Vinegar and Ash

Natasha and I share a history marked by white knuckles gripping wooden pews and dusty sunlight sliding through antiquated church windows and transubstantiated wine tasting of vinegar. For me, growing up in a Pentecostal church run by ex-Southern Baptists meant that my fight was “not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Twice weekly I confronted this evil by confessing lust for other women to a Cajun ex-convict pastor who ran a drug, alcohol, and sexuality rehabilitation facility out of a converted shack behind my church. She forbade me from receiving the body of Christ until I rebuked my wickedness and cast out the demons from my heart—but still, every week, I found myself tasting salty tears while solemn believers standing around me received Christ’s forgiveness in the sapidity of grape juice.

On the other side of the world, Russian Orthodoxy also asserted that the body and blood were for those with penitent spirits. Every Sunday, Natasha opened her mouth wide and Father Sergei placed the sacramental bread upon her tongue, but she tasted only ash. Each week she held this cinder under her tongue as her mamuchka crossed herself and bowed to the crucifix. Prepubescent Natasha sat in the shadow of her mother, a single woman raising a child in a society newly eclipsed by the fall of the Soviet Union. Picking at her skin, Natasha waited for the divine liturgy to come to an end. Bloody fingernails and patches of missing hair on her arms betrayed her anxiety. Have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind. She crossed herself and bowed to the icon. 


I am 13 and my own outstretched palms are bathed in sunlight streaming through opaque stained glass windows. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord while knowing in your heart that He died for your sins, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray the sinner’s prayer, begging Christ to remember me in His kingdom. I am 13 and, like the thief on the cross, I am being justly crucified for my sins. I wonder if I, too, can be with the Lord in Paradise even though my heart is contaminated with feelings for other women. At school, a student spreads a rumor about my homosexuality and people throw things at me and stop talking to me. At home, my father tells me that gays are unnatural and my brothers call homosexuality disgusting. Still, my thoughts are focused solely on Christ and His sacrifice. I ask myself if living an open life of sin is worth it. For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

Natasha is 14 and clothed in a white dress and white shoes. She stands at the font with her godmother. Do you renounce the Devil? She tilts her face up to the cross as the priest gathers water and begins to pour it over Natasha’s hands and head. The water reminds Natasha of her patron saint, Veronika, the woman who wiped the face of Christ as He carried the cross to Golgotha. As the service ends, Natasha thinks of the cross that she bears. A boy in her classroom calls her a faggot offhandedly and a gay man is murdered just outside Moscow and still Natasha wrestles with Christ’s redemption.   

Natasha and I are in our 20s when we first meet in April, when snow is no longer falling but sidewalks are coated in black ice and skies are still heavy with gray. The Moscow sun is falling just behind my friend Gosha’s apartment complex as I climb the stairs with my bookbag. Inside is a bottle of vodka and stray beers. When I enter the living room, I see Natasha and Gosha spreading kartoshki, pelmeni, and solyanka on a table while listening to Soviet-era music from the rebellious progressive rock band Akvarium. Natasha eats a pelmeni and tells Gosha that Pasha is coming with his grandmother’s pickled tomatoes, which the Amerikanka must try with the vodka. I laugh and take off my shoes as Natasha shows me a photo on her phone from the night she met Pasha. The phone’s brightness is dim but I see Pasha, eyes closed, with his foot on a stool and a guitar on his knee. Gosha is shirtless, sitting on the ground with his head next to Pasha’s foot on the chair. It isn’t until Natasha turns up the brightness that I see her in the background, face turned away from the camera and spine bent over babushka’s jar of pickled tomatoes.

I do not tell her I am gay. Instead, I let her teach me about ecology in the Kola Peninsula, transportation engineering in St. Petersburg, and Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet society—but it isn’t until a friend’s wedding that Natasha tells me about Christ and queerness. Cheeks flushed warm and red, she takes a shot and tells me that she is afraid of God. I watch as she follows with a large bite of pickled red tomato, hands nimble around the skin and juice dribbling down her chin. I am reminded of original sin, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and I wonder if God damned woman because of the pain He first felt when His own new creation ate of the forbidden fruit.

Later, Natasha pours herself another shot and I reflect on Christ’s cry in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus, knowing that He is to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of man, asks if God’s will can allow Him to escape the cross—but no. The disciples fall asleep in the garden and Natasha takes off her shoes and I confess barefoot before my pastor in Louisiana as I too ask if this cup can pass from me. I am 16 and going to prom with a boy who will bring me to the lake after the dance. We are sitting on the pier together and he puts his hands around my waist. I spend the next two years closing my eyes and gritting my teeth as his hands travel over my skin. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Natasha hides her shoes under the table and takes a seat next to me. We have eaten all the pickled tomatoes and the jar casts a small shadow over an empty plate. She turns and tells me that, years ago, she prayed for this cup to pass from her. She explains that, if God wills it, then temptation will pass and she can take communion, face the crucifix in peace. But the cup did not pass from Christ, and Judas kissed him and the soldiers came to Gethsemane and still Natasha works to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.

Natasha stopped taking communion at 17, when she told herself that walking in sin and continuing to take communion would lead only to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sitting against the wall behind the bridal table, Natasha talks about those missed communions as if her voice is echoing in the empty chalice, trapped in the darkness created by the pre-communion pall. She pretends to have found peace with her decision, but her hands reveal her unrest. She first tugs at the bottom of her green dress but then begins picking at her skin and roving as though searching for a wooden church pew to hold. I look down at my own knuckles and remember white Sundays clutching at the wood, wondering if God saw my sins through the hymnal prayers. 

Natasha has no doubt that Christ sees her sins, which is why she abstains from communion, choosing to hide near choir stalls rather than brace the credence table. She spends her whole life navigating this balance between obscurity and light—navigation I’m learning, too. Russia is no different from Louisiana when all roads lead to Calvary. And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. Natasha—at Gosha’s apartment, and at the wedding, and each time I see her—mirrors Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Later, she approached Jesus at the home of Simon, anointed His head with expensive perfume, and washed His feet with her hair. I imagine Natasha in that room, breaking the sealed jar of perfume on Christ’s head and watching the fragrance run down His body. Like Mary, she is desperate to empty herself and forfeit all in hopes of attaining Christ’s love.

I am back in Louisiana. It is March, almost a year since the wedding in Moscow, and I am sitting at the coffee shop where, two years ago, I ended my forced straight relationship. The boy was kind and I was restless and broken and felt as though I had failed Christ. I sat down and reflected on my pain, on two years of emotion and experience and body given to someone whom I knew I didn’t love. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

I order a coffee and ask myself why peace is so evasive, why I continue to struggle with peace and God as I live openly. I think of Natasha and fear that the peace of God, which should be righteous, will always evade us both. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I take a sip of coffee and taste the chicory, smiling as I remember to celebrate all the milestones. After all, even through all the trauma in our adult lives, Natasha and I no longer taste ash and vinegar when we take the bread and wine from the father. θ