My Man Jesus
I’m tired. The skin on my face feels tender and stretched and twitches with little pulses.
I gaze at my coffee cup, decorated with dried brown drops of coffee. How do my mugs always wind up so messy? When the barista handed it to me, the mug’s surface was unblemished. Do I really drink coffee so violently?
“Do you mind if I sit here?” a voice says.
I take a sip of coffee, careful not to drip.
“It’s just so crowded,” the voice continues.
“Sure,” I say, moving my bulky, black computer to create a little more open space. I try not to look up. I will offer a seat—no eye contact.
I attempt to type, but the presence of another person at the table is inhibiting. I am not doing; I am acting: tapping the keys, adjusting the screen—a writing performance.
I raise my eyes a few degrees to peep at my table companion. He’s got large, pale hands and is holding a book. The hands suggest an older man, though the voice was higher-pitched, suggesting youth.
I look back at the screen and sigh. I’m so self-conscious and artificial by now that my sigh actually comes out as a word. “Sigh,” I say.
At this, my table companion looks up and I look up.
“Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your mind,” he says.
He is about forty. He has a loose, dirty-blonde beard and a long, tangled hair. He has mild blue eyes and is holding a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
I recognize him. “Oh no,” I say.
“Anything you want to talk about?” he asks.
“No way,” I say.
“That’s okay, Maud,” he says. “Maybe some other time.”
The fact that he knows my name is unpleasantly invasive. I feel angry, which manifests itself physically as embarrassment: I blush. I can feel stingingly hot patches erupt on my chest. For some reason, I always blush on my upper breast tissue, rather than my face.
I’ll show him.
“Jesus,” I say, in a whisper, “I know who you are.”
Jesus smiles. “And who am I?”
“Don’t be like that. You’re…” This is difficult to say out loud. “…Jesus.”
Jesus closes his book and puts it down on the table. “Okay.”
He doesn’t say anything else. I fill the silence. “I just want you to know that I know. Who you are. I’m not stupid,” I say.
“That seems important to you,” he says. “To be seen as intelligent.”
“I guess so,” I say.
I expect another sally from him, another inquiry, but instead he goes back to reading his book.
We sit in silence. We are at an impasse.
In the quiet, I become a little remorseful for my hostility. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or something?”
“No thanks,” Jesus says.
I run my fingers along my laptop’s keyboard. Asdfghjk appears on my screen. A feeling of missed opportunity becomes palpable.
“I have a question for you,” I say. “Why are you white? Isn’t this kind of a racist scenario here? Wouldn’t you be dark-skinned, Middle-eastern? Or African? ‘Hair like wool,’ the Bible says—”
“That one’s easy,” Jesus says. “I don’t look like this. Not at all. Just to you, because that’s how you think of me.”
“My own, personal Jesus?”
“Exactly,” says Jesus, not getting the reference.
We sit in silence again.
Jesus puts his book aside. “Do you want to go get a vegetarian burrito?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, surprised but not unpleased. “That is exactly what I want.”
I recognized Jesus because I’d seen him on late-night television.
Let me put this in context: I have trouble sleeping. I put off sleep and watch TV until I’m no longer sure if I can’t sleep or if I just won’t sleep.
It’s a bad habit, taken up from when I was dating a bartender. He would come home at 2:00 am, so I’d try to stay up for him, forcing myself to watch TV until I couldn’t bear it anymore; falling asleep on the couch acquired a certain devoted glamour for me, my own version of keeping-the-home-fires-burning.
Sometimes he wouldn’t come over at all, and I’d wake up alone, having disfigured a portion of my roommate’s scratchy velvet sofa with my drool.
And so, now, even though we’ve long since broken up, I continue to stay up late in front of the TV, though it is a certainty that no one is coming over at 2:00 am to see me.
Almost every night, I sit in the house that I share with two friends-of-friends, on the scratchy velvet couch purchased by one of the friends-of-friends, and watch our tiny television. We only get a few channels, and they are mostly Spanish-language, or religious, or Spanish-language religious.
Late at night, normal programming drops away. The infomercials begin. Television studio lights become harshly bright, and people have cheerful, brittle conversations about acne cream, ladders, sponges, and knives. “My favorite thing about Wal-Mart is the low prices,” one lady will say to another. “Huh,” the other will reply. “My favorite thing about Wal-Mart is the variety.”
Once, in the midst of all the infomericals, I thought I had finally located a late-night drama.
The camera focused on a female student sitting in a lecture hall. She was white and blonde and looked about thirty-five. Then the camera pulled back to include the lecturing professor: a tall, attractive black man with a full voice.
The professor was giving a lecture about religion. “Can anyone tell me why throughout history mankind has consistently turned to a higher power for consolation?”
Thirty-five-year-old college student raised her hand. “Because God is real?” she suggested.
Then the professor sneered at her for being a Christian and told her it was arrogant to believe that she had a personal relationship with God.
It was clear where our sympathies were supposed to lie: with thirty-five-year-old blonde college freshman, whose faith was being tested by the evils of academia.
I was moved by this program, by its stilted, awkward acting, its vulnerability. It was like accidentally discovering religious porn.
I also, on a basic narrative level, wanted to know what happened next. Did the thirty-five-year-old blonde college freshman stay true to her faith? What convinced her? Surely, the handsome atheist professor would not prevail?
What happened was this: The thirty-five-year-old blonde college freshman talked on the phone to her mother about how she couldn’t find a new church at school and that she was having “doubts.” During her conversation, an older gentleman, also blonde, with long, tangled hair and a thin beard, sat down next to her. He was reading, or pretending to read, a book: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis.
“Oh no,” I said, sitting up on the couch.
After blonde thirty-five-year-old freshman hung up the phone, the older, bearded gentleman said, “Sounds like you’re having a tough time.”
The girl replied that her “Faith” class was making her have doubts, because her Mean Handsome Professor said it was “arrogant” to believe her religion was the only true religion.
Obviously Jesus Man replied, “I sure know what it’s like to have all the voices around you united in disapproval.”
Thirty-five-year old freshman smiled. “You seem really understanding.”
Our heroine appeared both completely untroubled by a strange man inserting himself into her conversation, and to have no inkling who Obviously Jesus Man might actually be.
Throughout the entire infomercial (play? infotainment?)—during which Obviously Jesus Man lectures to her Faith class and they find out that the professor is actually a broken, divorced, alcoholic who, naturally, misses his faith—the girl says things to her mysterious, bearded friend, like, “You really do have a way with words” and “I certainly appreciate you helping out!” and “The stories you tell really put everything into perspective.”
Never once does she suggest Obviously Jesus Man might be … well, you know.
It maddened me.
I fell asleep just as the television started talking about the product this infomercial was selling. Inspirational audiobooks? Online Christian school? I’m still not sure.
I fell asleep reflecting on few things, however. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the girl, because if Jesus—or any other mythical or religious being, for that matter—tried to strike up a conversation with me in public, I’d probably miss the opportunity entirely, because I find strangers trying to chat me up creepy. Thus, Jesus would ask me if I was having a tough time, and I’d probably nod uncomfortably and change seats.
However, as I fell asleep I found myself hoping that if Jesus or anyone of his kind did try to chat me up (and I actually allowed myself to make conversation) that I would not remain oblivious to what was happening.
My life is in general devoid of miraculous incident, of mysterious strangers showing up via natural or supernatural means, and I hoped that, given the opportunity, I’d run with it: that I’d ask tough questions, or take the situation in some unexpected direction.
I eat vegetarian burritos with Jesus at a Mexican restaurant near where I live. The place is lit by soft, blue neon light emanating from a lamp in the shape of the Virgin Mary. There is a pleasant smell of cilantro. I used to enjoy the food here until one of my roommates told me that she’d found a cockroach nestled in her plate of rice and beans. I feel safe coming back with Jesus, however, possessed as he is with transformative powers.
Jesus and I end up talking. Or rather, I end up talking.
I discover that there’s something very dangerous about talking to Jesus. The danger is that Jesus is a great listener. The truth is, there are very few good listeners and even fewer great ones. I’m a poor listener, for example, because I’m ultimately a talker. Even if I’m really interested in what the other person is saying, my brain fires with responses and the responses race down my neck and pop out of my mouth, even if I breathe deeply and try to keep my mouth closed.
But Jesus listens. His blue eyes stayed focused on me. His face is calm and devoid of micro-expressions. He smiles a lot and occasionally tucks his long hair behind his ears. He responds in just the right places and never turns the conversation back to himself. You’d think he’d try to subtly turn the talk to faith, or start telling a parable, but he never does. There’s no speechifying, except by me. It’s alarming, really, how much I’m talking. Jesus is conversational ipecac. Talking to him is like vomiting in front of someone kind enough to hold your hair and pat your back. It’s nice that they’re there, but also humiliating.
I have a few margaritas and that makes the talking worse. They all tumble out of my mouth: My parents, the short story I’m stuck on, my temp job, my insomnia, my ex-boyfriend. The words are racing now, faster than my lips can keep up. The words start bumping into each other, mixing themselves up. I love that Jesus keeps listening, even if he does smile a little when I slur.
We split the bill, and Jesus doesn’t get weird about it. We walk outside. The margarita in my veins produces in me a swelling desire for physical contact. I grab Jesus’ hand. His palms are soft but his knuckles are dry, in need of moisturizer.
“Come back to my house,” I say.
“What shall we do at your house?” asks Jesus.
“Play canasta,” I say.
Having sex with Jesus.
It’s hard to talk about having sex with Jesus. There’s always the worry that anything you say will be read as symbolic, like if you say Jesus’ penis curves slightly to the left, then maybe this symbolizes how mankind is always temped to move to the left, which means sin—or something. I don’t know how having sex with Jesus is symbolic, honestly I don’t.
And so for me, having sex with Jesus is great. Jesus has cool pale pink skin, and I love kissing the line of hair right below his belly button. His penis does curve slightly to the left.
Don’t get me wrong, the sex is not perfect, and it’s over a little quickly. It also turns out that Jesus is one of those guys who get this condescending glint in his eyes before he goes down on you, like you’re not going to believe what I’m about to do and that’s a little annoying. But for the most part, the sex is fine, normal. What can I say? My imagination is just not that perverted.
Let’s keep in mind that pre-monotheism, gods having sex with people was not that uncommon. My dad is a religious-studies scholar, so I know these things. The Greek gods had sex with people all the time.
In fact, as I am lying in bed with Jesus, I ask, “How many people have you slept with?”
“Not too many,” says Jesus. “Not too few. About the right number, I think.”
Here’s my only real complaint about having sex with Jesus: you’d think after having sex with Jesus, you’d be able to sleep. But afterwards, I am wide-awake. Jesus is a cuddler, and I’ve never been able to sleep with someone else’s sweaty limbs wrapped around mine.
Jesus notices my discomfort.
“Sorry,” he says. “I like to cuddle.”
“It’s fine!” I lie.
But Jesus knows how I really feel, of course. And so, when I roll over, the only one in the bed is me. He has left behind his flannel shirt. I put on the shirt and go to the kitchen. I eat a bunch of bananas, which I’ve recently learned are full of tryptophan and so are supposed to help you sleep. I make some chamomile tea. But I still can’t sleep.
Something weird happens.
The next night, I come home from work, and one of the friend-of-friends is already on her way out. She is talking on her cell phone, crunching it to her shoulder to leave her hands free to eat from a jumbo-size packet of red licorice. Through a mouthful of red, plastic-y candy, she says to me in passing, “Some guy is here to see you. I let him in.”
“What?” I ask, thinking I have misunderstood, but she is already gone.
I go into the living room. Jesus is sitting on the scratchy velvet sofa, watching TV. “Hey there,” he says. “I ordered pizza.”
I had assumed, without giving the matter much thought, that the sex would be a one-time thing. I kind of thought Jesus had better things to do with his time. Still, I am grateful for the pizza. We end up eating it while watching a Grey’s Anatomy re-run, and then having sex again.
Soon, Jesus starts showing up everywhere. He’s at my house, every day, waiting on the couch for me, having already ordered in food. He pops up again and again at my favorite coffee shop. If I even think of going out, Jesus is suddenly there, debating restaurant and movie choices with me. He starts saying things like We should go to that concert and Maybe we should stay in tonight.
I start to have internal objections to the situation.
I get that this is a compliment, of sorts. I must be special in some way, to have been chosen to become the consort to a God (Son of a God?). I don’t exactly know what is special about me, but I’ll take compliments where I can get them.
But would it have killed him to ask me if I wanted to date him? To ask even once?
My other objection is aesthetic. There is something mystical and evocative about having sex with Jesus. Dating Jesus doesn’t feel mystical or evocative. It rapidly starts to feel boring. Of course: Jesus descends from heaven to visit me in the flesh, and we just end up eating pizza and watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy. This seems perfectly appropriate, in a way that reflects depressingly on the tenor of my life.
And I know this last part isn’t fair, but my main internal objection to dating Jesus is that I don’t seem to be any happier. On nights when he doesn’t come over, I still stay up too late watching TV. I still feel sad a lot. I don’t clean the bathroom or shave my legs with any more regularity than I did before. Nothing about me feels fixed or improved. And what’s the point of dating Jesus, really, if you don’t feel fixed or improved?
Wandering in the desert.
I live in the desert. But that being said, I live in Phoenix, Arizona, a place characterized by desert denial. We manicure our lush, green lawns and pump water out into the air via misters. We put on sunglasses so that the glare of the sun on the white paving stones won’t blind us. We air-condition everything, and our buildings are very chilly. We avoid the sun, except for brief, breathy gasps when running between air-conditioned building and car.
My parents are Christians. They are Episcopalians, the most polite of all denominations.
My parents are also Religious Studies professors (yes, both of them). This means they find questions like “Do you believe in God?” both personally and professionally embarrassing. When I would ask such a question, growing up, they would exchange long-suffering looks and say, “It’s complicated.”
I went to a large school made of shiny grey stone where most everyone was a fundamentalist Christian. So it became very clear very quickly that I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian. My self-definition was largely one of opposition.
My first three boyfriends were all fundamentalist Christians. We communicated across a long distance, through a complex semaphore of arguments about religion and pop culture. So that’s what I thought relationships were: you stood your ground, all alone, and shouted to make yourself heard.
Jesus meets my friends.
Once the Jesus-dating situation has been going on continuously for a few weeks, I feel the need to introduce him to my friends. My friends Eric and Suzanne invite me over one night, and I feel that it would be disingenuous not to bring Jesus along. I am part trepidation, part pride. I want to share this new thing in my life, to show people that there is a new thing in my life. On the other hand, well … you know.
Eric and Suzanne welcome us into their house. Already present are three other couples. I am offered, and accept, a large glass of pear-flavored liquor, which I drink too quickly. Jesus declines any beverage.
We play Trivial Pursuit. From the start of the evening, it is clear that while there may be no disaster, things are not going to go particularly well, either. For starters, Jesus is a lousy Trivial Pursuit partner. You wouldn’t think this would be the case. But while Jesus does know a great deal, his pursuits have never been trivial. Thus, he is a useless at sports questions, which is supposed to be the main advantage of having a guy as your partner. He does okay with history questions, and I carry us on pop culture, but we are both weak on science and nature. We trail behind the other couples. The couple that surged ahead at the beginning of the game needs only to answer one more question correctly to win. They immediately being second-guessing each other and get five questions in a row wrong. The game drags on. I drink more pear liquor and realize I am a little drunk, which doesn’t help with the Trivial Pursuit. I accidentally shout an answer to another team’s question. I whack Jesus on the arm when he gets a question wrong. When I am offered a glass of water, I make a joke about Jesus turning it into wine and he glares at me.
Here is the thing: most of what my friends and I say is insincere. This isn’t to imply that we lie—just that most of what we say is bullshit. We are fond of making deadpan offensive remarks. When my medical student friend brings up Grey’s Anatomy I say, “But don’t you find the show unrealistic? Women can’t be doctors!”
“True,” she replies. “I mean, what would happen if they got their period or something?”
Jesus looks confused.
None of it’s particularly funny; it’s just a comforting lexis of old jokes and stories and riffs. But Jesus doesn’t function that way. When he says things, those things are careful and boring. There’s nothing to respond to in the things he says; they’re perfectly true. All you can do is nod and look uncomfortable and wait for someone to say something a little less sincere.
On the way home, I ask Jesus if he likes my friend Eric, who is Jewish.
“He’s a nice guy,” says Jesus.
“You don’t have any problem with Jews?”
“I’m Jewish!” says Jesus.
“But didn’t the Jews, you know…”
“The Romans,” says Jesus. “Unless you’re friends with some ancient Romans, I think it’s okay.”
“But—I mean, don’t you feel the need to prove something to them? That you really are the Son of God? You must feel a little insecure about it.”
“Just drop it,” he says.
Why am I so intent on getting Jesus to betray anti-Semitic feelings? I’m not sure.
“I’m just kidding around,” I say, after a moment.
Jesus is bemused. “You are but you’re not,” he says.
I realize a fundamental difficulty in my communication with Jesus: my default mode is one of attack and cover. To announce what I think straightforwardly is to leave myself vulnerable, so I ambush and hide. Jesus, who is all about open declarations of love, simply doesn’t get it.
Jesus meets my parents.
One weekend, my parents want to take me out to dinner. I bring Jesus along.
I’m worried, but after the four of us sit down together, Jesus and my Dad hit it off. Of course: they start talking about AA. My dad has recently kicked alcoholism and replaced his addiction to alcohol with meetings and a Higher Power. He and Jesus start talking earnestly about surrendering control to God, giving up resentments, and avoiding alcoholic thinking.
My mom and I are less comfortable. We sip our wine. We haven’t gone into AA and so we haven’t gotten as sincere.
My mom appears to be trying, however. “I’ve been talking to a therapist,” she says. “Maybe you should go to a therapist, too. We’d be happy to pay.”
“No thanks,” I say.
“I just worry about you. I think you need to give structure and meaning to your life.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“You know,” she says, laughing to pretend that it’s a joke, “If you went to church, you’d get structure and meaning for free!”
“Mother,” I say, “I’m fucking Jesus. Have you ever fucked Jesus? In all the years you’ve been going to church?”
My mother sighs. “You’ve always been so literal.”
“I’m sorry, mother,” I say. “I’m sorry that you interpret my need for love as boringly literal.”
Hearing this exchange, Jesus and my dad give each other pained, long-suffering looks. I know that I’m being a jerk; I know that, actually, my parents are really good people who put up with a lot of crap from me. But around them, I revert to my thirteen-year-old self, fired with indignation and outrage, defining myself only by what I’m not, what I disagree with.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Jesus says.
As soon as he leaves the table, my mother says, “Sweetie, he seems like a very nice man.”
“But I don’t…” My father pauses. “I don’t see him as the historical personage of Jesus.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “He’s Jesus. The beard? The dorky clothes? The kindness?”
“But Jesus was a complex figure, sweetie,” my father says, “Who determined most of Western civilization as we know it. I mean, where are this guy’s revolutionary politics?”
“And he doesn’t seem particularly interested in intricate questions of faith and belief,” says my mom.
This is the disadvantage of having world-renowned Religious Studies professors for parents; they’re forgotten more about Jesus the Historical Personage than I will ever know. Suddenly, I am doubtful. “He listens to me!” I say. “He’s kind and patient!” I search my brain for other great, obviously Jesus-y things about Jesus. “He makes … non-directive comments and suggestions!”
“Sort of like a therapist?” says my mom.
For once, I, the ultimate talker, have nothing to say. I think my mother might actually be correct.
This is awful.
Jesus returns from the bathroom, smiles at all of us, and agrees to split a dessert with me. As I spoon crème brulé into my mouth (Jesus lets me crack the hard shell of burnt sugar), I think Fucking Jesus. I thought I was pretty cool. But this isn’t the real Jesus: this is some self-help version of Jesus. I suck crème brulé off my spoon and smile at Jesus. He smiles back. This is the Jesus you get off late-night television, I think.
Breaking up with Jesus.
Arrogantly, I assume that Jesus will take our break-up pretty hard. After all, he’s the one that’s always around. I’ve always been the one to pull away.
The truth is, Jesus takes it just fine. It’s unnerving.
“That’s cool,” he says. We are standing in my kitchen. His feet are bare; he usually wears sandals, but he’s left them in the hallway. I stare at the blonde hair on one of his big toes.
“I’m really, really sorry,” I say. “It’s just … I think on some level I expect a relationship to miraculously give structure and meaning to my life. And I’ve realized I need to work on creating structure and meaning on my own.”
I think this is a pretty great speech.
Naturally, what concerns Jesus about this breakup is not himself: he’s concerned for me. “What will you do without me?” he asks, his pale face crinkling in concern.
“I don’t know,” I say, taken aback. “Watch TV? Go to therapy? Read more books?”
“You’ll be lonely,” he says, reaching out to rub my arm.
“Everyone’s lonely,” I say. “I don’t understand when loneliness got such a bad rap.”
A few weeks later, I run into him at the coffee shop. He is sitting at a table with a young woman. She is younger than me. Seeing me, he gets up and comes over to say hello.
“I see you learned to love again,” I say.
Jesus smiles and looks embarrassed, but it’s a proud sort of embarrassment. It’s been easy for him to move on. In fact, it occurs to me that he may have been seeing other women the whole time we were together. Neediness can absorb a lot of love.
“Good for you,” I say. “What’s she like?”
“She’s pretty special,” Jesus says, “She’s having some problems right now. Just went through a rough break-up. But I think we’ll get through it together.”
I look over at the girl. She has dark smears under her eyes, like she hasn’t been sleeping well. Nervously, her fingers tap her chest.
“She’s perfect,” I say.
I kiss Maybe-Not-Actually-the-Historical-Personage-of-Jesus on the cheek and leave the coffee shop, feeling a little sad. The air is cool and full of movement. I feel very alone, and have a sudden urge to run back inside the coffee shop, to beg Jesus to dump the new girl and take me back. It’s like my feelings have had some kind of momentary power surge: the humiliation of being so easily moved on from has artificially enhanced all my lingering, ambiguous feelings about Jesus, electrified them till they are so hot that my skin feels like it is burning with lust and rage.
I breathe, and remind myself of all the annoying things about Jesus: the earnestness and the mild condescension and the terrible clothes. I did the right thing in moving on. We are not for each other, Jesus and I.
I go home.
On the way home, I stop at the Mexican restaurant near my place and eat a vegetarian burrito, which is delicious. I go home and watch television until I feel sleepy. To my surprise, it’s not too late: I am tired at a reasonable hour. I close my eyes and listen to the voices coming from the TV.
I think of the Christian infomercial I saw so many weeks ago, about the young girl whose college professor tried to change her mind about God, and the helpful man who showed up to help her see how her professor was just sad and misguided, if only everyone would buy Jesus’ audiobooks or whatever.
I thought I was intrigued by the figure of the Jesus, and how the girl didn’t know who he really was. But now I’m not so sure.
I think I was intrigued because that kind of infomercial is how we all internally dramatize our lives: we are the protagonists, primed for special directives; our savior person/product is promised to appear to help us cut through the difficulties of life; those who disagree with us are ultimately sad and hollow and we defeat them; we feel that our lives should illustrate the value of the principles and products we have chosen in neat, parable-like ways.
I heave myself off the couch and go upstairs to bed. I sleep peacefully and do not remember my dreams.