The cake was a twelve-inch-high stack of twenty-five edible books by the likes of Austen, Brontë, Dickens, Doyle, and Stevenson; placed in the middle of the lounge behind a confetti glued LED light panel, creating an iridescent backdrop that stole your attention as you entered the door. While entranced by the sight, I thought, “If the pastry were to take human form, it would be Samantha.”
Before that thought had nestled, a vision clothed in celestial colors glided down the crescent-shaped oak and stood in the center of the room, side by side with its likeness. Sam had always been easy on the eyes but tonight she looked a spectacle. I could tell by the sudden uproar that I was not isolated in my assertion. This stirred within me a prideful pleasure, “She is…”, followed instantaneously by a grounded shame, “not…”
I began to feel uneasy; an out-of-place nervousness consumed my frame and so before too many eyes had noticed my state I marooned onto a garden chair behind the house, were the faint light and my dark skin almost rendered me no-existent. A fortnight had passed in dreadful silence; with all my thoughts still lingering around our last conversation, “Why can’t I like you?”, Sam sobbing softly at each syllable, “Why can’t we date?”
I’ve known Sam for a fraction of the years I’ve known the girls only found on screens. She walked into my life at twenty-three; into my mind at twenty-four; and into my heart at twenty-five. With her vivid mind and enchanted speech, she has transformed me into a Prince of the Arabian Nights; a Knight of Camelot; a ghost of A Christmas Carol; the broody master of Thornfield, and a detective on Baker Street. I have lived a hundred lives as thousands of people in a million places all through the span of regular conversations.
“What do you think of eternity?”, asked Sam a while ago as we sat on a park bench to witness the day’s exit. The sky looked otherworldly as a golden twilight welcomed the bashful stars, and underneath such a view, Sam’s question felt so much heavier. “Eternity is …. forever”, I mumbled, feeling nervous from how close she was and anxious from how far apart we were. “Forever sure is a long time Don”, she began, looking keenly at the heavens, “doesn’t that make you think of what’s truly important: I mean if we are here for seventy to eighty years, which is nothing in comparison to forever, shouldn’t this life be spent in preparation for that forever?” Her question, though not the sought that required an answer, stung. Most of her more contemplated observation seemed to sting me in varying degrees, underlining all that I lacked and that which I had surrendered my innocence to. They drew so clear the path of my destruction that I sometimes thought she knew of my failings and inglorious inclinations.
I’ve been a rolling stone since I was thirteen; a mascaraed of goodness yet inwardly descending from the mountain of innocence. For ten years, till twenty-three, I was a deplorable coward in pursuit of sensual pleasure; hiding behind facades of normalcy and pseudo-probity. The ‘screen-girls’ were a loathed-treasure that purchased a twinkling of pleasure for a perennial angst. At the dawning of adolescence my peers had convinced me of the harmless nature of self-satisfaction and how loneliness and desire could be gratified through digital solitude; and so, my unarmored mind fell victim to the rationality of want. In the beginning I only took refuge in this promised joy when the reality of loneliness struck, which was mostly in the company of my friends and their girlfriends. I was never one to look at, especially in my teens, although I do believe that the years have been kinder in that department; and so, insecurity and desire, the bedrock of most wrongdoing, sparked within me the embers of dependence. A dependence on anything that seemed to sooth the sting of reality.
By the time I was twenty I had been a partner to countless girls, my mind rotten with profanity in several languages. I feared closing my eyes because in the dark, images of such indecency that would unnerve the firmest of stoics replayed constantly. I became a moving contradiction, feet towards the church on a Sunday morning and thoughts towards the new release of that Sunday evening. All areas of my life were revolving around and of secondary importance to my selfishness, and the worst and best part was that no one knew.
My sister once opened the door to the sight of my odium; her face turned to a crater of dried lava, an expression of not knowing whom it was she had seen. The shame that consumed me in that moment was unfamiliar, it was as though through her the world had seen who I was behind all my grand words and contrived modesty, I stood naked in front of all those that thought they knew who I was. For some time afterwards I failed to meet Nina’s eyes, still overflowing with shame, she was only a few years older but in her presence I trembled. She was Judge, Jury, and executioner; the only person who knew that I was a fraud. However, shame is still a feeling and as is the nature of its kind it began to fade. The more Nina seemed to forget, the more I returned to the comfort of my digital pleasures.
At twenty-three, three years after being found out, I was still a servant of sensual opium. There were times I fought the urge and seemed successful in taming it, however, it was only an ephemeral victory; I relied strongly on my own will which had failed me for a decade but still seemed to whisper, “this time things will be different”. My life stood stagnant and uninteresting, moving to the tune of a carnal god. It so happened, like a mirage or a dream, sitting on one of those metal benches of bus terminals waiting for the F-14, a man dressed in a coffee-perfumed trench coat sat next to me and began reading what looked like a poem on his tablet. Curiosity got the better of me, “Sir, may I ask what you are reading?” He seemed a bit startled by the strange situation and the even stranger inquisitor, I was about to apologize when he suddenly softened his features and smiled sincerely in my direction. He looked just shy of fifty, with a strong and defined facial structure, big almondy eyes and a single dimpled cheek: he had the sort of face that was made for smiling and would not suite any other state. “Ella Wheeler Wilcox.” He said in a teacher’s excitement, “She was a poet; this is one of her more famous works, ‘The Man Worth While’, would you like to read?”. He placed the tablet into my hands, folded his arms and waited. I read those thirty lines in a confused pace, some lines seemingly the length of a dozen paragraphs and others as short as a period, but none unaffecting; undemanding; uncondemning; and untruthful. Emotion overwhelmed me in a moment and before I could demand composer, drops of tears plunged onto the screen of the stranger’s tablet. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what, I …. I …”, I muttered as I whipped the screen and handed him back his possession; panic, embarrassment and shame overcoming my senses. I had already plotted my escape when he grabbed my shoulder and said, “it’s okay son, it’s okay.” His nutty eyes fixed compassionately on my face seemed to welcome me with the promise of refuge, if only for a while. In that moment, flared by raw emotion, I offloaded my burden into this stranger’s patient ear. I was not fishing for sympathy but desperate for deliverance, hope, purpose, and joy; a joy that could last longer than the locked door, ear-phoned minutes of the night. Mr. Truett, as he had introduced himself, left a while later after I had calmed down; I decided to walk home that day, torn between who I was and who I wanted to be; I marched the streets in deep contemplation, fanning the embers of conviction. “Be a man worthwhile”, wrung Mr. Truett’s parting words.
The days turned into weeks and soon for the first time in a decade I had lived two months without bowing to desire. A new sort of joy grappled me in its warmth, I could smile without thinking I was deceiving the receiver and talk without the restraints of shame; and though these feelings were never a constant, in their visitations I found a confidence I had last felt as a twelve-year-old boy. The present became the battle ground of my past and the future, taking everything I had to conquer the day; to conquer myself. The inclinations called my name in seductive whispers, with a force ten times the one I had been accustomed to and yet I did not falter, “The man worthwhile” was my anthem and I was its soldier.
Amid the uphill, like a falling star burning open the sky, Samantha Truett walked into my life. The Truett’s, John; Nancy and their daughter Samantha moved into Litchfield Lane, two houses apart from ours. Seeing John and knowing of the inescapable regularity of meeting anchored me in a deep anxiety, he was my liberator and yet contrariwise my oppressor. Although I could rest assured of his secrecy and be at times comforted by his support, I felt as though the executioner had replaced my shadow and now followed my every movement in hopes of witnessing my failure. Sam was studying English at a near-by community college while working part-time as a library assistant, it suited her perfectly. I was in my third year of Business School, interning in the management department of ‘Old Lucky’s’, the building Sam’s library was located in. After the awkwardness that always follows introductions subsided, we became fast friends and for two years remained faithfully so, treading gently the hearts slippery slope.
In the two years that followed I relied tremendously on Sam, unknowingly she became the seal of my emancipation and the hope of a brighter future. My feelings for her ambered a gentle warmth and my soul bloomed in her spring-like existence. It was not only in her sunlike dispositions that I was drawn to her, even in times of distress she held her head high and cried while moved forward; it was through her I learnt that vulnerability can sometimes be a great weapon. Sam was a rear breed and loving her became my second nature, although for John’s sake I built barriers to that kind of relationship; it was not till two weeks before her twenty-fifth that she began to attack that barrier.
“Answer me!”, She demanded, not giving way to my silence, “It’s the least you can do”, said Sam softening her voice to the point that it was almost inaudible. It can only be the foolishness of an admirer to believe he has deceived the object of his admiration; Samantha would have never brought it up had she not been sure of my feelings and even more so of her own. We had been sitting by her campus grounds, sheltered by a leaning Sycamore in the cool of a spring day. I threw my back onto the tree and turned to face her, “Sam, I could try to lie and deny my feelings for you, but that would hurt you and refuse you a gratitude I owe to your friendship and companionship.”, I continued “I like you, I really really like you, but I’m a grateful coward you see and I cannot allow myself to be so shameless.” I hoped she would understand the implications of my vagueness and the weight I had carried in utterance of those words, but in a dealing blow she asked annoyedly, “Is it because of my father?” My heart sank deeper than the sycamore’s roots, tangling them with an explosion of emotions I had not felt since Nina discovered my old self. However, this was worse; my eyes would not meet hers and in a moment of delirium I found myself standing up and preparing to escape. The firmness of a gentle hand grabbed me in my upward movement and a voice honeyed with sincerity spoke up from behind, “I’m sorry I know” she began, “the stranger that cried and found strength in a poem. I have seen you in armour every day, in a battle of liberation from yourself. You have gained my respect, earned my admiration and unexpectedly stolen my heart.” As she continued her words seemed to sculp my heart anew, streams of tears flowed down my cheeks in floods shame and hope, shame from the nakedness I felt and hope in how she seemed to clothe me. “You are not undeserving of love Don; I believe you are in need of it.” She took my face in her hands, whipped the tears away and brushed her lips on mine, “Let me in.”