MY ALMOST CERTAINLY REAL IMAGINARY JESUS: Kelly Barth
With the hope of eternal life, fundamentalists aren't supposed to suffer from depression. Mine sort of snuck up on me. When former Bible Church friends Dolores and Joe Hyde offered me a job as a technical writer in his sanitary sewer rehabilitation firm, I thought, that's what I need, a change of location.
After weeks of looking for a place to live in Lawrence, Kansas, I finally found the perfect hovel for my growing spiritual disarray. If a cave had been good enough for John the Baptist, this tiny apartment should be good enough for me. Again, I fell victim to the small, the affordable, the unimaginative, the familiar. The apartment had one small window, a sliding glass door looking out onto a balcony with a dead pigeon being eviscerated by maggots, and a thin metal railing about to rust through. Someone had gone to the trouble to change the wooden lettering on the old brick sign in the complex lawn from University Terrace to University Terror. "That happens a lot," the very pregnant manager's wife said. She squinted at me as she handed me the key, as though unaccustomed to light.
Though the refrigerator freezer and oven didn't work, at least I had intact plumbing and an HVAC system, even though it spewed fine grit from the main duct each time it kicked on. A previous tenant had left thick bamboo shades that I couldn't figure how to open. The blinds always came shattering back down, heavy, brown, and foreign. Inside my apartment, it was always midnight. Depression muted the anger needed to tear them from the window or to pry down the five randomly arranged painted mirror tiles someone had glued to the wall beside the front door. Every day as I left for work, I could see only bits and pieces of myself coming down the hallway in the various mirrors. "You are not yet whole, but broken," Colleen weekly reminded me. Only the Lord could put me together again, she said. Imaginary Jesus must not have been the Lord. He didn't seem to like Colleen and remained thin- lipped about Living Waters. But he remained respectfully silent for a time. I took my crushing unhappiness as a sign that I needed to work harder at becoming heterosexual. I didn't want to feel good until I should. Living Waters thrived on unhappy gay people.
The lion's share of each small group session we devoted to confession. In my group, a librarian with a little gold cross pinned to her turtleneck owned up to joining a weekly knitting class to be close to a coworker. "I'm no good at knitting," she said. "It took me weeks to learn to even cast on, but I get to sit right next to her. Isn't that sick?" We'd been told not to offer pat consolations like "that's okay," which I wanted to say to this woman. How many times had I done something like it. But, then again, perhaps that was why I was in the shape I was; I thought bad little things were harmless. Colleen said that if the person's conscience had been bothered her enough to confess a behavior then it wasn't okay. Unable to come up with anything more tangible, I confessed an over-attachment to thirtysomething reruns. "I know I need to make more friends," I said. "But right now, this is easier." At the Kool-Aid and cookie table after one meeting, a not-unattractive woman tried to strike up a conversation. I couldn't participate. I had practiced asexuality for so long, it took me a while to recognize its opposite. For people like this woman who had already admitted that the ex-gay thing wasn't working, Living Waters was a meat market.
One week Colleen assigned the lesbian half of the room the task of building friendships with straight women so that we could fill up on our same-sex deficit in a healthy way. I couldn't have looked for meaningful heterosexual female companionship at Hyde & Associates, even if I wanted to. I spent most of my waking hours there, but I worked with eleven men. The nubile secretary had gotten herself fired for being too assertive within a week of my starting. Instead of hiring another woman as I hoped he would, Joe trained me to do both my own job and hers. When Joe wasn't looking, my coworkers played together, throwing their keys over exposed ceiling beams and holding the methane gas-detecting wand near each other's buttholes. At lunch, they brought back boxes of fried chicken gizzards from the gas station up the street and played Hearts with a greasy deck. I ate a sandwich and carrot sticks at my desk while I watched the phone.
When I wasn't answering the phone or processing job receipts or producing invoices, all the things the secretary used to do back then, I immersed myself in sanitary sewers. I edited Joe's technical papers about the nation's decaying sanitary sewer infrastructure. I wrote the computer manual for Pipedream, the aptly named buggy computer modeling software Hyde & Associates offered along with their services to a county or municipality. Also, I organized the company's slide library of sanitary sewer degradation, including many dramatic shots of "pissers," or streams of sewer water shooting from a surcharging manhole. And, when I had absolutely nothing else to do, I went to the company conference room, closed the blinds, turned off all the lights, and watched videos taken by cameras fastened aboard tiny tractors that crawled through sewer pipes. While I watched, I made notations of the following problems: root intrusion, grease accumulation (near fast food establishments), cracks, crumbling, or dents. I also indicated in which quadrant of the pipe I had noted the defect and where on the videotape that defect could be viewed. Moving briefly across the screen and then off again would be stubborn clots of toilet paper, hung-up tampons, and albino cockroaches. Most problem pipes looked beyond repair.
That's the thing about sanitary sewers; you can't just dig a little hole, do a little patching, and call it good. Great gaping trenches have to be dug, pipes removed and replaced, and the soil replaced and reseeded before anyone will be able to stop thinking about sanitary sewers in a neighborhood again. No one thinks about sewers until they stop working.
Watching sewer footage usually reminded me I hadn't done my Living Waters homework. It had become so pointless and degrading that I put it off until the last possible minute. At my performance review, my boss suggested I find a local church fellowship to improve my attitude. My exposed unhappiness was an eyesore.
One Tuesday at Living Waters, we pushed all the chairs out of the way so people could safely collapse as they gave up their same- sex lovers during healing prayer time. After she found out why I was sitting bolt upright, Colleen said the fact that I was the only person in the room with no one to give up was something to be proud of rather than ashamed of. "Remember," she said, "acting on homosexual feelings is far worse than simply having them."
In our large group session after healing time, she issued a warning about a new book. "I need to tell you about a book based on the false claim that some animals are homosexuals," she said.
"God does not make homosexuals. Just look in your backyard. There are boy robins and girl robins, boy rabbits and girl rabbits. Clearly, this is junk science. This man obviously jumped to conclusions about behavior he didn't understand." As an antidote to this book, Colleen gave us handouts of a newspaper article that said research proved homosexuals could become the heterosexuals they were intended to be if they were "highly motivated to do so." It took several months for my name to come to the top of the long list of people waiting to check out a copy of this forbidden book at the Lawrence Public Library. As much as I tried not to, I found it compelling, especially the passage about female grizzly bears that formed pair bonds for cooperative child rearing.