She sat back in the sun faded and slightly cracked Adirondack chair outside of her almost as sun faded camper from somewhere circa the 1980’s. She couldn’t remember the date exactly, but knew if she dug the title out of the depths of the glove box of her truck she could know what it was for sure. She stretched her cracked light pink painted toes into the mossy overgrowth she had placed the chair over top of and soaked in the cool softness of the early morning before the sun started to beat down again in the little clearing where she had made her home for a new start at the back of the campground a friend of a coworker at the roadside diner she worked at owned.
“Now this can’t be a permanent fix for you Miss…” Jack, the owner, rubbed his stubbled chin trying to remember her last name again when she had first parked herself there.
“Paulson. But honestly, just call me Samantha, or really Sam, Sammie, just not Miss Paulson. I’ve never felt old enough to not be just called by my first name. No need to call me something fancy.”
He shrugged, “Don’t matter much to me, just don’t get too comfortable. Shirley’s a good friend going back quite a ways and well, she said you need a place to go after that old motel shut down. I owe her one for, well I’m not getting into all that. Pay your rent weekly okay? On time. I don’t want no excuses. Keep it tidy. If you got any problems, let me know. Laundry’s up underneath the camp store. Change machine gets jammed sometimes, I got plenty a quarters up in the office if you need ‘em. I’ll get around to fixin’ it one of these days.”
Before she could even say goodbye or ask another question he had turned on his heels and waved her off over his shoulder and headed back towards the front of the grounds on his golf cart.
That had been a year ago. Well, a little over a year now. And Sammie figured she had earned her keep since then. She kept the cobwebs out of the laundry room and had planted some flowers around the front of the office. Jack had initially shrugged it all off, but after a while he gave her more tasks to do around camp and let her plant her own vegetable garden on the backside of her camper, where the sun was the highest during the day and then would occasionally let her skip a week’s rent in return for her “brightening up the place a bit”. The diner was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so she always did extra work around the grounds then. It kept her mind busy and her hands too, and she didn’t really mind it. And she felt like she had really made some improvements and she liked when Old Jack would give his side smile at her endeavors.
But this morning she sat with her mug of hot mint tea in her hands, feeling the moss with her feet, with her eyes closed listening to the birds banter. The hazy look of the lake in the morning made her smile at its simplistic beauty. This had to be what peace was after all the years of not knowing peace was possible.
She had met her husband right after high school. She was 19. He was 34. He had seemed like he had it all. A nice car, a house, a good job with a local law firm. And he doted on her. He would show up at the bar that she worked at with huge bouquets of flowers and jewelry she would never wear. He would come in and sit and chat with her regulars and dazzle everyone, including her with his charm.
The day came when he hired a string quartet and rented out the backroom of the bar himself and proposed to her along with professing his undying love. And she of course said yes, as he scooped her up into his arms and kissed her with all the love he could muster.
Sammie had never felt so loved. She had not grown up with any kind of love that she needed and didn’t understand why this put together man with a 401k and boat would be interested in her, a lowly bartender, trying to make ends meet, living in an apartment with 4 other roommates and trying to decide if she wanted to go to school, but never really nailing down a plan. It didn’t make sense to her, but he would tell her how much he loved her long brown hair and how her deep brown eyes had the most beautiful gold flecks and how he would make sure she had everything she ever wanted.
They eloped the next week. And almost immediately something changed.
She still had her normal Friday night shift at the bar. Henry came in after he finished up at the office for the day and something seemed off. His eyes looked glazed and his tie was disheveled.
“Hey, sweetheart!” her eyes still brightened when she saw him, hopeful that he would smile back at her.
“Whiskey. On the rocks,” he half barked at her.
“Long day?” she cocked her head at him slight as she grabbed a rocks glass from under the bar.
“Yes, Samantha. Of course I had a long day. I don’t just get to just pour drinks and flash my cleavage for some bigger tips from desperate, lonely drunks all day.”
She winced at the sting of his words and was at a loss for words.
“Can you just hurry up and pour please? We need to talk about you and this job anyway. It’s probably inappropriate for you to be doing this now, don’t you think? Time you grew up maybe?”
Sammie still couldn’t gather her words. This Henry felt like a different Henry than she had known. Normal Henry never said these things to her. It felt like he was possessed by someone else. A mean spirited someone else. But maybe he really just had an awful day.
She pushed the glass across the bar to him, still with a quizzical look on her face. Just as one of her regular patrons sidled up to the bar and sat next to Henry.
“Heya Sam. Usual, please. And Mr. Sam,” Frankie tipped his cap at Henry, “Rough day in corporate law?”
“Don’t you know it,” Henry tipped back his glass and cracked it down onto the bar. Sammie was surprised it didn’t actually break, “Listen, forget what I said. Sorry. I’ll see you at home.”
Sammie hesitated, still shocked by his earlier remarks and his slight change in demeanor when Frankie showed up.
“I was going to stop by my apartment on the way back to the condo and get a few more boxes before I came home,” she said it as more of question than a statement.
“We don’t need that crap. We’ll buy new stuff. Just come home after work. Okay?” he grabbed his jacket off the back of his stool, slammed a twenty down on the bar, gave Frankie a pat on the back, and headed out the side door to the parking lot.
“Everyone has bad days,” Frankie shrugged at her. Sammie nodded and carried a full glass rack to the dishwasher. Sure, she thought to herself, everyone does have off days and I’m sure he’ll be fine when I get home.
When she arrived home, the condo was dark. Not even the front porch light was left on for her. Henry’s car was in the garage though so maybe he had just forgotten. She went in the side door and plopped her coat on the bench and hung her keys up on the hook by the door. She slipped off her shoes and wandered in the kitchen to grab some water before heading up to take a shower.
“About time you showed up,” Henry was sitting in the darkness of the living room on the corner of the couch, “What’d you do? Meet Frankie out back in his truck?”
“What? What do you…” her voice trailed off as he rose up off the couch and came towards her in the kitchen.
“What do you think I am, an idiot? I see the way they all look at you. And how do they look at me? Like I’m some schmuck that really thinks this pretty, young bartender is getting all these tips because she’s just nice? Oh I am sure you are so very nice, to lots of people, huh?” he said it in such a mocking and cruel tone as he came closer to her.
Her hair stood up on the back of her neck. As she slowly back up into the counter.
“Henry, I don’t understand. I…” and before she knew it, his hand had grabbed her hair and slammed her face into the refrigerator. The pain sent shockwaves through her face and tears started to pour down her cheeks. She couldn’t even scream.
“This is what I get for saving poor white trash,” he walked away from her and went directly to the bathroom to shower.
Sammie sank into the floor, holding the side of her face, and sobbing into her knees. None of this made sense to her. Who was this person? She thought about leaving but didn’t really have anywhere to go. She could go back to the apartment, but they’d already leased her room to someone else and all her things were in the storage behind the apartment. She really wasn’t close with any of those people anyway. Plus, who would believe her that Mr. Romance himself had just slammed her head into the refrigerator?
She quietly pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and snuggled in to try to sleep, still in her work clothes. She stared at the ceiling, shocked, confused, crying, and most of all, scared, until she was so exhausted that she fell asleep.
The next morning, she woke up to the smell of toast in the toaster and bacon sizzling in the pan, and a bouquet of fresh flowers beside her on the coffee table, with a handwritten note that said ‘I love you Sam’. She pushed herself up to see Henry humming to himself and cooking her breakfast.
“Hey!” Henry said cheerfully and came toward her after buttering a slice of toast, “My sweet Sam, I am so so sorry about last night,” he started crying, “I don’t know what came over me. You’re so beautiful and I don’t deserve a woman like you. I just get so jealous and I love you so much. I really lost it last night, but I swear I will never hurt you again,” he shoved his sobbing face into her lap, “I love you so much. I’m so sorry.”
Sammie patted his head and thought for sure he must be sorry. Maybe the whiskey he drank was on an empty stomach. Maybe this is what people did when they loved deeply.
“Please forgive me Sammie. Please. I’ll do anything. I swear. I promise I won’t hurt you again,” Henry continued to cry.
“Okay,” her voice was shaky but she hugged him back and cried a few tears herself.
But it wasn’t the last time he hurt her. It was only the beginning of many trips to the hospital and talks with social workers insisting everything was fine. And quitting her job and being isolated at home and accused of flirting with everyone from the UPS guy to the grocery store clerk. And everything was always followed with flowers or trips or jewelry or spa days and what felt like a million apologies and promises that dissipated almost as soon as they were uttered.
But there was no going back to normal after Henry had finally beaten her so badly that she couldn't deny he had done it anymore. And since the old owner of the restaurant had heard what happened to one of his most beloved employees and he gave her his old camper and truck and $2000 to start over that the servers had initially pooled from their tips but he gave instead to support their kindness without taking money from their pockets. Frankie had fixed the truck up so that it could get her far enough away, even though Henry was getting locked up for a while. And Shirley, at the new diner that she worked at, was a cousin of Frankie’s, and well, she knew Jack at the campground.
And somehow, she was finding peace in her little corner of the campground with her toes in the moss and her mint tea in hand outside of her tiny camper with the few things in the world that were truly hers. And she was finally beginning to learn to love herself in the ways some of the people that were most important to her, never had.