A Certain Word
This article isn’t exactly X-rated but it’s a little blue in the face, if you know what I mean. A bit off-color, but just a bit. You might not want Grandma to read this, and definitely should turn on the TV for the kids. Let them watch some murder show or The Bachelor.
If I’d had a lot of friends in high school, if I’d been part of any group – the soches, the athletes, the brains, the goofusses, the ASBers, even the kids one hop short of a bunk bed at juvie – I probably would have known better.
But it was not belonging, not knowing, that makes this incident possible. I was a loner and belonged nowhere. Plenty of teenage angst loomed in my corner but an absence of other teens to inform me about secret adolescent passageways kept me in the dark. I didn’t know the references, the lingo, the flippant signs of kids slipping and sliding their way to adulthood. I lacked a map, a key, a password. My fault as much as anyone’s.
There are words you learn backstage, under the bleachers, at the street corner late at night. But only if you hang with someone who will teach you. Me – I hung out in my bedroom, pretending to do homework but mostly daydreaming about when I could get out of there. Out of the bedroom, out of my parents’ home, out of high school, out of Tulieville.
College was my operative escape route and though I planned little other than landing in those academic halls, I expected to blossom into something. Anything other than the painfully shy, unattractive nobody who looked back at me from the mirror, remarking, “You ain’t nobody, kid.”
First attempt to recast my fate: I declared my major in Theater.
The university was only one year out of the mint. The administration had begged for a few willing pioneers to defect from their first colleges to attend ours, the promise of the very first undergraduate diplomas ever to be given their carrot stick reward.
I entered as a raw freshman, raw being an operative word. I’d been a thespian at my high school where we’d mounted such theatrical productions as Little Women, Ben Hur, The Night of January 16th, and George Washington Slept Here. I’d only had character parts in a few of those plays, mostly doing backstage work. You could safely bring Grandma to our plays and she wouldn’t raise a chaste eyebrow. As I said, I had little social life, not even the usual backstage fun.
At the university I intended to try out for a part in the fall play, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, written by Peter Weiss. Sure, I knew Marat/Sade, the leader of the French Revolution, the turbaned dead guy hanging out of the bathtub in Jacques-Louis David’s painting.
I didn’t know much about the play, nor about how much a brand new university would do to get itself on the academic map. Crap, I was barely 18 and hadn’t been to my first rock and roll concert, to my first anti-war protest. I’d never smoked a cigarette and hadn’t yet had s— maybe TMI here.
So I went to the tryouts. Hell, I could act, right?
This brand new university featured so few buildings that the history, science, math, and literature departments shared the two lecture halls. Barely room for French and calculus classes, but we had a theater, by gum, we had a theater, complete with backstage, ascending/descending audience tiers, a polished stage draped with velvet curtains, and an orchestra pit.
Try-out day. We pining, thirsting young actors sat in the rows. Across the stage strode our young director. He was not only a god, being the man who would select actors for the parts. He was a GOD. Young, handsome, confident, he looked as if he’d be at home on a warhorse or a surfboard, but there he stood on the stage where our fledgling Broadway careers would be launched.
Clutched in the crook of his arm was a clipboard. The uni must have handed out free clipboards to all the instructors as every professor on campus flouted their own. Mark of the chosen perhaps.
At center stage our director, clip board firmly grasped, stared into all our yellow eyes. (Yes, Mr. Sendak, mine were yellow with anticipation, at least that day.) Then our director god made his announcement.
Were we fortunate enough to be selected for a part in this play, we would be expected to do something on stage. Something specific. Very specific.
The act is a word that begins with an M, ends with ate, and in between I’ll let you figure it out.
The actor wannabes remained quiet. At least that’s how I remember the moment. Something about that word…
I went home and looked up that three-syllable word in the dictionary and thank heaven it was an inclusive dictionary, not the elementary school tome. No, I did not yet know that word, (few friends, remember?) and yes, I had the intelligence at least to consult a dictionary rather than ask my mom.
My eyes might have remained yellow but on reading the definition, I could feel my face turn shades of red. Crimson, scarlet, burgundy, ruby, beet – what other color best describes embarrassment than red? My cheeks burned hot enough to toast s’mores.
And no, I could not do that on stage. Could barely do it … TMI.
So I went back to the university next day and changed my major.
Never saw the play.
Painting The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David courtesy Wikipedia