This is painful.
Or, it would be if I was allowing myself to feel right now.
On Saturday, August 22, 2020 a young man that I knew from college was riding his motorcycle after sunset hours in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Gliding, flying along the highway lines. Free as a bird, I imagine. He had hung out with his friend at a beautiful lake just hours before. He had posted sunset photos of that hangout on Facebook.
A vehicle who missed him in the dark struck his motorcycle and killed him instantly. I was drunkenly sitting on my friend’s living room couch three states away, playing Jackbox with my friends. Grinning. Laughing. Unaware that his soul had crossed over, perhaps in the most merciful way possible but at an age that stuns me to ponder. Both scenes juxtaposed in my mind are staggering. It shakes me in a way nobody should be shaken.
Somehow, he managed to die of something not global pandemic-related. Such talent.
I heard of the motorcycle accident from a dancer friend’s Instagram story — let’s not even get into why she publicly posted this — and went into shock. Anyone who has lost a friend, more so a close one, may know the maze of thoughts and questions that accompanied my inner scream of How could this happen? Why?
I have never struggled with so many questions and self-doubt as I have this past week, and my mental health was already at a near tipping point a few weeks ago due to loneliness. Now, I am crying and having such deep mood swings I can barely keep up with work. How? How can he be gone? I’m sad and depressed and angry one after the other and simultaneously. I was not prepared for the unpredictability of grieving.
Today, I finally shut out my emotions enough to tell his story. However, they stubbornly bubbled up and if I could say I wrote this article without tears on the verge of falling, I would. I need to craft a remembrance because this is important to me. He was important. This is not a flowery obituary — just a personal tribute to the memory of Cobey England.
Cobey and I had a personal history in ballroom.
We met on the sweat-soaked gymnasium used as the practice space for my college international ballroom club. I was a newcomer and he was a veteran dancer, and a good one. He put so much life and passion into his dance! He’d get a fat ego if I said this now, but he was one of the reasons why I initially fell in love with dance.
I was a shy dancer, and he inspired confidence. He treated the dance floor as his stomping grounds. When he was there with his partner, it was their time to shine. He was so elegant and graceful on the dance floor despite the physical work I knew it took, and it was incredible to watch. I couldn’t tell you what his favorites were, but possibly International Foxtrot and Quickstep? It’s funny though… his competition persona was nothing like the rambunctious goofball he was off set.
We spent a good amount of time laughing and hanging out in that practice space. Thinking back, he was always friendly and kind to me when some of the other cliquey girls kept their distance. Many girls in the club ignored me, I suspect out of jealousy because their men liked me. Cobey never took sides. He would goof around with and talk to anyone. Friendly, kind, and playful… maybe a little too playful ;)
Cobey was a flirt. He openly flirted with me, which would have been fun except for one caveat. I’d been partially ostracized in my religious high school for being too flirtatious and was still figuring out how to be myself after being ingrained with that bullshit. His flirting embarrassed me. He wouldn’t quit. He was cute and fun-loving — not making excuses for that behavior — but it made me feel awkward ❤
We had some good times in ballroom club.
No matter how much he overwhelmed me at first, Cobey always brought so much life into a room. I remember him laughing and goofing off with Luke and Elizabeth, our youngest teacher couple, in the practice space. Striking posh poses, leaning too far in every direction, prancing around like King Henry II himself had granted them a fleet of ships and doin’ impressions of fancy French connoisseurs. Rolling their invisible mustaches. Grabbing the nearest lady to serenade. I joined in.
I distinctly remember a ballroom party where the whole dance club was squeezed into a circle playing Kings (that was a card game equivalent to multiple rounds of twenty questions). Most kids stuck to fairly tame questions unless the intent was to playfully target specific people... but not Cobey. This man was all in. Where’s the craziest place you’ve had sex outdoors? Who would you fuck in this room? Who have you?
He had an indescribable zest for life. We spent many of those parties talking and getting to know each other. His girlfriend at the time wasn’t too keen on talking to me, but it’s not my fault he decided to make a crazy possessive Russian dancer fall in love with him. Don’t tell anyone… but I think I was the only one who knew they fucked on the top floor of a parking lot one time and I low-key wished I was that adventurous.
He was intense and fun. Most advanced dancers I knew became obsessive and uptight due to constant competition stress in ballroom. High level dance was not only a technical challenge but a showmanship fight and Cobey excelled in both. Despite that, he never lost his amicable touch and we’d talk and goof around in between competitions. He was uplifting and would congratulate me on how I was doing! Those sweet moments continued for about two years, then dissipated when I left the club.
Now my original perception of ‘obnoxious flirt’ was hard to shake but he kept reaching out to me online for a year. One day, I sought him out.
My dog’s birthday.
That was the day I glimpsed a true friend. Six months before my childhood dog, Sandy, passed away, I knew I wanted to do something truly special for his 12th birthday in July. Cobey had recently broken up with that Russian girl who now lived in New York. I knew a little from talking online, but I thought it would be good to catch up in person. When I asked to bring Sandy to his parents’ farm for his birthday, he agreed.
I arrived two weeks later. We walked Sandy down past the cornfield and into a sprawling pasture lined with backwoods. I let him off leash. I hiked with my dog for years but rarely let him off leash due to roaming. Sandy stood there— Cobey and I watched — and kept standing there, not moving, sniffing… a little uncertain. So we ran. We ran uphill towards the woods yelling his name until finally, he shot after us. Frollicking through the tall grass, tongue lolling. Cobey began laughing. Good boy!
I have no photos or videos of that moment but I’ll always remember it, for as long as I live. My dog looked truly happy.
We hiked into the shady woods together and stopped a few times to rest since my dog was an old man. There, under the summer canopies, we began talking and I inquired about his ex. He was exhausted from keeping up a toxic, long distance relationship with New York, but had trouble coping without her because she was such a stabilizing force at times. He was broken over her but knew it had to end. He was settled into the grass next to me, staring off, a bit lost in thought, twiddling his sun-baked thumbs.
Since I met him two years ago, I suddenly began to see the man underneath the dance hobby. He was deeply empathetic and caring, and that’s why the breakup was so hard on him. So we continued to walk, my dog met a massive herd of cows, and somehow? fell into the horse water trough trying to take a drink when we got back! I remember standing by the trough, drenched in muddy seaweed gunk from the splash, laughing as Cobey reached head first into the water and lifted Sandy out.
I saw a real friend that day. A guy who loved horticulture and farming, and who was happiest outdoors no matter how much he turned orange instead of actually tanned. He was fiercely loyal to his parents, and would never let them run the farm without his help — we spent the rest of the afternoon making sandwiches with freshly harvested vegetables, and weeding in the front yard. It was an amazing day.
Cobey and I stayed in touch after that day.
We’d chat sometimes over Facebook messenger and he surprised me with tractor ridin’, country song singin’ videos of yours truly, the orange peel skinned dancer.
In 2018, I had transitioned from ballroom into west coast swing and was actively dancing with the community at Hollywood Ballroom nearly every weekend of the summer. Gradually, I noticed that Cobey began to show up at the social dances. We barely had a real relationship outside of ballroom and I wasn’t sure I wanted one, until I saw him dancing one night. He was different. Gentle. Mellow. His shoulders and hands were low, like the stress and rigidity of ballroom had drained out of him.
Suddenly, I wanted a chance to get to know this new guy. I grabbed him for a dance that night and loved it. We began dancing and hanging out a little again, and I also watched Cobey integrate into the new groups at the west coast swing venues. I had the immense privilege of seeing him change and grow as a person right in front of my eyes. By the end of that summer, he had adopted a personable, relaxed vibe with that same zest for life but he was not overwhelming. He was magnetic.
One late night — clad in dried sweat and sweatpants, my pack swung over one shoulder and keys in hand — I saw Cobey sitting with a girl. Before leaving, I spied on them for a few minutes. She looked teary eyed and in distress while talking. He was listening intently. After she finished speaking, they stood up slowly and he engulfed her in an embrace. She stood there in his arms in the dark for… I’m not sure how long. I left them to be alone, but I smiled on my way out of out the venue.
Such simple beauty and empathy. Just those actions, told me how loving and compassionate Cobey was with his friends. I bet everyone who came into contact with him has felt special and cared for, because he wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable at all. He made me want to be that way with the people that I cared about. From that point on, I vowed never to judge anyone again based on a past perception.
Seeing him at dance socials continued for about two years, right up until the covid pandemic seized the globe.
I saw Cobey for the last time doing what he loved.
On the first week of April 2020, the west coast swing social MadJam kicked off in Baltimore. I parked under a starlit city sky, grabbed my bags and dance shoes and waltzed into the hotel. Up the escalator. My heart thumped with excitement, echoed by the music as I reached the second floor and walked into a crowded dance room the size of a basketball court. Seconds after I dropped my bags, I saw Cobey coming towards me with the biggest grin on his face. I grinned back.
Despite having been in the dance community for years, I still had a small group of friends. I also have a bit of anxiety with strange crowds and seeing his face was a welcome relief. He immediately made me feel welcome. Like I belonged there, dammit. ‘Anna, what’s up! You look great!’ he grabbed me into a bear hug. We talked excitedly for a while, and I’ve never seen a man so in his element as he was that day. We danced together later that night and they were fast, enthusiastic songs — unfortunately for our muscles — but I wouldn’t have danced with anyone else.
What struck me the most about that night was how he was different yet the same from when we met in 2016. 4 years. Sure, he’d changed with the west coast crowd but he still wore that sweet smile, unshakable enthusiasm, and whatever he was doing — he put his soul into it. Cobey never did anything in a half-hearted way. Everything had his full heart. My heart is full from knowing him for those years.
If Cobey was sitting next to my desk right now, he would definitely tease me about taking forever to warm up to him. I’d probably laugh, and say it’s not my fault he’s constantly 190F. One has to build up a tolerance to be around that temperatures that hot.
I wish — god, I just wish he was here. I wish I could say one more thing. I want to tell him how much he is loved and missed and how we could dance again if he would stay one more night. I have my 2020 West Coast Swing playlist on right now and need a partner.
My feelings over this are so painful. I know he didn’t mean to leave, but there’s part of me that’s still angry over his death and the inconvenience he is causing. Truly, the inconvenience is indicative of his contagious life and personality and the ripple effect he had on everyone around him. Just in the past year, I made new dance friends who were intimately touched by how supportive and caring he was and who are now much more broken than me over his accident. He is missed.
My regrets are confusing and center around not taking the time to build a deeper friendship with him. He’d probably say ‘No that’s ridiculous! I love our friendship’ and wouldn’t let me dissolve into tears. I would give anything for one of his hugs right now. My only comfort now is the knowledge that trying to avoid regret is the opposite of living, and he would want me to live. I know he would want me to live.
Farewell, my friend. See you on the other side.