V: Cadenza | Silver-Tipped Swallow: “One of You Leaves First”
The story is the same always: one of you leaves first & you both know who it’s going to be. There are tears, or there aren’t. You stay friends, or you don’t. Either way the evening air. Either way the sky & all its swing-dancing glory, its purple-lit splendour. The thrumming rhythm of goodbye, opening endlessly into itself.
Ella Fitzgerald is the soundtrack to my aloneness—her voice something dim & knowing, record-scratch linger. I only ever listen to jazz when I’m not in a relationship. My boyfriend teased me about it sometimes, the way you do with someone you know too well or someone you’ll never know at all—called me an old soul, put a dozen jazz love songs on his playlist for me, could never understand why I skipped every single one. My best friend called me the night I finally broke up with him, heard Louis Armstrong blurring the phone lines between us, didn’t even have to ask if I’d done the deed. The music betrayed me before I could say a word. It has a habit of doing that.
So yes. The story is the same always: one of you leaves first. & either way there’s Nat King Cole, there’s Chet Baker, there’s I’d love to climb a mountain & reach the highest peak / but it doesn’t thrill me half as much as dancing cheek to cheek…
Sometimes, in the interim, I forget the lyrics, even of my favourite songs, the ones I listen to on feverish repeat the moment a love ends. But always, when I open my playlist once more, I remember every one. As if I could ever prove distance without its smoke-wisp opposite. As if I could ever let go of the melody of my breaking.
The story is the same always: I meet a girl & call her darling. She sings, sometimes, but mostly listens. Lives in a raining city, like mine but not. Reads every one of my poems & sends me her favourite lines. Her talk is stingy, smile slow, cautious. Never sure of what unfurls right in front of her eyes. Quiet until she’s deafening. She’s like me that way. She’s like me most ways, if you look at us in the right shade of blue.
But when we talk about music, her voice is a bright dizzy warmth, creakless & dancing in the shape of every trumpet I’ve ever died for. (You do something to me / something that simply mystifies me…) I used to dislike people like her—every word thought through, every motion controlled, every feeling charmed into submission—until I realised it was because I wanted to be one of them. Something good can work like this, I tell myself. Sharing playlists, commiserating over sibling drama, exchanging caps lock-ridden messages about our favourite books. Something bright can grow from the smoke.
I couldn’t tell you why I have this strange fixation with jazz only when I’m not in a relationship. It’s something along the lines of synesthesia, my mind a sensory hurricane. The only time I ever taste honey is when I hear jazz or when I’m falling in love. Maybe I need that sweetness always, & so I ration it out. A dose of honey for each moment of the year. Sometimes I get sugar-drunk on music & sometimes on love, & sometimes I can barely tell the difference.
Besides, is aloneness not its own kind of intimacy? Does it not breathe soft as any lover? Is its presence not a heartbeat? If you close your eyes, can you not feel it nestled next to you, crowding out every permutation of empty?
Aloneness is a swelling kind of feeling, a snippet kind of feeling, improvisational & shivering with movement. The precise opposite of everything she is. Do you ever think, she says one day, what might’ve happened if we hadn’t met when we did. & I don’t know how to tell her that I think about it all the time. That I wonder, if I’d been a little less reckless, a little less desperate & careening through sound, whether we’d ever have crossed paths at all. Aloneness is familiar territory for me but I’m not quite sure how to navigate a life without her steady presence nestled in the base of my throat. (The way your smile just beams / the way you sing off-key / the way you haunt my dreams / no, no, they can’t take that away from me…) I’m uneven in every imaginable rhythm & she straightens me out, easy as a slow motion piano solo, but there’s so much there to want, so much that sometimes it’s easier not to respond. So much that sometimes the silence is a truth in itself.
I made you a playlist, she says, & it has every genre except for jazz, & this is how I know I am well & truly done for.
The story is the same always: one of you leaves first & either way the last twilight of summer. Either way the lowest note on the piano. Either way each of your chests turn into places of jazz, & you love in bright & unsettling ways, & when the music saunters up in the ever-growing dusk & says come on, let’s get out of here, it doesn’t matter what you’re in the middle of doing, you follow. You always follow.
I tell her I love her, & it is the first truth my mouth has ever tasted.
For all of the strangers who’ve mistaken us for a couple before, for all the heartbreaks I’ve weathered & every crush she’s limned her way into forgetting, you’d think this would be familiar by now. The story is the same always, so you’d think it would get easier. You’d think there’d be a little less trumpet-blaring ache. (He’s a tramp, but they love him / breaks a new heart every day…) You’d think the answer wouldn’t be so predictable: I’m so sorry. I don’t—
—don’t finish that sentence. Okay. It’s fine. The story is the same always. A saxophone always out of tune. A record-scratch in my head, & Ella Fitzgerald crooning (but if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top)—is it truly falling if the music’s there to catch me? I want to spool the words back into my throat as soon as I’ve said them & this is how I know it is real. When she says no, I don’t cry. Instead I crank Louis Armstrong onto the loudest possible volume & open the windows. You can hear my ache for miles & miles.
There are days when I’m sure that if I only ever had one wish, it would be never to hear a jazz song again.
We don’t talk for a month after. (Strangers, weren’t we / scared to look into each other’s eyes?) Waiting is song, too. Is movement. As long as you listen in the right permutation of want.
The story is the same always: I’m the one who loves louder, who needs more. I’m the one with the boombox over my head. The one who says I fell hopelessly in love with you & haven’t slept for the past month, & how have you been. &, inevitably, I’m the one who reaches out first.
My voice curves into the beam of a streetlight. Her eyes flash like a city skyline. Even talking to her makes my heart thrill & hum. Each sentence out of my mouth is the same as hers, just in a different key. I’m sorry. It wasn’t fair, what you did. It wasn’t fair, how I felt. How did we get here. What can I do to make this better. & then: maybe we could start over.
Aloneness never struck me as more musical than in that sentence. So much there dipped in drunk-dancing blue, off-kilter & expanding to fill the space love leaves behind. We’re so bad at light, she & I. She can never seem to catch it, I can never seem to hold it close enough that it stays. You had a good thing & now look what you’ve done to it. Look what you’ve turned it into. Neither of us says this but both of us are thinking it.
Instead: maybe we could start over. Now there’s jazz for you. In that sentence, a generous twilight, a low-burble sax. Wanting with no object permanence. A stretching gauze. A proof of warmth.
Unrequited love is a trombone shocked into sound. Is road music, dusk-dreaming city, sky stretching curious & lovely into night. Of course you promise yourself that this time you’ll leave first, & of course you never do. She’s even more delicate around you now, watches her words like whole rests, doesn’t let herself slip into improvisation. There’s a voice on the radio sunken in shadow, & it’s singing about love, it’s singing about how the age of miracles hasn’t passed, & stars are dotting the horizon like opening chords, & honey is pooling in your mouth & you want so badly to change the station but you don’t. You sit through the song, the beginning, the first crack of her voice. In some universe before the final note, she gets up & leaves or she texts you first. Maybe this is all that love amounts to: tasting honey, sitting through the end of a song you hate. Waiting for her to leave or text you first.
Chet Baker sings I fall in love too easily / I fall in love too fast / I fall in love too terribly hard for love to ever last, & all I hear is maybe one day we will meet again for the first time, all I hear is her & her & her.
The story is the same always: one of you leaves first, & either way forgiveness. & either way the moon. & either way she pushes your buttons like the pedals of a piano, holds you even when she’s not holding you, & when she says I’m so sorry, I don’t, you don’t let her finish the sentence, you never let her finish the sentence. & either way no one means for it to end like this. & either way a song played just a little off-rhythm, just a little out of tune. You call her darling, until you call someone else darling. She aches & swirls in the shape of your hands, the steady touch of a vinyl, the beat of a storm. & either way you grab tight to the end of a saxophone, think of a place of blue-dim smoke & fragmented light. Hold your breath. Stare into her eyes. Pull as hard as you can, & make a wish.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Topaz Winters (they/she) is a poet, essayist, editor, creative director, speaker, scholar, actress, & multidisciplinary artist. Among their internationally award-winning & critically-acclaimed creative credits include working as the author of four books (most recently Portrait of My Body As a Crime I’m Still Committing), writer & star of the short film SUPERNOVA (dir. Ishan Modi), creative director & editor-in-chief of the arts organisation Half Mystic, speaker of the TEDx talk Healing Is a Verb, & creator of the digital art installation Love Lives Bot. Their peer-reviewed research on poetry, identity, & the sociopolitical underpinnings of queerness in Singapore is published in the Journal of Homosexuality. They are the youngest Singaporean ever to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the youngest writer ever to be published by Math Paper Press, & the youngest scholar ever to be published in the Journal of Homosexuality. They were born in 1999, reside at topazwinters.com, & study literature & film at Princeton University. They enjoy chai lattes, classic rock, wildflowers, & the colour of the sky when nothing is dreaming of it.