I was sitting on the kitchen floor when I got the text.
“Ashley, this is Sean’s father. We’re sorry to tell you Sean passed away in his sleep last night.”
I stood up, pulled on my boyfriend’s arm, and showed him the text. Sean was a name he knew — he was my ex-boyfriend. I thought of Sean sometimes, but not often. He was the last man I had loved and lived with, but years had passed since we were together, and I was with someone else.
I had already gone through the grieving process — dating, meeting other people, feeling miserable and confused by the prospect of seeing other people, learning to be okay being by myself, before finally meeting someone new. Sean was an ex-boyfriend from what seemed like a completely different era of my life.
My boyfriend didn’t know what to do. Neither did my friends or family. I didn’t want to ask Sean’s father questions, but I told him I was there if he needed me. I still lived in the apartment Sean and I had shared in New York, and I considered going to the funeral in Ohio, where Sean was from and had moved back to when we broke up. I thought about sending flowers, but that seemed hollow. I had no idea how to handle his death.
I remember lying in bed, Sean on my left, when I felt our relationship was over. He touched my arm, and I suddenly felt revolted, like I never wanted this person to touch me again. Our relationship had always been tumultuous — we moved in together within days of meeting, but he could barely hold down a job, sometimes he’d be deliriously happy and shower me with gestures showing his love and devotion, but then wouldn’t come home for days, other times he’d beg me to marry him, insisting we were soulmates. Our whole relationship felt like a series of ups and downs, and the end came like a screeching halt. I couldn’t look him in the eye, I never wanted him to kiss me, and everything he said annoyed me.
After a weekend away with my friends, comparing the fun I had with them to the sheer disgust I felt around him, I knew I needed out. On the roof of our building in South Williamsburg, the same place where he lit candles and had his friend Kelly play the ukulele for me on my 25th birthday, I told him it was over.
Our whole relationship felt like a series of ups and downs, and the end came like a screeching halt.
Our breakup wasn’t neat. Sean continued living with me for months after because he had no other place to go. He didn’t have a job, but promised he would, and that he would save up money and move out. He’d speak so optimistically about this new life he was about to embark on, but then come home drunk or high. He’d tell me about using heroin, and at that point, I was so intolerant to his behavior, so used to his stories, that I took his drug use as a manipulation tactic.
He’d tell me, constantly, that I was the only good thing he’d ever had. I told him I thought he was lying and would say that to any girl he thought might house him and give him money. When his mother finally came to bring him back home to Ohio, he told me he wished we’d had one last night together. I told him that, for the number of harmful things he put in his body, I could never have him near mine again.
It was the end of the summer of 2012 when Sean finally left, and we spoke off and on afterward. I’d sometimes contact him when I found something of his that I thought was important, like his birth certificate or some old pay stubs for taxes. He’d then insist on a life update, and promise he’d be coming back to New York. He’d call me, “kid,” a term of endearment that indicated we were no longer significant to one another but once were. I’d let it slide because I always knew Sean would never get it together enough to come back.
He didn’t. Sean died two years later.
There was very little about him in his obituary. As his father told me, the obituary says that he died in his sleep and that he loved visiting “large American cities.” The description seems empty, barely scratching the surface of how wonderfully expressive, yet broken, he was. I wanted to write to the small Ohio newspaper that published the obituary, and tell them about the day Sean first kissed me, how my body had never been more excited to be around him, how we had climbed to the roof of the hostel our friend worked at, how we screamed at the top of our lungs, staring at the city as it rained.
The moment he looked at you, you knew that you were about to experience a magical moment.
Sean was effusive. Everything about him was a big gesture, or over the top, and people loved him for that. He was magnetic. The moment he looked at you, you knew that you were about to experience a magical moment. At 23, he was the most exciting person I had ever met, and we were both young enough to be swept up by emotions and excitement, and do things like move in together quickly, without reservation.
Sean’s life was a series of moments and experiences that this obituary failed to capture. I wanted to scream as I read it, to tell them they had no idea just how special Sean was. About how Sean taught me everything I know about punk music, how he struggled to quit smoking cigarettes, how he drew pictures of me as I slept soundly next to him. How, a week after we started dating, we decided to try ecstasy together, and right before we took the pills, lying on his mattress on the floor in his (what would later be our) illegal sublet in a high-rise on the Lower East Side, he turned around, looked at me and said, “You know, after we do this, we’re going to be in love.” And how he was right.
When I think about Sean now, I compare him to the other men in my life. Looking back, they seem like blips, barely registering on my radar. Sean will never be a blip, and that may be partially due to the fact that he’s gone. It’s hard for me to decipher. But I look at myself — both physically and emotionally — and wonder if I’d be the girl I am today if it wasn’t for him. My left arm is covered in tattoos, and I remember when I met Sean and that he was the first person I’d ever known with tattoos. That I came home once and found him giving a buddy of his a tattoo in the middle of our living room.
I think about the girl he met: confused after quitting her job as a middle school teacher, working in a coffee shop because it was the only place that would hire her, and how that job blossomed into a career and life in coffee. I think about how I had felt like my life was on a straight and narrow path until I stopped teaching, and realized I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. When I met Sean, I felt like my insides had just been scraped out and there was nothing left inside. Sean helped me find the things I love.
To this day, when I play Richard Hell or the New York Dolls or Patti Smith, I remember that I had no idea who these people were before I met him. I wonder if he’d be proud of me or recognize me. If he’d still love me. If he ever stopped loving me. Because, for everything I felt as our relationship was deteriorating, Sean shaped me and made me the person I am. I didn’t realize this when we were together; my tattoos came years after we broke up and my deep love for punk only emerged recently, but I continue to see parts of him littered throughout my life. I wouldn’t be the girl I am today without him. I’ll never quite get over him because of that.
Perhaps it’s callous of me, but I think a lot about how Sean would be bummed that he died when he was 26.
“Have you ever heard of the 27 Club?” he asked me once, referencing the number of music icons who died when they were 27.
No, I hadn’t.
“I’d like to die when I’m 27,” he said.
We were at a shitty dive bar, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons at three in the afternoon because we had nothing else better to do, following bartenders we vaguely knew hoping they’d comp our drinks. Of all the stories I have about Sean, I’d want his obituary to include this one. I hated it when he said it, but I love it now. It’s like Sean was daring fate, and fate one-upped him by taking him away just a few months shy of this goal. He’d find that tragically cool and romantic, which is what he was. I can imagine him, reading this story about himself, flicking his cigarette, smiling coyly, and giving fate the middle finger.