October Thirteenth: Closets, the way things were and the way things are

Ryan Heller
I have been silent. I have listened to other people tell me what I should write. I have smiled. Felt strength then debilitating weakness. A revolving door continues to rotate, to cycle like a merry-go-round of new opportunity, loss of life, resilience, barricades. Children, surrounded by children, surrounded by grown adolescence. Premature bullshit and I find myself slipping into the tornado. I step closer to the canyon edge, the tipping point before an evolution. Or revolution at https://pokebud.co/. A precipice burning hot to feel the pain, learn from pain, before wings spread and boys fly high.

I have waited. Sometimes patiently. Sometimes. And energy attracts like energy so they gather. They circulate, gravitate toward.
One step back. One foot.
One foot back.
Slow. Steady.
But they push forward. A crescent moon borders my body as I step back on desert sand. Closer.
Closer to the edge.
One. Two. Three.
Vultures, ravenous and focused on blood. On feeding. Eyes yellow and bright, talons extend from fingers outstretched. Mosquitos. Bloodsuckers. Ravens.
I stumble. Feet kick up sand that mists and disintegrates.
One foot back.
The Grand fucking Canyon. The unknown below.


* * * * *


I was about six when I first began to hide in my bedroom closet. It was the Birchwood townhouse, what is now a nostalgic sanctuary. My father’s suits lined the interior, creating a thick forest of pressed cotton and gray tweed in which to disappear.

His smell filled the narrow, dark space. A scent that was deep and comforting, musky, sweet. It was overwhelming, intoxicating because it was home. An early reminder of home.

I crawled behind suits, past jacket arms, shiny buttons and pleated pants. Sat directly behind the wall of clothing and shut the aluminum folding door behind me. Light dimly filtered in from a row of slats in the panel, otherwise I was swallowed in a blanket of darkness.

I took the daughter of a family friend in the closet with me once and persuaded her to make out. My first kiss. I felt dirty, that I had done something awful. But bad felt good, even then. A future foreshadowed.

She was a year younger, so I guess around five or so. I was overcome with excitement, with confusion and questions. The rush of doing something in secret, hidden in shadow, was exhilarating. Blood raced and pulsed through my little body in a way it never had before. A six-year-old Casanova, I was not. A budding Jekyll and Hyde, however, seemed promising. I liked hiding. I liked pretending. Secrets made me feel strong, special. Like I had something no one else did.

But I quickly came to realize that once the adrenaline subsided, once the rush faded to awareness, I was met with something else. Something that felt like a tiny hot dagger being pressed into my gut. It was a feeling that I would grow to understand well, one that would eventually develop the beautiful complexity of crystallized molecules and shape my inner dialogue for decades.


My earliest memory of guilt, of feeling ashamed. And I ruminated over what I had done. I feared anyone finding out. Feared she would tell her parents of our momentary closet romance. So I did what came natural, an involuntary action almost as organic to my being as breathing. I stuffed it and pretended nothing happened. I convinced myself it wasn’t real. That if my parents confronted me about our rendezvous, she clearly would have made the whole thing up.

But each time our family got together, I was met with two invisible hands around my neck. The tell tale heart beating feverishly beneath floorboards waiting to expose our indiscretions.

I carried that guilt in my pocket, guarding myself from forming a friendship with her because it was all too embarrassing. Months, years began to pass and still I held on to that seed of guilt, wondering if she had told her parents. If it was already understood that I was a deviant, a child gone astray.

Sometime after, I found my father’s Penthouse magazine in the den closet. It was the first and last time I ever saw a caged vagina greeting an erect penis through steel bars. A zoo themed photograph much more engaging than, say, The Jungle Book or Curious George Goes to the Zoo. My intrigue peaked and I occasionally visited that magazine until it’s mysterious disappearance.

But guilt sprouted and branched. My growing curiosity matched a quickly expanding list of secrets. Of things I knew to hide even as a child. Because no one could know that I stole a Rainbow Bright doll from my Kindergarten class. Or that I bit my own arm then blamed it on AJ because he was mean and I wanted to get him in trouble. The guidance counselor knew, my teacher knew the truth. My cohort already confessed to our false accusations, but I chose to stay firm. Stick to my story. So while the other kids participated in an elementary school marathon, I hid inside a plastic playhouse in the classroom after realizing I had been caught. A liar. And as the other kids filtered in with little McDonalds chicken nugget figurine prizes after the event, I knew that my lie had kept me from gaining something. From joining my peers and being rewarded. Instead I was hiding in the kitchen of a plastic house, pretending I was somewhere else. Running. Hiding.

It was in my closet where I felt safe. A confined, small, dark space that isolated me from anyone else. Where no one could find me. Where secrets hid behind coats and hangers.

Once I hit puberty and began to grow facial hair, I was too ashamed of my blossoming manhood to ask my father how to shave. So I found a disposable razor, handheld mirror and travel sized shaving cream from their bathroom then proceeded to teach myself how to shave. I was petrified of them finding out, that I was facing these changes and transformations. I saw myself as a child, as the little boy who was meant to be my parent’s baby. Not a young adult with rapidly developing peach fuzz and an onset of dark hair sprouting up in strange places. I cleaned my face and immediately hid all traces of evidence in a dead space above the wall unit in my bedroom.

No one would know.

I kept quiet about shaving. But that heart beat faster, louder this time. Until the day dad found my stash and asked me what was going on. Ashamed. Embarrassed. I was not supposed to be changing. It was like losing myself; the boy I knew was fading and I would fight it till the bitter end. Because losing that childhood, these signs of growth, was shameful. I was the baby. The only child. The special little boy. Hair on my face, physical changes, was a loss of that innocence.

So I told my father that I used the razor to remove hair on my toe. That I most certainly was not shaving my face. And that is how we left it.

I thought I had one up on him, fooled him. He let me believe that. When really I think he just didn’t quite know what to make of me yet.

As years passed I found myself deeper in denial, in the darkness and solitude of my closet. I began to experiment with drugs and sneak boys in my room through the window. Walking blind down a path of sexual experimentation, of discovering myself. Music, books, art. Unraveling the tightly wound chords that defined me, binding myself more in some respects while loosening other knots along the way. Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson became a shield of armor, a badge of cool. Flannel shirts, horror movies, witchcraft. My strategic interests snowballed and isolated me more, further into a world created by fear, doubt and need. The need for acceptance. For serenity. For love. A world crafted of stories and fantasy, supernatural and discovery.

The very back of my closet became a sanctuary. Lined with band posters, pillows positioned on the floor, a flashlight, books, my journal. I nested behind a long row of jackets and boxes in the far reaches of a dark corner, out of sight. Where I heard the voices of my parents, but it was a distant hum. Another universe altogether. I was safe, hidden.

And that became a metaphor for so many things in my life, closeted. Closeted sexuality. Running from confrontation. Escaping fear. Burying secrets. Isolating from people. Finding my dark crawl space, whether a literal nest in a closet or a figurative mental fortress. I sought refuge, cut and run whenever life showed up. I wanted to find the deepest depth, farthest far I could till it felt like I didn’t exist.

Like no one would remember me.
Like I could just… disappear.


* * * * *


Today was Chris’ grandmothers funeral. A cold, hazy morning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Light, delicate drops of rain misted through the air like dew grazing the earth. Family rolled in and entered the Mennonite church, scattered at first then eventually a steady on pour of guests.

Outside in the parking lot a few of his cousins gathered with their children, red faced and somber. The echo of silent sobs still trailing their tear-lined cheeks. Shelly wore a purple felt flower in her hair with a long purple coat accented by a silver angel pin. Each item belonged to their grandmother. Each item worn with intention.

We migrated together in a sort of circle, surrounded by several cars and a wall of trees. The chill forced my hands into my pockets as I shifted from side to side. The anti-Florida weather and my awkward disposition around mourners made for an uncomfortable stance as we began making light talk back and forth.

Shelly pulled Chris aside and looked him in the eyes.

“I’m just so happy we are all together,” she said softly. “And that you are here. It’s been so good to have you around for the holidays these last few years.” Her gaze was fixed on his, eyes glassy and loving. Voice trembling, but strong with purpose.

Chris stiffened ever so slightly. His body tensed in a way only I would notice. On our way to the church he expressed regret for having missed many years with this side of his family. I knew Shelly’s words were sinking into his core, seeping quickly through his blood stream with a warmth that combatted the external cold.

“You went away for some time, Chris. You were going through whatever you went through. But we are so happy to have you back in our lives.” She took his hands and pulled him close, wrapping her arms around his torso.

Chris’ body softened with her embrace. He needed to hear those words. I watched as a wall crumbled around Chris, a sky-high shell he constructed after years of self doubt, of feeling out of place.

“You are very special to us.” Her eyes teared as she nodded her head to say, I love you.

Like watching a glacier melt, I saw a weight drop from his shoulders. He was filled with a love, with an acceptance that he silently longed for. From a family that held so much symbolism in his life. The only connection to his deceased father, his bloodline. He was tapping into a strength that had been lost over the years.

I saw my partner, my twin, let go.
His closet open.
And in that moment, Chris found another piece to his puzzle.


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