Geoffrey looks a little like Karl Lagerfeld, minus the rings and the camp. I know his name is Geoffrey because I sneak a peek at his boarding pass as I stash my bag in the overhead bin. My friend plunks herself in the window seat, insists I take the middle, and she pulls down her eye mask, pops in her ear plugs and there is no hope for me. Geoffrey and I sit on the plane next to each other, perfect strangers confined in a petri dish for the next 16 hours. I tell him where we’re going. He nods as I list off the usual hot spots, but his eyes light up as I mention his home.
I’ve lived there for 20 years, he tells me.
I spent three days there once. Does that count?
It’s not enough.
I know, I say. That’s why I’m going back.
As the plane touches down, he hands me a vomit bag. Across it he has scrawled bars, restaurants, hotels, sights, hand drawn maps. Two words etched across the top of the paper in messy ink hold my attention.
I could never live here, she says with a toss of her hair.
She sucks her juice through a straw as she looks across the bay. I hate the way she does it, lifting the straw above the level of the liquid, just enough that the noise disturbs the group of German boys at the next table. I want to snap at her. She knows what she is doing, she knows the best way to stir me after five months of travelling together, but it is getting old.
We have been to Victoria Falls, then Johannesburg, Tokyo, Osaka, Lausanne, Paris, London, New York, Vegas, now, finally, San Fran. Five months away. It feels like the whole world should be changed and my mind is half back home, in my sunlit bedroom, listening to music and cooking dinner, going to work, dropping by my parents house. Five months and the friend I’ve been travelling with isn’t my friend anymore. Conversation has run dry, there are no more words spilling from our mouths. We go some place loud, some place we don’t have to talk and just dance the night away. There have been people we’ve met along the way who have filled in the blanks, but now I’m sick of it.
So I take a breath.
I am silent, taking in the way the light slants off the bay, the faint noise of the Pier 39 seals below us, the beat of this city. I close my eyes, tuning her out. She is saying something about how it is too slow here, the people are too simple, the place is too pretty and it is all just a bit vapid. We pay and leave Eagle Café and I take another breath, watching my feet wind their way through the street, careful not to step on the cracks. There are so many here, spread out over the road like scars. I imagine they are from earthquakes that rumble underneath the city while cats hide behind refrigerators and people sleep on, undisturbed. People who live in an earthquake city aren’t slow or simple, I want to yell at her. So what if it’s pretty and the people are nice? Does that mean it can’t also be taken seriously?
We walk down to the water and take a ferry out to Alcatraz. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to. I stand in the tiny cell open to visitors, stare at the four walls and imagine how cold this place would be at night. My not-friend takes photos of herself putting her head through the bars, pulling faces and I look away, a bit ashamed, but she just shrugs and says the men who were in here deserved everything they got.
We rent bikes from Dylan’s Bike Store, and we follow the map he marks out for us in highlighter, right before he adjusts the seat heights for us and gives us a number to call if we puncture a tyre and I can’t stop saying thank you because people are so friggin’ nice here.
We ride through Marina and get looks from rich young things spending their money on Union Street underwear, and I stop and stare through the window at the French lace corsets, delicate as butterfly wings. The women who wear these are tall and tanned (and young and lovely) and I want to be them, or be friends with them or I would even settle for standing near them sometimes and smelling their perfume.
We wind through Russian Hill and take in the zig-zagging Lombard Street. I imagine the architects and town planners; and someone slapping their palm onto a table crying, “I’ve got it!” The houses are tiny leaning towers of Pisa and there are eight hairpin turns slashed into the hill and she thinks they were kind of crazy, but I think they were kind of amazing.
We turn onto Valencia and suddenly we are in the Mission. We fly past bars and restaurants and colours, so many colours they blur as we tear down the hill towards the water and then we are at the waterfront. The rest is a haze of shape and shadow until we reach the bridge. We climb off our bikes and look down at the waves crashing against the pillars holding it up. We see the tiny dots of the surfers in full winter body suits, and something comes over me and I speak. She almost listens.
I would rather live in New York, she says to me as we stroll through the Farmers Markets looking for cheese.
I shrug and don’t say what I’m thinking, because in total I’ve spent less than eight days of my life here and I know that it’s incredibly weird, but I’m protective of this place the way I am about my family, and I don’t want anybody insulting it.
New York is the younger sister skulking behind a tree; edgy and bright and boiling over with too much of everything. Lost souls are drawn to her bright lights and she burns them out while they don’t even notice.
Las Vegas is the older sister dressed in sequins tap-dancing around the kitchen table. She gets a boob job and a tattoo that says princess just above her butt and she makes no apologies for it.
San Francisco is the middle sister lazing on the couch reading a book, effortlessly stylish in a way that tells others she doesn’t give a shit. She has fights with her parents about global warming and the importance of standing up for gay marriage, and she brakes for animals. She is kind, kind in the way that doesn’t come along too often these days and she feeds the homeless regularly. She can peel an apple in one long strip.
We’re in Haight-Ashbury, having been directed there by the hotel, spending so much money there’s no point putting my credit card back in my wallet. Even she has to admit the shopping here is fantastic, and even though we had other plans today we let them slide with a ‘we’ll get to that tomorrow’ as we stare at rack after rack of clothes, shoes, bags, knick knacks.
It’s a shame that it’s winter and I’m wearing so many layers because much valuable shopping time is lost peeling leggings and stockings and thermals on and off again. I’m in a frenzy, ripping things I don’t need from shelves and saying, “I’ll take it,” and I feel sick at the amount I have spent, but this place is getting to me and I need to take a small part of it home as proof.
I will keep these things in my closet until someone I trust comes over for tea. I will wait for a lull in the conversation, then I will take the things out of my closet, shyly offering them one by one to the person I trust. I will show them the vomit bag Geoffrey gave me, carefully kept for all those months. I will show them photos of me on the cable cars. I will make them touch the fabric of the clothes and trust in the power of osmosis to explain for me the unsettling pit in my stomach; one which tells me that I feel at home here in a way that startles me out of my old skin. I could carve out a life here, here in this pretty earthquake city with the vapid slow simple people. I could hang out in the Castro and make gay friends and I could run down by the waterfront, only eating organic veggies I buy from the farmers market. I could be a kind stranger on a plane dispensing advice to young girls about my home and I could take my mum and dad out to Alcatraz when they visit, and they wouldn’t stick their heads through the bars. I could ride my bike over the bridge, pausing at the top to watch the fog roll through the bay, freezing my hair into slick tendrils that stick to my skin. I could leave my sunlit bedroom behind and settle into this city by the sea, and I could get a cat that would hide behind my refrigerator as I sleep undisturbed in my San Francisco bed.
This has been an intersection with the very lovely . Many thanks go to her for being so inspiring, and also to , for her insight on how to make this not suck.
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