Preston Yancey (the man, the myth, the legend) created a guest series at his blog entitled Conversations with Ourselves. In this series, contributors addresses the Past Self through the Present or vice versa (or sometimes not this at all, but instead something equally cool) concerning matters of Faith, specifically. Today, I share part one of my conversation. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow at Preston’s place for part two.
The baristas pull espresso drinks and the steaming of the milk is better than white noise. This is the local dive, the place where students come to study for finals, and tonight it’s full of grad students. There is tension hanging and not much laughter. A singular working stiff patrons Arsaga’s tonight. I’m trying my best to ignore him.
He is not extending the same courtesy.
“At some point you’re gonna have to exhale because holding that much rancid air is going to kill you.” He says this without prompting, with an intimidating certainty. As if the alternatives are life and death–the garden on one hand and Gehenna on the other. He is sitting in a deep four-legged plastic chair and his feet are propped arrogantly on another. I try to ignore him but he keeps staring. A fixed flint gaze. Unrelenting.
I am across a narrow aisle, and it immediately strikes a nerve because I’m thinking about the black-hearted hate that’s always right below the surface of my conversations. My blood pressure is rising. I look at him and I’m immediately working him over. I don’t like him. Black pants. Blue button-down. I’m pretty sure his shoes are lambskin. He has a part on the right side of his black hair. I could take him.
“Let it go, son.”
Now I’m white hot because I don’t need patronizing tones. I’ve had enough of those.
“Can I help you?” I say and when the words spill out they whither more weakly than I had hoped. “Yes, you can let it go because you’re setting us both up for some misery and I’d rather not go through all that again,” he says. He pushes the chair toward me with his feet and sits straight. Motions for me to take it and I do not refuse.
We are in a corner and my back is to the door. His to the wall. We’re sizing each other up now. Somehow I know he has my number. He pulls a pocket knife from his pants, a little one with a Swiss Cross. It’s the kind that Tenenbaum’s driver used to shiv him in the gut. Red. He knows that I know, and his mouth curls into a crooked smile. It is somehow disarming. He looks down and begins to clean his fingernails with the file.
I look more closely and I know this face. It’s an old mirror. He has grey around the temples and a long scar on the right side of his face. The fingernails on his right hands are longer, the left shorter. He has a pointy nose, one with a broken bridge. Chip Russell left that mark during basketball practice his sophomore year. I look around the coffee shop, wonder if I’m crazy. Then he says it. “Yeah, Seth. You are me.”
“I’ve lost my mind,” I say out loud and the barista who’s sneaked up behind me interrupts. “Huh?” she says and it startles me. I turn to tell her I don’t need a refill but the words shatter abruptly. Like shards of glass. “Suit yourself,” she says and turns a cold shoulder. I watch her hips swish in the short skirt as she saunters back to the counter. “Stop it,” the older me says with a wry grin. It’s confirmation. He really is me.
“Listen closely because I’m hoping this will save us both a great deal of pain,” he says. “You need to stop this business with hating the church, criticizing her every move. In the same way that I am you, you are her.”
Now I know that I’m crazy because he is speaking to me in pronouns and metaphors of self-consciousness, and I’m struggling to make sense of it all. He has his left ring finger hooked in an old ash tray and he’s pulling it back and forth in a three scoot cadence. “You are her. You are her. You are her.”
I curse him over my breath. I don’t want to be well. I want to stay sick, to be uncured and to revel in it. I eschew his cadence. “No.” I say it too loudly and the table next to me looks at me quizzically. I lower my voice and look him dead in the eye. “I am not her. The church is prideful. She is rich. She is misguided and without unity. She is divided. She is charismatic and fundamentalist and reformed and not. She is illogical, schizophrenic.” I take a deep breath and grit teeth. “I am not her.”
“Yeah, you are none of those things,” he says with exaggerated sarcasm. “But, who’s talking to himself?”
The barista taps me on the shoulder. “You okay?” she asks. I look at her, then at the band on my left ring finger, then at the empty chair where the older me was just sitting. He is gone. “No,” I tell her. “I am not.”
The door to Arsagas is thick with condensation. The air outside is cold. I am hoping for a jolt so I exit without my jacket. There are three bearded hippies sitting in other plastic chairs on the front patio. One asks me if I’d like a smoke and I tell him no thanks. He says I look like I could use it but I refuse and walk to my car for a stick of gum. I am content to remain sick, to follow more hate. Loving myself would require a different kind of grace I think, the grace of fathers and heroes.
I’m not ready for that.
I hope you’ll visit Preston’s tomorrow for part two. And in the meantime, check out the entire Conversations series. I think you’ll be glad you did.