By SUSAN CHOI
The author of this excerpt, Susan Choi, will be a guest at Amherst College’s LitFest 2020.
It’s been obvious from the beginning who are Broadway Babies and who aren’t. Those who truly can sing, who can give them the old razzle-dazzle, who live for that one singular sensation, have for the most part drawn attention to themselves from the first day of school. They cluster around the Black Box piano during rainy-day lunchtimes and sing The Fantasticks. They wear the Cats sweatshirts to school that they got on their holiday trip to New York. Some of them, like the Junior named Chad, are enviably serious musicians who can not only sing but play Sondheim, for real, from sheet music. Some of them, like Erin O’Leary, don’t just sing but dance like Ginger Rogers, having apparently put on tap shoes at the same time as they took their first steps.
Sarah’s failure to be Erin O’Leary used to be a point of pride, if a wobbly one. Now Sarah is furious with her coarse heavy hair, the opposite of Erin’s dandelion floss, with her wide hips the opposite of Erin’s trim ones, with her big unskilled feet in their dirty misused ballet flats the opposite of Erin’s miniature ones which make scissoring blurs through the air. Sarah is furious with the faltering squawk of her voice, the opposite of Erin’s “songbird.” Historically, Theatre students like Sarah (and David) who couldn’t sing or dance solaced themselves with Uta Hagen, Beckett, and Shakespeare. They reminded themselves they were serious Theatre Artists, that Broadway was cheeseball one end to the other. Of course they kept this knowledge to themselves, out of respect for Mr. Kingsley and genuine awe for his musical talent. They were never troubled by their condescension, or at least Sarah wasn’t. But now that it’s mainstage auditions again, all of them are reminded, some of them more painfully than others, of how much they’re exalted by big musicals. David loves Jesus Christ Superstar, knows all the words, sings along tunelessly with the album when he is alone. Sarah has the same secret relationship to Evita. They are serious; but how much better if they also could sing, if they could startle and move their classmates on those rainy days standing around the piano? If, implored by Mr. Kingsley, they could deign to play Christ, or Evita—for the good of the show, given that they were best for the role?
Such secret talent isn’t theirs, however. They remind themselves— though not in conversation, for David and Sarah don’t speak to each other, or have any idea where the other is sitting, so many rows distant as to be reduced to just a dark head tilted over a book, remote and indifferent and hateful and completely ignored (in fact, not even noticed)—of how corny Guys and Dolls is, how glad they both are to be taking a pass on auditions, how much more absorbing they’re finding Endgame (David) or the first scene of King Lear, beyond which she has never yet managed to penetrate (Sarah). They do not share these similar feelings, the similarity having no meaning for them. They do, of course, actually watch the auditions, their hearts in their mouths, almost sick with vicarious hope.
It is, Sarah bitterly thinks, like an Erin O’Leary coronation. Erin will be Adelaide, of course. Acknowledging this, she sings “Adelaide’s Lament,” Mr. Bartoli, the dance department accompanist who also serves as musical director, practically bouncing off the bench as he plays, so acute is his pleasure in playing for her. Many, many of the boys, including many who, like David, can’t sing, but who, unlike David, don’t care, sing “I got the horse right here,” making up for their laughable voices with a lot of mugging and humorous gestures. Some of them will get cast, as the gamblers do not have to be melodic and do have to be funny. David flushes with the consciousness of his own cowardice, the fraudulence of his appeal to Erin. Soon Erin, like Sarah, will find him repulsive unless he can make himself worthy. Sightlessly staring at Endgame, he vows to himself that he’ll audition for the musical next year. In their department, auditions take place constantly—for the grade-level Showcase productions; for the Senior Directing Projects; for the Outdoor Shakespeare every May; for the Spring Mainstage (Drama) and, as now, Fall Mainstage (Musical)—and each round of auditions tends to confirm a corresponding, slightly different pecking order: the purely social pecking order of the sophomore class, in which both Sarah and David rank high; the pecking order of the Serious Actors, which David has started to climb; the pecking order of the Adults-in-Training, the perpetual Stage Managers, whose skills Mr. Browne ferrets out even when they are trying to hide them (Sarah fears this is her fate). But only fall auditions for the mainstage musical reveal a pecking order applicable to the whole school, for only in the fall musical does the whole school take part. The dancers happily subordinate themselves to chorus roles. The instrumental-music students hold their own auditions, for the mainstage orchestra. Among the Theatre students it is often repeated that the dramatic and musical mainstage productions are equal in status, but everyone knows this is bunk. Playing the lead in the dramatic mainstage doesn’t even rate as highly as playing a secondary character in the musical. None of them, not even those who arrived at the school with an actual hatred of musicals, question this valuation. None of them wonder what things might be like if, say, someone other than Mr. Kingsley ran the Theatre program. Brilliant as he is, his hierarchies must be objective, and even last year, when it was still a point of pride to Sarah not to be Erin O’Leary, she had asked her mother for ballet, jazz, and tap lessons, so as to do better in the in-school lessons. Her mother had said, “Are you kidding? Isn’t that what you’re already doing all day, instead of preparing for college?”
As the auditions wear on, Sarah puts down King Lear and she, Pammie, Ellery, and Joelle, who will all work on costumes, compile a cast list. The female roles are a gimme; it’s hardly possible to guess wrong. The male roles, more numerous, sometimes make for a dark horse or two, and the fun lies in guessing at these. Norbert is auditioning, and Ellery sinks in his seat and grabs Sarah and Joelle, on either side of him. “Girls,” he whispers, “give me strength.”
“Why aren’t you auditioning?” Sarah asks him.
“Just because I’m beautiful and black doesn’t mean I can sing.” Last year, as Freshmen, they had taken sight-reading, and been obliged to stand at the piano and warble the length of a page of sheet music chosen with indifference to their ranges, if they even had ranges. It hadn’t been much of a showcase for vocal, or even sight-reading, skill, and a few of them, as often happened, had bombed, while a few others unexpectedly triumphed. Taniqua and Pammie, both church chorus veterans, had amazed with their sheet music literacy and their competent voices. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Manuel, when summoned to the piano, went rigid, his sheet music snapping in the breeze of his quivering hands. His skin, always dustily brown, turned mesmerically red like a coal in the fire. Just when they thought he would faint, his mouth slowly hinged open—and hung that way, mutely, as if he were an abandoned ventriloquist’s dummy. A rustle of incipient laughter passed over the room. “Quiet,” Mr. Kingsley had said, striking the first note of whatever it was he had given Manuel to sight-read. They were all forced to watch Manuel’s pitiful trembling outlive the note’s lengthy vibration. “One more time,” Mr. Kingsley had said, striking the key and renewing the note in their ears. Was it possible for total petrifaction to grow yet more total, yet more petrified? It apparently was. Manuel was going to stand there enacting the meaning of “dumbstruck” until either Mr. Kingsley showed mercy or the bell rang to end class. “You’re not off the hook,” Mr. Kingsley had finally said, dismissing Manuel with surprising anger. In general Mr. Kingsley’s anger was reserved for his pets, who wore it as a badge of distinction. Mr. Kingsley didn’t bother being angry at people of whom nothing much was expected.
Now, as Mr. Kingsley called, “Next!” to the auditioners waiting concealed in the wings, Ellery clamped Sarah’s elbow again. “Am I dreaming?” he squeaked.
Manuel had come onstage, an apparition. Perhaps it wasn’t Manuel. He wasn’t dressed like Manuel, in the slightly too-small and slightly too-youthful striped T-shirts you could tell, just from looking, had been bought from the sale rack at Sears, or maybe from the Purple Heart Thrift Store, by Manuel’s unknown mother, after being discarded by whoever had bought them at Sears. The shirts Manuel wore every day had pills, and faint, ancient stains of the kind that defeated all efforts, and they squeezed his upper arms and his neck. For pants, Manuel wore corduroys that had almost no cord left. And regardless of weather conditions, Manuel never took off his jacket, the same fake-wool-lined corduroy jacket they’d first seen him in, and that seemed to them now as permanent as a turtle’s scuffed shell. The onstage Manuel was missing this traditional garb, though not dressed any better. He wore a pair of black slacks that were shiny with age, and a grayish-white button-up shirt that, despite being short at the sleeves, was tightly buttoned at the cuffs, emphasizing the bony excess of his wrists. The feet were encased in hard black leather shoes that looked too small, and the usual bushy brown hair was combed back from the face exposing large, startled eyes, unfamiliar to all, beneath an equally novel, creased brow. A sheaf of paper was gripped in the hands. The Manuel-apparition looked like a waiter, an unhappy and poorly dressed waiter. Sarah realized with amazement he was dressing, as well as he could, for the part. Guys and Dolls would of course call for old-fashioned menswear: leather shoes, slacks, a button-up shirt. Not one other boy, for the sake of the audition, had made the slightest alteration to his everyday clothes. They’d all auditioned in their Levi’s and polos and dumb slogan T-shirts.
It did seem possible this was a dream. As on the day of the sight-reading test, a titter passed over the house, instantly extinguished when Mr. Kingsley stood up from his place in the center of the third row. “Okay, Manuel. What do you have for us?”
Ellery squeezes Sarah’s hand, and Sarah squeezes back. On his other side he has Joelle’s hand. On Sarah’s other side is Pammie. Joelle and Pammie are squeezing their eyes shut and clutching their cheeks; Pammie is so agonized she balls up in her seat like a hedge-hog. Both Joelle and Pammie, for their separate if equally feminine reasons, feel a motherly pity for Manuel, though neither has managed to befriend him. He doesn’t afford the slightest opportunity, speaking to no one—not even Pammie, with her pious childlike fearlessness, can get him to answer her cheery “Hello!” Sarah hears Pammie fervently mumbling. It’s possible, in fact likely, that she’s praying.
“What do you have for us?” Mr. Kingsley repeats.
Manuel again turns that mesmerizing color of a live coal. At length he says, barely audibly, “I am going to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ of [a bunch of syllables Sarah can’t hear].” Strings seem to be tied to his elbows, equally pulling on him from both sides, so that, in his tensile, motionless state, he might fly to pieces. Then the stage-left string breaks, and he lurches toward Mr. Bartoli, extending his music. Mr. Bartoli pages through it, nods. “Shall I begin?” he asks. Manuel wrings his hands in a fretful grandmotherly way, abruptly drops them to his sides. Mr. Kingsley, still standing, his back to the rest of the house, says, “Manny, I know you can do it.”
He speaks as though he and Manuel are entirely alone. Yet no one in the house fails to hear him, to the very last row.
It’s possible for silence to change quality. The silence had been enforced, the silence of quashed merriment. Now it’s the silence of genuine puzzlement. Mr. Kingsley never uses nicknames or pet names. To indicate an altered attitude he sometimes calls them, instead of their given names, Ms. or Mr. and then their last name. This denotes bemusement, disapproval, and much in between, but whatever the case there is always a distance implied. “Manny” observes no such distance. “Manny” doesn’t even observe that there might be some forty-odd people elsewhere in the room.
Mr. Kingsley sits down again. The back of his head, with its limited features, its expensive haircut, and the ends of his spectacles’ temples hooking over the backs of his ears, is nearly as expressive to them as his face—it radiates a peremptory certitude. “Come on. You know what I want. Give it to me.” If the back of his head can say this, just imagine the front. (Ms. Rozot: “If the pen can do this, how much more the whole body!”) Manuel—Manny?—seems to be in wordless communication with this hidden front of Mr. Kingsley’s head. He gazes into it, receives something from it—he looked different when he first came onstage, and he somehow looks different again. With what might almost be called self-possession he nods to Mr. Bartoli. Mr. Bartoli raises his hands, brings them plunging back down. Manuel sucks air into his lungs.
To this point in her life, Sarah has associated opera with Bugs Bunny in braids, PBS, overweight men wearing tunics, shrieking women, and shattering glass. She’s never understood, certainly because she’s never seen a live opera but also because she’s never heard a half-decent performance, not even in part, on TV, that opera, in fact, is the highest redemption of longing. That it’s her own anguish, salvaged by music. The victorious army’s fight song, in defense of her mute, savaged heart.
Now she understands why Ms. Rozot has warned her to not turn away from her pain.
Manuel sings. His Spanish accent, which he drags like a weight on his uncertain journeys amid English words, is a bona fide now. Who else among them could sing this, even if they were blessed with the voice? Who else among them is blessed with the voice? Manuel sings, it seems, to horizons beyond the light booth. His eyes are cast up, anxiously, as if he’s aware he is barely retaining the fickle attention of God. So plaintively does he exhort this remote audience that Sarah glances back over her shoulder, expecting to see ranks of angels, their feet floating just off the ground. Instead she sees the faces of her classmates, rapt with unself-consciousness, the joyful respite from the problems of self. She too has passed out of herself, so thoroughly, so happily, that for a moment even David’s face is strange to her, and not just because his eyes are full of tears. Her body twists forward again as if slapped, as Manuel, like a fountain, upraises his arms and their glorious burden, his final note, into the air. As if they awaited this gesture, the house detonates: clapping, whistling, foot-stamping, Ellery leaping up to shout, “Hombre!” Onstage Manuel, streaming with sweat, grins while wringing his hands. We’ve all had this dream, Sarah thinks. The dream in which, to the world’s surprise and our own, we turn out to be best.
Mr. Bartoli pushes the piano bench smartly behind him, crosses to Manuel, claps him on the shoulder, and pumps him warmly by the hand. They’re only forty-odd kids but they make the noise of a full house. They keep going, on their feet, so that except to the rows nearest him, Mr. Kingsley goes almost unnoticed when, pushing his spectacles onto the top of his head, he roughly draws his sleeve across his forehead and eyes. Then, “Someone write down the date!” he shouts at them. “Manuel Avila’s public debut!”
IN THE PARKING lot, at lunchtime, Sarah sits hunched on the hood of the Mazda with Joelle, Sarah scratching sometimes in her notebook, the two of them smoking clove cigarettes, Sarah ignoring the sandwich her mother has packed her. Her mother packs for Sarah, every morning, even when they’re not speaking, as now, a sandwich of meat from the deli, sliced cheese, Grey Poupon, a slice of tomato, and lettuce on some kind of a bakery bun that will have either poppy or sesame seeds. “Your sandwich looks like a restaurant sandwich!” Joelle once exclaimed in wonder, and since then Sarah doesn’t unwrap it, but when lunchtime is over drops it into the trash as they’re going inside. She does so with her face turned away, as if not having seen herself do it might mean that she hasn’t. On the far side of the lot the pale blue Karmann Ghia pulls in, perhaps some litter from the Del Taco drive-through carelessly tossed on the floor, perhaps David, ridiculous in a pair of Ray-Bans, enthroned on the passenger seat, but if Sarah has not in fact seen this, it might mean it isn’t the case. No one can prove it’s the case. Her eyes are night headlights; they only see what’s just ahead. It’s an unending labor, this policing of vision and thoughts.
“You look exhausted,” Mr. Kingsley says, once he’s shut his office door with a click that broadcasts the length of the hall. The ticket of admission. The door has shut on faces pretending absorption in the bulletin board, as if anyone need consult beyond his or her memory to obtain the full cast list, which was posted last week (Sky Masterson: Manuel Avila). Her fellow students are loitering in the hallway outside in the hopes of obtaining what she’s just received: his particular summons. Pride and humiliation strangely mingle their tastes in her mouth, or perhaps it’s the tart, rancid coffee to which she has lowered her face. He’s handed it to her, in a Styro-foam cup, from his personal drip coffee maker. Pride she’s been chosen, humiliation at what she presumes are the grounds for his choice. They all know the students with whom he is sometimes seen driving away, at lunchtime, in his olive Mercedes; whom he detains with no more than a look, as the rest of the class filters out of the room; behind whom he closes the door to his office at lunchtime. They’re the Troubled students, the borderline ones, whose sufferings are eagerly whispered the lengths of the halls. Jennifer, who missed school for a month and now only wears sleeves that hang well past her wrists. Greg, the incandescently beautiful Senior, with whom Julietta and Pammie are madly in love, who despite his impeccable clothes, dazzling smile, and kindness, was thrown out of the house by his father, and now lives at the YMCA. Manuel, whose stark poverty is newly palatable because coupled with talent. And Sarah, about whom they say—what?
She’s so in love with David she let him fuck her in the hall! And now he’s dumped her.
“I don’t get a lot of sleep,” she concedes.
“I have this job. At a French bakery. I have to be there at six in the morning on weekends. Both days.”
“What time do you go to sleep on the nights you have work?”
“What time do you get up on weekdays?”
“The same. About six.”
“And you’re going to bed when? On weekdays.”
“The same. One or two.”
“You’re going to kill yourself,” he observes, and she thinks he’s predicting an event in the future, her actual suicide, and then realizes he’s speaking figuratively, or probably figuratively, about the long-term effects of not sleeping enough.
“I am really tired,” she agrees, and just like that, she is crying again. Her shoulders hitch, and try as she might she can’t stop bringing up chunks of wet, ragged noise. She knows it’s expected yet knows equally that sometimes, some greater forbearance is also expected. Mr. Kingsley is not Ms. Rozot. Jennifer the failed suicide, Greg the orphan by force, impoverished Manuel, and her, Sarah—they’ve all been robbed of heedless childhood and that’s why they’ve been chosen, their precocious adulthood acknowledged. All kids want such glamorous knowledge. The darkness of it. The hardness of it. The realness of it. The cold fact that life really is fucked. And Sarah, with her Morrissey T-shirts and her unfiltered Camels and her sleep deprivation and her willful compliance with sexual hungers, she’s been asking for this awful dispossession, with one mind she’s been hot on its trail, and now that she’s got it she longs to go back. If she could only go back, and eat the sandwich her mother packed her, with its thoughtful tomato.
She cries, as expected by him, and she eventually masters her tears, as also expected by him. She cleans her face and blows her nose with his Kleenex and disposes of it in his trash. She even takes out her Sportsac of makeup and unhurriedly fixes her face. When she snaps shut her compact she feels his approval as clearly as if he had spoken.
“So,” he says, pleased. “Why don’t you tell me what’s actually happening.”
She tells him. Not all that same day; they’re already out of time. But now she is a regular. Their meetings wholly evident, and wholly unacknowledged, as is any exclusive liaison, by those it makes complicit, yet excludes. David sees, and grinds his molars together by day and by night to the point that the dentist has threatened to make him a mold to wear while he’s asleep. David, God help him, has no consciousness of discarding Sarah, but of being discarded. Here’s a girl, unlike any other girl he’s ever been with, who, once told of his love, doesn’t grab hold of his hand, hang herself on his arm, drag him out to the mall or the movies with the chattering flock of her friends, but to the contrary, spooks like a horse when he walks in the room. Swathes herself in cold air and then dares him to try and reach her, and how can he? Is it possible their whole love affair was a misunderstanding? David had known she slept with guys who were older than he, in some cases much older. Seeing her embarrassment, their first day back at school, David had felt like a charity case. She’d allowed him, but he shouldn’t let anyone know. And then the thing in the hallway, strange proof: she’ll come to him when nobody’s looking.
Or is it possible, Sarah says to Mr. Kingsley, that their whole breakup is a misunderstanding? Isn’t it possible, Sarah begs Mr. Kingsley, that David still loves her? How could he say that he did, and then not?
“Do you love him?”
“Yes.” Then, unnerved by her certainty, “I mean, maybe. I think.”
“Have you told him how you feel?”
“How could I?”
Acting is: fidelity to authentic emotion, under imagined circumstances. Fidelity to authentic emotion is: standing up for your feelings. Is this not the one thing, the one thing, he has tried to teach them? At first she thinks he’s barked out of anger, then grasps that he’s laughing. Perhaps he is laughing at her, but at least he’s not angry. “God,” he says, and even in the sanctum of his office his laugh is a stage laugh, artillery fire. “Thank you. I forget sometimes: it’s a process. And, you know, it never ends. That’s the beauty of it.”
She doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but once she’s cleaned herself up yet again with the box of Kleenex, she puts on her wise, weary face. “So it is,” she agrees.
“What about your mother?”
“What about her?”
“How are you getting along?”
“I don’t know. Not that bad. Not that well. Even when we’re not fighting we don’t really talk.”
“She drives you to work on the weekend. You must talk in the car.”
“Not really. It’s so early in the morning. We just get in the car and drive there.”
“I think the bakery job is too much. You should be sleeping on the weekend. Having fun.”
“I need the job,” she says tersely, because Mr. Kingsley is as unlikely as her mother to sympathize with her implacable pursuit of a car. She’s unaware that her tone might suggest the brusque pride of the abjectly poor, particularly when paired with her tatty punk wardrobe. She does resent the absence in her life of a pale blue Karmann Ghia convertible, but she knows she’s not poor. Not rich, certainly, in the little two-bedroom apartment behind the chalk X with her mother’s long-serving Toyota. But not poor.
He is silent a moment, thoughtful. “You and David come from very different worlds.”
“How do you mean?”
“David comes from a world of privilege.”
She doesn’t wonder how he knows this, or whether he’s guessed. “I suppose more than me.”
“He’s not working.”
“No. He doesn’t have to. When he turns sixteen, his mother and Philip will buy him a car.”
“Ah. Is that a recent thing?”
“It can’t be that recent. His mom and Philip have a two-year-old baby.”
“So David’s the big brother,” Mr. Kingsley says, smiling.
She smiles also, to designate David this way. “He already was. He’s the oldest from his mother’s first marriage. Then his mother left his father for Philip, David thinks because Philip had money. David’s real dad never had any money. David says his parents, his mom and real dad, burned his childhood house down to collect the insurance. So in that sense, originally, he’s not from such a privileged background,” she concludes, overwhelmed by her flood of disclosures.
But Mr. Kingsley does not judge her craving to talk about David. He does not judge her breathless uncertainty, now that she’s stopped. He reaches out, across the corner of his desk, and takes her hand. “You got to know each other,” he observes. She nods mutely, all fluency diverted again from her tongue to her eyes.
That night when Joelle drops her off, after ten, her mother’s at the kitchen table in her robe. Usually by this hour she’s behind the closed door of her bedroom. Her mother’s brown hair, streaked with kinky white strands, hangs down loose to her shoulders. She’s wearing men’s athletic socks on her feet. “Your teacher called,” she says.
“Mr. Kingsley called here? Why?” Some terrified animal group—a quad of quail? a mess of mice?—explodes into flight inside Sarah’s rib cage.
“I have no idea why. I know his stated reason. He called to ask about your bakery job. He asked if I could possibly let you stop doing it, for your health and well-being. He seemed to think that I force you to do it and keep all your earnings.”
“I never said that to him!”
“I told him I don’t have the slightest control over how you spend your time, at the bakery or anywhere else. I’d like to know what made him feel entitled to call me about it.”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“I’d be very happy if you quit that job, and I could quit driving you there at five thirty both weekend mornings, but you’re so determined to buy your own car, you’re so convinced that not owning a car at the age of fifteen is some sort of awful deprivation, you’ve somehow convinced me I’d be mistreating you by not giving you rides to your job. And now your teacher, who keeps you at your school for twelve hours a day painting pieces of canvas and gluing flowers on hats, this man calls to suggest I’m mistreating you by forcing you to work, as if I’m making you sing for your supper? How dare he! Who the sam hell does he think he is?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I never said that to him.”
“I happen to agree with him that you should quit that job, but that doesn’t mean that I want his opinion. Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she says, edging toward her bedroom. Already, his phone call’s impact has changed shape. In the instant, she’d felt his betrayal, the violation of their special alliance. Now she grasps that he’s mounted a challenge to her mother’s authority. He has intruded for the sake of intruding. How proud she feels, to command his attention.
From the book Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Choi. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, and her first book for children, Camp Tiger, came out in 2019. Trust Exercise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2019. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Choi teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.