San Francisco in Four Acts
1: The Mission
It's so green. I count four different species of palm trees. The city undulates out in every direction. Sutro Tower rises up behind me, like a backbone. And it's here, while I'm sitting in Mission Dolores Park, that I think about the cloister.
It's the space in my mind I keep under lock. I had piled everything in there, shouldered the door closed, and turned the key. That room, quiet and dark, its contents lying under dust sheets, is what allowed me to carry on. Mostly sane, even.
But here I am, embedded in this day I knew would come. It's impossible to work in academia and not end up here eventually. Conferences vie for this location, and the campus rosters are a who's who of everyone doing everything important. Return was inevitable.
Time has disabused me of my fantasies about this place. Namely that I could have lived and loved here. I used to think I knew how close I was to grasping those things, inhabiting them. But what was true? And what was just me filling a slot in someone's behavioural pattern stuck in a repeat loop? I don't know where the answer lies, which is what makes the cloister necessary.
I avoid rummaging in that space. I leave its collection of memories and imaginings mostly undisturbed, relics of a history I can't authenticate. But here I feel them stirring. How can they not, when they find their matches in real space and time? I walk past Trick Dog, where I thought we'd share drinks and hushed conversation over flickering candlelight. I wait in line at Tartine, where we'd buy bread for Sunday Supper. And here, this park and its festivities – once I had been daring enough to imagine coming here with his children. Those images and so many more I had gathered one by one and stitched together into a whole – an exercise in intention. If I loved expansively enough and believed deeply enough, I could manifest anything. I was magic, after all, the stardust he said the Universe had sprinkled in his path…
No. Don't disturb the remains. Turn out the light. Close the cloister door.
The sun descends pink-gold as I walk through the entrance on 20th Street. "It's just me," I say to the host who, out of habit, gathers two menus and looks expectantly over my shoulder. "Can I sit at the bar?"
He steps aside and lets me pass.
Soundtrack: Joni Mitchell, “Cactus Tree”
* * * * * *
2: Land’s End
It's a colour that doesn't exist anywhere else. Just here. You could call it gold, I suppose, but it's so much more than that. I fumble around for words that will harness what is before me but I come up so woefully short that I crouch down to wrap my arms around my knees, which helps a bit in keeping the tears at bay. Because here is the Pacific roaring at me while it lunges at my toes in watery grasps. The wind is whipping my hair in all directions while the sky burns so goddamned brightly that it drenches everything – the air, the clouds, the water, the sand, my skin. There's nothing on this beach not glowing in that luminescent shade of gold whose magnificence and presence I simply cannot find a word for.
All I can do is be here, blinking silently, awed.
The swell and crash of every wave floods me with emotions I've both embraced and held at arm’s length, and then drains them from me with each retreat. I relive the surprise and hope and fear and joy and sadness and anger and shame, feeling each course its way through me before toppling out and being washed away. Salt water swirls and foams and spits, and I wonder whether to shout at it or whisper the question "Why" – which will give me a better result?
There is no answer, of course, and as I pick my way along the coast listening to that blessed ocean tide and trailing my fingers along rock and trunk while watching the sky shift its tones, I am reminded of the random chaos that put all this here. This molecule bumping into that one, and at just the right temperature at just the right time, a chain reaction of magic ignited. It can all be obliterated at any moment but with near misses here and lucky breaks there, it all twirls on. We are here by chance. This reality comforts me. And enrages me. Because for every bit of intention and self-awareness and conscious seeking and desire, it all comes down to this: Chance.
It was nothing more than a game of chance.
Here I am, on the edge of the world, looking out over an endless stretch of ocean and sky. You could call it gold, I suppose, but it's so much more than that.
Soundtrack: Regina Spektor, “Better”
* * * * * *
"Have you seen the series she's posting?"
Michigan. Illinois. Tennessee. My heart hammers as my feet pound the streets whose names slip by on signposts.
With that simple question, my time here ceases to be my own and I am thrust back into the very worst part of those few years. What it's like to be told you're adored, and then subjected to images of the other women he's fucking and descriptions of those encounters. Often, my hand would instinctively grope my face, checking for blood. Because seeing that is like being in a head-on car crash, your entire self smashed and crumpled with every single post.
It's a Circle of Hell unlike any other, one that Dante himself couldn't even fathom.
Minnesota. Indiana. Pennsylvania. I read the series as I walk, blood pulsing down the column of my throat. I see the lines she quotes from his messages to her. One of them appeared, verbatim, mere hours before on my very own phone screen. How's that for timing? At least he's consistent. But most of all, it's the series' underlying pain that affects me. Because beneath the words' bravado lies pain. I know, because it was my pain, too.
I think of how utterly dysfunctional that time was. How we hung ourselves out on social media’s gallery walls for all to see. It was a way to chronicle and prove experience – this happened, this is real. But it also felt like a dog fight. Who fucked him better. Who loved him best. Who penetrated his heart and mind most deeply. I wonder if people kept score as they watched it unfold. I wonder if he did. His bitches in heat, lined up in row.
I think of what he held in his hands over those years: the wealth of intelligence, soul, and beauty. The staggering amount of love. And all that just from those of us I know of. He let it all slip through his fingers. And for what? To freely sniff and bark at a pack of attention-hounds? The vapid ones, the ones half his age. Those bites hurt most.
Storefronts on 3rd. Wine bars, lofts, boutiques, galleries. It's remarkable, how this neighbourhood has changed. And so have I, thank god.
I have exhausted what can be accomplished here in the Patch. I look back, just once, before crossing into another realm. There he is. I can see him, in faint outline: Cerberus, fangs bared as he howls, forever chained to his Gates of Hell.
Soundtrack: K.Flay, “Blood in the Cut”
* * * * * *
The moon came out, just before I left. The Bay Bridge, lit in cascading white lights, was stretched like a star trail across the water. It had rained the whole of the day and I was sodden – my umbrella, my hood, my scarf, my skin soaked through. But I was drawn here one more time, to sit at the foot of this canopy of steel whose sole purpose it to connect things otherwise kept apart. That's when the moon, just a sliver away from being full, appeared. It was a brief visit, a scant few minutes shining in a purple-black sky, but the timing was no coincidence.
This city. It is like life itself, with its hills and water and bridges and air – up, down, ebb, flow, cross to new shores, find your way home, get lost in the fog, and then see what is revealed. "Who are you?" it has asked me every time I've been here before doling out the very extremes of euphoria and pain that prove I am so much more than I’ve dared to consider.
I feel as if I have lived and died in this place. I've been buried alive in Embarcadero skies. And then, following the path of silver light slicking the streets, I walk away, resurrected.
Soundtrack: St. Vincent, “Slow Disco”