It took enormous bravery for Stephanie to do what she did – to come halfway across the country, alone, to a place where she knew no-one, just to meet me and spend a week with me. Friends had warned her, the man you're going to meet might be an axe-murderer. He could attack you, hurt you, kidnap you, scam you, or all of the above. She listened to and weighed her friends' warnings, and she must have worried about it. She was no dummy.
But she gambled everything on me, a complete stranger who'd written her some letters. I'm sure glad she did. I don't know that I would've had that level of courage, then or now. Would you?
* * * * * * * * * *
I had booked her a separate room at the roach-filled residential hotel where I lived, on 16th Street in the Mission District slums. After we bused back to the city, we dropped her luggage in the room and I took her to dinner.
We ate at El Castillito, the taqueria universally acclaimed (by me, prior to Steph's arrival, and by both of us after) for building the best burritos in San Francisco or on the planet. I ordered two chicken burritos, she had a beef burrito. She loved it, which further cemented my growing certainty that she was the one. [Note: Stephanie & I left San Francisco in 2001, but the internet says El Castillito is still there, with several locations in the city. I've still never tasted a better burrito, so here's an unpaid endorsement – if you're ever in Frisco, stop by El Castillito for a cheap, yummy meal.]
After dinner, once Steph was settled into her room at the hotel, I took her up to the roof. Residents weren't supposed to access the roof, but I knew a way. Overlooking the loud urban landscape of 16th Street, we talked and talked, about everything. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn't want to be "that guy," the guy who gets a bit too pushy or too handsy too soon.
I don't remember much of our conversation from that night, but I remember that it was easy. Which is nuts. Conversation never comes easy for me, but with Stephanie there was never any hesitation.
The night was noisy, and not only the normal noisiness of traffic and music and arguments wafting up from the street; we were also just days from the Fourth of July, so there were amateur explosives in the air, punctuating everything we said. At one point we heard someone screaming far in the distance, and I quipped, "Someone's screaming, Lord. Kumbaya." She laughed, and man, what's sexier than an attractive woman laughing at your dumb jokes?
We stayed up late, talking and laughing on the roof and later in her room, and we told each other everything about our lives, our jobs, our families. But there were no kisses that night. In the movies, that first kiss is the falling-in-love moment, but we were ahead of schedule and already there. By the time I said good night and walked down the stairs to my room, I knew this was going to be more than a one-week holiday, and Steph told me later that she knew it, too.
Our first kiss of thousands came the next day, as we were walking across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Marin. And yeah, it was – memorable. Beyond memorable, beyond fireworks. Her and me, pretty lady and fat guy, locking lips in the sunshine on the bridge, as hundreds of cars sped past. And after the kiss, we kept walking.
At the other side of the bridge we turned around, and as we were walking back toward San Francisco, we talked about where we wanted to live. She said she wanted "A small house, maybe, with no children," and later she told me she'd been a bit worried about telling me she wanted no kids, since that's a dealbreaker for some men. Well, not this man. I prefer the company of grown-ups, and I'd be a lousy father anyway.
"Sounds great," I said, "but a house is a lot of money and work. I'd prefer a cheap apartment somewhere, and we'll run a pirate radio station out of the back room."
"Yeah," she said, "like Pump Up the Volume." Of course, we had both liked that movie, years before we liked each other.
"And where is that cheap apartment?," I asked. Is it here in San Francisco, or is it in Wisconsin?"
"I'm not sure yet," she said.
At the city-side of the Bridge, we had another moment that we both remembered fondly for the rest of our time together. We were sitting on a bench, a little tuckered from our mile-long walk across the water and back, and we'd briefly run out of conversation. Nothing was said for perhaps twenty seconds, and then Stephanie said, "A comfortable silence." Meaning, it's great for us to talk with each other all day and all night, but it's also OK to have stretches with nothing much to say.
Stephanie had planned to stay in Frisco for a week, and then she'd fly back to Wisconsin. But before we returned to the hotel that afternoon, those plans were being revised. It had only been about 24 hours since we first met, but we already knew a week wouldn't be enough, so she decided to stay for a second week. We paid Mr Patel another $90 for a second week at the hotel. Steph called her employer and postponed her return to work. She called the airline and rejiggered her return flight. She called her best friend in Madison and reassured her that she wasn't being axe-murdered.
* * * * * * * * * *
On our third day together, we were walking around in one of San Francisco's least photogenic neighborhoods, a section of the slums where I'd lived a few years earlier. Obscene graffiti was omnipresent. A bum was asleep just off the sidewalk, with two overstuffed plastic bags in his shopping cart, and one hand on the cart to keep it from being stolen, even as he slept. We danced past some trash and an orange syringe on the curb, and delicately sidestepped a broken, empty bottle of whiskey. The scent of urine was in the air, and we were feeling romantic, holding hands.
"There's something I want to tell you," she said, "but it'll sound silly, and you have to promise not to laugh."
She took several more steps before speaking. "When I was a little girl, I believed in angels – guardian angels who watched over people. But not everyone had an angel. Very few people, only very lucky people have an angel on their side. That's what I believed when I was six or seven years old. Of course, I'm a grown-up now, so I don't believe such silliness."
For a moment she had nothing more to say, so I said, "Of course not," and then I waited, because she'd stopped talking but it didn't feel like her story was over.
"In a weird way, and I know this is kooky, but – whatever it was that six-year-old me thought an angel would do, when watching over a particular person … 26-year-old me feels like you're that angel."
"I'm no angel," I said with a giggle.
"Please don't laugh. I'm being serious."
"OK." I waited, and she took a breath.
"I'm just saying, sometimes when I was a kid I daydreamed about something or someone looking out for me, someone who could help me when I needed it. And," she sighed, "this is heard to explain."
"We have all night."
She looked at me for the longest moment, and then explained it all. "I'm saying you're my angel."
I just looked at her. Didn't want to laugh, because she'd asked me not to, and anyway, it was no longer funny, so I said nothing, and waited again.
"I'm not accusing you of literally being an angel. But – you're a man who reminds me of the angels I used to daydream about, when I was a little girl." She took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "Is that crazy?"
"It's not crazy, Steph. It's maybe the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
She sighed again. "I could've just said, ‘You're my angel,' but it would've sounded trite or insane if I just said that without explaining it first."
"Thanks for explaining. It's not insane, and it sure isn't trite. And thank you for letting me be your angel. And especially, thanks for being my angel."
She cocked her head and asked, "Are you making fun of me?"
"I'm really not, but maybe it's my turn to explain. When I was a boy – before I knew anything really about sex or women or even girls – I daydreamed about a girl, sometimes. She was a girl I'd never met, never seen, not a real girl. And in my daydreams, this girl, whoever she was – I don't remember that she had a name – she was my best friend. We held hands a lot, but even in my daydreams we never kissed because that was still icky to me. I was six or maybe ten years old. Just a little kid. But me and this girl of my daydreams, we held hands, and she liked me, and she liked being with me, and we talked about anything and everything."
"OK. And this girl you imagined, she was an angel?"
"No, she wasn't, Steph. I didn't believe in angels, even then. She was just a figment of a little boy's imagination. But she was what I imagined it might be like to have a girlfriend or a wife. And near as I can figure, she was – you. I was imagining you, thirty years before we met."
"Before I was born."
"Yeah. And I wasn't imagining an angel, so maybe it's not the same thing as what you were telling me. I was just imagining a girl, a woman. But in all my life I've never met anyone who really reminded me of the girl in that little boy's daydream. Until there was you."
She kissed me again, and there were gunshots in the distance, reminding me that we were walking through a seedy section of town, and I ought to keep my wits about me. If I'm a guardian angel, I need to keep my guard up.
I was feeling "I love you," but scared to say it, because those are big, frightening words.
"I love you," I said, "can be hard to say."
"I love you," she answered, "can be tricky, that's for sure."
"Some people say ‘I love you' so often, say ‘I love you' to so many people, you have to wonder whether they mean it, or even know what it means."
"Some people never say it, even when they mean it, and that's just sad."
"I love you," I said, "ought to be something you don't say unless you mean it, but if you mean it you ought to say it."
"Oh, I mean it," she said. "I love you."
"And I love you too," I said.
* * * * * * * * * *
I wince a little, remembering and writing what we said, because we sounded like sixth-graders. Immature sixth-graders. But she was 26, I was 39, and we were head-over-heels.
It became our habit after that, to say "I love you" and say it often. It goes without saying is the cliché, but love should never go without saying.
We said "I love you" every day we were together, and my calculator says we were together for about 7,600 days. We said it like other folks say "Good morning" or "Good night," and we said it another half dozen times every day, to celebrate a good lunch, or a good bowel movement. If we said it eight times every day, then the math suggests we said "I love you" 60,800 times. But that's not enough. Nowhere near enough.
Sometimes even now, I hear myself telling Stephanie that I love her. Well, obviously, since the cat doesn't speak and I'm the only person at home, I'm not just hearing it; I'm also saying it. But I don't habitually talk to myself, so it surprises me when I hear it, then realize that I said it.
It's always "love," by the way; it's never "loved." And I always hear it in a sad voice, presumably because I always say it in a sad voice. Today, though, I heard myself say "I love you, Stephanie," in a mellow, wistful tone, instead of such a sad voice. It's the first time since she died that I've heard it in anything but that brokenhearted voice I'd have never used when she was alive. Not sure what that means.
"I love you, Steph." Thank you for letting me be your angel, and thank you for being mine.