This is how the fantasy went: I'm singing in a forest. Think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, woodland-creature vibe. Doesn't matter the song, but since this would be the early '90s, it's likely a Mariah Carey or Disney ballad. A stranger hears my voice and is utterly entranced by the sound. Sometimes he's a dreamy hunk, other times he's a record executive looking to find fresh talent. He follows my voice until he reaches me, where he is just floored. I must be mistaken, he says, shaking his head in disbelief. Could this magnificent sound really come from you, a seven-year-old girl?
It was how I passed the time while showering, and it was the reason my showers were long enough to warrant a dedicated pastime. I loved singing, and theoretically I was eager for an adoring audience, but I was also shy, so the sound of running water made me feel safe. But it was a false shield, which I learned one night when, stepping out of the bathroom, I found my dad in the hallway. "I'm going to pull up a chair next time," he said. "Great entertainment." I vowed to never sing where I could be heard again.
By most standards, I completely betrayed this vow: By high school I was singing solos in choir; by college, I signed up for all the open mics and karaoke nights I could fit into my schedule. I've even (unsuccessfully) auditioned for The Voice (multiple times). But my boldness is locale-specific. At home, I'd wait until the rest of the family was out of the house and then run through as many songs as I could before they pulled into the driveway; when I couldn't get time alone, I'd play the music loud enough to drown out my own voice alongside it. Singing in front of a crowd was performance, but singing where no one can hear or see you? That's private. That's therapy. And I didn't realize how sacred it was until I stopped doing it.
There is much to be said about the constraints of city living, especially in New York. We're spending lots of money to live in very small places. We're camouflaging our storage or downsizing our belongings, or both. Our roommates encroach on our space; our neighbors play their music too late and too loud. All of this I can handle, for the most part. The struggle I didn't anticipate, when moving to Brooklyn from Portland, Oregon — a move I assumed wouldn't be too much of an adjustment, having grown up on Long Island — was the specific claustrophobia of knowing I could always be heard.
It started with Sylvia, the late-middle-aged woman who rented me a lovely room in an apartment that was otherwise very much hers, who chose me because I waitressed most nights and who begrudgingly accepted my presence on others. Sylvia worked from home, and told me I walked too loudly, closed doors too loudly, typed too loudly. So I began adjusting the volume of my simply existing.
When I moved to an apartment with a coworker, I was ready to feel more ownership over the shared space. But my bedroom abutted my neighbor's, and sometimes I could hear her conversations word for word. I had muted sex and only listened to music with headphones in. When I moved, a year after that, into a friend's home, I was hyperaware of her early mornings and hated the idea of keeping her up late. Now I live with my boyfriend and cats, but the past four years have conditioned me for silence. My motivation to stay quiet has shifted with each home, from fear of further scolding, to concern about imposing on those around me, to plain and simple self-consciousness. But the result is the same: I never, ever sing.
Maybe you're reading this right now and you're like, Girl, chill. Everyone sings, all the time; just do it. But the thing is, singing for me is very much not chill. It's an event. It's door closed, lights out, eyes shut. It's songs carefully selected for the energy I'll expend practicing them. Repetition is important. It's the same song, the same verse, over and over again. It's at once exhausting and cleansing, the only analog of which I've ever found in acts of aggressive physical exertion, like kickboxing or spin. It's a surefire way of wiping out any emotional and psychological clutter. I jones for it, taking advantage of any spaces offering relative solitude or anonymity — vacant streets on late night walks home (sorry, people with windows open), the driver's seat when I'm renting a car, empty stairwells in buildings I'm rarely in.
What else am I supposed to do? Excuse myself and explain to my boyfriend, brb, gonna go sing "Vanishing" until my throat is sore? Be the neighbor on her third run-through of the Hamilton soundtrack? It's annoying; it's embarrassing. But maybe there's no escaping being annoying and embarrassing when living at arm's reach of both loved ones and strangers. Maybe that's a requisite of close community, which, I have to remind myself, is as often a solace as it is a nuisance. Maybe (probably) no one cares at all if I sing, and it's a matter of re-learning how to be comfortable making my own noise. In the meantime, I'll look into some cute soundproofing options.