All his life he had gone to church with his parents every week. They drove about twenty minutes through the city to the large building. Some of it was a century old, pale yellow brick with stone pilasters of the same color at the entries, huge dark wooden doors with linenfold carving, above the door a stone relief of an empty cross and an open book. There were newer additions to the building, the same yellow brick but completely dull, just big boxes with windows.
The basement had beautiful old classrooms, with ornate wooden furniture, dark carpets, sometimes chandeliers, often grand pianos. The sanctuary on the first floor was long and broad, a feast of sober, rich colors—the dark red rug, the brilliant stained-glass windows with scenes from Bible stories. Carved wood, dark brown, was abundant—the pews, the trim on the walls, the large balcony with pink plush seats. Shiny brass candle holders stood at the front of the room and along the sides. The minister’s pulpit and the choir loft were also made of dark wood, just below the subdued gleam of the many organ pipes.
He was fourteen. He had always loved this building and especially the sanctuary. He had also enjoyed the sermons—the quietly witty, pensive, gently hopeful sermons of the minister who had recently retired. But he despised the new minister, a glowering man who could start a sermon anywhere and, at the end of a twenty-minute crescendo, arrive at the gates of Hell and a dire warning to everyone in the room.
He stopped going. He told his parents he needed to go to the church library and do his schoolwork. He knew that his parents cherished his good grades, and he was not surprised when they accepted this choice. Sometimes he sat in the library, reading something that had no relation to his school classes. More often, he explored the building, visiting the spaces that had emptied for the service.
The second floor had rooms that were used for children’s classes. He wandered through them with a mixture of tenderness and resentment. Many of the volunteer Sunday school teachers were sweet, friendly people, though often at a loss for how to use an hour of class time. One teacher quizzed them on Bible story facts, using the same deck of flash cards every week. Soon he and most of the children knew every answer. He would ignore the questions, lost in his thoughts. Other teachers did art projects, usually with no clear relation to anything about Christianity. Lording it over the teachers was Mrs. Fitch, tall, burly, and terrible. She would pass through the classrooms to monitor what was going on. If she did not like what she saw in a class activity, she did not hesitate to scold the teachers as though they were children. If a class became loud, with multiple excited conversations, Mrs. Fitch was sure to appear promptly, shouting “Quiet!” in her booming voice. The children were frightened of her, and they were amazed to see the teachers equally cowed. Mrs. Fitch had a son, Larry, who could turn on a dime: meek and polite in his mother’s presence, he became a committed rule-breaker and bully as soon as she looked away. Everyone hated Larry.
Now, the empty rooms teemed with flickers of imagery, echoes, all that had passed there. Passing through classrooms that had been his for a time, he was startled to realize after a few minutes that the spaces were silent.
Another week, he saw for the first time that a flight of stairs continued upward from the second-floor landing. At the top, there was a door, unlocked. He had found a large, grey room, completely empty, with a high ceiling and many doors leading out in all directions. As he entered, he was surprised to find that he had an erection. Only mildly surprised—it was not rare to find himself with an erection, but usually the cause was more pertinent. He ignored it and walked around the perimeter of the room. The ceiling was very far above. There was dim gray light throughout the room, though there were no windows or visible light fixtures. He noticed there were no light switches on the walls. There was no sound in the room. His footfalls were silent. He snapped his fingers and the sound vanished immediately, no resonance. There was no scent, apart from a faint impression of dust. No movement of air.
He returned the next week. The room seemed exactly the same. He wondered whether anyone else ever visited. Another erection. This time he went to one of the many doors and opened it. It was an empty room, perhaps a closet but with no shelves, no fixtures for hanging anything. He went inside and closed the door. Then the room was completely dark. Suddenly his sexual excitement was overwhelming. He sat on the floor, pulled his pants down, and played with his dick. Everything about this tiny space felt forbidden and exciting. He realized he was about to climax and didn’t know what he should do with the cum. As he finished, he rolled to the side and emptied himself onto the floor. He had no way to clean it up. His orgasm was unusually prolonged and intense. He hoped he had been silent. He sat in the dark until he felt the flush leave his skin and his breathing return to normal. As he opened the door of the tiny room the light, dim as it was, stung his eyes. As he closed the door, he smelled his musty, pungent ejaculate.
The next week, he had to restrain himself from running up the stairs. He reminded himself that he did not want anyone to notice him. The big room was as it had been, though there was a change in the air. He thought there was a trace of human sweat, though he wasn’t sure. He didn’t see anyone. He tried a different door. Another small room, but this one was filled with a pinkish light, a bit brighter than the light in the large room. Facing him on the wall was a full-length mirror. He closed the door and stared into his own eyes. He couldn’t stop looking. He felt strong desire for the boy in the mirror. Still staring into his eyes, he let his pants and briefs drop around his ankles. His dick was hard. He caressed his dick and then his balls with both hands, and then began to stroke his dick slowly, wrapping both hands around his shaft. He felt himself trembling. He maintained eye contact with himself for a minute longer, and then dropped his gaze. His cock was beautiful, lit in soft pink. Gaping, he continued his slow rhythm. It felt like forever. Then he felt the approach of his climax and shifted gears, hands pounding as fast as he could. He couldn’t help gasping as his cum flew out, some onto the mirror, some onto the floor. Again he looked into his own eyes, watching as his breath gradually slowed. He watched as he raised his hands to cup his face, caressed his cheeks, brushed his fingers across his lips, fondled his neck. That Sunday, as he and his parents walked to their car, he turned to look back at the church. He was curious what the attic rooms looked like from outside. But the appearance of the church was a lie. The building seemed to have only two storeys, but he knew better.
The next week, he recognized the same sweat in the air, stronger this time. One of the many doors opened, and Travis stepped out into the main room. He and Travis were the same age. They had been in the same Sunday school classes, just below the room they were in now, since before they could remember. Travis was a sweet, gentle boy, a little pudgy, a little feminine. The other children always made fun of him. Larry Fitch was especially brutal, calling Travis pussy and faggot, pinching him, sometimes poking at his ass with rough fingers. “You like that, don’t you, you little queer.”
Looking at Travis was strikingly similar to seeing his own pink-lit image in the mirror. They had an unfamiliar sensation of knowing each other’s thoughts. They saw each other’s erections straining against their pants, and their eyes lingered. Then they felt themselves reaching the same conclusion: not now, not here. For each, it would have been the first sex with another person. Travis returned to his room.
He tried another door. It opened onto a long narrow corridor, dimly lit. The walls were black. He could hardly see in the dim gray light that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. He walked the monotonous hallway for several minutes. Suddenly, the corridor opened onto an enormous space. It was a dark lake, extending as far as he could see, reflecting the moon and stars of the night sky. It was astonishingly beautiful. There was a breeze. There was an odor of fish and dead plants. He felt staggering joy as he dropped his pants, stood at the edge of the lake, masturbated slowly. His drops of cum fell into the water like stars.
During the week he often thought about these puzzling, arousing attics. He could remember every detail of every visit. He lay in his bed, falling asleep, gently stroking his dick, sometimes thinking of the boys from school that he thought were beautiful, but as often retracing his explorations in the upper rooms of the church.
After that, he continued to sense Travis in the attic spaces, but they rarely saw each other and never interacted. Every time, he discovered a new space. One time he opened a door and found a large square room with a low ceiling, the light dim and yellow. Across the floor in rows and columns were many cots, adult sized, a hundred. He could not imagine what the room was for. Another time there was barely audible music throughout the attic spaces, high, like tinkling bells. It made him nervous; he did not want to encounter an adult.
He continued his explorations until, at sixteen, he told his parents he did not want to go to church any more. He told them he had become an atheist. His mother looked sad, and his father cried, but they did not argue with him. It was true, he was not a believer, but also those strange spaces, invariably so exciting, had begun to confuse him, had come to seem both alluring and repellent. He did not want to be so different from his friends. He found his way into a series of sexual encounters and brief relationships with boys and girls at his school. He was surprised at the relief this brought him.
The first time he went to a gay bathhouse, many years after his visits to those mysterious attics, he felt the déjà vu of once more exploring an enigmatic, powerfully sexualized series of adjoining rooms. It was much less intense than his wanderings in the church, but it was closer to those early experiences than anything else he had encountered. On that first visit, he climbed a staircase and there, seated on a bench, was Travis, lean, muscular, handsome, naked, erect, playing with himself. They had not seen each other since they were teenagers. They smiled. “Hello,” Travis said. “We’ve waited for this, haven’t we.”
Many years after his visits to those mysterious attics, one of his closest friends, a straight man on whom he had an agonizing crush, died suddenly. That night, his dreams took him back to the church. He wandered through the empty rooms, gasping and sobbing, calling his friend’s name loudly. As always, the air in those spaces devoured every sound, allowing no resonance. “Philip! Philip! Philip!”
Fred Everett Maus is a musician, writer, and teacher. He is a trained teacher of mindfulness meditation and Deep Listening, and a student of object relations psychoanalysis and music therapy. He has published prose memoir and poetry in Citron Review, Hineni, Open Space, Jacket2, Live Encounters, Palette Poetry, Richmond magazine, Roanoke Review, Vox Populi, and elsewhere. He lives in a house in the woods in Earlysville, Virginia, and in Roma Norte, Mexico City. The Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness, which he co-edited with the late Sheila Whiteley, was published in February, 2022.