I called Ruben and Jordan to my house the following day, after telling them I might have found the solution to our ‘singer problem’. When I told them what it was, no one spoke for a minute and a half. I had expected them to smirk and scoff, but to my surprise, they considered it very seriously. Then, finally, Ruben spoke up.
“You know, I’ve been to a few karaoke nights. The singing’s terrible, of course, but sometimes…sometimes, it’s actually decent. Pretty good in fact. We might find our future vocalist.
“I’m in, man. It’s not like we have any other options. Besides, karaoke’s fun,” Jordan said, after some consideration.
“So, does this mean the three of us are going to the Coffeehouse tomorrow night?” I asked.
Jordan and Ruben exchanged a look.
“Why the hell not?” Ruben said.
The next day, I took the bus with Jordan, and we met Ruben outside the coffeehouse. “About time you guys got here,” he said, and handed us two beers each. “Hit me up if you guys want more, there are more in my bag.”
The karaoke machine had been set up on a stand beside the stage, and was being operated by a girl carrying a big ledger, in which she was taking down the names of those who wanted to sing. A projector had been set up, and was pointed at the wall directly opposite to the stage. The mike looked pristine on its stand, in all its silver glory.
“Okay, it’s pretty simple, guys,” Ruben said. “That girl over there puts you down in the list, once you give her your name.” He said, pointing. “You can go alone, or in groups of two. Nobody can sing two songs in a row. They call you when it’s your turn, and once you’re done, you have to wait for half an hour before you can go again,” He explained. “So, either of you guys thinking of going up there?”
“I think I’m gonna wait awhile,” Jordan said. “People are less judgmental when they’re drunk.”
Jordan’s concerns turned out to be completely groundless, though. We sat through a cover of "Livin' On A Prayer", and then "Sweet Child O' Mine", and after that, a terrible, terrible rendition of "Born In The USA". In each case, no matter how awful the singing was, the crowd was crazy for it. Raucous applause followed the end of every performance, and encouraging yells and cheers always greeted the next, without fail.
“Jesus Christ, I never really liked Bon Jovi all that much, but even they don’t deserve to be butchered like this,” I said, after a particularly horrendous cover of "I'll Be There For You" that had had what seemed like half the building singing along.
Not surprisingly, the vocalists were never better than slightly above average. What they lacked for in skill, though, they more than made up for in charisma. Every single performer would entertain the audience thoroughly.
Time flew, and Ruben and Jordan quickly spent their beers, but I stayed sober. There was something important I was planning to take care of, and I wanted to be in the best frame of my mind for it.
And then, a really, really hot blonde girl took the stage. She was tall, and wore skinny jeans and a white tank top. Her song of choice was "Bleeding Love", by Leona Lewis, and her singing was really, really bad, but nobody seemed to give a flying f--k. There were other things about her that grabbed all the attention.
“Dude, I don’t really like white girls that much, but I’d make an exception for this one,” Jordan said.
“You don’t like white girls?” I asked. “Are you insane? Three quarters of all the beautiful women on this planet are Caucasian!”
“That’s a very narrow generalization you’re making,” He said. “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.”
I scoffed. I often found it difficult to tell whether Jordan was intentionally screwing around, or actually serious.
Ruben stared at her, with a wry smile on her face.
“I think I’m in love,” he said.
“Out of your league, bro,” Jordan said.
He chuckled. “We’ll see about that.”
The clamor that followed the end of her song was loud enough to cause an earthquake. “Here, take my bag,” he said, and gave it to me. “I’ll catch you guys later,” Ruben said, and strutted off towards the object of his affection.
“Think he can do it?” Jordan asked.
“Let’s see for ourselves.”
Ruben casually approached the girl’s friend circle, which consisted of three less attractive females, with an air of indifference. He began to chat them up, and soon, had them laughing at everything he said. Then, he grabbed the blonde’s hand, and led her away. Nobody seemed to protest at this. The girl seemed happy as hell, too. They disappeared out of sight in the crowd.
“Damn. Looks like there’s a lot we don’t know about him. Never would’ve thought he was this good with women,” I said.
“Hmph. Whatever, we’ll learn all there is to know about him soon enough. There are no secrets in a band,” he said. He glanced at the stage. “I’m gonna sing. What about you?”
“Karaoke’s not my thing man. I’ll pass.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself, then. See you in a while.”
He walked away, and I was left by myself. I looked at my watch. It was five past one, which meant Keira’s shift must have begun an hour ago. I moved closer to the bar, jostling my way through the crowd, to get a clearer view. My heart skipped a beat when I saw her serving drinks to a bunch of students.
This was it. I willed myself to move towards her, but my legs felt they had been superglued to the ground. A hundred reasons for not approaching her popped up in my head. 'She looks busy as hell. I should wait for some more time. This doesn't seem to be a very good setting for a conversation.' Then, I thought of a distressing possibility. 'What if she didn’t remember me at all?'
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Jordan’s name being called on the PA system. I turned towards the stage. Surely enough, it was him, holding the mike with the confidence of a veteran rocker.
And then, I heard a very familiar chord progression on the speakers, and laughed out loud. He had chosen, of the millions of songs he could choose from, "Wonderwall", by Oasis. I wasn’t the only one to recognize it. Nearly every single person in the Coffeehouse began singing along after Jordan had sung the first two lines.
"TODAY IS GONNA BE THE DAY THAT THEY’RE GONNA THROW IT BACK TO YOU.
BY NOW YOU SHOULD’VE SOMEHOW REALISED WHAT YOU GOTTA DO."
"I DON’T BELIEVE THAT ANYBODY FEELS THE WAY I DO ABOUT YOU NOW."
Choose any ten people at random, from the Western Hemisphere, and seven of them will know the lyrics and tune to "Wonderwall". Go ahead, try it if you don’t believe me. It’s like "Jingle Bells", or "Happy Birthday".
"THERE ARE MANY THINGS THAT I WOULD LIKE TO SAY TO YOU BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW."
The smile on his face was broad and mischievous, as he belted out the words in a very good imitation of Liam Gallagher. He really wasn’t that bad a singer.
"BECAUSE MAYBE, YOU’RE GONNA BE THE ONE THAT SAVES ME, AND AFTER ALL, YOU’RE MY WONDERWALL."
The applause that followed his performance was even louder and more enthusiastic than the one that came after the hot blonde’s. Anybody within arm’s reach reached out to clap him on the back, as he climbed off the stage.
He came up to me, and we exchanged incredulous grins and a high five.
“That one’s gonna be in my greatest hits montage, when I’m on my deathbed,” I said. “Not bad, man. Not bad at all.”
“Mhm. Let’s step outside for a moment. I’m gonna need a drink and some fresh air.”
We walked outside and I gave him Ruben's bag. He removed a beer from it and took a swig.
“So, Robert, tell me the real reason you wanted to come here tonight,” Jordan said. “And none of this bullshit about possibly finding a vocalist.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, right. You haven’t had so much as a sip of your drink all night.”
I sighed. “It’s the girl. The one I told you about?”
“The one that works here?”
“Yeah, her. She’s bartending tonight. She sorta suggested coming here, so I thought it’d be a good idea, and figured I might get to talk to her again or something. Maybe ask for her number.”
“Well, why aren’t you talking to her right now?” Jordan asked.
“She’s busy, man. There were like fifteen people at the bar, last I checked. I don’t want to disturb her anything.”
“Excuses, excuses. Just go talk to her, for fuck’s sake.”
I sighed. “Hmph. You’re right.” I said. I took out a box of tic tacs from my pocket, and popped three into my mouth. “Wish me luck.”
“Good. Go to her, man, and when you come back, you’d better have her digits.” He finished his beer in a gulp. “I think I saw an old friend in there, I’m gonna see if I can find him. Text me whenever you’re done.”
We entered the Coffeehouse again, and parted ways. I checked my watch. It was nearly quarter to two, and I decided that whatever it was I was planning to do would have to be done quickly.
At first, I was struck again by the same anxiety as before, when I had been to trying to talk to her on my daily visits for coffee.
But then, I thought about all the opportunities I had missed in high school due to my own lack of resolve. All those times I could have escalated, but didn’t. I could either take a chance, or regret not taking one later. Besides, I had nothing to lose.
I remembered how easily Ruben had gone and chatted up that blonde girl. If he could seduce a chick he had just met so easily, I could get Keira’s number, at the very least. I took a deep breath, and started making my way to the bar.
I jostled through the crowd towards the bar, and when I reached, I was surprised to see Keira taking off her apron and handing it over to some other girl, who then put it on and took her place behind the counter.
“Hey!” I said, a little loudly, to be heard over the karaoke song, which was now something by Ricky Martin.
“Oh, hey! Rob, right? You actually came,” she said, and smiled. She wore a purple shirt and dark blue jeans, and her lusciously brown hair looked good even in the dim lighting of the place. She wore mascara on her eyes, but no other makeup.
“Yeah, I did. You said the singing would be good,” I said.
“It sounded good to me. I’m easily impressed,” she said, and laughed. She moved out of the counter to stand in front of me. My pulse rate increased inversely to the square of the distance between me and her. “Haven’t you ever been to a karaoke night before? They’re all the same. Drunk people making asses out of themselves,” she continued. The girl who had taken the apron from her handed her a bag. “I was just about to leave.”
'Sh-t,' I thought. I was counting on her being here till at least two.
“Me too,” I improvised. “Where d’you live?”
“Right here, on campus,” she said.
“I’ll walk you to your dorm, then.”
“Oh no, that’s fine. You’re probably getting late.”
“I insist,” I said. “Durham isn’t very safe at night, even on campus.”
The second that passed before she replied felt like a minute. “Hmm. Alright, then, if you insist,” she smiled. I got that warm fuzzy feeling again.
I accompanied her out of the Coffeehouse, and we began walking together. The moon was out, and the campus looked absolutely stunning in the dark. A romantic enough setting, by anyone’s reckoning.
“So... are you a sophomore? You look like one,” I said, to break the pause.
“Yeah. You too?”
More silence, as I looked at the beautiful night sky and the gothic style buildings, and occasionally stole a sidelong glance at the even more beautiful thing walking beside me.
“What’re you majoring in?” I asked.
“Civil engineering,” She said.
I was taken aback. “Engineering? Seriously?”
“Yeah. Why is that so surprising?”
“Uh, you just don’t seem like the type,” I said. It sounded clever to me.
She turned and looked me in the eye. “What gave you that impression?”
“Ehhh. I dunno. You’re too... um.”
“Too what?” She cocked an eyebrow, and smiled amusedly.
Her eyes were the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen, and staring into them made me feel... happy. I don’t know how to describe it. “Well, engineering students are usually really tired looking. And nerdy. And... male. I don’t think you’re any of those things.”
She laughed. “Riiiight. I think I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“What about you?” she asked.
“Econ. Not nearly as exciting as civil engineering, I’m sure,” I said, and she laughed again.
We kept walking for a while, in silence. I wanted to put my arm around her, or hold her hand or something, but I didn’t think I had the license yet. I kept trying to think of cool things to say, but nothing came to mind. I was not very good at threading conversations with beautiful girls.
“So, how long have you been playing guitar?” She asked.
“A while. I’m not very good. Just decent, I think. What kind of music d’you like?”
“Oh, this and that,” She said. “Whatever’s on the radio’s fine. I’m not that picky.”
I was disappointed, but didn’t show it. Rock n’ Roll, after all, was the only thing I thought I could talk about for hours.
I noticed a small, brown, coin sized mark on her wrist. I touched it gingerly with a finger. “What’s that?”
“Oh, that? It’s a birthmark. I’ve always had it.”
“Wow. It looks like a bird.”
“Not really.” I smiled.
She laughed. “You’re funny.”
I’m funny, I thought. F--k yeah. Or maybe she just laughs easily. Whatever. Win.
I tried to think of a witty reply, but all I could come up with was another feeble “hehe”. I began sidled closer to her, so that our hands and arms kept brushing every few seconds. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m a local,” I said. “Born and raised in Cary. It’s a half hour’s drive away from here. You?”
“I’m from Maine. You do know where Maine is, don’t you? Lots of people around here don’t.”
“I do. It’s really far up north,” I said. “You’re almost Canadian.”
She smiled, and yet again, I got that warm fuzzy feeling.
“How d’you like it here?” I asked.
“It’s beautiful. The people are really nice, too. I’m glad I chose Duke. I was going to go to Vanderbilt instead, but then I saw the campus.”
I merely nodded. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I just walked with her, enjoying the sound of her footsteps.
And then, much sooner than I would have wished, her dorm arrived. We approached the footsteps, and she turned to me.
“So, we’re here.” she said, and smiled.
My heart was pounding. “Um, d’you have a number?”
She gave me a dry look. “As a matter of fact, I do. Why?”
“Would you mind giving it to me?”
She smiled, and took a small pen out of her bag. She uncapped it, and then grabbed my left hand, taking me by surprise. She wrote her digits on my palm, and then added a hyphen, followed by her full name: Keira Varner.
Then, she handed me the pen. “Your turn,” she said. I did the same to her. Her hand was warm, unlike mine, which was cold and clammy.
“See you, then,” she said, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said, and she turned.
“D’you want to meet up for a... a cup of coffee with me sometime? Nevermind, that’s probably not a very good idea since you work at a coffeehouse, but we could maybe grab some Asian food, or Italian, or...”
Her smile was sad, but not unkind.
“..Oh.” I managed. I mentally facepalmed. Her expression was all the rejection I needed.
“Look, Rob, you’re a great guy, but I can’t date anyone right now.”
“Uh... d’you have a boyfriend or something?”
“No, I don’t. It’s just that I have to handle two jobs at the same time, and I also have to work hard to keep my scholarship. I don’t think I can commit to anything. I just don’t have the time.”
“Oh. Okay. I get it. It’s cool.” I said, and forced myself to smile. I got it just fine. She just wasn’t that into me, and had found a nice, roundabout way of saying it.
“I’d still love to keep in touch with you,” she said, and I thought her look was hopeful, but I dismissed it as my mind seeing what it wanted to see.
“Yeah, me too,” I lied.
“Goodnight,” She smiled, “and thanks for escorting me here. It was very gentlemanly of you.” She stepped forward, put her hands on my shoulders, stood on her toes, and kissed me on my right cheek.
My mind was blown.
“See you around, then,” she said, and turned to climb the steps.
She stopped at the top of the steps for a moment, turned, and gave me a small wave. I didn’t wave back. Then, she disappeared behind the wooden doors of the dorm building.
The imprint of her kiss burned on my cheek, like napalm. I ignored it, sighed, and calmly began walking in the direction of the coffeehouse. My mind was locked in a confused jumble of differing emotions. I stared at my palm. At first, I thought of erasing her number and forgetting this unfortunate incident, but was I going to avoid her forever? I couldn’t do that, of course. Sooner or later, I’d have to visit the coffeehouse for some reason or the other, and I was bound to run into her. I would have to be mature about this. Still, there was a dull ache within me, and no amount of optimism and reasoning seemed to quell it.
By the time I got back to the Coffeehouse, it was closed, and most of the people had left. I found Jordan and Ruben sitting on the curb. Ruben was smoking a cigarette. “How’d it go with the blonde chick?” I asked.
“It went really well, man. Reaaaaaallly well.”
“Wow. That's awesome.” I wondered if he could have pulled something like this off with Keira, but forced myself not to think about the possibility. It was an unhealthy, resentful thought and I pushed it away.
“Where’ve you been, man? We’ve been waiting here for like half an hour,” Jordan said.
“I had to attend to something. Why didn’t you just leave without me?”
“Durham isn’t very safe to walk around alone in, especially at night. I didn’t want to get mugged.”
“I don’t think you have any reason to worry about being mugged,” I said.
“Why, because I’m black? You think all muggers are black people, and don’t mess with their own kind? Really? Well guess what, some of them are beaner, man.”
“I’m a beaner and I can confirm this for a fact,” Ruben said.
"You're a beaner?" I asked. "I thought you were white!"
"I'm Paraguayan, man. Didn't I tell you that? I must have forgotten."
"Whoa. We're a minority band, then!" Jordan exclaimed. "An Indian, a hispanic guy, and a black dude. If we can find a Chinese singer, it'll be legendary. But that's not the point. The point is, I don’t appreciate this narrow line of thought one bit, man. Not one bit,” Jordan said to me.
I smiled, despite the foul mood I was in. Happiness shimmered around Jordan like candlelight. It was hard not to feel it.
“Anyway, how’d it go with that girl?” he asked.
“Meh, it was okay.”
“You get her digits?”
“Good,” he said.
They got up. Ruben flicked his cigarette, and together we began walking towards the bus stop.
“All in all, I’d say it was a pretty epic night,” Ruben said.
“Agreed,” Jordan said. “What about you, Rob?”
I smiled to myself. So what if I had been rejected? Atleast I had made a move. Atleast I wasn’t a pussy anymore. Besides, it would be pathetic to be hung up on a girl I had no chance of dating.
“Yup. F--king epic. And there’ll be more like it. I know there will,” I said.