Q&A with Featured Writer Charlie J. Stephens

Our newest Featured Writer, from our forthcoming Issue 9, is one we’re excited for you to meet. In fact, you can read Charlie J. Stephens’ stunning short story “Willamette” on our website right now—a tale of blue-collar familial relationships and sexual discoveries that bursts into flames like a gas fire. We asked Charlie a few questions about writing, and the responses did not disappoint.

When did you start writing?

I’ve always written little stories, kid stuff, but I started keeping a journal in middle school. That continued into high school where I started writing more creatively—mostly stories, poems, and very earnest love letters. After high school I started self-publishing zines of my stories and personal essays.

Why do you write?

I write because it helps me get all the feelings, happenings, juxtapositions, and conflicts —within my experience and beyond me—down in a way that helps me make meaning of being alive.

What poets and writers do you read?

I love poetry by Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Mary Oliver, Susan Maeder, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Justin Chin. Favorite fiction writers are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Mark Ali, Isabel Allende, Christopher Isherwood, James Baldwin, Hanya Yanagihara, Melinda Moustakis, Mariana Enriquez, and Dorothy Allison.

What’s your writing process?

I work to keep track of memories, anecdotes, and scenes from near and afar, and then jot them down. These become the foundations for later stories. I do well spending time immersed in art and humanity, taking it all in, and then writing in isolation, not talking to anyone, and taking breaks only to stare at trees.

What inspires you to write?

I’m inspired by the other writers before me, the ones living now, and those who will work hard to get the words down for us in the future.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

I wrote a story called “The Owl People” that I think is my favorite. It was published July 2020 by New World Writing. In it, I managed to capture many different facets that were important to me into one story. It’s fiction but I was able to work in parts of my mixed race identity, queerness, ideas about isolation and connection, feelings of longing, and closeness with the animal world.

What effect do you hope your writing will have on people?

I hope my writing helps people tap into something they need to feel, imagine, remember, or make sense of somehow.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

In a deep forest by a stream, ideally. And/or northern Italy.

What is it like being queer where you live?

I live in the Bay Area and being queer feels safe and connecting—and sometimes it’s gorgeous.

What makes you peculiar?

I once fell in love with a sea lion, and I feel like it could happen again. 

Charlie J. Stephens is a non-binary fiction writer living on unceded Chochenyo Ohlone land in Northern California. Charlie has lived all over the U.S. as a bike messenger, wilderness guide, book seller, and seasonal shark diver (for educational purposes only). Charlie’s work has recently appeared in Electric Literature, The Best Small Fictions Anthology, Hinterland Magazine (UK), Fresh.Ink, The Racket, Original Plumbing (Feminist Press) and The Forge Literary Magazine, among others. Charlie is seeking an agent/publisher for their recently-finished collection of short stories and is hard at work on their first novel. More at charliejstephenswriting.com and on Instagram @charliejstephenswriting.

Read “Willamette” at peculiarjournal.com right now.

From Hell to Utah to Scotland, Mephistopheles is Going Places

The promotional poster for the new play Your Servant, Mephistopheles by Else Buckley and Vale McComb.

You might think Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is so “been there, done that,” but this new adaptation will surprise you in all the best ways. We sat down with the cast and creative team of the new play, Your Servant, Mephistopheles (otherwise known as “The Hell Show”), and found out how a fictional demon brought a group of queer theater lovers together… and where they’re headed next.

Tell us about your theatre company. What brought you together and what’s bringing you to Utah? 

The playwrights, Else Buckley and Vale McComb, met in 2018 on a study abroad to London. Over the weeks, they bonded over Vale’s director concept for Doctor Faustus (the play our own is based on) and swapped life stories. Vale and Em Nulton also worked together on a couple of performances that year, and Braxton Young Church was a student in a class Vale taught. In 2019, Vale was able to bring that concept to life and directed Doctor Faustus—with Else playing Mephistopheles, Em playing the Good Angel, and Braxton playing Gluttony/Emperor.  

We realized very quickly that we worked well together, and we want to create queer theatre for those who live in Utah and do not get much representation on the stage, particularly the asexual and genderqueer minorities.  

How did “The Hell Show” come to be? What can you tell us about Your Servant, Mephistopheles? 

After Doctor Faustus wrapped up in September 2019, Else and Vale began conceptualizing a version of the show that followed the demon, Mephistopheles, throughout the same sequence of events of Doctor Faustus. Through a process of improvising, ceaseless discussion, and occasional writing, they were able to develop a script, and then afterwards brought on Em to portray John Faustus, and Braxton to dramaturg. 

Your Servant, Mephistopheles is a tight show performed by a genderqueer cast. It follows the story of the demonic deuteragonist, Mephistopheles (played by Else Buckley) as they keep up after John Faustus (Em Nulton) and lie to their boss, Lucifer (Vale McComb).  

Having given up their soul in return for Mephistopheles’ service, John and Mephistopheles are locked into a contract for the next 24 years. It isn’t long before Mephistopheles realizes that they might have more in common with John than they had previously imagined, and how good companionship feels. In the time leading up to John’s eventual damnation, Mephistopheles claws their way through a range of emotions that aren’t usually associated with the fallen— faith, hope, and charity. But how successful could a demon really be at loving?  

Tell us the where and when! How can people view and support your production? 

Our Utah run will be July 29th and 30th at 8:30pm at the Rock Canyon Amphitheater. On Thursday (29th) there will be an after-show talkback as well! We learned a thing or two from COVID and will also be providing a streamed performance on July 31st.  

After that, we’ll be registered through the Edinburgh Scotland Fringe!  

How should people prepare for the experience? Or how should they prepare to receive your message? 

Come with an open heart! This show, in many ways, is about empathy which can take us into some uncomfortable places. We’re hoping to make you laugh AND cry, so maybe bring tissues?  

We’d also appreciate reflection on the marginalised/queer communities living in predominantly religious cultures. Even when you’re faithful to the popular religion, a part of growing with it will be painful.  

We mean no offense with this show—only to express some of the pain that comes from trying to reconcile seemingly disparate things.  

What has been some of the most memorable feedback or experiences from past performances? 

At the final reading of our script, the executive producer of MAB Productions took Vale by the hands and firmly, said, “It’s good. It’s just. So good. Thank you.” That emphatic simplicity has stuck.  

Another favorite compliment came from another two viewers of that reading who said afterwards they talked about it for at least an hour straight. We like making shows that make people think!  

What’s something we haven’t asked that you want to tell us about your troupe and Your Servant, Mephistopheles? 

This show was written by an ex and active member of the LDS faith. It’s been a collaborative effort to express the grief of leaving and staying with a childhood faith. Additionally, to have an all genderqueer/nonbinary cast and team has been something we’ve personally never seen in theatre, as well as having an all asexual-spectrum cast. Because of that, we wrote this play to be non-binary—all the characters are written with they/them pronouns. While this isn’t made textually clear, we also hope John and Mephistopheles, in their interactions, reflect the sexualities of the playwrights—demisexuality.  

What are all the ways theatre lovers can support you? 

Follow us on Instagram and TikTok! Tell your friends and come see the show! And if you like this limited run, please be vocal about it! Because we would love to come back!   

Relevant dates and links: 

July 29-30, 8:30 PM
Rock Canyon Amphitheater
2620 N 1450 E
Provo, UT

July 31, Streaming

Thehellshow.com (Buy tickets! Read blog posts!)  

IG: @yourservantmephistopheles 

TikTok: @yourservantm

Kaitlyn Mahoney and Their Queer Little Bookstore

A photo of Kaitlyn Mahoney in a dark blazer, alongside a photo of some queer literature.

A queer little bookstore is coming to Salt Lake City! Under the Umbrella, helmed by Kaitlyn Mahoney, hopes to open in time for Pride Month. Considering they’ve already surpassed their Indiegogo fundraising goal of $50,000, that dream is well on its way to becoming a reality (but don’t let that stop you from donating!). Their website asserts that a “bookstore can be a place of refuge, a place of validation and celebration…” and we couldn’t agree more, which is why we here at peculiar are sponsoring a bookshelf of our own. We sat down with Mahoney, the dynamo behind this project, to learn more about their vision for the business.

What inspired “Under the Umbrella” and the Indiegogo campaign?

Opening a bookstore has always been a dream of mine. I’m actually a copyeditor—that’s my day job and has been since I graduated from college. One of the things I love about being an editor is helping other people tell their stories in compelling, accessible ways and I think opening a bookstore is another way of doing that. I’m really excited to be in a position to connect queer authors with queer readers and others who need to hear their stories.

I was able to save up a good amount of money to fund a lot of the startup costs, but building an inventory of books is expensive. I considered applying for a small business loan, but it didn’t feel right for the type of space that I want to create. This is a queer community space, not a space owned by a bank. Starting an Indiegogo to help raise money for the opening inventory was a way to make this a community space that more people can be invested in and help direct.

What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

Our goal with Under the Umbrella is threefold: sharing and celebrating LGBTQIA+ books, providing a space for queer people to gather and build community, and offer a means of livelihood to marginalized members of the community.

Because we are focused on LGBTQIA+ books, that means that we can stock every kind of queer book imaginable: Queer books with messy queer characters and happy queer characters and the entire range of gender and sexuality represented.

Beyond the books, Under the Umbrella is meant to be a space to experience queer community together. We’ll be offering a little free library, a community pantry, a (small) free gender-affirming closet, space to write letters of support to incarcerated queer folks, a reading nook, a community book recommendation shelf, and space for writing groups, book clubs, poetry readings, and more.

Queer folks also experience higher rates of unemployment, and we’ve been affected more during the pandemic than our heterosexual peers. Ultimately, I want to hire additional queer booksellers to work in the store. I’m committed to a $15/hour minimum wage, which means it will take me a while to be able to afford paying another employee. In the meantime, we’re stocking books and other items by queer authors, artists, and makers. If you’re a queer artist of any kind and you’d like to stock something in the store, reach out! We can figure out a consignment or wholesale arrangement, and I’d love to showcase your work.

Ultimately, we hope to create a safe space for queer people where they can be in communion with themselves and their community. 

Tell us about yourself: Why a bookstore? Why Salt Lake?

I’m queer and Salt Lake City is queer, and I love queer people so much! We deserve love and validation and safety, and unfortunately a lot of us don’t have those things in many areas of our lives. I wanted to help create a space made specifically for all queer people to be safe and be seen. I needed—and still need—a space like this, where we can just be ourselves surrounded by queerness.

When I started reading more queer books specifically, I realized how difficult it was to go to a traditional bookstore and identify which books had queer content or were written by queer authors, unless I already knew a book was queer or it was in a queer-specific section of the store. Reading about queerness was transformative for me. It impacted how I saw myself and my community, and it was frustrating not knowing whether my identity was going to be acknowledged or validated in any particular book.

The publishing industry has been doing a lot better recently, but the industry and what it publishes is still overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and nondisabled. General bookstores don’t necessarily have the capacity or desire to prioritize these stories. The plan at Under the Umbrella is to really flip the traditional prioritization hierarchy on its head and bring these stories to the forefront so that what in other places might be an afterthought is really the focus for us: stories by and about QTPOC, disabled queers, fat queers, identities that are often left out of the conversation even within the queer community, like aromantic, asexual, and intersex identities. 

A collage of different book displays with the Under the Umbrella logo.

What’s something we haven’t asked that you want to tell us about the campaign and the bookstore?

I may be the one opening the store, but so many people have come together to make this happen. I’m personally dedicated to making the store a success, but I know it’s going to succeed because of the dedication of the community as a whole. So many people have reached out and said how incredible a space like this would have been for themselves when they were younger and how necessary it still is. I’m humbled and excited to be part of making this a reality.

I also want to acknowledge that while we don’t know for sure where the bookstore will be located, if it is in Salt Lake City, it will be on Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Ute land. I would love to work with a Native artist on a land acknowledgement for the store to recognize the traditional stewards of the land that we are on.

What are all the ways fans and allies can support Under the Umbrella?

Continue to donate and share the Indiegogo campaign! We just passed our original $50,000 goal, but all the money we raise will continue to go toward building our inventory. More books means more diversity and more representation that we are able to provide!

While we’re looking for a physical retail space, you can buy books through our Bookshop.org link. If you purchase through our link (check to make sure our logo is in the top left corner of the page!), we get a 30% commission. If you prefer audiobooks, you can shop through our Libro.fm link, which also supports independent bookstores. We also have a HummingbirdDM link, which has ebooks and audiobooks.

We also appreciate your book recommendations, and your recommendations for queer artists and makers to stock in the store.

Learn More:







Welcome Our Newest Staff Member: Megan Warner

Megan Warner, posing in front of a brick wall with the cutest, floppiest brimmed hat.

Megan Warner is a graduate from Southern Utah University with a BA in English Creative Writing and a minor in Graphic Design. She has had poetry and prose published in the Kolob Canyon Review. When not writing, reading, or painting, she is playing with her two cats, Paper and Clip, cooking new recipes with her significant other, and watching as many animated movies as she can.

To welcome her into the fold, we decided to bombard her with a few questions!

How did you first hear about peculiar?

I first heard about peculiar through a class assignment about different types of literary magazines with specific themes or for specific groups of people.

What activities most preoccupy your waking hours at the moment?

Weekdays: Working, playing with my cats, and cooking. Weekends: Hosting game nights, reading, and hiking

What do you want to be doing in five years?

In five years I would like to be working for a publisher making and editing books.

What were you like as a child?

As a child I was creative, artistic, and perfectly content to entertain myself.

If you could tell your child self one thing, what would it be?

I would tell my child self to not be afraid to express myself. Write what you want, paint what you want, say what you want, and dress how you want. Don’t be afraid of the opinions of others because in a few years you won’t remember their names.

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote or created out of a self-imposed impulse? What was it?

The first thing I can remember creating without prompt was a short story I wrote where the main character was a leaf on a tree that never fell during fall and had to live out the winter still attached to its tree.

What’s your creative process?

My creative process is impulsive and nonlinear. When I write, I start with an idea but not with any specific point in a story or poem. I let the words come and then stitch everything together afterwards in some kind of Frankensteinian conglomeration of a working piece of writing before editing the hell out of it.

“I would tell my child self to not be afraid to express myself. Write what you want, paint what you want, say what you want, and dress how you want. Don’t be afraid of the opinions of others because in a few years you won’t remember their names.”

What subjects/genres/locations interest you the most?

I enjoy science fiction and fantasy genres more than anything. I like stories with a focus on found family and where romantic love is more of an afterthought.

What poets/authors/creators do you most admire?

I admire Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson, and Mary Shelley.

What’s it like being queer where you live?

Living in Utah and growing up Mormon, being queer was never presented as an option to me until I was in high school. Even then, it took me years to filter through what was expected of me and figure out who I was. I don’t dress or present myself all the time as someone who screams to the world that I am queer so often me being queer is something people only find out about me after they get to know me.

What makes you “peculiar”?

I am peculiar because I have the hobbies of an 80-year-old woman, dress like a 20-something with an identity crisis, and have the movie taste of a ten-year-old. Ie. I enjoy knitting, embroidery, and jigsaw puzzles, wear a different aesthetic near daily, and will choose to watch an animated movie over anything else any day.

What are you most looking forward to about being on the peculiar staff?

I am excited to work with something creative with a message and a goal I can relate to.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a series of poems and a fantasy novel.

What are your social handles/URLs?

Instagram: meganwa67

Q&A with Featured Artist Mario Loprete

Artist Mario Loprete in his studio.

Mario Loprete’s art is masculine, striking, and tactile, making him peculiar‘s latest Featured Artist. The Italian creator describes painting as his “first love” and sculpture as his “voluptuous and sensual lover.” Juxtaposing sophisticated oil painting with the raw, urban texture of concrete or the softness of fabric, Loprete’s art is boldly visceral and we’re honored to have it within the pages of Issue Eight.

When did you start creating art?

Artistically, I formed myself, self-taught, studying the history of art and the great Master of Art aseptically, without external contaminations. Until 2002, I strayed into Calabria in order to paint from the real, with the main objective of speeding up my hand and acquiring the technique, fighting against time that changes lights and colors. Then I got aware that I missed something inside, I felt a void-like sensation. So at the age of 34 I decided to attend The Academy of Fine Arts of Catanzaro, aware that if I wanted to give more thickness to my work, I needed to confront myself with other artists, to share experiences and to search new goals.

Why are you an artist?

Good question, which is very difficult to answer. I think and believe that anyone who has a burning flame inside fueled by a passion for art, for music, for poetry, for creative writing … you notice the flame almost immediately, but it is our ability, our ambition, our will to make it so great that it can be visible to all.

What artists do you most admire?

I admire all artists. Attention, I am not politically correct, I am only aware that those who make art do it by expressing their best, putting their artistic concepts into play in front of public opinion and the market. I love more than all, the artists who have always given a damn about judgment and the market, the artists who for a lifetime feed the flame that surrounds and protects them. Van Gogh above all.

What’s your artistic process?

For my concrete sculptures, I use my personal clothing. Through my artistic process in which I use plaster, resin and cement, I transform these articles of clothing into artworks to hang. The intended effect is that my DNA and my memory remain inside the concrete, so that the person who looks at these sculptures is transformed into a type of postmodern archeologist, studying my work as urban artifacts.

What inspires you to create?

I like to think that those who look at my sculptures created in 2020 will be able to perceive the anguish, the vulnerability, the fear that each of us has felt in front of a planetary problem that was Covid-19… under a layer of cement there are my clothes with which I lived this nefarious period.

Clothes that survived Covid-19, very similar to what survived after the 2,000-year-old catastrophic eruption of Pompeii, capable of recounting man’s inability to face the tragedy of broken lives and destroyed economies.

“Fabri Fibra” by Mario Loprete. Oil on concrete.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever created?

Without a doubt FABRI FIBRA. It is my first work on concrete. It was the work that confirmed that my painting needed the support that best represented the fusion between the urban style, hip hop and the possibility of bringing “the city” to art galleries and in the homes. This work will never be sold and will be part of my life until the end.

What effect do you hope your art will have on people?

I hope my works reach people as the evocation of a memory, of places visited, of people known, of stories told.

The work of art does not have to be immediate. He must know how to tell and if he manages to tell something even after decades then the work becomes a masterpiece.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working very hard on four solo exhibitions in the autumn of 2021: at Prescott College in Arizona (USA), at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (USA), in Loosdrecht (Netherlands) curated by Connie Fluhme, and at Zylinderhaus Museum in Bernkastel (Germany).

Where do you see yourself in the future?

My desire is to travel. Chasing my art around the world. Having the opportunity to live in different countries and grasp the peculiarities that represent them.

What’s it like being queer where you live?

Nemo propheta in Patria.

What makes you “peculiar”?

I am a very sociable person but at the same time I hate it when the spotlight is on me. It is my works that must talk about me and my art.

Where can fans find you online?




Mario Loprete is a graduate of Italy’s Accademia di Belle Arti di Catanzaro. Using plaster, resin, or cement, he transforms the viewer into a “postmodern archaeologist.”

Q&A with Featured Writer Scarlett Peterson

Writer Scarlett Peterson.

Scarlett Peterson, peculiar‘s newest Featured Writer, is a Georgia native and Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Exhume, which seeks “to amplify the voices of queer and trans people, people who have suffered trauma and other marginalized groups.” Her poetry invites you to the table, serves you with open hands, and calls you back for seconds. It’s flavorful and concentrated, and we love showcasing it in Issue Eight.

When did you start writing? 

I began writing when I was about twelve or thirteen, but for a long time I struggled with what it meant to write, or at least with identifying a way to write towards a goal or purpose. I wrote a few poems around that time. Mostly I wrote in response to daily writing prompts from a twitter account in composition notebooks.  

Why do you write? 

I write because I feel like I have to.  

What poets and writers do you read? 

I try to read as widely as I can. Some of my recent favorite poets are Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Julie Marie Wade, Kayleb Rae Candrili, Chelsea Rathburn, Ellen Bass, Julie Koets, Aline Murray Kilmer,  Patricia Smith, Ilya Kaminsky, and Alison Benis White. In terms of prose, I just finished History of an Executioner by Clancy McGilligan, which felt pretty far outside of what I’d typically go for, but the voice was so compelling I couldn’t put it down.  

What’s your writing process? 

Honestly, for the last four or five years I’ve been enrolled in school for writing (finishing my B.A., the entirety of my MFA, and starting my PhD), so it varies pretty widely. I don’t have a ceremonial approach to writing— I try to carry something to write on and with everywhere I go, but sometimes I compose my poems verbally in a voice memo while I’m commuting to work, sometimes I get out of bed at two in the morning to write in my office, sometimes I’m inspired by a TV show or a half-wilted marigold, or the way a stray cat responds to my left-overs. My writing process is to respond to whatever feels urgent, and to take note of fleeting things that feel important at the time. 

What inspires you to write? 

Everything. I’m inspired by anything that I find myself invested or interested in. Since the pandemic, my inspiration has mostly come from gardening and memories, though I do write about other things. 

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? 

An essay I wrote a few months back about alligators, nesting dolls, and how they intersected with the mothers in my life. 

What effect do you hope your writing will have on people? 

I hope it serves them some sort of purpose. I don’t think anyone is going to be relatable to everyone, so I won’t say relatability, but I do hope that it makes people think, or surprises them, or maybe inspires them (even if it’s just inspiring them to write a poem that’s better than mine). 

Where do you see yourself in the future? 

Teaching writing and writing more of my own work. I love teaching, especially teaching creative writing. When I’m feeling optimistic I see myself with a tenure-track job teaching poetry and creative nonfiction. 

What’s it like being queer where you live? 

It’s never boring. Living near Atlanta means that I live in a constant shuffle between liberal and conservative spaces. On the way to Atlanta Pride in October of 2019, my girlfriend and I stopped by a Waffle House in McDonough on the way into the city. Half of the clientele looked less than warmly at my various rainbows, but our server stopped and talked to us about how much she wished she was going to pride that day. That’s sort of a perfect example of the experience— we have our community, and it’s beautiful and diverse and strong, but there are some definitively unwelcoming spaces and people.  

What makes you peculiar? 

My facial expressions and my inability to hide them. My too-friendliness. My willingness to walk in wet shoes as long as I’ll see something new or beautiful. My constant need for more information. 

What are you working on now? 

I’m currently working on two manuscripts of poetry and a collection of essays. One manuscript is my thesis, which needs some hefty revision, the other is what will ideally become my dissertation. The essay collection is the newest of the three, but it’s the project I’m the most excited about. 

Where can fans find you online? 

Twitter: @scarlettpoet
Instagram: @scarlettpoet 

Scarlett Peterson is a Georgia native who receive her B.A. in English and professional writing from Kennesaw State University. She received her M.F.A. in poetry at Georgia College. She is currently working on her PhD at Georgia State. She is editor in chief of Exhume Literary Magazine and was formerly an assistant editor of poetry for Arts and Letters. Her poetry has appeared or is upcoming in Five2One, Serendipity, Pennsylvania English, Ink and Nebula, FRiGG, 8-West Press, The Magnolia Review, Moon City Review, Fire Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Gargoyle Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Pamoja, Madcap Review, and Counterclock Journal.

Gaming While Fabulous: Greg Bayles Celebrates Drag Culture with Self-Made Platformer ‘Super Bearded Dragons’

For a glimpse of Greg’s poetry, pick up volume three, issue one of peculiar (or click here for an excerpt). As the featured writer of that issue, Greg Bayles won’t be hard to find, but once you’ve brought his words into your world, he’s hard to forget.

In the selected pieces he published with us as Featured Writer, his voice captures an orchestral formality that spans the cosmos, from ash to porch to canvas and the stars, serious and engrossing. But his latest project is a rowdy and playful dive into drag queen camp and sass. At first glance, Super Bearded Dragons might seem a surprising deviation from his written work in peculiar, but that’s only until you consider the reasons he was compelled to create it.

In today’s post, we catch up with Greg to learn more about the making of Super Bearded Dragons, the inspiration it draws from past and contemporary queer culture, and how to get a copy in your hands in time for the holidays.

First of all, what first got you into drag?

It was in 2017, in a Vancouver drag show that would change my perspective on drag forever. You might think it would have been Ru Paul or some other star I had seen that night, but no, it was a budget queen who had been doing drag for only six months or so.

She’s painted Elphaba green for Wicked, but other than that she’s in what I remember to be just a sort of frumpy, shapeless, 1970’s-couch-colored frock. She’s got sunflowers pinned in a matted brown wig. No boobs, no pads. Just hairy boy-body and spaghetti straps.

She starts singing, and midway through comes the reveal, where off comes the ungodly mumu, and underneath is a shimmering, sequined cocktail dress. She’s got the whole audience captive as she glitters her way around the room singing and climbs up on the bar. She’s nearing the end of the song when she reaches up and starts peeling the sequin dress off, neck down, to reveal nothing more than a pair of ratty, old, gray whitey tighties. And as the song draws to a close, she’s perched there atop the bar—resplendent as ever, with her hairy shoulders and love handles—singing her heart out, in a pair of dirty whitey tighties. And it’s at that moment that I realized that in the end, it’s all drag. Underneath all the sequins and the mumus and all of our curated selves, we’re all that same green-faced, pudgy guy in dirty whitey tighties, singing our hearts out, hoping others will hear our brave song and love us for it.

It’s also at that moment that I realize a lot of people do eventually manage to rip off the mumu and are excited to show off their glittery, sequined selves, but getting to that washed-too-many-times whitey tighty realness takes a lot of work and a lot of honesty. So a couple days later, I flew back to Salt Lake City, and I didn’t have a drag mama, and I had never done makeup, but I decided I was going to host my first drag party. I invited every queen I had ever heard of, and all my friends, bought a ton of dollar store makeup and thrifted wigs and dresses, and we kiki-ed in bad drag until the morning. It all just kind of unlocked something in me, and the rest is history!

What’s it like doing drag, being queer, and developing this game in Utah?

You know, Salt Lake City itself is a beautiful, liberal jewel, so I’m doing weird, queer things in a strange place, but I’m not doing them alone. Obviously, the Mormon church influences politics and some aspects of daily life in Salt Lake, but you also end up with this really beautiful counter-culture of tattoo parlors and microbreweries that has sprung up in the wake of Mormonism. I definitely get some weird looks when I go out in drag, or when I tell someone about my game, but I get just as many positive responses from post-Mormon folks who are finding their way through life after Eden, and that becomes a huge source of support and connection. I think the biggest thing in Salt Lake is that you find what you seek, so I’ve been able to find a really beautiful, transgressive, supportive queer community here that inspires me to do more every day!

How do you describe Super Bearded Dragons to the uninitiated?

Super Bearded Dragons is a lightning-fast, four-player platform fighting game that explores identity and conflict through the tongue-in-cheek battles and cash-grabbing antics of bearded drag queens.

Players face off in quick-pickup, samurai-style combat, using a variety of drag-inspired attacks and a full wardrobe of zany items to sashay to victory. Every time a queen gets hit or falls off the stage, cash tips rain down from the sky, and the player with the most money at the end of the round takes home the crown. Players explore a range of unique stages inspired by traditional fighting games, but which have been subverted to represent various queer spaces, including clubs, dating apps, festivals, the NYC piers, bathhouses, and other unregulated spaces.

Besides falling in love with drag, where’d the idea for the game come from?

I had developed a game jam project around the concept of a heterotopia, or a small “other space” that disrupts and at the same time mirrors the larger world. I spent a month or two building out a female heterotopia, and thinking about what conflict, or social structures, or wars might look like in a game world populated only by female characters. This got me thinking about queer heterotopias, and one day at a game development meetup, I threw out the concept (and the name, Bearded Dragons), and the rest is history.

I have been part of the drag community for the past four years or so, so in a big way, Super Bearded Dragons became a receptacle for all the spectacular things I was experiencing in the community. Many of the locations are reimaginations of actual locations or events I’ve attended, or locations inspired by historical queer spaces. The characters, likewise, represent influential queer characters in my own queer journey and draw broadly on LGBTQ+ archetypes for inspiration.

I played a lot of fighting games growing up and spent countless hours in Super Smash Brothers for the N64, so the platform fighting game made a lot of sense to me as a genre. I also loved the idea of samurai drag queens, and of the blending of the often hyper-masculine and performatively masculine fighting game aesthetic with the campy, performatively feminine aesthetic of drag.

Describe some of the characters.

The characters in Super Bearded Dragons are, in a lot of ways, based on real people, or else draw inspiration from artifacts of drag culture. Not necessarily just drag queens either, but all sorts of characters I’ve met or been influenced by in my life. Some of them are my past personal drag personas, like Petti Revenge. She is sort of a vindictive rocker babe slash hired gun. She started out as a reinterpretation of Uma Therman from Kill Bill, but with some Storm vibes from X-Men.

Other characters are inspired by pop figures or artifacts, like Gayja Vu, who has a suspiciously Lady Gaga-esque pink Joanne hat. Beardra the drag hag, who at one point in the story mode traps you inside a Ouija board, definitely channels Winifred Sanderson. Then there’s Dominatia, who is sort of a BDSM/Folsom interpretation of Vega from Streetfighter. Wooby, who’s the drag personification of Mugatu. Tons of other little references, and hopefully points of connection for people.

I think more than anything, though, it was super important for me to include characters from all walks of life, all ages, all types, and it was especially a goal to have black and brown queens front and center. There aren’t a ton of queer people of color as leading roles in games, even though they have driven LGBTQ+ progress in a big way, so I wanted this to be something that honored the sacrifices and the struggle that a lot of folks endure.

What was the inspiration behind the different levels?

I pulled from a lot of historical LGBTQ+ sites in creating the levels. I’ve read a lot about the New York City piers of the 70s, for example, and how they became such a vibrant third space for sex workers, artists, and others, and that was something I wanted to pay homage to in my work. You often see docks and piers in traditional fighting games as well, so it seemed like a natural pairing on that count.

Other levels are based on bathhouses, or clubs, or concert venues that I’ve visited. There’s one that’s based loosely on a gay bathhouse in Bangkok. Another is a recreation of a fairly well-known outdoor concert venue but reimagined as giant lipstick tubes. Another is the rooftop of a now-closed bar in Los Angeles. I really wanted to capture the essence of these spaces and allow for some aspect of play and understanding in each of them.

There are also a bunch of levels that are more abstract in their approach: a gay dating app turned into a scrolling platformer level, a dressing room blown up to gargantuan proportions, a level taking place entirely inside of a Ouija board. They really run the gamut in terms of breadth.

Why do you think so many drag queens are gamers?

I think for a lot of people, games are a way of experiencing a different life than the one you’re given. You get to populate a different world, and deal with different challenges, and meet different and often more interesting characters, and so in a big way, it’s expressive and creative and exhilarating to play a game. I think drag is very similar, in the sense that you are trying on different personalities and exploring a different world—seeing the world through different eyes. I remember the first time I ever went out in drag, none of my friends even recognized me, and I thought to myself that that was the first time I could really set aside the self and experience the world without the lens of Greg. So there’s in some ways a sense of escapism and in other ways a sense of fuller expression—of being able to assume identities and roles you might not otherwise be afforded.

When we talk about something that’s amazing in the queer community, we sometimes use the world fabulous, but what that literally means is something belonging to fables. Things aren’t impressive: they’re sickening. When we love something we live! When I was amazed, I died! We love the outrageous, the hyperbolic, the impossible, the visceral, and I think drag and games both tap into that sense of exaggerative wonder. The possibilities are endless and something unexpected is just around the corner.

How to get your hands on the game

The Kickstarter for Super Bearded Dragons is up and running and the clock is ticking to preorder your copy before the campaign ends. Every backer brings Greg nearer to his goal, including his stretch goal to make the game available on the Switch! Right now you’ll be able to play it on PC.

Find the Kickstarter here and follow @gregbayles and @thatdraggame on Instagram for updates.

Crack Open/Emergency: A Forthcoming Chapbook From Karen Poppy

Karen Poppy Crack Open_Emergency

“The poetic voice has invisible instructions:/crack open in case of emergency…” from Crack Open/Emergency, Karen Poppy’s forthcoming chapbook by Finishing Line Press.

At the end of 2019, we were honored to include two of Poppy’s pieces (“Sonoma Wildfire” and “Defining”) in Issue 7 of peculiar. Now, as we inch and bide and scrimp and grieve our way through the opening months of 2020, we are in more need than ever: of help, of leadership, of voice, of comfort and instruction, of poetry. Poppy’s voice is a guide, wise and patient as she contends with plights both personal and encompassing.  

As creators we turn inward, then outward. We surge toward answers. Karen Poppy does this exquisitely in “Sonoma Wildfire,” an answer of hope during the California wildfires of 2017:

Birds returning from darkness,
Their murmuration a living ocean,
A flocking school flying high,
Obliterating obliteration.

And “Defining,” a poignant study of violence and oppression:

Why should
We be
Of our own
Define us
By our

As Poppy prepares to release her chapbook next month, we’re excited to point you toward where you can get your hands on it, and share a little more of her voice in today’s Q&A.

What gave you the idea for Crack Open/Emergency?

The poems in this chapbook came together organically, after surging forth, born from emergencies personal and political.

How does it echo or diverge from your past work?

These poems are some of my first in coming back to writing. I don’t adhere to one style or theme in my work, past or present, and while I have mostly been published in poetry, I also write fiction and hybrid works. 

Describe an early experience where you realized language had power.

When I created and recited my first poem, and my mother transcribed it for me because I couldn’t write yet. I was about two years old. She wrote it into a book she kept for me, and it made me realize that language has power because it is special enough to be written down and preserved. That language has lasting artistic significance. 

My mother also always read to me at bedtime. Little Golden Books, a boxed set of classic children’s books, and just as often, Shakespeare and the Bible.

Do you find writing energizing or exhausting? 

It depends on what I am writing, and how I am feeling in general. Energizing or exhausting, I know that I still need to push through and keep going. We all do. The world needs all our voices.

What would you describe as a “literary pilgrimage” and have you gone on any?

Every time I read someone else’s work, I hope for a literary pilgrimage. Good writing takes us somewhere, allows us to transcend our realities, inspires us. The best writing, the writing that lives on, is by writers with generosity of spirit. Writing with which we can converse, with which we can continue the conversation through our own writing.

It is no accident that so many of us connect and respond to certain writers. It is their generosity of spirit. Think of Emily Dickinson baking cakes, singing, and playing piano for her community. Now the writing she didn’t much share during her lifetime communicates with us, carries on the work of her giving spirit, and allows us a literary pilgrimage. This is only one example. So many writers have this generosity of spirit. It is important that we all give generously of ourselves and remain open to each other.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

To not listen to writing advice! Trust yourself and your own voice. That being said, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to wonderful editors and others who have helped to guide and shape my work.

How does the contemplation of queer identity and experience figure into your work, or does it?

I write about queer identity and experience, and I also write about a wide variety of other topics. I find it interesting to explore queer identity and experience within the context of something different and unexpected. 

As a society, we are still forming the language to communicate our unique experiences, articulate our identities, and expand the discourse regarding the complexities of our emotional journeys. Until fairly recently, for example, we didn’t have widespread use of the word non-binary to describe someone—like me—who does not fit within the gender binary of male/female. 

Giving a name to something, defining it, gives it power. Within Crack Open/Emergency, I also focus on the power of naming and defining, with regard to queer identity and in other contexts.

What’s next for you? Tell us about your other projects.

I have two additional poetry chapbooks forthcoming, and four of my poems have been set to music for soprano (art songs) by Chicago composer Myron Silberstein. I am also working on fiction projects, as well as a cat-themed book.

Praise for Crack Open/Emergency

Although the language of Karen Poppy’s poetry is beautifully lyric and classically pure, she wants us to attend to her silences—the spaces between words, between lines, between stanzas and poems. A lawyer, she knows how cruelly words can be divided against themselves, that one can become “ashamed that you did not believe less” in them. But her silence is indisputable and clear. It fills us with “noiseless ecstasy.”

–David Bergman, author of poetry titles including Fortunate Light (A Midsummer Night’s Press), Heroic Measures (Ohio State University Press), The Care and Treatment of Pain (Kairos Editions), and Cracking the Code (George Elliston Poetry Prize), and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for his anthology Men on Men 2000.

Karen Poppy‘s poems are lush, lustrous and defined, all at once. One can taste the pebble in the mouth that confronts Goliath, smell the blood stains of post mortem life. These are poems that excite, reveal and inspire, charging us with electric appreciation. What an amazing collection.

–Rene Denfeld, internationally bestselling author of the novels The Child FinderThe Enchanted, and The Butterfly Girl, and winner of the prestigious French Prix award.


Two poem excerpt from Crack Open/Emergency:

In Case of Emergency

The poetic voice has
Invisible instructions:
Crack open in case
Of emergency.
We avoid the shards, but
Some cuts are necessary.
For we work close
To the pain.
Closer than anybody.

Oysters on the Beach

Water swirls below, wilds itself on rocks.
I step back, as if you were a photograph.
Withdraw from you.
Your soft, open delicacy.

Karen Poppy has work published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, ArLiJo, Wallace Stevens Journal, and Young Ravens Literary Review, among others. She has recently written her first novel, is at work on her second novel, and is an attorney licensed in California and Texas. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Q&A with Featured Writer Kay Zeiss

QA Kay Zeiss

Kay Zeiss, the poet who graces our pages as peculiar‘s newest Featured Writer, composes her poetry like an invitation. Each line guiding you around a corner, opening a snapshot, a landscape, a person materializing in the smoke. Zeiss is a queer Seattle-based poet and licensed social worker from Chicagoland. She has been found behind typewriters attempting “name your price poems,” curating art walks, and co-facilitating creative writing groups.

When did you start writing?

I started writing on a typewriter in grade school with my dad. He and I used to write eloquent (but probably in actuality, nonsensical) stories in turn, line by line, about anything from earthworms to aliens. Despite an early start, the great majority of my life was spent not writing anything beyond what was required of me throughout my formal education.

I was briefly interested in science writing in undergrad while pursuing a research fellowship as a double major in psychology and biology. However, I did not rediscover creative writing until after I obtained my master’s in social work. A few years ago, I had the privilege of co-facilitating a writing group at the VA. This was the rebirth of my passion for writing, and I was reminded of how deeply I value the art of storytelling as a practice.

Why do you write?

I have a great passion for language generally, but specifically regarding how language helps us to connect with one another. I believe stories in any form are powerful because they allow us to realize we aren’t alone in our experiences. For me, writing has the ability to unlock lexicon gaps and allow for a playground of commonality and interconnection. In searching for the right concentration and combination of words, I hope my writing will convey my unique and simultaneously universal experience.

I find much joy out of creating poetry inspired by random words I learn (petrichor is a recent favorite). Also, a favorite of mine is to take a situation and reason out how to convey the story through nature and metaphor.

Sometimes I’ll write as a means to process what I’m going through, to understand better what has brought confusion, or to let go of the pain of suffering.

What poets and authors do you read?

Li-Young Lee is my absolute favorite poet. His poem “furious visions” is wonderful. Time begins to seem less linear, perhaps more cyclical or circular through the lens of Lee’s writing. His seemingly tangential stories are grounded by the adept weaving of memories from his childhood, young adulthood, and the present. It’s almost as though each moment across a lifespan, across generations, is occurring presently. There is an invitation to detach from our conception of time. As someone who understands intergenerational trauma first hand, I truly value a writer’s ability to convey this phenomenon.

I also adore Annie Dillard (“Total Eclipse,” my favorite story by her; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my favorite book), Emily Dickinson, Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Oliver, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Adrienne Rich, Clarice Lispector, R.A. Sasaki, Italo Calvino, Saul Bellow, Ted Chiang, Rumi, and Rilke. There are so many more.

What’s your writing process?

I treat what I have written in the past few years as an experiment, of sorts. I tend to have a memory, a thought, a feeling, a struggle, or an existential fixation in mind that I want to reason out, toy with, or challenge myself into finding objectivity. Most of the time, I will slip into thought about what sensations or visualizations arise, and try to incorporate that sensory input into my poetry. I spent a great deal of time in the outdoors and commonly will draw on my observations in nature to help my attempts at describing the indescribable.

Sometimes I’ll sit in a comfortable place with a cup of tea and pensively stare at my computer or typewriter to reason out the latest curious thought with which I’ve been grappling. Other times I’ll festoon my hammock within sight of a lake. Always within earshot of the chirping birds.

Writing is one of my favorite activities to foster that sense of flow. Everything else fades away as I get hyper focused on the task of writing. Writing becomes about giving creative expression to an experience with intent to find a voice that will invite others to identify, and thusly connect. Sometimes the words just flow out onto the page, other times the piece requires much editing. I don’t have a structured approach to writing, though.

What inspires you to write?

People. Spirituality. Mother Earth. The elegant, yet unapologetic nature of my cats (Frenchington and Grandpa). The courage of others. Oppression. Privilege. Lexicon gaps. Silos. Capitalism. The turn of the seasons. An impossibly blue and impossibly still tarn. Sunsets. Tibetan singing bowls. The pain brought by the ending of a relationship. Impermanence. The joy of connecting with others. Channeling and practicing objectivity as inherently biased beings. The question, “how do we find commonality?”

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

I love writing sultry haikus.. with a typewriter.. on heavy, haphazardly torn strips of paper.. There’s something about the intense thumping sound of each key stroke and the commanding urgency and permanence of red ink that is incomparable. It’s super fun, ridiculous, and great practice for my writing process.

Last year, during an art walk in Seattle, I wrote poetry on the spot in the form of sultry haikus. This was my favorite:

Her sway, her rhythm;
You catch your breath, arrested.
A levee breaking.

What effect do you hope your writing will have on people?

I have two hopes as a writer. I hope for my words to leave an image with the reader that’s reminiscent of what I have experienced, and I hope to convey that we as living beings aren’t as different from each other as we may imagine.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Oh, I don’t know. I try to live my life a day at a time.

What’s it like being queer where you live?

In Seattle, at least when I moved here, it seemed like being queer was more the norm than anything. I remember joking with my friends back home in Chicago that it almost seemed like there was a competition to be “the queerest.” There were so many words queer folk were using as self-descriptors that I had never heard of before moving to the Pacific Northwest, despite being “out” for nearly a decade. People who identify as straight even use the word “partner” here. Back in the Midwest, labeling a person as your partner for anyone who wasn’t your business associate automatically flagged you as gay. I’ve felt the safest living here being out, loud and proud in comparison to other cities. The rainbow crosswalks are pretty cool too.

What makes you peculiar?

I dance to the Muzak down grocery store aisles, my favorite movie is The Lion King, and I also like to eat wild city lavender.

peculiar line

Kay Zeiss is a queer Seattle-based poet and licensed social worker from Chicagoland. This is the first time she has been published for her writing endeavors. She is currently pursuing her second master’s degree, this one in bioethics. In her free time, if she’s not writing, she’s finding tiny flowers on big mountains with the naturalist and scrambling groups of the Mountaineers.

Love and Video Games

by Andy Winder

Love and Video Games

When Kingdom Hearts III came out earlier this year, I considered buying a PlayStation even though I’m not much of a gamer these days. I guess that’s nostalgia for you: things you associate with your first love, especially your first queer love, never lose their power. I decided that paying rent was the bigger priority, but I’ve caught myself thinking about Natalie when my mind wanders even though we haven’t seen each other for years.

Natalie’s family had left for Oklahoma and mine moved to Northern Utah the summer after ninth grade–both of us hundreds of miles away from our hometown, St. George. Southern Utah isn’t the easiest place to grow up if you’re LGBT– even less so if you announce that you’re a democrat to your peers, as Natalie had done on her first day in our seventh-grade class.

“A what?” I’d asked when rumors about this new girl circled to me.

I’d heard that word on a radio show my dad listened to every morning while driving my sisters and me to school. But what, I tried to remember, had Glenn Beck said about democrats? Bad things, I recalled. That Glenn Beck did not seem to like democrats at all.

Few students were out as gay or even supportive of LGBT issues at George Washington Academy, the charter school I attended through eighth grade. One of my teachers gave our class an hour-long talk about how, like in Ancient Rome, gays and lesbians would cause the downfall of American society–to which a student raised his hand and asked, “Excuse me, what’s a lesbian?”

Declaring yourself a democrat wasn’t the best idea on your first day of school. But that made me curious about her. Hadn’t I declared myself “emo” a few months ago after watching Phantom of the Opera for the first time? My friend Sariah had declared an intervention after I started wearing all-navy-blue uniform clothes to school and penning self-insert Twilight fan fiction, but I’d felt great at the time. I told people I was sad, but what I meant was that I was twelve and confused liking Fall Out Boy for being sad.

Maybe democrats were misunderstood. And anyway, I’d never find out unless I got to know her.

My English teacher gave me the chance when she placed Natalie in my reading group. Her voice was the first thing that stood out to me. It was clear and melodious, and she focused on how she said things as much as what she said. Everything about her seemed like she paid attention to the details–she parted her black hair neatly, she had perfect posture, and her ironed uniform put my rumpled slacks and baggy polo to shame.

“I’m very into Japanese culture,” she said, gesturing to the graphic novel on her desk. “And Star Wars, but more so when I was a kid. Do you like manga?”

I did. My sixth-grade teacher Ms. Kerr had banned manga because she thought too many people were reading them instead of “actual books.” This had turned my fascination into a defiance to invest myself in the art form even more. Sometimes, I’d even slip a hardcover book sleeve over manga volumes and sneak them into class (another reason that Sariah told our friend group that she worried about me).

We became fast friends. During lunch and recess, I always wanted to be as close to Natalie as I could. She was the only seventh-grader I knew who followed current affairs and studied for the ACT. Every time I talked to her, I felt like she taught me so much about the world and about myself.

I liked her a lot. I liked all of my friends, but the way I liked her was different. It was more like how I felt about Zac, another classmate who made me blush when he played rock-paper-scissors with me after school while we waited for our rides. And I wanted her to like me, too.

On Friday nights, Natalie would invite me to her home for sleepovers. I liked going to her house–her parents were both lawyers, and her upper-middle-class life fascinated my lower-middle-class upbringing. I found it perplexing how her family had an imported water dispenser in their home and that every kid had their own room. It was here that she introduced me to two things: video games and cosplay.

“My friends and I are doing a Kingdom Hearts cosplay group for the Anime Fannatiku convention in April,” she said, “and we need someone to be Demyx. Do you wanna join us?”

For those of you who hung out in less nerdy circles than I did growing up, “cosplay” is when dedicated fans make costumes of their favorite fictional characters and wear them to conventions. It’s just as much an art form as it is a hobby and some people (Natalie’s group included) made their costumes from scratch and entered them into contests.

This particular contest would involve performing a skit in full costume and competing against other amateur cosplayers in terms of craft, stage presence, and creativity. For me, it would also involve dressing up as a male character.

Most of what I knew about the Kingdom Hearts gaming franchise, I knew because Natalie liked it. I’d saved up my babysitting money for months to buy a handheld console that would let me play the game so we could talk about it–normal platonic friend behavior, right? Demyx was a character who I can only describe as “anime David Bowie:” a villain who wore a stylish leather cloak, wore his hair up in a spiked mullet, and whose weapon of choice was a sitar with magical powers.

“Uhm, I’ll have to ask my mom but probably,” I said. “I dunno if she’d like me dressing up as a guy.”

I don’t know why I said this. It’s not like I’d worn a men’s costume before or that my mom cared about gender norms. She always told me that girls could do anything that boys could do, and I believed that, too. But I had a secret: sometimes, I felt like I should have been born male, not female. I’d never told anyone about this, especially not Natalie, but the gap between how I saw myself and my body kept widening as I started going through puberty. Something about this costume seemed like it would validate these feelings and maybe whatever I felt about Natalie, too. It’d be one thing if it were all a costume, but in some ways, I didn’t think it would be.

“You could always go as, like, a female version of him–”

“No, it’s probably fine! I’ll just… not tell her it’s a guy, I guess. I want to compete with you guys.”

Our time together revolved around preparation during those months leading up to the anime convention. At school, we’d practice our skit and sketch concept art and notes for our costume designs. Her handwriting was like her voice–clear and controlled but still light. And on the weekends, we’d spend hours cutting and stitching fabric. Her hands would guide mine over the sewing machine, and I used to hope that she wouldn’t notice how much mine shook.

“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she told me. “I’ve never felt like someone cared about me the way you do. You’re so genuine.”

Nobody could make me blush like she could. By now, I’d started to realize that what I felt for Natalie wasn’t platonic. I spent months praying every night that God wouldn’t send me to

Hell for how I felt about her. Sometimes I’d feel peace, but other times a guilt-ridden pit would settle so deep into my stomach that I couldn’t eat or get up from bed for days at a time.

But I kept coming back to Natalie. I couldn’t help myself. When I was around her, her light could break through all the darkness for a little while.

On the morning of the convention, we donned sleek, black coats and wigs that we had bought online–though I would soon dare my friends to chop off my hair into a cropped, jagged cut. Something about short hair made me feel more like myself. Throughout the panels, we held each other’s hands and I rested my head on her shoulder. And even though I trembled during the costume competition, the brightness in her eyes kept me steady.

Our costumes didn’t win any prizes, but we grew even closer. We held hands even more often: gripped at an ice skating rink, linked while trick-or-treating for the last time in ninth grade, clutched as we watched scary movies. She complimented my newly shorn hair, and I told her she was beautiful. Even though shame loomed over my head whenever I went to church on Sundays, I wanted to put a word to the feelings she and I shared–to make it tangible. So on her birthday, I sent her a card and told her that I loved her, and that I knew we couldn’t do anything about it, but I loved her anyway.

It took her awhile to acknowledge what I’d written on the card, and she agreed–we were both Mormon. We were both, as far as we knew then, female. There wasn’t anything else to say about it. And we never did, though I cried every night for a month afterwards–partially because of her and partly because God had made my body and my feelings all wrong.

But it didn’t matter for long, at least when it came to her. By the end of ninth grade, our parents both decided to move away from St. George. She would move to Tulsa, where her family was from, and I would move to my grandparents’ home in American Fork. And that was that.

We’d still sleep over at each other’s houses during that last summer, but the boxes started stacking up in both of our houses. We tried not to talk about how soon we’d have to say goodbye, but that didn’t stop the day from coming. The night before she left for Oklahoma, we slept side-by-side in sleeping bags. The rest of her room was empty. I’d wished I felt empty.

The next morning, we hugged when my mom picked me up and promised we’d write each other. And then I left, just as confused as when I’d met her but with a heaviness because of how much I missed her and how much of myself I knew I’d have to face. My family would soon follow hers by packing all of our things in moving trucks and settling into a city where only our relatives knew our names.

Now that she was gone, I tried to process how I felt about her as well as how I felt when others saw me as a man. Neither were easy things to think about, and they didn’t get easier, but things started to get clearer. And things started to get clearer for her, too. We could mark these milestones in our emails to each other.

“I have a girlfriend now,” she wrote me during senior year. “She has hair like Ramona Flowers. You know, like from the Scott Pilgrim movie?”

I congratulated her on coming out and, next year, told her something I’d only ever told my parents and my counselor: “I’m transgender. I don’t know if I want to start going by Andy or Anthony but when I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

Back before I transitioned to male, every time I came out used to make me have a small panic attack. But a few days later, she told me that she admired my bravery and that she’d use whatever name and pronouns made me happy. And even though we weren’t thirteen-year-olds figuring out who we were and who we loved anymore, it gave me closure.

After a while, we stopped writing as frequently–every few weeks became every few months and, eventually, once or twice a year. But I still thought about her when I chose a new name, and when I began transitioning, and when I started dating my first partner. I’ve always had a hard time ending relationships. I’ve grown shyer the older I get and it takes a long time for me to trust people. But it takes an even longer time for me to let go of them.

That could be why I wanted to play the final Kingdom Hearts game so much. It’s not the characters I want to revisit. I want to go back to when I fell in love for the first time–not forever, just for a little while–so I can replace the guilt I felt back then for the gratitude I feel now. I want to thank Natalie for showing me how to love someone so much. And when the game’s end credits play, I’d turn off the TV screen and smile.


peculiar line

Andy Winder is a YA writer whose work has appeared in HuffPost Personal, Bustle, The Outline, and Book Riot. He is currently revising his queer romance as a 2019-2020 Pitch Wars mentee.