Scalded Fingers (Part 1)Posted: December 24, 2011
“So, how long have you known?” my mom asked from across our living room. My dog was on the floor, sprawled as if shot, un-phased by our conversation. When I was eleven, I named her Shadow after the Golden Retriever in “Homeward Bound.” My Shadow was black, though, which I always thought more fitting.
“Well,” I attempted, “I guess I’ve known at some level since I wanted to kiss Mr. Peterson.”
Mr. Peterson was my seventh grade math teacher. I knew something was different about me because he was a Mr., and all my friends kept talking about Ms. Golden and her young, perky boobs.
“Dude. Could you imagine touching those things?” Ian asked.
No, no I couldn’t. And that was precisely the problem. But Mr. Peterson: that was a completely different story.
I would ask questions in my math class—during the time we were allowed to work on homework—because when I did Mr. Peterson would come to my desk and stand over me.
“So what are we looking at,” he always confidently said before he bent down, resting his palms above my worksheet. He was tall, with black hair and green eyes, and he smelled nice. I wanted to kiss him very much. Sometimes I would in my mind, at night when my door was closed and the lights were off. I always felt guilty afterwards. Guilty, and alone.
I remember masturbating when I was 12 on the floor of my white-tile shower, the place that felt most private. I tried to recall images of polka-dot-bikini-wearing women, but instead found myself settling—every time—on Mr. Peterson’s beautifully-smiling face. My body would quiver, and I would sit, lifeless, letting the water cover my head. You couldn’t see the tears that way.
My mom struggled to comprehend.
“Since middle school? Really that long ago?”
“Don’t leave. I’ll be right back.” I walked down to end of the hall, pushing the door on the left open and stepping into my room. From the bottom of the black bookshelf, I grabbed my eighth grade yearbook—the one with the space-scape and panther’s head on the cover—and headed back to the living room.
I opened it from the back to the first page and pointed to the top, where, amidst a collage of eight-year-old signatures, a semi-circle of paper was missing.
“Let me tell you a story,” I said.
When I was a junior in high school, I came home after school one day and decided to look through old yearbooks. I sat on my floor and spread them out on the hardwood of my bedroom. When I got to 8th grade, I started reading the signatures. At the top of the page, in black ink, three words screamed: “Are you gay?”
I felt the pulse in my ears first, then my chest, that full-body beat that accompanies moments of intense panic. My fingers grabbed at the page, a glaring monument to my unspoken fear. Shaking, I carefully ripped out the evidence and ran to the sink, turned on the water, and waited until I could see the steam before putting the paper under its stream. I frantically ripped it into dozens of indistinguishable pieces and watched it swim down the drain. By the time I was done, my fingers were burned. I walked to my bed and cried the kind of tears you do after almost dying.
“You’ve wrestled with this for a long time,” she said.
I nodded, silently.
For years, I sent my memories down the drain.
Like my memory of Kory, my middle school church camp counselor, the summer before I turned 13. I remember seeing him change into his swimsuit in our cabin and fearing he could hear my heart pounding against my sleeping bag. On the last night of camp, when all the kids went to the front to pray to Jesus and ask him to live inside their hearts, I went Kory and asked him to pray for me because I knew he’d put his hands on my shoulders. He did.
Or my memory of that National Geographic, the one with the bare-chested man as the centerfold that I hid between my Peanuts comic books, the one I eventually threw away for fear that someone would stumble upon it and know.
I pushed them as far away as possible—crushes, dreams, hunches, questions—and crossed my scalded fingers that if I didn’t pay them attention, they’d go away.
Like hell they would. Like hell.