Wayne County Wanderings: A Powerful Tale
One of the best aspects of writing a weekly column isn't just the cool places I discover … it's the amazing people I meet.
I first began 'Wanderings' three years ago and since then I've been introduced to many fascinating folks, each of whom has a tale to tell.
This week, I was lucky.
All the stars aligned and the universe seemed to be screaming at me to write this particular column.
All the people in it are local and 100 percent real. For reasons that will become obvious as you read, though, I've changed their names.
It's a powerful story, one that affected me deeply and I hope you find it as moving as I do.
As often happens, the spark that led to this particular story came courtesy of a book I'd been reading at the time.
Julian Barnes is one of my all-time favorite authors. He consistently pens smart, insightful tales and was awarded the Man-Booker Prize in 2011 for a haunting book called “The Sense of an Ending.”
Barnes' most recent offering came out earlier this year. “The Only Story” deals with the idea that each of us has one unforgettable tale to tell … and, that tale inevitably deals with love.
As I was devouring this latest book, I began asking friends and relatives to tell me their stories of love. It was a fascinating experience, but one that caused me to alter the premise just a bit.
The stories I found most interesting and illuminating were those of “first” love. Without exception, these tales and the way they're told give me incredible insight into the storyteller.
For me anyway, stories of first love had become “The Only Story.”
Even after all these years, my own first love remains a powerful force in my life.
And, whether I want to admit it or not, it still affects the way I approach romance and relationships.
It's an unique experience, one that sometimes causes me to blush when I think about the intensity of those feelings and what they inspired me to do...
•I once ran through a snowstorm in shorts and a t-shirt just to stand beneath her window.
•I took her to a cemetery at midnight to read her poetry and drink champagne.
•I traveled to an island in the Caribbean with her and we road horses on the beach at sunrise.
•I was convinced the final image I'd see on my death bed would be her face.
That last one isn't an exaggeration. Now, more than three decades later it strikes me as kind of a silly, overly-romantic notion.
Little did I imagine, though, that first love and death can be intimately intertwined...
Life & Death
I first met Allison about a year ago while having dinner with my family at a local restaurant.
It was a busy, bustling holiday scene with every table full, the bar packed and several parties waiting to be seated.
Even amid the chaos, “Ally” stood out. She was pretty, poised, funny and a damn good waitress.
Over the course of the next few months, I got to know her a little bit and what I learned only served to reinforce my initial opinion. Ally may only be in her 20s, but she's definitely one you might call an “old soul.”
There's an unfathomable depth behind her blue-grey eyes, one that hints at a deep connection with and an intimate understanding of the cosmos.
Ally's life hasn't been easy and, one night when I asked her to tell me her “first love” story … well, let's just say I wasn't prepared for what I heard.
At First Sight
Allison and Andy met when she was a wide-eyed high school freshman. He was three years older, handsome and self-assured.
“We clicked right from the start,” she said with a sad smile. “It was the way he looked at me. His eyes just got me.”
It wasn't just a physical attraction either. Something deep inside these two kids reached out for one another. It was as if they sensed on a primal level that they belonged together.
“He was a kindred spirit,” Ally said. “We had so much in common in was unbelievable.”
Sadly, most of the experiences they shared weren't happy ones. Both came from broken families riddled with addiction and haunted by tragedy.
Ally lost her Mom suddenly when she was 11. Andy's mother died when he was just eight. Neither had a strong father figure and, eventually, both were left to fend for themselves.
“It wasn't easy,” Ally said quietly, tracing invisible images on the tabletop. “We had a lot of problems.”
Chief among those problems were drugs and alcohol. While Ally eventually overcame her dependence through sheer willpower, Andy never did.
Their relationship burned white-hot for several years.
They clung to one another through dizzying highs and devastating lows. No matter what insane things his addiction made him do, Ally never stopped caring for Andy.
Predictably, though, her story of “first love” ended the way so many others do when addiction is involved: In heartbreak.
Ally basically had to cut Andy out of her life in order to save her own. It was a gut-wrenching decision.
“He was a sweet, gentle soul,” she said. “He had the biggest heart. Andy would do anything for anyone. He was always trying to help fix everybody else, but he could never fix himself.”
A couple of years passed and the two saw each other only occasionally. While Ally was focused on making a better life for herself, Andy remained trapped in the dark, swirling maelstrom of addiction.
Her feelings for him never went away, but instinctively, she just knew she had to keep her distance.
Perhaps inevitably, the call she always dreaded deep in the recesses of her heart finally came: Andy was dead.
Police had found him on a park bench in New Jersey, the victim of a massive heroin overdose.
“He knew what he was doing,” she said, her voice a barely audible whisper. “He just couldn't fight anymore. I guess he thought he was too much of a burden on everyone. It's so sad.”
Ally steeled herself and went to the funeral. She walked unsteadily up to the coffin, leaning on one of her closest friends for support.
She looked at him lying there, tears streaming down her face and her whole body shaking. It was a terrible moment, one filled with intense and conflicting emotions.
“I still loved him and I was happy that maybe he’d finally found a little bit of peace,” she said. “But I was really angry too. Part of me wanted to reach down and hug him, but part of me wanted to punch him in the face, too.”
I certainly wasn't expecting such intensity and heartbreak from Ally's story of “first love,” especially not from someone so young.
But, looks can definitely be deceiving. It's such a simple lesson, and one I never stop learning.
Ally has done everything from busing tables and waitressing to hostessing and tending bar.
She gets up every day with an unwavering determination to improve herself. She has no illusions about her dark past, but possesses an unblinking optimism about the future.
Ally will be leaving town at the end of the summer, heading west in search of her next adventure. She'll wind through the Rocky Mountains, breathe in the salty Pacific Ocean air, then head for the southern states and maybe even the US Virgin Islands.
I have no doubt that Ally will never forget Andy, her first true love. And, I'm equally sure I won't ever forget the story she told me.
I can only hope that one day, years from now, I'll hear from her again and that the final chapter of her tale will be a happy one.