My Heart, in San Francisco

Hayo - - Travel Story - Jackie Wong WORDS BY Ping Zhu IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY

Walk­ing down San Francisco’s Cas­tro Street on a Wed­nes­day evening in Novem­ber ,the air is warm, fan­tas­ti­cal. Neon lights from store­fronts light the sidewalk, bathing us all in campy flu­o­res­cence. I feel the in­tox­i­cat­ing pull of the city that has drawn so many to its rain­bow di­a­mond beauty. I want to live here, I think des­per­ately, among the fish­nets and the mis­fits and the Eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, in a Vic­to­rian walkup apart­ment.

I stand on the sidewalk gap­ing at the grand­ness of the Cas­tro Theatre—its Span­ish Colo­nial baroque façade, its bright red neon sign that shouts “CAS­TRO” to ev­ery­one on the street—un­til my date pulls me in­side.We hop into our seats just as the cur­tains rise for a screen­ing of Jean Luc Go­dard’s Breath­less, also an apt de­scrip­tor for my emo­tional state.

Af­ter the movie we drive up through Haight-Ash­bury to the In­ner Rich­mond. We stop on Cle­ment Street, near the edge of the Pre­sidio, for din­ner at Burma Su­per­star, the res­tau­rant rec­om­mended to me by all four peo­ple I know in the Bay Area—in­clud­ing the man at my side.We or­der tea leaf salad, basil lemon­grass chicken with oys­ter mush­rooms and braised Burmese beef curry.

I am so happy I feel like I am hov­er­ing above our crowded ta­ble like a he­lium bal­loon. I can feel the cells in my body re­con­sti­tut­ing, feast­ing on fresh batches of oxy­tocin, the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter and hor­mone let loose by fall­ing in love.

The week be­fore I ar­rived in San Francisco, my former part­ner took his own life. He lived for 36 years in the ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain of de­bil­i­tat­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, as well as ter­ri­fy­ing bipo­lar ma­nias. I had seen and loved his bril­liance—his writ­ing, his wit, his kind heart—and watched it warp like the sight of the sun be­hind trees. We were to­gether for seven years, most of my twen­ties. Four months af­ter I left him, he died. I couldn’t shake the guilt and the sense that I had killed him.

The days fol­low­ing his death were a cas­cade of phone calls. Heart­bro­ken friends showed up at my door with break­fast, boxes of or­anges, an en­tire shep­herd’s pie and ev­ery kind of al­co­hol. One night I drank so much that I couldn’t make it into bed from my fe­tal po­si­tion on the floor. My room­mate, bless her, coaxed me in with the ef­fi­ciency of the reg­is­tered nurse that she is.

San Francisco feels like a mir­a­cle.The long-planned, 10day trip is the fol­low-up to a 72-hour fling I’d had the last time I was here, back in Au­gust, af­ter I’d chanced upon stand­ing next to a cute stranger at a con­cert. This morn­ing, bright Novem­ber sun shoots through the win­dow be­side the bed, cast­ing his apart­ment in gold. I bury my­self deeper into his soft grey sheets. He brushes a hand across my hips while he gets up to put mu­sic on the stereo, hum­ming along to Frazey Ford. Up the coast it is win­ter-jacket weather and rain­ing. Peo­ple are hear­ing the news of my former part­ner’s death one by one. But down here I am wak­ing to the sound of the Cal­train whip­ping by.The loud bells of the com­muter train re­mind me of the near­ness of death, how light­ness and dark­ness ex­ist on the same plane. “High school kids in the Sil­i­con Valley keep jump­ing in front of those trains,” I am told. “Palo Alto es­pe­cially. It’s Fan­ta­sia. All the ter­ri­ble aspirations passed down from their bril­liant par­ents.”

I’ve never had enough money for fancy va­ca­tions or long stretches of time off, but I can truly rest here. De­spite ever-present in­som­nia, I can sleep through the night. I am drink­ing less, not smok­ing. I am eating Greek yogurt and Trader Joe’s ce­real in a kitchen full of the nu­tri­en­trich gro­ceries char­ac­ter­is­tic of many San Fran­cis­cans and Sil­i­con Valley democrats. I spend lux­u­ri­ous after­noons in Dog Eared Books on Mis­sion Street, af­ter which I take a bur­rito to Dolores Park to lie in the grass and read for hour af­ter de­li­cious hour. I can feel the cor­ti­sol dropping. I can feel my body heal­ing.

When I ex­changed num­bers with my sum­mer fling the night we met, I no­ticed the desk­top photo on his phone: a por­trait of a woman in a hos­pi­tal bed with IV tubes, white haired, strik­ing. “My grandma,” he said. She died the fol­low­ing month, while he was across the Pa­cific work­ing in Hawaii, then In­done­sia.

“I look like my grand­fa­ther, her hus­band,” he told me. “Through the de­men­tia, she thought I was him.And I could see her, 21 years old, look­ing at me as though I was him.” On one of his fi­nal vis­its back home to her in Ge­or­gia she had said to him, in her south­ern drawl, “Keep me open for let­ters.” In other words: Call me, maybe.

I hope all our last thoughts are of be­ing in love.

We spend Saturday night in the Mis­sion for the Dia de Los Muer­tos (Day of the Dead) pro­ces­sion.The Meso Amer­i­can hol­i­day is ded­i­cated to an­ces­tors, hon­or­ing both life and death. San Fran­cis­cans have been cel­e­brat­ing it since the early 1970s with a pro­ces­sion, al­tars, art in­stal­la­tions and mu­si­cal per­for­mances. The march starts at 22nd and Bryant Streets and winds through the neigh­bor­hood. Ev­ery­one, it seems, is part of the fu­ne­real pa­rade—even ac­tivists mourn­ing the loss of af­ford­able rental hous­ing and Burn­ing Man ex­pats tak­ing their white corsets and para­sols for a spin around the block. Peo­ple in sugar-skull makeup sing in Span­ish and hang strands of marigolds and white lights around the trees that line the side­walks.

Af­ter­ward there is a fes­ti­val in Garfield Park, where artists have de­signed pub­lic me­mo­rial al­tars.We stop in front of a paint­ing of Lou Reed en­cir­cled in marigolds and can­dles. He died one day af­ter my ex. I have so many mem­o­ries of the two of us lis­ten­ing to the Vel­vet Un­der­ground while mak­ing break­fast in our old apart­ment. Af­ter I heard about Lou’s passing — just hours be­fore the news of my ex’s death reached me — I rode the bus home from work over the Bur­rard Bridge that faces Van­cou­ver’s West End, where I used to live with my part­ner. In that mo­ment, I missed my old life ter­ri­bly. I felt a pro­found sense of loss: love is let­ting some­one go.

As we leave Garfield Park we pass a chain-link fence stuck with clothes­pins that hold let­ters and notes peo­ple have writ­ten to those they’ve lost. One stands out, scrawled in child­like pen­cil:

Thank you

For com­fort­ing me.

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