The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

deeshaw philyaw

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a deeply moving, compelling, and surprising collection of stories about longing, desire, faith, and love. And it’s our April goop Book Club pick. You can read it in a few hours—a fun way to spend an afternoon—but Deesha Philyaw’s words will stay with you for much longer. This excerpt is from the end of one of our favorite chapters, “How to Make Love to a Physicist.”

  1. Deesha Philyaw The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Bookshop, $17
    Deesha Philyaw The Secret Lives of Church Ladies Bookshop, $17

Join us in reading The Secret Lives of Church Ladies for goop Book Club—we’ll be chatting throughout the month in our Facebook group, hosting a Zoom discussion for members, and streaming a live conversation with the author on April 27 at 4 p.m. PT.

From The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

How do you make love to a physicist? You send him an apology in the form of one of the many sketches of him you have made, in a silver frame. He doesn’t respond right away. And you’re okay with that; you knew the risk you ran, disappearing the way you did. But when he does reach out, you’re both quiet on the phone for a long time before you say, “It’s just something I had to do. For me. I didn’t have the words for it then, and I’m not entirely sure I do now.”

“I need you to use your words, though,” he says. “If we’re going to do this, I need you to try. And I promise I won’t ever do anything to make you regret trying.”

You try to remember the last time a man made you a promise. You decide it doesn’t even matter. This man is making you one now. That’s what matters.

How do you make love to a physicist? On March 13, the night before he comes to town, you stay up late, taking turns playing old-school hip hop and R&B music videos, talking smack about who’s going to get served at your dance-off, Googling your astrological compatibility—your Virgo to his Aquarius—laughing, giddy.

Then Pi Day arrives and you shower while he’s en route to the airport. Once he’s in the air, his six-hour flight (including layover) feels to you like an eternity. His walk from the plane to your car at curbside takes as long as a pilgrimage. You imagine him kissing the western wall of Sbarro, weeping at the Cinnabon, leaving an offering at the feet of Auntie Anne.

After he drops his luggage into your trunk and closes it, he turns to you and says, “Finally.” And you say, “Finally.” And he draws you into his arms and kisses you. His lips are as soft as you thought they would be.

At your place, you make omelets and home fries, which he devours. His appetite is magnificent. Then, even though you’re both exhausted and sleep deprived, adrenaline kicks in and you win the dance-off by a mile. This man cannot dance to save his life, despite talking much shit.

“What’s my prize?” you ask.

Eric pulls you down to the couch and kisses you again. “Oh, so we both win,” you say. “Here’s a participation trophy.” You go in for more kisses, and you think, God, let him be forever.

You both begin to doze. At some point you wake up, with your head in his lap and your mind in overdrive. You think about your art show opening tomorrow. You imagine looking at him from across the gallery floor as he looks at your work; introducing him to your girlfriends, your colleagues, your students. And your mother. You think that even if today and tomorrow were all there was, that would be okay. But then you hear your therapist’s voice asking what you feel, not think, right now. And you struggle at first to find the words before settling on warm, hopeful, joyous, full.

Eric strokes your furrowed brows until your face relaxes. You say, “Rumi said, ‘Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.’ Do you believe that?”

“I don’t know,” he says, then yawns. “Sounds like a mystic’s take on fated love, and I don’t believe in fate.”

You deflate a little. You want him to be the one you’ve been waiting for, and you want him to feel the inevitability of you as well. You want to be his default, not an option. You want the promises of a new religion.

You chide yourself for walking too far ahead—for regressing into eighties song lyrics territory so soon.

But then he says, “The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way recently sparked seventy-five times brighter over the course of a two-hour period, and twice as bright as it’s ever been in the twenty years astronomers have been monitoring it.”

By now, you’re used to him talking science, but you’re not sure where he’s going with this.

“One theory,” he continues, “is that the event was caused by a star about fifteen times bigger than the Sun getting close to the edge of the black hole, disturbing some gases, heating things up, increasing the infrared radiation coming from the edge. But get this: we observed that star getting close to the black hole about a year before we observed the effects on the black hole.”

“That shows just how vast the universe is, how enormous the distance,” you say.

“Exactly. Distances, plural. The distance between the star and the edge of the black hole, and the distance between the black hole and Earth. So…I say all of this to say that sometimes wheels are set in motion long before the spark is manifest. Is that the same thing as fate? I don’t know, but I do know that rare, brilliant events take time.”

He sighs. “Which is why I didn’t trip when you didn’t respond to my messages at first. I figured if you’d wanted me to leave you alone you would’ve said so. But you didn’t. Now I did trip a little when you ghosted me, but”—he shrugs and pulls you closer—“I figured you had your reasons.”

How do you make love to a physicist? When he unbuttons your blouse and asks, “Are we going to be the type of people who sit around talking about Rumi and black holes, or are we going to get naked?” you answer, “Both.”

You stand up and pull down your skirt and panties. “Rumi wrote of an intuitive love of God, and he was a Muslim,” you say. “But people like to strip away the Islam from his work.”

He runs his hands over your thighs, your breasts, your free stomach.

How do you make love to a physicist? With your whole self, quivering, lush, unafraid.

Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Copyright © 2020 by Deesha Philyaw. Reprinted courtesy of West Virginia University Press.

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