The Messenger

by Joel Young

Chapter 4

Please, Don't Make Me Flirt with Another Guy!

For the next couple of weeks, rehearsals started to improve. There were fewer missed lines than before. Movements around the stage seemed natural, and the story began to flow a little better. Ben was quieter and more reserved than he had been before. That, at least, made him appear to be patient.

I focused on doing all the jobs Ben gave me, including re-doing the program prepared by the Program Committee. Ben was disappointed in their draft. Rather than give the group feedback and ask for revisions, he gave me the assignment to redo the program. I was concerned when he gave me almost no dirction on how he wanted it changed. I found a program that my parents had brought home from a play at the Fisher Theater. I used that to figure out what improvements I might be able to make.

I tried to stay away from Ben as much as I could. His good looks and aromatic aftershave, however, still caught my attention from time to time.

As the cast started getting better, Ben became much more focused on character interpretation. Ben was an actor at heart, and he knew how to share a story with an audience. And, it was clear that Ben intended to make sure the actors in his show told a believable, gripping and emotional story. I had to admit that he was great at developing the acting skills of the cast.

Heather, however, just wasn't getting Ben's coaching. Heather had an important part – critical to the emotional impact the story would have on the audience. She played Mary, the oldest child in the Johnson family. In the second act, she is a teenager experiencing her first serious attraction to a boy. In one of the funniest scenes in the play, Mary tries to flirt with Zeb, the oldest son in the Brown family. The dialogue contains one double entendre after another. Read in a naïve way, it sounded innocent. Read in a more adult way, it was blatantly sexual. In my opinion, James Hailey wrote the scene brilliantly. I laughed every time I watched it – even though Heather's monotone and flat affect killed most of the charm that the scene could have had.

Kevin, who played Zeb Brown, did a great job with his part of the scene. Of course, his role was to act nervous and to say as few words as possible. Heather had to do the heavy lifting.

"Heather," Ben told her on a Thursday night. "Mary is trying to get Zeb to like her. Flirt with him. Pretend you're trying to get him to ask you out on a date."

"I don't know how to flirt," Heather said. "My Mom won't let me date yet."

"Heather, you don't have to start dating before you flirt," Ben tried to explain. "Flirting comes first. It's how you can get a first date."

Heather tried again; it was still flat.

"Joel," Ben said. "Get up there and take Heather's place. Show her how to flirt with Zeb."

I thought he was joking.

He wasn't.

And then, he made it even worse.

"Guys, don't follow the script," Ben said. "I want you to do something different – something extemporaneous. Joel, you're – Jacob. Keven, your name will be Eli. You're both guys. I'll give you ten minutes to come up with a plan. Take ten, people!" With that, Ben headed out of the auditorium.

I was shocked! Ben knew I didn't want to be on stage, and now he expected me to improvise a gay scene! In front of everybody?!? John had already called me a faggot during auditions. If I did what Ben asked, there would be talk all over school tomorrow. Ben was adding fuel to the fire that was threatening my reputation.

I glanced over at Kevin. The poor guy looked panicked.

I forced myself to get a grip and think rationally.

"Come on, Kevin," I said. "Let's catch up with Ben. I'll talk him out of whatever shit he's trying to pull."

Ben was halfway down the hall when Kevin and I caught up with him. I assumed Ben was heading to the teacher's lounge for a smoke.

"Ben," I said. "Kevin and I really don't want to do this. People will gossip and make it sound like we're both – you know – gay. It will be all over school! Let me do the scene with Heather. I'll come on to her; she can just act like she's not interested – or like she's scared. She can handle that. Please, don't make me flirt with another guy!"

"No can do, Joel," Ben said. "Heather has to learn that flirting can be funny. And, what will make teenagers laugh more than watching a guy try to flirt with another guy? The whole show depends on the audience falling in love with Mary and Zeb. I can't risk that scene falling flat."

"You're right, Ben," I said while desperately trying to think of another way out. "What if I do the scene with Sara? We'll do the scene from the script and show Heather how her part can be funny – and charming at the same time. I guarantee we can make everyone laugh."

"Joel," Ben said in an impatient tone. "I don't want you to follow the script. I don't want Heather trying to imitate someone else doing her part. She needs to understand how flirting and double meanings can be funny and entertaining. I need her to see how it's done, and then put her own spin on Mary's character."

Ignoring Keven completely, Ben slapped me on the shoulder. "You're running out of time, Joel," he said. "Go figure something out. You can do it. You're the master of the double entendre!"

Ben could tell I was getting angry, but he wouldn't back down. "You made a promise to me, Joel," he said. "So, go do your job." Then, he headed toward the teacher's lounge.

Kevin and I returned to the auditorium. Kevin looked as if he were about to throw up.

"Sometimes," I said to Kevin, "that man can be a total jerk!"

"Joel," Kevin said. "I'm sorry, but I just can't flirt with you when everybody's watching. I'm quitting the play."

"Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "Did Kevin just say he could flirt with me, but just not in front of other people?" I checked him out for a quick second. I could see why Ben had cast him as the heartthrob of Cedarville. I quickly decided, however, that I was overthinking things, and I let it go.

"Don't quit the play, Kevin," I said. "Stay. And, I'll do all the flirting. All you have to do is look like you're uncomfortable, just like Zeb does. I'll make a few suggestive remarks, and you react like you're creeped out. Then, we end the scene with you high-tailing it out of there."

"Yea, but there will still be talk," Kevin complained.

"You're right, Kevin," I said. "There will be talk. There will be talk about me. You're not going to do anything that will make the guys give you a hard time. You're just running away from me as fast as you can. The gossip will be about me. And, I don't give a shit," I lied. "John's already tried to label me a faggot. I put him in his place, and I'll do the same with the other jerks, one way or another."

Kevin was starting to come around – still with great reservations. "Are you sure, Joel? Really sure?"

"Kevin," I said. "I've got your back. I won't let this boomerang on you. Here's what we'll do. You are Eli – and you're walking past my house after school. I'll stop you and strike up a conversation. Let me get out two or three flirty lines. Then, just give me a disgusted look and walk away - fast. And then, we're done!"

Kevin just nodded. He had given up resisting. He looked scared and sad, like a young child walking into a doctor's office for the shot his mother was making him get.

Soon, the break was over, and Ben called for the scene to start. "Okay, boys," he said. "Let's see what you've got!"

The tone of Ben's voice was smug, and it made me angry. "He's enjoying this," I thought to myself. Then, it hit me. "I bet he planned it." I decided I had to change the rules of his game. I couldn't let poor Kevin get dragged into whatever perverted scheme Ben had in mind.

"Kevin," I said in a hushed voice. "I've changed my mind. Do you still want to get out of this?"

Kevin looked like a drowning man trying to grab a rope thrown in his direction. "Yes, please," he said.

"Go home," I said to him. "Go upstage to the exit and just leave. I'll call you after rehearsal and let you know what happened."

"Thanks, Joel!" Kevin said as he ran to the exit.

"Joel, what's going on?" Ben asked. "Where is Kevin going?"

"There's a problem, Ben. I don't want to yell it out across the auditorium. Can you come up here, please?" I said.

Ben looked dubious, like someone who suspected that his game plan was about to be foiled. When he came up on the stage, I leaned in and whispered, "Kevin's sick, Ben. He had to leave – now."

Ben glared at me. "You're bullshitting me, Joel," he said.

I grinned. "Hey, I'm not the one who had to rush home to change his pants."

Then, I turned the tables on Ben. "How about you do the scene with me? You and I can show Heather how to flirt."

Ben's whole demeanor changed, and he immediately agreed. It was almost as if he were pleased. I explained the brief plan I had discussed with Kevin.

Ben announced the change to the cast. He went upstage left to take on the part of Eli. I went center stage to be Jacob. I pretended that I had a hose in my hand and was watering a garden. Ben put his hands up near his shoulders as if he were holding onto the straps of a backpack. Ben nodded to let me know he was starting the scene. He began walking toward me.

"Hey, Eli!" I said. "Hot day, isn't it?"

Eli said nothing, but he gave me a dirty look.

I repeated my opening line, and Eli remained silent. Ben was not going to make this easy for me.

I pretended to turn off the nozzle of the hose. "Eli," I said. "When somebody greets you and talks about the weather, it's polite to say something back."

"Who are you?" Eli snapped. "The Miss Manners of Cedarville?"

"Whoa, Buddy," Jacob said. "I was just trying to be friendly. You sort of look like you could use a friend today."

"Some people don't need any friends, Jacob!" Eli said. "Some people just want to be left alone."

"That's true," Jacob said. "Being alone is fine, sometimes. But, everybody needs a friend – once in a while."

"Not me!" Eli insisted.

I didn't want to drag this improvisation out any longer than necessary. So, I decided I had to start flirting.

"Eli," I said. "It's a real scorcher out here. And, I can see that you're real - hot. Maybe it would feel good just to relax with a friend for a while. I could be that friend."

"Oh, you could, could you?" Eli replied.

"Yea, I think I could, Eli," I said. "And, I bet I could help you get that chip off your shoulder, too. I know a strong guy like you can carry a heavy weight around real easy. But, I think you might just need to unload. You'll feel better. I promise."

Finally, Ben softened up and started to work with me.

"Sorry about the chip on my shoulder," Eli said. "It's just that it's been a lousy day! Mrs. Buzzardo told the whole class that I had the lowest grade on the math test. She made me feel like an idiot!"

"Eli," I said. "You're not an idiot! You're a smart guy. And, if Mrs. Buzzardo can't see that, then she's the idiot. She's just an old, lonely hag who probably hasn't gotten any in years!"

"I bet you're right," Eli said with a goofy smile. "She's probably way overdue!"

I started laughing, as if what Eli had said was hilariously witty. "Good one, Eli," I said, slapping him on the shoulder. Then, I put the hose down and began taking his backpack off. "You know what you need, Eli? A cold beer! I stole a couple of bottles from my old man, and I've got to get rid of them before he finds out. How about it, you want one?"

"Sure!" Eli said. I'll just tuck it in my backpack, so no one will see it when I get home."

"Yea, you could do that," Jacob said. "Or, we could – you know - have one together. How about it? Just two guys, kicking back with some cold brews. Of course, we'd have to go up behind the shed. Wouldn't want anyone to see two young studs like us - sneaking around – trying to get some relief - from the heat I mean."

Jacob put an arm around Eli and led him upstage right, supposedly toward a shed.

"You know, Jacob," Eli said. "You were right. I am feeling better."

"Eli," Jacob said. "Just you wait. We'll pull out our bottles, pop off our caps, and you'll feel real good."

I turned toward the audience, giving them a big, cheesy grin. And the scene was over.

Ben walked toward the audience and sat on the edge of the stage. I joined him.

"Okay," Ben said. "You saw the scene. What are your thoughts? Just holler them out."

There was a broad range of reactions:

"That was gross! I did not need to see that."

"That wasn't flirting. That was a seduction."

"Yea, I think Jacob was trying to get Eli drunk – on purpose."

"Remind me never to have a beer with Joel!"

"Did school kids wear backpacks in the 1930's? I don't think so."

Ben said, "Okay, those are all interesting thoughts. Now, what did Jacob do that made you realize he was flirting with Eli? Just holler out your answers."

"He complimented Eli – telling him he was smart and strong."

"Yea, he even called Eli a stud."

"He was persistent. He kept on saying nice things, even when Eli was mean to him."

"He got Eli to laugh about the math teacher. That broke the ice."

"He offered Eli a beer, even though they were underage. That showed he was willing to break the rules."

Ben said, "Good! Okay, almost all flirting has at least one double entendre – a word that has a double meaning. Did you hear Joel, I mean Jacob, use any of those?"

"You'd have to be an idiot not to pick up on Joel's dirty double meanings."

"He kept on talking about the weather being hot. But, I think he meant Eli was a hot dude – like me!"

"And, that stuff about the beer bottles and popping off the caps – that was just over the line, Joel!"

Ben laughed. "Joel did take things further than James Hailey did. Don't worry, Heather, you don't have to take Zeb behind the shed. But sometimes, you have to exaggerate to make a point. Heather, do you think Mary can be just a little more flirtatious with Zeb?"

I loved Heather's response.

"Got it, Mr. C," she said. "I think I'm going to practice in real life before the next rehearsal. Hey, nobody tell my Mom, or Kevin, but I'm going to get him to sit with me at the next basketball game. Thanks, Joel."

It was late, and Ben called it quits for the night. I left without speaking to him. I called Kevin when I got home to assure him that everything had worked out okay. Kevin was relieved, and we ended the call with both of us agreeing – Ben was a jerk!

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