At rehearsal, Sternberg had seemed brusque, standoffish, but that had been his reputation. And Michelle had rather enjoyed the way he'd dressed down the orchestra, which had gotten used to taking advantage of hapless Mr. Geist. She particularly enjoyed how Sternberg ended every sentence with "shall we?": "Let's take that from the top, shall we?" "Let's try that the exact same way, but this time in tune, shall we?"
"But then," Michelle said, rummaging through her dresser drawer and pulling out a pack of Merits. "But then," she said, flicking her lighter, holding the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger and inhaling ("I'm sorry," she said. "I know you don't like it when it stinks up your clothes, but sometimes you just need it--it's like having an orgasm"). "But then," she said, opening the window, letting a gust of autumn air whoosh into the bedroom, "he starts in on me." She was standing with her back to the window, cigarette hand against the ledge, smoke drifting outside. What had happened, she explained, was that they had been rehearsing Act I. She'd memorized the entire operetta weeks earlier, but she was smart enough not to show that off immediately; that only made people think she was "superconceited." So when she rehearsed, she'd always say, "Let me try that off book," and make a couple of mistakes and laugh about it and say, "Sorry, I screwed up, can you hand me the script?" just so people would know that she was human and not some nutcase with a photographic memory, even though she did have one. So Myra Tuchbaum had assayed "Refrain, Audacious Tar!" and it had been a really "strong effort." Michelle was proud of her, even though she had been slightly off-key.
"Then comes me," Michelle said. She explained that she had no intention of showing off all the work she had done prior to rehearsal. She wasn't going to do that whole juggling trick again. There had been the time when Myra wanted to be a juggling serving wench at King Richard's Faire, had made a big deal about how tough juggling was, and she had made everyone in Anne Frank gather around her as she took three tennis balls and juggled them, woofing with each throw-woof woof woof. The spectacle had infuriated Michelle, so she went up to Myra right in front of everybody and said, "That doesn't look hard, let me try that," and juggled flawlessly for five minutes straight while Myra stood gaping at her until Michelle handed the balls back saying, "Nah, that's not that tough," whereupon Myra called her a bitch, then Michelle called Myra a whore, and soon they were best friends. So anyway, Michelle sang "Buttercup's Song," but didn't attempt the working-class British accent she'd perfected, didn't belt, didn't embellish with any tremolos. The only flourish she added was a wink on the line "Sailors should never be shy," which was just a private joke between her and Millard--something he'd said to her when they had been "finger-fucking" ("Oh, I'm sorry: virgin ears," she said to Jill) one night in Warren Park.
After she was done and she knew she'd nailed it ("It's an instinct," she said. "You know when you've nailed something"), Sternberg approached Mr. Linton, the pudgy, snowy-haired director who'd cast her in every show he'd directed, and all Sternberg said was, "I thought you said you had people who knew how to sing, Hank." The two of them had gone out into the hall while the cast sat silently, straining to hear Sternberg's voice. Michelle stood up in front of the cast and said that this was "bullshit." If this guy was such "hot shit," what was he doing here? What they should do was walk out in protest when Sternberg returned. Everyone said yeah, they'd do it. But when Sternberg and Linton returned, she was the only one who stood, and when she walked to the door, nobody joined her, so she kept walking right out of the auditorium, out the front door of the school. She briefly considered going back, but she had her pride, and besides, the door had locked behind her.
From Crossing California by Adam Langer. Copyright Adam Langer 2004. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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