I never wanted to be here.

I’m not one of those people who likes all eyes on him. I am not the life of any party. In fact, I wish I were invisible.

Yet, here I am, walking the five steps up to the stage with my guitar clutched in my sweaty right hand, my left hand holding the sheet music in a death grip. I’m sure that by the time I get to the folding chair in the middle of the stage—a distance as insurmountable as Everest—that the sheet music will be a damp wad of unreadable pulp. I don’t really need the sheet music as I know the piece by heart, having practiced it for months. At this moment, though, I have completely blanked on which piece of music I’m supposed to be playing. The panic starts. I’m going to need to read the music and I’m sure the paper is now illegible, and it doesn’t matter, anyway, because in the time it took to climb the five steps, I have forgotten how to read music.

Like a condemned prisoner going to his execution, I continue to walk toward my doom. I’ve never understood why the people on Death Row behaved that way. Why did they cooperate? Why didn’t they just say, “Nope! You’re gonna have to carry me there, kicking and screaming. I ain’t going?” But now I know. You go on autopilot and you act like everything is fine. Outwardly, you look great, while on the inside you are just a bag of liquid anxiety in a thin, body-shaped membrane. At any moment, you will burst and become a puddle on the floor. Until that moment comes, you will walk and behave as if you were a real boy.

All my life, as far as I can remember, I wanted to be left alone and ignored, a tall order for someone who is the youngest of nine children. I spent my first 10 years being stared at by all my siblings. My parents were busy trying to deal with the organizational problems of a houseful of kids, so the older kids tended to the younger ones. I’m sure that my siblings thought they were taking care of me, but it felt like being under a microscope. They saw me as some kind of family pet. I was cute and funny in a clumsy way, but not to be taken seriously. It’s the curse of the baby in a large family. One by one, though, the sibs grew up and moved out. At the beginning of my second decade, enough of them were gone that I could have my own bedroom.

I love my room. It’s a sanctuary. Near the window is a place to draw and paint, a full-sized keyboard and a guitar stand in one corner and there are several bookcases filled with all my favorite childhood books. I would spend every minute of every day there, but a guy has to eat and go to school. And, in my family, a guy has to do extra-curricular activities, too. It’s the law. In my case, I take piano and guitar lessons as well as drawing and painting lessons.

The art lessons are fine. At the end of each year, there is an exhibition. The school displays our art in a group with all the other students’ work. My entire family comes and oohs and aahs. I’d walk around looking at other people’s artwork, pretending that I’m not one of the artists. If I needed to, I’d take a bathroom break where I could breathe slowly for a few minutes, “filling up my tank” as my shrink calls it. I never had to stand by my works or admit that any of the art was mine. I could be invisible.

The guitar and piano lessons are completely different. Music is a performing art. Music schools have a recital at the end of the year with solo and group performances. The group performances are only slightly less terrifying than the solo ones. For years, I managed not to have to perform at all. During the first two years, I became conveniently ill at the last minute. The third year, my father pre-emptively told me that little ploy would not work a third time, so I broke my arm instead.

I didn’t do it on purpose; I swear. But, because I was grinning through the entire trip to the hospital as I calculated that the number of weeks I’d have to wear a cast was longer than the number of weeks away the recital was, my father was never sure if my inline skating fall was completely accidental.

It was. One of the sibs had crashed right into me as I was standing petrified on the sidewalk, afraid to move an inch. The doctor mentioned that he had never had a kid look so happy to have broken a bone. I was happy for two reasons. One, I had managed to avoid the recital for the third year in a row and, two; I found out that falling off the skates wasn’t nearly as bad as the panic and anxiety of thinking I might fall off the skates. Yes, it hurt. A lot. But the emotional pain of anxiety is so much worse.

I knew that this year I was going to have to play in the recital no matter what. I tried to talk my music teachers into letting me play only in groups for the recital, but they wouldn’t go for that.

“But Michael, you are such a fine musician. It’s just not fair to keep that to yourself.”

What does that even mean? Why do I need to perform live? Why can’t I make a recording and the audience can listen to it? It’s music, for Pete’s sake! You don’t have to watch it. It is meant to be listened to.

I lost the argument in the end and my shrink was all, “Michael, this will be good immersion practice for your anxiety.”

Immersion therapy is a way of dealing with anxiety where you do the thing that makes you anxious and you stay in the moment of the anxiety until you are calm again. It is as horrible as it sounds, but it works. I’ve been practicing immersing myself in uncomfortable situations for months now. I’ve practiced little things, like making a phone call or talking to sales clerks at the mall, until I no longer panic at the thought of them.

This recital is the big one. I had been avoiding it for so long that it became huge in my mind. The anxiety surrounding it seemed too enormous to deal with. I had anxiety when thinking about the anxiety of it, layers upon layers of anxiety.

I had run all the “What Ifs” with my shrink. We had talked about the crazy What Ifs, like the stage opening up and swallowing me or my heart exploding out of my chest to the more sane What Ifs like throwing up on stage or shaking so much that I can’t play. We role-played all the scenarios.

We had decided that stopping and taking a slow breath before continuing was the way to go.

Now, of course, the idea of stopping in the middle of walking across the stage was ridiculous. Why did I ever think that was a good idea? People are looking at me! I don’t want to stop and breathe. That will just make it take longer for it to be over. Just go. Just go, sit down, play the song, get up and try not to run off the stage!

I got to the top of the steps, walked across the stage to the metal folding chair and music stand, leaned over to put the sheet music on it and knocked my guitar into the chair. The sound made by the guitar hitting the chair startled me and I stumbled into the music stand, sending it crashing to the floor. The sheet music fluttered across the stage. I tried to prop my guitar against the chair so I could collect the pages of music and put the stand upright again, but as I leaned it against the seat, the guitar began to slide down the chair along its neck. I grabbed the guitar up, overcompensating again and caught my hand under the seat of the chair, flipping the entire thing into the air. It folded itself midair with a slam and crashed down onto the stage. The acoustics of the hall made the most of the sound effects, with a result not unlike a dozen drum sets dropped from a great height.

I stood there, frozen. The audience gasped as one and then went silent. I looked at them.

“That’s weird,” I said. “I don’t play percussion.”

The audience laughed in sympathy, and a few people applauded.

Whatever I had imagined in all my worst nightmares was nothing compared to what had just happened on that stage. Even I couldn’t have imagined a more embarrassing scenario than the one I had just lived through. And, not only did I survive, but the audience thought I was a trouper, going with the flow like a pro.

Well, I guess I just had to be one, then.

I picked up the chair and music stand, gathered the sheet music, and sat down to play.

© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser