The voice is somehow beckoning and threatening at the same time. I hear it, but I don’t see the body it’s coming from.
“Little faggot going home to mommy?”
Though this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened on my walk home from school, I’m never quite sure what the best thing to do is: should I run or just keep walking like I don’t hear it?
Before I can make up my mind, a man jumps out from behind some tall shrubs. I don’t know if it’s better or worse that I don’t recognize the guy. Sometimes I know them from school. But this one seems older, maybe early twenties, and he knows my name: Rufus.
He massages his cock through his jeans for my benefit, and I have to admit that I like what I see. He’s cute in a dangerous sort of way.
Then he grabs my arm, pulls me into the bushes, and twists the other arm behind my back. Because of the conflicting things I’m experiencing—arousal, terror—I have never felt so afraid in my life.
The guy massages himself again, and then he begins to slap me about the face. “Is this what you want little gay boy?” They aren’t punches, but a lot of hard little, stinging, open-palmed slaps.
He releases my arm but takes me by the back of the neck. His hand is big and strong, and it hurts. I feel fragile as he pushes my head down toward his crotch. Somehow—maybe it’s an adrenaline rush?—I manage to wrestle free, and then I take off running and don’t stop until I’m about half a block from home.
I turn around for the first time to see if he’s following me. No. I’m so relieved that I could cry. I try to catch my breath and just hope against hope that Mama’s not home for a change. But as soon as I walk in the door, she’s there.
“Rufus, you look like you just saw a ghost! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mama. I just ran home to shake off the school day, you know?”
She gives me a look that suggests she doesn’t know, but that she wonders.
I go into the bathroom and close the door to have a little peace.
I sit and think about what just happened. I’ve got to get out of this hellhole. This is a red town, Vermillion, Georgia, and the problem, or one of the problems, is that I’m a blue-green person.
I’m a synesthete. It sounds like a disease but it’s not. It’s like this: I hear the sound of a car’s honk as the color orange. Rain is blue-green. Some synesthetes see the letters of the alphabet as colors—things like that. I’ve read up on it.
My last name is Snow, which is pretty funny coupled with a red name like Rufus. It’s like the colors for Coke—red and white—which are supposed to be great for advertising. Also funny is that I’ve never even seen the stuff in my entire life—snow, I mean—since we don’t get it here. And really, this town is more like gray. Or brown. It’s really dull. But the violence is red. I guess maybe they named it after the clay that Georgia is so famous for? Who knows, and who cares?
All I really care about is getting out of here. But because I’m only fifteen and a sophomore, it’s not like I have a lot of power or control over my life or anything. Mama and Daddy are the ones who pull the strings—which I guess makes me a puppet, something I really hate. And they’re old too, Mama and Daddy. Mama was already around forty when she had me, so now she’s like already past her midfifties, and Daddy turned sixty this past summer. We had a party for him. But here’s the thing: they were always old. I mean, like, ever since I can even remember they were old. Maybe they’re the kind of people who were born old, so they were old even when they were young, if you know what I mean. That’s not the same thing as an old soul, which people have told me is something I am, and I always take it as a compliment—because I like the sound of it.
I have an older brother too—Dwight. He’s eight years older than me and lives in Atlanta. I don’t think he liked it too much when I came along. I mean, I was always like a thorn in his side, like I annoyed him or something—not exactly the kind of big brother a guy hopes for.
Dwight is like them—our parents, I mean. We’re practically opposites. He’s a businessman already, at twenty-three! I couldn’t even tell you what he does for a living because I find it so boring that I can’t pay attention for very long whenever he talks about it, which is just about all the time. I mean, I practically fall asleep it’s so boring. And he’s religious like them too, which I definitely am not. In fact, after many battles, I won the war of not having to go to church with them on Sunday morning anymore.
Mama is knocking on the bathroom door now.
“Mama! Can a guy have a little privacy?”
I hear her sigh as she says, “I just want you to know that you can talk to me.” And after a beat or two, she adds, “Anytime.” Then she backs off, and I can hear her walk away.
Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say, the gist of it, is that it sucks being me here. I don’t know how it happened, really. I was just born here. And if there was ever anything to prove the nonexistence of God! I mean, if there really was a God, he—or she—wouldn’t have been so mean as to put somebody like me here, would they? And this is where Mama and Daddy and my brother and I disagree. They’re like, hardcore born-again Christians, and I’m a proud atheist. It’s made for some tense times at the dinner table. But I just don’t see how any intelligent person could believe in God at this point in history, you know? I mean, with everything that’s happened in the world—like the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent tsunamis, just for a few examples.
I CAN hear Mama in the kitchen, obviously beginning dinner preparations. I figure the coast is clear, and so I make a beeline for my room.
I throw myself on my bed and continue musing. I wouldn’t mind having somebody to talk to, but I don’t know anyone like me here in Vermillion, at least not anyone my age. And for sure I don’t see anybody who looks like me. I’m kind of tall and very skinny and also really pale. But here’s the capper—Ha! capper—my hair is red. And I’m not talking like a subdued, dark-almost-brown kind of red, but an orange-red, like a flame or a carrot. It’s naturally this way. One of the things that I get called is Matchstick, because they say I look like one. And that’s about the nicest thing I get called. All the other things the kids at school call me, well….
See, I am gay. I’ve known it for a long time. And that’s really not a cool thing to be in Vermillion, Georgia—or a lot of other places, for that matter. So you can imagine, I get called a lot of other names too, like faggot, which I really hate. It’s kind of almost as bad as the N word to me. I’ve been harassed enough times to make a book, and sometimes it’s gotten physical too, like today. But it’s not like I can change, or that I have a choice. As far as I know, this is who and what I am, and I’ve just got to deal with it. And really, I honestly don’t have a problem with it, and I know that there are places in the world where it’s not really a problem either, but this is not one of those places. As for where Vermillion is, it’s way in the southwest corner of the state—the “butt of Georgia” as some people say.
Sometimes it feels as though the universe is playing a cruel joke on me, putting me here. But maybe it’s one of those trial-by-fire things. Also, there’s that saying “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” And I guess I am, very slowly, getting stronger. I think it would help if I had a friend. Even just one. Well, I do have one, sort of, but he’s not really a friend. Not really. That’s Patrick. I’m not really ready to talk about him just yet. Maybe later.
I spend a lot of time thinking about Cole McWhorter. He’s this old guy that works downtown at his family’s flower shop, which they started about a hundred years ago. Like me, Cole was born here, and he’s lived here all his life, poor guy. As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m out of here. Anyway, downtown is like a ghost town, like the land that time forgot. There’s his family’s flower shop, a couple of businesses—a law office and one that involves crunching numbers, like my brother Dwight does, and there’s a video store. The old Ritz Theatre is boarded up, has graffiti all over it, and looks really shitty, most of its glass blocks chipped and broken. The marquee’s still there, but it’s always empty, which looks really sad, like a mind with no thoughts. There’s Johnston’s Drugs, and Mr. D’s diner, and that’s about it.
Cole lives with his mama, who’s about eighty years old—just the two of them together in that old house on Elm. You see them out together all the time. He’s taken care of her ever since his daddy died nine years ago. His brothers and sisters are scattered all over the country. But here’s the thing, if the kids at school think I’m bad, Cole is what’s called “flaming.” I mean, he is just so obviously gay that there can be absolutely no doubt about it at all. He has frosted hair and wears pink and lavender and lots of pastel-colored shirts, and he’s always wearing a lot of jewelry too—rings and jangly bracelets and necklaces. He calls everybody “hon” and “darling” and “baby,” and he just doesn’t make any bones about it, which I think is pretty cool, you know? But it’s gotten him into a lot of trouble too.
About thirty-five years ago or so, the story goes, he went to this bar on the outskirts of town—the place isn’t even there anymore. It was torn down and then combined with some other land to make way for the Walmart that’s just off the highway now. Anyway, Cole went to this dive bar, and they say he had quite a lot to drink, but who really knows, and well, he got beaten up really badly. Of course, the men involved later said that he made advances toward them and all that, but who knows the real truth since that’s what men always say, isn’t it? I mean, that’s what those two guys who killed Matthew Shepard said, which, to somebody’s credit, we studied in American history. I guess they say it because, whether it’s true or not, they think that it somehow justifies beating the hell out of and even killing somebody they think is gay.
So here’s the even sadder fact, Cole hasn’t been the same since. I mean, he’s not quite right in the head. He’s kind of simple now, but sweet. I mean, real sweet, almost too sweet. It’s practically sickening how sweet he is. They say he’s a lot like his mama was when she was younger, before she turned mean with age. Like syrupy sweet.
Cole’s story is just another example of how dangerous Vermillion is. Especially for me, because I am who I am. And yet this is something that Mama and Daddy don’t really know or get, because though they may wonder (which I sort of doubt), they don’t even know that I’m gay—or at least that’s not a discussion we’ve ever had and probably never will have. I think they’d probably banish me or excommunicate me or something like that if they knew. Especially Daddy. Over the years, whenever Mama or Daddy mention having run into Cole, Daddy will always talk with a lisp or flick his wrist like it’s real limp, or he’ll coo in this soft, feminine voice about how Cole is sooo good to his mama and all, which is what everybody in town says, like it’s a code. And I know what they’re really saying and what Daddy’s doing, and so does Mama, but she always titters anyway. It’s a kind of betrayal.
All of this makes me feel that I can’t trust my own parents, and it just adds to how much I want to get out of here, which is so bad that sometimes I think I’m going to climb right out of my skin. On a day-to-day level, this place is dull, a gray-brown town. But it’s also a red-orange, violent town—and that’s my life. It’s hot too, and the sun is relentless, and maybe that’s the reason, or one of the reasons, that I like rain so much. For one thing you’re more protected when it rains; you’re not out there under the glaring, brutal sun for all the world to see, whether you use an umbrella or not. But also, it’s cool and it’s peaceful and beautiful, and that’s the kind of place I want to move to as soon as I can, someplace like Vancouver, B.C., or Portland, Oregon, or Seattle. Those places, to me, are blue-green.
My problem is how to get from here to there.