Dear teen Tim:
This headshot was taken during the high school production of Godspell in which you were secretly in love with Jesus.
Okay, it’s less a headshot than a torso shot. These were the days before Photoshop, and you were sixteen and didn’t want your zits featured, so you opted for more of a portrait than a close-up. But the fact remains: You were in the chorus, he was Jesus, and every night you sobbed your eyes out over him. This glossy 8×10 smile is a shiny, show business lie.
You will get out of this habit of falling in love with straight boys.
In fact, fewer than two years after this photo shoot, you’ll have your first “real” boyfriend, an authentically LGBT individual—though in those days, nobody said LGBT. “Faggot” was sort of the title du jour, every single jour. In your sports-centric, football-hero high school, any guy who couldn’t catch a ball (let alone throw one) was definitely a faggot.
It hurt your feelings for a while. But then you got cast in that local production of Godspell, and Jesus was a straight guy just a couple years older than you, and the only name he called you was L.B.—short for “Little Brother,” because that’s the way he thought of you. And so you called him O.B., even though you definitely didn’t think of him as an older brother. You already had an older brother. You didn’t need two. High School Jesus was the first straight guy to call you exclusively nice names, and so of course you fell in love with him. The teenage version of “in love,” at least—which is the most potent toxin outside of rattlesnake venom.
But, listen up, sixteen-year-old Tim! The boringly cruel names will stop the minute you leave town, two years from when this picture was taken, on a ridiculous national tour of Fiddler on the Roof.
Lemme back up.
At the end of your senior year of high school, you’ll convince Dad that being a dancer is like “being an Olympic athlete, where my body could give out at any time.” You’ll deliver this with a practiced, serious face, and Dad will buy this idea that perhaps his son should skip college in order to pursue his dream of dancing on Broadway. “OK, then,” he’ll say over waffles at a diner, “you can go off and dance for a year.”
What a year it becomes. Your boyfriend drives you to New York City and Fiddler on the Roof is the first show you audition for, and you are hired on the spot, just like that.
Let me tell you how awful this production of Fiddler on the Roof will be.
This production of Fiddler on the Roof is so low-budget that, in the course of one wedding scene, you will wear a fake beard to do a celebratory bottle dance, and then you’ll exit the stage and rip off the beard and reenter to play a Russian villain who breaks up the very same party. You’ll make minimum wage, and you’ll travel twelve hours at a time on a crowded bus to do one show a night in no-name towns that are written in disappearing ink on maps, and it is wonderful. It is the best time you’ll ever have.
It is a tribe of people who instantly understand you, after eighteen years of trying to be a version of yourself who can get through the day unnoticed. You’ll meet your new best friend who is now your oldest best friend. You’ll try on the role of being an adult. You’ll never go through a hazing ritual, you’ll never get drunk with the other freshman. There are no other freshman. You’ll see America and you’ll make a little money and nobody will call you names.
And all these years later, when you are thirty-two and your debut novel comes out—the one you never thought you’d be able to write, about the small-town boy who runs away to New York to perform on Broadway—you’ll find yourself back in your hometown on a promotional tour. You’ll trot out the book and meet a lot of middle schoolers, and you’ll talk about what it was like to get roughed up when you were their age, because you were the only boy who knew every lyric to Sunday in the Park with George.
And one night, after a long day of school visits, you’ll have dinner with the parents of the guy who played Jesus, all those years ago. And they’ll update you on “O.B.” and his wife, and they’ll ask if you’re dating anyone, and you’ll pull out your iPhone and you’ll show them Brian—who loves you right back and never calls you names, other than “sweetie.”
And on the entire flight back to New York City, you’ll listen to Godspell and smile and smile, and be thankful you’re no longer sixteen. Even though you’ll kind of miss it, too.
Tim Federle was born in San Francisco, grew up in Pittsburgh, and began crashing New York auditions as a teenager, landing in five Broadway shows, from GYPSY (starring Bernadette Peters) to The Little Mermaid (starring Tim in a catfish costume). Tim’s debut novel, BETTER NATE THAN EVER — described as “Judy Blume as seen through a Stephen Sondheim lens” by Huffington Post—was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and an Amazon Best Book of the Month. Say hi at TimFederle.com and on Twitter @TimFederle.