by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

Each time someone mistook Octavia for Rudy on the Cosby Show, she felt a twinkle in her bones, like an angel had poured liquid gold over her head and it had soaked through her scalp, settled inside her body and oozed down to her feet. That was how it made her mother feel too, she could tell. Sybil was a big shot New Orleans lawyer now, but if acting had been allowed in her shotgun house in the ‘60’s, she would have made her living pretending to be somebody else.

So Sybil didn’t tell anyone that to this day, she spent every morning at breakfast hunched over the Living section of the Times Picayune, hunting for casting calls that she sometimes showed up for. She hadn’t gotten a part yet—and maybe she wouldn’t take one if she did.  But when she heard her daughter being mistaken for Rudy, she felt like there might be something special about her too.

That was why Octavia changed her name.

“Yo name ain’t Rudy,” Henry Jolly shouted when she took a chance and told the substitute teacher her new name.

“It is so,” she said.

“But the sign on your desk say Octavia Dupree. And if you look at the roll,” he was talking to the teacher now, “It’s going to say Octavia Dupree too.”

“Well, everyone is entitled to their own self expression,” the teacher said. It was her first day substituting, and she was a white lady. If it had been normal Mrs. West, this Rudy business would have been over already, but the sub just smiled, and for the rest of the day, Octavia raised her hand twice as much as normal so she could savor the way the new name sounded on the teacher’s lips.

New name or not, she still sat by Jason LeDeaux at recess. He had light brown skin and green eyes, but his belly poked out past the belt on his uniform slacks, and he had a habit of wetting his pants. It hadn’t happened in months, but it was impossible to forget that sort of thing, and sometimes if he stood too close, she imagined she could smell the sharp phantom liquid spreading in a circle below his waist.

Now they sat in the corner of the concrete yard, in front of the brick wall behind the tether ball while he slapped through his comic book, and she rambled through her lines for the annual play. Occasionally a kick ball rolled in their direction and one of them would stand up and kick it back into the arena. Octavia imagined that during one of those exchanges, a classmate would shout, “Hey Rudy, what are you doing over there? With a kick like that, you should be on our team,” but today she didn’t yearn for an upgrade. Her new name felt like a seal around her, and it made sense that she was apart from her peers—that was what had happened to Mariah Carey in the “Someday” video—and perhaps she would look back in ten years and find it had been ordained.  

The next day though, Mrs. West was back, and so was Octavia, nappy haired, dark skinned, four eyed Octavia, only she felt even darker, she felt her hair was even more offensive because she had drawn a royal breath and it had been fuller, deeper than her normal life’s. Later that week, when her mother was done highlighting her auditions, Octavia snuck the newspaper off the kitchen table. It didn’t take long to find a description that caught her eye; below one of the ads her mom had circled, she read:

 

Casting Interview with the Vampire, a telling of a vampire’s epic life in his own words full of love, betrayal, loneliness and hunger.

Seeking Claudia: Female, 10

 

Octavia  gasped. She was ten years old; she had dressed up as a vampire for Halloween the previous year; she was cast as the biggest part in the school play. It was a sign. She folded the paper, crammed it in her backpack and ran the two blocks to school.

At recess, she took the paper out and read it again. She still wasn’t sure she was movie material. In first grade, Henry Jolly had tried to date her. But a year later, the black boys in her class figured out that there was black—Creole with skin more red than brown—and then there was black, and Octavia was the latter.

On the other hand, Octavia was the narrator in Peter Pan, her class’ upcoming play. Plus people thought she looked like Rudy and Rudy was on television. The audition was scheduled for the day of the play but it wouldn’t be a big deal to miss morning rehearsal. If she wanted to be like her namesake she was going to have to make some sacrifices.

She told Auntie Betty about her plan after school.

“What’s the name of the movie?”

“Interview with the Vampire. I’m going to be Claudia.”

“Never heard of it,” she said, between burps. She was already on her second bottle of beer, and its cool bottom left a wet circle on the tv tray in front of her.

“You ain’t gon’ be in no movie,” her cousin Shannon piped in. “Unless it’s Planet of the Apes.”

Octavia wasn’t bothered. Her grandmother always said that Shannon was the closest person to a sister she had. She didn’t know what that meant entirely, but she knew that she barely heard Shannon’s insults, that they seemed to fall off of her like Wonder Woman’s bracers blocked bullets.

“You don’t even look like the girls on tv,” Shannon kept on.

 “Get out of here with that,” her aunt said, waving her hand at the insult. There was a pile of clean clothes next to her on the couch but instead of folding them she just rested her elbow against them.

“Anyway, my stories is about to start.”

She pressed play on her VCR remote and the soap opera lit up the screen. Octavia didn’t like the stories. Nothing ever happened; in fact, she went a whole summer without watching once, and when she started again in the fall, she could follow along like there had been no gap.

Still she wondered if she could get some pointers. Nikki had just burst into Victor’s office, marched over to him, pressed her hands into her hips and stuck her huge chest out. She had made a mistake marrying Jack, she said. It should have been him all along, and she was going to prove it. She took his face in her hands and kissed him for a long time, so long the two adults’ faces seemed to merge.

Octavia knew she would never do anything like that with a boy, but she imagined herself as Nikki anyway, red lipped with a soft wig on her head. “You’re the one for me alright, but you’re bad, real bad,” she would say, just as Nikki had, and in her mind her line came out just right. She repeated it as she watched, until Aunt Betty fell asleep and spilled beer on her lap.

 

That night as Octavia waited for her mother, she decided she would surprise her with the audition. That the news would be even more delicious if it came out of nowhere, maybe on one of her mother’s bad days. There hadn’t been too many lately, she had picked up a big case and it seemed to propel her out of bed in the morning, but before that, there had been a period of weeks when she would walk in Octavia’s room crying, dress her for school with her face crumpling and bathed in tears. Octavia would ask her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t say, and maybe that was for the best because Octavia knew in her heart it had something to do with her.

She heard her mother’s Red Celica sputter to a stop and she tried to dash out so she wouldn’t have to come in, but Auntie Betty caught her by the wrist.

“It’s too dark for you to go out there by yourself,” she linked her fingers in hers. She tied her robe around her waist, leaned down for her slippers, and held her hand as they walked down the driveway. Her mother had stepped out of the car by then but stopped in front of her bumper when she saw them.

“Get in,” she motioned to Octavia without kissing her, and the girl ran to the passenger side. If she had to rate her mother’s mood tonight she’d give it 1 out of 4 stars. She closed the door but she could still hear the sisters from inside the car. She breathed in her mother’s smell, a mix of oranges and cinnamon, and drummed her fingers against the window.

“Now you know you should have called,” she heard Aunt Betty say.

“Oh, I’m sorry, B. But what is it they say? It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, right?” Her mother was smirking now. Teasing Betty had put her in a better mood.

“You and those sayings,” Aunt Betty shook her head but she smiled. “Not a one of them makes a bit of sense.”

“Tell that to my clients,” her mother cracked, and Betty laughed her wild laugh, pointy and shrill in the night air.

“You think you too much, huh Sybil? You really do. But you ain’t all that much you know that.”

“You know you love me, B,” her mother called out as she opened the car door.

Her face fell when she got in though, and as they drove off, Octavia could feel her tensing up to say something.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Octavia cut her off before she could say a word. “You’re doing okay.”

Her mother paused before she spoke, “After this case wraps up, I’m going to find more time to be together, you know that right?”

“If you want,” Octavia could hear herself trail off. She didn’t want to push her, it wasn’t like she had anybody else clamoring at the gate for her time. Her daddy was even more sometimey than her mama and, she didn’t want either of their attention if it came out of guilt.

 

Anyway, she still had Rudy, but if she wanted to be her, she was going to have to practice. At recess, instead of just sitting next to Jason, she asked him to help her run her lines.

He’d been eating Doritos and as he touched her script, the orange cheese stained the white pages.

“Help you?” he scoffed, flipping through as he talked. “You the one know everything. Mrs. West says if I don’t learn my lines by Friday I’m out.”

Octavia remembered that he did always seem lost in rehearsal. He had a tiny part, Twin 1, whose main role was to get upset when he thought Tinker Bell killed Wendy. Still Jason wasn’t the best reader, and his lines came out flat as stale soda. Octavia’s mother was always saying that she learned so much from the students she mentored—what was that line she used, We’ve got to lift as we climb. Maybe Octavia would improve her own lot tutoring Jason. She would certainly try. She walked up to him and yanked the script from his hands.

“You’re not going to have that to fall back on at the performance,” she said the way Mrs. West or her own mother might.

Then, after he went through his part a few times:

“Is that how you’d say it if you really thought Tinker Bell had killed Wendy? I mean think about it, she was like a mother to you, wasn’t she?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d be more upset, I guess.”

“Yes, you would,” she said, “and how would you show the audience you were upset?”

He shrugged again. “Maybe I’d cry?”

“Yes, yes, and what else?”

“Maybe I’d get on my knees to look at Wendy and lay my hand on her chest.”

“Yes,” she shouted. “Yes, you would.” She hadn’t thought of that herself. He got on his knees and she screamed and clapped like Victoria from Auntie Betty’s stories did when Ryan proposed.

The next day at rehearsal, he was a new man, pretending to sob when Wendy landed on the floor in front of him, and Octavia could have sworn there were real live tears in his eyes. He still held his script but he didn’t refer to it as much as before. Afterward they sat in front of the school eating the frozen Icees Mrs. West had given out. It was already 90 degrees even though it was only March, but the snack stopped the sweat from gathering under her white uniform shirt, and she made a game out of catching the dripping juice before it hit the hot sidewalk.

“My brother’s picking me up today,” he said. “He’s in the tenth grade but he got held back one year so he can drive.”

“What about your mama?” she asked.

“She’s at work. What about yours?”

“Work,” she nodded. “She’s a lawyer, you know.”

“I know,” he said. Then he laughed.
“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.”

“Well if nothing’s funny why’d you laugh?”

“Nothing, I was just wondering if that’s why you talk like a white lady. That’s all.”

Octavia wasn’t bothered by the question. She had heard variations of this her whole life.

It was always phrased differently. “Girl you too serious,” Shannon would say, though Octavia was her most relaxed with her cousin. Or her kindergarten teacher, “Octavia sure does have a sophisticated vocabulary.” Lately the kids had taken to pointing it out: “Who you think you is talking all proper?” But Jason didn’t scrunch his face up the way those kids had. He seemed to just be curious.

She repeated something she’d heard her mother say: “You have to be twice as good as them to be seen as half as much.”

“Twice as good as who?” he asked.

Octavia didn’t know. She waved his question away. “My audition’s coming up.”

“There’s another play after this one?”

“Not at school, silly,” she said. “A real one for a real movie. Claudia in Interview with the Vampire.”

“Oh,” he nodded. “I bet you’ll get it.”

“You think so?” she asked. She smiled. Auntie Betty was always saying she looked so pretty when she smiled but for some reason the compliment made her want to do it less.

 “But it’s hard,” she added. “My mother tries out sometimes and she never gets a thing.”

“What about your daddy? He in the movies too?”

“No,” she said. “Nobody would ever let him in a movie.” He was too dark for one, even darker than she was, plus he had never gone with them to auditions.

“Anyway I bet you gonna get it,” Jason repeated.

She looked up at him. There were girls she knew, mostly light skinned ones, who had started “going with” boys this year. She didn’t know what it meant, but if it was sitting here eating Icees with Jason she thought she might consider it.

 

“Who was that boy?” Auntie Betty asked when they drove home a few hours later.

“Nobody, just a friend.”

“Just a friend, huh?” she laughed. “I’m trying to get me one of them kind of friends too. Well go head girl, he’s cute. You think he got an uncle you could introduce me to?”

 

As audition day neared, Octavia poured her heart into Jason. He had memorized all but a few of his lines. Mrs. West had asked him if he wanted to make cheat sheets to match his outfit on stage, but Octavia wouldn’t hear of it.

“You can do it,” she said holding onto his hand behind stage. “I know you can. When we first started two weeks ago, you barely had one line memorized. Now you’ve got close to 8. It’s just two more paragraphs, and they’re baby paragraphs,” she added.
            “I know, but I’m not as smart as you.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “You are, you just haven’t been working at it. Let’s go over it again until we get it right.”

He nodded and looked down at his script, shuffling his feet as he read. Then out of nowhere, he looked up again and pecked Octavia on the cheek.

 

As Octavia’s mother trial ramped up, she saw her less and less. The day before the audition, she still hadn’t told her about it. She planned to that evening, but she picked her up even later than usual. Octavia could hear her walking to the door, humming and jingling her keys, her heels clacking on the pavement.

Auntie Betty opened the door, and Octavia’s mother leaned against the gate, pointing and laughing at her hair rollers like a child.

“Girl it’s 1:00 in the morning,” Auntie Betty screamed. “What you thinking about? This child has school in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she was happier than Octavia had ever seen her—if she had to rank her she’d give her a 4.5—“but we won.” She picked Octavia up and swung her around.

“We won,” she repeated.

Betty lowered her voice. “Congratulations then.” She paused. “Well, at least you could have called. The girl was waiting by the door all this time.”

Octavia’s mother leaned in to kiss her. She smelled funny. “My sweet, sweet girl,” she said and she ran her hands over the top of her head.

Octavia thought about waiting until the morning to ask about the audition, but she decided she had to take advantage of her mother’s good mood.

“Mom, you know your newspapers, the ones with the movie roles?” She could hear her voice shaking.

Her mom shrugged like she didn’t want to be reminded of that tonight. “What about them?” she asked.

“Well, I looked through them for myself,” she paused here, “and I saw one I want to audition for tomorrow.”

Her mother turned to her and smiled. Octavia could see her eyes glistening.

“But you have school tomorrow.”

Octavia had known she would say that so she’d prepared a small speech. “Yeah but think about it, school can wait. This is an important opportunity, and you always say half of life is knowing when you’re on the brink of an important opportunity.”

“I do say that huh?” her mother was still looking at her. Octavia thought she seemed proud and she hadn’t even gotten the part yet.

She nodded. “Alright then, let’s go.”

The next morning though she seemed to have forgotten about the plan. Octavia watched her pop an Advil and rub her eyes. She toasted Waffles and acted like they were going to regular old school. When Octavia reminded her, she groaned.

 “Now what are you talking about little girl?”

“The audition. It was in the paper, Mom. The one you were reading two weeks ago.” She went and got the ad she had folded.

“Remember, you said last night in the car that you would take me?”

Her mom skimmed the paper. “Interview with the who? You sure you want to audition for this baby?” she asked.

“Mom, you said after this case you were going to spend more time with me.” She knew this was her mom’s weak point, but she had to get to that audition.

“Alright, alright,” she said. She sighed. “But give me a minute to get myself together.” 

 

Her mother grumbled the whole way over.

“You’re lucky I was going to take this morning off. Otherwise your little behind would be in school. Maybe you need to be in school anyway.”

Then, “Goddamnit, with all this traffic I’m going to be late for my 1:00. I was supposed to be relaxing this morning, and I’m driving you to God knows where.”

Octavia started to regret the idea, but she reminded herself that it was all going to be worth it in a few hours. When she could tell her mother she was going to be Claudia, when she could tell Jason. She hadn’t seen him since he kissed her, but she’d decided that she would say yes when he asked her to be his girlfriend; it was only a matter of time now.

The audition was held in the Benson Center, a skyscraper in downtown New Orleans. Octavia and her mother took the elevator to the 12th floor and Octavia’s stomach tightened as she walked into the hallway, but she looked at her mother dressed in her suit jacket and blouse, hair curled from the hot rollers, and she told herself she could do anything.

There was already a line of girls waiting outside the room. She hadn’t been around a lot of white people before but this room was full of them, blondes specifically. She was nervous enough to get right back in her mother’s car, say she was right, this was all a waste of time, but she told herself being black might make her stand out. Some of the girls chatted with each other, some bit their nails, a few seemed close to tears, but Octavia just walked over to the window. From where she stood she could see the Superdome.

A woman holding a clipboard called the girls into a big empty room. Two men stood against the wall. One had a moustache and held a notebook and the other just stood with his arms folded. The moustache asked the girls to form two lines then pick the girl standing across from them as their partner.

“Now I want you to look at this girl,” he went on once they were done choosing, “with absolute malice.”

Octavia looked at her partner. She was pretty in the way the girls at school whose moms didn’t work were.

“Assume she took your boyfriend, then she told everyone at school about it,” the moustache said. “I mean, you hate her, you despise her. Get really creative. What would you say to your worst enemy?”

Octavia thought about this girl dating Jason and giggled. Her partner giggled too.

“Give it all you got,” the moustache went on. “Better yet, she took your last chance at this part, and you’re going to really give it to her.”

Octavia’s face steeled up once he mentioned the role. She didn’t think she’d been angry before, but there was an emotion she felt some nights waiting at Auntie Betty’s door, and she screamed like she was talking to her mother’s red Celica or the sound of her keys jingling.

She knew the part was hers before she finished. The moustache told the girls they’d call by the end of the week, and she thought he looked at her while he said it. She ran to meet her mother in the hallway. She was going to tell her how well she did, but she decided to wait until they were outside. She didn’t want to embarrass the other girls.

Her mother started talking when they got into the car. “Octavia, you didn’t tell me the name of that movie was ‘Interview with the Vampire.”

“Yes I did.

“Oh, well if you did, then I don’t remember.” She started the car but didn’t go anywhere.

Octavia waited for her to speak and when she didn’t, she started. “So what, did you hear of it or something?”

Her mother sighed. She seemed sad all of a sudden. “No, but it’s a book you know, and I read a summary while I was waiting.” She shook her head.

She paused like she was trying to decide whether or not to say something. Octavia wished she would. Her mother took her hand.

“You know why you were the only black girl in that room?” she asked.

Octavia shrugged.

“Because that part calls for a white girl. The book takes place in the 1800’s. The only blacks in that movie are going to be slaves.” She paused then like she was waiting for Octavia to say something but Octavia just looked out the window.

Her mother patted her leg then started the drive to school.

“Don’t worry though, baby.” She alternated her eyes between traffic and Octavia as she drove. “I bet if you had been white they would have given it to you.” She repeated variations of this the whole ride back.

Then she pulled up to the curb of the school. Octavia still hadn’t said a word.

 “We get another listing tomorrow. We can check out the auditions then,” her mother added.

“Anyway, I might be a little late for your play after all this,” she waved her hand meaning the whole audition, “but I’ll definitely catch the end.”

Octavia nodded.

The kids were at recess, and Jason ran up to her as she walked outside.

“I did it, Tavi,” he said. “I did it. I memorized all the lines.”

“That’s nice,” she said. She walked past him and sat by the brick wall next to the tether ball, waiting for the bell to ring.

He followed her.

“No, really. I thought I couldn’t do it, but I told myself you believed in me and I stayed up ‘til midnight with my mom, going over them and over them.”

Octavia smirked. “It was only a few lines,” she said.

Jason backed up and sat on the curb beside her. They sat there the whole time just like they had before she found out about the audition, in silence.

He tried to talk to her again as they prepped for opening night, but she ignored him. It wasn’t that she wasn’t proud of him, but she couldn’t believe how stupid she had been, how she could have thought she would get a role like Claudia. And it was impossible to be with Jason the way she had, feeling the way she did now.

 

2/3 of the way through the play, when Octavia was on stage for the fifth time, her mother walked in. Like always, her purse flapped against her hip, and her heels clacked against the cafeteria’s linoleum floors. Octavia suddenly became conscious of herself speaking, but she didn’t stammer. She looked straight ahead and it might have looked as if she was talking to her mother, but in her mind she was talking to no one at all.

At the curtain call, she came out last. The audience roared for her, especially Auntie Betty and Shannon who had made signs and brought noise makers. Octavia could see her mother cringing beside her sister at the spectacle she was making. Octavia thought in another world she might have been embarrassed too. She might have run to her mother first to let her know she was on her side, but as it was, she curtsied the way Auntie Betty had taught her, and walked straight toward the sign without stopping. She let her aunt pick her up and swing her around. Tavi, Tavi, Tavi, she shouted. Octavia didn’t look at her mother, not once.

“You did so great,” her mother pressed her into her body. She could feel her pride shining through her suit. And Octavia believed her. She believed the applause and the smiles and the overheard praise. If she could have ranked her own performance, she would have given it 5 stars, but it still didn’t feel like enough.