|Distant from the swishes of perfectly pressed plaid skirts, wisps of tediously-curled pigtails, and fashionably pink plastic lunchboxes, there was me. From first grade on in my Catholic school stint, I was hardly fond of the itchy knee-highs paired with the hideous box-like skirt, opting instead for the even-less-flattering pleated golf shorts; my thick, beastly hair (often wrestled into submission by my dad) was never tainted by the fumes of hairspray; and I was hardly teeming with graceful daintiness–I was tall, chubby, and perfectly content with stomping around in my penny-loafers, clomping loudly with each stride. Not even my formidable height worked to my benefit; during routine basketball games in P.E., my arms would flail hopelessly about, catching noses and frightened looks instead of that elusive orange ball. But there was one thing I did have—or liked to believe I had–something that made me impervious to potential loneliness in my realm of self-alienation: a singing voice.Even in the fifth grade, when my teeth were laden with heaps of foreboding metal (I took on a shameful mouth-breathing habit at that time), I was happy to sing-shout the “Star-Spangled Banner” louder than anyone in my class, oblivious to the many fleeting looks of concern darting in my direction. Choir was my hobby, and I really cared less that the other girls in my class had taken to pompoms while I had taken to the microphone. Blaring the peppy “God is a Part of My Life” and clapping off-beat, I didn’t mind my dog-hair covered sweater and wrinkled shorts. After all, I was a rockstar—a “Hail Mary”-reciting rockstar–and sat contentedly in my unchallenged niche…
“Have you seen the Phantom of the Opera movie? That Christine chick has the best voice ever,” spoke my best friend admiringly, seemingly nonchalant about the gravity of her statement. My mouth (almost entirely disarmed of metal now that I was thirteen) went dry, and my lips seemed to fumble over what words to reply with. Perhaps a slap was even warranted for her cardinal sin, no matter how innocent it had been. No, I hadn’t seen the movie, nor had I ever even heard of this Christine girl, but I threw venom at a slimy, green creature-like singer in my mind nonetheless. However, instead of screaming the obscenities I longed to, I simply I sat on our school’s dying field and took my frustration out on a helpless dandelion, plucking it of its golden petals one by one and delighting in the tiny ripping noises it yielded. I thrived in my jealousy, basked in the desire to prove my mistaken friend wrong. I was the only singer she was allowed to like, let alone call “the best,” and the fact that she didn’t think I compared to this Christine woman hung as a full, sinister cloud above me. I was no longer unchallenged, no longer wore the ‘girl who won’t shut up’ title that I so prized. I was second to a person I had never had the great misfortune of meeting, and I was determined to quash her and her voice. Suddenly I was not as talented as I thought, and my flair for dramatization wouldn’t let me forget it: my mind seemed to echo “second plaaaace” into oblivion, and I was driven to stab that thought into silence.
That evening, I sat crouched in front of the TV after everyone had gone to bed, holding a Phantom of the Opera DVD as if it were searing hot; I did not want to touch it, lest Christine’s curse should somehow fall upon me too. This cruel woman had, in my mind, already taken over my school, and I was determined to keep my house free from her deathly grasp and retain my last ally. I anxiously turned the movie on, a bag of popcorn sitting idly by my side as I dared not move, unless I were to miss her subtle appeal, the charm that had even my so-called best friend enraptured. I watched as the teenaged, thin, doe-eyed girl sang her aria to thunderous applause, watched as she was complacently led down to the Phantom’s gloomy lair without little more than a protest. With a scoff, I couldn’t help but tell myself that behind her voice was not unearthliness; behind her voice was obvious weakness and, as I believed, technological enhancement. But no–in my melodramatic mind, everyone perceived her to be the delicate creature that drove even the angels to envy. My eyes rolled in frustration; she was no angel to me, merely a reminder that I had been replaced. For all I cared, she could barricade herself in her lavish dressing room with her love interest, Raoul, and never show her plain face (“She isn’t that pretty!”) again. For once I felt kind of strange in my clumsy body–she was not only an okay singer, but she was also graceful, lithe, and beautiful–all the things I had rarely strived, or desired, to be. And even though we were both seemingly awkward outsiders—the love-obsessed Phantom ended up isolating Christine from nearly everyone around her—she simply hid her misfitting nature behind glassy brown eyes and full, tumbling curly hair, whereas I unflinchingly displayed my status.
My dislike for Christine Daae grew, but didn’t repel me from growing more interested in everything Phantom. I simply wanted to know more about my competition, wanted to practice my own “Think of Me” cadenza and master that unattainable E-flat at the end of the movie’s title song; the thought that I might actually like Miss Daae’s music sometimes sifted into my mind, but was quickly forced out, kept from being truly meditated upon—there was no going soft now, no giving her any mercy whatsoever. Soon, as if to learn the enemy’s battle plans, I was devouring Gaston Leroux’s original Le Fantome de l’Opera, familiarizing myself with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s true, gaudy stage version, and even reading Susan Kay’s fan-written Phantom. When I finally found myself in New York City one summer vacation, amid the perpetual brightness and bumbling, the only thing I truly cared about was that I had actually seen Jennifer Hope Wills play Christine Daae on Broadway, and I easily cast the looming skyscrapers aside and instead listened relentlessly to the Sarah Brightman-featuring soundtrack I had purchased. However, the varying forms of Phantom were not the only experimentations I dabbled into during my Christine-dethroning quest: makeup and curling irons temporarily followed suit, earning me poked eyes and burns—my beauty battle wounds. I would never be blonde and thin (as Leroux demanded of Christine), but that situation grew minor when I started to finally be able to reach those piercing high notes—after all, I had to attend to other matters, such as guiding my voice away from a painful and embarrassing crack. I would sing until my throat ached with discomfort, and I continued painstakingly forward, my families’ irritated yells and objections reaching deaf ears. Armed with only an iPod, a cell phone recorder, and a garage (great acoustics!), I would put on my fluffy bathrobe and pretend that it was me singing upon that grandiose, gold stage, the crystalline chandelier dangling spectacularly above. And although tentative at first, I began to love the feeling of simply closing my eyes and letting my voice and mind go to an imaginary, packed audience.
This was so different from those Friday Mass days when I sang in the droning, monotonous choir … I was no longer competing with anyone, no longer putting on a performance to simply show that I, despite my goofball awkwardness, was good at something. This was my world, my Paris Opera House, and I was my own type of Christine: weird and unashamed. I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone in there, didn’t have to be elegant and polished, and I certainly didn’t pretend to be. Even today, I sing loudly in my garage, simply waiting for an angry neighbor to shout protests as I try, and sometimes fail, to hit that elusive high E.