“Hello Mutha,” the younger teen calls out to me as he spots me walking toward him. He is standing in a circle of friends at the end of the hallway near the blue painted doors to the auditorium. He is wearing his black skinny jeans that sag in the back and a black wrinkled t-shirt with a stain at the bottom. I stifle a frown.
Couldn’t he have dressed a little better for his capstone performance?
Instead I say cheerfully, “Hey, there he is,” and I run my hand through his thick wavy hair. “You nervous?” He doesn’t answer and turns to face his girlfriend who is standing close beside him twirling a piece of her hair around one finger and shifting her hips. I notice that she is wearing her cotton-candy pink short shorts. “I guess this is the dress code,” I say under my breath.
On my way in earlier, I grabbed a black and white copier paper flyer from the wooden podium and scanned its contents.
Great, I left work early and he is the last person on stage tonight. The absolute last one.
A few scattered family members, a couple of grandparents, and mothers holding the hands of toddlers mill about near the temporary gallery walls that have been positioned in front of grey painted cinderblock. They stand stiffly viewing the gouache painted skulls with blood dripping from the orifices, and flat watercolored self portraits of moon-sized blank faces.
Oh look, there’s one of my teen’s 2D projects.
I walk up closer to it and turn my head to the side and earnestly study the technique he used. It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped foot in his high school and that critical voice inside that doesn’t ever let up on me is now jabbering on full force about the subpar artwork hanging on the subpar school walls. Clearly nobody is planning to go to art school from this class.
Oh cut it out, they are only juniors! Don’t you remember your own high school portfolio?
I shush the voice inside. I do remember it. I gave myself only mere weeks before my application needed to be sent in and I rapidly went about the business of drawing everything that was directly around me. I got right to work on creating an oversized charcoal drawing of the corner of my unmade bed. And when that was finished, I grabbed colored pencils and opened the closet to startle all my shoes from whatever they were up to on the floor in the dark. There they were, laces undone, tongues hanging out, caught open mouthed and exposed to daylight. I drew them right then and pronounced it a finished work. The pleasure of hindsight is that I now get to say that I didn’t over think it, and it wasn’t that I waited until the last minute without a thoughtful plan and just got lucky. Not at all. I really do think, hindsight or not, that I purposefully didn’t give the censor inside any time to do the nasty work of chopping me down to size.
“I’m going to go in now for the performances,” I say to the group of teens. They follow behind me but keep a respectable distance and find their places off to the far right side. I squint around in the dark. A half dozen or so people sit in chairs spaced as far away from each other as possible. The room could easily hold a couple hundred. I pick a chair in the middle back row. As I survey the room, I see my ex walking in through the double doors. He is wearing jeans and a black sweater and black boots and looking every bit like a musician or an art student himself, I think. I pull at my Ann Taylor Loft maroon sweater and slump a little lower. I motion for him to sit down, but the wooden chair next to me is missing it’s seat.
“Where’s the J dog?” he asks me as we both move over.
“She will be here about halfway through. She is on the train still,” I say.
The room darkens to a pitch black and the first performance of the night begins. Humorous skits, a long and involved hip hop dance routine, a young girl singing her heart out at the piano. My ex and I perform crude sign language, giving a thumbs up or down or fist bump and catch each other’s wide-open eyes as Taylor Swift-esque song number five turns to six. By the time intermission is over, the auditorium is at least a quarter filled and my partner has since arrived. My teen is on after the Gypsy Blue Band performs a few electrified riffs. My partner sits beside me in my ex’s vacated seat and he is now pacing in the corridor behind us. “God, I’m so nervous,” I whisper to her in the dark.
During intermission, the teen and his growing entourage of supporters stopped to chat with the parents. “Honey, don’t forget to spit out that gum before you get on stage,” I said to him. “You got this, babe,” comforted his girlfriend with her hand on his back. “I’m going to get backstage now and get ready,” he said while walking rapidly away, his girlfriend taking a couple quick steps to catch up, shooting us a nervous glance back.
I grab my partner’s hand now and squeeze it several times in the dark while he is being announced. The audience grows silent while he calmly enters with his bass guitar and a stool to position himself center stage. A stage hand pushes an amp behind him and I let my mind wander a bit as he quietly starts hooking up to the amp. How many times had we listened to the same three pieces of music in the living room? Me, leaning back into the couch with my slippered feet on the coffee table, waiting patiently while he would stop and say, “Hold on” and start again, trying to make it through one flawless pass of his three song medley — a Victor Wooten piece that was supposed to seamlessly morph into a shortened version of Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1 Prelude and end with a piece he wrote himself. Overall, it was an unusual, six-minute long but oddly exciting percussive arrangement for solo bass guitar my teen had simply titled BASSic.
Athletes talk a lot about being “in the zone” and it happens for artists too. I think I finished ten new pieces for my art school portfolio over a period of days when I was clearly in that zone. And if you’ve ever experienced what it feels like, it’s not hard to miss it when it is happening to your kid.
“Wow, he is really doing this,” says my partner. “He is on.” I can feel my body relaxing a bit as the medley is near over. I turn back to look at my ex who is standing in the back to the room perfectly still and straight with his body tensed, his eyes closed, and a slight smile on his face. When the last note is played and my teen finally lifts his head up to survey the crowd, the entourage of friends on the right burst into loud applause and whistles. I can hear his brother’s voice hooting above the dull roar of the clapping.
I still have my own dreams of being in the limelight again, of experiencing the thrill of the printed byline, the book jacket, even the glossy exhibition brochure. And some of this I may very well realize still. But most of it I won’t. And as I get older, the disappointment over what I haven’t done is starting to sting a bit less. Because being a parent means I will have many opportunities to experience moments like this one, when I sit in a darkened auditorium and listen to my kid performing his very own creation and feel firsthand right along with him those sublime seconds of greatness.
And these are the real capstones in my life.