Chapter 17 Drama Class

When we get back to Syracuse, Mom has gotten the insurance money.

Uncle Ronnie made her his beneficiary when he went to Vietnam, and he didn’t have time to change it to the baby, everything happened so fast. So Mom buys a house with the money. Once I hear her talking to her first friend in Syracuse, our neighbor, Sherry Tyler, about having her dead brother’s son come live with us, but nothing happens. My parents are still calling each other names, still wrestling each other to the ground frequently. Mom threatens to kill Jake or herself a few times a week.

But now Jake has started teaching a night class, on Wednesdays. He goes out to the bar afterwards with the graduate students. So Wednesdays the house is quiet and Mom and I can watch movies. One day she calls me in to see On the Waterfront. It is the best movie I have ever seen.

“Mom,” I ask her, “who made this?”

“The director,” she says. All I can think of is Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy pulling himself into that warehouse, blood all over his face. The director. The director. That is what I want to be. The director. That and, even though he’s kind of like a truck driver, I’d like to be a director and married to Terry Malloy.

“Mom, how do you get to be a director?”

“Um…I think a lot of people get into directing from acting.”

“Mom, how do people do acting?” The idea of being someone else is very appealing.

“They take acting lessons, I guess.”

The YMCA where I have been taking swimming lessons also offers drama classes, and since I’ve done all the levels of swimming, now Mom takes me on the bus every Saturday to acting class. My teacher’s name is Anne. She has short black hair and smiles at me like I’m not wearing thick glasses. I can be myself in her class. One day we do what Anne calls a trust exercise. She takes the kids in the class to an abandoned upstairs floor of the Y, and we blindfold each other and wander from room to room sensing what is in each room. When I take the blindfold off, the brightness of the piles of discarded costumes burns itself into my eyes. The Drama Class makes life at home with my family feel a little more doable. This winter, I have a friend in Anne, and am having my own little bit of an adventure with acting.

When the YMCA wants to do a commercial for their summer program, they ask Anne to recommend a young performer to star in it. She recommends me. When she tells me they want me to do their commercial, I can’t believe it,  and I’m instantly disappointed because I’m so sure I won’t be allowed to do it. And just as I was surprised by the color after the blindfold, I am shocked when my mother gives me permission, and even takes me on the bus to the television studio out in Liverpool where they will record me.

I wear my favorite outfit—my uniform really—a red and blue striped t-shirt, and my one pair of blue jeans. Anne tells me to spin around and to imagine I am seeing all sorts of different things here and there. They will put in the graphics later, she tells me. I spin and turn and gesture at invisible words and pictures with abandon, and I have a blast. Mom takes me home, and I never think anyone will see it. But a week later, the commercial starts turning up during the local programming—a lot. I am spinning and smiling and gesturing at cheesy graphics in my unfortunately horizontally striped shirt and geeky glasses several times a night throughout the dinner hour. I gird myself against the onslaught of teasing I feel sure I’ll get at school. But I am surprised.

“Is that really you?” kids ask.

“What’s it like to be on TV?”

“You were really great in that commercial.”

I come home with a bounce in my step. I really like this acting thing. At home, I am talking with Mom about what I want to do next.

“Mom, maybe I can try out for a play or something,” I say.

“Maybe,” she says and smiles. Jake, I’m sure, must be very proud.

“What do you think of the commercial, Jake?” I ask.

“Ah—No Opinion.” He says it like a headline, and like he definitely has an opinion.

“So Mom, Anne says we can start doing whole plays now…”

“That’s nice honey.” Now Jake chimes in again.

“We’re going to start going to the Island in a couple of weeks.”

“Do we all have to go?” I ask.

“You can’t stay here,” he says and goes back to his Newsweek. I look at Mom. She shrugs. I want to argue, present facts and figures, be in two places at the same time. Everything I want to say piles in on itself into a collapsing heap. I get up and walk upstairs to my room and close the door and pick out one of my grandma’s quilts from Oklahoma, and walk into my closet and put the quilt down on the elevated part behind the hanging rack and climb onto it, and sit there, cross legged, willing myself to be anybody else.

Later, we all sit down to eat dinner. I swallow during a pause in my parents’ conversation. Jake cocks his head like he’s just heard the sound of the rare puzziwuddle bird.

“I hear corks,” he says, looking at me.

“Corks?” I say, taking the bait.

“Jake,” says my mom, like he shouldn’t be naughty.

“You didn’t hear that cork?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t know what he’s talking about.

“When you swallow, it sounds like you’re swallowing corks,” he says.

“What?” I say.

“Jake, leave her alone, she’s a tongue thruster.” This is my mother’s attempt to defend me; the dentist attributes my overbite to the fact that I am part of the small percentage of the population who pushes their tongue against the back of their front teeth when they swallow. “Well, tell her not to make a bloody great noise when she swallows.”

I decide to eat my dinner no matter what he says. And I take another bite, and try to swallow during the conversation, but before I can, my elbow is on fire. Jake has chopped it with the side of his hand. He has smashed my elbow.

“Get your elbows off the table.” And I look at him looking at me. I’m holding my elbow and I don’t know if I’m crying because he hit my elbow or because I don’t understand why he is attacking me, or because I’m so goddamn mad I wish he would just stop this, this crazy mean shit. I wipe my eyes and take a deep breath.

“You’re eating like a trawler man,” he tells me, and then goes back to his plate. “What’s a trawler man?” my brother asks. I stare at Rufus as if to burn him while Jake mockingly demonstrates,

“A trawler is a fishing boat, and the men on it have to eat at sea,” he hunches over his plate, protecting it, his elbows on the table. “So they hunker over their plates like this.” And he distorts his face trying to look like a stupid lunk, putting his head close to his plate and shoveling in his food. “I want you to have good table manners,” he says. “I don’t want you to be swallowing corks the night the man you love is going to propose. Because then you’ll swallow and he’ll change his mind.”

“What’s your problem Jake?” I don’t cry, I just stare at him across the table. My mother shrinks in her chair. My brother pushes away from the table. Jake puts his fork down.

“You’ve gotten a big head over this commercial thing,” he says.

“What?” I don’t understand.

“You’ve gotten a really big head.”

“What do you mean, ‘big head’?”

“It’s when you think you’re better than everyone else”

“That’s not true,” I say.

“It is,” he says.

“Well it’s a good thing for me to feel better than I have been. I’m glad I have a big head.” I can see he wants to smack me, grab me, but instead he speaks.

“Only you would have a big head over such a stupid commercial.” And he goes back to eating his dinner. Pushing the food onto his fork with his knife with a little smile on his face. I stand up and leave the table. The door swings behind me,

“Get back in here!”  he says.

I stand in the dark hallway and wipe the tears that won’t stop no matter how much I want them to. I can’t wipe them all away.

“Get back in here.” He is bellowing now. I stick my chin out and turn around. I march back into the kitchen and sit in my seat, staring at what is left of my food. I pick up my fork to eat. He stares at me:

“Big Head is definitely a problem,” he says. I start eating and try to swallow silently.

He has chosen me to be him. He has chosen me to be hurt in the same way he has been hurt. I dream his memories: in a duffle coat on an old English train, by myself with sixty other kids, with a small bookpack, and I look out the window, and the grass is green, very green, English green, but I blink and I see the gray rubble of what I’m leaving behind, the steaming rotten buildings still too hot to search. And I am six years old, and a little Polish girl sitting next to me can’t stop crying. Her name is Stephanie. And when the man across from me wants to propose, my table manners won’t matter because he will be hurt the same way I am being hurt right now. Even though I don’t know that yet, I do. And that is what I will say when I am being married:  “I do.”

About The Author

Stephanie Hubbard

Stephanie Hubbard is an award-winning documentary film editor based in Los Angeles.  Her work has been shown on PBS, History Channel, Discovery Channel, and at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s had plays produced at Sacred Fools Theater and won awards for her poetry and short form memoirs, one of which was made into an award-winning short film that won best short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was screened as part of Sundance.

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05 2010

1 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    I wish I could write like you as Margaret Laurence once said “When I say “work” I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

    Sent from my Android phone

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