Thorn St. Brewery is all distressed wood, chatter-shot floor plank rearranged into ceiling beams, French-bled and cross-wise. There’s a skylight with a retractable panel.
It’s been raining the whole morning through, a hot rain informed by tropical storm Claudette just off the Gulf Coast. Humidity moves over the city in dervishes and a collision of weather fronts has the clouds discharging electricity in a rare show of lightning.
Lightning strikes twice on the sidewalk in front of Alexander’s, the Italian joint just west of the tavern.
Alexander’s is exactly four blocks from my house, upon exit out the back door and up the alleyway. The alley’s overrun with bougainvillea and the neighboring magnolia is meanwhile choked with magenta sepals, high above the fence line. Behind the fence there’s that barking dog, always fucking barking.
The alleyway’s white concrete is buckled because the roots underneath are tuberous and over-tumescent, one hundred years in the growing. The kids jump their bikes here, without oversight from Parks and Rec. A broken street can be a fun playground, just sometimes littered with discarded mattresses and unclaimed dresser-drawers that Waste Authority refuses to pick up.
Ryan and I are still at home when there’s a remarkable crack. Then another. I’m awakened twice. I’d been restlessly day sleeping in the bedroom, pouring sweat into the mattress with windows half-open.
The rain has proven unbearable, its pressure system uncoiling in a clockwise fashion. It’s a Coriolis effect, sent via the Great Basin and with all the Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts combining meteorological efforts. Moisture is pushing from both the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez, the combination of heat and humidity something particularly Southwestern, an isolated and specifically Arizonan phenomena.
(The classic monsoon prototype hails from Rajansthan, but that’s half a globe away).
The street begins flooding and, as quickly, slows to a trickle.
Squalls obscure certain highways. The 95 way out east, well before it hits the 8, is surely replete with traffic warnings. No doubt there are parking lots of red taillights somewhere across the Anza-Borrego.
Meanwhile, cumulonimbus clouds accumulate upwards. Big boomers on the horizon.
“I dunno, Man. Sometimes waking up. Fuck.”
We exchange the word: ‘dread.’ Of the existential variety, with a modern-day Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder, clutching a Day Planner that is simultaneously empty and overbooked.
Outside the tavern is a spattered sidewalk. The evidence of rain fades as the lightning advances seaward, and a bar back on break smokes in the stairwell, hair already dry.
“I’ve always said anxiety’s like falling upward. You wake up and you’re already on the ceiling. Depression, though…It’s like prodding the air every morning and asking, ‘Are you here?’ It’s got form. You wake up, hoping to Hell it’s not there, but then you feel the plummet. It’s so physical.”
I order the IPA, and Ryan gets the brown.
“Both are, really—physical, I mean. Anxiety, depression. You just fall in different directions depending on which one you wake up with.”
It’s all vertiginal, as when Ryan quick-shook his head on the walk here, realigning the humors that otherwise keep him upright and in a straight line. He widened his eyes briefly, shaking it off, trying to shake off that something we’re both currently having a really hard time shaking off.
We’re best friends.
“I’ve been getting that lately,” he said, apologizing for, else explaining, his vertigo. I confessed to routinely having tremors, this exchange reducing our neuroses to trading cards.
The physical side effects are new and distinctly middle-aged. He has sciatic issues, mine are lumbar. It used to be that the body would massage out its own pains, a self-lubricating machine, but there’s the recent sense that the body is beginning its protracted stop, rust collecting in the gears. The grey hairs are simply filamental reminders, strawberry days being over.
We have our pints. Foam laces down the glass in neat concentrics and where we sit is a roughshod table, south of the skylight. Pothos plants are tucked high in the corners, too high to water properly; all with anemic leaves mottled white and trailing into smallish limbs.
Thumbs in the house apparently lack green. The glasses pile up as the TV plays the current soccer match.
Mac collects our empty Shakers, says ‘hey’. She’s attractive in her always-tight jeans, and a welcome distraction.
(The first bolt was blue, a straightforward discharge hitting the sidewalk in a frizzled mess of spent ions. The second was its kinder, gentler rejoinder).
The lightning isn’t fancy—it doesn’t fractal or make for anything more photogenic than a bright flash. It’s just determined energy, hitting the earth outside Alexander’s where, currently, there’s a wine special, and where—on Valentine’s Day—lightning is meant to strike exactly once, sealing the deal for patrons patronizing the window-plate tables, having just met, having dinner and sharing the tortellini. Young people, young in love.
Alexander’s is the Italian restaurant with graphics of Vespas on the frontispiece. It’s ‘the most romantic spot in town’ with white trim, white tables and faux marble. The ivy along the sidewall is halfway established, tendrils finding little anchor in concrete, the ‘A’ of ‘Alexander’s’ still only half-covered in leaves after ten years.
Next door is a waxing clinic and the sign features a graphic with a star in replacement of the waxed parts.
“I dunno,” I say fingering my glass, “When I feel my worst, when I relive those worst moments, I imagine a gun to my head. I pull the trigger exactly twice.
“Just, you can’t pull a trigger twice.
“I take it to mean I don’t really want to end things. Mostly, I don’t like myself.”
I pause. “No, that’s not it—I just don’t like how I feel. Not the same thing as not liking myself.”
I like myself, I think, and say so. How different it would be if I could say it more resolutely.
With the lightning still moving, wandering westward and over the ocean, the skylight opens. Everyone applauds. There are residual thunderclaps, overheated air from the electrical discharges trending away. The sun peeks out. Lightning changes color as the air also changes: blue to green to pink. Clouds dissipate and the sidewalk outside the welcome mat is suddenly dry like the bar back’s hair.
On the sidewalk outside Alexander’s, there are fern-like patterns, looping Lichtenberg figures where the lightning has hyper-heated the sidewalk, alchemically converting sidewalk sands to delicate tubules of glass. These form because lightning is amazingly hot and has a remarkably arabesque signature.
I forget who says: “You just wake up knowing there’s so much to do and you just can’t. Like, terror.”
I have a photo of me and Ryan and we’re smiling in the grass, smooth-faced and awkwardly adolescent. There are a thousand—a hundred thousand—photos like this in memory, with him and without; the accretion of minutes in snapshot time. It all suggests life is long, so varied in color and contrast. It would take forever to sit through the slide show: green grass, brown grass, scutch, and then chaff. Young face resolving to crow face.
There are those rocks we used to climb, mercurial red, sandy-textured like the ladder-steps up the playground slide, rough-surfaced just like the grip-tapes of the ascendant diving board scaffold.
Gravity used to be a plaything, when falling down or diving in was fun.
We sit across from the CCV’s that contain the wort, cylindrical vessels, which take up space in the tavern.
“They say if you know the end of the story—and most people read the last page first—it’s like 60 percent or something positive saying you’d rather know the end. That the story becomes better, automatically. Attractive. Like you can amplify your own happiness by knowing the end.”
The digital read-outs on the fermentation vessels flicker back and forth. Red numbers climbing and falling, keeping something in stasis. Occasionally there’s a negative number.
“I’m gonna go get another.”
I visited Ryan’s house in summer and the philodendron was untrained in the corner. There were apothecarial details like dried and browned lemon halves in the windowsill—dried flowers, too—earth-toned things decorating the house. The cherry tree was cherry-picked by the mockingbirds and corvids, the garden in need of staking. Ryan showed me his bed of collard greens and flagpole beans, which regardless of everything, was sprouting.
There was still green grass despite the drought that had extended northward. Any green was welcome respite from San Diego’s chaparral where a verdant lawn was recent cause for neighborly suspicion.
Our first day was spent traveling.
“I think we need to be on a mountain,” Ryan announced. This meant driving east and we spoiled ourselves with the rations:
Finnochionna salume, sweet coppa. Cubano sandwiches and pork-fat frites. Baguettes with a walnut pomegranate spread, raw-milk brie.
We rumbled down a road that was persistently green, down a road that Ryan drove fast since it was one he’d frequented most his life. The road’s a one-way by virtue of its ten-foot width. Ryan drove fast, but there was no one driving the other way, so we were safe.
Earlier we had passed the basalt of Steven’s Pass, the amphitheaters still-snowy two hours east of Seattle, even with it being June. It had been weeks without precipitation but the snow clung fast. We wound up at a campground off of Highway Two. After navigating narrowing riparian switchbacks, we parked at a fairly primitive campsite above a waterfall.
The waterfall’s a cataract rushing precipitously downward, dangerously, the whitewater made more impressive by its three-angled course over graduated walls of boulder. It’s somewhere you wish to keep your balance, and where, actually, Ryan’s birth father didn’t when Ryan was just three weeks old.
On that fateful camping trip, near forty years ago, Ryan’s dad fell in, having slipped while dancing stupid on a wet boulder. He wasn’t exactly sober and he was above coursingly lethal water. He actually survived, though his ligaments were twice stretched over, twice having been subject to cascading breakwaters. He could’ve easily been broken in a variety of manners, but he survived. Just his soft-tissues were damaged, stretched and purpled; all his calcium things remained intact.
Ryan and I set up camp above the moss-hewn boulders at the crest of the river, where the water takes its first dramatic turn. We were the only two people populating the place. It was a Wednesday. The yew had new and chartreuse growth, matching the phosphorescent lichens. Our campsite was above the waterfall, and across from tall trees.
Ryan built a fire, fueled it with dried branches while carpenter ants fiddled their antennae at the general goings-on. We weren’t exactly roughing it. We had speakers and music, toasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate, also a full and varied ice chest. Our campsite was given border by a sturdy and smoothed log, which we alternately sat on while the waterfall remained constant.
The sky was on full display. I’ve only seen the full sky with Ryan, not with my kid yet. The skies had been cloudy in Yosemite, also Tahoe, when I took Cayde to places I thought would be appropriately dark.
“The stars will be out tomorrow, Cayde,” I’ve promised, and he still hasn’t really seen them. That the dark can be polluted by light is an ironic phenomenon not lost on me.
In sleeping bags years ago, Ryan and I saw the sweep of the Milky Way. We were kids visiting Arizona. We saw what seemed the whole of the sky, which actually is just an obfuscated view of the universe interrupted by stars. We remarked the satellites unblinkingly coursing the horizon, lapping the slow-dial stars doing their clockwise slow-creep.
Above Highway Two, it was the same: the constellational arc, satellites replacing falling stars by being failsafe and fair-navigating things, nothing you would actually wish upon.
They fall to the peripheral right, these satellites, disappearing, until reaching the apogees of their orbit, furthest from their centers of attraction. Far away but still tethered.
(Satellites land on outgoing comets these days, the newest metaphor for something).
Ryan was looking up at the stars. He’s always been the handsome one, always well tailored, and his hair has since grown long like back in high school. People called him Jesus then. He was the first to point out to me that I had an absurdly long neck, which I hadn’t considered until he said it. The mirror confirmed the truth.
I guess sometimes your neck is a kite string, floating your head, and sometimes your head floats to that apoastic point, ‘apoastic’ just simply that outdated term bandied by astronomers, meaning, in the end, ‘You’re faraway from Earth.’ Just short of leaving orbit.
Ryan and I remarked how bright the moon was before realizing it was the sun rising. We went to bed in sleeping bags again, like when we were kids, just with it being morning. The orange tent smelled of ash.
At Thorn Street, the lightning having passed and quickly, it’s another afternoon. There are the neighborhood neighbors, their loosely tethered dogs getting tangled up in the barstool legs while greeting each other. There’s a feeling of present tense as the place fills up, women in calculated skirt-lengths and ankle boots, guys with beards and ironic t-shirts. Orders are placed and delivered while the soccer guys kick a ball back and forth on the screen.
“How is it I don’t get it?”
There’s laughter, and a new selection on the stereo.
“Why not feel happiness when it happens? I have a problem doing that. I shouldn’t. I feel happiness later, after I’m done thinking about it, after I’m done writing about it.”
Driving back through and past Everett, it was a depressing descent from the mountain and west toward Seattle. Yelp suggested cuisine far and away from its home: seafood too distant from the water, pho buried in strip-malls. Back in the city, nearer to the lakes and Locks, we found a place where one chef manned a single-burner, simultaneously churning out okonmiyaki and Zabuton steaks. We ate there, joined by Ryan’s girlfriend and her noteworthy cheekbones. We devastated the menu and over the course of the dinner decided to swim the bracingly cold lakes the following day. We also decided to visit the spa. Some place we could sit in hot baths and cold plunges, sit in hot rooms to make us ok. Quick changes in temperature do well for the circulation.
At the Korean spa, the bath table presented as a mortician’s slab, resolutely concrete, there being a garden hose and a five-gallon bucket over-foaming with lavender froth. I’m gestured to lie down, naked. The Shinto tradition is about the trinity of thinking as with all other religions, and so the masseuse claps my back three times when he’s done scrubbing my back. He seals his treatment: clap-clap-clap, three times the cupped hands on the large of my back before flipping me over with smoothed palms. Years of water and oil have his plantar pads sealed, like seal-skin, like raccoon paws, and he ladles water onto my chest, then pelvis, before adjusting my penis aside as if it were an afterthought, moving it aside with a sideways brush, covering it unnecessarily with a terry-cloth before scrubbing my stomach in broad strokes.
I’m silent, prone. My skin falls off in small measures and later I sit in a robe in a heated room. The second masseuse places me in angles, beneath an oven-warm sheet, and mashes a palm against my shoulder, trying, and trying and trying again to get rid of something, that something which is beneath the sheet and somehow seated south of my head. There is the scent of cedar and I go ahead and let her just fucking try.