The night air sits still like the church girls in their pew at Sunday service. The night air is languid and sour, so thick that you could take it in your mouth and chew it. The church is on Pine Street. I watch them, the church girls, in smart dresses and small, flat shoes. I watch them from across the pews in the church on Pine Street. They have long hair to their asses and skin marked by sunspots and acne scars. They sit up straight. They sing. They pray.
I have sweat running under my arms, melting into ugly, damp pools in the fabric of my wrinkled blouse. I have scuffs on my black Oxfords, the same pair from my all-girls Christian high school. I haven’t gotten a haircut in a year and it clumps in a frazzled halo around my sad face. I don’t believe in God, but I keep going to Sunday service to watch the church girls from across the pews in the church on Pine Street. I slouch and pout at the dull scuffs on my shoes when we are told let us pray.
We are old enough that we don’t go to Sunday school, but we are the straggling members of the church’s young adult social group: the church girls, with their smart dresses and sunspots and bright faces, clicking tongues, hushed voices—and me. We all walk down the linoleum stairs to the church basement, the staircase lined with framed photos of mission trips to Africa. The church girls are in the photos and smile grins of glee at me, their bobbing faces pale and ghostly among the large groups of black and brown African children. They are always in a jungle, or on a beach, among dilapidated tin-roofed shacks, and the sky is always blue, and I imagine that the air in these jungles and beaches is as still and languid and sour and thick as the air on this Saturday night in the city.
I will see the church girls tomorrow morning. They will pray. I will pout.
I imagine things about the church girls. It started with crude thoughts: kissing them hard on their sweet mouths, shoving my tongue down their throat to shut up their clicking. Their tight asses, hair floating down their bare backs. Now, it is situational: I liked to think about wandering through a grocery aisle with the church girls and imagine what they picked off the shelves, like store brand over name brand, or organic strawberries over the normal ones. Maybe, what they prayed about. Sometimes, fucking them.
On this Saturday night in the city, I walk past the grocery store on Fifth Street, closed because it is late. I turn onto Pine Street and see that someone has changed the church marquee from a bible verse to a C.S. Lewis quote, followed by: Service At 10AM Sunday. I’ve got an empty beer can in my right hand, and the last heat of a cigarette in the left. I’m thinking about the church girls, imagining what smart dresses they will wear tomorrow morning, when I hear a loud shriek from across the busy street, echoing over the heads of partygoers, drunks like me, dog-walkers, lovers, and bicycle messengers. I do not pay attention until there is another shriek.
The church girls are pursuing me, running in high heels through honking traffic to cross Pine Street.
Oh my God! they shriek, a chorus of the lord’s name in vain. I am still as they surround me. What are you doing out? Where are you going? Anything fun?
I shake my head and they all sigh smugly. I am still and I am shocked. Gone are the smart dresses and small, flat shoes; each church girl is glittering. Their short, frilly dresses are sequined, their hair is done up, and their high heels, closer to God, chatter on the concrete sidewalk. Their bright faces are darkened by sooty black makeup, acne scars erased and airbrushed away. They smell like soapy flowers and sugar and sex, letting off a cloud of cheap perfume as they sigh and sway on their long, bare legs.
I look at one of the church girls. She is the tallest of them, giving her an assumed command over the rest. Her pink mouth frames lipstick stains on her teeth. Her eyes are alight in the glow of the street lamps. She looks soft, and my mind wanders to reaching at the low-cut chest of her gilded dress, ripping it open with one yank, and leaving her bare.
Well? she smirks.
My breath is caught in my throat.
Don’t tell anyone we’re out, okay?
I hear my voice speak up, feel my mouth move around palpable words. I don’t know what I’m saying, but I hear myself ask, why are you dressed like that?
The tall girl crosses her arms over her chest and lets out a laugh that sounds like a siren. Then she looks me in the eyes, staring right through me. She knows I watch them across the pews, she knows I think about tearing her clothes off, she knows. She clicks her tongue and says something back, but I can’t hear her.
What? I ask.
The tall girl leans in and I smell soapy flowers and pineapple-scented lube. What do you mean? It’s sparkle time.
The church girls are gone in an instant of cheap perfume and chattering footsteps, the tall girl’s soft, bare arm brushing past the sleeve of my shirt as she leaves me behind. My cigarette is dead and the empty beer can crinkles in my hand. I am alone again and before I can think, I kneel on the concrete sidewalk, as throngs of people swerve around me, staring up at the cross that adorns the church on Pine Street. It is illuminated by spotlights between the stained glass windows.
My arm burns where the tall girl touched it. Before I can think, I pray: Amen. Amen. Amen.
Audrey Lee is the author of the poetry collections Disjecta Membra (Bottlecap Press, 2022) and Probably, Angels (Maverick Duck Press, 2020). She holds a B.A. in creative writing and American studies from Franklin and Marshall College. She’s the winner of the 2020 Jerome Irving Bank Short Story Prize, and her writing has been recognized by Columbia College of Chicago, the University of Virginia, and the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIALOGIST, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, The Indiana Review, Teen Vogue, and Wax Nine. Audrey is a former resident at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.