Father Strumming My Boyfriend’s Ribs

He was my first love, my first lifelong friend, my first everything.

Indian Feast“You look old and gaunt,” my dearest friends in Los Angeles said to me, half an hour after I’d been carded at the store to prove I was old enough to purchase the wine I was bringing to their dinner party.

The five of us were gathered for another culinary whim of our gifted hostess, this time a homemade Indian feast, complete with saffron cocktails. In keeping with the exotic theme, she had removed the legs from the dining table and we gathered around it on cushions on the deck, surrounded by lush Southern California hills.

The “old and gaunt” part came later.

The night was balmy and candlelight shone in everyone’s eyes as we all toasted to friendship and agreed “it doesn’t get better than this.” Normally, I might’ve felt mawkish. But on this night, the toast was bittersweet and loaded, because the day before, I had found out about the death of S.

S was my first love, my first lifelong friend, my first everything. To get an idea of him, read the lyrics to Nature Boy — but make the boy very funny. It was through S that I realized others besides my parents might find me lovable.

We met in New York when he was a couple of years older than my seventeen and I had one foot still lingering in childhood. I felt I had someone on my side now, and waking up every day with that certainty made a profound difference in how I would enter adulthood. He softened me.

It made for a disturbing bookend, then, that S who represented my most defining firsts, was also the first of my inner circle to die. The loss of someone I’d die for had been my greatest fear — if I had one consistent wish as a child, it was to die before my family. S had been my family.

But here I was on a Saturday night, a day after the worst news I could’ve imagined, able to sit for dinner with the Los Angeles additions to my inner circle, and even chuckle a bit. I didn’t know what to make of this juxtaposition. Weren’t you supposed to feel pummeled by grief? Become bedridden?

I had spent the whole of Friday weeping and gasping while breaking the news to my family and the mutual friends S and I shared in New York. Saturday morning, S was my waking and daylong thought. The veins in my forehead were sore and protruding from the day before’s crying.

Still, I hadn’t woken up broken — the sun spilling through the window was pleasing like most mornings. Life didn’t seem a bad place to hang around in even after being faced with my worst fear. I was relieved to discover I didn’t want to die.

Either way, S didn’t leave my mind, and I spent the entire day on video calls exchanging S stories, marveling how any conversation about him still led to laughter.

We had stayed together for four years — until I was about twenty-two — and after, remained deeply bonded. My family continued to consider him one of us no matter what part of the world he settled in. He was from Ireland, we lived together in New York, and later, he left for India. He last lived in South America and there, he died of pneumonia in the hospital while surrounded by friends.

“He was so creative, so interesting, so fun, so…skinny,” said my brother. When we were together, S was around twenty and hadn’t yet grown into mannish burliness. He was the very definition of “pretty boy” — stick-figure thin, chiseled, and silky-longhaired like a glam rock frontman.

On each other’s computer screens from the east and west coasts, my brother and I giggled about how our dad would hold up one of S’s arms and “play” the upright bass on his ribs. It was odd and lovely, and S from Ireland who was unused to our overly familiar Middle-Eastern ways, blushed hotly. But ever accommodating, he’d bop his head along to my father’s jazz scatting and rib-strumming.

Saturday night, my friend and creator of spontaneous Indian feasts, was surprised to find she didn’t have to push too hard to convince me “to get out and be with friends for a meal.”

Soon after the toast to friendship, my four friends collectively concluded that while my grieving weekend didn’t count, in general I’d been looking like “shit” — their word. This was preceded by adjectives like unhealthy, malnourished, old, gaunt, and “not like you.” I was confused, not because I had an issue with what they were saying — they were loving people — and not even because they were mistaken, but because of the timing of their misguided concern.

These Los Angeles additions to my inner circle hadn’t known S, and I’d been conscious not to go on too much about him during our dinner, except when there was a natural segue.

Which seemed to be every other subject.

For example, the Indian theme of the evening left it wide open for me to get into S anecdotes from his time in India. Or, the fact that my friends were cooking at all, made it impossible not to tell them how S loved cooking for his friends.

That naturally led to A — my second boyfriend who was also passionate about cooking — and how he had broken down the day before on the phone over S’s death.

I was living with A when S returned to New York from India, and I pretty much forced a friendship on them. They didn’t resist for too long and it stuck. Eventually A and I broke up too, and I moved alone to Los Angeles. But A and S remained friends.

It was not unusual for A to call me in California to affectionately grumble about S putting up his feet on the coffee table that technically belonged to me. We all three knew no such furniture familiarity would ever take place in my presence, which likely prompted S to do all the more in my absence. How could I help but grin and recount the details to my Los Angeles friends?

Beginning with S and A, the handful of people in my circle were beams to my emotional stability. I went through life feeling backed merely because they were in the world, and in turn, whenever they needed me, I’d catch a plane to New York.

My Los Angeles friends were used to my unconventional ways, but unfamiliar with the history of my early exes. It was one thing for me to be close to every one of my exes — who had piled up a bit — but quite another for my exes to be close to one another. So of course, I had to tell my friends the 25-year-old t-shirt story.

It was an ordinary gray t-shirt with red lettering advertising Arturo’s, an Italian eatery in the Village, “est. 1957.” S and I used to share the mussels there, relishing the end when we’d get to dip our bread in the garlicky wine sauce. He already owned the t-shirt when we met, and I began sleeping in it like in any t-shirt I wouldn’t otherwise wear. Later, A inherited it from me.

A was the first person I called when I found out about S. At the end of the call he said, “S, S, I just can’t believe it… I still have his t-shirt!” And then with a chuckle, added, “V’s on the couch wearing it right now!” V is A’s ex. She is younger than S’s t-shirt. And the t-shirt, with faint red dusting now instead of letters, outlived S.

S would be the first to point out all this and deliver it like a quirky punchline.

At the Indian food gathering, I wanted to extend this magnificent, just shy-of-incestuous interconnectivity to my Los Angeles friends.

Maybe I talked about S more than I should have. Maybe it made no sense to celebrate someone with people who didn’t know him. All I knew was, people seemed scared of emotions, so they did everything to keep them at bay.

Was it a coincidence that my friends’ poorly-timed concern for my supposed weight-loss effectively put an end to any more talk of S?

Grief is mysterious. People experience it in different ways. Some hyperventilate, some respond as if told the toaster broke down. But I came to realize that people deal with the grief-stricken in different ways too. Some coddle, others stay away. Each show their own degree of discomfort, and if they didn’t personally know the deceased, they just can’t laugh with you over his charms and quirks. What’s more, they perceive your laughter as awkward grief emotion nobody wants to witness.

I didn’t understand my own grief process any more than I did anyone else’s. Sometimes I forgot for a couple of minutes, so remembering again hit me with that throat-tightening ache, that incredulous gasp for air — it can’t be true. Other times, I didn’t get why I could go about my life and feel hunger or amusement like before.

I also began thinking about how I’d never been one to deny interconnectivity, and how utterly useless resentment was. So I contacted a girlfriend I had a falling out with eight years before who was supposed to have been part of my circle for life.

Any thought and action that I could call lesson, or gift, I credited to S — I needed desperately to feel his impact on me. And I did feel it.

I would’ve thought with my original keystone of support gone, my sense of security would crumble. But it turned out that once someone does for you what S did for me, it was undoable. For me, that meant they themselves are undoable. S was still a reason to be good, a reason to laugh, and he was still my family. And he’d probably want me to eat, same as my Los Angeles friends wanted.

I told my Los Angeles friends that while there was no need for concern over my health, they shouldn’t feel bad for expressing it. I said, “If I have spinach in my teeth, or talk too loudly in public, or need to be called out in any other way, I admire people willing to do it.”

I resisted the urge to add that S had been great at calling me out.

Reading through the chats S and I had over the previous year, I found much stream-of-consciousness S, complete with ribbing about my last boyfriend, with whom of course, I remained close:

Ha, saving him up for a rainy day like your other exes? Hmm. I wonder if I said that to kid you. Not sure myself.

There are two mosquitos in my room right now the size of hummingbirds…

You are loyal in an unusual way. It can confuse people. But not the important ones.

Back in the present with my Los Angles friends, I shook off my momentary disconnect with them, accepting that I wasn’t able to link this world to my New York world — not then anyway.

The rest of our gathering moved along merrily, so that when I left, guilt came over me again that I could even feel merriment.

But as I walked to my car at the end of the night, a coyote stood in the street looking at me — which is not unusual in the hilly parts of Los Angeles — and my tired tears surged. My heart hurt. Looking for comfort, I approached the coyote. He trotted away into the hills, and I threw back my head, weeping, throaty, to the black sky.

There, I saw tiny sparkles of stars splattered all across, and that, is so very unusual for Los Angeles.


Cathartic Monkeyism

  • “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” – Nature Boy
  • Grief is mysterious.

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  1. mike · · Reply

    You are right that everyone reacts differently to death. I never know what to say to somebody who has lost someone. I know you are supposed to say “sorry for your loss” but saying sorry always seems so odd to me (if you weren’t sorry then you would be a pretty poor person) so I am always at a loss as to what to say. So not really knowing the best thing to say I will say that I truly am sorry for your loss.

    1. I used to say “my condolences,” which I can never imagine saying again. There were people who said “I’m sorry for your loss” to me, and I found it kind. Reading it now, a month after the fact, is sincerely touching.

  2. P.J. · · Reply

    Well, sheesh. This is quite the post to be introduced to your blog. Your writing is truly amazing. The details. The memories. The way you intertwine things. This is really amazing. And the best part is you did an amazing piece to an ex, a friend and somebody who seemingly deserved a post like this. Your memories will be key for you, I feel, and this was one excellent way to get some out there.

    On another note, I’m always jealous of people who have these cool inner-circles where they get together for dinners and such. Another reason I need to work my way to a city rather than the sticks, thus hopefully making things like this more possible!

    1. I love this comment! Because it does the intertwining thing you say my post does.

      First of all, thank you.

      Second, I’m on the verge of (good) tears because maybe I did manage to get across a tiny bit of him and who he was (and is to me).

      Inner circles save lives. Haven’t you found it’s possible to foster a lovely virtual circle as well? I mean a sincere one, not just a social media back-and-forth ass-kissing.

  3. bgbowers · · Reply

    Firstly, let me say that I really am sorry for your loss. It’s only when we experience the death of a loved one that we realise the inadequacy of those words, yet, what else can someone possibly say? I think death makes most of us uncomfortable because it leaves us tongue-tied and at a loss for words.

    Secondly, your writing has the same quality as an actor/actress who has ‘presence’. I find it so absorbing, emotive and enlightening. Your description of the coyote encounter was so moving, powerful and cathartic.

    Thirdly, I love your last comment about ‘social media back-and-forth-ass-kissing’…because I recognise that most of this blogging business is about back and forth ass kissing. It’s a superficial, popularity contest. I’ve never had much use for those types of interactions.

    A whole lot of random thoughts…

    Take care of yourself,

    Bianca x

    1. Thank you Bianca, it means quite a lot.

      I think in social media, just like in life, it’s important to foster authentic relationships, and those entail courtesy and reciprocity. We thrive on mutual support. It’s only ass-kissing when it’s merely self-serving and lacking sincerity.

      Best to you, and thanks again.

  4. As someone who has only read three blogs here (as I’m relatively new to your site), I don’t really feel the right to comment after an anecdote like this…I don’t know you; yet I feel like I do—now.

    L.A. is such a lonely town, and must feel even worse when you’re trying to deal with something so unpleasantly real like death. I hope you can find authentic people to comfort you. Sounds like you have a cool family, maybe they can help. God bless.

    1. Thank you for your kind thoughts. If it came across that Los Angeles is anything less than my chosen home at this point, then it’s a flaw in my writing. I love New York and my old life there, but I’ve definitely chosen my not-so-new life in Los angeles, and much of that has to do with the friendships I’ve fostered here over the years.

  5. Wow. What an amazing relationship you had with S. I feel like *I* miss him knowing him through your writing. Absolutely beautiful. Grief is so hard. Like you said, it is different for different people. I didn’t really grieve much for two weeks after my father-in-law’s death, I think because I just couldn’t believe it. But the little things that I’ll miss about him are starting to hit me. And it’s painful. Reality is settling in. Thanks for writing this beautiful post.

    1. It’d be a minor adjustment for the memories of your father-in-law to be a source of joy rather than reminders of what you miss. I think all people want to be remembered, I embrace all the random little moments that pop into my head about S. I want more of them, things that I haven’t thought about in years.

  6. Twist · · Reply

    I’m sorry you had to go through what you did. Can’t imagine the loss. But you’ve seemingly been strong and have battled/are battling through it. So I’m not going to rewind my sincere condolences.
    But I have to ask; have you considered writing a book? Or have I been living under a rock and you already have? Your anecdotes, every blog post in fact, reads like a fascinating chapter. And the people- people like S, seem like those that can be written about.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind thoughts.

      Yes, I think about writing a book, and S. would get many chapters… Thanks for the encouragement, it’s nice to imagine someone besides me might find such stories / anecdotes interesting in book form.

  7. This was so touching and real. I love the tshirt story and the lasting effect this wonderful relationship holds.

    1. Yeah, that t-shirt is something else. There are no red letters left on it. But A. still wears it.

  8. THIS…is the kind of friendship movies are written about. Those stories you want to reach out and grab for yourself if you have never experienced it. I am so happy you found that in your life and to have found it so long and to have kept it…and will keep it. I cried as I read this because I felt your pain and I would have sat with you endless hours listening to you recount memories…

    1. I’m little speechless. I want to say something about him. But nothing is coming out the right way. So I will just say, thank you. Your words are special, and it has made me happy that you still got to know him a tiny bit a year after he’s been gone.

  9. to have found it so “young” Sorry hard to type correctly with tears in your eyes 🙂

  10. For this one, I cannot add a thing – I’m just grateful to have read it, grateful that you had him, grateful people like him exist. Here are the pieces of your writing that especially caressed me:

    …one foot still lingering in childhood…

    …I went through life feeling backed merely because they were in the world…

    …There I saw tiny sparkles of stars splattered all across, and that is so very unusual for Los Angeles…

  11. *chills* So touching. I’m reminded of a friend I lost about 8 years ago. He was viciously murdered. (<< until those two sentences, I've never written one word about his death).

    I could feel your pain. I can't even put into words how much of *you* and S seeped into my pores while reading this.

    Is it too cliché to say I'm sorry for your loss? I hope not. Because I mean it.

    1. Not at all cliché. in fact, I could feel your sincerity and it warmed me. Thank you.

      About your friend… Beth. My god. I can’t even begin to imagine. It’s difficult to think about how harsh the world can be. I’m so sorry.

  12. I spent much of my social work career in the states working with life’s atrocities and part of that was obviously death and dying. I learned a lot about myself, how I handle grief and also how different we all are when it comes that. I also saw how judgmental people can be when it comes to grief. It’s a mysterious and uncomfortable thing.

    I loved the T-shirt story and how those relationships came to be. It says a lot about you and S. I’m sorry that you lost him and it appreciate you sharing a glimpse of him with all of us.

  13. I met someone who works with grieving families and he says, to date, he hasn’t met two people who deal with death or grief the same way.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  14. This is a gorgeous piece… of you. Just gorgeous.

    I’ve been to that place… I think I wore the same clothes for 3 days in a row for my father’s wake. Someone lent me a blouse for the funeral. I couldn’t be in my apartment alone because I just felt him everywhere…it unnerved me.


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