I. Dreamer/ I wanna love like you/ I wanna see the world/ Through your eyes (Sandstone)
When I first see that Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn will be performing Pigments in full with the accompaniment of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the New Orleans Museum of Art during my winter break, I know in my bones that I have to go. So I text my friends who I know are already going to see who I can stay with, and then break up my Southwest flight home for Christmas so that I fly to New Orleans first, and then catch a second flight on to LaGuardia. (There’s no direct flight from LA, anyway.) New Orleans, where I lived from June 2018-May 2021, becomes the first stop on what I dub the “Remission World Tour,” which will take me to six different cities (Nola, Brooklyn, Jersey City, London, Firenze, and Roma) the next four weeks, a combination of holiday travel and the trip that I did not get to take during the summer, when I was in the thick of chemo and about to have a life-saving hysterectomy. But the trip will also be my third return since moving out of New Orleans, a necessary reclaiming of a place where I experienced rape, the isolation of early COVID, and a university where all the work that I did with students went largely unnoticed. Upon landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport, I catch a ride to my old therapist’s new office, where we take an hour to catch up informally. Midway through, for the first time aloud, I finally say, “You know, I never felt in crisis at any point this year. I felt like it was another hard thing, after a life of hard things. This is not to reduce cancer to anything else, but I had the support in place to navigate it.” “You had all the tools ready,” my old therapist responded. “You’ve been doing the work for a long time.” An emotionally sensitive child (and adult), the story of my life has been learning to survive—no, thrive—in a world that has never been made for me, that will never be for me.
The next day, I move at the pace of the Big Easy, taking my time as I make my way up north to NOMA: brunch at Surrey’s, my annual bone reading with my fellow ex-Catholic, Italian American spiritual guide, a beer and journaling time at the new (to me) Rising Sun. I then walk to Canal and take the streetcar up to City Park, making a new friend who sees me doing my daily Italian Duolingo on the way up. At NOMA, I am one of the first people to arrive. At the merch table, I see a vinyl copy of Blackheart, a Dawn record that’s nearly impossible to find these days; I purchase a copy, telling myself I’ll figure out how to fly with it later. As I search for a seat, an older woman in a stunning white and gold gown starts to talk with me; she soon introduces herself to me as Debbie Richard, Dawn’s mother. When I tell her that I’ve flown here en route to New York since I used to live in New Orleans and love Pigments (and Dawn’s work in general), she looks at me and simply says, “You’re home now.” When my friends arrive, all three take a seat in one of the chairs that my stuff has been reserving for them. The show starts soon, and we are in awe from the moment that we catch sight of Dawn’s sparkling silver gown—and then first hear her sing as she comes in for “Sandstone.” We are transported somewhere else, along her vocals, along Zahn’s synth and (bass) guitar bass lines, along how the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra fills up the space with strings and brass. After the show, I wait around so that I can stay hi to Dawn. We chat with Debbie as we wait, smiling as we see Dawn hugging and talking with family and old friends. When it’s my turn, I say, “I was at your show in LA last month, where we met.” “I remember you!,” Dawn replies warmly. “What are you doing here?” she teases. We chat, and when I share that my cancer is now officially in remission, she gives me the biggest hug, which the person behind me documents in photo. I am home.
“Sandstone” is the first song on Pigments on which Richard sings. The opener, “Coral,” flows right into it, the fluttering strings and brass gently leading in a lush, yet deep, bass line, over which Richard soon sings, “Dreamer/ I wanna love like you/ I wanna see the world/ Through your eyes.” Since breaking up with my first girlfriend in May 2011 after dating for over three years, I have longed to be in a long-term relationship with someone with whom I can grow, explore, and love. Four moves and five cities later, I’ve had two long-term partners since then, neither of whom turned out to be a person for me, either. In the year off from dating that I take first as a break after a cruel breakup in January 2023 and then extend while I’m in cancer treatment, I look back at the past 12 years and recognize that I have not always been as available as I have presented myself as being. When you commit to the life path of a tenure-track humanities professor, it can take you all over the place (geographically, emotionally, spiritually); for me, I’ve moved for school (New York, Austin) or for jobs (New Orleans, LA). While my desire and sincerity for a long-term relationship has always been there, my actuality of being able to logistically live it hasn’t always been, for reasons both in and (sometimes) beyond my control. Along the strings and then synths of “Sandstone,” I feel myself opening up to this possibility in a way that I never have before, even when I was in a three-year-long long-term relationship in my early 20s. “I wanna see the world/ Through your eyes,” with someone that I have not yet met—and, for the first time in a long time, without any lingering desire or wonder about what might have been with any of the loves from my past. And so, I continue to dream, only this time with an open heart towards the future, instead of puttering back towards my past.
II. Can I lose myself in you?/ Brown/ Eyes like silk (Vantablack)
My next stop on the remission tour is South Slope, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where I lived from November 2011-June 2014—and where a dear friend, who I met in college, now lives with his partner and their cat. I always stay with them when I’m in Brooklyn, my queer and trans family who exist parallel to my biological family. My friend and I go get dinner and some beers at Sea Witch that night, the beloved neighborhood spot that has a fish tank over the bar and what loosely resembles the planks of a boat, along with a fish pond, outside. We go there to sit and talk, as we’ve been epically doing since we met in summer 2007, on a Craigslist date that became the beginning of one of my most cherished friendships. We talk about bodies, aging, and illness, both of ourselves and of our loved ones. Sea Witch has been so many things to me: where I had my birthday party the summer that I started the M.A. program at NYU performance studies; where I would, long after I had moved out of Brooklyn, go on back-to-back night dates with someone who’s now a dear friend (after we were first/then one-time lovers); where I still go and sit with my journal when I’m at home, especially if I haven’t made any other plans to be there with friends. Our conversation affirms this thing I’ve been noticing with all my close friends (all of whom have or have had some combination of chronic illness, disability, gender-affirming care, and/or an abortion) since my cancer diagnosis: that there’s a new layer of intimacy between us, that there’s a new vulnerability from sharing our experiences of bodies that are not always “able” or, especially, “normal.” We talk about his mother’s ovarian cancer (which she did not survive), about the hysterectomy he had (as gender-affirming care), about the disability justice mantra that “we will all be disabled, if we live long enough.” It is the first conversation where I start to process what it means to live with cancer.
As in New Orleans, there are ghosts to be stared down in Brooklyn too, along with old friends to reconnect with for the first time in a long time. I don’t think about you (as) much anymore, but I do, now and again, as I walk around my old neighborhood. I feel through how, two Christmases ago, we planned to meet up and finally let ourselves (maybe) see if anything sexually was there. But, you never met me there. You never showed up as a potential lover in New York two years ago, as a friend (now with mutual friends in town) in LA one year ago, as a part of my support network while I was fighting off something that could have fucking killed me. You have not been there in these critical moments, and somehow it has taken having cancer for me to finally be real with myself that this is our reality, of people who were friends for years, who once skirted near something else, and now, who even after all that, don’t seem to be anything at all. I recognize this and then let it go, since there is so much else happening around me those five days—including reuniting with one of my friends from the cross country team in college, with whom I had not seen in over a decade. (Once word of my diagnosis (and GoFundMe) spread, six of my former teammates and friends (two with whom I’ve stayed more in touch) donate and also reach out, a beautiful reminder that you can, when everyone has the space for it, meaningfully reconnect after a long time.) I love hearing how much my friend loves the neighborhood below the one where I used to live, along with the career, family, and life that she has in my favorite city. It makes me deeply miss my other friends from the team, especially one with whom I share a namesake—and, while in college, the deepest intimacy. This, after all, is what my year of cancer has reaffirmed from me: that often, the things that close off in our lives are accompanied by openings, by invitations to grow, by chances to start anew. I talk about this too with my high school teacher turned friend at Talea Brewing, this friend who was one of the people who flew out to stay with me during and after one of my rounds of chemo. As a professor who is now friends with some of my former students, this is one of the most beautiful openings, a shifting and growing along a new axis of relationality, of holding space, of being together with each other.
In the music video for “Vantablack,” a Black dance student from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a black leotard, natural hair, and femme features dances in the dark, along the wall, into the light. In the press release for the song/video (the first single) and Pigments as a whole, Richard and Zahn (and/or their advocates) write, “Pigments tells the story of finding one’s self through dance, self-expression, and community through the lens of New Orleans’ contemporary arts scene. Not strictly classical, jazz or ambient electronica but rather a body of ‘movements,’ Pigments is one long composition guided by Richard’s stripped-down vocals.” Whenever I go back to Brooklyn, I reflect on how I first started to find myself there, growing into the queer (and, later genderqueer) person deeply involved in bike groups, neighborly service, queer and feminist community, and leftist/intersectional organization. When I started to find my communal self in New York, I really started to discover my individual self in New Orleans, along the sounds of Dawn’s solo work. “Vantablack” is a reminder of how much all of the places I’ve lived and people I’ve been have ultimately flowed together, into one always-evolving person, sedimented with all the layers of where I’ve been—and who I’ve been. When I get tea and pie with my one-time lover turned dear friend, spilling the tea about academia and our journeys as early career scholars/professors and tenderly connecting over all the bodily and emotional things that we’ve had to endure these past few years. New York, and specifically Brooklyn, is the place where I stopped trying to force people and things into immediate boxes upon meeting them, my first attempts at leaving space for us to flow into whatever we were going to ultimately be. It’s a joy that I reconnect with every time I go back home to there.
III. Are you hurting? (Are you hurting like you hurt me?) (Cerulean)
I next travel to London, an ocean—and entire country—away from where I first experienced cancer, its treatment, and its current remission. When originally planned for summer 2023, the stop was meant to be for “research,” going to the Tate Modern to sit with Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (a fixture in the music video for FKA twigs, Headie One, and Fred again…’s “Don’t Judge Me”)—and maybe try to interview twigs or at least the dancers/voguers with whom she collaborates. However, just like Walker’s A Subtlety, or giant sphinx made out of sugar and with mammy features, at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Fons Americanus was demolished at the end of its exhibition (in 2020)—and would not have been there for me to see. Instead, I cash out the rest of my startup research funds and wait until two dear friends from NJ/NY have relocated to London. I arrive the morning of Boxing Day, smashing myself like a sardine into the blue Piccadilly Line to get from Heathrow to my high school best friend’s flat in Chelsea. It’s our first time seeing one another in a year and a half, and they graciously offer their sofa bed for the entire week, even as they’re frantically getting ready to move back to Paris before trying to figure out how to get back to London more permanently. We quickly fall back into a version of the dynamic that we’ve had since high school, conveying our dreams and anxieties and feelings in general at a breakneck speed to one another, friends who have been in and out of one another’s lives for the past 23 years. My friend takes me on a whirlwind tour of the West London sites. Similarly to when I first visited Rome in July 2022, I am, at first, completely overwhelmed by all of the very old—and very big—buildings. I think about how, as a kid, I was amazed by the majesty of castles, imagining myself into my Medieval-themed Lego sets—and how, as an adult, the towering walls and pillars of stone viscerally remind me of war, of empire, of patriarchy. As we pause outside Buckingham Palace, I imagine Grace Jones performing there with minimal clothing and a hula hoop, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. I continue thinking about Black and queer possibility in London as we do afternoon tea the next day.
By the third day, I abandon my check list of canonical things to do in London, shifting to a mix of museums I actually want to visit and neighborhood exploration. That morning, I take the tube up from my one night at the inn near another friend’s place to Primrose Hill, where I have a leisurely morning tea and then take one of my favorite pilates classes of my nearly six years of practicing. The next morning, after my dear friend and former housemate from Brooklyn and I visit the Tate Modern, we take a double decker bus to Brick Lane, to one of her favorite Bangladeshi restaurants (that King Charles just happened to recently visit on his goodwill tour of the neighborhood). When our conversation spills over into Dessert Parlour nearby, it feels like we are back on the big couch in our old house again, staying up all night to talk about life and love. My friend is now married to the person she started dating when I first start dating the first great love of my life (back in summer 2012)—and after whom I took my first big break from dating, a year-long struggle of trying to pull myself out of the greatest depressions I’ve yet to experience in my life. We talked about why it is that I want to be in a long-term, initially monogamous relationship at this moment in time, my answer including the words “taking care” more than it might have before cancer. My friend then asks me what I think my challenges would be for being in a relationship at this moment in time. “My independence,” I respond quietly. “And how that independence is both something I’ve become very accustomed to and a protective measure against the emotional disappointment I’ve experienced since being a child.” All of these are things that I talk about ongoingly with my therapist in LA, but it’s different when you talk them through with a close friend. I will think about this moment for the rest of the trip, and into when I return to LA and start (speed) dating.
“Cerulean” is Richard and Zahn’s most monumental track, the synths and strings swelling up as Richard forwards the narrative and raises her voice up with it. More than on other places on Pigments, Dawn sings (breathes) in and out of the bass lines, filling up the space in between them. When she gets to the chorus line of “Are you hurting like you hurt me?,” a synth swells up in organ mode, the antiquity of this very question resounding alongside her vocals. Midway through, she ad libs the line, singing, “Are you hurting? Are you hurting like you hurt me?” Sitting (separately) with two of my oldest friends an ocean away from where we all first met one another, we sit, hold, and make space for one another’s hurts. But, as I wrote at the beginning of last year (while beginning my second year in LA both being sick (cancer, and not COVID, this time) and following a painful breakup), I’m not willing to perpetually live in a self-victimizing or self-pitying space. This was already true at the beginning of last year, and is even more true after my year of cancer. And so, after exploring the Tower Bridge and having an English breakfast with my friend from Brooklyn, I take the train to Hackney, to wander around and see if I might find any queer women there. I end up at Hackney Brewing Company, nestled with three ⅓ pints in front of a Christmas tree—and relishing the gift of an experience of hearing Kate Bush come on in England. (When I get back, I will start to conceptualize a paper about Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and citations from U.S. Girls, FKA twigs, and Maxwell, for an abstract I submitted long before my trip.) No matter where I go, I can’t escape the feeling that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now, incorporating the past hurts yet reaching out into new soundscapes, just like Spencer and Dawn.
IV. Can/ you/ save/ me… the last dance? (Saffron)
For my flight to Florence on New Year’s Day, I fly on Swiss Air, since it’s cheapest and, on the second leg, will take me over the snow-covered Swiss Alps. On the plane, the flight attendants come around with baskets of Swiss milk chocolate, inviting each of us to take as much as we would like. It feels fitting to officially begin the new year in Italy, where I first journeyed in July 2022—and which has become a core sense of my being and sense of identity, being Italian American, matriarchal-ly/ancestrally being from the south (the mountain commune of Gioi, about two hours south of Napoli), and being a student of our language (“Sto imparando” (“I am learning”), as I will say repeatedly over the next seven days). That night, I randomly pick a wine bar across the river, sitting at the bar near the huge prosciutto slicer. I practice my Italian and smile a lot with the cute AFAB bartender; when not just sitting there and taking in being back in one of my favorite places in the world, I write in my journal. Hours into being there, a British woman turned Florentine citizen asks me about my writing, and we start talking. She soon introduces me to her Welsch partner and their Italian friend. They seem to be regulars, and after my second glass of red wine, we are all served Vin Santo, a dessert wine that is often served with the biscotti-esque cantucci. We then go to another bar to “hear some music,” which really is the occasion to have another bottle of wine (which I sip from before just ordering an aqua frizzante). Having gone to bed early on New Year’s Eve, I realize that this is my simultaneous saying goodbye to 2023 and hello to 2024. It is also the first time that I get drunk (a rarity these days) since the end of chemo, since the confirmation of my remission, since my beginning to find the rhythms of what my body is now. When I get back to my Airbnb, I immediately fall into a deep sleep, sleeping most of the next morning away.
Since it’s my second time in Italy, I don’t have as strict of an agenda this time, only that I need to enter the Uffizi by 12:30—and purchase an Italian sim card before that. En route to the galleries, I grab un panino della porchetta from a shop near the museum. Midway through my four hours there, I have un caffè, tè di limone e zenzero, e una torta della nonna, rushing inside with the rest of the patio when the rain starts to suddenly pour down. It’s the only day that I’m not constantly running back and forth across the mighty river Arno, my entire world along or near its banks for the three full days that I have in Firenze. On my last night, I climb up the Piazzale di Michelangelo, which my host has recommended I do for a view of the city. The Christmas lights are still up for L’Epifania that’s upcoming, the white and blue lights adding to the canvas of pink, purple, yellow, and orange from the sunset. Short on euros, the man with the CALDARROSTE cart roasts a smaller bunch of chestnuts for me. Watching the sunset over the Florentine countryside, I once again think to myself, “I am home.” That night, I try a Florentine steak at the trattoria near where I’m staying. Positioned at the table for one at the counter, I take in everyone around me, along with the old cash register (with liras on the buttons) behind me. When I realize I have an extra two hours before my train the following afternoon, I cross the river once more and return to La Via del Tè 3, sitting outside in their giardino with a pot of Un Appuntamento con Ponte Vecchio (A Date with (the) Old Bridge). They have their own version of an afternoon tea, but I only order a pot of tea, since I’ve just had lunch and then a gelato (“Ho mangiato un gelato prima di qui!”) These three days, where I’ve had one extended conversation in English, are the first moments that I’ve gotten to just sit with myself, away from the horrors of a year of cancer. The river, the gardens, and towers in Firenze are replenishing, rejuvenating my soul after a long year. (“You look rested and refreshed,” my landlord will tell me upon my return to LA.) I don’t journal as much as I think I will when I’m there, instead lounging in cafes, over aperitivo at bars, and/or with espressos. It is here that I learn a new kind of pausing.
The Vin Santo is a shade of saffron, a lighter orange meant to be shared together—or savored alone. Richard and Zahn’s “Saffron” opens with light brass and strings, the bass guitar quietly yet assertively layering onto them. At a minute in, the full band enters; the bass guitar continues to throb up and the strings increase in volume until Dawn vocally enters at 2:19, more than halfway through the song. Zahn is alone at first but then together with Richard; on her end, she is alone in silence (outside of the bounds of the song). She repeats the same line, with a variation on the same diction, for the rest of the song: “Can/ you/ save/ me… the last dance?” In Firenze, I share the saffrons of Vin Santo with new friends on my first night and with myself (after “accidentally” ordering it along with miei cantucci) on my second night, forgoing a third night of it at the trattoria on my last night. As an advanced beginner Italian speaker and traveling alone, I am largely on my own in Italy. While it’s the intention of this part of the trip, it also brings me back to the alone yet together component of being in cancer treatment. In the beginning, my apartment is a rotating door of people coming to help care for and support me; in the second half (especially after the hysterectomy), I forgo this extra irl care, instead keeping up with everyone via text, phone, or Instagram. An emotionally sensitive person with a penchant for journaling, I have often sat alone with my feelings, sifting through them at my pace. At the same time, I am never truly “alone;” this I first learned through the shared emotionality of popular music, followed by that of queer and feminist community, both stretched across the boundaries of space and time. Firenze saves me the last dance on every night that I’m there, as I dance (glide) in the street lights and across the reflections of the river. Simultaneously, this is also when I start to miss being in my (U.S.) home(s).
V. I can’t look myself in the mirror/ Only see reflections of what, of what I used to be/ I can’t get out of my own way/ But the tears, the tears make it hard to see me (Crimson)
When I return to Roma, I return to the place that houses the moment in time when, according to some of my doctors’ timelines, the tumor in my ovary might have begun to form, all the way back in July 2022. Already full of some (too many) points of no return, my triumvirate is completed when before/after cancer joins before/after rape and before/after the start of this long pandemic, this pandemic that we’re still in, that we’re still only beginning to understand, that I’m still convinced has forever changed the ways that we emotionally relate to and treat one another. After getting on the wrong train in Napoli and hopping on the next Frecciarossa train headed south to Roma, I arrive at Termini and then return to Pigneto, the “Brooklyn of Rome” that my sister and I first got a glimpse of during the end of our time in Roma last trip. After a quick dinner of pizza and a Peroni, I walk across the bridge to the Isola Pedonale, headed for Libreria Tuba, the queer and feminist bookstore, cafe, and bar where I will spend my nights until it closes down for L’Epifania and some inventario di gennaio after. I order the IPA on draft in a mix of Italian and English, and then go sit underneath the tent with the big heating lamp inside it. It feels like one of the first moments of true pause since the start of my cancer journey, and I sit there with my journal, looking up every now and then to take in my surroundings. An AFAB person tells a story about realizing that their breathing seemed off, sonically demonstrating the big reaches for gulps of air and declaring, “Non è normale!” At a level of Italian proficiency where I can now chit chat with people for a few minutes, I put myself out there as much as I can, especially with AFAB servers or business owners, who are the most willing to help me practice. This is especially true at Necci 1924, a cafè in Pigneto where I go daily the next three days, for pranzo romano, cena per L’Epifania, e una bicchiere del vino rosso (e un caffè, ogni volta). (The last time, I purchase una tazzina to bring back with me, per a casa.)
As I’m getting ready to go out into the neighborhood the next day, I stand and look into the giant mirror of my Airbnb, taking in all the ways that I have—but also haven’t—changed since I was last in Roma. My hair is short (by choice) now, and I’ve at last moved on (or at least mixed it up) from 15 years of skinny jeans to drawstring pants from Wild Fang (and, later, giant work pants from Big Bud Press). I am glowing with the same glow of when I first visited Italy, along with the added layer of glow from being grateful, every single day, to be alive and still get to enjoy life. That night, after lounging around Necci, I walk to an ATM on P.za Roberto Malatesta, strolling down a large avenue preparing for L’Epifania the next day. I swing into Polidori Cafè on the way back, where La Befana watches over everyone purchasing out chocolates for the next day and a circulation of Madonna music videos rotates through the television over the entryway. I join in, and then return home so I can make the electronic music DJ set/dance party at Libreria Tuba that night. The next morning, I open the knapsack of La Befana that I brought home with me (I love Christmas). I soon venture into Roma centro for the only time of this trip, getting off by il mio amico vecchio, il Colosseo. I walk from there to Open Baladin, the craft beer bar that was my first stop last time in Roma, as I waited for my sister’s flight to get in. From there, I do a (second) Christmas tour of all my favorite sites: la Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, il Pantheon, la Fontana di Trevi. I treat myself to a three-course dinner at Necci, ending with un morbidoso al cioccolato. I then take all three Metro lines across to Ostinese, where I go to a political club for a concert for peace in Gaza, which I first learned of from a poster plastered all around Pigneto. After a couple of hours, I leave so I can catch my triple Metro ride back, full of life from one of the most magical days that I’ve had in a really long time.
“Crimson” is one of Dawn’s songs that most pulls at my heartstrings, as I imagine various lovers (not yet ready to meet me where I was) singing to me, gently asking, “Will you wait for me? I’m not where I need to be.” At the show in New Orleans, I place my phone on my leg, recording the entire song while keeping my eyes and ears on what’s unfolding in front of me (instead of on my screen). (The song was part of an ambient playlist for a curation that I did not get to do at Haverford College last year, structured around calling (across the building) to someone that I was then still struggling to let go of.) Dawn is at her most emotive in the performance, singing along with the strings and the synths as she builds up with the song. At the line, “I can’t look myself in the mirror,” she pantomimes a mirror, forming a rectangle with her arms and then reaching her hands into the imagined space. As she reaches the line, “I can’t get out of my own way,” she in practice does the opposite, building up with the percussion that begins to enter the song. And that is what Italy, particularly Roma, is for me this time, a literal getting out of my own way after worrying that I might not be able to. There’s something about almost dying that makes you (me) want to try some new things, both out of a zest for life and an exhaustion at the thought of continuing onward in the ways that I used to. For the person on the other side of “Crimson,” it’s been time to move on, to step into a new kind of potential, to dare to do and live differently. As I wait around to say hi to Dawn again afterward, one of the people I befriend in line says to me, “I would go see her perform in a cafeteria.” That stays with me while I’m in Italy, given the focus on not just food and drink and hospitality but also caffè and treats and pausing to appreciate life. When I return home to LA, I reorganize my kitchen counter, centering a newly-formed afternoon tea and dopo cena (o pranzo) caffè section. I choose rest.
VI. It’s not the fame, the fame I’m lookin’ for/ I’m working on real change (Umber)
Before and after my winter travels in Europe, I stay with my aunt (whose partner John died suddenly soon after word of my cancer diagnosis) in Jersey City. I was not there for the wake or the funeral; I was not there for anything. (What makes this harder is that I was due to be home already during these events—and then had to do the biggest re-pivot of my life so far, canceling all that travel and instead mentally preparing for six months of chemo, plus a hysterectomy.) I admittedly do not go home (to my first “home”) very much anymore, since moving away to the other side of the country, since everyone at home did not respond initially well to me sharing my gender updates, since I still feel the pressure to be an emotional glue even as I move further and further away, both geographically but also culturally (humanities academia, music writing, queer (LA) life). In lieu of the monetary capital that both of my first cousins are starting to accumulate, I instead accumulate cultural capital; I move in worlds that my family, even with their class ascendancy and frequent museum visits, don’t know or understand. I see my dad and sister a lot during that time, and it’s nice to get to spend extra time with my aunt, which we haven’t done in a long time. But then, there are these visceral reminders of why the “home” of biological family is not safe for me: someone yells at me that my gender isn’t real, someone else makes a comment about why I still need to sit outside (as if I’m not still immunocompromised from staying on the immunotherapy component of my previous chemo treatment), someone else still names a newborn child after the long-dead, older male relative that they know molested me as a preteen and teen (because I told them, crying)—until I told my parents what he was doing, that I would not see him any longer, that he no longer (and had not, for a long time) felt like “family” to me. So, all in all, the stop “home” is a wash.
The day after I learn about the baby-naming incident, I take a long walk from Country Village to what is now called “Western Bergen” to find a cafe to sit and journal in. Even the “Country Village” from where I walk is a farce; it’s the name for the originally white-dominated neighborhood on the western side of John F. Kennedy Blvd., meant as a means of separating from the previously very Black Greenville neighborhood on the eastern side of “the boulevard.” At the cafe, Bad Bunny is blaring, and I sip my box chai as I sit and catch up with myself. (After I post a bunch of photos from my walk, someone that I haven’t spoken with in over four years at that point, following a weird experience with a bad edible at Afropunk in Brooklyn in August 2019 (after, earlier in the day, raising our hands and looking one another in the eye when Kelsey Lu asked if any of us were at the festival with people we wanted to kiss), reaches out and breaks the silence—and we start to have a top-level conversation about what happened that day. The conversation is friendly and sincere—and I quickly realize that this interaction with this person I’ve missed having in my life in some way undoes a lot of the tension that I’m feeling from dealing with everything with my family.) I am “home” but I am also not there, as I’m emotionally grounded somewhere else, as I also have to be somewhere else to even be able to go back to Jersey City at all. Maybe this is all just family, but all the things listed at the end of the previous paragraph feel like violences to me, violences in a long history of my family not seeming to know what to do with my combination of radical queerness, very public commitments to working to dismantle anti-Black racism, and my emotional sensitivity funneled into being an affect theorist. I’m glad to see them after the year I’ve had (after the year that we’ve all had) but I also feel very ready to go back to LA, when it’s time.
Even time that I hear Dawn sing, “It’s not the fame, the fame I’m looking for/ I’m working on real change,” I think about how much emotional work I’ve had to do to carve out a life for myself that differs from what family class pressures would have preferred that I be doing. I also think about how I almost met Dawn for the first time in NYC, on one of my trips back—but then it turned out to be LA. On May 5, 2021, Richard flew up to New York City to pose with a billboard of her most recent album, Second Line, that Amazon Music had posted in Times Square. Captioned “how it started …. how it’s going 😏🙌🏾😩🤯,” the Instagram post does a time jump between 2005 and 2021, the span of Richard’s entire music career. The 2005 clip flashes back to when Richard had just made it to the final round on Making the Band 3, joining what would become the pop supergroup Danity Kane. Dressed in a red dress and a big smile, the 22-year-old Richard gushes, “I can’t imagine what great things to come. I’m excited and… this is the best day of my life.” The post then jumps to Richard 15 years later, wearing a beanie and a mask while standing in Times Square. “Here we go, here we go, this is it,” Richard begins. “Ahhh!!!” she screams as the electronic billboard for Second Line flashes up behind her. At 37 (in that moment), she at last sees her work starting to take off in the way that she wants it too. A few years younger than Dawn and in New York City during the same week as her (I get news of the Times Square meet up too late to join in), I feel a part of the vibrations of this celebration. In 2005, I began college at the University of Pennsylvania, wanting to be a music journalist but settling on business school so I could maybe work in the music industry afterward. What happened is that I instead fell into queer and feminist theory—and ultimately pivoted into throwing myself into Black studies and affect theory. So, to go home now is also to remember how much I got out of Jersey City, not just geographically but… on pretty much every level.
VII. We thought we was above it all/ ‘Cause we been friends since Wayne was a hot boy/ He said we should keep drivin’/ For the sake of survivin’, now we hot, boy (LA)
“LA” begins with a swooping synth chord, over which Richard soon sings in reverbed vocals “These LA streets are killin’, killin’ me” (a double reference to both the music industry and anti-Black police violence). Those lines first seem to fade into the background, as Richard sets the opening scene on the highway: “Lemonade lakes in the plaza/ In my Chevy, going 90 down La Brea/ It’s wavy ‘cause that shit don’t matter/ MJ on the radio, so we blast that.” The scene is one of drinking whiskey cocktails by the water and then driving through all the ethnic neighborhoods along La Brea. Richard weaves her vocals into the staccato synths, stitching together a rhythm between words and sounds. When the song shifts to the pre-chorus, the bassline suddenly gets funkier, as Richard now sings, “We thought we was above it all/ ‘Cause we been friends since Wayne was a hot boy/ He said we should keep drivin’/ For the sake of survivin’, now we hot, boy.” At this point, her vocals begin to take center stage, becoming crisper and louder with the funk backing from the bass. Whenever I get to these lines in the song, I viscerally remember what it felt like to first listen to Lil’ Wayne, Juvenile, and the rest of Cash Money Records in the late 90s, from up on the East Coast. For Dawn, these lyrics are a reaching—and feeling—back to New Orleans, from her other LA of Los Angeles. As she returns to vocally looping, “These LA streets are killin’, killin’ me,” the lines now burst beyond the space and time of the song, sonically and affectively reaching back for the sounds of southern Louisiana. After some long drawn out synth chords, Richard explodes into one of her best bridges, smoothly yet disjointedly transitioning to a soundscape of fast-paced synth chords and cymbal clashes. A guitar then enters the mix, soloing as Dawn comes back in to repeat those chorus lines one more time. After the final run through, the guitar solo gives way to a trombone solo from Trombone Shorty, ending the song back in Richard’s musical roots of a sonic New Orleans.
When I first wrote about this song, LA was still an imaginary, was still a place that I imagined would be where I’d most feel at home so far. After I return from my four weeks of travel, my current therapist (a friend of my New Orleans therapist) asks how getting a cancer diagnosis less than two years into living in LA affected my idea of it as a “home.” My response at first surprises him but then makes sense: that it crystalized that I already had a handful of close friendships, along with strong queer and feminist community, in a place that everyone notoriously says takes 2-4 years to truly feel at home in. “You’re home now,” I hear Debbie Richard saying in my head (again). From New Orleans (,LA) to LA, I am.