Character Work

Alison Fields remembers the perils of junior high: fitting in, standing out, and trying out.

Alison Fields | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,214 words)

My dad moved out of the house on January 1, 1990. He’d packed up his cartons of books, records, and stacks of old issues of the New Yorker from the shelves built specifically to house them. This left his study, my favorite room in the house, vacant. I’d largely accepted my parents’ separation and forthcoming divorce. I wasn’t Haley Mills. I had neither a twin nor a plan to get them back together. I don’t remember exactly how I managed his departure, except the first night he was gone — really gone — I lay in bed reading Anne Rice novels and listening to the Beatles on my Walkman, thinking my mother’s claims of “Nothing will change, everything will be the same, and we’ll be all right” had a fine whiff of bullshit about them.

Dad’s apartment was on the second story of a recently renovated building in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, full of other divorced parents and distracted weekend children. When the custodial schedule put me there, I spent a lot of time wandering our then-empty downtown. I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica. There I pined after rosaries as jewelry, accidentally stole candles, and visited with the priest. He was a good-natured and quiet man, who perhaps recognized that even pious adolescents don’t spend whole Saturdays alone wandering around a drafty church if they’re even remotely happy. I’m sure I needed answers to a lot of the Big Metaphysical Questions life had served up the past few months, but mostly we talked about the Grand Central Oyster Bar and why my nascent atheism would be a real barrier to entry if I ever wanted to convert to Catholicism.

One Saturday, Dad took my younger sister on one of those guilt-fueled, divorced-parent shopping benders. When she returned, flush with toys, new stereo equipment, and a pair of hamsters, Dad handed me a blank check to take to the public library and pay my king’s ransom in overdue fees. I filled it out at the circulation desk under the twitching eye of the upstairs librarian. On the way out the door, I caught a glance of a yellow flyer that read AUDITIONS TODAY: YOUTH THEATER COMPANY SEEKS YOUNG ACTORS. Finally, I thought, a reason not to find God.

I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica.

I hadn’t curled my hair, put on lip gloss, nor prepared a song from Les Miserables that was hopelessly out of my vocal range and life experience. But I needn’t have worried; I made the company in about 30 seconds. I was flattered and impressed with myself. I didn’t even have to act. They could just see the talent emanating right off of me. The director said she’d see me at orientation the next week at the theater — your new home away from home! Afterward, I stood on the sidewalk across from Dad’s apartment building, January sleet silvering down on me, and glanced up at the basilica. I thought, That poor priest is going to have to find someone else to talk to.

My mother took me to the information session. Unlike my father, who’d met news of my professional theater career with a “Great job, bud” and a nod back to the golf game, Mom found the whole turning your kids into professional actors pitch suspicious at best. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Sure, the audition process was unconventional. The theater, in name only, was a filthy warehouse filled with giant spiders and dingy whitewashed brick, with ancient wooden floors so bowed and worn you could pass notes through the cracks to the cellar. The next production was “an Irish play, you know, for St. Paddy’s Day” that had yet to be written seven weeks out from opening. My fellow young thespians were mostly the homeschooled children of hippie parents, and a handful of tough girls with skinhead boyfriends, lipstick the color of bruises, and pack-a-day smoking habits at 13. My closest peer was coincidentally the daughter of my father’s divorce attorney. I couldn’t exactly figure out what she was doing there, but I was glad she was around. Driving me down the derelict alley to rehearsal the first time, my mother was alarmed at the scruffy day-drunks relieving themselves against the wall across the street. I thought it was bohemian, you know, kind of punk rock. Though I would never have said that aloud because the tough girls would have punched me in the arm and called me a poser.

Mom thought it was possible the owners were running some kind of elaborate con. I was sure I was not being conned. “I mean, they haven’t asked me for a dime,” I said. “Yeah, well, they’re charging me several thousand dimes for you to be involved in all this,” she replied. I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also knew that because of the weirdness of the divorce she probably wouldn’t say no.

* * *

From Dad’s apartment, it was a quick walk through the echoing emptiness of old Asheville to the theater. I felt tough on the streets all by myself. My mother had handed me down a long black-and-white tweed coat that hung to my ankles. I thought I looked romantic and edgy. The wind whistled up between the buildings on the steep hill of Walnut Street, and as I walked down, the back of the coat trailed out behind me like a cape. I’d clunk down the alleyway, through broken bottles and cigarette butts and try not to make eye contact with anyone.

Rehearsals, though we had no play to rehearse, consisted of a lot of tongue twisters and pantomime. Sometimes we would sit in a circle and report on what new plays we’d read that week. I brought in Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare, trying to win over the director. She was unimpressed. After script study, we were handed brooms, mops, sponges, various chemicals, and sent to scrub. The director told us it would build character, as she sat at a table by the front door, smoking cigarettes and Miss Hannigan-ing her way through improv games to enliven our mold removal. Various infractions could score extra chores. After a few weeks of steady work, the upstairs started to seem less like a place where you could catch cholera, so she sent us to the crypt-like cellar — a dank pit accessed by a trapdoor — and instructed us to sweep out the giant beetles and haints and shards of Mad Dog 2020 bottles, so we could build out a new dressing room.

The tough girls figured out how to unlock the back door of the cellar and stood out in the alley smoking and talking about getting fake IDs to get tattoos. Over time, the rest of us started going outside too. The director sent us down with paint, and we’d leave the cans at the bottom of the stairs, confident she’d never follow after us. Sometimes we’d send someone off through the warren of alleys to Lexington Park to buy snacks. Sometimes we’d just stand out the cold, a shivery archipelago of adolescent angst.

After about a month or so, we were greeted one afternoon with a half handwritten script loosely based on Irish folklore and a couple bland-looking twenty-somethings in fresh company T-shirts. They waved at us awkwardly.The stars of our play,“ said the director. We just stared back; we’d thought maybe we’d be the stars of our play. She posted the rest of the cast list by the cellar. I’d be playing the elderly mother of the hero. I had five lines. Divorce lawyer’s daughter, cast as my elderly neighbor, had three. The tough girls were cast as witches. Everyone else was a fairy.

* * *

I could have quit, but despite sort of hating the company, going to the theater gave me a thing to do instead of sitting alone at Mom or Dad’s, snacking and worrying about snacking too much and why it was that everyone else suddenly emerged from baby fat with a perfect bikini body and I looked like a greasy lard thumb with bad hair and ill-considered harem pants. I read a lot of books about Marie Antoinette, whom I kind of identified with until one of the tough girls reminded me that I was not, in fact, the rich beautiful princess, but the blubbery peasant at the gate who would have been told to eat cake, but maybe a smaller helping, Cherie, you could certainly stand to lose a few pounds.

I celebrated my 14th birthday at the end of February to zero fanfare. Mom gave me a clock radio with a piece of cheese toast at breakfast. Dad forgot entirely until I called him the next day, and he dropped off a New Yorker cartoon and a $20 bill in the mailbox. I’d always ascribed some importance to age 14. Like I would feel like a real, honest-to-goodness teenager. My life would be a Molly Ringwald movie.

“At least, I’m not thirteen anymore,” I told the divorce lawyer’s daughter backstage during rehearsal. “But, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, how am I to survive all the horrors of 14?”

“Hey,” she said. “Your Irish accent is actually getting pretty good.”

I blushed.

The bland 20-something hero of the play saw us talking and told us to get back to work sanding the makeup table. I thought, 15 … maybe 15 will be something to write home about.

* * *

We were handed reams of flyers for the Irish play and instructed to paper the town, while wearing a company T-shirt. We were told to tell our parents, our teachers, our friends to buy tickets. “Make sure they know how good this show is.” I told each of my parents to buy as many tickets as possible and not come. Mom bought two and sat in the front row. Dad bought five and obliged me by not showing up to any of the performances.

The opening would be on St. Paddy’s, which fell on a Sunday. The director informed us we’d be promoting the show by participating in the local parade, in full costume.

The divorce lawyer’s daughter and I came in early to apply age makeup and spray our hair white. We stuffed our “traditional Irish folkloric apparel” — hand-me-down flannel nightgowns paired with hippie skirts and psychedelic 1970s-era knitted afghans worn as shawls — with a white sale’s amount of throw pillows stuffed into the waistband because the director thought it would be hilarious if I were even fatter than I was. Most of the other girls were costumed as fairies, well-glittered and made up with lipstick and tulle. The one tough girl who showed up for the parade refused to wear a costume at all, and no one was brave enough to convince her otherwise.


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The weather on parade day was the most credibly Irish part of the event. We lined up between the Vietnam Veterans’ Harley Davidson Club of Western North Carolina and a bunch of marijuana legalization activists dressed as Grim Reapers. The director instructed us to frolic. It’s hard to frolic in a cold wind and rain. I endured, perversely relieved that I looked like a garbage bag, because unlike the fairies, I was not getting heckled by the green-beer-drunk onlookers.

The idea was that crowds would join us in our frolic and follow us pied piper–style back to the theater for the show. No one came, save some friends of the director. We were promised three weekends of performances, but after opening night, the director revised it to three performances. No one seemed to mind.

* * *

I faded out of the company. I claimed illness. I claimed poverty. I’d only gone back to say goodbye to the divorce lawyer’s daughter when the director pulled me aside and said, “There’s an audition. They’re looking for girls like you. A TV movie.”

I was dubious of anything the director said and definitely still scared of the tough girls, who were surprisingly also included in the audition, but I hated junior high and the audition would allow me to miss a day of it. I asked Mom. She hesitated but ultimately agreed. I curled my hair. I wore lip gloss. I practiced my tongue twisters. I rode down in a rented van on a Thursday with the director, the tough girls, and a chain-smoking redhead with frosted eye shadow and a shiny lavender suit who said she was our agent.

The casting call was held in an office park in midtown Atlanta. The waiting room was full of teenage girls who all looked a little like me. A casting director came out and told us the movie was about a poor white girl befriending a nice black man in the Depression-era South. The poor white girl was the teenage lead of a popular sitcom. The nice black man was an Academy Award winner. We’d be reading for the girl’s racist schoolmate, an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior, with a thick Southern accent. I stung a bit and looked at the other girls. I looked at myself in the mirror. I told the red-haired agent I wasn’t even sure I still had a Southern accent. She was all, “Just wing it. You probably won’t get the part anyway.”

Acting, I thought. It’s just acting.

I read a few more lines. They were sexually provocative and horribly racist. I tried to imagine myself saying them. I thought, I don’t want to do this. I said, “I’m not sure I want to do this.”

The agent, on her way out for another Capri, patted me on the knee. “You’ll be fine,” she said.

At the end of the day, after four or five cycles of reading, it was only me and one of the tough girls left in the waiting room.

“We’re probably going to want to see you both again,” said the casting director. “We’ll be in touch.”

The director and the agent celebrated. I didn’t know what to think. I rode back in the van listening to Revolver on my Walkman, while the tough girls insulted each other. I kept rewinding “I’m Only Sleeping” to the part at the bridge where the chorus yawns out and Paul McCartney comes in to duet at keeping an eye on the world going by my window. I rested my head against the van window, shiny with spring rain, and thought the harmony was transportive, the musical equivalent of a door in the back of the wardrobe. I imagined going back in time. To the ‘30s in the South. To the ‘60s in England. To my life, like, six months ago.

The next day, the casting director called to tell me they wanted me back in 10 days for a screen test with the sitcom star. They wanted to talk to my mother. I handed her the phone and went up to my room to eavesdrop on the other receiver.

We’d be reading for the girl’s racist schoolmate, an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior, with a thick Southern accent. I stung a bit and looked at the other girls. I looked at myself in the mirror.

My mom was not a stage mother. She had reservations about the movie. She didn’t like the script. She hated the part. She didn’t think they would pay me enough. She worried that the role might damage my reputation. That people might forever conflate the role with me. That I might end up a washed-up child actor. That I might end up like Linda Blair.

I told her the script didn’t include projectile vomit or demonic possession. And I wasn’t an idiot. A TV movie wasn’t going to be The Exorcist. But she kept mentioning it, even after she talked to an attorney, even after we met with my vice principal to clear my theoretical absences. When I made her run lines with me at night, I knew she saw the an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior written at the top of the page. She heard her daughter affect a thick Southern accent to spout off poorly scripted racial slurs. I told myself, If this works out I’m not going to be typecast forever as a fat racist. I hoped that was true.

The day of the screen test, Mom drove me to Atlanta. We signed in with the receptionist and sat in the same empty waiting room. The tough girl went first. She came out, grinning and flushed. They called me next. Mom squeezed my head and told me I was beautiful. Be yourself, she said. But mom, I thought, I’m an actor. I’ll be whatever they want me to be.

The sitcom actress smiled and shook my hand. She was the most famous person I’d ever met. We sat in two metal folding chairs in front of the camera. She asked if I was ready. I said I was. We did the scene. Then they changed the camera angles and we did it again. They thanked me.

We waited.

When the casting director came out beaming at me, I let myself believe it was real, that I would be in a movie, that I would be a working actor, that I would be on TV and all the people who hated me in eighth grade would see it and then I would be in other movies and I could hang out with my new best friend Winona Ryder and date John Cusack and buy a house in L.A. or New York or maybe London and everything, every little single solitary thing wrong with my life wouldn’t matter because I would be famous and famous fixes everything.

Up close, the director’s smile changed slightly. I knew it wasn’t me. She thanked me for coming in. She wished me the best of luck.

I think I was a good actress. Maybe not the one they wanted, but good enough to smile placidly and congratulate the other girl. Good enough to leave the waiting room head held high not as an an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior, but as a motherfucking Amazon Queen.

I started crying in the car. Mom drove through the five o’clock and pulled off at a fancy hotel in Buckhead. We went to the lobby bar. She ordered a drink for herself and a ginger ale for me. It wasn’t quite May. The hotel pool was open, but chilly for swimming. Mom and I took off our shoes and sat on edge, bare feet suspended in cool, unnatural blue.

She told me she was sorry it hadn’t worked out, acting was a tough business, and if it was something I really cared about, this wouldn’t be my only chance. It just feels that way. She told me about in time in college, when she was writing folk songs and had been invited to Richmond to record a demo. Do you know this story? I did but I let her tell me anyway. Her father, my Poppy, wouldn’t let her. “He forbade it. So I didn’t go. And I’ve always wondered.”

I didn’t know why she didn’t defy him. Poppy was being unreasonable. Poppy, the kindest, gentlest, a real saint of a man. “He was being mean, Mom. I mean, you should have gone anyway. You might have been famous,” I said.

She might have. She might have cut a single and opened for Joni Mitchell. She might have recorded an album. She might have drunk mimosas with the ladies of the canyon and written sad songs about love to the sound of the Pacific tide. She might not have finished college or met my father or had me or my sister. “And I don’t regret any of those things,“ Mom said.

Even though my parents were splitting up and my dad was living in an apartment downtown and everything felt like a muddle?

“Even though,” she said. “Even though.”

We sat by the pool until we could see the rising moon reflected in the surface.

I told Mom it had been a sucky year.

She agreed. She apologized. I apologized for making her feel like she had to apologize. I told her I loved her. I told her that she was maybe my best friend.

The bartender came out to ask if we wanted to book a room for the night.

We said no — both of us just wanted to go home, and for the first time in months, that felt like where we were really going.

* * *

Alison Fields is a writer in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Editor: Katie Kosma