June 12, 2010
“Give me one reason!” She stared at me, defiant, nostrils flaring. She was already three steps down the spiral stone staircase that led to the park below… to the remnant of woods beyond. To the place beyond my reach, where she would meet her fate. Pimped out by her boyfriend of the time. Addicted to heroin and cocaine. Prostituting herself for her habit. Infected with HIV. Dead.
It would take all of three years’ time.
But then, at that moment, she was still nineteen – as was I – and there was still a chance. She’d dabbled in drugs but wasn’t hooked yet. She used the company of men in their late twenties and early thirties but was still held the reigns and pretended they were real relationships. She was street-tough. But I’d seen her other side. Briefly. Long enough to know it was underneath. Hiding, crying, in a closet somewhere while her bulletproof persona drove them both straight for the cliffs ahead.
We met when I was fifteen. God, did we know each other for that long? I hadn’t considered it until now. Regardless, we moved in the same circles, already fledgling ferals, connecting within the same pack. We never dated. We never even “dated”. But there was something there. Something that made her twenty-four-year-old “boyfriend” jealous. Something that her friends teased her about to the point where she, in typical teen fashion, went out of her way to be dismissive of me in public. Yet we always hung with the same crew and would orbit each other like moons of the same planet.
My parents went to Ireland for two weeks when I was sixteen, leaving me alone in the apartment. Of course, drunken teenaged revelry ensued. Most of the crew – including her, with her girlfriend, “M”. She’d since had a breakup-worthy fight with her latest boyfriend. We drank and partied throughout the night, then passed out pretty much wherever we fell. I ended up in my own bedroom, Lord of the Manor that I was, with M, two other guys… and her. She passed out in my bed. On my pillow.
M decided it would be the height of cruel hilarity to tell her in the morning that she’d stripped for us and we’d had our way with her. This is what passed for humor in our world. I was still half-drunk/half-hung over by the time she awoke to this news so I certainly came across suitably subdued and contrite. She threatened everyone in the room… except me. M for letting it happen. The other two boys for doing it. But not me. One guy noticed and made a sullen comment about it but nothing was ever said directly. We came clean and she seemed to see the humor in it. She never looked me in the eye the rest of that morning after she found out we hadn’t slept together. I don’t know if she ever knew we had spooned all night, fully clothed, arms entwined.
As a side note, a death threat for such an offense was not to be taken lightly. Her father – drunken, meth-lean, coke-head that he was – was the closest thing to a made hitter in our neighborhood. I was one of the few kids to meet him in their apartment. He was so wired he was giving off sparks. He had a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachinegun – cutting-edge technology back then – in pieces on his bedspread and a 1911 .45ACP tucked into the back of his pants. In case you were wondering, nothing about that scene was remotely legal. He liked me and got pretty exuberant when I was introduced by name, though I didn’t know why he’d even heard of me. Guess that was another clue.
I played hero for another girl then actually began to date her seriously. She lived in an even shittier neighborhood but had an innocence about her. She did the tough-girl thing, too, but you could tell there was a limit. Her soul hadn’t been touched. The wall went up in time. She would make it out on her own, she just needed some cover, while she built up enough escape velocity.
But Jill – her name was Jill, so fucking write it, Andrew – grew very distant and aloof when it was obvious that I was serious about this girl. Eventually, in another drunken bacchanalia, Jill accosted her – completely apropos of nothing – to slur that nothing had “ever, ever, ever, ever happened” between us. My girlfriend though that was funny. I thought I was dying inside.
By the time I was eighteen, I was in bona fide love and wanted to make a better life for us, to get off the path I was on before it was no longer an option. I became more “mainstream”. I went to a trade school. I cut ties with the crew. Jill became more involved in the drug scene and her older boyfriends became a lot more controlling. We wouldn’t see her for months at a time and, when she surfaced, she always looked more haggard and strung out. We wouldn’t say much to each other at those times. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even get out of her guy’s car.
I began my life as a corporate drone, commuting into the city and making good money. I had made it clear that I was out and not to be bothered with the local scene anymore. But someone told me that Jill was moving in with her latest guy, sharing an apartment in an area that I knew to be… unsavory. I suspected what it meant. I sent word that I wanted to talk to her.
And she came. We met at that public park. On those stone stairs. I told her I was thinking about moving, too. To another state. Halfway across the country. Away from all this crap. Clean break, start over. I let the unspoken hang there.
“Why are you telling me this?” She spit it. I mean it. Like venom.
“Because…” I was speechless. That was rarely a problem I had to face – I always had something to say, even if it was an order to give. “Just – “
“Why?” She interrupted, demanded.
“This isn’t good for you. You know what the fuck is going to happen if you keep doing this shit. You’re gonna end up fucking dead. You don’t deserve this.”
She scoffed, “Deserve? What the fuck do you know about what I deserve?”
“You don’t. You are beautiful. You are smart. You are a good person. And you fucking deserve to be treated like it for a change.” She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She chain-smoked what seemed like half a pack of Marlboros.
And then I saw the tears. Leaking out like rain down a window pane, divorced from any expression on her face.
“What about – ?” she asked, naming my girlfriend.
And I was speechless again. My girlfriend needed security, love and nurturing. Jill needed someone to save her life. But I loved them both and… I was fucking nineteen. I didn’t know how to handle emotions like this. And I paused. For longer than I should have.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.” And she turned and walked down the steps.
“WAIT!!” I shouted.
“Give me one reason!” That’s what she shouted back. That’s what still echoes in my head, two decades later, because I also heard the words that never left her head. Tell me you love me. Tell me you’ll take me. Tell me you won’t ever leave me and I’ll never share you because what you just said wasn’t just words. Tell me you love me and I’ll never have to look back or come back or remember anything I ever did here.
And I didn’t. I paused again. This time, I didn’t shout anymore because I couldn’t. No, that’s a lie. I could have. But I knew there was only room for one passenger in the lifeboat I was rowing and I did not have the heart to throw my girlfriend into the water just to pull Jill in. Even though I could see she was about to slip under.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. Go move. Go get married. Have kids.” She wasn’t shouting anymore. She wasn’t bitter. She’d seen the ending of this movie before she’d even bought the ticket and she was simply resigned to her fate. And mine.
Not once, not for one single moment, did she look back at me when she descended those stairs. Symbolic. Into the underworld.
Soon after, I invited my girlfriend to move with me. Not long after that, I’d heard the first rumors of Jill’s life. I proposed when I was twenty-one. Some time between then and getting married the following year, I’d heard about Jill’s HIV status. Before my new bride and I pulled up stakes and left for good, I’d heard – though never substantiated – that Jill had been found dead. Unknown if it was the disease or an overdose. Or suicide.
So… I am married. I have moved. I have children. I have a wonderful life. And some small part of me will never forgive me for it all. And I will always see her, mascara drying in streaks, unheeded, on her taut cheeks. Waiting to see if the words she craved but never expected would come after all, one last – last – opportunity for salvation just a small sentence away.
We all go to Hell in our own way and time. We cannot be responsible for the choices of others. But I don’t believe I will ever forgive myself, regardless, and I hope her death brought her more peace than it ever will me.