Sam had stopped looking for her. Or at least he thought he had, had convinced himself he had, in the three years since he last saw her. From what he'd heard, she was in California, thousands of miles away from Washington. It made no sense to be searching the crowd around the reflecting pool for her face.
He didn't have to look outside to see it, anyway. Sam could find it if he closed his eyes and focused: her sunny sweet smile, yellow hair, soft features. He could even hear her voice, the way she said his name. Sam. Softly, the 'a' a little longer than it needed to be, like she was stretching it out. Maybe he'd just wanted it to seem that way.
Sam closed his eyes, listened to the crowd. Someone was singing close by. Meg had wanted to be a singer. The only thing that held her back was her voice. The thought made him smile, listen more closely to the song, which was about peace, love, understanding. The usual stuff, with the sound of someone shouting about pigs in the background. He still believed in it all but something about it was getting old for Sam, feeling tired, used, futile. It had started before King died but got worse after, and by the time the year before was out Sam had stopped going to demonstrations, started doubting the certain good outcome to all their struggles. He'd forgotten, a little bit, what it felt like, what it sounded like, to be in the middle of a crowd like this one.
He opened his eyes to remind himself of what it looked like, and he saw her.
She stood twenty feet away, wearing strange clothes, her hair off her face with a loud scarf, but Sam knew her instantly. He instinctively stepped toward her, forgetting the crowd of people between them, and the person next to him, a stranger with long hair and a tie-dyed shirt, gave him a sharp, curious look. Sam stepped back, considered his options. Used the time to get reacquainted, make sure he wasn't seeing things.
Meg. Her cheeks were pink from exertion, her forehead wrinkled, and she held one fist high while she chanted with the crowd. Her hair had grown past her shoulders, curly and a little wild, but the same color Sam remembered, bright in the dimming sunlight. He watched her yell something with the crowd of people around her, lose her balance a bit and fall into the person beside her. She looked to them with an apologetic smile Sam remembered, one that made him want to step toward her again. She lifted her eyes and saw him.
Her eyes went wide, her mouth closed. Sam felt something turn over inside him in the moment before her hand lifted in a wave and her face melted into a smile.
"Sam," she said, or maybe whispered, or maybe yelled; Sam was too far away and the crowd was too loud for him to hear. But he knew her face well enough to recognize his name.
She hugged him when they finally met each other, in the middle of the loud, restless crowd. He could hear her, then, when she said his name, because she was still holding him tight. She spoke a little too loudly against his ear, but he didn't mind.
"Sam," she said, like he remembered. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too." He could smell her hair, feel the shape of her back under the thin cotton shirt.
She stepped back, still smiling, and stared at him. Sam didn't mind because he stared back. She looked different, thinner but somehow shorter, with longer hair and funny earrings, but she had the same face, same eyes, same smile he remembered.
Someone shoved against him from the side, hard enough to make him look around, remember where they were. He leaned over next to her ear, and said, "Want to -"
He felt her nod before he finished the question. "Let's go," she said, and gave him her hand.
He cleared the way with his free arm and, sometimes, his shoulder. It made him a little nervous, still, to push and shove in a sea of white faces, a feeling that never went away, no matter how many marches and rallies he went to, no matter how much he reminded himself he was among friends. Having Meg on the end of his arm didn't make it easier, but that part he didn't mind. He liked how her hand felt in his, warm and small and strong, and he turned to check on her more often than he probably had to. When he did, sometimes she was looking at him, sometimes she was looking at the crowd, sometimes she was looking off into the distance. It seemed right to Sam; Meg was never any one thing.
They walked until the sounds of the rally were faint, like a radio in the next room. They made awkward conversation the entire way, like they were strangers instead of friends, which maybe they were, after all this time. The nerves that had melted away when she smiled at him across the crowd came rushing back, twisting up Sam's insides. They didn't quite go away the next time Meg smiled at him, when she sat down beside him on a patch of grass she picked out.
Meg squinted into the setting sun to look at him and shook her head. "I can't believe it's really you."
"You're the one who's supposed to be in California," Sam said, the mildest way he could think of to ask all the questions piling up inside.
"Well, you're supposed to be in Philadelphia."
Sam smiled. "Philadelphia's a lot closer to D.C. than California is."
"I left California a few months ago," Meg said, something Sam hadn't expected, and Sam thought: I left. Not we.
What he said was, "Oh."
She looked off to the side, at the rally they'd walked away from, her profile familiar. The tilt of her nose, the set of her chin. She was thinking of something, maybe California, maybe Philadelphia, maybe something else. Sam wanted to know, but he also wanted to keep looking at her, filling in details. Things like the skin around the earring she wore, which was pink, or the subtle, dark smudges under her eye where mascara had run. One of the early speakers at the rally had been a veteran who'd lost two friends and one arm, and Sam could picture Meg listening to his speech; tearing up, wiping it away. She had always cried easily.
He looked down at her hands, folded in her lap; her nails were a light pink, her pants patched, frayed at the hems, and a little too long. Toes peeked out from behind the blue material, small, perfectly formed, a little dirty. Toenails painted pink, like her fingernails. When he looked up again, she was watching him, a funny smile on her face. Why was he looking at her toes? He knew she wanted to ask. He knew he didn't have an answer.
"So, what's California like?" he asked instead, before she could say anything.
"Warm. Sunny almost all the time. I missed the snow. You wouldn't think you would, but you do. It's strange, you know?"
"Yeah," Sam said, even though he'd never seen a winter without snow.
"It's - " Meg cut herself off and struggled in silence for a moment over what to say. Sam wanted to tell her it was all right, that she didn't owe him any explanations. He wanted to tell her that she would be okay. None of those things seemed possible to say and before Sam could realize he'd decided to do it, he had taken Meg's hand in his again, squeezed it. She looked up at him, grateful.
"Are you hungry? I know a place - they have music later, if you want." Sam stopped, reminded himself that leaving California by herself didn't mean Meg was alone now. He didn't particularly like the idea of her being alone anyway, of her traveling down to and around the city by herself, no one holding her hand, walking her to her door. It seemed too lonely for Meg; Meg, who Sam always remembered as being surrounded: by family, friends, dancers on Bandstand, boyfriends. It had always made their time together, just the two of them, special.
And so he adjusted. "Or do you have to meet someone?"
"No," Meg said. "I mean, no, there's no one I have to meet. I'd like to go with you."
"All right." Sam stood up, pulling her with him.
Meg was quiet on the way to the club. Sam used the silence to remember things about the Pryors. Meg had only asked questions about Sam so far, what he was doing, how he was, but Sam wanted to have things to say about her family ready in case she did. He tried to remember everything he could about them, any aside his father had made, the stories Angela told him, the conversations he'd had with Mr. Pryor when he stopped by the store.
Meg had never visited. Sam knew because even if his father might not have mentioned it, Angela would have. Angela worked in the store now after school, older but still so quiet that people forgot she was around, and when they remembered, made assumptions about her silence. That she was timid, shy, weak. Then she would open her mouth and shatter the illusion, the words she used always carefully chosen, spoken in a low, confident, almost-mocking voice. Sam had seen more than one person look twice at her after she finished saying something.
The light was fading, and suddenly he could see the changes in her all at once: the thinness of her face and cautiousness of her expression, framed by earrings and hair he didn't recognize. She looked grown up.
She smiled, and that was still the same. "You're smiling about something."
"Oh," Sam said. "I was thinking about Angela, actually."
Sam wanted to say: You know how it is. She grew up so fast, already thinking about college. But he couldn't, because Meg didn't know, not the way Sam did. Meg remembered her sister the way she'd been three years ago because that was the last time she saw Patty. Sam remembered his sister the way she'd been three years ago because that's how old Angela would always be to Sam: still needing to be protected, young enough to be indulged. But he knew the changes in her, the way sixteen looked on her. Meg had to guess.
Meg was walking with her arms folded, now, her smile twisted into something else. She didn't mention Patty, or Will, or her parents, just looked a sharper kind of sad than the vague kind she'd had around her since she pulled away from Sam in the middle of the rally. He wanted to take the sadness away. Make things better, fix them. He wanted to see her smile again.
He settled for buying her dinner, and then drinks when the folk singer started her set at nine. Meg sipped hers slowly and listened to the music with a quiet face. There were long stretches during which Sam forgot the drink in his hand and the music around him, found himself staring at Meg's profile, the dark shadows of the club making her look mysterious, unfamiliar.
She turned her head, caught him staring. "I'm not going to disappear," she said, color in her cheeks from the heat of the club, her drink, or what she'd just said.
Sam ducked his head. "I know," he said. But he didn't.
Roxanne had been the one to tell him about Meg leaving. He wanted it to be a misunderstanding or an exaggeration or even a lie, but Roxanne looked so sad about it that Sam had started to believe it was true that day. He finished believing it was true the day he received his first letter from Meg, postmarked from Chicago. She wrote to him about the road, what she'd seen, where they were going. She didn't talk a lot about why she left.
I'm sorry, Sam. The last line of the letter before her closing, written in neat script. Your friend, Meg.
He saved the letter and all the ones that came after, put them at the bottom of the box of books he wanted to save from high school and college. Her last later had come from California, over a year ago. She talked about a protest she had gone to, the way the police had responded. She sounded tired and a little sad, worn out about it all. The way Sam was starting to feel.
He wrote something along those lines. I used to really believe it would happen, but I'm not so sure anymore. He told her about other things: Rizzo as mayor, the two kids down the block killed in Vietnam, Nathan almost arrested again for giving attitude to a cop who pulled him over for driving the new car his company's success had just bought him.
His last line before the closing took a long time to write. I miss you, he finally settled on, and wanted to cross it out immediately. He couldn't, because it was true, if incomplete. He added in another sentence: If you ever need anything, let me know. He could have kept writing. He was afraid of what he'd say, so he signed the letter (Your friend, Sam), sealed the envelope and addressed it before he could think better of it.
She never wrote back.
"I'm sorry I stopped writing."
They were outside, now, in the cool night air, lying on the grass next to each other on a blanket Meg had pulled out from her bag, on the outskirts of the group of demonstrators doing the same thing. Meg hadn't gotten a room in the city and Sam had figured he would take the train back home that night, so spending the night outside seemed like the best plan. Spending it together had been an unspoken decision.
"That's okay," Sam said, a little bit late.
"It's not," Meg said, her voice quiet. "There's no good explanation for it. I left California, started heading back east, and I kept meaning to write, to you, to Roxanne, to -"
"To your family?"
Meg didn't say anything for a little bit. "I felt like a failure."
The response was automatic. "You're not a failure, Meg."
Meg made a soft sound, something in between a laugh and a sigh. "I don't know if my father would agree with you. Or Chris. Or anyone, for that matter."
"Maybe you'd be surprised."
"Maybe not." Something in the way she said it let Sam know there was more coming, and so he stayed quiet, looked up at the stars. It was a clear night, the moon half-full.
After a stretch of silence, Meg cleared her throat. "When I left, my father said that I shouldn't come back. That if I walked out the door, it would be for good. For always."
Sam turned his head away from the stars to look at Meg, who was still staring up at the sky. She was crying again, mascara she'd re-applied in the ladies' room of the club running down the side of her face. Sam could see it even in the moonlight. "It's been a long time, Meg. Things change."
"My father doesn't." She reached up to wipe at her eyes and looked at Sam. "You know how he is."
Sam did. "I know that he loves you."
"Sam." Her voice told him she appreciated the sentiment even if she didn't believe it; that even if she did believe it, it wasn't enough.
Sam pushed himself up so that he was on his side, resting on one elbow. "Meg, you know he does. He was really upset when you left. I used to see him in the store, it was like - it was like when J.J. was in Vietnam. You remember that."
"They miss you," Sam said. "Come home with me, tomorrow. I have enough money for another bus ticket, and you can stay in my apartment if you need to, or find Roxanne -"
"Roxanne." Meg sat up, mirrored Sam's posture. She said the name like she'd missed the sound of it.
"I see her sometimes. She seems good."
Sam didn't mention how every time he saw her, she asked about Meg, sounding more desperate and sad and worried each time.
"Do you want to come back?" Sam was pretty sure of the answer, but still a little nervous.
She looked at him, face half in darkness, half in moonlight, and nodded.
Sam said, "Good," which he meant, and suddenly she was everywhere; arm around his neck, damp cheek against his neck, sweet-smelling hair under his nose. The warm weight of her body pushed him backward, down, off of his elbow to land awkwardly on his back again. She stayed close for a moment, pressed down against him, and then said, "Sorry," a warm rush of air against his ear, before pulling away, bracing herself on one arm. His hand was resting on her back, splayed out across the space above the waistband of her jeans, and she pressed against it, trying to sit up, move away. He should have let go, should have moved his hand at that moment, before she looked at him with a question in her eyes.
He should have, but the thing was, Sam had always wanted to kiss Meg, ever since he started at East Catholic, ever since she became a friend to him. Only a friend, he insisted to anyone who asked, and even to himself, back then. It was a lie. He dated other girls, was polite to her boyfriends, and gracious when their one attempt at dating didn't work out, but underneath it all, somewhere - he'd always wanted to kiss her.
And so he did. After a brief still moment that could have been surprise, Meg kissed him back, leaning down until they were back in the same place, Sam on his back, Meg warm against him, her hair all around them in messy waves. Even after his head hit the ground Sam still felt like he was falling, knew it was probably a mistake.
"Sorry," he said, moments later, when Meg did pull away from the kiss; an expected disappointment.
He was positive she was going to get up, walk away, make some kind of excuse, remember someone she had to meet. But she didn't. She shook her head, whispered, "It's okay." Smiled at him, and then lay down, her head on his shoulder, one arm across his middle. He felt her sigh, settle in. Eventually sleep.
Sam didn't let go.
Sam woke the next morning to the sound of distant shouting, his body stiff from sleeping on the hard ground. It took a moment to remember where he was - who he was with - and when he did, he opened his eyes, squinted against the bright sun. There was a shadow across his torso; he looked in its direction and saw Meg, sitting up, facing away, her hair up in some kind of complicated bun held in place with the colorful scarf she'd worn the day before.
Sam sat up and Meg turned her head. Not enough to see him, just enough to let him know she'd heard him.
"People are leaving," she said, and Sam could see it was true. "There's something going on at the Justice Department."
"Do you want to go?"
Meg shifted her weight, turned so she could see Sam. She looked okay. "I don't think so."
"Me either," Sam said.
"Are you sure?"
"Hey, I was supposed to leave yesterday." He pushed himself forward to sit next to Meg, checked her expression.
She was smiling, her eyes a nicer blue than the sky. "Sorry to hold you up."
Sam wanted to say: It's okay. You didn't hold me up. I would stay another day, and another, with you. But he didn't.
What he did say was, "It's all right," but all the things he wanted to say were behind the words, made him feel embarrassed. Made him look away.
"Sam." Meg's voice made him look back. "Let's go."
She stood up and turned to face him, one hand held out to him, her body casting a shadow so that Sam didn't have to squint when he looked up at her. She seemed a little nervous, the way Sam felt. He knew he could take that away from both of them.
He did. He reached out and let her pull him up, off the ground, into her arms.