The first thing Mark noticed when he got home was the unnatural silence. He couldn't remember the last time it had been so quiet during the day. Usually, Emma would have the TV on some cooking show. If not, she'd be playing a hymn on the piano or Mark would be able to hear her humming from the kitchen. She liked singing to herself, too; always the up-tempo hymns, never the somber ones that sounded like funeral music. There were no sounds of children playing, either, no laughter or patter of feet upstairs. What was left was a void that their home wore awkwardly.
“Emma,” Mark called. It seemed to echo in the emptiness.
“I'm in here, Mark,” she said from the kitchen. There was none of the usual cheeriness in her voice. It was flat.
Emma was sitting at the breakfast counter, her back to Mark. The Book of Mormon was open before her, though she wasn’t reading it. She was looking across the room, towards the little window over the sink. Through it, Mark could just barely make out the white steeple of the Jordan River Temple, where she and Mark had been married. She stayed facing that window, even as Mark laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Emma, are you all right?”
“Mark, I have to tell you something,” she began. She let out a long sigh, still not turning to look at him.
Oh, God. She knows. The thought was involuntary, leaping to his mind before he could stamp it down. He tried to settle himself, but his heart was already racing. She doesn't know a thing, he told himself. She couldn't possibly have found out.
“All right,” Mark said, trying to keep his hand firm and steady on her shoulder. “Where are the kids?” He prayed that his voice sounded casual. He didn't want her to catch the panic that was threatening to choke him.
“I didn't want them here for this. I sent them to Sister Jenkin's to play with Spencer.” She turned to look at him. It looked as though she might cry, but her eyes weren't red or puffy. If she knew, she'd be crying already, he thought, and immediately hated himself for being relieved that she was only on the verge of tears. “Sister Reynolds called.” She fell silent, just watching Mark.
His mind was already groping for a way out. If she knew, then his entire life would come crashing down around him.
“How is she?” There was a slight tremble in Mark's voice. He tried to clear his throat, but it didn't help; it made him sound guilty.
“I guess … Bishop Reynolds killed himself.”
Emma pushed herself into Mark's arms, pressing her face against his chest. “I know that you two were close. I can't understand why he would do this,” Emma said, her words muffled against him.
Mark wrapped her in his arms without really thinking about it, without really feeling her. David Reynolds was dead. Emma might not have understood it, but Mark did. He'd thought about that same exit strategy many times. A way to escape the shame, to bury all the secrets and lies, deep enough that they might never resurface. An end to the sneaking, to the false promises. An escape that meant Mark would never have to look at himself in the mirror again.
“… found him in their bathroom,” Emma was saying. She was crying now, shaking a little as she gripped him. Mark tried to focus on her words, to put David out of his mind, but he couldn't stop seeing his face. It was David's eyes that he remembered the most, always on the verge of laughing, bright and cheerful and deep blue like the sky in summer.
Emma pulled away from him. Her tears had momentarily paused, but there was something else in her eyes, now, something that burned intensely. Her hands had moved to grip the lapels of Mark's suit. “How could he do this to his family?” she demanded.
Mark shook his head. He felt suddenly tired. He pulled Emma close once more. Not because he wanted to comfort her, or because he wanted to feel her warmth against him. It was because he didn't want to see that resolute glare, the look of righteous indignation. “I don't know,” he said. But that was a lie. He understood all too well why David had broken.
* * *
The kids returned in time for dinner, loud and rambunctious as always, completely unmindful of how quiet Emma and Mark were. It was good to have activity back in the house. Jared was chasing Joshua, who had a peewee football tucked under his arm. They were charging back and forth through the living room, Joshua pounding forward while Jared followed as fast as his little legs would carry him.
Emma had calmed down, but Mark felt strange and numb, as though he were foreign to his own body. He watched the kids with a grin, but it was painted on, a perfect facade he'd gained through years of long practice.
After dinner, Emma gathered the kids to read from the Book of Mormon and say their prayers before bedtime. They groaned a little bit, but complied easily enough. Joshua and Jared sat on the couch in the family room, beneath a gold-framed painting of Christ descending on a cloud with His arms outstretched. They fidgeted and kicked their legs up and down while Emma read to them.
Looking at them, Mark felt a sudden tightness in his stomach. He couldn't stand to sit still any longer. “Honey, I think I'm going to go for a drive,” he said. “I think it might be nice to clear my head. Will you be all right to get the kids into bed on your own?”
“I'll make do.” She gave him a warm smile, one that lit up her entire face. His stomach dropped looking into those trusting, unknowing eyes. Mark kissed her on the forehead, then did the same to Jared and Joshua. On the way out the door, he passed a picture of Thomas S. Monson, the current President of the Church.
Driving, Mark could escape the ever-present reminders of the Church, for a little while at least. It was easy to focus on the road and what was immediately around him and not take in the whole of the Valley. But every once in a while, he would catch glimpses of white steeples, always lit, peeking out above the buildings, atop the hills that ringed in Salt Lake. The little ones were chapels or stake centers, literally hundreds of them. The larger ones were temples. Those were the worst reminders. He'd gotten endowed and married in a temple. He'd made promises about how he'd live his life, covenants with God. And every day he went on living, he was breaking those covenants.
He hated Salt Lake City. He didn't like admitting it; it was supposed to be like Zion, a place of refuge for the Saints. It was too much, though, a constant deluge of admonishments to do better, to stand taller, to live the gospel. Even in his own home, there wasn't a single place he could go where he wouldn't see a picture of the prophet, or Jesus, or a temple, ready to keep the wound of inadequacy raw. He wasn't good enough for the life he lived. David hadn't been either.
Why hadn't he left? He'd served a mission outside of the antiseptic little bubble of Utah. Why hadn't he decided to just stay where he'd served, in upstate New York? That was before he'd gotten his degree at Brigham Young University, before he'd met Emma in an econ class, before David.
He didn't like admitting it, but he'd come back out of a sort of familial fidelity. His father was a stake president down in St. George, and his great-great-grandfather had been an apostle.
His family tree was joined at the hip with Church history. He felt the pressure of an unbroken chain of Saints stretching back to the founding of the Church, an ancestral weight. How could he be the first of that line to fall away, to become perdition?
And there was his strangled relationship with God. His belief was variable, ranging from a total certainty on rare occasions, to doubting that God even existed. Most of the time, he was somewhere in the middle, hoping that God existed, realizing that He had an eternal punishment in store for Mark, but believing that it would be even worse if he abandoned his family. Was self-loathing a type of repentance? Would God have forgiveness for his shortcomings? Mark hoped that was the case. It was that hope, as much as anything else, that held him where he was, ringed in on all sides by the trappings of the Church.
Without realizing it, Mark had driven south, into Riverton. He pulled into a motel, the same place where he and David had been going for years. Mark was the Ward Secretary, so he'd worked for years with David, although in those meetings it was always Bishop Reynolds. After the meeting, they would come to the little motel in Riverton, and the bishop became David. It was far enough away that they could be reasonably sure that no one from the ward would recognize their cars.
Mark went into the office and picked up the key he'd reserved; he and David had meant to meet this evening under the pretext of an emergency with the ward roster. The clerk was a young woman. She had on a CTR ring. Choose The Right. Mark had given Joshua a ring just like it last year, at his baptism. The clerk handed him the room key with a smirk. Mark realized that she recognized him as a regular customer. He took the key and left quickly, careful not to look her directly in the eyes. He didn't want to see the condemnation there.
Inside the room, Mark left the lights off and moved to open the blinds at the opposite end of the room. Outside, there was a giant neon sign. It filled the room with a pale blue glow. He lay on the bed, pressing his face into the pillow. He wanted to see if he could smell David's aftershave, but of course he couldn't. They'd probably been in this room before—they'd been here enough times that they'd probably been in every room in the motel at one time or another—but of course, there was only the faint scent of laundry detergent. Whatever piece of David had once been here, it had been washed away.
Mark turned over onto his side and saw, in the corner, an armchair, worn through years of use. That was where David had always put his clothes. Mark would always pull off his clothes quickly, letting them fall where they might, usually forming a jumbled pile in the nearest corner, always with the suit coat thrown on top, like a discarded straightjacket. Not David, though. David had always put off the world methodically. It was the first thing he would do; the moment he was in the room, David would take off his suit, his shirt and socks and shoes, folding the clothes carefully and setting them on the bed. Then he would take off his temple garments, fold them and set them in the seat of the chair, put his wedding ring on top of the garments and finally put the rest of his neat pile on top of the garments and ring. The ring and the garments both were symbols of the covenants that had been made in the temple, always to be worn, never to be forgotten. It always depressed Mark, the careful way David covered up his temple garments, just as much as Mark, David had been trying to hide from the constant presence of the Church.
How had this even started? They'd developed such well-defined routines, such careful lies, line upon line, precept upon precept, until he could barely remember the years when they had only been friends in the same ward. He remembered the change though. At some point, their glances had begun to linger, long and inexplicable, enough that Mark began to wonder what it might mean. At first, it had been a fear that David recognized something in him, something wrong and unworthy. It only occurred to him much later that David might share that incongruence.
It was after David was called as bishop that Mark's suspicions were confirmed. They had met in the Bishop's Office for a temple recommend interview, to determine Mark's place among the Saints, his worthiness, to evaluate his relationship with God. At the end of the interview, Mark and Bishop Reynolds had stood and shook hands. Their hands had lingered, an electric shock passing through Mark. Their eyes met, their hands still in contact, a passing gesture made intimate. Their hands dropped, the inherent strangeness of the situation never acknowledged … but after that moment, their path had been set, building inexorably towards this hotel room and, even further, to the bathroom in which David had killed himself.
Looking at this clone of the rooms where they had been able to be together, thinking of their brief time together, Mark let go of the carefully maintained act that had become his life and began to cry. They'd both known that it would end as it had. Eventually, one or the other was going to crack under the pressure. But Mark had never expected that it would be David. David, who had always been the strong one, who had always been so quick to laugh, who had the vibrant, captivating eyes.
How did I not see it? Mark wondered, then realized that Sister Reynolds must have been thinking the same thing.
She's better off, Mark thought. It was unpleasant to consider, but there it was. She'd lost her husband, but she'd never have to know the secrets that he'd carried. She would have her memories of him, tarnished only by his inexplicable death, not wholly soiled by the truth. She's better off and so is his daughter. Better off not knowing.
Mark forced himself to stand. It was getting harder and harder to get up, like he had weights wrapped around his neck. He wondered if this was how David had felt in the past few weeks. Had he struggled to look at himself in the mirror? Felt the world pressing down upon him? Had he felt every eye digging into him, prying for his secrets? If he had felt anything of the sort, David hadn't spoken of it.
* * *
Mark parked a few houses away from his own, where he could sit for a moment. The lights were off, except for the one in the master bedroom. Looking at the flawless home, the well-manicured lawn, the utter wholeness of it, Mark didn't know if he could bring himself to go inside. David had always been a sort of stabilizing influence, a reason to stay the course. Without him, Mark wasn't sure how long he could keep it going.
He waited for twenty minutes, hoping that the light would go off in the master bedroom. He didn't want to talk to Emma tonight. Finally, he gave up and pulled into the driveway.
Even shadowed as it was, Mark could make out the dim images on the walls; Christ overlooking Jerusalem at the base of the stairs, Joseph Smith near the top landing, the Salt Lake Temple across from Joshua's room, a statuette of the Christus on an end table next to Emma and Mark's room. Mark opened the door, a solitary frame of light in the otherwise dark house.
Emma was sitting up in the bed, a book in her lap. She looked up as Mark entered, watching him over the rim of her glasses. “Feeling better?” she asked. She closed the book and set it on the bedspread. It was The Miracle of Forgiveness. “Did a little fresh air help?” There was a slight edge to her voice. Mark checked the clock on the night table. It was 10:27. He'd been gone for two and a half hours.
“Yeah. A good chance to … get my bearings,” Mark said with a smile. He wondered how good he was at pulling off that practiced grin. Certainly not as good as David.
He went to the walk-in closet, where he could stand just out of Emma's view and began carefully taking off his suit coat, his tie, his shirt, hanging every item just so. There was no reckless abandon here; everything had its proper place and order.
“Where did you go?”
“I drove over to the Jordan River Temple.” The lie came easily. “It's really very beautiful at night, isn't it?”
Mark removed his slacks and was left wearing only his temple garments. He looked at himself in a full-length mirror, feeling sick. Why was he fighting it? He knew what would happen next, even if he didn't know when it would happen. Eventually, he'd reach a point where he couldn't go on. And one of two things would happen then. Either he would follow David … or he would come clean with Emma.
No, anything but that. It would mean the end of the life he'd built, the destruction of his family, his excommunication from the Church.
Someday it would come to that. Probably even someday soon. But not today. He turned away from the mirror and pulled on a set of pajamas.
Emma took off her glasses and put them on the night table when Mark came into the room. He joined her beneath the covers. “I still can't believe that Bishop Reynolds has passed away,” said Emma. Passed away. Like it wasn't a choice, like it had just happened without intent. She put a firm hand on Mark's arm. “I can't even imagine how hard this must be for Sister Reynolds.”
“It's never easy to lose someone you love,” Mark said.
She shook her head. “I think this would be harder to deal with than losing someone to cancer. Or even to something like a car crash. He chose to die. And Sister Reynolds will never know why.” Mark's eyes met Emma's. The intensity was back, but Mark recognized it, this time. It was fear. “Can you imagine what this will do to their daughter? Sara's only a year older than Joshua, and she's going to grow up never knowing why her father abandoned her.”
Mark felt his chest tighten at the thought of Joshua and Jared, standing before Mark's casket. Could he do that to them? Force them to see their father, dead?
Just kiss her on the forehead, tell her you don't know how he could do it, and then go to sleep.
“I don’t understand it—” Mark began, but Emma interrupted him.
“If he hated his life so much that he needed to escape,” she said, “then why couldn’t he just talk to his wife? It would have been so much better for their family if he’d told what was going on, even if it hurt in the moment, even if he had to leave her. At least then, she wouldn’t be left wondering for the rest of her life.”
Stay the course. End the conversation. Anything is better than the truth getting out.
He didn't think he could make himself do it, staring into those quivering eyes. Could he really tell her that everything was fine? Could he keep fighting down the path David had walked, until one day he could no longer carry the burden and Emma and the kids were left to pick up the pieces, never knowing why their life had been destroyed?
He couldn't do it. Not to the kids. Not to Emma.
Mark took her hand in his. “Emma,” he began, “I have to tell you something.…”