Sixty-five degrees and bare arms, her and me, on the stoop. Our spot. Listening to the space in between us, as hard as it was to hear. The sun made us squint and I rubbed it into my skin, for later. Something squirmed inside me, the kind of thing that wouldn’t itch or snap or break or feel any way at all except for just inside me. White flowers littered the street outside the gate. I stared at them thinking that if she was staring at them too, it was kind of like talking.
Bartlett Street was pretty from that angle. Lavender homes with trim like white icing. Petal-sprinkled sidewalks. Everything so still. The fog wouldn’t roll in for another three and a half hours. That was my favorite part of the day, watching the thick, noiseless cloud unravel with a heaviness that felt like a promise. It came at the exact same time, every day. You could set your watch to it.
The shadows grew longer while we sat. She leaned with her elbows on the step behind her. Her skin was tan and uninterrupted, her hair the color of bark. Everything about her was some shade of brown, all mixed from the same palate, not like other people, who didn’t quite match.
Leaves scratched against each other in the bush next to us. She just stared straight ahead at the flowers. A tiny bird came into sight. It cocked its head at me and didn’t look away. Neither did I. Something about birds not having any whites in their eyes makes it easier not to look away. It finished looking and flew from the hedge to a nearby tree, looked back once again, then flew on to somewhere I couldn’t see.
The sign on the front door had her parents’ name on it. They were professors, good people, generally did things right.
The leaves never change in San Francisco; they’re still all year round. Flowers open and close but they don’t pay attention to seasons. You just sort of notice now and then when you step over a dead one on the ground.
“Cherry blossoms came early this year, didn’t they?” These were the first words she’d said all day, though my throat felt scratchy, like we’d been talking for hours.
“Looks like it.” The sun-soaked paneling of the house felt warm through my t-shirt.
“This is around the time of year I learned to ride a bike.” She smiled like she’d just told me a secret no one else knew.
A car crept past us, the paint on the driver’s door stripped and duct tape across the window. It hesitated at the corner and then drove on. The noise of the engine took forever to fade but I forgot about it as soon as it was gone.
“Do you miss New York?” I asked her.
She’d lived there too, but this was her home now.
I thought homes were things you tried to leave, not find.
A bug huddled near my shoe, some kind of little beetle. It edged around my foot and crawled and crawled and crawled and only got about 3 inches down the step. I looked up the block, wondered where it wanted to go and how long that would take.
The sun was still high in the sky and I couldn’t see the end of the day. Another minute kind of rolled by, another petal fell from the tree, another pair of wings fluttered in the bush. I felt uncomfortable, suddenly, thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow, and all the rest of them. The thought that the fog was on its way and tomorrow would keep on turning into today was like the black eyes of that bird staring me in the face.
“I guess so,” she said. The beetle had crawled all the way to the edge of the stoop and down three stairs in the time since I asked her about New York. “It’s funny to think about. It’s like... asking if I miss myself.”
Her hair was sticking out a little bit underneath her glasses. She didn’t know, it was something I could see and she couldn’t. I kept it to myself; it was one of the few things I could keep.
“Don’t you love the way this sun feels on your face?” I asked her this. On my face it felt like a droopy blanket. My eyelids had relaxed into it.
“I can’t believe it’s weather like this in March. Back in New York we’d still be seeing our breath in the air.” She liked that kind of cold. I liked that kind of cold. “I don’t miss it one bit.”
I thought of thin, spindly fingers wrapped around an old mug full of Folgers; of my mother’s gaze falling on the birdhouse she’d hung from the elm tree in our yard. Don’t worry about the dishes, honey. I wasn’t even sure if I’d kissed her cheek before I’d left.
By the slant of light falling across the blossoming trees, I guessed it was around 4 p.m. and the wind had begun to stir the petals on the street. Goosebumps sprouted up from underneath my pink, freckled skin and for a moment I forgot we were anywhere specific. The chill and the shadows on her face and the vague whiff of grass and garbage in the breeze felt like Brooklyn to me. But that wasn’t home now, either.
The day would change into night soon. Over in the corner of the Mission where the streets turned into a part of town called the Dog Patch and the hills rose up under the concrete, I could see the pulpy fog tumbling toward us, consuming everything in its path. The morning felt like days ago, like how you think of yourself in the past as someone else.
I felt words caught somewhere down in the dark part of my throat but the fog was over our heads and the wind picked up and the petals were falling faster than before. And we sat, her and me, in a silence that felt denser than air, and I wondered if someday I would miss watching the fog roll in the way I missed home.
Now that’s a funny thing to wonder. The thing you’re really missing always feels like something else, like the hum of voices in the kitchen or the steam rising out of an old brown coffee mug.
The way we sat, her shadow fell on the steps right next to me, and instead of saying anything about it I just held onto it with my eyes until it disappeared.
Mary Barbour grew up in the rural Midwest and narrowly avoided becoming an Amway distributor.