Chinese New Year
It was the Year of the Pig. Actually, it was the year just before the Year of the Pig. I forget the official name. Let’s call it the Year of the Sloth. It was also the year I met May. We were living in San Francisco, but not together. May lived with her friends in the Marina. I had a room in the Mission.
May worked for a nonprofit in Fort Mason, and one of her coworkers, a man we’ll call Tim, was always making outrageous demands on our relationship. Tim was a Bay Area native, and an enthusiastic one at that. In his late thirties, or maybe early forties, he dressed like he was twenty, and had the energy of a teenager. Tim liked to do things. There was not a poetry slam or Gamilan performance or ironic pillow fight too obscure or far-flung for this guy. National thumb wrestling championships in Alameda? Count Tim in.
And here was the problem: Tim was always inviting May and therefore me. Which meant I had to come up with some excuse why we couldn’t go. I couldn’t. Because unlike Tim, my list of things I liked to do was quite short and at the top of it was being alone, followed closely by numbers two and three, drugs and alcohol—which maybe explains why I was so depressed all the time. Anyway, turning Tim’s invitations down was an exhausting exercise and taxed my credibility, and there was bound to come a time when I had to say yes to something. To my credit, I held out as long as I could.
And then one day—this was in early December—I met up with May after work on Union Street. I spotted her from a block away, and even from that distance I could tell she was amped up about something. Never was any good at hiding her emotions. Always radiating joy and enthusiasm. She gave me a hug and a kiss and delivered the news: Tim had been invited to be in the Chinese New Year Parade.
“Doing what?” I asked. “Like marching?”
May shook her head. “No—well, kind of. But way better. Tim has been invited to be part of. A Chinese New Year's Dragon! And—” big pause— “Guess what—” another big pause— “He can bring friends!”
Holy shit, high fives, and so forth.
Listen, you don’t say no that kind of joy. I don’t. At least not right away. And anyway the parade was weeks away, and being part of a dragon did sound kind of cool, so what was the rush? Maybe May would forget about it. Maybe Tim would be killed, against all odds, in a permaculture workshop.
Except he wasn’t, and May didn’t forget about the invitation either.
But hold on—I haven’t really told you about May yet.
The first thing you should know about her is she was—and according to her recently added vacation pictures on Facebook, still is—very beautiful. I mean like exceptionally beautiful. Like beauty both ways: inner beauty radiating out through smooth skin, dark hair, big eyes, warm smile, and all of it. And she was kind. I never heard May say an unkind word about anyone, unless it was like a villain in a movie or something. She was something else.
I met her at a house party in the middle of the country. I was going to school out there and she was visiting a friend at that same school. It took me forever to approach her. I had to get good and drunk, and I damn near overdid it. There’s a sweet spot, where the self-consciousness dissipates but before you lose your ability to communicate. I was really riding the line that night. Even so, I managed to talk walk up to her and introduce myself, and we talked for a while in the kitchen.
Somehow, we ended up in the living room on the dance floor. And let me tell you, May could dance. As a matter of fact, she danced precisely, exactly, ex-fucking-actly, like that woman in the “Groove Is In the Heart” video, which if you haven’t seen it you should. Arms to the side, grooving in a modified twist—it was something else.
Later, we talked some more. As it turned out we both liked music, and movies, and books, and food, and all the other things two people who are ready to like each other are gonna discover. Specifically—and here’s where it got kind of spooky—we’d both recently discovered the 1960s Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes.
I’m sure you’ve heard of them by now, but at the time they’d just recently been reissued, and for two cool kids trying to distinguish themselves from the pack with obscure pop cultural ephemera, you couldn’t get much more obscure than Brazilian psychedelia. I mean, you could, but that was as far out as we’d got, and we’d arrived there separately, and were delighted to find each other there, too.
The truth is Os Mutantes pretty much suck. They have approximately one good song to their name, which is called, “Baby,” and which they recorded both in ’68 and again in ’71 (the superior version) and which has probably been used in a car commercial by now, but anyway here are the relevant lines:
It’s time now to make up your mind
We live in the biggest city of South America
Look here, read what I wrote on my shirt:
Baby, baby, I love you.
And that’s where our story might have ended, because the day after I met her, May returned home. Her father was Thai and her mother was of Irish descent, but May was pretty much 100% Californian, born and raised in the South Bay, where she’d watched the fruit orchards give way to track housing and Yahoo! and Google and all the other quote unquote “campuses,” or whatever—and this was all I knew about her, really, and now she was gone.
Upon graduating that spring, a friend of mine scored a job with Yahoo!, and I helped him move out to San Francisco. I use the word “scored” under advisement. Also “helped.”
Sure, I was jealous of his job, but on the other hand I wouldn’t last a weekend at Yahoo!. I’m not a team player and could give two shits about the unlimited free Starbucks and bocci ball tourneys and Friday movie nights or whatever other perks they offered. On the other hand, I wasn’t the one taking the job, and they paid him something like two grand for moving expenses which, considering we were driving his grandma’s Cadillac and staying in cheap motels, meant I got me a free trip to San Francisco.
I called May the day after we arrived. We hadn’t spoken since that night at the party, but she remembered me, and agreed that it might be fun to get together and catch up or whatever. Maybe she was impressed that I had the nerve to look her up. I know I was.
We met the next afternoon in Dolores Park.
Again, we talked. I don’t remember exactly what about. Probably music. Probably my trip. Certainly the weather was mentioned at some point. How could it not be? It was a beautiful day—spectacular even: warm and cloudless, with a brisk ocean breeze swinging by occasionally to lift bits of trash from the grass and deposit them gently onto the street. Gulls squawked. Dogs tugged at leashes. Cool kids in hoodies gathered cross-legged on the lawn to discuss Tom Waits.
We talked, but again May couldn’t stay long. She had other responsibilities. She and a friend had started a literary magazine, and that night was the launch party. The enterprise was legit. The magazine was thick and in color and had its own ISBN number. There was an interview with a popular musician. Arthur Bradford had a story in there for God’s sake. As for the launch party, it was in a wine bar downtown. She said I should drop by. I said that might be cool.
And again, our story might have ended there, because the truth is that while a literary magazine launch party did sound “cool,” it did not sound “fun.” Not to me, anyway. You take a group of aspiring writers or artists—or, to be fair, actual writers or actual artists—and gather them together in a confined space and there’s bound to be a lot of ego. And this overabundance of ego manifests itself as an overabundance of confidence, which is itself there to mask a general lack of confidence, and the air is just thick with it, and it can become very difficult to breathe. At least for me. Because I am or was exactly that person I loathe, and I had plenty of that kind of shit on my own, thank you very much. Did I really want to do this?
When I got to the party May was working the door. She was seated at a folding table, collecting the ten-dollar donation fees and stuffing them into the slot of a little gift-wrapped box. I couldn’t rightfully sit there with her, if only because there wasn’t another chair, and so I paid my ten-dollar and headed inside. And I swear to you the same kids from the park were in there, milling around, only now they had changed from hoodies to cardigans, and instead of discussing Tom Waits—no, they were still discussing Tom Waits.
To be alone in a room full of strangers—is there any greater horror? At the time I was still on medication—Zoloft, I believe—and so with middling pharmaceutical confidence I swam over to the bar and ordered a beverage, sat down on a couch, tried to be cool, took a couple breaths, and spilled half a glass of red wine all down the front of my pants.
Not long after that, May and I started dating.
I moved to San Francisco to be with her, and it should have gone great, and for a while it did. We were in love—or if not love, something close to it. We were young and good looking in the city. That shit only happens once in a lifetime. I’d recently fucked up a series of relationships and so was determined to make this one work. That’s what it came down to. And plus, why not make it work? Her mother had a beach house.
We ate great food, saw great shows, and on the weekends went down to her mother’s beach house. So what was the problem? We saw the world in different ways. I don’t want to say that May was positive and I was negative—but it ended up being like that.
Maybe it was her friends. They had too much money. Rich people are a drag, and especially when they congregate together, and you can double that in times of personal financial crisis. Maybe it was the weather. I didn’t like the fog. I needed more sunshine. But really it was like the man who storms around thinking, “why is everything so fucked up?” Until one day he realizes (you hope) that it isn’t everything else that is so fucked up—or even if it is, there is another factor that needs to be taken into account, and at this point some sort of handheld mirror becomes useful.
Really the problem was envy. If not entirely, then mostly. I was envious of May. Envious of her friends. Envious of their lives and the city they lived in and its delicious food and delicately inclement weather. Envious of their comfort and the way they felt at home. No matter how I tried to fight it, that city was not my home.
She called me on a Saturday morning. “So, what’s on your schedule today?”
“Do you know what day today is?”
“It’s Chinese New Year!”
“You don’t remember?”
“Um.” By this point it was too late to come up with an excuse. I’d already told her I had nothing going on. She said I should meet her at her place in an hour. We were going to be in the parade.
I didn’t feel like catching a bus, so I drove. This was a mistake. The Marina is famous for its parking, and I must have spent forty-five minutes winding through the twelve-block radius around May’s house looking for a spot. At long last I found one, and as I was locking my car door a gentleman in a dark Mercedes SUV rolled up. I knew what was going on. He was gonna give me some shit about taking his spot. But no: instead he leaned out his window to eye my '92 Honda Accord, and said unto me, “Hey man, is that thing for sale?”
“What, my car?”
“Yeah. You wanna sell it?”
I gave the matter some thought. My broken ass, beat-up 92 Accord? With the dent and the missing antenna? Why would someone want it?
“My daughter’s turning sixteen. I want to get her something where it doesn’t matter if she bumps it up too bad.” The man pushed his sunglasses up on his head. “I’ll give you a thousand for it. So whaddya say, man?””
“A thousand? Are you fucking kidding me?”
I mean, that’s what I should have said. Instead I didn’t say anything at all, or even move, except maybe to lower my jaw a couple more sixteenths of an inch.
And I only wish I’d had a copy of the Kelly Blue Book with me at the time—the print edition—not for reference but so I could’ve whacked him with it. But what really burns me, even to this day, is that some prick in a Mercedes would have the nerve to address me not once but twice as “man.” I’m not your man, man.
May’s best friend gave us a ride to Chinatown, and because we skipped the bus we were early, and no one was waiting at the building where we were supposed to meet up. The doors were locked. Tim was nowhere to be seen. We had an hour or so, so we wandered up Stockton Street and ended up at the Tunnel Top, but it was closed, so we headed to a different bar down the way. If I was gonna do this I needed a drink.
Inside it was dark and stuffy, yet nearly empty—just three elderly Italian men seated at a table, the smoke from their cigarettes curling lazily toward the ceiling, no kind of weather at all. From their casual disregard of the city’s recent indoor smoking ban, I gathered that the men must be regulars, or possibly owners. They were seated in a half-circle facing the bar, the better to keep an eye on the young Asian woman at the bar. It was, they informed May and myself in Italian accents as we sat down to order, this woman’s first day of work.
She showed it, too. She was nervous and sort of obsequious, and when we asked her what she recommended she seemed taken aback by the question, and then after a moment of flustered reflection said something in a thick accent that was nearly indistinguishable, but which we eventually figured out as, “Grey Goose?”
“OK,” we said, and she turned to the bottles on the wall behind her, and after searching for a moment couldn’t find it. There wasn’t any Grey Goose. I don’t even know if there was vodka. I had a Jack and Coke instead, and so did May. We sat and tried to make small talk with the bartender, but there was the problem of the language barrier, and the scrutinizing Italians, and after a while we gave up and drank in silence. May couldn’t finish hers, so I did the job for her, and then we got the hell out of there. It was a dark place.
Out in the sunshine again, but I needed more alcohol, so I ducked into a convenience store and bought the biggest can of Sapporo they had, and chugged it greedily as we headed back to Chinatown.
When we got there things had changed. Everyone was out now. There was a long line snaking its way into the building. The streets had come alive. Who were all these people? I watched them entering the building in their street clothes, and then much later exiting dressed in uniforms of gold track pants, red shin guards, yellow shirts with Chinese characters, and red sashes—and a horrible realization came over me: I was going to have to put one of those things on, too.
The problem was not merely vanity (though there was plenty of that) but also practicality. As it happens, I am kind of tall, and learned long ago that one-size-fits-all kind of situations do not usually apply to me, and especially when the average body, upon which the one-size is based, is five-foot-ten. It’s one thing to look ridiculous among a crowd of similarly ridiculous people, but—was I even gonna be able to walk in one of those outfits?
And then out of the crowd a familiar face appeared, grinning from ear to ear. Tim. Already in his costume.
“You’re late,” he said merrily.
Such a beautiful day, another one of those bright San Francisco afternoons, with the sun pasted high in the sky and a salty ocean breeze blowing down the corridors. So let me ask you, what makes a bad mood? I don’t know. They come upon me as sudden as the weather, and dissipate a hundred times more slowly, and when I am in the throes of a particularly dark one, the origin—if indeed there ever was one—becomes lost. But I can definitely identify the things that feed and sustain a mood, and they include but are not limited to: some jerk in a Mercedes lording it over me, a group of old men eye-fucking a bartender, silly costumes, and Tim.
He looked at May, and at me, smiled. “Welcome to Chinatown.”
Listen, I had been to Chinatown before. I went there all the time. San Francisco was not my home, and because of that fact I liked to hang out where the tourists were. There was this walk I did on my days off: beginning at Fort Mason, with its spectacular view of the Golden Gate, I’d head downhill towards the piers, and Fisherman’s Wharf, past the wax museum and the Ghirardelli chocolate “factory,” past the street performers and the famous Bush Man, crouching behind his branches and leaping out to frighten the passersby, and then into North Beach, the “Italian” neighborhood, and finally into Chinatown. The kind of walk you’d take your visiting mother on (as I once did).
And all the while there’d be tourists, great hordes of them—dorky midwesterners in Mickey Mouse shirts, Germans in tight shorts, Japanese students with their video cameras. A giant, gawking mass of humanity wandering around San Francisco—or “San Francisco” I should say. They comforted me. I recognized them. The lady in the sweatpants was my aunt. The large bearded man with the white crescent of belly hanging out the bottom of his polo shirt—that was my grandfather.
After the wharfs and North Beach, I liked to wander with the tourists up Stockton street, and check out the Chinese markets. You never knew what you were going to see, although, having been there before, I had some idea. Half-alive fish gasping for air in shallow pools of water. Strange fruits. A cardboard box full of leaping frogs. And I could stand behind the family from Nebraska and let the father do the speaking for me: “Honey, look at what these people eat.”
The people comforted me because I recognized them, and because, technically, I was not of them. Technically, I was not a tourist. Technically, I lived here. But I liked seeing it again, San Francisco—“San Francisco”—through their eyes. How lovely. How sunny. How safe and warm, every shop promoting a fairytale version of San Francisco as a prospering bayside vacation paradise, with fresh crab cakes and bay tours and little snow globes of Coit Tower, where it snows, on average, maybe once in a century.
How different from my own experience. The preening businesspeople who came down from their castles once a day to gather on Market Street. And their bored yoga-wives sipping wine on patios in the Marina. How different from the ubiquitous homeless, standing at every corner to ask for money, the one-legged transvestite on Valencia Street, harassing the motorists at the stoplight. The poverty! The Mexican day laborers gathered at all hours on the corner of Caesar Chavez and Florida outside my bedroom, and the trucks that occasionally skidded up to throw a couple in the bed and speed on.
Let me tell you a story:
Once, late at night—or more like early in the morning—stumbling drunk to my room in the Mission, I heard a couple voices shouting rhyming couplets over a loudspeaker, and the sound grew and grew until I was just about under it, and I looked up to see a couple silhouettes on a balcony, with a microphone and P.A. system. A couple of hipsters, I figured, up their in their tight jeans, polluting the neighborhood with their poetry. I shouted up at them to shut the fuck up, and for a moment there was silence, and then a voice like the voice of God sounded above me, something to the effect of, why don’t you shut the fuck up, buddy.
And I shouted back, I told you first, and then, why don’t you make me?, and back and forth like that for a while until I was invited to meet one of them at the doorway to discuss the situation in person, and I was drunk enough that I accepted the offer, and headed around the corner to the address of the doorway I was given, confident that being tall in my hoodie and Carhartts I would totally scarify whatever scrawny, bespectacled, cardigan-wearing douchebag was there to meet me.
Instead, I was met by a linebacker—or maybe a shot-putter—but anyway a gorilla, who was not only definitely not wearing glasses or a cardigan, but was holding a weapon in his hand, a large u-bolt bike lock, and holding it in such a way as he knew just exactly how to crack a face in half with it. I nearly shit myself, right there on his stoop.
That was San Francisco for me.
Point is, I had been to Chinatown, but I’d never been inside Chinatown, and it was curiosity as much as anything that finally drove me into the building and up the creaking stairs behind May. It was quiet in there, even with all the people. It was orderly. Outside on the streets of Chinatown, it was a melee—day and night, New Years or not, it was always a melee—but inside, on the other side of the walls, there was order. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did.
Up one flight of steps and then another, up past the second story, third story, and onto the fourth floor, a kung fu studio, where volunteers were handing out the uniforms. As it happened, the sizes were not one-size-fits-all, but we were late and the only size left was extra-large. And so, in the end, May looked even more ridiculous than I did. In her billowing day-glo shirt she fairly resembled some kind of radioactive muffin.
Back on the street again, she echoed my sentiment. “I look ridiculous, don’t I?” But she said it with a smile, because she was happy, and despite myself I was beginning to feel all right, too. Why not? It was a beautiful day, the sun was out, and, for the first time since I’d moved to San Francisco, I was a part of something. We were a part of something—May, myself, and even fucking Tim.
Why not? No one knew how badly it would all turn out, not even me. This was before the end of things, or rather in the middle of it. The towers had fallen, but the country was prospering again, and it seemed like the nightmare was behind us. I did not know that the book I was writing would not sell. I did not know how badly I would take it, how I would run off to work on a pot farm north of the city, and how after the harvest May would still be waiting for me.
How, after harping on her for a year or more about how much I hated living in the San Francisco, May would finally give in and say, “OK. Let’s move somewhere together. Let’s move in together.” And how on the weekends we would travel to towns north of the city, within a reasonable commute—Petaluma, Sonoma—and how I would find something wrong with every apartment, duplex, and house we checked out. The rent was too high, the yard was too small, I just had a bad feeling about the place. And the truth was, I did have a bad feeling, it was with me all the time, tagging along beside me like a dog on a leash. What was the problem? Everyone liked May. My friends liked her, my mother liked her, my father absolutely adored her, and I should have, too, and I did. But then again, I didn’t. I couldn’t. Sometimes I could, but not nearly enough.
Eventually I fled to Portland, Oregon, to “figure some things out,” still without the guts to break up with her, and we dated long distance. Whatever money I was saving on rent I blew on the weekends to fly down and see her, and for awhile it was all right. I was a tourist, again. A visitor. So I used to talk shit about that neighborhood, but the truth is I loved the Marina. It was so clean, every person good-looking, every building beautiful and well-lit. Walking around there was like being in a movie. You could pretend. We went out to restaurants or drove down to the beach house. It was all a big vacation. And always the thought, in those moments of happiness: if only it could always be like this.
But it couldn’t, and I began to come up with excuses. I was busy. I couldn’t make it down this weekend. Or the next. And then I began seeing other women, and broke up with May, or tried to, but couldn’t.
I don’t think I would of been happy with May, but she always seemed happy with me, and that was the bitch of it. The whole way through, I couldn’t figure it out, the question was always there: why? Why, with this beautiful, kind, etc., woman, couldn’t I be happy? It all boiled down to why. I couldn’t figure it out. For months I gnawed on that question and I couldn’t figure it out. Why? I wasn’t used to having questions that couldn’t be answered. It drove me up a tree.
Once again, I have the Chinese to thank for a moment of clarity. Or rather, I have a Chinese restaurant to thank—and also, again, the issue of parking.
For one rainy afternoon in Portland it happened that I went to see a movie with the woman I was cheating on May with, and we were late arriving at the cinema, and all the parking spots were taken, so I parked next door in the lot of the New China Cafe.
The movie was a science fiction flick regarding a doomed voyage to the sun. At first it seemed kind of good, but then it got bad, laughably bad, and then just bad bad—the kind of bad that creeps up on you and wiggles into your brain and leaves you exiting the theater in a kind of disenchanted, baffled haze, and the whole world seems changed for it. Such as, for example, where was my car?
It wasn’t where I’d left it. The parking space was now occupied by a white Ford Taurus. I ran around the tiny parking lot for awhile, as if perhaps I’d just misplaced my car, and then I was certain that it had been stolen, and then I read writing on the wall:
PARKING IS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY
NOT FOR THE LAURELHURST CINEMA
DO NOT PARK HERE UNLESS YOU ARE A CUSTOMER
OR YOU WILL BE TOWED.
A call to the number at the bottom confirmed it. I had been towed.
The woman I was seeing gave me a ride to the yard, far on the East end of Portland, and as she pulled up to the lot she paused a second and said, “You know, I just really think that this isn’t working out.”
Which, no shit, the whole goddamn day wasn’t working out, but it took me a moment to realize what she was getting at.
“Are you breaking up with me?”
“Yeah,” she said.
What bravery! What balls! To just end it like that on the side of the road. I almost had to admire her.
Inside the tuff shed I identified myself to the man at the computer, and he closed his game of solitaire and pulled up my information. This took some time—it was an ancient gray Dell, and you could practically hear the gears turning as it closed one program and opened another—and some small talk was in order, so the guy asked me how I was doing.
“How’s it going, man?”
When I didn’t immediately answer, he looked up at me, and saw the expression on my face. “I mean,” he said, “other than the fact that your car just got towed.”
“Well,” I said, honest for perhaps the first time in months. “I think I just got broken up with by the woman who I was cheating on my girlfriend with.”
He sat there for a moment, parsing the words. “That’s rough.”
“I guess so.”
His gaze strayed back to the computer screen. He clicked the mouse a couple times. “OK. That’ll be, let’s see, two hundred and forty-eight dollars. Cash or charge?”
And so I resolved, finally, to break up with May. Just after Christmas that year I took the train down to see her, with the intention of calling it off for good. I was going to be a man about it and do it in person, and as soon as possible. Get it over with and move on. I’d already made New Years plans without her.
She drove out and picked me up at the station in Emeryville and then back across the Bay Bridge to her new apartment in the Marina. That night we were lucky. There was a parking spot right in front of her apartment. Her place was on the third floor, and I dropped behind her on the stairs so she couldn’t see the look on my face. Then we were at the door. Then we were inside. Her cat was in there, and the ramen soup and gyoza she’d made, and the presents, wrapped up in beautiful, expensive, handmade paper. May had gotten me presents.
We ate our meal and moved on to the gifts. She liked to give presents in groups with some theme in mind. As I unwrapped them she told me what the theme was. “Things to make you happy.” She wanted me to be happy. There were several gifts, and I don’t remember them all, but I remember the last one I opened was a painting of people at the beach.
Then it was May’s turn—or it should have been, but because I was planning on breaking up with her, I hadn’t gotten her anything.
We sat down together on the couch.
“What are we planning on doing for New Year’s?” she asked.
And that’s when I broke up with her. I told her about the cheating. I was too horrible for her. I needed her to know that.
I will not dishonor her anymore by showing this moment. Let’s just say she was upset, and it really was the end. I’d tried to call it off before, but this time it was real. Eventually, it was time for me to go, but there was one more thing. The presents.
They were scattered around the room: on the table, on the floor. Wrapping paper was everywhere.
“Um,” I said, “What about the presents? Do I keep them?”
“They’re yours,” she said through tears. “Take them.”
It was the Year of the Pig.
A crowd of people in bright costumes had gathered on Stockton Street in front of a kung fu studio. A man with a bullhorn shouted instructions.
To be part of a Chinese dragon is no small honor, he said, but it is also a lot of work. Each segment is supported by a wooden rod, each rod held up by a person, and you will find that the dragon is not light. Your job is to hold your segment above your head, to move it up and down, always following as best you can the person in front of you, stepping where they have stepped, moving as they have moved, keeping always an equal distance between each segment. You will notice that we have here more people here than dragon, and this is for a reason. The dragon is not light. The dragon is heavy. You will become tired. When you need a break—and you will—your job is to call out to one of the runners alongside the dragon, and they will replace you. Are there any questions? OK, we will practice on our way to the staging area. The main thing is: just try to keep up.
A limp corpse struggled to its feet. It stood on Stockton Street, swaying like a drunkard, shaking off the dust of another year gone by. Then, at a signal, it began to move forward, slowly, awkwardly, unsure of itself, contracting and expanding like a slinky, learning in those first few steps again how to walk. And with each step it gained a bit of confidence, a little more grace, down the hill toward Market Street.
We played frisbee by the ocean. At the edge of the waves, at sunset, we tossed the disk back and forth, and every once in a while an errant throw would send it arcing out into the water, and we would splash out into sunlit waves to retrieve it, shake off the water and wet sand and send it floating into the air once again.
We ate food—good food—spectacular food. We gathered in groups outside of the hottest, newest restaurants, and waited our turn, and just when it seemed we could get no more hungry, our names were called and we were let inside. We sat ourselves down at great wooden tables and perused the menu, farm fresh organic produce, all-natural hormone-free beef—and more exotic items, shipped at our pleasure from the very edges of the earth.
We drove to Lake Tahoe for the Fourth of July. We followed the snaking line of cars—the entire city of San Francisco, it seemed—down the interstate and up into the Sierras, slowly, slowly, the entire city relocating to the woods for a weekend. We rented cabins and gathered on the deck to barbecue tri-tip, and watched the fireworks explode out over the lake.
The whole world was made for us. Fishermen fished for us. Farmers farmed for us. Laborers in distant factories slaved for us, sent us shoes and phones and frisbees. There was so much abundance that abundance itself became boring, and still we asked for more. We were miserable but elated, and happy but sad, and it seemed like it could go on forever, and it almost did, but it couldn’t. And one evening the frisbee sailed out beyond the breakers, and settled silently into the rolling waves, and we waited at the shore for the ocean to carry it back to us, but every crash and retreat left only a simmering film of water, a length of seaweed, a plastic bottle.
Marching bands. Floats. Drummers. Dancers. Little girls dressed like piglets, a whole flatbed full of them. And more dragons. Little ones. Big ones. Massive sequined beasts that put our own dragon to shame, in the best kind of way. It was so cool. It was the coolest thing. The kind of cool you don’t even need to comment on. We were part of something. We were on the inside.
“Baby, I love you.”
Her dark eyes, her smiling teeth, her muffin top.
“Baby, I love you, too.”
“And I’m sorry.”
“Me too, baby. But aren’t you glad I made you do this?”
“Listen. You didn’t make me.”
We waited in the staging area, waited as the evening turned to night, as the crowd swelled around us, as the lights brightened in the buildings above us, waited an eternity, until it seemed like we couldn’t get any more hungry, and waited even after that, until, far at the front the entire thing, the parade, slowly at first, but picking up speed, began to move.
And then we were running.
Swooping down the street, moving, moving, whipping past the crowd—tourists, all of them—catching now and again a glimpse of their widened eyes, their smiles, the cheers from the children. And it was true what the man had said, dragons are heavy. And even when the parade slows, the dragons keep on running, they curl back on themselves, drawing s’s and o’s and om signs in the street.
For those of you who are not long distance runners—and I know you are, May, but for everyone else—you should know that one trick for maintaining forward momentum is to sing a song in your head. And there was music all around us, plenty for everyone, but I sang my own song.
It’s time now to make up your mind
We live in the biggest city.
And it could have worked. It really could have. If only I was always on my best behavior. If only I could be someone else. If only it could always be this good. And even before we made the turn up towards Union Square I could feel myself beginning to fade, legs burning, arms sore. And finally I called out for someone to spell me, and then I was running alongside the dragon. But this was worse than fatigue, to be a mere runner. As soon as I was out I wanted back in. I ran and listened for someone to call out for a substitute.
Of South America,
Of South America.
Look here, read what I wrote on my shirt:
The problem of the human condition is one of memory. We want to remember things, but we also want to forget. We sift away the pain and recall the joy, or push the joy aside and linger on the pain. Neither option is satisfactory, and we are left longing for a golden memory, or crying at all our mistakes. But what about the other option, of drowning in the present? Sometimes it’s the only way to go. And so I heard a familiar voice, and hustled over to the dragon, and took the pole from her hands, and then I was running again, really running, holding on for dear life as I was whipped back and forth—like a stick in a river, like the string of a kite, like the tail of a dragon—down Market street, running, running, just trying to keep up.