Cassidy Crook Plays the Villain

Fourth runner-up in the 2022 Great American Fiction Contest: What dark magic did this high school senior have that compelled them to watch her every move?

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Cassidy Crook probably doesn’t remember me, but I remember her. Each year, as summer slid to a halt on rusty wheels, auditions for the musical would commence, calling back sun-soaked thespians to the vacant halls of school to vie for a spot at the top of the cast list. Sophomores bloomed into juniors; hale, thick-haired seniors trotted out tales of their college visits; and just like that, we all took our new places in the unspoken theatrical hierarchy.

That first day of auditions always glittered with possibility. Maybe this would be the year Amy Blumenthal would nab a speaking role. Maybe Brock Robertson would unseat Jack Williams for the male lead. Or, perhaps, things would stay just as they were, because, after all, there was Cassidy Crook, descending the staircase with a canvas bag and an easy laugh. With a wink and a smile, the Cheshire cat herself made her dramatic reappearance into the lives of browbeaten techies and lowly costume designers like me, plebes who could only hope she’d need a button sewn back on or a coat of mascara reapplied, just a few minutes in which she might remark upon our earrings or, better yet, laugh at our lovingly rehearsed jokes.

While Ms. Whitman passed out scripts, juniors and seniors shared triumphant post-summer hugs, big boasting embraces that lacked any hint of embarrassment. Some people, I noticed, even gave each other little pats on the rear. Fascinating! They tickled each other into peals of laughter; I preferred not to be touched.

Miles across the auditorium, we of the younger crowd chattered aimlessly about our June-July-Augusts working at frozen yogurt shops or cleaning out grandparents’ attics, but, chancing furtive glances turned toward the elders, what we really wanted to know was what the hell Cassidy Crook had done all summer. Had she tap danced at some weathered community theater in Cookeville? Waited tables at some trendy brunch venue out in East Nashville? Painted pottery with some aunt in Santa Fe? If you lingered close enough to her circle, you might catch a clue. “A few shows here and there.” But which? And where? We longed to know from what sources her allure flowed, for wherever she’d been all summer, she inevitably came back cooler and more captivating than she’d been in May.

“Did Cassidy get bangs?” my best friend, Nan, would whisper from beneath a decades-old Anything Goes poster, those sailor-suited students long gone and probably unhappy by now.

“Maybe just a haircut?” I’d wager.

“Whatever it is, she looks good.”

Indeed, she did. Cassidy Crook wore her coveted Westfield Thespian hoodie the way a quarterback might wear a letterman jacket: all talent and, somehow, all ease. She was lean and tall like an already-Oscared actress. Then again, that may just be a trick of memory, her legacy ballooning up to create an extra three or four inches of height. Tall or not, she waltzed into play practices like she owned the Frank Hernandez Memorial Theater, somehow managing to make playful overalls this season’s couture. She was perfect, even rumored to have perfect pitch.

As I hemmed dresses and Nan practiced her scales, we theorized about everything from her hairdresser to her love life. Why not ask? Plenty of set-building Saturdays and dress rehearsals to pop these questions, but, alas, two years her junior, we were too afraid to ask for her nail polish color, much less her lovers’ names.

“Don’t you hate being a freshman?” one of the light booth techies would later lament at the cast party.

These parties were always the same. The leads would tangle up on couches for raucous games of Uno and semi-fictional retellings of dressing room kisses; meanwhile, a string of girls still dressed in the required black of backstage would nod solemnly as they pawed at the communal bowl of Cheetos and waited for the next two years to go by. I always wound up talking to the host’s mother.

“Thanks so much for having us.”

“Oh, it’s my pleasure. You kids were phenomenal. Remind me, what was your role?”

“I did the costumes.”

“Wonderful,” the mother would say, not caring in the least.

“What happens at the cast party stays at the cast party,” someone confident would cackle from the next room.

I remember wondering, between the root beer floats and lukewarm games of “Never Have I Ever,” what on earth could possibly happen at this party that would be worth keeping secret. Worse, I worried that something was already happening and that I, in my ill-fitting jeans and matronly pink cardigan, was simply missing out on it. Cassidy Crook could be spinning the bottle this very minute and I would never know.

“If you’ll excuse me,” I’d say to the mother.

“So nice to see you, uh, Jennifer,” she’d respond idly.

Jane, I could have said. My name is Jane. But she was gone before I could correct her.

“Can we go to your house?” I’d turn and ask Nan, who might be leaning toward the senior conversation on an armrest or, just as likely, checking her phone in the stairwell.

“Sure. I think we have some peppermint ice cream left in the freezer.”

As we waited for Nan’s dad to pick us up, I’d scan the house for answers. Whose tap shoes curtseyed by the front door? Who felt comfortable here? Who in their right mind had jumped into the pool in only a sports bra and shorts, and how, oh how, could I become that girl?

* * *

Cinderella was the show that year, and hopes ran rampant. The usual two leads were doubled, tripled, with colorful speaking parts to go around. Sopranos stretched out their taffy sweet voices — mommy made me mash my M&M’s in higher and higher octaves until the local dogs barked — and altos brooded in corners, but Cassidy Crook looked on with ease. She must have known what would happen, for it always happened. No matter the show, no matter the competition, Molly Baxter played the hero and Cassidy Crook played the villain.

We had to wonder whether her last name played a part in her perpetual casting, like the college counselor, Alma Matter, who’d never really left the school since she started there in the fifth grade. Had Crook shaped Cassidy over the years? Was it fate? Or had the equally talented Molly Baxter simply seemed purer, pluckier with her golden hair and lively blue eyes, a Cinderella if you ever saw one?

Maybe the dark magic of her walk that compelled us to watch her had also compelled the director to continually cast her in the position of wickedness. Cassidy Crook, if anyone, could sell it. Still, I often questioned whether she resented her role as the perennial villain. The hero would be listed first in the program — it’s Cinderella after all, not Evil Step-Mother — which meant a great deal to attention-starved teenagers of our ilk. Then again, I never caught her crying between the racks of the costume shop, never heard an impassioned call to her mother. Cassidy Crook must have known that if she played it right, the villain might be the one the teachers remembered as they drove their Hondas home to sweatered husbands, the one that left them shuddering as they passed a dead possum on the road and recalled a particularly sinister high note she’d hit. She wouldn’t disappear into the cast lists of yesteryear. No, Cassidy Crook had the ability to haunt.

And haunt us she did. With her haircuts, her backstage jokes, even her decision to leave the South and head to college in California. Each left an ethereal print on our own haircuts, jokes, and collegiate aspirations. Still, much as we tried the channels of rumor and eavesdropping, Nan and I never learned much more about her. Soon enough she had graduated and we were the ones prancing into auditions with a summered kind of confidence. Nan could dance, I could sew, and we could both spin stories to votive underclassmen as we painted sets on dusty Saturday afternoons. I like to think osmosis was responsible for this, but surely it had more to do with the dumb luck of growing up, of shaking off the fear of being hugged and jumping, untethered, into someone’s pool.

In the end, Cassidy Crook only ever left us one clue as to who she was and what she believed. After Cinderella closed, after parents had bestowed bouquets or — it would never be forgotten — missed the performance altogether, we all, cast and crew, sat down to write notes on the back of each other’s programs. The ritual held great hope. Perhaps a crush would be revealed, a talent observed. We were sure to receive kind words from our friends — I’m so glad we got to do this show together! or You’re the best! — and I even got a few quips about the bedazzler gun I wielded in order to make Cinderella’s dress glisten, but that year, by some stroke of fate, Cassidy Crook left a note for Nan: When you finally get to love somebody, it’s gonna be May.

This was, first and foremost, a play on Nan’s last name, May. We thespians had already covered the pun via Camelot, more specifically Julie Andrews’ song, “The Lusty Month of May,” but Cassidy Crook’s words seemed more than just a pun. They seemed like a prophesy. We who longed for the attention of someone, anyone, suspected Cassidy Crook might know things about love we didn’t. Might know its light, its breezy ease, its flowers. We promised ourselves that when we finally got to love somebody, we would settle for nothing less than May, if only to prove our villain right. We read the quote over and over in the years to follow. In a time when we felt small and frizzy haired, she, the Magic 8 Ball of coolness, of levity, of romance, gave us hope that things would get better.

Years later we learned what she had really meant. These words, auspiciously inked into Nan’s program, were not a prophesy, but, in fact, lyrics from the *NSYNC song “It’s Gonna Be Me.” We couldn’t believe the gospel we had so trusted was merely a joke. It’s not even a love song. Technically it’s a song about learning to trust again. *NSYNC promises the woman in question that even though she’s been hurt before, when she lets her guard down she will fall in love with him. Or them? All of them? Who knows? We were struck with the realization that perhaps Cassidy Crook had never taken anything as seriously as we took her. Perhaps she was just a kid, like us, who had spent her time milling about a high school theater without much of a plan for what came next. Maybe she didn’t care what role she played, but was simply happy to be there, tap dancing through years and programs, her best friends alongside her. We couldn’t have known because we never dared to ask. Instead, with nothing to go on but our own insecurities, we made her up entirely.

Nan and I don’t think about Cassidy Crook all that much anymore. We haven’t spoken about her in years. Haven’t even looked her up to see if she’s still acting. What we have done is made something of ourselves in the years that have passed. We have fallen in love. We have fallen out. We have all but lost interest in filling roles at the top of life’s cast list just for the clout of it.

Besides, I once heard that in order to grow up we must learn to let go of our heroes. I suppose the same can be said for our villains.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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