My friends babble aimlessly as the rusty café chair pokes into my back. We wait for our coffee. Or was it pizza? Ice cream, maybe? It obviously wasn't too important to me. The dying summer sun makes the air so thick. The buildings are painted a lazy orange. I allow myself an easy, smug little smile. Downtown San Diego occasionally sets me to dreaming. My vision drifts across the street, to a music store. In the loft above the shop, a man leans out of the window and picks on a guitar. A red guitar. A cherry red guitar, like mine. He seems to contemplate, to passively converse with no one in particular. His mood floats down the street, collecting in the gutter like dirty rainwater. I sympathize.
Our waitress comes, bringing our food. She sets my plate of fish and chips down in front of me, and catches my eye for a split second. She is young, pretty, but tired, in a sense beyond daily fatigue. Her hair is dyed a deep black, and her lips are a shiny red, contrasting in a way that is attractive, for some reason. She considers smiling at me. I consider smiling at her.
But what am I doing here? Why am I wasting time and money on stupid movies and greasy food? I should be at home, attempting to revive my comatose grade point average. A man in a business suit walks into the café, looking decisively at a take out menu. He approaches the register, and orders the same thing that I have. His manner is strangely familiar.
I sit on my windowsill, and run my fingers down the neck of the guitar. The songs that come to me are as natural as the brown of my eyes, or the air that I breathe. There are simple songs, and fine songs, timeless songs, and timely songs. More songs than the average 21 year old can call his or hers. Not that any song I've ever played was my own.
The leftover fish and chips from the café across the street call to me from the ancient refrigerator. I put down my guitar, and shuffle into the kitchen or rather, the corner of my apartment with the microwave in it. The loft itself isn't much to look at, but it is mine. All mine. Since I know the guy who owns the music store, rent is cheap, too.
But is this what I longed for during the first 18 years of my life? It doesn't seem like much, now that I'm here. At least I'm not struggling. Between holding down a crappy job, and enjoying being young, I'm still pursuing that elusive public relations degree. For every note on my guitar, there are at least ten possibilities.
But no matter what happens, I will always have time to sit on my windowsill, and pick through my opportunities. I'll always have time to look out at this nasty, polluted, dangerous, congested city, and marvel at its charm. I will surely have time to earn trust from new people, and write letters to a girl too distant to be a girlfriend. It's all too easy to uphold your principles when you're on top of the world.
I suppose I should be thankful. I have a PR degree and a lucrative contract with a respected software company. I drive a company car and enjoy a few benefits. In this field, you make money by making friends, and I've always been good at making friends. Often, a handshake and a smile are all I need to sell the product. I can even wear my Donald Duck tie to work.
The sidewalk outside my favorite take-out place is cracked and broken, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Each crack is like a vein in my father's hand, each broken chunk, a pigeonholed memory. The rusty green patio chairs are probably the same ones that I sat in 20 years ago. Haunting. I approach the counter, and order the fish and chips.
From an indoor bench, I can see a dark-haired teenager sitting outside with some friends. His demeanor is distant, his countenance, removed. His head seems full of turbulence, uncertainty, and questions. He enjoys, but is not interested in, his food. When I was his age, I would let myself drift in a similar way, sometimes. It was my only sanctuary from all of the confusion.
My number is called. I take my food, thank the cashier, and leave. The kid glances at me, studying my manner. I want to tell him that I know him, but I don't, not really. Or maybe I do.
Because of reasons unknown, and influence unexplained, San Diego will always set me to dreaming.
As the sun disappears into the lost horizon, the concrete jungle comes alive. When the exhilarating shroud descends, it releases the self-captured prisoners. The darkness hugs the buildings and the neon night club signs like a wispy breath from an incense stick. A voice, beautiful and mysterious, drifts through the empty streets. An alluring, promising voice. It calls to them all, urging them to emerge from their monotonous lives. The rats don tuxedoes, and the dons dress in rags. The actors choose brand new masks, and some go without one. Angels and devils exchange halos and horns. Such acts are forbidden under normal circumstances. But tonight is their night to throw off the rusty chains of routine drudgery. They dance, laugh, and drink. True identities take no part in their discussions. By the time the sun returns, they will have reformed, like good little children. But tomorrow is far away, and the night is everlasting.
Have you ever felt completely alone? Perhaps you know someone who has. Sometimes, in order to progress in life, we must cross unfamiliar, unforgiving terrain. Such are the trials that test our will to succeed.
It was the big topic of the fifth grade lunch table. He was like the last leaf on a tree condemned to the winter. You could tell, by looking at him, that he felt utterly alone. Isolated from all things familiar, he had been forced to attend a new school, in a new town. Mrs. O'Brien, the fifth grade teacher, had accepted him warmly, but she was the only one. He found no friendship in this foreign place. The recess bell rang, and he barely heard it. He went out the door, and walked until he came to the bottom of a ten-foot fence. He started to climb.
His act of desperation earned him the attention of other kids on the playground. The swings stopped moving, the tetherball stopped spinning, and the basketballs stopped bouncing. Even the buildings seemed to be momentarily holding their breath. The sound of his breathing as he reached the top could be heard by all. With a final grunt, he heaved himself over the other side. His mission accomplished, he tore off in the direction of his house.
His mother was there when he burst through the door, instantly comforting him, kissing his tear soaked face. She never even questioned why he left school.
After lunch, I saw him for the first time. He had blond hair, green eyes, and bronzed skin. He had a look of perpetual uncertainty upon his face. I remembered my first day at school, and I knew I was looking into a mirror.
"Hey," I said. "Do you like soccer?"
He nodded, still uncertain.
"We're one man short," I said.
My invitation lingered in the air. The boy examined it for falsehoods. It seemed to roll over in his mind forever. He glanced at me, then at the field, then at me again.
"Alright," he said. "I'll play."
At that moment, some of his uncertainty died away. Even at ten years old I realized that I had touched someone. I had extended kindness to someone whom I knew only through rumors and gossip. To offer help during a time of need is the best present you can give someone.