Joyland

New York |

Can't Dance

by Erica Peplin

edited by Michelle Lyn King

My mom took me to get a spray tan. She showed me how to step into the stall. She told me to close my eyes. She said when the machine stopped spraying, I had six seconds to turn around and then it would spray again. I had to hold my hands out like a scarecrow, with my palms facing away from the nozzles. She left and all I could think about was the gas chamber. I thought the tanning booth was going to kill me. I was only doing it because of show choir, where they made us wear red dresses with rhinestone straps.

My friend Liza made fun of me for joining choir. She came to the fall show and said I danced two moves behind everyone else. "Their hands were down," she said, "and yours were up." Liza was different from the other girls at school. She drank black coffee in first hour and wore a Bob Dylan t-shirt with moccasins and no socks.

I sat with the altos because they sang lower. Their singing was more like talking and talking was the only thing I could do. The songbooks were open in front of me but I never actually sang. I mouthed along.

The choir director Evelyn was famous around town because she was a sixty-five year-old, khaki-pants-wearing lesbian who once threatened a girl with her car. The girl was a choir student—a good one—and she had told Evelyn she was going to quit to be Blanche DuBois in the school play. Evelyn told her, and all subsequent classes, that it was a Streetcar Named Bullshit and no drama geeks were going to steal her lead soprano. Later that night, she followed the girl with her car. She pulled up behind her and revved the engine. The girl said she knew it was Evelyn because she could see her “bull-dykey” hair through the windshield. The girl stayed in choir and never told the administration. No one ever told the administration anything about what Evelyn did. She yelled and threw sheet music and made rehearsals go until midnight, but she got her kids into regionals twenty years in a row.

I walked into Liza's house without knocking. She read about European history while I talked about choir. "Evelyn doesn't call on people," I said. "If someone tries to question her, she kicks them out."

“She sounds crazy,” Liza said.

"She is," I said, proud to be under a tyrannical woman's wing. "She is completely crazy."

A few weeks later, Evelyn said she was splitting the freshmen choir in two. One group would be coed and the other would be all-girls. Everyone had to sing a song without accompaniment in front of Evelyn and the whole class and then she would decide who would go where.

The pianist with diabetes who was Evelyn's assistant gave me "But Not For Me" by George and Ira Gershwin. Their names were at the top of the sheet music and I thought I was doing something important by singing their song, carrying on their legacy. But I couldn't sing the song. My voice was flat and I could never remember the lyrics.

My mom took me to get my nails done before the audition. I told her I didn't want a color but she said clear was a waste of money. "You should get pink," she said, holding up a bottle from the rack. "It blends with your complexion." The color was called "Mademoiselle." The name was taped to the bottom.

The diabetic pianist saved me because "But Not For Me" was a talking song. I talk-sang it in front of everyone with the lyrics written on a notecard in my pocket.

Evelyn posted the rosters on her soundproof door the next day. I got into the all-girls choir and it was fine with me. I was just glad the audition was over. The girls who had gone to Catholic middle school hugged and cried in the hallway. They said the all-girls choir was the bad choir. The girls who got into the coed choir also hugged and cried, for different reasons.

My mom took me to the salon to get my eyebrows waxed. She told the woman they should be "thick but not bushy." I kept touching them afterward because the skin was puffy and I could still feel the gel. I told the Catholic girls about it the next day. They said my eyebrows looked good. One of them said she could only pluck her eyebrows because her mom wouldn't let her get them waxed. Another said she wanted to get them waxed but was afraid. I told her not to be nervous. “It hurts for a second,” I said. “Then it goes away.”

The Catholic girls wrapped my locker on my birthday. They did it for each other and I was surprised when they did it for me. The paper on top said "happy birthday" and they all signed their names using different colored pens. Liza didn't know it was my birthday because she didn't use the internet. I asked her when her birthday was, thinking maybe I could wrap her locker, and she said "April but don't tell anyone. I don’t want the attention.” I went home and took my birthday off the internet.

One of the Catholic girls invited me over to her house. When I got there, all the Catholic girls were sitting in a row on the couch and it was like every single one of them lived there. We watched a movie about a woman who thinks she doesn't want to get married but in the end, marries her handsome, male best friend. The Catholic girls sang along to the montages and the mother who had been upstairs came down to take our picture for no reason. We put our arms around each other and smiled with our teeth.

My mom curled my hair for the Christmas show. I stood in her bathroom and faced the mirror. She stood behind me with her lips puckered like a little girl, her eyes focused on the art project in front of her. "You start at the top," she said, “and work your way down." She was halfway done when I changed my mind. I told her I didn't want to curl my hair anymore. It was taking too long and my head was on fire. She was horrified. “You can't stop now," she said. “You'll look like a crazy person. Do you want to look like a crazy person?”

Liza had French books in her room and a painting I couldn't touch because the paint was still wet. "It's oil paint," she said. "It takes forever to dry." There was nowhere to sit so we sat on her bed, which was really a mattress on the floor. "Who is it?" I asked, looking at the old and dignified woman in the painting. "I don't know," Liza said. "She just popped into my head."

“She’s beautiful,” I said.

The coed choir came back from a competition upstate and told everyone they “got all ones.” I didn't know what that meant but they were happy when they said it. They were good looking and well groomed and many of them dated each other.

The concert at the end of the year was going to be the biggest in choir history. It was so big that it had to be at a different high school because they had a better stage. There were four dress rehearsals leading up to the show and Evelyn said it was important that everyone wear their makeup and costumes. The rehearsals had to be like the real thing, she said, or else the real thing would happen and no one would be ready.

I carpooled to the first rehearsal with the Catholic girls. It went until eleven. The next was supposed to go even later. I didn't want to go but I didn't have a choice. Everyone had to be there. The bald, gay choreographer was driving in from two hours away. The jazz band was playing in the pit. The volunteer moms were coming in to serve submarine sandwiches and cookies during the dinner break.

I was supposed to carpool again with the Catholic girls but they left without me. I called them and they didn't pick up. I called again and they picked up. “Sorry,” they said. “We thought you had a ride.”

My mom said she would drive me when she got home from work. I waited for her at home and when she pulled up, I got into the car and told her I didn't want to go. I didn’t want to be in choir anymore. I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance and I didn't like the people. She stopped at a fast food chain that sold donuts and soup in bread bowls. We ordered hot chocolate and sat in a booth by the window.

“If you don't want to go,” my mom said, “don’t go.”

I went into Evelyn's office the next day during lunch to tell her I wanted to quit. She was unpeeling a hard-boiled egg, letting the shells fall on the sheet music that covered her desk. Her computer was on the floor, unplugged. She looked at me like, ‘What do you want?’ My hands were shaking.

“If it’s okay with you,” I said. “I think I want to quit.”

She dumped salt and pepper over the yolks and asked what I was going to do instead. I told her I wanted to play a sport.

"Which sport?" she asked.

"Golf," I said.

She leaned back and her chair squeaked.

“That's great,” she said. “I love golf.”

The Catholic girls told me they missed me. Liza gave me her copy of The Plague by Camus. My mom asked if I wanted to get my nails done and I said no. I joined the golf team in the fall and played for two years. I wasn't good at that either.