Her Last Boyfriend
by ALISON MARSTON-JONES
No one may arbitrarily and with impunity exempt himself from tackling the problems which have come down to him from his fathers. – Ernst Käsemann
At nine o’clock each day he arrives, placing his case on the counter and launching into the spiel. It gets better each time. Yes, he wants to sell something, but the reason that it works is that I want to buy something, too.
As a fundamental proof, this satisfies on every single level. Part of his pitch to the customer is the same thing my roommate Magdalena always says. She curls up into a little ball on her bed, and she brings her knees up to the cleft in her chin. Her skin glistens on and off, long black hair looking healthily and sickly in the same blink. She says, “The first thing you need to understand above all others is that Jesus was only a man when it started.”
I am open to these kinds of ideas now. Before, I wasn’t so sure. The fact that I did not actually know what being an agnostic entailed only further emphasized how much I once belonged in the company of unbelievers.
His case is half broken. What do I mean by that? Do you… Have you ever, for example, hurt your leg, but you are still able to walk? The case still carries the merchandise, doing what it was put here to do. This is a teaching of our savior, that we are still ourselves when we are not all there. There are others more complete to shoulder the load.
Magdalena loves to dance on top of her bed. She still does it even though she sprained her ankle mock-waltzing to a song by Collective Soul. She shouts out the names of her favorite Christian bands. She grew up with this kind of stuff. “I used to pray for help,” she often says. “Then I realized I was the help.”
“People born into it just don’t know any better,” he explains to his customers, the same way he rehearses it to me. “Yes, Jesus was a man but that is not really saying anything. They – Jesus and his followers – did not expect there to be a world after their own existence. Once Jesus returned to earth, there would be a tribulation.”
I ask the same question at this point. I wonder aloud what that “tribulation” is going to entrail. He takes me in his arms and does the most powerful thing any orator can begin to imagine, and that is to not speak. He brings me close to the scent of ammonia and sunflowers, pressing his small, hard penis against the soft skin besides my navel. Even before I am touching him he is making sounds of pleasure, and some small amount of fluid trickles down my stomach. The murmurs increase in frequency. Once I asked him what they were. He laughed and said, “I refer to them as bird calls.”
There is something to the statement, “I am a good listener” but at this point it has been asserted by every single living person. Magdalena’s mother had what’s called the listener crucifix into her home. It is so termed because the listener Jesus seems be to intently absorbed into the diegesis. He is not very worried about the pain despite the ugly-looking crown of thorns on his head. He wants to know what you think.
Before the salesman came into my life, I had other models for male behavior. My father was a sort of asexual meteorologist. I knew some boys in secondary school, but not well.
Magdalena dated a man who had been with many other women but none, I sensed, that he liked all that much. His name was Matthew and she took him to the end of Ellis Island, where her Polish ancestors had entered the country, and basically, the world. They found names in a long book.
I don’t have to tell you which book that is, do I? (Her boyfriend after Matthew was named Gerald.) Matthew was much kinder – he even did her laundry – but he clicked his tongue a lot, and I do not think he ever thought of God.
Gerald was slim and tall, the complete opposite of Matthew’s condensed, muscular form. His hair fell over his face and was tied behind his head. He wore sunglasses even when clouds covered all. Magdalena told me that Gerald had a friend who was interested in meeting me. I declined enough times that Magdalena had to sit me down and say, “If you really did not care that much, you would have agreed to it by now.”
That kind of logic is easy. There are many types of arguments for Jesus that never made any sense to me. It’s funny to think you only did something because you found the right reason to do so – not because you thought it was the right thing to do.
Gerald and I would sometimes go out when Magdalena was not feeling well. She suffered from certain physical maladies that originated during her mother’s long and difficult pregnancy. She made a point of not disclosing the severity of her pain to boyfriends or casual acquaintances. It was clear to me, so clear, how regularly she was highly medicated. She made me promise not to tell Gerald, or anyone, about this debilitating pain.
When Gerald took me out, he talked openly of his unbelief. Yet he said again and again how open he was to the concepts, and as I explained them, I felt him making a sincere effort to understand what I was telling him, and why. I asked, “Did you ever feel a purpose in anything? Describe how you felt.” He told me of a time when he was a boy, and I interrupted him. “Not some patriarchal bullshit. Life doesn’t begin at conception. A baby can’t think, or reason. Neither can a teenager. Tell me about something that happened to you after you lost the sense that everything that happened to you was worth recollecting.” He sat quietly after that.
The concept of a tribulation was then unknown to him. What would happen during this period? I said, “The earth would be the heavens. The heavens would be the earth.”
The first time we had sex he made me promise never to tell Magdalena about us. He made me swear to this before we even touched, knowing that we would and it was what I wanted. I said that it did not seem fair to suggest I make a pledge, without him also having to commit to something. He said, what he could offer that would be commensurate with what I asked?
Much of this discussion only took place in body language. I can relate the basic substance of what I believe was the communication between Gerald and I, but as to how our union seemed to him, I can never be fully sure. He loved Kierkegaard; he was constantly talking about how either we would all be saved or none of us would. I told him, “If you promise never to mention Kierkegaard again, I won’t say a word to her.”
The love we made was sweet and kind except on Sundays. On Sundays he was with Magdalena. She took him to a church in Union Square where on Christmas, they wore bells.
I make a salmon dinner for myself alone maybe once or twice a year, because we eat it together every evening that he does come home. I moved further uptown, into Inwood, where I would not run into Magdalena, and he takes the long train up. Gerald has been selling the little bibles all day long, and his face is covered with the nascent dirt. It is in no way as lucrative as his last job – he managed derivatives at some impressively large financial brokerage – but he says it is more satisfying by far.
I wonder sometimes if Magdalena does know. He will not leave her entirely, even though I know he feels considerable relief when he is not in her presence. I told him of her pain, though, and we both agreed it is better to keep this up for as long as she is alive. After she dies, who knows what will happen.
Alison Marston-Jones is the pseudonym of a writer living in New York. This is not her first appearance in these pages.
Photographs by William Christenberry.