My best friend in Junior High was May. We originally became friends because she and my friend Curt were dating and she wanted advice about their relationship. Long after they fizzled as a couple, May and I spent HOURS every day talking on the phone. She liked to talk and I liked to listen. As seventh grade turned into eighth, ninth and then tenth, one of the things we sometimes did at school was to pass notes. This was something she always initiated and I would reply. Mostly I was not into note writing but there was one time when I took the initiative.
Early in the school year of tenth grade, I had my first major boy crush. Looking back, it was really stupid. I didn't even know the guy. I had never spoken to him. I had never had him in a class. He wasn't friends with any of my friends. I didn't even know anyone who knew him well.
What attracted me to Shawn was that he was very good looking. That, and if I could have been someone else, I wanted to be him. I imagined him to be a great guy and within a month's time I was very infatuated. I also imagined that he could be gay because I had not seen him with a girl even though he was extremely good looking.
As the time worn on and no girlfriend appeared, I became increasingly anxious. I decided that I either needed to forget about him or do something that might further my chances with him. Ultimately I decided to write him an anonymous note.
I don't remember exactly what I said in the note but I do know that it was not overtly sexual. Mostly I wrote about "wanting to be close friends." Whatever I said doesn't really matter because the whole idea was stupid. I did not put my name in the note but I did give a description of myself.
I wrote the note one night in late October and devised a simple plan to deliver it. After school when the hallways were empty I would slyly slip the note into his locker. This way it would be delivered directly to him and no one would see me.
I was nervous throughout the next day but when it was time to quickly fish the note out of my pocket and put it into his locker my hands were really shaking. Even getting the note into the locker was an unexpected struggle. It was folded and I really had to cram it into the locker vent to get it in.
Relieved when my mission was successfully accomplished I put my shaking hands into my pocket and started to walk away. But what piece of paper was folded in my pocket? Dreading the possibility, I quickly unfolded the paper I had just found. Oh my god! I put the WRONG note into the locker! Stunned, annoyed and somewhat panicked I paused for a fraction of a second and then spontaneously decided to cram the correct note into Shawn's locker.
Less than a minute later I was inspecting Shawn's locker to see if there was any way I could retrieve either of the notes. I could not.
The first note I had stuffed was a reply to a note May had written me. Thankfully this note did not have either of our names on it but it did have the names of a few of our friends. I carefully thought through the contents of the two notes. Was it possible that Shawn would know it was me who wrote to him? Yes, I decided it was possible. By putting the information in the two notes together he could guess that it was me. But, he would not know for sure.
The next day nothing happened. Nor the next. Nor the one after that. Whatever instruction I left for Shawn to reply to me was not followed. I took this as a sign that I had no hope of any kind of an intimate friendship with hot, sweet Shawn. I was disappointed but the perceived rejection did reduce the intensity of my crush.
On the way to third period on Halloween Day, I finally received a reply from Shawn's note. My friend Daryl and I were stopping at our lockers for the first time that day. As we approached, I could see that something was written in large capital letters across my locker. In stunned horror I realized that the word was "FAG". I could feel the hate all the better because the word was written in bright red blood.
My life changed in that moment.
Writing that note to Shawn was my first tentative step out of the closet. The mistake with the wrong note put me out there far more than I intended. And, if I could have taken either note back at the time I would have. I was not ready to be out to any one unless I knew they liked me. I was also unprepared for the brutal slap of "FAG" when it came. Because so many days had passed, my guard was down. And the way the word was written made it stick like a knife in my soul. Large block letters. Blood.
Seeing that word on my locker pushed me deeper into the closet. It also made me feel utterly isolated, hated and entirely separated from every one else on the planet. I took the slur very personally and it hit me hard.
Daryl was completely unfazed. He laughed and that was all the thought he ever put into it.
I had one other response from Shawn's letter and it may have brought pain or joy but I will never know. A week or two after Halloween, a guy called me and asked "did you write a note to Shawn Morris?" Although he sounded nervous, the way he said "Shawn Morris" made it clear that he had read the note. That was how I addressed it. Forced to make another instant decision, I debated for about 8 milliseconds whether the caller was a friend or foe. Although my gut told me 'friend' I could not take the chance so I replied, "Uh. No." He said "OK" and then hung up.
Nothing further came of Shawn's note. And quite thankfully, Shawn and I never crossed paths in high school---although I did have one conversation with him 6 months after I graduated. It was December and I had just come home from college so I decided to visit some high school friends and teachers. My primary hang-out after school was the student activities office so that was one of my stops. Holy shit but if it wasn't Shawn Morris sitting like a king in the center of the room, holding court with several of my friends. The guy had never once set foot in the room during my time there. I said hello to my friends but, as he and I had never spoken before, I didn't address him. Then, quite to my surprise, he took control of the conversation and asked me a series of questions about life in college. What's it like? Are there parties all the time? Etc, etc. It was an unbelieveable challenge to answer his questions while looking him the eye and not appear to be in a compete panic. By the fourth question I was certain his quiz was entirely intended to torture me. But then he stopped, apparently satisfied with my answers. I talked a short while longer with my friends, said goodbye and saw the stud Shawn Morris for the very last time.
As painful as the conversation with Shawn was, it made me feel better about what I had done. Either he never realized that I was the guy who crushed on him two years prior, or, he didn't believe it was me, or, he didn't care. In fact, I wondered in the days following our chat if he had deliberately engaged me in the conversation because he wanted to show that he didn't hate my guts. But I truly never figured out what to make of it. It was all just so...normal...
Years later I realize that the profound horror of being publicly outed, and all the deep pain that I suffered as a result, was entirely self-inflicted. Instead of internalizing the hatred I saw from FAG written in blood I could have chosen to laugh, as Daryl did, and moved on. As I write about this I now wonder for the first time if my life would have been different if I had gotten a different response from the note. Suppose that no one vandalized my locker, but instead another scared, gay 15 year old decided to call me and ask if I had written Shawn Morris a note. Maybe I would have said yes and that scared boy and I would have developed a life-long bond of mutual support. Maybe the very first reaction you get when you come out is the most important and, positive or negative, it sets you on path many years into the future. Who knows? The one thing I do know is that the Shawn-Morris-note-fiasco marked the beginning of the the darkest time in my life.