Other Cool Things

Remembering Tom Payne

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. Perhaps many decades. But, I have never forgotten Tom.

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 and then a miracle happened.

I blurted out a question for Tom. “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 though, Tom seemed genuinely pleased. “Why, 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 it was nice meeting me, and he 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.

 

Tom Payne, in the 1974 yearbook. This serious look was atypical

 

This was a typical Tom look.

 

Because of Tom, I was transformed from this…

 

…to this. And in 1974, this was a great look. Really!

 

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, had entered the school 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.

My mind could not accept such a possibility. Tom was so vital, so God-like. He could not possibly be struck down.

But weeks and weeks passed with Tom’s absence. The rumor was that he was dying.

On day, I again 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. But 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,” Lisa repeated, tugging more on my arm.

And the moment I inched in her direction, I watched as Tom’s face totally changed. The huge, excited smile collapsed. His whole face then showed…pain. My heart felt pierced with horror as I watched, like a movie in slow-motion, the pain evolve to sadness. Then loneliness.

I subtly turned back in Tom’s direction. His smile, ever so slightly, returned.

“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. He died, having never returned to St. Petersburg High School.

The news was expected but nonetheless shocking. In the 1970s, students had little to no experience with death.

I continued to see Lesa occasionally but I had developed an irrational hostility towards her. She had prevented me from a unique experience in getting to know, just a bit, a remarkable human being. I was always polite to Lesa, but I dropped off the school committee so as to avoid her.

I know, dumb.

 

That year ended, and the following year I finished school, graduating in 1975, with my mane of hair, a gift from Tom Payne, intact.

In the fall of 1975, 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 have not thought about Tom in many years. Tom would be sixty-two now but he is, of course, eternally young. 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.”

As she departs, I ascend the stairs. Tom looks happy. I am now before him. Then I hug him. Deeply.

With my arms tight around this mortally ill creature, I whisper: “I love you.”

 

 

21 Responses to Remembering Tom Payne

    • Sue!!!!!!!! How fabulous to read your comment.

      [Note to other readers: Sue and I went to high school together.]

      I am soooooooo glad that you, too, remember Tom.

      BIG hug! MUCH love!

  1. I believe we can do that, Ross, and that somewhere in this vast universe none of us truly understand, Tom is aware that you did go back, even though late. This was a beautiful thing to do

  2. Beautifully written Ross. I wonder if John McCain’s passing from brain cancer brought this memory to you. I did not usually agree with his politics, but he was a noble, decent and inclusive human being. Something we need more of especially now. We lost two great Americans this week, John McCain and Aretha

    You brought about a beautiful resolution in this piece. I very much enjoy your writing.

  3. I think these experiences are a necessary evil. They serve as a reminder for the next Toms we meet. Not to take people, feelings or relationships for granted.

  4. A beautiful story. Tom must have been a beautiful soul, for you to remember him all these years later. Hugs to you, and I’m sending a hug somewhere in the universe to Tom – and much love to you both.

  5. Jeez Ross, that was beautiful. I’m tearing up and that rarely happens. I too had someone like that in high school..although they never passed, It was just an opportunity when I saw them unhappy/unwell, and when I could’ve been there…I was torn away. Those memories can leave for long periods of time, then they reappear…hauntingly, yet peacefully, just to revisit that moment in time, almost like the person is reaching out.

  6. Poignant & ; beautiful story!

    Item seemed so happy to see someone in your story & made me think he may not have had many to see just him— maybe not— but so happy & brightened to see you in the midst of being so sick. Being ill & dying from such a tragic illneas at such a youn age was not uncommon in the 70’’s.

    Many childhood cancers are curable now —that then were not. The reason I did not go into Peds as a young nurse, was because one of my young patients died of leukemia:within a week. His family were in my social circle.

    Heartbreaking not to see him again & then all those yeats later—in a solitary endeavor—your mind wondered to that beautiful person.

    I believe Tom’s like a angel in your midst & pleased that he was on your heart.

    It makes me smile to think of that…..

  7. Your writing is wonderful. Such a sad moment, but perhaps you could locate Lesa and learn more of Tom.
    I think we all have memories rush back when we are doing solitary work.
    A big virtual hug to you and Tom.
    Oh, my oldest sister graduated in 1975 and yes, your hair was fitting for the time.

  8. Ross, that’s a touching story, Tom sounds like he was a great guy. He had an impact on your life, which gave you confidence, which in turn helped you to come out of your shell. Wherever he is, I think he knows how you felt that day back in high school. Contacting Lesa is a good idea, you may get some of your old questions answered. The 1974 haircut rocks.

  9. You made me weep.

    Oh, how I miss you; the wonderful, interesting, funny, intelligent guy I remember from SPHS. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for sharing this story/memory with us. YOU are one of the most unique people I have ever had the fortune to call friend. 🙂

    Love,
    Patty

  10. I think we all have regrets like yours…but as someone else said, hopefully we learn something and then don’t miss similar opportunities in the future. My grandpa loaned me $2000 to buy my first car, and I was to pay him back $100 per month. I had saved what I thought was a lot, but he wanted me to have a nicer car than what my $1500 would buy in 1984. It was a 1979 Camaro, and I was so excited the day we bought it; I took it home, washed and waxed it, and was getting ready to go “cruise town” with my buddies when my grandpa came out and said, “Let’s take it for a spin”. I explained that I was running late to pick up a friend, and promised him that we would go for a drive the coming weekend; he died of a heart attack the next morning, and his funeral was on Sunday afternoon. That was nearly 34 years ago, and I am trying not to cry as I type this. Maybe these mistakes and regrets make us a better person, I don’t know…

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