The San Francisco Chronicle
The other night, getting out of the tub, I broke into song. I was in an expansive mood. I had the place to myself, my housemate having left that evening for Bangkok and six months of travel in Asia. She lives with me from May to November. By Halloween, insane with each other, she grabs a visa and books a flight. Asia, Central America, India, it doesn't matter just as long as it's warm, inexpensive and has something she's curious about. As she readies to leave, I am rapturous. I will be sole occupant again as I was four years ago BG (before Gail).
We met at work. Eighteen years her senior, I could easily be her mother. Easily, that is, except for the people we are and the life we've built -- not together but intersected. While so much attention was spent demonizing gay marriage, Gail (30-something, straight, single, Gidget with Attitude) and I (50-something, queer, single) have formed our own alternative family.
At first I had no interest in Gail. She persisted in butting into my consciousness, usually because I had something she needed. "Hey, can I have your car keys?" is how it started and for some reason I gave them to her. Eventually, I was invited along on these random trips to get coffee or office supplies. The day I left the company, she put a 2 pound bag of Goldfish on my desk -- my favorite party food.
When she pinged me from Vietnam a few months after our goodbyes I was pleased to hear from her. She'd run away to Asia with a lover. My surprise at her leaving was nothing compared to my astonishment at her writing. The stories she sent back were each a Faberge egg using an economy of words to open a wealth of images. I loved them. There she was with her boyfriend trying to rent a house in some village or joining in a temple ritual of harvest. Adventurous and adorable, they rambled for a year, taking me along with precise yet lavishly detailed descriptions of the landscape, people, customs, cuisine and local driving habits. Then they broke up and Gail came running wee wee wee all the way home. She landed on my doorstep having nowhere else to go. She was just a work acquaintance turned pen pal but I needed pet sitting the very day of her arrival and this time I handed her the key to my house.
Four months later I began to refer to her behind her back as "the guest who will not leave!" Finally, she announced she was going to Oaxaca to learn Spanish and salsa dancing. Hasta la vista, baby! She broke everything she touched. She trashed the kitchen when she cooked. She used every towel every time she took a bath. I missed her. She was funny and smart. She did winsome things -- like throw little cocktail parties for us in the afternoon at "wine-thirty" (any time after 4 p.m.). She'd begun to say the cutest things, like "Hey, do we have a mop?"
She found a new muse in Mexico and began sending delightful stories back until I got an e-mail instructing me to leave the porch light on, she was coming home. In a sprinkling of years our life has assumed its regularity. Like Persephone, she disappears in the fall and returns in the spring. And, like any good calendar of seasons, a liturgy of sorts has assembled around us. I address her by her last name; she addresses me archetypically as "you." Mornings are observed in silence until she speaks first. We have a conceit wherein I know everything esoteric and she knows everything practical. I let her assume a convenient technological superiority that gets me off the hook for having to update, upload, upgrade or do anything else with gadgets. I am not hip, she is -- need I even say it? One summer, we explored online dating, each of us going out on some of the worst dates of our lives. It became standard practice to wish each other the best or worst luck as we left the house dreading mediocrity more than either of those two extremes. Often, the dater would return within 45 minutes to inquire if there was any vodka in the house. Lately, she has a boyfriend de l'été with whom she breaks up just as I am falling for the handsome, agreeable chap, leaving me sad and depressed when she jaunts on to the next trip, next hemisphere, next man.
But I know one day in late March or early April, as the Bay Area rains dry up and the sun rides higher in the sky, an e-mail will arrive with a flight number and ETA, along with some instructions about hiding the good china. The little blue 1967 Volkswagen bug will come out from under its winter tarp. Then salsa music will blare late into the night. The blender will make mojitos instead of soup. The front door will slam shut on our standard expression of farewell, "You're in charge!" The tribe will gather to plan the annual haj to Palm Springs in July and we will be a family.
I realize I have given her the key to my heart -- she didn't even have to ask for it. And I trust that, unlike every wineglass, plate, small appliance or teakettle, she won't break it.
Rebecca Chekouras, a Bay Area writer, is working on a novel set in Palm Springs, "Through the Turquoise Gate," that asks what is salvation and where does it come from.
This article appeared on page CM - 20 of the San Francisco Chronicle