Joseph Germán Smeall-Villarroel
Oh Dear, What An Awkward Situation
I had this friend in high school. Lauren Napolitano. She was in the grade above me, but we were the same age. Her mother had had her skip a grade in elementary school.
Lauren looked a bit like young Gloria Steinem. Her demeanor strengthened the look. She had qualities the student body would have idolized if she had been, oh I don’t know, let’s say the captain of the varsity football team or something, but that they demonized in her. The condescension and bullying she endured were shameful.
I can still remember the picture of Bob Dylan’s silhouetted profile, with wild rainbow-colored hair, that Lauren once taped up on the inside of her locker those days, right above her Young Republican Leaders of Wisconsin sticker. She loved the Dylan songs. His portrait must have been a tremendous source of comfort to her, at that time of life. I was one of the few people she actually showed that picture to—a part of her private world that would admit few visitors.
Our school gave out senior awards. By now, I can no longer remember who out of Lauren’s year received “Most Likely to Become President.” But out of anybody who graduated during our years, male or female, Lauren was, and remains, far and away the likeliest to actually pull off winning the general election someday—electoral college, and popular vote. And she could do it as a woman running on the establishment Republican ticket, no less. I do at least remember that that award definitely did not go to her. But by rights, it should have been hers.
You might be thinking that’s a tall assertion for me to make about anybody’s potential. You probably want an example of what exactly made Lauren presidential material.
For that, you would have to know something about our school’s choral program. Lauren and I were both big into choir.
The directors of the show choir had their favorites, for soloes and musical lead roles. Neither Lauren nor I were included in that enchanted circle, by the time we were upperclassmen, though musically we both had the chops.
In the beginning, another girl, Dory McDonald, also experienced rejection in choir. She was also in Lauren’s grade. She had transferred into the Catholic high school as a second year. A self-evidently talented singer and actor, she considered the public school’s musical theater offerings inferior. Her aunt was Mrs. Wright, the choral director at our school. Between those things, her immediate acceptance into the extracurricular show choir would have seemed like a done deal. But she got nerves in the first audition, and didn’t make the cut.
Having also been rejected that time, I bonded with Dory over the shared setback. We were both new people in a new place. An early friendship began. In time, however, Wright and her choreographer, Mrs. Worden, began choosing Dory. Lauren and I continued overlooked. The newfound recognition went to Dory’s head. She was a star—the center of the school’s musical theater in-group. I remained on the fringes of that group: a weird folk musician and graphic artist-poet, stuck among peers for whom Broadway was the beginning and end of any artistic aspiration.
Dory always acted a little strange with me, even when we were friends. Mostly she was great fun to talk to. In her cheerful mood, she could make you feel like you were the only person in the room. But every now and then, she would also come up with an acid remark, or even an omission of a prosaic reply. It would always unsettle me slightly, like I had missed a step, climbing a staircase through the darkness of an empty and drafty house.
After Dory started getting soloes in choir, she gradually shifted from acting friendly to me, to alternating warmth with cruelty or coldness. I would be standing in a group of other people; Dory would come up, and depending on her mood that day, she might sweetly greet every person in the group by name—except for me. At first, faced with that mistreatment, I would assume I had upset her in some way, and seek to regain her elusive approval. But as time went on, I tired of the game-playing. I wrote Dory off. That seemed to enrage her.
Everybody was frightened of her temper when she was crossed—including the teachers. Mrs. Wright was Dory’s aunt. She probably knew better than most people, about Dory’s true limits, having encountered her in private family settings.
By the time Lauren and Dory were seniors, and I was a junior, Dory could reliably expect to receive nearly every female solo that there was to be given in choir. She was also the favorite to play the lead in the upcoming musical.
Like me, Lauren never got any soloes. She and I griped about it frequently in whispers. We got closer, simultaneous to the deterioration of my friendship with Dory.
Here’s the thing about my old high school: the way kids bonded with each other was by saying the meanest possible things they could think of, about everything—and I mean everything. It was Catholic, but nothing was sacred when you were with your peers, out of adults’ earshot: your teachers’ phlegm, your parents’ bunions, your sister’s secret abortion, etc. Everything was fair game. If you were standing in a group of people in the hall, and somebody left to use the restroom, everybody else would begin attacking their personality flaws the moment they had passed out of sight, and immediately stop as if nothing had happened, the moment the person came back into view. Incredible paranoia. It was so seamless—it was creepy.
I might not have minded all that complaining if it had been geared towards coming up with ways to remedy whatever we complained about. But that would have defeated the purpose: the complaints were their own end. If you actually found a way to fix the thing you complained about—heavens—why then, you’d have to find other things to complain about and then fix! It became a vicious cycle.
And despite that, Lauren Christabella Napolitano actually did care enough, to try and do something besides just whispering to me about the favoritism for solos. After yet another rejection, she went to speak to Wright in her office.
“Mrs. Wright, I really want to sing a solo in choir. I believe I have the skills to do it well. I would really like to know what mistakes I have been making in auditions, and how I can improve my chances of getting a solo.”
Her statement was respectful, and assertive. In the precise act of asking what she could do to get a choir solo, Lauren was in fact already doing what needed to be done, by striking at a weak point of Mrs. Wright’s personality: our director feared confrontation.
So Lauren’s request for a professional review made Wright feel awkward. She came out with some vaguely encouraging reply. Lauren’s own personality was not bombastic like Dory’s but it had its own subtle gravity. It would have caused Wright discomfort if she had continued passing Lauren up after being put on the spot like that.
After that conversation, the next big solo being assigned in show choir was from a choral arrangement of “Send In the Clowns,” a favorite song among the choir kids. Everybody expected Dory to receive it, as usual. She herself had indicated that she considered it as good as hers, since early in the school year, when Wright first told us we were singing the song.
At last, the evening rehearsal came, when Wright would say who was getting the “Clowns” solo. Typically she announced soloes right at the start of rehearsal. They were always rotated among the same three or four favorites.
But that time, Wright ran warm-ups. There was no announcement. She just told us to stand up and start singing “Clowns,” but said nobody should sing the solo unless instructed to do so. It was like a murder-mystery.
The piano accompaniment began. Suddenly, Lauren stood up singing the part that everybody had assumed would go to Dory! Professor Napolitano, in the Choir Room, with a Solo! I was daydreaming when this happened, but everybody else flinched and stole an inadvertent glance in Dory’s direction. She was skilled at controlling her outward reactions. It was not for nothing that she would go on, a month or two later, to get cast as the female lead in the musical. She was, and remains, a fantastically talented actress. Only the slight blush at the tips of Dory’s earlobes, and the corners of her mouth twisting into a sneering smirk, might have betrayed that anything was amiss. She was livid. The solo should have been hers.
I learned much later on, from Lauren, that Wright and Worden had called her aside before rehearsal began, and informed her privately that they were giving her the solo, but that they wanted her to just stand up and start singing it without announcement at the start of rehearsal. Their reasoning for this was that “people” were very excited about the solo, and there was going to be disappointment on some end or other. (Everybody present knew that “people” meant, “Dory.”)
The fact of the matter is that Worden and Wright were both so scared of Dory, that they used Lauren as a human shield—in case there was a big messy explosion, right there on the choir risers. That was the passive-aggressive ransom Mrs. Wright exacted from Lauren, in exchange for the giving of a solo that would otherwise have gone to her own niece. Very Cinderella-ish.
That solo became one of many reasons why Dory took great pleasure in goading others to insult Lauren, out of earshot. But that didn’t bother Lauren; she was very happy to have finally gotten chosen. She could perform at an optimal level, without cracking under pressure. Most other people in her shoes would have completely fallen apart singing that solo for the first time, right in front of Dory. The same gravitas that had rendered Wright unable to rebuff or ignore Lauren’s request also rendered her capable of singing the solo Dory had coveted, with calmness and great beauty, like a bolt out of the blue. A feeling, silent but steely as unused pincers, emanated from Lauren singing that time. It even rendered Dory incapable of exploding directly on the spot, despite Wright’s fears.
You might be thinking that’s a tall assertion for me to make about the excesses of somebody’s temper. You probably want an example that would showcase what exactly made people, including her aunt Mrs. Wright, fear Dory’s temper. Keep reading.
Dorothy Elfrida McDonald did not explode when she heard Lauren singing the solo. Her temper would not veer towards an open confrontation right there during rehearsal. Not yet, anyway.
Instead it simmered and boiled over the months that followed, as she went on to act the lead in the musical (to nobody’s surprise) while Lauren and I were assigned predictably to roles in the chorus. It was only after the musical had finished in February of 2005, and show choir rehearsals had resumed in the evenings, that Dory’s suspended rage found purchase. The solo should have been hers.
During the second rehearsal back, Mrs. Worden the choreographer ordered all of us to get together on our own time, and practice the dance steps for the new routine, before the next rehearsal started in a few days’ time. She said we were not up to scratch. She shot me a prolonged glowering look, on saying this.
Here’s the thing about me and show choir that year. I had the best sight-reading skills of anybody in the choir except for maybe Lauren, but my dancing was easily ranked the worst of the choir. That put me in a weird position—a leader among my peers in musicianship, but definitely the weakest link in dancing. The way Worden worked with these limits was that she always placed me in the back of three dancing rows for each formation. My voice was loud and accurate, so it would carry to the singers in the front, of whom Dory was one, and their superior dancing was easily visible to me, to follow somewhat mindlessly. Worden would still call me out by name in rehearsal. She did so based on this assumption she had, that our choir had a strong enough bond of mutual trust holding us together, that such things could be done without people feeling disrespected. It was one of her more serious mistakes, as a teacher.
The day before the next rehearsal, Dory sent everybody copies of a Xeroxed note through the school mail, in her own fussy manuscript. Despite the hearts dotting the I’s, and the smiley emoticons adorning the top and bottom of the note, its language plainly commanded the rest of us—under the authority vested in Dory by, um, herself—that we should all report to the school cafeteria an hour before rehearsal, and she would lead us in running the dance routine. Nobody dared refuse Dory’s instructions—the person most likely to have done so would have been me, but the memory of Mrs. Worden’s glowering was incentive for me to acquiesce.
It was an hour before the rehearsal. We were all crowded into a very small conference room, walled by glass panes on one side, right off of the big cafeteria space. There were stacked up chairs and tables cramming most of that room, leaving only an open space that measured about five by eight square feet.
I must confess that to this day, I still cannot understand why Dory told the other twenty-three of us to crowd into that inadequate space, to rehearse dance steps that included kicking, and arms and hands outstretched in synchronized rhythm. There was no room to practice any of that properly.
Maybe the real reason Dory chose that space—when there was ample room out on the big cafeteria floor, or in the hall that separated it from the auditorium—was so that she could stand on one of the chair stacks, presiding over us like a condescending goddess of warcraft. Of course, it went without saying that she didn’t need to practice the dance. Oh, no. She had just finished being the goddamn lead in the school musical, for fuck’s sake.
If I had to guess, I’d say Dory chose it literally just to make the rest of us uncomfortable on purpose, similar to the way that back when I was still trying to be friends with her, she would suddenly interrupt me with a small but cutting remark during an otherwise friendly conversation, knowing that doing so would make me stumble and second-guess myself. They were both ways that she signaled power to others, expecting, and for the most part receiving, deference.
But by this point, as I mentioned, I had deep-sixed my friendship with Dory. I was not playing her games any more. Not individually, and also not in show choir like this. Who appointed her the military general of choreography? I stood off to the side of the empty space, and sang my choral part, loudly and accurately, without dancing.
Dory looked down at me from her perch. She jabbed a finger in my direction, like it was a sharpened knife.
“DANCE!” she screamed at me.
“There’s no room Dory,” I said, meeting her gaze, trembling slightly with suppressed anger.
“DANCE!!” she screamed, even louder. Her voice was crystalline when singing the lead, or any of her many soloes, but right now it clashed painfully against the rest of the choir crowded into that nightmarishly small space. The movements of hands were weak and tentative, wary of hitting each other. A real-life Danse Macabre.
The fact that I still refused to cede to Dory caused her visible consternation. She knew how to get the lead, and fill the whole auditorium with her belting, without even using a mike, and without tiring. But right now, she couldn’t move me into place with it. Maybe she really believed that by screaming as loud as she could, she would finally cow me into submission. Especially if the sound reverberated in the confined space. But all it did was worsen the stumbling awkwardness of the others’ dancing.
“There’s no room Dory,” I repeated softly. By this point, I had gotten used to being openly at odds with her, but her meanness had never been quite this brazen. And it was about to get even worse:
“YOU SUCK AT DANCING, WHEN WORDEN BITCHES YOU OUT IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY FOR NOT KNOWING THE DANCE, I’M GOING TO STAND THERE AND LAUGH!”
She hollered this loud enough to rattle the glass panes at the front of the room. Everybody else’s eardrums, and mine, whined in protest. That was Dory’s temper unleashed.
I no longer shrank from her displeasure, like everybody else did. But she was the one favored by Worden and Wright. I stood alone, at that moment, in resisting her domineering. It seemed like only I had reason to do so anyway: she acted fake-nice to everybody else, even Lauren, singling me out.
Glaring at Dory, I reluctantly fell into line, trying to squeeze next to the other singers. I was still trembling slightly with anger. Worden had after all shot me a warning glance at the last rehearsal, after all. And despite that, if the fury I felt right then could have had a smell, it would have overwhelmed that tiny cramped room; everybody present would have fainted instantly, from the stench of a clogged sewer pipe about to give way, under stress from too many constipated stools. Oh! the rottenness of it all—the sheer vicious shitty-ness!—Worden and Wright’s favoritism of Dory, and the license it evidently accorded her to verbally attack me—all of it fumed and bubbled up deep inside my chest, where it seemed to me like nobody would perceive it, much less care. I felt like Matilda, right when her dad, Mr. Wormwood, tears her library book to shreds, and obliges her to direct her attention towards the television’s rapacious static.
Here I would like to come back to Lauren, who first provoked Dory’s temper, which got displaced onto me a few months later. I would not go on to stay in touch with Dory after high school, but I would continue corresponding with Lauren when I was studying in Massachusetts, and she in South Bend. That is how I learned the following event, which came near the end of our undergraduate studies, four years after the screaming scene.
Here’s the thing about Lauren. She takes after her mother. Marina Napolitano is similarly driven and industrious. The kind of person who, if Lauren came home with a report card that had more A plusses than A’s on it, she would ask her daughter why the A’s weren’t also A plusses. Perfection was her standard in all things, both personal and professional. Where perfection is, there too is reality.
Marina had an intimidating demeanor—the gravitas that her daughter had inherited from her, but at its raw distilled potency. If you were to see Marina right now, in a room full of steely corporate types, she would not look like somebody whose personal bubble you can easily breach, with a smile, and an outstretched hand. But she was dedicated to her work and her family. And it would be an understatement to say she was good at her job.
A fantastic number cruncher, Marina had worked for many years at an accounting firm in Northeastern Wisconsin. It handled the finances for the most hard-hitting companies in the region. In early 2009, she received news that her husband, Lauren’s father Rick, had a life-threatening heart condition that required immediate and costly surgery.
Knowing all this, Marina’s supervisors connived to do what they had been itching to do for years: they fired her on a technicality, right when she was already in the middle of a family emergency. It had been hard finding anything to get her out on, because she really was just that good at her job—which was of course the very reason they had wanted to get rid of her. Her efficacy threatened their egos.
So Marina Napolitano suddenly found herself high and dry, with no job, no insurance (this being Wisconsin of course), and a husband who might soon die, if he didn’t get the operation he needed, on the double.
She did the only thing she could think of: she formed her own private accounting practice (LLC), and started advertising for new clients. She became her own boss.
What came next was like an existential farce. It must have been hilarious for Marina, but horrifying for her bedeviled ex-employers:
All the firm’s most lucrative clients removed their business. They signed up with Marina’s new firm instead. On the double. And mind you: these were the savviest businesspeople in Northeastern Wisconsin. They knew who the old firm’s MVP had always been—they didn’t even let the door hit them, as they followed her straight through its frame, on the way out into the light of the new day. Marina had work, even more than ever before. She was her own boss. Against everybody’s calculations except her own, she was wealthier than ever before. She paid for her husband’s medical intervention. The joke was on her old firm.
And if you are wondering, I am pleased to report that Rick Napolitano is alive and well—thanks in no small part to his intimidating yet devoted lady in shining armor, who saved the day. That is what their daughter Lauren was also made of, when I knew her.
Back to February 2005. It was a week after the screaming scene that had finished with me giving Dory my most sullen glare. Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Worden had started rehearsal. We had moved from the music room to the auditorium stage. Worden told us to form two lines so she could show us the next part of the dance routine. Another singer raised her hand and asked a redundant question. But before Worden could open her mouth patiently, with rising annoyance, Dory McDonald’s bullhorn voice cut across hers:
“JUST FORM TWO LINES!”
It was loud enough to rattle everybody’s eardrums again, like before when Dory had screamed at me. She punctuated her latest outburst with her usual winning smile:
“It’s not that hard, you guys.”
She looked cheerfully certain that everybody would understand her underlying affection.
I had gotten so used, by that point, to Dory’s abrasiveness, that I had actually started tuning it out completely, without thinking. As a freshman, I had once thought show choir would be so cool to be in, once I aced my audition. I was wrong. The music was dumb: endless Broadway and American Idol fluff. The dancing was hard, and not worth it. Dory’s targeted meanness poisoned the social dynamic for me. Most of the time, I would go to rehearsal, sing through the music (long since memorized), and plough through the dance, knowing Worden would inevitably correct or re-direct me, in public or in private.
I had renounced enthusiasm, and paid more and more attention to my own daydreams. I did that a lot, by the time I was a junior in high school. I had little in common with most of my schoolmates. Their parents paid full tuition for them to attend the Catholic high school, and mine didn’t. That led to a disparity of treatment whose full enormity I only came to appreciate with time and space, after graduating. Frankly, I could barely stand most people at my school. The constant entitlement; the cruel pointless complaining; the ritual sacrifice of low-on-the-totem-pole scapegoats. It was depressing. Maddening, both in the angry sense, and the insane sense. It was as vicious as Roman rule. Using my imagination to sedate myself became a reflexive coping mechanism for how unhappy I felt, almost all the time, at that curious institution.
And so I was daydreaming, right at that instant after Dory had interrupted Worden to scream at everybody yet again. So absorbed was I, that unlike everybody else present, I did not notice when all of a sudden, the show choir was running through the routine minus one member, who Mrs. Worden had unceremoniously dragged by the cuff of her sleeve, offstage, out the door, and into the hallway: Dory McDonald!
I was daydreaming so much, as I sleepwalked through the dance I hated, that I didn’t notice that Lauren’s big solo was suddenly getting an unexpected musical accompaniment of muffled shouts and screams, as Dory and Worden argued, while standing nose to nose with each other, on the other side of the slammed-shut stage door. Worden did not have the same fear of confrontation that Dory’s aunt, Mrs. Wright did. Despite my assumptions, Worden had indeed had just about enough of Dory verbally attacking the other students during rehearsal, right under her own nose as the teacher.
So profoundly did I daydream, that I didn’t even notice when Worden returned from the hallway, red-faced, snorting slightly like a bull that had impaled its matador—she was alone. Dory McDonald had gotten thrown out of rehearsal.
I only found out about these events later, after rehearsal finished. Waiting for car rides, the other singers were gossiping about the drama that had flared up. Astonishment.
“She deserves it,” I said, my lips moving quicker than my social filter.
“Well, you know, they’re being really mean to her,” said a boy, a stupid freshman, and card-carrying member of the Dory-sycophant cult.
“Oh, poor Dory,” I simpered, imitating the same honeyed tones she herself had used earlier. “She only got the lead in the musical and every solo in choir this year, except for Lauren’s.”
“Well yeah, but after all that, now they’re just dropping her,” came the frosh’s sniveling response.
Dory’s plight left me unmoved. But what came next was like an existential farce.
The very next rehearsal, Worden told us all to sit down in the first two rows of seats facing the stage.
“Dory has something she wants to give you guys,” Worden said tersely.
And there was Dory: handing out twenty-four Xeroxed sheets of a letter written, again, in her own cutesy manuscript. I peered down at my copy:
I would like to apologize for what has been happening in rehearsals lately. I realize the connection between us has been stirred, but I sincerely hope we will be able to make things better, and be unified once again.
“Dory and I have talked about this at great length,” hissed Mrs. Worden. She sounded like my kindergarten teacher once did, right when she was putting somebody on time-out for throwing blocks in the play area. “I want all of you to know that this issue we’ve been having is over. It’s over between Dory and me. It’s also OVER between her and the rest of you guys. And I don’t ever want to hear another peep about it. From anybody. EVER.”
She was not shouting, but her voice had a ringing incandescent quality that I had heard before only in isolated moments.
I was shocked, and—to be honest—a bit creeped out by all this. The world as I had known it was turning upside down. I had felt so certain that Dory would continue her meanness with impunity—the directors in her pocket, and the other students only too glad to lick her shoes clean. And despite that, here in my hands now was a handwritten apology from the Never-Mistaken Dory. She seemed to have used as ambiguous a wording as possible, in what struck me as a half-hearted and grudging apology. But still.
So somebody else—maybe multiple people!—must have also been complaining about Dory, even if they didn’t take her on directly like I did. Worden must have followed up with Dory later on, after rehearsal, probably the next day in between classes, or at lunch. She must have threatened to expel her from show choir, unless she furnished a handwritten apology to everybody, on the double. From Worden, that was not an idle threat. And only that kind of threat, I knew, could possibly have prompted Dory to do something as self-abasing as apologize for anything. Such was the potency of the Worden-pillory. It frightened Dory into relative civility for the rest of the year.
Dory had sworn that Worden would humiliate me while she (i.e. Dory) fleered in scorn. The malediction had rebounded upon her, with apocalyptic precision: Worden had ripped her a new one, and even forced out a handwritten apology.
You might be thinking that I did guffaw out loud at that moment. But I wasn’t laughing. With bitter and silent satisfaction, as steely as a handily wielded pincer, I relished the irony. Sublime, like what the philosophers talk about. Like champagne.
No laughter. It was like after the Weird Sisters have summoned up their demonic familiar, who says: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” With Dory chastened, Lauren would be singing her solo again in a moment, when we got onstage. Far and away, somewhere in the hallways of our school, that curious institution, Bob Dylan smiled invisibly, inside the shadows of Lauren’s locker. Somewhere across town, Marina crunched her accounting spreadsheets for the next business day, perfectly as usual. And there I sat, shaking my head, breathing with slightly heavier intensity than normal, and thinking:
Anon, methought the wood began to move.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Dame Iris Murdoch once stated, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than the self is real.” By this assumption, the act of internal realization becomes contiguous with the fact of a consciousness external to oneself.
All assumptions are wrong, but some are useful. An assumption is an active ideal that any self-determined person can accept as a foundation or impetus, from which to realize new, ideally useful, forms. Usefulness is the scope possessed by an object, to afford a subject the maximal opportunities for self-determination and self-possession, within the framework of reality. Infinite possibilities comprise that framework, the ultimate and transcendent one among them being perfection. Where perfection is, there too is reality.
Beauty, we may then assume, is the quality possessed by both objects and subjects, that facilitates the realization of what exists beyond the scope of mere physical sensibility: that which is perfectly real. To misconstrue a subject for an object is to inhibit the realization of perfection.
Joseph G. Smeall-Villarroel graduated in 2010 from Amherst College. Since then, his work in education, the arts, and social advocacy, has taken him through the urban cityscapes of California, Green Bay, Boston, and Worcester, MA. He lives in Hollywood.