Keegan Lawler

The Bench

We’re all visiting the MFA program, coming from all over the country, but I’m perhaps the most at home. Coming from places like Chicago, Louisville, and Los Angeles, the other prospective students ask what they could possibly do in such a small town.

The people around me are all nice, but I’m not good in groups of mostly strangers, and feel my body shrinking. I recede behind their conversations, watching their words travel over and around me to one another. We sit in a tiny vegetarian restaurant in Laramie, Wyoming drinking watered down ice tea in thick plastic cups.

One of the older students sitting with us offers his advice, “If you can’t survive without it, there’s a Trader Joe’s an hour away, and a Whole Foods within two!”

I bite my tongue. I can be bitter and cutting when around bourgeois people and am desperate not to make a bad impression on fellow writers. I hold back all the things I want to say: how Laramie feels like a city to me, how I was a drive away from any grocery store.

After watching the clock slip forward fifteen, twenty, then thirty minutes, I decide to take my leave. We have a few hours of free time and I feel the need to be alone. I stand up from the table and tell everyone I’ll be back in the afternoon. One of the professors catches me on my way out, “Where are you heading?”

I tell him back to campus and he offers to walk with me. It’s only a few blocks back, but it’s only a few blocks to anything here. He walks me over the cracked pavement crosswalks as the yellow turn signals blink on and off.

The professor is a sweet man. His small, round glasses sitting perched on the end of his nose, like a bartender in old western flicks. He tells me he’s lived here for three decades. He never planned on being here so long, but he had kids, the kids got used to the community, and well, thirty years later here he is with me.

We pass the signs welcoming us to campus when he breaks the small talk, “Just to the library?”

“I’m actually looking for a monument,” I tell him, then show him the map I pulled up on my phone.

He lifts his glasses and squints his eyes on it. Then, realizing where I’m headed, he hands the phone back.

“You know, I was here when it happened. Head of the Universalist Church,” I nod and follow him down the concrete path he’s pointed out. We come to a large grassy patch where a group of freshmen play kickball.

“The problem,” he continues, “was the media just descended here. They took a terrible incident and made us all out as homophobic cowboys.”

“That’s not fair,” I tell him.

“Well,” he says, “I mean it was obviously some of that. Would be lying if I said it wasn’t. The problem was the attention pushed many of the townsfolk deeper into it. The homophobia I mean.”

We cross the field, watching for loose rubber balls flying towards us. He points out the Arts and Sciences building and together we look for a monument. “It does say it’s here right?” he asks.

There aren’t any statues or large concrete structures to be seen. We step up to a platform just below the entrance and only see a few benches scattered in a concrete area just before the steps to the building. Stepping towards one of the benches, I find a small plaque nailed to the wooden backing of the bench. “It’s right here,” I tell him.

The professor walks over and recognizes it with me. We stand in solidarity for a second, each unsure of what to do. I tell him I’ll probably just sit and read for a few minutes. We shake hands.

“Hope to see you here in the fall,” he says. I nod and smile back at him. A small snow berm sits on the ground before the bench. It’s mostly dry now, as we’re in the small window of spring they get in Wyoming, but the shadow cast by the brick wall behind the bench keeps the snow thriving. When I sit down, I let my feet settle into the coldness. Someone left a few flowers here. Their petals are brittle to my touch, but they can’t be more than two weeks old. It’s more recognition than I thought a twenty-year-old murder would get.

I look back at the plaque for dates. 1976-1998. It’s been exactly twenty years. I look up his birthday on Wikipedia. He was two months from his twenty-second birthday. I just turned twenty-two. I’ve made it farther than he did. This makes me start to cry. Don’t be so emotional, I tell myself, he’d be closer to your Dad’s age than yours.

I bite my cheek to try and calm my sobs. I don’t want the kickball players to hear me, part of the ancient fear of being discovered with feelings as a boy. I don’t want someone to come and console me either. I just need a minute, I hear myself saying to them.

The picture they use on his Wikipedia page gives him an angelic look. He leans against a window and the sunlight shines through his blonde hair. He’s beautiful, I think. His beauty makes me cry even harder. I’m such a faggot, I chuckle to myself. I can’t help but feel drawn to him. He was a Wyoming faggot, I an Idaho faggot. Our states touch. They drug him out to a fence and beat him to death. I stayed closeted for the same threats of violence.

I stopped believing in God a while ago, but the routine and ceremony of prayer still feel natural to me. I do not clasp my hands to be obvious, but start an inner monologue, talking to myself, hoping something of it makes it to him: Did you have crushes on the same straight boys? Did they tell you they hated faggots, too? Did they ask to be touched by you, but never want to touch you back?

Sitting on the bench, I run my fingers over the raised letters in his plaque. Matthew Wayne Shepard, December 1, 1976- October 12, 1998, Beloved Son, Brother, and Friend, He continues to make a difference, Peace be with him and all who sit here. I ask Matthew for that peace.

They performed The Laramie Project at the local community college when I was in high school. The Westboro Baptist church showed up with their usual signs: Fags burn in hell! God Hates Fags! Some locals, including some from my hometown, showed up with signs of their own: May there be many more Matt Shepards!

I don’t know what I came to this memorial for, but felt it was my duty. The poster child for anti-queer violence, I suppose many queers feel connected to him, but I wanted to pay my respects. If nothing else to show him we rural queers can survive now.

I open my eyes and get up from the bench, ending the closest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. I don’t know how much time has passed, but decide I should get up and head back to the MFA group downtown. Someone else might need it.

Keegan Lawler, a born-a-raised Idahoan, now calls the Washington Coast home. His essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in Cascadia Rising Review and the Trestle Creek Review.

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