Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Drama Club



There's a bunny, there's a heart, there's a stegosaurus. The smoke on the beach rises from charred logs set on grey wet sand. It twists into shapes like clouds, though this smoke-gas is grittier than cloud-gas. Carrie closes her eyes at 14 and she can remember her childhood and, even though she was an imaginative kid, she doesn't think that she even once looked at clouds this way and made them into shapes. She's old. She has missed her own childhood. It is early September and the sky at this hour is applesauce coloured.

There is a piece of wooden jewellery amongst the bonfire kindling, necklace or bracelet, with rubies and garnets and hot smoking oranges. It twists, sparkles and then crumbles. It changes faster than clouds.



***

The summer was peculiar, full of both foreboding and excitement. First there had been the Catholic teen canoe trip, a week in wilderness. Carrie and best friend/worst enemy Deirdre both signed up, even though Deirdre wasn't technically Catholic. Carrie's canoe tipped the third night.

Her soaked jeans were grossly heavy as she treaded water. I'm a lucky, lucky gal. She prodded herself into thinking herself fortunate that she was merely out paddling after dinner and that all her gear and dry clothes and her and Deirdre's shared tent were back at the site. It was nevertheless a pain to tow the canoe and turn it upside down on the beach to drain like an upbellied dead insect. Good job, Carrie! the other Catholic teens (and Protestant Deirdre) shouted sarcastically halfway from shore. That did it, and Carrie dumped the beetle on its back and then showed off by retreating to swim in her clothes for a quarter of an hour, ignoring the groans and catcalls.



The sun was an inch from the horizon, so it was eleven at night. Apricots and fuschias sank beneath the treeline. The loons were out, warbling bells across the water. They sounded like small weeping children, but you got used to them, sure. After an ostentatious lap to the middle of the lake, a beautifully executed crawl, Carrie quickly washed her hair with the lemon-coloured plastic shampoo bottle that Deirdre threw out to her. The plastic vessel floated in the water (like Carrie, like an overturned canoe). The lather scum drifted off to where the loons rimmed the side of the lake. Carrie dogpaddled back this time, so her head didn't go under the water because her teeth were already jumpy, Carrie being too lazy for breast-stroke – and besides, the very phrase breast-stroke made her embarrassed because it mentioned breasts; she felt the same way about the phrase breast-cancer – Carrie dogpaddled back all the way to shore, her clothes sticking to her frame. She went to her tent and peeled off the jeans, put the new dry clothes on and sat companionably by the fire next to the damp legs of her empty blue jeans stretched out near the flames like sausages. She couldn't warm. The loons kept calling. The Catholic teens told dirty jokes in low voices so they weren't overheard by the chaperone, a Jesuit monk in his thirties. The glamour of the fire – the purple pop of the coals! the green smoke from young aspen wood! – toasted her sodden clothing, but wasn't working when it came to Carrie herself. On the other side of the fire, Lynn, a girl from Anchorage, glared as if Carrie's dunk had been attention-seeking in its entirety (not quite true: the tip itself had been accidental, but there had been a certain flamboyance to Carrie's post-sinking swim, even Carrie had to fess that).

The Cold. The cold was everywhere; the cold was coming down from the glaciers (the internal organs of the mountains); the cold was stretching through the forests, across the lakes, in between Carrie's lips, in between her toes. Her teeth chattered so much they made her jaw nod in agreement no matter how close she moved to the campfire.

The campfire was full of the following gemstones: garnets, rubies, chalcedony, fire opals, jelly opals. Then the black smoky crush of the dying log: obsidian. Just obsidian.

An unmourned death, the death of wood.

Their chaperone, Brother Joe, went to sleep and the six teenagers stayed up playing truth-and-dare. Carrie's shivering kept her from answering; it felt like when she had the flu. It was her turn. Dare! Dare, she said. Dare!

Get in the sleeping bag with Mike for five minutes, said Jack, who was also from Anchorage and an asshole. Anchorage, it must be noted, was a very big city, the state's largest, a quarter million people, and the teens knew more there by pure virtue of being Anchoragers; they had gangs and drugs and shopping malls with skating rinks inside and sophistication and bagels and oil money and McDonalds and traffic lights and an opera and different races in their schools. Assholery and sophistication went hand in hand, for you had to be confident to be an asshole.

Get in my sleeping bag with me, said Mike, one of the other boys from Anchorage, I think you have hypothermia. It's been three hours since you fell in and you're still shivering. He was beautiful. That was the funny thing about these trips, someone you didn't think was so cute turns gorgeous when your choices are limited while portaging for days on end. Otherwise known as three days straight.

Her body was pressed up against his in the sleeping bag. Her skin was still cold under her T-shirt, clammy. Mike rubbed her back. Christ, warm up, he said.

My god, you've already got her in the sack, well done, said Jack. Carrie could smell Mike's breath on her neck; berries and musky mushrooms. She was shaking badly. Her cheeks felt hot the way they did when you have the flu, too. Like wearing tight jeans too close to a campfire. Yeah. She liked Mike's warmth, but it felt like she was floating somewhere else, instead. She could feel her pelvis against his; he was hard the way Henry Framer had been the time they slow-danced at the junior high teen dance. Mike and Carrie didn't kiss. Half an hour later she crawled out, still a maiden. They continued playing truth-and-dare in the pup tent. Lynn gave Carrie a very weird look across the darkening canvas, but it was hard to see, until Jack tied a flashlight up from the centre of the ceiling. Deirdre was giving Carrie a narrow look as well, but at least she was on Carrie's side. Carrie's breasts were still cold, but her core warmth had been restored. Like when you take a very hot bath after being caught in the rain. Like when you think you'll never warm up. Carrie felt softness towards Mike; she felt some fragile emotion towards him, a pliancy she had never experienced before. He was beautiful with his floppy brown hair and his big blue eyes. He was from Anchorage. Their bodies had been pressed tight together for half an hour. Something had changed in her. Like soon she would find out one day one of those universal mysteries that everyone is always talking about. The smell of his underarms, and the way her teeth kept chattering, and her cold breasts pushed up against his chest. There was a pull in her, not in between her legs, but somewhere in between her breasts. She realised that she really knew nothing about anything. She would have to keep herself safe until she found out more.

Lynn dared Mike to kiss Lynn on the lips, but Jack said Mike couldn't do it, because Mike had a girlfriend back in South Anchorage.

Truth.

Are you a virgin? said Mike.

Of course, said Carrie to everyone. They all laughed a little bit, but Carrie wasn't sure what else she was supposed to say. They weren't playing Lie-or-Dare.



***

Carrie and Deirdre returned from the canoe trip a month before high school started. Only a month. They had come back tanned and with biceps, but now the sleeping-bag feeling was fading. The drama of falling into the lake, the easy submission of letting people care for her, stroke her, worry whether she would freeze or fall away into hypothermic sleep forever, the joys of real submission; I will disappear; I am the sleeping beauty; I am falling away from you; I am falling into a lake. Take care of me. Love me. Hold me up from dissolution.

They were in Carrie's backyard. Birch trees were changing colour. They were mainly still green. Carrie wanted badly to play in her dollhouse with Deirdre, to make up complicated theatrical plays and scenarios with the dolls, and to work through all these complications that kept worming through her head, but knew it would be social suicide to suggest playing dolls at 14.

Let's go through the bramble outside people's backyards, suggested Carrie.

Okay, said Deirdre.

We can pretend we are spies, said Carrie.

Okay, said Deirdre.

The neighbour's backyards were at least half an acre each, and usually boy-scout-knotted forest.

We could bring notebooks, said Carrie, and pretend like we are really spies.

Nah, said Deirdre, we're 14 now, come on.

They passed by old forts that they themselves had either built or colonised as kids. It always seemed like such a stroke of luck to find an abandoned kids' fort in the woods, particularly after someone else had taken the trouble to build it. Why would they ever give it up? Now Carrie understood. It was like with Barbie dolls. You turned 13 or 14 and you weren't allowed to play in forts ever again. You had to say goodbye to them forever and ever and ever amen. It was the price you paid for the sleeping-bag feelings. Carrie wasn't even sure if it was a fair trade.

She scratched her hands from the aspen branches. Deirdre stepped in some moose shit, but it was old stale lumps. They were three blocks up from Carrie's own backyard when they found a greenhouse set some distance from the neighbour's house; you would never be able to see it from the dirt road or even from the house. No big deal. Unlike the nine huge plants in big terracotta pots on the far side of the plastic-roofed structure. A big deal. The leaves looked like devil's club, but Carrie was pretty sure it wasn't devil's club.

Is that what I think it is? asked Carrie. Deirdre's dad was a politician and so she lived in Juneau half the year and was more worldly about these things.

Yes, said Deirdre.

They stared at the wide leaves of the nine plants. The plants themselves came all the way up to their armpits.



We have to call the police, said Carrie.

I know, said Deirdre.

Their hearts beat chop-chop as they stumbled through underbrush to reach the road this time, so they could walk back to Carrie's house normally and not be shot for being spies or trespassing.

Isn't it legal, though, asked Carrie?

Only under ten grams and for personal use, said Deirdre, solidly.

How much is a gram? I can't remember metric.

What we found is more than a gram. (Deirdre's voice took on a dark tone.)

Oh, said Carrie, oh.

They got to Carrie's house and called up Carrie's mom at work.

We have found drugs in the woods, Carrie announced.

What, said Carrie's mother, alarmed – You mean needles? Syringes?

No. Marijuana, said Carrie. She let the word settle there on the phone line. Deirdre was leaning in so she could hear Carrie's mom's response, too.

We need to call the cops, right? asked Carrie. There were nine whole plants! Nine of them, Mom! And you always say drugs are wrong. Pot is a drug and worse, pot is a gateway drug. Like nicotine! (Carrie didn't look directly at Deirdre at this point, because Deirdre's mother smoked Virginia Slims.) We need to call the cops, right?

I think so, said her mom.

Because drugs are wrong, right? said Carrie. Deirdre nodded near Carrie's ear. Like that Nancy Reagan ad, just say no to drugs; this is your brain on drugs! said Carrie. Like a scrambled egg! Deirdre nodded again.

Yes, I guess so, said Carrie's mom. Yes, I guess it is the right thing to do.

Shall we call them? asked Carrie. Deirdre nodded vigorously.

No, I will, Carrie's mom said. She sighed.

Cool! Carrie hung up. She stared at Deirdre and Deirdre's eyes were all flashy. We have found real drugs, she hissed to Deirdre. And now we have busted the neighbours to the cops.

I know, said Deirdre, it's wonderful.

***


Now the summer has faded away. Life only gets better after 14. But probably not the best years of my life, thinks Carrie. I am pretty sure that is just a cliché and actually I hope it is just a cliché because I want the best years of my life to be when I am 25 or something and eleven years away from now.

This year she writes graffiti in pencil on the chemistry lab tables. Pencils are made of graphite, no longer made of lead. Elizabethans wore white lead makeup. Like mimes. It poisoned them. But they would have died anyway, because that was history. Everyone from 500 years ago is dead now. Nearly everyone from 100 years ago is dead now. Now that she is 14, Carrie gets to wear lip gloss and mascara. Eyeshadow on special occasions. She has borrowed her mother's lipstick that her mother never wears, a salmon pink whose wax smells perfumey, old-fashioned, like the late 1950s in which her mom was a young teenager herself. The smell of Carrie's 1980s adolescence is watermelon. With a mascara wand, in the school girls' bathroom in the mornings, she adds more mascara. Abracadabra. I'm gonna reach out, reach out and grab ya. The Steve Miller Band sang that.

She invents strange characters and story plots on the lab table and keeps up an anonymous correspondence with someone from sixth period, right up until the day they pencil her name, Carrie Miller, rather disparagingly, and say they know who she is.

Your cover is blown, Carrie Miller. Yet for the most part high school is a new frontier. She and Deirdre join Pep Club, Choir, Band, Science Club, the Junior Achievement Business Club and Drama Club. In high school, you can re-invent yourself. There are two whole grades of people that you have never met before at all, or at least not since early elementary school. You know the sophomores, because you went to junior high school together. So the sophomores might catch on to who you were before, and who you were before might mean an ugly bookworm who played with dolls until she was at least twelve (if not thirteen), but everyone else is fair game.

She has now forgotten Mike. From the Catholic canoe trip.

High school is like Hollywood, a popularity contest full of drugs and homosexuality. The year is 1983. Carrie and Deirdre promise each other they will never try the former. (That they will never try the latter is a given and “givens” are what they study in Geometry class.) You have to have some morals as regards drugs and alcohol. Carrie and Deirdre have read the cautionary anti-drug novel Go Ask Alice. They know about incidental lesbianism and bugs crawling on your skin from “bad trips”. Go Ask Alice makes Carrie's heart beat quickly. In a bad way. In a good way. In a bad way.

Choir is cool, kind of cool. Carrie is a mezzo soprano. It is implicit but subtle that first sopranos, though, those with the highest voices, like whistling birds, like the clear rivery bells at Mass that change the wine into the blood of Christ, are the most valued. The choir director alludes that Carrie may develop into a first soprano if she practices her voice enough. She is not doomed to be a mezzo soprano forever. Deirdre is a first soprano and Deirdre has the prettiest voice in the school, but Deirdre also makes fun of Carrie's voice a lot. Deirdre's attitude is not good. Carrie is better at art than Deirdre. The choir director asks Carrie to design the silkscreen design for the posters for the Choir Christmas Concert. Deirdre will be singing the Ave Maria solo. That is all you can say about Choir. All you can say. All you can say about Pep Club, Band, Science Club and the Junior Achievement Business Club.



So the Drama Club turns out to be the best. The funniest people. Carrie and Deirdre quickly develop crushes on the senior guys who get most of the lead roles. The senior boys are intellectuals. Carrie and Deirdre divide up their crushes so they make sure they are not liking the same eighteen-year-old guys. This is a negotiation as careful as making sure you don't both like the same guy from Duran Duran. That is why Deirdre likes Simon Le Bon and Carrie likes Nick Rhodes. That is why Carrie likes Rick Springfield and Prince, and Deirdre likes the guy from Depeche Mode.

Carrie has now forgotten all about the nine plants. Outside the neighbour's greenhouse.

One thing they learn in Drama Club is that there are cooler bands than Duran Duran. Punk and new wave bands. Now Carrie plans to like Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys and Deirdre will like Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo. There are rumours about one of the other senior boys in drama club being gay. This is not nice, so Carrie and Deirdre vigorously defend him. He is not gay. This is a terrible slur. He is just effeminate like Boy George. And Boy George is not gay. Everyone knows Boy George is not gay and he says he is not gay himself. You would be crazy for thinking Boy George was gay. That would be like thinking the guy from Dead Or Alive was gay.

The autumn play is Life with Father. Carrie and Deirdre audition. Carrie plays the ingenue maid Annie and Deidre plays one of the kids. These are good roles for freshmen. Flats are what you call the fake scenery. Everyone scrawls graffiti on the flats backstage. It is terrible fascinating. And very intellectual. Like the senior boys. There is graffiti even from seven years back. People refer to each other by their stage names in the graffiti and there are alluded secret romances between Romeo and the Nurse. And very old words like forsooth and alas-and-alack and manikin, the last of which just means a little person. Like a Barbie doll. Which Carrie was playing with only two years ago. Or maybe one year ago. She and Deirdre are little when compared to the senior boys. Manikins. Barbie dolls. Forsooth, young Shakespearean Freshman Barbie, with thy pink ruffle round thy neck and a pox be on thy Dream Barbie House, a pox be on all thy pink plastic houses. Yes, that sounds good. Carrie will write all that down on the flats. There are cool drawings on the flats too, deep ones having to do with nuclear weapons and something called apathy, which Carrie has to look up in the dictionary. It means you don't care. Her stomach hurts when she thinks about nuclear war and the television movie called The Day After. Nuclear war. She cares. She will be an anarchist so she can work towards a nuclear-free world, anarchist being another word she has to look up.



Better than lab-table correspondence. And on the flats behind Life with Father, she starts up an anonymous thread of observations about the Father-character's fictitious ex-girlfriends (“Father” is a widower). She tries to be cynical. That is a new word further along in her dictionary. She knows she has done the right thing when the senior boys figure out it is her and compliment her wit within her hearing during rehearsal. She blushes. She also overhears that she is considered cute by senior boys. There are deep and clever things written on the flats like "My Karma Ran Over My Dogma" and "I Take Drugs Seriously", although Carrie is pretty sure she once saw the karma slogan on a T-shirt in Anchorage. This other scrawling makes her stomach a little worried. It has a double meaning. It is also a joke about taking drugs. She remembers nine green plants. She discusses this with Deirdre. They don't know what this means about the Drama Club. Perhaps drugs are okay? Maybe the senior boys take drugs? You believe things for years, and what if you're wrong? What if you're wrong.



Holly (who plays Mary Skinner) loves Drew (who plays Reverend Lloyd) who loves Adam (who plays Father)'s ex-girlfriend Lynn (who is the stage manager), who loves Drew. It is very complicated. That is what goes on backstage. It is very interesting. You can figure out a bit of it from the graffiti on the flats. Some graffiti is flirtatious. The lives of juniors and seniors are glamorous lives, oh the drama. O the humanity, like the intellectual senior boys say.

***

On the beach the fire cracks. The cast party is another perk of Drama Club. People talk about cast parties for years afterwards. Carrie and Deirdre still hear about the one from The Fantasticks and that was three years before they ever started high school. The seniors now were just freshmen then. A cast party is where many stage romances start and sometimes people get angry for stealing boyfriends and girlfriends and spit on each other.



There is alcohol drinking at this cast party. This is kind of weird. Carrie and Deirdre exchange glances with each other. The smoke is in the sky, a huge elephant that no one is talking about. Carrie eats a hot dog. There are people kissing behind her. One of them is her senior boy, but of course he never knew he was her senior boy. That was just for her and Deirdre. Some day I will be old, thinks Carrie, I will be old on this beach. The hot dog is spicy. Carrie likes them burnt black like logs. The crisp jacket, black as sin, breaks in your mouth into cooked pink pork. Lots of mustard. A little relish. What do you see in the smoke, Carrie asks Deirdre too loudly, because I see elephants. Everyone laughs and says, "Yeah, pink elephants!" But she was not trying to be funny. But she is glad she got credit for it. People are laughing at a lot of things that aren't funny. The smoke smells funny. Up in the sky, which may soon turn from applesauce to bruise, the elephant is growing bigger and crushes the turtles it is standing on, Carrie thinks she has read that myth somewhere before, the broken flakes of turtleshell rain down from the sky in particles, as bright ash. "Ouch!" says Carrie, as a spark hits her cheek.



They are on the beach now. They are at the cast party. The people they admire, the intellectual boys, are smoking pot. She and Deirdre leave the party, walk up the dirt road that leads back to town. It is very chilly in September with no fire. Try to remember the days of September. From The Fantasticks. The Catholic church is still open. They sneak into the basement to use the bathroom and the water fountain. Hotdogs make you thirsty. They talk about it. In whispers, so no one catches them using the bathroom. What will they do? Are those boys wrong? Are Carrie and Deirdre? Carrie and Deirdre are crying. They hug each other. Will they themselves adapt and change?



Carrie's necklace of coals burns brands into her skin, and above the girls the elephants thunder past. The elephants make the flats fall down. All you see is applesauce sky. What shall we do, Deirdre and Carrie whisper in the church basement, what shall we do?

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