I was never close to Curtis. He was Erin’s gay best friend; they had known each other since middle school. There was something similar about the two of them, and not just because they were Chinese American: under their gentle manner they had the same steely stubbornness and self-deprecating humour. We met in the late summer of 2001, not long after I arrived in America to attend college at Berkeley. An entire entourage escorted Erin on her arrival at our dormitory: first her parents, then her boyfriend, and finally a large group of her high school friends, including Curtis.
Erin, unlike me, was someone who always seemed to know what she wanted. She enrolled in college as an Art major. I came from Singapore, at a time where the only options for a high-achieving student were finance, law, engineering, or medicine. I enjoyed writing and was told I did it well, but becoming a writer or any sort of artist was unheard of amongst my peers. To study art, and dream of becoming an artist? I was not just impressed, I was inspired—even when her then-boyfriend later told me, “Of course she can be an artist. You can be anything you want when your family owns twenty buildings in San Francisco.”
Erin wasn’t someone who told you her opinion directly, but she had her way of making her opinion known: a knowing look, a scrunched-up nose, a conspiratorial grin. I was the opposite, someone constantly getting into scrapes because I could never tell when people wanted the truth—and when they didn’t. Somehow though, we got along. She never judged me for my mistakes and helped me heal from my heartbreaks. I suppose there must have been something she saw in me, too. Even after I moved to Japan for graduate school, we continued the late night conversations we first had as college freshmen. She visited me while I was at graduate school in Japan. Several years later, when I was done chasing love, she flew to Singapore for my wedding, bringing me a crystal heart from Tiffany’s.
And then she disappeared.
A few years after Erin stopped answering my long-distance calls, cancelled her email address and changed her phone number, Curtis reappeared. He was stopping over in Singapore for a few days, he said, and did I want to meet up for lunch?
We met near my office at Raffles Place, where I treated him to a bowl of Hainanese beef noodles, sheltering from the midday sun in a conserved shophouse along the river. I had traded in my college sweatshirt and jeans for office skirt and heels, but talking to Curtis, in his Bermudas and shirt, made me feel like nothing had changed—even though we had not seen each other in years. He still had the same kindness in his voice, and his constancy comforted me. He was a pediatric nurse at one of America’s best hospitals. The job was intense and the hours long but also granted him extended periods of leave, which enabled him to travel around the world. As we sipped savoury beef broth and slurped silky vermicelli noodles, I realised it was the first time we had eaten together, despite having known each other for so long.
“Have you heard from Erin?”
He shook his head. “I miss her.”
Erin had depression for years. I knew, but could not understand at the time. In hindsight, it was obvious: in her art, which grew increasingly disturbed and confused. In senior year at high school she painted a startling impressionist copy of Van Gogh’s self-portrait, which hung in our room all freshman year. But by the end of university, she was drawing naked, faceless women bound in ropes. Ropes, everywhere ropes, in black and red ink slashed across large, square sheets of paper, one of which she gifted to me. And then there were the tattoos—at first hidden, then increasingly visible, including one on the back of her wrist which she fingered as we sat on the tatami of our Wajima ryokan, gazing at the Sea of Japan.
“I kind of regret these,” she said.
“Can’t you get them removed?” I was puzzled, still remembering the enthusiasm with which she had sketched out her tattoos.
She answered with a scrunched up face, but said nothing. There is a lot I remember from her visit to Japan: meditating on a pavilion in the Kenroku Gardens in Kanazawa, cheering for the Hanshin Tigers at a baseball game in Koshien, posing with maiko in our matching skirts on the steps outside Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. In all our photos, she was smiling. Was she just pretending? Or did I just not notice her pain?
Curtis visited Singapore again two years later, this time meeting my kids, who loved him. I came to learn more about his work, his family, and his life in San Francisco. And in February, he was one of the first friends I contacted when I knew I was visiting California for the first time in fifteen years.
“Have you heard from Erin?” I asked. It was fast becoming our greeting to each other. Always, his answer was no. It had been ten years since I last saw her.
We meet up again in Daly City, California where Curtis, still in hospital scrubs, buys me dinner at his favourite Laotian restaurant. After dinner we drive around the neighbourhood, marveling at multi-million-dollar homes in St Francis Wood. The houses rise up the slope like lit candles, and the gentle curve of the mountains takes me back to a place in my past.
“Can you bring me somewhere?” I ask Curtis.
The road to Twin Peaks is exactly as I remembered: the sharp steep bends, cat’s eyes the only light guiding the way, narrow sections where the face of the mountain rises like steep dark shadows that touch the sky—opening to a panorama of the city, glittering in the night. The lights grow more intense as they reach the bay, the water quiet and mysterious. I was twenty the last time I came here with my college boyfriend and his beat-up Nissan, both of us foreign students seeking comfort in each other in a country where we never felt at home.
The view is still magnificent, although it feels colder. The wind picks up speed and I pull up my hood to stop my hair from flying in my face. Curtis and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder, Market and Van Ness forming a luminous, lopsided cross that quarters the city into past and present, storied and futuristic, rich and poor. All around us, the usual faces who come up here at night: dating couples, frat boys, tourists.
“You know,” Curtis says, “we drove past Erin’s mom’s house just now.”
“I know,” I answer, even though I wouldn’t be able to point it out on a map.
“So many times I thought, maybe I should just go up to the door and ring the bell.”
The thought lingers in the space between us, and suddenly I understand the aching loneliness I’ve felt since we stepped out of the car. It comes not from the couple making out next to us, but the friend we’re both missing.
“Let’s do it,” I say.
“What? No.” Curtis laughs, the thought seeming to embarrass him.
“No, we should,” I say, my conviction growing. “I’m the perfect excuse. I’m the college roommate who hasn’t seen Erin in ten years.”
We zip down Twin Peaks, energized. Erin’s childhood home is a large, single-story corner house off Laguna Honda. Sometime during college, I must have stayed there, because I remember the soft lighting of her room, her closet spilling with the contents of her fashionable wardrobe, the teal carpeting. Erin was lace and denim, furry white rabbits and brass antique lamps. She may not have been okay inside, but on the outside, at least, she always looked good. She made sure the things around her looked good.
We park along the street and I notice a light turned on in the back. Wasn’t that her bedroom? But the rest of the house is dark, including the front porch. We ring the bell. No one answers. I try again, and we both knock on the glass panel.
“Maybe no one’s home,” Curtis says. “Maybe we should go.”
A pair of glasses, grey wiry hair. A startled face appears behind the curtained window in the door. It’s her—Erin’s mother. The door opens, and she appears confused, not recognising us until Curtis greets her.
“Oh yes, Curtis,” she says and stops, not knowing what to say next.
“We were just driving by,” I say on Curtis’s behalf, who seems too stunned to say anything. “I’m visiting for the first time in fifteen years, and was hoping to see Erin before I leave.”
Erin is alive. She’s living with her brother in a small town in North Bay, about an hour’s north of her mom’s house. Her mom gives us her new number and e-mail, asking about our jobs and families. We talk about everything except Erin’s depression.
There’s a bounce in Curtis’s step as we head back into the car. Once inside we call Erin. We hold our breath as the phone rings and rings, but it goes to voicemail.
“Hey Erin,” Curtis says.
“Hey, so I’m leaving San Francisco tomorrow,” I join in.
Erin doesn’t call back that night. Somehow, I know I won’t be seeing her before I fly out. I don’t know if I will ever see her again or hear her voice, and the thought saddens me. But her mom, surely, will let her know we’re looking. That we’re still here, waiting for her to return.
After he hangs up the phone, we both look at each other, strangely relieved. We smile. Then we hug each other.
Before leaving the U.S. I make a day trip across the bay to Berkeley. Foothill, our freshman dormitory, is as pretty as a postcard. With its wood-shingled façade and green roof, it reminds me of a Swiss chalet. I stand at the junction outside Foothill, which sits on top of a long, steep slope that runs all the way down to the bay, remembering the many evenings I stood here in stunned silence, watching the sky change as the sun faded into the water.
On the train back to San Francisco I start to recall all the times I rode BART to see Erin in ‘the city.’ To sound local, she told me, I couldn’t call it ‘San Fran’, ‘SF’, or worse still, ‘Frisco’. San Francisco was simply the city. “I’m going to the city this weekend? Just like that?” I practiced the words until I could say it as casually as her. It strikes me how much I associate her with ‘the city.’ The weather is warm and sunny throughout my stay but one evening it suddenly drops to fifty degrees. As the wind sweeps under my pleated skirt, I imagine her chiding me: what did I say? It’s always jacket weather in the city.
The train rattles as it lurches west, readying itself to go underwater. In the reflection of the window I see her: Erin and me, eighteen again. She leans her head back and laughs, her hair freshly permed. I’m on my way to watch The Black Heart Procession at the Fillmore with a guy I’m crushing on; this time I’ll be brave and let him kiss me. Erin gives me her typical shrug, her lip turning up again, before she decides to tell me what’s in her head. What’s there to lose? I imagine Erin saying, just as the windows go dark.
Jen Wei Ting is a Singaporean writer, novelist, and literary translator. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Time, The Economist, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Electric Literature, among others. She is currently at work on her debut novel. Read more @intewig or on her blog www.jenweiting.com.