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Before My Boyfriend Died Suddenly Last Year, We Were Two Writers In Love

My late partner, the writer Anthony Veasna So, sold his acclaimed short story collection “Afterparties” while he was still in school. But before he became famous, we were just two queer kids in love at Stanford.

Posted on July 30, 2021, at 2:11 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Courtesy Jorge Alejandro Quintana

Anthony and I met on Grindr, in January 2014, the winter quarter of my first year at Stanford. At the time I was spiraling in and out of constant anxiety about my body and life. I had been hospitalized the previous quarter with a cellulitis infection my doctor — who had a horrible bedside manner — told me could be a complication related to cancer or HIV, after he learned I engaged in “high-risk homosexual activity.” (The infection wasn’t related to cancer or HIV at all.) My dad had just gotten released from prison on parole and was living in a halfway house, which only made me more aware of how different I was from most of my classmates.

Everyone in my first-year dorm seemed interested in athletics or engineering or medicine or Silicon Valley — one dormmate went on to the Rio Olympics, another to play professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Startups didn’t interest me, because I had no idea what they were. I didn’t want to do anything but study poetry and read novels.

Anthony had the flirting skills of a middle school boy; he was the type of guy who poked fun at his date to express interest. 

Over Grindr, I told Anthony that I was interested in writing poetry. I was amused that he was a senior art major planning to take a fifth year. He was quitting computer science, his second major, and pursuing English, the major I was planning to declare. His problems started when he had to retake a notoriously difficult class, CS 107, that was misogynistically nicknamed “CS Dump Your Girlfriend.” Now, Anthony explained, he wanted to write fiction based on his art and stand-up jokes. He confessed that he was recovering from a drug addiction, which I figured just meant that he smoked too much weed. He suggested we go to a Philz Coffee in downtown Palo Alto and said we should exchange work sometime. Our first date was a bit of a disaster. After he picked me up in the beat-up 2000 Honda that his mom and sister used to drive (it still had his sister’s UC Irvine license plate), we were both disappointed that neither of us looked like our outdated Grindr profile pictures. It wasn’t like we were totally catfished, we confessed to each other months later — we just looked different. Mostly, I was surprised he wore glasses.

Since we didn’t go through the usual motions of talking about our sexual preferences on Grindr (“Are you a top or a bottom?”), I wasn’t sure if it was a date or not. It didn’t help that Anthony had the flirting skills of a middle school boy; he was the type of guy who poked fun at his date to express interest. We sat next to each other on a brown, worn-out leather sectional that reeked of coffee while sitting across from Patagonia-vested tech bros furiously programming late into the evening. Crossing my arms, I made it a point not to touch him, because I was already thinking about how I wanted the date to be over.

Before I could say much, Anthony was already boasting about how being funny and gay was going to make him famous. He wanted to be a queer Asian American Lena Dunham and direct a TV show like Girls, or write Emily Gould–type confessional essays about being promiscuous during his summer performing stand-up comedy in New York City. At the time I had no idea who either Lena Dunham or Emily Gould were, so I nodded along, pretending to understand, thinking incessantly about how unfashionable I must have looked wearing an oversized Stanford hoodie that Anthony instructed me to never wear again and one-size-too-big bootcut jeans from American Eagle. He seemed much cooler, wearing a tattered T-shirt from an indie band I didn’t recognize, well-fitted jeans that naturally tore at the knees, and secondhand desert boots he’d rescued from the trash.

Anthony aspired to give off an air of being nonchalant. If he struggled to break out of his stand-up comedian persona, then I had no idea how to take a joke. When he asked me about my favorite bands, I told him I listened to Death Cab for Cutie and Vampire Weekend.

“So you have the music taste of a depressed 13-year-old girl,” he retorted, as if I were the chosen victim of a stand-up set. He followed that up by performing a few actual jokes he had perfected the previous summer, one about being the shitty son of refugees for blowing all of his money on cigarettes and Jack in the Box tacos, another about having Tourette syndrome. He tried to convince me that he was “somewhat legit” in the comedy world because he was booked at some place for up-and-coming comics in LA I’d never heard of, and because Florence Henderson, the mom from The Brady Bunch, kissed him on the cheek as a thank-you after he had given her a ride while he was interning at the 2012 San Francisco Sketchfest.

Twenty minutes passed before I finally asked about his family, which to him was a thinly veiled attempt to figure out what his ethnicity was. It probably was, even if I didn’t realize it then.

“What kind of Asian do you think I am?” he asked, skipping over the part where you tell someone what your parents do for work.

The question took me by surprise, because I had no idea what to say and worried incessantly about offending Anthony because Stanford was far more into political correctness than my high school ever was. There were very hardly any Asian American students in my small, predominantly white, libertarian hometown on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin — the same town that Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old white supremacist shooter, was living in when he killed two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year. My hometown was over 90% non-Hispanic white, with my sister and me making up a small fraction of the population that was Hispanic of any race, though our skin tones didn’t match the stereotypes people had in their minds. It couldn’t have been more different from Stockton, California, where Anthony grew up, which US News named as America’s most diverse city in 2020.

Stupidly, I indulged him, grasping for every nationality I could think of: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, “What’s the word for someone from Laos?” He smirked every time I guessed wrong and kept saying “no” until I gave up, as if he were wielding a secret power.

“I’m Cambodian,” he said, before performing a joke about how “it was hard growing up Cambodian American.” “Cambodian people,” Anthony went on, fooling me with his sincerity, “only have Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian adopted son Maddox. Maddox Jolie Pitt.” He paused, waiting for me to laugh, but I didn’t. “And sometimes he really is my role model, because I’m still waiting for a rich white person to adopt me.” That joke inspired his Twitter handle, @fakemaddoxjolie.

“Cambodia had that genocide, right?” I asked casually, feeling embarrassed as the words slipped from my mouth. I had a habit of accidentally offending people with my bluntness.

Ecco

The cover of Afterparties, out on August 3.

“My parents were refugees,” he explained, before diving into a joke about why gay marriage was neoliberal, as if to immediately swerve away from the topic. Over the years I’d learn Anthony felt that comedy was the only way he could talk about his identity, because he worried that as soon as someone realized his family lived through a genocide they’d look at him differently. It’s a tactic he would use in his writing as well, especially in the short stories that make up his posthumous first collection, Afterparties, which he sold in a six-way bidding war while still getting his MFA at Syracuse. I probably would have thought Anthony was funny and talented if I had stopped spending the whole date feeling insecure about myself. It took me years to realize he was probably only thinking about himself too, just in a different way. As soon as I was 100% sure I didn’t want to have sex with him that night, I asked him to drive me home. On our drive back to campus, I listened carefully to the burned CD playing in his car that was full of angsty and melancholic songs, like Pavement’s “Date With IKEA” and Oscar Isaac’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Unbeknownst to me then, these songs would become the soundtrack to our first year together.

He lightened up a bit. He was probably caught off guard that I cut the conversation off after only 45 minutes. We chatted in the car about my favorite poets (Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes) and laughed about the ways we'd embellished our college applications. Before I could unbuckle my seatbelt and scurry back into my dorm as quickly as possible, secretly hoping that I’d never see him again because I was convinced he didn’t like me, Anthony yanked my head toward his and pressed his chapped lips on my moist ones.

I’d learn Anthony felt that comedy was the only way he could talk about his identity, because he worried that as soon as someone realized his family lived through in a genocide they’d look at him differently.

“I’m sorry my breath probably smells bad,” I apologized as I opened his car door. Who kisses after drinking coffee? I thought to myself as I stumbled out of the car, looking over my left shoulder to catch a glimpse of Anthony driving away.

Anthony and I had scheduled Grindr dates for the following Friday with different guys, who, coincidentally, both ghosted us last minute. So he asked me on a second date and, 30 minutes after I said yes, picked me up in the Honda while tripping on shrooms. I didn’t realize he was high until I met his friends, who worried that their RA — whom Anthony and I would later watch row for Nigeria in the Olympics — might get upset if she caught them dealing illegal drugs in the kitchen of their dorm, which was called Narnia after C.S. Lewis’s famous fantasy world. The dorm at times transformed into a faux psychedelic oasis. One night Anthony and I woke up a drunk woman who fell asleep on a dining room table; she thanked us and said, “It’d be so ratchet if the cook found me passed out like this tomorrow morning.” People sold drugs like Girl Scout Cookies. Groups of people stumbled back into Narnia after tripping acid in Lake Lag, a reservoir that was drained decades before to protect an endangered species of salamander. Narnia, which housed mostly seniors, was a radical shift from my first-year dorm, Rinconada, where we were unofficially allowed to drink or smoke in our rooms but lightly scolded whenever something got out of hand, like when the guy my friend was hooking up with drunkenly pissed on the stairs.

But on that first Friday night, Anthony whisked me away to his room, as if to protect me from all of that.

“My roommate and his girlfriend are coming back later,” he explained, exasperated, “so we should probably hook up soon.” He dashed away to the bathroom to brush his teeth and left me alone in his room, which was covered in his own art projects.

Courtesy of Alex Torres

The author and his late partner, Antony Veasna So

Immediately I fell in love with Anthony’s visual art; I loved his art before I loved him. On his cramped room’s walls hung a pencil-drawn portrait of Anthony wearing broken earphones he taped together. There was a painted self-portrait that looked like a blown-up facepalm emoji, covered up with the words “I have food/I have shelter/I have water.” Cartoons of his friends and a straight couple shooting up heroin floated around his messy room, alongside photographs of his family’s duplexes. There was a stunning tapestry full of vibrant colors decorating his bed, subtly containing images of the cruel Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, skulls from the killing fields, and Khmer Rouge soldiers.

I never asked him if he did heroin, because I figured his art was fictional. His aesthetic was just cartoonishly twisted, though I could never really tell where his life began and art ended. In his work I saw, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, my own “rejected thoughts” — images that, in my eyes, were matters of fact, even as they seemed surrounded by a fog I could hardly penetrate.

By the time Anthony returned I was already thinking about how his work reminded me of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s, how Basquiat brought graffiti and street art to the high-brow world of painting and caught the attention of Andy Warhol just before overdosing on heroin at 27. When I mentioned it to Anthony, he was impressed by the reference, saying something along the lines of how Basquiat, who was of Haitian Puerto Rican descent, was, like him, a minority within a minority.

I’m not sure if it was because Anthony was tripping on shrooms or because I was distracted by his art, but we started making out and couldn’t seem to figure out how our bodies should go together on his extra-long twin mattress and hand-me-down bedding. So we gave up, jerked off, ate burritos, and fell asleep watching the first episode of Broad City on his MacBook Pro.

Anthony and I never had a third date, really — we were just together after the second one, which became our anniversary.

Anthony and I never had a third date, really — we were just together after the second one, which became our anniversary. (We would jokingly justify our three-year age gap by telling each other I was older in “gay years” because I’d come out as a middle schooler in 2008, and Anthony as a college student in 2013.) As we spent more time together in Narnia, eventually becoming inseparable, I started realizing that the sensitive, introspective Anthony, who emerged most forcefully when it was just us, was easiest to see in his art, and studying it taught me how to understand his emotional world. He told me about how he conceived of his visual art while dropping acid, which to him felt like more of a religion than Buddhism or Christianity, both of which he derided as “stupid.” I was far too anxious to take psychedelics. My dad was addicted to drugs, which made me cynical of, but endlessly curious about, the substance use of everyone around me.

At a time when it felt like most Stanford students were trying to cash out on their degrees by making it big in Silicon Valley or heralding the trendiest cause, we felt like aimless rebels. But unlike Anthony, I didn’t mind obscurity. I was busy writing poems that would never see the light of day; we read dense canonical texts we struggled to understand, like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Anthony spent the spring putting together portraits of his parents and Pol Pot for his senior art show. I mostly read poems by women, including Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

We listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. We had delusions of being like Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, the famous musical and romantic duo, whose relationship would slowly deteriorate as they experimented with cocaine. It felt fitting that they met at Menlo-Atherton, a high school just north of Stanford’s campus. From Stevie, we learned how to express the art of moving forward even as the claws of bottomless grief grasped at our feet. We juxtaposed Stevie with Patti Smith, whose sounds felt so much grittier, more erudite, more queer.

It was easy to get sucked into Narnia’s hazy, faux bohemian charm. It was the first place I was ever offered cocaine or ketamine, though I declined the former. Couples — Anthony and I included — would take turns having sex in one of the two shower stalls, so sometimes you could hear the other couple hooking up. On the patio, we’d smoke cigarettes, joints, and spliffs. Some sorority members would randomly show up in the middle of the week with shopping bags full of festival clothes from the Stanford Mall, where the only place I could afford was the Urban Outfitters clearance rack.

I never asked him if he did heroin, because I figured his art was fictional.

Anthony and his friends were rolling in prescription drugs I’d never thought about taking, like Xanax, Adderall, and Ambien. On Valentine's Day, one of Anthony’s friends gave us an Ambien his parents had mailed him. Another friend infamously went on a cruise in Mexico and brought back a bunch of Adderall, only to sell it all to another person in Anthony’s circle to buy Coachella tickets. When she went to buy back her Adderall because she was weeks behind on her problem sets, the econ-major-cum-drug-dealer upped the prices. Anthony and I studied the Narnia residents as if they were fictional characters in the books we were reading. Our conversations started to feel like we were always in a shared mid-epiphany, constantly undergoing realizations about ourselves, art, and the world. It felt like we spoke our own language. We convinced ourselves that there were glimpses of the sublime in the upscale suburban mundanity that was Palo Alto. We wanted to turn everything we saw and felt into art.

By the time the school year ended in June, we packed up our rooms and whimsically abandoned an era, though I think we were both relieved to leave it all behind. Anthony stopped using substances, except for caffeine. We referred to that time in our lives often, so much so that it would inspire the antics of Afterparties as well as his unfinished novel, Straight Thru Cambotown. It felt like we were living in Narnia’s afterparties.

We spent the following summer together. He was taking a class on science fiction and writing a hilarious semiautobiographical short story based on when he told his parents he had a boyfriend named Alex over dim sum. Meanwhile, I was on a research fellowship at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford’s museum, obsessively studying American paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Asher Durand. Most of our college friends were in San Francisco or gone for the summer, so we ate Trader Joe’s charcuterie, did laundry, and ran errands at Target with our poetry and poetics TA Amanda, who quickly became one of our best friends. The three of us chatted about how abstract expressionist painting was really just about how fucked up everything was. We all agreed the only solution to how we were feeling was laughter.

He didn’t want to mimic the world around him as much as re-create it.

Liz, a friend from Anthony’s video art class, was traveling for the summer, so she graciously let us sublet her studio at a discounted rate. The first time I’d ever heard of Liz was when Anthony told me she’d overslept for their 3 p.m. coffee date. The night before, she had been up late filming a documentary, called Hotel 22, about a late-night bus that turned into an informal homeless shelter in Silicon Valley; it played at Sundance in 2015. An outsider herself, Liz was interested in a side of Silicon Valley that made sense to us: the poor one. Those were the tensions Anthony wanted to capture in his art — the son of refugees intermingling with rich VC dudes in line at a coffee shop.

Anthony wanted to break into film and had made a few shorts earlier in his college career, when, as one of his friends described him to me a few months ago, “he was a straight computer science major with a girlfriend.” Jokingly, Liz once told Anthony he was too smart to be a filmmaker, and years later, we were still debating whether or not that was a slight compliment or gentle insult.

But film’s influence vitalized his writing. Inspired by Liz, we’d drive around Stockton — his hometown and the setting for most of Afterparties. He’d tell me stories about the old haunts — his dad’s car repair shop, the school where his mom survived a racist school shooter, “Targhetto,” and Super King Supermarket. He thought of himself as a documentarian, and I’d offer my insights, a fresh set of eyes, like a camera crew along for the ride. He didn’t want to mimic the world around him as much as re-create it.

Driving around Stockton was, aside from movies, one of the few things that could make Anthony cry. He’d choke back his tears, worrying that it’d be impossible to reconcile his Cambodian American identity with queerness in real life. That’s why he created art.

Anthony died suddenly last December, 10 months after he sold the manuscript for Afterparties as a part of a two-book deal with Ecco. He was finishing up his novel, Straight Thru Cambotown, as well as making headway on an essay collection about topics like reality TV, Pavement, and his visual art about the Khmer Rouge. I find myself grieving his loss through literature, writing, music, and art, the ways that Anthony and I always grieved together. I listen to the new Liz Phair album, Soberish, and imagine which songs Anthony would’ve loved and which ones he would’ve hated. I dig up story ideas we jotted down in a notebook for a graphic novel project based on our old neighborhood in San Francisco, Mission Dolores, and write them out, adding words where Anthony’s illustrations would’ve gone. I disappear into the pages I’m writing, a stowaway, seeking, not happiness per se, but a way to dwell in the creative space I used to share with Anthony. A way to conjure up all of the emotions and tell the story of us, because he wanted everyone to know who we were.

The only part of Afterparties I read after Anthony passed was the acknowledgments section, where he thanks me for showing him “that a queer Cambo from Stockton, California, could find a wealth of commonality with a queer half-Mexican kid from rural Illinois.

“I don’t think I could’ve finished this book without knowing that,” he wrote. “I love you. You wrote these stories with me.” What is writing but living, Anthony might say — living through the creation of a work of art whose legacy I’ve inherited.●

Alex Torres is a San Francisco–based writer. He’s currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.