I was asleep the first time Anthony Bourdain broke my heart.
We met in a dream of mine. It was set in a Sleep-No-More-style haunted house, although there wasn’t anything particularly frightening about this one. It was a series of connected rooms with high tables and stools in the corners, dungeon cafeterias minus the hot-bar line, absent of any performance, a chill lingering like mist. The rooms were barren, made entirely of dark-paneled wood with burnished silver accents. I was winding my way through the maze and then there he was, the attraction, a ghostly star, perched at one of the identical tables in one of the identical rooms. A cold breeze drifted through and I wasn’t wearing layers. I shivered. He was outfitted in his usual: worn-in leather jacket, light-wash jeans, scuffed Clarks. Elbow on table, chin in hand. Eyes somewhere else, distant. Skin sallow, hair luminous. He hadn’t been waiting for me.
Of course I couldn’t resist; I walked right up to him. I’ve had enough near-encounters in my life that I wasn’t going to let this one, this most important of ones, slip. I tapped his shoulder, slick in supple pebbled leather. He didn’t turn to me.
I called him Tony and I told him how much he meant to me. I told him every step I took was only because he’d done it first. I told him I like that he writes the way he talks. That one’s really important to me.
I talked at him while he stared at the wall. I finally ran out of steam, reading the room, eloquence muddling into rambling, ending with something along the lines of “You’re my hero.” I cringed, and with that, a slight smirk tugged at his mouth. A slow blink revealed a sideways glance in my direction, and the smirk widened. We locked eyes, he looked me up and down. I felt a cartoon-character gulp lodge in my throat as I waited. All of a sudden I was sick to my stomach. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
He pushed up from the table, not breaking my gaze. I don’t remember what he said to me; I only remember the feeling. Worthlessness.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
I was in the air the second time Anthony Bourdain broke my heart.
I was getting off a tiny plane from the British Virgin Islands at the San Juan airport when I heard the news. I’d spent my entire trip, a luxurious yachting excursion with journalists and marketing executives on the Caribbean, perched on the bow of the boat, alone, headphones in, thinking about Anthony Bourdain. There was something about open seas, about the drama of the relentless sun and the lapping of the night’s unforgiving darkness, that was connecting me to Tony. I had an acoustic Elvis song in my headphones on repeat, and I was thinking of the tragedy of it all. I was feeling the weight of loneliness.
I had just stepped onto the tarmac to retrieve my suitcase from the impossibly small aircraft when a man next to me said to another passenger, “Dude. You know Anthony Bourdain?” My ears perked up. I loved telling people I know Anthony Bourdain. “He’s dead.”
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t have time to believe him. I was late for my connecting flight, and I had to make it through customs and then through security and then to the other end of the terminal. It was only after I shoved myself into my window seat that I read the headline on my phone. He’d just been there, with me — I didn’t understand. I cried as we took off. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
Everyone writes about how Bourdain opened their eyes. How he didn’t just meet people; he knew them. How he didn’t just eat food; he knew it. He wasn’t looking for anything and yet he was actively seeking everything. He wasn’t cliche or touristy or hipster or reverential. Everyone writes about what Bourdain taught them. How to travel, how to talk to people, how to eat. Yes, Tony influences our itineraries and our deli orders. Yes, Tony realized quickly into No Reservations that the story lay far beyond the dish in front of him, that the story lay in the complications and the problems and the points of intersection. But we can walk into any restaurant in any corner of the world and claim to know what Tony has taught us.
What about beyond that, though? Tony wasn’t teaching us how to spend our layover, damnit. Tony wasn’t teaching us to go to Vietnam! Tony wasn’t teaching us that you can learn about a person through the food they make. Tony was daring us. I dare you to look closer. I dare you to try harder. I dare you to go farther.
Tony broke my heart in my dream because he was allowed to. Tony, to me, held so much meaning in that I wanted to be him, I wanted to know him, I wanted to see the world through his eyes because I thought, somehow, I would understand. I fancied us kindred spirits. I assumed, as fact, that someday our paths would cross. In doing so, I was terrified of his disapproval. But here’s the thing: Tony was a human. He was not a god — he was a person. He did not have to validate my existence, my work, my love for him. He spouted condemnation for many things I loved: hipsters, avocado toast, good coffee. We probably would not have gotten along, at least at first encounter. All those things I was saying to him, in my dream, calling him my hero — those were the wrong things to say. He was a human, he was a person, he was not a god, he was not a hero. He did not teach me that getting down to the core of a person meant hunching over a plastic table of noodle soup. He did not teach me that you won’t get to know a place by just visiting its landmarks. I knew those things already. So did you.
What I should’ve said to him, what I wish I could say to him now, on this Bourdain Day or on every single other day that I spend thinking of him — I’m lonely, too, Tony. It hurts. Carrying the weight of yourself is enough and you carry the weight of too many; I can’t imagine how much that aches. Sometimes it hurts to fight the demons. So we don’t. I understand. You’re not my hero. You don’t have to save the day. But I understand — I understand why you got tired of living in yourself.
A lot of shit happened to me right after I spent a week on the bow of that yacht in the Caribbean, Tony dying not even included. I want to bottle that feeling I had, on the water, ruminating on Tony with Elvis in my ears, right on the edge it all. It felt like saltwater melancholy and heartbreak on the horizon. It felt like a storm brewing.
I’m still here. But, god, Tony, I feel it — there was some magnetism in that water that made me think of what it would all be like if it were just over. Easier. I imagine if I’d jumped into the sea and never resurfaced, ahead of all that lay before me. Escaped it all. Here I am, bookending the worst year of my life, and I’m still thinking about it. Every day, everything hurts. And yet every day that I’m still here, I realize it more and more — that’s what Tony taught me. Life is fucking hard. And that’s where you find your story.
Thank you, Tony, for yours.