Authors: Sarah Wylie
At some point, I’m not sure when, he realizes I’m asleep and turns on the radio to drown out the silence.
He alternates between singing and tapping along to James Brown. There’s a very good reason why we have a no-singing-along rule implemented for all family road trips, and this is it.
I swear, I consider waking up and having that father-daughter conversation just to make him stop.
Maybe I’m not asleep after all.
Dad and I are sitting in a conference room at Robindale’s Ramada, where the audition is being held, and the room is bleeding maroon. Loose purple-red fibers dangle from the curtain, like trickles from bursting capillaries. The worn burgundy carpet seems to be past its expiration date.
There are twenty of us in total—eleven parents, nine kids. Dozens of covert glances are shot across the room, everyone trying to hide the fact that they’re sizing up the competition.
So far, no sign of Brody Richardson.
“What do we do now?” Dad asks.
“Well.” I lean back in my chair, the piece of paper the receptionist gave me rustling in my lap. “This is usually the part where Mom flirts with the casting director or the occasional stage dad.”
My father’s eyes widen.
I pat his shoulder. “It’s only your first day. It’s not like I expect you to jump right into Mom’s role. Baby steps, okay?”
“Very funny,” he says with a shake of his head. I go back to eyeballing the other kids here, each of them accompanied by a version of my mother—a parent whose own hopes of superstardom rest squarely on the shoulders of her wimpy child.
My father’s too oblivious to be pushy.
I’ve never quite figured out how to play the whole acting thing. I’ve been in school plays and had a role in Quentin Community Theatre’s production of
two years ago. It was only about a year ago that Mom had me start trying out for commercials. The truth is, I can tolerate acting just enough to keep doing auditions and make my mother happy, and I dislike it just enough to maintain my street cred. But it’s also a distraction, for me and for my parents. Which is simultaneously good and bad.
Mom always went with me to auditions, partly because she wanted to make sure I did it right and partly because we had an unspoken understanding that this was more about her than me.
“I was trying to talk to you in the car, before you fell asleep,” Dad says now.
“Oh, right. Yeah. I do that a lot, actually. I’m starting to think I have narcolepsy.”
Dad doesn’t react. “I wanted to talk to you about … Jena. And how you’re dealing with the situation.”
He leaves some dot-dot-dots for me to fill in, but continues when my lips don’t part. “This is hard on all of us. Your mother and I are worried about the toll it’s taken on you. The last thing we want is for you to feel left out or like you’re taking a backseat to your sister.”
I let out a small laugh. “Trust me, I don’t feel that way at all.” And I really don’t. If this were a movie, maybe I would. I’d be the kid that gets shipped from extended family member to extended family member, tanking at school, seeking attention, a lost little girl. Instead, I’m sitting at an audition for a toothpaste commercial with my father. If my mother had her way, she’d be here instead. In a heartbeat, she’d be here. But we can’t always have what we want. So no, I’m not feeling left out.
“Well, I’m glad,” Dad says with a smile.
glad to be able to make him feel a little less guilty. Everybody needs that once in a while. “You know that if you ever need anything, even if it’s something small—it doesn’t even matter—your mother and I are never too busy. You and Jena are the most precious things in the world to us.”
My father calls Jena and me his “precious stones” because we went through this phase in second grade when we were weirdly fascinated by rocks. At the time, Dad thought it would be cute and very Mike Brady to point out that we loved our stones, but he loved
more than we loved them. We were
special stones. Precious stones.
While Dad flips open a newspaper, I say, “I’ll keep an eye out for hot stage parents. I assume you prefer moms?”
He chuckles, shakes his head, and starts reading.
I lean back in my chair and stare up at the light blue ceiling. There’s a window right above our seats, and sunshine streams through it.
Just then someone sits with a thud in the chair beside me. A tall redhead with a regrettable perm and a blue dress much too fancy for this place. She rests her head against the wall and sniffs, and I note that her eyes are red, angry, and liquid.
The girl’s mother sits down beside her, and begins to do what one can only describe as hissing. Pageant Girl tries to argue back, but clearly the taps behind her eyes are broken and they rush open and spill all over her face. Everyone in the room stares at them, and some people whisper. In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem to notice is her mother.
This scene with Pageant Girl and her mother reminds me of the time Jena dyed her hair blond in seventh grade, the day after I got the part of Glinda in the school play. Her hair turned out awful. She called me from the top of the stairs, her voice shaky and horrified and scared. There wasn’t much we could do but go to Mom. And Mom yelled for hours, cried, and called Aunt Tish to ask where’d she gone wrong as a mother,
please God can somebody tell me
. The thing is, Mom should have been grateful. She should have wrapped Jena up in her long, Pilates-did-this arms and squeezed her. Jena could easily have dyed her hair lime or orange. Lime and orange were blatant, glow-in-the-dark acts of rebellion, guaranteed to bring Mom weeks of public humiliation, and they’d probably have suited Jena better. Going blond wasn’t a ploy to hurt Mom; it was the closest Jena ever came to doing something so Mom would see her.
I snap back to reality, and my ears ring from all the not-quite-yelling.
“Unacceptable ought to be ashamed foolish irresponsible Andrea angry disappointed whatyoudid unacceptable ought to be ashamed … Andrea,” Pageant Girl’s mother whispers, only occasionally stopping for breaths.
During one of those breaks, against my better judgment, I turn toward Andrea and speak. “Is your mom married?”
She looks at me for a second, like she can’t quite understand me, and her mother’s head has snapped in my direction now, too.
Andrea wipes her wet cheek with the back of her hand and shakes her head.
“Dad,” I stage-whisper, and give him a nudge. A did-you-hear-
This time it’s his head that snaps up. “What?”
I say, nudging him again as Andrea, her mom, and the whole room look on. So much for inconspicuous nudging.
My father’s face flushes and he mutters, “Cut it out, Dani.”
Except, maybe Andrea’s mom hears him, too, because she also cuts it out. And we can all sit in peace. You’d think someone planned it.
Andrea owes my father a snazzy thank-you note. She might also want to consider dyeing her hair something glow-in-the-dark, to fix her mom issues. Or getting cancer.
Dad folds his arms across his chest and sits there, embarrassed, until someone comes to take me to the other conference room across the hall, so I can repeat lines about how this brand of toothpaste has changed my life.
Dad is allowed to come in and watch me. He stands at the back and gives me a thumbs-up, but by the fourth time they’ve made me repeat the lines, he is looking around the room, taking in the cameras and all the bigwigs that sell toothpaste and plastic smiles for a living. When he asks, they tell him that Brody Richardson is finishing up an off-Broadway producing gig and will be here for later rounds. I’m not sure whether Mom will be impressed, or disappointed he’s not here.
After it’s over and after their promise of “we’ll be in touch,” we leave. Dad is so pleased with both of us that he pulls into a McDonald’s drive-through, and asks me to pick anything I want. Apparently, he has not noticed that we’ve eaten nothing but tofu and organic food for the past seven months. But I don’t say anything. I order a double Big Mac, and we make a big show of acting like everything is the way it always was. Until we have to go home, and we can’t pretend anymore.
The best thing about my parents right now is how willing they are to overcompensate.
“Lauren’s here!” I jump up and button my sweater.
They also trust me, which helps.
“When does this movie marathon finish? Are you sure you don’t want me to come and pick you up from the theater?”
“Dad, please,” I groan, heading toward the front door. He stops me to plant a kiss on my forehead and I yell goodbye to Mom in the kitchen. “Where’s Jena?” I ask.
“Resting,” he answers. “She’s had a rough day.” Mom’s spent the whole day at attention because Jena has been running a fever, and if it gets up to 102, they have to go to the emergency room.
I think he’s waiting for me to go upstairs and say goodbye, but I know my sister would be totally onto me. Plus, I might talk myself out of going if I have to see her. “Tell her I say bye.”
I hurry out the front door and get into Lauren’s car. She and her sister are going to the cineplex in the mall. I’m going to Spencer’s cousin’s party.
“Thanks for the ride,” I tell her as I slip in. Her older sister, Nicole, sits in the front seat beside her and gives me a tight smile. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and I can tell she doesn’t approve of sixteen-year-olds who lie to their parents and wear pink cardigans and sensible jeans to parties.
“No problem. Do you want us to pick you up after the movies?”
“Nah. If I can’t bum a ride at an overcrowded party, I’ve failed.”
“You know, I still think you should come with us. Apart from being entertaining, the Indiana Jones films are also highly educational.” Only Lauren would consider that a good thing. “And Harrison Ford is so handsome,” she continues, grinning at her sister. “He’s Nicole’s favorite.”
I sigh. “See, I’ve never really grasped his appeal. Probably because he looks a little like my grandpa.”
A sudden silence descends over us. Was it something I said?
I see Nicole square her shoulders, then she turns up the radio and Celine Dion streams out from the speakers. The speakers in the back are so loud, they crackle when Celine reaches her glory notes, and my seat vibrates.
Soon, we’ve reached our destination. A suburban house on a dark street with scores of people streaming in and out of it.
“Dani, I feel bad leaving you here all by yourself. Even though I can’t understand why you’d come to a party like this, I don’t want you to wind up dead or something.”
“You’re too sweet, Lauren,” I tell her as I take off my seatbelt. “But all I can ask is that you get ready to be my phone-a-friend if this place gets busted.”
Nicole throws me a look I can only describe as disgusted. I’m willing to bet she’ll be telling her younger sister to stay the hell away from me from now on, before the car door has even shut on Celine’s musical declaration of longing.
After worming my way inside the house, the first person I recognize is Candy.
I hope it’s not a sign of how my evening is going to go.
She’s leaning against a wall, talking to a couple of people I don’t know. I should walk right by her and pretend not to see her, but I stop.
“Hey, have you seen Spencer?” I ask.
“No.” She brushes a sticky strand of hair from her face with her thumb. “But he said he’d come and find me as soon as he got here. So I guess he’s not here yet.”
I pull out my cell phone and check the time. 8:28. Somehow I don’t see Spencer missing over an hour of a party. “You’re right. He’s probably behind on homework. You know how he likes to stay on top of things,” I tell Candy, and quite possibly she believes me.
Even Spencer’s fashionably absent parents know the last piece of homework he handed in was in eighth grade. But Candy’s always been a little slow on the uptake.
“Well, tell him I’m looking for him, if you see him.”
“Okay,” she lies.
I turn and elbow my way through the swarms of people.
I need to find something to drink and Spencer. In that order.
While I’m in the kitchen getting a drink, I run into the last person I ever expected to meet at a crazy house party.
“Well, hello, sexy thang,” I say, adopting a sober slur. Somehow they’re not as fun as drunken ones. Bringing the plastic cup to my lips, I smile at Jack Penner. “Fancy seeing you here.”
His eyes scamper across the room, and he looks a tad claustrophobic. Almost as claustrophobic as I feel.
I put one arm on the cold kitchen countertop. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”
“I’m, uh, actually here with someone else.” He glances over his shoulder as if hoping for the person to suddenly materialize.
“Is there a rule saying you can only talk to the person you came with?”
“Actually, um, it’s just Sandeep. Nelson’s his lab partner, and he invited him, but Sandeep was too scared to come alone and convinced R.J. and Toby and me to come with, so…” Jack’s explanation fades with a gulp.
“Sounds … kinky?” I say.
The light in here affects everything with a yellow tinge, but I think it’s safe to say that Jack is blushing. Suddenly I’m bored. I stand up straighter. “Well, have fun tonight.”
I turn and leave him, beginning what amounts to a night of searching for more drinks and Spencer—again, in that order—and bumping into Candy, who tries entirely too hard to make it look like she’s having a wonderful time. Every time I see her, she’s thrusting her chin in the air, laughing like everything is So Damn Funny.
I run into Renee Garcia, of people-I-used-to-eat-lunch-with fame, and her boyfriend, a senior with ears that stick out and a five o’clock shadow. I’m not expecting her to slide closer to him so I have a place to sit, but she does. I hesitate, but finally sit. The room is no longer as steady as it once was, and the people in the corners of the room look fuzzy.