The Salesforce Tower is the tallest building in San Francisco. It wasn’t there when I moved away in 2015, but when I returned three years later, my city had gotten a mohawk. It’s visible from the beach, the park, the grocery store.
Like a new loud family member, at first it was embarrassing, but over time, I’ve gotten used to it. It’s just who we are now.
A month ago, I was downtown, ordering an iced coffee from a place with too many milk choices. Leaving the café, I looked up at the office buildings. I couldn’t see the Salesforce Tower. I walked a few blocks and kept searching for it. It had vanished. Then it occurred to me. The tower is not visible when you’re right next to it.
I had forgotten about that until yesterday. My daughter and I took a long walk down a path surrounded by weeds and wildflowers. We talked a little, about boyfriends and pancakes, but were generally quiet. “Can we walk a little slower?” she said at one point. “It’s so pretty.”
Our footsteps on the gravel sounded like popcorn crunching. We stopped to watch a brown bunny chew on a leaf. And then my daughter said, “Mom. Look. A fish.” At first, I thought the shimmering skin on the ground was the flesh of a bird but I was wrong. There were dead fish strewn on the path. Some whole with eyeballs intact, others in pieces. “My friend told me about this,” she said. “Anchovies fell from the sky.” She said this with the nonchalance of a teen who has lived through a global pandemic.
“How the hell did anchovies fall from the sky?”
She shrugged and said there was an article about it. I told her we should watch Magnolia later that night. We continued to walk in silence. Crunch, crunch.
We were over a mile from the ocean. How did anchovies fall from the sky? I concocted various scenarios in my head, but was too ashamed to share them with my analytical child.
Later, at home, my daughter looked it up. “Overpopulation of anchovies,” she announced, sprawled out on the couch with her phone. “Sea birds tried to get them all to their young but carried too many, so they fell on the ground.” She took a sip of her banana smoothie.
There was no mysterious fish tsunami. The explanation was perfectly logical. Birds were responsible for the fish on the ground. This had not occurred to me. I was ready to believe in fish clouds. Then I remembered the Salesforce Tower, the thing you can’t see when it’s right in front of you. And then I started thinking about what else I’m not seeing. The thing that later, when it reveals itself, will make me say, “Of course. How obvious.”
We are in Madrid. The heat is relentless. As we used to say in Boston, it’s underwear-in-the-freezer weather. The kind of weather where each activity entails negotiation. We are eating at delicious, air-conditioned restaurants only after dipping ourselves in hot lava. At the Prado Museum, we stood in a long ticket line, and then looked at paintings of hunters with their dogs. I mentioned I hadn’t seen any dogs in Madrid. Not one. Soon after, within ten minutes of leaving the museum, I saw a small black and white dog on the shady side of the street. Then a large brown one wearing shoes. Later, when we were eating salads (with ham) and drinking Coke Zeros, Dave said, “Look! A standard Schnauzer.” I missed it but I asked if it was the big kind of Schnauzer. Taking a bite of manchego, he said, “Mid-sized. Standard.”
My husband is a great traveler. I told him this today before realizing that is a strange thing, maybe even a condescending thing, to say to an adult. He asked me what I meant by “good traveler,” and I said it’s because he is a very “can-do person” and “has ideas for restaurants.” We are coming up on our twentieth wedding anniversary. It occurs to me I could have married someone who was not up for things, and now that thought makes me wince. If you are going to go through all the trouble of being married, it’s wise to select someone who doesn’t complain about humid, outdoor markets.
When Dave and I got married, we agreed to sickness and health, and were thrown a doozy last year when I got cancer. When you go through cancer treatments, you get to see if your husband can dress your wounds while steering away well-meaning friends you don’t want to see. Part of why I married him is because he is an excellent roommate. Clean and thoughtful. I’ve always encouraged our children to live with someone before considering a more permanent arrangement. Now I’m thinking I should amend my advice to include, “and also go through a very hard time together.” It doesn’t have to be cancer of course; something less severe would be preferable.
When we fight, I want to rip his face off. I once confessed that to him and he said, “Oh that’s normal.” I appreciated that he didn’t tell me he also wants to rip my face off. I told my friend Alex this and she said I feel that way because I love him so much. That doesn’t sit right with me, but she’s probably right. She is a therapist.
As I write this, my husband is next to me on the hotel bed, on his laptop, trying to change the date of our train tickets to Seville because he booked the wrong dates. He isn’t wearing a shirt because of the hot lava, and he just muttered, “This website fucking blows.” I want to lean over and kiss him, but I know it will irritate him to be interrupted like that. That’s what happens when you’re married for this long. Kisses aren’t always romantic. Sometimes they are distractions. But he is a problem-solver and I want to thank him for that.
Yesterday I found a chihuahua in the middle of Noriega Street. I pulled over and stuck my arms out to oncoming cars. “Get out of the street,” I said to the tiny collarless dog. “Shoo!” She looked well-fed and slightly perplexed. Why am I in the middle of the street, she wanted to ask. How did I get here?
I had just returned from MacDowell, an artists’ residency in New Hampshire. For nearly a month, I was in a small town, in the middle of a forest, between Black Lives Matter signage and pro-Trump banners. At my first dinner, I sat next to a jazz saxophonist and a visual artist working on a large-scale project with tree branches and sequins. Everyone seemed magical. How did I get here?
“Get out of the street,” I repeated to the chihuahua as I chased her to the sidewalk. She wouldn’t let me come close, but also didn’t run away, so we just stared at each other as buses whizzed past. I had left everything in my car, including my phone. I sat down on the sidewalk. The dog cocked her head. Is this human lost?
At MacDowell I played ping-pong with a British playwright who wore all black and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. When she laughed, it was like seeing a photograph come to life. I miss her and the other artists. After working all day in isolation, we would pop up at dusk, like misguided sunflowers, drink red wine, and share our small wins and less small insecurities.
“Excuse me. Do you know this dog?” A woman with pale skin, brown sunglasses, and dyed jet-black hair walked past with two mid-sized poodles. The woman shook her head but sprang into action. She handed me her dogs’ leashes and crouched down to offer the chihuahua a treat. Soon, when the dog was in my arms, the woman removed her sunglasses and said, “Let’s go to my house and call Animal Care and Control. I’ll make you coffee.” She looked like Fran Lebowitz.
Her house was filled to the brim with green. Plants hanging from the ceiling and cascading over bookshelves, green leather couch, green plush chairs. Newspapers were stacked on a wooden chair in the corner, and the round dining table was covered in a green oil cloth and piles of sorted coupons. I held the chihuahua on my lap and sipped coffee out of a green and white mug. “I think I’ll call her Nora,” I said. “For Noriega Street.” The woman told me she thought we were meant to meet each other. I agreed because I was in her house and didn’t want to be unpleasant.
I’ve met so many new people over the past month. The pandemic had stolen the joy of serendipity, and then going through cancer treatments kept me on the couch for most of 2021. Entering this stranger’s house felt like a victory. And being at MacDowell was like coming out of hibernation.
The dog’s owner had been contacted and was on her way. I heard a loud noise and must have looked startled because the woman shared that her husband lives downstairs. “We are financially divorced, but I can’t kick him out.” She said he didn’t help with the dogs, the cooking, not even the bathroom remodel, “don’t get me started.” She said she doesn’t tell many people this, but she was in a near-death car accident that completely changed her outlook. “In my next life, I’m not going to marry someone who has Asperger’s and is also narcissistic.”
The doorbell rang and I had to say goodbye to the chihuahua. Handing her over, I told the owner I had been calling her Nora. “You’re close,” she said, kissing her dog’s head. “Her name is Cora.”
We are all lost. The dogs, the artists, the narcissists in basements. And if we’re lucky, we find each other.