The first woman I loved was named pain

Editor’s Choice Award


By madari pendas

Late in the evenings or when I’m alone in my studio waiting for the gesso to dry, I can still smell her. A melange of tobacco layered with her cologne, notes of lemon petitgrain, cardamom, and fir overwhelm the air, and even impress themselves upon the canvas.

When I learned she had married the school teacher, the one she said had a “breathy laugh,” my heart refused to pump any blood. I died and I revived, and died again, a thousand times, remembering her face. I thought coming out was the promised end of suffering, but here was this wound that refused to cauterize. At least with men, it never hurt, it never touched the real, exposed parts of me. I was once impenetrable. Now I am Saint Sebastian, my body covered in gashes. 

I tried to swallow and felt the knot in my throat, my feeble, stupid heart crawling out, leaving me like she left me.

 They both wore dresses; however, I always thought Danay would wear a crisp starched white tuxedo with her hair pomaded into a sleek ducktail. 

They posed on the beach, Danay standing behind her wife, hands clasped around her waist, the sky splattered with pink and orange hues, a fauvist’s landscape. Their skin glowed under the jovial radiance of the day. 

***

She taught me so many lessons in love and queerness, how to recognize it; like the small, subtle affections and arranged touches, the lingering fingers, the smiles across a crowded room, the hypnotizing and soothing way your name sounds in their mouth. I wanted to continue hearing her say Madari. Madari. Madari. My name, like a glissando, trilling across her lips. 

I met her on my first day working at a computer repair shop. As I shook hands with the other sales people, introducing myself, she came behind me, gingerly tapping my shoulder. 

She gave me the stare—the extended eye contact as you imagine your entire future together. 

***

I should have kissed her after we toured her new walk-up apartment in The Grove. It concluded in the bedroom. My body acted without my approval, and I blocked the door, my arm a barrier, looking at her. 

She didn’t turn away; she looked right back at me.

It’s as if my body was preceding my mind and acting on urges I was too scared to admit in the moment. The bed was only a few feet away from us. She pulled her hair behind her ears and waited. 

I thought she was waiting for me to drop my arm and return to the kitchen, but maybe she was waiting for me to be bold.

She deserved someone bold.

When she pulled the hair away, I saw the small nautical star tattoo on the back of her ear. I was glad to see it, the intimate, hidden spot. You had to be close to view it clearly, to learn it wasn’t an odd birthmark or mole.

I wanted to reach for her and search for the star as I kissed her.

***

I didn’t want to tell her I had very little experience with women. Nothing real. A few performative makeout sessions with drunk straight friends that catered to the men they were actually attracted to. 

I was afraid of getting laughed at or dismissed. She was older than me, full of experience and life. 

Our second day on the sales floor together she told me about her trip to Thailand. We hovered together over her phone to see photos, her shoulder pressed against mine. She also showed me albums of all the apartments she’s lived in, telling me stories about each location, and how one landlord had even allowed her to pay a part of her rent in winning lotto tickets. 

She had lived more than me, who still couldn’t admit I loved women. 

***

I counted each new tattoo I discovered. 

The first was the star. The second was a red filled heart, no bigger than a Sacagawea dollar on her left ankle. I noticed it when we were sitting in the break room, bunched together on the couch during our lunch break.

As she crossed her legs, her slacks rose up, and the little red heart was revealed. 

I wonder if it was shown on purpose or maybe subconsciously, like a subdued gesture of tenderness, bearing her heart to me. 

***

We decided to visit the nature preserve near our university together. 

“Is this a date?” I wondered. 

I was nervous as if it were one. 

We walked into the thicket, examining the Banyan trees and cooling ourselves under their shadows. She laughed at all the joints we found crushed in the dirt. I joked with her that those probably belonged to the faculty. 

“They’re probably all stoners in the English department,” I said, smiling as she laughed. 

She offered me her own joint that was sitting in the cradle of her ear. 

I stared at the red smudges of lipstick on the tip, placing my lips exactly on the spot where her own lips had rested. 

***

The last time I saw Danay in person was on my last day at the store. I was being transferred, and she took me to lunch to say goodbye.

Afterwards, Danay and I hung back in the parking lot. Leaning towards each other, my elbows pressed into the trunk of her car. 

We spoke so closely, that I could feel her breath against my face. 

She embraced me, wishing me luck. I couldn’t help but notice our breasts touching, my neck fitting perfectly into hers, our bodies naturally falling into one another’s. This is how I wanted to stay forever. 

But she pulled away, squeezed my shoulders, and walked back into the store. 

I watched her disappear into the crowd, the doors closing behind her, and the smell of her cologne still on my hands. 


Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, painter, and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal aspects of the exile experience and the ways Latinidad intersects with other salient parts of her identity as a queer, working-class woman. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic, Lambda Literary, WLRN (Miami’s NPR affiliate), and The Miami New Times, among others. She is currently a graduate student at Florida International University.

Image Credit: “Planet Waves” by Steven Ostrowski

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