I always thought I was going to sleep with Ria Pell. 

When she died at 45 years old this was not my first thought. (Was I even thinking? I was out of my mind with grief when I heard that news.) But eventually I settled on, “Huh, I never thought it would go down like that.”

Photo of Ria by Robin Henson

Over the course of a few years we went on a handful of dates together. Always really great dinner—she was a chef, and delighted in delicious food. Fantastic conversation, my favorite kind of foreplay. 

We got to make out in a classic truck, on dance floors, in dimly lit bars. A lot of cute sexual tension sitting near each other at a party. But never all the way. 

I’m continuing to develop my patience muscle but back in my early thirties it was a tremendous growth area for me. Ria Pell was worth the wait and I was patient, truly believing we would have sex eventually. I always had so much fun with her but was left with a see you next time.

She was the person who got me to realize that if someone tells you they are polyamorous more than twice you might want to listen to the tone in their voice when they tell you a third time.

I’m an obsessive photographer archiving my life. It was very uncharacteristic of me to leave blank corners undocumented, but I was always so intimidated by Ria I hardly ever took photos of her or with her! Going back through my Atlanta trips and photos and I’ll have photos of food she cooked and parties she was at but not her or us together.

My favorite phrase for this kind of long game is “We’re going to be queer for a really long time.” That can apply to straight people but it’s a fun little saying to inspire patience. Life is long and desires of the flesh not met the moment you feel them are not the end of the world. In fact, it’s especially delicious when you can pick them up later in life. 

Anyway, we had all these cute dates but it started as a long distance crush. I was visiting Atlanta for the very first time. January, 2005. I met my bestie Rachael on the internet in 2002 thanks to early blogging! She hired me to Femmecee the first Femme Mafia ATL masquerade ball.

Ria made a lasting impression.

Ria was the DJ. (Yes, she was a chef and a DJ! SWOON! Good taste in food and music are a really nice life!) She was an imposing presence in many ways, you just knew she was in the room even if she wasn’t holding court. 

But then again when was she not holding court? People were drawn to her. I’ve been studying Jerry Garcia, who was reluctant about leadership but he was like a default leader because of what he created. I sense that in Ria, too. She didn’t want to deal with the bullshit of community organizing and still did it in order to create things. Shows, parties, it’s where folks gather and Ria connected so many kinds of people!

Day before my 31st birthday party (December 23) Ria came through this party. I didn’t take a pic with her but I did take a pic with these two strangers! Why did I let myself get so nervous around Ria that I would chicken out about asking for a pic?

I have missed her so hard in the last couple years dealing with impossible situations I could have used her counsel about.

Ria caught my attention by being hot and having great taste in music, but it was eating at her world famous brunch restaurant The Bluebird that won me over. 

I ate there twice in one weekend it was that good. If someone tells me they are going to Atlanta I tell about The Bluebird, which is still open and you can still eat their biscuits.* And the brisket. Get the pancakes with bananas on top as an appetizer for the table.

You will wait for a table and you’ll like it.

Rachael and I have been besties now for 19 years. Her home in Atlanta is always my gaycation home. A place I can go, reset, party, eat great food and relax. Rachael is a Taurus and excels at all of those things. For a time Rach was engaged to one of Ria’s besties and I took that proximity as a giant moment to step out of my comfort zone and text something flirty to Ria. 

Omigoddess Rachael put up with relentless Ria chatter from me. That crush brewed for years. This is us waiting for a table at The Bluebird. Always worth the wait,

I think Nobody Ever Died of Awkward is one of my best blog posts and when you read it I’m talking about texting my Big Crush Ria. 

Ria did all kinds of sweet things for me in our time as friends/crush/long game. Nothing major but she had a way of connecting dots with thoughtfulness. 

We talked about our dreams a lot at our dinners and one of hers was to open a supper club kinda restaurant. Hearing about this for a couple years and then getting to witness her pursue the dream was so rad. I LOVE getting to witness people I love unfold their dreams.

At the Christmas Eve soft opening of Ria’s restaurant Sauced! I’m glad at the time I was still drinking–those cocktails were incredible!! Also lots of pics of food no pics of Ria! I want to say I was always kinda mesmerized talking to her so maybe I was just “in the moment.”

My Head Cheerleader heart loves to celebrate my people taking steps towards their dreams. 

She had opened the Bluebird in a punk rock DIY make it happen ask for forgiveness kinda way but now opening a new restaurant it required permits and bureaucracy which she hated. 

Bureaucracy is the opposite of punk rock. 

Exploring menus before the opening of Sauced she visited NYC and took me out to dinner. 

I’ll never forget when she picked me up for that date from my work at a Brooklyn fat queer resale clothing store. She was wearing overalls. I remember her laughing in the store and I just loved her laugh.

In my old Los Angeles kitchen I had a pic of Ria and my step mom Liz, two ghosts I love to cook with.

I think I was probably the only gal in NYC that night going to dinner with a Southern babe in overalls and I was really twitterpated about it.

Dinner was delicious, we had bacon peanut brittle as an appetizer.

Ria’s soft opening of her new supper club Sauced was on my birthday, Christmas Eve. I spent my birthday/Christmas with Rach that year and we had a night out celebrating my pre-birthday. Christmas Eve Eve. Ria came through to wish me happy early birthday and mentioned she was going to go back to Sauced to baste short ribs.

I felt honored (still feel honored) that in the stress of a restaurant opening she took an hour to come connect. I think of her every time I make short ribs now. Labor of love with a delicious result.

Ria’s truck. She was thrilled when she bought this, it involved a long trip many states away to pick it up.

On my birthday we went to the soft opening and she walked over to our booth and handed me, wordlessly, her version of the bacon peanut brittle. Way better than the one in NYC.

Looking through pictures for this post I found a thoughtful cherry shot she had made after I mentioned liking them two days before. Little thoughtful acts of service.

Ria looked like a tough guy but she was ultra-tender. In this culture it’s easy to forget that “tough guys” have feelings, too, and we all do. She was a Pisces, she cared about stuff in a way I think folks who stopped at a surface level with her might not understand. Pisces = FEELINGS. Pisces are also great at communicating without words.

We went out for lunch the day after she filmed Top Chef in NYC. She didn’t tell me whether she won and it didn’t matter but was delightful to learn that she did win. Not long after that she sold Sauced. I never got to connect with her about it but I was genuinely bummed about not getting to eat those short ribs again. 

One year when I was in ATL visiting with my new sweetheart I mentioned “Ria might hit on you. Choose your own adventure.” Ria was polyamorous and liked masculine folks more than Femmes and I knew chances were good she would hit on her. 

She didn’t hit on that sweetheart, but when I found out she had sex with another one of my dates that I never slept with I felt like it was some kind of frustrating but delightful joke. Ria was slutty and charming. 

Rachael and me at Ria’s funeral. In a classic truck. What an emotionally chaotic time and what a beautiful experience. I promise if I go to your funeral I will look this good.

Ria was the Mayor of Queer Atlanta, she knew everyone. Her funeral was epic. I’m so so so grateful I got to go, ride in a long line of classic cars celebrating her life and be at the graveside service. Thousands of people in a big march to the graveside. Unforgettable, just like her.

Someone played “My Way” at the graveside and I vowed I’d live a life that deserved that song at the end.

I still eat at the Bluebird every time I visit Atlanta. I still think about her all the time. 

I take a pic with this logo every time I go visit. What a blessing to get to remember her with a good brunch experience–the greatest meal.

Recently, my photo with the Bluebird logo was featured in an article about Atlanta brunch with a nice memorial to Ria. It’s wild to think she’s been gone nearly eight years. I’m glad folks are still talking about her. Thanks for reading my memories.

It still feels profoundly unfair that someone so magical doesn’t get to be here anymore. May her memory remain a blessing. And omg I’m now so much closer to how old she was when she went to be with the Goddess–it’s WILD how she was only 45.

She was born in New Jersey. My obsession with New Jersey has only grown since she passed. My first joint in recreationally legal cannabis New Jersey (a pandemic development) will be in her honor.

I know now that what’s most important in love are experiences with loved ones. And Ria gave me such great experiences. I’m so grateful.

Her obituary was really incredible read it here. There is just so much more to know about Ria, and you can definitely still have experiences of people learning about them after the fact. Chopped Season 13 Episode 10.

*If anyone has her recipe for biscuits or anything else please email it to me! Fatkiddanceparty at gmail

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I have no photo credit–if you know it please send it my way. Ria’s email was Boss @ bluebird or whatever the url was. I really liked that and have intentionally adopted her boss spirit in some ways. I think our loved ones like when we connect with something we admired about them and as a memorial try to be more like that. Anyway, thanks for reading this.