The World on a Stage by Daniel Lenois
The dim warm light that softly illuminated the auditorium’s interior was like a candle to the open flame of the full-strength professional stage lighting that burned the back of my neck as I paced horizontally downstage. The plan was fairly straightforward: I had to arrest my best friend.
The 700 seats in front of me stood uniformly in silent judgment as, in the back of the room, behind where the audience would soon sit, a pair of sound technicians were thoroughly engaged, actively attempting to head off any foreseeable disaster of audible (or inaudible) proportions. The late afternoon sun, which surely had already begun its inevitable descent beyond the distant vista that surrounded Northwest Catholic High School, was far removed from sight in the windowless expanse that surrounded me. Only mere hours remained before we would be set to debut our weekend-long theatrical run of Shrek: The Musical. After having performed a variety of more serious dramatic stage roles on local stages, it was almost refreshing to wade through the swamps of satirical fantasy.
Cast in the role of Captain of the Guards, a recurring supporting role consisting of a dozen-odd lines throughout the production, my first task was to arrest Pinocchio, who was being played by my friend Alex. From there, I’d proceed to ruin the day of all magical creatures possessing the vulgar audacity to merely exist. As if reading my thoughts at this moment, Alex spontaneously emerged from the upstage-left entrance and had already crept, with thief-like silence.
“Do you think it’d be a good idea to sneak up on a lion and pull its tail when it’s not looking?”
I suppressed a groan before it could escape my lips. In the nearly fifteen years I had known Alex, never once had any question beginning with “Do you think it’d be a good idea…” actually resulted in the presentation of a good idea. It was merely an icebreaker. The tradition had carried on between us for so long that its origin had long become obscure. Given that Alex, a few years before, had unthinkingly stuck his fingers into a tiger enclosure to pet a resting tiger, only to emerge with the tip of one finger missing, he knew from personal experience the inherent dangers of befriending non-domesticated cats. The pull away from the stresses on hand was both a deliberate distraction and a welcome one.
The aerial distance between the stage and the auditorium floor seemed strangely not nearly as intimidating as I had remembered. My feet struck the thinly carpeted concrete ground with a muffled clap. I turned around, to better judge the gap. It was about four feet, roughly equivalent to the median height of my extended family. The physical movement jarred a vivid image in my mind’s eye. The empty stage in front of me was identical in appearance to how I had seen it some five years ago when Alex and I had last entered this room. We had been about sixteen or seventeen years old at the time. We were to appear alongside representatives from the Focus Center for Autism, and other autism-related public advocacy groups, on a public panel hosted upon that very stage.
Upon entering the room, then too empty, and seeing the others ascending the small staircase next to the raised stage, I did what any other self-respecting teenage boy would: Charged at the stage full-speed and launched myself, like a cannon fired from the deck of a 17th-century British frigate, directly at the stage floor. For a moment, fists extended outward, I could almost see myself physically embodying Christopher Reeves’s 1978 Superman. However, this fleeting vision of masculine perfection evaporated like mist as my body barely cleared the stage, and my momentum carried me, rolling, several additional feet before I finally arrived at my intended destination. Despite a firm telling-off for my foolishness, I secretly held no regrets, although outwardly, my expression conveyed what I hoped was clear, contrite remorse.
Before the panel had started, Alex and I had amused ourselves walking along the deserted school hallways that formed a long rectangular loop around the auditorium. We passed a quarter-hour in a heated discussion, debating which classic film villains deserved an afterlife of peace or damnation. Should a genocidal Darth Vader get a pass because he felt bad about his actions five minutes before he died, or should the evil principal from Matilda get away with tossing children by their pigtails out a window, because said principal feasibly didn’t know it was socially unacceptable to launch children like javelins? Such was the nature of our discourse.
At one point, Alex was called away by his mother for one reason or another, and I was left to my own devices for a few minutes. As I walked along the hall, the glassy reflections of trophies and photographs lay in ornate cases along the walls. Disinterestedly, I glanced at a few of the images, my eyes flicking from face to face without any particular focus. As someone who had never been in public school since second grade, and whose only interactions with teachers and other students up to that point had been almost exclusively negative, the notion of taking pride in one’s school, in having a sense of community amongst one’s classmates, was completely foreign to me. Once again, I experienced that familiar sense of feeling like an alien among humans, along with an accompanying, inescapable loneliness. These people might be smiling at the camera, and more than happy to stand alongside their classmates, but how many of those smiles would actually be false, were I to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them? What friendship or kindness could I expect of them, setting aside that borne of pity? Tearing my eyes away from those glazed expressions, I returned to the auditorium.
Time flowed imperceptibly as the panel’s audience flooded in, buzzing with talk and laughter, all overlapping like a mighty beehive. Lining the sides of the room were teachers, guiding their students toward specific rows, in a halfhearted attempt to keep their classes together. At this point, Alex and I were directed to find our seats and project calm and attentive solidarity with the audience. However, we instead amused ourselves by playing a three-round winner-take-all match of tic-tac-toe on a scrap piece of paper. This earned us a disapproving look from our elders, but what could they say? For us to act our age? As teenagers, we were doing exactly that.
The panel went the same as the others before it. This had not been my first, but certainly, this was something on a far grander scope. Already I could see many of the seats occupied. Given the empty halls just minutes before, it was hard to believe so many students and staff were all squirreled away in classrooms and offices. Our panel host introduced herself and then interviewed each one of us in turn about our life experiences. As the only person to be homeschooled due to a horrid public school experience, I was always firmly told to stay silent about my education or else lie through omission. I was told quite frankly that no school would invite us if it was known that there was a panel member whose very existence implied criticism of traditional school systems. I was about to address this point when our host, sensing this, cut me off in favor of turning to Alex.
Alex wasn’t always the best at picking up even overt subtext, but clearly, he had understood what our host was doing. His fingers drummed against the table momentarily, then went still.
“School isn’t much fun if everyone treats you like garbage, while the teachers do nothing. You start to think, if the teachers are cool with that, they must agree. Which means those kids are right, you’re nothing. You can’t be a friend, because only humans can have friends. You must be less than human. And then to be told by people years later, you can’t talk about that, because it might make people feel bad, or make school look bad?” He looked at our host, jabbing one finger back at me. “That’s what you told Dan. That we can’t talk about this. That they,” he gestured at the audience, “can’t take it.” He took a breath. “If treating people like shit in school is bad, what does that say about you? That you’d prefer to cover it up, sweep it under the table? You prop us up here, to be faces of—of something. But our voices?” He waves a hand dismissively. “Who needs those?...”
The audience was silent, enraptured by his explosive monologue. Alex laughed quietly to himself as if taken aback by his own daring. “I think Dan’s alright. He found my LEGO pieces in the car. They fell under the driver’s seat.” That was Alex. I almost groaned and buried my face. “Raise of hands, what do you think?” Alex asked the audience. “Is he alright?” Like a wave crashing over a sandy beach, almost every hand I could see raised in unison. A confused cascade of thoughts and emotions flew through my mind. In a single instance, whole memories were recalled and questioned under this new light. Years of confusion and guilt cleared away like cobwebs. It was more than I was prepared to handle. The panel then reverted to its pre-planned talking points. The ongoing conversations faded out into muffled oblivion as I continued to process what I had heard. The idea that others of my age were not universally opposed to me, as I had long been led to believe, and that I could find some sense of belonging within a school, however fleeting, made me long for what now, as a seventeen-year-old turning eighteen, could never be.
“You’ve got the handcuffs?” I jumped, startled by my remembrance, as Alex’s question reached me.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“The handcuffs, you have them? Or are they still backstage? I’d like to give the scene a go one more time before they call us back.”
I patted my pockets, with no results. I shook my head. Alex shrugged. “It’s ok, I’ve got a spare. You can cuff me anytime you’re ready.”
I spun around, trying to hide my reaction. “Please god, Alex, never say that again.” Alex didn’t seem to recognize the implications. “Forget it,” I muttered. And so, without any audio prompts, we went through the scene line-by-line, our feet almost unconsciously following the choreographed mapping we’d practiced for weeks.
With a clink, Alex’s hands were cuffed behind his back. We paused for a time as we lipread our fellow actor’s lines from memory, and the scene ended.
“Hey Dan?” Alex asked.
“Do you think it’d be a good idea–?” I interrupted him.
“To what, to fight a bear while naked and lathered in honey?” I was still standing behind him, so I could not read his reaction. Alex shook his head.
“Do you think it’d be a good idea to get the keys? The cuffs are locked. I think the key fell out of my pocket in the car.”
I laughed, and for a while, I couldn’t stop laughing. The situation was so ridiculous, and yet knowing Alex, so entirely predictable.
“Lead the way,” I managed, securing him by one arm, and escorting him off-stage and out of the building.
Note from the author:
“The World on a Stage” is an autobiographical piece of creative nonfiction prose, exploring themes of community and belonging through the perspective of a high-functioning autistic young adult, intertwining two interconnected periods of time through the unifying factor of one singular location. As someone homeschooled from 2nd grade onward, the social disconnect that comes from growing up outside of the traditional K-12 public and/or private school systems, combined with the ongoing extensional questioning of one's place, as a neurodivergent individual in a broader and largely neurotypical society, are subjects that have not as of yet been widely explored in either creative nonfiction or fiction.
Daniel Lenois holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, with a dual minor in both Writing & Publishing and Cinema Studies, courtesy of Central Connecticut State University, where he also founded the university's Creative Writing student club. Prior publications include Blue Muse Magazine and The Helix.