Narrator: Cameron Jr. Archvale
The wide leather strap was like a belt, a leash, a whip, a harness. It sat tautly between the upper back of my thighs and the chair. My weight pinned it down, securely taking the weight of its burden.
No, I think not of it as a burden; rather, as an unburdening. It towered between my hands, which were both clenched firmly around the reddish brown shaft. My fingers had their respective duties to perform. Holes to cover and uncover. Keys and buttons to press.
My lips pursed and clenched firmer still around the moist bamboo of the double-reed between them. Air came in through my nose, filled my diaphragm, and was then pushed out slowly through the oscillating opening between the two reeds. Then, it ran through the silver tube and into the pearwood shaft that bent down to its base and then turned on its heel and shot right back up to the towering, unflared bell of my instrument. It hung above all the others like a slender smokestack that wasn't quite level.
It was the one-of-a-kind. The misfit instrument. The oddity, the elephant in the room. The instrument that most students never recognized, and instead pointed at with frowns and laughs.
I had once been a clarinet player, four and a half years ago. Precisely why I had made the impromptu switch to the bassoon remained a mystery to me. Sometimes, I thought it was because of the awkward squeaks a clarinet makes when you can't quite hit the higher notes. Or maybe I just wanted to be different.
Five generations ago, the very same band in which I now played had come to visit the middle school that I attended at the time. It was an endorsement for the Regional Arts Program, more than just a simple performance to expose us to great music.
The bassoonist that year got up to the podium and talked to us afterwards. I reckon I was the only one who had truly paid attention, who had hung upon her every word.
I had been in the French Immersion program at that time. Part of the public school system in Canada that was meant to allow students in English speaking communities to learn as much French as they'd learn if they were raised in Quebec, French-Canada. That meant that the batch of kids I was with at the time seldomly saw new students. And so in the Fifth Grade, when I moved from Sault St. Marie, a small city further north in Ontario, I was an oddity.
I came from a school where, at my age, fashion didn't matter. Nor did swear words. Or racism. Or violence.
A psychologist later told me that the school at which I arrived, in Brampton, Ontario, was notorious, as was the middle school I advanced into in Grade Six.
I was the kid from the boonies whose jeans were too tight and whose dozens of sweatsuits were five years out of fashion.
My first sight on my first day, arriving in the middle of the day at recess after lunch, was two African Canadian girls arguing with each other over which one of them was a 'nigger'.
In Sault St. Marie, there had been a single African Canadian student at my elementary school, and I had gone out of my way to be nice to him because more than a few people wouldn't give him the time of day.
And so, my first experience of school life in the 'Greater Toronto Area', was that of a new kind of racism that I did not understand at all. It confused me.
My second experience, was a conversation with another boy my age, one of my classmates. He was pretentious, kind and smug. I later learned that he was a stranger to the truth, who fancied lies whenever he could benefit form them. He pointed out to me the other eight boys in our class. No, not one by one. He just pointed at one spot.
Out in the middle of the field, there were eight bodies piled atop each other in violent disarray.
He spoke fanatically about one among them. I instantly got the impression that the nine of them were some kind of gang, and that this kid was assigned to make sure the teacher was well-distracted from the eight bodies beyond the portables.
I made the mistake of asking if the one of whom he spoke was 'their leader'. He reacted as if my words were absurd, despite their accuracy. I was mocked not long afterwards, among the company of the others, despite the fact that over the next week I realized exactly how right my assumptions had been.
It evolved. It became a stigma. I was marked among both French Immersion classes as an easy-target, the pit of most jokes, the blame of most accidents, the scapegoat of all who were in need of one.
At some point, I became suicidal. I was filled with longing for the future, after the torment of schooling, or else death; whichever would come first. And sometimes, the latter seemed much more within reach.
I remember the urges to jump in front of traffic.
I remember crying, when I was alone. Always best upon a pillow.
I remember being unable to look directly at the larger knives within the kitchen drawer.
I remember the feel of the extra rope in the garage, and the bare rafters in the basement.
What I barely remember, though, was the time I actually tried. Cowardly, I had chosen the pillow. It smothered me without success, no matter how hard I tried. There was always enough air in my lungs.
In middle school, it spread like a plague to the other students that had filtered in from other elementary schools with the French Immersion program that fed into it. The food chain grew larger, but I was still at the bottom.
I was called 'gay' and 'faggot' so many times I almost believed I was such a person. My enemy's insults were words my father had taught me were my equals.
Penny had been one of few dependable friends, and I only became close with her near the end of my struggle. And then we parted ways...
The Regional Arts Program, and the instrument in my hands, had been my unburdening. Here, at this high school of eccentric artists of all sorts, I was relatively safe from the relentless bullying that had cut a deep emotional scar into my mind.
It was a separate depression. One that had nothing to do with the one from which I suffered now. But now, with The Rogue at work against me, the terrible paranoia and fear were gripping at my like strangling tendrils.
I was afraid I would slip up.
Our teacher, who conducted us now, always had a warm smile for most of us. However, I found myself to be one of the exceptions today.
Damn The Rogue!
I hated the administration, simply because they were incompetent and powerless in the face of the things that really mattered. Whether it was an elementary school principal who failed to respond adequately to the letter of a concerned mother of a traumatized student, or whether it was the multi-pronged administration of one of the worst middle schools in Brampton who decided that all the vicious bullying amounted to the main victim not being enough of a risk-taker.
Risk-taker? How about the audition I took to get here, and out of harm's way? I could have ended up like Kieth, regardless of my heterosexuality, with a dozen shoes worth of cleat marks in my ass.
Take The Rogue, for example.
It had begun as a school paper, under another name. My computer science teacher had supervised the development of the website, years ago, meant to put the paper on the web to save trees and avoid the many copies that littered the halls. That was before the silent rebellion took place and the school paper, both as actual pages or web pages, became a thing of the past.
"Did you play that as a harmonic minor scale on purpose, CJ?"
"Huh?" I said, as I tilted the bassoon away from me. "Errr... no."
Mr. Peters raised his eyebrows at me. "It was meant to be a major scale. Your mood is working your instincts against you. That was very sad. Care to play it again?"
I nodded, and brought the double-reed back to my lips so fast it almost slashed at my cheek. My lips twitched before they curled around it, and I played the scale test again. I played it two octaves in length, in an attempt to redeem myself.
And then Mr. Peters smiled, for a moment.
"It's not true," I stated, while I supposedly had the attention of the entire class. "What The Rogue wrote about me."
Mr. Peters's smile returned.
A shallow tenor saxophone player, Daren, spoke up, "What's so bad about it being true?"
"CJ, don't worry, nobody cares what the Rogue writes about anyone," one of the trumpet players said. "I didn't read it."
"Laura, his Dad's a preacher," Jonathan pointed out. "If word reaches his father that he did what they say he did, then his 'nads are on the chopping block."
"But CJ," interjected Hayles, the girl beside Laura, "you've got a four year old nephew, and your sister's only four years older than you. Why would anyone care? On top of that, you're a guy."
In a humorously offended state, Mr. Peters interjected, "Hayles, what does being a guy have to do with it?"
It was no surprise to us that, unlike every other teacher would have done, he didn't care to put a stop to this conversation. Every so often, he breaks the church-organist-high-school-music-teacher mold. Such as, his old notes from university he was using as a reference one day, which had heavily underlined the definition of pornophonic music, which he dutifully avoided teaching us anything about. Something about nude operas.
But the question remained: What did being a guy have to do with it?
"Yeah, Hayles?" said all three tenor saxophone players as they turned around. A smug mockery of indignation was dripping from their grinning faces. And of course, all three of them were uncommited males and I reckoned not one among them was a virgin.
"Okay," she began, when the class had stopped laughing, "well..."
"How about you continue this in the cafeteria?" I suggested. "We all know this is going to lead to disagreement and accusations of sexism."
"Aw, c'mon," said Jonathan. "Don't be a poor sport, CJ. We all know you stand on her side of the debate."
I raised my eyebrows, "I didn't think it was up for debate. I think the look on your faces, right now, proves her unspoken arguements hands down."
Mr. Peters looked at me harshly.
"They're under pressure to have the ideal, picture-perfect coat hanger bodies, while we're under just as much pressure to lose it as soon and as often as we possibly can," I smiled respectfully in their perverse direction.
"Yeah," put in Hayles.
Laura just laughed.
"That's not to say," I continued. "That there aren't those of us men who don't care to see women objectified and ourselves become distracted by our lover's physical presence before we even know if we're otherwise compatible people."
"Mr. Peters, what does this have to do with music?" said Janet, from the trombone section.
This class had all the brass, the percussion, and every low-pitched woodwind that could be spared from the other class that was full to the brim with flutes, clarinets, alto saxophones and one oboe player.
"Well," he told us, "it's got a lot to do with modern music. It's part of the media. It's in the lyrics and rhythm. Music is, on an expressive level, full of influence over non-intrinsic human sexual behaviour."
Janet was nonplussed.
"I don't think being gay is part of this discussion!" someone yelled in my direction from the far end of the trumpet section.
Mr. Peters shot a deadly glare at them.
"I'm deeply sorry," I said, pretending to give a heartfelt apology. "I completely forgot that having moral decency in this generation meant that a person's sexual orientation is compromised and thus not up for discussion." Then I shrank meekly into my chair, as if I wasn't being sarcastic at all. But everyone knew I was kidding.
"I have a wife, Jordan," said Mr. Peters, melodramatically exaggerating the offense he hadn't actually taken.
"What's his name?"
Mr. Peters's rotund face became as red as a radish, as he stood up with the conductor's stick and every remaining bit of laughter sublimated into a groan.
"Take the march, from bar ten, and then you're doing your major scale test, Jordan," said Mr. Peters.
"Aww, I was just asking a question about--" but he was cut off as everyone else began to play in tempo with the swinging baton.