The following has been excerpted from Renata Costa’s Open Salon blog. As a matter of privacy, all names have been changed — including the author’s.
I held hands with Rosa Chávez Taylor every Friday morning. That’s when Sister Ana would lead my third-grade class across the field stretching behind our school — the shortcut to church. We were 33 girls walking in a gala-uniformed, alphabetically ordered double line bathed in sunlight and surrounded by wildflowers. My last name made me the luckiest girl, for it paired me with my best friend. Rosa was tall, freckled, long-haired; kind and articulate; admired by all. When the breeze blew my way, I would catch whiffs of her clean skin combined with the anise and chamomile growing around us. When our palms sweated together, we changed sides. We chatted and laughed. I knew my privilege: For those 20-minute walks, I did not have to share her with anyone else. I was thankful.
One time after church, I thought Rosa must be mad at me, as she had fallen unusually quiet. Then she stopped, opened her mouth, and pointed inside — the Holy Host had stuck to the roof of her mouth. Some of the girls offered to reach in to help dislodge the bread. Others ranted against desecrating God. I took a peek at Rosa’s open mouth. A quiet “Oh,” a silent exclamation, pink and fragrant as the flower she was named after. And within, the tender, glistening cushion of her tongue. She closed her mouth after a while. “It’s gone,” she said. When we resumed our walk, my fingers trembled as she squeezed them in her hand.
That was Rosa. Later years brought me Ilsa’s lush brown skin. And later, Nina’s gorgeous Mapuche eyes. Her sass. Oh, was she sassy. She liked to smell the skin on her own shoulders. “If only we could see our own backs,” she said once as we sat on the beach. She loved herself.
I loved her, and other girls. They did not love me back — not in that way. But I was not alone. I had boyfriends. They were accessible. They got hot and bothered. We went to movies. We made out.
I started flirting at an early age. When my parents discovered I had a boyfriend at 11 — I had not yet gotten my first period — they sat me down and asked what I thought boyfriends were. I said, “If you love someone, you kiss and hold hands. You make each other happy.” My wide-eyed parents seemed at a loss facing the oxymoron of my innocent, mature stance, and they let me be.
Harder than having sweethearts was becoming what my family thought was a proper woman. At age 10 I was a tomboy, a fact everyone attributed to my having three brothers, no sisters and an individualistic, somewhat lonesome disposition. I sat with legs splayed — like a boy, my mother complained. I hollered like a sergeant. I climbed trees like a firefighter. I shunned dresses for T-shirts and jeans. The exception was my preference for miniskirts and patent leather knee-high boots. Like Nancy Sinatra’s, my boots were made for walking.
I loved girls, but no one knew. I reveled in the intimacy teenage girls enjoy in my home country — lots of sleepovers and homework dates and dance lessons and makeover sessions. Lots of sharing beds and couches, playing with each other’s hair, stroking each other’s lips with tiny cherry-flavored lip gloss brushes.
I think back to those times with a pang of regret. Why did I never kiss those lips, touch that knee a tad longer? Because I was a well-socialized girl. I wanted good things. I wanted friends and family to love me as much as they loved my older brother — I wanted them to see me. I was an A student. I was devoted to music and dance. I read voraciously. Eventually I dropped the tomboy look and learned to walk in high heels. I grew my pixie out into feminine locks. By age 23, I was a full-fledged señorita with a good boyfriend and a bright future.
I worked hard for that future. I went to grad school. Traveled and lived in foreign countries. I claimed my right to pursue my dreams. When a boyfriend threatened to stifle my freedom, I dropped him unceremoniously. I was a confident, independent woman who fought for what she wanted.
- – - – - – - – -
That was until I met Nina. Yes, the sassy one with the Mapuche eyes.
We were roommates in a country foreign to both of us. We were both between boyfriends. We loved art and music. We discussed politics. She was a working-class girl getting an excellent education on the sheer force of her smarts, ambition and scholarships. I was a former upper-class girl whose family had lost everything to one of many economic crises in my country. Nina and I were Latin America’s upward and downward mobility meeting at a crossroads.
We were different too. Nina was open to things I was not in the habit of considering. Should we go to the demonstration? Cops might beat us. Why not? she would ask. It was her refrain. She lovingly kept a little potted plant on her windowsill; only when I asked did I discover it was marijuana. One Wednesday night more than 20 years ago, while our roommates slumbered, she talked me into trying it. I sat on the carpet, leaning on her dresser; she in her bed, her back against the wall. Warmed by the pink light of her rice-paper lamp, Nina rolled the joint, smoked and passed it. I took my turn. The glow-in-the-dark hands in her clock flashed 2 in the morning when the room swung frighteningly around me. Orange meteors flashed within my closed eyelids. I sat cross-legged, my body folded onto itself, my neck doubled to the side, as if crushed under an impossible burden.
In our painful conversation, my ideas came out as warped as my body. “You could so easily hurt me,” I remember saying.
“Why would I hurt you?” She asked. “If you don’t trust me, I don’t know why you’re here.”
If only we had had the luxury of the subtitles in “Annie Hall.” Nina would have read them and known what I was saying: I am weak when you are near. I ache to taste your skin. You could take me right now, play with me.
In a wondrous, parallel universe, she would have done just that. Why not?
But she did not say a thing. So I filled the silence with words: “If I were a lesbian, I would be in that bed with you right now.”
In literature, sometimes characters reveal their deepest truths by uttering the most outrageous lies.
Nina furthered the lie: “Right. You are not a lesbian, and nor am I.”
That is the last I remember of our date.
The next morning, after a fitful sleep in my narrow bed, I got up, showered and headed to campus. As I walked to the bus stop, a question came to mind. Two simple words. Now what?
What should an independent, 27-year old woman do with that question on a sunny April morning?
Those two words haunt me to this day.