And suddenly, I was standing in the subtle breeze of the San Franciscan morning, snug in the arms of California once again. The air around me seemed filtered, of a higher quality somehow; and though I had been flying for five hours on three hours’ sleep after the most arduous day I’ve had in a while, everything around me was brighter than it should have been. My eyes were a lighter shade of blue. Everyone was beautiful. The wind was cooling me, refreshing my insides, diffusing the squalor of airport terminals and recycled air to which my body had become accustomed. It was like LA, but better.
My sister Emily appeared through the scattered scramble of people waiting to be picked up at the curb and my eyes adjusted to her presence; I had been scanning the cluster of oncoming cars to find the milk-chocolate Jetta that belongs to her husband Mason, whom I had never previously met but felt like I’d known for years because of both the magic of social media and the fact that Emily just knows how to pick quality people. And yet, she had gotten out of the car to get me, she was hugging me, she was taking my small black-and-cream Chinese Samsonite knockoff. All these gestures–insignificant to some–fused together as one act, one sentiment. After the loneliness and isolation I found in Europe, after going weeks speaking only to waiters and shopkeepers, after flying clear across the world, someone was here to pick me up, here to hug me, helping me with my bag like it was the most normal thing in the world. And really, it is. But to me, at that specific moment, it felt like I’d won the lottery.
It had only been about three weeks since I saw Emily, who moved out to the Bay Area after Mason had received orders to Travis AFB, but it felt like three years. I was so shaken from the hurricane–with its violent storms and calm, serene eye–of the two weeks prior that I fully felt like a different person. The woman that sent her off not even a month before with a bucket of Pomegranate San Pellegrino cans and sunflower seeds (her timeless favorite food) for the long drive from Alabama to California wasn’t the same woman she was fetching from the airport. And yet, no one could really grasp that but me and as we walked toward the car (known henceforth as Loretta the Jetta), I felt the weight of everything, yet again, because it was truly over. I was in San Francisco. I was on the other side of the world. Not only had I gotten through one of the strangest and most soul-revealing times of my life, but it never ceases to amaze me (regardless of how many Skymiles I accrue or in which Delta Medallion tier I find myself) that one time in my life, I was just a daydreamer out in the countryside of Alabama, thinking maybe one day, if all the stars align just right and in a stroke of dumb luck, I would like to travel the world. But then, I would think, reality setting in, that I can’t possibly do that. Traveling is for rich people, for privileged people, for people who have more of a footing in this world. For people who aren’t me. And yet…there I was. Standing on the curb of SFO, fresh off the plane from ATL after having an unexpected tidal wave of an adventure in Europe, including but not limited to: spending the night in a German airport, feeling my way through Portugal on my feet, jumping off cliffs in Croatia. I felt myself, silently, secretly solidifying into the adult I always hoped–eyes dreamy and sky-turned–I would one day build myself to be.
Mason hopped out of the Loretta the Jetta and gave me a hug, exclaiming, “I FINALLY GET TO MEET MY SISTER!” I played it off casually (I hope), hugging him back and saying how awesome it was to be in San Fran, but inside, I was exploding with happiness. This is what I needed: family. Familiarity. People who give a shit about me.
We made our way through the traffic of midafternoon across congested highways and I made the acquaintance of Tyler, posted up in the backseat. I’d seen him in the various snapchats I’d received from Emily and Mason during their cross-country drive; he was Mason’s friend that they brought out to California for an adventure. The five of us jammed to Mason’s spotify account that could have doubled as a gay bar playlist and headed to The Mission, where we decided to eat at a place called Gracias Madre based solely on its name. Getting there and looking over the menu, we discovered (to my delight) that it was all vegan cuisine! Colorful dishes replete with flavor were consumed and after the meal, I was the only one at the table who wanted dessert (because I am fat), and Mason ordered two vegan cheesecake slices so that I didn’t have to eat dessert alone. That’s quality brothering, right there.
I think it’s time to note that my sister and Mason are gay. Both of them. They are legally married, and that’s their business. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got more family that loves me because of my sister’s atypical home life, and I’m totally fine with that. I love Mason and I love Breanna, her girlfriend. Emily has given me both a brother and a sister, and they are both amazing. So if this bothers you as a reader in any way, just go ahead and click this tab closed on your browser, because I love my unconventional family, and there’s no room here for judgmental or hateful comments.
I arranged for Breanna to fly in from her home in Staten Island the next day because I love her, and I love Emily, and I don’t want the distance between them to take its toll. The five of us were all squeezed into Emily and Mason’s two-bedroom apartment in Vacaville, two to a bedroom and me on the balcony. In true military fashion, their household goods shipment was delayed, so we were eating on floors and sleeping on air mattresses, utilizing my suitcases as makeshift tables for journaling and laptop use. It was reminiscent of the quintessential “first apartment” painted with high hopes and optimism–the feeling of starting anew and on your own seeping through the walls–despite us all having long surpassed that actual first apartment in our lives. It just had that feeling, that wonderful air of independence and the start of something really, really good.
Saturday, 23 August was Tyler’s twenty-first birthday and around 11pm on 22 August, the guys and I found ourselves on the bright birch of the hardwood floor in the living room feasting on a spread of guacamole with tortilla chips and peanut butter (straight spoon-in-the-jar style) washed down with a most delicious red blend whose label initially drew me in and whose vivacity sealed the deal: Headsnapper. Just before midnight, Mason and I fashioned a mini birthday cake out of a frozen Reese’s peanut butter cup topped with a dollop of peanut butter and two little shavings of salted caramel coconut strips. Taking note of it all now, it seems lackluster, ho-hum perhaps to the casual observer, but under the wine-soaked watercolors of how it actually played out, we had a lot of fun. We laughed. We toasted. We took shots at midnight. We celebrated Tyler and adulthood as a whole: the fact that we came from different places and all lived different lives and yet, we were there–in a near-empty apartment in Vacaville, CA that made us look more like clandestine squatters than people waiting on Uncle Sam to deliver the furniture–chasing vodka with spoonfuls of peanut butter on a windy summer night. We are all on different paths in life, but in the moment, we were intersecting in each others’ lives, forming memories out of variables that, in the sober light of day, may seem random and aimless in their importance but to us, then, as our giggles rang out against the empty rooms of the apartment, they meant the world.
In the morning, we all came to life at different times, emerging from our holes in the apartment like robots booting up; slowly at first, feeble in our fatigue then in a snap of good company, we all became animated and ready to tackle the day. The five of us piled into Loretta the Jetta and took to the city, playing tourists for the day so that Breanna and I could see the Golden Gate Bridge and get our obligatory photos. The roads whipped and winded up to the viewing point; inundated with people just trying to get that perfect shot where the wind and the light and the shadows all align, but Mason managed to drive us far enough out that when we parked on the side of the cliffs overlooking the Bay and the Bridge and all the majesty in between, it felt like we were the only people in the world. Like everyone was simply gone, and San Francisco was ours, bequeathed to us from the Golden Goddess of California herself.
The wind whipped through our hair and we finally, after a while, retreated back to Loretta, scenery-saturated and craving city-center chicanery. We headed back to The Mission where I had it on good authority that there was a rooftop bar with “Tyler’s 21st Birthday” written all over it. And I was not wrong.
Although, of course, nothing worth having in life isn’t without a hefty side-dish of patience…so rather than pile up in the standing-room-only zoo of the bar, we waited about 45 minutes for a table where we could sit down and eat a meal overlooking the lights and the spirit of the San Franciscan Saturday like the classy bunch that we are. Emily and Breanna spent the waiting period gallivanting down Mission Street, popping into the sketchy family-owned stores and the guys and I headed next door to a dark-and-stormy, enigmatic-looking bar called Laszlo. I bought a round of drinks that were orange in color and a deep, vibrant red in potency. You know, to get the night started.
Time passed and so did we; the rest of the dwindling twilight seemed to transpire in fast-forward motion. We did everything faster as another pitcher of sangria was ordered, we spoke in falsetto, cartoonish tones as tapas were scarfed down with a tenacity that suggested that we, perhaps, hadn’t eaten in weeks. And after all the plates were cleaned and the cups were emptied, after the sky faded from teal to turquoise to twilight before our eyes and then inevitably evolved to a rich violet that finally died and deteriorated into black licorice above our heads, after we paid and tipped, we slinked off to the most typical place we, as a unit, possibly could.
The Castro District was alive with color and clamor, with laughter and lipliner, with knavery and neon. We, as a pack, crossed the street and a plaid-shirted, short-shorts-wearing guy with hair coiffed to perfection looked at me and exclaimed, “GORL!” A few moments later, some guy wading through his public drunkenness gave me a hug outside of some top-rated bar on Yelp and said, “Oh honey, don’t go there.” I asked him where I should go and he recommended Beaux, a bar down the street that, unlike seemingly all the bars in The Castro, accepted credit cards. Mason and I–birds of a feather–were sold. I asked the guy his name and he replied, breathily, “Kevin. And I’ll be down at Beaux in 20. I’ll see you there,” and as quickly and randomly as he materialized in our midst on the sidewalk, Kevin was off down the street in the opposite direction. (Spoiler alert: we never saw Kevin again.)
Beaux was everything you see in movies when it comes to gay bars: loud, flashy, and one thousand percent fabulous. We paid the five dollar cover charge to a guy wearing chaps and got our hands stamped, then headed into the laughing, swinging, mischievous belly of the beast that was Beaux. Through the crowd glimmering with glow sticks, there was a near-naked man dancing for dollars on an illuminated cube, fierce dance mixes of already upbeat songs we stretched our time, and the next thing I remember was Emily handing me my credit card and sternly yelling in my ear (whether she was frustrated in her sobriety at having to take home a gaggle of drunken slobs or just trying to get through to me over the roar of the party, I am still unsure) that she closed my tab and it was time to go.
The car ride home was strange and haunting, and most definitely not my finest hour. Every drop of alcohol I had consumed swirled together and began to conspire against my body as it simultaneously ate away at my mind, chewing bit after bit of my rationale in real time. I regained some mental clarity in the shower when, as I came to recognize the massage of the hot water against my back and appreciate its consistency, Emily bolted into the bathroom and, with the tone of a tired mother whose three boisterous children won’t go to bed, barked, “The air mattress is waiting for you and I got clothes from your suitcase. Get out and get dressed, then go to sleep. Now! I want results!”
Intimidated and feeling like I was back in boot camp, I did what I was told. The next thing that my brain processed as truth was the way the light–once my friend that signified the unfailing optimism of the California sun–came crawling in through the window like a swarm of locusts to smother me with the pain of the dreaded Morning After. My head felt in equal parts like a bowling ball, hard and oversized and heavier than it should, and a peeled grape, vulnerable and easily squished in the harshness of the outside world. My body felt brined-soaked and sun-dried, brittle and creaky in its paltry movements.
And apparently, as my body succumbed to the scathing depths of hungover hell, there had been an earthquake. That was what I gleaned, anyway, from the explosion of text messages that sat idly on my phone, waiting to be read with bleary eyes and a confused disposition. I made coffee, putting my phone on the floor next to my air mattress and waving a flippant hand at it, as if that would somehow auto-respond to everyone. Just as the first few sips of the deep and bitter caffeine passed through me like electricity pulsing through cables deadened by the elements, Mason appeared. “Did you know there was an earthquake?”
“I found out…but I didn’t feel it. Did you?”
“No. But I was just as messed up as you last night.”
“Dear God,” I said, swigging the coffee in shame.
Tyler shuffled out before long and the three of us made the executive decision that a deluxe Sunday brunch was in order. We left Emily and Breanna to themselves in the apartment and made our way to an adorable little diner off the highway in Vacaville that illustrated the splendor of Americana in a way that Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have painted better. The building was old and its sign, facing the oncoming blur of cars on the highway like a stately old butler ready to welcome you inside, was a pallid version of what it once was after years under the unfailing California sun.
On the inside, waitresses ranging from the tail ends of childbearing years all the way to blue-haired old ladies with voices raspy from decades of nicotine laid our silverware and took orders on the classic indigo and teal notepads that are mainly just utilized in today’s modern world by Chinese restaurants who didn’t get the memo that we’ve moved past that tired old notepad. The décor hinted at more of a Southeastern eatery awash in down-home charm than a San Franciscan brunch spot as the walls were lined with kitschy pictures of chickens and steaming coffee cups, cementing this place as the kind of establishment that Waffle House aspires to be. The coffee is black and the food is greasy. It was perfect.
They didn’t have any vegan meal options on the menu, but I was able to assemble a hangover helper brunch of champions from their selection of sides: unbuttered toast, avocado slices, their signature potatoes (which were, come to find out, fries in the shape of medallions, which totally changed the game on fried potatoes forever for me) and, eyeing the menu with a lust to feel human again at whatever cost, a full plate of sweet potato fries. Make no mistake, I ate it all, but it was a struggle. Afterward, I wanted more than anything to just lay down and die.
So of course, we went to the outlets instead. The sun had never been brighter or hotter. My clothes had never felt so restricting as they awkwardly clawed onto my body. My feet felt like rubber and my eyebrows hurt. Yes, my eyebrows. And yet, somehow, I made it through the day to the sweet and subtle breeze of evening, when we all ate on the balcony as a family, sipping wine and San Pellegrino and taking in the fact that we were adults who were brought together and we were free in our wild whims and ways to do whatever we wanted. It was a dinner among family and it was a dinner among friends. It was something that my soul, crushed lately by the cruelty of others, needed.
I had dragged the air mattress outside the night before, sleeping under the stars and slumbering soundly when the wind picked up like an industrial-grade oscillating fan, Mother Nature mimicking the manmade. Early the next morning, Mason and I were up with the sun and running through the wild winds. He did two miles, I did seven. A shower, a wardrobe change, a banana and a water chug later, we were pointing Loretta toward the slatted and sliced greenery as far as the eye can see of Wine Country. I perused google for a place to sample wines on the way and wound up with a facility that landed itself on many a Napa Must-See list: Castello di Amorosa. It was a winery housed inside a Tuscan-inspired castle that, from every stone right down to the rustic, aged door hinges, was built from materials imported from Europe.
The castle itself was built in California only a stone’s throw into the past, but the Old World charm it exuded was genuine, soaked in Italian authenticity. We took a sixty minute tour of the ins and outs of the castle, the drafty cellars that housed barrels upon barrels of local wines, and then finally, later on, we were led to a tasting bar where we were given a menu and the chance to try any six wines we wanted. The basic tour and tasting included a five-sample setup, and only for their basic wines. But it’s me, so at the time of ticket purchase, I opted for the Reserve Tour, because Mason and I are too uppity for our own good sometimes. For ten extra dollars, we got an extra sample and the chance to select from all the wines the Castello had to offer. As presumed, we selected exclusively from the Reserve Wines list and chose the most expensive wine on the menu (clocking in at $90 per bottle and close to a grand per case and tasting more like the way a honeysuckle smells than fermented grapes), because Mason and I are too uppity for our own good.
After a few more grape juice flights, we headed back for the hills of Vacaville where, after a few minutes in the solitude of the apartment, we made our way to San Fran just as the world around us was fading into a summertime dream of lemon and ginger, the early evening taking hold and casting blond shadows across our faces as we drove. It was a Monday evening and the atmosphere was branching out into rusty oranges juxtaposed next to the sapphires of the sky post-sunset. Mason drove me to the marina at Treasure Island, one of the best vantage points of San Francisco and the next-door neighbor to a Coast Guard base. As I got out of Loretta, drawn to the sweet lapping of the waves of the bay on the rocks in front of me, I couldn’t help but play “what if” in my head. What if I had gotten this unit instead? What if I had been assigned a completely different billet, what if instead of all the things that happened in the frigidity of Boston–in the air so cold that your ears feel like they’ve been axed clean off the side of your head and in the gulf of disconnect between the people whose attitudes override any sort of compassion–I drifted out here instead? I could see myself smiling, I could see myself taking pride in my job; I could see the little card that said, “This is the start of something GREAT!” that my dad hid in the pocket of my dress uniform when he pressed it the day after I graduated from boot camp actually coming together as truth (instead of what it actually was: just a jading reminder in the kitchen drawer of unfailing optimism being struck down by the blunt force trauma of reality). I stood there, at the edge of the bay, watching the sunlight glint off the rich blue of the water and imagined this elaborate other life; the life I could have lived. With a twinge of bittersweet melancholy, the thought occurred to me that I might still be married. It might have worked if we weren’t subjected to freeze and then thaw ourselves out in attempt to save it…only to be frozen over again in the social tundra that is New England.
What if, really? I realized, definitively, that I would have been so much more of a person. So much better of a person. I wouldn’t be what I’ve become after Boston. I wouldn’t be so x, I would be so much more y. But, I conceded as I slowly and methodically took a panoramic shot of my surroundings, the city and the sun and the bridge and the bay, that isn’t what happened. I got Boston and I got all the horrible things that living there at that time entailed. I can’t change it. It’s a part of me now, all of it, and I just have to find a way to make it all fit into some box that I can toss in the closet of my mind. And who’s to say, really, that I wouldn’t have faced some of the same things at another unit? Or that here, my mind would simply drop to the point where I would cease to feel that there’s just more out there; more to learn, more to be explained, more to split me open and fill me with new perspective? No one can say, I ended the conversation with myself as Mason and I walked back to Loretta to hit the city.
The stage lights on the world went down as we walked through the Financial District, familiarizing ourselves on foot with the dazzle of the city in which we were both quickly finding ourselves enamored. There was a bar on Yelp that boasted panoramic rooftop views (by now, everyone should be up to speed on my penchant for rooftop bars as I love both drinking and looking down on people) along the waterfront promenade, but we weren’t even able to get a foot in the door to check in for the reservation I’d hastily booked via Opentable on the way over, so we cut our losses and called it a night, especially once we saw that the “panoramic rooftop” was no higher than two stories. We walked and talked along the promenade, both stopping to snap the perfect shot of when the lights along the Bay Bridge danced just right or the angle of the illuminated structure became even more photogenic than it was fifty feet into the past.
Finally, after a stroll and a solidifying feeling in my soul that Mason truly was part of my family, we headed back to the homestead of Vacaville where we joined Emily and Breanna in a first-look family screening of Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs the day before (that we neglected to watch because we don’t live our lives around a plastic light box on a shelf). I retreated afterward to my balcony bed, beckoning me through the whispers of the wind, and fell into a sleep fueled by mental exhaustion and the burden of truth that in 24 hours’ time, I would be back in the sweltering, sticky South.
When I landed in New Orleans, I got off the plane last. I didn’t want it to end. It didn’t seem over yet. I had flown straight from Europe to California, stopping only for the planes to catch their breath. I hadn’t been home, or the place where all my things are currently stored, rather. The last time I saw the place that I categorize (loosely, of course) as my “residence,” I was starry-eyed and assuming, setting out for some cookie-cutter Eurotrip and getting instead a lesson on the human race and its potential for cruelty on which you can’t put a price. There was a sliver of innocence to me, a naïveté that I didn’t know I had in the wake of believing I was some big, bad wolf in the world. And now, in New Orleans, I was dilly-dallying with my carry-on bag. I was taking longer than necessary in the bathroom, fixing my hair for no one in particular as it was after 22:00 on a muggy Tuesday and I was headed to an empty apartment in another state. I finally made my way out of the terminal behind the pilots and through the secure area to the open-to-all lobby that was, at this time of night, deserted save for an older couple who came to pick up some girl who was immediately enveloped in a hug by the man. I kept walking, more fascinated by the fact that a ghost of myself from less than a month prior was standing across the lobby, beaming with subtle elation at the fact that I was, finally, after all these years, going to the storied and slightly taboo Frankfurt. That girl across the lobby naught but three weeks in the past was so sure of herself, too happy to realize that she would soon have it drilled into her head the hard way that Sartre’s words are more than a little Easter egg of random knowledge to casually slip into conversation to seem more intelligent: they are real, they are true, and they can crush you to pieces if you’re not careful.
After paying my respects to who I was the last time my feet walked these floors, I grabbed my bags from the whirring carousel and walked out into the black claws of the humid, New Orleans night.