I talk a lot about how much I love Beyoncé. It is one of the first things anyone knows about me. This year, for my birthday, I received no less than five separate Queen Bey-themed presents.
Bey has long been a keeper of my secrets, even though it was someone else who first taught me how to do that.
No, No, No (Yes, Yes, Yes)
The first time we bonded, it was over the middle school sleepovers we had nearly a decade earlier and on opposite sides of the country.
We met freshman year, our very first night on campus, me finding myself cross-legged on Addison’s dorm room floor because I knew someone – who knew someone – who knew someone – who knew her roommate. Unpacked brown boxes and scratchy packing tape surrounded us. I kept picking at it with my toes. The flickering dorm lighting made everything yellow.
We hadn’t made friends with anyone old enough to buy alcohol, so that first night we were sober (she was sober all the time, really). Four of us stayed up until it was far too late, walking around our new home arm-in-arm, giggling with sleep that we weren’t ready to succumb to. Addison said it reminded her of the giggles she used to get in middle school. That’s what set it off. Someone, I have no idea who, started singing old Destiny’s Child. Addison jumped on a half-wall and balanced herself, recreating the choreography. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her almond brown skin shinning golden under the bright lights. It was pitch black out. I only remember her and those overhead beams. She turned that half-wall into a stage. I was her captive audience.
We fell asleep still giggling, limbs intertwined in a twin bed. We slept like that, warm skin laying on top of each other, faces exhausted from laughter, every weekend for months. Re-creating middle school sleepovers, we said.
Lose My Breath
Destiny’s Child turned out to be the soundtrack of that year. They announced their goodbye album just as the tie-dyed orange and red Minnesota leaves fell to the ground and got covered by snow. We’d wear the absolute skimpiest clothes we could find underneath our parkas. Every Friday night was the same – a group of us strolling as a pack in our too thin and too short clothes, too heavy make up, looking for whatever house party had the oldest kids and the cutest boys. We’d let Addison go first. Let her bat her lashes and ask if we could come in. They always said yes. You couldn’t say no to her. Flirting for our awkward, gangly, underage group’s benefit became her speciality.
We’d get inside and find the most dry and least booze smelling corner to pile our coats in. It felt almost without fail that that’s when the “bdarrum-bum-dum-dum-dum-dum” drumline from “Lose My Breath” would come on, as if whatever upperclassmen DJ who got paid in Malibu rum had been waiting for us. As if anyone knew who were were at all. Addison’s nose squinched up tight as she smiled, THAT’S MY SONG.
It was always her song.
She’d gather us all together, clearing a space on the makeshift dance-floor. Sometimes a sturdy staircase was enough. We danced as a group, but she brought me in closest. I was Kelly. She was Beyoncé. It was our routine.
I could never explain why my heart pounded when her soft hands reached out for mine. Why it felt like I was the only girl in the world, singing along with her at the top of my lungs. The way my eyes would nervously glance at her chest in that purple lace bra and white tank top.
Until I could.
Ring The Alarm
Junior year I studied abroad, so I missed the release of B’Day by a few months. Addison would send me novel length emails that I’d read in cramped internet cafes next to Caribbean mothers caressing photos on computer screens with their fingertips. She transcribed all the important lyrics and wrote paragraphs about what she thought of them. Bey was our language. By that point, it felt as if it had always been that way. We spoke in third person about her to avoid talking about ourselves.
When I came home, I bolted immediately to see her. School wasn’t out yet, and anyway, campus already felt more like home. Well, she felt more like home. She’d been busy practicing a dance routine to “Ring The Alarm.” It involved high heels and a steel backed chair. I absolutely had to see it, she said. She’d worked so hard on it!
She sat me down on that lumpy green couch and bit her lip before pressing play on her iPod. All I can remember are her calves in those heels that were a half size too big for her. That night was the first time I noticed her lips were shaped like a heart.
Flaws And All
More than anything else, “Flaws And All” was our song.
It’s a deep cut, not easily found. It only exists in the special re-release of B’Day that came out exclusively at Wal-Mart and I refused to buy. The first time we actually heard it was the video’s surprise YouTube release. We scrambled out of our living room and reached for the nearest laptop hooked up to the “good speakers” we could find – our roommate’s bedroom. Addison cried without any noise, biting her nails. I took her hands out of her mouth and kissed her. The bedroom walls were so tight that you could touch both of them together if you reached your arms out. We toppled onto our roommate’s bed. It sounds hot, but it was clumsy.
Addison laughed. I was so happy to have stopped her from crying. We played the song again. She whispered to me not to tell. We played the song again. I watched her fall for some boy whose name I can’t even remember anymore. We played the song again. We’d come home tipsy and warm and reach for each other’s bodies. We kissed like it was everyday. We crept into each other’s room, hushed murmurs and quiet moans, until it became routine. She’d go out with him and I’d help pick out her outfit. She’d call me her Kelly. She’d always come back to me at night. We played the song again. We’d press our lips to bare skin sticky from the radiators, barely lifting them to quote the song to each other. A promise: “I don’t know why you love me.” “I’ll catch you when you fall.” “I’ll love you, flaws and all.” Beyoncé wanted someone who would catch her. I cried because I didn’t think anyone would ever love me that way. She watched me cry. She didn’t make me laugh or kiss me or do anything to try and stop it.
I haven’t listened to “Flaws And All” – not once – since the Spring of 2007. A decade and three computers later, it’s still the most played song on my iTunes.
We broke up after graduation. Can you break up if your girlfriend wasn’t your girlfriend, but a secret that no one knew about? Whatever. We broke up.
I wasn’t good at break ups. I may had been Addison’s secret, but she had been my world. I knew which leg twitch on the 21 bus meant she was nervous, and which one meant that she forgot to eat lunch. Our inside jokes gave birth to their own inside jokes. If it was the crack of dawn and her eyes were crusted and that was last week’s dirty t-shirt that she was wearing to breakfast – to me her skin still shined like gold. I had loved her. I think, for a while at least, she loved me too. We were inseparable after all. I guess I’ll never be completely sure.
Because I wasn’t good at break ups, we broke up a few times. The first real one was two weeks after graduation. She left me a goodbye letter tucked into a pack of Oreo’s. The second break up was over the phone a few weeks later. By the third break up, Beyoncé had already released Sasha Fierce and Barack Obama was about to become our first black President. Everything felt alive with possibility. Except us. We were dead.
I cried every day that fall, even the morning after the election. It felt selfish. I had just moved to New York. Instead of enjoying whatever you’re supposed to enjoy when you’re 22 and living in the one of the greatest cities in the world and your President Is Black – I would pad around alone in my kitchen barefoot. The cold fall air on cracked tile turned the bottoms of my feet numb. That’s how I remember Sasha Fierce, playing it on a loop and with my numb toenails as I cut up vegetables to turn into cheap pasta dinners. The entire time, my mind was somewhere else, thinking about shared Minnesota twin beds and the way Addison never wore a bra on Saturdays.
I somehow survived 4 without thinking of Addison even once. I played “Party” and “Countdown” and only remembered blurry city nights and makeup staining my pillowcase when I was too tired to clean my face before bed.
Something about the self-titled album was different. Something about “Grown Woman” was different. Maybe it was the Fela Kuti inspired backbeat, which reminded me of her dancing. Maybe it was that Bey shared this song with Kelly. It had been a long time since I had considered myself the “Kelly” in any version of my own story. Maybe it was the song’s playfulness. It begged to be played while running between bedrooms, swapping accessories and hair tips in a dorm suite. Hell, maybe I just wanted her to see me as the supposedly “grown woman” I grew up to be without her.
Five years. This was the song that finally made me want to call her. I itched for it. But, I couldn’t. A younger, more vulnerable (and probably, wiser) me deleted the number.
When I was 13, Beyoncé was 18 and came equipped a girl gang that pre-teen me envied. When I was 18 and found my first real crew, Bey was 23 and falling in love. When I was almost 23 and nursing the wounds of my first love, she was nearly a mother. Our lives diverged. By the time Lemonade came out, her music, which I’ll always love, somehow stopped feeling personal. I’ve never been on the brink of a divorce. I’m probably never going to be the mother of three. It’s funny that this was the moment Addison reached out to me. I didn’t recognize her phone number; before it was the only one I’d memorized besides the house I grew up in.
“Sandcastles” made her cry, she said. It made her cry in a way that she hadn’t cried since “Flaws And All.” She hadn’t cried from feeling unseen since that night we were pressed together in that too small dorm bedroom with the peeling teal walls. Since the first night I kissed her. Since the night she told me that my first love was always going to be a secret.
Except she didn’t say any of that. She texted, without introducing herself, “Hey! Did you watch Lemonade? Did you see ‘Sandcastles?’ It made me cry.”