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Post Road Magazine #33

Duct Tape

Michael Brelsford

I remember the smell of something that was moist its whole life. And there was a drip somewhere I never found. During the day, the light would sneak in like I did, but at night it was dark. The old marquis looked like it had been through a fire, though it had not. It still told you its name: The American Festival Theater.

In the middle of the greens and empty parking lots, it was my favorite place on earth. You could find me there after school, or yeah, instead of it. A ginormous baby blue place, I used to go inside through a busted window in the lobby that didn't look busted so no one fixed it. The theater smelled green, deciduous, shedding something every season. The seats had been torn out. A moldy cement floor sloped down to the wood stage where I sat with my feet dangling. From the back, I might have looked like I was fishing off a dock, trying to catch history. Big names were there like Katharine Hepburn and Christopher Plummer, way back in the day when my parents went on field trips, without a clue that the other existed.

June of my senior year, I had lines to memorize. I sat on the edge of that stage with a flashlight. I'd act.

There was a bum who also frequented the place. He said his name was Shakespeare and I thought, "Why not?" When I first met him—my freshman year of high school—we were outside the theater on a bench, facing Long Island Sound, and he was sitting at the end by the statue labeled The Thinker. A hand beneath his long gray beard supported his chin, another hand resting on the opposite crossed leg. He always had crud in that beard and on his black trench coat. And a twinkle in his eye. And very long, yellow finger nails. Every time I saw him, he asked me if I knew the difference between a bum and a vagabond. I said no because he liked to tell me over and over. He said the difference was pride. At other places in town, I've seen mothers steer their kids away. Sometimes he spoke in circles or just to himself. He shared private things unprompted, so one day toward the end of my senior year after he was, again, telling me his uncle used to touch him, I said my first blow job had been from another guy, earlier that spring. He said he didn't mind gay people at all. I said I wasn't gay. We were both looking at the sparkling Sound, fixed on it. Then he started on about freight trains and I knew my secret was safe.

A group of us from the high school did Hamlet on our own that summer, after ending our days of school shows with Hello Dolly. I wasn't the only one with low tolerance for the smiley stuff. Hamlet felt like amelioration, but we had trouble getting a theater. Nothing could be performed at The American Festival Theater and our own alma mater had some bad excuse for turning us down. So we did it at the JCC, where every chair had gum like hemorrhoids, but we were eighteen and it was free.

One day at Mass, our priest had a roll of duct tape and he asked for volunteers from the youth group. A bunch of us lined up. We each put a strip on an arm and then kept passing the strips along until they'd barely stick, totally covered with dead skin and hair. The priest, a fat man with a voice like sand paper, had us hold the tape strips up to the people, their necks craning, and he took two strips and tried to stick them to each other. They dropped to the foot of the altar, landing apart. With a tone of complete ruin, like eloi eloi lemi sebacthani ruin, he said, "Young people, this is what premarital sex will do to your ability to love." This was like a week after Graham and I were in Graham's car, and he'd said, "It feels the same." After mass I told my parents I'd walk home. The priest and I went into one of the booths once people cleared the church. I confessed. He was sad for me. He spoke like you would to a two year old who tripped. He said, "Did you cry?" I said. "no." But his question was like a crack in the dam. I said, "I just don't want it to hurt my ability to love." Then, mid sentence, I cried. The priest looked at me like all was now well and said, "Ah, the healing power of Confession." I cleared my throat and he handed me a tissue. I said, "What about with a girl?" He said, "Imagine you can see your future wife. Picture her, right now. She is beautiful. She is the girl God destined you for. Now, the camera pans out and you see she is with her current boyfriend. She hasn't met you yet. He's trying to get her to go as far as he can. How far should she go?" I said, "Not an inch." He said, "Right. That's how far is too far. Maybe a kiss is fine, but no tongue, young man." I thanked him and he gave the benediction.

Graham was Hamlet. I, always a bridesmaid, played Horatio. There were about twenty of us, led by Ryan and Chris, though Graham chimed in a lot when they directed, and he knew what he was talking about. He belonged to the world of theater like a proscenium. By that time he had a steady boyfriend and the two of them started ditching the rest of us as soon as rehearsal was over. We rehearsed at the JCC every day after graduation. We billed the play for the first weekend of August and were determined not to cut anything. We started lots of days at nine or ten in the morning and didn't stop until close to midnight.

One afternoon during some downtime Em and I were lounging in the seats, waiting for people to come back from lunch. She was slumped low in the seat next to me, her ankles over the seat in front of her. A single bulb was the only thing lighting the room, high on a thin yellow pole on the stage.

Em was from a rich town. Connecticut has them like freckles. She knew us through Ryan, her cousin. Though I never wound up really loving her, her face was pretty. She had blonde hair, and the sort of sex appeal that must have worried her parents since long before I met her. She got a new car for her sixteenth birthday AND her eighteenth. She was a yoga pants girl, which I guessed meant a thong. At night she wore sweatshirts, inside out, from colleges she had visited that year. The only one she wore right was UConn. She never used much makeup, and one time toward the end of the summer, I had said she didn't need any at all. She responded that she liked wearing it, and was that a problem?

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.

We heard a noise in the lobby and both looked, but it was nothing.

She said a trophy wife like her mother, and then she said, "Oh I'm so wrong."

I looked at the stage and said acting was in my future. When I said, "Acting chose me more than I chose it," Em smiled and said, "That's cute." She said she was going into business.

"But you're so talented," I said. I gave her a look and hoped it wasn't ridiculous.

She considered me for a moment, then said, "We could make out."

"We've probably got a good ten minutes," I said.

One afternoon when I was back at the theater, practicing the speech where Horatio tells Hamlet of the apparitions, I heard shuffling in the darkness.

"Keep going," squawked Shakespeare. "Don't mind me."

So I kept going. Shakespeare then made his attendance a regular thing. He'd pace around the moldy floor. He never said anything about my performance.

Em started coming back to my house after rehearsals. It was the first week of July. Since we normally missed dinner, we'd eat leftovers and toast marshmallows on the still-warm grill while we ran lines. I believed love could be possible for us. My big brother lived in California, and I hoped she would meet him sooner than later.

The deck that surrounded the above-ground pool became our spot. The towels draped around the banister gave us privacy, more than my bedroom, which would have been obvious. Mostly, after running lines, we'd share a lounge chair. She liked kissing, she said, as if that was anomalous. She felt older, especially the first time she reached into my jeans. I thought of what Father had said, but I knew God was in the business of forgiving. She buried her head in my shoulder as her hand went to work, as though, despite this having been her idea in the first place, now that it was happening she was afraid to look.

A few weeks before the show, we went to the beach to walk a dog Em was taking care of. We found a bench and she said, "We've done everything but sleep together." She gave one of those palms-to-the-sky shrugs on sleep.

"Ready when you are," I said.

"The Fords are gone all summer," she said.

"That could be perfect," I said, but an hour later, on a bed in her neighbor's house, I was naked and holding my stomach. I kept saying I felt fine earlier, and I was working it like a total mystery. She knew I was faking, but played along, listing everything we'd eaten. Her eyes got big when she said, "Mister Softie." I said that must have been it.

Then one night a week later, less than two weeks before the show, no one was home at my house so we were in my bed. My room wasn't air-conditioned. The ceiling fan was rattling. The lights were off and the summer air had sucked the curtains out the window, pressing them flat against the screens

"I want you to make love to me," she said, her weight on her elbow. Both of us naked, her blonde hair was stuck to her face.

"I want to," I said.

"So," she said and descended to her back.

"I don't have anything," I said, though there was a pack of Trojans in my sock drawer. It had been there a week, since the day after I framed Mister Softie.

We have to plan better, she said. Then she thought about something and said, "Are you a virgin?"

I looked at the curtains.

"Fine if you don't want to say."

"I am," I said. "Are you?"

She sat up again and kissed me.

"See. Not an easy question."

"I'm not a virgin," she said. "But there was just one guy. I'm not a slut or anything."

"Who?"

She smiled, slow and silly, like a little girl. "Graham," she said.

"You're kidding."

"No. It was three years ago, right before he came out."

"Didn't you want your first time to be with someone you loved?"

"Graham's hot," she said. "Listen, I get it. You're not ready."

"I don't think so," I said. "I don't know why."

"You don't need to know why," she said.

Then she said, "But here," and she bent over and used her mouth, just as Graham had. She was almost as good as he was.

The next day we had two run-throughs and after the first one Em went home because of her neighbor's dog. She asked if I wanted to come. The neighbor's house, she reminded me, was empty, but I said I had to pay a friend a quick visit.

I thought, walking to the theater, that Shakespeare was like a priest without the judgment. When I saw him, he was standing behind a tree near The Thinker, his pants down and jerking himself off. He was staring into a patch of grass between half a dozen trees, the Sound and sky in the background. His legs and butt looked weirdly young, reminding me he walked everywhere. He saw me and started grumbling, "You little shit, spying on me." I reminded him he was in the wide open. He was very upset and I felt awful. He kept scolding, his hands on his hips, but he didn't pull up his pants. His penis was like roadkill. He said, "Call the cops, see if I care." "I never said anything about cops," I said. I turned and walked back to the JCC.

Graham threw a cast party after the last show. There must have been thirty kids there. I couldn't find Graham as it got closer to midnight. Em was texting him. She looked at me and said, "Come on," and we went upstairs where she knocked on a door she said was his. Graham opened it. It's all yours, he said, buttoning his jeans, his boyfriend frowning at Em and me like he knew. Graham winked at me and they left. I looked at his empty, ruffled bed.

Em was drunker than I was, and she said, "Fuck me."

"We're drunk," I said. Our noses were touching. My hands joined behind her neck.

She took two of my fingers down and slid them up into her hot wetness and said, "Do you not want to?"

She tightened herself around my fingers.

"Are you kidding?""

"So..?""

"It's just, we're drunk," I said. There was only her breathing for a few seconds.

"I'm starting to feel stupid," she whispered.

Em came with me to The American Festival Theater one day in mid August, the day before she left for Storrs. We hadn't talked much since the night of the cast party, a week before.

She had a skirt on, the first time in a long time because we weren't in rehearsals anymore. Her beret was red like the skirt, a hot color to match the weather. It was almost dinner time, and I had never seen Shakespeare there that late. I gave her a tour. We went backstage and gazed up into the dusty flies that must have been a hundred feet high. The wings were littered with costume pieces: medieval armor and gowns and weapons, fake Renaissance art, curtains that were bunched but could have spanned the stage. We went down into the orchestra pit and looked at the big cogs that would need some serious TLC before they'd raise the platform again. I showed her the green room and the dressing rooms and then the balcony, careful for holes. Then we wound up back on the stage.

"You know what we could do here," she said. "If you're ready."

"Alright," I said. "But not here."

"But here could be so fun," she said.

"Can't we go to your neighbor's house?"

"Rod," she said, looking down, finally giving up.

I started kissing her. I pulled her skirt down quick. She asked if I had something. I took the Trojans out of my pocket. We knelt downstage center. The rolling of my knees on the wooden planks.

I came with the alacrity of a sneeze. I held my position and said, "That was quick."

Em said, "You're just getting warmed up."

There were two more condoms. She smiled compassionately as I changed. At one point I asked her if she heard something. She said, "No, keep going." Then she said to look at her and focus. "I heard it too. I lied," she said. "It's probably a raccoon." "Probably," I said. When we stood up after, I could see dust on her naked back even in the bad light. She curtsied once, first to me, then to the crowd. Then she began to get dressed. I had imagined Shakespeare in one of the boxes, observing, but I saw on our way out that that box had no floor.

I haven't been inside the theater in the twelve years since that day, but when I'm home, I always drive by, each time noting the further rot.



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