Other Cool Things
Memory is a peculiar thing.
Old memories can arrive unbidden after decades, and yet still seem fresh and alive.
Today, I was sanding a basement window at the Cross House when Tom Payne reentered my mind. I have not thought about Tom in many years. But, I have never forgotten him.
In 1973, I was a sophomore at St. Petersburg High School. Tom was a year ahead of me, and it did not take me long to notice him. Indeed, Tom was highly noticeable. He was gorgeous, with a mane of long hair, but, most importantly, Tom radiated vitality and kindness. He was always smiling and seemed friendly to everybody.
I was awed by him, and even terrified. He was everything I was not. While Tom was outgoing, I was painfully shy, the result of an abusive childhood. While Tom seemed to delight in life, I struggled through every single day. While Tom was popular, even adored, I was a nobody with a bad haircut.
During the summer vacation, after finishing tenth grade, I was in Chess King, a clothing store at Central Plaza. As I approached the register with some bell-bottom jeans in hand, I froze. There was Tom Payne, laughing with the guy at the register. I felt paralyzed. Should I walk back into the dressing room? Could I dematerialize myself?
Then I heard: “Hi!”
Oh. My. God. Tom Payne had spoken to me. He then waved me over, with a big smile on his face. Somehow, my legs managed to propel myself forward.
“You go to St. Pete High, right?”
I could not believe my ears. Tom was aware of my existence? How was this possible?
I nodded. He then asked a few more questions. Then a miracle happened.
I blurted out a question. “Your hair is great. Where do you get it cut?” Immediately, I regretted being so forward. Tom would surely think me a fool. Or worse. Instead, Tom seemed genuinely pleased. “Thank you! I get it cut at the Together salon, over on First Avenue North. Ask for Gary.”
And with that, the salesperson handed Tom his purchase. Tom thanked him, turned to say that it was nice meeting me, and then vanished.
Arriving at home, I opened the phone book, found the number for Together, called, and nervously made an appointment, remembering to ask for Gary.
I began my junior year with my new do, and it became quite the sensation. I found friends and became increasingly well known, and even a little notorious (which I cherished).
Tom’s younger sister, Lesa, was a year behind me, and we were on some school committee together. One day, I rode my bike to her house for a committee meeting. The home was new to me, as just a few months previous the Payne’s had lived in another house, and a few months previous yet a different house. It was rumored that Mrs. Payne was struggling to keep her family afloat, and the family would decamp in the middle of the night to a new place, skipping the rent on the previous house. I was unaware of a Mr. Payne.
These stories seemed extraordinary to me as Tom and Lesa were always beautifully dressed, and Lesa was as friendly and outgoing as her brother. Could their home lives really be fraught with such tensions? But what else would account for so many frequent moves?
The months passed and one day a shocking story swept the school: Tom had brain cancer. His sudden absence from school seemed to confirm this.
This news seemed impossible. Tom was so vital, so God-like. He could not possibly be struck down.
But weeks and weeks passed, weeks without Tom. People whispered: Tom is dying.
One day, I rode my bike to Lesa’s house. Once there, we were to be picked up by a classmate with a car for another committee meeting. Arriving at the house, new again to me, I stepped inside the foyer. Lesa excused herself to grab something, leaving me alone. All I could think think of was: Is Tom home? Is Tom home? Is Tom home?
Then I heard: “Hi!”
I looked up the staircase. At the top landing was Tom. He was wearing a robe, and his head was swathed in bright white bandages. He looked great; not at all ill. He was beaming with pleasure.
“Wow! I can’t believe you came to see me! Come on upstairs!”
I was horrified. Tom thought I had come to see him. I was also startled. Tom was glad that I had come to see him! I then had a weird thought: My mane of hair was once Tom’s mane of hair. Then another thought, well, more a feeling: I felt a desperate urge to race up the stairs. I felt desperate to give Tom a long, intense hug. Even more shocking, I wanted to whisper to Tom: I love you.
This last feeling had nothing to do with my being in love with Tom. The feeling was akin to holding on tightly to your cat or dog, mashing your head in their fur, and saying: I love you.
All these thoughts and feelings happened in a split second. Then Lesa stepped back into the foyer. “Oh, hi, Tom. Do you know Ross?” Tom nodded. “Oh. Well, we’re off,” she said while tugging on my arm.
I had never in my life wanted anything more than to not leave with Lesa. Rather, I ached to race up the stairs to Tom. I wanted to learn about him, to see his room, and listen to his stories.
“Come on,” Lesa repeated, tugging more on my arm.
And as I inched in her direction, I watched as Tom’s face totally changed. The huge, excited smile collapsed. His whole face now revealed…pain. My heart felt pierced with horror while I watched, like a movie in slow-motion, as the pain shifted to sadness. Then loneliness.
“Come on!” Lesa commanded, pulling me away. And me, at seventeen, had not yet learned to assert myself. So, I turned my face to Tom, and tried to telepathically convey that I wanted to stay.
Tom offered a gentle wave goodby.
I never saw Tom again.
His death was expected but nonetheless shocking. In the 1970s, students had little to no experience with youthful death.
I continued to see Lesa occasionally but I developed an irrational hostility towards her. She had, however unknowingly, prevented me from a unique experience in getting to know, just a bit, a remarkable human being. While I was always polite to Lesa, I dropped off the school committee so as to avoid her.
I know, dumb.
In my senior year, I was the editor of the yearbook, and President of the drama club. I was perceived as popular but every day was still a struggle for me. More than a decade would pass before the stomach-punching feelings of insecurity and fear would ebb. As time would prove however, these feelings would never entirely dissipate.
I graduated in 1975 with my mane of shagged hair, a gift from Tom Payne, intact.
A few months later, I ran into Gary from the Together salon. He soon became my first boyfriend, a belated gift from Tom, and I would delight in Gary’s stores about Tom. Gary, like everybody, adored him.
Many years would pass before I became curious about Tom’s mother, whom I never met. What was her life like? How, under what was obviously a great struggle, did she manage to raise such fabulous children? I vaguely recall that she had six children. Could that be correct?
Memory is a peculiar thing.
Old memories can arrive unbidden after decades and yet still seem fresh and alive.
Today, I was sanding a basement window at the Cross House when Tom Payne reentered my mind. I had not thought about Tom in many years. Tom would be sixty-two now but he is, of course, eternally young in my mind. What would his life have been like, I wondered?
Our last meeting was as clear today as it was forty-four years ago. And the look on his face when he realized that I was not there to see him stabs my heart with no less pain today.
Then I had a thought. Was Tom still, ah, out there…somewhere? Could Tom receive a message from me?
I closed my eyes.
I am again standing in his foyer. Lesa comes in and says: “Come on. We need to go:”
Smiling at Lesa, I say: “Tom asked that I stay and talk with him. Would that be OK?”
Lesa looks up at her brother, and replies: “Of course. Of course.” She gently touches my shoulder.
As she departs, I ascend the stairs. Tom looks happy I am now before him. Then I shock myself by hugging him. Intensely.
With my arms tight around this mortally ill creature, I whisper: “I love you.”