I was sitting in the front seat of my Aunt Merry’s big blue Cadillac, freezing. It was April in Mississippi, already in the high 80s, but that luxury automobile had killer air conditioning. I sat silently, odd for me even at age 12, watching the goosebumps rise on my arms. The knot in my stomach was growing exponentially. By the time we got to her house, it would weigh a hundred pounds and I would be unable to rise from the blue leather seat.
“You’re quiet,” said Aunt Merry. She phrased it as an observation, not as a concern.
“I’m just sleepy,” I said, watching the pastures race past the window. She always took off like a rocket when we turned onto Military Road, because encountering another car was such a rarity. Maybe the occasional deer, but she had one of those repellant whistles mounted to the hood of her car to keep them from running into the road and messing up her Cadillac.
I made a mental list of all the people and things I wished I had a whistle to discourage from approaching. I’d use it as I walked through the halls of Kosciusko Upper Elementary, and all would be right with my world.
The boulder in my belly continued to expand. It has been said confession is good for the soul. At the moment, my digestive system was making the demand.
“I quit the school band,” I said. “I haven’t been to any of the practices since we came back from Christmas.”
The 6th grade Christmas concert had been one of the low points of my brief life. I was last-chair clarinet, the only boy who played a woodwind. I’d personally chosen clarinet because I got along better with girls than boys, and I figured I’d be safer there.
This flawed tactical move had left me open to new levels of derision from my classmates, but I probably would have gotten past it if it had not also been discovered that I was absolutely terrible at playing the clarinet. Every attempt ended up sounding like a goose having an asthma attack and an orgasm simultaneously.
People can make choices outside social norms if they’re really good at it — girls who fight to join the football team, or boys who excel at gymnastics. But to refuse to go with the flow, and then have no talent for the alternative, is really just a losing battle.
“Have you told your parents?” Aunt Merry asked, already knowing the answer.
“I kept meaning to, but I knew they’d be mad. And the Spring Concert’s next week.”
“What have you been doing instead?”
“I sit in Mrs. LeVert’s classroom and write stories.”
Aunt Merry always played by her own rules, and had encouraged me to do the same. I was hoping she’d champion me in this conundrum. But she looked concerned.
“You don’t play sports, and that’s fine. And if you don’t like being in the band, that’s fine too. You’re a wonderful writer, and I love your stories. But you cannot sit in an empty classroom and not be around people your age. You have to know how to talk to people, and be part of a group.”
I started to protest.
“It doesn’t matter if you think you don’t like them, or they don’t like you. You won’t be here forever. Mississippi’s just your first stop. But if you don’t learn to make friends here, you won’t know how to do it anywhere else. Your Mama and Daddy could care less about you being in the band. Grownups hate going to band concerts. But they want to know you’re at least trying to be a part of something.”
This was the conversation that led to me doing my first play at the community theatre that summer. I discovered that community theatres are where small towns stash most of their oddballs, and found kindred spirits in that building. I found something I was good at doing, and in the 20 years since, I’ve never left the theatre.
“You really think I’ll leave Mississippi?” I asked Aunt Merry in the car that day.
“Your heart’s already left here,” she replied. “The rest of you will catch up.”
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.