Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Road trippin' pt. 13

"The grocery store?" I ask. "Again?"

"I want to see if they have better tomatoes."

"In March?"

"It's California, babe. They don't even have winter in San Francisco."

"Good point. Yeah, there's a Safeway out by the beach."

"Is that where we're going? The beach?" Your eyes glow like lanterns.

"Kind of. We're gonna eat, too, so don't gorge yourself on the tomatoes just yet."

You smile and we keep driving. heading west toward the coast.

You've never been to this place. The hills roll up and down like the waves. The streetcars are sea lions, chomping firm jaws around pedestrians and depositing them on crosstown rocks. The BART stations are undertows that peer out of downtown corners and take you quickly across the water.

I glide the car into an open stall in the Safeway parking lot and shift into park. You step out of the car and squint your eyes in the morning sun. You smile at the pair of seagulls mauling each other for bread crusts and your teeth are bright enough to reflect the sunshine into my eyes. They manage to glow like they were radioactive and I wonder if the only thing preventing me seeing my reflection in them is the angle at which I'm standing from you.

Goddamn, you're pretty.

"I love birds," you say. "There's something so beautiful about a creature that just soar through the sky. Get to wherever they want. Nothing stops them but wind. But they need wind, you know?"

"I got attacked by a swan once in Germany." You look quizzical. "No, seriously. Me and Jared Donaldson--'Big Red,' we called him--were on the banks of the Rhein near our hotel and I was reading a book on the dock and this swan swam toward us. Jared started making swan noises at it, it got pissed, and came over and bit me. True story."

I don't think you believe me.

"That bastard bird was mean. But, uh, flightless, so it doesn't really say anything negative about your good birds, like those two." They continue squabbling until one snatches the crust from the concrete and flies away with a triumphant "HONK HONK" and his ass to the sky. You watch the other leap to his wings and join flight. He's presumably going after the crust, but maybe vindication is on his mind. Either way, they catch a southbound gust and are elevated to what must be a few hundred feet above us within only seconds. You make a visor out of your hand and shield your eyes from the sun.

"They're just so beautiful." Sigh. "I wish I could fly. I wish I could see all of this." You point out to the beach, which is only about 300 yards away. "The water, the rocks further out, the cliffs to the right. It's breathtaking." Your mouth stops moving, but your eyes keep complimenting Mother Nature's fruits. You lower your gaze and turn it toward the supermarket. "Come on. Let's get some tomatoes."

We step across the parking lot. Despite how much shorter your legs are than mine--I've got a solid seven inches of height on you, much of it from my legs--our strides parallel themselves. I wonder at first if it's even possible or if it's my mind playing tricks on me; my rudimentary understanding of physics and spatial reasoning tell me that it would be impossible for legs the size of your and legs the size of mine, with their disparate lengths, would be able to be fully extended while both taking the same length steps at the average stride of their possessors.

But reality seems to have gone out the window at this time, as we step, step, step, left right left right left right, with a reliable rhythm that flies in the face of any physical principle with which I'm tertially familiar.

At this moment, we have conquered nature.

And we maintain this supernatural mutual pace until we get to the open doors of the grocery store. You look left, then you look right, and on both sides, you see homeless men, clad in grubby knit caps and jeans that, while an Abercrombie and Fitch customer would pay $20 extra for and call "distressed," are less suitable for street living than they are high fashion. The energy dissipates from your step and you stop at the curb.

"They're everywhere in this town," I say. "It's sad."

You say nothing. You look to the ground for a moment before taking my hand and guiding me inside. The produce is on our right and you steer us toward it.

A large cart of what look from this distance like ruby pincushions hovers underneath a spotlight seemingly directed only at it. The color returns to your face and you smile. "Those look incredible." You take a few gallops toward them and pick one up in each hand. "Jeez, they're as firm as racquetballs! How are these tomatoes so good?"

"Probably shipped in from southern California," I say. "Or maybe a vineyard in Napa does double duty." I pick one up and they are impressive. Hell, these off-season tomatoes out here are better than the prime ones that we'd get back home. These are tomatoes. No tomato has ever been as tomato as these: they are the tomatoest tomatoes that ever did tomato. These are the picturebook definition of The Majestic Tomato. These should not exist, but do. And they're literally in our hands.

But what I'm most surprised at is the level of excitement they've arisen in your face. I mean, sure, it's pretty badass that we've managed to stumble across a rare crop of tomato that's been fertilized with ambrosia and watered with gold, but even so, they're just tomatoes. The best tomato in the world will still just be a tomato, and although there's a special beauty in finding the perfect example of something, these are, after all, simply tomatoes.

I'm watching your lips part, first into a smile, then into a flat line. I see--but don't hear--you take a sharp, short breath before placing the two tomatoes gently back onto their siblings. "I'm gonna go get some cash out of my purse. Can I have the keys?"

"Sure," I say, dropping them into your outreached hand.

"Back in a sec." You walk out of the store and vanish from my line of sight. I examine the remainder of the produce department's offerings.

They look uniformly good. Great, even. Certainly no other crop is as refined as the tomatoes, but even so, they all look good: green apples crisp enough to shatter a window with a bite, carrots firm enough to be sharpened into prison self-defense weapons, onions the color of fresh light bulbs. There's even a small basket of kumquats sitting adjacent to the mangoes, the intensity of their color almost garishly beautiful.

And every single section is well-stocked. We were joking earlier about San Francisco not having weather, but now I'm wondering if they really do. Cold temperatures are Clark Kent and the Bay Area is Superman. Never see them in the same place at the same time. And it makes you wonder.

It can't be as simple as being this close to the ocean; it's not like Maine or Maryland are particularly well-known for their orange yields. It can't just be the equator, either; Washington D.C. is about this far north of the earth's axis of rotation, but remains bitterly cold during October-March. It's like this part of California has something to prove to every other state. Regardless of their respective placements, this place is better.

Florida is a place where things go to wither.

California is a place where things come to grow.

You tap me on the shoulder. "Let's go." You start to walk away, your hands decidedly tomato-free.

"What? Aren't you buying some--"

"Come on," you say. I follow out of equal parts romantic devotion and curiosity. You dodge through an empty checkout line, pass underneath the door, and make a beeline right for the car.

I finally catch up to you. "What is it?" You fumble for the keys in your pocket and throw them over the car. I snatch them from the air. "Don't you want to buy some tomatoes?"

"I don't have any cash. Can you open the door?"

"I've got my debit card. We can go back and--"

"Can you please open the door?"

There's an urgency in your voice. "Yeah, okay." Slide the key in, turn counter clockwise, hear the click, door flies open, you leap inside. Good thing I unlocked it so quickly; you looked like you were about to jump through the window. I open my door and climb inside.

"What's wrong?"

You throw your arms around me and burst into tears.

"I'm sorry, babe," you cry. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry? What for?"

Your mouths starts forming the first syllables of several different words, but they descend into muffled gurgles against my jacket's shoulder. After a few sentences, you stop trying and begin to weep a little more quietly.

"Hey," I say, "whatever it is, it's okay. It's okay." I run an open palm against the back of your head and down to the base of your neck. "Are you alright?"

You nod.

"Okay. Shhhhh, it's okay." You shake every few breaths, at first every other breath, then every third, then every fifth, then every tenth, then you stop shaking entirely. You take a deep draw of air, release it, then another, release, another, release. You pull back your head and wipe collected tears from the corner of each eye. The catch a glint of sunlight from through the rear windshield and your face transforms for a split second into a prism.

"I just didn't feel right about buying some stupid tomatoes when those people out there looked so cold and as we walked in there was a big wind and I know it helped the seagulls fly away but those guys just looked more beaten down and we don't really have a lot of homeless people in my hometown--God, my home town--and those people look like they've been caught in a rainstorm and I know it's not really my problem, not really our issue, but I just felt like such a hypocrite because I have so much, you know?"

I nod.

"I mean, I have a place to sleep at night, I have hot coffee in the morning and red wine at night and three hot meals a day--more if I wanted more--and I'm never cold or hungry or anything and I have you and we're out here and it's so beautiful and I gave each of those guys twenty bucks because it was all I had and the whole thing just sort of overwhelmed me so can you just hold me for a few minutes? Is that okay?"

I shoot my arms like grappling hooks back around you and pull myself closer. Your face burrows into the side of my neck and your hot tears have gotten cold and send chills across my shoulders. The few remaining tears leak from your eyes and gather, sliding slowly down the front of my chest, dew drops rappelling down toward my stomach.

Your face tilts up a little, but you don't let go. Your mouth lilts up to my ear.

"Do you love me?"

Your words and breath are warm and they pour into my head like a faucet of hot water into our clawfoot tub back home. It's cold outside, but it's warm in car, and feeling you huddled up against me like a down comforter makes me think of that first night you stayed over, how your feet got so cold because left the window open and the late October and you didn't put on socks because you fell asleep the second your head touched the pillow and you shivered throughout the night and clung to me like a dryer sheet and I didn't sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time because sleeping would make the time go by faster and every second passed was a second closer to you going home to your bed, to your blanket, to your bedside water bottle because, at this point, we didn't have our bed, our blanket, our bedside water bottle but here you still are, after everything, after all of our bad timing, all of our fights, all of our arguments and misunderstandings and the pain and everything we've had to work so hard to get past.

But we got past all of it. We're here now. We've made it.

We've made it.

I kiss a tear from your cheek.

"Like the sun shines, darlin'."

I can't see, but I can feel your mouth's corners turn up just enough to be considered a smile. You squeeze. I squeeze back. Outside of occasional squeezes, we don't move for another ten minutes. The sun maintains its steady arc over the sky and helps dry some 10 AM dew from your passenger side window. Light's shining through again and it's bringing out the tint of your hair.

"I love you," you say. "I just want you to be held by you right now because I love you."

"Whatever you want." I can hear your pulse steady itself out. "We can keep going as soon as you're ready."

The silence is interrupted by your stomach grumbling like a garbage disposal. It shakes like an appropriately San Franciscan earthquake and you leap headfirst into a fit of giggles. I loosen my arms and start to pull back.

"No!" you laugh, "don't pull away! I'm not done hugging you!"

And, despite our loose itinerary, despite the plans we've made, the dogs we'll one day raise, the graduate degrees we'll both pursue, the lives we'll lead, I hope you never will be.


Kels H. said...

I really like that. Maybe sometimes that's the key - finding those people you never want to let go of, because... well... when you hold them close the world just feels right. It doesn't become any less scary, but you know you could face it. Because with that person by your side, it doesn't matter. If you fall on your face, they'll pick you up. If you're a mess, they take you in their arms and tell you you're perfect. Those are the people that matter most in our lives, those people that would just say "Okay" and be there when you just need someone to hold on to.

hmm... I may have to write about this...

emilyf said...

isn't it nice to be a writer that inspires others to write?

People are inspiring. This 'girl' is clearly inspiration for this 'guy', just as a hug inspires a deep breath, or how a yawn inspires stretching.

When people leave, it's inspiring. Because it hurts. And pain opens veins of profound capacity. What-could-have-been can survive in his or her place for quite some time.

A blue whale can swim in deep blue waters for quite some time, but it will have to rise to the surface again, eventually, or die. There is no pretend breathing...words are not air...

I like this post as soon as she starts to cry and until the end. The beginning has a fishy feeling; this road trip is a whale of a tale... ;)