Dreaming Of A Bigger World
I left home to go to school later than my sisters. I was still in pre-school. I dreamt of being in real school though. I would watch enviously, from the living room bay window, as my three older sisters boarded the school bus around seven every morning. I dreamt of the day I could join them. I was incredibly curious about the world they were experiencing. I wondered if they were learning how to draw a turkey by tracing their hand too. Did they get scratch and sniff stickers at the end of their day if they were good also? I had so many questions.
I used to rehearse like I was going to catch the bus with them. I would put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. I stood there knowing one day my bus will come and all my questions will be answered.
I was ecstatic the first day of kindergarten. I was FINALLY going to experience the world I was incredibly curious about with my sisters.
The bus doors opened, I stretched my little right leg up to reach the first tall step. As I hiked my way to the third and final step, I heard the radio sweeper for “Thuuuunder Country 105.5” echo through this yellow, hollow, metal tube. Bus number 24. It was the only radio station we were allowed to listen to. I sat in the seat directly behind the bus driver – next to the person who would become my childhood best friend, Larry.
This was my first day of being in the real world.
The bus doors slammed shut and our 40-minute journey through the backroads of rural Indiana to school began.
It felt like there should have been a band playing a celebratory song in our driveway as the bus drove off, along with my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. But there was no band and my mom and dad weren’t there to give me an enthusiastic send off. My dad worked third shift as a forklift driver and my mom worked first shift in a welding factory. So, by this time, dad was in the shower getting ready for bed and mom had already been at work for about an hour.
One of my earliest memories on bus number 24 was when Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You” played over the radio. I absolutely loved that song. Every time it came on the bus radio, I would come alive, sit up on my knees and belt the song out: “Aaaand IiiiiiiiiIIIIIIiiii wiiill always looooove youuuuu.” I would forget and not care where I was. I would always become enraptured with the song. I was doing what just felt natural – serenading the entire bus. What I realize now is that my queerness was showing and it made others uncomfortable.
It made Carl, in particular, uncomfortable.
Carl was my childhood bully.
I’ve only seen Carl’s house once, I think. Carl was picked up before me every morning and dropped off after me on the days he made it to school or wasn’t suspended. The sense I got from Carl, even as a kid, was that he was from a family that was depleted in every way – emotionally, spiritually, financially.
Carl didn’t like my singing. He didn’t like anything about me. However, Carl and his brother, Seth, did like to pick on Larry and me. Larry was smart. He kept to himself and Carl would end up leaving him alone. I was the opposite of Larry. I couldn’t stand how mean and abusive Carl was and I didn’t want him to get away with it. No matter how many times my mom told me, “Let the Lord fight your battles for you, Azariah.” I rarely missed an opportunity to stand up to him. When he would come for me, I would serve it right back to him. Often to the point that Carl would beat me up while reminding me I am nothing more than a faggot. The defiant queer in me was showing and that had to be beaten into submission. There’s nothing more threatening to the false masculinity he was learning at home than a naturally defiant queer like me.
The last time I worked up the courage to be me, was the day I wore mascara to school. I loved how the mascara accentuated my eyes. As I got out of my seat that morning to exit the bus and begin the school day, I started to feel overwhelmingly nervous. Fear ran wild with thoughts in my mind, “Everyone is going to notice. Carl’s going to beat you up again. Tell the bus driver you’re sick and you need to go home. If I talk to the bus driver, he’ll know I’m wearing mascara and tell my parents.” My blood felt cold. It was quickly making its way from my arms and legs to the center of my chest causing me to physically shiver in fear. I kept asking myself, “Why did I do this?” It was in that moment I accepted the lie that I had to butch it up and bottle up my queer curiosity if I wanted to survive.
I kept my head down as I exited the bus. Once I made it into the school, I quickly made my way to the least busy restroom and washed the mascara off the best I could. I was learning there was no place for my queerness in this world.
I also learned, mascara does not wash off easily.
I found my closet. I abandoned my queer self. My life became committed to hiding every socially unacceptable part of me.
At home. At school. Especially at church.