As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth, and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.
A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”
The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside, which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.
I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that early September night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room reminds me of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.
The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”
The Cardigan stopped unpacking.
“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”
“Haha! Nathan’s daddy’s a queer!”
“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan, both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said, and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, staring at the floor because, for some reason, I thought their shoes would show me what unified them and set me apart.
Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.
I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, asshole, how ’bout you? I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he stepped past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”
But I didn’t.
Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.