I attended a huge public high school where you might want to keep it to yourself if you’d ever been a Girl Scout, took French as an elective, or had a county library card.
None of us had wealth. We were not the homogenous club of a private school. To graduate at escape velocity, we needed grades and extra-curricular activities. In chorus, band, civics club and on the athletic fields, special attention could change a trajectory with a scholarship or admission to a private college.
So, although I was only a sophomore, I auditioned for South Pacific, specifically for the lead role of the perky Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush. I was both excited and terrified to be called back after the first round of auditions to read again with several other girls. By the end of the afternoon the director said it was between Joanne and me.
Joanne was a senior which made her my superior in every way. An experienced thespian, she had presence, talent, and spontaneity. She was also an awesome competitor. By comparison, I was pretty tightly-wound with all the awkwardness of sophomore-dom. I only fit in with a narrow margin of my peers, (the safety-conscious, the selective rule abiders). And far from being confident, I was astonished every time I opened my mouth on stage and anything came out at all. That what came out was an actual melody and in the right key made me want to stop and stammer my amazement to the audience like I might have had, I don’t know, a spaceship landed stage right.
So, Joanne sang Bali Ha’i. I sang Bali Ha’i. Joanne sang Some Enchanted Evening, I followed suit. In the darkened auditorium the director and assistant director put their heads together in consternation. Which girl was the real Nellie Forbush? Which one? Joanne and I stood center stage smiling blindly into the footlights and our futures. “Okay,” Ms. James said, suddenly inspired. “Laura, we want you to sing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and this time, could you also do a little dance?
Where was that spaceship? I didn’t know how to dance. I had no moves! I had a reputation for being smart, not cool—but I wasn’t smart either. I just had the advantage of having college-educated parents in a school where that was not the norm. For instance, I didn’t have to study grammar. I only had to speak as I was spoken to at home. That was imposter-luck, not intelligence. And I had the pseudo-maturity of a child of divorce when that role was a rarity. It meant I volunteered in class, told the teacher when she had missed a buttonhole. I wasn’t being ingratiating, I just understood the overworked women who taught me because I lived with one, and students anxious to please tend to get good grades.
Mr. Nichols cued the orchestra giving me no time to prepare. I was, however, trying out for the cheerleading squad that Friday. I’m pretty sure the onlookers seated in the auditorium that afternoon were treated to a first-of-its-kind hybrid cheer-dance. Something like, “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair, cause we’re gonna go, we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna win this game tonight, Eagles!” There may have been leaping involved. I’m so sorry.
I did not play Nellie Forbush that year. I was in the chorus. Joanne was spectacular. I did go to my high school reunion years later. We had become policemen, social workers, accountants, and firefighters. We had become parents. We had loved and lost. I couldn’t help noticing a kind of soft glow in the room that could not be attributed to any outer source of light.
My boyfriend from senior year was there. We’d starred in the spring musical, Guys and Dolls before we had left for college. Mike had played the charismatic gambler, Sky Masterson and I’d played the uptight, self-righteous missionary, Sarah Brown. I was excellent at this. I barely needed to audition.
That was decades ago and we’re having another reunion in November. I’m going. Mike is going, too. He’s bringing his husband. They live in NYC. On Facebook I see that Mike is still very involved in theater and his joy, his delight with the life he has made, is palpable. I may not know another soul there, but I hope Mike and his husband Rob will dance with me. Would that be weird? The three of us dancing?
And it’s honestly got me to thinking there is something to this theory that we are born into soul families. That groups of people are born in concert because they are going to have roles in each other’s lives. I have found it easy to believe that’s true of our primary loves—the people with whom we create children, or our parents, siblings, our children themselves, maybe even our grandparents.
But I did not believe before, that the cast may include the bus driver, the boy you learned to fish with who moved away when you were seven. The family that found your dog the night he ran away. What do you think?
I’m beginning to suspect there is no distinction. That if some people were meant to be in your life, they all were. If you were destined to love some of the people in your world, maybe all of the people in your world are significant in a personal way, even those with brief and minor roles.
Which is why rediscovering them years later is a special delight—more so than making a new friend.
Because you’re recovering your family. Your people. Your tribe.