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*completed 8/2/02*

 

 

 

 

 

There are friends, I think, that we can't imagine living without.

 

            I read that somewhere, but I wasn't sure I bought it.  I liked my friends, loved them even.  I still do.  But I never thought that I couldn't live without them.  In fact, I viewed most of my friends as temporary.  In this business you've got to be really leery about who you're friends with and even more cautious of the people you let in to be those friends.  Then there's the guys.  I don't think I could live without them but they're more than friends.  They're my brothers… so that doesn't count.

            It takes something major… or something you think is minor that turns out to be major… to make you really understand that line.  There are in fact, friends that we can't imagine living without.  It took me 48 hours to realize that.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Friday night, somewhere around 8:00pm, I was at my house just bumming around.  It had been a busy week in the studio and I was looking forward to a relatively quiet weekend.  There was a 5-mile run that I'd committed to for the next morning, raising money for some random organization that would undoubtedly change the world.  I had to be there at 4:30am and I wasn't looking forward to it, but I knew that after that I'd be home free until Monday morning when I'd be back in the studio with the guys.

            I walked aimlessly around my house familiarizing myself with the layout, scents and moods of each room.  I'd lived there for eight months but still couldn't mentally picture half of the rooms, simply because I just didn't go into them.  I was a single man living in a seven-room house.  There was more space than I could ever use and I wasn't into the whole 'interior decorating' thing so the rooms were all but bare.

            As I entered the living room, the one well loved and often used room in the house, I saw the movies I'd rented earlier that week.  "Dammit."  I checked my watch.  They had to be back at the rental place by midnight and I still hadn't watched "The Virgin Suicides".  Lance raved about that movie for weeks, but after watching it I seriously pondered his sanity.  The movie was "eh", and that's being gracious.  I yawned as I stood up, listening to the tape rewind at top speed in the VCR on top of my TV.  I was dressed for bed already and didn't want to get dressed just to run the tapes back to the rental place.  It was a good thing they had a drive-up night drop-off box in the parking lot.  That made it a lot easier for me in my baggy sweat pants, fitted undershirt and bare feet.

 

            The tapes thumped onto the unseen pile of videos in the box and I rolled my window up, shutting out the cool but damp Los Angeles air.  I frowned and sighed as I grasped the steering wheel.  It really had been a long week.  A long week, preceded by two long months, which were in turn preceded by three long years.

            I leaned my head back against the headrest in my car and closed my eyes as the headlights of cars shone through my windshield in the parking lot.  A horn blew and pushed me into motion.  I drove to the light and turned my signal on to turn left, away from my home.  I just wanted to drive for a bit to think.  The pop music plaguing the airwaves of the local radio station filled my car with a familiar tune, one I had spent hours, days, even weeks perfecting.

            "It doesn't matter, 'bout the car I drive or the ice around my neck.  All that matters is that you recognize that it's just about respect."  They weren't my words.  I didn't write them, didn't sing them and didn't particularly believe them.  But I knew them and knew that they were associated with me, good or bad.

 

            Something pulled me to the freeway so I got on the first one I came to.  Highway 5 north, Sacramento.  The sign was simple and green, pointing me in the right direction for wherever it was I was going.  Enya played from the CD player in the dash in front of me and I immediately thought of Erica.  I hadn't seen her in probably two years and hadn't talked to her since the Christmas before last.  My life had gone on in its chaotic way and she, like other friends, had been lost in the shuffle.

            There's something about driving in a car all alone that makes it so much easier to think.  Not about anything specific, just to think.  The actual act of thinking was almost foreign to me; I was on autopilot half the time, just doing things that I knew had to be done.  Answering the same questions over and over again, never being challenged to come up with something original.  The times when I was forced to think, I was forced to think about work.

 

            I stopped for gas when the arrow dipped into the red, though I didn't know or care where I was.  ATM cards are a great thing when you don't want to interact with others.  I slid my card and paid for a full tank of gas, then hopped in the car to continue my journey to wherever it was I was headed.  The clock on the dash glowed green as it showed 1:26am.  For three hours I had driven with no destination in mind and Enya playing softly in the background.  If I wanted to make it back to LA in time for the run the next morning I'd have to turn around and head back down right then.  I stared at the freeway entrance sign without turning my blinker on.  It was now or never.  The choice of a lifetime.  Everything in your life comes down to making a single choice.  You go or you stay; you say it or you don't; you fight or you run.

            The only cars I saw were on the freeway beneath me and they couldn't possibly care that I sat there for five minutes trying to decide which way to go.  Going back to LA meant that in four hours I'd be standing at the start line of a five mile race, running to represent everything my name stood for, then I'd spend the rest of my weekend "off" hiding in my house to give me some illusion of privacy.  Continuing north would take me away from all of that, to a place I couldn't quite put my finger on.  But then again, I wasn't exactly prepared for a road trip.  I had $87 dollars to my name, no shoes and no change of clothes.

            I sighed and pursed my lips as I flipped the visor down and opened the lighted vanity mirror for the first time ever.  My eyes were just about the only thing I saw in the reflection and they looked tired.  Not tired in the 'you need sleep' way… but tired in the 'you haven't slowed down in three years and your body is starting to hate you' kind of way.

            If Erica still lived in the same apartment, I wouldn't know.  I had no way to know if she was home or would mind me coming to see her, but I knew that I had to go.  For my own sanity.  Even if she wasn't there.

            I turned my blinker on out of habit and turned onto the northbound highway.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Seeing the sunrise was something I hadn't even thought about in years.  The guys and I would joke about it, saying that we worked till dawn and didn't come home until the sun came up.  But the truth was we were either in bed when the sun rose or still working until long after.  The rising sun was a mythical thing we had once heard about.

            But I watched it rise over the mountain to the right, cutting through the marine layer of fog that had found its way inland to cover the freeway.  If there had been a rest stop anywhere near there I might have stopped to truly enjoy the beauty of it, instead I turned the volume up on the rock station I'd found to try to keep me awake.  I was worried that once I hit the city I would have no idea where I was or where I was going, but I surprised myself.  Van Ness was a big enough street that I eventually ran into it and I knew that she lived on Eddy, which crossed Van Ness at some point.

            My memory amazed even me as I drove up Van Ness and immediately recognized certain landmarks.  There was a hotel on Van Ness just past Erica's street that looked halfway decent so I pulled into the driveway and stopped at the valet booth.  Two tired looking kids came out to meet me at the door and gladly took the keys in exchange for a red ticket.  They were kind enough not to stare at my sleeping attire or bare feet, and as soon as my car disappeared into the parking garage I ran my hands through my hair and headed back down the cold driveway on foot.

            The street was exactly how I'd pictured it in my mind; nothing had changed since the last time I was there.  Except the last time I was standing on that street, there'd been a limo parked behind me and I was in a tux.  My security guards had been nervous in the neighborhood and definitely didn't want me to get out and walk into this ramshackle building alone.

            But I went in that time and I intended to go in this time.  If she was there.  So many things could have changed in the last year and a half since I'd talked to her.  I'd changed… I hardly recognized myself anymore.  I was sure she had changed too.

            I pressed the greasy and dirty buttons on the call box by the secured front door and prayed she would be the one to answer.  I heard the buzzer ring in the apartment almost directly above me.  I had remembered right.  I took a step backwards so that I was on the sidewalk and looked up at the open window.  A dingy curtain that used to be white billowed out of the window that I remembered as being in her main room.

            I bit my lip and pushed my hands further into the deep pockets of my sweat pants, San Francisco was cold at six in the morning.  "What?"  I heard a familiar voice ask from the window to the right of the curtain.  "It's six o'clock in the fucking morning, what the hell do you want?"

            I smiled then looked up to see Erica's sleepy face, “Hey."

            As cliché as it sounds, her jaw literally fell open another inch as she blinked repeatedly, “H-hey," she responded before she ducked her head back in the window.  I took two steps up to the entrance and waited until I heard the ancient elevator creak open and her footsteps on the worn linoleum flooring.  The locks switched as she pulled the thick door open and held it wide for me to step in, “Hi."  She gave me a peculiar, but understanding look.

            I stepped into the dark entryway and followed her to the elevator.  She pulled the iron gate to the side, then pulled the inner door open for us to step in. I closed the doors and let her reach across me to press the button for the second floor.  Complaining, the elevator groaned upward and deposited us on the second floor where I followed Erica down the unlit hall to her apartment at the end.  The scent and feel of the hall rushed me back two years to the last time I was there, and suddenly everything in my life stopped.

            Once inside, she gave me a questioning look and yawned, “I'm not done sleeping yet."  She brought her hand up to her thin brown hair to brush it out of her eyes.  The creases from her pillow and blanket still showed on her neck and arms as she flopped down on her flat futon again, not waiting for me to respond.  "You look tired, did you drive?"

            I nodded and looked down at my bare feet.  I didn't need to say anything, without a sound she knew what I was there for… and she left it at that.  "Well make yourself at home."  She closed her eyes and sighed deeply into her pillow.  I stood there for a moment listening to a bus rush by on the street outside, then I lowered myself to her side and used one of her many spare pillows.

            The tiredness I'd pushed away during the drive crept back as my body adjusted to being flat and my vision blurred.  Just before I slipped away into complete darkness I felt Erica roll over and sigh against my shoulder.  I reached my hand back to find hers, then pulled it around my middle, "Just hold me for a while" the movement said, and she heard every word.  Her knees rested against the backs of mine and her right arm went over her head so that she was laying on it while gently scratching the top of my head and playing with my hair in hypnotic circles.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            I awoke to the sight of her knee only a few inches from my nose.  She was sitting indian style on the futon with her large sketchpad resting across the tops of her legs.  Her fingers were gray with charcoal and she had a smudge on the bridge of her nose where her glasses would have rested, if she ever wore them.  Without looking I knew I had similar smudges on my exposed arm where she'd felt along the muscle to get a feeling for the contrast in shadow.  From where I was sitting I could see up the leg of her old boxers to the neon orange underwear she wore.  Seeing that did nothing for my sexual frustration, instead it calmed me and somehow brought me home.  The realness of her and everything about her.  There was a small patch on her thigh in my line of sight that she'd missed while shaving and I smiled up at her.

            She raised her eyebrow as I moved my arm to stretch.  Without a word she reached over and held my elbow in her hand along with her charcoal pencil.  She put it back precisely where it had been then shook her head causing a lock of hair to fall in front of her eyes.  Her gray fingers brushed it away from her forehead leaving a pale streak of charcoal dust on her brow.

            I held still while she finished, then set her sketch pad aside, “Okay."  She stood up and cracked her back as she dropped her pencils back onto her drawing table in the corner.  She'd moved it since the last time I was there… but that was the only thing that was different.

 

            She didn't ask me what was wrong or why I'd come or when I was leaving, she just asked if I wanted to go across the street to get popsicles.  Just like last time.  I nodded, so she grabbed her key and we headed to the liquor store diagonally across the street right next to the landmark Phoenix hotel and the adjacent Backflip bar, which could at times, be rockin.

            We picked up Big Sticks then crossed the street again; “You don't have shoes?"  She frowned at my feet while she licked the popsicle in her hand.

            "No, I uh… I wasn't planning on coming here."  I spoke my first real sentence since I got there.

            "Hmm."  She nodded and said no more.  We walked past the door to her apartment complex and through to Van Ness.  Walking, like driving, made it easier to think.  At the corner we turned left and walked down the hill until the popsicles were done and we were left with red lips and fingers.  "Coffee?"  She asked as she paused to look up at me.

            Before answering I swept my fingers across the bridge of her nose.  "You have charcoal all over you."

            "So do you."  She laughed.  "Coffee?"

            "Sure."  I shrugged and dropped my hand to my side.  "I…"  I began to explain that any money I had with me was left in my car but she shook her head.

            "My treat.  I know a guy."  She skipped for a few steps and in that moment I didn't find it odd at all that we were two adults walking down a street in San Francisco barefoot, in our pajamas with bright red popsicle stained lips.  The thought of who I was never entered my mind.

            Erica skipped past me and her hand brushed mine.  Artist to artist, we were the same.

 

            Before we arrived at the coffee shop, Erica turned abruptly and pulled me into a drug store.  I never felt the need to question her when we were together, letting her lead me wherever we were going was a refreshing change of pace.  She went directly to the summer aisle and looked at my feet.  "Here."  She pulled a pair of flip-flops off the rack and dropped them on the floor where I stepped into them to check the size.  "Perfect."  She smiled up at me and brushed her hair out of her eyes.  "They won't let you in the restaurant without shoes on."  She explained as she picked up a neon orange pair for herself as well.  "And they're two bucks, who could pass that up?"

            "Not you."  I smiled.

            "Heck no."  She laughed and we carried the shoes to the register.  She dropped a five onto the little counter and left the change in the dish.  We put our new shoes on our feet before we crossed the street and entered the coffee shop on the corner.

            "Erica my girl!  How are you?"  A short, and mostly bald, man stepped out from behind the pastry counter to greet us.

            "I'm doing great Eli, how are you?"

            "Ohh, I'm marvelous.  Have you tried the new white chocolate mocha yet?"

            "No, not yet.  It sounds delicious though."  Erica followed Eli through the assortment of tables to one in the corner with the best view of the vacant stage.  "Who's playing today?"

            "Eh, I forget all their names.  I know Toady Jones will be here this afternoon and Danny Waters.  There's a new girl coming down in about fifteen minutes though.  Let me know what you think."

            "I will."  Erica laughed and pulled the deep cushioned chair out from the table.  She kicked her sandals off then sat with her legs crossed under her.  I followed her lead by falling into the chair across from her and crossing my legs, ankle to knee.  The tiny table between us had an unlit candle in the center and a checkerboard design on the top.

            Eli returned a minute later with a steaming pale colored drink for Erica, and a dark creamy brown drink for me.  "Enjoy."  He smiled before he bounced back to the front counter.

            "What's this?"

            "Ooo!"  Her eyes widened as she looked at my drink.  There was a sprinkle of something on top that looked dangerously like dust.  "That is the dark chocolate caramel cream espresso."

            "It sounds sweet."  I crinkled my nose.  Black coffee was what I was used to.  No sugar.  No cream.  Definitely nothing sprinkled on top.  "Can I get a black coffee?"

            "You'll like this better."  She scooted my mug closer to me.  "Trust me."  She held her cup to her lips and sipped carefully.  "Oh my God, this is heaven."

            I sighed and took a quick sip, then looked at her in surprise.  It wasn't sweet really.  It had the deep burnt taste of espresso with a slight aftertaste of caramel and dark chocolate.  I ran my tongue over my lips to savor the slight flavor, then took another sip.

            "Good?"

            "Yeah."  I smiled as I licked my lips again and turned to face the stage.  A young lady was tuning her guitar while sitting on a short barstool, getting used to the intimate surroundings.  We sat back in our seats and watched her warm up, then introduce herself and begin her music for the afternoon crowd.

 

            It wasn't until Eli set deli sandwiches in front of us more than an hour later that I realized we hadn't ordered anything and hadn't paid.  "How do you like this guy?  He's pretty good huh?"  Eli asked as he smiled toward the little stage.

            "He's great, what's his name again?"

            "Danny Waters."  Eli nodded.  "I've got his CD up front if you want one."

            "That'd be great."  Erica smiled and opened her sandwich to pick the onions and pickles off.  "I'll come get one before we leave."

            "He's really good."  He turned his gaze back to the stage and sighed as he walked back to the counter.

            "Hey."  I said softly.

            "Yeah?"

            "I… we didn't order this?"

            "Yeah, Eli gets these from the deli next door."

            "Okay, but…?"

            "Eli repays everyone in different ways."  She smiled and took a bite of her turkey on wheat.

            I frowned in confusion, and then looked over her shoulder.  My face must have shown my surprise as the recognition sunk in.  All of the art on the walls of the café was hers.  Her signature was illegible but it was all her own unique and identifiable style.  There were paintings on newspaper, ink sketches on napkins, charcoal drawings on canvas… and it was all hers.

            My jaw dropped slightly as I craned my neck to see the wall behind me.  A detailed drawing of worn and ragged feet tucked into broken down sandals met me at eye level and I turned back to Erica with a look of pride.

            She simply shrugged and licked her lips as she chewed slowly, “Free coffee and sandwiches."  How she somehow managed to read my mind was something that always intrigued me about her.  I wondered for a moment if she knew that all I wanted was to stay forever with her.

 

            We listened to the live music until the sun began to go down and floated home on a sugar and caffeine high that was promising a rude plummet when it wore off.  She led me around the block and we took the long way back to her apartment as she filled me in on what she'd been up to since the last time we saw each other.  I remained quiet and let her talk, commenting or laughing as I saw fit and casually holding her hand as we trudged uphill.

            She was in the middle of a story about her plumbing woes of the winter before when I caught myself laughing and not recognizing it.  I really was different when I was here; nothing about me was the same not even my laugh.  As we passed by a second hand store I saw my reflection in the window and stopped.

            "It's beautiful, isn't it?"  Erica asked as she pursed her lips and squinted at the dark glass.

            My eyes traveled from my messy hair down to my bare toes then back up again, hardly believing it was me.  "Hmm?"

            "Beautiful."  She smiled up at me then looked back at the window and I couldn't tell if she was seeing my reflection… or the antique desk sitting on the cheap metal platform.

            I shrugged instead of answering her and she met my eye in the window.  "I know art, and that's beautiful."

            I smiled back at her reflection and squeezed her hand as we continued up the hill and around the block to end up on her street again.

 

            The coffee coursed through my veins as we entered her dark apartment.  The room was warm, but the window was open to let the fresh night air in.  Erica went into to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of Dr. Pepper then came back and sat on the futon with a yawn.

            "How's school?"  I asked.

            "It's good."  She nodded.  "I'm taking three classes this semester.  My final three.  My portfolio is done too.  Rich has been helping me try to get stuff out to galleries."

            “Yeah?”

            “Mmm hmm.”  She nodded as she held the glass to her lips.  “He says that they’re actually really good, which doesn’t mean a lot ‘cause we’re friends.  I just wish he could be objective.”

            "I'm objective and I can tell you they are amazing."  I said under my breath as I reached for her soda and took a sip.  I wasn't a big fan of Dr. Pepper, I only liked it when it was hers.

            "You haven't seen my portfolio."

            "I don't have to."  I shook my head and licked the sweet soda from my lips as I handed her glass back to her.  "I do however… need a shower."

            "Okay."  She leaned back on her elbows and crossed her legs at the ankle.

            "Is there a trick to the shower?"

            She shrugged and laughed softly; “You turn it on and stand under the water."

            "Ahh."  I blushed slightly, then stood up and ducked around the corner to her tiny bathroom.  Fresh towels were folded in the milk crate under the sink so I took a blue one out and set it on the sink before turning the water on.  I soon found out that the water in her building had two temperatures: hot or cold.  There was no in-between so I took a deep breath and tried to keep moving so I wouldn't get scalded by the water.  Hot was better than cold any day.

 

            When I stepped out of the shower the first thing I saw was Erica, and it didn't surprise me.  She was standing in front of the narrow mirror with a black permanent marker in her hand drawing an elaborate celtic vine around her opposite arm.  "Here."  She stopped drawing long enough to hand me the towel that I'd set out before I started.  As I reached for it, the marker in her hand left a black streak across my wrist.  "Sorry."  She smiled at me in the mirror then went back to drawing on herself.

            "It's okay." I wiped my wrist across the towel, but the ink stayed.  Permanent was permanent.

            It wasn't until after the towel was secured that I realized I hadn't been even a little bit uncomfortable standing in front of her naked.  I'd grown out of any shyness I might have had years ago, but it was still eye opening to feel so completely non-chalant about it in front of someone I hadn't seen in a while… someone like Erica.

            "What are you doing?"  I watched her progress as I scooped my clothes up off the floor and held my towel in place with my free hand.

            "Tattooing my arm."  She smiled up at me as her pen stopped.  "I can't make up my mind what I want or where I want it… so I just do this."

            "Ahh."

            "I'll do you when I'm done."

            "That's okay."  I shook my head and opened the narrow door.  I brushed past her to step out of the bathroom, then went to the futon in the main room.  Her little studio apartment was about the size of my master bedroom, and that included her kitchen, bathroom and miniscule closet.  But still somehow, I felt more at home in her tiny little living space than in my seven room 'home' in the Los Angeles hills.  With a quick glance back at the bathroom, I dropped my clothes and removed the towel from around my waist.  I ran it over my hair in a vain attempt to dry it, but only succeeded in making it look messy.  Droplets of water dribbled down my back as I picked my boxers out of the pile of clothes at my feet and pulled them on.

            Forgetting that I was still damp, I laid on my side on the futon and rested my head on the pillow that had been hers that morning.  The pillow smelled like her with a mix of shampoo and acrylic paint.  She must have painted the night before I got there, I thought to myself.  I yawned and slid my bare feet under the old quilt at the foot of her bed as a cool breeze ran through the thin curtains. 

            Erica stepped out of the steam filled bathroom a minute later and wiped her brow as she spun her pen around with her fingers.  She walked into her little closet area and shuffled around in there for a while before she came and sat on the bed beside me.  For a minute she stared at me and neither of us said a word.  Her eyes said she had something to say, but not a single word left her lips.

            I blinked first and she smiled, whatever she was going to say was lost as she reached over and pulled my hand into her lap.  Without thinking I closed my eyes and let her warm fingers manipulate my arm to make her canvas comfortable for her.  She traced the pattern first with her finger and sent shivers up my spine.  When the cool tip of the pen began to follow the same trail, she leaned close enough to feel her breath on my skin.

            "What are you doing?"  I asked without opening my eyes.

            "I'm making sure it's drying."  She whispered back, then continued to blow on the path she had drawn.  I didn't question her again as she turned my hand over and worked on my inner wrist.  Before I could completely doze off, she held my hand up to her mouth and kissed my palm, a sensation I had never felt before.  "All done.  My masterpiece.  Don't move."  She stood up suddenly and let my arm fall to the mattress.

            Erica pulled her hair back in a bandana and flipped the light off as she reached over and hit 'play' on her old style boom box.  Without warning Enya filled the room and immediately flung me backward in time.  From the day I met Erica, she had always liked Enya.  I can't hear any song by her and not instantly think of Erica.  We'd spent many nights laying awake with this same tape playing in the background, and I found that even now when I was having trouble sleeping I'd put this CD on and be relaxed in minutes.  My current girlfriend couldn't stand it, so I hadn't heard it in a while.  But now it felt like I'd never left.

            I slept flat on my back, with Erica on her stomach beside me.  Her hand found mine and stayed there as we both fell into the dreamland of sleep with the music to lull us quietly.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            The next morning I woke first to the sound of church bells in the distance.  That wasn't what roused me from my dream though; it was something else I couldn't explain.  My internal alarm clock had gone off and I didn't remember setting it.  My first thought was that I was forgetting something, or that I was late for something.  That feeling was nothing new, with the life I lead it’s common to be feeling that rushed all the time.  I sat up slowly and blinked to clear my vision, taking in the shadows and textures of the room around me.

            Erica lay sleeping at my side with her lips sagging slightly open and a peaceful, almost happy look on her face.  I glanced down at my wrist, then turned my watch back around to read the time.  The hands said seven ten, but that couldn't be right.  I rubbed my eyes and yawned before checking again.  The watch was right.

            Rather than wake Erica, I rolled onto my stomach with my hip touching hers to read one of the many magazines she had stacked at the head of the bed.  I flipped through an issue of Vogue from June 1999 and read up on how silver was the color of the year.  I was halfway through an article on eyelid surgery when Erica rolled onto her side and sighed.  "That shit will rot your brain." She mumbled.

            "I thought TV's rotted your brain."

            "They do, but that is just trash.  Don't read that."  She frowned sideways and reached to take the magazine from him.

            "It's your magazine.  Why did you buy it if its trash?"

            "I didn't buy it."  She pointed to the delivery address sticker affixed to the front.  "They belong to a bitchy neighbor that lives up one flight.  I kept getting her mail and she wouldn't come and get it, so I just kept it."

            "Why didn't you just junk it?"

            "Good collage material."  Erica tossed the magazine back in the pile and stood up to crack her back.  "Wanna go to the wharf?"  She asked.  The way she could change subjects while she was still half asleep reminded me of Chris and I was surprised that right then was the first time I even thought of the others since I left Los Angeles.

            I rolled onto my side and shrugged with my free shoulder.  "Or would you rather go to the park?"  I shrugged again and smiled.  "We could go back to the coffee house.  Or we could even just stay here today."

            "I don't care."

            "I don't want to stay here."

            "Okay."

            "And they don't have music at the coffee shop on Sunday's."

            "Okay."

            "The wharf is kinda… crowded."

            "So the park?"  I smiled up at her and folded the pillow under my head.

            "Sounds good."  She would have gotten her way any way she did it.  Some time during the night her ponytail holder had shimmied its way to the very ends of her hair and was only hanging on by a few hairs.  The rest of her bone straight hair was falling into her eyes and all I wanted to do was fan it out of her face.

            Her hand moved quickly and pulled the hair tie from her hair then refastened it in its place.  She stared at me for a second as if contemplating why I was still lying down when she was up.  "Hold still."  She walked into her kitchen and came back out with a little box of food coloring in her hand and a smile dancing across her lips.  She grabbed a thin paintbrush from her table by the window, then sat cross-legged on the bed with her knee in my face again.

            "Don't get that on me."  I mumbled.

            "Don't tell me what to do."  She mumbled back as she grabbed my hand and moved it out of the way.  "No one sees your shorts anyway."  She held the blue food coloring in one hand while she carefully put a drop on the brush.

            Within fifteen minutes she had 'painted' a blue and green image of a mountain range with several peaks and different textures.  Some of the dye seeped through the thin fabric and onto my thigh, but I didn't care or really notice.  I would have something of hers forever.

            "Are you hungry?"  Her voice interrupted my thoughts and I was glad to hear it.

            "Sure."  She pulled me up off of the futon and we searched her kitchen for breakfast food.  We ended up having toast and sharing a grapefruit before she told me to get dressed.  With only my sweats and t-shirt to wear I pulled them on and we headed out in our pajamas and two dollar sandals.

            Just before she stepped out the door she turned around and looked up at me, “Do you have your wallet?"  I shook my head; it was tucked in the glove box of my car.  Not the safest place but I didn't really have a back pocket to tuck it into.  She smiled then continued to leave, and I knew what that was about.  Coming to her meant one thing for me and she knew it.  Showing up unexpectedly meant that I needed a moment of anonymity.  For a short while I wanted to be no one, to leave my name and everything associated with it behind.  Knowing that, she was actually surprised that I'd gone for so long between visits.  At the beginning, I showed up every couple of months, then as I got more comfortable being the person I'd created I stopped.  But now I just wanted the 'no one' back, even if it was just for a day.

 

            We spent the morning at Golden Gate Park and snacked on hot pretzels with mustard on the way back to Erica's place later that afternoon.  I was forever in awe of the city.  I'd been all over the world and seen hundreds of cities with amazing sights, but there was something special and almost magical about San Francisco.  It was more than just Erica, there was a complete anonymity about the city, as though anyone could walk down the street there and go unnoticed if they wanted to.  I looked around and met the eyes of a dozen strangers and for the first time in a long time there wasn't so much as a spark of recognition.  Because when I was there… with her… I wasn't that 'me'.  I was someone else completely.

 

            Once in her apartment I fell back onto the futon and picked up the magazine from earlier.  Trash or not, it was an interesting article.  Erica retreated to her desk and pulled a lined notebook out then sat on the floor by my feet with her head lowered over the pages.  Her hair blocked my view of the page when I looked, but I could see her hand moving in circles, looking more like she was writing instead of drawing.

            She looked up at me then, through her bangs with a smile and clicked her ballpoint pen open and closed a few times. Then she broke the cardinal rule.  She asked the question that was never asked.  "What was it?"

            I looked up at her for a second, then scratched the side of my nose.  What was it?  It was everything and nothing all at the same time.  I shrugged and leaned back on my arms.  My clothes were filthy, but I actually felt more comfortable in them than when I put them on two days ago.

            "This is the longest you've been here."  So she had noticed.

            "I know."

            "Are you ever going back?"

            I shrugged; if given the choice, I might not.  "Probably."

            "If not, you'll need to get some clean clothes."  She smiled and stood up to go to the window.  I peeked at what she was working on and smiled.  She was writing, not drawing.  But the words were looped around and spaced to make a hand.  A drawing of sorts.  She was never far from drawing.

            Unreal.  Unparalelled.  Undecided.  Unrequited.  Unhappy.  Unaccommodating.  Unwanted.  Unrehearsed.  Uncovered.  Unjaded.  Unladylike.  Uncaring.  Unsweetened.  Unwoven.  Unambitious.  Unenthusiastic.  Unforseen.  Uninformed.  Unamused.  Undisciplined.  Unnoticed.  Unofficial. Unintentional.  Unprotected.  Unappreciated.  Unsure.  Unreliable.  Uninterested.  Unglazed.  Uncoordinated.  Unauthorized.  Unforgiving.  Unshakable.  Unloved.  Unavoidable.  Unconstitutional.  Undressed.  Unavailable.  Unfold.  Unchanged.  Undoubted.  Unexplainable.  Unambiguous.

            The words wove around in the palm of the hand.  My hand, her hand, Jack Kerouac's hand… it didn't matter.

 

            "Do you really want to know?"  I asked a minute later.

            "Know what?"  She asked, and I loved her for acting vague.

            "What it was."

            It was her turn to shrug and look unsure, “No."  She said finally.  "It doesn't make a difference, I was just being curious.  But the moments passed, I don't want to know."

            "Why?"

            "Knowing gives it reason.  I'd rather make up my own reasons."

            "Make them up?"

            "Yeah."  She smiled and turned to sit on the narrow windowsill.  “Let’s go out.”

            “Out?”  I was caught so off guard that I laughed with her.

            "Yeah, let’s go out."

            "I'm not dressed to go out."

            "You look fine."

            "I'm not going out like this."

            "You went out all day today like that."

            "That wasn't 'going out'."  I shook my head.

            The corner of her mouth turned up in a smile and she just stared at me for a minute.  Without saying a word I knew what she meant by the look.  My definition of 'going out' in the life I had created was far different than her definition of 'going out' right then.

            "Okay, let’s go out."  I stood up and slid my feet into the blue sandals she bought for me.

 

            'Going out' for us that evening consisted of walking back to the coffee shop and having sandwiches while we sipped on a new peach flavored coffee concoction that Eli had come up with.  We stopped by another 'free art' club as Erica called it on the way back to her apartment and watched as open mic poets and folk singers entertained an incense filled room of strangers.  When we left our clothes smelled of sage and lavender and I felt in touch with a deeper artistic side of myself I never even knew existed.

            I smiled like a fool as we slowly ambled up the street back towards her apartment.  If there were a way to walk all night and keep the warm feeling of the club and Erica with me, I would have done it.  But instead the chilly ocean breeze swept by and sent goosebumps up my arms and a chill up my spine.

            We continued down the street and eventually passed the hotel where my car was parked.  I unconsciously looked toward the parking garage and wondered what would happen to my car if I just never went back.  They would probably tow it somewhere and try to call me back home in LA.  But if I didn't go get my car I wouldn't be in LA so they would never get a hold of me so they'd probably end up auctioning it off in one of those police auctions.  Then someone would be able to say that they were driving around in my car.

            The fact that that didn't bother me, scared me.  "I have to go back."  I said softly, keeping my eyes on the parking garage.

            "I know."  Erica replied softly.  She knew that my life was wrapped up in everything back home and that I'd eventually be back.  Maybe then I would choose to stay forever… it was bound to happen.  But this wasn't the time.

            "Thanks."  I stopped walking and looked at her, surprised that as we stood on the slope of the street, our eyes met perfectly.  I wanted to say more, I felt like I should say more.  She'd saved my life and my sanity without thinking twice.  Probably without even knowing it.

            "You're welcome."  She laughed lightly, which from anyone else would have seemed inappropriate.  I was having this heartfelt moment of thanks and she laughed.  I smiled and shook my head; there would never be anyone in my life like her.

 

            We were silent as we walked up the street to her building and up to her apartment where the music was still playing.  She went into the little kitchen and busied herself with cutting up an apple.  She handed me a thin slice as she opened a jar of peanut butter and extended it to me.  I smiled and dipped the apple then took a bite as she grabbed the rest of the slices, tucked the jar under her arm and scooted past me to sit on the futon.

            "When?"  She asked as she licked peanut butter from her fingertips.

            I looked at my watch and counted forward in my head.  "Soon."  I nodded.  "Like… now actually."

            "You've got work tomorrow?"

            "Yeah, at eight."

            "How long is the drive?"  I shrugged and took another piece of apple as I sighed.  "Seven hours?"  She asked.

            "Seven or eight."  I nodded, then stuck the apple into her jar of peanut butter.

            "Do you want snacks for the road?"

            "Nope.  I've got it covered."  I leaned back on my elbows and stretched my back as 'Book of Days' played softly by my head.

            "Coffee?"  She offered as she leaned back beside me and placed the apple slices between us.  I shook my head again and licked the peanut butter off my bottom lip.  Caffeine was nothing I would need on the ride home.  My mind was clear and I felt like a totally new person.  The eight hours alone in the car would be the time for me to really think about this weekend and why I came here… and why I went back.  Because I had to go back.  Even as I sat there thinking I could stay forever, somewhere inside me I knew that in 12 hours I'd be facing the guys as a rejuvenated me.

            Erica and I reclined on the futon as we finished the apple, then ate the peanut butter plain with just our fingers.  "Do you have any idea how fattening this is?"  She asked as she scooped a fingerfull out of the jar.

            "No.  And if you tell me I'll stick that finger up your nose."  I laughed and took a similar sized serving for myself.  We sat there sticking our tongues to the top of our mouths, unable to talk for a few minutes.

            "Like I care."  She sat up and patted her tummy.  "There's more to life than the perfect body."  Which was easy for her to say since she had it.  She stood up and placed the lid back on the jar before she took it to the kitchen.

            If I didn't stand up right then, I wasn't sure I'd be able to.  I pulled myself off of the low futon and stuck my finger in my mouth to get the last remaining bits of peanut butter from under my nail.

            "You should leave those for next time." Erica nodded at the two-dollar shoes on my feet as she walked back into the main room and sat at her table in the corner.  She said it to give me an excuse, but I knew the reason.  I never brought anything with me when I came, and I didn't take anything when I left.  In either world there was nothing tangible from the other.  The two worlds of mine co-existed without knowing about the other… in a weird 'Star Trek' kind of way.

            "Yeah.  Just in case."  I nodded and slid my bare feet out of the shoes.  I left them next to the pile of her own shoes and sighed.  The point of no return had just passed; I was really going home.

            There was silence as I stood by the door, not quite wanting to turn the knob, but knowing I had to be at the studio in LA in less than 12 hours.  For a second I wished that she would ask me not to go, beg me to stay and live her pseudo-bohemian life with her.  But I knew she wouldn't.  She was too good of a friend to ask me to change.  She would be here for me whenever I needed, but my life was mine.

            "Call me when you get there."  She didn't look up from her drawing table as she brushed her hair behind her ear, narrowly missing her cheek with the pencil she held in her hand.

            "Okay."  I nodded, knowing I wouldn't.  "Thank you for rescuing me and bringing me back to ground zero to get my shit in perspective.  Thank you for not asking questions and for not making me talk like some lame ass psych patient.  Thank you for not thinking you knew everything that I was about just because you've seen MTV shows about me and read a few magazines.  Without you, I would have gone nuts a long time ago.  You give me back that small piece of myself that I'm terrified to lose.  I leave that part, the real me, here with you for safekeeping.  Thank you for showing me that the simple things in life are just as important as the big things.  And that popsicles are fun to eat for breakfast and being barefoot rules.  I can't even begin to imagine what I'd be without you here to tug my balloon back down to earth every now and then.  Even though it may look like I forget about you… or about me… I don't.  You're always just a half a thought away, whether I acknowledge it or not.  I love you.  Not in the romantic chick flick kind of way, but in the way that says that I know without you I'd be miserable."  The dialogue sounded in my ears as I licked my chapped lips and sighed.  "Bye."  I said instead.

            Erica turned slowly, as if she'd heard every word of my thoughts, and smiled.  "Bye."

 

            I let myself out of her apartment and down the creaky elevator to the world outside.  It was exactly the same as we left it only an hour or so before, but somehow something had changed.  I looked back up at her window and saw her with her head bent in concentration.  I stared for a minute as the wind blew the curtain sideways, obstructing my view.

            I don't know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that she wasn't going to watch me go and that I was on my own.  The trip back to my life had started when I stepped out of her front door.  I sighed, and then padded barefoot back up the street towards the hotel where my car was parked.

            The valet saw me coming and stood up from where he'd been reclining against his podium.  "Can I help you sir?"

            "Yeah."  I pulled the wrinkled ticket out of my pocket.  "Here.  Thanks."  I handed it to him, then ran my hand through my hair as if that might make my whole ensemble more presentable.

            "O-okay."  He stuttered as he matched the ticket to my set of keys hanging in the little box.  He took off at a trot to retrieve my car and left me standing on the curb.  The hotel behind me was nice, by any standards.  I'd stayed in many like it, and even more that were nicer, but right there I was pretty sure they wouldn't want me walking in their front door.

            The kid drove up with my car then reluctantly handed me the keys.  "Have a nice night."

            "Thanks."  I nodded briefly, then leaned into my car and pulled the wallet out of my glove box.  I peeled off two twenties and handed them to the valet.  "Thanks for keeping an eye on it for the weekend."  I slid into the driver's seat without waiting for a reaction, and headed down the driveway.

 

            It seemed like hours before I finally found the freeway, but once I was on it I was on my way.  There was a tug of something in my chest as the city skyline got smaller in my rearview mirror.  For a few miles I thought it was the feeling of leaving something behind.  As though I were forgetting an important part of who I was back there in the dingy apartment.  But by the time I stopped to get gas I realized that it wasn't the feeling of loss… it was the feeling of something new.  I was taking something away with me.  Something I had before, but managed to lose or forget over the years while I was living my career and forgetting who I was.

            I was taking me away with me…

 

            As I drove down the California coast alone, I knew that the saying was true.

 

There are friends, I think, that we can't imagine living without.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Copyright ©2002 Amy Lynn
All Rights Reserved
No part of this text may be copied or reprinted
without the author's permission.

 

 

 

 

Book text from:  "Say Goodnight, Gracie" Copyright © 1988 by Julie Reece Deaver