Dreaming Of A Bigger World
Growing up five miles outside of the nearest town with a population of 320 meant there was rarely any excitement. Perhaps that’s why I dreamt of the day I would get to ride the school bus. I would watch with curiosity as my three older sisters got picked up and dropped off every week day on the big yellow bus. I interrogated them with questions and used their answers to immerse myself in their world through my imagination. I often wondered if they sang songs on the bus like we did in the car as a family. Were there toys? Will the bus driver give me a candy bar like he did my sisters on the last day of school? I had so many questions.
I was so excited about riding the school bus that I would have dress rehearsal for it. I’d put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. I stood there knowing one day the bus will come for me and all my questions will be answered.
I was ecstatic on my 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 the 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, Craig.
The bus doors slammed shut and our forty minute journey to school, through the backroads of rural Indiana, 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 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 radio I would come alive. I would 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 became enraptured with the song – every time. It felt natural to serenade the entire bus. What I realize now is that my queerness was showing and it made others uncomfortable.
It made Danny, in particular, uncomfortable.
I’ve only seen Danny’s house once. He 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 Danny, even as a kid, was that he was from a family depleted in every way – emotionally, spiritually, financially.
Danny didn’t like my singing. He didn’t like anything about me. However, Danny and his brother, Seth, did like to pick on Craig and me. Craig was smart about it though. He kept to himself and Danny would end up leaving him alone. I was the opposite of Craig. I couldn’t stand how mean and abusive Danny 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 Danny would beat me up while reminding me I was 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.
Danny’s bullying slowly chipped away at me though. The last time I worked up the courage to be me, was the day I wore mascara to school. I loved how it 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. Danny’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. My heart beat was accelerating as the cold blood quickly made its way from the center of my chest to my arms and legs 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 queerness 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 doesn’t wash off easily.
I found my closet and I had no plans of leaving any time soon.