Sara Jade Alan is the author of “A Messy, Beautiful Life,” a young adult book that came to her after a dream following surgery for a rare bone cancer.
The novel was a 2018 Colorado Book Award finalist for Young Adult Fiction.
The following is an excerpt of the book:
I could practically smell the nervous sweat under my pits as I peeked out from behind the curtains at the packed house. Porter Township High School had a brand-new theater where we’d been invited to perform tonight in the Comedy Mash-Up. It was a gorgeous space with a shiny wood stage and rows of red velvet seats that were currently filled with the butts of one hundred and eighty high school students.
Maneuvering from center stage through the darkness of the wings to the backstage area, I took a seat on the ratty couch that must have hosted at least seven generations of drama geek tears and farts. It was comforting to know that even if Porter’s improv group, Scared Scriptless, had a theater that was newer and shinier than ours, it still featured the obligatory disgusting backstage area. I carefully set down the reusable water bottle with our team’s mascot swimming around in it.
“Aye, Captain Ellie!” Quinn shouted in her best pirate voice as she ran through the backstage. She jumped into the seat next to me, releasing an explosion of cushion-fluff. “This is so exciting. Did you see how many people are in the audien — you … you brought Harold?” She pointed to the goldfish.
Spontaneous Combustion had named our group’s mascot Harold after the most well-known improvisational form, the “Harold,” created by Del Close from the iO Theater in Chicago. Since our school was in a suburb just outside of Chicago, we took pride in the fact we were born near some of the most famous improv theaters in the country — iO, Second City, the Annoyance Theater. Harold was our shout-out to that. As co-captain, it was now my job to take care of him, and in the first two weeks of school, I’d come to the conclusion that goldfish were highly underrated pets.
“Yeah, for our first show of the year, I made up a new policy that we’ll bring Harold wherever we perform. For good luck. Right, lil’ guy?” I pressed my finger to the side of the bottle, and he swam up, his tiny mouth making happy bubbles.
“What does your co-captain think of that?” Quinn raised her eyebrows, her eyes reminding me more than ever of a slow loris — those weird monkey creatures whose eyeballs take up a disproportionate amount of their face — but in a hazel, pretty-girl kind of way.
“Think of what? Endangering the life of goldfish?” Hana, the other co-captain, asked in her staccato way as she cracked open a can of fizzy tangerine juice and shrugged. “I’m cool with it.”
“I just know you two will be great as our new captains.” Quinn squealed and pulled me in for a hug. She waved Hana in, but Hana, not a hugger, chugged some of her drink and then belched at Quinn in defense.
I laughed. I loved Hana. She’d moved to Northglenn the summer before high school, but after being the only two freshmen cast in Spontaneous Combustion, it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives. I’d finally found a friend I could totally relate to. It didn’t hurt that we lived on the same side of town — the ugly-apartment-complexes side, me in Glenshire Cove, and Hana in The Regency. “Such glamorous names for such humble little hovels,” Hana loved to say.
“Ew,” Quinn said as she released me from her love/death-grip.
With sweet Harold safe, providing us his goldfish good luck from his spot in the wings, we joined the other five members of our group onstage to get ready for the show.
As Hana and Quinn took their turns peeking out through the curtains, Quinn asked, “How did Scared Scriptless manage to get such a big turn out?”
“For starters, I imagine they don’t use our group’s zero-advertising marketing strategy,” I said.
“Mmm.” Hana was rubbing her cheek on the plush curtain, her eyes closed. “I want to steal this theater and put it in my bedroom so I can wake up on these golden floorboards snuggled in these velvety curtains every morning. Can I do that?”
“I believe in you.” I smiled and clapped my hands together once. “Okay, we’re about to start, let’s get the group circled up.”
“We’re ready for this.” Hana released the curtain and turned to us, looking more like a warrior than an improviser. “This place is awesome. We’re gonna wreck some faces tonight.” She gave Quinn a chest bump and then graced me with one.
“Ow,” Quinn and I said in unison.
Hana Yoon: a Chihuahua who thought she was a pit bull. She had all the makings of an all-star athlete, minus the small details of her pint-size body and zero athletic ability. Amping up before performances was how she unleashed her competitive spirit, even if our improv show wasn’t technically a competition.
The lights in the theater dimmed as the music swelled. Over the music, a guy in the sound booth announced our group. “Welcome to Porter Township High School’s Friday night Comedy Mash-Up! Pleeease put your hands together and welcome our guests for the evening, Northglenn High’s SPONTANEOUUUUUUS COMBUSTION!”
As the red curtains parted, I could practically feel our collective stomachs flip.
Hana gave our group’s standard spiel. “Tonight, we’ll be doing a short-form style of improv similar to the TV show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ We’ll get suggestions from you in the audience and create instant scenes based on your suggestions. Are you ready?”
The audience cheered, and we launched into our first scene. Our show clicked along as we played our favorite games of Arms Expert, Broadway Musical, and Replay. Hana and I traded off between emceeing, playing, and guiding our team from the wings.
Toward the end of our thirty-minute set, we started our last game and invited Scared Scriptless to play with us. In the game of Freeze, two players do a scene until someone on the sidelines yells “Freeze,” then the players have to hold whatever pose they were in. Another actor tags one person out, takes on the same position but starts an entirely new scene that justifies that starting position. It continues as people call out “Freeze” and start new scene after new scene.
At one point, I was onstage with Chris, a massive guy who used to be on the football team. He was carrying me around completely tipped on my side as he shouted about finding “the lost statue,” when someone from Scared Scriptless yelled, “Freeze!”
A boy from the other team ran up to tag one of us out, which meant I would soon either have to hold a stranger or be held by a stranger. Fantastic. The Porter boy was thin, but through his navy-blue T-shirt that read Scared Scriptless in a bold font, his chest and shoulders had a nice amount of oomph. Before I got a good look at his face, he disappeared behind me.
He tagged Chris out. They exchanged spots, while I tried to hold my statue position on my side with one hand on my hip and one hand under my head, elbows out. Chris’s large forearm left my waist and was replaced by a tan, leaner version. This wrist sported one of those wristbands for a cause, which nestled up to … Well, I’d have to describe it as the sexiest watch I’d ever seen — which was odd, since I’d never considered them sexy before. In fact, I was pretty sure I never used the word “sexy” to describe anything, except while being sarcastic (like when Hana jokingly made-out with her pudding cup at lunch and had brown goop all around her mouth I said, “Real sexy, Hana.”).
As the boys continued to shift my weight for the pass, I let myself dwell on Porter Boy’s watch — the thickness of the black leather band, the shininess of the silver face. The word “manly” came to mind. His thumb ever-so slightly grazed the bottom of my left breast as he took complete hold of me. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to worry about it because he had started the scene.
Even though Porter Boy had proven he was confident physically carrying me, his character pretended to be awkward and shifted me back and forth while stuttering and umming.
The experienced improviser in me pushed past the inner freak-out all his touching was causing and reacted to his offer. I wiggled out of his clutches, and we faced each other, our eyes connecting for a second. His were a pleasing shade of brown — earthy but bright. When our gaze broke, the coolest thing happened. We both started doing the same thing at the same time: brushing each other off and saying things like, “ooh, sorry,” and “err, excuse me …” We entered into some abstract game with each other.
Turning him around so his back was to me, I tapped him between his shoulder blades. As if reading my mind, he immediately fell back into my arms. I didn’t know why I needed him to do that, or how he knew to do it, only that is was supposed to happen next in our weird game. I easily caught him and dragged him backwards. Our characters were in some alternate universe where they had to get somewhere but only one person could do the transporting at a time.
Sure, it made no sense whatsoever, but that was the glory of improv, and the audience loved it. Despite the bizarreness, Porter Boy and I were so committed that every new position — me getting a piggyback ride, him on my back like I was a horse — caused the audience to laugh harder.
Porter Boy pretended to come upon a stream. He mimed testing the water and then lay down in the imaginary stream and patted his chest, signaling me to climb on top of him. I gathered I was supposed to lie on top of him like he was a raft, so that’s what I did. Putting my hands on either side of his shoulders, I lowered myself down like I was doing a slow push up. His breath. So much heat. The swish-rush-thump of his blood through his heart.
Then reality hit.
From the outside, it must have looked like a weird improv girl about to lie right on top of a strange boy. Onstage. In front of almost two hundred people.
We had been doing near-acrobatics for the past two minutes. Snippets popped into my mind — entangled arms, wrapped legs, arched backs. My brain processed the building energy of the audience, the rising laughter, the hoots and whistles, and I realized our scene must have looked like an epic dry-humping session.
Mortification enveloped me, like all the naked, peeing nightmares of childhood but without the happy escape of waking. I feared this might be one of those shuddery life-moments to etch a forever-home on my memory’s instant-cringe list.
And yet. The rare connection, the out-of-body-ness … I understood what it felt like to be in the moment. I also knew there was “in the moment,” focused but aware, and really in the moment, where everything outside the scene slipped away. It was what I’d read about in all our improv books — like some Holy Grail of improvisation. But I hadn’t known it was possible to totally “lose your mind” and be completely in the moment. Now I did, and it was fun.
If only it could have happened in private.
But it hadn’t. And we were still in it — I was hovering perilously close to his face, as all this flashback processed in the embarrassment quadrant of my brain in an instant. I made the mistake of looking him in the eyes.
Our faces were so close. His lips formed a shy grin on one side, revealing a single, irresistible, dimple. We cracked up, and I released the rest of my weight onto him in a fit of nervous laughter, my head falling in the crook between his neck and shoulder. My nose informed me I had a new favorite smell. As he brushed off some of my hair that had fallen in his face, his arm mashed against me in a nice and only slightly suffocating kind of way, and he shouted, “Will someone please yell freeze already?” Someone from the audience yelled, “No! We’re waiting for you to do it.“
“Yeah!” the whole audience agreed in unison.
And then they chanted, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
Oh my God. It hit me that I was, in fact, still lying on top of him. Super speedily I stopped sniffing him like some crazed wildebeest and jumped up, only to be left standing downstage, caught and bewildered, a flush of embarrassment crying out like a face tattoo.
I decided I really should quit improv.
It would make life so much easier.
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