drink your dead. get throwed oft their leaving. the duty of the last.
– Danez Smith, “happy hour”

Beneath the face of anyone you ever loved for true-anyone you love, you will always love, love is not at the mercy of time and it does not recognize death, they are strangers to each other-beneath the face of the beloved, however ancient, ruined, and scarred, is the face of the baby your love once was, and will always be, for you.
– James Baldwin, “Just Above My Head”

The first one I’d been to since yours was for Tobias. 22, a stabbing, case of mistaken identity. The family was devastated. They didn’t have much money so the ceremony itself was bare bones. Really small church, a few sympathy bouquets, what looked like his high school yearbook photo in a wooden frame on a spindly easel. It was open casket. Tobias was in one of those mandarin collar shirts with a top button that looked like a gold cufflink. The makeup they used on him turned his skin to peach icing. His hands rested on his waist, one over the other, peaceful. Seemed he was waiting patiently for something that would never come. 

There were a few dozen people there, not nearly enough to fill all the pews. I sat behind all of them, which still put me relatively close to the front. Towards the end of the service, a woman in a belted black dress and pillbox hat sat next to me, clearly guilty about showing up so late. She told me she was Tobias’ aunt, hadn’t seen him in years and now she felt this urgency to reconnect with all her relatives. She asked how I knew him and, looking ahead at his face on the easel, I said I went to high school with him. That we hadn’t stayed in touch but the news had struck me and I wanted to pay my respects. I know the irony of sitting in the Lord’s house telling strangers lies but I’m not stupid. I know I was being creepy and I couldn’t tell the truth. I didn’t want her to judge me, and I didn’t want to distract any attention from Tobias.  It was his day. When his aunt walked to the front to say her goodbyes, I slid out through the church entrance, figuring that attending the burial would be a touch too far.

When I had lunch with your mom and she asked me how I was coping, I just said I was fine. It didn’t answer her question and it also wasn’t the truth, but she didn’t pry.

Auntie’s always so polite, never digging in other folks’ business even if it would serve her well from time to time. We went to that barbecue joint uptown, the one with the wooden benches and the servers in red plaid aprons. Whole place reeked of smoked meat, soaked into my clothes before the cornbread hit the table. 

To outsiders, Auntie looked normal. Still carried that tacky Michael Kors bag, had on ripped jeans and sneakers and a t-shirt, dressed like someone half her age. But I could see it in her face, she was struggling. She missed you too much to feel anything else.  Couldn’t even manage a smile when she said she was happy to see me. 

She asked if I’d gone through the box of your things yet, and I said I’d get to it, that I’d been busy. 

Ain’t nothing to fear in there, she told me. She didn’t know what she was saying but I nodded at her just the same.

At first, I’d just casually browse the obituaries online. The website for the local paper. (Terrible site, by the way – they really could have used your expertise. You would’ve made that shit pop.) No national deaths; I wanted to learn about the people around me.  And not the personal details, at least not initially. I didn’t care so much about who survived them, where their families were from, what their hobbies were. I cared about how, which sometimes was also why. Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Drunk driving accidents. Suicide, by gun, by pills. Undiagnosed heart conditions. Brain aneurysms. Accidental overdoses. If they were young like you, say under 40, I’d print the page and tack it to the corkboard in my room. Then I’d go down this dark fucking rabbit hole. To figure out the likelihood that those things could happen to me. I’d look up the signs. Did you know an aneurysm could have no symptoms? Like, you could be walking around with this life-threatening condition in your head, this bullet waiting to dislodge at any moment, and not know it. You could have a sudden headache, one of those really acute types, and then be gone. Snuffed in less time than it takes to brush your teeth. After I saw that, every time I had the most minor twinge above my neck, I’d call the doctor swearing it was an aneurysm. I was convinced I had something terminal; some condition would take me prematurely, too. I’d pool together all the irregular feelings, the aches and pains, the occasional stomach upset, one bout of heartburn, and I’d build this narrative about the diagnosis. I didn’t know shit but fear. Fear plus the internet equals hysteria. The doctor would just look at me. He never shared in my panic. Probably sick of folks like me, WebMD junkies thinking all they need is Google to do his job. 

Eventually I realized how unreasonable I was being, the time I was wasting conjuring up my own demise. I was fine. I mean, I ain’t bragging. These love handles have been with me since we were kids, and I won’t give up pizza or soft-baked chocolate chip cookies or marble rye to let them go. But I was fine, as in not dying, as in not needing to max out my deductible seeing my GP, as in probably living a long life save for something vicious and unexpected. My obsession transferred to other people’s health, poor health, that is. Anything I saw online about a death, especially an untimely one, I clicked on it. I couldn’t look away. And still, I couldn’t process those deaths without thinking about my own death, the inevitable deaths of the other people I love. 

This girl from group said writing letters to her deceased people helped when the sadness got too big. It seemed kind of dumb to me, the actual act of writing the letter to a person who’ll never read it and the thought of something intangible imposing on my life like that. I didn’t care for those analogies of sadness or depression as a dark cloud. If anything, they were more like the tiny pieces of glass left behind when you broke something and didn’t clean up the mess well. Hours, days, weeks, months went by and then, out of nowhere, you stepped on an invisible shard and cut your foot open. The pain comes roaring back, just as acute. It’s this obstacle, this very real obstacle, that infuriates, that angers, that empties the tears out. And to think, for all the time preceding that moment, you’d been fine. A fucking dark cloud gives you cover. But that shard piercing the rough skin on the sole of your foot, that shit hurts.

I’ve never considered myself much of a writer, and as you can tell, I’m not too keen on counseling and the all emotional labor it requires. I’m also not good about asking for what I need. I guess, if I have to choose between crying in front of grieving strangers or having a private conversation on paper, even if that paper’s final destination is right here in my notebook, on my desk, I’ll take the latter. Just cause I can’t see you doesn’t mean I can’t tell you things and I definitely got some things to tell you. 

You remember when we went to Vegas that one summer? Both of us realized we hadn’t talked in a minute but we were too busy being men to admit we missed each other. The trip was a reunion, an escape, an open door.

We got there just after sunset. As we rode down the strip in our taxi, all them damn lights from the hotels and clubs, yellow, red, green, flashed so bright my eyes watered. I could see people in the throes of carelessness, that embrace of joy and relaxation and lack of inhibition you can only have when you’re hundreds of miles from home. There was this trio of middle-aged women holding slushy frozen drinks in yard glasses, teetering down the street in young girls’ chunky platform heels. And there was a group of muscled, twenty something white boys, catcalling every woman they passed. My eyes scanned their skinny jeans and tight tees, taking in every detail, maybe looking too closely. I moved my backpack over my lap so you couldn’t see.

Our driver, that African dude in the polo with the palm trees, kept laughing at those guys.

You don’t have to try that hard to get laid here, he said.

You two started talking shit. You always did that, chatting up strangers like you knew them, reveling in small talk. I kept my face turned toward what was out there. Vegas didn’t seem like the kind of place you visited to fix things in your life. It seemed like a city where you could break things, where you could forget, where you could become, where you could outrun. 

When we got to the room, I started pulling looks from my suitcase, itching to let loose. You kicked off your boots and collapsed on the bed. You let out this exhausted sigh; you were a pierced balloon.

Damn, can’t you put all that away tomorrow? you asked me.

I’m not organizing, I’m looking for something to wear, I told you.

Something to wear? Where you going?

Aren’t we going out?

You did that sarcastic chuckle you do, like I was the one being crazy.

You said, I’m beat, man. I’mma sleep, but I got you tomorrow.

I was feeling myself when I stepped out of my Uber. I had on a a short-sleeved button-down and a pair of shorts that left most of my legs exposed. I know you would’ve been uncomfortable if you saw me. I unbuttoned my shirt halfway as I walked into the club, had my chest all out, overdoing it.

The speakers banged with house music, the bass rattling the thin walls. There was a cluster of go-go boys in underwear dancing on a platform in the middle, shoving their crotches in desperate men’s faces until they felt the dollar bills slide into the waistbands of their briefs. As disappointed as I was to be on a trip with you and still be alone, I was happy to take it all in on my terms. I was used to creeping in clubs by myself. No matter how much I worked on you, I know you never would’ve been cool going in with me. I hated you for your fear and loved you for your bullheadedness.

The bar was packed and this thin, tawny-skinned man motioned for me to take his spot as he walked away. Ain’t no such thing as a kind gesture in a club though. He waited for me, like I owed him something. So I went outside with him to talk. His name was Nicolás, said he was tired of running into out-of-towners every week.

I want more than this on Friday nights, he said.

I told him the club didn’t seem like the kind of place where you looked for love. He told me you could find love anywhere, you just couldn’t be the only one looking.

We left together but had the purest damn night. We didn’t have a plan; neither did he – he was working ticket counters at a couple different venues. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to be. We walked past places I’d only seen on TV. Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, the Paris Hotel and that cheesy rendering of the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t talk a lot, just kept each other company.

Even in the middle of the night, that city was sweltering. I mean, it was goddamn oppressive. The more we walked, the wetter my back got, the more my shorts wedged up between my thighs. Nicolás wanted me to go home with him. All I could think about was how sticky I felt, how all that horniness had drifted right out of me. And I thought about how, even if I’d wanted him, I couldn’t have taken him to our room with you in there. And if I was gone all night, and I told you the truth, what would you think of me?

It was silly to worry about your opinion, a grown-ass man sweating his cousin’s judgment like he’s God or something. I knocked out thinking about things we could do the next day. I woke up to the door slamming shut. Your bed was made, military corners and all. Without me telling you, you knew where I’d been, and I knew that this was where the distance had come from, that we didn’t need to travel clear across America because our problem had nothing to do with home. That valley would be there no matter where we went. And worse, I didn’t want to say shit to you about it.

I ordered room service, watched a show on my phone, and texted Nicolás. On my way out, I saw you in the lobby on a slot machine. You didn’t notice me. I let it be and crept past you. Nicolás was waiting for me outside.

Jolie was 41, had stomach cancer, had gone quickly once she was diagnosed. The woman on the cover of the program had the fullest cheeks, a sort of modern bouffant, a radiant glow. The woman laying before us had been robbed of all that, her size, her effervescence. Jolie was an emergency room nurse. I thought about how she’d spent so much time caring for others and how she’d needed that same care in her final days, the people she’d worked alongside becoming the people who soothed her. Some of the folks in attendance were in scrubs, suggesting they’d run back to the hospital after the service, having squeezed in a little sorrow on their lunchbreaks. I don’t know if sadness could be measured, if one funeral’s is weightier than another’s, but something about this felt different, darker. There were tears, so many heads shaking in disbelief, so many audible sobs and sniffling noses. This veil of heartache made it hard to breathe. I didn’t know Jolie, but I knew what it was to miss her. I know it was weird but I felt comforted. I wasn’t the only one who’d curled up with anguish so intimately, you know. But that recognition also made me feel like I was intruding, like yeah, this was the one that would convince me to stop and mind my own damn business.

All this time I’m filling my corkboard with clippings of other folks’ deaths, I got this box sitting in the middle of my living room, this misshapen monument. No labels or nothing. Just a box. There’s a dried water spot in one of the corners, rippled cardboard in the darkened parts. The flaps are folded over one another but it’s not taped shut. And in there, parts of you. Things you did, stuff you liked, reminders of all that you accomplished with your life. I just want all that to stay in my head, cause if I can control what I remember, then it doesn’t have to be real. I can stay suspended in this undefined space where you aren’t gone and you aren’t here. Does that make sense? It’s so much easier to dig into other people’s messes.

I tried once to close my eyes and imagine what it’d be like to die. Not the process of death, not the pain of a car crash or gunshot, nor the slow decay of cancer. I was trying to figure out what I’d see once I was no longer in this world. Would I see that light that people always stare at in the movies? You know, when they almost die and come back and talk about seeing the white light. Or would it just be black? Would I be floating above watching my body and the people who were with me when I left? Would I go to heaven, to hell, nowhere? 

I couldn’t see it, and I don’t think it’s cause I don’t have the imagination. I’m creative, you know that. I think it’s because I never developed a solid belief about death. I’d probably be on more solid footing here if I embraced religion more enthusiastically. Grandpa always used to stress the importance of having a church home, of doing the right things here on Earth to ensure eternal life, all that stuff. Remember how we’d go to church every Sunday, you and I both dressed in matching suits and little bowties? We’d have the kid Bibles but not the patience to try following the sermon. Service used to feel like an eternity, for real, time just stretching and stretching like putty until every minute was basically an hour. I think of all that fondly, but the older I got, the less I identified with it. Everybody at church seemed so focused on purity, following rules, doing this, not doing that. It was about appearing to be a good person, even if you weren’t. It was so fake to me. And all those sermons about the sins of homosexuality? No sir, that record is played out and I can go the rest of my life without hearing it again. Still, I think if I could’ve found an accepting church, ‘cause those exist, or if I tried reading the Bible on my own terms or searching for a religion that really spoke to me, I’d know what was coming next and I’d be less confounded by death. ‘Cause that’s what happens when you don’t know enough about something, when it looms large but reveals nothing about itself. It becomes a full-time job trying to decode it.

When we were kids, anyone threatened me and you had your foot in their ass real quick. But the second I made you look uncool, you let me know; you occupied that precarious space between bully and protector. So what if you thought I was wack or I switched my hips too much or I talked white. I knew when shit went down, you had my back. That always meant more, and maybe that was my problem. I valued your protection over your acceptance. You could say we were just kids, that I’m reading too much into that shit. But the thing is, what we learn as kids becomes habit, then instinct, and when nothing else makes sense, it’s those behaviors we draw on.

One time I remember most was with that kid Timothy Saint. Husky white boy, puffed up with a marshmallow-like thickness and the pride that comes with privilege. He’d been held back twice and should’ve been a sixth grader. He used to shake down those young white boys for their lunch money, scare them into sharing their homework, send them home with black eyes if they didn’t comply. But he didn’t mess with the Black boys, apparently didn’t think we were worth the time. That’s why your friends wanted to get at him so badly.

The mission was to roll up on Timothy Saint’s table during lunch and swipe his chocolate milk carton right from his tray. Y’all had picked me cause we’d been trying to figure out who was the Blackest among us and I’d lost. Couldn’t remember Pam when I was naming all the members of the Cosby family. You, Kwame, and David were making bets about the outcome. Kwame thought I’d get away with it. I was nimble, Saint was sluggish. David thought Saint would show me them hands before I could even turn around. And you, you thought I’d chicken out, let my nerves get the best of me before anything even went down. I didn’t care about the others; it was you I wanted to impress. So, stupid me, I did it.

With my sweaty fists balled up at my sides, I stormed the table. In one swift movement, I unfurled my right fist into a claw and snatched that chocolate milk carton like my life depended on it. Saint’s crew cried out in protest.

Get him, Tim!

Don’t let his Black ass steal your stuff!

I kept moving quickly, almost running, high off my success. But once I reached the cafeteria doors, I realized I hadn’t thought about where to go. Would I take the carton back to you as a trophy? Or run until I could take refuge in a classroom or a bathroom stall?

Thinking proved to be my downfall. I turned around just in time for Saint’s fist to crush into my nose. I grabbed my face in pain. The carton went flying down, chocolate milk pooling under a nearby table.

Dozens of kids rushed over, surrounding us, egging us on.

“Fight!  Fight!  Fight!” they yelled.

Saint shoved me. I pulled my hands away from my nose, nearly fainted at the sight of blood on my palms, runny like paint. 

Kwame and David had climbed atop a table just next to us. Kwame punched the air like a boxing coach, attempting to give me a playbook for survival, like it was ever a possibility that I’d defend myself. Saint inched toward me, closing in, trying to intimidate me. But then you came and showed him why that day wouldn’t be the first day he’d start picking on the Black boys. You beat his ass in my name, the sound of your fist against his cheek skin like a baseball crashing into a pack of bologna. I felt so proud to be your cousin in that moment.

The mania didn’t last long. One of the lunchroom monitors blew her whistle and everyone dispersed before she could get there. I cowered and followed you back to our table. Kwame and David were hyping you up; I joined in. It was a fucking moment.

But then you said, “I’mma teach your faggot ass to fight so next time I don’t have to save you. Don’t want these white boys getting the wrong idea about you.”

The others echoed you. I laughed it off, schoolboy teasing. I didn’t know what to make of it. You put yourself on the line for me, not because we were blood or because mine had been spilled, but because my masculinity was under threat. Others’ perception of me mattered more to you than my safety. I started to value it, too.  I know, I know, we were just kids. You didn’t know what you were doing. That was shit you’d learned to; you could feign manliness in your sleep. But the problem wasn’t that we’d learned it; it was that we couldn’t unlearn it. And in not being able to unlearn that, I had the hardest time learning to love me.

I was reading this op-ed about how Black men struggle with vulnerability in each other’s presence. The writer was on the phone with his mentee. When he starting weeping during the conversation, the writer let him. “I gave him room as best I could,” he wrote. Maybe that’s what I was always searching for from you, for you to give me room. You showed me you loved me in so many other ways except in the way it mattered most.

There was Yvette, a volunteer firefighter caught in a building collapse, 52. Arvin, 13, a freak elevator accident, really gruesome shit like something in a horror movie. Josephina, unexplained heart failure, 31.

I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was doing. I mean, I live alone so I don’t have anyone to answer to. I don’t have to account for my time or my feelings or my interests. I can be who I am, let all my shit hang out. But still, I felt a responsibility to guard my secrets, to hide. I wanted to remain ambivalent about my new pastime, spare myself other people’s inputs. I wanted to hide, from who I didn’t know. Whose judgment did I fear? Maybe yours? Cause what you’d thought of me always carried so much weight, even if I was the one filling in the blanks. Maybe I knew no one would get it, not even you, despite it all happening because of you.

I told myself I wouldn’t go to another one. Whatever I was looking for, I wouldn’t find it tucked inside other people’s grief. And whatever I was running from would eventually catch me no matter where I hid. This was about six months after you left. A reminder popped up on my phone about our tickets for that Kanye concert at Barclays. I knew I could sell them for something ridiculous, use the cash to treat myself to a nice dinner or whatever. But it felt blasphemous, like you’d still want me to go and enjoy myself. It’s probably not all that important in the grand scheme of my life, but it felt significant then. That shit was canceled though, and it wasn’t rescheduled, so I never had to make the choice. I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of going and enjoying it without you or the regret of denying myself joy as tribute to you.

Though going to that concert would’ve given me something else to do besides read obits. For a few hours at least, standing in that stadium and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, shouting the lyrics to “All Falls Down” and “Mercy”, I could’ve gotten lost in the kind of thoughts that made me remember the bright parts of life, even if all I did was crawl back into its dark corners immediately after. 

Walking into my apartment after another one, Josephine’s, the first thing I saw was your box. A sign. Let those other people worry about their sadness and you handle your own, it seemed to say to me. But still I left it there. And I didn’t listen.

The longer I thought about all these people in the obits, I started to see them as more than strangers. They weren’t unfortunate randos. They were acquaintances. People who could’ve been my friends if I’d known them. Well, I only started thinking like that once I dug into their histories. Records of where they lived, the people they loved, where they worked, photos of how they spent their time. It’s amazing what you can find online about people you’ve never met. Yeah, the need for privacy and all that. But the fact that people are willing to give up so much of themselves without regard for who takes each piece, it worked to my advantage. It started to feel like I knew them, like they’d been a part of my life, too, like I was entitled to grieve them. I felt this responsibility to make sure they weren’t forgotten. Silly, I know. They had family and friends and coworkers and whoever else. The fact that someone had taken the time to write about them and try to sum up their whole life in a few pithy paragraphs meant they were already seared in people’s memories. I wasn’t thinking this clearly though. I wanted to see what they looked like, what trees they hadn’t fallen far from. I was an amateur journalist; my beat was death.

I was doing this shit at work, mind you. Right there at the front desk of the gallery like I didn’t have more important things to get done. I don’t feel all that bad though. We’re still a new gallery. The operations are a mess, a real clusterfuck. And the job isn’t rocket science; answer phones, take notes, schedule meetings, walk prospective buyers through, the few who come in anyway. Working in a gallery is just like it looks on TV. Boring. Anyway, at work I had time to connect dots, look up the locations of funerals, build narratives, nurse the audacity necessary to insert myself into them. Feed more darkness to the fiend inside my chest cavity. Dark shit.

Gerald, heart attack, 57. I shouldn’t have thought this but looking at him, at his pictures, at his body up there at the front of the funeral home, it was clear he wasn’t in good health, his belly round and bloated like a beach ball. People seemed sad but not surprised. Back to comparing grief, this one had a lighter shade, the sort that went down easy.

I sat in the back, my usual spot, so it was easy to leave when the ceremony opened up to the people who belonged there. A man, really thin, in this exquisitely tailored black suit, sat next to me. We didn’t look at each other, at first. We just sat there quiet, minding a funeral the way you’re supposed to. But then he called my name. I turned to face him and it was Casey Levin, one of the clients of the gallery. There haven’t been many so it’s easy to remember them; these art-buying types like to linger and run their mouths. 

I didn’t know you knew Gerald, he said. 

For a moment, I thought about telling him the truth, that I was just obsessed with anyone’s death, that I was a funeral peeping Tom, that Gerald’s death was just as inconsequential as any other stranger’s. I could finally just get it out. But I didn’t say none of that. I told him we had mutual friends, that I’d been in the same room with him enough to feel that I should bid him farewell. Casey seemed to take this at face value.

Still, this was the one that did it for me, that convinced me to stop meddling. Sorrow isn’t something to be fucked with, ‘cause eventually it fucks with you. One life is sad enough without stocking up pieces of other people’s misery. What these people were going through was already impossible. What right did I have to taint it? How would I have felt if someone had done that to you?

I moved the box to the living room. Baby steps. I could feel the bottom flaps loosening as I carried it. It wouldn’t hold, it wouldn’t wait for me. My emotions could come and go on my schedule, but nothing else in the world would work that way. Everything would just keep going, the earth would keep spinning, days would keep getting light and dark. All of it and everyone would keep moving, and it was my choice whether I wanted to go forward or stay where I was.

It was around then that the gallery started to fall on hard times. The vibe I got from my boss was that I needed to prove why I should stay on. Costs would be cut and I was one of them. For months I’d thought I’d gone unnoticed, that what I did during the day had little bearing on the gallery’s success, that no one cared. And I hadn’t told anyone at work about you.  I didn’t want the sympathy, the pitying looks. Besides, people never seem to take it seriously when you lose someone who isn’t a parent or a sibling, like a death is less important if the branch extends too far from the stump of the family tree. If I was let go, I wasn’t sure that would be a bad thing. It wasn’t my calling; the job couldn’t even hold my interest for an eight-hour shift. Maybe I needed my boss to kick me in the ass. Maybe I needed life to kick me in the ass. Was that what losing you was meant to do? Scare me into chasing my passions without regret, realize that life was too short to be unhappy and all that other saccharine, Pinterest quote bullshit?


I went home that same day, after learning that my job was on the line, and I opened the box. I sat on the living room floor, threw the flaps open. I winced, leaned back at first, like I was expecting something to jump out. Nothing did, obviously. But there you were. In the photos of us with our parents at the Lincoln Memorial. In the watercolor paintings we made in kindergarten. In the spelling bee plaques from your district and regional wins. In the scarves and gloves, in their musky smell that had somehow survived all this time. I didn’t cry. I just remembered. And then, for a moment, breath left me, ‘cause I realized this was all I had left of you. Then I was mad, cause what did Auntie think I was supposed to do with this shit? Build a shrine to you? You were my cousin and my best friend, but you weren’t a god. Then I was mad at you for not taking better care of yourself, for not going to the doctor the first time you thought something was off, for not keeping up your check-ups. It was your fault, it was preventable. A couple trips to your primary care physician, more vegetables on your plate, and I’d still have you, not your remnants.

I asked Auntie if she wanted anything from the box. She told me to keep it all, to just put it somewhere it’d be safe. I had half a mind to throw the whole thing out and just be done with it. Still, I heeded her and pushed it into the back of my bedroom closet. It took me all that time to open it. There was no rush to figure out what came next.

Next time I went into work, there was a funeral letting out just a few doors down from the gallery. It wasn’t a funeral home; it was some kind of event space. These people must have had money. I stepped into the street between a couple parked cars to watch them. Out of respect, but also out of curiosity, because, you know. It was strange being there, witnessing them crying and having no idea who they were mourning. But then I started crying, too, the first time I’d done so since you left. I had no choice but to draw from my own pain then. For once, I wasn’t intruding. I was communing.

I locked eyes with a woman about my age. Both of us sniffled, had wet cheeks. She tried to muster a smile to be polite. I wanted to tell her she didn’t have to do that. She didn’t owe me anything. I wanted to tell her how much I missed you, how unfair it was that we had to endure loss of anyone, of any kind. I wanted to tell her that everything would be okay eventually though I had no basis to believe that.  I didn’t say anything though. I didn’t even return her smile. I rushed off to the gallery. All that public grief and suddenly I wanted privacy. I still had a few moments before the boss showed up, just enough time to stop the tears, make sure my eyes weren’t red, erase any indication of sadness. I had a job to keep.

Couple days before your funeral, Auntie asked me if I’d written anything. A bunch of us were crowded into Grandpa’s house. I thought the place would burst at the seams, literally. Everywhere I looked in the living room – dusty tchotchkes, piles of old newspaper. The smell of days-old frying oil hung in the air. Grandpa probably had a lot of things on his mind then, burying one of his grandbabies, but keeping that house in good working order wasn’t one of them.

I told her I hadn’t, that I just wanted to get through the service, toss the dirt on your casket, and go home. I felt like that’s what you would’ve wanted. More action, less fuss.

Why you always do that? she asked me.

Do what?

Always try to be so tough.

I shrugged. There was something about being questioned by Auntie that made me feel like a kid again.

He’s gone, she said. She was matter-of-fact, looking at my eyes so hard she could see my soul. You don’t have to keep acting hard for him.

It was like she’d always known what it was like for me, when I was around you. I thought, at first, that she was telling me to forget you already. Cause if I changed up how I was in response to you being gone, wasn’t that what I was doing? But the more I thought about it, that’s not what she was doing. Maybe, by shifting my view of myself and being different, that was the ultimate acknowledgment of you, of how big your presence was in my life. Even as adults, your opinion, your joy, your disapproval was my guiding light, and to move in a different direction now, whether it be a wayward one or a right one, was a testament to you. Left or right, I was traveling on tracks that you’d laid.

Auntie said not to run from this shit because it would catch up with me. I didn’t tell her, but I don’t mind the running so much; I like how the wind feels on my back.

I nodded at her, told her I’d think about it. But what I ended up thinking about wasn’t no eulogy, it was the last text exchange between us. You’d asked me if I’d been laid up with anybody. You caught me off guard. We never really talked about the dudes I was dating, at least not like that. I always thought the less you knew, the happier you’d be.

Me: ain’t nobody important
You: they’re taking up any of your time, they’re important, even if it’s just for a minute

I’d been talking to that guy from Vegas still, for a while. It was long distance, and what good is long distance. Wasn’t much difference from one of those reality shows except I knew I wasn’t being catfished cause I’d seen the dude in the flesh. I was ambivalent about him and I didn’t want to waste time traveling down that road if it didn’t pan out. Maybe it was just me, I’d built up this version of you that was all stereotypical alpha male. My own insecurity kept me from showing you my whole self. You loomed large in life, too, always too much and not enough. I didn’t speak at the service, went with my gut. But those texts stayed in mind. If I could’ve said anything to you before you left, it just would’ve been the truth.

Me: I’ll tell you when it matters
You: all of it matters. Eventually…

Jefferey Spivey is a Des Moines, Iowa-based author and copywriter. His forthcoming short story collection, The Birthright of Sons, won the 2023 Iron Horse Book Prize. He was also a 2022 de Groot Foundation “Courage To Write” grant recipient. His short stories have appeared in A Gathering of the Tribes, Typehouse, decomp, and Havik.