There was a time that I fell in love once: with life, slowly with myself, and with a beautiful boy who completely turned my world upside down. A beauteous man child who taught me about life and love and artistic vision as salvation, a stunning combination of Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, and River Phoenix combined, whose good looks and quiet demeanour had me transfixed at every breath in his presence. Jim for his wildness, Harrison for his magnitude, and River for his complete awareness and gratitude for every living thing, the pleasure of dreams.
As fate would have it, we met on an island: he appeared oceanside in an oversized red flannel jacket, ready to take me into the unknown. We wandered through forests, hallucinated at midnight, waded in hot springs. That summer I borrowed a copy of Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road from his father’s bookshelf and would thumb the pages as I anxiously awaited his late night knock arrival at my door once he finished work. After a whirlwind romance, we moved in together: I packed up my old life and started anew, following my heart, halfway across the country with little more than a solitary suitcase on wheels and the inner knowings of intuition.
After a year, as it does, the cracks started to appear, slowly, in the veneer: our lives taking separate directions, me for work, him for finding his place in the world. Our last adventure was to be in San Francisco, staying with friends of his just outside the Haight. I had always felt a deep affinity for San Francisco, that shimmering jewel and one of the last great bastions of light. The city I spent much of my youth reading, fantasizing and dreaming about, watching old faded newsreel footage of beautiful teenagers dancing and swaying in Golden Gate Park, on Haight Street, and at the Fillmore. The Beats started here, the hippies and freaks basked in their glory. It had always felt like home.
Little did I know that my first visit would also be nine days of heartache and heartbreak, and the dual layers of a break up in a place I had always wanted to visit was even harder to endure. Long distance and change were in the air, but all I wanted was to hold on for dear life. How painful to watch something you love slip completely through your fingers.
The trip remains like snapshots in my mind, impressions I look back to like prismatic slide film in a personal hand-held viewer: taking many photographs of his perfectly curled matted ringlets on Haight Street, in Golden Gate, we’d sometimes walk hand in hand, other times in tears.
We climb Coit Tower and drink a bottle of champagne, looking down at the city as if it were a tiny mirage of the vast memoir of our lives, pondering our futures and our past. We go to a late-night showing of Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the famed Castro Theatre and the murals inside leave me enraptured. We walk around the Panhandle and I’m struck at the tenacity and strength of a female statue whose name I never learn. Visiting the Beat Museum, taking in the relics of a bygone era that is such a part of our present, I spot Kerouac’s flannel overcoat in a glass case amidst shelves of strewn dirty paperbacks and am struck at the notes of preservation and decay of such pristine window displays. It was one of the moments on the trip where I held back tears from the sheer awe of being in the presence of pure inspiration.
I purchased Patti Smith’s Just Kids from City Lights, using a postcard of Gary Snyder sitting in the mountains of somewhere California as a bookmark, a 99-cent sliver of paradise. As I poured over the story of her ill-fated artistic love affair, I immediately noticed the parallels with my own life, realizing how uncannily similar this beautiful boy looked to a young Robert Mapplethorpe, the same feathers and necklaces and pursuit of art and beauty, with Patti’s narrative and experiences seeming to reflect my own. I started to read the book on the mattress we shared, under a tired wall hanging, on the floor of that cavernous apartment where you could watch the fog roll in from beautiful big bay windows at just the right time and angle of each day. I finished the memoir on the plane ride home, sobbing in between the pages and in the midst of connecting airports, feeling as though my heart was truly breaking into small shiny prisms that if I was lucky, would transport me back and fall onto the tips of my toes in my new Tibetan sandals bought specifically in the Haight.
Three years later, I returned to San Francisco to visit new friends. It felt like the city was waiting for me, alive and well, never flinching or turning its back. I knew I’d come home again. Confronting the demons I’d left behind, a fraction of my being, deep in my bones, was nervous to revisit the wake of my former self. I had recently ended a brief ‘romance’ with an equally daunting ‘old soul’ character, and the parallels again did not elude me. It seemed to make, to me at least, perfect sense that I would be revisiting this particular city to find myself amidst the garbage and the flowers of my past, clearing karma, hoping to explore new places, encountering moments of another time, another era, but in the present.
I make a beeline for the coloured tiled walls of Vesuvio, the graffiti and tributes and words and spaces of Kerouac Alley. Ascending into City Lights, I purchase a new edition copy of The Subterraneans, New York romance and desire reflected in the shimmering jewel, my San Francisco decadence and despair reflected in the same shimmering jewel; a story I’d read before, walking in my own prior footsteps, repeating the same taffeta patterns, still searching for answers, for truth. At the sweet hub and heartbeat of it all, I walk downstairs and up, creaking along the hardwood floors, taking in all of the what’s gone before this very moment. Tuning in to the ghosts and visions of Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, McClure, and all the prophesizing of poetry and existence in late night wine-soaked comminglings, I think quietly of how much “I’ve always loved it here.”
I notice the soft sunlight pouring in as I reach the upstairs poetry room, once there remembering the photograph I took of that boy at the window of my youth, sitting in the chair, thumbing a book of Sylvia Plath’s, his bottle of beer purchased at a nearby corner store to accompany our walk around Washington Square Park, hidden from view, brown paper bagged, swigged in an afternoon mild state of drunkenness to escape the pain or to enjoy the sorrow and sheer thrill of being alive.
Conspicuous only in its absence. I photograph “his chair,” this time empty in my breath of 2016. Both photographs remind me of a little death. Conspicuous only in his absence. I turn on my heel to leave, taking one last look back at the sunlight, and the emptiness.
“ah, you always go for the ones who don’t really want you”
I will always remember my subterranean boy.