Morning was my favorite time of day, sitting with a good cup of coffee, listening, watching the world awaken. This Friday morning, I sat in the dunes overlooking the Pacific Ocean, my coffee cup in hand. I thought I would winter over in San Francisco by couch surfing with friends. The same friend had offered me a temporary job at her framing shop. I strove to get up and out of the house before they awoke. It just seemed considerate as I was invading their little house in the Sunset District. I walked the two blocks down Judah pausing to get a cup of coffee before crossing to the dunes across the Great Highway.
The morning joggers were starting their procession along the ocean careful to run on the wet sand from the ebbing tide. I usually sat here for an hour until it was time for me to head back and ready myself for work. The rumble of traffic was picking up behind me starting to compete with the ocean crash and wind rustling the salt grass.
I pulled my jacket tighter around my chest. Winter was coming and there was a definite chill in the air. Today, there was no sun to warm my back. I was just finishing my coffee, when I felt hot breath on my ear. A fifty-pound pit-bull was trying to crawl into my lap.
"I am so sorry," she said. "She's very friendly but doesn't respect personal space."
I turned to look at the woman running up behind me.
"It's okay. I love dogs."
"Even when a vicious pit-bull attacks you, ...with kisses."
"Yes, she is a killer alright. What is her name?" I asked, smiling.
The pit-bull had rolled onto her back and was squirming around as I rubbed her belly.
"Her name is Abigail."
"She's a beauty. And what is your name, if I could ask?"
"My name is Charlene. I've seen you before, always at the same time, sitting alone."
"Just trying to give my hosts some space. I am staying with some friends up Judah." I turned completely around to face her. "I like the quiet of the morning."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'll let you be then."
"No, please stay. It is nice to talk with someone for a change."
"You don't talk with your friends?"
"Sooner or later, I get on everybody's nerves. I find I don't wear out my welcome as quickly if I am scarce." She looked uncertain given my response. "Look, I'll buy you a coffee on my way back. It is nice to talk to someone for a change. I've got to get ready for work anyway."
We made small talk about her dog as we crossed back over the highway and up to the coffee shop, now bustling with morning patrons. I bought her a macchiato in a to-go cup.
"Thanks for the morning surprise." I bent down to give Abigail a rub on her head. She smiled at me.
"Thank you for the coffee. Say, Abigail is an excellent judge of character. Would you like to go to a party tonight at my friend's house? I could return your gift of a drink there."
I hemmed and hawed but eventually agreed to meet her at the coffee shop at 8:00.
I was distracted at work that day, alternatively excited about meeting people and nervous about failing to meet the expectations of Charlene. Besides, she probably wouldn't show anyway. I found myself making stupid mistakes and had to put that out of my mind. I needed this job.
After work and a quick dinner, I surveyed my limited clothing from my backpack. Nothing was really good date material. Not that this was a date, but she was rather fetching. My clothes were all pretty tough utilitarian wear from the road. I chose my cleanest jeans and a wool sweater. It would have to do. It is all I had.
I stood waiting outside the coffee shop feeling like an idiot. "Was she going to show? Was this an elaborate joke at my expense?" 8:00, then 8:10, 8:15... At 8:20, I decided to head back to my friend's place, maybe a little wiser.
"Sorry, to be late. I was held up at school." Her voice came from behind.
"No worries. I was afraid you had second thoughts."
She had worn walking/running wear this morning. I hadn't really looked at her in the low morning light; she was pretty, not glamorous. She was dressed as a student might, shoes you could walk in, jeans and a nice blouse under her jacket.
"She doesn't do so well at parties. Besides, most are scared of pit-bulls. But, you didn't even blink when she kissed you this morning."
"Dogs smile at me. It is my secret power. You look very nice this evening." She looked puzzled. "I mean you look different than this morning."
She laughed at my awkwardness. I laughed, too.
"That came out badly. You look very nice."
We rode the N - Judah line until we got to the J - Church split and walked a few blocks to a house that was all lit up and people spilling outside in the cool night air.
"These are friends from school. We are all in the med program and in serious need of a party."
"I am hoping I won't be quizzed on names. I suck at that."
"As long as you don't forget mine."
We got ourselves a couple of beers.
"Thanks for the coffee this morning."
"It was a pleasure. Sorry I didn't have anything for Abigail."
A disembodied voice rose from the crowd, "Charlene! You made it!"
We made introductions, and Charlene ran over to talk with some others. After explaining who I was and how I ended up at the party a few times, I moved to the periphery to gain a little cool night air and perspective. The music was loud, and apparently, some had been drinking a bit before we got there. You could hear snippets of conversation rising from the cacophony.
"... that bastard! Giving me night duty in the geriatric ward. He knows I want pediatrics."
"... and then splat, all over the floor."
"…I am so far behind. I'll never catch up."
It was clear Charlene's friends spent a lot of time together. They were certainly blowing off steam tonight. I wandered through the crowd and house for a while, looking to find out where Charlene had got to. In the living room, a couple was making out on the sofa. Pairs of young women were dancing in the dining room. The table had been moved outside and now had beer bottles and other detritus piled on top.
A couple came over and started a conversation. "So, who are you?"
Normally, I might have brushed them off or made up a story. Real life is hardly exciting, and really, I didn't feel that I measured up or fit in well here. Instead, I explained that I was just wintering here before moving on.
"Where will you go next?" They asked.
"The truth is, I don't know."
"Don't know? How can you live like that?"
"It's easy. Just catch the next bus out of town, hitchhike, buy a motorbike, walk, whatever..."
"That is no way to live."
"It seems right, for now."
It was hard for me to integrate myself into the party. Again, I found myself on the outside looking in.
“Do I intimidate you?” Charlene asks.
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Looking at her, I realize how pretty she was in the party light.
“You are not paying any attention to me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Look, this may have been a bad idea. You are very attractive, but I don’t want to lead you on. I am wandering with no real purpose. You deserve someone who will be there with you. I should go.”
“Why do you wander?”
“The truth is I don’t know. There is just a freedom about it.”
“Read some Whitman and leave home?”
“Not really. More Woody or Hank Williams, Sr., but no. No romantic notions to be chased.”
Questions came from all around me. What was I, a circus attraction?
“Look, I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. There is no hope left there. No reason for me to stay. No reason to return. On the road, there is freedom.”
“Freedom? Are you saying we aren’t free?”
“Not at all. You are free to do what you want. I am free to find what I want.”
“So, what are you looking for?”
“I don’t know. I hope I know it when I find it.”
Questions and comments came from all sides. Apparently, I was the party’s entertainment.
“Stop it you guys,” Charlene interrupted. “Leave your diagnosis at the hospital. He is not a bug in a jar for you to play with.”
The others moved back to the party. The music blared on. Charlene and I were quiet for a while
"Are you happy?" She asked.
"I really don't know. Are you happy?"
"I don't know what happiness is."
I stopped and looked at her, surprised at the naked truth in her voice. I must have had a silly expression on my face as she responded, "What?"
"Is there nothing that gives you pleasure?"
"Oh, I enjoy getting better test scores than the others. I enjoy learning. But others seem to have something I don't. I just don't know what it is," she followed up. "Maybe I am missing something."
"What is happiness?"
"I could give you the physiological explanation about endorphins, but you'd find that unsatisfying. Anyway, I told you I didn't know. I think there is a hole in me."
We bantered back and forth but less lightheartedly than before.
"We'd better stop this. Not particularly good party conversation."
"What? You don't want to debate?"
"Oh, I'm a master of it."
We both laughed.
It turned out that I was just a little older than the crowd. They were all in the same med school class at UCSF. They had their life all scripted and ordained. I never can tell what the next day might bring. I was wondering which of us had it right. Maybe, neither.
After their brief introductions, her friends continued to interrogate me. I was starting to feel a little lost in the crowd when Charlene came up from behind.
"There you are. I came to rescue you."
"Yeah. They are kinda obnoxious. Never thinking anyone is as smart as them. I've seen it before; it isn't pretty."
"Oh. I can hold my own."
She looked at me appraisingly. "Hmm. More than a pretty face?"
"You'll have to decide for yourself."
She squinted at me. "Ooh, a challenge. Well, your first test is dancing."
The music had gotten louder while we had been there and more couples were dancing. I am a pretty terrible dancer but was determined not to fail her first test.
"You think you can hold your own, do you?"
"Sure," I laughed. "Don't you think I can stand the gaff?"
"We're a cutthroat crowd. Med school does that. Besides, you'll have no self-control. You'll get hot and bothered and try to kiss me, but I'm not that easy. I need to know you're worth my time."
"Is that so? You're on."
The party progressed. Alternating dancing and verbal jousting, Charlene and I sparred trying to learn from each other. She was not just a pretty face but had character and substance below her lovely exterior. It wasn't all medical either; she was pretty well read. I might have the edge in classical literature, but she clearly knew more about poetry than I would ever learn. I was intrigued.
The crowd started thinning out, and the couples wandered off together; some saying their goodbyes, some just disappearing for their tryst.
I had just gone to get another beer, when she asked, "Are you hungry? Some of us are going to go to this diner for some breakfast."
"I'm in." I was not going to give up the game yet.
Breakfast and coffee were fun. Her friends teased both of us but in a very friendly, loving way. Clearly, they protected her.
Settling the check, Charlene and I said our goodbyes to the others as we wandered towards the Muni line again.
"Your friends are nice, but why do they tease you so?"
"They're not used to seeing me with a guy. That's all."
I felt like wanted to ask something, but restrained myself. It was late, and our shoes clicked on the sidewalk in the early morning. The streetlights cast pools of light as the fog swirled the in the night breeze. It was cold and damp, and we huddled close. I took her hand at a corner before we got to her house. She stopped at the walk to her small bungalow.
"It's late, but I don't want this to end yet. I haven't won." She looked at me, "Let me be clear, we are not having sex, but I would like you to come in."
Never one to turn down an invitation, I went into the small two-bedroom house she shared with her roommates. Another woman and she shared the larger bedroom. A guy had the second, smaller bedroom. The house was quiet and cold with the roommates presumably asleep. Older San Francisco houses often don't have furnaces. This house was no exception. We ran a gas log to get a little warmth into our bones and ended up sitting on the window seat.
We talked until we ran out of things to joust about. Teasing and flirting can only go so far. I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed back.
"I want to tell you a story about Abigail."
"Well, Abigail is named for my Grandmother. I was real close to her. Anyway, I used to spend a lot of time with my Grandmother and sometimes she looked very sad. Grandpa had died years earlier and I never really knew him. One day while she made the bed, I asked her why she was so sad.
'Well, every time I make the bed, I think of your Grandfather. He was the best man I ever knew.
My father was old fashioned, even for the time. I always wanted to be a teacher. But he was from the old country, and that just wasn't done by the women-folk in his mind. I wasn't allowed to go to Normal School. That's what they called teacher's college when I was young.
Anyway, when I met your grandfather, he actually listened to what I thought. No one had really done that before. We went out walking in the evenings, and he thought I could be anything I wanted to be. I eventually found that I wanted to be his bride.
He was a good man, hard working and provided a good home. Your mother was born, and I doted on her. We were happy. No, we didn't have the most money, and we sometimes argued as all couples do, but he was always there for me. Your mom went off to college before he got sick. Your grandfather was a proud man and refused to go to the doctor. I think he was worried about the money. He died right here on this bed in my arms.'
"My grandmother got quiet for a bit. I heard from others that she kind of died when he passed. She just wasn't the same. Oh, she went through the motions, but just wasn't the same."
Charlene paused and looked at me, then continued. "Well, I went off to college determined to do two things. First, never let anyone stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Second, not ever having to face the sort of loss my grandmother had."
"Good for you. Sounds kinda lonely though."
"It is, but stop interrupting; the story isn't over yet. Anyway, I went back a couple of years ago when I heard she was sick. Grandma brightened when I saw her. After a while, she asked,"
'Do you remember when I told you about your grandfather and the bed?' Yes, of course. 'Well, that isn't the whole story. I got real lonely when you went off to college. I met a nice man at church who was widowed a few years back, and we started walking in the afternoons. It was nice to have someone my own age to talk to again. I started developing feelings for him, but then I got scared. Could I get hurt again? Did this honor your grandfather who was such a good man? I decided that he would have wanted me to be happy. My gentleman friend is a good man as well. He'd never replace your grandfather, but he made me happy.
Listen, honey; I was wrong to tell you of my sadness when your grandfather died without explaining all the happiness too. I worry about you. I see you 'afraid to care.' Afraid to allow yourself to love, for fear of being hurt. That isn't good. You can't know happiness without knowing sorrow. I don't want to do to you, what my father did to me. I want you to go out and do what you want, without fear.'
"I'm scared," Charlene said after a pause. "I want to trust, but I don't know how."
I leaned over and hugged her. She cried softly into my shoulder. We ended up falling asleep with me holding her on that window seat. What is happiness?
The sunlight was coming through the window as we were woken by her roommates.
"Rise and shine lovebirds," the woman said.
We were both in only our underwear, so I gave her the blanket to preserve her modesty and quickly dressed myself.
"I'm going to bed," Charlene announced. "Can we talk later? I enjoyed last night."
"Of course. You know where I can be found."
I put my hands on each side of her face giving her a light kiss on her forehead and walked out the front door. Abigail wagged her tail.
I walked out to the dunes with my coffee. The day looked brighter than before. Morning is my favorite time of day, full of the promise of an unwritten future. I had plenty to think about.