You're trying out for the part of Vershinin because Debbie Friedman, the only Jewish girl in your school, will play the part of Masha, and you are in love her in a way that often finds you face down on your bed with the Jefferson High School yearbook open to her picture. You are particularly fond of the one taken in her cheerleader uniform; it fills you with passion, followed shortly (too shortly) by shame, and then, finally, despair. It's mid-November, and she stands at stage left wearing hip huggers and a sweater of lavender mohair. You've had a predilection for Jewish girls ever since you and Stacy Levine, in a makeshift tent in your sister's bedroom, discovered each other's genitalia ten years ago. When Mr. Bleiler hands you the script, you smile at him but he avoids eye contact. You know Mr. Bleiler to be the sort of shitbag who preys serially on female students, and you suspect he has had at least a passing encounter with Debbie, so you won't let him discourage you. You look at Debbie. Her skin is flawless and that particular shade of caramel-brown that a girl with an olive complexion gets after too much time in a tanning bed. Her tinted contact lenses color her eyes the same green as Mennen Speedstick.
The stage looks the same as it did six weeks ago (slatted hardwood, the varnish worn away by decades of teenage feet) when for the Talent Show you performed Sublime's "What I Got" on an acoustic 12-string, unaccompanied. You'd been afraid your classmates would jeer at your thin, too earnest voice, but they hadn't; instead, they'd ignored you, which was cool because they'd ignored all the but the very worst acts, and those they'd booed. You're not foolish enough to believe that you are meant for the stage, or that music touches you deeply in a way that nothing else ever will, but you do love it. Debbie likes music, too. This chiefly among her qualities makes you love her, that and the fact that of the really good-looking girls at Jefferson, she alone has a sense of humor.
Mr. Bleiler announces that he is ready. You scan the script, trying to memorize as much of it as you can before you begin, looking for a rhythm in the speech. There is to your immediate left a microphone stand. Absently, only because it is there, you reach for it, or maybe you think that by reaching you will convey the impression that you are not nervous. You hadn't noticed the microphone, and are startled by the muffled thud your hand makes.
You hear Mr. Bleiler say, "That won't be necessary, Bud," though you can see only his ponytailed silhouette beyond the glare of the stage lights, and you hear a few scattered laughs at your expense, and you look stage left and see that even Debbie hides a grin behind her hand. And so with a smirk you reach again and pull the microphone off the stand.
"Testing, one, two. Testing," you say. "You want to talk about fat? I'll tell you about fat. Mr. Bleiler's wife is so fat, her belly button has an echo." You're disappointed when no one laughs. "Are you kidding me? She was standing alone on a street corner, and a policeman told her to 'break it up.'" You see Mr. Bleiler's silhouette bob as he stands and makes for the stage. "And ugly. She stuck her head out the window, and got arrested for mooning. She was in New York on vacation, went to the top of the Empire State Building, and airplanes started to attack." You're in a groove now. You glance over your shoulder at Debbie, and walk stage right. "I was talking to Mrs. Bleiler the other day. "Bud,' she says to me, 'every morning I wake up, I look in the mirror and puke my guts up. What's wrong?' 'I don't know,' I said, 'but your eyesight's perfect.'" And then they laugh, but not at you, at Mr. Bleiler who has ascended the stairs at stage left and is approaching you. Stiff-armed, fists clenched, he is a tall, thin man with a long stride. When you duck right, your blue suede skater punk Pumas squeak on the stage, then you bob back to your left. Mr. Bleiler, whose ponytail has come undone, looks, with his slightly sunken cheeks and crazy blue eyes, not unlike Iggy Pop, circa 1992.
You're backpedaling. The kids, your friends, are laughing now. "And stupid, too. What're you, kidding me? It takes her a hour to make Minute Rice." You can't run away from him forever. "What's the difference between Mrs. Bleiler and a bowl of Jell-O?" Too late, you see Mr. Bleiler swing a roundhouse right that connects with the side of your head below your ear, knocking you off balance and down to your knees, but you don't drop the microphone. "Jell-O moves when you eat it." Mr. Bleiler emits a high-pitched animal sound, not a bark exactly, but too feeble to be considered a roar, and then he's on you, one arm wrapped around your neck, the other groping for the hand that holds the microphone. You feel his muscles loosen for a moment, but then he pushes you onto your back, straddles your chest, and pins your wrists. His hair hangs in oily strands around his red, sweaty face. There is the squeal of feedback as the microphone slips from your hand. Mr. Bleiler is screaming. The sweet tang of his perspiration mixes with the spinach-y smell of his bad breath and gags you for a moment. You look beyond his face and see, over his shoulder, the face of Debbie Freidman, smiling at you with a look in her eyes you are unable to distinguish from admiration, and at that moment you decide you will ask her for her phone number, and call her as soon as you get home, and ask her to go to a movie, or maybe to be your date at the Winter Dance. To your right and left, you hear the soft pad of feet as a crowd gathers. Mr. Bleiler rolls off, and lies face down on the stage, his face in his hands. You know that he knows that you know that a lawsuit is the last thing in the world he wants. After you've called Debbie, you'll call your dad, a hotshot lawyer in a far away city, and enlist his help in ridding Jefferson High of Mr. Bleiler. And now hands are offered by the crowd that has gathered above you. Their faces are hard to distinguish in the glare, but you know by their almost reverential voices that you have awed them. This moment, then, beneath these hot lights as the soft hands of your classmates lift you and slap your back, their laughter yet ringing in your ears; this moment you will remember when you have graduated and matriculated and graduated again, and married and moved to a far away city all your own, this moment is yours.
About the author:
Pat J. O'Brien is an engineer living in Texas. And the J.? It stands for Joseph.