The first lie was endearing. I told him I was organizing a Bessie Smith teach-in at WKCR. “That is so cool!” he said. “I love Bessie Smith.”
“I know,” I replied. “It’s going to be so dope, we’re going to listen to all of her music, and talk about the blues, and it’s going to be so great.”
“That’s amazing,” he said. “Will she be there?”
I paused. “Bessie Smith died in 1937,” I told him. He laughed and shrugged, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just trying to impress you.” That same night, he kissed me for the first time with Bessie Smith on the turntable—which I took as a good sign. That’s the problem with being someone who cares about music.
The second lie was a lot less endearing. He signed me into Furnald one night, and above my name in the log, written in his narrow, slanted handwriting, was the name of a woman I knew vaguely—a pretty poet in my year. He’d just signed her out. “Yeah, I was just hanging out with a friend,” he said. Then he laughed as he wrote my name. “I’m on a spree.”
Two months later, I found out the truth. The situation was bad. It was mean and ugly, and I said as many hurtful things as I could. I told him that New York City wasn’t big enough for the two of us. He went back to Vermont, and I was left here in Manhattan.
The thing that annoyed me about the way I felt in the days after he left was that it wasn’t very dramatic. I really expected to feel devastated. But instead, I just felt like I was alone in a room, fidgeting and anxious and uncomfortable, staring at the walls, doing my best to avoid looking directly at the disappointment that sat there like an ugly sofa. There seemed to be a perpetual minor-key hum in the background, the kind of sound an old mini-fridge would make.
So I did what I always do in an uncomfortable room: turn on music. And the music of choice was Bessie Smith, because that’s what he kissed me to, and that’s what I was listening to the whole time we dated. Feeling really sad probably felt more manageable than just feeling shitty, I figured. And I figured that listening to Bessie Smith singing a 12-bar blues would make me feel really sad.
It did. Listening to Bessie Smith made the ache of the disappointment feel more pronounced. Her growl and her groan drowned out that minor-key background hum. So I turned up the volume and made myself at home in the ache. I cuddled with my misery, dragged my fingernails down the spine of my heartbreak. I cozied up to the disgust and spoon-fed the betrayal with the sweetest memories I had of the man who treated me like dirt.
I liked the violence of songs like “Aggravatin’ Papa.” It tells the story of a woman whose man tries to two-time her, so she shoots him. That was a blues narrative that I really felt like I could get behind. In “Mistreating Daddy,” she sings, “Don’t bother me / I’m as mean as can be / I’m like the butcher right down the street / I can cut you all a-pieces like I would a piece of meat.” That one also really hit the spot.
The one that really got me, though, was “Down Hearted Blues.” Bessie Smith starts off just plain sad—a wronged and scorned woman, left alone by a two-timing man. She misses him and she isn’t afraid to admit it. If he came back to her, she would surely let him in. But as the song progresses, the sorrow in her voice starts sounding rich; it becomes seamed with anger, the heat in her voice building slowly, gradually, the way hot water does as it runs from a tap. She tells him that he wrecked her life. She tells him that the day he left her will one day come home to him. The song ends and she’s still sad. She isn’t over it, and she’ll probably keep drinking the heartbreak away, and maybe even take up with another no-good man. But Bessie Smith makes heartbreak sound like a feeling worth having. It doesn’t feel paralyzing when she sings about it. She makes sadness and disappointment and frustration sound like feelings that will get her somewhere, someday, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
He left in January, and now it is April. On April 15, Bessie Smith will celebrate her 120th birthday. I will be on the air at WKCR at 6 o’clock that evening, and the record spinning in the studio and out across New York City will be the same record that played when he kissed me that first time, all those months ago. And I will tell the listeners how Bessie Smith sang in a way no other woman was singing in 1923, and that people flipped out when they heard her first-ever recording—almost 800,000 copies of “Down Hearted Blues” sold in the first six months after its release. When I’m done speaking and the song is playing, I will turn the volume in the studio up as loud as I can tolerate. If no one else is at the station, I will sing really loudly and badly along with Bessie Smith. I will lose my voice in hers and speak hoarsely in class the next day. I will hurt, she sounds so good.
The thing that they don’t tell you about heartbreak is that it’s kind of boring—that it hums along in the background, the same shitty way an old mini fridge does. Listen to enough Bessie Smith, though, and the minor-key background drone starts sounding symphonic and important and powerful. I guess time does heal all wounds, but I liked that Bessie Smith kept me rubbing at the scar that formed after he left. She kept me tracing the peculiar grain of what he did to me until it felt talismanic— until it felt as tragic and hilarious as it possibly could. I don’t know if I’m glad he did this to me. But now it’s me and Bessie Smith again, and the music matters to me and makes sense to me in a way that it never could have before. He’s back in Vermont, and I’m here in New York City, listening to the blues. And after all the lies that man told me, Bessie Smith is all the truth I need.