Memories of Another Life

Remembering a young man named Jeffrey. By Steve Duross

His name was Jeffrey Watson. I couldn’t have been more than 22 at the time. Jeff tended bar at the old DCA after hours while trying to make his career as a chef. Jeff had talent, a killer smile and a boyfriend who hustled in New York. Whatever was I thinking? Forbidden fruit and youth are a lousy combination.

I’ll admit, most of my former life as a young adult was spent getting high and making bad decisions. I didn’t think very much of myself – self love wasn’t something I had been able to learn. Our parents make bad teachers even with the best of intentions sometimes and there was something about being a perpetual disappointment that made me adopt a “why bother” attitude. Really, all I ever wanted was to be loved just as I was. And Jeff, mess that he was, offered me a glimmer of what that love might be about. He was an optimist. He was an addict who thought life was going to be great. I thought I wanted some of what he had because Jeffrey was a lost boy, too.

Years after what can only be described as a highly dysfunctional on and off physical affair, we parted ways. I continued to bounce around, get high whenever possible and hope for love. Looking back, I wasn’t very lovable, though definitely quite desperate and messy. I was drunken and sloppy. I tried to be what my parents demanded for a while but then the center couldn’t hold so I ran away. At 27 I gave away most of my possessions, packed my bags and headed off to San Francisco, sight unseen.

California was more of the same – only worse. There’s nothing like being away from everyone and everything that sets you up for an unhealthy dose of utter loneliness. It was desperation times 20. I’ll spare you the details and the poor boy whose heart I broke.

It wasn’t long before I got back in touch with my old flame Jeff Watson who was now living in Key West. We fooled one another into the idea of what possibilities could still be like, and within a few weeks I had a plane ticket to sunny, sultry Florida.

Jeff and I lasted for almost four whole days before it fell apart. That seems par for the course. Determined to stick it out in Key West, I made a life for myself in a very bizarre place at a very fortunate time. While the late 80s in San Francisco were sad in a city that had been decimated by the AIDS epidemic, Key West was dirty and cheap and everything was there for the taking.

I got a retail job (where I robbed the owners blind) and eventually landed at the front desk of a small run-down resort hotel where I fit in perfectly. La Terraza de Marti or “La Tee Da” for short was, quite literally, the island of misfit boys. Everyone was running away from something, someone or themselves – and usually a combination of the three and not necessarily in that order.

Almost two years passed.

I filled my days with sailing and snorkeling on the reef, hanging by the water, the hotel pool or tooling around town on a bike. It was a magical time before sunset, where the Truman Annex belonged to the Navy and the palm trees around Fort Zachary Taylor fell toward the water making the perfect nest to rest while reading a book.

Each night was also a celebration. And each week was marked with goodbyes and hellos. Working the front desk during La Tee’s Sunday Tea Dance gave me first crack at all the choice men. I wasn’t an Adonis, but I was young, taught, brown as a berry and full of guile – sort of a Pre-Raphaelite, only with a touch of evil. I was blissfully unaware of my true nature and ambled from one misadventure to another. I was a mess and I hated my life. And I consoled myself that I was at least screwed up in paradise.

But all along there was Jeffrey, always salty sweet to my contentious nature with his easy smile and affable charm. Everybody loved Jeff, but I knew a true friendship was never going to be possible. The more I got to know him, the more certain I was that we were going to end up in vastly different circumstances.

Then one day I woke up and knew I was done. I heard a clarion voice in my head – it was my voice. It was loud and clear, saying it was time to go. I purchased a ticket for home.

A few years past, a few seasons more. After living with my parents and putting them through hell, I got my shit together (somewhat) and faced my realities. I stopped drinking and drugging and followed my bliss into a lucrative career in which I excelled. I also fell in love with myself for a change. And when I would go to bed at night, I’d pray for the person I would eventually love – whomever that might be.

In the process of no longer looking for that someone to love, I allowed myself to become lovable. Someone once told me that God’s will was doing the next obvious thing, so I did and still do. That’s where I get my guts. I don’t always love God’s will but that’s how it rolls in my life.

Jeff wasn’t so lucky. He moved to Manhattan and became a meth dealer. True to his nature, he was the biggest meth dealer in the city. Then he was caught, arrested and jailed. Jeffrey Watson died a few months into his incarceration at the federal penitentiary. I found out about all this after the fact and I can’t help but wonder how his mother has gotten though it all.

I’ve often written that I have the life I want. I’ve talked about falling in love, truly, madly, deeply in love for the first time with my husband and partner James. I know how blessed I am to be where I am today, to be present for everything my life brings forth and to express myself without regret or guile and to be, simply, myself.

Steve Duross is the owner of Duross & Langel with two locations in Philadelphia’s Midtown Village and Haddonfield, N.J.