My hands trembled as I got up on the stage. The bar was sticky and a heavy smell hung in the air, a smell of liquor, beer and hard men. The crowd was raucous. A guitar screamed above them. My skin was warm and my heart fluttered. The whiskey made my mind hazy. It was supposed to quell my nerves, but it still felt as though a swarm of butterflies were flying around in my stomach. I gulped, but the lump in my throat wouldn’t go away. I tried not to look at the crowd, but it was impossible. I wondered what they thought of me coming onto the stage, the blonde beauty. The bombshell. That’s what Mom had always called me anyway; she’d always dressed me up as a little doll, making me into the image she wanted. She always called me beautiful, but I couldn’t see it.
My friends had made me do this. The group of them were sitting at the table, a pitcher in between them all. They clapped and hollered loudly, but the noises got lost in the cacophony of the bar. All I wanted to do was turn and run outside, to feel the freedom of the night air and put this behind me. I wasn’t ready. This wasn’t right. I offered them a weak smile. Even I could feel it was false and I knew they must have felt it too.
The bar felt small and cramped. I could smell the sweat of the bikers and the rough men all around me. Their tattoos were illuminated in the dim light. The women who hung off their arms looked at me with scorn, wondering why a girl like me was in a place like this. I wondered the same thing. I hated my friends for making me do this, but deep down I knew it was something I needed to do. I had to crack the shell that was keeping me from enjoying the world. I had to break free, and the only way I knew how to do that was through song.
Everyone always told me I had the voice of an angel, a voice that could move the heavens and make grown men weep. There was something that happened when I sang. A spirit flowed through me and uplifted me. I was elevated to another plane and it was as though the world made sense. All the chaos and fear and doubt that usually plagued my mind was stripped away, leaving me with a pure feeling of belonging. When I sang I was at home. I was doing what I was meant to do, and I did it well. I felt free. Now was the time for me to share my gift. Rachel had persuaded me to do it.
“Think about it, Trish, you’re never going to see anybody there ever again. Nobody is going to expect anything from you, so what’s the harm? It’s better to do it at the Honey Pot than anywhere else. You can be completely free of any fear because this is the only night you’re ever going to go there,” she’d said. It helped that the drinks were cheap, but it certainly wasn’t the usual crowd.
As I walked onto the stage my gaze fell upon the crowd again and I noticed t
hree men staring at me. I don’t know what it was about them in particular, but when I noticed them it was as though a lightning bolt shot through me. Their faces were cast in shadow so I couldn’t make out their features, except their eyes, which seemed to shine in an ethereal way.
The host welcomed me on stage. The open mic so far hadn’t shown up any surprises. A few drunken people had warbled, but the crowd had been surprisingly supportive. It gave me confidence that it might be alright. The band was made up of long-haired rockers, grease monkeys from a bygone age where the music was raw and real, not over-produced and tuned to perfection.
I felt so small up there upon that stage and it brought back to mind the first time I had ever been on a stage. I looked to the side and was thankful not to see Mom there, pinning all her hopes on me. Back then I was young, naïve and scared. Mom wanted me to win competitions, to be a star. She said she always wanted to give me a better life than she had, but in truth I think that she just had a daughter so that she could have a second chance at life and try to make up for some of the mistakes she had made, not that she would ever admit that. No, any failure in life was a mixture of fate and bad circumstances, never a poor choice on her part. On that day I had stepped up to the microphone and nothing had come out when I opened my mouth. I ran off the stage, humbled and humiliated, and I swore that I would never do anything like that again.
But here I am. The host asked me my name. I answered him, but I was so nervous that I wasn’t even aware of what I was saying. The lyrics were on a stand in front of me. I looked to them, hoping that I could try to forget about the crowd. I could already feel my chest tightening. Breath choked in my throat. I couldn’t do this. Oh God, what the hell was I doing? I looked to the shadows on the side of the stage and felt the urge to run away and be swallowed by it all. Why did I let Rachel talk me into this? Why did I think doing this was a good idea? Better to just let the misery claim me than try to fight back against the onrushing tide.
But then the drummer smashed a note, the guitar screamed again, and the bar rumbled as the bass joined in. Suddenly I could hear my voice rising and expanding, filling the bar. I gripped the microphone stand for support so that I wouldn’t melt into a puddle, but the emotions surged out of me. All at once I was vanquishing the trauma of my youth. All those times Mom had yelled at me and screamed at me to do better, all those times she had called me useless and worthless for not being able to do something as simple as sing.
I had never understood it. I never understood why she didn’t seem to realize that I wasn’t the daughter she wanted me to be. I never understood why she couldn’t be like all the other Moms; why couldn’t she hug me and wipe away my tears. Why couldn’t she read with me instead of making me sing and perform different routines? At first it was fun, until I realized that the only reason she did it was to make sure I had it nailed down for performances.
That was the truth really. She thought life was only worth living if you had an audience. There was no point to anything else. It was all a show, everything designed to elicit an emotional response from the crowd. Unless people were gawking, gaping and applauding there was just no point to anything. What use was a life lived in the shadows? It was all made to be lived with a spotlight shining down on you, sparkling as the world watched on, a witness to talent and beauty, a witness to everything good in the world.
The only time I felt Mom was actually genuine was when she sang me to sleep. That was the only time I liked that she was different to other Moms. While they read their daughters to sleep, mine lulled me into slumber with sweet songs, and a voice that could break a heart. Mom had often told me that talent wasn’t enough to make it, and she was proof of that. While she had a beautiful voice she never had the extra bit of luck that people needed to make it to the next level. That’s why she tried to push me, tried to learn from her mistakes and make up for them through me. I suspected that if I had a little girl of my own Mom would have tried to make the dream come true through her as well, an endless parade of warriors ready to fight until finally one of us made it, as though it was only a matter of flinging enough of us at destiny until it finally buckled and gave Mom what she wanted.
But that wasn’t to be.
The big C had gotten her before her time. Life hadn’t really been kind to her, nor had I over the past few years. Once I got old enough to think for myself and fight back I was able to tell her how I felt and that I hated being on stage, that I never wanted to perform. When I told her that, you would have thought I’d threatened to kill myself. She was shocked and taken aback, as though I had stabbed her in the heart. She tried to make me feel guilty by telling me how much she had sacrificed to give me a chance, that so many other girls would have killed for a Mom like her. Maybe she was right, but I wasn’t one of them.
Even up until the end Mom didn’t understand the sacrifices I had made. I had basically lost my childhood to home rehearsals and nerves and anxiety. I was a wreck even just thinking about putting on a costume. Sometimes I still woke up in a cold sweat from nightmares about her driving me to an audition. I’d be crawling in the car, trying to escape the suffocating atmosphere, and before I went on I’d be having a panic attack. Mom used to just call it a part of the process and said that every great artist went through the same thing. It was an act of summoning something wonderful, she said, but I never understood why anyone should want to put themselves through that. It was sheer torture and it wasn’t worth the pain.
I’ve never believed that things that are worth having are always difficult to get. I think things should be easy. I learned that not only from these panic attacks but also from Danny, my first love at school. Oh, how I was so enamored with him. Every time I thought of him my breath was taken away and I could barely think straight. My skin tingled and I was certain that the two of us were meant to be together. My feelings for him were so powerful; how could anything else happen? How could he not return the same feelings that I had? But I learned that just because you wanted something, even if you wanted it with all your heart and soul, you might not get it. Nobody deserves anything in this world. Mom had learned that through her efforts at trying to forge a career in show business. I had learned it at high school from the boy who broke my heart without even talking to me.
I shed a lot of tears over Danny. I’ve shed a lot of tears during my whole life, but none more so than when I learned Mom was dying.
It was bad enough learning she had cancer. She called me up after a long time of not speaking with her. I tried to harden my heart when it came to Mom because I knew that if I softened she would try and worm her way back in, and that would only mean trouble for me. I assumed she was calling for a favor, but then she blurted out that she had cancer. I immediately felt guilty for having spent as little time as possible with her over the past few years, and when I found out I raced to her and tried to take care of her as best I could. Having cancer didn’t dispel all the trauma she had put me through and it didn’t erase all the shouting matches we’d had over the years, but it does change your perspective on certain things. It certainly changed mine.
She told me that she only had a short time to live and she lamented all the things she had never done.
“But the one thing I’ll never regret is having you. I know it wasn’t easy, and I know your life hasn’t always been what you wanted it to be…I know that I wasn’t always what you wanted from a mother, but it’s been a good life. I love you Trish, and I know that you can be anything you want. All I ever wanted was for you to be adored by the world,” she had said.
“I was adored Mom, by you, and that’s all I ever wanted,” I said, tears streaming down my face. I pressed my head against hers as she took her last breath. I felt the rush of warmth against my skin and I sang her favorite song to her as she went to sleep for the last time. It was the same song I sang at the Honey Pot, a song for her. I knew all she wanted was to see me on stage so I made this one concession for her, a tribute to her memory, and hoped t
hat she could see me from wherever she was.
I suppose a part of me hoped that it might bring her back in some way, that it might conjure some long-forgotten memory. I remembered all of the bad things of course, but they didn’t seem so bad any longer. There was a void in my life. I had missed out on a lot of time with Mom because I held a grudge against her and it was startling knowing that I would never get that time back. All the emotion poured through me and seeped out into the bar, settling upon the crowd.
Mom had always told me that singing was the most intimate way to connect with the rest of the world, that when you showed your heart and put real, genuine emotion into the song everyone could latch onto it and take a part of it themselves, and the atmosphere in the room would rise and simmer and then erupt in an explosion of applause and adoration. I was always too stuck in my own mind to fully appreciate what she was trying to say, always too afraid of showing the innermost vulnerable parts of me, but now that I was on stage singing to this crowd of strangers I finally understood why she was so devoted to making it.
The feeling of being a part of something larger than myself was intoxicating. When I opened my eyes, even though my vision was blurred with tears, I could see them all watching me, hanging on my emotions. The song flowed from my heart and soul, radiant in its beauty and I was so attuned to them that the air almost seemed to glow. I stretched out my arms and felt as though I was floating. The music receded into the background and the song almost seemed to sing itself, as though it had taken complete control of me, possessed me. I like to think that it was my Mom’s spirit claiming me and performing one last time, a spiritual duet between us that would lay to rest all the enmity and anguish I had felt over the years.
All eyes were rapt upon me. My skin tingled and my heart felt as though it was going to burst with pure emotion. The bar suddenly seemed more beautiful. Its scars faded and a resplendent aura emanated from the crowd. It was glorious. That was the power of a song. That was the power Mom was trying to teach me, and now I finally understood. After all this time, I finally understood.
The last note left my lips and the song faded. I bowed my head and wiped the tears from my eyes, gasping and panting for breath.
“Goodbye Mom,” I whispered as I placed the microphone back. I bowed, thanked the band, and then left the stage to rapturous applause.
As I walked back to my friends it felt as though there were wings on my feet. I was elated and exhilarated, my heart pounded and I struggled to catch my breath. My eyes glistened with tears and my clothes clung to my sweat-stained skin. I collapsed into the chair. Rachel leapt upon me and hugged me. The others there were more like acquaintances really, only Rachel truly mattered. She was the only one who knew the anguish I had been through.
“You’ve earned this,” she said, and thrust a shot in front of me. I took it and felt the hot liquid burn my aching throat. I shook my head and felt a haze rise within my mind. The band was taking a break so the music had stopped for the moment. The bar was devoid of music, but the chatter of conversation gave it a pleasing ambience. My legs were like Jell-O and I was still trembling with raw emotion. Rachel handed me a proper drink after that, which I took gratefully, trying to gain at least a little hydration.
“You were amazing!”
“I had no idea you could sing like that!”
“How have you not done karaoke before?”
The people around me said all these things and more. I had never been very good with praise though. I dipped my head and my cheeks flushed. I mumbled something about not being very good and that this was just a special occasion, but I don’t think they really understood. It did make me glow with pride. The praise and adulation of others was a powerful drug and I had to be careful to not enjoy it too much.
“This was just for my Mom,” I said, and that was all I wanted to say on the matter.
“Are you sure about that?” Rachel asked. “You looked a natural fit up there. And you’re better than anyone else that has sung tonight.”