High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
As I move down the stairs, I reflect on my senior year. Each year I’d spent at Madison provided me with distinct memories. As a senior I was at the top of the food chain, and things from that year are fresher in my mind than earlier memories. They seem like they happened only yesterday. Well, it hadn’t been all that long ago. Climbing down those stairs brings back clear memories.
Being a senior was what all the kids in the years below you were looking forward to—anticipating the summit of the mountain that we’d now reached. I’d made it! I was a member of the school’s elite. So why didn’t it feel any different? If anything, I felt more pressure than I had before, even though I had the security of remaining in the coddling environment of my high school. Now, I knew my time in high school was ending soon, and I’d be out on my own in an entirely new environment—quite likely a hostile one—and be on the bottom rung again.
We began conditioning camp soon after the campout. Probably not the best thing ever, as half the seniors hadn’t stopped partying with the end of the campout and were hungover and tired from getting very little sleep; too, they had engaged in some pretty energy-sapping activities well into the wee hours at the camp. Some had continued partying even after that and were still recovering. Coach T was pissed. But then, we were used to that. As a senior, it was easier to ignore him. We knew we’d play, even if he was ticked at us. He favored winning over most anything else, and he couldn’t win without us. He had more incentive to win this year. We hadn’t won State last year, and this would be my final year as quarterback at the school. There was a sophomore QB who looked decent but not like he could carry the team—not yet, at least. There’d been times when Jake and I had done just that in the past on the offensive side of the ball.
The talk around school was all about the campout. Stories were told, and they kept getting bigger and bigger. Some of the stories were incredible, like there’d been an orgy, or someone or other had gotten blown in front of everyone, or so and so got so drunk they had to go to the emergency room. I’d been there; I hadn’t seen any of that happen.
As far as I knew, all of the kids had participated in the skinny dipping. It had been tremendous fun. I think the beer that people had drunk had loosened a lot of inhibitions because there was lots of stuff going on in the water: girls grabbing guys on those parts that were underwater, and often the guys they were grabbing weren’t even their boyfriends. The boys were doing the same thing with the girls, but a lot of their grabbing and caressing and tweaking was above water.
The girls were doing a lot of squealing and shrieking. Beth never did that. Too unseemly for her and too much being out of control. I watched her because I wasn’t used to seeing her naked, so it was a novelty. She was as sleek as an otter in the water, and when she stood up with water up to her waist, I liked her slimness and small, tight breasts. They were the perfect embellishment for her.
I saw Katy join her. Katy was much more lavishly endowed. I found her less interesting, but Beth seemed very happy to have her there. Katy was smiling a lot, too. Maybe Beth had a chance there.
I found Noah in the water. He was goofing around with Trevor. They got engaged in a chicken fight with two defensive backs from the team—you know, where two guys get on two other guys’ shoulders and then each top guy tries to make the other top guy fall off. Trevor was the bottom, Noah the top, and even though he wasn’t a football player, it was obvious Noah worked out by the way he looked. He and Trevor beat the other pair two out of three matches. There was a lot of laughter involved.
Jake and Lanny swam together, stopped and kissed several times, and then joined a Frisbee game with another couple, which was only possible because they had a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee. Damn, but Lanny looked good, jumping for the disc when she needed to.
Jake did, too.
When they got out of the lake with their girlfriends, some of the guys were at least half hard. Maybe that’s why they got out when they did; they were ready for more than they wanted to do in the water. They didn’t try to hide their condition. They were laughing and heading for their tents.
Our group didn’t have tents.
We’d all brought sleeping bags. I got out of the lake first in our group, dried off and made my way back to our spot. I put more wood on the fire so it would be burning and warm when the others got back. Then I sat and thought about what Beth had said earlier. I thought about a lot of things: Beth, my dad, Duncan, the guys at our lunch table, Miller. I wondered what senior year would be like. Some kids would be working hard to improve their grades for their college applications. Some would be goofing off, knowing all they had to do was pass a few courses to get their diplomas and finally be done with school. I’d be going to college, probably on a full-ride athletic scholarship unless I screwed up this year. I didn’t worry about that. If there were two things I was confident about, they were my ability to play quarterback at a high level and to get good grades.
When the others made it back to our campfire, I was very surprised to find that most of them just stayed naked. I’d seen that at other fires as I made my way back to ours. I guess the thrill of being naked with the other sex and the feeling of the warm night air on their bodies was just too good to end any sooner than necessary. It made me a little uneasy and a little awkward because I’d put my clothes back on when I’d first returned to our site. I was often uncomfortable in social situations. It was one of the reasons I didn’t go to parties. I was often unsure just what to do, what to say. Like now: should I undress again, purposely getting naked, or should I stay dressed? Either choice was embarrassing. I hated that kind of quandary.
But only Noah got dressed again, though he only slipped into his boxers. The rest just sat around the fire as though being naked with each other was the most natural thing in the world.
Conditioning was hard, with Coach T trying to make it that way, especially the first day. A couple of the seniors just quit. Not the team, but the drills. They just walked away from them, hanging their heads, with the coach rebuking them loudly, scathingly all the way off the field.
I wasn’t hungover, and I was in really good shape because of all the lifting and running I’d been doing over the summer. I found the drills easy.
That season was the most enjoyable one I had. The team hadn’t suffered from the loss of last year’s seniors and in fact was better at a couple of key positions. Our middle linebacker was of all-state caliber and was a five-star recruit for colleges, the top rating for a high-school player. Another was a four-star running back who hadn’t played much last year in favor of two seniors. He’d gained both muscle and quickness over the summer. He was a threat we hadn’t had the year before.
Another change we had was a big one. Coach T had always called the plays in the past. I’d had the option to audible if I saw the defense was set up against the play he’d called, but the coach gave me a hard time if I did it too often. He didn’t like to relinquish control. This year, for no reason that he ever explained to me, he sat down with me and asked if I’d like to call the plays. I jumped at the chance. I had the feeling I knew what would work better than he did, being in the middle of the fray. Maybe that was just teenage hubris, but I really believed it. I ended up calling the plays the entire year.
We had a good year. We were markedly better than the other teams in our conference, which wasn’t a weak one by any standards. But we fielded a good, solid team and averaged a winning margin of over 21 points. We really didn’t have any close games, none where we were threatened. I was very vocal about playing the bench players in the fourth quarters of most games, telling Coach T he’d have to use those guys next year. He actually listened to me this time, and that became our common practice. It was a good thing, too.
I was surprised, but realized Coach T was showing me much more respect than he ever had before. I realized I was feeling something of that for him as well. Strange.
We didn’t lose a game in conference, and then there were three more games to play: the tri-county regionals, the state semi-finals, and the state-championship game.
The tri-county game was no more difficult than our conference games had been. We simply outmatched our opponents and won by 30 points. They tried hard and played a clean game but couldn’t stop Jake or our running attack. Coach T warned us after the game not to get big heads. He said our next opponent would be much tougher. They were also undefeated, they were a large-city team with lots of good players available to them who were both big and experienced, and we’d have our hands full.
He was right. Going into the fourth quarter, they led by a touchdown. It had been a hard-fought game, and both sides were tired. They hadn’t played dirty, just really tough. There is a difference. They hadn’t tried to intentionally hurt anyone, which is what dirty teams did. But one of our key guys had gotten dinged. Our offensive right tackle had gone down with a twisted knee. I didn’t know how serious it was at the time, just knew he was in pain. He was replaced by one of the bench players who’d seen lots of fourth-quarter playing time all year. The benefit of that was now obvious. He held his own on the line against a very good defensive tackle.
On our first possession of the last quarter we started on our own 32-yard line. Our running attack had been marginal all game; their line and linebacker play had been very strong. I called a play-action, stop-and-go pass and tossed the ball to Jake going up the right sideline. Their safety had been drawn in by the fake run, and it was one on one with Jake and their cornerback. I got the ball just ahead of Jake so he didn’t have to break stride to catch it, and he reeled it in, fought off the ankle tackle the cornerback attempted, and raced to the end zone. It was a 68-yard completion for a touchdown, and we’d tied the game.
From that point, both defenses stiffened, and we were both scoreless till we got the ball back on a long punt, deep in our own territory with less than a minute to go. Coach T called a timeout and told me we should just sit on the ball due to our field position and try our luck in overtime.
I didn’t argue with him. I simply didn’t follow his instructions. I called a draw play with all our receivers going deep. They were expecting a deep throw and had eight men dropping into deep coverage. The middle of the field was wide open, and our star running back was elusive enough to get past the early wave of tacklers that came back to meet him. When he was finally brought down, it was on their 31-yard line. There were seven seconds left on the clock. I called time out.
Trevor came into the game. It would be a 48-yard field goal, a very long field goal for any high-school kicker. The other team tried to freeze him by calling their own time out just before the snap. Trevor was a cool customer; I don’t think it fazed him at all. When the ball was finally snapped, he put it through the uprights, and we’d won.
That brought up the championship game, and it was against the team we’d played in my sophomore year, the team that had played tough and dirty, the one that had tried to injure Jake. They had the same angry, belligerent coach, whose approach seemed to be to use all his energy to intimidate his own players. Those guys hadn’t cleaned up their act, either; they were just as dirty, maybe even more so, than two years before.
There was a difference in the game this time. We had the best refs in the state officiating this time around, and flags were thrown left and right for personal fouls. We kept getting 15-yard penalties going in our favor, though neither our offense nor defense really needed that kind of help. Evidently, their team had been good enough all year versus weaker teams to overcome what penalties were called against them. Against us, that wasn’t the case. When they lost two players for multiple flagrant personal fouls, that really tipped the balance; it also gave their coach a severe attack of apoplexy. We won by 17 points. It was my third state championship, and I’d only played in three championship games.
I have two memories of my senior year that stand alone. One was that championship we earned. There was a lot of hard work that went into it, and I was proud of what we’d accomplished. I’d sort of come to appreciate some things about Coach T, too, although he’d never be a paragon in my book. But he wasn’t all bad, either. I guess that might sum up almost everyone.
Besides our football accomplishments, the other memory of that year that’s hard to forget happened near the end of the year. As I walk through the basement corridor, I pass a door that leads into a number of basement dressing rooms. Those rooms are located under the auditorium, directly under the stage, and there is a private staircase that connects them with the backstage area. I’d spent some time in those dressing rooms and in the back of the stage as well.
We were eating lunch in the cafeteria. It was our usual group at the table: myself along with Beth, Jake, Lanny, Katy, Noah, Brian and Curtis.
“We need you in our play,” Beth said. “Will you do it?”
Of course, I wouldn’t do it! I spent way too much time and effort trying to be normal, a normal kid who no one really noticed all that much. I know, I know; if you’re part of winning three state championships in football, a big part, how are you supposed to stay anonymous? Well, I still tried to. I still played down my celebrity status as much as possible. And now, she wanted me up on a stage with people gawking at me, the center of attention? And doing it on purpose? No way!
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not going to be in any play. Up there in front of a crowd. No no no.”
“But you played football in front of crowds much bigger than this every week! I know you’re shy, but still . . .”
Beth knew me better than anyone else, except possibly Jake. She knew I hated it when someone said I was shy. I wasn’t! Being thought of as somehow special made me uncomfortable. I just didn’t like to be the focus of people. I liked to blend in, be no more noticeable than anyone else. So, if she was calling me shy in front of a bunch of kids, she was either trying to get my goat or was angry. I gave her face a hard glance; she didn’t look angry. So, what was her game?
I found out very quickly.
Brian spoke up. Brian! He hardly spoke at all. You know, when someone like that says something, people tend to listen. What he said was, “You must be shy, Whit. What other reason could you have for not wanting to help Beth out? I’m shy, and I admit it. You all know that. I am, and you won’t see me up there on any stage. But I have a reason. If you’re not shy, then you don’t.”
I looked at him. “I like you better when you don’t talk so much,” I said, but my eyes were telling him I was joking, and he giggled. Damn, he was cute when he did that!
Then Lanny, Lanny of almost as few words as Brian, spoke up. “The drama kids have worked hard on this play, and they’re not selling many tickets. Beth wrote and is directing it. You could really help out. Letting people know you’re in the play—I’ll bet we’d sell out the house.”
Before I could respond, Jake jumped in with, “Nah, he really is shy. Just because he says something doesn’t mean it’s true. You should all leave him alone. Maybe he can come up with a good reason for not being in it, like he’s allergic to makeup or needs to mow his lawn that night.”
You know what sarcasm sounds like? That skeptical tone, that scoffing lilt? That’s what Jake sounded like.
Then Beth spoke again. “See? Everyone wants you to do it.”
It was a conspiracy! She’d planned this! And coached our lunchmates with what to say. It didn’t take me any time at all to figure out why she did it. The one thing Beth liked more than anything else was getting her own way. She’d known I wouldn’t want to be in her play, so had figured out a way to make it really hard for me to resist—by getting the whole table to support her. She was using what she knew about me against me. She knew all about my desire to have people like me. It was a cross I had to bear and one she had exploited before.
I didn’t like the fact she’d told all the kids at our table that I hated being called shy, but with her, very few things were out of bounds when she was trying to manipulate someone. Like now.
The truth was the truth; as much as I didn’t like being called shy, I did want people to like me. And if a whole table of kids was going to harass me about refusing to be in Beth’s play, about my only way to stay on their good side was to capitulate.
“Okay, I’ll do it, but only if it’s a brief appearance on stage—and no lines. What do they call it when someone just shows up, sort of to show off or something? If it’s a female cutie pie, all the men can ogle her. If it’s a male beefcake, then all the girls can drool and scream? There’s a word for it.”
“A cameo appearance,” Beth said, smiling. She’d won and didn’t mind some subtle gloating. She also knew I’d get her back at some point, but right then she felt triumphant and wasn’t worrying about the future.
She’d written a part for me after I’d capitulated, and she had ignored my wish that I’d have only a walk-on appearance. She’d given me a few lines which meant I’d even have to do some acting. But as time passed and I kept missing rehearsals, it became obvious even to Beth that I’d have almost no time to get ready for my part. She was forced to cut my role down to what really was a cameo appearance.
And so it was that the only rehearsal I had was the dress rehearsal. That really wasn’t a problem, though, as my role had been reduced to walking onstage, throwing a bundle of letters through an upstairs window, where the heroine was supposedly grief-stricken, and walking offstage afterwards. My total time in front of the audience would be maybe 20 seconds. If I stretched it, 30; I had no intention of stretching it and actually would try to do the opposite. My idea would be to reduce it to 15 seconds at the most if I could.
“You need to get into your costume and makeup,” Beth told me when I showed up for the dress rehearsal on Saturday morning. The show would be that evening. “Your appearance will come an hour from now, so there’s no rush. But be in the dressing room in 15 minutes. I’ll send Dean in with your costume, and he’ll do your makeup. You come on just about at the end of the play, and we’re taking the last act first in this rehearsal. We’re rehearsing in reverse order today. I want the first act to go last this morning so it’ll be fresh in the actor’s minds tonight.”
She was taking her director’s job seriously. But then, that was Beth. Strong-willed, strong-minded, and not to be denied. A force of nature. She was an out-front and in-your-face creature; I had much the same nature, but in a softer, more nonconfrontational way. When we battled, as people with our personalities did, both of us unbending, often there was no winner. We both got over it eventually. We valued each other as friends.
So, I was in the dressing room a few minutes later, and in walked a freshman whom I didn’t know. He had to be a freshman, as small as he was and as young as he looked. He gave me a look and had a difficult time raising his eyes to above my neck. Oh no, I thought, one of those. A kid who thought I was some sort of hero or celebrity, someone bigger than life, someone with his head in the clouds when he was stuck on earth. I hated that.
I looked at him as he was sort of looking at me without meeting my eyes and blushing. I said, “Aren’t you supposed to be bringing my costume?”
At that he finally looked up, briefly, then said to my neck, “Yeah, here it is.”
He held out his hand, and in it were a pair of shorts, about the size of a swimming-team pair of Speedos.
“Where’s the rest of it?” I asked, already feeling something in my stomach, already knowing the answer.
“This is it,” he said, nervously. He’d heard my tone of voice.
Not only were the shorts in his hand tiny, they were flesh colored. If that was my costume, it meant I’d be going on stage looking for all intents and purposes naked. As tiny as the shorts looked, as tight as I imagined they might be, maybe more than almost naked. Some parts might not be entirely covered, and the parts that were wouldn’t be covered adequately.
Dean was looking at the clock. “We don’t have much time,” he said nervously. “It takes a while to get the makeup on. I have to do most of your body. You need to get undressed now.”
I snorted. “Not on your life,” I said, grabbed the shorts from him and walked out. I went to find Beth. She must have known I’d be coming because she was in the middle of a group of about ten kids, all gathered tightly around her. She was telling them things, and I could tell by her body language and voice that at that moment she was uninterruptible. So, I simply walked away. Maybe I was just a little shy. I certainly didn’t like public confrontations.
When I got my cue to enter stage right with the bundle of letters I was to deliver, I did so. Wearing my street clothes and no makeup. I walked to my spot, tossed the letters at the window like a QB throwing a TD pass, missed, tried again, missed again, then mugged for the audience, which in this case was mostly cast members. The mugging got me the big laugh I was expecting, even a couple of cheers. Then I threw the letters through the window and exited stage left.
I was met by a furious Beth. I could tell just how furious by the softness of her voice. The madder she got, the quieter but more intense she became. Now, she was almost whispering, whispering with flecks of saliva coming from her lips, her fury off the charts.
I gave it right back to her. What the hell was she thinking, making me come out almost nude? Why couldn’t I wear a costume that fit in with the ones others were wearing? They were dressed like her idea of ancient Romans: some in togas, some in briefer garments but ones which were still covering body parts that required covering. I had to admit I wasn’t sure, but perhaps mine would do that, too, if barely; I couldn’t be sure of that; I hadn’t tried the costume on yet; but she knew how big I was down there; she really did, and from personal experience; she was doing this on purpose. I just didn’t intend to go on stage knowing there was the possibility I’d fall out of my suit very publicly.
After seeing my intransigence and knowing the best way to deal with me, she settled down enough to explain that it was perfectly natural for a boy who worked as a messenger in early Rome to dress like this. A boy who spent the days running the streets of Rome was usually a poor urchin, and this was what kids like that wore. Often, their costumes were old and worn and showed much more than this one did. It wasn’t a big thing in Rome back then. They were much more casual about nudity.
“This isn’t Rome, and how do you know that about boy messengers?” I asked, controlling my emotions. “Did you see a picture? I want to see it.”
“No,” she said sternly. “I couldn’t find a picture of a messenger boy. But this is how I envision him dressing. Whit, you’re only onstage for a couple of seconds. Where’s the harm in it? And look—you will not miss the window! A laugh at that point is the very last thing we want. Yours is a highly stressed moment in the play. It’s where the damsel’s distress is about to become overjoyed. We can’t relieve the tension the audience is feeling right before that happens. Do not miss tonight! Got that? Do not miss!”
Man, oh man, those memories are so clear, it is like this had happened yesterday. Beth was taking advantage of me like she frequently did. She knew I wouldn’t let her down, just like she knew there was no time for re-costuming or anything else. She had figured out her own sweet revenge for my not showing up for rehearsals till it was too late for me to insist anything be changed. I’d have to play the scene as she’d designed it, wearing a costume that wasn’t really obscene but was certainly more suggestive than I’d like and showed a whole lot more of me than most people had ever seen—a lot more of me that I’d want them to see. Yeah, the memory of what I’d felt, knowing I’d walk out on the stage in front of all those people basically undressed, still causes my heart to speed up. Other memories about that night have the same effect. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago.
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My thanks as usual for the work my editors put in pinching and punching this story into shape. A special word of thanks to Colin for supplying the artwork and supplementary material.