Laura sat next to me in the car ride from the Valley to downtown LA, our moms sitting in the front seats listening to conservative talk radio.
Laura’s and my mom always got along really well, and for some childish reason, I liked to take credit for their friendship. But I’m sure their being Christians, and Republicans besides, and possessing a silly and quirky sense of humor, had a lot more to do with it than I ever did. Most likely they got along not because Laura and I knew how to keep each other entertained during the late hours after school when we were left in the playground until six, acting marriage and house. I was always the boy—just one of the many disadvantages of being tall in elementary school. Our mothers were out earning a second income, as smart, working ladies who defined themselves instead of being defined by their children or husbands. If my mom had been ten years younger, and Laura’s mom had grown up in Wisconsin instead of Michigan, I think they would have been great friends, even without us.
That day in the car, Laura and I wore our light pink tights, elastic leotards with matching silk skirts wrapped around our waists in thick ribbon. Miss Kathy, our ballet teacher, had informed our whole class the previous Saturday that auditions were being held for the Nutcracker Ballet, playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I don’t know what our mothers were thinking. This was a major theatre hosting a major production, probably the most celebrated ballet of all time, besides, of course, Swan Lake, and their daughters, who attempted ballet for two measly hours on Saturday mornings were clearly destined to make their debut as prima ballerinas that very Christmas. Was this some sort of cruel joke? Were they mocking us? I can just see them now, holding onto each other’s shoulders for support as they laughed their heads off outside of the audition studio. We padded inside with our dirty, pink ballet slippers, so unintelligent, so dim, so not blending in with the other, older girls.
The auditions were divided into two sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In the first section, everyone got a chance to try out. They jammed us into one big studio, lined us up, pinned numbers on our leotards, and taught us steps that we would assumingly learn and repeat. This would continue until of course the judges realized how horrific we all were, kindly asking us to exit the stage so that the real ballerinas could show off their talent in a less crowded environment. Thence would commence section two of the tryouts.
I honestly don’t remember expecting anything but failure during that first audition. This isn’t pessimism, just realism. I was always a very realistic child, hopeful at heart, but let’s just say I knew when to throw in the towel.
“No, dad, I don’t think I should bike down this hill. I think I’ll fall.”
“Rachel, you won’t fall.”
“I really think I will.”
“I promise you won’t fall.”
Sigh. Release. Pedal. Guess what? I fell.
That’s why, when the time came for the judges to separate us into two groups, I didn’t take it too seriously when my name wasn’t called. I had scuttled and skipped across the floor along with everybody else, managing to memorize a good two thirds of the steps, but all in all, I felt lost in a flock of long necks and high, tight buns (hair buns that is). But I wasn’t a complete saint either. I still felt slight pangs of jealousy when Laura’s name was called. She had abandoned me, and that was that.
When the judges finished calling the names, in which mine had been properly skipped, they walked over to the group of “chosen ones.” They spoke in hushed whispers while the rest of us were left standing in the corner of shame, contemplating the lack of windows in the studio from which one could throw themselves.
“What are they saying?” I thought.
Laura glanced over her shoulder at me, and I couldn’t tell if she looked upset, pleased, or simply frightened.
“She thinks she’s better than me,” I fumed. “Who does she think she is, a real ballerina? I’m just as good as she is!”
As I continued verbally slanting my best friend, something happened. The judges stopped talking, one of them walked over to the door and opened it with a loud creak, and the group of girls whose names had been called began filing off the stage and out of the studio. When the last girl had gone, her pink skirt fluttering behind her, the tall judge with dark brown hair and a pencil skirt clicked over to us on the soft, wooden floor.
“Congratulations, girls. You have made it onto the next round. Please wait outside until we call you again.”
“Made it to the next round? Is she serious?” My head started spinning the way it always did at the end of a long line of whirling pirouettes.
In hindsight, those judges must have thought they were pretty damn clever. Calling the names of the people who didn’t make it, they were able to give them some tiny glimmer of hope in which to cling for dear life. And for about two minutes, those girls actually thought they had succeeded.
“That’ll teach them to trust people in this cut-throat world,” they probably said.
We filed out into the hallway where Laura, her mom, and my mom were standing, waiting anxiously to talk to me.
“Rachel, you made it!” my mom said, grabbing my arms and rubbing them excitedly. She draped my pink and lime, warm-up jacket across my shoulders and handed me a Nutri-grain bar.
“Congratulations!” one of the girls from my group slapped my back genially and passed down the hallway. She looked ecstatic and confident, and even more importantly, like she actually knew what she was doing, whereas I looked like I was about to vomit. I fiddled with the apple cinnamon bar in my hand, hearing the green and silver aluminum crinkle between my pale palms.
“I can’t eat this,” I said, handing the bar back to my mom.
Me not eating was always a symptom that something else was wrong. Somehow, in all my mother’s maternal wisdom, she sensed that, but took the bar back without argue. Other mothers would have said, “Rachel, you have one more audition to go to in half an hour. You should really put something in your tummy,” unwrapping the foil themselves and shoving the bar down the poor kid’s throat. My mom, on the other hand, always gave her children their space and independence.
“I don’t feel like eating,” was followed up with, “Then don’t.” It was the same taciturn response with, “I’m going hunting for coyotes in the hills.” She’d keep chopping the onions at the kitchen counter, and without looking to see if you had a bebe gun or a 30-caliber hunting rifle, she’d say, “Have fun!”
It wasn’t that she didn’t care, because she cared immensely. She just didn’t worry the way other mothers do. She’d never tell us we couldn’t do something or that it wasn’t safe unless it was something she considered to be unsafe, in 1950.
“We used to leave the house at eight and roam until six at night!” she used to reminisce. “Kids don’t roam anymore.”
So when I started freaking out about what would be required of me if I actually made it into the ballet, the late-night practices, the driving to downtown, the final she-bang when I would mount the stage with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people in the audience watching my every move—my mom stood silently by and allowed me to scrutinize all of this, and without passing judgment or bestowing advice that wasn’t asked for, she let me decide.
“But if we have practice from seven to nine-thirty,” I panted, almost hyperventilating into my pink, ballet bag, “That means we won’t get home until like, like, ten-fifteen! Which means I wouldn’t go to bed until like ten-thirty!”
I was a child obsessed with sleep. While my brother trooped upstairs mechanically, obeying the “Bed-time!” shout from my father as he zapped off the TV and turned out the family room lights, I was fleeting and flying up the stairs, Julie Andrews style, lavishing in the thought of toothpaste and warm sheets. When we had a baby-sitter, my brother saw the shift in power as an opportunity to take advantage of the poor pre-teen, saying, “But we never go to bed at nine. You must have misunderstood.” But not me—I wasn’t about to join in Thomas’ late-night escapades. I could care less how many episodes of the I Love Lucy marathon he was going to try and squeeze in. When the long-hand was at twelve and the short-hand struck nine, I would get up from the couch, and with a smile on my face and lamby-pie in my arms, say, “Good-night, everyone,” and flitter and float all the way upstairs.
“Mom, I don’t want to go to bed at ten-thirty every night.”
“Okay,” she said.
“And it would mean not being able to do choir anymore too!”
“Laura,” I turned to my ever-honest friend. “What would you do?”
Laura, like Switzerland, had a knack for remaining neutral. When asked a serious question she’d rather not say anything than tell a lie, even a white one.
“Don’t ask me.”
But I had already made my decision.
“Let’s go mom,” I said finally, picking up my bag and zipping up my jacket. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
A huge weight the size of Mt. Everest suddenly lifted off of my diaphragm, allowing me to breathe easily again. I had that perfectly weightless feeling you have when something you’ve been dreading is finally over—the same way I used to feel on Sundays at noon, when I knew it was literally the furthest moment in the entire week before having to go to Sunday School again.
In the car-ride home I again turned to my best friend, whom I knew possessed a ridiculous incapacity for lying, and asked sheepishly, “Laura, did I make a mistake?”
She turned her thin neck and looked at me steadily with her big, brown eyes, as if to say, “Do you really want to know?”
But I didn’t want to know, not verbally anyway, because I already knew what she thought. I could have been making a huge mistake, but even at the inconsequential age of eight I knew enough about life to know that the decision had been made. There was no going back.
At that moment, all I wanted was home. And if there’s anything about that decision that I certainly don’t regret, it’s remaining a child for at least one more year—and getting at least nine hours of sleep every night.