There is a sound an orchestra makes just before it begins to play. It starts with silence. Then comes the tap of footsteps, the scratch of chair legs on wood floors and the sound of ruffled paper as sheet music is put in place. There is the hushed murmur of muffled conversation, the scratch of bows on strings, the whistle of air though reed, the thud stick upon drum. The individual sounds collapse together and rise to a formless directionless cacophony. The melody of chaos and discord. Then suddenly, as the conductor lifts a baton, silence again.
This is what I think of when I think of you.
On the day of your funeral I loaded the car and headed down Highway 1 south toward Big Sur. I did not go to funeral home or the church or the graveyard. What lay in the casket there was not you. What you were, who you were could be found along this road and on the cliffs and in the bars and taverns and in the motels and the campgrounds and on the beach, in the foaming waters cold Pacific on the edge of the world. So I left to find your memory in these places and to visit the sleeping ghosts who still reside there.
I started my trip the way we always did at Ocean Beach by the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Walking the crumbling foundations of the massive buildings where rich and fashionable people once played. Empty now and filled with the saltwater as the waves break over them. You told me once how you loved seeing things old and broken. At the time I didn’t understand.
In my wallet I keep a picture of you even after so many years. Dog-eared and faded I could never bring myself to throw it away. It’s the one I knew you hated, but it was my favorite. I had crept up behind you with my camera and I tapped you on the shoulder and as you turned I snapped the picture and captured you unprepared. In the picture you are smiling, your lips slightly parted, I can see the small gap in your front teeth, the one you always covered with your hand when you laughed, your long brown hair is suspended in mid-flight and your eyes are wide and round. There is happiness there in that picture along with your surprise and shock. And just a touch of sadness.
I ran my finger down the curve of your cheek. I spoke your name aloud the way you would introduce yourself to others. Viki, two I’s no C. Funny. I always thought that was funny. I lit a cigarette.
Why did I love you? Because I did love you. I told myself from time to time that it was only lust, just sex and booze, but I know it went beyond that. I loved the way your left eye drooped as you spoke, an involuntary wink. I loved the way you bounced as you walked, off the balls of your feet swinging your arms from side to side like you would begin to skip at any moment. The way you danced when no music was playing, swaying to songs only in your head. The way you called it spaghetti dressing instead of sauce, the way you would order tropical drinks in winter to remind you of summer and put the little umbrellas behind her ear as decoration. I loved the way she looked without makeup, the way you smelled in the morning. I loved the way you said, “I love you.”
I suppose suicide was always an option. I always knew you could do damage, to yourself, to others. I wish you left a note.
For me there is a moment of hesitation before I set off on a trip, even a short one, a sense of leaving things undone, as if there was an obligation I was somehow forgetting. And so I lingered there waiting for I don’t know what, a signal I guess. I watched as some locals in wetsuits, surfboards in hand, ran off into the calm, cold water. I put the cigarette in my mouth and inhaled deeply.
Behind me on the street I saw a group of tourists putting coins into the large metal viewers to get a close-up look out on to the massive rocks that lay along the coast. Seal Rock they are called, and occasionally you can see an actual seal or a sea lion. But mostly it’s just place where sea birds go to shit. It has always astounded me how normally intelligent people would pay twenty-five cents for sixty seconds to look at giant guano covered boulders and walk away feeling that they were the better for it.
“Tick, tick, tick,” I could hear you say tapping your wrist as if there was a watch there, “what the fuck is the holdup? Time to go.” I put the smoke out in a pool of sea water and placed the butt in my pocket. I made my way down the coast.
I pulled into Half Moon Bay Just before noon hoping to get lunch at the El Tigre diner. How many times had we eaten here? Breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros no matter what the time of day. Everything covered with fresh made green chili with chunks of shaved pork and spices I could never coax out of the owner. Juan-Carlos was his name, a pudgy little Mexican man who smiled whenever I asked him to revile his recipes. “Ancient Mayan Recipe,” he would say, “gringos can never know!” I would put my hands together to pray, please I would beg. Juan-Carlos would throw his head back and say with a maniacal laugh, “Never!” and he would walk back to the kitchen.
It was just a small concrete building. On the front façade was hand painted cactus and a pouncing tiger. Juan-Carlos’ wife and two daughters waited tables. Inside were naugahyde booths and plastic topped tables with mini jukeboxes that only played Mexican folk songs for a dime. The walls covered with elaborate saddles and lassos. We always sat under the wanted poster of Zapata, bullets criss-crossed across his chest and a giant sombrero upon his head. The struggle continues, the caption read, the struggle continues. This is what I wanted for us.
I would save up enough money and you would quit your job. We would buy a little place just out of the way so as not to be trendy. We would cater to the locals, but tourists would come; the ones who wanted the local flavor. And the locals would direct them to us. I would cook simple fare, the kind that was unassuming but remembered. You would wait the tables. Sure, there would be the occasional guy who would hit on you, and I know you would flirt back, but for you it was just business, and the guy couldn’t help it, you were so pretty. As for me I would understand these things, and people would think me a better man for not noticing.
El Tigre wasn’t there anymore. It’s a coffee shop now called Daphnia’s. They sell veggie pitas and soy milk chai and prayer flags now. They have a little logo with an OM symbol on it. I asked what happened to Juan-Carlos and his family. No one knew. I ate there anyway.
I cut over to interstate 5 as I always did. It’s faster, the road is wider. I can make better time. In late afternoon I passed the slaughter house.
On the side of the road on a barren brown dirt hill row upon row of cows lined up ass to nose slowly walking toward brick building with a double smokestacks billowing black smoke. When the air was still you could smell the burning of the unused parts and festering blood and shit and urine and everything else that could not to be used as a product or as edible flesh.
Still it’s possible that such a thing could go unnoticed so long as the wind blows in the right direction, east off the coast. Always before we came to this place you would lay your head in my lap. I would sing you a song, your favorite, to make you forget; “the first days are the hardest days don’t you worry anymore…’ and I would sing it straight through until we passed because if you didn’t see a bad thing than it wasn’t real. So long as the wind blew east off the coast and we could not smell the decay, we could pretend it wasn’t there and we could continue on. The first time we passed this place you cried. I tried to console you, they die quickly I said, they don’t feel a thing. No, that wasn’t it. It wasn’t for the animals that you grieved, it was for yourself. You knew, you told me, that even seeing this place you would continue to do what you have always done. And for that you were crying for yourself, your lack of will power. A lack of soul, you said.
You need to make me safe, you told me, “I’m like a kite strung out too far. I think I’m blowing away.”
“Don’t worry I’m holding on,” I said. Thought I didn’t know it at the time it was the first of many lies I would tell you.
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