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The Epic Romance of Saeed Jones and Isaac Fitzgerald

The world doesn’t always know what to do with a duo like Saeed Jones and Isaac Fitzgerald.

On paper, they are much more different than alike. Saeed, 31, is a poet, essayist, and memoirist. He’s a Black single gay man who lives in Harlem, loves a kimono, and built most of BuzzFeed’s award-winning culture writing department from the ground up. Isaac, 34, is a former co-owner of The Rumpus, where he edited early work by authors we now consider household names like Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed. He also co-authored two books with in-demand illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and is currently writing a to-be-titled young adult novel. He’s a white dude who lives in Brooklyn with his fiancé, writer Alice Sola Kim.

If you met Saeed and Isaac separately, you might not even be able to picture them ending up in the same room. But if you meet them together, even if you’re barely paying attention, you’ll most likely find it hard to think of them ever being apart. And that’s a big part of what BuzzFeed and Twitter are counting on when you tune in to their new live show, AM2DM.

For a friendship that blossomed just five years ago, no one can say they haven’t made the most of it. When they met, they lived on opposite sides of the country, but as their closeness grew, quickly found themselves dissatisfied with living so far apart. Saeed was already working for BuzzFeed, so he transferred to their San Francisco offices for half a year, then returned to New York. Soon after, Isaac followed to fill the new NYC-based position of books editor at BuzzFeed. And the rest, they say, is history.

If that sounds a bit like the plot of a romantic comedy, understand that that’s because it is a romantic comedy. The story of their friendship in its courting phase is as delightful and complicated as any Nora Ephron film, just with more queer people, people of color, and social media.

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Ashley Ford: Take me to the beginning of your friendship.

Saeed Jones: I met Isaac a few months shy of the anniversary of my mother’s death in 2012. With grief you feel too open, you feel raw to the touch. But by the time I met Isaac the following spring, I was starting to feel like I was noticing things. I was making friendships and creative connections as an artist that I wouldn’t have been able to make had I not been so open.

Isaac Fitzgerald: I remember the moment I met Saeed specifically. It wasn’t like we bonded immediately in that moment, but I was like, I’m gonna know that guy for a while. I saw something there. And it might have been the very thing you’re talking about, this openness that was coming about, also the struggle. As someone who has struggled a lot myself, I’m drawn to that. I thought, “I’m going to see this person again.”

SJ: If we went to the Chicago Convention Center in the basement, where that conference was being held, I could probably walk back into that space and find him.

IF: Yeah, absolutely, 100% same. And here’s the thing, I have a shit memory.

AF: Guys, this sounds like a meet-cute. This is how the main couple meets in a romantic movie.

SJ: I think I definitely played the form of the rom-com character who is irritated and flustered and like, “How dare you,” during the meet cute, and Isaac was like, “No, this is great.”

AF: How did it go from we enjoy each other and the things that we talk about on Twitter, to this is my best friend, to I am no longer interested in not having this person in my life regularly?

IF: I came to New York. Cheryl Strayed, who had written the Dear Sugar column, on The Rumpus anonymously, in February of that year, on Valentine’s Day, she unveiled herself. She came out as Cheryl Strayed, and it was a wonderful party in San Francisco, and a month later in March, Wild came out. I’m basically in town doing these events and hyping the work she’s done, and Saeed happens to be in the audience.

SJ: I wasn’t even supposed to be there. A friend of mine had two tickets and couldn’t go. I was writing, but I was not working at a full-time job, and I was like, well I ain’t got nothin’ better to do. So, I walked in and I was like, “Hey it’s good to see you!” It was our first time seeing each other in person since AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs]. I was genuinely very happy to see him, but I didn’t say much about what had been going on in my life.

IF: We still hadn’t had that conversation.

SJ: [So, at the show] I find out Wild is about Cheryl’s mother. I had the moment where I was like I think this might be what it feels like to be out of the woods. And I went downstairs, as soon as it was over, and I said, “Isaac, can we go talk?” He was like, “Yeah, sure.”

We went to Botanica, and I think it ended with both of us holding hands and like crying. We both just unfurled. I tell him my mom died…I inherited a six-figure life insurance policy that I had no idea existed, and I’ve been freaking out. I felt incredibly guilty.

“I told him everything in that moment to take the leap of trust. I thought I could open my heart to this person.”

AF: I’ve had quite a few friendships in my life that when I look back, these friendships were absolutely romantic. They weren’t sexual, but they were romantic relationships. You, Saeed, are affectionate with Isaac, and allow Isaac to be affectionate with you in a way that I don’t see you being with anybody else.

SJ: Yeah, I don’t do that at all.

IF: I don’t want to speak for Saeed, but look at the story he just told. There is an attraction in a basement in Chicago, there is a reconnecting over and over again, then we’re talking about flirtations over Twitter, we’re talking about meeting each other in a bookstore, then we go and talk in a bar, then we kind of open up to each other.

SJ: That’s the plot of a lot of bad novels.

IF: Then there’s crying. And then we end up

SJ In San Francisco of all places! I think I was…yes, I was falling in love with Isaac as a friend. I think I was also falling in love with the possibility of trusting people whom I, because of surviving a gay bashing, thought I would never trust again in my life, you know what I mean?

Every straight white man I have been friendly to for the last few years should probably thank Isaac.

AF: He paved the way.

IF: You’re welcome. I’d been out in San Francisco for a few years at that point, so I’d learned the importance of choosing family. I’d learned the importance of surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, who you admire, and whose ambitions felt similar to your own, if that makes sense. And I saw a lot of that in Saeed, and I also saw, especially after talking to him about the loss of his mother, somebody in need of family.

And as somebody who has found myself many times in my life, in need of family, I was like, you’re gonna come to San Francisco. And this, look, you slept in the bed, I slept on the floor.

AF: But when you hear about it, don’t you see it?

IF: I think another word for me is “attraction.” And I can say as I look at you in this fucking bar, I was attracted to you, and that is the word. An attraction that grew into love. We were still getting to know each other.



AF: So how did Isaac end up working at BuzzFeed in NYC?

SJ: I was about a year in at BuzzFeed and happy, learning a lot, doing a lot of things I’d never done before. And they were asking for a books editor, did anyone know anybody. I remember thinking, “I know someone,” but they wanted the person based in New York City.

AF: And you were thinking Isaac is never going to leave San Francisco?

IF: I never was! I thought I was going to die in San Francisco. I love that town.

SJ: However, other people at BuzzFeed were reaching out to him, because he had been doing incredible work at The Rumpus with Roxane Gay, and Cheryl Strayed.

AF: Then Isaac moved on to McSweeney’s and worked on publicity for White Girls by Hilton Als, right?

IF: I feel very lucky, I feel like a weird Forrest Gump of the lit world.

AF: I feel like you have this really incredible track record that you won’t acknowledge of knowing and encouraging writers, to be perfectly honest, from their roots.

IF: I don’t know about all that, but because of [Hilton Al’s] book, I came to New York more than I had before. When I would come, I would see Saeed, and I realized I was missing out on something. And Saeed had moved to San Francisco for a hot minute and then moved back to New York, and you want to talk about attraction? You want to talk about magnetism?

All of a sudden, San Francisco seemed very small, and Saeed seemed very far away.

SJ: It was only six months. But it was tough!

IF: Then an opening showed up at BuzzFeed, and I was missing the internet.

SJ: I think Isaac needed to literally see the BuzzFeed office, see how happy I was in this space, because it was hard to explain. BuzzFeed is so much about sincerity and earnestness. It is so much about the way the social web and emotion and using a quiz or an article or an essay that you’re sharing, and using it to communicate with the people.

Every person who shares Jenny Zhang’s essay that Isaac published as books editor, yes they are saying this is a beautiful essay it meant a lot to me, but they’re also saying, I’m sharing it with my people because I’m trying to connect. That is who Isaac and I have always been and learned to be even more so with each other.

AF: How do you work so closely with someone you love?

SJ: I had not thought of platonic romance before and now I’m obsessed with it. Now I’m thinking of my friend Nick, and realizing that the first time we went out, it was basically a great first date, and I had never been like, “oh it was romantic.” You know, my definition of love comes from Beloved. When Paul D. says to Sethe, “Woman, I did not fall for you, I rose in love with you.”

And because that’s my definition of love, I’ve risen in my love with Isaac. I am more myself. I am happier because Isaac is a part of my life. I have learned to be more honest with myself than I was before I knew Isaac. He is someone who, in the rising of that love, can challenge me and question me and be like, “Bitch, really?”

IF: Sometimes when I’m nervous, or we’re having a moment, our hands will reach out to one another

SJ: Instinctively.

IF: And that is love. And that is romance. Saeed fought for me when a lot of people didn’t understand who I was. When I showed up in New York, I got the shit kicked out of me, and we don’t need to talk about all of that, but Saeed has defended me. I know there are roles and projections society expects out of people, and I also know that I have been the damsel in distress in this relationship.

Saeed has been the knight in shining armor, Saeed has been the tough guy, Saeed has gone to fight for me time and time again, and gotten his nose bloodied, and fucking scrapped on my behalf. And that is something I admire in him. And he doesn’t even tell me. These are things I hear from other people.

SJ: I will cut somebody. It’s true.

IF: I’m not joking, this might be the first time you and I have had a conversation about all this. We’re getting real real.

SJ: We’re getting to the real.

IF: One way to categorize it is he’s gay, I’m straight, alright we’re like family. Right? Oh, we’re brothers, right? Saeed doesn’t defend me like family. To be honest, family is not a word that means safety to me. But he makes me feel safe, and he defends me in the way of somebody who loves me, and I feel loved, and I love that.

SJ: I love you.

IF: I love you too.

AF: Does working together ever get weird?

IF: No relationship is perfect, no relationship is ever gonna not have fights. It’s about being able to hit on the thing, talk about the thing, and then move on with the thing. And you better believe, that is something that has had to go into overdrive for us since this show has started. There’s another part of this relationship, and this is another part of romance, this is another part of love, is it’s almost like a game of chicken, it’s pushing the envelope. It’s what’s gonna happen, is this gonna fuck us up?

SJ: You continue being vulnerable, and you’re hoping your hand isn’t slapped away.

IF: So there was this moment where he’s the executive editor of culture, he got that executive position, I was the books editor, he was my boss, and I think more than a few people, not just us, but people at the company were like. “Oh shit, how’s this gonna work out?” And it worked out great. And we did it well. And then it’s like, “Hey do you want to host a live five day a week hour show?” And we decided to keep pushing the envelope.

AF: So how did the show even happen? Who called you?

IF: Shani Hilton called.

SJ: And then I was invited. And I was like, “Cool, I guess we’re going to dinner together. Are we in trouble?” It’s funny in that, particularly as writers, I think it comes from, it’s a class thing, actually let’s go there. It’s a class thing, I don’t do well with surprises.

IF: We thought, here comes the other shoe. It’s dropping.

SJ: And it turned out that BuzzFeed and Twitter were partnering. We were both interested and wanted to give it a shot, so we did.

IF: And we can’t say enough how much of an amazing team we have working with us on AM2DM. Too many people to name but we could start with Cindy, Shani, Patrick

SJ: Alex, Stephenwe could go on and on.

IF: But something at the center of this show that Saeed was talking about earlier, this beating heart of it, which is almost this friendship which we have with everyone else that’s working on this show.

The word that I keep coming back to is attraction. It’s all built around something Saeed has been talking about this entire time: trust. Trust is the heart of this show, it’s the heart of how we manage to better our lives through this relationship.

AF: It sounds like making a live television show hosted by two best friends can get a bit emotional. The last numbers I saw said you guys are getting a million unique visitors, which is crazy and awesome, but this is just the beginning.

Assuming Twitter is still a thing, and we haven’t been bombed by North Korea, where do you see the show in five years, and where do you see yourselves as friends in five years? What does that look like?

IF: Five years? I can’t tell you what the show looks like in five years. I can’t tell you what my life looks like in five years, because I can tell you five years ago, I had no goddamn clue that I would be up here, doing this, with Saeed. We were just meeting.

So I can’t tell you what five years from now looks like. But I can tell you in five years, Saeed will still be an incredibly important, inexplicably supportive part of my life. That I know.

SJ: I know that too.

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Edited by Zach Stafford

Photos byErik Carter

Graphics designed by Jules McLean