*This story was previously published in Columbia College Chicago's The Lab Review: Vol. 2
You won’t remember me. I don’t expect you to. If I’m honest, I don’t even remember you completely. Your face is lost to me now. When I remember you I see only a form of you, a being filling a desk or walking past me in the hallway. When I remember you, I remember a feeling, not a person.
I didn’t realize how much I’d forgotten you until I started thinking back to all the ways you tortured me in sixth grade. It was the way you would look at me in health class. I remember that. That teacher, whatever his name was, would always face the blackboard when he spoke. He would always be focused on writing down everything he said. My point is, he never saw you. He never saw the way you looked at me, that grimace, that look of disgust that I can’t even see anymore, but still remember the way it made me feel. I think you knew how it made me feel and that’s why you never looked at me any differently. That look was reserved for me. You knew how ugly it made me feel, how low I felt whenever you walked into class. Your eyes would always go to me when you came in, and I would sink down into the floor like I was trying to hide beneath the scuffed up tiles. Distracting myself became pointless. I would sit at my desk and fold the corners of my notebook pages down, pressing the creases tight with my fingernail, doing it on every page until I ran out of them. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t. I would sit there, feeling your eyes on me, and try to focus on something, anything, that would make me forget about you.
In the hallway between classes you would always walk past my locker. You would step in real close as you approached me, almost touching shoulders, and you would whisper something in my ear. It was never the same thing, you always changed it up. Sometimes it would be “faggot” or “queer” or, when you were walking slow enough, “fuckin’ faggoty ass bitch.” You had quite the vocabulary of words and phrases to throw at me. And you would, you would throw them at me. As they flew out of your mouth, they would carry with them a hit, a gut-punch. Spit would hit my face with every vowel and syllable, your foul breath flooding my nostrils. I would be left with a little wound in my chest, in my mind. I would carry that wound with me for the rest of the day and into the next morning when you gave me a new one. I bled that year. I bled every day.
I tried to get help. Meetings were held with my parents and teachers and the Principal. We would sit in uncomfortable chairs with wooden arms and I would explain everything that was happening. I don’t think their advice will come as a surprise to you. It’s the on hand advice for school faculty members to give out in those kinds of situations. Ignoring it worked, right? Do you remember me ignoring it? Do you remember me trying? I do. I tried as hard as I could, but you were fucking persistent. You were relentless.
I think what people don’t realize about the “ignore it” plan is that it’s not just about words. What you were saying to me wasn’t words. It was about the way you intended for those words to hit me. I could try to ignore what you said, but it’s hard to ignore a feeling. When someone is hitting you with a bat, you can’t ignore it. You can’t just not think about it when someone is shoving a knife into your gut. It doesn’t actually work.
It wasn’t really that I was scared of you, either. It was that I was scared of how you made me feel. When you passed me in the hall and slammed me with your words, I wasn’t thinking “Oh gosh, what if he tries to hurt me?” Strangely, I never thought that. You didn’t seem like the kind of person that would fight with fists. You fought with words and you were unmatched. The words you chose were handpicked for me specifically.
I didn’t know I was gay then. You could say I was a late bloomer. What I did know was you thought I was, and if it was true, then it wasn’t a good thing. In fact, it was the worst thing I could be. The next year, after I was taken out of school by my parents and began homeschooling, I finally realized I was gay. I remember when it happened too. My mom was watching one of her soap operas on the TV in our living room. I was sitting on the floor doing homework and, occasionally, glancing up to see what was going on in the show. There was a scene where one of the male characters walks downstairs in a towel and I remember looking up at that moment and feeling mesmerized. I had never really had any kind of attraction to anyone before, male or female. When I saw him in that scene I distinctly remember thinking how beautiful he was, entranced by the way his body moved, the muscles beneath the skin. It was then I realized you were right. I was gay. As soon as that realization was upon me, I knew I couldn’t be gay. I wouldn’t allow myself to be gay. You had taught me that being gay was wrong, that a gay man was a lesser man. You had known what I hadn’t all along, had seen my disgusting truth from the beginning.
For a couple years after that, I focused on changing. When I was alone, my mind would be back in that school, back in that desk with you watching me. I used it as fuel, that look.
It was what motivated me to be better, to fix myself. I would spend evenings alone in my room, watching “straight porn,” trying to make myself like it, trying to get aroused over what was happening on screen. Frequently, I would get an erection and I would touch myself, trusting that I was doing it because of the woman in the scene. The tits. The pussy. But, as I came and cleaned myself up, I would know. I would know as I pushed myself over the edge, I was watching the man, looking at his body, watching him move. When I would turn out my light and get under the covers to go to sleep, I would lay there and think to myself, “You’re not gay. You can’t be gay.”
It occurred to me years later that, surprisingly, I wasn’t doing this because a religion told me it was wrong. I was doing it because you told me it was wrong. You told me that with every hateful word you threw my way. And, for me, you represented the world. I thought the world hated me. I looked at people like you and thought about how much harder it would be for me if I was gay. The world would pull me down and walk over me. They wouldn’t let me get married or have kids or just live a happy life. That wasn’t my faith. That was you.
As the years went on, several things happened. I saw gay teenagers on television shows come out and still be loved by their friends. I saw gay couples get married while rappers sang about equality on the radio. Celebrities took to YouTube to promise that things would get better, that I could have a happy life if I wanted one. Politicians fought for my rights while Neil Patrick Harris became an example of a great father. Things got better and better and better.
Over time, I saw the way things could be, the way my life could go. I had a choice: I could live my life being afraid, being scared of my truth, a truth that had the power to hold me back
if I let it, or I could choose to be happy—I could live a life full of hope and promise and beautiful abnormalities. Because normal is something we choose. We decide what normal is and that can be dangerous. Normal can hurt. But not being normal can hurt too. It can build fear and anger, fear and anger about yourself, about who you are. And so I chose.
It took time to get here. There were years of anxiety and sadness and healing. It didn’t happen over night. But now? My life’s better now. I’m happy, I’m hopeful. I’m living in a beautiful city with amazing friends. I have a love that is greater than I thought possible for myself, and I have a man who loves me just as much. The anger is gone. I feel no more sadness over that year and the effect it had on my life.
Wherever you may be, wherever this letter finds you, I hope you’re happy. I hope you found peace in those years after I left. Now, after all these years, I see your unhappiness. It was there, hanging on your back every time you walked past me with your violent words. I was blind at the time, but now it’s clear to me. You were broken too. I hope, whatever it may mean for you, that you’re whole again.