Monday, December 15, 2008

a short, semi-autobiographical story

10:09 p.m. Twenty minutes until it’s socially acceptable to excuse ourselves from the party and catch the last train. It’s only been a half hour since we’ve sat down, but I’m already beginning to lose my keen edge. I stare, half-listening, into my half-drunk glass of wine, wiping away the cool beads of sweat with my thumb. A nervous glass of red among a sea of beers.

“Amy—watch this!” shouts Ben, turning to the others. I indulge him, taking my eyes off the smudged glass, and turn to the far end of the table.

“Who do you pray to?”—did Ben really just ask that question in the middle of our Christmas party?

Specimen #1, taken by surprise, quickly shoots his finger toward the sky.

“OK, so that’s God. Who do you pray to?” he asks accusingly, pointing to Specimen #1’s neighbor, Specimen #2.

“Well…” she says, searching for a one-word answer to humanity’s most difficult question, “Jesus…”

“Jesus!” cries Ben. Now it’s up to Specimen #3 to complete the holy trinity, reasserting Ben’s homespun theological premise.
“Who do you pray to?”

Specimen #3, knowing she has less than ten seconds to answer before an interruption from Budweiser Ben (a name coined after he sunk the long shot in the 2005 beer pong championship), she quickly begins to explain her spiritual connection with departed family members.

“Well, the spirits of my family are imp—”

“Ancestors!” Ben barks, his voice booming on account of three favorable answers and four glasses of beer. “See?” he says turning, triumphant, back to me. “Ask any Japanese person who they pray to and you get a different answer.”

The nomihodai (“all you can drink”) focus group’s findings are in agreement with Ben’s theory. Ten months and who knows how many beers later, Ben has single-handedly cracked the code of Japanese spirituality.

“None of them can agree. You know how it is in the U.S.,” he says, appealing to my American roots. “You can ask anyone who they pray to and they’ll give pretty much the same answer. But here they say something different every time.”

“Is that so bad?” I ask, reminded of college philosophy debates.

“Well, how old are some of the shrines that you see on every fucking street corner?” He pauses to raise a finger heavenward, mimicking Specimen #1. “And in that long they can’t figure out who they’re talking to ‘up there’?”

So the question remains: to hope you know and risk being wrong—is this better than realizing you don’t know anything at all?

I close my eyes and nod to acknowledge Ben’s heated rhetorical. Then, lifting the smudged chalice to my unworthy lips, I take communion for my brethren. I pray for all the lost peoples of Japan, that their unanswered pleas will be found floating outside the space between heaven and hell. For Specimens #1 through 3, that they will someday be so enlightened as to streamline the nomenclature of their devotion. But most of all I pray for Budweiser Ben—may he be forever blessed with his most insular wisdom. I pray this all in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirits. Amen.

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