I Don’t Know How to Love Him

Candle in heart
Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

Eli was holding my hand when we noticed her. A woman was standing on the highest rock, the one that looked like an arrowhead. We never went up there. He was too afraid of heights. Besides, it took a good half hour to hike to the top of the falls, and lunch breaks during summer rehearsals were short. The other kids pretty much stayed at the theater, but since I had a hand-me-down car, we could drive to the trail in minutes. That left twenty more once we walked to the woods and stripped. It wasn’t enough.

That’s why I grabbed Eli’s wrist when he stopped that day. I yanked on his arm until he pinched my wrist, hard. He was usually too gentle. I looked up then, like him, and saw the woman high above, small to us because of the distance and overexposed by the sun. We’d never seen anyone out there before, not in the middle of the week. We squinted at the mint-green outlines of her pantsuit, the shiny edges of her white purse and shoes. A mom. A grandma, even. A tourist or something. She made her way to the tip of the rock and looked over the fence, down at the crashing falls. She stepped up, onto the first rail.

I shrugged. She leaned. Eli dropped my hand and broke into a run.

At rehearsal that morning, we’d mostly sat around while the director staged the crucifixion scene with Clay, who couldn’t keep a straight face on the cross. Jesus Christ Superstar was tough to cast with high school kids, even theater nerds like us. We kneeled in the wings on the filthy black floor, watching the cross sway onstage. Kesha, who played Mary Magdalene, pointed at Clay. She whispered to Eli, “That should have been you.” A lot of people said he could have gotten Jesus in a heartbeat.

I guess I should have known why he was running up the trail. Just yesterday, he’d rescued a snot-eyed kitten from a ditch. He’d made miso soup for a fellow apostle with a cold. But we’d already wasted five minutes, at least. Our clothes were still on. When he glanced back, I threw up my hands. His face blanched like milk, and he bolted ahead, vanishing into the trees.

He never even auditioned for Jesus. He was cast as a disciple, and I was Mary Magdalene’s understudy. Right before we left for lunch, Clay finally had a breakthrough on the cross, singing with genuine grief. He even cried. Everyone else was like wow, but it took me a minute to care. Martyrdom seemed sort of like breakfast, a shower. Like brushing your teeth. “Phew,” Eli said. “I’m glad that’s not me.” He felt like a stranger, untouched.

Yet he felt it first, what the woman up there on the rock might do next. I had to look back and stare. She had eyes like two guns shooting blanks and a fading black aura, a slouch. Even now, I sometimes forget not every mother looks like this. Back then, I watched her the way I watched rain.

She put one leg over the fence. She held her purse out over the falls and let it go. It hit the water. She lifted her eyes to the sky.

Eli careened into view, not far from her now. He yelled something I couldn’t make out. He waved and he yelled. She didn’t seem to notice him. She climbed down, straightened her pantsuit, and left.

The sun rises. Women suffer.

Eli came back. He reached for me. Secretly, I’d wished all month that he was Judas because that was the best role. At least that’s what I told myself. Teenagers never think they want what’s most familiar, but they do, just hi-res and screaming, on steroids, in flames, especially when it hurts most. Judas had a rare, raging, kill-you kind of pain that I could get behind.

But when Eli took my hand, I used his face like a mirror, so I could look as if I’d been shocked too. Then I dug my head into his chest like all I’d ever sought was his clean and sacred heart. That white purse was gone. The falls never stopped. For a second, before I forgot, I wanted something new.

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