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