Everyone agreed it was a great party until Jesus arrived.
“Is that who I think it is?” Naomi whispered to Dana, her best friend since college. They were both slightly buzzed from the bong hits they’d shared ten minutes earlier. Dana suspected it was Carlos from work playing a joke on them. When he was between haircuts he had a vague resemblance to the Son of God, but not even Carlos would have considered arriving barefoot in a dingy cotton loincloth on such a cold November night. Had it been Carlos, he would have snatched up a pizza bagel the moment he saw them, but this Jesus, who now seemed at least potentially real, seemed oblivious to the possibility of a snack.
“Did you invite Him?” Dana asked. She fought back a giggle.
“Of course not.”
“Then how did He know about the party?”
“Well, I guess he knows everything, right?” Naomi said. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake.…”
“Isn’t that Santa Claus?”
Jesus stood in the corner, His long, gaunt body wedged between the bookcase and the lamp. He said nothing. Although none of the guests acknowledged Him, the party grew sedate. Drinks sat untouched on the coffee table, flirting couples stepped apart; someone turned down the music and put away the bong. A game of strip poker that had just started in the bedroom morphed into a game of Go Fish as discarded socks were slipped back on and sweaters reappeared.
Kevin found Naomi by the sliding glass door.
“Did you–?” they both asked. Neither had.
“I don’t get it,” Kevin said. “What’s He doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “He can go wherever He wants, I guess. It’s part of His powers or something.”
“Powers? He’s not Spider-Man. He doesn’t have any powers. He doesn’t do anything. He just suffers and forgives you.”
“Well, He did come back from the dead. That’s not a superpower?” Naomi asked. “Come on, Kevin, that’s pretty good. He resurrected Himself. That’s definitely a power.”
Still buzzed, Dana joined them by the sliding glass door, slipping her arm around Kevin’s waist as she blew Naomi a kiss. She and Naomi had been roommates in college and had lived together for two years after graduation. Although she’d slept with plenty of guys, she still felt a charge whenever she thought of Naomi. In college they’d shared a bed a few times, but nothing had happened. Well, almost nothing.
“Does He have to dress like that?” Dana asked. “He looks terrible. Check out His ribs.”
“If He’s hungry, He should eat something,” Naomi said. Most of the food she had made herself; she prided herself on her pasta salad, and her pizza bagels were second to none. “And why doesn’t He mingle? He seems so … miserable.”
Still, it was impressive that He had come at all, and Kevin sensed a new level of respect among the guests. People had thought it a big deal when Jerry Macy’s party had included the weather guy from Channel Nine, but having Jesus at your party was something else entirely.
“What should we do?” Naomi asked. “Should we introduce Him?”
“I think He’s shy,” Dana said. “Let’s bring out the cake and see what He does.”
Everyone gathered around the table as Naomi lit the candles on a double chocolate layer cake she had baked that afternoon. They sang “Happy Birthday” and people shared jokes about hitting “the big Three-Oh” as Kevin blew out the candles and made a wish. The wish itself was problematic. Kevin felt certain that Jesus would disapprove of its selfish intent. The Son of God remained in the corner, His left elbow propped on the top shelf of the bookcase. Kevin wondered if Jesus could read. Were carpenters literate two thousand years ago? Even if He could read, would he know English? Maybe he was telepathic. Kevin imagined finally speaking to the Lord, the Messiah Himself, only to find the conversation unintelligible, a nonsense dialogue between ancient Hebrew and twenty-first century American English.
While Dana sliced the cake into thick and equal pieces, Naomi hurried to the kitchen and turned on her new cappuccino maker. Kevin joined her. He opened the fridge and handed her the cream. He couldn’t imagine living without her, yet his wish had involved another woman. In penance he kissed her neck and rubbed the back of her shoulders; she smelled like nutmeg and a teaspoon of vanilla.
“I’m glad He’s here,” Naomi said. She felt Kevin stiffen. “It means we’re special. He’s blessing us.”
“He’s just standing there.”
“He’s watching over us, keeping us safe.”
Kevin looked toward the living room. The space between the bookcase and the lamp was vacant; Jesus had moved toward the sliding glass door, His sad, disappointed eyes cast downward, His bare, bony feet planted on the rug.
“Maybe,” Kevin said. “But He’s kind of depressing. It’s a party, not a crucifixion.”
“Kevin, He died for our sins! Give the man a break!”
“He didn’t die for our sins. We weren’t even born yet.”
“If it’s symbolic, then why did He have to die?” Kevin asked. “He could have done anything. He could have taken a bath to wash away our sins. That would have been symbolic. Instead of a cross, we could walk around with little bathtubs around our necks. Crucifixion is way over the top.”
“It’s not like He had a choice. They beat the crap out of Him and nailed Him to a cross. It wasn’t His idea.” Naomi released the lever and steam hissed out from the cappuccino maker. She pressed a second valve and began filling cups with a dark, creamy brew.
“I’m not ungrateful, just curious,” Kevin said. “It’s never made sense to me. How does His dying so painfully make my sins go away? Suppose I picked up a knife and stabbed you.” For effect he did just that; he picked up a knife and made a short, jabbing motion toward Naomi. He didn’t stab her, of course, and it was only a white plastic party knife, meant for cutting cake, not flesh, but he felt he’d made his point. “I’m supposed to feel okay about it because He was crucified and now He forgives me? That doesn’t make sense.”
“You have to take it on faith,” Naomi said. “It’s all about faith.”
She kissed him, but he still didn’t get it. He respected Jesus, but considered Him history’s greatest sad sack, a peaceful man in whose name millions had been slaughtered. If that wasn’t irony, what was?
Dana popped into the kitchen with a single slice of cake. “There’s one extra,” she said. “I offered it to Him, but He didn’t take it.”
“You offered Him some cake?”
“It seemed only fair. He is a guest, and He looks so thin! But he wouldn’t take it.”
“What did He say?” Kevin asked.
“He didn’t say anything,” Dana said. “I was expecting something, like ‘thank you, my child’, or maybe one of the proverbs, but He didn’t say a word. I didn’t stick around because, well, I feel bad saying this, but He kind of smells.”
“What? Like B.O.?”
“Not exactly,” Dana said. “More like old yogurt.”
“Maybe we should light a scented candle,” Naomi said.
“Maybe we should ask Him to leave,” Kevin said.
“You can’t ask Him to leave. It’s a party. It’s not like He’s drunk and starting fights. He’s just standing there watching us.”
“It’s unnerving,” Dana said. “Everyone’s eager to leave, but no one wants to be first.”
Naomi filled a tray with cappuccino mugs and handed it to Dana. “Will you serve everyone, please? This is ridiculous. I’m going to ask Him why He’s here.”
“Be careful,” Kevin said. He and Dana watched Naomi stride toward the living room. They both felt guilty for having lustful thoughts within close proximity to Jesus, but neither guessed what the other was thinking.
Though her church attendance was virtually non-existent since she’d moved in with Kevin, Naomi felt confident that Jesus would like her. She was a friendly, compassionate person, a teacher; she volunteered twice monthly at a senior center, teaching lonely septuagenarians to make afghans and beaded pillows. She honored her parents and rarely lied, and while pre-marital sex and the occasional bong hit might cause a problem, she expected Jesus to have encountered a lot worse.
She approached her Lord and Savior and offered her hand.
“I’m Naomi,” she said. “Thank You for coming. Are You having a good time?”
Jesus said nothing.
“It’s an honor to meet You,” Naomi said. So far she had met two other celebrities: in college she had worked at a restaurant where Alan Alda was a regular, and she had once shared a cab with the bass player from The Strokes. They had both been friendly — Alan Alda had signed three autographs and left her a fifty-dollar tip. Yet she didn’t feel that Jesus was standoffish or on a star trip. His silence was meaningful, she was certain of it. She just couldn’t figure out what the meaning was.
“Are You here for Kevin’s birthday, or is that just a coincidence?” she asked. “After all, You could be anywhere, so it’s very flattering that You chose to visit us.” More silence. “Would You like something to eat? I could introduce you to the other guests, but I’m sure You know everyone, and of course, everyone knows You.”
Aware that the room had grown silent, and that everyone was watching her, Naomi tilted her head so she could see His face. He still hadn’t raised His head or looked up from the floor. To her surprise, He had dark brown eyes, not the shining blue eyes she remembered from church portraits. She had never really believed those portraits anyway. With His blue eyes and clear skin and perfectly groomed hair and beard, the Jesus of her childhood had looked more like a hippie insurance agent than a persecuted mystic. The Jesus in front of her now had a sallow, drawn-out face, crooked teeth, and skin as dry and tough as a shoe. Dana was right about the yogurt smell, but it wasn’t offensive. The loincloth hung around his sunken hips; his body was hairless except for a few wild strands poking out from the top of his loincloth.
“Would You like some water?” Naomi asked. “You must be thirsty. Is there anything we can get You?” Perhaps His speaking violated some rule of free will, Naomi thought. She reached back toward the table and grabbed a bottle of water.
“Please drink,” she said, and unscrewed the cap from the bottle. She held the water up to His lips and to her surprise and delight He took a sip. The muscles of His neck strained as He swallowed hard and sipped again. Naomi tried not to feel special — in His eyes, weren’t they all special? Still, she couldn’t resist feeling chosen. Everyone else He had ignored, but from her He had sipped.
“Are You hungry?” she asked. Jesus said nothing. On the nearest table were a bottle of wine and a tray of sliced garlic bread. She hoped He wasn’t offended.
As a teacher, Naomi had trained herself to be patient. Even her most hyperactive students would eventually respond to her presence. She would stand quietly by their desks, her arms folded, her face posed with a calm and steady smile, her posture and proximity conveying that it was only a question of when before the student complied. But with Jesus she felt like the student, and after thirty seconds of silence, she ran toward the kitchen and started to cry.
She fell into Kevin’s arms. Dana stroked her hair as the three of them huddled by the refrigerator. They heard the front door open and shut; someone had finally gathered the nerve to leave.
“I don’t understand what He wants from us,” Naomi sobbed. For weeks she’d been planning Kevin’s party. She’d spent hours cleaning, and even more time shopping for and preparing the food. Now it was ruined, a celebration turned somber by an uninvited guest.
“That’s it. He’s out of here,” Kevin said. “I don’t care. He can’t just stand there judging us. We’re not bad people. Why doesn’t He go to Washington or something and judge those bastards.”
“It’s okay, honey,” Dana whispered, her face nuzzled against Naomi’s hair. “It’s okay.”
Kevin broke away and stomped toward the living room. Only a few guests remained, and they sat at Jesus’ feet like disciples in training. Kevin’s heart pounded as he stepped forward.
“You need to leave now,” he told the Son of God. “Thank You for coming, but now it’s time to go.”
Jesus said nothing.
“Did You hear me?” Kevin shouted. “If you have something to say, please share it. We’re willing to listen, but You can’t just stand there watching us!
Jesus said nothing. Naomi and Dana watched from the foyer. Kevin’s hand began to shake.
“Damn it, what do You want from us?” Kevin asked. “Do You want a confession? Do You want to hear my sins? Is that it? Do You get off on hearing people admit how wretched they are?”
“Kevin, please don’t yell at Him,” Naomi said, but she felt her own anger rising as she bit down on her lip.
Jesus said nothing. Everyone stood around until Dana broke the silence.
“I think I know what He wants,” she said. It was unclear how she knew, but the thought had arrived, fully formed, and once acknowledged, it became so obvious any competing thought disappeared. She knew the apartment as well as she knew her own, and didn’t ask where to find what she needed. She headed to the storage closet across from the bedroom.
“You’re right,” Kevin told her, as if Dana’s thought had come to him simultaneously. It made perfect sense.
When Dana returned, she handed Kevin the hammer and kept the nails herself.
“What are you doing?” Naomi asked.
“It’s why He came,” Kevin said. “It’s the reason He always comes.” The base of the hammer felt cool and smooth against his palm.
“What are you doing?” Naomi repeated.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Dana said, and kissed her on the mouth.
The lack of wood presented a problem, but Kevin pulled some corrugated cardboard from the recycling and began tearing it into strips. The guests moved away from Jesus and formed a loose circle around the room.
No one felt like leaving anymore.
“This is wrong,” Naomi said, but her voice was shaky and uncertain. While Kevin and Dana twisted the cardboard into a rudimentary cross, Naomi went to Jesus and took His hand.
“Please forgive me,” she asked. She tried to think of a specific sin to be absolved, but came up blank. Like everyone else, she’d committed her share of ill thoughts and selfish mistakes. Sometimes she snapped at her students and laughed at her mother behind her back; she was a real bitch to Kevin when she didn’t get enough sleep; she didn’t love others nearly as much as she should have. Was that why He was here? Had He come to judge her for being cranky and weak?
“Please forgive me,” she repeated. Jesus closed His eyes and breathed deeply. Was He ignoring her? Naomi wanted to shake Him, slap Him across the face, do anything to rouse Him from His torpor. Couldn’t He see what was about to happen? Couldn’t He stop them before their baser instincts held sway? Why was He so cryptic when she needed clarity?
“Please,” she repeated. She felt Kevin’s hand on her shoulder as he guided her from the scene.
Jesus held out His arms, assuming the position.
Kevin and Dana pushed Him toward the floor, and He collapsed onto the cardboard cross. The rest was routine.
The first nail ripped into His flesh. The second nail followed.
Finally, the Son of God spoke.
“Thank you,” He said.
Naomi looked away. Dana held the third nail over the center of His palm and Kevin swung the hammer, driving nail deep into bone. The guests lined up behind him, eager for a turn. The hammer passed from hand to hand as each person swung harder than the last.
Finally, Naomi couldn’t stand it anymore, and she ran to the kitchen. A bottle of wine sat on the counter. It was a merlot, from France, 1997 — an excellent vintage.
As she listened to the sound of nail splitting bone, Naomi recited a prayer from her childhood, or at least what she remembered of it.
When it ended, Jesus simply disappeared, His departure as sudden as His arrival. Kevin and Dana stumbled into the kitchen, their faces pale and grim.
“Maybe this always happens,” Kevin said. “Maybe He dies for our sins all the time. Maybe He goes from house to house letting people crucify Him. Nobody ever talks about it because who wants to admit it, but maybe this happens at every party.”
“It was His idea anyway,” Dana said. “Why else would He have come? He didn’t mingle, and He didn’t eat anything. He wanted it to happen.”
Naomi had her doubts, but she kept them to herself. She grabbed the corkscrew and opened the wine, pouring the merlot into three long-stemmed glasses.
No one was thirsty, but they drank the wine anyway. It was the least they could do.
–Chuck Augello lives in central New Jersey with a dog, two cats, and a growing collection of dust. His work has appeared in Rattle, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, and other publications.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin