Breadcrumb #489


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.

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Breadcrumb #324


When my parents started mailing me pieces of my childhood, they came back broken. Picture frames with shattered glass, surrounded by leaking snow globes that still played White Christmas, small shards of sparkling glass cutting deeply into the fibers of 1980s Kodak matte prints. A small child, underwater. Eyes open, paddling. Red polka dot swim suit on both the child submerged and the child in the reflection on the underside of the waves. A swim school instructor had the idea to photograph children mid stroke in 8 feet of water. I swam the length of the pool over and over for him to get the best shot. Each time I breached, I went back under with my cheeks puffed and lips pursed to preserve my air supply. 

    There are things that make it. My first dogs, Jack and Russell. Two small ceramic dogs from a set of what surely was an elderly woman's hobbyist collection. 1994 stamped into their bellies. We could not have the graceful German Shepard of my father’s childhood and we certainly couldn't have the "Dog— any breed ok" that appeared as number one on every Dear Santa letter I penned. So, these were my dogs.  Despite the fact they had to be carried and couldn’t go outside and were constantly on the verge of breaking and being put in the garbage. There is the not-to-scale-Jack Russell, named Jack, with white fur over a light grey mask over his muzzle and eyes. There is to-scale-Golden Retriever, named Russell because he looks like his name might actually be Russell. Three of Jack’s legs have been broken and expertly repaired by my mother or grandfather or whoever was around to super glue. Jack comes back to me wrapped in an old black sock of my father’s.  It has a golden toe and is in the box next to a white gym sock of my father’s that holds Russell. These two socks somehow survived the horrors of my mother’s laundry room and made it to this box to keep these first ceramic canines intact long enough to live in a home with my two real dogs. It's horrible to say Jack and Russell aren't real. It’s horrible to admit that they're just ceramic because all that time on the blue carpet of my bedroom, I pretended they were. By this I mean that I pretended they were enough. 

It’s horrible to say Jack and Russell aren’t real.

    So in between the broken picture frame and the leaky Christmas snow globe and the small travel cases from hotels and airplanes that my mom sends because I might have forgotten how to pack my bags for a trip across country I did every year for the first 15 years of my life, and again for the next 15 after that, is a small envelope with twenty Ambien. The Ambien are intact, tucked in between Jack and Russell and the socks my dad left behind or socks that left my dad behind or the socks my father left behind when he left and it was just me, using them to scrub the end of a golf club or a sneaker or polish a spoon.

    I could call and say things broke but inevitably they must know because they packed the box. I don't call though I think of calling because the new pretenses of my father almost killing himself and begrudgingly coming back to life is that we get along and only talk about present problems not past ones. This is a box full of my past that cannot even compare to this now present future I spend all my hours obsessing over. This is a box of sadness and loneliness and small ceramic friends with imaginary personalities. This is a box that shows me that even I knew then what I wanted all along, and that I didn't stop until I got to it.  One day I will have a dog. Maybe even two. One day I’ll leave. Maybe never come back.  Jack's grey mask over his white fur looks like my real dog Gunner’s. Jack is lean and fast and so is she. Russell is big and brooding but gentle, and so is my real dog Cash. Russell has blonde hair and a steady face, and so does Cash. There is no girl figurine in the box except the image of one in a red polka dot swimsuit under water. She opens her eyes wide though the chlorine must burn. She's probably used to it in the way that all swimmers are. She held her eyes open, the instructor told my mother, when all the other kids had theirs closed. I dust the girl off, try to pick the shimmering scales of glass off the surface, run my hand over the cuts in the photo fabric that weren't there before the frame broke on its ill-advised postal voyage. She might have been better off had she stayed on the wall of that room with the blue carpet where I last left her. But maybe, the person who packed her in the box knew that much like the real girl, this one couldn't stay either.

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