David Jester: Exit Stage Left

The stage was blanketed in darkness. The lights had not yet risen their artificial dawn. The audience was a hush of silent murmurs. Silhouettes on stage lingered like wax sculptures after hours at Madame Tussaud’s. As illumination grew, the stage brightened to reveal Ken and Alyssa in embrace. In front of the audience they transformed, becoming Romeo and Juliet.

That opening night, months of rehearsal culminated in a realization of affection. Passions that had built during rehearsals crescendoed, only to become unbridled there on stage before the audience. They felt the love and yearning that Romeo and Juliet had felt—or were intended to as Shakespeare laid out for two fictitious characters. Backstage Edmond and Adam recited each line. Behind the draping velvet maroon curtains, they whispered aloud together, having memorized every word, every bit of inflection. Everyday during rehearsal they listened in their dark space, absorbing every part played in the bright. Miss Fellstone stood off in the wings, watching from the shadows in a far corner, obscured by a veil of darkness.

Romeo and Juliet was to start in February. The cast, comprised mostly of seniors, voted unanimously to have opening night on Valentine’s Day. Every afternoon Adam and Edmond worked stage crew. Adam, in charge of lighting, and Edmond stage manager, worked hand in hand together. Their cues were rehearsed down to the second. Props slid across stage at the whisper of a word. Backdrops changed in the darkness between scenes. Lights flickered their brilliant colors, matching the emotions of the characters, as Adam pulled handles, pushed buttons, flicked switches. Red warmth, love, passion. Blue cold, death, lingering depression. Yellow spring, rebirth, a newfound pleasure. Their syncopated harmony backstage was noticed by all, the mechanics of the play running with smooth precision.

It was on the third day of full rehearsals that Miss Fellstone interacted with Edmond. She noticed how tall and lanky he was, like a gangly scarecrow loosed from its perch by a strong wind in a corn field. He was eccentric with his clothing choices. Bright colors. Patterns. Polka dots on stripes. She made an assumption early on that he was gay. She made an even quicker conclusion that Adam and Edmond were a couple. This thought comforted her in a way, She, the student teacher, only a few years older than him, found herself drawn to him in a magnetic way that was disconcerting to her.

Miss Fellstone’s own feelings betrayed her. She felt conflicted about her attraction. If he had been in college with her, she might have had a fondness for him that went past a keen interest. It helped that he was gay, helped banish such thoughts from her mind. The last thing she needed was to find herself on the six-o’clock news, accused of having an affair with a student. Her impulsive nature had put her in awkward situations in the past. She convinced herself she would not go down this road. Technically she wasn’t a teacher at the school. Technically he was an adult at 18. That didn’t matter though, it would be bad either way.

Decisions in her past had always worked out, but could’ve taken dark turns if circumstances were otherwise. There was that time with that older man, the married one. She didn’t know initially. He was much older than her. Once she found out though, she didn’t stop either. Neither did he. She was somewhat relieved when he cut it off. There was no future for her in that relationship, but it was easy and fun, and she did love him. Its hard to love someone who isn’t available, its not like you hit a switch to shut off the feelings. That circumstance was different. Now she was the older person amongst a sea of youths.

Edmond climbed the ladder into the mezzanine where old props were stored. Backdrops from Grease, Macbeth, Carousel, were folded up, leaning against a wall, rolls of canvas limp and sagging against their own weight and height. In a corner, a skeleton sat crumpled, its head bowed into its rib cage, its arm outstretched as if begging for spare change. An old balcony was tucked deep within the recesses of the attic like space. This needed to be unearthed, as it was required for Juliet to stand upon, while Romeo, hidden in the garden, fawned over her.

Miss Fellstone watched Edmond ascend the rungs. He moved with a cat like grace, lithe in movement. With his height, he almost reached the top  before he started climbing. He hopped the last rung into the small door disappearing up above. There was no need for her to go in there with him. She didn’t have anything to collect up there. There was a need though, a need deep inside. A compulsion driving her up that ladder. A curiosity propelled her up into that small space.

“What’re you looking for?”

Startled, Edmond spun around and fell, tripping over the horns of a dragon costume he had been straddling with such care. From on his back, nestled in the crepe of dresses and gowns, he found Miss Fellstone staring down at him, offering her hand.

Edmond liked her, always did. A crush would be the best term for it. He found her intellect attractive. He loved how she carried herself, how smart she was. She was such a strong woman. There was a confidence and strength to her, yet a soft gentleness; caring and considerate. Edmond found himself always quiet in class during Social Studies. He was fascinated by how she viewed the world. When she called on students, he didn’t raise his hand, afraid to speak to her, afraid that he’d screw up and say the wrong thing, that she’d think less of him. When she did call on him, he took long pause to think of the answer, and spoke concise, finding himself stammering at times. He felt his whole body fill with static electricity when he was around her, that if he touched her, even with the tip of his finger, it would pop and snap a bright light, a pleasurable pain. But she was a student teacher, him, a student, and these thoughts, nothing more than daydreams of a dreamer.

Edmond always had a strong imagination. That was brilliant for his writing, terrible for high school. During class, Edmond’s mind would slip away. The eventuality of it was Miss Fellstone and him together in varying circumstances. In his mind he could feel how smooth and warm her skin was. He could feel her. His thoughts would run away, until. The bell rang. Edmond, sat after class. Miss Fellstone sitting at her desk, would stare at Edmond as he shuffled at papers in his backpack, refusing to stand up, the erection he had an obvious, painful reminder of his drifting mind.

Edmond would stammer something about making sure he had everything, not standing up. Wishing and begging for the blood to rush away and settle down.

In that mezzanine, on that stage, throughout the production of that play, he was stage manager, and she producer. Although in class he could hide behind blank stares of absent thought, waiting for her to pass him by, in the theater his position required conversation with Miss Fellstone. They had exchanged pleasantries up to that point. Had brief snippets of discussion. But real conversation had remained absent. Until that moment.

His mind went blank. He opened his mouth and only a small trickle of words came out.

“I’m up here looking for props.”

Props. Props. He could only say props. What props? Why did he even go up there? His mind went blank. A dark void descended upon his brain and swallowed up all his thoughts. He was dumbstruck. Her smile. He loved the way she smiled. Her eyes, the way they crinkled when she smiled. Her freckles, they moved across her pale skin when she smiled. He loved her smile.

He stood up without taking her hand, and brushed imaginary dust off his pants.

“Can I talk to you?”

Edmond’s heart dropped. What could she want to talk about? Could he talk? Could he form words? Why was he so dumbstruck, he thought. What was wrong with him? She continued without his answer.

“We need more open communication, you and I. As stage manager you answer only to me. And, right now, I need to know how production backstage is progressing, how much time we’re going to need to create props and backdrops. I need you to open up, tell me what you want and need.”

Nothing. Silence. Edmond wanted to say so much. The icebreaker always stymied him. He needed to get past that initial interaction to be comfortable, but initiating it was painful for him, filled him with dread. Even when he knew that a girl liked him, he couldn’t approach her. It was a debilitating anxiety, a paralysis of his mind and tongue.

“Are you afraid of me Edmond? Are you afraid of everyone knowing about you and Adam?”

Adam. Adam. Why did she bring up Adam? His mind blanked out everything she said before that last question. His mind chased a mouse through a maze, but it was faster than he, and it was now lost around the corners.

“About me and Adam? Adam and I, I meant.” He stammered out, wringing his clammy hands behind his back, looking down at the floor in front of her.

“You know, your relationship. The two of you.”

Edmond was bewildered. He did not answer.

“Its ok. I won’t tell anyone. I don’t judge. Your secret is safe.”

An epiphany. Edmond understood what she meant and was caught by surprise. He was confused, Adam and him were best friends. His sexuality had never been questioned before. He had always had girlfriends, always enjoyed making out and fooling around with them. No one had ever thought him gay. The idea of gender identity and sexuality had never even been something he thought about. This was the first time he ever had to contemplate such an idea. And from Miss Fellstone. His mind whirled.

“Miss Fellstone. I’m not gay. My girlfriend and I broke up a few months ago. Adam and I are best friends. I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

There was a pause.

“I don’t know. I just am.”

Embarrassment overwhelmed. Miss Fellstone did not know how to respond. Instead, she blushed, her pale skin radiating a deep red, framed in by her strawberry blonde hair. Edmond felt embarrassment, but in a different way.

“Edmond…”

He moved past her, descended the ladder, and began working on a backdrop that needed touchups. Miss Fellstone stood in the miniature door that led into the mezzanine, gazing at Edmond. He was not who she assumed he was. That intrigued her.

After their awkward encounter inside the mezzanine, Edmond gave daily reports to Miss Fellstone. Everyday he would meet with her before and after rehearsals, reporting on the status of settings, the developments and creations of props. Their conversations and interactions evolved. That initial awkwardness was the icebreaker. It cleared the air.

The more they interacted, the more they joked, the more they talked. It was easy for Edmond to get to know her now. It felt natural for him to reveal himself to her, like it was part of their everyday conversation. Backstage, behind that curtain, an unexpected relationship blossomed.

Edmond and Adam still recited the lines to Romeo and Juliet. They still moved in cadence and rhythm with each other, but now Miss Fellstone watched from afar with an intensity focusing her attentions on their performance, rather than the actors on stage. On occasion, she chimed in, reciting a line before one of the other could finish.

“My only love sprung from my only hate, too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love is it to me, that I must love a loathed enemy.”

There was a brief pause and glances, before she spoke again.

“Shouldn’t you two be getting back to work. Adam, the lighting is off. Can you checks the spotlight in the balcony?”

Adam skittered away, afraid that the spotlight had malfunctioned. His attention to detail was meticulous; an improper functioning light could not wait a second. She chuckled, a wry smile growing across her face.

“Its strange to think I won’t be student-teaching here come a few months. Summer will arrive and then I’ll be free. Summer brings change, you know. It frees up life. Like you’ll be in college. And I’ll be finishing up my last year. How one year makes all the difference.”

Miss Fellstone looked down at a clipboard as she spoke, as if what she were saying was an item on her checklist she was ticking off.

Edmond didn’t know what to say, if there was anything to say. He moved away to a prop, and picking up a hammer, began to fasten its joints tighter by striking nails into the yellow pine. Miss Fellstone followed and stood off to the side, still looking down at the clipboard.

“I’m going to miss this school. The students I’ve come to get to know. I’ll especially miss the stage. Its been nice being up here, watching it all come together. Edmond, give me the hammer, I see a nail up here that needs to be pounded.”

Edmond stopped and held the hammer up, not looking. He felt the vibrations through the handle as her hand slid along the strong oak, colored with age and use. It was so sudden for him to feel the heat from her fingers, the softness of her skin against his. He let go of the heavy tool and it clattered to the ground. All on stage turned their gaze toward them. Edmond turned red and grabbed it again, hammering hard at the nails.

“Sorry! Sorry! It slipped from my hands! Go on.”

The actors on stage turned away and picked up their lines again. Miss Fellstone bent down, putting her hand on his shoulder, a soft touch. He tensed up. His heart rate galloped.

“Its ok. Don’t be so nervous. Next time, I’ll knock you out with that hammer and drag you away if you don’t calm.”

She winked at Edmond and continued.

“Have fun. Thats what theater is for. To enjoy the performance, to bring alive an idea. To entertain. We’re acting a story. Creating a world inside our world. Right now, we’re on stage, we’re separated from the rest of our lives. The world needs entertainment, enjoyment, pleasure. Thats why we are here, for pleasure.”

Miss Fellstone began singing and dancing around the stage. It was a small movement, like a buoy amongst the waves on the sea. Her voice started low and raised high enough for Edmond to make out the words.

“Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry. You said ‘I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you till I die.’ There’s a place for us, you know the movie song. When you gonna realize it was just the time was wrong, Juliet?”

Miss Fellstone walked off into the darkness of the stage, singing the song, her voice fading away. That night, lying in bed after he turned the lights out, Edmond listened to that song, playing over and over again on his Sony Sport Discman. Mouthing the words to the song, he sank into oblivion on repeat.

Days went on and Edmond found a confidence that was strange to him. Miss Fellstone emboldened him. The conversations they shared moved him. They talked about politics and changing the world for the better. They talked about travel, adventure, wants and desires. Deep conversations on philosophy and theology occurred. They’d joke and laugh when it became too serious. Sometimes she would chuckle a private laugh at Edmond, so serious and involved at so young an age. She marveled at how he was still naive. The world seemed to unveil itself to him one tarot card at a time, flipped face up, the deck still holding many others to be revealed. At times he seemed impervious to it all, and basked in a world that was separate from everyone else’s, like he was a tourist living amongst all them. It was a strange mixture of worldly presence mixed with childlike wonder.

Edmond saw the world in abstraction, an imagined presence, a writers paradise of plots and characters. Imagination was his art form, his muse, a world of characters and comedies lining up before him on a daily basis. All he had to do was look to see the world’s tragedies unfolding before him as fodder for writing. Sunsets unfolded in poetic pentameter. Autumn leaves matched to music and danced chaotic spasms in gusts. The world was rife for his pen’s picking.

The night of the opening performance, the stage was abuzz with energy. It was electric. Edmond and Adam basked in the darkness and dim light of their mini flashlights, a dull orange glow only throwing shadow in their paths. Adam’s hands moved with grace across the panel controlling the stage lights. Edmond moved like a cat back stage, moving to and fro, dodging props in the dark. Miss Fellstone noticed on many occasions how he burned with a constant energy. She called him Tigger. Behind closed doors, she called him, “My Tigger.” He was a ballerina in the abyss, with every move memorized and spoke the lines in silence, as Adam did the same across stage.

Miss Fellstone watched from a dark corner. Edmond put his hand to his heart mouthing the words spoken by the actors on stage. She ignored the performance. It would succeed or fail without her guidance. She had seen them perform so many times. She knew they could handle it. This was the performance she wanted to watch. Edmond, recited the lines, acting out the parts, for an audience of one, an audience of which he was unaware.

“With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls, for stony limits cannot hold love out.”

Adam flicked a light on above Romeo and Juliet, an ethereal blue moonlight. Miss Fellstone was illuminated next to Edmond. He sensed her and turned. He felt the heat radiate from her. The warmth from that one momentary graze of fingertips was imbedded in his mind for all eternity. The yearning of his puppy love gave him sense of her, a sort of radar of her presence. Miss Fellstone slid behind him, crossing the stage in the cramped space between backdrop and curtain. Her body pressed against his.  She moved by without a word and disappeared into the dark shadows again. He could still feel her body even after she had left.

The performance was a success. The cast party was the weekend of the play. It came and went. Edmond felt disappointment. Miss Fellstone was unable to attend. She had a date, and Edmond felt a sickness knot up in his stomach. Puppy love is unwarranted and undeserved and unreal.

The performance continued on longer than any other play had run. All involved agreed to continue Friday and Saturday nights into May, when the stage would be needed for graduation. The school consented, happy for the student involvement and community engagement.

Every night, during performance, the curtain would drop and the backstage grew dark. Edmond and Adam found their groove, secured in their liminal world. Miss Fellstone grabbed Edmond’s arm as she walked by, giving the tiniest squeeze. Miss Fellstone slid her hand along his shoulders as she strode by in the darkness. Miss Fellstone stood next to Edmond, shoulder to shoulder. Edmond inched closer, pressing against her. She pressed back. Feeling the pressure of her against him drove him mad. He dropped his hand down along side her arm. In the darkness, he rubbed his fingers against the soft skin of her forearm. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t move. She stayed there next to him. When the act ended and the stage needed a backdrop change, she moved back into the dark corner, from where she could be free to watch him. This continued on, performance after performance, for months like this. He relished every minute of it.

At the conclusion of the performance, when the lights came up, and the curtain rose, removing the separation between backstage and audience, the stage-crew stepped forward into the bright lights on stage. Taking a bow, Edmond and Miss Fellstone stood next to each other, Producer and Stage Manager. When she grabbed his hand and held it up for applause, she squeezed it tight. Edmond melted.

That run was the most popular play that anyone could remember in school history. Ken and Alyssa killed it. Maybe it was their relationship that blossomed over this play, and shined that Valentine’s day opening night. The realism during their performances made it believable. Plays of romance and woe can look so awkward performed with faked passion. There was much passion buzzing about this set.

When the performance came to a close, a cast party was inevitable. It was a warm Saturday afternoon. May entered in heat. The party was held at Alyssa’s home in a suburban neighborhood close to the city. All houses on the street were the same, only painted different shades. The cast ran through the house, and out the back door, buzzed with caffeine and smuggled alcohol. The swinging aluminum screen door, opened onto the back deck. As it closed, a painful slow groan from the hydraulic actuator, it shielded the party from the rest of the world.

Edmond remained inside the house for a bit. He paced through the living room, looking out a bay window facing the street. He didn’t know when Miss Fellstone came in, but he saw her as she walked through the screen door out back. He wouldn’t tell her, but he had been looking for her, waiting for her arrival. Opening his arms, he gave her a hug. Her body was warm against his and she seemed to disappear into his embrace. He surprised himself when he picked her up, and even more when she wrapped her legs around him. They were face to face. Edmond froze. Bending over he put her down.

The thin layer of clothes worn on that warm day, allowed him to feel more of her than he expected

“I’m not a teacher anymore, so now I can kick your ass. Come on lets see what you’re made of. Lets go out front. You’ve been telling me you can take me.”

“Everyone’s out back. Why don’t we go out there?”

“I always knew you were all talk. Can’t stand to get your ass beaten by someone so small as myself.”

“We really should go out back.”

Miss Fellstone stood her ground. Crossing her arms, she raised one eyebrow. Edmond inched toward the screen door that opened into the backyard. He could hear the noise out back. Someone was reciting a scene from Pulp Fiction. Someone else was signing The Time Warp. The smell of meat sizzling on the grill came in through the screen door.

“Edmond. Don’t you want to talk. There is no more play. This is our time now. Come outside. Now!”

“Or what? I don’t see any hammers around for you to hit me with. And, you aren’t a teacher anymore.”

Edmond tried to be witty. It fell short. He was awash in conflicted emotions. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. All he knew was, one side was winning over the other.

“I don’t need a hammer to drop you where you stand. And you don’t need to listen to me because I am, or was your teacher. You should listen to me because you want to. Outside now.”

Edmond felt strange, but he liked her commanding presence. It was a power struggle between the two of them. It made him tingle in anticipation of the unknown. This was something he’d never experienced before.

“You know, I feel like you underestimate me. I am a foot taller than you.”

Grabbing Edmond’s hand, she twisted his arm. A singe of pain scorched down his arm, his wrist bent in a way it shouldn’t.

“You underestimate me. I may be small, but I can still kick your ass. And I’m not your teacher any more, so I can, and will, kick your ass if you keep this up. Now outside.”

Her voice wasn’t angry. Instead it was laced with cocky satisfaction, it was commanding in a sincere way. Miss Fellstone didn’t let his hand go, and pushed him out the door. She directed him to the curb, she controlling all the actions, Edmond excited to be led.

She let go. Edmond rubbed his wrist in an exaggerated way. They stood at the back of her car, her hand on her hips, so close to him he had to crane his neck down to make eye contact. All he had to do was reach out and put his arms around her, pull her into him. Fear gripped him. She stood there, as if waiting for him to do or say something. She sighed.

“Edmond, this is my car. I have to go. I can’t stay long. I shouldn’t. I stopped to say goodbye. Most of all, I wanted to say goodbye to you. I don’t know what I wanted from this, or thought would come from this.

“Edmond, I don’t want to. Say goodbye that is.”

Nothing. Mind blank and wiped. Edmond said nothing.

“Ok. I have to go. Thanks for everything, Edmond.”

She squeezed his hand. He felt her warmth flow through him. His knees buckled for a brief moment.

Moving toward the door of her car, she opened it and stopped one last time, turning to him.

Like a dam broken, it all flooded out. Edmond couldn’t stop.

“It’d be nice to go somewhere. Anywhere. Right? Just get in and go. To travel and get out of here. I mean, what would be the worst that happens. Could you imagine, traveling, seeing the world together. Never stopping. Seeing sunrises over strange landscapes so alien to us. I’m an adult. I’m eighteen.”

“Edmond, get in my car.”

Moving toward the car door, he opened it and hesitated. He looked at her across the roof of the car.

“Edmond, get in the car. Now. We can’t stand around out here. Its better to explain ourselves later, than what we are doing right now.”

He turned and looked at the house. It was quiet. Still. The sun bright overhead. He looked back at Miss Fellstone. He noticed how her golden hair shimmered in the light. He imagined this is what the golden fleece looked like, so beautiful and pure.

“Get in. Edmond. Come with me. Edmond. We can’t say here. Come with me. Lets go somewhere.”

He turned back to the house. No one was out front. No one was at the door. They could get away.

“Get in my car. This is the last time I will ask. The last time I will offer. Get in my car, and lets go somewhere. Somewhere not here. Edmond, come with me. Lets go together.”

Fading taillights down a neighborhood road, disappearing into the distance. A party continuing at a suburban house, the backyard barbecue grilling up succulent meats. A student teacher no longer a teacher. A student, no longer a student. The performance ended, reality only just begun.

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