HE WHO WRESTLES WITH GOD
Martha’s best friend, Taylor, was a party girl. She was the kind of girl who changed her clothes at minimum five times before she could go to the nearest WalMart. She was small, with the build of a preteen and a child’s face. She maybe reached five-foot-four in heels. To compensate, she smudged thick rings of smoky eye shadow and exotic liner around her large, brown eyes. Each eyelash was precisely mascaraed and stuck out like a spider’s leg against her powder-tanned skin.
Taylor had invited Martha over to her new apartment—a two-bedroom deal in a four-story building. It was close to CSU and full of students tasting their first few licks of total freedom. Martha was used to the dorms at her private university several hours away. In comparison, Taylor’s apartment was a Mecca of glamorous debauchery. Jello shots of a bright, Christmas red were made in one batch in an old saucepan stored in a mostly empty refrigerator. The only furniture was a large screen TV and a gaming chair, which were both hooked up for the use of Taylor’s overbearing male roommate. He hid in his room whenever Martha passed. She felt unfit for her surroundings, but that wasn’t anything new.
Martha was carefully disguised for her role as wing-woman. Black jeggings, a knee-length, lace-trimmed fashion tank top, and bootie heels were her camouflage. They couldn’t cover the discomfort and worry displayed on her face, though. Martha practiced looking pleasant in the mirror, where she could also monitor Taylor as she finished primping for her party. Martha knew Taylor was planning to drink plenty tonight, even though she was, by nature of her size, a lightweight.
The party had something to do with a boy that Taylor had hooked up with in the first couple weeks of school. Martha knew nothing about him, save the fact that he hadn’t bothered to speak to Taylor after they had done the deed, even though he and she shared a nine-a.m. together every Monday and Wednesday. Taylor had decided to throw this party in an attempt to get back at him. She told Martha that she was going to make sure that he knew that she, in all her one-hundred-pound glory, was too much woman for him.
Recipe for disaster. The guests piled in to the small apartment promptly at nine o’clock. It was too early in the semester for them to play coy, while still not being late enough for them all to play desperate. Martha watched as Taylor milled in between them, touting around her saucepan of alcohol-saturated Jello, begging everyone to share her laborious, sticky offering.
Martha, for her part, clung nervously to the half-wall counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. Her gray eyes traced Taylor’s movements as a prioress does a novice’s—worried, with a touch of forced confidence that belied the future mother slumbering within her. She had always loved Taylor in the way that women always seemed to love the weakest in a crowd, desperate to hold in place any brokenness, like a splintered bone, until it healed.
As Taylor spilled through the burgeoning adults huddled in her apartment, it was apparent that she was barely holding up. Martha stood vigilant at her post, half-heartedly paying lip service to those who attempted to distract her from her duty. She was a weird one, they said as they moved to more receptive pastures. Martha didn’t mind. She knew what people thought of her. But she wasn’t here to please them. She was here to watch over Taylor, and that was what she was going to do.
Taylor was asking for a cigarette—no. A cigarillo. One of those thin, peach-flavored woman cigars that came in cellophane wrapped boxes that always seemed so exotic to Martha no matter what gas station they were bought at. Martha begged one off of Taylor’s roommate, and then went over to join her friend. She and five others piled outside, breathing deeply the fresh air and the smoke of summer. The burn of a season they couldn’t imagine ever burning out. Martha stood beside Taylor, taking small, cautious drags as they watched parades of returning students laughing their way up the four floors of the building, barreling across the concrete with their arms full of Jameson and tubs of margarita mixes.
“Hey! Room two-oh-five!”
Martha was the first to respond, her head snapping up immediately at the stranger’s call. He was leaning over the railing of the balcony above, his torso hinged over it almost naturally. He smiled and then he waved. Martha looked at Taylor and pointed him out.
“Someone’s calling you,” Martha said.
Taylor took a drag of her Swisher Sweet and looked up at the boy. Though she made no sign that she recognized him, Martha knew that Taylor would never admit that she didn’t know him. It would look bad, whereas acknowledging him could make Taylor look popular in front of that boy who had crossed her.
“Of course he is,” Taylor replied, crushing the cigarillo beneath her heel as she turned to the stairwell and began wobbling her way up to the third floor. Martha hovered close, and their smoking partners followed. Room 205 marched up to Room 300. It was a corner room with a faded welcome mat and a wide open door.
“The name is Israel,” he said as he ushered them inside, “Though you can call me Ray.”
Martha saw that he was a tall boy, around six-foot-four, with a build stockier than most his height. Around his thick neck hung a large silver Star of David. It was suspended right in the center U of his collarbone, exposed by his mint-green button-down. His hair was medium-long, light brown, and feathered. His eyes were green, flecked with caramel and butterscotch. His lips were smooth and stretched thin. His bones were near impeccably structured.
His kitchen was well lived-in. Half-open letters and advertisements littered the circle table that dominated the room. Craft-project frames hung from every wall and sported pictures of bleached blonde beauties flanked by their volleyball teammates. Ray said that his roommates weren’t due home for another week. All of the Fat Tire and Shock Top in his fridge were going to waste! Taylor lost no time in taking two of the former, skipping past the entrance, and disappearing into Ray’s bedroom. Martha followed suit, nervously fidgeting with her one unopened beer.
Ray’s room was bigger than his kitchen, though not by much. A queen-sized bed with royal blue sheets took up most of it. On one side: the desk with the Mac and rolly chair that Ray sat down at. On the other: a cheap bookshelf filled to the point that it was a wonder that Ray could extract a single volume to read without the whole thing toppling over.
As Taylor flopped down on the bed, laughing too loud for comfort, Martha felt herself called to the books. Mesmerized, she scanned their spines. Each shelf contained tomes of theology from a different religion. From Islam to Taoism, from Faerie religions to Christianity. As she gazed upon the titles, she felt a fire stirring up in her that she thought had long ago been extinguished—her years of religious fascination, repressed when her classmates had thought her odd. Debates that had been eventually delegated to the classroom, and nowhere else. Reaching into her shirt, she pulled out a small wooden cross, hanging on a thin piece of black yarn, and gripped it in her palm.
“I’m a biology major,” Ray said, breaking from his earlier discussion with the rest of the group to focus on Martha. “But my real passion is religion. Reclaiming traditions, you know?”
Martha ran her hands along the shelves where the books of faith were categorized meticulously into sects. No dust settled there.
“Me too,” she whispered, more to the books than to him.
“We can talk about the Messiah, if you’d like to,” he said.
Martha nodded, almost tearing her necklace in her enthusiasm. It had been a confirmation gift from her mentor. She thanked God for the little blessing she had been granted.
They spoke of eschatology, of their fears of ending. They spoke of the crucifix, of the beauty of a bleeding body, and of its terror. They spoke of Exodus, of Genesis, and of righteousness. They mocked the prophets, chanted the Psalms drunkenly, and praised the chutzpah of Job. Their voices rose with excitement, and little by little the rest of the party left the bedroom for the sanctuary of the kitchen. Martha noticed Taylor slipping away with them, but she didn’t much care. She just continued her thanksgiving, clutching to Ray’s words as if they were meditations all their own.
Surely, this was a moment within which God lived! A space revealed just for her into the divine wonder of paradise. A Jewish theologian who matched her devotion for devotion across the aisles of salvation so fiercely that Martha felt their faiths melding into a cosmic whole. Such clarity of grace!
Ray laid a textbook out on his desk, words tumbling out of his mouth seemingly without needing breaks for breathing. His eyes shone with a fearsome intensity, the entire world forgotten save for himself and Martha. Martha listened intently as he reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a packet of pure white powder. Martha started to lose her train of thought as he dumped the powder onto the book, arranging it neatly into a single stroke. He paused for barely a moment, laid his face on the cover and snorted the line of cocaine in the span of a single heartbeat. He consumed it as easily as a man drinking water, without a second thought. As if refreshed, he smiled and put the textbook away, and continued as if without pause:
“That’s why I find it hard to believe, as a Jew, that the Messiah would have to sacrifice Himself for our sins, you know? Why not just go right down to Sheol and start the liberation there? My Messiah’s not going to be the type to submit to public execution, that’s for sure.”
Martha nodded. She paid no heed to the words he said, but rather stared at the place where the textbook had lain. The ritual, secular act had happened so quickly. She’d barely had enough time to acknowledge it, much less act. Her mind buzzed with all of the things she could remember being told about people like Ray—how to stop them, how to ask them all the right questions to make them stop, how to refuse them. But how could she refuse what hadn’t been offered? How could she stop what had passed in the fluttering of a heartbeat? His voice sounded like grace poured out onto desert sand.
If only he’d left the textbook out a little longer. She could have put her hand on it. She could have held it. She could have looked into his eyes and told him with conviction that she loved him, that he was worth more—couldn’t she? If she could feel the powder there beneath her fingertips, would it give her the courage to confess to the divinity that she had thought she had seen, glimmering there in his wild eyes? She could have had the courage, she was sure. If only he’d left the textbook out.
But now there was only Ray’s voice. Why couldn’t she hear Taylor or the others messing around in the kitchen? She fidgeted with her tank top. Suddenly her head ached. Her ribs ached. The room was too small. In one sniff, Ray had sucked out too much air.
“I need air,” she said, standing abruptly. Ray smiled: a faint, half-dim smile that slowed down his face, even as the rest of him sped up and outward.
“It’s cold out there. Take my coat,” he said. She did, reluctantly, and padded out into the empty kitchen. Ray was never too far behind, reaching around her to open up the door for her when she found that she herself was shaking too much to do it.
Martha stood barefoot on the bristled mat, gulping down her citrus beer to give her mouth something to do. It had gotten warm, having been held tightly in her grip. How long had she listened to him? Looking out across the concrete hallways that linked apartments together, she saw only three lights shining in the floors below them. The night was quiet, with only scattered bursts of drunken laughter and shuffling feet to interrupt it. Martha could almost hear her own heart breaking. Ray watched her and said no more of God.
Taylor had most likely already gone to sleep. Her guests had all but returned to their own homes, leaving Martha and Ray as the sole guardians of the complex. Three A.M. had come and gone. Martha stood still on the doormat of Room 300.
Ray spoke, and Martha couldn’t tell when he had begun to speak like a scratched record. He was in the doorframe behind her, his arms hanging lose at his sides. Martha tried not to look back at him too often, but found him hard to completely ignore. He was calmer than she had imagined a cocaine addict would be. Apart from the way he couldn’t keep the words from coming out of his mouth, and the way his long fingers twitched as his spoke, he seemed like any other boy leaned up against a doorway on a late night.
Martha tried to focus on his fingers, on those occasions when she couldn’t resist turning his way. They were beautiful, insofar as one’s fingers could be beautiful. All of him had been beautiful to her, only a couple of hours before. His fingers, his hair, his collarbone, his words. Was she allowed to find him beautiful now? She gripped her necklace tight, nearly ripping it from her neck. She knew what people said about people like Ray, about sinners. Was she allowed to thank God for him now? She couldn’t stand on his doorstep any longer.
“I have work in the morning,” he said as she tried to hand him back his coat, “You keep it. I’ll come and get it before I leave.”
His voice was full of hope. Overflowing with it. It grated on Martha’s ears and she smiled politely. She left Room 300 and let herself in to Taylor’s apartment. The only place left for her to sleep was the floor. She curled underneath Ray’s large jacket guiltily, like a dog. She fell asleep immediately and dreamt of angels.
In the morning, she left at sunrise. Taylor seemed glad to see her go. The coat she left on Israel’s doorway, taking care not to make enough noise to wake him. The note she had written him remained crumpled in her left hand.
She was not ready to face God again just yet.
– Elizabeth Rose