Sam ran his right hand through his dreadlocks and briefly looked out of his car’s window, eyes flitting across yet another road sign that declared he’d passed some state line. He was going ten miles over the speed limit, but he was too drunk on the feeling of escaping the city he had lived in for all twenty years of his life to care. The stars twinkled above him, little pinpricks in the paper of the sky. His left hand was holding the steering wheel, guiding him towards anywhere that wasn’t Harlem. Finally, he was leaving the stifling, oppressive crowd of the metropolis he’s always wanted to break out of, even when he was a child just old enough to comprehend that there was a world outside of the roads between his house and his school.
There weren’t any strings tying him to that corner of America anymore, and he was spreading his wings, even though he had no clue where he’d land whenever his shitty car ran out of gas.
Cruising down the highway in the middle of the night after leaving everything he knew was an experience he wasn’t sure he could quantify in anything but half-formed thoughts and fleeting feelings. It all danced around him like wisps of smoke. A melancholy, liminal air fell around him if he thought about the real-life consequences of his little jaunt, so he resolved somewhere around the third hour of driving himself insane while he drove around America that he just wouldn’t think about it at all. Every movement Sam made felt both miniscule and life-changing, like the butterfly effect drank five cups of coffee, and the radio seemed a little too loud for the silence of the tender night. He didn’t turn it down.
Every single item Sam now owned was now in his car. A few books, a guitar, a bonsai tree, and some clothes. After either selling, giving away, or impulsively destroying every other thing to his name, he was ready to start over again somewhere new with a wad of cash in his wallet and enough neuroticism to last him an entire lifetime. The loud growl of the car’s engine (which he’d lovingly named Grace) accompanied his loud thoughts, the rushes of “I just need to take some time away, just give me a year and I’ll come back, I swear,” that followed-
That followed. Sam wasn’t going to touch the end of that sentence with a ten foot pole. He’d promised to call his family once a week from a payphone. He didn’t have anyone else to make promises to. Not anymore.
Sam yawned suddenly. The yawn jolted him out of his thoughts and, once he looked at the radio clock and realised he’d been driving for almost eleven hours, he pulled over. He placed both of his hands on his head so that they covered his eyes and blew a sharp breath out from between his teeth, batting away the urge to scream until his throat was bloody and the anger inside him was dampened. I need to do this rationally, Sam thought, ‘cuz who’s gonna call my family if I scream myself to death out here in the bumfuck middle of nowhere?
(That kind of humour, too dark to be able to make itself comfortable in most polite conversations but light enough that he didn’t really scare himself, was all that’d gotten him through the month and a half he’d spent in the hospital and then the four weeks he’d spent on bed rest. He spoke to himself inside his own head so that maybe he wouldn't feel so damn alone. It never really worked.)
Sam had thrown his phone off the side of a cliff just before he Left (with a capital L) so that nobody could call him and convince him to come back from wherever he found himself. It had seemed like a good idea, only he didn’t actually know where he was, now. He scanned his surroundings, looking for any clue as to where he was and where exactly the nearest motel stood. The stretch of road he’d chosen to nearly fall asleep on and then almost have a mental breakdown on was so comically empty that a tumbleweed wouldn't have looked out of place. Almost admitting defeat, Sam let his head slump forward onto the steering wheel, but not before he saw a flickering neon sign declaring that “Vacancies Are Available,” standing small and shy, barely protruding from the pavement, like a spot on a teenager’s face. The sign was dim enough that it was barely legible, and if Sam’s car hadn’t been parked mere feet away from it, he probably wouldn't have seen it at all.
“You know what?” Sam asked the lonely street, “Fuck it.” His voice practically echoed, and the crunch of Sam’s shoes on the dirt and gravel may as well have been gunshots for how sharply they cut through the calm inertia of silence.
The night pressed against him, suffocating in its viscosity. The sky was black and the moon was full, illuminating Sam’s skin blue as he walked along the narrow path that the sign pointed down. Leaves crunched beneath his feet even though it was July and the world felt like it had tilted toward infinity.
“Room for- for one,” Sam stuttered, his eyes hurting from the sudden harsh light of the motel’s reception area. A tired-looking middle-aged man with an entirely forgettable face gave him the key to a room and a leaflet explaining fees and what time to check out. Murmuring a ‘thank you’, Sam turned away with his armful of belongings and collapsed into his temporary bedroom.
In the yellow light of the bathroom, Sam looked slightly unreal, as if he were a shapeshifter just pretending to be a human being. He prodded at the skin below his eyes, noting the dark circles that made him look like he’d forgotten to take his mascara off after a long night out, before squishing his face in his hands. The electronic hum of the single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling was the only soundtrack to the unreality of Sam taken out of his context. What was he if not a brother or a son or a soldier or a veteran or a husband?
He didn’t know.
It was as if Sam was physically melting without any relations to keep him tethered to the world.
With a sigh that contained his world-weary woes, he turned the light off and curled up on the bathroom floor and fell asleep in his clothes. He didn’t have to check the bed to know that it’d be too soft for him to be comfortable, and the tile floor of the bathroom was cold, which meant that at least if he woke up in the throes of a nightmare, there was a degree of immediately noticeable separation between his immediate surroundings and Iraq. He needed the contrast of old versus new, but one thing that always stayed was a hard floor. Whenever he tried to sleep in a bed, Sam ended up lying awake for hours on end, unable to process the feeling of forgiving his body and providing it with something soft after all the damage it had done and all the things it had survived that it shouldn’t have.
It was deathly quiet when Sam awoke. It was so quiet that for a second he was convinced that something awful had happened before his mind caught up with his body and he remembered that he wasn’t sleeping in army barracks anymore. The bathroom was cast in the light, rosy colour of the sunrise (the sun rose at ass o’clock in the summer, so Sam guessed that he’d gotten 3 hours of sleep at most) and his dreadlocks were fanned around his head like a halo. He ran his hands over them as he sat up. He felt numb inside, like something had died in the cavity he called a heart. The feeling wasn’t anything new, but Sam had run away from his home precisely to escape this feeling, and waking up to it was disheartening.
For a moment, he entertained the idea of just going back to live with his Mama and drinking his days away just like his father had done when he’d gotten discharged, but he soon remembered how his Mama had never really genuinely smiled after her husband came back a changed man. He couldn’t do that to her again. He just couldn’t.
He stood slowly, grabbing the sink to pull himself up, and went into his hotel room to get his wallet. He needed new clothes because he’d sold all of his to raise funds for the trip, and he’d seen a thrift store somewhere a few miles out. Rural America’s people usually were happy to give directions, right? If he got lost, he could always just ask an old, probably racist couple where he was. That was a good plan.
Sam shook his head and left the motel before he had the chance to change his mind and took in a deep breath, smelling freedom and a distinct lack of pollution for the first time in his memory.
Sam left the thrift store with some light, thin button ups and a selection of jeans as well as trousers. He’d only spent 11 dollars, which he thought was a steal, to be quite honest. The sun shone down onto his skin, and he briefly turned his face upwards, savouring the absolute nothingness that was both comforting and unfamiliar. He had nothing to do: no job, no responsibilities, no obligations. It was just him and the back streets of America.
Sam absently thought that maybe he should find a payphone, since his Mama and his sisters would probably be beside themselves if he didn’t call within the week. He hummed random melodies under his breath as he walked back to his car and then drove around various streets on a whim, keeping his eyes open for one of those little boxes which would allow him to communicate with his family. The air felt cleaner than it did in Harlem. Sam didn’t know how, but he could feel the absence of pollution. The sun’s natural light made everything (even ordinary objects that didn’t necessarily draw attention with their very existences) look ethereal and angelic. It was almost like the farther Sam got away from Harlem, the closer to Heaven he got. When he saw a sign proclaiming that he was leaving whichever carbon copy American town he was leaving, he pressed harder on the accelerator pedal.
Eventually, Sam saw the tell-tale thin blue stripe on the horizon that told him that he’d found the sea. Salt seemed to thicken the air, and signs proclaiming that everyone is welcome in Atlantic City! were dotted around every couple miles, and red rust kissed the edges of them.
It only happened when he was confident enough to let himself feel, and when he was tired enough not to know better, but Sam let himself think about Riley, and how much he’d love the seaside city. The man was always trying to convince Sam that the inconvenience of sand between toes was outweighed by the simple pleasure of sunbathing. He let himself drown in the memory of the sun filtering through Riley’s eyelashes and the way his lips felt when they stole away somewhere to kiss for as long as they could without their combined absences being too suspicious.
More than anything, Sam craved one second with Riley on this beach. He’d pour sand in his eyes just to see that man smile one last time.
Smile. Warmth. Fire. Crash. Burning. Screams.
He slammed the breaks. The car came to a complete stop after a jolt that nearly threw him against the steering wheel, which he was gripping so hard that his knuckles were yellow. He didn’t even try to relax his hands, and slammed his head down onto the steering wheel so hard that the horn blared.
Riley used to run his hands through Sam’s hair, when they were able to spend enough time together that kissing ended up hurting their lips. In between warm embraces (and pale against dark and heavy breaths in each other’s ears and whispers that fell just short of “I love you” but that never failed to convey the meaning of the phrase) Riley would wind his fingers through Sam’s hair (which was in short dreadlocks back then, just shy of breaking army regulation) and pull ever so slightly. Sam would smile and Riley would hum some classical song under his breath and look away before his heart burst with the need to proclaim to the world how much he loved this man in his lap, the impulsive spitfire who was the only one who could tame Riley, like all the other army guys had girls back home who tamed them.
When Sam got back from the front, he asked his Mama if she could used some of her packaged styling hair to make his dreadlocks longer, wanting his hair to be different than it was when Riley had his hands on it. He spent hours over two days sitting on the floor between her legs while she tugged and styled and the entire room reeked of olive oil and it felt like penance. When he looked into the mirror at the end, he fell into her arms and cried.
Sam sharply inhaled through his teeth (and when they kissed, Riley would flatten his tongue against the gap between his two front teeth-) and tried to contain the scream that threatened to rip itself from his voice box.
“It should’ve been me,” he whispered, his throat feeling clogged up with the memory of when he was loved by the only one who truly understood him. Sam didn’t really consider himself religious, but his worldview and ways of coping were largely molded after the church he attended with his Mama when he was too young to realise he didn’t really want to go.
One of the things he carried over from prepubescent Christianity to adolescent and adult agnosticism was the raw hope that people could still hear you if you spoke to them after they died. That was damn near the only thing that kept him alive after the incident.
“Riley, I’m- I’m sorry. I hope you can hear me now, darling. I just wanna hold your hand and…” He trailed off, lifting his head from the steering wheel and staring at his hands.
“A man takes his sadness and throws it away but then he’s still left with his hands,” he murmured. Relating to Richard Siken’s poetry was a low that Sam would rather he didn’t reach but he didn’t know what to do with his hands now that Riley wasn’t ever going to hold them again. A clap of thunder coaxed him from his thoughts, and he looked out the window only to notice that it was raining so hard he could barely see out of the glass.
Shaking his head as if he could discard all his memories by dislodging them, Sam started the car again and drove toward the sea, putting his windshield wipers on full speed. When he finally got to the beach’s car park, he took his shoes off and practically ran out of the car, knowing that in the awful weather, nobody in their right mind would be visiting the seaside anyway. His feet sunk into the wet sand and the texture was horrendous but all Sam could think was Riley should be here I could’ve taken Riley here what if he’s waiting back in the car for me he’s the love of my life and before long his legs up to his mid-calves were submerged in the unsettled grey water.
He screamed out of frustration at the fact that he lived and the man he loved- still loves - didn’t. He ran out of breath in his lungs so he breathed in and screamed again, overwhelmed by how there was so much time left in his life that he had no idea what he was supposed to do with. He didn’t know how to be a man that his Mama and sisters would be proud of, not when he’d fought and killed and kissed a man so hard that he would’ve let the man kill him, and pushed himself inside a man for the first time like the universe’s most tender fight. He was there when Mary and Ruth were in diapers but he wasn’t there on their high school graduations, even though their mama video taped them for him, first Ruth and then Mary (both were valedictorians, and he thanked the Lord that neither of them would have to join the army to pay for college since they’d both probably get scholarships wherever they wanted to go), and now he was leaving again. Sam screamed, and let himself cower before the abyss that was his life. Sinking to his knees and letting the water wash over him, Sam stared out at the open sea and the slate coloured sky, wondering how many people were dead or dying because of him.
After what felt like a millennium but what was probably something closer to half an hour, Sam stood and walked back to his car. His soul felt cleaner, somehow, as if by screaming he'd exorcised his demons. He changed out of his sandy clothes and thanked his past self for thinking to go to a thrift store. He wrapped one thick dreadlock around the ring finger on his left hand and felt the urge to tug it out of his head.
The drive to the department store was long and uneventful in that Sam didn’t know the area, and so was going into the challenge completely blind, but he was also in some sort of a haze where he had a goal in his mind and wasn’t going to stray until it was fulfilled. That part of Sam hadn’t been changed by the shit he saw in the Middle East, it was him all over from when he was in elementary school and challenging the biggest boys in his class to fight him to when he was in high school and determined to ace every test he could.
He wondered how his friends back home were doing. He’d only been gone a day and he’d smashed his phone the day before that so it wouldn’t be far fetched for them to not have noticed that he was gone, yet (apart from the girl who’d just moved into the house across from his mom’s, Sharon. She visited the house every other day but she was more friends with his Mama than she was friends with him, so she didn’t really count). He didn’t actually talk to his anyone his age anymore. He probably couldn’t call them friends. They only knew the Sam that had shipped out, bright-eyed and naive and wanting to save the world. To turn his mind away from his dismal present, Sam wondered what became of his primary school friends, whose chubby faces he could call to mind as if he’d last seen them yesterday but who he hadn’t seen since he moved away for middle school.
Bright, garish lights that signalled Sam’s arrival to the local Target pushed themselves forward in Sam’s vision, demanding his attention. He put the car in park once again and stumbled into the store, feeling as if he’d entered an altered state of reality as soon as the automatic doors shut behind him. He prowled through the aisles until he found where the scissors were, and grabbed the sharpest looking pair off the hanger.
Not in the mood to interact with anyone, let alone the probably underpaid teenager who was working at the one open checkout lane, Sam went through the motions at the self checkout lane. His stomach growled, so he grabbed a Monster energy drink off the shelf labelled Last minute purchases? above the machine, thanking America for its increasingly frequent terrible lifestyle choices. He didn’t need food yet. His body was a well oiled machine and it took more than just a day and a half without food to break him.
He blinked, and he was back in his car, looking in the rear-view mirror and holding his brand new scissors to the base of a dreadlock at the front of his head.
He closed his eyes.
“Hi, Mama," Sam said into the phone, trying not to let his tiredness seep into his voice. His head felt too light, as if he was a balloon and he'd float away without anything weighing him down.
"Samuel! Oh, I thought you were never going to call," the relieved voice on the other end of the phone replied. Sam felt a pang in his heart as soon as he heard her Harlem accent, which was just as strong as it ever was, and realised that he had missed it. "How are you, darling?"
"Yeah, I'm good. Just chilling by the sea at the moment." He didn't mention the catharsis he'd found in screaming at the sky, or the fact that he’d cut his hair.
A charged silence hung over them, and it could be felt on both sides of the line. It was unusual for them to be in contact but not chattering each other's ears off, and it was unsettling, in Sam's opinion.
"How, uh- how's everything back home?" He tried.
The silence grew tenser still.
“Good, sweetheart. All good. Your sisters miss you. So do I,” his Mama said, her voice growing quieter towards the end. Sam knew that his constant comings and goings meant that he was practically estranged from his family. Sam knew that his sisters and his Mama missed him, but there were some things he itched and ached to do, and if he’d stayed home any longer, he would’ve ended up resenting his family and Harlem even more than he already did. It was as if he was stuck in between his personal fulfilment and trying to keep his family happy, especially since his father succumbed to liver failure after one too many alcohol binges.
“Yes, Mama. I miss you too,” Sam softly said, leaving out the but I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to Harlem because she deserved the truth- she really did- but it was too complicated and too painful to give her all of it. She’d work it out eventually, Sam thought, tears springing to his eyes.
“Well, my quarters are gonna run out soon-” that was a lie, but he just needed an escape route, “-so I’m gonna have to go now. Take care of yourself and the girls, okay?”
A faint click was the only reply, telling Sam that his mother had hung up on him without a goodbye. It stung slightly, but he couldn’t say he blamed her. She barely knew Sam anymore. She knew the version of him that lived and died in the time between his high school graduation and his deployment, seven years before.
The rain seemed to speak to him quietly, whispering romantic sweet nothings to keep him company after he pushed everyone else in his life away. The grey light was soft, and casted the entire world in a shadow. Leaning against the wall of the phone box, Sam put his head into his hands and let himself cry.