Walking Away From the Fire
by JOSIANE CURTIS
A week before I left San Francisco, my fire alarm sounded shortly after I got home from work. I had smelled smoke when I walked into the building and paid no attention, but when the alarm rang, it was enough to make my heart quicken. It was enough to make the clichéd question run through my head, what do you want to save?
I think of it now and mentally wander through each nook of my apartment, ticking off a combination of materially and sentimentally valuable items: my computer, my cell phone, Alex’s itchy grey sweater and the smell he left on it, old journals, a photo album, my signed copy of The Chronology of Water.
That day, I walked out of my building less than a minute later, holding only my dog’s leash. It wasn’t the sort of neighborhood where you know your neighbors, so a group of nervous strangers gathered down the street, some clutching computers or more nostalgic keepsakes to their chests, and watched the fire trucks arrive. I sat on the curb, stroking Simba’s ears to calm him from the sirens as the firefighters disappeared into the building like ants into an anthill. One of them ran the giant hose up the stairwell, eventually reaching the third-floor apartment where a gas leak had set the kitchen on fire.
The fire represents such a small event in the grand scheme of my year in San Francisco, I often forget it happened. I didn’t see it as that time I came close to losing all my belongings, because by that time, I had nothing that belonged. Weeks before I left, even my two best friends in the city had gone abroad on teaching programs. Besides the dog at my side, there was literally nothing in San Francisco, material or otherwise, that would matter to me if it burned.
A year and some change earlier, days before the New Year and my twenty-third birthday, I flew into SFO from Costa Rica. I’d fled California on a one-way ticket after college to surf, teach English, and explore but mostly to escape, and then I’d lived carelessly and run out of money much earlier than expected. I had no choice but to come home, leaving my traveling partner to enjoy for both of us the dream life we’d built together. I got off the plane starved, dirty, and completely directionless.
My mother picked me up from the airport drunk, falsely happy, and looking more disheveled than I did after two days of traveling. My welcome home was demanding her out of the driver’s seat, trying to remember how to maneuver a stick shift through the steep streets of SF, and nearly crashing in the rainbow-painted tunnel just over the Golden Gate Bridge when an empty bottle of wine rolled out from under the seat and lodged itself under the brake pedal.
I returned, reluctantly, to my hometown. I went back to waiting tables at the restaurant I’d worked in throughout high school, not surprised to find all the same people still working there, eight years later. I didn’t unload my things from the storage unit they’d gone into when I left the country: If they went from U-Haul to storage to U-Haul, it would mean I had never officially moved back home. My goal was to save some money, staying just long enough to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and then go do it.
San Francisco was a place I’d known since I was a child, but it was never part of the plan. It was a place we learned about in elementary school, a historic gateway to a better life, but it was not a place where anyone actually lived. It was where you went to do special holiday shopping and be a tourist for the day, eating chowder bowls at Fishermen’s Wharf and posing on the Golden Gate for pictures that would become Christmas cards. Later, it was bachelorette parties and New Year’s Eves. It was the place you flew in and out of.
My tiny hometown started to feel like quicksand quickly and in February, when Alex was killed by a drunk driver, I got depressed and desperate, yet again, to escape. I decided to go first and do the figuring out later.
I pictured the woman I could be in San Francisco: business casual, strutting the steep hills in expensive three-inch heels, hair parted on one side and slicked back into a professional-looking bun. A to-go coffee cup would be my go-to accessory. I would drink Americanos. I would work as an event planner or someone’s assistant and have Taco Tuesdays in the Marina where men in suits would buy me drinks. I’d meet someone, and we’d spend Sundays giggling over champagne and raspberries on a blanket in Dolores Park. That girl looked happy. You could be happy here, she told me.
I moved in March.
Instead of happy, I was broke. I grew up hearing that money doesn’t buy happiness, but when you and your dog are living off Costco bags of rice, you reach a point at which that becomes total bullshit. I was so broke I couldn’t see beyond it.
I secured a shoebox of an apartment before securing a job, which seemed like the necessary step at the time, but was a mistake for which I would pay, literally and figuratively, for the entire time I was locked into the lease. It was 2009, and though Craigslist was teeming with job postings, there were thousands of applicants for every open position. I sent dozens of resumes a day, crafting cover letters about how much I’d always wanted to do whatever it was the job description said you’d be doing. I was naïvely self-assured, and unexpectedly thin-skinned in the face of rejection. In the four months it took me to find work, I drained every penny I’d saved since returning from Costa Rica. The thought of getting a credit card was a dangerous joke.
I had a few friends already living in the city, the closest of whom was at my apartment when a small immigration law firm called to make a hiring offer. The work would be monotonous and paid only $400 more a month than I paid for rent, but it was work, and we were ecstatic. Gabe ran to the corner store and bought a bottle of Cook’s and we popped the cork and jumped on the bed and laughed hard, the kind of gasping, unending laughter of girls who have gone too long without it, who have forgotten what it feels like. Laughter that comes back like driving a stick shift, in short, jerky bursts, like this, you remember. It was the beginning of summer, and the feeling of hope lasted about as long as the heat of a summer in San Francisco does — a few weeks, if you’re lucky.
San Francisco is only seven miles by seven miles. This figure is often cited to emphasize how many people are crammed into such a small space. It’s all those tiny apartments! Buildings stacked like legos! It’s true, but I mention it more to emphasize the strange space warp that is the sprawling, supposedly only seven square mile city. Walking from one neighborhood to any other was a workout and, depending on the time of night and the neighborhoods involved, an often ill-advised adventure. Public transportation was a sweaty nightmare in which a woman once set a bag of dead, plucked chickens on my lap on the way though Chinatown; in which we once had to evacuate the bus in the middle of the steepest hill in the city because a man had used a seat as a toilet. If you had a car, its main purpose seemed to be stockpiling parking tickets, and if you found a spot you could stay in for more than a night, few errands seemed worth giving it up. My apartment was less than three miles from the ocean, and still, making it there was a feat. In San Francisco, somehow a few miles away was a day trip.
One Sunday morning in early August, I awoke in a tangle of the saddest sort, completely unaware of whose bed I was in or how I’d gotten there. Unfamiliar beige sheets twisted around my legs like twine. This would not be uncommon in the months that followed. I would learn to wake at dawn even through blackout curtains. I would become an expert at escaping from even the oldest apartments in silence, a creaky floor and rusty doorknob whisperer.
Once outside, I scanned street signs, triangulated landmarks to locate myself in the sprawling city. I was in the Presidio, which, relative to every other neighborhood in those seven square miles, meant I was in the middle of fucking nowhere. I hailed a taxi with early morning ease or maybe it was desperation, and slid across cracked leather to sit behind the driver. I recited my cross-streets like a tired toast, To Franklin and Sutter! and avoided eye contact, wiping snot bloody with the bad decisions of the night before on the bottom of the seat. The crumpled bills in my pocket got me within a few blocks of home.
In those few blocks, I sidestepped a syringe and a collection of used condoms, unflinching, but I shied away from the window of the falafel shop down the street from my apartment. Inside, I knew the owner would be getting ready for the day, placing pre-made sandwiches into the cold case with hands like my grandfather’s. I knew he would smile warmly and, having caught my reflection in the taxicab window, motor oil puddles of mascara under my eyes, I couldn’t bear the thought.
If there’s one undeniable red flag to signal that you’ve hit rock bottom, it’s thinking you don’t deserve the smile of a stranger. I woke early the next day and watched the sunrise from Lafayette Park before work. Even the soft, apricot morning light wasn’t enough to make the buildings look anything but cruel. I knew then that I would leave the city.
I had lived there five months. It had been six since the drunk driving accident that killed Alex. A month before, my mother had made her first suicide attempt of many, on my first day of work at the law firm. My car had been stolen a week after that, then recovered, then set on fire and completely destroyed a week later in a random act of arson. My family dog had gotten sick during my mother’s breakdown, and everyone was so busy taking care of her that his refusal to eat went unnoticed. By the time his withering frame was obvious enough to warrant a trip to the vet, he was too far gone to save. My father was, as always, absent. My bank account was, as always, empty.
The long versions of those stories are for another time. The short version is that the city had fast established itself, in my mind, as a backdrop for bad things to happen. With seven months until I could leave, goodbye was already on its way out of my mouth.
I’ll never know if, under different circumstances, I could have stayed in San Francisco. How much of your experience of a place depends on the place itself, and how much depends on circumstances of your life unrelated to your environment? I wrap my mind in circles trying to answer that question, wondering if, at a different time, I could have been happy there; if I could have lived a Full House fairy tale in business casual attire.
And even if I could have, would I want to? That woman does exist, somewhere in the city, but I have a feeling I was not ever supposed to be her.
Instead of the woman I once pictured being in San Francisco, I think of the girl I was there: Instead of learning to scale steep hills in expensive heels, Gabe will teach me how to sneak onto BART by choosing a friendly-looking stranger and following creepily close behind them as they walk through a turnstile. Instead of guacamole and margaritas in the Marina, I will eat a lot of rice.
I will learn to stop saying no thank you when I want to say yes please. It is only in dire need that I will finally learn how to ask for what I need.
I will pay too much for my apartment, and though I’ll have a cough all year because of mold deep in the walls, I’ll adore it. I will love it the way a dog grows to love the confines of its kennel, the safety of low ceilings and comfort of dark corners. Inside that apartment, and in some ways because of it, I will read more in a year than almost every other year of my life combined.
I will watch sunsets from fire escapes and tar-speckled rooftops, taking pulls from a brown paper bag until someone eventually starts strumming a guitar. I was not meant to meet businessmen but artists and musicians and bartenders and hair stylists, a melting pot of people who come together late at night to collapse onto a couch someone found two years ago on the street.
I will hit rockier bottoms than I ever have before, or since. But I will gain things in return that are more important than happiness. I will shrink, become just this hip-bone body, and some days I’ll see my own cheekbones in the faces of the crack addicts outside the Civic Center. I will learn gratitude. I will recognize all the ways in which I am lucky.
San Francisco will teach me how to self-preserve. I will learn that, no matter how much you love them, some people have problems you are not equipped to fix. I will leave knowing not to blame myself for my mother’s unhappiness, or my father’s absence. I will leave knowing not to predicate my own wellbeing on anyone else’s.
When my phone rings one Saturday at six a.m. and the police tell me that a schizophrenic homeless woman burned my car to the ground last night, a boy I met only a few hours earlier will get up and leave the apartment wordlessly, returning minutes later with an 18-pack of beer.
I will never be 30 and boring with no stories. San Francisco will be a ruthless bitch, but she will give me so many stories I will spend my life trying to find ways to tell them all.
Even on the greyest days, rainbow flags wave in the Castro and the reds and oranges of the murals in the Mission dance with each other like flames from opposite sides of the street. For a year straight, every time I step outside I will feel the city vibrate under my skin like standing too close to the speakers at a concert. This will both wear me out and keep me going, depending on the day.
One afternoon a few weeks before moving to Portland, I will indeed giggle over champagne and raspberries on a blanket in Dolores Park, where a group of friends, all soon to abandon the city, have gathered to say goodbye. After seven months of staying when I wanted to be gone, I will lie back on the grass and close my eyes, my head sounding with a tired optimist's mantra: what hasn’t killed me, hasn’t killed me. I will feel more alive in that moment than I ever have before, or since.
I arrived in San Francisco with all kinds of baggage. I left holding only my dog’s leash.
Josiane Curtis is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Portland. You can find her website here.
Photographs by Stephanie Crocker and the author.
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