2019 Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest Runner-up
This is not a metaphor: when I say that I lived in the closet, it’s because I lived in the closet.
You might, too, if you shared a one-bedroom apartment with eleven other people and a pet: mother, stepfather, brother, brother, brother, uncle, aunt, cousin, cousin, cousin, cousin, dog. Then there’s me, the surplus.
You could have called our closet a walk-in closet in the sense that a child’s body could walk in. Mine did, and I called it home. It was comfortable enough, if you were willing to lie. I was.
I lived in a confession booth, listening to my own secrets, making my own sentences.
Confession: my uncle was different in a way you could see.
I was different in a way you could see
only if you were looking.
If you were looking, I could see.
What I mean is that my uncle walked on crutches, so he couldn’t cross the border by foot. He climbed into the trunk of a car, which is a kind of closet.
I was like my uncle, and I was not like my uncle. He walked on crutches and I didn’t.
Confession: during prayers, I don’t close my eyes. Nobody knows this except the other people who don’t close their eyes.
A life in the closet is a life that’s closed, so I opened what I could—books. I was Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, reading about The Boy Who Lived.
I had no owl, no hat, no wand. I couldn’t cast a spell, and I couldn’t spell. But I could see the low in owl, I could pull the hat out of that, and in the word wand find another hidden and.
Reading X-Men, I wanted to be Storm so that I could end the famine in my family’s village, looking like a badass bitch/queen/goddess doing it. I knew this was impossible because I wasn’t claustrophobic enough. I could never be Storm.
I survived too many storms behind a closet door. And I could never change my name to Storm, which at its core contains an or. As in, either/or. As in, Ororo Monroe—Storm’s birth name.
You must choose:
pink or blue, boy or girl, left or right, right or wrong, truth or lie, truth or dare.
Truth: even writing this I thought that feminine shared an a with famine—femanine.
Dare: hunger for errors, find another place to stick a man inside.
Reading, I learned the difference between cloth and clothe. Also the difference between close, meaning to shut, and close, meaning almost there.
Sometimes there’s no difference between the past and present, as in: to read and to have read.
Sometimes there’s no difference between the past and present except for the surroundings. You can call this context or you can call this what it is—privilege. Not living in the closet is what people like me did on TV.
But I wasn’t like the people on TV, so I lived in the closet.
In Fun Home, when Alison and her father see a woman wearing men’s clothes and sporting a man’s haircut, she says:
“Like a traveler from a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.”
“Dad recognized her, too.”
Spoiler alert: Alison and her father were both in the closet, but they were not in the closet together.
My room was a closet for my family’s clothes, my clothes were a closet for my skin, my skin is a closet for my skeleton. It won’t always be.
It won’t always be this way,
but that’s not the same as “it gets better.”
Better requires context:
a shell could be a spent bullet or the home of a mollusk.
In order to breathe, you have to add the little snail of an “e” to the end of the word breath.
Breathe. Is it not amazing that we are still alive?
It’s nothing amazing, but in the closet is where I first read The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. Marooned on Spider Monkey Island, the only way Tommy can go home is to climb inside the pink shell of the Great Glass Sea Snail.
I lived in the closet—all wall, no window. So that if I turned out the light, it made no difference if I shut my eyes. That’s how dark it got.
I used to pretend I was Tommy inside the enormous shell—all window, no wall. But what was there to see at the bottom of the sea? Nothing except rare animals that learned, under great pressure, to make light from nothing but the nothing that they are.
It was cold down there. And lonely. My breath would fog the shell until I wiped it clear.
But I climbed in when the the Great Glass Sea Snail bowed its great neck to me and let me enter, hoping I had enough air, heading straight for whatever waited on the next shore, like any immigrant would.