Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Nobody Knows How to Say Goodbye
A woman told you that, you don’t remember where or when. She had singled you out for one of those long, drunken conversations that tease desire and then extinguish it. Though her face is a blur, you remember the line.
No need to be here, watching the fog crawl onto Ocean Beach trying out its lungs. You could call or email or write an old-fashioned letter full of love and regret. You could meet her at the coffeehouse near her work where you first lunched together. But that’s too cold and too final, and you’re hoping. Hoping she’ll change her mind or you will or two lights will go on simultaneously, “Why don’t we . . .”
So safety is out. It’s a backroom bargain between your conscience and your testicles, both parties hoping for closure, as if there were such a thing, with that idiotic hope brokering the deal.
As you start the car, a family of tourists passes in t-shirts, arms folded and shivering. That’s San Francisco, eighty degrees one minute, fifty degrees the next. Oddly, it’s one of the things you will miss, not knowing what it’s going to be like when you walk out the door.
On the road, you’re on autopilot for the short drive inland in slow traffic, up Portola over the shoulder of Mt. Davidson and down into Noe Valley, where the sun beats down doing its best imitation of LA.
That was her, not you. Out of high school, she’d married a drummer in some indie rock band. Her family took it well, but the drummer marched off as soon as the pee-stick turned blue. “I’m never going through that again,” she said, and you agreed, you weren’t ready for the big time.
But whenever you ordered Chinese or bought groceries, whenever she made your plane reservations or answered your phone so you could sleep, there were expectations; and when you started taking Jake to movies or to the park so she could study, there were more. It didn’t matter what anyone said.
The closest parking space is four blocks from her apartment, and you have to move a garbage bin from the street to fit the car in. Keeshanna sounded happy when you called, like maybe you’d thought about her, come to your senses, changed your mind. Who knows? It could still happen. It wouldn’t be the first time.
She’s on the stoop with the boy, going through her mail. A flyer drops from the pile and Jake chases it, gives up and throws himself into your arms. You lift him, squeeze, and try not to think. The breeze is cool in spite of the sun, and her blouse swells and collapses around her breasts. She has beautiful breasts. You shift the boy onto your hip and lean in—just the whisper of a kiss.
Her apartment’s up a swaybacked flight of steps above a shop so long defunct no one knows what it sold. She’s been there three years, but it still smells of cat piss from the previous tenant. You’ve come prepared: a Hot Wheels case filled with miniature cars, and an opal as big as a robin’s egg—in a necklace case so she won’t get the wrong idea. You give the boy his present, and he sits cross-legged on the floor near the top of the stairs, taking them out to show his mother and running them against one another until they make a colorful pile in the space between his legs. She opens hers and quickly closes the box, biting her bottom lip. “It’s beautiful.”
Your name is Mark, but Jake calls you “mock”: “Thanks, Mock. . . . Cool, Mock!” He has curly hair with a bit of kink in it, and it stands out in all directions as if electrified. The two of you carry the boy and his booty into the living room, which is also his bedroom.
“So, what’s up?” she asks. It’s not a neutral question.
“Getting my shit together.”
You work for an IT company called DomoArigato, whose customers are airlines and hotel chains and resorts, and DA has offered a promotion to Project Manager at the Raleigh branch. That’s Raleigh, North Carolina. $20,000 more a year with a much lower cost of living in a town where people don’t speak code as their native tongue. The day you got the news, you literally danced down the halls. Everyone said how lucky you were. But with Keeshanna and Jake at dinner, things got weird.
You sprang it on her. Surprise!
You rattled on about the job and the money and the new software you’d be developing, and all she said was, “What about me?” At which point you realized you hadn’t thought about her, not once. Somehow you’d just assumed she’d be along for the ride. 2,800 miles away from family and friends. A black woman from Palo Alto, California, with a white man in the South—certainly not the Confederate flag South, but still . . . it wasn’t your finest hour.
So the two of you argued, not about the move but about the way you always assume she’ll do whatever you want—an argument with some history to it that might have gone on for a while if Jake hadn’t said, “Where’s Wally?”
And the tension went outside for a smoke. Keeshanna said, “Nowhere you’d want to be, Sweetcheeks.”
Later, on the way home, she asked, “What did you think we were going to do?”
A few cars ahead, the driver of a trolley was replacing his poles on the line. The boy had fallen asleep.
“Live together.” Your idea of a big step: no her place, my place anymore.
Keeshanna put a hand on the passenger-side window and watched the ghost spread. “I’m not moving cross-country so I can shack up with you.” She said it without heat, as if she were the one who had made the mistake.
At the apartment, she didn’t invite you in, and you didn’t ask. Lifting Jake out she said, “Bye,” and you said, Bye” and shut the door as she turned away. She didn’t look back.
Instead of going home you walked the beach and sat on the seawall listening to the waves and tried to think. About what you want. About her and Jake and what they might need. In your mind you tried to convince her of the importance of the move—you, the son of a rural mechanic, are going places, and she can go with you, but the farther you go, the more that future depends on the obliteration of your past. You can’t have an anchor anywhere. But the two of you had had that conversation early on, and all she said was, “You’re such a bullshitter.”
Her mom and dad are teachers, they don’t think like your people do. So finally you stopped thinking and just listened to the waves—all that immense energy going absolutely nowhere.
You uncork the wine that’s sitting on the table, and she tells the boy it’s nap time. She looks like she’s smelting ore inside.
Jake doesn’t want to go, but she bribes him with a bottle of chocolate milk. Mostly now he drinks from a sippy cup, so a bottle is luxury.
You stay in the kitchen because he won’t lie down with you in the room. There are dishes in the sink, but it’s neat and cheery, painted pale yellow. You pour two glasses and scratch a bit of what looks like grape jelly from the poster above the table—the Desiderata printed on a picture of mountains and high clouds. Though she’s not one to go placidly anywhere, she believes this stuff: “the world is unfolding as it should.” In this stinking apartment her parents pay for, and which she’ll barely be able to afford when she gets the nursing degree she’s two-stepping through.
She calls it mindfulness, you call it crap, but you know how often you depend on her going “placidly amid the noise and haste.” Even the first day you met. There you were, the big IT guy, storming into a Sprint store because an app was freezing on your iPhone, ready to call down every overworked college student in the place, and there was Keeshanna, “I’m sure we can handle this.” Five minutes later, she returned the phone, all fixed. You said, “I love you.”
She laughed, and later, when you invited her to lunch, she thought that was funny, too. You’ve been saying “I love you” ever since and meaning it, and so has she. And that makes you want to put your feet even more firmly on solid ground. No fairy tales. No magical thinking. Clarity. At work, you make it your mission to bulldoze sensitive types—tech people who think they’re creative and creative people who think they know tech—and she’s never had a problem with that. The drummer was a sensitive type.
The trouble is, your brain’s on her side, too. Rationally, you lose nothing if you stay here, maybe try the big M, maybe have a kid or two if she’s willing—Silicon Valley doesn’t lack for tech companies, and a lot of them are doing more interesting work than DomoArigato.
But sitting on that seawall you discovered you didn’t want to stay—not here, not anywhere—and she has made it clear she’s not the kind you can cart around like excess baggage on a plane.
In she comes, looking for the blue car, which Jake has demanded. There are two, so she takes both. Before she goes, she retrieves a small wheel of brie from the fridge, slips it on a dish and stabs it in the heart with a cheese spreader. “You look like shit,” she says. “Eat.”
Before you met her, you’d never eaten brie, or seen a cheese spreader.
In the living room, she sings a lullaby, and Jake stops fussing. She has a beautiful voice. Even on the phone, even when she’s mad.
The first time you stayed over, you sat on the floor around a pizza box watching the boy spin colorful beads through a rollercoaster of bright wires. She put her hand on your knee and hummed to the music on the Pod. “He’ll do that for hours,” she said.
Later she made popcorn, and you watched the boy inspect kernels, probing each amoebic arm, then chewing them off one at a time as if he were mulling some great philosophical problem. You’re going to miss him.
If you said, “Raleigh won’t be so bad if we’re married,” she might go. Or she might laugh, and then turn sweet and serious and run through the “I love buts.” She’s not that gone on you. Eight months, and she’s never introduced you to her parents. Yours live in Patterson and think of San Francisco as an immense maze that’s too much trouble to solve. Even that first night it wasn’t exactly romantic. When you made your move, she said, “What the hell, I’m tired of sleeping alone.”
But that night, when she woke you for an encore, you said, “I love you,” and she didn’t laugh. She said, “Prove it.”
Remembering that night, you can hardly breathe—it was so much more than sex. But when she returns smiling, “Like a light,” you don’t have the guts to tell her. She asks about the bon voyage party, and you shrug.
“Same guys, only drunk.”
“The Lost Boys. Tinker Bell was lucky she had wings.” She drains her glass and pours another. “So you’re going,”
That’s it. Done. Finished.
You should feel happy, but your cheeks burn and there’s a big hole in your belly. You want to break something.
She takes your hand, and draws you into the bedroom, with its white curtains and lacy white bedspread, but you hold back. It’s too sudden. You can’t connect what she just said to what she’s doing, so she gets on tiptoe and stares eye to eye. “You think you’re the only one who wants a good-bye fuck?”
You’ve got no answer to that, or anything else in this room.
It’s been a while since you’ve actually looked around, and you’re surprised how much of you there is: a picture with the boy at the petting zoo, a Chinese vase you gave her for her birthday, a strip of pictures from a booth, one of your ties, a clock you bought when hers confused AM with PM. You could go on and on, but she’s not waiting for the inventory.
Or the bedclothes, or the blinds. She pushes you down and climbs on top and slaps your hands away, and slowly, as if she’s reading an old parchment, traces your body top to bottom, then takes your clothes off and does it again. Her touch is gentle, but she has long fingernails painted in sunbursts, and you feel as if a message is being etched with a stylus into your flesh.
The lovemaking, too, is slow, gentle, and she keeps her eyes closed as if it were already memory. When she settles onto your chest, still with her blouse on and her skirt over her hips, there is such a pleasing sense of doom you are overcome with grief. You kiss her hair as she dozes and everything seems transformed by the warmth of your bodies together. This what you want, forever and ever. You want to wake her and turn her over and do it again, harder. You want to make a baby, so you’ll be forced to come back.
Magical thinking, of course, but with her, there has always been magic. You want to curl up in its shelter like an old dog under the porch and let the world walk all over you.
Alone in your own apartment, you can wake from that pull, but the clarity, if that’s what it is, never lasts. Sooner or later, sometimes that very night, you want to return. Sometimes you do.
As the room grows cooler, you are glad for the heat of her body. Through the window, you can see fog nosing over the ridge between Mt. Davidson and Twin Peaks, making the hills look snow-capped. At least you’ll be your own man again.
She wakes and takes off her blouse and her bra, and it’s almost like you are seeing her that way for the first time, breathless and needy. You lift her from the bed and let her slide down until she’s riding your hips, and then you’re all over the room, unable find a place to settle, and she’s saying, “Man, what’s got into you?” but her nails are cutting into your back. Finally, you pin her against the wall, mouths pressed so hard you taste blood, and when the two of you come together, it’s like the answer to a question, as if her sigh of pleasure were something you’d finally done right.
It makes you feel less guilty.
You let her down onto the bed, and she draws the comforter up. “That was different.”
You don’t climb in. Even with the edge off, you can’t risk it. Though no sane man says goodbye while looking for his pants, you do. You tell her it would never work out. One or the other would always feel resentful.
No mistaking the expression on her face—not anger, not disappointment, disgust. You’d have been better off keeping your mouth shut. She sits with her hands between her legs and the comforter around her and looks out at the fog tethered to the ridge, casting a blue shadow over the downward slope.
You say something close to what you actually think—that you can’t do this any way but alone. She says you’re full of shit. She calls you a ghost. What you’ve done to her is no big deal, but what you’ve done to Jake—that’s unforgiveable. You tell her you haven’t done anything to Jake and she says, “Why don’t you just get the fuck out?”
When you imagined this scene, there was plenty of anger—she shouted and you were calm—but it’s the other way round. Your voice rises. You tell her you’re just trying to do what’s best. She’s tells you to shut up, you’ll wake the boy.
Then, watching you tuck your shirt into your pants, she says, “You’ve got the flattest ass,” and both of you laugh, though it sounds like gasping for air.
She gets a couple of garbage bags from the kitchen and puts your stuff into them, shooing you away when you try to help. Your extra suit and shirts and ties. Toiletries and cologne. Even video games from where Jake is sleeping. You tell her you don’t want this—meaning the little stuff—but she’s intent on expunging every trace of you. You wish she’d put her clothes on.
But not the gifts. None of the things you’ve given her, even the clock. She lifts the opal from its velveteen box and puts it on. It’s white, glowing with dozens of tiny rainbows, and it looks great against her dark skin. Then she hands you the bags and pushes you out the door.
“You’re going to miss me, boy. You’re going to miss me hard.” She has to grab your shirt to keep you from tumbling down the stairs backward. “And I’m not going to answer the damned phone. “
“Should I say goodbye to Jake?”
“Not if you want to live. Go.”
And you do.
Outside the air tastes salty, and the fog, having finally broken through, tumbles into the valley. You try pumping your fist, but that’s hard to do with a garbage bag in your hand.
Triumph lasts all the way to the end of the block. Once you have turned the corner, you lean against the wall of a house to calm your breathing. Tears try to well up, but you don’t let them. The paint on the wall has blistered. You peel it off as if there might be something underneath.
It was too easy, you think. You did her a favor, you gave her what she wanted. With all she’s got going for her, it won’t be long before she finds someone else. Maybe there’s someone already. The thought makes you want to go back and beat the shit out of her.
It’s like snow, the fog, like a wet snow, clutching at everything it passes. Cars emerge in an instant and as suddenly disappear. It’s so thick you nearly walk past your car. The garbage bins still wait at the curb for the morning pick up. One is half empty. You stuff the bags in. Everything, even the suit.
In the driver’s seat you watch a leaf, caught under the windshield wiper, lift and collapse, and wait till it rips itself to shreds. As you ease out of the space, you can only guess if a cars is coming.
Driving past her building, it appears the light may be on in the living room, but you can’t be sure. You want to stop till you know, but you keep going.
At the turn onto Clipper Street, a horn blares. You scream, “Fuck you!” though you didn’t saw the car and can’t see it now, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” and gun the engine. A truck emerges in a burst of light like a flare. It’s almost as if you’re flying, you feel high.
And feeling high you zip right through the stop sign at Castro. “Fuck you!” you shout to the gaily painted Victorians, now ziggurats of grey, and to the cars that huddle at the curb as yours grinds up the steep slope. You imagine the boy waking and wondering where you are, and Keeshanna in the Niners jersey she likes to wear to bed. You press down the accelerator, and the car roars its displeasure. So you press it harder.
The light at Portola comes as a shock, its red glow inexplicable, and the car, on something like level ground, shoots through, forcing you to brake to avoid a PG& E van. You fishtail part-way over the curb and sit there laughing at yourself.
An inner voice tells you to go slow, so you gun it back into the cloud that for a moment seemed to have cleared, where the reflection of your headlights blinds you, but when the car skids on a curve, you back off a little—no sense wrapping yourself around a light pole. Still, it’s a steep slope and it speeds you down, shadows appear and disappear so quickly you have no idea what they represent, and you maneuver around them as you do obstacles in a video game. It’s a rush, and you feel great. Like diving off a cliff into the ocean. Whatever happens happens.
But nothing happens.
Towards the bottom of the hill, the elation disappears, and your foot seeks the brake in plenty of time for the light at Junipero Serra. You tremble from a fear you did not feel until now, while an M trolley crawls through the intersection, its overhead line sparking. You let the light cycle red to green to red to green to red again. Cars pass, honking.
You need to pack up, even if it is two weeks until the movers come, pack your stuff and take some vacation time and put space between you and this city. You’ve got to. Because right now what you want is to call her up, call till she answers and tell her the crazy thing you just did, and how fucked up you are, and how you don’t know how to live without her.
And that’s not doing you any good. That’s not doing you any good at all.