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The walls had been painted yellow, the sort of color that came out of a crusty mustard container. Someone had lazily splashed paint across the cement and spread it as if the end result would never matter. Then again, no one came to Jim’s Coffee Lounge for mustard colored walls. They did not even come for the coffee; they came for Friday’s Open Mic Night, the biggest event in the creative community of Wake Forest for the few months it went on. That night, I pretended the walls were the most interesting thing in the place, though really they were horribly dull. The yellow, however, was much less demanding and kind than the forty something odd colored eyes that were watching me.

Less than a third of the eyes might actually have been watching at me while I stared at the wall. The others were preoccupied with their phones, their friends, ordering their coffee and other things far removed from me. The beatniks were talking about the latest underground music, the tattoo junkies were comparing ink, and the barista was busy trying to figure out how to work the espresso machine. Conversation filled the air, dipping in between the alternating groans of the aging coffee brewers. When I tried to squeak out my name, my voice disappeared into the mix. No one cared about what I had to say or even who I was. A person or two looked up, curiosity of why I was at the microphone if I could not even say my name evident in their faces.

My hands trembled and my knees bounced up and down, eager to leave the stage. I glanced down at the steps; it had been so tempting to walk down them, just leave. No one would care; the next person would just get up and do their piece. If I left then, I could have saved myself from the embarrassment that I had been sure was coming.

I stepped towards the edge of the stage, but glanced up, trying to convince myself to stay. When I did, I met the eyes of the owner, Jim, who had originally invited me to perform. He had been so taken with my work, that he would not allow me to say no to his invitation to read it. His hands swept across the counter he was leaning on, urging me to speak. I realized I could not leave, not only would I disappoint Jim, I would disappoint myself. I took a breath, pushing down the butterflies and introduced myself again.

“Hello, my name is Emily and I’d like to read y’all my poem, Grape Tomatoes.” I stumbled through the first few lines of the poem, keeping my eyes on Jim and pretending that I was anywhere but up on that stage. I described the delectable taste of tomatoes and filled the air with metaphors and similes. I had become so absorbed in the words that I failed to notice that by the end of it, all forty something eyes were focused on me. They cared what I had to say and wanted to hear more.

That Friday night was the first time I had ever gathered the courage to stand up on that stage and read my poem aloud. I had had a passion for reading and writing poetry long before then, but had been too afraid of expectations and other’s opinions to show anyone my work. That night though, I focused only on my words. The taste of grape tomatoes flowed out of my mouth, making the listeners crave the food and think they were eating it. That night gave me confidence. It taught me to stand up to fear and follow my dream of writing. Ever since, that stage, living rooms cameras and school hallways have found me standing up and reading my poetry with pride.

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