Our Billie

Genie’s hand-me-down love for Billie Holiday will survive the generations. And likely, the faded black and white photo of her she kept tucked into the mirror of an old vanity will be seen by our children’s children’s eyes—touched by their curious finger tips. Transferrable as salvation, I imagine that photo will survive us all.

Many called it an obsession, my affinity for the dead singer, but it was my inheritance. My only inheritance. My sense of connectedness to her was something others couldn’t appreciate, mostly, I believed, because people are simple–insisting on reducing her to her final days and breaths. My friend Misty was like that.

“What you find so inspiring bout Billie?” She would ask me.

Then, I would think about how people forget. Talent, success, persevering. Does it mean anything after you slip up?

“She was a druggie. Yeah, probably,” I’d admit, “But she lived. She lived so much we still got her voice around to listen to.”

In my mind, Billie and me and Genie I shared a world all our own. We all had this sadness that felt good to us. We all liked the good hurt that came from struggling against the environment, circumstances.

My preferred cocktail was tomato juice and vodka with a splash of pomegranate juice. I would drink it, sometimes sitting beside Philip on the loveseat, other times as I played I Cover the Waterfront back-to-back. Alone, I would sing, letting the warmth of it make me feel sophisticated, forget my mic was just a hair-filled brush, my barrel-curled hair was really a satin bonnet, my beaded heels were only white gym socks.

I chose Philip because he reminded me of the late thirties, that time when Billie was shining so bright. I don’t know why. He wasn’t even born yet, but there was something about him. His clothes were jazz era: brim hats and suits with padded shoulders. Although, I guess, they were worn in other times.

“He knew her!” I would tell Misty. “Can you believe that?”

My friend could do math. She had to realize that at fifty-two years old Philip was a mere thought when Billie died in ’59, but she knew better than to get into arguments with irrational people. Most days I was aware of my delusions, but some I was not. Like the day I chose to seduce Philip.

He was the super in my apartment building. Fifty at that time, but with boyish energy–still upright, sturdy. I wore a low-cut silk blouse and smiled too big while he tried to the unclog the drain I’d stopped up with kinky clumps from my hair brush.

“Is it for money, Leane?” Misty asked when I told her how much older he was. I laughed long.

There was no money. I liked that he opened doors for me and pulled out my chair at dinner, and called me by my full name: “Eleanora, don’t you look beautiful tonight” he would say. I liked that he cared for me like maybe Genie, my mother, would have if she never ran off when I was eight, on one of those trips she liked to take, if she had left me with more than a photo of a singer.

I had Philip come back the next day to replace a light bulb in the living room. “I would do it, but I don’t have a ladder,” I said, pointing at the missing bulb. This time I wore a robe. Left it open some. Philip didn’t seem to notice, but he did stop to admire the photo. Billie, framed and hung above the loveseat on the drab wall.

“My mama named me Eleanora after her” I said. “I woulda named you Billie,” Genie had said right before she left, “but there ain’t but one.” That’s when she handed me the black and white. And who would I give it to?

Philip and I married shortly after that. Misty didn’t understand, but we were happy. We lived.

Often we sat silently watching nothing in particular on my twenty-seven inch Magnavox.

“We should get one of those flat TVs,” Philip would say sometimes.

Then he’d flip through all the channels until one of us began to snore. If it was him, I’d elbow him lightly. “You were sleeping. Go to bed.” I would say. If I fell asleep first my own snoring would wake me and I’d dart my eyes around until I spotted him, mischievously smirking at me. “I was sleep, honey.” I’d say. “I’m going to bed.”

And Misty tried to make sense of it. “Leane, Don’t you want to do more than just watch TV. You’re the one said Billie lived. Didn’t you?” But she did not live in the same universe.

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