Amanda was the first one to introduce us to “Next To Normal.” “Whatever you do, you have to promise me you won’t listen to the soundtrack before we see it,” she said. Together my cousin Jenny and I drove up to help Amanda move out of her apartment at Humboldt State. Why not catch a show while we were at it? The night of the show we ate homemade fry bread and chili with lots of peppers. As we walked to the theater we watched students with long hair and no shoes play guitar on the roof of a pizza restaurant. I slept on an air mattress that night before we took the eight-hour ride back home to Salinas. We listened to the soundtrack the whole way home.
Our next “Next to Normal” was much closer, only a three-hour drive down the coast. The show was familiar and comfortable as we mouthed the words and compared notes during intermission. We drove home late at night and chattered about our dream casts with Jenny’s husband, the first guest in a long line of plus-ones.
The theater was small, tiny. I knew the songs inside and out at this point and braced myself every time I knew a high note was imminent. Jenny brought her friend Amy, a social worker, who critiqued the role of the therapist and laughed politely as we recounted memories from the two shows before.
I’d made a new friend at school who liked theater and liked me. I hemmed and hawed before asking her to be a part of our sacred ritual. Tickets were free and as we drove up to the show we called the theater over and over again to ensure that we would be able to get in. We sat scattered around the theater in seats shoved at the ends of rows and squeezed into the places where aisles should be. Though the show was about a family, all the parts were played by college-aged kids. At 16, the actors on stage felt eons older than me. Naomi and I sat after the show on the deck and looked across a field to a frat party close by, imagining the greener grass.
“When you come back for Thanksgiving maybe we can go together?” I texted anxiously. “Are you, Kate Tinney, asking me on a date?” I had never asked anyone on a date before so I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to feel but I threw caution to the wind: “Yes :)” This would be the first time I didn’t watch the show with Jenny and Amanda at my side but it wouldn’t be the last. During the show he held my hand. Each time we broke to clap I laid my hand face up on the armrest, anxious he wouldn’t hold it again.
It’s now been years of sitting next to people crying at “Next to Normal,” and while my heart had felt heavy before or my stomach tight, tears had never come. Now, during the first time home since starting college I sat during the final number and sobbed uncontrollably, clutching my chest and feeling a type of catharsis I’m sure the authors only dreamed about when writing, “You find out you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.”
Naomi texted me from the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART station asking me where I was. She was early as she tends to be and her phone was almost dead as it tends to be and I was turned around 12 different ways. “I have to take the train into Oakland and turn back around to get to Pittsburg,” I said. We were 20 minutes late. We giggled to each other the whole show, surrounded solely by friends and family of the cast.
Naomi was early once again with her phone as dead as ever. As I walked in with my sister and cousins Naomi gripped my arm: “I didn’t have anything to do so I talked a lot to the people and I told them you had seen it almost 10 times. They all want to talk to you. I’m so sorry.” At intermission I was pulled aside by a member of the theater’s board. He smiled broadly and shook my hand, gushing about the cast and crew working on the show, asking me again and again how I liked it and how it compared. I had seen a better Doctor in Novato, a better Dan in Morgan Hill. I liked the set more in Santa Cruz and the intimacy of the Bakersfield stage. I liked the chili Amanda’s roommate cooked for us in Arcata and sleeping in my own bed after El Cerrito. I liked sitting in the backseat with my new friend driving up to Palo Alto at 16 and meeting the same friend in the back of an Uber in Pittsburg at 20. That’s how I thought it compared.