There are two boxes of toys in the attic. One of them, you shouldn’t open. They’ve warned you against it. But you must, and you do, and you play with them. You brush their long blonde hair until the footsteps come. Your heart beats faster with each thud on the stairs. Your grandmother opens the door to find you breathless and clutching a tiny man with a gun.
You grow older. The ball always misses your mitt and hits your face. This is when it finds you at all, between daydreams in right field or on the bench. You throw like a girl, you are told. You are a sissy. The blood and tears on your uniform prove it.
You love to sing. You don't, though, not in public. The choir director has a lisp, which they mock. Would you end up with a lisp if you sang? Would you always be mocked? You wonder.
So there is silence, years of it. The bus driver calls you by the wrong name each morning and afternoon. You're terrified to correct her. You’re terrified to say anything at all. But you’re also thrilled to have a secret, even if it’s one as simple as your name.
There are new secrets every day. They are stones thrown into a lake. Once, a friend made you shower with him. You stare at the drain. You try not to think about it. You're not friends anymore.
You hear that word for the first time. Faggot. It’s spit at you from the back of the bus or hissed from the corner of the locker room. The word stings. It’s meant for you. You look down at your shirt, expecting blood.
You run from this word. You will yourself to grow older and taller to outpace it. You date a girl. You move your hand away from hers in the darkness of the movie theater. She frowns. The popcorn is stale. People whisper.
You feel shame. You pray. You see a therapist. She takes your hand in hers. Someday, she says.
You don’t believe her until he kisses you — your first. There is a sound. It may be an explosion. It may be a key turning in a door you never knew was there.
You go to college. You drink. You smoke. You date. You wear a skirt to a dance. The word follows you. It is louder now. It is scrawled on your dorm room door. It is drunk and waiting around the corner. It drags a screaming boy across the pavement. You’re next, it whispers.
But you’re not next. You’re lucky. You study abroad. You graduate. You fall in love. Life is cherry blossoms. Life is good food and books and films. Life is weeknights at a bar belting show tunes with your friends. Some days, there is more light than you ever thought possible.
Some days, there is darkness. There are flights that shake so dangerously. A baby screams. You reach out your hand. The seat next to yours is empty.
You arrive in a city full of people who you think are just like you. But no, not all of them are friends. That old word slips through their teeth. Love and hate — where you find them still surprises you. You search your own face in the mirror.
But always, there are choices, and these are your own — a small lifetime of boxes and doors and eyes to open or close. My, look at how many you’ve opened. Look ahead. Here comes one more.
DANIEL REYNOLDS is an editor at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.