You never forget your first “faggot.” Where you were when the word first came hurtling at you, who sent it flying in your direction, and what happened when it finally hit you. You never forget if a fist or baseball bat came swinging right behind it, or if the word was whispered, or spray-painted, if it came costumed in another word’s clothes: sissy, punk, different, queer, pansy. You never forget your first “faggot” because the memory makes you.
I was in the seventh grade. Cody, the white boy who lived in the apartment downstairs from mine, had just stolen a porn magazine that I was showing him. He ripped the worn copy of High Society from my hands and sprinted toward his front door. I grabbed a plastic baseball bat some kid had left on the steps and swung as I chased him. My chest hurt from the force of my heart.
Once he’d made it to his apartment, he slammed the door shut behind him, knocked against it from the inside, and yelled, “You faggot!”
The bat cracked open when I bashed it against the door, so I started using my fists. I must have looked manic, but I couldn’t stop. Even when Cody had clearly walked away and retreated deeper into his apartment, even when my fists were sore and stinging, I just couldn’t stop.
Soon after, Cody and the word started showing up in my dreams. They played on a loop. We were back at the door except I could see through it. Cody stood on the other side saying “faggot” over and over, taking off an item of clothing each time. He said it and took off his pit-stained wifebeater; he said it again as he unzipped his cargo shorts, and again as they slid down to his ankles; he said it as he thumbed the waist band of his red plaid boxer shorts.
During the day, Cody avoided me altogether. We would never speak to each other again. Night after night, though, for weeks it seemed, the two of us were back at that door. The word was there too. With time, the dreams shifted, as all dreams do. The word slowly disappeared from Cody’s mouth, and Cody himself finally was replaced by other fantasies. A model from the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine, or that one track coach I had a crush on, or one of my older cousin’s friends.
It’s worth mentioning that, in all of these dreams, I had the body of the kind of girl I thought these guys would sleep with. The cheerleader’s girlfriend, the woman in the framed picture the track coach kept on the wall in his office. Any woman would do, any body but my own. Even in my sleep I knew better than to convince these boys to fuck me.
The fantasies spun themselves into elaborate, soap opera–like plotlines. I’d dream about the same boy three or four nights in a row, work out an entire dream relationship, dramatic dream breakup, and dream reunion.
I started writing my way to the threshold of my closet. Obsessed with Greek mythology, by the time I was in high school, I had mastered the art of keeping myself out of my poems. A poem in which Penelope sleeps in her empty bed, holding onto the tree that grows in the center of it, trying to remember what Odysseus’ body felt like. A poem in which Medea makes love to Jason with nothing but the stars above them for a blanket, whispering, “I know a way out.” A poem about Eurydice mistaking the heat of the underworld for the warmth of Orpheus’ body. All of my poems were about mythic women speaking to the space between their bodies and the bodies of their beloved. Just like in my dreams, any body but my own.
In 11th-grade English, we were asked to explicate a poem for a test: “Generation,” by Audre Lorde. The poem begins, “How the young attempt and are broken / Differs from age to age / We were brown free girls / Love singing beneath their skin / Sun in their hair in their eyes / Sun their fortune / The taste of their young boys’ manhood / Swelling like birds in their mouths.”
“This poem is about,” I began to write, then stopped. This poem is about… This poem is about…about… “The taste of their young boys’ manhood / Swelling like birds in their mouths”: I was so distracted by those two lines, I put down my pencil and read the poem again. How could manhood have a taste? I read the poem again. When the teacher announced that we had 20 minutes left, all I had written was “This poem is about…”
In the library after school, I looked for a picture of Audre Lorde, this poet I assumed was a white woman because all of the poems we read in class were by dead white men and women. Oh, and Langston Hughes. Then I found Audre Lorde’s “Love Poem.”
“And I knew when I entered her I was / High wind in her forests hollow / Fingers whispering sound / Honey flowed.”
This poem is about a black woman having sex with a woman she loves.
This poem is about the fact that we can write poems like this poem.
And then, one day, in the blue notebook I kept hidden in my bedroom, the first poem with my body — my body — in the arms of another boy. When he opens his mouth, honey flows. Then a poem about one of the Hispanic day workers I pass every morning on the way to school. The sun burns both of us gold.
I had my own gods now.