“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
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.