~Come On Eileen
My hands were sweating so bad I figured the mike was going to slip right out of them. That would be just perfect. It would hit the stage with a thud, which would echo back through the speakers, which in turn would deafen everyone in the room with feedback. Maybe I would be able to make a run for it while they were still disoriented. Maybe everyone would forget Eileen Simmons had ever been here.
The DJ announced my name, effectively throwing that last part of my plan out the window. My mouth was dryer than sandpaper. I couldn't sing like this.
I couldn't do this.
Why am I here again?
I guess an introduction is in order. My name's Eileen, Ellie, whatever. Up until last week, my life was boring and that was just fine with me. Over fifteen years I've become a big fan of routine. Surprises are not my thing. Deviation from the aforementioned routine is also not my thing.
That being the case, I wasn't thrilled when Joss casually slipped the ad onto my desk during Monday's math class. All I needed to see were the words "Karaoke All Week Long" before turning and giving him a Look. One that I hoped conveyed my "Are you out of your mind?" message clearly.
Joss being Joss, he ignored the message entirely in favor of mouthing something that was probably supposed to be convincing. I say "probably" because despite the fact that he is my best friend, there's no denying that Joss's lip-synching skills are pretty much nonexistent. Come to think of it, his skills at anything involving silence are pretty much nonexistent…but I digress.
"What?" I mouthed back.
He rolled his eyes and tried again. No dice. I shrugged and turned to get back to my work. We were studying quadratic equations. Yippee.
"I said it could be fun," Joss hissed, having given up on stealth. Unfortunately for him Mrs. Williams has the ears of Bionic Woman. I had just enough time to sweep the karaoke ad underneath my textbook before she was upon us, glaring at Joss in a way that could reduce mere mortals to piles of ash if she willed it.
"Mister Evans," she addressed him, icicles dripping off of the words. Joss cowered appropriately, sinking down in his chair in the face of a devoted math teacher's wrath.
I took the opportunity to tune out and attempt to understand all the little numbers and letters that seemed to be blurring before my eyes. One of my hands reached up of its own accord. I began mindlessly twirling strands of my long brown hair in a nervous habit.
I mean, really, what was Joss thinking? We'd been friends since kindergarten. He knew I didn't sing. Not in front of other human beings. He knew that. Karaoke? Not in a million years.
It was different, back when I was a little kid. My dad always said I had a talent and he was always bragging about it to friends and family. He used to be in a band, so I guess he was happy to be passing on the torch. I grew up believing I had something special, something to be proud of, so I sang every chance I got—family reunions, Christmas parties, you name it. Relatives would clap and tell me how pretty I sounded. I ate it up and, being at that age, started to think I was the best around.
That particular delusion lasted right up until middle school. I was eleven or so and my school was putting together a talent show. Any student could go up on the big stage usually reserved for the Shakespeare plays of older kids—that alone enticed most of us, I think—and show off for parents and friends.
"You should sign up and sing for everyone," my mom suggested. At the time I thought it was the best idea ever. Getting up on stage? Being the center of attention? Singing my heart out for an auditorium filled with people? It sounded like a dream come true.
Which, looking back, made the nightmare it turned out to be all the worse.
I stopped walking to let him catch up, then slapped the advertisement into his hand.
"Keep your bright ideas to yourself, please."
"Aw, c'mon." Joss ran his fingers back through shaggy black hair. "My dad is friends with the guy who owns the place. He'd let us in free, one night only. We could pick the cheesiest songs in the lineup and entertain all the drunks. Wouldn't that be a blast?"
I raised my eyebrows at the drunks comment. "The ad said 'alcohol-free environment'," I pointed out.
Joss ruffled my hair (one more reason to hate being short—tall people get this idea that they can mess with your hair and get away with it). "Innocent little El," he remarked sympathetically. "Thinking that people actually follow the rules. Anyway, what do you say? We could sing some Rick Astley!"
He burst into a miserably off-key rendition of "Never Gonna Give You Up," complete with dance moves. I couldn't help but crack up. A singer, Joss is not. A total ham, absolutely. He finished the chorus and grinned at me.
"See? If it's this much fun when we're just traipsing down the sidewalk, imagine how fun it'll be with a microphone and speakers, not to mention a stage—"
Stage. The word killed my giggles in two seconds flat. Joss noticed and let out a sigh of frustration.
"You know, nobody even remembers that talent show thing."
"I remember," I muttered. "That's enough."
It was obvious I wouldn't be changing my mind. Joss knew when he was beat. He threw his hands up in the air and we walked the rest of the way to our neighborhood in silence.
It had all been pretty exciting. My mom helped me pick out a new dress for the talent show; I circled the date on my calendar over and over and ended up tearing a hole in the paper. Even my grandma planned to come up from Florida to witness the performance. I felt like a superstar, and I hadn't even sung yet!
The big night came. Dad prepped the video camera.
"Knock 'em dead, sweetie," he told me as we entered the school. I gave him a thumbs-up and he laughed.
I headed backstage as families milled around and found their seats. There were a hundred or so kids participating, and the auditorium was packed. Peeking through the curtain I could see an ocean of familiar faces. My stomach gave a jolt of glorious anticipation and I turned away to examine my competition.
Most of the others were going to play instruments of some kind. I saw kids with clarinets, flutes, guitars, portable keyboards; even one boy holding an accordion and looking extremely pleased with himself. Musical devices aside, there was a bespectacled girl carrying a thick book of poetry in her skinny arms. I fingered my own glasses and hoped for her sake she didn't drop it in the middle of the reading. An older boy was wearing a top hat and furtively stuffing colorful ribbons up his sleeves. There were even a few prim-looking ballerinas. The variety of acts made for some interesting people watching. Eventually my eyes landed on a girl—my age, maybe a little bit older—who was standing straight as a ruler and holding a microphone like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Another singer? I was a little put out that I wouldn't be the only one, but oh well. Even divas had to share the spotlight every now and again. Besides that, I couldn't help noticing that she didn't look like much.
The show started. One by one, terrified-looking students were ushered out onto that expansive stage to perform. I heard cheers and laughter and whistling, depending on the act, but I never looked out to see what was going on. I was lost in my own head, picturing myself out onstage, my voice ringing out for everyone to hear. Picturing a crowd of people rising to their feet. Imagining a roar of applause.
In what felt like no time at all I blinked and realized I was the only one left backstage. I heard the polite claps that preceded a performance and moved the curtain aside the tiniest bit.
It was that girl, the other singer, and she looked utterly at ease as the prerecorded piano music began to play. After a few measures she held up the mike, opened her mouth and knocked everyone flat.
I was completely stunned. She was brilliant. She had the kind of soaring, almost angelic quality to her voice that no amount of lessons can produce. High notes were no issue; she hit them flawlessly. Not to mention her perfectly controlled vibrato.
Her voice filled the room, captivating everyone. I felt sick.
How? How can anyone be this good?
Amidst the distant sound of my ego shattering, the girl's song finished. She lowered the microphone to an explosion of applause. People were on their feet. It was exactly the reaction I had pictured in my head, except it wasn't for me.
The girl accepted the standing ovations with the grace of a seasoned performer, curtseying and smiling at everyone before leaving the stage to join her overjoyed parents.
My name leaving the principal's lips woke me from my daze and I immediately panicked. Was he insane? I couldn't go out there! I had no way of following a performance like that!
The din segued into polite clapping. My stomach churned. After a show like the one the audience had just seen, there was only one way anybody else could go—down. I was incapable of going out there and ending up anything but a disappointment.
Everyone would understand, of course. After all, what can you expect when the best has already performed? At the most, second best. That was all. Second best.
Principal Herman said my name again. Any moment now he would realize something was wrong and come back to ask what. I couldn't let that happen, so I did the only thing I could.
I ran. Ran like my life depended on how fast I could escape. Ran through the back door of the stage and sprinted down the brightly lit hallway, yanking on doors until I found one that would open.
My parents found me there an hour later, in the boy's bathroom, curled up under the sink and determined to stay there until talent shows ceased to exist.
The next afternoon in school, I recalled the memory and shuddered. If I was thinking about it rationally, the whole thing was kind of stupid—blown way out of proportion by a child's point of view. Still, all it took was that one panic attack and my confidence was completely gone. I quit singing to anyone or anything aside from the radio, which (ironically) meant that by now I was so out of practice I'd probably sound like crap anyway. Thoughts like those kept me from so much as holding a microphone without cringing.
"El!" A familiar male voice, disgustingly cheerful as per usual, cut through my reverie. I blinked to see Joss waving energetically from our usual lunch table and drifted over to join him.
Before I even had my butt on the seat he was on me. "So, about the karaoke thing…"
Did I say Joss knew when he was beat? Sorry, my mistake. Rather, he knew how to pick his opportunities. I couldn't very well smack him or escape without causing a scene or passing on lunch. Today was pizza day; no way was I skipping out. I sighed heavily, resigned.
"Why not just save your breath? I'm not singing, Joss."
"Not what I was going ask," he sing-songed in that way that made me want to punch him. "I've decided you are hopeless when it comes to having fun. I guess that's your right if you wish to be boring. I, however, do not. I am going to take this chance to get up onstage and shock everyone with my stunningly accurate dance moves."
He struck a pose. I eyed him suspiciously.
"You're giving up that easily?"
He shrugged. "What am I gonna do, force you to sing? That'd be breaking rule number 44 of the best friend code." Green eyes drifted thoughtfully upward. "Also, you would kick my butt if I tried. I was actually hoping you'd tag along for moral support. Even a dashing and charismatic individual such as myself suffers from lapses in confidence now and again."
I almost snorted at the idea of Joss having anything less than the utmost confidence in himself, but considered. It couldn't hurt. Even if he was just trying to lure me in—you can lead a horse to water, etc.
"Fine. Saturday, once we've both caught up on homework." He made a face, which I ignored. "Then you drop this karaoke thing. Deal?"
He smiled his most innocent smile, which only served to make me even more skeptical. "Deal."
The week flew by. Before I knew it I was sitting in the dimly-lit little karaoke place appropriately named "Hole In The Wall," watching Joss flip excitedly through the lists of possible songs and purposely avoiding eye contact with any of the other five people in the room. Two of them, a college girl and a middle-aged man, had gone up to sing since we'd arrived. Both, as Joss had predicted, were drunk. It made for a pair of ear-splittingly painful performances, but my companion hadn't stopped smiling since we'd sat down.
After fifteen minutes and two more equally agonizing songs from the college girl (everyone else in the place must have snuck alcohol in as well, because no one had booed her yet), I shot Joss a pleading look. "Haven't you picked one yet? My head is killing me."
"Are you kidding? I chose one ages ago. I wanted to enjoy a couple songs from other people first."
He was serious. I felt like strangling him, but that could only end with someone calling the police and delaying our departure that much more. I resisted the urge and watched him leave to tell the DJ his choice.
DJ Deeks, a skinny, Asian looking guy, produced his own microphone from nowhere as College Girl finished up.
"Thank you Celine, that was something…uh, really special. Next up, singing 'Come On Eileen' by Dexy's Midnight Runners, give it up for Joss Evans!"
Joss all but skipped onstage, waving to the little room's occupants like he was at one of his own concerts. "Fire away, Deeks," he crowed, and a familiar fiddle piece began to play.
This was the thing about Joss: he was a ton of fun. Even though he was potentially tone deaf and knew about five lines of the actual lyrics (making up gibberish the rest of the time), his energy and wild dance moves made the whole thing work. To the point where whenever he pointed at me while singing the chorus, instead of wanting to crawl under the table, I grinned instead.
The song ended and the Hole In The Wall was filled with as much applause as six people can create. Joss bowed extravagantly, soaking it all up. He caught my eye, beaming. It was obvious he'd had the time of his life up there.
I used to feel like that about singing, too.
I bit my lip and stared hard at the table. A thought was working its way into my mind, unbidden and unstoppable.
No way. I haven't picked up a mike in years. I would suck.
Who cares? the thought retorted sharply.
I cared, but...
It was fun. That was the thing. Even when I hadn't hit every note, I'd always had more fun singing than doing anything else. Even when it hadn't been perfect, my family had praised me anyway. Even when it had just been me singing to my stuffed animals, I had enjoyed the feeling of doing something not everybody could do.
Singing made me happy.
The thought was painfully simple, but it felt like an epiphany. I replayed Joss's performance in my head. So he couldn't sing. So what? Everyone had applauded him just the same, because he had fun doing what he did and made that fun infectious.
I stood up so fast my chair tipped over. I didn't even notice. Before I could rethink it I made a beeline for the DJ to ask if he had any Pat Benatar.
The look on Joss's face when he saw me getting onto the stage, holding a microphone with shaking hands, was one that I will treasure for the rest of my natural life. He looked like someone had dropped an anvil on his head. I would've laughed if I hadn't been concentrating on keeping my dinner down.
By the time I took center stage I was terrified again. My mouth was almost painfully dry. I swallowed hard and wondered what on earth I had been thinking. You already know the details—escape plans, panicking, all that good stuff. I barely heard DJ Deeks saying my name.
"Now, with 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot', here's Ellie Simmons! Knock 'em dead!"
That last part reminded me of my dad's encouragement before the disastrous talent show. It was bizarrely comforting. Inhaling slowly, I nodded at him to start the song. As words began to fill the karaoke screen I nearly bolted out of the room, but Joss picked that moment to grab my attention and mouth something that—miracle of miracles—I could understand.
Come on Eileen!
I grinned. A single thought pushed all others out of my mind:
Time to crash the pity party. I know I can rock this song.
Maybe it wasn't my most vocally superb performance; I have no idea. I tore into that song like I had so many times in the comfort of my room at home. I'm pretty sure I even threw in some air guitar at one point. It's all kind of a blur now, but it's a happy blur (if that makes sense). It felt so good to be singing again.
All I really remember is College Girl whooping when I hit the sustained high note at the end, the cheering of my glorious audience of six, and my first exhilarated words to Joss after leaving the stage, happier than I'd been in a long time:
"We need to do this more often!"