Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.com, lives and writes in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
A DAY IN LOVE IN SAN FRANCISCO
By Beate Sigriddaughter
Joanne woke up early on the last Saturday of her vacation. The only trouble was she had told Kathleen that the best time to call her on the landline of the folks where she was staying would be between nine and ten in the morning. Or between five and six at night. She hadn't brought a cell phone this time. Now she didn’t dare leave the house before ten o’clock. She wanted to go to the ocean. The ocean would have to wait.
With a sigh and a book of short stories, Joanne settled down in the rocking chair by the window. Only to find she couldn’t concentrate on any of the stories. What long-forgotten luxury to be unable to concentrate! She kept looking at her watch. Minute after minute passed, as though time had become animated. At ten o’clock, even regret felt sweet.
At the ocean, sun and wind and water were too exciting for her restless condition. She boarded another bus and headed back into the city. Passing through Kathleen’s neighborhood filled Joanne with so much fresh yearning that she surprised herself at not bursting in some manner. A young man sat down next to her, clutching a broom between his knees.
“You should have flown and saved yourself the bus fare,” Joanne said.
“I have too many parcels,” the young man explained. “I don’t think I could have balanced them all flying.”
Joanne went into a music store to look for the impossible. The day before she had hunted through a number of stores for her favorite version of Vivaldi’s Gloria to give to Kathleen. In vain. Now Joanne played an on-the-spot gamble with life: if I find the album here and now, then I will see her again. Risky, of course, to approach fate on those terms.
Inside the store, lovely music played, haunting melodies of synthesized flutes. And there, dear life, was the album she had been looking for. Joanne bought it at once, lest it, and her private commitment from fate, should vanish if she did not immediately claim it. Her mind, however, was already floating on the new music around her. The clerk at the sales desk, not at all surprised at her instant enchantment, invited her to stay in the store a while to listen. Joanne wandered around the aisles slowly, from time to time absent-mindedly touching a CD sleeve. Her mind was captured in the music. After a long time, reluctantly, she left.
She bought a bag of fortune cookies to bring back home for colleagues at the office, and black unembroidered Chinese slippers for a friend who liked to wear them all summer. She saw a very old lady at a street corner, looking down the steep hill ahead of her.
“Are you going down that way?” the lady asked.
“No,” Joanne said. “Why?”
“I’m afraid of that hill,” the lady explained. “If you were going that way, I would ask you to let me hold on to your arm.”
“I’m going that way now." Joanne held out her arm.
At the bottom of the long hill they simply kept on walking arm in arm until they reached the lady’s destination, a restaurant. Joanne liked the grip of the gloved hand on her own.
“I’ve lived in this city for a hundred years,” the woman said.
Joanne laughed. Eighty or ninety perhaps, she thought. Joanne loved the stories her companion told her. Marriage. Children. Grandchildren. Now lunch with friends. There was the restaurant. Good-bye.
Joanne ate a taco salad at a far less elegant restaurant and wrote a postcard to a friend who had some years ago dedicated his first book to her in sublimation of other things. At first the young man had been worried Joanne might think he was gay, only to find out in the effort of clarifying this that she was gay instead, so that nothing could be done except establish a friendship and dedicate a book. Joanne mailed the postcard and bought the largest bottle of Kahlua she could find for the couple who had give her their spare room for two weeks, and with her day’s booty she went back to her temporary home.
The phone woke Joanne from a nap. It wasn’t for her.
She began working on a play about Callisto and Artemis, which she had hoped to write during her vacation and which was not anywhere near completion. Three hours later, she was exhausted and exhilarated, wanting to race out into the sunny remnant of the day. It was a quarter to five, though, and perhaps Kathleen would call her between five and six. Kathleen had said she would call today. Luckily Kathleen had no phone, either landline or cell phone, otherwise Joanne might have been tempted to call her, when it was only fair that Kathleen should have the privilege of nervousness and deliberation about calling. Or not calling. Joanne started reading again.
At six o’clock, Joanne closed her book and put on her jacket. It might get windy and cold at the beach. She went out to catch the sunset and then felt as though the sunset were catching her instead.
She walked down on the sand and watched the scintillating play of light and water.
How life loves us, she thought. The light on water always comes to us.
Never before had she made it conscious to herself that the stream of rays that came down from the low sun and touched the water in its brilliance like a beam of liquid, quivering light would actually follow her along every step of her walk. In fact, her eyes and the sun and the water were in love with each other, communicating by some sacred trick of light. Good to know that the light followed the other beach walkers the same way, like a holy interaction of matter and mind. And then there was a garland of birds, dark with distance, flying, eight, nine, ten in a row across the crest of the waves. It was too much. Joanne took off her shoes and socks, rolled up her jeans to her knees, and ran out into the chilly water.
Sometimes a capricious wave surprised her and she jumped. Too late to keep the seat of her jeans dry altogether. For a while then Joanne would walk closer to the rim of the water where the largest waves barely touched the sand. A little while later, though, it would happen all over. She would wade deeper, and the mischief of another wave would catch her once again, half evaded, half invited, and exactly on target.
This is like me and Kathleen, she told herself. This is like making love. Going closer. Then being surprised. Then withdrawing and cautiously tiptoeing the border again for a while. The unpredictable waves, according to inscrutable patterns of their own, came closer, higher or lower, reached not at all or splashed wildly.
Now Joanne was thoroughly wet. Now everything would be all right. The waves played their own pattern. Like Kathleen, like Joanne, played each their own. The liquid light of the sinking sun was more predictable. It kept following Joanne around, loyal like a puppy.
Joanne began singing in the safe roar of wind and water. She remembered a tall black woman in the choir years ago, warbling her haunting soprano high up. To be able to do that, Joanne had thought at the time, would mean being saved from melancholy for the rest of one's life. All you’d have to do in times of danger would be to sing, just like that. But at the ocean, and alone, far less skill was necessary.
Joanne remembered Kathleen at the bar when they had just met, striking up a fencing game of erudition. Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor. Etc. Joanne unearthed bits and pieces of almost forgotten knowledge for the occasion. Once I too was an intellectual, she wanted to say, but suppressed the futile boasting. And then Joanne remembered the moment when she had looked at Kathleen’s beautiful lips, forming words, and together with her eyes, forming Kathleen’s marvelous smile and the soft flame that spread through Joanne’s chest. As sort of, my God, I would like to touch her and kiss her and hold her. The flash of surprise at the bright feeling after two years of distance, two years of coming to terms with being alone and learning not to be lonely, of wanting to be with a woman but finding none to kindle a flame beyond friendship. Then suddenly the magic, Kathleen.
Later, listening to music, it had been Kathleen who took the first awkward risk by asking, “May I touch your shoulder?”
“Oh, please do,” Joanne had mumbled, then, mending her ways, repeated more loudly.
The hand on her shoulder, the fingers on her neck, in her hair. The utter sweetness of being touched.
And now the water at her feet, at her knees, and higher, cold, delicious, making her smile.
The sun at last set. The last of the orange fire was swallowed up in mist a little ways above the horizon. Someone at the stone wall behind Joanne clapped hands in applause.
I should do that too, Kathleen thought, but didn’t. She hummed a song to the sun instead. Until tomorrow, she finally whispered. She walked up to the wall and the pavement behind it and found a bench to sit on while cleaning the salt sand from her feet. She made it all the way back to her room without stopping to speak to anyone.
At 9:30 p.m. the telephone rang. A surge of feeling suddenly. Kathleen? So late?
Someone else answered the phone. And it wasn’t Kathleen. I’m sorry it wasn’t you, Kathleen, Joanne whispered to her pillow later on. In two days she would leave. This was the last night they cold have, might have, spent together in peace.
Joanne hugged her pillow and tried to define emotions. Regret? A little. Sorrow? Not much. Joy? Oh yes. And respect. If Kathleen hadn’t called, she had a reason not to. If Kathleen hadn’t been, Joanne wouldn’t have felt the gentle splendor of this day, wouldn’t have broken out of the formidable circle of being, more often than not, in love one way or another, while wondering if she would ever again feel free enough to touch. Kathleen had given her a sign.
May life bless you, Kathleen, Joanne whispered. May the cats hissing at each other outside the window pick up the message and carry it across the roofs.
Joanne fell asleep to dreams of orange flames licking up shapes like tall flowers.