Absinthe first met him at the Palm Sunday Dinner.
While the other teenagers sat with each other in the basement parish hall of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, liberated from their families, Absinthe was stuck at a table with her hopeless mother and a bunch of other adults. She morosely dissected a lump of casserole. While fixing her plate, she’d been drawn to the staunch white Corningware, which squatted at the end of the buffet as if discouraging the other dishes from making a break for it. The ingredients of the casserole had begun to separate and probably should never have been forced to coexist in the first place. Condensation dripping from the lid conspired with the oozing cheese to form a forbidding moat. Deciding that no one, regardless of their sins, should be exposed to this monstrosity, Absinthe shoveled the remainder—at least three generous servings—on to her plate. Such was the sacrifice she was prepared to make on behalf of all present.
Back at the table, the separation process accelerated, and the rising liquid threatened to overrun the lip of the plate and flood the vulnerable paper tablecloth. She considered using a straw to transfer it to a glass, but—
“Mary. Mary Elisabeth.”
Her given name swam up to her from the milky yellow depths. Absinthe had rechristened herself at age six with a word chosen from the dictionary either for its euphony or for its early appearance in what might have become a long and exhausting search. Her peers accepted the new name, but her diabolical parents dubbed her ‘Abby’ (a compromise she tolerated but never sanctioned) and did nothing to dispel the misapprehension that the nickname was short for Abigail. Her legal name was relegated to formal use, and on such occasions it always took Absinthe a moment to remember that it belonged to her.
“Mary, Pastor Feldspar wants to speak with you.”
Absinthe raised her glowering eyes. The minister informed her that the private scriptural study in which she was known to engage, though admirable, required weekly communal worship for context. She tuned him out, returning her attention to the disintegrating casserole and wondering what unearthly force had possessed her to come to the dinner. Then a voice, nearby but unfamiliar, cut through Feldspar’s drone and her own ruminations:
“… yes, it’s fascinating to speculate about his life between the ages of twelve and
Her head jerked and her slack eyelids snapped wide. She assumed she’d misheard—certainly there was no one in this benighted place who shared her interest in the missing years of Christ, the subject that had launched her exploration of sacred writings.
Her curiosity had flowered the previous Christmas Eve. Alone in her room after feigning illness to avoid church, she’d wondered what Jesus was like at her age and recalled having once asked a Sunday School teacher about the Savior’s early life. The query hadn’t been answered to her satisfaction at the time, and she was disappointed these ten years later to find the Gospels similarly circumspect. But randomly and curiously she thumbed the rest of the Bible, so familiar and strange.
Forgetting her intention to wake early on Christmas Day to open presents, she read through the night, curled like a castaway in the oceanic midst of her four-poster, rising only to replace guttered candles or check on the worms in her terrariums. She read extensively in the prophets, savoring the rantings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the briny recalcitrance of Jonah. Then she discovered the grisly histories, full of battles, massacres, assassinations and murders, all related in an oddly matter-of-fact tone: Moses killing the slavedriver and burying him in the sand … Ehud, a lefthander like herself, thrusting his sword hilt-deep into fat King Eglon’s gut … and best of all Jael, her new heroine, who in the very next chapter of Judges hammered a tent peg through a Canaanite general’s head. When her mother roused her in the morning, she’d just drifted off, fully clothed.
Further perusal of the Old Testament yielded only a handful of savageries amid the endless laws and lineages, so she began garnishing her curriculum with esoterica—the Gnostics, the Beguines, the Albigensians and the more eccentric saints, whose fevered quests kept her returning to the county library. And she remained on the lookout for information about Christ’s missing years. In the late hours of weeknights, long after her homework had been completed or ignored and into the schoolless summer, she would read scripture by candlelight at the yellowed feet of a human skeleton salvaged from the school nurse’s office. By July the desktop she used for no purpose other than stacking overdue books had become the foundation of several precarious towers.
And now, in the parish hall, a thin young man standing nearby was indeed discussing Absinthe’s very obsession. As if sensing her gaze, he turned. And smiled slightly, golden brown eyes remaining intense. His face bore the lean haunted look of one of her medieval saints, but his tawny complexion and sharp features sounded an exotic note, subdued but resolute. There was something vaguely Mediterranean about him, Greek perhaps, or more Eastern still—Indian. Maybe that was it: a Brahman in basic black.
Pastor Feldspar introduced him, but in the midst of her meditations Absinthe missed his name. Upon hearing her own she extended her hand to grasp his, firmly but delicately, thrilling as their nerves communed. Electricity more eloquent than words. “How do you do,” she said. The constriction in her throat made her voice husky, smoky even, imbuing the quaint phrase with inadvertent sophistication. Try as she might afterwards, she could never replicate that tone.
“Pastor Gilbert began his internship here in January and will be with us through the end of the year,” announced Pastor Feldspar. Gilbert: first name or last? “We’re very happy to have him. I especially—it’s certainly lightened my load!” Polite laughter.
“And I’m very happy to be here,” said the intern.
“Among his many responsibilities, Pastor Gilbert advises the youth group. Perhaps,” slyly, “he might persuade our prodigal daughter to return to the fold.”
Absinthe laughed nervously. Not daring to ask the intern about their common interest. She tried not to stare, or blush, wondering how she, Absinthe Burrows, sarcastic misanthrope, could melt so pathetically. And she grew warm as the red blood surged beneath her armor of black.
Absinthe had stopped going to youth group meetings three years earlier. At that time the adviser was a fiftyish parishioner named Chas, whose inexplicable leap to a position of prominence in the congregation was followed by a departure equally abrupt and mysterious. Chas spoke in one meeting of a prophecy, supposedly written in the Book of Revelation (though Absinthe subsequently failed to locate it), which stated that the end of the world would come fifty years after one country twice attempted global domination.
“Germany, of course, tried to conquer the world in the first and second world wars,” said Chas. “World War Two ended in 1946. You do the math.”
Absinthe’s heart leapt. If Chas was right, the Apocalypse was due to go down before the end of the year. The thought terrified and excited her. Cities aflame, streets running red with blood, angels and demons beating their wings and duking it out once and for all—it would sure liven things up. After the meeting she sought Chas’s elaboration.
“Well, Abby, someday you’ll grow up, and you’ll meet a boy, and you’ll get married and have a family of your own….”
Chas persisted in this vein, discussing the decisions she would have to make, and he lost her. What was he talking about? The world was going to end within the next several months! His blathering had nothing to do with horsemen and plagues and flinging the damned, whom Absinthe pictured with the faces of her classmates, into the pit of fire. She lacked the wherewithal to press him for a straight answer, so she went outside, a little dazed, and slouched into the car.
“There you are,” her dad said. “I was about to come in and check.”
“O. I stayed late to, uh, ask Chas a question.”
“Well, he said the world was gonna end after one country tried to take it over twice. It’s in Revelations. I went and asked him about it.”
“What did he say?”
“He—well, he didn’t really answer me. He started talking about all this stuff that had nothing to do with it.”
“Wouldn’t worry, kiddo.”
Absinthe’s parents gently dissuaded her from attending youth group meetings thereafter, and she saw no reason to return when some colorless couple replaced Chas (who apparently had been advised, once word of his eschatological prophecies spread beyond the youth group, to form his cult elsewhere). Of course, the world hadn’t ended in 1996. Now, with the year 2000 mere months away, millenarians were predicting Armageddon. An older and wiser Absinthe believed God worked on a long-range schedule inscrutable to humanity. She foresaw no worldwide apocalypse. She didn’t even believe the dire predictions of computer failures. But she did feel the rumbling of cataclysmic personal change. Which was why, now, three years after she’d quit the youth group, she had a reason to return.
She went to the church den the Sunday after Easter, merely curious, a shadowy observer. The youth group was balkanized into three factions, none of them enviable. All the popular kids had jumped ship by the time they reached high school, leaving behind a mismatched assortment of the devout, the delinquent and the dull. The holy rollers made the weekly pilgrimage for obvious reasons. The troublemakers—boys with sparse moustaches and gum-snapping girls whose leather jackets reeked of tobacco—attended either at the mandate of parents seeking to keep them off the streets, or out of their own sullen attachment to the sole group that would accept them. The bland third faction apparently lacked the imagination to find more productive or enjoyable pursuits. Then there was Absinthe, who attended by choice, but with different motivations, no doubt, from those of the other teens.
Having been through Sunday School and confirmation with much of this bunch, Absinthe knew it included no one she could relate to. Nevertheless, she drifted amid the three discrete masses that coalesced in the den to await the intern’s arrival. But the speech rhythms and topics of conversation proved impenetrable, and she soon abandoned this hovering, choosing instead to sequester herself with a book, behind which she scowled, hoping her peers could feel the heat of her disdain.
In the social vacuum left by the absence of preppy snobs, the delinquents had crowned themselves elite. Absinthe had always reciprocated this group’s dislike for her—they called her a freak, and she considered them losers. The dullards might have accepted her, had she any interest in being accepted, but their very dullness prevented them from approaching her. The Jesus freaks, like the other groups, had remained oblivious to Absinthe’s halfhearted and futile attempts to fit in, but took a sudden interest in the isolated subject. They descended upon her with cheerful platitudes, inquiring about her exclusively black wardrobe and scary makeup and encouraging her to join their discussion (presumably to point out her errors and uncrook her path). Her desire to be left alone overwhelmed her urge to debate, and her monotone responses suffocated their zeal.
Pastor Gilbert’s entrance spurred her heart. But he was all business—not big on games and songs, he’d apparently provoked much of the God Squad to defect to the more fanatical gatherings at the Methodist church. Those holy rollers who remained loyal to the Lutheran denomination tried to steer the discussion toward scripture, but were outnumbered by the earthier delinquents, whose ranks had swelled with dragged-along better halves who’d never before set foot in a church and concentrated more effort on public displays of affection than speech. The intern was democratic and solicitous to a fault: Absinthe, who got an earful of her peers’ ineloquence in school, hoped to hear more of Pastor Gilbert’s thoughts, but he mostly confined his comments to summing up everything, spiritual and mundane, at the end of the night. And even then he seemed cautious, the mystery gone or suppressed. Subsequent meetings followed a similar pattern. As the weeks passed, the jolt of their introduction faded, and Absinthe considered leaving the youth group again.
Then one May evening the intern was looking for a volunteer to get the discussion rolling. Seeing the raised hands of all the usual suspects, he frowned.
“Absinthe? Why don’t you give us a suggestion?”
“Me?” croaking—stupid, she forgot to clear her throat. All eyes turned to her. “Um, I don’t know.”
But she noticed the Jesus freaks itching to chime in. Frantically she groped for a topic. Every scrap of information she’d studied for the past several months hid in some darkened corner of her mind. Pastor Gilbert was about to pick someone else when she fixed on his dusky features and recalled his overheard comment from the Palm Sunday Dinner. Of course!
“I saw this book,” she burst, “saying how Jesus went to India when he was young and studied with Buddhist monks.”
Even the students who hadn’t been listening detected the tension. Devout eyes glittered, ready to pounce at the first misstep.
“And what do you think about that?” Pastor Gilbert asked.
“I guess you can’t prove it.” The room relaxed a little. “But you can’t disprove it either. I mean, why wouldn’t God send Jesus to learn from different people? I like that idea. That different religions are the same in some ways.”
Several voices denounced her at once, but Pastor Gilbert took the reins.
“Let’s not all jump down Absinthe’s throat. We’re here to have a discussion.”
“But she insulted Jesus!” shouted a girl with flaming eyes whose name Absinthe couldn’t remember.
“She said he learned everything from Buddhists.”
“I didn’t say ‘everything’!” Absinthe snarled.
“She implied it!”
“All right, everybody calm down.” The intern lowered his palm through the air. “The book you mentioned, Absinthe, was probably The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicolas Notovitch?”
“I don’t remember.”
“It was most likely that or a text inspired by it. Notovitch was a Russian journalist who supposedly went to a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh and found scrolls referring to a novice named Issa, whom Notovitch claimed was in fact the historical Jesus. As Absinthe said, this can’t be proved, nor, at this late date, can it be unequivocally disproved, although the theory is farfetched and the evidence suspect. But that’s not the issue. The important thing is something else Absinthe brought up, which often gets lost when we think about religion: how similar our ideas sometimes are to those of other faiths, in spite of major differences.”
Four times. Pastor Gilbert had uttered her name, her chosen name, four times in his eloquent and gallant defense.
“It’s fascinating,” he continued, alive again after all these muted weeks, “when you consider that different groups arrived at many of these beliefs independently of each other. And it shows, at least in my mind, that God is at work everywhere. Why don’t we talk tonight about other religions? Absinthe, you mentioned Buddhism, so we’ll start there. What can you tell us about it?”
Absinthe went bloodless, managing only to mumble something about the Dalai Llama. Nobody else knew much more than that, so the intern filled them in, and on Hinduism and Islam and Shinto and Zoroastrianism as well, and though Absinthe tried to listen she mostly replayed in her mind the extraordinary scene that had opened the meeting. She was pleased to have antagonized her peers but feared the suggestion of Pastor Gilbert’s pet topic might have given the game away; furthermore, having raised a subject on which he was an expert, she demonstrated her ignorance by citing a crackpot theory. But he’d glossed over that and made her remarks seem thoughtful. She was too shy to thank him, and in the ensuing weeks too embarrassed about not thanking him to even speak to him.
At the end of the meeting Pastor Gilbert had promised to bring her some reading materials on the missing years of Jesus, but week after week he forgot and she was loath to draw attention to this negligence. Instead, she finished phasing out the zoological experiments that had consumed her for the past year and turned her full attention to theology, expanding her study to Eastern religions. She discovered Siddhartha on her mother’s bookshelf and toted the dog-eared paperback to youth group every Sunday, keeping the title perpetually visible. But he failed to notice, even when she progressed to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Every Sunday evening before the youth group meeting she would sit apart from her peers, pretending to read but thinking of him. Although she derived no enjoyment from the self-inflicted ritual of alienation, she maintained and even protracted it, arriving earlier and earlier, coming to regard it as a necessity, a prelude, a tense crescendo leading to the moment when the whole room, for her at least, changed. She watched him raptly from the moment he entered. And she watched him in church, giving sermons. He stammered when he spoke and his hands described improbable patterns. She often lost track of what he was saying, paying closer attention to the sound of his voice, to his gestures and expressions. To her parents’ surprise she resumed acolyting, which enabled her to rub robed shoulders with him in the vestry and to sit next to or near him in the pew behind the gossiping choir. He assisted Pastor Feldspar in dispensing the sacraments at Communion, and on the last such occasion Absinthe’s tongue grazed his finger as he placed the wafer in her mouth. She nearly fainted on the chancel railing.
Digging through her mother’s overflowing basket of magazines, some of which dated back years, she unearthed the January Parish Messenger. On page three, a grammatically disastrous paragraph announced Pastor Gilbert’s arrival. The accompanying photo of the intern was indifferently cropped, and the generation losses from scanning and copying had abandoned half his face to a devouring black blotch. But it was the only likeness she possessed. Each night when she tired of reading she would rise to her knees, pull back the chair from her desk and unlock the drawer, where the newsletter, grown fuzzy at its folds, lay tucked inside her diary. It did the trick on those worrisome occasions when emotion blurred her memory and she found herself unable to summon the image of his beloved face.
There had been times when she’d wanted to be with someone, anyone—to be touched and held. And now it had to be Gilbert Voss. In the two months since he had stuck up for her, she hadn’t missed a worship service or a youth group meeting, and although she developed little affection for her peers or the church as an institution, her feelings for Pastor Gilbert deepened, and she knew it was more than a crush. After that fateful May evening her pulse quickened every time he entered the den. His appearance triggered in her an involuntary redistribution of moisture, her mouth turning into a desert while her palms and armpits became rain forests. None of the boys in school came close to having such an effect on her.
Once, she imagined, he’d been carefree. And a charmer of women. But there had been one true love, whom he’d wanted to marry, and she’d broken his heart. So he turned to the ministry in his search for truth. And, like Absinthe, he sought truth relentlessly. Now she wanted to ease his rigid muscles, knead his knitted brow and bring a smile to his pinched lips. She closed her eyes and took the skeleton’s hand and danced, to the languid rhythm in her head. Sometimes she kissed her pillow for practice. And sometimes she entered into unchaste familiarity with her bedpost.
Her pining stabilized her and gave her days purpose and shape. Her diary swelled with ornate confessions and anguished longings; those too ripe for commitment to paper swirled through her idle or unconscious mind. She yearned ceaselessly, wondering if he felt the same, if his obvious fondness for her bespoke a passion tempered only by fear of the law. Two years, she thought. In two years she’d be eighteen. It was a long time to wait, but she knew that when she came of age the burden would be lifted, and they could, at last, collapse into each other’s arms.
Andrew Eastwick: I was born and raised in New Jersey and live in Los Angeles with my wife, actor/improviser Tara Copeland, our daughter Maggie and cat Ozmo. Although I have been writing since before I could write, beginning with stories I dictated to my grandmother, I have not yet published a work of fiction. Over a period of four years I published more than 50 film reviews for the pop culture webzine TinyMixTapes, and I have blogged extensively about music, movies and books. I have worked as a grant writer for 18 years and am the Senior Grant Writer for After-School All-Stars, a national nonprofit organization that provides enrichment programs for under-served youth.