DoesJesusReallyLoveMe coverWhat was the point of this book, really?

The point was to find stories—mostly stories that haven’t been told, stories that can help illuminate the difficult intersection of the Christian faith and homosexuality.

For those of us who grew up in the church and/or are in it today, stories are an important addition to what’s already out there in terms of theology. I’ve been criticized by some readers for not writing a more traditionally theological book. Well, I’m not a theologian—I’m a journalist. You can go out there and find some academic tome for nearly every point on the theological spectrum on this topic; no need for me to add to that. But what we do need—and what I was capable of adding, as a reporter and a writer—is more humanity and more stories.

So, you’ve written a book about returning to Catholicism in a historical moment when the institutional Catholic church looks like a bunch of right wing nut job lunatics? Does that mean you’re a right wing nut job lunatic?

Far from it. I mean, I teach at UC Berkeley, dude (you don’t mind if I call you dude, right? I mean it in a feminist, gender-neutral sort of way). That’s clue number one. Clues number two through ten thousand have to do with the fact that I’m a thinking feminist who believes in social equality for LGBTQ people and has what you might call a socialist fantasy life. A lot of Radical Reinvention is about understanding the difference between the hierarchy of the church and the people on the ground. Catholics are not some sort of monolithic mass of Pope worshipping automatons.

The martyrs in blue stained glass
are always dying.
See them today, tomorrow,
next week, same story:
you’ll catch them mid-throe.

They whisper blessings, curses,
eyes raised to heaven,
which weeps, or hurls lightning,
or politely refrains from comment.

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

My Jeep is in serious need of some attention.  And by that, I mean to say that it is at this point nearly camouflaged by the dirt road I take to get into town.  That I have not been mowed over by the driver of a Hummer thinking I am an attractive dirt mound is a miracle.  And still, perhaps there is time.

I have been actively trying to ignore its sad state, thinking that the minute I wash it, the snow storm of the century will swoop over the mountains and bury my efforts at cleanliness beneath piles of snow.  Or worse.  With my luck it’ll just be some pansy ass storm throwing cosmic spittle.

Nevertheless, earlier today I found myself feeling fidgety with the disapproving glances I was getting from the fine citizens of Boulder.  Not that these glances should mean anything to me.  Not two months ago I saw a man standing on the corner of North and Broadway dressed in nothing but an eggplant colored super hero cape and leather hot pants.  And still, I aim to please – something for which I have my mother to blame, no doubt.

Hence, I headed to the car wash.

With the thought of imminent suds, I began to get happy.  Already, I imagined myself within a gleaming capsule which would miraculously be cleaned inside and out at a discounted rate upon purchase of a full tank of gas.

But I was getting ahead of myself.

To which car wash to go?  To whom did I want to donate my dirt?  It occurred to me then that I really didn’t want to go to a normal, run of the mill car wash.  Wasn’t that just throwing money away?  What ever happened to those kids standing on corners with posters advertising a car wash for a donation?  I could clean my car – and give to a charity – at the same time!

The Free Car Wash was the fund raising activity of choice of my church Youth Group in my teen years.  Our leader, whom I’ll call Richard and whose muscle car outshone the sun in brilliance, adored them.  He’d call special planning meetings before the big day, during which we’d be assigned things like hoses, sponges and towels.  At the end of the meeting, we’d have a totally rad prayer huddle where Richard would ask God for help with our fundraising and that our teens would “be a light unto the world” with the way we washed cars.  Also, if He wouldn’t mind directing a couple of Porsches our way, “that’d be cool, too.”

Since I felt that my bubble lettering ability surpassed  that of the average teen, I volunteered for poster duty.  The night before the big event would be spent tongue-out-of-mouth hovering over the marker-strewn kitchen table while I came up with clever slogans – slogans such as “Clean Up Your Life…with Jesus!” and “Honk…if You Love Jesus!.”  We weren’t just there to wash cars and wish people a good day, after all.  Oh, no.  We were there to help spread the good news about Jesus – one harried driver at a time.

The car wash to help raise money for our mission trip to Mexico was by far the most memorable for me.  We had arrived via the church bus to a local Wendy’s with which we had made prior arrangements only to be told by the store manager that she had never heard of us.  No matter.  Since the car wash was part fund raiser and part witnessing opportunity, we knew what to we needed to do.

While Richard was inside arguing with the manager armed with nothing but a single with cheese and a frosty, we proceeded with our plan in order to do a little early advertising.  Determinedly, several amongst us were chosen on the basis of marketability and were dispatched to the two closest street corners.  Since I had made the posters, I went along to supervise.

The response was overwhelming.  There were three of us on my corner.  As cars would pass, we would throw our sign high up in the air, yelling and screaming as loud as we could.  One of the girls I was with could do a wicked human beat box, which she would let loose at any car that happened to have a window rolled down.  With her over-sized T-shirt cinched at the waist with a 5-inch belt and her tremendous wall o’ bangs, she looked like she had walked straight off MTV, and I think several people slowed way down just to check.  As we had the “Clean Up Your Life…with Jesus!” poster, I was pretty pleased with myself for getting quite a few honks for Jesus, even though people were not implicitly instructed to do so.

After about an hour spent in that manner, I left the sign in the other girls’ keep and walked back over to the Wendy’s to see how things were going. Boy, were they going.

When I arrived on the scene, the place was in chaos.  Thanks to our signs, there was a parking lot full of filthy cars and impatient drivers awaiting our attention. As I watched, Richard broke free from the Wendy’s, a thumbs up on one hand, a plastic spoon in the other.  With one deft movement, he ripped off the shirt which had been required for negotiation and proceeded to uncoil the awaiting hoses.  A cheer escaped from the teens still waiting inside the bus in a supernova of teen spirit, beautiful in all of its sweaty, awkward brilliance.

Despite a shaky beginning, it turned into a perfect day.  Or rather, it would have been perfect had a couple of teens not been deemed missing for over an hour after lunchtime only to be discovered Frenching behind the Taco Bell next door.  But otherwise, all went according to plan and we ended up making almost $600 for our efforts.  And while God never did supply those Porsches, He did throw in a fiery red Transam at one point, which nearly unhinged Richard, rendering him completely useless for a full half hour.

I never did make it to a car wash today.  As it is the middle of February, I suppose I should not be too surprised that there were no eager bands of teens out there with sponges and signs.  And even though I have become a rather lax church attendee in my adult years, I would have to say that given the opportunity, I would honk at any bubble-printed sign out there just on the off chance of getting to hear a sampling of that human beat box.  As for the Jeep, well, I’ll clean up my life another day.


When I was fourteen, I stood before the deacons of my church and lied.

The deacons sat in a half circle of red and gold armchairs that seemed incongruous with the church’s Puritan ancestry. A small group of my peers sat behind me, waiting for their turn to speak, truth or lie.   I told them all I believed in God, that I believed Jesus was the son of God, and that human beings were made in His image.  The head deacon knew I was a liar, but he liked me.  When I finished my statement of faith – required for confirmation – he threw me a few softball questions.  One deacon tried to catch me in the lie.  She asked me why I hadn’t talked about attending church, about the congregation, in my statement.

I told her, and the rest of the room, that I believed in the ability of the individual to navigate his or her own way through the complicated, conflicting, confusing world of faith and belief. For me, independent inquiry and intellectual and spiritual curiosity were more important than participation in a congregation.  I quickly added that I did acknowledge the value of a pastor’s leadership, and the ability of the congregation to infuse my own spiritual quest with needed energy and knowledge.  Lying again.  They let me in.

On confirmation day, the pastor grabbed my arm. “Listen to my sermon,” he said. “You’re its inspiration.”

The pastor, at the pulpit, told the congregation that one of its newest members had inspired him to grow as a Christian in a way he had never considered before.  He said that the independent spirit of this young person had moved him to preach that day about individual curiosity, introspection, and honesty.  Don’t say what you think is right to believe.  Say what you believe, listen to others, and you’ll grow.  I was beaming. I had fooled them all.

Then, we, the about-to-be confirmed, approached the front of the congregation and knelt in a half circle on the red carpet. We waited for the pastor and the deacons to walk to each of us, lay hands on our heads, and pray.  I was last in the half circle.


***


The pastor taught our year-long confirmation class himself. Congregationalists don’t like ritual and pomp, and they certainly don’t pay much attention to the Catholic obsession with saints. So it came as a surprise when the pastor told our class about his latest idea to make confirmation more exciting — each of us were to be assigned a saint, based on his assessment of our spiritual needs and personalities, and we were to research that saint and find a spiritual connection to their story. We each got a pendant in a white cardboard box, and the pastor explained to each of us his decisions.

Mine was Saint Anne, Grandmother of Jesus, the patron saint of housewives, women in labor, miners and poverty. The pastor said he saw Saint Anne as part of my nature, the part that made me exceptionally strong-willed.

I thought, “Is this a joke? housewives, poverty, and labor? I’m going to be a doctor, a pathologist. I’ll be neither poor nor pregnant.”

On the pendant, Anne held a book. She wasn’t looking at the book. She was staring up to the sky, to God. This saint was meant for me somehow but the joke would be on the pastor. I decided Anne was studious, well-read, and wise. She was the grandmother of Jesus, the holder of precious knowledge beyond her time. I imagined Anne reading the Book her grandson would pass to the world two generations early. I thought of her as a happily silent prophet, who would treat those close to her with odd bits of information, and revel in their misunderstanding and confusion. Unlike tragically misunderstood Cassandra, Anne was content to be the only one who knew the full meaning behind her eccentricities. Like most artists, I thought, she’d be best understood once she was long dead and the rest of the world caught up.

St. Anne, praise her, helped me take pleasure in my secret knowledge.


***


Finally, the pastor and deacons reached me.  He had handpicked crosses for each of us to wear.  Most of the girls had large, silver crosses with embedded jewels.  Mine was plain, small, gold, with flared edges, more like what he gave to the boys.  The pastor and the deacons placed their hands on my head, and the pastor leaned in close and whispered in my ear:

“I know you have hardened your heart, and I pray to God that one day He’ll open it.”

They finished praying, and the newest members of the church stood up to lead the congregation in a hymn.


***

 

I had lost my faith about three years before this moment. I don’t remember when, exactly.  It was before I saw the pictures of the Mengele experiment victims, but after the death of my grandmother.

Nowadays, I ask other people to tell me how they found God, and they ask me to tell them a story, too. Have I lost mine? If so, where do I search for God? Testify. Fair’s fair, but there’s no story.  So, what do you say: truth or lie?






We’d spent five years dodging the wedding bullet. Now, though, after picking me up at the UK airport and bringing me to his rented house, dear Rodent was down on both knees and talking seriously about something.


Me: “It sounds—and looks—like you’re proposing marriage. Are you?”

Rodent: (Lots of words we don’t remember.)

Me: “But I thought we didn’t want to get married.”

Rodent: (More words we don’t remember.)

Me: “I had no idea you wanted to get married. Did you just think of it now or something?”

Rodent: “Oh no, I told my kids a couple months ago, and they were quite pleased.”

Me: “But you didn’t tell me! Why didn’t you tell me?!”

Rodent: “I guess I just forgot.”

Me: “Forgot?? You FORGOT to tell me?! How could you forget—“

Rodent: (Breaking in) “I wanted to ask you in person.”

Me: “Awww….”

Rodent: “But you haven’t answered the question.”

Me: (Swept away with joy and tears) “YES, OF COURSE!!”

 

After much discussion, we decided to get married in England before I had to return to the USA. I would need approval from the British government in order to marry in the UK—-unless we got married in an Anglican Church in England.

So we met with the vicar of the largest, oldest, most beautiful Anglican Church in town. Among other things, he told us we’d need to attend services once a month, so for the next few months we went to Evensong and very much enjoyed his sermons and the choir.

The vicar had also told us to go to our parish church and hear our banns read three weeks before the wedding.

Arriving at the parish church a few minutes early, we saw that no one had shown up yet. Since there seemed to be no church parking spaces, Rodent dropped me off at the door and went to find a parking place. I watched him drive off—and crash into the church’s brick wall—but he instantly rallied, backing up and driving off.

Minutes later he returned, but still no one had shown up. We waited for a half hour and then went to get groceries. Rodent happened to glance at the supermarket clock…..and saw that it was newly Daylight Savings time. We had turned up at the church an hour early! We rushed back and seated ourselves just in time, holding hands and smiling at each other as our banns were read.

Days later we moved into, and frantically readied, our newly-bought home for our children and grandchildren coming from L.A. and the East Midlands of England.

Meanwhile, I searched for proper wedding clothes since my usual garb is jeans, and Rodent found the suit he’d worn to his father’s funeral. I bought an antique wedding ring online which turned out to be too big, and Rodent found his father’s wedding ring which fit perfectly.

We were ready….and nervous….and it had begun to snow rather seriously. The entire family piled into two taxis, giddy that The Day had come. I was immensely relieved when we got to the church five minutes before the 2:30 ceremony.

The church was magnificent and silent, with large red and white bouquets on the altar.

The vicar smiled, greeted us, and said: “We didn’t think you were coming. The ceremony was to begin at 2.”

Horrified, I said: “OH, MY GOD!!!”

I glanced around, horrified again, and said: “OH NO, I JUST SAID ‘GOD’ IN CHURCH!!”

The vicar seemed amused but didn’t waste a second. He signalled to the organist to begin the processional, and gently started me walking down the aisle on my son’s arm.

We joined the waiting Rodent and his son at the altar and began singing a hymn, but for some reason there was a little red-shirted body between me and Rodent—-my grandson who’d decided to sing with us, after which he stepped back to take photographs. His blue-shirted twin brother had already begun to video the event.

As the ceremony continued, the vicar quietly said to Rodent and me that he’d picked up the wrong copy of the Bible, so he went to his office for the right one. The twins’ mother came up and asked where the vicar had gone, and I dug around in my pocket for our wedding rings, passing them along to Rodent to give to his son.

The vicar returned and read from the Song of Solomon. Then Rodent and I exchanged rings and said our vows. We were aware only of one another, as if no one else existed.

In closing, the vicar said he’d been told that happy couples laugh and read and talk together, and he felt that we were one such happy couple.

Thus the fallen-away Quaker and the lapsed Calvinist son of a Scottish minister were wed.



Vicar, Judy, Rodent









Signing wedding certificate






Sometime before I left the comfort of my parents’ home, the safety of my childhood church, and the sanity of an era before piercings, I believed that old people were good. There was nothing a person could say to convince me otherwise. They were pure, holy. I believed, among other things, that the old person should be protected, much like a child. To offer anything other than a smile and a hand was negligent. To cuss in front of an old person was a reprehensible act. Playing rock music within earshot was downright disrespectful. It was as if the very existence of white down upon that wrinkly crown gave them wings.

At some point in my 20s, I began to realize, of course, that old people aren’t necessarily so pure or fragile. Most of my dealings with the older set had been through my church, so once I started to get out into the world a bit, I was sort of jolted into reality. Literally.

It all started when I came back from Hong Kong. While living on a small backpacker island for a couple of years while I finished my grad work, I had become a student of wing chun kung fu. Wanting to continue my practice, I joined up with the closest thing I could find in Denver at the time – a school that called itself “Progressive Martial Arts”. It wasn’t pure wing chun, but the school did boast that it taught jeet kune do, Bruce Lee’s contribution to the martial arts world. Since Bruce Lee got his start with wing chun and since my teacher in Hong Kong was Bruce Lee’s teacher’s son’s student, I reasoned that jeet kune do was a natural progression for me.

For the uninitiated, jeet kune do basically comes down to one thing: street fighting. Sure, we practiced all manner of arts ranging from jiu jitsu to eskrima to kenpo, but the thing our school taught best was a little thing they liked to call “Two-Rule Fighting”.

Two-Rule Fighting: The first rule was that there were no rules. The second rule was that you could not change the first rule.

And in case you’re still not catching on, yes. I belonged to a fight club.

In this class, we were groomed as fighters. We ran endless laps. We were made to lie on our backs with our hands pinned under our butts so that we could have medicine balls thrown at our stomachs. We would line up against a wall to be punched repeatedly in the face until we learned to tuck under our chins instinctively. Sometimes, we would lie down on the floor in a circle while the children’s class played stepping stones on us, jumping from stomach to stomach as fast and as recklessly as they could.

It was awesome.

When it was time to begin our Two-Rule Fighting part of the class, we were already drenched in sweat. First blood had usually already been drawn. We sucked on our mouthguards – the only gear we were allowed – and waited to be called out into the center.

The first time I did it, I was thoroughly and intentionally humiliated. My opponent was a teacher who had heard whom I had studied under and took it upon himself to put me in my place. He had at least six inches and close to 50 pounds on me and didn’t give a crap that I was new to jeet kune do or to the school. I held my own for a while, able to parry most of his advances. I believed I was playing a game of tag, so I did not hit him full force when I was able to get through to his face or neck. Not long into the fight, however, he found my weakness: I hadn’t learned how to fight with my legs yet. Twice, he dropped me to the floor gasping for air with a knee to the solar plexus. When I got back up the third time, he finished me off neatly with a hit to the mouth and ended by slamming me to the ground landing full force on top of me with his arms around my neck. I barely had the strength to tap out before I lost consciousness from his strangle hold.

I went back.

After almost a year and a half of studying there, I was nearly at the top of my game. I wasn’t the best fighter in the class, but I wasn’t the worst. I could hold my own in the ring or on the ground with men or women of assorted size. Until one day, she walked in.

She was a tall, solid structured woman with cheekbones like a pair of loosely veiled Nike swooshes. Her short hair was curled into gentle waves the color of modeling clay. Having recently undergone open-heart surgery, she wore protective chest armor, a black square-shaped athletic breastplate. She was 74.

I didn’t want to hit her. I never ever wanted to hit her. She had that gray old lady hair and armor over her chest where they had tinkered under the hood and she even had an old lady smell: talcum powder mixed with lilacs or lavender, I’m not sure which. Feeble she was not, but there were enough sensory cues to turn me into an upright citizen. I wanted to help her across the street, not practice my elbow strikes and roundhouse kicks on her.

When we were working out, the gym often played some loud kind of driving bloodlust music along the lines of Rob Zombie. I wanted to make them shut it off. Surely it was giving her a headache. I cringed for her every time they made us run laps. What if she was incontinent? Or worse – what if somebody jostled her too hard and her chest split back open? What if her heart popped out like in the game Operation? It was too much to bear.

I was hopelessly distracted. I would be on the floor in the middle of practicing a jiu jitsu side sweep when I would accidentally look over and see some young man she was practicing with on top of her and ready to choke her out and all I could think was that I wanted to grab her purse and beat the living crap out of him with it.

On the day they paired us up for two-rule fighting, I wanted to cry. I already decided that I would let her win. She was bigger than me anyway, so it would look legitimate. I just couldn’t do it – actually fight her. It’s wrong to hit old ladies, isn’t it? There’s some kind of special circle of hell for that. I’m sure of it. It is kept even warmer than the rest of hell and smells like ammonia and mothballs. They serve liver and onions there. Every night.

We bowed to each other, and began a slow circling. I didn’t want to look like I was throwing the fight, but where was I supposed to hit her? Her face? Her arm? Her Milton Bradley chest? From the corner of my eye, I could see my teacher watching me with his arms crossed over his chest. I loved my teacher. I wanted to make him proud. He was the US kickboxing champion in 1976 and I had a great deal of respect for him. Sensing his disapproval, I knew I had to make a move. I flicked her. She threw a punch. I parried.

“Come on, Erika, you’re not afraid of an old woman,” he taunted from the sidelines over Cradle of Filth playing in the background.

She smiled—an undeniable evil glint to it. Suddenly, without warning, she charged me with a jab-left-right combo. Only she didn’t stop there. She followed with another, which was in turn followed by some full on chain punches. Taken off guard and without the safety of a breastplate, I was getting pummeled. Something inside of me clicked and I began to defend myself. And then it all fell into place. I crossed over from “I’m beating up an old woman” to “I’m being beaten up by an old woman” and when that happened, well.

I’m not proud of what happened next, but it was an important transition for how I would feel about the elderly for the rest of my life. Once I worked out that I couldn’t aim for her center line, I went for her legs, her arms, her old lady waddle. I had been forced to confront my bias. And that’s when it hit me. Old people aren’t children who need protecting. Old people are just young people with loose skin…that jiggles when hit.

I am probably the most relationship-dysfunctional person on the planet. My tendencies to stay too long with the bad ones and screw up the good ones prematurely is borderline legendary. My crowning achievement was the eight years I spent with Brittany, who, as crazy people go, was their queen.

My friends have spent countless hours rehashing my old war stories with Brittany, telling tales of juice machines thrown through plate glass windows at Dunkin Donuts, or recounting the time I was pushed off a balcony. Nevertheless, Mark Twain said it best, “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” I made it out, but sometimes I feel like a Holocaust survivor. That may be an extreme comparison, but if you’ve never found yourself on the run from another human being that is intent on killing you, then you really don’t know just how insane things can get.

I never used to tell these stories. In all honesty they were a bit embarrassing although anyone anywhere close to our relationship knew that it was anything but tame. Sometimes though, especially years later, it’s nice to clear out the closet. It’s therapy. Pulling out all the skeletons would be akin to unearthing the Killing Fields of Cambodia but there are a few stand-out moments that deserve to be dragged out into the sunlight. Every time I overhear some poor schmuck in a bar complaining about how crazy his current girlfriend is, I reflexively call him on it.

“All in!” I say. “What do you have?”

“She threw a glass at me last night.”

“Pussy,” I’d say, and then I would display one of my own scars. We might as well have been Quint and Hooper on the Orca.

One particular night, Brittany came home drunk at 3:00 in the morning. I had fallen asleep on the couch and was awakened by the sound of a key attempting to find a keyhole. After a few minutes she outsmarted the lock and came stumbling into the living room. Crazy is hard to deal with by itself; crazy and drunk is impossible. It was like her emotions were being driven by an Asian.

“Get out!” she growled.

We’d been together for years at this point and I knew that this wasn’t an argument I wanted to have. I slipped on my shoes and attempted to avoid the fight. “Fine,” I said.

“Where are you going?”

“What?!? You just said -”

“I fucking hate you!”

Anyone that has ever truly been with a crazy person will tell you that there is a definitive checklist of items that have to grab in the off chance that you are forced to leave suddenly. It’s a little survival kit that we keep handy. Many times, especially if I knew things were on the verge of getting out of hand, I would simply leave these items in my blue jeans: wallet, lighter, cigarettes, keys. I would then set my jeans on the floor in the ready position like a fireman. I wasn’t prepared that night, however.

“I said GET OUT!” she screamed as she pushed me.

I immediately started scrambling through the list and trying to locate what I needed. “Wallet, lighter, cigarettes, where are my cigarettes? They must be – Oh shit. She has a knife.”

To this day I cannot explain where the knife came from. She never went near the kitchen and I never took my eyes off of her. It appeared the way a dove appears in a magician’s hands. It just materialized. For all I know it popped out of the back of her hand like a bipolar X-Man. “Hi, my name is Wolverine and I’m an alcoholic.” SNIKT!

She was standing at the door with a steak knife in one hand and my fate in the other.

There are moments in our lives where we know that we have passed the point of no return; that we are committed to the insanity. There is no more negotiation. The switch has been flipped and the hostages aren’t going to make it out alive. Crazy people generally decide for us just exactly when that moment is going to be. There are signs: the glazed eyes, the vein popping out in the side of her neck, the backwards Latin. And when a man is confronted with such a situation, sometimes he decides that he is bigger than it is; that he can just “man up”. This was one of those situations.

Rather than run away or shoot straight for the door, I made the decision to disarm her. If this was a horror movie then I was the black guy running into the woods. I was the blonde scrambling up the stairs. I was going to die, and anyone watching would have seen it coming from a mile away. “Why would he do that?” they would ask. The only answer I could give them would be that at that particular second, I was a man.

A stupid man, but a man nonetheless.

It should be simple, really. All I had to do was get my right hand up, block the swinging arm with the knife, get to the deadbolt, unlock it, open the door with the other hand, continue to restrain her arm, pivot, shift my weight, and slip through into the night. It shouldn’t take more than a second or two if I’d done the calculations correctly. I was pretty confident that she wouldn’t follow through anyway. She wasn’t actually going to stab me.

Well write this down in a notebook somewhere. Crazy doesn’t bluff.

I lunged, and it was exactly how they say it is when you’re about to die. Everything slows down and scenes from your past flash before your eyes. A birthday cake, a bicycle, someone is pushing me on a swing set. Grandpa?

And then SLASH!

I felt the impact on my arm but no immediate pain. I remember thinking to myself that I should probably do something. I started to run, because somewhere I remember reading that that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’ve been stabbed and the person that stabbed you is trying to stab you again, but it was like running in a dream; the dream where you’re being chased and you have to get down a flight of stairs and your legs are all rubbery and God is laughing at you like Jason and the Argonauts.

My checklist had long since gone out the window. The only thought in my head was to get to my car at all costs. I would be safe there. I rounded the bottom of the staircase and stumble-stepped towards the parking lot, almost losing my footing several times in the loose gravel. The halogen glow of a street light illuminated my plight to anyone that wanted to watch, but no one did. I was alone. I turned the corner and slammed into my car. Thank God. I reached in my pockets looking for my keys – the keys I never managed to grab before I escaped. That’s why you have the checklist, Slade.

In the distance I heard our apartment door slam. She was coming to finish the job. I was wounded and she knew it. Water buffalo are supposed to die this way, not me. This isn’t the Serengeti and I’m not an antelope waiting for some predator to come and finish me. I’ll escape on foot if I have to. The dilemma I had was that I had expended every ounce of stamina I possessed getting this far. I was smoking almost three packs of Marlboros a day at the time and was pretty sure sprinting was out of the question. The best I was going to muster was going to be a “brisk walk”.

It was 3:30 am. There was no one to call, and even if there had been I didn’t have a cell phone. I kept moving, looking ahead at the longest, darkest, emptiest road I had ever seen in my life. I heard a truck engine rev in the distance and I knew that she was coming. A few seconds later I saw her headlights make the turn at the intersection. I knew they were hers because they smoldered with an evil red glow and one of them was dim and cracked from where she slammed into my car a few weeks earlier.

And then the realization started to sink in that this was how I was going to die. My life was being directed by John Woo.

She was screaming down the street by this point. My only hopes lay a block or two up the road. I remembered that there was a Catholic church and I convinced myself that if I could just make it there I would be safe. There obviously wouldn’t be anyone there to let me in, but if I could manage to get on the property then maybe the demons couldn’t follow me. It would be like Spiritual Base.

My legs were aching as I burst through the boundaries of the church’s courtyard. I stopped underneath a statue of Jesus. I lit up a cigarette and huddled there panting and bleeding from the arm. There was a small moment of relief when I heard her truck tires screeching in the parking lot and circling, but not stopping.

I’ve never been the most religious person in the world but I was acutely aware that I was standing there beneath Jesus. Maybe I should talk to him. I wasn’t faring so well on my own, so what did I have to lose? This was unfamiliar territory however. I knew I was only talking to him because I needed something and that seemed a little unfair. I was uncomfortable, like I was approaching a girl in a bar for the first time.

“Look, I know you don’t know me, but… Geez, I’m no good at this. Can I buy you a drink? Never mind, you’re Jesus. You make your own.

Anyway, I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a really crazy person out there in the parking lot and I’m pretty sure she wants to hurt me really bad. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to point the finger or anything, but… you made her, you fix her. I’m really starting to understand why you hung out with twelve other guys. You have to do something. Can you kill her?

No? Why not?

Because the Antichrist doesn’t die until halfway through the Tribulation. That’s clever. Jesus is a comedian.

Well, can’t you throw a lightning bolt or something? I mean, you don’t even have to hit her; just come close. She’s drunk, she’ll walk into it. It wouldn’t even be your fault technically.

Whatever, I don’t care. Just give me a way out.”

And I swear Jesus winked at me.

Two weeks later I returned from a week at a comedy club in Boise, Idaho. She and I went to lunch, where she calmly informed me that she wanted to end things so that she could go out with a guy she had recently reconnected with from high school. I did want out, but I didn’t want out like that.

“I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth here, but really God? You created the entire world in six days, and this is the best you can come with?”

Still, it got the job done. It’s funny how life works sometimes. Eight years of my life over and done with because she decided to cheat. And after all the things I had tolerated, too. The more I thought about it though, the more I started to laugh. A few of my friends that knew the story were the first to want to round up a Wild West style posse and hunt the guy down.

“Let’s kick his ass!”

“No,” I would always reply.

“Oh, you mean no as in ‘wink wink’? Like you want us to take him out but you don’t want to know anything about it just in case the cops come asking?”

“No, I mean don’t do anything.”

“Well what are you going to do him then?”

“Nothing at all. I’m serious. I mean, I appreciate the gesture, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing you can do to him that compares with what he’s in for. I almost want to finance the relationship. I want to buy them a bottle of wine and a hotel room at the casino, and a notebook and a pen. ‘Keep a journal motherfucker. You’re writing my career.’ I have no desire to beat him up. I want him to have complete control of all his senses when he goes out with her, so he misses nothing.”

In hindsight I really am shocked that I stayed as long as I did. I certainly don’t regret any of it and I recognize how vital that time spent was in developing who I am today. Almost the same way prison time turns some people into brand new people, I know that I needed to let my own story run its course. There’s no moral to this, except maybe that some churches do keep the demons out for a little while, but whether you can run from them or face them down, in the end some demons just have to exorcise themselves.

She and I haven’t talked in years and in the rare moments we have it has honestly been more than pleasant. Still, I know the potential explosion that lies just below the surface. Someone somewhere is dealing with it, probably even as I write this. I remember getting a call on my cell a few months ago from a number I didn’t recognize, and when I answered the phone a strange male voice was on the other end.

“Is this Slade?” he asked.

“It is.”

He immediately followed up, “Did you used to date Brittany?”

I paused for a moment, and then asked my own question. “I knew this was coming. Who’d she kill?”

“Nothing like that, “he said. “I’m calling because I’m the guy that’s dating her now.”

There was a long pause while I digested that fact, and I fought back the urge to laugh out loud. Through my inner chuckles I managed to force out the question, “So how’s that working out for you?”

It was his turn to awkwardly pause. Finally he said, “Look, your name has come up a couple of times in conversation between me and her, and every time it does she refers to you as the one that got away, and I -.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What did you just say?” I interrupted. “That’s not cool at all, man. You mean to tell me that after all our drama and history she still thinks of me like that?”

“No, no, no,” he said. “You actually got away. How’d you do it? I need help.”

And then his voice faded from my ear as I dropped the phone in uncontrollable peals of laughter.

SantaJesus

By Robin Antalek

Memoir

Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.

Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.

Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.

When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.

On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.

By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.

But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph

 

At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.

That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.

Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.

But he refused.

 

 

 

I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a rock star. For the two years I took gymnastics I thought I would go to the Olympics. I thought maybe I would be a lesbian. I fully intended to be a poor writer, living in an apartment somewhere in New York with two or three dogs and no electricity. I considered doing the same in the country except that the basic necessities would take up all my time. I feared I would live out the dream scene in Look Who’s Talking, in which Kirstie Alley’s character pictures her life if she married John Travolta’s character. I got really close on that one. I thought I might be single for a while. I thought of becoming a happy old maid. I thought I’d be dead by now. Not for any particular reason, of course. Just because, which is why I think most things.

I also wanted to be a saint. Not just any saint, though. Not the kind that get her sainthood by doing a lot of nice things for other people. Not the kind who donates money, volunteers, feeds the poor, touches dirty people and so forth. I wanted to be a martyr. I wanted to be one of those virgins who got thrown to the lions rather than betray her vow of purity, one of those who were so beautiful that to protect their virginity, they mutilated their beautiful faces. I considered becoming a nun because the idea of alternately praying and working in a vegetable garden within the stone walls of a convent sounded sublime. I hated tomatoes, but I could imagine the freshness and beautiful red ripeness of tomatoes grown by the virtuous women of my would-be convent. I thought a vow of silence would be fab. Then I learned about sex. In the eighth grade, I thought really hard and decided I couldn’t become a nun because I liked boys too much. Not boys, really, but guys. The ones who notice you. The ones who toss meaningful glances across the church when you are sitting in your pew pretending to pray.

I thought my mom would die when I was 16 because when she was 16, her mom died. I thought I was really lucky to still have a mom at 17, and then I thought I was pretty dumb because if she was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she would’ve died when my older sister turned 16, since my mom was the oldest of her family. But the whole pattern started to lose credibility because my mom was the oldest of three while there were four kids in our family, and the oldest was a boy. That was a turning point.

I wanted to be terribly skinny, but that was never going to happen. I wanted to be one of those girls that other girls call “skinny bitch,” because even if other girls hate you, at least you’re skinny, which is the most valuable trait a woman can have. But starving myself was out of the question, and I couldn’t bring myself to puke, not even with a spoon down the throat. Then I thought maybe I’d just lose a few pounds. I wanted to be crazy and wear dark eye liner and be excused for things because people thought I was “sensitive.” Then I got therapy, and I wanted to be listened to. And I wanted a big dictionary, and I got it, but I never open it because it’s too damned big, and who needs a dictionary that big when you’ve got internet, anyway? Then I got group therapy and realized I was comparatively incredibly well-adjusted, and that as fucked up as I was, so was everyone else. Then I just wanted to be left alone and not to have to listen to these people anymore, and then I told this girl in therapy to say hi to my old best friend who went to her high school, and only years later did I realize how awkward that must have been. “Hey, I’m in group therapy with your best friend from junior high, and she says to tell you hi.”

I considered becoming a Realtor. I worked in customer service, selling shoes, then selling jeans, then selling coffee. Turns out it doesn’t matter what I’m selling. I cannot be nice to people purely in the hopes of receiving money from them. I waited tables at a seedy strip club while wearing a black leotard, shiny tights, black heels and red lipstick for a week until a man offered me money to go home with him and a stripper tried to give me lessons on how to upsell: Don’t just make do with cash — offer to start him a tab. Ask him if he’d like to meet one of the girls. Don’t call them dancers, call them ladies. Then she did her dominatrix routine on stage in something resembling an Aeon Flux outfit. I really just wanted to hang out in the dressing room and watch them. One of them threw her cell phone across the room upon learning her boyfriend had spent all their rent money. On what, I wasn’t sure. Then a woman called Luna, who was the mother of a five-year-old boy, made the sign of the cross and said a blessing over her plate of spaghetti in front of the large makeup mirror all the girls shared. Her glittered breasts dangled precariously close to the marinara. I took cigarette breaks every fifteen minutes or so, and a stripper told me I should quit because smoking would ruin my good looks. I didn’t know I had any such thing, and I told her I didn’t care. I kept smoking for a couple years, but I took a job at the Gap a couple weeks later. I folded some shirts for a week and didn’t sell a single pair of jeans.

I wanted to be a journalist, or at least a copy editor, but I’m a bad speller and terrified of interviewing. I can’t write fast enough. I want to learn shorthand. I want to write a book. I want so much. I have wanted so much, but I have so much else.



You always hear that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” But sometimes, he’s really fucking obvious.

Two years ago, I completed graduate school and continued working on a book that I drafted during my MFA program. I worked part-time at the University of New Hampshire, where I got my degree, and took on freelance writing gigs to pay my bills.

But when my “writing life” laxed and became my “cleaning the house and hanging out with grad school friends” life, my wife gave me a not-so-subtle nudge:

Get a job.

So I started searching—half-heartedly at first. My wife had a steady paycheck, and I was a writer and a teacher, so I was used to having a meager income. My motivation was low. There was no job-fire burning at my feet.

But one day I went to pay my month’s bills, and the checkbook cookie jar was empty.

The flames began licking. Something had ignited my search.

I plunged in and began a serious job quest then, networking with current and former colleagues, posting my resume on Monster, checking the newspaper, and clicking my way through online job sites like Craigslist, WhisperJobs, Boston.com, Mediabistro, and awpwriter.org.

Over the course of more months than I care to confess, I landed multiple interviews—three of which led me to the coveted second interview. After all three second interviews, I was convinced: They loved me! This job is mine! My boss at the time even told me that he had gotten a reference call from one potential workplace, and from the way they raved about me, he was certain they’d be calling shortly to offer me the post.

One by one, though, the HR specialists called me (or, in one case, only sent an email) to inform me that it was such a pleasure meeting me, but they had decided to offer the position to another candidate.

Strike out.

In the first double-interview strike-out, I was one of four final candidates. In the second, I was one of three finalists. And in the third: You guessed it. One of two. Only one other person stood between me and an income, and that other person beat me to it.

I was shattered. Why was I always falling short? What was it about me that made a company, upon closer inspection, turn their noses up and say, “Nah. Throw this one back. She’s not what we were looking for.”

Traditional job searching was a bust. Plain old praying (which I did a lot of) had gotten me nowhere. So I turned to witchcraft, consulting what I now refer to as the “voodoo witch mat” to divine my future.

The voodoo witch mat was a purchase I made at a Wicca shop in Salem during Halloween. This black velvet mat, roughly 8” x 8”, promised to answer my questions with responses like, “Yes,” “No,” and “Ask Again” when I concentrated on a question and swung a pendulum over the mat. In the end, the pendulum would settle on a single answer. It’s like a witch’s Magic 8 Ball. (However, after I brought this talisman into the house, a mirror in an unoccupied room mysteriously shattered, and objects began propelling themselves from shelves, which is where the “voodoo” part of the name comes in.)

When I focused my energy and asked the voodoo witch mat about my career status, it assured me that by Christmas 2008, I would have a full-time job.

Like a magical-thinking fool, I believed it. Because the witch mat said so. And because I was desperate.

December: Christmas comes and goes. No job.

January: I plunge into despair, spending my days sunk down inside my bathtub beneath a frothy white mountain of bubbles, wondering if I’ll ever be able to crawl out of my accumulating debt. The pages of multiple books become rippled from the heat of the tub: stories that I grip with damp hands, my skin turning pruney as I cling to the hope of escape through fiction.

February: I realize that January sucked. I was a moping mess. And that was not fun. So I decide to start doing healthy things for myself, and to begin checking off some of the To-Do boxes that have blinked blankly at me for eons.

One of those things: go to church. With the exception of occasional holidays with my parents and in-laws, I hadn’t been to church in almost five years. My soul was hungry. I had been feeling selfish and lost, absorbed in being sorry for myself over not having full-time work. I thought that perhaps church would help me find my center again.

(My other option, if church didn’t work out, was yoga. However, I’m not flexible, and in a hot room where I’d be bending over and twisting an out-of-shape body in all manner of unflattering positions, the possibilities for making an ass of myself seemed to outweigh any perceived benefits.)

So I found myself a little gay-friendly house of worship—the First Universalist Church of Salem—and I went to church. After the service, a lovely woman named Sally greeted me and ushered me towards tables of cookies, fresh fruit, and coffee. Sally introduced me to other parishioners (do non-Catholics use that term?) and discovered that I was job searching.

Without me even asking, Sally became my new job networker. After each service, Sally told my story to the people she introduced me to during coffee hour: This is Laura. She lives in Salem and she’s a writer, and she’s looking for a job. Do you know of anyone looking for a writer?

On the third Sunday, a woman at my coffee-and-cookie table mentioned that the U.S. Census Bureau was hiring census takers in Salem and Beverly. It was only a temporary position, and it wasn’t at all in my career field, but it supposedly paid well.

That was all I needed to hear.

On the designated day, I went to the YMCA in Salem and took a pre-qualification test for the job. During the testing session, the census representative told us that there were also management jobs posted online. As soon as I got home, I checked out the website, 2010censusjobs.gov, and lo and behold, I found two jobs for which I knew I was qualified. “Partnership Specialist” was the title of one.

I applied for the position. Three hours after my interview, and after my fourth “They loved me! I totally have the job!” engagement, I was finally offered a job.

When I heard the news, I did a dance in my sister’s architecture office. I called my wife. I called my mom. I texted my friends. The debt-vice that had been gripping my chest was loosened.

On my train ride home from Boston, I was mentally ripping up all of my other job applications and cover letters, and telling everyone who hadn’t hired me to suck it.

And then I was struck by how I got the job in the first place:

I heard about the position only because I went to church.

Some people believe that all things happen for a reason. They think that we are given obstacles to teach us lessons that we might not otherwise learn, and thus, any suffering we encounter along the way is both valuable and essential for our growth.

As I pay down my debt with the salary from my new job, I sometimes console myself with that notion that this all happened for a reason: That I searched for a job for two years because the right one was waiting for me. That I met now-close friends at UNH who would’ve never come into my life, had I left my part-time university job sooner. That I gained a deep appreciation for structured work time and an understanding that spending every day in one’s pajamas is NOT an ideal way to live one’s life.

On my self-disparaging days, I simply believe that I was lazy, and that I didn’t search hard enough.

But my Evangelical mother would simply say, “You should’ve gone to church sooner.”

Just in case Mom’s right: If you’re one of the tens of millions of people looking for a job during the worst economy in recent history, maybe it’s time you paid a visit to one of your local houses of worship.

Even if you don’t get a job out of it, at the very least, they usually have good snacks.