I held hands with Rosa Chávez Taylor every Friday morning. Sister Ana led my third-grade class across the field stretching behind our school—it was the shortcut to Church. We were thirty-three girls walking in gala-uniformed, alphabetically-ordered pairs bathed in sunlight and surrounded by wild flowers. Thirty-three, Sister Ana said proudly—Jesus’s age. I felt bad for Susana Zambrano, who as the last on the line had to hold hands with Sister Ana. Whereas my last name paired me with Rosa—freckled, long-haired, kind, articulate Rosa. When the breeze blew my way I caught whiffs of her clean skin combined with the anise and chamomile growing around us. On hot mornings our palms sealed together. We chatted and laughed. For those twenty-minute walks I did not share her with anyone else.
Once after Church Rosa fell unusually quiet, and I feared she was mad at me. She stopped, opened her mouth, and pointed inside—the Holy Host was stuck to the roof of her mouth. The line of girls behind us backed up in disorder. Sister Ana clasped Rosa’s hands while Pilar Merino tried to reach in and dislodge the wafer. Cristina Urrea ranted about desecrating God. I took a peek at Rosa’s open mouth. I saw a quiet Oh, a silent exclamation, pink and fragrant as the flower she was named after. And within, the tender cushion of her tongue.
Rosa closed her mouth. “It’s gone,” she said a moment later. When we resumed our walk she asked if I was cold—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 her own skin. “Backs are sexy,” she said once as we shared a towel on the beach. “If only we could see our own backs.” She loved herself.
I loved her too, and other girls. They loved me back—just not that way. But I was not alone. I had the occasional boyfriend. They got hot. We made out at the movies.
Getting a sweetheart was not hard—becoming a “proper woman” was. At age ten I was a tomboy, a fact everyone attributed to my having three brothers, no sisters, and a 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. At age twelve my friends wore makeup and high heels; I shunned dresses for t-shirts and jeans.
I loved girls, but no one knew. I reveled in the intimacy teenage girls enjoy in Mexico—lots of sleepovers and homework dates and dance lessons and makeover sessions. Plenty of sharing beds and couches, playing with each other’s hair, stroking each other’s lips with cherry-flavored lip gloss brushes.
I think back to those times and wonder, why did I never kiss those lips, touch that knee one tad longer?
I was well socialized. I wanted to be loved as much as my brothers. Watching my kids now I know how quick little ones learn to offer what society demands in return for love and safety. Some of us become masters of conformity. I was an A student. I practiced music and dance as though a future Twyla Tharp/Yo-yo Ma hybrid. At age fifteen I dropped my beloved tomboy look and climbed into my first pair of high heels. Photos of my sixteen year old self feature stilettos I would not dare wear now. I grew my pixie out into feminine locks. By age 23 I was a full-fledged señorita, complete with the good-catch boyfriend and the bright future.
I worked hard for that future. I went to grad school. Lived in foreign countries. I claimed my right to pursue my dreams. When a boyfriend threatened to stifle my freedom, I simply dropped him. I was a confident, independent woman who fought for what she wanted.
That, until I met Nina—the sassy one with the Mapuche eyes. It was 1989.
We were grad students on Long Island, a country foreign to both. Nina’s Chile had just ousted its dictator of seventeen years. “No,” voters wrote on the ballots, and Pinochet was gone. Nina had done her part, and had the scars to prove it. During my teenage years I had organized sundown-to-sunup dance parties—a sweaty exercise in sentimental education. More than four thousand miles away, Nina organized demonstrations, and a few times slept in jail. Her face glowed with pride as she told me this. My heart did too.
Nina did not tell me that on one of those demonstrations the Chilean army doused two teenagers with gasoline, lit them ablaze, and threw them into a ditch. Carmen Gloria Quintana survived, deeply disfigured. But Rodrigo Rojas died.
He was a U.S. resident.
This attack on U.S. interests, historians discuss, changed this country’s policy towards Chile’s dictator.
When in 1973 Richard Nixon helped orchestrate the coup that propelled Pinochet to power, the death of a few American expats did not deter him. But Rodrigo Rojas’s horrific death thirteen years later galvanized public opinion. Under pressure from Congress, Ronald Reagan blew the whistle on Pinochet’s plan of extreme repression in the case of a No result in the 1988 plebiscite. Chile’s generals heeded the Gringo’s call, refusing to grant Pinochet emergency powers and annul the vote.
Nina had a poster poster of the NO campaign showing some twenty smiling naked children, their faces warmed in the Chilean sun, expressed Chileans’ humanity and optimism, their willingness to make themselves vulnerable for a greater good. Many believe it was the Chilean people who made the difference by making themselves vulnerable, putting themselves on the line of fire in repeated demonstrations, risking their safety to reject a cruel regime.
In her world you faced danger with the truth. She was a brave working-class girl getting an education on the sheer force of her smarts and her scholarships. I too had the scholarships and the ambition, and the lack of cash. I had grown up an upper-class girl, then lost everything to Mexico’s 1982 monetary crisis.
Nina and I were Latin America’s upward and downward mobility meeting at a crossroads.
She was open to things I was not in the habit of considering. In planning a demonstration, rumors sometimes arrived that the cops would be aggressive—did it make sense to attend? Her answer was a question: Why not?
I too had grit. At home I was known as la Loca for identifying my needs, pushing to attain them, and accepting the consequences. But not always.
Nina lovingly cared for a potted plant on her windowsill—only when I asked did I discover it was marihuana. One Wednesday night while our housemates slumbered she talked me into trying it. I sat on the carpet; she in her bed, her back against the wall. In the glow of her pink rice-paper lamp, Nina rolled the joint and smoked. I took my turn, and soon the hands on Nina’s clock flashed orange meteors. The room swung around me. I sat cross-legged, folded onto myself, crushed under a burden I did not understand.
My ideas came out warped. “You could easily hurt me.”
“Why would I?” she asked. “You don’t trust me. Then I don’t know why you’re here.”
If only we could have used Woody Allen’s subtitles from Annie Hall. Nina would have known what I meant: I am weak when you are near. You can play with me. Touch me.
In a wondrous, parallel universe she would have done just that. Why not?
But she did not speak. Instead, I filled the silence with nonsense. “If I were gay I would climb into that bed, with you.”
In literature, sometimes characters lie outrageously and, in the process, reveal their truths.
Nina assisted me. “Right. You are not a lesbian, and nor am I.”
That is the last I remember of our date.
After a fitful sleep in my narrow bed I got up the next morning, showered, and headed to campus. As I walked to the bus stop three simple words came to mind. If only I could force the clock’s hands back, I thought. And indeed I could—I erased the night in Nina’s room from my mind.
Those three words haunt me to this day.
When the girl of my dreams slammed the closet door on my cowering face I picked up where I had left off. I finished my Master’s degree and went on to the PhD. I moved abroad—my third foreign student experience. Better than before, but more painful—just not sexually. I was so deeply closeted that romantic thoughts of women never—and I mean never—crossed my mind.
Eventually I fell in love with Gabriel, and married him. We wanted to start a family. My folks were elated—and so was I. They would now treat me as a grown woman. My brothers would stop calling me “The Nun.” I was thirty-one years old when I finally became the married woman I was “meant” to be.
Years of gruesome work passed in which I pushed scary thoughts into the closet’s deepest drawer. My life amounted to twelve hours in the office, back home to put my baby to bed, wake up at six and start again. Slowly, Gabriel and I accrued the accomplishments to show for the work: a pair of PhDs, two successful careers, a beautiful child, a home of our own. We had it as good as it gets.
My son Javier was five years old when the floor quaked under my feet. It was the year of my first sabbatical. On a rainy May on graduation weekend Javi slept at his grandparents’, while Gabriel and I took a break in a nearby city. The apartment we rented was owned by a German professor who, judging by the decorations, must have been lesbian. There, a picture on the bedroom wall seared itself into my retina.
It was a photo you might find in any old National Geographic. In it stood two young African women, their bare chests reflecting the sun’s rays. Their bejeweld arms circled each other’s waists, the contact between them natural and sweet. They lazily gazed beyond the camera—we could not care less about your longings. And yours. And yours.
I do not know why, but those women whisked me back to the room of the gorgeous woman who had exiled me from her heart. That summer I sat down in my office, ready to produce the closing chapters of the academic book I was required for my tenure review. Instead, reams of fiction came from my fingers. I faced my computer, my neck doubled and, in a blind spell, wrote story after story. About women falling in love with and rejecting each other. They had Nina’s deep eyes, or Ilsa’s brown skin, or Rosa’s freckles. They told about time not healing old wounds. About having it all, and a deep , secret well in their hearts.
That year my life began anew. It is now more raw, more lonely, and also, strangely, more whole. I know who I am and I can say it—even if only in writing, and only under a pseudonym.
Since then I have written a novel with a lesbian theme. I have published stories. I am writing a host of them. And this memoir.
Gabriel has known of my desires from the moment I saw that picture of two naked African ladies. He respects me. We have used couples and singles counseling. We have considered sex vacations; lovers for one or both of us. All these options have potential destructive downsides. Talking about divorce leaves us sad, fearful. I dread taking from my children—I now have two—the safe, joyous childhood they have enjoyed until now.
The one I enjoyed until my parents’ downfall.
I want people to know who I am. To flirt; to go to a party and dance with women. Gabriel’s parents are among the most tolerant people I know. They would embrace any lesbian, gay, trans, or bisexual person they came across. But their son’s wife? Gabriel can’t bear the thought of my coming out.
“I am not ashamed of you,” he says, and I wonder at his choice of words. “But everyone will wonder when you will leave me.”
2012. The triangle has an open corner, like those in an orchestra. I don’t know if it will fill one day.
What I know is that I will not stop loving women. The ones in my life are all married—only one of them to a woman. (Nina is back in Chile, beautiful as ever. Married to David. We write occasionally.) The most daring thing I do is tell my friends how pretty they are. Girls can be that ambiguous. Fortunately. Unfortunately.
The triangle that is my life is open, and it rings bright. When my sex awakens, all my fantasies play in a feminine key. My eyes closed, I think of my friends as my excitement builds. In my mind I cup their lovely breasts, press my mouth to their delicate throats.
When I come, Nina’s name rolls in my mouth. Her lips kiss mine.
Estela González holds an M.F.A. from the Solstice Program at Pine Manor College and a Ph.D. in Latin American literature. Born and raised in Mexico and educated in the U.S., she writes stories in English and Spanish about straddling cultures and sexualities. Her work has appeared in the Barcelona Review, the Cobalt Review, Lesbilicious, Revista Cronopio, Revista Mexicana de Literatura Contemporánea, Salon, Solstice Literary Magazine, and the Vermont Public Radio commentary series. She is currently seeking representation for her novel Limonaria. “Open Triangle—2012” is part of her memoir about being gay in conservative Mexican and American societies.