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And There Was Light

— Raven Leilani

I believe God is a comedian. That he woke up, cleaned his nails, and grew tired of all the ether. That he rolled a few essential stars inside his hand and set upon the earth, made these soft, blinking things in his own image, knowing they would turn on him. The joke is not that an intelligent being made a race capable of dissent. It’s that we thought the dissent was original. Here’s the punchline: What we did to him, our bodies do to us. In our anatomy somewhere is a button that says: self destruct.

Six months after I left the church, I took the train to a hospital in Harlem and had my uterus removed. The doctor who did it wore Buddy Holly glasses and had the number 49 tattooed behind his ear. When the anesthesia lifted, the nurse helped me to the toilet, and I cried. When I went back to my room, the doctor was there in a suit, looking at his watch. A success, he said, and when I put my hands over my face, he said, in such a way that I could feel his embarrassment for the artifice, There, there. This was my punishment for leaving the church.

The first week of my newfound agnosticism, I stayed indoors. But I worried about lightning. About a flank of locusts. About a path of silt between two shuddering sea walls. While I worried about God’s retribution, I tested the waters. I ate some cud-chewing animals, experimented with telling lies.

I had sex and it felt bad, though I suspected that when you defected and it was premarital it was supposed to feel that way. And then this pain in my abdomen. Then an ovarian cyst the size of a fist. Once it was gone, I met a man on the train and brought him back to my apartment. He struggled to take off his shoes. He noticed my Bible—an annotated King James with slightly more approachable language—and when he went to pick it up, I dove for it before he could. This changed the mood of the room.

I stole a package from my neighbor’s doorstep and there was an inhaler inside. I considered using it but then I put it back into the packaging and returned it. I left a note: I’m sorry, I thought it would feel better.

There are animals that expand their jaws and there are animals that follow each other off of cliffs. I knew which one I was, and that’s why I left.

I am not afraid to die. I am afraid that I was happiest when I was told what to do. I saw a comedy show once, where half of the people in the audience were asleep, and the comedian brought a black man on stage and said, Look at you, so well-dressed, and that was the joke. I laughed because I was nervous the comedian would do that to me.

There are animals that are born with the entire light spectrum in their blood. Their skin is negotiable, birch, grass. There are other animals, too, adorned for the environment to accommodate, and those are the ones we hunt.

So a shrewd black woman is adept at camouflage. And when she tells a story, she defies an evolutionary imperative. She exposes her throat.

On one of these late nights, I met a friend for drinks. A year before, she’d lost her right breast. She was bright and flippant the way it is inspirational to be. The key is to be tragic but funny about it. Comedy is the subversion of an expectation, so if the expectation is that you suffer, what you have to do is smile. But before she got into the cab, she placed my palm against her chest and she said, there will never be a reason good enough.

A secret: Adam, folding a single flower into the mortar of his new house. Isaac, standing over his father as he sleeps. Lot, walking into the sea until the air is thick with salt. By which I mean: no reason has ever been good enough.

My friend took me to a play. She wore a prosthetic breast.

She was seeing a man a lot of sick women were seeing, though few had actually seen his face. She said that gradually, she was developing an allergy to the sun. This was because of the man. She wanted me to meet him.

The play was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In the play, a married couple has a son. You get to see him be born, and you get to watch him die. I looked at my friend and I said, Isn’t it awful. To make a person out of air.

There were a few things I had to do if I wanted to see the man. I had to take the filaments from my light bulbs and lace them between my teeth. And then I had to turn my circadian rhythm inside out. Here’s how: Introduce light into your life when it is most inappropriate. The suprachiasmatic nucleus is an extremely gullible part of the brain and it is sitting right behind your eyes. So to confuse your internal clock, you have to forge a sun.

I read through the literature and ordered five sun lamps for my room. As a courtesy to my roommate, I rolled up an old towel and put it in front of my door. I took the night shifts no one wanted. I went for a cervical x-ray. I draped my mattress with Christmas lights, which it turns out is a rookie mistake as red, blue, and green are the weakest forms of light.

At Johns Hopkins, researchers were hard at work, upsetting the core clock genes in mice. The idea was to fracture their circadian rhythm with constant light, to dupe neurons into firing for higher wattage until all systems became liquid. In this liquid state, a mammal is most susceptible to reprogramming. In the literature, light is called an entrainer, or a zeitgeber, meaning time giver. This is what the movement was about.

I stopped sleeping and met my friend for drinks. She said, There is a reason you couldn’t feel it before. Think of it as a cancer. And how do you treat a cancer? And I said, With radiation.

Once I learned how to be awake all the time, I began the second phase. At Cornell, they were breaking natural oscillations by modulating HIF genes, destabilizing the oxygen in the blood. The process was called Rhythmic Oxygen. And by the time I was breathing and sleeping as little as I could, I was qualified to see the man.

Three women came to collect me. They wore sneakers and velour, and one of them had a portable oxygen tank. They drove a van, and on the side, it said Queens HVAC Repair. Up until this point I’d been confident in my ability to overcome the need to sleep and breathe, but on the way, I could barely stay awake. I waited in the backroom of a massage parlor in Chinatown. The man was running late, and when he finally arrived, I was disappointed to find that he was white. But most importantly, I want you to know that on his way into the room, he tripped.

It embarrassed me, and I wanted to forget that I saw it, but his overcompensation made it impossible. He said, I’m so happy to meet you Jessica, and I said, My name is Rachel. He looked like a single father. Like something had taken a bite out of him. He sat down and I began to wash his feet. He said, You still haven’t figured out how to breathe, and I said, I’m doing my best. He said, We haven’t received your dues this month. And I said, A moment ago, did you trip?

For a moment I questioned myself. I thought that I would let it go, but then I hooked my fingers through his toes and pulled him out of his chair. I said, I saw you, and he was trying to pull my hands from around his neck but, if things weren’t already bad enough, I was stronger than him.

I don’t know that anything is sudden. A mile back the VW Bug changed lanes and powered through a yellow light before it sent you into the air, and on the day you squeezed a cantaloupe and worried you couldn’t afford it, your immune system was already staging a coup against the nerves in your hand. And so this was not a revelation. I just found out that all my gods were accident-prone, and this was more than I could bear.

A secret. A manufacturing error. God, dissatisfied with the original iteration of the tongue. God, making up for it with Eve, deepening her capacity for hunger.

After this, my friend wouldn’t return my calls. I set my sun lamps out on the curb. Fell asleep for blocks at a time on my way home, the doorknob a surprise inside my hand. I was convinced of the earth’s tilt. Felt it leaning away from the sun, then felt it leaning in. I sat in the park across from the church and watched the hats tumble down the stairs. Beyond them, a man mops his brow and tells a joke. He says, There is a flood. A man is drowning. He prays to God for help. God sends two boats, and the man declines each one. God asks him, ‘Why didn’t you accept my help?’ And the man says, ‘Because you’re the one who made it rain.’

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