Churches

“I am here to run off the pain. I am here to synthercise the demons. I am here to ring the bells of Chvrches,” Billie tweeted in the lobby of the Riverside Theater, attaching a picture of a T-shirt on display at the merchandise table. Covering the chest was a cross turned sideways and X’d through a dark heart, the logo for Chvrches’ latest album, Love is Dead. Billie got a preview of the shirt just hours before at a Qdoba in South Milwaukee. “Don’t look now,” she whispered to her lunch date, like a character in a Daphne du Maurier story, “but that man is wearing a Chvrches shirt.” The date stopped baling the shredded lettuce of their burrito bowl and stared at her. “What?” Billie was pleased they had obeyed but agitated they were obtuse. “It’s my favorite band and they’re performing in Milwaukee tonight and I am going,” by now both of her hands were splayed on the table, hungry spiders. “Are they a Christian band?” They asked. The spiders twitched. “No,” she replied. “And no.”

“Has no one read Madeline L’Engle? You can’t be a Christian band, just like you can’t be a Christian writer, or a Christian artist,” Billie ranted on a call to her friend Lisa, on the drive back to her office, on and on. “You can be a Christian who has a band, or who writes, or who makes art. In Him we live and move and have our being: Sufjan Stevens talked about this in an interview. It takes the pressure off, it puts us in perspective.” There was a pause, then Lisa replied: “You know, Billie, it sounds like you really haven’t given this enough thought.” They both laughed, then there was another pause. “I just,” Billie picked at her steering wheel cover, “wish you were coming tonight.” Lisa sighed, “So do I.”

Billie had met Lisa and her husband, Quinn, at their parish, St. Rita, which was hosting a neighborhood association meeting in the basement. Lisa looked like a business casual version of Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful and Quinn’s face was the shape of an anime character, though not as expressive. It was only a few years after the subprime mortgage crisis, and unoccupied homes were being ignored, contributing to the decline of value and increasing the crime rate in Milwaukee, particularly in the area south of St. Rita.

The neighborhood association – composed of churches, businesses, nonprofits, residents – was organizing volunteer teams, and attendance was just low enough that to elude participation, or finesse an exit, was impossible. For those reasons, and better ones, Billie, Lisa and Quinn all offered to be on the home evaluation team; once a month, they received a list of residential addresses. They were supposed to visit during the day and circle the house, tracking its maintenance; instead, they cruised by at night, with one driving, one describing anything that seemed shifty and the other writing it down.

Following a few months of perfecting this system, they added to it: drinks afterward at Quinn and Lisa’s condo, which was built in the late ‘70s and had so many half walls and wide doorways that you could see a bit of every room from nearly every spot in the place. Soon, Billie was invited to a party, and then another, until she realized that Lisa didn’t actually like the condo unless it was being used as a venue.

The dining room always became the dance floor, with Lisa as playlister, mixing until everyone was whipped into a frenzy. Prior to every party, Quinn and Billie conspired to suggest multiple Chrvches songs each, in an attempt to force Lisa to include several, but she always stopped at two. “One per customer,” she would declare. When Chvrches came on, Quinn and Billie came on. People gave the floor, and if they didn’t, it was taken. Billie frequently needed more than one floor, more than one room, to fully express how wide and long and high and deep the songs made her feel; or rather, how much they sounded made of her feelings.

“[They] take a highly personal sense of turmoil,” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in his review of their debut album, “and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen.” That turmoil was strong in Quinn, and though there were hints here and there, always at the parties, Billie didn’t quite heed them, or perhaps, didn’t want to? It was easy to assume that he’d drank too much. Lisa made assumptions for years, most of them pardoning Quinn and condemning herself: this was just how men were, she was just too disordered for a relationship, it was just a phase, if she just gave it more time, he was just upset, he was just so sorry. Until one night, when Lisa realized that sorry wasn’t sorry, it was sort of a bad doctor’s note, shown over and over again, excusing the sickness, establishing it as to be expected, exempting it from treatment.

After that night, Lisa moved out, and Quinn moved in on his friends, including Billie. But no matter how he moved, he remained at the center. Any fault was Lisa’s, any pain was his. In her mind, Billie kept seeing a book in her father’s office library, yellow with black lettering: People of the Lie: Toward a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck. She hadn’t read it in over a decade.

Searching online, she found a list of patterns that Peck associated with evil and lost hope as they seemed more and more recent and familiar: consistently self-deceives and, consequently, deceives others; projects their sin onto a specific target; is unable to see from the viewpoint of their victim. “[God] said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor,” Peck writes. “He went on to say, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.”

Billie saw herself in Quinn, a self that she had judged – in her writing, in counseling, in misty-eyed, tight-throated conversations with confidantes – but she could not stop judging it now: the self that, when others were complimented, felt insulted; wanted to be great more than good; traipsed after chastity while looking back at whomever had just whistled; high on oneself, the center of gravity, toppling over, pulled downward.

“Forever” had been one of their favorite tracks, and now, as the lead singer Lauren Mayberry sang it in that “cutting, aching, triumphant, fragile, and weightless” voice, Billie remembered dancing to it with Quinn, thrashing her hair with each forever; the chorus was all forevers. He bought the tickets for the three of them months and months ago. When Lisa decided on a divorce the day before the concert, Quinn e-mailed the general admission ticket to Billie, along with “I don’t want to see you.” The feeling was mutual, but it was not the only feeling; there were others, and they were phantoms, gliding through Billie, resisting grasp, every one sad.

On each side of the stage was a lit cross, tilted sideways, making an X. At the right moment, Mayberry leaned against one with the weight of her entire body and glared at the audience, as if daring them. Billie took a picture and texted it to Lisa. Between every song, she texted, urgently, tersely, as if the concert would no longer exist if it was not made text. The encore was “Never Say Die.”

Weren’t you gonna be sorry and weren’t you gonna be pure?
Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?

Billie exchanged numbers with some cute guy who had stood next to her; she would not call him. Walking down the aisle, she occasionally paused to pick up trash, baffled as to why people did that. Where did they expect it to go? In the lobby, she considered the T-shirt again, but it was just too expensive, so she walked into the night, the crowd behind and before her, until they weren’t anymore. At an intersection, in her periphery, it appeared as if a man wearing one of Quinn’s hoodies was waiting for the walk signal to change. She didn’t turn.

All Saints’ Day

Cheesy pull apart pesto bread. Yes, devourable, but also simple, which was important, since every time Ned tried to follow a recipe it led him straight to hell. There were only four ingredients: bread, pesto, cheese, butter. First, you had to score the bread, slicing lines one direction, then another, resulting in loosely connected pieces. Then you poured the butter between. Then you spooned the pesto between. Then you stuffed the cheese between. And then you baked it at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

Of course Ned would not be baking it that night, no, brunch was the following day. The prep needn’t have taken very long, but he was drinking an exceptional Vouvray and slipped into a loop, just filling and overfilling every slit of the broken body of wheat with Mediterranean guts. Soon 45 minutes had passed, the bread was a latticework flourishing with basil and he had listened to an entire synthwave album on YouTube by The Midnight.

Speaking of which, it almost was. Hours earlier, at the beginning of an All Saints’ Day party, his friend Sheila had sent a picture of herself in some clownish costume that Ned was too Protestant to recognize. Now she texted, “we are dancing and you are not here.” YouTube’s autoplay suggestions were unconscionable, so Ned kept stopping the dishes and drying his hands to skip the track, and to text back. “How long, oh Lady?” He replied. “How long will you be dancing?” Who would know if Ned left, right now? No roommates, no pets, no guests, even his housemates were gone for the weekend. Sheila countered: “Saul wants to know what kind of a question that is.” It was a name dropped right on his head and she knew exactly what effect it would have. “Listen you smartalecks,” Ned texted Sheila and Saul. “I’m coming over NOW.”

* * *

Sheila’s condo had a front stoop, shared with the neighbor, and Ned could discern two figures on it, but there was a tree concealing them. He had drank enough Vouvray to thoroughly enjoy the sound of his own boots on the pavement and the entrance it afforded, although that meant they recognized him first. One figure was Rudie, basically a feminized version of Ned’s most tenacious anxieties and tendencies. Perhaps this was how Tennessee Williams felt about Blanche DuBois? And the other one, naturally, was Saul.

“Ned,” they proclaimed, with smiles and open arms, pulling him close. “You smell good,” Rudie murmured, and Saul hummed an agreement, and Ned concluded, based on such a reception – or maybe his reaction to it – he was below the suggested intoxication for this party. He could not remedy that without separating from the embrace, so he did, slowly. Sheila’s condo was on the second level, so Ned mounted the stairs in a sort of anticipation, feeling the presence of Saul, seeing Rudie in her toga; all of them ascending, angels along Jacob’s Ladder.

The door opened to reveal Sheila, host of all. Clever and wise, intuitive and inquisitive, the full range of each marvelous characteristic she was. Sheila and Prentice, her husband, cared about what made everyone comfortable and delighted in providing it. There was someone to their left with a gigantic bow and cloak around his neck, who was en route to the exit but nevertheless introduced to Ned. The table was a feast of appetizers that had clearly been attacked several times, but there were still spoils to be had and the guests who were left took Ned’s arrival as an opportunity to abandon dancing and return to nibbling.

As a guest list, it was lopsided with show people in their twenties and thirties; Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie had all worked on productions together, and the rest looked familiar. As any drama queen, king, nerd or kid will tell you, this crowd knows how to party. The playlist was loaded with the sort of music that can galvanize even guys with two left feet. Ned was one of those guys. He couldn’t dance, but he could drink, and once he had drank enough, he could dance. Assuming you are not an alcoholic, it’s a line of reasoning you should trace. The irony was, in this group of people, even Ned might not have needed the drink: the room was a rainforest, lush, humid, alive. But it wasn’t dangerous. Which is, perhaps, even more dangerous.

* * *

Ned performed some ferocious dance solos, to be sure, resulting in rug burn and disorientation, although the latter had been a constant experience since he was in 5th grade. But the night was advancing, rivers of blood were turning to wine and energy was depleting, so the small group remaining – Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie – became a nucleus in the middle of the room, arms around each other – in their minds, swaying rhythmically; in reality, shuffling sporadically.

“Is it so crazy to assume we don’t have to talk all day, every day?” Rudie blathered about a relationship, which, within a matter of minutes, Ned, an officer in recovery ops, was defining as codependent, and exhorting that she was only responsible for herself, and everyone agreed. His right hand was curling long hairs behind her ear, as a sister; meanwhile, his left hand was on Saul’s shoulder, the small of his back, his neck, oh brother. Each hand knew exactly what the other was doing, careful to distribute affection evenly, not equally. Rudie leaned her head into Ned’s hand, Saul leaned his head into Ned’s neck and Ned was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tilting towards a fall without seeming to move at all.

This was not the counterfeit intimacy he had previously trained himself to believe was legal and/or tender. Not like any of the casual encounters, the most obvious symptom of his addiction.  No, this was a bewitched bartering, a transfer of energy that did not short out and leave one in darkness. Ned was aware that his actions were not wrong, though his motives were, and yet – it had been ages, oceans, deserts – since he had been touched like this – like – there is no use for simile here, because he was touched as himself.

* * *

“In the improbability you do not already have plans, you should join me for a showing of The Thin Man tomorrow night,” Ned texted Sheila as he ate the leftover pesto bread, which was a disaster of multitasking, the oily fingers and screen requiring constant cleaning to prevent further autocorrecktage. “It is basically the source of my entire lifestyle…” Ned continued. “It is several thousand feet above adjectives.” The Film Society had all of its showings at a church and they decided to meet there.

The next night, walking in the same boots, Ned spotted Sheila a half block away, stepping out of Saul’s car. Immediately he accelerated his pace, nearly galloping, an ecstatic pony, until he had hitched to Sheila’s side. Breathing hard, he tried to greet them casually, but it came out as a giddy burst of “HELLO,” followed by Saul unbuckling his seat belt, climbing out of the car, scooting around it, and moving in for a hug, all as Ned was mumbling, “you don’t have to – ” but he did, evidently. And then Saul was back in the car and pulling out, and Sheila was saying, “I wish he was aware of his physical magnetism,” and Ned was saying, “yes,” but neither one of them wished that, truly.

They were two of maybe a dozen people who attended the showing, sitting in the last of only a few rows of chairs. The film went straight to their heads, as it does to any sensible person, and soon they were giggling and sighing. Eventually the Christmas party scene came, where two guests pop balloons on the tree, a man begs an operator to connect him with mother, some drunkenly sing around a radio, and Norah says to Nick, “I love you, because you know such lovely people.” Sheila leaned towards Ned. “Good heavens,” she remarked, “it’s my house.”

The projectionist sought forgiveness for the print afterwards, which admittedly was rather fuzzy at times, but Ned waved away the apology, declaring, “it was just so wonderful to see it on a big screen.” He and Sheila left then, walking into the night, the clouds as witnesses.

Dancing is Sex for Virgins

Certainly, wet dreams and masturbation might have more explicit similarity with intercourse, but they are also more explicitly selfish. Dancing involves partners, without body exposure, clean up, STD’s or emotional wreckage.

I like my sex public: at a stranger’s wedding reception. Wearing my lustful-but-formal tight black wool pants and tight white shirt with a tie so alive it could tie itself.

Brick House, Dancing Queen, Let’s Go Crazy, Billie Jean – the songs may be regular – like a prune-eating-fiber-supplement-taking geezer – but they are not shitty. Or maybe pop music is proof that you can polish a turd. I’ll keep eating it regardless. We are sweating and strutting our way to salvation. The crowd reactions are different – giggles, stares, smiles – but they are all the same: they wish they could be this wild.

Yet we are not enough for ourselves – no twist or thrust is fully satisfying. We cannot truly dance until we are without genitals, without gravity, without minds.

It’s only a few songs later when our humanity starts with its harrassment – unfortunately not sexual, just slumberous. Muscles slacken, hearts tap instead of pound. We are more attracted to a chair than the dance floor. Instead of sitting, we wave to people we don’t know, and sexily snicker and swagger to the elevator. We are out of there, and into the night – an early summer night – that sighs and presses its cool cocktail glass on our foreheads.