by Joel Young
A Punch in the Gut
I woke up on Monday morning still thinking about the cast party. My parents had done an awesome job planning out all the details of the celebration. The pictures from the play were a big hit; the decorations were beautiful; the DJ was good; the food was delicious, and the DCOPA volunteers all seemed to like and appreciate their gifts. I thought everyone had a great time at the party.
For me, of course, the best part of the evening was slipping away with Ben and having amazing sex. I couldn't wait for Friday when Ben and I were going away together for an entire weekend!
I wanted to linger in bed reliving the fun from last night. But, I had to get up. It was going to be another busy week at school. I had a chemistry test in just a few hours. At the end of the day, there was Strike. And on Tuesday, I had a major paper due in British Literature. Classes for the rest of the week promised to be intense as well. Having spent so much time on the show, I was in catch-up mode.
Fortunately, the Chemistry test was much easier than I thought it would be. Unfortunately, I had to fight with myself to pay attention in all of my other classes. I was glad when 6th hour finished, and I could head to the auditorium for Strike.
When I got there, I saw two men from the antique store picking up the sideboard. I found Jerry, and I was surprised to learn that Strike was almost done. Ben had some members of the crew released from classes early. All I was asked to do was straighten up the box office and take a copy of our poster and program to the Library.
The Librarian had seen the show on Saturday night. When I dropped off the materials, she seemed to want to talk about the show. Since she had helped me with my lines, I thought it only right that I sit down and visit with her. That took about 20 minutes.
By the time I got back to the auditorium, Strike was over, and all of the cast and crew had left. Ben was sitting by himself on the edge of the stage. He had a small, wrapped package in his hands.
As I headed toward Ben, I felt myself becoming emotional. The show was officially over. There would be no more rehearsals where I would be Ben's Assistant – no more performances for me to 'save' Ben's show. Even though Ben and I were going to Ann Arbor together at the end of the week, today was a milestone – one step closer to the end.
"I bought you a present," Ben said. "It isn't anything like the great sweater you got for me. But, I hope you like it. Go ahead - open it."
I took the package and looked at Ben. I started to tear up. I was really touched that Ben had waited for me to get back from the Library just so he could give me a gift.
I opened the package. It was a bottle of Aramis. "It's perfect, Ben," I said. "Thank you so much! I love it." I had to fight back my tears.
Ben just sat there as I tried to get a grip. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. "I don't know why I'm being such a blubbering idiot," I said. "It's not like we're saying goodbye today. We still have this weekend."
As soon as I mentioned the weekend, Ben looked away from me and hung his head down. I knew something was wrong. I said nothing, hoping that Ben would reassure me that our plans were still on.
"Joel," Ben said. "I'm sorry. But, I can't go."
I had to ask. "Why not?"
"I really want to go," Ben said. "I want to spend more time with you." He looked around to make sure that no one else was in the auditorium. "I want us to make love together again. But, I'm really behind with my school work. I have papers due, and I have to prepare for final exams. I can't risk it. I have to make sure that I graduate on time. Otherwise, I'll lose my internship."
I had really been looking forward to going to Ann Arbor with Ben. And when he told me our plans had to be canceled, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I fought desperately not to break down completely. Somehow, I managed to gain control of my emotions and behave rationally.
"I understand," I told Ben. "You've done so much for Joliet – so much for me. If you're behind in your school work, you have to take care of yourself now. You have to graduate and take that internship. If you don't, I may never get to watch you on TV receiving your Tony - or your Academy Award." I paused for a few moments before adding, "And, we did have last night."
"Last night was amazing, Joel," Ben said.
There was a long, awkward silence. I told myself to take charge and say goodbye to Ben with my dignity still intact.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do," I said. "I'm going to give you a hug. No kissing. Then, we'll say goodbye, and I'm going to leave. Please let me walk away. I don't want to watch you walk away from me. I did that with David, and I don't want another memory like that etched in my brain."
Ben slid off the stage, and I put my arms around him. We hugged tightly for just a moment. Then, Ben said, "Goodbye, Joel."
"Bye, Ben," I said. I gave him one last smile, picked up my Aramis, and I left the auditorium. "It's over," I thought to myself.
I went to my locker for my coat and the books I needed for my homework, and I called for a ride home. While I was waiting for my Mom, I had nothing to do except feel sad and deeply disappointed. But, I didn't allow myself to cry. I was determined not to give Mom any reason to suspect that something was bothering me.
After dinner that night, my parents left for a ballroom dance rehearsal. They were preparing for a competition in April. I sat at the large desk in the den and worked on finishing my English paper that was due the next day. Although I really liked British Literature, the assigned topic for this essay was annoying: Compare and Contrast William Shakespeare's Hamlet to Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath.' I mean really, does anybody actually care? I considered the assignment to be nothing more than mental gymnastics assigned only to prove you had read the material and could write a coherent sentence.
The next morning, I turned in my paper. After 3rd hour, I went to the cafeteria. I got my lunch and saw Sara eating a sandwich and studying at a table by herself. She looked up as I came over. "I'm surprised to see you here, Joel," she said. "I thought you ate enough at the cast party to last for the rest of the week."
"Very funny, Hinman," I said. "May I sit down, or should I go start a table just for the pigs like me?"
I sat down, and Sara closed her book. "I had a really good time at the party," she said. "Your parents did a great job. I bet it cost them a fortune."
"Yea," I replied. "They won't be able to send me to Princeton anymore, but community college may still be a possibility."
"Better win some scholarships," Sara said. "Of course, if you don't, I hear Little Caesar's is always looking for delivery drivers."
"Nah," I said. "I'll pass on that job. You don't make enough dough working in a pizza joint. But, I'm really not too concerned if I can't afford college – the whole thing is over-rated. I mean, you work hard for four years, run up a ton of debt, and then you have a terrible time finding a job."
"I don't think it's quite that bad," Sara said.
I don't know," I said. "I was watching Jeopardy on TV the other night, and they had a category called 'American Jobs.' One of the answers was, 'Would you like fries with that?' Do you know what the question was?"
I paused momentarily. "What do most college graduates say on their first day of work?"
Sara rolled her eyes. "Hey," she said. "A job is a job. But, if you're going to turn up your nose at food service, you could always look for work in the porn industry."
"No thanks," I said. "I don't want to steal your backup plan."
Thankfully, Sara changed the subject. "Are you and Ben still going to Ann Arbor this weekend?" Her tone of voice let me know she didn't approve of my plans.
'"No," I replied. "Ben's got too much school work to catch up on this weekend. We said goodbye after Strike, and I'll probably never see him again. I'm really disappointed that he had to cancel our plans. And, I was looking forward to seeing the other production of The Messenger ."
"Hey, do you want to go see it with me?" I asked Sara. "We could sit in the audience and trash-talk the college students if they're not as good as we were!"
"As fun as you make that sound," Sara said. "I can't. I'm going to my cousin's piano recital in Grand Rapids. She paused for a moment before asking, "Was it hard for you to say goodbye to Ben?"
I didn't want to talk about my feelings for Ben. "Of course not!" I lied. "I'm sort of glad he's gone. He was really getting on my nerves with his compulsive attention to detail."
"You did it again, Joel," Sara said.
"What?" I asked. "What'd I do?"
"You followed the same pattern you always use when you lie," Sara said. "You start with an emphatic denial, and then you follow it up with a plausible, but unlikely, explanation."
"Interesting," I said. "I'll see if I can change things up the next time I have to lie."
"Joel," Sara said. "Prisoners of war may have to lie. Most teenagers I know lie because they choose to do so – usually to cover up things they shouldn't be doing."
"So, you're saying I wouldn't feel the need to lie if I stopped doing things that I shouldn't?"
Sara pursed her lips and nodded her head. Then she asked, "Did you really go home to get the gifts on Sunday night? Or did you disappear before dinner for some other reason?"
"Why would you ask that?" I said.
"There was talk about you and Ben being gone at the same time, and then getting back within minutes of each other," Sara said. "And, Melissa thought you smelled of alcohol."
I decided to be honest without full disclosure. "If I tell you, do you promise not to tell anyone?"
"Well, Sara said. "As long as it doesn't involve murder, rape, kidnapping or grand theft, I guess I can keep my mouth shut."
"I didn't go home. I was with Ben," I said. "We talked, and he shared some alcohol with me. But, I didn't get drunk."
"Is that all that happened?" Sara asked. "You and Ben didn't – 'make out' again?"
I reacted immediately without thinking. "Of course not!" I lied. "Don't be ridiculous! Ben just wanted to talk about the show. You know - what he liked, what he wished he'd done differently."
"I see," Sara said. "Emphatic denial, followed by a plausible, but unlikely, explanation. You want to try that again?"
Sara had outsmarted me, and I knew I had been caught red-handed. I felt my face getting hot, and I knew I was blushing.
"Oh, my God!" Sara said. "You did more than just 'make out,' didn't you? You went all the way! With Ben - at the cast party! And, your parents were right there!"
Sheepishly, I said, "You make it sound like a bad thing."
We started eating again. A few minutes later, Sara said, "Joel, I know this is none of my business, but please tell me that one of you brought protection."
"Don't worry," I grinned. "I had it covered."
"Ok then," Sara said. "Let's change the subject. Since you're not going to Ann Arbor, what are you doing this weekend? You want to come to a piano recital? My parents would love to have you go with us.
"Sorry," I said. "But, I'll pass. I really want to go see the other production of The Messenger , but I don't want to go by myself."
"Ask Kevin," Sara suggested.
"Kevin? What makes you think Kevin would want to go with me?" I asked.
"I think he likes you," Sara said.
I wasn't sure what Sara meant. "I know this is going to sound totally middle school, but are saying he 'likes' me - or he 'like likes' me?"
"You are an idiot!" Sara said. "All I'm saying is that the guy wants to be your friend. Maybe he has a crush on you. Maybe he doesn't. I don't know. But, don't tell me you haven't noticed that he's always hanging around you."
I thought about what Sara said. Kevin and I did talk to each other a lot during rehearsals. And, we sort of bonded when we both got pissed at Ben about that whole gay flirting scene business. There was that time when Kevin measured me for my costume, and he touched my privates - seemingly by accident. He had even commented that I needed extra room in the crotch. And, he had said that he couldn't flirt with me – in front of other people.
"Did he say something that would make you think that he likes me?" I asked.
"Not exactly," Sara said. "But, why not ask him to go with you this weekend. It couldn't hurt."
"Are you trying to play matchmaker?" I asked.
"No," Sara said. "I'm not. But, if Kevin does have a crush on you, he'd be better for you than Ben. That's for sure."
I really wasn't convinced that I should ask Kevin to go to Ann Arbor with me over the weekend. But, I decided to think about it.
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