Straightli(v)es I: Sam’s Story
First in an anthology of coming out stories
Five days before her eighteenth birthday, Samantha’s father died of a heart attack. He was only 44. It was a month after she graduated from high school and by then, she had already acquired a taste for married men. She’d had her first one when she was seventeen, walking fluidly into the affair black bra-clad and curious.
She left that one before he knew what blew through his fantasies. By the time she met him, Sam had already learned that girl-trappings as simple as a black bra were powerful. It was giftwrap, and worth way more than the $12.95 you paid for them. When she was sixteen, she worked an entire weekend to earn the money for that bra. Wearing it, she seduced a Vietnam vet.
Dan was not married but he was 25. There was a quiet space about him, and a distance — to Sam it seemed he was looking at her from behind a two-way mirror on which the silver was wearing thin. You see mirrors like that in second-hand stores, paint crazed and worn away in spots. Maybe Dan looked that way because of the weed they always smoked but Sam did not think so. He didn’t talk about the war.
Sam liked to remember the sound of Dan’s intake of breath when she slipped her blouse off, revealing the black lace underneath. “You look like heaven itself,” he’d said, reaching for her. She thought the words were grand, a little odd, but she didn’t giggle. She took him at his word. When they fucked, she felt larger than her life, like some part of her had melted out through her pores and evaporated into the air around them, then floated to touch the four walls of the room that enclosed them. She felt his need and recognized it, grasped it. I will remember this, she thought.
Then came John. When Sam met John, she hadn’t set out to seduce him. Somewhere during that first conversation, between the drinks and the crowded jostling, amid the steamy, slow grinding of people around them, she must have learned he had a wife. She didn’t remember. No matter, she thought his dark eyes and mustache made him look mysterious, a little dangerous. She finished her drink and left the party with him.
Being with John made her feel grown up, in possession of a secret. Mistress. What was it about these men — were they better-looking, stronger? What did she become in their arms, in their beds? Whatever it was, she had lost all interest in schoolboys.
John lasted halfway through her senior year; he was generous, a little rough, and fun. They met, afternoons, in the loft above the garage where he worked on race cars; at his apartment once or twice. She discovered waterbeds (which she liked) and cocaine (which she did not). She learned a lot about sex, and even more about marriage.
The night her father died was a crazy mash of memories — she was dead asleep when her mother woke her, thrashing up the stairs to her bedroom at two in the morning. “Sam, Sam! For god’s sake, wake up Sam! Your father’s gone!” Sam woke with her heart pounding, something hard in her throat; she couldn’t swallow. It was like those nightmares when she was little, but this one didn’t dissolve when the light came on. There was a pounding in her head and a pain in her gut. Was that what a heart attack felt like?
Her mother was slapping at her, but Sam couldn’t hear a word coming out of that moving cavern of a mouth. She didn’t hear the words and yet the message stabbed home. How could this be? She shoved her mother out of the way and ran into the bathroom, retching. Sam didn’t remember much after that, only that there were people, and that she’d never felt so wretched in her life. The coldness of her father’s cheek in the coffin when she touched his face — hard and waxen. She couldn’t shake the feel of it. It was punishment.
She wanted him back, alive again. What she wanted most was to erase her last conversation with him. “Take care of your mother,” he’d said when she went into the den to say goodbye. He was leaving on a trip in the morning, early. Right, she’d thought. Fuck you. You’re leaving me alone with her for a month, and that’s all you can say to me? Fuck you! Sam wanted to beat at his chest but instead she dropped her eyes and said, “Of course, Daddy, good night. Hurry back.” She hugged him hard and made it out of there before he could see the tears.
She fell hard for the one that came along when she was nineteen. He was a cop — what a cliché! She thought he was sexy and strong, and they even went out together. She met some of his cop buddies and their girlfriends. They all had girlfriends. Looking back on it, she wished she’d been more original, but there it was. No bad boys for her. It would be funnier if she really had needed rescuing, but she didn’t. By then she had an honest-to-god boyfriend…she was, in fact, on the fast track to marrying a husband of her own.
It felt to Sam like she was racing some invisible self: next came a teacher, another cop, and then an actor. All married. She filled her diary with names and dates: they could’ve been notches in her belt. She slept with them as effortlessly as some women buy shoes. Occasionally, they took her out to bars or an indie movie house off the beaten path. In her apartment, in her bedroom, she surrounded them with her long blonde hair and plush thighs. She collected souvenirs — they were small things — matchbooks, cocktail napkins, a bullet, ticket stubs — even the occasional gold chain or small, unremarkable ring.
The year before she got married, in 1977, there came Bobby. And when she met Bobby, she fell in love…with Bobby’s wife.
Not long after that first Christmas without her father, Sam had awakened from a sex dream about a woman. She was wet and surprised. She’d lain there for a bit, not moving, letting the want wash over her, then subside. What the fuck? It rocked her.
It rocked her, yet it felt…dead on. As inevitable as the fall of that mad, shining ball on New Year’s Eve. She was really shaken, yet not really scared. The big question was: now what?
The dreams kept coming, crowding into her waking life. They invaded her study time; distracted her at her job. At first, the images were of faceless women with flowing hair and pale skin; they were quiet and undemanding. After time they became insistent.
“Who are you?” she asked a redheaded, medieval-looking one. This one knew as much about sex as Sam herself did. The epiphany came when Medieval Woman claimed Sam’s body in ways no one in her waking life had. Made her body sing. She awoke from those dreams with a hunger that she barely recognized, the taste of her almost real, lingering on her tongue. This was new. This hadn’t occurred to her. And she knew she would submit. No, she knew she would hunt for it.
Sam began noticing details about women everywhere — shopping, doodling, smoking and bus-waiting. They were ignorant of how like pillows their lips were, how hypnotic the shine at the hollows of their throats. She found herself bumbling through a simple transaction with a ticket agent because the woman’s tits distracted her, pushing against the cheap white cloth. That’s it, she decided, there could be no more putting it off. It became a quest.
Sam’s search led her to the local coffee house and indie book store where a copy of the Advocate led her to scouring the personal ads. The search led her to Bobby and Carole. Carole of pale skin, long legs, short hair and a shorter skirt. They were a dozen years older than Sam. Experimenting, they invited her in — she danced to their music, drank wine, smoked pot with them. They drew her into their very white, very colonial, very suburban home. Among the books, silver and candles, they dined. They took her to their bed and she tasted Carole, savored her, and surrendered to them both. For three languid months they wove their landscape around her: she and Carole as if alone, Bobby watching. She barely noticed him. Sam felt delicious, grown up in a new way, the biggest secret she’d ever had.
The summer ended, and so did the affair. Bobby delivered the message in person — he told Sam that Carole couldn’t deal with it all. She said she needed space to think about their marriage; her job was demanding; some other horseshit. Sam couldn’t remember all the reasons Bobby brought her, but she couldn’t erase the message. It was over. “Can’t I talk to her?” Sam asked. Apparently, she could not.
Although the affair ended, Sam’s craving for Carole did not. The dream women now had Carole’s face. They had Carole’s eyes. They danced like her and they smelled like her. Their wetness was hers. To counter the visitations, she worked and studied; she sought out gay girls at school, went to clubs. The bars were always old buildings in the barren parts of town– tucked under highway overpasses, waiting to be torn down, folded like an old newspaper between warehouses or tossed alongside railroad tracks — not yet chic and often dangerous. She moved through the shadowy parking lots and picked out the women that drew her — unsure, curious, dewy and drunk.
She had grown brave enough to go alone; she wore black boots, carried poppers, danced, and took them home — some had names but others did not. It became her second life. She would make the most of this time while she had it, much like the vampires in the stories she also devoured. She would feast on all she could, while she could, hoping that the saltiness would nourish her like the blood those night creatures sucked down, liquid plumping out their corpses, suffusing them with warmth. This was her secret night life, pretending to be like them.
A couple of months after the breakup, she saw Carole boarding a city bus, it must’ve been on her way home from work. Sam remembered that it was a cold, sunny afternoon, bleak and bright at the same time. In a flash, she felt like she was a young girl, ice skating on the lake her father used to take her to.
Ice skating was crazy fast and her memories of it were etched in frigid brightness. The thing about it, though, was that you could feel graceful and swift, but you never felt like you were really in command. The likelihood of landing face-first was always high. Sam had a tiny scar on her lower lip as a reminder. Right now, her mouth had gone dry and she felt the tiny bump with her tongue as she licked her lips. She looked at Carole, trying to see through the sunglasses. “Tell me your side of this,” Sam reached her hand toward Carole. “I miss you.” Please, she thought, tell me something true, something of your own. Take off those fucking sunglasses and let me see your eyes.
Carole remained composed; she didn’t come out from behind the shield of those dark lenses. She shifted slightly, avoiding Sam’s touch. “You don’t know the whole story,” she said. “Then tell me!” Sam begged. Carole shook her head and wouldn’t say any more. Sam peered hard, but all she could see were reflections of her own face. Later, after she stopped crying, what Sam remembered most clearly about the encounter was how it took all the adulthood she could muster not to rip those goddamn glasses off Carole’s face.
It’s funny how people often measure their lives by the distances they cover as they move away from some noble event in life — before a death, for instance, then after — as if everything that happens can only be measured against the weight of that tragedy. What if you had done something differently? Would you have had your child, met your lover, lost your husband?
Sam moved on. She moved on faster, harder and hungrier. She got married, right on schedule. And to her credit, she waited almost a year after the wedding before carving the next notch in her belt.