@

I first met Ross Angelella (I just can’t call him by his official author name – J.R. Angelella – because, well, I’ve never called him J.R. and I don’t know anyone else who has, either, but he has good reasons to be called J.R. on his books, reasons which are not revealed in the interview below, but which exist somewhere on the internet and I trust that if you search long enough, you’ll find the story and you will be justifiably moved) in 2007. I’d made the fateful decision to attend Bennington for graduate school and Ross was assigned to be my student mentor. That he was ten years younger than me and was just starting out and I was heading towards the middle of my career and was already running an MFA program seemed a little weird to me (I’d Googled the hell out him, too, so I’d read his LiveJournal and was, well, somewhat concerned that he was a serial killer, but that’s another issue all together). His job was simple: to prepare me for the harsh world of low residency graduate education…which, in this case, consisted of him calling me one evening and telling me to buy one of those foam mattress tops if I wanted to be able to sleep on the prison beds Bennington uses in their dorm rooms. That seemed like an extremely solid and learned piece of advice, so from there we went on to talk about a series of mundane things for about an hour. There were lots of giggles. I think I may have rolled out the word “fucktard” early on, just to make sure he wasn’t one of those people easily offended by my common vernacular. He showed no ill effects, so we pressed on. And we’ve kept pressing on for five years.

1.

According to my father, there are three types of necktie knots: the Windsor, the Half-Windsor, and the Limp Dick.

“Jeremy, I’d bet my hand,” he says, adjusting his seatbelt, “that every swinging dick at Byron Hall wears the Windsor.”

“Could you not talk about dicks first thing in the morning?”

“The ladies love masculine things,” he says, pinching his silver tie at the base of its knot.

“Dad, it’s an all guy high school.”

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

Business has been absolutely booming this summer at Greg Boose’s Personalized Swimming Pool Signs, Inc. Below are a few recent orders that we’ve completed.

Pool Rules for Zombies

To make a Zombie:

1 part white rum
1 part golden rum
1 part dark rum
1 part apricot brandy
1 part pineapple juice
1 part papaya juice
½ part 151-proof rum
Dash of grenadine or other syrup

Add ice and shake all the ingredients with the exception of the 151. Pour into a Zombie glass and then top it with the 151.


Just in case you happened to be wondering: no, dressing up like a Marilyn Manson fan is not, in fact, an effective deterrent for jury duty.

I’m going to blame this one on the fact that I’m a Gemini. Allow me to explain.

I hate to lie. As a matter of fact, I can count the number of times I have lied blatantly to somebody on one hand.

Lying isn’t really my schtick. Instead, I withhold. Occasionally, I spin. Sometimes I give two completely different answers at different moments of the day. One of my twin halves pops up and what she says out of hearing of the other seems completely reasonable at the time. This can occasionally give the appearance of lying. It can also be just really, really ridiculously frustrating.

———-

Exhibit A

Random interviewer: “Do you like violence?”
Me: “Put me in the ring. Bring it.”

 

That conversation could have just as easily swung another direction at another given time:

Random interviewer: “Do you like violence?”
Me: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

———-

 

I could see how this might be confusing. But I don’t feel that I am being dishonest as it’s happening. I simply have a different opinion in a different moment – depending on whichever of the twins is in control of my gray matter in a given moment.

But what about another ugly tendency I – OK, “we” – have: the one involving giving an incomplete picture and/or withhold information? In other words, this is where I send one of the twins underground with a roll of duct tape and tell her to shut the hell up under threat of a smackdown.

———-

Exhibit B

Husband: “Do you think I said the right thing to Xavier* today when I told him to fuck off?”
Me: “I think you did the best you could under the circumstances.”**
Husband: “What does that mean?”
Me: “I don’t know. I mean, I might have chosen a different conversational path, but I think what you said fits you perfectly.’
Husband: “Right. So, you think I shouldn’t have said that?”
Me: [Shrugging]***
He: [Exasperated] “I swear, you are really, really ridiculously frustrating.”

*I know nobody by the name of Xavier. Xavier represents a completely fictional entity. Xavier is not real. He is fake. Made up. In my mind. Xavier may in no way be used against me as a “lie” as I have fully disclosed his non-existence from the get-go.

**In other words, no, I don’t think he said the right thing today, but if I look at it from his perspective, I can see why he would have said what he did. Half of me gets it.

***To be interpreted by his own conscience.

———-

So, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, regarding the incident at the Boulder County Courthouse:

———-

Exhibit C

When I got the letter summoning me to jury duty, I admit I may have overreacted a wee bit. I’d never actually been called to jury duty before, and I had no idea what to expect. All I knew for sure was that people generally try to get out of it and, therefore, it must be bad.

My friends gave me all sorts of advice:

“Tell them you have a tendency to always root for the underdog.”

“Tell them you hate lawyers.”

 

“Tell them you have a Ph.D. and that you are currently studying for the LSAT. Lawyers don’t like smart people who are studying to be one of them.”

“Just tell them that you have been taking care of an elderly auntie with a highly contagious strain of the E. Bola virus and that if you weren’t sitting in that courtroom, you could be getting tested for infection at the nearest hospital.”

The obvious problem with any of these suggestions, of course, is that they all involved a blatant lie. And so I decided to do what any selves-respecting Gemini would do: I sent one twin down to the basement…and brought the other one up.

All of my life people have told me that I have an innocent look. They take one glance at me and decide that I can be walked on. Shaped. Molded like Play-Doh in six fun and delightful colors. It’s not true. I have a dark side that is incredibly jaded and discerning. But I knew that those lawyers would take one look at me and insist I stay.

“The rest can go, but keep that girl in the front row there,” they would no doubt whisper amongst themselves. “We’ll have her drinking the Flavor-aid by the end of this trial. She’ll be all ours. [Insert wild hyena cackles] Plus, she comes in six fun and delightful colors.”

I wore all black, of course. Long skirt, high boots. Lacy underthings sticking out in all the appropriate places. I still looked perhaps a little too clean on the parts of my skin that were showing, but a few rub-on tattoos took care of that. Blackened up the eyes and nails. Powdered my face. Put green streaks in my hair.

I screeched into the courthouse parking lot with my Emo attitude and blasting my Emo music. (OK – I don’t really have any Emo music, so I made the best of Zombie by the Cranberries. I just had to keep reminding myself to stop singing along with it in case anyone was looking. Karaoke = very UN-Emo.)

When I arrived in the courtroom, I didn’t smile. I slouched. I flashed my tats. I stared brazenly at the lawyers, daring them to choose me.

“Come on, fuckers. Choose me.”

They chose me.

When I originally hatched this plan, it never occurred to me that it would fail. Bluff called, I had no choice to stick around. But a person can not very well just show up all rife with angst in the morning and then suddenly clear up like a sunny day after a storm. I had to keep up my persona. Not so difficult in the jury box, but that deliberation session was a bit of a challenge as I am used to my sunny twin being my normal spokesperson. Mostly I kept quiet, but I threw in a few eye rolls for effect. After I realized that nobody actually thought I wasn’t a Goth chick, I started to have fun with it. I think a couple of the guys were actually afraid of me. I started toying with them just for fun. Kind of semi-flirting and then giving them a death stare.

Heh.

———-

So, no – my plan to get out of jury duty didn’t work. On the other hand, it was really, really ridiculously satisfying.