One cool thing about people dying is it invites you to cherish the living.
Johnny said, “Is this really happening? Are we really going to see each other?”
It’s surreal. He was my boyfriend after I left my first husband and fled to Tucson 27 years ago. Then, I left Johnny and broke his heart—because he was a bit broken at the time and patience wasn’t my forte. I was in a hurry to get to success.
So much has happened since then—for both of us.
On a recent road trip from Columbus, OH to Santa Fe, NM, I met Johnny in Kansas City in front of the Hilton Hotel, where I stayed with my Black Lab, Phoenix. The three of us walked around the back of the hotel and sat on a bench. Johnny and I drank beer as Phoenix played greeter to guests entering and exiting the doors.
I stared at Johnny—full beard and long dreadlocks, everything on him heavier with the years. I searched his eyes for the young man who decades ago ravished my body day after day as if we were trying out for the sex Olympics.
Before arriving in Kansas City, I worried I might leap into bed with him as I’d done the night I picked him up in a bar and took him back to my Tucson apartment.
Instead, I now studied the man. I said, “Did you always walk like that?” I missed his youthful bravado. I wanted it to summon mine.
“No,” Johnny said. “I’m a man beaten down.” Disappointment found its way to the place where my white woman’s heart witnesses the emotional scars a black man carries by living. Of course, he didn’t say it was about that.
I remembered a day before either of us cracked 30, when Johnny sat on the edge of my bed crying. He said, “You don’t know.”
Back then, he was a clean-shaven, suit-wearing, bright-eyed young man. But, that day a woman crossed to the other side of the street when she saw him coming. Most days, trivialities like that stood undiscussed. That day, Johnny cried.
I held him. I loved his tears as much as his laughter and the jazz he introduced me to. He had deeper reasons for the sadness, but sometimes a stranger could hit his hot button and awaken me to my ignorance.
All these years later, we talked about what happened the time Johnny visited me in Louisville, KY in the early 90s.
I travelled for work and had gone with a co-worker to a bar that was several under one roof: country, rock, jazz, big, winding, crowded and loud.
As I led us through the people, Johnny said he wanted to leave, but I couldn’t hear him. He grabbed my arm, no more forceful than the moment warranted, but in the snap of a finger, five cowboys surrounded us, apparently prepared to fight for my protection.
Johnny turned and left. I followed, trying to grasp what had happened.
In the parking lot, he screamed, “Are you trying to get me killed?”
I said something like, “You can’t love me because I don’t consider race and be mad at me for it, too.”
I was new to the nuances that are a part of a black person’s normal. I was unaware because I walk in the world as a white woman. I didn’t know my privilege; I simply relished it.
On that same trip, I took Johnny on a dinner cruise I’d gone on earlier in the week with my (white) coworker. I wanted to share my cool experiences with Johnny.
Instead, I got a taste of his. We were seated in a corner right next to the kitchen, then ignored. I’d never been so brushed off by a wait staff. We did get food, finally.
Who knows if the less-than-stellar service had anything to do with the color of Johnny’s skin, or the contrast to mine? I only know how it felt.
I remember Johnny telling me I could escape racism just by breaking up with him, but he didn’t have that option.
I did break up with him—not because of his blackness. I was desperate to get somewhere and young enough to believe love like ours lived on every corner.
Now, Kansas City Johnny—the man beat down by life—seemed to revive as we reminisced about old times and how I got him addicted to raspberry coffee.
I heard his deep masculine voice, his undeniable pride for his children, and his refreshing laughter.
We talked late into the night, hugged, and said goodbye like we needed to part to process these precious moments.
I saw him again the next day. I played him a mixed cassette tape he once made me. I don’t know what’s more amazing—that I still have it or that I have a cassette player in my 2007 Nissan Murano.
That mixed tape used to play on my boom box while we got ready to go out on the town. Now, Toni Toni Toni takes us back to Tucson and our 20s, watching Johnny shave and dancing in my undies.
I glance at Johnny sitting in my passenger seat smiling the kind of smile that bubbles up from within and paints a man’s face with light. It was one of those moments where goodness wins.
Nothing else matters and I remember how much I love this man, still.
It wasn’t the sexual ecstasy I imagined before we saw each other or the unrequited feelings he might’ve feared. I didn’t have that power over him anymore.
Listening to the music seemed to remind Johnny that nothing has the power to take him down and encourage him to stand tall again.
I’m standing stronger myself. An enduring friendship, a long-awaited visit, cool conversation, and some old songs made my soul sing. My mind reawakened.
My path rolls out on the road before me. I’m grateful Johnny reconnected with me in the wake of my boyfriend Kevin’s passing in 2016, and all the 2 am phone calls he took where I told him I just didn’t give a f*ck because it hurt too damn much. He acknowledged my pain and said, “I know Alice, but you’re going to be ok.”
Now I am, mostly. As I continue on my trip, another lesson from my deceased boyfriend echoes: “I know good people and I make time for them.”