Keep It Steady Episode 5
Good afternoon, Columbus High Students, it is Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006. Would the owner of the blue Honda Civic with the vanity license plate NAPOLEON please move your car from the entrance of the teacher parking lot?
Andy’s waiting for me in Con Econ.
ANDY Hey Zach. Did you make your boyfriend listen to the song yet?
ANDY It’s been a week.
It has. I don’t know how to explain that it’s out of my hands, that the opening track is mine now. Playing it for anyone else would be like peeling off my skin and letting bystanders gawk at my circulatory system. What would I even do if I exposed that song to Gabe and Gabe didn’t like it? What would I do if Gabe said, “Turn that off” or “Don’t you think the lyrics are a bit much?” How could I cope if Gabe just shrugged, unaffected?
By Friday, come onnnn.
ZACH (WINCING) I’ll try.
ANDY You are killing me. But I’ll tell you the answer to number four if you can help me define ‘capitalism’ in a way that doesn’t sound sarcastic—
ZACH NARRATION At the end of the day, when I open my locker, a piece of folded glossy paper tumbles out. Someone must’ve slipped it through the door.
(PRETTY FUCKED UP ABOUT IT) It’s, uh. It’s a pamphlet for one of those youth brainwashing camps, some kind of “pray the gay away” bullshit.
When I dart a glance over my shoulder, there’s a small knot of conservatively dressed kids trying very hard to act like they’re not watching.
Distantly, I note that their poker faces are terrible. Distantly, I note my hands are shaking.
'Freedom,' says the pamphlet, 'from the pain and shame of—'
The kids are still looking at me and I think, wildly, 'Don't let them see you reading it.'
I pick up my backpack. I close my locker. I let the pamphlet drop to the ground. I think, 'Step on it as you walk by." I put one foot on the paper, but it's much more slippery than I thought. My balance lurches away, my feet slide out from under me, and I’m bracing myself for impact when a hand catches at my elbow, another at the small of my back.
FX: HALLWAY SOUNDS
GABE Are you alright?
ZACH (NOT FINE) Fine.
(CONVERSATIONAL) Oh hey, you’re getting those pamphlets too?
ZACH This is my first. You've gotten—plural?
GABE For a while. It's dropped off, though. I think they realized I'm beyond redemption. Whoever 'they' are.
ZACH Over my shoulder. Four kids, close together. Probably looking pretty horrified. Just a guess.
GABE Where—oh. Yeah, they’re not subtle.
ZACH That’s what happens when you decide all the performing arts belong to Satan.
Turn your head more to the side. No, the other way. Remember that night you dropped me off?
From their angle, does this look like a kiss?
ZACH Not really.
GABE (SLIGHTLY DEFLATING) Oh.
No worries. I'll just pretend you said something super romantic.
GABE And a little dirty.
ZACH (SURPRISED LAUGH) Seriously, dude?
GABE For someone who gives me a hard time about how innocent I supposedly am, you are very easy to shock.
ZACH When you do it, yeah. It's like hearing profanity from a Carebear.
GABE A Carebear, really?
ZACH It's a metaphor. Poetic license, dude.
GABE I'm almost a head taller than you. If one of us is a Carebear, it's not me.
ZACH Or Superman.
GABE So either I'm a flying superhero or a cartoon bear? Do I get to pick? (WHISPER) Are they buying it, do you think?
ZACH What? Right. (WHISPER) I don't know, do they look mad?
GABE (DELIGHTED) Furious. Here, you can see.
ZACH NARRATION He pivots us both a quarter turn, until my back is to the lockers. It's a surprisingly fluid move, like something from a waltz. To anyone watching, it would look like Gabe pushed me against the wall to kiss me.
I check from the corner of my eye. The four kids are taking emphatically with each other. The tallest one is in my English class. She's quiet, well-behaved, a good student.
Well, of course. It's not just the bullies that hate me now.
It’s more convincing if you don't keep looking at them.
GABE Um, are you okay? Should we stop?
(TRYING TO WILL IT TO BE TRUE.) No, I'm cool. I'm fine.
GABE Okay. Have you ever heard Krista talk about Jesus?
GABE She makes a pretty good case for how, if Jesus were alive today, he'd be a fundamentalist's worst nightmare.
Spending all his time with the people everyone else judges. Outraged about poverty, outraged about prejudice, this brown guy in the desert who hangs out with the people everyone else condemns—
ZACH NARRATION Gabe doesn't have to fake anything, talking like this. His eyes are bright. He's brimming with joy. He really does look like he's in love.
If I meet that gaze from this close, I’m going to lose it. If I look away, I can't escape the horrified glares from the other side of the hallway, which is getting less funny by the second.
The girl in English with me, her name is Stacy. She's a good artist. When we do presentations, her posters always look nice. I lent her a pen once. She’s peer edited my essays before, and she drew a smiley face on the paper even when I did a shitty job.
She thinks I’m going to Hell, that I deserve to be there.
Are there more Kristas in the world, or more Stacys? It's not a hard question.
GABE It bothers you.
It bothers you.
Sorry, we can't all be—men of steel.
I think it bothers Leslie sometimes. And I know for a fact it bothers Krista. You know, when I asked you in the first place, I figured—people would go at least somewhat easy on you. Y’know, since you're popular—
ZACH I'm not—
GABE (SO SINCERE) I know. I'm sorry.
My point is, I was under the impression that you knew you could say something, if problems came up. But I'm getting the sense that people have been treating you pretty badly—
ZACH How did—(A BIG ADMISSION) it bothers me.
GABE Hey. Want to get out of here?
ZACH Hell yeah.
GABE Want to, uh, drive me home since there's no way I didn't just miss the bus?
GABE Krista normally gives me a ride on non-meeting days, but I didn’t want to third-wheel her and Leslie.
Was this all a long con to get a ride home?
GABE You caught me. Those were paid actors, they don't even go here.
TWO SETS OF FOOTSTEPS GABE Please tell me there is somewhere in this horrible town that sells ice cream.
Nope, sorry, we’re an ice-cream free county. Sherbet mafia, what can you do?
GABE I almost believe you. God, I hate the suburbs. College towns have their problems, but at least you can walk places. At least there are places to walk to.
ZACH We can stop by Meijer’s?
I meant is there a drive-through or an ice cream shop or something. Just—I’ve had a really unpleasant day, and I’m guessing you have, too? After all of that, I think the world owes us ice cream.
No matter how I take that statement apart, it sounds like Gabe is suggesting we get this ice cream together. Half-formed images of 1950’s-style malt shop dates dance in my head. Will we split a milkshake? Serenade each other with songs on the jukebox? Will I wear Gabe’s letter jacket? (Only if fighting The Man becomes a varsity sport.)
GABE More importantly, it’ll give us time to plan our next “date.” I can’t do Saturday this week and it makes more sense to have something planned before Friday.
ZACH (HE’S NOT DISAPPOINTED THIS ISN’T A DATE, NOT AT ALLLLL, NOPE, NO DISAPPOINTMENT HERE) Right.
GABE Anyway, you’ve given me multiple rides home every week, and I have the sense you’re not going to let me give you gas money, so if I get you a cone—
ZACH Oh no, you’re not covering this. I still owe you for the pizza, remember? And even if I buy yours today, I’ll still owe you money, unless you’re planning on ordering yourself like, a literal fish tank full of ice cream—
GABE You’re only young once. FX: DOUBLE DOORS ARE PUSHED OPEN. OUTSIDE, THE BIRDS ARE SINGING. GABE Carpe diem.
ZACH That’s the spirit. (FX: ZACH’S FOOTSTEPS COME TO A STOP.) (DELIGHTED) Hang on, you loser, was that a pun?
ZACH NARRATION If there's one thing I can barely deal with, it's how young freshmen look to me these days. I can remember being fourteen and yes, it was not a particularly good time, but I can't remember ever being that tiny, that wide-eyed. They're babies. I want to make them all crawl back up into the womb for a while.
That said, on Friday, when the only freshman in my Algebra class ambushes me on my way in, she's roughly the size of a dachshund, but yeah. I’m not moving her.
Zach. Um, I need to talk to you.
Look, I can save you some time. I'm sure God is great and all, but the homosexuals got to me first, and frankly, their recruitment package was better. Bright colors, coupons, nobody trying to make me feel like a living sin, it's a pretty good deal over—
MOLLY What? ZACH
Nice cross necklace.
MOLLY I don't think you're going to hell. Could you please just let me talk?
ZACH Go ahead.
Um, okay, so like (WHISPERS) When you met, uh, your boyfriend. How’d you know he was gay? Because there’s this girl in my bio class—
ZACH Maybe it's none of your goddamn business—
MOLLY And she's pretty great, and uh.
Oh shit dude, oh my god, sorry man, are you—
MOLLY (BRAVADO) Okay, obviously.
C’mon, there's gotta be someone else you can—
(WHISPERS) You're the only—the only gay person I know.
Technically bi. And I mean, you see where my gaydar is, so I don't know if there's any kind of hard and fast—
(GLUM) Oh. Okay.
Maybe find out her opinion about gay rights first? Like, if she's against them, either she's straight or she's so closeted there's not much point?
MOLLY That’s just common sense.
ZACH (WINCING) Yeah. I don’t think there’s a cheat code. You just—muddle through, try to pick up signs, and hope you're lucky. Shit. Uh, do you have some paper?
MOLLY Uh, here.
FX: PAPER IS RIPPED OUT OF A NOTEBOOK. A MARKER SQUEAKS ON PAPER
ZACH Okay, here's my e-mail address. If you want to talk about anything, you can write to me, okay?
I know at least three other kids who—well, they aren’t straight, and all of them are way smarter than me, so if you stump me, I can get you a second opinion. And if people start bothering you, or if you just need some help, there are like six kids who will automatically be on your side.
MOLLY Your weird little club?
ZACH My boyfriend's weird little club, yeah.
MOLLY Your boyfriend is scary.
Nah. You just have to get to know him.
MOLLY If you say so.
ZACH Don’t forget, email me if you want. And, uh, what’s your name?
MOLLY We’ve been in the same class all year.
ZACH Yeah, I’m, uh, maybe not the most observant person?
MOLLY It’s Molly. I should get back to my desk.
ZACH Hey. Good luck.
MOLLY You too.
Hey, can you help with the chairs? I think we’re starting soon, Ponni said she might be late.
On it, Chowderboots.
I’m still not over your nicknames thing.
FX: ZACH AND GABE ARE MOVING CHAIRS.
Weirdest thing happened today. This little freshman girl like, asked for my guidance.
Did she want to learn how to melt Tupperware in the microwave?
How do you know--
ZACH That happened once. No, she wanted me to teach her how to spot other young lesbians. Or something, man. I'm her only window into the queer community, isn't that messed up?
ANDY Is it really that shocking in this town that you'd be the only gay person she’d know?
Bi, and is it not disturbing this poor kid has to turn to me for advice? Like, what the hell?
What did you tell her?
I gave her my e-mail and said she should come here if she has problems.
Why, was that okay?
Yeah, it's great.
He's just hurt that no baby gays have ever asked him for mentoring. He wants one too. Like a Tamagotchi.
Don't take it personally, pumpkintoes. It's not that they don't like you, they just think you're terrifying.
Freshmen aren't toys. (HESITATING) But is it just me or do they somehow seem really, really young?
On Monday, I get called out of Earth Science to go see Vice Principal Richardson. I spend the whole walk there wondering what I’ve even done. I haven’t been high in school for almost a year. I’ve doodled some borderline disturbing stuff on worksheets lately, but that would only net me a meeting with the school psychologist. My most deviant act in weeks was throwing a superball around in World Myth. I have not been on top of my game.
When I go to take a seat in reception, Gabe is there, wedged into one of the uncomfortable-looking chairs, frowning down at a book and almost vibrating with intensity.
ZACH Fancy meeting you here.
FX: GABE SHUTS THE BOOK.
GABE (IN A LOW VOICE) Well, this narrows down the list of reasons I could be in trouble. Any idea what we’ve done?
ZACH (LOW VOICE) To earn a visit to the vice principal? It'd probably help if I knew what a vice principal does.
FX: DOOR OPENS
FX: INSIDE MR. RICHARDSON’S OFFICE. A CLOCK TICKING. A DOOR SHUTS.
(SOLEMNLY) We’ve had reports that you’ve been violating school policy.
ZACH Yes sir, we didn’t think you pulled us out of class to congratulate us on really sticking to the rules.
GABE (QUIETLY SERIOUS) What policy would that be?
The one against public displays of affection.
ZACH (LAUGHS LOUDLY)
GABE You’re joking.
(ZACK IS STILL LAUGHING)
MR. RICHARDSON We’ve had complaints from multiple students. They said you made them uncomfortable.
What exactly have we done that’s inappropriate? I want to know the charges against us.
(ZACH IS STRUGGLING FOR AIR)
GABE (QUIETLY) Zach, are you okay?
ZACH (SETTLING DOWN) I’m good.
MR. RICHARDSON The students weren’t specific.
(INTENSE) You called us down here for a rumor? You don’t even know if it was something worth pursuing—
MR. RICHARDSON If students find that your behavior is distracting them, or making them feel unsafe—
GABE Unsafe? Do you understand what it’s like going to this school as a gay kid, as a bi kid? If you want to talk about unsafe—
I would appreciate it if you could calm down. (MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF SIGHING AND BEING REASONABLE) If you can’t talk about it reasonably right now—
How can I be calm, when the people I love are in actual danger—Leslie McClary has put up with verbal abuse for years—
This is all hearsay. I can’t talk about another student’s case with you, but is it fair to expect us to respond to things we haven’t been told?
If you’re not hearing it, maybe that’s because the LGBT presence at this school knows better than to ask you for help. Or maybe you’re not listening. I know Leslie McClary has tried to meet with you about the endless, horrible harrassment—
We’re getting away from the issue. What we are here to discuss, right now, is that some students feel targeted by your actions.
How could anyone feel targeted? We’re not cuddling at them—
You aren’t in trouble yet. If you could just tone it down—
GABE This, holding hands, this is as physical as we get—
When students feel that it encroaches on their ability to learn, it becomes an issue.
GABE So what you’re saying, what you’re saying is that my boyfriend and I need to cater to their homophobia by giving up one of the very, very few things that makes life bearable in this awful place—
I’m saying you have a chance right now, to correct your behavior. Do you understand how serious this is? It could be considered a form of sexual harassment.
ZACH (ABSOLUTELY LOSES IT LAUGHING)
GABE (WORRIED) Zach?
Oh god. Sorry. It’s just— (HIS VOICE IS STILL QUAVERING WITH WITHHELD LAUGHTER) You’re talking like we’re in some—legal thriller, but the school doesn’t actually have a policy on PDA. Like, have you read the student handbook?
GABE Uh, have you?
ZACH Many times. It’s not there.
GABE (DEADLY CALM) Well, that’s interesting.
The overall tone is that we have a responsibility to create a comfortable learning environment, which is jeopardized by inappropriate behavior.
How often do straight students get called in here for holding hands? Also, have I mentioned my mom is a lawyer? What does it look like if the media gets involved, and there isn’t even an official rule you can fall back on—
Well, in the meantime, the student handbook is extremely clear on insubordination. I think both of you could benefit from a three-page essay on the importance of respecting authority. That will be all, thank you.
GABE (STUNNED) What?
ZACH (TO GABE) Come on, Gabe.
This isn’t fair. It’s not fair.
ZACH I know. Get up, dude.
GABE Mr. Richardson? Who are you trying to protect, your students or the status quo?
MR. RICHARDSON If you could both get back to class.
ZACH We should go.
(FX: TWO SETS OF FOOTSTEPS TO THE DOOR.)
GABE We’re not stopping. You can’t scare us into stopping.
That muscle in Gabe’s jaw jumps attractively, and I think that this moment would be in the trailer of the film, with big, sweeping strings coming under it. Cellos, probably.
And, because it will piss off Richardson, which might pacify Gabe, which might get us out of there with nothing worse than some bullshit assignment, I bring my free hand to the side of Gabe’s face and let my thumb stroke that ridiculous perfect cheekbone in a way that hopefully looks very romantic. Gabe turns his eyes back to me, and I push through what would be panic if I thought about it to summon up my absolute warmest and most publicly affectionate voice.
(SO, SO IN LOVE) I don’t think a hurricane could stop you, babe.
This close, I can see exactly how Gabe’s eyes shut for a second, breathing hard, how he opens his eyes again and squares his jaw, and Gabe is still furious, this was a terrible idea. I need some way to extricate myself, but Gabe is looking right at me and I am frozen in panic, shit, I have officially ruined everything beyond repair—
And Gabe, uh. Gabe kisses me.
It’s over in a second, but undeniably it happens, and then I am standing there with the sense memory of the warm press of Gabe’s lips on mine, mouth kind of tingling.
MR. RICHARDSON Get out of my office.
Somehow we make it to the hallway. Gabe opens his mouth. His mouth, which was just on my mouth. And I’m watching him, thinking that if Gabe asks if I’m okay, if that was alright, I will full-on lose it. I just—kissing. We kissed.
Did you miss it? Because I can say it again.
Not for—okay, not because he wanted—it was for the same reason any of this happens. To defy authority, to make a point. Social justice kissing. On the lips. I just. Gahhhhh!
FX TWO SETS OF FOOTSTEPS DOWN AN EMPTY HALL.
ZACH Did you see the look on Richardson’s face?
ZACH NARRATION Bold words from someone who can’t remember leaving the office. Vice Principal Richardson could’ve been dressed as a bumblebee, playing the tuba and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me.
God, I can’t believe him. It’s not as if we’re making out all over the hallway or something—
ZACH (STRANGLED) Yeah.
The students ‘weren’t specific,’ what do you think they even said? ‘Oh help, they’re being gay at us!’
GABE Or, I’m not trying to erase your bisexuality, but—
ZACH (TRYING TO RETURN TO EARTH) No, it’s cool.
GABE And meanwhile—meanwhile, I mean, there’s that letter we wrote on Friday about Leslie’s hair. She handed it in this morning, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
ZACH Yeah, but you’re gonna kick their ass. Is your mom really a lawyer?
GABE (SHEEPISH) Technically? Uh, she’s a real estate lawyer.
ZACH Those poor bastards don’t even know who they’re dealing with yet. (TOO MUCH? ZACH CATCHES HIMSELF) Your whole group. You guys are gonna break this shit wide open.
GABE Where’s your fourth hour?
ZACH Earth science. In the basement.
GABE I’ve got Lit. Second floor. But I’ll walk with you for a bit.
ZACH And come back late to Lit? I really am a bad influence.
Ms. Cook won’t get me in trouble. She hates how the administration handles this stuff.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to tell you. Ponni, Leslie and Krista and I were talking about it, and I think we might float, as something for the group to vote on—
In terms of ways we can make the biggest practical impact. We want to suggest shifting our priorities.
We thought we might start an anti-bullying program. We won’t give up on what we’ve been doing, but we’ll establish ourselves as a safe space. Kids can come to meetings and talk about what they’re going through, and we can try to help them. Maybe volunteer to escort them to class if they’re worried for their safety.
Oh shit, and the school will probably have to back you up, since it’s not like they can come out in favor of bullying. You could like, get funding for this.
And we could—it wouldn’t be just for LGBT kids, but if any show up, we could put together some resources for them, too. Nobody should be afraid to go to school.
ZACH (CHOKED UP) That’s, uh, a pretty good idea.
FX: GABE STOPS WALKING GABE You think so?
ZACH (STILL CHOKED UP) Uh. Yeah.
FX: GABE STARTS WALKING AGAIN.
GABE You never like our ideas. You really think this one’s okay?
ZACH Look. If I was jacking you around, you’d know.
GABE Yeah, I know. See you.
ZACH NARRATION I sit through the remainder of a lesson about plate tectonics, actually taking notes so I’ll have something to do with my hands. I don’t think about Gabe’s lips, soft and a little chapped. I don’t think about Gabe’s face right before the kiss. All of that is easy to explain.
The craziest part of the whole affair, when you get right down to it, is that Gabe asked for my opinion. Asked, and seemed to want to know. From the front of the room, the teacher says something about seismic shifts and I think, ‘Dude, you have no idea.’
The feeling lasts until Algebra, when our tests from last week come back. Let’s just say it’s bad news. Time to bring in the big guns. I find Ponni in the hallway.
FX: HALLWAY DIN
ZACH I swear to god, I will draw you anything you want for the rest of your life if you can just make factoring make sense.
(FILLED WITH GLEE) Seriously? Oh man, I know so many math jokes, this is gonna be incredible. (A LITTLE LOUDER) I’m gonna be a tutor! A professional tutor! ANDY You’re being paid? Hey Zach.
In a lifetime supply of art.
I hope you realize you’ve committed to illustrating Ponni’s whole webcomic. Don’t worry, it’s charming as Hell. Astro-cat, it’s the adventures of a cat astronaut--
PONNI Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Okay, Tuesdays I have robotics club and Thursdays I meet with Mr. Brown, you know, the school psychologist, but Wednesdays, Wednesdays, can you do Wednesdays?
Cool! We can get in a solid two hours of math, and then we can talk character designs. Zach, how are you at drawing exploding rocket ships?
ZACH Finally, someone’s asking the real questions.
Wednesday afternoon. The library.
FX: THE HUSHED SOUNDS OF A LIBRARY
PONNI (THE VOICE OF SOMEONE OPENING A BRIEFCASE BETWEEN THEM) Here is the deal. I got a pile of exercises off the internet. If you're confused about anything, you have to tell me. We don't move on until you're sure you understand. That's my first rule.
ZACH Okay. How many rules are--
ANDY Second rule. You’re not allowed to interrupt her.
ZACH What are you even doing here, Andy?
ANDY I’m her ride. If it helps, I promise I’m not paying attention.
PONNI Third rule. You’re not allowed to skip anything. When you get a whole page right, you get a sticker. They’re scratch and sniff. Fourth rule, you’re not allowed to pretend that isn’t awesome. The popcorn one smells like popcorn, it is wild.
Can I smell it?
PONNI Not until you’ve finished a whole page. Fifth rule. Last rule.
ZACH Hit me.
PONNI At no point are you allowed to say 'I'm bad at this' or 'I can't do math' or anything like that. You aren't even allowed to joke about it.
ZACH I had really been counting on sarcasm to get me through this.
PONNI Well, take all that energy, and use it for Algebra.
ZACH (A LITTLE TOO LOUD) Ponni—
ZACH You can't make me stop sucking by forcing me to pretend—
PONNI Uh-uh. Nope. Here’s the thing about math. It's not an art. It's a series of rules, and if you know how to use them, they always work. Do you have dyscalcula?
PONNI Great! So then either it wasn’t explained to you in a way you got, and-or you never tried hard enough. I'm gonna explain it awesome, and you’re gonna try your butt off, so like. Literally you can't fail.
Anyway. You get stickers. So! Factoring trinomials.
ZACH Uh. I actually don't understand how to do it with the—where it's just x-squared and whatever.
PONNI Awesome, let me write up some sample problems. Hey, cheer up. When we get through the first twenty, I'll tell you all about Astro-cat's backstory. Trust me, it is a doozy.
ZACH NARRATION It is a doozy. Ponni’s approach to writing is the same as her approach to teaching: throw in everything, see what sticks, and then go with that, even if it’s ridiculous. She explains slope problems in terms of tiny creatures trying to climb through the graph. She comes up with a little dance for multiplying binomials, and she makes me practice it with her in the library, which would be humiliating except Ponni somehow has the power to make Andy do it, too.
And everything, absolutely everything has a mnemonic device, except Ponni creates her own, so they make no sense. But the fact is, they’re so transcendently dumb, they stick in the memory, like a four-chord pop song that rhymes “more” with “anymore.” Pretty soon, I can’t think about the order of operations without remembering Ponni leaning forward to prompt me:
Zach, why does Astro-cat say time travel isn’t worth the risk?
“...Practically Everyone Meets Dinosaurs, Astro-cat Says.
PONNI (A LITTLE TOO MUCH CONVICTION) Darn straight.
This means I can’t take a quiz without smiling to myself like a small child, but over the next five weeks, my grades start climbing. Well, comparatively. It’s hard to feel awesome about a D-, although Ponni beams when I mention it.
You went from 30% to 60%! You freaking doubled, dude! Draw yourself a frog, because you’re improving leaps and bounds.
ZACH Do I point out that jumping means you land right back on the ground?
ANDY Nope. You thank your tutor, you hang that picture in your locker, and you move the Hell on.
ZACH NARRATION All for a D minus, but. I keep the frog.
I don’t exactly plan on giving Gabe a ride home next Thursday. There really is no reason to do it; there’s no meeting today, no covert news to exchange.
There’s not even much overt news. Tori isn’t hanging out with me tonight because she’s watching old movies with Krista, Ponni, and Ponni’s boyfriend Horace, who goes to the Catholic school on the other side of town. I’m sure Horace is a good dude – he and Ponni apparently met as rivals at a robotics tournament, which seems rife for stories – but the idea of meeting anyone new tonight is sending my brain in exhausted spirals.
I had been hoping me and Tori could hang out at my place tonight, play some video games—with or without the drinking, to be honest I don’t care. Lately I feel like one of those old-fashioned wind-up toys, like someone's been cranking the key in my back a few degrees tighter each day. Reading the books Leslie lends me can reverse it a half-turn; so can working on Astro-cat concept art or hearing Tori invent new exciting curse words as she sews her prom dress. But the moment it's over, the key is twisting forwards again. The seconds crawl by, but the weeks are too fast to track.
If I’m honest, I’m keeping an eye out as I head towards the parking lot. Gabe is easy to spot anyway and would be even without the bright red hoodie like a battle pennant against the gray sky. I can't pretend to be nonchalant, I just shove through the crowds.
FX: OUTSIDE. BUSSES IDLING. KIDS TALKING. OVERHEAD, THUNDER. RAIN STARTS.
In some ways, this was easier when we weren't getting along, but on a selfish level I’m glad I had a chance to see Gabe laugh, or condemn a Vice Principal, or get so distracted by a point Krista’s making that he is in real danger of biting into his sandwich before he's taken it out of the baggie.
Gabe has smiled at me in private the way Gabe is smiling at me now, but there it was thoughtless, and here it's an act, and in either case it can’t mean the things I wish it could. I’m not sure why I keep doing this to myself. I should just get myself and this slew of messy feelings out of the way, hightail it safely to my van before—
GABE (SAD) Hey.
ZACH NARRATION It's no longer shocking to see Gabe tired, but it still catches at some ridiculous urge that I don’t even have a name for. It makes me wish I owned a big pile of quilts, and, also, that it wouldn't be super weird to invite other people to come nap in my giant quilt-nest for a while.
ZACH Uh, if you’re not feeling the bus—
ZACH You okay?
FX: VAN DOORS UNLOCK. ZACH AND GABE OPEN THEIR RESPECTIVE DOORS AND CLIMB INSIDE. RAIN PATTERS AGAINST THE ROOF. WINDSHIELD WIPERS.
FX: THE VAN BACKS OUT OF THE SPOT AND STARTS DOWN THE ROAD.
ZACH (ABRUPTLY, AWKWARDLY) Look at all the people with their sprinklers on in the rain. That has to be a waste of water, right? Like people are literally dying of thirst and we’re literally pouring it down the gutter.
GABE Are you making fun of me?
Whoa, man, can’t I notice something on my own?
GABE Sorry. You're right, that wasn't fair. I just—it's been a not-great day, and I'm a little—
ZACH It's cool, we all have our moments. The Man got you down? (A BEAT) For the record, I'm still not making fun of you.
There was—we had a debate today, in my speech class. Theoretically, it was about charter schools, but it turned into me trying to argue separation of church and state again, and someone outright calling me a pedophile to my face. So, uh, that was my afternoon.
ZACH But you don’t care what people think of you.
GABE No. But hearing anyone talk that way about anyone, it—I don't know. Sometimes it’s very, very hard to believe in this country.
ZACH I hear that.
FX: THEY SIT IN SILENCE FOR A MOMENT. DRIVING SOUNDS, THE RAIN.
Did you know they used to treat homosexuality as a mental illness?
ZACH Some people kinda still do.
GABE Yeah, which is awful. But now it’s on the fringes. I’m talking about—I mean, the vast majority of psychologists. As late as the seventies, it was in their official handbook of, of disorders.
It’s what they were taught in school. It’s what all the experts said. If you were a scared gay kid, or a scared bi kid before 1973, and you looked it up or you went to a therapist or you took a psychology class—and of course, it wasn’t just ‘you’re sick’, it was ‘you’re sick and even if you don’t feel sick, that’s part of the sickness.’
ZACH NARRATION I think about Leslie ignoring bullies in World Myth class, Krista’s face in the lunch room that day, Gabe searching so hard for a word that didn’t mean ‘broken.’
ZACH (HEAVILY) Shit. Christ, man. You ever wanna throw in the towel and hop the border to Canada?
GABE No. Not for a second. That’s my point. The APA used to treat it like a mental illness. And then they stopped. And not because they felt like it. People made them stop. All these activists and psychologists who were secretly gay came together and forced their hand. There was so much risk, and they had no way to tell if it was gonna work, and they did this thing that had never been done before. I think about that all the time. With a lot of things, but gay rights especially. Their arguments are so weak, there’s no way they can win forever. It’s so clear.
ZACH God, what I wouldn’t give—
ZACH It must be nice, to be so sure. About anything.
GABE It’s horrible. (A BEAT) No, a lot of the time it's not. But I know it could be better, and I can’t make them listen. I can’t make them take me seriously. And I keep thinking, 'There's got to be some way I could get through to them' and I keep trying, because I can’t not, but—
ZACH Okay, you’re right. (SINCERE) It’s horrible. I’d say, ‘Wish I could lend you a sliver of my ability to not give a shit,’ but that’d never work. Caring is like, the source of your super powers.
GABE Sorry to—
ZACH No! (SLOWLY) Hey, I think there’s a song you need to hear.
FX: ZACH CUES UP THE SONG ON HIS VAN CD PLAYER. THE SONG PLAYS FOR A FEW BEATS
The nice thing about driving is that it takes up a lot of attention. There are street signs to obey and cars to watch out for and it means that I don’t spend every single second frantically searching for Gabe's reaction from the corner of my eye. It's more like every other second.
FX: THE SONG ENDS
GABE Uh, sorry if this is weird, but—
ZACH (NERVOUS) Yeah?
GABE Could we maybe listen to that one again?
So we listen to it again. We, uh. We listen to it three more times.
FX: WE CUT TO ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH THE SONG.
GABE Roll down the windows!
ZACH But the rain—
GABE It’s a public service announcement. The people need to know!
FX: WINDOWS ROLLED DOWN JUST AS THE CHORUS KICKS IN
ZACH AND GABE (SINGING) So make a note, make a plan
make a call, make a stand
this land is not his land!
From the signs to the sand
Welfare lines, weary hands,
This land is not his land!
FX: THE SECOND VERSE STARTS, THE CAR ROLLS TO A STOP AND THE WINDSHIELD WIPERS CUT OUT.
ZACH We’re here.
Til the end of the song, c’mon!
FX: THE SONG CONTINUES, ZACH AND GABE SINGING ALONG ON THE CHORUS
ZACH AND GABE (SINGING)
So make a note, make a plan
make a call, make a stand
this land is not his land!
From the signs to the sand
If the words, wind up banned,
This land is not his land!
(REPEAT UNTIL THE END)
FX: THE TRACK ENDS.
GABE Thanks. That was—really, thank you.
ZACH Not a problem.
GABE (DEEP BREATH) Zach? Can I talk to you about something tomorrow?
ZACH Tomorrow? GABE Yeah, after the meeting?
In my car? So like when and where we always talk anyway?
Do I point out we’re already talking? In my car, in fact?
I know. But I, um, need to get my thoughts together first. Figure out what angle to come at this from.
Are you gonna make a presentation? Climb in here with poster board and notecards and a five-minute time limit? Yeah, I’m down, why not. (ALMOST LIKE A CONFESSION) ...I won’t actually make you stick to five minutes.
GABE I just—want to get it right.
ZACH Is it important?
GABE It is to me.
ZACH Bad news?
GABE (UNCERTAIN) I hope not.
ZACH Is it about Social Justice Club?
GABE Kind of?
ZACH Am I gonna lose this round of Twenty Questions?
Almost certainly. And I’d rather—it’ll be better if we talk tomorrow. Please?
In all the time we’ve done this, I’ve never seen Gabe this nervous. It’s more restless than his awkward concern months ago when I came out. It’s just this whole other thing. I don’t know what to make of it.
ZACH I hope it’s good news?
Me too. (OPENS CAR DOOR) See you tomorrow.
ZACH NARRATION That night, as I eat a cartoon of noodles over the sink, I think about Gabe. I mean, that part’s not new. Gabe or the noodles, really. But it’s so weird to me now that kids like Molly are scared of him. Because like Andy, he contains multitudes, and a lot of those multitudes are ridiculous.
He’s smart, and funnier than I would’ve guessed, but he is a weirdo and he can be awkward as hell. That fistbump way back when, and the way he said “bullcrap.” And now that inexplicable moment in my van, like what was that ab—
FX: ZACH DROPS THE CARTON OF NOODLES IN THE SINK.
ZACH Holy shit.
Sometimes, Gabe is incredibly awkward.
Awkward enough, say, to put off telling a crush that he liked them by pre-scheduling the conversation for later.
This is a crazy thing to let myself dwell on, but it’s like that turning point with an optical illusion, how once you’ve realized the vase can also be two faces, the lines shift in your mind and you can’t unsee it.
Gabe has listened to a lot of my problems and defended me from bullies and laughed at my jokes and bought me a pizza. Gabe kissed me, when he really didn’t have to. Gabe sat in my van and listened to my favorite song four times in a row, rain pelting the roof, music blasting from the speakers, sound waves knocking into our bodies, yelling along.
Suddenly, the idea of calmly standing here eating noodles is outrageous.
All those times Gabe has wrapped his arm around me. If he even meant one of them—
I feel like one of those guys on TV insisting that UFOs are real, that Bigfoot is alive and hanging out in Arkansas, that all the signs are there if you just line them up right and squint. Gabe liking me back, me being the kind of person anyone could like the way I like Gabe, is the wildest conspiracy theory of all. But the shapes have rearranged themselves in my head, and I can’t make myself unsee it.
Gabe wants to talk to me tomorrow. Gabe wants to get it right.
Seismic shifts, I think in bed that night. All these weeks, what if I had no idea what I was doing? What if I’m not the only one?
At no point do I fall asleep.
CLOSING MUSIC - SISYPHUS WITH NO LYRICS
This episode features…
Matthew Sabido as Zach
Chris Rivera as Gabe
TAL Tal Minear as Molly
Regina Renée Russell as Krista
Paige Alena as Leslie
Sophia Babai as Ponni
Perseus Rebelo as Andy
Thom Rivera as Vice Principal Richardson
Alyssa Cassese as rock vocals
Directed by Rye Dorsey
Sound effects by Phoebe Izzard Davey
Audio mixing by Rebecca Lynn
Written by Jessica Best. Zach’s narration music is written, performed, and produced by Chiron Star. “Sisyphus” is written by Jessica Best and produced by Chiron Star, all instruments performed by Chiron Star.
And I’ve been Kay Watson, your morning announcements. Thank you and have a great day, Columbus High!