(Note: Starting tomorrow, we’ll be taking a break from our regular posting schedule until the new year. We expect to still be around with a few random posts, but the daily posting will be back in January.)
My thirty-third Christmas will be the first one Melissa and I get to spend together as a married couple, which is partially why we decided it would be fun to have a cozy one in New York.
This will mark only the third time in my life I haven’t spent Christmas in Utah with my family, the first two being those I spent in Argentina as a missionary. I arrived in Argentina in October 1996, fresh-faced and full of zeal. I was assigned to be trained by a missionary I will call Elder Vasquez, of Uruguay. In the unlikely event that I am ever elected President of the United States, my first official act will be to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on Uruguay. After a few years, when the radiation clouds have subsided, I will send the Marines to kill any survivors and then sew their fields with salt. Other nations of the world will no doubt characterize these actions as “unprovoked.” But other nations of the world didn’t spend 5 months living and working with Elder Vasquez.
It’s hard to know how to describe Elder Vasquez. Actually, it’s easy. The hard part is trying to do it in language appropriate for a family blog. If I were to write a memoir of my mission but present it as a novel, any astute reader would view the “character” of Elder Vasquez as a mash-up of every “bad missionary companion” cliché: lazy, trunky, covetous of leadership positions, overly familiar with the members, and highly interested in spending as much time as possible around women. And that’s just describing him as a missionary. In order to describe him as a person, I wrote down every adjective that I believe characterizes him, put them in a hat, and randomly drew out the following five:
3. (Is probably a) murderer
5. Terrible person
“This isn’t going to make much sense now, but in about 15 years, you’re not going to want to live downwind of Uruguay.”
Within a week of my arrival Elder Vasquez told me, in the spirit of full disclosure, that the only American he didn’t hate was Gordon B. Hinckley. Either Presidents Monson and Faust weren’t highly-placed enough to escape his ire, or he just really hated their faces. I don’t know. Regardless, if those two weren’t qualifying for an exemption, I certainly wasn’t going to, either. It was all downhill from there. In one corner we had the eager, young American who actually wanted to, you know, do missionary work, and in the other we had the lazy, homesick Uruguyan who wanted to spend all day licking ice cream cones while watching girls in the plaza. By the time Christmas rolled around we’d spent two utterly miserable months together consisting of me dragging him out the door to do missionary work, which in turn consisted of me trying to stop people on the street in broken Spanish while he stood 10 feet away with his arms crossed, smirking whenever people refused to stop or when I made a mistake in Spanish.
I should mention here that the way Christmas is celebrated in Latin America is much closer to the way we celebrate New Year’s Eve here, with people getting dressed up, going out dancing and to parties, and lots of noise and fireworks at midnight. And by fireworks I mean fireworks, but also guns and probably some grenades and mortars. It’s incredibly loud and a little dangerous in that fun “It’s not a certainty that someone is going to lose an eye, but there’s a decent chance” Third World kind of way. For this reason our mission president gave us strict orders in no uncertain terms: Be inside your apartment by 6 PM, and don’t leave until the next morning. No exceptions. This rule was mentioned every time we saw the president or a mission leader for about a month in advance, and as Christmas grew closer, it was reiterated more and more frequently and with greater and greater force.
Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. A little before 6 PM we picked up some food to eat in miserable silence and headed back to our apartment. Thankfully, we received a visit from a member friend, Fabian, who agreed to eat with us and hang out for a bit. At some point around 8 or 9 PM Elder Vasquez declared that we needed some soda to celebrate. I told him we weren’t going to get soda, and we argued for a few minutes about the rule, at which point he seemed to back down. A little bit later I stepped into the bathroom, and when I came out neither Elder Vasquez nor Fabian were anywhere to be found. I went to open our front door, which required a key to open from the inside or the outside, and found I’d been locked inside the apartment.
Worn out and depleted from this confrontation and the last couple months of near-constant strife, as well as the difficulties of being away from home and trying to learn a new language, I crumpled onto my bed. Before closing my eyes, I looked at my watch and realized that at that moment my family was gathered around the dining room table in my parents’ house, eating turkey, drinking wassail, warmed by the glow of love and tradition. The contrast between the beauty and peace associated with that setting and the misery and conflict of my current one was so great that I briefly wondered whether my former life was simply a figment of my imagination. And then I started to cry.
I don’t mean that I got some tears in my eyes. I mean that I cried really, really hard. To the point that I was doing the fast suck-in thing that people do when they cry really, really hard. I cried like this for a few minutes, and then went to the bathroom to try to get rid of my “cry face.” After being gone who knows where for an hour or so, Elder Vasquez and Fabian returned. Fabian left a short while after, abandoning us to our mutual contempt.
Well, I wish I could tell you this story has a happy ending. I mean, it does, in the sense that I didn’t beat Elder Vazquez to death with a baseball bat. But it doesn’t in the sense that we never really came to like one another. I suppose there are a few redemptive nuggets to be gleaned from my story. The first is that I was able to feel less guilty for waiting for Elder Vazquez to get in the shower before opening and gobbling down the Christmas treats my Mom had been sending me. The second is that my second Christmas in Argentina was much, much happier than my first. I had a companion I liked, we were working hard, and we had a really enjoyable Christmas. The third and final one is that even if Lyla somehow burns down our apartment, my third Christmas away from family and Utah won’t be as bad as my first.
(Ed note: I should specify that neither of the missionaries pictured with me is Elder Vasquez. I’ve burned any pictures that he’s in. And yes, these pictures are evidence that I wasn’t always a big guy.)