Chapter 1: D-List
“But I know, I know, life can be beautiful
I pray, I pray for a better way
If we changed back then, we could change again
We can be beautiful…
Just not today.”
Thomas Dean liked musicals. He liked music in general (what eighteen year old didn’t?), but he particularly liked musical theater. Music was pure expression, emotion made real and given a beat. It was joy. It was anger. It was loneliness. Horniness, too.
Most music- most commercial music, anyway- was too general, too generic, for Tom to connect with. Yes, “Rain Is A Good Thing.” And? Yes, we’re “Only Human,” and we like to dance. Duh. And every single love song or break up song wasn’t about anyone in particular, it was about “you.”
Bo Burnham (whose standup was just this side of a dark musical comedy) had it right: “I love your hands because your fingerprints are like no other, I love your eyes and blueish, brownish, greenish color.” So vague as to be universal, but the connection was lost as soon as the catchy beat stopped.
If Shakespeare was writing today, the famous line would have been. “You. Oh you. Where are you? Give up your family and I’ll give up mine.” Which, admittedly, was a sweet and hopelessly romantic sentiment, but did it have any power without people’s nostalgia and recognition of the themes of two star crossed lovers from warring families? Tom didn’t think so.
Broadway, however, wasn’t nearly as broad, and that was the appeal. Musicals told stories; fantasies and fictions that combined the raw emotion of music with characters that you could relate to and imprint on.
Tom never imagined himself hanging out with Lil Nas X or Brad Paisley. It was never going to happen, and they had nothing in common. But he could relate to Elphaba, and Tracy Turnblad, and Leo Bloom. Alexander Hamilton was MAYBE the ten dollar bill guy to most Americans before the play came out. Tom felt he knew what it was like to be an outsider looking in and dreaming of bigger things.
He couldn’t relate to Beiber telling some hot nobody to go love themselves. He’d never have his own song on the radio that would “give you hell”. In their own sad way, the rich and famous people who sang the songs were less attainable, less relatable, and less real to him than the fictional characters who strutted it out on stage.
But the fictional characters? Pasty white instead of emerald green, Tom was no Elphaba, but he sure as hell dreamed that he could defy gravity one day despite what other people thought of him. He wasn’t teased for being overweight, like Tracy Turnblad was- if anything he was almost skinny enough to be considered malnourished- but how he wished he could muster her boundless energy and optimism. Unlike Leo Bloom, Tom had no desire to be a producer; he’d buy tickets and go to New York instead of watching old bootlegs on Youtube if he ever got the chance, but that was as far as he’d go. However, he couldn’t help but nod and tear up a bit when the timid little accountant shouted at the top of his lungs, “STOP THE WORLD! I WANT TO GET ON!”
Maybe it wasn’t the music itself, but a musical character’s ability to say and sing so succinctly what they were feeling in the moment and express their true selves so well, that attracted Tom to them. A song could last only three minutes, but that high, that story, that fantasy that created the connection could last a lot lot longer.
In his fifth period math class, Tom sighed himself out of his own reverie. It was the twenty-first century, so he’d been told, and a young man liking a song and dance number was nothing to look sideways at. Shit. In most places nowadays, if you started with “Let’s. Get Down. To Business!” the next lines out of everybody else’s mouth would be “To Defeat. The Huns!” Same was true for “Let it Go” and “You’re Welcome.” Disney always got a free pass, but a body wouldn’t be looked down on if they were jamming out to Hamilton, or Rent, or The Book of Mormon, either.
Scrumpton, Georgia wasn’t most places. Culturally it was still somewhere in between 1950 and 1980. The Breakfast Club was a roadmap on how to live your life, the part about torturing nerds and duct taping their butt cheeks included. Scrumpton liked to pretend it was Mayberry from Andy Griffith, but was honestly a lot closer to Derry from Stephen King. Tom couldn’t count how many times he’d been drafted to go dumpster diving by the jocks.
It was Friday afternoon. Tom didn’t need a calendar to know that. He could have been sucked into an alternate dimension, spend years there in dank caves fighting zombies and goblins, pop back to Earth and still know what day of the week it was in Scrumpton just by looking around. Like most small towns without much to do, high school football ruled Scrumpton’s Friday nights. That meant that all the jocks wore their jerseys and all the cheerleaders wore their uniforms.
Amanda Monroe was a cheerleader. She sat in front of Tom in fifth period and had a habit of leaning over so she could snicker and whisper during Mr. Jordan’s boring math lectures. “Math math math…coefficient…math math math…sine and cosine…math math math…variables…math math.” That’s not what Mr. Jordan said (except for that one time when he did to see if anyone was paying attention) but it’s what everyone but the big brains heard on a Friday afternoon with no tests looming and yet another big game only hours away.
Haphazardly copying down Mr. Jordan’s numerical chicken scratch and praying to the weekend gods that he’d understand more of it come Sunday night, Tom’s eyes kept darting to Amanda…part of her, anyway. He couldn’t hear what Amanda was saying to her mean-girls-bestie Cameron, but he wasn’t paying attention to her voice just then.
Amanda’s cheerleading skirt was very, very short. And even though her matching bike shorts covered more than enough to meet the school dress code requirements, they were also tight enough so that Tom could tell that she wasn’t wearing any panties.
Unless it was a thong.
No! No! No! It was perverted! It was wrong! Amanda was a person! Not just a piece of ass…a sweet sweet piece of ass!
This was wrong! Amanda wasn’t some random girl. He’d known her since they were both just out of diapers. Yeah, they’d drifted apart in middle school, and she definitely looked a lot different than she had back during their playground days. Puberty had been VERY good to her (him not so much), but Amanda wasn’t just some random stranger for him to ogle online. She was somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s sister.
Like his own sister…
Eww-eww-eww! Don’t think about THAT! That’s even grosser! Tom blinked and images of Katlynn’s bony ass flashed across his eyelids. UG! Nothing more boner-killing than thinking of your own sister. It was bad enough that they’d had to share a womb.
Scumpton was in Georgia, and it checked a lot of stereotypes for the state. It didn’t check THAT box, though…not for Tom, at least.
Tom stared back at his paper, trying to focus more on math and less on ass. His eyes flitted upward. Amanda was still bent over, whispering something to Cameron. Mr. Jordan’s spirit had long been broken and he made no move to stop people from talking as long as it didn’t interrupt his scribblings on the board….and even then the old man did his best to ignore it.
Must not look. Must not look. Must do math.
Damn it, now she was swaying her hips, wiggling, waving it. It was like a matador waving a cape at a bull.
Must do math.
He wanted to lean forward and tap Amanda on the shoulder, or cough or something to get her attention. Maybe she’d stop.
Must. Not. Look. Must. Do. Math.
Not that he wanted her to stop; not that it was his place to tell her to stop. It wasn’t Amanda’s fault that he found her incredibly hot to the point of distraction and it wasn’t her responsibility to control his impulses.
But he felt like he was taking advantage or perving on her because she might not know he was looking. She might not care, either, but how did he ask permission without drawing attention to himself and being a total weirdo?
Another showtune- My Unfortunate Erection- screamed its way into his brain.
Damn it, life was hard!
Must. Do. Look. Not. Math.
Was it even Tom’s place or responsibility to do anything other than keep his thoughts and opinions to himself? A war of teenage hormones clashing up against prudish and confused sexual attitudes raged in his brain.
Must. Not. Do. Math! Must LOOK!
Tom was still a horny eighteen-year-old boy. And sometimes, as much as he might try otherwise, Tom thought with his dick. And he was just looking, after all…right? Right. She was right in front of him, bending over for everyone to see. It’s not like he was drilling peep holes in the girl’s locker room.
He wouldn’t say anything about it, he resolved. He was doing nothing wrong, saying nothing, and putting his hands on no one. Nor did he do anything to manipulate these circumstances into being. Literally just a case of right place at the right time.
Tom would take mental notes, (not in math…fuck math) save certain images in his brain, and go rub one out into an old sock later tonight.
Case closed. Matter solved. God bless cheerleaders. God bless cheerleader outfits. God bless Friday afternoons.
“Hey! Look at D-List!” Josh Hamlin yelled out. D-List. That was Tom’s nickname since fifth grade. He’d hated it, every asshole his age knew it, and that’s why it had endured into senior year. “D-List is pitching a tent!”
All eyes within a five-seat radius of Thomas Dean were immediately on him, save Mr. Jordan who was still rambling off about some inconsequential formula that could be used to calculate the apocalypse with only a three month margin of error.
Tom looked down at his lap. It was true. His unfortunate protuberance seemed to have its own exuberance. The little guy was practically waving hello at everyone.
Cameron looked to Amanda and then over to Tom. “Enjoying the view, little guy?”
“Dude,” someone yelled, “ya ditch them khakis and get some jeans!” Raucous laughter from all around.
Amanda frowned. “You little perv!” She drew her hand back as if to slap him, but froze when Tom was already flinching backwards.
“Careful, ‘Manda!” Trevor Macintosh yelled out. “He might like it!” Amanda’s hand flopped down to her side.
If Tom had been more quick-witted, more confident, more brazen, or cool…more SOMETHING…he could have handled the moment and turned it around in his favor. He could have called out Josh Hamlin for looking at his crotch, or just own it and pass it off for laughs with him instead of at him.
He could have apologized like an adult. He could at least have shrugged it off and said…said…SOMETHING, DAMNIT!
If this was a musical, he could have broken out into song, and by the time it was done his erection would be gone and forgotten.
Tom wasn’t any of that, though, and this was definitely not a musical.
All he could do was stammer “S-s-sorry,” as he got up, covering his crotch, tears in his eyes as he ran out of the classroom.
“Awww, he jizzed in his pants, too!” Josh yelled out. “Somebody get that man a condom!”
Laughter, even though the joke didn’t make any damn sense. That was another thing about musicals; fiction in general: You had to actually be clever and witty and poignant with your jokes to get laughs. In high school all you had to do was be loud, mean-spirited and reference someone else’s private parts.
With calls of “D-List!” and “Loser” and “Perv” and yes, “Condom,” echoing behind him as he ran out of class, Tom booked it to the boys bathroom where he sat on the toilet with the stall locked; doing his level best not to cry his eyes out.
Tom liked musicals; a rare thing for a boy, especially a straight one, to like in a place like Scrumpton, but those fantasies set to melodies could articulate his feelings better than any dose or combination of rap, pop, metal, rock, or country.
Junior year, he’d gotten ahold of the soundtrack for Heathers. The opening number summed up his experience pretty well.
“We were so tiny, happy and shiny. Playing tag and getting chased. Singing and clapping, laughing and napping. Baking cookies, and eating paste. Then we got bigger, that was the trigger, like the Huns invading Rome.” And between each line the ensemble cast shouted insults at each other, like freak, slut, loser, and short-bus.
“Welcome to my school, this ain’t no high school.
This is the Thunderdome.”
That’s how it had been for Tommy Dean. Elementary school had been good enough. Kids were nice. Teachers did everything they could and cared for you like a second parent. There weren’t winners or losers unless it was a game of Yu-Gi-Oh or four square out on the playground, and then the slate was wiped clean as soon as the next game began.
Things were, as the song went on to say, “beautiful.”
But somewhere just around middle school, puberty had changed everything. Kids judged more. Teachers had less time. People suddenly cared where you got your clothes from- bought or donated- and where you lived. All of a sudden, whether Mom and Dad paid for your lunch or whether the school gave you free food impacted your social status among the cliques.
Oh yeah. Around that time, cliques became a thing, too. It wasn’t just about “Mrs. Miller’s Third Grade vs. Mrs. Sampson’s Third Grade.” Come sixth grade, it was all about Jocks, and Cheerleaders, and Goths, and Geeks and Freaks and Preps and Nerds and so on and so forth. There wasn’t a particular clique for kids who took home backpacks filled with non-perishables from the local church on weekends, save maybe “losers.”
That’s what Tom was; a loser. Tommy and Katy went from being “the twins,” to “the poor kids,” “the smelly kids,” and yes, “the losers.”
In a weird way, Tommy and Katy didn’t exist anymore. Tommy and Katy had friends.
Now they were Tom and Katlynn Dean. Tom and Katlynn didn’t really have much in the way of friends these days.
Tom heard the rumors. They were rubbed in his face. Katlynn was somehow a dirty skank ho, despite never having a boyfriend or going on a date. She was stuck at home with not much to do most nights, same as him.
And Tom was so far down the social totem pole that he was “D-List.” After this latest humiliation, there’d probably be some kind of dumb penis joke attached to his name…probably “condom”…his peers still weren’t that clever, all things considered.
The creak of the boys’ room door alerted Tom. He wasn’t alone. “Hey D-List!” Another boy called in, Trevor Macintosh by the sound of it. “You forgot your backpack in fifth period, dude!” Somehow the bell had rung and Tom hadn’t noticed. Not surprising given the circumstances.
“Go away!” was all Tom could make himself say, his throat closing up, his embarrassing erection thoroughly destroyed, but his humiliation flaring up like a bad case of acne. “I’m busy.”
“Heh…busy, right! I’ll bet!” Trevor’s voice rumbled off of linoleum. Only silence from Tom. A mean spirited perverted laugh came from Trevor, not unlike a certain pair of big headed idiots looking to score. “Heh…there are worse chicks to yank it to than Amanda.”
Tom didn’t talk. Trevor was the worst kind of bully. Trevor was the kind that pretended to be your friend, to give you a minute of false hope before making you the butt of his joke. He’d bring in you in for a hug with his left arm so he could sucker punch you with his right.
Best way to deal with bullies like him, Momma had always told Tom, was not to respond. It had never worked…but Tom didn’t see any other viable options. He couldn’t take Trevor in a fight. Trevor was a foot taller and he was wearing his jersey today. “Alright, then.” Trevor finally said. “Whatever.”
Another beat. “Look, I got your backpack. I’ll let everybody in sixth know you’re busy yanking it in here.” He would too. The corners of Tom’s mouth drooped into a desperate, depressed, nearly cartoonish frown. Tom still didn’t speak. He couldn’t right now.
Part of him wished he could at least sing. Even during a sad song, time was kind enough to stop in a musical.
“I’ll leave it here for ya, D-List.” Trevor said. From his spot in the stall, Trevor heard the slight rustling and riffling of thin plastic and a solid thunk as his book bag hit the floor, followed by the creaking of the boys’ room door opening back up. Tom didn’t need to come out of the stall and look around. He already knew that his backpack had been dumped in the trash.