Do you know that I love you?
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Jimmy started off as a childhood friend, just another player on my brother’s baseball team. He had small, squinty eyes and rounded cheeks, dimples, dark hair, tan skin. He was chubby back then — I remember the way his child’s belly bulged out underneath the fabric of his tee shirts. I remember the softness of his arms, the little rolls around his neck and shoulder joints, the plump smoothness of his skin. When I hear fairytales about witches fattening up children before they eat them, Jimmy is always the type of boy I think of. He was a witch’s dream, plump and juicy in the delicious kind of way that only children can be.
Despite his cuteness, despite the way his chubby cheeks pushed his eyes into a squint when he smiled or laughed, Jimmy was trouble. He was entrepreneurial in his mischief, and cunning at keeping secrets.
Sometimes, he could be cruel in the way that little boys have to be cruel to test the limits of their power. He once took a pair of metal kitchen tongs, grabbed ahold of one of my breast-less nipples, and spun his hand in a sharp twisting motion, bestowing upon me in a swift spin my first and only titty twister, and my first of many encounters with sexual harassment. I was eight.
In the moment, Jimmy expected me to fight back. He had two older sisters, and I’m sure they beat his ass with regularity. His face braced for impact. But I was a sensitive kid, and I didn’t fight back. I cried, clutching my nipple, frozen in a combination of anger and embarrassment and pain. Did I see remorse on his face? Shock? Fear? I can’t recall.
I didn’t love Jimmy as a child. Love came later, after puberty transformed us both from awkward children into the picture of youthful virility. Rather, he inspired envy in eight-year-old me.
Jimmy had everything that I wanted at that age, what any eight year old might dream of. Jimmy had a trampoline, a pool, a mansion of a house with big picture windows and a batting cage built into the giant backyard. He didn’t just have one dog — he had two dogs. One of them knew how to swim underwater to fetch toys on the bottom of the pool. It was like someone listened to the whims of my eight year old fantasies and gave them all away to Jimmy where they would remain, forever in sight but always out of reach. He had the life I was old enough to want but too young to understand why it couldn’t be mine. This was before I knew about money, about being broke, before I knew that my parents wanted to give me a life they couldn’t.
There was something more to Jimmy than the things his Dad could provide for him. It was the way he moved, the way he pulled every gaze in the room to him, the way he took up all the space and all the oxygen around him. Where Chris was shy and sensitive, where I was confident but reserved, Jimmy was unbridled. He had a wild spirit, a mischievous laugh, he overflowed with enthusiasm and charisma. At eleven, Jimmy could command every room he entered.
When Jimmy was around, my mother laughed at all his jokes and rolled her eyes at his ornery tricks. When Jimmy was around, my brother followed in his every footstep. When Jimmy was around, I was a burden to my brother, a wallflower to my mother, a mere observer of his flame, just trying to warm myself by his fire.
As a child, long before he grew into the most beautiful man I would ever lay my eyes on, long before his mere presence would pull on every sexual instinct in my body, I didn’t want to be with Jimmy. I wanted to be Jimmy. Beautiful, wild, unbridled, a shooting star. Little did any of us know that, much like a shooting star, Jimmy’s life would be bright, fiery, and brief.
A child’s memory has no real sense of time, and I don’t know how long Jimmy was in our lives back then. Was it one year? Two years? It seemed short-lived, but back then school days lasted an eternity and summer breaks disappeared overnight.
All I can remember from our childhood together is that one day Jimmy was there, and the next, he wasn’t. One day, my mom was shuttling us to Chris’s baseball practice and Jimmy’s dad was leading batting sessions in the backyard. The next day, it was over. He was gone.
There are inconsistencies that, had I been older, should have raised questions in my mind back then. Why didn’t I ever meet Jimmy’s mom, or his sisters? Why wasn’t I ever allowed to go inside Jimmy’s house? Why didn’t my mother explain to us what had happened, where Jimmy went, why he disappeared from our lives like a ghost after daybreak? Where did he go? When would he be back?
Even now, it is difficult for me to make sense of my love story with Jimmy. We lived it all out of order. We were family long before we were lovers. We were roommates before we were friends. Before we knew ourselves or each other, we were wed, till death do us part, our lives intertwined forever. Our love was forbidden before it ever began. We broke up before we dated, loved each other before we kissed, committed to eternity before we shared a bed. Jimmy died before we could make our love known. He had to die before I learned how forbidden our love really was.
How then, do I make sense of the life and love we had? How do I put it an order that you could possibly understand? Beyond the extraordinary circumstances of our love, it is tragic to out-survive the love of your life, and we live too long to lose true love at 21. There is no ending, no order, no epilogue. There is no way for me to write it down that will ever convey the confusion, the loss, the gaping hole in the sky where Jimmy’s shooting star once blazed. All I have are loose ends and unfinished chapters and rhetorical questions. All I have are the shadows of Jimmy’s memory that ring like echos all over my hometown. All I have left of him are a few blurry photos, the scent of his favorite cologne, and a cross standing on the side of a road nestled in the hills of Asheville, North Carolina, where he died alone in the middle of the night, crushed by steel and glass and the transferred momentum of forty miles per hour.
I was eight when Jimmy first entered my life, and eight when he first disappeared. Seven years passed, and just like that, Jimmy was back. I was fifteen.
The first day I saw him is still so vivid in my mind, as if a part of my subconscious knew that one day I would lose him, so I better hold on to the moments I could get. My memory trapped the moment like a fish in a net, never to escape. He was driving a red pickup truck, wearing a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He had on a black tank top, revealing every inch of his perfect arms and shoulders. The smooth softness of his childhood body had hardened into rigid layers of muscle. Every inch of him was sculpted, as if from clay. He was tan, with broad shoulders that narrowed to a perfect waist. He was, in a word, a masterpiece.
At first, I watched the nameless figure of this perfect man walk across the black asphalt of the parking lot. He had to walk through the door of the gym before it dawned on me at whom I had been staring. Jimmy Tufo walked into the Gold’s Gym as if he had been living in Jupiter his whole life, as if he hadn’t vanished, grown into an Italian masterpiece, and reappeared as nonchalantly as he had left.
I gaped at him, shook my head, and said aloud, “You’re Jimmy Tufo.” As if he didn’t know his own fucking name. It was one of those moments that was so uncool, so unplanned; I kicked myself for it for years afterwards. Now, I am grateful for the immediacy of my reaction. Life is too short to play it cool.
Jimmy responded with a polite little smile. I continued by introducing myself. “I’m Steph Shuff. You used to play baseball with my brother.”
“Yea, I know.” He said, still smiling. “It’s nice to see you.”
For six long years, Jimmy and I danced around each other in a lover’s dance that was mostly me pining and him sulking. He and my brother resumed their friendship as if no time had passed, and again, I was the burden, the wallflower, the little sister. If Jimmy had any interest in me, I couldn’t read it. He never gave me a titty twister again, but he didn’t have to. He still had those metal tongs in hand, and this time they were clasped on the edges of my heart. He need only breath in my general direction to twist them ‘round and send me reeling.
Despite the fever pitch my obsession, I lived my life like a normal teenager. High school was a blur of boyfriends and bad decisions. I smoked a lot of pot and worked too many hours but got all A’s anyway. Jimmy spent those same years partying too much and drinking underage; he wrecked two trucks, got a DUI. My junior year of high school, after Chris had already moved away to Gainesville for college, Jimmy had a fight with his Dad. After some discussions between my Mom and my brother, Jimmy moved in to Chris’s then vacant room.
If my obsession with Jimmy was unhealthy before, it reached new heights when we lived under the same roof, slept on the same side of the house, showered in the same bathroom. I’d lie awake at night listening for the sounds of his breathing, trying to catch a whiff of his cologne. Sometimes, I’d sneak into the bathroom for the small glass bottle and spritz the intoxicating scent on my pillow.
He was nicer to me then, more gentle. I saw more of Jimmy’s pain in those months when he lived with us. He told me about his Dad, about their fights and their disagreements. He told me about his Mom, who lived in Asheville, North Carolina, who had struggled with alcoholism and addiction since Jimmy was a kid. He glossed over their divorce. It happened when I was eight. Jimmy’s mom left for Asheville. Jimmy went with her.
Sometimes, we acted like an old married couple. We drank coffee in front of the TV on the weekends, neither of us talking; we just enjoyed sitting in the same room as someone with whom we felt safe. We’d brush our teeth together in the bathroom that we shared. He’d drive us to the gym, or to pick up sandwiches for lunch. I’d put the window down in his truck, let my long blonde hair blow in the wind, and pretend he was my boyfriend. I hoped that everyone in town could see us driving, so they might know that I loved him and he loved me.
Jimmy’s presence in my life was always bright, but fleeting. Like a shooting star. One minute there he was, blazing. The next, he vanished. Just a few months after moving in, he moved out.
Not long after Jimmy left, I moved out, too. I graduated high school with all A’s, a decent knack for writing, and a fat scholarship to an expensive school in Washington, D.C, so I packed my bags and headed north without a second thought. Even at eighteen, I knew that Jupiter, Florida was a place where people went to tap out or retire. I wasn’t ready to do either.
My freshmen year came and went and when I got home to Jupiter the following summer, Jimmy had moved to Gainesville to live with my brother. Chris was still there for college, but Jimmy was there to run from the ghosts he had left behind in our hometown — multiple DUIs and multiple ex-fiances and his estranged father and a painful past that reached back and back and back.
In August of that summer, Chris was celebrating his 22nd birthday and invited me to come stay with them in Gainseville. I made the four hour drive and pretended it was for Chris’s birthday and not to be near Jimmy.
We spent the day floating in inner tubes down a cool, fresh water river in the warm, muggy wetlands of Central Florida. We drank beers and toasted to our youth in the way one might think only happens in country music songs or in some long last era of back when. But back when was then, and even in the ignorance of our youths, we knew how good we had it.
We all returned to Chris and Jimmy’s house for naps and showers before the party continued later that night. After Chris and his girlfriend retreated to confines of their bedroom, shutting the door behind them, Jimmy tiptoed around the corner to find me on the couch in the living room.
“You don’t have to nap on the couch,” he said. “You can come lay in my bed with me.”
How long had I been waiting to hear those words? It felt like a lifetime, like multiple lifetimes, as though I had been reincarnated for millennia just to hear his casual invitation.
So there I was, in Jimmy’s bed in the middle of the afternoon, enveloped in his red sheets and the scent of his cologne and the softness of his skin. How much time had I spent over the years dreaming of the moment when I might lay in bed next to him? For six years, I pictured what it might be like to kiss him and be kissed by him, to touch the rounding curves of his sculpted body, to smell his skin up close. In one of the most beautiful twists of fate, the reality of the moment turned out to be better than any fantasy I could ever imagine.
Should I have been nervous in that moment, laying next to the man of my dreams? The built up tension of six years of sexual energy is bound to shake even the strongest resolve. But I wasn’t nervous. I was calm and relaxed. More than I had ever felt with any man, I knew with Jimmy I was safe.
We weren’t supposed to be there together, Jimmy and I. Our love was forbidden in so many ways, in more ways than I knew. My brother and his girlfriend were just down the hall. But we were together, anyway. Such is the heat of young love - it burns bridges
We were quiet for a time, but I could never play it cool with Jimmy. After a few moments of laying there and watching the late afternoon sunlight that poured in through his window, spilling golden light all over his red sheets and his soft skin, I broke the silence.
“Do you know that I love you?” I asked him.
It was a simple question, a moment of pure vulnerability that came from the most honest part of me. It was not just an omission of love, but instead, a desire to hear that love received. In that moment, I didn’t want to know if Jimmy loved me. I wanted him to know, needed him to know, that I loved him. It was all I ever wanted when he was alive, and it is all I want now that he is gone. If I had one more moment with Jimmy today, I would ask him this question one more time, one last time. Do you know that I love you, Jimmy?
He was silent, so I continued.
“I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you at the gym all those years ago.” I paused. Jimmy remained silent.
“Have you known all this time?”
“Yes,” he responded. “Of course I knew.” And then, “I love you, too, Steph.”
I could have died right then and there. Sometimes, I think it would have been easier if I had.
“But it’s complicated,” he continued. “Our families can’t know we’re together.”
I nodded. I thought I understood. He was friends with my brother, wasn’t that it? The boundary was simple, but firm. He couldn’t fall in love with his best friend’s sister. I thought I knew. But I had no idea.
I didn’t ask him why. Why didn’t I ask him why? Why couldn’t our families know? Would he have told me then, would he have revealed the secret that everyone knew but me? Could I have saved his life with one little question? I was always stronger than Jimmy. His body was firm but his heart was soft and he didn’t know how to carry his own pain. He could drown it with alcohol and soothe it with women and press through it with 225 pounds of weighted iron. But he could not carry his pain. He never learned how. But I had learned. Sometimes, I wonder if carrying other’s pain is all I really know how to do. I could have carried Jimmy’s pain for him.
I didn’t ask him why our families couldn’t know. Instead, I brushed the bare skin of his chest and stomach with my finger tips. Instead, I folded into the softness of his lips and the heaviness of his body on mine. Instead, I surrendered to the euphoria of an unrequited love that has been suddenly and infinitely returned. We didn’t have sex that day; Jimmy was insistent on that boundary. But what we had was better than sex. We had love.
Days later, we were all back in Jupiter, and my afternoon with Jimmy remained our perfect little secret. Chris and Jimmy were staying in the bedroom across the hall from mine in the house where we had all been raised. Jimmy and I were careful to keep our new love affair hidden, like a flower blooming underground. We’d steal kisses in vacant hallways and meet in empty bars in town so we could hold hands. On one afternoon in particular, the house was empty, every other member of my family off at work or otherwise engaged. I walked up behind Jimmy in the bathroom, the same bathroom where we had spent so many cautious, careful mornings together. I wrapped my arms around his shirtless waist, our eyes meeting in our reflection in the bathroom mirror. I covered the soft skin of his tan shoulders with little kisses. He smiled. Was there pain in that smile? Fear? I don’t remember. All I remember is that I was so in love. I was in love with being in love.
Chris and Jimmy’s trip was a short one, so the next day we all met at the beach for one final swim before they made the long drive back to Gainesville. We met on my favorite stretch of Jupiter Beach, a long length of sand and ocean that runs from the Jupiter Reef Club south to the Jupiter Pier. I watched Jimmy’s tan, muscular body float in the calm turquoise waters of the Gulf Stream, noticed the way his wet black hair swept across his forehead. I felt my body draw towards him, pulled in by his gravity. I wanted to lick the saltwater off his lips and wrap my legs around him in the ocean. I wanted to melt into him in the hot summer sun. I wanted to lay with him on the white sand and never have to say goodbye.
Why didn’t I kiss him? Why didn’t I wrap my legs around him? Why didn’t I ask him why? That day on the beach was the last time I saw Jimmy in Florida. A few months later, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. A few months after that, I would fly from DC to Asheville to visit him for our final weekend together before his death. Now, when I return to that stretch of the beach, just south of Jupiter Reef Club, I can still see him swimming there, can still feel his gravity pulling on me, drawing me near. His ghost is there on the beach, waving at me, smiling, wanting to love me, but afraid.
James Joseph Tufo, Jr. died on Saturday, April 11, 2009 on a winding road in Asheville, North Carolina, on the night of his 24th birthday. The circumstances of his death were tragic and heart-wrenching, and his loss is something from which I will never fully recover. I know that I am not the only one he touched, and I am not the only one who still grapples with the responsibility of his death. I am not the only one asking myself, what could I have done to save him?
The last time I ever saw Jimmy was November 2, 2007 in Asheville, North Carolina. I flew there to visit him from Washington, D.C. without either of our family’s knowledge. It was God’s greatest gift and cruelest joke that this trip would be my final moments with Jimmy. It was no one else’s time but ours, and those memories sustain me.
Jimmy’s fear of our relationship becoming known means we have no photos together; I have no tokens of his life, no mementos of the periods of life we lived together. All I have to remember him by are the times we shared and the scent of his favorite cologne.
The intricacies of our complex family history remained unknown to me for years after his death. It was only by accident that I ever learned of them at all. Suffice it to say that sometimes, our choices create ripples in time that will echo far into the future. These choices will affect our lives and the lives of others in ways we never could have thought possible. They will effect our marriages, our children, our children’s children. In moments, our choices will bring people together. In others, they will keep people apart. Sometimes, they will do both all at once in a confusing tug-of-war between of fate and misfortune. The only explanation is that life will make collateral damage of all of us if we're lucky enough to live that long, and nothing ever ties in a neat little bow. Out here in the real world, stories end with bleeding stumps and twisted metal.
Whenever I am missing Jimmy, whenever I feel so far away from him that I can hardly breathe, I return to that small stretch of beach, to the length of sand between the Jupiter Reef Club and the Jupiter Pier, to the place where I saw Jimmy in Florida for the last time. I look for him there in the waves, scan the ocean to see his tan body in the turquoise water. In my mind, I am 19 again, but this time, I don’t hold back. I swim to him and lick the saltwater off his lips and wrap my legs around his body. And I ask him: Do you know that I love you, Jimmy?