Nyssa. Backup singer.
Ti came to see me, you know. Three four days before she died. Knocked right on my door, and I’ve never been so surprised in all my life. This is a woman who when we were on tour would have the driver drive her halfway down the block rather than walk to the store—and somehow she’s pounding on my front door, five stories up, in a building with no elevator. Not even breathing heavy. At first I thought she must have stood there and waited ‘til she caught her breath, wiped the sweat all off her face. But then I remembered how Ti was never one to give a shit what other people thought, which is why she was forever showing up to major network interviews and award show red carpets looking sweaty and strung out. So that’s how I knew—she’s still got it, some of it, stored up, and she can still do the impossible when there’s no other option.
I laughed, right in her face. The legend, the icon, the diva, the woman whose voice was called a “national treasure”—standing there in the filthy hallway of a shitty building in the bottom end of Hollywood. Place had seen better days, that was for damn sure, but so had I. So had she.
I felt bad, soon as the laugh was out of my mouth. I’d seen the stories. How the drugs had fucked her up, made her erratic, prone to bizarre and destructive behavior. I’d watched the shambles of a show she put on, opening up Fashion Week four years back. So I should have known. Great job, Nyssa—Ti finally comes to apologize to you, and you fuck it up. But you know what she did? She laughed. She laughed the way she used to laugh, and she couldn’t stop, and then neither could I, and then we hugged so hard I could feel how thin she was, under the mink.
You know the story. You’ve seen the news clips and the Behind the Music episodes and the biopics: the poor kid from the Chicago projects, her church-obsessed single mom, how Ti spent every spare moment of her childhood there, singing her little heart out. How that safe and stunting space celebrated her, and how it maimed her. How she got on television; how she captured the heart of America from the first moment and didn’t let it go until she died.
And you know the second half. You’ve seen the comedians making fun of her, the embarrassing interviews. You already know how the most beautiful and talented woman in America married the lowlife creep record executive who used to be her manager, who made her, and then decided to destroy her—how he hooked her on spiderwebbing and kept her virtually captive for years, until she clawed her way free of him and launched a comeback … but by then her voice had been destroyed—the voice that reached into your heart and touched something soft and sacred, something you didn’t know had survived this sick world until she hit that One Note, and then you were crying and you didn’t know why because you were so fucking full of joy. And without the voice, what else was there to live for? And so she died.
You know that story. But you don’t know the truth.
I was there. They say it was her finest moment, and I sure can’t disagree with that. Fresh off the boat from the streets of Caracas, war still echoing in our ears, me and three thousand soldiers crowded into a San Diego naval hanger and eight million people watching from home.
I was so country, I’d never heard of Ti before I got to Venezuela. Wouldn’t have gone, if Leo hadn’t literally slapped me upside the head and said, boy, you miss this and you’re too big a fool for me to waste any more of my time with. I never could say no to Leo. He got us there stupid early because he was from New York, and he knew that if you were serious about finding a good spot it meant arriving so far ahead of time you might have to stand around “like a putz” for several hours, but that was actually the best part because then you’d be surrounded by all the other true fans, and you’d have plenty to talk about with them, and we did, or at least Leo did, and even though I was still too shy to say much it was still so impressive to see him operate, how he could disarm anyone with just a few words and—most importantly—that smile.
You can see us in the HBO special—the first concert to rack up a trillion views. A handful of soldiers pressed against the stage, staring up at her. You can see his arm around my shoulders. My folks sure saw it. Hoo-boy, did they.
Carolina. Faith-based family values advocate.
Her success was one more sign of how sick we are as a society. Everyone throwing money at her, putting her on every channel of the television, every accursed page of the whole blighted internet. The Super Bowl, for the love of God. The national anthem. Every home in America opening wide its doors and welcoming her in. When everyone could see her for what she was: a witch.
That’s right, I said it. A witch. You probably think there’s no such thing as witches. Demons, corrupters, whatever you want to call them—there are people out there with unholy power, who are using that power to suck our children dry.
You know her name was short for Tiamat, don’t you? They never tell you that part. To this day her army of drones keep it scrubbed from all her ‘pedia pages.
Tiamat. A Babylonian dragon goddess. You can’t get much more Satanic than that.
I’ll tell you my journey. How I came to this fight, how we worked to stop her agenda of evil and exploitation. You probably think we’re pretty ignorant, a bunch of Puritan loonies. Everyone does. You probably think we were a lost cause, because we didn’t get her taken off the air, banished from the worldwide web. But didn’t we, though? Didn’t God see our struggle, hear our cry to the heavens, and take care of it for us?
First thing you got to understand is, Ti wasn’t nobody’s victim. She made her own mistakes, and most of the time she knew damn well what was she was doing when she made them. People make her man out to be the villain, but that’s giving him way too much credit. Blaming that dirty old man is like blaming the bottle the liquor comes in. He didn’t start her on the drugs, and he wasn’t why she got hooked. He leaned in to the villain role hard, because it made him feel like he mattered to her story, but he wasn’t shit, and everyone around her knew he wasn’t shit. So did she, for that matter. Only stuck with him to spite people.
He was just one more bottom feeder who wanted some of what she had. And I’m not talking about the money. He had plenty of his own, even if he was shit about how he handled it.
You know what I’m talking about. What she had. What Ti could do. What her voice did. Lots of people could smell it on her. Even if their brains didn’t know what it was, or outright denied it was real, their bodies thirsted for it. Our skin knows magic when it’s near, even if our brains deny it.
Nyssa. Backup singer.
I can still do her voice, after all this time. Act her out like she was right here with us.
“You look like shit, Nyssa,” she said, and laughed.
“Look who’s talking,” I said, laughing too, because we actually looked pretty fucking fantastic for a couple of old broads. Who’d been through a lot. “You want some coffee?”
“That stuff is poison,” Ti said.
“So, yes?” And she followed me into the kitchen and watched me make it, the way you’d stare at a magician doing a particularly inscrutable trick. She never could do a damn thing for herself, and had a weird sort of awe for people who could.
“To what do I owe the honor?” I asked.
She opened her mouth, all bluster and good cheer, but no words came out. She slumped into a chair at my kitchen table, not seeing the mess heaped up all around her. Made me feel like a slob, but then again she did tell Oprah on TikTok that her man used to paint bloody screaming mouths and Shakespeare quotes on all the walls and furniture of their fancy home, so I figured no amount of slovenliness would seem strange to her.
“I’m sorry, Nyssa,” she said.
I screwed the top on the greca and turned the burner on and hurried to her side.
“Coming in your house, bringing my sob story around.”
“Shh,” I said, and took her hands. They’d always been small, but now they were just bones wrapped in rubbed-thin velvet. “What happened, honey?”
“It’s gone,” she said, and I could hear her struggle to keep her voice in line. “It’s gone, and now I don’t even know if it was ever real.”
She pulled her hands away.
“That’s why I came,” she said. “To talk to you. You were always honest with me, Nyssa. That’s probably why they made me fire you.”
“Hush,” I said, and went back to the stove to have something to look at other than her. From old reflex, because she’d never ever wanted to talk about it—but also because I wasn’t going to let her off so easy, blaming what went down on the people around her.
“I need you to tell me, Nyssa. Whether or not it was real.”
She was so much bigger than I’d imagined. Chubbier. Somehow I’d never seen a picture of her. And every pop star I’d ever seen had been a skinny little thing, so when she stepped out on stage my first thought was maybe this was a trick. It wasn’t a kind thought, and I felt pretty bad about it. But then she started singing.
Soon as she opened her mouth, I felt it. We all did. Ti started with the “Star-Spangled Banner” and we put our hands on our hearts and we shut our eyes or we stared at her or we looked at the ground and remembered bloody pavement, dead friends, terrible things we’d done, and maybe it was a half-assed war for no good reason but it’d fucked us up just the same, and our fathers were poor and our mommas were drunks and our siblings were in jail or on meth or webbing and our prospects were slim—but here she came, this voice like an angel—sounds like a cliché when you say it, voice like an angel, but this wasn’t that, this was real, some biblical shit, the piercing trumpet or celestial messenger that tells you nothing will ever be the same, you’re gonna have God’s baby or you’ve gotta go to some city full of sinners and tell them to repent or God’s wrath will come upon them, and don’t even think about trying to flee because He’ll send a fucking whale to come swallow you up—my mom and dad were big church folks, as I guess you can tell, I must have spent every Sunday of my youth there—and here came this voice, slipping past the heavily-defended perimeter of my self like an insurgent rigged to explode, burrowing deep into me, and it—I don’t know how to say this—it took something, something warm and blissful from deep inside my chest and sucked it right out of me, and I let it, I gave it freely, I never knew how much of it I had to give, almost like the more I lost the more I had, almost like she was giving me something even as she took it, and she had so much to give, and I was sobbing, and we all were.
Leo grabbed my hand and his fingers laced into mine and it didn’t even enter my mind to be afraid, or ashamed, or try to hide it.
Nyssa. Backup singer.
I didn’t answer her. How could I? I’d spent so long trying not to think or talk about … it … that I couldn’t be sure either, anymore, what it even was. And there were times when I wondered, too. Whether it was real. So I did something dumb, which is what I tend to do when I’m uncomfortable.
“You talked to Lark lately?”
Taboo to speak of her. And to use the nickname, invoking the fondness and intimacy we’d all felt for Lark. An even deeper betrayal.
“Child, Lark don’t want no part of me,” Ti said sadly. Her lack of anger was so much worse than the rage I’d expected. And deserved. For daring to summon her up.
“You don’t know that. I would have said I didn’t want no part of you, before you showed up on my doorstep five minutes ago.”
“She stormed out of my life and she didn’t return any of my calls. Five years I tried.”
“You stormed out of mine. You didn’t return my calls.”
“It’s different,” Ti said.
She just shrugged. But I knew what she meant. It was different because she was ready to look me in the eye and confront what had happened between us. What she’d done. How her weakness had hurt me. I knew that the second she showed up, even if we hadn’t gotten around to it yet. She wouldn’t have come if she wasn’t ready for me to tear her ass up over it.
But what she’d had with Lark? What she’d done to her? No way in hell she was ready to look that little issue in the eye and take it.
Everyone knew. What Ti and Lark were. How could you not, being out on the road together, all of our lives jumbled up like vegetables in a stew pot? We saw what was going on, and we didn’t say anything, same way we didn’t say anything about the bassist shooting heroin or a backup singer smacking her kid. Maybe that sounds harsh to you now, comparing what she and Lark were to abuse or addiction, and maybe that’s not the way we’d think about it now, but I was pretty ignorant when I fell into her orbit, and back then, to me—it was just one more way they were human. I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business, and let me tell you—when you’re up close and personal with someone, you lose sight of the superstar right quick, and all you’re left with is the human.
Carolina. Faith-based family values advocate.
After that HBO show, I brought her up in my church group. Asked if anyone had seen it. They all had. And they all loved it! Don’t you see? I asked. Don’t you see what she is? What she’s doing? They didn’t see. Or they didn’t care. I knew then what I was up against. How deep the roots of evil ran, even in soil as strong as America’s. I knew we were spread far and wide, the people who cared enough to fight back, and that I’d have to look far beyond the limits of my own small town to build an army to stop her sorcery.
We’d been so careful, the whole time we were Over There. Whenever anyone else was around, me and Leo were simply buddies. Talking baseball, or engine problems. That’s where we met, in the mechanics corps. Motorcycles had been his thing, back in Brooklyn, and pickup trucks were mine, and that’s where we ended up when we got to Propatria. Different as we were, we had that in common. Combustion.
Sex was secret, furtive, hurried. Every second of intimacy was stolen from the chaos gods of that city at war with itself, who could choose at any moment to unleash an obliterating insurgent attack or accidental discovery by our bloodthirsty comrades. Horrific death or dishonorable discharge were waiting in the wings every time we touched, watching us, wondering when to make their entrance.
But there, in that San Diego aircraft hangar, hearing her sing those songs we’d listened to a thousand times in that internet-less city, on the battered thumb drives Leo had bummed off of a buddy back home, I felt a new world open up inside of us. He draped his arm over my shoulder and leaned into me and anyone could see, all these men and women we’d served with, and thousands of strangers besides, but it didn’t matter, because that voice was coursing through us all, like we were thirty-five hundred needles and she was effortlessly threading herself through every one of us, making us into one thing, our lives linked up, our (life force) whatever it was surging like a river. Like the sea. We were the sea, and Ti drained us dry, and Ti filled us up.
But then the bittersweet melancholy filled me again, wondering, what if this is the end of it? If we’re free to be open about it because after today there won’t be anything to protect anymore? I was so full of fear. When she stops singing we’ll walk out of here, me and Leo and all these people who’ve been crammed together with us in the bitter seed pod of war, and we’ll scatter to the winds.
Nyssa. Backup singer.
“It was real,” I said, setting her coffee in front of her and then easing myself into a chair. It’s not so easy, anymore. Getting this old body to do what I want it to do. “You know it was real, Ti. Is real.”
“I don’t know anything,” she said, sipping her coffee, smiling, but not remarking on the fact that I remembered exactly how much sugar and how much milk she took in her coffee. Because of course I did. Because of course everyone around her lived only to please her, to serve her, to make her life easier.
I felt sorry for her, then. For the same thing I’d always been jealous of. How she was shielded from every problem. How all the little hardships were whisked away. They hadn’t been helping her, all those people. They’d made her unable to handle the big hardships. They helped destroy her.
“Look at you,” I said. “All the hard living you’ve done? You should look twenty years older than 48, not twenty years younger. That’s proof right there. You took something from them, all those people, all those years. You know you did.”
She chuckled. “‘All the hard living.’ You mean drugs, right?”
“I always served it to you straight up, babycakes. You know I did.”
“That’s why they hated you,” she said. “Why they said you had to go.”
So. She did want to talk about it. She was ready to be set straight. “Your family hated me, yes, because I called them out on all the ways they were profiting off of you, and how they let their own greed get in the way of what was best for you, but that’s not why you fired me. Okay? I’m happy to stroll down memory lane with you, help you get through a rough patch, but do me the decency of at least being honest about everything at long last.”
“Sure,” she said, and shrugged. “Fine. What do I care? What does it matter, now?”
“Why’d you fire me? I want to hear you say it.”
She frowned. The church had fucked her up good. Long before she was Miss Superstar, she’d been Miss Sunday Service, and that place had gotten her just as twisted up inside as the fame and the drugs would do later. She still couldn’t say it to herself, what she was.
Ti was a woman, and she loved a woman. Everything she’d ever been told said she was going to hell for that.
And Ti was a woman who had some kind of crazy power, and even though I’d never use the word witchcraft, that was the only word she knew for it.
I took her coffee cup to the sink. No way I was going to press her on this. Be like kicking a dog when she was down. She was sorry. That’s why she’d come. That was enough for me.
“I fired you because something happens when I sing. When people hear me. I fired you because everyone around me was either completely oblivious to it, or just doing their damnedest to act like they were oblivious. Everyone but you. You wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t real, and you wouldn’t let me pretend it, either.”
All addicts are self-medicating, you ask me. Trying to soothe a hurt they can’t name, and since they can’t name it they can’t get the right medicine, so they use poison instead.
That Heroes of the Venezuelan Liberation special—that was the beginning of the end, for Ti. Sure, she still had some of her best recordings ahead of her—the voice wasn’t broken, yet—but I could see it the second she came off that stage. How something had shifted in her. Not long after that was when the witchcraft thing started, all those horrible women trying to get her banned, and it was stupid shit and it never hurt her sales—helped them, if anything—but she took it to heart. They’d send her hate mail, and she’d actually read it! That, I can’t figure. Like she got something she needed from those nasty letters. Like she wanted to skin herself, and they were the blade God had sent.
Moths steer by the light of the moon. Only thing is, they don’t know the difference between one light and another. At night, far as they’re concerned, there’s just two things: darkness and light. But if there’s a fire, or a hot electric bulb, they’ll steer by that. Circling around it, getting closer and closer until they burn up.
And, no. I don’t know what it was about that night. What happened. Nyssa might, but not me. I respect everyone’s right to their own secrets, and that’s why Ti kept me around until the very last day. I never even asked her for her real name. World took so much from her, you know? Wasn’t about to take anything more.
So, all I know is—that was the night Ti veered off-course, lost track of the moon and started circling the flame. Took her twenty years, but eventually those circles became so small she burst into a big blazing ball of fire herself.
She saw us. I know she did. Several songs in, I couldn’t keep track anymore, one bled into the next and it was all one wail of joy and sadness, all of us rubbed raw by that voice, wrung out like a washcloth. The chorus ended, segued into a saxophone solo, she crooned, I need, I need, I need, I need, and then turned to mop the sweat from her face, and the solo was beautiful but that wasn’t why it was there, she needed a chance to catch her breath, to muster her strength for the final assault.
All around us, people cried out. Love, encouragement, lust—the pain she’d unlocked in them—the bliss she’d inspired—we saw her as human, for an instant, someone who needed to actually breathe, and we loved her all the more for it.
If you never saw Ti live, I don’t think you can understand what I’m talking about. Listening to her on the radio, watching clips, you feel it, a little, you know this is something special, something (supernatural) different, and if you really listen hard and let your guard down maybe it will start to stir up something you can’t explain—give you something you didn’t have before—a faint smell in the air, a memory that’s not yours, a shadow shaped like her in your dreams that night. But that’s infinitesimal, a drop of water compared to the raging cataract of what came out of her there, in that room, in that crowd.
Ti smiled, at our cries, and everyone wailed louder. She pressed both hands to her lips and then flung them out, unleashing a tidal wave of energy through the audience. I felt it. A tingle up the spine. A gift she gave us. Ti turned from face to face, blowing kisses.
And then she saw us.
Leo missed it. I’ve never told him. He’d be too upset over having been oblivious. He didn’t see it because he was kissing me, warm lips in the cool upper curl of my ear.
Ti saw us, and she smiled. And it was the saddest smile I’d ever seen.
Nyssa. Backup singer.
“I shouldn’t have come,” she said, heading for the door. “It was stupid. You have your life, you have your troubles,” and she looked around the room, saw the mess, the piled-up bills, the pictures of my kids and grandkids on the fridge, and she winced, because she’d never once asked me how I was doing, what was happening in my life, and now it was too late, “and you damn sure don’t need me coming here asking for help with mine.”
“Something happened that night,” I said. “The concert. For the soldiers? In San Jose?”
Ti stopped. Whispered: “San Diego.”
“You saw something. During the saxophone solo. I felt it—I felt you feel it. I can still feel it, even now. Shut my eyes and there it is, humming under my skin like it happened seconds ago. Am I right?”
“You felt that?” Her voice was tiny, terrified. Excited.
“You hid it well. Never let it show in your face. But I could see it anyway, same as if I’d watched you burst into flames.”
Her eyes were so wide.
Every part of me was screaming to stop. But I knew I had to do this.
Because I’d been hiding, too. Trying not to look the truth in the eyes. Not to let myself remember what it felt like, that night, every night, every time we sang together on stage, how my voice connected with hers and something happened. Something flowed through me. Something linking me and Ti and all those people. Something that let me see the inside of every one of them, the pure goodness inside of bodies and minds wracked by horror and disease and fear. It was a thousand times stronger than heroin, that feeling—and yes, I do have a basis for comparison—but with no crash or consequences or side effects, just bliss, like being welcomed into the warm light of the womb of the universe. So of course I had to push it down, pretend it never happened. Because how could you live your real life after you’ve had something like that and then lost it? Better to tell yourself it was all in your head.
“You saw something, Ti. Looking out into that crowd. You saw something that hurt you worse than anything ever hurt before. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach, and I knew that’s how you felt. Should I keep going?”
“It was like I could hear your thoughts. Or we were watching the same movie. The movie was you. All your life you’d been looking for a certain kind of love, the real kind, the one that God and your mom and your heart would all be proud of. Always believing it was just around the corner. Maybe the next man would be the one, or if you gave the current man a little longer, in spite of all the warning signs. But whatever you saw in that crowd—as soon as you saw it, you knew. The love you were looking for? You’d had it already. With Lark. You’d had it and it scared you so bad you told her you two had to stop, be just friends, because to be together would mean kissing your career goodbye. The pain you felt at the time, you told yourself it was nothing, puppy love, sin and confusion, and that sooner or later you’d find the real thing. And that night, at that concert, you saw the truth. The love you were looking for was behind you.”
Carolina. Faith-based family values advocate.
First thing I did, I went to the local Walmart, marched my way back to the electronics section where they still sell CDs for all the old folks like me who still like to have things we can hold in our hands. They had her poster up and everything. A whole table of her stuff—she had the number one song on the charts that week. I walked in there and I went right up to the girl behind the counter, and I said:
“I’m with Grace Abounding, and we’re formally asking your store to stop selling that woman’s music.”
A lie, sure, but a lie for Jesus. And anyway I was with Grace Abounding, and I was asking them to stop selling her records.
The clerk said, “Uh.”
It’s a small town. I knew who she was. Had seen her around. Never at church, of course.
“You probably want to get your manager.”
She scurried off.
“Easy, sweetie,” said the manager, another familiar face, coming out with a smug look on his face like he’d stopped doing something important just so he could rush out and rub my face in something. “It’s not that serious. Everybody knows why you’re really so upset about her.”
“I’m certain I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, and prayed for Jesus to send me strength, to keep from whipping out the tiny pink pistol my husband Colby had gotten for me for our fifth anniversary, which I kept in my purse at all times because I’m allowed to, and because the world is full of people trying to do harm to good Christian Americans.
“Yeah you do.” And he had a ratty beard and he was stroking it lewdly at me. “We all saw it. That special. For the soldiers? We saw your son up there.”
“I need you to sign this pledge, agreeing to stop selling all of her music and merchandise. I have prepared this informational pamphlet, if you’d like some further—”
He laughed. “Are you going to try and tell me that wasn’t your boy Brent? In the front row, smiling while some Jew-looking man licks his ear? Christ, no wonder you hate her. Because of that special, the whole town and half of America saw just what he—”
Probably he kept talking. I assure you I wouldn’t know. I turned right around and left. And I had two, maybe three fingers on the pink pistol the whole darn time.
My mom? You know who she is?
Shit. Of course you do. Why the hell else would you want to talk to meaningless little me?
Well, I don’t have anything to say on that subject. I haven’t talked to my mother in twenty years. She can rot in her own miserable hatred for all I care.
I’m living a life I never dared to dream could be mine. She gave us that, me and Leo. A life. A future. Happiness. Standing up there on that stage, she unlocked something in us. In me, anyway. I never had that kind of courage before. But she gave it to me. Whisked all my fear away. From that moment on, I was all in.
Nyssa. Backup singer.
I said it again: “The love you were looking for was already behind you.”
And then I stared her down. Waited for her to say something. Certain she’d smack the shit out of me and then stomp out of my life for good this time.
“You felt all that,” Ti whispered.
And there was no sorrow in her face. Just joy, and radiance. Because now, she believed.
She saved so many people. She couldn’t save herself. It’s stupid, really. To say it. It’s so obvious it doesn’t mean anything, to say it, like saying, “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” But I’ll say it. Because she’s here, now. With me. In me. In you, if you’re making this movie, because she must have touched you, somehow. She reached inside of you, and she linked her soul to yours, and she changed you. And you changed her.
She was obsessed with Whitney Houston. Everybody knows that. People make a big deal out of it, the similarities between their sad stories, and maybe that’s a whole other movie someone should make. All I know is her favorite song was “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” The only song she sang at every concert. The only cover. Never recorded it, of course, because she was good but she wasn’t Whitney, and there’s no sense setting yourself up for an unfavorable comparison, but live—live she could pull it off.
I need a man who’ll take a chance, on a love that burns hot enough to last.
Here’s the thing, about that line. Second time she sings it, she goes up an octave on the word love. Just like Whitney did. And when Ti hits that note—love—her yearning reaches inside of you and replaces your own; all the need and longing, she just whisks it all away.
A love that burns hot enough to last.
She believed that. Ti thought all she had to do was find the right man, the one whose love would burn hot enough to last. She believed it until that night, in that San Diego aircraft hangar, when she saw the truth: that she’d had that love already. And she’d thrown it away. And she’d never have it again, until she could live her life the way she really was. And she didn’t have that kind of courage.
“See you soon, Nyssa,” she said, and hugged me.
“I love you, Tiyanna,” I murmured in her ear.
She seemed stouter, now. Taller. Like she’d been blind, and now could see.
Carolina. Faith-based family values advocate.
My husband couldn’t handle it. What had to be done. That’s why I left. I could be married to him or I could be married to Christ, to this crusade, and I’m not ashamed of my choice. We won, didn’t we? Have I shown you my scrapbooks? I have so many press clippings.
I was the last one to see her alive. Guess you know that already. Probably why you’re talking to me.
And no—before you even ask—no, there were no red flags, no cryptic messages or notes to answer the question of whether or not she meant to die that day. Because of course I would never have driven her out to the beach “for a quick dip” if I suspected what she meant to do. I watched her swim into the deepening twilight, and by the time I saw what she was up to she was way too far out for me or anyone to save her.
I still hear her, you know. See her. Not just in her music and her movies. In the faces of strangers, living their lives. Flowers. Birds. The craziest shit. She’s everywhere now.
Those crazy church ladies only had it half right. She was magic, sure; she was practicing witchcraft, sure—but it wasn’t the one they thought it was. Whatever weird vampire thing she used to reach into your heart and take something that was like a side effect, something she couldn’t control.
No, man. Music is magic. A thread to tie us all together, to let us look inside ourselves, see that we’re all one. That our pain doesn’t isolate us, it connects us to everyone who’s ever been. Shows us that we’re made of love, unending perfect love.
That’s one of the magic things music can do, anyway, and Ti did it better than anyone, except possibly Whitney. Her songs gave God’s full grace to everyone who heard them—for as long as the song lasted, sometimes, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. Maybe because she was born that way and maybe because of what she’d been through, the pain in her heart, I don’t know.
Ti opened all of our eyes. Showed us ourselves. She set us free. And then she got free herself.