BOOK

Jump the River-Chapters 1 & 2

1

Lying across a masseuse’s table was how I’d come to spend many of my afternoons this year. Leisure and delight weren’t the purpose for such excursions. Voices outside the door came and went. The fluffy robe across the room remained untouched. My back and thighs burned as I watched the minute hand tick a handful of times. I fussed with my loosely coiled tresses in the gilded mirror across the room.

Looking at my reflection was like flipping through family photo albums. When I was born, my father insisted that I’d be named after my grandmother, Adora. We shared the same heart-shaped face, cinnamon complexion and smiling dark eyes. We were both 5’8, stacked, with full hips, and athletic stilts for legs. But other than her looks, I am nothing like Grandma Adora. She was the most disciplined, independent and balanced person I’d ever known. Hopefully, one day she’ll be proud of everything I’d accomplished. Unfortunately, today wasn’t the most notable day.

Finally, the doorknob turned.

“Virginia Heaton, I saw you last week.” Dai tilted his head to greet me. “We don’t rendezvous again for another month. What’s the pleasure?”

“My back’s bothering me,” I said. “Do me the honors, would you?”

Shrugging, Dai rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Dai was of Brazilian and East Indian decent with a permanent tan. His shiny black hair smelled of earthy incense and citrus. I melted as he released his entire 250 pounds over my frame. Dai synced his breathing with mine. His hands spoke a secret language. I could run ten miles with little to no distress once he worked his magic on me. I gripped the cushion and whimpered.

“You’re pretty stiff across your shoulders,” he said. “Maybe you could try a chiropractor again.”

“I’d rather book more appointments with you and up my meds. Speaking of which, I’m out again. Could you spot me for a week or two? I’ll double the cash.”

“This isn’t about the money.” Dai paused from the massage. “I know I gave you a two-month supply of Vicodin and Flexeril. How are you already out?”

I bent the truth. “Can you give me enough for two weeks? I promise I’ll find a doctor this time. I’ve been under a lot of stress with my job. It’s higher visibility.”

“That’s what you said last time,” he exhaled. “It’s been a year that I’ve been helping you out. We can’t keep this up, Virginia.”

I pulled out a wad of twenties from my purse and handed it to him. It was double the usual fee. But he wouldn’t take it.

“This isn’t solely about finding the next pill source.” He folded his arms. “Have you even seen a therapist since the accident? C’mon Virginia, you can talk to me about it.”

“You’re not gonna help me out? This last time?” I asked. “What if I come by the house instead?”

“That won’t work either. I think something’s going on around the office. One of my clients said she was approached by a gentleman asking if she’d ever purchased medications from me.”

“That’s insane,” I replied. “What happened?”

“All I know is I can’t lose my business over this. No more,” he said. “Besides, every time I see Kenya and you come up in conversation, I hate this secret I’m keeping from my own kin. It makes me a liar.”

Kenya, my best friend introduced me to her cousin, Dai a few years ago when I was in search of a masseuse to treat my back injury from an accident. Once a month, Dai worked the kinks out of my tense body. But when the massages weren’t enough, Dai suggested I try some meds his girlfriend scored as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

The free samples turned into my purchasing a month supply, under the table. It got me through my in-between of running out of prescription medication and being denied extra mail order shipments from my insurer. I had begun running through muscle relaxants, painkillers and sleeping aids. Dai was my lifeline. The supply took the edge off and helped me function. And now he was serious about cutting me off. This time, for good. My heart raced. But I couldn’t panic.

“I see you’re upset. How about we chat about this later… when you’ve chilled out? I could come by the house.” I grabbed my purse.

His coal-colored eyes were full of concern. Dai blocked the door. Although we were about the same height, he had about a hundred pounds over me plus two black belts in Judo.

“You need help, Virginia. I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t speak up.”

The sounds of the ticking clock seemed to crescendo in that small space. It felt as if the whole world was waiting for my words. Running my hands over my lips, the moment that changed my life flashed in my mind.

“Do you have to go there with me?” I reached for the doorknob. “I know this is out of love, but please don’t do this. Not now.”
He stared at the massage table. After a few seconds, I sat down.

“Then when? What about Jonah?” Dai asked. “You two have been together long enough for him to lend you support on this. You two are practically married. Start with telling him the truth. You have a problem.”

“Ah, my perfect boyfriend, Jonah Bekele, with the pristine job, stellar track record and perfect life,” I said. “A pill-popping girlfriend wouldn’t fit into his plans. I tell him and it’s over between us. I’ll find a way to make this go away soon enough. I need more time.”

“Companions are supposed to be there for us through everything,” he said. “I think we should assess your support system. I’m afraid something will happen to you if …What about rehab? There’s plenty of places around here.”

“Every time I see a new specialist, I have to relive that horrific day,” I began. “After seeing three physicians, two botched procedures and one blood transfusion—I’m fed up. We do what we must to get by. Have I said enough? I didn’t come for a lecture. I need your help. You know that.”

“Let’s keep this to massages and adjustments only. It’ll even preserve our friendship,” he said. “The next session’s on the house.”

As I crossed the parking lot on the way back to my car, Dai’s words rang in my ears. Strain radiated through my spine. I knew I couldn’t live my life in the rearview, but the road was lined with more detours than I’d planned.

2

Three years ago, on the first day of winter, I awoke around sunrise and went jogging. That morning, the air was crisp and a graying sky had me leaving my dog, JJ, curled soundly in his bed. Minimal traffic dotted the streets. Dog walkers strolled along the sidewalks as it lightly rained over the city.

When the light at New Hampshire Avenue and Norton Road changed, I continued through the crosswalk. Someone yelled near me. Nearly at the same time, a car cut through the intersection and clipped me. I hit the pavement and blacked out. When I came to, my legs were numb. Police cut through the crowd gathered around me. A fire truck and ambulances flooded the block. I floated in and out of consciousness as paramedics came to my aid.

The cuts, scrapes and concussion were minor. But the impact from the car accident left me with a few herniated discs in my spine.

A physical therapist taught me exercises to alleviate pressure build up. Chiropractors made adjustments. Leaning on scripts slid into a gradual dependency.

The fear of running out of meds had me stalking Dai and begging for one more supply once I’d grown comfortable with our pharmaceutical and financial exchange. There were only so many doctors in the area. I knew I’d eventually have to venture out of state. I had no idea where this line would end and if I’d emerge on the other side sober or even alive. In my moments of desperation, I didn’t care or even mind the gamble.

Twenty minutes of traffic brought me to Military Road and finally Georgia Avenue Petworth. I was almost home.

Over the years, freshly built condos had replaced struggling businesses and rundown shells of row houses. Although the market bottomed out well before the lots could be sold, they made for expensive apartments. Nonetheless, transplanted suburbanites were taking advantage of the transitioning scenery.

The firehouse further up the avenue had a recent facelift and electronic announcement board.

Bustling restaurants, organic markets and a health spa towered over the corridor. The neighborhood I’d moved into years ago was unrecognizable at times. Toward Howard University, an eco-friendly dry cleaners replaced the longstanding seedy strip club. After enough filed complaints with the city, the exotic dancers and their clientele were forced out.

I hadn’t decided if all the change was absolutely for the best. In some parts of the District, the soul of the city seemed stripped clean and scrubbed out.

Luckily, a few of the mainstays had survived. Sweet Mango’s, a Jamaican eatery on New Hampshire was popular among locals. Food and Wine Magazine praised their oxtail stew as one of the best along the East Coast. I loved their curried shrimp and meat patties.

My favorite Mom-n-Pop around the corner, sold everything from lottery tickets to Ethiopian fare such as injera. I pulled up to the curb in front of my cottage-style row house. Cherry blossoms dotted Newton Street. It was the beginning of April and spring was ushering in. Some older kids were playing dodge ball up the block while the smaller ones gathered around chalk-drawn hopscotch squares.

I neared my front gate and heard roller skates moving up the pavement behind me. Oscar, my neighbor’s five-year-old grandson, rolled up on his inline skates. He practiced mini-jumps and skated backwards for a few strides. He stopped to wave. The waist-high, bright-eyed kid was a spitting image of his father, Sam, an engineer for Kolb Electric Company on Blair Road.

“That was a great jump you did out there.” I admired his growing athleticism. “Looks like you’re quite the expert.”

“It was nothing,” he said, inhaling with his whole body. “Can JJ come out today?”

During the summertime, Oscar dressed JJ in a crimson cape and pretended they were super heroes searching for small crimes or bugs. His older brother Elias played along until he discovered girls and video games. It was mostly Oscar and JJ who were best buds. I looked up at the house. JJ pawed anxiously at the front window for his favorite playmate.

“How about this weekend? Maybe you can accompany us to the dog park instead,” I said.

“It’s okay. I know you need grownup time after work,” he smiled. “By the way, my grandma left more rose bushes for you. She said they’re out back.”

“That was very thoughtful. Thank her for me,” I said. “Well, you have a great evening I’ll see you soon.”

“Cool. I’m gonna practice my jumps,” Oscar said, gleefully skating off. His chubby thighs moved quickly toward his friends. He did a one-legged hop as I closed the front door.

Three bedrooms, three baths, a walkout garden and spacious attic were well beyond modest living for one person. With similar spaciousness, many of my neighbors split their houses and leased out the basements. Of course, the idea was profitable. But I could barely share a plate of cheese let alone my private digs with a semi-stranger.

I hung up my raincoat as JJ nipped at my heels. He was an overweight French bulldog with a jones for bacon cheddar sandwiches. His potbelly slowed his stride when he turned corners looking for trouble. His sappy eyes and adorable jowls made it difficult to scold him when he’d torn through the trash again.

Upstairs, I changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I went to the kitchen. JJ took an interest in a chew toy while I updated the shopping list and added food items and a few cleaning supplies. The voicemail light on the house phone blinked. I was one of the fewer people who actually still had a landline, mostly for conference calls. It helped when my battery was or if I didn’t want to use all my daytime minutes.

My landline had several missed calls. The first three shared a 504-Baltimore prefix. No message was left and the digits weren’t familiar. I figured they were wrong numbers. The last call was from Jonah, my off-again-now-on-again flame. Since he didn’t leave a message either, I figured he was occupied again. It was Tuesday night and he usually scheduled client meetings through the late evening.

Jonah’s cell phone was on speed dial for countless Fortune 500 companies that were facing troublesome lawsuits or wealthy clients who could afford his hefty fees. Tending to his new private practice kept him overextended. The lucrative payouts and prestige were infinite. But lately the missed calls and out-of-sync schedules made our love life hectic.

I dialed his line. When it went to voicemail I left a message. “It’s me, checking in,” I said. “Hoping we could get a quick run in this week. I miss you.”

I switched on the TV and made a cold cut sandwich. JJ begged for food when I laid out sliced roast beef. Eagerly he watched as I piled on lettuce, extra cheese and tomatoes. The mutt circled my feet. His whining was catlike as he snaked around the bar stools. He calmed once it was my turn to dine.

At the counter, I lined up a medicinal cocktail for the evening: the last of the muscle relaxants from my purse, one tab of Vicodin, and a multivitamin.

Within thirty minutes, the meds had kicked in. Slumping in the bar stool, I drowsily watched the end of a detective show. Floating within euphoria, I dozed off. JJ barked when the phone rang. It was a little after 9 pm. My jaw was sore from napping on the counter.

Hesitating, I stared at the cordless phone as it rang. The caller ID blinked, Kenya Davis.

“Hey there, Kenya,” I answered, yawning into the phone. “How’s it going?”

I bit my thumbnail and prayed Dai had kept his mouth shut. I heard muffled conversations in the background and remembered Kenya taught yoga classes tonight. One at 6 p.m. and the other at 8:30.

“I was hoping to see you on the mat this evening. But it sounds like you’re in for the night, yes?” Her voice deflated in disappointment.

“My apologies, I had a few meetings this afternoon that I couldn’t get out of,” I said. “I’ll make it to the studio soon.”

“Can you hold on for a sec? I need to chat with a student,” Kenya said.

I refilled my glass of water while Kenya chatted in the background.

“Hey Donavan, I like your poses. You’re doing much better. Especially your dolphin stance. A few weeks of consistent attendance has made a major difference. ”

Kenya’s newfound occupation as a yoga instructor kept her occupied in the city. Either she was attending a meditation retreat, vacationing on an island, or whipping up succulent, exotic recipes. She often left a box of roots, teas or cushioned pillows on my doorstep with handwritten, encouraging notes.

She came back onto the line. “We’re finishing up. It’s been weeks since we hung out. And I’m still in my feelings that you slept through our Sunday brunch date.”

“You’re right, I have a few things to make up,” I said. “I’ll try to make it to class this week.”

I tended to the potted pothos lining the windowsill. Its leaves stretched the length of the counter top. I collected the spent leaves from the soil and tossed them in the trash.

I stepped into my galoshes near the patio door. Outside, the new rose bushes were in need of planting. Against the darkness, their yellow blooms appeared nearly neon. Oscar’s grandmother often found homes for her new plants among our neighbors. I flipped on the porch light and surveyed the garden. A long while had passed since I’d had the energy to manage the space.

JJ scurried outside when I opened the back door. I grabbed garden tools and some planters from the shed. Cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder, I pulled on my gloves. I cleared a patch of weeds near the herbs. Next, I clipped a handful of basil, chives and rosemary into a basket.

“Before I forget,” Kenya said. “You’ll never guess who I ran into last weekend in DC.”

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