Being sixteen is hard enough. But finding true love at such a young age, only to have it ripped away from you, is devastating. And, feeling devastated can pave the way for making some very bad decisions. That's what happened to me in my junior year at Joliet High School in suburban Detroit. After a fabulous and successful first semester, I did something in the second semester that I shouldn't have done. And, it wound up sending my life in a totally unexpected direction.
Back in October, my debate partner and I fell in love. It didn't matter to us that we were both guys. The attraction was just too strong to resist. Sex with David was indescribably exciting and satisfying. And, when we won the State of Michigan debate championship together that December, I thought life couldn't be more wonderful.
Then, David moved away right after Christmas. I was devastated, and I felt hopeless. So, with the sound reasoning of a broken heart, I decided that the only thing I could do was just get through high school as best I could. Then, maybe, I could start my life all over at a college far away from Michigan.
The previous summer, I had spent some time with my cousin, Mike. He was a doctoral student in Mathematics at Princeton. Mike was genius-level smart, handsome, and very sexy. Despite the fact that he was in his twenties, a guy, and a relative, I was very attracted to him. Naturally, I hid my feelings, but I listened closely to everything he said. Mike told me that I should consider applying to Princeton. He thought that I might have a good chance of getting in, even though the school accepted fewer than ten percent of all freshman applicants. So, Princeton went to the top of my list of potential colleges.
Over Christmas break of my junior year, my parents and I went Acapulco, Mexico. It was supposed to be a grand, family vacation. But, even the warm weather, sandy beaches, and beautiful ocean views couldn't cheer me up. I knew I might never see David again, and I was miserable.
After Christmas break, I returned to Joliet on a cold, snowy Michigan morning. I had always liked school, but that day, I really didn't want to be there. I wanted to be alone. But, of course, I had to go to school.
Before classes started that day, I saw several of my friends. I tried to be social, but I didn't want to talk to them. I couldn't pretend that I was my normal, happy self. And, I didn't want to answer their inevitable questions. "Joel, what's wrong?" "Joel, are you okay?" "Hey Joel, you look like shit! What gives?"
There were only two friends I wanted to see - Jim and Sara. They were my closest friends, and they had also been on the varsity debate team. Jim and Sara were 'going steady.' They knew about David and me, and both of them were accepting and supportive. But, Jim wasn't at Joliet this semester. He had accepted an opportunity to be a foreign exchange student in Japan. And, he wouldn't be back until July.
Other than Jim and Sara, the only person I wanted to see was our debate coach, Mrs. Weber. She was there when David told me he was leaving, and she had helped me when I fell apart. But, she was on a leave-of-absence to take care of her mother who was ill.
After morning classes, I went to the cafeteria to look for Sara. I found her in the food line. After buying our lunches, we found a table off by itself in a corner. As we sat down, I realized that Sara and I were not only long-time friends, but we also shared a new bond. We both missed our boyfriends.
Sara expressed concern about how lost I seemed since David left. "Joel," she said. "We've both got to find something to do other than studying. Debate is over for the year. Jim is in Japan, and David moved to California. I think we should both try out for the play."
"What play?" I asked.
"It's called The Messenger ," Sara answered. "There's a poster at the front entrance. Auditions are coming up soon. There's a new Director since Mrs. Weber isn't here. Let's try out. It could be fun!"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm really not interested in acting. And, I definitely don't want to be up in front of a bunch of people - with a spotlight shining on me! I just want to keep a low profile. I'm going to focus on keeping my grades up and preparing for the college entrance exams. After graduation, I'm getting the Hell out of Michigan."
"Fine, you can keep a low profile. But, you could still be part of the play," Sara argued. "I'm sure there are plenty of things you could do backstage. Come on! Don't make me go to auditions all by myself."
Sara was a great friend. And, she wasn't one to ask for favors. So, I agreed. "Okay," I said. "But I'm not acting on stage!"
"Great!" Sara said. "Then, it's settled."
The next weekend, I went to the public library and checked out a copy of The Messenger . It was good. I liked it.
On the day of auditions, Sara and I went to the Choir Room after 6th hour. The new Director was standing by the door, thanking everyone for coming out for the play. He immediately caught my attention. He was younger than I expected, and very good looking. He had dark hair and eyes, an Ivy League haircut, and a heavy 5 o'clock shadow. But what really caught my attention was his killer smile.
Sara saw me checking him out. After we had entered the room, she leaned over and spoke quietly. "Joel, it is time to get back in the saddle, but that stallion is way too much for you. Don't get any ideas!"
"Geeze, Hinman!" I said. "I'm not getting ideas. But I can look, can't I?"
Soon, the Director came into the room and introduced himself.
"I am Benito Califonte," he said. "Why my parents saddled their first-born son in America with a name like Benito, I will never truly understand, nor fully forgive. Anyway, I go by Ben Califonte, and yes, I am Italian. So, let's get the Italian jokes out of the way right now. No, I was not named after Mussolini. My family has never been part of the Mafia, and I am not a member of a gang. I do eat foods other than pasta, but I don't drink wine with every meal - I usually skip it at breakfast." There were a few chuckles from the students.
"Okay, anybody want to add their own Italian jokes?" When no one spoke, Mr. Califonte said, "Good. Now we can proceed." He turned to pick up some papers on the podium, and I saw a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
"I am a student at the Detroit College of Performing Arts," he said. "And, I am volunteering my time here at Joliet. I am not being paid, nor am I earning credits toward my degree. I am here for two reasons. First, The Messenger is one of my favorite plays. And second, I want more directing experience on my resume. Any questions?"
No one asked a question.
"Let me tell you about the play," Mr. Califonte continued. "It's called, The Messenger . It was written by the mid-20th century American author, James Hailey. It is a story about the cycle of life - for all people, across the ages. While the play takes place in the 1930's and 1940's, in a tiny Illinois town called Cedarville, the story is universal. It could have just as easily been set in ancient Rome or modern day India. In our production, there will be no painted flats and only limited background scenery. The open stage will help communicate to the audience that the meaning of the story is not limited to one place or time. Instead of flats, we will use lighting and special effects. For instance, there's a church scene in the third act. We will use the fly space to lower a blank screen and project a picture of a stained glass window as part of the background.
Again, he asked for questions, but no one spoke. As Mr. Califonte had started to tell us about himself and the play, he had fallen into a speech pattern similar to a cadence. He almost sounded like a benevolent Drill Sargent welcoming new recruits to boot camp. In some ways, it was intimidating. I wasn't surprised that no one wanted to ask questions.
"Okay, here's how today is going to work," Mr. Califonte explained. "First, I'm passing around an interest form for each of you to fill out. Please check the boxes for all the jobs you might be interested in – acting, lights, sound, costumes, makeup - you know – all the jobs that a show requires. When everyone is done, we'll start the auditions. Each of you will come up to the front of the room and read - out loud - a short selection from the play. I'm passing out packets with the selections you may choose. Everyone will read. Even if you only want a tech job, we may need you to understudy one of the acting parts. You never know when something unexpected might happen. And, you may have heard of 'the first rule of theater.' Who knows what I'm talking about?"
When it seemed as if no one was going to answer, Sara raised her hand. "The first rule of theater," she said, "is that the show must go on."
"Yes!" Mr. Califonte said. "Even if there is a catastrophe, the show goes on. That's why we need understudies for all the main characters. And, everybody in the company needs to be flexible. If I ask you what you're willing to do for the show, your answer should be, 'Whatever you need me to do!' Does everyone understand?"
A few heads nodded in agreement.
"And, before I forget, if you are interested in a tech position," Mr. Califonte said, "please stay after auditions for a quick one-on-one interview. I need to figure out what you might be able to contribute backstage before I post the company list on Monday."
Mr. Califonte continued. "Okay. After you read your selection, I'll ask you two questions. 'What have you enjoyed most about high school so far?' And, 'What concerns do you have about being in the show?' By concerns, I mean possible conflicts with other activities, forgetting your lines, stage fright – things like that. You might even be concerned that your friends will make fun of you. Anyway, all that information will help me make good decisions about what job might be best for you. Last call – any questions?"
Finally, someone asked a question. "Ben," a guy in the back row said. "When is the play?"
Mr. Califonte scowled. "If I offer you a role, and you agree to be part of my team, you may call me Ben - during rehearsals and production activities only. Otherwise, it's Mr. Califonte. And, the answer to your question is on the poster by the front door. Since you seem to have overlooked that information, I will tell you. The dates for the performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday - March 22nd , 23rd and 24th ."
Apparently, our Drill Sargent wasn't always benevolent.
When we started filling out the forms, I checked everything except acting and makeup.
Mr. Califonte started the auditions, and I thought most of the students did well. Some were very nervous, and it showed. I was surprised when Sara answered her first question. She said the thing she had enjoyed most about high school was making so many new friends. I thought she'd talk about debate. I should have followed her lead.
I was the last one to read. I chose the opening narrative of the play, delivered by the main character, the Messenger. I did okay. Then, Mr. Califonte asked me what I liked most about high school so far. I answered that being part of the debate team was what I had enjoyed the most.
Before Mr. Califonte could ask me the second question, John - a guy I knew from History class – hollered out. "Duh! That's because you won the state championship – faggot!"
I have always been a very emotional person, and I immediately felt the humiliation of being embarrassed publicly. But, I have a full range of emotions, and I quickly felt my anger taking over. "Turn the tables on that idiot," I thought. "That's what you'd do in a debate."
I slowly shook my head from side to side. "John, John, John," I said. I looked him square in the eyes. "I told you last night, Man, I'm not like you. And no matter how much you want it, I'm not going to let you suck my dick again! It creeped me out."
The room was silent. No one said anything, not John – not even Mr. Califonte. I could feel the tension building.
Finally, a guy sitting next to John broke the silence. "Did you really suck his dick, John?"
That's when people started laughing. I looked at Mr. Califonte to see if I were in trouble. He had his head turned away. He was covering his mouth, trying to hide the fact that he was laughing along with everyone else.
John was turning red in the face. "No! He's lying!" he yelled. He stood up, glaring at me. "You'd better take that back, Joel – and apologize - right now!"
Some people just don't know when to stop.
"Okay. Okay," I said. "John, I am truly sorry – that I came in your mouth!'
Mr. Califonte was still trying to stifle his laughter, but he attempted to take back control of the room. Just then, John violently pushed his chair over. He headed toward the door. He stopped suddenly, turned around and yelled, "Fuck you, Joel!"
I turned away from John, and I looked at the audience in front of me. "I guess he's changed his mind," I said. "Last night, he wanted me to fuck him!"
John froze, like a deer in headlights.
Sara stood up. "Hey John," she said. "Don't try to insult the best debater in the state. You'll lose every time. And, you probably should know, he's got a red belt in martial arts, so I wouldn't try anything else, either."
John stormed out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
I shouldn't have gloated, but I did. "And that my friends,' I said, "is what is meant by the old adage, don't dish it out if you can't take it."
There was a smattering of applause, which Mr. Califonte hushed. "Okay, stop," he said. "Everybody stop!" He paused, stifling his own laughter.
"As much as I'd like to insert that entertaining dialogue into the play," he said, "I think it would get us closed down. John should not have interrupted Joel, and homophobic slurs will not be tolerated. I will talk with John about his behavior. But Joel, what you said was – inappropriate for high school. Listen up everybody! Interruptions, insults and bad language will not be tolerated!"
Mr. Califonte never asked me the second question. "Auditions are over," he said. "Tech interviews will start in ten minutes."
Sara and I went into the hall, and we stood to the left of the door. Two freshmen boys came out directly behind us. They turned to the right, but Sara and I could hear what they were saying:
"I've never heard dirty talk like that in school!"
"I know! That would never have gone down in middle school!"
"I thought there was going to be a fight – right there in the classroom!"
"Yea! And the teacher just stood there – laughing!"
"Isn't high school great!!!"
As soon as they were out of earshot, Sara just shook her head. "Freshmen!" she sighed.
"By the way," I said. "Thanks for having my back in there."
"John is such a jerk!" Sara said. "But, your rebuttal was great. Mrs. Weber would have been proud - shocked, but proud."
"Thanks," I said. "But why did you bring up my martial arts classes. I haven't been to the dojo in years. I've forgotten most of what I learned."
"Well," she said. "I told the truth. And, I saw no need to highlight the footnotes. Besides, I was afraid – and I'm still afraid – that John might try to ambush you."
When I had started 5th grade, my father insisted that I take martial arts classes. He said all men should be able to defend themselves. I didn't want to go. But when I objected, he said I had to take classes for three years. Then, I could make up my own mind about whether to continue. At the end of 7th grade, when my three year sentence was up, I quit. But, I had worked my way up to a red belt. And, I was much more confident about defending myself against bullies. I had also learned not to shy away from being aggressive – as long as I only used it to defend myself. Learning to channel my aggressions had even helped me in debate.
Sara wasn't interested in a tech position, so she wasn't staying for the one-on-one interviews. She wished me luck, and she headed out to the student parking lot.
I waited in the hallway by the Choir Room for almost an hour for my tech interview with Mr. Califonte. I was glad I'd brought homework with me. Of course, there were no chairs in the hallway, so I sat on the floor preparing for my Chemistry test on Friday.
I was the last person called in for an interview. I entered the room, and Mr. Califonte said, "Joel, have a seat."
As I sat down, I noticed the fragrance of his aftershave. It was clean, refreshing and manly. It reminded me of the smell of sandalwood. I liked it - a lot.
Mr. Califonte looked at me intently, and I started to feel uncomfortable. I wondered if maybe I was in more trouble than I thought. I even considered that maybe he was going to call my parents!
"Calm down," I told myself. "Don't make assumptions. Just listen carefully, and don't look intimidated. Speak to him as if you are an equal, but be very polite. Then, surprise him. That works in persuasive speaking, and it will work here."
"I'm going to start my interview with you a little differently than I did with the others," Mr. Califonte said. "With you, I am concerned about teamwork and leadership. I'm wondering if you would help or hinder me in building the cohesive team I want to put together. I really don't care about your technical skills right now. Those, I can teach you. What I do need to know is - what the Hell just happened between you and John?"
It would have been easy to answer by simply saying that John is a jerk, and I wasn't going to take his bullshit. But, that wouldn't help Mr. Califonte decide that I could be an asset backstage.
"Would it be all right," I asked, "if I answer your question in the same style in which The Messenger is written?"
Mr. Califonte looked amused. "I'm all for creativity and self-expression. Let's hear what you've got."
"John and I are very different," I said. "But, we are both teenage boys. And, just as young stags have fought to establish dominance over each other for years and decades, centuries and millenniums – in towns and states, across countries and continents; so it continues today and will continue into the future. And what you saw this afternoon, Mr. Califonte, was one obnoxious bully pick on the wrong guy and get his proverbial ass kicked."
For a moment, Mr. Califonte seemed startled by my answer. Then, his look of surprise turned into a questioning expression.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What high school kid talks like that?"
I had gotten the reaction I wanted. "Might as well continue down the same path," I thought.
"Who am I? I'm not sure how to answer that question," I said. "Maybe it would help if I tell you a little about myself." I paused and looked him in the eye as I got another whiff of his intoxicating aftershave.
"My father says that I am an 'old soul.' He and I get along great," I said. "And, we love to go running together. But, my father really wishes I had more interest in team sports. My mother has shared her love of literature with me since I was a child. We both love to read, and I like to write poetry. So, I guess you could say that I'm just a regular teenager who is maybe a little mature for his age. And, contrary to John's insulting allegations, I like playing with words – more than I like playing with balls."
When I was done, Mr. Califonte just stared at me. I had no idea what he was thinking.
"Am I the only one here with a dirty mind?" he asked. "Or, did you just weave an intricate back story in order to set up a suggestive double entendre?"
I tried to look shocked. "Mr. Califonte!" I said. "I meant the kind of balls used in team sports! You know – footballs, basketballs, baseballs."
"Yea, right," he said. "I should have known that would be your story – and I bet you're sticking to it."
I grinned, trying to communicate that I was guilty as charged, but still denying everything.
"I think we should move on," Mr. Califonte said. "If I find a role for you in the company, do you think you could stand up for yourself without getting the entire production shut down?"
I was done playing with words. "Of course," I answered. "As long as I'm backstage, and I don't have to act."
"No foul language?" he asked.
I tried to look hurt. "You think my language is foul?" I asked.
"Well, Joel," he said. "No offense intended, but what would you call phrases like, 'suck my dick,' 'cum in your mouth," and 'playing with balls?' You and I might find them funny, in certain contexts, but I think the school board might have a different opinion."
"I understand, Mr. Califonte," I said. "But, could I still say what I want - if I use more refined language?"
Mr. Califonte lowered his head into his hands. "Joel, Joel, Joel," he said as he looked up. "What am I going to do with you?"
"I guess, anything you want, Mr. Califonte," I answered. "I'll do whatever you need me to do."
"Is that a promise?" he asked.
"Sure. Why not?" I replied.
"Call me Ben," he said.
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