Because it’s unseasonably warm for February, I walk instead of taking the bus. All of San Francisco is out on the streets, soaking up the sunshine. I head down Fillmore, through the projects, where the residents sit on their front steps, talking and swigging from bottles. A teenager calls out, “Hey, come have a beer.” I haven’t been in a relationship since Paul moved to Seattle after graduation. I cross Van Ness into Russian Hill with just enough time to duck into Lucy’s favorite bookstore on Polk, and head straight for the origami kits. There are so many options: pastel or neon, thick as card stock or tracing-paper thin, solid or patterned or hand-painted with tiny designs of tulips, ducklings and stars. I empty my wallet on two packets of the cheapest paper and then go next door to the coffee shop.
At a small table in the very back, Eric leafs through a binder as thick as an encyclopedia. His light brown hair thins out near the crown. Violet pouches sag beneath his eyes and blonde stubble dots the lower half of his face. But the ravages of stressful days and sleepless nights actually seem to enhance his looks, giving his almost too-delicate features a rugged masculinity. He and Lucy made a striking couple, her black hair and milky skin contrasting sharply with his round, mellow goldenness. After my grandmother got over the fact that Eric was white, even she conceded that they would have had lovely children.
He buys me a latte and asks how things are going at work. At first I think he’s teasing, but his eyes brim with such concern that I have to look away.
I tell him about an exhibit I saw at the MOMA— a video installation that was meant to parody a still-life painting. In place of the canvas stood a flat-screen television displaying an image of fruit arranged on a platter. The video progressed over the course of 60 seconds: the fruit ripened, then darkened, then decayed, and then the fruit flies descended. Sometimes when it’s my turn to rearrange the denim wall, and I’m refolding my fiftieth pair of jeans, I picture my brain disintegrating: a brown, pulpy mess in a blue ceramic dish.
He says, “I think I saw that one. It was good.”
That’s not the point, but I let it go.
“So Qing Ming Jie,” Eric says, over-enunciating. “It’s not too far away.”
“You think you’re going to come?” Part of me hopes he’ll say no; part of me wishes I could refuse as well. Something feels wrong about having to fly to Taipei to honor Lucy’s memory, as if anything I could do for her here in San Francisco would never add up.
“I want to,” says Eric. “It’ll be great to see your parents again.”
I’m about to ask why he wanted to see me when he says, “God, I miss her so much.” The words come out all at once, like the breath that rushes out of me—I didn’t realize I was holding it.
“The other night,” he says, “I was lying in bed, wide awake. Lucy sometimes had trouble sleeping. She used to say being the last person awake was the loneliest feeling in the world. Then I swear, I heard her laugh. You know—her eyes squeeze shut and she actually laughs the words, ‘ha-ha-ha,’ like she’s a comic book character saying the words in the speech bubble?”
Envy rises in my chest, but then I hear her too. “Ha-ha-ha,” I say, imitating her and soon laughing for real. “Like that?”
“Exactly.” He pounds down his mug with such force the coffee splashes. Resting his elbows on the table, he ignores the brown patch spreading up one sleeve and lays his face in his palms.
I want to tell him to quit feeling sorry for himself. But then I wonder if he still speaks to her. If he still sees her everywhere. I want to tell him about the cell phone—how I pay her monthly bill even though I can barely make rent, how I fill her voicemail box with my ramblings, how I’ve reset her password so I can delete my own messages, how sometimes I’m afraid of how far I’ve gone.
At first there were other calls besides mine—the phone company wondering if Lucy was satisfied with her current plan, telemarketers offering free trial subscriptions to magazines, an old college classmate in San Francisco for the weekend. These messages were comforting. I wasn’t the only one who needed to talk to her. As I watch Eric with his sad smile and down-turned gaze, I think maybe I could tell him, maybe he would get it.
He checks his watch. “I’m sorry to rush you but I need to go into the office at some point. On a Saturday, I know. Can I give you a ride?”
On the way out, he notices the paper kit in my hands. I try to catch the expression on his face, but he moves ahead, leading the way to his car, rumpled shirttails flapping over his waistband like flags at half-mast.
Inside the Mercedes, a paper crane on a thread dangles from the rearview mirror, so old the orange has bleached to beige.