Carmen had not been in San Francisco in nearly three months, and Neil had not been there for several years. It was early Friday evening; they had no school tomorrow and no deadlines tonight, and apparently Carmen had finally decided that she liked Neil. So they headed in.
It was rush hour and the commuters coming back from San Francisco were choking the lower level of the Bay Bridge, but the upper level was reasonably clear. Carmen slid skillfully through traffic, found the right lane and made the wide southward loop that would put them on Van Ness. The city lights were just beginning to come on, as the lowering sun turned the skyscrapers to brass.
They parked in the lot beside the Maritime Museum and walked out to look at the boat basin. Since Neil had been there last, the three master Balclutha had been acquired and moved in. She was silhouetted against the lights of Richmond. The Thayer was gone, but when he inquired of a passer-by, Neil found out that it was just in dry-dock for repairs.
Neil said, “I was worried there for a minute.”
“Why? What is the Thayer?”
“Haven’t you see her? She’s been tied up here for years.”
Carmen laughed. “If it has been here for years, then I have seen it, but one ship looks just like another to me.”
“How can you say that? That’s like saying when you’ve seen one woman, you’ve seen them all. Balclutha is all right; she’s pretty enough, but she has no real historical significance. The Thayer was a west coast lumber schooner. She was built on Humbolt Bay and sailed the coast of California bringing down the lumber that built this city. I think she is the only one of her kind left.”
“I think you may be the only one of your kind left,” Carmen laughed. “How did you get to be such an expert on ships?”
“My grandfather was in the herring fisheries out of Aberdeen in the twenties. When they went bust, he came to America with my grandmother, and my father in nappies. That’s diapers in American.”
“I know what nappies are. I watch PBS.”
“Anyway, my grandfather settled in Astoria, at the mouth of the Colombia, and took up salmon fishing. He was still working at it when he was seventy-five. My father grew up with the sea and hated it. He got a job as a carpenter, worked his way up to being a contractor, put me through college, and dropped dead of a heart attack at age fifty. My grandfather went to his funeral. He’s still alive, and tough as leather.”
Neil stopped talking and stared at the ships. He had said too much, too fast, and his voice had lost its lightness. He had not intended to talk about his father. It was too soon after his death to speak lightly of it and the flippancy he had tried to assume had turned to bile in his mouth.
Carmen put her hand on his and said, “I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have brought it up. It just slipped out. I meant to just tell you about my grandfather.”
“When did your father die?”
“Two years ago.”
“It has been ten years since my father died,” Carmen said. “I can talk about him now, but I still have the pain. I suppose I always will.”
” ‘If it is cured by anything less than death, the chances are that it was not true sorrow.’ “
“Is that a quote?”
“I’d rather hear McCrae.”
“I didn’t mean to be pretentious.”
“I never thought you were.”
They went up the sidewalk and around the museum to look at the shops in Ghirardelli Square. They did not hold hands because they were not lovers; but they were becoming friends. The old black guitarist with the raspy voice and the pictures of himself with the stars was playing his ragged blues as they passed by. They admired the paintings in the galleries on Beach Street. Neil like the semi-nude self portraits by Ruby Lee. Carmen thought they were self-indulgent. Neil agreed, and liked them anyway. Carmen wanted to know if he liked the art or the subject. Neil said, “Both.”
They took a cable car from the Hyde Street station and played tourist, riding the hills as the city turned on her multi-colored night face. Downtown they counted the couples, categorizing them him-her, him-him, and her-her, and found out that San Francisco was still basically a heterosexual city.
They went to Chinatown, side by side, hands in pockets; but where Neil walked, Carmen strode, heels clicking, soles twisting under the back thrust of her lean legs, with a motion that turned heads wherever they went. Neil had never seen her this way, free, relaxed, laughing, full of tasteless jokes and outrageous puns. She had shed her teacher persona. It was her night to howl.
They ended the night at the Plow and Stars, listening to Golden Bough, and caught the last cable car back to Fishermen’s Wharf. They made the long drive home in a companionable silence, broken by the sound of soft music on the radio and only occasionally by talk. Neil watched her profile in the light from the instrument panel and thought her beautiful. more tomorrow