It was the first day of my senior fall semester at the University of Oklahoma. I had broken up with Stacey. She had gone back to Lawrence, Kansas for college, and I didn’t feel like having a long-distance relationship. Letters were not what I had wanted from her.
The heat and humidity of the Oklahoma summer were still lying thick over the campus as I walked from my Monday 8:30 Database Design class to the Catlett Music Center. I had auditioned in the summer and had been placed in the bass section, although I could have been as equally comfortable in the tenor section. Not only had my voice preserved well through several years of not singing, but its range had also grown significantly.
Dr. Baker was bustling about, straightening chairs and organizing his music stand. He was an African-American of around fifty with short salt and pepper hair.
He gestured to me then to the chairs and said, “Basses on the back two rows on the right.”
He had been amiable in the audition and seemed to be impressed with my singing, given that I was not a music major, but he was all business now. He said many of his best singers were engineers and computer guys. The choir, Dr. Baker had explained, was primarily for music majors, but he wanted the best singers at OU, and they weren’t always music majors. For that, I was grateful.
As the other singers began to stream in, I started to feel as if I would have to prove myself worthy of singing with majors. I was not an accomplished singer. My talent was modest, certainly not good enough to major in it, but I felt confident that I was up to the task.
“As you come in,” he said addressing the rehearsal hall, “I would ask that you find your name on the cabinet and grab your music folder and take a seat. Sopranos here, altos here, tenors here, and basses here,” he said, pointing to the risers.
“Hi,” said a guy who was sitting down next to me. “First time?”
“Yeah, not in a choir, but in this choir. I used to sing in high school,” I said.
He extended his hand. “I’m Zach, by the way. Where did you go to high school?”
He was a very dark-skinned African American, hair trimmed very short with sharp lines. He had a lean, muscular look and a deep voice.
“Oh, right here in Norman,” I said.
“Cool. Baritone or bass?” he asked, flipping through his folder.
“Baritone. I sometimes sing tenor if people need me to, but Baker wanted me on bass, so that’s cool. It makes no difference to me. Where did you come from?”
“Ada,” he said.
“Cool. Yeah, my high school choir went to a contest down there at ECU. I kind of liked it, but OU has an outstanding computer science department, and I live here already, so…”
But then there she was. Laura had grabbed a folder and was heading to her seat. My heart raced. Of course, she would be in Choir; she had told me she would be finishing up her voice degree here.
“Damn. She’s fine,” said Zach, watching Laura take a seat.
“Yeah, well, she used to be my girlfriend.”
“No shit. Not anymore?”
“I guess not.”
“She either is, or she isn’t.”
“Well, we sort of have this off again on again thing. Just right now, we’re off again.”
“Alright, alright. Can I have your attention, please?” called Dr. Baker with both hands raised. “This is University Choir in case you’re not sure where you are or are in the wrong class. Congratulations to our newest members. We have some great talent coming in this year, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know them.”
Zach smiled and nodded at me.
“A quick announcement before we begin. We’ve been invited to sing at the American Choral Directors Association conference in Kansas City this year, which is a great honor. I have ideas about the music we will sing, and it’s all in your folders right now. You’ll recognize a few from last year. It will be taking place in one month, which means that we have exactly 12 rehearsals to be prepared and so it is critical that you make every rehearsal humanly possible. Funerals, high fevers, hospitalizations–if it’s not one of those, then I want you here. I’ll give you the details about the trip hopefully sometime this week. Now. Please stand. Let’s warm up and see how we sound. Alright?”
The rehearsal was far more rigorous than anything I’d experienced. I was hoarse by the end but elated. This choir was amazing.
I wasn’t ready for Laura to see me yet. I wasn’t sure where I stood with her, so I ducked out through the door behind the risers, and stopped at the water fountain.
“Hey! Wait up,” called Zach from down the hall as I slurped up some icy water.
I waited for him to catch up.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m going over to La Baguette to eat some lunch.”
“My boys and I are gonna go to the Union if you want to join us.”
“Yeah. Ok,” I said, “That sounds great.” It felt really good to be included, but a feeling of anxiety filled my stomach. I was never very good at making friends.
He patted me on the back as we turned to walk. “Nice.”
I learned that he was on scholarship as a vocal performance major, and he certainly had the talent for it. His voice was resonant and smooth, much more refined than my own.
We stepped outside and crossed the street toward Holmberg Hall, where many of the school’s performances were. I hadn’t realized how cold it had been in the choir room until the late summer sun began to thaw out my nose and hands.
“You said something about computer science?” said Zach, walking at a relaxed pace.
As we passed the practice hall, I could hear singers and trumpeters and piano players practicing their drills and new repertoire.
“Yeah, I figure programming is going to be a hot career soon with the Y2K issue.”
“Oh, what’s Y2K?”
“Oh man. It’s this huge deal. For decades, programmers have been using 2-digit years in their date storage and calculations. It’s going to fuck everything up when going from 99 to 00 in the year 2000.”
“Gobbledygook to me. But sounds scary,” he said, laughing. “Is it going to make you rich?”
“That’s the hope!”
We made our way past the hall, which was a European-style opera house, and onto the North Oval, which was green space with a horseshoe drive around it. Our destination was on the other side.
The Union, or Student Union, was a stately building with a bell tower that could be heard all over central Norman. It tolled every fifteen minutes and played music on the hour, often our school song: Boomer Sooner. There were a few fast food places with a patio on the bottom floor. We entered through the patio and walked up to a group of guys I’d never met.
“What up!” Zach said, jovially to his buddies.
“Sup!” said one guy with a Fresh Prince haircut.
“This is James. He’s singing with me in Choir. Show him some love,” said Zach.
“Hey, I’m Tyrice,” said the Fresh Prince guy. “This freckle-faced brother here is Spencer,” he said, bumping fists with a beefy guy sitting in front of a stack of burritos, “And this is my man Terrence.” He patted a quiet guy with glasses.
“Hey guys,” I said. “It’s great to meet you,” I said, feeling a little self-conscious. Norman High only had a few black kids, and I was friends with exactly zero of them. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act. “Um…I guess I’ll get some food and join you in a few.”
“Come on,” said Zach, coming with me. “Let’s get that Taco Bell, so Spencer doesn’t have to eat his burritos alone.”
He put his hand on my shoulder again in an amicable manner as we turned back to get in line.
“Your friends seem cool,” I said.
“Yeah, they’re alright,”
“So,” he said conspiratorially. “This Laura. What’s the story? You guys have a fight or something?”
I sighed and said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure what’s going on. She came back from St. Louis, and I kind of expected that we would get back together, but–I don’t know, there’s this other guy. And I kind of met someone else too. We broke up, though.”
“Man, you gotta get back with her before they get serious. That girl is FINE! Namsayin?”
“Yeah, I hear you. It’s just complicated.”
“Do you like her?”
When I first saw her in the choir room, the old feelings had come back to the point where my heart was aching a little. “Yeah, I guess. I just don’t know if she still likes me.”
We got our food and rejoined the guys.
“We’re gonna help my man James get his girl back.”
“Aw yeah!” said Tyrice. “Gonna get him some.”
Tyrice was cool in ways that I would never be. It was clear that he was the leader of this group. The way he sat, the way he addressed his friends. The way he was welcoming me.
“Ok, ok. Yeah,” I began, “I do wanna get back with her, but I just don’t think she wants to get back with me.”
“And you’re gonna let that stop you, James?” said Tyrice.
Then, the idea struck me, and I said, “Buuut, I think I know what to do. You’re right. I do need to get her back.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ bout!” said Spencer, with a mouth full of burrito.
Together, we planned that I would be nonchalant, but friendly with her until the trip, establishing myself as being cool with everything. Then I would make sure that I was sitting next to her on the bus ride to Kansas City for the ACDA Conference.
At the next rehearsal on the following Wednesday, I approached her afterward.
“Hey,” I said, trying to be as cool as possible. “Sup?”
“Hey! Long time no see!” she said, and she gave me a very brief, friend-zone hug.
“Yeah, look, sorry for blowing you off this summer. I just got swamped.”
“Yeah. I heard. But Stacey’s cool; she’s in Kansas now, right?” she said, putting her folder in her slot.
“Yeah, well, we broke up. Not into long-distance relationships, ya know?”
“Yeah. I get that,” she said, noticing a girl walking by. “Oh, hey, my girlfriend and I are headed out. It was great to see you, James. I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah. You, too!” I called after her as she and a brunette with long curly hair started chatting and walking away.
I let out a sharp breath and watched them walk out of the choir room. My heart was pounding, and I had no idea what could be going on in her head. She didn’t exactly seem cool toward me, but I was definitely not feeling our usual heat. I wondered if she was seeing Chad.
“Hey, bro,” said Zach, coming up behind me. “How did it go?”
“I don’t know, man. I think I have my work cut out with her.”
“You’re gonna get her, man. Just wait, your plan is going to work. You’re gonna sit with her for hours–rekindle that old flame. She’s gonna forget all about what’s-his-name.”
“Yeah. We’ll see.”
“You gotta bring your game!” he said encouragingly.
“I don’t know, Zach. She got way hotter over the summer. She may be out of my league now.”
“Chill with that. You’ll be fine. Trust me.” He stepped back and looked me up and down. “Look at you. It ain’t 1988 anymore,” he said with one short laugh. “Those tight, acid-wash jeans and little redneck-y mullet have got to go.”
That night, Zach, Tyrice, Terrence, Spencer, and I went to the Sooner Fashion Mall on the west side of Norman.
“Here’s what we gonna do now,” said Tyrice. “We gonna hit the Brass Buckle, J. Crew, Old Navy. Then we’ll get your hair cut. Now, you ain’t gonna pull off what I got goin’ on,” he said, running his hands over the sides of his hair, “But we gotta get you into the 90s. Namsayin’?” He laughed and patted me on the back.
Zach must have seen the trepidation on my face.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Nothing too outrageous. We’re just gonna update you a little bit.”
“Guys,” I said, “This is the gayest night of my life.”
“Naw, it ain’t like that, white boy,” said Spencer, “You gotta look sharp!”
When they were done with me, I felt like a new man. I stood up straighter, walked with more confidence. I couldn’t stop checking myself out in the shop windows as we headed for Sbarro’s for dinner.
As we sat with our greasy, NY-style pizza slices, Tyrice said, “Ok, so you got a plan, but it’s crucial. You gotta get that seat. You gotta be prepared to do what it takes to separate her from her girlfriends. You gotta plan this shit.”
“Like how?” I said.
“See now. You need to build up to it,” said Tyrice, “It’s gotta be natural. When you see her, be cool. Let her notice your new look, but don’t come on strong. That’s the worst thing you can do. Now, you in the friend-zone and that’s ok for now, but you don’t wanna get stuck there. Namsayin?”
“Yeah, I hear you,” I said, dabbing the pepperoni grease off my pizza.
Then, for the first time, Terrence spoke up, very softly and calmly, “Then the day before the trip, you have to tell her you have something important you need to discuss with her, and could you sit with her on the bus.”
And to wrap up the plan, Spencer added, “And bring breath mints, white boy. You ain’t exactly the freshest smelling brother.”
I held my hand over my mouth to take a sniff, and the table busted out in laughter.