THE FABULOUS NOTHING – Avni Shah

Prologue

“Have you ever auditioned before?” Mr. Lipton asked again, sitting in the front row of the auditorium.
“No,” Rashmi Patel said, her teeth chattering. “First time.”
At the beginning of junior year, Rashmi had felt a spark ignite. Nothing like a rebellion, or at least she wouldn’t have labeled it as such. It was like a dare posed by one of the mean girls at a slumber party, when pressure mounted to be bold or be left behind. She’d toyed with auditioning back in the fall but had instead taken part in the annual Diwali program, at her parents’ urging. Over winter break, though, Rashmi had run lines with her bedroom door locked, in anticipation of auditioning for the spring musical, West Side Story.
“We’re pretty casual here,” Mrs. Sachs said. “Anytime you’re ready. Any scene you want.”
“Should I stand on stage?” Rashmi asked, avoiding eye contact.
“Yes,” Mrs. Sachs said. “It will help you get into character.”
Once on stage, she turned to look back at the panel of teachers. The scene she’d prepared was the very first in which Maria appeared. She said her opening line: “Por favor, Anita. Make the neck lower!” As soon as the words came out, she knew she’d gone too big. She had nowhere to build to. Then she realized she wasn’t sure who would play Anita.
“Should I perform both parts?” she asked.
“No need,” Mrs. Sachs said. “I can recite Anita’s lines.”
But Mrs. Sachs read from her seat in the front row and not from the stage, which made for an awkward exchange—Rashmi wasn’t sure where she should direct her gaze.
That evening she felt disappointed. She was just beginning to understand that it wasn’t until you were faced with losing something that you realized how badly you had wanted it in the first place. How much you’d foolishly invested in one opportunity and the naïve notion that it could be life-changing.
Two days later the casting was posted. Rashmi waited until everyone was in class and then asked her physics teacher, Mrs. Reed, if she could be excused to the restroom. Hall pass in hand, she walked past the girls’ restroom and through the commons, where a handful of students were sitting for study hall, scattered at tables all the way to the far corner, in front of the auditorium entrance.
As she stood before the bulletin board, Rashmi’s heart began to pound in her chest. She felt conspicuous. She looked back over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching her. Of course no one was; some students were getting a head-start on their homework, while others were quietly chatting, reading magazines, or listening to Walkmans. She turned back to the list. It was like standing in front of a fortune-teller, waiting to hear her fate.
It couldn’t be, but there it was in thick, black marker: “Maria … Rashmi Patel.” She checked three times to be sure she hadn’t misread it. Amid her excitement, she realized that now she couldn’t put off telling her parents.
After school she sat at the kitchen table with her parents, all three of them drinking late-afternoon tea. Rashmi’s right leg shook and her throat constricted.
“How was your day?” her father asked.
Rashmi couldn’t help but smile. “Great.”
“Really?” He smiled back at her. “You never say that. What made it so wonderful?”
“I got the lead in the school play.”
His face dropped. It wasn’t clear whether he was upset or confused. Maybe both.
Her mother showed a mild amount of pride. “Is it a big part?” she asked. Rashmi knew her mother had never heard of West Side Story or any other American play. She watched Bollywood films, read books in Gujarati, and listened to music in Hindi. West Side Story was as foreign to her as Lata Mangeskhar was to Rashmi.
“Yes,” Rashmi told her. “I’m playing Maria.” The role was impossibly important, and her casting was impossible too. Unlike the drama clique at school, she wasn’t experienced in acting.
“Who is Maria?” her father asked.
“The main character. She’s arranged to be married, but she falls in love with someone else. Actually, it’s kind of a Bollywood story.”
“Love?” her father said, growing taller and larger, as if he were fighting off a bear. “This doesn’t sound like a serious play.”
“It is,” she told him, irritated. “It’s famous, and I got the best part.”
“What about your schoolwork?” he asked. “Your grades?”
Her disappointment came quick and deep. But she knew that if she cried, her father would only grow more ornery. She composed herself. “It’s the school play. It is a part of school.”
“It’s for kids who aren’t taking the classes you’re taking,” he said. “It’s junior year. Your grades will determine which colleges admit you. You can’t do the play. It’s too much of a distraction.”
Rashmi looked toward her mom, who didn’t comment. She didn’t know what else to say, but she knew she had to try again. “Rehearsals haven’t even begun. Can’t I just see how it goes?” She’d hoped they’d be proud of her, that even though they didn’t support theater as an extracurricular, they’d feel excited by the fact that she’d accomplished something other kids hadn’t. But there was no hug or celebration, just reminders that she was to follow the trajectory they had set forth: good grades led to admission to a good university, which led to a good job and good pay. Money and prestige, that’s all there was in this world.
The first day of rehearsals, Rashmi planned to tell her parents that she was staying after school for math help. Then she realized her parents would be worried if she needed extra support, so instead she told them that she’d joined the math club to boost her college-admissions résumé.
Day after day, she locked herself in her room and quietly practiced her lines. Her parents praised her for all her hard work on Friday and Saturday nights. Her mother worried about the pressure mounting on Rashmi when, on two separate occasions, the stress broke her and she sobbed uncontrollably, seemingly about nothing.
Rashmi’s grades began to drop; the play became all-consuming. Mr. Lipton’s patience ebbed and flowed depending on her delivery. Lately it was poor. There was too much on her conscience, eating at her, and the lack of support from those who knew her left her flailing in the wind like a garbage bag.
“Rashmi, where’s your head?” Mr. Lipton asked, just hours after Mrs. Perkins, her pre-calc teacher, wondered the same thing after handing back a quiz. She’d gotten a “C,” the first in eleven years.
She shrugged. The inadequacies of her Maria were on par with her inadequacies as a daughter, as a student. On par and unshakable.
One night at dinner, it all unraveled. Her father’s attention to detail—the closeness with which he monitored Rashmi’s academic career—was claustrophobic. Before she’d even had time to figure out how to fix her grade, he’d found the marked-up math quiz in her backpack.
“You hid this from us!” he said, bellowing at her across the table, his cheeks marked with grease from the okra.
“I didn’t,” she said, though it was impossible to deny. “I was working on it.”
“How?” he said. “You don’t even have the time.”
She shrugged. “It’s only been a week since I got it back.”
“A week?” He was angrier and louder than he’d been in months. Rashmi’s mother was silent, timid against the backdrop of his temper. She always had been. “You’ve known for a week and haven’t told us?”
No answer would appease him, so she didn’t speak.
“I told you this would happen,” he said. “If you did the play.”
“How…?” She wasn’t sure what to ask.
Her mother looked at her now, wondering what she’d missed. “What play? We said no to the play.”
“He said no,” Rashmi said angrily. “Not you. You said nothing. But I did it anyway. I got the lead. You can’t turn down the lead.”
“I can’t look at you,” her father said. “Throwing your life away.”
“You lied, beta?” her mother asked, still caught up in the first infraction, the most fundamental betrayal a child could inflict on her parents.
“I didn’t,” Rashmi said. “I told you. All those weeks ago. But you didn’t listen. You told me what you wanted. Like always.”

“Of course we did!” her father yelled. “We pay for your food, your shelter. We’re the ones you expect to pay your college tuition. You owe us. For all that we sacrificed, you owe us!”

*

On opening night, Carlie Beekman played Maria to a sold-out auditorium, and Rashmi sat alone in her bedroom. She was supposed to be doing math drills, but she was too depressed to focus. She held the comp tickets, folding them down, playing with the paper until the creases were worn in, raw and easy to rip through. It was her fault, she supposed, her lie. But still she blamed them for it.
What if this had been it? Her one chance to be a star, and she’d blown it.

Chapter One

It was supposed to be glamorous, wasn’t it? Her first time? But Rashmi had never felt more humiliated, lying on top of this mattress, dressed in her stringy tank top and jeans, as frozen as she’d felt on those East Coast winter days when the heater stopped working and the insulation failed to hold up.
“Look sleepy but blissful,” said the young man sitting at the table across from the mattress. He seemed too young to have authority, his sternness betrayed by the boyish swoop of hair framing his face.
Rashmi tried her best to make her eyelids heavy without looking tired. She added a smile.
“Too much!” the young man exclaimed. “It’s supposed to be relieving, not amusing. Can you show us how the mattress has saved you?”
Saved her? It was hard against her back, like lying directly on the springs of a trampoline. Anyway, what would relief look like in the context of sleep? Pleasure? Neutrality? She couldn’t see her own face, and hadn’t prepared a range of expressions for the day. She’d hoped there would be lines fed to her, but there were none. Just poses and silly contortions of her facial muscles as she grasped at emotions she didn’t fully understand.
She imagined what it would feel like to put her feet up after a long day of standing at a register, being yelled at by cranky customers in a never-ending line. She closed her eyes, trying to lose herself in the scene. Then, as if involuntarily, she added her own lines. “Oh, wow!” and later, “This feels amazing.”
“Thank you,” the young man said abruptly.
She barely had a chance to open her eyes before she found herself being scooted out, like a mistress who’d overstayed her welcome. It was as humiliating as it was perplexing. What had he wanted? A lifeless corpse with the faintest hint of satisfaction? More chatter?
A week later, she still hadn’t heard back. The ensuing bad mood didn’t help her in her next audition, which she was sure she’d bombed. Rashmi crumpled the script in her hand, frustrated, infuriated, depressed. She knew she’d tanked it even before she escaped the dark office building where they’d held the open call. In fact she’d predicted it well before, on her drive over in the clunky used Chevy that she’d had to restart three different times.
“Thank you,” the casting agent had said. Thank you, just like that, before Rashmi had even gotten through the first of three measly lines, standing among other non-entities like herself, aspiring actresses who’d parked on Sunset Boulevard just like her and imagined how glamorous it all was, envisioned themselves on a red carpet somewhere, like Meryl or Katharine. A star.
Instead of possibility, Rashmi found her dust-covered car and a parking ticket on Sunset. Forty dollars for misreading a sign. When she got in, she slammed the driver’s side door. The rattling crunch reminded her that it was just a matter of time before the door broke right off its hinges. Rust, like the trunk.
She knew her way home by now from most parts of Hollywood. The first few months of driving through Los Angeles had been tricky, but five months after moving from New York, she’d gotten the hang of it. She’d had to; there was no one here for her except two random roommates that she’d found at a Westside Rentals office: Maria and Sally, also actresses and both far more successful than Rashmi, with a couple national spots on their résumés along with local theater credits.
Neither was home when she arrived at the apartment. Rashmi set down her keys and listened to their voicemail, though she knew that none of the messages would be from her parents. All this time later, they had yet to forgive her for leaving home so abruptly and not following the example of her older sister, Ritu, by pursuing a “respectable” profession. None of the messages would be from Ritu either. Rashmi was never sure whether the distance that existed between them was her choice or Ritu’s.
Her room was smaller than the New York City dorm she’d spent two months in as a college freshman. There was nothing on the wall except a corkboard where she pinned inspirational photos and quotes. She’d read in a lifestyle magazine that Winona Ryder used to rely on a similar device to stay motivated in the face of rejection.
Rashmi went to bed early and woke up late. It was easy to bury herself in depression in the dimly lit space, a first-floor apartment that blocked most of the sunlight. When she finally went into the common space she shared with Maria and Sally the next morning, she found herself overwhelmed by signs of independence. A stack of bills littered the kitchen counter, topped by a note in Sally’s handwriting indicating that they were Rashmi’s. All she wanted was caffeine, but the coffee pot sat empty and stained; she’d have to rinse it before brewing another batch. At her parents’ house it would have been cleaned the instant she set it down. Of course, perfection came with a cost, and she told herself she was happier this way, in a dingy Hollywood apartment with worn appliances and yellowed cabinets that couldn’t fully close, their wood too warped to fit into the rectangular frame.
Once she’d drunk a cup of coffee, Rashmi felt better. She always did.
Maria walked into the kitchen, her brown hair pulled into a tight bun on top of her head. It was luxurious even wrapped up. This was Maria’s gift: she had an obvious beauty, one that made it easy for her to be confident. “Brooding again?”
Rashmi shook her head, but Maria answered herself: “Yes, you are.”
They laughed.
“We’ve been over this.” Maria poured herself a cup of coffee from the fresh pot Rashmi had brewed and sat down.
“What if I’m not talented enough?” Rashmi asked.
“This again.”
Her insecurities were embarrassing, but she couldn’t help herself. Self-loathing was as routine to her as brushing her teeth. “Seriously, what if I don’t have it?”

“Who cares,” Maria said, slurping her coffee. “Only thing that matters is how bad you want it.” She could have been in insurance, Rashmi thought. She was good at the sell.

*

On Tuesday evenings, starting at the end of September, Rashmi attended a cheap actors’ workshop on Vine, on the fourth floor of a sketchy building that smelled like wet moss. There were twenty other people in the class, for which she paid twenty-five dollars a session. Each session was geared toward a different skill and spanned two hours. Maria had warned her that the class, “Acting for the Screen,” sounded too broad to be helpful, but Rashmi didn’t care. It was all she could afford.
The topic of the third session appeared to be fake tears. Rashmi was good at crying. She’d cried when she’d gotten the part in her high-school play and then when she’d left the production. She’d cried every time she fought with her father, and after she quit school. She’d cried on the plane to Los Angeles and on her first four nights of living with strangers. But she’d never had to conjure tears on command.
“Crying is not the point. Soap opera actors cry. What you are looking to do here is emote,” said Stephan Sanders, a moderately successful casting director who ran the workshops with his friend Eddie, whose résumé amounted to a handful of national commercials.
“So no tears?” asked one of Rashmi’s classmates, Erin. She was one of the older students, at least thirty, Rashmi guessed. There were two men who were even older than Erin—maybe fifty. Rashmi wondered if they had come to fill their free time or if they were seriously pursuing acting as a second or third career.
“I’m not saying that,” Stephan said. He shook his head, apparently annoyed. “It’s about emoting. Emotional resonance.”
“Emotional presence,” Eddie corrected. “What you feel when you act should be what you feel in your real life.”
Rashmi took copious notes, especially when she was confused. Since the first class, she’d been amassing a collection of buzzwords and phrases: empathy, method, live research, memory association, and now emotional presence/resonance. All of these were meant to elicit from her a methodical (yet spontaneous and authentic) and emotional (but not melodramatic) performance.
“Should we run a scene then?” Eddie asked the class.
The others were eager, especially the waifish sixteen-year-old, who gladly told everyone her age and boasted about running away from home to pursue her dream. All of her clothes were worn and tattered; a signature red beanie hid the knotted mess of her hair. It was likely that she slept on a street corner or in a shelter, but even she demonstrated a raw talent and confidence that Rashmi couldn’t match.
One by one each student volunteered, until there were just five people left. It was better to choose her own moment of execution than wait for a trigger to be pulled, so Rashmi raised her hand. “I’ll go.”
Standing at the front of the room, she delivered lines to Fitz, her acting partner for the moment. “Why can’t you just forget her?”
Fitz, who looked like a California-surfer stereotype with long, blond locks partially obscuring his eyes, played the role of her father. “It’s late. You got school.”
“No! Don’t walk out!” she said, a little too emphatically.
“Let me stop you there,” Stephan said. “It’s a bit…shrill. Emote, remember. Be emotionally resonant.”
“Emotionally present,” Eddie corrected again.
“You’re not yelling your feelings, you’re feeling your feelings,” Stephan added.
Rashmi swallowed her saliva, choking on it. She coughed aggressively, then tried again. “Why can’t you just realize she’s gone?” As she said the words, she thought of her parents, of how lonely she felt, of how her own sister never reached out to show her support or at least make sure she wasn’t lying in a ditch somewhere. “Why can’t you realize she’s gone and she’s never gonna come back?” Her eyes welled up, but she didn’t blink. No tears. No crying.
“Excellent,” Eddie said. “I could feel what you were feeling.”
She smiled shyly. Never before had her pain been an asset.

Author’s Statement

My protagonist, Rashmi Patel, is a rebel, but not as a matter of choice or fashion; she just doesn’t fit into the lifestyle and culture into which she was born. With an older sister and parents who see the future—school followed by a profession—more conservatively, she feels she has to leave her traditional upbringing behind in New Jersey and travel to Los Angeles to pursue her true ambition: to become a successful Hollywood actor.
Along the way, she is faced with a number of roadblocks—some a normal part of the Hollywood experience and some specific to the exotic label she receives in an industry unused to Indian talent. Grappling with the role she plays culturally, the guilt and ambivalence she feels about abandoning her roots, and the wheeling and dealing she has to accept to advance her career, she struggles for some time before finally getting a part that she thinks can launch her. At the same time, however, she learns that she’s pregnant. As quickly as her success came to her, she leaves it behind for a child she is never sure she wanted.
Fifteen years later, her daughter is a reality-TV star hoping to make the leap into bigger productions. Sarah, who is of mixed race and thus appears less ethnic, does not have to worry about getting typecast as a “snake charmer” or “exotic love interest.” In fact, with Rashmi’s help as her manager, she is never forced to sacrifice for her dreams at all. Instead of a family who is skeptical of her ambition, she has a family who is aggressively supportive of it. The problem is that Sarah doesn’t want the future her mother sought for herself years before. When a magazine shoot that could make or break Sarah’s career is threatened due to her deliberate disappearance, Rashmi digs for a desperate lie.
As a new mother and a fairly new resident of southern California, I was drawn to writing about the complicated, often conflicting emotions that accompany parenthood, especially in its juxtaposition to individual ambition. One area I wanted to explore is how we pass along dreams we’ve deferred or never fulfilled from one generation to another. I wondered if any dream—whether it’s to be a doctor or an actor—will feel like an imposition if it wasn’t born in your own imagination.
With Los Angeles and Hollywood as my muse, I added the pressure of time—aging, really—as it affects women specifically. This story is framed as a pressure cooker: time is constantly on the verge of running out. At the same time, I explore the ways in which mothers in particular often have to sacrifice for their children and to swallow certain assumptions and stereotypes.

 

Avni Shah holds a master’s degree in writing from the University of Southern California, where she studied under Janet Fitch and Judith Freeman. Her fiction has appeared in various journals, including The Bangalore Review and The Sand Canyon Review.

Embark, Issue 10, October 2019