The Eye of the Beholder

I used to have a dream where a bird would sing beautiful music outside my window while I sat in bed and listened. It was such a vivid dream that sometimes I would cry when I woke to my quiet, plain bedroom. The dream would always start with me lying in bed, listening to the sound of the trash being picked up by the garbage-men, not wanting to get up for work. Then the birdsong would start and I would be caught in it. The music made everything seem to be brighter, as if the world was glowing from the inside like live coals. I would want to get up to search for the bird, but instead I would sit in bed, just listening. One time in my dream I brought my sister and then my mother to hear the birdsong, and they agreed it sounded nice, but only nice, like the way we enjoy the sound of wind chimes or the sizzle of bacon on the frying pan.

Me though, I found myself thinking about the birdsong during my work day, when I was cooking dinner, when I was showering. It reminded me of a time when I was hiking alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I suddenly came upon a clear creek flowing over rainbow-colored rocks. I had stopped walking to stare at the scene: the mottled greens and yellows of the leaves, the glistening water as it ran over the rocks, and the green moss huddled next to the bank. I wanted to take in the beauty with more than my eyes, and it made me sad to know that soon what I was seeing would be somewhat forgotten and distorted within my memory.

Even now, when I look back at my many hikes in the wilderness and the countless times I dreamt about the bird, it all feels distant, like it happened to someone else or maybe not at all. I wonder what it was I gained from experiencing such beauty. Did I get to keep any of it at all?

When I stopped dreaming about the bird, the music was still in my head. I had become attached to the dream and I wanted it back. I started taking online voice lessons, humming in the shower and when I was on the subway, and then one day, I worked up the nerve to sing to my roommate, who I barely knew but greatly admired. We had moved in together after meeting online a few months before, and I knew she was in the entertainment industry somehow. I was cooking breakfast, poached eggs and corned beef hash, and she was sitting at the breakfast nook reading the newspaper.

I just opened my mouth and, la la la, started singing notes, beautiful notes. She looked at me and covered her mouth in surprise, and I knew I had impressed her.

At the end of the week I told my roommate that we should go sing karaoke together, thinking that having her, with her enviable red hair, sit in the audience and watch me would lend some sort of power.

We went to the bar on 106th and Amsterdam, where they did comedy on Thursday nights and karaoke on Fridays.  Long silver streamers served as a backdrop to the stage, which couldn’t have been more than a foot off the ground. My roommate and I drank a beer while we watched a woman sing two Bruce Springsteen songs and a man sing half of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before he got bored and handed the mike to someone else.

I took that as my cue and jumped up to take the mike. I chose a song from the repertoire and started singing, and honestly it felt pretty good. People were looking at me with interest and my roommate was smiling and nodding.

But then I saw her make eye contact with a man at the bar and smile wider. My stomach tightened and my voice cracked. I watched her lean toward the man and whisper something in his ear. Who was she to get attention while I was the one up here singing?

When he chuckled in response to her secret joke, my voice faltered completely. There was a delay in the speakers, and for a second I heard the sound of my naked voice, which was nowhere as soothing as the birdsong. It was actually a very embarrassing sound.

I jumped away from the microphone, into the shadow, and quickly flitted off the stage, to everyone’s confusion. I had moved too fast for their beer-slowed eyes. But the song was still playing: Alicia Keys finished “No One” all by herself. Good job, Alicia Keys.

I mentioned something about the bathroom to my roommate and she patted my shoulder, half-heartedly complimenting me on my singing. I got the impression that she and her hot new man friend had just been discussing my distinctly unflattering voice. My cheeks flamed red, but there was nothing I could say to them. Whatever they thought about me, they were probably right.

I left the bar, took a cab to our apartment, made myself tea, and read a book with a shirtless man on the cover for three hours. When I checked my cell phone, I had received one voicemail, five text messages, and two missed calls. My roommate was going home with the guy and she was worried that I wouldn’t make it back okay. I texted, telling her that I was fine, perfectly dandy, and then I tossed my phone across the room.

I held my book up and imagined my roommate, with her red hair draped over her perfect body, tracing a line down the chest of the man on the cover. The image fit. When I was in the picture, I was an awkward, squat thing who could only stare at him admiringly, unworthy of touching his delicious-looking skin. Why was it that beauty could only mix with beauty?

I was suddenly sick of the book, which was about a quiet school girl who gets swept off her feet by a gorgeous man with the ability to transform into a bear. I chucked the book across the room and it landed next to my phone.

That night I dreamt about a bird, which I assumed was the same one that would sing outside my window in my dreams. But this time the bird was limp and I was holding it by a wing. There was no singing.

My other hand was brushing the bird’s feathers, slowly, but in the wrong direction. Instead of running along the wing from the body to the tip, my hand moved inward so the feathers were getting caught under my fingers. The feathers were unexpectedly sharp, like the edges of grass blades, so they sliced at my fingers until blood oozed between the cracks. But still, my hand continued moving up the wing like it had a mind of its own, bending the feathers upward at an unnatural angle, until I could see the bird’s bumpy grey skin underneath. Then, as my hand kept pushing the feathers forward, one by one the quills twisted in the skin and split away, leaving gouges of pale pink. The freed feathers drifted to the ground in chunks, and flecks of my blood landed on top, rolling off their water-resistant sides.

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