My hair is piled on top of my head. I am dressed like a 19th century peasant. I lose count of how many bobby pins I used. A sleeve of them, a pocketful, and yet my hair still insistently wisps around my face. It is the week before Christmas. I have been caroling at hospitals in Oklahoma City all day as part of the community outreach that the vocal music department of my performing arts high school does this time of year.
The trick on a day like this is to try to stay out of class as long as possible once you have returned from the performance. The dressing rooms behind the stage are perfect for eluding hall monitors and vice principals. Since it is not a hallway and sometimes serves as a classroom no one is sure who is responsible for policing the space.
During the holiday season, when the band, orchestra, drama groups and dance ensembles are in high extra-curricular demand you are likely to run into the best and brightest of those departments planted in the same area, involved in the same subterfuge. Impromptu collaborations erupt in those moments, counter tops are drummed, songs are sung around a piano in the hallway. Sometimes the harmonies and dance steps are captured by a skulking photography student, but more often than not these things leave no trace that they ever occurred.
It is after one o’clock in the afternoon; there is little more an than hour left in the school day.
My fellow carolers had piled into someone’s car and snuck off campus to get burgers. I was too scared to actively break the rules and stayed behind, pacing the wings of the stage, re-wrapping my shawl around myself, contemplating un-pinning my hair and just attending the tail end of my Anatomy class. But ditching of this nature only works if no one goes back to class. The minute one person breaks through that boundary, the other teachers get suspicious—if this one is back from the performance, where are the rest of them…? Then referrals get written and parents get called.
And I am not ready to remove my costume. I like the way the boots make me stand, the way the skirt brushes against my calves and the floor. I am not me in this dress, in this spot, right now. I can float in the possibility, silence the constant buzzing in my head, and let the costume inhabit me, let it be Me for a moment. I pace the wings of the stage because it seems too pathetic to cower in the dressing room alone. Even for me.
Thin vocal strains of the women’s chorus waft from a music room on far stage left. A drama class performs monologs from A MidSummer Night’s Dream in the stage right classroom and, between their competing voices, the tinkling of a solo piano player can be heard from the piano in the hallway outside the stage doors.
The auditorium itself is empty, lit only in the aisles and by the functional light that spills through the glass in the classroom doors.
Behind me the stage door from the parking lot squeaks open, cutting a sliver of sunlight into the black walls. It is too soon for the other carolers to have returned from their drive unless they got caught and re-routed.
A boy’s voice, not one of the burger-getters, says Hey.
He must be talking to me; I am the only person here. I turn to see a body framed in the light from the doorway, a semi-familiar shadow suspended in sun.
I am a sophomore and he is an eighth grader. I am fifteen and he is thirteen. Though even given this age difference he is well on his way to looking like a man while I am still all angles. He has shoulders and ropy arms and long legs that lend themselves to swaggering. He is dressed in black, a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride, only without the mask.
To say we are friends would be overstating it; we have been in a few shows together. I am a singer and he is an exotic thing in this school that is a hothouse of creative things—a male dancer, a strong one—and every dance teacher, every musical director wants him in their show. Over the past year and half we have shared a handful of rehearsals where I watch him dance and he listens to me sing. We never truly share the stage, though, because I am not a dancer and he is not a singer.
This afternoon he has been dancing the role of the Prince Cavalier in an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker that the dance department tours through local elementary schools.
Hey, he says again.
Hey, I say.
He nods at my costume.
Caroling I say
Nutcracker, he says, indicating his all black ensemble, even though I already know. I saw him perform the role on this very same stage a week ago. He could not have seen me in the packed theatre, could not have known that his body moving through space had stopped my heart.
He walks to the middle of the stage and sits on the ground, his body knowing itself so well that he doesn’t need to overly arrange his limbs. His black boots, black pants and black shirt melt into the black floor. He becomes just a neck and head floating in space
I move to the middle of the stage. Not too close. Close enough that if there is going to be more conversation we won’t have to shout. I am aware of every bone in my arms and legs, all my sharpnesses. I feel like a stick-bug beside his smooth feline movements.
How’d it go for you guys? he says.
My knees bend beneath my long-skirted dress. I am glad for the corset that keeps my back straight and gives me the appearance of a waist. Cream lace-up boots, my favorite part of this costume, peek out of the skirt as I sit on the ground across from him.
There are swirls on the stage where a modern dance class left their footprints behind this morning. Blue tape marks indicate where the risers will go for the orchestra performance tonight. Red tape marks show the proper placement of set pieces for last week’s musical that no one has bothered to tear up yet.
Fine I say.
We listen to the aural debris from the classrooms around us; a mix of harmony and dissonance. Three hundred and fifty empty seats gaze back at us from the auditorium on the other side of the stage.
Hey he says again, this time with a tone of discovery, as he leans toward me. His arm undulates to reach something on the floor behind me.
I tangle my arms in my shawl in a more complicated and secure way.
He twirls a sprig of something green in his right hand, shows it to me.
Mistletoe he smirks.
Did you know that’s actually the state flower? I say.
Nope, he says, still twirling the mistletoe deftly between his thumb and index and middle fingers.
They picked it after a winter where a lot of settlers died, I say, not knowing why I am still talking but unable to stop driving to the end of the thought, it was the only green thing they could find to put on the graves.
I contemplate wrapping my shawl around my throat to stop myself from filling the quiet with the accompanying state bird (scissortail flycatcher), tree (redbud), and animal (bison) that long to tumble out of my mouth and join the story about the mistletoe.
I watch the green thing twirling in his fingers. He also plays the bass and his fingers are accustomed to arranging themselves around things more delicate than he is.
Don’t don’t don’t I repeat in my head and grit my teeth together to keep from babbling. It is a nervous habit that I am trying to improve out of myself.
Then I feel his left hand brush my borrowed cream-colored boot. I will need to return them to the costume closet before the end of the day, I remind myself. His left hand grips my right boot gently, like the soft way a hunting hound mouths a slain duck to carry back to its master. The boy’s black pants brush against the black floor and he scoots his body closer to me. The deep v-neck of his shirt gaps open as his face gazes into mine.
Be a shame to let it go to waste, he says hanging the mistletoe down over our heads in a beautiful arced motion. I imagine it is beautiful because everything he does is beautiful, but all I see is his puddly brown eyes looking directly into me.
Then he dives into the space between us and his lips are on my lips.
This is not my first kiss. My first kiss happened two years before in the dark woods of a summer camp. It was with an older boy who was a varsity wrestler—though he pronounced it ‘wrastler‘—at a massive high school shared by several counties in a distant corner of Oklahoma. I had done it to check the duty off my list before entering high school, figuring that if I were bad at it I would never see this wrastler again. It was fine; not nearly as messy as girlfriends who complained about tongues and slobber and teeth had led me to believe. Maybe because he was older, so at least one of us understood the logistics of the thing? It was fine, but I didn’t get what everyone was so crazy about. After I left camp the following morning, I never thought about the kiss in the woods or the wrastler until just now.
Jut now, I am glad that I drank so much water this morning, that all the singing required multiple applications of cherry chap stick, that I did not pile into the car with my friends only to be one of seven crammed in one car eating greasy burgers rather than one of two sharing the stage in this moment.
This is something entirely new.
The boy and I lean toward each other over our own legs. My arms hang limp and useless, knotted in my shawl. There is the suggestion of a mustache above this boy’s top lip. His left hand is still on my boot; I can feel its warmth through the leather. His lips slip gently across mine, the dips and bends finding their counterparts and for the first time in my life I am not worried about what will happen if someone walks by, if the classroom doors open and fifty other students that we vaguely know walk around us, like we are a monument that they must circumnavigate.
I know I should close my eyes, but I want to catalog everything, pocket each scent and sound.
I collect the loamy aroma of the remains of sweat on his body. I note the outline of his chest where what little light there is shines through his filmy shirt. I remember that he is two years younger than I am. I know that my friends would be horrified if they saw me kissing a middle school boy, because that is what he is.
I am a high school girl kissing a middle school boy. We live miles and miles across town from one another and he is not a singer and I am not a dancer. But in this moment he is not he and I am not I. We are a Nutcracker Prince and a 19th century carol-singer sharing the stage in front of an audience of three hundred and fifty empty chairs.
The bell rings to release all the bodies in this building to their final class and the boy draws back, tucking the mistletoe into his sash.
The air between us crackles like a campfire.
We sit cross legged on the floor while the classrooms behind us empty and I can’t help but smile because now I know.
Now I know what everyone else is so crazy about.