Two years ago, I saw a boy with a red bike at one of my events on Valencia. I remember dark curls, a beard, and a brown jacket.
We sat on the stoop and shot the shit and we might’ve done it several times more. One night he came into my work, and I remember seeing him sitting alone in the back of the restaurant writing poetry. It was after my last break-up and I asked him for poems, anything that would help with heartbreak, anything that said “I’ve been there too” or “You’re not the first one to feel this” or “This is has been felt a million times over.”
I scribbled his recommendations on a back of a receipt that sat in a back of a drawer for months, until one rare Sunday off I laid in bed naked and read Frank O’ Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” It was the most relaxed I felt in a long time. I emailed the boy to tell him.
About a year passed and it was New Year’s Day. I had an event at Whiz Burger’s. I was finally over my hangover and I spotted the boy with the dark hair and beard and red bike, except now I know who he was. Donald was leaning against the side of the building, hung over too, the afternoon sun hitting his face. He told me he was contemplating a move to the East Coast to “fill the New York-shaped hole” in his heart. I was going to move from the Marina to Chinatown the next day.
"I tell all my friends about your project," he said, speaking of Sublet SF. Flattered, I told him he should come adventure with me in Chinatown sometime.
A few days later, a text. We made plans to drink at Empress of China, known for it’s epic view of San Francisco. It was a date, unbeknownst to me. In between gawking at pictures of Chuck Norris on the wall and admiring the northeast view of the city, I threw up in the bathroom - a result of having the flu and too many Mai Tai’s.
We finally happened when I moved to Bernal a few months later. I was loitering around 22nd Street when I bumped into Donald and his friends at the Latin American Club. I politely asked how he’d been and if he’d decided on New York. He was going to leave in May. We realized we were going to be neighbors during my stay in Bernal, and joked about how we would throw rocks at each others windows and find ladders so we can climb through, just like in Clarissa Explains it All.
That night continued with peanuts and whiskeys at The Homestead. I suggested we go back to my office and eat Girl Scout cookies but we ended up making out the whole way back to his house.
On our first date we sat on my Bernal roof deck on a hot spring day, admiring Potrero Hill together along with Nico, the house dog. We biked through Bayview and ate at Taco Bell and rode back as the SF fog settled in at its usual hour. We awkwardly hooked up on the camping pad I used to sleep on the floor. An alliteration outlined the agenda for our next date, “Pupusas, Pies and Premium Crush,” where we watched the awefulsome movie camped outside on the roofdeck with string lights and a bottle of whiskey.
Donald was a poet. I began to read his work and the ones of those he admired. During my morning walk to work on Florida Street, I thought about little lines for future poems, of him, and the poetry he liked. I read one of his poems one day, where he wrote about the day he discovered Frank O’ Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” the one he’d recommended to me. It felt like we’d come full circle.
We solved neighborhood mysteries together. One night we went to a dance together and left early so we could have be alone - which is all we wanted to do. Drunkenly careening the streets on our bikes, we rushed by 23rd and York. I’d noticed how beautifully floral that corner smelled, and had asked people who lived on that corner about it before. “I’ve lived here all my life and I don’t smell anything,” they’d tell me, desensitized to the amazing jasmine and lavender scents radiating from the prettiest corner of the Mission. That night we found out the answer from two people crossing the street: it was a soap factory.
I would spend so much time at his house. My house was about a two minute bike ride to his, all I had to do was cross Cesar Chavez from Bernal and bike a few blocks over.
I always arrived slightly out of breath because of how fast I biked and would kick the ground to find rocks to throw at his second story window. He’d come down to let me in.
His bay windows opened up to Folsom Street, so we had direct access to life - it was like watching TV: a Latino man with his six-foot stick of pastel cotton candy, which happened to coordinate with the houses he passed. Skaters rumbling past, to and from Phone Booth. Small Latino kids with their short moms and oversized backpacks.
Many mornings I watched the sky change from a gray overcast into beautiful blue from his bed. Golden hour would seep through his bedroom window, bright bold of light bouncing off his curly dark hair.
But there was always a reminder of our impending future: a sign hung on his wall that said “Fuck it. Let’s move to New York.”
I fell in love in spring. He left before it became summer.
When he moved away the first day of May, we woke up at 7am to put his mattress down on the street. A rude awakening: there will be no more mornings together. Despite the sad ending, the sunrise was beautiful, softly reflecting on the mattress he’d just dumped on Folsom Street. One final kiss, then I loaded up gifts from his apartment on my bike rack: a full length mirror and a lamp. He threw in a little house plant that sat on his dusty desk too — remnants of his life in San Francisco that wouldn’t come with him to New York, but would now travel with me from sublet to sublet.
Regarding that lamp: a few nights before he left, I reminded him that I wanted it. “Whenever I go to turn off the lamp,” I told him, “I’m going to think of how I always say to you, a little annoyed, ‘Donald, can you turn off the light?’”
And that’s when he said to me,”Valerie - the things you say. They’re funny, but they’re especially funny because I’m your ideal audience.”
His words killed me.
Falling in love can change a place.
"Love begins with a metaphor," Milan Kundera wrote in the Unbearable Lightness of Being. "The brain appears to possess a special area which might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms of touches us, that makes our lives beautiful."
My romance with Donald is the floral smell that lingers around 23rd and York. Whenever I bike past and smell it, everything comes back: the rooftop, the drunken bike rides, the sun through his window. He entered my poetic memory, and engrained a layer of beauty that still haunts the areas between my Bernal house and his.
The day he left, I sat on my stoop, dreading the sunset because I knew that the next day would be the first day without him and that Bernal wouldn’t be the same.