Ryan Norman

Ryan Norman (he/him) is a queer writer from New York living in the Hudson Valley. Ryan enjoys swimming in mountain lakes and climbing tall things. He is a contributing editor of creative nonfiction with Barren Magazine. His work has appeared in From Whispers to Roars, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Black Bough Poetry, Hobart, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. His micro chapbook I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A BOND GIRL is forthcoming with The Daily Drunk (2021). You can find him on Twitter @RyanMGNorman or ryanmgnorman.com


Usually the orchard was all light, sunburn cooled by a welcome breeze, but not that day. Fog crept up from the river and swallowed every tree in its path, whetting its appetite for the too short grass that cut like blades, soaking the cicadas’ song. I sat on a cold cinder block and watched my boyfriend wash his car, questioning why he would shine it on such a gloomy day, but daring not to say it aloud. His phone rang and I looked at myself in the shiny apple red door. Winked. Shot some finger guns. Fell to the floor.“What are you doing? I have to go do something. Stay here,” he ordered.“I want to come. Where are you going? How long will you be gone?”“A deer’s trapped in a fence in the upper orchard. I have to kill it, or it’ll make a big hole in the fence, or break its neck.”“I’m coming.”

I didn’t know deer screamed until that day. I watched in awe, my eyes wet, standing at a distance from this huge creature, all muscle, as it screamed into the damp air. Thrashing wildly against an almost invisible wire fence, its antlers trapped, entangled with imminent death until finally all went quiet. I touched my forehead and pulled away sticky droplets on my fingertips. That welcome breeze returned, and my heart sank. I had never witnessed death, and never imagined I would. He told me the deer would be skinned, the meat eaten. Nothing would go to waste. But I sat in silence as the truck hurtled past trees into the thick of fog, uncomfortably aware that in the open bed lay a blood-soaked deer, jiggling stiffly with every pebble on the road. I imagined the process of preparing the deer for consumption, sliding a sharp knife between the skin and muscle. I knew some details. The indignity of it all. Hanging it by its hind feet to drain the blood, eyes wide open like black holes. But hadn’t I done the same? 

Descending the stairs in a southern New York lab, wearing clothes on top of clothes to keep out the formaldehyde—a sticky stench—entering a room with two dead bodies given to science. We were assigned a cadaver, a trick of the language to distance ourselves from the fact that we would be cutting into dead people with scalpels. Uncovering secrets. Naming muscles, veins, arteries. Draping white cloth for dignity. Digging into intercostal muscles with no breath sounds. A smell that hasn’t left me. And when the draping slipped, an image that hasn’t left me either. All that muscle. Exposed on a stainless-steel table. So much gray. Could I really judge my farmer boyfriend for killing a deer when I cut into a human? 

He had been offended by that lab as much as I was saddened by killing a trapped deer. He had told me to stay. Wasn’t it my own fault? But life carried on. Sadness blurred. Judgment faded. We went about our usual things, no hang ups. Trivia on Wednesdays, sunsets on the roof, cider on the porch watching the train rush by. Until we drunkenly ran through the woods one night, searching for a waterfall. We set up camp in a small clearing on the property of the orchard. A tent built for one. We stopped to eat over fire, a hunk of meat thrown onto a cast iron skillet. He fed me a small piece and it was nothing I recognized. I asked him what it was, and he asked, “Remember that deer?” And it tasted of pain and fear. It tasted of violence. I spat it out. 

The moon guided us to water, as she is wont to do, and the rushing sound plummeting past wet, slick stone drowned our voices. We left our clothes on the dirt embankment and swam in silver flecked streams, our bodies glowing green underwater and star white on top. I watched him there, standing in a warrior’s pose on an outcropping of rocks among the frothy water, drunk on apples, and admired every inch of his marble-carved body. Maybe I was drunk on apples, too. Everything began to wobble, so we went back to his tent. He laid down, just another naked body in the summer night, his skin still cold from the green river. The moon cast his skin gray as he laid there on a slab of earth, no modesty, just the thin floor of his tent. I covered his face with my palm, his breath heavy, fog caught in my lifeline, obscuring love, and lust; my tongue a scalpel plunging deep into him. I wondered at his muscles quaking with each scream, stealing the silence of the night until I was full.

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A sad poem picked me up at the train station. I missed my stop and he was annoyed that I wasn’t paying attention. It was my first time traveling alone. The day was long. I traveled two hours into Grand Central Station and had to get to Penn Station to catch the LIRR. This was before Waze and Google Maps. I was lost before I started, but there I was. Eighteen, standing in front of someone I met at college orientation. I melted in his eyes—already a puddle from five hours of train travel—making connections, walking in the summer subway halls, tile lined, the floors covered in hot piss. Finally, with a poem, torqued verse twisting my emotions. He connected his iPod to the car radio and serenaded me with, “Dirty Little Secret” by The All-American Rejects. It was 2005, can we fault him for his opening number? Later I would come to find out he meant it. “Who has to know?” A lyric to deflate my confidence.


The truth is, I was my own dirty little secret. I had only come out to friends at this point in my life. My cover story was going to Long Island to stay with a friend I met only a month earlier to visit the beaches. It was seen through, of course. I later came to find out that my behavior was written off as a phase.


I remember sitting in a pizza place making small talk. He was kind enough to feed me. My stomach was full of electric butterflies. Eating wasn’t my priority; I wanted to be alone with him as he whispered sonnets directly into my heart. Somewhere we could be ourselves without ears signaling into our conversation. We had known a lot about each other. He went to a Catholic Prep school and played lacrosse. I had made all my sacraments up to that point and was on the rowing team. That’s not a lot, but for Queer folk, someone always feels some kind of way about the Church. I felt guilt. He did what felt right. We left lunch behind and headed to his home.


In Sunday School when I was eleven or twelve, the Church curriculum included sexual education. Sex is an act to be performed between men and women. My teacher had said that the Church wanted her to tell us that using condoms is sinful, because sex is meant to produce children. She leaned in and told us that if we are ever going to have sex, that we should use a condom. It was her way of being responsible and spreading the safe message. In my secular high school, years later, I would receive a much more thorough education on sex. But that was the word of the Lord. Amen.


We drove back to his house listening to all the best from Warped Tour. We were, after all, just a couple of Punk Rock Princesses. The house was lived in. It was nothing I was used to seeing growing up and visiting friends’ homes in spotless rooms. I met his parents and sister; they were all very nice. His mother offered me a spare bedroom, but this poem that crawls into your soul and sits there lied and said I’d be sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. I guess he wasn’t lying about keeping me his dirty little secret. We went to his room and staged sleeping bags on the floor. I was then complicit in the lie.


My church wasn’t openly homophobic. It was not something the priest or deacons talked about while reading from the Bible. Or if they did, it was when I was young, and I have no memory of it. But that sly wording in Sunday School sexual education made it pretty clear. Some of the kids I went to Sunday School with would bully me, mostly outside of church and in school. I know now that they learned it from their families. So, at the parishioner level, homophobia existed. But I persisted quietly along the walls avoiding attention.


We touched briefly, exploring new clothed bodies in an embrace. The butterflies were back, and they electrocuted every inch of my skin. It was going to be dark in a few hours, and we had plans to go to Jones Beach. We left the safety of a bedroom locked with a WrestleMania XX folding chair jammed under the doorknob. I changed my clothes. He didn’t look away.

The car ride was more of the same. Music. Touching. Lights lined the highway in a rhythmic pattern of spotlight glow and the dark space between, the car passing through checkpoints like a video game. When we got to the beach, the sun had already set. The ocean rolled in a silver-white shimmer tonguing the shore. We walked, fingers woven, along the crashing waves. The surf licked my heels. Together we climbed a lifeguard’s abandoned post and sat close for warmth, as the sea breeze wet our lips. He gently grabbed my face and kissed me. “I’ve never done this before,” I said. The moon illuminated my first kiss and pulled me closer to a poem that unfurls in your heart.

I sat awed and tingling. No one was around to see us trespassing on a beach at night, as a memory built under the moon. We drove back to his childhood home and kissed some more. Eventually, we fell asleep, but something woke me. Light filled the room and I shook. I pressed my nakedness against his, and he pulled me close. Two crescents waxing full. My tears evaporated on his flushed skin. God visited me in Baldwin, New York, as I lay naked in a bed with some guy I met at college orientation. 

Nothing was said. Just a light floating at the foot of the bed watching me. I don’t know if it was a warning or a blessing. But I laid there against a poem to warm a cold night, silently crying. The guilt got to me, but it felt so right.

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