by Shaun Anderson
You stand at the front of a crowded neighborhood party hall, in your white short-sleeved shirt, your blue paisley tie, your gray slacks, your Mormon missionary nametag, with your hair parted to the side. You have to push away the impulse to run away or vomit. You’re not sure if being at a party—even a party for one of the people you teach—is against missionary rules.
You stand next to a clown, a real clown, with the painted white face and spongy red wig. He has pulled you to the front of the room, where he speaks rapid Spanish that you cannot understand. Everyone else in the room—including the Peruvian family you’ve been teaching—understands what he is saying, and laughs. All you’ve picked out is the word “Mormon.” What you understand: You are the butt of the joke. No, you are the joke.
The clown reaches behind his back to reveal an opaque net, which he holds out to you. In English, he tells you, what you most want will be inside the net.
Throughout the past year of missionary living in Southern California, your mind has fractured into two identities: Elder Anderson, who obeys rules, who is represented by the nametag on your chest that has been designed to erase your first name, who wants nothing more than to be the most effective, most obedient, most righteous missionary to ever serve God; and Shaun, who exists in memories, who lived a life before leaving on a mission, who still doesn’t quite believe everything he teaches each day of his missionary service.
Elder Anderson takes control first, like normal. He tells you that you want to pull an angel out of the net. The angel would emerge with the glory of God. He would tell everyone at the party that you represent the true church of God, and he would persuade each of them to be baptized into the Mormon church. You can imagine them lining up under the palm trees, surrounding the swimming pool just outside, waiting for you to guide them under the water.
But Shaun still exists as the part of you that you keep trying to silence. He interrupts your holy mental picture, conjuring up the image of the man in the park, the man you talked to for maybe two minutes in total, the man who walked through the shade of the pine trees, shirtless. You wonder what it would be like to reach into the clown’s magic net and feel that man’s exposed flesh. Touch his stomach muscles and his chest hair. All of it forbidden. All of it decidedly male.
Trying to pull yourself back from your sinful thinking, you wonder if maybe what you want most is a compromise between your dissonant pieces. Maybe you can stick your hand into the net, and pull out an angel who will speak to you. Only you. Maybe God has prepared some message for you inside the net that will tell you how to overcome the attraction that you feel toward men, which no matter how hard you try—and you have tried—never goes away. Maybe, after a year of missionary work, a year of near-constant prayer, a year of hours spent each day reading the scriptures, a year of actively pursuing miracles, God has sent you the most unexpected messenger to tell you how to become the righteous, heterosexual man that you want to be.
You close your eyes, trying to block out the pink party decorations, the rows of folding chairs, the fairy lights slung around the party hall, and everyone sitting with their eyes fixed on you and the net. If God chooses to talk to you tonight, you want this moment to between you and God.
What you cannot know: When you pull your hand out of the net, eyes still closed, you will hear the scandalized gasps, the laughter, the children sitting on the front row screeching with delight and horror as they release their chorus of ewwwwww.
You reach your hand into the net, grasping at whatever it is that you most want. Your fingers wrap tight around the silky material of whatever the clown—whatever God—has prepared for you.
SHAUN ANDERSON is an MFA candidate at Western Washington University studying creative nonfiction. His work has been published in the 45th Parallel Literary Journal, Mud Season Review, and Sigma Tau Delta’s Rectangle, among other literary magazines.
Featured photo: “Clown” by Jabiz Raisdana