Learning to Cry
The class calls their teacher Scarecrow for his thin limbs and rotation of flannel shirts. It does not help that his cheeks, in this December cold, chap pink and crack. It’s as if he’s wandered inside for the first time in weeks just to teach this night class at the local community college. Kate cannot remember his real name.
“Funerals seem too obvious, unless, of course, that works for you. Death is an easy kind of grief. Sometimes there are sadnesses, are fears, that get at a deeper part of you. That’s what I’m asking you to remember,” Scarecrow says.
Kate shakes her head. “I guess it’s just not working for me.” She wants to laugh to ease the tension of her classmate’s staring, but then, realizing that’s the opposite of what she needs to do, frowns to compensate.
Scarecrow inhales and closes his eyes. “You’ve cried before, haven’t you?”
“Well, sure, but—”
“It’s about knowing what memory to choose, what feeling. We all have one, you see, a feeling that no matter how hard we try to bury, never leaves us alone.”
Kate fiddles with the hem of her sweater. “Maybe I don’t have one of those.”
Scarecrow takes another deep breath, and when he opens his eyes, there are tears. He turns to face the class and raises his arms above his head. “I am crying now,” he says, as if he’s completed a magic trick by pulling grief out of a hat.
The other students look at each other to gauge the right response and decide to clap. When Scarecrow wipes his cheek, Kate hears the rough skin of his palm meet his face. He nods at her then, as a way of telling her to sit down. Kate weaves to her usual spot between the felt werewolf costume and a dress fashioned from an old picnic blanket—a mustard stain at the hip.
“Now, I’d like us to do a trust exercise before we’re done for the day,” Scarecrow says. His eyes are now completely dry, and there is no wobble in his voice. “Please, sit across from your partners and share with them a time in your life when you felt afraid. A time when fear changed your sense of self, perhaps. How are you different because of your fear?”
Kate’s partner is Oscar. He’s older than Kate, but definitely not old enough to be her father. Maybe he was a senior when she was a freshman—that kind of age gap. He’s shorter than Kate by an inch or two. Sometimes, Oscar says something particularly funny in class, and when the others laugh, Kate feels heat rise in her cheeks. Once, Scarecrow told Oscar he had a real aptitude for acting, and Kate blushed as if Scarecrow had complimented her. It’s as if the validation of Oscar’s humor, the validation of Oscar, transfers to Kate because she is associated with him.
When Oscar slides his plastic chair over to Kate, the one leg squeaks. He winces in apology.
“That was rough up there,” he whispers. “I’m sorry you were the one who had to do that.”
Kate shrugs. “It’s okay. I signed up for this.”
Oscar smiles. Kate notices, not for the first time, that one tooth is slanted back toward his throat. Kate likes that he isn’t self-conscious about it, that he smiles with all his teeth.
“Hmm, a time when I was afraid,” Oscar says, tapping a finger to his chin. “That’s a tricky one. There’s been many.”
“Well, we could start with when my mom passed. But Scarecrow told us death was, what did he say, too easy?”
Kate blinks. “Shit. I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Happened when I was a kid. I was really too young to remember a lot of it.” Oscar clears his throat. “But what I do remember isn’t … good.”
“Still.” Kate wrings her hands in her lap. “I guess one of mine is when someone defaced my billboard.”
“Yeah. It was the one over on Main with all the mannequins. I took the picture during a photoshoot with a friend. Well, when he was my friend. We don’t talk anymore.”
Oscar says nothing. He shows no interest, his eyebrows remain flat.
“Was that a dumb thing to say right after you told me your mother died?”
“No, no. I just … I remember that billboard. That sucks that someone defaced it.”
Scarecrow claps his hands twice. “We’re out of time for the evening, but I do have a quick announcement. As you know, the semester is ending, and as is tradition, I like to invite my students over for an end-of-year party.” Already, most of the students have left the green room. The door hangs open. “More details to follow,” Scarecrow says quietly.
The air in the green room warms as it does every week from the buzzing lights, from the bodies piled into it. Each night after class, Kate awaits the relief of walking outside into the cool air. Even the long stretch of hallway offers a refreshing draft. When Kate reaches the front door of the building, she feels a hand on her shoulder. Oscar is there when she turns.
“I really liked that billboard, Kate. Who was that guy you took the picture of? You said you were friends?”
Sweat glistens on his forehead, and he seems a little out of breath. Like his heart is beating fast. Like he is nervous. She wonders if he ran to catch up with her. She can’t decide if she’s embarrassed for him or endeared when Oscar exaggerates wiping his brow, flicking his wrist to punctuate the motion.
“Does it matter who it was?”
“I just remember the model, that guy, you know, since he was in the picture.”
“It was my idea to do the shoot. Not his.”
Oscar looks at Kate, waiting for more, but it’s clear she isn’t budging. He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Okay, well, I’ll see you next week?” he says and walks outside into the cold night. His breath trails behind him like the puff of a train pulling from the station.
For their final project, each of the students in Scarecrow’s class must create a five-minute skit with their partners graded on the following elements: realistic dialogue, control of body movement and language, and clarity of expression.
Kate and Oscar work in the school’s empty auditorium. They sit on the stage, workshopping their script. So far, they have two lines, which they have repeated back to each other several times over the last fifteen minutes.
“Help! Help!” Kate yells, and here, she is meant to run onto the stage in a FRANTIC, MANIC STATE.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Oscar says, in a LIGHTHEARTED, ASSURED MANNER.
What happens next, Kate has no idea. She has never made it this far.
She reclines onto the stage and looks at the spotlights hanging above them.
“So, what exactly am I running from?”
Oscar shrugs. “Well, what’s the scariest thing you can imagine? Maybe you’re getting away from whoever spray-painted your billboard.”
Kate thinks of Oscar’s dead mother. Her billboard sounds trite in Oscar’s mouth.
“Are you going to Scarecrow’s party?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Are you?”
Oscar sits with his legs crossed. The back of his neck glows red, as if sunburnt, from the heat of the stage lights. He pulls off his sweater and adjusts his undershirt as it rides up. Kate pretends not to notice the dark stripe of his belly.
“I’d like to see his house. I’m curious about the way other people live.” She pauses. “What if he invites us out to a corn field?”
Oscar grins. “I’d like that, actually.”
When they talk, their voices echo. It’s funny, Kate thinks, how emptiness can be so loud.
Oscar reclines onto his back, copying Kate. When he lays down, she notices a dark swirl creeping above his shirt collar. A tattoo of a serpent’s head emerges, its forked tongue straddling the vein in Oscar’s neck.
“I didn’t know you have a tattoo.”
“Oh, this?” Oscar runs a finger down the serpent’s body. “I got it when I was a teenager. It’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. Let me see.”
Kate scoots closer to Oscar. He leans his neck toward her, and the serpent’s head twitches. He hooks two fingers around his shirt collar and lowers it so more of the tattoo shows. She wonders how far it extends down his ribs.
“I used to tattoo,” Kate says. “I did it out of my condo.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t very good at it.” She shrugs. “I thought maybe I’d try out some other art form. I used to be an extra in movies, too, but I want to be more than just an extra. I want to be an actress. A real one. A famous one. That’s why I’m here.”
Oscar closes his eyes against the stage lights, and Kate can see the red veins underneath his skin. “My fiancée left me a few weeks ago. That’s why I’m here.”
Kate stares at Oscar. His eyelashes flutter.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
Kate shifts to sit as far as she can from Oscar without seeming rude. There’s a change in the air between them, like maybe Oscar feels he shouldn’t have said so much.
“Was it because she saw your tattoo?”
Oscar exhales through his nose, like a laugh. “No. That’s not why.” Another silence works its way between them. Kate is just about to mention their script, how they only have to come up with more lines, to figure out why she is so afraid, when Oscar says, “She left because I cheated on her.”
Kate imagines the Oscar who exists outside of class—and yes, she has imagined it before—is an Oscar who waits until it’s dark to get drunk, who lets the car merge ahead of him in traffic. He is someone who understands rules, who follows them. When she thought about Oscar having sex, she imagined he did so with such a particular, deliberate nature that it felt like a promise. Someone like Oscar would be the person you’d end up with because he was so careful. Careful with his words in class. Careful to maintain a respectful distance between himself and Kate. Now she knew why. Since he’d cheated, he was afraid of what it would look like from now on whenever he’s too close to another woman: that he is romantically involved with her. Or that he wants to be.
As much as Oscar’s infidelity repulses Kate, it also draws her further into him. Certainly, it doesn’t make him a good person, but it does make him more complex, more interesting than her. And his complexity amplifies the lack of her own. She wants to make a reckless choice just then to prove she can, to prove she is also a layered person.
“We should go,” Kate says. “I mean, to Scarecrow’s party. It might not be fun, but at least it would be … different.”
Oscar looks at her. “I’d like that.”
His shoulders relax as if she has pardoned him. Kate accepts what he’s done. Maybe, she kind of likes it.
The party happens in Scarecrow’s apartment, in his small, rectangular living room. The walls contain a smattering of art pieces ranging from blurry photographs to paintings of nude women, which surprises Kate—not for their nakedness but because Scarecrow doesn’t seem ashamed of them. Out of the twenty in the class, the people who showed are Kate, Oscar, and another student Kate thinks is named something like Sue or Star. Kate is sure to say, “And what are you up to, girl?” instead of addressing her by name. She feels less bad about not remembering the classmate’s name when SueStar doesn’t use Kate’s name either. But SueStar says Oscar’s name, and, for some reason, this makes Kate jealous.
Scarecrow has lined his coffee table with bottles of cheap wine and plastic cups, and the tightness of the room, the familiar strangers, and the generic labeled drinks remind Kate of a college party. From some dark room down the hall, jazz music plays. But here, in the living room, it is almost too bright. When Kate talks to SueStar, the fluorescents cast a greenish hue on her cheeks. SueStar is in the middle of telling Kate and Oscar about her pet hermit crab, but Kate isn’t listening, just looking at her. Everything about SueStar is lined with the neat symmetry of a cemetery, from her straight-cut bangs to her pleated pants. When she talks, the uneven row of her bottom teeth reminds Kate of headstones. SueStar’s bad teeth do not endear Kate to SueStar like Oscar’s do. In fact, they make her dislike SueStar even more. When the conversation lulls, Kate is thankful Oscar directs her to the drinks table.
“Here, you have to try this. I think you’ll like it.”
Kate is sure to watch Oscar pour her drink, even though she knows she shouldn’t be afraid. He seems to understand her need to look because he pours in front of her, making a show of extending the cup away from his body.
“It’s good,” Kate says, as way of thanks. Its peachy sweetness coats her mouth; she wants to gag. “Is this a special bottle?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I just thought it tasted nice.” He lowers his voice. “And I wanted to get out of that conversation.”
Kate wonders if Oscar had also rescued his ex-fiancée from boring conversations.
SueStar is now talking to Scarecrow about her script, and Scarecrow keeps telling her not to worry about classwork at the party. He grips a plate of yellow cheese cubes, salami, and Saltines between his thin fingers. Under the brightness of the ceiling lights, his paleness blends into the ceramic so Kate cannot tell where his fingers end and the plate begins.
Just then, someone knocks at the front door. Since Kate is the closest, Scarecrow asks her to open it while his hands are full.
Behind the door is a man. He is white and bearded, and Kate notices a stray hair on his neck that’s longer than the rest. On him lives the smell of cigarettes and orange. Kate normally hates how cigarettes smell, but on this stranger, the fragrance is alluring.
The man tilts his head. “I’m sorry. I thought this was H?” He checks the back of the door. “Wait. This is H.”
“Yeah, this is H.”
“I’m just dropping this off for…” The man glances at the stack of envelopes in his hand, which Kate only then realizes he is holding. “I’m the neighbor. Mail got mixed up.”
“I can take it,” Kate says, tucking the mail under her armpit. She expects the man to leave then, but he pauses. He leans against the doorframe and shoves his hands into his pockets.
“Uh, just a little get together.” Kate forces herself to finish the rest of her drink, hoping some courage will catch up with her..
“Looks like a load of fun,” he says.
Kate views herself from his perspective. Here she is, a grown adult, spending her Saturday night inside her teacher’s apartment drinking cheap wine from a plastic cup while the three other attendees circle around a sad-looking cheese board. This is not the reckless decision she’d hoped to make. But maybe she is staring at another.
Scarecrow finds her then, and his presence reminds her of a father’s intervening before a goodnight kiss. “Brent?” Scarecrow says. “What are you doing here? Sorry, are we being too loud?”
The man—apparently Brent—laughs. “Not at all. Just dropping off some mail to, uh, what’s your name?”
“Won’t you join us?” Scarecrow asks. “We have plenty of food. I’ve got a casserole in the oven.”
Brent shakes his head, already backing toward the stairs. “Maybe some other time.”
Another pang of embarrassment flushes Kate, and she turns to refill her cup before the door closes.
Scarecrow waves his arm above his head, unbothered by Brent’s leaving. “Here, come, all of you, I want to show you something.”
Scarecrow leads the three of them down the hallway, closer to the music. On the wall is another painting. The four of them gather around it, but in the narrow hallway, Oscar has to look over Kate’s shoulder to see. SueStar is too close to Kate; their arms touch.
Inside the gold-tinted frame are two people. A man and a woman. The couple, Kate assumes they are a couple, lay together in bed. Both of their faces are twisted in fear, mouths open to reveal the pink of their throats. The whites of their eyes gleam wet and large. Whatever they are looking at is off in the distance, beyond the paining.
“Wow.” Kate doesn’t want to say anything wrong, anything to indicate she doesn’t understand art, especially not in front of her teacher.
“It was my mother’s before she died,” Scarecrow says. “As a child, I used to imagine what lurked on the other side of the painting. When I was younger, I thought it was a monster. As I grew, I imagined it to be a man. Now I think it is probably both.”
Kate nods, drinks more of her wine to keep from saying something she’ll regret.
“They look scared,” SueStar says. Kate is so relieved by SueStar’s stupidity in pointing out the obvious that it emboldens her to say, “It’s a gorgeous work.”
“Your mother also died?” Oscar asks.
Scarecrow folds his lips into his mouth and pauses, as if debating if he should say what he wants to say. “This is what I think about in class when I cry.”
For a few moments, the only sound between them is the wail of a saxophone.
“You think about your mother?” Oscar says.
“No. I think about the fear.”
“I don’t get it,” SueStar says.
“I don’t want to end up like the people in this painting,” Scarecrow says. “I don’t want to be afraid of what I cannot see, what I cannot control. I think about it all the time.”
“And that’s why you wanted us to look at this?” Oscar asks. “You think we’re also afraid?”
“Aren’t we all?” Scarecrow rubs his palm across his scalp. “I want to own what I fear.”
“Where’s your bathroom?” SueStar says, and when she turns to ask the question, it is directly into Kate’s ear. Kate moves closer to Oscar so SueStar can pass.
A timer on the oven beeps. Scarecrow gives a watery smile to Kate and Oscar before heading to the kitchen.
Kate is about to make a joke about how awkward that was, but Oscar bends forward until his face hovers inches away from the couple’s heads. “Look at them,” he says. “Come closer. Really lean into it. You see how the artist captured their anguish? We can use this for our script.”
“It’s about fear, right? Our script.”
Kate leans until her face is so close that her vision runs blurry. She lets herself step into the painting. Squinting at the woman’s face, Kate imagines her breath sucked from her lungs by fear. The couple’s bodies ripen with adrenaline, slick and smelling like sour candies. Think about the monster, Kate tells herself. Think about a big monster coming straight for you. But what she feels, after a few moments of waiting, is not fear. It is disappointment. There is nothing.
Next to her, Oscar wipes the corner of his eye with a thumb. “Damn,” he mutters to himself, and Kate hears his voice shake.
“How are you doing that?” she asks.
“How am I doing what?”
Oscar sniffs and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “I leaned into the fear. Didn’t you?”
When SueStar returns from the bathroom, she makes an excuse about waking up early tomorrow and leaves. It’s almost worse than if she decided to stay.
“Kate, may I speak with you for a moment?”
A few minutes ago, Oscar and Kate delivered their script to the class. In a mad dash ten minutes before curtain, the two scribbled their lines on the back of a napkin. Kate wrote a few words on her palm too, checking it discreetly while Oscar spoke. Her sweat wiped away most of the lines, so she stumbled a few times but recovered well enough. She suspects this is why Scarecrow calls her over after class. All the other students, including Oscar, have gone home for the day, leaving only Kate and her teacher in the auditorium.
Even though he smiles, his brow knits in the middle as he approaches her.
“How do you think that went?”
“I think it was great.” Kate hides her hands behind her back. “I’m still learning, obviously, but I think it went well.”
Scarecrow sighs through his nose. “Kate, I made a vow to myself when I became a teacher that I would always be honest with my students, even if—especially if what I had to say was hard to hear.”
“Okay,” Kate says, thinking he’s going to tell her she’s failed the assignment. But that can’t be right because he only asked to speak with her, not Oscar. If they had failed, Oscar would be here, too. And besides, her lines weren’t bad. She’d written them.
Scarecrow gestures for her to sit beside him in the theatre seats. The chair groans under his weight as he sits.
Scarecrow is chewing pink gum. Kate watches his jaw grind. “I’ve been doing this job for many years, and sometimes there are semesters that bring me students like you. Students who are, no doubt, motivated to become great actors.”
So, that’s what this is. He’s going to tell her she’s too advanced for this class.
“Thank you,” Kate says.
Scarecrow winces. He crosses one leg over the other. “Let me ask you something, Kate. When I had you and Oscar do that exercise a few classes ago, the one where you tapped into your darkest and most fearful experience, what did you say?”
“I said that one time someone defaced my art.”
Scarecrow nods, keeping his eyes forward. “I see.”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything,” Kate says. “Why are you asking me this?”
The heat in the auditorium shuts off, and without the white noise, the air between them falls still and silent. Scarecrow is not looking at her.
“Kate, you don’t have what it takes to be an actor.”
“Let me rephrase.” Scarecrow shifts in his seat and faces her. Kate stares at his pink cheeks, his chapped lips. Who is he to tell her she doesn’t have what it takes? “Of course, you can act. I think most people can. But you don’t have what it takes to be a great actor.”
Kate says nothing.
“Even though it’s acting, as you know from class, you draw emotion from your real experiences. And I’m afraid your well of emotion is…” Scarecrow pauses. “I know this sounds harsh, Kate, but I am only telling you now to save you the heartbreak of finding out later. But something tells me you might already know.”
Kate stands. “What kind of teacher says that to a student? I could report you to the dean, you know.”
Scarecrow does not flinch, but he stands to meet her. “Everyone wants to be interesting, but the truth is, only certain people will ever have the experiences it takes to make them so. To be a great actor, you must be willing to have those experiences. I don’t think you are willing, Kate.”
It is then Kate slaps him. The smack echoes in the auditorium, and Scarecrow stumbles backward. He grabs his face.
Kate leaves in a rush, doesn’t look back. Scarecrow does not follow or yell after her. Her heart races, and she hears the blood pound in her ears. Is this what it feels like to make a truly reckless decision?
A giddiness nips at her heels as she walks down the long hallway, feeling the cold draft sneak underneath her coat, but just as quickly, a stone in her throat emerges without warning. Tears run hot and fast. Her hands tremble when she wipes her cheeks.
Years from now, this is the moment she will think about when she cries. Not the slap. Not the widening of Scarecrow’s eyes, the earnestness of his shock and confusion. Nor will she think about the guilt. Because she is not guilty. She will think about what Scarecrow said, the pity with which he said it. No talent. That is what he meant. She has no talent.
Kate wipes her nose on the back of her sleeve. Takes a deep breath. Just because Scarecrow said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Right? That is what she uses to console herself. It doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean it’s true. Really, it’s only true if she also believes it.