“I was 10 years old. He was my cousin, 15 years old. It wasn’t pretty.”
We lay in bed, face down, shoulder to shoulder, he with his arms around his pillow, and I propped up on my elbows as I took in the full significance of this statement. Gary and I had met just days before, when I arrived in town after 36 hours on an Amtrak train from Denver to Oakland, the last leg over the Bay Bridge by bus into San Francisco. I’d heard about a budget hotel in the financial district. Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, it was a veritable ghost town. I entered the small lobby, and was registered by a man behind the window of the hotel office. Pleasant and soft spoken, with light blue eyes, and his hair, a soft pale blond, was thinning heavily on the top, making him appear a bit older than he actually was. He took my driver’s license as identification. A smile came over his face as he said “we’re just a few months apart in age”. He asked me what brought me to San Francisco. “I am traveling around, seeing different parts of the country this summer,” I said. He was intrigued that a female would be traveling alone for an extended period of time, on public transportation, with no particular agenda. Gary offered to give me a tour of the city. It may seem odd, but I knew right away that it would be OK, that it would not be dangerous for me to spend time with him. It felt familiar around him, like I had been here before, and I was supposed to meet up with him right here in this place. I rode the elevator, with its steel gate that swung across the opening of the car, up to my floor. I suppose that some of what seemed a déjà vu experience stemmed from the sights and smells in that old building. I later learned that many old buildings in the West were built with materials that came by rail from the East. It was the steel and brick of my childhood in Brooklyn that I was feeling all around me. But at the time I simply had a powerful sense of place, of memory, of the rightness of being there.
Gary finished his shift late that evening. I met him in the lobby, and we walked out and down the street towards Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown is a sight to behold, especially for a newcomer. We walked and talked and stopped for an egg roll and soda, and I thought to myself “you are crazy, woman. You could get yourself killed, wandering around a strange city late at night with some guy who works the front desk of a budget hotel.” I was not and still am not one to take up quickly with another, man or woman, platonic or sexual. But felt an affinity with this man, and I decided that there were worse ways to die. If this was to be my last night on earth, well, I was spending it in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a kind, handsome man who was on my path at that moment. I’m not sure if it was that night, or one of the nights to follow, that he told me that he’d been in jail for selling cocaine. “I wasn’t a very good drug dealer, obviously” he said. He did not run with drug dealers or users, he was simply broke and had nothing to fall back on at that point. He came out of jail, found the job at the hotel, and that’s where he ended up staying for a couple of years before moving on. He had the next day off, and we wandered the city together. He was a grand tour guide, having lived there for several years, and I was grateful and delighted. He knew that I had no money, and offered to let me stay in his room while I was there. What was interesting at this juncture was that nothing physical had taken place between us. He spontaneously bought me a flower while we were walking around that day, but nothing more. He went to work that evening, gave me the key to his room, and said I should just go up and check it out. His room was part of his pay, and he decorated it as only a 25 year old man could in 1989: a couple of busty nude photos on the wall, a pack of Marlboro and a small bottle of whiskey on the nightstand. The bathroom was the cleanest I’d ever seen, the colors of the bedding earthy and warm. He had stacks of cassette tapes and a stereo, and he had books. He had a lot of books. I decided to stay for a while. “What the hell” was actually what I said to myself. I couldn’t really afford to stay there on my hostelling budget, but I liked the place. I liked Gary. We shared that room for a week. I wandered on my own when he was working, and then we’d go around the city on his hours off. I watched him a lot: how he moved, what he said, what he didn’t say. Though we became lovers, that was a small part of the fact that even after all of these years, and not a lot of time together (we had that week, and a couple of months about a year later when I moved to San Francisco) he is very much a part of me. Every night that I was with him he would read before bed. In the morning if he had no place to go, he would read. If you’re a reader, you may think well so what, lots of people read! During our week together that summer, he confided in me that he had lived in a very unstable environment as a child, with his mother and various relatives. Books were his comfort, his escape. When he was in the sixth grade, he was raped by a 15 year old male cousin. When he realized that there was no help, no protection, available to him there, he ran away. He had only his skateboard, his denim jacket, and his sharp wits to sustain him. He regaled me with stories of wandering through the Grand Tetons, hitching rides, working odd jobs, doing whatever he had to do to survive. He never returned to school after the sixth grade, yet he was one of the most voracious readers I have ever met. With some gentle encouragement that yes, yes, he was smart enough to take the GED, he took the plunge and took the pretest (which showed only some minor math deficiencies), prepped and passed on the first try. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he got his certificate. He might as well have been receiving his doctorate, the moment was so powerful.
We drifted apart after awhile, not with any malice, simply because we seemed to have done what we needed to do together. I confided in him, too. I told him about an event in my life that I had rarely discussed, and which I am only now at nearly 50 years old ready to hash out all the way through as though my life depends on it, and in fact it may. I think that’s when I began to understand that not everyone is supposed to come into a life and stay there forever. I am not always totally at peace with it, but I believe it to be true. What I think I want or need and what IS may be very different things. It has taken a long time, but I’ve reached a place where I can acknowledge sadness that something is changing, or that someone is no longer in a prominent place in my life, and still know that this is how it ought to be. I speak of my life as a series of chapters. Some chapters are thick and spanning many years. Others are not nearly as extensive, but significant. Others still are a few pages long, and yet can still have tremendous potency, making a mark that lasts a lifetime. I wonder about Gary, if he’s still alive, if he has made peace with his demons. I hope he has found his balance, his center, and is soaring.