SZA’s “SOS,” the title track and opening track for the album of the same name, begins with a call for help. After a morse code distress call beeps off, a group of women’s backup vocals harmonize to sing, “Last night I cried.” Sampled out of Gabriel Hardeman Delegation’s take on “Until I Found The Lord (My Soul Couldn’t Rest),” the line clears the way for SZA to come in stream-of-consciousness and sing, “Give me a second, give me a minute/ Nah lil’ bitch can’t let you finish/ Yeah, that’s right, I need commissions on mine.” Whenever she comes up for air, the backing vocals from the Hardeman Delegation comfort her with another “Last night I cried,” interweaving with the song’s second—and more subtle—sample from Beyoncé’s “Listen” (from the Dreamgirls motion picture).
In the words of Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, the song and everything else that follows it demonstrates how SZA is a “master… [of] the art of the inner monologue, transforming deeply personal observations into gilded songs that feel intimate, relatable, and untouchable, all at once.” As the backing vocals keep repeating and even blur into the background, they offer SZA—and me, who’s just listening along—the water sign reassurance that it’s okay to keep crying it out. “I talk bullshit a lot/ No more fuck shit, I’m done” she sings midway, expressing a frustration at feeling in a holding pattern in both her dating and mental/emotional lives. Towards the end of the song, SZA exasperatedly exhales, “I just want what’s mine/ This ain’t no warning shot/ Case all you hoes forgot/ And I cried and cried/ Said what’s on my mind.” To close out the song, she morphs the opening line and sings, “Ooh, oh I cried” herself, moving into her own rescue as the backing support fades out.
Last night I cried.
For all its warning shots and repeated morse codes, SOS is an album about waiting. In the hilariously painful “Kill Bill,” SZA sings, in true Millennial introspection, “I’m so mature, I’m so mature/ I’m so mature, I got me a therapist to tell me that there’s other men.” As much as she’s calling for help, SZA’s SOS is very much also an album about waiting for better people—and better situations—to float into your oceans. Alongside this musical and lyrical waiting, fans waited five years for this album to finally drop, following along online as SZA publicly feuded with her label, Top Dawg Entertainment, over the delayed release date. During that five-year-period of time, I had also been waiting, in a particular way, in my romantic life. After breaking up with a girlfriend who I loved deeply weeks after seeing SZA stop at Emo’s in Austin in October 2017 during the Ctrl tour, I had long been waiting to feel emotionally, intellectually, and physically connected to someone again. Meeting you five years after that relationship ended, I was ready to believe that this was it, that you might really be my person. When I feel this way after only knowing someone for a few months, it’s always more of a heartfelt aspiration than an actual materialized plan, more of a SOS that I send into the universe in the hopes that it might end my waiting by bringing this kind of relationship into my orbit. These are the currents of romantic optimism, after all, the very water sign-y move of going where the feelings go. On SOS, SZA weathers the emotional currents as they come, feeling them in her body first and processing them with words (or, in therapy) later, still waiting.
Last night I cried.
I’m writing with this album in the wake of a breakup, doing the Cancerian thing that I always do of sitting with—and then writing through—my feelings about all of it. In true water sign fashion, it’s one where the words start pouring out of me in the drawn out week of the breakup—and keep pouring out of me even more as I sit through what Hanif Abdurraqib once plainly stated as: “There are endings, and then there are endings.” In the actual ending of Friday after the emotional ending of Sunday (or, the slow fade out of the holiday break before that), I turn again to music of Black women to try to begin to sort through my feelings. I flash back to when I listened to SOS on the morning that it dropped, when I was driving out to Orange County in a sex haze from the morning fuck that we both fit in before work. The next night, I’d share the album with you as we had what felt like extremely connected sex, a vulnerable entanglement of arms and legs after we drove out along the curves of beaches and holiday lights, with you resting your hand on my thigh as we drove along your favorite road. (In the dark, you’d tell me that these 24-hour days we’d spent together had been your favorite dates with me.) I was sharing my favorite time of the year with you too; I was letting you in every possible way, in full confidence and with no fear. You felt there (too). When I listen to the album now, I viscerally remember how there you felt for this concentrated moment in time, of how much of a beacon you were already becoming to me. And now, when I listen to the album and feel your absence, I cry: last night and this morning and in the afternoon, when I go out into the sun to feel something warm on my body again, missing your Leo rays.
Last night I cried.
SOS is also the call that we make when we feel that we’re sinking. Every time that my heart breaks from romantic disappointment, I feel myself sink further into the years of accumulation of this particular kind of grief. How can it hurt so much to be back in this place that’s also so familiar at this point? At the end of 2022, I promise myself that I won’t keep writing from this place of suffering. While you are away (and, as I increasingly panic, are drifting away from me), I take down most of the old posts on my blog, particularly the ones about people it took me months or even years to work through. I clear out space in the second bathroom for you; I clean out closets and recycle boxes of paper that are doing nothing else besides filling up empty space. I relocate the clutter on the nightstand on the side of the bed where you (used to) sleep, beckoning me back into bed so that I could keep you warm in the cold of night. I start making physical space to accompany the emotional space I am already holding for you; I reach out towards you as if you are a new buoy in my ocean of emotional support. As I create this space for you to anchor down in me, you continue to drift away, ultimately changing course and floating out of my purview. True, I still did not yet know the waters from where you came very well. But I wanted to, taking the time to get to know every last bump and crest—and meeting you wherever you seemed to be.
In mid-November, when I am still in the highest hopes about you and me, I go to hear one of my favorite writers do a reading at Reparations Club, a Black- and woman-owned bookstore in Leimert Park in Los Angeles. He’s celebrating the five-year anniversary of the collection of essays that launched him into the public eye, saying (as he also did in a popular music books symposium at the beginning of the year) that it’s been difficult to reconcile the success of the book with how emotionally difficult it was to write it. During the Q&A, I ask the poet-essayist about how his relationship to feeling has changed over the course of the pandemic. The poet-essayist responds by saying that he was refusing to perpetually live in (only) suffering, that he was (also) reaching out towards joy. (In December, when I hear SZA sing, “Hey, my past can’t escape me/ My pussy precedes me/ My, my, how the times change/ I’m still playin’ the victim/ And you’re still playing the pick-me,” I think about how much I, too, am yearning to move away from eternally casting myself into emotional victimhood.) When the poet-essayist adds that he feared we were reaching a collective point of no return in cruelty, I once again sink back into myself. There’s nothing quite like the (un)intended cruelty of romance, where we drift between saying what we think we’re supposed to say and admitting how we really feel. I prefer not to engage in this dance; I try to either walk away quickly when I know I’m not feeling it or shout how I’m feeling from a mountaintop when I am, so there’s no doubt of where I stand. (“You’re passionate. You wear your heart on your sleeve. These are good things,” you say to me as you break up with me, as I cry for 30 minutes straight.)
But the cruelty of heartbreak that I’ve experienced during the pandemic is something I still fail to completely find the words for. In all of my break/ups during the past 1.5 years, the word “boundaries” has been used or strongly inferred. Everyone says or implies that they’re asserting their boundaries, that they’re asserting control back into their lives. In reality, what they do is exert control over the relationship by ending it, by severing themselves from the porousness of emotional, intellectual, and sexual intimacy, from intimacies that can never be fully controlled or contained. This working on personal boundaries is presented as a kindness, as someone working on themselves (in lieu of going to therapy). But, what it really feels like they are saying is: I’m not ready for you and the presence that you bring, so I’m rewriting the story of what’s already happened so I can slip away before things get even scarier. My friends tell me these stories too, and we sit around wondering how people in their mid- to late 30s who have been good partners before and so badly want to be in relationships again now can still be so single. We brainstorm how to meet people away from the dating apps (you were the only one I met that way, anyway). We ponder over how to get out of our intellectual worlds and meet people in other places, people who can still hang when we talk about our work but also with whom that’s not our main or only connection or point of conversation. We worry that all the emotionally and intellectually present people have already been taken, that we’ll be alone in this way forever. We sit on the phone as the other person cries, or sends the latest song or essay or musing trying to (again) make sense of what just happened. Like SZA, we work through the monologues in our heads over and over again, trying to make sense of them.
But sometimes (often), there’s no making sense of when people change their minds, seemingly out of the blue.
The hardest breakups are when someone turns away, when they’ve been turned towards you before and they decide, for whatever reasons, that they won’t face you anymore. I was on the other end of this five years ago, which is also when I last felt this connected to someone romantically new. I sat across a coffee table as my ex cried for an hour, not understanding how I could suddenly turn away from her. (Days earlier, I witnessed the (previously suppressed) extent of her anxiety that she had over what she perceived as the unequal levels between us. I’ve always felt guilty for not waiting a little longer. This time, I waited until there was no more waiting left to do, making myself physically ill from anxiety over the course of those five weeks, which I’lll continue to unpack in therapy for the weeks to come.) On the phone with my friend who is the Gemini sun and Cancer moon to my Cancer sun and Gemini moon the following night, she reminds me that it’s pretty remarkable to have dated or felt intimately intertwined with six different people (one long distance) during my first 1.5 years in LA, that I’ve only felt truly single for six of those eighteen months. And then I think that maybe what I’m feeling tired of is dating itself, of this testing out period that you have to go through before you can get to the point of someone knowing exactly when to wrap their arms around you and tell you, with love, “Everything is going to be okay.” With you, I felt I had turned a corner, had turned away from early dating games and instead towards starting to build a long-term relationship with someone, as we had both said we wanted on our first date. You were there until you weren’t, turning away from me and instead towards “opportunities” elsewhere.
Over time, all of these turnings away sediment into each other, accumulating into grief. Last January, someone that I had known for five and a half years at that point absolutely gutted me, breaking my heart as a friend, colleague, and an almost—but not quite—lover. Combined with anxieties about my new job and new city, I plummeted into a deep depression, the worst one that I had been in since 2015 or 2012 before that. When SZA’s “i hate u” soon dropped, I played it on repeat, screaming the chorus lines of “And if you wonder if I hate you (fuck you)” through tears while having a breakdown in my living room, often over my latest romantic disappointment in LA reactivating all this trauma from afar. After each localized heartbreak, I’d sit in therapy and ask, “What if, after all this, it’s still ultimately this person?” It’s hard to let go of someone who comes from your world and sees you in all the ways, who seems to do the impossible and sees you as you see yourself. But you taught me what I had suspected to be true but hadn’t experienced in five years’ time: that academia is not the only place where I can connect with someone that I can be myself with (both of our self-expressed favorite things about one another). This January, as I’m first sitting with the tidal wave of emotions from this most recent break, I’m wondering how in the world I can be starting off the second year in a row feeling so heartbroken. I feel upset again about what happened last year, placing it alongside my sadness and growing anger around what happened this year. But, at the same time, I recognize that this is not last year’s depression—and I am no longer the person that I was only one year ago. This is the dream of living and learning, that we can grow and expand even amidst all the sedimentations, turnings away, and waitings. Alongside the grief (which comes with me still), I hold space for hope, that my person is still out there, somewhere.
I want to think that this is where SZA lands at the end of the album, when she samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard for the closing track “Forgiveness.” Over the beat from an ODB freestyle and the backing vocals from Bjork’s post-trip hop-y “Hidden Place,” SZA declares, “Give a fuck what you prefer, I’m too profound to go/ Back and forth.” It’s a freestyling that sings back to the intro “SOS,” with SZA peacing out of the most unpredictable waters, where nothing and no one can ever be a lifeboat or even a buoy. To answer the SOS with your own self is the ultimate rescue plan, to put in the time and do the work so that you minimize how much of your shit you thrust onto someone else, potentially sinking them down, with or without you. Sometimes, heartbreak throws us into the lifeboat where we needed to be all along.