San Francisco Heart

Leah Mueller

If you deal with crazy people, you become crazy yourself. I should know. I have a degree in crazy, one of those life diplomas people talk about. I didn’t even know who my real father was until I was eighteen. Stepdad was a violent drunk who committed suicide in the backyard. Fortunately, I was out of the house by then. I’m good at not being present while terrible shit is happening, but I still have to deal with the emotional fallout afterward. That’s bad enough, but at least I’ve had a lot of practice.

I was almost fifty, freaking out like a forty-year-old might, trying to squeeze my second midlife crisis out of the ruins of the first. Throughout my weeklong San Francisco vacation, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a drunken poet or a sober yogi. Abundant options existed for both. I scored a boutique hotel room downtown for $69 a night on Priceline, which offered unlimited free wine in the evenings.

Thursday night found me in the Cafe International. Their spoken word/music open mic was abysmal, which surprised me. People were detached and uncommunicative. Quite a contrast to the last open mic I’d attended, in Minneapolis, which offered two-for-one beers all evening. Goddamn Pacific Rim people. They didn’t know how to have a conversation. Perhaps I’d call it an early night.

A guy approached on my left. He made a beeline towards my table, but his eyes were on the empty chair beside me. The place wasn’t crowded. Perhaps he thought there was a small party going on. I’d managed to engage two other people in a dialogue of sorts, and had drawn them around me like a blanket.

I studied him. He looked depressed and agitated, like he was barely holding himself together. His suit jacket created the same impression—clean but frayed, with suede elbow patches. One of those folks trying too hard to look like a San Francisco hipster. “Have a seat,” I said, though he was already in the chair.

He glanced at me without much interest. This struck me as a challenge, one I was eager to take on. The guy was downright irritating, and visibly uncomfortable in public. In other words, perfect. People tell me I’m an extrovert, but I don’t believe them. I’m way too fond of losers to be an extrovert. Losers are awkward, unable to play well with others. They’re my tribe.

I introduced myself, and the guy said his name was Greg. He didn’t order anything. He told me he played guitar, yet he wasn’t carrying a case. “I play here a lot,” he explained. “I just wasn’t in the mood for it today.” I believed him. He looked too sad to play music, like it would require more energy than he had.

“I was trying to meet up with my bandmates,” Greg said. “I guess they decided not to come.” He shrugged to prove it didn’t bother him. “Maybe I’ll just hang out a while. I’m not doing much today. Why are you here?”

This was the first glimmer of real interest he’d shown in me. “I write poetry,” I said. I hadn’t yet come to the point in my life where I could say, “I am a poet.” Instead, I was a person who happened to write poetry. I reached down to the floor, rustled a few papers inside my handbag to show I meant business. “I brought some poems with me, but I don’t go onstage until later.”

Greg sighed. “I’m not sure how long I’m going to be here. Usually I just play. That makes the time go faster.” He fidgeted in his chair and stared at the table. “Do you live nearby?” he asked.

I laughed. “No, Chicago,” I said. “I’m here for a yoga conference. I kind of wandered afield.” I held Greg’s gaze, though it was challenging for him. He wasn’t used to eye contact. “How about you? Is this your neighborhood hangout?”

“Couple of miles away,” Greg replied. “I like to walk. I moved here about three months ago, from Michigan.” This piqued my interest, for shadowy reasons. I’d moved around most of my life. Permanency made me antsy. It was all a lie, anyway. I’d recently returned to the Midwest after living on the West Coast for over twenty years. Sane people don’t do shit like that. It’s the trajectory of a crazy person.

“I own two houses in Kalamazoo,” I said. I wasn’t bragging, since I wasn’t at all proud of being a Michigan homeowner. “I can’t sell them. My husband and I moved to the Midwest a couple of years ago, since I’m from there. We thought Michigan property would be a good investment, especially compared to Portland.”

Greg suddenly looked interested. “When were you in Portland?” he asked eagerly. “Oh, until we moved to Michigan,” I replied. “We only lived in Portland for three years. It’s an expensive part of the country. Of course, compared to the Bay Area, it’s cheap. I didn’t like it as much as I expected.”

I didn’t like it as much as I expected. Those nine words summed up my life. Fact was, I couldn’t hack it in Portland, and I couldn’t hack it in Michigan either. Now I was attempting to hack it in Chicago, and so far, the results were less than stellar. At least I was around familiar people, folks who had enough sense to stay in one place their entire lives. That’s why they had nice things, and I didn’t.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Portland,” Greg admitted. “A bunch of my friends from Ypsilanti moved out there. It seems to have a magnetic pull on people. Probably because it’s one of the few cities on the West Coast artists can afford.”

“That’s debatable,” I muttered. The show Portlandia hadn’t even been invented yet, but everybody was moving to Oregon. I was pissed at myself for throwing in the towel and leaving, and tried to use any excuse possible to justify my defection. Perking up a bit, I asked, “Why did you decide to come to San Francisco? It seems like a challenging place to make a stand if you’re not actually from here.”

A tortured expression came over Greg’s face. “My divorce was final a couple of months ago,” he said. “My wife and kids still live in our old house in Ypsi. Too many ghosts for me there.”

“I like ghosts,” I said. Greg chuckled sadly. “I usually do, as well,” he replied. “My ex-wife was born on Halloween, though. Ghosts are ruined for me now.”

“Ah, she’s a Scorpio,” I said knowingly. “They’re so much fun to live with.” Trembling with remorse, Greg shook his head. “She was a good wife,” he managed to choke out. “I was the one who fucked up.”

I didn’t doubt it. Greg looked like the kind of person who was at a complete loss unless someone else told him what to do. Our conversation was barely staying on the rails. He’d made a small joke about ghosts, which I thought might be a turning point, but now we were stuck on his divorce. “When’s your birthday?” I asked politely.

“August thirteenth,” he replied. “I’ll be forty this year. It’s hard to believe.”

It was hard for me to believe, as well. Greg was a sad excuse for a Leo. I was astonished to hear he was ten years younger than I was. I’d assumed he was closer to my age. Though his face was unlined, his thick, dark hair was full of gray. If anything, I appeared younger than he did. I was blessed with youthful features, but he had probably always looked old.

The emcee called my name, and I approached the mic, sheaf of papers in hand. I read a long poem about an ill-fated romance. It was my favorite topic. Greg didn’t react at all. He sat in his chair and listened, but his expression never changed. I finished reading and returned to the table. Greg opened his mouth, but no sound came out. After a moment, he regained the power of speech. “Do you think you could buy me a cup of tea?” he asked. “I don’t get paid until tomorrow.”

I didn’t even hesitate. “Of course,” I replied. “They don’t take debit cards, though. I’ll have to dig in my purse for some coins.” I lifted my bag from the floor, placed it on an adjacent chair. Then I shoved my hands inside and rummaged around, scooping up quarters and bits of hair.

Finally, I ordered mint tea for Greg, and transferred my fistful of change to the cashier. She handed me a steaming ceramic mug and a teabag. I doused the teabag, brought the beverage back to the table and placed it in front of Greg. He sat miserably in his chair the entire time, staring at the floor. The first sip revived him, and he suddenly remembered I’d done him a favor. “Thanks so much,” he said.

I beamed at him and nodded. “I guess I’m just a sucker for cute guys.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt horrified and confused. What the hell had I just said? Though not unattractive, Greg wasn’t cute in any conventional sense of the word. “Cute” implied a winning, boyish quality. My husband had that, but Greg most assuredly did not. And, even if he was cute, why would I blurt out something so moronic? I wasn’t desperate, for God’s sake.

Still, Greg looked happy for the first time that evening. At least he was happy for a couple of minutes, but then his mood began to deflate rapidly, like a tire that had been pumped with air, then punctured. He placed both hands around the cup and gripped it tightly, as if his fingers were ice cold. This struck me as melodramatic, since the room was warm. Greg seemed to be trying to absorb the contents of the cup into his body through osmosis. Undoubtedly he wouldn’t be any more successful with that process than he had been with anything else.

“I have to go,” I apologized. “My first yoga class is at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.” Greg looked disappointed, which surprised me. “Thanks for listening to my story,” he muttered.

I rose to my feet. “Hang on a moment,” Greg said. “Let me write down my email address for you. If you’re feeling incredibly bored, you can send me a note.” He pulled a small slip of paper from his backpack and scribbled on it. “I gave you my regular email and my Myspace address,” he explained. “Either one will work.”

I accepted the paper and smiled. “I’ll be in touch some time,” I promised. I wandered to the door, stood on the threshold, and stole one last peek at Greg. He hovered miserably above his cup, still clutching it firmly with both hands. Greg reminded me of a penitent or a homeless figure from a Dickens novel—the Artful Dodger, but far less cheerful. He just needed a ragged pair of fingerless gloves, and the scene would be perfect.

Once outside, I realized I didn’t have bus money. This wasn’t a major problem, just inconvenient. I found a corner shop with a cash machine, paid five bucks to withdraw forty dollars. Then I selected a tiny bottle of water, carried it to the register, and got change for one of the twenties. The whole thing took only a couple of minutes, but seemed like a lot of effort, since Greg and I hadn’t hit it off that well.

Later, on the bus, I pulled the slip of paper from my purse. It was a Whole Foods receipt from the previous day. Greg had visited the store at 2:52 p.m. and purchased an apple for seventy-nine cents. His handwriting was tiny and meticulous, like he’d put a lot of thought into the formation of each letter. Why not? The poor man obviously had lots of spare time.

I stashed the receipt in my purse and stared out the dirty bus window. I couldn’t imagine why I might want to stay in touch with Greg. Facebook, with its ready-made, facile alliances, hadn’t burst on the scene yet. I didn’t have a Myspace account, since the flashing bling crashed my underpowered laptop when I tried to sneak peeks at friends’ pages. I’d have to take my chances with email.

I’d break down and contact Greg eventually. My bones knew it even if my brain didn’t. His helplessness touched me deeply. I felt infinitely safe with fucked-up people. Greg was home, in a way my husband wasn’t capable of being.

Besides, I was restless, and permanency bored the shit out of me. Adhering to monogamous rules was like living in the same house for the rest of my life. My husband knew this, and allowed me to do what I wanted. He wasn’t happy about it, however. Perhaps all three of us were crazy.

I read somewhere that the seeds of a developing relationship are contained within the first meeting. The power dynamics, the individuals’ quirks and flaws, the trajectory of experiences—all of these components exist from the start, if we’re willing to pay attention. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t. We push forward heedlessly, thinking we’ll be able to figure everything out as we go along. On the other hand, it’s a good thing we don’t have any way of foretelling the future. If we could, we’d be too horrified to continue.

I settled into my seat and stared out the window, blissfully unaware of what awaited me—a tortured alliance that would last nine years and span four states. I didn’t realize Greg would return to the Midwest a few months later. Once there, he’d start another band, and women would throw themselves at him. I didn’t know our relationship would make me so psycho that I would eventually torch the Whole Foods receipt on the floor of my garage in a fit of rage. Despite the turmoil, and because of it, the two of us would remain stuck to each other with unsoluble Crazy Glue. We recognized each other from the beginning.

I had no inkling those nine years would go by so fast, and eventually Greg would be the age I was when we first met. At that point, he’d collapse like a broken tent underneath the weight of his depression. Completely helpless, he’d move in with his family in Lansing, and they would make sure he was fed and clothed. He’d sleep on the living room couch and masturbate in the shower. By then, I’d be almost sixty, and tired of coming to his rescue. Part of it is my fault, however, because the seeds were there all along. I should’ve known, but I refused to pay attention. Of course, it helps to be insane yourself.

Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, WA. She is the author of two chapbooks, Queen of Dorksville (Crisis Chronicles Press) and Political Apnea (Locofo Chaps), and two books, Allergic to Everything (Writing Knights Press) and The Underside of the Snake (Red Ferret Press). Leah was a winner in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, and a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival. Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Outlook Springs, Memoryhouse, Atticus Review, Open Thought Vortex, Remixt, Origins Journal, and many anthologies.