Love and a fence

They were all to their love. A silent, suffering love, eyes staring into eyes. Standing at a few inches from each other, the fence between them. A huge fence, of strong wire-netting that would not let a hand get through. Both were barely twenty years old.

I had noticed them from far as I was walking up to them along the fence, following this small passage between backyards, hidden by trees and hedges. She was on the pathway, he behind the wires, in the yard where he belonged. A slight shiver ran down my spine for I was witnessing a violation of rules that could cost them dearly, especially the young man. I realized, at once, how much hushed arrangements, calculation of schedules, and involvement of at least one guard, had been necessary to make this clandestine encounter possible.

Lovers who meet in secret, helped by an accomplice who risks his own safety. Lovers who meet without meeting, separated by prohibition, rulings, commitments, an ocean or a fence. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Heloise and Abelard…

The passage is narrow, about three feet. As I passed the girl, I looked at their faces a second or two. Longer would have been improper. They did not even notice me. The intensity of their gaze merged anguish and tenderness. This was a tragic parting. Maybe they had been whispering sweet promises of patience and endurance, but now their eyes only were speaking. They were counting their last seconds of nearness, before he would be on his way for two years. To Japan, Germany, or North-Carolina, who knows?

Ten yards further, I saw his companion, the conspiring guard, waiting behind a tree. A mixture of guilt and immeasurable impatience tortured his childlike face. Torn by the fear to get caught, angry at himself for having allowed it, perhaps already considering confession to his branch president, but terrified by the idea of betraying a friend he had barely started making.

I couldn’t resist looking back once, furtively. They were still gazing at each other, in motionless intensity.

God bless you, Elder. Carry her eyes in your eyes, but as a source of strength. May your sacrifice of leaving her yield blessings. But never conspire again, if only for the sake of your companion.

God bless you, little sister. Don’t you dare to betray him now. He will need your weekly letter even more than the Scriptures. Choose the words that will help him stay on course. That will be wiser than a last covert farewell, one late afternoon, behind the MTC.

23 comments for “Love and a fence

  1. Wilfried, of the comparisons you offer, I vote for “Heloise and Abelard.” At least, that’s what he’ll feel like when he reads the letter she’ll write six months after he leaves the MTC.

  2. My companion in the old LTM (Knight Magnum Hall) arranged similar meetings with his girlfriend, frequently and always without consulting me. We’d just “happen” to run into her on the way to classes (held across the street in the basement of an old house where a copy shop now stands), on P-day at the bookstore or barbershop, at the back exit to our building before bed, etc. He drove our entire district crazy with his antics. The constant stream of treats, photos, love letters, secret phone calls, and other packages he received from her weren’t enough, I suppose.

    I felt much less sympathy for them than you apparently did for the pair your witnessed. But his infidelity to the rules and his constant talk about her–sappy, braggart, maddening talk–backfired when he continued it after arriving in Mexico. He so impressed his first companion with tales of her beauty and charm that his companion, who only had a month to go, subsequently looked her up and married her. True story.

  3. Heloise and Abelard remained faithful to each other, Jonathan! And finally they were buried together, resting side by side since 1164. Lovers still visit their grave at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But you’re right as to the religious background that caused their separation. Abelard was a priest, Heloise became a nun for his sake…

  4. I suspect that Jonathan refers to the (how to mention this on T & S?) . . .

    “awful pain and physical deprivation”

    . . . which was suffered by Abelard after they parted. And, as I’m reading his comment, the missionary’s receipt of the Dear John letter is likely to approximate that feeling of pain.

  5. Gee, I was trying to keep it romantic, and you guys can only think of Dear John letters … ! :(

  6. Wilfried is correct that Abelard and Heloise remained faithful to each other, of course, so the comparison doesn’t quite work. (And what about Astrolabe? That would get you sent home in a hurry.) My vote for a figurative re-enactment of Abelard’s corporeal suffering stems from having an MTC roommate who had a number of “accidental” meetings with his girlfriend of the type mentioned by Travis. It was feasible because our classroom was in the Oak Hills Stake Center down the street from the MTC, but I still found it unconscionable (especially since my notion of chivalrous romance at the time did not permit me to arrange the same kind of encounter).

  7. While I was a freshman at BYU, I would occasionally come back to my dorm room to find one of my high school buddies gone AWOL from the MTC for an afternoon. Rather than a rendezvous with a girlfriend, they usually wanted fast food, a sports update, and to hear some rock music. I NEVER obliged them, of course.

  8. Travis, that is an absolutely poetic story.

    Wilfried, this post reminds me of a repeated anxiety dream (nightmare, really) I would have in the MTC. In the dream, I would be late for the GRE at BYU (this part was based on reality: I really did get permission to take the GRE at BYU while I was in the MTC), running desperately to make it to the exam. For some reason, I’d try to take a shortcut through the south border of the MTC campus, but would get stopped at a checkpoint, fully equipped with watchtower, spotlights, armed guards–for all the world like a crossing out of East Germany. The guard would have me at gunpoint, reaching for my badge to examine it–only to find that the badge had become attached directly to my skin, and, horribly, tore away flesh as the guard yanked…

    Anyway, those MTC fences are as psychically charged a liminal space as any I can imagine.

  9. My wife Kimberly and I met just as she was preparing her papers to serve a mission. We dated extensively in the few months before she left. I was teaching in the MTC while she was there; I confess I “happened” to see her at lunch in the cafeteria a number of times, and more than once left a letter under the books on her desk in her empty classroom instead of sending it in the mail.

  10. Lovely. Thank you.

    (I think however that the guard involved (guard?! they have guards?! like, armed guards?!) would not thank you for posting this story.)

  11. Thank you for the reminiscences of love stories and others surrounding the MTC. It’s a fascinating place and I keep enjoying my daily walk behind the buildings, going to BYU in the morning and returning home at night. I may tell other events I witnessed, both fun and inspiring.

    Sheri, the guard is the missionary companion. They’re supposed to stay close to each other and keep mutual watch… No, no armed guards!

  12. I recall an elder in my district or zone, whatever they called them in the MTC, meeting his girlfriend at different spots around the MTC’s greater perimeter, including the temple. I was the AP at the time (what a silly thing to have an AP in the MTC) and the elder’s companion came to me in a panic on several occasions. What to do?

    I did nothing and said nothing to the authorities. I don’t know if that was right or wrong.

    When I arrived in the mission field, I saw real “infidelity” to the mission rules, as well as God’s rules. It made the love-sick elder’s meetings seem small and the anxiety about them ill-spent.

    The scriptures say that obedience supersedes sacrifice. Does principle, then, supersede individuality? Is it more important to be right or do right?

  13. My comp’s brother met us at the back fence of the MTC one night, loaded with food and drink. Think Dr. Pepper. Two cases. Chilled. CAFFEINATED. We hurried back from the surreptitious rendevous, cracked open the first case and found can after can of Budweiser. That scared the crap out of us.

  14. Thanks, Wilfried…I was getting a frightening picture of what goes on at the MTC….!

  15. So, does this mean that missions and stakes may be likened unto Montagues and Capulets?

  16. RE Post #1

    That was really sweet.

    We used to make fun of these guys in the MTC.

  17. Thanks for the comments. Perhaps I should have clarified that my post, between the lines and behind the anecdote, was essentially meant as a tribute to our young missionaries. Leaving behind a dearly loved one, and parents and home, jumping from one life into another, stepping into the unknown and harsh conditions in often foreign lands for two years, it deserves our admiration. And our understanding for the struggle most go through.

  18. Wilfried,

    Thank you for writing this post. It is easy to trivialize young love so I appreciate this post acknowledging the fact that the sacrifices young LDS couples make are real. When my (then) best friend and sweetheart left for his mission I thought my heart would break. As melodramatic as it sounds now, at the time I didn’t think I could go on without him. We’d been best friends all through high school and had started dating seriously in our first year of college. By the time he left for his mission we were practically engaged and would have married had we not been so committed to missionary work. Since I had always planned to serve a mission, we knew that our parting would be for more than three years. We never broke mission rules to be together or talk, but we did write long weekly letters for more than two years and felt each other’s absence keenly. Although he proposed when I got home, we didn’t marry (which was ultimately the right thing for both of us).

    I wonder how big an impact missions have on LDS couples? How many LDS young people end up marrying someone other than they would have at twenty? Since people are getting married later now, I wonder if more women are waiting for their missionaries? Perhaps fewer are? Even in cases like ours when couples wait for each other, marriage still might not occur. In many cases this is probably a good thing (like in my case), but for some perhaps it isn’t.

  19. Yes, absolutely, Wilfried. Every missionary makes tremendous sacrifices. I felt like I was giving up a lot when I went on a mission, and I still think so. I admire the missionaries and can’t stand the attitude that missions are just the last extension of the YM/YW program. Yours was a fine post about a touching moment. Or rather, a moment of not touching. A moving moment involving two people not touching. You know what I mean.

    It’s just that I too left a relationship behind. I had her securely locked within my heart. As much as I was committed to keeping everything proper, I would scan the borders of the BYU campus six times a day on the way to and from the Oak Hills Chapel, in the hope of catching an accidental and therefore innocent glimpse. I wrote faithfully.

    Three weeks after I entered the MTC, a new missionary arrived on my floor in the dorms and told me about his serious ongoing relationship, “practically an engagment,” with the same girl.

    So when I read about chivalrous MTC romances, I giggle. I can’t help it.

  20. Thanks Wilfried, that’s a great post.

    I’m afraid I have to admit my thoughts also came upon the john letters though. In my MTC groups of 10, there were four missionaries who were either engaged or promised to be engaged. They all honestly believed they were going to marry the person they were currently attached to.

    Throughout the next two years, all four of them got the letter. One of them even got a box full of all the things he had given her..mailed all the way to Brazil.

    I think the strong possibility of breakup does make the sacrifice all the greater. (That is, assuming the Elders have any clue how strong that possibility is.)

  21. Great stories, Melissa, Jonathan and Eric!

    Thanks for also drawing the attention to the fact that this matter is indeed not trivial for the young people involved. In the turmoil and uncertainties that the mission departure entails, emotions run high and affective support may be vital. Am I wrong to think that young people with a multi-dating background will not suffer that much, contrary to those who have been loyal to a childhood friend for years?

    Melissa raises interesting questions: “I wonder how big an impact missions have on LDS couples? How many LDS young people end up marrying someone other than they would have at twenty? Since people are getting married later now, I wonder if more women are waiting for their missionaries? Perhaps fewer are?”

    To the first questions Jonathan and Eric gave answers from their experiences, and with a welcome relaxing giggle: the norm seems to be that few keep their initial pledges, which does not seem abnormal. Two years is a long time at that age. I think, however, it is also tied to the local dating system. In non-American cultures the relation between a young man and a young woman, if promises have been made, may be more steadfast than in others. It’s only a question, I’m not sure. Indeed, dating “the American way” is something that is not so familiar in other cultures.

    To the last question — “Since people are getting married later now, I wonder if more women are waiting for their missionaries? Perhaps fewer are?” — I have no idea what the answer is. For those who have waited, on purpose or because no one else got involved, I imagine that after two years a renewal of acquaintance would certainly be necessary, taking into account how much a mission can change someone. But it should also be enriching to discover that people can and will change, as they will during married life.

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