idol friends and rivals | week 20, #2 | 1816 words
Immanentize the eschaton! (Heaven on Earth)
I had lost so much by the time I first saw the posters:
I'd been laid off a few months before, and the job-search had produced nothing—not even temporary low-paying work, where the wages plus a roommate could cover the rent. Right now, the rent was overdue, the eviction notice was on my door, and I had no friends or family to fall back on.
Maybe a little soul-searching was in order. What could it hurt?
I mailed notice on my apartment to my landlord (the cowardly choice, but it saved arguing about unpaid rent). I had clothes, books, CDs, and a hockey trophy from high school, but that was all. My whole life fit into three boxes. A guy from my old office let me stash them in his garage.
Bring nothing, the instructions for Tranquility said. I took a toothbrush and a comb, just in case. Two trains and a rural bus later, I was standing at Tranquility's front gate.
A brown-haired bearded man opened it. "Welcome," he said. "Have you come to join us?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm here to take part in your, uh, experiment."
"Excellent!" he said. "My name is Jacob. Come in, and I'll have Connie give you the tour."
The grounds were more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen that wasn't in a movie. Green plants, winding paths, soothing fountains. I breathed in the fresh, sweet air, already feeling calmer. Some part of me had needed this, maybe for a long time.
My room was small, just a bed, a chair, and a small desk, but it was clean and had everything I needed. There were clothes draped over the chair, a plain tunic and a lightweight pair of pants. I changed into them, and Connie showed me the bathrooms, the dining hall, and the chapel.
"I'm sure you'll be very happy here," she said.
"I'm sure you're right. Thank you for having me."
I looked around the room after she left, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. With the travel and weeks of stress, I was suddenly so tired that I lay down on the bed and slept until it was time for dinner.
I familiarized myself with the people and routines over the next few days. The food was good, especially the fruit—delicious. There was fresh-baked bread at every meal, and often fish or meat. It was simple food, but wholesome. I had been hungry those last couple of months, and the change was much appreciated.
There were daily prayer meetings and services for those who wished, offered in a variety of faiths. I attended a few, briefly considering Buddhism but ultimately returning to the Methodism of my childhood. Mornings, I prayed and walked through the garden. Afternoons, I sat under a tree and meditated as best I could. I became so relaxed, it was a struggle to stay awake.
After a couple of weeks, I went looking for something to read. At first, I thought I was mishearing the woman in the library, but in fact, I was not.
"Books? Oh my, no—we don't keep books. We offer the holy writings of many, many prophets and religions, for inspiration. But we've found that ordinary books are too much of a distraction for our members."
Well. I guess I should have known.
Soon afterward, I noticed I seemed to be having the same conversations day after day, the same empty uplifting platitudes:
I tried to inject something new. "This weather sure makes me want to go to a ball game," I told Alvin.
He gave me a blank look. "Oh," he said. "Gosh, I haven't thought about baseball in ages. I kind of left that behind when I came here. It all seems so unimportant now…"
I saw Helen out in the garden the next day. "So, do you think we'll get some rain soon?"
"No," she said. "It never rains here."
Why hadn't I noticed that? She was right—every day was the same, clear and sunny and warm. It never changed.
Kind of like time was standing still. It was a little unsettling.
I'd loved the food when I first got here, but it never changed either. It was nutritious, and I certainly felt good, but at the same time… after three weeks of that, I would practically murder for a French fry.
I asked Jacob about it at dinner.
"We only eat good things here," he said. "A healthy body leads to a healthy soul!"
"What about chocolate? Or popcorn? I've been here for weeks, and I haven't seen either of those. Where would I find them?"
"Oh, we don’t allow contraband here."
"But…don't you miss it?" I said.
Jacob shrugged. "Not really."
Meditation was harder for the next few days. I wandered aimlessly through the garden, too edgy to sit still. I'd realized what this place was, in essence:
I'd consigned myself to a monastery.
Sure, it was more laid-back and less austere, but I could do the math. Spiritual focus + self-denial + simplicity + quiet contemplation? Yep, that was basically a monastery.
Well, it hadn't all been bad. I'd gotten some rest and I was definitely less stressed. I'd had food and a place to sleep, all rent-free. Maybe I could handle it the lifestyle that came with it—everyone else seemed to be doing okay.
I threw myself back into the routine I'd followed at the beginning—prayer, reflection, and meditation. I focused on peace and serenity, on letting go of the desire for things I didn't actually need. It went pretty well, considering I wasn't really the "rest and reflect" type.
But the people—with their glassy eyes and Stepford smiles—that part was just too weird.
No one ever seemed to get angry or worried or excited, and laughter was rare. Maybe they were truly all living in a state of inner peace? Or maybe they were all robots, and this was a test to see if anyone would notice? The more I thought about it, the creepier it got.
One morning, I decided I'd had enough.
I went to the front office. "Hi," I said. "How do I go about checking myself out?"
The woman on duty stared at me. "This isn't a hotel."
"Oh. So in that case, I can just walk out the front gate?"
"Well, no," she said. "When you arrived, you agreed to be part of the experiment, and you've hardly been here a month. That's much too soon."
"So, I'm a quitter," I shrugged. "I can live with that. Good enough?"
"I don't think so. Let me ask Jacob."
By then, I was wishing I had just grabbed my things and left, though I hadn't seen my street clothes since the first day. That probably should have tipped me off.
"Hello, Ben," Jacob said. "Sherry tells me you're having some difficulty adjusting."
"Well, it isn't that—I just want to leave. I've enjoyed my time here, but I've realized it's not for me."
"That may be, but you still have to abide by the terms of the agreement," Jacob said. "This is a long-term experiment, after all. Some of our members have been here for years."
"Years?" I said. God, how horrifying. Maybe that was why so many of them seemed like their heads were in the clouds—this place had driven them crazy.
"I'm sure you'll adjust," Jacob added. "Just give it time."
I went back to my room, wondering how much longer I could stand this place before I wound up climbing the walls—maybe literally. At dinner, everyone looked at me strangely, like they knew I wanted to bolt.
"Smile, and rejoice!" someone said as I left the dining hall.
About what? About being a prisoner in someone else's Nirvana?
Everywhere I went for the next four days, people urged me to smile. I must have been scowling as much as Scrooge at Christmas, but I wasn't like them, this group of plastic people who were never affected by anything. Maybe they'd always been that way.
I wandered to the corners of the garden, finding places hardly anyone else ever seemed to go. The beauty of the place seemed different now, Disney-like, artificial. My perspective might have been affected by my mood, but so what? I was starting to resent everything about Tranquility, including its perfection.
On the way back toward the main building at dinnertime, I spotted a robin in a tree. I thought about catching it and roasting it, just to experience something different—something forbidden. Which was sick, really.
One of the directors coming from the opposite direction looked at me nervously, as if he knew what I was thinking.
Boy, this place was really getting to me.
While walking around that day, I'd gone toward the edges of the grounds, trying to discover other entrances or exits. I didn't see anything, though. The front gate seemed to be the only way in or out. No wonder they kept someone assigned to it.
By then, I was long past caring.
I lay in bed, waiting until the moon crossed the middle of the sky. Then I got up and crept out of my room, real clothes be damned. I could replace them a lot easier than my sanity.
Quiet as I was, somehow Jacob was in the shadows next to the gate.
"I thought you might try something like this," he said. "Is it really so terrible here?"
"It is if you don't want to be here. I don't. So please let me through."
"Ben, please think about this for a moment. If you leave, it will interfere with the experiment."
I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. "Or not. You can count me as a 'No'—that's definitely a data point. Look, nobody has to get hurt here, right? But I'll do it, if that's what it takes to get me out. So, let's not make this harder than it has to be."
Maybe Jacob was persuaded by that—or he gave up—but either way, he decided to let me go. Once I was out, I walked for miles toward what I hoped was the nearest town. I'd hitchhike from there, if I had to. Anything to get home, even if there was nothing but a few boxes waiting for me at the other end.
I must have been the first guy ever to bust out of heaven. Seriously, who else would do something as stupid as that?
Maybe I was a complete idiot. Or maybe I needed more time to evolve, or something. But whatever the reason, hey, if that was heaven?
Well. I sure as hell wasn't ready.
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