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Third Place: "Jesus Stalks" 

Jesus won't stop calling me. I block his number on the caller ID, but he gets a new unlisted number and the calls pick up. He leaves long messages on the answering machine and when it cuts out he calls back and keeps talking. I don't even listen to the messages anymore. They all start the same: "Alia, it's me ... Jesus."

That's usually when I hang up, because I know from there it will be a long rant about how much he wants me back, how much he loves me, how he'll forgive me for everything. Like most ex-boyfriends, Jesus acts as though I'm the one who needs to be forgiven.

When I block his number for a second time he starts calling my roommate. I come home from work late one Friday night and she's sitting in the living room, her legs draped over the arms of the sofa, watching TV.

"Jesus called for you," she says.

"You know," she says swinging her feet down to the ground. "Jesus really loves you. You should return his phone calls."

"He's OK," I say, not making eye contact. "But things are kind of over between us."

"I'd sure be glad to meet a guy like Jesus," she says, looking off into space. "All the guys I meet lately are such jerks."

Here's the thing about Jesus. Everyone loves him. They think he is this great guy, that he's sweet and caring and all about helping other people out. And it's true. Kind of. The thing is, Jesus only does nice things so that people can tell him what a great guy he is. He tries to take credit for everything. A beautiful sunset, a particularly charming infant, a wonderfully delicious meal, there Jesus would be, trying to steal someone else's thunder. Many a night did I have to listen about how praise was heaped on everyone but Jesus. If someone thanked Billy for a especially thoughtful gift, if someone praised Ezra's good taste or made a comment about an attractive dress Katie was wearing, by midnight there would be Jesus pacing around my living room trying to figure out why no one had thanked him.

Eventually he'd wear himself out with anger. He'd take off his Birkenstocks and curl up in the fetal position on my living room floor. A typical Jesus temper tantrum. I'd leave him there like that and turn off all the lights and go to bed.

In the morning, he'd be fine again and he wouldn't bring it up. But eventually I learned that whoever had offered up the praise that particular evening now had a particularly nasty boil, or their car wouldn't start, or had run out of milk as soon as they'd poured themselves a nice big bowl of cereal.

I don't know what Jesus liked about me in the first place. I don't do anything for everyone. I find that kind of exercise to be tedious. But from the start, Jesus thought he could change me, make me someone different from who I actually was. When we met I had just come out of a string of bad relationships. Boyfriends with the typical and tedious problems — can't commit, cheats, mommy issues ... you know, the usual.

I met him in a bar of all places. There Jesus was in the parking lot offering everyone a ride home from the bar after last call. And even though I don't usually go in for guys who wear sandals, I was all about Jesus that night. Yes, I'd a few drinks, so I went up to him, slung my arms around his neck and murmured

"How you doing, handsome?"

This is how I know I was drunk. Sober, I would never call anyone "handsome."

Jesus pulled me off of him and gazed into my face.

"Do you need a ride?"

On the way home Jesus told me how cute I was, how I was worth dying for because I was absolutely adorable. I vaguely remember giving him my number. I only had a fuzzy image of the whole thing the next morning when Jesus called to see how I was feeling.

A week after he reaches my roommate, Jesus starts calling my work phone. He sings gospel songs into my work voice mail, even doing the hand claps. I distinctly remember telling Jesus how much I hated gospel music. How I thought it was a tool of the oppressed buying into what their oppressors offered them without questioning it.

I can't decide if Jesus is actually doing it to make me mad, to torture me in all the small ways he knows I am easily tortured or if this is really an earnest attempt to win me back.

We had been dating about six months the first time I took him home to meet my parents. I had been standoffish about making a real commitment to Jesus. I mean, who makes a commitment to a guy they meet when they're drunk and in a bar? Also there was this ex of mine who I sometimes still talked to, though we mostly ended up talking about Jesus and all the problems we were having. But I thought that maybe if I took Jesus to meet my family he would see how serious I was. Jesus' big thing is family. He is almost obsessive about it.

I could tell right away my dad didn't like Jesus. Behind his back over the next few days my dad refereed to him as "that long-haired freak" or he'd ask him "What do you think you're trying to prove?" Jesus would smile gently, rest his hand on my father's arm and tell him that everything was all right, and my dad would calm down. That's when I really fell for Jesus. It just seemed like he had a way of making things work out.

After two days of Jesus flooding my work voice mailbox with "Take Me As I Am" and "Wade in the Water" he sends me a bouquet of flowers. I have to go up to the reception desk to collect the flowers. The note is slightly threatening. It says, "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away"

Well that's just creepy! And what does it mean? That if I don't get back together with him he's going to end it for us all? I crumple the card up and throw it in the trash.

"Are they from Jesus?" Melina the receptionist asks.

I tell Melina that if Jesus phones again she absolutely should not put the calls through, that under no circumstances do I want to talk to him.

"But he's such a nice guy," Melina says. "Did you two really break up?"

It is easy for Melina to say that. Everyone knows that Melina's boyfriend used to beat her up. That all stopped when Jesus saw Melina with a black eye when he came by to pick me up from work. Like most of Jesus' "talking to's" Melina's boyfriend ended up in the hospital, and that gave her a chance to leave. But Melina doesn't know Jesus was responsible and I have a feeling if I tell her now it will only make her love him all the more. And if there's one thing I can't stand is hearing people go on and on about how much Jesus has done for them. This is the same Jesus who can't be bothered to change the toilet paper in the bathroom when he's done, just leaves a new roll on the back of the toilet like spring-hinged toilet paper holders are too complex to figure out, but who am I to burst anyone's bubble, to remind them, that Jesus is actually just a man. An immature one at that if you ask me, but no one ever does.

"It's complicated between me and Jesus." I tell Melina.

"But he was so much fun at the Christmas party last year. The whole water into wine thing went over like gangbusters with corporate, I suspect it was the reason you got promoted."

"I got promoted on my own merits" I say. "Jesus had nothing to with it."

"I don't know," she says shrugging her shoulders. "I know I'd like to meet a nice guy like Jesus."

This is the problem. My mother, my friends, everyone thinks Jesus is the best thing to ever happen to me. Even Jesus thinks that. Here is how we broke up. We'd been together nine months and one night we were having dinner. I wanted to go to a chain restaurant. One where they had deep fried pork chops with a blue cheese dressing. But Jesus couldn't bear it. "Pork," he said shaking his head. "I don't think so."

So we walked up and down the length of the inner harbor twice, with Jesus calling everyone tourists, until he finally picked a small place down a side street.

"This place?" I said, wrinkling my nose. "This doesn't look very good."

"Well at least here I can promise you no one will be spitting in your food."

Jesus was always insisting that someone somewhere was spitting in food.

"What makes this place so different?"

"They had a health inspection last week."

We sat at a little table in the back, and when I try to remember the evening now, I supposed that we talked about the things that we always talked about: the economy, Darfur, "American Idol." Jesus could not get enough of "American Idol." I thought it was just OK, but told him that it was kind of cheesy. This usually resulted in Jesus calling me "caustic" or accusing me of not being open to new things. So in all respects it was a pretty typical evening.

Jesus had just finished a plate of lobster risotto and he leaned back in his chair murmuring, "Damn I'm good."

And for some reason this really irritated me that night. Maybe because it was because I was really looking forward to the pork chops, or maybe it was because Jesus NEVER let me pick the restaurant, but I'd had enough.

"You're not responsible for everything," I said, putting down my fork, so angry I was unable to finish.

And Jesus smiled at me in that benevolent way of his and said, "Baby, you know I am."

"But what about free will?" I asked.

Jesus gave the condescending little laugh he reserved for when he was trying to explain something your little human brain would never understand.

"There's no such thing, but it's a nice idea, isn't it?"

It might have been the wine. It might have been because I was still a little hungry, but I was done with Jesus.

"I've had it. We have to break up."

Jesus laughed. "You don't mean that. We're meant to be."

"Really?"

The whole way back to my house I didn't talk. When he pulled up in my driveway Jesus took my hand in his. "Can I come in, just to talk?"

I shook him free. "I don't think so. I meant what I said."

I slammed the door when I got out of the car and Jesus rolled down the window.

"You'll be back, baby. This isn't over."

I would have screamed back, but I didn't want my neighbors to hear. I knew how they were about Jesus and I had no intention of having them spread gossip that I'd been screaming at Jesus in my front yard at 10 o'clock at night.

The night of my birthday Jesus drives past my house twice. I think about calling the cops but just decide to just go out. I don't want Jesus to see that's he's rattled me. I meet my friend P.J. at a bar called Waterbabies with an indoor waterfall and a tropical theme. We get drinks in cups shaped like tiki gods that taste like strawberry cough syrup and station ourselves next to a jukebox stocked exclusively with old surf records with lots of wah wah guitar. There is a nice-looking boy by the waterfall, tall and cute with the kind of hair that looks like it's been sculpted instead of combed. I check ... no sandals. I make flirty eyes with him for a few minutes before he comes over.

"It's my birthday" I bleat much too loudly and I realize I've had four of the cough syrupy tiki drinks.

"Can I get you another drink?"

"I think I'm drunk," I say.

"I think you're fine," P.J. says. But I can tell from the hooded look of her eyes and the way she's been singing Dusty Springfield songs that she is for all intents and purposes useless.

"My name is Buster," the cute boy says.

"What kind of name is that?"

"Don't listen to her," P.J. yells over the jukebox. "Her last boyfriend was Jesus."

Buster's face falls and he smiles weakly and squeezes my hand. "Happy Birthday. Have a nice night, ladies."

He returns to his friends on the other side of the waterfall and there is intense whispering and lots of glances in my direction.

"Why did you tell him that?" I hiss at PJ.

She shrugs and orders another round of the tiki drinks. She puts more money in the jukebox and we sing along with the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School," but we both seem to be forgetting all the lyrics halfway through and all of a sudden it's last call.

Then what do I see in the parking lot? Jesus and his van. Shocker.

"Come on Alia, get in I'll give you a ride home."

But even drunk I know this is part of Jesus' game. Wait until I'm weak and then swoop in.

"It's OK. I'm fine. I have a ride."

"We're fine," P.J. echoes, protectively taking my elbow and narrowing her eyes at Jesus.

I spot Buster buying tacos from a food truck that's pulled into the parking lot of Waterbabies.

"Buster," I yell. "Buuuuusssster."

He turns toward me and sees Jesus standing behind me. He puts his hands up like he's being arrested.

"It's cool, dude. It's cool. I was just wishing her happy birthday."

Jesus nods at him and tries to take me by the arm and guide me toward the van.

"Stop," he says through clenched teeth. "You're making a scene."

"I'm fine," I say. "I just need a cab."

Jesus holds up his hands. "It doesn't have to be like this," he says.

One time Jesus and I went to a bonfire. We sat around singing songs, mostly ones slightly tinged with religion. When someone launches into "Losing My Religion," everyone looks at Jesus and he laughs in a kind of awkward way until someone points the guy with the guitar in the ribs and elbow points at Jesus.

"Oh, sorry," the guy with the guitar says. "I didn't know"

There is an awkward moment of silence until Jesus tells a joke about his father, Mohammed and Buddha in a raft and this breaks the tension and everyone laughs. These were the moments I loved with Jesus, the way he made everyone feel at ease. The way he made me feel calm, relaxed and happy. But those times never lasted.

"Look," Jesus says when he phones the next morning. "I wish you wouldn't go out and get plastered like that."

I get defensive. "It was my birthday, and what do you care, anyway?"

"Look, Alia," Jesus says gently. "I have friends everywhere. And you make me look bad when you do things like that. Everyone knows we're going through a rough spell right now. Don't make it worse than it is."

"It's not a rough spell, Jesus," I say. "We're done. I've moved on and I think you should, too."

"I don't want to move on. I'm really into you, and what's everyone going to say if we split up? That Jesus can't go the distance, that he's not really committed?"

"That's your problem," I say, wiping eye makeup off as I hang the phone up.

It's been months. At least three since I've seen Jesus. Friends tell me they've seen him around town. There is of course a new girl. I've moved away from my roommate who was constantly pestering me about Jesus. I have a sinking suspicion that she's the new girlfriend.

In my new Jesus-free life, everything will be perfect, from the bath mat to the three candles that adorn my new nightstand. I reveled in the newness of my recently acquired possessions, stroking their veneers and their shiny surfaces. I enjoy the symmetry of the colorfully painted reds, blue, red, purple.

Sometimes in the morning when it's misty, I go out into the yard with the dogs and sit on the front steps. I light a cigarette and feel the smoke fill my lungs in a way that is stinging and pleasing all at once. I hear my cell phone ringing in the house. It will be him. He will be apologetic, wanting to smell me, a combination of cotton candy and Listerine, but I'm not ready to talk to him ... yet.

click to enlarge TARA-LYNNE PIXLEY

Dionne Irving's work had appeared in the Missouri Review, the Crab Orchard Review and Carve Magazine. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at Georgia State University.






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