This morning, I bumped into an old friend on the train. I was balancing my gym bag, my tennis racket, my purse, and a newspaper. It's hot today, well into the 30s, so my hair was pulled up and back and I was wearing sunglasses. I spotted him walking onto my car. I thought there was a chance he wouldn't notice me and so pretended I didn't see him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him do a double take and then step tentatively toward me. My Ipod was on loud, but I could still read his lips, "Rachel?"
I feigned surprise, pulling out my earphones and pushing my sunglasses up, resting them on my head.
"Tommy? How are you?!", my face flushed knowing people in the packed car were watching the exchange.
"Rachel, I can't believe this. Oh my G-D! How are you?"
"I'm good thanks, and you?"
He just stood there grinning, taking me in.
"You look good", I told him. "You look like you've been getting some sun."
He didn't seem to hear what I said. "Wow, I can't believe this."
We met on the playground near my junior high. I was turning 13. He was 14. It was a cool, end of August night. The kind where if you stay out long enough, the ends of your fingers and nose get numb. He used to always tell the story of how we first met. He would talk about how he and his friend walked over to me and my two friends who were swinging on the swings, 'probably talking about boys or makeup or something'. He said 'hi' to us as he walked toward us. We said 'hi' back. He noticed that my lips and mouth were stained blue.
"What are you eating?", he laughed.
"A jawbreaker", I told him, and with a very straight face continued, "I like blue balls."
My friends laughed. Tommy and his friend just stood there at first, with their mouths open. From that point on, we were inseparable. A few weeks later, I started 7th grade. Tommy was in eighth. We hung out all the time. We would meet between classes and at lunch. He would come over to my house after school and stay for dinner, we would hang out on the weekend. Even then he was tall, 6"1, with a shaggy skater cut. He lived in an apartment with his sullen older brother. His mother had virtually moved out to live with some man in the country. His father was somewhere else - always a source of unlikely stories. I never really figured out which parts were true, but they all involved Tommy's father as hero, cut short by some tragic situation. Bottom line, he wasn't in the picture. At that age, it didn't really occur to me that his living situation was anything but cool. Tommy had no rules. We used that to our advantage every chance we got, although for some reason, he always held his absentee mother on some kind of sacred pedestal. Even then I knew it was unearned, but knew that was the one place I could never go with him. It also never occurred to me that his situation was the reason my parents not only put up with his continual presence in my home, but encouraged it. Later, when we were in high school, his beloved Mother cut him off and Tommy dropped out so he could support himself. My Mother begged him to move in with us, to finish school, but the draw of making money to spend on partying and the freedom from rules and schedules won out over any distant long-term gain.
"So, what are you doing in Toronto?"
"I've lived here since January."
"Are you on your way to work?"
"Naw, I just have some things to do downtown, so, uh...yeah. What's new?"
I got the feeling I shouldn't poke around that last question.
"What's new? I don't know, so much! I haven't talk to you in, what...years? What's not knew is a better question, right?", I laughed, stalling.
"Yeah", he smiled back, looking at me like he was seeing a ghost.
In highschool, both of us started to spend more time with Simeon, the guy I fell for in science class over a peanut butter sandwich. Dating Simeon never really got in the way, largely because he and Tommy were already friends, so the three of us became a team. For a while, we did everything together.
Later, when I went on to university, things changed. Both Tommy and Simeon went their separate but dysfunctional ways, while I tried to pull myself back into life. I could see what others were doing and I knew that if I too didn't do some of it, I would be left behind, in the dust.
Life goes on, and things happen. Tommy and I reunited briefly when Simeon killed himself. A few years later, Tommy called me out of the blue.
"Hey Rachel, next week is the anniversary of Simeon's death. Keith and I were thinking it would be nice if we went to visit his parents."
I made excuses. I told him I was busy. I deflected his scorn. I couldn't get off the phone fast enough. I couldn't breath. I'd been there once before, watching Simeon's mother cry, trying to swallow the food she served after she told me it was meant to be eaten by Simeon. I couldn't do it again. Tommy, one of the most irresponsible people I'd ever known was doing the right thing this time, and I just couldn't. I felt terrible for it. I still do.
Feeling edgy, I was relieved when I looked up to see we were pulling into my station.
"Tommy, this is me. You still have my email right?"
"Ah, no, I don't know that I ever did."
I gave him my hotmail address, repeating it twice, knowing he'd remember it and that I probably wouldn't respond.
"Bye!", I called back waiving. I walk down the platform toward the escalators and I didn't turn back.