The Silver Linings Playbook (Chapter 30)

Like a Shadow on Me All of the Time

Veronica drops us off in front of the Plaza Hotel on Saturday, saying, "Break a leg," just before she pulls away. I follow Tiffany into the lobby, where four towers of water shoot out of a large fountain – at least ten feet up in the air. Real fish swim around in the pool of water, and signs read do not throw coins into the fountain. Tiffany has been here before. She walks right past the information desk and leads me through a maze of hallways with gold wallpaper and swanky-looking light fixtures that are all large bronze fish with lightbulbs in their mouths. Finally, we find the hall where the dance recital will take place.

Red curtains frame a large stage. A huge banner hangs high above the dance floor; it reads dance away depression. We try to register at a desk, and it becomes obvious that we are the first contestants to show up, because the fat woman who is in charge of registration says, "Registration is not for another hour."

We sit down in the last row of seats. I look around. A huge chandelier dangles above us, and the ceiling is not just a regular ceiling, but has all sorts of plaster flowers and angels and other fancy things sticking out of it. Tiffany is nervous. She keeps cracking her knuckles. "Are you okay?" I ask.

"Please don't talk to me before the performance. It's bad luck."

So I sit there and start to get nervous myself, especially since I have a lot more riding on this competition than Tiffany does, and she is obviously rattled. I try not to think about losing my chance to send Nikki a letter, but of course this is all I can think about.

When other contestants begin to arrive, I notice that most of them look like high school students, and I think this is strange, but I do not say anything – mostly because I am not allowed to talk to Tiffany.

We register, give our music to the sound guy, who remembers Tiffany from last year, I know, because he says, "You again?" After Tiffany nods, we are backstage, changing. Thankfully, I'm able to slip into my tights before any of the other contestants make it backstage.

In the far corner, I'm minding my own business, sitting with Tiffany, when an ugly woman waddles over and says to Tiffany, "I know you dancers are pretty liberal about your bodies. But do you really expect me to allow my teenage daughter to change in front of this half-naked man?"

Tiffany is really nervous now. I know because she does not curse out this ugly woman, who reminds me of the nurses in the bad place, especially since she is so out of shape and has a poofy old-lady haircut.

"Well?" the mom says.

I see a storage closet on the other side of the room. "How about I go in there while everyone else changes?"

"Fine with me," the woman says.

Tiffany and I enter the supply closet, which is full of abandoned costumes from what must have been a children's show – all sorts of pajama-looking suits that would make me look like a lion or a tiger or a zebra if I put one on. A dusty box of percussion instruments – tambourines, triangles, cymbals, and wooden sticks you bang together – reminds me of the music room in the bad place and music relaxation class, which I attended until I was kicked out. And then I have this terrifying thought: What if one of the other contestants is dancing to a Kenny G song?

"You need to find out what songs the other dancers are performing to," I tell Tiffany.

"I told you not to talk to me before the performance."

"Just find out whether anyone is dancing to any songs played by a smooth jazz performer whose initials are K.G."

After a second she says, "Kenny – "

I close my eyes, hum a single note, and silently count to ten, blanking my mind.

"Jesus Christ," Tiffany says, but then stands and leaves the closet.

Ten minutes later she returns. "No music by that person," Tiffany says, and then sits down.

"Are you sure?"

"I said no Kenny G."

I close my eyes, hum a single note, and silently count to ten, blanking my mind.

We hear a knock, and when Tiffany opens the door, I see that many moms are backstage now. The woman who knocked tells Tiffany that all the dancers have checked in and are changed. When I leave the storage closet, I am shocked to see that Tiffany and I are the oldest contestants by at least fifteen years. We are surrounded by teenage girls.

"Don't let their innocent looks fool you," Tiffany says. "They're all little pit vipers – and extraordinarily gifted dancers."

Before the audience arrives, we are given a chance to practice on the Plaza Hotel stage. We nail our routine perfectly, but most of the other dancers also nail their impressive routines as well, which makes me worry we will not win.

Just before the competition begins, the contestants are brought out before the crowd. When Tiffany and I are announced, we take the stage, wave, and the applause is mild. The lights make it hard to see, but I spot Tiffany's parents in the front row, seated with little Emily, Ronnie, Veronica, and a middle-aged woman who I guess is Dr. Lily, Tiffany's therapist, because Tiffany told me that her therapist would be in attendance. I scan the rest of the rows quickly as we walk offstage, but I do not see my mother. No Jake. No Dad. No Cliff. I catch myself feeling sad, even though I did not really expect anyone but Mom to show up. Maybe Mom is out there somewhere, I think, and the thought makes me feel a little better.

Backstage, in my mind I admit that the other contestants received more applause than we did, which means their fan bases are larger than ours. Even though the woman who announced us is now giving a speech, saying this is a showcase and not a competition, I worry that Tiffany will not get the golden trophy, which would kill my chance to write Nikki letters.

We are scheduled to perform last, and as the other girls do their numbers, the applause ranges from mild to enthusiastic, which surprises me, because during the preshow rehearsal, I thought all the routines were excellent.

But right before we are set to dance, when little Chelsea Chen concludes her ballet number, the applause is thunderous.

"What did she do out there to get such good applause?" I ask Tiffany.

"Don't talk to me before the performance," she says, and I start to feel very nervous.

The woman in charge of the recital announces our names, and the applause is a little livelier than what we received before the competition. Right before I lie down at the back of the stage, I look to see if maybe Jake or Cliff showed up late, but all I see when I look out into the audience is the hot white from the spotlights that are on me. Before I have a chance to think, the music starts.

Piano notes – slow and sad.

I begin my incredibly drawn-out crawl to center stage, using only my arms.

The male voice sings, "Turn around …"

Bonnie Tyler answers, "Every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you're never coming round."

At this point Tiffany runs onto the stage and leaps over me like a gazelle or some other animal that is beautifully nimble. As the two voices continue to exchange verses, Tiffany does her thing: running, jumping, tumbling, spinning, sliding – modern dance.

When the drums kick in, I stand and make a huge circle with my arms so people will know that I am the sun and I have risen. Tiffany's movements also become more fervent. When Bonnie Tyler builds up to the chorus, singing, "Together we can take it to the end of the line; your love is like a shadow on me all of the time," we go into the first lift. "I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark." I have Tiffany up over my head; I am steady as a rock; I am performing flawlessly. "We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks." I begin to rotate Tiffany as she lifts her legs out into a split and Bonnie Tyler sings, "I really need you tonight! Forever's gonna start tonight! Forever's gonna start tonight." We make a 360-degree rotation, and when Bonnie Tyler sings, "Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I'm only falling apart," Tiffany rolls forward down into my arms and I lower her to the floor as if she were dead – and I, as the sun, mourn her. "Nothing I can say, a total eclipse of the heart."

When the music builds again, she explodes upward and begins to fly all around the stage so beautifully.

As the song continues, I again make huge, slow circles with my arms, representing the sun as best I can. I know the routine so well, I can think about other things while I am performing, so I begin to think that I am actually nailing this performance pretty easily and it is a shame my family and friends are not here to see me dancing so excellently. Even though we will most likely not win the audience's loudest applause – especially after Chelsea Chen obviously brought every single one of her family members to the performance – I begin to think we will win anyway. Tiffany is really good, and as she flies by me so many times, I begin to admire her in a way I had not previously. She has kicked her game up a notch for the competition and is now showing a part of herself I had not previously seen. If she was crying with her body for the last month or so, whenever we practiced in her studio, she is weeping uncontrollably with her body tonight, and you would have to be a stone not to feel what she is offering the audience.

But then Bonnie Tyler is singing, "Together we can make it to the end of the line," which means it is time for the second lift – the hardest one – so I lower myself into a squatting position and place the backs of my hands on my shoulders. As the song builds, Tiffany stands on my palms, and when Bonnie Tyler sings, "I really need you tonight," Tiffany bends her knees, so I engage my leg muscles and push upward as fast as I can, extending my arms, elevating my palms. Tiffany shoots high up into the air, does a full flip, falls into my arms, and as the chorus dies down, we gaze into each other's eyes. "Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I'm only falling apart. Nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart." She falls from my arms, as if dead, and I – being the sun – set, which means I lie back on the floor and use only my arms to slowly push myself backward and out of the spotlight, which takes almost a full minute.

The music fades.

Silence.

For a second I worry that no one will clap.

But then the house explodes with applause.

When Tiffany stands, I do too. Just like we practiced so many times, I hold Tiffany's hand and take a bow, at which time the applause thickens and the audience stands.

I'm so happy, but at the same time I am sad because none of my family and friends came to support me – but then I hear the loudest Eagles chant I have ever heard in my entire life. "E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!" I look up toward the back rows, and not only do I spot Jake and Caitlin and Mom, but also Scott and the fat men and Cliff and the entire Asian Invasion. They are all wearing Eagles jerseys, and I start to laugh when they begin to chant, "Baskett! Baskett! Baskett! Baskett!"

In the front row, Ronnie is smiling at me proudly. He gives me the thumbs-up when we make eye contact. Veronica is also smiling, and so is little Emily, but Mrs. Webster is crying and smiling at the same time, which is when I realize that she thinks our dance was really beautiful – enough to make her cry.

Tiffany and I run offstage, and the high school girls congratulate us with their gaping eyes and their smiles and their chatter. "Oh, my God. That was so amazing!" they all say. It is easy to see that every one of them admires Tiffany because Tiffany is an excellent dancer and a talented choreographer.

Finally Tiffany faces me and says, "You were perfect!"

"No, you were perfect!" I say. "Do you think we won?"

She smiles and looks down at her feet.

"What?" I say.

"Pat, I need to tell you something."

"What?"

"There's no gold trophy."

"What?"

"There are no winners at Dance Away Depression. It's just an exhibition. I made up the part about the wreath just to motivate you."

"Oh."

"And it worked, because you were beautiful out there onstage! Thank you, and I will be your liaison," Tiffany says just before she kisses me on the lips and hugs me for a very long time. Her kiss tastes salty from the dancing, and it is strange to have Tiffany hugging me so passionately in front of so many teenage girls in tights – especially because I am shirtless and my torso is freshly shaved – and also I do not like to be touched by anyone except Nikki.

"So now that we are done dancing, can I talk about Eagles football again? Because I have a lot of Eagles fans out there waiting for me."

"After nailing the routine, you can do whatever you want, Pat," Tiffany whispers into my ear, and then I wait a long time for her to stop hugging me.

After I change in the storage closet, Tiffany tells me there are no more naked teenagers backstage, so I go to greet my fans. When I hop down off the stage, Mrs. Webster grabs my hands, looks into my eyes, and says, "Thank you." She keeps looking into my eyes, but the old woman doesn't say anything else, which makes me feel sort of weird.

Finally Veronica says, "What my mother means to say is that tonight meant a lot to Tiffany."

Emily points at me and says, "Pap!"

"That's right, Em," Ronnie says. "Uncle Pat."

"Pap! Pap! Pap!"

We all laugh, but then I hear fifty Indian men chanting, "Baskett! Baskett! Baskett!"

"Better go greet your rowdy fans," Ronnie says, so I walk up the aisle toward the sea of Eagles jerseys. Other audience members I don't know pat me on the back and congratulate me as I weave my way through them.

"You were so good up there!" my mother says in a way that lets me know she was surprised by my excellent dancing skills, and then she hugs me. "I'm so proud!"

I hug her back and then ask, "Is Dad here?"

"Forget Dad," Jake says. "You got sixty or so wild men waiting to take you to the most epic tailgate party of your life."

"Hope you weren't planning on getting any sleep tonight," Caitlin says to me.

"You ready to end the Pat Peoples curse?" Cliff asks me.

"What?" I say.

"The Birds haven't won since you stopped watching. Tonight we're taking drastic measures to end the curse," Scott says. "We're sleeping in the Asian Invasion bus, right outside the Wachovia parking lot. We set up the tailgate party at daybreak."

"Ashwini is driving around the block right now, waiting for us," Cliff says. "So. Are you ready?"

I am a little shaken by the news, especially since I just finished such an excellent dance routine and was hoping to simply enjoy the accomplishment for more than ten minutes. "I don't have my clothes."

But my mom pulls my Baskett jersey out of a duffel bag I hadn't noticed before and says, "You have everything you need in here."

"What about my meds?"

Cliff holds up a little plastic bag with my pills inside.

Before I can say or do anything else, the Asian Invasion begins chanting louder: "Baskett! Baskett! Baskett!" The fat men pick me up above their heads and carry me out of the auditorium, past the fountain full of fish, out of the Plaza Hotel, and onto the streets of Philadelphia. And then I am in the Asian Invasion bus, drinking a beer and singing, "Fly, Eagles, fly! On the road to victory …"

In South Philadelphia, we stop at Pat's for cheesesteaks – which take a long time to prepare, as there are sixty or so of us, and no one would dare go next door to Geno's Steaks, because Geno's steaks are inferior – and then we are at the Wachovia parking lot, parked just outside the gate so we will be the first vehicle admitted in the morning and therefore will be guaranteed the lucky parking spot. We drink, sing, throw a few footballs, and run around on the concrete; we roll out the Astroturf and play a few Kubb games under the streetlights, and even though I have only had two or three beers, I begin to tell everyone I love them because they came to my dance recital, and I also tell them I'm sorry for abandoning the Eagles mid-season and that it was for a good reason, but I just can't say what – and then I am on a bus seat and Cliff is waking me up, saying, "You forgot to take your night meds."

When I wake up the next morning, my head is on Jake's shoulder, and it feels good to be so close to my brother, who is still asleep. Quietly I stand and look around and realize that everyone – Scott, the fat men, Cliff, all fifty or so Asian Invasion members – is asleep on the bus. Two or three men are sleeping in every seat, with their heads on each other's shoulders. Everywhere brothers.

I tiptoe to the front of the bus, past Ashwini, who – in the driver's seat – is asleep with his mouth wide open.

Once outside, on the small patch of grass between the street and the sidewalk, I begin the same push-up and sit-up routine I used to do back in the bad place, before I had access to free weights and a stationary bike and the Stomach Master 6000.

After an hour or so, first light comes.

As I finish the last set of sit-ups, I feel as though I have burned off my cheesesteak and the beers I drank the night before, but I can't help feeling like I should go for a run, so I run a few miles, and when I return, my friends are still sleeping.

As I stand next to Ashwini and watch my boys sleep, I feel happy because I have so many friends – a whole busful.

I realize that I left the Plaza Hotel without saying goodbye to Tiffany, and I feel a little bad about that, even though she said I could do whatever I wanted after we performed so well. Also I am very eager to write my first letter to Nikki. But there is Eagles football to think about now, and I know that an Eagles victory is just about the only thing that will smooth things over with my father, so I begin to hope, and I even say a little prayer to God, who I bet was pretty impressed with my dance routine last night, so maybe He will cut me a break today. Looking at all those sleeping faces, I realize I have missed my green-shirted brothers, and I begin to anticipate the day.