Why am in my mom’s room, in my mom’s bed, with my stuffed bear Sandifur in my arms? I hear people talking downstairs. I had a horrible dream. Thank goodness it was only a dream.
I didn’t want to go out that night. I had been shopping all day with my mom and I wanted to rest after still recovering from the night before. But Kari Beth (my friend, roommate, and sorority sister) knew what was best for me and she didn’t give me a choice. I was too exhausted to even change clothes so she picked me up with no make-up on, wearing oversized jeans, a plaid button up, and my ratty hair in a pony-tail. Barely sexy, I realize this, but I didn’t have time for first impressions.
“He’s so cute; there’s just one bad thing.” I remember Kari Beth saying those exact words as she was erratically driving across the street with the sole purpose of introducing me to a boy. I was scared to ask what that “one bad thing” was. “He’s kind of short.” I asked if he was taller than me, which was really all that mattered. “I think so,” was her reply. I think so? I’m only 62 inches tall, so this kid must be severely vertically challenged to not be sure if he is taller than me.
Walking up to the apartment, I saw “him.” It had to be “him.” He was the only short, cute boy in the vicinity. We quickly introduced ourselves and that was basically it. No choir was singing in the background, no fireworks exploded. A simple howdy and a handshake and that was that.
We didn’t talk much at this party. In fact, I really don’t remember talking at all. Around midnight Kari Beth and I decided that it would be a grand plan to have everyone over to our apartment for a sober-up breakfast. She invited Jeff and his two roommates over as well. This was when I realized that Jeff lived in the same apartment complex as we did. Not only in the same apartment complex, but only seven doors down. Some nights the walk from apartment 208 to 215 would seem like a mile away. Other times it was only a three second sprint, as Jeff and I would race each other at full speed down the corridor.
Obviously, making first impressions was not a goal of mine that night. After returning to my apartment, I opted to change into something even less impressionable. I threw on some red and white plaid flannel Victoria’s Secret pajama bottoms and an over-sized long-sleeve t-shirt that I had owned since the ninth grade. This old yellowed shirt was the conversation sparker of our relationship. It was a t-shirt that I received when I lived in El Paso when my family had ventured to the Sun Bowl game on Christmas Eve matching Oklahoma University against Oklahoma State University. Jeff immediately noticed the shirt and asked if I had ever lived in Oklahoma. I then started on my typical “I grew up being an Army brat” spiel. Coincidentally he had the same spiel. It was that moment that was the beginning of our relationship.
I can’t describe the feeling in my stomach when I realized that it wasn’t a dream. He’s really gone. Forever. The person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with was dead. I didn’t want to get out of bed. Not that morning, not ever. I replayed the devastating news that was delivered to me the day before over and over again in my head. Leading troops. IED on side of the road. Explosion. Four dead. Dead. Gone. Forever gone.
I hate mornings. Always have. Jeffrey loved mornings. It used to be his ritual to go to PT and then wake me up after he had SSS (shit, showered, shaved; a term he claimed he coined). I would pathetically roll out of bed only to be greeted by his huge smile of Crest pearly whites and Good Morning America. And let’s not forget the mammoth-sized bowl of Cheerios. Seriously, who can eat plain Cheerios? No honey-nut, no sugar, no fruit toppings. Plain is how he preferred his yellow box of glory. After wiping the sleep from my eyes, I would coyly snuggle up to him on the couch as a ploy to steal the remote control. This was a daily game. Good Morning America versus The Today Show. Diane Sawyer versus Katie Couric. Let’s face it, we all know that The Today Show targets the younger generations and that Good Morning America targets, well, the old people. But for some weird reason, Jeff was a Good Morning America fan. He claims that he wanted to support Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native. I would just laugh. I thought it was weird that he would want to watch the older Ms. Sawyer and not the young, hot, hip Katie, who, by the way, has amazing legs. Maybe he was tired of hearing me go on and on about Matt Lauer. Whatever the reason, we would eventually compromise and spend our mornings switching between NBC and ABC, still arguing over who was better.
The week after Jeff’s death is a complete blur. Memorial services, funeral, burial. My goal was to survive the week and to wake up breathing each morning. I managed that, but barely. I returned to school, graduated, and became a pharmacist. I built a house and moved in by myself. I slowly started to accept that my life had forever changed, but there were many obstacles and painful moments along the way.
Our legs were sore for days, but we could only blame doing over 200 lunges on our own stubbornness and competitiveness. Jeff was very athletic and in impeccable shape. In the beginning of our relationship, we enjoyed long runs together. They were great workouts for me, often leaving me gasping for air. But they were merely a “trot in the park” for Jeff. Regardless, it was great bonding time and he would always push me to go further or faster. That is, until I developed “itchy leg syndrome.” Most people laugh when I say this, but I swear it is a true condition. We once ran together and my legs were itching so bad about a mile into the run that I sat down on the curb and cried as I clawed into my skin. I couldn’t go a step further, no matter the motivation Jeff was trying to instill in me at the time. Jeff had to run back to our apartment complex to retrieve his car to come pick me up. He was not very happy with me at that moment in time.
We were very competitive with each other in a playful manner. Jeff would excel in everything he tried, but the one athletic maneuver that he couldn’t perform due his lack of flexibility was lunges. So one night, in the midst of flirtatious bickering, I challenged him to a “lunge-off.” The competition was to do as many lunges as possible until one of us said “uncle.” So there we were in the gym of our apartment complex doing lunge after lunge after lunge. You can imagine my astonishment when we reached lunge number 200ish. I was starting to feel the burn beyond belief and my knees were throbbing uncontrollably; Jeff was showing signs of discomfort as well. At that point, we caught eyes and without saying a word we both collapsed on the floor in excruciating pain and were laughing so hard we both had tears in our eyes. Neither of us could walk for days and we vowed to never again challenge each other to a stupid contest again.
I wish there was a rulebook for grief. A book that tells you when it is okay to cry and when you should get out of bed. A book that tells you not to have nervous breakdowns in public places. A book that tells you when his image will become blurry in your mind and when the details you once memorized will begin to fade. A book that tells you when it is okay to love again.
Living in Kentucky, you learn that Kentucky basketball is a way of life. Jeff and I shared a loyalty to the boys donning the blue and white. It’s beyond a passion… it’s a deranged affair. Jeff knew how to put his degree in civil engineering to good use. Stadium seating was built at Royal Lexington apartment 215 one year for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. It started out small with only chairs on top of coffee tables, but quickly grew to four levels. Furniture from all the surrounding apartments was borrowed. Love seats were put on top of coffee tables; sofas were placed on top of short and tall dressers. The maintenance staff threatened us that putting excessive amount furniture in one apartment was a fire code violation. Of course Jeff ignored that threat, as over fifty people were crammed into his apartment on game days, each with a Kentucky shirt, cold beer, and comfortable seat.
After returning from a spring break trip, Jeff picked me up at the airport. He had his signature mischievous grin and I knew he was up to something. I was scared to walk into his apartment not knowing what to expect. You can imagine the look on my face when I saw the NCAA tournament bracket drawn in black permanent marker, covering the entire left wall of his living room. Are. You. Kidding. Me. Those were the only words that stumbled out of my mouth. His apartment soon became a tourist attraction for the neighborhood. Everyone had to see it. It was pretty amazing, but again, Jeff never did anything unless it was going to blow you away.
I give the heavens more than just a passing glance nowadays. I am now able to reflect on my years spent with Jeffrey with fondness and know that he will always have a permanent place in my life and heart. I no longer dwell on the words I didn’t say when I was too busy, the sunsets we will miss, and our future that has vanished. He is no longer physically here with me, but he is my ladybug that appears as I am about to jump out of an airplane and my rainbow that appears as I am driving home after a bad day at work. Somewhere I find the strength to continue to live and I believe Jeffrey is behind that strength guiding me and allowing me to continue to dance.