DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular are not mine. They belong to somebody who is not me. The title was inspired by the lyrics of the song of the same name, on the soundtrack to the movie, Camp.
SERIES: First story in the 'An Ever Fixed Mark' series.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Here's Where I Stand
By Green Quarter
Sam stood at the front door of Kranky's, an hour before the store opened, waiting to be let in. Ray had seen her but continued counting out the drawer, making her wait. She shifted from one foot to the other, hitching her messenger bag further up with her shoulder, her hands full with her iced coffee and Ray's hot tea. Sam didn't understand how Ray could drink boiling hot tea in July, but every day it was the same, Earl Gray with one sweet 'n low and lemon. Ray had not been happy with Hopey's decision to get rid of the coffee bar when a Starbucks had opened up next-door a month ago. Sam thought it was smart. It gave the store more room for higher profit margin items instead of barely making anything on coffee. Who comes to a record store for coffee anyway? Subsequently, Ray had given up coffee in protest and now only drank tea. Sam didn't think Starbucks minded too much.
Ray had apparently finished his task, because he approached the door and turned the key, then walked back to the counter. Sam watched him through the door as he walked away, thinking that if he ever came to work in something other than black Levi's and a long sleeve black t-shirt, she would faint from the shock. She had to admit that the look worked for his skinny frame and platinum blonde, nearly white, slicked back hair. Sam pushed the door open with her shoulder, then juggled the cups to gain a free hand and lock the door again. She walked past the cash wrap area and deposited the tea, and picked up the dollar bill, neatly folded in half, and two quarters that waited for her on the counter everyday since she had discovered what Ray drank and started bringing it in with her.
Sam listened. The dB's, she thought happily. She loved this song. Continuing on into the back room of the store, she punched in, and saw that a shipment had come in early this morning, and she would have something to keep her busy all day. She usually processed shipments and took care of inventory while Ray handled the cash register and did some of the paperwork for Hopey. Having worked with Ray for over a month now, they had settled into a routine, but it had been a little disconcerting for Sam at first. Ray wasn't much of a talker. No, scratch that, he barely talked at all, at least in the beginning. Sam would ask him a question and get nothing in response, or maybe if she was lucky, she would get a weird facial expression, but that was about it. Thankfully, there wasn't much that needed explaining, as Sam had worked evenings for quite a while, and she was grateful not to have to make annoying small talk, so she shrugged it off and just got on with things. She and Ray were the only employees in the store until two o'clock, when the staggered evening shift people started coming in, so it was a good thing that they got along.
The one thing that she and Ray had in common was their taste in music, unbeknownst to Sam, in the beginning. Ray brought in his own music, burned discs that contained eclectic mixes of esoteric and overlooked ephemera from the past thirty years. There was no genre unrepresented, and it was all good stuff, no filler. Sam had never heard of most of the artists and bands on Ray's custom CD's but she liked it all. She would often go up to the front of the store and ask who sang a particular song, and without a word Ray would take the homemade jewel case from under the register and slide it across the counter for her to peruse. As a result, not only was Sam getting a musical education, but also Ray had begun to grudgingly approve of her presence, and now made the occasional unsolicited comment to her. It was as if she had to pass some crazy music appreciation test before she was deemed worthy. Sam didn't mind; none of the rumors she had heard about Ray were true, and she liked him more because of his kooky ways.
She found that she was content most of the time while she worked, even customers' inane questions usually didn't bother her much, and being at Kranky's served the purpose of keeping her away from home for long periods of time, as she was now the go to girl when her co-workers needed a shift covered. It wasn't unusual for her to work another three or four shifts besides the forty hours she worked regularly. Her mother was a little upset with all the hours she was working, and insisted that Sam post her schedule on the refrigerator every week so she could have the illusion of keeping track of the daughter who would soon be going halfway across the country for college.
Sam had been filling the rest of her time by taking a crash course in all things gay. Hopey had brought in a book called Rubyfruit Jungle, and asked Sam if she was interested in reading it. Sam had been shocked at how much she identified with the main character, and was now hungrily reading anything that Hopey would lend her. After work, Sam would spend her evenings just sitting in Starbucks, or at a table in the back at Mr. Cluck's while waiting for Lily, working her way through many of the books on her boss's bookshelf. Subsequently she had read a lot of interesting stuff, including books by Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, and Sarah Schulman. She stood for hours in the magazine section at Border's, reading most of the gay interest periodicals, and was now riveted by reruns of Ellen Degeneres' sitcom on Lifetime. She was getting comfortable in her own skin again, and it felt good.
Things had even been okay with Brooke. Their schedules didn't often intersect, as Sam left early and came home very late most days. So she didn't see her very often, maybe once every four or five days or so, but when she did she was finding it easy to be pleasant and interested in all that she was up to with Harrison and Brooke's other friends. She was beginning to think that maybe she had been wrong. Maybe the attraction she thought she felt for Brooke was no more than the heady first flush of realizing her change in orientation, and it could have been anyone.
Sam began to open the boxes in the back room, and started to organize the new arrivals into genre, so they would be easy to put out on the floor later. As she bent over she felt a throb in the base of her skull, it was really painful. When she stood up again, the pain was still there. Weird, she thought, and continued working.
The only dark blot in her life lately had been the demise of her poor little Beetle. Despite her hopes, her faithful companion had not made it to the end of summer. She had been leaving work one day when once again, her car wouldn't start. She had decided to call a tow truck instead of bothering anyone in her family again, and got a ride home with one of her co-workers. The next day when she called the mechanic, he told her he had good news and he had bad news. When she asked for the good news first, he had said, "The good news is, you're getting a new car!" Sam could almost hear the guy waiting for a rimshot and the laugh track to kick in, but she had been less than amused. God save her from comedian mechanics, but he was right. The prohibitive cost of repairing the little car had made the decision for her, and she went back to the auto shop to collect her stuff and say goodbye to her first car.
She had the option of taking the bus, but the schedule didn't really work for the times she needed, plus it took forever. Taking the bus in Los Angeles was always an iffy proposition at best. So she dusted off her mountain bike, which she probably hadn't used since moving into the McQueen home, and started riding to work. What was a ten-minute drive took nearly an hour by bike, but Sam found she didn't mind. She was able to clear her head and do some of her best thinking while she navigated the local roads to and from Kranky's, and her legs were looking so buff.
What had been an occasional throb in her head had now become constant pressure. Sam had never felt pain in her head like this before; this was no ordinary headache. She finally couldn't bear it anymore and went up front to talk at Ray.
When Ray saw her, his expression said, "Wow, you look like shit."
Sam had become very adept at interpreting Ray's many facial expressions.
"I'm not feeling well, Ray, would you mind if I went home?"
Ray shook his head. "Go," was all he said.
When Sam walked out onto the sidewalk, she saw a bus trundling down the avenue, still several blocks off. She decided to give her head a break and leave her bike locked up behind the store; she would worry about getting to work tomorrow later. She and the bus arrived at the stop simultaneously. She boarded and quickly found a seat, all the while pressing her fingertips to her throbbing head.
Brooke was slicing peaches and cantaloupe for a fruit salad when she saw Sam through the kitchen window, trudging across the patio, her head lowered. She brightened at the thought of having Sam's company for an afternoon sitting poolside, waiting for the air-conditioning guy to come, but wondered why she was home so early from work. As she often did, Brooke had checked Sam's schedule on the refrigerator to see when she would be around today, not that it made much difference, since Sam was never around even when she wasn't working. When Sam entered the kitchen, Brooke saw that her complexion was an unhealthy shade of green.
"Sam, what's wrong? You look awful," she said, alarmed.
"I have a nightmare of a headache," Sam responded in a monotone, walking directly to the kitchen cabinet and removing a bottle of pills. "I just need to take an aspirin, or ten." She swallowed what looked like at least four pills, and grabbed Brooke's water glass and gulped the contents down. She finally put her bag down and sat at the kitchen table, wearily resting her forehead on the surface. "Why is it so hot in here?" she asked, voice muffled from being directed at the floor.
"The central air isn't working; the repairman is coming later this afternoon."
"That's great," Sam sighed, "just great."
Brooke had never seen Sam so out of sorts. She wished there was something she could do to help.
"Have you ever had a migraine, Brooke?" Sam asked, her head still resting against the table. "I don't know if this is a migraine, but it's unlike any headache I've ever had. It feels like a sumo wrestler is beating on my head like it was one of those huge-ass Japanese drums." She exhaled slowly and placed her hands on the table top, using her arms to push herself up from the table. "I'm going to lie down."
Suddenly Brooke's afternoon of keeping cool by the pool seemed frivolous and shallow. She couldn't just sit there while Sam was in so much pain. She went up to her room and googled migraine treatments. She found a site and looked down a list of possible options. Prescription drugs were out, herbal supplements took too long, holistic remedies whatever, dentistry? not happening, acupuncture she was slightly unqualified, massage. Bingo. She could do massage. She quickly read the short paragraph and closed her browser.
She knocked softly on Sam's door, and entered when she thought she heard a grunt from the other side. The room was dim, the air was stagnant and the heat stifling. Sam was lying face down on her bed, clothes still on; she hadn't even taken off her shoes. Brooke opened the windows to at least get a little air circulating, then went and sat next to Sam.
"Sam," she said, lightly resting her hand on Sam's shoulder.
Sam turned her head and looked at Brooke blearily.
"I was just reading that sometimes back massage will help relieve some of the pain from a migraine. I could help you," she said awkwardly, suddenly wondering if this was a good idea. "Do you want to try it?"
Sam looked at her speculatively. "Honestly, if you think it will help, I'm willing to try anything," she said desperately.
"Okay. Now then," Brooke turned business-like. "You'll have to take off your shirt."
Sam watched her for a minute, like she was waiting for something. "Could you turn around?" she finally muttered.
"Oh, yeah, right," Brooke jumped from the bed as if she had been scalded. She stood with her back to Sam, wondering why this felt so weird.
When she heard Sam say she was ready, Brooke turned back towards the bed to see Sam lying much as she had been before, only her shoes and socks had been removed and she was naked from the waist up, wearing only her army green cargo shorts.
She clambered onto the bed and straddled Sam's body, resting her weight on Sam's bum. Sam moved her arms from where they were at her sides and crossed them over her head.
"Okay, are you comfortable?" asked Brooke.
At Sam's wordless nod, Brooke collected Sam's hair in a loose ponytail and moved it out of the way. She lightly dragged her fingertips down Sam's back, and felt Sam flinch in surprise. "Just try to relax, Sam," she said.
Sam's skin felt soft and smooth to the touch, but underneath that, her body was as hard as granite. There was no looseness to the muscles of her back; she was unbelievably tense. Brooke began at Sam's neck, like her internet reading had suggested, and slowly worked her fingers into the tendons and muscles near the base of Sam's skull. She spent a lot of time there before moving down to the shoulders, using both hands to grasp and knead the ropy muscles over the shoulder blades. She heard Sam groan, and then felt her let go of whatever resistance she had been holding onto, and her body became much more pliable.
Brooke could see Sam's face in profile. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, a small pool of drool beginning to stain the pillow. She was glad her ministrations seemed to have the intended effect. She concentrated on one shoulder blade and then the other, trying to dig down between the bone and the muscle, to ease the knots she found there.
Pausing only to wipe the sweat from her brow in the oven-like atmosphere, Brooke toiled on. She worked each vertebra, manipulating the muscles surrounding it. Then she began to move outward from the spine, using her palms to repeatedly smooth the broad muscles of the middle back. With each outward motion, she would move further away from the center, until she was also massaging Sam's ribs, and once, mistakenly, the sides of her breasts.
She felt Sam instantly react to this; her eyes were shut tight, her whole body stiffened and her hands squeezed into fists over her head. Brooke leaned over and grabbed Sam's hands, trying to unclench them. "Sam, relax," she whispered.
Brooke felt Sam grip her hands tightly for a moment, but then Sam released them and opened her own hands, her fingers tensely splayed across the pillow like two starfish. Brooke resumed her position, and sat back down on Sam's behind, and heard Sam audibly exhale.
The terrain of Sam's back now a known entity, Brooke let her mind wander as she fixed her attention to relieving the stress that had somehow returned to some of the muscles. Sam had been working long hours at Kranky's. Although it wasn't the most taxing job intellectually, all that time on her feet had to be taking its toll. Perhaps that was why Sam was suffering now.
She had really missed Sam's company this summer. What a difference from last summer, when Sam had been to the hospital to visit her everyday, and had made Brooke's interminable incarceration pass more quickly. She guessed that she had better get used to Sam not being around, as there wasn't much time before they both left for school, and then they would go their separate ways, only seeing each other when breaks from their respective schools coincided. It made her feel sad. Brooke hadn't realized until now how much this accidental friendship had come to mean to her. She had never had a friend like Sam, one who made her laugh so hard when they were just goofing around, who didn't have any expectations of her, and didn't make her feel like their friendship was conditional on anything. Who would've ever guessed that they could become close friends after their inauspicious beginnings. She would have to figure out a way to let Sam know she would miss her when they went away.
Brooke renewed her attention to Sam's lower back. As she leaned over, reaching down to work the flesh near the waistband of Sam's shorts, Brooke felt a single drop of sweat fall from her brow onto the skin of Sam's back, just to the right of her spine, near the shoulder blade. Without thinking about it, she lowered her mouth to the soft surface and pressed her tongue there, absorbing the moisture. She noted the salty taste of Sam's skin, mixed with a hint of peaches that must have come from her own fingers. Then she realized what she had just done.
She looked up and saw that Sam had raised herself onto her elbows and was looking back at her, an inscrutable expression on her face.
"I think we're done here, Brooke, thanks," Sam said, hollowly.
"Sam, I'm so sorry," Brooke stuttered. "I don't "
"Could you just leave, please?" Sam interrupted, annoyance coloring her tone.
Brooke got up and left the room without another word.
Sam only waited to hear the door closing behind Brooke before she allowed the tears to start falling. She turned on her side and covered her breasts with one arm, tucking her knees close to her chest in a fetal position. What the fuck was that, she wondered, anguished. Had Brooke somehow found out about how she felt? Was she teasing her with what she could never have? She now knew that it was hopeless; the situation was just hopeless. She reached down between her legs and felt the heat and dampness through her shorts that had started when Brooke first began to touch her. She opened the button fly and slid her hand beneath the waistband of her underwear, cupping her fingers against the copious wetness that had accumulated there, and quickly brought herself to a joyless climax. Sam lay like that for a long time, crying silently in shame and frustration. What was she going to do? She had been kidding herself to think that it wasn't Brooke that she had feelings for. If the feelings had ever left, they were back now with a vengeance. She realized that the only solution she could see to her problem would arrive when the summer was over, and she would leave this house. But Brooke had accomplished one thing, Sam realized bitterly, her headache was gone, only to be replaced by an ache of a different kind.
Sam had woken up late. She had spent the whole previous day and night in her room, pleading illness when called down to dinner, and sweating her ass off until around six o'clock, when the air conditioning had kicked back in. During the afternoon yesterday, she had furtively watched Brooke through her window out in the backyard, lying in her bikini on a chaise lounge, periodically getting up to cool off in the pool. Sam honestly didn't know what to make of Brooke's behavior. She decided to go with her gut and assumed that Brooke was baiting her for some unknown reason, because there was no way that she could know about Sam's Sapphic tendencies; Sam hadn't told a soul, except Hopey, who had guessed, but Brooke didn't even know her. Brooke could do her worst, Sam decided; she won't get a rise out of me.
Her head felt better, but her little post-massage breakdown had left her as depressed as could be. And when she was depressed, she slept more than what was good for her, and was now scrambling to get ready for work. Her bike was still at the store, and there was no time for the bus; she would have to get a ride. She knocked on her mother and Mike's door, getting no response. Cautiously opening the door, not wanting to get an eyeful of something that would traumatize her, Sam quickly realized that there was no one in the room; the bed was neatly made. Sam tried to recall if her mother had said anything about where she was going. Oh yeah, some real estate seminar in Newport Beach that she was dragging Mike to for the day, she remembered dimly. That left only one person to ask.
She stood in front of Brooke's door, doing her mental preparation for talking to her stepsister. She quickly decided to just ignore Brooke's flagrant violation of her personal space yesterday. Yes, that would work. Remember: be polite, and think before you speak, she admonished herself. She knocked softly and opened the door quietly, seeing that Brooke was indeed asleep. She approached the bed and just stood there for a moment, caught up in how beautiful and innocent she looked, lying on her back, one arm resting on her belly, the other flung out and away from her body, the sheets in a tangle around her feet. Even the quiet snores she was emitting were endearing to Sam. She hated to wake her, but she had to.
She took a step closer and nudged the bed with her leg. "Brooke," she said quietly. No response. Sam was actually going to have to touch her. She tapped Brooke on the shoulder with one finger, saying again, "Brooke."
"Sam?" Brooke squinted at her, then opened her eyes wide. "What is it? Is it Mac?" she asked, worried.
"No, no," Sam reassured her. "I'm really sorry to wake you. Could I get a ride to work? I'm already way too late for the bus."
"Your car won't start?"
"Um, my car bit the dust weeks ago," Sam said, embarrassed.
"What?" Brooke was awake now. "How come I didn't know about this?"
"Because I forgot to submit the news to your press office," Sam said sarcastically. "Now can you give me a ride or not?"
Brooke stared at her, a solemn expression on her face.
"Oh God, I'm sorry," Sam was angry with herself for losing her cool. It just hurt that Brooke didn't even care to know the most basic things that happened in her life. She started to leave the room. "Listen, just go back to sleep. I'll call Carmen, or Lily, or better yet, a cab."
"No," Brooke was adamant, "I'll take you. Just let me get dressed and get Mac up."
"Mac?" Sam asked incredulously, "Why Mac?"
"Because Dad and Jane left early this morning for Newport and I'm looking after her today. I just can't leave her here alone." She thought for a second. "I'll have to set up the car seat."
"I'll do it. Did they leave it in the garage?"
Sam turned to go, then said, "Thanks, Brooke, I really appreciate this."
"Don't worry about it. I'll be as quick as I can." Brooke got out of bed and started looking for something to wear.
Sam had just gotten all the straps strapped and the buckles buckled on the car seat in Brooke's BMW, a hand-me-down from Mike, when Brooke emerged from the house, carrying a wailing Mac in her arms.
Sam felt about two inches tall for throwing the entire household in turmoil. "Here, let me take her," she said apologetically. "I'm so sorry, Macky," Sam said as she put the baby in the car seat.
"Try this," Brooke said, handing over a bottle of formula.
Brooke started the car and Sam sat in the back with Mac, trying to calm her with the bottle. Fortunately, the soothing hum of a car engine always sent Mac to sleep, and she was out again before they hit the first intersection. When Brooke came to a four way stop, Sam said, "Wait, don't go yet," and jumped out of the back and slid into the front seat.
"So, what happened to your car?" Brooke immediately asked.
"Well, we all knew she was terminal, but it's always a surprise when they finally go," Sam joked. She quickly told Brooke the story of the funny mechanic, and Brooke thought it was the most hilarious thing she had ever heard, laughing loudly.
"Shh, Brooke," Sam gently reproved, "We don't want Cry-zilla to start up again."
"Oops," Brooke said, looking over her shoulder at Mac, "I forgot. You know, I noticed that your car never seemed to be around lately, but then neither have you, so I just assumed that you and your car were off somewhere having an adventure together."
"I'd hardly call Kranky's an adventure," Sam said dryly.
"Yeah, but, you're gone all the time, from morning 'til night. You have to be doing something besides work," Brooke fished, looking over at her.
"No, just work," Sam said simply, effectively ending the subject, then she changed it. "Brooke, I wanted to thank you for the massage, it really helped my headache."
"Oh, Sam, I'm really sorry about, ah, licking you." Brooke turned beet red, obviously mortified.
"Not a problem, I just figured you had me momentarily confused with Harrison." Sam let out her inner bitch for a moment. "I'm glad it didn't get this far, but just for future reference, I won't ever need the Happy Ending, okay?" Sam was insultingly referring to the squalid and seedy massage parlors in East L.A. where "massage therapists" included bringing their clients to sexual release as part of the service.
Brooke was silent. She stared straight ahead, her hands twisting on the steering wheel agitatedly.
Sam belatedly realized that Brooke was really upset and that confused her mightily. Wait. If Brooke wasn't trying to push my buttons, then why had she done that whole licking thing? And how do I become the one that looks like an asshole? Oh God, here's Brooke doing me a favor and I have to go and shit all over it. "Look, Brooke, I'm sorry I said that. I know you were just trying to help. I'm just really crabby today, what with waking up late and everything." Sam was backpedaling like crazy, but Brooke had turned cold.
"No, I guess I deserve to be called a sleazy massage parlor whore," Brooke said icily, "by my sister."
"You don't! I'm sorry! I was just trying to hurt you, okay?" Sam didn't mean to say that last part; she was just so flustered.
Brooke pulled into a space in the Kranky's parking lot, and turned to face Sam. "Why?" She looked genuinely flummoxed, her expression reflecting hurt and anger.
Sam looked at the floorboards. She knew why, but there was no way in hell she would ever tell Brooke. So she quietly said, "I don't know."
Brooke faced forward and put the car in reverse, obviously waiting for Sam to get out. "Well I don't know either, Sam."
"Thanks for the ride, Brooke, I'm sorry, really-"
Sam stopped speaking when she heard Brooke sigh impatiently. She glanced back at Mac and then got out of the car, watching as Brooke burned rubber out of the parking lot. She kicked the pavement in consternation and cursed herself as an idiot. All her good intentions for being polite, and for not letting Brooke get to her went down the toilet at the first moment of tension. And the ironic thing was, she guiltily acknowledged, if Brooke ever offered her a Happy Ending, either the sexy kind or the storybook kind, Sam didn't think she had it in her to turn Brooke down.
When she entered the store, she went right over to Ray and apologized for being late. He shrugged, but also actually used his words and said, "Feeling better?"
"Yeah," Sam sighed despondently.
Ray tossed her a disbelieving look.
"Really, my head feels better." Sam insisted. "I'm just feeling a little sad, that's all."
Ray nodded sympathetically, then reached under the counter and changed the CD to some real, crying-in-your-beer blues.
Sam was wallowing, something she swore she would never do, but she couldn't stop herself. It didn't help that Ray was aiding and abetting her. He had turned Kranky's into "All Sad Songs, All the Time." It had been going on for three days now. A customer would come in looking for "Walking on Sunshine," and leave with Leonard Cohen's boxed set. Between listening to the likes of Patsy Cline, Bright Eyes, Concrete Blonde, and too many sad country songs to count, and thinking about her tattered relationship with Brooke, whom she hadn't seen or spoken to since that day in the parking lot, Sam was one big scab of raw emotion, that she couldn't help picking at.
She hit the wall during the third repetition of the Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now." While she could agree with Morrissey's sentiments, she had had enough. She stopped restocking the chart toppers CD bins and went over to where Ray was filling out a Soundscan report behind the register. "Ray. I love you, mean it, but you're just enabling me. If I have to listen to one more sad song, I'm going to get on a plane, go to London, find every member of the Smiths and force them to listen to "Who Let the Dogs Out" on perpetual repeat." Sam had finally reached her limit.
Ray grinned cheekily and immediately stopped the music. Just seeing Ray's grin made her feel better. Sam smiled back and shook her head. He had been waiting for her to put a stop to it, she realized, and it only took her three days to figure it out. Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" now filled the store, its up-tempo horn intro heralding a happier day at Kranky's. Ray picked up a flier and handed it to Sam. It was for a show that night at the Troubadour. "Wanna go?" he asked.
"Rilo Kiley?" Sam asked, surprised. She liked the female-fronted indie rock emo-ish band, but didn't think they were Ray's cup of tea. "Do you even like them?"
"Sure," Ray shrugged. "Guest list," he said, as if that explained everything.
Sam didn't even question Ray's mysterious musical connections anymore. She couldn't guess how old he was, but she knew he had been on the scene a long time. She considered the show. After having to scrounge up things to do to keep her away from the house, she would be glad to have a bona fide event to attend. "Okay, I'm in," she said. It would be better than closing down Starbucks yet again, or hanging out at Mr. Clucks waiting for Lily to finish her shift. Sam went back to restocking.
"Excuse me, young lady, do you have O-Town's greatest hits?"
Sam didn't even turn around as she said, "Sorry, O-Town doesn't have a greatest hits CD."
"Are you sure, Miss?"
You've got to be kidding me, she thought. This time Sam did turn around, and saw Carmen trying to keep herself from laughing.
Sam should've known. "Don't you mean O-Town's greatest hit?" she said, laughing. "Disguising your voice as a little old lady's was a nice touch."
"Yeah, I thought so," Carmen agreed.
"Long time, no see, Carm, how are the kids?" Sam asked after Carmen's job as a camp counselor, teaching dance to happy little campers.
"Talent-less," Carmen said briefly. "Thank God, we're on a break in between sessions, I was going nuts. They all want to shake their asses like Beyonce. Six year olds!" Carmen said, appalled.
"That damned Beyonce," Sam railed dramatically, "it's all her fault."
"She ruins it for everyone," Carmen vehemently agreed, then snickered. "So, you busy tonight? You want to do something?"
"I just made plans with Ray to see a show in West Hollywood tonight," Sam gestured at Ray, who was still behind the counter. "You want me to see if he can get you on the list?"
"Ooh, the list," Carmen was impressed. "Is that a record store perk?"
"I think it's just a perk of knowing Ray."
"He's kind of cute, he sort of looks like Spike, from Buffy," Carmen appraised. "Oh, wait, is this, like, a date with you two?"
"A date?" Sam raised her eyebrows. "No. No way. Why? Do you like him?"
"Maybe," Carmen said with a grin.
"Hang on, I'll go check and see if it's okay." Sam returned a minute later, nodding her assent. Ray had been unable to keep his eyes off of Carmen the whole time Sam was talking to him. Maybe Silent Bob and Chatty Cathy would make a good match, she mused.
Sam and Carmen followed Ray into the club, after being checked off on the guest list, and even got wristbands that proved they were over twenty-one, even though they hadn't even been carded.
One of the first people Sam saw was Hopey, sitting at the bar with her girlfriend beside her. Sam went over and said hi, and introduced Carmen to her boss. They stood around and chatted with Hopey while waiting for the show to start. Sam noticed that Carmen and Ray seemed to be getting on well.
After Sam had finished work, she had ridden to Carmen's house and hung out with her until Ray came to pick them up at ten o'clock. Sam had let Carmen have the front seat of Ray's ancient wood-paneled Wagoneer, while she shared the back seat with the front tire of her bicycle, which was a little big for the cargo area. She didn't think Carmen had noticed Ray's near silence through her perky chatter, Carm probably thought he was just a good listener.
Carmen and Ray excused themselves to get closer to the stage. As Sam watched them go, Hopey leaned in and asked, "Is that your sweetheart?"
"No, she's just a friend," Sam said, then smiled, a little sadly. "I don't have a sweetheart."
"Well, you have somebody who's making you miserable," Hopey noted shrewdly.
Sam was unnerved by Hopey's perception.
"The three day sad music binge," Hopey disclosed. "I heard about it."
"Oh. I thought you were psychic as well as badass," Sam said wryly.
"So, spill. Who is it? Anyone I know?"
"No," Sam looked at Hopey with all the misery she was feeling. "It's my stepsister, and she's not gay. And she's, you know, my stepsister."
"Ouch," Hopey winced, sympathetically. Then her attention was caught by her girlfriend, who had turned back towards her after finishing a separate conversation. "Samantha, this is Maggie. This is the girl who's been borrowing all of our books, Mag."
"Oh, it's nice to finally meet you. You should come over and look at what we have instead of relying on Hope's choices," Maggie said warmly.
"Thanks, I'd love to," Sam replied. "Do you guys like this band?"
"Not really," Hopey said, "They're not really my thing, but Ray and I know the booker here, so we hang out here a lot. We all used to play together, back in the day."
"Really?" Sam was impressed. "Were you in a band?"
"Yeah, we were pretty good, too. Ray is an amazing guitarist and songwriter."
"Wow, I never knew." Sam was surprised.
"He doesn't play much anymore, it kind of leads down a self-destructive path for him. But he's been sober for years. He takes comfort in routine, these days," Hopey said with a touch of wistfulness. "He really likes you, you know. He's going to miss you when you go off to school."
Sam didn't think anyone could see her blush in the dimness of the bar. She liked Ray too; he was different than anyone else she knew. Wait, she frowned, Hopey didn't mean in a romantic way, did she?
"Relax," Hopey said, aiming her perception at Sam again. "He knows you're gay, He just thinks you're cool. There aren't many people that don't get on Ray's nerves, but you are one of them."
Just then a roar sounded from the crowd, the band was making its way to the stage.
"That's our cue to leave, Samantha," Hopey had to yell in Sam's ear. "Try to have a good time tonight, forget about your stepsister for a little while. Besides, that girl has been checking you out for the last ten minutes," Hopey nodded towards a girl about Sam's age standing about ten feet away. Hopey moved past her, and Maggie gripped her arm affectionately and mouthed a goodbye, then the pair was gone.
Sam ordered two Rolling Rocks from the bartender and looked over at the girl Hopey had pointed out. It was time to get with the gayness, she resolutely decided. She needed to move on; this situation with Brooke was only making her unhappy. She squared her shoulders; here goes nothing.
Sam walked over to the girl and offered her a beer, which the girl accepted with a surprised smile. She was definitely family, Sam decided. She looked like a little punk rock skate rat, with her short, blonde, spiky hair and her eyebrow piercing. The girl wore a Goonies t-shirt and sported the requisite baggy Dickies. She was cute, Sam thought, as they smiled goofily at each other. Rilo Kiley was proving to be a band that Sam could definitely appreciate live.
Sam sat in the backseat of Ray's Jeep, turning over a Troubadour matchbook in her hands. Carmen was sitting up front with Ray, talking a blue streak about the concert and about Duke's, the diner they had gone to after the show for a quick bite. Sam and the Goonies girl, whose name was Grace, had hung out all during the show. At one point, Grace had gestured to the balcony, and she and Sam had gone up there and found some space in the back row of the bleacher seats. They had sat there for awhile, listening to the music, because they couldn't see much from those seats, and Grace had taken Sam's hand. Sam's heart started beating faster and she moved closer to her new friend. Grace took the initiative and kissed Sam first, but Sam had wanted it and returned the kiss with alacrity. They had sat up there for a while, taking advantage of the darkness, and got to know each other a little better.
As she rubbed her thumb over the digits imprinted on the matchbook cover in ballpoint ink, Sam took a moment to evaluate. It had been nice. Definitely better than kissing a guy, but it wasn't exactly pyrotechnics and choirs of angels like what she had experienced with Brooke. She feared that the kiss she and Brooke shared on graduation night would be the high water mark to which all other kisses must measure up, haunting her love life until the end of time. But it was a little premature to go making that prognostication.
She thought it must be pretty late, and looked at her watch for the first time in what seemed like forever. Oh my God. Sam was shocked to see that it was after three in the morning, hours past her curfew for a weeknight, hell, for the weekend, too. She was praying that everyone would be asleep as Ray rounded the corner onto her block, but when she saw all the lights blazing at the McQueen residence, she knew her goose was cooked.
Ray helped her get her bike out of the back, and she said goodnight to him and Carmen before meeting her certain doom.
She let herself in the front door, and waited for the influx of people to come out of the kitchen. It only took a few moments. "Sam?" her mother asked, coming through the doorway first. "Oh thank God," she said, her eyes closing in relief, before opening again in anger. "Where the hell have you been? You got off work at five. We've been calling your cell phone all night."
Sam remembered her cell phone, switched off and sitting in the outside pocket of her messenger bag, which was currently located in Carmen's bedroom. Whoops.
"Did it ever occur to you to call?" Mike reprimanded, looking really tired. "A simple phone call is all we ask."
Sam saw Brooke come out of the kitchen now, looking a bit guilty. She did this. She woke them up, Sam realized, feeling betrayed. She shot Brooke a death glare, and shook her head in disbelief. Priceless. Well, time for some damage control.
"Mom, Mike, I'm really sorry. I was out with Carmen and some people from work and we just lost track of time. I left my cell phone at Carmen's by mistake. I swear, I'll never not call again. I'm so sorry that you were woken up by this. It won't happen again, I promise." There. That ought to cover it.
"You bet your ass, you're sorry," her mother was still livid. "You're grounded, Sam. Your life is work and home. That's it."
"What?" Sam screeched. "You're grounding me? But I'm leaving for school in, like, a few weeks, Mom!"
"Well, we have to get our last licks in while we still can, Sam," Jane said sarcastically. "I'm going to bed." Jane stalked upstairs to her bedroom, Mike not far behind."
"Sam," Brooke began.
"Save it, Brooke," Sam said wearily. "Whatever you hoped to accomplish by this, it worked. I'm so utterly miserable I could cry. Is that what you wanted?"
"No! God!" Brooke was visibly upset. "I really was worried, Sam! I hadn't seen you since that day in the car so I waited up tonight to make sure I got the chance to talk to you, and when it got so late, I panicked. I'm sorry!"
Sam barely heard Brooke's lame excuse. She could try to find all the substitutes she wanted, she realized, it didn't change the fact that none of them would be Brooke. She felt a bleakness enter her heart. It hurt so much that the object of her love didn't love her back. She looked despairingly at Brooke and wondered why, with all the people in the world, it had to be her. And now it looked as if even their tenuous friendship was crumbling before her eyes. "I'm having flashbacks to sophomore year, Brooke. I thought we had become better friends than that," Sam laughed mirthlessly. "I guess I thought wrong."
Sam was done listening. Whatever Brooke was saying, and she was definitely saying something, Sam was beyond hearing it. She trudged up the stairs like a battle-weary general, and closed her bedroom door, vaguely aware that Brooke had stopped talking.
Sam entered the kitchen around noon the next day and saw her mother reading the paper, dark circles noticeable under her eyes. I did that, Sam thought, guiltily. She hoped Jane wasn't still as pissed as she was last night. She had rarely given her mother cause to be that angry, well, okay, maybe a few times. Sam sat down at the table, waiting to be acknowledged, but her mom only flicked her eyes up at her, and then back down to the Arts & Leisure section.
"Mom, can we talk about this, please?"
"I don't know what there is to say, Sam. You acted like an immature brat, and now you're being punished like one. You won't weasel your way out of being grounded." Jane still didn't look up from the paper.
"I don't care about being grounded. I'm just really sorry." Sam needed to do something to alleviate the desolate ache within her. The melancholy she was feeling over Brooke was reaching its cold tentacles over everything else in her life, and she was desperately in need of a little human kindness. Was it too much to ask for it from her mother, she thought, despondently. She waited for her mother to say something. "You know, this would be a little easier if you could bear to look at me," Sam's breathing hitched as she fought a sob rising in her chest; she was suddenly on the verge of tears.
Jane heard the change in her daughter's voice and looked up, immediately alarmed. She quickly put the paper aside. "What's wrong, honey? You can't be this upset about breaking curfew."
Finally hearing concern in her mother's voice was enough to open the floodgates in Sam's bruised heart. She hung her head and started to cry. Her mother was around the table and sitting next to her in a moment, and pulled her distressed daughter into her arms.
Sam couldn't speak. All of the confusion, pain, and heartbreak she had been feeling since the day she graduated had finally caught up with her, and she was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotion. Sam clung to her mother as if she was all that was keeping her tethered to the earth.
Her mother rocked and soothed her, exhorting her to let it all out. It was many minutes before Sam was becalmed.
When Sam had collected herself somewhat, her mother noted with understatement, "This is not about your curfew."
"No," Sam laughed a little as she reached behind her to the counter for a box of Kleenex.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Jane tried to catch Sam's lowered gaze.
"I do," Sam admitted, "but it's hard." She had to say something, she was obviously at her emotional breaking point. It could only help. Sam sat and tried to come up with an eloquent way of breaking the news.
"It's okay, Sam," her mother said, "You can tell me anything. You know that."
Sam remained lost in thought for longer than Jane's nerves could stand.
"Sam, you're beginning to worry me," she said.
"It's not anything bad, Mom," Sam reassured, "despite the fact that I nearly washed us both away in a flood of tears." Then she amended her last statement. "At least, I don't think it's anything bad, I can't speak for you." She raised her head and looked her mother in the eye.
"I've been having a rough time lately, Mom," she began to explain. "I found something out about myself earlier this summer, and it's taken a while for me to get used to the idea." Sam paused. "I'm gay, Mom."
Her mother opened her mouth, but nothing came out, so Sam continued.
"I know, I know. I've had boyfriends, I don't play sports, I don't mind wearing a dress, but trust me, it's true. I'm actually pretty pleased about it. Like I said, it took a while for me to wrap my head around it, but now that I have, I'm amazed I hadn't seen it in myself earlier. It feels better, more natural, to me. Things suddenly make a whole lot more sense." Sam sat silently for a moment, then concluded, "This is who I am."
"Well, it's certainly better than your having murdered someone, or being pregnant," Jane was struggling with the news, but was calm. "Which were some of the things that were running through my head."
"Now, why would you equate being gay with murder?" Sam chastised gently, trying to put it in perspective for her mother.
"I'm not, Sam, I'm not," her mother assured her. "It's just that in those fraught moments before you said it, I was thinking the worst, and this is so far from the top of the list in terms of bad things and I just blurted that out. I'm sorry, please don't think that I think that," Jane stopped, and laughed shortly. "Did that make any sense?"
"Well, I understood it," Sam said, smiling with relief.
"Was there anything that precipitated this change?" her mother asked wonderingly.
"Yes," Sam replied simply, "I kissed a girl."
"Oh. Are you," Jane was hesitant, "dating her?"
"No," Sam sighed, her expression turning somber, "she's not interested. That's pretty much the reason for my recent diluvial incident."
"I'm sorry, honey," and Jane was truly sorry that her daughter was unhappy. "I don't know how she could she turn down a prize like you, but then I'm biased." When Jane got up this morning, the last thing she thought she would be doing today was comforting her daughter on the loss of a female crush. This is one of those moments, she realized, that define parenting. She paused, and mother and daughter looked at each other in silence. "Sam, I love you. I love you now, and I'll love you always, even when I'm angry and upset, like last night. Just know that I support you and love you, no matter who you decide you want to love, okay?" She opened her arms and Sam went into them gladly. They shared the moment, both relieved for different reasons. Then Jane added, "But you're still grounded."
They both laughed, Sam was nearly giddy with relief, but her mother's laughter was tinged with sadness. She would be strong in the face of this news for Sam's sake, and wouldn't start thinking about the implications this would have on her daughter's life just yet, she thought.
"You know, I was secretly hoping you would do something naughty and I would have to ground you, just to have you around before you leave me forever," Jane confessed.
"So now the truth comes out," Sam said, grinning, but also feeling bad that she had never considered how her mother must have felt about their impending separation.
"I've missed you so much this summer," Jane admitted, "it was like you were already gone."
"Well now you're stuck with me," Sam said, groaning, "And I only have my own gross stupidity to blame." The world had seemed as black as coal last night, but now things didn't seem so bad. She thought that today had the potential to be a good day. Then Sam thought of something that gave her pause.
Jane looked at her. There was a look of apprehension in Sam's eyes.
"Do you think Dad would have been okay with me being gay?"
"Sam, your father loved you more than he loved himself, and wherever he is, I'm sure he still does. There is no way that something like this would ever stop him from loving you. Don't ever worry about that." Jane hastened to reassure Sam.
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. She was happy, she realized, happier than she'd been in a while. Having finally let go of this secret had done wonders for her spirits. She gave her mother one last quick hug before saying, "I have to get ready for work, I'm filling in for somebody tonight."
Her mother looked over at her schedule on the refrigerator. "On your day off?"
"Yeah, no rest for the wickedly intelligent," she snarked, realizing she had called herself both stupid and intelligent in the last thirty seconds. Then she thought of something else. "Mom, I don't care if you tell Mike about me, but could you not say anything to Brooke? I should tell her myself."
"Of course, Sam."
"Thanks, Mom, for everything." Sam said, before leaving the room and turning her mind to the conversation she knew she had to have with Brooke, a tough conversation to which she was not looking forward.
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