I stood in front of the vintage-style microphone, breathless. I hadn’t sung a solo in over a year. No one in this room besides my partners had ever heard me sing before. What if they thought I was a poser? I didn’t play an instrument. I was just a singer, covering a song done much better by real musicians with way more indie cred than me. What if I burst the bubble of the illusion of the hip, confident American who had dove into their world like she’d always belonged there?
To my left, Mark, the handsome open-mic manager introduced us, chuckling a bit at our pseudo-band name, “The Pit of Distraction.” As he sat down, his dark brown eyes watched me, curious. He crossed his pale arms over his black cutoff t-shirt that read in white letters, “Live Fast, Die Young.”
I glanced over at him, nervously, and then looked out at the crowd. I knew everyone in the front row. They all smiled encouragingly, except Connor, who never smiles. Jake gave a cheeky whoop and Lucy cheered, “Chelsea!” Giggling, I rediscovered the location of my lungs and took a deep breath. I nodded to Charlotte, who began a gentle strum on her borrowed acoustic.
“A year from now we’ll all be gone. Our friends will move away,” I sang. It was a song of friendship and impending separation. A song I now understood all the better. That row of beloved Scottish faces watching me, cheering me on, they would be gone in less than a month. To put it more accurately, I would be gone; returned to a home that now felt so foreign.
Earlier that night at the radio station, the same group of friends had played me off the final New Music show of the semester. It would be the very last New Music show of my painfully short career as a member of Air3 Radio. Leigh had said something sweet about my enthusiasm and how much everyone would miss me, and Jake played the song “Isn’t She Lovely?” I teared up and choked out some romantic mush about how I loved them all and wished I could stay forever. There had been hugs and kisses all around and even some of the boys got a little teary.
Now, singing the words, “I miss your face like hell,” I not only thought of all the dear friends and family I had left stateside three months prior, but I also thought of all the friends right in front of me and all the other dear people who had made me feel so at home in this blustery, rag-tag corner of the world. Johnny, who was shocked to finally find someone as passionate about contemporary Scottish music in the person of an American exchange student. Kat, who loved to take me shopping and dress me like her own life-sized Barbie. Luke, the Irish protestant who believed his mom’s religion but wore his dad’s rosary beads and decided he loved everything about me except that I was leaving at the end of the semester. Annamarie, my best friend and traveling buddy all across the British Isles, who was just then standing next to me, singing delicate harmony as my voice began a slow crescendo.
“Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you,” I repeated over and over until my voice exploded with all the belting gusto only a girl raised on musical theater can muster. Yet it cracked, right at the end. Not even years of training could capture all the love and loneliness and yearning packed into this little heart. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I couldn’t imagine life without them again.
Ending with a shaky, whispered, “Rivers till I reach you,” I closed my eyes, so full of a riot of feelings that I didn’t quite know what to do. As I stood there, unsure, terrified, my friends, my dear friends burst into applause. Opening my eyes, I gave a quivering smile and stammered, “Cheers, guys.” I ducked around the mic and dashed over to their waiting arms.
“That was amazing, you guys!” Lucy said. “Why haven’t you sung before now?”
Jake’s curly beard scratched against my neck as he held me tight and chirped in his little Yorkshire accent, “You can’t leave! I won’t let you! You can live in my closet. No! I’ll live in my closet. You can have my room! You just have to stay.”
The last time he had held me this tight was after he had just seen his ex for the first time since their break-up. The poor boy had sobbed into my shoulder as Johnny patted him on the back and I cooed some meaningless condolences in his ear. Again I found myself, holding him back, murmuring reassurances. I would be back. This wasn’t the end. I’d return before anyone even thought of missing me.
But that was just a dream we all shared. It was a lie we told ourselves to keep from crying. It’s been months. I’m broke. There’s no chance I’ll make it back to Scotland any time soon. Yet whenever I catch myself humming “Rivers and Roads” I remember Jake’s beard, Lucy’s smile, Mark’s curious eyes, and I promise myself I’ll make it back. “Nothing is as it has been, but I miss your face like hell.”
Later that month, at the end-of-semester awards party, the collective members of Air3 voted me “Best Newcomer.” Never had I felt so loved or so wanted by any group of people. I had become one of them. They had made me one of them, welcoming me into their world, though I was a foreigner and a novice. In Scotland, I learned the real meaning of brotherly love. It’s when people bring you in, no matter who you are or what you look like or what background you come from and they make you one of their own. This little craggy land at the end of the world has been downtrodden, ignored, mocked and misconstrued by the rest of the world since the Romans wandered into it thousands of years ago. It made them tough, independent and suspicious of outside influence, but it gave them a soft spot for the outsider, the reject, the foreigner willing to approach them on their own terms. Scotland is a land where you will never be homesick but you will always be homesick for.