“Where do you go when you go quiet?” Beyoncé asks in Lemonade’s opening sequence. The answer is incidental to the question being asked. It reminds me of the ones my mother would ask my father after he’d come home from another woman’s house; the ones she’d ask my brother when he refused to answer something simple; the ones she’d ask me whenever I was stealing someone’s video games, lying, and generally not listening. More than anything though, it was a question she asked because she actively sought to answer it for herself.
When my mother couldn’t figure out what was happening in her home—why the men, present in body, were absent everywhere else—she’d resign to the refuge of her room, locking the door, remaining there, silent. Her withdrawal was her way of letting us know it was we who had withdrawn first; but my father, brother, and I seldom saw her action as a reaction, the natural of effect of something we each caused. To us, she was overreacting.
We each had our ways of dealing with it. My father, never really staying longer than a year at a time, would leave, go to one of his other women’s houses. My brother, having a wife and child of his own, would go home. I, old enough to start trouble but still young enough to be grounded for it, stood by her door—ear pressed against it, waiting for the first sign of her return.
“Do you want me to bring you some water, Ma?” Nothing. I knew she didn’t want anything. I was just hoping to hear her voice. It was how I knew all was forgiven. She knew this too. She also knew I wouldn’t move from her door until she said something, which is why her voice would run at me from the other side: “GET AWAY FROM MY DOOR!” Sprinting away, I’d talk to myself. I’d make promises about learning from what I had done so as not to repeat it. My incessant talking hollowing out every one of them. I always said more than I could remember in those moments; pledged more than I ever planned to fulfill. The only purpose of the promises: to make me forget that my mother went somewhere I couldn’t follow. Somewhere forbidden. Somewhere I needed permission to enter.
Everyone has a forbidden place. Somewhere no one is allowed to enter without the gatekeeper’s permission. My mother had her room. My sister-in-law went on walks or under headphones. My older sister drove or went clubbing. Even my younger sisters found solace hiding in the closet or under the bed.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé retreats into her forbidden place but also gives us permission to enter. But where is she exactly? In she in one place at different times, or several places at once? Do these places exist in real life, like my mother’s room? Or do they just exist in the life of her mind? Does she toe the fine line between fact and fancy to keep us off her trail? Or is this her way of making us pay attention? Are we supposed to find her? Is she trying to find herself? She kneels on a stage in one shot. Walks through a field the next. Sits in a wooden tub. Thrusts herself off the roof a building. But before hitting the concrete, she plunges into a sea—which one? She swims through a flooded bedroom—whose? She watches herself drown—which self? She fasts for 60 days; wears white; throws herself into a volcano. Drinks blood. Wine. Prays to God. Sees the Devil. Uses pages of the Holy Bible to absorb her cycle. After all this she then asks, “Are you cheating on me?” And we don’t know who she’s talking to. We have our ideas. It’s her husband. It’s her father. She’s talking to herself, maybe. To everyone. To no one. Are we all expected to reply at once? Or at all? Should we just listen?
I always had a hard time listening. It’s the root of why I am at perpetual odds with women. First my mother. Then my female teachers. Older sister. Younger sisters. Girls. Shorties. Side-Pieces. Lovers. I never stop not listening. So much so that the women I’ve been involved with prefer to leave voice mails, send long letters, extensive text messages. Anything but the silence that comes with closed ears. I repeat them to suggest that I’ve been listening. They all know better. The best way to get me to listen is to talk in asides. The women in my life know to address me directly is to be interrupted. If not in real life, in the life of my mind. I’ll insert rebuttals between their clauses, ask for things said clearly the first time to be repeated a second. Third. What was that? Conversations go nowhere. When the conversation winds its way into a forbidden place—why things done for them really benefitted me; why I spent so much time getting them to fall in love with me without making sure whether or not I even liked them; why someone else’s hair was on my pillow—I go to a forbidden place of my own. I retreat into my mind, and remain there, silent—waiting for them to leave. Only then do I come out, when the noises have stopped, when their silence matches my own.
Two years before Lemonade came the leaked footage of Solange’s elevator eruption at Jay Z on the night of the Met Gala. When the video first surfaced, I wasn’t so much interested in what was captured on-camera as I was with the fact of our fascination; against a background of grainy-black and white, we saw Solange’s kicking and screaming, Jay’s placid demeanor, Beyoncé’s refusal to intervene and we couldn’t stop watching, deconstructing, analyzing. All this even though, by the time we saw the footage, it was already a week old; old information treated like new—like news. So we talked about it conspiratorially, like it was a Zapruder. There were accusations of it being staged; of it being a sideshow, a distraction from other things that were more important. More real. Few people could name what those real things were, but that was what we were supposed to be talking about. Few seemed to notice the silence on the elevator, that what we saw had no volume, even as it bore a lot of weight. Few seemed to acknowledge that what we were seeing was at once no more and no less than the family dramas that play out with regularity in all of our lives, only theirs was on the stage.
Instead: We filled their silent space with memes, tweets, and an abundance of think pieces speculating about the tumultuous state of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s marriage. Divorce was imminent, apparently. Any- and everything that could be said was said with the hope that we’d find out what was ultimately none of our business. Everyone on that elevator who refused to speak only confirmed the distance between their lives and ours. Regardless of how hard modern technology and social media work to make strangers familiar; how hard it tries—how hard those who use it try—to convince us that we are part of an—their—inner circle, the fundamental fact of that elevator footage, like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, forces us to admit that we are perpetually on the outer rim of each other’s lives, and that we cannot break into someone’s silent space, their secret world, unless we are invited, no matter how much we think they owe us, no matter how much we think we know them.
During arguments about secrecy, about silence, my brother liked to remind his wife how well he knew her to legitimize the charges he brought against her. Whatever he lacked in concrete evidence was compensated for by the years they’d spent together, the intimacy of their bond; time and experience was his judge and jury. When this method failed, he used her admissions of past transgressions as proof of present and future ones. Her rebuttal: “You don’t know me. You only know what I tell you.”
I think about that. Hoping the repetition alone can bring me closer to its meaning, I’ve spent time repeating my sister-in-law’s response. You don’t know me. You only know what I tell you. What does she mean by this? Was she telling my brother what she felt he wanted to hear because she suspected he wouldn’t listen otherwise? Was she reminding him that her words were all he had? But that her silence was her own? Did she present the messiest parts of who she was to my brother as a way to ultimately keep them for herself? Could he ever trust what he knew, or thought he knew, about her, when she was the source of this information? How much of what she was saying were things she wanted him to believe? How much did he actually? Were they ever telling each other the truth? Or had they been lying to each other the entire time? These were the questions that swirl in my head. I imagine these must have been questions that swirled in his head too. He never had an answer for her. He only stared. Wanting to say something but not knowing what.
At some point or another every man probably hears how much he resembles a past he wasn’t there for. How much we favor our fathers; take after an older brother. An uncle maybe. We are told about grandparents who bit their nails similarly, about distant relatives with whom we share features. Ex-boyfriends we resemble in action. Men hate to hear about this past they had little hand in making, because the past is one of the few things which reminds us that we have no control over the present.
Thinking back to when my sister-in-law would tell my brother, You don’t know me. You only know what I tell you, I understand now what she was saying. Many of the things my brother said about his wife had also been true of him. The only difference: she’d often have to hear it from someone else’s mouth. This is why he remained silent. He was facing a mirror. So was she. You don’t know me/I don’t know you. You only know what I tell you/ I only know what you tell me. I had always thought she said these things to him to keep him out. Only now do I realize that was her way of letting him in, of trying to get him to listen by mirroring what was in his mind, breaking the silence by entering his secret thoughts. She blurred the boundaries of their thoughts and their lives in an attempt to get through to him. He didn’t hear that way. Neither did I. We weren’t listening.
Is this why Beyoncé merges the past and the future? Why she levels her gaze and fires her questions at all of us, at one of us, at none of us? Why she warns us of our past? Why she embodies Nefertiti and Oshun? Queen and spirit? God? Is this why even the man she accuses is a mystery: Is it her husband? Her father? Is it all men? Is this her way of telling us we were right? Or wrong? Is this her way of telling us we will never know the answers? Is this her way of telling us we might never even know the questions? Several of the black women and girls—including Beyoncé—are painted white as to resemble ghosts. We are fated to live through them. Sometimes the only way out is through. Other times we get stuck. But this is why she tries to reconciles her relationship with her husband and father, and why we can listen to James Blake sing “Forward” over the images of black women holding photos of their murdered sons, women who constantly remind us of the bloody history we wish to escape but we can’t. We carry our homes with us wherever we go.
Blurring and blending as many boundaries as possible has always been Beyoncé’s way to enter unmarked territory, taking power from those who cherish it most, who won’t let it go willingly. Lines can’t be crossed if they don’t exist. That’s always been part of Beyoncé’s appeal; she is capable of existing in so many places and to so many people at once, without anyone ever noticing whether or not she’s really there, what’s really her and what isn’t real at all.
In Lemonade, we see Jay Z’s 90-year-old grandmother revel in how she made the best of the worst, and how her own grandmother told her “nothing real can be threatened.” The final shot of the visual album is of Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Blue Ivy laughing; Beyoncé covers the camera, ending it all. You don’t know me. You only know what I tell you. Where does Beyoncé go when she’s quiet? We will never know for certain. We have no right to be asked in. But what’s clear: wherever she goes, we’ll try to follow, and listen.
Collages by Sarah Lutkenhaus