Shannon’s Pick: Emily Deibel’s compelling short story
Emily Deibel slams her reader in the driver’s seat by her engaging use of the second person. This rare narrative style makes the viewpoint of the main character compelling, heartbreaking, and uncomfortably real. This story gripped YARN’s editors and YARN’s readers as it became one of our most commented-upon stories to date.
Time flies and it’s hard to believe that we published this gem over a year ago. I’m so pleased to put “In the Spotlight” back…well….in the spotlight where it belongs. Enjoy!
By Emily S. Deibel
Any minute Ms. Morris will call the girls up on stage. The cattle call. You certainly feel like a large heifer standing under the hot lights with Ms. Morris telling everyone to turn right, then left. This time you suck in your stomach and hold your breath because all the boys in the drama class are staring right at you. They see your double chin and how tight your jeans are compared to Anna Daly’s, who stands to your right. Sweat prickles on your brow as the boys whisper and from somewhere in the dark auditorium someone moos. You suck in your gut even further and tilt your chin to hide the second one.
When Ms. Morris posts the cast list for the school play you are not surprised to see Anna will be Eliza Doolittle in this year’s production of “My Fair Lady” Once again you get cast into the part of the old mother, this time as Mrs. Higgins, who doesn’t even sing a duet, let alone a solo.
Your voice is better than Anna’s, your friend Julia tells you after class. You shrug and laugh and say you could never do a cockney accent, especially in front of a whole audience. You tell her you get too nervous on stage to be the star and enjoy doing these small parts that no one really cares about. You say you like to make the audience laugh, but inside you know that they’re laughing at you, not at Mrs. Higgins.
The morning news reports statistics about how good exercise is for the body. In the grocery store they line the magazines so that every picture flashes you a smile, and there are muscled arms and firm stomachs and people together enjoying life because they are normal and they love to be active. The normal people get the lead. That’s why most of the magazine covers have an actress smiling back at you.
You think that if you get up at five-thirty every morning to speed walk when it is dark and cold and it seems like dawn will never come, that you will have time to lose the love handles before they take measurements for Mrs. Higgins’ costumes. Anna works out two hours every day without fail and she can run the mile in six minutes. Her jeans don’t rub together at the thighs when she walks down the hall and there is always a boy standing with her at her locker before and after school and even in between classes when she gets her books.
You need one more gym credit before they’ll let you advance to senior status next year and the education counselor puts you in a weight training class. You’ll love it, she says. You stare at her yellow teeth glowing between pink painted lips and mumble, Why not? If you’re lifting weights then you’re probably not running. There’s nothing you hate more than running.
The first day convinces you the gym teachers are conspiring to get you to drop the class. There are eighty people enrolled and because there are only seven girls, your spotter was Matt Karson, from the wrestling team, who could probably bench press you, thunder thighs and all. You can’t even lift the bars alone and after one week you moan every time you have to climb stairs or put your arms above your head to wash your hair. The gym teachers only shake their heads and stare as you huff and wheeze to lift the bar, to revive the muscles you must have somewhere. In the locker room before class you swap exercising tips with the girls in your stall because they are all trying to get in shape and lose ten pounds even though you look at their ribs poking through their skin and wonder where those ten hideous pounds are. You position the locker door to shield as much of you as possible and hope no one notices the twenty pounds you’ve been trying to shed for the past three years. You figure you’ve lost and gained more than all of the girls in the class put together.
But still you push yourself during the “surprise” mile run at the beginning of class that the teachers have suddenly decided to make a permanent fixture in the training schedule. You even feel like all of the other normal people when you run the entire four laps and the football and basketball jocks walk the last one. You pass the coaches standing at the sidelines, with clipboards in hand to record your time, and smile because you finished and you were not last. Your chest is burning and your side feels like it’s going to split wide open, but you did it and you are normal.
Wasn’t that a great run? someone asks and you try to slow your breathing and say that exercise always makes you feel a hundred times better even though you want to kneel on the ground and lose your lunch.
They say variety is the spice of life and you wonder if that’s really true when you quit speed walking to try aerobics and switch to an elliptical machine two months later because you think that a change in routine will make you want to get out of bed in the morning. You tell yourself the real reason you haven’t skipped a workout is because it was getting easier and you felt better and not because Ben Waldrom, a boy in your drama class, asked Julia if you were changing somehow.
On opening night he stands in the wings after your last scene with a hand outstretched. You are high on the adrenaline rush that comes with first night jitters and the applause. You wonder if he is on the same high or if he is purposefully waiting to congratulate you and not just anybody that comes off the stage. Everyone is best friends on opening night so it’s hard to tell. You give him a high-five only to find he grabs your hand and squeezes it. The audience loves you, he says. You thank him like a robot and can’t think of anything else to say. Are you going to the cast party at Nancy’s? he asks and you nod and say of course like you go to parties all the time, when really no one had told you about the party. Good, he says.
After the show you skip the congratulations from family and friends in the lobby and hurry home to wash your hair and find some outfit that doesn’t make you look like you swallowed an entire watermelon.
Nancy doesn’t seem surprised to see you on her doorstep and takes you and Julia inside. Some of the cast offer congratulations on your big scene as you pass. After months of work on and off stage, you are closer to your goal weight, closer to these people smiling and enjoying a successful night.
Music blares from a stereo system and a table nearly groans under a cache of chips, pizza and cookies. You give Julia a worried look and she punches you in the arm and says relax. She knows that you’ve been eating carrots and lettuce like a rabbit for two weeks and that you skipped your workout that morning because you were nervous about the play, yet she steers you to the table and shoves a plate full of tortilla chips dripping with cheese and a mountain of Oreos into your hands. You ask for a glass of water and Nancy looks at you as if you were asking for the moon and directs you to the pop at the end of the table.
You say thank you because everyone is eating and laughing as if they ate like this every day. You know that they don’t have to measure their cereal every morning and count the grapes they eat with lunch. You know that normal people don’t care if they eat an Oreo because they can stop after one and just one night of junk food won’t show up on their thighs the next morning.
You stand with Julia next to the wall and laugh at all her stupid jokes when really you are watching the door. You want to see what Ben will do when he walks in and he sees you there with everyone else in the cast. When he finally comes Anna ambushes him in a corner and they talk in hushed tones like they’re sharing special secrets. You see him look your way and hold your breath wondering if you had just imagined if he had held your hand and asked you to be here tonight.
Finally he walks toward you and nodding at Julia, asks if you prefer blonds or brunettes.
Brunettes, you say without thinking because the butterflies in your stomach have morphed into a distracting swarm of hornets buzzing in your brain. And then you realize his hair is blond. His smile freezes on his face and there is disappointment in his eyes. Your tongue feels numb from a thousand stingers.
He says good, but like he wasn’t expecting that answer. He says he knows Scott Lewis was interested in asking you out and since you like brunettes he could set you up.
Scott Lewis, the fattest boy in drama class, coupled with the fattest girl.
How perfect, you think as you walk to the table and spoon another large helping of nacho cheese over your already soggy chips. On the first bite you suck the cheese right off the chip so hard you can even taste the grease from the tortilla. Dinner, consisting of one slice of whole wheat toast with ¼ C of tuna, hold the mayo, was so long ago. All the sudden you have a headache and that hornet swarm you get when you’re nervous is now in your arms and legs and you are shaking all over as you chew the next chip and then the next. You stop tasting cheese and you don’t even know that three cookies have disappeared as well. They don’t taste like anything anymore. You almost don’t even chew anymore, just swallow, swallow, swallow. The body is a machine, they say, that needs fuel to keep running. You know they are wrong. Sometimes the body is a black hole that needs to be filled. Only does it ever really get full?
Mom tells you she wants to get in shape and asks if you will go walking with her at night. You both know that you haven’t exercised since the party. She is only trying to help, but that doesn’t make you feel any better when you have two siblings who were born twigs and grew up to be beanpoles and you resemble a short stump. You shrug your shoulders in agreement. If you don’t walk, you won’t fit in your costumes for the final three nights of the play this weekend.
You walk together on the road that circles the town cemetery because that’s where the entire neighborhood goes to run and walk. Sam Halson and his friends roller blade there every Wednesday night and you hope he has sprained his ankle or something this week and doesn’t come because you are there with your mom and everyone at school will probably know because Sam has a big mouth.
You count One, Two, Three, Four after every lap and it doesn’t make the time go by any faster and it never seems shorter and your body never feels different. You are told that after twenty-one days of doing the same thing you can form a habit, but experience has proven this is a lie. You wonder when you will consciously stop thinking about forcing one foot in front of the other and smile while you exercise like Denise Austin in all her DVDs. Even the fat people on the “Weight Watcher’s Walk at Home” DVD smile and laugh like they are having the time of their lives and exercising is their favorite thing to do. Someday, you keep telling yourself. Someday you will be like everyone else and you will be happy if you just keep getting up, going out, and torturing your body like all the news reports, doctors, and gym teachers tell you to.
Mom thinks you should both run your last lap around the cemetery before going home. You don’t say anything, but leap into motion because it’s Wednesday and you hear roller blades surfing asphalt somewhere behind you. And you are younger than your mom and if you were really normal you could outrun her. Come on, Mom, you say as you dash out in front of her. Run faster. Run faster, it’s good for you.
Friday morning Ben sits with Anna during cast notes like he has all week. You pretend to ignore them every time Anna flips her hair over her shoulder when she’s really looking back to see how many girls are watching, how many girls are wishing they could be with Ben.
Surprise pep rally today, Ms. Morris tells the class. The student body president has asked the drama department to perform a song from the play. We’ll be doing the Ascot number, she says as the bell rings.
You wait until almost everyone is gone before shuffling to Ms. Morris at the piano. You tell her you’re not in the Ascot number. While everyone else in the cast is on stage pretending to watch horses racing across the audience, you are ditching a parasol while a crew member unhooks mic one before you jog behind the backdrop in time for crew member number two to jam mic two on the back of your skirt for the following tea scene.
Ms. Morris drops sheet music and purses her lips. She’d forgotten about you. Join the cast anyway, she says. Stand in the back. Deep down you know you want to, but there is also anger there. Anger that she made you Mrs. Higgins who doesn’t sing. You tell her it’s okay. You’ll sit and watch.
Before you turn to leave, she cuts deeper. Loosen up on your last monologue, she says. You’ve been too stilted the last couple performances.
You sit on the second story of the field house during the pep rally and watch the drama class below. They form a single line, smoothing black and white dresses, tapping tall hats in place, flexing satin gloves. You’ve never seen them from this perspective. They all look poised, elegant, the same. And you are sitting up here in a 1X sweatshirt, filling two seats. You wonder why you sacrifice the time for this stupid class. Screw next year. You should take more AP classes for college anyway.
You arrive late on closing night. Ten points off your term grade, Ms. Morris reminds you as she sprays your hair gray. You pretend you don’t care, collect an armful of makeup from her cubby and head to the girl’s dressing room.
Ben is about to go in the boy’s dressing room as you pass. You pretend to take stock of your makeup pile to avoid looking him in the eyes.
Hey, he says and his voice stops you as effectively as a brick wall. Where were you yesterday?
You play stupid.
At the pep rally, he says. Our show isn’t a show without Mrs. Higgins.
Ben had missed you.
A beginning of a smile tickles your lips when Julia bursts through the girl’s dressing room door and shouts loud in your ear, Mrs. Higgins returns! She drags you into the bowels of the girls’ domain and you only have time to give Ben a weak wave. He is still staring at you as the door shuts on his face.
We missed you at the pep rally yesterday, Julia says, chorused by the six other girls sharing your mirror.
You mumble something about not being in the scene and Julia tells you not to be such an idiot. We almost didn’t go on at the rally without you, she says. Then Ms. Morris told us you didn’t want to participate.
A senior helps apply the gray and white wrinkle lines to your brow, transforming you into Mrs. Higgins, and admits it’s hard to read you sometimes. You do such an amazing job on stage, she says, and then a curtain comes down and you disappear in some dark corner in the wings. You know she’s speaking metaphorically and shrug, wishing you had a literal curtain to hide behind.
Of course a senior wanted your part, she continues, but you are the best Mrs. Higgins we could have got. Friends? she asks.
Your smile comes back full force. Friends.
Wait until senior year, she continues. With that smile and that voice of yours, you won’t be third string any more. You’ll be in the spotlight. Yeah, chime the others, patting you on the back.
There are similar groups around the other mirrors. After two long weekends of coming early and staying late, this last show brings back all the excitement and belonging you caught a glimmer of at the cast party. Girls are curling each other’s hair, helping with zippers, reapplying mascara after crying through the first application. Everyone hugs the seniors who will walk out on stage for the last time, hug you for being the perfect Mrs. Higgins.
You are glowing. It’s not just the hot lights raining on you, casting a slender silhouette across the stage, a figure you’d kill to have in real life. It’s being here on this stage. The audience shifts in the dark, unseen, waiting upon your every word. But it’s not your words. It’s Mrs. Higgins’. Under the lights you are not the dumpy brainiac. You are anything you want be. With gusto you haven’t felt since tryouts, you lay into your final scene and tell Professor Higgins to basically get over himself. It usually garners a few laughs, but tonight, the crowd claps and cheers so loud it’s deafening. You go girl, shouts someone in the audience.
There are friends waiting in the wings, and they pull you in. You are the middle of a bear hug, with one of Ben’s hands squeezing your shoulder. Maybe he’d been sincere when he said the audience loved you.
Senior year. Yes, everything will be different senior year. Summer’s a perfect time to get in shape. When you come back, no one will even recognize you.
There’s pizza in the green room after the show. Ms. Morris lets everyone have a short party before striking the set. You see Ben dithering over pepperoni or sausage and mushroom. You fill your cup with Coke to the brim, wondering if he’s taking so long because you are. He smiles. You smile.
Senior year, you tell yourself as you take your plate over to Julia. When you are normal and pretty like everyone else next year, then you’ll take that vacant seat next to Ben’s before Anna claims it.
Cheers, you tell Julia as you raise your third slice of pizza and tap it against hers. She laughs and says something about the diet going out the window tonight.
Tomorrow, you tell her, watching Ben get up from his chair and leave. You fill the frown on your face with another bite of greasy cheese and crust.
There’s always tomorrow.
Emily Deibel lives and writes in Michigan, where she manages to cram in writing time when her four kids are asleep or outside playing. She graduated with a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University and is currently a member of SCBWI. Her work has been published in “Lighthouse” magazine and in 2008 she placed third in the SCBWI-MI novel mentorship program.