Mike Loves Sam (an unorthodox affair)

How would you feel if you were condemned, ostracized, and discriminated against? Survival in today’s office environment when your best friend is considered weird is tough. When you’re in love, God help you!

I had never met anyone quite like Sam before. I had transferred from the Atlanta head office of a multi-national soft drink company to Chicago. It was the first time I had been north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it was quite an eye opener. Perhaps life in the south had sheltered me, but if what happened to Sam and me was any indication, I guess I could have used a primer on lifestyles before venturing away from home.

The trauma of the move was unsettling enough, but I did not foresee problems at every step of the journey. At first, I was thrilled that I had won the new sales manager position. It was quite a feather in my cap, and the monetary gain was nothing short of breathtaking. Growing up in a lower middle class environment had not prepared me for the lavish excesses that an upwardly mobile person encountered. I had dreamed of them, of course, but this sudden catapult into the very milieu of my fantasies was a bigger adjustment than I had foreseen.

There is a very real difference between a southerner and a northerner, and I don’t mean just accent. I hate generalities, but I do think southerners are a friendlier and more easy going lot than the Yankee types I met. Talk about cold and aloof. That was, arguably, the most extreme difference that I noticed when I first moved to Chicago. Of course some of that early friction may have had to do with me, as a newcomer, being thrust upon my staff when they had mentally envisioned another chap for the job. I was savvy enough to keep a low profile at the beginning and not to push too hard until they got to know me and how I operated. It pleased me to see, after the first month, that my plan was working and that they had accepted me. Unfortunately for me, that was when Sam entered the scene.

Our office computer setup was not unlike most enterprise systems. Our computers were PCs, mostly late model Compaq Pentiums with the latest Intel Pentium number tacked on. We used Microsoft Office for work groups and we were generally happy campers. There were murmurs of switching to an NT network solution, but that was on hold for the moment. Normally, I just used whatever was in front of me, but I had heard rumours about NT that were unsettling.

In September of 1997, a database overflow in the ship’s NT system caused the USS Navy cruiser Yorktown’s propulsion system to fail for over two and a half hours. It seems the systems administrator entered a zero into the data field for the Database Manager program. This is not unlike using a three buck calculator and dividing a figure by zero and getting zero as your answer, but still being able to continue using the calculator. However, the NT operating system could not handle that simple function. The Yorktown had to be unceremoniously towed into port. I had visions of the enemies of the United States howling with laughter at the faux pas. For my part, I wondered if the long discontinued Commodore 64 couldn’t have done a better job.

The records showed that the Navy saved more than $2.8 million a year by using computers and reducing the Yorktown’s crew by 10 percent. They planned to expand this “Smart Ship Technology” to other ships. I feared what the expense of a disabled ship, like the Yorktown, would cost during hostile activity such as warfare?

Although well versed on our office computer setup, Sam was the epitome of the outsider. Outlandish dress, faint traces of weird makeup and odd color choices made heads turn and eyebrows rise. I, on the other hand, in my dark tailored suit and not too narrow nor too wide tie, was a conformist to the extreme, mirroring no doubt my ultra-conservative past. I thought Sam’s fashion statement was a crying out for attention and a need for a strong, guiding hand. I don’t know why I thought I should be that person, other than the fact that Sam was part of my sales team. More truthful, perhaps, was that there was a mutual attraction between us from the start. It was so strong that I had not considered what others might think.

I’ve had my share of flings, so I’m no neophyte to love and all its inherent intricacies, but Sam was a whole new experience. The physical attraction I felt was like no emotion I had experienced in the past. What made our relationship as confusing to me as to some outsiders was the extreme difference in our personalities.

The office gossip was precipitous. You could not, not notice Sam. Tongues wagged and vicious stories began to circulate about us. At the soft drink dispensers found on every floor, we were the talk of the office. Society seems to have a need to label someone who is different. In the past, it was the beatniks or flower children. Today it’s the skin heads. Whatever the moniker, one is not considered “normal” if you do not fit into a preconceived mold.

The final straw occurred after my first month’s transition when I felt my staff had accepted me. During that time, Sam and I had kept a low profile but, in the following weeks, we progressed to something more than sales manager and employee. It was Monday morning and Sam waltzed in a half hour late wearing an outlandish yellow polka dot headband. Below the band peeked out what appeared to be a new, rusty red hair color. Even more outrageous was what Sam carried. It was a grape iMac computer. The only item conceivably more controversial might have been Tinky-Winky, the odd ball, purse toting, male TeleTubby.

“Mike, I’m sick of having to use the office PC and that Windows garbage.” Sam said, loud enough to be heard by all the workstations in our immediate area, “so I brought in my personal computer from home.” The collective gasp from the surrounding staff was audible and it seemed that all eyes turned to me for my reaction.

“You’re incorrigible,” I said shaking my head but not masking the smile on my face. “As long as you keep on top of your work load, I have no objection.” I think that was the precise moment that my feelings for Sam were exposed for all to see. I had been outed! Still, I felt that we could withstand the assaults that would come, as long as we stuck together. I would find out sooner than I thought that I was naive to believe we could overcome the deep prejudice and hate that our relationship seemed to spark. But it also sparked a deeper personal intimacy between Sam and me. We became lovers shortly after, and I have always claimed that we were thrown together, not only by a mutual attraction, but by that grape iMac. My life was changed, and I would be forever grateful to that all-in-one beauty for bringing Sam and me closer together.

There were so many raised eyebrows in the office that morning that I felt we had to do something to stem the tide of viciousness. But it was to no avail. Now, as the weeks passed and our relationship was discussed openly, although not in our presence, I grasped at straws trying to salvage our reputations and still maintain a viable working rapport with my staff. Sam, however, bore the brunt of their displeasure. It was the flamboyance, most of all, that appeared to annoy them the most. Sam was just too different for them to accept and I came in a close second. I had betrayed them because they had thought me one of them and now they knew I was as different, in my way, as Sam was. They found it difficult to face us every day. They wanted things to be like they had been before we arrived on the scene. They didn’t want people who made waves; they wanted us to be ordinary, conventional and, yes, even banal. They did not want “different.”

It was not long before the head office in Atlanta heard the rumors. In fact, email had been sent anonymously pointing accusing fingers at Sam and me. Some of the stories that reached my boss, the vice president of sales, were so outlandish that they were almost laughable. But I can tell you now that, at the time, it was not a laughing matter to us. My job was on the line, and Sam’s was, too. The euphoria of my new position of only a couple of months was dropping faster then Compaq’s quarter loss after their Digital takeover. I had visions of working for McDonald’s since I figured, if we did lose our jobs, no one else would hire us. Notoriety is not what the corporate world craves. They want increased sales, period. Well, perhaps, they would accept the notoriety if they got increased sales too, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Three days after the second email, Sam and I were summoned to the Vatican, the company euphemism for the head office. We flew down, both feeling extremely gloomy, but still trying to keep each other upbeat. It was not a happy experience. We took the first flight out of Chicago that morning in order to be in Atlanta by 9 a.m. The cab ride downtown was depressingly quiet. I don’t remember exchanging more than a few words. I had asked Sam to wear something a touch less elaborate than usual for both our sakes and, at least, the shade was subdued and there were no exotic accessories. But Sam refused my plea to change the rusty red hair color to a more natural, if staid, brown. The carrot top would stay.

At nine thirty, we were ushered into my boss’ plush corner-windowed office, with the oriental rug and the East Timor mahogany paneling. One day, I thought, I might have such an office, but not on this starkly gray morning.

“Good morning, Michael. Welcome back,” my boss said. He seemed in much better spirits than I had expected. “How was your flight down?”

“Uneventful and on time,” I answered, my hopes rising.

“And this must be . . .”

“Samantha Etherington,” I blurted out, “my fiance.”

“Hello, Samantha. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I believe we know someone in common, your father.”

“Yes,” Samantha answered in a mumble, looking down at the floor.

“Your father?” I said puzzled. “I don’t understand.” I looked at Samantha and back to my boss.

“Samantha’s father is the CEO of this company,” my boss spoke up. “I don’t believe Samantha wanted this to be generally known. She was afraid she might be accused of taking advantage of the family relationship.”

“Your father is Sterling Parker Etherington?” I was dumbfounded.

“Yes Michael, it’s true. I should have told you but I thought you would feel uncomfortable with the situation. I’m sorry.” She lowered her head again so that the carrot red hair appeared even more pronounced.

“Michael, because of the awkwardness of what happened at the Chicago office I have been asked by Sterling to offer you another position as our European Sales Manager in London. The position includes a furnished apartment and you will have an increased expense account.”

“You’re not buying me off. I won’t leave Samantha,” I replied adamantly.

“Don’t misunderstand, Michael. There are no strings attached to this offer. If you want the job, you have it. If you want Samantha to go with you,” he paused, “you will have to ask her.”

I turned to look at Samantha. “You mean it, you wouldn’t leave without me?” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.

“I thought we decided weeks ago,” I answered. “From now on, it’s you and me, kid.”

Ralph J. Luciani

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