He was a dead man walking.
Thin. Pale. Sweatpants hung low on his hips, his hoodie pulled up around his head. Not to ward off chill, he’d later tell me, but to remain camouflaged on the barren street.
I knew it was him before I saw his face. I could tell by the subtle limp, the way he carried his six-foot frame. I knew beneath that sweatshirt would be a taut body, lean and tattooed. That a quarter-sized birthmark smudged his right foot and that his enormous hands were twice the size of mine.
I called once, his name catching in my throat. “Dean.”
I quickened my pace to catch up with my heart. It was January and the bitter chill of the evening air worked its way into my bones.
He stopped with a start.
I thought I’d readied myself for this moment. The second I would look into his soul and see my fears confirmed. But in that instant I realized nothing could have prepared me.
Vacant eyes stared right through me, like dark swirls of an emotional whirlpool. Confusion. Fear. Perhaps disbelief. Just a few days earlier they’d twinkled with mischief, happiness. With love. His cheeks were drawn inward and his jaw bristled with more than a five o’clock shadow.
Instinct told me to run.
I remember thinking, as I rushed into his arms, that I should not feel such comfort in his embrace. Knew it was dangerous to give him the heart I’d so preciously guarded.
But as his muscular arms enveloped me, I also knew there was no other place I belonged. Dean Jeffreys had held my heart for twenty years.
He kissed me with cool, unsure lips and I could taste the salt from our tears.
“You shouldn’t see me like this,” he said.
I opened my mouth to soothe him, but the truth of his words silenced me.
My courage had wilted, sprouting new seeds of doubt and fear. For two days I’d scoured the streets, in back alleys, parks, and seedy hotels. I’d banged on doors and been threatened, pushed my way through a fog of blue smoke and demanded attention.
But nothing could have prepared me for this.
Nothing could have steadied my heart or stopped the soft whoosh of pain as terror raked across my chest.
For this was the first time I’d seen the love of my life high on crack cocaine.
* * *
I stole Dean from my best friend in the tenth grade.
She’d been dating him on the sly for months. He was two years our senior. A football player. A bad ass. Even back then. What he remembers from high school is a string of rebellious antics.
What I remember is an extraordinarily tall boy with a heart-stopping smile.
He recalls my ripped jeans.
I told my Dad Dean Jeffreys thought I had cute knees. Dad thinks he must have meant something else. Like a secret testosterone code.
The memories of our teenage romance flood back with impressive speed. I wore his football jersey like a fine pair of Sergio Rossi stilettos.
He was the first boy I ever loved.
I remember that very well.
But what I can’t really recall – what neither of us can figure out – is exactly how we were separated.
* * *
Dean has a theory.
When he was eleven years old, his Dad walked out. Two years later, his Mom cracked under pressure and gave Dean to the courts. She kept his sister.
He bounced between foster homes until he turned eighteen, when they sent him out on his own. To a world he knew nothing about. No money. No education. Hardly even a will to survive.
Before that, they moved him away from me.
The memories are sketchy here. I remember the night before, sitting on his bed, his hands unclasping my bra and massaging my breasts. We’d kissed until his foster Mom caught us, so stealth-like we’d no time to react. No time to even collect my bra.
He tells me he kept it in a brown paper bag under his bed for years. Fate, perhaps, since I held on to his football jersey for fifteen years before my then-boyfriend succumbed to jealousy and burnt it.
We didn’t sneak out that night. I remember waking with an emptiness I couldn’t explain. He wasn’t at my locker that morning. Didn’t drop by at lunch.
I brought chicken soup to his foster home.
But he wasn’t sick. He was gone.
Dean figures this is when things started to go south, the catalyst that sent him spiraling into a dark underworld I could not imagine or explain. Now, we lie awake playing the game of “What if?” What if we hadn’t been separated? Would we be married? What if we hadn’t been caught making out? Would they still have shipped him away? What if we’d stayed together? Would he have lived such a hard life?
In Dean’s theory, or perhaps both of our fantasy, our love would have stood the test of time. He would not have been temped by drugs, would not have sold himself for money, would not have committed crime to survive. We would be married with children and live on an acreage with a white picket fence.
But the game always ends in sadness, because of course, there is no way to go back. We can only move forward, one step at a time.
We walk at a turtle’s pace, sometimes hard, and often painful.
But we keep moving. It’s the only way he can win. The last chance he has to make his mark, to live the life he so desperately wants and needs.
It isn’t easy. It will never be easy.
Because Dean Jeffreys is a crack addict.
And together we are on his journey of recovery.