So, a couple years ago, the “awkward turtle” was all the rage. You know, that thing that you do with your hands and thumbs when there’s a situation that makes you want to scream/fade into the background/make it go away. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, do a search; I’m not linking to anything regarding “awkward turtle” willingly.
Anyhow, I never really subscribed to that…fad? I don’t know what to call it precisely. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fascinated by awkwardness. There seem to be a number of societal norms of which an amazingly large subset of the population is completely unaware (often including myself). Even if you just think of it as inattention to a particular situation and cognizance of those present, it’s still something I know you can relate to. However you might define awkwardness, it’s there, staring you in the face, and giving you that sinking feeling that I imagine is something akin to wanting to jump in front of a moving train to save the helpless damsel tied to the railroad tracks. But I’d still rather bask in the awkwardness than make it worse by doing some goofy hand motion. (Or maybe I’m just not very good at moving my thumbs in circles and that’s why I’m hating on the awkward turtle. You decide.)
Now, all that being said, I firmly believe that awkward moments are best when shared in the company of another who also appreciates the offender’s cluelessness. I don’t intend that in a mean-hearted way, mind you. As I often say, beautiful moments are meant to be shared; this is no exception. But sometimes, you have to suffice with recounting the incident after the fact, because you were the only one there. Thus, without further preamble, a story:
I volunteer at a cat sanctuary, Tabby’s Place, one day a week. It’s filling my deep-seated desire to be around cats (since I can’t have one of my own currently), and plus it’s just really nice to do some work for a place where you feel like you’re actually helping make a difference. Sure, the soup kitchen’s great, and while I’ve never done Habitat for Humanity, I’m sure that’s rewarding too. But for now I’ll stick to my cats, especially since it fits in my schedule so…purrfectly. Ok, that’s the first and last cutesy cat pun, I promise.
And there are some fantastic people I’ve met there, too. Very few are my age from what I can tell, but that’s fine; most seem to be retirees or stay-at-home moms who want a break or want to get out of the house for a good cause. And because my usual job there is to help clean four of the five cat suites, I work with a partner, otherwise it’d take far longer than any of us would like. Normally, I’ve been working with a former elementary school Phys Ed teacher who’s really fun and efficient. But one day she was sick, and I got a different partner.
After hearing about this partner’s sing-songy bragging about her daughter’s cloven-toed boots she made in trade school in the UK (think centaur, not devil), I suspected it was going to be a long three hours that day. There was some banal small talk about whether I was married, where I lived, more about her daughters, some well-intentioned advice to get involved in the cat socialization program since I seemed to be timid around the animals (admittedly true at the time; I didn’t know yet which cats would claw your face off and which ones were ok to touch), and goodness only knows what else we talked about. I kept largely to myself because scraping litterpans into the garbage doesn’t exactly make for fascinating commentary. Eventually though, the conversation rounded the inevitable corner of “What do you do for a living?” I responded in turn and explained that my primary job is piano teacher extraordinaire. Bracing for the inevitable bashful confession that makes me feel like ordained clergy – “Oh, I used to play piano when I was a kid…but I don’t anymore.” “Very well, three A major scales and a round of Hanon exercises and you will be forgiven.” – I was pleasasntly surprised (at the time) that the conversation veered off in another direction.
“Oh! I take voice lessons!”
“Yeah? That’s great. With whom?”
Never mind that I know comparatively few voice teachers in the Hunterdon County area and was mentally sending my condolences to this warbly 50-something-year-old woman’s voice teacher. Conversation is conversation. So, we talked for a bit about her teacher and where she studies. And then.
THEN, she tells me that she’s learning to sing the songs from Phantom of the Opera. Believe me when I tell you that Sarah Brightman this woman is not. She’s more akin to Michael Crawford’s creepy reedy sound than any soprano I’ve ever met. I just muttered something about that being a great show (it’s really not) and hoped it would end there. But there was this moment of palpable silence in which I had that feeling. That feeling that something was about to happen and I wished to goodness that someone else was there to pinch me and tell me this wasn’t real.
She started to sing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again;” it’s one of the standards from Phantom, and has one of the more limited vocal ranges of the female-sung tunes from the show. But once I started to hear the a capella rendition sung by my fellow volunteer, I was wishing I was somehow elsewhere, and very badly so. There was a wind-up more dramatic than any pitcher has executed in the history of baseball. There was less tonality than anything composed by Schoenberg, Boulez, and John Cage combined. And worst of all, it was LOUD. At least if you’re going to be weird, do it quietly, I say.
Unfortunately, if you ignore something, it doesn’t always go away, either. I became intensely interested in cleaning up the cat poo on the floor in a way I’ve never experienced before. I shot a desperate glance at a couple of the cats: “Attack her. You know you want to.” But the singing went on, and the cats went about their business. The same line or two from the same song for a good couple minutes. At one point, I even got up to go clean the outdoor room. She kept going. I could hear it through the cinderblock wall and from across the hallway. Once a moment of silence indicated that it might be safe to go back in, I hesitantly made my way back inside. Blessed silence.
And then the conversation started up again:
“I used to sing soprano in the church choir, but I just felt so screechy. I mean, I could hit the notes, but not really. Because, you see, I’m not a soprano, really, I’m a…a… Oh what’s the word? I’ve forgotten.”
“A mezzo soprano?” (Idiot, why are you encouraging this?)
“Yes! That’s it! Because I can sing very looooooow.” (said in an appropriately low voice…if she were talking to a three-year-old)
And then the singing started. Again. I finished up the outdoor room and said, “Ok. Are we done here?” Not in a curt way, just in a “can I go eat lunch now?” sort of way. But she was whisking a wand toy in front of the faces of a couple notoriously mean cats, and was oblivious to my question. I asked it again. Still the only response I got was some cooing to the cats, who just stared steely-eyed, probably plotting the best way to eat her in one bite. Finally, I just said, “Ok, have a good day, I’ll see you next week!” She said goodbye and looked at me with the eyes of one whose mind is several light-years away.
Well, it turns out I didn’t see her next week. Due to a variety of reasons, she got moved to Thursdays, and I stayed on my day earlier in the week. But I have to say, upon leaving Tabby’s Place that day, I did immediately call several people to relay the story of my unexpected serenade. What kills me is that she didn’t realize that my lack of positive reinforcement during the singing and outright leaving the room was a sign to stopfortheloveofallthingsgoodintheworld. Textbook case of an awkward (turtle) moment, right there. So, in answer to the age-old conundrum, yes, if an awkward moment happens in a cat sanctuary and nobody else is there to hear it, it does indeed really make a sound. It sounds like Charlie Brown screaming when Lucy’s pulled the football out from his kick for the millionth time. It sounds like the loud cackle of your least favorite tactless acquaintance. It sounds like…oh my word. Is that…singing?