I was eleven when I realized I wasn’t Jesus.
I mean, I wasn’t entirely certain at first. It was more of a probability: 99 percent. No, wait. I didn’t know what probabilities were then. So this is just a guess. This is me looking back and putting a number to a feeling.
Maybe more like 90 percent.
I wasn’t an idiot in the fourth grade. Nor was I delusional. I was a daydreamer. The kind who might look out the classroom window at a passing cloud and wonder if it could be hiding a spaceship. Hoping it was. Even if that spaceship wasn’t particularly friendly. Like maybe it was on a mission to determine the air defense capability of Timnath, Colorado.
That wasn’t where I lived. I’ve never even been there, but I’d seen it listed on a map once (I was looking for Pike’s Peak). The town name stuck with me because I had misread it. I thought it was “Tinmath” at first and that sounded interesting. What would tin math be? It would probably be easier than iron math. More durable than clay math. And surely less complicated than fourth grade math.
I wanted to learn tin math. In Timnath.
Instead I was struggling to understand the difference between isosceles and acute triangles in Antioch, Illinois. I was a bit obtuse then. That’s a geometry joke.
Antioch might as well be in Wisconsin. Here’s how you get there. Go north from Chicago. When you get to the Wisconsin state line, turn left and go that way for a few miles. Keep an eye out. If you find yourself in Iowa you clearly have no understanding of what “a few miles” means. Use a map next time.
They say you can still find arrowheads in Antioch. The Pottawatomi Indians lived there before we sent them packing. But I lived there pretty much my whole life and I never found any.
There were a bunch of arrowheads in a display case at school, though, so someone obviously had. The display also included a commemorative plaque. “Thanks Pottawatomi Indians. For leaving so we could build this town and pretend it was ours all along.” It didn’t say that exactly, but the whole thing seemed more than a little dismissive. You’re right. I didn’t know that word then. I was eleven. But I had a twisty-sick feeling in my stomach every time I passed the display. Even though it was only there for a week (someone complained, it might have been the janitor), the sick feeling continued all throughout the fourth grade and half of fifth, up until the day Miss Morris took over as our teacher. (Mr. Jenkins had gotten cancer. I don’t think it was from us, though. We were good students. There was very little goofing off and nearly no spitwads. Nearly.)
Miss Morris provided a final confirmation that I was not, in fact, Jesus. I didn’t need more evidence, really, because I had decided that already (90 percent) in the fourth grade, but the probability became incontrovertible truth the moment she walked into the room. She wore a thin white blouse with the top three buttons undone (three!), and a short red and yellow striped skirt that aimed every one of those stripes at legs that were so long and lithe they defied the attempt at sabotage asserted by school-policy-required panty hose.
Her skin was olive and sun-kissed and dangerous, not the safe milky Midwest white of my mother or my Aunt Louise. It was dot-to-dotted with freckles that drew pictures of Mykonos or Monaco or Milan or one of the other exotic places I’d read about in the encyclopedia when I was supposed to be writing a report about monkeys.
And she had a voice like silk. The only silk I knew then was the gray border of the decaying baby blanket I kept hidden in the bottom of my dresser drawer, but it was the softest thing I’d ever brushed against my lips. (So far.) I didn’t sleep with it or anything when I was eleven. I just couldn’t get rid of it. Not yet. The circle of red stars had turned pink against the thinning white, and the smiling circus lion in the center of them had become a ghost, but you don’t throw away old friends no matter how faded they get.
But the feelings, oh the feelings. Miss Morris gave me a different kind of twisty stomach.
Gotta admit I miss that feeling.
Anyway, I went to church every Sunday as a child. Sunday school first, then the “big people service.” I drew tiny pictures of cars and wars and Martian attacks in the margins of the bulletin – I stole that idea from Mad Magazine – but was attentive in Sunday school. I didn’t have much choice. There were only seven of us. Or six, when Erin was sick. (She was sick a lot. I mean more than half of the time. I wonder what happened to her?)
When there are only seven (or six) kids in a room, you can’t hide. So I did my homework. I read the Bible. I listened to the teacher talk about how the Israelites kept screwing things up in the Old Testament. Then about how Jesus came to save the day by taking all the screw-ups and wearing them like skin so they could be destroyed along with him on the cross. I didn’t fully understand what atonement meant, but I got the general gist. Someone else got punished for all the sins everyone had ever committed including all the ones they hadn’t yet thought of. (You’re thinking of one now, aren’t you. Yeah. That’s how it works.)
I was a really good kid. I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t say bad words or take more than my fair share or pretend I had done my chores if I hadn’t gotten to them yet. And I won more Bible sword drills than anyone. The teacher didn’t keep track. I did. Not to gloat, mind you. Just because I liked to count things. I had a notebook filled with tallies of the different kinds of vehicles we passed on family vacations. (Mostly white sedans. But lots of semis, too. Not enough VW Bugs, though.)
I was a daydreamer. I already told you that. But that wasn’t a sin unless you were daydreaming about sinful things. It’s not like I wanted the aliens to take over the world or anything. I just wanted to meet one.
The Sunday before I realized I wasn’t Jesus we had learned about the Second Coming. You have to capitalize an event like that when you write it out. I pictured Jesus riding a silver cloud like the Silver Surfer down from the mountains and everyone cheering except for the cheaters and liars and bullies, who would probably just be really quiet or hide under their desks.
But then I had a thought. A Big Thought. (You can capitalize that, too.)
Jesus had come to earth the first time as a baby. Great story. And not just because we got Christmas out of it. So I started thinking, what if God said, “hey, that worked out pretty well, apart from the crucifixion and stuff, so why not try it again?”
I know it was a crazy idea. I see that now clear as day. But this is where my theology got tangled up in all the questions that had already begun to fill my head. Mostly “why?” questions. I asked that a lot. About everything. Why was I born in Antioch, Illinois? Why did I end up with these parents? Why was I white? Why was I a boy? Why did my brain ask impossible questions?
And in the middle of that tangle, it hit me.
What if I’m Jesus?
What if I’m the Second Coming Jesus, God’s clever and unexpected way of signaling the end of the world and the coming of heaven. No, my Big Idea didn’t line up with Sunday school. Or the snippets and snatches of sermons that found their way to my brain despite my distractedness.
But somehow it stuck. And so I started to think about my life so far. Had I sinned yet? I mean, really sinned? I was snippy to my mother once. Does that count? Jesus got angry once or twice.
I remember staring at the empty wall in my bedroom – I can see it now plain as day. There was a diagonal shadow painted there by the hall light outside the half-open door. It was after nine and my parents were in the living room, talking about parent things, filling the air with the sounds of safety and comfort.
I asked the question a dozen times in my head, looking for an answer to appear on the wall. That diagonal line seemed like a great place for a magic finger to write using fancy cursive. God did that kind of thing in the Bible. No words came.
But just because you don’t have an answer doesn’t mean the question isn’t important. So I started working it out, logically. If I was Jesus, I would have to live a perfect life. I was reasonably confident my life so far qualified. Did God want me to be perfect for the rest of it? Could I be?
Looking back, I can see that this was the real question. Could I live a perfect life? It was a silly question.
But at eleven, I didn’t know it was silly and the prospect was staggering. Me? A perfect life?
I rolled a swear word in my mouth, tasting it. Second Coming Jesus wouldn’t say swear words. Would he taste them in his mouth?
I don’t want to be Jesus. I don’t want that kind of pressure.
I think I said those two sentences aloud, because my parents stopped talking and the air was suddenly unsafe and the fate of the whole world was resting on my shoulders.
Shit, I said.
The word just sat there in the room for a million or two years and then I finally heard my parents’ voices again filling the air with the sounds of safety and comfort. I sighed and lay back in my bed, closing my eyes and inviting dreams of an alien invasion. I wasn’t Jesus. I couldn’t be Jesus.
And that was a relief.
Despite the long hair, I’m still not Jesus, but to answer your question, I don’t think you’re going to hell. Everybody fucks up. See? I did it right there. Apologies for my French, but the truth is, we’re all misfits. Maybe you should just forgive yourself and move on.
Anyway, thanks for the dollar. Most people just bring me coffee or an Egg McMuffin. I’m not complaining. I like coffee and Egg McMuffins. But you can’t buy drugs with breakfast.
I’m kidding. I promise not to buy drugs with this. Drugs cost way more than a dollar. Besides, I need a new toothbrush.
Have a nice day. Maybe you’ll find an arrowhead. I hear that’s good luck.