Post Road Magazine #15

Writing Him Off

by Mike Scalise

Here’s how Ethan Thomas and Sam Rutherford’s friendship began to end:1 It was late, maybe just after midnight. Ethan walked out of his bathroom in his pajamas after brushing his teeth, and the first thing he saw was Sam, standing with his back to him at the kitchen sink. Sam is small. Almost thirty, he stands, at most, five two and looks somehow unripe, with the soft features of a teenager: fair complexion, thick frame, and a large face, like Robin Williams might have looked in his high school yearbook. At that moment he stood just feet from Ethan, leaning over his kitchen counter, scrubbing out a thick glass mug over a sink full of dirty dishes, silverware, pots, and pans.

As Sam turned to see Ethan, he quickly rinsed out the glass and placed it on the counter next to him. Ethan reached to grab it and fill it with water before heading off to join his fiancée, Juliet, in their bed down the hall, where she’d already been sleeping for the last hour. But before he was able to put the mug in his hand, Sam stopped him and said:

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Why not?” asked Ethan.

“I just—I wouldn’t do that.”

“Why?” asked Ethan again. “What do you mean, ‘I wouldn’t do that’?”

“Well, you were in the bathroom,” said Sam, “and I really had to go, so I pissed in that glass and dumped it in the sink.”

Sam had been in New York City about a month, where he’d moved “to start over” after spending the better part of the last decade overseas, teaching conversational English to European businesspeople in various cities across what was once the Eastern bloc. After staying his first three weeks with my wife and me in our tiny apartment in Brooklyn, he’d been here with Ethan in his Lower East Side one-bedroom for five days. He’d already found an evening job in Herald Square, teaching English to day workers, but had made zero attempts to find a place of his own, something Ethan says began to “get under Juliet’s skin.” So that night they’d talked about looking for apartments over a “Wednesday-night beer,” and the next thing Ethan knew: “I wouldn’t do that,” and so on.

Pushing thirty himself, Ethan is the closest thing to a beatnik-era bohemian I’ve ever known. He’s a documentary film editor and jazz enthusiast with a cultivated pot habit that seems more essential than annoying. But he makes it all sound very earnest and beguiling, even when he refers to people as “cats,” as in “I’m gonna go smoke a square with this cat right here” or “This cat just pissed in my sink.”

But as I imagine is the case with many bohemians, Ethan is not good at conflict. He’s terrible at it, and he circumvents it whenever he can. I once crossed Eighth Avenue with him one night on the way back from a movie, and he tripped and fell ass-first onto the hood of a jet black, mid-nineties Camaro as it idled at the red light. When the driver got out of the car, clearly angry and screaming and pointing his finger at Ethan’s chest, Ethan simply apologized and offered to let the driver punch him in the face to make amends. He hit Ethan across the side of his jaw with a cautious swing, perhaps thinking there might be a hidden camera or film crew somewhere. Ethan just took it, stumbled back a bit, then said calmly, “We cool?” The guy said, “I guess,” then just got back into his car.

And that was it.

But this situation here, with a houseguest who’d once been his best friend in high school, urinating in a sink full of his dishes, caused an interesting ripple in his philosophy: it seemed to be the complete inverse of the Camaro incident, with the punch in the face coming first, and unasked for.

“I was just brushing my teeth and washing my face,” Ethan says now. “That doesn’t take me very long. Maybe five minutes or so. That apartment was really small. It wasn’t like he couldn’t knock on the door.” Ethan couldn’t help but consider the permanence of the whole operation. He knew the stain it left would far outlast the act itself: “So there’s piss on my glass, on my forks, on my plates, in my bowls,” he says. “I know you can wash them, but there’s still piss on your plates, you know?”

He thought of scenarios. Ethan would have to clean everything he and Juliet and anyone else would have to eat with, drink with, cook with, or put food on (because of course he’d have to clean it all himself, if only to be sure that everything returned to sanitary). Then there was the scenario that illustrated what he thought every guest knew was the most appropriate way to go to the bathroom in a house where your host is currently using it. You (a) knock on the door, (b) say, “Hey, can I get in there a minute?” and (c) use the toilet. But Sam chose to use Ethan’s favorite mug and a sink full of dishes, and the whole situation confounded and frustrated Ethan in ways he couldn’t easily explain. So he just stared blankly at Sam, then at the root-beer mug on the counter between them, then at the rest of the dishes in his sink (which were now all untouchable at best), then back to a friend who he’d known all of his adult life, and all he could think to say to him was:

“Not. Cool. At. All.”

Sam Rutherford moved to New York City at a time when I really began to like the idea of eliminating people from my life. Streamlining. I was on the far side of twenty-six, and many of my longest and dearest friendships seemed to have outlived their usefulness. We’d scattered ourselves across the country; I moved from Pittsburgh to New York, but others wound up in Las Vegas, Denver, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Portland, or Honolulu, each presumably to do what our late teens and early twenties had prepared us to: find jobs and wives. So I spent each summer flying to these places to attend my friends’ weddings, where I’d wear poorly tailored tuxes and give toasts and drunken hugs to people I’d once shared everything with, but now only talked to every so often. And even then the conversations were strained, melancholy, and for both parties somewhat exhausting. So after years of keeping my friendships on life support with information-purging phone calls and “update” e-mails, I began to appreciate the idea that my friends’ weddings were, on some level, send-off or retirement ceremonies for the fine work our friendships had done to get us to this point. Amicable ways to end relationships that no longer had any real relevance as we moved on to condos and kids and whatever came after.

So right when I felt I had a handle on whom to weed out and whom to keep, Sam Rutherford resurfaced; someone I thought had been removed from the equation long ago. I lived down the street from Sam until I was thirteen, in a small, middle-income, suburban neighborhood in a town just outside of Pittsburgh. He was a few years older than me and was a commanding, dynamic, but also very caustic presence throughout my preteen years. Our neighborhood was full of kids my age, and Sam, despite his small stature even then, was the alpha of them all. I was frail, unathletic, and timid, with an imagination that made me strange, but he was bold, witty, manic, afraid of no one, and had a temper that on more than one occasion got him into vicious fistfights with anyone he disagreed with (all of which he won, hands down).

But he took to me, and as I inched toward adolescence, he acted as my window into what I could expect. He told me how to dress, how to talk to girls, what movies to watch (Woody Allen), what books to read (Kurt Vonnegut), and how to be bold, witty, and manic. But he also ridiculed me—often loudly, in front of people—if I said something he thought was silly, or if my breath was bad, or if there was a booger in my nose. Yet I always sought his advice, opinions, and approval. Any time I did something he didn’t like, or infringed upon him in some way, he’d turn to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and say, “Whenever you do anything, I want you to think: ‘How does this affect Sam Rutherford?’”

It was a childhood friendship version of Stockholm syndrome, and I only started to realize it when my family and I moved to another neighborhood in the same town, and I became an adolescent myself, which was when my relationship with Sam Rutherford went on indefinite hiatus. I spoke to him very little in the years after I moved, and even then only in superficial ways, like: “How are you/your mom/dad/brother/sister/dog?” By adulthood, when I moved to New York City and he went to eastern Europe, we existed as acquaintances at best. Streamlined by default.

Ethan picked up with Sam where I left off, in high school. By then Sam had transformed into an aspiring writer and poet, which drew Ethan—then widely known in my high school as a talented musician—to him in some right-brained, misanthropic alliance: “We would drive around, and he would read me some poems, or we’d talk a lot. He was all sensitive, and I thought that was cool,” Ethan says now. “I chalked it up to ‘This cat is an artist’ and the whole tortured-soul thing. I kinda dug that about him.” And even though Sam still maintained his more manic traits, and was given to occasional outbursts of raw, unpredictable, and troubling energy, Ethan says he and his friends “seemed to like that about him in a way,” because on the plus side of it he “was funny and fun to hang out with, so [they] kind of overlooked some of the little things, because back then they were just little things.” The two kept close throughout college and after with e-mails and phone calls. As Sam went on to eastern Europe to teach English and Ethan moved to New York City to work in film, their friendship remained intact.

Ethan and I, though we knew of each other in high school, started our friendship only after we discovered that we both lived in New York, in what I might be best defined as a gravitation of origins. It was very common in the city for Columbia or Yale or Princeton grads to seek one another out and cluster, but our history was rooted in suburban Pittsburgh, in a town where the escape rate was very low, so we found each other and clung together for support and reassurance, much like I imagine expats do in other countries. But since we’d only known each other as people we passed in the hallway between classes years before, we rekindled nothing. Everything was new and interesting—the city, our jobs, and the fact that, as I’ve often heard Ethan say, in New York “you can order anything to be delivered to you. You want pot? Right to your door. Lobster? Here’s the number.” Yet because of our overlapping pasts, we shared enough familiarities to create a tighter bond than I had with most of my other adult friends, who now seemed to me increasingly distant, conditional, and estranged enough to streamline.

Sam was one of those familiarities, and when he announced to Ethan over e-mail that he was moving to the city, in some ways I actually looked forward to his addition to our social circle. I figured that some time abroad had done him good, maybe widened his perspective and smoothed his edges. It was also a good way for me to reintroduce myself to him as an adult, and vice versa. So I offered him a spot in my Brooklyn apartment for the first three weeks of his stay. It was essentially an act of hospitality and optimism, rooted in the hope that he’d somehow embraced his more dynamic habits and outgrown his more garish ones, but shortly after he moved in, my wife, Loren, and I discovered that the opposite had happened.

Sam slept shirtless on our couch. That was Loren’s least favorite thing. For each of the first few nights she’d take a fresh set of sheets out of the footlocker by our bed and place them on the coffee table in front of our couch before Sam came home from teaching his night classes, and each morning when she woke up, he’d be on his back in only boxers, his loose white flesh pouring off to his sides, the sheets still folded where she’d left them. I was troubled by the more subtle quirks and ticks that I hadn’t picked up on years earlier, like his poorly timed hack of a laugh, which shot out at the strangest moments, like when Loren or I mentioned that we liked certain songs, or that we were hungry. And how he couldn’t sit still. When he sat on our couch, he’d shake his legs, or continually cross his arms one over the other while he talked or listened. It seemed like he couldn’t find a way to make himself fit. When he said things, they weren’t bold or witty, but rather timid and nervous, with a twinge of caution, like he was guessing at test questions.

There was a very underscored sadness to it all that I didn’t expect. The nugget of him that was once so commanding when we were young had been overthrown by a host of heartbreaking neuroses, and where he once drew attention to himself because of his outspokenness and confidence, now it was because it seemed like, at any moment, he’d completely unravel.

I found it very difficult to confront him about the things that bothered me most. For instance: one night I took him to a bar on my block for a few beers, maybe to loosen him up, let him get comfortable. But when I brought up what was, to me, pretty standard conversational fodder for people our age (career plans, marriage, kids, etc.), his childlike face lost all its expression, then he quietly let loose a stream of tears, and I spent the rest of the night in the middle of a bar in downtown Brooklyn consoling him for reasons he wouldn’t or couldn’t explain. Then the next night I introduced him to some of my co-workers—editors and writers from the publishing house where I worked, because Sam was thinking of “making the jump over”—and he immediately launched into a series of stories from my very early youth, like how when I was five, I went everywhere (even the grocery store) dressed in Superman Underoos and a cape that my mother had made me; or how Ben Burkholder beat me up after a kickball game when I was seven, and I sat in my front yard and wailed and shook my fist and swore that I’d “get revenge.” It was an odd intersection that neither of us navigated very well: I couldn’t handle my past, but he couldn’t handle the present. Like Ethan, I also avoid conflict, so I let those kinds of things happen and said nothing, because we both knew that just the night before I’d seen Sam silently weep over a pitcher of Sierra Nevada.

Our policy for the remainder of his stay in our tiny, eight-hundred-square-foot Brooklyn apartment became “Wait it out.” His clothes on the floor, half-washed dishes stacked back in our cupboards, his constantly losing our spare keys and locking himself out, his almost contagious spells of aggravated, nervous silence—we had no desire to see what was on the other side, so we said nothing, and when his three weeks were up, and it came time for him to move in with Ethan, we paid his cab fare to the Lower East Side. Once that cab turned the corner to head across the Brooklyn Bridge, Loren called Ethan and Juliet to tell them to put sheets on the couch.

It soon became clear, though, that Sam was actually on his best behavior for us; that he’d spent his time in our apartment as well-packaged as possible. Because when he moved in with Ethan, he apparently unpacked himself more openly, to the point where on the fifth night he stayed there, after a Wednesday-night beer that must have almost made his bladder burst, he figured that while Ethan, his best friend from high school, brushed his teeth, rather than take steps (a) and (b) of the best-case scenario—knock on the door and say “Hey, can I get in there a minute?”—he’d just discreetly urinate in the sink. Yes: this was the best idea. But since the countertop was a few inches taller than he could muster, even on his tiptoes, leaning over, he’d just use the mug that Ethan had been drinking from. Then he’d clean it out immediately and put it right back where it was, and no one would ever know. But then Ethan came out of the bathroom and wanted some water, and everything all of a sudden became “Not. Cool. At. All.”

“What?” asked Sam. “What’s the big deal?”

Ethan then pressed Sam about why he thought that was even close to the appropriate thing to do, why that was even an option, and Sam, defensive, said back, “You’re overreacting. I don’t see what the big deal is. We do that in Europe all the time.”

“It didn’t even dawn on him that it wasn’t cool,” says Ethan now. “Like: ‘Oh, you guys don’t piss in the sink?’” Sam’s logic ripped open a jarring disconnect between the two, and Ethan had immediate, dueling takes on what had caused it: perhaps there was some cross-continental lack of etiquette he was unaware of, that maybe in eastern Europe people really did urinate in sinks full of dishes. Or perhaps Sam was right, that Ethan actually was overreacting, that it was no “big deal.” The best option to repair it as quickly as possible, Ethan thought, was to adopt the same policy Loren and I had: say nothing to him about it, at least not more than he already had.

“You know if you hurt his feelings, you’re really going to hurt his feelings, so you walk on eggshells a little bit, even when he pisses in your sink, because he sort of doesn’t know any better,” says Ethan. “But even if he did know better, you worry about the consequences of getting mad at him, and you kind of weigh that against how mad you actually are, and you decide that it might not be worth it. So I decided I was just going to let it go at that,” Ethan says. “Let him know that was uncool, then go to bed.”

But Juliet, who was then engaged to marry Ethan, has zero aversion to conflict. She actually embraces the concept quite readily. So the next day, when Ethan called her from work, swollen with guilt and frustration, and told her everything, she, as Ethan puts it, “got as far as ‘pissed in the sink’ and lost her goddamned mind.” She left work immediately and moved all of Sam’s things into the hallway outside of the apartment. Juliet—who had not known Sam for more than a decade and had no allegiance to him at all—then demanded that Sam never enter her home again, so Ethan called him and gave him the address of a youth hostel on the Upper East Side, where he stayed that night. A few days later Sam found an open spot in a two-bedroom share in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn, just a few subway stops away from where I lived, and moved in there.

I began to hear about the sink incident shortly after Juliet kicked Sam out, when Ethan sent me an instant message. It appeared on my computer screen at work and said: “Guess what our houseguest did last night?”

I decided at that moment that I’d never speak another word to Sam again. I told anyone who’d listen that he was a “toxic personality” who “had no respect for people,” and how disgusted I’d been with his behavior. All of which was true, but that was only part of the reason.

When I knew Sam, I was five, six, seven, all the way up to thirteen, in the age bracket where the most you amount to are failed sketches of your adult self. Early drafts that you’d rather not show anyone. There’s a reason why our preteen years are our lives’ biggest producers of repression—this is where we screw everything up and do everything wrong because we have no idea how to be correct people yet. Childhood is sometimes described as fun, but it’s also full of monumental humiliation, massive heartbreak, landmark mistakes, and cringing embarrassment, such as Superman Underoos and saying you’ll “get revenge,” and by the time someone gets to twenty-six, he’s earned the right to shove all that aside, put it in perspective, and finally begin to enjoy himself.

Sam Rutherford was, very vocally, a human database of my early embarrassments, which meant that I was maintaining a relationship with someone who was hardwired to remind me of a time when I could be nothing but a failure. I wanted to move forward. I’d just begun my life with my wife—a beautiful woman who thought that I was the greatest guy in the world, and was brave enough to get dressed up and make a public record of it—and I couldn’t keep someone around who was an insistent reminder of a time when I was the exact opposite.

Which is how many relationships from our childhoods—whether they’re caustic or precious or driven by a pre-adolescent offshoot of Stockholm syndrome—often seem to die. Somewhere along the line at least one party realizes that he shouldn’t be held hostage by the ghosts of his early sketches; that the adult he’s become can’t make room for the child that he was; that the two can’t reconcile. And often what’s left behind in the wake of that realization is the tired skeleton of a worn-out bond. In those first few weeks in our apartment it wasn’t Sam’s nervous shifts or his hack laugh or his silent weeping or his sleeping without sheets that caused me to streamline him. I just couldn’t make room for him anymore, at least not the kind of room he wanted, and I hoped for an opportunity to leave him behind with everything else he represented. So when that opportunity presented itself with the sink and the dishes, I wasted no time saying good-bye, Sam Rutherford. Good-bye.

To his credit, Ethan found much more patience and willingness to extend toward Sam than I did, but the results of that willingness—both what happened and what didn’t happen in the months after the sink incident—eventually proved to be too much for the friendship. Ethan figured that no matter how ill conceived, one random, inappropriate urination alone wasn’t enough to cut off contact altogether. They could make it work. It was a relatively fixable situation, he felt, if Sam was willing to take the necessary steps to fix it, which mostly meant apologizing to Juliet. But despite Ethan’s insistence, Sam seemed too embarrassed or unwilling to take those steps, and Ethan didn’t know where to go from there. So he continued their friendship in the periphery of his fiancée—lunch meetings here and there, e-mail, text messaging—it was all very affairlike. They’d reached a point where a few weeks after the sink incident, with Juliet out of town on business, Ethan, in sly defiance, invited Sam over to watch a movie and have a few beers.

Sam arrived that night to Ethan’s apartment with a date: a young Asian nanny who spoke very little English. She was a student, Sam said, and they’d been seeing each other. Kind of, sort of. And yes, it was less than ethical, and there was a palpable awkwardness to the arrangement early on, but Ethan adjusted to the situation and eventually considered the night to be a minor success, at least for him and Sam. They talked, laughed, joked, drank. Sam seemed to be adjusting to life in the city, which was everything that Ethan had originally hoped for from the moment Sam first announced he was moving to New York. With a few minor adjustments, he thought, this could work.

At the end of the night, hoping to quit while he was ahead, Ethan informed both Sam and his date the he was going to take his dog, Biggie—the Boston terrier that he and Juliet had picked up from a breeder upstate a few years back—for a quick walk outside to do his business, after which everyone would, as Ethan told them, “wrap this thing up.”

But this was where the night—and the friendship—became irreversibly problematic.

“He took [my stepping out] as the okay from me that he and his student could—you know—do it,” Ethan says. So when he came back in from outside less than ten minutes later, here’s what he saw: Sam’s student half naked on his couch, and Sam, disheveled and untucked, rushing toward him, arms forward, begging him to “give them a few minutes.” The student quickly grabbed her clothes from the floor and scuttled past Ethan, out into the hallway, and Sam—in the move that surprised Ethan most—became livid. He screamed at Ethan, condemned his lack of courtesy, blamed him for endangering his job at the night school, and stormed out after his student, cursing Ethan’s lack of regard for the situation at hand and his inability to consider the one question that Sam had often asked of me when we were growing up: “Whenever you do anything, I want you to think . . .”

Once again Sam had defied every decent scenario Ethan could think of, and finally he had had enough. Deeply confused, he shot off an e-mail to Sam (subject line: “To Selfish”) that attacked critical hiccups in Sam’s logic, asking, “Do you do these things just so you can think the next day, ‘Wow, I really made him look like an asshole this time’?” and finally built to a point where he told him that although they could still “hang out at bars,” ultimately he didn’t think he was “going to be able to let [him] into [his] apartment again.”

Days later, suffering from postconflict hangover, he contacted old friends to “have a Sam Rutherford bitch session.” These were people who had, like Ethan, “overlooked some of the little things” earlier on in their friendships with Sam but found that over the last few years, after taking him in for brief stays while he was in between teaching jobs in Europe, they’d had to streamline him for strange reasons that they’d never mentioned specifically to Ethan. So when he told them about the whole exquisite New York mess—the sink, the pee, the student, the couch, the attitude—they told him, in one way or another, “That’s nothing.” One friend told Ethan how Sam had become a trivial thief while staying with him, routinely stealing neighborhood bikes on his way back home from late-night trips to the local bar, and how his wife had found them hidden in a pile behind the shed in his backyard, yet still said nothing for fear of how Sam would react. Another friend told him about how Sam had brought home women at all hours of the night, and how those episodes were so calamitous and awful sounding that they had often driven him and his wife sleepless with worry. And another told Ethan about the time he went to look for something in the guest room where Sam had been staying, only to find next to his bed a number of gallon milk jugs and two-liter soda bottles full, to various extents, with urine.

Now, I feel the need to clarify the mission here. This is not, in any way, an attempt to persecute Sam Rutherford for his behavior, or to make light of how scatological it is, or to exploit it at all. Rather, this is a mission of understanding. Because what had now transformed into the Sam Rutherford Situation became for Ethan not a question of if he should end his friendship with Sam, but how.

Once his past behavior was out in the open, both Ethan’s old friends and I became the champions of armchair psychology. They all had their own theories, but my favorite thing to say, when asked, was that Sam “hated himself so much that he took it out on the people who liked him.” The words “anal expulsive” were used an awful lot. Though it’s true one of us may have accidentally diagnosed Sam correctly, in retrospect it probably would have been more useful if we’d bastardized mathematics instead. Because what Ethan discovered was that even though both he and his other friends were able to adapt and apply themselves to the demands of their age, Sam remained a constant. He seemed to be bouncing around the globe in an extended postgraduate stasis: the same attitude he’d had when he left, the same behavior, the same job, etc. But he also had many of the same problems, now magnified, which, for Ethan, made ending the friendship with him a much more complicated prospect.

In high school and college we form very visceral connections with our friends and pair the raw, unsoldered ends of our personalities together in a jumble of hope, doubt, unmatched support, and loyalty. Although Sam had found a way to alienate nearly everyone from that time who’d once befriended him, there was a complicity at the core of his and Ethan’s friendship, an understanding. Ethan felt a lingering responsibility to Sam and to the connections they’d formed their friendship around, which acknowledged and accepted Sam for who he was: someone who, on occasion, lashed out strangely and unpredictably. It was in the initial agreement; they shook on it.

So the question became for him, what did time do to his responsibility to Sam? What was the statute of limitations on high-maintenance friendships, when those “little things” that were once so tolerable now seemed to be the very things clogging up the friendship? By the time Sam responded to Ethan’s “To Selfish” e-mail with what appeared to be contrition—reminding Ethan that he had “never been the most stable of human beings,” but that “Oscar Wilde said that a true friend stabs you in the front,” and how he understood that they couldn’t “be friends”—Ethan hadn’t found the easy answers to those questions, and he struggled to find a suitable way to end the thing with dignity.

So he set up a test of their friendship’s complicity: he told Juliet everything. First about what had happened on their couch while she was gone, then about what he’d found out from his friends regarding Sam’s bizarre past behavior. Upon hearing it, she of course “really lost her shit” and demanded that Ethan remove Sam from his (and her) social landscape entirely, all of which played to Ethan’s strengths, giving him the rare opportunity to actually use his conflict aversion skills to resolve the Sam Rutherford Situation, and here’s how: as adults, we expect our friends to fit nicely, like constellations, around the life we’ve settled into, to respect the people we’ve settled in with, and not to fuss or overstep those bounds. So now Sam had to make amends with Juliet, not Ethan; which meant he’d have to recognize the bounds of Ethan’s life and do the one thing he hadn’t figured out a way to do his entire adult life: make himself fit. And in this effort Sam failed terribly, because as Ethan stepped back and let the Situation work itself out over the coming months, it came to the stale end Ethan had almost expected all along.

“He has never made any effort to win Juliet back,” Ethan says about his final decision to streamline Sam. It wasn’t the sink or the couch or the attitude, but his inability to adapt, to adjust to the contours of the life Ethan surrounded himself with that finally evaporated what was once a strong friendship. “He was either waiting for us to break up, or for her just to forget. A woman’s going to forget why she’s mad at you? It doesn’t happen,” says Ethan. “So he’s never going to make that effort. That’s why I’m writing him off, because [he has to realize that] you’ve got to do something about [what you’ve done], or you have to expect the results you get.”

Since this all happened, I’ve moved away from New York, but I keep in touch with Ethan, who’s now well into marriage with Juliet, and condos and kids and whatever. Last I heard, Sam still lives with his roommate in Windsor Terrace and still teaches English to day workers. He e-mails poems to Ethan every so often or calls him to see if he’d like to get a bite to eat, maybe a beer. And he sounds, in each of his voice mails—which Ethan almost never returns—timid and sad, like he’s guessing at test questions. I know because every time I talk to Ethan or visit him in New York, Sam’s name comes up in conversation. One of us always brings him up, and we throw around theories and back each other up on our decisions to divorce ourselves from him. We act astounded at his behavior still, call him a “corrosive spoke in the wheel” of our social circle, recount the stories like legendary moments, and continue to put ourselves above him.

But we can never seem to put the Sam Rutherford Situation to rest. Maybe that’s because in reciting the stories, we transform them into cautionary tales to ourselves. In each of them Sam represents the worst example of what we could have been—if we hadn’t moved in the directions we had, when we had, shed as much of our old selves as we could, and gotten the wives and jobs we felt we were supposed to—that perhaps we’d be in a similar tragic stasis. The tales are little more than smoke screens, though. Misdirections. Because we both also know, but refuse to confront, the uncomfortable idea that while streamlining friends means eliminating the ways in which they impede your carefully constructed adulthood, it also means turning your back on the ways those friends impede their own adulthoods as well.

Ultimately, the gravitational pull of our lives put us at a distance where we couldn’t see Sam the way he wanted us to, and in turn, he couldn’t see us the way we wanted to be seen. We had no other choice but to keep moving toward what we could see. So in an attempt to calculate that distance and feel better about where we stood, we did math and added up the facts: a sink, a beer mug, a bathroom five feet away, a couch, a student, a human database of embarrassing memories, and a failed complicity. Then we looked at the result and decided that even though Sam couldn’t find a way to make himself fit within it, we weren’t willing to make room in our equations for him, either. So we chose to do what everyone else who’d ever befriended Sam his whole life had done, which was to apply theories, methodically factor out the constant, and say good-bye, Sam Rutherford.


1 To protect the privacy of those discussed here, some of the names and details have been changed. But not many.



Mike Scalise is a freelance writer and editor living in Washington, DC. His essays and short stories have appeared in publications such as Inkburns and Two Note Solo. He is currently working towards his Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from George Mason University.


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