We’re so excited to announce Trust Exercise as BuzzFeed Book Club’s August read! Susan Choi’s stirring novel studies the inner machinations of an elite performing arts high school in the 1980s — focusing at first on the romance of two first-year students, Sarah and David, and then expanding to reveal a dark undercurrent connecting the students; Mr. Kingsley, the manipulative head of theater arts; and a visiting British theater troupe.
Read a chapter below, and join us next month as we dive into the book — posing questions, sharing opinions, and interacting directly with author Susan Choi.
In the future, Joelle will run away. She will simply disappear, halfway through senior year. Rumors will abound of her reasons, her means, her location. Her father beat her with a belt and a stick and tied her to a tree; she’d been sent to live with him by her mother, for being too wild. Her father has the FBI looking for her, he has doors broken down, Joelle’s spotted all sorts of places: Tampa; Waikiki; New York; the background of the Aerosmith video for “Love in an Elevator,” in which she is said to be one of the dancers. Confirmation of any of this awaits a farther future than the one in which she runs away.
In the future, Pammie will decide to be an astronaut. It’s no frivolous decision, though she’s remained, to her grief, overweight. She must go back to school and learn physics. After physics, a diet.
In the future, Taniqua will become one of the most recognizable television actresses on earth. She’ll play a cop on a long-running show about rookie cops growing and changing in the course of becoming experienced cops. Taniqua will play the absolutely humorless female cop, whose awful past (of course), full of poverty and abuse and incarcerated fathers and drug-addicted mothers and shot-to-death brothers, accounts for her absolute humorlessness. Her old classmates, from her youth, will hardly believe it’s bright, sassy Taniqua who’s playing that humorless cop. They’ll keep thinking that her hidden sense of humor, its belated revelation, will have to provide a plot point, but year after year it does not. Nor do her good singing voice or her dancing. None of these seemingly central aspects of Taniqua will ever appear in her signature role. She’ll play that role for years, and be rich.
In the future, Norbert will be a manager at Whataburger. This will be so consistent with their cruelest expectations of him that they’ll dislike him even more, for not proving them wrong. Norbert, so incurably himself. So stubbornly immune to all those means of metamorphosis.
In the future, Ms. Rozot’s prediction in fact will come true. Things, at least the sorts of things implied in that discussion, like heartbreak, will hurt less, although the range of hurtful things will expand. Heartbreak will come to seem like a rather luxurious reason for pain. There will also be the failings of the body and the wallet. The extinctions of friendships. The crimes against children committed by grown-ups. And the inexplicable, small kindnesses, which somehow pierce Sarah most deeply of all, as when she left the house one summer day so distracted she forgot to zip her sleeveless summer dress, so a wide slit was open from armpit to hip, through which her bra and her panties could clearly be seen, and she walked this way, obliviously, all the way to the park, where a strange woman cried, “Sweetie! How have you been?” and embraced her.
And while Sarah stood bewildered in her arms, the woman said in her ear, “Your dress is open. I’ll keep hugging until you’ve zipped it.” And Sarah zipped, and then they stepped apart and said goodbye as if actual friends, keeping up the charade until turning and walking their opposite ways. And Sarah recalled, for the first time in years, that acting was truthful emotions in false circumstances. She already missed that strange woman, her make-believe friend.
In the future, David will be so changed it will be hard to give credence to the David she first knew in these mid-teenage years. It will be hard not to see that young David as sort of a sham, a lightweight cocoon through which the future David, knobbly and heavy and hard, is already beginning to obtrude. Or perhaps this younger David really is an insubstantial shell. Perhaps they all are.
Mr. Kingsley no longer asks her to his office. There is no more of their confidential chatting, about her and David, or her and Joelle, or what a help he expects her to be when the people from England arrive. There is no talk between them at all. Sometimes, he winks at her in passing. Most times he looks straight through her. She’s aware of having missed some opportunity, squandered some advantage, in the course of having tried to do exactly the opposite. One Friday afternoon instead of driving to the Empanada Outpost with Joelle and whoever else Joelle has in her car, Sarah returns to the deserted department hallway. On Fridays rehearsal doesn’t start until 5:30, because of lesser pressure to finish by 9, it not being a school night. Instead of dining at U Totem on Fridays, they all walk in raucous packs or drive in dangerously overladen cars to one of the real restaurants they’ve adopted, where they are well known and in some cases greatly disliked. They are grimly tolerated at La Tapatia Taqueria, where they consume the free chips by the bushel. They are just short of banned at Empanada Outpost, where they will only be served if they all sit outside on the rickety deck. They are adored and spoiled at Mama’s Big Boy, the once unremarkable Big Boy somehow entirely taken over by gay male waiters, who will give them free pie if they sing. Fridays can feel like a festival, the 5:30 rehearsal start time often drifting toward 6 if Mr. Kingsley himself isn’t back from wherever he’s gone for his dinner — never any of the cheap nearby places that they go for theirs.
In the deserted hallway, Mr. Kingsley’s door is closed. There was no reason to think he would be here, as he is other days when they just have the half-hour break and he spends it at his desk typing in gunfire bursts, his rimless spectacles precariously balanced at the end of his nose, his door half open but his severe absorption a deterrent to all but the most desperate, or confident, students.
She slides down the wall to the floor, hugs her knees to her chest. Perhaps Joelle will bring her a pineapple empanada, though she isn’t hungry and can hardly recall the last time she was hungry. The cold ache, like a fist pressing onto her diaphragm, has long since replaced hunger. She’s almost used to it, this pressure of sadness like a stone on her diaphragm’s bellows. Or maybe she’s not used to it, but it’s actually lessened? She thinks of Ms. Rozot’s promise to her as a prophecy. If she can just stick it out long enough, she will earn the bewitchment and stop feeling pain. Every morning she X’s a calendar in her mind’s eye: one day closer to feeling less pain. She tries a deep breath, even stretching her legs out along the cold floor so her diaphragm has ample space. She can’t do it. She can’t fill her lungs. She can’t shift the stone and inhale all the way. And this was the first thing he’d taught them: how to breathe. The location of the diaphragm and its unequalled importance, perhaps even exceeding the brain’s. As they mastered three-part breathing, he explained to them, two things would happen: they would come to understand the diaphragm’s true dimensions, and they would come to understand the true scope of its powers. Until now, they had probably only used half (or a third!) of their diaphragm’s total capacity. Even worse, they had probably thought that their brains were in charge of their bodies. Wrong. It is the diaphragm — opened to its full capacity, regulating influx and outflow, tuning us in to ourselves and the world, tuning out all the static, enabling clear thought — that’s in charge of the body and mind, which of course are all one. And Sarah hasn’t just lost control of her own diaphragm, she’s perhaps lost possession of it. It’s usurped by a stone.
She stretches out full length on the spine-chilling floor of the empty hallway. What if these floors had been carpet or wood? Could soft texture or warm temperature have changed memory’s substance? The unrelieved hardness and coldness of the linoleum floors will always be to Sarah an inseparable part of the lessons learned here. For the first time all year she sincerely attempts it, flat on her back on the floor with the bulletin board above her. She has to scoot a little closer to the center of the hall, so her arms and legs lie properly without touching themselves or her sides. Palms up, eyes closed. The air-conditioning turns her torso to gooseflesh beneath her thin blouse, her nipples hardening with discomfort, but she forbids herself from crossing her arms over her breasts. Relaxation requires discipline. Strangely, she seems to hear better lying here on the floor. The air conditioner’s resonant hum, which she’s not sure she’s ever heard before, seems to have different parts: a dull, buried knocking, a rising note over a rumbling low note, a scrape as of a chair across the floor. The foot of Mr. Kingsley’s door is inches from her head. From behind the door, perhaps from the bowels of the building buried deep beneath the floor, Sarah hears a tuneless vocal noise and an abrupt creak.
Hard as she can, she pulls air through her mouth, as if hauling a rope. It’s no use. There might as well be someone sitting on her chest. David sitting on her chest, as he did once. In the summer. When she’d reached around, grabbing his buttocks, forcing him to lean over her face.
She scrambles up to a seated position, back hitting the wall as with almost no warning Mr. Kingsley’s door opens. Manuel steps out, sees her seeing him. He pulls the door shut behind him. She’s against the wall next to the doorframe and so cannot see into the room and has no way of knowing for sure if Mr. Kingsley is in there.
Without a word to her Manuel turns and walks quickly away, disappears around the corner of the hall.
She rises also, before the door can open again, and goes the opposite way from Manuel.
Last year, she’d had Mr. Banks for geometry. Mr. Banks was rumored not just to have sex with some girls at the school but to have had a baby with one, who had dropped out a few years ago. No one knew the name of this girl or had ever seen her, or her baby. No one disliked Mr. Banks. He was tall, with muscle packed on his torso that shifted and bulged when he raised up one arm to write proofs on the board. He wore snug, short-sleeved polos that clearly displayed a dark upside-down U on his right upper arm with bent-back ends that it sat on like feet. All year Mr. Banks had made Sarah and William his pets, ostentatiously excusing them from proofs because, he told the rest of the class, they knew what they were doing while nobody else had a clue. Mr. Banks would say, “William, man, he’s going to be sitting here doing the books for my outside business, and I’m going to be paying him, right under this table, while the rest of you fools still don’t know how to measure circumference.” Sarah, Mr. Banks would announce, was going to brush her hair like a shampoo commercial for his special enjoyment. Sarah would do so, bending forward so her hair hung like seaweed in front of her face, and then whipping her head so her hair fell back onto her neck. “You’re supposed to do that in slow motion,” Mr. Banks would complain. “C’mon, L’Oreal.” At the end of the year, when Mr. Banks informed Sarah he was taking her off-campus for lunch, she hadn’t been surprised or dismayed. She’d known he wouldn’t touch her, whether through superior instinct or naïveté rewarded by luck, she couldn’t have said. She’d followed him to the front parking lot and climbed into the cab of his huge pickup truck with the two bumper stickers. One said, “Easy Does It.” The other said, “My Other Car Is Up My Nose.”
“What does that mean, anyway?” she had asked.
“It means my life was ruled by an addiction to cocaine.”
“So, what — you turned your other car into cocaine?”
“I had to turn it into money first. Here I thought you were so smart.”
“What about that thing on your arm?”
“It’s a brand?”
“Like they do onto cattle. It’s the letter omega, from Greek. You don’t know that either? You’ve had me fooled, girl. I thought you were some kind of genius.” He’d shown her his coin laundromats — his outside businesses — on their way to a hamburger stand in a part of town she’d never seen and could never have found her way back to, everyone black except her, standing outside their cars, their burgers in hand, in wax paper, the older woman at the open-air counter wagging her finger at Mr. Banks, meaning “How old is this girl?” and Mr. Banks telling her off with a gesture, and the two of them laughing.
In the truck, driving back, Sarah had said, “That’s the best burger I’ve ever had. Thanks.” This was back when she ate, and enjoyed it.
“You’re welcome,” Mr. Banks had said. “And thank you for your charming company.”
That was all that had happened. It hadn’t seemed unusual or wrong to have gone to lunch with him. Even her hunch that he wouldn’t kiss her, implying the less likely odds that he might, hadn’t made the lunch feel secretive. They hadn’t skulked, walking out to his truck. They hadn’t skulked, coming back, amid everyone else coming back from wherever they’d eaten.
Despite all the rules — the repetitions without extra words, the relaxation with arms never touching their sides, the breaths drawn in three parts — no rules exist to define their relations with teachers. They can have lunch with teachers, or not. They can shed tears and tell secrets, or not. Vague norms emerge and dissolve, are specific to people, don’t apply generally or across time or across the whole group. They’re arrived at by instinct, by naïveté rewarded with luck, or by naïveté not rewarded with luck. When Sarah’s mother had said, “Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business,” and asked Sarah whether she understood, although Sarah said yes, she didn’t agree. Her disagreement perhaps was the same thing as not understanding. ●
From the book Trust Exercise: A Novel by Susan Choi. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Choi. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and is in the process of being adapted into a film. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, and her first book for children, Camp Tiger, came out earlier this year. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.