Before He Made Love He Made Light

By David Lerner Schwartz

The reverend kept talking about Christ, how he’d died for this and that. Seated
in the farthest pew, I only thought about the dancer. I both wanted her and
wanted to ruin things. We hadn’t boned yet. Did that make me a sinner or not?
My days were listless—I had just moved to a new city to teach history. I cried
most mornings. After the gym. Something about lifting weights, or hurting. A
release? Or a punishment. I don’t know. I guess people believe we can be saints.
I have blond hair and blue eyes, and when had that hurt anybody? I could
probably at once punch my own face gone and raise an abused kid into a happy
adult. What matters deep inside is a rolling boil.


The campus church was small but beautiful. Since it was an Episcopal high
school, the faculty and students were required to attend each morning. I woke
up early and got into a routine: the gym, a good cry, chapel, class. Toward the
end of the sermon, I studied the old stained-glass skylight behind the cascading
wooden beams. They’d put a mosaic bird in one of the panes for a kid who had
died. Apparently, at his funeral, a swift flew into the church and perched on his
casket. Jesus.


The organ, then the reverend again. He had such a shitty voice. This was a
world of too much talent, so why did he have to sing? He strained when he had
to go high, and his voice had little bass, so it got swallowed by the low notes. We
ended on “Come Down, O Love Divine.” I waited until the third verse, which
was my favorite. The first two were bullshit. My only friend here—Carter, an
English teacher—agreed, and we locked eyes across the sanctuary. “And so the
yearning strong,” I sang, “with which the soul will long, / shall far outpass the
power of human telling.”


My classes could never tell I was hungover. Or exhausted. Or overripe with
wanting. I’d left a relationship to move here, and, being a douche in the modern
era, I didn’t exactly close anything down. She was one of those hippie types—a
girl who believed that the universe has meaning and everything happens for
some sort of reason. When I learned I’d scored the teaching gig, I held her hand.


“Let’s see what happens,” I said. “Okay?”
She paused, so I imagined she was tasting my aura. Or fingering my essence.
Boofing whatever kind of chakra I was or was not activating at that exact moment.
“This should be it, then,” she said instead.
Wanting to ruin things sometimes means you never let them go.
“Let’s see what happens,” I said. “You know?”
“No?”
“Like—let’s see. Let’s be free, but here for each other.”
She said, “Then that’s not freedom.”


Before teaching World War II, I gave a whole class on corporeal punishment.
I taught whatever I found exciting, which I hoped might excite the kids, but
maybe I was just that childish. I put up my slides after church: Forms of Torture.
I flipped to the next screen. The rack. Then the next. The wheel. Then, the
Judas Cradle. It was a pyramid-shaped bludgeon that tore open someone’s bot-
tom parts when lowered onto it.

“Cool!” one student said. He’d be a fuckboy.
“Nice, Mr. Z,” another said. He’d be the nerd.


They’d go off to college, and they’d be themselves until they weren’t really
anybody anymore. We were all tropic. I used to think there was so much mys-
tery to life. I thought we could be surprised and we could change, but really
everything evens out. Like how “Come Down” ends: “For none can guess its
grace, / till Love create a place / wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.”
Fucking dwell in me, bro.


The dancer I met using an app. Swiping left, right. Sometimes I chose people
just in hopes of finding they had chosen me, too. Love was nothing without
power. Maybe my mom had warned me about that, may that sweet lady be
an angel in heaven. But when I saw the dancer, something in me stirred. That
rolling boil. I felt not alive but as if I could be living. I swiped. Apparently, she’d
swiped. We talked. We met.

“What’re you looking for?” I said. We’d been at the same bar for five hours,
but I didn’t know any other place to take her, so we remained. For some reason,
my bedroom felt too sacred. Call me a hippie.
“Love,” she said, too quickly. “I mean, who isn’t? This is the process, right?”
Before He made love, He made light. And God said, Let there be light: and
there was light. Isn’t that it? It’s everywhere: O holy light, this little light of
mine, light at the end of the tunnel. I left on all the fluorescents my first night
here, so that going to sleep was the same as waking up.


I liked that the dancer had her head on straight, that she believed in art and
hard work. It wasn’t until the next date that I saw how the afternoon sun cast
onto her front teeth which had been discolored by smoking a joint every day of
her adult life. She said she had anxiety. Or maybe it was depression. The only
clue was the faintest darkness along the inside edge of the result of otherwise
perfect orthodontia. Sure, I wanted to ruin things. But not like that.


We moved through World War II. I taught the kids a piece by Zuzana Justman
about her girlhood in Terezín. What an ironic last name. Her brother got polio,
her dad got sent to Auschwitz, her mom put in jail. Her mother had a lover,
who also got sent to Auschwitz. She finally wrote about these wrongs as an
older woman.


Earlier in the year, we discussed the importance of first-hand sources. But
Justman’s piece challenges that. She wrote she didn’t tell the truth in her diary
because she was scared it might be found. She was scared it would get her
family killed. So, she lied. Only after her entire life did she feel like she could
correct it.


People talk about denial. But people don’t talk about how much more terrify-
ing it is to face what’s real. It’s always about power. Haves, have-nots. Justman’s
record isn’t coy; truth had been hollowed out.
“Sad,” the fuck-boy said.


His parents spent $50,000 a year for him to go here, which was only about
$50 a class when it all shook out.


“It’s more than sad,” I said.“Yeah,” the soon-to-be-nerd said. “Like, we can’t even know how sad it is.
We have to trust it.”


Extra credit: Why do kids send around Hitler memes and call anyone hell-
bent on rules a Nazi?


Answer: it’s not right, but maybe it means it feels far away.


The dancer invited me to a performance of hers.
“It sort of fell into my lap,” she said.
“I didn’t know you were working on anything.” I figured she said dancer the
same way I said dreamer or narcissist—we wanted to believe we could be the
things we always thought we’d be.
“I don’t like to jinx it.”
I touched the scar under her ear.
“Like, I had rehearsals after work.”


She taught barre for cash, so she could dance with a different kind of pres-
sure, or maybe a different kind of freedom. At least that’s what she told me.
In the show, she was an astronaut. Her whole body was elongated, all
anti-gravity as she moved from one end of the stage to the other. There were
no other performers. The lights kept shining bright and then dipping out. She
bent over and then bounced up. A plastic bubble surrounded her head, and
someone had teased out her hair. I fell in love with the serenity of her face in
that bubble, her peace doing the thing she liked most. Her eyes were closed.
Her lips pursed tight. I couldn’t see her teeth.


After, she said, “So what’d you think?”
I kissed her on the mouth. My tongue met her tongue; I was jubilant.
“You radiated,” I said when we stopped. “You were an angel up there.”
“Well they don’t exist,” she said. “But I just did.”


My mom let me sleep in my crib until I was four because I was a tiny kid. Even
now, I think I remember the feeling of my feet sticking up against the wicker end
of it. I told the hippie this once, and she laughed at me. It was the first time I’d
seen her New Age ass get judgmental.


“Why didn’t she buy you a real bed?”
The crib had been passed down—it was made by my great-grandmother, who,
during the war, had hidden a Jewish family. I hadn’t thought about the crib until
I started going to church again in New York, after we talked about Jesus and the
manger. I’d been comfortable there in the too-small thing. And maybe my mom
was pleased by my making do with it, and so it was hard to change.


Even these days I sleep perfectly still, as if in a coffin. My bedroom in New York
could only fit a twin. When the hippie came over, or when other people before her
came, we fucked on the couch or on the floor but never in the bed. Sometimes we
just sat nude. They wouldn’t sleep over. Or, I’d go over theirs. When I was alone,
I wrapped myself in a quilt atop a duvet. I tucked in the edges. I liked the feeling
of being leaden. I cranked the air up as high as possible, even in the winter. Those
few blackouts in New York summer? In part thanks to me. I sleep so well, cold
and corpse-like. I guess I love teasing our most certain ending.


The dancer had mentioned over text she liked when guys called the shots, not
because she was traditional but because she was worthy. But shouldn’t I be, too?
We were on her bed, and she grabbed my top toward the bottom. I wanted
her to take it off. I assumed she wanted me to take hers off first. Everything is
always Who’s more of a pussy?


So I asked her to do it. She did. Then I did. We kept getting naked, and with
each reveal, she read me. I have twelve of the stations across my chest, because,
when I was growing up, professionals still didn’t have tattoos. Now, all the new
teachers do. Sleeves, hands, you name it. Everyone is younger than you, at a
certain point. Each time I’m scared, I remind myself: never again.


I watched her eyes linger on each one.


I. Jesus is condemned to death.
I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. I was too worried about what people thought
of me. Or where she was headed. Or where I was heading. It’s always selfish.


II. Jesus carries the cross.
I’d promised her I’d find a girl, settle down.

III. Jesus falls for the first time.
After Mom fell, it was all downhill. She walked maybe five times after that
without a cane. All with a lot of pain. “Mom, we can get you a new hip. We
can get you a new knee.” She had me late, and so she was old when I was still
youngish, but she refused to be replaced.

IV. Jesus meets his mother.
I miss her.

V. Simon helps him carry it.
I grew up with one sister.

VI. Veronica wipes his face.
But she stopped talking to me. She said I was angry. That she didn’t feel at
ease near me. Or maybe she was just busy.

VII. Jesus falls the second time.
She refused to help with Mom. “I’m scheduled till like next year, Jude. I’ve
got a career.” Well, she was a business strategy consultant. “I can’t just pick it
all up. But you have the evenings off. You have the summers off.”

VIII. Jesus meets the women.
And so I did. I moved across the country, to New York, where Mom chose
to remain. “It keeps me young,” she said. I went to church again. The dancer
lingered on this one. I had had the artist render these women as pin-ups. Good
Romans with pasties.

IX. Jesus falls a third time.
They gave her a year. I put her in hospice. I am still in debt.


X. Jesus’ clothes are taken away.
I buried her in her favorite power suit from her days working as an attorney.
She liked the law more than anything, maybe even us. It was the way the world
worked, that’s what justice was. She was Justine.

XI. Jesus gets nailed.

XII. I didn’t cry at her funeral.
I have not yet gotten the last two inked. To me, the story seems to end before.
The dancer was thin and strong, with a pierced nipple, too. For whatever
reason, I was not aroused. More intrigued. Finally, unbidden, she touched my
crotch, grabbed my ribs, licked my neck. My love language is being held, but
still I held back. We fell asleep without doing much that night. I woke up too
hard too early in the morning, and so then we had at it. When we fell asleep
again in daylight, I dreamt of her as a MILF from a porno rocking me.
And what happens after? God makes light, and the light’s good, right? And then
there’s darkness.


I grabbed beers with Carter after school to talk about women. We were both
still hungover from the weekend.
“Is it wrong that I keep fixating on her teeth?”
He wanted to know how bad they were. “What kind of dentist visit are
we talking? Like, meth-head? Or like—could be handled with over-the-counter
remedies?”
I told him the latter. “It’s not even that noticeable. I think I’m only thinking
about it because it’s a flaw. How fucked is that?”
“Your hamartia.” Carter taught the main Lit class at school.
“Once I noticed it, I couldn’t look anywhere else.”
“Sure,” he said. “We’re always looking for the first way out.”
I groaned. I wanted to tell him I cried after the gym. I maybe even wanted us
to cry together.


The hippie called me. I’d just dropped a weight on my toe after clearing my
deadlifts. I was holding my foot when I heard the ring through my headphones.
I waited for the blood to pool beneath the toenail. It had yet to come.
“Hey,” I answered.
“Hi,” she said.
I grabbed my bag and left. I limped back to my apartment, so I could tear up
and then go to church once I got off the phone with her.
“How is it over there?”
“Oh you know,” I said. I faked a laugh. “I’m getting the hang of it, the sched-
ule, finding a routine.” It was how I’d described my setup to the other teachers
at school, even Carter. I felt like a self-help book.


She told me about meeting someone at a yoga retreat. He was fine with
open relationships, but she thought it would make the most sense to close
down whatever we had out there. I almost had to ask what she meant, but
then remembered my cowardice.
“Are you sure?”
“I—I, yeah. But I’ll have your energy. You’ll have mine. You know? I can—
like—feel you, Jude. Even now. I think this is best.”
So, I feigned heartbreak. Or did I feel heartbreak?


The fuckboy and the nerd had thoughts about the Holocaust. The nerd clarified
that, in addition to the six million Jews, five million others died, too. Gays,
gypsies, the handicapped.


The fuckboy asked why the Jews didn’t just rebel. I brought up how they tried,
about secret coalitions and ghetto uprisings. The Jewish Combat Organization,
the Sonderkommando revolts. But it all comes back to power. The Jews—and
others, the nerd corrected—were starved and belittled. Emptied. Denied. It gets
harder and harder to fight.


I had the class read that poem, the one by Niemöller. “First they came
for the socialists, and I did not speak out— / Because I was not a social-
ist.” It ends with someone coming for the speaker, but there’s no one left
to speak for him. Presumably, he’s taken. They came to my great-grand-
parents’ house while they were at church. They broke in and left the bod-
ies after they killed them. It’s what I hated about “Come Down, O Love
Divine.” That second verse. “And let thy glorious light / shine ever on
my sight, / . . . the while my path illuming.” Whose path has ever been so
clear? To no avail I tried to find Zuzana Justman’s contact info, just to get
her take on it.


I met the dancer after church. Classes were canceled for a field trip. She didn’t
have work. Her hair was in a cap. I waited for her to part her lips in greeting
so I could locate that stain as a hint toward something darker.
She must have noticed my reticence. She put her hands in her lap and asked
me what was wrong.


“I don’t know,” I told her. And she knew.
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”
She asked why I was shy, on that second date, or when she’d wanted to hook
up, instead of the next morning. “Like, passion,” she said. “Did I do something?”
“No—”
“Are you prude?”
“Not really.”


There was a pause, and she fiddled with a twig. We were seated in the grass,
by a big elm tree. I couldn’t remember the trees of New York already.
“So . . . what?” she asked. I wish she had teased out her hair again. I wanted
to kiss that astronaut instead. It always went like this, no matter the person: once
she was revealed, she was as wrong as I was. I got horned up for hagiography.
The kid who died, whose bird got put in the chapel? It was a murder. He was
drowned, by a man who found him after school. A skinhead, swastikas, the
whole shebang. In the course of my mom’s career, she’d only put three in jail. It
was her one regret. “I would’ve done more bad to the bad guys, had I known
how it all ends, anyway. I wouldn’t have been scared.”
Same, I wanted to tell her, but she died before I could figure it out. So instead,
I was on the grass, with the dancer, trying to end it, so that maybe I’d stop crying
after I worked out.


“Let’s see,” I said. “Let’s see what—I don’t know—goes on.”
“What do you mean?”
I wanted a sunset right there. I wanted nighttime instead of her mouth open.
“Like—let’s see,” I said. “You know? Let’s be free, but here for each other.”
“You can’t have both,” she said. “Or at least, I don’t want that. It makes it
all less than or something.”
She got up to go, and I wished I could let her vanish. But I suppose I prefer
memory.


She had once sent me a video of her in a mirrored room dancing against a chair.
I muted the sound and watched the way she caused her body to change. She raised
her leg. She twisted her shoulder. I don’t know if it was supposed to be sexy. I
found it introspective. I too wanted to be moved, but not from the past.
“Hey, hold on,” I said, against my better judgment.
She turned around to face me.
At some point, you need to be saved.


David Lerner Schwartz teaches writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati where he is a doctoral student. His work has been published in Los Angeles Review, Witness, Literary Hub, New York magazine, The Rumpus, and more. His writing has been supported by grants and fellowships from UC’s Department of English and Niehoff Center for Film & Media Studies; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; St. Albans School; and the Bennington Writing Seminars, from which he holds an MFA. David works as the fiction editor of Four Way Review. davidlernerschwartz.com

Originally published in NOR 29.

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