Sometime in the summer of 2021 I was invited to a party at a beach mansion in Southern California. It placed me in an odd spot because I rarely received such invitations, and I even more rarely accepted them. What caused me to respond to this one in particular was that it was sent by a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a few years, and his pitch enticed me even further.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s down near Santa Vera,” my friend’s gruff voice spoke to me over the phone. “You still live near Santa Vera, right? In that old apartment?”
“That’s right, I do,” I replied, speaking in said old apartment.
“Well in that case I think you should come over. It’s Saturday night, so you don’t have to worry about work. There’s a lot of food, a lot of alcohol, a lot of nice girls…”
“Sorry, Vegas. It’s just not my type of gig.”
“Are you sure? Some old friends will be there.”
“Like Jack. Samantha. Katie.”
The last name struck a chord with me. I was lying down on a porch chair when suddenly my head stood up. “What do you mean Katie?”
“I mean she’ll be there. What else?”
I was reluctant. Physically, I shook my head. “I haven’t really spoken to her in a couple of years.”
“All the better reason to come speak to her now.”
I continued to think about it, but my lips moved on to different topics. “What about Sam? How do you know about her?”
“It’s a small world in South Cali, hermano. Sam came awhile back, got into music. I met her through Felix. We talked — I mentioned you, because your stories matched up. She said she knew you, that you used to be friends.”
I took a box of cigarettes out of my silk shirt pocket. “Sam was never into music.”
“She is now. You should hear her sing. So, what’s your verdict?”
The unlit cigarette was frozen between my hands. I considered it a little bit deeper.
“Fine, I’ll go. But I won’t be there the whole time.”
“No problem, my friend. There’s a lot of people dropping in and out. It’s very casual. I’ll see you there, alright?”
We said our goodbyes, and ended the call. I lit the cigarette and took a few puffs out, looking down from the balcony off into the city below.
The night of the party, I felt nervous. That wasn’t too unusual of me, but it still felt strange. Here I was, going to a nice little mansion tucked near the Santa Vera coastline with nothing to lose. Very casual, Vegas had said. What was I so afraid of?
In this case, I caught myself lying. It had nothing to do with the mansion, or the party, or Vegas. It had to do with them, the cast of old friends I hadn’t seen since I was still a kid. More importantly, it had to do with Katie. I had to practice what I was going to say to her, and how I was going to prove I was a better man than I used to be. After a few tries I realized it was pointless, and that in the best case I had to deal with that conversation the same way I dealt with most things in my life. Winging it.
I wasn’t sure if there was any sort of dress code. Beachfront parties usually don’t, but I came in with a dress shirt and a nice pair of chinos regardless. As I got out of my car and walked toward the front gate I met an old acquaintance of mine, Sylva Bell, an eccentric sort of guy who ran his own record label and was friends with Vegas. He had two young black women between his arms and it was clear he had quite a good time himself.
“Ash, my boy!” He called out to me. “We need to talk sometime! Call me, babe!”
“I will, I will!” I gave him a small little wave as he walked off, then went right over to the open front door.
I walked past a mass of unfamiliars before I finally made it to Vegas. I stood there for a solid three minutes, grabbing a drink off the counter and waiting for him to finish speaking, before he finally saw me. Vegas’ voice matched his appearance – a big, muscular half-latino man with a long black beard and a nice wavy head of hair. He smiled when he saw me and gave me a hard, firm handshake.
“Ash, bienvenido! I was beginning to get worried you wouldn’t show.”
“Sorry about that. Had some stuff I had to clear off my plate before I came.”
“Ha! I was just kidding with you, the night is still young. But I’m glad you came. I really am.”
I gave him a nod of encouragement. “Do you know where the others are?”
“Jack you already passed, he was in the living room. Samantha is, uh… upstairs, last I checked.”
He took a sip of his drink. “Not here yet.”
I began to grow annoyed. “Well, will she be here?”
“Oh, she’ll be here. Just be a bit late. She’s a busy woman, you know. But she hasn’t canceled on me. You’ll get to see her — we all will.”
His distant, careless tone didn’t serve to make me feel any better, but I acknowledged that at this point he was more than a little tipsy and almost certainly didn’t mean it. I decided to leave him and go off looking for Jack.
To be fair, I didn’t find Jack — Jack found me. I stumbled around the living room for a few minutes before someone finally tapped me on the shoulder. I needed a few moments to recognize him — perhaps that’s what took me so long — yet at last I realized I was in the presence of a childhood friend.
“Yo, Ash!” Jack spoke with a deluge of excitement, and a lack of sobriety. “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you, man! How are you? How’s life?”
In full honesty, out of the three I was the least interested in seeing Jack again. And that wasn’t because of my penchant for women, either.
You see, Jackson was the first friend I remember having. We were both cooped up in the same all-boys boarding school, from age 7 to 11. Jack was the rebel, and I was the one who always made some sort of clever response any time he got in trouble. At the time we were a good pair, and we got along well.
Jack always wanted to be a rockstar. It was embedded in his rebellious nature. Yet as time went on I realized that I, fundamentally, was different from him. He was into classic rock, clubbing, and sports. I was into romance, writing, and jazz cafes. At some point when interests differ to a far enough extent, it becomes impossible to build a friendship. . So, when we were in 5th grade and it was announced that his parents were moving and that he would leave the school, I didn’t have too much to mourn at his passing.
Ten years later, in 2016, I was working with Vegas and he by off-chance told me about a pop-rock band he had signed. One of the members was Jack. At that point, our paths had diverged so much that I was too afraid to talk to him. Something within me didn’t want to shatter the ideal I had constructed of him in those younger years. I had just told Vegas casually that I knew him and left it at that. He seemed to understand.
As time grew on and Jack and his band became a bigger part of the label, I began to open up a little more. I reached out to him a few times and was then thankful to realize that he was about the same as I had left him. Still, we kept up a positive relationship online. This night was the first time we had met in person since that 5th grade year.
Jack greeted me with a big sharp smile and a handshake that was perhaps a tad bit too strong. I figured he was trying his best to play the part. I tried my best, too.
“Jackson, my friend. Good to finally see you, after all this time.”
“Please, call me Jack. Everybody still calls me that, you know. Hey, you remember Scarlet, right?”
I did. While we lived and studied at an all-boys school, there was a matching all-girls one not too far away. From there we grew to be friends with Scarlet, a girl our age with long flowing brown hair and a coarse, boyish attitude. She fit us perfectly. I was never too interested in her but I always knew that Jack felt otherwise. Sure enough, he casually mentioned to me one night over text that he and her had gotten engaged.
Jack beckoned to a woman who was sitting on a couch nearby. Her brunette hair flowed straight, just a little past her shoulders. She wore a black leather choker around her neck and a red dress of lace and silk. She stood up and smiled at me, reaching out her hand.
I took it in a gentle manner. “Of course I remember Scarlet. So you too are married now, right?”
“If only,” Scarlet answered back. “It got pushed back, because of the whole pandemic thing.”
“Ah, understood. Sorry it turned out that way.”
Jack leaned up against the back of the couch. “Come on, you think we’d have had the wedding and not invited you?”
To be honest, I didn’t even consider the idea of a wedding invitation in general. Part of me couldn’t even tell if he had asked the question as a joke. I shrugged my shoulders as a non-answer.
“Well, you should know — the band’s been going good. Razorfang Tango, in case you forgot the name. We got a couple of gigs in north Cal later in the year. I’m the lead guitarist, Scarlet is on vocals. We’re going for a post-punk sound, you know. I don’t know if Vegas told you but, there’s a guy on our production team for the new album, used to work with New Order…”
As Jack continued talking, I felt an odd fear grow within me. At the time I didn’t know what it was, but now that I’ve sat down to write all this out I think I understand. There’s a parable, told in the world of psychotherapy, of the Anxious Traveler. The Anxious Traveler believes that he must see all the world’s lands, view all the world’s cultures, eat all the world’s foods — and if he does not, then he has failed in his life. Every second in which he is not following this goal feels like torture to him. Eventually the obsession becomes less about seeking the rewards of travel, and more about avoiding the risks of failure. Of course, it is impossible for one man to see all there is to see — but the Anxious Traveler realizes this only when it is too late. He is doomed to a miserable existence.
At that moment, I felt like the Anxious Traveler. I cannot explain to you why – I can only explain to you what I felt. I just believed I had stayed too long in the same place, that life was passing me by while I dwelled on in this crowded room. I had to move. I had to see Sam.
“Hey, Jack,” I interrupted. “It’s been great catching up. I’m going to go… catch up with a few others, who I haven’t talked to in a while. Keep me posted on the wedding, and the band, and… you know. Anything else good.”
He seemed somewhat surprised, but his demeanor quickly changed back into contentment. “Alright, man. Sounds good. Stay golden.”
I waved goodbye to Scarlet, who gave me a smile, and I walked back off into the crowd.
Sam was a much harder target to find. I was surprised that Vegas told me she was on the second floor, because the second floor was dead empty. I casually peeked around, but when I found nothing I figured she must have gone back downstairs. On my way back I noticed one of the doors in the hallway was just slightly cracked open. I gently pushed it wider, and saw a girl sitting there, by herself, watching the world out a large fiberglass window.
She was in a wheelchair. Her light-brown hair was tossed into a messy bun, and she wore a dulce de leche colored cashmere turtleneck sweater. As the sliver of light from the hallway expanded upon her from the door, she turned around to face me.
“Sam?” My meager voice asked.
A smile gently unraveled across the girl’s face. “Hi, Ash.”
“S-sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. I just heard you were up here, and…”
Samantha shook her head. “It’s alright. I was just trying to get away for a bit. I’m not great with a lot of people around, you know.”
A smile overtook my face. I felt a lot more at ease with Sam than I did with Jack. Women are harder to love but easier to read. Sam wasn’t hiding anything — she never did. I could disarm myself around her.
I sat in a chair near her, and realized what she was looking at. The sun was setting over Santa Vera.
“So, how have you been?” I asked her softly.
“Oh, I’ve been hanging in there. Being in a wheelchair all this time hasn’t been the best thing, but you get used to it. Besides…” She turned toward me and pointed to her nose. “…I don’t have to wear that stupid oxygen kit anymore.”
My eyes turned downward. I was thankful for her, but my heart struggled with the words.
“When… when I last saw you, I really thought… I really thought I was never going to see you again. That you were going to die.”
Sam’s voice was low and comforting. “They told me that too, you know.”
It was just a year or so after Jack had moved. I had just finished up at the boys’ school, and took an apprenticeship with a rich old businessman with the surname McNamara. I had only been at the manor for a few days when I met his daughter.
She was hard to miss. A fragile young girl, constantly under the supervision by a group of nurses and maids, right in the periphery. One day as I walked to my duties I saw her sitting in the rose garden. I thought it polite to introduce herself.
She was Samantha McNamara, though preferred to be called Sam. She was Mr. McNamara’s only child. When she was twelve she was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease that slowly ate at her. It was, in fact, only a few weeks before I arrived that a doctor had told her she only had six more months to live.
But that was what was so special about Sam. If it wasn’t for her appearance, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. She was so full of life — so full of hope, and love, and energy. The longer I stayed at the apprenticeship, the more time I found myself being around her. She gave me the courage I needed to face the doubts within myself. She made me feel like I was a better person.
That was a very cataclysmic time in my life. I had just begun the growth into puberty, and I was feeling all these emotions at once. And here was this girl, not much younger than myself, that I felt I had a connection with. That I could confide in her whatever I had on my mind, and she would listen.
And I loved her.
That love is a powerful, fickle thing. To have such strong feelings for something, only to have it taken away from you just as fast as you had found it. On the last day of my apprenticeship, I stayed up with her the entire night in the library. At some point in the early morning she had fallen asleep, and without wanting to wake her I put a wool blanket into her lap, kissed her forehead, and left to catch the train. The entire ride back I hid my face from the other passengers, crying softly as my tears hit the ground at my feet.
But that was the past. And now the same girl sat here in front of me, very much real, very much alive. And I had to understand why.
Sam gave me a weak smile, and sighed. “I wish I had a good reason that I didn’t tell you. I really wish I did. But the truth is, I was just afraid. I didn’t want to know how you’d respond if you found out. So I just didn’t tell you. I hid from it, and I’m sorry.”
If I was a stronger, better, wiser person, I might have given her the benefit of the doubt and accepted her apology. But instead I gave her a fictional smile, nodding along as if I did.
At this point you’re no doubt wondering how I knew she was alive in the first place, when the last time I saw her was in that library. The story is somewhat similar to Jack’s, but with a few notable twists here and there.
First of all, I didn’t hear it from Vegas. I heard it from an old friend of mine named Nathan, who I had known in high school after I finished the apprenticeship. I had told him the story in some detail (minus the falling in love and subsequently crying myself to sleep) and he had asked me if I had ever tried to get closure on the whole thing. Of course, nothing like that had ever crossed my mind. I did have closure — I knew she was dead. So I told him I hadn’t looked, and we left it at that.
Almost a year later, he called me out of the blue one night. His voice was frantic. He started off by apologizing for looking into private matters on my own behalf, then said that out of his own boredom he had looked up Samantha McNamara and found that she was in fact very much alive, attending a school roughly fifty miles north of Santiago. Naturally, I didn’t believe him. I told him that Samantha McNamara was a very common name and that it had to have been a coincidental look-a-like. But five minutes later he sent me over the article, and it solidified his statement.
It was from her school’s newspaper, and talked about her miraculous recovery. There was an interview with her, and a headshot embedded in the text. She looked almost exactly how she did those few years ago.
The other difference between this and the Jack story was that Sam and I had never contacted one another before this. I never had the nerves to contact her about the whole thing. Sam, who had apparently found out I was around through Felix (I found out later the two of them had the conversation before Vegas), never did either. As time went on, I became calmer and calmer to the idea, which is why I did not exactly fret when Vegas told me she would be at the party. Now that I was there, however, that all began to fly out the window.
“I guess I could have reached out to you myself, couldn’t I?” I said aloud as the thought entered my brain. Sam shook her head.
“It was my responsibility. I just didn’t do it.”
I looked up. “Well, we’re here now, aren’t we?”
Samantha turned to look at my face. A smile began to curl on her lips. “That’s true.”
“So… let’s promise not to let this happen again. We’ll stay in touch, okay?”
Sam nodded. “Of course.” She slumped down into her wheelchair, reaching into her pocket and pulling out her phone. I pulled out my own. We traded the devices and put in our respective contact info.
“I’ve heard you made some interesting friends while I was gone. I’d love to learn more about that,” Samantha spoke up. I knew who she was referring to.
“And I’d love to hear how you got to know Felix. And also about that music of yours.”
She gave a sharp sigh, and put her hand to her face. “Oh, God. It will take me a few months before I can work up to showing you the music.”
I smiled, and we traded the phones back. I was just about to ask another question when we both heard a ruckus downstairs. It was cries of surprise, followed by laughter. We both know who it was.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Sam said as she rolled her wheelchair to face me. “You better go down there and talk to her, before the crowd drags her away.”
The comment threw me off. “But, I mean, we just…”
“There will be another time for us to talk. I mean, I’ll be right up here — I’m not going anywhere. And even if I did, you have my number now. You won’t lose me again. There’ll be a time.”
Her words were reassuring. She was reassuring — it was one of her gifts. I smiled, nodded, and got up from my seat. As I headed towards the door, she let out one last thing.
“Oh, and when you go out… can you close the door all the way? The light from the hallway reflects off the window, and it distracts me.”
“No problem.” I did what I was told and walked down the stairs.
When I made it to the bottom, I noticed the energy in the room palpably changed. Most people had gone away from the edges, all congregating in an area closer towards the front door. A quick peek at who was there made me realize what caused it. At the center of it all was a young woman in a brilliant red dress. She had an up-high blonde ponytail with just enough bangs on her right side. A slim figure that stood tall and upright. Some couple was talking to her, and she was smiling and nodding at every word they said. As I walked down onto the floor, she must have noticed the movement from the corner of her vision, because she turned her head to the right to face me with those beautiful blue crystal eyes of hers.
Katie Elise MacIntosh.
There are no other combination of words in the human language that gives me such a feeling of joy and dread, of compassion and guilt, of love and hate, of ecstasy and pain. I must have frozen in time when I caught myself in her gaze, because the next thing I knew she was right next to me, her floral perfume flourishing into my nostrils.
“Hey, Ash.” Her voice activated something deep inside me. “It’s been a while.”
I turned to look at her. There were those eyes yet again. She looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to make the next move.
“Yeah, it has,” I answered somewhat pathetically.
She looked back at the crowd of people, who at this point had mostly dispersed and gone back to their own in-groups. Yet, occasionally, one of them would poke their head out to see what Katie was doing. She turned back towards me, reaching out her arm.
“Come on, let’s go somewhere away from the rest of these people. Kody has an elevator that goes to a lower level. It’s pretty well hidden, but I know where it is.”
I looked down at her palm. “You want me to hold your hand?”
“It will make people less interested in following us.”
While I questioned her intention, I couldn’t refuse. Her hand was warm and soft to the touch. She led me back down the hallway towards the stairs, but took a sudden turn to the left, opening a door which led to a small passage that took us to the elevator. The elevator ride didn’t last particularly long. It dropped us off to a small area that looked like a service tunnel.
“Well, I see you’ve gotten popular.”
Katie turned to look at me. She leaned against the bare brick wall. The red glow of a nearby neon sign illuminated the air around us.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she humbly responded. “You get used to it.”
I leaned against the wall across from her. “I missed you, Katie. I missed seeing you. Hearing your voice.”
She looked down. A slight smile splayed across her cheeks. “I’m always just a little ways away, you know.”
I gave a somber nod. “I know, I just… I don’t know why I haven’t talked to you in so long.”
“It’s because you found a life for yourself. That’s a good thing.”
“Just because I have this life doesn’t mean I need to forget you.”
She took a few steps closer to me, until the tips of our feet were nearly touching. But at the last second, she looked away from my face.
“Ash, this whole thing… all of it. What’s it all for?”
I looked at her. The scent of her perfume was even more intense at this distance.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Don’t act like that.” She turned her head back up to look me in the eyes. “You always had this place to escape from the world. To find a better reality. But now you have that better reality. You don’t have to come to me anymore.”
I looked down at my feet. Katie leaned on the wall next to me.
“You don’t get it. I want to come to you,” I responded. “You were never a means to an end. I… I love you, Katie. You were the only one I ever felt I could come to for comfort. You were the one who made it feel like everything was alright. And as of these past few years, I just feel like… I feel like I’ve done bad on you. I barely talk to you, and when I do I treat you like shit. And I’m sorry.”
She looked at me intensely. She must have seen that I was uncomfortable, however, because she then brought her hand gently to my hair and ran her fingers through it. . “You don’t have to apologize to me. I always knew how you felt in your heart, and that’s all that mattered to me. You shouldn’t be so concerned about me, anyway.”
“Stop. Look at where we are. Look at my face. Feel my hand. Look at that sign. What does it say? Look at this hallway. It’s all within you. I’m within you, waiting here, always. You don’t have to trap yourself in with all this. You can be free, Jacob.”
I shook my head and took a few steps away from her. “Don’t call me that.”
“Fine, I won’t. But I hope you understand what I’m saying. At some point you have to accept what this is — it’s a dream. It’s not the world you have to concern yourself about. It’s not the world you have to improve in. That world is the world outside. That world… that world will never know me. It will never know Jack. It will never know Sam. But it will know you. It will see you, and hear you, and feel you. And all the wonderful things you have to say, it will understand them, and take them to places far beyond what our little place could.”
I thought about her words for a moment. I looked her in the eyes. This time I felt in control.
“I know that, Katie. But there’s one part in all of this you don’t understand. It’s true that this little place is separate — that my world, my place on Earth, will never truly see or hear or feel you. You or anyone else. But I can take this place, and tell the others about it. I can describe to them how you look, how you smell, how you talk. The way you look at me. The way that sign shines off the sides of your cheeks, and lights up that little spot in your eye. And, more importantly, I can tell them about the lessons I’ve learned here. Because everything I learned about life — how to laugh, how to love, how to be upset, how to feel for someone else, how to get annoyed, how to find happiness — I didn’t learn that outside. I learned that here. In this world of mine.”
For a while, Katie didn’t speak. Her head looked down, and she was clearly in thought, but she didn’t say anything. The whole thing seemed to go on forever. But eventually she looked up, and smiled.
“Alright, I can take that.”
I smiled back. “Then let’s go back up and talk to the others.”
She outstretched her hand in front of the two of us, giving a little giggle as she did so. “You first.”
I obliged. The two of us walked to the elevator, got inside, and called it back up to the first floor.
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