Friday, August 10, 2018

Onde Anda Você — One

Arcos da Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

It was Sunday night; cold and drizzling. He left the Riachuelo Street, walked through the Lapa Arches. He was holding an empty Itaipava longneck bottle, too much of a good boy to simply dispose of it. He walked to the Joaquim Silva street, found the one open bar—a boteco really. Two men played pool in the back, silently, only the billiard balls clacking together, a random football league game rerun on a mute TV hung up high, old enough to have witnessed Pelé in his heyday. No Pelé now though, only Botafogo and Fluminense FC fighting off relegation zone earlier that week. He put a coin in the jukebox, picked Tim Maia's saddest song and chugged down cheap beer like it was water. At some point, the owner let him know the bar's closing. He grabbed another beer and ventured out in the streets again, sitting on the steps of Selarón's staircase, all the tourists long gone. There was nowhere else to go and truth was—he'd never walk up those steps anymore. 

Maybe he knew that.

Onde Anda Você — Two

    

São Paulo Mountain Range, Brazil 

        With the direct light on him, I prove myself once again right; Ben really is pretty cute. Handsome, even. He has a nice face structure, features that are both elegant and mature, in a way that there’s no way they were there ten years ago. There’s no beard, but I wonder if maybe there should have, just so it can add to the whole look. Then again, this is probably too formal for beards. His coffee brown eyes are framed by thick lashes I’d definitely die for and his hair is cut pretty short, which definitely suits him. He can’t be younger than thirty five, or older than forty really, but you never really know it with men.

“Who are you hiding from?” I ask as I watch him from across the table we found near the balcony. His eyes had been wandering around the crowd and they settle on me.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Onde Anda Você — Three

         Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life, Mark Twain once said.

But that's a lie. That's the biggest lie ever told by a white american guy, although it likely isn't. But love doesn't pay the bills—unless you're lucky enough to have married rich. 

I'm not lucky enough.

So I took it upon me to alter the damn saying so it's a lot less hypocritical; work with something you love—and you'll never love anything ever again.

There. I said it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Onde Anda Você — Four

         "Ok, I've a serious question now-" I balance the huge plastic cup in one hand. I'm sitting in one of the concrete seats at the park; Ben is sitting in his chair, positioned in front of me. I gotta look up at him, which is a nice thing—for a change. "Is your name really Bernardo Bernstein?"

He nearly chokes at his freshly pressed sugarcane juice—a local specialty. He sets down his cup right between his legs.

"Why on earth would you think that?"

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Juniper's (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a drop of water? Wondered what it’s like to be a group of molecules cycling through the universe? The water cycle is never ending, yet each stop on a raindrop’s journey will be vastly different. In the next cycle it might not even be a raindrop at all. It could be a drop of water flowing in the River Thames; it could be a life-sustaining drop of water for a cactus in the desert. 

That sounds nice, I think. So unlike the human lifecycle. One and done. That’s us. No chance to start over. 


I wouldn’t hate to be a raindrop, I think as the wipers on the car swipe furiously back and forth. 


Of course, that drop of water could just as easily end up as a droplet in a toilet bowl in its next cycle. But at least the water cycle is short. Again, unlike human life. 


Well, some human lives. My heart pangs at the thought.

“Don’t give him the wrong idea if he comes tonight.” 


Amy’s words pull me out of my reverie. I turn in my seat and fix her with an exasperated gaze that belies my inner melancholy. “When have I ever given him the wrong idea?” 


“Oh, certainly never throughout college.”


“We were --,” 


“I know, I know. You were just friends. Something everyone knew except him,” she interrupts me and makes a poor impression of my voice. If I weren’t already so on edge, I might laugh. Instead, I stay silent. 


Amy’s one of my oldest friends. She’s also bullheaded, overly protective of the people she loves, and not one to mince words. And here we were: stuck in the pouring rain in traffic and almost bickering at one another. I hadn’t even been back in the country for a full twenty-four hours yet, but this was the best homecoming present ever. The reassurance that, despite the uncertainty of our larger situation, some things never changed. 


Sometimes that raindrop stays a raindrop every single time. 


“I’m just saying --  you asshole!” Amy honks as a minivan cuts her off. 


She turns towards me. “Road, Amy!” I grab the edges of the seat as a car swerves into the small space between us and the minivan, narrowly missing our front bumper. “Please pay attention to the road.” 


“I’m just saying that sometimes you flirt without realizing it.” She turns her gaze back to the traffic that stretches endlessly in front of us. “And that right now he’s kind of fragile. 


***



Thirty minutes later we’re huddled under one umbrella as we make a dash from the car to the doors of the grungy Midtown bar. The door is propped slightly open, and Amy catches it with her foot to open it completely while also keeping the umbrella over us. As the door opens, illuminating the inside of the bar, resplendent with its dark paneled walls, neon signs, and rainbow banners streaming from the ceilings, a deluge of memories hit me. I feel a sense of trepidation -- something I’ve never felt when entering Juniper’s -- settle over me. 


What are you thinking? I ask myself. Coming here like nothing’s changed? 


Amy must sense my dread, because she quickly tosses the umbrella into the corner with several others, and then throws her arm around my shoulder. “I was harsh in the car. I’m sorry,” She squeezes me gently; I stiffen. “It’s just trivia, Lucy. Don’t wig out.” 


I spot everyone as soon as we take another step into the bar. They’re still sitting at that huge corner booth. The L-shaped one with the ratty seats and the table that rocks. John’s sitting in the very middle -- pouring over the menu like it’s his first time here, even though I know he’s been coming every Thursday night for the last ten years with few exceptions. His girlfriend, Kristen, sits to his left. Beside her are two guys I don’t recognize. They’re holding hands and engaged in an animated conversation with Roger, who sits at one end of the L-shape. 


When Roger spies us, his eyes light up and he jumps to his feet. He opens his arms wide and traps Amy in a giant bear hug, then kisses her firmly on the lips. He’s been this way for as long as I’ve known him, and frankly, it’s a bit much. He’s the antithesis of Amy in almost every way, but somehow they make it work. 


Then he turns to me and, with an almost equal amount of enthusiasm, envelops me in a tight hug as well. “We’ve missed you, Lucy.” 


“Me too,” I reply simply, returning the hug. 


As we pull away from one another and settle in the booth, I feel a confusing mixture of relief and disappointment. He isn’t here yet. Maybe he won’t come at all, and I’ll be spared from what should be a joyful reunion with my best friend, but is more likely to just be an awkward encounter of epic proportions. 


I look at Amy questioningly.


“I thought he was coming, but maybe not?” She shrugs, tries to mask the worry on her face. “He has good days and bad days. Doesn’t always let us know what’s up, though.”


I nod as if I have a great understanding of this. But I’ve been conspicuously absent and mum for the last three years, so I definitely don’t. 


Amy and I barely made it through the city in time, so there isn’t time for more than a quick reunion with my friends and a hurried introduction between me and the guys I don’t know before trivia starts. Then it’s time for the first round. The topic is sports, and the question is about the national sport of Bangladesh. Everyone immediately starts arguing over the answer. Ben claims it's table tennis; Roger and Kristen say that’s China’s. Meanwhile, Amy writes down “hadudu” and goes to turn it in before anyone can stop her. When that happens, everyone yells angrily, but good-naturedly at her. She smiles smugly when the gamemaster announces that “hadudu” is indeed the correct answer. 


It is so good and comforting to be back among my friends, that for a little while, I forget about the one missing from our ranks. Forget, that is, until I’m at the bar a little later, getting the next round of drinks, and I hear a voice from behind me. 


“There’s our India Jones back from all of her great adventures.”


His voice is just as I remembered. Almost. Soft and low, husky. It’s like a smooth Kentucky bourbon. The mere sound of it, coupled with his nickname for me, causes a wave of emotions and memories to wash over me. 


The sound is the same. But the cadence is different. Even the short sentence is punctuated by pauses and a mechanical puffing noise. 


I turn around immediately, the round of drinks momentarily forgotten. 


Sam. 


He’s smiling. It’s that signature ironic half-smile of his. The one that makes him look like he knows something no one else does, and he’s not sharing what it is. Truthfully, the sight of that smile after so long an absence almost brings one to my own face. But then I take in the bigger picture, all of Sam, and the urge to smile -- which I honestly rarely feel anymore anyway -- is gone in an instant. 


As I assess the man that sits in the wheelchair before me, my gaze leaves his face and goes first to the wheelchair itself. It’s black and bulky and it dwarfs Sam, who has a shrunken appearance and sits slightly reclined in it. There’s a small machine attached to the back of the wheelchair and a stiff plastic hose leading from it to right in front of Sam’s mouth. That sip ventilator is the source of the puffing noise I heard earlier.  


He’s let his hair grow out. It almost touches his shoulders now. So much longer than I can ever remember seeing it in the last ten years. He used to keep it trimmed with an almost military precision. It was a two on the sides and a three on the top every six weeks. 


Why do I know that? I definitely shouldn’t know that. 


There’s stubble on his cheeks, the beginnings of a beard now, too. It’s actually quite becoming on him. When paired with the longish hair, it gives him a sort of a roguish appearance. His arms lay motionless on the armrests, except for his right wrist, which lays in the bend of a U-shaped joystick. All things considered, he looks healthy...ish. A little pale, maybe. But that could be attributed to the poor lighting in the bar. Or even to the rainy November skies. 


Despite everything -- or maybe in spite, I don’t know anymore -- my first instinct is to hug him. 


So, I do. Or, I try at least. I’m halfway down, leaning towards him with my arms outstretched when I pause, very unsure of the mechanics of hugging someone sitting in a massive wheelchair. 


“Are you having some sort of attack?” Sam asks, arching an eyebrow at me. His expression says that he knows perfectly well what’s going on. 


I’m still crouched halfway down. Every second of hesitation on my part is making the situation even more uncomfortable than it was already bound to be. I swallow hard and go in for it, sort of grabbing his shoulders with my hands. The subtle but rich scent of musk hits me as I lean in close. The smell is so familiar and comforting it almost hurts. I breathe in deeply. 


He grunts a bit in my ear. “And now you’re huffing me?” 


I try to sear the memory of the smell into my nostrils before I let go and stand up. It’s mauldin, but I can’t help it. I know that eventually I’ll never smell that smell again. 


“Just trying to get something other than Amy’s Bath & Body Works stuck in my sinuses,” I tell him. “You know how she practically bathes in it.” 


From the way that he laughs, he almost has me convinced that he buys my answer. 


I laugh, too, and for a moment it’s just like old times. But eventually the laughter ends and then we lapse into an uncomfortable silence. There is so much to say...and yet nothing to say. With a sigh, I turn around to get the tray of drinks. I nod towards our booth, indicating for Sam to lead. He engages that little joystick and we’re off -- very slowly. 


When we get to our booth there’s another new face. He leans down and whispers something to Sam, who nods, and then he goes to sit at the bar. No one bothers to make introductions between us. 


The third round of trivia is about to begin. As the gamemaster asks the question, I slide onto the edge of the booth and Sam lines his wheelchair up next to me. Somehow, our friends manage to alienate us and involve themselves in a deep debate over the medicinal use of tetrodotoxin. 


I look over at Sam and smile tightly. No doubt they all think they’re being slick and considerate by leaving us out of that conversation so that we can have our own. After all, we -- Sam and I -- had always been the ones at the center of this thing. We were the reason every single one of us was sitting in Juniper’s tonight and the reason most of us had for the last ten years. We should have been able to pick up right where we left off. 


Yet here we were. The years aren’t falling away, as people always say they do between old friends; but, instead slowly forming like bricks and building an impenetrable wall. 


“Sam,” I start.


He shakes his head. “Lucy, please don't.” 


I look down at my lap. 


“We are going to have that conversation,” he assures me. “But tonight let’s just let it be okay.” 


I smile, less awkwardly this time, at the olive branch he’s extending. 


“The answer is relief from hero--,” he stops suddenly and leans forward, lips closing around the ventilator straw. He takes a sip from the ventilator hose and then continues. “Heroin withdrawal. Tell them.” 


For the first time, I notice his voice is softer. I lean towards the group and inform them of Sam’s answer. Amy scribbles it down and delivers it with two seconds to spare. I don’t even know what tetrodotoxin is, much less a medicinal use for it. But Sam is correct.


Sam is always correct.


***


Trivia lasts two hours. Just like it always does. Our team, The Purple People Eaters, comes in second with almost no help from me and Sam. Other than that one question, we hardly pay attention to the game at all. 


I grab onto his olive branch and the years finally give way. As we catch up on everything -- everything except The One Thing -- we pretty much ignore everyone else completely.


Sam wants to know everything and he wants to hear about it in excruciating detail. “I’ve been living vicariously through you,” he tells me. It’s the only acknowledgment of the elephant in the room. 


Although he’s called me India Jones since college -- I don’t know why he didn’t just stick with Indiana -- my professional career is far from that of an archaeologist turned adventurer. In fact, I’m not an archaeologist at all. I’m a paleontologist. A currently unemployed paleontologist at that. 


When I remind him of that fact, I see a flicker of mischief behind his smile. “I know that, Lucy,” he says patiently. “But you’re not getting rid of my pet name as easily as that.” 


Then he winks. 


And which one of us does Amy accuse of being a shameless flirt? 


A moment later Sam makes eye contact with the man sitting at the bar who starts walking towards us.


“PCA,” he explains. As if I know what that acronym stands for. “Just going to go take care of some things,” he adds, looking a bit pained. He slowly backs his wheelchair away from the booth. I watch as he and the PCA head towards the bathrooms. 


I frown and watch them go. 


As soon as they are out of earshot, Amy leans across Roger. “How’s it going?” 


The way she phrases the question makes it seem like Sam and I are on a first date or something. It’s almost silly enough to make me laugh.

How the fuck to answer that question? “We’ve called a truce for tonight.” 


Amy doesn’t say anything for a long moment. “Well, it’s coming,” she says finally. “You know him and you know it is.” 


I sigh heavily and roll my eyes. “You aren’t helping.”


She shrugs and tips her glass to me in a cheers motion before turning back to the rest of our friends, effectively leaving me to sort this mess out on my own. Typical. Some things really do never change. 


I think back to the raindrops from earlier. How each iteration of that single raindrop is different.


Then I look at the condensation forming on my own pint glass, wishing that I was a water droplet anywhere else right now. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Juniper's (Part 2)

 

Sam manages to slip out of Juniper’s after that. He doesn’t come back to the booth, just leaves without a word. 


The night is beginning to wind down anyway. People have started to peel off and the bar is emptying. Outside it’s still raining, and people huddle in the entrance of Juniper’s while they sort out drivers and Ubers. Vaguely, I wonder how Sam and his PCA -- which I’ve learned means personal care assistant -- got there. Sam used to have a condo across the street, but it was on the third floor of a building with a shitty elevator that only worked a fraction of the time. Somehow, I doubt he lives there anymore. 


The memory of the condo almost makes me smile. 


Almost everyone has their phones sitting on the table. Most are face down; mine is faceup, expectant. Eventually, there’s a series of almost simultaneous vibrates and chirps as everyone receives a text message. 


Everyone except me. 


It’s hard not to feel like a middle school girl being edged out of the cool kid's lunch table as everyone at the table grabs their phones. Amy once again leans across Roger and shows me the message. Just a simple little text from Sam that says: Had to dip.


For some reason, the words hit me hard, and I can’t help but feel hurt and slightly vexed at being left out of the group message. Admittedly, those feelings are perfectly invalid, especially after everything I did -- or didn’t do, rather -- but it’s the way I feel nonetheless. 


I guess Sam’s olive branch only extends so far. 


“Everything okay?” I try to keep my words light and nonchalant. 


“He just went home. He didn’t leave to keel over in private, Lucy.” This comes from John. It’s the most he’s said to me all night. He’s by far the most reserved and mild-mannered of our friends, so the harsh acidity in his voice stuns me. “Which you would know if you had cared at all. Or, if you’d so much as answered a fucking text message in the last three years.” 


I look down at my pint glass. 


I care more than you can imagine. 


But the words sound empty to me, so I don’t bother saying them out loud. Instead, I drain the last of my beer and heave a big sigh. 


“You know what? I’m going to head out, too.” 


No one says anything, but Roger at least has the decency to look sorry that I’m leaving. Or maybe he’s just sorry that the night is suddenly in a chaotic free fall. They say that time heals all wounds. It is supposed to be a panacea. But clearly, that is not true. Not with this group. 


Amy grabs her purse and gestures for Roger to let her out of the booth. 


“No, I’ll just get an Uber back to my parents,” I tell her as I stand up. Rationally, I know that John’s reaction is a direct consequence of my own stupid and careless decisions, but my feelings are hurt, so I can’t help but look directly at him and add, “Great to be home.”  


As I walk away I hear Amy snapping at him. Unleashing. Something about how it’s a complicated situation -- one that none of them know anything about -- and how he should have kept his mouth shut. 


Well, that’s true. 


Unless Sam told her, which I highly doubt, not even Amy really knows what’s going on. To the best of Amy’s knowledge, I’m just upset by the unfortunate turn of events that have happened in the last few years. 


Sam’s diagnosis. Losing my job. Getting kicked out of The Purple People Eaters group text. 


It is all of those things. It’s none of those things. It’s the banality and reality of everything crashing down in front of me. 


But there’s also more. 


***


My Uber comes, and ten minutes later I’m safely ensconced in my childhood bedroom at my parent's house. I’m surrounded by familiar, comforting memories. Pictures from high school and college, postcards and souvenirs from family vacations. Right next to my bed, hanging above my desk, there’s a calendar from July 2015 hanging on the wall. One date -- a Wednesday -- is marked with a smiley face drawn with a blue highlighter. The ink is faded, but the memories are stronger than ever. 


You see, that Wednesday night in July, while at a going-away party he organized for me, Sam drunkenly kissed me, surprising absolutely no one. It sounds dramatic -- especially because it was just a sloppy, drunken kiss -- but it was also perfectly sublime. But two days later I left for a job across the world. Then a few hours after my plane landed, Sam sent a text, casually informing everyone of his “imminent doom” via motor neuron disease. 


I sit up and angrily throwback my bed covers. I walk over to the stupid calendar and rip it off the wall as the memories of what made me draw that juvenile smiley face in the first place threaten to drown me. 


The two carefree days between the drunken kiss, radio silence, and diagnosis that were spent in that little third-floor condo and filled with lots of promises, laughter, and sex. 


Stupid, stupid Lucy. 


Stupid for so many reasons, but mostly because I was the only one who didn’t know how to respond when Sam delivered the news about his health. Stupid because mine was the response he needed most. 


I pull out my phone, and my finger hovers over his name. 


It’s an exercise in futility, though. One that I’ve engaged in far too often over the years. Because even now, it’s me, not Sam, that is still truly paralyzed by the catalyst of that kiss. 


I put my phone back on my nightstand without calling or texting. Just like always. 


***


An entire week after our truce begins, it ends. 


It’s preposterous that what causes me to pick up the phone after so long is a literal dumpster fire. The irony that I couldn’t call him when his life was devolving into one is not lost on me. But, as I stand across the street from the Midtown staple and watch the fire spread from the dumpster to the building, the flames lapping the old wood up greedily, I tap his name in my phone for the first time in three years without overthinking and chickening out. 


“Juniper’s is on fire,” I tell him, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. It’s hard not to see the flames consuming the building where we met, formed our friendship, and unexpectedly redefined our relationship, as a cruel cosmic sign


“I know.” His answer surprises me. “I can see it,” his words are punctuated by a pause for breath, “from my condo.” 


I spin around towards the building that Sam used to live in. “I didn’t know you lived there anymore.” 


He laughs, and the sound isn’t the comforting, warm sound I’m used to. It’s short and raspy. “Yeah, there’s a lot you don’t know anymore.” 


As usual, I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I just watch as fire engines arrive on the scene and start dousing Juniper’s with thousands of gallons of water. 


“Don’t take it as some macabre symbol.” 


If we weren’t still dancing around everything, his words might have made me laugh. Somewhere in a parallel universe, Another Sam just made that remark to A Different Lucy, and they’re laughing fondly at how well he knows her. 


But this is the universe we’re stuck in, so Sam sighs instead and the sound is heavy and loaded. “It’s just life, Lucy. Nothing lasts forever.” 


My throat tightens, and it has nothing to do with the smoke that fills the air around me. Tears spring unbidden to my eyes, and I silently curse myself for not keeping better control of my emotions. 


“I moved to 1108, but the gate co--,” his words end suddenly and it sounds like he runs out of breath. “Code is the same,” Sam says, trying again. A moment later he ends the call without waiting for my response. 


That’s Sam. Extending yet another olive branch. 


I tip my head back and look up at the sky. It’s naturally overcast, but it’s also darkened by the thick, gray smoke filling the air. The tendrils spiral upwards, looking as anchorless as I feel. 





Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Juniper's (Part 3)

Fifteen minutes later I’m sitting in Sam’s living room. This unit is located two floors beneath his old unit, but it’s laid out the same. Wide, open, studio floor plan with a half-wall delineating the space between the living room and bedroom, then a small two-seater breakfast bar separating the kitchen from everything else. The living room has these beautiful French doors that lead out to a narrow balcony that overlooks Midtown. I wonder how much use that balcony gets these days.

It’s amazing how much this condo is exactly the same as the old one: same generic artwork hanging over the couch; same bar cart, mostly filled with expensive amber-colored liquors, sitting beside the TV; same heavy, espresso colored furniture. 

But some things have changed. His PC is gone, which, in my opinion, is an improvement. It was a giant set up with three monitors and a computer tower that lit up. I didn’t understand the allure or reason for a custom-built computer then and I still don’t, but for some reason, its absence hits me hard. 

Looking around, I realize other things are missing. His bike. His vintage Leica. The saltwater aquarium. Instead of the familiar quintessential hints of Sam, now the vibe is more like that of a very nice hospital room. In the corner of the living room, there’s a hoist with a sling attached. The half-wall between the bedroom and the living area doesn’t hide much, and I can see a machine with a screen and lots of plastic hoses -- a ventilator, maybe? -- sitting next to what looks like a hospital bed. 

This condo is now a study in contrast. Not unlike Sam himself. Simultaneously the same, yet also changed. 

Sam sits across from me, his wheelchair looming large in the small space. I wonder why he didn’t move somewhere with more space. He got hired as an accountant at a Big Four firm right out of college; he could probably afford it. But, like so many times before now, I don’t ask the question that’s really on my mind.

Instead, I comment about that stupid computer. “I see you parted ways with Deep Thought.”

He rolls his eyes. Despite inviting me here, his demeanor is guarded. He leans forward slightly and takes a sip from the ventilator before speaking. “It was getting too old to run most games.”  

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. “So, Juniper’s --” 

With a little click and an electric whirl, Sam cuts me off by moving his wheelchair closer, and the small gap between us suddenly closes. The toes of his shoes barely brush against my calves. He gives me a hard look.

I draw away from the contact, shifting sideways on the couch. “This feels awkward.” 

“It damn well should,” there’s no trace of warmth in his voice, “I needed you, Lucy.” 

“I know,” I whisper. 

Sam moves his wheelchair closer again, and this time I can’t escape. I’m trapped on the couch between the bar cart and the half-wall of his bedroom. He’s literally backed me into the corner of his living room. 

“I’m sorry, Sam.” I sigh heavily and look at him. He’s thinner and different. He looks deeply tired and his body sags a bit in the wheelchair. But he’s also still very handsome. I wonder if he would be insulted or flattered if I blurted that out right now. Without a doubt, he would growl at me for trying to change the subject, for continuing to run away from everything. 

So I don’t say that and Sam doesn’t chastise me. We sit in silence for a moment. 

“It’s easier to be the bearer of bad news than the receiver.” Even as I’m saying the words, I know they’re a miserable attempt at an explanation.

Sam snorts. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” 

“Let me finish,” I say, feeling unjustifiably angry and defensive. “I didn’t know what to say, Sam. I still don’t. I know that’s shitty, but it’s the truth.” 

He doesn’t say anything, so I go on, knowing that if I stop, I might never start again. 

“I kept trying to come up with the right words, but I couldn’t. And then suddenly all this time had passed, so then, on top of not knowing what to say, I felt self-conscious about having not said whatever the hell I was supposed to say in the first place. It was like this massive cycle of indecision and guilt and it depressed me and paralyzed me and --” 

“Fucking hell, Lucy.” Sam cuts me off for the second time since I arrived. He moves his hand from the joystick and shakily starts to raise it to his face. He makes it about halfway before it drops to his lap with a thud. “That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.” 

I don’t know what the point of that gesture was. The effort leaves him breathing heavily, and he takes a couple of breaths from the ventilator. 

It only takes me a second longer to realize what the point was. When I do, I don’t know whether to smile at the realization, or frown because he can no longer do it. It’s a gesture he’s done a thousand times, and if I look at him, I can perfectly picture it: hand to the bridge of his nose, thumb and forefinger pinching it, eyes squeezed closed, head shaking slightly in disbelief or amusement. The Lucy Look, our friends used to call it. It was usually accompanied by a smile, too. 

Right now there is no smile. 

He lifts his hand back to the joystick, backs the wheelchair up, then pivots away from me. He’s facing the French doors -- and the charred remains of Juniper’s. For someone not able to move most of his body anymore, his actions are extraordinarily loud. 

“There were words, you know. There were very specific words you could have said to make all of this better.” 

His own words sound thick, a little choked. I look at him in alarm and he scowls at my concern. That look keeps me from saying anything else. 

Eventually, Sam makes a weird noise. It’s almost like he’s trying to clear his throat, but the sound is weak, like it comes from the top of his throat instead of his chest, and clearly ineffective. Before I can dare to ask if he’s okay, he starts to speak. 

“I choked on a piece of food last year, and it turned into pneumonia. It’s probably the reason I have to use this stupid thing,” he nods at the ventilator and then takes a sip. “I thought I was going to die at one point. Everyone showed up at the hospital, all weepy and shit. Amy was the goddamn worst.” He rolls his eyes. “Do you know what I remember from that whole thing?” 

A million different emotions flood me because this is the first time I’m hearing about this particular incident. I shake my head. 

“Other than Amy’s wailing, not much, actually. The whole thing was a painful blur.” He angles his wheelchair slightly towards me and his expression is unreadable. He sucks on the ventilator mouthpiece. “I don’t want her crying to be the last thing I hear.” 

Tears spring to my eyes and I dig my nails into my leg, trying to momentarily trade one kind of pain for another. 

Sam tips his head back and turns his gaze towards the ceiling. “I meant it. What I said that night.” 

I know instinctively that he’s talking about that night three years ago. The Last Night. 

“That’s why it hurt so much when you didn’t say anything for so long.” 

I don’t trust myself to speak, but I try. “That’s exactly why I couldn’t --” 

“I loved you.” Sam cuts me off. He looks at me and there is such deep-seated pain in his green eyes. “And for some inexplicable reason, I still do.”  

I’m still digging my nails into my leg, but it isn’t enough to quell three years of pent-up emotions anymore. Despite my best efforts, the dam breaks, and I’m ugly crying in Sam’s condo.

***

“I hate crying,” I say, wiping snot from my nose on the back of my sleeve some time later. We’re sitting on the balcony. Turns out the small balcony does still get a fair amount of use. There’s just enough room for his massive wheelchair and a single Adirondack chair. 

The discovery of the beat-up old Adirondack out here on the balcony filled me with delight. “You really think I would get rid of it after that night?” He had told me with a rakish smile when I asked about its presence as I sat down in it. The answer made me laugh -- genuinely laugh -- like I hadn’t in a long time. 

With some effort, Sam lifts his arm and extends it towards me. I take his limp hand in mine, trying not to focus on how weak, how small, how different it feels in my hand than it used to. Instead, I focus on how surprising, how unexpected, how utterly amazing it is that we’re here like this at all. 

We’ve got a perfect view of the smoldering building that used to be our favorite bar in Atlanta. All of the activity is starting to die down. The crowds have dissipated and the fire engines are gone. The perimeter of the property is wrapped in caution tape. It’s hard to believe that Juniper’s is gone. Harder still to process the many feelings I have about that fact. Because, I know that if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. 

I look over at Sam and finally say the words that I’ve felt so long. “And I love you too.” 

Sometimes new beginnings truly are born out of endings and ashes.