This is our city. It’s the one where you can look up to see man’s accomplishments and look around and trick yourself into seeing nature’s gifts. Our city breathes in the dreams of newcomers and breathes out the sighs of our weary. Even the pigeons in this city die while trying to achieve a goal. It is fast and hard and messy. Just don’t forget to rest between the running.
She grew up in the California suburbs, just outside of the Bay Area hustle. It was warm most days, and she could spend the summer months swimming and laying out to bake beneath the sun. But by the time she was in middle school she knew she would have to leave. As safe as she felt walking alone in the streets and as much as she loved the way people smiled and said “hello” as they walked by, she couldn’t shake the constant desire to escape. She neatly unfolded a large map of California, purchased from the nearby drug store, and taped it on her bedroom wall. At first eying the area she called home, she began to trace her finger in different directions. Down south to Los Angeles, and further down to San Diego. And then back up and East, through Death Valley and Yosemite, imagining the giant waterfalls roaring before her. Then she moved North, skipping her house and making a pit stop in San Francisco, where she could almost feel the fog wetting her face. Up and further up she went, passing through a place called Paradise, until she reached the tip of the Golden State, wondering where she could go beyond the lines.
Love does not age like the body, they say. At family events, like a wedding or a reunion, that require dressing up and smiling for cameras, both of them know that it’s not about the rosy, fun-filled fleeting moments. In fact, fleeting moments don’t exist; it’s all one long, extended, continuum that ends only with death. She knows that his figure is shrinking, once lean, muscular limbs becoming a soft, thin mush of skin covering bone. And he sees that her face is dropping, the corner of her eyes unable to fight a life worth’s of gravity. But love is not like the body, and it ages quite well, not unlike a fine vintage cheddar.
"Can you see it?" my sister asked. She was looking into the fountain, her eyes reflecting its water. I couldn’t see anything but her face and mine, looking back at us with their distorted mouths and cheeks. "There’s a whole world inside of here, where I’m the queen and you’re the prince and there’s enough food to feed us ten lives over," my sister whispered, her face flushed from the summer humidity. My stomach grumbled and I started to feel a knot tighten in my chest. It felt like fear. And guilt. I couldn’t see what she saw in the water, and I knew that if I didn’t see it soon she would leave me. She would fall into the fountain and vanish into her kingdom alone, without me, her prince. She would drift away from me, and I would be roam the streets without the only person who loved me. I would have to crawl through dumpsters alone and dig into people’s garbage, looking for anything — stale cookies, not-too-moldy cheese, a peanut butter jar with enough peanut butter along the sides — worth eating… "I see it," I said. "I want to go there together."
This is the last photo I took of her before she got away, the woman tells me. All the while the woman has her lips curled slightly in a half smile and it reminds of me of those surveys where they show a picture of a person smiling and ask, ‘Is that smile real or fake?’ A researcher in my college’s Psychology department once paid me $30 for taking that exact survey — I answered correctly 30 out of 30 times. (Those were the days when I signed up for as many “paid studies” as possible, needing the cash for my nightly outings.) But right now, I’m not sure. The woman looks at me and I see that her eyes are bloodshot and dry. She says, isn’t she beautiful in this photo? I want to tell her that her daughter is safe and probably just in the next town over, drinking coffee and laughing with strangers. But I can’t, because I know that this, at least, isn’t real.
She left as soon as the sky turned pink the evening of her eighteenth birthday. She didn’t pack a thing, just grabbed a notebook, a pen, and the cash she’d saved up from teaching local kids piano — a wad of twenty dollar bills that totaled $1600 — and walked out the door in her best hiking boots. After walking five miles she decided it was safe enough to see if anyone could pick her up and drive her west. In big block letters she wrote “NEED A RIDE WEST. WILL PAY!” It took less than 15 minutes before the truck pulled over and her mom hopped out screaming, feet stomping up a storm of dust around her.