When I was in the seventh grade, our middle school theater class performed “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a play about a group of Jewish children who are sent away to Auschwitz. I played the main character’s love interest, Honza.
For our first dress rehearsal, the stagehands went to the local Salvation Army to buy the wardrobes, a hodgepodge of heavy garments in dreary shades of brown and gray. All of the clothing was oversized to make the cast appear small and malnourished.
During rehearsal, I was acting out a scene where I present the main character with a sausage I nabbed from a German guard’s supper. Upon unwrapping the concealed sausage from a handkerchief, her eyes lit up, and she squealed, “Honza, a sausage!”
The entire class erupted in laughter. The trousers I had been wearing, which were two sizes too big for me, had fallen down around my ankles.
I didn’t make a very good Honza–I was shy and couldn’t project without shouting like a deaf person–nor was I good at any of the other roles I played at the age of 13. I was awful at fitting in, trying to be tough, and pretending to like girls instead of boys.
But the role inmate has been the most challenging one yet, and the consequences for falling out of character or forgetting a line are much more dire than they were back when I was in school.
I’ve always been painfully aware of my gay mannerisms, but trying to act straight is like a right-handed person trying to write with his left. It’s frustrating and awkward and only adds to my self-consciousness. Despite this, I try my best to mimic the other inmates and the habits I associate with straight men.
When walking I swagger and shift my weight from side to side; when talking, I keep my voice low and inconspicuous; when standing, I keep both hands stuffed casually in my pockets; and when sitting, I do so with my legs spread wide and never crossed. I even go so far as to feign sexual interest in the female officers and eye their backsides hungrily when they walk by. And whenever the subject of wives or girlfriends comes up, I use it as an opportunity to casually mention my fake girlfriend, Lindsey, whose character I’ve based loosely off my real life boyfriend.
There are lines to be memorized, too. What are you in for? How much time do you have? How did you get the credit card numbers? How much money did you steal? I’ve learned to keep my answers vague and the details at a minimum whenever I’m asked about my charge.
The entire prison is a stage, and I’m always under the scrutiny of those hoping to expose me as a fraud. The stress of keeping up the act is exhausting.