This might not be so easy to explain.
Sure, I missed Monday and Tuesday, and while I know that a visit to the principal’s office counts as an excused absence, it’s not ideal to be missing another day of drama class. Opening night is only a few weeks away, and it would be good to get a couple of extra hours under my belt rehearsing lines or practicing stage directions.
That’s typical. Called to the principal’s office and all I can think about is how I’m not getting enough time in to practice leaping back and forth across a stage causing mischief. The priorities of a high schooler.
But why couldn’t I have been called down during some other class, like English? I have a solid A in English, and a lost discussion on the finer points of Lonesome Dove isn’t going to make or break anything, so far as I can tell. McMurtry’s thrilling cast of characters will still be there when I get back to class in twenty minutes.
Oh well. I did it to myself.
Monday morning was a true test of my acting, as I had to feign illness for my Mom. Upset as I was about Carter, it was easy to get the important stuff - no appetite, constant discomfort, sweating, nausea. It was all there, just not caused by a fever or a cold. Just a broken heart, which did the trick.
That got me through Monday. Tuesday was the same song, second verse. I was mostly better, but it wouldn’t do me any good to go to school only half recovered from my illness. Even a nurse like my Mom had to agree that an extra day of rest would do me good after such a bad day on Monday.
Wednesday, however, I wasn’t fooling anybody. I faked it as hard as I could, but nothing short of a hospital visit was going to keep me from returning to my education. Not with my mom, at least.
And so I came back to school. It was easy to avoid Carter when I was spending all my time at home on the couch, but things got trickier when we were spending eight hours a day trapped in the same building. I had to be very, very careful.
My first challenge would be the hallways. I mapped out Carter’s schedule in my head and estimated where he might be walking and when, and then avoided those places like my life depended on it. We have study hall together, but that’s a no brainer - I can sign myself into the library instead of going to the cafeteria. After school there’s always the chance we cross paths in the locker room, but if I change fast I’m in the clear, as the soccer team almost always finishes practice before the football team. Problem solved, at least ninety percent of the time.
And that leaves Chemistry.
It would be one thing in a lecture. Lay low, keep to myself and avoid any interaction with Carter. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable thing in the world, but I could do it. But how do you avoid your lab partner?
You skip class, obviously.
Which brings us back to our current predicament and also explains why I’m sitting here in the principal’s office. I cut a few classes, and now I have to face the music.
I’ve never been to the principal’s office, at least not for anything bad. A few administrative issues here and there, but never for punishment. Everything I know about it, however, tells me it can go one of three ways: Delling, Marcos, or Zidnik.
Our high school’s principal is Don Delling. From all my experience he’s a pretty nice guy, although I’ve only ever seen him at friendly, public events like awards dinners, sports games, and pep rallies. He’s always in a good mood, and always talking amicably with students and parents. He could be a totally different sort of person when you get called into his office for cutting class, but something tells me he wouldn’t be.
Option two is Mr. Marcos. That’s the bad option. Marcos has a body like a silverback gorilla and a personality to match. If he’s not working out and becoming as large and intimidating as possible, he’s roaming the halls and badgering kids half his age for being two minutes late to class. Marcos is without a doubt the most feared authority figure at our school, and his intolerance is matched only by the size of his pectoral muscles. No thank you.
My imagination is running wild on what Marcos might do with someone as dastardly as a class cutter when Ms. Zidnik pops out of her office and locks eyes on me.
“Mr. Willard?” she announces. “Come in, please.”
I make my way over to her office and I’m already feeling about a hundred times better about my situation. Dwelling on the wrath of Mr. Marcos wasn’t doing anything to make me feel less anxious about my visit. Zidnik doesn’t have a reputation as a pushover by any means, but anything’s better than having a sit down with Mr. Marcos.
By the time I get into her office and sit down Ms. Zidnik is leafing through a handful of papers on her desk, one of which I recognize as the note my mom sent to the school on Monday to excuse my absence. I’m guessing that’s not why we’re here. Missing two days of school is nothing a note from mom can’t sort out. After getting through the rest of her stack, she purses her lips and looks at me over the top of her reading glasses.
The sharp lines of her face give her an especially “no nonsense” sort of look in this context. I’ve talked to her a few times in happier circumstances, but this could be totally different. Now I’m the defendant, and Zidnik’s the DA, judge, and jury. Maybe she won’t be so nice this time. What do they even do to kids when they cut class? I don’t know. Isn’t it a crime?
Again it’s my head getting the best of me, and I’m feeling a lot less confident when Zidnik starts to talk.
“Mr. Willard, I’m surprised to see you in my office like this,” she says.
Me too, I guess.
“I know you missed class earlier this week because you were ill.” She gestures to the note. “But that doesn’t explain your extended absence from Chemistry. Mr. Nizen brought it to my attention this morning, and quite frankly both of us are concerned.”
She pauses and searches my expression, letting her words hang in the air. I’ve been prepping for this moment all week trying to come up with reasonable excuses for skipping two extra days of only one class, but now that I’m here being questioned they seem less than convincing. I decide not to answer until she comes out and asks. It’s like a murder trial - you don’t have to say anything unless they ask you a question.
“Attendance is important,” she continues, “but with your performance in class and all your extracurricular activities, we aren't overly concerned.”
Again she pauses, looking for me to make the next move. It's the oldest trick in the book. I can outlast her.
Getting nothing from me voluntarily, Zidnik sighs and takes off her glasses. She wipes them with a piece of cloth on her desk then replaces them.
“I suppose what I need to know,” she says, “is what have you and Mr. Mulkins been up to?”
My next breath catches in my throat and I try not to let my face betray the sense of immense panic brewing inside of me. This is beyond bad.
Where to even begin?
I could give her the simplest answer, but it's also the most shocking: We've done some petting, jerked each other off, and even swapped a handful of blowjobs. When it looked like it might be about more than sex, Carter freaked out and we haven't spoken since. So I guess it's a purely sexual relationship that never came to fruition - that’s all it was, and all it ever will be.
No, on second thought I don't think I'll be saying that to our assistant principal.
Another version is a tale of unrequited love: The crush I've had on Carter for over a year. The way I started to befriend him. The strangely natural progression we took to start something physical. My own escape from my shell and into enough confidence to always push things a little bit further. Then I pushed too hard and everything fell apart.
No, not that one either.
As touching as it may be – the gay drama nerd following his dreams and almost getting what he wants – it's also a little bit creepy. A lot of me watching and waiting, then suggesting and manipulating. It's kind of like the religious conservative nightmare. One of the gays swooping in and turning their son homo. It's not illegal or anything, but they've kicked kids out of school for things like this. Just look at what happened to Sam.
It's not a good start. Zidnik isn't impressed, at least.
“I'm waiting, Mr. Willard,” she says.
How does she even know about this? I never gave the slightest hint of what was going on between me and Carter to anyone except Ko, Katy, and Sam. And they wouldn't tell anyone - I'd stake my life on that. So who said something to the school? Were we that obvious about it? My friends all knew when something started to happen, but did everyone else, too?
Was it Carter?
That’s the only other explanation, right? Did he go to the school and tell them what I did to him? What did he even say?
That would put me in one hell of an awkward spot. If Carter came clean and told them everything…
I don’t even want to think about it. There would be problems. Big problems. No matter how you frame it, it doesn’t look good.
There’s only one thing to do now: Lie about it.
I’ll say that none of it ever happened. Carter’s been making up stories, and for some reason he decided to involve me in the whole thing.
Luckily, before I can make a complete ass of myself, Zidnik continues.
“As I said earlier, both of you are doing well in school, so it's not the performance or missed work that we're worried about. But both of you are minors. And when you're completely unaccounted for several days in a row, it puts everyone at risk, especially you and-”
“This is just because I missed class?”
The question hangs in silence for a few seconds. It wasn’t the most tactful way to test the waters, but the possibility of this being a thousand times less horrible than it was two minutes ago is something I can't wait on.
“Yes,” Zidnik assures me. “I thought I had said that already. What else would it be about?”
I shrug and try to look as innocent as possible. Maybe I’ll get my acting practice in after all. “I was just afraid that I would be in trouble,” I say.
Zidnik smiles at me reassuringly and her whole look softens. “Don't worry about that,” she says, “we just need to make sure that you're in class where and when you're supposed to be.”
I relax, but only internally. On the outside I make sure to paint the picture of a concerned young student, cowed by the weight of the mere possibility of being on the wrong side of the law.
“But that being said, I do need to know why you and Mr. Mulkins have missed almost an entire week of chemistry.”
That’s news to me. Carter has been skipping class too? I make a mental note to fully revisit that juicy piece of information in the future. For now, however, I have bigger fish to fry.
Time to take it up a notch.
“I was sick on Monday and Tuesday,” I explain, “and then I guess I was still just tired out from being sick and everything else. So instead of going to chemistry I...” I hesitate. I feel like I'm betraying an entire generation of students, but the best lies are sprinkled with just the right amount of truth. “I went to the gym to take a nap.”
That gives Zidnik a very real look of surprise. “What do you mean you took a nap at the gym?”
I decide to come clean, at least about where I was during chemistry. I explain about how the basketball bleachers get put away during normal school days, and that when they're folded up against the wall there's still a few feet of space behind them. If you're skinny enough, you can squeeze into the place between the bleachers and the wall, and it actually makes a dark, quiet place perfect for taking a quick nap or hiding out if you don't want to participate in gym. Someone even threw an old wrestling mat back there sometime last year for a sort of makeshift bed.
I'm not sure how many kids at the school know about it, but I've gone back there a handful of times during lunch or study hall to catch up on lost sleep. On one occasion there was already someone back there, curled up with a blanket and everything. I know I'm not the only one who's been snoozing behind the bleachers.
Needless to say, Zidnik is highly disturbed by my confession.
“Do they sweep back there?” she asks, unable to hide the look of horror on her face.
Again, my dramatic flair gets the best of me. “It's not too bad. Sometimes there are candy wrappers and stuff from the basketball games.”
She shudders at the thought before regaining her composure to continue my interrogation. She doesn't seem like the sort of lady who likes messes, or dusty sleeping chambers behind the bleachers for that matter. Besides giving me a weird sort of pleasure in performance, her reaction tells me something even more important: I’ve got her on her heels.
“If you were napping in the gym – which I am going to look into, for multiple reasons – where was Carter?” Her questions are still tricky ones, but now they have a little less force behind them.
“I don't know,” I reply with complete honesty. “Did he miss class all week too?”
“He did,” she says. “And you don't know anything about that?”
I pause. I can certainly speculate as to why he was skipping chemistry. Maybe he’s just as upset as I am about the whole thing. In a way it’s comforting to think that’s he’s so torn up about it. On the other hand it’s almost proof positive that he hates my guts.
Even though I’m keyed in to the reason Carter is skipping class, I don't think the why will be much help to Zidnik, and it will probably raise even more questions than it answers.
“No,” I say. “I was hoping to get notes from him when I came back.”
Now that Zidnik has an even bigger problem tossed into her lap - like how many students at the school are regularly crawling into a grimy crawlspace to sleep while they should be in class - I don't expect her to press the issue much harder, and thank goodness. I have enough on my plate already, what with Carter hating me and all.
“Alright,” she says, “I'll speak with him about his own whereabouts then. And as for you, Mr. Willard, make sure you go to all your classes.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I reply.
“And if you have any further issues with exhaustion, you can always check in with the nurse. I'm sure she can let you lie down for a bit if you need to, in a more... sanitary environment.” She wrinkles her nose again at the mere thought of resting on a filthy gym floor before turning back to me. “You're free to go.”
I stand up to leave and I can't believe my luck. After my initial scare, that went better than I could have imagined. Maybe I'll cut class more often, although I should find a new place to hide out before I do.
“And Jackson?” Zidnik says as I'm stepping out the door. “If you see Mr. Mulkins in the office on your way, can you send him in?”
It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. Breaking things off, I mean. I was half expecting weeks of pain, anguish, and suffering, thinking it would take me months to get back to functional levels.
But no, nothing like that. Thank God I’m so busy. There are hardly enough hours in the day to get done what I need to much less moan and gnash my teeth over a boy who doesn't like me. Busy is my new emotion, and work is the way I feel. Next time I break up I'll get a part time job to top it all off. I'll never be sad again!
I figured the hardest part of all would be chemistry, but even that was easier than I had imagined. Carter and I instantly settled into a very functional rhythm. We don't talk unless it's about the lab, and we don't even look at each other unless it's absolutely necessary.
Don't get me wrong, it's not fun. But I'll survive, and our grades won’t suffer for it either. Doing something wrong would only mean more time together and more talking. We can't afford mistakes like that. Nizen never mentioned our time away from class, and seeing two people working as efficiently as we do with so little chatter probably makes him happier than anything. Less talking, more science, as he likes to say when the lab gets too noisy.
That logic applies to my life, even outside of our one class together. Less Carter, more focus. I'm actually doing better in my other classes too, and spending time with friends and drama stuff as well. We're only one week away from opening now, and I'm more than ready to let something I enjoy doing come in and take over my life. The time I used to set aside for Carter? It's like it was never even there.
As for Ko, Katy, and Sam, they've been great about the whole thing. Especially since I spent the last month or two neglecting them. I totally put them on the back burner while I was getting into it with Carter, but can you blame me? As shitty as it feels now, I don’t regret any of the time I spent with him.
But that’s what having best friends is all about. I was MIA for a few months, no big deal. I’ve dealt with the same sort of thing from Katy and Ko at some point. Ko’s never vanished for months at a time, but the way his love life plays itself out, it’s more like every other week. Hot and heavy, then bone dry until the next one. Katy’s the exact opposite, but she was out of touch for most of the summer with the whole Jeff thing and her program in New York.
And it doesn’t bother me in the least. When Katy’s in Jeff-World Ko and I hang and get more time to play video games. When Ko’s off with whoever he’s into that week, Katy and I watch musicals and gossip about kids in the drama club. If they’re both doing their own thing, I actually get all my homework done for once. We’re best friends, and we’re not going to let some guy or girl get between us.
Even Sam’s been on that level for me recently. While he’s less established as a friend, he gets it better than anyone. Just like everything else, he knew almost before I did exactly what happened between me and Carter, and pretty much any moment I’m not spending with Katy or Ko, I’m hanging out at Sam’s house. He’s been a huge help not only in distraction, but in supporting me through the whole “breakup,” if you can even call it that. Granted, that’s not stopping him from rubbing my nose in how right he was about it the whole time.
Tonight I’m crashing at his house. My mom thinks we’re hanging out just like we would any other day, but really I’m doing Sam a huge favor. I guess I owe him one after all his help getting over Carter. His aunt and uncle are in town this week, and while they both seem like lovely people, it only took me about ten minutes at dinner to understand exactly why Sam concocted this whole elaborate plan to have me stay over tonight. They come off strong, to say the least.
So he had the idea of making me come over to act as a sort of buffer. It's easy to get a little time away from the relatives when you have to get a group project done. So what if it’s completely made up? We’re not in any of the same classes, much less the same grade, but Uncle Eddie and Aunt Tess don’t need to know that.
Having made our escape from the dinner table, we've retired back to Sam's room. He told me earlier that we could spend the time working on my lines for opening night, only six days away. I thought he was joking, but the second we got to the bedroom he pulled out my script and starting running lines with me.
“When thou wake, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I go now to Oberon.”
I look up at Sam and he’s shaking his head. Eighteen lines of monologue, and I would have said they were perfect.
“It’s not ‘does,’” he says. “It’s ‘doth.’ And you botched a bunch of the verbs. And you ‘must’ to Oberon, not ‘go’ to him.”
I put my arms Akimbo and glare at him.
“It doesn't have to be perfect,” I argue. “The meaning is there, so it doesn't matter if I say ‘sleeps’ instead of ‘sleepeth,’ or whatever.”
Sam dramatically throws the back of his hand against his forehead.
“Oh?” he cries with a flourish. “Methinks he protests for lack of trying!”
“I'm trying,” I say as sternly as possible, even though it's hard not to laugh at seeing Sam's attempt at acting. It’s not exactly what I would call subtle.
“It's Shakespeare!” he says, as though that alone should stop all ‘protesting.’
“It's fine,” I say again.
“You can't change Shakespeare.” He grabs a softball from his desk and strikes a pose.
That gets me laughing. “Is MacBeth trying out for the team?” I ask, snatching the ball out of his hands. “To swing, perchance to hit - ay there’s the run…”
My monologue is interrupted by a text alert from Sam's phone. He grabs it and types out a quick reply while I put the ball back on his desk.
“Which of your boy toys was that?” I ask when he's finished.
He sighs and flops down on his bed, still looking at his phone. “None of them, unfortunately.”
I look down at him on the bed and I can't help but be jealous. Sam's a full year younger than me, but somehow he manages to swing all these crazy hook ups with all sorts of hot guys at school. I’ve hardly gotten with anyone, while he has more guys chasing him around than he can even keep track of. The cherry on top? Half of them are straight!
“How do you do it?” I ask.
I can't help myself. I'm back on the market, and I'd kill to even get one tenth of the action that he does.
“Do what?” he asks.
“You know what I mean.”
He smirks from behind his phone. Clearly he knows exactly what I mean.
“It's not as crazy as it sounds.” He finally looks up at me and sees the disbelief on my face. “Seriously, it's not.”
I shake my head and flop down on the bed next to him. “I don't believe you. You talk about all these guys. Like half the guys on the soccer team, I've seen you hanging out with a few dudes from baseball, and then there's the whole football team I know you have your eye on...”
“Yeah,” he cuts me off. “Exactly. I talk about it.”
“What are you saying?” I ask. “You don't actually get with all these guys you hang out with?”
He puts his phone down and furrows his brow. “No. Definitely not most of them.”
We sit in silence for a second, and I can't help but ask the next obvious question.
“Two,” Sam says, before I can even finish asking.
“Just two?” I say. “This whole year at school? You've only gotten with two guys?”
Sam laughs. “Yeah, just two. I flirt with everybody I think is hot, but that's as far as it goes for ninety nine percent of people.”
“But you always say how everybody wants it. Just get them hard and they're all yours.”
“Yeah, they totally want it.” He gives me a knowing look. “Everyone's a little bit curious,” he continues, “but most guys don't get over themselves enough to actually try it. Or if they know for sure they're not gay they'll never let themselves cross that line, even if it doesn’t mean anything.”
Sam sits up in bed and looks at me. He shrugs. “That's the sad truth. It's that the truth is never as fun as you think it is.” He studies my expression for a second before continuing. “So, no. You're not missing much.”
As usual, he sees right through me. I was hoping to pick his brain. To see what else there is out there for me. If I can't have Carter, maybe I could start up something like Sam has, with all the fun but none of the work or involvement.
“Huh,” I say. I rack my brain, but don’t have much of anything to say in response to that. Maybe it’s not as exciting as I thought. But I’m one for one so far. If I put myself out there, I could make something…
“It’s not your style at all,” Sam says with more finality than I like.
“What do you mean it’s not my style?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I’m more the.. unattached type,” he says. “I can live my life one way or the other. I don’t get hung up on stuff. I like to live -” He spreads his arms out in front of his as though presenting his room to me. “I live out here. You live -” He taps his head. “In here.”
I brood in silence at his comments. I try to look tough, but it probably just looks like I’m pouting.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Sam insists. “You’re just different. When I get with a guy it’s not important to me. It’s fun and I like it, but it doesn’t mean anything. And I’m cool with that. But you wouldn’t be.”
“So that means I can’t have any fun?” I ask defiantly.
My question elicits another shrug from Sam.
“Here’s the tradeoff, Jackson. I’m having more fun than you right now, but it’s not amazing. You’re really not missing all that much when it comes down to it. You, on the other hand, are going to have a lot less fun. You know why?”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you’re too busy thinking about Carter. And you’ll always be thinking about Carter. What you want to say to him, what you wish he’d say to you, when you should text him, wondering if he’ll call. Carter, Carter, Carter, all day every day. And it’s not going to be fun.”
“Carter,” he says, as though there isn’t any other point he needs to make. Frankly, there isn’t.
“But one day,” Sam continues, “you’re going to get Carter. And it’s going to be real. And it’s going to be everything you ever dreamed it would be. And when you have Carter, whoever it is, you’re not going to think for a second about all the fun that you missed out on in the meantime.”
I blush. Even the thought of it gets me excited. Will I really have a guy like that someday? Will things really pan out like Sam says they will?
“See?” he says. “You get it. We’re both waiting. You sit and brood while you’re waiting for your perfect boy. I go out into the world and do what I do. And yet we’re both just waiting.”
Sam smiles like a devil and sticks his tongue out at me.
“But I get to play with a bunch of cocks while I’m doing it.”Previous Chapter