By Christina Fialho
“Intrinsically disordered.” That’s what I heard growing up. I hadn’t felt particularly disordered, though. A little messy, yes. My closet could definitely have used some re-ordering. But intrinsically disordered? That just wasn’t me.
So that morning, I stood there, my right arm outstretched, fingers touching the toes of the off-white ceramic statue of a woman before me. The stormy skies had opened from darkness and a single ray of sun shone through the stained-glass window illuminating the statue, illuminating her.
I had come to church to ask forgiveness. What else was I supposed to do? I had nowhere else to go. I was a seventeen-year-old girl in love. It should have been an ordinary love, but my love had brought uncomprehending shame to my family.
“Carolina, I cannot condone sin under this roof,” Mom had said, as she took down the posters of Shakira in my room to replace them with icons of Jesus. I think she had hoped the more I stared at Jesus, the more ordered I would become. She had found the letters between Nyna and me, under my bed. She threw them away, in silence. The necklace made of dandelions that hung on my bedpost, she removed, tore apart, and discarded out the window. I watched Nyna’s gift swing peacefully to the ground. Its pieces reabsorbed by the earth. The natural order of things perhaps restored.
Mom never yelled. She hadn’t even cried. She had just proceeded, as if checking off a preordained to-do list, passed down through the generations. “You haven’t even had a boyfriend before,” she had continued with calm certainty in her voice. “I remember being your age. You don’t know who you are yet.”
Was she right?
The church had a familiar, comforting smell that had begun to quiet the butterflies practicing aerial acrobatics in my stomach. I had been baptized in this church, had First Holy Communion in this church. Every Sunday, I had lit votive candles in the dark nooks of this church, told secrets to friends in the pews of this church. I had listened to Gregorian chants in this church, and watched the music sculpt the air, bridging the spiritual world with the sensual world. But I had never noticed this statue before.
At first glance, I had thought she was Our Blessed Mother of Jesus, her eyes cast down on me from above like the Archangel Gabriel before her. Was this moment to be another annunciation of sorts?
No. She was no Virgin Mary.
The roses in her arms gave her away. This was a statue of St. Thérèse. She was standing there with me, holding her lifeless flowers, symbols of an unnoticed girl who still flourished in God’s glory.
I locked eyes with hers, as everything around her began to disappear, slowly. The staircase behind her collapsed out of sight. The doors to our left leading into church and the doors to our right inviting us into the sunlight dissolved. It was just her face, there, glowing.
Then I heard it. Three simple words, heard as less than a whisper but more than a thought.
“I see you.”
Who said that? I looked around. But no one was there. It was just me and her.
“I see you,” I repeated aloud. She had not posed a question. No. She had invited an answer. The answer I had always known.
I. Am. Bi.
Almost instantly as if these words had been perceived by the Church as a gunshot signaling the beginning of a race for my soul, incense began seeping out from deep within the church, flooding my nose as if it were water suffocating me. The ocean air from beyond the church knocked at the door, entered, and comingled with the incense in the narthex of this Catholic church.
And I was trapped.
Trapped between two open doors, asked to enter through only one of them, asked to turn my back on half of me.
Of all the places, why come out to myself in the narthex of a church? Originally, penitents were confined to the narthex until their reconciliation with the Church. Not quite inside, but not quite outside.
I began to try to inch my way to the door, the one leading to the outside. But my legs stiffened in place as if the floor were quicksand grabbing hold of me. The more I fought to leave, the tighter the quicksand liquefied around my limbs. Any progress I made reversed instantly.
Am I doomed to remain in the narthex forever? It is surely the location the Catholic Church has prescribed for people like me. Mom could still love me if I remained here, for it was not a sin to like another woman, only a sin to express it. I could be comfortable enough in the narthex.
The church bells in the distance brought me halfway back into my body. Were the bells welcoming me or warning me? I felt as if I were in a very faraway country that was once my homeland.
Was I to be the Catholic who the Catholics have disavowed—compassionately, of course—the happy prisoner who dutifully and despairingly attends mass, confesses sins, drinks from the cup of life but who is never seen at the altar, smiling?
Mom never smiled. Perhaps this was our ancestral curse.
I looked up at St. Thérèse, as if to ask, are we obliged to stay in this jail? She was not smiling. I wondered: When the church is sealed at night, when all Catholics are removed, does she sway from side to side? Does she weep or does she laugh? Does she ever think about escaping the narthex?
The Catholic Church had become both my judge and jailer. It set the rules, prevented me from living outside of them, and pretended to show me love, but only if I stayed in the jail. In the name of unconditional love, it extended me the most conditional distortion of love.
St. Thérèse’s colorless complexion was cracking. The Church had kept her in this position for far too long. I looked for any indication of the child St. Thérèse, the girl who played outside. I sought in vain for the pieces of this fragmented woman, for the affiliation between this carved contortion and the woman who had long since died.
But all I saw before me was a familiar stranger. Why could the Church not just say to me, I love you and that is all.
If the Church had said that to Mom, she would have said that to me. She would have left the Shakira posters on my wall, the letters under my bed, the handmade flower necklace intact. She would have hugged me. She would have asked me questions about Nyna. We would have talked for hours.
I would have been welcomed in my home.
She would have watched me graduate high school and college. She would have let me cry on her shoulder when I broke up with my first girlfriend. We would have eaten our favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream together, cuddled on the purple sofa in the family room of my childhood. She would have taken me out to dinner when I got my first job. I would have taken her to get lemon poppy seed muffins on the weekend. For no reason, just because I could. She would have helped me pick out a wedding dress and stood proudly beside me as I married my wife. She would have been a grandma, teaching my daughter our family history. She would have smiled.
I love you, and that is all, she would have said.
The grip of the church’s cold grey floor began to loosen, and the heels of my feet extended upwards, then back down. I was beginning to feel my body. I was beginning to notice my body, as if for the first time.
The door swung open as a parishioner walked across the threshold, blessed herself, and proceeded toward the altar, passing painlessly from one plane to another. She made it look so easy.
I struggled to regain the flexibility in my legs, my knees locking and unlocking to the rhythm of the woman’s ta-tap ta-tap ta-tap—the sound of her high-heeled shoes bouncing off the walls, absorbed by my body.
I was afraid to see how my tangible self would move in the world beyond the narthex. But I knew I did not belong in the narthex, between the beloved and the unabsolved.
No, I would not remain half-wanted.
The world God created for me has no walls. It is ready to receive me. It was ready to receive me even before the pavement was laid, before the building was constructed, before the doors were put on their hinges, before St. Thérèse was disembodied and cast in ceramic for eternity.
The world God created for me is an open plane.
So, I stepped forward. And I kept walking. Intrinsically me.
Christina Fialho (she/her) is a bi+ activist, social entrepreneur, attorney, and writer whose essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Salon, and InStyle Magazine, among others. This is her first work of short fiction. Catch her on Twitter @ChristinaFialho.