During the quarantine, I pass in and out of not liking myself. I search for things to soften the light. You need to understand this for what it is, a broken-down apartment on the Pacific Coast Highway. I have to get there. It’s important to me. Most of us are children of sentimentality as we lie beside a lost love on the highway, waiting for her or him to come back to us. Come back, come back, we say, in the sift of our dreams.
Cheap blue sunglasses give my face a cinematic look and I’m barefoot. Yeah, I’m sitting here on the sidewalk in front of the 7-Eleven on a blistering afternoon in Austin, Texas waiting for a bus to crash into the store. This particular 7-Eleven gives off vibes like that because several years ago Charles Whitman shot a man coming out the door carrying a cherry Slurpee. The iced drink was new and local ranchers had started complaining that horses might want ice cubes in ponds. The Texas Tower, where Whitman rained down bullets, is about a half-mile away. I can see the Tower clock from where I sit and everyone who lives in Austin wears that day like a one-size-fits-all nightmare hat. All sales are absolutely final for the 46 people he shot.
My hair is barely over my ears, which is a problem for me, and I’m barefoot. I have on a faded work shirt that matches a pair of starched Wranglers. Starch makes me feel like a hippie in reverse, where the starch is predetermined, without choice, and further, all starch is a form of rigid existence that brooks no existential doubt. I kick this idea around in my mind and decide I’ll have a hard time getting anybody to listen to my thoughts on reverse hippieism and even if I find someone, I won’t be able to explain myself.
“You say, you’re a hippie in reverse, because you put starch in your pants?”
“Yes, let me explain.”
I come to Austin every weekend from my college, which is about 100 miles away. I leave on Thursday afternoon after my last class and return Monday evening. I always try to get a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule. I go to a very conservative, all-male military school and I hate the place as if each class is a botched appendectomy. I catch shit for my hair.
“Will my son survive, doctor?”
“I don’t think so Mrs. Miller. He’s taking twenty hours of math and accounting.”
I hear a girl’s voice, “Hey, you, what are you doing?”
She’s carrying a bottle of wine in a sack. She’s barefoot, in a faded work shirt and jeans. I watch her come closer and I think about my life beside her. Just she and I. The late nights, the arguments, the sex, driving in a rain storm. Somewhere an injured woman climbs onto a high plateau and the poor are burning their fields for the next planting and she is like that in my mind as she gets closer, parting the heat of the day, causing dogs to bark a block away.
“Who are you?” she asks, as she sits, steadying herself with her hand on my shoulder.
“Good name,” she nods and purses her lips.
“Who are you?”
“Sophie. We’re dressed alike.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have starch in your jeans, do you?”
“No, but maybe I’ll try it. It’s so … unexpected.”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I say.
“Really?” she smiles. “Look at my feet. Do you like ’em?”
Sophie is six feet tall, with big, brown feet, perfectly painted little toenails, long legs that serve as turnpikes, flashing teeth, and piles of gorgeously thick hair like a roaring waterfall twisting downward, over the rocks, spreading into a million little eddies.
Her eyes are honey for all the right bees. There is something of Egypt in her face and she is not pretty or cute or sexy, she is only beautiful. A perfect woman and now she’s beside me, smiling.
“I’m twenty,” she says.
“Good for you. I’m twenty-one.”
She frowns and looks away. “No, I’m not. I’m not twenty. I’m eighteen, going on nineteen.”
“Great,” I say. “We’re perfect then, like this day.”
“Yeah,” she replies. “Just so. Do you want some wine?”
Normally, at this juncture, I’d tell you about how I made the mistake of getting engaged to two sisters, how I graduated with straight C’s and went into the woods to build half a cabin; how I delayed my wars and I’d describe the drug trips, the books I read, the affairs with married woman; I’d go into great detail about hitching across Mexico and riding a Gitane bike across Europe; the gambling, the jobs, the fights, the drinking, and about how lucky I’d always been.
No, I can not do that. I have miles to go.
I’ll speak only of Sophie and our relationship as a pair of migratory geese, loyal to one another, as we’d wing through the moonlit night, trying to fall together towards the earth. From the time I met her at the 7-Eleven until today, she has been part of my DNA. She attached herself over a three-year period. Whenever we were together, all was forgiven and our language was smooth in the candle light as we discussed the inconsolable. Dogs and horses were our witnesses. They were intent to watch us lay upon the ground; moving, shivering as the grass grew over our bodies, as the sand grains pushed against our eyes. Other people were without influence. Everything within. We were the same, yet different. Together, yet apart.
After months away, suddenly, there we would be … in each other’s arms.
I see her by the lake and stop.
“Where you been?” she asks.
“Long story. I got involved with some gold diggers in Mexico. They were nuts.”
“Were they good looking?”
“No, these were guys looking for gold in San Luis Potosi. They had a map that led to nothing.”
Over the next few hours, she tells me about some guy who wants to marry her. He runs a plumbing supply business and is a good friend of the family. He’s also overweight and ten years older than she is, but rich. Her mom and dad think it’s a great idea. She starts crying and I hug her.
“Don’t throw your life away,” I say.
Later we go out and the Sophie phenomenon happens. Like always. The restaurant is for lawyers who work at the Capitol. They have trophy wives, mistresses, and we walk into the main room toward our table. Every eye is on Sophie. More women than men stare at her. I am a professional of how others see Sophie. It makes me feel lucky. Sophie is now twenty-one and on the verge of graduating. She is in a mini-skirt and high-heels which makes her about my height. Sometimes when we are together in public, strangers start about how we are a great pair, brother and sister, but then I’d say, no we’re lovers, and it isn’t incest.
She whispers, “This is embarrassing.”
“So what else is new? Look, everywhere you go this happens. You don’t like it?”
We order and have a drink and then I give the same advice.
“You need to get out of Texas. You need to go to Italy and become a model. Get an agent. Milan is the world capital of fashion. Believe me, you have what it takes.”
She turns her face down and looks into the fascinating buttered bread on her plate.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got it, right? You know it inside your heart. Don’t end up in Muleshoe. You’ll be dead by thirty.”
“I’ve got some acid,” she tells me. “Let’s go out to the cabin and pet the horses and the dogs.”
A few months pass and I am in graduate school near Austin and I see her once in a while and then one night I knock on her door and somebody else answers. The girl doesn’t know Sophie and when I check at the office, they tell me she’s left. She never said a word to me about leaving, but that is okay by me. I figure she has moved back home to marry the plumber. Too bad, I think.
Fast forward five years and I am in an Austin hospital. I’d had an accident in El Salvador and after a less than successful operation at Gorgas Hospital, I’d come home. A mutual friend of mine and Sophie’s comes to visit. He tells me that her dad died and Sophie returned for the funeral. She’s working as a model in Italy. He says there is an article about her in an Austin paper. When I check it out, there is a photo of her in a designer coat and a few lines about her living in Milan and working in Paris and Rome.
Over the next twenty of so years, whenever I got depressed, I’d think about Sophie and her life as a model. Occasionally, I’d look for her in magazines or commercials when I was in Europe. I never made an effort to track her down. I was content with what I had of her in my mind. I was happy that Sophie had beaten the odds and gotten out of Texas and a dead-end marriage. She became a part of my philosophy. An example of how a person could do something crazy and independent and be the better for it.
I was working on a book and I decided to base one of the characters on Sophie. I googled her.
She’d died at forty-six in a little beach community just outside of Los Angels. There was a divorced French husband and a daughter. There were also a few criminal cases with her name on them and for $39.99, I could get all the public records. I didn’t want to know the details, but I did get her last address on a death certificate. Her place was on the Pacific Coast Highway. I figured it was going to be a nice condo or even a fancy home. I’d worked out a glitzy narrative for her as an international fashion model. I went on google maps and traveled down the highway until I got to the address. I could see the street number above the door of a small, run-down stucco apartment building. A woman, whose face was fuzzed out, was going in the front door with a pit bull. I checked the death certificate again and there was the number of the apartment unit. It was on the second floor, facing the highway, and I could see the apartment door. It was dirty blue and needed some paint and she had died just inside.
I went to her hometown newspaper and found her obituary. There was no mention of husband or daughter. She’d been buried two months after her death. There was only one line about her career as a fashion model. Everything else was about her close family in Texas. How much they were mourning her. How the memorial would be at the Catholic Church that afternoon and the name of the priest who would be presiding.
To the side of the obituary was her photo from all those years ago … the waterfall hair and the smooth face created from the distillation of all women. She had a quizzical look and her eyes poured honey.
So there you have it. I do this for myself. Not for Sophie or anyone who might have known her. As I said, she is part of my DNA. She is embedded within me, and no amount of history, outside of who I am, can ever change that. We are all selfish when it comes to the past, and I am that way more than most.