The streetlights lit up the new subdivision in Southwest Houston, keeping the dark away enough that we could see each other's faces as we talked. We were hanging out by his car at the end of the driveway. We kept our voices low, though it was late and everyone in the house was asleep and there were no neighbors out.
I loved him fiercely and I trusted him. Trusted him with my secrets, trusted him to never ridicule my thoughts and feelings. Trusted him to tell me the truth, trusted him to treat me as an equal.
He was my cousin Tommy and he was my best friend.
He had come to live with us my senior year in high school. His family was going to move from Louisiana to Houston but not until later that year. He was having some problems there and needed a new start, a new school, new friends. He found all that. And I found a friend, a brother, a confidant.
Throughout our senior year he and his friend Johnny took my friend Beverly and I to all the teen clubs that sprang up in Houston during the late 60s, the most memorable when we saw Paul Revere and the Raiders at La Maison. We made trips to Surfside Beach near Angleton, staying until dark and heading home happy and sunburnt. We hung out at the Chuckwagon, a neighborhood burger drive-in where all the high school kids congregated in the afternoons.
He'd come home with Johnny Rivers' single 45s, saying "come listen to this, Sue." We'd play them all afternoon, listening over and over again to Mountain of Love, Secret Agent Man, and Johnny's version of Midnight Special and Suzie Q. Dancing in the living room, memorizing the words to the songs.
He spent all his other spare time taking his car apart and putting it back together, parts spread all over the driveway, arms and clothes covered with grease. Getting it running smoothly so we could all go out again on Saturday night!
I can't say my high school years were happy. There was a lot of stuff going on in the family, I was a girl without a lot of self-esteem, afraid to apply myself though the education part of school was easy for me, all the usual teenage angst. The Vietnam War was in full swing and I was just beginning to get an interest in what was going on in politics and the world. Looking back, all these times with my cousin are the times that stand out, the good times we had and the closeness we had. My brothers were either too old or two young to be my buddy. Tommy was just right and we had the bond of siblings.
Around noon on a February day in 1970, I was feeding my baby son John, my second child, lunch when the phone rang. It was my mom. She needed a ride to Aunt Margie's house. Two Marines were there and wanted someone to come be with her before they told her their news. Which, of course, we all knew by their presence. Tommy was dead.
But that's not the way I see him most of the time. Most of the time in my memories of him, we are by his car at the end of the driveway. The neighborhood asleep, our voices low and quiet. His hair hanging in his face, his words that years later come back to me and guide me. "Do what you want because YOU want to do it, not because someone else wants you to. You make the decisions for your life, darlin'. It's your life, don't let anyone tell you different."