Tommy and I used to bathe together. He was the only child of my parents’ best friends, Richard and Sarah. I don’t remember much except for the hot soapy smell, the one-eyed Gumby toy, and Tommy’s pink bottom when he stood to towel off. I mostly take showers now, just like Tommy. But of course I take mine alone. I grew up to become a real estate agent. He murdered girls until he finally got caught. We’ve always kept up with each other’s careers, albeit from a safe distance.
Dating is peculiar. It feels like charades and I’m more of a crossword puzzle girl. I think romance is supposed to be more like poetry. If so, my dates are the kind with obvious rhyme lines, troublesome meter, and no real point. And I always catch myself laughing in the wrong places. Most guys are threatened by random laughter from pretty girls. I think I remember Tommy laughing a lot, though I can’t quite picture it now.
I modeled for a while in Chicago. Not runway stuff; catalogs mostly. I specialized in winter-wear—drab colors, a lot of wool and boots and caps and scarves. I did one rather inelegant shoot in only a bra. It wasn’t sexy; it was for Sears. I was proud enough to keep a few copies, but too embarrassed to ever look at them again. My modeling career ended abruptly when a meth-addled photographer told me to uncross my eyes. I knew he was teasing, maybe flirting, because I’d never been able to cross my eyes before—Tommy tried to teach me when we were nine or so. But once the guy with the camera mentioned it, I couldn’t seem to focus on anything but the end of my nose during photo shoots. I did one final sunglasses ad before running out of money and moving back to Kentucky.
Tommy writes me letters every week. He reminisces a lot, but his memories feel oddly distant to me, familiar but unreliable. It’s as if our shared history went through an amicable divorce. Tommy got custody of the tire swing, the skating rink, the snapper turtle with the fingernail-polish T on its back, and the ironic mixtapes. The good memories grew up and naturally favored their father. And to further mix this metaphor, I got the furniture, the cars, the tree fort, the obvious stuff that inevitably fades or crumbles. I always write Tommy back, in part to remember, but mostly to try to fix him. I suspect he’s beyond repair, but I can’t not try.
A thousand million years ago I used to wake up in our tree fort to see Tommy propped on one elbow, watching me sleep. I remember his wet eyes, the fake cherry smell on his breath, the red food coloring on his tongue as he tickled my forearm and tried to coax me back to sleep. Most of the girls Tommy killed looked like me. One victim even appeared to have her eyes crossed in the crime scene photographs. But that detail is apocryphal; it must be. Tommy was already in prison when I finally learned to cross my eyes. He should have kissed me back then. Things would be different now.
Sometimes I wonder if he killed the girls to make them look like me. Other times I wonder if he was killing me when he wrung the last few breaths from those girls. He said in a letter once it had nothing to do with me, which kind of hurt my feelings. I sleep with the lights on now.
Tommy says he found Jesus in prison. That image makes me smile—a Last Supper rendering with the son of God doling out communion wafers and grape juice to twelve men in orange jumpsuits, their sandaled feet all shackled together under the table. But then my smile blisters and fades and my eyes do begin to cross because it’s just not fair. It’s not fair that those girls got to see that side of Tommy, that he coaxed them all to sleep, that God now seems to be smiling at Tommy instead of me. Sometimes I dream that Jesus makes parole and comes looking for me. It’s not as funny as it sounds.
I have to show a quaint English Tudor to the Nelsons at two, a farmhouse to the Tindalls at four-thirty, then find a parking space downtown for a real estate seminar at six. Afterward, I’m supposed to meet a guy named Stephen for drinks. But eventually I’ll drive by Richard and Sarah’s house on the way home. Their lights will be on too. Tommy’s dad will be praying for his murderous son and his mom will be drinking in front of the television. I’ll park across the street, sucking on cherry candy and fondling both good eyes of the Gumby toy that hangs from my rearview. But mostly I’ll watch and wait for one good Tommy memory. When I find it, I’ll take it home and cuddle up next to it and try to sleep with my eyes open. But I won’t sleep. I’ll get up and write yet another letter. Maybe this time I’ll address it to me. Maybe I’ll find the courage to tell me what I really think. Maybe. The truth is that I envy Tommy, his ordered existence, his assurance of salvation, his ability to remember the good and go on living in spite of the other. ∑