by Shaina Joy Machlus
Illustration by Camila Rosa
The first time I actually sang, I cried. It was only a few nervous tears, enough to dampen my shirt cuff but not enough to demand the attention of my teacher. Perhaps due to my anxiety, my inaugural class was completed outside of my own body. I watched myself leave my shoes at the heavy door, put on bright pink house slippers, shuffle through the hall and the sparse living room into the sun-soaked balcony enclosed in glass. I saw myself sit down in the wobbly, plastic folding chair, look out onto the gardens and balconies of the other neighbors—my audience. I watched myself hear the tap of a finger on the plastic electronic keyboard; what sounded like Morse code: SOS.
Tap, tap, tap. It was my call to begin, to repeat. When I didn’t respond, she repeated the same note. I watched myself open my mouth and push out silent air. I remember the thought: “Does anyone ever really know where to begin?” Of course they do. There was the sensation that everyone else never actually starts at the beginning, that they were all experts from the very start. At 26, I found out that it was not too late for this bird to find its song. All I had to do was spread my wings and land halfway around the world from my New Jersey home. There, in Barcelona, swept up in the struggle for Catalan independence, I found my singing voice.
Most people have no memory of their first attempt to sing. It was something that happened in toddlerhood; in passing. Their odd notes casually floated away with laughter, claps, a chorus of people joining in. That is not to say my childhood was not filled with music. Still, I had the strong feeling I had never personally experienced this milestone. I carried only one true memory of singing. I was driving an old Volvo station wagon through a particularly lush part of New York State. I rolled down the passenger window beside my then lover, opened my mouth wide as it could go, filled my lungs with summer air, and tried to let song escape me. The sound I made was so far from my intended aria, I kept quiet ever since. Unless alcohol persuaded me otherwise. There was the time I sang “Single Ladies” and the karaoke bar pretended to be closing in order to keep me from singing again. Or when my microphone was taken away mid-“Say My Name.”
The December before I turned 30, something shifted. While at a very ordinary concert, I decided I couldn’t spend the rest of my ordinary life not knowing what it felt like to sing. To live a life afraid of your own voice is no way to live. I chose the very first instructor I called. Probably because I did not know any other singing instructors. Also because her name was Romi and I loved the way she spoke in a thick Argentinian accent about her nontraditional singing method of accessing your inner child: “gritando como una niña.” Classes were 30 minutes twice a week. I always arrived promptly, ready to take my shoes off and begin.
It took me two whole sessions to make any noise at all. Our classes were always the same; Romi would progressively tap a higher and higher note on the keyboard in quick threes: tap, tap, tap. I would repeat the note as best as I could, yelling in short bursts a sound that was halfway between an “ah!” and an “oh!” To my surprise, creating these noises slowly opened up a space inside of me. A space that was the opposite of where my tears came from—although the two seemed to function in parallel. It was a strange, but not altogether disagreeable feeling to pry myself open and closed simultaneously.
On the morning of October 2, 2017, I pressed the number four apartment button and rode the beautiful but creaky elevator up to Romi’s place. I took my seat beside her and her keyboard. Unlike our first class, I felt glued inside my heavy body.
I had spent the previous day on the streets of Barcelona, from 4 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. There was a referendum to determine whether the northwest region of Spain, Catalunya, would succeed and become its own independent country. The Spanish government in Madrid deemed this election unconstitutional. But back in Catalunya, my home for the last five years, no one could have imagined the violence that was unleashed by the government against its peacefully gathered citizens waiting to vote. National police were deployed and told to stop the voting by any means necessary. Over 1,000 people were hospitalized because of police beatings. A rubber bullet took one person’s eye, another had her fingers broken one by one and was sexually assaulted, blood stained the halls of the elementary schools that had been used as voting stations.
State endorsed violence is nothing new. But it was new to me. I was shocked, which made me realize how privileged I was to have never experienced anything like it. I had no idea how to deal with what happened, how to measure its impact. Time was wildly inefficient, since the hours dragged by in an untrustworthy, deep-sea manner. We hung on to each second, waiting to see who would be thrown into prison next, trudging through protests that lasted for days. The photos in the news seemed from another time or place, somewhere violently fascist and not at all the sunny, bread and tomato scented Barcelona I knew. There was an enduring silence throughout that day. People seemed to be holding their collective breath, awaiting the moment when the armored trucks full of police arrived. They locked arms in front of the school doors, patiently expecting to fall under the police’s undiscriminating batons. I had no idea at the time, but I had been waiting to break the silence of those days ever since.
When friends ask me about my singing lessons, most find it rather amusing that after more than a year, a single word has never passed in song between my two lips. And I get that they do not get it. How could anyone know just how far back this silence stretched? In my elementary school, I was the only student who was not invited to be part of the choir. My music teacher generously let me tryout three times but I was still relinquished to the silent task of moving the stage curtains back and forth. Singing, something that formerly left me feeling deserted, had now become an unexpected oasis. I briefly dreamed of making a Pretty Woman-esque, Beyoncé themed comeback to those non-believing karaoke crowds (“You work on commission, don’t you? Big mistake. BIG mistake.” to the tune of any song off of the B’Day album). But it did not take me long to recognize that this fantasy had nothing to do with actual singing. I never sang because I did not actually know what singing was.
The day after the referendum was sunny, I remember exactly what the sky looked like from the window of Romi’s balcony. The clouds hung lightly in cotton ball form against a very neon-blue sky. Seagulls, farther from the sea than I had ever before seen, looked gigantic flying next to the bevy of ubiquitous pigeons. That was the day I cried. My tears were massive, heavy enough to form a cavern within my chest. Romi did not pause for a moment except to pass me tissues. Something miraculous happened in that little room. The more I cried, the louder my voice became, the deeper the space inside me opened up. I was like a balloon being inflated, I suddenly had infinite space. I did not judge the noises that came from my mouth because I knew they were part of something much larger, they told a story that was impossible to tell otherwise. I heard perfect notes, formed exactly as they were meant to be, and I felt grateful to finally understand the expansiveness of song.
We live between the notes of everyday life; some are beautiful like the popping of potatoes and onions being fried to make tortilla, others intensely painful like rubber bullets whizzing by into a crowd of people, and many are barely audible unless listened to very carefully like the moment the wind shifts to carry salty sea air from the mediterranean. I hear them all as song now. And I sing in response.
On April 26, 2018, five white men, including a police officer, who brutally gang-raped an 18 year-year-old teenage girl in Pamplona, Spain, were sentenced. The men took videos and photos of themselves penetrating the woman orally, vaginally, and anally, then stole her phone and left her half naked on the stairs. The court used the videos and photos to determine that lying still with one’s eyes closed and remaining silent constitutes as consent. None of the men were charged with rape, instead the Spanish court system convicted them of minor crimes that barely warrant jail time. Although I did not have one scheduled, I asked if I could come by for an impromptu singing class. From the folding chair, I watched an older woman hang her laundry, a cat balance across a fence, marvelled at the spectacular garden that was always empty. Romi tapped on a key, I screamed the note, letting it exit from the top of my head and make an arc downwards, landing right in front of where my two watery eyes meet, so I could watch it bloom.
This piece was featured in our DIY issue. Purchase a copy here.