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"Guts"

“Julian. Does that name mean anything to you? I’m not quite sure what it means to myself.”
-Diary of Elana Spivack, 7/8/09
*

“Ashley, look over here!” I ushered my friend to the glossy headshot hanging on the wall. We were lollygagging in the lobby outside our theater, taking a quick break from acting lessons. It was then we contrived the fun game “Find the Cutest Headshot,” and clearly we had found our winner. He was by far the most attractive face in the lobby: his skin the color of coffee diluted by milk and his eyes a dark-chocolate brown. But his smile struck me: a stretch of pearly white across his tan face.

“Ooh, he’s quite attractive, if I do say so myself,” Ashley said suggestively.

“JOOO-leee-annnn,” I read extravagantly, savoring every syllable. After perusing the dozens of headshots from the cast of a youth production of “High School Musical,” we both found a magnetic face worthy of our attention. Neither of us was in a hurry to leave the lobby and resume our acting class, so we lingered by the photograph, admiring the glossy face frozen in that disarming smile.
*
The start of my long-awaited summer vacation arrived a few weeks later, and my three-week experience with the Garage Theatre Group Summer Camp commenced. I was fourteen years old and though three weeks of theatre camp was a dream come true, I was petrified. My eyes were still obscured by glasses (purple, Fairly Oddparents themed), my lips not yet touched by those of a boy, and my confidence? Nonexistent. The other thirteen kids seemed nice enough, all giggles and goofy, lopsided smiles, but my introverted self felt inclined to shy away from them. We sat in a circle on the ebony black stage and one by one identified ourselves: the “pretty girls” were Cathy, Natalie, and Susan. “Pipsqueak” was Pierce. “Flamboyantly eccentric” was Mike. One name, however, I already knew. The “handsome one,” who would obviously be the heartthrob of our group, was Julian. As he announced his name with a velvety, musical voice, I realized with a shiver that this was the Cutest Headshot come to life, pearly smile and all.
We moved on to the necessary ice-breaker game, so the fourteen of us milled around the stage, asking imperative questions like “what’s your least favorite body part?” After engaging in several interviews, I felt disappointed that Julian hadn’t approached me first, so I scavenged a bit of courage and walked up to him.
“Hi,” I squeaked, a pathetic greeting compared to his suave, “Hey.” I went through the list of questions: what’s your favorite song? Movie? Ice cream flavor? But alas, our answers were incompatible.

“Favorite color?” I asked wearily.

“Blue.”

A mild euphoria washed through me. Blue, such a magnificent color, associated with such beautiful things. “Really? Mine too,” I answered, astonished. We both loved blue. Perhaps we’d get married, some day.
*
Over the three weeks, my fourteen-year-old heart swelled and shriveled, soared and sank. I was convinced that the day Julian accepted my Facebook friend request had been the happiest of my existence. But the instant he made eye contact with another girl, I slumped into a quiet sadness, or peevishly trailed him, begging for attention. I sauntered into the theater one day to see Julian talking animatedly with my friend Natalia, a comely Colombian girl with entrancing eyes and inky hair. Panic fluttered inside me. He never talks to me like that, I thought indignantly. I bounded onstage to join them before they could grow any chummier. But what few words I had to contribute barely fit between their fast-flying jokes and boisterous guffaws.

Our director announced lunchtime. At last! He’ll have to stop talking to her now, I thought. I waited for the moment their conversation broke, and I was prepared to pounce on a pause.

“Have you ever gone to Colombia?” Natalia asked.

Any minute now.

“Oh yeah, all the time!” Julian exclaimed.

Conversation will die down.

“Do you have family there?”

Natalia, you can leave any time you want.

We emerged from the dark confines of the theater into the sultry summer air and sunshine, and they had not yet separated. Crestfallen, I trailed behind them, grudgingly accepting the title “third wheel.”
*
The intimate conversations Julian and I shared during the three weeks were few and far between, the most personal one starting with the question “if you were an animal, what would you be?” My stomach fluttered every time I waved to him, but I would surely pass out were I to hold a substantial conversation with him. He was a fourteen-year-old boy with typical adolescent interests: “South Park”, girls, and racist jokes. I knew very little of such subject matter, so our exchanges were usually more vapid and nonchalant. Every time I tried to steer discussion toward something about feelings or philosophy, the glazed look on his face told me I’d entered unchartered territories in his brain. I tried to connect with him on any kind of level, even if that meant feigning interest in something I knew nothing about. We were walking back to the theater after lunch one afternoon when I brought up TV shows.
“So you like…‘South Park?’” I asked timidly, a show I’d only ever heard about from my raunchy older cousin.
“Mhm, it’s my favorite show,” he answered.
“Can you uh…do any…impressions?” Do “South Park” fans do that? I chided myself for asking something so stupid.
“Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” he exclaimed in a nasally voice.
“You bastard!” I laughed, grateful he had imitated the only line I knew from the TV show. It wasn’t “deep conversation,” but I was content as long as I talked to him.
However, my ineptitude in handling conversation with him made me appreciate our scripted exchange even more. We only had one scene together in the musical, but it was one packed with passion—for me, at least. In our production of “Alice in Wonderland,” he played the whimsical White King, and I his faithful servant, Hatta. I bounded down the aisle of the theater and onto the stage, greeting him in a breathless frenzy. The script called for him to ask repeatedly if I was okay, a response to my over-exaggerated exhaustion from running down the aisle. However, it did not call for him to put his arm around me. As I stood on stage, bent over and hyperventilating to the point of light-headedness, he encircled me in a half-embrace, ensuring that I was not harmed. For a moment, I felt a dizziness that had nothing at all to do with my heavy breathing.
*
The “last day of camp” had been a myth to us throughout the three weeks, a rumor that we refused to believe; camp couldn’t really end, could it? But, against our most fervent wishes, it arrived. The fourteen of us spent the day bawling and recounting our favorite camp memories that already seemed eons ago. We lounged on the black stage and contemplated the past three weeks, but it never dawned on us that we would actually have to leave.

I proudly carried a pink poster that had been my prop in the musical; it was adorned with heartfelt messages and autographs from my fellow cast mates, and brandished the words “You Choose” in the middle—a message I had to deliver to Alice in the show. I joined the procession of teary-eyed teenagers at the door of the lobby and we ventured from our theater into the sunlight for the last time. We frantically tried to fit in as many good-byes and ever-lasting embraces as we could before we reached the parking lot, but Julian, holding to his cavalier persona, didn’t participate; as usual, I trailed behind him, hoping he’d offer a good-bye hug. I knew we would part with a terse farewell, and partially empty promises of how we would hang out soon. After all, who was I to admit my feelings for him? Moments like that are meant for soap operas.

I was about to ask for his signature on my poster when I looked at the words, neatly inscribed in script with a black Sharpie: “You Choose.” I could choose to leave camp the way I entered: meek, introverted, fearful of exposing myself. Or I could choose to take a chance, since nobody else will make that choice for me.

“Julian,” I said, suddenly assailed by a bout of dizziness. “There’s something I have to admit.” He turned his eyes to me, waiting for what I had to offer. The words were out of my mouth before I even knew I’d said them: “At the beginning of camp, I kind of liked you.” Sure, my confession was diluted by the “kind of,” and I fibbed about the “at the beginning” business, but I may as well have been on my knees proclaiming my passion for him.

I didn’t expect him to sweep me into an embrace or grab my hand and jaunt me off into the sunset. In fact, his nonchalant “Ok” was exactly the reaction I had gauged. In an effort to usher myself out of an awkward silence, I offered that he sign my poster. He took it and I anxiously waited as he scribbled a message; I just wanted to know that he had a response, a feeling beyond that monotonous “Ok,” no matter what it was. I frantically searched for his inscription as soon as he returned the poster.

It didn’t matter that he wrote using text-message abbreviations, or that he used the hackneyed “I just want 2 B friends.” I finally had proof that I had taken a risk. Remnants of an adrenaline rush settled in my veins, and my insides brimmed with the guts it had taken me to finally make that confession. Though my efforts didn’t win me a boyfriend, they earned me a newfound confidence that I would wield long after that summer ended. The message itself wasn’t eloquent or heart-wrenching, but his peculiar signature made me smile, and seemed to represent a farewell memento of that extraordinary summer: “w/ all my heart, Julian.”



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