the man i never wrote about
grass in the courtyard looked dry and brittle, like straw that would go up with the kiss of a match. it was the summer when everything got burnt by the terrible sun. brown leaves scuttled in the wind.
it was the summer of rick astley, perhaps the blandest singer to emerge from the morass of mid-80's pop, and his ear numbing big hit, which gregory listened to all the time, in the car's cassette player, in the boom box with the busted left speaker, and whenever they played the video on MTV, he would sing along at the top of his voice "together forever and never to part, together forever we two." gregory was not half the singer rick astley was.
it was the summer when it was over between us, and we both knew it, but we kept never talking about it.
one morning we fought over milk.
i was sitting at the little table with my coffee, studying the movements of a shadow cast by a stunted tree. i heard his bare feet slap against the wood floors, heard the cabinet open as he grabbed a clean mug. i heard the coffee being poured, and the glass carafe still half full going back into the Braun. i heard him go through the silverware drawer, to find a spoon. and then, the fridge door opened, followed by: "did you forget to get milk?"
. "isn't there any in there?"
"no, there isn't any in here."
and the fridge was shut, firmly.
he stepped into the room. he was wearing his pajamas, grown up versions of the kind little boys wear, soft flannel, big buttons, and because it was summertime, these were shorts and a top with short sleeves, baby blue with palm trees and banana bunches. his hair was adorably corkscrewed, his glasses all smudged with fingerprints. i told him not to get those frames. i told him he would look like sally jessie rafael, which he did as he stood there with hands on hips. "you know i need milk for my coffee."
"drink it black" i took a sip of mine, to show him it could be done. "delicious."
"i put milk on the list when you went shopping. i remember it was the first thing on the list. MILK. right on the top."
"i must have forgotten."
"how do you forget something written on a piece of paper in your hand?"
"i must have not seen it." i saw it. i didn't forget. i didn't get the milk, on purpose. yesterday at the corner lil' peach, my hand was just reaching for a quart of the 2%, when i thought of stupid rick astley and that song. together forever. i hated that song. i didn't want to hear it ever again.
instead of buying milk i got myself a pack of newport lights, even though i was supposed to be quitting, and some tic tacs for the smoke breath. walking back to our place on queesnsberry street, i puffed my cigarette and didn't feel a pang about not getting his milk.
"well i can't have my coffee without it." gregory pouted.
"have some OJ," i said, "i remembered to get that."
he gave me a look. "let me put on some pants and some shoes. i'll go to the corner."
"no, you don't have to. i can go."
neither of us moved.
"i should go. i forgot it yesterday. " really, i needed to get out of the room. i needed a cigarette.
we looked at each other. i grabbed my jacket off the hook.
"get the paper too, since you're going."
things came to a head in San Fran. we'd bought tickets months before, to celebrate my graduation. it was a vacation which neither of us really felt like going on, but neither was willing to back out. it was a mute dance, we stumbled through the motions. we stayed on opposite sides of an enormous bed at the hotel where the doormen wore silly beefeater costumes. we went to breakfast at a nearby dinner done up like a 50's bowling alley. we walked along the mission. we went to the castro, which was a sad echo of itself in these early days of aids. all the infamous baths were closed, and the cruisy spots we'd heard of. instead there were video stores and cafes and bodegas. we looked in store windows, bought the usual crap. we did fisherman's wharf, and rode a trolley car. we had a drink on the top of a famous landmark, where we watched the fog roll in with the evening. we did all the things you do. i honestly don't remember a single thing we spoke of, or whether we laughed, or enjoyed ourselves.
i remember what i was reading, one of of the tales of the city series. armistead maupin's books had become a refuge in those lonely days, i'd read an entire one on the silent flight over, and was on the third installment. ever since we had talked about coming to san francisco, i thought of finding a real-life barbary lane, the wonderful apartment house where those stories took place. toward the end of that interminable week, i suggested we go on an adventure to find maryanne and mouse and mrs madrigal, but gregory said he was tired. so i went alone. i never found my fictive friends, or their home. i spent the day climbing up and down hills and stairs, peeping into private gardens withered by the drought, but no barbary lane.
when i let myself back into our room, i was bone tired. i heard him talking on the room phone, he was laughing. when i came in he hung up.
"who was that?"
"no one, just my buddy bill. remember bill, the work friend i told you about?"
a few minutes later the phone rang. "oh hey bill, sorry i think we got disconnected." then he took the phone into the bathroom and closed the door.
the plan was to drive down the coast along pacific coast highway to eventually stop in LA where we were supposed to meet up with my friend barry who lived in weho. actually, gregory would be driving. i didn't drive. i still don't. it was a sore point between us. he resented driving everywhere. i tried to compensate. i made co-pilot my job. i made sure there were snacks and drinkables, i had mix tapes i'd worked on for weeks (no rick astley), i had the map all ready to go. back then we still used those fold out maps. i was a damned good co-pilot.
we made our way through carmel, and monterray. it was about then when i remembered i'd forgotten my book back at the hotel. i was sure it was in my brown bag, but it wasn't.
"you're so irresponsible" he said.
"it's not that big a deal."
"you're always forgetting things."
"you're always forgetting things."
"i had to bring your ID to work that time you left it at home."
"and i'll never hear the end of it." i changed the radio station.
"i was listening to that."
"since when do you like anne murray?"
"since i was listening to that song."
i changed it back, the push button made a satisfactory clunky sound.
we went on for a while. the highway is breathtaking coast line, steeply cut into a mountain range, the road hugs the curves of the hilly terrain formed by the intense pressure of two continental plates slamming into each other, and suddenly you are aware of the drop to the rocky crashing sea. it was an hour and a half of utter silence between us, punctuated by the radio pushbutton and pop music, the crinkling of the map as i folded and unfolded it, and the whirr of the AC on full blast.
"who's bill?" i asked. i couldn't take the quiet anymore. if we were going to have it out, let's have it out. "who's bill?'" i asked again when he didn't answer me after too many minutes.
"what do you want to know?"
"just a response to my question."
" i don't think this is the right time to have this conversation.'
"so, there is something to have a conversation about?" i'd lived with him long enough to learn that trick they must have taught him in law school, that facility of evasion.
"what are we waiting for?"
"now is not the time."
he just stared at the twisting ribbon of black top road that unspooled in an unending loop before us.
some miles later, he had to pee. we pulled up at a lone gas station/convenience store/ public restroom/pay phone at some town called santa someone. he slammed the driver's side door when he got out, leaving me to myself. fuck him, i thought. According to the map we were just about half way to LA., a long time to be sitting in a ford escort with him. i decided to get out and stretch my legs a bit. for good measure i slammed my door shut too, just as i noticed the keys in the ignition. of course, the doors auto locked. for a second i contemplated the craggy shelf of rock and the plummet to the pacific, wondering how long it would take to reach the ocean from this height.
he was carrying a couple cans of diet coke classic from the vending machine.
"what's the matter?"
i couldn't even look at him.
he saw the problem pretty quickly. "well that about figures."
"what is that supposed to mean?"
"i leave you alone for five minutes."
"you sound more and more like my fucking dad."
"you apparently need a parent, you're still a child."
so there we were, in the middle of nowhere. the gas station guy was no help. for a while i thought about hurling a rock through the window, it was a rental, we could say we'd been vandalized, but gregory said no way. the windows were all up, there was no way to get in with a jimmy or a clothes hanger, not that i had either a jimmy or a clothes hanger but i though of everything. i spent who knows how long in the phone booth with the yellow pages open to locksmiths, with my nearly maxed credit card, i called all around california, i must have made a dozen or more calls. one guy finally said he'd be there in 90 minutes, for 200 bucks. what could i say but yes?
i gave him our location: gas station in the middle of nowhere.
i hung up, exhausted. everything had taken a toll. all this mincing around each other, this stupid trip, this day when i wished i could have just gone back to bed and started all over again.
"a guy's coming." i said.
gregory was sitting on a picnic bench. he didn't answer.
"i'm really totally abjectly completely sorry."
"maybe you can't help yourself," he finally said. it was something you'd say to a puppy who shit on the rug, or to a slow child who's made a mess with his cream of wheat. it summed up everything he felt about me. i was some unformed tot, who could be counted on to ruin things, who was always going to let him down.
it was by now late afternoon. to pass the time, i read license plates of the cars that zoomed by. they kicked up red dust that got in my eyes, but i wasn't about to sit next to him, and there was nowhere else to be but leaning against the guard rail on the shoulder of the road. a motorcycle roared into the gas station driveway. an enormous man in black leather hell's angel gear got off the bike with a groan.
i nodded back, not knowing what else to do.
he took a quick glance at the montage we made, me and gregory and the car. "got trouble?" he asked. even the casual passing stranger could see there was a problem here, that something was wrong with us, out of synch.
"are you the locksmith?" i asked, suddenly hopeful.
he shook his head "not exactly."
he was grizzled with a full ZZ top beard and every bit of visible skin was tattoed. he didn't look like a locksmith.
he glanced over to the rental. "locked yourselves out?"
i nodded again. gregory looked over, he saw me and the harley guy talking.
"what's going on?"
"nothing" i said, "go back to being an asshole."
the biker guy smiled. "lucky for you i come riding through," he said, "I might could help you out here."
for a minute, a brightly fleeting, tantalizing moment, a thought flashed in my mind: i could hop on the back of the motorcycle, and take off with my unlikely knight, where we would go, where he would take me, i didn't care, as long as i got out of this spot, away from gregory, away, somewhere away. it was silly, but i smiled. it never occurred to me before that i could leave. i could take off, right now. it never crossed my mind that i might leave him, and i realized that every day for weeks i had been waiting for him to leave me. i was waiting for him to call it quits, end it. i was done waiting.
"i made a stop for some gas and a six pack, " my new friend said "if you give me a few bucks to cover that, i'll pop your lock. no problemo."
"sure" i said.
when he sauntered to the attendant, gregory came right over.
"is he robbing us?"
"yes. he's going to steal my swatch watch and the 45 dollars i have in my pocket. then he's going to slice me ear to ear and toss me off the cliff to be eaten by seals. how'd you like that?"
"what the hell are you talking about?"
"you don't need to pretend to give a shit about me anymore. i know it's over."
he stared at me.
"it's over," i said again, and it felt good in some unexpected way. it felt buoyant, floaty, an out of body thing.
true to his word, the guy returned. "lessee what we have here." he said. he pulled out a key ring that had dozens of odd appendages on it.
i could hear gregory breathing hard, he was still convinced we were about to get robbed. i hoped he got to his inhaler before he passed out. i didn't love him anymore, but i didn't want him dead either.
within 8 seconds the little nub doorlock popped up.
"ta da" said the harley guy.
i gave him a 20. "thank you, you have no idea. you're my guardian angel. my savior" i said.
he pocketed the bill, "let's just say i have a few things i need to make up for, you know karma? you'll be my good deed for the day."
he got on his bike, started it up with a noisy sputtering roaring spew of exhaust, nodded, and was gone.
and that was the last of him. to this day, i think of how that guy saved me.
i got in the car and turned the radio on full blast. debbie harry heart of glass.
he interrupted my singing:
"did you end everything? is this over? it that what happened?"
"just like that."
"you want to keep going on like this?'
"bill's just a friend."
"can i just say for the record-"
"let's just stop talking."
i shrugged. "we'll see."
just as we were pulling back onto the road, i spotted the blue truck that said "evergreen locksmith."
"you the people who are stuck?" the driver yelled out from his rolled down window.
"nope. not anymore."