Celestial Marriage

Illustration by Dan Goldman

They lay facedown on the tables, side by side, their naked buttocks covered by soft white towels, a fat scented candle burning near their heads. Over them stood two therapists, young men, whose hands were heavily slicked with almond oil. Ghostly music played, Bolivian flutes, and in the dark windows of the slopes-side condo that had been lent to them by a contributor—a Salt Lake City hotel developer who’d been with them from the start, the very start—pellets of sleet fell, ticking against the glass.

“Comfortable?” one of the men asked.

“Very,” Mitt said. As usual, he spoke for both of them, a reflex formed through years of public appearances. That this habit might bother his wife had never occurred to him, but now, in the dim, disorienting intimacy of the first couples’ massage they’d ever had, he wondered how well he still knew her, his precious Ann, whose love he’d almost lost at the beginning, when the Church sent him off to Europe for his mission. She’d stayed behind at BYU to wait for him, but one day he got a letter: She’d met someone. The boy was a basketball player, handsome, confident, and though Mitt had finally persuaded Ann not to see him and to honor the solemn pledge they’d made while they were still in their teens, he suspected she’d had a hard time forgetting the fellow.

Mitt’s therapist went to work between his shoulder blades, attacking the knots with greasy thumbs and knuckles. Each spot of tension had a history. The one at the far upper left, beside Mitt’s spine, was the most recent, emerging just last week during a lunch meeting with his Europe person. The subject was NATO, preserving NATO, and Mitt had brought forth, toward the end, some private theories about the fate of the Netherlands long-term and the reliability of Italy. His Europe person seemed unimpressed, and then, as Mitt went on, contemptuous, looking past him at the open kitchen where their Caesar salads were being tossed. A young guy, this expert, Princeton educated, a frequent panelist on the Sunday shows, but already twice divorced, which troubled Mitt—not on moral grounds, on professional grounds. A diplomat should be able to hold his mate.

The heels of his therapist’s hands made widening circles as they spread a warm new puddle of oil across Mitt’s tender, spasmodic lower back. Mitt started to flinch but he contained the impulse, concerned that letting his nerves fire naturally might give the therapist too much information about his inner state. For Mitt, the great crucial challenge of politics was shielding one’s true thoughts and feelings. Sincere convictions, once they came to light, could limit one’s freedom to shift positions.

A robot, the press sometimes called him. They were wrong. So much went on inside him, all unseen, an underground river of doubts and second thoughts, recriminations, impulses, epiphanies.

When the time came for him to roll over on his back, he allowed himself to glance at Ann, whose shadowy, candlelit face he couldn’t read, perhaps because she’d succeeded in truly relaxing. This feat made him jealous, but it also pleased him. The shared evening rubdown had been his idea—the whole Park City ski vacation, too, including the snowboarding lesson of yesterday that drew gawking double-takes from several hotshot youngsters—and, judging by Ann’s behavior at breakfast that morning, the change of pace agreed with her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her consume an entire plate of eggs, or spread both jam and butter on her toast. Or joke with a waiter about wanting coffee despite the Church’s stand against it. Her high spirits had lifted Mitt out of a funk that he’d been mired in for the last few months, ever since he’d canned his Asia person for appearing, without alerting the Organization, on a CNN program devoted to Chinese censorship. It wasn’t that the fellow had stepped wrong or articulated points that might haunt Mitt in the next election, but that he’d come off as dispassionate and smarmy, a business-as-usual Beltway know-it-all of the type Mitt had vowed to have no truck with. After the show Mitt had phoned him and they’d bickered, bickered cruelly, in vulgar language. Mitt hung up the phone feeling soiled and debased, ashamed at himself for descending to schoolyard ugliness. His father, old George, the mannerly industrialist who’d been pilloried during his 1968 presidential run for claiming to have been “brainwashed” by the military about the effectiveness of the Vietnam War, would have been disappointed with Mitt’s ill temper. Romneys who succumbed to candor lost. It was their family’s inborn hallmark flaw.

The frontal massage, less focused and less painful, required a readjustment of the towels that led Mitt, by an association of images, to recall his wedding in the Temple. He’d felt a sore throat coming on the night before, and at one point during the Sealing and Anointing, after giving the Signs and Tokens through the Veil, and taking instruction in the great apostasy that set in after the savior’s crucifixion and was only corrected in the 1800s by the farm-boy seeker Joseph Smith, he’d turned aside and coughed into one hand. There was nowhere to wipe his soiled fingers, unfortunately, except on the sacred white garments that he’d put on to consecrate his bond with Heavenly Father. He’d stopped himself, though—he’d swallowed back the sputum. Temple Garments were a material oath, not to be soiled or degraded, and when he’d been in the mission field, in France, he’d heard a tale about a Latter-Day Saint whose body had been dragged out of a house fire, horrifically burned except on the smooth skin where it was covered by the holy cloth.

“Pain there?” his therapist asked him. “I felt you jump, sir.”

Mitt shook his head with his eyes closed. “Fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” he said. “I didn’t feel a thing.” He had no idea if he was speaking truthfully.

The therapist proceeded to Mitt’s chest, firmly stroking the spaces between his ribs to soften up the rigid cartilage. Mitt opened his eyes and peeked at Ann again. She was facing away from him; he saw only her hair, glossy with its film of fragrant oil. Her fellow was bearing down on her right leg, the one she’d complained about daily way back when, before her diagnosis with MS. Thanks to the regimen of horseback riding that she’d developed in the years that followed, the hip hadn’t bothered her since then (that he knew of), but her disease was a trickster, sly, perverse.

“Honey?” he whispered. Then, slightly louder, “Darling?”

She fluttered a hand at him. “Hush, dear.”

Mitt obeyed. He looked at the candle, its tremulous thin flame. He felt a hard fist twisting deep into his diaphragm, into his power source, where the words were stored.

The therapists finished up by pinching their earlobes and urging them to drink lots of water, lots of water, to flush out the toxins released by the massage. The men left the room then, good and faithful servants, taking an envelope with a check inside it that included a generous gratuity tip. Mitt was a lavish tipper, and always had been (not that the press would ever mention this fact). Thinking that Ann might want to sit up first and put on one of the robes their hosts had left for them, Mitt stayed on his back and gazed up at the stout beams supporting the vaulted ceiling of the condo. Ann didn’t stir, though. Mitt waited. Was she dozing?

He rose, forgetting to cover himself, and retired to the bathroom to comb his oil-soaked hair and examine his face in the mirror for any changes. He looked distinctly different to himself, not rejuvenated but less preoccupied, and certain faint lines that he’d assumed were permanent had vanished from his face.

“Angel?” he heard Ann call to him. She hadn’t used this endearment since their wedding, that day when the hosts of heaven had drawn near, bestowing upon them ancient cosmic potencies that would equip them, in the fullness of time, to propagate legions of loyal spirit children and take up lordship over their own planet in the Mormon infinity of worlds. How young they’d been then. How. And how terrified, when he thought about it now.

He returned from the bathroom and stood beside her table. “What is it?” She looked slimmer now, longer, ethereal almost.

“Thank you for this,” she whispered.

“You’re so welcome.”

She stroked her own face. He watched her trace a finger along one curved cheekbone then over her upper lip.

“How do you feel?” she asked him.

“How do you feel?”

“Really, Mitt? You really want to know?”

Something curdled inside him—he didn’t deserve this dig. Yes, he’d been busy lately, insanely busy, especially with those foreign-policy dopes, but he’d tried to remain attentive to his lady. He’d arranged this nice weekend for them. He’d canceled events, he’d canceled events that were scheduled months ago. Suddenly, he was impatient to get away from her, to find the remote and check on the day’s news. He hadn’t turned on the set since lunchtime yesterday, a gesture he’d hoped that she’d notice and appreciate, mostly because it came so hard to him.

“I feel like I’ve left my body,” she finally said. “And I don’t want to go back to it. Not yet. It’s so heavy sometimes. It’s all so heavy, life.”

He thought about this. He couldn’t disagree. But neither could he indulge the realization. At 8 a.m. his domestic team was coming, armed with an updated set of “vision” papers for his consideration and signature. It was all starting up again, it couldn’t be stopped, the savage, sacrificial uphill push. It punished the muscles. It seared the nerves. It hurt. And she wasn’t prepared for it, clearly. She’d lost the drive.

“Hold me,” she said, and she leaned up on an elbow, her towel slipping onto the floor, revealing everything, because they’d removed their Garments for the massage. They shouldn’t have, it wasn’t proper, but they had.

Leaving them vulnerable, glistening with oil, lit by a candle, with no choice but to touch.

The film adaptation of Kirn’s novel Up in the Air will be released in theaters next month.

Celestial Marriage