An hour on the 101 dumped me, exhausted, in front of your building. I left sunny skies and 80 degrees and poolside-lounging for low, bulging clouds and tightly zipped coats. Knocked on your back door, met your girlfriend, touched the books on your shelves. Down a steep hill and we caught the metro at the end of the block. I dug for a crumpled dollar or rogue quarter in my pocket and came up empty-handed and sheepish; you paid for my flimsy paper ticket.
I exclaimed over buildings and forgot my self-awareness, forgot how naïve, how midwest, I must have sounded to San Francisco ears. Our train clattered past Dolores Park and you talked about girls sunbathing there on cloudless afternoons. A tunnel swallowed us up, leaving the windows black and useless for conversation. I scuffed my Sperrys against plastic ridges underfoot while you fiddled with settings on your camera.
Up, up, up stairs spiked with trash and filth, into scraps of sunshine fighting for space between buildings and clouds. I scurried after you for blocks, trying not to trip over grates or step off a curb into roaring traffic.
At the museum, you gave your name and the desk attendant slid a pair of tickets across the counter without looking up. Long strands of tiny white lights dangled overhead, slipping through patterned light shows that I watched, fascinated. You pushed one of the tickets into my hand, then gestured for me to follow you upstairs.
“Are you sure you don’t mind coming again?” I asked, feeling guilty for turning down your invitation to the exhibit the night before with your writer friend. “You already saw this.”
“Oh, stop. It’s fine.” I followed your quick pace up the stairs, stopping briefly on the second floor to stare at bells that rang when electric currents ran through their long, snaking cords nailed to the wall.
We turned a corner and a two-story tall Cindy Sherman stared down on us, brow furrowed and lips pursed. Hundreds of images of her, young and cigarette-wielding on the seaside, primped as a freshly Botoxed post-menopausal woman, face distorted into a dozen tongues and teeth and bits of garbage.
A seven-year old boy glided past us, pulling on his mother’s hand and speaking rapid-fire French. His jacket had elbow patches and an analog camera dangled around his neck. I nudged your ribcage, “That child is wearing the same outfit as you.”
You stared down at yourself. “Oh. Uhh….” You laughed. “My father is a photographer. When I was that kid’s age, I was dressed pretty much like this.” We both smiled at the child for a moment before strolling into the next room of framed photographs.
We left Cindy, browsed rooms with art I couldn’t understand, televisions flickering with snow and a giant stuffed rat and paper doll collages. We wound up and up through the museum, eventually stepping onto the roof to hunt for Waldo on neighboring rooftops and rest in wire chairs.
Small talk. Awkward talk. I’m never any good at new friends, new topics. You pulled out your camera and took photos of my hot pink jeans.
“That color is fantastic. They’re just fun to photograph.”
I laughed woodenly and pushed my hair behind my ears. Talking to you was so hard—why? Your voice, your words, your movement: familiar, comforting, two-thousand miles from home. And yet I could hardly part my lips, could hardly whisper a syllable. Surely you thought I was an idiot, a bumpkin.
Coffee, pastries. I made you let me buy your muffin. It was the least I could do. Back underground. Rushing trains, musicians with guitar cases at their feet filled with change, shopping bags over shoulders and yoga mats strapped to backs. We stayed quiet and still on the ride home, shoulders swaying with each jerk of the train car.
We made it back to find your girlfriend’s brother and sister-in-law and nephew about to knock on your door. I shook hands and stayed around for just a moment, a moment too long, as the family settled in together.
“I…should go. Thanks for today. It was good. I needed it.”
You walked me out the back door and around the edge of the building.
‘I’m glad you came. Someone needed to actually take you out up here, otherwise you were going to rot away in San Jose and never see anything good in the city.’ Just before turning back to your home and family, you hugged me, your embrace surprisingly warm and welcoming. All of the words that had tried to bubble out for weeks caught in my heart and lungs and throat. Two-thousand miles, every inch an ache, a sharp jabbing in my soul, and you made me feel like home.
For a moment, in the middle of a lonely, uprooting summer, I felt safe and certain.