It happened, and it happens.
Again and again, the cosmic thing where centers of gravity change, gymnasium orbits realign.
First, there’s 1, whose fuel is worry. To skip might be painting a large target. Might start people talking. Which they already are, 1 is reasonably certain. Whispers, gestures. Names. How do they know? How can they know, when 1 is so racked with doubt and uncertainty? The hope that showing up will turn the knob a little to the right is the motivation, but it doesn’t offset the drudgery of sugar being poured, prayers lived on. God, it’s all so boring.
And across the way is 2, who feels the same and makes what are hopefully both knowing and longing glances through the dancing core, to no avail.
3 and 4 and 5 hang out in AV during the day and construct elaborate fantasy scenarios in a basement thereafter, rolling oddly-shaped dice and hooting, a life on paper to offset so much daily dread. 6 plays a sport, so they assume they’re not in the same league, but 6 only plays because of parental pressure, doesn’t like a single member of the team, and would much rather be slaying kobolds.
7 has terrible acne, can’t help but pick at it, squeeze it, make it worse.
8 plays tuba. Loves it, even though it takes up a whole seat on the bus. And even though no one would sit in the same seat even sans tuba, the whole thing becomes a dog and pony show, to be handled with as much humor as possible. To do otherwise might make things worse. 9 is along, a trombone player with much the same problem, except more Tommy gun jokes. 10 plays French horn and hangs with the two of them, feeling like a third wheel inside this smaller constellation, a moon of a moon. But something is better than nothing. Just ask 11, over there, alone, who works so hard on flute despite all the snickers and the odd Jethro Tull joke only to be drowned out, and 12, who aspires to play an actual drum someday instead of rapping out patterns on the institutional woodblock.
13 wears a lift in one shoe because of a birth defect, walks funny.
14 loves photography. Has an independent study. Takes photos of trees, mostly, landscapes. Wishes people would take a moment to really see what’s around them instead of rushing all the time. Wonders if the darkroom chemicals that saturate mornings are an aroma or a stink, keeping people away. Is resigned that maybe it’s the latter.
15 and 16 and 17 and 18 and yes, even 19 just came because there’s still too much snow on the ramp. (Poor 20 is at home in bed with the flu.)
21 wears black on the outside because of feelings on the inside. 22 supplies the hairspray and the Cure’s discography, in a constant but friendly clash with 21’s ardent Morrissey fervor.
23 snuck in some Boone’s Farm, to the delight of 24. A furious makeout session ensues under the bleachers. (And yes, there will be berry-flavored puking later, but you knew that.)
25 has never been to one of these things before. Neither has 26. After this one they’ll blow off dances as lame, get their licenses, and take turns driving around. The frost heave atop the hill out by the dairy swells when it’s cold, they’ll discover, and when they drive fast enough they’ll be gloriously untethered, airborne for a half-second. Better than another night of TV, or standing around the gym. Mostly.
27 through 34 run cross-country, dream of stretching out time, marking it faster.
35 has filled two and a half notebooks with a story of a land called Xandar, where space armies vie for resources. 36, in the same shop class, hipped 35 to a BBS where sci-fi enthusiasts gather. Their heads are huddled together talking about 37, also an aspiring author on the BBS, who they have no idea is in the gym with them. 37 has a pen name, you understand, and a deep fascination with Xandar.
38’s father drinks, and proclaimed, loudly, that there would be no goddamn dance before he passed out. 38 is pretty sure he’ll still be snoring on the couch surrounded by empties when it wraps up in a few hours.
39 is creeped out by one of the chaperones but came anyway. 40 didn’t.
41’s thrifty grandmother is in charge of back-to-school shopping, which means hitting thrift stores. 41’s pretty bored with the same old same old and chooses noisy Brady Bunch synthetics over second-hand Esprit. 41 hangs with 42, who has discovered the shock value and convenience of a shaved head.
43 has a big nose.
44 wanted to act in the drama club, but found the enterprise dull. Front of the house, anyway. The lights and the sound provide endless fascination—and, 44 will later find, a far easier way in. It’s no surprise that 44 hangs with 45, whose high art aspirations were similarly diverted by the chance to create and paint sets.
46 skips like a record when stressed, mutters.
47 wants to be a comedian and devours newspapers in search of material. 48 is maybe a little too happy, always laughing, and is a perfect foil. 49 glowers at each joke.
50 is an only child with big glasses. Listens to music on headphones on the bus to drown out the taunts. Reads a lot.
51 and 52 are in the center, but hate their friends. Cannot stand their superficiality, their judgment.
In that unfolding moment, the kids clustered in the center of the room, with their good bone structure and fast metabolisms and builds and clothes were the center of gravity.
It’s only later that the 52 realize that what sets them apart—what they often see as affliction—will propel them, blazing like so many comets.
Listen as the telltale guitar inverts the natural order: a unifying recognition even as a blankness of ignorance spreads.
Shimmying and gesticulating, pantomiming each sea creature during the breakdown.
It brings them all together, if only for a song.
To the center.
They feel out of place, but there are others like them.
Thousands, in basements, AV clubs, bedrooms, on the periphery of so many gyms.
So we can see the ramifications, the long-term.
But the specifics are different in every scenario.
What are yours?
Can you name them today?
—Michael T. Fournier