by Joel Young
The Burnt-Orange Sweater
That Tuesday night, I decided to call Kevin and ask if he wanted to go with me to see The Messenger in Ann Arbor on Friday. I had never been nervous about calling a friend before. But this time, I was. It sort of felt like I was asking him out on a date.
Kevin answered the phone. "Hey, Kevin," I said. "This is Joel. You got a minute?"
"Sure," he answered. "What's up?"
"Well, I was just thinking," I said. "I heard that Leland College near Ann Arbor is doing The Messenger this weekend. And, I thought it might be fun to go see it. You know, see what they do differently. See how college students do the show. You want to come along?"
There was a long pause, and it felt really awkward. I was pretty sure Kevin was trying to think of an excuse to turn down my invitation.
"I'm in!" Kevin finally said.
"Cool!" I said. "But, here's the thing. I was going to stay over one night so that I could look around the U of M campus a little. You know, check out how it looks before making a decision about which colleges to apply to. That would mean getting a motel room for one night, but I'd pay for it."
"That sounds awesome," Kevin said. "I'm pretty much set on going to Central Michigan, but I'd like to explore the U of M campus with you. Let's do it!"
Kevin and I worked out the plans, and he insisted on splitting the cost of the room. I said I'd make a reservation at a motel and call Leland to reserve tickets. Kevin said he'd drive, but that he couldn't use his parent's car until Saturday. So, we adjusted the plans to see the play on Saturday night and to explore the U of M campus on Sunday.
Kevin picked me up late Saturday afternoon, and we headed toward Ann Arbor. It was finally getting warm in southeastern Michigan. It was a clear, early spring day, and it felt great to enjoy some fresh air.
"I was kind of surprised that you asked me to tag along today," Kevin said. "I mean, we've never really hung out before."
"That's one of the great things about trying new school activities," I said. "You meet new friends - or in our case, reconnect with friends from elementary school."
"Oh, that's right! We were in the same Cub Scout Troupe," Kevin said. "I think you even came to my birthday party – like in third grade!"
"I remember that party," I told Kevin. "Your Mom served coconut cake. I had never had it before, and I thought it was really good. You snuck a second piece for me."
"Wow," Kevin said. "You've got a great memory. I don't really remember things like that."
"Yea, well," I said. "I sort of have this love-hate relationship with – ah – well – I mean - food." I was surprised that I had become tongue-tied. I had almost said 'my mother,' instead of 'food.'
"Anyway," I said. "Sometimes I can't stand the thought of eating. Other times, I get really hungry, and everything tastes good. I've liked coconut cake ever since I had some at your house. But, my Mom says it has too much fat in it. So, we never have it – even when I asked for it on my birthday."
"No worries this weekend," Kevin said. "We can have anything we want – no adults looking over our shoulders!" He turned on the radio and rolled down his window. I rolled down my window, too. I stuck my hand out into the wind. The feelings of spring and freedom were exhilarating!
Soon, however, the open windows got to be too much. We rolled them up as we continued toward Ann Arbor.
"You know," I said to Kevin. "We used to be pretty good friends back in Cub Scouts. I wonder why we never hung out after that."
"I know why," Kevin said. "Except for Cub Scouts, we had very different after-school activities. You got all tied up with Karate and soccer. I just wanted to play football and basketball."
"Really?" I said. "I don't remember seeing you at any of the games."
"I mainly played pick-up games in the neighborhood. I couldn't go out for any of the teams," Kevin said. He stopped, and he didn't offer any explanation.
"If it's none of my business, just tell me," I said. "But, why couldn't you try out for the teams?"
"It's embarrassing, Joel," Kevin said. "But, I'll tell you – if you promise not to tell anyone – not even Sara."
"Promise," I said.
Kevin cringed. "Tap, Jazz, and Ballet," he said.
"Ah," I said. "That explains how you knocked everyone dead on the dance floor at the cast party. Kevin, you were amazing. There's no reason to be embarrassed. You're a really good dancer!"
"I shouldn't have shown off like that," Kevin said. "It's just that I was feeling comfortable with the cast and everybody on the crew - and I felt like I could let loose if I wanted to."
"Well, I'm glad you did," I said. "If you like dancing - then dance. Go ahead and do what you want to do!"
"Thanks," Kevin said. "But, I wanted to play sports. My Mom owns Sixth Position Dance Studio in East Detroit. Most of her classes are after school, and my Dad works in his tailor shop all the time. So, there was no one to watch me after school or take me to practices. I had to spend afternoons and evenings at the studio. I spent the whole time doing homework and taking dance classes."
"And, you didn't tell anyone because of what the guys would think," I said.
"Yea," Kevin said. "You know how they are - and what they would have called me. And now that I'm going to start teaching beginning classes, it would be even worse!"
"You're probably right," I said. "Why'd you come out for the play?"
"I really want to be a sportscaster," Kevin explained. "But, I'm kind of shy about speaking in front of people. So, I challenged myself - and it wasn't so bad."
"Well, I thought you looked very comfortable on stage - very natural. And, you were a great Zeb - amazing, actually."
I think I embarrassed Kevin, and we drove without talking much until we got close to Ann Arbor.
We checked into the motel and got settled in quickly. Our room had two queen-sized beds, and it was quite nice considering I had shopped around for the best price. We grabbed a quick dinner before heading to Leland College for the 7:30 p.m. curtain.
Kevin and I could hardly believe how small the college campus was. Excluding the two residence halls, the entire campus was smaller than our high school. There were only three buildings: a church, a small student center, and a classroom building - that was it. The student center looked deserted, but there were a few cars parked at one end of the classroom building. We parked near the other cars and went into the building. We found the small auditorium just inside. There was a card table set up outside of the auditorium doors where two students were selling tickets. I went up to the table, and I said I had reservations.
"Oh, you're the ones," the guy at the table said. I must have looked confused because he explained his remark. "Reservations aren't really necessary," he said. "We'll be lucky to fill a third of the seats."
The auditorium itself was very nice. It looked quite modern. Kevin and I chose seats near the back. We had about 10 minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, so I started reading the program.
A few minutes later, Kevin said, "Joel, isn't that Ben?"
I immediately looked up, and Kevin pointed straight ahead. About ten or fifteen rows in front of us, I saw two men sitting together. One of the guys had dark hair. From the back, it looked as if it might be Ben. I really wasn't sure - until I noticed the burnt-orange sweater that I had spent almost an entire day shopping for. Ben was sitting next to a guy with blond hair, and they were the only people in that row.
Once again, I felt like Ben had just punched me in the gut.
"Let's go speak to him," Kevin suggested.
"Let's wait until intermission," I said. "The show's about to start."
I pretty much ignored the preshow announcements, but I tried to pay attention to the Messenger's opening speech. It seemed a little flat to me - almost as if the Messenger didn't really care about the people of Cedarville. But really, I couldn't focus on the play. I was thinking about Ben, why he was here, and who he was with.
As I watched the first act drag out, I tried to think of plausible explanations as to why Ben had canceled his date with me and come to the show with another guy. No matter how hard I thought, however, I could only come up with one explanation that made sense. Ben had lied to me about having to study all weekend - probably to make it easier for him to break our date. He broke our date so he could be with another guy - a guy he wanted to be with more than he wanted to be with me.
Sara had been right. Ben used me. And now, when I was no longer useful to him, I didn't matter. And, once I didn't matter, why not go on the date we planned with someone he preferred?
Intense emotions were erupting within me, and there was an internal battle as to which emotion would take greater control - my feelings of being rejected and hurt, or my fury at being used and deceived. I have never handled mixed emotions well, so I sat paralyzed. I was barely able to pretend to clap when the act ended.
"Aren't you going to stretch your legs?" Kevin asked when I didn't move from my seat.
"I'm not feeling very good," I said. "Give me a minute." Kevin went up toward the lobby. Shortly, I saw Ben and the blond guy heading up the aisle. I stuck my face into the program, and I was pretty sure Ben didn't see me.
I sat in my seat while becoming even more upset. How dare Ben break his date with me, lie to me about the reason, and then wear the sweater I gave him while taking another guy on the same date that we had planned together!
I was startled when I saw Ben at the end of the row in which I was sitting. He walked toward my seat, and he sat down right next to me.
"Kevin told me you were here," Ben said. "Can we talk?"
I looked at him briefly. Then, I had to turn away as I became overwhelmed by feelings of rejection and humiliation. I said nothing.
"The guy I'm with is my boyfriend," Ben said. "His name is Terry. He graduated from DCOPA last year, and he's in the same internship program that I'm taking in Minneapolis. Terry and I have an open relationship. I wasn't cheating on him when I was with you. Last Saturday night, after our show, Terry called me and said he was coming to Detroit on Thursday. His family is here, but he said he wanted to stay with me. The truth is that I wanted to keep my date with you. But, you and I both knew that what we had was going to end soon. And, I'm moving in with Terry in a few weeks. I didn't feel like I had a choice; I had to cancel our date. I'm sorry I lied to you about having to study all weekend."
"Let me understand this," I said. "When we went to the basement during the cast party, you already knew you were going to break our date?"
"Joel," Ben said. "I never meant to hurt you. I care about you."
I didn't believe that he truly cared about me, and I felt humiliated. "Can we please talk after the show?" I asked Ben. "I'm not feeling good right now."
"Of course," Ben said. He put a hand on my shoulder, and I wanted to pull away. But, I didn't. Ben got up and headed back toward the lobby. I stood and went to the other end of my row. I headed up the stairs. I had to find a little privacy.
I found the men's restroom. Fortunately, it was empty. I went into the stall farthest from the door. It really wouldn't provide much privacy if anyone came in, but it was the best that I could do. I sat down and hung my head. I covered my eyes and started crying – muffling the sounds as much as possible. I was upset about so many different things. I was hurt; I was angry, and I felt manipulated and betrayed. And yet, part of me wanted to accept Ben's explanation and believe that he really did want to be with me - and he would have taken me on our date - if only circumstances hadn't prevented him from doing so.
When I realized that I was leaning toward empathizing with Ben's situation, I heard a voice inside of my head. It sounded like Sara screaming at me, "Joel, you're an idiot!!!!"
I decided that I couldn't allow myself to be an idiot anymore. I had to pull myself back together and get a grip. When I saw Ben after the show, I'd tell him where to go - and it wasn't Minneapolis!
I left the stall and went over to one of the sinks. I looked in the mirror and saw that my face was red and blotchy. It would be obvious to anyone who saw me that I'd been crying. I took a deep breath and started splashing cold water on my face. I heard someone come into the restroom.
"Joel? Are you okay?" Kevin asked.
"I'll be fine," I said. "Let's just not go back to that place where we had dinner. Is the second act starting yet? I don't want you to miss the flirting scene with Mary and Zeb."
"Not yet," Kevin said. "There's some sort of delay."
"Okay," I said. "Give me just a minute. I'll be right out."
Kevin walked toward the door. Then, he stopped and turned around. "He really is a jerk," Kevin said. "Don't let him get to you."
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