by Arnaldo Batista
The rise of Jimmy Carter. An idyllic liberal nation breathes Nixon’s Watergate. The Dirty War rages between America and Mexico against uprising Marxist-Leninists and the poor. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins Best Picture at the 48th Academy Awards. The Steves founded the Apple Computer company. The queer two-dollar bill is put back into circulation as legal tender. Lebanese civil war rages between Christians and Muslims. Americans evacuate hundreds to Syria after the US ambassador is killed. Disco rages. A young Drew Barrymore parties with Truman Capote, Cher, and David Bowie in Studio 54 in New York City. Matthew Shepard is born.
Civil war in Rwanda, American silence. On a call to repair security lights, the electrician Gary T. Smith finds Kurt Cobain dead by a self-inflicted gunshot. Somewhere, a gay boy is mugged. America bombs Bosnia to inhibit ethnic cleansing of Slavs. Nancy Kerrigan is bludgeoned by Tonya Harding’s boyfriend. Somewhere, a gay boy is beaten. President Bill Clinton delivers his first State of the Union address. Nixon is found dead in his home. Jackie Kennedy dies from cancer. Somewhere, a gay boy is raped. Tupac Shakur is shot to death in a hotel lobby in New York City. Alt-rock explodes. Somewhere, a gay boy is left for dead. I am born.
Matthew learns new words this year: nāranj, for orange; sukr, for sugar. Matthew notices there is no true translation for the word faggot in Arabic; instead, queers are called luttiye, something about Lot’s righteous stay in Sodom.
In Saudi Arabia, Matthew learns how long to look at Saudi men before they get suspicious—here, the men hold hands in the street; here, the men kiss each other’s cheeks— if they suspect, he understands the crime.
Matthew thrusts forward, sneaking glimpses at the corner café, sneaking looks at the pool, sneaking looks at the bazaar, counting, and counting, one… two…
At the hot spring, Matthew stares too long. A pair of American boys catch him, rough him up, call him fag, throw stones at him, leave him in a gutter. Matthew watches them leave.
During my eighth-grade year, my father kidnaps me, holds me hostage in Brazil for a year.
During this time, I disprove the Coriolis effect of toilets: in Brazil, shit will go down clockwise, counterclockwise, repeatedly, or not at all, no matter where I sit—shit, or no shit. Shit is now merda. Fuck is now porra. No is a nasal não. Faggot is viado. Being gay is a deadly sin.
Portuguese becomes a way of life, it invades me like an Ottoman, changes the way I walk, changes how I love, changes who I love. In Brazilian English class, they teach me British: colour, grey, aluminium, lift, crisps. I learn new ways to buy bread and milk. When someone calls me fag, I say Não, porra.
To escape my kidnapping, my mother plans our own kidnapping. That is to say, she plans to hire a man to stage our abduction. An abduction within a kidnapping. A Matryoshka doll of kidnappings.
Before this, my mother, sister, and I tried reaching the American embassy to say we were American citizens. The Americans responded, prove it. We couldn’t.
In the red dirt of Goiânia, we plotted our escape. It would happen after school. A man would publicly zip tie my wrists together, throw me into his car, and drive off. Somehow, we would grab hold of paper in the barn we imagined would be our new prison, somehow find envelopes in the thrush of some farm, somehow find the stamps, somehow find a mailbox, somehow find a pen with which to address the letter.
The day it was to happen, I remember being called a faggot in school. The day it was to happen, one of the boys at school threatened to kidnap me. The day it was to happen, my mother called the school to let me know the plan was off.
In his senior year of high school, Matthew Shepard travels with friends to Marrakesh. He is seventeen, just a little over five feet tall, 100 pounds. He barters in the bazaar in the French he learned in Switzerland, acquiescing every time, defeated. During the day, he goes to the beach, gets sunburned, listens to glam rock or Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. He takes a siesta around midday, eats turkey clubs, reads Vonnegut or Salinger. When he gets tipsy, Matthew recites Laura’s lines in The Glass Menagerie by heart: I can’t go outside these walls. There’s just too much pain! I can feel everyone staring at me—staring at this…
At night, Matthew parties hard. Wears tank tops and short shorts. Stuffs a handkerchief in his back pocket but doesn’t know which one or which color means what to whom. He does it anyway. He goes to night clubs—the gay underground—and drinks and drinks, dances and dances, rages on and on.
One night, Mathew leaves before sunrise. A trio of men corner him, mug him, beat him, rape him, leave him.
I download Grindr. The gay world opens up to me. Bears, twinks, masc4mascs, ParTy, Tina, ecstasy, tops, bottoms, verses, no femmes types, no Asians types, CDs (Cross-Dressers), DLs (Down-Lows).
At the swipe of a finger, sex is instantly available.
My first hookup with a man is with Tom. He’s in his fifties, handsome, beefy, strong. Tom lives in the suburbs, can afford a three-story home all by himself, decorates the walls with photographs of Bettie Page and Madonna studded with Swarovski crystals.
How the walls glittered.
My stomach flutters, my body turns clammy. Tom is beautiful, cool. Tom is the James Dean of middle-aged gay men. He ends every sentence with a rasp and crooked smile. I am eighteen and in love.
He positions me in front of him, and I remind him about condoms. He reminds me that sex is better without. I remind him about STDs. He reminds me that sex is better without, pushing into me with a rasp and a crooked smile. I tell him no, to put on a condom. He says no, sex is better without.
Tom takes me, fills me.
Matthew is twenty-one.
Matthew is blonde-haired, blue-eyed.
Matthew is five foot two, 120 pounds.
Matthew is HIV-positive.
Matthew is a voice in his college GSA.
Matthew enjoys the detriments and the quirks of being gay; cruising, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the gay lisp, the bullying, the rape, Dolly Parton, the AIDS epidemic and Ronald Reagan, the gay nightlife, the community, the AIDS epidemic and George Bush Sr., being a friend of Judy’s, the Wizard of Oz, the AIDS epidemic and Bill Clinton, Keith Haring, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Studio 54, the gay life in Berlin, the code-switching, how in Arabic there is no word for fag but instead to call someone a fag they call them Lut.
Matthew is well-traveled, can speak English, French, and Arabic.
Matthew is a college student, plans to earn his degree in foreign services.
Matthew enjoys the night scene; having a drink, talking about the detriments and the quirks of being gay, going to bars, having another drink, identifying if a man is interested in him or not, counting the seconds of a held gaze, having another drink, singing karaoke, having another drink.
Matthew is naïve.
Matthew trusts too easily.
I invest in black patent leather mid-calf eight-inch tall high-heeled boots.
I become a club kid.
No one can walk on cobble in heels like I can. No one is taller than me.
I go to Wynwood on Thursdays in black diamond fishnets. Sometimes I wear a belted black oversized leather blazer and nothing under. Once, I dressed as Judy Garland as she dressed to sing “Get Happy.” Once, I dressed as Lucille Ball, sweetheart neckline and all.
I drink and I dance, and I drink, and I dance.
I ignore the men who call me a fag.
I drink and I dance. I tip the drag queens at the bar.
I follow men into bathroom stalls.
I pay the tab.
One night, walking to my car, a man shoves me, spits on me, calls me faggot.
I walk away, silent. Turning the ignition, I remove my high heels.
Before the wedding. Before my father stood before the crowd to tell everyone in his cocaine-filled stupor that he was proud of me for finding a man like the man I found. Before the shoving of cake into mouths. Before the fumbling dance we crab-stepped to Edith Piaf. Before the wine toasts. Before the ritual sacrifice of bachelordom. Before I forgot my vows and said Fuck! Fuck!
Before everything, I got drunk. Next-level wasted. Vomited and puked. Thrashed myself into the hospital two hours before we built those rock cairns at the altar, me stacking just two before the whole thing crashed down, tumbling.
I marry Elia on Valentine’s Day. It is a freezing day in Asheville. Marriage is legal. Lavender blooms.
Our minister is my sister Lissa, the notary public. Our witnesses, some twenty-odd folks, my mother and father, Elia’s sister, my high school friends, his college friends. We are married beside the Little River, the river which runs through northwest North Carolina.
We ask the guests to write us suggestions for our honeymoon. We wrap a rainbow stole over our wrists while we exchange rings. We take turns building rock cairns beside the river. We say, I do. We kiss.
I kick up a leg because I saw it in a movie once.
Elia is a Lebanese queer man. He has spent more time hiding his gayness than he has learning to love it. His parents don’t know about our wedding.
Somehow, our ceremony makes top news in his hometown. Somehow, his cousin got a hold of our wedding photos, sent them to news agencies. Somehow, this is what makes the news in Lebanon.
Elia’s parents hear about their son’s wedding through the radio, through headlines, through second cousins, through strangers. “Zahlé-Born in Gay Relationship with an American.”
Before we can spend our honeymoon together, we must sort through all the death threats.
It is said Matthew had an airy laugh, contagious, melodic. Some kid had wanted a ride home.
It is said that Matthew always smiled. Mm, like a queer. Such a queer dude.
It is said Matthew always had the time to listen, to talk, to strangers or to friends. Yeah, like a fag, y’know?
It is said Matthew and McKinney were long-time friends. I don’t know what the hell he was trying to do, but I beat him up pretty bad.
It is said Matthew drank a lot, but Matthew would say it was only to have some fun. Pretty bad.
It is said that Matthew paid for a round of his friends’ drinks. Twenty bucks.
It is said Matthew had an airy laugh, like a flute. Real feminine voice.
It is said Matthew smiled. I kinda thought he mighta been a faggot, but all he really did was ask for a ride home.
It is said Matthew had the time. I hid it somewhere.
It is said Matthew learned the hard way to say no. After he kept asking me to stop and most of all he was doing was screaming.
It is known Matthew was as gay as they come. Think I killed him.
I visit Matthew’s memorial in Laramie, Wyoming. On the way over, I tell my husband about his case in court, how his murderers introduced the term “gay panic” as a viable defense, how murdering someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation was still not considered a hate crime in Wyoming, how it failed when Wyoming tried to pass this as a hate crime the first time around, how it was only considered a hate crime the second time it went through state legislation.
I walked with my husband through the University of Wyoming’s frozen winter campus, followed signs to the Arts and Sciences building, past “The World Needs More Unyielding Courage” signs, past the Criminal Justice and Sociology building. All I had to guide me was a photo of what the memorial looked like in the summer, when there wasn’t two feet of snow hiding it all, so it took us longer than expected to come to it. Matthew’s memorial is a bench, his name on a plaque. I wiped the snow from each bench I came across until I found his, his plaque frosted over in ice, the bench smattered with rainbow flowers preserved from his December birthday in the frost.
I like to imagine if Matthew were alive, he would have spoken at my wedding reception. Matthew would bring his own rhinestone champagne glass with matching rhinestone champagne bottle. Matthew would get trashed, tell Elia and me how good we have it, make a toast to RuPaul, to Truvada, to federal protections. Matthew would wake up hungover and lead-footed, still finding the energy to bust open another bottle of rhinestone champagne to celebrate. I would ask him, what now?
I like to imagine his response: his laugh, airy, and bright.
Arnaldo Batista is a queer poet and editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. He is pursuing his MFA in poetry at Florida International University, where he writes poems about his queer identity, his husband, and the politics of the Florida environment. His work has been published by the Arlington Journal, the Journal of Critical Latina Feminism, [PANK], and has been short-listed for C&R Press’s 2021 Nonfiction Prize, among others.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • June 2023
Header image by CodeEP.