I think I melted this summer. I think I first knew some day in mid-June. I woke up particularly sweaty in the third-floor apartment in Fox Point that I was subletting for the early summer, the plants on my desk drooping under the weight of the heat. Only one of my plants could withstand the summer fever, a little knobby moonglow I had named Emanuel. Mama always told me to never keep succulents. “It’s bad luck,” she said. I remembered her voice when I found Emanuel in that plant store on Gano. I don’t know why I ignored it.
I walked out of the apartment that morning, jostling my headphones into my ears while I put on Jai Paul or Phoebe Bridgers or Lauryn Hill or the Carpenters or whichever favorite artist had come to mind. As the noise filled my head, I pictured the sun’s sizzling rays crawling into my hair and down my scalp. I remember thinking that the boundaries between my skin and the world had dissolved. I was no longer sure of the distinction between myself and the air, or myself and the lifeless sidewalk under me. I walked the June skies of College Hill in a haze, my inner landscape a desert devoid of feeling but saturated with overthinking.
Suddenly, I pulled my headphones out. The music stopped, giving way to chirping birds and roaring engines. I furrowed my eyebrows as it dawned on me. I don’t like music anymore. Shit, I don’t even sing along anymore.
Looking back, I guess I would call it depression. A year of relative isolation, moving five times, and a messy relationship would do that to me. Honestly, I didn’t really give my mental state much attention. The racing, anxious, overthinking mind and the complete lack of fulfillment and personal growth were my new normal. I didn’t really realize its significance until that hot summer day that I stopped writing and reading, that I didn’t find things that funny or joyous, that I honestly didn’t feel anything anymore.
Music has been my heart since freshman year of high school, when I started playing the trumpet seriously. I used to tell people that all I needed to be happy was good food, good people, and good music. Sometimes, when I’m in a good mood, I still think that’s true.
The album that first touched me, the album that started it all, was West-Coast cool-jazz trumpeter Chet Baker’s 1956 album Chet Baker Sings. The quiet collection of saccharine love songs was perfect for 15-year-old me, hopelessly and entirely in unrequited love. I Get Along Without You Very Well, I Fall in Love Too Easily, and My Ideal were my favorites, if that doesn’t say it all. Baker sings on each track, his breathy, empty voice with its fragile vibrato mirroring his melodic and delicate trumpet solos. My own frail singing voice matched perfectly when I sang along, and I knew I wanted to sound like that.
“You have to find your voice,” my trumpet teacher told me in one of our first lessons. “That’s the heart of soloing in jazz. You like Chet Baker, right? Listen to how similar his trumpet sounds to his voice. Same with Louis Armstrong. You don’t need to sing well, just sing.”
So, it began. In the shower, on walks with my dog, driving to school, even in class, I started humming tunes from Chet Baker Sings quietly and badly to myself or belting them outright. My love for music came from feeling the pleasant melody of It’s Always You vibrate in my chest, making my heart skip a beat. I don’t feel that I know a song until I can sing it through, and the first album I could sing every little moment of was Chet Baker Sings. Sometimes I couldn’t hear the difference between my own voice and Chet Baker’s. I liked it that way.
Through high school and early college, as I found my place as a trumpet player and a novice shower-belter, music became everything for me. Music became my self-expression, how I felt most comfortable sharing my feelings, how I understood the inaccessible recesses of my heart. Jazz was my first love, but I quickly branched out into other genres: R&B was next, and then hip hop, and then reggaeton, and then indie rock. When I started listening to my mom’s favorite bands from the ‘70s, music became how I understood her life. When my dad showed me his Hindi Walking Songs Spotify playlist for his pensive walks, music became how I connected with his thoughts and emotions.
My best friend Danny called me this June, and before I could say hello, he rapped the entirety of Macklemore’s first verse on Can’t Hold Us. As we cry-laughed upon his finish, he asked me to sing or rap a verse of any song. I couldn’t remember a single song.
I thought again, I don’t like music anymore.
My summer cooled down in a day—I took off from the hot Boston tarmac one July morning and landed in a frigid, foggy San Francisco that afternoon. I was moving to S.F. for the rest of the summer to spend time with my newborn niece, my oldest sister Pallavi’s first baby. Before I left, everybody repeated the same thing. “Pack warm. Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I made sure to dig up my sweaters and pants.
When I landed, my middle sister, Shreya, was waiting for me outside the airport in her little blue Subaru. She brought me to her cold apartment near Cole Valley—I was subletting the empty room before she found a new roommate.
“Mama and Papa are already at Pallavi’s, it’s a quick walk across Golden Gate Park. You should shower, take a nap, and meet me there.”
A couple hours later, I put on a sweater for the first time in months and shivered my way across the park to see my two-day-old niece. I watched the low fog roll over the homes cobbled into the San Francisco hills. I felt goosebumps on my skin, the sweater wrapping me tight and drawing a clear border between my body and the air. I got to Pallavi’s home, my mom opening the door. She gave me a hug and smiled, “Make sure to be quiet, Papa is putting her to sleep. Baby Lily is just beautiful.”
I walked inside to see my dad holding a little bundle in his arms. I watched him circle and rock slowly around my sister’s family room, baby playthings scattered about. I heard him singing quietly to Lily, his voice delicate and off-pitch. He kept repeating one verse of an old Hindi children’s song over and over:
My dad interrupted his singing with a quiet whisper. “Do you want to hold her, Uncle? She’s asleep.”
He passed all of Lily’s six pounds into the crook of my elbows, her face poking out from the folds of her blanket. Her eyes were closed, and her nose twitched as she stirred a little. My heart swelled and my stomach jumped as a rush of love and emotion swept over me. She was so sweet.
“She’ll wake if you don’t sing,” Papa told me. I protested and he insisted. I began to sing the refrain my dad had been singing, the melody thrumming in my chest against Lily. She twitched, smiled, and settled at the sensation. I kept singing long after she fell asleep.
The next morning I took the San Francisco Muni to work. Even though I wore the thickest sweater I had, the wind bit my skin during my walk to the stop. I sat on the trolley looking out at the Bay, the city’s muted pastels and lush greenery passing me by. I thought about Lily and the smiles on my whole family’s faces. I began to sing quietly to myself.
Re mamma re mamma re…
I called Pallavi the other day, squeezing my phone between ear and shoulder as I folded laundry on my bed. Dim sunlight fell through my dorm room window and landed on my skin as warm cotton ran softly across my hands, thawing my icy fingers. An unexpected wail of delight and a giggle buzzed in my ear. My mouth widened into a grin.
“Lily’s really found her voice this week,” my sister explained. “She talks to me now, in her own way.” I could hear Lily smiling through her little noises. I think I had forgotten that you can hear when someone’s smiling, even a little baby.
I hung up after we finished talking, and I put on Chet Baker Sings. I sang along to every note.