My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark when I entered the room. It was a small room, lit with a cluster of candles on a low coffee table, surrounded by cushions, mostly occupied by other people. Welcome, someone said. I took a seat. Liz took a seat beside me. I couldn’t make eye contact with her, knowing that if I did, we would both burst out laughing with my I told you this would be weird facial expression. I looked around at the others who occupied the space, a man with long blonde hair and a ginger beard, a guy with cropped hair which I couldn’t define as grey or blonde in the dim lighting, holding a guitar, a young guy in a toque with a laptop balanced on his knees, and several others, among whom sat our host, perched on a cajon. He welcomed everyone again.
My footsteps echoed loudly on the wet marciapiede, making my boots sound elegant, when in fact they were just cheap rain boots with a very hard sole. I asked through the walls of my hood to Liz, behind me, what exactly he had said when he invited her, what exactly we were going to.
I don’t know, a party I guess! He said it was a get-together, a few friends, some music, nothing particular. For some reason I found myself suspicious. But then again, I’m often wary of unfamiliar social situations.
We rang the bell, and he came to open the gate for us, giving us both a hug, which felt awkwardly intimate compared to the usual Italian double cheek kisses in which you rarely actually made physical contact with the other. Liz was right, he was attractive, I guess. He thanked us for coming. After you, he said, motioning for us to enter.
I don’t hear any music, I whispered to Liz, are you sure it’s a party? She shrugged her shoulders. We hesitantly stepped through the door.
Now in the circle, we were told this was a safe and shared space, where we could say anything and let our creativity roam freely. Improvisation was encouraged. Oh god, I thought. With that someone passed him a guitar and he began to strum. The music picked up, and others joined in. Soon there was a combined cadence…several guitars, some low rhythms emanating from the laptop, the cajon, fingers tapping jars, palms beating laps… not bad.
I began to relax a bit. Okay, this isn’t so strange I guess. An observer, a wallflower by nature, I began to sway, my eyes roaming over each of my circle mates, examining their facial expressions, body movements and where their own gazes fell, as they made music. In between chords, or as instruments were shuffled around the circle, I learned that ginger beard was a busker, passing through, the French boy near me was in Florence perhaps another week, maybe two, and the girl on the cushion next to me tapping a glass jar with her ring was American, studying art. But all conversations were soon drowned out by music.
I was starting to feel almost at ease, watching these people and the ways in which they interacted, those who were strangers, new to the circle like us, and those who knew each other well. The music eliminated the need for awkward small talk. I felt like an anthropologist, observing a strange social ritual of Santo Spirito hipsters. But then…
Never stopping to strum his guitar, our host announced that he would begin a song, which would then be passed around the circle, for each person to add to in turn. Oh no. I immediately leaned uncomfortably back, seeking an exit from the tight space. Could I somehow slip out of the ring of candlelight and remain unnoticed in a corner? Where was the bathroom? Maybe I could pretend to smoke, go out for a cigarette? But it was too late, the song had begun, and our host was making eye contact with me as the tune crept ever closer to me. People sang about their day, they sang about the paintings on the wall, they sang about singing. I wracked my brains for some line I could sing out and pass the tune quickly along, but all that came to mind was I’m not a singer. I’m not a singer.
I’m more of an observer, I stuttered when the lyrics had finally reached me. Never breaking eye contact, he said, we are all observers here, Annie, all on the same level, and continued strumming.
My name is Allie, actually, I mumbled, internally rolling my eyes while averting my gaze and trying desperately to pass the attention to the American artist next to me. My face was burning. After a few moments of failed encouragement, the song went on and I was free.
But it didn’t stop there. Several times we were put in the spotlight and pressured to produce lyrics. Just sing whatever comes to your mind, he said, in what I imagined was meant to be a soothing tone. As he shushed some others who were having a quiet conversation on their side of the circle, telling them this was a place for singing, not talking, an image of the beetle from Thumbelina came to mind… don’t speak, just sing, toots! and I laughed quietly to myself, the absurdity of the situation becoming more and more entertaining.
When we had finally had enough and began reaching for our coats, we were sung at to stay, the group chanting, don’t go until you sing, but we made a swift exit. Our host walked us out, asking if next time he could paint us. Like a portrait, he said.
We said we would see.
We maintained silence until the door was closed firmly behind us. Liz turned to me. My bad… she said.