Baptism | by Gilmarie Brioso

Baptism

by Gilmarie Brioso

It’s cold in this box of dark, carved wood. The incense guides my breathing, and I focus as each breath peppers my throat. Spiced air flows through my body and calms the trembles that run along my arms. Confessionals are always cold.

“They’re kept this way for the confessor; it keeps him alert. The dimmed lights let him look into his soul, directly at his sins.” Sister Cera told me this as we walked through the empty nave one evening. Accustomed to her thin, pale lips in a straight line, I noticed a quirk then, as if she were amused with the idea.

The cold is fierce and prickles at my skin, but I know it’s not the sole reason for the shivers that take over. I search my mind for any sins left unsaid. Look through every mistake— the pointless lies I told just because I could. God’s name, spoken in vain. That time I stole chalk

from my elementary school to play with back home. When I cursed Doña Blanca for gossiping about Mamá. I was 12 then, but I’ve felt agony over it since, even more after la Doña’s death, as if I were the cause.

Then there was the time I saw Don Antonio have sex with Emily, his 19-year-old cleaning lady, and enjoyed the thrill of the scene. I had watched from the kitchen window as I washed the day’s first dishes. The white cotton curtain moved gently with the morning breeze, but did not do much to obstruct the view—el Don’s knuckles pressing against his back, Emily’s knees kneading the floor. My hands did not stop scrubbing.

I have revealed every evil thought: the exact way I wanted to hurt Papá for leaving Mamá. My hatred for Mamá after he left. I hated her weakness. I can still see her, clinging to Papá’s feet as he left for the last time. Hearing her choking cries, I could only think, You stupid, stupid woman. I vowed to never let a man have control over me.

And then there was the day I brought a razor blade to the right side of my face, drove a clean incision to cup my cheek. The scar never faded; it rests gently across my face. My brown blunder, rosy and rounded. It was what Sister Cera first asked about.

“A carnal sin,” she said, nodding her head, eyes closed. “That must be confessed before you continue.”

But Sister Cera never asked me why I had done it. Would I have said it was for Sofia? Would I have shared the way Sofia whispered my name, with all the air in the room?

“Marina,” she said as she touched my spoil. The hair on my arms rose up with my name, as if they were tiny feelers tuned to Sofia’s voice, capturing her sound, pulling her to me, making my heart pump faster.

“You did it,” she said.

“I did,” I told her, begging her to believe me since, just a day before, she wanted to end us.

“You’ll leave me,” Sofia had explained. “Flacita and beautiful, you’ll leave me for some rich old man. I know it.”

So I carved away at my own flesh, took the beautiful from it, and felt the warm blood on my hands. I had expected a flood, but when I looked down only three small pools had dripped to the floor. I wiped them clean with my bare foot. Quickly, to not stain Mamá’s floor. She kept our only mirror in her bedroom, afraid I would look into the glass too often. And that, to Mamá, was dangerous. I thought she feared some santero’s magic at first, but I later realized her fears were more of a carnal nature.

I thought of going to Sofia then, bloodstained palm pressed to the wound as it gushed silently. But that felt like something Mamá would do, a fan of the dramatic. I washed it clean. Sat naked in my tina and poured water over my head. Watched as the water ran down my body pink, and then back into the tina, and then back into the bowl, and then back all over me.

“Marina. You did it,” she had said.

I did. I did do it. But Sofia left me anyway. Gave her hand to “El Puerco,” the man her parents thought could give her something close to love.

But all of this, I have said already. I am empty.
“Is there anything else,” Father Michael asks again.
I peek through the grated square window that separates the rooms. Father Michael’s head

is down. With his eyes closed, he rubs his temple back and forth at a slow and desperate pace. I wonder how many of these grand confessions he has heard. As the parish priest, Father Michael

 

must hear each candidate confess a life’s worth of sins before they enter the novitiate. I wonder if he compares each sin with his own.

“Well?”

There is one thing left, but the words won’t come out. Just one more confession, one more, and I am done. I can start over. What even happened? I don’t remember. I do. I remember exactly, but I can’t say it.

She didn’t hesitate, which surprised me. She just said “Sure,” nodded her head slowly and just once. Unbuttoned her blouse, pinky tucked under the layered ruffles near the buttons of her school shirt. I turned around and did the same. I could not see her undress, afraid my excitement would betray me. Or she would change her mind.

I heard the faucet turn on. A steady stream of water plopped into the empty porcelain basin. It was smooth compared to the pitter-patter water made in the tina at home.

Sofia’s bathroom was inside of her house, which may be why I was amazed by the amount of sunlight that came in. My tina rested next to my house, enclosed within long boards of soft brown wood. There was a dirt-worn spot with space for me to disrobe and nothing else. Small creaks between the boards let streaks of sunlight poke through. I would catch the spots of light on my bare shoulders and arms, make them waltz across my skin, the way damas and cabarellos would at a quinceañera.

In Sofia’s bathroom, the sunlight poured in, touched everything, saw everything. Coated the soft white walls and made them whiter, coated my own skin and made it warm as it waited.

By the time I pulled my burgundy stockings down, the square mirror above the sink had fogged. I was glad I couldn’t see myself. Any proof of what was happening would have made me run. I stepped out of the circle my plaid skirt made on the white tiled floor and turned to face her.

She sat at the far end of the tub, her shoulders slightly covered by wet strands of black hair. Her eyes were clear and looked straight at me. Sofia’s light skin made her eyes evergreen. But they weren’t that dark. I knew because a week before she had let me look into them. I held her fleshy cheeks in my hands and looked directly into her irises.

We were studying for junior exams underneath el palo de limones. Sofia’s parents planted it before their daughter was born, the tree meant to grow with her. It stood still and beautiful near her white house.

We never studied at my place. Sofia said it was dirty, and I never complained because, I agreed. The darkest of soil always found its way into the one roomed home. Round crumbles stuck to bare heels. That’s what Sofia saw, but it’s not the dirty I think about. I think about the thick sadness that floats through the air. I want to say it stems from my mother, but it runs deeper, from her mother, before her even. It’s embedded in the walls, heavy with it. So much, I could feel each wall inch in. I’d sit in the sala expecting walls to collapse on top of Mamá and me.

“My great grandparents are from España,” Sofia explained as I stared into her eyes. Her coffee breath hit my nose, and my mico stirred the way Mamá said was bad.

“Es el Diablo tocandote,” Mamá would say. If a man ever made me feel that way, I was to avoid him, run away. But it wasn’t a man; it was Sofia.

The stirring came on again in that moment we shared the bathroom. I thought to grab it, make it stop. But I knew it would look dirty. Instead, I clenched my thighs and curled my toes.

“Are you going to come in, Marina?” Sofia’s voice brought me out of my head, and I felt my heart pounding in my ears. I forced myself to look at her again. With her eyes fixed on me, she bit her bottom lip to stop it from quivering. It was then I realized, Sofia wanted this too.

 

“Well,” Father Michael asks again. He looks through the black bars of the grated window. “No,” I say, without thinking, with the quickness women are taught to respond in. But I soon panic. I have lied. A second sin to conceal an old one. The cold in my fingers rush up through my neck and envelop my ears. The box gets smaller. Can I take it back? I want to take it back. Wait, there’s one more confession!

“Your penance is twenty Hail Marys and five Our Fathers.” And it is done. Father Michael makes a rushed sign of the cross at me, mumbling its Latin words, and pulls the red curtain that hangs in front of him aside. Silver rings rattle on their silver pole, and Father Michael steps out.

Light creeps into the confessional from his side. I close my eyes, rest my head on the nook where the walls meet and take a long breath. My fingers curl around the small brown Bible I hold. I forgot I held it. I open the Book to a random page, and my fingers graze across the highlighted section:

“And we have known and believed the love God has for us. God is love. And he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.” 1 John, Chapter 4, Verse 16 I pull the right curtain aside. Father Michael has his back to me and talks hurriedly to Sister Cera.
“Excuse me, Father,” she says when she sees me and walks in my direction, leaving an annoyed Father Michael to himself.
Before my process, I had only known Father Michael from mass. In his homilies, he spoke of sin and death and hell. Of a God that watches those of dirty souls and dirty minds disobeying His Law.

“Repent!” he would cry, slamming his fists down on the high podium. “Repent or you will perish in the fiery flames of hell, reliving your greatest fear over and over again. Your pain will drown you within the depth of the blazing inferno!”

I knew this kind of priest. They were everywhere in Nicaragua. Mamá adored them and their kind of God. One who would eventually punish all those who had done her wrong.

I never saw my God in that way, but there was something in Father Michael and his sermons that made me want to know him. That could only happen in the rectory, where the community gathered after every mass. And the white haired viejitas would get to Father Michael first. They huddled around him to offer up pastelitos, cajetas de coco, and other dulces, as if pleasing the toughest priest guaranteed a seat in heaven.

One day, the priest walked up beside me to dump his plate into the garbage bin as I waited for the rectory’s restroom.

“I hope you enjoyed it Father,” one parishioner cried out as Father Michael stepped on the lever to open the metal bin, disposing a half-eaten pastel. It was Christmastime, and the congregation presented their country’s specialty. Dominicans brought pasteles; Venezuelans brought tamales de yucca; Puerto Ricans brought holiday hams. A secret battle brewed to see which treat the gringo priest preferred.

“Sara’s very proud of her food,” I said. I couldn’t help but smile at my neighbor’s disposition.

“She’s proud of the show,” Father Michael replied as the pastel’s banana leaf plopped into the bin; the paper plate followed. “This pride will end her.”

He let his foot go. The bin snapped shut, metal on metal echoing. “I’m not even sure anyone here can be saved,” he said.

“Does that include you as well,” I asked, feeling the need to defend myself.

He turned to look at me, and I prepared myself for a rant, or for instruction, or for a slap even. But Father Michael chuckled, chuckled at me and walked away.

“Come. You can say your penance here.”

Sister Cera walks me to the back of the church, to a bench on the far left corner next to the altar, facing a large white statue of the Virgin Mary. Dozens of red candles cluster at her feet. Their smooth, hot wax drip to the floor.

I kneel down and hear Sister Cera’s footsteps throughout the vacant church. She stops and sits on the pew in front of the altar.

I know she’s praying as she waits. Sister Cera prays more than any nun in the congregation. She prays while walking to the bodega. She prays on our weekly train ride to the Bronx Children’s Home. She will stop in the middle of a sentence to pray for the rude boy passing by, clutching the pants that hang low on his butt. She’ll mumble a little prayer, make the sign of the cross.

“Remain faithful to prayer,” Sister Cera told me during an earlier session. “Bring intent to it. You’re very young—21, is it? Through prayer you will know if you are receiving the call.“

But prayer is the easy part. I have prayed since I could speak. Mamá would come to me before bed to recite the Ave Maria. She came in every night, even before Papá had left, and religion took his place.

I begin my Hail Marys.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death; Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death; Amen.”

The rhythm of prayer is its magic, but the force put into the words make it hypnotic.

“Hail Mary,” I say faster. My lips smack briefly, uttering short, sharp whispers. You know a person by their prayer’s whispers. Sister Cera’s whispers are soft, thorough. She takes her time with every word, as if imbuing them with power. Turning prayers into tiny spells that make things happen. She whispers the shortest prayers because her prayers take time.

Mine are rapid and hard. Less about the words, but the cadence, the beat. I need to feel the vibrations on my lip, the short breaths that putter out.

Mamá whispers desperate prayers. They take over her body, rock her back and forth. After Papá, I would find her kneeling before the tiny alter neatly assembled next to her bed, twirling a rosary bead within her fingers.

Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros, pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.
She never said the other prayers, skipped over the Our Fathers and the Glory Bes, refused

them completely, rolling her fingers to the next bead, to the next Hail Mary. Only Mary can bring Papá back because only Mary would listen. Only Mary cared.

I am surprised she didn’t name me after Mary. Wouldn’t Mamá want me in the image of her idol? I guess a name as sacred is not to be wasted. Marina is close anyway, a derivative of the saint. I would think of this as I hid under my pillow at night to escape her whispers, but now

behind every prayer, I hear only Mamá. Santa María, Madre de Dios…Santa María, Madre de Dios…ruega por nosotros, pecadores.

“How do you feel,” Sister Cera asks as I approach her.
“Relieved,” I lie. Sin number three.
“I’m glad. It’s hard to get new nuns to the parish, especially from the community.” “That doesn’t bother me,” I say. “I’m used to sticking out.”
In Nicaragua, I was a dark speck among much white. They said I was “exceptionally intelligent” and could go to school in Managua where the rich Nicas lived. The girls at school weren’t as white as Sister Cera, but white enough. It wasn’t so bad; they simply ignored me.

Sofia was my only friend. I met her in the school’s bathroom, found her in the last stall throwing up her lunch. “I need to fit into the dress Mami bought me,” she explained. She looked sad kneeling in front of the toilet, her large knees rosy from the cement floor. Fat tears collected above her chubby cheeks. So, I joined her. Stuck my finger down my throat and let rice and corn rush out. My throat was sore from what came out, but it made Sofia feel better. And that brought on a happiness I had never felt before. We convinced our teachers we were sick, and they sent us home. I went to Sofia’s house for the first time that day and continued to every time our school had a half-day.

That last time I visited was during the festival for Santo Domingo. The floats were being set up as we walked from school. I could hear the Minguito procession over the rush of running water.

We stared at each other at first, our knees up to our chests. The water swayed as it filled up around us. Sofia eventually looked down, brought her chin to her knees and stared at her pink toes. I brought my legs out, extended them across the length of the tub. At 17, I was tall. My legscramped if locked one way for too long. And I wanted her to look at me. So I pushed my feet up against the end of the tina and brushed past the outside of Sofia’s thigh. It startled her, which gave me some kind of courage, because I rubbed her thigh slowly with the side of my foot.

I got lost in the way our skin looked next to each other, a stark difference at first, as if a fuzzy outline separated our bodies. But then, my honey blended into her pale. Our colors bled into each other.

Sofia closed her eyes, and I felt her body lean into mine.
“I…,” she began to say, and I lost my nerve, brought my knees back up to my chest.

“Are you afraid to touch me, Marina?” she asked, opening her eyes.
“Yes,” I told her. I could feel my heart beat through my ears again.
Sofia’s smile reappeared as she crawled towards me. Water splashed around the tub, on my face and onto the floor. She kissed me. It was brief, but I felt the tiny ridges on her lips. She kissed me again, this time grabbing my neck and pulling me on top of her. Water parted, made room for our bodies.

“You’re going to make an impact on this community,” Sister Cera says. “I mean, they respect us, but it’s different hearing the Word from someone of your own clan.”

I knew this was Sister Cera’s plan. When I entered her office, she took one look at my skin, and her eyes lit up with possibilities. Sister Cera descends from the Irish who first roamed the hills of the Bronx. Now that color looms over the borough, I am to be their guiding light.

“I’ve decided on your religious name,” Sister Cera tells me.
“You have?”
“Why yes,” she continues, “It’s required for tomorrow when you assume the habit.”

 

I knew it was coming, but it’s really happening. Tomorrow, I begin my journey as a novice. A new life with a new name. The idea scares me. The ceremony, far before, now towers over me.

Will Marina exist when I receive my new name? Where will she go? Who will remember her?

“May I step outside for a moment,” I ask. My head is light. My vision gets bright, and I resist the urge to vomit in the church.

“Of course,” Sister Cera says.

I walk out through the side entrance and into the driveway that holds the church’s minivan. I welcome the wet air as it hits my face. It cools the ache in my forehead, allows me to see again. Night creeps slowly, and the world takes on a blue tinge.

This in-between alarms me. “The minutes where night consumes day is where the devil stays,” Mamá used to say. I’ve learned to fear all in-between spaces, doorways and corners where the uncanny occurs. The in-between of religion and obsession, a ledge Mamá came close to, too many times.

“What are you doing outside? It’s going to rain.”
“Oh,” I say.
Gearing to apologize to whoever it is, I look up to see Father Michael leaning against the black gate that protects the driveway. He brings a long cigarette to his mouth. The tail’s fiery embers come to life with his inhale.

“Marina, is it?”
“Yes,” I say, “At least for today.” “Pity,” Father Michael says.

 

“I’m sorry?”
“Marina is a beautiful name. It’s a pity you’re going to lose it.”
“Oh,” I say, looking down to my hands. “Sister Cera says she has picked a name that suits me.”
“I see,” Father Michael says, crushing his cigarette on the driveway’s gates. “Still won’t make it any more difficult.”
He rolls the stub in between his fingers, as if taking pleasure in the pressure it provides his skin.
“A woman you’ve met three months ago is giving you a new name. One with a historyyou must embody. It’s the most difficult part of the process, in my opinion. And the silliest. What does a name have to do with the work of God?”

He walks past me, over to the green garbage can near the side door and drops the crumpled cigarette.

“What was your name?” I ask him.

Father Michael stops, hand on the door’s knob, ready to open. He looks up at the sky, scrunching his face to search for the answer in the moist clouds.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he says. With a twist of the wrist, the door is open, and Father Michael steps inside.

I let out what seems like my first breath since coming outside. I walk over to the gate, unsure of what to look at. Few people drift through the neighborhood. Two older men play chess in the park to the right. I don’t want to call it a park; it’s a patch of cement with benches and skinny trees. But after three years, I’ve learned the word “park” is used lightly here in New York City. The BX11 drops off a mother and child. They rush across the street and into the building

 

next to the beauty salon, which is still open. Its neon pink sign penetrates the night that travels over us.

Another building hugs the salon, a portrait spray-painted on its red-bricked surface. It’s of a man dressed like Jesus, hands spread wide with black locks, a long white shirt and even a halo. The Puerto Rican flag dangles from his neck, red and faded blue. “You are always in our hearts, Shorty;” the words swirl below in white.

The image is remarkably accurate. Everyone knew Shorty, having grown up with him. I met Shorty once, at a party my neighbor Rosa held.

“Marina baby, como estas,” he asked as I entered the kitchen, a Yankees mug full of red wine in his hand.

I wondered how he knew my name. The same way I knew his, I guessed. But he said my name with such warmth. I missed him, immediately, like a lost brother. This warmth was something I figured Sofia would give me. But Sofia startled me every time she said my name. From her, my name made my ears hot.

I avoided Shorty the rest of the night, bittered by the way he blemished Sofia’s memory, even if it was slight. Since then, I only caught glimpses of Shorty, walking the streets of the neighborhood, asking about people.

“How’s Tito?”
“Y la mái? Como esta ella?”
I first saw his portrait after a run to the grocery store on my way back to my old

apartment. The bulky plastic bags I carried dropped to the ground. I want to say the news of Shorty shocked me, but it wasn’t him. It was death itself. I’ve learned death comes as a surprise to me.

 

I knew Mamá would die young. I knew she was too weak for this world. I knew I would miss her, cry for her, mourn her. But I did not know my mind would stay paralyzed. I did not know my body would feel hollow and cold. Her entire existence, miserable and lonely, just gone, as if it never had a place on this planet.

“Damn, that nigga was loved,” a man said as he lit the white candle he lay before the image.

I can see a few unlit, cracked candles under his mural now. Shorty watches over his neighborhood still. Santo Shorty.

“May the Lord be with you,” I whisper.

I never cared for the community the way Shorty did. Not even when I lived in the world of the layman. Not even now. So what am I doing here? The thought makes my head dizzy, and a pressure builds in my throat. I grab hold of the gate, wrap my fingers around its bars firmly, needing to do something to relieve this quick. The coolness is what I want; I don’t even mind the way the sharp edges sink into my flesh. I bring my forehead to the gate. Coated thick, the paint looks plastic. I picture black paint chips stuck to my forehead. This image helps, relaxes me. I massage my forehead into the bars, moving my head from left to right. It hurts, but the dizziness dulls down.

I relieve my forehead from the gate, bringing the back of my hand to it. A caring touch after such a brutal attack. The way an abusive husband loves on his wife after a beating. We’re all such cruel creatures, cruel to ourselves more than others.

I turn around and walk towards the door. I need to pray. I need prayer and sleep. I need something solid, the vibrations on my lips, not this in-between of Sofia and Mamá and the love and the anger they bring. It’s simultaneous, this love and anger that lives in my memory of them,

 

that has been living within me. But it’s as if I have been under anesthesia, and now, coming out of it, the pain, built up, rushes through me. I need to pray.

I take hold of the doorknob, and I notice compressed cigarette buds, ashes blessing the floor of the garbage can.

“It doesn’t matter,” I hear Father Michael say, and I know he is right.

 

 

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