Authors: Ben Monopoli
Tags: #coming of age, #middle school, #high school, #gay fiction, #coming out, #lgbt fiction
Stag: A Story
By Ben Monopoli
Copyright © 2013 by Ben
Monopoli. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication
may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any
means without the express written permission of the
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity
to real persons, living or dead, is entirely
Cover photo of model by
Paffy69. Cover design by the author.
I remember hearing that word, sensing
immediately the freedom in it. Stag. It was a hard word, angular,
macho, as navy-blue as military. And cool. Unimpeachable. It had no
weakness, could not be questioned. It was strong.
The first of us to use it was Boyd Wren, and
he used it well aware of its power. Someone had asked him who he
was bringing to the dance.
“No one,” he said. “I’m goin stag.”
We whispered it, reveling in it, the five of
us, the five bottom rungs on the eighth-grade ladder. Even those of
us who’d never heard the word before understood its meaning. All
except Dwight Macklin, who asked.
But it couldn’t be explained; everyone else
understood this. To provide a definition would be to reduce its
power. It would be like explaining a magic trick.
So Boyd merely said again, “It means I’m goin
When the word came out of his mouth you
watched for his back to straighten and for his fists to press
against his hips. You watched for his smudged glasses to
“I’m going stag too,” said Tyson Cordray.
“Me too, I’m goin staaag,” said Michael
Alonso, the weird one.
“How about you, Ollie?” said Boyd.
“Stag,” I said.
My first choice—skipping the dance—wasn’t an
option. This was the big one, the Grad Dance, the last before high
school. People like me who had successfully skipped three years of
middle-school dances could not skip the Grad Dance. You went
because everyone had to be there. The grade policed itself with the
rigid enforcement of a grandmother making sure all the cousins
showed up for Christmas. There was no way out. I couldn’t even try.
So I clung to the word.
“I’m going stag,” I told my mother, only
because she asked; I never brought up the dance on my own. I tried
not to acknowledge it at all.
We were walking up the rickety spiral steps
of the town’s only seamstress. Certain preparations needed to be
made for the dance, and my mother was intent on making them, even
excited. My suit needed to be let out.
“Oh, Oliver, you should ask a girl,” said my
mother, looking down from a higher step. “What about Nadia
“All my friends are going stag.” I held the
word up at her like a shield.
“Or Jasmine Lorange?”
Names rained down. While we sat in the shop’s
stuffy waiting area she listed all the girls I’d ever been on a
soccer team with, all the girls we’d seen at gymnastics class and
“No one is taking anyone,” I said.
The seamstress, an old woman overworked in
this season of dances and proms, sent me behind a curtain to put on
my suit and then tugged at my crotch and my shoulders, taking
“Have you asked a pretty girl?” she said,
smiling around the pins in her mouth.
“No,” I said. “Going stag.”
My four friends saw stag as a way to polish
the inevitable. It insulated them from being mocked for being the
kind of boys who couldn’t land a date. A boy going stag wasn’t
going alone, he was choosing to go alone. The difference between
those things, for an eighth-grader, was everything.
For me stag offered something more. For me it
was a relief, a reprieve from a rite of passage I had come to
understand I wasn’t destined for. I whispered it to myself at every
mention of the dance, like a spell to ward off suspicion. Stag. For
me it kept things at bay.
Talk of the dance, all year a hum, grew to a
buzz, a thump, a clanging in the school hallways. Girls talked
about where they were having their hair done; boys talked about
buying corsages. Invitations to go to the dance were delivered
through the bolder proxies of bashful friends. At lunch, in
classrooms, on the bus, notes were passed. I pretended not to see.
That trick for monsters: if I closed my eyes and counted to three,
would it all go away?
At the end of one day when I opened my locker
a piece of paper fell out. Notebook paper folded into a triangle
and decorated with hand-drawn orange musical notes. I closed my
eyes and counted. One, two, three.
“What is that!” Dwight gasped from the
cluttered locker beside mine. He was ready for it to be a treasure
map, a ransom note, but I knew it was neither of those.
“Just from my mom,” I said, slamming the
triangle deep into my backpack.
One, two, three. One, two, three, one, two,
I thought about throwing it away without
reading it. I couldn’t be responsible for something I never saw. I
owed no one an answer if I never saw a question. I was going stag,
didn’t they know? The note was an insult. But it was an armed bomb
too. One I needed to defuse before it blew up.
I opened it on the bus, slunk down in the
green vinyl seat with my knees pressed high against the back of the
seat in front of me. Within the pocket of my lap I unfolded the
triangle. In orange ink it read:
Oliver. Would you like to go to
the Grad Dance with me? (Jessica Parson) Please check one and put
this in Locker 341. __ Yes __ No. From Jessica Parson. PS: I’m good
at dancing, you’ll see.
Some, but not all, of the I’s were
dotted with circles.
Jessica Parson, only Jessica. A weight
lifted; I exhaled and my knees slid down the green vinyl. Jessica
was a girl it was OK not to want to go to this dance with. Any
dance with. She was a girl no one would want to go to a dance with.
My friends would excuse this, based on Jessica’s ever-present
kitten sweatshirts, her big buck teeth, her faded stretch-pants
everyone said smelled like horse manure because she lived near a
farm. They would reject it. To have help in rejecting a girl for
not being good enough—this was a fine disguise.
“She asked you?” Tyson said, affronted, when
I showed the guys the note. “That wench.”
“I bet she’s going to wear h-h-horse poop
perfume to the dance,” Michael said, laughing, rubbing the heel of
his hand against his perpetually itchy chin.
“I feel so dirty now,” I whispered
dramatically. “I need a chemical baaath.”
“Let’s see that note again,” said Boyd,
holding out a sturdy hand. I gave it to him. Using his knee as a
table, he drew a blue X on the line beside
. Then he
paused, touched the pen cap to his lips, then circled the
“Write on it
In your dreams Jessica
said Michael. “Write on it
You smell like shit
.” He had the
devilish grin of a boy new to swearing.
“This is fine like this,” Boyd said.
He folded the note in a series of halves and
handed it back to me. Between first and second periods I raised it
to the ventilation holes of Jessica’s locker.
I closed my eyes and counted to three. Paper
whisked against metal and it was gone.
As the days slid by everything started to
become all dance, all the time, an onslaught too overwhelming for
my anti-monster trick. It came from everywhere—the obvious places,
but even my own bedroom.
“We should buy you new shoes for the dance,”
my mother said. My suit was back from the seamstress and she’d
realized it was still incomplete.
“I don’t need shoes,” I said, wedging the
suit into the back of my closet, where I could better pretend it
didn’t exist. Plastic hangers clattered to the floor. “I can wear
my church shoes.”
“But those aren’t very fancy. Don’t you want
to look nice? People are going all-out for this.”
She was sitting on the end of my bed,
cradling her chin with one hand while her elbow rested on her knee.
She was looking at me as though I were the most mysterious thing in
“Who cares if I look nice?,” I said, shutting
the closet door and letting my hand slide damply off the knob. “Can
I go outside?”
She sighed, pressed her knuckles to her lips.
“You’re going to have a lousy time at this dance, Oliver. Do you
know why? Because you’ve already decided to have a lousy time.”
“I’m going outside,” I said, leaving her in
my room and taking the stairs two at a time.
In biology class I had been thinking about my
suit, thinking that if I didn’t wear the jacket to the dance—if I
only wore a shirt and pants—it might not seem so official, when a
finger poked my spine. It was a poke full of intention, as though I
were being summoned from a lower floor. I pretended not to feel it.
I knew Amy Langley was sitting behind me. I looked toward the
blackboard and closed my eyes. One, two, three one two—
“Oliver,” she whispered, and after hesitating
I turned a little in my seat. “Hi,” she added.
“Are you going to the Grad Dance?”
“Are you going with anyone?”
I shook my head slowly, slowly, like a person
trying to outwit quicksand.
“Taylor wants me to ask if you’ll go with
“She really wants a flower, even just a
“Good! I’ll tell her.”
I faced forward, almost dropped forward. My
fingers were leaving wet dimples on my textbook pages. What had
just happened? What was happening? Why had I not told her about
stag, wielded it like the weapon it was?
After a few seconds with my eyes shut tight I
felt another poke. When I turned Amy pointed to the far corner of
the classroom. Taylor, blushing, looked up from her doodling,
glanced at me, smiled.
At the end of the day when we were all in the
hall putting on our backpacks she came over to my locker. She
seemed to peek out from behind her brown bangs and long
“I’m excited we’re going,” she said. She
looked happy. I couldn’t fathom why. I wanted her to leave me
alone. Why was she doing this to me? What had I done to her? “I
heard Jessica was going to ask you, but then she decided to go
“So like do you want a ride to the dance?”
she said. “My mom could pick you up?” She was biting her lip,
clicking her Jelly-shoed heels together awkwardly.
“My mom’s already driving me. So.”
“Well... maybe your mom could pick me up,
“We don’t know where you live, though,
“Oh. OK.” She wasn’t stupid, she was deciding
not to press it. “So.” Her heels stopped moving. “We’ll meet up at
“Yeah I’ll just see you there, I guess?”
I hated her for making me act like a jerk but
I didn’t know what else to do. Was being a jerk better than
pretending to want this? I knew only those two options: lead her on
or scrape her off. The truth was too much. It was too much; I was
thirteen. No one in this school was like me. No one in this town,
as far as I knew, was like me. Bad people were like me. Dead people
were like me.
“What was that?” Boyd Wren said after she’d
His voice made me realize there were other
people around, people who were knowing. This was already
“Not stag anymore?” Boyd added.
“She asked me, I didn’t know how to say
“She’s cool,” he said casually. He scratched
at my locker with his thumb. “Me, I figure I’ll still go stag. I
don’t like to be tied down.”
This was the opposite of Jessica. I was
afraid to tell the other guys about Taylor. The reason Taylor was
so devastating was that she would’ve been, should’ve been, exactly
the girl for me. Cute. My height. Perfect. But when you’re hiding,
like I was, the sweetest girl is the most dangerous. Her perfection
was like a looming spotlight three steps behind an escaping