Cliffs: North Beach pho, the night flipping along. A stop at the strip club on a whim where Carol Doda killed a man, the Condor––sinister mid-bite intimations, a foggy nipple.
Dylan shrugged uncomfortably, “Gift from Alice––you know, the gal I’ve been seeing on and off.”
“Fit for a DJ with skin as smooth as a baby’s ass,” Kyle couldn’t resist.
Dylan squirmed, “That was her doing as well… Alice insisted that if she was going to exfoliate, I’d better submit to the same fate or face her wrath.”
Kyle raised an eyebrow, determined to be grown up, metrosexual, about all this.
“I told her I was too old for this shit and she shook her 20-year-old ass for all it was worth. That’s the way it works––I am not sure if you have ever been placed in this kind of situation….”
“For better or worse, I have not. But then I date women around my age. I’m sure I would have stood my ground, but…. well, we’ve been friends for ages––you could tattoo Calvin & Hobbes on your dick and I would be ok with it. If that is the only change over the past four years….”
Slipping pants over incriminating boxers, Dylan looked around. “We’d better get some sleep. It’s been a long day and we’ve got to make your tournament in Vegas tomorrow––I have some money riding on the outcome, as I recall.”
Kyle winced inwardly at this reminder that his friend was financing a good portion of a poker event he could not otherwise afford to enter. He was, as was known in the parlance, Dylan’s horse. “The Native American at the diner mentioned something about there being a place to sleep here, right?
Dylan nodded, pointing his 4G flashlight in the direction of the well and the tree. Sure enough, an unnaturally square shadow manifested itself under the tree. Stepping closer, it became apparent that this was not some mold-infested mattress with busted springs. Set neatly in a wood frame, it was a backwoods model deluxe. Kyle walked over and pressed the surface––tightly woven of straw, it had a firm, tatami-like spring. There were pillows in a burlap bag at the base and he shimmied them out, squeezing a material that was light and crunchy––some type of husk.
“Pretty nice,” Dylan said, flopping down with a heavy groan. “They forgot to leave a mint on the pillow, that’s about all.” The mattress was big enough to comfortably accommodate three or four people. Reclining nearer to the edge than was strictly necessary, Kyle took in clusters of stars, raw scars against the skin of eternity.
“This really is a place,” Dylan said.
“It is a place,” Kyle granted.
Neither was quite sleepy. As they lay in silence looking upward, a number of animal sounds asserted themselves… the rustle of small rodents, a muted cricket chirp. A whistle of wind passing below, not quite reaching this hidden, elevated plateau.
“It was good, the Tortuga.”
“It was good,” Kyle replied. San Francisco seemed so far away.
“The time spent with those girls… they were with it in the best way.”
There was a shared moment of remembrance––more natural this time, and then it was all right, old times. It had been magic. Sitting out on the side steps of the Green Tortuga, a stones throw from Chinatown beat 101, a place that was hip before hip had a name. Where goateed German immigrants named Doc espoused Marxist views, while jazz cats wailed in gutters, hats tilted down, assuredly gone. Kyle sensed the neighborhood had been assimilated, upgraded, gutted, turned into dot.com heaven––but there was still enough old blood, new immigrant blood, adventurous, ghost-seeking blood to make it interesting and diverse.
Remnants of mystery lingered––passageways under Chinatown extending down Grant Street to the old bay shore, where scuttled ships lay stacked on each other in layers of muck and mud that culminated cliff side, at Telegraph Hill. The stink not yet filled in, the little inlets where men would wake up on lurching rowboats headed out to larger vessels that did not dare show their face to anything but the night fog. Shanghai’d, pressed into service aboard whaling ships on long-haul voyages in search of madness, where the only possibility of disembarkation was Hawaii, Tahiti––if you managed to get off, pray you found a missionary, or a local chief in need of a head hunter (sic) mercenary.
This was all phantasm of course, a romanticized vision of a peninsula that had been romanticized since the moment it was discovered. Countless seekers subsumed in its entrepreneurial fervor, others spit out as if from the fifth level of hell. A city where the usual rules did not apply, as long as the Darwinistic rules of life in the shadow of nature’s fiercest disruptor, the earthquake, were respected. You could build a Google-funded fortress on side of a hill and still be in deep shit the moment the earth opened and swallowed things whole.
Kyle had come across Marie like an anchor after a day of restless movement. He and Dylan had made their way through Chinatown, across hidden parks, up endless stairs to Coit Tower, down again and up along the straight finger of cable car tracks across Russian Hill, to Ghirardelli Square and back along piers, fighting the clam chowder throngs. Looking out to Alcatraz amid a crazy beat of seal bark, he had been filled with a certain sense of.… what, he was not sure, it was complex. And back again, along an unknown street framed by clean-lined stucco apartments in pastel hues, Italian delis with humble sandwich counters and Giants’ pennants. The team had just flamed out against the Dodgers, maybe next year.
Kyle had met her in the kitchen, adjacent a circa-1920 ballroom. Having taken an hourlong nap, he was helping out with the twice-weekly communal meal passed down, fairly intact, from Tortuga’s hippy-era DNA. Closing a refrigerator stuffed with bagged food and beer, hostelers’ names scrawled in permanent marker, he was confronted by not quite a gaze––she had not actually looked up, though he was sure she was not unaware of his presence. There was something almost feral in her interest as he searched the cupboard for soy sauce.
The first step into Marie’s good graces, Kyle thought, should have been his knowledge of a particular combination stir-fry techniques that was known to induce gastronomic bliss. The flavors dependent on those critical first minutes of sautéing garlic, onions, ginger together in nemawashi––the mingling phase. The garlic caressed by an evaporating lick of sesame oil under delicate heat, until the smell of the divine emerged. Then the bulkier veggies––string beans, bok choi in a flash of intense heat, building a crisp throne for the crown jewel: beef, chicken––in this case, tempeh. Only they had not reached that point, had not ascended the steps of umami.
It had all happened in an instant, Marie brushing his hand as they stood at their respective chopping boards, telepathically signaling a stung blurriness of vision. She had tugged his wrist with surprising urgency and led him to a sink where they had run hands through water before escaping the vaporous kitchen in a rush. Pushing the side door onto a street that dead-ended against Telegraph Hill, they had encountered a perfect chill. Sitting on steps that slanted into the evening sidewalk, their conversation had taken paths he did not quite remember, touching on gentrification, dot com bazillionaires, the plight of hostelers who could barely scrape together $50 for a dorm room bed… it was all blurred music, a wash of sound that quickly heated into a jam.
Then an unexpected vision, African American shuffling to a beat beamed down from the ether, scraggly white beard indicating lack of shave for months. The eternally wise look he gave them sitting on their seagull and pigeon poop encrusted stairs. As if to say there would always be a place for him, whatever San Francisco’s current evolution––he would be there, guarding the streets––once you were this far out there was no turning back.
His growling shadow gave way to a cluster of out-for-drinks hipsters, an Asian girl holding her little brother’s hand protectively, a Charles Bukowski lookalike lurching to a strip club, $20 already out of pocket in sweat-palmed obedience to the Gods of ass and lonely eyes. Evening fading, Marie’s friend had come out through the door, Dylan in tow––they had apparently connected inside, in search of their errant traveling companions. How had that worked again…. This niggling doubt brought Kyle to the here and now. “How exactly did you get together with….?
Emerging from a far off place, whatever thought pattern had hitched him to its wheel, he gave a sharp look of interest––“I went looking for you in the kitchen after my shower, you said you would be helping out in the kitchen. The girl with the unpronouncable name and I converged at the scene of whatever had transpired: two chopping boards sharing a pile of half-cut onions. We deduced that you two had escaped the fumes, don’t ask me how––she was a sharp one, guiding me through the only door that led to the street….
Unlikely as it seemed that they would independently pair up, it made sense. Here was causality, a convincing explanation for the casualness with which the two greeted them, heading down the steps to Broadway in a flurry of purpose. Remerging around the corner five minutes later with a bottle of Brother Thelonius and two hot slices of pizza, to be shared around. “The tempeh stir fry…” Kyle had protested to dismissive shrugs all around. Sights set on the holy grail of road trip baptism, drink and sloppy sex, Dylan had suggested that the hassle of hungry backpackers could wait. They were here together miraculously as a group, out of the hostel––the time was right for cutting loose.
On Marie’s suggestion, they had planted themselves at the counter of a hole-in-the-wall pho restaurant between an Chinese produce store and a hardware store. From the clientele and no-frills ambience, Kyle was sure the place was run by first generation immigrants. Obeying ancient, unspoken boundary lines, bistros like Naked Lunch had not migrated this far up Broadway––this block still had an unadorned 70s vibe and intimations of shady, backroom goings on––it was as it ever should be. Then to the next bar and the next, everything building to the coupe-de-grace, foggy nipple.
Stumbling through thick fog back to the Green Tortuga, the girls had invited them to forgo the six-bunk experience and ravish them in their semi-private. A tiny room with a surprisingly spacious feel, due to the window bunk––perfect for a…
“Did you fuck?” Dylan asked, with what felt like hidden purpose.
“No,” the cautious reply. “Just a hand job under the covers. You?”
Dylan shrugged… “Same. The handie was enough mate, more than expected. Anyway, it wasn’t proper to go further, considering our proximity.”
This unexpected display of delicacy, respect even, left Kyle unconvinced. What it amounted to was a tacit admission that they had fallen short. Yet fucking had not really been on the agenda. The act of intimacy was enough. Which meant….
“Those girls were true technicians.” Dylan sighed, as if replaying in his mind why he had had not taken the reflexive next step of trying for a full shag.
“It was of a moment. No need to disturb the wa when you have been drained.…” Kyle turned over and was fast asleep.