Holding the picture and looking over it, the world started to spin. It’s only happened to me a few times in life. The first was when I saw a number tattooed on someone’s arm for the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was 13, sitting in Shul for Rosh Hashanah. I reached out to take a Sidur from the sleeve on the back of the pew, and, at the same time, the old lady next to me did the same thing. There, on her withered, tanned, wrinkled arm, unmistakably was a blue number tattooed from a camp. My eyes locked on it; the world began to spin.
I heard about the concentration camps my whole life, but, there, next to me, was a survivor. The tattoo proved she had her arm locked into a vice to forcibly apply the ink on her skin. It was all I could think about it. It was all I could see. I knew I was staring; I couldn’t stop.
I felt the same way when I saw the picture of Tom Owens, former Peace Corps member, now working for a disaster relief non-profit. I became obsessed. Here, I saw a person with whom I willingly chose to spend an evening with, all to lead to his death. It terrified me. It thrilled me as I questioned: Was it power I felt? Or fear? Or both?
I ate with his picture propped in front of me, slurping spaghetti noodles, occasionally splattering him with sauce. By this time next year he would be dead—or very close to it.
I remembered the first time a boyfriend had died after spending New Year’s with me—a time when I tried wholeheartedly to deny the obvious. He wasn’t really a nice or kind person, nor did he contribute anything to the betterment of the world. But the idea of someone I had shared a bed with for almost a year, whom I had slept next to (even if in a crack between the bed and wall, because he insisted on taking up most of the space) … was now gone. Dead. Never to come back. It felt weird, incredibly strange. Not a big loss, really—still, bizarre. That’s how I felt about Tom: strange. I knew I would meet him, befriend him and spend December 31st with him in less that two months.
You, dear Jude, my helpful editor, have provided the entry to most of the … well, shall we break down and call them victims? Few people refuse a reporter from a respected magazine an interview when she calls; Tom proved no different. His nonprofit had a fund-raiser approaching. I called and asked if we could meet at a café.
I researched Tom on the Internet; in the age of “Big Brother,” we have few secrets. It never ceases to amaze me how many willingly put their lives on display. He not only joined all the usual professional and social media sites but had actively pursued the world of online dating. On one site, he posted a very debonair picture: scruffy beard, locks of curly, blonde hair. He appeared to be in Thailand, looking past the camera with the jungle behind him. His tagline: “The defining experience of my life was living in a village in Asia, seeing the way real people live. I’m looking for someone ready to live real life with me.”
Imagine my surprise to be greeted by a clean-shaven, scrawny young man who wore dark sunglasses, even inside. He oozed charm, but there was nothing underneath it. For example, he had a set of exercise pedals under his desk, which was littered with South Beach Diet snack bars. I sat stunned. He worked for a disaster relief non-profit—which involves helping people in desperate need of food. He lived in a subsistent-level village; yet, he obsessed over weight loss. He talked in all the expected platitudes about the upcoming fund-raiser, and I kept wondering who would pay $50,000 to have this guy killed. He was a nothing.
Eventually, I wrangled a media pass for the event and mentioned how I’d love to have a drink and follow up later. When I looked at him, I couldn’t hear a word he said. All I could think of was when and how it was going to happen. Would it be violent? A slashing to the face? Perhaps self-inflicted? It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a drug problem. He didn’t seem too healthy or stable, but who was I to judge? I took a job as a contract killer. He exuded shaky desperation that addicts, severe addicts, have. When pulling back the charm, it visibly was there. The charm supported a means to an end.
Who hired this guy? For sales—maybe—but an executive director? It seemed like a joke. Though college educated, even with a graduate degree, he didn’t come off as exceptionally well-read.
I went home and played scenes from “Treasure Island” over and over in my mind during dinner. I barely slept between the day I met him and New Year’s Eve, despite the sleeping pills. The nightmares and the guilt set in horrifically. I envisioned Tom dying a thousand deaths in six weeks.
As the day approached, I bought two tickets for the big bash at City Stage, which included buffet, champagne and the show, “Hair.” Tom readily agreed to join, especially when I offered to be his designated driver to make sure he arrived home safely (oh, the irony!). Standing on the rooftop bar, looking out over downtown, I kept thinking I could just throw him over the edge and be done with it. I had no idea how I was going to survive the rest of the year till he actually did die—then what would I do?
“That’s a pretty meat-heavy buffet,” he grumbled, interrupting my thoughts as he saddled up to me at the bar, his plate piled high with bean dip, desserts and cheese.
“Huh?” I responded brilliantly.
“I said that’s a meat-heavy buffet.”
“You’re vegetarian?” I asked. He nodded and stuffed a spanakopita in his mouth. “How did you survive the Peace Corps as a vegetarian?”
“Well, not there, but animals are different there.”
Is there possibly something to this guy? I wondered. A concern about factory farming?
Midnight rolled around; Tom became hammered. I offered to pay for all his drinks; I honestly felt obligated. We toasted with everyone. I started trying to maneuver him toward the door, and eventually carried him to the car where he vomited on the ride home.
Tom called a couple times afterward, asking to meet for coffee. The idea of spending any time with him made my throat dry and stomach feel like bungee-jumping of the Eiffel Tower. Though gaggles of cute girls always surrounded him at the office, I didn’t really get the vibe he had a lot of friends outside of work. Not that there was much to be friendly with, but still.
However, one night I bumped into him rather unexpectedly at Ibiza—the closet thing to a good, gay dance club in town since Mickey Ratz closed. Nearly everyday since New Year’s, I scanned the newspaper headlines, police blotter and obituaries, looking for a mention of his death. But there he was: walking out with his hand in the back pocket of this sexy Bruiser’s jeans. He didn’t even notice me.
Well, I thought. That answers that.
Tom died that night.
The next day, the paper reported he had an allergic reaction to latex. When the paramedics arrived, he was DOA.
I ran into the Bruiser a couple months later at Ibiza and, in a quiet moment, bought him a beer and asked about Tom. He had visibly lost weight over the last few months.
“Goddamn!” he swore into his mug. “I still don’t know. I mean have you ever seen anyone die in front of you?”
“Yes,” I said.
His face dropped. “Oh, honey! I’m sorry.” He reached out to grab my hand. “He brought his own box of condoms; said he was allergic to latex and it had to be sheep’s skin. I was kind of freaked out about the idea of, you know, sheep’s skin.”
I nodded. His blue eyes clouded.
“There must have been some sort of mix up,” the Bruiser continued. “I don’t know how it could have happened. Heat of the moment? But then he started shaking and turning blue, gasping for breath. I thought it was, well, you know…”
He emphasized with his eyebrows. After a pause, he shrugged and shook his head.
And I shook mine: A vegetarian using sheep’s skin condoms?