When my mom stood on her seat in front of the entire school and made a show of bowing at me after my performance, I swallowed back the urge to laugh. On some level, I knew she was performing as much from the audience as I was from the stage. I had put on an earnest and embellished spoken-word about voice and visibility with my boyfriend Gyl on piano and our friend Nat on bass; Mom had delivered a solo act of flash comedy-art before a crowd she probably thought would be receptive to her provocative, spontaneous stunt. But when I heard a gasp from the audience, I realized how it was being perceived. No matter how beloved my mother, the irrepressible Zofia Frankel, and her quirky conduct might have been at my high school, nothing could erase the image of an eccentric white woman rising above the crowd and bowing stiffly and repeatedly at her moderately estranged Asian daughter before a room full of students, parents, faculty, and staff. That’s when the hot springs started welling in my eyes.
Had I realized the incident was being recorded—What isn’t caught on video these days?—I would have muscled out of my malaise and defused the situation with a crack about the power of performance art or how we’d talked about drinking before lunch (wagging a parental finger). That’s the reaction she had raised me to execute. But I wasn’t equipped or prepared—I was so rarely on stage!—and my silent, emotional affect enabled far more serious implications to become witnessed “truth,” despite where the actual truth might lie.
Apparently, the amateur videographer had pulled out her phone to capture a bat that had descended into the theater. I never saw the bat, but I did see my mom. Even before the video reached viral levels of circulation—Vampire Mom Bows at Adopted Asian Daughter in Racist Display, one of many captions—I knew the incident wasn’t going away. I’m not sure it should. But there’s context to consider. Too much for even me to process, and far too much for the “town hall” event that Principal Givens has consented to hold in our black box theater, adhering to the wishes of our angsty student council, so desperate to be jostled awake.
One of many things that probably won’t come out is that my mom was there when Gyl and Nat, my white male accompanists, composed the song they played at the talent show—the song that helped to animate and ground our infamous performance. Nat had come over after an evening lesson. He brought his bass to my basement where Gyl was playing around with my father’s old keyboard—one of many things dad left behind—while I lounged in the wide leather chair and spammed my friend Katie’s phone with texts.
My basement is a sprawling space with a low ceiling and a series of small rectangular windows just below the ceiling panels. On the far end, in an extension that looks like the Oklahoma panhandle, there’s a puppet theater and a chest of dusty theater props. A burgundy couch and the wide chair I was sitting in are against the closest wall, and in the perpendicular space, the keyboard, some music stands, and a set of congas that everyone hits but no one really plays. There’s an oak coffee table facing the keyboard and a large, spongy carpet that reaches the armoire on the opposite wall.
Nat and Gyl had been talking about the talent show since last year’s show. They had signed up for a spot, calling themselves The Bass Keys, and were determined to play something original: “Otherwise, why bother?” is the flawed point I had made. But the pressure to create seemed to prevent them from buckling down. With little time left and some encouragement from me, they agreed to meet at my house and figure something out.
When they finally started playing their instruments, they seemed to be competing more than collaborating, playing on top of each other, failing to find anything that could develop into a song. The scene was saved when Katie burst into the basement waving a freshly rolled joint. I didn’t even hear her come inside.
“Katie!” I yelled at a volume that made Gyl flinch.
“Mindy, my sweet! I would have texted but my phone officially died for like the seventh time today.”
“I don’t think that’s how official deaths works,” I said, “but I don’t care. I need you here. Ignore the texts I sent.”
“I always do,” she said, and slid into the seat with me, draping one of her legs over my thigh.
Gyl and Nat were clearly aware that Katie had entered the basement, but neither stopped playing.
“I think the boys are involved in some auditory combat,” I said, stretching one of Katie’s curly brown locks and letting it bounce back into place. “They’re trying to write a song for the talent show. No song detected yet.”
“Well, I think I have the remedy,” Katie bobbed her dark eyebrows and made a show of smelling her joint. She cleared her throat. “Boys!” she yelled in her throaty gym-teacher voice, jostling them out of the jaws of their instruments. “That was some sick stuff you were playing. I mean, I’m really feeling sick. But I think we should all calm our stomachs,” she said, holding up her joint.
Although I didn’t smoke that often when Gyl was around, I couldn’t have been happier to get high now. The air was off. The vibe needed correction.
Katie lit the joint, got it going with an unnecessary amount of hits that triggered billows of dank smoke. Gyl pulled open all the windows before she even passed me the joint.
Katie rolls joints that last, and we kept passing it. On the third or fourth time around, when Nat put his glasses on his head to see the roach—like he had morphed into a 70-year-old man—we all lost it. Gyl was snorting and Nat was making otter sounds; Katie was riding her rolling giggle, and I kept squeaking out belly laughs that my body seemed desperate to contain. That’s when Katie yelled through a convulsive cackle, “Wanna hit, Mrs. Frankel?”
The laughter didn’t cut out completely—Katie could never stop laughing—but it was quiet enough to hear someone speak-without-shouting, and Mom, who had already pulled up a chair, seized the opportunity.
“Mrs. Frankel’s already a little hopped up on rosehips,” she said in her wide-smiling nerd-lady voice. “Last time I tried a puff of that grass, I ate a block of expired cheese and nearly killed the cat with the noxious force of my flatulence!”
Katie burst into spastic snorts, while the rest of us followed a recalculating pause with howls and cackles of our own. And Mom kept going, spurring us on with a monologue about cat-litter aphrodisiacs and yogurt cleanses and sponge-baths-gone-awry until it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to breathe if she went on any longer.
In the gasping stretch that followed, Mom pointed to the bass and keyboard. “Don’t suppose those things are gonna play themselves?”
Her voice had changed, closer to what she sounded like at school, and she was using one of her go-to expressions—a version of which she had said to me on countless occasions: Don’t suppose that bed’s gonna make itself?
Gyl stood up and seemed to stumble toward the keyboard. “What were we playing?” he asked Nat, falling into the bench.
“Not sure,” Nat said, holding onto the standup bass as he might a tall cane or a staff. “I think I was playing around with like…an E minor pen-ta-tonic,” he stuttered out. “I guess we both could just start…playing something?”
“Nat, dear, why don’t you start,” Mom said, taking odd but needed control that seemed to focus Nat enough to help him position his body and his hands. “Play around with the scale,” she directed, “settle on something, and then Gyl,” she said, prompting him to sit upright as she turned his way, “once Nat has something going, you enter the parlor and add to the conversation.”
And that’s how it started. Nat did exactly what Mom suggested, finding a rhythm as he ran through the scale. Gyl entered slowly, adding chords in complementary spots. Then Nat found a groove, which he kept repeating; Gyl added in some flourishes and a progression of his own. Before I knew it, Mom and Katie were on their feet, doing some twisting moves with comical concentration. As Nat and Gyl kept playing, Katie coaxed me out of my chair and had me twisting and twirling around the basement. When I spun into space and knocked into the armoire, I noticed Mom was gone. She texted me later that night, as she always did: Going to bury my nose in the bedsheets and pretend it’s the center of a warm apple strudel. May your dreams be filled with such danishes. Goodnight, my miracle.
Of course, time with my mother was rare and rarely that easy. When she wasn’t at school, she spent most of her time at the Keller, the community theater she and my father helped to revive. Over the years, mom has acted in many plays and directed a few, but even for performances she wasn’t in, she was there. It’s one of the reasons why her appearance in the basement seemed like such a mirage. As a performer and member of their artistic team (a team my father used to direct), she has a responsibility, she claimed. And once I turned ten, I spurned it at every turn.
My father spurned us when I was in second grade. Days after my eighth birthday, he cleared out his bedroom closet and set up camp at the theater. By the end of the month, he was driving from Pennsylvania to Toronto in our only car, leaving for a long-term residency at the Tarragon Theatre Company (Or as Mom said in her Groucho Marx impersonation, “A long residency and a short skirt,” bobbing her eyebrows and tapping an imaginary cigar.)
“I cannot wait to host you at the Tarragon,” he said as he was pulling away, his pointed eyebrow raised to a severe peak. “You will be my special guest. And you will be amazed.”
Eight years later, I still haven’t stepped foot in the Tarragon theater or in Canada, and it has been six years since I’ve been inside the Keller.
When my father left, Mom forced me to go with her to the theater nearly every night. I wasn’t shy about how much I hated waiting in the damp basement changing rooms or in the dusty nooks backstage. Once I turned ten, she decided I was old enough to make my own decisions. If I wanted to stay home alone, so be it. I knew where to find food, and I knew how to use the phone in case of emergency. What else was there?
Turns out, parental guidance—from either parent—might have helped. I doubt my father even knows his ex-wife is on trial for her livelihood and his daughter might be acting executioner. And neither has ever said much about the complex cultural waters I’ve been navigating most of my life.
Not surprisingly, cultural diversity is limited in our central Pennsylvania town. In my grade at Chart Art—the Charter School for Creative and Performing Arts—I am the only person of Asian or Pacific Island descent, something I shared with Gyl one night when we were video chatting, our collaboration and eventual performance not yet a thing.
“The only reason you’re the only one at Chart Art is because the other arty Asian kids go to the conservatory or the Arts Academy in Philly and the rest go to public school or to Pom Pom Prep,” Gyl suggested, clearly not expecting me to jump down his throat as I did.
“What kind of stupid racist shit is that, Gyl?” I said, leaning my face closer to the screen.
“What?” he said, his face turning bright red.
“You’re saying that some Asians are serious art nerds and others aren’t, and some are like ‘crazy rich’ and others have less. In other words, we’re just like everyone else, only different!”
“What? No! I mean, yes! I mean,” he said, his head shifting back and forth, trying to shake off any prospects of racism. “Jews are like that too,” Gyl said, desperate for some response.
“Great, I’ve got that going for me too,” I answered. “Just harder to see the Jew inside me. What people see will always dominate what they think! No way around it, I’ll always be different.”
“I’m not saying…I mean, I’m not trying to…I mean, that’s not…” Gyl seemed to be replaying the words in his head. “That’s not what I meant, I don’t think, but maybe…you’re right about the whole seeing thing.”
“I know,” I said, not feeling like I really knew enough, but that I had latched onto something I should probably think more about.
“I’m a fucking idiot,” Gyl said, in a self-own that was exceedingly rare for him. “I guess I didn’t think about it that way.”
“We’re all fucking idiots,” I said, willing to relieve the tension since he had made me feel smart.
“But wait,” he said, his image no longer directly in the frame of my phone, his mind still processing. “Does the fact that I didn’t think of you as different in that way make me racist or not racist?”
“Probably both,” I said, mostly because it sounded right.
“That sucks,” he said.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Everything kinda sucks.”
Even before the performance, people were aware of the tense and remote relationship between my mom and me. Her persona at school reinforced that perception. She would ask anyone who over-embellished an emotional reaction whether they’ve been modeling their technique after her daughter. Or for any stiff, emotionless performance, she would put on her primpy British accent and say, “By chance, are you in the same automaton acting program as my daughter?”
She had been making these cracks since before I was old enough to speak, let alone attend the school. On some level, I’ve always understood this “daughter” as a construct, but that isn’t enough to make it okay, especially since I have to factor in how it’s being heard from the outside. The double processing and projecting have always been constant and exhausting parts of my reality.
And when I got to Chart Art, the cracks didn’t stop. They were already too embedded in her routine, too much a part of her schtick.
My freshman year, at the end of my second week, I confronted her in the kitchen, telling her what she was doing—what she had always done—was selfish and fucked up. “I go to the school!” I screamed. “People think I’m the daughter you keep railing on!”
“But you are my daughter,” she said. Then she lifted her leg onto a kitchen chair, started slow smacking her lips, and in her gritty cowgirl voice: “Let ‘em think you’re wranglin’ with a wild mare-of-a-momma. It’ll do ya good.”
It was never clear how her ridicule—real or not—could possibly be good for me, but as with most things Mom, there’s no obvious answer.
Her illusory nature even extends to her physical presence. She’s barely 5’2” but she’s wormy and has a way of stretching her neck to ungodly lengths. Her body is loose in a way that mine never is. She cares about how she looks but puts in little effort. When her cinnamon hair frosted over, she did nothing to stop it. She made it look like a look. Platinum red or red-streaked platinum, depending on how or whether she brushed it. Her face has always been smooth. People say she has “good skin.” Even as a little girl, the comment made me think of my own skin, which was so clearly different.
The clothes she wears match her body. They’re loose. They hang. She wears thin, high-fiber cotton tops and pants in stylishly washed-out colors—earthen green and snowy blue and plenty of ashen black and gray. For special occasions, she has versions of the same hanging shirts and pants in silk or satin with bolder, darker colors—navy, burgundy, black. One of the comments in the viral video said she was wearing a kimono, but I know that isn’t true. She was dressed up for the occasion, which I’m kind of flattered about, and she would never do her own costumes! The comment a few lines down that she “transmogrified from a bat into a bitch” is more believable.
Zofia’s most familiar feature—what she is known for—is her tendency to dip in an out of voices. She can barely answer a question without breaking into the voice of the person she thinks she resembles.
When a waiter included applesauce as an option for a side, I knew the toothless old woman was going to reply: “Oh, yef, pleaf! The applethauf wif a shot of your beft prune juif. I haffent unleafed my bowels in monfs!”
In the context of her work as a teacher and performer, her diversity of voices is celebrated. As a parent, less so, which is why she seems to resent the role at times.
Although we haven’t really talked about it directly, I’m sure my mother saw little art in my performance: too obvious; nothing more than exploiting a wave. And I have no doubt that’s what compelled her to bow. Girl wants visibility, well here it is! But I know much is missing from that perspective, from my projection.
One of the things that has been misinterpreted and taken on a “factual” life of its own is what inspired my spoken-word piece. The assumption is that I wrote the poem about my mom; she’s always resented, neglected, and silenced me, and now it’s my turn to share my voice. And maybe there’s some truth there, but there are other truths too and truth is so rarely one flat thing. The song, for example, is both truthful and embellished; it’s kind of about my mom but not written with her in mind. The fact is, I wrote it in English class.
I love Ms. Vogel, my English teacher, but when she talks about visibility, I want to crawl out of my skin. Watching my classmates nod cult-like and fight for the opportunity to exclaim how much they see and how wrong it is that certain people aren’t seen is intolerable. It’s like competitive racial vision. I suppose that’s better than being among a group of dull-witted racists who try to make me (and the three or four other persons of color who attend the school) the object of incessant ridicule and discrimination, but a better alternative doesn’t make it a good one.
In Ms. Vogel’s class, I’ve never made the visibility conversation. We read Invisible Man, Their Eyes were Watching God, and The House on Mango Street, and I guess I didn’t fit any of the categories. In small group work, Charlotte—possibly the only other person who values the literature class as much as I do, but in a much more nervous way—was agonizing over finding something to contribute: “Mindy, think! She’s going to call on us! Participation is part of our grade!” I wish I had said I was living an example of invisibility. Maybe on two fronts since she had also attended my Bat Mitzvah. But Jews didn’t count and apparently adopted daughters of Asian descent didn’t either.
The only recourse I felt I had was to write something. Ms. Vogel always gives us time at the end of class for “reflection.” I didn’t know I would write a poem, but the first stanza came out quickly.
What do you see when you see me?
Do you see me at all?
What do you see when you see me?
Do I loom large or is your mind
Just too small?
And the poem kept going. I think it helped me touch on something personal and political without it feeling too personal or political. It was a poem. And because it rhymed, it couldn’t be that deep—or that’s the message I’ve gotten from most of my English teachers. Besides, no one would ever see or hear it anyway.
But then Gyl and Nat needed help, and this was something I could offer.
The next time we were together at my house, Gyl and Nat were anxious to perform the song they had composed during their “basement sessions,” both as chatty and as bouncy as I had ever seen them. They said they worked it out in one of the practice rooms at school.
“We totally remembered what we were playing,” Gyl said, leading the way toward the basement stairs. “It came right back!”
“Back like a boss!” Nat exclaimed in all his nerdy glory. He had a knack for using outdated slang. It would be better if he could pull off some note of irony, but I really don’t want him to stop.
“I’m surprised you remember anything from that night,” I said, slipping around Gyl and pulling open the door to the basement.
“I think I hallucinated that your mom was there,” Gyl said, stepping down the stairs.
“I think we all did,” I replied, knowing that seemed at least partially true.
“Didn’t she ask if the instruments were going to play themselves?” Nat asked, the case of his bass knocking against the door frame.
“She likes that type of question,” I confirmed.
As Nat continued to bang his bass down the carpeted stairs, I saw Gyl wincing with every thud. Both were riding the reality of their song in different ways: Gyl was paranoid it would fall apart, and Nat was too elated to imagine the possibility.
Once they got set up, I returned to the same seat I was in before, mostly so Gyl wouldn’t have to ask me to.
Nat began by sliding his finger down one of the strings—a new addition, I think—and plucking notes in a bluesy scale. After a few bars, Gyl added chords that grounded and expanded the sound, playing the notes in the chord along with a few flourishes that added some spring. The groove was catchy and familiar.
Once they had run through the full progression, Nat made the sliding sound again, and they followed the same course, only the sound seemed to dim a bit, as if waiting for a third instrument to enter. They played the same series three times before closing in a harmonic riff that they were a little too eager to pull off.
“Wow!” I said when it was clear they had finished. “That was great!” I added, determined to keep the spirits high. “Wow!”
“Two ‘Wows,” Gyl said, still sitting on the piano bench. “It really must have been something.”
“It was,” I said. “Seriously, I really liked it,” searching for more to say.
“Think it needs anything?” Nat asked. “I feel like it needs something.”
And that’s when it came out. “Lyrics, maybe?” I heard myself suggest. “It has such a great groove,” I said, “the kind you hear with a jazz or blues singer,” I added, hoping that might soften the blow of my suggestion.
To my relief, Gyl seemed to take my comment in stride.
“Like Billie Holiday,” Nat said. “That would be the bomb!”
“Not sure she’s available,” I added. “But others might be.”
“Yeah,” Gyl responded, “all we need are some lyrics and someone willing to sing with us.”
“Tons of people sing at our school,” Nat reminded.
“And if they’d even consider singing with us, they’d have to have lyrics that would fit our song, and we’d have to put it all together before the talent show, which is in like three days.” I could see his posture slump. I felt the silence that followed in my chest.
“I have some lyrics that might work,” I finally said, squirming in my seat.
“Do you sing?” Gyl asked, looking shocked there might be something about me he didn’t know.
“No,” I admitted. “But I can project. I auditioned for Chart Art with Ginsberg’s ‘America,’ remember? I think I’d be able to do some sort of poetry-style reading with what you guys are playing.”
“That would be dope,” Nat said in the dorkiest tone imaginable.
“Can we hear it?” Gyl asked. “Or read it?”
“Sorry,” I said, “I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with my agent.”
“I don’t think that’s how those work,” Gyl said, appearing to channel and mock me at the same time.
“Okay, you got me,” I said. “Just need to find it,” pulling the computer from my bag.
When I opened my laptop, I felt a flash of embarrassment when it was the first thing visible. “I forgot I was looking at it recently.”
“Read it!” Nat said, smiling with eyes wide.
“Okay,” I agreed, unreasonably nervous. “Don’t expect much. I wrote it in English class when we were talking about visibility and stuff.”
“That’s been like every day for the past three weeks,” Nat said.
“Seriously,” I added.
“You got this,” Gyl said, which was more meaningful than he might have realized.
Laptop on my thighs, I cleared my throat and prepared to read what I knew was a mediocre poem but might be okay with a little music behind it:
What do you see when you see me?
Do you see me at all?
What do you see when you see me?
Do I loom large or is your mind
Just too small?
Do I fit inside your preformed jar?
Can you fathom all I am?
Do I form to the exotic molds you make?
Or will you force me and contort me
Until I can?
Will you let me speak or
Will your guards just lock me up?
Can you listen to my language?
Or are you afraid to hear, so quick to sneer,
At any sound that’s not your own?
“That’s it,” I said, bracing for the awkward silence, but Nat filled it up quick.
“The bomb!” he said, stamping his foot.
“I like it,” Gyl followed, reminding me that neither could write too well. Still, I did my best to restrain my smile.
“So, do you want to play your song? And I could read along with it, or whatever?”
It took a while to figure out how loud they should play and where to fit the words, but they eventually fell into place, and when I suggested they expand the opening instrumental and then soften into the background groove, they both got excited.
We ran the song a few times when Nat suggested the change that would improve the lyrics and potentially ruin my mother.
“I like the way the song ends,” he said, “but you know what might be even more boss?”
“What’s that?” I asked with a smile I couldn’t restrain.
“Since we’ve been like, talking about voice and stuff in English class, what if you added something about voice to go with the ‘let me speak’ and ‘listen to my language’ lines?”
“You’re listening closely there, Natty. I’m impressed,” I said.
“Are the guards that lock you up like, literal?” Gyl asked, potentially trying to show that he was listening too.
“I think I was thinking about immigrants…locked up in cages and stuff,” I said, only half realizing that might have been what I was getting at. “It seems like we never hear them speak. People just speak about them.”
“Kids in cages is bullshit!” Gyl exclaimed.
“That’s a pretty bold stance, Gyl,” I said, grateful that he only rolled his eyes and didn’t throw a complete fit. “But something about voices would probably go better,” I admitted. And then it came to me. The line that turned this from a vague half-personal, half-political poem that had the school and our country in mind to a piece that seemed more about my specific life and my specific mother.
“What if I replaced ‘Will your guards just lock me up?’ with ‘Will your voices drown me out?’” As I typed the line into my laptop, I was thinking about political commentators and protestors and all the voices that made it impossible for immigrants and others to be heard. “So the final stanza would be:
Will you let me speak or
Will your voices drown me out?
Can you listen to my language?
Or are you afraid to hear, so quick to sneer,
At any sound that’s not your own?
“That slaps!” Nat exclaimed.
“I like it,” Gyl agreed.
“And you should do it twice,” Nat said. “Close it out by doing that part twice.”
“Yeah!” Gyl said, energy in his voice. “But I think you should write another song about kids in cages sometime.”
“Totally,” I said. “And, thanks,” I added, a little too proud of my adequate replacement line. Not aware that after my mother’s bow, all people would be able to imagine were her voices. And the way I was regularly and ritually drowned out by them.
No one’s witnessed more of Mom’s voices than Katie. Although she goes to public school and not to Chart Art, she’s been my friend since kindergarten and over the years, she’s seen many of Mom’s bedtime texts. Only one stands out.
It was after midnight and mom was still at the Keller. Katie and I were both falling asleep when my phone buzzed with a text. Katie jumped onto my bed and wasn’t disappointed to see it was from Mom: If I were a puppy, I would rest my snout on the high slopes of your cheekbones and nuzzle into your skin until my fur blended into the beautiful yellow brown hue of your flesh and we drifted off to sleep and shared exotic dreams together. Good night, my miracle.
“Isn’t that kind of like, sweet and racist?” Katie said, prompting both of us to burst out laughing, and only me, I suspect, to allow the text to burrow into my brain, not resurfacing until Mom’s disturbingly public bow.
The local paper published an article about the incident, suggesting there were calls for Zofia to be fired, but no sources were named. The only direct quotes were from Principal Givens who said “There is no tolerance for racism” at Chart Art. (The fact that there’s no racial diversity never came up.) When asked if there would be disciplinary action, Principal Givens mentioned the “town hall” meeting, which would provide students, faculty, and staff an opportunity to talk through the circumstances. He said any decision about disciplinary action, specifically whether to release one of the longest serving teachers, would come after the school community had a chance to weigh in. It was an easy out for Principal Givens, allowing the students to determine Zofia’s fate.
I had two takeaways from the article. The first was that Zofia was going to get crucified. Chart Art students were so desperate to out-preach and out-rage each other. The other takeaway was that no one directly involved in the incident was ever contacted. At least, no one reached out to me.
But Zofia did have a meeting with Principal Givens. My locker is right outside his office suite, and I overheard Ms. Bonney, the office assistant who snorts with laughter at everything Zofia says and does, telling one of the teachers that Mom was in his office for less than five minutes. “As she was walking out,” Ms. Bonney described with a sputtering giggle, “Zofia used this voice that sounded like an old British man with glandular problems and said, ‘Interpret events as you wish. As far as I’m concerned, The Author is most assuredly dead!’”
Following our performance, Gyl was more excited about “the power of art” than I had ever seen him. He wasn’t just an art school nerd anymore but an ally in a real cause.
“This is the time to take a stand,” Gyl insisted, as he, Nat, and I huddled in the cafeteria, still eating in our own little group, but feeling the eyes on us. The scratching of the flatware on plastic trays seemed to soften whenever any of us spoke. “You have a chance to share your voice and gain visibility for those who have been denied the opportunity to speak!” Gyl exclaimed, causing me to look around to see if people were listening and to confirm this was the same boy I had been dating for the past couple of years. The same boy who, other than one video chat about our Wonder Bread town, had not uttered a word about any of these issues before now.
“But it’s my mother,” I said, aware that I was tamping down the most animated version of Gyl I had ever seen. “You’re saying I should…what? Rail against all the racist bullshit while my mother is on like…public trial?”
“Not at the town hall,” Gyl replied. “I think that’s more Joaquin and the student council’s thing. It’s better if we just, you know, let whatever happens happen. But you could write something after. Maybe another poem that we could perform again?”
“About my mom?”
I saw the fervor in Gyl’s face—his brown eyes, wide and pleading—and watched his long fingers rubbing frantic circles into the grimy surface of the table. I understood the message. Mother be damned. We were having our moment, and if art school had taught us anything, it was that the moment had to be respected. All we had to do was sit back and let Mom get grilled (or whatever they were planning) then we could take it in whatever direction we wanted—people will be primed to listen.
The possibilities that excited Gyl were also why people seemed to be noticing me now; why I was stopped in the hallway after lunch.
This girl, Melanie, an ivory-skinned senior I had seen in almost every production at school, just put her hand up and I halted, as if frozen by the magical circuitry she cast from her sparkling fingertips. She had never spoken a word to me before this moment.
“I want you to know,” she said, her voice soft, but affected with emotion, “that racism disgusts me. It. Disgusts. Me. I can’t even talk about it, it makes me so upset,” and her cheeks were noticeably flushed.
I stared back at her. “Yeah. I know. I’m sorry.” I heard my disjointed voice as if I were listening from a water-stained panel in the ceiling. I’m embarrassed to say how earnest I sounded.
She nodded and thanked me. Rested her mannequin-like hand on my shoulder for the perfect beat and left.
Between the talent show and the town hall, I didn’t hear about anyone trying to confront Zofia about her actions—not even Melanie, despite her unparalleled aversion to racism. As far as I could tell, Mom just carried on as if nothing were different.
The opportunity for direct discussion between Mom and me would have been during the ride home from the performance, but neither of us said a word. She looked at me a few times. I could feel the tension in the air—mostly radiating from me—and I saw the muscles in her face tighten, but nothing was ever spoken. When we got home, she dropped me off—didn’t come inside—and drove on to the Keller.
Of course, I’ve had many imaginary arguments with her since the incident. They usually involved me confronting her in the kitchen, calling her out for all sorts of offenses—mocking, neglecting, humiliating—suggesting her audience “performance” was more about stealing the spotlight, about a narcissism that wouldn’t allow for a daughter to pull any attention away. In my monologue, I suggest that nothing makes her happier than watching her daughter flail around from one medium to another, doing better academically than artistically (God forbid). The evidence there for all to see!
But those confrontations never happened. I just stewed in silence whenever she was around, and she just went about her life, showing up and slipping out as easily as ever, sending awkward texts from the theater at night. Her latest: I’m holding my chapped lips on your glistening caramel forehead for so long it makes you uncomfortable but I’m doing it because you’re my daughter. Good night, my miracle.
If only she understood that actual lips on my actual forehead would be far more meaningful.
The closest verbal exchange came this morning—the day of the town hall—when we passed each other in the hallway at home, and she said: “You look happy.”
Now, minutes before the fateful event, I feel like eels are writhing in my stomach. I’m not sure what I want to happen or how anything could be resolved, but I know the last thing I am is happy. My ears are clammy—how is that even possible?—and the breeze from the school’s obscenely dusty fan chills my neck as I approach the dark doors of our black box theater.
The air in the theater smells stale and oily, like the trunk of our car. The space is larger than most school auditoriums; it’s a square room with black walls and floor, and it has professional grade lighting. There are stackable stadium seats that can be set up in all sorts of arrangements. I was expecting assembly-style seating, as it was for the talent show, but instead there’s a central stage, for a theater-in-the-round-style production. Everyone is visible, and Zofia is in the first row in the right wedge of seats. I veer toward the opposite side and walk up the stairs to the back. I want to be as far away as possible. I’m grateful when Gyl and Nat follow me up.
“Think they’ll ask us to perform again?” Gyl says, gazing wide-eyed at the set-up, apparently not joking.
“Didn’t you say this is more the student council’s thing?” I say, a little snarky. “I guess we’ll see.”
Once everyone is seated, Principal Givens walks to center stage. He’s holding a microphone and looks uncomfortable by the set-up, which requires that he continue to turn to see everyone in the room. After shifting awkwardly a few times, he returns to the side closest to the entrance where members of the student council are seated.
“At the behest of Joaquin Turner,” his voice louder than necessary, “our student council president, and the council body,” he adds, sweeping his hand across the row where they’re seated, “we have assembled here today to hold a ‘town hall’ forum, with a communal set-up”—he gestures to the theater-in-the-round seating—“to discuss the actions of one of our longest tenured teachers, Zofia Frankel, during our most recent talent show. The town hall is an opportunity for open discussion about the manner in which Ms. Frankel interrupted the performance of her daughter, Mindy Frankel, who was…”
“Move to strike!” comes bellowing from the front row across from me. Mom stands with her head raised, the knuckles of her fist rapping the face of her chin. I know right away she’s in character. “I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” she continues, affecting a southern drawl, her eyes on the members of the student council before turning to take in the entire audience, clearly more comfortable in this space than Principal Givens, “how could a performance that had already ended be interrupted?” Then turning back to the student council. “People were clapping. Were they interrupting too?”
Mr. Givens, still holding the microphone, lets out a sigh that seems to rise from the stage like steam. “We have gathered to discuss the response to Ms. Frankel’s daughter’s performance,” he clarifies, and I feel Gyl shift in his seat. It’s the second time he’s referred to the performance as mine, and I know it’s driving Gyl mad. “A response that some have deemed racially-inflected, inappropriate, and offensive. A response that has reached beyond the confines of this theater to the wider public and triggered public outrage. All of that is part of what we’re…”
“I see,” mom cuts in with the same drawl, ensuring that Mr. Givens can’t continue. “Mmm-hmm,” she adds, her voice soaring as she paces the floor, her back hunched, hands behind her waist. “‘A response that some have deemed,’ she repeats, nodding emphatically, repeating the same phrase with different inflection points, “‘Some have deemed,’” nodding, “Some have deemed,’” more nodding, “Yes, I do see.”
She continues walking back-and-forth, stifling any attempt by Mr. Givens to speak with swift sweeps of her hand, occasionally lifting her head as if to add more, but not uttering anything beyond “Yes” and “I see,” demonstrating her familiarity with and power over the space. Minutes go by—an interminably long time for everyone—before Joaquin, president of the student council, appears to yank the microphone away from Principal Givens: “She’s making a mockery out of the whole process!” he belts.
Before our eyes, Zofia melts into a Southern Belle, one delicate hand on her chest, the other aghast on her forehead. I know the voice before she even speaks. “I?” she asks. “A mockery? I dare say, a mockery? Well, I never,” and she keeps going, “truly never.” Joaquin growing increasingly flustered.
“Ms…Ms… Mrs… Frankel!” Joaquin yells, exasperation evident in his crackling voice. “If you’re not…We’re trying to…This is important! This is real! We’re trying to talk about something real!”
“Well, ‘Mrs. Frankel’ here would surely like to hear something real,” Zofia responds in a mocking voice before raising her hand to call for silence. “But I don’t suppose that microphone’s just gonna speak on its own?”
Joaquin’s head looks like it’s going to explode. His usually pale face is a bruising red and seems to be swelling before our eyes.
“Isn’t that kind of what she said to us in the basement,” Gyl whispers to me. “About the instruments not playing on their own?”
“Yeah,” I admit. “It’s exactly what she said in the basement.”
“Does she want us to play the song?”
My eyes roll involuntarily. “I think she’s talking to me,” I say, but my reply is cut off by Joaquin’s amplified voice.
“I am speaking! Into the microphone!” Joaquin yells. “This is important! You need to listen to me speak!” he continues when I feel my legs push against the sticky floor, lifting my body as if by independent initiative.
“I think she’s talking to me,” I say, standing in the back, the arm of a descended speaker smothering my face in shadow. The students sitting directly in front of us crane their necks to see who’s speaking, but my voice doesn’t carry enough for anyone else to hear. Joaquin is still dominating everyone’s attention, every shift of his flustered body captured by the sound system.
“I think she’s talking to me,” I say again in a louder voice. A few more eyes turn in my direction, but I’m still not loud enough to rise above the amplified sighs and exasperated noises coming from the floor.
“What are you doing?” Gyl hisses.
“Getting their attention,” Nat spits back at Gyl.
The volatile cocktail of Gyl’s reprimand and Nat’s support rises inside me like a baking soda volcano, and when I try to say it again, to project as I had been trained to as a child, I get caught on the words, hearing them stutter out of my mouth—“I-think…think…”—dragging a lifetime of insecurity along with them, until I force my way through the glitch and belt out a single, resounding, “HHEEYY!!!”
The room falls silent, all eyes turning on me, and though she didn’t say anything out loud, I hear Mom’s snarky voice in my head: Well, that’s one way to win the room.
In the hush that follows, I do my awkward best to get out of the cramped set of seats, trudging out of the shadows and down the stairs like an inmate about to challenge an execution. When I get to the floor, my insides are roiling. Joaquin is frozen in place. I hold out my hand for the microphone, but he turns, like a child unwilling to share his toy. “Give me the damn microphone!” I say, grabbing it out of his hand, the amplified screech piercing the air.
“You don’t have to yell,” he says in response, his words congealing in a hot lump of disgust that I try to swallow, but my throat constricts, not only preventing any passage but forcing the bile back up.
“What?” I force out, my whole head burning as I turn toward Joaquin. The befuddled look on his pallid face is infuriating, and I wish I had the presence of mind to tell him so, but instead I simply project my rage into the mesh bulb of the microphone and SCREAM—visceral and wild—jutting my face toward him, as he stumbles backward, startled.
“What the actual fuck?” I hear him say, but for the first time in recent memory, I don’t care what he or anyone else thinks.
I clear my throat, hearing it resound like a power tool through the PA as I turn toward the audience, catching sight of my mother who flashes the hint of a smile. The act maddens and emboldens me, and before I know it, I’m screaming again, only my voice is emanating from a deeper place, somewhere in my stomach, and it’s longer and louder than the first time, rising in pitch and intensity.
As my scream starts to trail, I hear another voice, yelling as if in accompaniment or support. When I release the last of my breath, I look up and see Nat, standing at his seat, mouth wide, howling with mischievous delight. Then another voice rises out of the neighboring row, creating a sort of animal harmony, elevating the sound into something more dramatic. It’s Melanie, the senior theater girl who had stopped me in the hallway; she’s screaming with her eyes closed, as if locked in a climactic moment of an intense performance, and she’s quickly joined by the rest of her row—the entire senior theater crew standing at their seats and screaming their lungs out. Others from around the room add their voices to this collective release.
I feel the reverberation against my cheeks, see it shaking the stands, when a shriek rises above the rest, this one more startled and urgent, ripe with a fear that fully unsettles the room.
That’s when I see the bat swoop down from the rafters, its devilish wings flickering the light. The air erupts in a cacophony of disparate screams—the vibration rattling my temples and the drums of my ears—but it isn’t clear if people are screaming out of fear or rage or solidarity.
My eye catches sight of Zofia, shuffling to the back, toward the window. She shimmies the wide wooden frame open, and for a second, I’m convinced she’s going to climb out. Then I realize she’s opening a space for the bat to escape.
The screaming persists, but as the bat swoops toward the open air, there’s a momentary hush—everyone holding their collective breath—until it flaps past the window and arcs up again, the screams rising in response. And the cycle continues, the bat conducting our frantic orchestra through the same loop: swooping toward the window, causing the sounds to subside, teasing and torturing us until it passes the open air and rises back into the room, no sign that it will ever make it out. No sign that we will ever be free from this blind, raging theater.