REBECCA VAN LAER
In middle school, I took Chorus as an elective. It’s what all the popular girls did; I remember standing behind them and looking at their ponytails, the length of their shorts, their tennis shoes. I was still learning to mimic their looks: I wore New Balance tennis shoes even though they’d moved on to Adidas, and I had some clothes from the Gap, but my parents had yet to drive me to the Abercrombie & Fitch in the upscale mall an hour away in Atlanta. I enrolled to observe them, but the opportunity hardly felt worth the embarrassment I felt every time I opened my mouth.
We were graded on participation, and on our voices. The choirmaster sent us one-by-one into a private recording booth where we sang into a tape recorder. In that room, just off the main classroom, my hands trembled as I hit “record.” I could hardly bring my voice above a whispery rasp as I sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” My heart beat in my chest with the fear my classmates would hear me through the glass windows of the tiny room.
I felt shame often at that age, over everything from the way my thighs spread to the margins of my shorts when I sat down, to my freckles, to the blush that spread across my chest every time I was anxious, exposing me all the more. But I wasn’t the only embarrassed by singing: even the gifted seem to struggle with it. Even my friend Ashley, who had thick red hair and a beautiful soprano voice.
Ashley was more popular than I was, and I was grateful to be her friend. I don’t know how it started, but one day, she began talking to me. Before I knew it, I was over at her house watching movies; I went to my first school dance with her, and she helped me do my makeup. Once, I got my period during a birthday sleepover at her house. Too embarrassed to tell her, her mom, or anyone else, I went to the bathroom over and over again to clean up rather than asking for a pad. Eventually, I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, my yellow pajama pants, decorated with cartoon sheep, were stained an ugly brown at the crotch. I was the first up, so I changed out of them immediately, and hoped I hadn’t stained the sheets I’d slept between.
Ashley was the most gifted vocalist at our school, and our teacher and our peers treated her accordingly. She always got the solos, and I listened to her sing them in class over and over again, rapt.
When we were assigned parts for our performance at the school’s pre-Christmas assembly, one note in the arrangement was so high that only two girls could hit it: Ashley and Sarah. While Ashley was well liked, Sarah was not. She lacked the self-consciousness needed to survive one’s early teenage years. Although she wasn’t skinny, she wore shorts: a middle school sin. At school, she was friendly even when people rolled their eyes at her, tried to let her know she wasn’t welcome at their table, or in the corner of the gym they’d occupied during the school dance. She was mocked often, but it seemed to have no effect on her. I heard people whisper about her, and the pity I felt was mixed with fear for myself.
Like everyone else, I was rooting for Ashley to hit the note with clarity. But when it came time, we only heard Sarah’s voice soar above the school band, reaching the rafters of our school’s gym.
The men I’ve dated have all made comments on my voice. They’ve had ample opportunity to. As I grew older and more confident, I started to sing in the shower, in the car. Every time Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” comes on the radio, I belt along with them, although sometimes an octave too low, trying to avoid the high notes where I crack and falter.
In college, my boyfriend told me just before I met his family that I should avoid singing in front of them. He told me it wasn’t that my voice was bad—it was that I got “too serious” when I sang. Too into it. His parents would be uncomfortable if they heard me, he told me. (I understood: he would be embarrassed.)
Years later, I met someone playing Rock Band at a party. I sang to No Doubt and then we held hands on the couch. He was in a band and told me he really liked my voice. He played Rock Band all the time, but usually not with someone else who could sing. My voice was the first thing drew him to me. Not my appearance, or even my mind. And this was my favorite thing about him. While we were dating, my stepmom asked me what he was like. I had almost nothing good to say. “Well, there must be something great about him, right?” He didn’t call me when he said he would. He was hardly available. But for a few months, I listened to the same songs over and over again in my bedroom, singing until I drove my roommate insane.
Two years ago, my boyfriend and I drove from New Orleans to New York. As usual, I sang and he laughed. I asked him for what felt like the hundredth time, What’s so fucking funny? I went on: Is it the way my voice sounds? Or the way I switch keys? Or your own discomfort with the fact that I’m singing at all.
Maybe all three, he said.
I like to sing! Stop teasing me, I said.
I like it when you sing, too, he said. My laughter expresses my joy.
What does he like about it, though? The tone and cadence, or the fact that I’m going for it, windows down, even though I sound awful? I know what stopped Ashley, all those years ago, from letting her voice reach new volume. The sounds we emit are unruly: an aspect of the self we can do very little to control or shape. Leaking out like the blood on my pajama pants, and also leaving a stain somewhere inside. It is sometimes easier to stay quiet than to try and fail.