Mike had suggested that he and I meet up for lunch in the city. When both of us got married, and had kids, we lost touch. Then when I got divorced, we did touch base again, made promises to maintain contact, but did not. I was surprised when he reached out for lunch, and gladly accepted.
We met at Ziggy's, a hipster, burger joint in San Francisco, the Financial District, which was convenient for me heading over on BART, just a couple blocks up Drumm on my bike from the Embarcadero station. I locked it to a parking meter, and went inside. Mike was already there, waiting.
"Hey, man," I began enthusiastically. "How's it goin'?"
Mike responded neutrally. "Fine," he said, then suggested, "Let's order."
The line was longer than I expected it should be. We eventually ordered, and sat down with our numbers. The food was coming. With that out of the way, Mike relaxed into his chair, leaning back, one leg crossed to the side, foot resting over his knee. I leaned forward, arms on the table, and looked around as if ready to pounce. We sat like this for a few moments in silence. Then Mike cleared his throat before uncrossing his legs, and turning to face me.
"So, man, what's up?" he asked.
I sat back in response, unprepared to answer. "Well," I balked. "Not much. Whats up with you these days? How's your boy?"
"Fine. Everything's great actually. We're in the groove. Healthy. You know."
"Come on. Spill. You have obviously got a story. Let's hear it."
At first, I did not know what to say. What could I say that he would like to hear? He was right. I did want to talk. I had been working and not working in solitude at my desk in my empty apartment month after month. Things I had wanted to say each day piled up inside of me unsaid, one on top of the other, mixed together like refuse in a landfill. I opened and closed my mouth while sorting through the mess. I could talk about my sadness, my rage, my loneliness, about how abandoned I felt, or how useless, but I was uncomfortable talking about my feelings, especially with down-to-business-no-non-sense-Mike. Mike needed a story, something entertaining, and I had nothing entertaining to share.
"Well let me see. Hmmm."
I grasped blindly at my heaps of unspoken thoughts, tugging and pulling for something, anything.
"I think it was a few years ago. Yeah, that's right. In the summertime, late one night, twenty fourteen. I was working for Jeffe those days, long hours, all of the long ones unpaid. We all were. Man, I'd still be pulling paychecks from him now if he paid us for the hours we actually worked -"
"- That's old news. I thought you -"
"Bear with me. This is just the backstory."
Mike laughed and shrugged skeptically. "Whatever, man. Go on."
I looked at him a moment, and gave him a lopsided grin. Inside my mental landfill, I had settled on a heap which seemed particularly ripe with regrets. Into it I pressed, grasped, and pulled.
"So anyway, I was waiting at the bus depot for the NL. It was sometime between 10 and 11. All the normal people were there. At that hour it's mostly actual Oaklanders, but you get a few hipsters too. So while I am waiting, some dude lights up a cigarette right next to me, and it irritates me so much that I move from where I am standing. There is not really a line at that time anyway, just people milling around in a vague order. So I walk over to the other end of the canopy, the back of the line, if you can call it that when I notice someone I have not seen before. Someone different. I mean its obvious to me that she's different than everybody else. She's got that soft look to the face that says she's from somewhere else, not Oakland, not even the hills, but she doesn't dress the part. She's not an office worker or techie. She's not a tourist. She's not dressed for any of that, and I can't help notice her-"
"Really? You're telling me this is how-?"
"Oh no no no no. Sorry. I'm overstating this. No. Definitely not. I never cheated. This is actually... umm... well you see it's backstory for something that happened more recently."
"Wha-," Mike paused, intrigued. "OK. Go on."
"You know I'm not particularly attracted to ...umm... her type, white, blond, certainly not someone who looks like she's from the mid-west, but this woman got under my skin that night. When we were on the bus, I tried to mind my own business, but I couldn't think. It was like I was only physical, just the surface of my skin. I couldn't read or zone out or anything."
All true, I thought, and the memory came back to me like a still living thing.
"I did everything I could to avoid looking at her, but kept glancing her way anyway. The way she sat there, totally confident, I mean really confident, and yet understated. She knows who she is, and doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks. How many w-"
I almost said 'white women', and winced. This was not the right place for something that complicated and admittedly misogynist despite it mostly being a backlash against gentrification and a certain kind of white woman. Why was I not thinking clearly? Why could I not read the room? I almost lost the story as I realized just how out of touch I was with the entire world around me. Almost everyone in the burger joint was young, white, and dressed for success. I did not belong there, and I suddenly felt exposed.
"... ummm ... well she's wearing almost nothing, and it's like everyone on the bus is checking her out. She is unbothered. I mean not just like she's putting up a front, but like no amount of attention or stares or even cat calls could bother her. I was impressed."
This must be why I pulled her from the heap, I thought, getting back on track.
"She's cool so you were impressed?"
"Yeah, but alright, I mean she was hot too." Might as well give him what he was expecting, right? Parallel tracks of tale, either one would do.
Mike laughs. "It's good to be honest, man."
"Yeah. Well all she had on was a shirt-dress thing with no sleeves. I could not tell you much else about it other than that it ended somewhere on the upper third of her thighs, and that I could not stop thinking about those thighs and ... well... she was what we used to call thick, or phat, phat with a 'p' 'h'. You know what I mean?"
"L.A. face and Oakland Booty," Mike said with a faux locker-room tone and chuckling to himself.
Then a woman called out Mike's number from the counter. He got up to get his food. Out from behind his passing, a young woman, 20's, attractive, smartly dressed for business, looked my way from the neighboring table. She made a point of shaking her head at me in disapproval before continuing her conversation with her colleagues.
She was right. Why was I babbling about a "hot-chick"? Was I an asshole?
My thoughts stopped there. It was my turn to have my number called. I got up, retrieved my chicken sandwich, and selected a drink that I had forgotten to pick out earlier - the woman at the counter at first asking if I was taking a second without paying but then just let it go. I wanted real pomegranate juice but settled on something sugary, and returned to the table, Mike already sitting, burger in hand.
"Oh. That reminds me," I began as I took my seat. "You and I saw her again. That night we went to EndGame last year to play Caylus, and that umm... that cool World War 1 card game you brought. What was that called again?"
"Huh? Oh. The Grizzled."
"Yeah. The Grizzled. I liked that game. No one wins in war."
"It was fun."
"We should do that again."
"Weren't you telling me a story about a girl?"
"Yes. Right. Well, that night at EndGame, you and I and Victor met out front. We arrived separately, but at about the same time, and talked a bit before heading in."
"I don't remember. Maybe. Sure." He shrugged.
"While heading to the door, that woman crossed our path and smiled at us. She was the same woman from the bus."
It did not play out exactly that way, but close enough. Mike did see her. In retrospect, I believe she was going to say something to me, thought better of it and then quickly passed by. But whatever, she was hot, and I swear Mike saw her and commented. Didn't Victor even chide him for being a married man and staring at another woman's ass?
"If you say so." He did not believe me. Did not remember? Something.
"It was her."
Mike probably wanted to say something more but instead bit into his burger, chewed, enjoyed it, swallowed, and bit again. He did not meet my eye. Conversations from the other tables filled the silence between us. I heard that 20-something, business-woman's voice, her disapproving tone most of all, but did not understand a word of what she said.
"Anyway," I said, resuming my story to reclaim the air between us, "we went in and played games for awhile, and then a few hours later we were all back out on the sidewalk going our separate ways. I unlocked my bicycle, and looked around while you and Victor walked off to your cars. People were still outside just a few doors down in cafe seats or perched on top of bar stools, mostly young, a few old, laughing, drinking, having fun."
I paused to take a bite of my sandwich. Glanced at Mike, confirming his attention. His eyes shifted to his burger which he again put in his mouth, nearly finished.
"I was not ready to go back home alone-"
I chewed, swallowed, drank.
"-and started walking my bike in that direction. Those people, maybe I would join them, join someone, I remember thinking. I wanted more to my night. I was lonely-"
I swirled a few fries around in Tabasco and popped them in my mouth for the burn, something to feel, which is what I needed that night as well as what I needed there at Ziggy's, something human, to remind me that I was alive. Why was I sleep walking through an uninspired story?
"-I was. And-"
I took another drink to help me swallow, the sugar like a shot to my system, and nodded at Mike, with a tear in my eye more real than I intended. How can I be THAT guy? I thought. How could this be me telling Mike this bullshit?
"-and the woman from the bus, started walking toward me. Well not to me specifically. Just walking, you know, on the sidewalk in the opposite direction, but like adjacent lanes. Here was my bike," I gestured to my left with my left hand; then, "myself," I said pulling both hands in to my chest; and then lastly putting my right hand out with a look to where she would have been I said,"and her, right there."
Mike chewed the remains of his burger, watching me. He seemed entertained.
"She was right there when she slowed down and looked at me. I was mid stride. My heart skipped a beat. She smiled, a cool Mona Lisa smile, but ... well ... I believed she was smiling at me, and I could not think because of it, and her ..." I gestured emphatically with both hands as if simultaneously cupping her body as well as pointing to where she would have been standing and said,"... you know! You heard what she looks like. What could I do? I just stopped and smiled back. But then she stopped too, looked right at me, fearless. I said 'Hello.' 'Hi,' she said, and took a .... She stepped towards me with a like, flirty step. I-"
Mike laughed. "A flirty step?" And he kept laughing.
"-I could not believe it either-" And I did not believe it because it was not true, but that did not matter anymore because I was telling a story that I needed to finish, "and it eventually turned out that..."
"...well, umm, I misread the situation."
He looked disappointed. "How? What do you mean?"
"She was a prostitute."
Mike was quiet, pausing over his fries before eating them. "She told you?" A probe.
I paused as well but only for effect as if considering how much I wanted to tell him, then said, "We went to a place. I paid her." I left it at that.
"The woman you saw on the bus two years ago in San Francisco, back when you were married, and ...yeah ...." he gesticulated with his hands to emphasize ... something. "This woman later shows up in downtown Oakland?" He shook his head, "And propositions you?" He looked for a moment like he was living vicariously through my lie, and a lame one at that.
I nodded, said nothing, and shrugged. If only two out of three was not bad. Regret washed over me. I wished I had taken the story in a different direction.
"That is quite a story. If I was not married I would ask for details, but those days are behind me."
I laughed and repeated what he said after his bachelor party in Vegas: "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
My little performance over, Mike allowed the conversation to turn to catching me up on his family life while we finished our fries. I devoured every word and was happy for him. When finished, Mike excused himself to get back to work. We made vague promises to do this again sometime. I did not see him again for years, not until just a couple months back.
After leaving Mike and Ziggy's, I biked back down to BART. A train happened to be in the station when I arrived. I boarded quickly, but came upon a surprise and stopped, my rear bike tire still on the strip of yellow, truncated domes in the station. She, the woman from my story, was sitting in the old people seats to the right facing me. She wore overalls covered with flecks of paint and a long sleeve shirt, but it was her. I could tell when she looked at me with that cool, confident half smile, and something else in her eyes that I should have recognized at the time.
"You getting off?" she asked first making an ambiguous gesture that seemed to indicate her body. "Or on?"
The doors dinged, and I came to my senses when they started to close, yanking my bike in and on to the train.
"On." I said as if to myself, maneuvering to the bike spot opposite her, back turned so as to hide my face.
"Nice ass," she said clearly, and just loud enough for me to hear.
Pretending not to hear, I slid the handlebars of my bike between a gripping bar on the wall of the train. I took longer than I should have to secure it in place. Eventually feeling foolish, I turned around, but let my eyes pass over her.
"I mean it is not a 10," she said again, only just loud enough for me to hear, but it was obvious that I could hear her, my face burned with heat. She continued, "but you do have that cute runner's butt." She still had that bemused expression on her face, and something else, but I could not tell if she was fucking with me, or what her agenda was.
I wanted to respond angrily, but I could not. I was confused and embarrassed. Despite her baggy, dirty overalls I was desperately attracted to her. I think I was afraid of her at the same time. I had been hiding out alone in my apartment for too long after my divorce to be able to handle this situation.
I wanted to match her tone. I thought that I should throw it back at her, say that she was not so bad herself, but I could not bring myself to say a thing, and instead I looked at her a moment, attempting my own half smile, as if to play it cool, but instead I think I smirked awkwardly. I could not keep it up for long, surrendered, and said the first thing that came to my mind even though she would have no idea why I said it: "I'm sorry."
"It's OK," she said without skipping a beat, as if she knew everything I was thinking. She also looked disappointed, and it crushed me. "I mean it isn't OK, but let's act like it is. OK?"
"OK." I agreed, but I had no idea what she was talking about, even though I also feared that she could read my mind. I was a little "off" back then. I mean I really was, not crazy, but living-like-a-hermit-off.
The train screeched along through the tunnel under the Bay to Oakland. I wanted to talk to her. I had wanted to find out who she was since I saw her on the bus that night, and here she was, but right then some dude stood between us, and I wanted to appear casual so I avoided the commitment it would take to get around him and start a conversation with her.
When we pulled up to the West Oakland station, the man exited. I looked her way and she looked right back at me. She was not smiling. Her brow was raised as if to ask, "Well?!"
Now or never I thought and walked over to her, intending to sit down.
She spoke loud enough for others to hear: "It was not an invitation."
"I'm sorry." And I stopped before getting closer. Then oddly I decided to kneel, but at this point I did not care what anyone else thought, just her. Something about her held my interest so kneeling at her feet felt appropriate at the time.
"Again with the sorry, huh? You're a man in the wrong ways, but not the right ones? Have I finally got you figured out?"
"I dunno. But look-"
She looked away from me. I paused. I saw a spot of purple paint at her throat, and a sheen of sweat over the muscle and artery exposed there on her neck. I wanted to drink her sweat right off her neck right there. My heart pounded. And that familiar pleasure tingled around my temples, forehead, and the joint in my jaws. I winced at how much I wanted her, catching myself staring and looked away in the opposite direction. "Go on," she said. "Tell your story."
"All I wanted to say is that I have seen you before. A number of times. And for some reason I thought of you today. Before getting on the train I mean. And then you were here. I ... Look I'm sorry for staring at you."
"Yeah. I've seen you before too, Aaron." She stressed my name to make a point that she knew me, and that I should know her.
I looked up into her eyes as she looked down at me. I struggled to keep my cool, but her red-brown eyes were so clear, sharp, beautiful, and also familiar. Overstimulated I lowered my gaze to her mouth. Her lips were relaxed, full, expressive. Kissing her was all I could think about. I felt my penis stirring in my pants, my crotch warm, and I was embarrassed by how exposed I was to her, how much power she had over me.
"You still don't recognize me." She was disappointed. Resignation in her voice, and again something else. I realized that I had misread the situation.
I looked in her eyes again, and started to stand, but was caught on my erection.
She brushed up the length of my body with her gaze. "There is so much I could say. It should be OK, but it isn't. Get a hold of yourself. I used to look up to you. You were the kind of boy who I thought would grow up to be ...," she appraised me pursing her lips, her pose matching for an instant a memory, like an old photograph I had saved of someone from high-school.
"Eleni?" Again I was wrong, but that hope returned and lingered. For a brief moment I felt saved from a life of loneliness, and all my mistakes.
She shook her head, "My older sister." She sighed and grew a little distant, "I mean was. She was..."
"Alexandra?" I asked, remembering a little girl, and was suddenly ashamed.
"In the flesh," she announced, already back from wherever she had gone.
I had never thought about her much back then. When I was 15, Eleni had my full attention. Alexandra was just her little sister, and a child with 8 years between them. I should not have thought of her as the "hot-chick" on the bus, or - god! - a prostitute.
Wait. Alexandra had spoken of Eleni in the past tense. I looked up, the question written on my face. She gestured to the seat next to her, and I took it.
She gave me a moment to let the reality set in, and looked at me gravely, "Yes, she's gone. It's been awhile now. I mean, god, it's been ten years." She exhaled through her nose at me, and looked at me with such compassion and maturity that I was reminded of her mother, and she continued, "At the time, I figured that you should have known, should have stayed in touch, but you .... What happened to you, Aaron?"
We had arrived at and passed 12th Street station without my noticing. We were now nearing 19th. She looked up, then over at me, and asked, "Are you getting off at 19th?"
"For the NL?"
"No, my bike-" I started to say gesturing over to where my bike should have been. It was gone.
She guffawed, a full belly laugh, an older woman's laugh. She had lived a full life already, and I could hear it in her laugh. For the moment I was disarmed of anger, did not care that my bike had been stolen while I was acting like a fool at her feet. With that laugh, she captured my full attention, but this time, for the first time, I saw her, at least I like to think that I did. This woman had stories to tell, a life well lived behind her with good years left ahead of her. Her youth had been refined, yes, tempered, yes, but still clung thick, and beautiful to her bones.
"You really should pay more attention," she said in a mock version of her mother's voice, then added warmly, "I didn't notice either," and reached out to gently grab my forearm, squeezing before letting go. I looked down and saw the dark hairs on the back of her hand and a few longer ones at her wrist. Eleni had had black hairs like that on her forearms. I had always found that sexy. Perhaps because they were hers, my first. I liked to tug at them with my lips. She would laugh, telling me not to, but let me continue, and would stroke my ear lobes. I think I had helped her overcome a complex she had about them giving her a manly appearance. Seeing them on Alexandra's wrist brought that back and again I wanted her.
Even more, I told myself, I wanted to ask her about Eleni, but the train pulled in to 19th. I looked to the doors then back at her. "I ... Don't take this the wrong way, but could we go get a drink or I dunno. It doesn't matter what. I-"
"-Yeah. yeah." She was already getting up. "Come on."
We exited the train together, and walked up the stairs through the station, not speaking. I suddenly felt like I was already home. I mean, next to her, I felt a rush like I was 15 again. I wanted to pretend that my life had taken a completely different course since I was 15. I wanted Alexandra to be Eleni, and for us to have lived a life together, for me to have retained myself, to have lived out the promise of my youth.
Alexandra kept to my shoulder, walking along in silence, looking at me occasionally, and I at her, neither of us in a rush to start talking. Maybe she was simply appraising me, but I was in a daze and a dream as if I could just wish away my divorce, the life I had lived, and replace it all with this fiction, that she was her sister, and that the flame of young love could burn again. I was being childish and absurd.
We were near the BART pay gates when I stopped this nonsense. I gently grabbed her hand to stop her too. I had to clear my head. Find something real to anchor myself to. It came to me when she turned to face me, spinning on her heel. I recalled a picnic. 7 year old Alexandra had spun sharply on her heel to correct me just like that.
"Not Alexandra. Alexa," I said, repeating back to her her own words. "That's what you told me to call you."
She laughed that deep belly laugh again. "Yes, I did, didn't I?"
"I remember. But I only... Only just now remembered." I looked at her as if to imprint her as her rather than as her sister on my brain, "Alexa."
"Don't wear it out." She then mocked my expression looking seriously at me and proclaimed, "Aaron."
"Fine. You got me. But I had to do this. Your you. Not your sister."
"Uh huh." She was a little annoyed, but then said, "I know what you mean."
"I've already eaten. Don't need to drink. What I want is to talk. How much time have you got?"
"Let's talk. But can we move? I don't want to miss the bus."
We took the NL together. Alexa made a point of taking the outer seat. She did not fully trust me, and I do not blame her. I plied her for information about Eleni, and I think she saw the wounded man I was at the time, grasping for whatever I could of a love long gone. Alexa told me about her sister's family and the tragedy of her death. Eleni died from cancer at 34. It was a surprise, and ironic given that she had been a nurse. Despite working in a hospital with access to doctors, tests, everything, no one caught it in time. She had had a husband and one child with him, a boy. Alexa beamed with pride talking about her nephew. The boy was 5 when he lost his mother. He was doing OK now, but for years they were not sure he would be. A few years back, he and his dad moved away. The man had remarried. Alexa seemed wistful or something about this, but maybe over it. I could not pin my finger on what "it" was. I was lost in the past myself.
I had often fantasized that Eleni would have a long, rich life and that the two of us would meet again someday before the end, as old people full of experiences to share, and tell each other our stories, be friends. Considering that I had not even known that she had died, this was clearly nothing but a fantasy. Despite having had a family of my own - a family I have lost almost completely - I am still a child living in dreams, and the lies I tell myself.
Alexa told me more about her nephew who she seems to love like her own child. "He is 15 now. He runs track," she said looking at me pointedly. "And he's fast. He can run." She clearly loved him, but there was more to this story. I did not understand what she was trying to tell me though, and so she pressed the point further. "Like you," she said. Since I was obviously not the father, this went over my head. She next told me that Eleni's husband was a runner too. She showed me a recent picture of him at a race. The man looked like me. If I had a brother, he could have been mine, the younger brother, the one who learned from my mistakes.
I finally got it.
I was not sure what she wanted me to feel about that, but I feel like that guy lived the life I let slip away. Had I set a type for Eleni? All those years later, when I wanted to, could I have gone back, been with her? I felt incredibly old, and immature, my life wasted and spent. The young love I had had in my hands, devoured, and dropped like ... like Eleni was easily replaced, that love could have grown into a family? What the fuck had I done with my life? Years later I married a woman who never loved me, and lost my family when she took it with her out the door. My divorce was what I deserved rather than a wrong done to me. That thought was new, and it stabbed like a knife, deep. Everything was my fault. All of this shit was me. I was the asshole.
Alexa was next to me talking when I fell apart. Tears welled up and fell down my face, and yet at the same time I was filled with rage. I shook with anger I could not contain. I hated myself for casting Eleni aside so carelessly. I had thrown away my own life. And paid for it when I let low self-esteem lead my marriage into a dead end. And here I was making everything about me. Some how in my idiotic brain, Eleni's death a decade ago was about me, and what I had lost, and everything that I had done wrong. My shame, my bitterness were all I had left. I knew I was being stupid, and self-centered, but knowing that did not help me keep my composure.
Alexa had more to say. Things she wanted to ask me. Apparently she had known about my divorce which surprised me, and she had this whole life in her that she could tell me about. There was so much to this woman that I genuinely wanted to know, but I could not hold a conversation. My face was twisted up funny, and I think I got a little weird. It was probably then at last, frustrated, that she made up her mind about me.
When her stop approached, she abruptly stood up and rang the bell, then walked over to the doors away from me. She did not look in my direction, but said, "Time for me to get off." I then noticed for the first time that her hair was dyed. Of course, I thought, she and her sister had had that thick, rich, black hair, flowing, wavy, like the river of life. Why would she have dyed it?
"I'm sorry," I said without thinking.
She looked at me then, and said, "Don't say that again, Aaron." I was about to speak, and she held up her hand. "Just don't."
I stood when the bus pulled up to her stop as if to join her.
She seemed to think about it, just for a moment, as if she had considered it before, but then shook her head firmly, and said, "Good bye," stepping off the bus, the doors slamming behind her. I watched her walk away, thinking maybe to see where she was going. Maybe I could make amends. But she thought of that too, stopped, turned, and waved, watching me in the bus as I rolled off.
I have not seen her since.