I wanted to get hit by a car.
I’d heard about drunk, suicidal types running out onto the freeway and putting their heads through some poor, unsuspecting bastard’s windshield, turning their bones to powder against the hood in a gory scene of unholy carnage. That wasn’t for me. My plan was to casually step off the curb and get clipped by a passing Fiat Uno, or some other equally common, equally small, relatively powerless vehicle. No head injuries. No broken back. All I wanted was a fractured arm or leg or collar bone: just enough to get me sent back home to Utah, but not enough to be permanently crippling.
For weeks, as I walked through the neighborhood on the north end of Montevideo where I had been stationed for the past month or so, I eyed every car that passed, gauging its speed, mentally measuring the height of their bumpers and hood, the thickness of its windshield. It would look like an accident. That was certain. I would appear careless or stupid, anything but deliberate.
My companion, a fellow white shirt-, tie-, and backpack-wearing Mormon missionary, had no idea what I was up to. He was Elder George Tree hailing from Texas City, Texas, and he was pious as hell. Or at least that’s what he—along with the rest of the battalion of clean-cut Christers and secret raging masturbators serving their two years in Uruguay—wanted everyone to think. He had always been an active Mormon, had never dated girls who wore two-piece bathing suits and was much more thoughtful and kind to his widowed mother than I was to mine. He was unbearably nerdy, talking endlessly of fantasy novels and sneezing in these magnificent eruptions of snot that actually lifted his feet off the ground. We had spent a painful month together, trying to convert heathens and meanwhile keep each other entertained with everything we had ever done, all the stories we knew, the gross stuff we could do with our eyelids. We were like prison cellmates, cut off from the world, rotting away together. He was stiff and boring, and I hated him.
One night, as we returned to our tiny apartment after a particularly unsuccessful day that had been spent knocking on doors and trying to convince total strangers to let two weirdo foreign religious fanatics into their houses so they could share some good news, the word, the holy gospel of Christ according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I spotted a poster stapled to a light post.
“Elder,” I said, “there’s a free reggae concert in la Plaza Colón.” I looked closer. “And it’s tonight. We should go.” I knew his response before he even looked at me.
“No way. You know that’s against the rules. We have to be obedient, Elder.”
“We should just walk through the park and check it out,” I said. He didn’t say anything, but rather kept walking toward the house, refusing to make my requested detour.
Obedience. Fucking obedience. The concept was drilled into every poor missionary’s head at every possible opportunity. If you aren’t obedient then the Holy Ghost won’t want to be with you, our leaders told us. And without the Power of the Holy Ghost nobody will feel the truth of your words, they said. And if nobody feels the truth of your words and gets baptized then your two years will have been a waste. Make the most of your time working for The Lord! Onward Christian soldiers! And it wasn’t just the Ten Commandments we had to abide by, either. You know, “Thou shalt not kill,” et cetera. There was a little white book filled with rules that all missionaries carried around with them in their shirt pockets. The list was huge, monumental. No chewing gum in public. Wake up at six-thirty. Go to bed at ten-thirty. No caffeinated drinks. No keeping pets. No reading of any book that isn’t one of the six preapproved books on this list. No music other than hymns or classical. Missionaries may e-mail their families only once a week and have no more than thirty minutes to do so. Missionaries may call home twice a year, at Christmas and on Mother’s Day, but only one hour of conversation will be permitted. No sex, not even kissing or holding hands. And the reason I couldn’t just ditch my self-righteous moral bodyguard: every missionary must stay with his companion at all times. You know, unless one of you is in the bathroom or the shower, but don’t even think about going across the street to buy some milk and Oreos without tying your tie and bringing along the ball and chain who dresses exactly like you.
This is why kids on the street with bleached hair and BMX bikes and tinny cumbia music playing on their cell phones called us huevos. Eggs, Spanish slang for testicles. “Because you look the same, and you’re always right next to each other, huevos.”
From the outside, it would seem simple to say, “Nuts to that, I’m going up to the park by myself, goddammit,” but it was hardly that easy. Staying with your companion is the cardinal rule of Mormon missionary work. Failure to comply would result in disciplinary action: unpleasant interviews and long talks with the mission president, an older, financially stable Mormon man who is in charge of all the young missionaries in a given region. He would assign you stricter companions in the future, stripping you of all possible freedom and assuring tighter supervision. Leaving Elder Tree to walk up to the park and listen to some reggae, even for five or ten minutes, was not an option.
So I went home, telling myself that the music probably wasn’t that good. I probably wasn’t missing anything. I loosened my tie and sat down at my desk to plan the following day’s activities (knock on doors, talk to people who were too busy dealing with the intricacies of normal life to care about some Son of God who may or may not have lived and died over two thousand years ago) and let the evening breeze cool me down after a day of schlepping around in the hot sun. If I listened carefully, I could hear the bass floating over from the park, through the trees, over the railroad tracks, and into the open window. Somebody was playing an up-tempo version of “Long Shot Kick de Bucket” by the Pioneers, and I tapped my fingers. George Tree, that long, tall, greasy son of a bitch, stood up and closed the window.
Six hundred and one more days. I sighed.
It wasn’t just the long list of rules or the repressed nutjob asshole fellow missionaries that were getting me down. What was really rotting inside my brain were all the things that I had been learning about the church, or rather The Church, that the ever-energetic legion of Sunday school teachers had forgotten to mention. The whole organization, even from its very inception, is plagued with a history of racism, sexism, bigamy, controversy, perversity, plagiarism, science fiction, bizarre invention, censorship, violence, and blackmail. Another missionary stationed close by had recently informed me, to my great alarm, that the Mormon temple ceremony, something that a long line of church youth leaders, bishops, and family members had told me was sacred and important—the most important thing in the whole world—was directly ripped off from the Freemasons. The secret handshakes, the costumes, the altar, all of it. The more I learned, the less I bought into it, and the worse I felt about sharing the message that I was supposed to. Some of the people I talked to actually gleaned hope from it, clinging on like everything depended on it. I had headaches during the day and couldn’t sleep at night.
While desperately trying to define my belief—or lack thereof—I had been reading canonical books of Mormon scripture that, until recently, I had never been interested enough in to decipher and charge through. There were parts where the Lord had supposedly revealed, through the prophet Joseph Smith of course, that Smith’s first wife, Emma, needed to be subservient and supportive of him, that she needed to be accepting of his other wives. There was Paul, of New Testament fame, who wrote things like “let your women keep silence in the churches.” There were pages and pages detailing punishments and curses for a myriad of garden-variety sins and offenses. In the morning I pored over the scriptures and their bizarre contents, and in the afternoon I trekked door to door telling people that God was our Heavenly Father who loved all of his children equally. As instructed, I told them that He wanted us to be happy. He wanted the very best for us, and the only thing that we, as his beloved children, had to do was to obey his commandments, go to his churches, pay tithes, and stop doing a bunch of stuff that we liked, stuff that felt good.
I wanted to go home, but it wasn’t that simple. Where I came from, serving a mission was a matter of honor. I had family members and friends who were praying for my well-being, thanking God for the work I was doing, using my decision to serve as a good example for their younger children. They believed there was an actual war between good and evil, between God and Satan, and that I was on the front lines. They were counting on me, and while my faith was bloodied and slowly dying, theirs was still strong, and who the fuck was I to take that away? Who was I to sow doubt, to disappoint, to defect? So instead of going AWOL I opted to get injured, to limp home with a purple heart.
As Elder Tree and I walked through the park the next morning, stepping over cigarette butts and plastic cups and watching workers break down the stage, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Bruce Banner’s skin turns green when he feels the frustration, anger, and desperate dismay that I felt then. Like Samson, he rips his clothes and starts smashing shit, beating people’s brains in and howling. All I did was step off the curb and into the street.
I didn’t even look at the little blue Peugeot as it whipped around the corner, past the bakery and right at me. I knew it was there. The shrill shout of squealing brakes told me, as did my companion, who shouted, “Elder, look out!” I closed my eyes and waited for the impact.
When I opened them a moment later I was still standing, uninjured. I was still in north Montevideo, still wearing my nametag and tie, and the driver of the Peugeot was leaning out the window, sweating and screaming at me.
“Estás loco, muchacho?” Are you crazy?
I waved and stepped back onto the curb.