Four months: or a reflection on being young and dumb in the city of sunshine and fog

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” — Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

A few days before I flew back home for the winter holidays, I went to a cafe off of Guerrero instead of heading to the office. There, I sat down next to a lady wearing all black who would later introduce herself as Emma. She was sixty-six, widowed, and had a variety of objects on the wooden table in front of her including a postcard from her Parisian friend, a deck of playing cards, two journals bound with shopping bags from Trader Joe’s, and a kale smoothie, size large.

At some point a disheveled-looking Shih tzu escaped from its owner and wandered over to our table. What a good boy, Emma had said, while stretching out her veiny hand — only for the dog to lick its crusty lips and hobble back, disinterested. Nothing like being slighted by a domesticated animal to get two strangers talking. But then, as one and then two hours flew by — we settled into a rhythm. We were like two old friends who had not seen each other in years; who, naturally, needed some time to process a new haircut and mannerisms picked up from new faces. But despite time passing, some things never change — like my convulsing laughter or her ability to turn anything into a joke. Once we felt this truth, the conversation flowed, giddy like the schoolgirls we once were (and still are), our mouths wild and loose about every subject under the moon: a man Emma had ghosted a few months prior (men are the same at every age! she lamented); the life and writings of feminist thinker Kate Millett, who happened to be Emma’s good friend; the new Steven Spielberg movie about Katharine Graham; and Emma’s life philosophy, a phrase that I’ve been turning over and over again — grace and fire. How to live with grace and fire. I wish I had asked her more explicitly before she left, fixing her scarf and tossing her bob cut in the direction of the door, her voice roguish and warm: I’ll see you soon.

Ironically, it was the kind of conversation that could only happen in a cafe, by chance, between two strangers who had absolutely nothing to lose. I remember telling her: I think I really needed this. And she just smiled at me. Sometimes women just know when other women are at the end of their ropes.

Not that I was at the end of my rope necessarily. November had been a sinkhole but I had traversed enough dirt to see the sun rise over December, could feel it as I walked down Valencia at night surrounded by disembodied chatter and twinkling lights. Things were closing all around me. Accidental closings and closings incurred through brute force: a stylish couple wearing matching Ascot caps walked into a streetlight and separated momentarily to protect their limbs; a woman who reminded me of my mom, petite but ferocious, chased after her salivating Irish terrier; a group of five businessmen tip toed around a pile of fermenting vomit, days-old and yellow, except for one distracted fellow, who made a face. When I walked by he was still scowling, dragging his feet across the sidewalk. This grown man with thinning hair on his forehead dragging his leather oxfords down Valencia like a five-year-old. I had to clap my hands over my month to stop from giggling. His friends hadn’t even noticed.

Not that closings should be noteworthy. Or funny. Or satisfying — like how the deaths of our favorite stars on the big screen can be wrapped up in cisternae and excreted to the moon and beyond — once the lights turn back on. I joked to my friends the other day: in 2018, I am just going to stay home 24/7. They laughed for a little too long. Twenty-two and twenty-three years and we are already so tired.

What does it mean to live a life of grace and fire when everyone around me, myself included, seems to be waiting for things to simply — close? Anything to mark the passage of time that has since become unctuous, the weekdays chugging along like freights in the bay as we count down the sleeps — not even days anymore — until Friday. And then — Monday spills through linen curtains. Has it really been four months since I moved to the city of sunshine and fog? When did San Francisco become simply — San Francisco? I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment in time when the snow settled in the glass dome. But maybe this goes back even further than four months. Maybe a part of living with grace means forgiving yourself for not having the foresight to make all the right choices — whatever that means. As if choices could still be classified as simply right or wrong.

Maybe a part of living with grace means forgiving yourself for not having the foresight to make all the right choices — whatever that means.

But I guess that I am still trying. I run down the Embarcadero and watch the sun flare out against the bay, my thighs chafing; I dance with my friends under pulsing lights, our eyes closed, the bodies around us an afterthought because in that moment, flashing red then purple then green, we are enveloped with the certainty that we are alive and that we are young; I explore different cafes in my neighborhood — the organic juicery that serves green goddess bowls for breakfast; Haus for the reliable wifi; the retro one with graffiti and the cute barista who lets me pocket a free croissant or two whenever I wear my black skirt; and finally, that cafe off of Guerrero that I wandered into on a whim instead of heading to the office; where I sat down next to a lady wearing all black; she would later introduce herself as Emma; we would talk about men and feminism and films and of course, her life philosophy: how to live a life of grace and fire.

What does it mean to live a life of grace and fire when you are twenty-three years old, newly-minted, in a new city with a new job and a new life that has not yet run you into the ground?

On my last day in San Francisco before 2017 officially closed, I slept past my alarm and woke up, hungover and teeth chattering. The window was open, linen curtains ajar; sighing, I reached past empty water bottles to slide the screen shut — then hurried to catch my plane.

Maybe one day, at age sixty-six, I will head to my favorite café and sit across a young and sighing woman several decades my junior. And we would end up talking because, well — sometimes you just know when the need to talk spills over onto wooden tables, congealing into this singular moment of confrontation — with the life that you’ve always wanted to live. And when that time comes, I will tell her my own life philosophy — something more biting than grace and fire, but a phrase that’s just as punchy. And when I finally give life to those words, I will feel their truths whistling past my nipple hair, down to the sinews of my retired feet, my muscle memory confirming the performativity of it all: a life that I’ve claimed as my own.