By Susan Choi
Neither can drive. David turns sixteen the following March, Sarah the following April. It is early July, neither one within sight of sixteen and the keys to a car. Eight weeks remain of the summer, a span that seems endless, but with the intuitive parts of themselves they also sense it is not a long time and will go very quickly. The intuitive parts of themselves are always highly aggravated when they are together. Intuition only tells them what they want, not how to achieve it, and this is intolerable.
Their romance has started in earnest this summer, but the prologue took up the whole previous year. All fall and spring they had lived with exclusive reference to each other, and were viewed as an unspoken duo by everyone else. Little remarked, universally felt, this taut, even dangerous energy running between them. When that began, it was harder to say. They were both experienced—neither was a virgin—and this might have both sped and slowed what took place. That first year, in the fall, each had started at school with a boy- or girlfriend who was going to some other, more regular place. Their own school was special, intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the city and even beyond, to the outlying desolate towns. It had been a daring experiment ten years before and was now an elite institution, recently moved to an expensive new building full of “world-class,” “professional” facilities. The school was meant to set apart, to break bonds that were better off broken, confined to childhood. Sarah and David accepted this as the sort of poignant rite their exceptional lives would require. Lavished, perhaps, extra tenderness on the vestigial boyfriend and girlfriend in the process of casting them off. The school was named the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, but they and all the students and their teachers called it, rather pompously, CAPA.
At CAPA, the first-year Theatre Arts students studied Stagecraft, Shakespeare, the Sight-Reading of music, and, in their acting class, Trust Exercises, all terms they were taught should be capitalized as befitted their connection to Art. Of the Trust Exercises there were seemingly infinite variations. Some involved talking and resembled group therapy. Some required silence, blindfolds, falling backward off tables or ladders and into the latticework of classmates’ arms. Almost daily they lay on their backs on the cold tile floor in what Sarah, much later in life, would be taught was called corpse pose in yoga. Mr. Kingsley, their teacher, would pad like a cat among them in his narrow-toed soft leather slippers, intoning a mantra of muscle awareness. Let your awareness pour into your shins, filling them slowly, from ankle to knee. Allow them to grow liquid and heavy. Even as you can feel every cell, cradle it with your sharpened awareness, you are letting it go. Let it go. Let it go. Sarah had won admission to the school with a monologue from the Carson McCullers play The Member of the Wedding. David, who had attended a theatre camp, had done Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Their first day, Mr. Kingsley slid into the room like a knife—he had a noiseless and ambushing style of movement—and once they’d fallen silent, which was almost immediately, had cast a look on them that Sarah still saw in the back of her mind. It seemed to mix scorn with a challenge. You look pretty nothing to me, the look flashed onto them like a spray of ice water. And then, like a tease, it amended: . . . or maybe I’m wrong? THEATRE, Mr. Kingsley had written in tall slashing letters of chalk on the board. “That’s the way it is spelled,” he had said. “If you ever spell this with ‘er’ at the end you will fail the assignment.” These words were the actual first he had spoken to them, not the scornful “you look pretty nothing to me” Sarah had imagined.
In Trust Exercises one day, late in the fall, Mr. Kingsley turned off all the lights in the windowless rehearsal room, plunged them into a locked lightless vault. At one end of the rectangular room was a raised platform stage, thirty inches or so off the floor. Once the lights were turned off, in the absolute silence, they heard Mr. Kingsley skim the length of the opposite wall and step onto the stage, the edge of which they faintly discerned from bits of luminescent tape that hovered in a broken line like a thin constellation. Long after their eyes had adjusted, they saw nothing but this: a darkness like that of the womb or the grave. From the stage came his stern, quiet voice, voiding them of all previous time. Stripping them of all knowledge. They were blind newborn babes and must venture themselves through the darkness and see what they found.
Mr. Kingsley lived with a man he called his husband; he twinkled at them provocatively when he said this. This was 1982, far from New York. None of them, except for Sarah, had ever known a man who might call another man his husband while twinkling provocatively. None of them had ever known a man who had lived many years in New York, who had been a member of the original Broadway cast of Cabaret, who referred to Joel Grey, when reminiscing on these times, as “Joel.” None of them, again except Sarah, had ever known a man on whose office wall might hang, among other fascinating and risqué memorabilia, a photograph of an exuberant and barely clad woman, heavily made up, flinging her arms wide and high, who somehow despite zero resemblance was strangely reminiscent of Mr. Kingsley himself, and who was rumored to be Mr. Kingsley, though no one believed it. Sarah’s first cousin, her mother’s sister’s son, was a “leather queen,” Sarah said calmly to platter-eyed classmates; this cousin lived in San Francisco, often wore women’s clothes to sing torch songs, and in general gave Sarah a key to Mr. Kingsley’s esoterica that her peers wholly lacked. This was how David had first noticed Sarah: her aura of knowledge. He sometimes saw her laughing with Mr. Kingsley, and their laughter seemed shared, on the same remote plane. David envied this, as did everyone else, and he wanted to annex that plane for himself.
In 1982, none of them, except Sarah, had ever known an openly gay person. And equally, in 1982, none of them viewed Mr. Kingsley’s gayness as anything but another aspect of his wholesale superiority to all other adults in their world. Mr. Kingsley was impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting; the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing; one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn’t be done. Of course Mr. Kingsley was gay. They lacked the word for it, but intuition supplied the frisson: Mr. Kingsley was not just gay but an iconoclast, the first such they’d ever encountered. This was what they longed to be themselves, little though they could put it into words. They were all children who had previously failed to fit in, or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation.
Strange, appropriate disruptions and traumas foretold summer’s end. Hurricane Clem crawled toward them from the Caribbean, turning his wheel on the nightly newscast. Sarah’s mother took her week’s vacation and sat home regarding Sarah with weary suspicion and making her put masking-tape X’s on the windows and fill up the spare water jugs. Sarah only got away by claiming she needed to use the library, on the campus of the college very near David’s house. She and David got themselves dropped off far apart from each other and both mistakenly far from the library, and even once they had found each other, felt somehow misused. They walked in the dizzying heat, end to end of the summer-struck campus, hopelessly looking for somewhere to be, too hot and upset to link hands. Periodically, a grounds worker in a golf cart piled with tarps and sandbags would drive past and throw them a look. There were no college students on campus. The whole campus including the library was closed. Crossing an ocean of parking-lot asphalt they came upon the football stadium, like a ruin of Rome standing silent and bleached in the heat. They squeezed through a bent scissor gate. Behind a snack bar, at the base of a popcorn machine, on a pair of flattened boxes that smelled of stale grease, Sarah let David fuck her, her mouth crushed in his ear, her legs looping his waist, her hands struggling to hold his sweat-slippery back. His rhythmically agonized exhalations scorched the side of her neck when he came. For the first time all summer she didn’t, and felt an aloneness.
Remember the impossible eventfulness of time, transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel. Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days. Theirs were endless; lives flowered and died between waking and noon. Hurricane Clem made landfall, and the first day of school was delayed for a week, confirming their suspicion that a lifetime, not a summer, had passed. They couldn’t possibly still be fifteen. They took the natural ambition, at that age, to shock the peer group with a summer metamorphosis to greater extremes, being actors. Chantal returned to school with an Afro. Norbert tried, with uncertain success, to conceal himself under a beard. The most passionate female friendships had somehow expired. Sarah did not know why, as she came back through the doors to the Black Box, her whole body grew rigid when Joelle Cruz came shrieking her way. The previous spring she had practically lived with Joelle. Joelle had an older sister, Martine, at the school, and Sarah had spent fewer nights at home than with Joelle, in the backseat of Martine’s grimy car, as they drove around in quest of liquor, or drugs, or a bouncer who’d fall for their cheap fake IDs. Joelle had introduced Sarah to coke, Rocky Horror, and wearing ballet flats with jeans; now her very flesh repulsed Sarah. It was too damp and pink. Sarah could smell Joelle’s pits. Sarah felt that she did nothing different; she only was different. She didn’t blow Joelle off. She didn’t speak coldly to her. But no; she had changed. She was not Joelle’s friend anymore. It felt so ordained, so engrained in the utterly new circumstances of sophomore year she was sure Joelle knew it as well, even willed it, perhaps, an overt act to which Sarah only responded.
But Joelle’s irrelevance was irrelevant to Sarah, even as Joelle stood there talking to her. Everything was irrelevant to Sarah apart from David. She imagined his acknowledgment flashing toward her like a mirror. She and David had traveled so far ahead, just the two of them; they’d disappeared past a horizon, discarding their school selves behind. If they kept the shucked skins it was just for the sake of disguise. For Sarah it went without saying that their summer would be their secret, like a Mount Olympus (had she known what this was at the time) where they whispered together like gods. She had not even thought to explain this to David. She assumed that he already knew.
David burst into the Black Box not as a winking mirror but a spotlight, bearing down bright and hot, and swinging his arms in a slightly hitched way. He was hiding something he exposed by his very attempt to conceal it, flanked by a dozen of their classmates who clung to his charisma like lint. Sarah found herself holding a tiny gift box with a bow while they all stared at her.
Colin crowed, “David’s gonna get down on one knee!”
“Look at you, red as a beet!” Angie laughed.
“Open it, Sarah,” begged Pammie.
Sarah shoved the box back in his hand. “I can open it later.”
“Open it now,” David urged. Perhaps Colin and Angie and Norbert and Pammie and everyone else of whom Sarah was so grotesquely aware were invisible to him and he could not even hear what they said. That glimpse, of herself alone at the heart of his gaze, only lasted an instant. His indifference to their audience struck her as a dare or a test. She didn’t see as a counterindication to this angry idea of hers his hot blush as deep as her own; if her face was as red as a beet, his was red as a burn, he’d come out in lurid blotches that overlapped with his boy’s patchy stubble to make a mess of his face.
“I’ll open it later,” she said as Mr. Kingsley came in, waving his arms around his head to indicate that while it was glorious to be reunited, would they please shut their traps and get into their seats.
David wound up two rows behind Sarah; she didn’t have to look to know exactly where he was. Facing forward she burned with her sense of a wrong. By her or to her? Her head would not turn, she would not look his way no matter how hard he willed her to do it. Adrenaline was roaring through them both, its warning urgent and obscure. Just minutes before, David had been striding through the big double doors, in fact bouncing, in fact funny-walking from lightness of heart because he was finally stepping onstage in the role of her boyfriend. Sarah his girlfriend. David viewed these roles as sacred; they were the two roles he most cared about. Who gave a shit about Hamlet? He’d been afraid the little box was too small, that she’d be disappointed by a box that could fit in the palm of her hand. But when she opened it, the silver chain would unfurl, the blue stone would lie in the hollow he loved at the base of her neck. Something like his own radiance would pour from her—not the fright, or disgust, he had seen. Or the shame? Of him, obviously.
David struggled to jam the box back out of sight. He needed to get it to his locker, destroy it, the indigestible lump that it made in the front of his jeans was a joke. To David, love meant declaration. Wasn’t that the whole point? To Sarah, love meant a shared secret. Wasn’t that the whole point? Sarah felt David’s eyes on her all through the class and kept perfectly still, held them there with her mind. Years later, in a future in which she enters theatres only as part of the audience, Sarah will see a play in which an actor asks, “Can’t there be a silent language?” and be surprised when her eyes fill with tears. Two rows in front of David, aching with the effort of keeping perfectly still so his gaze, like a moth, won’t take flight from the back of her neck, Sarah doesn’t yet know the words for this language that doesn’t have words. She won’t understand what it means, when David stops speaking this language to her.
“Ego Reconstruction,” said Mr. Kingsley, “requires a foundation. My darling Sophomores: one year older and wiser than when we first met. What might that foundation be?”
They wanted so badly to please him. But the question of how never had a clear answer. Say the right thing? (But what could that be?) Say a deliberately wrong but funny thing? Ask another question in response to his question, as he often did when responding to theirs?
Pammie raised her hand, eager and hopeful. “Modesty?”
He laughed at her in disbelief. “Modesty! Explain why you think so, and please don’t be modest. Please flaunt your thought process, Pammie, so maybe I can fathom what it is.”
Pammie’s plump face, beneath gold barrettes, flushed to the roots of her hair. But she had an odd stubbornness, a capacity to dig in her heels and argue. She was a Christian, a disposition unremarkable outside the walls of their school but within it unsupported, even mocked, and in the previous year she’d grown used to defending herself. “People who have too much Ego are stuck up,” she said. “Being modest is the opposite of being conceited.”
“Let me make one thing clear: we can never have ‘too much’ Ego—so long as we’re in control of it.”
Control of the Self: each of them feared they lacked this. Sarah, for example. Earlier that year she had asked her mother to file paperwork to get her a hardship permit, a driver’s license for people as young as fourteen who needed it to support their family financially, which Sarah had argued she did, offending her mother completely. In their subsequent fight, Sarah put a kitchen chair through the sliding glass door to their back patio, the repair of which cost her the whole summer’s worth of her bakery wages. “And you think you could drive,” Sarah’s mother had said.
David, for example. That day Sarah gave back the box, he had crushed it using only one hand, in the process cutting open his palm. When she later tried to ask, “Can I open it now?” he’d replied, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Whether these examples proved self-control or its lack remained unclear to him.
“The foundation we require for Ego Reconstruction is Ego Deconstruction,” Mr. Kingsley concluded. They’d all heard about it last year, from the then-Sophomores and now-Juniors, who had constantly harped on this mystery while refusing to share even the slightest detail. “You’ll get there when you get there.” “You’re still Freshmen! Don’t try to climb a ladder in midair.” “The last time I checked, you couldn’t cross a bridge by starting in the middle.” The then-Sophomores and now-Juniors were a strikingly effusive, tight-knit class who seemed to possess some special aura the now-Sophomores lacked that wasn’t just the advantage of age. The then-Sophomores and now-Juniors were more photogenic, individually and together. In a school with no athletic program, they gave the impression of a cheerleading corps. Their clothing was coordinated, their teeth square and white. They had coupled early and lastingly, the exception of one couple, Brett and Kayley—whose saga of rupture, grief, and joyful reconciliation over the course of a few weeks the previous year had been consumed school-wide with the avidity usually reserved for soap operas—being the sort that proved the rule. The few then-Sophomores still single were exclusively affiliated, as Third Wheels or Best Friends. There were no loners, like Manuel, or irredeemable losers, like Norbert. There was no one like Sarah, whose fearful secret it was that during the Brett-Kayley hiatus, she had spent a night with Brett at his father’s condo, during which he’d talked about Kayley, and cried, and at one point interrupted his kissing of Sarah to throw all his bedcovers out the window. After he and Kayley made up Brett had grabbed Sarah’s wrist in the dusk of a Showcase rehearsal and warned her, “Don’t tell anyone,” and she’d been so afraid of the stain she might make on his image she hadn’t even told David.
Though now David angled away when he saw her approaching. When unavoidably they met in classrooms David stared coldly and Sarah stared even more bitterly coldly and it was a contest, to pile up coldness, to shovel it furiously from their hearts.
“Let’s form a circle,” Mr. Kingsley said.
As so often before, they grew uneasily aware of their crotches as they sat down cross-legged, and felt the icy touch of the linoleum numbing their asses. Most of them had privately concluded that Ego Deconstruction/Reconstruction was some sort of fleshless orgy, and they were helplessly blushing, their skin crawling with arousal and dread. The wall of mirrors doubled their circle, around which Mr. Kingsley paced in orbit. His gaze was cast somewhere beyond them. His very way of gazing told them plainly how far they fell short—of last year’s Sophomores? Of their own potential? Of the actors he’d known in New York? They felt their deficit all the more sharply because the unit of measure was wholly unknown. Sarah tried to see David, but he’d placed himself near enough to her left or her right that she couldn’t see him, while far enough that she couldn’t sense him. Would David be chosen? Would Sarah be chosen?
“Joelle,” Mr. Kingsley murmured, in a tone of regretful admonishment. Sadness, almost, at her failure, but what had Joelle done? She was pink year-round, and a summer’s worth of sunburn had her mottled and peeling all over her face and down into the cleavage broadly exposed by her tight V-neck top. The new raw pink skin turned bright red at the sound of her name; all the curls of dead, half-peeled skin seemed to rustle with fear. Her surface was disgusting, Sarah thought. “Joelle, please stand at the circle’s exact center. You’re the hub. Invisible lines radiate out from you to each one of your classmates. These lines are the spokes. Your classmates, and you, and these spokes, make the wheel. You’re the hub of the wheel, Joelle.”
“Okay,” Joelle said, blushing fiercely, a fountain of blood pounding under her skin.
“I’d like you to choose one spoke now. Look down the length of that spoke. Someone’s at the other end. Someone you’re bound to, by that spoke passing through you, and passing through them. Who’s the person you’re looking at?”
The linoleum doesn’t feel cold anymore.
Please, no, Sarah realizes, staring straight ahead at Joelle’s middle, at her soft belly concealed beneath the tight top.
“I’m looking at Sarah,” Joelle says huskily, her voice almost a whisper.
“Tell her what you observe.”
“You didn’t call me all summer,” Joelle barely chokes out.
“Go on,” Mr. Kingsley says, gazing somewhere miles away; he’s not even looking in Joelle’s direction. Perhaps he’s using the room’s giant mirror to watch Joelle’s burning skin, her glittering eyes, her too-tight top, out of the corner of one eye.
“And I would call you, and you wouldn’t call back, and I mean, maybe it’s me, but it’s like, I feel like—”
“Stand up for your feelings, Joelle!” Mr. Kingsley barks out.
“We were best friends and you act like you don’t even know me!” The strangled grief in her voice is far harder to bear than the words. Sarah is frozen, a statue, she’s staring blindly at the opposite wall with its door to the hallway as if she could will herself out of this room, and then suddenly it’s Joelle who bolts: Joelle stumbles headlong through the circle, practically stepping on Colin and Manuel, she wrenches open the door and, unleashing a wail, disappears down the hall. In her wake no one breathes, no one looks anywhere but the floor, no one even looks at Sarah. Life is suspended. Abruptly, Mr. Kingsley wheels on Sarah.
“What are you doing?” he demands, and Sarah flinches in alarm. “Go after her!”
Sarah lurches to her feet and out the door, unable to imagine the faces she’s leaving behind, even David’s. She isn’t even able to find where he was in the circle.
The halls are deserted, the slippery black-and-white checkerboard rapping harshly against the hard soles of her boots. Her punk boots, cruel-toed with metal stilettos and three large silver square buckles each. Behind closed classroom doors on the west hall the Freshmen and Juniors doze through the requirements, English and algebra, social studies and Spanish. Down the south and east halls, the real life of the school can be heard: the jazz band splashing through Ellington; the lone pianist’s hands prancing over the keys in the dance studio and the thumping of bound, bloody feet. The smokers’ courtyard is empty, its sun-bleached benches bearing only acorns from the massive live oak. The outdoor classroom, a walled-in rectangle of grass with a stage at one end, is also empty, its street-side gate padlocked. Sarah wills David, not Joelle, to appear in these secretive places, David to be sitting on the empty smokers’ bench, David to be sitting underneath the oak tree. The rear entrance leads to the rear parking lot, where the students park and also eat lunch, on the hoods of their cars, when the weather is good. Joelle is outside the doors, doubled up, honking with sobs. Joelle clearly meant to escape in her car but was slowed by her grief; the keys to her Mazda poke out of one fist. This is the brand-new, rocketlike little Mazda Joelle bought with cash—more than ten thousand dollars in cash—she once showed Sarah, stuffed in a coffee can under her bed. Sarah didn’t know where this money came from. Drug sales, she assumed; possibly something else. Each day Joelle drives the car to a friend’s house a few blocks from home and then walks the rest of the way, so her parents won’t see it. Joelle is not convoluted but simple, not sullen but sunny, yet she has the extensive clandestine life of a career criminal, and this used to enthrall Sarah. Now Joelle appears stripped bare, her essence exposed. She’s just a party girl, overeager to be liked. The insight startles Sarah not because of its unkindness but because this, she suddenly knows, is the sort of insight Mr. Kingsley is constantly trying to extract. He paced with impatience last year when they told each other, during Observation, such things as, “You’re a really nice girl,” or, “I think you’re handsome.” Yet at this moment, Sarah equally knows, there’s a story unfolding into which her true feelings don’t fit. She is supposed to hug Joelle, make it up to her. She knows this as surely as if Mr. Kingsley stood there, supervising it all. She has the strong feeling he is there.
Joelle, precociously fleshy and pungent, so obliviously manifests the carnal that Sarah’s own self-conscious carnality becomes disgusting to her, along with her own flesh, her own scent. Joelle’s enormous breasts are heavily freckled, their trapped clefts and creases are constantly sweaty; Joelle’s crotch, encased in her jeans, trails an olfactory banner like some sort of sticky night flower to inflame jungle bats. Joelle sleeps with much older men; at school, she disregards boys as if they’re not even incipient men. She only has eyes for Sarah.
Half closing her eyes, almost grinding her teeth, Sarah takes Joelle into her arms. Joelle clings to her gratefully, soaks her shoulder with tears and slick snot. This is also self-control, Sarah thinks. This brute willing of the self to take action. Until now, Sarah thought self-control was only restraint: not putting the chair through the glass.
“I’m really sorry,” she hears herself mumbling. “I’m so messed up right now, I didn’t mean to seem distant. Things have just been so crazy . . .”
“What’s been going on? I could tell you had shit going on! I just knew—”
Soon the counterfeit is complete. Sarah intended to confide in no one, and if someone, Joelle least of all. Now, as if reading a script, she tells Joelle about the whole summer, even the empty snack bar. Confession made, she’s in receipt of Joelle’s whole devotion again. Joelle’s sobs turn to mirth, her abject supplication to glee. She clings to Sarah no longer from the weakness of grief but to prevent herself rolling merrily on the sidewalk. Having bought back a friendship she no longer wanted by defiling the one thing she cared about most, Sarah knows it doesn’t matter that she enjoins Joelle to a “secrecy” that puts Joelle into raptures. Joelle is practically wrapped like a vine around Sarah as they stumble back into the classroom and almost literally into David, because they’ve been gone for so long class has ended, and David’s the first on his feet, to escape. At the sight of David, Joelle bursts out laughing and covers her face. David shoulders roughly past Sarah and Sarah feels bonfires ignite on her skin. Mr. Kingsley, also on his way out, says as if as an after-thought, “Sarah, come by and see me tomorrow at lunch.”
Not even David in the course of escaping fails to hear the summons, or fails to understand what it means. Even Joelle, who has so misunderstood her entire transaction with Sarah, understands what Mr. Kingsley’s summons means. Joelle tightens her hot grip on Sarah with sisterly envy. Sarah has become the kind of Problem they would all like to be.
“That was kind of you yesterday,” Mr. Kingsley began, after closing the door behind her with a resonant click. He’d indicated the chair she should sit in, and perhaps it was the novel sensation of sitting in a chair in his office that induced her to say, right away, “I didn’t want to be kind.” She was aware of a dangerous urge to spar with him.
“Why not?” asked Mr. Kingsley.
“I don’t feel close to Joelle anymore. I thought, with everything you’ve taught us, that honoring my feelings about that was what I should do. But yesterday it seemed like the way that I felt didn’t matter.”
“You wanted me to go after her and make her feel better, and tell her we still were best friends. And I did, even though I was lying. And now I have to keep lying because she thinks that we’re best friends again.”
“What makes you think that’s what I wanted?”
“Because you told me to go after her!”
“Yes, but that’s all I told you to do. I didn’t tell you to make her feel better. I didn’t tell you to lie and say the two of you were still friends.”
“Then what was I supposed to do? She was crying. I felt guilty.” Now Sarah was crying, which she had sworn she wouldn’t do. All the anger she’d brought into the room was transformed into sobs. There was Kleenex on the end of Mr. Kingsley’s desk nearest her chair, as if people often sat where she was sitting and cried, whether out of anger or some other emotion. She took a handful and blew her nose in it.
“You were supposed to stay with her in that moment, with tenacity and honesty. And that’s what you did.”
“I wasn’t honest. I lied!”
“And you’re aware of the lie, and aware of the reason you told it. You were there in that circumstance, Sarah. More there than Joelle.”
That this disparagement, to her, of her classmate might be considered a dishonest behavior of Mr. Kingsley’s wasn’t among Sarah’s thoughts at that moment. His comment seemed true in some way, and for a moment her crying subsided. “I still don’t understand how telling a lie makes me true to my feelings, unless you’re saying that making someone feel better is more important than telling the truth.”
“I’m not saying any such thing. Honesty is a process. Standing up for your emotions is a process. It doesn’t mean running rough-shod over everyone else. If you weren’t a person of integrity, I don’t think you’d be sitting here challenging me about what happened yesterday.” Sarah prickled with alertness to hear him describe her as “challenging” him. It was clearly the right thing to do.
“I feel like, in telling her we’re still friends, I’ve put myself in a trap.”
“You’ll find your way out.”
“I said you’ll find your way out.”
Sarah cried with renewed force, for such a long time that she eventually grew aware of an unfamiliar luxuriousness. Mostly she cried alone, on rare occasions in front of her mother, but either way the emotion alongside of grief was impatience. Her own impatience, her mother’s impatience, with her tears. Mr. Kingsley seemed to grow more contented and patient the more that she cried. He sat smiling benignly. Under the narcotic of his patience she felt tempted to share the real reason she was crying, but thinking of it she cried too hard to speak, and then she’d been crying and thinking so long, she felt she’d actually talked about David, perhaps even been told what to do, and a strange peace overtook her that might have just been exhaustion. Mr. Kingsley still smiled benignly. He seemed more and more satisfied.
“Tell me about life outside school,” he said when her guttering breaths had grown calm.
“Like what? Um. My mom and I live in the Windsor Apartments.”
“Where are those?”
“You don’t know? Oh my God, they’re like the biggest apartment complex in the world. Every building and carport and tree looks the same. The first year we lived there, every time we went out we got lost coming back. We had to put a chalk X on our gate.” This made him laugh, and she swelled with pleasure.
So much of what they do, with Mr. Kingsley, is restraint in the name of release. It seems they have to throttle their emotions to have complete access to them. Access to one’s own emotions = presence in the moment. Acting = responding with authentic emotion under made-up circumstances. Stubbornly Sarah keeps trying. Similarly, with David, stubbornly she keeps up her half of the duet each blames the other for starting, this new flavor of longing embittered by outrage but no less exclusive to them. It’s still a promise, Sarah stubbornly believes. Still a performance that each reserves just for the other. Sarah hides her fear that she’s wrong—that she doesn’t have talent, or have David—beneath a youthful indifferent swagger, an insistence that she’s willing to do anything.
By late September, the after-school mainstage rehearsals have started. At dismissal the whole mass of Theatre students pours across the parking lot to U Totem for junk food: Funyuns and hot-pepper-spiced pork skins, individual servings of ice cream, rolls of SweeTARTS and stacks of Kit Kats. Back in the parking lot they gorge on their feast, throw their wrappers in the outdoor trash cans, wash their hands before hitting the mainstage. For all their shoving, shouting immaturity, their indifference to nutritional standards, their unhygienic disorder as expressed in their lockers, their backpacks, and, for those who have licenses, cars, there are certain fastidious habits all the Theatre students observe as a group, by reflex. They would never dream of eating on the mainstage, in the wings, in the house with its red velvet seats. They may be teenagers, but there is nothing teenage about their dedication to this space, their cathedral. Long after they’ve left the theatre, and their theatre dreaming, behind, they’ll still spell it “theatre.” The alternate spelling will always seem ignorant to them. The master’s pride in a difficult tradecraft: they’ll have Mr. Kingsley to thank for bestowing this on them, whatever else they conclude about him.
Excerpted from Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, to be published by Henry Holt and Co. in April 2019.
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