There is so much sadness that surrounds me in San Francisco. Every step I take reminds me that there is pain around me. The man standing in the window of a building looks at me with haunted eyes, smoking his cigarette, evaluating the world as it passes by. The girl riding the light rail looks up from her phone for a moment lost in what she read or saw. Our eyes meet and mine smile, hers only lower, the pain too much for connection. I meet a man named Michael, a guardian in Berkeley. His hands tell long stories of years working with wood. He is a carpenter by trade, he tells me proudly, and shows me his callouses. Now he manages an apartment complex. I grew up here, he says, and now I live only a block away from where I was born. He doesn’t trust many people and I understand why – it takes a lot of hiding and lying to cover pain, I think that is all he’s known. He tells me about motorcycle rallies in Venice Beach and traveling the world. Now he makes dollar bets on horses that won’t win and talks to Natasha, the bar tender, about his choice. She smiles, the edges of her eyes crinkling a bit, but when she looks at me her caution is back. Natasha’s eyes tell stories of long nights, of passion that was never matched, of love given too freely once and now hidden in her heart. Natasha’s eyes speak of broken trust and promises.
I tell Michael that he’s not alone. He is a guardian, I say, and he has always been one. His eyes widen. I tell him that there are other people who love like he does and he shakes his head, no, he’s always been the one to lead with his heart. I meet his eyes. You have a purpose, I tell him. He wants to believe me. You are more than a scrapbook of memories, a fistful of cash, a beer and dollar bet on races. You are more than a disappointing childhood and a long list of people you couldn’t save. The problem with Michaels is that they try to save so many. The problem with Michaels is that trying to save people ebbs away at your hope and in the end, you find your carpenter hands wrapped around a beer, wishing and wondering what your life might have been. His eyes mist up and his hand finds mine and he says that I’m an angel. I laugh. Hardly. It’s time for my train, though, and I have another place to be beside a bar in Berkeley. I pass my glance around the bar, watching the faces for a moment, freezing the time. I give Natasha too big of a tip and tell her not to stop loving wholeheartedly. She tilts her head for a moment, then shakes it to clear cobwebs of confusion and covers her vulnerability with a smile. Thanks, she says softly, looking at Mike and me and our empty glasses; sharing this moment so briefly that she won’t remember it tomorrow.
Mike has folded his paper and says he will kiss me before I go, and on the sidewalk, I feel his lips brush my cheek surrounded by a scruffy beard and eyes that are too bright and I hug him fiercely. Find your hope, Michael, I say. The truth is it never left you.