Somebody Please Tell Me Who I Am
The knife came out of nowhere.
Ben Bright sprang back. His arm knocked the weapon into the shadows and nearly clocked his best friend, Niko Petropoulos.
“Nervous, are we?” Niko said.
Ben felt his heart race. His best friend was Sharked up, his hair slicked back and a cigarette pack rolled in his sleeve. Up close he looked ridiculous, and on a normal day Ben would have laughed in his face.
But not today. Today he wanted to shove Niko through the curtain. Or weep. Instead, the two impulses met in the middle and canceled each other out, and he said, “You scared me.”
“That makes two of us. Look what you did.” Niko lifted his shirt, revealing an ugly, purplish bruise. “I would like you to stab me again. And do it right this time.”
The bruise looked like a piece of steak or a great big rotten cabbage. Or the map of a distant, dead planet. “I did that?” Ben said.
“At dress rehearsal. You had your finger hooked around the blade, so it didn’t retract.” Niko was staring at him strangely. He lowered his shirt and leaned forward, raising an eyebrow. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Ben lied.
“You look like you’re about to pass out, or get sick. Which is okay. Nerves are normal. People hurl on opening nights, all the time. Just don’t do it here. You’ve already abused me enough. You’re graduating. I’ve got another year for humiliation.”
“I don’t have to hurl. I’m okay.”
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Niko pantomimed holding a mike. “Tonight. West Side Story. Eastport High School, New York. A performance that redefines Method acting—Tony actually kills Bernardo. Casting for replacement. Must be unbelievably hot and own a Kevlar vest. Details at eleven.”
Now everyone was staring: The sophomore playing Riff. Three Latino cast members practicing the Mambo. The weird little wardrobe kid who smelled like wet shoes. Which just made Ben feel worse. He hated keeping secrets. He hated doing things without telling anybody. He had to make it through this day, just this day. He could tell people tomorrow.
For now, he wanted to freeze time. To photograph them all and hold this moment tight, so he could retrieve it a month from now. So he could feel everything—the opening-night mania, the way Niko’s comments made him tongue-tied and unclever, the curve of his girlfriend Ariela’s back as she stretched at the barre. The way everyone shut up and paid attention whenever he appeared onstage. All the stuff he would be leaving behind.
He spun and trapped Niko in a headlock. “I’m a spaz, okay? I don’t belong on the same stage as you.”
“Murder!” Niko cried. He jerked loose, shaking his finger. “This is your inferiority complex. It makes you passive-aggressive. Or just aggressive. You need someone to convince you, for the trillionth time, that you’re God’s gift to the theater. Oy. Someone, please get him a Tony Award before he kills me!”
“Save the award, I’m getting the plastic knife,” Ben said, turning away.
That didn’t make sense. Everything out of his mouth felt off, like a bad taste. He walked carefully, threading through the squealers and warm-ups and grim line-reciters. His knife would be somewhere among the thicket of legs.
“Be-e-e-ennnyyyyy!” Wendy Leff enveloped Ben in a massive hug. Justin Milstein jumped in on the action, too, then Sarah Welch. The entire cluster nearly collided with Ariela Cruz, who was sitting on the floor near the back wall.
“Unhand the Wonk,” Ariela said. She was in a full split, leaning over a show poster she’d just signed.
Ben gently pushed aside his friends. “You’re my hero,” he said. “Even if you called me a Wonk.”
“Hey, I’m one too,” she said matter-of-factly. “Wonks are Group Three in my new Cruz taxonomy of actors. Group One is the Needies.” She waggled her fingers at Wendy. “They’re in it for the love and hugging. Two is the Bloviators, who get off on the attention. That would be cough cough, Niko, cough. And Three is the Wonks, like me and you, the process junkies. Acting, singing—we just like doing it. It’s a good Wonkness.”
A shrill voice pierced through the noise. “Half hour, please! Half hour!” Jeannie Lin, their stage manager, wound her way through the crowd, clutching a clipboard. Seeing Ben, she held out a tired-looking plastic knife and recited in her same announcer voice, “And hold onto your props, people!”
Ariela smiled at her as she marched away. “I hate when she calls us ‘people.’”
“Me too,” Ben said. “‘Lords and Ladies’ would work just fine.”
“Ha.” Ariela held out the poster, with a Sharpie balanced on top. “This is a present for Ms. Moglia. Sign under my name, okay? So Tony and Maria will always be together.” She batted her eyes with an irony that felt somehow comforting at a time like this.
Ariela’s name was huge and bold, with a heart sign over the i and a gushy, theater-y message, but Ben signed only his name in quick, tiny scribble.
“Modesty, in a guy, is so hot,” Ariela said with a sigh.
“I suck! I so totally suck!” Niko’s voice eagerly piped up from behind Ben. “At everything.”
“Modesty,” Ariela said, “not idiocy.”
“Look what your modest boyfriend did to me,” Niko said.
Ben could tell by Ariela’s nose crinkle that Niko had lifted his shirt again.
“He’s gentler with me. Well, mostly,” Ariela said. Standing up, she handed Niko the poster. “See if you can find room for your whole, long Greek name. Or just write ‘Douchebag.’ It’s shorter. And pass it on when you’re done.”
With a sly wink at Niko, she gave Ben a kiss and moved to an emptier spot at the barre. “Don’t say anything,” Ben murmured.
“You mean, like, ‘Lucky bastard’?” Niko said. “Okay, I’ll just think it.”
“Compliment accepted. I think.”
“So, have you guys set a date?”
“Just sign the poster.”
Niko leaned in closer. “I’m serious. We’ve talked about this—”
“Hypothetically. And in private.”
“Nobody’s listening. I find the idea fascinating.” Niko carefully signed his full name, Nikolaos Dimitrios Petropoulos. “You and Ariela … settling down, getting married, auditioning, living together in some rat-infested love nest in Brooklyn … down the block from me and Taylor Swift.”
Ben was in no mood for Niko’s predictable unpredictability. “Later, okay? She’s going to be in Ohio next year. And you know it. If you want to rehearse, come find me.”
He began walking away to look for a quieter, less annoying spot.
“And you? Where are you going? How come you never talk about that?” Niko barreled on, following close behind. “I mean, you and Ariela have been together since you were in diapers, you still love each other’s asses, and you both know you couldn’t do better. So … you wouldn’t do anything stupid to screw that up. Am I right?”
Ben whirled around. “If this is some kind of nut-job acting exercise, it’s over. Now let’s do the scene or go back into your hole.”
Niko had a weird look. Ben knew the look. Sometimes when Niko wanted something, he didn’t give you the pleasure of stating it outright if he could make you guess it.
“Are you jealous?” Ben said with exasperation. “Is that what this is all about? Can you hold it in until after the show?”
“Come at me.” Niko struck his fight pose. “Come on, Tony, you greasy slimebag Polish gringo. Come and get Bernardo, the brother of your sexy true love.”
“Twist my arm.” Making sure to grip the knife with the handle only, Ben lunged at him. Niko flew back, just as rehearsed, and Ben lunged again. He aimed away from the bruise, a couple of inches closer to Niko’s midsection, and plunged the knife inward. He could feel the blade retracting smoothly into the hilt on a spring. He’d done it right this time. Niko was supposed to flex his torso and freeze for a moment, letting the audience see that he’d been stabbed. But instead, he grabbed Ben’s arm and flipped him to the floor.
“Hey!” Ben shouted.
Niko was on top of him, pinning him to the dust-covered floorboards. Which was unfair because Niko wrestled varsity.
Ben forced a laugh. “Okay, okay, we’re even. Let go.”
“Not yet,” Niko said, his voice a raspy whisper. He leaned closer, his eyes narrowed and angry. “You got your notice, didn’t you?”
Ben felt himself grow suddenly cold and numb. “What?”
“You don’t want to say anything because it’s opening night,” Niko said. “Right? Because you’re such a friggin’ modest Boy Scout. Because you’re so It’s not about me.”
“Asshole.” Ben struggled but couldn’t move.
“I know what you did. Tell me the truth. Because there are only two things that could make you act so weird. One is that Ariela is pregnant—so it must be the other thing.”
“You’re freaking crazy.”
“Crazy but not stupid. If I’m wrong, say it. Say ‘You’re wrong.’ Just those words.”
Ben lurched forward, ramming his forehead into Niko’s brow.
As his best friend fell back with a yowl, Jeannie came running toward them. “Guys! What are you doing?”
Ben forced a smile. “Just rehearsing.”
“Nice move.” Niko rubbed his head. His eyes had changed, as if a cloud front had moved across them. “It’ll come in handy with the ragheads.”
“Don’t use that word,” Ben snapped.
“You can tell them, ‘Hey, terrorists, it’s not about you.’ Teach them the Gospel of Ben and save the world from Islamists.”
“Um, you guys? We’re almost at fifteen—” Jeannie said.
“We know, okay?” Ben snapped. “Go away.”
As she huffed off, Niko glanced over toward Ariela. “Have you told her? I’m sure she’ll be okay with the fact that you’re giving her up. Not to mention your friends and your future. To join the freaking Army and fight a war we never should have gotten into! And Chris. What’s he going to think? Did you ever think about the fact that your brother needs you more than the Republican party does?”
“It’s not a party, it’s a country,” Ben said. “And I’m not going anywhere but boot camp. Just because you and everyone else in this school isn’t doing what I’m doing, doesn’t make you all right and me wrong.”
“You want to know what’s wrong? It’s wrong to waste talent. It’s wrong to keep it from the rest of the world. It’s selfish.”
“There are thousands of people who can act and sing.”
“There are thousands of people who can take a bullet for no good reason.”
Do. Not. Let. Him. Get. To. You.
“Fifteen minutes, people!” Jeannie shouted. “Fifteen!”
Ben stood calmly. “I need to get ready. Do you want to do the scene again?”
Niko looked at him dully and turned away. “Break a leg, Private Bright. And crack a skull while you’re at it.”
Ben wasn’t feeling in the mood to eat or party, even though (1) the revolving lazy Susan at Lily Hong’s was practically cracking with the weight of the feast, and (2) Ms. Hong had allowed him to blast his own playlist over the speakers.
He wanted the night to be over. Ariela was dancing with a bunch of Jets and Sharks girls, most of them still in their makeup. After too many attempts to bring Ben into their circle with a magnetic glance, she had given up. Niko hadn’t spoken to him except as Bernardo on stage, and the anger in the fight scene had been scary good.
Ben watched his mom and dad try to carry on a conversation with the Gleasons, whose older son had served in Desert Storm. They all looked very intense.
Ben felt a tap on his shoulder. “Squash court. Locked door. An ax, a baseball, a whip, and a can of Diet Coke. Tom Seaver and Slobodan Milošević. Who lives?”
Chris was looking at him expectantly. “Squash court?” Ben asked.
“An enclosed environment,” Chris explained. “Thirty-two feet long by twenty-one feet wide by eighteen feet high. They can’t leave until one of them dies.”
Ben thought a moment. “Well, Seaver has a stronger arm but Milošević is nastier … ”
“Want to place odds?” Chris asked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ben spotted Ms. Moglia gesturing toward him from another table. Chris was already sitting and drawing some elaborate diagrams on the tablecloth. “Three to two odds, Seaver,” Ben said. “Although I think I’ll regret it.”
Chris nodded. “Oh, yes, you will.” He held up his right hand stiffly.
Ben slapped it. “Da man, brother!”
“Da man,” Chris said.
Ben walked over to Ms. Moglia’s table and slid into the seat next to her. She offered him a steaming plate of shrimp with mala sauce, but he shook her off. She looked at him slyly. “’Smatter, don’t you like Szechuan dishes?”
Ben smiled. “They’s all right, I guess.”
“You’re sharp,” she said with a surprised cackle. “Okay, details.”
“Lady Sings the Blues,” Ben replied. “Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross, playing Billie Holliday.”
“‘Smatter, don’t you like …’ some flower. Gardenias?”
“Smart and talented!” She put her hand on his arm. “And lucky. I have some news for you. Come.”
She stood up and headed for the nearby wall, looking over her shoulder as she evaded waiters and dancing patrons. The wall was flooded with crisscrossing lights in different shades of red and amber, and she turned to face him under a dragon-shaped wall sconce. “Okay, entre nous,” she said in an exaggerated stage whisper. “You know I hate to brag, but when I was at Northwestern I dated David Ashman.” The last two words were spoken in the reverential hush befitting a Hollywood director.
“You’ve only told us that about once a week in class,” Ben said.
Ms. Moglia gave her own cheek a theatrical slap. “Motormouth. Well, I Friended him last month and lo and behold he accepted. Okay. Are you sitting down? No, you’re not, because there are no seats. No matter. He’s not only the hottest young player in TV—well, young-ish—but, drum roll, he’s casting a new teen TV show. Are you ready for this? Musical theater high school kids.”
“Well, yada yada, a new twist, whatever,” Ms. Moglia said. “Point is, he’s in the NYC area. What do you think would be the chance I’d get him to come to see a high-school show? Zero, under normal circumstances—in other words, if he hadn’t just happened to be looking for teen talent … ” She paused dramatically.
“So … what are saying? He was in the audience?”
“Not only was he,” Ms. Moglia said, “but he asked about you.”
Ben laughed. “Why, did I spit on him?”
“Oy, you are so self-effacing I almost can’t see you.” She grabbed Ben by both shoulders, and from the look on her face it may have been to keep herself from flying away. “He said you were good. Which means he may want to see you for the show!”
Ben felt a momentary rush. It was hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm. But Ms. Moglia was a dreamer. She had “made it to the final cut” of a dozen Broadway shows, been “singled out” by every famous director alive, and would be a huge star today if not for finances/backstabbing/sickness/ misunderstanding/her own refusal to compromise quality.
She was a kickass drama teacher and a lovable person, but a grain of salt was required.
“Great,” Ben said. “Maybe I’ll get a screen test someday.”
“I have a message in to him right now about that very thing.” She smiled knowingly. “To think I will have known you when. Don’t forget me in your Oscar speech.”
“I’ll let you write it for me.”
Ben turned to see Ariela waving at them. He waved back. He felt sweat beading on his forehead. Ms. Moglia was so happy; he wanted to feel happy too. This was supposed to be a great night. The show had gotten a standing ovation, he hadn’t cracked on the high note in “Maria,” he hadn’t murdered Niko, and a famous director had witnessed his triumph. The music, the lights, the food, and Ms. Moglia’s news would make any normal person proud of himself. He tried.
Ms. Moglia sighed. “Your reaction is noticeably muted.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “Sorry.”
“Muted is not in the palette of emotions I would have predicted. What’s up, honey? You can tell me. Why?”
He thought for a moment. What the hell. Everybody was going to know sooner or later, especially now that Niko knew. “Well, you might feel a little muted too if you were leaving for boot camp after graduation.”
“Say what?” Ms. Moglia said.
“Muted but excited, I mean,” Ben said. “It’s a privilege and opportunity, too, but on a different scale. Though not much chance to sing and dance, I guess.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Joke. Okay. You got me. I’m just a little gullible.”
“I’m serious,” Ben said.
“Yeah, and I’m Ethel Merman.” Ms. Moglia tossed back her head and laughed. “Now go dance with that hot chick who’s been staring at you all night before she burns a hole in the back of your head. And tell her the good news.”
Ariela had run out of the restaurant barefoot and was halfway across the parking lot with a notion to walk all the way home, when Ben had found her and talked her into his car, where she was now sitting, a shoeless prisoner.
“Are you warm enough?” he asked.
She couldn’t unclench her jaw to muster an answer. He had been yammering away with Ms. Moglia when Niko “Motormouth” Petropoulos had sprung the news on her. And now here she was, trapped, driving into a parking lot at Jones Beach like a nighttime hookup in the dunes, and all she wanted to do was walk into the surf and keep going.
“Okay,” he said as he pulled into a parking spot. “If you’re not going to talk, at least listen to me.”
“You are an idiot,” she said, climbing out of the car. “Everything positive I have ever said about you, every word, I take back. How could you do this? How could you think of doing this? Tell me this is a joke, Ben. Tell me this is something Niko made up. Because if it is, I’m going to kill him. And if it isn’t, I’m going to kill you.”
He was standing on the other side of the car now, his eyes brimming. “I wasn’t going to say anything. I was going to let you have the night.”
“Let me have the night? What is that supposed to mean? You were going to humor me, let me bask unknowing in the innocent glow of this, the pinnacle of my high school career—all the while you and that jackass Niko pitying me, laughing behind my back at my ignorance! And then what—tomorrow morning you call me? ‘Hey, later, Ariela, I’m going to war. You were killer as Maria!’”
“No!” Ben said. “It wasn’t like that! And I’m not going to war!”
Ariela turned her back. Looking at his face upset her too much. She began walking toward the ocean. The waves were calm, washing into the shore with confident little slaps. A couple of sandpipers followed the edge of the backwash, and a seagull swooped down loudly, making off with a Skittles wrapper. She could hear Ben padding behind her. He was a sensible guy to the last, and he was going to let her have some space. That was his modus operandi—do whatever the hell he felt like, and then let everyone else reel while he waited. “Don’t follow me,” she said.
“I’m your ride,” he replied.
“I can get home by myself.”
“It’s eleven miles.”
“I know how to take a bus.”
“They don’t run at this hour.”
“I’ll sleep here. I’ll float out to sea. I’ll keep walking until I reach Far Rockaway. And then Manhattan. And then Omaha.”
She felt his arm touching her waist. “Please. Let me talk to you.”
Ariela spun around. A tear was making its way down Ben’s right cheek, or maybe it was just condensation. She felt short of breath. “Why?” she said, fighting to keep the anger that despite her better judgment was dispersing like spindrift into the salty air. “Why did you do this without telling anyone?”
“I knew you would all say I shouldn’t do it. And I knew I had to do it. I didn’t want the conflict to wreck the rehearsal period. So I figured I would just wait.” He shrugged. “It was stupid, I know. Selfish.”
She looked into his soft, expressive face. She could identify every emotion that was washing over it, one by one—he was embarrassed, resolute, wronged, sympathetic, protective, confused, afraid. As much as she hated him this minute, he amazed her. As she had watched other guys morph painfully into creaky, pimplified approximations of manhood, Ben had slid by them, arriving there quietly without losing the softness of a boy. “It’s not selfish, Ben. Not what you just agreed to. It’s the opposite. It’s masochistic. It’s saying you’re not worth anything. All your talent, all your brainpower, just give it to the U. S. and let some faceless jackass with a black-market AK-47—”
“I’m not going to war!” Ben said. “I’m volunteering for the reserve. I’ve been thinking about this all my life. You’re the one who always says be different. Well, do we know anyone who is going to serve? No. Ninety-nine percent of our friends are going off to college, and then what? Finance? Law? Banking? That’s not a waste? People like us should volunteer—kids with privilege and skills and talent. So-called. I want to reach the end of my life and say, ‘I did something important. I saved lives.’ My grandfather was a prisoner of war, and he is the strongest, kindest, most accomplished man I know.”
“He would have been even if he didn’t serve,” Ariela snapped back. “And what makes you think you wouldn’t do something important if you didn’t go? Think about it, Ben. Your grandfather had to serve. He had no choice back then. In this century there are always people who’ll want to join the Army. But you have amazing things to give the world now. Why wait?”
“Singing? Acting? There are always people who’ll want to do that, too. The world will get along fine waiting for me to return.”
Ariela felt a migraine coming on. The air was suddenly way too cold, and the screeching of the seagulls was getting on her nerves. She turned away, not willing to let him have the satisfaction of seeing her disintegrate.
“Maybe the world can wait,” she said, heading back toward the parking lot. “But I’m not so sure I can.”