Just as I feared, my erratic dress-performance rehearsal has had disastrous results. The terrible notion of “highlighting” (which to me sounds ominously like blacklisting) is introduced just prior to the first performance. Certain names have been highlighted in yellow marker, signifying that these soldiers must march in every performance if they are present. They are the elite. And if there is a shortage of uniforms, they are guaranteed one. Obviously, I never thought I was elite, but when they tell us that there is such a designation, I do fantasize, for the minute it takes me to walk to the cast list, that I have been made one of the elect. Perhaps I was being too hard on myself. Perhaps they recognized some deeper reserves in me and have honored my peculiar, not strictly regular, marching technique. But, no, they haven’t, and I’m crestfallen. I am not highlighted. It is a de-facto demotion.
William immediately sidles up to me, and with an arched brow inquires about my status. I shake my head. He says, “Don’t worry. You are highlighted in my heart.” William is among the 12 highlighted names, but he doesn’t mention that. The uniform that has been absolutely mine up until tonight (my name is sewn in it) is—theoretically—up for grabs. Any of the elite can claim it. Now, there are only 12 elite out of 36 men in my regiment, and 30 must march. The math is on my side. And there is an even lower designation: “bracketed” men—which neatly sums up how you feel when you’ve been bracketed: you are a bracketed (man)—who will only get a uniform and onto the Met stage if the regiment is stricken by consumption, typhoid, or cholera. Thank God, I tell myself, I’m not one of these poor benighted sods. These men are visibly upset as they are told to take their uniforms off. They sit in their underwear wondering if, after all their diligent, apparently hapless, marching, they will even get someone’s cast-off cobbled-together uniform. The directors try to console them, saying they will still be paid, that it’s good for the production to have too many men, that they’ll get to go home early, that they are in the grand Met tradition of “covers,” but there’s no disguising that they are understudies to extras. The bare possibility that I may be sitting in my underwear on the night my wife is sitting in the audience shakes me to the core.
My wife and friends paid $65 for their seats, just to see me on the fourth night of the run. One friend asks if he can demand his money back. I feel like a fraud. After all my pride in my position, the Met finally couldn’t risk my appearing on its stage. I’m on the high-school soccer team again, looking enviously at the talented forwards, wondering what ineffable quality I lack that would allow me to be first-string. Then, as now, it turned out to be talent as defined by the people who know. That sophomore self is still in there, apparently; he just hasn’t been called on lately.
My wife consoles me with the math: “If they need 30 …” As I tell her that I fall in the “broad middle,” and that it’s no big deal, my voice must betray it’s hard not to be a chosen one. My wife says, “I know, I would have been devastated not to be highlighted.” Which makes me feel even worse. She tells me a story about cheerleading camp,1 where she was “tapped out” of the line after the first minute of a five-minute routine on the first day. At first, she held her place in the line, positive it must have been a mistake, believing the head cheerleader meant to tap the girl next to her. But then the cheerleader pranced back over (I’m picturing a blond ponytail bouncing pertly, an Alicia Silverstone curl in her lip) and tapped her again, angrily this time. She still remembers this, 20 years later. But a mistake can be made in one minute. They studied me for 6 weeks, so this was a considered rejection. Yet I can’t help but think it all came down to that dress rehearsal and one floppy-haired 13-year-old.
I think of a scene from War and Peace, the movie, when the cowardly character Denisov runs from the attacking French. He can’t believe the French want to kill him. “Can it be possible they want to kill me?” he thinks, as he hightails it. “Me, whom everyone loves?” I strongly identify with Denisov. I feel exactly this way when I think of being left offstage: “Can this opera be staged without me? Me, whom everyone loves?”
1 My wife rebuts my repeated public assertions that she was a cheerleader, as she has received much comment on this point—some of it from her surprised employers, who imply they wouldn’t have hired a cheerleader, had they known. Friends and some prominent writers have congratulated me on marrying a cheerleader, implying that they didn’t think I had it in me. Apparently, I don’t. My wife asserts that she was on the “dance squad” in the marching band. And that it’s a point of pride among Coral Park Dance Squad members—past and present—precisely that they are not Coral Park Cheerleaders, whom they view with pointed disdain. But since she wore a sequined outfit with boots, and sometimes wielded pompoms, I insist that this is a distinction without a difference. And will continue to accept congratulations on marrying above my station.