I have a deep, deep love for Dean Winters in the Allstate Mayhem commercials. “My boyfriend!” I always call out excitedly whenever one of these ads graces my TV screen. I mean, the campaign is clever and funny and the man is hot, am I right?
But the truth is, he really is my boyfriend. Almost all of my past boyfriends, in fact, have been The Mayhem Guy. What can I say? I like a bad boy. I am Team Spike, Team Damon, Team Riggins. I even have a little crush on Mr. Don Draper. I cannot help myself. As far as these television characters go, however, enjoying their storylines is not quite as detrimental to one’s health (mental or otherwise) as is the real-life practice of dating The Mayhem Guy. As Allstate so smartly informs us, inviting mayhem into your life can cause a dangerous accident. Unfortunately, after perusing their website, I was unable to find any offers for dating insurance, so it seems I’ll just have to carry on as best I can.
In the interest of understanding and entertainment, then, I am going to create an inventory of Mayhem Guys of my past. Today’s item: my first love. Read on.
The first time we met was on a chartered bus heading home from a high school football game. He played me Dinosaur Jr. and the Sex Pistols on his Walkman. I was hooked.
When you are fifteen, falling in love seems quite simple indeed, although I think most of us would look back on those relationships and roll our eyes a bit at the use of the word “love,” wouldn’t we? But at the time it’s all encompassing and certain and bold. GW and I fell in love over hours spent talking on the phone and during those long bus trips with the marching band*. We were masters of the art of the mix tape: I schooled him in John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, and Dave Brubeck; he brought The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth into my life. We read Edward Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac**. These were exciting times.
After two years or so we split up. I no longer remember exactly why, but I do remember that even after the fact, and after his parents had him “sent off” to military school in Virginia, we always remained fairly close. After high school we would lose touch every now and then, only to pick things right back up whenever we managed to get together again — at home at Christmas time, usually. While I was in college in South Carolina, he went out to Oregon, spending a lot of time in Eugene, and always bringing back some of the best stories about his time out there. I’m not sure if all the stories were true or not (attending a party at Ken Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill seems likely enough; meeting and hanging out with the man himself less so). It didn’t really matter to me, though, as half of the romance of the stories seemed to be in the telling.
I moved to Oregon myself for graduate school (surely in part seduced by the reputation it had come to have for me, one of freedom and rebellion and wild excitement), and we entered the age of cell phones and free long distance calling. We went through a period of time where we’d talk on the phone several times a week, for hours at a stretch. More than once we were on the phone until after five in the morning. Well over a decade after that first trip home in the band bus, we still had plenty to say to each other. We always had music to share; we were both always reading. We both still cared, rather intensely, what the other one thought about it all.
There were some vague discussions about our feelings, some regret that we lived on opposite sides of the country and, for various reasons, it was simply impractical to revisit the idea of romance in our adult lives. For one thing, GW was a heroin addict. He wasn’t always using. He’d been to rehab at least once or twice. Sometimes it would seem like his life was sailing along smoothly enough, like maybe he wouldn’t always be someone defined by an addiction. I was often telling myself that people overcome these things. Don’t they? I mean, sometimes?
But then other times he’d use and then have to find what seemed like fairly drastic measures to get himself clean again. I remember one particularly disastrous visit. He’d come out to the west coast and a visit to me in Eugene was on the agenda. I was filled with both excitement and a not insignificant degree of wariness. With him, one never knew. I wondered if he’d be clean or using when he showed up at my door.
As it turned out, he was clean. I mean “clean” in the sense that he wasn’t using heroin, not in the sense of “and sober.” To make the withdrawals a little easier, he was drinking heavily. As you know, I have no qualms about drinking. I have no qualms about drinking heavily, even. So maybe I should specify that he was essentially pouring straight Tanqueray down his throat to the point of near oblivion.
“I think I have Rimsky-Korsakov Syndrome,” he kept telling me, over and over***. “It’s this thing where if you drink enough you can’t remember what just happened. You have no short term memory.”
“I know. You told me.”
The visit was, shall we say, less fun than I’d hoped. When it came time for him to leave town and go visit some other friends in Washington, I was going to take him to the train station.
“I need my backpack, Kat. I can’t find it. Can you please help me find my backpack?”
The backpack was sitting on his lap, his hands folded on top of it. I left him at the train station with a feeling of great relief. Only later did it occur to me to worry about whom he might meet there or whom he might call. He still had contacts in the area and I later learned that after he left me he got high again.
I saw him a couple more times after that, and he was clearly still using. When I asked directly about a visible injection site on the back of his left hand, he told me he was “just using a little llello” and not to worry about it. He later accidentally burned a hole in my futon cover cooking up while I was asleep in the next room.
Writing down all of this feels like a bit of a betrayal. I don’t include these details to make GW seem like a terrible person. He was, in fact, a wonderful person who suffered from an impossible addiction and addiction can make even the best person into a liar and a criminal. And a nuisance — though it pains me to think of how annoyed I was with him at times. Nonetheless, for me, these sorts of transgressions are easy to forgive. I didn’t love him any less when he was using; I just worried more.
When I visited him around Christmas after that, he was going through another clean period, and this time I didn’t have to be around for the self-medication-via-gin phase of it. We stayed up all night talking and singing and drinking wine in not-too-excessive amounts and hanging out with his dog, a black-and-tan coon hound named Coltrane (“because he wails”).
I went back out to Oregon with us on better terms than ever. In all our contact, though, GW could be a bit needy at times. If he needed to talk, he would keep calling until I could promise to work a long conversation into my schedule. I remember avoiding his call one night when I was over at a friend’s house, knowing I wouldn’t be able to talk for an extended period of time. I didn’t even listen to the voicemail until the next morning. It turned out to be from his sister, though she’d been using GW’s phone. I called it back immediately, knowing this couldn’t be good. Why did she have his phone? Had he had to go back to rehab? Or jail?
It turned out he had died. His father couldn’t get him on the phone, so he went over to GW’s house and found him there. He hadn’t overdosed; he hadn’t even been using at all at that time. I don’t think that made his death any more of a surprise, though. I think his body was just worn out from the years of abuse. It’s been almost seven years since then and I am now at the point where I don’t have a sad thought about him every day. I’m not sure when that stopped happening, but for a while it seemed like it never would.