When I was a kid, I dreamed of being contortionist in a traveling circus. The lights in the tent would dim as I strode into the center ring, wearing a rainbow-glitter unitard bedecked with sequins and appliques and copious amounts of cowboy fringe along the seams (all of which was 100% impractical for a contortionist, but my gay child daydreams demanded fashion at all costs).
Unlike the other performers in this imaginary circus, I wore a mask because–and this is a crucial plot point–I lived a double-life. By day, I was a goody-goody, straight-A student, but at night, I crept out of my house to become the Amazing Ricardo! (I was like eight or something. Cut me some slack.)
Wowing crowds with my unparalleled flexibility was a treat, but it was only half of the fantasy. The other half involved saving the lives of my classmates.
The whole scenario went something like this: the tent was packed and my entire class was sitting on the front row. I had just begun the aerial portion of my world-famous routine when criminals stormed in from every direction. I think they wanted folks to fork over their money and jewelry, but I can’t remember, and it’s not important anyway. What’s important is that (a) the thugs threatened to kill everyone in the place if we didn’t do as they said, and (b) they wanted me to hand over the money from the circus’ safe.
(I am fully aware that the premise is absurd. Why would a contortionist in costume know the combination to the circus’ cash box? Why wouldn’t the robbers speak to our CFO? Why would they rob a circus when they could just as easily knock over a department store or Spencer Gifts and make twice as much money? What was my entire class doing at the circus? At night, no less? Was it a field trip? How did I get out of it? And how was I able to maintain my double-life as a student and circus performer when by definition, a traveling circus travels? Had I hooked up with the only hodophobic circus in North America? Et cetera, et cetera, questions be damned.)
The thugs’ leader intended to rip me apart in front of everyone because I wouldn’t turn over the circus’ cash. He hung me this way and that, trying to extract the combination to the safe, had his men tie me up in knots. Of course–and here’s the payoff–I was a contortionist, so their abuse didn’t bother me a bit, but I pulled a total Br’er Rabbit anyway. I hammed it up with screams and occasional fainting, playing the role of torture victim to perfection. The gasps and squeals from the audience–which again, included every last one of my classmates–brought me far more pleasure than the crowd’s oohs and aahs would have during my usual show.
In retrospect, I suppose the whole thing was like a campy S&M scene you’d find in a big-budget (or low-budget) porn film. Which explains a lot.
Anyway, the daydream came to a glorious conclusion when the police charged into the tent and arrested the robbers. In front of everyone, the cops thanked me for enduring such extreme torture for as long as I did, because it gave them enough time to take out the bad guys. Everybody lived, the crooks went to jail, and I became a hero in front of my classmates–a huge self-esteem boost that this socially awkward, closeted gay Mississippi kid never got in real life.
Of course, I never told my friends about daydreams like this one–I was far too embarrassed. But years down the line, I realized that every kid feels awkward and outcast as they work toward building an adult identity. John Hughes built a career from that wee fact. Ryan Murphy exploited it to no end in Glee. Heathers, Mean Girls, Dazed and Confused, A Christmas Story, Cinderella, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, fucking Spy Kids: nearly every movie about grade schoolers and high schoolers is a story of kids feeling like they don’t belong and paving their own way, triumphing over adversity or the head cheerleader or the school jock or whatever.
Would my childhood have been easier if I’d understood that at the time? Probably not. I might’ve been encouraged to tell close friends that I preferred Wonder Woman to Spiderman, or maybe even that I hated football. But admitting that I liked to kiss boys would’ve been like admitting that I liked to eat cockroaches or make out with my grandmother: not just different, but alien.