There’s one piece of advice that seems to get recycled by everyone who has ever talked to me about relationships: “make sure you fall in love with your best friend” or “make sure you’re friends first.” No matter how the word was given to me, the interpretation was clear: you should always be dating your friend.
“Do you know how long I’ve liked you, D?”
Tommy flattened the palm of his hand into the curve in my back, pulling me closer to him. There was not even enough room left for Jesus between our lips by the time he said, “D.” I loved the way he said that one little letter. The breath of it escaped through the gap in his two front teeth. I blinked. Hard.
“How long Tommy,” each word from my lips kissed against his.
“When you first walked in the bakery four years ago.” Tommy’s words sent my thoughts down memory lane to that day four years ago when I literally walked into Tommy’s life.
I had just moved to Harlem from North Carolina. I found a tiny two bedroom apartment that I signed up to share with a complete stranger because my portion of the rent would be $750. Calling that a deal would be an understatement. My roomie and I cut corners every way we could, which included limiting our Internet consumption to our phones or to the mom and pop bakery across the street that had all the free wifi we could ever want.
I’d been going to the bakery for over a week consistently around the same time each day and I would leave around the same time each day. One morning I walked in, went to say hello to Mr. Tommy (the man who owned the bakery with his wife, Gloria) and the voice that returned the hello wasn’t Mr. Tommy’s.
I looked up and saw a caramel complected Greek god, a dark splatter went from around his left eye down to the corner of his mouth; (I later found out that was a birth mark) he wore a perfectly fitted white T-shirt, dark denim jeans and the most buttery Timbaland boots you’ve ever seen, carrying a large box as if it was a feather. The only way you could tell the box had weight to it was from the bulge in his biceps as he sat the box down. “Hello,” he said, smiling, exposing a large gap between his two front teeth.
“Oh, I uhm,” I put my bag down and sat down. Then I stood up and sat back down. “I thought you were Mr. Tommy,” I’m sure my brown face was blood red.
“I am. Well, I’m Tommy, Jr.” He put his hand on his chest, claiming himself and I watched the shirt cling to him under his palm. “You’re talking about my dad. He’s Tommy too, obviously,” Tommy laughed at his own joke as I sat there, staring. “And you are…” Tommy asked walking from the behind the glass case of cookies, cakes and tarts.
My God. In front of the counter, there he stood–a smiling thug, in a bakery, who’s Timbs had the power to make me confess all my sins. Tommy reached out his hand to me.
I put my hand in his. They were as rough as I prayed for them to be. “Danielle.” We shook. He held my hand for about five seconds too long. That was enough time for me to fall in love.
“Nice to meet you Danielle. I’ve never seen you before, you new?” Tommy said, heading back behind the counter.
“I am?” I asked, more than I told him. “I mean, I’m new to Harlem. And I live across the street. I love your dad,” I was so busy smiling at Tommy’s gap teeth, I didn’t even know I just told him I loved his dad.
Tommy laughed. “Everybody loves my dad!”
I tried to snatch my attention away from Tommy’s pecs. “I mean, I love your dad’s bakery. Your dad is awesome too!” Nice save, Danielle.
Tommy laughed, “So you live across the street? That’s cool. I’m here a lot. I wasn’t when you moved here. I was on vacation. I went to DR.”
“Nice! What did you bring me back?” I joked and laughed nervously, hoping he wouldn’t think I was serious.
“This tan,” Tommy lifted his shirt to reveal the chiseled between-ab-and-groin muscles God only gives men he loves, and an outie belly button.
Good Lord! This man was teasing my entire soul. He let go of his shirt and it fell back down against his body. “Did you want something?” He asked.
“From DR?” I asked.
Tommy laughed, “No, a muffin, coffee? I have to go downstairs for a minute and I wanted to make sure you’re good.”
“Yeah, sorry. I thought I had a gift,” I laughed nervously. “Coffee works.”
Tommy hand delivered the coffee to my table with a gap toothed smile. I smiled up at him and the door to the bakery opened.
“Hey Tommy!” A woman’s voice cut through our sexual tension. Tommy tensed up and walked back over to the counter. I heard heels clicking towards the counter. I turned my head to see who broke up my moment with Tommy.
The woman was thicker than a Snicker with a tiny waist that seemed unnatural. She balanced her thick thighs and round butt on a pair of skinny heels and even skinnier jeans. “Hi baby!”
“What’s up girl?” Tommy said with excitement and ease.
She leaned against the glass, flirting louder than she needed to, before teeter tottering out of the bakery.
Tommy went downstairs and within minutes brought up more boxes. He continued to work and so did I. I kept my headphones off just in case he wanted to spark up a conversation.
“What’s up baby!” Tommy’s voice broke the silence in the bakery. Another thick chick walked in the bakery, with a smile ear to ear, giggling all over Tommy. This pattern happened the entire day. By 5pm, I’d seen enough. I was new to the neighborhood, but Tommy wasn’t. Every girl within a 30 block radius came to see Tommy, either on their way to work, home, to see their grandma or even their boyfriends. (As one of the girls was leaving, I heard Tommy say, “Tell your man I said what’s up!”).
I decided that I wasn’t going to be another girl on Tommy’s list. I was either going to be the top of that list or not on it at all. I left the bakery and didn’t say a word to Tommy. The next day, I called the internet company to set up WiFi in my apartment. I stopped going to the bakery everyday. I would only stop in occasionally– OK enough for Tommy to see me every once in a while. I didn’t want him to forget about me. I wanted him to want me.
One night my roommate came home and she said, “Tommy said hey. He also asked why you stopped coming through.”
I smiled. “Aww, that’s nice.” I went to see Tommy the next evening.
“What’s up D!” Tommy greeted me with his high energy and gap toothed smile. I wanted to lick the space between his teeth.
“Hey Tommy. I heard you asked about me?” I leaned against the glass like I’d seen so many other girls do. I realized I was just like them, stood all the way up and smiled at Tommy.
“Aww D. I was! You just fell off!” Tommy walked around the counter and over to me, then past me and went to the door and locked it. He turned the sign from open to closed.
“What…” I started to ask, confused.
“Nah man, I’m not doing nothing crazy,” Tommy laughed. “We’re closed. You can stay. You want something?”
Tommy pulled the string in his apron and let it lay loose around his neck. “Good. You smoke D?”
Tommy laughed, “Wooooord?! I was about to roll one up. Stay, let’s smoke.”
It was like music to my ears. Tommy and I sat on a couch in the backroom of the bakery and I watched him roll up, light it, toke it and pass it to me. As each puff of smoke escaped our lips, so did details of our lives. This became our routine. Once a week I’d come over to the bakery at closing and we’d share a blunt and talk. Tommy and I became friends; I would complain about the men who did me wrong and he would laugh about the women who came in and out of the bakery and obsessed over him. I found out that Tommy was always in a relationship, but hardly ever faithful. He’d had his heart broken once by one woman he fell in love with and told himself he’d never fall again. But Tommy’s heart was huge.
His parents were getting older and he didn’t want to be in the bakery business, but he also didn’t want them to lose their business because they could no longer work there, so he did. I watched him give food to the hungry drug addicts who would nod, but never fall, outside of the bakery. He would give the young schoolgirls (who obviously had a crush on him) free cookies after school if they could prove they did something good in school that day. I was determined to stay Tommy’s friend, and I did, for four years, until I moved out of Harlem and lost touch with Tommy. And because fate loves to play tricks on me, I ran into Tommy on the train one morning while on my way to work. We exchanged numbers again and when I sat down for lunch that same afternoon, Tommy sent me a text: “So good seeing you, D. You look beautiful. I miss you. Let’s link up. I’m in Brooklyn now.”
I had just moved to Brooklyn. A thousand butterflies fought each other for one small spot in the pit of my stomach. I saved Tommy’s name in my phone and searched for a butterfly emoji to put with it. Sadly, there were none, so I settled for a caterpillar. It felt symbolic. Who knows how mine and Tommy’s relationship could transform.
Well, I know. And it did transform, but you’re going to have to stay tuned for next week’s column.