had ever read—and I didn’t know how. I had no idea what the teacher meant by the “essay form.” I scribbled a few sentences, crossed them out, then began again. I repeated this until it was past midnight.
I knew I should stop—this was the Lord’s time—but I hadn’t even started the assignment for music theory, which was due at seven A.M. on Monday. The Sabbath begins when I wake up, I reasoned, and kept working.
I awoke with my face pressed to the desk. The room was bright. I could hear Shannon and Mary in the kitchen. I put on my Sunday dress and the three of us walked to church. Because it was a congregation of students, everyone was sitting with their roommates, so I settled into a pew with mine. Shannon immediately began chatting with the girl behind us. I looked around the chapel and was again struck by how many women were wearing skirts cut above the knee.
The girl talking to Shannon said we should come over that afternoon to see a movie. Mary and Shannon agreed but I shook my head. I didn’t watch movies on Sunday.
Shannon rolled her eyes. “She’s very devout,” she whispered.
I’d always known that my father believed in a different God. As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God’s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.
The service ended and we filed into Sunday school. Shannon and Mary chose seats near the front. They saved me one but I hesitated, thinking of how I’d broken the Sabbath. I’d been here less than a week, and already I had robbed the Lord of an hour. Perhaps that was why Dad hadn’t wanted me to come: because he knew that by living with them, with people whose faith was less, I risked becoming like them.
Shannon waved to me and her V-neck plunged. I walked past her and folded myself into a corner, as far from Shannon and Mary as I could get. I was pleased by the familiarity of the arrangement: me, pressed into the corner, away from the other children, a precise reproduction of every Sunday school lesson from my childhood. It was the only sensation of familiarity I’d felt since coming to this place, and I relished it.