by Laurel Dixon
When I was seventeen, it was difficult to say which worried my mother more: whether I might be a lesbian, or whether I might take up with an older, mustache-twirling boyfriend who would deflower me and hook me on drugs. The lesbian worry came from my short hair, hero worship of the Indigo Girls, and my love of dark clothing. The boyfriend worry was much simpler: I was well-endowed and in public school.
These two worries combined were unquestionably how I ended up in the school play. The quintessential extrovert, my mother’s answer to most of life’s problems is to join something. Keep your hands full, keep your head down, and you won’t have time for mustache-twirling lesbians to offer you crack in the school bathroom—or something like that. Throughout the years this advice had led me to a number of strange places: the back of a horse, a golf course, inside a goalie box running away from bees.
And now, her latest triumph in keeping me away from Bad Influences—I found myself sitting in a dark auditorium waiting to hear which part I had been assigned. The fact she had compelled me to join the play was actually a double-win for my mother: they had selected Godspell, which meant I was also getting a weekly dose of Jesus-y goodness. Our teacher, Mrs. Jones—who was precisely what you would expect a drama teacher to be—called out the first names. “Shane—you’re going to be Jesus.”
Shane swaggered to the front of the auditorium, his brown hair forming an asymmetrical swoop over his left eye. Shane wore black t-shirts with band names and always smelled like a record store—incense, weed, and sweat. His favorite game in class was basketball: and by basketball I mean trying to throw little paper balls into my cleavage when I wasn’t looking. This was our newly chosen Lord.
Next came Judas. Mrs. Jones handed the script to Spencer as the girls in the room gave a collective sigh. Spencer had the grace of being one of the only straight boys in drama club, a position that Shane also enjoyed. This gave them both a sort of glamor they wouldn’t have possessed outside of Drama Club—but the principle of supply and demand necessitated that girls throw themselves at them. The cherry on top of Spencer’s situation was that he was also an unfailingly polite Mormon boy. He had a whole string of girls lined up to “wait until marriage” with him.
Mrs. Jones laid a script in my hand as seriously as you would hand someone a gun to play Russian Roulette. The bangles on her wrist caught the stage lights that burned above us, making them glitter. “You’re an extra,” she said. “Part of the ensemble.”
With these words, the worst part of my nature rose up inside me, eclipsing all my mother’s fond hopes. As soon as I got home, the script was instantly buried under a pile of Harry Potter books, and I proceeded to forget it existed. After all, I was a minor character, so why try that hard? Until the deadline for memorization was punching me square on the jaw, I couldn’t be bothered. I went back to my busy life of pacing, speaking to no one, and not being able to drive.
If you have ever been in a school production, then you know there is always an inevitable moment where something goes spectacularly wrong. In the case of our Jesus musical extraordinaire, small holes began to appear before the coming fall. Upon the evening of our tenth practice, Mrs. Jones gathered us together and, with the solemnity of an undertaker, informed us that one of our title characters was “no more.” By this we all assumed he had gone back to his other after-school activity—smoking pot underneath the bleachers. There was less choreography involved in that, although the levels of religious awakening may have remained the same.
I watched Mrs. Jones bite her lip and wring her hands from my perch on Chelsea’s lap. Chelsea had proven to be the best part of my school play experience so far, with her long legs, heavy-lidded blue eyes and perfect breasts. The only drawback to our burgeoning friendship was that I had to fervently pretend I wasn’t aware of those facts about her, which was very distracting. She spent most of her time at practice dreamily playing with my hair and perching me on her lap like a small cat. We were minor characters, after all.
With a resigned sigh, Mrs. Jones came forward and cupped my face in her hands. She was a big fan of gestures like that. “You will do as a replacement.”
I was too terrified to process the back-handed compliment. In Mrs. Jones’s defense, she had a point—I was undeniably a decent singer, but my stumble-parade of dancing was enough to make any director cringe. I came out even in regards to actor desirability.
To add more fun to the situation, my newly acquired character represented John the apostle—and, as per the script of Godspell, he was slavishly in love with Jesus. Most of his lines were punctuated with stage directions like “gazes at Jesus” or “touches Jesus’ shoulder.” I snuck a glimpse at Shane, threading Chelsea’s arms a little tighter around me. Shane smiled, pantomiming a dunking motion with his hands and hitting me with a tiny paper ball. His incisor teeth were pointed like a shark’s.
My new role only served to increase my panic while decreasing my line memorization. I lay on my twin bed with my feet against the wall, my hand perched on my unread script like I was swearing on the Bible. I imagined sitting at Jesus’ right hand under the yellow glow of the stage lights as my heart pumped in my throat, while everyone I knew watched, waiting to cringe through my next dance number. Only my solo held any appeal—I sang it into a hair brush, to my cats, to Chelsea in the dressing room backstage as she vamped with a feather boa around her neck. I was always ready to sing.
Two weeks before the show, it finally happened. Shane, dressed in his long white robe, fumbled through his death-speech. He didn’t know most of his lines—which wasn’t so surprising, considering that we had cast the atheist as Jesus. Spencer, dressed in a slick leather Judas jacket, politely retrieved a script for him. “The line is: ‘Oh God, I’m dying.’”
Mary Magdalene, who was played by a deep-voiced siren named Holly, let slip an audible laugh. “Get it together, God.”
Shane rounded on her. “What the fuck does that mean?”
Spencer, ever the peacemaker, extended a palm in Holly’s direction. “He’s almost got it. We can try again.”
“Oh, and will he almost nail it the night of the show, too?” Holly said. We all politely pretended that we didn’t agree with her by looking away from the budding scene. I resisted the urge to laugh at her use of the phrase “nail it.”
Shane stabbed a finger in her direction. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, brown sandals on his feet. “Listen, bitch, I’m the lead here, not you.”
Holly rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s the point. You’re Jesus. Get it together and learn your damn lines.”
Jesus lost it. His blue eyes wild, Shane began to curse with a fervor that would have impressed his biblical opposite. There were obscene hand gestures, a thrown wine bottle, even a discarded fake beard. Finally, he pointed straight at Holly and spat: “Goddamn you,” and strode off the stage. Dressed in the robe, he looked like he meant it.
“Come back,” said Holly. “We have to crucify you.”
Suddenly, not having Jesus in our lives became a physical issue rather than a spiritual one. Shane had disappeared into the depths of the football field, and our director stood in the middle of our huddled stage pow-wow, clutching her cross necklace. Her fuchsia-painted lips formed a thin line. “We can’t go on without a Jesus. We can’t.”
She looked at each of us in turn, with the air of a woman who was grasping for a life preserver. Each of my castmates stood adorned in their separate costumes, scrubbed clean and hopeful with their dance acts memorized and ready. At last her eyes settled on me—my costume askew from dancing, and my brown hair and dark eyes standing out like a beacon. She frowned when her eyes alighted on my ample breasts; but I could already see the wheels of her mind churning, thinking of ways to bind them, duct tape that could be purchased. “Laurel,” she said, grabbing me by the shoulders and moving me center stage. “You can be Jesus for now.”
My classmates settled around me in a V shape. The music swelled. I lifted my arms, fingertips trembling. I even made more of an effort than usual not to notice the long golden waves of Mary Magdalene’s hair as she knelt before me—the cottony outline of her body, shifting warm and sudden beneath her blouse.
I want to tell you I became the savior of our high school; that each of the backup dancers ended up spilled at my feet, adoring, touching the hem of my robe. But Shane showed up hours later—sullen, smelling vaguely of marijuana, ready to stutter out his message of hope and joy. I was demoted from Jesus back to one who loves Jesus, and everyone tried their best to look at Shane with sloppy adoration as opposed to naked hostility while we were on stage.
The night of the show, with the dull hum of the crowd echoing from behind the curtain, I found myself alone in the dressing room. Shane was already center stage, arrayed with his Mormon nemesis in the opening position, his hands raised in a gesture of supplication.
But backstage on the cold linoleum floor, with only a full length mirror for company, I held up a long white robe to my softly rounded frame. I opened my dark eyes wide, raised an arm, and imagined myself silhouetted in the glow of a stage light. All eyes would be on me. When the lights died, applause would sweep in like a tide, and maybe I would feel it then—beloved, chosen, open and unafraid at last.