The phone call was innocent. Sister Walker, the mission president’s wife, wanted me to come over for dinner.
– We see each other only at meetings, we never have a chance to socialize. So Dwight and I thought of inviting you. We’ll also have another friend over. What about next week Friday at seven?
Two-hour drive to the mission home, I thought. Floundering through the Friday rush to leave the city, negotiating shuffling spaces on beleaguered highways, watching my second-hand Volvo gulp gas — at the price it stood in the mid-seventies.
– That’s very kind of you, Sister Walker, I’d be happy to.
Perhaps I should have infused more gratitude in my voice. It was nice of them to invite a lonely bachelor of almost thirty. Plus, the Walkers were all but unpleasant. Dwight and Dorothy, an archetypal mission president and his companion, relished their age, going on seventy. Benevolently overweight, neatly groomed, rosy-cheeked on mature skin, American to the bone, they carried this indefinable assurance of pioneer stock, authentically, ontologically happy. An outsider, not knowing their background, and more pedestrian in his assessment, would think they came straight from a dazzling dinner where a delectable pousse-cafe had rounded off the dainties and the wine. Our Gentile would have been surprised to discover they were teetotalers and nonetheless displayed all the signs of blissful bons vivants.
The traffic, after all, was reasonable. I parked my car in front of the mission home, an affluent middle-class villa built in the fifties, nestled between foliage. Icon for the entire house, the front yard, with its moss-draped stone borders, slowly decaying, but embracing blooming petunia’s and peppercress, exuded the self-confidence of an aging and still exuberant soul.
This house was famous in the whole mission. For more than three decades it had been occupied by subsequent mission presidents. It had drawn from their presence a status of holiness and security. In this sanctuary arrived the missionary novices, exhausted from their long night flight, as well as from anxiety and excitement. From this sanctuary they would leave two years later, transformed, fulfilled, freed. The office in the house, enclosure for innumerable interviews, was known to the missionaries as peproom, confessional, breakdown service, calvary, and always ultimate refuge.
– Dorothy will be here in a minute. She went to the train station to pick up our other guest.
President Walker had led me into the stately living room, one part dining space, one part lounge with roomy armchairs and couch. Though we were in June, the fireplace was lit. The long oval dining table, able to receive a dozen guests, was skillfully set, but only for four now, grouped towards the middle, two at each side.
– How was the road? Traffic not too bad?
– No, it went well, President. Thank you. How is the work going?
Mormon chitchat. Truisms about challenges and progress. Always the Promise of future growth to keep us going.
– There is Dorothy, he said serenely, having heard the car.
I at once realized the plot when the young lady walked in behind Sister Walker. Around twenty-five, handsome, with this mixture of apprehensiveness and forced aplomb in unfamiliar territory. Introductions. Her name was Evelyne.
Sister Walker shoved us gently to the couch next to the fireplace.
– Let’s first sit down here for a moment.
Softness. Coziness. Closeness. But in lieu of those intended attributes, I felt anger, or rather the resentment of the tricked, the annoyance of this contrived encounter. I hate matchmaking. Moreover, was Evelyne involved in the scheme? Did she know I would be the other guest? Was this ruse a response to her pleading to meet marriageable men?
Kindhearted, soothing, meandering topics, the Walkers were probing what would spark the mutual interest of the visitors. Weather, traffic, cats, oil prices, Chinese food, missionaries, the immorality of the world and how to care for potherbs. They went through such pain to conceal their eagerness to have Evelyne and me converse that none of their subtleties could remain hidden.
– Now, don’t you have a master’s degree in biology, Evelyne?
I nodded uncomfortably when my credentials were laid out too. Sister Walker must be keeping records of single adults, spending hours puzzling and matching cards to lend a hand to the divine providence which puts kindred spirits and equivalent degrees on each other’s path. She was adding to the mission home some new functions for which I was, in between my minimal answers, imagining fitting words with an unkind flavor.
We moved to the dining table. The two guests facing each other, as did Dorothy and Dwight. Candles lit. Blessing offered by President, with emphasis on family happiness. Salads served. The Walkers persisted in seeking congenial ground for the two guests, unearthing questions in varied and singular fields. But Evelyne seemed as brief in her answers as I was. Was she dodging risks and waiting for me to break more ground first?
– Let me go and check the oven, Sister Walker said.
Two minutes later her head popped up behind the kitchen door.
– Dwight, could you come and help me?
– Sorry to leave you alone for a moment, he excused himself.
Silence took possession of the room, except for the majestic tick-tock of the longcase clock, impervious to the emotions at the table. Evelyne looked down at her unfinished salad. I noticed the light tremble of her nostrils and turned my eyes away, embarrassed, in search for an object to save me. I thought of sentences to say but decided against each. The silence lingered on.
Suddenly she looked straight at me, resentfully:
– It’s pretty clear why we were invited and left alone here, huh?
– I’m sorry, I whispered. I have nothing to do with it. I was asked to come for dinner. They only said they would also invite another of their friends. I had no idea…
There was suspicion in her voice. I nodded emphatically. She puckered her brows and sighed:
– I hate matchmaking.
The Walkers returned from the kitchen with steaming dishes. Their eyes brushed over us, anxious to catch a glimpse of thawing. There was still work ahead for them. But now that Evelyne and I were on common ground, at least partially, it became easier to gauge our position. Our shared resentment seemed to diminish it. We started to pay more attention to the kind observations Dwight and Dorothy continued to make to get the talking afloat. The generosity of their concern, whatever its meddlesomeness, stemmed from an innocence we probably never possessed. Our answers grew longer. By the end of the main dish and before we realized it, Evelyne and I were engaged in a lively exchange about new academic programs.
The Walkers smiled and nodded at us, with the satisfaction of boatmen who finally got the sputtering engine to run.
A phone rang in the distance.
– I’ll catch it in the kitchen, said President. A zone leader calling in. Shouldn’t be too long.
– Oh, and I need to get the ice-cream out of the freezer.
Again we were alone. Instantly, she shifted back to her direct register.
– Wilfried, this is between us, but I feel I need to tell you. I have someone. We are not yet engaged, but it’s in the making.
I almost answered how relieved I was. But past experiences, luckily and painfully, had eroded my bachelor clumsiness well enough to grasp you don’t express the pleasure of being freed from dating the girl in front of you.
– It’s a pretty serious relation. We’ve known each other for more than two years. But we take our time. We’ve also kept it very private.
I hesitated. Her trust was contagious. And I felt the same need to clarify.
– I… Well, I… You are the first person I say this to… It’s very personal… But there is a girl in my home branch I’m deeply in love with.
Lump in my throat. Evelyne, now smiling with a mothering glance:
– You are?
I nodded, biting on my teeth to keep my eyes dry. Let no one mock the sacred and fragile emotions of older young adults.
Cautiously she questioned me about Carine. Yes, we were getting along well, working together on many things in Church. No, I had not yet talked to her about my love. You see, she is much younger than I am. She will need time. Evelyne, caring, thoughtful, counseled. Then I had her talk about her Johann. She shared how they had met, grown gently, keeping their relation jealously guarded from all the priers in local Mormondom.
The muffled sound of our intense conversation no doubt inspired the Walkers to delay their re-entry. Intermittently we heard them shuffle a pot or a pan, tinkle cutlery in the sink, close a cupboard, thus signaling they were still busy and therefore excused.
Finally from the kitchen came the pretty flattened ice-cream. We switched topics, but our connivance was now overly manifest. A complicity frolicked between our words and eyes, up for free interpretation.
Aware of local traditions, Sister Walker next served us a warm herbal tea, complete with heart-shaped chocolates on a silver tray and a choice of white and brown sugar cubes in a porcelain cup.
President looked at the longcase clock.
– It’s about time we take you back to the station, Evelyne. At least if you want to catch the 9.32 train.
– But, Dwight, Dorothy said, come to think of it: Wilfried is driving back home. Isn’t it about half way where Evelyne lives? Perhaps he could take her home.
They must have rehearsed that part of the script several times, including bending the country’s geography. We tied the lines for them:
– Of course, I’d be happy to, if that’s OK with Evelyne.
– Oh, it’s OK, thanks, but I hope that’s not too difficult for you. It’s quite a detour.
– No problem. My pleasure.
We caught our hosts exchanging an exultant glance. Unnoticed, Evelyne and I shared the joy of dipping into their felicity.
Repeated farewells. A few false departures. One more diversion to admire the framed pictures of children, grandchildren and first great-grandchildren. The hallway.
– Thank you so much, Sister Walker. It was a wonderful evening.
And, convincingly, with a look at my partner guest:
– It was also a delight to get to know Evelyne.
– It was lovely, she concurred with twinkling eyes. It was so kind to invite us.
They beamed like lighthouses and shook our hands with the fervor of a marriage reception. Evelyne and I walked side by side to the already dusky street, our shoes crunching harmoniously on the cinder pathway of the front yard.
I let her in the car, as gallantly as possible knowing that I was being watched. The Walkers stood on the porch. They were holding hands under the soft light of the wall lantern, their free arm already delicately waving at us. They radiated a mood of warm nostalgia, an exquisite tenderness mingled with trepidation and pride, obviously reliving their own courtship, their wedding, their honeymoon, their enduring amorousness. All topped by the contentment of a master plan well executed.