Michael Chang Sr. did not understand what he had to do to get through to his son.
Every three weeks or so, since the start of the fall, he had made his position quite clear to the boy: Dancing was a diversion. It and the girlfriend—what was her name? The one that only talked when the plot required her to? It was on the tip of his tongue—would have to go. Michael Chang Jr. would reply, “But father, I love dancing!” The mother would get in the middle of things. She was always getting in the—Tina, that was it… lovely, irritating little Tina—middle of things.
He straightened his tie. His son was going to be quite pleased today. For Michael Chang Sr. prompted by a visit from Tina, was going to go and watch his son perform. And by God, if that performance was any good, Michael Chang Sr. was going to stand up, tears in his eyes, and offer his son a delayed clap of gratitude. And by God, if anything could move him to the delayed clap of gratitude, well, it was good enough for him to push forward, to say, “Well done, son. Now, you can go to dance schools.” And then, of course, he would be too late for the deadlines, but his girlfriend—seriously, she used to have a stutter she was imagining or something and she used to date the really good dancer, the one in the wheelchair—would have applied for him and forged his signature. Victory for the Changs! Victory in our time! It was all too bad that his family had forgotten his 1989 French Open trophy, but sacrifices had to be made. Tennis had to be set aside so Michael Chang Jr. would be able to go to dance school.
He had never actually been to a sectionals, but he heard from the other parents that the weeks involving these competitions were often the best ones. “Oh,” said one of Rachel Berry’s fathers, “the weeks they have competitions, there’s usually the requisite amount of bullshit drama, but they also tend to give a lot of time over to singing and dancing.”
The other Mr. Berry leaned over, nodding. “Yes. We all know the singing and dancing is the only thing that works consistently anymore. So it’s always nice to have a week where we can focus on that for a little while.”
“I sometimes feel,” Michael Chang Sr. began, “as if I’m trapped in the middle of a plot that won’t release me, a story that keeps repeating itself in endless iterations. I tell my son he cannot dance. He says he is going to dance. I curse his petulance. And yet I feel myself softening, as if stuck in the grip of a giant formula machine that is forcing me to be less of a character than someone who only does what horrifying puppet masters tell me to do. I know if I go to this sectionals you speak of, I will come to realize my son is such a good dancer that I will immediately abandon all of my hopes for him and take up new ones. I can feel that this will happen, and that it will be dramatically unsatisfying. But I feel the need to slow clap, and I don’t know how else to get that out of my system.”
“You feel as if you don’t want to do these things, yet you know you’re going to?” asked Mr. Berry #1. Michael Chang Sr. nodded, looking down at his weathered hands, hands grown hard and rough from years of supporting his family. “Well,” continued Mr. Berry #1, “our daughter complains about that all of the time. Just a few weeks ago, she was suspended from school because she was the only one who could make sure that another one of her friends had some extracurriculars to put on his college applications. Now, she’s the only one who can help fill the crippling black hole of depression at the center of that Quinn Fabray girl’s heart.”
Michael Chang Sr., who had some experience with disappointment and anomie from his years of slaving away, his racket in the corner gathering dust, nodded toward the first Mr. Berry. “Well, it’s always a nice gesture to help out a friend in trouble. Does she have an idea for how she might help Quinn? Will she be recommending therapy or medication? If the writers… ” Everybody froze and looked at him. He carefully waved them back down. “Sorry, sorry. If everyone plays their cards right, there could be a really nice… few weeks… of strong, dramatic material to play here, particularly given how under-served Diann… Quinn has been in the past. We might even be talking an Emm… Ohio student-theatre award nomination.”
Mr. Berry #2 shook his head. “Oh, Rachel’s just going to be really nice to her. We think that will take care of it. It’ll probably clear up all of those remaining and unresolved issues from her pregnancy, and we’ll bet she has her eyes set on a really good college, one of those East Coast schools, once this is all done. Yale or Harvard or something.”
Michael Chang Sr., who could feel the creeping sense of his need to slow clap, the vague unease that came from the sense that he was only doing so to close off a plot thread as neatly as possible, sighed in frustration. “It’s almost as if someone somewhere… ” (There was a tense moment as all hoped he wouldn’t acknowledge the reality of the prison they lived in. He steadied his voice, repeating himself.) “It’s almost as if someone somewhere… was pulling the strings to make sure that no plots carried over in any way from before, as if they wanted neat and tidy resolutions to problems that were simply too complicated to wrap up in an hour’s worth of… a week’s worth of school time. It’s as if we’re all stepping up to an abyss filled with feelings and grief we can’t even name, much less acknowledge, then backing away and forcing ourselves into untenable positions, just to move on to something else. It’s as if we were all living out short-form dramatic arcs on a television comedy-drama that weren’t horribly well plotted.”
“I hear the kids are performing Michael Jackson songs,” said Mr. Berry #1, clearly uncomfortable with the tenor of Michael Chang Sr.’s current topic of conversation.
“That should be fun. And when they get around to ‘Man In The Mirror,’ we’ll all stand,” said Mr. Berry #2, “even if it’s not particularly good.”
“Why on Earth would you do that?” asked Michael Chang Sr.
Mr. Berry #2 shrugged. “They’re the protagonists. It’s what we do.”
All around him, Michael Chang Sr. could see the signs that things no longer made very much sense. Just a week ago, the cheerleader, Santana, had been forcibly outed by a pizza parlor owner—something Michael Chang Sr., struggled to make sense of—but now, she was seemingly just fine, back to her old self. He supposed that was all right. She was a teenager, and teenagers are emotionally wobbly, prone to changing their moods at the drop of a hat. Plus, she was resilient, and he could understand how she might be able to overcome the rejection of her grandmother, thanks to the strength she gained from her friends. It would be sort of fun to have her back, insulting Sam Evans—“CHORD OVERSTREET!” insisted a friendly voice from the sky—about his trout-y mouth. And, indeed, it was.
But the Santana crisis had been the thing Mike Chang Sr. was most interested in, at least of the things that he heard third-hand from his wife, who heard them from Mike Chang Jr. who heard them from the kids at school. He had been looking forward to seeing how she showed strength in the midst of struggle, but he supposed he would have to wait a few weeks for that, since Christmas was just around the corner, and everybody knew Christmas was no time for poorly deployed considerations of sexual identity issues. Last week had been such a bad week for the character—just in terms of stepping up and grabbing hold of her own agency (Michael Chang Sr. in his private moments, thought like a screenwriting how-to book you might buy at Barnes & Noble, where Sue Sylvester increasingly spent her time singing)—that he’d hoped she might get another go of it. Ah well and alas.
He was more concerned by the other news he was hearing third-hand. Somehow, Finn and Blaine had wandered into a grudge match in the most preposterous fashion possible—he’d heard rumors of this in the past few weeks, but they’d been confined to the deep background, so he’d paid them no real notice—and now the two had different ideas for how to save the glee club. Finn wanted to recruit former member Sam Evans—“CHORD OVERSTREET!”—because he had “star quality,” something Michael Chang Sr. didn’t think would become true if people kept insisting on it. Blaine wanted the glee club to spin more often, and Michael Chang Sr. thought, of the two options, that was the more plausible path to victory. This all exploded in a fight, he heard, but it was one that ended almost as quickly as it began. At least his son’s friends were learning more about effective conflict management.
He stopped by the town tennis courts, now covered in autumn leaves. He stood and listened for a moment, their skittering haunting his thoughts, a dim echo of his sneakers dashing across the clay of Roland Garros. He clutched the chain link fence and took another bite of his sandwich. It had been an unusually quiet lunch break. The sectionals were this afternoon. He had a decision to make.
It struck him as somewhat unlikely that CHORD… Sam would be a male stripper, particularly when he believed the boy to be 16 or 17 years old, but he supposed it was no less believable than Rachel being completely unfazed when she found out that her former boyfriend Puck was sleeping with her biological mother, this news imparted to her via the biological mother of Rachel’s biological mother’s adopted daughter (Puck being the biological father of said adopted daughter—it wasn’t so complicated if you had a good network of spies and a flowchart program, as Michael Chang Sr. did). But even more unlikely to him was the idea that the glee club would simply bring in a ringer out of nowhere, particularly one whose income was vital to his family keeping its fledgling economic recovery on its feet. But, no. After the potentially interesting conflict of Sam—“CHORD OVERSTREET!”—being unable to go because his family would never let him, his family had simply checked its watch to see that there wasn’t enough time for a drawn-out storyline and let him go. It was quite a waste of those old Duke boys, Michael Chang Sr. thought.
He began his walk to the school. Puttering past him in a terrible car was Will Schuester, the glee club director, Spanish teacher, and political mastermind who’d put an unqualified mechanic in Congress simply through sheer force of optimism. He kind of hated Will Schuester, but he had to admit the guy got results. You’d think that never working on any of the songs the club was going to perform at sectionals beforehand would eventually result in disaster, but Will had the unique ability to realize that modern network economics require alternate revenue streams, and that required lots and lots of new songs every week, the better to get kids to buy them.
Sometimes, Michael Chang Sr. thought Will Schuester was the only one who knew what was going on.
Will Schuester was also dancing in place in the drivers seat to Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” as he drove by Michael Chang Sr. You could forgive him for believing his world was doomed.
He sat in the audience for sectionals, having arrived slightly late. Well, that wasn’t true. He’d been lurking in the back of the auditorium for the first two groups—both of which he could only seem to recall one number from but both of which he found quite enjoyable, even if the first group seemed to consist solely of one girl singing everything and then a bunch of guys shuttling her around haphazardly—but he’d felt the need to make a dramatic entrance, one that would just about screw up his son’s performance in the middle of “ABC,” that immortal Jackson 5 classic, performed with appropriate bounciness by the New Directions crew.
The Fathers Berry weren’t here. This was unfortunate, to be sure, as he’d hoped to discuss these issues with them, but, he supposed, it made sense that they wouldn’t be there if their daughter wasn’t performing. (He would not quibble with the fact that it seemed like a way to artificially heighten drama for yet another sectionals competition, after the club had gone through essentially every permutation of a competition finish—win, lose, and draw—but, then, he’d never thought Rachel at all the group’s best singer.) Still, it was curious. The Fathers Berry would always hang around with the parents, then never turn up anywhere else. He found it odd.
He enjoyed the Trouble Tones. He liked the way that the performances occasionally seemed to let the kids get rid of their emotions for a while. He liked seeing the abandon on Santana’s face as she found a place where she could let her emotions run free and let go of the angst she’d been carrying around. He also didn’t mind the Unitards, though he thought the lead singing girl seemed as if she was someone he was supposed to like far more than he did. Maybe he’d get it in season four.
He had to stop having such thoughts.
“ABC” was over. He had to admit that it was a vastly enjoyable little number, even if it seemed like “singing well” was increasingly replaced by “singing loudly.” (He didn’t attend competitions, but he did buy the group’s singles on iTunes. He wasn’t made of stone.) He wasn’t quite sure how the Irish kid was supposed to fit into everything. He acted almost exactly like someone who won a contest and then had no idea what to do next, and he seemed to be tossed back and forth at random. At least the singing girl from earlier—who also behaved suspiciously like someone who realized they didn’t quite belong here—had the self-confidence to bullshit her way through everything. Gosh, he liked Evita.
It was time for “Man In The Mirror.” It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. It was another number, another number after innumerable thousands. Still, it featured his son, and his son… he was proud of his son. Dammit, he could feel the strings tugging at him, willing him to stand for a number he wasn’t all that impressed by. It certainly hadn’t been the best week in Lima, Ohio, but it wasn’t as if it had been the worst either. The songs had been good. The feeling that everything was just being reversed to get the drama out of the way—it was so clear to him now that the split between the glee clubs would simply end out of nowhere, with some sort of compromise—had given him pause, but he’d enjoyed some of the preposterousness of it, and he’d laughed when Finn said, “I didn’t know Backdraft was a musical.” (He was there in the strip club. He was always there.) Why did the kids perform that song about the red cup when CHORD OVERSTREET! came back? He might never know. But there was something about this moment, about this medley, that still got to him.
Deep down, he felt as if he finally saw the deep mysteries. He felt on some level insulted that he would have to stand and clap. He felt as if it was… not a betrayal of who he was, exactly, but something cheap and unearned, something that arrived just to make sure this story was done and another could begin. He longed for a world where it seemed as if people existed even when they weren’t in contact with one of these kids. He longed for an end to the terrifying reign of Will Schuester. He longed for more weeks with no Sue Sylvester, because even though this week had been lackluster, her absence certainly hadn’t hurt.
Most of all, he longed to sit and clap politely, to not be a slave to the machine of the plot machinations. Most of all, he longed for something beyond what he’d been given to do, even though he knew this would probably be it. Most of all, he longed that when he opened the auditorium doors and walked out into the autumn sun, he wouldn’t simply cease to exist. He had so many dreams and so many regrets, but like the kids sang at the end, he was no longer young. There was less and less time for him. (And, if he was being honest, that theme had been pretty well-developed.) His eyes grew teary. He didn’t know if it was the kids’ singing or his realizations or the fact that he and Mike might find their way through this tangle after all.
And he stood and he smiled and he clapped.
(Here’s a bonus Will Schuester image for you Will fanatics. (And I know you’re out there!))