ALYSSA WITBECK ALEXANDER
Baptized in Ice
At eight years old, I gathered the soft folds of the white dress in my fingers, pulling the fabric close to my body. Twirling in the floor-length gown, I spun and danced in the church building’s women’s locker room. The brightness of my dress stood out against the light pink walls and matching backsplash tiles of the tiny bathroom. I already felt pure. As Mormons, my church baptizes its newest members when they’re eight years old, the “age of accountability” when they can choose baptism, choose Jesus Christ. To them, eight is old enough to make mistakes and “sin.”
My mother squeezed my shoulder. We hugged each other, and she flashed a quick thumbs up before jogging back to her front row seat for my baptism. I poked my head through the door of the locker room that led straight to the font, waiting for my moment to enter the water. The font, essentially a large bathtub, rested beneath ground level so that all those baptized descended a few steps to reach the water—as Jesus had for His own baptism. In place of a wall, a large glass window rose above one side of the font. My family and friends huddled in a tight room behind the window in folding chairs to watch my cleansing. Following tradition, a small cluster of children not yet old enough for baptism crowded on the floor near the window to peer at me, their example.
“It’s time,” my father, a tall man with broad shoulders and dark hair mouthed to me from the opposite side of the font. He held the priesthood—God’s power given to worthy men—so his authority allowed him to baptize me. I walked to meet my father in the center of the font, the cool water lifting the hem of my dress so that it rippled near my ankles. Forgetting about the chill after the first step, I felt like a goddess as I moved through the water, the hem becoming a train. When I reached him, my father grasped my right wrist, and I clutched his left one. He raised his right hand, closed his eyes, and voiced the baptismal prayer. “Alyssa,” he said, “having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” He then lowered the rest of my body into the water. I plugged my nose and felt my ponytailed hair wave under the surface, like a mermaid whose flowing locks let sins shake from the strands and land on the floor of the pool. A quick moment later—too quick, as I wanted more time to relish my sins washing away—my father pulled me up out of the water. I exhaled, water dripping out the end of my stiff, wet ponytail while I wiped my eyes with my soaked (but not yet pruny) palms.
I was clean.
Following the baptism, everyone caravanned in their Sunday best to my childhood house in Logan, Utah. We lived less than a mile from the church; Mormon church buildings pepper the northern Utah landscape every few blocks. In our family room, my mother had set up long tables dressed in red plastic tablecloths for a luncheon that honored me and my baptism. While scooping potato salad and plopping pork into bread rolls on paper plates, family and friends congratulated me on my decision to formally join the church and admired me for my perfection. Of course, I never actually considered not choosing baptism. I also never considered the Mormon church as anything other than True. In my highly religious town, baptism acted as a rite-of-passage, a symbol of purity. Even my non-Mormon cousins traveled five hours to congratulate me, and I wanted my new cleanliness and example to inspire them to choose Mormonism for themselves. In an attempt to act mature, I mingled and moved between groups of people, sure to give everyone a chance to give me a gift and share their testimony of Mormonism. I reveled in my pureness and wanted that feeling to last forever.
In church, I learned about the similarities between thoughts and actions. If a person thinks a bad thought, they need to repent as if they actually committed the bad deed. Walking between tableclothed tables, I wondered how long I could go without sinning. Maybe years! Maybe longer! I smiled a little wider, silently rededicating myself to a lifetime of happiness and pure thoughts. At eight, nobody ever told me what exactly constituted a dirty or a bad thought. Thinking something mean? Thinking a swear word? I knew very few naughty words. I only knew one swear word: “damn.” As long as I lasted the rest of my life without thinking the word “damn,” I saw myself remaining righteous and perfect.
In that moment, that one bad word I knew burst through my mind—a lit sign, neon colors flashing the abominable word.
Immediately, my purity left me. Jesus suffered for my dirty thought. He bled and cried in the Garden of Gethsemane, left alone by His apostles and in deep, hopeless pain to redeem my soul from that swear word. Damn. I imagined dark strands of sin tightening around my unrepentant ankles and wrists and darkening my new dress. “Heavenly Father,” I immediately prayed and repented in my head, trying to unshackle myself. “Please forgive me! It was an accident! I didn’t mean to think the dirty word! I am so sorry!” Yet, I kept thinking it. The swear word pulled me down, and I imagined Satan himself throwing that word at me over and over again, mocking me. How embarrassing that I thought myself able to stay pure forever. I sinned before the end of my baptismal luncheon!
“I am so proud of you!” my mother said, walking over to me and wrapping her arms around me. Our dresses brushed against each other while we embraced. I smiled, but inside I collapsed. In my mind, a dirty girl dressed in ruffles and bright white shoes crumpled to the floor.
I started figure skating lessons the year of my baptism. I loved the ice. Even when my body wobbled, skating filled me. I loved the smell of the ice—damp water mixed with sweat from the hockey players who left the ice the hour before. I loved the sound of the lights that constantly buzzed overhead, the scrape of blades on flat edges and the rip of blades on deep edges, spotting tiny flecks of fleece stuck to the ice where a student wearing cheap cotton gloves pushed themselves back up. I enjoyed the first year of skating lessons, learning basic turns, a two-foot spin, gliding with one leg extended behind me. But the simple joy intensified when I learned to jump.
It exhilarated me to leap off the ground, to land on ice. As a child, I loved performing single rotation jumps, but as a teenager, when I performed double rotation jumps, I knew I had discovered a true passion. To me, jumping was divine. Nothing brought me more joy than jumping off of the ice, entire body rotating twice as I pulled my crossed body tighter, my ponytail sliding down my hair from the force, then landing on my left blade, hearing the subtle rip of the outside edge against the ice, my right leg raised higher upon execution than required because I loved the feeling of extension. Moments like this made me feel strong. Moments like this made me feel powerful.
I met Levi in September, just weeks into the start of my second year of college. We attended the same church congregation, and I overheard other girls whisper about how they considered him the most handsome boy in church. I agreed. Blond haired and blue-eyed, Levi recognized his own attractiveness. He wore skinny jeans and sweaters, and he often casually leaned against walls and door frames, a stance that made all the girls blush when he walked past. He approached me after church one day, asking about my recently broken ankle as an easy conversation starter. Flattered and surprised that he noticed me, I fiddled with the hem of my dress while we talked.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said. After a five-minute walk from our church building, Levi and I sat on the front porch of my apartment and continued talking. “What music inspires you the most?” he asked. He then pulled a pair of headphones out of his front jean pocket and handed me an earbud. “This song makes me think about God.” While we listened, he moved his head along with the beat, occasionally brushing his knee against mine. Unsure if he intended the touch, I hoped he brushed against me on purpose. I liked how Levi found God in rock music. He seemed to care about church as much as me. We talked on that porch for two hours and he asked me to be his girlfriend a few weeks later.
Levi often surprised me with flowers. I loved walking into my apartment’s kitchen and seeing a dozen daisies blooming in a vase on the old wooden table.
“Levi left you flowers again,” one of my roommates muttered. I blushed, picking up the index card with “I love you!” written in his cursive handwriting. I’d never seen handwriting as clear and even as Levi’s before. Next to the note, he’d drawn a cartoon of the two of us holding hands, hearts bursting near our heads. Beaming, I brought the flowers up to my room and laid the note among the pile of other doodles from Levi.
“I have a surprise for you,” Levi texted me one morning. Later that day, I met him outside and he smiled at me, tandem bike in tow. I rushed to hug him. Levi knew how much I missed skating and being active since my ankle injury. Leaving my crutches in my room, I sat on the back of the bicycle built for two.
“Okay, you have to promise me you won’t try to pedal,” Levi said. “Let me do all of the pedaling. You just enjoy being on a bike again. I don’t want any doctors mad at me,” he winked. I hugged him around his waist, and off we went. I cheered while we rode around town, my booted foot sitting still against the pedal. I believed God gave Levi to me. Rolling down a hill, I raised my arms above my head while Levi pedaled.
“I am so happy!” I shouted against the wind, and Levi laughed. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, arms raised and feeling the breeze on my cheeks in ways I hadn’t felt since I last skated. “I love Levi!” I yelled out, and I meant it.
A lake sits at the center of the town Levi grew up in. The winter before our wedding, we visited his parents and skated on his frozen backyard. Levi preferred not to skate with me at the local ice rink, but he tried the sport out at his home. While we skated, I avoided practicing too many jumps or spins. I didn’t want Levi to feel insecure because I was better than him, so I skated laps on the frozen lake and stared at the dark ice, so different from the milky white substance I competed on. Still, I tried a spin or two on the lake ice—my body longed to feel my edges under me. Levi took pictures of me spinning with the lake and the sunset in the background, and he smiled out of pride and not jealousy when neighbors sat on their back porches to watch me skate. I liked creating my art in his backyard.
Levi loved to ballroom dance. He took my hand and tried to dance with me on the ice. He led our dance, and I refrained from jumping or spinning. I skated slowly, scraping my blade against the ice to lose any extra momentum so that my movements matched his pace.
“Do you love me more than you love skating?” he asked me, our bodies silhouettes against the sun.
“Yes, of course!” I responded.
“If it ever comes down to it, will you sacrifice skating for me?” he asked. I didn’t understand what he meant—what circumstance would require me to give up such a large piece of myself to save him? But I promised to sacrifice skating if he needed me to.
“I just want to know you love me more,” he said.
“I love you more.” I kissed him and scraped my blade to a stop.
My eyelashes felt sticky. Not ten minutes into our return flight from our honeymoon, Levi and I had already started arguing. I’d turned my face away from him and pressed against the plane’s window, sobbing.
The first few days of our honeymoon, I’d tried to slow Levi down. He’d wanted sex five or six times a day, and my vagina constantly ached with no time to recover before Levi’s hormones raged again. When I asked him to wait, he ignored me, saying he “needed it,” and that he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything until he got off. Clenching my teeth until he finished was an easier and faster way to get through the inevitable than crying and saying “no.” No matter what I said, I knew every conversation resulted in him unbuttoning his jeans. During those first few days, I hid my face a lot. I looked away whenever I walked past the bed, hoping he wouldn’t push me onto it. I looked away during sex, grimacing when he pressed into my dry vagina. I looked away to hide that I cried when he slammed doors. As per Mormon standards, we had both been virgins before our wedding. Since my baptism, I’d frequently rededicated myself to a life void of sin, including avoiding any element of physical intimacy before marriage. But now, I was married.
“Come on, let’s go do it in the airport bathroom!” Levi said when we stepped off the plane and into Salt Lake City International Airport. He winked at me. He winked a lot. I used to like it. I tried to smile, but I sniffled instead. During the last week, I had learned that Levi loved having sex in public places—gyms, bathrooms, arcades. Once, when Levi “felt it,” he snuck me into a men’s restroom with multiple stalls and urinals. Locked in a stall with my pants down, I crouched next to the toilet while Levi hovered above me. Not wanting the man urinating next to me to know I was there, I had covered my mouth with my hands. I hated sex in public. Pain sprang through my body every time and I disliked the mess.
I followed Levi into the airport’s handicapped restroom stall. The large stall had plenty of room to move around.
“You never know when you’re gonna need one of these!” Levi grinned and pulled a condom out of his pocket. He’d kept it there during the flight, hoping to sneak us into the tiny airplane bathroom. Our fight lasted longer than the flight did, so his condom went unused on the plane. Now in the stall, he glanced at me and ripped open the package. The tear seemed louder than usual. I hated that sound. I heard it a lot.
“Whew!” Levi said, a few minutes later, zipping up his pants. He laughed—a proud laugh, one that revealed most of his teeth. I pulled my leggings and underwear up over my thighs in one long tug, grateful that he let me keep my pants partially on in the dirty bathroom. I wore new, white underwear, specific underwear that symbolized I was now a married Mormon. The underwear was sacred. I wanted to keep the garments from touching the ground. Still, when I pulled the white underwear over my legs, it felt soiled. The underwear touched the body of someone who didn’t want to be touched but was touched, someone who didn’t want to be touched but, this time, didn’t say “no.” It was only day four of being married to Levi, and I’d already said “no” dozens of times. I said nothing an equal number of times—out of fear of seeming like a prude, an ungrateful wife, a “regular girl” who, according to Levi, avoided sex.
“I’m so glad you’re not like one of them,” Levi told me, referring to the “regular girls.” “I’m so glad you like sex.” He reasoned that it was normal for girls to not experience pleasure during sex—men can’t control their hormones, and young girls just go along with the ride. Still, did he truly believe I wanted sex every time he did? Did I even have a right to say no in marriage? I wasn’t sure. I only knew that my vagina hurt, I hated how Levi ignored me when he orgasmed, and I worried about disappointing my husband or God.
We left the bathroom one at a time, so that nobody found it suspicious for a couple to walk out of a public restroom together. He left first, and I waited an extra minute before I followed. When I found Levi a few yards outside the restroom, he grinned. But his smile looked different than the proud smile I had seen a moment before. He beamed like a teenage boy who had seen his favorite celebrity in person. I guess, in a way, Levi had.
“Elder Bednar is over there!” he said. “He changed my life! Let’s go say hi!” Elder Bednar was one of twelve apostles of the Mormon church. Apostles have the highest authority in the global church, apart from the three men in the first presidency. Levi and I often watched the apostles speak at a semi-annual televised conference, and we’d both read plenty of articles by them in the church’s magazines. We both looked up to the apostles but had never actually met any in real life. To meet one in person was, according to Levi, divine intervention.
We stopped Elder Bednar and his wife—I had no idea what her name was since she rarely spoke on TV—in the airport and shook their hands. Elder Bednar seemed shorter than he appeared from the televised pulpit, and his hair, grayer. Levi walked a few steps ahead of me, so I missed what he first said to the apostle.
“And this,” Levi said, turning to me, “is my new wife, Alyssa. We’re on our honeymoon!”
“Congratulations!” Elder Bednar said, shaking my hand and smiling at us. His wife nodded her head and smiled, too.
“We were married in the Salt Lake Temple!” Levi explained. Elder Bednar and his wife looked at us with pride.
I glanced at Elder Bednar’s eyes, eyes that I had always been told held the Light of God, “the power of discernment.” Elder Bednar should be able to tell if people spoke the truth and what they needed the Lord’s help with. Shaking his hand, I wondered if he knew what had transpired in the bathroom less than a minute before.
Elder Bednar said nothing about our deed. Smiling next to my ecstatic husband and an apostle of God who smiled right back at him, I saw two options: either Elder Bednar was an apostle of God and didn’t think there was anything wrong, or Elder Bednar didn’t know what had happened, because he didn’t have the God-given power of discernment.
I wanted the apostle to save me. I wanted him to tell Levi that sex needed to be consensual. I believed Levi would listen to Elder Bednar. Then, Levi grabbed my hand, and we waved goodbye. A dirty girl and her dirty husband who wore matching sacred underwear.
I was asleep when Levi’s hands woke me up. At first, I pleaded for him to stop.
“Please,” I whispered. “Not now. I want to sleep.”
But he moved closer.
“Cut it out,” I murmured, pulling away from him, pulling my clothes back over my skin. “That hurts.”
“You’re my wife,” he said. I didn’t see his point. He explained how the scriptures talk about a wife’s duty. I bit my lip, not interpreting the scriptures the same way. Still, I felt guilty arguing about scripture with a priesthood holder. I had realized that protesting only made it last longer or postponed the inevitable. Sometimes I felt my eyes and cheeks warm, which happens when I cry. Then again, he rarely noticed the times I cried when we were in bed. Or at least, he acted like he didn’t notice. I waited for it to end. I held my breath to avoid gasping in pain—when Levi felt angry and unloved, it always led to more arguments.
The next day I made dinner for us while he watched Phineas and Ferb in the living room on the ugly green plaid couch we got for free. My phone sat on the counter next to me; it was on silent, of course. A notification brightened the black screen with a text from my mother that said, “You doing okay today?”
My mother had recently begun texting me a lot; she said something seemed “off” with me. I sat down the knife on the linoleum and responded to the text, sure to include a couple exclamation points and smiley faces to curb her worry (and Levi’s if he looked through my phone). While I held the phone in my hand, I glanced at the couch again to check on Levi. He’d fallen asleep. His work shoes lined up against the couch, and his pseudo leather planner sat on the desk above his shoes. I almost smiled at how his obsessive-compulsive tendencies manifested.
Before my marriage, I skated when I needed a reprieve of my most stressful moments. Being on the ice healed me. Now, I ducked back into the kitchen and Googled “What is spousal rape?” and “How to know if you’re being abused.” I’d already searched these many times, always answering “yes” to almost every scenario the websites offered, such as one spouse trying to sleep or “no” not being a respected answer. But I still checked—trying to reach a site that told me not to worry. But none of them did. Maybe the websites lied. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe I had made the whole thing up.
After a couple of months, Levi and I knew that our marriage needed help, so we decided to talk with our bishop. As Mormons, meeting with an untrained bishop who held the priesthood and the power of discernment to discuss personal challenges was better than meeting with a trained therapist or counselor. Levi met with the bishop first, and I made an appointment for a few days later. During the meeting, the bishop sat behind his large desk, and I sat on the other side, feeling small and nervous. The door was closed.
“I just don’t feel safe at home,” I said, putting my head in my hands.
“Well, are you reading your scriptures and praying with Levi daily?” he asked, leaning back in his seat.
“Yes, every day.”
“Good. Because that’s the best way to help a marriage,” he responded.
I frowned. “Yes, we’re both active and we’re reading our scriptures. But that’s not what the problems are. I feel like there’s a hierarchy in our marriage, and that scares me. Sometimes Levi acts like he’s the head of our relationship, and I want us to be equal.”
“You know,” the bishop said, “we learn in the temple that the man is the head of the household. That’s how God wants it to be. That doesn’t mean wives don’t have a say—they have to keep their husbands on track.” I looked down. The bishop tried to continue the conversation, but I wanted to leave. In church I learned to trust the bishop—that God directs him so that he can guide us. Yet sitting in his office, I hated his advice. I gave brief answers to a few of his questions, then left.
I sat in my car, waiting for my heart rate to decrease. I felt betrayed by the bishop and betrayed by Levi. I was taught to trust the priesthood and the men who held it. God communicated directly to those with the priesthood. Yet I knew that these two God-loving, priesthood holding men had failed me. What they said about marriage felt ungodly to me.
In that moment, I decided to divorce Levi.
“I’m not coming home tonight,” I texted him.
“Are you saying you want to go against God?” Levi shrieked in our living room a couple days later when I told him that I planned to leave. Permanently. An index card with the words “What Would Jesus Do?” in his crisp cursive handwriting was taped to the wall behind the couch we sat on. He’d taped the sign there a week earlier as an apology attempt, a promise of change.
“I don’t think God wants me to be treated this way,” I said. Out of instinct I reached for Levi’s hand to comfort him. I caught myself and pulled my hand away.
“If you leave me, I will tell every guy in five cities what you do to people. I will make sure you never find someone else.” He glared at me; lately his blue eyes hardened when he looked at me. He started to say something else, but I stopped him.
“Levi,” I said. “I don’t care what you do to me. You can hurt me, and you have. For a long time, I believed you that it was normal. But it’s not. Okay?” I sat forward. He looked like he wanted to respond, but I cut him off. “I thought I could be okay with it, and I have tried so hard to convince myself that I can be. But it’s abuse, Levi. And if I have a child, I know you would treat them the same way you treat me. And I never want you to be the father to my kids.” Levi’s eyes widened—I had never said anything that aggressive before.
“So, you’re just giving up? Is that what you’re saying? You just came here to tell me you quit, and then you’re just gonna go? You’re the one being abusive.” He shook his head.
I let out a short sob that almost sounded like a laugh. I stood up. I never sat on that plaid couch again. My entire body shook, and I grabbed onto my skirt to steady my hands. We both sniffed.
“Can I have one last kiss?” Levi asked.
I leaned in and pecked his lips, but the kiss felt loveless. Pulling back, I recognized that we both regretted the touch. He followed me to the step by the door, crying. He sat down and I walked away. I didn’t look back. Perhaps he cried on the step for hours, staring at the imprint my shoe marked on the mat, frozen where I’d left him.
All my life I had believed sacrificing for a Mormon marriage was a form of the ultimate success—a path to eternal happiness. The church I loved told me to avoid divorce at all costs. Part of me wailed that stepping away from an eternal marriage showed my fallibility—that I no longer appeared perfect to the outside world or to God. I had stepped off the path. Although my heart ached, I exhaled when I thought about sleeping away from Levi. I exhaled when I thought about a life without him there. I stared at my empty ring finger for a while, and eventually, I smiled.
The summer we divorced, I returned to the ice. I rarely skated during the marriage—I knew Levi had seen skating as something that kept me from him. After I left him, I skated almost daily, finding empty sessions and using the entire ice for myself. I skated fast, and I skated strong. During the hours I owned the ice, I wanted every inch marked from my blade, every segment of ice proof that my body was there. I refused to hide.
Sometimes rink employees watched me skate from the front desk and commented to me about what a “powerhouse” I was on the ice. Although my skills were less refined than my years of competitive skating, I developed a new energy when I skated—a rich passion and anger and strength—that had never existed before. Skating, the center of what I truly loved, my divinity outside of religion, held a space for me to heal. To allow my body to do things that I wanted it to do. On the ice, I rebirthed myself.
Shortly after the divorce, I performed in a show and mentally dedicated the performance to my decision to leave Levi. Performing on the same ice I grew up on, I could pick out scratches on the walls and tell a story about their origin. I could point to places I had landed jumps for the first time. As a little girl, skating taught me to be tough. As an adult, I returned to the space that first gave me strength and claimed the connection between my body and the ice, refusing to give it up again.
Stepping onto the ice to perform, a spotlight flooded me, and the light bounced off the black sequins on my dress. I closed my eyes. I felt no nerves. I ignored the audience and the lights and just allowed myself to skate. I sang along with the music while I skated. Moving with power, I didn’t think about the upcoming jumps or spins, nor worried about falling or impressing anyone. Instead of hoping to prove myself to Levi, or even devote myself to Mormonism, I moved my body because I wanted to, in ways I chose. Unlike all the years a coach choreographed my programs, for that performance, I coached myself. I decided when to turn, when to extend, when to jump.
I just skated. I just existed. And it was enough.
As a figure skater, the ice becomes a surface upon which I learn to stand. As I deepen my edges in the ice, I find stability on a space that is impermeable and, for many, unstable. I learn to pick and jump and spin as the world slides beneath me. Ultimately, in this essay I start the path to finding joy in the imperfect and in myself. In a lot of ways, there’s significant growth between the eight-year-old girl on her baptism day and the twenty-year-old who leaves her husband. In between those years I begin to trust myself and the imperfect. Yet at the same time, the Alyssa on the first and the last pages are fundamentally the same—a person with passion and willpower who pushes through the uncomfortable. Through this essay, I’ve connected language to pain, art to trauma.
Alyssa Witbeck Alexander is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Montana and holds an MS and BS in writing from Utah State University. She currently teaches composition at the University of Montana and Utah State University. Her writing is published in Sink Hollow Literary Magazine and Outrageous Fortune, among others. Her piece in this issue just won first place in the Utah Original Writing Competition. Find her on Twitter and Instagram (@lyswalexander).