I was still arguing with the ticket agent when the last bus to San
Francisco rumbled into the loading dock.
‘Why can’t you just give me back the money for one of them?’ I shouted
at her again.
‘We are unable to refund tickets at this time, sir.’
‘We are unable to perform refunds at this time, sir.’
‘Why not? Why at this time? What time will you be performing them?’
‘Sir,’ she said, peering over my shoulder to the growing line of
people behind me. I glanced back and met the eyes of the person at
the very end of it – a man with a thick mustache wearing a baseball
cap and a sleeveless neon green t-shirt. He glared at me with a
special interest, an interest bordering on hatred, stirred by our
opposite positions in the line. Besides his eyes, I could feel
hundreds of others in the station fixed skeptically on me – the
selfish man haggling over petty policies, the cause of their missed
buses and broken itineraries.
‘This is ridiculous.’ I told the ticket agent.
Outside, a bell sounded. People rose and shuffled towards the bus,
twirling crisp tickets in their fingers and handing off their bags to
the driver who tossed them through the hatch of the Greyhound’s
‘When is that going to leave?’ I said, pointing to the bus.
‘Fifteen minutes, sir.’
‘So you’re telling me I’m stuck with this useless forty dollar ticket?’
‘I’ve told you sir. It is not ‘useless’. You can use that ticket any
time in the next six months for a separate journey to the same
destination.’ I was planning to finance a cheap hotel room with the
forty dollars I’d unintentionally invested in the second ticket to San
Francisco. Soberly reserving it until some sequence of future events
resulted in a second trip did not rank high among my priorities.
That afternoon I’d went on the greyhound website and bought a ticket
to San Francisco. I’d never been there before, even though I’d lived
in California my whole life. When I arrived twenty minutes before the
departure time to pick up my ticket the agent informed me that I had,
somehow, bought two tickets instead of one. She was zealously
determined to uphold the Greyhound bus line’s procedural consistency
and not refund my ticket. I’d had half a bottle of wine before coming
to the bus depot, so my ability to detect institutional injustice had
A few hours before all this, I packed a bag and took the city line
downtown. I got off at the railway bridge and walked to Emily’s. She
lived in a Victorian house painted bright purple. There were pots of
thyme and rosemary sitting on the porch beside a decaying wooden bench
that we sometimes sat on, listening to the trains and drinking from
frosted mugs. The frail glass windowpanes trembled and shivered like a
taut drumhead each time my knuckles banged against the wooden door.
After a few seconds I saw the blurred, blobby head of a shadow
scrutinizing me through the glass. Emily squealed, threw open the door
and pulled me through the entrance when she recognized me.
‘I thought you were gone!’
‘No, I’m leaving in a few hours, tonight. I just wanted to say
goodbye before I left.’ I was returning on Monday, but I wanted to
register my disappearance with her. I knew we were both fearful of
breaking the pattern of nightly visits that only started four weeks
ago, after we met for the first time. The routine was in its infancy,
so it was possible that even a small break like this could end these
visits and we would quickly totter into an awkward friendship that saw
us slowly fade back to being strangers. If these nights ended now we
would remember one another only as obscure characters belonging to a
season, like a friend you make on a two-week holiday; we would be
outlandish, semi-exotic, half-forgotten people to each other, people
who we might find it hard to believe we’d ever known or been on the
brink of intimacy with.
I left my traveling bag in the hallway and she led me to her room. It
was decorated with vibrant sarongs hanging from the ceiling that
depicted images of Ganesh and Shiva. There were tall vases filled with
sunflowers and lavender scattered on the surfaces around her room.
Spirals of incense smoke drifted towards the ceiling; I could see
boxes of thrift-shop jewelry spread open on her bed. The curtains
were bright yellow, the color of the sun in a children’s book. We sat
together on the floor atop a woolen rug embroidered with the pattern
of a Hopi eagle. Art made by her friends hung on the walls and the
colorful room had the appearance of what I thought the inside of a
painter’s skull would look like.
‘Do you want some wine?’ she asked.
‘I would love some.’
‘Red or white?’
A few minutes later she returned to the room with a bottle of 2002
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. She was from Napa and her retired
parents operated a small private vineyard, but, she explained, this
was not one of their bottles. Emily set two large goblets down on the
rug. She’d placed three or four clumps of lavender inside each cup
from a pot she kept in the kitchen.
‘I love lavender. It relaxes you,’ she sighed when she noticed I was
staring at the flowers in my cup. ‘Do you want them in your wine? I
can take them out?’
‘It’s fine. Leave it.’ I looked from the cup to her face and saw that
Emily wore pieces of lavender tucked in her hair behind one ear, and
two entwined daisies behind the other. When she leaned over to pour
the wine I looked at her body. She was wearing a silky vintage
dressing gown with a small rip in the thigh and a dirty lace hem. I
sipped my wine and stepped over to the record player. It seemed that
she wore the same gown every evening.
Emily’s turntable sat on an antique chest of drawers that she’d
painted white and pink a long time ago. Picking through the wobbly
tower of vinyl’s stacked on the dresser, I found an early, acoustic,
Bob Dylan record and carefully placed the needle over the spinning
‘So, who’s going to San Francisco with you?’ Emily asked. She was
staring into the flames of one of the candles lighting the room.
‘Nobody. I’m going alone.’
‘Don’t you want someone to go with you? Someone that knows the city
and could show you around?’ she questioned in a high-pitched voice.
‘No. That’s the last thing I want,’ I told her. ‘I want to see it for
the first time by myself – explore it alone so that I get a true sense
‘But if someone was with you who knew the city you could see the best
parts and not waste time getting lost and stuff.’
‘See the best parts only!? I don’t want to go there as a tourist!’ I
shouted, ‘I want to see it all – the nice parts and the trashy parts.’
‘Well, I was only thinking. I know San Francisco like the back of my
hand. I went there all the time when I was growing up and if you want
I would go with you and show you my favorite places. I know someone
with a house and they would let us stay in it.’ Emily fixed her big
twinkling brown eyes on me, and a glowing smile grew across her
bronzed face. ‘Really, I could throw some stuff in a bag right now and
go with you.’ When I did not answer, her face snapped away and I could
see she was frenziedly groping about the room with her eyes for the
bottle of wine. ‘Another glass?’ she finally asked.
‘Yes. Please.’ Emily’s smooth skin was tanned under the straps of her
dress and as far up her thigh as I could see beneath the slip. She
was, I imagined, tanned all over her entire body – across her naval,
over her nipples, down the olive ridge of her back. When she handed me
another glass of wine, she caught me looking at her gown and smirked.
‘Emily,’ I told her as I put my hand on her thigh, ‘I would love for
you to go, but I feel like I have to go to San Francisco alone for my
first big trip there.’ I planned the trip before I knew her, and I
imagined myself tangled in picaresque adventures that Emily could have
no part in.
‘Well, that’s fine,’ she sighed, ‘enjoy your trip.’ I withdrew my hand
from her leg. She made an effort to smile.
A few years later it turned out that we lived only a few streets away
from one another in the Netherlands. We used to walk beside the canals
together, and sit in wicker chairs drinking French and Spanish wines
outside brick cafes built under the arches of bridges. One night over
a bottle of wine I told her the real reasons that I did not let her
come with me to San Francisco. We both laughed about it then, in that
future era – but in the moment of telling her that she couldn’t come,
she only sighed and looked away from me. We sat listening to the music
in silence, drinking our wine quickly, as if we’d been compelled to
finish our glasses by some antagonistic force, as if there were some
darkness forcing us apart. I began to think that this would be the
last time I would ever see her.
‘Damn,’ I said when I looked at my watch, ‘I better get going!’ I
emptied the rest of my glass down my throat and jumped to my feet.
‘Enjoy your trip!’ she called to me as I raced out of her room and
left the house. A moment later, halfway to the sidewalk, I realized
I’d forgotten my bag and when I knocked on the door to get it Emily
was waiting behind the wooden frame, carrying it out for me. She
handed it to me delicately, as if it were storing a frail living
thing, softly brushing the back of my hand with her fingertips. Her
brown eyes were focused on my face and she began to lean towards me,
as if there were small words written over my lips and eyes whose
meanings she believed proximity would absorb. She wanted me to grab
her waist and kiss her.
‘Goodbye Emily! See you Monday! I’ll miss you!’ I shouted, before
venturing to squeeze her. I could feel the warm curves of her body
through the sheer gown. I turned and ran towards the station. She
stood in the doorway and waved as I cut across the lawn and ducked
under the drooping leaves of the giant willow in the yard.
Standing there in the noisy station, with two tickets in my hand and
only fifteen minutes until the bus left, I thought about calling Emily
and offering her the extra ticket. If I did, things would change; we
would step across the threshold we’d been loitering around.
Just then, I saw Vincent walk by. With his long brown hair and beard,
he resembled a gaunt Christ. I knew him only slightly, and as I
watched him saunter past the depot door, he struck me as the most
aimless person I had ever seen in my entire life. Vincent, I thought,
totally lacked the fire of inner motivation that gives a person
purpose and hurls them towards the unique destiny created by the
pattern of your personal choices. He lacked goals and ideas and seemed
to be filled with as much purpose as a broom that a wizard has
animated to do his bidding.
I strode out of the bus station and called his name.
He turned towards me passively, like an animal that understands its
name has been uttered, but nothing more.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘Well, do you want to go to San Francisco?’
‘Yeah, sure, I’ve never been before.’
‘Perfect, neither have I. Listen, I’ve got a ticket just for you.’
‘It’s fifty bucks. Round trip. You want it?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ He said as he unfolded his wallet, and handed me the
money with the automatic movements of a cashier returning change.
‘I’ll have to go and pick up a bag of stuff.’ Vincent said.
‘No time,’ I informed him. ‘You can get whatever you need up there.
It’s San Francisco, not some village outpost. They’ll have
‘You’re right. Is this our bus?’
‘Yes, yes it is. Let’s go.’
Outside the bus window, the fading metropolis we were leaving behind
resembled white bulbs of Christmas lights strewn over a field forty
Sitting on the bus I imagined we were wandering towards the final
province of the western empire. Before it became as familiar to me as
all the cities I’ve ended up living in have, San Francisco still
conjured the smell of old book pages and the taste of burnt coffee at
midnight. It was still the western frontier town, at the edge of the
empire, beside the darkness, where all the dreams blown across a wild
continent go. A wooden city built off gold and blood, rotting silently
in the fog of the bay.
After several hours, the first golden lights appeared over the ridges
of forested hills. Each glittering particle of the city broadcast
dreams over the mountains and the black waters of the bay, inspiring
obsessions in the minds of all they caught. They whispered the
obsessive language of dreams and hope, and propelled us towards
commitments in the frontiers. They were dreams to launch you into the
wilderness, into the cities, and into the country.
The bus dropped Vincent and I off in an area lacking all the classic
landmarks I’d expected to see. I looked to my left and right,
expecting the golden gate bridge, city lights bookstore, and Alcatraz
to be waiting there for me, like a welcoming party. Instead, the tall,
cold, buildings of the financial district rose around us like a somber
pack of frozen titans. The glittering black monoliths pierced the air
thousands of feet above us and blocked out the stars and the moon.
We’d arrived in a deserted ghost town with no sense of direction.
While looking at a map in the bus station parking lot, a big black man
leaning against a brick wall in a corner across the street looked up
and stared at us. He was wearing a leather jacket, fingerless gloves
and had a red scarf wrapped around his dreadlocks. His clothes had the
ragged, jaunty elegance of the dress of Wise men in biblical times. A
smile flashed upon his enormous face and he started walking towards
us. He was so suddenly moved to action, it was as if he’d been lying
dormant for thousands of years waiting for our arrival to awaken from
‘You got a skin?’ He asked in a booming voice.
‘A skin?’ I answered.
‘What is a skin?’ Vincent asked distantly. It was as if it was not
really Vincent talking – but some non-human entity using his passive,
paralyzed face as a mouthpiece to speak from a great distance,
controlling his actions remotely from another planet or a moon in a
far away galaxy.
‘You know man,’ He said as he tapped Vincent on the shoulder, ‘a
paper, for rolling a cigarette.’
‘Ah – no skins. But here’s a cigarette.’
‘Thanks.’ He took out a small pouch and shoved little herbs into the
top of the cigarette. The air filled with a holy, frankincense-like
smell when he lit it.
‘Hey, hey, wait, before you leave,’ I called to him as he began to
drift away, ‘– can you tell us where Union Square is?’
‘Union Square!’ He laughed as he turned back to me, ‘why’re you trying
to go there? There ain’t nothing in Union Square ‘cept fancy shops and
‘We’ve never been to San Francisco before and that’s where our hostel is.’
‘Never been to San Francisco! Ha! I lived In San Francisco most my
life. I can’t believe you never been here before. Well boys,’ he said,
‘You made it!’ He extended his palm, as large and dramatically
sculpted as one belonging to a bronze statue of a colossus, and shook
our hands as if he were the mayor welcoming us to his own city.