WARNING: This is a story that admits that some men, even Mormon men, are interested in having sex with women, and that some BYU students don’t keep the Honor Code. If these facts bother you, then don’t read this story; you will not enjoy it.
I wrote this for a writing class in 1995. At that time I was inactive but recognized that my Mormon background would be interesting to my classmates.
I saw Ellen at a party in November of 1991, and she glowed with a dark and dignified sexuality. Jameson , a former roommate of mine, was throwing a 1960s-themed costume party at his house. Most of the guests wore thrift-store Woodstock cliché to match the Grateful Dead oozing out of the speakers in another room. Ellen stood tall over the kafkans and macramé in an A-lined gogo-styled minidress with a geometric black and white pattern. A matching scarf neatly pulled her strait brown hair back, except her bangs, which hung low over dark, small eyes made darker with makeup. She wore the white knee-high boots like she had born in them. She looked, well, cool. In a room full of undergraduates hyper with the illusion of social release and the faint but palpable hope that the faded bell-bottoms and the pretense of being stoned might reveal something interesting in them that J. Crew and earnest discussions abut the Gulf War did not, Ellen radiated honesty. Her costume seemed to reveal something true about her rather than masking her identity. There was no trace of self-consciousness about her at all.
Of course, it is now impossible to look at that moment with real objectivity; the filter of the years between now and then and our common experience undoubtedly warp and color my memory. The truth is that I cannot remember Ellen ever being self-conscious about anything. We were once caught sunbathing nude by a National Park ranger, and she showed no sign of shame, defensiveness, indignation, or even titillation. The ranger’s over-polite request that we put clothes on seemed to strike her with the same moral force as a reminder to not feed the bears. Standing across the room at the party in her Nancy Sinatra boots, she may have exuded more complex and highly manipulated emotions, but if so, they are lost as I place that event in the context of our lives together.
My self-presentation was indeed more complex. I was dressed as Rod Serling in a vintage suit and a skinny tie. I had to tie my long hair back (ironically, knowing the number of wigs which would be worn that night) and I squinted and carried a cigarette with me. I planned to light it, but restrained myself. At Brigham Young University, the center of Mormon ideology, even the lefty-cool crowd had its limits. I was fully aware of the irony of being more daring by appropriating a more conservative figure, and the cigarette was part of the effect. I had recently discovered post-modernism and my stance was completely self-conscious; and when Ellen made eye contact and smiled, I masked my eagerness and made a plan to make my way across the room without seeming deliberate.
I knew Ellen already, although not well. The previous summer, she had lived across the street from some friends of mine. I was working at a nearby scout camp and slept on their back porch on my nights off. I saw Ellen and her roommates often, but my romantic attention lay elsewhere. (With a lovely large-eyed elementary education major that thought she could save my flagging faith with understanding and tenderness. She was wrong.) One Saturday one of my friends took me on a trip up the canyon with two of his neighbors. They were Ellen and her roommate whom might have been called Lisa. Lisa (or, more accurately, the girl I think was called Lisa) was blonde and pale, awkwardly thin with a pointed nose and preposterously modern eyeglasses. I remember thinking that both girls seemed well connected with the lefty-cool subculture of Provo, but I remember nothing specific of our (or their) conversation. We drove up Provo Canyon to a reservoir and swam. Ellen had a boyish face with a square earnestness that, in itself, cannot be called beautiful—the word “comely” occurs to me, but I’m not sure why. She was (and still is) muscular with well-proportioned breasts and hips, and the one-piece swimsuit she wore emphasized her shape. We played with a Frisbee on the beach after swimming, and at one point Ellen tackled me and scrambled over me, taking the disk from my hand. As she straddled me with the Frisbee raised in one hand, she looked down at me and flashed a smile that extended into her eyes and down her neck. At that moment she was beautiful.
And it was that smile that I remembered as I pushed through the crowd and said, “Hey, cool dress.”
She smiled and looked me over. “Thanks. What are you supposed to be, like Bobby Kennedy or Dick van Dyke?”
I had been doing this all night. “Rod Serling, actually. The Twilight Zone guy?”
She frowned and looked away. “Oh, I get it. Well, you do stand out here.”
I caught a hint of condescension, but I couldn’t tell if it was directed at the party or me. I pressed forward by asking how things were or some such thing. She responded amiably about her artwork, and I remembered that I knew she was an artist, or at least an artistic type. Then, after only a few sentences, Ellen leaned in close, her mouth against my ear, pressing her body against mine. She touched the hand that held the cigarette and whispered, “I don’t suppose you have any more of these, do you?”
In the context of an off-campus BYU party, this question had more significance than one might imagine. Rather than a simple request for cigarettes, it was an admission of unorthodoxy. BYU was heavy with orthodoxy; to attend the university, you were required to sign the Honor Code in which you promised to live in accordance with the rules and standards of Mormonism. This included a prohibition on tobacco, alcohol, coffee, drugs, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, wearing shorts, and men with beards or long hair. Determining another person’s level of unorthodoxy was difficult and dangerous as a violation of the Code could result in expulsion from the university. In addition, there were different levels of unorthodoxy. Many of the lefty-cools questioned and mocked the Code but complied with it out of a sense of duty or fear; there were those who only kept the part of the Code they felt morally obligated to keep, but might drink coffee or be sexually adventurous without actually doing the act; then there were the violators—those who did not keep the Code at all, or only to the degree which kept us from being kicked out of school. Ellen had just taken the risk of admitting to being a violator.
It was a risk because the true believers (known for some reason as Zoobies) saw it as their duty to report violations of the Code when observed. Furthermore, some of the more orthodox of the lefty-cool scene might report you—not out of moral indignation, but I believe out of shame and jealousy, punishing others for their own lack of moral courage (or excess of it I suppose, depending how one defines moral courage). Even if they didn’t report you, they would invariably drag you into a tedious conversation about the Code in which you would have to justify your behavior. Some found this a fascinating topic of conversation and debate—I did not. Getting somewhere with a girl was hard enough without thinking about its relationship to my moral and spiritual status.
The rest of the pack of Chesterfields was in my car, which gave us a chance to leave the party and walk down the street. I lit the cigarette that had been part of my costume and handed it to her, and she smoked it casually, offering me a few drags along the way. We said nothing as we walked, but I felt at ease, grateful to be out of the crowded living room and in the crisp night air. I fished through the cab of my little pickup truck, found the pack, and we sat on the tailgate and smoked and talked.
I wasn’t a serious smoker. I had maybe four or five a week, usually in this very situation: as a means of establishing or reinforcing my status. It’s a good way of making contact because, while smoking is a dangerous Code violation, claims of addiction will help you avoid the full wrath of the Standards Office, the group of university bureaucrats (including student employees) charged with enforcement of the Code. Still, smelling of smoke creates suspicion since Provo offers few venues for picking it up second-hand. Looking back now, I realize I enjoyed smoking more than I admitted at the time.
Ellen blew some smoke out of the corner of her mouth and turned to look at me. “So, what’s with you?”
I started filling her in on my current situation. I was 22 and a junior, majoring in English and anthropology. I lived in an unfashionable building on 300 north, about six blocks from the university. She was also a junior and an art history major from Idaho. She lived even further off campus. We sat there in the cold for a half-hour, catching up on our common acquaintances and discovering new ones. (In Provo, one rarely needs more than one degree of separation.) The conversation moved easily, mostly because Ellen talked about herself and her artwork freely and with enthusiasm. I answered with a description of my readings and studies, about which I was equally enthusiastic.
Sitting this close, even with only the light of the streetlight, I was able to really see her. There was something mannish about her but it wasn’t so much her strong jaw or small, dark eyes; it was the way she held her body. She sat upright, shoulders back and tilted slightly, as if stretching some muscle. She exuded confidence with no trace of coquettishness or diffidence. I thought she was magnificent and exotic.
She was just such a change from the women I had dated during the previous six months. I had recently finished with Denise, the aforementioned future educator of the very young. I thought of Denise as the bubble-gum girl. She has blindingly blonde hair, cut in a bob, and I think she favored blue mascara. I cannot picture her in memory doing anything but smiling at me, which is odd because I gave her little smile about. She was a Zoobie, but only because it was the path of least resistance. She despaired of me, but at the same time was tolerant of my sinful habits as long as I seemed to be making “progress.” I spent most of my time trying to figure out why she was bothering with me at all as we had very little in common. I think it was her way of keeping her moral options open. She didn’t drink, but with me around, she could start any time. I was with her because she was funny and kind and in a strange, naïve way open-minded, but mostly because she let me touch her — and she enjoyed that, and I enjoyed pleasing her. But along with that was a cat-and-mouse game of desire and repression and guilt that left me dizzy and sexually frustrated. In the end, it became clear to Denise that I was much more likely to corrupt her than she was to redeem me, so we parted company in a theatrical moment of tearful recriminations that resembled a drug intervention. I was sorry to see her go, but I didn’t miss having to try to read her chastity meter at any given moment.
And here was Ellen: she didn’t seem to have meter, but opened her life and experience to me just as she sat there, leaning into me when she spoke, looking down the street away from me as I spoke. It wasn’t so much what she said, although she spoke of her plans and ambitions and opinions—intimate stuff in its own right—but the fact that she spoke about it with the conviction and force of someone who knows they have wisdom and truth to share. Her low-pitched voice, slightly graveled, created a sense of ownership and belonging, and I felt privileged to be included in it.
From the tailgate, we could see the costumed partygoers leaving Jameson’s house. Ellen said, “I need to get my coat.”
“Do you want to go get some coffee or something?”
She turned and looked at me like an old woman considering whether to buy a fish. “No, not tonight.” She stood up and smoothed her dress, tugging gently at the hem. But you should come by and I’ll arrange a meal for us.”
“Arrange a meal?”
She shrugged. Next week Friday? Do you know how to reach me?”
I said yes to both questions and we kissed, quite briefly, and she walked down the street toward Jameson’s house. I had forgotten about the boots, and the matter of fact way in which she moved involuntarily brought the Nancy Sinatra song to mind, an association I still make to this day.