West Coast Loneliness

Alison Stine

Snowfall, this is my goodbye to you.

Already there is a chip on one of the black-striped bowls I bought at the discount store in the Mission on Friday. I find it comforting. Already it’s worn, already familiar. Already, I broke it.

The hallway of my new apartment smells of England. The brown carpet reminds me of living in England, and every time I come in the door, down the hall, up the long carpeted stairs, I think of it, think I am going back to it: chamomile tea, snicker doodle cookies. There are new things too: the lights of the city driving back. At the bakery, the jar of hard brown sugar cubes to dissolve in paper cups.

“We’re picking you up at four,” my new friend said.

More new things: a fan-shaped fossil I have just seen on a smooth, blue rock I have carried around with me for years. The red tile roofs. The four way stops. Also, figs. Cliff House. The vertical driveway.

The woman in her apartment across the street came to her window the same time I came to mine, and both of us together looked down.

Sitting in the hot living room and watching the eucalyptus, I’m waiting around for something to happen, for something to fall from the trees. I want direction. And difference. I am making an effort not to buy the same things, or similar things, as I had when I lived in the east. Before was a child’s desk, and black bookshelves, and a black iron bed with white sheets, and a red vinyl chair.

Now is a bright green desk lamp, and a mission-style desk, and a white bed with purple sheets, and a brown chair. Books on the floor. Rug on the floor. Dog on the floor.

I’m not yet sure if I have found a new coffeehouse, though I sit in one, dark though the door is open, burlap sacks on the ceilings, beaten wooden chairs and round tables, jazz music, half-empty ketchup bottles and salt shakers, a strong tomato trace, a cigarette trace. I order crepes. I am not sure I should be spending money on crepes. But now is crepes. Now is a scarf.

Now the baker, when I stop in the morning and say it smells lovely, like cinnamon, says: “I can’t smell it anymore. But I smell your hair. You just washed your hair.”

Regulars poured their own coffee behind the counter. A tall, thin man in black, not my Johnny, but a man in shades, stood swiping at flies outside the door.

“I ran out of flies at home,” he said, “so I came here.”

It was someone’s anniversary. It was someone’s daughter working at the cheese shop across the street, two daughters. A girl came in and asked if there were any more chocolate croissants, and the owner said “no, but I can make one for you.” And did, and didn’t remind anyone to pay, and said it was all right when a woman didn’t have enough to pay, and let me sit, let me stay, which is what I needed to do, like the white-muzzled dog at my feet, my new roommate’s dog, who sleeps under my desk now. To stay.

∗    ∗    ∗

I start to like San Francisco.

∗    ∗    ∗

Not just because I won at bingo at the Knockout Bar. I won the blackout game, the big game, the one at the end. The win required me to step up to the bar with my reddened card before the drag queen hostess in the elaborate sea-foam prom dress who loomed above me, huge, made me say my name into the microphone, gave me two free drink tickets, then shined a police flashlight on the basket of prizes—fuzzy dice, fake dog poop—and told me to choose.

I chose the Mary night light.

Not just because of the Mary night light.

Because when I won, a cheer went up from the table. Because of the cheer. Because of the table. Because of the ones with whom I walked and sat down.

Because on the d“rive home down Dolores Street, the DJ said: “it is someone’s birthday somewhere. And this goes out to you.”

I mean to write about the party this weekend, at the fancy red restaurant, the bouncer on the stairs. I was the plus one. I mean to write about the crowded balcony, where I stood looking over the railing at the diners below, wondering what would happen if the balcony fell.

I mean to write about the bar with the red velvet curtain, and the disco ball, and the silver streamers twisting from the ceiling, and when my attention wandered, I just looked up.

And about the earthquake, a small one. No one felt it, I think. I didn’t—and when I tell him this, he says: “Oh, I bet there’s been several since you’ve been there, small ones; you haven’t felt them.”

I felt every word.

∗    ∗    ∗

A box arrived: sweaters. It was a big box. It took twenty-six dollars to mail to myself before I left. I set it on the center of my white bed and ripped open the brown paper, realizing, as I pulled them out: I don’t even like these sweaters. Some of the things I brought with me, through Kansas and Missouri and Utah and heat and hotels, I don’t know why I brought them.

Why didn’t I bring my paintings, more books? Where is my corkscrew? Where are those black shoes?

I think this is a temporary life. I’m almost sure of it, this life in California, and then I see my pink dress, my red stool, the Venetian mask—crumbling, cracked plaster, black and gold, satin straps. I carried it from Venice, then back from England, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania. And I know why I brought it, because this is my life, this delicate thing in bubble wrap and clear tape. It means something to me. I carried it here.

I want to be present. Every day I venture out to the park, then to the other park, the library, the post office. I need to think bigger. I am thinking of leaving the women I was meant to be, all of them: actress, playwright, professor, wife. No, try again. Shake till it sticks.

I left one in Utah, one in Nevada, one back in Kentucky in a gas station sink. The red washed through my hair, a fast disguise to get me west.

I want more than anything to surprise myself, want to discover I am good at reading maps, or writing back, or cooking, or keeping a promise. Let there be mystery. Let there be discovery. Let there be a slow unfold, a pull reveal, something strong behind the curtain. I am ready to see it.

I once heard the poet Robert Creeley’s widow, Penelope, talk of her husband, when she met him, traveling in New Zealand. He carried only a small bag, but in that bag was a bandana, his mother’s old broken alarm clock, and a small leather box containing his father’s cuff link.

He would spread the bandana, lay out the items, and say: “This is home.”

For me, home is wherever I can make my desk. It is a looking back—where I’ve been, not where I am. I don’t know enough yet about the hills of San Francisco, the stairs, the pastels, the fog-light, the bridge. I’m still haunted by cornfields and gravestones rising out of the grass.

Moving around gives me energy. It gives me a pace; it gives me fever. Just when I might feel I’ve captured a place, that I know it, I move on to a new one. I begin again. My old homes become like old lovers: a barn, the ghost of a barn.

Homesick, I play and replay a message from a friend. He says to check out a band called Giant Drag: “You look like the singer, and they’re powerful, like you.”

I want my friend to be right. I want to be good, and strong, and true.

∗    ∗    ∗

Every store on the main street drips with light.

I remember figuring out the call numbers in the library my first year of college. It was like a new language.

I’m trying this new thing when I get lost—and I get lost—when I get confused or scared or start to panic, I don’t stop. I take my time. I ask for help. I found a tea shop that way, and a present for a friend. I found the highway, the ginger root, the M books.

When I turned to the first page of the library book, a bunch of photographs fell out. The book was about the Fantasticks, the long-running Broadway show, and the pictures seemed to be from a play, though maybe not that play. They were makeup test shots: a thin-browed boy in stage makeup, painted like an old man. In the photograph on the very top of the stack, he looked like a devil. More photos showed his progression from street face to clown.

The book had not been checked out for years.

I will take the photographs as a sign. I’ll take the random pages I turned to, the words that jumped out, as a sign. The thrill rising in me, the excitement, the ideas, the landscape, and especially the fear, as a sign.

The little girl who was it in the duck-duck-goose game at the preschool next door to the library where I work, smiled at me through the window, waved as she skipped around, tapping heads. She might have tagged me. I feel tagged. I feel like it.

I’m going to run, going to catch everyone. I won’t stop until someone says yes when I tap their arm, yes when we fall back into the long grass, when we come to home, to a front porch or a mailbox or a pond.

And what I was waiting for, happened. The crepes baker stopped me as I paid for my usual pot of tea, crepe with onions and tomatoes and ham.

He said, “What is your name? I see you all the time. Tell me. What is your name?”

∗    ∗    ∗

It was bright and warm, T-shirt weather, perpetual spring.

That’s the thing about San Francisco. It keeps feeling like winter is over, winter’s on the wing. We’re all just stepping out for the first time, seeing the first leaf, the first bird.

But it’s not spring—it never is—and other times I feel it. Not the cold, but the distance between me and cold, the real season. It’s a lie we’re all living, this California thing, where there are no seasons. There is also no time.

“Years go by in a heartbeat. And you don’t notice,” my friend, Maria, Vermont-born, said, explaining her time in L.A. How long was it again?

On the other side of the country, there is blue ice and brown fields and my best friends and my old lover and my family in their houses. And here it is like it never happened, the crisping of marigolds, the cutting frost.

But then the crepes man and the cheese man in my neighborhood waved.

I got drunk instantly when the salt touched my lips, and my friends raised their glasses and clinked, and we had good news to celebrate, good things happening to good people. But that is not all the time. There is also the walk home, cold and fog. There is also alone.

I believe in signs, and in the notion of hope coming to us from others. When the grocery store clerk says to me, Is everything okay? I have to believe it means something, not just have I found the eggplant, or have I weighed the corn. I have to believe he meant, Is everything okay? And when I said yes, he said, I’m here if you need anything.

∗    ∗    ∗

Up late, but there’s no one to call. No one up on the East Coast. No one up in the Midwest. No snow to meet me in the morning, meet me early and ask, What have you been up to?

∗    ∗    ∗

The fortune in my cookie says: Stop searching. Happiness will come to you.

∗    ∗    ∗

But San Francisco smells like burning. I’m afraid to try the fireplace. My tiny desk in a corner of the living room is littered with ashes from tea lights. I touched them and they scattered. They were soft as hair.

The air is damp and clotted, like a graveyard at night. You know no one is going to hurt you, but still, you linger at the gates, wondering if you should go in. My roommate talks of his last place, somewhere in Pacific Heights, I think, where he could actually see the fog rolling in. He lived on the fog line, one side of his window shrouded in mist, the other in clear blue darkness.

I often forget I’m in California. I default Midwest. Hey, you’re in San Francisco, I say to myself, hiking the hill back from the cheese shop and the laundry and the stores. Those are California cars, California puddles, a California dress you can’t afford in your brown paper California shopping bag.

∗    ∗    ∗

Late in the night, I wake myself up by saying aloud, in my sleep: It’s hard. I don’t have a map.

∗    ∗    ∗

Here I am. There’s no apartment number. The cross street is Henry.

It’s the ugliest house on the block—but in the backyard, we have a garden with plums and lavender and a lime tree, and you can see the light over my desk, in my window, clear from the hills of Bernal. And I can see South San Francisco on a good day. I am the one with the wild hair and the missing buttons and the good intentions.

“I wish I had the key to that door,” the neighborhood drunk says when I walk out into the street. “A beautiful girl lives there.”

∗    ∗    ∗

There is no loneliness like West Coast loneliness.

Once, a friend at a summer party on a porch, asked: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be? We’re presently debating flying or invisibility.”

You thought for a minute. Wind lifted your dress. Across the road, people were laughing, gathering on their porches. Ice clinked against glass.

“I would have the power to make anyone listen. I would whisper across the field, and he would just know, and come.”

A nod. A sipping from the glass. “Good one,” my friend said.

∗    ∗    ∗

The new girl on the back of the motorcycle wears glasses, and has short hair, and a plain, sweet face, and was reading the newspaper behind her boy, turning pages, reading behind him as he drove. Go girl on the back of the bike, go.

I can taste the egg in the sugar cookie. The bakers’ assistants, girl and boy, converse about the customers.

“Those two always come late, and always ask for free stuff, day old bread, and always take the paper.”

“People take the paper. I’ve seen them.”

“People take the sections they want to read. Those two take the whole paper. It’s expensive, the paper.”

∗    ∗    ∗

I will go to a bar on Thursday. I will go to a party on Friday.

I will read the Times, all the time.

I will go to the farmer’s market with a string bag on Saturday, and come home on the bus with flowers in a brown paper sack.

I will go to used bookstores on Sunday when it is raining, and I will wear my sensible shoes.

I will resist cutting bangs again because my face is too round and my hair is too wild, and I should have learned my lesson the first time.

I will learn my lesson the first time.

I will go to a new place.

I will stop leaving such big tips because I cannot afford it.

I will write back. I will write in the mornings, in the late nights. I’ll write in the long afternoons. To you.

I will finish. Learn. Resist. Won’t resist. I will listen, just listen.

∗    ∗    ∗

It could have been anywhere, really.

But it was at the park, one of the famous parks, and it was Saturday before noon, and there were warm croissants in a paper bag, and coffee in white paper cups. And the park was like a movie park with green hills and palm trees and pastel Victorian houses as the backdrop. People milled about, had picnics, read books on checkered blankets, chased their children, chased their dogs.

The dogs were movie quality dogs, extreme and typecast, tiny and big, spotted. A big one tried to eat the croissants. A bigger one looped across the field like a horse.

The bases were white undershirts that didn’t stay white. We played ball until we were tired, which took a long time.

And we were movie quality, almost. People stopped to watch. The vendor pushing a cart of ice cream, wheels strung with bells, stopped. The bum stopped to look and heckle.

I was almost movie quality with my red numbered T-shirt and long-sleeved undershirt, impatient in the outfield; I could have been an extra on a good day. On a good day, what is it I would want to be?

This is not a movie, I have to tell myself.

I am in it. This is what forgetting feels like.

“She’s SAFE!” they said.


ART: Jenn Brehm, Jason Polan,
Grant Willing

FICTION: Kirby Johnson, Anjali Sachdeva, Chad Simpson, S. E. Smith

NONFICTION: Laura E. Davis, Aaron Gilbreath, Alexandra Kimball, Elena Passarello, Alison Stine

POETRY:Samuel Amadon, Will Arbery, Elizabeth Arnold, Melissa Broder, Kara Candito, John Lee Clark, Graham Foust, Kit Frick, Paul Killebrew, Kyle McCord, Shane McCrae, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Sandra Simonds, Bruce Smith

ET CETERA: Flannery O'Connor Soundboard, Poetry Bingo