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Keep It Steady Episode 4

MORNING ANNOUNCEMENTS

Good morning Columbus High students. Today is Tuesday, March 14th, 2006 and it is almost lunch time. Be advised this episode contains discussion of anti-Asian racism, a mention of violence, and a homophobic slur.


Would Kim Hoff please come to the Vice Principal’s office? Would Kim Hoff please put on her shoes and come to the Vice Principal’s office?


Audition sign-ups for the spring musical are located by the drama room. Break a leg, folks!



ZACH NARRATION

I tell myself, all the way to the cafeteria, that I’m only nervous because I’m worried whether Tori will fit in at the lunch table. It’s not a particularly strong argument, even in my own mind, but I give it a shot. When I spot the back of Gabe’s head from across the room, it all collapses in a flurry of stomach butterflies.


If only feelings were like smallpox. If only enough turns of this bullshit cycle of longing and humiliation could grow me some scar tissue, leave me immune to the sight of Gabe’s red hoodie, the span of his shoulders, how he’s leaning forward to listen to what Leslie’s saying. The day scientists brew up a vaccine for doomed crushes, I will cry literal tears of joy.


FX: THE BACKGROUND DIN OF THE CAFETERIA


TORI Come on. Come on, you can do this, they are such nerds. (IT IS UNCLEAR IF SHE IS TALKING TO HERSELF OR TO ZACH)


ZACH (LINGERING) Yeah.


TORI Oh my god, come on.


FOOTSTEPS APPROACH GABE’S TABLE


KRISTA Like, she doesn’t even understand the point of the monologue.


LESLIE Exactly, it’s not just talking for the sake of—


FX: TORI SETS HER LUNCH ON THE TABLE. ZACH AND TORI TAKE A SEAT.


ZACH Hey.


GABE Hey.


ZACH So folks, this is Tori.


PAUSE


ZACH NARRATION Tori doesn’t look up, unpacking her lunch with single-minded focus: a hard-boiled egg and three pickles. By Tori standards, this is a very normal meal, but I can’t blame the table for not knowing how to react.


I first met Tori because she was close with the senior burnouts I’d fallen in with. They liked me because I was eager to please and always had money. They liked her because she can be charming when she feels like it. Apparently, she doesn’t feel like it right now. All I know is the table is silent and I’m desperate for a distraction.


ZACH (JAUNTY AS HE CAN MANAGE) How was the rest of your morning, Gummytoes?


LESLIE “Gummytoes”?


ZACH Ridiculous petnames were a condition of our relationship. Isn’t that right, Sweetnose?


GABE My condition is that he takes off his hat sometimes.


ZACH We compromised. Now I have to wash it.


TORI Thank god.


KRISTA

Sorry, I just—I have to ask. Tori. Where did you get your dress?


TORI Um, I made it?


KRISTA

Okay. Tori, you seem like kind of a mean person, but please, for the love of god, tell me you watch Project Runway, because Ponni’s mom won’t get cable and Andy claims he only watches it ironically and I am dying over here—


TORI

Oh my god, Santino’s Tim Gunn impression!


KRISTA Yes! And his hideous skating outfit!


TORI The worst! That poor model!


KRISTA I can’t believe he made it to Fashion Week. You know they only kept him around so long because he caused drama--


TORI So true.


KRISTA Ponni, switch spots with me.


PONNI

Okay!


KRISTA Tori and I have Matters to discuss. Matters.


ZACH You guys, this is so romantic.


KRISTA AND TORI Shut up, Zach.


FX: KRISTA AND PONNI STAND AND CHANGE SEATS.


LESLIE Ponni, you still owe me an explanation about the Italian at the start of Prufrock.


ZACH (LAUGHS) No, sorry, I was just thinking. Remember, Ponni, that language you invented when we were kids? Garmin?


PONNI Gormlish.


ZACH This girl spoke only in Gormlish for a whole week. The teacher sent her to the school psychologist, thought it was a warning sign.


GABE Of what?


ZACH Uh, who knows? Like, ‘help, I am way too smart for second grade!’


LESLIE Why didn’t they just move you forward a year?


PONNI

I had the option. A couple of us did, at the end of third grade?


ZACH NARRATION

I remember it well, how fifth grade had sounded like a distant wonderland. I’d been the only one who had gone for it, which at the time made me feel tremendously special.


PONNI

My parents sat me down and we talked it over. It was my choice, of course. But they were all, ‘in the long run, your emotional health is more important, kiddo.’ I mean, I still needed to learn how to talk to kids my own age.


ZACH Leslie, my buddy. Are you ready for our detention today?


LESLIE Sure. I’ve seen Breakfast Club.


GABE There’s less dancing.


ZACH A little less, yeah.


GABE You’re still giving me a ride home, right?

ZACH

Guess I can hang around after detention, if you’re okay with someone busting into the meeting an hour late—


GABE What does it matter. It’s not like you pay attention anyway.


ZACH Hey, I totally listen sometimes!

GABE

Yeah? What was the topic at our last meeting?

ZACH

Making the world a better place.


GABE (SMILING) Yeah, okay, provisional pass.


TORI

You guys are disgusting. And I say that as someone with an incredible gag reflex.


KRISTA AND LESLIE LAUGH.


TORI

Oh hey no, I didn’t mean it like that.


ZACH NARRATION

I make it to Con Econ with help from my MP3 player. Andy’s sitting with his feet up on the neighboring desk when I walk in.


ANDY Zach! Step into my office. Also, yoink!


ZACH

Hey, I need that!


FX: SCROLLING THROUGH AN MP3 PLAYER ANDY Just seeing what bands you…Wow, you like some shitty music.


ZACH Uh.


ANDY No, no, nothing wrong with that. I like a ton of shitty bands. Also, you’ve got some decent stuff on here. Franz Ferdinand B-sides, nice. Hey, if I make a list, can you burn me some stuff?


ZACH I guess? ANDY Cool.


ZACH Man, how are you so much cooler than the rest of the wrestlers combined?


ANDY Did I ever tell you the story of how I left the team?


ZACH You quit?


ANDY

Quit, kicked out, reports vary.


So last year, there was this senior, and he was mad the coach was paying me so much attention. And he kept trying to stir up shit, like, ‘Oh, he only wins because he uses judo’ or whatever, and I was like, ‘Hello, judo’s Japanese and I’m Chinese-Cambodian’ and he was all, ‘Like there’s a difference’ and I was like, ‘Uh yeah, try saying that anywhere in Asia, asshole’ and he was like, ‘Ching chong ching chong’ and then I punched him.


(ANDY MAKES THE SOUND OF A PUNCH) American-style. And like, you’d think if there was a guy who’d be able to see the humor in this, it’d be a wrestler, but no. He was clutching his face and he just kept saying, ‘You punched me!’ Like, dude, I know. I was there. And then Coach said I could stay on the team if I apologized, but the racist didn’t have to do jack shit and then it turned out the apology didn’t count if I did it a hundred percent sarcastically, so.


ZACH You got kicked out of wrestling for fighting,


ANDY Well, yeah. When you say it like that, it does sorta sound unbelievably punk rock. (A PIECE OF PAPER IS SLID TO ZACK’S DESK) Your list.


ZACH You picked, like. The weirdest possible combo of songs.


ANDY What can I say. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ Want a superball?


ZACH Huh? FX: A BACKPACK UNZIPPING


ANDY A superball. I’ve got like a hundred of them in here.


ZACH

Can I ask why you…?


ANDY Goddamn multitudes.


ZACH NARRATION

Sneaking back into the meeting after detention is awkward. The rest of the group is in the middle of some involved debate, and everyone looks up when Leslie and I slink in.


But Gabe is pretty quiet until we get to my van.


FX: SOUND OF A VAN STARTING UP AND BACKING OUT OF A PARKING SPACE


GABE First off, I wanted to apologize for ruining your weekend.


ZACH NARRATION

After I dropped Gabe off on Saturday, I had stood in the middle of the hallway, stopping to fit the palm of my hand to where Gabe had rested it against my hip.


ZACH It’s fine. Whatever.


GABE

If it’s okay with you, I think we should exchange phone numbers after all, so we can ensure nothing like that happens again.


ZACH Here, yeah, punch in your number. Never again.

FX: GABE SETS THE PHONE IN THE CUPHOLDER AND PULLS OUT A NOTEBOOK


GABE Second, Ms. Cook told me if there’s anything we need, we can go to her. It got me thinking, for the next two and a half months, we should make a list of all the teachers who are on our side, so we know who our allies are when we need them.

ZACH Señora Johnson. She’s been super nice to me since—y’know—and she was hardly my pal before then. Plus, she’s still got a Gore bumper sticker.


FX: GABE WRITES THIS DOWN.


GABE

Cool. Ponni says Mrs. Freeman has zero tolerance for gay jokes in her class, so she’s probably a safe bet.


ZACH And Marie.


GABE Who?


ZACH The school nurse. One of them. (A PAUSE) Nobody that good-looking could be a Republican.


GABE (ICY) You know not to do that around other people, right?


ZACH (MUTTERED) Who died and made you Thought Police.


GABE

Please tell me that I don’t need to explain why you can’t go around calling women hot right now.


ZACH (DRAWLING) Don’t be jealous, babe. I only like her as a friend.


GABE

Can you be serious for a second, and wrap your straight-boy brain around what it means to be pretending to date a guy!


ZACH (SHOUTING) Oh my god, dude, I’m bi!

SILENCE


ZACH NARRATION The second the words are out of my mouth, all I want to do is yank them back in. I breathe in through my nose, out. The earth is still turning. I’m still driving the van. I don’t look at Gabe. I’m not sure I could. We reach the turn for Hemlock. It isn’t the most graceful left I’ve ever made, but the car does stay on the road. I think I might be proud of that.


GABE (GENUINELY STRICKEN) Shit. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed—anything. That was unfair.


On top of all of society’s bullshit, to have to deal with it from the school’s social justice club—you deserve b—


ZACH Please, please stop talking. Please, just. (SWALLOW)


ZACH NARRATION We reach Gabe’s house in silence.


FX: ZACH THROWS THE CAR IN PARK. A BEAT.


GABE Uh.


ZACH Don’t say anything.


FX: CLICK OF SEATBELT


ZACH NARRATION I close my eyes and wait for the sound of the car door. Instead, I feel a light tap at my elbow. I look up. Gabe has climbed out of his seat, hovering awkwardly over the gear shift. Watching my face very carefully, he reaches out and pats my shoulder, as if I was an ailing lion—fragile but capable of mauling.


ZACH

Sorry. (ZACH BREATHES) Sorry. You must think I’m nuts, but like. I’ve never said it out loud? Tori figured it out on her own, and Cody’s just a kid. (TRYING TO SMILE) You’re the first person I ever really came out to, in terms of—uh, using the words. Sorry for dragging you into this very special moment.


GABE It’s okay.


ZACH No, it’s stupid. I fake came out to the school and now I’m shitting myself over this?


GABE It’s not stupid. It’s probably easier to distance yourself since you know you don’t—that it’s not real.


ZACH Yeah. And like, the fallout at school, it’ll all be done once we graduate. But this. (HE SIGHS) This is gonna be the rest of my life. Having this conversation. Being in this whole stupid shitty situation.


GABE Probably not...this exact stupid shitty situation.


ZACH (LAUGHS SEMI-HYSTERICALLY FOR A LONG MOMENT)


GABE

Look. If you weren’t ready to be out—I’m sorry I took that from you. That you didn’t get to pick who you told first.


ZACH ‘S okay, I didn’t have any grand ideas about my first time. It does kinda suck, though. Not that I told you, but that you know. It’s like one of those stress dreams where you get to school and suddenly you realize you’re naked in front of everyone. (A BEAT, THEN BLURTED) Sorry if I just made you picture me naked.


GABE It’s, uh, it’s okay. And I don’t know, would it help if—not to make this about me, but would it feel more equal if I came out to you, too?


ZACH Maybe. Are you even in the closet?


GABE I mean, I don’t pretend to be straight, but I haven’t talked about it to anyone but Krista. (SIGH) My orientation is—complicated.


ZACH

How? Does it involve time travel?


GABE

Not yet, but it’s a long story.


ZACH Yeah, dude, too bad I’ve got that urgent meeting to get to.


FX: GABE SETTLES BACK INTO HIS SEAT


GABE So, when I was thirteen or fourteen, it seemed like everyone sort of lost their minds. I mean, the boys and girls had always been weird about each other, and I could never figure out why we had to be, like, sworn enemies.


But suddenly the guys in my class were talking about women in this way that honestly felt creepy. Just, body parts. Like we were all butchers or something. And they’d say, ‘What are you, gay?’ but it’s not like I was having those thoughts about men either. I mean, I can tell when someone’s attractive. But I never look at anyone, and think, ‘Oh, I want to...’ You know.


ZACH So, you’re, uh, asexual then?


GABE

But I still thought about sex. And it was—I mean, when I thought about it abstractly, it was definitely with guys. And then when I was fifteen, I wound up infatuated with this senior at my old school, and that is how I found out I was capable of—thinking of it non-abstractly—


ZACH

(GENEROUSLY) Wanting to bone someone. Got it. So you still get crushes or whatever.


GABE

Asexuality is a really broad term. You’re thinking of aromantic people, which is a whole other thing. And there’s nothing wrong with them, either. (AWKWARD) And yeah, I get crushes. On guys. And it’s—some asexual people have a libido, but there’s just no—direction to it, I guess? Honestly, for a while, I thought I was either bad at being gay or bad at being asexual.


ZACH But then…?


GABE

I checked the internet. And found a lot of garbage, to be honest. But I kept looking for anything that meant, you know, ‘like me and not broken,’ and eventually someone on a forum mentioned demisexuality. I don’t have, uh, mainstream sexual attraction, I guess, but I do have some interest sometimes, under, under really specific circumstances. If there’s an emotional connection first.


ZACH Wait, so your orientation is that you’re pretty much not interested in under-the-pants stuff, and when you are it’s for an actual good reason? Congratulations, man. You are immune from like 80% of all teenage bullshit.


GABE It’s not a superpower.


ZACH

Well yeah, it won’t get you a spot on the X-Men. But damn, that has got to come in handy. World’s wisest dick, in this very car.


GABE

I don’t think I explained this very well. It’s not–it doesn’t have much to do with how a person looks but my reasons aren’t better. They’re as stupid and arbitrary as anyone’s.


It’s more. Agh.


SFX: GABE’S HEAD THUNKS AGAINST THE SEAT BACK.


GABE

This is really hard to articulate. But it’s not—it’s not logical. It’s, ‘oh, I like the way he swings his backpack onto his shoulder’ or ‘I like the thing his mouth does when he speaks a foreign language.’


ZACH NARRATION

I take a moment to pretend I’m not gonna waste at least an hour tonight trying to decide if there’s anything distinctive about the way I carry my own backpack, or if I’ve ever spoken anything other than English in Gabe’s hearing. Just a moment. It’s a nice dream.


GABE

Stupid stuff. ‘I like how he—acts on principle, not because he’s trying to seem like a good person, but just because it seems like maybe he can’t not do it, even when there’s no benefit to him.’


ZACH

Wow. Uh, that’s. Good luck with—all that, I guess. Once we break up. Fake-break up. This guy sounds—I mean, I’ll be honest, he sounds like the most boring dude alive, but. Have fun.


GABE (AWKWARD LAUGHTER)


ZACH Hey. Is this, like.


GABE What?


ZACH No, just. Is being, uh, demisexual, or any kind of asexual, another one of those things where people are like, ‘Oh, this is probably just a phase’?


GABE (EARNEST) Yeah. Yeah, and from what I’ve read, that’s really common, especially when you’re young.


ZACH

Dude. Bi. Knuckles, man.


ZACH NARRATION I hold out my fist. Gabe looks at it for a long moment, then tentatively taps it with his own. It’s extremely dorky, but I’m talking so fast, I can barely push all the words out of my mouth. It’s like exhaling after holding your breath for too long, or puking.


ZACH Seriously, I think half the reason I didn’t wanna come out is just—having to do the whole press conference, like, ‘Oh hey, I’m this thing and also this thing totally exists, I swear. I’m not gay and I’m not goddamn confused; how would that even work?’


And Christ, how smug do you have to be, that I know—I know!—if I tried to tell everyone, there would definitely be people going ‘Nah, I think I probably know what’s really going on here, inside your head and your body that you live in all the time.’ And shit, being gay and asexual, that’s gotta be, just, your entire day sometimes, like, what is that?


GABE

Exactly.


ZACH NARRATION Gabe leans in, eyes bright, staring like I just executed the perfect guitar solo, and it’s so much, it’s too much, all I did was spew out some words, I’m not sure how I tricked Gabe into smiling like that.


GABE (GLOWING) It’s such bullcrap.


ZACH

“Bullcrap.” When we pretend to break up, can we say it’s because you swore like a second-grade teacher?


GABE (DISAPPROVINGLY) Fine. It’s not like we’ll be on speaking terms.


FX: CAR DOOR OPENS, GABE CLIMBS OUT, CAR DOOR SHUTS ABRUPTLY.


ZACH NARRATION I had sort of assumed our fake-breakup would be a bad one, but it doesn’t feel great to get confirmation.


Still, though. Still.


ZACH Dude, was that your first-ever fistbump?


ZACH NARRATION

I’m not worried Gabe will treat me differently, now that the cat's out of the "godless bisexual" bag. Gabe is many things, but he's not a hypocrite. And Gabe is—into dudes too, just in his own way.


At any rate, I’ve got other problems to worry about. Or—not worry. Because I’m not anxious now that Gabe knows the truth about my orientation. I’m not. But every few minutes, my mind drifts away and comes back to land on 'Gabe knows.' And every time, it's an electric shock. Between the fake dating and the genuine Kinsey scale business, Gabe has my two biggest secrets on lock. And yeah, I feel a bone-deep trust that Gabe won’t use it against me, but he could.


All that intimacy, and it’s with someone who only spends time with me because there’s no other choice, I think, rummaging in my locker for the book we’re reading in English. Ethan Frome. I’m praying we won't have to write an essay about it, since my only thought on the whole thing is, '…bummer.' No amount of messing with the font and margins is gonna make that three pages double-spaced.


I’ve read Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone three times, though. That's not even about Gabe, it's just—I keep picking it up again. I almost want to make Tori read it, just so I could have someone to talk to, because there are parts that make my brain feel like it’s going to vibrate out of my skull, but also parts I know I’m not getting. I’d ask Gabe, except for every single thing about that idea.


The only person at the lunch table when I arrive is Tori. She looks up and frees one ear from her headphones, tinny music seeping into the cafeteria din. If I had to guess, it's some angsty 90's band where a girl with weird lipstick snarls about everyone who's ever wronged her. Tori's kind of going through a thing.


Also, she doesn't have any food.


FX: CAFETERIA DIN. DISTANTLY, TORI’S MUSIC.


ZACH Did you forget your lunch?


TORI No.


ZACH Want some breadsticks or something?


TORI Like, if you want, whatever.


ZACH NARRATION

By the time I get back, bearing a cardboard boat of garlic bread, everyone has arrived, and things are less weird. For a very relative definition of less weird, I think, snagging the free spot next to Gabe and greeting him with a quick little side hug that hopefully looks nonchalant and cool.


ZACH So, Ponni. J. Alfred Prufrock. Go.


GABE It’s not on the required reading list.


ZACH No worries. I know they work you all to the bone in Honors Lit, but the rest of us get some downtime.


TORI In between the naps and the macaroni art.


ZACH Regular English is like fifty perfect naps.


PONNI Do you still wanna talk Prufrock?


ZACH Yeah, what even is his deal?


PONNI Hoo boy, how long do you have?


ZACH NARRATION

I can't always follow what she's saying, but I appreciate the way Ponni talks about poems, like a detective sniffing out a trail of clues. I also appreciate how the lecture lets me and Gabe off the hook for a while. We don't need to fill the silences with couple-y chatter, because there are no silences. And, if I’m honest with myself, I appreciate how, as Ponni gets going, Gabe leans to the right until our arms brush.


After lunch, I notice Eddie, Scott, and a senior named Clyde, I think, clustered around my locker, laughing. When they disperse, I see that they’ve scrawled “FAG” in all capital letters across my locker door. In case I forget, I guess. I think about reporting this to someone. I try to imagine anyone in charge caring, and then I vow to carry more books in my backpack so that I need to stop there less.

But when school gets out, I can’t ignore my way around how my van is slumped at a weird angle.


ZACH Think I have a flat.


TORI There’s a huge gash in the back tire.


ZACH Shit. Can you walk to the middle school and get Cody while I call Triple A?


TORI Yeah. I hate these assholes.


ZACH NARRATION

She and Cody take so long the Triple A lady gets there first, rolling up in her truck and changing the tire with a grumpy efficiency. Everything about her quick, jerky movements and constant eye-rolls screams "kids these days," as if I accidentally slashed my own tire, in the throes of some youthful hijinks.


TRIPLE A WORKER Whatever you did, son, don’t do it again.


FX: SHE CLIMBS BACK INTO HER OWN CAR, SHUTS THE DOOR, AND DRIVES AWAY.


ZACH NARRATION

I watch her drive away, eyes stinging, knowing that in five minutes, I’m gonna have so many snappy comebacks it'll be like fireworks going off in my skull.


On the bright side, Cody takes one look at Andy’s list of requested songs and assumes it’s some kind of genius performance art.


ZACH You won the eternal respect of an eleven-year-old the other night.


ANDY Well yeah, I’m basically a role model. Step one of building up my child army.


ZACH Dream big. Your CDs.


FX: ZACH SETS A STACK OF FRESHLY BURNED CDS ON ANDY’S DESK.


ANDY Oh, awesome. Trade.

FX: ANDY REACHES INTO HIS OWN BACKPACK AND PULLS OUT A PLASTIC GROCERY BAG FULL OF MIX CDS


ANDY Did you think I was just gonna take a bunch of your shit? Have some faith.


ZACH (SINCERELY) Thanks, man.


ANDY

Not a problem. (CASUAL) So, are you over whatever issue you had with me?


ZACH What?

ANDY

Come on. Second semester, freshman year?


ZACH NARRATION He means his own freshman year. My failed first attempt.


ANDY (PROMPTING) We had art together. You never did the assignments, you just sat in the back and drew, like, screaming faces?


ZACH I’ve got nothing.


ANDY I tried to talk to you so many times. And you—right through me. I’ll be honest, man, I kinda assumed it was a racism thing?


ZACH Sorry.


ANDY Oh no, if I still thought that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I could just never figure out, like, what I did.


ZACH Don’t know, man. Look, tell you the truth, if I saw a dude in a wrestling shirt back then—


ANDY Shit. Okay, yeah, I loved wrestling, but there’s a reason I quit.


ZACH Did you quit, though, or did they throw you out for knocking the shit out of some guy?


ANDY

Carl Andriacchi, he graduated last year—


ZACH (CARL TERRORIZED HIM) Yeah. I was. Familiar with his work.



ZACH It was a public service ass-kicking.


ANDY If you really wanna thank me, make Gabe listen to—well, you’ll know it when you see it. It is so his speed, but the guy does not trust my taste. You may need to use your boyfriend powers.


ZACH Boyfriend powers?


ANDY Come on. He’s clearly got a giant soft spot for you.


ZACH NARRATION

It’s easy to find the Gabe mix. ‘songs for tearing shit down’ is covered in crappy drawings of raised fists—so crappy, I can only identify them because they’re labeled that way. I burn it to my laptop and add the whole thing to my mp3 player that night, but I hold off playing it as long as I can.


In Algebra the next day, every time Pete Bowers crosses the room, he makes a point of knocking into my desk, until I want to just flip over the whole thing and light it on fire. I cue up the album instead.


MUSIC CUE: COMPLETED "SISYPHUS" TRACK STARTS UP


"SISYPHUS" TRACK SINGER (ALYSSA CASSESE)

Sisyphus lay down your stone,

You don't have to go it alone

They will fight a war for poison, just to burn it in the sky

You know it's time to make some noise and

raise the banner high, banner high!


FX: THE TRACK TAKES ON A MUFFLED, UNDERWATER QUALITY AS IT CONTINUES UNDER ZACH'S SPEECH INSTEAD OF HIS USUAL NARRATION SONG.


ZACH NARRATION

And lo, Andy has come through for me. I want to blare the song from the school’s PA system, like an 80’s movie. Scratch that, I want to live in a world where I could convince Gabe to give it a chance. It’s the same world where it means something that Gabe held my hand all through lunch today, didn’t even let go to drink his iced tea.


It’s a nice place. This song is its national anthem, I decide, tapping my fingertips on his desk in time with the drums.


When the track ends, I skip back to the beginning. I want to soak up the sound waves in my bones. The song isn’t the national anthem after all; it’s the whole country. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I graduate: leave the real world for everyone else to deal with, crawl inside the song and build a house there, in the space right before the last chorus.


FX: THE TRACK FADES INTO ZACH'S USUAL NARRATION MUSIC.


Three things happen on Friday, all of them inevitable: Tori shows up without a lunch again, Mike finds me in the hallway and elbows me in the back so hard it aches all through Consumer Econ, and I get into a big fight with Gabe on the drive home. The lunch thing I saw coming. The elbowing is no surprise. The fight, though—I’ve got no excuse.


FX: CAR DRIVING SOUNDS


GABE What you said at lunch on Tuesday. About being in remedial English or whatever.


ZACH

Okay?


GABE You know Leslie is in regular Lit, right?


ZACH (STARTING TO PANIC) How would I have known that?


GABE

(CAREFULLY MEASURED) She didn’t make it into honors because she wasn’t on the accelerated track in middle school. She’d changed foster families three times, and nobody got around to signing the paperwork.


ZACH That sucks.


GABE

She went to the administration last year, trying to get moved up, and you know what they said? ‘We don’t think you’re honors material.’


ZACH Jesus.


GABE

She was talking about starting a kind of a book club. They’d study all the AP Lit books together, and then at the end of the year, take the test. (CAREFULLY) There’s no rule saying you have to be in an AP class to get AP credit.


ZACH

(FONDLY) Sounds like Leslie.


GABE I told her you might be interested.


ZACH God, why?


GABE

You were saying your class was too easy—


ZACH I was saying it’s good for naps. I like naps. (ZACH BREATHES, IN, OUT)


GABE You ask questions when we talk about literature stuff.


ZACH NARRATION Gabe says it like it’s proof of something, when the truth is, I only ask questions because I know I’m not smart, and at some point, I stopped caring about looking stupid.


GABE

We don’t have to talk about this. But I mean, in ninth grade, if people were giving you a hard time—obviously that’s different now.


ZACH That’s not why I—


ZACH NARRATION Sometimes, at lunch, I feel like I’m in one of those Highlights puzzles: Circle what doesn’t belong. Ponni seems to get stronger and brighter with each literary discussion, like Mario eating Power Mushrooms. Krista drops in-jokes like of course we all know who Sylvia Plath is. Leslie is apparently leading the resistance from regular Lit. Gabe gathers facts like a soldier gathering ammunition.


At my very best, five years ago at the pinnacle of my achievement, I had a stomach full of ulcers, panic attacks before each test, and insomnia so bad I regularly went two days without sleeping. Sometimes I would tiptoe into the living room as the sky outside was getting pink and sit at the foot of the trophy case, staring at all the ribbons and awards, trying to convince myself I was any relation to the smiling boy in the photos.


ZACH

Sorry if it’s hard for you to wrap your giant brain around, but I never did this shit for fun. Tell Leslie good luck, but I’ve got zero interest in joining her nerd parade.


GABE Tell her yourself.


ZACH You’re the one who dragged me into this mess.


GABE

Oh my god, I’m sorry. She was looking for people, and just. It gets old, okay? Hearing you constantly call yourself dumb and complain about how bored you are, while you do absolutely nothing about it.


ZACH Well, given that we’re only pretending to like each other, maybe you can suck it up and take one for the team.


ZACH NARRATION

Andy’s mix is still knocking around in the bottom of my backpack. I’d been waiting to play Gabe that first track. I hadn’t even thought about how ridiculous it all was, sharing music like we’re friends. We ride all the way to Gabe’s house in silence.


Tori comes over that night. In theory, we’re watching old Mr. Show episodes on my poor wheezing laptop, but the video player keeps stalling, so there’s no point bothering with headphones for now. She’s flipping through a book, I’m trimming the back of her hair where she can’t reach. It’s orange now. Kind of a skunky orange.


FX: SNIPPING SOUNDS


TORI Do you think it’d be creepy to give someone a skirt?


ZACH What?


TORI Like, as a gift.


ZACH Depends on how? If it's a total stranger, and they wake up in the middle of the night and you’re standing over them with a skirt, that's probably creepy


TORI Krista's birthday is coming up. She said she liked mine, so—but maybe it's not something people do?


ZACH Dude, I don't think you want me as the, like, voice of reason—


TORI You can’t make a frozen pizza.


ZACH (LIGHTLY) Go to Hell. (MORE SERIOUSLY) But maybe if you pretend hard enough like it's cool, it won't occur to her to wonder?


TORI Yeah.

ZACH Why’d you never tell me you make clothes and stuff?


TORI Uh, didn’t think you’d care?


FX: THE SNIPPING SOUNDS CEASE. ZACH Because I’m such a shitty friend?


TORI Because you've worn those same jeans for like five days in a row. (SIGH) You’re fine.


ZACH Yeah, okay.


TORI Hey. You are.

Everyone who's saying shit about you right now is doing it because they're afraid, you know that, right? And also because they're incredibly shitty, but.


ZACH I know. I just wish that helped, like. Moment to moment.


TORI (WINCING) Zach, don’t make this weird, but I think I need to hug you.


ZACH What?


FX: A HUG.


ZACH NARRATION

There's a long second where I just sit there, my own arms flopping at my sides, before I remember how hugs work and I reach up to pull her closer. Her jacket is soft and smells like cigarettes. I rest my forehead against the side of her arm and swallow. Crying would count as making it weird, I’m pretty sure.


TORI

(HUSHED) Hey Zach?


ZACH Yeah?


TORI (HUSHED) Can I keep my sewing machine at your house for a while?


ZACH (WOBBLY SMILE) Go ahead, man.


ZACH NARRATION Because I’ve all but stopped using my locker, the next day, I’m the first person to World Myth except Mr. Clark, who politely pretends not to notice.


LESLIE Gooood afternoon!


ZACH Somebody’s bouncy.


LESLIE

Guess who’s going to Prom?


ZACH (GRINNING) Dude, that’s great!


LESLIE

You didn’t guess!


FX: LESLIE ALL BUT SKIPS TO HER CHAIR AND SITS NEXT TO ZACH


LESLIE It’s me, though. Is the answer. It’s me!


ZACH High five![high five sound effect?] So did Krista—


LESLIE Oho, who said it was Krista? (FX: LESLIE BOUNCES IN HER SEAT) No, yeah, it was Krista. We were talking in the hallway about all the crap you and Gabe are going through, and she kept saying, ‘We need to do more,’ and finally, I just said, 'Look, if you and I are gonna team up against evil, can we do it at least once in weird formalwear surrounded by cheesy decorations and insipid pop songs? And then maybe make out a little?’


ZACH You’re a sophomore. You asked her to her own Prom?


LESLIE

It turns out I may have moves. A move or two, perhaps.


ZACH And she said yes?


LESLIE (HUFFS) Oh my god, Zach, context! (GRINS) She totally did!


ZACH NARRATION The plan is working. The plan is actually working. Maybe Gabe was right, after all. Maybe none of this has to be in vain. I want to cheer, or jump up on my desk, or run through the hallways yelling, "Nice try, assholes!" I want to hug Leslie.


I want to hug Gabe.


Well, shit.


The next day, when I go to change out my books after second period, Ponni and Andy are waiting for me.


FX: HALLWAY DIN


ANDY Morning.


ZACH Morning.


PONNI

What’s up with this garbage on your locker?


ZACH

Someone felt like expressing themselves.


ANDY

You got a marker or something? Maybe you could scribble it out.


PONNI

(THOUGHTFULLY) You know…you could change the F into a P, squeeze an H before the A, turn it into “phagocytosis.”


(A BEAT) ANDY Or you could make the F into a B.


ZACH

‘'Bag”?


ANDY

Or, like, “bagel”.


ZACH "Beagle.”


ANDY

No, wait! (PROUDLY) "Eagle."


PONNI YES! “Eagle”, make it say “eagle”!


ZACH

(GRINNING) Hang on.


ZACH NARRATION There's no telling the random shit I could be carrying right now. At first pass, I come up with three crumpled pieces of paper, a mangled stick of gum, a finger puppet, and half a pack of cigarettes.


ZACH Shit, can you hold this?


ANDY Yep.


ZACH Alright, marker found.


FX: PERMANENT MARKER UNCAPPED ZACH Let's make this happen.


FX: PERMANENT MARKER SQUEAKING


ANDY Love it.


PONNI

Yes! Eagles are rad!


ZACH

(WRITING)(FX: MARKER SQUEAKING) “Eagles…are…rad.” The people need to know.


ANDY

Nice. Not sure it's complete without a visual aid, though.


PONNI

Ooh, draw an eagle! Zachary, I challenge you right now to draw the raddest eagle you can!


ANDY

Rad as science will allow.


FX: MARKER SQUEAKING

PONNI Sunglasses! YES!


ANDY

I think he needs a leather jacket.


ZACH Coming right up. (FX: MARKER SQUEAKING.) PONNI

So rad, so rad. Draw a speech bubble, make him say something! Make him say something almost too rad to handle.


ZACH

Hmm. (FX: MARKER SQUEAKING)


PONNI (READING AS ZACH WRITES) “Broccoli? No way!” Ahh raddest eagle in history!


VICE PRINCIPAL RICHARDSON

Ahem.


ZACH Vice Principal Richardson. Hey.


VICE PRINCIPAL RICHARDSON

Do I need to remind you about the rules against vandalizing school property?


ZACH No.


ANDY

Sir, his property had already been vandalized, he was just—


VICE PRINCIPAL RICHARDSON

I suppose you'll say you’re holding those cigarettes for a friend?


TRANSITION: LUNCH ROOM. CAFETERIA

GABE

I don’t understand. How did you and Andy get detention during passing period?


ZACH Artistic differences, man. Want a chip? (A BEAT) (CALLING AT A DISTANCE) Leslie, what’s wrong?


FX: KRISTA, LESLIE, AND PONNI APPROACH, BECOMING GRADUALLY MORE AUDIBLE


PONNI Goddamn it, I can’t believe—


KRISTA Are you sure you’re okay, Leslie?


LESLIE Fine. Just furious.


TORI What’s going on?


(PONNI, KRISTA, AND LESLIE ARE SPEAKING QUICKLY, FURIOUSLY. THEY OVERLAP EACH OTHER IN THEIR ZEAL TO GET THE STORY OUT)


PONNI

Those, those rat bastards—


GABE Leslie?


LESLIE So, it was at the end of gym, and this girl, this senior in my class—


PONNI This total, homophobic coward—


LESLIE Yeah. Fair.


KRISTA She snuck up behind Leslie—


ZACH Uh-oh.


LESLIE She said what you’d expect, and then she stuck gum in my hair.


KRISTA Like, a lot of it.


PONNI We think more than one person was involved because it’s three kinds of gum.


TORI It’s still there?


KRISTA We kept trying to pick it out, but we were only working it in deeper, we had to stop.


LESLIE I hate this, I hate it.


KRISTA

What is our game plan. Tell me, what do we need to do here, because we can't do nothing, this is so beyond—


GABE It’s literally a hate crime.


TORI

Is it her word against yours, Leslie?


LESLIE

People saw. I'm making a list. Most of them wouldn't take my side, but there are a few we might be able to talk to, and a few more that weren't there but will at least back me up that these girls have been bothering me—


KRISTA

We can’t let them win.


ZACH NARRATION My attention keeps slipping. Freshman year—my first freshman year, when I’d started to fall apart in noticeable, ugly ways, there were guys who said things to me, who pushed me around, but that was personal. I had been an annoying little shit and an easy target, that was all.


There is something undeniably creepy about this whole thing.


I want to bolt, but there's an electricity at the table. It feels like we’re planning a war. we’re doomed, of course, but there's a certain charge in being on a sinking ship together.


Gabe is turned away, focused on whatever Leslie and Krista are talking about. His thumb rubs back and forth on my arm, almost absently. It’s a beautiful move, subtle. If I ever congratulated Gabe on the fake boyfriend stuff, gold stars would be in order.


I look away, thinking about Leslie’s ruined ponytail, how it won’t grow back for literally years. On some level, the bastards have already won. (A hundred accumulated memories, parents and teachers: "Ignore them, Zach. They only want a reaction.” Well screw that, I think. Let’s give them a reaction.)


ZACH

Hey, Leslie, what d’you think, time for a cool new hairstyle? I hear, uh, short hair’s in this year.

TORI I’ve got sewing scissors in my purse.


LESLIE (GRINNING, FIERCE) Screw it. Cut it all off, Zach. Give me the butchest haircut on the entire planet.


FX: KRISTA RUMMAGES IN A BACKPACK AS SHE SPEAKS


KRISTA

I’ve got a magazine in here somewhere, there was a girl with a buzzcut who had your face shape, Leslie, and she looks incredible—


PONNI

Mrs. Freeman is always in the science room during lunch. She’d definitely let us use a sink for a good cause.


TORI

You sure? I figured we’d find a deserted garbage can. Forgiveness not permission and all that shit.


PONNI Are you kidding? You’re with us. Good kids get away with everything.


TRANSITION NOISE


PONNI

--and we’ve tried to remove the gum and we can’t, so I was wondering if we could borrow a sink to cut it out? We have scissors, we just don’t wanna make a mess.


MRS. FREEMAN

Yeah, go ahead. People can be jerks, right? Wish I could say that changes as you grow up, but hell, take a look at the current administration.


PONNI Yeah, Bush is a nightmare. Is this sink okay? (WHISPERS TO ZACH) We’re in!


TORI

Scissors.

PONNI We have to take it to the administration.


KRISTA But if the administration doesn’t do anything--


GABE Even if we can’t prove the hate crime angle, this is obviously bullying.


KRISTA I don’t want it to be our word against theirs.


TORI (CUTTING THROUGH THE DISTANT TALKING) Zach? You ready?


ZACH NARRATION It’s not at all like evening out Tori’s hair. This is gonna be noticeable, impossible to hide in a ponytail. Any mistakes I make will live on Leslie’s head for months. The scissors are heavy in my hand. I barely know how to hold them. I can feel my palms start to sweat, because that’s just what we need, a slippery grasp on a blade right close to my friend’s unguarded ears.


ZACH Somebody else should be doing this.


TORI Who.


ZACH Yeah. (TAKES A DEEP BREATH)


FX: SNIPPING


ZACH NARRATION And so, as Gabe, Krista, Ponni, and Leslie plot to save the world and Tori plays lookout, Leslie’s hair lands in clumps at the bottom of the chem lab sink. The scissors are sharp enough, but they weren’t really designed for this. Still, Leslie is a good sport, staying still, never wincing at the tug on her scalp.


LESLIE Tell you what. From now on, whenever they bully me, I’m just gonna get even butcher.


ZACH NARRATION Leslie McClary: bravest kid in the whole school.


FX: MORE SNIPPING


ZACH

We’ll start a fund. Every time they hassle you, we all give a dollar towards getting you a new leather jacket.


LESLIE

Those big chunky black boots--


TORI Motorcycle boots. Hell yeah.


LESLIE AND ZACH Flannel.


LESLIE (LAUGHS)


KRISTA Hey, looking good. Looking really goddamned good.


ZACH

Thanks.


KRISTA Wasn’t talking to you.


LESLIE Thanks.