Finding Her Voice
By Natalie Zellat Dyen
Claire remembers exactly when she decided to stop talking. It was her thirtieth birthday, and the family was seated around the dining room table discussing the economy. Voices rising and falling, arms waving, silverware clinking. The entire room was in motion—except Claire, who sat like a rock in a stream as voices flowed around her. It was all so predictable she could have scripted it. “Money, blah, blah, profits—” The resonant baritone of her brother, the lawyer, commanded attention. Enough already, she thought. This is a dining room not a courtroom. “Taxes, deregulation...” Give me a break. Someone should regulate that mouth and those lawyer lips. Can’t someone please make him shut up. Please. Shut. Up. Claire figured it was time for her mother to jump in. Which she did right on cue, with the crystalline delivery of the opera singer she’d been, a voice so striking that one had to resist the
urge to demand an encore. Her father weighed in with his Tom Waits growl that grated on her nerves. Finally her sister. Every sentence sounded like a question.
Bolstered by a silent rehearsal of her arguments and an extra glass of wine, Claire finally plunged in. She’d barely completed a sentence when her brother interrupted to ask if someone would please pass the salt, her mother asked if anyone wanted more mashed potatoes, and the conversation drifted downstream. She thought, This is how it must feel to be shot by a ray gun in an old science fiction movie. The kind that turns you transparent before it vaporizes you. For thirty years Claire had struggled to be heard. Everyone cut her off mid-sentence. They made half-hearted attempts to listen when she called them out on this. But something was different this time. A tectonic plate had shifted in her core. Enough was enough. She was tired of struggling and it was time to shut up for good. Shut up she did while everyone talked, sang Happy Birthday, and watched her blow out the candles. As she had suspected, no one noticed her silence. Later that night Claire had second thoughts about the practicality of total silence. If she gestured furiously like a mime or wrote messages on notepads, people might mistake her for Harpo Marx’s love child. So she decided she wouldn’t completely renounce speech but would open her mouth only when absolutely necessary. Her plan wouldn’t be too difficult to carry out in terms of her career. A fact checker for a publishing house, she was able to do most work at home. She only had to show up at the office twice a month. She could handle that.
Claire spent the next day mapping out a strategy of silence. She would build on the process already started—the gradual withdrawal from the book club, the Bible study group, anything that required face-to-face meetings. Participating in group discussions had always been painful. As far back as elementary school, Claire rarely raised her hand—and then only after rehearsing her answer. She thought everyone experienced the same anxiety when speaking in groups, until an extroverted friend described how fantastic she felt when she answered the teacher’s questions, and everyone looked her way in admiration. Claire envied her friend’s weightless relationship with the world. Her remaining friends were scattered around the country, so communication was by email. And the few times her friends phoned her, Claire made sure to orchestrate the conversation so they’d do most of the talking. “So the jerk actually dumped you. Wanna vent?” “How’d you end up in Des Moines, of all places?” “The wedding? Tell me everything.” Now she might not even answer the phone. Eliminating everyday conversation would be more of a challenge. Claire constantly studied others, trying to learn the trick to interpersonal communication. At the beauty salon, she watched other women talk effortlessly with the hairdressers. Hoping to pick up conversational tips, she tried using the same topics as other clients but her attempts fell flat. She wondered what was wrong with her. Awkwardness? Tone of voice? Was it the disconnect between the conversation she was having and the one she was trying to have? Or was she just boring? She knew some essential element was missing, as if she had been absent from school the day they taught the How to Have Normal Conversations lesson. Damned exhausting, all that talking. Shutting up would be a blessed relief. She’d strip all conversations to bare essentials. Why not script her responses by writing them down on three-by-five cards, one card for each social situation: supermarket, subway, doctor’s office. She would practice her questions and responses in front of the mirror until she could deliver them with conviction. And whenever she encountered an unanticipated situation, she’d write up a new three-by-five and study it like a tourist using a phrase book. She felt like a tourist, always groping for the right phrase, performing silent rehearsals before speaking as if she were translating into an unfamiliar language. With practice she might eventually appear normal most of the time: How much do I owe you? Is that seat taken? D’ya have any lamb chops? She worried she might be crossing a line between eccentricity and the nut house. But she knew she couldn’t spend the next thirty years allowing her nerves to wear her ego down to a pumpkin seed.
The next day, Claire anticipated the challenges of her first day of qualified silence. It should be a relatively easy day, she thought. A trip to the market. To the doctor. She’d have to use public transportation to get to the doctor’s office, but luckily she had exact change so she wouldn’t have to talk to nasty token takers. Claire wondered whether abrasiveness was a prerequisite for some jobs, or whether employees took special classes on how to make people feel like shit. Like the last time she had to go to the DMV. A battered wood counter separated the employees from the public, the floor behind the counter higher than in front. Staring up Alice-in-Wonderland-like at one of the clerks, Claire asked for instructions, and the woman barked, “Can’t you read? Sign says take a number and get in line.” Then she turned to her companion and stage whispered something about stupidity. Claire imagined taking a hammer to the big sign, laughing as shards of glass bloodied their heads, wiping the smirks off their smug, bureaucratic faces. But instead she said nothing, quietly turned away and took a number. Which made her realize she’d need a separate set of note cards for dealing with government workers and schmucks. These cards could include physical cues—maybe even pictures—along with scripted responses to counteract the intimidation factor. Never lower your eyes. Never look away, dammit. Speak up. And with that thought, she headed out. Nothing went as anticipated. At the supermarket she had to repeat her question twice about where to find the breadcrumbs before the stock clerk turned around. And the plus-size lady ahead of her in the express checkout line was five items over the limit. Claire imagined hiring some government worker to do the talking for her. “Look, why don’t you lose those five bags of Cheetos, and while you’re at it, lose about fifty pounds.” Whadaya know, thought Claire, I have the makings of a nasty employee. If only I could open my mouth. Claire had to wait over an hour for the doctor. He didn’t bother to apologize and interrupted her when she tried to talk about the low-grade headaches that had plagued her since adolescence. “It’s just part of your cycle,” he dismissed her, tapping on his laptop. When she tried to talk about the anxiety she’d been feeling lately, he didn’t respond. Just tapped. She wanted to ask him for a prescription to calm her nerves, but by then he’d completely shut her down. If only she could use some of the techniques she was learning from her singing teacher to help her speak up. What would happen if she sang her lines? “Doctor I’d like some Valium” to the tune of La Ci Darem la Mano. Silently she mouthed the words in the direction of the doctor’s bent head. Or to Beethoven’s Fifth, “Give me some drugs. I want them now.” She pictured his face, frozen, silently debating whether to prescribe a tranquilizer or have her committed.
Claire’s singing lessons were the high point of the week. Her biggest challenge was projection, and she wondered whether she’d ever be able to crank up the volume for anyone else to notice her singing. I’d love to uncover a Powerful Voice like my mother, she thought. Mom had started college as an ordinary soprano and graduated a diva. But so far, all I’ve uncovered is an ordinary soprano. Claire climbed the steps to the second floor studio and gave her teacher a hug. There was something about Gina that dared you not to hug her. A small woman, Gina Carlotti had a big voice and even bigger personality. Her favorite role was the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which she had sung in her native Italy. “The drama of that aria—The vengeance of hell boils in my heart’—it’s a diva’s dream. I could sing higher than anyone, and every time I hit that high F, Dio mio! The opera house exploded. A striking woman in her mid-fifties, Gina had long dark hair just turning to gray. Today she wore it pulled straight back in a thick braid, but sometimes she let it hang loose down her back. Claire loved the twisted pattern of that braid, gray and black intertwined, as if crafted by a master weaver. The weight of it, the thunk it made against solid objects when Gina turned her head quickly. Claire had never met another woman who defied the unwritten rule of short hair after menopause. Claire spent almost half of her forty-five-minute lesson doing vocal exercises. Gina sat at the piano, guiding her up and down the scales, commenting in Italian-laced English, and waving her arms, as her gauzy green skirt and blouse rippled across her body. “That F sharp was muddy. Focus your voice like a pinpoint. Move the sound forward. There! Just in front of your forehead. Ancora una volta.” A couple of light Italian arias followed. “Expand your diaphragm, support with your pelvis. Butt in.” Claire’s practice was beginning to pay off, and sometimes she hit notes that earned a bellisimo, but she couldn’t seem to pull it all together. “I hear tension in your voice, tesoro. Relax your jaw. You look like a frozen popsicle.” And when Claire seemed tentative, Gina would tell her, “Don’t think so hard or your brain will explode. Just open your mouth and sing.” Spesso. Addesso. Andiamo. The velvety feel of the words. But in her struggle to master technique, she often ignored the meaning of the words she sang. Gina would remind her that great singers used their vocal gifts to tell stories. “Where’s your emotion? Making pretty sounds? That’s just musical masturbation. Sing from the heart. Make love to the audience!” Gina ended each lesson with the same mantra. “You’ve got a voice. Use it.” You’ve got a voice. Use it. These were the words that Claire carried down the steps and out into the street, but they were soon drowned out by louder voices.
Claire spent the first few weeks after her birthday fine-tuning her abridged relationship with the world. Her books became her new best friends—on the bus, standing in line—wherever she needed to avoid conversation. It took some practice. At the hairdresser, snippets of conversation slipped through her wall of concentration. Just got back from Aruba. Greatest movie last night. Shorter in the front this time. Whenever this happened, she refocused like a Zen master on the pages of her book. She used the same Zen focus to prepare for her biweekly meeting with her boss. Walking the last couple of blocks to the office, she clutched her cards in one hand and held her cell phone to her ear in the other, practicing her lines. She customized questions for each colleague. For Mary: “Did Danny get into Saint Mark’s Montessori?” For Alice: “Are you and Sam going with the destination wedding?” Quick getaway lines were a must. “Lost track of time. Gotta run.” Her life had become one long rehearsal. As weeks passed, Claire saw the world around her losing color. She’d soon be living inside a black and white photo. The one swatch of color in her life was the music studio, the only place where someone actually listened to her, believed in her, dared her to take risks. One day toward the end of a lesson, Gina said, “I’d like you to sing something you know. Anything. Just pick a song and sing it.” “I have no idea what to sing, Gina.” She riffled through the music she was holding. “Isn’t our time up?” Gina stood up from the piano bench and moved close to Claire, blocking her escape. “Excuses? No. I won’t let you leave until you sing something that’s yours.” Mine, something mine. Claire’s head filled with musical detritus. Eighth and quarter notes tangled in G clefs, all twisted wire hangers in a closet. Scraps of melody: Midnight, all alone in the moonlight; Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high; Stand by your man. A patchwork she couldn’t stitch together. “I can’t, Gina. I have to look at the words.” “Relax, tesoro. It will come. Everyone has a song.” Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Opened her mouth. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. A long way from home. A long way from home.” Her voice was a velvety contralto. The words of the old spiritual tasted like honey. Gina fixed her gaze on Claire’s face. “Where were you just now, cara? Where did that come from?” “I sang it in choir.” “No, where inside you did it come from?” “I don’t know.” “Well, dig and maybe you’ll find it again.” But outside in the real world of cracked sidewalks and potholes, Claire couldn’t resurrect what had happened in the studio, so it was back to the scripted life. Maybe with practice she could eventually own her words, delivering them from the heart and not the script. Sure, she thought, and maybe fish could learn to tango.
Cards in hand, Claire settled into the long bus ride to her voice lesson. The seat next to her was empty, so she didn’t need to use her book to stave off bus talk. Between occasional glances at her cards she studied reflections of passengers in the soot-spattered windows and invented imaginary lives for them. Two investment-banking guys in dark suits were huddled over a set of graphs. They didn’t look like typical riders. Maybe they were just disguised as bankers. Maybe they were on a date, deciding which hotel to go to and imagining ways to combine sex with pie charts. A young couple in tattered jeans and tee shirts was pasted together in the back seat. His arm encircled her waist and his hand was an inch from her right breast. They weren’t thinking pie charts. An elderly woman in a flowered housedress slouched on the bench facing the aisle. Wreathed in tubes of flesh, she reminded Claire of the Michelin Man. One hand rested on the handbag next to her on the seat, the other on a Bible open on her lap. Her life-weary eyes surveyed the passengers as her flesh undulated with the movement of the bus. Claire could imagine her internal commentary. “Wasn’t like this back in the day. Women dressed nice. Wore girdles. I don’t wanna see other people’s nasty bellies.” Or maybe she was just thinking about Jesus. The bus stopped in front of the high school and let on three rough looking guys. One was stringbean tall, another was medium height with bad skin. The third was a fireplug¾short, thick. Their body language roared “We own this bus now.” In an odd choreography, passengers instinctively clutched their possessions tighter. Claire tightened her grip on the cards. As they closed in on Michelin-Man lady, the rest of the riders played dumb. Looked away. Claire’s gaze fixed on a knife handle sticking out of Stringbean’s back pocket. With a laugh, Fireplug bumped into the woman. No one said a thing. Claire couldn’t believe they were all going to let this happen. She was rigid with fear. Fireplug had his hand on the woman’s pocketbook. Then came the rage. She forgot the cards in her hand with the scripted responses to every imaginable event. This scenario was not in the cards. Claire stood up and yelled “Stop,” but the words were glue in her throat. No one heard. Stringbastard pushed the woman in the face and grabbed her handbag. Claire yelled again but all that came out was a weak wind. You’ve got a voice, use it. Claire clutched her cards, took a deep Gina-breath and screamed “Stop!” over and over, her voice reverberating against the walls of the bus, jolting passengers into action and exploding through an open window. The passengers charged the three, but Claire couldn’t stop screaming. Swinging the handbag against the impromptu infantry, Stringbean tried to fight his way off the bus. On his way past Claire he stopped—revenge trumping flight. He aimed his fist at her face bellowing “Shut up bitch!” But as the bus jolted to a stop, he missed his target and punched her full throttle in the neck. Suddenly silent, Claire dropped her cards and clutched her throat, as her attacker grabbed for his knife, his face a gargoyle. Before his arm completed its upward arc to Claire’s chest, one of the bankers grabbed Stringbean’s wrist and got nicked in the lip for his efforts. Claire watched as a splatter of blood tattooed the cards that had spilled into the aisle. Hand against her throat, Claire whimpered wordlessly as the action swirled around her. Vaguely aware of passengers pausing to stare at her like a traffic accident before getting off the bus, she heard fragments of sound. Someone calling 911. A man muttering, “Pays to keep your mouth shut.” Exiting passengers made way for two cops who strode up the bus steps. Calmed by the comforting blue uniforms, Claire closed her eyes. A click of cuffs, some shit-man-take-your-hands-off-me attitude cut short by a decisive “Shut up.” Heavy footsteps down the bus steps, followed by some whistles and clapping outside. Passengers? Bystanders? Were they cheering for the good guys or the bad? “Everything will be all right,” someone whispered in a soft Latino purr. And the fat woman laid a surprisingly delicate and unblemished hand on Claire’s forehead and murmured soothingly. Claire wanted someone to pick up her cards, but with the injury to her throat, all she could utter were disjointed syllables. “What’s she sayin’ about cars? Maybe she’s got PTSD.” By the time the EMS team arrived, Claire’s anguish at the possibility of losing her cards had anesthetized her to the pain, sirens, crowds. Her world had contracted into to a pile of cards scattered on the floor. Pointing and grunting as the technicians lifted her onto the stretcher, she finally made herself understood. Placing the cards on the stretcher next to her, a young paramedic remarked, “Miss, this must be some hell of a research paper you’re working on.” As they lifted the stretcher, she turned her head and saw a single tattered card lying in the aisle. An amputation, she thought.
The ER was beeping and buzzing as doctors poked around her mouth. Rendered temporarily mute, Claire used the backs of her cards to write answers to their questions. Every few minutes a different white coat pulled back the curtains with a rasp and asked her the same questions as the previous coat. Eventually, Claire had written the answers to all their questions on her cards, and all she had to do was hold them up—her meds, allergies, pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Do these people ever talk to each other, she wondered. Maybe everyone should come to the hospital with a set of answer cards. She was exhausted by the time they got her settled in a room. Tapping the nurse on the arm, she held up a card. “Can I please get some sleep?” The nurse shut the door behind her. The sound of a beeping monitor and the soft hum of voices woke her. Her family was seated in cracked plastic chairs wedged into corners of her hospital room. They were absorbed in conversation, their complexions sickly in the hospital light. No one noticed that Claire was awake except her mother. When Claire’s eyes met hers, she moved to the side of the bed, hugged her, and whispered, “Honey. I was worried sick about you. The nurse says she thinks you’ll have your voice back in a couple of days, but we haven’t heard from the doctor. Please, baby.” Claire sat motionless, the monitor amplifying her heart’s rhythms. Then, reaching down, she picked up one of the cards next to her on the bed. “In a stressful or unexpected situation,” read the card, “don’t lower your eyes or turn away. Maintain a steady gaze and speak firmly, and you’ll be OK.” Turning the card over, she scribbled something on the back and then handed it to her mother. Claire stared at her mother as she read the message. “Doctor says I’ll be OK.” They were interrupted by a nurse’s aide, who reached over and set the dinner tray on the table. As the aide arranged the containers, Claire wrote something on the back of another three-by-five. The meatloafy smell of hospital food filled the room. When the aide left, Claire slipped the card across the tray table to her mother. This time Claire whispered the words as her mother read silently. “Let’s talk about it over dinner.”