The Color of the Sun
I was still arguing with the ticket agent when the last bus to San Francisco rumbled into the loading dock.
‘Why can’t you just give me back the money for one of them?’ I shouted at her again.
‘We are unable to refund tickets at this time, sir.’
‘We are unable to perform refunds at this time, sir.’
‘Why not? Why at this time? What time will you be performing them?’
‘Sir,’ she said, peering over my shoulder to the growing line of people behind me. I glanced back and met the eyes of the person at the very end of it – a man with a thick mustache wearing a baseball cap and a sleeveless neon green t-shirt. He glared at me with a special interest, an interest bordering on hatred, stirred by our opposite positions in the line. Besides his eyes, I could feel hundreds of others in the station fixed skeptically on me – the selfish man haggling over petty policies, the imagined cause of their missed buses and broken itineraries.
‘This is ridiculous.’ I told the ticket agent.
Outside, a bell sounded. People rose and shuffled towards the bus, twirling crisp tickets in their fingers and handing off their bags to the driver who tossed them through the hatch of the Greyhound’s storage deck.
‘When is that going to leave?’ I said, pointing to the bus.
‘Fifteen minutes, sir.’
‘So you’re telling me I’m stuck with this useless forty dollar ticket?’
‘I’ve told you sir. It is not ‘useless’. You can use that ticket any time in the next six months for a separate journey to the same destination.’ I was planning to finance a cheap hotel room with the forty dollars I’d unintentionally invested in the second ticket to San Francisco. Soberly reserving it until some sequence of future events resulted in a second trip did not rank high among my priorities.
That afternoon I’d went on the greyhound website and bought a ticket to San Francisco. I’d never been there before, even though I’d lived in California my whole life. Then, when I arrived twenty minutes before the departure time to pick up my ticket the agent informed me that I had, somehow, bought two tickets instead of one. She was zealously determined to uphold the Greyhound bus line’s procedural consistency and not refund my ticket. I’d had half a bottle of wine before coming to the bus depot, so my ability to detect institutional injustice had been heightened.
A few hours earlier I packed a bag and took the city line downtown. I got off at the railway bridge and walked to Emily’s. She lived in a Victorian house painted bright purple. There were pots of thyme and rosemary sitting on the porch beside a decaying wooden bench that we sometimes sat on, listening to the trains and drinking from frosted mugs. The frail glass windowpanes trembled and shivered like a taut drumhead each time my knuckles rapped against the wooden door. After a few seconds I saw the blurred, blobby head of a shadow scrutinizing me through the glass. Emily squealed, threw open the door and pulled me through the entrance when she recognized me.
‘I thought you were gone!’
‘No, I’m leaving in a few hours, tonight. I just wanted to say goodbye before I left.’ I was returning on Monday, but I wanted to register my disappearance with her. I knew we were both fearful of breaking the pattern of nightly visits that only started four weeks ago, after we met for the first time. The routine was in its infancy, so it was possible that even a small break like this could end these visits and we would quickly totter into an awkward friendship that saw us slowly fade back to being strangers. If these nights ended now we would remember one another only as obscure characters belonging to a season, like a friend you make on a two-week holiday; we would be outlandish, semi-exotic, half-forgotten people to each other, people who we might find it hard to believe we’d ever known or been on the brink of intimacy with.
I left my traveling bag in the hallway and she led me to her room. It was decorated with vibrant sarongs hanging from the ceiling that depicted images of Ganesh and Shiva. There were tall vases filled with sunflowers and lavender scattered on the surfaces around her room. Spirals of incense smoke drifted towards the ceiling; I could see boxes of thrift-shop jewelry spread open on her bed. The curtains were bright yellow, the color of the sun in a children’s book. We sat together on the floor atop a woolen rug embroidered with the pattern of a Hopi eagle. Art made by her friends hung on the walls and the colorful room had the appearance of what I thought the inside of a painter’s skull would look like.
‘Do you want some wine?’ she asked.
‘I would love some.’
‘Red or white?’
A few minutes later she returned to the room with a bottle of 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. She was from Napa and her retired parents operated a small private vineyard, but, she explained, this was not one of their bottles. Emily set two large goblets down on the rug. She’d placed three or four clumps of lavender inside each cup from a pot she kept in the kitchen.
‘I love lavender. It relaxes you,’ she sighed when she noticed I was staring at the flowers in my cup. ‘Do you want them in your wine? I can take them out?’
‘It’s fine. Leave it.’ I looked from the cup to her face and saw that Emily wore pieces of lavender tucked in her hair behind one ear, and two entwined daisies behind the other. When she leaned over to pour the wine I looked at her body. She was wearing a silky vintage dressing gown with a small rip in the thigh and a dirty lace hem. I sipped my wine and stepped over to the record player. It seemed that she wore the same gown every evening.
Emily’s turntable sat on an antique chest of drawers that she’d painted white and pink a long time ago. Picking through the wobbly tower of vinyl’s stacked on the dresser, I found an early, acoustic, Bob Dylan record and carefully placed the needle over the spinning black ridges.
‘So, who’s going to San Francisco with you?’ Emily asked. She was staring into the flames of one of the candles lighting the room.
‘Nobody. I’m going alone.’
‘Don’t you want someone to go with you? Someone that knows the city and could show you around?’ Emily asked in a high-pitched voice.
‘No. That’s the last thing I want,’ I told her. ‘I want to see it for the first time by myself – explore it alone so that I get a true sense of it.’
‘But if someone was with you who knew the city you could see the best parts and not waste time getting lost and stuff.’
‘See the best parts only!? I don’t want to go there as a tourist!’ I shouted, ‘I want to see it all – the nice parts and the trashy parts.’
‘Well, I was only thinking. I know San Francisco like the back of my hand. I went there all the time when I was growing up and if you want I would go with you and show you my favorite places. I know someone with a house and they would let us stay in it.’ Emily fixed her big twinkling brown eyes on me, and a glowing smile grew across her bronzed face. ‘Really, I could throw some stuff in a bag right now and go with you.’ When I did not answer, her face snapped away and I could see she was frenziedly groping about the room with her eyes for the bottle of wine. ‘Another glass?’ she finally asked.
‘Yes. Please.’ Emily’s smooth skin was tanned under the straps of her dress and as far up her thigh as I could see beneath the slip. She was, I imagined, tanned all over her entire body – across her naval, over her nipples, down the ridge of her back. When she handed me another glass of wine, she caught me looking at her gown and smirked.
‘Emily,’ I told her as I put my hand on her thigh, ‘I would love for you to go, but I feel like I have to go to San Francisco alone for my first big trip there.’ I planned the trip before I knew her, and I imagined myself tangled in swashbuckling adventures involving danger and women, fortunes and debauchery.
‘Well, that’s fine,’ she sighed, ‘enjoy your trip.’ I withdrew my hand from her leg. She made an effort to smile.
A few years later it turned out that we lived only a few streets away from one another in the Netherlands. We used to walk beside the canals together, and sit in wicker chairs drinking French and Spanish wines outside brick cafes built under the arches of bridges. One night over a bottle of wine I told her the real reasons that I did not let her come with me to San Francisco. We both laughed about it then, in that future era – but in the moment of telling her that she couldn’t come, she only sighed and looked away from me. We sat listening to the music in silence, drinking our wine quickly, as if we’d been compelled to finish our glasses by some antagonistic force, as if there were some darkness forcing us apart. I began to think that this would be the last time I would ever see her.
‘Damn,’ I said when I looked at my watch, ‘I better get going!’ I emptied the rest of my glass down my throat and jumped to my feet.
‘Enjoy your trip!’ she called to me as I raced out of her room and left the house. A moment later, halfway to the sidewalk, I realized I’d forgotten my bag and when I knocked on the door to get it Emily was waiting behind the wooden frame, carrying it out for me. She handed it to me delicately, as if it were storing a frail living thing, softly brushing the back of my hand with her fingertips. Her brown eyes were focused on my face and she began to lean towards me, as if there were small words written over my lips and eyes whose meanings she believed proximity would absorb. She wanted me to kiss
‘Goodbye Emily! See you Monday! I’ll miss you!’ I shouted, before venturing to squeeze her. I could feel the warm curves of her body through the sheer gown. I turned and ran towards the station. She stood in the doorway and waved as I cut across the lawn and ducked under the drooping leaves of the giant willow in the yard.
Standing there in the noisy station, with two tickets in my hand and fifteen minutes until the bus would leave, I thought about calling Emily and offering her the extra ticket. If I did, things would change; we would step across an enthralling threshold at whose gates we’d been clamoring for days.
Just then, I saw Vincent walk by. With his long brown hair and beard, he resembled a gaunt Christ. I knew him only slightly, and as I watched him saunter past the depot door, he struck me as the most aimless person I had ever seen in my entire life. Vincent, I thought, totally lacked the fire of inner motivation that gives a person purpose and hurls them towards the unique destiny created by the pattern of your personal choices. He lacked goals and ideas and seemed to be filled with as much purpose as a broom that a wizard has animated to do his bidding.
I strode out of the bus station and called his name. ‘Vincent.’
He turned towards me passively, like an animal that understands its name has been uttered, but nothing more.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘Well, do you want to go to San Francisco?’
‘Yeah, sure, I’ve never been before.’
‘Perfect, neither have I. Listen, I’ve got a ticket for you.’
‘It’s fifty bucks. Round trip. You want it?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ He said, and he unfolded his wallet, and handed me the money with the automatic movements of a cashier returning change.
‘I’ll have to go and pick up a bag of stuff.’ Vincent said.
‘No time,’ I informed him. ‘You can get whatever you need up there. It’s San Francisco, not some village outpost. They’ll have everything.’
‘You’re right. Is this our bus?’
‘Yes, yes it is. Let’s go.’
Outside the bus window, the fading metropolis we were leaving behind resembled white bulbs of Christmas lights strewn over a field forty miles long.
Sitting on the bus I imagined we were wandering towards the final province of the western empire. Before it became as familiar to me as all the cities I’ve come to know have, San Francisco still had the smell of old book pages and the taste of burnt coffee at midnight. It was still the western frontier town, at the edge of the empire, beside the darkness, where all the dreams blown across a wild continent go. A wooden city built off gold and blood, rotting silently in the fog of the bay.
Finally, the first golden lights appeared over the ridges of forested hills. Each particle of glittering city light broadcast dreams over the mountains and the black waters of the bay, inspiring obsessions in the minds of all they caught. They whispered the obsessive language of dreams and hope, and propelled us towards commitments in the frontiers. They were dreams to launch you into the wilderness, into the cities, and back out to country.
The bus dropped Vincent and I off in an area lacking all the classic landmarks I’d expected to see. I looked to my left and right, expecting the golden gate bridge, city lights bookstore, and Alcatraz to be waiting there for me, like a welcoming party. Instead, the tall, cold, buildings of the financial district rose around us like a somber pack of frozen titans. The glittering black monoliths pierced the air thousands of feet above us and blocked out the stars and the moon. We’d arrived in a deserted ghost town with no sense of direction.
While looking at a map in the bus station parking lot, a big black man leaning against a brick wall in a corner across the street looked up and stared at us. He was wearing a leather jacket, fingerless gloves and had a red scarf wrapped around his dreadlocks. His clothes had the ragged, jaunty elegance of the dress of Wise men in biblical times. A smile flashed upon his enormous face and he started walking towards us. He was so suddenly moved to action, it was as if he’d been lying dormant for thousands of years waiting for our arrival to awaken from hibernation.
‘You got a skin?’ He asked in a booming voice.
‘A skin?’ I answered.
‘What is a skin?’ Vincent asked distantly. It was as if it was not really Vincent talking – but some non-human entity using his passive, paralyzed face as a mouthpiece to speak from a great distance, controlling his actions remotely from another planet or a moon in a far away galaxy.
‘You know man,’ He said as he tapped Vincent on the shoulder, ‘a paper, for rolling a cigarette.’
‘Ah – no skins. But here’s a cigarette.’
‘Thanks.’ He took out a small pouch and shoved little herbs into the top of the cigarette. The air filled with a holy, frankincense-like smell when he lit it.
‘Hey, hey, wait, before you leave,’ I called to him as he began to drift away, ‘can you tell us where Union Square is?’
‘Union Square!’ He laughed as he turned back to me, ‘why’re you trying to go there? There ain’t nothing in Union Square ‘cept fancy shops and shit.’
‘We’ve never been to San Francisco before and that’s where our hostel is.’
‘Never been to San Francisco! Ha! I lived In San Francisco most my life. I can’t believe you never been here before. Well boys,’ he said, ‘You made it!’ He extended his palm, as large and dramatically sculpted as one belonging to a bronze statue of a colossus, and shook our hands as if he were the mayor welcoming us to his own city.