I am writing this because I loved you I am writing because I love you I am writing because I love you so much it hurts.
Reuben and I danced. Around each other, mostly. We only actually dance-danced together once, the two of us, silly shaking and smiling and side-stepping, me flipping my hair and him grinning ear to ear, all gangly limbs operating in disharmonious loops that, miraculously, managed to join together to create a moving, dancing, grooving machine. A Seurat painting. You know? Like how when you look up close, all you can see are those weird dots and splotches of paint and nothing seems like anything, but when you step further away, you don’t see a mess. You see something complete and beautiful. That was Reuben dancing. That was Reuben.
We met, him cracking wise in my ear, distracting me from that rehearsal. We all went out for drinks. Ginger ale for both, except mine had whiskey in it. He waited all night before mentioning the girlfriend. A part of me felt a pang. For the best. I thought. No more actors, I thought, a promise I make to myself every year and break twice as often. No more actors. It’s for the best.
We hugged whenever we saw each other, which was often enough that we became friends. We met for pizza and a show. He sprinkled Parmesan cheese on the slice and mentioned the lack of a girlfriend, his recent heartbreak. A part of me felt a pang. Timing’s not right, I thought. I had just started seeing someone else, another actor, another broken promise to myself. Timing’s not right. Reuben’s just a friend. It’s for the best.
Here’s how we danced. I was standing at the bar, trying to wave down someone to grab me a beer, when Reuben sidled up next to me, holding a ginger ale, five miles too tall and smirking like he had a secret.
“Listen, I have an idea,” he whispered in my ear, that North Carolina drawl elongating every word. “It’s just an idea, so – go with me on this, okay? Okay. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to just stand here, like – so – and I’m just gonna – stretch—my arm – out a little.” Whereupon he yawned, stretched that one big arm over the top of his head, and brought it to rest on my shoulder. “Because the thing is, Miss Fritz, that you are an excellent resting height for this here tired arm.”
“I am,” I said.
“So here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna rest my arm here for one minute. And for this one minute, and just this one minute only, I’m gonna rest my arm here and just pretend that you were my girlfriend.”
I looked at him. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“I’ll give you thirty seconds,” I said.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
For thirty seconds, that’s exactly what we did. He rested his arm on my shoulder and we both pretended I was his girlfriend. Not really, though, because once those thirty seconds were up, we were as goofy and silly and friendly as we’d ever been, like it had never happened. He started dating Liz a week later. I was happy for him. That timing felt right.
Here’s what you should know about Reuben. He was smart. He was funny. He was handsome and tall and secretly nerdy and a talented actor and an even more talented comedian, though he never saw himself that way. He rode a motorcycle, and he laughed with his whole body, bending over at the waist and shaking his shoulders like the weight of the joke was riding on his back.
Oh. And Reuben was black.
In case that matters.
When my phone rang and I saw he was calling, I almost didn’t pick up, because he had asked me for some dumb favor earlier that week and I was trying to avoid him. I changed my mind on the last ring.
“Miss Fritz, I have three questions for you, and the answers to all three are, uhhh, well, predicated upon your answer to the first.” That’s really how he talked sometimes.
“Shoot,” I said.
“Well. Number one. Are you, by any chance, and I will not judge you if the answer is no –are you, by any chance, watching the presidential debate this evening?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good,” he said, “Because I was lying. I ab-so-lutely would have judged you if you said no. Okay. This is good. Question number two – “
“Dude, do you want to come over and watch at my place?” I said.
“Miss Fritz. I cannot believe. You just anticipated my steps 2 through 4. Yes. I DO want to watch the debate at your place. Do you like hummus? I’m gonna bring you some hummus. That’s step five.”
He called back ten minutes later.
“Ahhhhhhhhh. Alright,” he said.
“Well. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh. Now, listen, this is important, because I need to make sure this part is absolutely clear, you should know that I think you are a wonderful human being, and, ahhhhh, just lovely and generous and, and, uhhhhh, well, okay, the thing is – the THING IS – that, I, uh, maybe, okay, called some other people before I called you and then they all just called me back, and, ahhhhh, I, uh, theoretically, maybe, just invited them all to your house without asking you first.”
“That’s awesome,” I said.
“You, Miss Fritz, are dope. I’m gonna get more hummus.”
We watched the debates that night, Reuben jumping out of his seat like he was a frenzied football fan, fist-pumping and cheering as Obama crushed it. You remember that second debate? The one where Obama walked in, all proud and tough and I’m gonna win this thing, the one where Candy Crowley got sassy and where we all shook our heads at that “binders full of women” moment. We ate all the snacks and hung out afterwards, Jake and Mary and Reuben bullshitting around, fake-debating each other, using the remote as a microphone, making me laugh until I cried, actual tears, the kind that only happen when you laugh so hard your stomach hurts. I took a picture with my phone, this blurry, crappy cell phone picture. I almost never do that. I did that night, though. Reuben holding the wii-mote, making me laugh until my stomach hurt.
Jake and Mary went home and I made some tea and Reuben hung out on my couch until almost three in the morning. We talked Star Wars and we talked Neil DeGrasse Tyson and we talked race relations in America and we talked about how everyone’s family has their shit. We talked about girls. We talked about loneliness. We talked about uncertainty. We talked about wanting more for ourselves. We talked about not knowing what we really wanted at all.
“’Night, Reu,” I said, sleepy, as I shut the door. We’d hugged in my foyer. He gave such good, full-body, pick-you-off-your-feet hugs. The kind that made me feel small and warm and safe.
“’Night, Fritz,” he said, as he put on his helmet, those words just barely crawling through the door as I closed it, turned the lock, shuffled upstairs to bed.
That was the last time I ever saw him and I still can’t believe I didn’t end with “I love you.” I hope he knows that it is what I really meant to say.
I’m sitting here typing this on my couch, in the same spot where one year and seventeen days ago he sat, and I hope he knows that when I said goodnight what I meant to say was I love you.
When I got that phone call, all I could think about was how the story must be wrong. There was no way that he was gone. There was no way he could have crashed. Reuben didn’t drink. Reuben didn’t speed. Reuben was smart. Reuben was careful. The timing couldn’t have been that bad, been so irreversibly bad. Reuben’s not gone.
Reuben can’t be gone. I didn’t believe it then, and I almost still don’t believe it now, not even after the night we spent huddled together drinking and whispering in the offices, not after the night we spent on the living room floor, listening to his favorite music, trying to make each other laugh, trying to do anything other than pretend everything was normal, pretend everything was okay, pretend not to notice when someone would start to cry. I don’t believe it still, not after the footage on the news, not after seeing his family in a grim and unyielding line in that room filled with flowers, not after seeing his body and his sneakers and his face, waxy and unmoving, the only time I’d ever really seen him hold still.
I didn’t believe it at the memorial a month later, when everyone sang and everyone told stories and everyone laughed, finally laughed, finally held one another and laughed and cried and clapped and sang along and remembered how to celebrate. I didn’t really believe it then. I don’t really believe it now.
But he’s gone. He is gone. He was thirty-one and he should have turned thirty-two and then thirty-three and then forty-three and then eighty-three, but he can’t, because he isn’t here any more and that kills every part of me, because it doesn’t seem fair that someone like that could just be gone. But he is. He’s been gone and he will be gone and it’s been one year and I’m still empty sometimes and he’s really gone.
I didn’t believe it the night I kicked over that construction sign. The night when I was so angry that I couldn’t do anything else and so the only thing to do was kick and punch and hurt something and so I kicked – like a Chuck Norris kick, with my winter boots – I kicked that stupid orange metal sign into the construction site, clang-clang-clang-clang, and I kicked the tree, and I scratched my nails into my arms and I yelled, because I didn’t know what else to do, and it wasn’t fair, and it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair that he is gone.
He has been gone for one year, and so we met last night, we gathered, one year later. We told stories, and we sang songs, and we saw his parents and his brother and his family again, and we ate food and we drank ginger ale and we danced and we went home. We cling to each other in a different way than we did one year ago. A year ago, the pain was so immediate and so real that we grasped for each other like lifelines, grabbing at our skin and our clothes, trying and failing to put words to that indescribable painful something, holding each other close so we didn’t have to.
It has been a year, and we don’t cling to each other the same way. A year changes things. You wake up one day and you don’t notice that the hole that has been gaping and open in your chest has healed itself, stitched itself back together in jagged patches. You only notice on the days where suddenly, with no warning, you are wrenched from the daily routine of your life, a memory or a smell or a place reminding you that he really is gone, and the wind whooshes in through the cracks and you remember that you are broken, you remember that some things never totally heal.
I am writing this because I loved you. I am writing this because I still do. I am writing this because the wind still blows through my cracks sometimes, and you are there but you are not there, and I miss you. I am writing this because it has been a year and it cannot possibly have been a year. I am writing this because I loved you, and I love you, and I love you.