Jesus, PI, and the Case of the Liberating Curse
It was the night I was Jesus. Out by the million-dollar fountain, sitting on its brick edge with my barefoot, muddled friend, I would’ve walked across that spume had I believed. But I didn’t. Not really. Even though I had set off into the wilderness of Central America earlier in the year and grown my hair into dreadlocks and stopped shaving, I had no illusions about my broken humanity. Jesus I was not.
But I played along. I played along because I wanted to get my friend into a car before she disappeared again, tramping off into the empty, oaky campus of our college after ghosts. I, at least for the moment, had her sitting still: we perched by the water in the dark as she spoke in riddles and looked past me.
“Where have you been, Jesus?”
“I’m here,” I said.
We landed on the fountain in detective-novel fashion. She vanished; I investigated, found some clues, saw her fleeing the library, and cornered her in front of the building housing the Religious Studies and Philosophy departments. We were working towards the big finish, the climax—our banter sly and ambiguous until I, Jesus, could crack the code and put her into the backseat of a car like a disgraced celebrity.
Bryn, this friend who’s convinced I’m Jesus, has never been thoroughly normal. She’s slightly socially awkward with an odd sense of humor. I could say that she’s an artist, but that would paint a persona that isn’t true to Bryn’s form. She is. An artist, I mean—she studies art at this small liberal arts college—but she dresses in nondescript jeans and polo shirts and tennis shoes. She’s straitlaced. Doesn’t date or kiss lots of boys, but she’s seen A Knight’s Tale more than 20 times and has a Heath Ledger poster in her room. She’s also a devout evangelical Christian. Has been since she was a child. She’s fervent, sings worship songs with hands high, prays with an intense earnestness. She doesn’t cuss or party or drink or watch R-rated movies. But tonight, something has snapped.
Her natural peculiarity hid this snapping from most of us. She’d come by our house full of guys because we were, for some reason, making chili. We never cooked. But someone decided we should make a lot of chili, and then invite people to eat it, so we bought big metal pots and chopped the ripest, most pungent onions my eyes have ever wept through, and sure enough thirty people filled our decrepit house, with the vomit-colored carpet and mold-infested bathrooms, to eat our first attempt at chili.
Bryn came in speaking of Adam, her boyfriend. She’d lost him, she said. Looked everywhere. There wasn’t desperation in her face exactly. She was heartfelt, but hiding around her eyes were wrinkles of something. A smile? Wryness? None of us knew an Adam, and Bryn had no boyfriend, so everyone spent the night laughing, patting Bryn’s shoulder, playing along.
After my second bowl of chili, I spotted Bryn’s shoes by the TV. They were empty, and I happened to ask if anyone had seen her. I don’t know why I did. I was worried by her Adam-search throughout the evening. I knew her odd humor. In fact, I shared it.
She and I created a skit for high school students called Retainer Man. As a well-intentioned dental-hygiene-preoccupied superhero, I wore a cape and my metal retainers to protect Bryn’s character—an awkward, oft-picked-on, retainer-wearing high school student—from the abuses of an evil leather-jacket-wielding jock. It was Young Life—odd skits to talk to students about God. It all seemed normal to me then.
People who knew me would freely drop the word “weird” into any description of me and my sense of humor. But something was off about a missing invisible boyfriend. Especially when mixed with Bryn’s Heath Ledger posters and chaste life. She wanted an Adam. Desperately. And making one up didn’t really seem funny. Plus there was her relentlessness. She never dropped character. She spoke of Adam all evening, without any hint of self-awareness, any hint of reality.
I asked around as people milled about, filling bowls and cups with our endless chili, and I found one of her roommates. The roommate too was worried about Bryn. Said Bryn’d been acting strange all afternoon. We checked the crowded driveway. Nothing but cars and the graves of the cemetery next door. Her car was blocked in by headstones and vehicles and train tracks; she couldn’t have driven away.
Inside, we asked around about last sightings of Bryn. We constructed a time line, realized she’d been gone for about thirty minutes. Someone had seen her walk out the back door, barefoot. Maybe she’d been walking by the road when Dan drove in. Could’ve been her, hard to say. The roommate and I split up.
And then the chase.
The roommate found Bryn first, wandering through the Saturday-night-vacant library. They chatted briefly, but Bryn needed to find Adam, she said. She pushed past—on a mission—and burst through the double doors. As she left the library, I pulled in to the parking lot.
For a while, I simply followed her along the lamp-lit empty sidewalks of our campus. I kept my distance, like I was tracking an animal, afraid to spook her. Afraid she’d run, her pants rolled up mid-calf and her feet now coal-black. I tried to lighten my steps, to keep my shadow far from view. I didn’t know how much to be worried. I didn’t know how much she was pretending. I didn’t know what I’d do once I caught up. I simply followed.
Then, as we neared the fountain, I called out: “Bryn, where you going?”
She half-turned, “Jesus,” she said, smiling on the verge of a laugh. She must’ve known I was behind her all along. “There you are, Jesus. I knew you’d come.”
I slowed, tried not to seem unsure: “Let’s sit down.”
“Jesus,” she patted my shoulder like long-lost friend as we sat on the fountain’s edge.
I couldn’t decide if she was mocking me for trying to help, for chasing her down. I didn’t know if Jesus was code for self-righteous. But I sat, and decided that Bryn was somewhere else. Somewhere I couldn’t see. Or be. Rather than try to convince her that she was wrong—not in reality—I figured it might be better to simply work my way in. To follow her lead.
“Jesus,” she said, “Adam’s coming. I can’t find him, but when the trumpets blow…”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s coming. But it’s hard. Do you ever think the sky opens with clouds?”
“I guess the sky could open.”
“It all falls.”
I didn’t know if I was making any ground. At least she was sitting. At least we were talking. Over the rush of the fountain, I hoped our conversation would result in her shaking it off, breaking character, the foggy world coming into clear view, her saying something like, “Just kidding, Jeremy.” But she looked hard at me, waiting for me to respond.
“I mean, fuck.” As soon as the words sprang from her mouth she smiled, startled, like they weren’t hers.
I tried not to look surprised, but she started laughing. She seemed weightlessly happy, tilting her head back towards the water like she might fall entirely in.
“Fuck,” she laughed. “Fuck, Jesus. Adam hides in the sky. Fuck.”
I’d never heard Bryn cuss. She blushed or turned away at someone saying ass or damn. We were in a Christian circle of friends in a small school in the South—cussing was a rare public occurrence. Fuck was a word from movies or another world or the silent stretches of her brain. Nothing to shout in the open night at the center of campus.
She smiled in a way I hadn’t seen before. She whispered fuck a few more times before yelling it once, the final ka echoing off the brick buildings. She kept laughing like the words were relief, release.
All I could think of was Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. How Jesus’ words must’ve sounded like riddles to the women. She only wanted water but he spoke of water that quenches thirst for good, water that is alive. After the veiled conversation, it finally dawned on the woman that Jesus was Jesus. She spread the word.
Bryn and I made some alternate-reality, twilight-zone version of this story—her with the riddles, me a fake Jesus, the well not deep but inverted: a fountain gushing water ten feet higher than either of us. I hoped she might tell me something, give me a clue, connect the literal to the figurative.
I steered the conversation toward some ambiguous discussion about God. I hoped we were talking in metaphors; I treated it like the theology classes I was taking in the building behind us. I asked open-ended questions, and answered her questions with other questions. Sure, angels might dance from high to low, but are angels here now?
I remembered traveling to Pennsylvania with my church on a mission trip when I was in middle school. We put a roof on a church, and during lunch breaks, as we sat in the shade making sandwiches, a lanky, odd member of the church would join us. We’d been told that he had dropped too much acid earlier in his life, and now spoke only in allusions. He read the Bible constantly, and his speech was laced with biblical references and metaphors. Cleansing the soul could be a statement about his laundry. Obscure bits of the Old Testament made up his small talk about weather and games and food. He fascinated and frightened me all at once, and I felt it again, as I leaned away from the roaring fountain to hear Bryn better, wondering if, in some way, we were finding some plane on which to communicate, a language to speak.
But even with my work to try to connect images like breaking clouds and orange balloons and bright trees and dancing angels to ideas, I found no clear meaning or message to anything we were saying. Half the time, I didn’t even know what I was saying. I felt myself sinking deeper into a language I didn’t speak. We were getting nowhere. And I was getting lost.
“Let’s walk back to my car; we can look for Adam better that way,” I insisted.
She smiled at me like she knew I was a fake. Like she knew something I didn’t.
“C’mon.” I stood and gestured back towards the library.
“He’s this way,” she said, pointing the other direction. “I’ll meet you later, Jesus.”
With that, she stood and walked deeper into the dark behind the building. I didn’t follow her fading outline. Instead I stood still, finding my head now blurry, not knowing what had happened. In Bryn’s eyes I hadn’t seen Bryn. In mine she hadn’t seen me either. I began wondering who had a hold on or a right to reality. I pushed words like possessed and spirit back from whence they came—into the corners of my brain.
Instead, I kept thinking of fuck. Of the weight that visibly lifted from her body at the exhale of the four-letter word. I imagined the letters bottled up within her insides, being pushed down, rattled around by twenty years of Sundays and weekly small groups and contemporary worship music. She’d built a life from the frame given to her by a life in church. But she’d hammered herself in tightly, not asking many questions, only smiling and singing for all seasons of the soul.
This Bryn by the fountain had broken the structure around her, splintering wood with cuss words and nonsensical questions. I didn’t know if I should be happy or worried. I figured both and headed to my car, where I called Bryn’s roommate. She said she’d drive to the backside of campus to pick Bryn up. She finally found Bryn there, tiptoeing the train tracks sometime after midnight.
Later, an ambulance took her somewhat forcefully from the house, and after a couple days, I heard from the roommate that the doctors had diagnosed Bryn as bipolar. They were observing her, arranging and balancing medications; no one could visit.
I didn’t really know what bipolar meant. I imagined Bryn split in two. I set the Bryn I’d known alongside the Bryn at the fountain—the do-no-wrong beside the salty-tongue. I knew this was silly, too simple, but I didn’t know how else to piece it together. How to make sense of two Bryns.
Later in the week, I found a crayon drawing waiting on my desk. On the page stretched a figure who seemed to be me, or at least a cartoony version of me, sitting on a ledge playing a guitar. At the top I found, in purple cursive, To: Jesus, From: Bryn.
A sticky note beside the drawing in the roommate’s handwriting read, Bryn sent this from the hospital. I guess you know what it means?
I did. It meant a joke. It meant the old Bryn.
I didn’t see her until months later, when she returned to school after a semester off. I found her in an art workroom one afternoon, where she’d been firing pottery alone. As soon as I caught her eyes, I saw them cleared. This wasn’t Bryn split in two as I had imagined she’d be, but she was something in between. A new creation from old material. She led me through the room to show me her recent paintings. I tried not to stare at her, looking for noticeable, external differences. Instead I followed from piece to piece, and immediately I saw them also changed. The art was less grounded—more abstract, more inquisitive, more free.
I bought a small square painting from her. I carried it back to my house, past the fountain and across the railroad tracks, and hung it beside the cartoon caricature of me above my desk. The new piece looked like water moving of its own will, dashing in all directions, splashing without cause. It looked like living water.
Jeremy B. Jones' work appears or is noted in Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, Ruminate, and the Best American Essays of 2009 and 2011, among others. He teaches writing at Charleston Southern University, and excerpts of his work can be found at TheJeremyBJones.com.