That cafe smelled like fresh-baked bread and cookies, and the baristas were all women with warm, soft hands who called everyone — the Senator, the mothers, the babies, the businessmen — Honey.
So many baristas would have called you Honey, David. And swayed along with you when they played Perfume Genius during the slow hours.
The day after someone called you gay, the day you were absent from class, I talked about two male penguins at the Brooklyn Zoo who raised a baby named Tango and everyone wanted to know if penguins could really be gay, so I said anyone could be gay, including me, and some of them laughed. I said gay meant bundle of sticks and also Love and some of them tried to understand how it could be both, so I said words mean everything and we have to be careful, and they still didn’t get it and I didn’t yet wish that I had tried so much harder.
I moved to a new city and started ordering apple ciders with cinnamon swizzle sticks from the cafe with the baristas and drinking them on a park bench and that day, that day, a stranger sat down on the other end and told me I looked busy. I was not busy. I was tired and grieving. The stranger said his name was Dustin and I said my student killed himself and a woman I didn’t know said, Let her be. He didn’t want to let me be.
David, the women put her body between us — a body, a body, we can do everything with a body, David — and our three bodies sat together there, very much alive. I told the woman your name and she held my hand and listened to it with me, together in that little sliver of park.
Strangers would have wanted to sit with you, too, David. To introduce themselves and someday read and sing you their favorite lines about love or death or oceans or loss, about horses and tomato gardens, about crows and constellations, sirens and waves. Friends would have taken you to Wendy’s for French fries dipped in Frosty’s, or on the long bus—eight hours from Buffalo to their favorite diner in Greenpoint, the one with the best hash browns and the decent coffee out of the big tan mugs, where the cook wears a grease-smeared apron and yells through the rectangular silver window to regulars about the weather and sports teams while keeping an eye on the ruby-colored water glasses and the cash tips on uncleaned tables.
People on the L train would have loved you, David. Would have watched you from their blue subway seats, over books they were half-reading, over podcasts they were half-listening to, over the shoulders of other shoulders and accidentally past their stop. And maybe New York City would have made you tired, like it makes so many gentle people tired, and you’d have moved to Southern California eventually, grown your hair long. Spent your days sticky with ocean and living, learning to surf somewhere, your pale body tan.
You were only in eighth grade, you were only thirteen, when all the boys were mean to you, when one and then four of them called you gay, when you started to bring that word everywhere with you. I wish you had carried it like a buttercup, like a seashell, like a slice of California orange, like the relief of white linen on a body in the desert, like a single snowflake from our hometown. Not that barb, that boulder, that heavy weapon that made you take yourself from yourself, from everyone, from all of this. But how could you have taken it lightly? You, sweet you.
People would have called you handsome, David, I promise. They would have called you Honey. They would have been better with you.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). – Ed.