While We’re Here

He’d been called fagot so many times that it no longer hurt, but it did still scare him. Because, more than once he’d turned around to be unexpectedly sucker punched. More than once he’d seen that immediate white flash of light that comes with a punch to the nose. Then came the red blood that flowed down his chin and onto his shirt. To stem the bleeding he learned to tilt his head back while pinching the bridge of his nose. Then came that familiar salty metallic taste of blood dripping down the back of his throat. The sound of a bullies’ laughter still echoes in his head. He learned early on that being different meant others felt they had the right to treat you as though you weren’t human; as if you didn’t feel pain like others do. At times he felt as if this world was hate filled. High school is where social lepers are expected to wave their white flag. Maria had no intention of showing a shred of defeat.

There are some things others can’t beat out of you. Things like who you are and the things you know to be true about yourself and the world. His world is predictable, its mean, dangerous and a simmering cauldron of undeserved cruelty. Everyday was another slice of hell. To be different, to be considered queer, was a green light to be preyed upon, to be taunted, kicked, and have the shit beat out of you. The physical abuse was painful, but even worse was being exiled—to have no tribe, to be treated as if he were invisible.   

He dreamed of being a she. Of transforming himself into who she always knew herself to be, a girl. There was no closet for him to come out of, because he had always been out of the closet. He was that strange little boy who liked to play dress-up and create tea parties with a cast of dolls. She played with dolls because they never judged her or made her feel shamed.

She gradually made the transition from not only applying makeup but to wearing girls clothes. She had the cliche “Fagot” scribbled in permanent black ink on her school locker.  P.E. class was a free for all where she was the target of “arrant” basketballs to the back of her head. She was thrown to the bottom of dog piles and blind sided by shoves that made her neck snap with whiplash. When her mother complained to the school principal she was assured that it was just “boys being boys”.  After having her arm fractured in an “unfortunate” wrestling accident she was excused from P.E. and allowed to go to the library during that period. All of her friends were there, the books, merciful solitude and Ms Blanchard the school librarian 

Monday, another shitty Monday. Of all the days of the week, Monday is the flagship of misery. She climbed aboard the yellow school bus and sat as close as possible to the front of the bus. Today she was lucky to find the front seat empty. To sit towards the back of the bus amongst all the laughing and hollering kids would risk being tripped or having her book-bag taken and thrown out the window. In the past she had suffered the humiliation of having all the available seats intentionally blocked. The bus shook and rattled as the driver forced it into gear. At the next stop a tall gangly black kid climbed aboard and made his way down the aisle.

Maria watched him walk down the swaying isle as he searched for a seat. The kids stared at him as if he were a two headed monster. From behind him came a wake of hushed whispers. As he sat down the kids sitting across from him stood up and moved towards the back of the bus. She had never seen him at school before and figured he must be a new transfer student. Being labeled the “new kid” is as appealing as being called a spaz or a weirdo. She knew he’d have to find a way to prove himself in order to earn respect and approval. Being the only black kid in an all white school was going to make “fitting in” extremely challenging. If you can’t fit in, then you’d better find a way to blend into the background like an invisible chameleon.  

As she sat in the front seat she could feel waded up pieces of paper whiz by her head. Someone threw an apple core that struck the back of her head. She could feel the sticky apple juice as it ran down the back of her neck. Then came the sound of cheers and laughter from behind her. She sat with her back straight and gave no sign of fear or anger, to show any weakness would be putting blood in the water. The bus finally reached the school and Maria hurriedly stood up and exited the bus. Every morning smelled the same, a stomach retching mixture of diesel exhaust and cafeteria food. Some kid wearing a football shirt pushed past her and snatched the beret off her head. He looked back over his shoulder and murmured “Fagot bitch”. The new kid watched this happen and shook his head in disgust. High School and prison both have one rule in common, never allow yourself to show any weakness. Because, there are predictors out there who will exploit and take advantage of the weak. As he made his way across the quad he could feel the eyes of the other students tracking him. This feeling of always being under suspicion wasn’t anything new——it came with the territory of being black.

Maria knew today was going to be another long day and she wanted nothing more than to retreat into the safety of the school library. She opened the door and had a seat in the empty room. Ms Blanchard is seated behind her well organized desk. She’s a large, big bosomed black woman. Her skin is unblemished, the color of Merlot. She’s immaculately dressed in a colorful Zulu African dress with a doek head scarf. Her ruby colored lipstick accentuates her full lips, her smile lights up the room. “You sure look pretty today Maria.” “Thanks Ms Blanchard, did the new Vogue magazine arrive yet?”  Ms Blanchard walked over to where Maria was sitting and handed her the magazine, “You know I always keep it behind the counter so that you get first dibs on it.”  Maria smiled and said, “You’re the best.” She slumps down in her chair and begins to idly thumb through the pages of the magazine.

Across campus the new kid walks into P.E. wearing the school logo shorts and matching shirt. The school mascot is a Viking. The gym has a huge mural of a Viking wearing a horned helmet and sporting a large handlebar mustache painted on the wall over the home team bleachers. The coach hollers, “Okay, everyone gather up over here. We have a new student today. What’s your name ?” He responded in a calm tone. “My names Marcus.”  “Where you from boy?”  “For starters, I ain’t your boy and where I’m from is South Central.” 

“I don’t know what the coaches in your last school called you, but here we don’t put up with students talking back to their teachers. What’s your sport? Basketball? Football? Baseball?  A big boy——- I mean, big fella like you ought to be good at all three sports. You must be six foot two and still growing.”

Marcus shook his head. “I don’t play sports.”  “Then what do you do? Do you wanna try out for the cheerleader squad? Do you like twirling batons and shaking pom poms?” The class let out a round of boisterous laughter. Marcus stepped up a little closer to the coach. “I’ll put it to you like this coach, I can more than handle myself in any situation or any sport. Where I come from we don’t play dodgeball, we play dodge the bullets from trigger happy police.”

The coach bounces the basketball and then unexpectedly throws it with velocity at Marcus who snatches it inches from his face. “If ya don’t play sports, then what do you do?” “What I do is slam poetry, spoken word and RAP.”  He bounces the ball, pivots and makes a run to the basket and finishes with a huge slam dunk. The class lets loose with a chorus of loud hoots and hollers. The coach shakes his head. “I don’t know much about poetry, but son, you’re poetry in motion. Mister, I’m gonna get you on our team. Damn, with talent like that, I can almost guarantee you’ll get yourself a Division 1 scholarship. I’m talking full ride. I know some of the college basketball scouts and I can give them a call. That’s if your attitude and head are in the right place.” Marcus dribbles up to the top of the key and swooshes a three pointer. “Help me get a scholarship and I’ll play your game. If I’ve learned anything, it’s all about knowing how to play the game, right?”  The school bell rings and the students head back to the locker-room. 

Maria knew that entering the boy’s restroom was a dangerous situation. She patiently waited outside the bathroom door and listened to see if anyone was still inside. She quietly opened the door and peered in. She slowly entered the restroom and then locked the door to the stall.  She could hear the bathroom door slam open and the sound of taunting laughter. “Hey Maria, do you want your pretty purple beret back?” He then began to mockingly sing the Prince song, “She wore a raspberry beret.”  All three of the boys climbed on top of the stall walls and kicked the door open. One of them grabbed her by the shirt, while another tossed her beret into the toilet. The third guy grabbed her by the hair and forced her face into the water as he repeatedly flushed the toilet. Her head continued to be pushed down as she struggled to gasp for air. One of them hollered, “Get the fuck out of here bitch, next time use the girls restroom.”

She ran out of the bathroom and just as she turned into the hall she ran directly into Marcus. Her hair and face are wet and her blouse torn. “What the hell happened to you?” She shook her head and said “It’s nothing.” From the other side of the bathroom door they could hear a kid yelling. “Hey Maria, you forgot your gay purple hat.. Why don’t ya come back and get it bitch.”

Marcus took a deep breathe “Just wait here, I’ll get your hat back.” He boldly walked into the bathroom and she could hear some voices talking and then the sound of bodies being slammed up against the walls. There was the sound of feeble whiny voices ”Stop”,” Don’t”, “You’re hurting me”.  Marcus walked out of the bathroom and handed Maria her wet beret.  “I don’t think those punks will be bothering you anymore.” He then turned and walked on down the hall. Maria thought to herself, “Maybe Monday ain’t such a bad after all.” 

The next day Maria boarded the morning bus and kept her eyes down in order to avoid eye contact with the fellow passengers. She looked up and then took a second glance. Sitting near the back of the bus she caught the eye of Marcus’s sitting alone. At that moment she noticed that his eyes looked too old for his youthful face. She shuffled down the swaying narrow aisle and sat down next to him. He nodded, “What’s sup?” Maria took a nervous breath “Thanks for yesterday.” He nods his head, “It’s nothin. I told those dudes what Rowdy Roddy Piper the pro wrestler once said, ‘I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass— and I’m all out of bubblegum.’ He offered up a chuckle. “Bullies ain’t nothin but chickenshit cowards. They pick on people who show weakness or self doubt. Don’t ever appear weak or give a hint of self doubt. Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe. I’ll take an ass-whippin any day over a soul-whippin.”

“Well, thanks for getting my beret back. I know that being a new kid at a new school can be rough. It’s not easy being on the outside looking in. No offense, but I noticed that you’re black and that makes you a bit of a novelty at this all white hick school. Being different is always challenging. Coming from the outside means you’ll have to find a way to blend in.” Marcus shook his head, “I’m different and I like it that way. I don’t need to fit in. People who try to fit in are ass-kissers. I learned a long time ago, to never pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t follow trends or fads. And, if someone doesn’t give me my due respect, then we’re gonna have ourselves a problem.” Maria offers a fist bump, “You’re a badass. I’m sure glad you didn’t have any bubblegum on you yesterday.” In a mocking tone Maria interjected, “I’m a badass too, when I’m not getting my head flushed down a toilet.”  

“You’re probably gonna hangout with the jocks. As for me, I’m a freak, a freak of nature. I don’t need a crew. It’s all good. Everyone’s got their thing. I do Karaoke. I only do it in my bedroom right now, but I’m thinking about entering the school talent show. I wanted to be in the school choir but I didn’t make the cut. But, I don’t think they cut me because of my voice. The choir teacher said I was too eccentric and I wouldn’t be a good fit. Which is a nice way of saying that a queer kid like me, doesn’tt belong in thier choir..” “What’s your thing? You must be into sports? If you’re good at sports everyone will think you’re cool. My dad wanted me to be good at sports so he signed me up for little league tryouts. Some kid threw a fastball at me when I wasn’t looking and it broke my nose. He said it was an accident, but I knew that was a lie, because he just kept laughing when the coach made him apologize. I hate any sport that uses a ball, a bat, a hat, a helmet, boots, teams, rules——- or any sport where the score is more important than having fun, which is pretty much true of every sport. Sorry if I’m talking too much. Sometimes I talk so much to myself inside my head that I sometimes forget I’m rattling on out loud. I talk a lot when l get nervous. I had a counselor once tell me it’s a coping mechanism.” 

Just as she was catching her breath and getting readying to launch into another topic, Marcus cut her off. In a sarcastic tone he exclaimed, “I’m sure glad you noticed that I’m black and all. I guess I couldn’t pass as an albino Eskimo. It’s okay to laugh, it’s just a joke! Everybody thinks that because I’m tall and black that I’m either a gangbanger or a basketball star. Everybody is always trying to put people in their neat little boxes. I don’t fit in no box. Weak people judge others cause it’s easier than taking the time to get to know them. Most people live in their little protective worlds. I walk down the streets in the suburbs and people cross the street to avoid getting close to me. It’s as if they think I’m gonna beat them over the head and rob them. The police are always eyeing me. They stop and question me if they think I’m somewhere I don’t belong, or more accurately, somewhere a black person doesn’t belong, which is pretty much everywhere except the hood. By the way, I collect quotes. Here’s a good one for what I’m talking about.” ‘I know my worth. I’ve paid dearly for every ounce of it.’ “That was written by Alfa. Damn girl, if anyone should know what it’s like to be judged, stereotyped and kicked to the curb, it should be you.”

“I’m sorry about my stupid comment I made noticing you’e black and all. It’s no wonder I have no friends.” There’s an awkward moment of silence. “I was wondering if maybe you and I could be friends. We’re both riding the same bus every day. My mom told me I need to reach out to other kids and make friends. To be honest with you, I’m not good at making friends. In fact I don’t really have any friends except for Ms Blanchard the librarian. She’s black too——Whoops I did it again. I’m always saying the wrong thing. She’s become a good friend of mine and she lets me eat my lunch in the library even though the signs say no food or drinks allowed. Ms Blanchard and I started a book club, but I was the only one who showed up for the meetings. So, she made me President, secretary, treasurer and the person in charge of roll call. I announce my name and then raise my hand and say ‘here’. Funny, huh? That was a pretty easy assignment because I’m the only person whoever attended. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic?”

At each bus stop more kids got on board. In spite of all the seats filling up, the seats around Maria and Marcus remained empty. Marcus shook his head in confirmation “Friends is good by me. And by the way, I like to write, so maybe I’ll attend one of your book club meetings.”  Maria’s voice couldn’t conceal her surprise. “For real? That would be excellent. I’d nominate you to be Vice President. You could choose the first book we’re to read and discuss.” Marcus held up his leather bound journal, “I’ll join under one condition, and that’s if I’m allowed to share some of my raps and spoken word projects. Ya see, I’m into slam poetry, spoken word readings, quotes and spelling contests. That’s my thing.” Maria’s voice couldn’t hide her disbelief “Now wait a minute, you’re into spelling bee’s? Isn’t that for elementary school kids?” “Hell no! Training for a spelling contest is like training for a prize fight. Everyday I look up ten new words and memorize the spelling and definition. I’ll go for a jog and repeat the word over and over. I have a heavy bag hanging at my house and I get a rhythm going with my punches as I spell words out-loud. I love words. Here’s a word for you. You aren’t a freak, the word haecceitas describes you.” Maria glances at Marcus from the corner of her eye. “That sounds like a scary medical condition“ Marcus laughs, “Its definition is ‘the property of being a unique and individual thing’. I think that suits you well.” She slowly repeated the word back to herself “Haecceitas? I like that. How do you spell it?” She opens her binder to a clean page. Marcus slowly enunciates each letter, “h-a-e-c-c-e-i-t-a-s.” 

Marcus lifts his journal up. “Quotes, I write them down, hundreds of them here in my journal. I love their simplicity and insightfulness. They’re so dense and compact, yet they cut and hack their way to the bone. They’re like performing surgery with a machete. They aren’t always pretty, but they get the job done. There’s novels that have over ten thousand words, but the author has nothing to say. They’ll drivel on about how the shadows crawl across a hardwood floor. They don’t go deep, deep like the cruel shadows that crawl across a man’s soul. Too many writers doing the same thing, telling the same old story in the same old tiresome way. They lack vitality, they lack the words to describe the desperation locked within the silence of a lonely man’s heart. Now that’s some hard shit to write. I’ve found some quotes that are so powerful that they exploded in my heart like a first kiss, a last kiss or like a punch to the solar-plexus. Ya see, words are attached to feelings and feelings are attached to words. If there were no words, then there’d be no emotions. Words are the nexus, the only tool we have to reach out to one another. If you take 26 letters and put them in the right order you can make words. And, if you take the those words and put them in a specific order, you can unlock the doors to new worlds. Poems, lyrics, stories, Haikus, novels——when they’re put down right, they’ll find their way into your psyche, into your soul. When put together in the right order they can give you the power to better understanding others. You can confess love, release anger, tame your fears and in rare circumstances allow you to feel less alone. Here’s a quote that does just that.” He opens his journal and begins to read. That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’“That’s by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Maria responds, “That’s beautiful, but I don’t know if it’s true for everyone——especially the part about belonging.”

The bus jerks to a stop as the air brakes release an exhausted sigh. The door clanks open and everyone rushes to get off the bus. Maria and Marcus wait for the bus to completely unload before standing up. As they exit the bus Marcus puts his hand on her shoulder, “If anyone messes with you, let me know and I’ll mess with them. Remember, you ain’t a freak, you’re Haecceitas.” Maria smiles, Okay, call me whatever you like, but I like being called your friend the best.“

Maria is seated in the library next to a whiteboard. Written on the board in bold letters is the following, “Creative Writing Club Rules, Be honest, Be Positive, Be Real, Write and Share, Always be kind”. Maria strikes a gavel on the desk. “Meeting called to order. First order of business roll call. Ms Blanchard you are the sergeant at arms, so please commence with attendance.” Ms Blanchard clears her throat. “Maira Johnson.”” Maria raises her hand and responds, “Present”. “Next order of business is our invocation prayer. ‘Dear God, higher power, the divine in us all, thanks for bringing us together and we pray that you bring us more members to be a part of’——— The door bursts open and Maria and Ms Blanchard raise their bowed heads. “Ya just increased the membership of your Creative Writing Club.” Maria gathers herself and responds, “I didn’t think you were really gonna show up. I’m glad you made it. As a formality you will need to first fill out an application to determine if this organization is a good fit for both parties.” She hands Marcus an application.” Marcus snaps back, “You’re kidding me, right? I don’t wanna be a good fit. I wanna be a good misfit.” He struts into the center of the room and says give me your best beatbox.” He starts a beat using his mouth as he drums along using  the top of a desk. Maria and Ms Blanchard do their best to keep the syncopated groove going. He begins a rhythmic rap. “I’m a mover, I’m a shaker I’m a freakin heart breaker, I can riff, I can rap, I’m a black badass cat, throw me a beat, hand me a mic, I got the swag to keep it tight, I got cool, and won’t be actin nobody’s fool, don’t need no club, no boring class, take me as I am, or you can kiss my ass.” Maria slams her gavel down on the desk.  “I hereby declare you as our first new member since our inception. You’re in, no application necessary.”  

“So, what do we do in this club?” “We share poems, stories and ideas. Sometimes it’s just crazy insights we make about people and life. We share books, movies and quotes that inspire us.” “What about raps and spoken word?” Ms Blanchard shakes her head in confirmation “That’s poetry too. Poetry is what truth is wrapped in. It’s the language of the soul. The definition of rap is Rhythm and Poetry. It is a legit art form.” 

Marcus turns towards Maria, “What do you got girl? You got a poem or something you’re working on?” “I have some drafts, but I’m not ready to put them out into the universe. Maybe at our next meeting I can recite something. I do have a quote by your F. Scott Fitzgearald that I memorized. “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.’ 

Marcus shakes his head in agreement, “Ain’t that the truth. Most people don’t want to start over, cause that means they’d have to admit they’ve been living a lie. The only way to change, grow and evolve is to be honest with yourself.” Maria looked out the window in contemplation, “Honesty isn’t a door easily shut once it’s been opened. Hidden behind those doors are monsters disguised as secrets.” Marcus shakes his head, “Once you kill the monsters your secrets lose their power over you. As the saying goes, we’re only as sick as our secrets.”

It always seems to rain more often on Monday’s than it does on any other day of the week. Monday’s are tough, but rainy Mondays are the worst. Maria climbed aboard the bus with its electric heater smell mixed with the  musty odor of wet clothes and hair. It smells like a Monday. She looks down the length of the bus but doesn’t see Marcus. The bus radio waivers in and out of reception sounding more like static than music. Kids are hollering and laughing as the windshield wipers slap back and forth against the windshield. The chaos makes Maria’s temples throb and ache. Two stops later, Marcus climbs aboard and has a seat next to Maria. He’s wearing a school team jacket with the Viking emblem and a matching baseball hat slung ass backwards on his head. Maria looks over at him with an air of suspicion. He looks back at her, “I’m late, I had practice.” “I thought you didn’t like playing sports?” “The school counselor had a talk with me and set things straight. She said that the only reason I was allowed to switch school districts was because I’m good at basketball. She said that if I don’t play, then I’ll have to go back to my old school. And, if I wanted to get a college scholarship, then my chances are a lot better at this top rated school district. Maria takes a deep breath, “That’s a bunch of crap. That’s like saying if someone can bake the best cake in Home Economics’ then they can get a college scholarship.” “Sports aren’t just a game, they’re big business. School athletics bring in revenue, cake baking doesn’t do anything. It’s all about cash and winning. Winning teams get more support and funds from the boosters. Championship teams get attention from the college scouts. It’s not fair, but that’s the way the game is played.”

“So, you’re gonna bow down to the man?” “Look, I don’t have any other chance of getting into a good college other than a basketball scholarship. This is my chance and I’m taking it. The path I’ve got to take isn’t the one of least resistance. My road hasn’t ever been easy. The path of least resistance in my neighborhood only leads to gangs, drugs, prison and death. I’ve avoided gangs, drugs and street life so I could make something of my life. You either accept this life as it is or you impose your will and do what it takes to get the things you want. I’ve made my share of sacrifices. I left behind everything, my old school, my old friends——-This is my opportunity, my ticket out of here. I’m gonna do what it takes to chase down my dreams. Here’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau that sums it up for me,” ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.’  

The bus hits a pothole and Maria’s books fall on the floor. As she reaches down to pick them up the sleeve of her sweater is pulled up revealing some deep scars. Marcus grabs her hand. “What the hell are these?”  Maria pulls her hand back “It’s nothing.” “No, those are something. You really shouldn’t be hurting yourself.”  “Yeah right, I really shouldn’t be hurting myself! What do you know about me and hurt? Ever since I’ve been a little kid I’ve been teased. I’ve been called names, I’ve been bullied, beat up, kicked and treated like I should be ashamed of who I am. I’ve been told that I don’t deserve to be alive. I can’t control that pain, but I can control the pain I do to myself. My pain is my pain, nobody else’s. It’s my release, it’s confirmation that in spite of all the hell I’ve been put through that I’m still alive——-at least for now.” Marcus paused and then lowered his voice, “It must be really hard?”  “What?” “You know, being trans.” There’s an intense silence and then she responds “Once you know something you can’t unknow it. From day one I knew I was different. I was born this way. My parents took me to see a child psychologist and they were told that it’s just a phase I’m going through and I’d grow out of it. One year my parents signed me up to go to Church Camp and the minister said I wasn’t allowed to attend. He said the other parents and elders felt I’d be too much of a distraction. He said I’d be a bad example for the other kids and that I needed to be cleansed of my sins. My dad told the minister that there’s a special place in hell for hypocrites like him. We never stepped foot in that church again. The worst is when people look at me with a certain look in their eyes. It’s hate, or maybe pity. It’s as if just being alive offends them. It made me feel like I didn’t count or didn’t belong. It made me think that it would be easier on everyone if I just disappeared. I get this odd feeling like I’m crumbling from the inside out, like I’m disintegrating into a million tiny pieces. Some mornings to get out of bed takes every ounce of my energy. I feel tired and numb——-but numb is good because then nothing or no-one can hurt me. I lie on my bed with my hands clasped over my chest like a dead person in a coffin, like a cadaver who’s had their blood replaced with formaldehyde. Maybe I’m already dead and I just don’t know it. People already treat me like I’m not real. They think I don’t feel things like other people do. But I do. I feel everything, but mostly I feel exhausted. I get so tired of trying to be liked. It seems so easy for everyone else. They must think I’m dead inside. I pretend it doesn’t bother me, but it hurts to not have someone to do things with. Being dead would be a release from it all. Tell me the truth, do I look like a corpse?”

“Hell no, you look more alive than most people. You got heart, you got soul and most importantly you got courage. One of my favorite quotes is by this guy named Bukowski. He said, ‘What matters most is how well you walk through the fire’. In all this bullshit, you’ve never lost yourself. You will always be you, regardless of what fools may say. That’s something that’s attractive, it’s what makes you beautiful. Most people are defeated and don’t even know it. They’ve given in and do what it takes too ‘fit in’. No, you aren’t a corpse, you’re not a freak of nature, you’re a force of nature. Don’t ever forget that.”

Marcus grabs Maria by her shoulders, “Now look me straight in the eye.” Maria turns and looks down. Marcus shakes her and makes her face him eye to eye. “You got to walk through the fire, face your enemies and keep moving forward. Don’t let them win, don’t let them make you give up on yourself, on life. Be the best “you” you can be. Do you understand?. Some people don’t like black people and some don’t like gay or trans people. Fuck them! While I’m alive, while I’m still here, I’m gonna make a difference. You need to do the same. Remember this, no one can give you self respect except yourself. That’s why it’s called “self” respect.” 

Maria looks down again. “I’m just tired of being alone and doing things on my own. I’m such a spaz, even the unpopular kids don’t want me to eat lunch at their table. To answer your question, yeah, it’s hard to be trans. There’s all these doors I see others walk through, but when it’s my turn they get slammed in my face. I want to feel connected to someone, I want someone to think I’m fun and”——she stutters and then chokes on her words.” “I want someone to think I’m pretty.”  She gives herself a mocking laugh, “I want to be badass like you.”  Marcus put his hand on her shoulder, “I don’t know where this life goes, but it does go——and it will go on, with, or without you. Don’t follow the path of least resistance, go for everything you want, be whoever or whatever you want to be. There are people out there who are gonna want to burn you down to the ground, don’t let them. You got it? Remember, we’re all going through this life for the first time, so don’t expect it to be easy. It ain’t simple, it’s full of contradictions, let downs, and long nights. Ya just got go out there and live it, you can love it or hate it. It’s up to you. Go down singing and swinging.” Maria wipes a tear from the corner of her eye “Thanks, I needed; really needed someone like you to come along at this time in my life. I needed a friend. I don’t know anything about sports or basketball, but I’m sure as hell gonna be at your next game. I’m gonna root for you like a motherfucker.” 

The bleachers at the basketball game are full. The school pep band is blasting “despacito”. The air is electric and there’s the faint smell of floor wax mixed with popcorn and deep fried junk food. Maria strategically chooses a seat at the very top of the bleachers. She had been to ballgames and rallies in the past and had kids behind her throw popcorn and candy wrappers at her head. As she made her way up to the top of the bleachers she could feel the glares of disapproving parents. She’s dressed in bright green leggings, a short black skirt and a high school mascot hoodie. On her feet she sports hightop red tennis shoes. It’s all topped off with a pink “Hello Kitty” baseball hat covering her purple dyed hair. She stood out like a bright yellow dandelion on a freshly cut lawn. Her choice of wardrobe was not to shock, but rather an extension of her unique sense of fashion——authenticity trumps fashion.

Throughout the game Marcus dominated the court with his graceful layups, no net three pointers and defensive takeaways. When he weaved around and through the other players, it was as if he were dancing to a song only he could hear. He raised the game from a sport to an art. He was amazing to watch as he effortlessly defied gravity. Maria clapped, cheered and put her fingers in her mouth to create an ear piercing whistle. It was a great feeling to have finally found a friend, a friend others envied. He knew his sudden popularity was the result of the points he scored on the court and not for his character. Popularity doesn’t equal friendship or loyalty. True friends stick by you win or lose. At the end of the game Maria pushed her way through the crowds of people to give Marcus a high five and a fist bump. His teammates looked at her with contempt. They couldn’t understand how he could include her in their victory celebration. Marcus and Maria knew there are more challenging victories outside of a basketball court. These are the hard won victories in life where there are no rules or referee’s to keep the game fair. His teammates turned their backs and walked towards the locker room. It didn’t matter to Marcus, because he wasn’t playing to win a single game, he was playing to make a difference.

Marcus and Maria continued to grow closer as they shared their bus rides to and from school. One day Marcus took out his cell phone and snapped a selfie of the two of them. There they were, forever etched together in time and space. They sat arm and arm making goofy faces for the camera. Maria laughed “If we’re not an odd couple, I don’t know what is.” Marcus joked “We should go to the prom together, I’ll be voted prom king and you will be prom queen.” Maria interjected, “Drag queen for me that is.” There’s no better salve for healing than laughter. And, there’s nothing more life affirming than finding someone who allows you to be yourself, someone who’ll laugh at the absurdity of life. There’s no word for it, that feeling of being accepted and understood. The word love has been overused——it’s lost its potency. If you’re looking for a word to define this thing between two people, than you never had it——-because it can’t be put into words——it’s the sacred stuff that makes life worth living.  

Even though Marcus became more accepted and popular due to his athletic prowess, he continued to walk with Maria through the quad and down the crowded halls. This bought her a measure of tolerance from the pack of predators. But, there’s a huge gap between being tolerated and being accepted.

As the talent show sign ups drew closer, Marcus kidded Maria about entering the contest. He jokingly pretended his pen was a microphone and started singing “Staying Alive”. “Come on girl, you can do it. You said you like to sing karaoke. Well, here’s your chance to prove it.” Maria responded, “Sure, I’ll enter if you agree to enter too.” Marcus squinted his eyes giving the challenge some serious deliberation. He held his hand out for a fist bump. “Why hell yeah, let’s do this thing. We’ll either be a huge success or a complete disaster.”  Maria sighed, “I can see us now being tarred and feathered and run out of town on the rail.” From that day forward they rehearsed everyday after school.

The night of the talent show Maria was dressed in a black one piece sequined outfit. She wore spiked heels, gold dangling earrings and a platinum blonde wig. Around her neck she had a gold choker with a red heart hanging from the center. Her mouth was dry and she could feel her heart throbbing in her temples. She slipped into the girls restroom and bent over the toilet and threw up. She felt a cold sweat run across her forehead. She found Marcus and grabbed him by his arm, “I can’t fucking do this.” Marcus laughed, “Damn, you look hot. You could be one of those backup singers for Gladys Knight and the pips. You’d be a pip.” Maria did not find the comment funny. Marcus put his hand on both of her shoulders,“Now listen to me, get your shit together and let’s rock this fucking place. We’re up next, so ‘man up’, or ‘girl up’, or whatever ‘up’ you wanna do. But don’t be a chicken shit. Don’t let your self doubt step on your dreams.” The voice of the MC echoed in the distance, “Now we got something sure to blow your minds. Welcome if you will, Marcus and Maria.” Marcus whispers in her ear, “While we’re here, let’s make a difference.” He gives Maria a push through the curtains causing her to trip. The auditorium is dark and deathly silent. The sound of her high-heels echoed as she made her way across the stage. A spotlight is switched on blinding her and making it difficult for her to locate the karaoke machine. From the darkness came the voices, “Hey queen-ey.” “Fagot.” “You can be my bitch”. Someone made a loud wolf whistle. Maria felt as if her legs were made of jello. She finally reached the Karaoke machine and pressed play. 

The song “Nothing Can Come Between Us” by Sade blared from the speaker. She kept a tight grip on the mic stand to steady herself. A blue spotlight hallowed around her making her appear small and exposed. Her voice came out in a wobbly whisper. From the wings Marcus called out, “Do it, let it go. You got this thing!” She closed her eyes and let the music flow through her. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back forgetting where she was. Her voice gradually builds and becomes stronger and more confident. Her tone and vibrato sounds rich and soulful. The audience grows silent and becomes attentive as they realized they were hearing something unexpectedly good.

The mix begins to blend into the song “Changes” by Tupac. The curtain slowly opens as a second white spotlight switches on and is trained on Marcus as he makes his way to center stage. He’s wearing a black tank top with a picture of Tupac blazoned across its front. He’s got on a pair of sagging blue jeans with a pair of red Nike Air Jordan high tops. He’s got his hair combed out into a full Afro. His rap voice is powerful and angry. The audience spontaneously bursts out into deafening screams and wild applause. He moves confidently about the stage like he owns it. The audience comes to their feet and begin to dance and clap to the groove. A disco ball casts white sparkles of light on the walls and ceiling. The mix slowly blends into “Say Something” by Justin Timberlake. Marcus and Maria meet in the middle of the stage and move together in choreographed dance moves. The audience stays on their feet and start singing along to the music. A strobe light flashes in rhythm with the music. Abstract psychedelic posters come alive under the black lights. As the song comes to a close the crowd goes wild. In this euphoric moment there is no black, white, gay, straight or trans labels separating us——music is the great equalizer, the great unifier——creating a sweet oneness.  

The MC speaks, “We have the ballots counted and the results have been tallied. The winner of this year’s talent show is”———-He pauses letting the anticipation build. “The winner of this year’s Talent Show is———-Marcus and Maria.” They come to the middle of the stage and give one another a hug. The place erupts into the deafening sound of cheers, whistles and screams. 

Their morning bus rides continued to be their time to share laughs and talk about writing projects. They shared quotes, raps, poems and their future dreams and aspirations. After their success at the talent show most of the  students give Maria a measure of respect. One day, Marcus wasn’t at his usual bus stop. She looked for him on campus but he was nowhere to be found. When he failed to show up for the Creative Writing Club she got a feeling that something wasn’t right. In her gut she had an uneasy feeling.  

The only place she hadn’t looked for Marcus was the athletic department. She gathered up her courage and headed to the basketball coach’s office.. She opened the door to  his office and tentatively approached his desk. On the shelfs behind him were trophies, medallions and colorful ribbons. In the stale air is the odor of musky deodorant masking the odor of sweat. “I’m looking for Marcus, has he been attending practice? I haven’t been able to find him anywhere.”  The coach sat back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. He ran his fingers through his buzz cut, “That boy is no longer on the team. It seems he forgot to separate his politics from his sports. He got mixed up with that ‘Black Lives Matter’ crap. He had the gall to take a knee when they played the ‘National Anthem’. That boy was setting a bad example for the rest of the team. The Boosters and our school administration only support good clean American patriots and not a Kaepernick wanna be’s.” Maria’s voice took on a tone of indignation “What the fuck are you talking about.” “The coach removed his feet from his desk and leaned into Maria’s face. “You best watch your language dude. You may be wearing a skirt, but you’re still a dude to me”  Maria leaned back into his face. “Black Lives Matter’ has nothing to do with patriotism. It’s about protesting police violence and brutality against black people. It’s about police being held accountable for shooting unarmed black people.” The coach stood up “He can now protest any freaking thing he likes, cause he’s not representing our school, our team or my America.” Maria shakes her head in frustration “That’s where you’re wrong asshole, it’s not your America, it’s everyone’s America and that includes black people, LGBTQ people———people of every race and religion. It’s the ‘United’, yes ‘United States of America’.” The coach sneered “That stupid son of a bitch took it too far this time. He forgot his place; where he does and doesn’t belong. He’s been expelled and worse than that, he’s pissed away a guaranteed college scholarship to a Division 1 school. He couldn’t just play basketball and keep his big mouth shut. The boosters and parents weren’t gonna put up with all that ‘Black Lives Matters bullshit’.” He reached in a closet and pulled out a backpack and threw it at Maria. “I cleaned out his locker and he left that shit behind. I was going to mail it to him, but sense he’s your buddy, you might as well take it to him personally. That is if you have the courage to walk the streets of that shit hole he calls home. That place is in the hood sweetheart. A little girly boy like you best watch your back on those streets. Go ahead and take it to your boyfriend. Give him a kiss for me. Get the fuck out of here and don’t exit through the locker-room, that area is reserved for real men.” Maria stared straight into his eyes “I pity you and your small mindedness. You’re a small minded man with a little dick complex. Go fuck yourself.”

It took Maria two city bus rides to get into the inner city where Marcus lives. There are no manicured lawns, pretty flower gardens or the sound of children at play. Here, things are black and white, just liquor stores, quick loan outfits and people with hollow eyes standing idly on street corners. A black Mercedes with gold rims slowed and pulled up close to Maria. An old white dude hung out his car window and in a hushed tone said “Hey there sugar. I like young sweet ones just like you. Will fifty bucks get me some action?” Maria stopped in mid stride, turned around and replied “Fuck off olf msn!”  He hollered back, “Bitch, you ain’t worth ten bucks.” He pressed the gas pedal down to the floorboard making his tires smoke and squeal. 

Maria checked the address on the backpack and then glanced up at the street sign. She made her way across a patch of yellowed dying lawn. She took a deep breath and anxiously knocked on the black metal door. From inside someone peeked out from the curtains. The door opened just far enough to keep the chain-lock intact. A middle aged back woman spoke, “What do you want?” “I’m looking for Marcus, I have his school backpack to return to him. I’m his friend.” “You must be Maria, the President of the Creative Writing Club. Yes, he spoke highly of you.” “Is he here? Can I speak with him?” “He’s locked up and I sure as hell can’t afford the bail to get him out. Those cops set him up. I gave him the talk about the police, but Marcus ain’t one to be trifled with. He was never one to act a fool, but he has something in him that makes him stand up for what’s right and defend those who can’t stand up for themselves. He knows what it’s like to be done wrong.” Maria bit her lip, “Yeah I know, he stood up for me a time or two.” “He came home the other day and told me he had it with that coach and that school. He was all excited about enrolling in the community college to finish up his High School credits. Marcus has potential, he has big plans of graduating from college someday. He said one day he’s gonna go to law school. Said he was gonna defend those who couldn’t afford to defend themselves. Said he’s gonna make a difference. Here, come in, I got something to give you.” The house is neat and clean. Marcus’ room is well organized. He has dozens of sports trophies and medals on his dresser and shelves. There’s posters of Tupac, Mohammad Ali and Martin Luther King hanging on the walls. He has a bookshelf full of books and a Buddhist prayer flag draped across his bed headboard. “When I went to try and bail him out he instructed me to make sure to get his personal items that the police had taken from him. He said to make sure to get his journal back.” She picked up a medallion hanging from a ribbon and held it in her palm. “Marcus won the school spelling competition every year from first grade on up to middle school. Loves his words.” Marcus’s mother hands Maria his leather bound book of writings. “It’s a funny thing, this writing book means more to him than all of these sports medals and trophies put together. I know that you and Marcus are close, so I want you to hold on to this for him. I know that he respects and trusts you. He could use a good friend right about now.” Maria smiles, “Yeah, I know what it’s like to need a good friend.”

When Maria made it back home she sat on her bed and slowly opened the leather writing book. On the front inside cover is a quote written in neat cursive penmanship 


Watch me.

 I will go to my own Sun.

And if I am burned by its fire, 

I will fly on scorched wings. 

Segovia Amil

Tapped below the poem is the candid selfie of Maria and Marcus that was snapped on the school bus. Below the photo is the caption “King and Queen Of The Prom”. The journal is filled with poems, prose and lists of words with their definitions attached. Maria lifted the writing book to her nose and breathed in, it smelled like worn leather, it reminded her of him. If integrity had a scent, it would smell like his journal. She turned the page and read the most recent entry. 

Watered Down People

       (Dedicated to Maria)   

Life, a misunderstood word.  All there is, is life, and then no life.  People carry that word around like it’s a vessel of guarantee’s and entitlements. All that ever will be is life, and all that will never be—— is one of the tragedies of this life too. Life isn’t always a “Once upon a time” or a “Happily ever after”. I once had a best friend, they were there and then one day gone. Time absorbs everyone and everything, sooner or later.

And nobody knows where everything and everyone goes. Words are attached to emotions and emotions are attached to words.  If there were no words, would there be no emotions? If that were true, I’d take a big eraser and delete the words, depression, sadness, loneliness, hate and anger from everyone’s vocabulary. I’d write love, peace and kindness in large bold font and add them to everyone’s lexicon. 

Life is carried around like a banner that says love is true, life is fair and everything and everyone is infinite. Trust me, time is not an illusion, the hands of our clocks caress away immortality——-I try to remember this.  

To some, life is a crisp, clean white piece of paper that they wad up into a wrinkled ball and toss into a waste bin. And, to a few, that same piece of virgin paper is something they neatly fold into an origami of a bird, a dragon or a frog. —–Hands.—The same hand that can reach out to comfort others can also be a weapon to repel everything and everyone.

When I look closely at my hands I realize how odd and strange they are. One hand fits into another person’s hand so naturally, so easily——but then again, it can also just as easily be drawn into a tight angry fist.

Live your best life, not a fraudulent life, not a half life, not a life that is guarded and protected in the hopes of not ever making any mistakes or being hurt. Embrace your mistakes, own your fuck ups, admit your naive follies, because they are the best teachers——Even when it’s all bullshit, even when you’re buried beneath an avalanche of hurt, reach out for another’s hand. Someday they’ll be a “no life” for you and me, and no one will care what we won or what we gave up on——-it will all be lost in the litter of time——-only you can save yourself. Take a good look at your hands. What might you do with them?

Allow yourself to be shot out of a circus cannon, dance on the tight wire, be the painted faced clown, be vulnerable, it’s the only way to know yourself, there are no short cuts. We all have nothing to lose. Without vulnerability it’s a lifetime of pretending to be something you’re not. 

Be assured, we are here to help one another summit all those mountains of worry and sorrow. 

Life is full of “I told you so’s”, insincere apologies, deferred honesty and love waisted on watered-down people. I wonder if the sun dreads the day’s end, like I do. The moon makes no promises of what the night may bring. 

Maria called the jail and inquired about visiting hours. She got on the bus and headed down to the city center. The jail is a twelve story cement block building. Each floor has narrow slits for windows that only allow a minimal amount of sunlight into each cell. The view from any jail cell is never very good. She put her backpack on the X-ray conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector. The uniformed officer pulled her backpack off the conveyor belt and began to rummage through the contents. He pulled out several candy bars, Green Tea drinks and a blank tablet and pen. “You can’t give any of this stuff to an inmate. You can only give him money for the commissary. No contraband allowed.” She points to the selfie of her and Marcus laying on the X-ray belt. “Can I give him this picture?” “Give it here. I’ll let the sergeant look it over and if he approves of it, then he’ll have it issued to him.” She makes her way to the reception desk with its bullet proof glass and circular voice intercom. “I’m here to see Marcus Richards.” The uniformed receptionist appeared to be annoyed by the question. He shakes his head no. “That won’t be possible at this time. We have some things we’re investigating in regards to Mr Richards.” Maria did her best to maintain her composure “What do you mean he’s under investigation? What could he possibly be under investigation for? He’s just a kid who’s going to college and doing his best to get out of this shit hole of a town.” “Well he should have complied with the arresting officers. He’s a hothead with a bad temper and a shitty disposition.” “What was he arrested for?” “Well, let me take a look at the arrest record. It says here that he was initially detained, searched and questioned due to suspicion of him fitting the description of a gangbanger who shot and killed a liquor store clerk during a robbery.” “That’s bullshit, he’s no gangbanger or robber. He’s a writer, a poet.” “Well he’s the strongest poet I’ve ever met. It took four officers and a stun gun to cuff his ass. He kept hollering something about his rights. It says here that he didn’t comply with the arresting officer. Apparently when the arresting officer told him to settle down or he was gonna toss his diary book into the sewer drain he became combative. They think he may have broke one of the officers jaw and the nose of another officer. Well he ain’t so tough now.” “I demand to see him right now, right fucking now. This is not fair.” The officers voice crackles through the intercom “Fair?——-that’s where pony rides are given for free. Well, pony rides ain’t free and neither is he.”  “I want to speak to your supervisor. I want to speak to him right now.” He clears his throat “Hang on sweet cheeks. I guarantee you ain’t gonna wanna hear what he has to say.”

“I’m Captain Smith, what can I help you with?” “ It’s visiting hours and I’m here to visit Marcus Richards. This dumb ass public servant over there says I can’t speak to Marcus. He never should have been arrested in the first place.” The Captain takes a deep breath and lets out a weary sigh.“I’m sorry to inform you of this, but Mr Richards hung himself in his cell last night or possibly early this morning.”

Maria had been kicked, pushed, slapped, spit on, tripped, thrown against walls, had her things ripped off, her clothes torn, bullied, sucker punched and hurt in a thousand different ways, but not once had she ever let them see her shed one tear. She had always refused to give them the satisfaction that they hurt her or broken her spirit. But this pain was different, it was at a level deeper than her spirit could bear. In that moment of shock and grief, suddenly all those years of suffering in silence was now being released. From deep in her being, she let out a primal scream that was terrifying. It’s the sound a wolf makes when the jaws of a jagged metal trap snaps down on their leg, tearing muscle, tendons and shattering bone. She beat her fist against the bullet proof glass and kept screaming, “You killed him, you fuckers, you killed him. I know you all did it. You cowardice bastards. He didn’t kill himself. He was gonna go to college.  He was going to make a difference.” She beat her fists against the reception glass until blood ran down her forearms.

In each of us lies the untapped power to create change in ourselves and in doing so creating a change in the world. Making a better world starts from within. But, it requires pure honesty and the courage to take on a cause that’s bigger than oneself. A life without belief’s worth dying for, is no life at all. Our beliefs test us———they pull our covers and reveal who we are, they are the scale that measures the congruency between our actions and our truths. Cultures do not move forward without the sacrifices of brave individuals. We’re all on a hero’s quest, but there are no medals or victory celebrations. In fact it’s a road a-washed  in blood and unheralded suffering. No one is going to congratulate you for doing the right thing. It’s getting off one’s knees and putting prayers into motion. It’s the individual raindrops that relentlessly wash away mountains of hate. Apathy is the oxygen that keeps prejudice alive. A moral revolution has always been a lonely and narrow path. She knew she must find some way to take action, she needed to find someway to honor the life of her now deceased friend.  

The news of Marcus’s death ran rampant through the school. Everyone knew that Maria was close to Marcus. There were rumors she had committed suicide. Others whispered that she had an emotional breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. No one ever expected to see her at school again. There is unseen strength in occupying the role of outcast—-there’s the revelation of knowing you have nothing left to lose. There is nothing as unpredictable or dangerous as someone with nothing left to lose. 

The gym was packed for the Friday night basketball game. Above the home team bleachers was a banner with a large photo of Marcus. Below his photos the caption read “Gone But Never Forgotten”. On the bottom of the banner someone had scribbled  “Black Lives Matter”.

A blaring voice came over the PA system “We are dedicating this game to Marcus Richards. He will forever be a Viking.” The High School Pep Band made a host of squawks and screeches as the clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones and tubas tuned up. The players’ tennis shoes squeaked on the hardwood floors as they warmed up. A loud buzzer went off signifying that the game was about to begin. A voice came across the PA, “All please stand for the National Anthem.” The auditorium became silent as the first notes of the National Anthem began to play.  Maria removed her jacket to reveal a picture of Marcus on her shirt and the caption, “Make a difference.” As she weaved her way down from the bleachers she could hear the sound of hushed murmurs coming from the spectators. She carried herself with a sense of purpose. Her face was determined and she showed no sign of self doubt. She boldly walked to the center of the basketball court and took a knee and then bowed her head.

 The players began to exchange glances. Then one of the players slowly removed his hand from over his heart and walked to the center of the court and took a knee. Then a second player made his way from the sidelines and slowly walked to the center of the court and took a knee. The coach’s face turned red with anger. Then, another player made his way to where Maria and the other players had taken a knee. The coach began ranting raving, “You’re going to be pulled from the team. Did you hear me? You’ll be benched. This is blatant insubordination. I will see to it that all of you will be suspended.” The entire players bench began to walk to the center of the court. The band’s version of the “National Anthem” somehow sounded louder and more authentic than ever before. The coach screamed and stammered “I’ll have you all permanently removed from the team. I’ll have you all expelled.” No-one listened to his threats. No-one cared, they were caught up in the reverence of this moment. There was a veneration in the air like that felt at tent revival. For a moment there was a prevailing oneness, a shared sense of empathy and compassion. 

As the coach continued his pacing and screaming, he suddenly felt a tightness in his chest. He grimaced as he grasped at his heart with both hands. His uncontrolled temper and emotional outrage had brought on a heart-attack. The pain of the cardiac event drove him to his knees. Ironically, or maybe due to divine intervention, folks in the bleachers seeing this thought the couch was taking a knee as an endorsement of the “Black Lives Matter” protest. The spectators flocked down from the bleachers and in an act of respect took a knee and bowed their heads. On this strange day we were presented with a miracle——-and an unforeseen happy ending. The universe exhaled, the angels rejoiced——and Maria smiled.

The power of one person doing the right thing can shake the heavens and awaken the sleepwalking masses. The universe will always bend towards goodness and redemption. At some deeper level we are all the same, we are all connected by that unseen and indescribable force known as love. 

Addendum. The coach survived his heart attack. But ironically, the boosters complained to the School Board that the coach had acted as a political agitator at the basketball game by taking a knee during the National Anthem. The School Board summarily fired him for endorsing a political cause. Maria organized a Scholarship program in remembrance of Marcus. She named the scholarship “While we’re here, let’s make a difference.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s