Updated: Jan 17, 2018
I met Sam in a Sociology course when I was a junior in college. It was immediately clear he was older than me, but I never knew by how much. A non-traditional student, he seemed to be in his early 30s. But his baby face made him seem almost as young as I was. He was a very large guy, well over six feet and built like a former line backer who had given up on weight training, but not on the daily calorie intake.
He sat behind me and, aside from our good morning pleasantries, we didn’t have an actual conversation until a few weeks into the semester, at which point—when I turned around to pass back a handout from the professor--he said, “You should know that you wear the perfect amount of makeup.” My reaction felt flustered, mostly because until that particular moment, no one had ever commented on the make up I wore, or on the level to which I did.
The next day, in place of his usual, “Good morning,” he clarified: “I have a sister.” I nodded. “And she wears too much damn makeup.” He shook his head. “I had noticed you wear just enough, but not so much you cover all the good stuff.” My face, and all its good stuff, went hot. But I thanked him, and sat down.
During the rest of the semester, we moved quickly past my mascara and somehow developed a quasi-friendship. More than morning pleasantries; less than overt flirting. What I came to find out about him, besides more about his relationship with his--apparently pancaked--sister, was that he worked as a bartender and was coming back to school after taking years to save for it. He was sharp. Incredibly funny in a sarcastic and dark way. I liked how much his personality, his path to college, his phase of life, contrasted with my own. I eventually concluded that perhaps he hadn’t been coming on to me with the makeup comment; he just had an interesting way of expressing his observations.
We shared an appreciation for literature, especially Kurt Vonnegut. I, an English major, reveled in how well read he was. And he, an older guy returning to school, was excited by the sparring he could do with someone much younger. After weeks of talking books in the few minutes before and after class, I asked him for a favor. I was in a writing course, and the professor instructed us to get feedback on our short stories from someone who didn’t know us very well. Given that our conversations never went much beyond books, movies, and class assignments, he seemed as good as any person.
When I saw him in class the next time, he said that we would need to go to the library to talk through his notes on my short story. I was surprised this was something that needed time, and a second location, but I agreed to hear him out.
I followed him after class as he walked to the farthest corner of the library, to a section I'd never visited. Amazingly, there were exactly two chairs in this remote part of the building. He sat down; I did too. He coughed uncomfortably. He was a little shaky. A thought came into my head from a far off place: he’s going to try to kiss me. There was no reason for me to think this, but something didn’t seem right. Why were we so isolated back here? What kind of notes could he have that he couldn’t have just told me in the classroom? He reached into his bag and pulled out the copy of my story. It was covered so deeply in red marks that I could barely see my story poking through.
As quickly as the thought that he was going to kiss me came into my head, it vanished. This guy was here to help me be a better writer. So, for nearly an hour, we talked through the sentence structure, the pacing, and the imagery until I felt the story was immensely stronger than before. I was somewhat confused by his intensity as we spoke, almost as if he were angry with me. But he was clearly just trying to help me improve as a writer.
At some point along the way, I gave him my cell number. At first he didn’t call very often. And it was always with a purpose—a question about a class deadline, asking what grade I got on my most recent writing assignment, wanting another book recommendation. But then his calls came more rapidly. Almost compulsively. On a family vacation during my last holiday break from college, I was in the front seat talking to my dad. The phone rang, I looked at the ID and ignored it. When my father questioned me I said, “I think he wants to date me.”
“And you don’t want to date him.” He said it more as a statement than a question.
“No, not at all.”
“Do you know why?” he asked.
I laughed uncomfortably. “I don’t have a good answer, except something about him…I dunno…concerns me?”
I immediately felt guilt in saying that. Sam was one of the nicest guys I’d met in college. I enjoyed our conversations. So I quickly changed my answer. “He’s much older than me.”
When I returned for the spring semester, I answered the phone the first time Sam called. He asked if I wanted to catch up over lunch downtown. I said I’d meet him there. When I got to the restaurant he chose, I found him laughing—flirting even—with a very attractive waitress who clearly knew him. She was playfully slapping his arm, and when I walked in she straightened her posture. “This is Meg?” He nodded and they both laughed lightly. I didn't get the joke.
Seeing him interact with the waitress, and other staff around the restaurant--even walking back and talking with the cooks before we left--gave me a sense of calmness I hadn’t yet felt about him. I had only seen him in class, but never interacting with any of our classmates. Perhaps I was only a bit cautious about him because he appeared to be a loner. Seeing him surrounded by friends at a hip downtown restaurant gave me relief from tension I didn’t even realize I was carrying.
After that, I relaxed into a friendship with Sam. He never attempted to ask me out. He never tried to kiss me. He never so much as hugged me. He reigned in the phone calls, and, for a while, we had a nice rhythm going.
One night, he called to ask me to come to his bar. He said there would be a great band that a lot of people from campus always came out for. But when I got there, the place was empty. The waitress behind the bar said, “You must be Meg.” When I nodded she said, “Sam will be right back. He went down to storage to get me another case of vodka, but let me make you a drink.” I ordered and paid. I sat there a few minutes confused as to why this bar—that should have been full of my classmates and a band—was empty.
Soon, Sam emerged from underground, a box hoisted on his shoulder. He spoke briefly to the waitress as he restocked the liquor. Then, instead of staying behind the bar, he came around and sat on the stool right beside me.
“Hanna says you paid for this drink,” he said, a little terse.
“I was going to buy you a drink,” he said, not looking at me.
“Can’t you just make me a drink?” I joked. He didn’t laugh.
“Well, I was going to make you a drink. That you didn’t have to pay for.”
The mood felt heavy. I sat very still on my stool.
“Look,” he said, “there’s no band tonight.”
“I got that,” I responded.
“But I have a present for you and I wanted to get you down here so I could give it to you.”
“Okay…So what is it?” I asked, cheerfully attempting to lighten the mood despite my irritation.
“Well,” he said, finally making eye contact. “You have to go with me to get it.”
I don’t really remember our walk--memory fades of course--but suddenly we were together in a dark alley. I know I wasn’t scared at that moment. I remember asking myself over and over if I felt safe. And I had. I walked and talked with ease.
He had just been weird at the bar because I had embarrassed him. Ruined his move. One thing that became very clear to me on this night was that he was absolutely going to ask me out. Only now I wasn’t so much unnerved by the idea as I was just frustrated by it. But onward we walked down the dark alley to his house to retrieve a gift he apparently didn't think to bring to the bar to which he'd lured me on false pretenses.
We walked up the driveway of a small, white house, with not a single light on. There was a tiny metal awning over the back porch. He went to open the door. It was locked.
“Ah man,” he said. “I don’t have my keys.”
I don’t know what it was, but in that moment, I didn’t believe him. Suddenly, something just didn’t feel right.
“Hang on!” he said. I’m going to climb in the front window and let you in.”
And with that, he left me. In the pitch black dark, on the back porch of a house I'd never been to, on a street I didn’t know the name of.
The moment he disappeared into the darkness, I was overcome with a white hot flash of fear.
I’ve messed up, I thought.
I turned around and stared out into the pitch black. I didn't know where I was. I couldn't see anything but I knew every bad thing was about to happen to me. I was certain of this. I knew that Sam, in all his mass, was about to come running out from the darkness and straight at me. My gut told me to run. Run away from there. He was coming for me. He was going to knock me over and drag me into the dark house.
But he didn't.
Instead, before I could find the will to run away, the house suddenly filled with light, as did the backyard. He swung the door open wide.
“Sorry about that!” he laughed, his shirt torn from climbing through the window.
I’m not sure why—again, relief is a powerful feeling—but I went into the house. I couldn't feel my fingers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what we had come for. There, on the kitchen counter, was a very old and tattered book. I knew instantly what was going on.
He had found and bought me a first edition copy of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel and he didn’t want to risk getting it damaged at the bar.
“It took me months to find this!” he said, smiling big. “But I wanted you to have it.”
I took the book in my shaking hand. I hadn’t said a word since he left me in the backyard. I looked at him and back down at the book. I tried to find my words, or to even feel my tongue.
“Thank you for this, Sam,” I said slowly. “But I really need to go home now.”
“Oh.” he said. His smile fading. “Okay, I can walk you back to your car.”
He did, and that was the last I ever saw of him.
The following summer, after graduation, when I was unpacking my new apartment and preparing for my first day at my new job, I uncovered the book he’d given me. It occurred to me, for the first time, to look up what it was worth online. When I found my answer, I felt remorseful.
I still had his number in my phone. I called him. It went straight to voice mail. I left a bumbling message, thanking him more fully for the book. And I apologized for not saying goodbye to him after graduation. I asked him to call me back.
A few days later the phone rang. His number flashed across the screen.
“Sam!” I shouted into the phone.
“Meg, this is Ashley. Sam’s sister.”
Though I had never spoken to her, as soon as I heard her voice, I knew what was coming.
“Oh no...Sam isn't okay, is he.” I spoke in a whisper.
The sounds of a congested nose echoed into the phone. “Sam died two months ago.”
“I didn’t even know he was sick..." I uttered.
“Well,” she inhaled. “It was suicide."
“Ashely,” I said, breaking it. “I don’t think I was very kind to him the last time we spoke. I mean---”
“Meg," she said, her voice regaining its command. "This had nothing to do with you. Or me. Or anyone. He had battled this most of his life."
"I really didn't know him at all," I spoke softly.
"Neither did I." She sighed. "And I was the closest one to him."
I'm still not clear how to interpret my time with Sam, or his tragic end. But I do know one thing: Sam was a man who believed I wore just enough makeup to let the good stuff show through.