|We hit the
curb like windblown trash, the firm touch of the bartender still warm on my back.
And there we stood, the four of us, lost without the bar stools beneath us, tossed
out of the Silver Cloud for being too loud. Too loud, he said. Too loud in a karaoke
bar. But on the street, we were silent. Whatever had fueled us in the bar was
gone. With just ourselves, without a blue screen of words in front of us, we had
no idea what to say.|
Lombard Street at one in the morning seemed desolate, nearly translucent under bright orange discs and yellow shells casting their lit shadow on the blacktop. I looked at Sandy as she leaned on Nate for balance, and then looked at Nate, using his other arm to steady Gwyn. Gwyn leaned up against him, her arm pressed against his, their fingers barely touching, grazing at the tips. I watched her with the envy of every woman spurned piled up in my bones. I watched her with the pride of every woman passed up growing out of my skin. Everyone talks about that one that got away, but I hadn't; gotten away, I mean.
I walked behind the three of them, my shoes shuffling along the concrete. I kicked a bottle cap out into the street and watched the chrome centered wheels of a new black Pontiac roll over it, pick it up in the tread. I turned around and watched the cyclical gleam of bronze and black measure each rotation of the tire. I looked at Nate, centered between Sandy and Gwyn. I watched the imprecision of their feet, wishing I could take that bottle cap back, put it in my pocket, press it between my fingers, leave a ripple in my skin where the metal forged itself into me.
I can remember telling Gwyn only months earlier that we should run off and find some funky little artists colony in New Mexico. I told her I would paint her a dozen pictures a week, follow the edge of her face with my brush, smear the paint with my hands to create the contours of her body, find a way to spread the colors on the canvas to explain the mystery of her skin. She looked at me, then looked at her ten painted toes hanging over the edge of the bed, her arms fighting to hold them there, gripping her knees to steady them. She tapped her fingers on her knees and told me that she had decided to move back to Santa Monica. She kept her eyes on the ten burgundy spots at the edge of the bed, telling me about the job her Dad had arranged for her, the position with his law firm that would get her foot in the door, that would expose her to all the right people. She didn't tell me about her old but resilient fears, didn't remind me in her own way that girls don't do that sort of thing, run off together. They don't set up their things in one small room, only one bed between the two of them, drawers divided not so neatly into hers and hers. I watched her that same afternoon as she piled things into boxes. I heard the sound of her crying as I stood in the hallway, listening to the rustle of paper crumpled and thrown into a small grocery bag destined for the trash.
It was only days before her room was empty. The four bare walls showcased the places where the pictures I had done for her used to be. Clean, white spots stood out to me like bleach stains on a carpet, the water-based proof of our time together wiped from the wall, leaving only the absence of color. Her smell though, a soft mingling of jasmine and musk, still clung to the corners of the room. I kneeled down and put my face to the spot on the wall where her bed used to touch. She had told me once that bed frames were for closing you in and she preferred to just set the mattress on the floor. She loved to stretch herself completely out on the bed. She would sit in bed for hours, reading, her pillow propped against the wall, dark hair reaching behind it, touching the wall in the same spot I pushed my nose. I could smell her hair, almost thought I could feel the coolness of it, how it felt on the nights we would go to Ocean Beach and walk up past the Cliff House to look at Sutro Baths.
Her smell only lingered for a few days and eventually it was the odor of paint that filled my nose, reminding me that I couldn't feel her hair, that somewhere in Santa Monica her Dad was having dinner with her or driving her to work, not even aware of the imprint she would leave on the headrest of the car, that hint of her that would adhere to the fabric, clinging to the molecules like a pulse.
It wasn't until we started crossing Buchanan Street that I noticed we had traveled a block from the bar and the three of them stopped in front of Jack in the Box. Nate and Gwyn rested on the bench that was placed right in front of a Sourdough Jack poster, the red and yellow and orange framing Gwyn's head. I made the last ten steps, the ten I had lingered behind, and Sandy grabbed my arm, moving closer to the curb, swinging around me as though I were a lamp post.
"I don't think I'm OK, you guys, I'm serious," she said as she bent her head to vomit into the gutter. "My shoes, shit, did I get my shoes?" She looked down at her light brown boots.
I watched her, wishing I had left her at home, and Gwyn jumped up and took two large steps to get to her. She put her arms around Sandy and squeezed.
"You're shoes are fine, Sandy, I swear. In fact, I think they look better, kind of like a Pollock painting." Sandy started laughing, and Gwyn, still steadying her, looked back at me. "Shit, Jas, do something to help, she's your roommate." She turned her attention back to Sandy and kissed her on the cheek, checking her own pockets, probably for something to wipe off Sandy's mouth. I scanned the area and started walking to the Shell station on the corner.
Sandy lived in Gwyn's old room. It took a little more than two months, but I found her through the same roommate service as Gwyn. She came from Sacramento and moved her few small things into Gwyn's old room, and then slapped pale gray paint on those four walls. When Gwyn showed up there tonight I asked her if she missed our little apartment on Dolores Street. She looked at the wall beside my head and said that she misses a lot about The City. Sandy walked into the hall and pushed her hand towards Gwyn. She introduced herself and the pause in our conversation gave Nate an excuse to herd us into the living room. Sandy sat on the arm of the couch that held Gwyn, trying her best to make things go smoothly, leaving me only the old wingback from Thrift Town, the one that I bought, but Gwyn refinished. My settlement, Gwyn had joked.
I only brought Sandy along tonight to see what Gwyn would do, to see if the sight of her physical replacement would disturb her at all. Sandy and I were just roommates, compadres in the daily chore of living, maybe because she came into my life post-Gwyn and knew how much I loved her. She tried all evening to break the tension, drinking more and more up to the point when we were kicked out of the bar. I had secretly hoped that Gwyn would be threatened by Sandy and the possibility of an affair between the two of us. And right about the moment Sandy leaned over the curb, I hoped Gwyn hadn't fallen for any of it. As I pushed my way through the barely twenty-ones buying gum and beer for their drives out of the city and back into their outlying suburban homes, I wished I could pack Sandy in one of their trunks, will her and Nate away for just a few hours.
The bathroom was miraculously vacant, and I snatched a handful of paper towels, running a few under the faucet to wet them. When the woman at the register started to open her mouth to question me, I told her that cleanliness is next to Godliness. She shut her mouth and looked at me from head to foot. I assumed she was sizing up my faded jeans and close cropped hair. She turned back to the boy waving a five in her face and completed his transaction. I let the door swing shut behind me and I could see Sandy bent again, hanging her head over the curb, the rest of her body strangely still.
"Well, look who decided to help out here," Gwyn said as she pulled the wet towels from my hand. I held out my other hand, offering the dry towels to her. She kept her full attention on Sandy and I looked at Nate, sitting on the bench, his arms against the back of it. He shrugged his shoulders at me and I smiled, or tried to. I wondered who I was to him, what Gwyn's year had equaled when she spelled it out for him; wondered if I had existed as anything more than the other half of the rent. I doubted it. He crossed his legs and I could feel Gwyn pull the paper towels from my hand.
"Sandy, you feel any better?" I asked as she tossed the last paper towel in the trash can about twenty feet away.
"Yeah, I feel great. I feel absolutely ready to run a marathon." She laughed her laugh that I had learned in only three months meant embarrassment. I knew she had a pretty good idea why she was here and she looked at me as though she had let me down. Her eyes seemed to apologize for the failed attempt at seeming alluring and threatening. I couldn't help but smile and she started laughing.
"What? You guys do this a lot?" Gwyn mussed the top of my hair and went to sit back down by Nate. "What are we gonna do now, oh Mighty Masterful One? How much money do you all have?"
She pulled her two front pockets out and had only a small tube of lipstick and a piece of Strawberry Bubble Yum. We all followed her lead and between us we had only two quarters, three dimes, and two pennies. Sandy leaned on the arm of the bench and we all started to laugh hysterically. It was her drinks that had sapped us all of our cash supply.
"Whose brilliant idea was it to bring less money so that we would drink less?" Sandy asked, her eyes still red from being rubbed dry just minutes earlier.
We had all cleared our wallets of any extraneous cash before walking to the bus stop that night. We had decided that whatever cash we brought would be consumed in one way or another and so we settled on twenty dollars each. I had watched as Nate threw two twenties in and Gwyn just laid her wallet on the coffee table. I wondered if the picture of the two of us from the Exploratorium was still in there, the one from her twenty-fifth birthday, the first time we kissed.
I had taken her to the Exploratorium to deny that twenty-five was decidedly adult, that twenty-five meant you better get serious or you'd be thirty before you knew it, and not a damn thing to show for it but the stories of the good old days that no one would want to hear anymore. For Gwyn, twenty-five meant she better do something with that college degree other than the secretarial job she had in the financial district. We went out and pretended we were eighteen, like we were newly freed from the grips of our parents, smiling just at our ability to maneuver around the city without guidance. We acted as though anything we did that day had no implication for the future. And then I leaned over and kissed her.
"OK, what the hell are we gonna do? I'm in no shape to walk home from here," Sandy looked at me, like I was the only one capable of decoding the current mystery facing us. I was pissed that we were so far from home. If Gwyn hadn't been concerned that my neighborhood after dark might scare Nate, we would be at the Casanova right now. Or outside of it, only blocks from home. I felt my back pocket and happened upon my own form of insurance.
"Well, your mighty leader has, along with the now gone twenty, brought along her ATM card, how's that for responsibility?" I looked at Gwyn. She and Nate were leaning up against each other and I wondered if four months of dating could be considered serious enough to be territory. And then I realized that I had, at that moment, an opportunity to corner Gwyn, to have her to myself for a while.
"So I say we split up and somebody stays here with the sick one and somebody comes with me to the bank." I grabbed Gwyn by the hand and started dragging her towards the crosswalk.
"Nate, you take good care of her, we'll be back before New Year's," I said and Gwyn looked back at Nate. He waved her on, giving her the thumbs up sign and settling back into the bench with Sandy sitting next to him, a few paper towels shoved in her back pocket. I put my arm around Gwyn and led her in the direction of Van Ness, perfectly willing to take as long as possible to find an ATM machine.
It had been six months since I had seen Gwyn, since I had seen her load the last box into her Dad's truck. She had kissed me upstairs while her Dad tied everything down for the long haul down Interstate 5. She touched my lips afterwards, ran her finger along my upper lip.
"I'm doing this for both of us, you know?" She looked at me with complete sincerity.
"Sure. Tough love, right?" I leaned against the door to her room, shut in case her Dad came back up to the apartment. I watched her bite the tip of her fingernail, chipping away the blue paint she had put on the day before.
"Don't do this, don't work your hardest to make this melodramatic. You know and I know this is best." She put her finger back into her mouth and stared at my feet.
"No. I don't know. How can it be best for you to run away from me, to go back and hide in Daddy's world, to dress up and play lawyer? I know you love me." She was looking at my eyes and she tilted her head to the left, a sad look on her face along with the mad I had expected.
"My Dad is making my life easier, OK? And fuck you if you think that I should live life like there's going to be some big God damned prize for suffering. I don't want to struggle, I don't want to live my life like a fight."
"So give up, run home and have 2.2 kids. I don't care." I turned my face to the door, still shut, and leaned my head against it. She grabbed both of my hands and held them behind me, rubbing my palms with her fingers. She kissed the back of my neck and leaned in to whisper.
"It's best for you to have someone who is willing to fight the fight. You deserve that, you've earned it. I just got caught up and somewhere along the line fell in love. This isn't who I am. I don't want to hurt you. Please don't cut me off."
I listened to every word, felt them rush into my ear, the wind of her speech filling my ear like a humid summer breeze. I thought I could feel each word rush from my ear to my brain and then well up in my eyes, the moisture from her breath collecting under my eyelids.
She kissed me on the back of my neck and reached for the doorknob. Her Dad had just shut the front door and wandered into the hallway. He was calling her name. I let her pass through and she met him near the living room. I lingered at the end of the hallway, at least thirty feet away.
I could feel her walking beside me on Lombard Street. Her shoulder was under my hand, and we stopped at the intersection, the two of us teetering on the curb. We had already reached Laguna Street, and when the signal showed us the little white man, we walked. We crossed the street and passed the red, white, and blue of the brightly lit Chevron, we saw three or four people crowding the cashier window, rubbing their arms with their hands. We saw the tourists, the ones who wear short sleeve shirts in September, the ones who stop on Lombard before crossing the Golden Gate, or finding their way back to their hotels. We saw places we had been together, wandering bus stop to bus stop, trying to make the most out of a Muni transfer, smiling when we made it on one more bus than it rightfully owed us.
Or at least I saw. Gwyn was turned around, looking back at the bench before we got too far to be able to see them. She waved at Nate and Sandy, pulling her shoulder out from under my grip. I glanced back in time to see Nate wave back and motion her forward. She turned herself around and looked at me.
"So, you OK with this?" I slowed my pace and stared straight ahead, stared at the point of Lombard that starts after Van Ness, the part that shoots up, that pulls you up only to drop you down, to lure you through the crookedest street ever, to disorient you at every turn. I stared at the part of Lombard that didn't lay flat, like what we had been walking on, but elevated itself from the rest of the street and then twisted sharply, over and over, almost turning back on itself as it came back down. I stared at that part of Lombard street until my feet stopped moving.
"I'm fine, I mean with this, really."
Gwyn sat on the curb, her knees jutting out just barely into Octavia. She pulled her knees up to her chin and looked up at me, standing beside her, the distance from head to head at least three feet almost straight up.
I sat down next to her and faced forward, both of our bodies like compasses, only we weren't really heading north. We weren't really heading anywhere but right where we were, and we didn't even know what pointing to that would mean, we just sat there and let the evening soak in.
We had walked through the evening like dancers, maybe inexperienced dancers, but ones that at least knew in theory what the steps should be. When I had gotten the letter that she had met someone and she really wanted me to be a part of it, I cried. Not like the day she left, and not even like the day I left home with my own eulogy written in case my parents extended their boycott of my life all the way through my death. I cried hard and long. I sat in Sandy's room and cried. I sat there and remembered it when it was still Gwyn's room. I sat there even until Sandy came home and looked at me with panic, asking if everything was all right. I handed her the letter and walked into my room.
We had performed beautifully up to that point in the lets still be friends domain. I called her every other week and she filled in the weeks between. It had been her idea. After the last conversation before she left, I wasn't sure we'd ever talk again, but she wrote a letter on the drive home. She swore that she was going to prove that we could transfer everything we had into something safer, something we could handle without hurting ourselves, or anyone else. She laid out the plan for our calls, how we could stay close and then we'd still be there when needed. But I had hoped that I wouldn't get the letter I got in August. A month, she said, we'll come visit in a month, if that's OK, she said. Time to get used to the idea, she said. Time to get used to the idea.
She put her hand on my face and I almost jumped. Seeing her in front of me, not on the end of some mysterious pen scratching on some migratory paper but right there, startled me. I wished at that moment that I had ordered one more beer, one more shot of tequila, one more ounce of liquid courage.
"I know," she said, "I know you're not really OK with this. I can tell by the way you stand around me now."
I smiled with the left side of my mouth and sighed. I forgot. I somehow had removed the memory of our conversation about my nervous tics, had somehow forgotten to file it away for cases like this. At the time we talked about it, I never thought I would need to hide it from her.
Months before Gwyn moved away, my parents came to visit from Santa Clara and I had forced her to go to dinner with us. My father drove us in his new blue Camry and we both sat in back. It was the first time I had seen them in three years, the first time since my brother's graduation. They had seen a copy of an article about my paintings in the Guardian. Someone had sent them a copy, thought they should know what I was up to, thought they should know that their daughter had a small show in a gallery South of Market. Someone thought they should know their daughter did more than sell coffee.
I guided them to North Beach and we stood outside of The Stinking Rose for an hour, waiting for a table, trying desperately to pretend that we were all comfortable with the situation. But I stood with one foot on top of the other, balancing myself by setting my right heel on my left toes. I would, every few minutes, set both feet on the ground, steadying myself momentarily, and then I would start the dance again. Gwyn teased me when we got home that night. She walked down the hall to go to bed, stopping every few steps to balance herself in the same way.
"It's so funny," she said, "and I bet they didn't even notice."
"Yeah, well I wish you didn't either," I said before tackling her at the end of the hallway, before we went to bed and I forgot all about standing.
I remembered the standing on Mission Street, waiting for the bus earlier tonight. I could remember now that I had done that, maybe even all evening. I looked down at my feet and wanted to curse them for betraying me, but I didn't really feel that way. I mean, didn't I really want her to notice, to see me, to still be aware of all of me? I looked up and she was looking at me, waiting for me to respond.
"Yeah, well, maybe I was pretending," I said and tried to keep a sarcastic smile from emerging on my face.
"OK, do you wanna joke about this, or do you need to talk?" Gwyn looked at me and I stared at her hair. I used to beg her to wear it down, but she almost always wore it up, away from her face. But tonight, her dark hair hung straight down, her short bangs framing her eyebrows. I scratched the back of my head and let my hand linger there for a moment.
"Jasmine, I'll ask you again, how not OK with this are you?" I looked at her eyes as they scanned around mine. I thought I could feel her fingers touching my eyelashes and thought for a second I would cry. I looked at her eyes and remembered them on the days when we would get up at noon and walk down to Chinese Food/Donuts/Hamburgers for the cheapest, blackest coffee for ten blocks. I could see them like it was that bright outside and I couldn't stand it, couldn't let them be gone, be in Santa Monica, waking up next to Nate.
"I'm great. He's great, you're great. We're all great." I stood up and crossed Octavia, ignoring the flashing red hand on the post across the street. I could hear Gwyn shuffle across the street and lag behind. I stopped just a few feet past the curb and turned around. She caught up to me and I slapped her softly on the back.
"You always knew I was an asshole, right?" I laughed deliberately and she pushed me away.
"Do you want us to leave tonight? Is that what you want? Just say it." She tilted her head to one side and both of her hands were in her back pockets.
"No. Stay. I'll get some money and we'll all take a cab home and we'll all suffer our hangovers together tomorrow." She relaxed her shoulders and pulled her hands out of her pockets. "Don't go," I said out loud, even though I meant only to repeat it to myself.
"You are such a martyr," she said as we continued to walk. "You know," she said, "I even think sometimes you're a martyr about being a martyr."
We walked the next three blocks without talking. I watched the streets approach and fade away as though I weren't even near them. Gough and then Franklin and then Van Ness. But it could have been Franklin and then Van Ness and then Gough. Or we could have even slipped off of Lombard and traveled down another street entirely. I just pictured myself dying for the love of Gwyn, saw myself martyred as she thought I must see myself. I could see it in reds and purples. I could see myself shown from above, knees to the ground, slumped over. I imagined the shadow of my body sliding mysteriously to the side of me, and yet seeping in front of me, a picture that defied a true light source. I saw the curve of my back, the ridges where the bones of my spine pushed closer to the surface the more I bent my back. I painted it in my head, and then I painted Gwyn just outside the frame, crying blue tears for her martyred lover, telling the museum visitors that she was the inspiration, the reason for all this passion.
Gwyn stopped walking and looked at me.
"Jas, stop. I hope you're not waiting to find your bank. Just use this ATM."
We were in front of Home Savings of America, at the corner of Lombard and Van Ness. It stands right at the point in which Lombard starts to change its very nature. I wanted to scream at the street to extend itself further, to give us more room to walk alone. I wanted to bulldoze the bank. I wanted to have to turn onto Van Ness, to walk further, to find the furthest bank. I wanted to walk until the bench at Buchanan and Lombard disintegrated, until the two people on it gave up and walked home, to Sacramento and Santa Monica, respectively. But instead, I pulled the ATM card out of my back pocket and moved up to the machine.
I slipped my card in the slot and the dark cover lifted up and disappeared into the machine. I entered in my secret code and turned around to look at Gwyn. She was standing about ten feet away, balancing herself on the lip of the curb. She walked for a few feet and then one of her feet fell into the gutter. Her shoulders straightened and she lifted her foot back onto the curb. She was teetering carefully on the curb as though she were measuring every step, weighing the danger of each one. She would pause every few steps to re-balance herself and every time she would risk the fall. Each time she stopped, she would start again, showing her complete faith in her own sense of balance, always choosing the footing that gave her the most security. I watched her walk about fifteen steps without falling and then she turned around to come back the same way. She was surprised to see me watching her and she laughed with her eyes closed, and then took a bow.
"Those five years of gymnastics have made this moment possible. Thank you. Thank you." She put both of her feet on the edge of the curb and began to walk back. She looked up at me and seemed to not understand me, seemed to wonder why I was standing still, watching her.
"Are you done?" She planted her feet firmly on the sidewalk and started walking faster towards me. I threw my hands up and turned back to the machine. My card was hanging half way out of the slot and the dark cover had once again descended. I gently pushed it back in and tried to come up with an explanation for my idiot behavior, but I gave up and just finished my transaction.
Withdrawal. Savings. $20.
Yes. I know there is an extra $1.25.
No. I don't need another transaction.
I waited for the receipt to print and I tried to pretend that machine was the limit of my existence. There was no Gwyn, no Nate, no Sandy. I was trying to focus, but I thought I could feel her fingers running along my hairline, tracing the spot where my neck meets my head. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, I saw Gwyn tracing her same footsteps along the curb, her back to me, my skin still fighting to convince me that she was next to me. I could feel every pore in my body open a little, could feel my skin arguing with my eyes. She turned around and smiled.
"Are you really done this time? Got the cash?" She ran up to me and pretended to hold a gun to my head. My skin tightened and I spun around, taking in her hand, the one that lingered just inches from my skin.
"Yeah, I got the cash. Whatcha gonna do about it?" She started laughing again and pushed her thumb down, pretending to fire her pretend gun.
"That's what I'm gonna do about it. So there."
We crossed back over Van Ness and began our journey back to the bench. I tried to imagine the first time we kissed, tried to convince my mouth to remember the sensation. I could see us sitting on the grass outside of the Exploratorium, I could remember leaning over slowly, but I couldn't remember our faces afterwards. I tried to picture the look on Gwyn's face after that first kiss.
"Hey, do you remember the first time we kissed?" I turned my face to look at her and she slowed her pace a little.
"I don't know. I just wondered. What do you remember about it?" She stopped walking just as we got to Franklin, and lingered there even though the light was green.
"I remember we were sitting on the couch, and you took my hand, said you could read palms, you liar . . ."
"That wasn't our first kiss. That wasn't it." I couldn't believe she could get it wrong. I couldn't believe she didn't remember the Exploratorium.
"Yes it was. I had only been in The City for about six weeks and you kissed me. You kissed me right on the couch, and we didn't talk about it for weeks, until my birthday." She had both of her hands on her hips and her eyebrows were lowered, her mind searching back to what she must now consider long ago history.
"You're right. I can't believe you're right about this." I walked across Franklin in a daze. I could see the thick yellow line in the road, I could see chips in the blacktop, and I could see my feet move one in front of the other. I could hear Gwyn saying something, the soft pound of her voice running up into my ears. I could feel when she caught up to me on the other side of Franklin. And I could see that I had remembered the beginning all wrong.
"Jas, when did you think was the first time we kissed?" She pulled my wrist and forced me to stop walking. She looked to me like smoke, a little hazy figure in my line of vision. She squeezed my wrist and asked me again. I looked at her head and followed her hair down to her shoulders, down to her hand and back to mine.
"I thought your birthday was the first time we kissed. I thought it was on the grass, in the sun, but I couldn't remember how your face looked, I couldn't recall it." I started to focus on her more clearly. "I thought your birthday was the first time." She relaxed a little as I tried to laugh off the last line. Silly me, I tried to make my face say.
"Ha, and you were gonna get mad at me for remembering wrong and I was right."
We both started walking again and we made it at least twenty feet before either one of us spoke again. I tried desperately to walk evenly, to keep my pace normal. I felt disoriented and somewhat lost. My inner compass didn't know which direction to walk and didn't even seem to care. "I got accepted to UCLA School of Law." She seemed to brace herself for my reaction, seemed to expect me to rail off some sarcastic anti-establishment remark. But I couldn't. I had been wrong. I had forgotten something so very important to me. I had forgotten. How could I say anything to her when I couldn't even keep my own mind in order?
"Nothing? No reaction? Come on, let me have it." I stopped at the corner of Gough, in front of the Buena Vista Inn. I sat down on the steps of the motel.
"I'm happy for you."
"Screw you. Now I don't even get the respect of your real opinions. So now I'm not even worth that?" She stood in front of me and glared. We had promised each other after that first letter that we wouldn't bullshit each other, we wouldn't candy coat any of it. She knew when I wasn't happy I would tell her, and I knew when she met someone she would bring him. So at least one of us had lived up to the bargain.
"No. I really am. I want you to be happy, and if that's what does it, well then, that's what does it." I meant it, but I could see she couldn't quite trust it. Me -- the one who worked at a cafe for six dollars an hour, so as not to compromise my art. Me -- who stayed safely within my neighborhood, nestled in the one city that I truly loved. Me -- be happy she was going to be a lawyer.
"Gwyn, I still love you, but I know that you can't do what I do. You need your Dad and your sisters and you probably even need Nate. I trust you to know what you need." I listened to the last sentence and realized for the first time in six months that I did, that I really did trust her to know what she needed. I watched as the muscles in her face relaxed and she leaned over to kiss my forehead.
"You are an incredible person, Jasmine," Gwyn said as she took my hands and pulled me up off of the steps. We stood, face to face for a minute. I wanted desperately to put my hands on the sides of her face and pull her mouth to mine. I wanted to hold on there for a while longer, wanted to pretend that this was our goodbye.
We walked a couple more blocks and then crossed Lombard, setting our feet back on the side that still held Nate and Sandy. We both walked up to the Chevron cashier and I bought a pack of Strawberry Bubble Yum, Gwyn's favorite, to break my twenty.
"Here, save it for the drive home. Chew it all before you hit the 405 or you owe me five bucks." She laughed and I wondered if she remembered our drive to Davis for a concert, if she remembered the rental car and how I dared her five bucks to eat a whole bag of Salt and Vinegar chips before we got there. She ate them slowly, until we hit the parking lot, and then she started shoving handfuls of chips into her mouth. She won the bet.
Or maybe I remembered that wrong, too, but I didn't want to know.
"Like I'm gonna tell you if there's any left," she said as she shoved the pack of gum into her pocket.
We walked the last block without saying much. Our hands were in our own pockets and when we got to the bench, Sandy was asleep on Nate's shoulder. He looked up at us, careful not to move his head, steadying his body to keep Sandy from stirring.
"Hey, did you guys get lost? I think I've lost circulation in my arm," he whispered. I shook Sandy and she bolted up.
"What? What?" We all started laughing and Sandy slumped back down in the bench. "You guys are all jerks. Can't you let a girl sleep? I'm just working up to when I get my own bench in Golden Gate Park." With that last word, she put her head on the arm of the bench and closed her eyes. Nate stood up and started shaking out his arm. Gwyn used both of her hands to rub his arm, to bring it back to life.
"Thanks for waiting here. We got the money, now we just got to call a cab," she said softly to Nate. And then she said louder, turned in my direction, "Jas, where's the nearest phone? Did you see one at the Shell station?"
I looked down towards the Shell station, the red and orange lights shining on the sidewalk in front of it. I heard a bus for the first time tonight, the soft hiss, the slide of the wire on the electric line overhead. It was going the opposite direction than the way we were heading. I looked back at Gwyn and Nate.
"I'm pretty sure there was, I'll go call, you guys wait here with Sandy." I walked up to the station and counted my steps. Fifty-one. Fifty-one steps without looking back at the three of them, without letting myself turn around to see if Nate and Gwyn were wrapped around each other for warmth. Fifty-one steps without trying to remember anything. I took a quarter out of my pocket and walked up to the pay phone.
The phone book was torn in half and the yellow pages only spanned from A to G. I looked up "Cabs", knowing it would only refer me to "Taxi-cabs". It did. I fumbled in the white pages for the only company I could think of, Yellow Cab. I dropped my quarter into the phone and dialed. I told the dispatcher that I needed a cab at the corner of Buchanan and Lombard, told him we'd be standing in front of Jack in the Box. I hung up the phone and walked back, pulling my money out of my pocket, separating it into two piles: A stack that totaled eighteen dollars, and one with only one dollar bill. I shoved the one dollar bill into my back pocket and held the rest in my hand.
Gwyn and Nate were sitting next to each other on the bench and Gwyn had her legs draped over his to save space. Sandy was spread out with both of her legs up on the bench. Gwyn looked up at me as I approached and smiled.
"Did you call?"
"Yep. Wheels are on the way." I looked back at the street, tried to see all the way past Van Ness, but I couldn't. I couldn't stand to sit in the cab with all of them right now, couldn't go home to settle in our three different beds, to break off all at once. I wanted to walk. I wanted to walk up Lombard street. I wanted to stand at the top and take in the marina at night, take in the horizon, turn and see the Bay Bridge. I wanted to see where Lombard turns itself right into the bay. I wanted to stand up there alone, and then walk back down, traverse the most crooked stretch of street I had ever seen. I wanted to understand it, know intimately each turn.
"How long did they say it would be?" Gwyn asked, her perfectly formed eyebrow raising up at the end of the sentence like a beautiful question mark.
"Fifteen to twenty. It's Saturday night." I looked at Nate. He looked at me like he knew me. I could see a curve at the corner of his mouth that at that precise moment signified knowledge of me and my life. But he didn't look smug. He looked grateful. I wondered, if he did know, how worried he was coming back here, to see me, the other, the one he couldn't compete with, just as I couldn't with him. He looked grateful.
I handed Nate the money from my hand, the eighteen dollars. Gwyn had her hands in her pocket and Nate's were free, one hanging off of Gwyn's shoulder, the other on top of her legs.
"I'm gonna take the bus, I really want to go for a walk." I looked back in the direction of Van Ness. Gwyn stood up and came around to stand in front of me.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I really want to take the bus. Here's my house key." I handed her my key and she turned it over and over in her hand. She looked at my eyes, and then my mouth, and then my eyes again. She leaned in just a little and lowered her voice.
"Are you sure you're OK? We can all take the bus if you want. I don't want you out here alone waiting for the bus."
"No, Sandy's in no shape to take the bus. I'm not gonna lift her up onto the platform, are you?" I smiled and held it there. I held it there long enough for Gwyn to feel safe that I knew what I was doing. "I do this all the time when you're not around, I can handle it tonight. I'll be home later. Everything's where it was six months ago -- sheets, hide-a-bed, pillows. I just need to walk around right now. Don't worry." She slipped the key into her front pocket and tilted back on her heels, slightly rocking her body back and forth.
"Yeah, well I trust you, to know what you need, I mean," she said like she had heard it somewhere before. She used to do that to me when we would disagree about some fact. If I was right and she found out later that I was, she would try to tell me the same thing as though I never knew. I laughed a few quick bursts and hugged her, squeezing any left over feelings out, wanting nothing more than to sincerely want for her to get on with everything and be happy. But I still couldn't convince myself that it was what I wanted. She looked at Nate.
"Jasmine's gonna take the bus. We'll chaperone Sandy, make sure she remembers that she has a real home with real walls." Nate looked at me and smiled, an almost sad, sympathetic smile.
"Are you sure that's safe?" he asked with absolute sincerity.
"Yeah. I'm tough." I smiled at him.
"Be careful," he said as Gwyn sat back down next to him.
I walked back towards Van Ness. I let the evening run off of me. I wanted only to walk up Lombard, to feel the strain in my legs as I reached the top. I figured I would grab 90 or 91, whichever night owl bus I found. I figured I would take whichever street after Lombard offered the most hope. I guessed that someday I would make this night into a painting, or two, or ten. I tried to imagine what it would look like, but all I could see was the ascent of Lombard street. I tried to even pick a color, but the scattered lights of the streets laid out in front of me washed it all into a soft yellow. I crossed Laguna, Octavia, Gough, Franklin, Van Ness, and then I started to climb.
I could feel my thighs start to burn as I climbed up the first steep stretch of Lombard I had been on all night. I walked the first block quickly, breathing in the cold air, feeling it burn my throat and my lungs. I passed Polk and as I got to Larkin, I almost forgot about the heat in my legs. I was acutely aware of the short quick breaths coming out of my mouth and I stopped at the corner of Hyde and Lombard to prepare myself for the descent.
I laughed when I saw the large round mirror for cross traffic. I looked into it and could see nothing but a distorted view of Hyde as it fell sharply away from Lombard. I stood there for a moment and imagined it in a painting, but gave up on that. Screw reflections, I thought, I'm tired of looking at everything from too many angles. I moved across the street and sat on a brick pillar that matched another column on the other side of the street. They stood for the entrance to the world famous street, marked it for tourists so they would know they were in the right place. They were like gateposts without a gate and I sat on the one, looking out beyond me.
The brick column was cold and I could feel it through my jeans as I looked down the stretch of Lombard made entirely of bricks. From where I was it was inconceivable that one could travel down that street. The way it twisted and turned back on itself created a sight that looked nothing like a street. It looked almost like fish scales, small half circles layered over each other. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine walking straight down, climbing over each three foot wall. I tried to imagine traversing the street without getting confused or turned around. I opened my eyes and looked up.
There was someone in a room on the third floor across the street and they were looking out at me. I imagined them wondering what I was doing sitting there at two in the morning, creating a story in their head for me. When I looked up they walked away from the window and I looked at the Bay Bridge, at Treasure Island, at the still lit basketball court down the street. Life went on after this part of Lombard. I had always remembered it as just falling off into the bay, still turning back on itself, but I was wrong about that, too. There was more to the street after this one winding block. And it was just one winding block, not the expanse of street I had pictured in my head.
I stood up and started down the street, walking in the middle of it. I steered myself carefully until I reached the bottom and I let my feet fall full and firm with each step. I could almost feel the grooves of mortar between the bricks through my shoes and I took long, deep breaths of cold air. As I stepped onto Leavenworth, I looked back up and smiled. I stood at the bottom of the block for a few seconds, and then I walked away. I walked down the rest of Lombard until I found a bus stop. I kept walking on that last part of Lombard until I found a bus that would take me back home. And as I settled on the hard plastic seat of the bus, I didn't try to remember anything about Gwyn, or about me. I didn't try to imagine what would happen in the morning. I just sat there and closed my eyes, listening to the hum of the bus that was leading me home.