Lexington, Kentucky, circa 2012, circa 8:00 p.m., circa two hours before bedtime, circa bedtime is for cowards. This is the first birthday party I’ve been invited to since moving here from Texas, and I’m eager to make a good impression so that more invitations come my way. Unfortunately, I’m scrawny and can never seem to get myself to stop saying weird stuff. People don’t tend to like me much at first.
Emma and I met on the first day of school when I sat next to her on the schoolbus and started talking. She didn’t say much in reply, so I took out my MP3 player and asked if she wanted to share. She did. Now we listen to music together every day in our designated bus seat. So really, it was the music that made us bond and not what I said or what she didn’t say. Words may be hard for me, but lyrics don’t really feel like words, and tunes… tunes say things that words never could. I know this because in Disney Princess movies, when the princess sings, that’s when we really know she’s a beautiful person, inside and out.
My eyes scan the beaming faces of eight of Emma’s choir friends, the only other guests, waiting for someone to do something.
“Why don’t we do karaoke?” Sophie pipes up. I like Sophie. She’s energetic and a natural leader. Also, she’s very nice to me, even though most people think I’m kind of mean. But I also don’t trust her because she’s very nice to me and also has long blonde hair. This is suspicious.
The choir girls who I barely recognize from math class nod vigorously. My heart gasps with a feeling somewhere between dread and anticipation. In preschool, I used to sing from the top of the playground watchtower because I knew everyone would be bewitched by it, and I sing in the bath all the time. So, I’m pretty sure I’m good at singing, but these girls are in choir: They practice; they know things. But who am I kidding? I’m really good at singing.
Sophie grins. “Who wants to go first?” Not even a second passes before she volunteers herself. “Okay, I’ll go.”
Beside her, Emma faintly says, “Cool,” her hands clasped together in her lap.
“Can we put the song on the TV?” one of the other girls asks. I don’t remember her. Stirred, Emma shakes her head to zone back in. “Yeah, definitely.” She grabs a remote from the arm of the neglected couch and opens YouTube on the TV. I didn’t know you could do that.
Sophie sings something from the Disney channel. I don’t know what. Probably from Hannah Montana. I’m not allowed to watch Disney Channel because my parents think it’s mind-numbing. Anyway, Sophie is singing and she is really good even though sometimes her pitch wobbles and she runs out of breath. She’s really really good. This is going to be more competitive than I had thought. The choir girls smirk amongst themselves knowingly, as if they expected this, which I suppose they did.
“Who wants to go next?” Someone asks. Someone goes next. It’s all very predictable.
In the end, it’s down to Emma and me.
“Megan, do you wanna go?”
“Yeah, I’ll go.” My hands and feet buzz like bubbles in a jacuzzi, intense and then fading out. Socks and gloves woven into translucence near the ends. Dainty socks and gloves. Opera gloves. And opera socks. This the moment everyone will understand what a beautiful and enigmatic person I am. My stomach turns. I pretend this is a good feeling.
Emma taps my shoulder and asks which song she needs to pull up.
“‘Vincent’ by Don McLean.”
No one has heard of the song before. I’m used to it, but am still a bit disappointed. My parents are huge music buffs and over the course of my childhood I memorized hundreds of classic songs from their youth. I finally started using Grooveshark in seventh grade, only to learn my taste had been corrupted and I could never fully embrace pop music. Yes, this makes me obnoxious. Sometimes I wonder if people don’t like my music because they don’t like me.
“You don’t know ‘Vincent’?” I gasp. “It was a huge hit in England when it came out.” My Dad had told me this on a road trip to the San Antonio Riverwalk once. I didn’t really know what it meant, but it sounded important.
The girls look at me with irritation that they think they’re concealing. Emma looks the same as she always does. She already knows my tendencies and understands my intentions aren’t malicious. Just very misguided.
I sing okay and they clap. This is satisfactory. Maybe a little disappointing. Singing amazing would’ve been ideal, but I’m not in choir. Plus, they seem slightly unsettled by the lyrics. They’re not as sophisticated as me; that’s not my fault.
Honestly, maybe singing isn’t that big a deal after all. Anyone can learn how to sing. I’m still beautiful and enigmatic. I’m just so enigmatic that they don’t even understand how beautiful my singing voice is. Yeah, actually, I am good at singing. I’m just a tortured artist, doomed to be misunderstood. I can work with that.
I turn to Emma. “Okay, now your turn.”
Emma stares at the floor. “I don’t know…”
Nobody looks surprised except me. “What do you mean you ‘don’t know?’ You’re in choir! You sing every day!”
“It’s not the same, though.” Emma sits up.
“What do you mean ‘it’s not the same?’”
“I mean that it’s not the same!” Emma snaps, and everyone jumps. We’ve never seen Emma yell before.
Sophie gently offers an explanation. “Singing in a group is a lot less scary than singing a solo.”
“And you sing differently!” Emma continues, “Sophie has a solo voice. I don’t have a solo voice.”
Sophie looks embarrassed, “That’s not true…”
Emma doesn’t reply, which means it’s my turn to step in.
“I want to hear what your voice sounds like. I haven’t gotten to hear you like everyone else has.” I hastily add: “But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Emma groans, “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just…”
“So you want to?” I offer.
“Yeah, but...” she sighs heavily. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
Sophie brightens. “Great! What song do you want to do?”
“‘Fireflies’ by Owl City.”
My fingers fumble against the TV remote. Every time the cursor hovers over the letter I need, it slithers right past, like trying to catch a cockroach with a glass. Eventually, Sophie confiscates the machine and types the song herself. I only feel a bit humiliated by how little time it takes her.
Emma’s voice emerges so quietly I almost don’t notice it. Once audible, her melody quakes like leaky faucet droplets plopping into water. She’s off-key and it takes all my self-control not to cringe, and right as I think I can’t take it any more, something changes. Her voice stabilizes.
She was right—they do sing differently. Sophie’s voice fills the room like a bell, but Emma’s settles onto us, prickles at our skin, and melts. Both are worthy soloists. Water drips from the ceiling and immediately freezes, leaving behind icicles which shine blue. The room darkens around us and Emma glows, a jellyfish in the ocean, voice of shimmering ice. I don’t conceal my awe.
Then it dawns on me.
Quiet Emma, shy Emma… Words don’t like to help me much. They get tangled up with each other and don’t hold the shape I want them to. But, as stoic as Emma seems, words are hard for her, too. She has things to say but doesn’t say them. She doesn’t think we’d like her words.
I wonder what else I haven’t noticed. I wonder whether I’ve listened at all.
The song ends with a torrent of apologies. “I’m sorry, that was so bad. God, I couldn’t stop my voice shaking, see I told you…”
For one moment my inner dialogue pauses. I use everything I have to prove her wrong.
“What are you talking about? You were amazing!” Everyone’s yelling over each other, expressing the same sentiment.
“No I wasn’t…”
“You’ve got to be,” I pause, unsure of whether to say the word. “Fricking kidding me!”
You could hear a pin drop. If someone says the word “fricking” in fifth grade, they must be very serious about what they’re saying. That or they’re a delinquent, but everyone knows I enjoy Percy Jackson just a little too much to be a delinquent.
“She’s right, you know,” Sophie says. “You’re really good.”
“Really?” Emma’s voice sounds faintly hopeful.
Emma looks at her hands, clasped once again. “Okay.”
She’s the same old Emma, curled into herself, but she’s changed slightly. Her shoulders look a little looser. Her hands ease their grip. No one speaks for a while. No one needs to. We hold this moment here. I glance at Emma. Just like that first day, when I pulled out my MP3 player and we listened to my music together. Her song didn’t tell me anything about her, but it gave me somewhere to start.