Back then I had a lot of extra money. I’d taken quite a few grants and scholarships after the military and decided to use those and the GIBILL simultaneously. What would end up happening is that the grants and loans would pay my tuition and everything else, and the GIBILL would end up as a tuition refund. Usually I’d end up with about five or six thousand dollars every time I signed up for a new quarter at the university. Long story short, I didn’t work and got to travel a lot.
So one night after countless drinks in San Francisco, I attempted to walk back to my hotel room. Eventually I found the hotel room, but before I did I found a ridiculous flight of stairs that led me to the top of what I thought had to be the biggest hill in San Francisco. By the time I made it to the top, the sun was just about coming up. I must have been walking slow or blacked out a few times because the bars closed at two and the sun usually comes up at about five or six. There was a lot of missing time back then.
When I got to the last section of stairs I noted that there was a girl sitting at the top of them, facing me. Before I knew it, I was staring right into this girl’s skirt. I ended up making eye contact with her but she’d already seen me staring. She pushed her forearms between her legs, blocking my view.
“Can I get through here?” I asked. I figured I’d just leave her alone. Let her sit there by herself. A girl like her, there, at that time, probably didn’t want some drunken college student bugging her.
“Gonna watch the sunrise?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m guessing there’ll be a hell of a view from up here.”
“Not really,” she laughed. “The buildings are too big. And we’re too poor to live in one of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, unless you live in one of those buildings, you aren’t going to see the sunrise.”
“What would you suggest? This is the second time I’ve been here. Well, not here exactly, but in San Francisco, and I have no clue what I’m doing each time. I have this idea of what I want to do before I come, but every time I just end up wandering around and not doing much of anything.”
I noticed I was sweating as I leaned against the handrail. My shirt became unstuck from my back.
“You drunk?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think these stairs burnt most of it out of me.”
“They’re called the Filbert Steps. Tourists walk up and down them all day.”
“Are you a tourist?” I asked.
She lifted her hands from between her legs and positioned her hair behind her ears.
“I’m not a tourist, no. This place steals hearts, man. You know that? Crushes hopes and dreams. Makes you learn things you didn’t want to learn.”
She sounded like me when I was depressed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Me, or you, we’re never gonna live somewhere like this.”
“So you are a tourist?”
“No one in San Francisco is a tourist. We’re all at home here. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t out of place.”
I took a few more steps up the stairs.
“Mind if I sit next to you?”
“Sure,” she said. “I mean, no. I mean, ‘No, I don’t mind if you sit next to me.’ Words are weird sometimes. Like, they don’t always mean something.”
“You sure you aren’t drunk?” I asked.
“I stopped drinking around midnight I think. Now I’m just hung over and talking to a stranger. You know, it’s not safe to sit next to drunk strangers when you’re drunk in San Francisco, you know. You should be more careful.”
Looking down the steps made me a dizzy. Or at least I thought it was the steps making me dizzy. It could have been anything. It could have been the girl’s cheap perfume. It could have been the girl’s tequila breath. And I may have still been drunk. It felt good to sit down.
Sitting down, I got my first good look at her face. Everything about it was sharp. Her nose: sharp. Her chin: sharp. Her cheeks: sharp. Even her hair looked a little sharp, but I’d call it jagged. She had thick eyebrows. I could tell she didn’t pluck them.
“What brings you here at this time of night?” I asked, half-joking.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought I wanted to walk down these stairs. Everyone is always walking up stairs here. I thought that if I got here in time I’d be able to walk down them before all the runners started. They usually start running up these stairs at about five or six. I mean, I was out late anyway and I don’t really have anywhere to go.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you live here?”
“Kind of, but I’m a bit far from where I need to be. My friend goes to Berkeley, so I was staying with her. But I guess I had too much to drink and I lost her or something. Or she left. I don’t know. But, here I am.”
She flicked a cigarette out in front of her. I hadn’t noticed she was smoking.
“And you?” she asked
“What brings you out here this lovely morning?”
“I got really drunk by myself at some bar that I don’t even know the name of.”
“Wow, you are definitely a tourist,” she laughed. “You know what’s weird? I think it’s weird that tourists always look and act like perfect tourists wherever they go, but the people who actually live here look and act like they totally live here, because they do live here. And I bet they would look like they were from San Francisco even if they moved to, say, Texas. You know? They keep that about themselves. But when they are simply visiting another place, it’s like they transform into this subspecies of wherever they are from. And people come here expecting everything to be like the 60’s or something. Free love and flowers in their hair. That whole thing. All they are missing is the safari hat. Really it’s just a sad, lonely place. But they don’t see it that way because they are tourists from somewhere else with their own homes tucked into a fanny pack.”
“And where do you fall into all of this?”
“You tell me. Where do you think I fall?”
I looked her up and down as best I could. It was still a little dark. A light reflected off her leg, showcasing a nice groove along the outside of her calf. Her skirt ended just above her knees. Her hair was, what I think, her natural hair color.
“I think you’re trying to get as far away as you can from something. But that something has a long leash. You get far away from it, and you do this often, but eventually you turn around.”
“I meant something like, where do you think I’m from. But I like this game, keep going.”
She nodded and nearly lost her balance, even though she was already sitting down.
“I think you do small things that give you a lot of satisfaction. You take small inexpensive vacations. You buy random little things on the internet. But none of this ever fixes the real problem. You don’t get by on your looks, even though you could. That’s why you don’t pluck your eyebrows. You’re smart but never finished college. You probably read more than your friends and that’s why they are all so happy and you are sad. Even though you haven’t travelled very far in the physical, you’ve travelled far in your mind. You’ve essentially been everywhere a book can take you. You’ve been rich, poor. You’ve been in prison. You’ve lost your husband. Wife? You’ve lost families. You’ve survived the Civil War. All in books, of course. But you still compare your life to the lives of characters in books. Like the books you have stacked over there beside you. Your friends don’t know any better than to just be happy, because they don’t read as much as you.”
She just sat there and looked down between her thighs at the hundreds of stairs leading into the dark bushes below. She took her time before she lifted her head and looked right into my eyes the way women do when they know that are about to cut you deep with the next thing that comes out of their mouth.
“You know,” she started. “You are right about a lot of all that. But what about you, huh? What makes a grown man get sickly drunk until five or six in the morning—I have no clue what time it is because my phone is dead, by the way—and then you stop only when you happen to see a girl practically sobbing at the top of a ridiculously tall staircase that people drive miles around to climb? I would bet anything that if I were a three hundred pound man, eating late night fast food, you would not have stopped for two seconds. You wouldn’t have said anything to me. You know why you stopped? Because you decided within two seconds of seeing up my skirt and getting a grand view of my thighs that you would sleep with me if I let you. That’s the reality of your mind. You would sleep with a drunk stranger that you met in a drunken stupor in a city you don’t even know your way around in, simply because you happened to come across her.”
I didn’t know what she was getting at. And to be honest, I still don’t. But she was right regardless. I would have.
Slept with her, I mean.
“Say that’s true,” I said, “let’s pretend that that’s true. I simply asked you if I could get through, as in, move past you so that I could keep going up the stairs, and you immediately instigate a conversation about the sunrise. I could have been looking for a place to vomit. I could have been anyone looking for a place to do anything, and you ask me about the sunrise. Whatever expectations I had in my mind while walking up the stairs had nothing to do with you inviting a conversation. I may be willing to sleep with you at the drop of a hat, but you were willing to talk to me.”
We sat there, beside each other, for a long while after that. I was thinking about how right she was. I was also thinking about how right I was, and whether or not she knew that we were both right about these things.
Then she leaned forward and kissed me. My right hand cupped the back of her head; hers, my right cheek. There was something about the desperateness between the two of us, the primal. There was no reason for us to be doing it. Yet, we were. And when my hand moved from her head to her hip, then up her shirt, I could feel the intensity of what this was: Two strangers finding exactly what it was they were looking for.
We managed to pull away from each other and she asked, “You got a place to stay?”
I knew I did, but I didn’t know where it was.
“Yeah, I do. For a few days, anyway,” I said.
“Well, where is it?” she asked.
“Near the Regency,” I answered.
“So, Van Ness? Get up. Let’s go.”
I don’t remember much else after that. I don’t remember whether or not we walked down the hundreds of steps or up the two remaining steps we were previously occupying. But I do know that we woke up next to each other. Neither of us wearing any clothes.
I woke up to her bare shoulders and looked at her for a few minutes. I remember wondering what she was really like. I remember wondering if she really did like me, or if she had simply been drunk and I could have been anyone. Then I fell asleep again, the sun shining through the curtains.
I woke up again a few hours later. She was sitting at the small rounded table. The kind of tables that only seem to exist in hotel rooms. The steam from her coffee dissipating in front of her nose.
She caught me staring at her.
“We didn’t,” she said. “What kind of girl do you think I am?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Who are you?”