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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Trust Exercise

A Novel

Susan Choi

Henry Holt and Co.


Trust Exercise

NEITHER CAN DRIVE. David turns sixteen the following March, Sarah the following April. It is early July, neither one within sight of sixteen and the keys to a car. Eight weeks remain of the summer, a span that seems endless, but with the intuitive parts of themselves they also sense it is not a long time and will go very quickly. The intuitive parts of themselves are always highly aggravated when they are together. Intuition only tells them what they want, not how to achieve it, and this is intolerable.

Their romance has started in earnest this summer, but the prologue took up the whole previous year. All fall and spring of the previous year they lived with exclusive reference to each other, and were viewed as an unspoken duo by everyone else. Little remarked, universally felt, this taut, even dangerous energy running between them. When that began, it was harder to say. They were both experienced—neither was a virgin—and this might have both sped and slowed what took place. That first year, in the fall, each had started at school with a boy- or girlfriend who was going to some other, more regular place. Their own school was special, intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the city and even beyond, to the outlying desolate towns. It had been a daring experiment ten years before and was now an elite institution, recently moved to an expensive new building full of “world class,” “professional” facilities. The school was meant to set apart, to break bonds that were better off broken, confined to childhood. Sarah and David accepted this as the sort of poignant rite their exceptional lives would require. Lavished, perhaps, extra tenderness on the vestigial boyfriend and girlfriend in the process of casting them off. The school was named the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, but they and all the students and their teachers called it, rather pompously, CAPA.

At CAPA, the first-year Theatre Arts students studied Stagecraft, Shakespeare, the Sight-Reading of music, and, in their acting class, Trust Exercises, all terms they were taught should be capitalized as befitted their connection to Art. Of the Trust Exercises there were seemingly infinite variations. Some involved talking and resembled group therapy. Some required silence, blindfolds, falling backward off tables or ladders and into the latticework of classmates’ arms. Almost daily they lay on their backs on the cold tile floor in what Sarah, much later in life, would be taught was called corpse pose in yoga. Mr. Kingsley, their teacher, would pad like a cat among them in his narrow-toed soft leather slippers, intoning a mantra of muscle awareness. Let your awareness pour into your shins, filling them slowly, from ankle to knee. Allow them to grow liquid and heavy. Even as you can feel every cell, cradle it with your sharpened awareness, you are letting it go. Let it go. Let it go. Sarah had won admission to the school with a monologue from the Carson McCullers play The Member of the Wedding. David, who had attended a theatre camp, had done Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Their first day, Mr. Kingsley slid into the room like a knife—he had a noiseless and ambushing style of movement—and once they’d fallen silent, which was almost immediately, had cast a look on them that Sarah still saw in the back of her mind. It seemed to mix scorn with a challenge. You look pretty nothing to me, the look flashed onto them like a spray of ice water. And then, like a tease, it amended:… or maybe I’m wrong? THEATRE, Mr. Kingsley had written in tall slashing letters of chalk on the board. “That’s the way it is spelled,” he had said. “If you ever spell this with ‘ER’ at the end you will fail the assignment.” These words were the actual first he had spoken to them, not the scornful “you look pretty nothing to me” Sarah had imagined.

Sarah wore a signature pair of blue jeans. Though she had bought them at a mall she would never see anyone else wearing them: they were specific to her, very snug, with elaborate stitching. The stitching went in whorls and patterns spreading over the ass, down the fronts and the backs of the thighs. No one else even had textured jeans; all the girls wore five-pocket Levi’s or leggings, the boys the same five-pocket Levi’s or, for a brief time, Michael-Jackson-style parachute pants. In Trust Exercises one day, perhaps late in the fall—David and Sarah were never quite sure; they would not speak of it until summer—Mr. Kingsley turned off all the lights in the windowless rehearsal room, plunged them into a locked lightless vault. At one end of the rectangular room was a raised platform stage, thirty inches or so off the floor. Once the lights were turned off, in the absolute silence, they heard Mr. Kingsley skim the length of the opposite wall and step onto the stage, the edge of which they faintly discerned from bits of luminescent tape that hovered in a broken line like a thin constellation. Long after their eyes had adjusted, they saw nothing but this: a darkness like that of the womb or the grave. From the stage came his stern, quiet voice, voiding them of all previous time. Stripping them of all knowledge. They were blind newborn babes and must venture themselves through the darkness and see what they found.

Crawling, then, which would help prevent injury, and also keep them well off the stage where he sat listening. They listened keenly also, as, both inhibited by the darkness and disinhibited by it, by the concealment it gave, they ventured to venture. A spreading aural disturbance of shifting and rustling. The room was not large; immediately, bodies encountered each other and startled away. He heard this, or presumed it. “Is that some other creature with me, in the darkness?” he whispered, ventriloquizing their apprehension. “What does it have—what do I have? Four limbs that carry me forward, and back. Skin that can sense cold and hot. Rough and smooth. What is it. What am I. What are we.”

In addition to crawling, then: touching. Not tolerated but encouraged. Maybe even required.

David was surprised to find how much he could identify by smell, a sense to which he never gave thought; now he found it assailed him with information. Like a bloodhound or Indian scout, he assessed and avoided. The five guys apart from him, starting with William, superficially his most obvious rival but no rival at all. William gave off a deodorant scent, manly and industrial, like an excess of laundry detergent. William was handsome, blond, slender, graceful, could dance, possessed some sort of race memory of the conventions of courteousness like how to put a girl’s coat on, hand her out of a car, hold a door open for her, that William’s rigid crazy mother could never have taught him as she was absent from his house for twenty hours at a stretch working two full-time jobs and in the time she was home, locked herself in her bedroom and refused to help her children, William and his two sisters, with meals or housekeeping let alone finer things like their homework; these were such things as one learned about one’s fellow fourteen-year-old classmates, within just a few weeks, if a Theatre student at CAPA. William was the heartthrob of Christian Julietta, fat Pammie, Taniqua who could dance, and her adjuncts Chantal and Angie, who screamed with pleasure when William swung and dipped Taniqua, when he spun her like a top across the room. For his part William exhibited no desire except to tango with Taniqua; his energy had no sexual heat like his sweat had no smell. David steered clear of William, not even brushing his heel. Next was Norbert: oily scent of his pimples. Colin: scalp scent of his ludicrous clownfro of hair. Ellery, in whom oil-scent and scalp-scent combined in a way that was palatable, almost appealing. Finally Manuel, as the forms said “Hispanic,” of which there were almost no others at CAPA despite the apparent vast numbers of them in the city. Perhaps that explained Manuel’s presence, perhaps he was some sort of token required for the school to get funding. Stiff, silent, with no discernible talent, a heavy accent about which he was clearly self-conscious. Friendless, even in this hothouse of oft-elicited, eagerly yielded intimacies. Manuel’s scent, the dust-steeped unwashed scent of his artificial-sheep’s-wool-lined corduroy jacket.

David was on the move now, crawling quickly, deftly, ignoring the shufflings and scufflings and intakes of breath. A knot of whispers and perfumey hair products: Chantal and Taniqua and Angie. As he passed, one of them grabbed his ass, but he didn’t slow down.

Almost right away, Sarah had realized her jeans marked her, like a message in Braille. Only Chantal would be as distinctive. Chantal wore every day without fail a thigh-length cardigan in a very bright color like scarlet or fuchsia or teal, belted tightly at the waist with a double-loop belt with punk studs. Different cardigan, same belt, or possibly several identical belts. The moment the lights had gone out someone had scooted beside Sarah and scrabble-grabbed until finding her breasts, then squeezed hard as if hoping for juice. Norbert, she’d been sure. He’d been sitting nearby, staring at her, as he generally did, while the lights were still on. She’d leaned back on the heels of her hands and shoved hard with both feet, regretting she was wearing her white ballet flats, which were turning quite dingy and gray, and not her pointy-toe three-buckle boots with the metal-tipped heels she’d bought recently with her earnings from working both weekend opening shifts at the Esprit de Paris bakery, which job meant that she rose before six every day of the week, though she often did not go to sleep before two. The tit-grabber, whoever it was, had silently tumbled back into the dark, without even a sharp exhalation, and since then she had continued on the heels of her hands and her feet, crab-shuffling, keeping her ass down, her thighs folded up. Perhaps it had been Colin, or Manuel. Manuel who never stared at her, who met no one’s eyes, whose voice she wasn’t sure she’d yet heard. Perhaps he was pent up with violence and lust. “… all kinds of shapes in the dark. This one is cold, it has hard edges, when I place my hands on it, it doesn’t respond. This one is warm with a strange bumpy shape: when I place my hands on it, it moves.…” Mr. Kingsley’s voice, threading the darkness, was intended to open them up, everything was intended to open them up, but Sarah had closed and grown porcupine’s bristles, she was a failure, her most recent recitation in Shakespeare had been awful, her whole body stiff, full of tics.

More than anything she feared running up against Julietta or Pammie, both so earnest and so unself-conscious, like children. They’d be joyfully stroking whatever their hands lit upon.

She’d been found. A hand grasped her left knee, ran its palm down the front of her thigh, the swirled ridges of stitching. She could feel its heat through her jeans. Just like that, in the pit of her stomach a hollowness came, a trapdoor swinging silently open, as if Mr. Kingsley’s voice had been the nagging wind, ineffectively rattling the lock, which this hand had now sprung.

The one hand remained on her thigh while another found her right hand and raised it, laid it flush on a lightly shaved face. It took her thumb, limp and helpless, adjusted its position, and pressed it as if meaning to make a thumbprint. She felt beneath the pad a slight bump, like a mosquito-bite welt. David’s birthmark, a flattened chocolate-colored mole, the same diameter as a pencil eraser, on his left cheek, just offshore of his mouth.

They had not, to this point in their scanty acquaintance, discussed David’s mole. What fourteen-year-olds talked about, even took note of, moles? But Sarah had wordlessly noticed it. David wordlessly knew that she had. This was his mark, his Braille. Her hand no longer passively lay on his face but held it, as if balancing it on his neck. She slid her thumb over his lips, as distinct in their shape as his mole. His lips were full but not feminine, closer to simian. Slightly Mick Jagger. His eyes, though small, were set deep and resembled blue agates. Something intelligently feral about them as well. He was not at all normally handsome but did not need to be.

David took her thumb in his mouth, tongued it gently, did not slobber it, kissed it back so it lay once again on his lips. The thumb traced the cleft of his lips as if taking their measure.

Mr. Kingsley’s voice must have continued, unraveling guidance, but they no longer heard him.

David had never in this way deferred a kiss. He felt skewered by lust and as if he could hang there, afloat on the pain. Up floated his hands, in tandem, and closed over her breasts. She shuddered and pressed against him and he lifted his hands just a fraction away, so his palms only grazed her nipples where they strained the thin weave of her cotton T-shirt. If she was wearing a bra it was a soft wisp of one, a silk rag encircling her ribs. Her nipples rained down in his mind in the form of hard glittering gems, diamonds and quartzes and those faceted clumps of rock crystal one grew in a jar on a string. Her breasts were ideally small, precisely the size of the cup of his hand. He weighed them and measured them, marveling, brushing them, with his palms or the tips of his fingers, the same way again and again. With his now-cast-off girlfriend from his previous school he’d evolved the Formula and had then become imprisoned by it: first Kissing with Tongue for the fixed interval, then Tits for the fixed interval, then Fingering Her for the fixed interval before, culminatingly, Fucking. Never a step neglected nor a change to the order. A sex recipe. Now with a shock he realized that it needn’t be thus.

They knelt, knees to knees, his palms cradling her breasts, her hands clutching his skull either side of his face, her face pushed into his shoulder so that a patch of the cloth of his polo shirt grew hotly wet from her breath. He turned his face into the weight of her hair, basking in her aroma, exulting in it. How he’d found her. No word to describe it except recognition. Some chemical made her for him, him for her; they were not yet too fucked up by life that they wouldn’t realize it.

“Make your way to a space on the wall and sit against it. Hands relaxed by your sides. Eyes closed, please. I’ll be bringing the lights back in stages, to smooth the transition.”

Well before Mr. Kingsley completed his speech Sarah broke away, crawled as if fleeing a fire until she hit a wall. Pulled her knees to her chest, crushed her face to her knees.

David was scorch-mouthed, felt strangled by his underpants. His hands, so exquisitely sensitive moments before, were as clumsy as if stuffed inside boxing gloves. He palmed and palmed his hair, which was short and unvarying, off his forehead.

As the lights came on each stared steadily forward into the room’s empty center.

The crucial first year of their learning continued. In classes with tables, they sat at separate tables. In classes with chairs set in rows, they sat in separate rows. Hanging around in the halls, in the lunch-room, on the benches for smoking, they adhered to separate nodes of conversation, sometimes standing just inches apart, turned away from each other. But in moments of transition, of general movement, David’s gaze burned a hole through the air, Sarah’s glance darted out, then away, like a whip. Unbeknownst to themselves they were as noticeable as lighthouses. In repose, even when they both stared straight ahead, the wire ran between them, and their peers changed their paths to avoid tripping on it.

They needed distance to give them fresh darkness. At the end of the year, one knee restlessly bouncing, eyes sweeping the room’s farthest corners, knuckles manically popping, David paused next to Sarah and asked, thickly, for her address. His family was going to England. He’d send her a postcard. She wrote the address briskly, handed it to him, he turned on his heel.

The postcards began a week later. On their fronts, nothing special: London Bridge, the humorless guardsmen at Buckingham Palace, a picturesque punk with a three-foot-high Mohawk. Unlike David, whose family regularly traveled to places like Australia, Mexico, Paris, Sarah had never been out of the country, but even she recognized the postcards as generic, pulled at random from the souvenir-shop carousel. The backs were something else, densely written edge to edge, her address and the stamp barely squeezed between lines. She felt grateful the mailman kept bringing them; he must be squinting at them, as she did, but with different emotions. At least one postcard a day, sometimes several, that she fished out as soon as the mailman had come, leaving the bills and coupons for her mother to find when she got home from work. David’s handwriting was effusive, almost feminine, with tall loops and wide flourishes and yet great regularity, all the letters at just the same angle, all the t’s and l’s just the same height. The content was much like the form: exuberant with observation, and yet deftly measured. Each card made a little vignette. And in the lower right corners, squeezed next to her zip code, one or another of the tentative endearments that wrung the air from her lungs.

The vast southern city they lived in was rich in land, poor in everything else—no bodies of water, no drainage, no hills, no topographical variety of any sort, no public transportation or even the awareness of the lack of such a thing. The city, like vines with no trellis, sprawled out thinly and nonsensically, its lack of organization its sole unifying aspect. Gracious neighborhoods of live oak and chunky brick mansions, such as the neighborhood where David lived, lay cheek by jowl with wastes of gravel, or US Postal Service facilities resembling US Army bases, or Coca-Cola bottling plants resembling wastewater treatment facilities. And chintzy, labyrinthine apartment complexes of many hundreds of two-story brick boxes, strewn about scores of algae-stained in-ground swimming pools, such as the complex in which Sarah lived, might exhaust themselves at their easternmost edge on the wide boulevard, lined with tattered palm trees, which on its opposite side washed the gates of the city’s most prestigious club for Jews. David’s mother, on the family’s return from London, was pleasantly surprised to find him interested in racquetball and swimming at the Jewish Community Center, for which, since enrolling at CAPA, he’d shown only contempt. “Have you even still got a racquet?” she asked.

He produced a racquet from the back of his closet. He even produced a towel. These dangled limply from his hands when he arrived at Sarah’s door. The actual distance from the club, across the boulevard, to Sarah’s door had been vastly greater than suggested by the many continuities. The walk—without the benefit of sidewalks or crossing signals, for their city wasn’t built for pedestrians—from the JCC parking lot to the southern gate of Sarah’s complex had taken close to twenty minutes, in the heat of the damned, along a median planted with scorched rhododendron but not any trees, during which several separate motorists had pulled over to ask if he needed assistance. In their city only the poorest of the poor, or fresh victims of crimes, ever walked. Once inside Sarah’s sprawling and mazelike complex, David reeled—it was enormous, a city of its own, without signs. Sarah and her mother had moved there when Sarah was twelve, their fifth move in four years but the first Sarah’s father had nothing to do with. Sarah and her mother only stopped getting lost in the maze of carports when they put a chalk X on the bleached wooden gate separating their assigned parking space from their back patio. July in their city: an average daytime temperature of ninety-seven degrees. From the sole clue David held, her apartment number, he could never have guessed that she lived on the far, western side from the club, near the opposite entrance. Sarah had given him directions from the western entrance which he’d disregarded, knowing he wouldn’t be coming that way. He had been too ashamed to explain this to her, his plan involving a ride to the club, too ashamed of not having a car of his own, though neither of them had a car of their own, being only fifteen and not legal to drive for a year. It didn’t cross his mind that she felt it as keenly, the utter dispossession of not being licensed to drive in that city of cars. It was part of the excruciating in-betweenness of no longer being children, yet lacking those powers enjoyed by adults. The “streets” within the complex weren’t real streets at all but a tirelessly branching metastasis of walkway, or driveway, the former distinguished by borders of dying impatiens, the latter by bordering spaces to park. It took David over an hour to find Sarah’s apartment. He might have walked two or three miles. David had imagined he would take her in his arms as he’d done on that day in the dark, but he only stood, glued to her threshold, with his sun-boiled blood spreading stains in his eyes. He thought he might vomit or faint. Then the shared air of their childhood touched him: that particular air of their city, mustily buried and cool, from its unending journey through air-conditioning ducts that the sun never reached. No matter if one lived in a mansion or a little brick box, that air smelled just the same. David stepped toward it blindly. “I need a shower,” he managed to say.

For his ruse he’d been forced to wear shorts, knee-high socks, infantile white sneakers, a sporty T-shirt. The outfit embarrassed Sarah. He looked alien to her, unhandsome, though this quibble peeped faintly at her from beneath the hard weight of her lust. The lust in its turn was eclipsed by another and unprecedented emotion, an onrush of sad tenderness, as if the man he would be, full of unguessed-at darkness and weakness, had for a brief instant shown through the boy. The boy pushed his way past her and locked himself in her bathroom. Her mother worked long days somewhere; mother and daughter shared the small, dowdy bathroom, so different from each of the four bathrooms in David’s own home. In this strange realm he showered with a smooth brick of Ivory soap, passing it between his legs, firmly lathering every square inch, meticulous and patient because truly frightened; he’d never had sex with a girl he loved. He’d had sex with two girls before this, both of whom now dissolved in his mind. His mind, slowly dilating as his blood temperature came off the dangerous boil. He’d made the shower water cool, almost cold. He stepped cautiously out of her bathroom, a towel circling his waist. She was waiting for him in her bed.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Choi