Secret San Franciscoby Ann Hillesland
I put my ear next to a pipe at the San Francisco wave organ. A distant sucking rattle comes, water gurgling into buried PVC. Nearby, Ricardo listens to another pipe, his eyes closed. He looks serious, but he always does, this Spanish artist in his leather jacket and skinny glasses. He’s tall, lean, sexy. I still can’t believe he’s sleeping with me.
I’m calling today “Secret San Francisco.” To myself. It’s too hokey to say to Ricardo. I’m determined to show him places off the tourist path, as much as anything is in this city. I heard that the Golden Gate Bridge is constantly being painted. They start at one end, covering the salt-flaked paint, and when they reach the opposite side, they start over. That’s San Francisco. Constantly primping its famous landmarks. This morning we went to the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park. Tourists flock to the Japanese Tea Garden, but the Shakespeare Garden quiet, its battered sundial surrounded by plants from the plays. Ricardo studied the flowers with the same seriousness as he listens to the wave organ. Each experience new.
“Do you hear it?” I ask.
He nods, opening his eyes so their darkness sinks into me. “It is not what I expected, Liz.”
“At least the view’s good,” I say. On one side of the jetty, the Marina district’s pastel houses shimmer across the water. On the other side, the Golden Gate Bridge looms, iconic.
“No, it’s good. Just different. A wave organ—I expected music, like in a cathedral.” He pronounces “cathedral” with a rhythm that runs a shiver up my neck.
“I guess it’s about amplifying the ocean’s own music.” I laugh. “So San Francisco.” The pipes funnel out at the ends, making the organ look like a bunch of periscopes sticking out of blocks of granite. Each speaker leads to a pipe buried in the water. Depending upon the tide, some are silent, some gurgle, and some roar. Ricardo moves to another pipe, folding his thin form neatly. He’s a foot taller than me, lean to my curves, dark to my blonde, exotic to my white bread. I grew up 30 minutes from the city, but I might as well have grown up in Modesto. Now I’m passing for a native, with a cramped flat that smells of damp potatoes on foggy days and a boyfriend from Spain who’s studying art. He makes collages out of silk scraps and prints of leaves and bits of paper he’s found, using oranges and reds in this city of black clothes and fog.
I put my ear next to his so we listen to the same staccato gurgle. He’s close enough to kiss, but instead I look at his face while his eyes are closed, smell the bittersweet saffron of his skin. We’ve been lovers two weeks. Last night I stayed over at his place, waking in the water-fogged light to see his body dark against the pale blue sheets. I wanted to touch him, to press kisses along his collarbone and neck, but it was too new.
“Ricardo!” His eyes pop open. A woman with short red hair approaches, her piercings sparkling in the afternoon sun. A tattoo of yellow and red tulips twines over her arm and across her chest, peeking from beneath the lip of her purple tank. OK, it’s warm today for San Francisco, but a tank?
“Mikka,” he says, his mouth lifting at the corners—a big smile, for him. An expression I usually love, because it reminds me of a happy cat. He hugs her. He turns to me. “This is Mikka, from my color theory class. Mikka, this is Liz.”
Is he embarrassed by me? I look like just what I am, a quality assurance drone at a software company. I should have worn something cuter than this sweater, but I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard.
“Cool place, huh?” Mikka says to Ricardo. “Did you know these big stones were taken from a graveyard?”
“No,” he says, giving her the cat smile again. “A graveyard?”
“From the gold rush days,” she says.
I knew that. I was saving it to tell him later.
He runs his hands over a wind-softened carving.
“Did you sit on the bench yet?” She points to a recess, shielded from the wind, with speaker pipes at head level. At the right time, it sounds like the tide comes from all around you. “You’ve got to try it.” He looks at me, but I wave him away. The bench is built for two, and now it’s too late for me to slide next to him.
I climb to the top of the jumbled granite, looking down at the concentric rings of paving stones spreading from the bench to the water’s edge. Because of the overhang I only see Mikka’s and Ricardo’s legs stretched in front of the bench. The two are probably lost in the artsy mystery of the water sound.
Up here the wind is stronger. It roars over my ears like the tide through the organ pipes. I walk back towards the yacht club. Beyond is a beach, a quiet pocket with tiny waves kicked up by boats leaving the harbor. Two kids with plastic shovels dig in the sand as if they were at any beach, not a beach in the middle of the glittering city. Sand sticks to their arms and legs. The beach is the real Secret San Francisco, so ordinary no tourist would bother with it. It wouldn’t interest Ricardo.
Back at the organ, Ricardo and Mikka are standing, tall and thin, at the top of the white rocks. Ricardo’s eyes are on me, serious, as if, like the wave organ, I am strange and unexpected. Or maybe he’s just trying to see me, my beige sweater disappearing into the beach sand background like I’m nothing. Too ordinary to see after all. The pipes echo with a drowning gurgle.