This is a sneak preview of my upcoming short story collection, Marble Halls.
I dedicate this entry to my sister Becca, who helped me regain my confidence in writing, without whom you would not be reading a single word here. Thank you.
II. The Singing Contest
The contest was a thing of numbers. Out of sheer boredom, I entertained myself by counting the contestants in white dresses adorned with sashes. Then came the pairs of white suede ballet slippers chafing against the wooden floor, followed by the sounds of songs lined up to be accompanied by pieces in the orchestra. Once I was finished, I shook my head vigorously to try to free it of the mandatory oversized white silk ribbon. However, I only succeeded in making my shiny light brown hair a total mess. Even that aspect was monotonous and could be numbered. It was a wig, identical to those worn by every other contestant. We were a sea of conformity, which irritated me more with every passing second. After all, wasn’t music an art of self-expression? I moved a little more to try to dislodge the bow as I pondered the meaning of the contest. My motions in a crowd of stillness upset the handlers nearby to present us all as proper young women.
Not being twenty years old like the other contestants, I didn’t care to be a proper young woman. I just came to sing and be myself. I held a worn jazz book in my hands, paging through it as I waited. I turned my attention to the enormous cathedral style building in which we were sitting. It was pleasing to my eye because I liked contemporary things. It was a modern twist on traditional design with glass walls that rose up to meet a sharply pitched roof. As I craned my head back, once again disregarding the annoying bow, I watched each cloud in the early spring sky float by in their lazy flight. Like swimmers lounging on pool chaises and basking in the sun, they drifted with ease. I longed to do the same instead of wait inside in silent, stifled rows and lines. On its own, the building was a beautiful place full of echoes and capable of joy. However, on this day, it only held silence juxtaposed only by the hushed sounds of a pensive crowd. Where there could have been lively conversation, there was the occasional sigh. Instead of dancing, there was the shuffling of suede bottomed shoes in unquestioned complacency.
I stood up and stretched, raising one of the handler’s eyebrows. Not caring about the woman’s reaction, I casually sat back down, forgetting I still held my jazz book in open view. When the girl sitting next to me saw it, her eyes grew wide in alarm.
“You’re not using,” she shot a surreptitious glare at the book, “something on that order, are you?”
“It’s my favorite,” I declared in a regular volume, rather than a whisper, making echoes bounce off the glass walls. “Why not? It’s a singing competition, right?”
The girl nodded. “Yes,” she conceded with a forced smirk.
I returned her smile. “That’s what I thought.”
The day wore on, morning into afternoon with more forced silence, subtle shifting in seats and disapproving expressions directed at my book. Different contestants in their all-white ensembles averted their gazes, shook their heads or made saccharine criticisms on my choice of music. At some point, they finally garnered the attention of the handlers because one of them approached me with a stern and wary gaze.
“This is your material?” She asked in a voice full of ice.
“Yes, it is.” I held myself totally firm in stance and all else.
“Then we have a problem, young woman. No books are allowed, only single pages that can be contained within a folder.”
Undaunted, I nodded. “It’ll take me only a few minutes to correct that,” I said.
She seemed frustrated as she turned to walk back to the edges of the building, where the other handlers had assembled like a living fortress wall designed to keep away anything unfamiliar.
I reached into my purse for change, remembering the little convenience store I had passed on my way to the glass building. Excusing myself as I bumped into countless pairs of primly posed knees along the bench row to which I was assigned, I made my way to the aisle. Once I was free, I exited through the back door.
As soon as I was outdoors, I rejoiced in the refreshing burst of cool air as it met my face. It was the essence of freedom after being held to their standards and scrutiny all day long. I blinked in the sunlight, trying to orient myself. In a spring day that still held onto the last vestige of winter, the breeze grew colder and harsher upon the little drifts of snow in the emerging grass.
My dress whipped around my legs as I walked toward the store, having at once remembered its direction. It was on the edge of the surreal park-like area that housed the glass building. I made steady progress, despite the wind, opening its door for shelter.
At long last, I heard lively conversation for which I had longed since my arrival. People were milling around, buying things such as soft pretzels or hot dogs, paying for gasoline and sipping sodas at tables lining the windows. As I approached the counter, I noticed the attendant taking in my provincial outfit and snickering softly to himself.
Ever focused upon my purpose, I asked the question regarding the purpose for which I had come. “Can you please tell me if you have a copy machine?”
The attendant nodded wordlessly toward the area in back by the tables and the soda-sipping couples.
“Thank you!” I was off to the back, ignoring the stares of patrons as I quickly copied off my three selections. I tucked them tightly inside my book, in order not to lose them in the wind as I traversed the otherworldly park again. I glanced at the remnants of snow as I made my way back to the building.
Once inside, it was exactly as I found it in the beginning, quiet and inexpressive. At first, I contemplated moving in front of everyone whom I had previously climbed over for a second time. Instead, I took a seat at the end of the furthest bench in the building. The handlers stared at me as if I had done something outrageous.
One of them approached me. “You weren’t supposed to leave, and now you’re… disheveled.” Her facial expression added to the words of her discontent. “I suggest you go directly to the washroom and remedy this,” she added in a tone that was anything but a suggestion.
“Finally!” I couldn’t help myself. The relief I sensed came pouring out in my words. “I’ll happily do it at once.”
I left the room with the stares of all the perplexed handlers in my wake. The washroom was cool and dark, forcing my eyes to wait a few moments in other to adjust in the dim light. I leaned into the mirror, and what I saw made me laugh. My purposely makeup-free face had grown flushed from the enlivening wind. My hair was an utter mess as the white bow hung on by a few strands. I pulled it out with a sense of gratefulness and proceeded to evaluate the rest of my appearance. I could not remain this way for another second. Thankfully, I had a tote bag large enough to easily hold every necessary item for the transformation back into myself.
First I removed the shiny light brown wig and shook out my own hair. It was wild and full of static, but I tamed it back into its normal state. Then I peeled off the dreadful white dress and pulled one of my favorite black miniskirts from my bag, discarding the required ecru hose. I considered what to wear with the skirt, as I had several options. All black would be as stark as the total white, so I decided on the deep hot pink blouse that contrasted the darkness nicely.
Makeup was next. The provincial girls wore none, but I was not one of them. Therefore, I applied my usual eye and lip color, the latter matching the blouse. Then I slipped into my three inch fuchsia heels.
As I confidently strode back into the massive room, I noticed that the orchestra had begun to warm up. I listened closely for any sounds of brass, but disappointingly heard none. I could not really imagine my songs backed to the sounds of only classical instruments.
The gasps of the handlers were amusing to me as I took my place in my original row, not having to persuade the girls to move aside as they stared at me with varied expressions of shock, horror and a few of sheer admiration. I smiled to myself as I sat down. The girl who had mentioned my book sat frozen, agape at the sight of me. She moved her mouth as if trying to say something, but the words simply did not come.
I waited my turn, sitting through aria after aria, thumbing the edges of my pages in their bright silver folder. This time, though, I was set free from the stifling sensations of the wait and merely enjoyed my daydreams. When it was my turn, I gave a copy of my music to each player in the orchestra, without really expecting them to accommodate the arrangement. However, I knew that it couldn’t hurt to try.
The building was hushed as I began my songs. Not a person moved or stopped staring for at least the first thirty seconds. The orchestra was soundness, too. This was fine with me, as I knew the songs well enough to not need accompaniment. However, a moment later, one musician after another raised a brass instrument from some hiding place in the orchestra pit. The first one was a saxophone, then a trumpet followed with a trombone. Then both bass and drums added their voices to mine, completed by the most syncopated piano playing I had ever heard. It was now more than a competition, because no one was bent on rankings or winning versus losing. We were already winning because of the joy we were deriving in the mere act of creation and collaboration, not as individuals, but instead as one.
I had truly forgotten about the audience as we finished, so their tentative applause was a surprise. What truly astonished me, though, was its growth into a massive wave of thunder. Had they understood that we were in it for the joy? I prayed it was so. Everyone here needed to understand that being in the moment was more important than constantly looking over one’s shoulder for someone else’s nod of approval.
In the end, it all came back to numbers. I was fifth out of three thousand. The judges had to penalize my score given all the rules I had broken, but I did not care. I had come there to be myself, and that was exactly what I had accomplished.