unlikely idols, or: thanks, clay aiken

Prologue, 2003

I’m sitting in my parents’ bedroom, watching American Idol auditions with my mom. It’s all fun and games and Simon Cowell nastiness, and then He walks into the room. Like the judges, Mom and I are immediately skeptical of this gangly, red-haired dork. As a fellow in dorkdom, I’m almost annoyed with him. Our kind doesn’t audition for American Idol, I want to grab him and hiss. Don’t call so much attention to us!

Simon asks him why he’s there, as if he doesn’t know the answer. This smiling Weasley by way of the Partridge Family answers so simply, “I’m the next American Idol!”

My heart breaks. This poor, lost soul. I wince and hope that this will all be over for him quickly.

Take time to tell me you really care
And we’ll share tomorrow together
I’ll always love you, forever, forever

Oh, snap. Simon and I are wrong, and I am smitten.

NYC, 2008

I’m very aware that my friends are only coming to this show with me so that they can watch my reactions. I don’t even care. I’m so freaking excited. It’s my first year of college, and it’s my first time in New York City, and my powder blue Old Navy coat really brings out the red in my acne, and I AM HERE TO SEE MUSICALS ON BROADWAY.

It’s been a tough year. My heart has been hanging on by a thread ever since the first week of classes. All of my high school teachers told me how much easier college would be for someone “like me.” For a nerd. Okay, cool. College is still super hard for someone “like me.” I’m trying to navigate my way through alcohol and Skype-sex for the first time, all while I nearly fail Foundations of Music Theory. I’m That Girl; the one with the out-of-town boyfriend, and I’m pretty annoying about it. My roommate doesn’t like me, but I let her cheat off of my math test anyway, and we get caught pretty hardcore. Being a nerd is still hard. Iron Man won’t come out until the summer, so I have no way of knowing how much of the Earth I am soon to inherit.

But, gosh darn it, I have friends. I have the theatre department. And we are here together, and we are seeing musicals on Broadway, and we are eating so much pizza. Nerd-God is smiling on me this day. Not only am I going to see Spamalot for a mere $25 (standing room, baby!), but I am going to see it featuring my beloved. I am going to see Spamalot starring Clay. Aiken.

Maybe most people are over Clay Aiken at this point in the decade, but I’m not going anywhere. Clay’s been there for me. Clay’s never let me down. If I was making my Broadway debut, I’d want Clay to be there, you know? I’m happy for him, and I’m happy for me. And I’m not always happy this year, so boy, does this feel good.

We get in line outside of the Shubert. I feel no shame in nuzzling my dumb, stupid, oily face against the poster of Clay hanging outside the Theatre. At one point, I get so excited that I accidentally spit out my gum, and I’m still pretty confident that it landed in the cuff of a stranger’s jeans. I’m not even that sorry about it.

Atlanta, 2004

He opens the Independent Tour with Mister Mister’s “Kyrie.” I am with my mom, one of my best friends, and her mom. The Clay Aiken/Kelly Clarkson concert is a pretty mom-friendly crowd.

I haven’t been to a concert since I saw the Spice Girls in elementary school, and I desperately wanted to look cool for this. Christie and I went to the mall and everything. We found matching lacey tops, hers blue and mine red, at Charlotte Russe, and I feel that we look impossibly grown up. Maybe even sexy? I’m sure that Clay would be impressed by us.

The top isn’t enough, though. I know that. At the moment, the coolest thing about me is that I own a pair of red, high top Converse. Additionally, I’ve read Teen People and I know that cool, creative people write things on the toes of their Converse. So, in preparation for the coolest night of my life, I found a red Sharpie, and scrawled on my toes:

Aiken for Clay.

Wow. I am basically dork-Penny Lane.

I scream so loud during this Clay Aiken concert that my mom nearly concusses herself from laughing too hard and slamming her head against the railing in front of us. When Clay’s set is over, and we take a break to get ready for Kelly, the two older women behind us tap me on the shoulder.

“We just want you to know that, if we can’t have him, we want you to have him, because you deserve him.”

Christmas, 2004

My grandmother has been drinking for a while by the time we make it to her house. This is probably most of my cousins’ least favorite part of the holidays. She isn’t a stereotypical Grandma. There are no baked goods or cheek smushes. We’re just working with Franzia and cats who don’t like to be pet.

I try really hard with my grandmother, because I know what it’s like to feel a little bit like you don’t fit in with the rest of the family. I am the sole nerd kid in an ocean of jock cousins. Grandmother and I can talk about movies. I know that she loves me and that she’s proud of me. I will know this until she’s gone. I do not yet know that today is going to change the bedrock of our relationship.

I don’t remember how we got here. It’s just me and Grandmother alone in the living room. She tells me that I am a bad daughter to my mom. I am too young to really understand that being drunk can make you say things you don’t mean, or at least don’t intend to say out loud. I will never know if she meant this. She doesn’t apologize, and I do not forgive.

When we get back home, I feel confused and numb. I don’t really know how to talk about what happened, so I want to be alone. I curl up on my couch with one of my presents: Clay Aiken’s autobiography, Learning to Sing. Over the course of the night, bathed in Christmas tree light, I will learn that Clay Aiken has struggles with his family too. For the rest of my life, I will feel gratitude towards Clay Aiken for being the friendly voice in my head the night that my grandmother really hurt my feelings. For making me feel less alone.

Epilogue, 2018 and Always

I tell my Shakespeare students about my “Aiken for Clay” shoes. They’re clearly pretty impressed and horrified at the same time. I tell them the story a) because it’s funny and embarrassing, and b) I don’t ever want them to feel ashamed for the dorky longing in their hearts. They are sensitive, magical theatre kids, and things will be hard for them. Things will lean too hard against their soft hearts.

It’s the night of their final performance, and there’s a decent amount of crying going on. They’re going to miss each other. I get it. I’m going to miss them too. I’m holding it together pretty well, I think.

They’ve gotten presents for the teachers. There’s a Starbucks gift card, a stuffed river otter, and…

A copy of the American Idol 10-year anniversary Greatest Hits CD. Featuring “Invisible,” by one Clay Aiken.

I regret ever being ashamed of Clay and his confidence on that very first AI audition. I should have been proud of him, the way that I’m proud of these sweet nerds. When they walk into scary rooms in the future, I hope that they will be just as defiantly themselves.

Because our hearts are very breakable, but we are not invisible.

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