By Juliana Marcelle Crespo
Gloria tried to convince me that Jesus lay dormant in the fibrous sinews holding my muscles and joints in place.
She’d come up to me to tell me this while I was doing arm curls at her husband’s gym. I set down the barbells and turned towards her so I could give her my full attention.
Jesus, Gloria said, was waiting for me to learn the language of the Bible. He wanted for the holy energy in my limbs to awaken. He makes you what you are, she told me, her voice as sweet as an untarnished apple. Her breath smelled like mint mouthwash. Her nails were painted red, and her hair reached all the way down her back.
I nodded and picked up the barbell. I did an arm curl. Then another. I wanted to feel something like that. I wanted to feel, period.
I’d gone to Gloria’s Pentecostal church once or twice already. Gloria had invited me after I’d been frequenting her husband’s gym for a couple of months. She must have sensed my loneliness. When you’re sixteen years old, and your mother sends you to live with her ex-husband, a man who looks at you like that and makes comments about wishing he could marry you, you’d be lonely, too.
But Jesus wasn’t like my stepfather. Jesus wouldn’t have sent me away the way my mother did. Jesus would have sat with me and the weight of my emotions. He would have let me cry on his shoulder.
“I’ll be there this Sunday,” I finally said.
She smiled at me in the mirror, her teeth so white they glinted.
~ * ~
Sometimes, when no one was around and a yearning for something I couldn’t name sprang up in me, I began to snack. Except that the snack became a mountain of food, and I became the ocean that swallowed everything in sight. I wasn’t selective either. I ate whatever I could find in the cupboards and in the fridge: Half-a-box Pop-tarts, several Twinkies, handfuls of chips, leftover Tonkatsu, a bowl of rice.
The more I ate, the more I swallowed up the little girl who wanted to feel the wind against her cheeks, who still cried out for her mother, who believed someone out there could love her.
I ate until the little girl disappeared beneath the ocean of food. I wasn’t left with much after that. I had my legs, but they couldn’t run. I had my arms, but they couldn’t hug. I had my lips, but they couldn’t kiss. I had my heart, but it couldn’t love.
But then the little girl made it to the surface of the ocean somehow. She gasped for air and cried, whispering to me all the while about how I needed to love her, how I needed to love myself.
The fact that I could hear her was infuriating.
I walked to the bathroom, shut the door, and knelt over the toilet. I shoved my fingers down my throat until the food began to rise up. The taste of partially digested food was sour, but I didn’t care. I wanted to clear the food out, in the same way I wanted to clear out the little girl. If I couldn’t drown her, then I could eject her.
I shoved my fingers down my throat until I threw up again. The little girl’s voice faded, and I hoped that I’d finally done away with her.
After I flushed the toilet and brushed, I walked to my bedroom and slowly closed the door. I opened up a magazine, my eyes pouring over the images. The girls, my own age, were thin and beautiful, their eyes joyous in a way I couldn’t connect with.
I walked over to the mirror and looked at my dark curly hair, my green eyes. I sucked in my belly until I was as thin as they were. I smiled. My eyes weren’t really joyous, not like theirs. But no one else would be able to tell. Maybe someday I wouldn’t be able to tell either, and my pretense would feel real, real enough for me to forget everything that had ever made me feel sad.
~ * ~
The next time I went to church, Gloria took me to the back room. She moved more quickly than usual, told me she had something to share with me. This will change your life, she said.
I sat down at a table and made sure my skirt covered my knees. I was still out of breath from biking to church. Gloria wheeled over a cart. On the cart was an old, dusty television. She plugged in the television and VCR.
I’m going to show you a Biblical movie, she explained as she pulled a movie out of her purse. But it it’s not just any Biblical movie.
She was right. The movie showed me what would happen to people who believed in The Word, come Judgement Day. They could be working in the middle of a field or driving a car, and they’d disappear, just like that. Those who didn’t believe were left behind to fend off demons.
You see, this won’t happen to you because you’re special, she said after the movie had ended. She stood in front of the television set, her body stiff and upright. Her pretty almond-shaped eyes bored into me. I tried not to cringe under the pressure of her gaze. I straightened my own posture and nodded, so she’d know I understood. When I left church, I rode my bike away as fast as I could.
That night, in bed, I stared at the pregnant moon outside the window. I wondered about Jesus. I’d hoped he’d let me cry on his shoulder. I’d hoped he’d let anyone cry on his shoulder. According to Gloria, Jesus wasn’t that way at all. He punished in the same way I’d seen people punishing others my entire life — with malice and unkindness.
I turned my back to the window and told myself I’d work harder to stop cursing.
But I wasn’t so sure I would.
~ * ~
A couple of days later I biked to the gym. Before I could begin working out, Gloria was talking to me about the newborn kittens at her house. She asked me if I wanted to see them, offered me a ride.
I didn’t know how to say no.
She drove me to her home, all the while explaining why I needed to start watching more Biblical movies. Other movies would pollute my mind. So would the few friends I had at school.
You see, you can’t spend time with friends who aren’t like you, she said. She paused for effect. They’re going to Hell. She paused again, smiled at me. But you, you’re going to Heaven.
When we reached her house, I entered cautiously. Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window, creating a circle of light on the kitchen floor. It was in this very circle of light that the kittens crawled, using their bellies to move along. Their eyes were sealed shut. They bumped into one another, their meows so tiny I could barely hear them.
Gloria encouraged me to hold one of them. I knelt down and picked up a feeble kitten, held her in the palm of my hand. She was the color of night, so black she glimmered in the sunlight. She meowed and squirmed. She pushed her tiny wet nose against the palm of my hand. I held her up to my cheek, reveling in her softness. Then I set her down near the mama cat. The kitten snuggled her softness into her mama, meowing. The mama cat looked at me with her impossibly large eyes. Then she lowered them and bent her head down to lick her kitten.
I stayed crouched near them, watching as the other kittens crawled towards their mama. The kittens were as delicate as flower seedlings in spring rain. But their curiosity, their fire would carry them through it all. That much I could see.
In the midst of all this, Gloria’s voice became indistinct, like a howling wind. Maybe she was talking about the Bible again, or perhaps she was telling me I shouldn’t spend time with my friends. It didn’t matter, not so much. The moment had become like the tranquil surface of a lake, her words floating on lilies in the other direction.
Soon after we left, and the car was quiet. Gloria seemed to be deep in thought. I didn’t mind. The sun was beginning to set. The sky was rich with turquoise and midnight blue and rose. I tilted my head towards the sun. In my lap, my hands held onto one another, as if saying hello.
~ * ~
The next morning I awoke and looked out the window at the open sky. The sun was just peeking over the horizon.
Then I remembered my dream. In the dream, Jesus had come to me, shrouded by soft light. He held me, not with his arms, but with his love. Just a few moments of being held like this, and I felt like a feather buoyed by air.
The dream slipped away, but the sweetness stayed with me. I covered my stomach with my hands, rested there. While I rested there, a realization rose to the surface of the same lake that had carried Gloria’s words away.
That little girl, she could have just as easily been one of those kittens, crawling with her eyes closed, wanting my touch. Her voice was still small, like the kittens’ meows. But her message was a message of love.
When I got out of bed, I dressed and sat down at the kitchen table to eat toast with jam. The jam was sweet in my mouth, and I let the taste linger on my tongue. A couple of slices of toast was just enough. As I rinsed my dish, I understood, in that way we just intuitively understand things sometimes, that I would never throw up my food again.
I got my bike out of the shed. I didn’t bike to church or to the gym. Instead, I rode my bike to the top of a hill, my legs pedaling hard to get me up there. When I reached the top, I stood there, surveying all that was below me, the houses and my school and the cars driving from one place to another.
I stood there until I had caught my breath.
Then I flew all the way down on my bike, the wind carrying my hair behind me, the cool air kissing my cheeks, the world glowing with the morning light of the sun.
Juliana Crespo is a mother, teacher and writer who hails from Brazil and currently calls Bloomington, Indiana home. Connect with Juliana on her website, Lyrical Awakening, as well as her Facebook page.
Image credit: “Girl with bicycle near the Seine” captured by Nicolas Vigier.