Stag: A Story
 
     
     
    Stag .
    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.”
    Stag.
    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
stag.”
    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
disappear.
    “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
Cummings?”
    “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
town yard-sales.
    “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
measurements.
    “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

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