“How do I know if it’s me you love or my city,” she asks.
San Francisco: Great brown city of forty-six hills, of muddy peaks and dirt-clothed sideshow homeless, of seals and murals and rain-flooded gutters and alleys. Of cables running underground and noisily undercutting the city streets. Of Chinatown and red triangle flags and that continuous woodfire smoke wafting on the fog that floats like a parade balloon through the city.
And all of it asleep on a Saturday morning in the Haight, rustling through the paper at the Gold Cane Bar and pressing a can of Pabst to my head, still recovering from that cross-country flight. I got in late last night and we slept on the cold floor of her friend Cassie's stout, angled apartment until Cassie left for work early in the morning, and we crept together, naked, into the warmth of the lone bed – hiding under a comforter, pulling it over our heads, leaving our dangling feet exposed but breathing each other’s warm breaths in our makeshift fort. She fell back toward sleep. But I was restless, and so I dressed and walked the steep block to the bar, reading the day-old news and contemplating the time change.
Turning the corner and scaling the hill back to the apartment, I look up and she’s at the window calling down to me on the street. “I woke up alone,” she says.
With the sun at eye level, she squints an eye and bites the corner of her lower lip and I stop time in my mind, pausing on that frame, adding it to the collection of images of her that I’ve stitched together to tell the story of why I love her.
She’s in a tee shirt and jeans and her brown hair’s in a ponytail and we walk back down the hill and hail a cab and she tells the driver, “Just take us to your favorite restaurant,” and he accepts the challenge, and we’re off into abandoned workday neighborhoods, through back alley blue collar villes and he drops us at an Ethiopian place at the corner of an otherwise empty and abandoned strip of storefronts.
“The only real Ethiopian food in the city. They cook like my mother.”
We pay the fare and step out toward the restaurant and it’s closed, though he’s already off to find another fare, and so we walk through the unfamiliar neighborhood and happen upon a mom and pop sandwich stand and wonder where in the city we are and whether there really is such a thing as chance.
She smiles and says, “There is.”
Chance is how we began four weeks earlier on an October Saturday in New York City. Not chance in the sense of “strangers in the night,” but chance in the sense of strangers in the same dark night, both at that point in life when nothing seems to work right. I sat a row and three seats behind her at our high school graduation and hadn’t seen her since. Ten years later, I learned through a friend that she’s in New York too, and, out of novelty and of nothing better to do on a lonely weekend night in big Manhattan, we made plans for a drink.
The first night, we met at the bar at the White Horse Tavern, one of those heavy wood pubs with stories carved in the walls. We found each other in that hesitant, Is that really you? I was surprised she remembered me: We were only distant friends in high school, and left for separate coasts for college. But in the dim light of the White Horse, she was recognizable. She reminded me of home.
We talked for two hours' worth of whiskey-and-sodas and already I was intrigued: the New York women I know generally don't drink whiskey. She stuttered trying to recall details of people we used to know and of all those high school times that seemed so pressing at the time. And I told the story about Dylan Thomas, about how he was in town for a reading, staying at the Chelsea Hotel, and how one afternoon he stopped into the White Horse and after eighteen scotches stumbled back to the hotel and died.
She called me morbid and obscure, running her black-painted fingernails through her hair. I pointed to the small drawing of a skull tattooed on the inside of her left bicep. “Yorick.”
“Yes!” Propelled backward and laughing, smacking the table loudly, “Thank you! No one ever gets that!”
“No. Tattooed banker’s assistant,” she said. “You know, I bet if Hamlet were alive today he’d be a banker.” Eyes aren’t a big thing for me, but hers are quite something and deep, particularly in the dim candle light. “His father would’ve pressured him to go to business school. Probably bought him a loft in Tribeca or a brownstone.”
“Coke habit. Or he’d’ve played guitar in a terrible cover band.”
“Can’t it be both?”
“Shakespeare by Bret Easton Ellis,” I said.
We played Scrabble in a pool hall on West Fourth, and continued clear across to the east side to a pub on Bowery. “One last drink” became several until finally, unexpectedly, it was closing time and we had to leave. We tried to convince the bartender to “just go on home” and “we’ll lock up,” me toweling off the bar and kicking out the drunks (“You don’t have to go home…”), her putting up the stools and sweeping the bar room. But no dice. And I walked her home through the chilly funneling wind twisting horizontal tornadoes through the alleyways and building canals of lower Manhattan, the blinking red tops of skyscrapers forming stars in the sky.
“This was fun,” she said, her eyes fading light. I could smell her hair. “This was the first time I've felt comfortable in this city.”
But I cheated and said only, “We should do this again,” though I meant something different, and I left from her doorstep and stumbled back to the subway and rode the rattling train under the river.
I met her again a week later on the rooftop of the Peninsula and it was as though the ten years had been erased, as though we’d known each other all along. We sat out on the balcony and talked about adulthood and responsibility and boredom and laughed at the people on the street below that Salinger called “phonies.”
We walked through the park and later stepped into the midnight lobby of the Chrysler building, with its crazy art deco sparks and metal flames shooting into abstract shapes and patterns. Then at a small Chinese restaurant decorated with patterns of deep red and velvet and in the carved-out basement of the place, below our feet, a booming underground nightclub muffled by the insulation in the floorboards vibrated the silverware.
“I don’t know how can you live here,” she said. “It’s too big.”
“I just want to know every block of the city,” I said, “really know it. And then never go back.”
“But what if you find a block you really like?”
All of it the great buzzing joy of finding someone thrilling at just the right time. Later that night outside her building: A coy lean. A kiss. And instead of the subway, I just floated home across the river on an invisible pontoon.
But that was New York. That was before she moved back to the west coast, back to her college town, to “shake things up.”
“San Francisco is my city, it's my home,” she said. “It's where I'm good at things and honest.”
Her doorstep again. This time a Tuesday. All the great ones who say “truth,” who put life-or-death stakes on it, on setting things free, Montaigne, Hamlet – fucking Hamlet – all of them: I bet they never stood on that doorstep.
“I love you. I want to come with you,” I seemed to want to say. But instead there was just a silence with, as she'd've probably quoted Dorothy Parker, “things going on in it.”
Later, on the plane to San Francisco, to her city, I dreamed about not returning to New York. I dreamed of the two of us settling down in the Mission, finding a cheap apartment and a dog. Writing in the dusty worn bars, spelling out beauty in cigarettes, soaking my arms in permanent ink. Casting aside normal. We’d create beautiful and useful things. We’d have real true friends and smoky, jazzy dinner parties in our unusual home. And sometimes we’d fight, our moody ups and downs like the hills rolling under the city, but always the two of us, clutched together, down and up the forty-six hills like a crested wave as we scream, “Cherson! Cherson!” And I dreamed that maybe she, too, had these thoughts and that this trip was a rite, a passage, a shibboleth, though neither of us had said anything about it.
But that Tuesday night in the East Village, we just stood there quiet and apart like polarized magnets, like passing emails and texts, our awkward bodies, and I cheated and said only, “I could help you move,” though I meant something different.
But we’re together now in an unknown part of San Francisco, her town, but lost still, finding our way back to familiar streets, navigating by the sun and the many many hills. We find a Muni bus and ride to the Black Horse on Union (the White Horse’s evil, west coast twin). Meeting her friends – the still in love ex-boyfriend; the two best friends, Cassie and Hannah; and Dave, the surrogate father, the patergroup, as the Germans might call him – all of them glad to see her after her having been away for so long.
I fight it. I fight the thought that there’s anyone else that might know her.
They’re telling stories about people I don’t know and about times before I met her again. They’re laughing. And she seems colder and farther away. And soon I’m out on the edge, at the end of the bar talking to the bartender, though my attention is focused elsewhere. Ex-boyfriend's got his hand on her back. She's smiling at him. Biting her lip. I fight it. Quietly. Away from the group. I’m feeling rueful. Or stupid. Losing this grasp of mine, what feels like fingertips holding onto her. This weak purchase on a joined something apart from our other worlds. Envious of her friends. Jealous. Strangers who hold pieces of her that I’ll never be able to know, never be able to really know.
I’m losing the fight.
I drink faster to tame my irrational thoughts. Loud pounding metronome. I grow surly, and I’m angry for what appears, to her friends I’m sure, to be no reason. Stomach tense. That insecure feeling from high school.
I stumble to her side, press my lips to her ear: “You have fun with your friends. I’m going for a walk.”
“No … please stay,” she says and means it.
But it’s too late. “Fun with your friends.” And I’m on the street, cold and foggy, steaming and barbaric, and there stands the Golden Gate, laughing.
San Francisco: Great brown city on a peninsula that’s shaped like a fist. That delivers a roundhouse square to my jaw, my mouthpiece and spit trailing behind me, hanging in mid-air where my head used to be. But now my brain’s cloudy and headed to the mat, and I wonder why I left my city, where things between us were so easy if undefined.
The ups and the downs of the forty-six hills, rolling my belongings into a checkerboard sack on a stick. Like a hobo, out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, clothes in rags, thumb out, calling for a ride to somewhere else. The fog is thick, gripping like fingers over fisherman’s wharf. The world beyond three feet begins to disappear.
A car stops, an old, taped-together station wagon. The man at the wheel is a grotesque ghost of my father. The gravelly groan of his smoke-stained throat says, “Get in, boy.” And I open the door reluctantly, but I’m pulled in. I could never disobey my dad.
“We’re men of industry, son,” he says, unlit Marlboro hanging from his transparent right lip and wagging as he talks. “You and me: Titans.” He strikes a match. The flame flashes and leaps in his cupped hands, the end of the cigarette glows, lighting his ethereal face. “Men,” he says again, a stream of smoke, the cigarette as punctuation, “of industry.” My father had a bunch of sayings like this.
Summers by the lake, he’d sit out on a lawn chair – the old kind, patchworked strips of woven nylon bolted to a rickety metal frame – lean back with an unopened beer, and say, “Livin’ the dream, son,” his weight stressing the “h” frame. He’d pull the tab on the can, ashcrack-hsssss, “Livin’ the dream.” When I was older after he’d promised my mother that he quit smoking, he’d take me to baseball games and in the parking lot afterward would light up. He’d look at me through the smoke, and, smiling with his yellow teeth, would say, “Things that men do, son…. These are things that men do.”
I used to wonder whether there was a moment during my father's long slow slide into dementia when he could no longer claw himself out of it, when he might as well have been paralyzed, just tearing at the bedsheets and they only gathered with him as he slipped to the floor.
Or did he just pick a time to give up and turn inward, retreating inside himself?
The ghost is quiet now, stares at me, and I realize that, even in death, my father fails to say what he really means.
He dissipates and I’m alone in the car, struck by the rotten smell of dirty flesh and eggs and old wine. Reflexively I gag. It pools on the floor, reflects my wrinkled face, silent, alone in the dirty old wagon. It’s now just sticks and four stones and it rattles to a halt and collapses.
I amble out toward a cliff, the salted sea pressing into my pores. I step to the edge. I close my eyes and jump, but I don’t fall: I wake in a burst, sprawled in a trash heap in an alley near the bar.
A Dylan Thomas line: “The force that drives the water through the rocks drives my red blood.”
Sobering, I step back into the bar, push past the friends, and again press my lips to her ear. She smiles and follows me out. I light a cigarette and lean against the brick wall.
“I should have said something earlier,” I say.
She grabs me, presses her arms around my waist, and looks up with that smile, biting the corner of her lip. “How do I know if it’s me you love or my city,” she asks.
Thundering through the black in a 1951 Ford Thunderbird convertible, the modern carriage, only one hundred seventy nine left with their original parts and this one with each and every one – for now – and careening and carousing down Highway One through the south side of San Francisco, the cold night air whipping around and washing the black leather seats with cherry red accent. Pounding the turns, the dips and the dives, along the short road into Pacifica, three of us on the back-bench seat and rolling into each other around every hara-kiri turn. All of us: drunken and oblivious, intoxicated with liquor and life and the great rubber three a.m. hallucination of invincibility, bouncing and bowling, scarves flying, braced, and ready to fly out the back, to skip off the ride like a stone, or to bounce up into the atmosphere, an escaping carbon bubble, a kid on a trampoline, and the great monstrous Bird barreling off the exit ramp through the lazy stoner surfer town and, heedless, out onto the beach, where it slides to a stop, tires burying in the sand like a dog’s bone.
And the five of us froth out the top of the great beast, shoes off, into the sand, and running hard for the water, waves clapping and collapsing, and the joyful screaming as we dive headfirst and unknowing into the frigid sea. Dave, the easy cool driver with the mutton chops and the tweed jacket, kills the engine but leaves the high beams and follows their light to gather wood and waste and he sets a bonfire a-blazing. He closes the switch on the lights, and all that’s left to guide us mad idiots out of the freezing Pacific is the light of the half moon and the fire, still sucking oxygen and coming to life.
We turn back toward the shore, leaving the others, our limbs shaking wild and suddenly weak. Her brown hair is a thick ropy black from the water and the night. And I grab a thread of her sopping white dress, spin her around, and kiss her blue lips. The fire grows into a rage behind her. We reach the beach, windy and brisk, now wishing we were back in the comparatively warm water. But we find a blanket in the trunk of the car and we sit close to the fire and she presses back into me.
The drunken loud brambling ramble of the night settles into a soft quiet jazzy duet and the rest of the crazy crowd fades away as her piano picks up the beat and takes off on a back and forth with me, the groovy bass man. And the bonfire flares and forks in her glowing green eyes, and she lays her head on my chest. She sets to speak and I stop her, my finger at her lips.
About the Author: Born and raised in the square-mile suburbs of Detroit, Matthew Fogarty currently lives and writes in Columbia, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. He is an alum of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Revolution House, Zero Ducats, Utter Magazine, and Nanoism.
Story Song: "Ghost of York" by As Tall As Lions