The old woman in the apartment across the hall always called me “Sam,” but Sam wasn’t my name. My name was Joe. But I didn’t correct her. At first it was out of embarrassment, but then I began to see humor in it. Guests would come by and she would call me “Sam” and I would explain the joke and we’d laugh about it.
But then later, after awhile, I began to think that maybe she had it right. Maybe I really was a “Sam.” I thought that maybe I was given the wrong name at birth, that perhaps there had been some kind of crazy, cosmic mix up.
I began to wonder where the name had come from. And if there was somebody else that had my correct name, in which case, his name would be wrong too? Maybe that’s how it worked—every person in the world had a twin with his or her correct name. It seemed the premise of some bad dystopian movie.
Anyway, the old woman went on calling me Sam. And little by little, I began to make up a story for just who this Sam person was. In most ways he was different from me, because what would be the fun if he wasn’t?
I was quiet, so he was outgoing. I was serious, so he was silly. I had bad posture, so he had good. I, as Sam, talked to the woman in the hallway more exuberantly than I ever normally would.
“Hello, darling,” said Sam.
“Oh, hi Sam.”
“I can hardly believe this weather.”
“Yes, there’s been much too much rain,” she said.
“If it keeps going I might buy a canoe.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’ll paddle my way right down Broad Street,” concluded Sam.
Me as me, and not as Sam, wouldn’t have said any of that. I would have blandly said, “How about this rain?” and left it at that.
Afterwards I thought about the interaction.
Perhaps Sam had brightened her day some, I thought.
She seemed a lonely, old lady. And who knew how many more days she had left?
She had white hair and was all but skin and bones, standing stooped over at just under five foot tall. I guessed she would snap in two with a firm hug, yet at the same time, somehow, she seemed indestructible, as if her bones were metal like Wolverine.
I, Joe, and by proxy, Sam, worked as a data entry clerk for a low-end insurance company. I’d been working there ever since graduating from college. It had been meant to be temporary while I looked for something better, but it’d been ten years. It seemed unlikely now that my engineering degree would ever prove useful.
Sometimes at the office I would consciously turn into Sam and I’d be talkative and my coworkers would look at me strangely. Some people were surprised, but it seemed people would smile more when I was Sam. My behavior must’ve been a pleasant change from my normal, dour demeanor.
I had an urge to talk more than I ever did when I was being my normal self. I wanted to tell elaborate stories and ask everyone how their morning was. Normally I’d cringe when people began to tell me about their day, but when I was Sam it was different—I was genuinely interested.
I’d say “Tell me all about it,” or “Do tell,” and I’d smile as if I really cared. And the strangest part was, that I found I really did want to hear what my coworkers had to say. Not only that, but I found that time passed faster and more pleasantly when I was “being” Sam.
“Hello, Sam,” the old woman said on my return from work. She had been peaking out of her cracked door as she sometimes did.
It was nice to be greeted by her. So far she was the only one who called me Sam, but it was beginning to seem my only true name.
“Hello, darling. How was your day?”
“It was mild.”
Sam wasn’t sure exactly what she meant. Joe didn’t care and almost walked right past, but Sam stopped him.
“Is that good?” Sam asked.
“It’s very good,” she said.
“Well then I’m glad.”
Sam put a hand on the old woman’s frail shoulder and imagined he could feel her Adamantium bones jutting out.
“Have a pleasant evening,” smiled Sam.
Joe had always been a homebody and had spent countless hours in his tidy apartment watching television. But that wasn’t enough for Sam. (Or me, or us, or whatever.)
Now I wanted to experiment with the name further. I wanted to go to new places and introduce myself as Sam. It wasn’t enough that only the frail old woman called me Sam. That was just a taste of much larger possibilities. So, quite naturally, I got online and made some arrangements.
My blind date found me at a French restaurant, waiting for her at the table. It seemed a nice place with fancy crystal chandeliers. I wasn’t quite sure who I was or just what I was doing there. I had to keep reminding myself of who I was pretending to be. My name was Sam. I was upbeat and lively.
“Sam?” the petite blonde asked hesitantly.
I almost decided not to go through with it, and to tell her there had been a mistake and that my name was actually Joe.
“That’s right. I’m Sam. You must be Erin,” I said, rising from my chair to shake her hand.
Briefly I wondered if Erin wasn’t really her name, just like how Sam wasn’t really mine. Could be she was carrying out a similar experiment, or else was just wary about meeting guys online.
“I really like your name,” I said.
“In Gaelic it means ‘peace’,” she said.
To me, the inclusion of this little bit of trivia suggested her name likely was Erin. Either that or she had done her homework.
As Sam, I was on my best behavior. I had damn near perfect table manners, frequently patting my lips with the cream-colored cloth napkin.
“Have you been on many blind dates?” Sam asked, sometime after the entrées had arrived.
“I’d say a fair amount,” said Erin, smiling nervously.
Sam smiled back in the hopes he would put her more at ease.
“How much is a fair amount?”
“I think you make it a baker’s dozen.”
This being my first—Joe’s or Sam’s—I felt like an amateur by comparison.
“Well have you ever been on a blind date with someone named Sam before?”
Sam’s conversation skills were a big step up from Joe’s, but that, unfortunately, wasn’t really saying much.
Erin didn’t like Sam all that much, but I was able to disassociate myself from him so that I didn’t take it too personally. It didn’t matter if Sam wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea because, after all, he was only a part of who I was. In a way I was protected. If I showed only part of myself to any one person then I could never be wholly rejected by them. I felt as if I had discovered an escape pod in the back of my mind, and that I could choose to make a quick getaway anytime I chose. Sort of like an ejector seat.
The old woman who had first called me Sam was walking down the hall with a full trash bag when I got back from the date. She asked where I’d been and I told her. I had no reason to lie. She told me she hated blind dates. She had been on only two in her day and they had both been disasters.
“Thank God, never again,” she concluded. I shrugged my shoulders and began to walk away then remembered to turn back into Sam.
“I think I’ll probably keep trying,” said Sam.
“Well, I wish you luck,” she said, slowly shaking her head as if I were a doomed man.
In an effort to expand the Sam experiment, I got a job at a bar downtown, working Friday and Saturday nights, and told everyone there my name was Sam. Sometimes, after a couple hours into the shift, I’d forget my real name and it’d take me a few seconds to recall it. Oftentimes it sounded wrong and I didn’t believe it right away. I’d say it out loud and then I would say Sam and Sam always sounded more correct. Joe was beginning to feel like the name of a forgotten acquaintance.
A waitress at the bar always called me Samuel and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I had clearly introduced myself as Sam and she had taken it upon herself to add to it.
After an annoying episode with the waitress one night, I looked up the name Samuel on my phone and found that it meant, “name of God,” or “God has heard,” in Hebrew. This calmed me down. I still preferred Sam but I decided to let the waitress call me what she liked.
After that, whenever she said it I would briefly feel like a holy man who was to be revered before shaking off the spell.
My next blind date was with a woman name Esther who was four years my senior. She looked a little rough around the edges and wasn’t at all my type. At first I was going to skip over her profile, but then I wondered if Sam’s type was different from mine. I had to reassess.
If I, Joe, liked petite girls, maybe Sam liked more tall, sturdy ones. If I, Joe, liked a thin face, maybe Sam liked one that was more round. And if I, Joe, liked long, blond hair, maybe Sam liked shorter, darker hair.
I felt I was onto something. And Esther was all those things—tall, sturdy, round-faced, with short, dark hair. If she were outspoken and stubborn as well, she would be the exact opposite of every girl I ever wanted to be with. In a word: perfect! That is, as long as Sam’s tastes were indeed the opposite of Joe’s.
Esther said that she was a nanny and I thought she had the right name for it. Her name suited her profession so well it made me wonder what job mine suited. Joe sounded like a mechanic or carpenter, but Sam sounded like it had more potential. I thought a man named Sam belonged on a yacht, steering the boat with a cold drink in one hand and a lively, young wife on board. More and more I was liking, and becoming, Sam.
I felt I was going places. Whereas Joe had been stuck in a rut with an unremarkable future, Sam had endless potential and room for growth. It seemed almost as easy as riding an escalator. All that was needed was for Sam to take the first step and he would be whisked away! Onward and upward! The sky was the limit!
At dinner, Esther, (whose name meant “star” in Persian) talked fondly of little children, about how they were still learning to be who they wanted to be.
“They often falter,” said Esther. “They’ll say something cruel or goofy or somehow out of character, and you will see it on their faces when they realize their mistake. You see them creating themselves in real-time. It’s a marvel!”
“That sounds very rewarding,” said Sam.
I didn’t give kids quite as much credit, but Esther’s optimism was refreshing. After walking her home, I asked Esther if I could see her again and she said she wanted to think about it.
“Call me in a week,” she said.
By the time I got back to my apartment, I had committed her number to memory.
During the week, at the office, when people trying to get my attention called me “Joe” it often took me a while to respond. Sometimes I went so far as to think, ‘There’s no one here by that name,’ and almost said so out loud.
At other times it was annoying because I couldn’t understand how it kept happening. People probably thought I was acting strangely, but no one said so. They didn’t realize that I was almost always Sam now and that Sam was much more approachable than Joe had been.
Sam was confident, friendly, and full of energy. Joe couldn’t keep up and was hanging on by a thread. It was much easier for Joe just to let Sam run things. That is to say, more and more, I really was Sam. I wasn’t just pretending anymore.
I always thought Bill was an unfortunate name. And possibly the most unfortunate incarnation was the Bill that I shared my office with. He reminded me of a tired, sadder, unfunny, real-life version of Homer Simpson, and he never had anything interesting to say.
“Hey Bill,” I said. “Have you ever wanted to be somebody else?”
I thought if anyone would want to be somebody else it would be Bill. Bill swiveled his chair around to face me and breathed loudly through his nose.
“Be somebody else?”
“Yeah, you know, change everything about yourself and just start again.”
Bill noisily sucked in a large amount of air.
“Sounds exhausting,” he said.
I don’t know why I even bothered with Bill.
The following week Esther agreed to meet me at the diner by her apartment and I put the same question to her.
“Have you ever wanted to be somebody else, Esther?”
“Oh all the time. Most mornings I wonder what kind of person would best be able to handle my day. Usually I wish I were a pretty model-type, the kind men fawn over.”
“And if you could be that way, would you do it? Would you leave your old self behind?”
“You bet! I’d take a week to think it over, naturally, but I’d definitely do it in the end. I could never pass up the chance to be different.”
“Even if it meant saying goodbye to who you used to be?” I asked.
“Sure, that’d be no great loss. I’m a little bored with who I used to be anyway.”
On the corner of her street Esther and I kissed, but I didn’t take any pleasure in it. I think it was Joe standing up for himself one last time. He was wishing she were the pretty model-type too.
But I knew, deep down, that in my new reality, she was the perfect woman for me.
Pete Able’s stories have appeared in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Blue Lake Review, Spillwords Press, Johnny America, and The Fiction Pool, among others. He also has work forthcoming in Defenestration and Thorn Literary Magazine. He lives in southern New Jersey. You can find links to some of his other stories on his Facebook page.