My sister was hesitant to deliver the news. “Is there someplace where you can pull over?” she said.
“I’m stopped at a red light. What is it? Just tell me.”
When she found out, she was blindsided with grief. She worried I would be, too.
The first image that came to my mind was James and his sister, Samantha. He would’ve been 11 at the time, while Samantha would’ve been 9, the same ages as my sister and me. My family had just moved into the neighborhood. We were playing in the front yard when James and Samantha rode by on their bicycles, slowing to get a closer look at us. At that age, friendships were like arranged marriages. Our parents bought a house and we sought out the kids closest by.
Later, I recalled the last time I saw James, at his sister’s wedding. He was the DJ. I was annoying him with song requests – not my intention, at least not at first, but when I saw how irritated he was getting, I put pressure on him to play every Madonna song I could think of. We were in our mid-20s. As much as we may have wanted to cling to our past, we were headed in different directions.
Then I thought of his mom and dad, who were there to see him take his very first and, 40 years later, final breaths, like a decades long project that had, abruptly, concluded.
In the last year of his life, James signed up for Twitter. He was fearlessly candid, treating his Twitter feed like a diary. I didn’t discover it until after he was gone – a gift from beyond the grave, a final conversation with an old friend.
Thanks to Twitter, I now know James’ real name was Jamie. He changed it to James in the second grade, after catching shit for having a “girl’s” name. Before he died, he told his family he was changing it back. And he changed his pronouns from he/him to they/them.
On June 1st – 3 months, 18 days before their death – Jamie said they felt like they were, for the first time in their life, able to be a part of Pride month. They credited their therapist for helping them reach this milestone.
Jamie also celebrated international asexual awareness week, in October, 11 months prior to their death. In the same post, they confessed to having a low libido and said they did not “try masturbation” until they were 18.
In high school, one of our mutual friends routinely stayed up all night, practicing. He kept a running tally of how many times he could finish and was constantly trying to beat his personal best.
When I was a teenager, I suspected the reason I needed glasses was because I’d ruined my eyesight after spending so many hours squinting at the sleeve of my Woodstock ’94 CD that featured an aerial shot of the crowd – each person so small they could’ve fit on the head of a thumbtack. I’m nearly certain some of the girls were topless.
Jamie, not so wholly consumed, had a wisdom the rest of us lacked. I once fancied myself the leader of our little crew of misfits. But, looking back, I believe Jamie to be the real leader.
Jamie was living with their parents at the time of their death. They had the top floor of the house to themselves and would go days without seeing anyone. There are multiple tweets in which they reference their hypersensitivity to light. They posted a picture of their favorite lamp but said it was merely ornamental.
They had a phobia of mirrors and would go long periods without seeing their reflection. This was due, in part, to their body dysmorphia. On June 25th – 85 days until their death – they wrote:
I like my body in terms of proportions. I like my big hands. I like being lanky. I don’t mind being hairy. But I don’t like being nearly 6’1”. I guess my body dysmorphia is being too big. I wish I was like 5’8”.
Perhaps, had they existed in a well-lit space, with mirrors, they would’ve noticed, in their final days, their complexion was taking on a yellow hue, as they were going into liver failure. Or, had they been living a less isolated existence, someone else might’ve noticed.
The cause of their isolation was COVID-19. Years prior, they spent three weeks in the hospital with a blood clot in their stomach. Blood clots were one of the comorbidities. They were convinced, had they caught the virus, they wouldn’t have survived.
On their last Mother’s Day – 4 months, 9 days until to their death – they were not yet fully vaccinated. They woke up at 6am and cooked a Mother’s Day feast for their fully vaccinated family members to enjoy without them. They prepared foods which could be easily reheated, so the mothers in their life wouldn’t have to go to any trouble.
Jamie had a lifelong devotion to art. Mostly, they drew comic book characters. Dark, androgynous figures. Often, vampires. I always suspected their drawings were autobiographical. On May 28th – with little more than 3 months left – they confirmed this:
Anyone else think, “I’m going to separate myself into three people in a weird complicated semi-romantic relationship then draw them”?
It was accompanied by a series of portraits:
A young person in a black baby doll dress with a Peter Pan collar. Not a boy or a girl. Their clenched fists held up like a boxer. A black eye. A line of blood trickling from the side of their mouth.
A man and a woman, named Skip and Susan. Skip an operatic character in a Victorian era suit. His shoulder length hair parted down the middle. Dark skinned and standing behind Susan. His arms locked around her midsection in a calming restraint. His fingers covered in bandages.
Susan is attractively built. She’s wearing a blouse, which is halfway unbuttoned, revealing her bra. She has vampire fangs. They are dripping blood.
They were convinced their blood was trying to kill them. Three months, 16 days until their death:
Ads telling me to donate blood really bum me out because I have bad blood no one can use.
Reading their final tweets, I try and piece together exactly what went wrong. I tell myself it’s a search for closure. But, really, it’s a selfish attempt at distancing myself from my own mortality.
They said they had an unusually high pain tolerance, which meant they sometimes didn’t notice injuries or health problems. Unlike them, I don’t have a high pain tolerance. I am fully aware of when I am injured or sick!
They’d been taking medication to thin their blood. They tweeted about finding blood stains in their bed. If I found bloodstains in my bed I would call a doctor, especially if I were taking a blood thinner. Not Jaime!
Their final tweet was on September 8th, 10 days until their death:
I haven’t been sick (aside from allergies and migraines) since the start of 2020 lockdown.
I forgot that since I was hospitalized, I start panicking. Like I’m worried my organs are failing right now.
When I read about a celebrity dying while engaged in some act of lunacy – a skydiving accident or wrapping their Ferrari around a telephone pole – it’s easy for me to distance myself. But when an old friend dies in their bedroom, doing nothing riskier than writing their health problems off as mere anxiety, it’s not so easy.
The other night, they dropped into my dream. I stepped into a room and there they were, in a pair of black skinny jeans and a dress shirt, Ray Bans sticking out their front pocket. They were playing Mario
Kart with their sister. They took their eyes off the game for the briefest moment, to say hello. It was such a casual greeting, like no time had passed since we’d last seen each other.
In one of their last tweets, they shared a video of their cat, Nero:
I physically feel like shit. I mentally feel like shit and the world is nosediving into a literal, not hyperbolic, apocalypse.
So here’s a short video of Nero playing when he was about 2/3 grown. It cheered me up.
Had I stumbled upon their Twitter page just a week earlier, I could’ve used the comments section to tell them I was sorry they were feeling down. I could’ve thanked them for sharing the video of Nero, told them it cheered me up, too. I could’ve shared a photo of my cats. Poked fun at the two of us for being such proud cat parents.
Had it been just a week earlier, it could’ve been that simple.
Jaime Basom Seaman II was an artist, freelance illustrator and designer. They left this world on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 at the young age of 40. Their twitter page can be found at: https://twitter.com/
Michael Cuglietta’s work has appeared in NOON, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. He is the author of the fiction chapbooks Vertigo (Gertrude Press, 2014) and Clams in White Wine (Paper Nautilus, 2018). He can be found at www.michaelcuglietta.com