I promised transparency, dear reader, but deferred my own story. That's why I want to share this before we talk about anything else. What you'll read next appeared in a slightly different form in H.O.W. Journal #11 (2015). It's the first of three.
You know this story.
It’s the rural Midwest around 2004, and there is a boy in my high school class. I’m closeted while he’s straight. He has a soccer player’s lean athleticism and the angular face of a model and beautiful dark hair. He isn’t particularly smart or particularly funny, and he certainly isn’t kind – not to me at any rate – but I want him, as the songs say, real bad. On winter nights I lie awake imagining the two of us on a band trip, assigned to the same hotel room (which never happened – we weren’t friends), and he comes out of the bathroom in just a towel, hair damp.
The towel slips. I avert my eyes, flustered. I’m so sure he’ll talk to me the way he talks to me in real life – don’t be gay, you’re so gay – but out of the blue, he surprises me. He tells me to look at him, and when I do, he’s standing there ashamed of nothing. He confesses that he actually desires me. He thinks about me constantly, though it’s tough for him to talk about it because his family is very Christian and everyone – friends, Romans, countrymen – expect him to fulfill what he looks to be, which is heterosexual. Now he can’t fight these feelings anymore. He’s sorry for taking so long, sorry for his weakness and his cruelty. I forgive him and that’s it. The fantasy dissolves because I don’t know what to put next.
In senior year band class, in 2005, the girl to my right glances over. She scoots her chair an inch in the opposite direction and practically shouts, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Stop being such a fucking fag!”
Everything goes quiet. I’ve been practicing scales as a warm up and I stop and look up at the podium at the teacher, who is frowning.
He is a good man – but there is something about such a slur that can stop even good men in their tracks. It is confounding. The way he shifts on his feet and frowns, you know he knows he should tell the girl off. Give her detention. Make her apologize. But the room is quiet, and something in the silence of my peers warns him away from doing his duty as a teacher and a good man. All the girl gets is his frown.
The band plays on.
Five years earlier, in 2000: my eldest cousin is in the kitchen talking to me about one of his best friends at school. My uncle walks in and says, apropos of nothing, “Faggot.” He walks out. It takes a long moment before I realize he isn’t talking about me.
Earlier still, I’m seven or eight and I slam my right hand thumb in a car door.
In the evening, my parents and I sit down for dinner like we always do, the three of us with the cats hovering in the background. We’re eating meatballs. I can only use my left hand, and cut my meatballs awkwardly with a fork.
My dad says, after looking at me a second, “Watch your hand.”
“Just put your hand in your lap, don’t let it flop around.”
I’m holding my injured hand in the air, limp at the wrist.
“People don’t like people with limp wrists, honey,” says my mother. “You don’t want people to think – ”
She stops, but I know.
I always know. Doubtless those involved in each incident don’t remember what they said, much less how they felt, but over time I retain hundreds of fleeting, unguarded flickers and glimpses of an outside world on fire with distaste and malice and fear. No one will help me, I think. No one will love me.
At some point while in the closet, self-pity becomes a way of consoling oneself to the notion of powerlessness. Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen is the mantra, and I come to like how that mantra makes me feel sad and indignant at the same time. I unconsciously cultivate a sense of moral superiority – how dare the world for putting me in this position! – and equate that with power.
By Fall 2006, I’m a college freshman buying books in the university bookstore. I’m wearing a purple and green sweater my mother got from the Gap. I’m holding a stack in my arms against my chest, when a cute boy passes me in the aisle and we exchange hellos.
Ten minutes later, in another part of the store, a girl comes up to me, presses a piece of paper into my hand and says, “My friend is too much of a pussy to give you his number himself, but he says to call him. Your hair, your sweater, the way you walk and your voice – he thinks you’re perfect.” She smiles at me. I’m stunned and scared and can’t think of what to say, so I say nothing. I scurry away without the paper and stuff the sweater at the bottom of a drawer.
By refusing that number, that compliment – the idea of another boy vocally liking me – I deny myself everything, power included, I’ve been yearning for.
Then it's my third year of college, and I meet Will.