My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

SACRAMENTO, CA

It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.


SACRAMENTO, CA-

There was a time when my little sister, Kati, and I were practically inseparable.

Kati loved coming to my house because she got all of the attention. There weren’t seven other kids battling for love and affection. Just her and me.

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Kati spent holidays at my house. I made here green eggs and green milk for St. Patrick’s Day. Donald and I would make Easter egg hunts just for her. She had her own Christmas stocking hanging up at our house.

It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want Kati around. Kati just didn’t want to be around them. My family’s house was always in turmoil. My parents were always fighting. The kids were constantly battling against each other. And Kati, being the smallest, was often lost in the fray.

There were more than a few times when Kati asked if Donald and I would adopt her, but I always declined. I told her she wouldn’t have as much fun with us if we were her real parents because I’d make her do her homework and go to bed early.

No, it was much better this way. I got to be the fun big sister who dressed up like a ballerina with her (sorry no pictures). I stayed up late making her ice cream sundaes and reading her Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I wouldn’t let her watch the movie until after we’d read the book).

One other thing I remember about my years hanging out with Kati was her birthdays.

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Our family has never been big on birthdays. My mom always said if she let one of us have a birthday party then all of us would want a birthday party. And in my house that amounted to a birthday party almost every month, sometimes twice in one month.

It just wasn’t happening.

But Kati always got a special birthday when I was around. For her third birthday I invited all of my friends out to dinner as though it was my own birthday. We just went to some little diner and I didn’t expect it to be too big of a deal.

But it was. Everybody brought her gifts and balloons and cards. And the waitress brought here a huge sundae with sparklers. And everybody sang Happy Birthday to her.

I don’t know if she even remembers that now. It was quite a long time ago.

The last birthday I got to spend with her was her ninth birthday (the one pictured above).

I had returned from France just three days prior. But I had promised Kati I’d make her birthday special. I got my other sister, Jess, in on the plan. We decorated my apartment. Set up a karaoke machine and invited both Kati’s and my friends over to celebrate. It wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but I think Kati still had fun.

About a year later my family moved to Idaho, taking Kati with them. Every year after I’ve told Kati I’ll come visit her for her birthday, but I’ve never been able to make it. I’ve missed three of her birthdays now.

Kati and I had grown apart a bit anyway. I’d been gone in France for eight months and I think she felt a bit abandoned. Also, I stopped having her over as often because my parents blamed me for Kati’s not being baptized.

In the Mormon religion children don’t get baptized until they’re eight years old, ostensibly because they want people to make their own decision as to whether they believe and want to be a member of the church.

As you’ll soon see, this isn’t actually the case.

Kati had put hers off for the first year, saying she wanted to wait until I got home from France. It was a good strategy for her. She got to deflect the attention to me. My dad called me up in Paris and said, “Kati isn’t getting baptized because of you.”

That’s what he said.

He asked me to talk to her, to plead with her to get baptized before she turned nine. I told him it wasn’t that big of a deal and he could schedule it for the month I returned.

I thought Kati really did want to get baptized. I thought she just wanted to wait until I was there for it.

But several months later Kati still wasn’t baptized.


I thought it was just my parents being irresponsible as usual. After all, I wasn’t baptized until I was almost nine too. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my parents just never bothered to schedule it and send out the invitations.

So why were my parents so concerned this time?

Well, it turns out that Kati flat out told them no. She said she wasn’t getting baptized.

Now the pressure was on.

One Sunday evening I went to raid my parents pantry for groceries. When I arrived I was surprised to find my dad and Kati in the living room with two missionaries while the rest of the family seemed to be hiding out in the kitchen.

“What’s Kati doing in there with the missionaries?” I asked.

“They’re trying to make her get baptized.” my brother told me.

“What do you mean? Of course she’s going to get baptized,” I said.

“No, she won’t,” my brother said. “They come here nearly every week and every week she tells them no.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

At this point I went searching for my mom, who was hiding out like everyone else.

She told me the missionaries came twice a month, but Kati wasn’t budging.

People, this is a nine-year-old kid. Children do not tell adults no. They do what everyone else does. And in our family and our circle of friends, everyone else gets baptized.

After this I was intrigued by my sister and her strength to stand up for what she, in this case, doesn’t believe.

Of course, although my heart was swelling with pride, I didn’t tell her that. It would for sure be my fault if I encouraged her on this path.

Moving on…

Today Kati is 12 years old. She’s made it more than four years without getting baptized, even after my parents moved her to Utah last summer.

The missionaries continued to come while they lived in Idaho.

And Kati continued to tell them no.

Every so often, when I called my mother, and trying to not sound eager, I would inquire about Kati and the missionaries.

Exasperated, my mom would say, “The missionaries still come on Sundays. Your dad won’t tell them to leave her alone.”

This week though two of my sisters came to visit and I found out that my mom finally put her foot down.

The story as relayed to me by my sister:

The bishop of their new ward came to my parents with Kati’s church records.

“There seems to be a problem with your daughter’s records,” he said.

“No, there’s no problem,” my mom said.

“Well, it says here that she’s not baptized yet,” he persists.

“Yes. That’s not a mistake,” my mom says.

“Oh, well…”

“No. That’s the way she wants it and that’s the way it’s going to stay. If you send even one missionary to our house I’m going to leave the church for good. I will not allow any of my children to step foot in this church again. Got it?”

And the missionaries have stopped coming.


UPDATE, November 2009: I just learned, via Facebook, that Kati is getting baptized. Apparently all the church had to do was give her some space.