Before I left Bolivia, I had received a phone call from Hermana Stevenson.
“I’m going home early. My dad had a heart attack, and I need to be with my family,” she said. “I know you’re going to Utah for school. Please look me up when you get there. I’d really like to see you.” She gave me her phone number and said goodbye.
When I got to Utah, I called her, and we met in downtown Salt Lake City for dinner, and then we walked arm in arm around Temple Square talking about life. Her dad had recovered, and she was working as a nurse at a hospital in Ogden.
We sat for a while in my car and talked, and then we both went quiet, and for several minutes there was nothing but awkward silence. Finally I leaned over and kissed her. For two years I’d sort of fantasized about what my first postmission kiss would be like, and never had I imagined that it would be in my car outside Temple Square with a former Miss Weber State.
But it had been two years, and I was kind of scared. I didn’t want to do anything I wasn’t supposed to do, so it ended up a sort of half-hearted French kiss, like two goldfishes opening and closing our mouths. It was quite embarrassing. I later wished many times that I had done things differently that night.
On the way home, I felt really bad about having kissed her. Yes, I was attracted to her, but I had known that we wouldn’t be good together. And in my mind at that point, you didn’t kiss someone you weren’t serious about.
A few weeks later I was walking across the BYU campus when I heard someone calling, “Hey, Williams!” It was Grolsch. He looked much different with shaggy hair and a leather jacket.
“Are you going to school here?” I asked.
“No, just passing through,” he said.
“On your way to where?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just been riding my motorcycle around the country trying to find out who I am.” He looked kind of depressed. “You look like you know where you’re going.”
“Well, no, not really,” I said honestly. “But maybe school will help me sort it out.”
I bought him lunch, and we talked about our experiences together. He said he didn’t resent the two years he had spent there, as it had been a “learning experience” and he had made some good friends. A couple of years later, President Nichols told me that Grolsch had left the church and was living with someone in Los Angeles.
I started dating a sister missionary whom I hadn’t known well at all in the mission. I saw her one day at the campus cafeteria, and we got talking. We went out a few times, and we really connected. One night we sat in my car outside her apartment talking.
“What if the church isn’t really true?” she asked.
I was stunned.
“How can you have spent a year and a half as a missionary without knowing if it’s true?” I said.
“I just don’t know if I believe it,” she said. “I’m just being honest.”
That was enough for me, and I didn’t ask her out again. As President Nichols had said, I wanted to marry someone who was going to go to heaven with me.
At the beginning of the Fall semester, I saw someone I did not expect at all: Brent. He was at BYU and was looking much healthier. But more importantly, there was a spark of life in his eyes that I had never seen before.
“They put me in the hospital for a few days,” he said. “And then I just finished my mission here in Utah. I have to take some medication, but it’s working, and I’m doing well.”
I was really happy, and I told him what Victor had said about Brent’s being the inspiration for his conversion.
“I didn’t think I’d done anything good down there,” he said.
A while later I was at a wedding reception, and the people at the table where I was sitting asked me where I had served my mission.
“Bolivia? Did you know Elder Brent?” the woman asked.
“He was my companion.”
“Oh, it must have been really hard for you. Brent didn’t talk about Bolivia much, but he said it nearly killed him.”
“It nearly killed a lot of us,” I said only half-joking.
She told me that she and her husband had taken Brent under their wings and had cared for him, as he had arrived in obviously poor health. They were helping him pay for college, she said.
“He’s a wonderful young man, isn’t he?” she said.
“Yes, he is.” When we had been together, I was so focused on his problems that I hadn’t really gotten to know him that well. I really didn’t know whether he was a wonderful person or not. I was happy that they had gotten to know him and had helped him in ways that I couldn’t.
In October I went to my first mission reunion. I was rooming with Dannelly at BYU, so we went together. Lewis was there with Hermana Howard and their baby. They seemed really happy. He was going to school, and she was working at the hospital in Provo.
Hermana Stevenson was there, and she had clearly been drinking. She veered between a loud, boozy hilarity and a sort of quiet despair. I didn’t know what to say to her at all. She kept saying what a terrible person she was, and I just put my arm around her and told her that she was a wonderful person who had a lot to offer. She and Dannelly and I went to a convenience store for a Coke, and she bought some wine coolers.
Lewis told me that Hermana Thomas would be coming out to Utah for a visit in a couple of weeks. “We should get together, the four of us, for dinner. For old time’s sake.” I thought that sounded great, so he said he would arrange it.
The reunion itself was a little strange. Somehow it didn’t feel right to be listening to Bolivian music in a church gymnasium. But it was nice to see some old friends.
Beck was there. He told me he was studying geology at the University of Utah. I was planning on law school, so I was double-majoring in English and Latin American Studies. He introduced me to his fiancée, Sandra, and I didn’t see anything particularly “wild” about her. She was quite nice. They had a long engagement and got married the next year. I see him from time to time, as he lives not too far from me. We’ll always be good friends.
The next morning at 4:00 someone was pounding on our apartment door. It was Hermana Stevenson, who was still quite drunk. We sat in the living room for quite a while as she cried and told us how awful her life had become. She had been dating a BYU football player, who had reintroduced her to alcohol. On her boyfriend’s birthday, he had rented a hotel room and had tried to pressure her into having sex with him. She’d been drinking for a few days since then. That morning would be the last time I ever saw her.
A couple of weeks later, I had dinner with the Lewises and with my old friend Hermana Thomas. We had written to each other fairly regularly, and she had moved to Connecticut to work as a nanny because she had some rather large medical bills from her bout with Chagas Disease. It was a surreal experience sitting at the table in that small apartment with three of my closest friends, while Lewis’s baby slept peacefully nearby.
The next day I picked up Hermana Thomas, and we went out to lunch. Something changed that day between us, and I suddenly realized the feelings I had for her. We started writing more regularly, and in February, my brother and I drove to Salt Lake to pick her up at the airport. Her medical bills paid, she was moving to Utah to go to school.
All the way home we talked, and after I helped her take her luggage in, my brother said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about her? You’re obviously in love with her.”
I knew he was right. Twenty years later she’s still the best thing I found in Bolivia.
The Nichols came home about a year later. By that time, I was engaged to Hermana Thomas.
“I didn’t have you two paired up,” said Hermana Nichols.
Everyone knew that she had made a long list of missionaries and whom they should marry. I didn’t ask her who I was supposed to be with.
The Nichols set to work building a new house—Hermana Nichols’ dream house—and just after they moved in, he was called to be a General Authority of the church, meaning that they would be moving wherever the church assigned them.
“You know anybody who wants to buy a house, two cars, and a bunch of furniture?” Hermana Nichols asked a little bitterly. But they willingly gave up the house, and he served the church full-time for another 15 years or so until the church released him from his office.
I still have dreams—nightmares, really—in which I’m somehow a missionary again. I know that time has passed and I have a life and a family, but in the dream I have to put my life on hold again and go back to Bolivia and serve a mission. Never in the dreams do I think of how to get out of the mission; rather, I have to tell myself over and over that I can do this, I can handle another mission. But I feel nothing but dread.
I always wake up relieved that it was just a dream.