San Francisco, March 1976
...following is free chapter from Traveling Without A Passport
On the morning after I moved into my apartment on Ashbury, wet snow dropped over parts of San Francisco, mostly on Portrero Hill, the boyhood neighborhood of O. J. Simpson. It was an event I was not alone in believing could never take place. Waiting for a phone company installer to arrive and hook me up, I looked out at the giant, disappearing flakes mixed with rain as they fell between branches, and I imagined portents. Was I entering a channel marked by strangeness and inexplicable experiences?
While the installer from Pacific Bell wandered around, extending and crimping wires with connectors, my standard issue, olive green phone jutting awkwardly and inertly out of its box on the table, he talked about the political crisis in his home country, El Salvador. People generally seemed to enjoy political crises, I’d noticed. This tended to dishearten me, because I had little interest in them myself. And the farther away they got, the less interest I had. If they didn’t have a crisis, most people would like to stir one up or find someone else’s to get excited about.
After they killed Bobby Kennedy, my interest in politics had eroded like sand off a watershed, save my unquenchable, visceral dislike for Nixon who I assumed would one day be unmasked as Satan. Politics looked like a big, impoverished game with intrenched facets, and that included the peoples’ revolt in El Salvador.
Within a week of the day I watched snow falling out of that rich gray sky in San Francisco, I received the biggest royalty check I’d ever earned as a writer. It was buried in my first forwarded mail, stuffed into a tan, eight and a half by eleven envelope among a collection of other things from Alex who’d also inserted his own cryptic note on a slip of scrap paper:
...many people asking for you...
It was written boldly in felt tip, his style, and clipped to an unrelated envelope. I took it as an advisory to continue laying low or, maybe, a hint that, as expected, I’d gotten out just in time. I hadn’t yet been awarded the disgrace of being completely forgotten in Buffalo.
But, then, even after pauper-like scrimping and having started out with more cash than expected, I’d quickly run out of resources as well as wonder. No more snow had fallen. No more checks had arrived, and, Goddamn it, I was losing Marcie. Things happened fast in California, faster than I’d imagined.
I’ve become a spectator, I wrote in a letter to Alex. It never feels like I’ve got my hands on the wheel.
What, he wrote back, have you got your hands on? What happened with the girl?
“The girl? Use her fucking name” was my unhappy, gut response.
“She has one,” I added aloud to the walls in my non-objecting studio apartment.
Alex had been too lazy to get out my last letter and be reminded, I concluded. The girl was too abstract for her in any context. Marcie was flesh and bone, a hectic mind, an athletic ass wrapped in perfectly tight jeans, angular expressions, beautiful hair and, for me, an exercise in emotional turbulence.
What the hell went wrong between me and Marcie? Her family, dominated by proper women, hated me the minute they heard our story, was my first guess. They’d probably been warned by the intrusive Sausalito guardian of the female anatomy. I knew I lacked obvious promise and never made any bones about it. My lack of stature was right out there, like a physical feature. Equals gigolo to them, I suspected. Imagine, me?
“He writes what?” at least one of Marcie’s sisters, a grim panel of lookalike judges, must have asked. “And he went to San Francisco with no job and no money either? What’s he running away from?”
Plenty, really, but Marcie didn’t know about any of that, but by the time she came back, distrust had been firmly planted in her head.
We’d been like lab rats, thrown by coincidence into an intimate cage, was how I described it the first (and only, as it turned out) time we went on a date in San Francisco. I worded it more nicely, of course. We’d been free, solo passengers on a not full bus and could as easily have disliked each other and moved away. We did the opposite. Voluntarily. I engaged her in conversation while we were waiting, lining up to get off at a rest stop, and she asked to join me after we returned to our seats a half-hour later.
“Maybe we were both just horny,” she kidded, and we laughed then because there was still some life in our connection.
“I know some of you girls are that way,” I responded, “but I’m more into relationships. No shit, honest.”
I flashed on, but kept to myself, my old friend Dan’s lament: “I wanted to make love, but all she wanted to do was fuck.”
I thought women’s not infrequent habit of referencing things back to sexual basics was a form of evasion and most men played the game out of ignorance of what was happening. We were supposed to be blissfully incapable of intimacy, a treasured female trait.
Now, just a month later, Marcie and I were lab rats again, evicted from our cage, made stupid and overconfident by happiness under conditions impossible to repeat. We were talking quietly in a darkened park near her apartment, a valley congested with streetlights below us. She was on a swing, and I was pushing. Every time she glided back, I spread my fingers across the curl of her ribs and guided her in a steady rhythm. I touched the upper construction of her pelvic bones. This was the only time in San Francisco when we were able to return to the vicinity of that shared, comfortable trance we’d found on the bus. I didn’t understand how we got there the first time anymore than I now knew how we’d gotten back. There was a chemistry that surged when we mixed it a certain way. It seemed like there was a space close-by, a membrane to penetrate, where we had a choice to step in or step aside.
“I don’t think we can ever be like we were again, Peter,” Marcie whispered.
I wanted to shake her, to disagree and sensed that she was braced for an argument, but everything that mattered about us was too abstract for a successful discussion, too ineffable to be reconstructed with verbs and nouns. If I couldn’t explain it to my alter ego back in Buffalo while sitting at my table with a pen and paper and all the time in the world, then what were my chances under the gun of so much intensity? Besides, what she seemed to be preparing to do was to dump me. Gently. It was breaking my heart, I can tell you that, and it was very immediate.
“Maybe we can just be in it temporarily and see how it feels,” I suggested.
We kept swinging and didn’t say much more. Once you get to the point where you have to debate the details, it’s poisoned anyway, and you’re just doing an early autopsy.