me: what?

gideon: i’ll borrow my mom’s car. do you know where tiny’s school is?

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me: you’re joking.

and that’s when it happens. it’s almost astonishing, really. gideon becomes a little - just a little - more like me.

gideon: can we just say ‘fuck you’ to the ‘you’re joking’ part? all right? i’m not saying you and tiny should be together forever and have huge, depressed babies that have periods of manic thinness, but i do think the way the two of you left it is pretty unhelpful, and i’d bet twenty dollars if i had twenty dollars that he is suffering from the same waves of crappiness that you’re suffering from. or he’s found a new boyfriend. maybe also named will grayson. whatever the case, you are going to be this walking, talking splinter unless someone takes your ass to wherever he is, and in this particular case, and in any other particular case where you need me, i am that someone. i am the knight with a shining jetta. i am your fucking steed.

me: gideon, i had no idea . . .

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gideon: shut the fuck up.

me: say it again!

gideon (laughing): shut the fuck up!

me: but why?

gideon: why should you shut the fuck up?

me: no - why are you my fucking steed?

gideon: because you’re my friend, wingnut. because underneath all that denial, you’re someone who’s deeply, deeply nice. and because ever since you first mentioned it to me, i’ve been dying to see this musical.

me: okay, okay, okay.

gideon: and the second part?

me: what second part?

gideon: talking to maura.

me: you’re kidding.

gideon: not one bit. you have fifteen minutes while i get the car.

me: i don’t want to.

gideon gives me a hard look.

gideon: what are you, three years old?

me: but why should i?

gideon: i bet you can answer that one yourself.

I tell him he’s totally out of line. he waves me off and says i need to do it, and that he’ll honk when he gets here to pick me up.

the sick thing is, i know he’s right. this whole time, i’ve thought the silent treatment was working. because it’s not like i miss her. then i realize that missing her or not missing her isn’t the point. the point is that i’m still carrying around what happened as much as she is. and i need to get rid of it. because both of us poured the toxins into our toxic friendship. and while i didn’t exactly invent an imaginary boyfriend trap, i certainly contributed enough errors to our trials. there’s no way we’re ever going to find an ideal state of it. but i guess i’m seeing that we have to at least make it to an it we can bear.

I walk outside and she’s right there in the same place at the end of the day that she is at the start of the day. perching on a wall, notebook out. staring at the other kids as they walk by, no doubt looking down at each and every one of them, including me.

I feel like i should’ve prepared a speech. but that would require me to know what i’m going to say. i have no idea, really. the best i can come up with is

me: hey

to which she says

maura: hey

she gives me that blank stare. i look at my shoes.

maura: to what do i owe this pleasure?

this is the way we talked to each other. always. and i don’t have the energy for it anymore. that’s not how i want to talk with friends. not always.

me: maura, stop.

maura: stop? you’re kidding, right? you don’t talk to me for a month, and when you do, it’s to tell me to stop?

me: that’s not why i came over here. . . .

maura: then why did you come over here?

me: i don’t know, okay?

maura: what does that mean? of course you know.

me: look. i just want you to know that while i still think what you did was completely shitty, i realize that i was shitty to you, too. not in the elaborately shitty way that you were to me, but still pretty shitty. i should have just been honest with you and told you i didn’t want to talk to you or be your boyfriend or be your best friend or anything like that. i tried - i swear i tried. but you didn’t want to hear what i was saying, and i used that as an excuse to let it go on.

maura: you didn’t mind me when i was isaac. when we would chat every night.

me: but that was a lie! a complete lie!

now maura looked me right in the eye.

maura: c’mon, will - you know there’s no such thing as a complete lie. there’s always some truth in there.

I don’t know how to react to that. i just say the next thing that comes to my mind.

me: it wasn’t you i liked. it was isaac. i liked isaac.

the blankness has disappeared now. there’s sadness instead.

maura: . . . and isaac liked you.

I want to say to her: i just want to be myself. and i want to be with someone who’s just himself. that’s all. i want to see through all the performance and all the pretending and get right to the truth. and maybe this is the most truth that maura and i will ever find - an acknowledgment of the lie, and of the feelings that fell behind it.

me: i’m sorry, maura.

maura: i’m sorry, too.

this is why we call people exes, i guess - because the paths that cross in the middle end up separating at the end. it’s too easy to see an X as a cross-out. it’s not, because there’s no way to cross out something like that. the X is a diagram of two paths.

I hear a honk and turn to see gideon pulling up in his mom’s car.

me: i gotta go.

maura: so go.

I leave her and get in the car with gideon and tell him everything that just happened. he says he’s proud of me, and i don’t know what to do with that. i ask him

me: why?

gideon: for saying you were sorry. i wasn’t sure if you’d be able to do that.

I tell him i wasn’t sure, either. but it’s how i felt. and i wanted to be honest.

suddenly - it’s like the next thing i know - we’re on the road. i’m not even sure if we’re going to make it to tiny’s show on time. i’m not even sure i should be there. i’m not even sure that i want to see tiny. i just want to see how the play turned out.

gideon is whistling along to the radio beside me. normally that kind of shit annoys me, but this time it doesn’t.

me: i wish i could show him the truth.

gideon: tiny?

me: yeah. you don’t have to date someone to think they’re great, right?

we drive some more. gideon starts whistling again. i picture tiny running around backstage. then gideon stops whistling. he smiles and hits the steering wheel.

gideon: by jove, i think i’ve got it!

me: did you really just say that?

gideon: admit it. you love it.

me: strangely, i do. gideon: i think i have an idea.

so he tells me. and i can’t believe i have such a sick and twisted and brilliant individual sitting at my side.

even more than that, though, i can’t believe i’m about to do what he’s suggesting.

Chapter ninteen

Jane and I spend the hours before Opening Night constructing the perfect preshow playlist, which comprises—as requested—odd-numbered pop punk songs and even-numbered tunes from musicals. “Annus Miribalis” makes an appearance; we even include the punkest song from the resolutely unpunk Neutral Milk Hotel. As for the songs from musicals, we choose nine distinct renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” including a reggae one.

Once we’re finished debating and downloading, Jane heads home to change. I’m anxious to get to the auditorium, but it seems unfair to Tiny merely to wear jeans and a Willy the Wildkit T-shirt to the most important event of his life. So I put one of Dad’s sports coats over the Wildkit shirt, fix my hair, and feel ready.

I wait at home until Mom pulls in, take the keys from her before she can even get the door all the way open, and drive to school.

I walk into the mostly empty auditorium—curtain time is still more than an hour away—and I’m met by Gary, who’s hair is dyed lighter, and chopped short and messy like mine. Also, he’s wearing my clothes, which I delivered to him yesterday: khakis; a short-sleeve, plaid button-down I love; and my black Chucks. The entire effect would be surreal except the clothes are ridiculously wrinkled.

“What, Tiny couldn’t find an iron?” I ask.

“Grayson,” Gary says, “look at your pants, man.”

I do. Huh. I didn’t even know that jeans could wrinkle. He puts his arm around me and says, “I always thought it was part of your look.”

“It is now,” I say. “How’s it going? Are you nervous?”

“I’m a little nervous, but I’m not Tiny nervous. Actually, could you go back there and, um, try to help? This,” he says, gesturing at the outfit, “was for dress rehearsal. I gotta put on my White Sox garb.”

“Done and done,” I say. “Where is he?”

“Bathroom backstage,” Gary answers. I hand him the preshow CD, jog down the aisle, and snake behind the heavy red curtain. I’m met by a gaggle of cast and crew in various stages of costume, and for once they are quiet, working away on each other’s makeup. All the guys in the cast wear White Sox uniforms, complete with cleats and high socks pulled up over their tight pants. I say hi to Ethan, the only one I really know, and then I’m about to look for the bathroom when I notice the set. It’s a very realistic baseball field dugout, which surprises me. “This is the set for the whole play?” I ask Ethan.

“God no,” he says. “There’s a different one for each act.”

I hear in the distance a thunderous roar followed by a horrifying series of splashes, and my first thought is, Tiny has written an elephant into the play, and the elephant has just vomited, but then I realize that Tiny is the elephant.

Against my better judgment, I follow the sound to a bathroom, whereupon it promptly happens again. I can see his feet peeking out the bottom of the stall. “Tiny,” I say.

“BLLLLAAARRRRGGGGH,” he answers, and then

sucks in a desperate wheezing breath before more pours forth. The smell is overpowering, but I step forward and push the door open a bit. Tiny, wearing the world’s largest Sox uniform, hugs the toilet. “Nerves or sickness?” I ask.

“BLLLLLAAAAAAOOOO.” One cannot help but be

surprised by the sheer volume of what pours forth from Tiny’s distended mouth. I notice some lettuce and wish I hadn’t, because then I begin to wonder: Tacos? Turkey sandwich? I start to feel like I may join him.

“Okay, bud, just get it all up and you’ll be fine.”

Nick bursts into the bathroom then, moaning, “The smell, the smell,” and then says, “Do not fuck your hair up, Cooper! Keep that head out of the toilet. We spent hours on that hair!”

Tiny sputters and coughs a bit and then croaks, “My throat. So raw.” He and I realize simultaneously: the central voice of the show is shot.

I take one armpit and Nick takes another and we pull him up and away. I flush, trying not to look into the unspeakable horror in the toilet. “What did you eat?”

“A chicken burrito and a steak burrito from Burrito Palace,” he answers. His voice sounds all weird, and he knows it, so he tries to sing. “What’s second base for a—shit shit shit shit shit I wrecked my voice. Shit.”

With Nick still beneath one Tiny arm and me beneath the other, we walk back toward the crew, and I shout, “I need some warm tea with a lot of honey and some Pepto-Bismol immediately, people!”

Jane runs up wearing a white, men’s v-neck T-shirt, Sharpie-scrawled with the words I’m with Phil Wrayson.

“I’m on it,” she says. “Tiny, you need anything else?” He holds up a hand to quiet us and then groans, “What is that?”

“What is what?” I ask.

“That noise. In the distance. Is that—is that—goddamn it, Grayson, did you put ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the preshow CD?”

“Oh yes,” I say. “Repeatedly.”

“TINY COOPER HATES ‘OVER THE RAINBOW’!” His voice cracks as he screams. “Shit, my voice is so gone. Shit.”

“Stay quiet,” I say. “We’re gonna fix this, dude. Just don’t puke anymore.”

“I am bereft of burrito to puke,” he answers.

“STAY QUIET,” I insist.

He nods. And for a few minutes, while everyone runs around fanning their pancake faces and whispering to one another how great they’ll be, I’m alone with a silent Tiny Cooper. “I didn’t know you could get nervous. Do you get nervous before football games?” He shakes his head no. “Okay, just nod if I’m right. You’re scared the play isn’t actually that good.” He nods. “Worried about your voice.” Nod. “What else? Is that it?” He shakes his head no. “Um, you’re worried it won’t change homophobic minds.” No. “You’re worried you’ll hurl onstage.” No. “I don’t know, Tiny, but whatever you’re worried about, you’re bigger than the worries. You’re gonna kill out there. The ovation will last for hours. Longer than the play itself.”

“Will,” he whispers.

“Dude, save the voice.”

“Will,” he says again.

“Yeah?”

“No. Will.”

“You mean the other Will,” I say, and he just raises his eyebrows at me and smirks.

“I’ll go look,” I say. Twenty minutes to curtain, and the auditorium is now damn near full. I stand on the edge of the stage looking out for a second, feeling a little bit famous. Then I jog down the stairs and slowly walk up the stage-right aisle. I want him here, too. I want it possible for people like Will and Tiny to be friends, not just tried errors.

Even though I feel like I know Will, I barely remember what he looks like. I try to exclude each face in each row. A thousand people texting and laughing and squirming in their seats. A thousand people reading the program in which, I later learn, Jane and I are specially thanked for “being awesome.” A thousand people waiting to see Gary pretend to be me for a couple hours, with no idea what they’re about to see. And I don’t know, either, of course—I know the play has changed in the months since I read it, but I don’t know how.

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