Victor and Alex and I moved to San Francisco together at the end of our first year at Stanford. We needed to be in the city, we decided, because living in Palo Alto was like being dead, it was like moving into your own tomb before your death, breathing in the eucalyptus-scented embalming oils, waking up every morning to the same light, encountering, every day, the same lifelike faces, which asked you the same question, “Isn’t this heaven?” We looked at many unsuitable apartments as well as a few that two of us liked but not the third. Alex wanted to live in the Castro, I wanted period charm, and Victor wanted a backyard where he could grill. Somewhere between Moscow and California he had picked up a love of barbecue; it had become indissociably linked to happiness in his mind, to the point where he would linger at even the most unbearable graduate-student parties as long as someone was cooking meat outdoors.
We talked about splitting up, but none of us could afford to live alone, and finally we found the place on Sixteenth Street, which wasn’t what we wanted—the apartment was dark, the street ugly and loud, there was no yard—but there was room for all of us to work, and a back porch where the landlady said it would be all right to put a grill. And there was something else, a Murphy bed that unfolded from the back of a cabinet door in the front parlor. I loved the old-fashionedness of it, and I joked that, like the Murphy bed, I wanted to live in the apartment until someone dismantled me and carried me off. A month later we packed up our incompatible belongings and drove them to San Francisco.
The city was even better than I had expected. It wasn’t just like coming back to life, it was like coming to life, to a life I’d never lived before. Alex had friends in the city already, people he’d known in college, who had discovered a bar on Valencia Street, the Blue Study, which had a room in the back where no one went, with weather-beaten sofas, a patio table, and a gray cat called Felix who glared at us from the corner. Alex invited me to drink with his group, and in this way I met Erin, who had been in a band in college, and still dressed like a lounge singer, in low-cut dresses that set off her white skin, and a bobbed black wig, and sang, sometimes, when she was drunk, songs she had written, about people she’d loved so much she could kill them, and how she could kill them, exactly.
I fell in love with her. She didn’t love me back, but that didn’t stop us from spending hours sitting side by side on a sofa at the Blue Study, our arms around each other, talking about the countries we would like to visit, and when we would visit them together. Morocco, Argentina, Australia, Japan, the world, which had, until then, been made up of places that I would never see, became as close as a conversation, as close as the word yes, at least until Erin attracted Star, a short woman with a crew cut and red hi-top Keds, and Star drew Erin into her orbit, never, alas, to return to my arms. It didn’t matter. Love meant something different in the back room of the Blue Study than it did elsewhere; it was like a vibration in the air, which, although you directed it at one particular person, spread outward from you in an expanding bubble, until it was absorbed by the walls, the bar, the strangers at the bar who you would never meet, Valencia Street, the red light blinking at the top of Sutro Tower. My love for Erin flew out of me painlessly, and when it had gone as far as it could, it came back to me as taste. Suddenly I preferred the super vegetarian burrito at El Toro to its equivalent at the Taqueria Maya, I frequented the used-book store with the cat, and not the one run by the barely ambulatory depressive outpatient; I shopped at Rainbow Market and not Safeway, which Erin called Slaveway. I had been naturalized. My monochrome East Coast clothes made way for a rainbow of Thrift Town shirts and permanently creased polyester slacks. My hair became unruly; I grew a beard, which made me look like a rabbi, Victor said, not the effect I had been aiming at, but maybe not entirely wrong, my father had been a Jew, and now, who knew, in San Francisco I might become a Jew too. I started smoking and purchased a record player. I had no idea how close I was to him, my father, how much I had come to resemble him, but if Charles had seen me slouching from my house to Java Man, from Java Man to the Blue Study, in my green Arnel shirt and crackled leather three-quarters coat, the outfit in which, I thought, I was finally free from the past and all possible constraint, I think he would have told me, you look just like a young Richard Ente.