Authors: Jennifer Weiner
There were lots of parts for boys in the show—the silly king, whose name, Ahasuerus, sounded like a sneeze, and Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, who urged Esther to enter the pageant and then, after she was married, to tell the king the truth, and Haman, the bad guy, who was always played by a boy with a black-eyeliner mustache. Every time Haman’s name was spoken, the audience
was supposed to hiss or boo, or stamp their feet, or shake their
, which were homemade noisemakers, paper plates filled with dried lentil beans, folded over and stapled shut.
All of the girls wanted to be Queen Esther, but for two years in a row, the role had gone to Cheryl Goldfarb, who was in sixth grade and whose father was a lawyer. Cheryl lived in an enormous house in Sherwood Forest, where some of the wealthiest Jewish families in Detroit lived. Bethie had never been to Cheryl’s house, but her friend Barbara Simoneaux had, and Barbara said that Cheryl had a queen-sized bed with a pink coverlet and a stuffed pink bear that was almost as big as she was. Cheryl took dance lessons twice a week at Miss Vicki’s Academy of Dance on Woodward Avenue (Bethie had begged her mother to let her take tap or ballet, and Sarah had sighed and smoothed Bethie’s hair and said maybe next year). Cheryl had a white rabbit-fur coat that came with a matching muff, and every time she passed it in the coatroom Bethie would give it a quick stroke, thinking it was so much softer than her own scratchy gray wool. Cheryl had done a good job at the audition, but Bethie had been better. Not only had she memorized every single line of the entire play, but she’d actually cried in the scene where she fell to her knees and begged to King Ahasuerus to spare the lives of her people. “For we may call God by a different name, but all of us are his children,” Bethie said, as tears ran from her eyes and Charlie Farber stared down at her, looking alarmed.
When the cast list was posted, Cheryl’s face turned the color of a brick. “I should be Esther!” Bethie heard her wailing through the door of Mrs. Jacobs’s classroom. “I’m older than she is!”
“You’ll make a wonderful Queen Vashti,” Mrs. Jacobs said. Vashti was the king’s first wife, the one the king put aside after she refused to dance and display herself to the court. Vashti was the only other girl’s part in the Purimspiel. The girl who played her got to wear a long, shiny black wig, like Elizabeth Taylor’s in
, and even more eyeliner than Haman. Cheryl should have been happy with that, but instead she just yelled louder.
“Queen Vashti only has one line. One word! It isn’t fair!” It sounded like she was crying.
Should’ve done that for the audition
, Bethie thought, imagining how she would look onstage, with her hair all in curls and a gold foil crown on her head.
The students rehearsed the Purim play for weeks. The morning of the show, Bethie was too nervous to eat even a single bite of Wheatena. “You’ll be terrific,” her mother told her, brushing rouge on her cheeks, then wetting the curved mascara wand, rubbing it into the black cake of mascara and stroking it onto Bethie’s lashes. In the white silk dress with sparkling silver sequins that was kept in the synagogue’s costume closet and smelled like mothballs, Bethie thought that she looked beautiful, and very grown-up.
Bethie saw her father tuck a bouquet of carnations into the trunk of the car before he drove them to the synagogue. “Break a leg,” her mother whispered, and Jo said, “You’ve got it made in the shade.” Cheryl, in Queen Vashti’s red dress, glared at Bethie backstage, but Bethie didn’t care. She practiced smiling, imagining taking her bows, and how the crowd would applaud after her song, as Mrs. Jacobs introduced the show.
“Once upon a time, in the far-off land of Shushan, there lived a king and his queen,” the narrator, Donald Gitter, said. Charlie Farber, who was wearing what looked like his father’s brown bathrobe, with a tinfoil crown, stepped onto the stage.
“His queen’s name was Vashti, and she would not obey the king’s command to entertain his royal guests,” said Donald. That was the cue for Charlie’s first line.
“Dance!” said the king. “Or away you must go.”
The narrator said, “And to everyone’s shock, Queen Vashti said . . .” Charlie turned to Cheryl, who was supposed to walk onstage and say her single line— “No.” Instead, Cheryl snake-hipped her way onto the stage, gave Charlie a big, fake-sweet smile, and said, “Anything you want, O my king.”
And then, as the members of the court and the audience of parents and siblings watched in shocked silence, Cheryl began to dance. With her arms arched over her head, Cheryl jumped.
She spun. She twirled down the stage and leaped back up it. She did a few high kicks, a few pliés, several shuffle-ball-changes, and concluded her performance by leaping straight up in the air and landing in a clumsy split on the floor, right in front of King Ahasuerus, who stared down at her in shock.
“Um,” Charlie said. His next line was supposed to be, “Away with you, then, if you will not obey.” Except Vashti had obeyed and was looking up at him expectantly, her cheeks flushed and her chest going up and down underneath her red dress.
“See?” she said. “I danced! So now you don’t even need another wife!”
Bethie heard laughter ripple through the audience, and a terrible thought flashed through her mind. Cheryl was
stealing the show
. Bethie had heard that expression a million times, but she’d never realized what it felt like, how it was as if something real was being taken away from her, stolen right out from under her nose.
I can’t let this happen
, Bethie thought. And so, head held high and her crown in place, she strode out onto the stage, grabbed Cheryl by the shoulders, and pulled her to her feet.
“Kings don’t like show-offs.” She smiled at Charlie. Charlie, who was obviously waiting to be told what to do, shot a desperate look toward the wings. “Just banish her!” Bethie whispered, and her voice must have been loud enough for the people in the front rows to hear, because they started to laugh.
“Um,” said Charlie.
Red-faced, Cheryl put her hands on her hips and said, “I’m his wife and he still loves me!” Turning to Charlie, she said, “I danced for you, didn’t I? So you don’t need her.”
“Um,” Charlie said again.
“I’m the prettiest girl in all of Shushan!” Bethie reminded him. It was bragging, which she knew was bad manners, but the real Esther had won the beauty contest, and Bethie couldn’t figure out how else to get show-off Cheryl off the stage.
Finally, Charlie decided to take action. Lifting his staff, he said, in his deepest voice, “Queen Vashti, I banish you from Shushan.”
“How come?” Cheryl asked. When Charlie didn’t answer, she said, “You told me to dance for the court, and I did. So now everything’s fine!”
I guess it’s up to me
, Bethie thought. “The king just banished you!” she said, giving Cheryl a shove. “It doesn’t matter why! He’s the king, and you have to do what the king says!”
“You can’t marry Esther!” Cheryl wailed, grabbing at Charlie’s bathrobe sleeve. “Because she’s lying to you!” She sucked in a breath, and Bethie knew what she was going to say before she said it. “Esther is Jewish!” she blared.
“Big deal. So are you,” Bethie shot back.
In the front row, Bethie saw one of the fathers laughing so hard that his sides were shaking. A few of the mothers were pressing handkerchiefs to their eyes, and her big sister’s face was red with glee.
From the corner of the stage, Mrs. Jacobs was making frantic shooing motions at Cheryl. “Fine!” Cheryl said, tossing her hair. “But you’ll be sorry!” She lifted her chin and marched off the stage. The audience began to clap, and even though it wasn’t in the script, Bethie turned, gathering her skirt in her hands, and gave them an elegant bow.
When the play was over, Bethie and her parents and her sister walked through the parking lot. Jo was still chuckling and recounting her favorite unscripted moments. “I wonder if Queen Vashti really did say, ‘You’ll be sorry’?” Bethie was holding her carnations. She felt like she was floating, not walking. She had never been so happy in her life. They had almost reached their car when Bethie saw Cheryl’s father, Mr. Goldfarb, standing in front of it with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Ken,” Sarah said, putting her hand on her husband’s forearm, as Mr. Goldfarb stepped forward. He wasn’t a big man, but he looked all puffed up inside his suit, with his bald head almost glowing with rage.
“I’ll bet you feel like a big shot,” he said in a loud, angry voice as he waved his thick finger at Bethie. “Humiliating Cheryl like that.”
Bethie cringed backward. Ken moved so that he was standing in front of her.
“I think your daughter humiliated herself,” he said. His own voice was very calm.
“Cheryl’s taken tap and classical dance lessons for five years,” said Mr. Goldfarb. “She should’ve had the bigger part.”
“I think the crowd got to appreciate her dancing,” Bethie’s father said mildly.
“That’s not the point and you know it!” Spit sprayed from Mr. Goldfarb’s mouth as he shouted.
“Maybe she should have been Queen Esther. I didn’t see the auditions, so I can’t say for sure. But what I can tell you . . .” Bethie held her breath as her father pulled her forward, settling his hands protectively on her shoulders, “is that my little girl was fantastic.”
Mr. Goldfarb muttered some more about favoritism and dance lessons before giving Bethie one final poisonous glare and stomping away.
“Don’t let him bother you,” her father told her. “You were very good and very funny. Now, who wants to go to Saunders for an ice-cream sundae?”
It turned out that everyone did.
ou did not,” Jo said to Lynnette Bobeck as they walked around the track at Bellwood High.
“I did.” Lynnette sounded smug. “It’s kind of perfect when you think about it. He’s happy, and I’m still a virgin.” It was Monday afternoon in gym class, the last period of the day, and the girls were dressed in baggy blue shorts and white cotton shirts. Normally, Jo would have gotten the story of her best friend’s Saturday-night adventures with Bobby Carver on Sunday, but on that Sunday her mother had woken her and Bethie up early, with her hair tied back with a kerchief and an even sterner-than-usual look on her face. “Spring cleaning,” she’d announced, handing them both a pile of rags and a bottle apiece—Jo got Windex; Bethie got Endust. They’d vacuumed all the carpets and scrubbed the oven, dusting the living room and wiping down the plastic that still covered the living-room couch, and at the end of the day, their father had taken them to the Shangri-La for pork fried rice and spareribs.
“Did it taste gross?” Jo asked.
“You don’t swallow it, dummy,” said Lynnette, as they rounded
the bend of the track. For the last thirty minutes, they’d been doing laps under the indifferent eye of Coach Krantz, who coached the boys’ football, basketball, and baseball teams and had little patience for girls. The May sunshine was warm on their bare legs, and every time the wind gusted, it sent a shower of dogwood petals raining down.
“First of all, it’s got a million calories.” Lynnette was short and busty, with hazel eyes and creamy skin that flushed pink whenever she was excited, and she was always watching her figure. Every time she and Jo went out, either by themselves or on a double date, Lynnette would virtuously order a salad, or the Dieter’s Plate of cottage cheese and a plain broiled burger, and seltzer water to drink. Jo understood that it was her job to order the French fries and an egg cream or a malted for Lynnette to share. Her friend would sneak fries off Jo’s plate or poke her own straw into Jo’s glass.
“Was there a lot of it?” Jo was imagining an untended garden hose, thrashing and spewing water into the street.
Lynnette shrugged. “I don’t know. I spit it out.”
“Where?” Jo asked. “On him?” She was picturing Lynnette and Bobby in the back seat of Lynnette’s father’s Lincoln Continental, with Lynnette’s bra shoved around her neck and Bobby’s pants down around his ankles and his penis bobbing around like a candy apple on a stick. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Did he do it to you?”
“Ew!” Lynnette said. “God! Like I’d ever let a boy put his face down there.”
“You put your face down there,” Jo pointed out.
“That’s different,” Lynnette said. “Besides, I don’t even think that’s a thing, the other way around.”
Jo thought that sounded unfair, but decided not to say so. “So how was it?”
Lynnette pressed her lips together. She was wearing Cherries in the Snow lipstick, and her short, dark-blond hair was carefully curled. Jo sometimes thought that the rest of the girls at
Bellwood High were like squirrels, plump and sleek and chittering, scurrying this way and that, waving their fluffy tails, racing up trees and down again for no reason at all. She felt like a crow, a big, ungainly misfit, flapping her wings, perching on a power line, sending all the squirrels running. At five foot eight, she was taller than almost all of her female classmates and a not-inconsiderable number of the male ones. Her body was unfashionably narrow-hipped and angular, with long legs made strong from years of running up and down basketball and tennis courts and barely enough bosom for a B cup. On the basketball court, or with a tennis racquet in her hand, Jo was graceful enough, and that was the place where she felt most comfortable. She’d become friends, or at least friendly, with three of the Negro girls who were the team’s starters. LaDonna and LaDrea Moore were seniors, identical twins, shorter than Jo, wiry and quick, with freckled, medium-brown skin, French-braided hair, and mischievous smiles that reminded her of her old friend Frieda. Vernita Clinkscale, whose family had moved to Detroit from North Carolina the year before, had a twangy Southern accent and was almost six feet tall, with skin lighter than Jo’s, straight, shoulder-length black hair, and a gold cross on a necklace that she kissed before making her free throws.
Negro kids made up less than a quarter of the high school’s population, and the unofficial rule was that they sat by themselves at lunch, but the rule was relaxed somewhat for teammates, and so sometimes, when she and Lynnie didn’t have the same lunch period, Jo would sit with the basketball starters. She’d listen to Vernita moon over her boyfriend, who still lived in North Carolina, and to LaDrea and LaDonna, who went to the church where Aretha Franklin’s father was the preacher and had met Aretha herself and Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks had moved to Detroit after her arrest for failing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and had spoken at the Moore family’s church. “She said, ‘People thought I wouldn’t give up my seat because I was tired,’ but that wasn’t true,” LaDrea said. “She said . . .”