Technically, it's a Dear Jane story and only a loose one at that. But it's got the flair and toxic waste that so often accompany my life experiences. So, here we go:
The fun started on a lovely evening in southern California sometime in spring 2006. My companions, the lovely/crazy/co-training Columbian, Hermana, and our Tongan greenie, Tui, and I stopped at the apartment quickly to grab something forgotten on our way to our dinner appointment. Hermana thought it'd be a great idea to grab the mail while we were at it. (Aside to future missionaries: NEVER grab the mail before the day is good and done, never...it's a rule anyway!) Little did I know what that batch of mail was holding for me.
As I drove on to the DA, Hermana shouts from the back seat, "Orton! You got a big, fat letter." (Everything Hermana does/says includes shouting, by the way.)
"Who's it from?" I asked.
"Karen Taylor...it says 'Happy Valentine's' all over it." she said.
"Aw, that's sweet..." and on we went into the members' home. Of course, the members weren't quite ready to start dinner yet and refused any help. Actually, they were a former mission president and mom, so, when Hermana told them we had mail to read, they encouraged us to open it up and enjoy until dinner was served.
The bright pink envelope was indeed incredibly fat and heavy and I couldn't resist for even a second. I tore it open and unfolded an awkward stack of sheets. The top page was from Karen who explained that, as her Valentine's gift, she had gotten our old group of friends together to write to me. My face lit up as I knew exactly which 'friend' I was dying to hear from, and I quickly flipped through the papers until I spotted the familiar handwriting. Blood rushed to my head even just reading his opening chit chat; but, as I came to nearly the end of the letter, it quickly rushed back out again.
"I'm getting engaged."
The stark sentence leapt out from the page and sank talons into my chest. With breath caught in my throat, shock forced me to read the rest about "so happy" and "plans" and blah blah, sob, blah. My hand floated down to the couch, and I watched the mass of pink pages slide, their hushed escape from my grasp evidence of their conspiracy to contain such a cruel message. I wondered how the conversations I could hear in the room were so casual while the words I just read were cutting, very distinctly, every fiber of my being.
Thankfully, I didn't have time to digest what had just happened as dinner was served. I managed to get through it, smiling, chatting, only once choking back tears. Hermana noticed, but I shot her a scathing glance before she could say anything, loud or otherwise.
Once we were on our way home, grief swallowed me. Tears streaming, I stumbled into our apartment with one goal: I needed to get rid of the picture he had given to me as a surprise before I left. It needed to be gone, to not exist. I had already tucked it away with other keepsakes to be sent home soon--I only had weeks left in the mission field. I grabbed the box, tears flying, and dumped its contents on the floor.
Books, cards, photos, and trinkets were no longer chronologically arranged, but I knew precisely where the picture would be. I pulled it out of the mess and finally tried to explain to my stunned companions."I hoped...blubber...I thought...sniffle...He's so good...squeaky sob...engaged..." They listened patiently, sympathetically. Hermana went to call the district leader and check in for the night, and Tui (my most favorite person...ever) stood in the background softly comforting, "Sister Orton...Sister Orton....". I sat with my picture, not quite ready to throw it away now that I was looking at it, weeping accusingly at the phrase scribbled on the back, "Be strong." Up until then, I had been trying to be strong, to really use the "Life goes on" attitude that missionaries have to adapt. My mission hadn't been drama-free, but I had tried to be sensible, to lock my heart, and to do the work well. That night, I gave up and indulged in every bit of indignant drama I could muster.
As the scene played out, I kept being brought out of my sorrow by a very physical, very distinct smell. I ignored it several times until it could be ignored no more. All three of us were noticing it, something smelled acrid, rotting . . . garbage? . . . sewage? No, it was strongest around the now scattered pile of cards and papers I was sending home. Distracted from myself, I carefully picked up a paper and saw a small painting. All at once, the memory came rushing back of a lovely older woman, someone I had taught. Her husband had painted lots of things, among them eggs, and she had let us choose one to keep. It NEVER occurred to me that it might be a real egg. It was such delicate artwork, who would be crazy enough to put it on something so temporary?! And, of course, in my zeal to empty the box, it didn't have a chance. As soon as I realized it, I saw it: rotten, gray matter smeared all over my stuff! And smelling stronger by the second.
That's when the screaming began. (We're girls; how else would we react?) I grabbed plastic sacks and started shoving the soiled memories into them, trying not to get any speck of it on me. Hermana was throwing all the windows open. Sister Tui was basically dry heaving in the corner. Now I was crying all over again for the letters and pictures I was losing and for being such a fool about eggs, and junk, and boys in the first place. Tui needed fresh air and I told her to come with me to the dumpsters. In all the commotion, I hadn't stopped to grab any shoes--we needed that stuff out of the apartment fast. Tui and I made it out and back in about 45 seconds; but a few feet from the door, running without shoes, I stepped on something squishy and crunchy. Needless to say, the screeching started all over again. Anyone who's lived in SoCal knows that when it's rained, and sometimes even when it hasn't, there're snails--big ones. And that was precisely what I had stepped on in bare feet and squashed the life out of in bare feet!
About two seconds later, in our stinky apartment, the three of us were all at the vanity. I was sitting on it, my feet in the sink, snuffling and laughing while my two great companions helped me scrub my feet and laughed along with me.
And life really did go on.