By Ben Tanzer
There was this boy with his head in your lap.
Which is not exactly what it sounds like, though depending on how that sounds to you, it isn’t exactly not that either.
Which is to say that he isn’t a little boy, you have those now and you know what they look like, he was more like a young man, as were you, it’s just that you just weren’t as young as he was, with his boyish face, pale skin, and light, near translucent scruff.
But you’re getting ahead of yourself, that is the present, or that present anyway, and this doesn’t work without knowing the past and the decisions you made that got you from there to here.
Because before that, there was a door, though not exactly a door, it was more like a passage, both in the metaphorical sense certainly, as in it takes you somewhere both new and old all at once, a sort of a Raiders of the Lost Ark take a step and the bridge will appear kind of passage, but also in a literal sense, because there is also a curtain, and behind it a long hall in a club South of Market in San Francisco that no one in the club seems to be paying attention to, except for you and your friends.
Now how can that be?
You don’t know, but San Francisco has always been like that for you.
Or, it was like that anyway, because you don’t live there anymore, you live in New York City now, you live back home, and San Francisco is now a place you used to live, a place you once ran to, but then ran away from.
There had been this morning, gray, drizzly, and all upstate New York. And when was that? It was before the boy, and before you ran west only to return again. It could have been decades earlier, but it was only two or three years prior to now.
So, there you were, climbing out of bed at dawn, the drugs and alcohol still lingering and pooling on your brain like the morning dew on the grass below the window you are staring out of.
The rain and the old houses with their peeling paint and faded siding stretch on forever, a view you had taken in every morning of every day of your life up until now, and there was the feeling of both being nowhere and falling down a pit, desperately grabbing at the stray branches all around you, yet unable to grab one regardless of how hard you tried.
“California,” you said to no one in particular, because it seemed like that’s where people go when they need to go wherever people go to become something new.
Then you were living there.
And now you are not.
Except that now you are back again though only for a long weekend and now you are thinking about whether you made the right choice when you left.
You never stopped thinking about that then.
What if you hadn’t left?
What if your mother hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer?
What if your grandfather hadn’t felt forced to move into a retirement community before he was ready to do so?
What if you didn’t think about your girlfriend all the time, or hadn’t been doing so since the day you met her, even when you, or she, really didn’t want you to?
And what sort of precipice had you been while you were still living here? Because that’s part of it too, you never felt like you were on the precipice of anything here, nothing made sense.
You just knew that you loved living in San Francisco, the burritos, the drugs, the ultimate Frisbee, Muir Woods, Highway One, Santa Cruz, the Grateful Dead, the Raves, the drugs, Stinson Beach, the fog enveloping the bay when you woke-up in the morning.
But these things are not quite an actual life. Not for you anyway.
Because where was it all going?
You didn’t know, and you couldn’t figure it out, just like you can’t figure out now why you can’t ever find the distance you need from yourself to make sense of things where you actually are, or were, and instead believe you need to run away to do so.
Of course, maybe that’s what you’re saying here, now, and not on the trip back then, but in your present day head, revising and tweaking the past, and trying to create a narrative that fits your current day perception of who you were and are, or want to be, and been?
Maybe, you are no more reliable than any other narrator you write about? Maybe that’s not how it all went down, and yet, that’s how you remember it, and that’s how it feels now, and that must mean something, right?
“We’re going to SOMA, and we have X,” your friend says.
You have only landed hours before, it’s late, you are tired and high and drunk and manic, but who are you to argue with an offer like that?
That’s not even a real question.
You’re not going to argue with that, you never did back then.
And why would you on that trip anyway, it’s why you’re back there, to recapture something, and remember what it is you think you miss, right?
Now even before all of that, before you left, and before you go back, there is a guy at the office you work with in Oakland.
He’s the new guy.
You were once the new guy.
The young one.
The cute one.
The one older female supervisors scheduled closed-door meetings with and said, “Do you think people will talk,” as they told you how emasculated their husbands were.
Or, the one co-workers smiled at in the copy room, lingering briefly to stare, before they said, “If I wasn’t queer…”
Or even the one who a colleague cornered in the file room before saying, “I could rape you right here, right now,” no smile, not at first, and no joke.
You were that guy, until you weren’t, because then the new guy came, younger, cuter, and new.
Was he smarter than you? No, not necessarily.
Was he more professional? Maybe.
Was he better at his job? Not so much.
But he’s new, and you are not, not any more.
You realize how much you like being the guy, and now that you’re not, what’s left, softball with the older guys in the office, and the job itself, a job which is crap, and something that is not what you want or ever aspire to do, work for the sake of work.
And so where does that leave you?
Nowhere, with no idea how to fix it, which when you think about it, is no different than that rainy day in upstate New York two years before.
You get to the bar in SOMA. It’s young, loud, and frat boy. You think, here, this, why?
“Don’t worry,” your friend says, sensing your confusion, “just follow me.”
You walk across the dance floor, dodging young men and women, and as you do, it gets darker and darker. Soon you’re facing a curtain in the back corner of the bar, and after a moment, your friend pulls the curtain aside to reveal a long hall, which she quickly darts into.
You follow her, the X starting to kick-in, and when did you take that anyway, you don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, what matters, is that you’re chasing your friend and in doing so you bump into the woman in front of you. Not that you’re sure where she appeared from, but she did, and she’s wearing this impossibly short white dress, and her legs are so long, which you love so much, and her skin is glowing, and skin you love even more than long legs, though especially on X.
You stumble and you grab the woman by the hips as you try to steady yourself, and she turns, startled, and looks at you.
“I’m so sorry,” you mumble, trying not to stare at her legs or touch her, and she is like Dazzler, her skin suddenly radiating over you in shock waves.
“It’s okay sugar,” she says smiling.
Though she is not a she, she is a he, and he is beautiful.
And then she is gone, just like that, spectral, and vanished, and your friend is now at a door, beckoning you to follow her, and the music is suddenly pulsating from all sides, the walls reverberating, something you can see, and feel, little sine waves rippling all around you, and you are carried off on them, leaping from beat to beat, and trying to catch-up.
There is this afternoon before you move back to New York when you are lying in the backseat of a friend’s car as you drive south down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The car is gliding along above the craggy cliffs that drop onto the endless onslaught of waves below, their spray taking flight into space before settling into the blue waters, back home, albeit only briefly before starting their journey again, and on into perpetuity, a watery Sisyphus.
The sun is high and brilliant and it bisects the back seat of the car, half your face baked in the rays being refracted through the window, the other half nestled in the shadows. And you are high as well, always high then, taking bat hits, and lolling about as the Grateful Dead courses through the speakers above and around you.
You are wracked with anxiety though and trying to run from it at every turn. You are leaving for New York in just weeks and you cannot quite believe it is a good idea.
“California, preaching on the burning shore
California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door
Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light
Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.”
Estimated Prophet joins the waves and the sun and Highway 1, all of this Northern California goodness wrapping itself around your brain, and you think about the last Grateful Dead show you will be hitting before you go. It’s a Mardi Gras show that is just days from now, and you decide that if they play Estimated Prophet, you will not move home, the Grateful Dead will be sending you a message, and you will embrace it.
You go to the show, you paint your face in the parking lot, you pull your hair back into a ponytail, and you consume copious amounts of mushrooms as you wander among the T-shirt vendors and burrito sellers that comprise the tent city which has taken root in the parking lot.
The Grateful Dead do not play Estimated Prophet that night, and whether you would have really stayed or not even if they had, you don’t, you move back home as planned.
You push through the door at the end of the hall and you enter a warehouse of some kind, where there is throbbing, seizure inducing lights that envelope the entire room in a sonic hug; massive murals of superheroes cover the walls, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, looming and colorful, threatening and protective all at once; music, techno and thumping, which is so loud and so percussive, the notes land like body blows, relentless, loving, and ultimately overwhelming; and an array of beautiful, androgynous boys and girls, smooth skinned, short-haired, and high cheekboned, dancing like it’s the end of the world, the lights creating a slow motion haze of bodies and skin.
There is also stadium style seating reminiscent of a small town high school gym above the dance floor, and you opt for that, making your way to the top to sit down, the X, the skin, the lights, and the long flight and day, conspiring to push you into a voyeuristic and gelatinous blob, soaking up everything around you, even as you, congeal into an unmoving and saturated mass.
You sit there staring into the scrum of bodies below you, and the boys and girls start to undress, pressing into one another, and merging into a naked, pulsating, slow motion, sex hive, a perpetual buzz of motion.
Soon it’s all boys, the girls now gone, or maybe they were never there at all, because can you even trust yourself to know what you’ve been watching, then, much less now, no, you can’t, not really.
As you sit staring at the random body parts floating into the air, the boy walks-up, he’s wearing a dark hoodie and T-shirt, his hair is short, his skin awash in the lights, and he is glowing. He sits down next to you, mumbles something about MDMA and Special K, and then puts his head in your lap.
You stroke his hair, and as you float above the orgy, the music pounding, you think about how this is the life here, the only version you know anyway; how it is not the one you have chosen to live, however, instead choosing to focus on family, stability, responsibility, and career; and how in this moment it’s all so very tortuous.
One night while you are still living in San Francisco you are doing countless bong hits in your living room with a bunch of friends, and the moment slowly morphs into a euphoric need for pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey ice cream, which also become countless in their destruction, and after hours of smoking and ice cream and laughter and Sports Center, you find yourself staring out the window, searching for something, and off in the distance, hovering and majestic you make out the contours of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We should run to the Golden Gate Bridge,” you say, and no one questions that.
And so you run, no one talking, step after step, the weed and ice cream fading into a sweet memory of another time and place, so long before now. The streets are empty, the night still, perfect, but you never get there, the bridge always lingering just beyond your collective reach, beckoning, but nowhere, and eventually you turn around, breakfast and work looming, and you are happy, and sated, but no clearer about anything than you were hours before.
The day after the warehouse and the dancing and the X, as you meander, exhausted and joyful, you see the boy from the night before, wasted and skinny, and wandering the streets, and you think again about paths and precipices and doors, and how life in San Francisco for you, was, and is, full of joy and wonder, but in the light of day, also seems false and lacking.
You are also reminded that nothing makes sense to you here, and that while this may turn out to be the case anywhere and everywhere you ever go, back home at least you may actually be on the edge of something, and that whatever it is, and however torturous and confusing it is to figure it out, for now it’s there, not here, hovering somewhere, and waiting for you.