Ryan is on fire for the Lord. We’re sixteen, and it's the dawn of the new millennium. We meet in our community theatre's production of The King and I. Ryan is tall and gels the front of his hair. He used to be home schooled, but now he goes to public school, which is full of sin but is also a good place for spreading the Word. Ryan carries around two books with him at all times: a pocket-sized NIV New Testament and a graph paper notebook where he writes memory verses and inspiring song lyrics. He plays the guitar. I, as it happens, love boys who play the guitar.
Doing community theatre isn't really about acting. It isn't about lights in your eyes or the thrill of applause. It's about the secret space that surrounds the play: unsupervised downtime. We spend most of this downtime in the parking lot behind the theatre. No one is up to anything, and yet, we are up to everything. Where else, in a town like ours, can you wear a ball gown and sit in the dark with the boy you like, hoping his knee will touch yours and he'll tell you the sensitive secrets of his soul? It’s a misplaced prom dream for the meek and lowly.
In real life, I am chubby and awkward with the requisite braces and glasses and hair that really shouldn't have been cut into "the Rachel." But when we perform, I’m wearing contacts and mascara. Surely Ryan has noticed. Two weeks ago after practice he called me his "sister in Christ" and kissed my forehead. I can't let go of the feeling of his Chapstick-perfect lips on my skin.
On the night of dress rehearsal I follow Ryan to the hill behind the parking lot. It used to be a dirt pile where the law firm next door was going to expand, but they changed plans and grass grew over the dirt. Tonight, I can feel the universe pulsing. The night sky spreads out overhead, full of promise.
"Look at all those stars," Ryan says.
"I know. They're so bright."
"Jesus said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' Isn't that comforting? If we follow Christ, we can have that light."
I scoot a little closer to him on the hill. He leans back, staring up at the sky.
"Jesus makes it sound so easy, following him," Ryan says. "But it's not. It's really hard."
"I think you do a good job."
"You don't know that. You're so pure. I wish I could be like you."
"Can I help?" I inch my hand closer to his, but he raises his arms behind his head.
"Pray for me. That’ll help."
"I will,” I promise.
Then the stage manager throws the backstage door open and hisses into the darkness for all the chorus members to hurry the hell up or we’ll miss our cue.
Before opening night, Ryan leads the cast in prayer. I try to stand beside him as we all join hands, but I end up beside weird Mark with his sweaty palms.
"Dear God, I just thank you for bringing us here today. We give you all the glory, God. We just pray that everyone tonight remembers their lines, God. That you bless us, God, and be with us as we share your love with this audience. In your Son's holy name we pray, Amen."
The show goes awesomely. At intermission, I try to get Ryan’s attention, but he’s deep in conversation with his friend Brandon. I sit in the backstage hallway and pretend to read a book Ryan lent me called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. When Mark comes and asks me what's wrong, I sigh and say, "Nothing. I just feel like being alone."
The next night, Ryan asks me if I want to go to Bible study with him after the show.
"This group is like my family," Ryan says. "They're spiritual warriors."
I call my mom to ask. This is practically my first date.
Ryan drives a bright yellow 4Runner because his mom wants him visible to reckless drivers. It is the best car I've ever seen, and now I'm in the front seat as we pull up to the house where the Bible study is in full swing.
We slip in as a skinny guy is giving his testimony. Tears stain his face and his body quivers as he shouts at us to banish impure thoughts from our minds. Every time we lust after a member of the opposite sex, every time we wish to do things only meant for holy matrimony, we are letting the devil tighten his grip on us. We are letting the devil in.
Ryan is nodding his head. When the skinny guy sits down, Ryan pulls out his guitar and leads everyone in song. "Over the mountains and the sea, your river runs with love for me, and I will open up my heart and let the healer set me free. I could sing of your love forever...I could sing of your love forever..."
Soon everyone is crying and repeating the lines of the chorus. The guitar music stops, and it's just our tortured voices, singing to the God who loves us and hates our sin.
As the group disperses for the night, a blonde girl in lowrise jeans and a pink American Eagle polo approaches Ryan and compliments him on his guitar playing.
"You were just, like, so full of the spirit," she says.
"Thanks, Abby. You're my sister in Christ," he says. He kisses her on the forehead and asks if she needs a ride home.
I sit in the back seat of the 4Runner. Abby is chatting about the latest Newsboys album. I lean against the car window. The night sky is foggy and polluted with the light of the world. I can't see a single star, but I keep looking.
Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: Dot Dannenberg