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Gage Gomez by Mitchell Phun

I saw the photo for the first time in a magazine when I was in my early 50s. I was in the dentist’s office, waiting for a cleaning, and it was a dated issue someone has left on the waiting room table with the address crossed out. There was a photo expose called, “Remembering the Youth of Old New York”, featuring both black and white color photographs of young people living in the moment in a New York City that no longer existed. It was shot by student photographers at the time. It captivated me, because I was there. I lived it. I didn’t expect to recognize anyone and especially not Tommy.

When I turned the page, the shock took all the air out of my lungs. There he was, young and stunning, in Greenblatt’s Deli. We used to stop in there when it was hot, when we were too early for customers to pick us up. Tommy loved this peach ice tea, but the store usually ran out and he’d be stuck with lemon. Tommy would put his hands on his knees and stare at the fridge selection like a batter on first considering stealing second base. Mr. Greenblatt liked us, and he’d often hide the peach ones behind the lemon so Tommy could get one on a hot summer day.
Tommy always found it.

Mr. Greenblatt didn’t care if you were queer, Cuban, black, Jewish, or anything. Sometimes he’d save “mistake” sandwiches behind the counter for the homeless kids who’d run away from New Jersey, Connecticut, wherever, and came to New York and never had enough cash. Mr. Greenblatt had grown kids who had moved away, never called. We were his kids, and he took care of us.

I leaned back in my chair and sighed as I stared at the photo. Those were the days. Me and Tommy and the boys, we’d sleep late, wander around the city like we owned the damn place, and at dusk we’d gravitate to our corners, looking for familiar cars. You could live on that money you made, sucking off nervous businessman or stroking them off a side street with the engine running. You just needed one or two fares who’d take you to a hotel to make rent. None of us lived anywhere fancy, but we had a roof over our heads and a shower that was warm if you were quick.

I had some faint memory of some guy taking pictures in this deli. We thought he was some NYU student trying to do something artsy. I don’t remember him taking photos of us though. I wondered who took the picture. I wondered if there was one of me somewhere, unpublished. In the caption, there was a description: Unidentified young man considers choices in Greenblatt’s Deli in the Lower East Side. That made me a little angry. That was Tommy. That stupid fucking NYU photographer or whoever he was couldn’t even get his subject’s name. I decided I’d find him and fix that.

“Mr. Washington?”

The stupid photographer would probably feel real fucking embarrassed once he found out that Tommy was dead. And not from HIV, like so many of us were, like I should have been, but no, he was hit by a stray bullet during an unrelated robbery. I was there. I closed my eyes. Still clear as day, like a movie. I could even still hear the sound Tommy made when his body hit the ground.

We could never find his parents. I don’t think he had parents anyway. But some of his clients came to his funeral. Some even paid for it. I thought that was real nice.

“Mr. Washington? Anyone know if there was a Mr. Washington here?”

I blinked, pulled out of my headspace. “Uh yeah that’s me, sorry. I drifted off for a second there.”
“Oh,” the assistant smiled. “That’s ok. Right this way Mr. Washington.”
"Can I keep this magazine?” I asked.
“Sure,” she chirped.
I had to set it down because I needed both hands to get up. Knees weren’t the same these days. I clutched the magazine as I walked back to the dental chair. I hoped this cleaning didn’t take too long. I couldn’t wait to call that stupid fucking photographer and tell him about Tommy.  

When I got out of the cleaning though, there were more thoughts in my mind. I think it was time to drive to New York and see Tommy again. I called Adam on my cell phone – what a thing that was! – and said, “Hey, want to go to New York for the weekend?”
“What for?”
“Feeling nostalgic. And needing a good bagel.”
Adam knew about my past. He probably knew this was about Tommy. But bless Adam, he somehow knew when to not ask for details. He knew trauma never really goes away, it just gets easier to live with. He always supported me in indirect ways on as-needed basis. Best decision I ever made was marrying him.
“Yeah, I could use a good bagel,” Adam said, “And some good Chinese food too. I’ll get a cat sitter and a hotel, we can go on Friday. We’ll talk plans when you get home.”
“Sounds great. Also, can you call your nephew and ask him to find a phone number for me please? It’s a photographer. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

Captions are fictional.


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