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Jessica Lynne | Longreads | February 2020 | 10 minutes (2,737 words)
Hive is a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them.
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Much has been written about certain cities and their landscapes that conjure a particular sentimentality or feeling within those who live there or those who chose to visit. At times, the lore is so great that it overwhelms. New York, for instance, ignites a peculiar sense of inertia, a stagnancy that cannot be perfectly described even though when you are there, it presses itself onto you and it is hard to ignore. We have come to know Paris as a city of love; it seems impossible to escape a looming sense of romance. The poems and the essays and the paintings and the photography and even the songs have given to us this mirage. As any young, eager traveler to Paris might be inclined, I once searched, many years ago, hoping to find love in the first, sixth, or 13th arrondissement.
I did not, however, fall in love in Paris. I fell in love, instead, in Miami.
When I tell people that I fell in love in Miami, I have noticed a reaction that first takes the form of surprise then quickly turns to intrigue. One friend responded with a smile and a curt, Sexy. I imagine, for most people unfamiliar with the vastness of Miami-Dade County, when one hears love and Miami, one might be inclined to think of Miami Beach — a denizen of glamour, glitz, nightlife — and thus picture a scene incongruent with that which we dream up when we say love. This imagining does not include the walks I have taken throughout Opa Locka, ambling along without a plan. It does not include Adelita’s Café on NE 2nd Avenue where dear friends once took me to eat breakfast while Honduran music videos played in the background. It does not include the many concerns of climate catastrophe that hover. Perhaps, it is because I grew up in a region defined, in part, by swampland and coastline, beaches and a nebulous hurricane season — a region that in certain aspects of its topography reminds me of Miami — but I have never been surprised by what happened to me. I have always understood the water to carry forth potencies.
Time is a mysterious phenomenon because when I fell in love in Miami, I was floating through a period of depression and having difficulty communicating this to friends and loved ones. I had traveled to the city for a research residency hoping to read or write or work myself out of it. That moment in my life feels as though it was decades ago and also as though it just happened last week. It, in actuality, unfolded in the middle of a Lenten season about two years ago. As I packed my suitcase, anxious to leave a still winter New York, I texted the person with whom I would eventually fall in love a selfie of me wearing a wool winter coat, frowning in the back of a taxi, on my way to JFK airport. When I look at that photo now (I have not been able to, not wanted to delete it), I wonder if that Jessica knew what awaited her.
Miami humidity is a familiar sensation to me, comforting in fact. It reminds me to move slowly. To breathe deeply. It reminds me that water, in each of its three states, has something to teach us about how we should be in our bodies, what we should do to best care for ourselves. There are those who loathe the excess of moisture in the air. I revel in the stickiness.
It is possible that as I texted the person with whom I would fall in love on my way from Miami International Airport to the residency home in Little Haiti where I would spend the week, I said something like this to them about the city. It is possible that they responded back to me with an affirmation of sorts, because though they did not live in Miami either, they too were from a place of humidity and hurricanes. They too understood the ways in which those forces rumble through the body. Maybe this is why, on that night, the night that feels like it occurred both decades ago and just last week, as we settled into a nervous then tranquil video chat, I knew that love was happening to us.
Isn’t love just as mysterious as time? I am not sure how to recount the beginning except to say that our beginning was cliché even if I knew it was special: We met on social media. Isn’t this how it tends to go nowadays? They think you’re cute. They follow. You think they’re cute. You comment. The dance ensues until that first encounter or touch or night spent together. That night, the person with whom I would fall in love and I laughed through our screens because we did not yet know what or when that first encounter would be and somehow that was alright for the moment. Even then, I recognized that serendipity rarely shows up in relationships of distance. So instead, we talked about other things: sargassum, the sea, salt-water, roosters, the moon.
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This is another thing I have come to love about Miami when I visit: the moon. Though Miami is a big city and it is sometimes difficult to see the stars, the moon that night was a waning crescent. In this phase, the moon is most visible right before sunrise as it points eastward. A waning crescent moon is seen right before a new moon which is in itself, a time for clarity, rebirth, revision. During the new moon, the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon are aligned and if you are near coastline, you will notice the extremities of high and low tides. That night, we were both, quietly, preparing to receive each other, in spite of the distance — moon, water, heart in dialogue.
On February 12, 2019, as NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity, died, the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory effectively gave the robot a resting tribute by playing Billie Holiday’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Opportunity first landed on Mars in 2004 as the search for water on the red planet began in earnest. Engineers last received a communication from the robot during a dust storm on the planet in the summer of 2018. According to one NASA dispatch from that June, high amounts of dust prevented Opportunity from receiving the solar power necessary for recharging:
NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the nearly 15-year-old rover. The team is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity’s batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels.
If the rover’s computer determines that its batteries don’t have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep. Due to an extreme amount of dust over Perseverance Valley, mission engineers believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up for at least the next several days.
By February, it had become clear that Opportunity’s data transmission from the summer of 2018 would be its last. Holiday’s voice became the voice of final goodbye.
I was in New Orleans, another coastal ecology always contending with the water, when I read this news. Away from this person I now loved as Valentine’s Day crept up, I had never considered Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” to be a song of farewell. It has always been, for me, an amorous sonic epistle, a way of saying, here, you are where my heart belongs. Away from this person I loved as Valentine’s Day approached, unable to figure out how to be in person together, separated still by an ocean and time, I played this song if only to remind myself that distance would not become a permanent impasse. By that February, we had almost perfected a system: one month here, one month there. There being, at first, the small island where the person I loved was born, a short trip from my Brooklyn home. This was our rhythm soon after Miami. Then, as the person I loved relocated for school, there became a big, gray European City. Here morphed into a series of different cities in which I took up residence after moving out of Brooklyn. I had decided I needed to travel as I figured out the terms of a book project I wanted to take on.
And so, guided by the desire to sharpen ourselves, we leapt in different directions as we still attempted to hold onto each other, transience best understood as the context for our love.
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If you have heard “I’ll Be Seeing You” at any point in your life (and chances are that you have), you have most likely listened to the version Holiday recorded in 1944 — the version played for Opportunity, in fact — though it was not originally her song. Composer Sammy Fain and songwriter Irvin Kahal wrote the song in 1938 and as WWII began, it gradually personified the ache and hope of a generation that watched their loved ones leave without an assurance of return. Fain and Kahal’s tune was a hit; Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra each recorded their own renditions. Yet, it took a Black woman to lend the song its gravitas.
If Aretha Franklin is the singer who first taught me how to see God, it has been Holiday who has taught me how to name a kind of romantic love.
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I was a few months shy of 14 when I first heard Holiday’s version of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It was summer 2004 and the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’s novel The Notebook had just been released in the U.S. The film tells the story of an unlikely pairing of two white South Carolinians — Allie and Noah — in the 1940s who, in spite of their class differences, fall in love one summer against the backdrop of the Second World War. We learn of the drama of their romance via flashbacks of an older couple eventually revealed to be the elder Allie and Noah.
In the scene I found most striking, the scene that defines the film for me, Noah and Allie are on their first date and begin to dance in the middle of the street. Slowly, they move as Holiday starts to croon. I did not know anything profound about romance then as a teenager, but I knew that I had never heard a love song like that before. I’d heard few voices that hummed through me like Holiday’s did that afternoon.
Kahal’s lyrics embody the familiar longing that occurs between lovers separated. As Holiday’s voice eases into that opening horn melody, steady and deliberate, each lyric pronounced and clear, she carries those words into a significant emotional, poetic plane. Holiday’s lento performance stands in for all of us who have just as slowly and tenderly opened that anticipated letter with “I love you,” or “I am always thinking of you,” awaiting. And in the distinctive fortitude that defined a hallmark era of jazz and the blues as musical genres, it was Holiday who offered an unmatched vocal rhythm and inventiveness. Perhaps she has taught us all how to love: her 1956 rendition of Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris,” evoking sentiments I once hoped to find in that very city but could not quite grasp at the time. Her version of Duke’s similarly classic standard, “Autumn in New York,” conjuring the lurking beauty of the fall season in a city that can be hard to embrace in moments. To listen to Holiday is to listen to a woman who has lived and loved, and that acute transmission of heartache, of a resolute knowing, is her potency, like the water.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” is not about one city. It is about the moon; it is about everywhere. It is about all the locations in which we have yearned. When I think of the person I loved, I fold myself inside of Holiday’s transmission.
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There is so much about a long-distance relationship that can seem fleeting, and because the moments of physical togetherness and intimacy become planned in a meticulous manner, it always feels as if you are chasing time. Trying to get it to not just slow down, but to stop. Trying to extend a day into a week, a week into a month. In a long-distance relationship you are constantly grappling with the tension between aloneness and loneliness because the threat of being overwhelmed by nostalgia feels palpable. That night in Miami, under the waning crescent moon, when I knew that I would indeed love the person who I loved, in spite of a distance that I could not yet see reconciled, I thought to myself, Billie will steady us.
I carried that song with me everywhere. On the New York City subway, at the Acropolis in Athens, in a quiet bar in Bonn, at the Souk of Marrakech. I learned how to find the person I loved in the poetry section of a New Orleans bookstore, that vintage shop in Baltimore, a Lisbon pastelaria. Each new place, Lady Day in my head, on my heart, reminding me to look at the moon before sleep, that I would always find a reflection of the person I loved there, too, until the next visit.
I keep coming back to three lines in Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging:
When you travel everything goes with you, even the things you do not know.
They travel; they take up space; they remain the things you do not know;
they become the things you will never know.
I tell myself that when you are in a long-distance relationship, especially one that requires crossing water as commute, travel can become burdensome and exhausting and the last thing you want is to carry excess. Brand does not speak of romantic love, I know, but recently, I cannot read these words without thinking about the unknown excesses that traveled with me as love took me back and forth across an ocean. I only knew, instead, how to name what was becoming my loneliness. I am sure the person I loved was unraveling in this way too.
Here are some items that I would regularly pack: a raincoat, two books, a comfortable pair of sneakers, a laptop, a purple caftan, five T-shirts, a few sweaters, three pairs of jeans, multiple love notes.
Even now, I am worried that I have exposed too much.
I didn’t know what to do with myself after the person I loved and I decided that it had become too heavy to carry the distance anymore, so I went back to Miami.
Greeted by friends at the airport, I temporarily swallowed the lump in my throat that had swelled as I stepped off the plane that August morning. Even in my delusional attempts to not think about my last visit — the visit when I fell in love — my body remembered the humidity which meant it wouldn’t let me forget what this city held for me. I wasn’t ready to divulge the details of the breakup, so I smiled my widest smile and let my friends take me to Jimmy’s Diner for breakfast. The entire conversation, an exercise of restraint for me. When you travel, heartbreak travels with you, whether you want it to or not.
I didn’t unpack my suitcase when I arrived at my hotel later that day. A storm was lurking, I knew, but I wanted to wander about Little Havana for a moment, even if it meant getting caught in the rain. I grabbed my clutch, my phone, my headphones. I greeted the older women having lunch in the lobby before exiting and turning left on SW 9th Street. I pressed play and let Billie wash over me, and I walked and walked and walked.
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Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is a founding editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from Black perspectives. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Art in America, The Believer, BOMB Magazine, The Nation and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about love, faith, and the American South.
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