Like a Renaissance painting of Jesus, Jimmy’s long wavy, chestnut hair tumbled over sloped shoulders on his wiry, muscular frame. Raised as an atheist Jew, I wasn’t searching for Christ, my God was chemicals. I was a sixteen-year-old freshman art major at Boston University. It was 1978 and Harvard Square was stuck in a time warp, full of hippies and acid, and I loved both.
Four months after our first date, twenty-one-year-old Jimmy suggested we live together. “But we need permission,” he said, “you’re jailbait.”
“I’m moving in with my boyfriend,” I told my parents. Mom replied in machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat, “Who’s Jimmy? What will it cost? Where will you live? Where did you meet? What does he do? Does he have a job?”
My parents were a tight unit. I’d always felt alone, outside looking in on their exclusive clique. Moving in with Jimmy felt like my chance. Two hundred dollars a month rented the bottom floor in a Boston outskirts house. My folks weren’t thrilled with a freelance masseur slash leather craftsman, but they lived in New York, too far away to keep an eye on me. They were relieved somebody would.
Jimmy was the first ex-junkie I’d known. His stories, meant as warnings, mesmerized me. We made breakfast, danced in the kitchen, took showers together and played fetch with the dog. But what a drag when he nagged me to quit liquor and drugs. I felt ensnared, tricked by an undercover narc dressed up like a sexy stoner. Because rum smelled, I began to sneak speed for the days, Valium for nights. But nobody is hipper to an addict’s tricks than a former druggie. He was intolerant and could always tell when I was juiced. Because I couldn’t outsmart him, he earned my reluctant respect. My dependence on him grew and I vowed to quit everything.
Cold turkey was as ill-fated as a crash diet. Below the surface of my addiction was an unendurable desolation, an inability to cope with everyday stressors. Without a buffer or equalizer, I was raw, hopeless, a defenseless skinned cat. If anybody looked at me funny my feelings were hurt. In drawing classes my mind wandered to how many pills guaranteed an OD. As I studied Michelangelo in the library, I imagined riding the elevator to the top where I could raise a window and hurl myself out. I’d learned not to share these dark thoughts. Boyfriends never responded well. But Jimmy was different, I told him all of it. He squeezed me tight and wooed me to the stove. As I inhaled the smells of his seasoned baked chicken, mashed potatoes and pies, I felt guilty as I plotted to sneak off and get high.
We danced that year at nine Grateful Dead concerts. I lived free from substances, except a rare black beauty or two. The more time I spent straight, the less I ran away to the world in my head. Jimmy taught me to slow down and breathe. When he praised my paintings of Hendrix, I beamed. In July ’79, Jimmy planned a trip west to hang out with “Rainbow People,” peaceniks who hosted free love fests each year. Campers shared food, land and, I hoped, LSD. We rode a Greyhound to Holbrook, Arizona. The bus stop was a hundred miles from our campsite. I’d sworn to Mom I’d never hitchhike but, as usual, my promises were worthless.
Under the Arizona sky, Jimmy and I held hands. We strolled till a ’78 Chevy pickup truck stopped. The driver, Kirby Ray, was a nineteen-year-old Apache Indian. He guessed where we were going. His grin flashed white against clay-brown skin as he winked and pointed first to his right where two hitchhikers sat, then to the back truckbed with four more hitchers. We were all going to the Rainbow People’s festival and Kirby Ray was willing to drive us an hour out of his way. The sun sparkled through Jimmy’s hair as we piled into the back. Jimmy took off his T-shirt, rolled it up for my pillow and I laid my head in his cross-legged lap. The heat beat down like a blanket, a breeze lulled me to sleep.
I woke up in Good Samaritan Hospital, IV tubes in my arm.
Mom and Dad flew to Phoenix. At the hospital’s Neuro Intensive Care unit, my parents were met by a nurse who led them to the patients’ beds. Mom told me later she and Dad walked past a grotesquely banged-up body. The nurse motioned them back. They were shocked that the mangled girl turned out to be me.
Dad consulted with the neurosurgeon about permanent brain damage. When the doc said he didn’t know yet what to expect, Dad threw up. Mom collapsed in a chair. After two days unconscious I opened my eyes and sat up in a jolt. “Where’s Jimmy?” I shrieked. Mom, teary-eyed, assured me he was fine, in a room nearby. When I saw myself in the mirror I screamed. My face was multicolored and bloated, nose broken and bent, lips deeply gashed and stitched. Jimmy always said I had a beautiful smile, but now my front teeth dangled, their roots exposed.
Rainbow People heard of our accident and donated clothes. Later Jimmy told me the police report said Kirby Ray had been up all night fighting a Tucson forest fire. While driving us to the festival he got sleepy and drank two cans of beer, “to help stay awake.” When Kirby Ray dozed at the wheel, the pickup veered off the road, hit an embankment then somersaulted over a boulder. When it came down on the left front fender it slid fifty feet upside down on its front cab.
Two hitchers were instantly crushed to death, five survivors were treated at local White Mountain Hospital, four critically injured were Air-Evac’d from the scene. One of the four flown to Phoenix was me. A third hitcher died in the hospital. Jimmy came to my room in slippers and robe, one eye drooped and his smile only worked on one side. He tenderly placed a stuffed gorilla in my lap. By the look on his face I knew it was bad news. He looked fragile and weak as he relayed the three deaths. Then he said he was lucky he’d only lost hearing in one ear. Overwrought with anguish I buried my face in the toy ape and cried.
My parents took me home. With my short-term memory shot I couldn’t care for myself. Howls of angst filled my head. I resented Jimmy because it was his stupid idea to go on that trip. He should’ve refused when I said, “Let’s hitch.”
A week home from the hospital, I abruptly cut ties with Jimmy and flushed his notions of God out of my head. I returned to saviors I trusted—replaceable men who kept me drunk and shot needles into my veins.
Jimmy went to college in Massachusetts and we sent letters for a while. Three years after our split he wrote of a yearlong friendship that turned into marriage. The enclosed photo of her looked a lot like me.
Years later, we spoke a few times and met up in Manhattan. On the steps outside Penn Station, Jimmy asked how I was. I pretended to sneeze to hide my tears.
Always the healer, he’d built a career as a chiropractor. He and his wife had two daughters. The oldest is college age now. On another trip to New York, he followed a spiritual guru—a man with a white turban he referred to as “The Master.”
As my years went by, shared needles gave me Hepatitis C, and nearly a decade post-car accident, cocaine and Bacardi made me see bugs and hear voices. I crawled across my floor, dialed and woke up in rehab.
The last time I called Jimmy was in May 1989. A year out of treatment, I was proud to be clean. His wife answered the phone. She was icy and said he was out. Their number would soon be disconnected. They’d packed and were moving. With strained politeness I asked her where to. She wouldn’t answer but said, “It’s unhealthy to call an ex-boyfriend.” Then the phone clicked. She’d hung up.
For years I Googled Jimmy, but no luck. Last week, with the added word “chiropractor,” I got a hit. The link led to a Massachusetts medical practice and there he was. Jesus sure looked corporate. He sported a suit, tie and spiffy short hairdo. Not knowing what to expect, I dialed his office. Jimmy was glad to hear from me, thrilled I was sober and impressed I’d founded a graphic design company. After we caught up I asked if his wife ever mentioned my call. He seemed surprised and apologetic when he said no.
Things were hectic lately he said, he’d installed a ramp for his wife’s wheelchair. “She was diagnosed with MS ten years ago.” Jimmy said. An irrational pang of jealousy smacked me—he had found another woman to save.
Ironically, the National MS Society is one of the big clients who helped pay off my Chelsea mortgage. I stared at my large living room, filled with proof of success. Then I gazed at myself in the mirror. Twenty years ago a doc snapped my nose back in place and my bruises all healed. I’d undergone gum surgeries, root canals, caps, crowns, braces, and implants. Fifty thousand dollars later, I have a great smile.
In that last conversation, Jimmy asked if I’d married. I said, “Was asked a bunch of times but …” As my sentence trailed off regrets stabbed my gut. If only I’d listened, appreciated him more, we could’ve made a life together. Instead I’d paid for my life of debauchery.
When I clicked off my iPhone I felt seared by self-pity. I glanced at a current work project. It was a series of booklets about his wife’s illness. Like addiction, multiple sclerosis progresses, it corrodes the body and wears down the mind. It cannot be cured. His wife was a victim of her disease. I’d had a choice to stop destroying myself. Now I was stable, no longer a freaked out little girl on a desperate quest to find peace. MS trumped any challenges I’ve ever had. Jimmy had married the right woman after all. She needed him more than I did.