I was 18, I lived with my parents. I had a bike. I hadn’t done drugs yet. I am not lying when I say you were the first and last angel I ever met. We met at Safeway of all places, and you wore a faded white sundress, with honey colored hair and the naked imprint of a fishtail nose ring.
If you live in the same place long enough, all the streets tend to go the same place. It differs everywhere you go. Where streets end, I mean. Where I am, in Milpitas, California, biking through the street like a stick figure who’d learned to fly, listening to music that annoys you and looking for someone to catch me how God couldn’t; that place is a Safeway open until one o’clock in the morning.
I’ve lived in Milpitas long enough to know everyone who comes here, depending on the time of day. The early birds, with sunglasses and joggers and old university hoodies; the people from the dentistry on their lunch break, still in their scrubs like human bluebirds; the stoners who drive to the middle of the parking lot as soon as Safeway closes and listen to electronic music with the windows open, seats back to watch the sun die slowly; the people in sneakers who leave with three boxes of hard tonic water and nothing else; the moms at four pm every day like clockwork buying bulk frozen chicken thighs, toilet paper, lindt truffles, a big bag of cauliflower to make some kind of keto fried rice with. I’ve lived here long enough to know everyone in this town, at least their faces and how tired they are.
So you and I meet at Safeway, because you’re waiting for your house in San Francisco to get renovated or refurbished. It flooded three months ago and black water means you have to throw all the floorboards, all the drywall away; useless. We meet at Safeway and you’re buying three bell peppers: Yellow, red, green. You say the yellow ones are the sweetest. You buy bell peppers, grapes, a box of saltine crackers, five sunflowers. A can of Thai coconut curry. Your eyes are violent new planets full of fire and thunder and dense grey that rains diamonds the size of fists. I help you reach a bottle of olives at the back of the second to highest shelf.
You come here every day and spend an hour shopping since you moved back in with your parents. You have short purple nails with white polka dots and a sundress and a messy bun, and you wear a pout with exactly nine freckles attached to it so that every time you smile, it’s hard not to mentally trace a constellation from some old myth about the god of sunlight falling in love with a gypsy dancing queen or a wild fruit tree.
We go to Dolores Park in San Francisco, this great big rolling hill full of hippies buying edibles or tabs of LSD from strangers and software professionals playing frisbee and football with their friends and their children.
We get red wine and ice cream and you tell me about your theory of everything you care about, the world through your eyes, what you won’t hear on the news, et cetera. You say, this is all just like a big green field. Life is a big great field, kind of like Dolores Park, kind of like the default windows computer home screen, a great big field with clouds that weigh a hundred billion tons and look the same as the ground, just made of sewer water in Chicago and diamonds in Yemen and a waterfall in Iceland made of crumpled tissue paper.
So life is just like if you were on a gameshow and they flew you out to Switzerland or Costa Rica or a summer day in San Francisco if everyone was dead, and you’re all alone in this big great green field that never ends or at least is growing too fast for you to run and see the end, even if you started on the horizon of everything you can see.
You lay your sweet head in my lap and dig your fingernails into my wrist gently. You say, So you’re on this game show and you’re all alone in this great big field and they blindfolded you and gave you a lot of ketamine right as soon as you signed the liability contract insurance not-our-fault paper, and somehow you know that there is somebody else in this field, someone beautiful and exactly for you, however many miles away. Let’s make it one hundred or one hundred fifty miles away. However many miles away, there is love, or happiness, or a rare combination of both fragile things. You tell me a lot of your friends sold marijuana at some point.
You have two choices in this great field of grass, you can be a small animal that dives headfirst into the soil. Or you can walk. So obviously you walk, or at least most people do. You walk in one direction in the hopes that the other person is walking too and your paths diverge, or you walk in case the other person is laying down or dead so you can bury them, or maybe you walk because you think there’s the San Francisco skyline or a door made out of mirrors wherever this place ends.
More than anything, you walk every day until you can’t stop walking because you hope so hard you know that somewhere someone’s walking toward you, for the same reasons you are. Our first date is a picnic of mud pies and sun-dried crickets with a side of the rarest dandelions squeezed into juice; we braid the longest strands of yellow green into bracelets and a superfluous picnic blanket; we dig until together we reach the heavy magnetic center of everything and bid adieu to Instagram and day jobs and all our family and friends and start a new life in Wyoming or Texas or a coffee shop in Portland or whatever color of grass grows on the other side of the earth.
Our second date will be I find shame in my nakedness and reach into my chest to tear out whichever rib covers my heart and I collapse bleeding at your feet so that we are married. Our second date will be you take a casual bite of apple and tell me, we’ve gotta move out of this place eventually. Where we’ll live is the best part of this field, somewhere with every kind of darwinistic beauty other than you; with shade and low-hanging lemon branches to climb from wolves that don’t eat grass like the others.
I kiss you and say something cheesy, say
Baby, you are my world of green until I hate the smell of freshly cut grass and my voice is hoarse and ragged from yelling at the sky to stop goddamn filming me. Baby, I will love you until there are so many space stations everyone has cable TV for free and God gets claustrophobia. Baby, for you I will walk until my legs fall off and my bones grow into roots and my hair sprouts purple flowers speckled with with white polka dots.
Your tongue tastes like melting vanilla ice cream with a glass of cabernet, and you are my first almost everything.
I have to say when it ends, because it was always going to; because you have to go back to San Francisco and I have to go back to work in the city three towns over, where all the roads lead to a great humming, vibrating building full of computers and dead philosophers; I have to tell myself out loud that you were made of love and now you’re gone, but someday love will come back. She will be a barista with a different kind of nose ring or an anthropologist who travels out of the country with me or a transfer student I learn a language for, and I will be an abstract painter or an interpretive dancer or a boy who hates Thai food and Bollywood movies. I tell myself about all the shapes love is supposed to have, and I say out loud that you were just one of them, made of teeth and careless beauty and afternoons too lucid to forget.
Of course, there is something inside me that will always belong to you, so I will never stop thinking of you when it itches; even when you’re married to a better man with stronger ribs and your house in San Francisco is full of sunflowers and little reflections of yourself named Eva and River, even when the stretch of grass you found your whole life in is severed at its underbelly and lies wet and dying across your front yard.
I will miss love and California. I will miss you and this sky that’s sectioned into stanzas by a mess of brittle power lines. I will miss this carbon sky, though it is full of grey and sodapop red and television commercial runoff; I will miss this sky paying thousands of dollars each month for palm tree acupuncture and a starless view of every neon road that leads to you.
This short story, by Austen Cheethirala, is his first and is a snapshot of the two relationships that impacted him most: His first love and the culture that raised him.