A Short Story: Under A San Francisco Sky
Title of story: Under a San Francisco Sky
Under a San Francisco Sky (4,662 word count) is a short story of two, 20-somethings struggling to find themselves and love in their ever-changing worlds and entertains the bittersweet notion that, all good things must come to an end. Or, do they?
This short story was published in the Taj Mahal Review and SoMa Literary Review (approx. 2004-05).
Under a San Francisco Sky
The call came a year ago yesterday. It was the call that Adam had been waiting and hoping for: an employment offer. His bills were beginning to stack up, and the creditors were calling daily; they began calling so often that Adam bought a caller identification box, so he could answer the phone again without worrying of a surprise attack. “The call couldn’t have come at a better time,” Adam thought. He was so pleased with the idea of being able to pay his rent on time and climb out of credit card debt that he agreed to relocate without hesitation. He had to leave San Francisco to secure his lucrative offer.
“Everything is going to work out. I can feel it in my bones. I’ll be able to pay off those sons of bitches and stop them from bothering me. Hell, with this new job, I’ll even be able to pay off my student loan,” he confidently whispered to himself, as he slowly rubbed his palms together. The uncertainties of Adam’s life were now beginning to take shape: a new job, a new place to live, and new friends. Everything began to line up perfectly except for one—Maria.
Adam knew that he had to tell Maria of his new job offer, of his new plans, of his relocation agreement, and he knew that the sooner the better. Given only two weeks to get prepared for relocation and to start his new job, Adam grabbed his keys off the bookshelf and walked out to his old, blue, Toyota Celica.
While pulling out of his Sunset District driveway, a strange feeling lingered in the air for several moments. Adam’s senses heightened; a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty swept over him. His body temperature increased to the point of perspiration, which developed on his brow; his dry palms instantly became clammy. He tightened his grip on the cracked, black, steering wheel and directed the Celica toward 19th Avenue, into Golden GatePark, and toward Maria’s.
In the next lane over, Adam noticed a young woman with short, spiky, blond hair driving a little, red car. She knitted her pierced eyebrows and stared into her rearview mirror, as she scolded her kid who was uncontrollably bouncing up and down on the backseat. Adam continued to shift his sights from the road to the little, red car, from the little, red car to the road and back to the little, red car. He was now a participating spectator to a stranger’s disciplinary dilemma. The woman shouted enough to get the kid to sit in an orderly manner while she drove. Adam, taking witness to the woman’s problem, felt empathy for her situation; it’s never easy trying to suppress a free spirit, especially when love is involved. It caused Adam to reflect on his own past problems and the consequences of his ill decisions. Adam immediately pushed back the unforgettable memories that escaped from the darkness and found their way into the light.
He reached for the dusty, volume knob on the cheap cassette deck and turned it up; the swelling sounds of Miles Davis’s muffled trumpet rattled the small door speakers. Adam reached for a Camel light from the near empty cigarette pack, placed it between his dry lips, brought a flame to its end and inhaled. He briefly stared into the sky, searching for some sort of answer, some sort forgiveness, maybe even some sort of redemption before allowing the transparent-blue smoke to escape from his lungs.
The sun’s white rays streaked off the tail end of a shiny, silver commercial airliner that was flying in the distance. Adam began thinking of what he would give or trade in exchange to be on that flight. He wasn’t concerned with the plane’s destination; he imagined the far away places that he has only read about in books and questioned if he would ever get a chance to visit those places before his final flight. Adam became lost in the moment with the many whys and what ifs involved in his life. Suddenly, a piece of gravel bounced up and smacked the Celica’s windshield, yanking him out of his daydream. He cursed the gravel, assuming that it must have been spit out from beneath the rear tires of the orange and silver U-Haul truck in front of him. Adam accelerated and changed lanes, pulled the last drag from his cigarette, then flicked it out the window. Golden GatePark, Park Presidio, Geary, and Van Ness had disappeared from the Celica’s rearview mirror.
The headache-causing stench of burning gears and black diesel exhaust poured out from the rusty tailpipes of old delivery trucks and mechanically neglected city buses. The sounds of passing cars and descending sirens filled the air, and the white, smelly vapors escaped up through the square holes of the city’s iron, manhole covers. Now stopped at a red light in the Financial District, Adam took a moment to witness the people who moved about in a quick and unorganized fashion. Most of them wore dark business suits, some had jackets and some didn’t, some wore pointy dress shoes and some wore tennis shoes. They all had phones and some had fashionable briefcases. The light changed from red to green, and the Celica sputtered through the busy intersection.
Driving through and away from Financial District, he looked into his rearview mirror and noticed that the people began to resemble a cluster of ants, worker ants bumping into and climbing over each other, one after another—the price of progress in action. Adam gasped in disbelief, as he thought he saw himself standing in the center of the black ant cluster; the sight erected the tiny hairs on the back of neck. He clenched his jaw muscles and pushed the disturbing thought out of his mind. Adam continued through a few more intersections before turning right onto Maria’s street.
Bare-footed and wearing a faded pair of Levis and a white, T-shirt, Maria sat outside on the porch of the yellow and white Victorian that has been converted into small and over-priced apartments. Maria’s fine, long, black hair danced gently with the wind’s breeze. She strummed an old, acoustic guitar to a Counting Crows’ tune that was playing softly in the background. Adam didn’t know exactly what he was going to say to her, but he knew that was his biggest problem all along; however, he knew the exact three words that she has been patiently waiting to hear from him but never has. After circling the block a few times and finding a place to park his squeaky car, he stepped out and crossed the street.
Their eyes met, as Adam’s right foot crossed over the yellow dividing line in the center of the black street. Nothing was said. A strange and equally unusual look was etched upon Maria’s face. Her brown, Latina eyes searched slowly for answers to her unasked questions, as Adam continued moving closer to her. Upon reaching the widespread steps of the Victorian, Adam calmly anticipated Maria’s warm greeting. No words were offered. Their wordless gaze lasted only a moment; however, it was enough time for Adam to mentally visualize some unforgettable scenes from their last passionate night together. The scenes reeled through his mind like an 8-millimeter film being shown at maximum speed, so fast that the images began to blur into themselves, only slowing down to savor the so-called “happy” scenes.
Maria turned away. Her hair slid down her face resting slightly in front of her eyes, as she leaned her guitar against the paint-cracked windowpane before shattering the deafening silence.
“So, how have you been?” she asked softly.
“Somewhat better, I suppose,” he replied and proceeded to climb the wooden steps to where she was sitting.
The acidic fluid from his uneasy stomach tunneled its way up his esophagus and settled in the back of his throat, burning; nonetheless, he managed to return the same query.
“Let me see. How have I been doing? Well, fine, I guess. I mean, I’m alive, to say the least. So, I guess that means I’m okay—but, you know, not hearing from you for a few days always leaves me feeling…,” she said, now attempting to shield her emotions. “Hey, guess what? The other night, I forced myself to balance my checkbook among other things. I discovered some accounting mistakes, but they weren’t bad mistakes; they were actually good ones, because I ended up with having more cash in the bank than I thought I had. Can you believe it? Me and extra cash. It almost sounds funny. What’s that old saying? Um, ‘save your money for a rainy day,’ I think that’s it, but I could be wrong. You know that saying… I’ve just been thinking about you. But, you already know that.”
Adam, with his backside leaned up against the porch’s white banister and his hands wrapped around the top of the railing, tightened his grip and prepared himself for the words, the haunting words that lead up to and end with “good-bye.” Adam slightly raised his head just in time to see Maria’s sights become captivated by the gracefulness of a small bird in mid flight.
Maria momentarily stared at the bird, which found rest on top of a paint-chipped streetlight, a couple of houses down. The wet-sand colored bird with white freckled spots looked peaceful against the city’s dingy backdrop. Maria’s eyes conveyed a look of sincere appreciation, for she has lived in the city so long that she had nearly forgotten of nature’s beauty. The sight of the small bird lifted her soul and eased her mind. And, within a blink of an eye, the bird flew away taking a piece of Maria with it.
Maria turned back to Adam and began to speak softly of her reoccurring thoughts.
“There are many reasons in this world that bring two people together and many that tear them apart, and the same element of attraction that brings two people together can also, with some given time, in some cases, betray a relationship to the point of its demise. Someone once told me that ‘the pain that is most unbearable is the pain that’s self chosen.’ I’d never really paid much attention to what that meant—until now.”
Adam’s blue eyes moved slowly in a lateral fashion across the porch’s floor so not to look directly at Maria. He remained speechless, not for a lack of words, but because his own guilt wrapped around his throat like a hand of thorns, temporarily paralyzing his speech. She continued speaking, as Adam recalled the special way she would look to him for understanding and acceptance. He wondered if he could ever forget the times when he would make her laugh whenever she felt like quitting the world, or when she offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for his parents, then realized that she never learned how to cook a turkey. Instead, she bought two Cornish game hens and a frozen pepperoni pizza from Andronico’s. Adam knew that she would never look to him in that unique way again. His thoughts gave birth to tears that quickly died upon his brown, leather boots.
Biting down on the left side of his cheek, Adam reached into his near-empty denim pocket and pulled out a pair of keys that were bound together with a strand of black lace. The silver keys that unlock the doors to Maria’s apartment swayed from side to side, like a pendulum counting time. Maria’s sadness fell from her spiritless face; she slowly reached out her sun-bronzed hand for the keys. As the cold metal touched her warm palm, Adam’s name began to leave her lips. Adam never imagined that the end of their relationship would evoke so much emotion; he considered himself to have acquired the ability to shield himself from any emotional situation at any given time. He discovered that he was greatly mistaken.
Years ago when they first met, they were undoubtedly two of a kind: they shared the same views on art, love, and the world. They would lie awake in bed talking about buying a van and traveling all around the United States together. She would make necklaces and bracelets out of colored beads and sell them to everyone that they met on the road, and he would take any day-to-day job that was available. She would take pictures of all their interesting stops along the way, and he would write short blurbs to accompany her photos.
They would make a picture book and sell it to one of those fancy New York publishing houses. Their book would pull in enough money for a large down payment on their first house, a fixer upper, of course. They both agreed that the so-called “normal” lifestyle was not for them; they didn’t fit into that kind of existence. They denounced the nine to five, the thirty-year mortgage, the penny-pinching for their children’s college tuition, planning elegant dinner parties, planning for this and planning for that. They lived off each other’s dreams, lived in and for the moment. Their animated conversations of their future together would ignite passionate lovemaking, the kind of lovemaking that ended in a tender embrace.
However, somewhere in between the idea of traveling the U.S. in a van and college graduation, Adam’s views of himself and the world had changed. Maria had also changed by not changing at all. Along with his degree came an expected desire to obtain success, financial success, and the expectation rested squarely upon Adam’s shoulders. Unfortunately, he knew that his new thirst for real money would not be found in some van cruising around the states. At times, he felt ashamed of himself for wanting the lifestyle that he once denounced; he battled with the thoughts of selling out Maria and their dreams for a hand full of silver.
The breeze had picked up a little, not much, just enough to take notice of the change, so Maria asked Adam if he would like to come in and finish talking; Adam agreed. Upon closing the door behind him, Adam knew that this was going to be the last time he’d be in Maria’s apartment, and knowing it, made every familiar object look a little different, a little strange. Maria walked into her small kitchen, took the black tea pot off the stove, filled it with water, returned it to the front right burner, and turned a black dial to the right. Adam noticed that Maria had rearranged the furniture, removing all traces of Adam and their relationship. Her bedside picture of him was now replaced by an antique cobalt blue bottle that was filled with dead rose petals; the picture cards of his favorite paintings were stacked in a pile next to some empty Chinese take-out containers on the small table for two.
The sight of Maria’s apartment gave no clue that Adam ever existed. He, a stranger in an all-too-familiar place, questioned himself whether he was voluntarily leaving Maria’s world or if he was kindly being escorted out. One thing was for certain: Adam had never felt so misplaced and alone. Silenced by his emotions, he sat down on the brown and beige couch, lit up a cigarette, and tried to make sense of it all.
“Water’s ready. Want some tea? It’s the good stuff. I stumbled upon a little herbal store in Chinatown that sells the best green tea, cheap, too; it’s next door to a ninety-nine cent dry cleaners. Do you want some?” Maria asked from the inside kitchen.
Adam didn’t answer, so she walked into the other room with two cups in hand.
“I’m sorry…what did you say?”
“I asked if you wanted some tea. Here, two sugars and a dash of milk.”
Adam took the warm cup from Maria and carefully blew into it, watching the liquid ripple.
“What were you thinking about, Adam?”
“Nothing, just a couple of things… nothing really,” he said, before carefully taking a sip of tea.
Adam kept looking straight out the window; even though, with his peripheral vision, he could see Maria looking at him. He sat silently on the couch holding the warm cup with his left hand and holding a burning cigarette in between his first and middle fingers of his right hand. Maria turned and walked across the room to avoid breathing the swirling smoke from Adam’s cigarette. She stopped in front of a full-length, oval mirror. Maria looked at herself for a brief moment before stroking back her black hair into a ponytail. In the mirror, Maria could see Adam still sitting on the couch staring out the window and into the distance. She walked over and sat down beside him.
“Where do we go from here—where do we really belong, Maria?” he asked softly.
Knowing the answer since the very first day they met, Maria paused before whispering, “I don’t know. I was hoping you would tell me.” She waited for his answer, but nothing was said. Silence filled the air. There wasn’t a need to mention anything to Maria about the new job, about relocating, Adam thought. With the sun now fading into the horizon to meet its daily death and both bankrupt for words, Adam snubbed out his cigarette, took the last sip from the cup, stood up from the couch, and made his way out of her apartment and out to the street. Maria followed Adam out to the sidewalk. Upon reaching the cracked, concrete curb, Maria looked into Adam’s blue eyes. She invited his image to be burned into her memory before softly kissing him on his left cheek and whispering “good bye, Adam.” She turned around and walked back toward the Victorian. He continued looking forward and walked back to his car. With each step that Adam took, he imagined the ground behind him crumbling and falling into the earth’s core, leaving no path of return.
The words “Don’t look back” echoed in Adam’s head, as he stepped in and started up his blue car. After checking the Celica’s side mirrors to see if any cars were coming, he pulled out into the street and began to drive away. Adam tried desperately not to look in the rearview mirror but failed. Maria stood bare foot in the middle of the street.
“Keep driving, man. Just drive and quit looking in the damn mirror. It’s for your own good and hers. You’re doing the right thing, just keep driving, and don’t look back,” he said aloud in attempt to convince himself that he was doing the right thing; even though, it didn’t feel completely right, but rather forced. While driving under the canopy of a darkened and soon-to-be fogged over sky, Adam quickly picked three of the brightest stars in the heavens—one for Maria, one for him, and one for what could have been.
Four days passed since they last talked, and Adam tried everything to stop thinking of Maria, but he couldn’t. He tried calling some old friends in search of a few comforting words of reason, of support, but was unsuccessful, nothing but answering machines. He lost his appetite for food, so he replaced it with caffeine and nicotine. And at night, when most of the people were resting in a deep slumber, Adam would make his way up to his rooftop where he would sit and watch the city’s illuminating lights permeate through the darkness and rolling fog. He would sit for hours at times, smoking cigarette after cigarette, hoping that something in the darkness would bring something into light, something stronger than him. But instead, he imagined hearing Maria’s voice calling out in the distance, calling out to him.
The inner voices in his head began to silence as the days continued on without Maria. The voices weren’t any of haunting or lunacy, but voices attempting to persuade Adam’s opinions regarding Maria. The voices whispered: See, I told you she’s different. You know, she’ll never understand you. She’ll be better off with someone like herself—yeah, someone like herself. Somebody easily impressed. She’s too simple. She’s set in her bohemian ways. You can’t wait for things to change; some things just are, some things will always be with or without you, you know that. Listen, do yourself a favor; let it end; let it end quietly, like a responsible, educated adult. Anyway, you need time for yourself, time to do the things that you’ve been wanting to do. The odds are against her; they have always been against her. Don’t blame yourself for that; it’s not your fault. You can do it; just let it end. She’ll find her way. She always does. It’s for the best. You know it’s true, Adam. Don’t be taken in by her idealistic ways. And remember, sacrifice is the road to success. By the fifth day, the voices could no longer be heard; all have been silenced, all except for the loudest one.
The next morning, Adam awoke, got out of bed, walked into the pale-white bathroom, placed his hands upon the cold sink and looked into the mirror. There he was, staring into his own eyes. He remained stone-faced for a moment or two, then slowly cracked a smile. As he prepared himself by brushing his teeth and dragging a razor across his lathered face, he imagined kissing Maria after asking her to marry him. He didn’t know exactly how he was going to ask her, but he knew that it needed to be said, today.
The morning was warm with a slight breeze. Adam pulled out of his driveway and steered his Celica toward Nineteenth Avenue. He soon began going over a couple different ways of asking Maria to marry him. “Listen, Maria, we’ve had some good times and we’ve had some—no, that’s not it. Maria, can I talk to you? Can we talk, Maria? Hmmm. Maria, pack up the house. We’re getting married and moving away. No. I got a new job and would like to know if you would like to marry me? Hmmm. Not bad. Hmmm. Think.”
It was obvious that Adam had no clue of how he was going to ask Maria to marry him, so instead of racking his head over the perfect words that would best illustrate his love for her, he lit up a cigarette, rolled his window down, turned up the volume knob on the old cassette deck and enjoyed the ride into Golden Gate Park. The sun’s rays warmed his skin.
Adam continued rehearsing the big question. He searched for the right words and phrase but fell short. Adam desired to deliver his words of love to Maria like a poet delivers his words to his muse, but Adam knew that his talent for composing love filled prose was as graceful as a pissed off wildebeest in antique shop. At a red light, Adam began experimenting with different tonal effluxions, soft ones, louder ones, quieter, back and forth, until his soft whisper grew into a loud “Marry me!” Realizing he was still sitting at a red light, Adam looked around to see if anyone was questioning his sanity. He saw a slightly older man sitting in a paint-faded, Chevy truck staring at him with a somewhat inviting smile. A gold, front tooth shined through the brown hairs of the man’s long and thick mustache. The light changed saving Adam from an awkward situation. The older man shouted something dirty at Adam, as he drove passed the Celica.
Adam drove through the Financial District, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and to Maria’s NorthBeach apartment. His heart began to pound a little harder, perspiration formed on his brow, as he signaled to turn down Maria’s street. “No time to think of a clever way to ask now. I’ll just come out and ask. Point blank,” he thought. His eyes scanned the street from side to side, as he looked for a place to park. After circling the block, he found a place in between a brown Buick and a white, Dodge van that wore an old bumper sticker that read, “Support your local union, Local 420.” A sense of victory swept over Adam: he found a parking space less than a block away from the Victorian, in addition, to only nudging the brown sedan and van once before wedging the Celica in between the two. After turning off the engine, he looked at himself in the rearview mirror before stepping out into the somewhat busy street.
Adam’s heart pounded harder with each step he took toward Maria’s front door. Reaching the widespread steps of the Victorian, Adam took a deep breath and made his way to Maria’s apartment. He momentarily stared at her wooden door before knocking on it. The door creaked opened. The apartment was empty. A gray-haired lady dressed in paint-splattered blue jeans and a faded, black sweatshirt was washing down the barren walls.
“Watch out, the kitchen walls are still wet. The place won’t be ready for at least a couple of days. Still gotta fix the shower door and kitchen window. Like I told you the other day on the phone, I want the first, last, and cleaning deposit. No pets. No loud parties. You can store some of your stuff in the basement, and you can park in the back. Number 4,” ordered the middle-aged lady. Adam stood blank-faced and speechless.
“What’s wrong? Oh, don’t mind the curtains, honey. I think they’re some other ones in the basement. Well, you are here to rent the apartment, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m… where’s Maria?”
“Well, the moving van was here yesterday, and she left this morning. About two hours ago. Left in a taxi. She didn’t say where she was goin, so I didn’t ask. I respect privacy. I’ve found out that sometimes it’s best not to know more than what’s needed, you know what I mean? Hey, you okay? You don’t look too good maybe you should sit down.”
Adam surveyed the desolate apartment in attempt to find some sort of clue before turning to leave.
“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Maria gave me an envelope. She said to give it to a guy if ever one came looking. A handsome one, so I guess you’re the one she was talking ‘bout. She said that it would explain everything. Whatever that means.”
The old lady put the wet washrag in the plastic bucket, reached into one of her back pockets and pulled out the envelope and handed it to Adam. The white envelope had black writing on it. The black ink read, “Read when you’re alone.”
“Did she say anything else before she left, like where she was going?”
“Nope, that’s it. You sure you don’t want to rent the place? I can check on those curtains, if you’d like.”
Adam slipped the envelope into his left shirt pocket, turned around and walked outside without saying another word to the lady. Outside and alone, he held the envelope in his right hand; his mind became flooded with countless thoughts of explanations before opening the white envelope. Adam’s questioning eyes stared in disbelief at the Los Angeles address, which was scribbled above some remaining words.
You left me no other choice but to leave San Francisco. If I remained, I would be forever haunted by our memories, memories of you. And you know me, I don’t do very well with those types of things, never have. I’ll be at my aunt’s address for a week, then I’m heading out to New York. Find me now or lose me forever. I hope to see you again, someday. Please take care of yourself, Adam.
Adam looked up from the letter, shifted his sights toward the city’s south end, and smiled. Three images swirled in his mind: Los Angeles; Maria; Marriage.
Thank you for stopping by my blog and reading Under a San Francisco Sky. I hope you enjoyed the story. I’ll be back in a few days with something new. 🙂