I didn’t handle it well, a sudden friendship
in the Copernicus Room high above San Francisco
with a beautician from Stockton. She was in town visiting
her father, whose left leg had been removed at the knee.
“Diabetes,” she said. “What are you having?”
We sat and watched the bay darken like an angry face,
talked over drinks about his stubborn refusal
to give up cigarettes, how he kept his extra shoe
on the nightstand beside his bed. And then,
like a severed head, sincerity made its appearance,
scaring the hell out of both of us, I didn’t intend
to tell her that my father was whole but absent
(“wholly absent?” she said), or that I’d dreamt
for years—a recurring nightmare—of slicing off my hand
while spreading mustard on a piece of bread.
“What kind of bread?” she said. The light began to change
just then, the strange copper light that seems to smother
the headlands before passing from Alcatraz to Angel Island,
a fast retreating shadow we stopped talking to watch,
sunlight traveling towards us, then vanishing. The fog
closed off the bay, left the bridge a pair of rusty towers,
cables dropping into silence, a silence that seemed
solid as stone, a cliff of chalcedony. I imagined the clouds
stiffening like egg whites, a confectioner’s dream
creeping slowly towards the city. And how do we measure
the world, I thought, with what we see, or what we know
is there? “Another beer, please,” she said, “and some nuts.”
She was ordering for me, pulling her chair a little closer.
“Look there,” she said tapping the glass. Forty floors down
and two miles out, a small tug had popped free of the fog
and was chugging toward a circle of sunlight on the bay,
the one spot of bright water. She held her breath
until it got there, then broke into applause.
“He made it!” she said, and drained away her rum and coke,
patted my arm and picked her purse off the floor.
“You’ll never hurt anyone,” she said, but I didn’t get it.
“Your dream. . . You’re scared you’re going to hurt someone,
it’s a symbol.” Then she scooped the ashtray—made of flesh red
carnelian—off the table into her purse. “A souvenir,” she said,
and left. My beer arrived a few minutes later,
along with a fresh bowl of nuts. It was the Carnelian Room
I later learned, when I told my sister what had happened,
not Copernicus. “CarNEELian,” she said, as if what mattered—
as if what I needed to get right—was where I’d been.