by Tina Silver
Even though Gretchen had little potential as a singer, Renata needed the money. Seventy-five dollars bought the same groceries whether it came from a promising talent or a mom taking a forty-five-minute reprieve from carpools and laundry. Renata privately vowed to train Gretchen not to hurt her vocal chords and respect the physiological miracle of singing. For her part, Gretchen took lessons for fun, to check an item off her bucket list. Devoid of self-consciousness, she sometimes danced around goofily and laughed a lot. She began to intrigue Renata who had insignificance and shame squatting in her mind. When teaching, Renata’s singing was excellent; she demonstrated vocal exercises or a few bars from a student’s song with ease. Her secret remained safe, and Gretchen was none the wiser.
When Gretchen suggested they meet outside of lessons for coffee, Renata readily agreed. She loved having a non-errand reason to leave the apartment where she taught and lived. Sitting at round, too-small café tables, Gretchen talked animatedly about the many joys in her life. Her children, her husband, her pets—there was much happiness gained from the simplest of experiences. Renata inhaled every word. Here was someone happy to live an uncelebrated existence. Gretchen had no need to stand out, to collect accolades, to dedicate years of study to one thing, eschewing other experiences and relationships, only to have that very thing evade her when she needed it most. In the almost three years since Gretchen stopped taking lessons, Renata’s thirst for their coffee dates has only increased.
Now, Renata is overcome with agitation as she opens the electronic invitation to Gretchen’s fiftieth birthday party. “Zen Gardens . . . Fine Japanese cuisine . . . Karaoke.” Dammit.
I had to teach late. I had a blinding headache. But she hears rebuttals in Gretchen’s voice, even though Renata is the one making up the words. You couldn’t come for an hour? I was worried something happened to you. We can’t be friends anymore.
The night of the party, Renata lies on her bed with her phone. She wears the black palazzo pants and antique-lace blouse she picked out earlier in the week, but she hasn’t done her makeup. One impulse demands she finish getting ready, but another wants to text Gretchen: Sorry . . . sick. Then she could put on pajamas, make popcorn, and turn on that channel with the plotless Christmas romance movies.
Her present for Gretchen, a porcelain figurine of a Victorian girl playing piano, is in a gift bag on her night table. It’s already 6:40pm, too late to get to the restaurant by public transit. She taps Gretchen’s name on her contact list, but her finger trembles over the text icon.
Go. You can’t risk losing her.
Her taxi stops in front of Zen Gardens with its blazing red “KARAOKE” sign in the huge, horizontal front window. Undoubtedly, Gretchen’s husband chose this restaurant because his wife is a ham and probably many of her guests are too. They’ll gleefully degrade the art of singing in exchange for cheap laughs. The lace fabric beneath Renata’s armpits already feels damp as she pays and gets out of the cab.
Pulling open the weighted glass door, she can barely enter the restaurant’s foyer thanks to a cluster of parka-donning people blocking her way. Rising to demi-pointe, she sees that everyone’s waiting for the attention of a frantic young hostess. A man calls out Gretchen’s name, and the hostess replies with something Renata can’t decipher. As the group moves forward into the sprawling dining room, Renata follows but stays several paces behind.
The dining room hosts mostly couples at two-tops laden with square dishes and wineglasses. As Renata navigates her way around the tables, she sees the group heading to a downward staircase where the dining room ends, beside the kitchen entrance. Conscious of her heels, she carefully descends the uneven-feeling staircase.
Three walls of the private party room are painted the same scarlet as the dining room while the fourth is mirrored from floor to ceiling. An enormous chandelier hangs above but provides only moderate light. At the front of the room, the karaoke machine and two microphone stands sit on a low riser, a de facto stage. Behind, a large flatscreen monitor is mounted to the wall displaying “Happy Five-Oh, Gretchen!” in bright pink and blue, Gretchen’s favourite colours. Miniature Christmas trees decorated with red baubles are centred on each of a dozen very long, rectangular tables. In one back corner, another table is already piled with presents. Renata makes her way over and sets her gift bag on top of an enormous black box sitting on the floor. She knows Gretchen asked her husband for an exercise bike.
Guests from tweens to seniors noisily select tables, scraping chairs over the linoleum. Renata sits at the end of a table in the middle of the room. Four women ranging from their thirties to sixties take seats beside and across from her. They’re dressed more casually than Renata, as all the guests seem to be, in jeans and shirts. A few guests wear deliberately loud holiday sweaters.
Renata’s tablemates don’t acknowledge her.
“Are you ordering sushi?”
“Tempura. Screw the trans-fat.”
“Is there going to be cake or do we order dessert?”
“Make it illegal for people to have birthdays in December.”
“I have so many cookies to bake.”
People keep arriving; the remaining half-dozen chairs at Renata’s table fill up. Renata hears shop talk, clearly Gretchen’s co-workers and their families from the hardware chain’s head office where Gretchen has worked since she stopped taking singing lessons.
Renata sees Gretchen come through the doorway, beaming and waving, with her husband and two teenagers. Her hair looks freshly highlighted with pale blonde and gold; blown dry smooth, it reaches her shoulders. Renata waves grandly, but Gretchen doesn’t see. Every guest seems to know at least one other person, and there’s easily a hundred people. Over the din of conversations, Christmas music begins to play.
A young server in a short, black dress appears beside Renata. She takes drink orders for the table sans notepad, and then the four women return to their rapid-fire chatter. Renata ponders jumping in. They seem like people who will let her into their conversation, unconcerned with names or their respective relationships with Gretchen until it comes up naturally. Renata’s diaphragm jolts a few times, but she decides not to speak.
Her Late Autumn Riesling is very good, and she sips it quickly, mostly for something to do. This is a waste of time. Gretchen probably hasn’t given you a thought. As it is, she has to raise herself from her chair to see the top of Gretchen’s bobbing head from where she sits with her family at the table nearest the karaoke machine.
Renata can’t remember the last time she was at a party. Her forty-third birthday in August with her parents at their favourite seafood place doesn’t count, even if they did bump into their old next-door neighbors who joined them at their table. The septuagenarian couple remembered Renata singing boisterously each day as she walked home from middle school. She flushed as they spoke, remembering how it felt to sing because she loved to—before she began formal study, before she knew anything about technique, before she cared what others thought, and before she realized how many other singers were better.
When the server returns for dinner orders, Renata requests chicken teriyaki and more wine. Suddenly the redhead across from her, who looks about thirty-five, asks, “How do you know Gretchen?”
A comet-like streak of anxiety passes through Renata’s chest. She can’t let them know she’s a singing teacher.
“We met at a music lesson.”
“Oh right, Gretch said she used to take singing lessons,” the woman replies. “She hated stopping when she went back to work.”
“Really?” Gretchen has never told Renata this.
The redhead’s attention shifts back to her friends. Appetizers arrive, but Renata didn’t order one. She tugs gently at the damp fabric under her arms, trying to move it away from her skin. The server brings her another glass of wine.
Renata’s perfectly cooked food is only a temporary distraction. As soon as the guests’ dinner plates are cleared, Gretchen’s husband Hal—Gretchen’s “Hal-Pal”—steps onto the riser and grabs a microphone. The piped-in music shuts off in the middle of “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
“Thanks, everyone, for making it here at this crazy time of year. It means a lot to our family. We’ll have cake now so we can get to the best part of the party—karaoke! I know Gretch can’t wait. She used to take singing lessons, so you guys’d better step up!” A cheer rises from at least a third of the guests.
The obligatory “Happy Birthday” singing and cake cutting don’t take very long. Renata can’t believe how cheesy the birthday cake looks—pink cake with white and royal blue icing. She shakes her head when the server offers her a dessert plate with a slice. Instead, she orders a third glass of wine.
The chandelier dims as a spotlight illuminates the riser. Renata holds her breath as Gretchen and Hal step onto the small stage, grinning manically as they each grab a microphone. The opening chords of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” fill the room; Renata figures they rehearsed it. Would Hal prove to be a surprise talent?
No. His voice has power but with tone and pitch both off the mark, it’s closer to shouting. Gretchen’s singing is still monotone, making Renata grimace. The silver-haired woman beside her, the one who was worried about baking cookies, sees her expression. Renata pretends that she was suppressing a sneeze, rubs her index finger across her upper lip. She then relaxes her face and mouths the lyrics flashing across the flatscreen straight ahead, to look like she’s having fun. But she still feels the woman’s eyes.
Gretchen hip bumps Hal several times and dances around the small riser. Some of the guests are up and dancing in whatever space there is between tables. When the song ends, there’s wild applause. Gretchen and Hal kiss in a way that prompts whistles, making Renata feel embarrassed for their kids. As Hal steps off the riser, Gretchen speaks into her mike.
“My dearest friend in this world—Joyce—get your ass up here, and sing with me! Everyone, Joyce has been there for me since we were kids! And she has a beautiful voice, even though she’s a bit shy. Joyce! Let’s do this!”
The guests applaud again as a heavy-set woman with burgundy, pixie-cut hair hurries along the mirrored side of the room to the riser. The music begins even before she grabs her microphone—“If You Wanna Be My Lover.” Gretchen loved bringing Spice Girls songs to lessons. Renata detested how most pop songs sounded with lone piano and tried to steer Gretchen towards musical theatre; she thought “Send in the Clowns” would be good for practice, but Gretchen found it “depressing.”
Gretchen’s voice cracks during the high opening notes. As Renata expects, her friend does not have a “beautiful” voice. Rather, Joyce is a shallow soprano who’s probably been told she has talent by some church-basement choir director. But she has no chest voice and doesn’t know how to mix the lower and upper registers. Was Gretchen being kind to her friend or had she really learned nothing during her training with Renata? When the song ends Renata shifts in her chair, trying to loosen the tension in her back and legs. Given the lineup of guests in front of the riser, who knew when the terrible singing would end? Could she fault you for leaving now, given that it’s after nine? Renata decides to hang on for another half an hour.
“You are my fire / The one desire . . .”
She snaps to attention. On the riser is a sandy-haired boy, sixteen or seventeen, and his singing is spot on. Several tween and teen girls squeal in agreement. Renata can tell he’s had training, yes, but what cannot be taught is his confidence—his knowledge that his talent will be there when he needs it, when it counts.
When she was twenty-five, Renata went to a karaoke bar with a group of her department store co-workers. They didn’t know she’d been studying singing for several years. As a group, they picked “Midnight Train to Georgia” as their song. Renata’s heart pounded madly as they gathered around the lone microphone. She was desperate to excel, to outshine her friends. You’re amazing, Renata! We never knew.
Yet even with only a small audience of mostly drunk patrons, her voice wouldn’t cooperate. So she goofed around with the others, made as if she too were a non-singer there to make fun of herself. But it took several days to shake off her anguish and shame.
After a few more years of lessons, she auditioned for musicals and cabaret concerts. But the audition process was a chasm she couldn’t cross. It was the karaoke bar all over again. Nerves destroyed her every time, snuffing out her painstakingly cultivated vocal technique. The fragile coordination of muscles, readily available when she sang alone, wouldn’t replicate when she tried to perform. The sound log-jammed in her throat; straining and cracking resulted. Producers and directors looked away as she struggled, or stopped her with a succinct, “Thanks.”
The teenage boy finishes singing “I Want It That Way” to manic applause, stepping down from the riser as Gretchen steps up.
“That’s my nephew Jackson; he’s awesome! Me, not so much. But I sing because I love it.” Several guests cheer. “I used to love taking lessons. My teacher has a great voice. I still meet up with her, and I invited her tonight. Renata, are you here? Renata?” Gretchen scans the rows of tables.
Renata freezes to her chair. She looks down to the floor, hoping to hide her face. But then she feels Gretchen’s eyes.
“Renata, come up and sing with me!”
When Renata looks up, every guest seems to be waiting for her.
“Renata?” Gretchen sounds puzzled that Renata isn’t moving.
“I . . . I’m sorry.” She rapidly shakes her head. Her armpits are resoaking her blouse.
Gretchen doesn’t move for several long seconds. Then, like a ringmaster directing the audience’s attention from a circus act gone wrong, she motions to the line of guests waiting their turn. She hands her microphone to a middle-aged man and steps off the riser.
Mortified and distressed, Renata downs what little wine she has left. She watches Gretchen schmooze with guest after guest, praying for a moment when she can approach her. Maybe she should leave and call Gretchen tomorrow. But what if she doesn’t answer? She desperately needs Gretchen to smile at her in her goofy way, to make sure no damage has been done.
Gathering her coat and purse in one hand, Renata stands. Her moderate intoxication makes her shaky in her heels. Gretchen is now in the centre of the room, talking to a group of women including the four who sat with Renata. Seven in total, they laugh about office antics as Renata waits nervously a few feet away. Finally, the conversation winds down and Renata approaches Gretchen.
“Thanks for inviting me,” she says, reaching for Gretchen’s hand. Except when she closes her fingers, Gretchen’s palm stays open.
“Did I embarrass you, Renata?”
Anxiety stabs Renata in her chest.
“You looked like you were mortified to sing with me.”
Renata sways and rests a hand on the edge of the closest table.
Gretchen’s expression is unfamiliar, her forehead wrinkled. It may be the low light of the room, but Renata can’t see the sparkle always present in Gretchen’s eyes.
Gretchen looks away from Renata and scans the room. “That’s certainly the impression I got. That you were afraid I’d drag you down . . . or something like that.”
“That’s not . . . not it.”
“And I get that some of the singing wasn’t perfect. But this isn’t Carnegie Hall. It’s a party, Renata. My party.”
Now, Renata tightly grips the edge of the table.
“Can you meet me for coffee on Tuesday? I’ll tell you exactly—”
“I don’t think so,” Gretchen sighs. “It’s so close to the holidays.”
What does she mean? That she wants to meet up with you and can’t, or that she never will again?
“Between Christmas and New Year’s, then?”
Gretchen shakes her head. “I’ve got tons of stuff planned with the kids and my mother.”
“It’s too soon to say. Listen, I wanna make sure I talk to all my guests. Thanks for coming.” Gretchen turns to greet an elderly couple waiting for her.
Not wanting to pay for another taxi, Renata walks to the closest streetcar stop. A tremor in her legs compounds her already unsteady gait. Snow is falling gingerly but in clusters; for now the sidewalk is dry, but she must move quickly.
She begins to sing softly, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . .” She pictures Gretchen singing with her, off-key but with giddy, unapologetic joy. Gretchen would grab Renata’s hand, turn her in a twirl, and their laughter would transform the song from melancholic to joyful. But as Renata walks alone, the only music is the hollow chain of sound that her heels make against the concrete.