A peculiar thing happens to people after they turn 40: inhibitions fall away faster than hair follicles. Self-discovery becomes the rage and formerly sane people run out to get tattoos, climb mountains, and traverse the country by motorcycle. The search for our hidden selves may lead to a career change or simply be for our own fulfillment, but one thing’s certain: if anyone thought we were crazy at 20, take a look at us now. . . .
After three months of dating, Kathy and I had fallen into an established routine of phoning during the week and then spending the better part of the weekend at the beach, but with summer waning, it was time for a change. On one drizzly early September morning Kathy suggested we stay local and go to a karaoke bar at night because she wanted me to hear her sing.
I’d heard her before, humming along to the radio, and while it wasn’t bad, she was no Aretha Franklin. There’d also been rumblings from her friends about how great she was but I didn’t feign any real interest. I might’ve given it more credence if she’d once been a Spice Girl, but at this age, surrounded by men who supposedly threw 95-mile-per-hour fastballs before hurting their shoulders, and women who would’ve been Vogue cover models if not for the kids, I take rumors of greatness with a grain of salt. Either way, at 10 p.m. I found myself in the unfamiliar, yet oh-so-familiar land of closet superstars, with my girlfriend headed toward the stage.
“Give it up for Kathy,” D.J. Kelly shouted into the microphone as the opening bars of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” burst through the P.A. and Kathy settled into her diva stance, fixated on the monitor. A tepid round of applause ensued and this was followed by utter silence except for the sound of Kathy’s horrid ear-splitting vocals. Whereas the bar had been somewhat animated during the other performances, it now resembled Pompeii in the aftermath of the Vesuvius eruption, with many of the patrons frozen in the same contorted and agonized positions as that city’s dead population. Worse yet, those that appeared to be still alive were eyeing me as if I was to blame. It was the longest three minutes and fourteen seconds of my life.
After it finally ended, Kathy handed over the microphone and began descending the stage, but hesitated when obvious remnants of the happy hour crowd, a half-dozen unruly drunks seated near the back, leapt to their feet and started cheering wildly. Kathy bowed to them, a blushing wide-eyed smile gracing her face as she rose upright. Others, probably rejoicing because the song was over, joined in, and as she high-fived her way back to the table, her grin continued to grow. I’d never seen her so happy.
“Well, how did I sound?” she cooed, nuzzling up against me.
This was a loaded question if there ever was one. While I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, I certainly didn’t want to encourage her either. It was lose-lose. There was no time to play the middle and my fondness for her won out. “You were great,” I coughed.
“Thanks,” she purred, kissing my cheek. “I think everyone else really enjoyed it, too. Help me pick out another song.”
Poring through the phone book-size song tome, I did my best to stave off the inevitable. I shook my head at her first eight choices, but eventually, resigned myself to my fate, hoping, ideally, for a short song or one with no words though I knew neither was likely. After a bald Johnny Cash, a black Melissa Etheridge, and a male Cher finished their respective sets, Kathy was summoned to the stage to butcher Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
I took it as my cue and waved to the waitress, “Hit me with a shot of Jameson.” I’d noticed some of the more serious karaoke-iers glaring at me as Kathy left the table — If I was gonna get beat up because of my girlfriend’s lousy singing, I figured I’d better be proactive about it and dull the pain.
The rowdies took it as their cue, too, standing and singing along and punching the air, or each other, at every opportunity presented. That Kathy missed most of the first stanza and spent a good portion of the song playing catch-up did not deter them. Near the end of it, one of them plucked decorative plastic flowers from a vase on the windowsill and tossed them in Kathy’s direction. The girl who couldn’t follow a teleprompter or hold a note was somehow able to snatch a plastic rose from mid-air with her teeth and after three protracted curtsies, departed the stage to thunderous applause, the flower splayed across her mouth and her arms thrust skyward like a world-class matador.
“Hear that?!” she exclaimed. “I messed up a little at the beginning but they loved it. I’m really hitting it tonight!”
I couldn’t get drunk enough at this point, especially after Cher, whose given name was Fred, switched gears and belted out Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Big Billy was next and proved a crowd favorite with his rendition of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It,” replete with stylized dance moves and belly flashing. By the time Kathy made it back to the front to torture us with her crummy version of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” I’d had enough. It was official: I hated music. In fact, I now welcomed the hearing loss that so concerned me earlier in the night, and instead of curling my ears against my shoulders to protect them, I cupped them toward the speakers in an attempt to expedite the process. Deaf people, I decided, were lucky.
Kathy was glowing when she returned to the table. “Hey babe,” she elbowed me, “we should sing a duet.”
If I learned anything in Sunday school, it’s that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s bad enough Kathy couldn’t sing, but neither can I, and unlike her, I knew it. “Kathy,” I winced, “I can’t sing.”
She looked me over. “Did you ever try?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “I was in chorus in the second grade. . . .”
Tears welled up in Kathy’s eyes. “Listen babe,” she interjected, “I always wanted to be a singer. It was my dream, but I was afraid to actually do it. Then about a year ago, I finally worked up the courage and now look at me.”
Tears started to pool in my eyes, too. One year. If only I’d met her a little earlier, I could’ve prevented this whole mess. “Kathy, I’m no good.”
“Do it for me,” she pleaded, her head on my shoulder. “Just this once.”
I’d heard that line before but with the relationship so new, it was a golden opportunity to show her I was for real. Besides, it was late, the crowd had thinned, and if nothing else, I owed it to these people after what they put me through. Fifteen minutes later, I staggered on stage with the knowledge I’d be humiliating myself to the tune of “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.”
It went worse than I could’ve ever imagined. The stage felt like it was 20 feet high and I couldn’t keep up with the teleprompter. Still, Kathy, who probably sounded like Mariah Carey standing next to me, did her best to help out. She took over when I got lost, and encouraged me with little pats on the back, mouthing “You’re doing great,” during the musical breaks, while reassuring me with a constant nod. The three remaining drunkards kicked in, too, and I was grateful for their garbled lyrics because they masked mine.
At the close of the song, I turned and pushed the microphone into D.J. Kelly’s hands. Surprised by the speed of my movements, she reacted like a doorman refusing a tip and it fell to the floor. As I bent to pick it up, a pair of boxer shorts slid across the stage. “Those are for you, lover boy,” screamed one of the drunks, doubled over in laughter. “I’m your biggest fan!”
Maybe it was the alcohol or a consequence of the intense embarrassment, but more likely the feeling I’d disappointed Kathy with my pitiful performance, and a few seconds later, I was dabbing my forehead with them, a la Tom Jones. I couldn’t wait to get offstage though, already wondering if Kathy would dump me, but just as I began to step down, she grabbed my wrist and lifted it in the air like a winning boxer. “Give it up for my rock star!” she yelled into the microphone. With the cheering in the background, I gazed at Kathy and for one brief shining moment I was John Lennon, and she, my Yoko Ono. “C’mon babe,” she giggled as she led me away. “Let’s go pick out another song.”
Robert Semple is a freelance humor writer who has been published previously in Long Island Pulse and the Bodega Monthly Anthology. His Web site is robertsemple.net.