My Friend Sam at the End of the World

I don’t believe that coincidences have meaning, but that belief is sometimes tested when I think about how many of my peers from college have died in terrible ways.

My freshman year, on the day of what was supposed to be our annual end of year concert, a girl in the grade above me was murdered by her stalker on campus, setting off a school-wide lockdown as the FBI hunted for the killer. A year or two later, another girl I knew self-immolated in a field near her dorm in the middle of the night. And then, a few years after we graduated, yet another one of our classmates was shot and killed, in a murder-suicide, by her own father.

Compared to them, my friend Sam’s death when we were 25 was almost ordinary. He leapt into a river near his house in Austin to save his dog, and they both drowned. A tragedy, sure, but one so pedestrian it was almost hard to believe. Of course guns and fire kill. But a river? In a crowded park, on a walk he’d taken many times before? It was like finding out that he’d been killed by a paper clip.


Sam and I met on what must have been my first or second day at Wesleyan. I was eating a prepackaged portobello sandwich from one of the little shops on campus, and as he walked by he told me that it looked “dank.” I had somehow made it to 18 without ever hearing that particular piece of slang before, and I began checking the sandwich for mold. He cocked his head and asked me what I was doing. And then we were friends.

Sam was hilarious and adventurous and intellectual; we would stay up late discussing the latest Glenn Greenwald column or the sources of Kanye’s samples. I was also perpetually jealous of him. He was effortlessly good-looking and in under a year had managed to become the person in our friend group everyone wanted to sleep with, a position I desperately wanted to hold and I think assumed on some grotesque level was somehow rightfully mine to begin with.

And everyone—everyone!—liked him. I was well-liked too, more or less, but my flavor of likedness was an acquired taste; people usually started to warm to me after the second or third time we hung out, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. Whereas even strangers seemed to like Sam. He almost certainly would have told me that what I interpreted as my comparative unpopularity was either imagined, or perhaps just the inevitable result of my not being that friendly to people I didn’t know well, a pose I adopted because I was worried about seeming uncool. That was usually the dynamic of our friendship: Sam being the way I wanted to be without even trying, and then reminding me that it was precisely the fact that I was trying so hard that was getting in my way.


When he died, we’d been mostly out of touch for several years—our friendship had faded into the background after he’d transferred out of Wesleyan when we were juniors. We still talked occasionally, though, and when we did it wasn’t hard to pick things up right where we’d left them; once, when it had been at least three months since we’d last spoken, he texted me out of the blue to let me know that it was Stanley Tucci’s birthday, and no further explanation was necessary.

Sam died only a day or two after I had arrived in Silicon Valley with the rest of my former startup to begin our three months at Y Combinator, the famous accelerator whose stamp of approval had brought me from nail-biting insecurity to unjustified arrogance without so much as the briefest stop at healthy self-confidence along the way. I was sure in those early weeks at YC that I had just taken the first few steps on a path that would lead inevitably to fortune and fame and hence that the rest of my life up until that point had been in some sense just a prequel, and though I mourned Sam, his loss felt like a minor ingredient in the cocktail of emotions I was feeling at the time, detectable with close attention but often overwhelmed by other flavors.

When I arrived in Austin for his funeral that weekend I felt like I was living through something out of a bad indie movie—six college friends reunited to mourn the first of the group to die. That day and the next one were every emotion at once, heartbreak and numbness and euphoria, a mix probably exacerbated by our decision, both inexplicable and obvious, to take a bunch of drugs right after the funeral, before we’d even taken our outfits off. I left Austin that weekend feeling like I’d gone through all seven stages of grief in a tight forty-eight hours, and by the time I got back to California I was ready to bury myself in my work even harder than I’d been doing before. It was just because there was so much to do, I told myself, not for any other reason. And I believed it.


It wasn’t until a few years later that I noticed I had started to think about Sam all the time. At first it was little things that triggered it—a Big Boi beat I knew he would like, the latest stupid comment from a Republican Congressman that would have been funny if what it heralded about our country wasn’t so bleak. Then it was bigger things: after an agonizing breakup that I blamed myself for, I knew that Sam, more than any of my other friends, would have understood what it felt like to be trapped in the constant struggle of trying to be a better person. And eventually—like in the moment on my meditation retreat when, emerging from a couple hours of quiet focus, I found myself aching for him out of the blue—it would come prompted by nothing at all.

At first when this sadness returned, I felt almost cheated. Watching some other friends of ours collapse in grief the year or so after he’d died, I’d felt lucky, and perhaps even a little superior, not to have been as affected. Sure, I missed him too, but sometimes people died—there was no sense getting lost in the pain, especially not with so much else going on in my life. How shameful to finally realize what I’m sure they’d known all along: that what I’d told myself was resilience was really just a refusal to properly grieve, and that it didn’t make me special at all. I was just another 25-year-old boy who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—let himself feel.

Now, though, I know that the only person who got cheated in this story was my former self. I think about Sam all the time now, and when I do, I usually just feel happy—happy that I got to know him at all, happy that he remains an active participant in the life I live inside my head, and happy that I have so many memories of him that never get old. Like the time we smoked a huge amount of weed in my dorm room and, when I asked him if he’d rather go get food or just stay in and watch TV, he said, “Dude, I’m too high to place value on one activity over another.”

When I was younger, I told myself I wanted to experience everything, and I made a lot of stupid decisions in my foolish belief that such a thing was even possible—tried a lot of things I knew I wouldn’t like, just for the sake of having tried. I had this conception of experiences as like Pokémon, something I could catch and collect and file away. Yet the whole time I was running around in search of these so-called “experiences,” I wasn’t letting myself experience the full spectrum of what was really going on inside me.

If Sam could read this, he’d probably tell me that the ending is a bit too pat—that I’m stating things too explicitly, and writing as if all my emotional growth is in the past. At the very least, there’s no way in hell he’d let me get away with that ridiculous Pokémon analogy. But I suspect he’d also think it was cool that I was pushing myself to open up like this—even if it is mostly driven by the fear of missing my weekly deadline—and he’d tell me to send this anyway.

Yours in slowly realizing that the title of this newsletter is becoming less and less tongue-in-cheek with every installment,

Max


Read of the week: I thoroughly enjoyed this New Yorker piece about the city’s highest-end contractor, who makes my own hard-won carpentry skills seem shamefully amateur. For example:

In the kitchen and the bathrooms, the walls and floors were both unremarkable and somehow perfect. It was only after you stared at them for a while that you noticed the reason: every tile in every row was complete; there were no awkward joints or truncated borders. Ellison had built the room with these exact final dimensions in mind. Not a single tile had to be cut.