I had to recite a poem from memory every month in my senior year of high school, selected from a packet curated by my English teacher. Each month brought a new form, a new packet. In Elegy Month, one of the choices was (shockingly, explicitly) gay, so of course that was the poem I chose to recite. I had not yet labeled myself but felt the pull of men irresistible. I was drawn to a boy and examined every tether but the core one, that I wanted him to feel the same for me and I knew he didn’t. I spent the entirety of that year mourning our potential. I was prepared for Elegy Month.
My memory is an overloaded circuit—even a short message requested to be relayed is sometimes too much for me to handle, let alone a sonnet or a sestina or, god forbid, an ode—so every other month had been a hunt for the shortest poem. I would spend hours practicing, spending time between classes on recital day trying to wrap my mouth around strange syntax. I inverted phrases or dropped words, breathed when I should have talked. I scored adequately but never well, and each month I would promise to start earlier than the last, to give myself more space to find an entrance to each poem. I only needed an hour or two to adhere the elegy to my teeth. It didn’t feel like work. I would speak the lines depicting those weirdly buff horses in the grass, twisting the cadence of each phrase until my own heart may as well have been a hoof pummeling soil.
I couldn’t explain why these horses belonged in an elegy for a man who died of AIDS-related complications, but they did. It’s not like I thought horses were particularly gay. It was, I thought, something to do with the way they rippled, the way that men stampeded into each other.
But I wasn’t sure; I never focus on the right things. Or, the older I get the more I believe there is a right thing to focus on. Or, I mostly ascribe to the moral imperative of certitude, that events have a qualifiable significance and that is a Good Thing.
How many childhood stories have I collected from family and friends do I now signify solely as “times I should have known I was not the kind of boy my parents thought me to be?” The years I would bring a different stuffed animal to school everyday. The episodes of Sailor Moon I begged my parents to record to VHS that I’d devour like scripture. The boys-only sleepover in seventh grade where we all talked in the dark about the girls we found attractive and I couldn’t think of a single one and no one believed me. A friend of a friend asked, “What, are you gay?” So I said a random girl’s name and he nodded. Yes, of course.
I think often of the kindergarten soccer game where Kat Young and I wandered off the field mid-game to blow dandelion seeds. I don’t remember this, but my parents have recalled it so many times I’ve built a movie of the moment. It is spring and the sky is oceanic and empty. The field is heavily sodded with grass—you can barely see the dirt beneath. The parents and siblings clustered around the field more clearly mark the field’s boundaries than the immaculately white paint lines. A flock of children stumble downfield after someone kicks the ball harder than they should have. Upfield, my little sausage body is stuffed into shin guards and knee socks, hunched over a clump of weeds with a girl. Our parents scream at us from the sidelines to go after the ball. Go! Go! Pay attention! But can’t they see how beautiful the flowers are?
For years when people asked me when I knew, I’d say high school. For four years I was so anxious that I might not be straight that I would imagine kissing almost every boy I knew., not out of anything like desire but an intrusive manifestation of dread. I interpreted every deep intimacy I had with a girl as a crush. I was terrified of touching anyone in a way that might be perceived as flirting. In going through my old journals, which I kept many of but rarely filled for more than a few pages, I found my earliest recorded instance of self-identification. Among lists of my favorite songs of the week and outlines for stories that never materialized, I had written, “I think I might be gay.” I didn’t know for sure until the first time I had sex, and then I had always known.
I came out for the first time at fifteen. One night, one of my friends tearily came out as bisexual to our small group. We were in a basement where no one else could hear us. Immediately the room shifted to face her. Everyone comforted and supported her. My girlfriend abandoned the table tennis game in which she was handily thwomping me to hug her. I was the only person in the room to remain silent. I didn’t want to make this a big deal; I wanted to normalize it. I saw the love my friend received and saw my own possible future. The next morning, I told my mother about my friend. I told her I thought that I, too, was bisexual. She sobbed. She said I had to break up with my girlfriend. We did not talk much for the rest of the day until I told her that I had thought a lot about it, and I didn’t think God had meant for me to be bisexual after all, and I don’t remember what she said to that but I remember feeling I had salvaged my most meaningful relationship. Sometimes, in the years between then and when I confessed that I may have had feelings for the boy in my senior year, she would say that she noticed me looking more often at women. I told her sure, I guess. I didn’t think I was, but maybe she saw something about me that I didn’t. Maybe.
Every time I start a new project I beg myself not to write another coming out essay. And then I do. I sit down at my desk and it calls me. The histories and emotions I had originally catalogued as “times I was just a baby weirdo” now recast and queered—blowjob juxtaposed against dandelion seed, horse against leather harness. It’s not that I believe there’s nothing else fruitful to discover there. It’s just that sometimes a metaphor feels less like a bridge and more like a mounting pin.
Here is what I remember: On the day I recited the elegy to my English class, I didn’t think of the boy I had a crush on or why, when I had practiced the poem, his avoidance of me had propelled me through each line. I stood behind a lectern, rested my palms on the table’s blank surface. I summoned the lines to my mouth and I said them in exactly the way I wanted to. Slowly. Lovingly. I wanted to cradle each word with my tongue. My voice cracked in the last stanza, sundered by someone else’s care, and I was grateful. I was grateful to have been a conduit for this power despite not being able to name it.