2 excerpts from a memoir in progress

SELF-PORTRAIT,
San Francisco, 1971

I get up just like everyone else and I eat a day-old donut and drink a cup of coffee. You can buy two day-old donuts on the corner for fifteen cents. We’re talking March 1971, if you want to know exactly. I’m living on Oak Street, in San Francisco, right across from The Panhandle, a half-block from Golden Gate Park. I don’t have much money, that’s one thing, nor a job, so whatever money I do have has to last me a while. So every morning I go up to the donut shop on Haight Street, two blocks away, and buy two day-old glazed donuts for fifteen cents, and after I eat them I don’t feel like eating for the rest of the day.

It all happens in a minute. The rest of the day fades away. I can still taste the donuts from forty years ago and the way I sat in the kitchen of my apartment and stared out the back window at the garden (I was on the bottom floor) and ate the donuts and drank some coffee, wondering if this would be the high point of my day, and what would happen next, how time would unfold, if I could only regroup, backtrack, cut my losses and move on. It was the only place to be, but before I could do anything I had to repeat all the mistakes of the past one more time till I got the picture, a print of me in front of a window smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee (I had already eaten the donuts) while the sun cut through the cloud cover and the cars went by on The Panhandle. Maybe later I’ll go for a walk in the park (or not). I could have stayed in that apartment forever and life would have been different, but I didn’t. It was a two-bedroom apartment, a few minutes from the park. I could still be living there now, forty years later. It might have been perfect, going to the park everyday. I could have lived in my own little world. I could have gotten a job and stayed there forever. Anything’s possible. The donuts left a taste in my mouth but I didn’t brush my teeth. They killed my appetite. They tasted older than a day, like they’d been sitting around for a week, at least. I ate them anyway. I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from, as they say, except that I made it, on the stove in the kitchen, and ate it at the same table where I ate the donuts, looking out at the garden in the back. It didn’t last long. It seemed like a long time passed, but maybe only a few weeks. Then I got a job. It was in some office doing some vague kind of work involving tenant-landlord relations. It was a full-time job, I went every day. It was down near City Hall Park and I sat in the park on my lunch hour, ate a sandwich and read. I made the sandwich before leaving the house. I had to take a bus down Haight Street to get there.

Things add up, all the moments, dot dash dot, and the final word on it all is that it really happened. Snapshot of a moment in time that someone preserves under glass. Me on the job, at the desk, bumming a smoke from a co-worker because I couldn’t afford my own, a Japanese guy who didn’t seem to mind. At lunch I sat on a bench in City Hall Park, eating a sandwich and reading Zukofsky, who for some reason I chose as my companion, since I hardly talked to anyone else. It was important just to go on like that. There were people in the office who had worked there twenty years. One night I met someone, at a reading, who I had met somewhere before, and I stayed over at her house a few times, that really happened, and in her apartment there was a view of Golden Gate Bridge, and I could see San Francisco Bay when we woke up and drank coffee. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, to say the least. It was hard for me to imagine getting involved with anyone for a while. I took my own council, just like I always do, so to speak. Everything was up for grabs, life itself, and everything that went with it. I’d already done a few things but most of it was up ahead. It was something I told myself every morning. There was time, I had time, I could change everything. I didn’t want to harm anyone. I wanted to be clear about what I was doing. I didn’t want any secret motives. There was someone else out there, whom I hadn’t met yet, waiting in the wings. I could have lived there forever, by myself, maybe. There was room for someone to move in, that’s why I took the apartment, and everything could just go on. I was there only a few months and then I moved back up the coast to Stinson Beach. It was like an in between place before everything else happened. But it was important, that little moment in time. I learned how to breathe again. It was all I could do.

 

 

VICKI

We had reached the point of no return, and there was no going back. There was no going forward either. In fact, we could only move a few inches in any given direction, before we came up against a wall in our heads. This movement, back and forth, forward and back, was all in our heads. In reality, we could move in any direction we wanted. We could walk for a few miles without stopping, if that’s what we wanted to do, in the heat of day and without a hat to protect us from the sun, so that when we finally stopped to rest our bodies were covered with sweat, as if our clothing had been left in the rain over night by mistake, and the wet clothing called attention to the shape of our legs and breasts. In fact—taking a long walk—that’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to put on my Hightops and head uptown, aimlessly, stopping whenever I want. I like walking around without any specific destination, turning left or right, walking west to the Hudson for a short stroll on the Highline, usually deserted on weekday afternoons, or East to a cafe on Avenue C where I can sit in a garden in the back, drink a double espresso and smoke. I like to watch all the bodies, the shapes, the bare skin, the nipples sharply defined. I like to stare at people and make eye contact with them. Some of them stare back, some of them blush, some of them pretend they don’t see me. But some actually smile, invitingly, as if they’re thinking the same thing as me. There must me a hotel around here where we can spend a few hours. I just live around the corner, why don’t you come up for a drink? Sometimes this is what happens—all your fantasies come true—but not often. There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen when you leave your house.

Even at home, though, it’s hard to predict what will happen from moment to moment, the phone might ring or someone you haven’t seen in forty years will send you an e-mail. Vicki, it was great to hear from you—I’m talking about my old high school girlfriend who wrote me yesterday from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That was nice. We used to go to her house after school, maybe two or three afternoons a week, and then on weekends we would go to the movies. We would hold hands in the movies. At her house we would make out and she would let me put my hand down the front of her blouse, but that’s all. I would fumble with the buttons on her blouse, wishing she would help me, and then slip the straps of her bra along her arms. That was it. I tried to go further but she made it clear that’s all she wanted to do.

Then I went home and when my mother asked why I was late I told her I had joined a club after school, which in fact was true. It was the folk singing club. There was one guy, Johnny Blank, who played the guitar, and then we all sang along. “This Land Is Your Land,” for instance. “Kumbaya.” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” We sang the same songs every week. I have a horrible singing voice and all I could do was stand in the background and mumble the words. It was no fun, to be honest with you, especially compared to going home with Vicki in the afternoon, and I only went to folk singing club twice before I began seeing Vicki. I was a junior and she was a senior and after she graduated we stopped seeing each other. But a few years later, when I was living by myself in an apartment on the Lower East Side, she called me up out of the blue and came over and we spent the night together. By then, of course, we were no longer virgins. That was the last time I saw her—we woke up the next morning, I made coffee, she got dressed, and then she left. I was involved with someone else at the time and there it was, my cards on the table. She—Vicki—even asked me about my new girlfriend. For a moment, I thought she looked disappointed. Like if I didn’t have a girlfriend we could start seeing each other again. I can’t imagine what she looks like now, she’s almost seventy. I don’t even have a photograph and no doubt, if we passed on the street, we wouldn’t recognize each other. It doesn’t matter. Her real name was Vera, but she changed her name to Vicki. And her sister’s name was Billie, but she changed it from Paula. It was nineteen fifty-nine and we were both in high school—the Bronx High School of Science. I think we met on the bus going home. We took the same bus. I was waiting on line at the bus stop on the Grand Concourse and she started talking to me. I was too shy to start talking with anyone, so I never did. I would wait for the other person to make the first move. And that’s what Vicki did. And then one day I just stayed on the bus and took her home and we sat on the couch in the living room and I began to open the buttons on her blouse. But when I tried to put my hand between her legs, she pushed me away. She made it clear (for some reason) that she wasn’t ready—that this was enough. “I’m a prude,” she said, though she seemed like the opposite of that, most of the time. It was she who started talking to me and invited me back to her house. There was pleasure in all of this. It was my whole life. And writing. I’d begun writing seriously, so this is what I did. School, writing, Vicki. And of course when I wasn’t with Vicki I was thinking about her and we talked on the phone every night as well. It was a long time ago. Maybe once a year I take the subway up to the old neighborhood. I even walk down the street where she lived, but I can’t remember which house. Mickle Avenue. Shit, there’s the bus stop where I used to wait. My fingers touching her breasts. We would meet after school and then take the bus home together. Up the Grand Concourse and then change at Fordham Road. It took about an hour and then we were there. The hour on the bus gave us time to talk. Then, when we were at her house, we sat on the couch and made out. It was the same thing every time. We had reached our limit. This was as far as we were going to go, and that’s it. I didn’t care that much. I liked being with her, no matter what. And then my mother said—when I walked through the door: Why are you so late? I told her I’d joined a club, the folk singing club, and she smiled, because she knew I was lying.

None of this is true—I mean most of it’s true, but the part that isn’t true is the e-mail from Vicki. I don’t have a clue where she lives. She never e-mailed me. I haven’t seen her since the morning she left my apartment. We spent the night together—that was true. Somehow she found my phone number. She called me up and came over. It was easy to sit at my tiny little kitchen table and drink coffee and then get into bed. We were different people—I don’t know what we’d say to each other now. It doesn’t matter. Once a year I go back to the neighborhood where she lived. I walk down the street. This must be the house. Two or three times a week we went back to her place. In all the time we went out together I never met her parents. I did meet her sister one night when I took Vicki home from a date. Her name was Billie. I was smoking then—Kents. I would leave her house late at night and light a cigarette. I would stand at the intersection of Gunhill Road and Eastchester Road and wait for the bus. Sometimes I took a cab. Once, in the middle of a blizzard, I took a taxi. It was a miracle that a taxi came by in the middle of the night. I was only fifteen. This part is the true part. The wishful thinking is getting in touch. What difference does it make? Two or three afternoons a week we went back to her parents house. There was a Catholic school around the corner and Vicki, who was Jewish, made fun of the Catholic girls and their funny uniforms. The school is still there. I sit on a bench in a small park near the intersection. I go back to my old neighborhood. I stare at the windows from the street. Somehow we lived there for seventeen years. My parents slept in the living room. My sister and I shared a room. Vicki is probably almost seventy now. Not quite. I wish I had a photograph of her, but I don’t. But I can hear her voice.

I can hear her say “We shouldn’t” as I try to put my hand between her legs. I can hear her say “How stupid they are!” as we pass the parochial school girls outside the church, which is also a school, right around the corner from where she lives. I can hear her say “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” as she approaches me for the first time. I’m waiting for the bus on the Grand Concourse. School is over for the day.

Contributor

Lewis Warsh

LEWIS WARSH’s most recent books are Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), One Foot Out the Door: Collected Stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) and A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University (Brooklyn). Out of the Question: Selected Poems 1963-2003 is forthcoming from Station Hill Press in Fall 2017.

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