During prayer meetings, everyone did their best to thank God for the misfortune he had wrought upon their lives. Every week there was a new mutiny of the body for which to thank the lord, a repossessed car, a dead son. Sarah tried to cry, but she was too self-conscious.
She feared that either by too soft or too strenuous a performance, she might instead call attention to her lot, which was to be a solitary woman who knew how to move through the world unseen. Her parents, chaste Midwesterners she had never seen touch, were alive and still together. She called them too much; they put her on speaker and went about their chores. Through the phone, she could hear how the birds in Indiana were more effusive than the birds in New York.
In Albany, the birds, the trees, the men, were inert. At work, there was an open-office plan, but no one talked. When she was promoted, there were three tepid congratulatory emails and a single balloon tied to the arm of her chair. Her life was ecstatic insulation, a square one-bedroom apartment, a single spoon. At 33, nothing of note had happened to her. Her body felt decorative, as if it were missing some crucial architecture and only keeping time. Her nails grew. Her hair seemed to have reached its terminal length, and when she went to bed, it was with the certainty that she would live too long.
Then Jacob. He came to the prayer meeting and had no trouble producing tears. He had no trouble stopping them. This change was often so abrupt, it felt contemptuous, a premeditated seizure of the group’s goodwill. Yet she found herself jealous of his gift for tragedy, of all the members in his family — a mother, a brother — who were dead.
And so when she met his eye, it was only to convey that she was unimpressed. She wanted the relationship that everyone else seemed to have with God, the doting cruelty, the blade pressed into the throat of a favorite son. Jacob’s life was a wealth of misfortune — that font of dead relatives, a pinkie finger he couldn’t extend, an ex-wife who had left him after two years without notice or ceremony.
She wanted her faith to be pristine enough to warrant a test, and so it was with this desire that she set out to keep a perfect Sabbath. All chores complete before Friday’s sunset. The dishes washed, the floors scrubbed, the recycling separated and removed. In preparation for a still, blue day on which there was no work, only a faint cosine of latent energy, her body lank and ready to be judged.
Despite her effort, she could not avoid the newest member of her small Seventh Day Adventist church. He was recent to the area, from a flat, grassy state where neighbors spoke to each other and where the churches were less rigorous Protestant sects that drew younger crowds and pastors who liked to play acoustic guitar. But Jacob knew the book backward and forward, closed his Bible and summoned the shape of his Gospel — his memory excellent, ruthless in its pursuit of a purpose beyond recitation. She admired his composure and his voice, which was full and bright, like a thick pane of glass. In this tenor, his arrogance felt like a kindness. His voice was also central to the choir, and approximately 30 minutes before Friday’s sunset, as he smoked a cigarette and practiced his scales, they collided as she was running to her car.
“You in a hurry,” he said, his fingers emerging from the dark, tipped with cherry light. Sarah turned away from the smoke. It was only alone with him that she realized her admiration was partly fear. His eye contact was lingering and impolite, when it was just the two of them, his inclination toward analysis became gleefully conspiratorial.
“I’m going to keep a perfect Sabbath,” she answered.
He seemed to mull it over, and she resented this presumption, the way he was taking her words and turning them over and inside out, vetting them for plausibility. He seemed to take her unwavering faith as an insult, claiming skepticism fortified his own. This was the dynamic they’d fallen into, her earnest freefall against his arch, intellectual exercise. It would have been unbearable if not for the curious desperation bracketing his debate. It made her feel he had entrusted her with something secret, something they all felt but did not dare speak aloud, which was the possibility that the blood and wine and multiples of fish were all part of an elaborate hoax.
On the following Friday at 3:05 p.m., when she drew him into her home to assist in engineering an unimpeachable 24 hours, she was shocked to see that he was serious. He came armed with his own bucket and ammonia, shrugged off his coat, and brutalized her furniture in search of any nook potentially caked with grime. As she pulled a slick tongue of hair from the bathroom sink, she looked through a crack in the door and saw him on his hands and knees, frantically scrubbing the floor. She noticed that he wasn’t wearing any socks, and something about this made her want to ask him to leave.
After the house was clean, they cooked enough food to last through Saturday evening. Having been made uncomfortable all day by his smiling competence, his imprecision in this was a relief. She took great pleasure in showing him how to fold and knead, how to balance acid and sugar and milk and zest, how to work with the spongy consistency of a canned vegetarian base. Over the sweet tickle of activated yeast, he confessed that he could not remain faithful to the SDA-mandated diet of dark greens and soy-based meat substitutes, and because this was what she expected, she felt herself relax.
However, there was wine. He’d brought it with him in a brown paper bag and insisted that it was kosher, made from fox grapes and kept free from contact with grain, but it did not bear a kosher seal. She didn’t mention that, and he smiled when she took a drink.
Secure as she was in her faith that she could lead by example, and that opening her door to him was in service of this purpose, there was a counterpoint — a sensation in the arches of her feet, a traitorous vibration waiting to be stoked. This was what troubled her, that on some level purer than Schadenfreude, she was enjoying his conflict and private asides, the panic and defiance in his eyes, the possibility that he wasn’t asking for help but for company.
It had been eight months since she’d been with a man. He had been kind, but she couldn’t remember his face or what he had done for work. She only remembered that a few times he had called her Mother, and still she took him home.
As she and Jacob sang hymns to welcome the Sabbath, she realized the day had been remarkably tame. Aside from a little showboating around the harmonies, he didn’t provoke her. Dinner finished without incident, and she found she was disappointed. It was the first time in a while that all of the preparations for the Sabbath were complete. Still, she drained her wine and watched his face for any sign that his passivity was a joke. He waffled in the doorway, reached reluctantly for his coat.
“Is there anything else?” he asked, and against her small door, he seemed a giant, lonely man.
“I can’t ask you to work.”
“It’s not meant to be so literal,” he said, lips dark with old wine.
“The ones who look for metaphor are looking to do a little as possible.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing right now? As little as possible?”
“I’m trying,” she said, surprised by the tremor in her voice. She imagined a divine inertia, a silence deliberate enough to register in the cirrus where God might finally see her and find her deserving of punishment. She imagined the lurid testimony, when she could finally say, I’ve felt him, and here’s my proof.
“Tell me what you need,” he said, and while what she needed was not technically within his power to give, there were things that were small, that were concrete, that a human man could grant.
“I need to brush my hair,” she said, and they settled into her bedroom before her mirror, where he, with a clumsy, unpracticed rhythm, unraveled her braid and pulled the brush through her hair. He was both too gentle and too rough, ill-equipped to handle snags, favoring one side of her head. But it was this uncertainty in him that excited her. He set the brush down, curled the ends of her hair around his fingers, and gazed at her in the mirror. And when he pulled her hair around his fist, when she felt his seriousness, the sudden obliteration of the slack, she saw her own expression in the mirror and knew that it undermined her conviction when she asked him to leave.
The next morning, she spent an indecent amount of time selecting the clothes she would wear to church. Toward her goal of a pristine Sabbath, such a morning routine was a direct rebuttal. As her idea of complete inaction became less plausible, she took comfort in Jacob’s idea of a metaphorical Scripture and then she spent the rest of the day trying to assuage her guilt.
When she walked through the church doors, she was worried everyone would notice her effort. Dressing up always felt embarrassing, like she was making public a preposterous longing. But this investment in herself, the thin coat of powder on her face and light color on her lips, was thrilling. She looked into the bathroom mirror and felt her vanity.
But Jacob was nowhere to be found. During the sermon, she tried to make her search for him look casual. She sat alone at potluck and realized Jacob was, in fact, the only person who usually talked to her. She took her food and ate in the room where they held primary school. She leafed through the children’s Scripture, marveling at the illustration of John the Baptist’s decapitated head. When she walked to her car, it was sunset.
“Are you wearing lipstick?” Jacob asked, appearing from out of the dark. When she looked at him, she was sure he somehow knew she’d been searching for him.
“No,” she lied, motioning for him to move aside.
“How did you like the sermon?” he asked, and she realized she had not caught a single word. “When he gets lost in the Temple as a boy. I love that story.”
“I do. When Jesus is a man, he’s given to all the needs of the human body, but he’s impenetrable. Nothing tempts or deters him. Not seriously. Even in the desert, you get the feeling he merely indulges the Devil. Like the Roadrunner does with Wile E. Coyote. Or like Jerry does with Tom. But when Joseph and Mary leave him in the Temple, it feels different. They’re scared because he’s their child.”
“You watch a lot of cartoons?” She couldn’t articulate how this touched her, this rare lack of irony. How it scared her.
“Yes.” He laughed.
“Could I have a cigarette?”
“No,” he answered, drumming his fingers on the top of her car.
“What? Why not?”
“Because you don’t smoke.”
“Sure I do,” she said, though when he handed her a cigarette her lie was apparent. He circled his finger to indicate that she had the wrong end in her mouth, handed her his lighter. It was her second cigarette. The first, when she was 12, was a bust. It got too wet and made her sick, and she told her parents when she couldn’t bear the guilt. For her punishment, she had to write a letter to God, detailing this disregard for her body, which she’d been told was a temple, but which she knew was also made from dust.
“What’s going on with you.”
“I can’t do it,” she answered, taken aback by the taste, the volume. She knew the cigarette called attention to the tremor in her hand. She switched it to the other hand, and it started shaking too.
“Can’t do what?”
“I can’t keep even an adequate Sabbath.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said, though she had never felt so envious, so vain. Because nothing was happening. God had been a boy, then a man, then a vapor, spread into a dome over the Earth. This was what was unbearable about Jacob’s sentiment, the idea that God had ever been like them, lost and prone to thirst. Jacob studied her face, tucked a cigarette behind her ear.
“I can help you,” he said, and when the next Friday came around, so did he, with his bucket and cleaning supplies. But they had done such a thorough job the week before there was hardly anything to be done. Wordlessly, they prepared the food.
But by the time the food was ready, sunset was 15 minutes away. They rushed to do the dishes, then stood to welcome the night, the sunset hymn truncated and unforgiving of the cracks in her voice. And then, as they closed the last verse, Jacob led her to the table and lifted a glass of wine to her lips. She opened her mouth, at first out of surprise, and then more resolutely as she realized what he meant to do. As their meal was not particularly sensuous, comprised entirely of standard harvest vegetables, it was awkward, but she was intrigued by his consideration of the spoon as it passed over her teeth. She was amused by the proportion of wine against the proportion of food, how he emptied the rest of the bottle into his mouth when she, without saying the room was beginning to slant, gently pushed his hand away.
There was no indication that his ploy to keep her from doing any work on the Sabbath demanded her silence, but still she did not speak. She didn’t speak when he lifted her into his arms and carried her to her room. Or when he again brushed her hair. She didn’t speak when he ducked into her bathroom and ran the bath. She didn’t speak when he came back, his pants wet at the knees, and lifted her dress over her head. Or when he removed her underwear and socks, and without lingering, scooped her up and lowered her into the water, the tub hard and cold against her back. Or when he, in such an antiseptic fashion it betrayed his nerves, bathed her behind her ears, under her arms, and, so gruffly as to not be misconstrued, between her legs.
The bathroom acoustics were unforgiving. Each small sound, the faucet turning, her sharp, expectant breaths, became conspicuous.
She didn’t speak when he lowered her into bed and stood before her wringing his hands. In the half-light, she saw him considering, and she waited, desperate to see what he would do. She was not prepared for him to leave.
The next morning, she worried she might have to explain herself, that they would have to look at each other and process their absurdity. This was usually how she felt after being with a man — slack, antisocial, and radioactive with embarrassment. As she curled her hair and rolled on the dark lipstick she’d purchased during a week she was optimistic about her looks, she knew the night they shared was the kind of night that did not repeat. On these nights, you see each other too closely. You conspire an island. You look down his throat, he looks down yours. And then you abandon the island and pray it gets swallowed by the sea.
She wore sunglasses to the morning service, and when she saw Jacob across the church, he looked away. All through potluck, she watched him talk with everyone else. Not inclined to beg for his attention, she went to her car and dug up some cigarettes. Her fingers were still clumsy with the light, but her hands were steadier now.
“It was wrong,” he said, and she kept her back to him, surprised by the smallness of his voice.
“What was wrong?” she asked, turning around to offer a cigarette he promptly declined.
“What we did. What you wanted me to do.” He raked a hand through his hair, snatched the cigarette from her mouth and crushed it in his hand. She took off her sunglasses.
“Why does it make you feel better to know God was once human? I don’t understand that.” Feeling like she’d said too much already, she slid the glasses back on and kept going. “I don’t want him to have ever been like me. I want him to be perfect. Perfect in his conviction, in his anger. I want high water. I want sulfur. I want salt. I want there to be consequences.”
And the way Jacob looked at her then, with his utter lack of surprise, she knew he would remember her unkindly, even after the requisite time had passed. She understood her abnormality and resented him for seeing it. And so in the days that followed, she redoubled her effort. She rid her home of the leftover wine and fasted, becoming acquainted with the machinery between the heart and lungs. With hunger she believed there was clarity, though after a week, there was delirium, every autonomic function conspicuous and incomplete.
When she woke up needing food, she drove, fed quarters to unmanned tolls. The rest-stop vending machines were always all out of water, and the woods around the highway were sparse and brown. On a late night she found herself at the Danbury Mall in Connecticut. She went to a kiosk to get her hair straightened and fell asleep in the chair. When she woke up, she could smell the burning hair.
In the center of the mall, there was a carousel. Most of the horses were taken, but one was free, an Appaloosa made of painted fiberglass. Its mouth was open and someone had written something on its neck. As soon as she mounted the horse, the endeavor lost its allure, but because she was surrounded by children, because there were parents turning away from their children to watch, she felt she had to see it through.
It went around slowly, and as it came to a stop, she slipped off and went to her car, where she sat and contemplated her hunger and then drove back to New York, through sleepy Dutchess County and through the winding roads bracketing Hyde Park. She didn’t see the deer, but when she got out of her car to look at it, she had a specific memory of it five seconds before, pressing its nose to the road. She touched its belly, and then tentatively, its ears, which lay flat and limned in blood. She was surprised by the warmth she still felt under the down, the panic still legible in its eyes. She grasped it around the neck and pulled it over to the shoulder, slowed by the grain of the road.
After, she lit a cigarette, which now felt like an extension of her hand. She looked more closely at the deer and became acquainted with its terror, because she felt that was her responsibility, but otherwise, she was envious. That a terrible thing could happen to an animal that could not fully comprehend it, that it had done nothing, but had been paid the special attention of this death. When the officer came, the deer was still alive. The officer seemed uninterested in the details and asked her for one of her cigarettes. He pulled out a flashlight and shined it into the deer’s eyes. At the other end of the flashlight, there was a gun. When she saw it, the first impulse was to turn away. But her second impulse was more honest.
She turned to watch as the officer, whose name tag said Vanderschiff, tucked the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and pulled the trigger. And at 6:43 EST, it became Friday night.
Raven Leilani grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist faith but currently practices no religion. She’s finishing her debut novel at New York University’s Creative Writing Program. This story is (c) 2019 Raven Leilani.