A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It was a Tuesday, early, and so far everything was going well. In Los Angeles, where I live, this usually means that a car is pulling out of a parking space just as you are approaching and — if the day is really going well — there’s some unused time in the meter. I eased in, and walked into the bagel shop I liked. I didn’t care for the bagels — I’m a New Yorker, and I’m not easily fooled — but this shop had a prepared fruit salad that wasn’t too bad, for a good price, and it often had grapes, which I like in my fruit salad; grapes, to my mind, can push a fruit salad over the top.
So I grabbed a cup, pre-wrapped, ready. The place was busy. Some people were milling around while their elaborate coffees were being prepared, while some were giving complicated orders for bagels (three poppy seed, two sesame, toast one sesame bagel and one-half of a poppy seed, please). My order wasn’t even an order. I didn’t need anything special; I just needed to pay, as I’d done here, in situations identical to this, twenty-seven times.
I found the exact amount of money in my pocket, and stepped up to the counter to lay it down. “Just this,” I said, as I always said. “Just paying. Have a nice day.”
But I didn’t get all those words out. The man I’d stepped reasonably in front of to transact this easy bit of business stepped unreasonably toward me.
“Sir,” he said.
“Yes?” I said, fruit salad in my hand, the grapes waiting for me to get at them.
“There’s a line,” the man said. And he was one, a man, that is. He might have been a few years shy of being reflexively referred to as a sir, as I was, but he wasn’t a boy. He had years on him, weight in his presence. “There’s a line.”
“Yes,” I said. “I see it.”
“It doesn’t seem like you do. Does it?”
Now, I’m not telling you this so you will agree with me that this man in the bagel shop was an asshole. He was, probably, but this is about me. And what I felt compelled to do next, what happened without my planning it, or intending it; what I did, that I realized later I had long ago learned to do. I justified myself. Or tried to. I felt that I had to, or something — not good would happen. I knew I was innocent, of course, of a crime I hadn’t even been charged with. But that didn’t matter. Because in some part of me I agreed with this man. I had done something wrong.
Everyone was watching me, or I felt that they were. My heart decided it was time to beat a bit too fast. Unseen hands wrapped my larynx in cotton, and applied drops of sudden sweat to my forehead.
I gasped out an explanation for my terrible, thoughtless, unforgivable behavior.
“But it’s okay!” I said, and even as I did, in a voice that wouldn’t convince anyone of anything, I knew I could never make this man believe me. “Really!”
He looked at me. He knew me. He could tell me and everyone else, right there in the bagel shop, all the bad things I’d ever done and thought I’d gotten away with.
Which is when the counter girl stepped in.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Your order will be ready in a minute. We’re short-staffed this morning.”
This man would not let it go, though. I couldn’t move, anyway.
“That’s not the point,” he said.
He was right, so I helped him.
“Oh, I know that,” I said. “But I’m a good person. Really.”
And maybe I said that, and maybe I didn’t. I’m not sure. But I am sure I wanted to say it. The words were there, and ready. They’re always there, and ready. For when you need them. And there will always be a time when you do.
Which is how it is, sometimes, for some people, anyway, to be gay in America.
— by Richard Kramer writing for Vox Populi