My Dear and Esteemed Readers – I want to introduce myself by saying a few things for the record that will, hopefully give you a sense of who I am.
For those who don’t know me, I’ll start with the fact that I’m a blond, white woman. (Yes, yes bottled … very bottled).
I have two toddlers, one of whom has an extra 21st chromosome. The toddlers are also blonde (unbottled). You should know that I live in Utah but that no, I am not a Mormon. There’s much to say on that subject, but not today.
And lastly, I think it’s important for you to know that I suck at singing. I mean it. I really, really suck.
So, when Blogger Eli Pacheco and I hatched the Beautifully Awkward Project, I kind of figured that if I was going to push myself out of my comfort zone, it would likely involve singing. Our whole idea, brought forth out of no duress or excess of alcohol, was to do just that: step intentionally outside our zones of comfort and then ask the simple question: What can I offer?
It seemed so easy in theory.
The heart part of me challenged the head part of me. “Get out of the way,” the heart said with bravado. “I got this.”
So last night, I went to the Cantina Inferno, a bar with a very confused Latin meets Utah cowboy vibe. I’d searched online for karaoke events and the Cantina Inferno was top of the list. Utah’s Best Karaoke started at 9:30. I got there at nine. The bar was deserted with the exception of three cowboy-looking guys and a young man of uncertain, mocha latte origin. I walked to a table and sat. I searched for my heart but it had run up the tree of fear like a rabid squirrel.
And here’s the part that I haven’t told you yet – I had high school trauma that involved the musical Oliver!, a loose ace bandage and a crush. I’d been chosen to play the sad, orphaned Oliver my senior year not because I had any singing talent, but because I was the shortest person in my senior class. There was this very tall, blond guy (also in my class) who looked very much like a Ken doll. Mr. Ken doll was also in the musical. He played Mr. Bumble, a cruel man who persecutes poor Oliver.
Every performance, as I emerged from the dressing room after having my breasts slammed shut against my chest with an ace bandage, he’d snicker. He’d make comments that only adolescent boys that look like a Ken doll can make. And the night my voice cracked during that one spotlighted solo that tormented me, and then the ace bandage unwound and snaked to the stage in a pool of light, Mr. Bumble Ken doll laughed so long and hard that the laughter caught like a match. Big, hearty guffaws filled the auditorium. My breath crushed in my throat and wouldn’t come out. Since then, I’ve made it a practice to sing alone with uncramped breasts and no spotlight.
So, after giving myself a long talk about the fact that adolescent humiliation is a rite of passage and that I was an adult now, I went to the Cantina Inferno. It’s not a typical zone of offering, which is to say that I wouldn’t be helping homeless kids read Cat in the Hat. I wouldn’t be mowing my 80 year-old neighbor’s grass. These are offering zones that are familiar. Churches, shelters, sick animals – familiar and comfortable heart zones. The Cantina Inferno? Not so much.
Here’s what happened.
7pm – I’m doing dishes while stealing glances at YouTube. I’m trying to get the lyrics down for Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. The dishes get done but I still suck. I wonder if everyone at the Cantina Inferno will be twenty. I’m not twenty. I’m a strong forty-five and I may be singing with twenty year olds. They may call me grandma. I’m not going. No, wait. This isn’t about me. Shit, I am going.
9pm – I walk into the Cantina Inferno and choose from amongst the empty tables. I’d expected the place to be bustling. I’m the only blond, white woman in the place. I am, in fact, the only woman. A bar in the center of the room has three television screens directly over it. Some nature channel is on and three tigers walk in tandem above the tattooed bartender. I study the menu. I stare into the openness of the room.
9:20pm – Curley Zu walks in. She’s tall, with copper skin and copper curls that have been greased to a sheen. Her black and gold lame dress hits mid-thigh. She takes a moment to glance at the tigers, the nearly empty room. She sees the bartender and shouts his name. He looks up. “Curley Zu,” he says. “Heya, baby.”
I order a Corona and walk over to the table where Curly Zu is setting up the karaoke box. She instructs me to put my name on the list with the song I’d like to sing. I lean over her shoulder. She smells like coconut. I mention this and say that she smells like the beach. She tells me that she loves coconut oil – slathers it everywhere. She gives me a broad smile. I put my name down and ask her if she wouldn’t mind making me second or third. “My first time,” I say.
“Karaoke virgin,” she exclaims, smiling. “Don’t worry, honey. You’ll do great.”
Three guys walk in. One looks like a forty-something cowboy. He’s haggard with the kind of swagger that gives the impression he still has a horse between his legs. The other two are younger. One has a Slurpee that he holds the whole night. The other has hip slung jeans and strawberry blond hair that’s cut into a mullet. The cowboy signs up with Curley Zu and swaggers over to the bar. I hear chimes of “Hey, Alan … hey brother.”
9:30pm – Curley Zu has turned on the music. It pulses through the bar. She fiddles with something and then stands up so she can see the monitor that displays the lyrics. She starts to sing and the hum at the bar quiets. Her voice is sheer diva, sheer honey and filled with so much power I’m slack jawed. When she finishes, the bar erupts. I’m howling and clapping. This is a beauty that must be recognized. I howl louder.
Then, I get really, really nervous.
Curley Zu introduces Kat, another tall, coppery woman who is Curley Zu’s sister. Kat stands in front of the monitor, her head bobbing. I have no idea what song this is and when Kat starts to sing, she’s halting and off tune. The lyrics are fast and she skips words, head bobbing, trying to find the rhythm. Still, she hits a few notes that shimmer in the air and the bar offers a few howls.
Alan sits astride one of the bar stools, clapping. The guy with the Slurpee is standing up, bobbing and playing with his straw. His smile is bright as a starry sky.
Curly Zu grabs the mic.
“Next up is Melissa,” she says, drawing my name out. “Please welcome the karaoke virgin!”
And my heart drops to the floor.
I slide off my stool and make my way to the front of the room. Kat is licking her boyfriend’s ear. They guys at the bar are looking up at the monitors which are now showing Gilligan’s Island. Ginger and Mary Ann are wearing swimsuits and are walking a pageant walk in front of the Professor. They walk and pose. I walk and grab the mic, hoping to pull my voice out of the tight hole it’s found.
Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn lights up the screen in front of me. My hand is shaking and as I start to sing I keep the question like a beacon in front of me, “What can I offer?”
I’m beyond halting. The lyrics seem to go by faster than they did in my kitchen. I stare hard at the screen, trying to catch the lyrics, trying to stay in tune. The chorus is okay, I’ve got that, but the rest is like trying to stay with a tango. I fumble. I am, I decide, completely ridiculous.
And this is when I let go. The fist of my heart softens when I realize with sudden ecstatic abandon that I don’t have to sing well. I’ve been all worked up about possible humiliation and suddenly all that drops away. I step away from the monitor that’s been the shield separating me from the rest of the room. I do a little shimmy. I point directly at the Slurpee guy and he hollers and points back at me, happy hips moving from side to side. I laugh and turn my attention to Alan. He gets up and starts a little jig. I jump and sway and when my voice inevitably cracks, I laugh the laugh of perfectionism flying the coup. My God, I think, I’m not here to offer my unsultry voice. I’m here to offer connection.
And after that, the singing is pure joy. The guys at the bar are up and dancing. The bartender is leaning on his elbows, grinning at me. And when the song is over, everyone hoots and we’re all pointing at one another, silly at five year-olds.
And I’m ecstatic. I sang and my voice was shy and halting and unbeautiful but I sang. And when I finally got that it wasn’t my voice I was offering, but myself, the fear dropped away. My heart was a bird and as I high-fived with Kat and the guys at the bar, I thought, “Thank you, God. I’m not sure exactly why, but thank you.”
And to all of you offering shout outs of support and ideas: Thank you. I sang in public.
Mr. Pacheco? Well, he did something with a kayak. We both felt pretty awkward and beautiful. So, thank you.