"Sam?!" I shook him, fiercely, hoping there would be some sort of movement. He lay there, immobile, for what felt like forever. A dawning realization hit me - he was dead. I had actually killed a man. Not even a man - a boy. What would his parents say? They had sent him away from New York, crime-central city, for a quiet summer in potentially one of the most boring towns in America. Yet, there he was, dead on the sidewalk, and I had killed him; just a stupid kid driving my Mom's beat-up car.
"Huuuh?" He finally stirred. I almost puked from sheer relief.
"You're alive!" I scooped his head up and held him against my chest like my child. It was probably pretty humiliating and emasculating for him but he didn't show it. "Are you ok? Are you in pain?"
"N-no. Just a little woozy, I guess. What happened?"
"You don't remember?"
We both glanced at the remaining shards of his skateboard and I hoped that he would forget what had happened completely, before he had the good sense to sue me for every nickel I was worth. He wouldn't get much out of me though; the wage I earned working at the video store definitely wouldn't cover a manslaughter lawsuit.
"That could have been me," Sam uttered, wide-eyed. He had the sort of expression that was always wide-eyed, so it was hard to tell when he was legitimately shocked or just generally existing. "Whoa."
What could you say to the person you nearly killed? An apology seemed appropriate, yet unhelpful. A single word couldn't replace his skateboard or get rid of his future Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Well, yeah," I added, horrified. "Whoa indeed. I'm really sorry - it's all my fault. I know the sorry doesn't mean anything, and I should be doing the apology instead of just saying the apology. I'm rambling now - I'm sorry, okay? Sorry, sorry, sorry."
"Chill," He sat up, brushing dirt off his pants. "It's okay. Really."
The irony that he was telling me to "chill" and that things would be "okay", when he had narrowly avoided being roadkill, was not lost on me.
"Have you ever had an epiphany?" It was the most I'd heard Sam speak since meeting him and it took me a moment to realize that he was addressing me.
"Oh," I thought for a moment. "Probably. I guess. I don't know. Why?"
"I've had the largest epiphany ever known to mankind."
"Is this one of those I-nearly-died-so-my-life-flashed-before-my-eyes scenarios that happen in the movies?"
"Maybe. Man, there are so many things I haven't had a chance to do yet in life, and I'd never have done them if I'd moved onto that road a second earlier."
"I don't know what to say, apart from I'm sorry - it's all my fault --"
His expression was thoughtful for a moment, like he hadn't absorbed anything I had said at all.
"Well, if you really feel bad about it, there's a way you can make it up to me."
I searched for the innuendo in his tone - was he really implying what I thought he was implying? The town preacher had rejoiced in warning us about crazy city boys and their raging hormones and how mingling with them was a one way ticket to Hell.
"What would that be?" I raised an eyebrow.
"Could you give me a ride somewhere?" He was already on the passenger door side of my car.
"Oh," I felt a pang of embarrassment, followed by surprising disappointment. "Yeah, of course. Where are you going?"
"I'll tell you when I know."
Sam, his splintered skateboard and I drove downtown for the next ten minutes, silently. I didn't know where we were headed, but I didn't care - I was just glad that he was alive and breathing next to me. Finally, when we had reached the shadiest district in town, he pointed directly out of my window.
"That's the place!" He said it with so much conviction that I struggled to doubt him.
"You're kidding, right?" I replied, in disbelief.
"Nope," A small grin crept onto his face. It occurred to me that, along with his lack of conversational skills, I had never seen Sam smile. Surprisingly, it literally lit up his face, like a star emerging in the darkness. I decided that he should do it more often, but it was gone before I had the chance to think about it anymore.
I took extra care to lock my car doors, considering the lunatics and drug dealers who generally loitered around the area. Finally, we entered "Mal's Parlor" - "for all your tattoo and piercing needs, 100% hygiene guaranteed". The promise must have been true because it said so in the window (which coincidentally hadn't been cleaned since 3000 BC). Mal, I assumed, was the portly man at the counter; covered head to toe in tattoos and silver rings in places I didn't know were possible to pierce. He looked up at us from the magazine he was browsing; I couldn't be sure exactly, but the contents didn't look PG-13.
"What can I help you with? You selling girl scout cookies?" He laughed at his own joke.
I suddenly felt self-conscious, but Sam didn't miss a beat.
"Actually, I'd like to get a tattoo," He announced. "Something to commemorate the fact I almost died in a grisly car accident."
I rolled my eyes at his dramatic portrayal of the story - "grisly" was embellishing the tale a little.
"The small ones are $40 each," Mal tossed a folder across the counter. "Larger, custom pieces are negotiable. You got any ID?"
Sam pulled out his wallet and flashed his ID at Mal. He seemed unimpressed, before noticing the large wad of cash hidden in there too; suddenly, he became a lot more welcoming.
"Take a seat," Mal motioned to the best rickety stool in the corner. "I'll be right back."
He disappeared into what appeared to be the tattooing area, if you could call it that; it was filled with general clutter and takeout cartons. I shuddered and looked at Sam, who was calmly rifling through the folder.
"Are you really going to get a tattoo here?" I said, as low as possible.
"Why?" He was oblivious. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's just so...gross."
"You've obviously never been to New York," His wry smile had returned.
I felt weirdly ashamed. Sam was right - I had never been to New York. Truthfully, I had never been anywhere worth mentioning. In a moment of irritation, I wanted to leave him there all alone to catch Hepatitis, but I didn't. Something kept me sitting there, alongside someone I barely knew, watching them make the biggest mistake of their life. Perhaps I was living vicariously through Sam and his terrible decisions, because I wasn't brave enough to make any myself.
"This is the one!" He pointed, vaguely, at something in the folder. Mal popped his head around the door, looking considerably more professional, whilst wearing a pair of white rubber gloves.
"Whenever you're ready, kid," He said, simply.
"I've never been more ready," Sam disappeared into the back room without a second glance at me.
The sound of buzzing made me grit my teeth; I could imagine the needle piercing deep into his skin, placing a permanent scar upon him. I wondered what he had chosen; probably some lame design like "Mom" inside a heart, inked on his upper arm like a sailor. Sam the Sailor. He would never escape the ridicule and nickname.
Almost forty-five minutes later, he re-emerged, grinning like a Cheshire cat, paid for his tattoo and shook hands with Mal before leaving. Again, in those forty-five minutes, I realized I could have left but I had come too far; I wanted, and needed, to see what Sam had chosen, if only to confirm my sailor theory.
"So?" I waited for the unveiling of his mystery ink. There was just one problem; a massive bandage around his forearm that didn't seem to be disappearing anytime soon.
"Sooo, thanks for the ride," He stood, nonchalantly, with his hands in his pockets. "See you around, I guess."
"You're kidding, right?"
"You drag me all the way out here for that? No big reveal?"
"Life ain't always a big reveal, toots. Nobody made you stay with me, you chose to do it yourself. Plus, you vaporized my skateboard, so excuse me if I don't feel too bad for you."
"Well...I...I felt obliged to stay, you know...with the almost killing you thing. Wait - did you just call me 'toots'?"
"It's a term of endearment. Doesn't anyone watch movies from the 50's anymore?"
"Well, yeah - I do, actually! And as a matter of fact, I love them."
We stared at each other for a moment.
"You do?" He asked, skeptically. "What's your favorite?"
"Singin' in the Rain," I replied, surprised at the sudden turn in conversation.
"Well, isn't that a coincidence? Me too!"
"Oh. Weird. Cool, but weird."
"Are you still mad at me now I've admitted to loving musicals?"
"I guess not," I smirked, against my better judgement. "Is this part of your plan? Distract me from seeing your tattoo by talking about musicals?"
I wanted to hate him, but Sam was kind of funny - in a completely, annoying sort of way. How could someone anger you so much but also intrigue you at the same time? He was wearing a wrinkled, green t-shirt that accentuated the color of his eyes and a pair of dark jeans; as mundane as ever, yet more interesting than anything else I'd seen all day. He squinted into the sunlight, then, suddenly, in my direction.
"Does this town have a movie theater?" He asked.
"Yeah," I replied. "Limited releases - we usually get the good ones months after everyone else."
"So, you're saying there's a movie theater in Westerhaven that plays solely old movies?"
"I guess so..."
"Interesting. We should go see one together sometime."
"Oh," I hesitated. "Wow. I don't know. Like...a date?"
"Actually, I have a girlfriend back in NY. Don't worry, I'm not trying to hit on you. I just rarely meet someone who loves old movies too."
I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Why had I suggested it could ever be a date? I immediately imagined a mental picture of his girlfriend; she was disgustingly beautiful, probably mid 20's, and she studied fashion or something cool like that and hung out with supermodels and inhaled cigarettes like they were oxygen. Boys were not interested in girls like me, with my pigtails and stripy t-shirts and backpacks covered in badges. I suddenly felt ten years old, but Sam didn't seem to notice my internal struggle.
"Uhm, sure," I agreed, thinking I could get out of it at a later date.
"How about right now?"
"Whoa. That soon? I mean..."
"You have other places to be?"
"Well...no, actually. I just --I'm not very good at spontaneity. I like plans, plans and more plans."
"Oh," He shrugged. "That's okay. I don't want to make you feel weird or anything. I know I'm just Todd's mute cousin and you don't know me, but I'm kind of in a seize the day mood what with the exploding-of-my-skateboard-could-have-been-my-brain and all. You're here and you like movies too - no weird motive intended - I just thought it'd be fun."
Like I said, I loved plans. All kinds of plans. Running off to the movies with some newly tattooed guy I barely knew, who also had a girlfriend, did not fit into those plans. But then I remembered the sentence that would haunt me until the end of time:
"You've obviously never been to New York."
Look where all my planning had gotten me - nowhere. Maybe it was time to loosen up a little and embrace the unplanned, if only for a day. What did I have to lose? A little excitement never hurt anyone...much.
"Ok, ok," I sighed. "Count me in."
I'm so going to regret this, I thought, trudging miserably to the car, with my bad influence in tow.
There was a showing of Annie Hall starting an hour later when we reached the theater, so we had time to stop for ice-cream first. It felt weirdly natural hanging out with Sam, even though we hardly knew one another. Soon the once awkward silence became comfortable as we ate our ice-cream, on a bench facing onto the park, without saying a single word. I realized that Sam wasn't a mute, but that he simply talked when he felt it was necessary. Maybe that was so surprising because everyone else on the planet felt the need to fill silence, whereas he was just content to listen for a while.
When the movie started, we settled side by side; a comfortable distance between us. It definitely wasn't a date, even though admittedly, I would have been okay with that. In all honesty, in my haze of teenage hormones and hopeless romanticism, I would have been okay with going on a date with any guy with a pulse. However, it didn't stop me from really looking at Sam Benziger for the first time since we had met; noticing the tiny things about him I had missed before and the things his girlfriend got to see, up close, all the time. I saw the tiny bloodspots seep into the bandage on his arm and wondered, not for the first time, what the hell was under there. I also watched his hands, placed carefully on the arm rests; still and steady, not overly large, but strong. Everything about him was over-sized; he towered over me even as we sat down together. It was then I realized that I was looking at him more than the movie and should pay more attention.
I didn't believe in love at first sight, or even like at first sight. I certainly didn't have instantaneous fireworks the moment I saw Sam Benziger; I wasn't secretly under the illusion we would ever be anything remotely romantic. But I had to admit, I found him interesting. He was decidedly unusual; different from the boys in Westerhaven, silent to the point of mystery, but with enough attitude to back it up. He had things to say, but he chose not to say them. Then there was the matter of asking a girl he barely knew to the movies and getting a tattoo in an effort to "seize the day" - Sam Benziger was exciting and spontaneous and confident enough not to feel the need to talk to impress others.
He noticed me staring at him and smiled easily. I swear I detected a hint of pity and fear in there, but that was most likely my silly, teenage paranoia speaking. Sam was almost twenty one years old; he was more mature than me and had probably shed his paranoia during puberty. He probably thought I was totally in love with him and wanted us to get married and have babies. Why else would a girl agree to go to the movies with a guy she barely knows, even though he had a girlfriend? Good question. Why did I agree? I offered him popcorn, to make him think my staring was for a valid reason, and he took a little handful and nibbled at it like a massive, blond squirrel.
Pay attention - you're missing the movie, I scolded myself. Why couldn't my brain stop for just one minute? Why couldn't I enjoy things without thinking? Why couldn't I go to the movies with a guy, who didn't even like me, without falling apart?
"That was great," He beamed, striding out of the movie theater like he had just won the jackpot. "I love Woody Allen."
"Me too," I replied.
"You remind me of Diane Keaton - you have the same unique style."
"Is that a good thing? That movie was made in the 70's, after all."
"Nah, I like it. It makes you stand out. Just like those glasses."
I had worn glasses since I was a kid - huge, thick-framed beasts - in order to cure my defective eyeballs. Yet, half the time, I felt like the world was still foggy to me. I remembered Tim telling me to try contacts and I brushed away Sam's compliment.
"They probably won't be around much longer," I said. "I'm trying these new fangled things called contact lenses."
"That's a shame. I like your glasses - they're part of you."
How was it possible that he could know that and be right, considering we had only hung out once? My glasses were part of me; sometimes I liked the way they slid down my nose or turned misty at the most inconvenient times. Interestingly, until Tim had mentioned it, they hadn't really bothered me that much. Now they were all I thought about; my biggest insecurity.
"Can I ask you something?" I said, looking at him intently.
"Sure," He replied. We were walking down the street now. It was getting dark outside and my bare arms were beginning to feel a little chilly.
"That night at Mae and Tim's house...how come you were so quiet?"
"Honestly?" He half-laughed, a short and marvellous sound. "I'm not that great with first impressions. People tell me I have one of those faces where I look constantly terrified. I'm not much of a small talker. Both of those translate as I have nothing to say and if you do talk to me I might cry on the spot. Plus, I didn't really know what to say - you guys all know each other and I'm just Todd's weird cousin."
"Well, you do kind of look like that," I chuckled. "But I like it. I like your face."
It flowed out, unfiltered, before I could stop myself. Damn, Mia, I cursed inwardly. I like your face? Way to go, creeper.
"Ha," He looked at me, warmly. "Thanks. I like your face too. Can I ask you something now?"
"Depends what it is..."
"How long have you been crushing on Tim?"
I let out a splutter and looked at him, in disbelief.
"W-what?" I stuttered. "I don't have a crush on Tim!"
"C'mon, Mia," He looked at me, seriously. "You don't have to pretend - it's kind of obvious."
"Do you think Tim knows?"
"Oh my God."
My head melted into my hands. Life was over; I would have to crawl into a hole and hide there like a fugitive forever. Maybe the FBI could put me into the witness protection program and change my identity.
"Why are you freaking out?" Sam asked, with a touch of amusement. "Humans can like other humans, it's normal."
"I don't care about other people, I just don't want Tim to know about it!"
"Why not? Are you scared something might actually happen? I can tell you're the guarded type - you're terrified that someone might actually like you."
"No, I'm not!" I replied, a little too defensively.
"Yes you are. What's the sense in liking someone if you're never going to tell them?"
"Nobody gets hurt that way."
"Yeah, but nobody really lives either. What's the point in having a life if you're going to hide from everything in it?"
"Why are you giving me such a hard time? Just shut up, okay?"
I stalked off down the street, but his long legs caught up with me easily.
"Hey," He touched my shoulder, softly. "I'm not trying to be mean or anything. Sorry. I just think if you like the guy, then maybe you should tell him. Life is short and all that mojo."
"It's not that easy," I replied, woefully. "Mae is my best friend. I don't want to make things complicated. Plus, who says Tim would ever like me back anyway?"
"What's not to like?" He gazed at me so sincerely I could barely handle it.
"Why do you ask so many questions?" I looked away, exasperated. His bluntness was exhausting.
"Why do you doubt yourself so much?"
That shut me up quickly; usually people tolerated my self-doubt, but nobody had actually called me out for it before. The truthful answer was that I didn't know why I had so much self-doubt. Since I was a kid, I had always been a jangling ball of insecurity and nerves. I didn't know any other way. One thing was for sure, I didn't like someone pointing out the things I already hated about myself. It felt like someone was rubbing coarse salt in an already raw wound and stung like hell.
"I don't know," I replied, shortly. "It's just who I am."
"No it's not," He said, sternly. "You're Mia."
"Well, whatever. You know what I mean."
"I don't think you know what I mean though. I'm saying that you don't have to be the doubt, you can be something else - you can be Mia."
Honestly, it was kind of unsettling that Sam cared so much. Was he like my guardian angel or something? That would be a hoot. A guardian angel with a sailor tattoo. In the history of time, apart from Mae, I wasn't really used to anyone caring so much; I was quite content to be invisible Mia and sit around feeling sorry for myself and deal with my problems on my own. Now some dude had turned up and told me that wasn't okay anymore. The worst part was I knew that he was right.
"Ok, thanks for the advice, Dad," I teased and opened the car door.
"Just think about it," He said, before ducking into the other side. "You might be surprised to realize there's some truth there."
That night, I drove Sam to Todd's house; he told me he would be staying there for the rest of the summer. It was a pretty, all-American home with a white-picket fence and gardenias. We didn't really say much, barely exchanging a goodbye, as he got out of the car and disappeared inside. When I got home and tried to find some semblance of sleep, I tossed and turned all night thinking about what Sam had said. It killed me to admit that he had a point - I had become my doubt. I had liked Tim for years and would be going to college soon, whilst Tim would be going off to tour the world with the Mary Jane's. Did I really want to leave Westerhaven, college application success permitting, knowing that I hadn't at least tried to put myself out there? God damn you, Benziger, I shook my fist at him mentally. Why did you have to be so damn smart? Why did you have to turn up and ruin everything?