Maybe it was my heart. No, my heart was there, for a time, spread out in beating chunks across the hills and Muni lines and friends and restaurants and libraries and moments I thought I would never survive and the moon so full reflected on Ocean Beach.
San Francisco, you taught me what it meant to expect beauty down every little alleyway, to believe in magic because living without it is dying a little every day. You taught me never to assume that I was alone because I felt lonely. You taught me patience with frustration, and when patience ran out you taught me how to curse it colorfully so I felt that at least I was doing something.
San Francisco, you gave me serendipitous meetings by the truckload if only I would look up from my books. You gave me ridiculous inconsistencies that I had to learn to wrestle, and in learning, let a little of my compulsivity go. You gave me a career direction and a writer’s voice.
I left something with you. I left my friends and I left knowing where to go for the best meals in the world and I left a part of myself, too, I know I did, that part that believes in a transit system and tolerance and a world with poets instead of politicians at the wheel.
But not my heart.
You gave me my heart.
He mentioned that I might want to lead with the story next time. So here I am, not leading with the story.
After work and before I was due at Anchor & Hope, I headed to Westfield because, despite it being a large collection of stores I avoid, it has one thing I love: Maido, a lovely stationery shop filled with fountain pens and notebooks and tiny stickers shaped like frogs and kittens and wheelbarrows and what appear to be smiley-faced boogers.
I kicked around Maido for a while, checking out the happy booger stickers, and then did something I rarely do: I skipped the escalators in favor of the elevator. Now, I am no elevator-hater; I merely prefer the grace and poise of open-air perambulation. But I was weary, and the route to the escalators brought me past the salespeople who yell at me that I need “skincare solutions”, so I elevated instead.
As the elevator opened and I walked toward it, I heard a high-pitched alarm sound behind me. Suddenly, a young man carrying a large Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag ran at full-speed into the elevator as the high-pitched alarm sound grew louder. Confusing even myself, I ambled right in too.
As the doors closed, and with only the two of us in a small, gently-moving room, it became obvious that the high-pitched alarm sound was emanating from the man’s bag.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said affably.
The man looked at me, slightly out of breath, and said, “It’s my phone.”
I watched with vague interest as he took his clearly-silent phone out of his jeans pocket, flipped it open, and pantomimed pressing a button over and over again.
“Can’t shut it off,” he added.
A second later, the elevator bell dinged, the door opened, and the man darted out. I wandered off to look for a security guard, pondering two things:
Today, years ago, in a place I have never been, a woman I never met did something remarkable. All mothers do something remarkable, it is true: that violence absorbed, accommodated, relinquished is nothing if not remarkable. As a result, and despite that, you exist.
When I met you, that first day in your store, I knew you were more than just a passing acquaintance, more than a bit part on my stage, even though our orbits were mostly separate. Each time after I saw you, I knew you less; not for any obfuscation on your part, but because there was more of you to which I could not be privy.
How could I realize that my dull little email four years later would spark the beginning of the most important friendship of my life? That summer, as you were preparing to change your entire life, mine changed alongside it. Your openness to the world, your sheer breadth of knowledge, and your inimitable passion for living taught me that amidst all these bitter, jaded people, I was not wrong for anticipating goodness and light.
Back then, I couldn’t have done what you did, no matter what you might have believed about me, and you always believe the best. I couldn’t have uprooted my sense of self, my home, and my comfort to achieve a goal. I would never be so arrogant as to say “I let you go” because you had to go. My hands released yours easily so you would never doubt your path away from me.
Even so, when you left, I wanted to be so much stronger than I was. I wanted not to grasp desperately to catch you again; I wanted to be the effortless support I strove to be with you in my midst. But miles apart, I could only see not seeing you. I could only think of you in my own terms: mine, or not at all.
So many lessons in those interim years I learned the hardest way. Time and again, I tricked myself into lessening you. As you reached and grasped and succeeded, I learned the most important part: you exist not for my sake. And I promised myself that if we were ever able to be friends again, I would not forget that.
So here we are, my heart, on your birthday, the first we celebrate together, and all I know is that all my words fail me in the utter presence of you. With your own hands you built your life, your support structure, your home, your business, and your education, and I am lucky to witness them all from so close. Your humility throughout all your accomplishments is my touchstone; your resilience unmarred by disappointment or rejection is my inspiration. My lesson to learn is how to love you for who you are, because you are the greatest person I have ever known.
Happy birthday, D. And thank you for persevering through so many hard times on your own so that we might share whatever is to come.
The dead woman’s refrigerator is in the space between our buildings.
I call her the dead woman although I admit I am guessing. A few weeks ago, a couple I did not recognize stopped while opening the door to her flat and asked me if I knew her. I didn’t, so I said no, and then immediately wondered if I should have said yes: what does “knew her” mean? I knew her to pass her in the hall and say hello, offer a brief word about the weather, and pet her dog, Kelly. I once helped her call Kelly out of the backyard bushes, minutes and minutes I called the name of a dog of a woman whose name I do not know and now she might be dead.
I first noticed the refrigerator after a Saturday morning of thuds and whacks and grunts coming from her flat. Under the guise of taking out the oft-neglected recycling, I peeked down the space between our buildings and saw the refrigerator.
There were still magnets on it. Magnets pinning photographs. Photographs of people she knew, of a little girl in a school photo, and one of her laughing and holding a cat next to a woman also laughing. They were turned toward each other, almost the same height, and from all I could see, waist-up, dressed the same in plain collared shirts. Scattered across the blank face of the fridge were tiny sparkly star stickers in all the colors of the rainbow.
These things, due to wind and rain and time, are now escaping the refrigerator. I take out trash more regularly than I ever have before, just to note the progress of the escape. The other day, I heard the same couple talking to the building manager about foul play, a murmur his gruff tones interrupted and uncomfortable silence followed.
Her flat undergoes its slow transformation from someone’s to no one’s; smells of bleach and paint mingle with the rest of our more human scents. I wonder if she died inside, and if she will haunt us, and where her dog went.
Some nights, before bed, I stand in front of the dead woman’s refrigerator and I try to think of her name.
She met him while jogging at the beach. “Met” was a small word to use for it; in her memories, that day would always be four or five syllables, not just one bitter bite. He was at the beach first – she did not know how long and never will – and she walked up to him. Her feet kept moving as she stood in place. He looked up at her like looking into the sun: face to her but eyes to the sea.
“What are you doing?” she asked, skipping a glance from his hands and what they grasped to his hair, long and dark and gnarled, like dead seaweed.
“Sifting,” he replied, and held up the flash of metal, which when she focused on looked like a medieval torture device, so she just quirked her brow and kept staring.
He continued, “I am sifting the beach.”
Neither one spoke for a long moment. Her feet shifted in the damp sand, a forgotten jog stretching along the coast as she watched a black lab’s paws wet with ocean. He placed the metal implement back into the small pit he had created, scooping out part of the world, and letting it all fall back.
His face turned up to hers again, the briefest of blue sparked her way before his eyes were off west and further. There were tiny lines around his lashes, and she felt a pang of missing them, and him, but they had just met. She imagined those lines were indicative of a laugh that bent his whole face up in its power, a laugh like origami with wax paper, like creases in warm cotton.
When he spoke again, she had forgotten her own question, so lost in reverie of fake memory of this man she did not know.
“I am looking for a grain of sand,” he said, and she saw tiny circles darken the beach below his face.
So she ran, she kept on running, north along the water, and she didn’t know when she would stop or how she would get off the beach without seeing him again. Maybe she would stay on this beach forever, trapped between drowning and disappointing, her sure footfalls a pulse, reminding her that she was still alive.
That he was too.