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The Cafeteria's Got Everything

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One of the things I always hated about family get-togethers was having to listen to my dad's sisters complain nonstop about their weight. Aunt Janet loved saying to me, "Enjoy being young and skinny while you can, it won't last." Aunt Annie always expected us to laugh whenever she said, "There are no calories in this food because we're eating it after 9 p.m." And Aunt Lois's vision of Heaven was a place where she'd be able to eat anything she wanted without having to count calories.

Even though I've been here a while, I'm still finding it hard to believe she was right. You really can eat anything here, and the calories don't count. That's the good news. There's a catch, though: the calories don't count because appearances don't matter here, since we don't really have bodies anymore. And since we don't really have bodies anymore, it means we don't get to look as svelte or foxy or drop-dead fucking gorgeous as we hoped we were gonna get to be once we slipped the surly bonds of earth. We look like … well, if it's someone who saw us when we were alive, we look like they remember us. Sorry, Aunt Lois, Heaven's not going to turn you thin and tall and naturally blonde. Sorry, Uncle Jack, it's not going to take away your beer belly. Sorry, Cousin Mary Beth - the voice lessons here are free, but you're always going to sound like a stoned chihuahua instead of Vanessa Williams as far as I'm concerned.

If they don't remember you, though, all they see are the wings. Or, they see what they think you sound like. This girl I met, she loves to surf. Most of the time, I see her just as a blur of silvery feathers and ocean foam. She likes that a lot - her last yearbook photo showed her in a doofy t-shirt with a bad perm and a humongous zit on her nose. Every now and then one of her old classmates show up - they've reached the age where heart attacks and cancer are starting to knock more of them off the mortal coil - and they remember her mainly from that photo. You bet that pisses her off.

I have to say, though, it's a damn devious setup once you see the larger picture. After a while, the people who care about sounding younger realize they'll sound younger if they stop obsessing about how old they are, so they stop it with the Negative Nelly monologues of doom. Instead of staying huddled in their cliquey comfort zones, people go out of their way to find new friends - people who won't hold what they used to look like against them. The ones who have been here for ages, they say they've learned to see everyone as the motion of wings - that they don't see the shadows or memories of our bodies at all.

I'm completely certain that some of the people claiming to be that advanced aren't actually at that level. Part of me wants to throw up in my mouth from their sheer lame-itude, but another part of me really digs how God's got them totally pretending that appearances don't matter. I'm 100% convinced that Aunt Janet's going to be one of those people, which means she'll have to act like she doesn't see me, which means she won't be able to whisper thing one about how much she hates my hair and my piercings and my sneer. WHICH WILL TOTALLY RULE. Which means, mega-gatekeeping fail aside - I'm pretty sure I was supposed to end up in a room full of American Idol rejects when my time was up)- Heaven might actually be made out of some serious win.

Plus, the chimichangas are wicked tasty. At lunch, surfer girl always pours herself a bowl of Lucky Charms.

~

When you get right down to it, the rules for facilitating miracles are -

Oh, Jesus, did I just use the word facilitating? Shoot. Me. Now.

Oh, that's right, you can't. Seeing how I'm an angel and bodiless and all.

But seriously, the word performing isn't right - we can't make miracles jump through flaming hoops, or hop out of top hats, or ride unicycles while juggling a half-dozen bowling pins. We can't slide into people's minds and make them kinder or nicer or saner. Actually, we can't do anything with people at all - the whole free will shebang means we have to let them choose their mistakes, and the whole "in His image" thing means we can't erase wrinkles or shrink tumors or rewire brain chemistry.

So. No messing with humans. Physically. But the flip side of that rule is that stuff without free will is fair game. Which means me and Surfette, we've started visiting a few kids here and there. They don't see or hear us, and we wait until they're asleep or outside of the house, or when the schools are empty.

(Surfette really hates being called Surfette, especially when I can't resist saying "Oh Surfette, you're too much!" She's so cute when she's outraged! That's her in the background calling me "nasty, mean, and vile"...)

Then we get to work. We fish lost keys out of the Bermuda Sidewalk Crack and put them back in purses. We draft anonymous notes of encouragement and stick them through the vents of lockers. We steal Sharpies and gel pens, using them to inscribe suicide hotline numbers on the walls of bathroom stalls. We pump a little extra air into the tires of third-hand cars; we cushion the door of that car so that, when the kid shoves it open a bit too hard, it doesn't scrape the paint job on the SUV parked next to it.

We can't be everywhere at once, and it turns out there's a really fine line between trying to help someone and making them crazier than they already are. For instance: a girl has a secret stash of sleeping pills. She's gotten closer and closer to using them to kill herself. Do we raid the stash and hide the pills, or will that make her feel like even more of a loser for not being able to keep track of her stuff? Will having one more mystery to deal with send her over the edge? Surfette hates how there are still so many unanswered questions. Before she got here, she'd hoped that Heaven was the kind of place where she'd find out things like who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. (She'd really wanted to find the guy and ream him out for Taming of the Shrew.)

I guess you could say that we try to answer some of the smaller prayers. Not the "please God, let me hit this ball out of the park"s or "please God, give me the lead in the play" or "please God, make him want to take me to the prom." We're the brigade for "please God, help me find my jacket," or "please God, make the gas in the tank last until Friday" or "please God let my car start this morning." We do a lot with cars: Surfette had a habit of joyriding in them back when she was a kid. She knows cars even better than she knows her waves - and she also happens to know how it's a whole lot of little invisible straws that weigh down a girl before the big fat honking monster straw that breaks the camel's back. Or say, the neck of a girl at the wheel of a Chevy going too fast on a country road. Sometimes you see that someone is about to snap -- they stand up, they're breathing a bit too fast, it could just be they need some windshield wiper fluid or an oil change or an emissions test, but you can tell that if they have to deal with just one more thing, no matter how simple or easy it might be, they will totally lose their shit. And not everyone has someone willing or able to catch them when they fly apart.

~

Lately Surfette's been trying out ways to be more of a good imaginary friend. There was a day I just didn't feel like going to choir practice, so I went to the shore instead. And she was so beautiful, skimming over the water like a plume of light. When I told her that, she got the idea to start visiting some of the kids she wanted to help by being something they could talk to. Not someone - neither of us can stand those cheesy movies where some angel hipper than God comes down to browbeat humans into saving the world - plus there's probably some rules against it (and anyway, I'm a bad kid - if I don't ask about the rules I don't have to keep track of them, right?). But there's nothing that says she can't inhabit a tree that happens to frequently tap its branches against a bedroom window. Or lightly ruffle the pages on a music stand. Or drape herself over the back of a chair as the shine on a leather jacket, or glow in the red numbers of a battered alarm clock. Or a feather or flower the wind happens to carry to someone lonely - someone desperate for any sign from the universe that it gives a flying fuck. That their pain is being listened to, somehow, somewhere.

I don't have Surfette's stamina, so I've got only one imaginary friend gig going for the time being. The girl, she's a doctor's kid in Massachusetts, and she's gotten into the habit of chatting with her favorite pair of boots. It's a good thing she can't hear me, because honest to God, the only way I can get through her monologues is to talk back, and I never did pretend to be, well, angelic. When she calls herself lame for pretending her boots belong to a best friend sharing her room, I can't help saying, "Yeah, you sure are." When she goes on and on about how miserable she is, I MST3K her angst and woe - if she's as much as a drip at school as she is talking to her boots, no wonder she's so alone. The problem with miserable people like her, they often don't realize how they're just as full of themselves as the people too full of themselves to become their friends.

So, no, not my favorite gig. But she hasn't looked at her stash of pills since I started visiting her. If I can keep her believing that someone's listening, she'll likely survive to age 18 and then she'll get the hell out of that house, which will totally be the key - she'll be way less of a drip once she gets to college and gets hit with better cluebats.

As for me, the cafeteria's open around the clock. No matter what time I get back - 11 p.m., 2 a.m., 5 a.m. - Surfette meets me there without fail. She pours herself another bowl of cereal while I punch the button on the hot cocoa machine, and once we're sitting across the table from each other, we're exactly where we're supposed to be.