Saturday, April 22, 2023

First Love and Loss (or For Jimmy)

I was 18 the first time I fell in love. Not the love-is-patient-love-is-kind sort of love, but the kind of love that one—if you’re lucky—experiences at the cusp of adulthood when the emotions are adult, but the emotional processing mechanisms haven’t quite caught up. That frantic, desperate, one-minute-you’re happy/the-next-minute-you’re-an-emotional-mess kind of love. Messy, passionate, all-consuming, and ultimately doomed. That was the way it was for me with Jimmy, who I met at the first nursing home I ever worked in—the inevitably named Foothill Acres. Jimmy worked in the kitchen; I worked as an orderly. (These were in the pre-certification days when the girls were nurses aides, and the boys were orderlies.) Our fellow crew on the 3 pm to 11 pm shift of building 1 was largely comprised of high schoolers—there was my best friend at the time, Greg, a fellow Immaculatan, Sharon and Denise and Chrissy who all attended Hillsborough High, and then there was Jimmy, who attended Somerville High School.  There was another guy, too, whose image blips at the periphery of my memory—Bruce maybe?

We forged a tight bond that often led to extracurricular outings after our shift—I distinctly remember late night trips to Denny’s on the Somerville Circle as one of them. There were parties at various houses when the parents were away, and then there was the one night we all hung out at a park in Neshanic Station, near Jimmy’s old house on Pearl Street. Now, I knew I was gay from a very young age, but this was the mid-1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic when the word “gay” was synonymous in the minds of many with the disease. So, I did what many young gay kids did back then, which was to “date” girls. I was pretty confident in who I was and the type of life ahead of me, less so in those years about how to execute said life. So, I played the role that was expected of me.

But that night in that little park in Neshanic Station changed my life forever. Our group had all been hanging out, drinking, laughing. As the hours wore on, members of the group left one-by-one or in pairs until it was just Jimmy and me, alone, under the most star-filled sky on a temperate night. I believe it was late June because I had just graduated high school. There had been no discernible flirtation or obvious attraction between us that I could recall, but that night we connected in the most beautiful and gentlest of ways. The only way I can describe the experience all these years later is that it felt organic. Don’t ask me who made the first move or how a blanket or sleeping bag suddenly appeared—because I remember so few of the details, only the feelings of the experience. And it was beautiful.

That summer was the best summer of my young life. I understood my own truth more than ever. Jimmy and I were inseparable for those months—except for an agonizing week when he flew to Seattle with his family. I still remember sending him off with a mix tape (I can only remember that Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” was on the playlist) and a letter professing my feelings. Otherwise, we slept at each other’s houses where the biggest worry was making too much noise, or we would hop in his ’67 green Mustang and head down to the Jersey shore where we’d get a motel room for the night. There were even one or two make-out sessions in the back seat of that old Mustang, engine idling, parked down some dark, old dirt road when neither of our family homes were accommodating. It was an intense summer during which my feelings only deepened—and I never missed an opportunity to express them to Jimmy, who was far less forthcoming with what was going on inside his head and heart. Our nursing home group of friends knew on some level that there was something more than a close friendship between us, but again, those conversations didn’t really readily flow naturally back in those days. We acted out the roles prescribed to us by society.

September came and Jimmy began his senior year at Somerville High School. That was the beginning of the end for our torrid summer romance. In the end, I think I’ve always been an old soul—knowing what I wanted, which was stability and companionship…yes, even at that age. Jimmy still wanted to experience all that lay before him. I didn’t handle any of it well back in those days before I could recognize that love had turned into infatuation. I know I made a lot of mistakes and hurt Jimmy, who was doing nothing more than trying to be a high school senior. Wisely, he eventually cut me off. I remember the intensity of those emotions and feeling alone and frantic for an unrequited love. Relationships with friends suffered and I acted like a fool, culminating in a stupid act of desperation in a last-ditch effort to get his attention. Ultimately, he graduated from high school and went away to college in Syracuse without looking back. Reluctantly, I eventually found a way to move on with mine. Time has the best way of soothing over the jagged edges of painful memories.

Flashforward 20 years later and through the wonder of the Internet and social media, Jimmy—who was now going by “CJ”—and I reconnected back in 2010. We caught up and stayed connected all these years. We made peace with our shared past. Apologies were exchanged and accepted. In 2011, we met up again for the first time since we were teenagers. Jimmy met me at my weekend place in Manhattan. He treated me to a lovely Italian dinner at ViceVersa on West 51st Street, and then I treated him to the theater to see the limited engagement (and Broadway debut) of The Normal Heart at the Golden Theater. That teenage love we shared briefly over that magical summer of ’86 was far back in both of our rearview mirrors, but the act of coming together again was a long overdue closure in some weird but comforting way.

That was the last time I saw Jimmy. We’ve stayed in touch regularly via text and Facebook. We’d message during his mother’s chemotherapy appointments a few years back, or I’d try to cheer him during one of his own unsettling cardiac procedures, and there was the one time—honest to God—that he saw on Facebook that Brian and I were about to meet Chita Rivera in her dressing room following a performance of Terrence McNally’s The Visit at the Lyceum Theatre and texted me a message to give to her. I did as directed, and she lit up! Jimmy last sent me a message on March 16th with a link to an interview about how Jamie Lee Curtis met and married her husband. His sarcasm and naughty sense of humor was ever present in those exchanges and never failed to make me smile.

Yesterday, I received word from our dear mutual friend, Sharon, that Jimmy died on Wednesday afternoon. He laid down for a nap and never woke up. I immediately cried and the memories flooded back as their liable to do in times of the worst news possible. I’m eternally grateful for our first shared experience with love and the lessons it taught us—and even more so that we eventually made it out the other side, neither of us worse for the wear and probably better people for it. I’m glad Jimmy got to live the life he wanted, to experience love and heartbreak, to do things on his terms. Some of the stories he shared were so colorful, and I remember being nothing but happy that he got to experience life so fully, even if it’s been tragically cut short at the age of 54.

As I wrote this blog, I stopped and searched through the shoebox I keep of old photos. I was saddened but not surprised to realize that I don’t have a single photo of Jimmy and me together from 1986. We didn’t even take one together when we met up in 2011. This left me momentarily heartbroken, but then I realized that maybe we were so busy living those moments, present and engaged with each other, that we never thought to memorialize our time together. Instead, I’ve chosen Henry Scott Tuke’s beautiful painting, “Aquamarine,” to accompany and capture my sentiments here.

Fly high, Jimmy. You will always and forever hold a very special and indelible place in my heart, even as it breaks today over your loss.

xoxo Vince