The next four days pass in a haze. I only move between the bed and the bathroom. Occasionally I drag myself into the kitchen to get water and a peanut butter sandwich. It’s like I have the flu so bad I can’t move . . . except, of course, I can move. But why bother?
The only thing that finally convinces me to crawl out of bed is the power company. I wake up one morning to discover the TV won’t turn on.
They shut off the power, I realize. Well, I can stare at the ceiling for a while.
But as the afternoon wears on, it gets cold—like, teeth-chattering cold—because my place has electric heat, and this week has been ridiculously chilly for April. I don a winter coat and pile on every blanket I have.
I guess that settles it: Nothing left to do but head home. Still bundled up and shivering, I lethargically toss dirty clothes into my backpack. Besides a decrepit mattress, the only things I’ll have to leave in New York are faith in God and broken dreams. But who needs those?
Saturday morning, I drag my backpack and suitcase to the Greyhound station and board a bus for Iowa City.
I give in to praying somewhere in Pennsylvania, but only because I’m tired of staring at highway signs. And maybe I should call it “mental yelling”: You sure do reward faith, I sneer at God. If this is my spanking for lying to Ms. G, I get it. But what about the year and a half before the lie, when my best gig was a mouthwash commercial?
After 29 hours, four transfers, and so many stops I lose count, I’m finally in Iowa. On the way into town we pass Iowa City’s version of Broadway, a sketchy side street on the south side with a smoke shop and an all-night greasy spoon on the corner. It’s definitely not the Great White Way.
My parents (God bless them) are happy to welcome back their prodigal daughter. After a day or two, it’s like I never left at all. I still feel like a big ball of failure, but it’s nice sleeping in my old room.
Well . . . mostly nice. The first things I see every morning when I wake up are the high school Thespian awards on my dresser.
* * *
I spend a week alternately moping in my room and moping in front of the TV before Dad starts pestering me about finding a job. “And you could try out for Iowa City Community Theatre,” he adds.
“If I’m not good enough to act, I’d better make peace with it and move on,” I growl darkly. “But I’ll find a job.” I spend an afternoon filling out applications, and I’m soon a proud drugstore grunt again.
My phone rings a few days later. I expect to see a bill collector’s number, but it’s even worse: It’s Karen Giardini, my old theatre teacher. (She told me to call her ‘‘Karen’ after I graduated, but in my head, she’ll always be ‘Ms. G.’)
I reluctantly answer. “Karen . . .”
“Lillian Muschinski, when were you going to tell me you were in town?”
“Sorry, I’ve been looking for a job—”
“I had to find out from your dad. Your dad! Are New Yorkers too good for Iowa hicks?”
I decide it’s time to confess my sins. “I need to tell you . . . look, I’m really sorry—”
“Here it comes,” says Ms. G.
“Here what comes?”
“I may be old, but I know how to Google,” she says. “There was never a ‘Muschinski’ performing on Broadway.”
“So . . . you knew?”
“I was mad at first. Y’know, ‘we’re pals, and she’s lying to my face’? But then I remembered: I bombed an audition once in my L.A. days. When I saw a friend later, you know what I told her? ‘I got a callback!’ Know why?”
I know exactly why, but I can’t quite say it: “Because you . . . I mean, maybe . . .”
“I was ashamed when there was nothing to be ashamed about. So I decided to let you come clean on your own time. Now, I’m calling on business: You wanna teach a small group for my musical theatre camp this year? You’d be perfect!”
Ms. G has run a summer camp for elementary and middle school kids for years. It helps recruit fresh blood into her theatre program at the high school.
“Come on, you’ve worked in New York!” she cajoles me. “You could give the kids so much perspective—”
“Perspective on how to wash out of a theatre career?”
“No, perspective on having faith in your dreams—”
“Still working on that one.” Now I get it: Dad and Ms. G teach at the same school. They must’ve put their heads together to set me up for this.
“Lillian,” Ms. G says in her best teacher-guilt-trip voice, “is this my Flounder talking?”
Great—she had to bring that up.
We did “The Little Mermaid” when I was a freshman, and I wanted to be Ariel so bad I could taste the saltwater. But naturally, the role went to a senior. I wound up as Flounder, the comic-relief sidekick.
I knew I was a way better Ariel than any senior, and all my friends agreed. I promptly dropped out of the production . . . until Ms. G pulled me out of Geometry one day and let me have it. Her parting shot was, “I feel sorry for you, Lillian. You’re never going to know how great you could have been.”
Well, Ms. G’s strategy worked: I rejoined the cast and poured my heart into Flounder. When we did “Beauty and the Beast” the next year, I won the role of Belle.
Obviously, her point is that I had enough faith to try again and it paid off. But I’m not in high school anymore, I think with an eyeroll. I found out how “great” I was, and it wasn’t enough.
“Karen . . . thanks for asking about the camp, but—”
“I know I caught you off-guard. If I send you an email with the details, will you think about it?”
“I’ll think about it,” I promise.
What I don’t mention is that I’m not going to think very hard. Like I told Dad, I’m done with acting.
* * *
The thing that changes my mind about teaching at Ms. G’s camp isn’t the noble desire to bounce back from failure. It’s math. When I subtract student loans and a car payment from my drugstore paycheck, the numbers don’t compute.
“I guess I’ll teach,” I email Ms. G over the weekend.
So long as I’m compromising on my stubbornness, I also give in to praying . . . sort of. God, I don’t like you very much right now, but I’m trying to pick up the pieces. Maybe you could help?
Teaching theatre triggers a bundle of conflicting feelings. On the first day of camp, I realize that wrangling 10-year-olds will be a good way to forget my troubles. You can’t ponder an existential crisis while yelling, “Don’t climb on the stacks of chairs, Jackson!” Jackson’s one of my most talented kids. But he’s constantly seeking attention—especially the negative kind.
The best thing about the gig is seeing kids discover the joy of acting. When I ask, “Who wants to go first?” to perform a practice scene, almost every hand shoots up. That’s the same thrill I felt when I stepped onstage as a kid.
But there’s a dark side to it, too. Yes, it’s dumb and petty . . . but watching my students perform makes me jealous that it isn’t me onstage.
Knock it off, I tell myself sternly. Acting is over for you. You aren’t good enough; suck it up and move on. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.
When Ms. G stops by my group to observe, she asks how I think it’s going.
“Depends on the day,” I shrug. “Or the hour.”
“Sounds like you’re a teacher already,” she laughs.
A five-week camp is an eternity to a kid, but to an adult, it’s no time at all. Before long we’re moving our rehearsals of “Aladdin Jr.” from the rec center to the Palace Theatre downtown. The kids’ excitement is contagious. In spite of myself, I catch some of their enthusiasm as we head into show week.
But three days before we open, disaster strikes.
I’m backstage helping Princess Jasmine with a costume change when the fire alarm goes off. As we wait outside with the kids, I assume it was a false alarm . . . until a boy spots smoke pouring from the roof. It turns out to be an electrical fire that spread to old costumes in storage. By the time the firefighters are done drenching the place, there’s no way we’re performing here.
All 78 kids troop back to the rec center while Ms. G frantically works to find us somewhere, anywhere, to perform. She usually gets a little waspish during show weeks, but she’s in rare form this time.
“Where are we going to perform?” wails a second grader on Tuesday.
“If you ask one more time, we won’t perform at all!” snaps Ms. G.
Meanwhile, we don’t have enough space to rehearse the big dance numbers. “The kids aren’t going to be ready for the Prince Ali scene,” I warn her.
“Do you want me to wave my wand and make a new theatre?” she retorts.
Wednesday night at dinnertime—barely 48 hours before our performance—Ms. G finally calls with news: Trinity Christian Academy will let us use their gym! There’s no lighting or sound system and the school is way down on the south side, but there’s enough space for our big numbers.
“Lillian, I want you to dance in ‘Prince Ali’ with the kids at the performance,” she tells me.
“Aren’t I a little old for that?”
“Do you think the kids are ready to do it alone? They need a professional onstage with them.”
“I’m not a professional.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I don’t say anything.
“You know I can’t do it; I have two left feet. Maybe three.”
I keep my mouth shut.
“Lillian Muschinski, your father told me you’ve given up on acting. Is that true?”
“You always told us to play to our strengths. Since acting isn’t my strength—”
“You’re going to screw up a performance for 78 kids because you’re pouting over New York?”
“I’m not dancing with the kids, Karen. Just because you’re my boss—”
“Better call me Ms. G; you’re acting like you’re 15 again.”
“When you come to work tomorrow, bring your character shoes,” she says. “If you don’t, well . . .”
“Are you threatening to fire me?”
“You bet I am, Flounder,” she says.
I almost hang up . . . but that would be admitting that I’m acting 15. “You’re not being fair.”
On the other end of the line, I hear Ms. G take a deep breath before she speaks again.
“Lillian, I’m stressed, and . . . okay. Okay. Now I’m acting 15.”
“That’s ‘Karen’ to you.” She pauses for a long time. “You remember our talk your junior year? When you were deciding whether to major in theatre?”
“I was an idealistic idiot.”
“You said, ‘I believe art makes us more human; that’s why it’s a noble calling.’ Do you still believe it?”
I pause for a long time. “I guess not.”
“Neither did I when we talked—I thought you were an idealistic idiot. But I was burned out from L.A. Ever wonder why I didn’t go back?”
“I figured you found your calling. You’re a great teacher.”
“You have to say that; you’re my friend. I didn’t go back because I couldn’t believe what I did out there mattered. Of course, I don’t believe much. I thought it was easier for religious people.”
“Believing they mean something,” she says. “Dance numbers and acting classes and everything we’ve done with our whole lives—”
“I think it’s a joke,” I tell her, “but I’m not laughing.”
“Neither am I. That’s why I hoped . . . you don’t have to dance with the kids, Lillian.”
“It’s just better not to . . .” I swallow a sob. “I don’t wanna remind myself how much I love it. It hurts.”
“Aren’t Christians into the hurt?”
“Jesus redeemed the world through suffering, right?”
“So I’m the Messiah of Theatre?”
“C’mon, suffering to help people! Isn’t that a thing?”
“My faith has led to me working at a drugstore and herding 10-year-olds, because everything I’ve done since age four was one of God’s laugh lines.”
“I didn’t think a career was the goal of the Christian life.”
“Isn’t faith supposed to mean something? Doesn’t it do something?”
“Like make you resemble Jesus?”
“And his career ended suddenly at age 33, didn’t it?”
“So my whole life—dancing, acting, singing—it’s just a big discipleship lesson? I throw away all my skills ‘cause I’m a better person now?”
“No, but the reason I landed in teaching . . . can’t I use my skills to make somebody else a better person? Christians call it ‘ministry,’ right?”
I don’t know how to answer that. There’s a long pause.
Ms. G finally says, “See you tomorrow, Lillian.” And she hangs up.
* * *
The next two days of camp are a lot like I remember my own summer camps growing up. Suddenly, I’m more than a frustrated teacher; I’m a performer again . . . because Ms. G is right. Dancing with the kids is a ministry, whether I like it or not.
As I lead them through “Prince Ali” and the other big numbers, I can tell this is what they need to get through the show after our big setback. I can also tell it’s what I need: Performing has been a job for so long that I forgot how much fun it is.
I tear up once or twice when I remember I’m doing this in Iowa City with kids instead of professionals in New York. But mostly, the joy comes flooding back in.
“Ms. Lillian, how did you learn to dance so good?” asks Jackson, my little chair-climber.
“Lots of practice.”
“I don’t think I could practice that much,” he says with wide eyes.
There are still problems. When Genie comes out for his first scene wearing Jasmine’s top (because he thought it would be funny), I’m surprised Ms. G doesn’t kill him on the spot—or at least tear her hair out.
An hour later while we wolf down lunch, Ms. G speaks up. “Well . . . you’re dancing. Does that mean you believe it?”
“That theatre means something?”
She nods. I shrug.
“Well, try to believe it for both of us,” she mutters, and mimes tearing her hair out.
Friday night arrives in no time. All things considered, the performance turns out way better than we could’ve expected. After the show, Jackson—who apparently thinks I’m cool, even when I yell at him about climbing things—introduces me to his mom. She pulls me aside.
“You were amazing up there,” she says.
I smile awkwardly.
“Look . . . I want to thank you for what you’ve done for Jackson this summer,” she continues. “I’ve had him in arts programs before, but . . . well, the teachers weren’t good. Maybe they were excellent teachers, but . . .”
She nods. “Jackson can tell. Last year he said . . . during camp, he told me, ‘Ms. So-and-So can’t sing. Why is she my teacher?’ I know this is Iowa and Ms. G has to hire whoever’s in town . . .
“Well, I almost didn’t sign him up. But his father and I are going through a divorce, and he’s been depressed but the counseling isn’t helping, so I thought . . . point is, the past couple weeks are the first time he’s come home happy from anywhere. In months. So . . . thank you, Lillian.”
I think I feel a couple tears again. But this time, it’s not because I’m dancing in Iowa instead of New York.
* * *
It’s after midnight when we finish tearing down the show. Ms. G still insists on taking me out to celebrate. We land at an all-night greasy spoon a block away from the school.
We gorge on cheese fries before she looks at me intently across the table. “So . . .?”
“So what?” I ask.
“How do you feel?”
I take a minute to think about that one. “Well . . . I’m on a performance high. Tomorrow I’m still gonna wonder what to do with the rest of my life.”
“You don’t have to figure it out now.”
“Karen, I wish . . . why am I back in Iowa? I don’t have enough talent for New York? Or God’s really mad at me? Or I’m really unlucky—”
“Lillian, I can’t fix my life most of the time. As for yours . . .”
“You can sure cheer a girl up.”
“But I know it’s an act of faith to keep doing what you’re good at. Great at.”
I shake my head and study the tabletop.
“I have something to show you,” Ms. G finally says. “Come outside.”
“At one in the morning?”
“Come on.” She yanks my arm and drags me out of the restaurant.
She pulls me across the parking lot and out to the street. Then she points back towards the school where we performed. “Look,” she says.
“At that!” She guides my eyes to a street sign.
Then I spot something I didn’t notice before. Trinity Christian Academy is on a corner. I knew we were on the south side of town, but I didn’t realize . . .
That street sign says that tonight, I fulfilled a dream. I performed on Broadway.
“I think it’s just a coincidence,” Ms. G says, giving me a hard look. “But then, I don’t have faith.”
There’s a long silence.
“Well . . . maybe I do,” I finally say.
Before we head back into the restaurant, I snap a picture of the Broadway sign and whisper a quick “thanks” to God. Because at least sometimes . . . I have faith.
Copyright 2020 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.