I am cruising down Market Street when I see her. I have been driving distractedly, glancing out the side window to the view of San Francisco laid out beneath me, to the white layers of fog parting over the Bay. The city is new to me, it is the place I have always dreamed of, and when I arrived here last week via Highway 1, thinking what that meant, that this was the first highway, the alpha of all highways, the beginning of a system of traversing and leaving and arriving thought up years ago, it was like coming for the first time upon some foreign place that I had seen in my memory for years, a place to which I have never been but which has always appeared more vividly in my mind than the town where I grew up. Now, looking out at the Bay Bridge stretched over the gray water, I am wondering how it is that I have lived my entire life without driving this winding street through this perfect stretch of city.
At the top of Market a walkway gently arches over the street. This walkway, too, is a figment of my imagination; that is, the walkway was imagined by me long before I ever saw the real thing, so that when I did see it, four days ago, I averted my eyes from the traffic and stared in ecstatic awe at the thing I had thought up, that had been thought up likewise by someone else, or by a committee of someone elses whom I never knew, who nevertheless had my exact-same vision.
My walkway, I have been thinking ever since. My city.
I haven’t been up on the walkway yet, have only viewed it from my car, because I am afraid that if I go up there and observe the walkway from a different perspective it will become not the thing I thought of, but something else entirely. So I drive up and down Market Street fifteen or so times a day, but not once have I seen anyone walking across the suspended path. Thus, it has occurred to me that the path is not there at all, but continues to be the figment I always believed it to be, so that if I pulled into one of the so-called driveways crouched beneath the tall houses crowded onto the hill and took the spiraling path that leads up to the walkway and placed a foot upon the cement, the whole illusion would give way beneath me and I would fall to the street below, making an unfortunate and bloody ruckus. I drive back and forth hoping for some sign that I have not made this bridge up, waiting to see an actual body walking across it, or a bicyclist bicycling, or a runner running, or an escapee escaping. Someone.
Today there are two. Two girls, one dressed in black, one in white, one thin and one not so thin, one blonde and one brunette, each holding a broom with both hands. The girls face one another, their feet wide apart, knees bent, shoulders thrust forward. Their dresses are long and flowing and seem to be made of silk; they have no sleeves or straps but are wrapped around the girls’ bodies sarong-style, so that they move the way wind might move, waltz-like and impromptu, defying prediction. The thin blonde in the black dress swings her broom at the plumpish brunette in the white dress, brings it up to her cheek in slow motion, and the girl in the white dress responds likewise, moving her face away from the broom, lifting one leg high and turning in a complete circle and bringing her own broom down against the legs of the girl in the black dress, who turns now and lifts her broom again, aiming at her adversary’s waist.
I have slowed to watch the girls, living proof of the reality of my walkway. The other drivers seem not to have noticed this demonstration, or not to care, speeding past in complete indifference. Approaching the underlip of the bridge and fearful of losing sight of the girls, I ease the brake down with my foot so that the car is barely moving at all. Someone behind me begins honking just as the plump girl in the white dress raises her arms, hefting the broom high above her.
There is a sense of unloosening, I feel it in my gut even before the dress that moves like wind has fallen away. It is as though I am standing inches from the girl and can see the knot slipping just above her soft breasts, the silk sliding over her chest, her thighs, the whiteness of her skin and the thick lovely folds of her bottom and the twin dimples above the place where her cheeks press outward from her back revealed as the dress moves up and outward, suspended above the girl and the broom for a long moment before it floats downward, falling away from her, over the edge of the walkway, descending to meet my windshield and passing over the glass in a quick caress before a corner of it catches on the side mirror. I take the white silk into my hands and pull the fallen dress into the car, soft and full into my lap.
Having passed beneath the walkway I look in my rearview mirror and see her, the naked, dark-haired girl, shaven clean of pubic hair and all fresh and pink in the wind, her breasts upright and round, the broom standing at her side, bristles up, her fingers curled around the handle in an absurd mockery of An American Gothic. The girl looks stunned and accusatory, as if she might leap over the bridge and confront me, the driver with out-of-state plates descending the hill with her dress. She drops the broom and crosses one hand over her breasts, cups the other between her legs, then turns toward the girl in the black dress as I round the curve, one hand plunged into the soft mound of silk.
The wind has hands that take me up. Out there the Bay shimmers, the water pushes the cool hands toward me. Down there the cars move, the buses screech to top the hill, the workers come home, the drivers watch. Up here it is the two of us. She wears only black, even in summer, the city’s coldest season. I wear only white. We are a simple entity, two halves. Up here on the bridge, or down there in our tiny house which we inherited from our father, our house with its high narrow windows, here or there we are in opposition.
She challenged me to this duel, a game having only two rules: we must move at a fraction of our normal speed, so as to bring on exhaustion more quickly. The one who stops first loses. The one who loses leaves. To the victor goes the house, the turquoise carpet from Turkey, the yellowing walls of the bedrooms, the old gas stove, the pointy roof. It is too late for us to live together. I have chosen a man she despises. She has chosen no one, or rather, she has chosen me. She believes she is my mother, my teacher, my cook, my one-who-knows-best. Five years since our father died, and she has named herself my guardian, though I am nineteen and do not need to be guarded.
I am certain of my victory, for I am the strongest. She eats only vegetables and grainy things, stringy plants that grow in a window box above the kitchen sink. Her legs beneath the black sarong are thin. Her arms become tired while vacuuming. She has not made love to anyone in years and I believe, though she protests, that she is too weak for passion. Only days ago she came upon me in the living room, sitting on the couch, my hands propped on the shoulders of the man whom she despises.
“No more,” she said, seeing his head plunged between my thighs, my fingers tracing the path of moles on his shoulders as I sat up, hips thrust over the edge of the cushions, loving the image of him bowed before me. “Not in this house.”
“The house belongs to both of you,” he said, propping his chin on my thigh to take up my side. A practical man. A man not unlike my sister, possessed by an argumentative disposition.
That night, after he had left and we had fought until our throats were sore from shouting, she proposed the duel. I wondered aloud whether it wasn’t overly dramatic.
“Then come up with something better,” she said. The same words, I thought, that he would have chosen.
At first I am ashamed to be standing here on the walkway, the silk clinging to my thighs, to my stomach that will not shrink, to my body that is too big. For years I tried to make myself smaller, until I met him, the man who said, “I love your size,” pressing his hands deep into the skin of my back, resting his cheek against my inner thigh.
The straws of the broom brush my face, a cue that it is my turn to move, to lift my leg and turn and come back around to her. The dance proceeds. We have been up here for an hour at least. I am becoming tired, but I am determined to outlast her. Then there is the gust of wind, the lifting, the quick parting of silk from skin. I see the dress suspended above me, airborne, and understand that I am naked, on display.
A woman’s hand reaches out of a window. I see a flash of red hair through the sun roof of a silver car just before my dress disappears with the hand. Covering myself, I move toward my sister, thinking that she will come to my aid, that she will be the mother she has always been, that she will sacrifice her own modesty for my own. I am waiting for her to unfold her dress, to wrap me up in it.
“I win,” she says, then walks away, leaving me naked above the traffic. A chorus of honking starts up, and there are heads emerging from car windows, and children waving, and the chill of the fog on my skin. I crouch low to the sidewalk, my knees drawn up to my chest, my face buried in my knees. I try to make myself small, so small no one can see me. Soon my bones feel frozen.
Belly-down, I crawl toward the far end of the bridge, the opposite direction from our house, her house now, the house I lost to her. My lover’s house is only a couple of hundred yards away, the purple house on the hill. I don’t care if the wife is baking, the children watching television, the whole sweet family gathered round. He will have to take me in. The fog has drawn in close like a zipper. I make my way through the small squares of yard, the short driveways packed with cars, crouching behind fenders and blue garbage cans that have been set out for morning. Coming upon his purple house I go down on hands and knees, crawl around back like a cat come home for supper. There are lights in every room. Music drifts from the windows. I raise my head just above the sill. On the rectangular rug with green fringe around the edges, he is dancing with his wife. The children sit at the corners, clapping and singing, getting all the words wrong.
I tap the window screen. The whole family looks my way. The youngest boy, Jimmy, runs over and presses his nose against the screen. “She’s naked!” he announces.
Tami, who is ten, asks, “Mother, is it wild?”
The six year old, Simon, whom his father considers clever, says, “I spy me a nudist. The nudist is at the window. She ain’t wearing any clothes.”
My lover’s wife runs over and grabs the children. I say his name but he pretends not to hear me. “Call the police!” his wife says, as if I have not just said her husband’s name, as if I am some stranger.
“No,” I say to the wife, the children. “I’ve been here many times. There’s a blue rug in the orange bedroom. The toilet leaks when you flush it. The right rear burner is missing on the stove!” In this manner I attempt to validate myself, to assert my right to be here, but the wife is not listening. She is dragging the children upstairs, and they are screaming bloody murder. My lover stands in the hallway, holding the red rotary phone.
“There’s a mad woman at my window,” my lover says into the receiver. “She’s not wearing any clothes.”
A naked woman on a bridge won’t last long, not here or anywhere. I make a U-turn at Mars and head North on Market, planning to restore the dress to the girl. In the time it takes for me to reach the walkway, the girl has disappeared, and a yard sale has sprung up at the foot of the bridge.
A cardboard sign says, “Everything must go.” A man slouches on the ground beside a small silver table with one broken leg. He is wearing an unusual sort of hat with a blue feather tucked into the band. The table is beautiful in an orphaned way; quite clearly it needs a home. The man is also selling a red feather boa, a snapping turtle in a yellow cage, an old sewing machine, a Speed Racer lunch box, a pair of army-issue binoculars, and a box of steno pads.
I park the car illegally in someone’s driveway and leave it running. “How much is this table?” I ask the man, knocking my knuckles nonchalantly against the surface, as if the table barely interests me, as if I could take it or leave it.
“Why don’t you take the steno pads instead?” he says. “I can let you have the whole box for fifty cents.”
“No,” I say. “I stopped for the table.”
“This snapping turtle is seventeen years old,” the man says, thrusting the cage in my direction. “Her name is Darren. She makes a fine pet. She eats very little and needs only to be walked twice a week. You can have her for seventy-five cents.”
“I’ve never been good with turtles. How about the table?”
“A feather boa has many uses. You may tie back your curtains with it, or create an interesting border for your doorway, or wear it out on a special evening. This feather boa costs ninety cents, and that’s my final offer.”
I picture myself in the white dress that fell from the sky, the feather boa draped dramatically around my neck. “I’ll take it,” I say. “And the table?”
The man lets out a long, disappointed sigh. “What do you plan to do with it?” The blue feather in his unusual hat distracts me. I am unable to articulate.
“I just moved here,” I say. “I’m going to put it in my kitchen.”
“The table is five hundred dollars.”
I tell him that his table is not made of gold. I tell him that his hat is ludicrous.
“Where do you come from?” he wants to know.
He doesn’t believe me. “What’s the capital?” he demands.
“Okay,” he says to the turtle. “She’s an honest woman. Ten dollars.”
I pay him and put the table in my trunk. He waves as I drive away, and I wave back, but then I realize that he is not looking at me. He is bidding farewell to his table.
The kitchen of my new apartment on Diamond has three beveled windows, through which I can see the bluish beginnings of the Bay. Down below, boys in tight jeans and cowboy boots walk dogs with frightening leather collars. To the East is a hill bearing rows of houses, the most startling of which is a deep, lovely shade of purple. Sitting at the new table that totters on its broken leg, I have visions of my own heroism, the lengths to which I will go to restore the naked girl’s clothes.
In this vision I go out into my city. I take the dress that was given to me, the dress that fell from the sky. I place a foot upon the walkway, the walkway which exists, truly, and which will not collapse beneath me. I stand above the traffic, clutching the white silk that is prone to falling. At last she arrives. She is naked, as when I left her. She holds one hand over each breast as she steps onto the walkway and moves toward me, her sweet thighs slapping together, her belly beaten pink by the wind. “Please,” she says, stretching out her hands to receive the dress, revealing the dark of her nipples, the shadows gathering beneath her breasts. In this city that is mine, this city that I dreamed long before I saw it, on this walkway that I built years ago in my mind, I persuade her.
“Come with me,” I say. She takes my hand, and I lead her home. On the high bed I lay her down, touch my mouth to the white instep of her foot, press my fingers into the cushion of her calves, and lay my head upon her stomach, hearing the deep pulse of her womb. Many nights gather beneath her eyelids. Her legs are heavy from dreaming. She is a replica of myself from many years ago, before I dreamt of cities and bridges. On the dress that fell away, the dress she sent down to me, I detect my own smell, the print of my own fingers.
I sit at my table in the apartment that is mine alone and gaze out at my city, dreaming of the rescue. I spread the dress on the table and admire the soft grain of the silk, a blue stain the size of a quarter just above the lower hem. I stand and wrap the dress around me, tie a good knot that will hold, and position myself in front of the long mirror in the hallway. The 37-Corbett clatters by, spewing soot within inches of my window. The passengers stand, clinging to straps that hang from the ceiling, gazing into my hallway. I pull my hair away from my face, push my belly out to make it round.
I think of my mother at the fruit stand in this very city, some thirty years ago, her hands traveling over ripe mounds of tangerines. She sees my father’s eager face beneath a sailor’s cap; he is running toward her. As he lifts the cap from his head and begins to call her name, she drops three tangerines into a paper sack, presses a quarter into the vendor’s open palm, and turns away. In the end, following the advice of her own mother, she will come back to him; but in that moment at the fruit stand my mother is alone and fearless. Walking away, she breaks the skin of a tangerine with her fingernail, tears the skin from the flesh of the fruit, lets the juice spill down her hands. She turns a corner, and my father’s voice fades beneath the low howl of a foghorn. In that instant she forgets him. She is not my mother. She is no one’s wife. She is a woman set free in her new city, thousands of miles from home.