1. Two Men Kissing TWO MEN KISSING
Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen two men kissing. It was 1838 and I had been at the Charterhouse in Valldemossa for over three centuries by then. I had seen hundreds of monks arrive, kiss each other, and die, but still, the sight of these two stopped me in my tracks.
The men—slight bodies, bony, both very short, standing amongst rotting pomegranates and flies in the overgrown garden of one of the abandoned cells—were gripping each other’s faces, hands like masks. There was a smell of fermentation rising from the ground, and it gave the scene—the lovers, the kiss—a fizzy, too-hot quality. Sweat had worked its way through the shirt and jacket of the smaller one, spreading darkly between his shoulder blades. (It was November but still warm; the weather had yet to turn.)
The taller man trailed his fingers along the other’s neck, and let them drape over his shoulder. The hand was very pale, as though it rarely saw the sun, and surprisingly broad below a narrow, snappable wrist. Fine bones pressed against the skin, splayed like a wing; thick muscle curved around the base of the thumb. The fingers looked heavy, the way they hung, faintly blue, from rounded knuckles.
A bird startled in the tree above them and flew off, dislodging a little flurry of feathers and leaves, and both men looked up as though expecting bad news.
Three hundred years earlier, I’d seen Brother Tomás with Brother Mateo in that very same garden, beard crushing against beard and the clatter of rosary beads hitting the paving stones. A decade or so after that, there was the boy from the village who sold bad oranges with the boy in the kitchens who made bad preserves. Around the turn of the sixteenth century there was a complex triangulation amongst Brothers Augustin, Miguel, and Simón. And so on, over the years: countless combinations, differing ages, differing levels of urgency and tenderness, but always more or less the same, the kissing and gripping and so often the very same skittishness, the entirely justified fear of being found out, the creeping sensation that they were being watched.
The point is: I was used to seeing habits fall from shoulders, formations of body hair on chests, backs, buttocks, et cetera. I enjoyed it. It was comforting. These, after all, were not the sort of men I worried about. It was the others, the ones who had fewer secrets, that kept me on my toes.
What surprised me was the presence of these lovers in the garden at all. There had been no monks at the Charterhouse since the government seized it from the Church three years before and sent them all away. The eviction happened quickly: the news, the tears, the goodbye kisses. There was a scramble for possessions they were not strictly supposed to have, and certainly not supposed to care about. Candlesticks stuffed into sacks. Gold crucifixes protruding from the folds of skirts. And then they clinked and clattered off down the hill, and I was left alone. Even the priest, Father Guillem, found the dead atmosphere oppressive. He moved to a house on the opposite side of the square.
I had thought—so funny with hindsight—that perhaps I wasn’t needed there anymore. I began to think of moving on, started to fantasize about taking some rooms in the center of Palma, nothing too elaborate, just a vantage point from which I could watch the city happen. I hadn’t spent much time away from Valldemossa, the small hillside village where I was born, and the idea of trying my luck in the city was alluring. New smells, new people to worry about and dodge and look out for. But then a sacristan was hired to take care of the Charterhouse in the absence of the monks, and as he swaggered around the place swinging his keys, as he napped in the monks’ deserted cots, snoring and smacking his lips in his sleep, as he sold off all the silverware, and then all the gold, as his hands grabbed more and more things that were not his to grab, it became apparent I would have to stay on a little longer to keep an eye on him. In the quiet of the early mornings, I waited for the sound of his heavy footsteps on the tiles. Over time it came less frequently, as the novelty of the job wore off for the Sacristan. Still, I stayed. I was quiet and watchful, became invested in the comings and goings of lizards. I took up bird-watching. Sometimes I threw things. I waited, just in case.
That morning, I had gone into the garden to try my hand at swatting fruit from the branches of one of the taller trees, and after that to sneak up on the starlings and howl, which would send them into the air together like a single giant bird. I had it all planned out and was not prepared, not prepared at all, to come across unfamiliar, uninvited lovers.
Eventually, they stepped back from one another. The smaller one readjusted his jacket and turned his head to the side. My first view of his face: plump lips, dark eyes, long lashes, and glossy black curls pinned back. Cheeks pink in the heat. Sweat on the temples.
Which was when I realized that it was not a man after all. It was a woman dressed as a man.
Which was the second great surprise of my morning.