Excerpt

Honey

Isabel Banta

June 24, 2024 
The following is from Isabel Banta's debut novel Honey. Banta is a writer, book publicist, and indie bookseller based in Brooklyn. She graduated from the University of Virginia.

A week later, I am watching Daria, a new show on MTV. My mom walks in front of the television, scowling at the cartoon. “I hate this crap,” she says. “Someone on the phone for you.”

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I jump up and race over to the landline.

Before I press the phone to my ear, I close my eyes and take a breath. I tell myself it could be anyone—Lindsey, Rachel, a telemarketer. But my heart is an insistent fist pounding on a door.

“Hello?” I breathe.

“This Amber Young?” The voice on the other end has a Long Island accent and is midchew.

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“Yes, this is she.”

“It’s Sandy Anderson from Anderson Management. Honey, I’ve got to tell you, this is the best tape I’ve listened to in a long time.”

“Really?”

He laughs. “Don’t bullshit me with that false humility, hon. You know you can sing.”

“Loads of people can sing.” I am not bullshitting him, not even close. Many people have talent like mine. The tragedy is wasting it.

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Sonny then says my tape is in the hands of an A&R representative at Siren. Artists and Repertoire, he clarifies. These are the people in the music business who weave careers together. They scout the artists, choose the songwriters and producers, craft the albums.

“He’s looking for the last member of a girl group. He’ll need a demo tape of the four of you.”

“But I don’t have a demo tape.”

“Well, you’ll go to New York to audition for the label first. You’ll record one there.”

“Today?” “Next week.”

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“I have school.”

Sonny laughs. “What’s school for if you want to sing? Are you going to ace choir?” And the line goes dead.

*

Early morning. I’m woken by a crash from the kitchen. It’s my mom, collapsed on the floor. Her taupe lipstick is smeared across her face. There’s an open cut on her forehead. A wine bottle leans reverently against the back of the couch, which divides our tiny kitchen from the living room.

We are alone now—Greg is in Arizona, the lizard is dead, and she has no one left but me. I pour the wine down the sink. I lean over her and rub antibiotic ointment over her cut, then tuck her into bed on her side so she won’t choke on her own vomit. As I close the door, I tell her I love her, even though I know she can’t hear me. The apartment makes its sounds: the radiator mumbles; the floorboards creak under my feet. I try to fall asleep again, because this is just another day, and my mom will sober up and brighten, like the light gathering strength underneath my blinds.

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Later that morning, I laze in our bathtub, running my hands through the lukewarm water. I’m supposed to get on the train in thirty minutes for the audition. The futures before me: senior year with Lindsey and Rachel, or the possibility of a different life. A life that holds a charge. My mom wants me to think practically—to consider college, a career—and chasing your own talent to its conclusion is anything but practical. It’s a kind of relentless insanity. It’s believing in something higher and unknowable—a god—while everyone around you is shaking their heads in confusion. “I just don’t see it,” they say, again and again, until you wonder if you are deluded in your fanaticism. Am I deluded?

I submerge myself. The water zips shut. Now, I think, some path will clear for me. But I don’t consider how to cut down a forest, what I need to slash and burn.

I want this moment—the before—to stretch on forever. Now. No, now. My head breaks the surface.

*

In a glass room, a dozen silver-haired men sit at a cold table and watch me sing. They have hungry eyes. These men want another song, so I clear my throat and sing something else a cappella. My voice is the only sound in the room other than the clicking of pens, the shuffling of papers, my own needy, insistent pulse. Sonny taps his fingertips against his knee. My mom’s lips are a thin line, and her purse has tipped over, the contents scattered on the floor. At first, I am conscious of my pitch, the slight crack in my voice on a belt. One man winces slightly. Then I rein in my voice, corralling it, and I can tell they like this better. Their approval is a guidepost, and they clearly want me to contain myself. Fine. In their eyes, I can see myself reflected: someone elastic, someone they can press on.

Outside, skyscrapers like stalagmites are spread across the horizon. This is the nicest building I have ever been inside, and I know I’m shaking. The building is, too: this high up, we are swaying and groaning in the wind.

After I finish, I dig my nails into my palms.

“Let’s get her in a room with the other girls,” the head of the label says. His eyebrows are much lighter than his hair. “We’ll put her up in a hotel, and tomorrow we’ll see.”

I glance at Sonny. Does this mean no school tomorrow? There’s a history final I haven’t studied for. Rachel was going to lend me her notes. But the label head is purposefully vague. No promises, of course. Don’t get your hopes up. He pushes a smile onto his face and asks what grade I’m in. He has a daughter, he says, just about my age.

After small talk lobbied back and forth, one of the younger men ushers us from the room. “I’m Simon,” he says, shaking our hands. He has a thin face and rheumy eyes, the look of someone who never calls in sick but should. “I’m the A&R rep who saw your tape.”

“So why did you pick her?” my mom asks. She hasn’t had time to put her things back in her purse, so she shoves it all in as we walk.

Simon slows to accommodate her, wrongly assuming she is the stage parent he needs to impress, the battery powering all my ambition. “I was listening to so many tapes, from managers and agents and what have you,” he says. The elevator dings; we step inside. My stomach flips with the swiftness of the drop. “This guy—” And he claps his hand on Sonny’s shoulder. “He sent Amber’s in and I just—well, the girl she’d be replacing couldn’t even hit some of those notes.”

“Why did this girl drop out?” I ask. I can’t picture anyone not wanting this the way I do.

“She was a bit difficult, and she had a problem being part of a group.” He says this very quickly, hardly pausing for breath. Then he smiles at me, because he senses what all the other men in that room have already sniffed out: I’m the opposite. I will do anything, whatever they want me to do, and that’s why I’m perfect.

We weave through rows of cubicles to another set of elevators. He says, “We’ll have you back here tomorrow. My assistant will take care of everything. Leslie, can you come here?” He waves a girl over from her desk. “Leslie can help you. The thing is, we’re trying to rush this, Ms. Young, to be completely frank with you. We need to be on top of trends, you know? The kids want to see groups. They want different characters they can identify with. And I think they’ll aspire to be just like your daughter.”

“Who will?” my mom asks. Simon smiles. “Other girls.”

*

When I lie in the hotel bed that night, I toss and turn because of the pressure of my heart against my pillow. Bugs crawling through my body, the labor of my breath. My mom’s luxurious snores from the bed beside mine. Outside, an urban cacophony—sirens, shouts, honks, a peal of laughter. Layer upon layer of sound, rising and collapsing, and it sounds just like voices.

I meet Gwen Morris for the first time in the recording studio bathroom. There is a sudden bang, then the door opens and swings on its hinge. Flip-flops against the tiles. A tap turning and water spurting out of the sink. Through the slit in the stall, I see her for the first time, but only in fragments. A slice of pale thigh, strands of dark hair.

Staring at her reflection, she bends over and smacks her lips. Then she tugs on her eyelashes and starts pulling out clumps of mascara, rubbing the black goo on the sink’s edge. Her lips part in concentration, and a pink tongue flickers inside her mouth.

I make a sound and her eyes jump to my stall. I startle, quickly wipe and flush, then shimmy my underwear up my thighs and unlock the door.

“Sorry,” I murmur. I don’t know what else to say to her. She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. Her face is a golden ratio. She has no sunspots or freckles, just a dark mole above her left eyebrow. Her eyes are resort-water blue, and she has thin, Linda Evangelista limbs. As I pump soap out of the dispenser, I stand on my tiptoes to lengthen my reflection beside hers. My beauty takes more convincing than hers does. All my features are larger.

“Hi,” she says, a little reluctantly. “I’m Gwen.”

I introduce myself.

“Pretty name,” she says. “I’ve always wanted a name like that.”

“Um, no, you don’t. It sounds like a stripper’s name.”

“Let’s see how you dance, then.” When she smiles at me, I notice her teeth are covered in streaks of plaque. An imperfection. It soothes me somewhat.

In the vocal booth, the four of us are lined up in front of music stands. Gwen Morris, Claudia Jeong, Rhiannon Walsh, me. The producers and Simon sit behind the mixing board in the control room, arms crossed over their chests. Only Gwen doesn’t show her nerves. The rest of us fidget and pick at ourselves.

“Let’s just sing something you all know,” says Simon. “The national anthem. Let’s just see how it sounds. Okay? Great.” He claps his hands together.

Before we begin, before it all begins, Rhiannon leans over to whisper in my ear: “They expect us to know the words to the fucking national anthem?”

I swallow a laugh. We suck air into our lungs. Our voices are tentative at first, then full. Rhiannon hums most of the words, while the rest of us grasp at lyrics. When we’ve hit the final note, the four of us look at one another and begin to laugh. I think we are all eager to be a part of something. Until this moment, we were alone as the world began to look at us differently, catching another glance over its shoulder.

“We’ve got something here,” Simon says, clapping. “We’ve got something. Again, girls. Let’s go again.”

__________________________________

From Honey by Isabel Banta. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.




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