On Sunday, a week later, a man at church asked me to dinner. I said no. It happened a second time a few days later with a different man. Again I said no. I couldn’t say yes. I didn’t want either of them anywhere near me.
Word reached the bishop that there was a woman in his flock who was set against marriage. His assistant approached me after the Sunday service and said I was wanted in the bishop’s office.
My wrist was still tender when I shook the bishop’s hand. He was a middle-aged man with a round face and dark, neatly parted hair. His voice was soft like satin. He seemed to know me before I even opened my mouth. (In a way he did; Robin had told him plenty.) He said I should enroll in the university counseling service so that one day I might enjoy an eternal marriage to a righteous man.
He talked and I sat, wordless as a brick.
He asked about my family. I didn’t answer. I had already betrayed them by failing to love them as I should; the least I could do was stay silent.
“Marriage is God’s plan,” the bishop said, then he stood. The meeting was over. He asked me to return the following Sunday. I said I would, but knew I wouldn’t.
My body felt heavy as I walked to my apartment. All my life I had been taught that marriage was God’s will, that to refuse it was a kind of sin. I was in defiance of God. And yet, I didn’t want to be. I wanted children, my own family, but even as I longed for it I knew I would never have it. I was not capable. I could not be near any man without despising myself.
I had always scoffed at the word “whore.” It sounded guttural and outmoded even to me. But even though I silently mocked Shawn for using it, I had come to identify with it. That it was old-fashioned only strengthened the association, because it meant I usually only heard the word in connection with myself.
Once, when I was fifteen, after I’d started wearing mascara and lip gloss, Shawn had told Dad that he’d heard rumors about me in town, that I had a reputation. Immediately Dad thought I was pregnant. He should never have allowed those plays in town, he screamed at Mother. Mother said I was trustworthy, modest. Shawn said no teenage girl was trustworthy, and that in his experience those who seemed pious were sometimes the worst of all.
I sat on my bed, knees pressed to my chest, and listened to them shout. Was I pregnant? I wasn’t sure. I considered every interaction I’d had with a boy, every glance, every touch. I walked to the mirror and raised my shirt, then ran my fingers across my abdomen, examining it inch by inch and thought, Maybe.
I had never kissed a boy.
I had witnessed birth, but I’d been given none of the facts of conception. While my father and brother shouted, ignorance kept me silent: I couldn’t defend myself, because I didn’t understand the accusation.
Days later, when it was confirmed that I was not pregnant, I evolved a new understanding of the word “whore,” one that was less about actions and more about essence. It was not that I had done something wrong so much as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being.
It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.
I STOOD OUTSIDE THE bishop’s office on a cold night in February. I didn’t know what had taken me there.
The bishop sat calmly behind his desk. He asked what he could do for me, and I said I didn’t know. No one could give me what I wanted, because what I wanted was to be remade.
“I can help,” he said, “but you’ll need to tell me what’s bothering you.” His voice was gentle, and that gentleness was cruel. I wished he would yell. If he yelled, it would make me angry, and when angry I felt powerful. I didn’t know if I could do this without feeling powerful.
I cleared my throat, then talked for an hour.
The bishop and I met every Sunday until spring. To me he was a patriarch with authority over me, but he seemed to surrender that authority the moment I passed through his door. I talked and he listened, drawing the shame from me like a healer draws infection from a wound.
When the semester ended, I told him I was going home for the summer. I was out of money; I couldn’t pay rent. He looked tired when I told him that. He said, “Don’t go home, Tara. The church will pay your rent.”
I didn’t want the church’s money. I’d made the decision. The bishop made me promise only one thing: that I wouldn’t work for my father.
My first day in Idaho, I got my old job back at Stokes. Dad scoffed, said I’d never earn enough to return to school. He was right, but the bishop had said God would provide a way and I believed it. I spent the summer restocking shelves and walking elderly ladies to their cars.
I avoided Shawn. It was easy because he had a new girlfriend, Emily, and there was talk of a wedding. Shawn was twenty-eight; Emily was a senior in high school. Her temperament was compliant. Shawn played the same games with her he’d played with Sadie, testing his control. She never failed to follow his orders, quivering when he raised his voice, apologizing when he screamed at her. That their marriage would be manipulative and violent, I had no doubt—although those words were not mine. They had been given to me by the bishop, and I was still trying to wrest meaning from them.
When the summer ended, I returned to BYU with only two thousand dollars. On my first night back, I wrote in my journal: I have so many bills I can’t imagine how I’m going to pay them. But God will provide either trials for growth or the means to succeed. The tone of that entry seems lofty, high-minded, but in it I detect a whiff of fatalism. Maybe I would have to leave school. That was fine. There were grocery stores in Utah. I would bag groceries, and one day I’d be manager.
I was shocked out of this resignation two weeks into the fall semester, when I awoke one night to a blinding pain in my jaw. I’d never felt anything so acute, so electrifying. I wanted to rip my jaw from my mouth, just to be rid of it. I stumbled to a mirror. The source was a tooth that had been chipped many years before, but now it had fractured again, and deeply. I visited a dentist, who said the tooth had been rotting for years. It would cost fourteen hundred dollars to repair. I couldn’t afford to pay half that and stay in school.
I called home. Mother agreed to lend me the money, but Dad attached terms: I would have to work for him next summer. I didn’t even consider it. I said I was finished with the junkyard, finished for life, and hung up.
I tried to ignore the ache and focus on my classes, but it felt as though I were being asked to sit through a lecture while a wolf gnawed on my jaw.
I’d never taken another ibuprofen since that day with Charles, but I began to swallow them like breath mints. They helped only a little. The pain was in the nerves, and it was too severe. I hadn’t slept since the ache began, and I started skipping meals because chewing was unthinkable. That’s when Robin told the bishop.
He called me to his office on a bright afternoon. He looked at me calmly from across his desk and said, “What are we going to do about your tooth?” I tried to relax my face.
“You can’t go through the school year like this,” he said. “But there’s an easy solution. Very easy, in fact. How much does your father make?”
“Not much,” I said. “He’s been in debt since the boys wrecked all the equipment last year.”
“Excellent,” he said. “I have the paperwork here for a grant. I’m sure you’re eligible, and the best part is, you won’t have to pay it back.”
I’d heard about Government grants. Dad said that to accept one was to indebt yourself to the Illuminati. “That’s how they get you,” he’d said. “They give you free money, then the next thing you know, they own you.”
These words echoed in my head. I’d heard other students talk about their grants, and I’d recoiled from them. I would leave school before I would allow myself to be purchased.
“I don’t believe in Government grants,” I said.
I told him what my father said. He sighed and looked heavenward. “How much will it cost to fix the tooth?”
“Fourteen hundred,” I said. “I’ll find the money.”
“The church will pay,” he said quietly. “I have a discretionary fund.”
“That money is sacred.”
The bishop threw his hands in the air. We sat in silence, then he opened his desk drawer and withdrew a checkbook. I looked at the heading. It was for his personal account. He filled out a check, to me, for fifteen hundred dollars.
“I will not allow you to leave school over this,” he said.
The check was in my hand. I was so tempted, the pain in my jaw so savage, that I must have held it for ten seconds before passing it back.
I HAD A JOB at the campus creamery, flipping burgers and scooping ice cream. I got by between paydays by neglecting overdue bills and borrowing money from Robin, so twice a month, when a few hundred dollars went into my account, it was gone within hours. I was broke when I turned nineteen at the end of September. I had given up on fixing the tooth; I knew I would never have fourteen hundred dollars. Besides, the pain had lessened: either the nerve had died or my brain had adjusted to its shocks.
Still, I had other bills, so I decided to sell the only thing I had of any value—my horse, Bud. I called Shawn and asked how much I could get. Shawn said a mixed breed wasn’t worth much, but that I could send him to auction like Grandpa’s dog-food horses. I imagined Bud in a meat grinder, then said, “Try to find a buyer first.” A few weeks later Shawn sent me a check for a few hundred dollars. When I called Shawn and asked who he’d sold Bud to, he mumbled something vague about a guy passing through from Tooele.
I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars. I submitted my homework and studied for my exams, but I did so out of terror—of losing my scholarship should my GPA fall a single decimal—not from real interest in my classes.
In December, after my last paycheck of the month, I had sixty dollars in my account. Rent was $110, due January 7. I needed quick cash. I’d heard there was a clinic near the mall that paid people for plasma. A clinic sounded like a part of the Medical Establishment, but I reasoned that as long as they were taking things out, not putting anything in, I’d be okay. The nurse stabbed at my veins for twenty minutes, then said they were too small.
I bought a tank of gas with my last thirty dollars and drove home for Christmas. On Christmas morning, Dad gave me a rifle—I didn’t take it out of the box, so I have no idea what kind. I asked Shawn if he wanted to buy it off me, but Dad gathered it up and said he’d keep it safe.
That was it, then. There was nothing left to sell, no more childhood friends or Christmas presents. It was time to quit school and get a job. I accepted that. My brother Tony was living in Las Vegas, working as a long-haul trucker, so on Christmas Day I called him. He said I could live with him for a few months and work at the In-N-Out Burger across the street.
I hung up and was walking down the hall, wishing I’d asked Tony if he could lend me the money to get to Vegas, when a gruff voice called to me. “Hey, Siddle Lister. Come here a minute.”
Shawn’s bedroom was filthy. Dirty clothes littered the floor, and I could see the butt of a handgun poking out from under a pile of stained T-shirts. The bookshelves strained under boxes of ammo and stacks of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. Shawn was sitting on the bed, his shoulders hunched, his legs bowed outward. He looked as if he’d been holding that posture for some time, contemplating the squalor. He let out a sigh, then stood and walked toward me, lifting his right arm. I took an involuntary step back, but he had only reached into his pocket. He pulled out his wallet, opened it and extracted a crisp hundred-dollar bill.
“Merry Christmas,” he said. “You won’t waste this like I will.”
I BELIEVED THAT HUNDRED dollars was a sign from God. I was supposed to stay in school. I drove back to BYU and paid my rent. Then, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it in February, I took a second job as a domestic cleaner, driving twenty minutes north three days a week to scrub expensive homes in Draper.
The bishop and I were still meeting every Sunday. Robin had told him that I hadn’t bought my textbooks for the semester. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Apply for the grant! You’re poor! That’s why these grants exist!”
My opposition was beyond rational, it was visceral.
“I make a lot of money,” the bishop said. “I pay a lot of taxes. Just think of it as my money.” He had printed out the application forms, which he gave to me. “Think about it. You need to learn to accept help, even from the Government.”
I took the forms. Robin filled them out. I refused to send them.
“Just get the paperwork together,” she said. “See how it feels.”
I needed my parents’ tax returns. I wasn’t even sure my parents filed taxes, but if they did, I knew Dad wouldn’t give them to me if he knew why I wanted them. I thought up a dozen fake reasons for why I might need them, but none were believable. I pictured the returns sitting in the large gray filing cabinet in the kitchen. Then I decided to steal them.
I left for Idaho just before midnight, hoping I would arrive at around three in the morning and the house would be quiet. When I reached the peak, I crept up the driveway, wincing each time a bit of gravel snapped beneath my tires. I eased the car door open noiselessly, then padded across the grass and slipped through the back door, moving silently through the house, reaching my hand out to feel my way to the filing cabinet.
I had only made it a few steps when I heard a familiar clink.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted. “It’s me!”
I flipped the light switch and saw Shawn sitting across the room, pointing a pistol at me. He lowered it. “I thought you were…someone else.”
“Obviously,” I said.
We stood awkwardly for a moment, then I went to bed.
The next morning, after Dad left for the junkyard, I told Mother one of my fake stories about BYU needing her tax returns. She knew I was lying—I could tell because when Dad came in unexpectedly and asked why she was copying the returns, she said the duplicates were for her records.
I took the copies and returned to BYU. Shawn and I exchanged no words before I left. He never asked why I’d been sneaking into my own house at three in the morning, and I never asked who he’d been waiting for, sitting up in the middle of the night, with a loaded pistol.
THE FORMS SAT ON my desk for a week before Robin walked with me to the post office and watched me hand them to the postal worker. It didn’t take long, a week, maybe two. I was cleaning houses in Draper when the mail came, so Robin left the letter on my bed with a note that I was a Commie now.
I tore open the envelope and a check fell onto my bed. For four thousand dollars. I felt greedy, then afraid of my greed. There was a contact number. I dialed it.
“There’s a problem,” I told the woman who answered. “The check is for four thousand dollars, but I only need fourteen hundred.”
The line was silent.
“Let me get this straight,” the woman said. “You’re saying the check is for too much money? What do you want me to do?”
“If I send it back, could you send me another one? I only need fourteen hundred. For a root canal.”
“Look, honey,” she said. “You get that much because that’s how much you get. Cash it or don’t, it’s up to you.”
I had the root canal. I bought my textbooks, paid rent, and had money left over. The bishop said I should treat myself to something, but I said I couldn’t, I had to save the money. He told me I could afford to spend some. “Remember,” he said, “you can apply for the same amount next year.” I bought a new Sunday dress.
I’d believed the money would be used to control me, but what it did was enable me to keep my word to myself: for the first time, when I said I would never again work for my father, I believed it.
I wonder now if the day I set out to steal that tax return wasn’t the first time I left home to go to Buck’s Peak. That night I had entered my father’s house as an intruder. It was a shift in mental language, a surrendering of where I was from.
My own words confirmed it. When other students asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from Idaho,” a phrase that, as many times as I’ve had to repeat it over the years, has never felt comfortable in my mouth. When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there. I never uttered the words “I’m from Idaho” until I’d left it.