Before (May-July) Summary
On a night that should be one of the happiest and most memorable of his life, Ben Bright, a senior at New York's Eastport High School, is a bundle of nerves. Seemingly, Ben has everything going for him—he is smart and talented, and will be playing the lead role of Tony in the drama department's production of West Side Story, which is opening momentarily. He also has a solid relationship with classmate Ariela Cruz, who, in a convenient reflection of reality, is cast as Maria, his love interest in the musical. Ben recognizes his good fortune, and wishes that he could just savor the moment. He has a secret though, which he has resolved to keep until tomorrow. He is determined not to ruin the experience of this very special night for his loved ones, which is exactly what will happen if they find out that instead of going off to college and an exceptionally bright future as expected, Ben Bright has enlisted in the United States Army.
Junior Niko Petropoulos, Ben's best friend, is at first mystified by his fellow thespian's edginess, then correctly guesses its cause. When he demands to know the truth—that Ben has received his notification papers—his friend does not deny it. Niko angrily accuses Ben of wasting his talents, by giving up everything "to fight a war [the country] never should have gotten into."
Despite the distractions, the production that night is magnificent, with Ben in particular executing his part flawlessly. The cast gathers at a local Chinese restaurant afterwards to celebrate, and Ms. Moglia, the drama teacher, tells Ben that he has caught the eye of a friend of hers who is a Hollywood director, and who is casting "a new teen TV show." Surprised by Ben's muted reaction to this news, the woman asks him if something is wrong. Ben tells her the truth, but she does not believe him.
The evening ends inauspiciously when Niko, unable to restrain himself, tells Ariela what Ben has done. The girl is furious, and argues vehemently with Ben that what he is doing is wasteful and masochistic. She tells him that he is devaluing himself by allowing the United States to put him in a position where "some faceless jackass with a black market AK-47" can do him in. Naively, Ben counters that he will not be going to war; he is only volunteering for the reserve. It is something he has thought about all his life—he believes that "kids with privilege and skills and talent" like himself should volunteer to serve their country, and he wants, at the end of his life, to be able to look back and say that he has done "something important." Ben says that the world will get along fine without him, while it waits for him to return from his year of service, and Ariela tiredly observes, "Maybe the world can wait...but I'm not so sure I can."
At the end of June, Ben departs for basic training in Fort Benning. He leaves behind a letter to his parents and his brother Chris, who is autistic. Ben knows that his mom and dad have negative feelings about the war, and thanks them for respecting his decision nonetheless. He reiterates to them that while their worldviews have been shaped by Kent State and Vietnam, his own is based on his memory of 9/11, and his belief that a strong defense, undertaken by "dedicated and competent professionals...is an important part of what makes democracy work." Ben encloses two envelopes—one to his family and one to Ariela—to be read in the unlikely event that he does not return. He asks his parents to take care of his girl while he is gone, "no matter what happens...in [his] life or hers."
At the Long Island Rail Road Station, Ariela surprises Ben by admitting that she is proud of him and the decision that he has made. She gives him a locket and declares her love for him. Seizing the moment, he presents her with a ring. The diamond, which represents five years of savings from odd jobs and "a substantial loan" from his parents, looks insignificant in the gloomy light of an overcast morning, but as the train...
(The entire section is 5,683 words.)