Nothing close to atonement - original fiction by Chris Castro

San Francisco ignores you til you leave.

Southern end of Mission looking north towards downtown.
photograph by Chris Castro

unconsciously or not, maria brings something out of me. when i still wanted her to see me as something she wanted, or to put it another way, when i still could very easily call to mind the picture of her writhing on top of me repeating "don't come, don't come, don't come" i felt an overpowering urge to show her i had gotten better. at fucking, at controlling my emotions, at exercising patience, at life basically. since then i have realized what i valued from her as "not letting me get away with bullshit" might have been partially her demeanor in general, a bit colder and less capable of empathy than what i had been used to from girls prior. a friend she may have only tolerated years ago because of my predilections for his company once told me he had texted her randomly recently and had gotten a blow-off sarcastic response, opining "i had forgotten she's kind of a total bitch". maybe that was the case. and maybe i'm just a leaky sobbing shit when i need to be.

the night had started as well and nostalgically as one in san francisco can. the years i spent there seemed only to spur on the dizzying spin of possibility that can only be achieved by walking quickly eastward down fulton with fog and spitting rain mere meters behind and a pint of whiskey in your pocket. when i got to the corner of divisadero and fulton i found a convenient spot to watch the blaze of lights, traffic and bicyclists pass and sip from the pint bottle every few minutes.

with mass transit one begins to have an almost mystical belief in certain trips being fated; fated to arrive on time, when you round a corner and there is your bus waiting just a street or two up, the timing perfect, or fated to arrive horribly late. i was already late, it was certainly something i was used to with maria, i was always late, or rude, or something less than desirable when i had no intention of doing or being so. a glance at a cell phone during an idle moment was met with a quick "you have somewhere else to be?" i never knew if my desire for her was an unexplored yen for punishment or the fact that when she had short hair, goddamn. just goddamn. so i figured i would succumb and hail a cab for the twenty block ride.

of course, as soon as i got in the cab i saw the 24 bus looming up out of the mist. i shook my head and said "fuck" slightly too loud, the cab driver, who was talking a mile a minute in farsi on his bluetooth, looked back at me, glaring.

"don't curse in my fucking cab"

i paid him once we got to valencia and 20th, more pissed now that my original bewilderment at his hypocritical admonition had faded. he sneered at me as i tipped him a dollar for the fifteen dollar ride, maybe it was only the whiskey that was causing this petulance, but i'd rather burn it on a anonymous cabbie in sf than a cute girl i was due to meet.

as we ranged up and down valencia, talking about nothing and reacquainting ourselves with the tenuous normalcy we had in the physical presence of each other, i got a text from another girl, rachel, whom i had unsuccessfully attempted to cease communications with, once, and had since then indulged a petty vain flirtation.

petty because at that point i had been with lauren about a year and a half. and vain because this girl was an eyeful.

it was during a period of three months of low intensity warfare between lauren and i, an interpersonal angola-rhodesia conflict. shots in the darkness look more dramatic but are slightly more comforting knowing they cannot even really be said to be "aimed" at you. we hadn't fucked the entire time and i hadn't started counting the hours yet, but could see that point from where i was.

rachel was going to get off bart at what is arguably the hoodest bart station in the city. 16th street. it wasn't simply that there were guys who definitely had assault on their rap sheet right there, but that sometimes they were the ones you felt safest around, as opposed to the trannies who might have worse on theirs. add sudamericano's proselytizing in spanish over tinny loudspeaker and a nearly definite forecast of rambling crackhead, simmer then serve.

i had told maria a friend of mine wanted to grab a drink with us, and perhaps because of her presence, felt more assured (and less guilty) about the whole thing. sure, i was probably betraying some kind of unspoken agreement with lauren in hanging out with beautiful women from my past, so what difference did it make if there were two of them? we walked down into the station and i could see maria's interest growing. she sensed my forced nonchalance and i, having pulled this stunt before, struggled to hide the grin that comes from having pocket aces.

i say i had pulled the stunt before because at one point i had, perhaps even more effectively that time. if you can't bring yourself to tell someone that you've never successfully purged libidinous thoughts about them when by rights and distance you should have ten years ago then show them attractive people still find you attractive and perhaps more importantly, you treat them well enough (perhaps not completely altruistically but without blatant machinations) that they want to see you often. i tell myself it isn't the need to inflict jealousy but just a gentle reaffirmation of my own desirability.

two years earlier maria had flown into burbank airport to visit a couple of mutual friends we had in the la/inland empire area. i appointed myself unofficial chauffeur since i had the v-6 and manual transmission that freeway driving in la begs for. after spending time with joel and billy (our mutual friends) for several days, i heard from another group of two friends who had come out to la to party and i coordinated meeting up with them later. as i arrived, one of the friends, a fairly stunning female named rachelle, leapt from her chair (she had warned me via phone that she was going to do exactly this when i had called 5 minutes earlier) and ran over to jump into my arms. she is tall and curvy, and was, at that time just two months shy of 21. i hugged her, picked her up and leaned back, taking in the envious looks of the males in the bar from over her shoulder. it was a small karmic rebalance, one i felt i had earned in babying rachelle through several mild alcohol poisonings.

the coincidental similarity between the two names of these girls was an interesting thing to ponder as i drifted away, slightly drunk, sitting on a large rectangular bench in the massive backyard of the zeitgeist bar in san francisco. while maria and rachel got to know each other, at least infinitesimally, i wondered how much the apartments above the bar rented for, if they were all occupied by employees and, having glanced back at the apparent and disparate beauty of the two girls sitting across the table from each other briefly entertained a fantasy of convincing both of these girls to a hotel room and how one could even (without the benefit of expensive drugs) circuitously propose such a thing. i feel like i spent a lot of that 2-3 hour period that way, looking up at the building and wondering different things in the raucous packed outdoor area, then remembering the girls and interjecting or conversing for a few minutes. i wasn't disinterested, the din and my need for self control simply tamed the interest. it got later and more loud as maria posed the question "what were we going to be up to the rest of the night?" there were nebulous plans i had to try and roust up enough people to justify invading james' house where i was staying and whom i had met through lauren. i voiced these plans, immediately realizing that, were i to succeed in this endeavor and show up with people including these girls in tow, i'd most likely only annoy my friends who lived there and further jeopardize my relationship with lauren. looking down at the table and then around at the now quite packed backyard, i realized two things, i had slid, softly and comfortably, into a grinning and confident buzz. the other realization was that it must be fed. during a lull in conversation maria inquired as to whether my friend whom i was staying with was attractive. my initial hesitation on that point was enough to sink james' chances.

"he's fat, isn't he?"

"he used to be, he's lost about 30 pounds..."

"i'm still not convinced"

"lemme call another friend and see what he is up to."

it was difficult for me to legitimately go through my mental rolodex to find a suitable hookup for maria when three quarters of me just wanted to engineer a situation where we'd be sleeping in close proximity to each other. a full quarter of that aforementioned three quarters was most likely just a desire to time travel, to feel twenty years old again. while i'd probably be scolded for being so selfish by most anyone (the ones who would understand are doubtless male) whom i'd reveal this information to, it's a stupid and sisyphean task to attempt to escape who you are.

the slightly better angels of my nature prevailed, i called a former co-worker whom i'd often run around and acted a fool with. he was a handsome guy and i figured potentially maria's type, if only for the night. i left a somewhat cryptic message with the hopes that he was just too high to move and answer the phone.

in a suitable anti-climax, nothing really happened, maria gave up trying to fake something out of the night and left around midnight to catch the last BART to east bay. i made out with rachel on the cab ride we shared, i was going south to sleep in james' garage down around san bruno avenue and she was going further south to daly city where her parents lived. in the confusion of making out, like an asshole, i forgot to leave rachel money for the cab. feeling entirely deserving of the cold concrete floor i was offered at 230 am, i was asleep within 5 minutes.

Posted by Chris Castro on Sept. 27, 2020, 5:47 a.m. from Oakland, CA
Last updated on Sept. 29, 2020, 3:11 a.m.