Borrow Cupid's Wings
O, teach me how I should forget to think.
Romeo and Juliet, Act I Scene I
Friday afternoon sixth period I walked into Mr. Abramson's class the same way I'd been walking through doors all day: cold, practically no emotion. At least not any emotions I recognized. I shut my ears to James and all his buddies, hurried inside and thanked God it was all about to be over.
Background: A couple of weeks before that I was going by the door of my dad's study and noticed he'd left a psychology textbook open on his desk. The chapter was about dissociation, which if you read up on it is literally "taking an object into parts." I guess that described things on Friday as well as anything ever has. In psychological terms though, the word means "detachment from surroundings or reality" - a whole lot closer to my current state of mind.
So as I stood there it hit me. I knew that out-of-body feeling, that coldness. It was what I'd been experiencing every day for months by then. I was being taken apart, I was being detached from my own reality.
Seeing it in black and white gave me a chill. I'd not only found out what was wrong with me, reading those words gave me a clue to the cure. Dissociation. For a second (but only a second) I wondered why Dad was looking at that particular chapter. I was already thinking what I could do to start fixing myself.
Regardless, by that Friday - weeks later, the very end of the school year - things hadn't changed much. That feeling had never really gone away. If anything, being stuck in the same space with James every day had made me immune to it. I wasn't complaining. Life had gone on.
No, not quite. I mean, by then I had decided enough was enough and come up with a solution. What was it? It was no exaggeration when I said Dad's book "chilled" me; I meant those exact words. I'd lost James, and with nobody there beside me I embraced the chill, fell in love with the cold he left behind. Every day I had to see him again made me want the cold more. The damage he'd inflicted became my friend.
Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Yeah. On to Friday.
It was the end of the year, like I said. After everything I'd been through there was no further to go, no colder to get. I was a glacier, absolute zero. Midnight on the moon.
First thing Friday morning I sculpted myself out of ice. Slept on it, showered in it, ate it for breakfast and dressed in it. Filled my book bag with more. Cold I stayed all day. I ate lunch outside, sat in the back of five classes, studied the floor and kept my mouth shut. I was ice.
The single moment my shell might have cracked was outside English, right before walking into Abramson's period. I turned down the hall and exactly like I'd pictured it there was James at his locker, surrounded by friends.
The jocks. The guys he would admit to hanging out with. The ones he'd spend a weekend with and not go out of his way to lie about later, even when no one wanted any details. Somebody would ask What'd you do? and hear Nothing, went to the movies, don't remember what I even saw. Some shitty comedy, wasn't funny. Ate something greasy... Come to think of it I ran into Debbie at the Galleria, she looked fucking hot. She digs me.
Those guys. You know them - you may even be one of them. James sure was, ninety percent of the time. And when he saw me Friday sure enough he went into his act double quick. I crossed my fingers hard and jammed my hand in my pocket, but he did it anyway despite all my wishes.
I gritted my teeth and kept walking. The first ape nudged James and nodded at me as I went past. They both said something under their breaths and snickered, then shared it with the crowd. There was a burst of laughs and I slowed my pace, but for once I didn't duck down or look away or show any fear. I became even icier, shut out the others and focused solely on James. I needed to see his eyes. I wasn't throwing down a challenge or wanting to force a reaction from him, but I had to be absolutely sure I made the right choice in a few minutes.
He stared at me. Just stared. That winter in those same brown eyes I'd seen Please be cool and don't say anything to embarrass me, Andrew. And Keep going, I'll catch up. I like your t-shirt. I had seen I hate these assholes, sorry man, don't listen to their bullshit.
I even thought I'd seen You're the one.
Not that day. Friday what I saw was a look you'd give a cockroach. Like a painting in a museum you loved with its eyes blacked out.
He stared at me the way you would a stranger and I felt the shell around me get thicker, if that was possible. I knew two things: One, I was the bigger man to give him the chance, and two, I'd made the right decision. Yeah, I admit it - I'd already made up my mind. Three seconds was all it took. After that year it was no guessing game, and no big deal. I was ready. Abramson's door was straight ahead and I went in quick, to be spared hearing whatever they started laughing at after that.
The teacher was at the front of the room, handing notebooks to the few people who were there already. When he saw me his eyes widened and he gestured me over by one of the windows.
I balanced my book bag on the sill. "Andrew, I am glad to see you. I'm looking forward to your presentation today, very much. You decided...?"
"The second one," I answered decisively. "That's okay?"
"Of course, if you're sure that's what you want. Both your proposals were excellent, and I'll tell you now no matter which one you do, you're guaranteed an A this semester. Which is an A for the entire year. They were that good. Congratulations."
I forced myself to smile, as if getting some damn grade made up for anything that had happened that year. I felt phony for faking being happy, but since I was made of ice now it wasn't too bad. He'd figure out some of the true story soon enough - along with everyone else - and get over any hurt. From my outline he knew what I was going to do. Not how, though, and most likely never why.
"Wow, my mom'll be really proud," I lied. "Please don't get the slide trays mixed up."
"Oh, I won't." I made to go to my desk and Mr. Abramson stopped me with a hand. "You're positive the second one's your choice?"
"Is there a problem with it? You said-"
"No, yes, it's very good. I had doubts about your paraphrasing the lines, but it's grown on me since, and just the concept itself is beyond anything your classmates did. It's almost at the level of a college class actually. But you do know what I mean, right? When I say that when you've done it..." He hesitated, then spoke in a lower voice. "You can't take it back. You know this."
I shrugged. "I know. But it's the end of the year. What's there to lose? There's no reason not to."
He looked at me kind of sideways, like I'd said Stand back while I jump out this window. I need some fresh air. "Andrew, 'no reason' is not a reason to do something. There's no dividing by zero." He frowned, realizing he'd lost me. "Take my word, you may regret it later. Actions last a long time."
And that was when my shell really did crack, a fraction of an inch. Mr. Abramson knew. Something had popped up on his radar and he was trying to warn me. Strangely (since he'd brought it up) in this case I was the one who knew something he didn't: the result of dividing by zero. Ice. My state of mind that day was proof.
I was still smiling, I think. "Thanks, sir. I'm sure."
"All right. This is what we get for encouraging students to think for themselves." He was obviously anxious to start class but stayed by my side a second longer. "Are you feeling well? You look a little... feverish."
Jeeezus. Nope, I'd been wrong - he didn't have a clue. "I feel great, sir." The room had filled up and the clock was at 1:39 and fifty seconds. I left Abramson and took my book bag to my seat.
He hurried up to the chalkboard so he'd be in position when the bell rang. Which it did, as the last couple of students dragged in and closed the door behind them. When the door closed it sounded (to me at least) like something different.
"Everyone," he announced, "we'll finish out the week with the last of our presentations. Andrew is up, and for extra credit will actually be performing for us, so I know you'll give him your full attention here in a bit."
There were a couple of smothered comments from the class.
"He has put a lot of thought and hard work into what he's going to do. Which reminds me-" Smiling, he grabbed two notebooks he hadn't handed back yet. "Peter, your Hamlet soliloquy was not that amusing, even with you using the picture of Ronald Reagan as Yorick's skull. Daniel, setting Antony and Cleopatra during the Falklands War made no sense, though you get points for changing the asp to a penguin." He gave them their folders.
Our teacher returned to the front of the room and he gestured for me to follow him. Into the middle of the space where he usually stood during class, I dragged out the table he kept his briefcase and dictionary on. I sat them on his desk instead, and replaced them with my book bag.
As I was doing this, Abramson took his slide projector from a cabinet and toted it to the back of the room. He spoke as he walked down the aisle.
"Taking a work of art, a drama especially, and moving it to another setting doesn't guarantee new meaning. I can take The Love Boat and have it acted out by Pygmies, that won't make it better. Unless your reinterpretation means something." He plugged the projector in and it began to hum. "Do Pygmies dream of getting a drink by the pool with Isaac and cruising away from their boring lives?" A couple of people chuckled. "Maybe. Can the crew solve the tribe's problems by putting on a musical with Carol Channing?"
That time the whole class laughed. "Yes, it sounds dumb. That is the best way to misread Shakespeare, by not thinking your idea through." He held up my second slide tray (with the red 2 in marker on its end) so I could see he was loading the correct one. "Margaret, would you please pull the shades down. We need appropriate lighting."
All this time I'd been sitting on the edge of the table at the front of the room with my eyes shut tight. In a minute, once I sensed the shades were closed and we were in darkness, I opened them.
The room was gone. My heart began to beat a little faster. Any other day I'd've never had the nerve just to stand before all fifteen of my classmates, much less do what I was about to do. But the dark let me fool myself that I was alone, or at least that what I was doing was with invisible strangers and not people I knew. I took a breath and soothed my heart with a fresh coat of ice. It hardened and slowed again.
What helped chill me even more was that under the cover of the dark I'd also found James. Right where I hoped he would be, at his usual seat at the front and to my left. In my sight the entire time. I could play the scene to him and only him, the way I had imagined.
When I saw him somehow the expression on my face must have changed. His didn't, but mine did. The ever-alert Mr. Abramson took that to be his cue.
The slide projector light came on, illuminating the white square of screen hanging behind me on the blackboard. I'd practiced for hours after class the previous week, so I knew that from any seat in the room you could watch me silhouetted against the screen, and that there was just enough light reflecting off it to follow everything I was going to do.
In a soft voice Mr. Abramson said "Ladies and gentlemen, please give Andrew your polite attention while he does his monologue. Recall what we've read about the characters in Romeo and Juliet, especially Juliet and Mercutio, the hero's beloved and his best friend. Juliet wants to be with Romeo but circumstances conspire to keep them apart.
"Their love..." He trailed off, for some reason, then cleared his throat and continued. "Their love isn't meant to survive. Mercutio similarly loves his friend, and fate similarly intervenes. Now, there is a part where Andrew will do something, I won't say what, which may surprise you. Don't be alarmed, it's part of the performance."
The projector clicked, the light flickered, and I knew that behind me now everyone was seeing a picture of my house. Specifically one of our deck, an arty-farty one I'd taken at sunset, from a low enough angle it looked (sort of) steeper and more mysterious. I'd spent an hour on it in the darkroom.
This was it. I told myself: Okay.
From where I was sitting, at the edge of the table, I twisted my body around until I was leaning to one side. All my weight rested on my left arm and my right leg dangled off the table. If we'd been in a class on Mythology I could have been Narcissus gazing into his pool. There, in English 402, I wanted to give the impression I was looking over a balcony. Yes, that one.
I breathed in and held it, silently telling myself not to hurry the moment. That what I was inhaling wasn't air, exactly, but life. My life. Not just June but the whole last nine months. Life. Whatever the stuff in my lungs was, I held onto it. Felt it freeze into crystals inside me, let it go in a rush.
"Wherefore art thou, gentle Romeo, not home tonight?"
There! That was over.
"Where the devil should you be? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or if thou will not, be but sworn my love. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have."
Long pause. I'd expected what was happening - my classmates were moving, in the dark. Turning to each other unbelievingly, laughing to themselves, mouthing What's he doing? and I knew it, what a fag! and Oh my god this is so queer. That was fine with me. How most of them reacted wasn't important.
One, at least, wasn't reacting at all or even moving. From my point of view he'd frozen in place. That was good word for it. He knew what it meant to be made of ice, then. Maybe he was thinking Did anybody in here ever see me with him? or telling himself to hurry up and make a joke like the rest of them, but instead he'd frozen.
I pointed toward James's feet. "What man... Art thou not Romeo? The orchard walls are so high and hard to climb." I reached around and pulled a folded sheet of paper from my book bag, raised it to my cheek like a lady's fan. "No, what care I what curious eye doth quote deformities? Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face."
The slide changed to a picture of a full moon. "Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze."
I dropped the fan and swiveled around on the table, crossed my legs Indian-style and gripped the edge of the table like a balcony's railing. My eyes stayed fixed on the floor. The garden, rather. "Turn my face to the south. Why, may one ask?"
I rose on one knee, my soul made light at the thought of my lover coming for me. It sounds stupid but I really did feel lighter, I was truly living the lines. In the dark his beautiful brown eyes were soft on mine. Weren't they? I needed my motivation for the scene, so it didn't matter whether I was dreaming them or not. I could see the two of us sitting in the swing in the back yard, or side-by-side touching shoulders at the movies or just in his car driving home after the movies. I saw us together.
"Why?" I repeated. "To borrow Cupid's wings, and soar with them above a common bound."
I pushed myself up and knelt on the wood of the table, like I was praying. Not that it would be obvious to anyone in the room but I was reliving a scene James and I had acted out not long before - me kneeling and crying, terrified of hearing his answer. I'd had every reason to be scared.
Managed to say it cooly and without tears this time, though: "Dost thou love me?"
There was a silence. The same reply I'd gotten.
Now things got trickier. I heard the projector click and there was a flicker in the atmosphere. "True, I talk of dreams, and alas, dreamers often lie..." I stood up straight on top of the table.
I tried to imagine what I must look like to my audience. They'd gotten quieter as I went on, so it was hard to tell. I was a skinny boy in glasses, bare-armed in a good shirt I'd worn special that day, jeans on legs like pipecleaners, holey tennis shoes. Standing on the furniture, making a fool of himself in front of everyone - and which of them even knew why? What were they thinking? Were they still muttering to each other how faggy all this was? Or were they too absorbed in the slide behind me on the screen?
This was one I'd taken on a whim, sitting in the school's courtyard waiting for my bus home, before Christmas break. The first snowflakes began to fall from the sky, I pulled my Nikon out to capture the moment, focused carefully... and caught a glimpse of James frowning in the distance. Hesitated. He'd hate me if it ever came to light and people saw. But I loved looking at him, loved that frustrated expression he wore when things didn't go his way. Wanted to remember the moment. Took the picture.
He moved and ruined it, of course. Closed his eyes and turned away at the last second, leaving me with a blurry shot of someone - but who? - in a blue school jacket that could be anyone's, under a halo of snowflakes.
All I still had of the moment. It was priceless, to me. And unmistakably a picture of another boy.
That was what had silenced them, what they saw me standing in front of. I wasn't goofing around and pretending to be something I wasn't anymore, like Dustin Hoffman in a movie. I'd taken that slide months ago and it belonged to me. I owned that secret picture of a boy. I was the thing I was pretending to be.
I gestured first to my anonymous lover on the wall, then to myself, reciting "Could you not take this love, without giving? Poor Romeo! You are a lover; if love be blind, love cannot hit the mark. It is too rough, too rude, and it..."
Small hesitation. I'd practiced this to death, down to the second, so the timing was flawless. While I was steadying myself to stand I'd slid one hand in my book bag and crushed the thing inside into my fist. Now it was hidden, my arm straight out and the fist poised in the air like I was drawing a bow and arrow. It is too rough, too rude, and it- The projector clicked.
"...pricks like thorn." The slide turned to a vivid close-up of a red rose. I slammed the baggie hidden in my fist into my chest. The syrup it was holding burst into a bloom of bloody red on the shirt above my heart, splashing and dripping on my jeans and the table. Several people in the room gasped. Time stopped.
Was it only the girls? One said "Oh!" out loud and I could see her start to rise from her chair in the light from the projector. She slowly sat back, her hand over her mouth. Mr. Abramson murmured "Everybody settle."
I took a second to exhale and absorb the pain. I'd hit myself in the chest hard enough to break a rib. Feeling my life run out the open wound - feeling it - I said "Thou hast most kindly hit; never after look me in the face."
If I'd seemed the skinny little idiot before, how was I to them now? Suicidal, probably. A bloody mess, for sure. Had I gotten any on James? Of them all, did he know what I was doing?
I crouched to the tabletop and put my wet fingers to my cheek, then lifted my palm beside my face to block the slide's graphic red light. Behind my glistening palm the damage would still be visible; I felt syrup run down my neck to soak into the collar of my good shirt. Mom was going to have a fit.
"Oh - I shall faint. I am hurt, the center of my heart has been split by blind Cupid's arrow. 'Tis no less, I tell you, though I care not." In a faltering voice I added "'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough."
I closed my eyes and sent those words into the dark where James was sitting. Would he know what they meant to me? Could he? How he'd hurt me, loved me in private but stabbed me over and over while we were out in public. Made a hole in my chest that only ice could fill.
"It will serve. A challenge, on my life."
I knew without a shadow of doubt what Shakespeare was saying. I'd mixed up his sentences to suit myself, hadn't I, and by performing them now they were mine. The question was would James know. Would anyone? And would it make a difference?
Of course he might not even have been listening, or been too angry to. Everything I'd just done was useless if nobody got anything from it. I didn't expect miracles - James wasn't going to stop being who he was because of my little show. But Abramson was right: words are only words, with no one paying attention to them.
One final try then. My knees gave way and I sank down until I was lying on my side, facing the class. I hugged my knees and whispered "Romeo, I will stay with thee, and never from this place depart again; here will I set up my everlasting rest."
I struggled to keep my head up, to stop from falling completely, from surrendering to death. Not only did I have too much pride, I had one more line to deliver. And the projector had one more slide in it yet.
Another picture I'd taken on a whim, one that he might still kill me for sharing with the rest of the world. That day was far from over, after all.
Sunday morning of the weekend my parents went out of town and we'd first slept together, just slept side by side, nothing more between two virgins like we were then. Me asleep early the night before, safe and secure with his arms around mine and his heart beating against my back. Then I'd gotten up at seven, gone to the bathroom in disbelief that James was in my room. James! In my bed! Long before the ice first threatened our happiness - my happiness, I should say. Months before I'd consider doing what I'd just done. I was thrilled to have him that close.
Out came the Nikon again, quick before he woke up, and snap. Perfect focus this time.
The picture: my bed, James lying curled on his side - very much like I was at the moment - only with his face hidden by an arm thrown over his head. Under crumpled sheets, to the right of a flat and empty space beside him on the mattress. Someone is missing. Does the rest of the class think God, is that someone we know up there? or instead Andrew must've loved him to take that. And now he's up there dying.
I spoke. Those further back than first row center were lucky if they could hear me above the hum of the projector. "Eyes, look your last."
My head fell to the table with an audible thump. Which was harder than I'd done in rehearsal. Ouch. I swore it was the last pain he would cause me.
Despite that (despite everything) I did wring some satisfaction from that last hour of that last week of that year, the greatest I'd felt in forever. What was it? By the last click of the projector you could hear a pin drop in that room. There was no traffic in the hall, no paper shuffling or random coughing, no announcements on the P.A.
Almost. Because now I heard sniffling, crying, and had to bite my cheek to keep from smiling at the sound.
Oh my god! Smiling? I wanted to smile! It was unbelievable, but in just fifteen minutes almost all the ice surrounding my heart had melted away and I felt happiness again. I was happy. I was amazed, actually, with myself and the class. I had performed for them and they had listened!
More than that, they'd understood! I had them. I had a life, and things to do that didn't include James, and I didn't need him any more. Graduation and all the other end-of-year celebrations would be that much sweeter knowing I'd moved on.
But, I thought, you still have a show to finish. True. The words of my final line were on the top of my tongue. A plague...
I wasn't James' shameful secret boyfriend anymore, I bragged to myself. The faggot who'd pranced around up there and done all the wrong lines from some stupid play. I'd bared my soul to the world, used Shakespeare's beautiful words to let them know what the last nine months had meant to me. Now they knew, and they were crying for me. Crying!
I cracked my eyes to see where the tears were coming from. Just one of the girls? No, actually, every one of them. Every female in class had her hand to her mouth or was dabbing her eyes with a kleenex. All the males looked uncomfortable, or at best dumbstruck. They hadn't gotten any of it. Make a fucking terrific story to tell at the party that weekend though.
A plague, on your house...
So, I had reached half the class. Fifty percent is better than nothing, I told myself. Or was it higher?
It was. They had been joined by one more, I saw, right in front of me in the dark. My heart wanted so badly to jump out of my chest, to thaw completely and beat hard in smug satisfaction. But the urge to celebrate died in me. This wasn't what I wanted. I'd thought it would be, but no.
James had done his best to sink into his seat, both hands to his face to cover the tracks of the tears running down his cheeks. He had managed to keep quiet that whole time, but when the lights came on in a second he'd have a difficult time explaining why he and he alone among the men had been so moved by my silly performance.
A plague, on your house. Ask for me...
This was his mistake. If he'd taken my advice - assuming he remembered what I said (yelled really) on his birthday the month before, right after he pitched my present back at me for being such a fairy - he'd've stayed cold. Let nothing through his shell. Dissociated himself, frozen solid and pretended not to be there.
My exact words, my voice breaking, the broken present clutched in my hand: "You don't want a present from me, fuck you! I just wanted us to be friends again. I miss you! But I'll never give you another thing as long as I live! You want friends with no feelings who're cold as ice-"
But he hadn't read Dad's book, hadn't seen what I had or figured out the mystery of what it takes to make yourself immune to love and all it will do to you. Maybe after that Friday it would come to him.
I'll never give you another thing? Thinking over what I said made me realize I'd lied to James. God, on top of everything else we went through together. To tell the truth I did have one more present for him.
I couldn't see him crying and not want to give him what I had the power to give. I needed to. There was no heart in me to finish the speech as I'd written it. A plague isn't a thing you wish on someone already so damaged. No matter what the consequences after this class, good or bad, I was going to be better. James wasn't.
I scoured my brain. There must be a different line hidden somewhere in that feast of words. Wait too long and Mr. Abramson was going to assume I was done and raise the blinds, and my chance would vanish in the daylight. Words and words and words. Damn it, I'd studied the play enough, plucking sentences from the page-
Yes, I had it! I had it.
A burst of energy flared deep inside me. One thought, a gift for my love before we broke forever. This as much as than anything I'd said or done that year would mean the end of the two of us and the beginning of life truly alone from him. I raised my head and put my bloody hand into the air. James' wet eyes met mine and the last of my ice shattered.
"Under love's heavy burden do I sink, Romeo. Should I live a thousand years, I never should forget it."
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