Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Cowardly Lion

Everything was a mess at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I'd just lost my best friend Tammy in an epic fight that had her recruiting seniors who prowled the halls by my locker and threatened to give me a beating to end all beatings. After that, I tried out for basketball--which I liked, and which I could play okay (I could shoot a three pointer like it was no big deal)--but the first night I went to try-outs I hardly made two steps onto the court before I dissolved into tears, thinking of the cruel things Tammy had done and said earlier that day. That night I rode the late bus home wondering what I was going to do with myself now that I had given up on trying out for basketball.

The answer came a few months later. The music teacher was holding tryouts for the annual musical, which that year was The Wizard of Oz. Before that announcement, I don't remember myself ever, ever, ever thinking, Hey! I want to be in the musicals when I'm in high school! But maybe I did. I do remember that whenever the high schoolers came to the middle school to put on a snippet of the play for us--a dress rehearsal and a clever advertising hook for them, since we'd then go home and whine to our parents that we wanted to go that weekend to see the rest of the play--I loved watching them. It seemed like such a fantastic way to spend time--singing, dancing, putting on elaborate costumes, prancing around stage with everyone watching.

I was shy as a girl, so even if I admired it and thought it looked wonderful, I probably would have never summoned up the courage to actually do it. But thanks to my fight with Tammy, which had left me moping and confused, I figured I needed to do something that was contrary to what I usually did. I was going to rebuild myself, brick by brick, and then be able to come out of this whole friendship-breakup looking calm and poised. I was going to make myself something better than Tammy.

So I tried out for the play. Tammy tried out for the play, too--that was horrifying--but for a long time, we did not attend the same rehearsals because I didn't arrive on scene until Act II, and she was in Act I.

I won't lie: I was pleased to get the better part. I'd wanted to be Auntie Em, but our music teacher was on this kick about seniors getting the better parts, even if they sucked--and, boy, did Auntie Em ever suck, thus changing our teacher's policy on seniority--so I got a part of an Oz girl. That might seem generic, but it wasn't. Mine was a tiny part, but it was fun. I got to chase the Cowardly Lion down the aisle from the back of the auditorium, where we were to slip in while the pit band played us out of intermission and into the next act, and I got to scream and beat him with an umbrella. Then, once we were on stage, I had some lines where I got to have all sorts of attitude. (One was this: Isn't ANYONE going to do ANYTHING about this terrible beast? I flicked my wrist and cocked my head at the end of the line, and I looked a little like I was having a sass spasm.)

It was all very fun. It was the time of my life. We became a little family over those months of practice. Cliques formed, but not harmful, threatening ones. These cliques were just groups of people who'd attended the same rehearsals, were in the same scenes, were being measured for the same costumes, and had spent so much time together that they couldn't imagine loving anyone else so much. The munchkins stuck together. The Oz girls stuck together. The pit band stuck together. And where was I? I was with the Cowardly Lion.

The Cowardly Lion loved me. He was a trumpet player in the school band who'd somehow gotten roped into the role because he was the lion--a wobbly-kneed boy who could make his voice scale into high levels and then crack. He wasn't much of a singer, so that made his solos kind of painful, but the rest of his performance was pretty cute. He had just the right voice and presentation for it.

The problem with the Cowardly Lion was twofold. First, he was chubby and sweaty. Second, he had a vague stalkerish bent to him. He called my house often, hounding me, trying to make me be his girlfriend. He'd often construct long chains of logic that supported reasons why we should be together, but I dodged him at every turn. Generally he was fine, but there were times he seriously creeped me out, and I would do everything in my power to get off the phone, to get out of the car, to escape the hallway when he was in one of his insistent I'm-Gonna-Make-You-Mine moods.

He had a certain amount of power over me, though, and he knew it. He used it. After all, while I was busy not being in love with him, I was also busy being in love with his best friend, another trumpet player--a tall, charming, nicely-coiffed senior. The Lion called him the Italian Stallion whenever we discussed him.

"You coming over to sit with me and the Italian Stallion tonight?" he'd say, and right then he knew he'd have me hooked. Of course I was going to come sit with him. He promised he'd get me closer to his friend, that he'd give us time to get to know one another. But he was really only attempting to endear himself to me.

The night of the cast party, after we'd finished our three night engagement of the show, the Cowardly Lion volunteered to give me a ride home. Since I was only fourteen, and since most of my friends were only fourteen, too, there weren't too many options for me to use for a ride home. It was either this or have my parents come get me. I thought this was the lesser of two evils.

Until, of course, he tried to kiss me.

I pushed him away and told him that he was never, ever, ever to try that again. I told him that I thought I'd been pretty clear. I was not interested in him, and it was likely that I was never going to be. I crossed my arms and sat in silence for the rest of the trip home.

He called the next day. When I picked up the phone, there was a loud explosion in my ear.

"Hello?" I said.

"Ch-ch-BOOM!" he shouted.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" I asked. I was still mad about the night before, and I was sort of hoping that now the musical was over, he and I would have less reasons to talk to each other.

"Ch-ch-BOOM!" he shouted again.

"WHAT IS THAT?" I demanded. "What are you pretending to be?"

"A gun," he said. "Actually, the gun--you know, the one you cocked and aimed at my heart last night?"

"Oh my God."

"It's true," he continued, "you shot me down. Shot me right down! Not a care in the world! You just aimed and fired!"

I sighed. "I've been crystal clear about this for months," I said.

"Is it because I'm fat?"

Well, that was part of it, but I would never tell him that. I wasn't stupid enough to think that one morning I'd wake up and be suddenly attracted to him. To make a relationship, there was either a spark or there wasn't--and on my side, there definitely wasn't. Why would I lie to him and pretend otherwise?

"You're just not my type," I said. I tried to soothe him. "It's okay," I said. "There are plenty of girls who like you."

"Ch-Ch-BOOM!" he said. "Whatever."

And that sound haunted me for the rest of the year. Whenever he would call, whenever he would pass me in the hall, whenever we shared a study hall together, that sound was thrown in my direction or written on a note that was deftly passed over to me. He stopped calling me by my name and started referring to me only as "Ch-Ch."

In my yearbook that year he wrote me a snarky little message that recalled my ultimate rejection, but he also took the time to sneak the phrase Ch-Ch-Boom onto a lot of random pages in my book. Pasted over the track team's photo? Yes. Scribbled on the artwork page? Yes. Scrawled over the face of my favorite teacher? Yes. He'd plastered the whole book with little Ch-Ch-Booms.

And I'd like to tell you it stopped there, that he got it all out of his system, but it and he did not. He went away to college, and when he got there and got an RA position, he started calling to tell me about his first sexual exploits--in detailed fashion. Which is why I think six months can go by without me even remembering that boy exists. I think I have tried to submerge that information and those memories--often when I think back on that play, he is edited out--but sometimes it sneaks back on me, and I can't stop thinking about those months I kept saying no, no, no, and he kept saying you don't know what you're talking about.

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