I found this picture of Tom today. That’s the risk you take when pulling out old dusty boxes of photographs in search of something completely different. If you’re superstitious about throwing away pictures, you’re bound to eventually find one that catches you off guard.
We met at one of those dark winter parties where everyone who attended did so primarily because there was nothing else to do, and no one seems terribly pleased with their decision. I was relieved to see my cousin there. Having not been close as kids, we’d been developing a social friendship recently as we bumped into each other at rock shows and small, boring parties. I walked over to where he was laughing with a tall, broad-shouldered man with eyes that reeked of mischief, Tom. Tom – filled with electric energy and twitchy, uncertain limbs and garbly, silly wordplay. We propped ourselves against a large basement post and talked – he was nervous and odd, his fair blue eyes catching mine, then ducking his head, laughing at himself. His level of confidence in those thirty or forty minutes relied heavily on distracting me with his quick bright smiles as he carefully monitored my reactions to his bizarre sense of humor.
We ignored everyone else until it was time for me to go home. I’d forgotten that I’d come to the party with my boyfriend.
The next day, early and unplanned, Tom showed up at my doorstep. I’d told him I lived by the train tracks but I don’t know how he found my home among all of the others.
He asked if we should hang out. “Do you want to spend some time with me? Is it okay? Should we?”
I thought we should. And, since I no longer had a boyfriend as of the night before, we did.
Tom lived in his sister’s basement and worked only sporadically, for a moving company. He didn’t seem to know any people, so when we weren’t together I felt sorry for him, alone in that basement. We often stayed in, but when we went out I always paid. I didn’t mind – I had two jobs, plenty of money, and a handful of fun friends, all of which made me feel empowered. “My boyfriend is…kind of a loser,” I would joke. “It’s such a turn-on.” And it was. I loved going down on him on the messy mattress that lay sadly on his bedroom floor – he never asked, or reciprocated, but in those few hot tense moments I felt in control in a way I never had before.
He frequently stayed with me, and preferred also dragging my twin mattress to the floor when we had sex. He would always pause beforehand, hovering over me, asking “should we?” He would wait for me to laugh and say yes, and then he would say “thank you princess, my queen, yes, let’s!” After I fell asleep he would stay awake, doodling miniscule drawings with spirals and stairs and small people with bugged eyes, all connected but still confusingly scattered.
His mind was always going. Going going going. Mine was deeply invested in the process of shutting down. Somehow, we worked.
I spent a lot of time those days listening. I often just sat, staring at the walls and windows as the room grew dark, in silence. Thinking nothing, embracing the consistency of the blankness. When Tom was around he was a somewhat manic presence, but at least he was a distraction from the bleak state of quiet I often found myself in.
I had an apartment that took up the entire top floor of an old house on a dead-end street. It had hardwood floors painted a dusty blue-grey, and a sun porch where I would sit to watch thunderstorms roll in and out in their entirety. The bathroom had a deep, claw-footed tub where I would steep myself two or three times a day, making the water as hot as possible, often listening through the large grate in the middle of the floor to the sounds of my skinhead neighbor loudly fucking her boyfriend.
On the mornings I had to work, I took a good amount of time to have my bath and would then prepare breakfast. I enjoyed cooking for Tom – I never asked him what he’d like, I just made the food and put the plate in front of him. I always made the same things – scrambled eggs, home fries, and bacon for breakfast. For dinner I made angel hair pasta with yellow squash, zucchini, and parmesan from the can. Often I would take a picture of him eating the food I’d cooked for him. I don’t know why.
When I left for work Tom walked out with me. He never stayed at my place without me there.
I wanted to crochet him an afghan for his cold basement bed, so on a dreary morning I drove to Meijer to buy some yarn. Finding my way to the right aisle was a disaster – there were too many people, the lights were too bright, I was hot in my winter coat. When I finally stood there, staring at the wall of yarn, my eyes welled with tears and I turned on my heel and left the store empty handed, sweating and sucking for air.
“There were just too many people” I cried to Tom later. He’d found me laying on my mattress, having already dragged it to the floor, staring up at the ceiling. “I just, I just hate people! I hate people so much!” He wrapped me up in a blanket and squeezed me hard, laughing, saying “I know! I hate people too! You’ve made me the happiest man alive! Let’s hate people together!” and we laughed until we dozed off, me still rolled in the blanket, him curled around me, shivering.
Those were the times he loved me the most. When he caught a glimpse of the nasty streak of hidden, immobilizing depression inside of me that, once released, he then fed on like a leech.
One day we ventured outside and drove to the outskirts between city and country, where he wanted to do a photo shoot. I wore a gorgeous, inky black silk slip, and a gas mask. We found a pile of garbage in a rutted field, and I dug around in it, walked in the field, ran back and forth, while he took pictures and ignored passerby who slowed their cars when they saw me.
In one photo, my slip has inched down, revealing a sliver of my nipple, while I face the camera holding an empty frame around my face.
In another I’m holding up a doll’s plastic shoe, my well-muscled arm a direct contrast to the decay around me and the fragility in my fingers. When I came across those pictures, stuck in the same box with Tom’s, I gasped back all of the mixed reactions that came along with them, and then put them away.
Tom couldn’t stay still for very long, and he often dreamed aloud about leaving Kalamazoo. For Oregon, or Alaska, or to hike the Appalachian Trail. I was long used to him rising early on the mornings he’d stayed over, hearing him pace in my living room, listening to him scribble notes at the table.
After one such morning, he came in to wake me and to say goodbye. I’d been awake, eyes closed, for a while. Long enough to hear him shuffling, frantically sketching, then mumbling to the other woman he was fucking.
A few days earlier, after he’d left, I’d picked up my phone to call a friend – the last friend I’d talked to the night before – and after hitting re-dial a woman’s voice I didn’t recognize answered. “Who is this?” I’d asked. “Who the fuck is this?” she’d responded, “you called me!” Her aggression was like a slap in the face. I tried to explain, “I hit redial.” I was confused. Then it hit me. I asked her, “do you know Tom?”
She hung up.
When he eased himself next to where I lay curled in bed on that morning I’d been pretending to sleep, I opened my eyes and looked at him while he pushed my hair out of my face. “Keep dreaming my little dewy-faced troll princess, my butternut fairy.” I blinked at him. When he smiled it was a big one and I saw the space on the side where he was missing a tooth. I was weak and I wanted him because he was easy and I was better than him. He never asked anything of me and was grateful for anything I offered. “You’re too good for me,” he would tell me, over and over. “I’m just a little groveling minion, slurping sour porridge at your feet,” he’d smile his crazy smile. “More gruel, please Miss?”
He was so easy. So damaged and complex and desperate and broken, and so easy. And I told him to go.
“Don’t come back, Tom.” I said it and kept my face clear and he sat there, nodding, surprised. He nodded, slowly, then shook his head as if to re-balance it. He didn’t argue. He just said, softly, “okay, wow,” and he laughed softly, just once. “Wow baby. Okay.” His eyes darkened and apologized on his behalf, but he didn’t say anything else.
Then he stood up, and he left.