Posted by jdg | Friday, July 01, 2011

The TSA lady encourages her to walk through the scanner. Though her father will be at her side every moment of this trip, she must do this one thing by herself. The woman has the power to pull her aside, put her through one of those invasive pat-downs, but this one doesn't have that cruelty in her veins, only a rare touch of kindness: "Where are you flying today, sweetie?"

"San Francisco," answers the little girl with the fresh gap in her front teeth. "That's where I was born."

When they get there, the first thing she wants to see is the hospital. They ride the bus. This is all he wants, to hold her on his lap in the electric hug of MUNI, the smell of someone's hidden french fries, the old Chinese lady who won't stop staring, the handicapped woman who takes five minutes to get her electric wheelchair on board and then disembarks at the next stop. "You remember that sound," he tells her when the bus finally gets moving again. For him it's the sound of being young and not needing to be anywhere fast; the sound of being surrounded by slightly-horrifying strangers and alone with your thoughts.

The hospital is the color of poached salmon and wholly unimpressive. He watches her eyes. We need myth. This block of sidewalk was the last your mother walked before you burst into our lives. That's where I parked the car. It was sunny and cold, just like this. Right here: this is where I took in my last breath of fresh air before your mother vomited all over the floor of the receiving room. Up there: that window there. That's where we woke the morning of your second day, where I slept with your head in the palm of my hand. I was terrified by you. I would stop breathing just to watch you. We could see the ocean from that window. I remember.

He must not be too casual with nostalgia. Though it has opened with a torrent he must dole it out with an eye dropper, or she will grow numb to it. Nothing seems to have changed here. He has spent the last five years in a city that disappears more each week, but back here almost everything's the same. The same Mexican guys are working the deli at the Arguello Super. The old man who used to live above him always dressed all in black except for his Pokeman backpack gets on the bus, and he's still got that goddamn Pokeman backpack. "This is where. . ." he starts, over and over, and bites his lip, again and again. Then: "This is the playground where I used to bring you before I went to work, when you woke at six, to give your mother a few more moments of sleep."

"What happened to the tires?" she asks, and she's right: they're gone. Suddenly everything has changed. Rossi Playground has become newfangled, and my jaw drops that she remembers what it was like when we lived here. She was eighteen months old when we left. How can she. . .? I must have described it to her once. The nostalgia is delivered in teaspoons: "There is the house where we brought you home. That is the window where you used to watch for me to come home from work." Someone else lives there now. They can see an edge of their life through the glare of the windows.

"Wasn't our house blue then?" She knows that from photos, he's almost certain. It has since been painted brown.

* * * * *

They walk into their old neighborhood sushi place and the chef looks up at him and says, "Long time no see!" He shows his six-year-old daughter to the old man from Hiroshima, saying when they were last there she was a baby, and today she's ready to try her first real sushi. They get a table, just the two of them. They sit side by side.

"When I was 23," he whispers, "I was sitting here and there was a man with his little girl sitting over there, at that table. I was with a friend but I kept watching them. She was older than you. Fourteen, maybe. But watching them talk quietly and laugh made me ache to one day have a daughter. I was only 23 and it would be five years before I met you, but I knew even then that I loved you, that I wanted to know all about who you are and who you will be."

* * * * *

There is a porn convention at their hotel. Dear Mr. William Shatner: it's not a three-star hotel if it posts warnings not to hang your clothes on the in-room sprinkler system and hosts conventions for women wearing 6-inch stilletos and thongs printed with the names of their web-cam sites. If the men who attend BlogHer are a pathetic lot, you should see the ones who attend internet porn conventions. He has never seen so many mustaches. They walk into the hotel and his palm immediately goes to shield his daughter's eyes. And despite whatever instinct his waning testosterone insists he follow, he declines the opportunity to share an elevator with three nearly topless women. They wait for an empty one. He reads her a chapter from The Indian in the Cupboard. "It's midnight back home," he tells her before turning out the lights, and her eyes sparkle with the knowledge that she has gotten away with something magnificent. Concerned about what might get filmed in the next room, he turns the air conditioning fan up to high and tucks his daughter in under the extra comforter.

There may be a DIY-sybian-making workshop in one of the conference rooms on the main floor, but the hotel is right on the cable car line. The cars are working for the first time in six months. A woman in a feathered hat gets on and tells the driver she's glad to see him again but, in truth, she liked the buses better. "No annoying tourists," she laughs, and he feels the weight of the camera around his neck. That's us now, he thinks, and smiles. The little girl loves the bells, the open sides. She likes watching her dad hang off the side, pointing at the angle the brakeman makes as they descend Nob Hill and the bay and the city magnify in the window behind her.

Every morning they take the cable car down to the Embarcadero, where he used to work. Every morning he gets prissy drip coffee and buys her a chocolate croissant, half of which ends up in the pigeons. They could do something different each morning, but he's given up on that sort of travel: the idea that you have to do everything and check it off a list. A child doesn't remember checklists. They remember having fun. Every morning they go down to the Ferry Building and eat pastries and watch the people getting off the boats. He watches them and wonders what his life would be like if he still shuffled like that and she feeds the pigeons. Still, in a few days here with her he can do and see what he could in a month of working. He had a city view from his office but he hardly saw this city, and more importantly, he hardly ever saw her. She calls a particularly bold pigeon Mr. Toughy and laughs and laughs and laughs when he pecks at a flake she's secretly placed on his coffee. "So," he says, "What playground should we find today?"

* * * * *

They are on the 38 Geary Limited and it's as packed as he's ever seen it. Someone kindly gives up a seat for her and he hovers above her protectively, watching her watch the incredible drama that is an ordinary packed 38 Geary Limited on an ordinary night in San Francisco. The city is wild in her eyes, he thinks, and she helps him see it anew: The smiling, jabbering Chinese. Impudent Russians. A dozen silent Japanese naval officers (all of whom appear to weigh less than a hundred pounds each). A sleazeball slips his hands into the back of his girlfriend's pants. She is watching all of it, and he watches her, smiling.

* * * * *

It is late. At Fillmore the crowding eases and I pull her onto my lap, and she falls asleep in my arms. It is the motion of the bus, I tell myself. You remember this sound, I tell her sleeping ear. It coaxed you into this world and through your earliest days. I look out at a city full of big ideas, rich places, fancy meals, fancy people, long conversations, amazing art, and great music, but I am only here for this: to hold her sleeping in my arms and remember where she came from, from that life of misdirection: tossing in the wind, a compass spinning and spinning to the point where the spinning almost made sense. . . until she came. My little windrose.

If you don't understand nostalgia, just return somewhere you fell in love.