A lot of people felt really terrible after Sam jumped in front of that train. Peter wished he hadn’t hit him. Simon worried that he had pulled the rug beneath Sam’s feet by helping me. Tyler and James—who both dropped Sam as a manager and came to me—felt responsible for his professional demise. His ex-boyfriend Jeff called me crying multiple times, regretting he had ended things on a sour note, and apologizing to me for the emotional grief it might cause. And then there was me. Sam wished upon me the burden of his death. He knew I would carry the weight of it on my shoulders, probably forever. Sam got the last laugh, really.
As one would expect, things were uncomfortable on the professional front. People started treating Sam like a victim—the same people who ran as far from him as possible when he most needed support. A couple of those individuals had the rashness to assign some blame to me. As if any blame needed to be targeted. As if I had pushed him in front of the train. I called each of my clients, talking with them directly about what had happened, what they were feeling, what I was feeling, making sure they still felt confident working with me. I asked that they communicate any uncertainties or concerns. They were all supportive, especially those who once worked with Sam. They were also each supportive of my taking the next week off, to disappear for a few days. Pilot season was coming up, and I needed to clear my head of all the grief and poisonous thoughts before a couple months of tireless work.
I only told Dad where I was headed, just so one person knew where to imagine me. Everyone guessed I was off to someplace tropical, what with it being the middle of winter and the expanse of a beach so helpful for peace of mind. Instead, I wanted to surround myself with just as many people and relax knowing I could remain completely anonymous, to feel alone and unnoticed the same way I loved to disappear into the crowds of my own city. I wanted a parallel existence, minus any familiarity. So I went to Chicago, where, until college, I had always imagined myself settling down. I rented a studio in Lincoln Park, and not two hours after I landed, a blizzard enveloped the entire city, trapping me indoors with a book and takeout. Dad texted: “I know I’m not supposed to bother you, but I saw there was a blizzard and are you doing fine?” “I’m OK,” I wrote back. “Just upset I didn’t pick Puerto Rico.”
The next day I went to a Bulls game, though I watched the athletic trainers more than I actually watched the game. I had been a big Bulls fan growing up, for no precise reason except that Michael Jordan had converted anyone my age to his temple. I had also wanted to be an athletic trainer for many years, and this was where I imagined myself being one. I had this whole life planned out: travel around with the Bulls, have my lawyer wife—which quickly changed to a lawyer husband—back in the city, close enough to my Kansas home but far enough that it always felt like an occasion to get there. At one moment I looked up, and there I was on the Kiss Cam, plus the woman next to me. Awkwardly, her girlfriend or wife was seated on the other side of her, but out of frame. They both laughed, and she leaned in to smooch me. Then, introductions. They were Reina and Maggie, two teachers from St. Louis. I was George, an athletic trainer from, uh… Milwaukee.
“What’s a cute guy like you doing at a basketball game all alone?” asked Maggie. “Oh, I’m here on business, thought I’d catch a game,” I said. “Always been a fan.” “What’s Milwaukee like? Probably lots of chunky people eating grilled cheese?” I laughed, and nodded, since I really had no idea what the city was like. “Do you have a girlfriend?” Reina prodded. I figured it made no difference to lie entirely, and so I seized the opportunity: “Yeah, a fiancé. Marrying in June. And we’re expecting, due in April. A girl.” It felt kind of thrilling to make all of this up, knowing it mattered for nothing. I loved having the clean slate for a brief moment. “Well shoot, we better celebrate!” Reina said as she summoned the beer guy. “Oh, no thanks,” I told her. “None for me.” “No beer for the man from Milwaukee?” she exclaimed. “No, but thank you.” I would spare the truth on that one; I guess it’s impossible to get a totally clean slate.
At lunch the following day, my waiter Theo got flirtatious since I was sitting alone. He wasn’t my type—a little too clean-cut and all-American—but it seemed harmless to banter with him. I gave him my phone number when he asked for it. I was still pretending to be named George, though now I was an ad director from Manhattan. When he brought back my receipt, he said “You didn’t have to lie about your name, Eric. It’s here on the credit card and receipt.” I blushed, apologized, and said it felt kind of hot to pretend with a stranger that I was somebody else. He came over after his shift, where he became my type (and less of a stranger) for two terrific hours. I mistook Theo for a bottom, so when he positioned himself otherwise, I was surprised and excited to let him take control. Our eyes locked intensely as he laid atop me, and there, with a man who knew only my name, my contentment and trust were anything but pretend.