by Madeline Vosch
I had gone to the café just to get out of the house. My apartment was carpeted, and when the sun hit at midday, the space got small and uninhabitable. I had just taken a shower, my hair leaving wet patches on my shirt. I was always a little bit of a mess. I had been working so much those days, I didn’t know what to do on my days off, so I went to the coffee shop and read books I wasn’t interested in.
The town I lived in then was small, surrounded by corn and soy. The fields were all we had, really.
Smokey Row was big and always cold, and no one ever smoked there. The windows stretched to the ceiling, and the exposed brick felt more like an action than a wall.
I sat where I always did, with a cup of black coffee—the cheapest thing on the menu—in a booth near the window. I opened a book and tried to read, tried to keep my eyes off my phone like I was daring myself to not look. There was nothing on it worth seeing, but my hand still moved toward it on impulse. I opened the book and tried to remember why I had started reading this one in the first place—yet another novel set in California.
A girl sat in the next booth, and I almost didn’t notice.
She sat down and I looked up. When I looked at her, she looked away. I glanced down. Her eyes were on me. Head down, I raised my eyes. She opened her mouth, just slightly, so small it could have been a cough. I looked back at my hands. My hair was wet but I did not think it was that deserving of attention. Her hair was hazelnut, astoundingly bright in the early summer haze.
The girl stood up, moving as if something was holding her back, and sat across from me. She moved like there were strings tied to her body, like she was pulling against something. She looked at me in a way that made me shift.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. She was wearing a Drake sweatshirt and her eyes were green, bright, and clear.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. She met my eyes and looked away. “I just, I felt compelled.” She paused. “Are you a student?”
“I graduated from Iowa State last year,” I said. Normally, I hated when strangers talked to me, but normally it was men, and there was something about the way she looked at me that made me want to keep her there. Her knees, so close to mine under the table.
“Oh,” she said. “Do you go to church?” I shook my head. She was quiet for a moment and looked at her hands clasped together. She swallowed.
“Listen,” she said, “I know this sounds weird but, I just have this sense. God is pursuing you.” She met my eyes and I felt things with no names. The late afternoon light was golden where it fell on her. She looked precise, like she had planned where every strand of hair would fall, like she had been careful with her makeup, like she had pulled her sweater down every five minutes for the comfort of the motion. “I just have this feeling,” she said. The air was thick. Something moved on the other side of the window.
“Oh,” I said. She looked away and back at me, like there was something secret, something conspiratorial, happening between us.
“God is pursuing you,” she repeated. “I’m sorry, I’ll leave you alone now.” She got up and moved to a table across the café, where our eyes wouldn’t meet if we looked up, where I couldn’t see the lettering on her sweatshirt, where she couldn’t watch as I looked from my book to her back. Something in my stomach was turning, warm and bright.
I put my head down and tried to read a description of the redwoods, of the blue ocean. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone sit with her, and with bowed heads they began to read from the same book.
I packed my things and left and did not look over my shoulder to see if they were watching.
The last time I had thought about God was at a summer camp, nestled in the green hills. It was the summer of Katy Perry’s cherry Chapstick, the summer of heat and humidity and sweat.
It was a weeklong camp, where parents dropped us off and people a few years older than us told us about God and unconditional love. They let me go for free, since it was God camp and all. They used donations to make sure people like me—people who couldn’t pay—could still go.
Every day, after chapel, when the day was yellow and thick with heat, we had God time. I always did what I was supposed to do. I was trying to read the whole Bible, every page of it, and spent the hour bent over the wafer-thin pages. I read, I tried to take notes when I got bored, and I wrote journal entries about the ways I sinned. I waited for confession, though I was told this was a Catholic thing, and that I didn’t need it.
During God time, people could go wherever they wanted. Some of us stayed in the chapel, spread out in the pews. Some people went outside, sat on picnic tables.
On the last full day of camp, after the last song of afternoon chapel ended and God time was starting, Holly motioned for me to follow her. She led me after her, through the thick grasses, over the berm that bisected the camp grounds, to the gravel road. We weren’t supposed to say anything out loud during God time, but we also weren’t supposed to leave the main area, and we weren’t supposed to be with anyone else but God.
“Where are we going?” I wanted to be quiet enough that only she would hear, so God would know I wasn’t trying to break any of the rules.
She just smiled at me. Holly was short and had bright red hair that looked like a spark.
She led me to a place I hadn’t seen before, near the trees that marked the bounds of the camp. Holly pointed to a willow tree that stood next to the maples and oaks, its long branches reaching down to earth like hairs. She held the curtain of its wisps aside, and I went in. In the soft green shade, the heat felt bearable, the humidity thick on our skin. The sweet cry of a cicada.
“Where are we?” I said, soft so that even God might not hear.
Holly put a finger to my lips and smiled. She lay in the grass beneath the tree, her Bible and journal resting on her chest.
I lay beside her and watched the books rise and fall with her steady, even breathing.
I closed my eyes and listened to the soft hush of the branches in the wind, the sharp cry of robins. “I think heaven must be like this,” I said. I wasn’t supposed to keep talking, but I told myself it was a prayer, that I was asking God to tell me that heaven was real, that it was like this—a honey speckled afternoon, for one long forever.
“Do you ever feel this way around another person?” she said. Her voice was hushed. “Like, they make you feel like God is there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure.”
I opened my eyes and looked at her in the dappled green haze. She was gazing up, past the willow branches, up to the sky that seemed to swallow everything. When she turned to face me, the books slid off of her stomach, noiselessly slipping to the ground.
“You’ll stay in touch, right?” she said.
“Of course,” I said. She smiled at me, her lip gloss a shimmering moon.
When she kissed me—there in the dirt, barely hidden by the sweet green willow, our lips barely tasting each other’s sweat—I thought I understood what people meant when they said that God was love.
Except she didn’t kiss me. She just turned her head to look at me, and my heart was beating everywhere, and she said something about God that I don’t remember.
The next day, our parents came and picked us up, drove us far away in different directions. She went back to Minnesota. We became Facebook friends. We shared photos of each other from camp, wrote inside jokes on our walls.
At home, I stayed indoors in the summer. The town so small I thought I would choke. South, near the Missouri border, this town made me feel like I didn’t exist. I stayed inside and pretended we had air conditioning. Imagined a hot day, outside, laying in the grass next to Holly, and all the things that might have happened.
I thought about borrowing a car, driving all the way up to Clear Lake, waiting in Perkins for her to meet me, to sit across the table, to drink black coffee and share pancakes at midnight, the two of us there like magic. How I would reach across the table and take her hand, lead her to my car, and I would show her what I meant when I told her I missed her.
Except there was no car to borrow, no gas money to make the three-hour drive. Summer passed with me inside, staring at my Facebook feed, and then it was years and she was a stranger.
At home in my studio apartment, far away from the town I grew up in, I looked around at the mess: dirty dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor, piles of books I felt like I should read. Even in a place like this, with more churches than schools, I wasn’t used to thinking about God anymore, at least not in the same sentence as me.
After the megachurch in the west part of the city had left their synod in protest once the bishops started to ordain gay people, I didn’t want to go near that place or their God.
I lay on my unmade bed and closed my eyes and saw her, leaning over the table, blinking at me.
I started going to the café more often, sitting in the same booth with the same black coffee, the same book I could never focus on, waiting.
The day I saw her again it was early June, the sun everywhere, unforgiving. I held my breath and watched her notice me. Her pace slowed, she sat with her back to me. I stood up, told myself it was not weird to approach her, since she had approached me first.
“Hey,” I said. She looked up at me and her green eyes were summer fields.
“Hi,” she said. She looked around, like she was worried someone would see us, like she was waiting for someone else.
“I don’t know if you remember me—”
“Oh. Okay. Can I sit down?” She nodded. I sat across from her. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“I can tell you about my church,” she smiled, eager. I took a sip from my cold coffee.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Tessa,” she said.
“I’m Laura.” I looked down at the cup in my hands. “I’m sorry, you still haven’t ordered yet, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m not even sure what I want.”
“Why did you come up to me that day?”
She couldn’t look me in the face for more than a moment. Her eyes landing on me and running away. “I felt drawn to you. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh,” she said, finally looking me in the face. “I’m sorry.”
“I used to.”
The afternoon turned into evening around us, talking in short, halting sentences. She had grown up in this town, lived here all her life, went to DMACC. I told her about my hometown, where everyone in my family worked at the movie theater, how we always talked about going to the Ozarks but never went. She leaned in over the table when I mentioned summer camp, her eyes willow-soft.
“I know that place,” she smiled. “Did you like it?”
“Parts of it,” I said. “But I was a kid, and, if I’m being honest, looking back, a lot of it feels like emotional manipulation.”
She listened, asked questions, and I stopped holding the place in my book.
“I should probably get going,” she said, glancing at her phone.
I was taking my cup to the bus tub when I realized she hadn’t ordered anything. “I’m sorry for interrupting your afternoon so much.”
“I don’t think you are,” she said, and her laugh echoed like bells.
She gave me her number, and I started to wait for her to call me.
We went on walks together, slow through the pretty neighborhoods, the places with old houses and big bushes of bright flowers. The space between us was electric. I went home jolted. I went home sparked. I sat in my house and thought of her, shocked. The hairs at the back of my neck rose when she looked at me.
One day, we were walking, and she turned to me, breathless and bold. “Would you come with me, this Sunday?” she asked. “Just try it, and after, you can come have lunch at my place, and if you hate it, I won’t bring it up again.”
I didn’t know how to say no to her when she looked at me.
In the chapel, I sat in the pew and pushed my back against the red velvet. I looked for her. I believed in something like her. The church smelled like churches smell. I picked at my skin and wondered if everyone knew how out of place I was. I sat in the back, in the corner.
People filtered in and took their seats. Adults smiled and shook hands like they did this every week. Children were dressed in nice clothing, tugging at it.
She appeared like a miracle, smiling, and sat down next to me. “Sorry I’m late.”
During the first song, when the whole space was overflowing, a woman opened the doors. She had a child on one hip and was holding the hand of another. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, though a few strands were coming out. She shuffled behind the back pews and came to sit next to me, hushing her children, the older one saying that they hadn’t gotten an activity bag.
“They must have all been taken already,” the woman said quietly. “You can use the pencil and bulletin to draw.”
The older child sat on the floor and began to draw, while she bounced the younger one on her lap. I kept my head turned to her, just enough to hear, to see the way she moved. Other people were looking back at her like she had done something wrong. Other people tried to pretend they couldn’t hear her children, the older one saying something now and then, the younger one babbling in its own language.
When the pastor stood in front of everyone and started speaking, I followed the motions. I stood up when Tessa did, and sat down when she did. I didn’t start singing until she opened her mouth, and even then, I sang in a whisper, guessing at the melody. I felt vulnerable, nervous, trying to sing strange songs next to her.
Eventually, everyone was invited to come for communion.
Row by row, people began standing and proceeding to the front of the room. The pastor and another woman took turns placing bread on their tongues. They turned and took small glass thimbles of wine. This meant to symbolize sacrifice, promise.
Tessa got up, motioned for me to follow. I felt visible in the crowd, sure that I was standing wrong, that the other people would notice that I didn’t belong.
When I got to the front, kneeled at the altar, the woman giving the wafers paused. “Have you been confirmed?” she said, bending low so no one else could hear.
“I…I think so?”
The woman’s mouth twitched. She turned to the pastor. “She’s not confirmed.”
The man looked at me. “We can’t give communion, but you can bless her,” he said. He smiled in a way that made my skin crawl. The woman nodded and placed a hand on my hair. Next to me, the woman who had come late was kneeling, holding her baby, her older child standing next to her. The woman looked at me and smiled, as if to reassure me that it was alright to be a stranger in a place like this.
Back in the pew, I kept my eyes down and tried to listen. “Pray for our country, and those who have strayed from the path of righteousness. Pray for those who give in to hedonistic urges, who have forgotten Your word.” I looked over at Tessa, where she stood with her head bowed, her clasped hands resting on the pew in front of us. “We pray for our brothers and sisters at the Church of Hope, standing up against heresy.”
After the service and a moment of standing, watching Tessa shake hands with people, with the pastor, she turned to me and smiled.
“Ready to go?” she said.
I followed behind her car, driving to her one-bedroom apartment in Sherman Hill. She led me to the top floor of an old house, the door creaking as she opened it, kicking her shoes off in the doorway. She had chopped all the vegetables in the morning, and I followed her into the kitchen, watched as she put them in the oven, roasting broccoli, carrots, and potatoes, thick buttered chicken. I stood, offering to help every few minutes. “You’re my guest,” she laughed. “What kind of host would I be if I made you work?”
As she moved through her sun-speckled kitchen, doing dishes and tidying up, I googled. It felt dishonest, to do this behind her back. “It smells great,” I said, scrolling through the church website, clicking the heading for weddings.
As a Bible-based church, we stand against the bullying and oppression of LGBTQ people.
I looked at her back and kept scrolling.
As a Bible-based church, we turn to the Scriptures. Since the beginning of time, marriage has been a holy union between a man and a woman. As a result, we are unable to host same-sex marriages.
I tried to remember what people had said at church years ago and couldn’t. I felt stupid for not thinking to do this sooner. “So, you’ve been going there for a long time?”
“Yeah,” Tessa said, turning to look at me over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, I got so wrapped up in cooking I didn’t even ask. How did you like it?”
“I, I’m not sure,” I said. There was a pressure in my chest. I was sweating. I felt like crying. “I guess it was how I remember services being.”
She stared at me, her skin barely flushed from the heat of the oven. “We don’t have to talk about it now, if you don’t want to.”
“Maybe after we get something to eat,” I tried to laugh, rubbed my palms against my jeans, suddenly slick.
We ate sitting on the floor, our backs against the couch.
“I grew up going there,” Tessa said, in between bites of roasted carrots. “My parents moved up to Ankeny a few years ago, but when they still lived here, even after I moved out of their house, we would always go together.”
“It didn’t seem so different from the church I used to go to,” I said. I wanted to ask her about the church policies, what she thought of them, what she thought of me. I wanted to know all of it, all at once.
“Sometimes people there can be kind of stodgy, but I’ve been going there my whole life, it just feels comforting to be there, you know?”
“The woman giving the wafers didn’t let me take communion, she was acting so strange. I didn’t know you had to qualify for it,” I said.
“Some people are so uptight.” Tessa shook her head.
“I felt like a fish, standing there with my mouth open,” I said.
“I’m sorry, I should have warned you.”
“I was really looking forward to that wafer, I was hungry.” She laughed, kicking my foot with her own.
“You still want communion? Come on, kneel,” she said, standing up.
“What?” I laughed. She went to the kitchen and came back with a piece of wheat bread. She gestured for me to get up. “Tessa,” I laughed. She shook her head, smiling.
“Come on,” she was smiling. “I’ve seen this enough times, I can do it.”
I rose to my knees, looking up at her. She tore a corner of bread and stared into my eyes. She smiled, just a little, just so I knew this wasn’t so serious. She held up the piece of bread, made a cross in the air with it. “This body, given for you.”
I opened my mouth and looked up at her. She placed the bread on my tongue. I felt her fingers—their warmth, the pressure, making sure the sacrament was in place. I thought for a moment that I had stopped breathing. My lips closed around her finger and—staring into her eyes—I swallowed.
Tessa stood there, looking down at me. She closed her eyes for a second, like she was uncomfortable, like she was in pain. It felt like every part of my body was moving.
“Laura,” she said, and I thought I might burst into tears. She pulled her finger out, slowly, so it was resting on my lips, barely opened. I could feel her pulse through her finger, hammering against her skin, against my skin. I closed my eyes and waited for her to tell me to leave, to tell me that I had done something wrong, had tainted this moment.
Outside, the cicadas were crying, the sun high, covering the world in light and noise.
“Laura,” she said again. I braced myself, my legs taught, pulse thrashing. She was going to tell me to get out, that she didn’t want to hear from me anymore. I had overstepped, I had crossed an uncrossable boundary.
I waited, and she didn’t say anything. I opened my eyes, ready to see her anger, her hurt. She was staring down at the place where her hand met my mouth. She pressed her fingertip to me, so slight I could have imagined it. Tessa placed her palm against my burning cheek, bent to lay her forehead against mine.
When I kissed her, I thought I could taste the wine on her tongue.
I woke up when the shadows were long and thin in the room. Tessa was asleep, her back to me, her chestnut hair spilling over her skin. I moved slowly, careful not to wake her, to prop myself on my elbow. Over her shoulder, I looked at the room—the craftsman-style windows, across from the bed, the computer she had set up on a small desk. When I had first entered the room, the only thing I had been aware of was the cream-colored walls—the way the light reflected off them, how it landed on her.
Her room was clean, like the rest of her house, with sparse decorations. There was a calendar on the wall by the computer. I tried to see if there was anything I could recognize on her bookshelf. Titles I didn’t recognize, and there on the bottom shelf, Twilight and The Golden Compass.
I wanted to put my arm around her—to close my eyes and hold her against me—but I didn’t want to wake her. She had been shy and sure all at once. When I said we could stop, that we didn’t have to do anything at all, she said no and held me to her—her hands in my hair, her fingernails grazing the back of my neck—and said yes to everything I asked her.
I don’t know how long I lay there, looking at her, looking at the ceiling, replaying the moments over and over in my head.
When she woke, when she turned to me, when she saw me and smiled, when she said my name like she couldn’t believe it, I thought I could live inside that moment forever.
“Laura,” she said.
“How’re you doing?” I spoke softly, as if I was afraid someone would hear, as if speaking too loudly would bring her to her senses, would remind her that something might be wrong, would wake both of us.
“I’m,” she looked at my eyes, my mussed hair, the sheet barely covering my body. “I’m good. I’ve never—” she cut herself off, like she was nervous, like she was surprised. She put her fingers on my cheek.
When she looked at me, I couldn’t say no. When she looked at me like that, I wanted to believe everything she said.
“I need to clean up from lunch,” she said. She didn’t move. “We left all that food in the living room, in the kitchen.”
“I can help,” I told her, and didn’t move.
Neither of us got up, staring at each other, speaking in hushed tones, our bodies next to each other like we had discovered something small and new and precious, something delicate that no one else in the world had ever heard of, something that was just for us, something that we had to keep safe. We stayed there until it was dark, until the world was thick with the sound of an early summer night. Until she finally got up, the spell between us breaking, saying she really should clean up, she had work in the morning.
I left her apartment that night shaking. Drove home unsteady. She had kissed me goodbye in the doorway, and some part of me was sure I would never see her again.
We texted through the week. I spent my days at work sweating. I wanted to see her, wanted to ask if she regretted what happened, regretted me, but didn’t want to hear her answer.
I felt like I was back in college, those first times I sat aching for a girl to respond to my text, to tell me to come over again, to tell me she was waiting. I felt young. I felt stupid. Sitting at work, staring at my phone, jumping at every text, it was as if I hadn’t dated anyone before, as if there was only her.
On Saturday, after a week of not seeing each other, I went to her house for dinner. I carried a bottle of red wine, as a joke, a reminder of what didn’t happen last Sunday, we had communion without the wine, funny, right? Standing in front of her apartment, I thought how stupid it was, and wondered if I could hide the bottle in my coat, or to the side of the doorframe before she noticed it.
I knocked on the door and thought I might turn into a pillar of salt there, waiting.
Tessa opened the door wearing a purple oven mitt, waving me in. “Hi,” she said.
“Hey,” I coughed. “How are you?” I kept my distance, standing away from her, not sure what to do with the bottle.
“I’m good,” she said. Her face was unreadable. I followed her into the kitchen, where the scent of flour and cinnamon was drifting in the air. “I decided I’d make some cookies,” she said. “You like snickerdoodles?” Her apartment was warm and full of the tang of nutmeg.
“Yeah,” I said. She stood across the room from me, and every inch between us was a question. I realized I was still wearing my shoes, and did not know if I should tell her this, take them off and go put them by the door, or wait for her to say something, to notice.
“Sorry I’ve been so busy this week,” she said, pulling the cookies out of the oven. “You know how it is.” I nodded, even though I did not know how it was.
“Do you,” I started to ask a question that I did not have words for.
She turned to face me then, meeting my eyes for the first time that night. “What?” she asked. I shook my head. She cleared her throat. I tried to read every motion but it was a language I didn’t speak. “Have you told anyone,” she said, her voice low, “about last week?”
I shook my head. I was glad for the weight of the bottle in my hands.
“Me neither.” She was still wearing her oven mitt, and I wished I had something—a deep pocket, a coat—to hide my body inside. “I just, I mean,” she inhaled deeply, her eyes closed. “I’ve never.” She opened her eyes, and I thought it looked like she was going to cry. “I don’t know what to do now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. She suddenly looked so small, so vulnerable, standing there across the room, next to a pan of cookies, her eyes watering, her cheeks flushed.
My palms were sweating, and I thought that I might drop the bottle, that it might shatter and cover her kitchen floor in red stains.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, my voice no louder than a whisper.
She looked at my shoes. “I don’t know,” she said. “But, I like spending time with you,” there was a tremble in her voice. “Can it just be that?”
I nodded and did not ask what she meant. I did not ask her to clarify, afraid that any word I might speak would crack the fragile air between us. Tessa smiled like she was relieved, like there was a weight lifted from her chest.
“I brought wine,” I said, as an offering. When she took it from me, she took my empty hand in hers, and my breath caught in my throat.
She poured the wine, passing me a glass, touching my fingers as she raised her own cup to her lips. “This blood,” she said, smiling. She touched the rim of her glass against mine, and I tried to steady my hand. “I like this,” she said, winding her fingers through mine. “I like spending time with you, like this. Do we have to say anything more?”
When she looked at me, the same way she had that day at the coffee shop, I forgot the words to say. When she looked at me, when her hand was in mine, that was all there was, and there were no words to match it.
I started going to her apartment in the evenings, without asking first. She would open the door, always as if she was surprised. She would already be cooking something simple, pasta and vegetables.
After work, I sped to her. I skipped, I half-ran. All of me pulled to her, everything orbiting toward her. The sweet gravity of her body pulling me closer. I sat at work and starved for her breath on my neck, her fingers on my shoulders, her hair tucked behind her ear. I wanted to know that she was hungry for me like I was hungry for her. Every day I wondered if it would be the last time I saw her, if she would snap out of it and tell me that something between us was wrong—a sin—and that I had to leave her alone forever. Every day she didn’t felt like a miracle.
Some days, we would cook together, chop vegetables as the evening stretched long around us. I learned to make her favorite foods the way she liked them. Twice baked potatoes with fresh green onions. Pasta with whole cherry tomatoes twirled on the plates. Chicken, fried golden and crispy.
We still walked together, moving through the Iowa summer. I didn’t touch her in public, but sometimes she would put the tips of her fingers on my shoulder, as if she was checking that I was still there. We walked down the street, aware that other people could see us, but unable to see past each other, past the leaves that shone like crowns in the trees.
On weekends, I stayed at her house—reading, watching television, distracting her and keeping her up late.
On Sundays, she got up before I was awake and came home to lunch cooked and ready. On Sundays, she came home sad, came home with her eyes downcast. Those days, I didn’t reach out to her until she reached out to me. Those days, she was timid, as if we had never met, as if she were a lost, frightened kitten.
One evening, Tessa pulled away from where we lay together and stood up to get dressed. “I have to get going, there’s an evening service. I promised I’d acolyte.”
“How can you go there?” I said. I stared at her back, at the ceiling.
“What kind of a question is that?” she laughed.
“They don’t even let gay people have weddings there.” She turned to me, leaned on her elbow, slung an arm across my waist. Her thin, brown hair was draped over her pale shoulders, the sunset painting the world red behind her.
“It doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable?”
“Why should it? I’ve been going there my whole life.”
“Tessa, I don’t understand.”
“Laura, why are you bringing this up now,” she said. She stared at me, lying in her bed. “I can’t be late tonight. Maybe you should come too?” I shook my head.
“I’ll be back before you know it.” Her smile was enough to make me want to shut up, to make me want to believe her. Her hair was thick in my fingers, as I tried to find new ways to make her late, new ways to make her close her eyes, to make her wonder if maybe God was somewhere here all along.
That night, after Tessa said, laughing, that it was enough, that she really did have to go, she left in a hurry, left me alone in her apartment, staring at her bookshelf, wondering what she thought of me, what she thought of this.
I pulled one of her oversized t-shirts over my head and sat on her couch, staring through the window. I thought about the girls I knew in high school, girls who wore purity rings and made promises about chastity, who would lean close at the lunch table and tell me all the things they did, all the things that didn’t count. I thought about Andi, a girl I was almost friends with, her blond curls almost touching the mashed potatoes on my tray, telling me about the boy she was seeing, about how they found things to do—things with fingers, things with toes, things with carrots and string cheese. “I’m saving myself for marriage,” she told me, her blue eyes shining.
I sat on Tessa’s couch and tried to imagine her as she would be in that moment. Walking down the aisle, with a solemn look on her face. Lighting the candles on the tiered candelabra, organ music in the background. Pushing the lever on the long, golden lighter so the wick would recede, so the fire would extinguish itself.
I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to go there anymore, that there were other places, other churches. I wanted to tell her about Holly—about how, so many years after I had laid next to her beneath a willow tree, she had posted publicly on Facebook, for everyone to see, about who she was, about how she was loved by God. I wanted to tell her so many things, but more than that, I didn’t want to tell her any of it. I didn’t want it to matter. I thought of the first time I kissed her, how the world was only there—the two of us inside her apartment—secret, and ours, and blessed.
As a child, someone told me that Martin Luther once said that to be afraid to sin is to doubt God. Sin boldly! he wrote, because no matter the sin, God is greater. There on Tessa’s couch, I closed my eyes and began to cry. I did not want to tell her that it was okay, I did not want any of their meanings coming into my life.
I stared at the door and thought about leaving. About walking out of her apartment and never coming back, never responding to her texts again. Going back to my studio apartment, curling up in bed alone. How a day might feel without the dream of her at the end of it.
When Tessa came home that night, I had fallen asleep on the couch. She woke me gently, pulling me to her bed. I mumbled something that was not quite a word. She smelled like incense. She sat me on her bed, and I stared at her feet as she changed into her pajamas. Tessa didn’t say a word as she sat next to me, as she put her head on my shoulder, as she drew me down to lay beside her.
That night when she kissed me, there in the darkness, I thought that maybe none of it would matter—maybe it could be just the two of us, there forever.
We fell asleep, and I thought that maybe there was no such thing as future, no such thing as morning. We fell asleep, and I thought that maybe this was all I needed, my body next to hers, her breath on my face, together outside time.
Madeline Vosch writes fiction and essays, and is currently working on a memoir. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Offing, and Puerto del Sol, among others. She is the 2021 winner of the Ploughshares Emerging Writer Contest in Nonfiction and was an Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow in 2020 and 2021.