By Michael James Schneider, PQ Monthly
It was a long drive back to Portland that morning; I hit traffic at Tacoma and Olympia, so I was already tired. I had been in Seattle for a few days, and spent more time downtown than I had in past visits (when you’re in love, even the downtown urine smells sweeter). And I’m sorry, but when I travel it’s like I don’t even know my own poops anymore. So yeah, I was in a strange headspace.
It was a warm day, and I had opened the windows in my apartment to get some breeze going. I made a sandwich, settled down at my desk and got ready to catch up on emails. That’s when I heard him from the sidewalk outside, just below my window. There’s a convalescent facility in my neighborhood, and often one or two of the residents would cross the street to rest under the big trees surrounding my apartment building. I’d chatted with a couple of them; they would almost always be friendly and chatty. This voice? I recognized his booming baritone; he had been in front of my building before.
The murmur of his voice outside was suddenly punctuated with words that rose out of the background noise of his speech in sharp relief: “…Yeah, and all the faggots and child molesters moving into the neighborhood….”
My hand froze, holding the sandwich halfway to my mouth. My breath caught, I could suddenly hear my heartbeat in my ears, and my eyes widened. “…The fuck did I just hear…?” I thought. I shook my head, slowly lowered the sandwich. Then again: “…Yeah and the faggots are all over the place….” Without thinking, I pushed off the couch and stood up, startling my cat off the sofa. Is this what fight or flight feels like? I wondered.
I was born in the Bay Area and my family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico when I was 5. Although no one in my family ever disparaged gay people, my dad was the son of a Lutheran minister, and my mom and grandma came from a Latino Catholic background: I had good reasons to stay in the closet. I don’t remember my first-ever thoughts of being gay, but I do remember making my same-gendered stuffed animals kiss each other. A bit later in high school, I had a best friend, Helen, who was brassy and outspoken. I eventually came out to her after my junior year. In my senior year, I had a massive crush on Mark, a freshman (some things, it seems, follow a pattern). I passed many, many notes to Helen detailing my infatuation with him in the form of poetry and prose.
One day, Helen ran up to me breathless. It was a disaster: Mark and his friend were riding the bus with Helen, who was dutifully reading yet another note of mine. They decided they wanted to read the note, and grabbed it out of her hands. Knowing that she was the only person in my life I was “out” to, she heroically fought and grabbed the note back. When they persisted, however, she made a last-ditch, desperate attempt to safeguard my secret, and threw the note out of the window of the moving bus. What she didn’t count on was Mark and his friend’s curiosity, and they got off at the next stop, ran back, and found and read the note.
When Helen told me this, my teenage chest tightened, every pore in my body closed, and my vision blurred. And now more than 20 years later I felt this again, listening to the voice outside my window.
“He’s not worth it,” that other guy had said so many years ago. After high school I stayed in town, went to the University of Near Mom New Mexico and pursued a theater arts degree. It was here that I finally came out to my friends and family, and even though being gay in the early ‘90s was easier than decades before, it was still Albuquerque. I found this out one night as some friends and I ate our weight in Moons Over My Hammy at Denny’s, the greasy spoon near the school. I wore my Freedom Rings proudly around my neck, coordinating with my solid cobalt-blue flannel shirt. (Did I mention it was the ‘90s?)
Our meal was interrupted in much the same way that my current sandwich was. Two guys at a table nearby, older and bigger than us, noticed my rings and started talking loudly: “What are you looking at, faggot?” “Stop looking at me, faggot!” My friends and I stopped eating, looked at each other with wide eyes, silent and still. Maybe we collectively thought that they would leave us alone if we played possum. Maybe homophobes’ vision is motion-based, like a T-Rex.
No such luck: They strutted up to the table, and the main aggressor repeated what he said before directly to me. His friend got uncomfortable, though: “He’s not worth it,” and pushed his angry friend away from the table, out the door.
It was that, that same feeling, I was feeling now. Sure, I’d heard that word plenty before, but usually in public, and mostly in a way that I could walk away from. But here? In my own home? I couldn’t stand for this. Could I?
I couldn’t. I’d be damned if I let someone say that word in a place I was supposed to feel safe. I haven’t been in a lot of fights, but I know how to get ready for one. I took my glasses off, took my watch off. I got my phone ready in case I needed to record anything.
I opened my door and walked toward him.
To be continued in Part Two.