At the Base Of the Mountains

They say I was baptised, though I doubt anyone in my family actually remembers the event. I know my American grandmother and her best friend drove across the country from Meredith, New Hampshire to Pleasanton, California in order to meet my twin sister and me and to attend our bautizo. The dress I wore at the ceremony hung in my closet for most of my childhood until I attempted to stuff one of my dolls into it and ripped it in half in the second grade.

I don’t remember it, but I imagine my sister and I took turns crying, squirming in the priest’s hands. I imagine my mother lined her lips for the occasion, and that she hugged our frilly bodies to her perfumed chest. I imagine the Father’s sour coffee breath as he leaned over me to pour oil onto my forehead and the warm liquid travelling through my wispy baby hair, dripping down the back of my head onto my neck.

For as long as I remember until I entered middle school, my mother would pray with my sister and me every night before bed. It was a quick little prayer I will have memorized for the rest of my life. As a little girl, the prayer was less about God and more about my mother’s warm kisses and quick attention. She is a working woman and mom to five children. I glowed under her attention.

My religion expanded in Bolivia, my mother’s home country and where I lived from the ages of thirteen to fifteen. I took the pilgrimage back this month and was surprised about how much I remembered from my second home. My Spanish came out naturally, as if from muscle memory, and my relationships with my extended family flowed easily. With my effortless attitude came the memory of the person who I used to be while I lived there, and, with surprise, I began to yearn for that earlier version of myself. There is a version of me that exists there that excels within the norms placed onto her, that rejoices in the appreciation and gaze of men, that laughs much more freely and indulgently, and that yearns, somewhere deep in her chest, to be close to God.

My relationship with the God that was handed to me at birth is a strained one now, but it wasn’t always that way. While living in Bolivia, I went to a Christian school and was often horrified at the doctrine I received there. (Once, during an especially concerning history class, my teacher suggested that natural disasters in parts of the world that are not densely populated with Christians are God’s rightful punishment. I guess he failed to consider the huge amount of tornadoes in the Midwest, where he was from.) Despite the xenophobic, racist, and homophobic things fed to me and my peers, however, I was open to learning about the religion. The school lived in an abandoned brick factory at the foot of the mountains, and something about how those ridges pressed into the bright blue sky reminded me of heaven. I loved the feeling I got when singing in church. Once, when lying in bed, I prayed and felt a weight on my chest I convinced myself was a heavenly presence.

I didn’t use my voice enough in those years. I listened to what they told me and kept my head down, even if I disagreed with what they are saying. One Thursday, in computer lab, my twin sister got into a huge argument with my computer teacher who was also the PE coach and in charge of chasing goats off of our oblong soccer field. They were fighting about homosexuality. I remember staying silent and letting her speak alone. The back of my neck and ears prickled with heat and hot tears hung in my sister’s eyes—they mortified me. A vocal classmate of ours sided with the teacher arguing, in clear terms, that gay people are only gay because they had been hurt or molested as children. My sister’s loud voice filling the room, bubbling with anger. Standing completely alone, separate from the rest of the classroom, including me. I have never had to look too far to find role models, or for reasons to feel shame.

I didn’t think it then, but this argument my sister had actually did have to do with me. I didn’t accept my identity until two years after I left Bolivia, and I held it like a secret in my chest for years after until it didn’t fit inside me anymore. There is a part of me that always knew—how honest are we being? Throughout my years of sexual self-discovery, I could only masturbate to thoughts of women. My queerness was always there in the back of my head, dictating my silence and confusion and self-hatred for most of my life. It existed as a passive, unnamable sadness that sat heavy in my chest that couldn’t be filled with prayer, no matter how hard I tried.

A moment of such prayer stands out in my memory. When I was much younger and had yet to even move to Bolivia, I used my nightly prayer to share my secret with God. Oh God, I said, I think I’m gay. What if I’m gay? I cried myself to sleep that night and tried not to think about it. It hid in the back of my mind until years later.

Eventually, I had to tell somebody. Senior year of high school, I came out to my sister in the form of a poem. She told me she believed me and she loved me. I started dating a girl from my biology class, who I had been pining after for months. I did not tell my mother. I refused to tell my mother. I was forced to tell my mother six months later, when a friend blurted it out in front of her. I cried for half an hour in the middle of the street while she wiped my tears and asked why I was crying. She called it “confusion,” “discovery,” and “exploration.” She told me everyone has phases.

That night, I went to my room feeling an unsteadiness that started at the base of my spine and jolted painfully up to my heart. I wanted never to leave my bed again. I rolled onto my back and prayed for the first time in months.

Make sure she forgives me, God, I asked. I felt scared. I felt angry I had to tell my mom and terrified she would never love me again. Help me, please.

I went back to Bolivia this month and the mountains were the same as I remembered them. They jutted out in the sky in a pattern I knew by memory. The person who I used to be hit me right in the chest. There used to be a straight person living there, at the base of those mountains. She prayed every night and wanted to grow up and be just like her mother. She was happy. She knew who she was and where she belonged.

Today, my identity and position in this world feels like it is constantly shifting, but this feeling is not necessarily a bad thing. I came to college and understand I am not the only person who feels this way. I tell my mother, in an uncharacteristically hesitant voice, about my romantic life. She answers equally as hesitantly, but with love in her voice. A love I was worried I had lost. Sometimes, when I am spending a quiet moment looking over the city, I even remember to pray.

Alessandra Allen is a freshman at Columbia Collge who loves to travel and brood, preferably in unison. Her interests include poetry, coca tea, and Gertrude Stein’s fingers. She is a board member at the Columbia Review and is majoring in English and Creative Writing.

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