Beside his bed, on a wicker night table, lay a stained white saucer and on the saucer a mound of ashes. “When will I see the fog?” I asked. Izzy sat on the edge of the bed, plucked out a squashed cigarette butt, and massaged it tenderly into shape. Light filtered by thinning gray clouds poured through two bay windows. I sat naked in an overstuffed armchair, hugging myself tightly for warmth.
“When will I see the fog?” I asked again, louder, more insistently.
Izzy lit the cigarette. His head sagged. Smoke spiraled lazily upwards. Draped over his shoulders like a cape was a faded crimson sheet. It brought to mind a defeated foreign soldier from an old movie I’d loved as a boy, A Tale of Two Cities. He clutched the sheet around his waist, as if modest in an absentminded kind of way, exposing a short compact chest and long arms and legs. Izzy was no taller than me but when we stood side by side I felt the smaller. Perhaps it was because—although he was older by several years—his long arms and legs were not in proportion to his compact torso, which made me think of a teenager whose limbs were growing faster than the rest of his body.
I had known him for just two days, but an easy silence filled the large bedroom.
He looked up. “If you’re in no hurry, Eddie, come with me shopping?” He spoke shyly, rubbing sleep from his eyes, the sheet slipping, revealing wide, bony shoulders. I’d asked about the fog, and he’d ignored me. I should have been hurt, but I wasn’t; I loved the sound of his voice and, for the first time, he’d said my name!
Izzy was from Toronto and had been in San Francisco for five years, but his voice still lilted in a Canadian singsong that rose and sank and rose again, curling statements into questions. Watching him deftly pull a green and white sweatshirt over his head with a lit cigarette in his mouth, I felt off-balanced and charmed in equal measure—the feeling I had hoped to find on my first long trip away from home. In New England where I am from, there’s directness to speech that leaves no space, no crooks and crannies in which the imagination can roam and swirl about. Back home a chair is a four-legged stool with a hard back and a lot of history.
He didn’t look toward me for an answer to his question. Instead, he brushed long, dark hair from his eyes, leaned his head back, and with a finger, carefully placed contact lenses in first one eye then the other. His craggy face was an assortment of hard angles, but his lips although thin turned unexpectedly sensual when he kissed. His eyes (strange that I hadn’t noticed them until the previous night) were the same chilly Atlantic blue I’d seen in many of the Canadian boys I met in Provincetown last summer; a blue that I imagined had migrated from a sunny but troubled foreign sea, passed on from parent to child, lightening a shade across the generations, as if warmed by hope; yet beneath their pale blue surface an iciness remained.
The evening we’d met and the next day there’d been an arm’s length between us, but overnight he had softened. I watched him then as if absorbing the gentle transformations in a landscape first lit by the early morning sun. His shoulders, which had looked rounded and pinched inward, had opened during the night. I surged with warmth, wanting to shelter him from harm. It was a new and unexpected emotion, as I’d grown accustomed to leaning on David, my boyfriend back in Boston.
Izzy wasn’t Izzy when David had known him in college. Then he was simply John or, when you got to know him better, Jack. He was the son of Croatian immigrants to Canada and when he arrived at Dartmouth, as David told the often repeated tale, he quickly styled himself after the Kennedy’s, standing with his hand held their way in the side pocket of one or the other of his two dark blue blazers and adopting their haircut, their well-educated charm, and, when he chose, their easy success with women. In his senior year, John dropped out of school, talking vaguely of family problems. David hadn’t seen him in seven years, but through postcards—first from Toronto, then Montreal, where for a short time he signed his name Jean, then Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco—David learned of changes. Along the way, John had written, “They call me Izzy,” and the small cramped “J” in his signature became a sweeping “I”.
David was in his last year of medical school in Boston. He hoped to find a residency in San Francisco and, in late spring, I was sent ahead to scout. “Learn the lay of the land,” he’d said. “And look up Izzy when you get there.”
“Come with me shopping?” Izzy asked again, as if it mattered and as if it didn’t, while he tossed together blankets and sheets and pillows to make his bed, brushing away cigarette ashes and scooping up half-filled wine glasses. He moved with a slow deliberate precision, as if he were patiently struggling to make his way through air thick as molasses. I walked over to him, giving in to his tentative glance, and touched the back of his neck.
“Sure,” I replied, as he took a swig from a wine bottle and then headed down the hallway to the kitchen. To the empty room and in a voice I didn’t recognize as my own, “I’ll go wherever you take me,” I proclaimed.
“When will I see the fog?” I asked again, trailing Izzy up and down the apartment’s long hallway, and again he ignored me. Maybe I was a pest, but I’d been in San Francisco for two days and had not yet seen the fog. “You must see the fog,” David had said, a strand of pomposity threading, spoiling his enthusiasm. “It’s quite spectacular in the summer.”
I’d arrived with a list of what David said I must do and see. I’d dutifully managed dim sum in Chinatown and a cable car ride whose starts and stops threw me into the talcum-scented arms of a jolly group of tourists from Des Moines. I had put off calling Izzy until, after a day and a night on my own, a kind of jealous curiosity swelled. I wondered if they’d been lovers in college, but never asked. It was long ago and hadn’t mattered back in Boston.
“Mi casa su casa,” Izzy had said, a breezy and distant voice on the phone. He gave me an address where I was to meet him. I was surprised to find a gay bar in the financial district with clear windows open to the eyes of the world, filled with mustachioed men in three-piece suits, all in laughing, backslapping high spirits, leaning confidently against a dark mahogany bar. Izzy was polite but distant, stiff and uncomfortable in a gray wool banker’s suit, as if he were a student dressed for a job interview squeezed into the uniform of a responsible adult.
He asked about David (not at all about me), and nodded as if he weren’t really listening, which made me all the more curious. He’d long since finished a Calistoga with lime but waited patiently as I nursed my bottle of beer. The lilt in his voice was hypnotic—so unlike the curt, no-nonsense way people spoke back home—that I was caught off-guard when he said suddenly, “It’s been a hard day. It’s time for us to go.”
Izzy’s house—a stout, three-story apartment building freshly painted mustard yellow with lavender trim—was up a steep hill near Haight Street. Large semicircular bay windows jutted out over the sidewalk. Each story sat one upon the other like a stack of oversized checkers hovering above the street. Winded from the climb, I leaned over, hands on knees, catching my breath. Izzy pointed to a yellow door. “Home?” he said, as if I might know better than he. While he fumbled with his keys, I pointed to a cluster of delicate white and yellow flowers that grew from under a rusted, corrugated fence separating his house from the next.
“What are those?” I asked, already sensing that if I didn’t ask questions he’d drift away.
“They’re fortnight lilies,” he said, his face crumpling, then warming into a cautious smile, as if my question had distracted him from a troubling thought he was on the verge of solving. “I’ll take you up to Marin on Saturday. The wild flowers there are what I’d call out-of-this-world.”
Inside the lobby, he bounded up the staircase’s spongy maroon carpet. I hurried behind, afraid he was trying to escape me, that I was an unwanted guest. But on the first landing I paused to inhale the damply exotic scent of mildew, then dashed up the last flight of stairs, afraid again of losing him.
The entryway of his apartment led to a small windowless room. Chairs were strewn about as if there had been a party. Along one wall there was a black leather couch. Above it hung a print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers that eyed me with suspicion. The paper was warped and an upper corner had become unstuck. He pointed at the couch. “It’s yours,” he said, yawning, running a diffident hand through his long hair, brushing it behind his ears. “And,” he added, his voice trailing from behind as he disappeared down a long dark hallway, “Don’t mind my roommate, he shows up at all hours,” leaving me with those drooping sunflowers, my bags, and the then unfamiliar, sweet and sour taste of excitement and loneliness that comes with traveling alone.
I slept badly. The cushions were stiff, the leather dried out and ripped. During the night I heard the front door creak open and slam shut, then two sets of footsteps and the slam of another door. I lay awake for hours, listening to the ebb and flow of squeaks and whispers and the never quite satisfied groans that filled the apartment. His roommate had brought someone home.
Cold, I pulled on my red and green sweater, the one with reindeers dancing across the front, a gift from David who’d said before I left, “Always carry a sweater in San Francisco.” I had asked why, and he laughed at me in his mocking sort of way and went on slicing carrots and onions and potatoes for a large pot of soup. David was five years older and in my eyes more worldly. Everything he said suggested levels of meaning that he would leave me to tease out on my own.
I fell into restless dreaming. I was searching for the house David and I would live in. It was in the center of a city where lights shimmered high atop a distant hill. The streets were lined with unfamiliar flowers and smells. The lights flickered a coded message, and I followed leaving behind me a trail of phosphorescent circles within circles. Lost, I woke up gasping for breath.
In the morning I’d found a map and a note: Meet you for dinner at 6, Izz.
That day I walked the length of Golden Gate Park, to the ocean and back, following the overpowering scent of eucalyptus, until approaching a highway, it gave way to the smell of exhaust fumes, then sea salt. I walked along the beach. The wind was cold, the air filled with the dull hum of cars. The sky was pleated with slate colored clouds that gave the ocean a grayish hue. I wondered if the haze in the distance was fog. I put on my reindeer sweater, but the wind sliced through it, taunting me, a reminder of the loneliness that had stowed away in my suitcase. I had expected to feel a large expansive emotion at seeing the Pacific—to be bold, independent and full of possibility was what I longed for—but instead I felt small and cold.
A Frisbee landed at my feet. Two blond-haired children, a boy and a girl, playing at the water’s edge looked at me hopefully. I smiled and tossed it back to the boy. It looped unpredictably over the ocean, then snatched by the wind, it changed direction, landing gracefully between them.
I walked for perhaps a half mile on the hard sand. I had expected so much from this trip and began to fear I would return home unchanged. What was I supposed to do, shed my skin and crawl out of a cocoon like a butterfly, or crack open an egg with a slimy beak, emerging a small gray sparrow, or, I thought with a self-satisfied smile, an eagle? Which would David prefer? I wondered from habit. I dug my heels into the sand, leaning into the wind. A tenacious sparrow seemed to nail the truth of me.
At Boston’s Logan Airport, David had said I was free to do what I’d like in San Francisco. Surrounded by families that swirled about in ever changing clusters, he took my hands and clasped them between his in an awkward public gesture. I thought first of a priest, then a salesman, as if he was trying to comfort me and sell me something at the same time. I imagined all eyes watching us and felt myself burning with humiliation, then anger. I knew exactly what he meant. “But it wasn’t freedom I want from you, David,” I’d thought. “Freedom from home and parents and the gray little life I’d expected before I met you, but no, not freedom from you.”
Home meant Somerville, Massachusetts, where my parents still lived and where I’d grown up; a small knotty acorn of a town packed tightly with wood framed triple-deckers that lay in the overlapping shadows cast by Boston to its south and Cambridge to the west, crammed with Irish and Italian first- and second-generation families and the thickly woven argot of townie accents. It was a town where dreams were tightly rationed, and a downcast eye was leveled at those who stepped out too far ahead of themselves.
I’d met David in a bar. He’d smiled from across the room, circled around the crowd, and bought me a drink. He talked, I listened, and time passed as if compressed into one long breath that ended with us in his bed. The sex was hurried. I had only just come out, and he was the first man I’d been with who seemed he could matter. I was nineteen (but said twenty-two) and ashamed of how scared I felt. My hands were trembling. He grasped them in his, holding them tenderly. “Don’t worry,” he’d said. “You have a friend.” All through the night, as I slept and woke and slept again, I could feel his breath, warm and moist on my neck, and his voice, whispering, promising, “You have a friend.”
At the airport, I wrestled my hands free of his grip, keeping silent, not wanting to show how much I needed him, how much I felt like an unsteady boat willingly tethered to a dock. When he let go I stumbled backward. After I’d passed through the metal detector, I forced myself not to look back, but I was sure I could feel David’s eyes following me. I dug my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel the pain. Then I pressed harder.
Quite suddenly, I was standing in several inches of cold water. I’d thought I was a safe distance from the ocean, watching harmless waves as they broke up ahead. I backed-off, feeling like an idiot. The little girl and her brother giggled. “They’re called sneaker waves, mister. Be careful or they’ll drown you,” she said, setting off another round of laughter. I had lingered too long walking along the ocean’s edge. I checked my watch. It was later than I thought. I hurried anxiously back to meet Izzy. I didn’t want to be late, didn’t know him well enough to be sure if he’d wait for me. But walking back through the park, my waterlogged sneakers squeaking, I got lost in a tangle of trails where I avoided the eyes of solitary men cruising. The smell of the ocean quickly gave way to eucalyptus. Amid the trees, two windmills soared like huge flowers that, far from home, had misread the climate and grown to bizarre tropical dimensions. I followed the sound of cars to a road that sliced through the park, where a strong wind propelled me forward to my six o’clock date with Izzy.
He took me to dinner at a corner restaurant filled with plump antique couches and stiff-backed chairs. I ate a cheese and tomato omelet—comfort food back home—drank too much wine and felt adrift in time, listening not too closely as Izzy, his voice slurring, spoke of a promotion he’d hoped to get at work, while he ate an oily linguini, which he invited me to taste.
We walked slowly back along Haight Street. Izzy took my hand in his so quietly that at first I hardly noticed. On the landing he opened the door and paused. “You can share my bed if you’d like?” he said, in his questioning lilt. Although he was David’s friend, my head was clouded with wine, and I surprised myself by leaning into him and putting my head on his shoulder.
In bed I explored his body with a tenderness that seemed more like whispering to an invisible friend at night in childhood than the jolting, convulsive event I had learned to call sex. Near dawn we drew into each other and came at the same time. Lying next to Izzy’s sleeping body, his skin covered by an early morning layer of moisture, I had thought of David, his list of things to do in San Francisco, and felt the spreading absence of guilt. I held on to it the way as a child I lingered on the feel of slipping into flannel sheets in winter.
I was far from home, and I was free.
I dressed while Izzy finished cleaning his room. No more stupid questions about the fog, I resolved. When everything was in its place, he sprawled into the armchair. His purposefulness faded for a moment then returned. He slipped on a pair of blue and gray running shoes. “Hungry?” he asked. I nodded and followed him happily down the hall and into the kitchen where he assembled eggs, butter, bread, and milk on the counter. I poured myself some coffee, flipped through the local paper, but mostly snuck glances at Izzy, my fingers remembering the smooth skin and muscle of his back, the firm curve of his ass. Suddenly, butter knife in hand, he turned, stabbing at the empty space between us. “You’ll see the fog soon enough.” I flinched, as if a door had been slammed in my face, and felt again like an unwanted guest. He returned to buttering toast. “Really, Eddie, you will,” he said, a wobbly sorrow in his voice as mysterious to me as the flash of cruelty it had replaced. I went to him and wrapped my arms tightly around him.
After breakfast we drank more coffee, smoked cigarettes, and said hello to his roommate (who still had no name). As if to make up for his noisy night of sex, he padded in silent as a cat, a small pale bare-chested boy wearing long boxer shorts decorated with small American flags in the shape of dollar signs and a brightly colored Mexican vest all magenta and gold, mosaicked with chips of turquoise and white. He looked fifteen. He had a bony concave chest, which he rubbed. I wasn’t sure if he had a persistent itch or was trying to be seductive. He said he’d join us for a minute. “But only just a minute,” he said between cigarettes, between joints, “because work’s got to happen, work’s just got to happen.”
I never learned what kind of work had to happen, but the time passed richly filled with the smell of marijuana and the building’s aroma of mildew, which now seemed like a portal to a San Francisco of the distant past; and though later I could remember nothing of what we said, after a time my mind sprouted fields of magenta and gold wildflowers, and my thoughts filled with Izzy and idle wondering if the beginning of falling in love was the same as the falling, and the kitchen, which faced west and was dark all morning gradually filled with noon light.
Nobody I’d met in San Francisco seemed in a hurry. My first night I’d stayed at a downtown hotel and everyone, the bellhop, the desk clerk, my cab driver, all took their time. Even at the bathhouse I went to later when I couldn’t sleep, even there, the man I met took more time making love than anyone I’d ever been with before, and when I walked back to the hotel I felt not sad and empty as I’d expected, not thinking of what I’d left back home, not dwelling on David and the unasked-for freedom he’d given me, but feeling as if a long and satisfying relationship had ended, just at that perfect moment when it needed to.
A loud, cracking boom like a gunshot or an explosion jolted us from our reverie. It shook the floor and rattled the windows. I ducked my head and gripped the kitchen table for support. “Is it a quake?” I asked, feeling as if I’d tumbled into an amusement park ride, queasy and excited. His roommate giggled and Izzy said, no, just some Air Force planes putting on a show. He led me back into his bedroom and pointed out the window, his hand resting lightly on my shoulder. Across the sky were four white streaks, straight lines whose plumes trailed off into cotton puffs. I watched as they shredded into smaller and smaller pieces drifting aimlessly before they disappeared. The sky was deep and blue and clean, a bowl of cool blue gelatin streaked by the hungry fingers of some traveler who had preceded me.
Izzy gave my cheek a quick caress, eyed the clock, and announced it was time for him to shower. The spell was broken. I returned to the kitchen and sat with his roommate who held onto the joint, lost in thought.
“My name is Malcolm,” he said, breaking his silence, rubbing the same spot on his bony chest with deep intention. “It wasn’t always, you know.” He poured more coffee, then lit another joint. “I used to be Francis. I got beat up for that. Do you want to know how it became Malcolm?” Bathroom objects clinked in the distance, metal on porcelain, while Malcolm continued to rub his chest and hold fast to the joint. His watery blue eyes were wide, vacant, and a touch demented. I was anxious for Izzy to come back. I wanted to be rescued from little Malcolm. Soon.
“I worked for him, Malcolm that is, Malcolm Forbes. The magazine guy. The rich pig in New York. I was an office boy, and I let him have blow jobs, then he fired me, so I took his name—as severance pay, you could say—and came out here.” Malcolm began to rub his foot up and down my calf. I felt excited and repelled. I wanted to move my leg but couldn’t. In the distance, bathroom pipes creaked mournfully, then, as if to console, came the sound of the shower’s soothing spray.
“Do you like coke?” he asked. “I like coke,” he said before I could answer.
“Don’t worry about my Izzy,” Malcolm said, breaking a long silence. “He’s a lost pup, poor old Izzy. So sad, but don’t you trust him, Boston boy. He’s sweet,” he continued, his voice trailing off into a melodramatic whisper. “But woof,” he said, “such a wounded puppy. They bite, you know.”
I was angry that he’d said “my Izzy,” but continued to let his bare foot slide up and down my leg while I fiddled with my coffee mug. Lazy thoughts about the feel of Malcolm’s foot tumbled into desire for Izzy and a longing for David. I tried to prod these thoughts and feelings into some order, but could not.
“Eddie,” Izzy said—or was it a question? Malcolm’s eyes were closed and he seemed not to notice Izzy’s return. Izzy’s hair was wet and shiny. Although it was his day off, he wore a light blue blazer and tie, and he’d shaved his face brutally smooth. I noticed a small bloody flap of skin on his upper lip like a tiny lurid postage stamp. I walked up to him, defiantly not glancing back at Malcolm. I tightened his tie, straightened his collar, ran my fingers through his still wet hair, then licked the bloody cut above his lip. I kissed his mouth, relishing the blood’s acrid flavor and the hint of anise from his toothpaste. Malcolm, eyes now shaded open, said, “Ooohee, Boston Boy, go – for – it. You’re just a pup yourself. Do it slow, go slow, savor it,” he said, as Izzy and I stood kissing. “Yeah man, take your time, there’s no hurry, no place to go, no – thing – to – do.” I leaned into Izzy, pinning him against the wall, my kisses growing hungry and sloppy. For the longest minute of my life I lost myself in him, peeling away into a butterfly, a sparrow, an eagle; it no longer mattered.
Then he pushed me away.
“Go wait in the living room,” he said, his voice strained. “Please?” he added when I hesitated. Halfway down the hall I heard Izzy say, “Don’t be an asshole,” then Malcolm’s sniggering laugh.
Moments later, as if nothing had happened, we stood looking out the window at a sky filled with clouds both leaving and arriving at the same time; blue emerging from gray, one moment brash, the next wistful, tentative; and below us, wind steamrolled through the park, stirring a canopy of restless green leaves into a landscape of hills and valleys, as if a thick blanket covered the limbs of countless lovers wrestling unseen below. I felt the tension of unspoken thoughts, until Izzy glanced nervously at his watch then at me. “There’s no time like the present?” he said, as if it were a question.
“Time’s a flying,” I said good-naturedly, making my contribution to our stoned banter.
As I tried to follow the metaphor in my mind, Izzy walked to the door, flashing an angry look. “Let’s go,” he said, and I ran off to catch up, wondering again what I’d done wrong.
“Where are we going?” I asked. We were the only passengers on the bus. The driver’s brown oval face spoke equally of Mexico and China; his was not a Boston face. Expressionless, he handed us thin paper transfers. The early afternoon sun was hot. I wore a white T-shirt that stuck to my skin and had a knapsack slung on my shoulder. In it was my reindeer sweater, a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I’d found in a used bookstore on Haight Street, and a journal I’d begun shortly after I left home and met David.
“To Ghirardelli Square,” Izzy said. “Shopping.”
“For chocolate?” I asked.
“No, and not for sourdough bread either,” he said, exasperation in his voice, layered with affection, his arm now around my shoulder. The bus stopped and a woman got on. She brushed against my knapsack, frowned, glanced at us with sharp black eyes, then sat across the aisle and opened up a book. She wore a delicate perfume that evoked roses, elegance, and evening gowns, out of place with her stringy brown hair and patched denim jacket.
“My sister’s getting married next month. Back east, in Toronto. I’ve got a wedding present picked out.” The stringy-haired woman looked up from her book and gave us a friendly smile.
“Izzy, are you close to your family?” I asked, thinking of my parents. I wasn’t close or not close to them. They were just there like the granite cliffs along the coast of Maine.
“I haven’t seen Judy or any of them in seven years. She calls and writes. I don’t exist for the rest of them.”
“Your parents will be glad to see you? Won’t they?”
“Well,” he said, drawing out the word’s sound. “I’m the big surprise. They don’t know I’m coming. They’ve disowned me; disinherited you might say if they had any money.”
“The usual reasons.”
“But why?” I asked again. Izzy pulled his arm away.
“You’re not that stupid, are you?” he said, his voice gentle and lilting, which only made the anger cut deeper. “All the usual reasons are why people like us move here. Comprende?”
The bus groaned as it climbed a steep hill. I’d asked one question too many. I hated the sound of my voice. It was the voice of a child, one who wanted to be hoisted on the shoulders of someone wiser in the ways of world, to see another person’s larger, richer vision of life. We sat now, it seemed, in separate cocoons of sadness. Izzy’s was enigmatic, hard, maybe impossible for me to ever know; while mine I could see with a sharply etched clarity. Each question I asked was driven by the fear that I already knew what there was to know.
Wind from an open window scattered Izzy’s hair in all directions. With both hands he forced his unruly black hair back into some order, tucking loose strands behind each ear. He turned away, leaving me with his hard-edged profile, which wasn’t, I thought, the way he really looked, not really, as if after one night in bed together I had taken possession of all the different ways he could be in the world.
I took his hand in mine and tried to look wiser than I felt. He squinted out the window, into the sun’s glare. Above his lip a scab had formed, a dark crusty red. I squeezed his hand. It was cold and clammy, and it offered nothing in return. On the downhill slope the bus groaned again. The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the hills of Marin lay in the distance, a shimmer in thin mist. I craned my neck, looking again for the fog, and to my surprise, Izzy laughed as if looking for an excuse to make me feel better, a laugh that turned into a giggle and a poke in my side. I’d never heard his laugh before. It shook loose something knotted deep inside him. Now, he inhabited his sports coat and jeans with an easiness so unlike the boy trapped in a grown-up banker’s suit the night we met.
Izzy poked me harder, and I poked back. Soon our hands were all over each other, giggling wildly, as if we were alone. The woman across from us began to laugh, too, and when the bus stopped, the oval-faced driver turned his head, an impish smile on his face. Was this the real Izzy? Back home, it was order and predictability I craved, which David provided in abundance. The harder Izzy was to know, the more I wanted him.
In Ghirardelli Square we went straight to a small gift shop where Izzy picked out a black and silver music box with white roses painted onto the top. He’d been there before and wanted to know if I thought it would make a good wedding gift. When he opened the lid a tinkly sweet version of Hey Jude floated out, and I laughed. Closing the lid, he said, “Do you like it, Eddie? Do you think it’s okay?” and I was surprised at how important my opinion was to him. “It’s fine,” I said and remembered the smell of fresh walnuts when I’d buried my face in his neck last night. He bought the music box, and we wandered the afternoon among the shops until I grew cold and pulled the reindeer sweater out of my knapsack. The fog had rolled in without my noticing. I was angry for not paying close attention and disappointed that it was not the thick, misty, mysterious soup I’d expected but more like a gray October day back home, and that the bite from the wind off the Pacific differed only in direction from the raw Atlantic wind.
Over the next few days I explored the city on my own, meeting Izzy each night for dinner. I rode buses through pastel neighborhoods not on any tourist map. One bus went through the Castro, but I didn’t get off. At the bathhouse I’d had my fill of strangers. I had this ecstatic sense of freedom—I was living neither in Boston nor San Francisco but rather in a bubble that floated above the ground on mischievous currents of air. I belonged to no one and no place.
Izzy seemed to change each day, not in the way someone’s personality unfolds as you get to know them, but more as if each day he wore a different kind of ill-fitting camouflage. That first night he was the stiff and uneasy banker, then at home, the moody but eager-to-please host in his green and white Dartmouth sweatshirt. “Here’s the best tour guide,” he’d say, “and here’s an even better picture of my family. And, oh yes, I don’t want to forget this map to all the bars,” adding slyly, “if that’s what you want.” In bed he made love so carefully attending to my pleasure—I felt that he was in his way still playing host—that it was easy to neglect him, to not know him, as if that were his plan.
“You don’t have to keep me entertained,” I’d say, watching him move in that slow and precise way of his, like the air was thick, something to be struggled with and won over. At times I imagined I’d entered his sleeping mind and, from that privileged position, could observe him moving through the dream of his life.
On my last full day in San Francisco, Izzy left work early. “I’d like you to meet some of my friends,” he said. He rubbed his face and looked tired. “We’ll party. It’ll be fun.” His eyes darted around the room looking for a place to settle. We set out into the gray summer twilight to meet his friends for drinks in a nearby apartment. When I was introduced they laughed as if at some private joke. They were giddy and high. Bottles of vodka and gin littered the room. Izzy matched their drinking, while I sat quietly, glass in hand, turning down offers of more. They hooted, camped and cackled, stopping only to snort neat, white lines of coke. Izzy sneezed, and the white powder scattered on the floor like a dusting of fine snow. Blue and white pills were passed around with a half-empty bottle of gin. “No thanks,” I said, my voice tight and small.
I had been thinking of myself as Izzy’s date, new clothes I only now realized I was trying on for size, but they would have none of that. A tall, muscular man who dressed like a construction worker and moved like a dancer discharged a laugh from deep in his chest. It swirled about the room, looping and searching, until, like a lasso, it landed on Izzy, who pulled away from me without a fight, joining them in trashing people I was unlikely ever to know. Every so often I’d catch Izzy’s eye, then he’d look away.
I withdrew into myself. I brooded on what David would think of me, of Izzy, of Izzy’s friends. I was certain he would not approve. I thought of my parents in the kitchen of their middle flat back home. I replayed the scene in which I would come out to them, tentatively, then with increasing confidence, and I’d tell them about David of whom I was so proud. My mother, I knew, would sit impassive, accepting and gentle, swiveling her head back and forth like a turtle between my father and me. She is a large woman with a small head, whose rounded body is often covered with a green floral robe. Of my father’s reaction, I was less sure. I imagined him cold but civil, cracking his knuckles over and over again as if to extract every last bit of sound, his face a pale gray, drained of its ruddy color. In my mind’s eye, I held my breath, waiting for them to react, confident that if they could meet David everything would turn out fine.
When a thick-waisted accountant in a leather vest said to Izzy and the others, “Your little friend, he’s a quiet one, maybe we should put him to bed,” I was startled, as if waking from a trance. He leered, and Izzy shot him an angry stare.
I drank too much beer. Faces and voices blurred. My head spun faster than my stomach. I was back on a ferry ride to Provincetown during a summer storm, David’s friends smirking, sizing me up. I was the new boyfriend. The boat had swayed manically like a terrified dolphin caught in a net. David said my face was green. “You should see yourself,” he’d said, laughing. All this past week I had wanted to shed Somerville as naturally as some animals shed their winter coat, as effortlessly as I imagined John had become Izzy. I felt a sadness and longing that was new. It’s odd how an unfamiliar emotion can grip your insides, and for all its strangeness, you know right away what to call it; I recognized homesickness like an old friend. I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest and held the feeling close as if it were my last best friend in the world.
It was past dark when Izzy shook my shoulder and said we’re all going out to party. I’d fallen asleep. We went to a string of bars and dance clubs that didn’t seem any different than those back home. Near dawn, his friends decided to go to the baths. I was tired, and Izzy looked torn. “Go if you like,” I said angrily. He gave me the keys to his apartment, and I took a cab back alone. He had changed into a version of himself I didn’t like and didn’t understand. He was no longer a shy but cordial Canadian boy, whom I had begun to care about in a way that was as warm and good as it was unexpected. Suddenly, I knew the trip was over.
He came home not long after. I pretended to sleep while he undressed and slipped into bed, carrying with him the stale smell of beer and cigarettes and the stench of poppers. My flight was later that day. I wanted to sleep. He began making love to me. I lay stiffly, at first neither resisting nor acquiescing. At one point I became aroused and responded, but he stopped in a sudden, drunken way, whispering, slurring into my ear, “There’s so much I want to tell you.” But I turned my face away, and he said no more, falling into a restless sleep, while I lay awake thinking uneasily of David.
In the morning, we said little. I was tired and hoped to sleep on the plane. Izzy pried open two English Muffins, put them in the toaster oven, and reheated yesterday’s coffee. I sat in the living room and remembered his promised ride in the country. A window was open and hanging from it was Malcolm’s magenta and gold vest drying in the morning breeze.
All during that long evening, at his friend’s apartment, later at a noisy bar, then at a raucous dance club, Izzy would sneak looks at me, squinting, as if asking, “Is this okay? Is this okay?”
This was how I remembered him, the image I carried with me, until many months later, back home in Boston, I was at the movies with friends and ran into David. He was with his new boyfriend. We’d broken up just weeks after I had returned home. He had already begun to see someone new. He’d outgrown me, he said. I begged him to explain, but he cried even before I cried and said he couldn’t, didn’t know how. For weeks I made a fool of myself until finally my tears were replaced by a flinty pride I didn’t know I possessed. Finding love wasn’t anything I’d ever thought the world owed me, and losing it now seemed as inevitable as the hardening of early winter snows into narrow sidewalk corridors of caked and icy drifts.
“Did you hear about Izzy?” David said, as a baby-faced usher in a gray flannel uniform urged us into a straight line. “The plane crashed in Cleveland on the way to his sister’s wedding.” I hadn’t seen David since the breakup, only an exchange of terse phone calls. He was excited, talking fast, and I thought for a moment he was simply passing along some gossip.
“He’s dead,” David said.
At first all I saw were his lips move and only later realized what he had said. We stood on line outdoors. It was cold and snowing lightly. David’s stubbly, unshaven cheeks were red and flushed from the cold in a way that made me ache for him, and we both wore the same long blue scarves we’d given each other last year as holiday presents. “I’ll call you during the week,” I said, as the line began to move. “Do that,” he replied, already distracted as the usher waved us into the theater. I’d almost forgotten Izzy. I tried to remember him, to feel something, but whatever I had felt was buried under the weight of losing David.
A few days later, I read in a newspaper that the passengers had watched the takeoff on the plane’s newly installed video screens. One expert conjectured that the passengers might have watched as the plane crashed. “They watched their own death,” he was quoted as saying. I wondered if this could be true. But, true or not, a seed was planted and the image I had of Izzy changed once again—I saw him strapped into his seat, wearing his green and white Dartmouth sweatshirt, brushing back his unruly black hair, squinting at the screen then out the window, whispering something in his singsong lilt too soft for anyone to hear, sheltering the black and silver music box in his arms as if it were a child. I imagined fear darting across his bony features, then a prescient calm. I saw falling luggage jar open the music box, and I heard the first plaintive notes of Hey Jude escape then, as Izzy loses consciousness, overcome by smoke, the sound made as the lid is closed by the weight of his hand, a sound as soft and distinct as the click of teeth.
• • •
That was in 1981, and over the next several years I moved often, changing jobs, cities, boyfriends. One lasted for two years, and for a while I called him my lover. Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, a westward drift that went unnoticed. Each move, each change had a good reason, a sensible one at the time. During those years, I would think occasionally of Izzy, the different impressions collapsing into that final image of him in the plane as it fell from the sky. It had the power of memory, even though, of course, I hadn’t been a witness.
Thoughts of him stayed with me throughout the changes in my life, sometimes fading as I’d grow excited about a new love, a new job, a new city, but always outlasting the new. Along the way my parents died a year apart of natural causes. I missed them, though we’d grown distant.
In Denver, I finally went to college at night, earning that degree in business, which I’d put off because, once upon a time, David had been enough. I worked in real estate, developing an expertise in home appraisals. I’d once thought I’d never leave Somerville or amount to much and, in my own modest way, I was wrong. During that time some of my friends became blind, they died of pneumonia and cancer, they walked with canes and their skin became thin and brittle, as if they’d skipped the middle years, becoming elderly overnight. Purple lesions erupted on their skin, taking the shape of faraway countries—England, France, Italy, places I had once longed to visit, romantic adventures I no longer desired. And so, along the way, I learned a little about how to manage mourning; maybe not all I needed to know, but enough, I thought, surely enough.
A few years ago, the firm I work for surprised me with an opportunity to relocate in San Francisco. Sometimes now when I walk the City’s hills I’ll look for the apartment house where Izzy lived. On my walks I carry a sweater, not the reindeer sweater but a green one the rich, earthy color that parched brown California hills turn to briefly in winter, given to me by another boyfriend; and I’m likely to glance toward the west to keep an eye open for the gathering fog, though not as often as I once did. My memory of Izzy has grown dim. I’ve forgotten the name of the street he lived on, and none of the hills are as steep as the one I remember turning onto with him from Haight Street in the damp muffled air laden with the smell of eucalyptus. But in memory the house and the walk up that street off Haight are as vivid as the veins that scrawl up my arm.
Five years. It comes as a shock. Time and seasons slip by, as if one depended on the other to be noticed, and seasons out here are as elusive as love. A few months ago I began seeing someone new. It’s been a comfortable affair, not a passionate one, which at this point in my life I had thought just fine. His name is Dan, and he’s an executive vice president for a bank. Dan’s been away for a week on business, and I’ve been disappointed I don’t miss him more. Mostly I feel the kind of ache I’d felt as a boy at the change of seasons when, signaled by a chill in the air or an unexpected warm spell, the future would arrive too soon for my liking, finding me uneasy, unprepared. I feel now the passing of time like a steady wind against my face. It’s an ache that often leads me to rummage in closets and go through old photos and letters looking for who I used to be. This time I found my journal, which I’d stopped writing in years ago. I paged back to my first trip to San Francisco. I’d been thinking again of Izzy, wondering why I give hardly a thought to so many men I’ve known yet can never quite shake his memory, why I still look for the street that will be steep enough for me to say, “Yes, this is the one,” searching for the freshly painted yellow and lavender house, knowing it could easily have been repainted green with blue trim, or black, faded to a dull peeling gray.
My first night in San Francisco, I’d written:
Staying at an overpriced, downtown hotel. Walked for hours. Called David’s
friend Izzy who said to meet him tonight and that I could (probably) stay at his
place if it’s okay with his roommate. I miss David. Went to a bathhouse (with
David’s encouragement). Had more fun than David would have liked.
The next night:
I like Izzy. I’ve been wondering if he and David were more than friends in
college. He doesn’t seem the sort to ask, though. He’s very private and a bit mysterious.
And the next:
David called and asked me if I’d return earlier. He says he misses me. I
remind him that it was his idea for me to “get out of his hair” while he studied
for his exams. I suggest he come out here for a long weekend,
knowing he’ll never, ever say yes.
And the next:
I am in love; in love with the gingerbread houses, in love with the way at
night the lights in the distance flicker in the moist air, with the sparkle of
sunlight on the hills, in love with how the warm yellow blue air seems to
weigh less than it did back home, with how everyone seems to smile as if
their lives are an ongoing party and nothing weighs more heavily on their
souls than that fragrant yellow blue light. I walk through the park and I am
in love with the smell of eucalyptus which prods and pokes my senses and seems
to have burrowed its way up from China or Japan, and around which I think
I might construct a whole new life; a smell so sturdy and full of promise that
I imagine my new life would wind its way around it and climb like a vine up
its trunk, ever higher, ever freer.
My last entry:
It’s been gray and foggy for days. Izzy seems depressed and preoccupied
about something. I am confused and scared. What will I say to David
when I get home?
These journal entries did not rekindle a feeling for who I was back then. I thought maybe I had been in love with Izzy—I’d wondered this before—but neither journal nor memory could support more than the flickering image of a polite Canadian boy I’d known briefly, twenty-five years ago.
I reluctantly went to a party with Dan last week. We had argued. I didn’t like his friends I said, meaning, I suppose, something else. It was a fundraiser for a local non-profit. Dan is on the board of directors. The crowd filled a small living room and spilled over onto a large terrace with a view of the city. Through the crush of bodies I caught glimpses of beige furniture and Native American artifacts. The air was cramped and hot. I took off my green sweater and threw it onto a pile of jackets in a small bedroom off the hallway. Outside on the terrace, the wind was cold and unexpectedly bracing. I immediately regretted leaving my sweater behind.
The sound of voices around me, indistinguishable, and tinkling glasses, created a soothing white noise that met the rush of the wind. A man to my right said hello. He was visiting from Boston, and we talked for a while. He spoke with the clipped, reserved voice I knew so well. While we talked I thought of my parents; I imagined them still sitting on either side of the kitchen table, my father poised to speak. In his last days he was a hunched hulk of a man, his face a mask under his head’s shiny dome fringed with swatches of gray; and my mother, still in his shadow, skin sagging on arms grown large and heavy.
I had come out to my mother a year later than I’d planned. She was calm, accepting in manner if not in words, and we never spoke of it again. I’d hoped she would tell my father, but if she did, they kept it to themselves. The memory of a long ago fear rippled through me. I tried to remember growing up with them in that middle flat, but it was far away and beyond the grasp of my imagination.
A few weeks ago, Dan and I had gone to Muir Woods. Walking out of the redwood grove’s moist shrouded mystery, I’d felt simultaneously unburdened and sad. It reminded me of how I used to feel leaving Somerville and crossing into Cambridge or Boston, the way the air seemed to lighten. I tried to explain the feeling to Dan and felt hurt when he didn’t understand. For weeks I tried to shake the feeling but failed.
I could tell from the drifting of his eyes that the man from Boston was ready to find a more attentive listener, so I kept nodding, not yet ready to lose him. Then I saw Dan standing at the far end of the terrace, dusty brown hair blown over his forehead, covering his widow’s peak. I could see the energy he put into keeping his square shoulders from sagging and realized that observing this meant we’d passed a certain point in our relationship, a kind of dispassionate intimacy, or I had, at least. I suspected Dan reached it months ago. It made me sad, and when he looked across the crowd and flicked his head to signal me to come over and be introduced, I began to think of him as a punctuation mark, a semicolon, or a comma, perhaps. I wondered who he’d lead me to next. Gulping my fourth vodka, I felt angry with myself, at the people who surrounded me, toward the man on my right who thought I was listening to him, at the lights on the next hill slowly disappearing into the encroaching low clouds, at the very clouds themselves.
I bolted toward the front door, forgetting my sweater and pushing a small, dark-haired woman into her larger companion, which caused most of her drink to spill onto her friend’s blouse.
My apartment is nearby, down one hill, halfway up another. Instead of walking directly home, I stomped about, looping this way and that, mostly trying to find steeper and steeper verticals as if my intent was to exhaust myself, walking up loamy staircases that sheltered night time shadows, passing cottages whose pastels were one long shade of gray in the dark. I knew sooner or later I would meet someone and invite him home, and I did. I imagined he thought I was a tender and passionate lover because, before he left, he held me close, resting his head on my neck. I could feel his damp breath, the heat of his body, and his heavy reluctance to leave. Then he said quietly, “I like you. Will I see you again?” When I was silent for too long, he left.
Afterwards, I made a pot of coffee and stood looking through the glass doors that lead onto my balcony. The muscles in my calves and thighs were stiff and ached as much from the sex as from the walk that preceded it. One of those lights in the distance was probably Dan’s. For a moment I considered calling him to apologize for running off. When I hesitated I knew the call would not be made.
From the apartment below I felt the dull thud of music, only the bass line punching its way through the floor making it impossible to recognize enough melody to draw comfort. It felt as if my apartment was being colonized by the sound and that my skin had peeled off and no longer protected me. I stood holding the coffee mug, its warmth soaking into my hands. Each time I tried to think of Dan, or something ordinary, such as a contract to close at work Monday morning, I thought instead of the man who had left. How each part of his body had reminded me of someone else; how his arms were David’s, whom I rarely thought of anymore, and his mouth belonged to the man who followed David, and his hands belonged to the man who followed him, and the hair on his chest, which looked to be rough and bristly to the touch but was as soft as the next man’s, whom, for a time, I thought I’d loved; and its spiraling pattern on his stomach was like the one after; and how they all seemed like endless commas, moving me forward with deceptive ease, leading me on, going nowhere; and I thought about Izzy again and my journals of a younger self; and, surprised by the memory of a long passed moment in time when I’d considered staying in San Francisco, I wondered what kind of life I would have made for myself if I’d stayed, left David before he’d left me. And when I thought again of what I’d written in my journal, I felt hollow, as if my life had ended after I’d written those words; and I began to hammer on the glass door with my coffee mug, striking harder and harder, enraged that I could not make it break or shatter or crack until, feeling embarrassed and wondering if the neighbors would complain or worry, I realized that the coffee mug had broken, that I was smashing the rough edge of the ceramic handle against the balcony’s glass door and that my hand was bleeding, and that the dull thumping music had stopped and there was only silence and the black streak of blood on the door.
The other day, for no particular reason, I took a walk over the hill from my neighborhood to where Izzy once lived. Dan and I have not seen each other for weeks, which has left my evenings free. I think that our relationship will drift off without any formal ending. I feel a kind of emptiness, but to my surprise, no hurry to fill it. It was cold, the sky a shade of California winter blue smooth as marble. The light was sharp and revealing, the sun holding its yellow tightly contained within itself, none of that soft beguiling fuzziness of summer. The early evening wind off the Pacific badgered and teased. I drifted up and down Cole and Clayton, Ashbury and Frederick, Belvedere and Stanyan, as if I were sleepwalking, not thinking of anything much, certainly not looking, which is of course when I found it, or at least a house that was close enough to what I remembered. “This one will do,” I thought and remembered Izzy and his banker’s suit and his squint and his campy friends and his singsong voice and the music box and Hey Jude and my hunger for him when I kissed his bloody lip. And I felt a deep sense of relief, an unburdening, that he’d missed all the horror that followed, because he surely would have died another kind of death, a plague death; and I remembered that the morning I left, he said, as if in apology for the night before, that he was going to join AA and give up drinking. “I’m going back to school, Eddie,” he’d said, breaking the long silence between us over breakfast, looking toward me for approval, cupping his hand over mine, my name on his lips no longer electric. “I’m going to start a new life. I’m waking up just in time, you watch and see.”
The wind has died down, but the damp ocean chill still slices through my sweater. It doesn’t matter though because I’m thinking of Izzy as wrapped in the smell of eucalyptus and on the cusp of something great and new, kind of a lucky guy. And I’m thinking how we were both sleepwalkers, Izzy and me. I’d like to think, just as I’d like to think what I’m looking up at is really Izzy’s house, that he got to feel what it was like to wake up. As I begin the uphill walk back home, it’s a feeling of joy I’m imagining.
© Michael Alenyikov