Vinegar Kisses: A Poem

Nicholle Johnson, UW-La Crosse Pride Center peer educator, received a Seekardia Writing Award for her poem “Vinegar Kisses.” We are pleased to reprint an excerpt of it here, accompanied by an introduction by the writer.

Goodness rose from the ashes of my coming out. Without the disclosure of my queerness, I would never have thrown myself into my high school Gay Straight Alliance, nor discovered a home within UW-La Crosse’s Pride Center, a magnet for beautiful and talented individuals. I would have missed out on a queer family. I never would have found my own power. “Vinegar Kisses” explains the sting of religion in coming out as queer.

Vinegar Kisses (excerpted)

[Editor’s Note: The ellipses (…) denote passages removed due to space limitations.]

 

Once, as a kid, I wore a crown of thorns nestled in my hair.

“This is what Jesus felt,” my mother announced, hands framing me and my shredded white robes. “They humiliated Jesus, taunted him, even forced him to drink vinegar.”

She handed me a chipped bowl shaky with vinegar. I took a sip.

Nauseated, I sipped again.

The other children, mouths gaped open, watched this phenomenon, their Sunday schoolmate as Jesus without a beard. At least I had the white skin to match our Bibles’ illustrations.

“This is what he sacrificed for us. Nailed to the cross, he endured great pain so we might be free of sin.”

The children clapped and dissipated, abandoning me and my crown for other booths—it was a science fair of sorts, with bowls of vinegar at the lips of children instead of bubbling brews and crackling electronics.

Mom removed the crown from my head, took the bowl away, and kissed my forehead.

“You did such a good job,” she told me with bright eyes.

Once, as a teenager, my gut said come out! The closet was so quiet it was screaming. Come out! I knew I owed no one an announcement of who I loved and why, yet to keep it a secret felt like a lie of omission. My parents knew so little about me if they didn’t know my queerness, the driving force of my passion. Come out!

I told my dad over a PB+J sandwich. I chewed too much to keep from crying, and the sandwich grew gummy and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow, but I kept chewing.

I had thought, maybe, this would be okay.

I had thought, maybe, my dad would tell me he still loved me, that he loved me no matter what.

My father sorted out his Bible and killed those ideas. He flipped through the silver leafed pages, marked their places, and later jotted down those verses on notecards for my use.

“You do understand,” he told me, eyes firm and unblinking, “that this is Satan. This is not you. This is not my daughter. This is Satan messing with your head.”

I am the farthest thing from my family politically, religiously, romantically. I am what they don’t understand, and thus choose to hate.

But there are moments, as I sip vinegar, that they will kiss my forehead, eyes bright, and tell me I’m doing well, I’m doing so well.

Jesus may not love all the (queer) little children, but my parents do, even as they page through the Bible to tell me of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even as they tell me I’m destined to burn in Hell.