Invisible Friend Jesus stands next to me at the hotel window, gazing at dawn spreading over the red ridges around Albuquerque. I’m a long way from home, and I’m having one of those mornings when you wake up bleary and beat and lost-feeling.
“Traveling is a lonely and intense thing,” I say.
He doesn’t respond, but just shoots me his little smile.
“I’m a restless person,” I continue. “Being in motion helps me to think. Being out somewhere where I don’t know anyone and don’t know what’s going to happen next helps me to sort of float on top of life and get a look around me.”
He strokes his short beard thoughtfully. “You were born a ramblin’ man.”
I don’t dignify this with a response. I watch the morning commuters crowding up the I-40 bridge, the Rio Grande flowing lazily beneath them. They’re running around in circles, caught in their routine, but I’m detached from all that. Traveling makes me realize how our rituals are a comfortable, fuzzy blanket that we wrap ourselves up in so that we don’t have to think or feel. We always know where we have to be next and what we need to do, and reap a sense of fulfilment from that, even if we’re not actually accomplishing anything of substance. Traveling rips away that blanket and leaves us naked. It can help us see who we really are, and what’s really going on around us. It can also make us cold, cause the emptiness inside us to bloom.
“There are times when I wake up in another hotel room somewhere and I wonder what the hell I’m doing here,” I mutter. “I ask myself what the point is of all this running. After a while, all those miles and towns start to blur together, all the conversations with people in bars and at bus stops. I’m always searching for the next thing to grab my attention, because I can feel the endless void of death opening up underneath my feet and I want to fill up my head with constant novelty to drown out its smothering silence. I’m replacing my rituals with a lack of ritual. I’m trying to cram meaning down life’s gaping maw, is what I’m doing, but I’m old enough to know how hollow that is.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Where’s your mustard seed of faith, Tinkerbell? You’re sliding into nihilism.”
I wrinkle my nose. “When I got baptized during my raging fit of whatever, I was challenging myself to not be a nihilist; to believe that, no matter how fucking pointless life seems sometimes, there’s still beauty and meaning in it. I knew I’d get pushback from myself, and from others. I knew all my friends and family would think I’d gone goobers, because I don’t act like a Christian. I never have and never will. I feel stupid calling myself one. I’m too jaded and foul-mouthed. I’m too immersed in this life, too hedonistic. I love going to church and feeling that space open up around me, that peace, that feeling that I don’t have to run anywhere because I’m already here. But as soon as I walk out that door, my thoughts flow back into their natural channels, and by the time I’m home again, I’m confused and ashamed of myself, left with the unsettling feeling that I’m leading a double life.”
“You’re not,” he says. “You’re just confusing your self-image with how others see you.”
“But there’s truth in how other people see me,” I say. “I don’t seem like someone who has found religion, because I’m rarely at peace. I’m still floundering around in the dark for answers, and failing, again and again. Worse yet, I’m having a wicked sort of fun doing it. No matter how many times a day I pray for you to not lead me into temptation, you still do.”
He laughs. “Don’t look at me, Tinkerbell, I’m not the one leading you into temptation.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I know. But I think therein lies my point. It seems to me that, in the case of other Christians, you have them by the balls. They don’t feel the need to dance on the edge of the cliff. They walk straight down the narrow path you’ve laid out for them, and feel righteous. But I don’t live righteously. I’m not a goody-two-shoes. In fact, I’m usually barefoot.”
“So am I,” he says. I smirk and glance down at his long narrow feet, bare beneath the hems of his cream-colored slacks. He wiggles his toes, then sighs and reaches out to squeeze my shoulder. “Everyone fucks up, Tinkerbell. Everyone suffers doubt and temptation, and gives into it now and again, no matter how mind-numbingly Christian they are. Not all of them brag about it as much as you do, though.”
I poke at his armpit and he flinches away, giggling, because Invisible Friend Jesus is very ticklish. “Oh, shut up,” I say. “The difference between me and those people isn’t that I brag about my missteps and failures, it’s that I don’t feel like you’re judging me for it. I only feel like other people are judging me for it. I see you so much differently than other Christians do. They seem to hear you hollering a bunch of Thou Shalt Nots in their ear, whereas, for me, you’re just the guy that gently takes my hand every time I corner myself in some den of iniquity, helps me brush myself off, and then tells me some stupid joke about a horse and a weasel to make me laugh. I never feel your judgment, just your forgiveness. Although I do feel you kicking my shins and telling me to get the fuck out of this situation now sometimes.”
He grins. “I usually have to kick pretty hard before you listen.”
I clutch my elbows, frowning out the window. “Yeah, sometimes.”
“But you’re getting better, Tink. Keep working at it, you won’t have to fill that void with ridiculous antics or numbing routine any longer, and you can fill it with peace, instead.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Sometimes I wish I could be like other people, and find some sort of peace in just following the rules. They use the Bible as an instruction manual, when I see it as a weird collection of old oral histories and allegories and antiquated laws, haunting song lyrics, and the rantings of ancient schizophrenics. I don’t see the Bible as the word of God, but as a work of human beings inspired by religious fervor. I can’t see very many clear-cut rules in it, so I’m left to find my own path to God.”
“That’s what everyone does. Every Christian sees something different in the Bible and has their own set of beliefs. Ditto with the other religions.”
“Yeah, but I’m no sort of Christian at all. I don’t even know if I believe in heaven or hell. I just want peace in this life, and to live abundantly. The only reason I’m supposedly a Christian instead of some new-agey space-brained spiritualist is because I love your very human example of how to live and search for inner peace. Plus, you were a punk-rock revolutionary and did kickass magic.”
He laughs, then reaches into the sleeve of his jacket and pulls out a bouquet of daylilies, hands them to me with a flourish. I bring them to my nose, breathing their delicate scent. “Thanks,” I say.
He ruffles my hair. “Listen, Tink. Like I’ve told you before, no one has a monopoly on God. God is for everyone, even twisted weirdoes like you. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah,” I say. Then I purse my lips at him. “Hey, could you pull a wad of cash out of your sleeve, too? I’d like a really nice hotel tonight. That will help with my inner peace.”
He raises an eyebrow at me, then pulls a penny from his pocket and flicks it at my kneecaps. I jump away, giggling.
“Quit it!” I say.