On my second night in San Francisco, Karin took me to a bar on Valencia Street. The place was the size of a trolley car and oddities were displayed along its walls in glass cases: shrunken heads, a stuffed alligator, ancient eyeglasses, women’s lingerie, and a flea circus. I looked closely, but I didn’t see any fleas.
“You deserve to celebrate your freedom,” Karin declared once the bartender served our Cosmopolitans. The drinks looked as pink as Kool-Aid in this light. “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to celebrate,” I said.
Karin patted my hand. Her nails were long and painted an elegant mauve; mine were short and bare, the tips of my nails as ragged as a child’s. I curled them under.
“I never did understand what you saw in Peter,” she said. “It’s better that you ended things before you actually married the guy. Peter was as stupid as soup.”
“Peter’s sweet,” I countered. “I never saw him get angry, not in three years. He paid for his sister to go through college. He helped his mom buy a house! And he always remembered my birthday with flowers. Once, he even made a Valentine’s Day card for me stuffed with little paper hearts that fell onto the table when I opened it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Mr. Excitement. Hold me back.”
“Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you’re immune to that sort of thing.”
Karin shook her head. “One does not live by Hallmark moments alone.”
“My parents liked him,” I offered. “Dad gave Peter the seal of approval the day I brought him home. Said he was glad I’d found a decent, hard-working Republican with good tires on his car.”
Karin howled, showing the row of big teeth that Peter thought kept her from being truly beautiful. “She looks like she bites,” he once said, but I’d always liked Karin’s teeth. Big and square and white, her teeth were a metaphor for the fact that Karin was just what she seemed: a woman who knew what she wanted and went after it. None of my mother’s, “You catch more flies with honey,” philosophy for Karin. Whether she was going after a job or a man, Karin favored the flyswatter approach.
We’d known each other forever. It was Karin’s idea to marry our hamsters in a back yard ceremony when we were eight years old, mine to run a neighborhood babysitting monopoly in high school. I became a teacher and Karin studied nursing; when I moved to Boston from our small, central Massachusetts town to earn my master’s degree, Karin followed and worked at Mass General before moving to San Francisco. Now an operating room nurse, she went through lovers the way most women go through lipsticks.
“Remember how you and I always imagined that we'd be brides on the same day?” I asked her now. “We thought we'd marry movie stars and have mansions next door to each other. Even in college, we were sure that was the plan.” I licked sugar from the rim of my glass. “Well, maybe not movie stairs,” I amended. “But we thought we'd be wives and moms together, like our mothers were friends.”
“Yeah, well, forget that plan,” Karin said. “You already broke Rule Number One: never get serious with a guy your parents think is good for you, or you’re doomed to repeat their mistakes. And do you really want to be married to a guy who spends the whole weekend mowing the lawn?”
I laughed. My father once said I could work for money all my life, or marry Peter and earn it in five minutes. I told Karin this and about how, on the first morning after I’d left Peter and moved back in with my parents, Dad shook a fork at me and sent a sliver of egg sailing through the air. At my advanced age of thirty-three, he assured me that I was more likely to meet a roof sniper than another potential husband.
“Was Peter any good in bed, at least?” Karin asked.
“That’s the thing. He’s so great looking, so sexy! Much better looking than I am,” I conceded. “But he had so little interest in sex after the first few months! Peter tracked our lovemaking on his iPhone so that he could print out a spread sheet if I complained, just to prove we were above the national average of 2.5 times a week.”
“Twice a week? That’s for married couples with kids, or maybe people in body casts.” Karin shook her head. “Will you please quit feeling guilty for leaving him? Peter was good looking, sure, but like a Ken doll is good looking, with all of that tidy black hair and his manly jaw. Boring. Besides, from what you’ve told me, it sounds like Peter would’ve left you first, if he’d only had the balls. Face it, Jordan. Your relationship wasn’t just fizzling. It was a flat line.”
I sighed and nodded, too exhausted to argue. I had driven alone from Boston to San Francisco, choosing this city as my destination because it was the farthest place I could drive and still know people: Karin and my brother Cameron. Once I’d announced my intentions, Karin magically pulled an affordable apartment out of thin air for me to sublet. I hadn’t been able to reach Cam at all. This worried me, but it wasn’t a surprise. My younger brother was a drifter, and other than one Christmas, he had been particularly incommunicado since moving West two years ago.
I stayed in one cheap motel after another during my solo drive cross-country. Each was gussied up in the same oranges and browns and then forgotten, as if one person bought the linens and carpets for every hotel under $60 on Route 80. Two of my stopovers were equipped with massage beds. One had a lava lamp. And every motel room had burn rings from coffee pots on the dressers. In my Denver motel, a man tossed beer bottles out his window all night long, so that I stepped outside onto a shimmering crystal carpet the next morning.
When I finally arrived in San Francisco, I stalled my car several times on the roller coaster hills. I blamed my poor driving on the strangeness of the houses, which bloomed like children’s crayoned drawings, pink and orange and purple and terrifying yellow. I had two more days until I could move into my apartment, so Karin had offered me her couch; when I got to her place last night, she fed me chocolate bars and sourdough bread with a bottle of beer.
Now, Karin was asking about my plans. I reminded her that the school had renewed my contract for next year and my teaching salary carried through the summer, so I wouldn’t have to work. I could just stay in San Francisco until August, when I’d head back to Boston to prepare my classes and crash with my parents until I found an apartment. “I don’t know what I’ll do, other than spend time with you and Cam. I’ll probably just go nuts.” I wasn’t joking.
“Oh, poor you, with too much money and free time.”
“I don’t know. I might really blow a fuse with no structure to my days. I usually teach at one of the private schools during the summer.”
“You’re not sick of teaching?”
“Never. They even let me put together the science curriculum last year for the entire elementary school. Should have seen our fossils lab.”
Karin tipped her head back to finish her drink, then said, “You know, we do have schools in California. There’s no law saying you’re doomed to go back and live in the same state as your parents your whole life.”
“I've already signed a contract,” I said.
I didn't bother adding that I just couldn't see myself ever fitting into San Francisco, which might as well be a foreign country to a staid East coast woman like me. Here in the Mission District, open air Hispanic markets and burrito bars vied for space with cafes where men wore berets and women scribbled in journals with the intensity of second graders mastering cursive writing. Earlier today, I’d spotted a Chinese restaurant sandwiched between a Vietnamese grocer’s and a Salvadoran pupusa stand, and passed a thudding alternative dance bar.
The people were just as diverse. Tanned skate boarders and joggers sped along the streets, homeless people hunched over shopping carts of possessions, business people squawked into cell phones, and Hispanic women clutched cloth bags of groceries.
As I shouldered through San Francisco’s version of the American Dream, anything seemed possible. But where did you begin a new life?
“With a party!” Karin said, as if answering my question.
“That’s it! You need to start right in and meet people. I’m planning the Party of All Parties to welcome you to San Francisco. We’ll have it tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I squeaked. “How can you give a party on a day’s notice?”
She gave me a pitying look. “That’s why they invented social media. Will you come?”
“I’m staying at your place, remember?”
Karin grinned. “Good. That’s settled, then.”
She paid the check and we left the bar. The air was balmy and smelled of oranges and the sea. As we rounded the corner onto Church Street, a trolley car rattled past, sparks flying from its wires like manic lightning bugs. It seemed like all of San Francisco had decided to stay up late. Through the windows of the houses I could see blinking television sets, Chinese lanterns, red and purple curtains, and silhouettes of people sitting, gesturing, eating, even dancing.
“Doesn’t anyone ever sleep in this city?” I asked.
“Sleep’s overrated. That’s an East Coast obsession.”
On our college campus, Karin’s housekeeping was legendary. That hadn’t changed much in twelve years. Karin now lived on the top floor of a triple decker, and the windows were so smudged that at first I thought it must be raining. The walls of the living room were painted a medicinal pink with orange trim; the kitchen’s violet counter tops were so splattered with food that they looked speckled by design. Unwashed glassware and stacks of plates competed for sink space and a pyramid of empty beer cans formed a centerpiece on a drop-leaf table, where the remains of a pizza were arranged like flower petals around an overflowing ashtray. I’d been cleaning since late morning, about the same time that Wally, Karin’s disgruntled boyfriend, slammed out of the house, gym bag in hand.
“What’s wrong with him?” I had asked, watching Wally’s stiff back retreat through the door.
“Oh, he doesn’t want me to have a party on a night he’s working.” Karin waved a hand.
“Should we be doing this, then?” Karin had been seeing Wally exclusively for nearly six months--a record length of time for her to keep any man in her sights--yet all I knew about him was that Wally worked as a bellhop in a big hotel, played in an emo band, and lived on a steady diet of cigarettes, coffee, and tuna straight out of the can. This morning I had collected the tuna cans to prove it.
Karin had raised an eyebrow at me. “Honey, the minute you start letting a man tell you what to do, you might as well give up on yourself and wear elastic-waist jeans, too.”
By now, it was late afternoon and I had filled seven garbage bags--the hefty size. I tripped over a pair of wet running shoes and lined them up neatly in the hall closet despite my temptation to stuff them into a garbage bag, too.
“I just don’t get it,” I sputtered. “How can you be an OR nurse and live like this? The doctors must always be sewing misplaced sponges and scalpels into your patients.”
Karin sniffed. “I have an impeccable nursing record. And, let me tell you, after sterilizing and organizing all of those shiny little tools all day, I don’t want to clean when I get home, too. Now find me a can opener. I’m making us some dinner.”
“Where is it?”
“Over there.” Karin gestured vaguely towards the drawer beneath the oven.
I performed an archeological drawer dig, unearthing nail clippers, pens, a dog collar with tags, packets of neon condoms, sheet music for Christmas carols, rubber bands, and a man’s athletic sock. Finally, I laid my hands on a rusty metal can opener that looked positively toxic.
“Maybe you should try keeping your can opener with your cooking tools,” I muttered.
“Oh yeah, I will, soon as I have my personality makeover. Now get back to that dusting! I’ll make us some fabulous spaghetti sauce and you can do the dishes.”
“Oh, there’s a good deal. A year’s worth of dishes and all I get is a canned dinner.”
I washed while Karin cooked, taking a break to phone and text my brother. Still no answer. I hoped Cam hadn’t left the country again without telling us; last year, I received a postcard from India just days after sending a birthday present to his address in Oregon.
After dinner, Karin insisted that I take a bath and relax. I started filling the tub and studied my face in the mirror. Karin’s bathroom was wallpapered in tilting blue sailboats, and my face floated like a giant white buoy among them.
Maybe Dad was right and I was on a downward spiral toward a raggedy, husbandless future. Should I have stayed with Peter? At the very least, I could count on Peter to come home for dinner on time. As an added plus, he always remembered to pick up the dry cleaning.
Over the past three years, our relationship had crossed one commitment threshold after another without stumbling: dating, engagement, then living together, a process that forced us to whittle down our glassware and linens to fit into a single apartment’s built-in shelves.
As Karin saw it, I’d stepped onto a conveyor belt to matrimony, moving along without thinking because it was all so easy, and because I had celebrated my thirtieth birthday in a subdued state of panic three years ago, the month before Peter and I met. She was right. Yet, I already missed elements of my sensible life with Peter. Days with him were calm. Predictable. Sweet. Contented, mostly.
We played Scrabble and chess, held dinner parties, spent weekends exploring Vermont, talked about getting a dog. It was almost as if we’d already put our courtship, wedding, and children behind us, and were now companionable retirees in our golden years. Without Peter, I was afraid that I’d become that quintessential stereotype, the old-maid teacher with chalk on her sweater, ink on her upper lip, and seasonal dangling earrings--bats, candy canes, bunnies--to complement my embroidered holiday sweaters.
To distract myself from this dire thought, I read the labels of Karin’s mind-boggling array of bath oils lining the shelves: Eucalyptus Dream, Peppermint Pep, Calming Camomile. “What about Lascivious Lime?” I yelled at Karin from the bathroom, stripping off my clothes. “Got any of that?”
“Coming right up, Toots!” a man shouted up from the yard below.
I scrunched beneath the window and yanked the shade shut, then ducked into the tub. I settled for two caps full of Peaceful Plum.
“How do you look in red?” Karin popped in, dangling a sleeveless dress the size of a tube sock.
“I’m not wearing that. I’m a respectable elementary school teacher.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to look like one,” Karin scolded. “What were you planning to wear tonight?”
I nodded at my neatly folded khakis and t-shirt, which I’d left on the chair in the bathroom. She wrinkled her nose and plucked the clothes off the chair between two fingers, removing them from the room like a dead rat.
“Hey, yourself!” she shouted back. “I’ll return these in due time. For God’s sake, Jordan. You dress like a woman on safari studying elephant dung.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Karin reappeared in the bathroom, shaking her head. “The only women in San Francisco who dress the way you do are the ones in the Marina, and they can’t help themselves. Trust me on this one. I’m going to hide all of your clothes until after the party. And promise me you’ll use the condoms I’m putting in the pocket of your outfit.”
“I will not have sex with a stranger!”
“They won’t be strangers. Every single person at this party tonight will be a friend of mine. Did you reach Cam, by the way? Can he come tonight?”
“No. What’s going on with him, anyway? Have you seen him? My parents are frantic.”
Karin shook her head and reminded me that she’d only spoken to Cam once last year, when he got back from India. “He called to see if I knew of any jobs at the hospital, but he never followed through. That’s not surprising, though. I’ve never been Cam’s favorite person. I’m too abrasive for a dreamy pot head like him.”
I piled bubbles up to my chin and let my arms float upward. “Is he still, do you think? A pot head?”
“Who knows? So many people are on Klonapin or Zoloft these days, I don’t think nearly as many need to smoke dope.” Karin left the room again and came back a few minutes later to display a black knit jumpsuit for my inspection. “How about this? Very chic! Very retro!”
“Very Catwoman. Very not me.”
“Well, you’d have to wear a body shaper to smooth out the profile,” she admitted.
“Forget it. I enjoy my oxygen too much.”
Karin sat on the toilet and arched her back, her thick black hair moving like an animal curling along her shoulders. She had on tight jeans and a black tank top. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious and vulnerable in front of her, sitting naked in her tub. My own hair was the pale brown of underdone toast and hung below my shoulders, its bushy tendencies tamed only by headbands. Soon my face would sag beneath the weight of all this hair, like an ornament hung on a Christmas tree branch too scrawny to support it.
I was taller and thinner than Karin, but curvier, too. My breasts bobbed about in the water like a pair of tennis balls and it was all I could do not to cover the left one, the breast that still bore the scar of my surgery six months before. I’d gone in for a routine mammogram that turned out to be anything but. The radiologist had outlined little white flecks on the film, raising his eyebrows in a way that made me think I might be in for something.
I was: the white flecks were actually calcifications clustered in a pattern around a small tumor, he’d said. “Maybe benign, maybe not.”
Two weeks later, I was in the mammography room again, having what the radiologist breezily called “a needle loc” in preparation for a biopsy. This procedure made me feel like a radio-controlled car, with a long wire shot straight through the side of my breast and technicians controlling my every move.
The mammography staff, perhaps determined to take my mind off the wire, explained the hazards of their profession, like the time one of them flicked the switch to squeeze the mammography machine’s plates shut, and accidentally trapped the head of another technician between the plates instead of the patient’s breast. Meanwhile, the two women opened and closed the metal plates against my breast, flattening it up and down, side to side, working the machine like some sort of exotic sandwich-maker.
Afterward, one technician patted my arm. “There, now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked.
“Only when I imagined kissing my breast goodbye,” I replied, just to see her wince.
There followed the biopsy, more waiting, and then the diagnosis--yes, breast cancer; no, it hadn’t spread outside of the tiny pinpoints of light in the milk ducts--and surgery. Then more waiting for the results of the lumpectomy. Five interminable days later, the call had come.
“We got it all,” the surgeon crowed over the phone. “Clear margins all around!” No need for radiation or chemo, he said, going on to pronounce me “cured” before hastily adding, “Well, not that there’s really any such thing as a 100 percent cure, is there? With cancer, we can only say 99 percent. Still, pop the champagne while you can.”
That one episode had lasted just a few short months of my life, yet I had gone from 0 to 60 mph during that time, looping through the entire Rocky Mountains of my emotions. Of course I was terrified of dying. At the same time, I felt newly awake: things that had mattered so much to me before—PTO meetings, fund raising for the school science trip—shrank to gnat-like proportions, while things I hadn't thought about in ages—like my brother, and why he'd dropped off the family radar screen—suddenly seemed vitally, achingly important. I felt relieved to be in the clear, yet oddly guilty about dodging the breast cancer bullet this time, while others in more difficult circumstances—a neighbor down the street with three young kids, for instance—hadn't been able to beat it.
Now, scarcely six months later, there was nothing left to show for my experience on the outside but this ugly scar: a raised line half as long as my palm and still red, like a dogwood branch laid against the side of my left breast. Inside, however, I felt that I might never be the same.
When it was all over, Peter wouldn’t touch that breast at all. He simply treated me as if I were the one-breasted woman we were both afraid I’d become. What had prompted me to leave Peter in the end wasn't boredom or the fact that he wasn't as interested in me physically, but the idea that, if he couldn't handle this kind of scare, what would happen to us if the breast cancer returned and a surgeon couldn't tell me to pop the champagne?
I explained this to Peter as I broke off our engagement. He accepted the ring I returned with a curt nod, no argument. He was probably relieved.
I had told Karin all of this through weekly phone calls coast-to-coast. Her response was as pragmatic as I had expected—one reason I loved Karin was that she always, always told the truth, as boldly as possible.
“I understand that you're upset, but really, Jordy, did you think you’d be the one person in the whole world who never got cancer?” she had asked. “Don’t you dare wallow! The surgeon says you’re clean, which is as good as medicine gets. It’s a lesson in mortality, sure, but use it to toss the deadwood and get on with your life.”
I knew that, by “deadwood,” Karin was referring to Peter. I also knew that Karin was busy with a single woman’s preoccupations, just as I had been before. Love, work, and everything else in Karin’s future still stretched before her like a straight, smooth highway.
Despite being my best friend, Karin had yet to realize what I now knew: each of us carries a sleeping tiger inside, and we can’t predict when that cat will wake, stretch, and sharpen its claws. Having to face the tiger's presence inside myself was what made me finally leave Peter. It was also what drove me to seek out Cam and Karin: I felt an intense need to reconnect with what little family I had, and to live a bold, truthful life that went beyond the carefully orchestrated domestic existence I'd shared with Peter.
Karin was still talking about Cam. As far as she remembered from their last conversation, my little brother was working a part-time job in Berkeley and sharing a house with a group of people she'd never met.
“Cam always was different,” she said, reaching into the medicine chest for a pair of tweezers. “He’s nothing like my three brothers, all gung ho about sports and money.”
It was true. Cameron was the family dreamer and video gamer, while I carried the itchy mantle of Responsible Oldest Child. Cam had earned better grades than I did in college, but he dropped out senior year to travel and work odd jobs.
Meanwhile, I went on for my master’s degree and found a job, preparing to marry, provide grandchildren, and show up for Sunday dinners. Eventually, I would be called upon to puree my parents’ dinner in a blender and push their wheelchairs around the block. I didn’t resent Cam, exactly; I only wondered why he’d turned out one way, while I was another.
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Stop thinking! Leave yourself alone! I commanded, and sank into the bath water until I wore a crown of bubbles in my hair.
Karin made me leave her apartment an hour before the party. “Take a walk or grab a coffee. You can’t be both the guest of honor and the first arrival.”
“I’m not just the honored guest,” I reminded her. “I’m also the cleaning crew and caterer.” Still, I humored her and left the apartment, aimlessly wading into the inky purple night. I wore the outfit Karin had loaned me--tight black leather pants, high black leather boots, a turquoise leotard top, and beads that clacked against my breast bone--only because she had hidden my suitcase.
I followed Dolores to 24th and then turned left into Noe Valley, where I was soon mingling with the wine bar crowd. The feathery tops of the palm trees were etched black against the sky. A few lights glimmered in the houses, and I saw a woman moving about in her second-floor kitchen. A man read his newspaper by kerosene lantern on the rooftop garden just to the left of her.
From Noe Valley, I continued up a hill so steep that it made my calves ache, then descended into the Castro, where the gay bars were buzzing and the windows were flung open to the night. The sight of so many beautiful men snuggled together on the benches in one ferny bar sent me into a deep gloom.
What was I doing here, walking alone in someone else’s ill-fitting clothes, with only a plastic tourist map for comfort? I wondered where Cam was, and fervently wished that my brother would miraculously appear to save me from showing up solo at the party. I checked my text messages again, but still nothing.
I stopped to catch my breath in front of a diner surrounded by drag queens in fantastic wigs, long eyelashes, and short skirts. Their horsey muscular legs tapped impatiently on the sidewalk as they waited in line on the sidewalk for dinner booths. No doubt about it, they had more fashion sense than I did. Better make-up, too. And where did they get earrings that size?
I studied my map in order not to stare, and was suddenly reminded of the Treasure Map game that Cam and I had played as children. We drew our treasure maps on white construction paper, elaborate scrawled illustrations in smudged pencil, then deliberately chewed the paper’s edges to dampen it before we rolled the maps into scrolls and left them to yellow in the sun for that authentic treasure map look. I always felt slightly bored during this game, but my brother leaped into full character every time I agreed to play. He’d pretend to hobble along on a wooden leg as a pirate, or sneak like a stowaway behind the kegs of gunpowder disguised as living room furniture.
Whatever his role, Cam’s mission was to steal the treasure map. And I was always the captain of the pirate ship, except for the one time we convinced our father to play this game with us. Our father had roared and swung an egg beater inside his sleeve like a fake metal arm. Cam and I fled, shrieking, into the garage.
Just as my father came flying out the back door, the screen slamming behind him like a musket firing, Cam yanked me to safety into the dark space behind the furnace. We hid there in the oily smelling dark, hearts pounding, until our father tired of looking for us and retreated.
“We fooled the Captain,” Cam had giggled. Where my brother was concerned, it was always us against the scary outside world.
“Well, brother,” I whispered, pocketing my map and turning back towards Karin’s apartment. “Where are you hiding now, in this scary, scary world?”
I’d worked myself up into such a state of anxiety by the time I arrived at Karin’s that I nearly ran back down the stairs when she opened her door. I had to remind myself that a party is just a sandbox for grownups.
This particular sandbox was already crowded. It pulsed with people and music and flashing lights that made the guests look like jerky marionettes. I certainly would have retreated if Karin hadn’t caught me by one arm.
She wore a thigh-length black satin dress that revealed the pale tops of her breasts. Around her neck, Karin had wrapped a white scarf studded with gold stars, and her earrings were enormous gold moons. She embraced me in a musky hug.
“No hiding,” Karin whispered in my ear. “You look too fabulous. Now listen: there are at least a dozen single straight guys here. They’ve all got good jobs, and I’ve tried two of them out personally, so I know they’re hot.”
“Jesus, Karin.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or call Animal Control.
She giggled and led me into the living room, announcing my arrival with the subtlety of a talk show host. “Hey, everybody! This is my best friend from back home, Jordan O’Malley!” Karin elicited a cheer from the crowd, then left me while she greeted more guests at the door.
I had a strategy for surviving any party: graze. There was plenty to nibble. I’d seen to that myself; I even knew where to find the extra bags of tortilla chips if we ran out. I gravitated towards the dining room table, but Karin reappeared before I could fill my plate. A man followed in her wake.
“This,” Karin said, docking in front of me, “is a friend of mine from the hospital, David Goldstein. He’s a pediatrician and you’re a teacher, so you both must like kids, right? That should be a good ice breaker.”
Certainly, nobody could ever accuse Karin of procrastinating. I shook hands with David, the first contestant in Karin’s private Dating Game, wondering whether she’d had the chance to, as she put it, “try him out.” The only thing I knew for sure was that he was employed.
Karin embraced us both, pulling us together like salt and pepper shakers, then zoomed off. David shifted his feet. He wasn’t much taller than I, which made him short in a man’s world, and he had the slightly stooped shoulders and slender frame of an academic. I could have looked him in the eye if his gaze hadn’t been focused on the floor. Instead, I studied his hair. The curls were as silver and metallic as my mother’s favorite brand of kitchen scrub pads. He was probably about my age, but his hair made him look older.
And what was he looking at? My boots? Or, rather, Karin’s boots. I had the urge to squat down and peer into his face, which is what I did with students whenever they felt too overcome to look me in the eye. But no. Let him rise to the occasion. I waited him out.
Judging from David’s wire frame glasses, baggy jeans and pocket t-shirt, he was the sort of boy who had coached the high school math team. He had been laughed at in gym class. And he had probably gone straight from college to medical school, then completed a residency in a clinic for the poor.
I deduced this last bit from David’s shoes, which were the thick leather sandals worn by teachers I knew who had done Peace Corps stints in countries with more dust than rain. They were the shoes Moses must have worn to lead the way through the Red Sea, and David Goldstein wore them with frayed socks. All in all, David looked like someone I could talk to. I was sorry he couldn’t possibly think the same thing of me, since I was dressed in Karin’s Whore of Babylon ensemble.
It was too loud to talk in the living room. I led him out onto Karin's porch, where at least there was a decent breeze. We leaned against the railing and David told me that he did work in a clinic for the poor, as I had suspected. He also served as a pediatric emergency physician in the same city hospital where Karin worked. He’d recently spent a year working abroad, he added, and was having trouble readjusting to life here.
“Where were you?”
“Nepal,” he said, sounding wistful. “Right up until last month, I lived in a mud hut and practiced medicine in a converted cow shed.”
I conjured up dirt floors, dung heaps buzzing with flies, and bloody sheets. “Why there?” I spun my mental globe and found Nepal: Land of Sherpas, yaks, Mt. Everest, and yetis, according to one of my fourth grader’s oral reports for social studies.
“Not for the noblest reason,” David said. “I went for the mountains. Ever since I was a kid, I’d dreamed about climbing Everest.”
“And now you’ve done it? That’s wonderful!”
David shook his head and made a face. “Not quite. Weak knees,” he explained, pointing down at the betrayers. “The curse of being in my thirties and spending my whole life lifting books instead of weights.”
“I bet you saved a few lives, though, even if you didn’t climb mountains.”
“Not as many as I would have liked.” David set his beer bottle on the railing and turned to look out over the rooftops. I did the same, our shoulders comfortably touching. A jet flew overhead, silent and twinkling.
“Once, a villager brought me into his house,” David said, “and begged me to look at his daughter. I went upstairs, where the whole family was gathered around a heap of wool blankets. The only light was from this smoky little fire, so it took me a minute to realize that my patient was actually under those blankets. She was a little thing and skinny as a stick. Her temperature was soaring, up to 105 degrees. She had a severe pelvic infection. A pelvic infection!” He shook his head. “In our country, sulfa drugs could snuff that out in a week, but that kid was on death’s door.”
I could imagine it all: the shadowy figures, the smoky room, the moaning child, David huddled over her. “So what did you do?”
I never found out. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud beeping from David’s pager. He grabbed it off his belt and grimaced at the number. “Sorry. I need to make a call.”
“Karin’s room is quiet,” I suggested. “Down the hall, last room on the left.” As I watched David make his way through the dancers, I wondered whether he already knew where Karin’s bedroom was.
I lingered on the porch, listening to the night sounds of the city. For the last party I’d gone to with Peter, I’d bought a tight little black dress, the sort that would give a dead man an erection. Peter had looked me over and only asked if I could please blow-dry my hair straight, just this once.
Karin materialized at my side. “Why are you moping out here?” She took me firmly by the elbow, leading me back into the apartment.
“I was waiting for David. We were having a nice talk.”
She rolled her eyes. “That figures. Takes a nerd to know one. Listen, David’s as dull as dirt and piss poor besides.”
“But you’re the one who introduced him to me!”
“Just as a warm-up exercise. You said yourself that you’re through with nice guys. Peter was nice, remember?”
“Look, David’s got a billion stories, every one of them sad to the bone. That’s the last thing you need right now. Besides, he had to leave for an emergency room consult. If you really want to pursue things, I’ll give you his number later. Now mingle!” she ordered.
Karin drew me into the brightly lit, crowded kitchen and pointed. Next to the table, which was barely visible beneath six-packs and wine bottles, stood a man whose freckled face was haloed by a cloud of blonde hair. We watched for several minutes while he performed tricks with a tiny Frisbee for several female groupies. He was tall, with a lanky runner’s build and a face that might have been handsome if it were plumped out a little. As it was, his small dark eyes, flat nose, and pert mouth looked stamped onto his skin. He was dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt, baggy green shorts, and running shoes.
“What do you think?” Karin breathed into my hair. “Wouldn’t you rather frolic with a feral Frisbee player than ponder the world’s woes with a pensive pediatrician?” Karin waved and the man grinned, flexing one arm like Popeye. “Isn’t he amazing?”
“He's coordinated,” I said, as Surfer Boy shot a miniature Frisbee into the air and caught it on his forehead, where it balanced on edge.
Karin elbowed me in the ribs. “You don’t know the half of it,” she moaned, fanning her face theatrically. “Come on, what do you really think?”
I studied the guy more closely. “Sorry. There’s not enough beer in the world.”
“Oh, give him a chance. Break loose for once,” Karin said, and abandoned me again to join the dancers in the living room.
I wandered over to the dining room table, loaded down a plate with food, then hovered in the kitchen doorway, watching the object of Karin’s admiration spin a palm-sized red Frisbee across his shoulders. The man saw me watching and advanced. When we were scarcely a foot apart, he pulled an even smaller Frisbee out from behind my ear, rolled it down his arm, then balanced it on one finger. He lifted my hand to pass it to me; the Frisbee continued spinning on the tip of my forefinger.
I had to laugh. “Now what?”
The man shrugged. “Keep it. Consider it your Welcome to California gift.” He flashed a grin and made his way back into the kitchen.
I eyed the Frisbee uncertainly. It seemed a shame to stop the spin, but how long could I stand here like the Statue of Liberty, especially with a plate of food in my other hand?
“Neat trick,” said a woman beside me.
I turned to look at her and dropped the Frisbee, but caught it in mid-air. I hastily slid it into one of the many pockets of my leather pants. “Too bad I couldn’t keep it up.”
“Bet he could, though.” The woman gestured with her sharp chin in the Frisbee player’s direction. She was attractive with the anemic, alien good looks of a super model. In her rayon pink dress, pink leggings, and black Chinese slippers with embroidered roses, however, she looked like a little girl playing Cinderella. Her hips were slight, but her breasts held their own against an enormous metal necklace that might once have been part of a chain link fence.
“He certainly has energy to spare,” I said.
The woman examined me with huge, kohl-rimmed dark eyes and introduced herself as “Anna, Anna Mendez,” exhaling each time on the final “a” of her name as if she were doing abdominal crunches: “An-ah, An-ah!”
“I work with Karin and wanted to meet you, Jordan. Karin thinks the world of you,” Anna said in a voice so ragged and small that it wafted in my direction like a scrap of paper caught on a breeze.
“Are you a nurse with Karin at the hospital?”
Ah. Hence the death-by-starvation appearance. I’d seen more fat on a ribbon snake. “That must be interesting work,” I said.
Anna shrugged. “Not really. People are bent on killing themselves through excess in this country.”
I glanced down at the paper plate in my hand, which sagged in its greasy middle under the weight of artery-choking cheese, pastries, and chips. My leather pants squeaked and wheezed as I shifted my weight and slid the plate onto the tiny folding table beside me, where the fats could congeal in peace. I struggled to think of something to say. “So, how do you encourage people to change their habits?”
“She terrorizes them.” A man joined our conversation. “Our little Anna is a real Discipline Diva with a crop in her boot.”
The speaker was dressed like someone on the cover of a romance novel, in a billowy white cotton shirt, black jeans, black cowboy boots, and a black scarf wound in a complicated way around his neck: testosterone on the hoof. He had a sturdy handlebar mustache and shoulders so broad that Karin must have turned him sideways to fit him through her bedroom door. I had no doubt that he’d been there. She would not have let this one go untouched.
Anna introduced us. “This is Ed,” she breathed.
Ed: a name meant to be stitched on a mechanic’s overalls. He had kind dark eyes, but looked too much like a cartoon villain to be truly appealing. Anna, however, devoured his beefcake proportions the way I’d go after a brownie.
“I do not ever terrorize anybody!” Anna was protesting, speaking in the lilting cadences of uncertain women. “You can’t scare anyone into anything? Not really, when it comes to changing their eating habits? Because people have to motivate themselves?”
I was glad that Anna wasn’t my nutritionist. I was also happy that nobody was standing behind us. My butt would look like a beach ball next to hers, which was as small and tight as two clenched fists.
Our conversation meandered. Anna, it turned out, was from Minnesota. “Horrible, horrible place,” she said. “Bleak skies, lots of snow, and nothing but white bread in the bakeries.”
“What about you?” I asked Ed. “How did you end up in San Francisco?”
Ed smiled handsomely. How else could he smile? “I’m an anomaly, a native San Franciscan. Third generation!” He pulled a wallet out of his pocket and displayed a photograph to prove it. A collection of at least two dozen people, all ages and sizes, smiled into the camera. Like Ed, they had strong chins, hairy forearms, and broad shoulders. Even the girls.
“That’s really something,” I said.
Anna looked stricken. “I always wanted to come from a large family. But I was an only child, the spackle on my parents’ marriage.”
Uh oh. Here it was: The California Confession. One thing I’d learned in my two days here was that Californians could bring out the big guns of personal pain on a moment’s notice. Just today, I’d been in the corner market buying party supplies when I overheard one woman emphatically tell another that she was learning to honor her clitoris after her divorce.
“Are your parents still together?” Ed asked, proving his true California colors by forging ahead fearlessly with the conversation.
Anna shook her head, her satiny black curtain of hair swinging around her elfin face. “They got divorced five years ago. That’s when my repressed memories of the emotional abuse first surfaced enough for me to own them,” she explained.
Ed folded Anna into his arms, then cupped her chin in one hand and tipped it towards him. “I want to say one word to you. Just one,” he said. “It’s a word I want you to repeat as you process your past and progress with your life’s work.”
Embarrassed but fascinated, I stepped closer, anxious to shoplift any soul-saving secrets I could use for myself.
Anna’s eyes brimmed. “What is it?”
“Forgiveness,” Ed murmured, stroking Anna's hair the way you’d calm an anxious horse.
“That is so beautiful,” Anna told him.
That is so much hooey, I thought, as a commotion broke out behind us. Dancers were skipping to the left and right, the women climbing onto the sofa and chairs, the men spinning around, flapping red paper napkins.
“Look out! A rat!” a man cried.
It was a mouse, actually. The terrified rodent scooted between feet and furniture legs. A bearded man in a black t-shirt and black jeans stepped forward with a dish towel held in front of him like a fireman offering a net. “Jump up here, little guy!” he coaxed. “Jump!”
The mouse ignored this invitation and continued to zip around like a wind-up toy. Various people squealed and shrieked, including the bearded man.
Finally, Ed dropped to a crouch, scooped the mouse into one hand and flipped it into his shirt tail. He toted the mouse in this cozy shirt hammock down the back stairs.
A minute later he was back, not even breathing hard. “Dance?” he asked.
I looked for Anna, but she had disappeared in the stampeding herd of mouseophobes. “Maybe just one,” I agreed.
Three, five, then seven dances. I lost count after that. I would never wear leather pants again, I vowed, as sweat streamed down my thighs. Ed didn’t dance like anyone else I knew. He gyrated, strutted, twirled, and even took me in his arms for a number that left me upside down and seasick.
When we finally retreated to the kitchen for more beer, he told me about his family. Ed grew up on a houseboat in Marin with his two sisters, two brothers, artist mother and carpenter father. His father had died five years ago; Ed took his mother out every Sunday for dinner, wrote poetry for love, and made money by taking carpentry and modeling jobs.
“Remodeling?” I shouted over the music.
He shook his head, dark eyes dancing beneath the thick brows. “Modeling.”
“You mean for magazines? Department stores?”
He shook his head again. “Artist’s model.” He struck a manly pose: Atlas on one knee, holding up the world.
“Oh, no!” I laughed.
“No? Well, how about this, then?” Michelangelo’s David was next.
It was easy to imagine these poses in their unclothed entirety. I held the cold beer to my forehead. “Where do you model?”
Two art schools used him on a regular basis, Ed told me. Occasionally he did private sittings as well.
“But doesn’t your construction work interfere? What if you bash your thumb with a hammer or take a two-by-four to the forehead? Do they still want to draw you when you’re all bruised and splintery?”
Ed grinned, teeth flashing beneath his mustache. Seeing Ed smile was like unwrapping a turkey sandwich when you’re hungry: its appeal was its simplicity. “You bet. The more bruises, bumps, tools, and dust I bring to my modeling jobs, the more they love me,” he said.
The imagery was taking me by storm. I closed my eyes and felt Ed’s breath on my face as he leaned close to kiss me. I let him, and it was better than just all right.
Karin chose to appear at that instant. “Oh good. I'm glad to see that you're hooking up.” She patted my back pocket meaningfully, to remind me of the condoms she’d put there earlier, hard-rimmed tokens of good luck. A look of confusion crossed her face when she felt the Frisbee instead.
“I’m about to invite Jordan to my house, if you don’t mind the guest of honor leaving early,” Ed said.
“Mind?” Karin rubbed her hands gleefully. “Not a bit. As long as you both PROMISE not to do anything I wouldn’t.”
Ed shrugged. “That should be an easy promise to keep. What do you say, Jordan?”
What could I say, but yes? Here was my golden opportunity to act impulsively for a change, instead of planning my next move. That's why I had come to San Francisco after all.
Ed drove a filthy Saab with a muffler problem that prohibited all conversation. His apartment was just south of Market and flaunted the same inattention to detail as his car. A couple of webbed lounge chairs stood on either side of the fireplace, a battered chunk of redwood served as a coffee table, the bookshelves were swaybacked wooden planks separated by cinder blocks, and a pair of ancient snowshoes hung on the wall.
“My father’s snowshoes,” Ed said, as reverently as if he were presenting a cremation urn.
In the kitchen, I began to doubt my own intentions as the beer wore off and reality set in. Was I ready for this? There had been a few other men before Peter. (I could still count my lovers on one hand, something that Karin found hilarious.) To varying degrees, I’d been in love with each one. But Peter was the only man who had ever seen the scar on my breast. I thought I’d keep my top on tonight, avoid the issue entirely, then remembered I was wearing a body suit beneath Karin's leather pants. I’d have to convince Ed to turn off the lights if we got that far.
Stalling for time, I asked Ed to put a kettle on for tea. He lit the stove and plopped a couple of herbal tea bags into a pair of oversized pottery mugs. Tan linoleum curled beneath my boots and the speckled Formica table teetered on the crooked floor, its surface not quite leveled by a wad of newspaper. I could only hope that Ed’s carpentry skills, like Karin’s talents as an OR nurse, weren’t represented by what I saw in their apartments.
I sat down. The leather pants cut grooves into my thighs. My earrings, silver hardware also borrowed from Karin, angled into my neck. I might as well have worn a straight jacket and fish hooks.
I gazed into the mug when Ed put it in front of me. The tea bag puffed and floated like a jellyfish, yellow gradually seeping into the steaming water and sending the aroma of spring grass into the room. What was I doing here? I didn’t know this man. And I hated herbal tea. What was the point of a hot beverage without caffeine?
“So talk to me,” Ed said. His broad shoulders dwarfed the chair.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Do you want to go back to Karin’s?”
“I'm not sure.” I sighed. “I don’t even know what I’m doing in San Francisco, much less here in your apartment.” Ed was watching me closely, his eyes kind. Now that I saw him in good light, he looked older, closing in on forty. “I thought you were interested in Anna,” I confessed.
“I am interested in Anna.”
“So why didn’t you dance with her?”
“Because I’m not interested in Anna the way I’m interested in you.”
“True. But skinny isn’t necessarily a good thing. Anna strikes me as someone who would be very high maintenance. Anyway, why are you trying to get me interested in Anna, when you’re the one sitting in my apartment?” Ed took my hands in his. My hands felt small, safely enveloped, warm. “Are you hoping I’ll ask you to leave? Let you off the hook, so you won’t have to hurt my feelings? Sorry. That’s not going to happen.”
I started to cry. A steady stream of tears rolled down my cheeks, as salty as the San Francisco fog. I sniffed, wiped my nose on a paper napkin and crumpled it. I tossed the ball into the trash basket near the window, banking it off the wall.
“Good shot,” Ed observed.
“Hours of playground basketball.”
“I bet you’re a great teacher.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I sniffed.
Ed’s gaze was steady. “Oh, but I do. You love to dance. You’re a terrific listener. You’re a good friend to Karin, who’s one of the dearest people in the world to me. Your left blue eye has a very interesting spot of brown. And you’ve got a luscious body.”
I blew my nose on another napkin and tossed that one, too. The shot went in again. “You’re right. I’m a good teacher. My fourth graders love me. The parents love me. Even the principal thinks I walk on water. But get me out of a classroom, out of those four walls where I can plan every minute on paper, and my life is a wreck. Karin told you, I guess, that I’m just out of a relationship? That I was engaged, but broke it off?”
Ed nodded. “I think what Karin said was, `Thank God she’s out of that one.’ But listen, Jordan, most people almost get married. A lot of us even go through with it. And then a lot of us get unmarried.”
“Have you ever?”
“Yep. You can’t get to my age and not be married at some point in your life.”
“Why, how old are you?”
Pretty old to be a poet and a model, I thought, never mind scampering around on carpenter’s scaffolding like a monkey. In my circle of friends back home, the fortysomethings were lining their ducks in a row to put children through college.
“You don’t look that old,” I said.
“I don’t feel that old. But I’m that experienced.”
“Where’s your wife now?”
Ed ran a finger around the edge of his mug. “She found herself a house and a man to keep her in it, so she left me. We don’t talk any more.”
“How long ago did you get divorced?”
“What was she like?”
He smiled, playing some private reel in his head. “The tough kind of woman you never realize is soft and hurting until it’s too late.”
“Have you been in love with anyone since then?”
Ed laughed. “You ask the worst questions. You must be a relentless elementary school teacher. Yes, of course I have.” He cocked his head at me. “You know, just because you're here doesn't mean that we have to hook up. I can take you home. Or you can just spend the night with me and we'll see how things go. Would you like that?”
“I don’t know.” I was shivering slightly.
Ed rose from the table, washed out the cups at the sink. “Stay with me tonight. I promise you won’t come to any harm or do anything against your will.”
“Have you got a couch?”
“Afraid not.” He led me into the living room. “Just the lawn chairs or the bed. You choose. Though I’ll tell you right now that the lawn chairs have been known to swallow my guests whole and spit them back out on the floor.”
Ed’s bed was inside a closet in the living room. The bed filled the entire closet, and it was a cozy place, covered in a red flannel quilt and lined with blue flannel pillows. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, coming up behind me and resting his hands on my hips. “Let me entertain you.”
“What do you mean?” I looked around for a TV, saw none.
He guided me onto the bed gently. “Lean back against the pillows.”
“Mind if I take off my pants first?” I rubbed the leather seams along my thighs. “I feel like I’m sewn into a sausage casing.”
“You’re asking permission to remove your clothing?” Ed leaned against the closet door, grinning.
“Just my pants,” I warned.
“Sure. And anything else, if the mood should strike.”
I tugged off the leather an inch at a time while Ed pretended to busy himself with the stereo. My legs were creased and dented with the memory of every seam and metal rivet; the leotard had worked its way uphill in a most unattractive way. “Could I borrow a t-shirt? And maybe some boxers?” I asked. “And would you mind if I took a shower, too?”
“Yes, yes, and a most emphatic no.” Ed gathered things out of his bureau and showed me to the bathroom.
This room was clearly the showpiece of the apartment. The new tiles were red, and inside the shower a black bench ran the length of the wall. I turned on the water and perched on the bench to massage my feet, which still ached from Karin’s high-heeled boots.
It all felt so good that I found myself humming by the time I got out and examined myself in the mirror. Ed wouldn’t necessarily notice the scar on my breast if we did go to bed. I’d just keep the lights low. Or off, better yet. I pulled on his green V-neck t-shirt and a pair of plaid boxers, feeling almost relaxed.
Back in the bedroom/closet, Ed told me to get into bed. I propped myself up against the pillows and waited. He disappeared into the kitchen, put on slow reggae music, then began to dance for me.
He was a good dancer. No surprise there. But then Ed began to strip off his clothes, slowly, unwinding his scarf and draping it over the floor lamp before he undid the buttons of his shirt. The shirt fell to the floor and Ed moved about the room, wordlessly inviting me to admire his broad, smooth back and muscular carpenter’s shoulders.
As he danced, Ed touched himself with his hands just enough to make me shiver. I tried not to think about who else had seen this particular mating ritual. But a part of me stayed on alert and wary, observing the action instead of being fully engaged in it.
Perhaps that’s why I reacted the way I did when Ed unfastened his trousers. His pants were held together by a Velcro strip, and he ripped them open with such deliberate flair, such noise, that I gasped. As his pants puddled around his ankles, Ed's penis reared its head like a prairie dog popping out of a tunnel.
That’s when I laughed. Uncontrollably.
“I’m so sorry,” I wheezed, once I’d stopped snorting. Ed’s proud manhood had shriveled to thumb size and now dangled despondently. “You just surprised me, that's all. I've never seen anything quite like that.”
Ed hurriedly hiked up his trousers and fastened them again. “It’s all right,” he said with dignity. “Some women like something different, that’s all. I just wanted to please you.”
The phrase “some women” got to me. I didn’t want to be one more mare in the stable. On the other hand, Ed had honestly been nice, hadn’t he? Trying to please me in bed had to count for something. For a lot, after Peter. After all, wasn’t that why I was here? For the joy of sex without the ponderous weight of love? To leap my own life's boundaries?
“I’m really sorry,” I said again.
“Don’t worry. It’s fine,” Ed said, waving a hand, but we both knew it wasn’t.
Ed took a shower then, and I lay miserably against the pillows. Would it be better if I left? Or worse?
He seemed cheerful enough, though, when he came back, toweling his hair. Ed slid into bed naked beside me, hiking the covers up over his bare chest. “I hope you still feel comfortable enough to stay what little is left of the night,” he said, turning on his side to face me.
Ed smelled now of the night outside, as sweet as the sea. The covers had slipped to reveal one brown shoulder. I traced it with one finger, then touched his collar bone. His bulk was comforting. “I might,” I said.
“I hope you will. You’re a wonderful surprise,” he added, lifting the covers up to look at me.
“All those wonderful curves. Much nicer than I expected. And I expected to like you a lot.” Ed’s voice was drowsy and his eyes were at half-mast. I touched his dark hair, which was thick and soft and just long enough to tug between my fingers.
He didn’t stir. He was sound asleep.
I slipped out of bed and dressed again, then let myself out of the apartment.