Nadine Rodriguez is a queer, trans non-binary Cuban-American writer and photographer born and raised in Miami, FL currently based in Marquette, MI. They are an MFA candidate for Fiction at Northern Michigan University, a Managing Editor for Passages North, and a co-editor for Sinister Wisdom.
I’m born in a hospital beside the ocean while the sun sits fat in the afternoon sky. My father refuses to hold my little, squirming body, scared that he will drop me. His rough, terracotta skin and tired eyes are afraid of a helpless, blood-smeared infant. I do not cry when he finally holds me with trembling hands. The doctors tell him I will be quiet, that I will be a peaceful girl, and he is happy. My aunt recites to herself how happy my family is that I came out healthy, that I am born right.
I don’t remember how old I am when I tell my mother I dream of Cuba. It’s late on a school night when I find her after waking up abruptly in my bed. She’s sewing in the kitchen, and I begin to sleepily tell her of the warm mud squelching between my toes in my dream and the rampant mosquitoes trying to break through the mesh net around my bed. She begins to cry. I have not seen my mother cry, and I stare at her wet, brown eyes in wonder. She sits me down in the living room and tells me stories. I sink into the mass of decorative, uncomfortable pillows and watch her lips form words in the golden lamplight. Stories of el campo, of a dictator I have only seen on television and heard adults speak of on the radio, of a land that was her home although this was her house. When she speaks of family, it feels as if I were living in two separate places at the same time, I am her family, but her family is also elsewhere. I imagine the sounds of her cousin’s farm, imagine the stone road she and my aunt would ride their bikes on to meet with their friends.
“Maybe one day, we can visit,” she tells me. There is something sad in her voice, and it makes me feel guilty.
The first time I hear the word tortillera, I’m seven. It’s spoken with judgment from an uncle I believe is my godfather on Christmas Eve about his daughter. I remember her babysitting me a week ago and feel confused. I ask what the word means and see how my parents hesitate to answer, how my mother looks toward my grandmother. My uncle motions for me to step closer to him, leans in towards me, and says with a small smile on his face, “It’s not something you want to be, mija.”
I’m eleven when I see two women kiss as my family and I walk in a department store in the mall that is as humid indoors as it is outside off eighth street, and I stare. One of the women is shorter than the other with long, brown hair that cascades in coils and the other is tall, her limbs lanky with short, black curls on the top of her head. There’s a strange light feeling in my stomach, and I don’t understand why or what it is. But there’s also a shameful sensation afterward that makes my heart feel as if it’s burning. I want to ask my mother if she has medicine for it, but when I look over towards her and my aunt and see how they lean into one another, whispering and avoiding looking at the women, I stop myself.
Maybe I should stop looking, too.
In the unforgiving heat of a July wedged between seventh and eighth grade, I am in my first car accident. My bones do not break, but my mother’s do. My father is angry at the blue cast that lays claim to her leg, but in other memories, the cast is purple and sometimes white. His rage is passed along to my mother, and I am not sure why. It isn’t my mother’s fault that the car crashed. According to my father, the driver who slammed into her side es un comemierda que no merece poder manejar.
I wonder when I sit in the kitchen watching my mother struggle to drain a pot of cold, dirty water to wash black beans what it feels like to break a bone. The scratches on my face heal over time, as do the dark bruises and burns that bloomed across my chest from the tightening of the seat belt. I wonder if it hurts more to survive than die, but I do not tell my mother.
My mother did not reach for me as the metal caved in beside us both with a horrific, otherworldly sound. The airbag that deployed, nearly breaking my glasses, was motherly enough.
I realize my father is angry that my mother cannot cook well with her broken arm. I want to remind him that it isn’t her fault, that she did not pray for a broken humerus and radius, but I do not open my mouth.
Instead, I cook. The food we eat is not good, it is seasoned improperly, far too salty on a Wednesday night, and far too bland on a Thursday night. On Saturday night, it is burnt. My father does not say anything, but chews and gulps mechanically, until he can retreat back to his bedroom. Some days, my mother does not eat.
On Monday, we order delivery.
“Your hair is so puffy.”
I look next to me and see an eighth-grade girl smiling at me. Her hair is light brown and straight, pooling around her shoulders. There is something wrong with her smile, a certain tilt to her head that deems me prey.
“I guess,” I say.
“Why don’t you iron it? You’d look nicer.”
I raise a hand to my hair and press my fingers into my ponytail. My mother has told me that I was born with my father’s hair, and I think about the way he shaves his hair close to his scalp until it resembles more of a shadow than hair.
“I don’t really want to. It takes up too much time.”
The girl laughs sharply, I think her name is Karina. I look over past her shoulder and see her friends watching, similar smiles stretching their faces.
“Maybe you should think about it, none of the boys will talk to you like this.”
My stomach feels heavy, and I look away from her and down to my plate. Lunch will last for another fifteen minutes, she’ll go back to her floor of the school then.
“Or,” she says, drawing out the word, “do you not care about boys?”
I know what she’s asking. It’s something I’ve asked myself when my mother mentions a classmate after a school event, mentions how cute he is. I take my tray and leave, and ignore the hyenas laughing on my way outside of the cafeteria.
Later at home, I absentmindedly push the food on my plate around as my mother sits across from me, eyes glued to the television for her telenovela. One of the characters, the lead woman, has hair cut short by her the end of her ears. The gold earrings that dangle from her earlobe kiss her neck when she turns her head.
“Can I cut my hair?”
My mother doesn’t look away from the woman crying over her dead husband on the screen, “Sure.”
I put my fork down, “I want it really short, like Tía.”
My mother finally looks at me, and she’s frowning, “She has a boy’s haircut, she can do it because she’s femenina, ella se cuida.”
“I can be girly, too.”
She laughs and it sounds like the girls from school. I want to tear my hair out so badly my hands quiver.
“Hija, girls with hair like yours can’t cut their hair like that.”
I have my first kiss when I’m fourteen. I’m at a friend’s house and the power has gone out due to a thunderstorm, the flashes of lightning illuminating our bodies fleetingly. We’re huddled in her living room on the floor, blankets thrown around us cozily as we drink warm soda that hurts my stomach and play truth or dare.
“I dare Nieve to seven minutes in heaven with Fabian.”
A choir of voices oooo-ing abruptly erupts in the circle. I can feel Fabian look over at me, and I roll my eyes and smile. Fabian is popular in our grade. He’s part of the baseball team, takes AP classes although I never see him study, and knows how to drive although he doesn’t have his license yet. I met him through my friend, who I know has a crush on him. I look over to her and catch her staring at me.
“Let’s get this over with,” I say. I stand up and offer my hand to Fabian. A round of laughter and the thumping sound of his friends patting him on the back follow as he stands up and takes it. We’re quiet as I guide him to my friend’s room and he closes the door behind us. I feel nervous when he looks at me, and I can tell he is too.
“Your name means Snow, right?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“That’s a pretty name,” he says. He takes a step closer to me and I don’t move.
“What does yours mean?”
He places his hands on my hips and squeezes, “I don’t know.”
I think of when my father squeezes my wrists when he is upset, of my mother squeezing my shoulder when I find her crying.
When he leans in and kisses me, his lips are chapped and I remember my friend’s crush, of the way she looked over to me longingly before I stood up. I know the look was not for me.
When his tongue tries to touch mine, I think Fabian is an ugly name.
When I am eighteen, I help my mother plan my father’s mother’s funeral. My right leg is starting to go numb as I sit cross-legged on the floor, skimming through aged, yellow photo books with pages that stick to one another, the plastic covering on each starchy. My mother is seated on the edge of the bed, where she is gathering photographs that I hand her. I look for photographs of his mother smiling, of her mouth split into rancours laughter, but there is nearly none. She is a somber woman as she holds her sons, and I wonder which is my father out of the five. It is not clear until he is older, his boyish cheeks eroded away.
“Por qué papi no ayuda con esto?”
My mother sighs. She cried the night she received the call from my father’s brother.
“El no es bueno con estas cosas,” she explains. “Los hombres no son emocionales.”
“Pero fue su mamá.”
She looks over to me, and although there is no frustration skewing her features, I know I am misunderstanding something. I want to ask her more, I want to ask why I did not meet my grandmother, why my father refused to speak to his last living brother until a tragedy occurred, and why I do not feel sad, but my tongue sits fat in my mouth, uncomfortable against my teeth.
“Cuando yo muera, tú tendrás que hacer esto. Así es la vida.”
I think of my mother dying. I think of who will call me, of where she will be, and where I will be. I try to envision my husband, faceless and voiceless, comforting me. I stop thinking about it.
I steal a photograph. It feels criminal, but I take a photograph of my father where he is seated on his mother’s knee, and her lips are pressed against his cheek, smooshing the fat in them against his eye. I keep it in my nightstand, a version of my father lost to me to keep me company at night.
My mother finds it a year later, along with photographs I have kept of friends. I walk into my room and see her seated on my mattress holding onto a photo strip.
She does not look up at me. I see her hands trembling. I step closer and see that the photo strip is of me and a friend from weeks ago when we went to see a movie together. Our cheeks are pressed together as we smile at the camera in one photograph, the others underneath it blurred with motion but depicting me kissing her cheek, and then us sticking our tongues out at the camera, and then towards each other. I remember laughing so hard my sides felt they would split.
“Who is this?” my mother asks, and I want to tell her to speak in Spanish. Her English is reserved for judgment and fury.
“Jessica, she’s a friend from school.”
“A friend,” I repeat.
“Why did you take photos like this with her?”
Anger makes the incisors in my mouth ache, and my chest tightens.
“Because she’s my friend? What’s your problem?”
“No deberías tomar fotos como estas con tus amigas, no se ve bien.”
I want to leave. I want to go see my friend, although she has not messaged me in days. I want to know why it bothers me more than when my friend from high school doesn’t message me.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I yell. I hear my father move from their bedroom, summoned by my hysteria. Panic seizes my veins. “You’re crazy, solamente dices eso porque tu no tienes amigas.”
My mother holds the photo strip in the air between us as if it were evidence, as if she was there in the photo booth with us, witness to our youth.
“Friends don’t act like this. I won’t show your father, but don’t do it again.”
When he steps through the threshold of my room, my mother puts away the strip of photos.
When I’m twenty years old, Fidel Castro is declared dead. I find out at a friend’s house, four of us pressed up against one another on a single, tattered couch. My thigh touches that of Moon’s, my black denim embracing the burgundy hues of her corduroy pants along the stretch of her thigh. Moon is a lesbian. The word feels exhilarating and dirty all in one, and although I dream of pronouncing it, the letters are too stiff for me.
Someone yells the news of his death from the kitchen and immediately we all pull out our phones to double, triple, and quadruple check. It takes us twenty minutes to drive to eighth street, Calle Ocho, and see the mass of Cubans and other Latinos and Hispanics that have flooded the street. Pots and pans are held up in place of celebratory trumpets, and Cuban flags are waved proudly in the hot, Miami air. The police have blocked off the street, but we can hear the horns of cars passing by, as well as the distant thrilled yells of “Cuba Libre!” I find myself smiling with strangers, laughing and dancing about the death of another although I do not truly understand why.
I do not think about whether it is right or wrong until the next day when I’m sitting in class speaking to a professor. She’s looking through her newspaper and sees the news about Castro. With a small shake of her head and a tongue click against her teeth, I feel guilty.
“You should never celebrate someone dying. It’s basic humanity.”
“He made a lot of our families suffer. Were you not happy when Nazis were found in Argentina?” another student says.
Our professor is proudly Jewish. She’s spoken about the family she’s lost, and the family she’s found. She becomes quiet, closes the newspaper, and sighs. I know there is a scar that lines her stomach underneath her shirt from where her ex-husband hurt her.
“Death is death.”
Suddenly, I’m ten again and standing beside my grandfather at his brother’s funeral. Pablo, I remember. He had thirteen brothers, not including himself, but I have only met four. Pablo became sick and started to lose his mind when I was nine, and I remember how he would confuse me for his daughter. My grandfather told me to play along with it, but he always looked so sad when his brother would speak to me. At his funeral, my grandfather did not cry. Instead, he stood by his casket and peered into it, a hand balled into a fist by his side. I reached out and touched it, and he held my hand.
“Siempre dijo que quería ver libre a su país. Viviré por él, lo veré por él.”
I did not understand those words then. He can’t see with your eyes, I had said. My grandfather had squeezed my hand and looked down at me.
“Our family does not forget the dead, hijita.”
I don’t kiss a girl until I am twenty-one. I hadn’t kissed anyone since Fabian, and I’m so nervous I swear my lips will slide off after the kiss. I imagine apologizing as I scoop them up from the dirt, as I wipe them on my shirt. We’re sitting outside of one of my classrooms, underneath the faulty emergency exit sign on a crumbling concrete pathway. The roots from the nearby tree had broken through the slab long before I had enrolled in the university. When we pull away from one another she is smiling and I feel my cheeks grow warm. Her hair is long, thin, and black, and is swaying in the breeze. It wraps around her face and I delicately move it away, tuck it behind her ear. I’m always so delicate with her, so careful, as if she’ll just slip away if I lose focus.
“Have you ever thought about cutting your hair?”
Her hand is in my distressed, knotted hair and I feel her playing with a curl by the nape of my neck.
“I wouldn’t look good with it,” I say.
She huffs, “Who said that?”
I do not think of a car seat as a chapel until I am twenty-two. At twenty-two, I am once again devout, parting the holy sacrament as the pads of my fingers sink into Jin’s skin. We are both in my car, parked at my university. The light from the post beside the car filters in through the raindrops sliding down the tinted windows, and we are in an ocean, swimming along with one another in the current. I hit my head against the roof, and Jin hits her elbow against the car door, but we are blooming. My tongue is honeyed and Jin’s eyes are sap as the night continues, as rain drenches the world outside of us.
I think of how I will return to the house my mother calls my home after this. I think of how I have told her not about Jin, but of myself, and how she had chosen to misunderstand.
“You are not gay,” she had said. “Solo tienes que conocer a un hombre, no cometas ningún error como eso en tu vida.”
When Jin kisses my eyelids, I wonder why if I am to change, the earth will remember.
At twenty-three, Jin and I have been together for over two years. She surprises me one night in her apartment when she speaks to me in Spanish. It feels strange to hear the sounds of a language my parents speak spill from her mouth, even with the few blunders and stumbles from freshly learning a language.
“Have you been practicing?” I ask.
She puts her hands on her hips and nods at me, “I’ve been taking classes. It’s better for jobs and I thought it would be nice to talk to your family more when I’m around them.”
I plop the folded shirt I was holding onto into the suitcase by my feet and walk over to her. We’re packing to spend the weekend at Jin’s parents’ home in Melbourne, three hours away from Miami. My mother thinks that our friends are coming along with us, and we took posed photos with them a few days ago in case she asks for proof.
“You sound good,” I say.
Jin laughs and leans in towards me, arms loosely draped around my shoulders.
“Don’t lie to me, soy muy malo.”
I laugh, “It’s mala because you’re a girl.”
She shrugs and lets go of me to go back to packing, looking through her trove of shirts piled up on a chair, and I sit back on her bed.
“Your parents are okay with me staying?”
“Yeah, they like you a lot,” she slows for a moment and I notice. “They told me they want to meet your parents.”
“That can’t happen.”
My words are sharp and quick, and I wince at their tone.
“Sorry, I just, I can’t explain that. My mom would think it’s weird I want her to meet a friend’s parents.”
Jin looks over to me and there’s a look in her eyes I’ve seen before. It was there when she first met my mom years ago, the times she overheard us spitting venom at one another, and there when she caught me staring after boys with flat chests and short hair, my hands picking at one another restlessly.
I hated that look.
“It’s okay, they’ll understand.”
She doesn’t go back to packing. Instead, she moves towards me and sits beside me on her mattress.
“Do you think you’ll ever come out officially to your mother?”
It’s not a strange question, and it isn’t a rare one between us, but the words manage to rattle me like they do every time. They nestle between the spaces of my ribs and pulse in my veins.
“Maybe, I don’t really know. I’ve tried.”
“Whatever you decide,” Jin says, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Twenty-five. I’m twenty-five when I’m on the phone with my mother, the screen pressed against my ear as I watch Jin from across our living room. She’s sitting on an armchair we reupholstered last week with a strange, blue velvet fabric we both liked. Her legs are tucked in underneath her as she leans her weight against the armrest, a book open on her lap. My mother’s voice drones on the line and I become mesmerized by the domesticity of it all, of the way my eyes can witness Jin like this, in private, in our apartment.
“Mami, can I talk to you about something serious?”
Jin looks up at me in concern, and I wave her off.
“Of course.” I hear my mother say, “Estas bien?”
I can hear my father muffled in the background, asking her if there was something wrong. The way my mind tries to pluck out the right words is disorienting, and I can taste the heavy, sticky truth on my tongue. It feels as if I swallowed honey, and I look at Jin. She’s watching me with curious, cautious eyes, and I remember how she mentioned she wanted to start a garden soon, how she wanted to find flowers that bees preferred. I remember the tattoo she wants of a bumblebee on her left ankle and remember the way she tasted the night before and what I thought when I looked at her then, hair disheveled in our dimly lit bedroom.
“Si,” I say. “Estoy bien.”