by Nadine Rodriguez
If one closed their eyes out on the patio and stayed still, the impossibly salty and sulphuric scent of the ocean, only five miles away, would breach their senses. It was delightful, living on the coast. The sisters couldn’t see the ocean from the convent, but they could feel it: the fresh breezes that would sway their skirts and veils, the rust that would hide underneath salt coating doorknobs and windows, the frigid air that would blow through the halls at night, ushering away the heat left behind from the day. Josefa had always loved the ocean, to them, she was one of the most heavenly things in their life, one of the reasons they could believe in an all mighty creator.
Alma de Anjou was another.
When they realized they weren’t a woman of God, nor a man, but instead a person undefined by such binary terms, Alma and they had been seeing one another for over a year. She was the first person to whom they voiced their deductions about themself out loud.
They were lucky to have a progressive system in place at their convent, the silence that haunted others only present during their meals. They couldn’t imagine the Lord, who spoke so often to his children through prayer, art, and life, desired for his followers to be voiceless. As they walked to their work period before dinner, they pulled Alma to the side, guiding her quizzical look to the outside, to a patio meant for praying with stone benches and a statue of Mary in the center.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
They shook their head, “Nothing, I just need to say something.”
She didn’t say anything after, only looked at them beckoningly.
Their “particular friendship,” as their superior once labeled it, felt predestined, sewn in between their hymns sung during mass and in the exposed spines of their decades-old prayer books. How could it not be? The way her velvet hands felt as they held their stout counterparts under the dinner table, combined with the way it felt to see her mouth form their name in the dim light of her room, her lips curving and forming the ‘o’ in Josefa, was far too similar to the way it felt to worship, to devote oneself to the holy, for it to be a perversion.
“When we’re alone, I don’t want you to call me Josefa anymore, or a woman, actually.”
“Oh?” she said, furrowing her brow. “Well, alright. What do I call you then?”
They stared at her, humored by her immediate acceptance of a concept they had struggled with for what felt like their entire life.
“Matías,” she repeated, slowly.
They were entranced, dumbfounded.
“I like it, Matías, but we should head to our period before someone comes to look for us.”
As the days passed and Spring melted into Summer, their thoughts and cravings for Alma grew carnal. It felt like their feverish ideas were summoned by the hot, humid air that made their layered clothes stick to their sweaty skin. Alma simply touching their shoulder or caressing their cheek became nearly unbearable during those times; how would her fingers feel as they cupped their breast, or as they massaged their body, molding their abdomen and hips to summon sounds unknown to the two of them?
When their room-mate, Sister Brianna, was away due to a family emergency involving her brother, they knew it was a sign from their Lord. They locked the door quietly, worried that the slight click of the mechanism would summon every superior within miles to their room. It took some time to undress, their hands nervously fumbling with buttons and zippers, but once they were bare in their room, everything felt too unfamiliar, too rapid of a change, so they slipped into a nightgown before lying down on their mattress. There was a sense of security in the thin, white cotton, and Matías felt motivated once again to go through with it, to devote themself to their desires. There was an echo of doubt in their mind, the slightest hiccup of guilt, but they quickly subsided, replaced by anxiety and excitement as they spat onto two of their fingers.
It felt like a ritual when they finally touched them. It was awkward at first, Matías unsure of what felt good and what just felt new and unknown. Their flesh was not what they had imagined, the sensation closer to massaging the pulp of figs and peaches rather than skin, but maybe they weren’t so different after all. After a few moments, Matías bit into their lower lip, muffling a faint whine that had nearly escaped them.
Alma’s voice was suddenly in their ears, whispering and uttering words they had never heard her say before in her mind. It was almost too much, Matías’ toes were curling and their thoughts were becoming more and more incoherent when abruptly, it all came to a halt with a quiet knock on their door. It was so faint they almost missed it, but then it came again, and Matías bolted off their bed, wiping their fingers on the back of their nightgown before stepping towards the door.
“Just a moment,” they said, wincing at how breathless they had sounded.
When they opened the door enough for them to peer through the side, to see who it was, Matías felt their cheeks flush. Alma was standing there, in her nightgown, the same cotton but a light shade of blue.
“Can I come in?”
Matías stared at her for what felt like hours before they stepped to the side and let Alma push the door all the way. Immediately, she looked over at the heap of clothes on the floor, browns and blacks and whites never meant to be disregarded so blatantly, before looking back at Matías. The air hung heavy around them, and slowly Matías’ heartbeat was becoming a quiet storm in their ears rather than the thundering from before, and so, they decided to move. They never let go of Alma’s eyes as they laid back down on their mattress. She took part in their dance step by step, lying beside Matías as they scooted over, flat on their back.
Alma’s eyes widened and Matías could see the blush rise on her cheeks, but she didn’t reject them. She didn’t reject the way Matías had spun their relationship into something carnal, and that’s all that Matías needed. She brushed their hair out of their face, loose from the bun Matías had, touched their chest and lips with her fingertips, as if Matías was something delicate, something graceful. It reminded them of the way the priests of their youth handled the sacraments, raising the chalices filled with wine in the air as if they would shatter if glanced at too abrasively.
The two of them didn’t talk about it during the days that followed. They didn’t address it, the weeks after. When Matías decided it was best to leave the convent nearly half a year later, the resolution a summation of elation from finally, finally knowing who they were combined with a taste of guilt they couldn’t quite wash out of their mouth within those judgmental walls, Matías had enough.
They weren’t angry, but they were lonely.
With their vestiges stored away in a plastic bag and their belongings in a small worn-out backpack they had brought when they had first come to live a holy life, they wrote a letter to Alma. In it, truths Matías didn’t dare to acknowledge before, romantic desires and dreams were spelled out, punctuated, and finalized. They left it behind under the sheets of Alma’s bed while she was out teaching, lingering for just a moment to look around her room. Her room-mate was also absent, and Matías had an instance to breathe, to mourn the love they would strand.
They left afterward, in the clothes they came in years ago that were faded and too tight. Once in the taxi-cab that reeked of cheap perfume and cigarettes, they let the tears they had stubbornly fought against fall. They would be taken to a small home, further away from the coast, that their sister lovingly would help afford renting for the first few months as they settled back into reality.
They found a job as a history teacher at a public high school nearby fairly easy after reaching out to other sisters that had left the religious life behind. There was unfamiliarity in the closed, murky bodies of waters that surrounded their home and the strip malls that lined the streets sporadically, but there was comfort in the ex-sisters’ stories, even if they hadn’t left for the same reasons. At the core, they had been part of a community for years, decades even, and then tore themselves out of it by their own will. Re-entering life where no set schedule was applied to one’s day was jarring, and Matías was glad for their company. One night, a woman named Barbara who wore her hair short and dyed a vivid red at the tips had asked Matías if they had a sister they were particularly close to during their time at the convent.
The longing they still felt for Alma came and left in waves. They had wondered more than once if she missed them, and if she agreed with them leaving, if she had understood. The days where Matías looked at themself in their bathroom mirror, the curves of their breasts and the swell of their hips not unattractive but not truly them, they wondered if Alma had always known. They wondered if she could see their real body, hidden beneath the feminine features they were born with, formless in a holy ether.
They tried to see other women. Matías spoke softly and leaned their body in towards them, but it never went far. Whenever they’d touch another, they would hear Alma singing psalms and feel her touching their sweaty hair from years ago, her touch a specter in their mind.
One night, as the spring rain outside pelted their windows relentlessly, Matías stood in their kitchen, cradling a cup of wine. They were taking their final sip when they saw headlights pull up into their gravel driveway, the wet sounds of the rocks shifting loud even from inside their home. They went to their front door, turned on the porch light, and looked out in confusion.
When Alma stepped out of the taxi clumsily, holding onto a bag in one hand, the other clenching something thin tightly to her chest, Matías felt time stop. Alma stared at her, and distantly Matías could hear the taxi driver yell at her to close the door and go. In their timeless void, Alma rushed to Matías, who stepped out of the way for her to get out of the rain. Alma’s shoes squeaked as she dropped her bag and moved to take them off, shivering as she slid off the coat from her shoulders that was clearly a hand me down, from how comically large it sat on her shoulders.
She turned to face Matías, her black curly hair Matías had remembered short, now long and clinging to her cheeks and neck wetly. She held out one of her hands, and Matías realized that she had been holding onto the letter they had written her a lifetime ago, the edges wet and stained black with ink.
“I’ve wanted to come to you for so long,” Alma said, “but I wasn’t sure. I was afraid.”
Matías reached for her hand that wasn’t holding the letter and squeezed once Alma’s fingers were in between their own.
“I was afraid, too.”
They came together again as if Matías hadn’t excavated a great schism between them. The strings that had come loose in between them were pulled tight, rejoining them. Matías ushered Alma into their kitchen and began to cook, pouring glasses of wine for them. Alma sat by the counter, which was cozily cluttered with various books that had bookmarks and notes jutting out, pots and trinkets, and talked to Matías as they cooked. Alma asked about their job as she skimmed through one of the books. She asked about their students, about their coworkers, and if they had plans for the future, for themselves, and their career.
“A friend of mine says they can help with hormones,” Matías said. “I’m a bit nervous but I saw the photographs of them before and how they look now. I think it would be good for me.”
“Are you a man?” Alma asked. She closed the book she was peering through and stared at Matías, her eyes a shade of tender that made Matías suddenly feel timid. “I remember you told me you weren’t a woman.”
Matías knew Alma wouldn’t reject them, not after so much, not as she sat by their kitchen counter with damp hair, yet they were still anxious, their stomach-churning. They hadn’t spoken the words they had chosen to describe themself out loud, instead, they had been quiet reflections and introspections, kept close to their chest.
“I don’t think I’m a woman or a man.”
They felt good to say, light. They were weightless as they floated up with the steam of the pasta cooking in boiling water. They felt real.
Alma was thinking, Matías could see it in the lines of her forehead and the way her head was craned slightly to the side. After a pause, she smiled.
“Leaving was good for you. I hope it’s good for me, too.”
The food Matías cooked wasn’t extravagant, but it was warm and it was good. They ate, pausing in between with fond memories from the convent and Alma’s curious questions about the other ex-sisters Matías knew. When they were done, only tomato sauce smeared on the plates left, Alma walked up to Matías as they stood by the sink, letting the dishes settle in soapy water. She kissed their neck, right below their ear, and Matías hummed. They turned and silently placed their hands on Alma’s hips, rubbing their thumbs against the fabric of her pants. They kissed, and Matías felt their chest tighten.
Alma slipped off Matías’ shirt as they pushed open the door to their bedroom, her presence took up space in Matías’ room, her outline stark and vivid against the neutral browns and greens of the walls. When she licked her lips and looked directly into their eyes, Matías couldn’t imagine her anywhere else–she was meant to be there, born to stand in the dim, yellow light of Matías’ bedroom.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
Matías replied by dragging her down onto their bed. It was different than before. The whole world had shrunk to the size of Matías’ bed, wedged itself in the distance between Alma’s hips. It wasn’t poetic like some women and others had described it as. There weren’t any hints of rose or lily, no overwhelming sweetness or contrition. There was just Alma. It was an entanglement of deliverance and damnation, the idea of Matías having to stop an impossibility. As Alma pulled them impossibly closer, their eyelids dropping as they pushed their head against their chest, they whispered an amen, an end to the prayer that had lasted years between them both.
Nadine Rodriguez (they/them) is a queer, non-binary Cuban-American writer and photographer born and raised in Miami, Florida currently based in Marquette, Michigan. They are an MFA candidate for Fiction and a Graduate Assistant at Northern Michigan University, a Fiction Editor for Passages North, and a co-editor for Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. They have previously had work published by 34 Orchard, The New Gothic Review, and Lesley Magazine. They can be found on Twitter @nrodri_