A short story by Laura A. Freymiller
I’ve been here a year, a sun-soaked spotless year, the light bleaching memories until I return to a blank-page, useful for writing on, useless for writing with.
There is the Bay which is fertile and degraded, there are the hills which are aspiration and struggle, and then there is the Pacific, that’s for forgetfulness. You must wear your Pacific with a difference.
Bathe in the impure crystalline waters, sinfully blue and the mind becomes as unused as the virgin body.
I drown myself in the purposeful amnesia, because too many things have scarred and bruised me and I have grown weary at twenty-four.
It is a night job which means I have the days free should I want them. And I do want them.
I want it all: the innocence, the guilt-free living, forgiveness for a past I never wanted.
I take BART west, leaving right around sunset. I enter the bay tunnel with the last rays of the sun and emerge to a sunless night. One star dies to make way for millions. Is it such a bad thing?
But I am not a star.
I think I might be a sort of fish. The creepy big-eyed type that live their lives in total darkness. Their only use to ogle and be ogled in return.
I found the job on craigslist, one of the many ads I thought to be scams. But running on empty in a new place leaves you desperate, and, hell, I’ll try anything once.
I depart at 16th and Mission, make my way without making eye contact through the tangled web of homeless people. Their working legs walking wheelchairs in endless loops. Women sucking long slow death out of cigarettes, men with penises limp and barely concealed under sagging pants.
I try to remain small and quiet, unseen in the constant breathing city.
I walk the four blocks to the empty building. Corner of Valenica and nowhere.
There is a lock on the door with a key code. 1279. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but it reminds me of a sign I once saw.
“Please don’t break in,” the sign read, “there is nothing left to steal.”
I enter the key code. I enter the building.
There my equipment waits for me.
One (1) chair. Standard type stool with back, requires me to fold my legs onto the top rung to sit comfortably.
One (1) video camera. Possibly linked to the internet. It is always on when I enter. Always the blinking red light, the cords running off like so many dead blue veins into the shadowy rest-of-the-room. A dark and pulsing heart residing in the Somewhere Else.
I sit in the chair facing the camera. And then I cry.
Before I was the sobbing mass of a blob of a human that I am today, I was just a human.
Who can say when exactly your trauma creeps up on you and takes over and whether it was the big things, the sexual assault, the cheating and emotional abuse, the betrayal and lies and years of making yourself invisible, or the small things like the stranger on the street shouting “Smile, sweetheart! Why don’t you smile? You’re gorgeous!”
And when or where the snap happened exactly doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it did.
And it did.
I moved here for you. The you who held me as I cried about my broken body no longer sure if it was even mine. The you who watched my self-loathing crawl up and over my arms and told me that I was whole, that I would not die by my own hand, that you would be there for me, would always be there for me, whenever I called, you’d answer, like my shadow, my lungs, my heartbeat.
I moved to be with you, to get a beagle, and to grow old and happy and healed.
Until you woke up to love someone else. Someone who held water. Someone who reminded you of me, so you told me, but a younger and sexier me. Me 2.0.
And I, foolish heart that I am, was happy for you.
And only a little sad for me, left without an apartment, friends, or a job in a strange city that might have been the other side of the world.
I suppose I should pick up smoking. End it all a bit sooner.
I cry for two hours, have a ten minute break, cry another hour then I get my lunch. I bring water, snacks, and my book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in case I need a spark to set me off.
I stretch my legs during this time and walk around the space. It is your typical empty warehouse/industrial space. The streetlamps shining through dust encrusted windows. I watch a spider dancing in silhouette, spinning, spinning away in darkness beautiful.
Another two hours of crying, sometimes faking it, sometimes unable to stop, another ten minute break a final hour, and then home around 2:00.
BART is long since closed so I take Uber or brave it out on the night bus.
I sleep like the dead, losing myself in uncounted dreams, populated by men and women I don’t know but whose faces I have seen, the brain being incapable of creating faces of its own.
Or so I’ve been told.
It pays well, whatever else it is. The money appears in my bank account every week like clockwork and I have managed to pay the bills so far.
If it stops, I tell myself, so do I.
But I wonder if I wouldn’t show up to the building anyway, addicted as I am to the catharsis. Banging on the door to let me in, let me in, please, god, let me in.
I don’t know a soul in this city except you. And you’re too busy exploring your new life-changing love, enjoying your mind-blowing sex with Me 2.0.
I don’t harbor any grudges against her. I only hope she might die an early and excruciating death.
I have weekends free and I spend them as a zombie tourist, wandering stricken from the Golden Gate to Strawberry Hill over to City Lights Bookstore. The same empty expression, the same panic-stricken numbness in my chest.
I watch the fog creep down over the hills, deep and blanketing as the snow we used to see in Minnesota.
When we walked out on the frozen river and I split open for you, spilling drops of blood like so many pomegranate seeds for you to crush between your perfect teeth.
The irony of explaining the monstrous to a monster.
I wonder now which is worse: to bruise and rip a body or to break the wings of a soul.
San Francisco, city by the bay, take the past from off my shoulders, I have no more use for it. Make me washed clean, unburden me of these twenty-four years, meagre offering that they are.
Saint Francis, make me whole.
I get a croissant from Tartine Bakery. It is a little thing, but I am trying to give myself bright little things, trying to give myself space. Trying, in the end to heal in whatever ways are left open to me even if only between the flaky layers of a pastry.
I walk to the building early, thinking to stretch my body loose before the evening. Perhaps sit and draw the spider, sit and draw my own reflection spinning and spinning against the darkening sky.
I enter the key code, my prayer to the gods of empty buildings.
But for once the building isn’t empty.
“Whoa hey,” says a voice.
I have a bite of croissant melting in my mouth and nearly choke on it. “Hello?” I say.
My eyes are adjusting to the chiaroscuro, the shadow depths made two-dimensional and suddenly close.
“Hey,” the voice says again.
My pupils dilate and the voice solidifies into a man: youngish man, somewhere between twenty and thirty, white and, therefore, almost indistinguishable except for his beard which is streaked red. He is about my height, but stocky, with the thick neck of a bull that so many women my age seem to find attractive.
“Hey,” I say. “Um, sorry. I didn’t know-”
“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m almost done. Um.”
“Done?” I ask. “You do something here?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m, like, the AV guy, I guess. Mark.”
He extends a hand, and I see curled in the other hand the thick blue line of cord that I’ve only ever seen sprawled out as a snake. It occurs to me for the first time that they wouldn’t leave the camera running all day. That someone must come and check on it. That there is someone else involved beyond myself and the cheerful emails I received at the beginning, written in all caps comic sans.
“Lucia,” I say.
“Like the light,” he says.
“Like the saint,” I say.
His hand is thick, firm, warm. It feels like what I imagine shaking hands with a tree would feel like.
“I’ll just get out of your way,” I say.
“No worries,” he says. He smiles.
I eat the rest of my croissant.
“So you’re the girl,” he says as he unfurls the cord, plugging it into the outlet in the back of the room.
“Woman,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”
“Yeah,” I say suddenly self-conscious. It occurs to me for the first time that other people—that strangers—what I had known but never allowed myself to imagine—
I bring my attention back to the present to prevent myself from descending into madness, or perhaps from beginning the climb towards sanity.
“I am the woman,” I say more confidently.
“That’s really cool,” he says.
“I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig, right?”
“I guess so,” I say. “It’s something.” A pause. “So, um, what do you do? This can’t pay for everything.”
“I do tech,” he says. “Couple small theaters. Worked for an event planning company for a while.”
“Cool,” I say. “I didn’t even know that was a job.”
“Sure,” he says. “There’s plenty of stuff that pays. It’s just that most people don’t know about it.” He winks at me, and I feel my face redden. It feels good. I also feel like vomiting.
“Cool,” I say again. I look at my watch. Mark is continuing to fiddle with the camera, adjusting it for the chair, I assume. It’s getting close to show time and for the first time I consider it a performance. I feel light-headed.
“Are you, um?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. And not sure what I want the answer to be. Mark’s hair is flecked with gold in the dying light.
“I’ll be out of your way in a sec,” he says and my heart stops pounding.
Moments pass in near silence. I walk slowly to the chair. I sit.
Mark looks up at me from behind the camera.
“Okay,” he says. “Looks good.”
“I’ll see you around,” he says. And then as quickly as he appeared. He is gone.
I wonder about his last statement, if he is watching, whatever it is, wherever it is. That night I see his face above the camera and I find myself fake-crying more than usual.
I take another week before I show up early again. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m at the building that Mark may not be the only AV person. That there could be a whole team, a swarm of strange faces, waiting for me.
But I’ve already punched the final 9 and I’m opening the door.
Mark has his back turned.
“Hey,” he says. “Lucia, right?”
“Hey, Mark,” I say before remembering to have forgotten.
“How you been?” he asks.
“You know,” I say.
“Actually, I don’t,” he says. “It’s why I’m asking.”
“That wasn’t that funny,” I say. “Sorry.”
“A woman apologizes for laughing at a man’s joke,” Mark says. “Might be a first.”
“I doubt it,” I say. “People have done crazier things.”
“Really?” Mark says. “Can’t imagine what that would be.”
I laugh again and set down my bag by the door. I brought a beer tonight. I’m not entirely sure it’s allowed, but I felt like a beer and so I brought it. I actually brought two.
I reach into my bag, hesitate, and then offer one to him.
“Want one?” I say.
“Oh,” Mark says, “actually, I don’t drink. But thanks.”
“More for me,” I say and feel foolish.
“So,” I say. Just that word and the heat rises to my face again. I look anywhere but at his face. I do not want to look at his face, I tell myself. I do not want to make eye contact.
“Yeah,” he says, and out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is grinning.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says. Then, “You’re here early.”
“Maybe you’re here late.”
“You can have my number if you want it.”
“Who says I do?”
“What’s your number?” I ask.
“I love the ocean,” I say, “but I haven’t been out there as often as I’d like.”
“Oh,” he says. “Baker Beach.”
“I’ve never been,” I say.
“You should,” he says. “I’ll take you sometime.”
He doesn’t drink, but he smokes, the chink in his perfect knighthood, the trail of dragon smoke drifting up into late spring sky.
You didn’t smoke. I revel in this newness, as close to touching another person as I’ve come. I haven’t kissed Mark. I don’t think I can. Don’t think my lips can form those shapes anymore. I am afraid of him, the way I am afraid of most things.
He’s as harmless as any human being, which is to say a ticking time-bomb.
“I’ll take you,” he says. And I have no doubt that he could.
I feel as if I am back in high school. We go on dates, Mark and I. We take walks in parks, we drink coffee, sometimes we eat food. I drink wine while he watches, the stain of rotting fruit against my lips.
We do not kiss. I never touch him for longer than an awkward hug at the beginning and ending of these little sessions. We meet in the daylight. He walks me to work when I have work.
I can’t tell if I’m happy with this chasteness. Or if I am frustrated.
My body is ready for the dry-rot of sensuality. It yearns for that burning touch, for the holding and stroking, the worship and adoration of hands against skin. My body does all it can to reach towards intimacy. But my mind keeps it chained.
Every link is a memory, of you, or of him.
You: the taste of your mouth on mine when we are together in the shower, soap and hot water.
Him: the rush of blood to the surface of the skin and I know there will be another bruise tomorrow.
Between the two I could go insane.
Wait, I tell my body. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for, and as I wait, I am drying up.
WE ARE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE THE CONCLUSION OF OUR PROJECT “GIRL CRIES ALONE WITH CAMERA”!!!
WE COULDN’T’ HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU! 🙂
PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE SHOWING ON JULY 4TH. WITH RECEPTION TO FOLLOW.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION!!
WE WISH YOU SUCCESS ON ALL FUTURE ENDEAVORS!
“BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.”
“Are you going to the reception?” I ask Mark.
We are on the bunker, that one that’s really close to the Golden Gate, so close I could reach out and touch it. Mark has told me the name, but I’ve forgotten and perhaps don’t want to know. I prefer to think of it as just another ruin, like Machu Picchu or the pyramids, great stone wastes growing up out of the moss.
It is hot out, getting on towards summer. My lease will end sometime and I might need to find another job.
We still have not kissed.
“I don’t know,” Mark says.
“Aren’t you curious?” I ask. I am sitting with my legs tucked under my chin, my head turned sideways to look at him. He has such a solid face. I let myself imagine it. We start dating, and for once it is simple and sweet and I don’t have to burn myself to feel.
I turn away and bury my face between my knees. I scratch the back of my neck.
“I mean,” he says. “I helped edit it. So I’ve seen it already.”
“What’s it like?” I ask.
“You haven’t seen it?” he says.
“I’ve just lived it,” I say.
“That’s weird,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s pretty much what you think it is.”
“Huh,” I say. “Are there other girls?”
“I don’t think so,” he says.
“I meant you,” I say.
I sigh. It is the thing that stops me most. Mark is not quick. You were quick. He was also quick.
“Never mind,” I say.
He smiles as he does when he knows he’s missed something but doesn’t seem to care that he has.
“So what’s it all for?” I ask.
“What the project?”
“No,” I say. “The all of it.”
Mark looks at me. “I don’t know,” he says. “I try not to think about it too much.”
“What do you think about then?”
“Nothing,” Mark says. “I try not to think at all.”
I raise my head. I look out at the bridge orange and glowing against a backdrop of fog. Closer at hand a violet has pressed its way up through the cement. It is sharp and close. I realize I haven’t looked at something, really looked at it in so long.
Since I looked at your face, as near to me as my next breath.
“What are you doing then?” I ask.
Mark shrugs. “I’m just trying to have a nice time,” he says. He makes eye contact. I make eye contact back.
But I don’t lean in.
I wear a dress that is too short to the reception. All my other clothes are packed up.
It’s held in some tiny art gallery/trinket shop in the heart of the Tenderloin. I take a Lyft to the place and manage to only be catcalled twice on my way to the door.
There are about ten people there. The space is dominated by the screen. It hangs from the upper level, clear and big and bright.
There is my face in a hundred thousand pixels.
I don’t know if I expected sound, but there isn’t any.
It’s just me, silent, my shoulders shaking.
I watch myself with an odd feeling of detachment. My body, suddenly huge, my grief seems almost, laughable at that size.
What are you doing? I want to ask myself.
My big on-screen face leans up and I see the path of the tears from whatever day, whatever moment, whatever pain I felt then, dripping down my puffy red face.
And then I can’t help myself, but I do. I start laughing.
Everyone turns to look at me. Three or four men with soul-patches, a woman with half-shaven head, there may be a beret or maybe I just want there to be a beret. They all look at me confused, scandalized.
A moment of recognition, a few glances back to the screen. They see me now, the girl.
But I am not crying. I am laughing, so hard it hurts my ribs, so hard its cracking out my fingers, so hard I double over.
I am laughing on my way outside. I am laughing as I get on a bus headed somewhere. Laughing my way down a few winding paths into the heart of the Presidio.
It is clear out. There are a few couples on the beach and a homeless man sleeping down a ways. But the ocean is empty and above it hang a thousand crystalline stars, brighter than the pixels, closer than the violet pushing through the cement.
You are a pebble and I throw you to the waves, he is a laugh and I release him to the sky, Mark is the feeling of water against my calves and I allow him in.
I can feel the weight of all the eyes, pulling me apart, placing upon me, and I laugh and scream and am until it is all very clear.