One time Lee actually screamed on an airplane. It had been one of those horrible situations with a seemingly endless delay on the runway and he had fallen asleep before the plane took off. He awoke to the unsettling bumps and skips of the plane lifting off in bad weather, shaking and dipping erratically. It had not been a conscious decision, the scream. He simply woke and screamed simultaneously, all at once, before he even knew what he was doing. He was 32 at the time. He had a middle seat. To his left on the aisle was an old lady who smiled sadly at him. Next to him on the window seat was his girlfriend of the past two years, Katherine.
They were returning from an especially tumultuous visit to see her parents. There had been lots of shouting during the trip, not just on the flight. Over the weekend she had screamed. She had screamed at him, at her parents. Her father was abusive and a drunk and he screamed too. Everyone had screamed. It was a long weekend of screams. But on the plane in that moment when Lee screamed Katherine looked mortified, tipped the crown of her head into her thumb and index finger so that her blonde hair fell forward, and shook her head back and forth slowly. The plane was still lurching upwards, bumping and shimmying as it ascended. She crossed her legs and then recrossed them the other direction and then looked out the window before finally looking at Lee pityingly. That was the moment he knew it was over between them.
And sure enough, Katherine broke up with Lee three weeks later, right on the cusp of another flight. They were supposed to go to a wedding of a friend of Lee’s from art school. He had always known that she was ambivalent about going, had made that clear, had never liked his friends all that much. That wasn’t why she broke up with him and they both knew it but all the same she seemed pleased with the timing. “But what about the ticket?” he’d asked stupidly. She didn’t care whether or not it was refundable, she would venmo him the amount. He wanted to say something mean to her but he didn’t know what to say and he was tired and knew he had to get up early. His flight was scheduled to leave the next morning at 6am. Besides, his words at this point would’ve been a waste. She knew full well who he was and what he was capable of, the full extent of his cruelty.
It was not the sights, not the topography of inclined hills or tall buildings or creeping fog strangling the city, but the sounds which came back to him that made him feel all at once home and homesick. The familiar ding of the cable car as it moved up the hill, the sound of people on foot, the buskers playing in Union Square, the plethora of voices, accents, languages. A rich tapestry of sounds. He had not been to San Francisco in over ten years, not really, but he remembered the way the city sounded and knew that he was back.
The wedding guests were staying at the Sir Francis Drake. He spent the afternoon wandering the city aimlessly and arrived at the hotel in the evening. The room he found upon checking in was dark and ghoulish, with thick blinds a hideous green. The windows did not open and the walls were very thin.
From next door came loud, almost pornographic sounds of sex. Briefly he thought of Katherine, of her black hair and red lips and he looked at the too big bed and remembered that at one point she was going to be there with him but he did not miss her and was not sad about it. It was still early but he took some pills and tried to fall asleep. He woke throughout the night to moans coming from next door.
The wedding was black tie. He’d rented a tuxedo. He wore it awkwardly, was endlessly tugging on the sleeves and the bowtie. The wedding was in a trendy modern art gallery in downtown. He had not known anyone when he’d walked in, and the first person he saw was a friend of a friend who asked about Katherine. He had RSVP’d a plus one but of course she wasn’t there. He took a drink from the cocktail and maneuvered through the crowds of people. He had gone to art school with the groom, now a successful member of an advertising firm, but did not know many other people. He floated like a ghost through the party.
From behind a metal cactus he surveyed the crowd and drank. He hated it but he thought about Katherine. Colored dresses swirled in front of him, white, red, shades of blue. It was a living American flag, distorted and rippling. The overhead light of the gallery dripped and reflected off of statues and glass frames throughout the wing. For a second he felt dizzy, the whole room seemed to tilt, and he braced himself against the wall and dragged his nails through his beard.
“Lee,” came a voice from somewhere in the room, a voice he knew. Another sound pulling him back into the past, into a different time. The voice was of his best friend from college, Cash. They hadn’t seen each other or really spoken in about seven years. For a moment Lee thought that it was going to be awkward, all excuses and lies, but it wasn’t. They offered compliments about how they’d each weathered the storm of time and embraced. “You’re here alone also?” Cash asked. Lee nodded, said nothing about Katherine.
When it came time for the ceremony they sat in the back just like they always had in school. The ceremony was beautiful, short, lots of applause. Next to Lee Cash cried and made no effort to hide it. Later, towards the end of the ceremony, Cash asked, “how much do you think this all cost?”
More drinking, cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres. Lee smiled and shook hands with lots of people whom he had once known and felt sad. Some looked the same but most looked older and he wondered how he looked. People seemed to recognize him, but not everyone remembered him. One of his first girlfriends was there, also named Catherine, although she spelled it with a “C” and had gone by Cat when they’d dated. They had met at a party, a friend of a friend, one of those boring college stories. Once they’d fucked on a fire escape, high up outside of her apartment on Post Street with the wind and the stars and the fog roaring around them. That was in many ways the highlight of their relationship. They had been younger, had worn more ripped clothing. Her hair had been long in college but now was short. At first he hadn’t recognized her, then he pretended not to, and then Cash pointed her out to him anyway.
She stood in the shadow of a ziggurat composed of bones and resting on each bone was a miniature of an object: a camera, a cell phone, a potted plant, a drink on a coaster, etc. “Lee?” She said. He thought maybe he hadn’t changed all that much if she’d recognized him at first glance but then she added, “you look so different. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with a tie on before.”
An image passed through his mind, a fantasy. He imagined undressing her in his dark hotel room, revisiting her body in the clean white sheets of the Sir Francis Drake. He remembered very little about her he realized, what they had talked about, what she had been like. Even her last name escaped him. Perhaps she been into movies? Horror movies? The thread of a memory he couldn’t hold on to: they had watched Evil Dead together on a torn couch while a baby cried in an apartment next door. Like with his other Katherine, they had also broken up the night before a flight, or was it the night after? Anyway it had been around a flight, he was sure of that. He could no longer remember where he’d been flying to or even why they’d broken up except that they were college kids and that was what college kids did.
Again he thought about bringing her to the empty hotel room. The poetry of it appealed to him, exchanging Katherine for Catherine. He was too drunk to realize how mercenary it all was. And besides, he figured, who hasn’t seen an ex at a wedding and thought, for a glimmer of a moment, about all the doorways that had already closed?
Lee realized that she had the same voice as his Katherine who was no longer his Katherine, and for a second while they spoke and maybe even flirted he closed his eyes and tilted his head and pretended that the two Katherines were one and the same, that Katherine had come with him, in the end, to the wedding, but that it wasn’t the Katherine he had been dating or the Catherine he had once dated but some new hybrid, both the past and the present or the past and the distant past combined. Predictably after a few minutes the conversation hit one of those infinite, precious, irreparable lulls. They said goodbye awkwardly and Lee went and sat down next to Cash.
When they were drunk enough, after eating and dancing and watching Catherine and waiting for something to happen, they wandered out into San Francisco in search of pot. Weed had recently been legalized in California and they’d heard someone tell them of a dispensary just down the street from the gallery, by the Chronicle building. Inside the walls were brick, the wood mahogany, the seating leather. Everything was automated with iPads. “Remember when we used to just buy weed from some dude on the street?” They waited in line, but only for a a few minutes. They were told it was going to take close to forty minutes to be “served.” Served, that was the term they used. They were drunk and everything seemed absurd.
Exiting back into the street, they turned off Mission close to Powell and followed the street car tracks uphill for a block. They turned left on Geary and marched through what quickly became the Tenderloin. The sidewalks were dotted with bodies, homeless encamped on the street. People smoked, drank openly, one man pissed right in front of them. In silence they both studied the degradation, felt bad for humanity. “I don’t remember it being like this,” Lee said. Neither one of them could remember for sure.
“I don’t remember it being this cold,” Cash said, but really it wasn’t any different, San Francisco had always been cold and there had always been homeless.
They crested upwards on Polk Street. The crowds of homeless seemed to swarm around them, to cover them like a blanket. Bodies shuffled past. Voices roared. The smell made Lee nauseous. He was beginning to feel queasy anyway. They stopped for a donut at a place with a blue awning where they used to go every night. They were both glad that it was still open, still there, unchanged. So much of the city they had once known seemed to have been replaced by some new and indescribable city. They asked for whatever was fresh and paid with coins. They cut over to Grace Cathedral. Neither was religious, but they had both always found a great deal of solace in the shade of the austere architecture. They sat by the fountain which wasn’t running and felt the wind coming up off the hills and ate their donuts. From a window high up in one of the rooms of the cathedral someone looked down at them and maybe frowned.
Across the street from Grace Cathedral was a park. They sat on benches looking down the hill towards Chinatown, the Transamerica building, the water of the bay. And beyond that the Bay Bridge, the lights of Treasure Island, the East Bay. Later Lee would be unable to say whether or not he could actually see the bridge from there or if he had only imagined it. He felt homesick in a way that he hadn’t felt in years. It was a homesickness fueled less by desire for location than for time. He was not old but he was not young either.
“Remember when we found a used syringe here?”
“And a dead rat. And a used condom.”
“I got to third base with Stephanie, here. Remember?”
Cash could no longer remember her last name.
“Life once seemed endlessly in front of us, remember?”
There was a pause, then: “ I haven’t seen you in a long time,” and it was not a question.
“People sometimes just drift apart, I guess.”
From out of his pocket Lee withdrew his cellphone and twirled it haphazardly in his fingers. He thought about calling Catherine, or Katherine, he could no longer remember which was which, could no longer distinguish between the two spellings, the two different names, the two different women. It was late. He would talk to either one if he could. He felt hollow and thought that filling that emptiness with the company of a woman was a good idea but he was alone.
Later, as they made their way down the hill towards Powell Street a taxi pulled up beside them. Inside, in the back, with the window rolled down, sat Catherine, her face illuminated aquamarine from the screen of her cellphone.
“Hey,” Lee called. And then again, louder, when there was no reply, “hey!” But the light changed and the car sped off, red taillights streaking through the night. “That was her, that was Catherine.”
Cash hadn’t seen her, and it was questionable whether or not he believed him. Lee wanted to follow her so they walked in the direction that the taxi cab had gone, but the cab made every light and was out of sight by the time Lee and Cash had gone a block.
“I think I should call Katherine.”
“You have her number?”
“No no, not Catherine, Katherine.” He tried to explain with his hands but the haphazard movement of his fingers communicated nothing. Aimlessly he looked through his phone for Katherine’s number but he had deleted it shortly after she’d left his apartment. He had wanted to rid himself of her entirely. “Maybe Catherine is staying at the hotel,” even though the taxi had been heading in the wrong direction.
It seemed cooler as they moved through the night, the wind fiercer, fog thicker, more palpable than before. The fog reminded Lee of his childhood. He grew up near the beach where it was always foggy. Again he felt a longing stir within him but it was a longing for something unattainable and amorphous. They paused in Union Square and watched a man in a kilt play bagpipes. The sound was horrible. No one else was around. They wondered who he was playing for, he had been playing by himself in the empty square when they’d walked up. The busker did not make eye contact with them once and paid no attention when Lee and Cash finally left.
They tried to ask at the front desk if someone named Catherine or Katherine was staying at the hotel but they didn’t know her last name and they were drunk and the hotel receptionist was happy to get rid of them. Into cavernous chairs they sunk in the lobby and stared out the window at the bright storefronts across the street.
“What would’ve happened if I’d stayed with her?” Cash had no idea who he was talking about but it didn’t matter, Lee wasn’t really sure either. “My life would be completely different now.” Then, “remember when we would stay up all night? In college? We would stay up all night talking at that diner around the corner from here? What was it called, Pinecrest Diner? We’d go out, and then be up, talking, and watch as the sun would come out. And I would always feel like shit, like just really terrible. But then I would go home and sleep for a couple of hours and get up and drink black coffee. That was the only time in my life I ever drank coffee, and it wasn’t even really good coffee. But I miss it, you know? All that bad black coffee…” he stared out the window and felt lost and alone.
“Life has just gotten better every day I’m not in school, that’s what I think,” Cash said and he seemed all at once sober. He got up and gave Lee a hug and moved through the lobby towards the elevators. Lee watched him go. Cash moved deliberately, slowly, as if walking through a pool of water. At the elevators he pressed the button and straightened his tie in the mirror while he waited and then he got in and the doors closed. Lee had no idea what room he was even staying in.