Autumn is the hardest season
I moved to Washington, DC on June 1, 2011. A day later I started working at a restaurant where I worked every single day of that first summer. I made my first two DC friends there: Anna and Sam.
Anna was younger than me by several years and a student at American University. She was studying graphic design and her lettering skills decorated the specials boards that whole summer. She had the thickest curly brown hair and a man she was in love with in Italy. She had the kind of laugh that was always a giggle and brought an entire room to her attention. I loved her immediately.
Sam was tall and handsome and funny. His sense of humor was the kind sprung on you, as he was generally quiet — he’d assign us closing jobs like folding napkins and sweeping and, then, at the very bottom, ten push-ups for one of us and thirty jumping jacks for another. He made shifts playful. At the end of the night, over a beer at the restaurant’s bar, he would listen to you completely, body turned, direct eye contact. He was six-foot-four and helped me lift the glass racks off the shelves in the kitchen because I could never reach. He was kind and thoughtful.
I wanted to kiss him. More than anything that summer, I wanted to kiss him.
Sam had a girlfriend. She was a medical student at Georgetown with long wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. She was fit and loved hiking and hockey. She did not like when Sam partied or did drugs and so he never did in her presence. She was Canadian and had lost her father to cancer within the year.
These were the things I knew about her.
I saw her only once, sipping a strawberry daiquiri at the bar, which I laughed about for days afterwards. A strawberry daiquiri!
It was all I had on her.
One night after a shift, Sam and I stayed and had drinks together. Our uniforms were black pants, white button-down shirts, a tie, and a floor-length apron. We’d only ever seen each other like that. There was a tiny closet next to the hostess station where staff could put their things and I went in in my uniform and came out in the black pants and a grey tank-top I’d had on underneath. Sam was sweeping the floors when I opened the door and so I waited for him on a stool, hopeful just to brush his knee with my knee.
That night he told me about the medications he was on — antidepressants and ritalin. He’d had fish oil capsules in his pockets during the shift, a new addition to a pill regimen, and they’d exploded. His money from the night was soaked in it and while we talked he laid it out on the bar, bill by bill, and patiently wiped them with paper towels.
He wanted to work with children. He wanted to help students who had ADHD have a better school experience than he did. He wanted to do more than work at a restaurant and he was trying to decide how to.
We left the bar together that night and went to another bar in a different neighborhood. I’d lent him my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a few days earlier and it was on the backseat of his SUV when I got in.
“My girlfriend asked me where I got it…” he said, trailing off.
“Did you tell her I gave it to you?”
We had drinks at a bar with a light-up cactus outside and he tried to talk me into karaoke. I convinced him to stand on the tiny patio outside, the two of us around one wobbly high-top table. He kept leaning in closer and closer while we talked. Mid-sentence, he kissed me.
Summer was nearly over and he had kissed me.
It was close to 3am when he dropped me off at my brother’s house, where I’d been staying for the summer, and he grabbed the sides of my face and kissed me again. Then he kissed down my neck and bit my clavicle. He said something men have said to me since then, but he was the first man to say it: I’ve wanted to do that for so long.
So, of course, had I.
The next day, sober and scheduled to work Sunday brunch together, we were punching in orders at side-by-side computers during a rush when he quietly asked if he could call me later that night. I said sure.
He told me what he did was wrong. That he wanted to leave his girlfriend, but he couldn’t subject her to more loss. Not right then. He wanted to stand and talk to me forever. He told me no one had ever looked so good in a grey tank top and he didn’t know what to do. I told him it was okay. I told him I understood. That I thought we’d have an opportunity some day. I felt we must.
The last words I said to him were “I figure I have the rest of my life to make you fall in love with me” and we both laughed. We left ourselves there.
I quit the restaurant to start working in a public school five days later and we weren’t scheduled together on any of my final shifts. I moved into an apartment on the other side of the city from him and I changed his number in my phone to “I Have a Girlfriend” so I wouldn’t be tempted to talk to him. I never did.
My first year of teaching created a tornado of sickness, both physical and mental. I developed allergies to foods I’d eaten my entire life — chicken, hazelnut, tomatoes — and I was having panic attacks on the metro ride into work. My brain could think of almost nothing outside of preventing violence in my classroom and getting cini-minis from the Burger King by my house as a treat at the end of the day if I succeeded.
On Sundays, with one full day of quiet behind me, I would walk to the National Zoo and sit with coffee at the sloth bear exhibit. Those days, I would think about Sam. I would think about kissing him. I would think about patience and how this was the first time I’d offered it outright and given it, truly.
By October of 2011 I had been regularly writing an anonymous Tumblr, slowly gathering a following. I kept my phone on silent when I wrote, trying to let myself fully have this, my one healthy coping mechanism, in solitude.
On a Wednesday in the second week of October I flipped my phone over after writing and saw 20 missed calls. I remember realizing all of them were from coworkers at the restaurant. I remember thinking they were all drunk somewhere, trying to convince me to come out on a week day.
The only voicemail was from my manager, Tasha, who had been a mamabear to me.
“Honey, Sam is gone. He died. Can you call us? We’re all meeting at Bourbon.”
I remember smashing my forehead into the scratchy carpet of my mouse-and-cockroach-infested basement apartment and angling my hips up, rocking back and forth into a half somersault. I remember saying “no” so many times it felt like it wasn’t a word anymore, just a way of crying.
I called Anna and asked her how. Before I come to the bar, just tell me how.
His girlfriend had been out of town for the weekend. He hadn’t gone out and partied for months, so he went on a bender. Too much cocaine, too much alcohol, and the antidepressants and the ritalin and whatever else there was. He was dead over a day before they found him, slumped against his bathroom door.
At his funeral I was pulled aside by two people: Tasha and a male coworker. Tasha asked me, gently, if he’d been in love with me. I remember the question confusing me — hadn’t I been in love with him? No, honey, she said. He was in love with you. He just didn’t know what to do.
My coworker told me he just wanted to let me know Sam had asked about me a few days before. How is she doing? She’s the nicest person. Man, like, that girl lights up the whole room. He thought I’d want to know, he said, trailing off.
No one else knew.
I looked in the mirror today, looked at the tiny wrinkles I have now that I didn’t have then, 25 and just beginning, listening to a song named Amanda by Don Williams with the lyrics Amanda, light of my life / Fate should have made you a gentle man’s wife and I thought about Sam for the first time in nearly a year.
Because it’s fall and work is hard. Because it’s almost October. Because I don’t know what happened to the book in his backseat after he died. Because his girlfriend is a doctor now and I hope she is so happy. Because people die and we keep living and part of me is absolutely terrified of all of the missed connections I’ve had in my life. Because, here I am, making someone’s death about me and two months of small somethings between us.
Because I’m human.
Because life is so sickeningly hard, right now more than ever, for most. Because none of us make it through without having occasions of feeling like we’ve lost absolutely everything. I felt it when I lost Sam. I’ve felt it at least two times since.
Because Sam was a good person and his parents told everyone he committed suicide and maybe he did. Because his girlfriend stood at the pulpit and talked about marrying him and I felt like a horrible human, sitting on a hard wooden church pew, mad at her.
Because it’s fall and it feels like I could be forgiven. By myself. For everything.
Because sometimes I still say what I want out loud to Sam and then I chastise myself with He has other people he’d visit, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m wrong and he listens and we get to be together, in this way, after all.
Maybe life is that gentle sometimes.