I fidgeted with my dress. It had been too long since I sat in a church pew and in my time away, I had forgotten about hems that were considered ‘too short’. The older gentlemen’s eyes couldn’t help but rest on the place where my floral mini hit my upper thigh and I couldn’t be mad because I shouldn’t have been wearing it in the first place. I nodded at him and accepted his gift of a paper program with Jesus on the front, engulfed in pastel clouds.
I was in the back, I tried to slip into the chapel unnoticed but found myself face to face with a man who had a firm handshake and repeatedly asked if I was alright. I wasn’t alright, but he wasn’t really asking.
“I’m new and I’m just trying to meet new people. I haven’t been here in a while but I’m glad I found it. I got lost on the way — I’m Darcy, by the way,”
“You alright?” he asked again. Was he broken? I had just answered him and by the tremor in my voice and the shake of my fingertips, I was not alright.
“Not really, I’ve been lonely and I am new to the city and I live in the dorms and I don’t know anyone,” I answered more honestly, trying to give the man what he wanted.
“I’m just with the bishopric and welcoming everyone to church today,” he explained.
“Oh! Ok, yeah. Thank you,” I replied in embarrassment. That was my first lesson in British English. You alright? does not imply that you look unwell, nor is it an opportunity for an honest answer.
He slowly walked away, his fingers at his lips like he was in deep thought. Perhaps concerned that he had just met another crazy person who would come shake things up for a few months before being asked to leave.
I sat down, choosing to sit close to the wall where no one else would spot me. The service began and I reached forward to grab a hymn book, my long waist-length hair falling in front of my face. The strong, bitter smell of stale coffee filled my nose. I snapped back into my seat.
Slowly, I moved my hair to one shoulder and tried to take a sneaky sniff of my locks. They smelled like Starbucks. More specifically, the Starbucks I had sat in for hours that morning enjoying a latte and a ham and cheese croissant and trying to pluck up the courage to go to church. Horrified at my perfume, I tried not to move for the rest of the meeting as to not waft the devil’s scent across the chapel and let everyone know that I was an outsider.
The organ blared a hymn I didn’t know, the notes seeping through the walls to the busy South Kensington street outside. Bewildered tourists and families just trying to enjoy the weekend admission prices at the Victoria and Albert Museum next door, now accosted by the unwelcome sound an organ makes.
I arranged my features into a look I hoped resembled thoughtfulness. I might have smelled like a week-old cup of coffee and looked like an outsider, but I knew what emotion I was supposed to convey when someone spoke at the pulpit. I molded my lips into a soft smile and slightly knit my brows together. Now the speaker is crying and saying she knows the church is true. The corners of my lips folded downward, I softened my brow. Contrition. Except it didn’t take so much consideration on my part. I wanted what they had. I wanted corn silk hair in milkmaid braids and quiet radiance. I wanted to be happy in clothes that draped me in modesty and did nothing for my figure. I wanted to look the part until I was a part of it all. But my insides — my heart, my brain, were the only parts of myself I couldn’t mold into anything real. Forget convincing. They protested my attempts to fold them into tiny parcels and label them Believer.
I didn’t know that then, either. I just knew how to blend in. I knew I wanted to blend in. Except this time I smelled like coffee and looked like a whore.
I was considering slipping out the back door and giving up altogether when the next speaker took the pulpit. A young man with a thin bun on the top of his head, broad-chested, and tall. I stilled.
“I couldn’t let our meeting come to end without sharing my testimony with you all today,” and I swooned at his English accent. He shared an experience that I don’t remember now but the moral of it was that he was convinced now more than ever there was a God. No matter how mundane and normal the experience was, he used the right formulation of evocative language and tearfulness to convince me that it was divine.
And he was divine and articulate and handsome and intelligent. I picked him out of a crowd and with nothing to lose — a faceless girl in a city too big, I decided I was going to recklessly pursue him.
I let my body sink further into the pew, my new home. I was smitten, enthralled with the idea of an Englishman. And looking back I’m not sure if I really saw him at all, but rather I heard him and the way his words sounded like a song. His speech was enticing, the exact sentences my parents would want to hear. Each word was like a measuring stick and I knew I didn’t measure up, but maybe I could if I tried harder. If I wore the right things and sang the right hymns, and lost myself the way they taught you to do here. Lose yourself in service to your fellow man. Find yourself in God. Forget yourself. All those phrases, I could apply them. Maybe if I did, I would unlock that invisible door between me and everyone else who always seemed so at home here. And I wanted that more than anything, to feel at home here.