My eyes keep darting between the pew and the glass doors on the other side. I can't stop thinking about your dark curly hair, and how the ends of it bounce with every step you take. Maybe you're not coming to church today. Maybe you overslept. I shouldn't be looking anyway. Today is Sunday. If there was ever a time I shouldn't want to see you, it's now. But my eyes keep darting to the door. Brantley is next to me, and I can't let him know I'm not satisfied with his company. This isn't fair to him.
And then suddenly, between a tall redhead and a family of seven, I can just barely see those bouncing curls. Today you're wearing that green skirt you love. It goes well with your pale complexion, bringing out the freckles that are splotched across your legs. You're wearing a white blouse, picking at the bottom of it, making sure it didn't get tucked into your skirt. You flatten it out before letting your hands fall to your side.
I watch you walk with your family to the other side of the church. Your brother whispers something in your ear, and you turn to smile at him. I catch your eyes. Looking at you is like touching a live wire. Your smile sends waves of electricity through me, causing my heartbeat to fluctuate from its resting pattern. You push your dark bangs away from your face and smile as your family shuffles to sit down. For a moment it doesn't feel like there's fifty feet between us. There are no pews. No strangers. No judgments. For a moment it feels like Easter, when I saved seats next to me for your family. We were so close, we brushed fingers, bumped arms and pressed our shoulders against each other without notice. A smile begins to sneak its way onto my lips, and I realize that smiling at the pretty girl as she walks to a pew, feeling a tingling warm sensation course its way through my body, is not what I should be feeling on a Sunday morning during a Catholic Mass.
There's shuffling next to me. Brantley readjusts himself, messing with his khakis to get the wrinkles out of them. His blonde hair is tangled, but he's wearing a red polo to dress himself up. His brown eyes are warm, and he leans in to kiss me, but only on the cheek. Brantley will never kiss me on the lips in front of the whole congregation, most importantly, in front of his parents. I'm grateful for this, because that means on Sundays he won't kiss me in front of you.
"Hey, you seem somewhere else," he says. I feel my heart sink a bit. What would he think of me if he knew I was more excited to see you this morning than him?
I wave my hand through the air, shrugging off his question. His fingers curl against mine on the cushion of the pew. Brantley's touch is always cold. Looking at the dark lacquered floor, I can make out my distorted reflection; a dark figure with put-together hair, but my details are lost in it. All that is left is my silhouette. This must be how he sees me. He has the general picture, but not the specifics.
"What are you thinking abou..." Brantley tries to ask, but he's interrupted by a woman in a teal dress tapping on the microphone at the podium on the altar. She welcomes us and announces the opening hymn number and the pages of today's readings. There's a shuffling through the church as everyone pulls out the books that are nestled in shelves attached to the pew in front of them. The sound of thin pages being flipped echoes, bouncing off the high ceiling planked with wood like Noah's ark. Across the room, the main glass doors open, and the priest enters, followed by the altar servers and the deacon. The choir begins singing. When I join, the words I have sung countless times before come pouring out. I don't even have to think of the melody.
I can feel Brantley's eyes on me. Not in the unsettling way it feels like to be watched; it's something kinder than that. It feels like freshman year biology whenever I caught him glancing over at me from his table. There was something pure about only wanting to steal a glance, just to see me. For half of the semester that was almost all he did. He just looked.
I look up at him, he's smiling through his singing. He holds my gaze for a moment before looking back toward the altar where the priest is now standing. Father Michael is wearing his standard attire, a long green robe with a white piece of fabric centered on it that goes to the floor. The fabric is embroidered with red crosses. It's because he's Irish Catholic, just like our family. For generations and generations my family endured persecution for their faith, only to move to America and raise me. Would the family name even continue with me?
When the day came, would I choose you, or would I choose the church? How could I leave the tradition or the culture? How could I leave the soft feel of your skin holding me as tears fall down my face? Everyone begins to sit, and I see you again. You're trying to brush the wrinkles out of your skirt as you sit down, checking your blouse to make sure all of the buttons are still buttoned. You haven't even looked at the altar once this entire time. You're just going through the motions like any other Sunday.
"You looking for Emily?" Brantley whispers. My body stiffens. "I think I saw her over on the other side earlier. We can say hi to her after if you'd like."
I let go of the breath I've been holding and turn to smile. 'Maybe,' I mouth to him. The only thing he knows is that we're friends.
We are friends. Your parents made you go to youth group this year so you could receive your confirmation before you graduated high school. Small circles of teenagers would fill the room as we waited for the adults to start talking. Everyone always loved to come to your circle. You told the most mundane stories with such fervor and energy, it felt like we lived somewhere exciting, and not just in the middle of nowhere Florida. Whenever we dispersed from our social circles, you always stayed close to me. It was as if we were celestial objects, we were always being pulled toward one another.
People are singing again; I look up and a woman is standing at the podium. I must've missed the first reading thinking about you. What a great Catholic I am, showing up to Mass and thinking about everything but. I need to focus. I can feel my heart rate begin to race, and I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Sunday is the Lord's day.
"Brothers and sisters," the woman begins. I look at the book in Brantley's lap where he's following along with today's readings. My eyes follow the dark words on the thin gray paper. "We are children of God, and if children, then heirs."
Children. One day I will be pulling my children to Mass every Sunday. They won't want to go, no kid does. They'll want to sleep in and watch cartoons in the living room. Mass will be confusing to them at first. Maybe they'll sing along, but they won't comprehend the words and their meanings. They won't understand why we keep kneeling, and sitting, and standing, and kneeling again. But they'll look up at me and smile and my heart will swim. I'll pray to God to protect them; protect them from danger, from pain, from heartbreak and sorrow. I look up at Brantley's messy hair, combing my fingers through it slowly, pulling out some of the tangles. Brantley would be a good father. He's so gentle, so kind. I know I care about him. His hair feels soft and I take the time to curl a couple strands between my fingers. Brantley makes me feel loved. Brantley can see the good in me, if there even is any. A good person wouldn't be doing this to him. But Brantley doesn't kiss me the way you do. He doesn't stir anything within me. Maybe that's good. Maybe I'm too reckless around you. Maybe he grounds me in a way you never could.
Everybody is standing now. Shit. I did it again. It's the gospel now, I have to pay attention to the gospel. Father Michael has a gentle way of speaking the gospel, a way of making it so everyone present will hear, will listen.
"So, I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you," he says.
I had asked something of the Lord. A couple of months ago, when the school year had started, I asked for a moment with you. I asked for time to get to know you. Your dark hair entranced me, the curls spinning around one another like the cosmos. I could make you out in the school hallway, just by your hair. You were smart, spewing random facts about history, science and mythology into casual conversations. The night my parents' car broke down and they couldn't pick me up from youth group, you offered to drive me home. You drove an electric blue Ford Focus and updated the seats to a pale blue pleather material. That way your car didn't bake on Florida's hot summer days.
Now Lord, I ask you for something else. I look up at Jesus, nailed to the cross, his head turned down to the side, looking away from me, blood trickling down his forehead from the crown of thorns cast upon him. Give me peace. Give me peace from the conflict that lies deep within my soul. I am not asking for you to open a door. I am asking for you to shut one.
Father closes the Bible and begins to get ready for his homily, he coughs to clear his chest. He may be able to speak a good gospel, but I could never pay attention to his twenty-minute-long homilies. He looks out at all of us, analyzing our faces, listening to God before he begins his speech. I wonder if he can hear my thoughts. If he knows my conflict. Will he say something to appease the hurt in my heart? Probably not, but I hold my gaze anyway. Maybe this will be the day.
I look over at you, your eyes are on your hands. What are you thinking about? What thoughts are racing through your head? You won't be listening to the homily, so what are you listening to? The breaths around you? The feet tapping against the lacquered floor? The baby who is wailing at the back of the church that should be in the soundproof room?
"Our God is a merciful God. One who is open to change, who wants you to seek him out."
Have I not been seeking him out? Have I not been seeking him out by being in a strong Catholic relationship? My hand reaches for Brantley's, holding it ever so gently on the edge of the pew. He squeezes my hand slightly, and then lets it fall back into a loose grip. My fingers curl in the palm of his hand. Am I not devout? Do I not go to church every Sunday? Do I not go to youth group? Did I not receive my confirmation early? What more do I have to do?
My glance goes over to you, our eyes catch, and I feel the electricity again. My hand shivers for a moment, Brantley glancing over at me. 'It's cold,' I mouth to him. He nods, looking back at Father Michael. I let myself breathe. He still doesn't know. How could he? I glance back over to you, you never looked away.
Father is wrapping up the homily, going on more about how we have to be open. We just have to ask. This is the most important thing to do, ask. Because we have an all-powerful lord, he who has sent his own son down to free us of sin. He would do anything for us, but just like any other parent, you must develop a good relationship with him so that he can hear you. Father concludes with a smile on his face and turns to sit at his marble chair on the center of the altar.
The choir begins singing. It's another one of the songs we sing too much, and my mouth forms the words before I even think about what they should be. A family is beginning to walk slowly down the center aisle, carrying the gifts and preparations for the altar.
That's what you did to meet my parents, you brought gifts. We were trying to devise the perfect way for you to get on their good side. Your mother had cooked nearly five dozen cookies the day before, and you knew if they stayed in your house that either you or your father would eat them all within a couple days. A smile crept on my face as I thought about you arriving at the door with that small Christmas cookie container, the paper lining on the inside spilling out of the lid.
"Mom, this is Emily," I said. "What are you doing here, Em?" As if I knew nothing of our preconceived plans.
"Well, my Mom had made all these cookies," you said. "I thought you would like some. Nice to meet you Miss Camden." You extended your hand to her. She smiled, thanking you for your thoughtfulness.
"Why don't you two go do something fun. Thanks again for the cookies." My mother was completely unaware that it wasn't Brantley she should've been concerned about, but you.
The whole congregation joined hands, Brantley always gave mine a gentle squeeze before we began praying in unison. It made me wonder who else was like me. Who stood alone amongst so many others? Who was staring at pretty people they shouldn't be staring at? Whose face preoccupied their mind when Father was speaking his homily?
Spreading grace was numbing. Brantley kissed me on the cheek, my parents smothered me with hugs, other parishioners grasped my hand with both of theirs. I didn't want to touch any of their hands. I wanted to touch yours and yours alone. Like the time you had grazed it in the hallway at school. You had apologized, acting as if it was a complete accident, but now I know what you were doing. You were testing the waters. You wanted to know what my reaction was. Would I pull away, would I soften to your touch, or would I give off the electricity that only happens when someone who mystifies you touches you? I must have given you the electricity, because your touch felt as unreal as a ghost's.
They are preparing the Eucharist, lifting it to the sky and murmuring prayers and chanting Latin to the congregation. My eyes glance back up to the white Jesus. God, he really should be darker. But this is America. This is the Catholic Church. Nothing is ever wrong.
Slowly the pews begin to pile into the aisle, forming the single file line we were taught to walk in as children. I wanted my wedding in a Catholic church. My father would walk me down the aisle. A handsome young man would be looking awestruck at the end of it. His jaw wouldn't drop, but his eyes would say it all. We would have kids, girls hopefully. There would be Bible school, Sundays where I would hope they'd be looking at the handsome boys walking down the aisle, not pretty girls.
Our aisle begins to stand as we join the lines going toward the altar at the center of the church. The man behind us is singing off key. We have been singing the same songs since the Roman times. How is a thirty-year-old man singing this melody off key?
I follow Brantley out of the aisle, my hands clasped in front of me. We walk slowly, singing occasionally and without mind or reason. But the chorus of the hymn is coming, and I feel the anticipation of the words begin to cut into my soul.
"Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest."
My heartbeat starts to quicken as I approach your pew. You're sitting in the middle of it. Each step I take I get closer and closer to you. I look at Brantley's sandy blonde hair. He could be at the end of the wedding aisle. He could be looking in awe at me as I walk down it in a pure white dress.
I'm standing next to your pew, and I can feel your gaze. It reminds me of the first time I saw you. It was the first youth group meeting of the year. We were sitting in a circle, telling everyone our names and interests when we caught each other's eyes. I looked away quickly, but my eyes glanced back at you. You were still looking.
I take another step forward. I can feel your eyes on my back.
I felt them on my back in the passenger seat of your car. My parents' car had been fixed, but I lied and asked you drive me home after youth group again. I twisted my body toward the window as I took off my jacket, and without even seeing you I knew your eyes were there. On my back. On my neck. I turned to look at you, but your eyes returned to the road. You were smiling.
I bow as Brantley receives the Eucharist in front of me. He steps to the left, and I step forward. I cup my hands in front of me and make eye contact with the old woman who has been doing this ever since I was born. Her curly hair has turned gray, and her skin has begun to sink into her bones. She has a serious face, as if she knows.
"The Body of Christ."
"Amen," I say, as she places the small unleavened wafer in my hand. I step to the left and place it on my tongue. It reminds me of your kiss. The feeling of your tongue pressed against mine. I make the sign of the cross on my chest, and Jesus stares at me. You shall not lie with women as with men.
I walk to my left where a man with a bald head is holding a golden chalice. I recognize him too, he works with the middle school youth group.
"The Blood of Christ."
"Amen." I bring the cup to my lips. It's warm from Brantley who had just received it. Once he joked with me, that when we stood next to each other in church we kissed each other with the chalice. His lips were here as mine are. His kind lips, gentle lips, lips that had whispered flatteries and niceties whenever I needed them.
And then I taste the warm wine which must be diluted, but it makes my head feel dizzy, like the first time we kissed. You had driven me home again. You must have known I was lying about needing a ride at this point, but you gave it to me anyway. There was something about that night, it might have been the full moon brightly casting light over our figures, our shadows crawling across the car, moving closer to one another as we passed trees and light posts. It might have been the lack of cars on the road, how it felt like the world was empty except for us. It might have been the build-up of small touches, laughter and the moments where our eyes locked for longer than they should have. But my heart was pumping, and my mouth was dry. My head felt as if it were in a haze that only your car could have created, dizzy, yet clear. Never before had I been so aware of myself and my surroundings, while simultaneously being fully submissive to my instincts.
You pulled over unexpectedly to a deserted parking lot and threw the car in park. You looked at me and your green eyes reflected the moon and we crashed into each other like the waves on the shore only a couple of miles away. Your embrace was warm as you tried to pull me closer. I fumbled with my hands to unbuckle my seat belt, and as you heard the sound of the seat belt whipping off of me, colliding with the passenger window, you laughed. We stared at each other's lips for a moment. My hands reached up and played with the hair on the nape of your neck. Your eyes closed as you leaned closer to me. And like the waves that recede back into the ocean, you crashed against my shore once again.
We could never get married in a Catholic church. I don't know if my father would walk me down the aisle. I don't even know if there would be an aisle. I don't know what members of my family would attend our wedding. Our children wouldn't be ours. We could send them to Bible school, to weekly youth groups when they reached middle and high school. They would come back flustered and confused but wouldn't explain why. We would understand when we got the email that they went over the theology of the body. That they spoke of the importance of chastity and the infidelity of woman lying with woman; man lying with man.
I'm back in the pew, kneeling, staring blankly forward as the last of the congregation receives the Body of Christ. As Father Michael places the Eucharist back in the tabernacle, the kneelers begin to creak as people push them back into the pews in front of them, taking their seats. Members of the church go up to give announcements. The Knights of Columbus inform us that the giving is going well, and they are raising enough to build more classrooms for the youth program in just a year. Ms. Kathy from down the street tells us about the food drive that is starting next week. She holds up a can of Campbell's soup and a box of pasta to show what is acceptable to bring. As we begin to sing the final hymn, Brantley looks down at me with his deep brown eyes. He's taller than me, which is nice considering you aren't. He leaves a peck on my lips and smiles as our singing concludes. He has no idea the nights he misses youth group because of soccer are my favorite. He holds my hand as we begin to walk out of church, waving at people we recognize. My parents are behind us, catching up with a couple of their friends. They must be so proud of us, the ideal Catholic teen relationship. We dip our hands in the holy water and bless ourselves with the sign of the cross as we leave through the large glass doors.
I feel a tug on my sleeve, and I look to see you. You smile, pushing your hair out of your eyes, and I feel myself relax. You make me reckless, but your smile can calm the tides of my heart. Your hand brushes mine, but it doesn't hold it. You wouldn't dare do that here. Brantley turns to say hi to you. You smile again at me before responding to him. Your parents already know. Your best friends already know. I turn my head away and pull Brantley's arm around me. A white dress. A long aisle. A man in a tuxedo waiting at the end of it. Sundays where only our boys smile at the pretty girls.
Title image "In the Rafters" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.