The next morning I woke up later than usual and tried to pretend that my night with Sam had never happened. Of course, forgetting was considerably difficult without a single ounce of sleep to power your brain; my eyes were heavy from the night before and I almost didn't make it to work on time. Sam had given me a lot to consider, but one conversation with a stranger wasn't going to change a lifetime of bad habits and insecurity. That morning I certainly didn't run down the street proclaiming my love for Tim, nor did I stand outside of his window with a boombox, like John Cusack in Say Anything. The movies I loved so much often painted professing your love for someone as a sudden, grand gesture. I decided to try another tactic; wait around for a while and probably chicken out before ever revealing anything. In any case, I had to give it some time; if only to decide the best way to go about telling my Tim how I felt.
At Videos 4 U, the video store where I had worked for almost a year, summer in Westerhaven was always a popular period. Unsurprisingly, kids my age didn't have much to do, unless you counted nighttime activities like partying, so they would usually stroll into the store during the afternoon; sunglasses and baseball caps drawn over their hungover faces. Usually, they'd rent a few lame rom-coms to pass the day and they'd leave without bothering me. Nevertheless, I constantly prayed that Tim would never visit, so he wouldn't have to witness my unflattering uniform; a cobalt blue polo shirt with the words "Videos 4 U" embroidered onto it and a pair of slacks so long they constantly got caught under my shoes.
Don, the store manager, proceeded to ruin my life at every possible opportunity. No extraordinary features could be found in him; he was just a regular middle-aged dude, with hair greased back tightly and a significant lack of fashion sense. Over the course of the year, I'd learned that he had birthed three kids in his fancy house outside of town and had married a woman who wore an apron and drove a mini-van with a bumper sticker quoting the Bible on it. Don delighted in making the video store a main attraction in Westerhaven, which often resulted in me wearing stupid outfits as promotion; like the time he made me dress up like a giant hot dog to promote our new hot dog stand. Like I said, he really enjoyed making life difficult for me.
"I'm going out of town to run some errands," He announced. His shirt was tucked into his pants like a seven year old going to his Grandma's funeral. "So, don't do anything too crazy when I'm gone! Ha ha, of course you won't. You're a sensible girl, Mia. You never do anything crazy - that's why you're my best employee."
Don was forever going on "errands" outside of town; I suspected that he might be having an affair or sitting in his car in an abandoned parking lot somewhere thinking about how much he hated his life. I forced a fake smile and watched him go without saying anything. Being the best employee at Videos 4 U wasn't exactly my life ambition. Also, Don wasn't the first person to accuse me of being overly "sensible" or "responsible" or downright boring, yet it didn't sting any less each time somebody said it.
Don's only redeeming feature was that his constant adventures often left me in charge of the store, completely alone. This meant that I could peruse and watch movies at my leisure, which is where I had sparked a love of old film. Quite honestly, I was literally getting paid to watch movies most days. That day, I had chosen "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and was fully ready to hide in the supply cupboard and absorb some Audrey Hepburn greatness. Of course, life had other plans.
The bell above the front door let out a soft "ding" sound and I grimaced. Peeking around the door, I felt a faint hint of relief when I realized it wasn't Tim. However, the relief did not last long when I noticed the first customer of the day was Sam; still no appearance of his new tattoo, as he wore a long sleeved, grey t-shirt and a beanie hat. He was browsing the crime-thriller section and barely glanced up at me as I approached him.
"Are you stalking me or something?" I crossed my arms and tried to muster up a serious expression on my face.
"Huh?" He finally looked up from the rows of videos. A slow smile spread across his face as he surveyed my uniform. "You work at the video store? Why doesn't that surprise me?"
"Well, I did tell you I liked movies."
"You weren't kidding. Nice outfit, by the way. That color really brings out your eyes."
I smoothed down my shirt, feeling self-conscious, and searched for a hint of sarcasm in his voice. There was none to be found - it seemed like he really did like cobalt blue.
"The answer to your question is: no I'm not stalking you," He went back to browsing videos. "I didn't know you worked here. I'm just a guy trying to rent some videos, but the chick who works here is bothering me."
"Maybe she's bothering you because you're totally infuriating," I flounced off, dramatically. Naturally, he followed me - he was always following me - like a second shadow.
"What did I do?" He was laughing heartily now.
"You ruined my life, that's what," I poked him in the chest with surprising strength and he stumbled back. "I was happy to hide in the background and never tell Tim about my feelings. Then you had to turn up and ruin it."
"So, you thought about what I said?" He looked amused and smug, which made me even more annoyed.
My silence was enough of a reply. I hoped that if I ignored him enough he would take his stupid videos and go, but instead, to my horror, he followed me to the supply closet. The room was so tiny that we were almost nose to nose.
"Hey, you're not allowed back here!" I warned, and walked backwards into a shelf full of cardboard boxes.
"Technically, I'm not inside the room," He pointed down at his feet, literally one centimeter away from the entrance of the closet. "Why are you so keyed up? What are you hiding back there?"
He peered into the darkness; only lighted by the glow of Breakfast at Tiffany's coming from the old television in the corner.
"Breakfast at Tiffany's!" He smiled. "Neat!"
"Yeah, yeah," I pushed him away from the door and towards the exit.
"What's the hurry?" He took me by the shoulders and stalled me, easily. I had almost forgotten he was a literal giant and he could probably hold me back with a single finger. "Look, I don't know what I did to offend you. I'm sorry, okay? I wasn't trying to butt into your life. Sometimes, I say things and they come out badly. I don't mean it - it's not you, it's me..."
"It's not you, it's me? Really? You're going with that excuse?"
"I have Asperger's syndrome."
"Asperger's syndrome. It's technically means I'm on the Autism spectrum. Basically, I have less-than-desirable social skills and lack a filter, sorry."
Suddenly, Sam's paradoxical shyness and bluntness made a lot of sense. I'd heard about Asperger's syndrome, in the way that someone from a cave has heard about electricity; hearing the rumblings of the condition, but never actually experiencing it. I knew that it made you appear shy or awkward or even downright cold at times. But of course, that was all part of the syndrome; difficulty in communicating feelings and thoughts.
"You don't need to apologize," I blinked, taken aback a little. "It's--uhhh---not your fault..."
"Yeah," He smiled, a little sadly. "I get that glowing piece of advice all the time. But it doesn't make things any easier."
"Well, then...I apologize for giving you advice that sucks. I've just never met anyone like you before..."
"Like me?" A look of dark amusement crossed his face.
"Oh! I didn't mean it like that ---like you have leprosy or something. You definitely do not have leprosy!"
"Breathe," He laughed. "I know you didn't mean it like that. Anyway, it's a misunderstood syndrome - some of the most brilliant people in the world had it, like Albert Einstein. So, I think I'm doing okay in life. Don't worry."
I nodded and we stood there awkwardly staring at each other for a while. He didn't seem like he needed reassurance; in fact he seemed content in the knowledge he was different from everyone else. So, what else could be said? What else did he want from me? I didn't know. Regardless, I found myself feeling a little pitiful towards him - even though he was more confident and honest than I could ever hope to be. I imagined the years of unkind things that might have been said to him and the misconceptions formed about his personality or behavior. It couldn't have been easy being Sam and I decided to cut him some slack from that moment forward.
"Do you have anywhere to be right now?" I asked, without fully knowing why.
"Not really," He shrugged. "We should be setting up for the show tonight, but I have a few hours to kill."
"Ok. Don't think too much into this - I'm not saying we're going to become best friends or anything. I don't even know why I'm asking you. But do you want to stay and watch Tiffany's with me?"
"I'd like that. But are you asking me because you feel kind of bad for me and don't know what else to say?"
"Maybe a little," I replied, honestly.
"I can live with that," He smiled. "That's the first time in my life anyone has ever been honest about it, so thanks."
I nodded and we exchanged a look of mutual respect. This time, when he followed me to the supply closet and glowing T.V., I let him inside. In retrospect, that day, in the tiny video store, I didn't just let Sam inside the room, I let him into my life too.
"You look lovely, Mimi," Mom beamed at me from behind her sculpture. Her hair was streaked with clay, and her art materials lay strewn across every possible surface. It looked like she was in another phase of sculpting male figurines, all who looked weirdly similar to my father in his youth. You could always tell their wedding anniversary was coming up by the amount of sculptures of him being created in the house.
When I was 10 years old, my father had left us; seemingly without an explanation. But, deep down, my Mom and I both knew that he was in love with someone else. Mom and Christopher (I refused to refer to him as my father since he had left, much to my Mom's chagrin), were a turbulent couple in every way; she was an artist, he was something really boring involving insurance. She was messy; he was obsessively organised. Christopher compartmentalized every aspect of his life into neat little boxes, including leaving his family, which he had announced via an official printed note and a cheque he had left behind to "make life easier" for us. He had always been somewhat pushy with me, which had led me to develop a perfection complex. I also knew that he was a big part of the reason why I didn't want to let anyone into my life anymore, because I was always scared they'd leave eventually.
That night, I made extra effort with my hair and make-up, even though I loathed myself for being a brainless scarecrow who actually cared about what guys thought of me. I even wore my contact lenses, which was a painful and uncomfortable experience and not worth the boost in beauty. My Mom had donated an old black mini dress she had owned in her teens and I had teamed it with an over-sized denim jacket.
"That dress looks better on you than it ever did on me," She reached out to hold my hand and almost got clay all over me. "It's scary how much you look like me when I was 17."
"Yeah, yeah," I waved her away. "I know."
She was right - we did look like each another as teenagers. I had seen photographic evidence many times.
"Did I ever tell you I met your father wearing that dress?" She said, with sparkling eyes. "Maybe tonight will be your lucky night too."
"Well, now I have to take it off," I wrinkled my face in disgust. "I don't want to attract someone like that."
"Mia," She raised an eyebrow, sternly. "Don't be rude."
"I can be rude when the person deserves it."
She sighed and sat back down at her sculpture, her hands smoothing over the clay with noticeable irritation. We'd had the conversation too many times; I was pissed at Christopher, she wasn't and never would be because she was still in love with him. End of story.
"So, who are this band you're going to see?" She asked, absentmindedly.
"It's Tim's band," I replied. "They're called the Mary Jane's."
"Oh, Tim. He used to work over at the grocery store, right? I always thought he was kind of cute - if you like that chiselled, good-looking type."
"What? It's true. I might be old, but I can still appreciate the sight of a beautiful young man."
I rolled my eyes and yanked my bag off the sofa. It was best to get out of the house before she figured out I had a massive crush on the cute boy from the grocery store or launched into another tirade about her youth.
"No drinking and driving!" She yelled after me. "Back by 11 in one piece, please - you and the car both!"
Mae was leaning coolly against a car outside the club, dressed head-to-toe in black like a Gothic spy; her hair was scraped into a tiny bun and she was wearing large-thick rimmed glasses. I suddenly felt naked without my own. Anyone else would have blended into the background wearing so much black, but not Mae; even though she was petite and I was considerably taller than her, I felt younger and forgettable.
"We're on the guest list," She winked, leading us to the front of the line. "Perks of being the bassist's sister."
Although Westerhaven was a fairly uneventful town, the Warehouse would definitely go down in history as one of the wilder parts. It was, quite literally, a Warehouse; a large room, propped up by some pillars, with a bar at one end and a stage at the other. In the vast space between there was absolutely nothing, which made it an ideal place to fill with bodies. It wasn't the greatest venue for a rock concert, and would have been better suited to a rave, but it was the only place Westerhaven had to offer.
I noticed Tim immediately; setting up equipment and broodily tuning his bass on stage, surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls. Sam was nowhere to be seen; I wondered if he had gotten stage fright and bailed. But then I realized it was impossible to predict anything Sam would ever say or do; he was enigma, a puzzle which, annoyingly, you could never figure out.
"Tim!" Mae yelled. The teenage girls shot her a disapproving glance, as Tim bounded towards us.
"You made it!" He grinned. "How did you get past Mom?"
"I told her I was going to pre-med study group."
"Ha! I'm sure she's delighted at least one of her children has stuck to the med school plan."
He said it with a hint of sadness. Mae's parent's made no secret of the fact they were ashamed of Tim now he had chosen music as his career over medicine. Both parents had experienced their own strict upbringings; Mae's Dad was from a strict Chinese household whilst Mae's Mom came from a white, Christian home with a preacher for a father. In their defense, they didn't know any better; they were only teaching their kids the same lessons they had been taught as children. But, to an outsider, it often seemed as though they'd rather their children be miserable, than be their true selves.
Tim nodded in my direction. I pulled off my jacket and saw a look of appreciation cross his face when he noticed my newly unleashed bare arms and mini-dress. He looked unnaturally good in a blue, button down shirt and beige jeans.
Wes had appeared, lingering in the shadows, making odd hand signals at Mae. They had practically invented their own secret language to communicate away from prying eyes. Mae returned with equally as exaggerated hand movements and then skipped over to him.
"Man, they're pathetic," Tim groaned. "Like anyone cares if they're together or not."
"I know," I agreed.
"I don't know why she's making it so complicated," He looked straight at me, his eyes burning a hole through my head. "I mean, if I liked someone I'd let them know, wouldn't you?"
I got the feeling he was accusing me of something, with the way his voice rose at the end; like he could read my mind and knew that I had liked him since I was in diapers.
"Better go now," He motioned to the stage. As he passed by, I felt a tender hand on the small of his back and a whisper in my ear. "You're making it hard for me to concentrate wearing that dress."
After that, my soul left my body and suspended itself somewhere on the ceiling; watching me, as I slowly made my way to the front of the stage. I felt like I was watching myself from above; my mind too far away to consider anything in the present, as I replayed the same comment over and over again:
"You're making it hard for me to concentrate wearing that dress."
Eventually, the lights fell and I jerked back to reality with a thud.
The first time I saw Sam was when he entered the stage from somewhere in the crowd. If you hadn't known he was the front man, you would have assumed he was a random dude crashing the stage; an unlikely band member, in his crinkled white shirt and loafers. The blue and purple stage lights cast a soft glow over his face, which displayed no whim of emotion. There was no introduction or anecdote before the first song, only silence. Immediately, he began to play; a slow rendition of Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones.
Until that point, I had witnessed Sam in multiple situations; nearly being run over, getting a tattoo, watching multiple movies, but that night was the first time I finally saw Sam Benziger.
The audience was soundless as Sam played with so much passion that it physically drained me to watch. His voice was steeped in memories and regrets; pain seeping out of every lyric. It was impossible to look away, and I didn't want to anyway. I turned to see Mae, mouth agape, joined by Wes and the rest of the audience. He was lost in the music, and we were lost in him.
Graceless lady you know who I am,
You know I can't let you slide through my hands...
He looked up from his guitar...and straight at me. I gulped. A faint hint of a smile on his face, then a flash of intensity. His eyes were still on me, like I was the only person the room; my heart beat sporadically in my chest.
No sweeping exits or offstage lines,
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind...
I was longer suspended above my body - I was in the present moment. There was a feeling as we looked at each other; we had met before and would continue to meet again in lifetimes to come, yet it would be never be any easier, or make me feel less, each time.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away,
Wild, wild horses, we'll read them some day...
I felt like there is nobody else in the room; that the people around me had disintegrated like falling ashes and it was only Sam and I. Through the clapping and cheering, we were still standing staring at each other. Sam was panting slightly, from the passionate singing. I was panting slightly from sheer terror, because I don't know what the hell just occurred between us. I didn't know where to look, so I looked down; the only place that was safe. I stayed that way for the rest of the show.
"You guys were amazing!" Mae hugged her brother close. I was still looking at the ground for fear of what I might feel when I looked at Sam again.
"Thanks!" Tim replied, his chest puffed out proudly.
"And Sam was...I mean...whoa."
"Yeah," there was a hint of jealousy in Tim's voice. "He did good."
That was an understatement, I thought. He stole the whole show - the rest of the band were nothing but a backing track. Of course, I wasn't going to say that to Tim. Oh, Tim. In that moment, I remembered his comment about my dress and suddenly, felt queasy; not bowled over or flattered, as I had been earlier, just plain queasy.
"Sam! Sam!" Mae was yelling in his direction now. I flushed, hoping he wouldn't come over. Of course he did, but he was indifferent when he reached us. I momentarily considered the fact he hadn't been staring at me at all, then replayed the way he had looked at me after the song was over and knew I was wrong. Something had happened, I just didn't know what.
"You were awesome! Wow!" Mae was still droning on, excitedly.
"Thanks," He replied, politely. "I had fun. What did you think, Mia?"
He finally looked at me and I stared, mouth open, trying to form some words. Tim looked from Sam to me, and back again, and his eyebrows furrowed a little. Even Mae was looking at us both strangely now.
"I think...I need some air," I muttered.
I tore through the room, almost taking at least three audience members with me as I barged outside. The night breeze hit me, as I sat down on the sidewalk and filled my lungs with so much fresh air that it hurt to breathe.
What had happened in there? It was nothing, I consoled myself. Sam wasn't singing to me. No. He had a girlfriend. I was imagining things again. But what had that feeling been? Sheer electricity. He annoyed the living daylights out of me, yet had made me feel that way. How do you explain something like that?
"Mia," Sam said my name like it was the end of the world. He had followed me yet again. "Are you ok?"
Everything was a blur. Sidewalk, streetlights, night sky, Sam's cologne mingled with boy sweat; musty and manly.
"I'm fine," I reassured him, barely able to meet his eyes. "You were awesome. I just don't feel very good --"
"How much have you had to drink?" He asked, a worried expression crossing his face.
"Nothing," I admitted, feebly.
"Oh," He considered this for a moment. "Do you want me to call you a cab? Or walk you home?"
"I need a minute to catch my breath, don't worry."
I hoped that he would take that as his cue to leave, but instead he sat down next to me and said nothing. He picked at the rubber sole of his shoe and we watched the minutes pass by together. I finally worked up the courage to look at him, slyly, from underneath my eyelashes; he was staring off into the distance somewhere thoughtfully. I wondered if he had felt a single thing for me during that song, or if my hopeless romanticism had gone too far and I had invented the whole thing. Then I saw it in his eyes; the same look of fear I had felt earlier...the fear that everything could change.
"Mia!" Tim had appeared now. "What's going on?"
"I'm fine," I relented. "I'm feeling sick, that's all."
"C'mon, I'll drive you home..."
"I can do it," Sam got up, quickly. "You've been drinking."
"That's really not necessary," Tim said, firmly. "I've only had one beer. I'll do it. You stay here - you are the front man, after all."
There was a definite hint of bitterness in Tim's tone as the two boys stared each other down. Sam was wide-eyed, as usual, but this time with a new emotion; panic. Except, he didn't seem scared of Tim, more so of Tim taking me home. I wondered what made him so panicked about me being alone with Tim and why he cared so much. Before I got a chance to think about it any longer, Tim looped an arm around my shoulder and led me away. I had wanted his arms around me for years, but in this situation, it felt odd and uncomfortable. I cast one last longing glance back at Sam, who was standing on the sidewalk watching us go; a million unsaid things lingering in the air.
Tim offered to drive my Mom's car home, so I could get it home safely. The sky was a gorgeous shade of navy, glittering with stars. Tim had rolled down the windows for me and I had stuck my head out of the passenger side desperate for air and answers. We made it halfway down the road when he stopped the car, inexplicably.
"Can I ask you something?" He said, without looking at me.
"Uhh, sure," I replied, worried. His hands were gripping the steering wheel hard and turning his knuckles white.
"What happened back there?"
"What do you mean?"
"You and Sam. Is there something going on?"
"No. Sam has a girlfriend."
"I know he does - that's why I'm asking. I just want to make sure you know what you're doing."
"I'm not doing anything."
"Good. You're smarter than that."
"Anyway, I like someone else."
I don't know what made me say it; the heat of the moment, the pent-up frustration and confusion over what had happened back at the Warehouse or the fact that the boy I had liked for years was finally next to me, in my mother's car, looking more handsome than ever.
"You do?" Tim was looking at me now. I felt my pulse race, as his almond eyes barely blinked.
Then, in a single moment, he seized me against him and kissed me hard. It was less romantic, and more primal as our mouths smashed together like a fatal car crash. Suddenly, my hands were tangled in his hair and his were roaming my waist, exploring my curves. I pulled away, lightheaded.
"I hope the person you like is me," He looked at me square in the face. "Or else things just got really awkward."