Living in Oakland puts me across a bridge from The City. Late evening on a weekday usually means light traffic, so it takes fifteen or twenty minutes to drive back from San Francisco to the East Bay. That’s about the time I head home from most of my cheap dates.
Having lived happily alone for years, I began dating after an unexpected romance caught me off guard as I was entering retirement age. That one faltered, but I figured, what the heck? This could be nice. Sex and all. Who knew? (I had almost forgotten.)
So I pick this new guy up at his house in Berkeley. He climbs into the car, and we set off together to see a theater piece on a small stage in the far reaches of San Francisco. It’s an experimental production I want to see by a playwright who is a friend of a friend.
The weekend drive would take longer, but on a Tuesday there’s just time enough for my companion and me to begin a conversation that we will never take up again once our tires touch solid ground at the other end of the span. It’s not his fault. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into when we started going out together.
Is it the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis that compels a man—whom I don’t know well but with whom I was prepared to spend a pleasant evening and then return, as had recently become our somewhat tentative custom, either to his house or mine till morning—to regale me with what his therapist has told him about the connection between his sexual function and the night? I don’t know, but I am beginning to discern a pattern: the bridge is bad for my sex life; it’s bad for building relationship. This has nothing to do with me, I tell myself. It’s something like a 50-minute hour: we might never take up where we left off, but the words accumulate with all the other food for thought that we digest over the intervening week. High above water; polluted water that sparkles in the dark and laps around the pedestals of the bridge.
I am beginning to have a dread of this trip, an unreasonable fear that grips my throat as I approach the silvery steel towers. My hand sweats on the wheel. And yes, I am usually the driver on these outings.
What, I wonder, does his shrink want from me? I am not equipped to provide brief therapy. Not interested, either. Fifteen minutes is too short, even for physical care, even in a doctor’s office. It is certainly too short a time for any kind of helpful analysis, especially when I need a minute or two to recalibrate my own desire. To turn a burning building expectation into a faltering, mildly eye-rolling disappointment while fighting to hold back from the brink of disgust. What would disgust me, anyway? This man’s willingness to put me through the rehearsal of what might or might not turn into a fine piece of theater, if it were played out on an oak-planked stage and not in the ergonomically correct front seat of a modest Japanese car? Or my own gullibility? I’m a sucker for possibilities. I used to think I was a pretty good judge of characters, but lately, not so much.
Maybe it’s because they’re building a new, parallel span between the port side of Oakland (the old Army base) and Treasure Island—what had been a tiny rocky shoal, expanded by men to create a spectacle-dream island for the 1939 International Exposition. After the fair was over, Treasure Island was converted into a naval station. Maybe it’s the imaginary nature of these two armed landfills, settled in the past, never to return to their natural forms and, at the same time, awash in hype that only new-style city boosterism could promote. Housing and “green” industry built on radioactive waste. Begun as early twentieth century extravaganzas to reshape the bay, then turned into modern military bases—stomping grounds for mid-century wars—then that violence repackaged as renewal, still glowing after all these years. A bridge from rubble into dark air, artificially lit, that will never touch ground: a consummate promise.
This time we have the so-called conversation, turned serious, on the other side of the bridge, in the City, during a quick dinner in an inexpensive bar before we get to the theater. He was trying, he assured me, to be honest. (Later, we were both stricken ill by what we had eaten or by what we said or didn’t say.) During the meal my companion used so many euphemisms that—as it turns out—I never did understand what he was trying to tell me. Or not tell me.
On the way home, after attending what we had no way of knowing would be an intense play about sex, unintended impregnation, complicated serial marriages—each complicated in its own right and hyper-complicated in the accumulation—some of it delivered in Spanish, a local language this man does not speak or understand, but I do, he observes: “That was hard.”
I thought at the time he was referring to the play, or, perhaps, to my frustrating struggle to maneuver out of the tight space in the dark parking lot by the marina. Later, as I gazed out of my third story window atop a steep hill looking west out over the Bay, months after the ride across the bridge, I could see he was talking about our dinner conversation, in which he was trying to tell me that we were through trying to tell each other anything. That was hard. Hard for him because he was telling me something he expected would humiliate me, and, after all, he did have a kind streak and cared for me, in his own way. Difficult for me because I couldn’t really tell what he was trying to say and wasn’t really sure if he was talking about himself, about me, about us—if there was any us—or about himself and his pathetic psychiatrist. He would not come home with me after that. Seemed relieved when I let him out.
That night looms in the past now. Tail lights gleam in front of me as I turn off of the bridge again, toward home. I test my brakes. The signs say to use caution during this time of repair, which seems to be lasting for months, maybe years.
Norma Smith was born in Detroit, grew up in Fresno, California, and has lived in Oakland since the late 1960s. She has worked as a journalist, a translator, an educator, and as an editor and writing coach. Her work has been published in academic, political, and literary journals.