Friday, January 16, 2009

Rest in Peace, J.R.

For the first time in my life, or at least since Kindergarten, Jimmy Ray isn’t out there somewhere.

Yesterday I got the weekly newspaper that comes out of the county seat that carries the news from our little town of under 400 - who had a birthday, who had a baby, who took a trip, who had visitors from out of town, who came home on leave - and as per usual the last paragraph was the reminder to keep the friends and families of the following people who have passed away in the last week in our thoughts and prayers, and his name was listed. My husband read the paper first and broke the news to me.

Jimmy Ray and I grew up together. It was a small town, so small we didn’t even have a football team, and there were never enough boys to choose up teams for anything. Sandlot sports were, of necessity, coed. I could throw a tight spiral, hit a baseball, saddle a horse, and swish a basketball from anywhere around the top of the key. In that little town, I was an honorary guy, at least until I started filling out.

He was the first boy to realize that was not the case at all, and I will never forget that he was my first real kiss.

It was over 30 years ago, about this time of year, after the Christmas break and before the end-of-season tournaments started. We were sitting in the back of the pep bus, headed back home after a Friday night basketball game. This was the 70s - there were no walkmans, or even boom boxes. We weren’t interested in sitting up front and sucking up to the coaches and cheerleading sponsor, so we headed for the back of the bus. Somewhere along a stretch of north Missouri two lane blacktop between Gilman City and home, after all the other people on the bus around us had fallen asleep, he put his arm around me. That was the moment I felt that tingle behind my bellybutton that I would soon recognize as signaling imminent sexual arousal for the very first time.

I inhaled sharply, and for a second, I panicked and tensed up. Then I felt him tense up, and start to move his arm. Before he pulled back, I laid my head on his shoulder and put my hand on his chest. For probably five minutes, he played with my hair, we both started to relax a little bit and I just laid there against him and enjoyed the intimate closeness of a male for the first time in my young life. I felt him lean forward and kiss the top of my head, and I turned my face toward him. It was awkward for a second, looking into one another’s eyes in a whole new way after a lifetime of being friends, compatriots and partners in crime. Then he put a hand against my cheek, leaned in, and for the first time, our lips met. It was stiff and awkward and exciting and scary and wonderful, and within two miles, we had taken to our newly discovered pastime like a couple of ducks to water.

But in the end, even though we took a side-trip into intimacy and sexual exploration, we ended up being friends and offering a stamp of approval for one another’s future dating endeavors. When we took the ASVAB the end of our junior year, I kicked the shit out of it and had all branches recruiting me. Ultimately, I decided to enlist in the Army because he couldn’t get into the Air Force or the Navy with his scores, and we wanted to go in under the Buddy System. I figured if we were together I could get him through tech school like I got him through algebra, geometry, biology and chemistry.

It wasn’t long after that, tho, that we started drifting apart. Before the oaths were taken, he discovered drugs. Not the pot we had been pretending to smoke since 9th grade, but real drugs, and they pretty much wrecked his life. He didn’t go to the military at all, and I ended up in a Colonel’s office on a university campus getting that same feeling behind my bellybutton when a scholarship offer was put in front of me for my signature.

Eventually, my husband - who dated Jimmy Ray’s older sister for over a year when they were in high school together - I keep telling you this is a really, really small town - would physically throw him out of our house when we caught him shooting up in our bathroom a few hours after he turned up unannounced on our doorstep years later. That was the last time I ever saw him, although I heard the occasional status report and always made it a point to stop and see his mother whenever we were back home, and one of those times we went to visit her, she told us how she had prayed that her kids would wise up and make us a part of her family, “But you two were obviously made for each other, so that would have eventually been a hell of a mess and it would have probably come to a head at Christmas dinner.” (When my husband and I got together, she had a heart-to-heart with both of us, individually, threatening our lives if we blew it.)

I never kissed Jimmy Ray again after we graduated from high school, but I never forgot him, either. I frequently thought about him, and regularly sent good thoughts out into the universe on his behalf, hoping against hope that he had managed to get his shit together, wishing him the best and being glad he was out there somewhere.

And now, for the first time in my life, I know definitively that he isn’t, and that fills me with an overwhelming sadness.

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