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Once and Again...Once Again

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Written by Angela Stockton

Edited by Elizabeth Angela

On opening night of their production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, members of the Upton Sinclair High School drama club are backstage, putting on their makeup and costumes. Grace, wearing a dress and hat which would have been fashionable in the early 1960's, does breathing exercises until Tad accidentally chokes her with a misdirected cloud of his hairspray. Irritably, she stalks off to another section of the dressing room, where she passes the actress who is playing Celia. "Break a leg," the girl tells her.

"Break both of them," fellow cast member Sarah adds. When "Celia" reprimands her, Sarah insists, "I'm kidding!"

In the auditorium, Lily, Zoe and Jake settle into adjoining seats while in another section, Karen, who is unescorted, also takes a seat. Finally the stage lights come on, revealing two actors beating a rhythm on bongo drums. Grace takes a final deep breath and strides confidently onto the stage as Rosalind.

Sarah helps Jessie into a pink skirt which is appliquéd with a dachshund cutout. Worn over a billowing petticoat, the skirt is so wide that Jessie asks apprehensively, "How am I supposed to walk in this?" "You just walk," Sarah replies curtly. Jessie's entrance onstage as Phebe provides the audience with unscripted amusement when her skirt becomes snagged on a prop tree. She gamely delivers her lines, trying to ignore the titters from the audience -- all but Karen, who keenly feels her daughter's embarrassment -- while assistant director Alexa crouches behind the prop and frantically works to free the skirt.

After the final curtain, Mr. Dimitri doles out compliments and wry, though not unkind, critiques. He asks Sarah if she can fix Jessie's skirt so that the accident with the prop won't happen again. Sarah whines that it's not easy playing Audrey as well as being costume designer, especially since she has an ulcer -- an excuse which provokes a jeer from Tad. Mr. Dimitri pats Jessie on the shoulder and tells her, "Your work tonight was really very good."

Katie makes her way backstage to hug Sarah and exclaim, "You were amazing!" She turns to Jessie and adds, "So were you," and promises to attend every performance of the play. Hearing Mr. Dimitri single out so many of her cast mates, Grace waits with increasing impatience for the praise that she considers her due. Instead, Mr. Dimitri baffles her by bidding everyone good-night without having said a word to her. In desperation, she asks him if there's anything he wants to say to her.

"Like what?" he replies with calculated indifference. Her confidence deserting her, Grace can only babble about Jessie's accident. At that moment, Zoe and Lily come backstage to present her with a bouquet. She welcomes the diversion but asks, "Where's Eli?"

Later, at Rick and Lily's house, the play is the subject of kitchen-table conversation. Rick, who missed opening night because of work, promises to attend the next performance. Hearing Lily's and Zoe's raves, Eli also decides to go. While dishing up ice cream, Lily expresses her regrets that she didn't have a chance to meet and congratulate Mr. Dimitri. "He must have been very pleased," she says to Grace. Her well-meaning words only discomfit Grace, who evades a direct answer by claiming that she doesn't care what Mr. Dimitri thinks: "What actually matters is whether or not I'm pleased with myself."

"You're absolutely right," Lily says, proud of her daughter's mature outlook. "But what did he say?" Zoe asks insistently. At a loss for how to answer, Grace toys glumly with her ice cream.

Next morning, Grace knocks repeatedly on the door to Eli's bedroom. When he finally opens it, he seems groggy, and an air purifier is hissing in the background. Grace reminds him that he is supposed to drive her to school on his way to work at the recording studio. "I think you'd better drive," Eli replies, walking unsteadily to his headboard for the keys. Grace notices a roach clip and the smoldering remains of a joint in an ashtray and scolds him, "I can't believe you actually get high in the morning. That's just wrong!" Eli grumbles that listening to her criticism is just how he likes to start his day.

At school, Katie approaches Jessie in a corridor, a copy of the school newspaper in her hand. As she starts to show Jessie the paper's review of As You Like It, Sarah joins them. Although Jessie is chagrined when Sarah says that the review mentions her accident, Katie points out that it also says the audience forgot all about it once Jessie started to sing. But Sarah claims that the incident was so funny that no one will ever forget it.

When Jessie asks Sarah if she'll fix the dachshund skirt before that night's performance, both Jessie and Katie are startled by Sarah's cold retort, "Well, gee, Jessie, it's always gotta be about you, doesn't it?" Seeing that Jessie is confused and hurt, Sarah smiles and adds, "I'm kidding!" with a show of injured dignity. But her smile fades when Katie scowls at her before putting an arm around Jessie and steering her away.

Later, Katie keeps Sarah and Jessie company during the fitting. As Jessie models the skirt and Sarah plies her tape measure and pins, Katie comments that she sees Phebe in something "hotter" than the dachshund skirt. Sarah points out that the skirt is consistent with the early 1960's look of the play and emphasizes Phebe's youth and innocence, but Katie maintains that Jessie could look just as innocent in a short skirt.

"Can you please stop shifting your weight?" Sarah barks at a fidgety Jessie. Apologizing, Jessie remarks that she wasn't aware that Sarah and Katie knew each other. "So if you'd known Katushka was my best friend, you probably would have sucked up to me a little bit more, huh?" Sarah replies archly. "She's kidding," Katie assures Jessie; "Totally kidding," Sarah adds. She explains to Jessie that she calls Katie "Katushka" and Katie calls her "Sarushka." This prompts Katie to ask what Jessie's Russian name should be. Sarah frowns and doesn't answer, except to tell Jessie to take off the skirt, then to ask Katie if they can now get something to eat. She alludes to her ulcer but Katie interrupts her, demanding, "Can we please not hear about your stomach lining today?" Katie and Sarah start to leave, but when Katie sees Jessie hanging back, she urges her to come along. "Try not to get stuck on any trees," Sarah snipes. Katie shushes her.

At the recording studio, Eli approaches the main entrance holding two trays of takeout coffee cups. As receptionist Delancey opens the door for him, she asks furiously what took him so long. She doesn't believe his story that there was a line, saying that she's done the coffee run before and it doesn't take that much time. She infuriates him by asking him to "be more proactive," but before they can get into a full-blown argument, the boss approaches and asks Delancey to distribute the coffee while he has a word with Eli.

Once Delancey has left, Eli apologizes to the boss for being late with the coffee and for other mistakes he has made. He insists that he can and will do better. But as soon as he pauses for breath, the boss abruptly tells him, "You're fired. It's just not working out, and I want to respect you enough to be completely honest with you."

Stunned, and unfamiliar with the protocol of being fired, Eli asks if he's supposed to finish out the day or leave immediately. In a terse voice that precludes any appeal, the boss replies, "You leave now." Delancey returns in time to watch with the boss as Eli sullenly turns and walks out.

That night, Delancey visits Eli in his garage room. As she starts to dress after they've had sex, she casually mentions that his mother came to the studio that afternoon, after he left. "What?" he exclaims in disbelief. "I covered for you," she says, explaining that she told Karen that Eli had left early, "and I'm extremely believable," but Eli knows his mother too well to feel anything but apprehension. "I can't catch a break!" he groans.

Delancey insists that Karen was not checking up on him, but had come by to pick up Eli and take him to a play. Eli glances at his clock and curses, realizing that it's too late to reach the high school for that evening's performance of As You Like It.

As she finishes dressing, Delancey looks around for her barrette but can't find it. "Oh, well," she sighs, and gives up the search. Eli wonders what happens next: "We can still see each other even though we're not working together, right?" he asks hopefully.

She sits beside him again. "Look, Eli, I could try to sugarcoat this, but I respect you enough to tell you the truth," she begins. Angrily, Eli complains that all the "respect" he's getting is making him sick. "Would you at least try to sugarcoat it? Please sugarcoat it!" he snarls. But while she concedes that he's had a bad day, Delancey makes it clear that for her, this has been only a one-night stand. Eli watches in helpless frustration as she walks out of his room and out of his life.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dimitri reaches the auditorium, where he finds that Grace is the only cast member who has also arrived on time. Still craving a compliment, she asks if he has read the rave review in the school paper. To her vexation, he says he doesn't read reviews.

The play is underway when Jessie tries on her "altered" skirt and discovers that it fits even more loosely than before. "Well, maybe you lost weight!" Sarah sneers. Heads turn toward the girls from every corner of the dressing room, no one missing this transparent reference to Jessie's anorexia. In a fury, Jessie stalks off to watch the onstage action from the wings. Sarah catches up to her and hisses that no one else is complaining about their costumes. "Because their costumes fit!" Jessie retorts.

After the final curtain, Rick and Karen bask in shared pride over their talented daughter until Karen mentions that she was expecting Eli to be in the audience also. Rick's explanation, which he learned secondhand from Lily, is that Eli said he had a hard day at work. To Karen, who "knows" that he left early, this excuse doesn't ring true, and she's annoyed that Rick doesn't share her concern about the apparent discrepancy. But when Jessie joins them, Eli is forgotten while they shower her with kudos. Doting father Rick presents her with flowers.

Most of his students have left when Mr. Dimitri finds Grace and Tad back onstage, acting out a scene. After hearing Grace's explanation that Tad needs more rehearsal, Mr. Dimitri sends Tad on his way and tells Grace that he thought Tad did an excellent job. "How can you say Tad is doing an excellent job and not say one word to me?" she berates him.

"Because at least he's doing the best he can," Mr. Dimitri replies calmly.

"Are you saying I'm not?" she asks heatedly. He replies that she knows all her lines and remains in control every minute, but that he doesn't believe a word she says. Stung, she mocks the play itself, saying it's not believable that Rosalind would fall in love with Orlando as quickly as she does.

"He's got no friends, no future, no hope, and he's beginning to believe that the world might be better off without him, and that touches her heart," Mr. Dimitri explains. "But you know all this, you're just pretending not to. You're afraid you might feel something that you haven't planned." Scornfully, Grace declares that if he expects her to bare her soul onstage, she's not going to do it.

"I know you're not. A real actress would," he taunts her, then walks away, leaving Grace to reflect on her humiliation alone.

Later that night, Grace is in her bedroom when Lily comes in to ask how the second performance went. Though sincere, her admiring words -- "You just know exactly what you're doing every minute" -- are the least likely to console Grace, who mumbles, "Not every minute." Lily is surprised when Grace claims that she hasn't read the review in the school paper, but doesn't press the point. As soon as her mother leaves, Grace goes to the garage. When Eli opens his door, she explains nervously that she can't sleep.

As he invites her in, Eli apologizes for missing the play and promises to attend the final performance. After he moves his guitar and shirt off the sofa, Grace finds a barrette in the folds of a blanket and asks him whose it is. "My sister's, I think," he stammers, then asks why she can't sleep. She asks if he knows what it's like when someone says something upsetting and the words play over and over in one's mind. "Yeah," he answers ruefully. She asks what would make it stop, but while he's still mulling over the question, she blurts, "How come you never ask me to get high with you?"

"Are you serious?" he exclaims. He says she seemed to disapprove and never seemed as if she wanted to lose that much control. He's stunned when she wails, "That isn't how I really am!" and tearfully pleads that she has had a really hard night and needs his help.

Meanwhile, in their bedroom, Lily and Rick discuss Eli. This time Rick is the skeptic, parroting Karen's comments about Eli's leaving work early, only to take offense when Lily tells him that he sounds like Karen. Lily defends Eli and urges Rick to consider that his son may be innocent of any wrongdoing.

While Grace and Eli smoke pot together, he asks who it was who said the words she keeps hearing in her mind. Instead of answering, she reminds him that he promised to attend the play that night, but didn't. She asks him to be honest and say if he will or won't attend the final performance so that she can prepare herself for whatever happens. He repeats his promise to be there.

In the throes of a panic attack, she gasps that she can hear her heart beating and whimpers, "I can't do that play tomorrow night!" Eli suggests that she quit, but she says she can't, her role is like a job: "Everyone is counting on me. You can't just let people down like that," she mourns, unaware of the effect of her words on the newly unemployed Eli. "I wish I was more like you," he mutters. "No, you don't," she protests, sobbing that she is making a fool of herself because she thought she was good, but she's not. Touched, Eli urges her to do the play one more time, just for him, and she agrees. Just before she drifts off to sleep, she vows, "I am never smoking pot ever again."

In the morning, after Eli wakes her up, she is flustered to realize that she spent the night in Eli's room, even though he gallantly slept on the floor so that she could have the bed to herself. Leaping to her feet, she asks him one more time to promise he'll come to the play that night. He does, and they exchange fond smiles as she flees the room. Moments later, when Lily walks into the kitchen and discovers pajama-clad Grace up early on a Saturday morning, she's surprised but not suspicious.

Seconds later, Katie appears at the front door, holding a garment bag and asking for Jessie. Lily directs her to the attic bedroom, where she presents Jessie with a skirt identical to Phebe's. Although it fits her perfectly, Jessie worries about whether she will upset Sarah by wearing Katie's skirt for the final performance. Katie promises to tell her in advance.

Mention of Sarah prompts Katie to remark that Sarah's ulcer is now so central to her identity that she talks about nothing else. Katie is curious about why Jessie never talks about being anorexic. "I do, with my therapist, and it helps," Jessie admits.

Katie surprises Jessie by wishing that she had something wrong with her, something so visible that people would realize that she isn't totally well-adjusted and feels weird. Jessie reminds Katie that if everyone knew what she was like, she couldn't hide how she felt. "What's so great about hiding who you are?" Katie asks, gazing intently at Jessie.

That afternoon, Eli is visited by Karen, who claims that she happened to be in the neighborhood and thought she should visit him and see his room for the first time. As soon as she turns her head, Eli throws a towel over his ashtray. Before she can mention her visit to the recording studio, he brings it up himself. He lies that he left early because all the shifts have been changed and he's working that night. Karen is surprised that he has to work on a Saturday night, but he elaborates on his alibi, saying that the studio is producing an album and everyone is working nights without a break to finish it. Finally she allows herself to believe him.

That evening, the families arrive at the theater for the final performance of As You Like It. Keeping his word to Grace, Eli is there; but when he hears Judy call "Karen!" and sees his mother in the lobby, he slips out the door before she can see him. Unaware of this, Grace goes into the audience and asks Lily to save a seat for Eli.

Backstage, Sarah is shaken first by seeing Katie's skirt on Jessie, then by Jessie's defiant statement that this is her costume now, and finally by the spontaneous applause of every cast member within earshot. She takes Jessie aside and warns her that Katie has had other close friends and always dumped them after she tired of them. "She's just gonna do it to you, too, so don't think that you're special," she says, as much in sorrow as in bitterness. Jessie is dumbstruck.

From the wings, Grace looks toward the audience and sees that the seat next to her mother is still empty. She is so clearly distraught that Jessie approaches her to ask if she's OK. Grace asks Jessie if she left a barrette in Eli's room. "I don't wear barrettes," Jessie replies. This information comes as such a blow to Grace that she misses her cue, and Alexa has to push her onto the stage. Heartbroken, and eyeing the empty seat one more time, she is finally able to infuse the words, "But why did he swear he would come this morning and comes not? There is no truth in him," with such anguish that Mr. Dimitri, slouching against the rear wall of the auditorium, is amazed. He straightens up and permits himself a gratified smile.

After the performance, the As You Like It company gathers at Lily and Rick's house for the cast party. Calling everyone to attention, Jessie tells Mr. Dimitri that Grace was supposed to make a speech, but that she's not there. In her place, Jessie thanks him, on behalf of the entire company, for having directed the play. Rick carries in a director's chair, emblazoned with the name "Mr. Dimitri," and places it in front of him.

Mr. Dimitri graciously tells his students, "You made the play what it was, not me," before urging everyone to go back to the party. He asks Jessie where Grace is, but she admits that she doesn't know.

Rain is falling outside when Katie crashes the party. Jessie immediately goes to the attic, Katie following her. Tossing pieces of Phebe's costume toward her, Jessie asks why Katie didn't tell Sarah about the new skirt. She complains that Sarah is acting as if there's a contest, in which Katie can't be friends with both Sarah and Jessie. "That is so not how I am," she laments.

"I choose you," Katie blurts out, to Jessie's astonishment. "I choose you over her," Katie repeats. "But I don't want anybody to choose anybody!" Jessie protests.

"I know you don't, but I can't help it," Katie answers. She gazes unwaveringly at Jessie and holds out her hand. After a moment's hesitation, Jessie grasps the outstretched hand and smiles back at Katie.

In the kitchen, Mr. Dimitri, plastic drinking glass in hand, opens Lily's refrigerator. Finding a bottle of wine, he pours himself a glassful just as Grace enters the kitchen through the laundry room, her clothes and hair wet. She tells Mr. Dimitri that she went for a walk in the rain. In turn, he confesses to having helped himself to her parents' wine, then gushes, "You are an incredibly talented person."

"I am?" she gasps, hardly trusting her ears.

"I myself am a fraud. You are not. You are the real deal," Mr. Dimitri continues, slurring his words slightly. "And maybe I've been harsh on you, but that's only because the world is harsh and I want you to be ready for it."

Smiling at him, she insists that he's not a fraud, but he reminds her that she let everything inside her show in her performance that night, "which I believe is the only thing worth doing, although I've never been willing to do it myself. What made tonight so different?"

"You made it different, what you said," she lies. She adds that she doesn't think her parents will mind about his helping himself to the wine--then asks if she can taste it. They are facing each other, their hands cupped around the glass, when Lily walks into the kitchen. Grace quickly steps back, but Lily senses nothing amiss as she offers Mr. Dimitri her own congratulations for the play. Turning to Grace, she notices that her daughter's face is flushed and solicitously places her hand on the girl's cheek and forehead. She detects no fever and, satisfied that all is well, she goes to her refrigerator and takes out a cake.

At that moment, Eli enters the kitchen and rests his hand on Grace's shoulder. When Lily leaves the kitchen, Grace follows her, coolly shrugging off Eli's hand and declining his offer of help.

Eli finds himself alone with Mr. Dimitri. They introduce themselves, and Mr. Dimitri recalls that he knows something about Grace's stepbrother. "You're a musician, aren't you?" he asks. "No, not really," Eli answers. As if the young man is suddenly beneath his notice, Mr. Dimitri drifts away, leaving Eli to confess, "I'm not really anything," to the deserted kitchen. In the dining room, Mr. Dimitri and the cast members gather around the table where Lily and Grace are serving the cake

The End

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