It was nighttime on the 1st of May, 1987. I was a sophomore at Memphis State University, affectionately known as “Tiger High”. I walked with some girlfriends to Highland Street Pub where we could sit outside on the patio and drink $3 pitchers of beer until 2 am. I had brought a disposable camera to snap photos of my college friends. Then I saw him… a strikingly beautiful man. I swear I fell in love at first sight. I moved closer to him and snapped his picture. He came over to talk to me. He wanted that picture. He wanted my camera. He asked me if I worked for the insurance company because he wasn’t supposed to be out and he could get in big trouble if they got a hold of that photo. He showed me that his entire leg was in a cast and he wanted to know what I planned to do with his photo. I should have known right then and there how much drama this boy was gonna be!
For our first date, he invited me to a beach party. He had brought a picnic basket and a blanket, but the “beach” turned out to be a stretch of mud near the Memphis River. It was nasty, but we could see the lights of the bridge. We drank beers and talked until after sunrise. We didn’t speak to anyone else all night. It was like we were completely alone in our own private world.
One of my most cherished memories of Hayden is the night the fog was so thick, that we felt sure no-one would be able to see us trespassing on the greens at Galloway Golf Club. He lay his jacket on the damp grass and we made love right in the middle of the golf course. I suspect that most people have secret memories about Hayden that they feel they can’t share publicly because, in life, Hayden needed to be protected from himself. Well, he doesn’t need that protection anymore. In the eleventh hour, after four decades of drug addiction, Hayden chose sobriety and devils threw snowballs in hell.
But in 1987, Hayden was a mess. His preferred drug was Paregoric, an opium-based antidiarrheal medicine that could be bought without a prescription. He got stoned every day, stole his mom’s car after she went to sleep, and went out looking for thrills. I was living on-campus in Mynders Hall. Hayden would stand below my window and call up to me to come out. Every window on the side of the dormitory would open and a beautiful co-ed would stick her head out to see my Romeo. The girls loved it. He was very romantic. Nearly every day he left a love note or a single rose on the seat of my moped. His looks were a challenge, though. Whenever we went to a restaurant, if I left the table for even two minutes, I would return to find some woman in my chair, trying to seduce my boyfriend! It happened all the time. But Hayden was a Southern gentleman; he never gave them the time of day when he was with me. Oh, he had his affairs, but he was discreet. He never embarrassed me or made me feel like I was in competition for his love. I believed I was the only one.
Talk about being attracted to “The Bad Boy”… One time, Hayden’s mother, Nat, went out of town for a business convention and he snuck me into the house against her rules. Finally, I got to see him relaxed. He cooked for me, he told me stories about his dad, he told me about the Crohn’s Disease, how he had been so sick and in so much physical pain and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. He spent so much time in bed that he would have died if not for his German-Shepherd who refused to leave his side. That’s how he had become addicted to opium, because he had Crohn’s Disease. When his mother returned home, she found strands of my waist-long red hair in her shower drain and insisted I come for dinner. Nat was very good to me. I remember her fondly, playing “Legend of Zelda” on her Nintendo-64 while Hayden and I watched movies in his bedroom. He had hundreds of movies on video cassette. He loved film. He also loved food – cooking it, eating it, talking about it, photographing it – but because of the Crohn’s, he had no appetite. He used to prepare elaborate meals, take one small bite, and be done. He often complained that scientists should invent a pill that contained all the nutrients of food, so that we could just swallow a pill and not have to bother with eating. I told him that idea was already taken by Willy Wonka, but really, he just wanted the stomach pain to stop.
It would be so great if I ended the story right here, but extremely not truthful. Crohn’s Disease, drug addiction, dead father – Hayden got dealt some shitty cards to start the game. It seems to me that people want to focus on his success at finally achieving sobriety, but I don’t think sobriety is where Hayden’s awesomeness shows itself. The better billboard of Hayden’s personal integrity can be seen in the choice he made to full-on fight Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He chose chemo, even though he knew it would make him sick. He chose surgery, even though he knew it would make him suffer. Clearly, Hayden wanted to live. Clearly, Hayden wanted more life. That is how I remember Hayden Eldridge, as a man who wanted to stuff as much life as he could grab into every second of his existence. Hayden was intense, some would say insane; but he never settled for less than maximum velocity. His life would make for an exciting blockbuster movie. There would be police chases, motorcycle crashes, love triangles, art and photography, culinary masterpieces, and the shocking ending that nobody saw coming. Death from a plane crash, maybe… or from a high-speed collision with a tanker full of oil… but from pancreatic cancer and chemotherapy? Wow, I never saw that coming. I would like to say “Rest in Peace, Henry”, but he won’t stay in Heaven. If there’s a way to be reborn into this world with all its tastes and smells and colors, he is so on that train. “Gimme all you’ve got.” That’s what Hayden would say. Next time, baby, at least wear a helmet ’cause I know you can’t slow down.
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