Chapter One One NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Twenty-four days until opening night
Monica’s hand pressed against the window. She could feel it, even before they arrived. Thump, thump, thump. She grabbed a strand of her curly brown hair and twisted. “Next stop, Times Square, Forty-Second Street,” the automated voice said. Lights flickered through the tunnel as they got closer. Monica twisted faster.
“Tsk-tsk!” her abuelita said, waving her finger from across the aisle at Monica’s hair, then went back to studying the subway map on the wall in front of her.
“I can feel it, Abuelita, like your friend said,” Monica whispered. Her brown, almond-shaped eyes smiled when she spoke.
The city’s heartbeat.
Monica’s abuelita’s friend had told them that if they wanted to get from JFK Airport to Manhattan, they could take a taxi or a bus or a shuttle. “But if you want to feel the heartbeat of the city under its skin, you take the subway.”
“I can feel it too,” her abuelita giggled, clutching her purse tighter. She looked out the window and, seeing only blackness, positioned her big circle glasses above the rim of her nose—the same pair of glasses she’d owned since the 1970s. How she was ever able to manage keeping those thick glasses in place on her slender face all these years, no one knew.
The subway braked hard and slowed. Monica’s abuelita startled, and her back went straight. “This is Times Square, Forty-Second Street,” the automated voice said now. Monica lifted herself out of her seat to get a better look. The panels of walls and lights and spaces in between made patterns as they glided by. At that moment, Monica was thinking how incredible it was that two people could find their way from all the way across the country to this very spot at this very moment and enter into an entirely new world, just like that! Travel had always seemed to her like something other people did.
Standing riders in the train wiggled to make room for Monica as she stood up, and then an entire subway car crammed with people all instinctively leaned in the same direction to balance themselves as the subway hit its brakes entering the station. Monica wobbled and grabbed the one small piece of hand space left on the center pole, and she leaned too. This made her want to burst into tears of joy. She was leaning into New York City, she thought, and laughed.
As the train rolled to a stop, a man with a deep voice at the rear of the subway car shouted, “Welcome to paradise,” and the doors opened. Monica’s abuelita got up and poked her head out of the subway car. Lifting her luggage, she said to her granddaughter, “Oh, and look at the view!”
“It’s amazing!” Monica replied, wide-eyed. A crowd of impatient passengers pushed their way past the two awestruck tourists, getting out of the crowded car as fast as possible.
As they hurried out of the train and onto the platform, they saw two men energetically beating on plastic buckets with drumsticks and hollering an occasional “Hoot ho!” Monica’s abuelita told her the subway station was over one hundred years old. But all Monica could think of was how new everything seemed, and all this newness gave her a melty feeling.
Another train arrived on a different track, releasing more people onto the platform. A tall woman with a red face and a fancy-looking tote bag bumped into Monica and with a stern “pardon me” rounded past her, knocking her off balance. She fumbled and got swept up into a crowd of people moving at different speeds, and she became so turned around and pushed to the side, she realized she couldn’t see her abuelita anymore.
The commuter crowd moved in a fever past her, and then the platform quieted. Thankfully, she now saw that her abuelita was right next to her.
“Elbows out!” her abuelita hollered.
They got swept up in more crowds, heading toward the exit—like fish going upstream. Monica still couldn’t believe she was on New York City soil. This was incredible for two reasons: one, she’d never even been out of the state of California before; and two, she’d never thought she’d get out of the state of California ever. The drumming stopped. She inhaled deeply and let out a quiet “Meeeee.” She held the note just long enough for it to vibrate gently. The sound echoed softly down the dark tunnel, and it came as somewhat of a relief. Her location had changed, but her singing voice was the same. She inhaled again to take in the smells of this new world. She had so hoped New York would smell like cotton candy, but it most certainly did not.
Her abuelita was now leading the way, showing her with body language how to weave through the crowds. The big white feather on her abuelita’s hat flounced as she walked. Her abuelita insisted this was the kind of hat you wore only to church and to New York City. Besides the hat, Monica’s abuelita wore purple yoga pants, black Converse sneakers, and a leopard-print backpack. Some might have described Monica’s abuelita as avant-garde.
They passed through station doors covered in advertisements and stickers and landed in an enormous sea of people and lights. They were blanketed by a million stories being told at once, and that offered Monica a certain sense of tranquility. So much cement and steel, and yet she was certain she’d just tumbled into a bed of wildflowers. Even in broad daylight, the lights of the city outshone the sun in rainbow colors. Lights so welcoming they made even the dirty sidewalks sparkle.
“Which one is the Empire State Building?” Monica’s abuelita asked. She pointed to one building, then another. “That one? No. That one? No. That one? No.” She laughed. “They all look tall!” Then she laughed again when she looked over at Monica and saw her expression.
Directly in front of Monica was a billboard advertising soup with actual steam coming out of the bowl. She’d seen it so many times in photographs, and now it was there in real life, steam billowing like the incense Father Mendez would wave above her head on Sundays. It was beautiful. And the sequin ball that dropped on New Year’s Eve was high above that. It was beautiful. Billboards for Broadway musicals and advertisements for shoes and perfume and watches all moved at different speeds. All beautiful! And all hers to behold in that moment.
Suddenly a person dressed in an Elmo costume towered over her, blocking her view. He had a stitched-on smile. Monica smiled back. Elmo waved to Monica without saying a word. She waved back without saying a word. He handed her a flyer for dishwashers being sold at deep discount prices and then moved on. She studied the flyer, a little disappointed it wasn’t something more exciting, and passed the flyer to her abuelita, who hugged it, then placed it in her purse. “We might need a dishwasher. You never know,” she laughed.
A few more steps and a man leaned in toward them asking for spare change. Monica’s abuelita dug a few quarters out of her purse and placed them in the man’s empty Styrofoam coffee cup. “Have a blessed day, young lady,” he said to her abuelita. Monica’s abuelita grabbed the top of her hat, lifted her chin in the air, and giggled like a schoolgirl. It was official: Monica Garcia was in love with New York City.
“Did you ever think four weeks ago we’d be in New York City?” Monica’s abuelita said, rummaging for more change to give out.
New York City had been the furthest thing from Monica’s mind when she’d gotten called out of her seventh-grade science class by Mrs. Drury, the school’s secretary, less than a month ago. They’d been measuring the length of Peter Davis’s forearm and comparing it to the size of a dinosaur tooth when the knock came on the classroom door. Mrs. Drury kept repeating it was an “urgent phone call for Miss Garcia,” but then she made Monica walk very slowly down the hall to the principal’s office.
“Even urgent phone calls don’t give one permission to run in the halls,” she said with her usual pinched expression. Monica had known Mrs. Drury since kindergarten, and she’d never, not even once, not even during the school talent-show comedy routines, seen her without a pinched look on her face.
“What kind of urgent phone call, Mrs. Drury?” Monica asked anxiously.
“Oh, I’m not one to say, nor do I think I even know,” she said as she casually walked past lockers and display windows with a feather duster. Mrs. Drury dusted things when she walked, like some people chewed gum.
“Is the call from my mother?” Monica implored. Why did science class have to be at the very, very far end of the school when a very important phone call came in?
“From your mother? Oh yes, yes. It’s urgent.” Mrs. Drury was hardly paying attention to the signs of Monica’s growing anxiety. She was more concerned with the dust bunnies that had collected on the trophy shelves.
When they finally got to the principal’s office and opened the door, the first person Monica saw was her father.
Things were worse than she’d thought. Her father never left the crop fields, especially during high picking season. This time of year it was olives. He was the foreman and had to make sure everything ran smoothly, so she wasn’t certain how he had been able to sneak away.
His tanned skin still had beads of sweat from the hot sun, and his work boots were caked with soft wet mud. He was rubbing the lucky rabbit’s foot on his keychain.
Then her mother came around the corner into the office, having just thrown away a tissue from wiping her tears.
“Mamí?” Monica said, and rushed into her arms. Now she knew something was terribly wrong. Like her dad, her mother worked long hours in the farm office, handling the paperwork and logistics. And with the busy season, they were both always, well… busy. “Is it Freddy?”
“Monica. They called,” her mom said through more tears and then a smile.
Monica was confused.
“They called!” her mother repeated with laughter.
Her father removed his cowboy hat and wiped sweat from his brow. He said in his usual gentle voice, “Broadway called, Kita.”
Monica’s first reaction should have been excitement. But she was completely petrified.
She and her parents sat in the parking lot of the school in their SUV.
“What exactly did the voicemail say?” Monica asked her mother.
“She just said to call her back as soon as we got the message,” Monica’s mother said. “We couldn’t wait until after school.” Her mother, still wearing her jeans and a bandanna around her neck, pulled a phone number out of her pocket, pursed her lips, and pushed it into Monica’s hand.
Monica looked at the phone number. A New York area code. Then she thought of Lucy Sanchez. Lucy was in Acting Club with Monica at school. Orange Grove Middle School didn’t have much in the way of a performing arts program, just two small productions a year held in the cafeteria. “Don’t get your hopes up,” Lucy had said to Monica when she’d overheard Monica telling Marissa she’d made an audition tape. “Kids from Orange Grove don’t make it to Broadway.”
Marissa and Monica had been best friends since before they could crawl. Their parents worked on the farm together. If there was anyone on the entire planet who understood Monica, it was Marissa. And vice versa. They called themselves the M&M’s. “Don’t listen to Lucy,” Marissa had said. “She only wishes she had your voice.”
“Can’t you call for me?” Monica asked her mother.
“No, she wants to talk to you. Call her Ms. Roy when she answers.”
Helen Roy was the New York casting director for the much-anticipated Broadway show Our Time, a musical homage to classic 1980s adventure movies.
Monica dialed the number nervously. The casting director picked up right away.
“Hello, Ms. Roy? This is Monica Garcia.…” Monica’s voice cracked.
“Hello, Monica. I’m glad you were able to call me back today.” Her voice was soothing. “Actors will say that you’ll hear from a casting director anywhere between an hour and a year after an audition.” Ms. Roy let out a little laugh. “But we’d like to move quickly on this one, as you can imagine. We need to nail down our entire cast right away, especially the children’s parts, since there are school obligations to consider.”
Monica nodded before saying quietly, “Yes, I understand.”
“The producers and director were very impressed with your video audition.”
“Oh, thank you,” Monica said, smiling at her mother. Her father clasped the rabbit’s foot and rubbed anxiously.
“Usually we like to see actors in person, but we really got a good sense of your style through your tape. Thank you for that. You brought to the performance what we want to see in the character Tony.”
Monica’s eyes lit up. Tony was one of the leads in the show.
Her mother grabbed Monica’s arm and held in tears.
“However,” she continued, “we feel you still need a little more coaching and experience. Do you understand?”
Monica paused. Her shoulders slumped. She looked at her parents with sad eyes.
“Yes, I understand.” She had prepared for the bad news even before she placed the call. Kids from Orange Grove don’t make it to Broadway.
“We have the leads already lined up.…” Ms. Roy paused, sensing Monica’s disappointment. “Yet we’d like to give you an opportunity to get a taste of Broadway”—her voice held on the word taste—“as an understudy. Get your feet wet a little. So, if you’re okay with that—”
Monica lit up. “Yes! Yes I’m okay with that,” she said, bubbling with excitement.
Ms. Roy laughed. “Good, then. I’ll have my assistant call and work out the details with you and your parents soon. We’ll see you on Broadway, Monica!”
The phone went dead.
“Understudy.” Monica smiled. Her parents gave out a joyous cry and raised their hands in the air. Climbing trees, shaking branches full of olives, and gathering the small fruits from the tarp had worn them down. Farming was a tough job.
“I owe Freddy a jelly doughnut. He won the bet.” Monica smiled, looking at California’s Sierra Nevada in the distance.
Monica pulled out her phone and took a quick photo of the street scene and texted it her parents: New York, New York! For the fourth time that day, there was no response. No response when she’d called to say they’d landed safely at the airport, no response when she’d texted a photo of her abuelita standing next to a man they were convinced was a famous actor outside the airport. No response when she’d texted to say it wasn’t actually a famous actor, and no response now. Her parents always got back to her right away. Maybe it was the three-hour time difference. The sun was just starting to rise out west. It could be that.
Monica watched as her abuelita raised her hand to hail a cab. She called out over the din of the bustle. Taxi after taxi raced past without stopping.
“Twenty thousand streets in New York City full of cabs, and I can’t catch one?”
Monica shook her head.
“Abuelita, you know our hotel is only a couple blocks away.” And because they hadn’t packed much—they were used to living with very little—their luggage wasn’t much of a burden.
Her abuelita shrugged and said, “I know. I’ve just always wanted to hail a New York yellow.”
They started to move in the direction of their hotel. Monica, who had been absorbed in the scenery, stopped in her tracks. She grabbed her abuelita’s arm and pointed upward. Her mouth hung open. In bright neon lights was the billboard for Our Time. Her production in lights! A new wave of excitement came over her: “Abuelita! Look!”
Monica’s abuelita clapped her hands together. “Oh, Kita!”
“Can we see the Ethel Merman Theater before we check in to our hotel? It’s only a few more blocks. Please?”
Monica’s abuelita thought about the promise she had made to Monica’s mother nine hours earlier to go straight to the hotel. “No sightseeing!” Monica’s mother had said. “This is a work trip.” All understudies were due at rehearsal at eight o’clock sharp the next morning, and with the time difference, Monica would be jet-lagged and tired. She would need to rehearse her lines. Her voice needed to be rested. They had taken the red-eye because it was cheapest, but it wasn’t the most accommodating for anyone’s sleep schedule. Or a singer’s voice.
“Please, Abuelita!” Monica begged. “We can be quick!”
Her abuelita responded with a clap. “I have waited sixty-seven years to see New York. Why waste time napping in a hotel?”
Monica and her abuelita turned their course toward the theater, startling a flight of pigeons. Her abuelita looked at Monica and said, like a sailor with a New York accent, “Hey, why don’t ya look where you’re goin’. You’d think it was your first time in New York.” Monica started to laugh. She recognized the line right away. It was from the opening scene of one of their favorite musicals, the classic production On the Town. Monica responded with the next line of the scene, saying in a goofy voice: “It is! It is!” Monica and her abuelita did a little dance, right there in the street. And Monica couldn’t believe she was actually dancing… on Broadway!