Charlene and I weren't dating. Or were we? I just didn't know. What I did know is that I liked being with her. Maybe she liked being with me, too. We had an uneasy peace; I was desperately afraid of hurting her, she held back when things got too personal. She was far too nice for to be treated as a conquest. Anyway, that really wasn't my style. I was a bit afraid too. We spoke of books, ideas, events, but never anything personal after our first night. I was a welcome distraction from med school, and she was, well, interesting, after my last disaster.
I had worked in the framing shop for a cold San Francisco four weeks now. The bank account had appreciated the influx of money. Even so, saving money here was a difficult proposition. After another long week of framing crap "art" for pretentious rich people, I needed to talk to someone interesting. No more, “Instant ancestry.” No more, “Instant culture.” In my spare time, my thoughts turned to Charlene. I hoped she and Abigail would find me with my coffee. But it wasn't to be. Saturday morning came and went.
I sighed as I dropped the envelope through the mail slot of Charlene's house. I had to know.
I so enjoy being with you, I find my feelings have become less than platonic. I hope you feel the same. Please come on a date with me to the art museum next Saturday at 1:00 PM. I hear the Isasaki Exhibit is stunning. I hope you will come with me.
If you don't show, I understand. I am no prize compared to your friends, but I submit that my intentions are pure. I am truly smitten by you.
Hoping that I intrigue you enough,
The Stranger in the Dunes
There was no indication all week whether she had even received my invitation. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't distract myself. What was I thinking? You did something stupid again. Bound to get you hurt. I was no prize. Educated, yes. But intentionally homeless. A wanderer in a turbulent American society. A man without a place. Without a purpose. Who could want me?
Standing outside in the cold, I waited to know. The allotted time passed; I waited. I guess I knew the answer.
A tap on my shoulder spun me around.
"Are you the young suitor waiting for the fair maiden?"
"I am so happy to see you. I didn't think you were coming."
Charlene was beautiful, her eyes sparkling in the cold sunlight. She had the most beautiful shy smile.
"My job today is to make you happy for a few hours. Maybe you will see that I might make you happy even longer."
"Lead on, knight errant."
The exhibit at the art museum was intriguing. Charlene laughed freely at my poor attempts at humor. Our conversations didn't have any of the fragility of the night of the party. Afterwards, I took her to a small pub where they make the best fish and chips to go with a good beer.
"For having no money and no home, you live well."
"I pay attention to the little things in life. Life is what you choose and way too short for McDonald's."
At sunset, we found ourselves back looking at the ever-patient ocean as the sun slowly set. We ate the picnic I had made for today on the dunes. Our dunes. Abigail was ever hopeful for leftovers as she lies at our feet. It was a perfect day.
That night we made love in her room while her roommates were out; soft and tender, each of us both protective and protecting. Our feelings too fragile to even whisper.
We never spoke of happiness, and each of us had our dark sides. Maybe that is how we connected. The barriers we erected around ourselves for protection from others; now included each other. Our cynicism was unifying. Our longing, powerful.
“Will I see you tonight?”
We were a couple. Days and weeks passed with growing intimacy between us. Winter gave forth to Spring. We were the only two people in the world at the time. The world had other thoughts.
“Probably not. I need to work on my project.”
“But there’s a great band playing. I’d hoped we could spend some time together.”
“C’mon. Take my work seriously. It’s important to me,” Charlene’s anger rising.
We’d had this argument before. My life was pretty carefree; hers regimented, long and rigorous. We lived apart by circumstance unavoidable, money. In our first bloom of love, we found ways to be together. Or rather, she found ways for us to be together. But school was making its demands felt.
We argued as she readied herself to leave. My frustration ebbed as her anger grew and she stormed away, off to school.
What is it that I meant to say before she left?
“You bastard. You’ve been hiding things,” My friend and boss Nancy said with a smile. “Here I find you in a coffee shop with a book from a library.”
“Whatta you mean?”
She sat down at my small table. A late winter storm was raging outside making the dunes untenable.
“Well, I had a background check done on you. You never told me what happened after high school. I was going to offer you a full-time job.”
“No, maybe not.”
“I thought you just bounced around. It turns out you have your Masters in Chemistry, Summa Cum Laude from the University of Chicago. They asked you to speak at your Graduation. You didn’t even show up. Not for your own graduation after six years. What ails you, boy?”
“I woke up and realized I did what everyone wanted me to do, not what I needed to do. It was another way to get out of our old neighborhood. You know the gangs, drugs, and people would never let us go. We have to make it happen.”
“Why did you disappear?”
“I haven’t seen much of the world. I don’t know what people are like, much less who I am. I went to a school where the motto is, ‘Where fun goes to die.’ If not now, when?”
“Are you going to leave again?”
“Probably. I seem to be wearing on people here.”
“But Charlene loves you.”
“And I love her,” I reply, interrupting. “But she has a path, but I haven’t found mine. No right. No wrong. Just different directions.”
“Haven’t you heard love conquers all?”
“We are fighting a lot. Mostly over time, we cannot spend together. How does that serve either of us?”
“You are walking away from love?”
“Right now, we are killing each other. Someday, maybe we will get a chance.”
Nancy looked at me sadly. I told her the truth but not the whole truth, a truth that frightened me.
Yet, the tensions grew as what was to come approached. The end of the school year would be upon us, and my feet began to itch again.
"I got the intern position with Dr. Miller," she announced.
"That's great! He's the one working on apoptosis, right?"
"I didn't think I told you about his research. How did you find out? Anyway, what do you know about apoptosis?"
"You're not the only one who knows how to read, you know."
"You can be full of surprises."
"What does this mean?"
"Well, I'll be working in the lab all summer, looking through the inverted microscope. There won't be much time for us."
"I guess I knew this day would come. I just didn't want it to be here yet. Too soon."
She looked at me with clear understanding and sadness in her eyes.
"Does this mean we're over? She asked.
"I don't want it to be over, but I think it has to be." My eyes misted as I followed up. "It was almost inevitable. You are becoming a doctor, a scientist. I don't know what I am yet. You need to stay and see out your dream. I would never take that from you. But I need to move on. If I stayed, I'd resent it, or you'd end up hating me."
"You could stay."
"No. You know I can't. I'd just be a burden to you."
Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I guess I always knew this would come. I just didn't want it to be here and now."
"You asked me once about happiness. I didn't have a good answer then, but I do now." I continued, "I think I could be happy with you. But not when I limit you. You need to follow your dream. I need to find myself. We're just in the wrong place and time."
We cried and held each other all the more tightly.
The following weeks were full of desperate loving. Each holding the other tightly, trying to etch into our psyche that special feeling, knowing that it would all end soon.
The Saturday I was to leave came with my bank account better stocked. But there was a hole inside me. Charlene had brought me back into humanity, allowing me to trust again. And yet I would be leaving. If I stayed, I would only hurt her. Something I promised I would never do.
"I will love you always, my true. I hope you find happiness. I hope that I find you again. But this is your turn to fly. Be well, my love." I turned and walked away.
I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started walking down the street towards the Muni stop with tears in my eyes through the morning haze. Before I was out of sight, I turned and called back, "Live and love. Your Grandmother was right."
It was the hardest thing I ever did to walk away from her that morning. Mornings would never be quite the same again.