I had been in the job for three months when the marketing manager took me aside to talk about my clothes. She wore clinking bracelets and all of her dark hair piled high on top of her head like Audrey Hepburn.
“Do you have a second?” she asked, inviting me into her office and closing the door softly. Her windows looked out onto the bright water of the San Francisco Bay and the building parking lot. Below, my blue Subaru Impreza baked in the sunlight, sleeping bag in the backseat, bumper sticker almost legible from this distance: Nobody Cares You’re a Raft Guide.
“Can we do something about this?” she asked, gesturing down at my grey-striped Patagonia dress and unshaved legs. I was wearing Chaco flip flops which did nothing to hide my muddy feet or chipped toenail polish. My thick brown hair was braided to hide the fact I hadn’t technically washed it in three days; I had just spent the weekend in and out of river water, which seemed like the same thing to me then. I liked how I looked, like I was the person I had spent years trying to become.
“Let’s go shopping.” Her voice was gentle. “We can get you some work clothes.”
“Sure,” I said, bewildered.
“No one gets to say anything bad about my team,” she added, as conspiratorial as an older sister. It hadn’t occurred to me that my appearance was odd enough to attract attention — or that anyone would care.
San Francisco apartments were already cut-throat competitive by the time I got to the city. I might never have found a place to live if I hadn’t known Nur, a journalist from Las Vegas, who helped me land the one-bedroom directly above the unit she shared with her husband in the Outer Richmond. On my first night in the new building, they came upstairs with a bottle of Zinfandel and we drank it sitting on the floor.
I had grown up only an hour north of San Francisco. To me, it was — and always would be — The City. And yet, it was unfamiliar. Hostile territory.
After college, I had bolted for Utah, where I spent the summer taking commercial guests on four-day trips down the Green and Yampa rivers. That winter, I found myself on a horse ranch in Colorado and I had hoped all the space would inspire me but the wide-open desert only made me feel isolated. So I did a Skype interview from the only building on the ranch with Wi-Fi — a barn converted into an event space called “the party barn” — and three days after submitting my resume, I was on the road back to California.
Those were the halcyon days of catered meals, stock options and signing bonuses in San Francisco. But this office — corporate headquarters for a national restaurant chain — was more traditional. Except for another young woman in the accounting department, I was the youngest employee by almost fifteen years. T-shirts were reserved for casual Fridays. Instead of a trendy open floor plan, the office was divided up with tall cubicle walls. But I was glad to have the job, an entry-level marketing role which was salaried and even a bit creative.
I had been a river guide for four summers by then, not just in Utah, but also in southern Oregon and the California foothills. My whole social life was structured around rafting, a world I knew about because my mother had been a guide in the Grand Canyon through her twenties.
Sometimes when I ask my mom about older movies or music, she looks at me blankly. She says, “If it happened between 1976 and 1983 then I don’t know about it because I was on the river.”
I was still doing job training when rafting season started back up in California. It was only three hours from San Francisco to Coloma, the hub of both the 1949 Gold Rush and California’s whitewater rafting scene. Although the town had less than 500 year-round residents, it brimmed every summer with tourists and raft guides. As my friends poured in from other states, I drove up on Friday afternoons, picked up weekend rafting shifts, and used the cash tips to buy beer at the only bar in town.
I stayed out late on Sunday nights, slept in the back of my Subaru, and drove to the city early on Monday mornings, running on four hours of sleep.
Even though I was paying a premium for all that San Francisco square footage, my apartment was empty. I cooked using my backpacking pots. I had no furniture, not in the kitchen which had a breakfast nook, not in the living room which had a sliver of an ocean view. All I had was a mattress thrown down directly on the bedroom floor. On Monday nights, after a full weekend followed by a long day at the office, I collapsed onto the cheap purple sheets from IKEA and my mismatched pillowcases. One soft Egyptian cotton, one checked flannel with chickadees.
I sat on the floor mostly, eating takeout burritos and using Nur’s Wi-Fi to watch episodes of a reality show called Rodeo Girls. My corporate paychecks were regular, but they never seemed to go quite far enough in a city struggling to hold on to one clear sense of itself as tech money washed in.
On weeknights, I drove to a yoga studio in the Mission District with friendly pink walls. I met Alex there — a Sagittarius from Virginia who believed it was never too late in the day for coffee. The first evening we hung out after a yoga class, I followed her to a glowing coffee shop called Craftsman and Wolves. That’s how I remember San Francisco even now, a dark map composed of individual landmarks that never add up to the whole.
Alex had worked in tech for three years and seemed to inhabit an entirely different city than I did. Her world included vesting schedules and Eater restaurant guides and Sundays in Dolores Park. San Francisco was changing fast so it was hard to tell what was new to just me and what was new to everyone.
“What are those?” I asked her, pointing to the fuzzy pink mustaches hanging off the grills of cars all over the city. I assumed they were a San Francisco thing like the “Native” stickers people plaster to their bumpers in Colorado.
“Oh, they’re Lyfts,” she said. When I still looked blank, she added, “They’re rideshares.”
I nodded like I knew what this meant.
That was the year the performance artist Marina Abramović sat in the atrium of New York’s MOMA and invited strangers to sit across from her. This would never have crossed my radar before but the creative director — a slim man in Cole Hahn wingtips — described it to me on a walk to get cappuccinos.
“I would love to teach you about art,” he said.
I made a noncommittal noise and let him pay for the coffees. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about art. Or maybe that was exactly why I had moved to San Francisco in the first place.
As summer gained momentum, I drove up to the river every weekend — sometimes more often. Like any tourism-based work, weekends were busy so all the good parties happened midweek. The Mardi Gras Party, the Black Light Party, the Decades Party, the Dress to Get Laid Party. I never wanted to miss any of them. Sometimes I drove up on Tuesday or Wednesday after work, screeching into town just in time for the first round of shots.
My phone was often buzzing before I made it out of the office on Fridays.
“See you again this weekend?” texted a cute NOLS guide as I rushed out over the Golden Gate Bridge and of the city after a work happy hour. I found him — and my friends — at the small-town bar. His blond hair was pulled back into a bun and he spun me in loops on the dance floor. I was still in my work clothes and the hem of my dress fanned out lightly. He was a bad dancer. I wriggled out of his reach.
“I don’t think—” I tried to yell over the band. “I don’t think I feel like dancing tonight.”
He sliced his hand through the air, drunk and confident.
“You didn’t wear no goddamn red lipstick to the Coloma Club to come here and not dance.”
Back in the city, I went on an OKCupid date with a man who had just finished a Masters degree in Latin. We met for coffee on Valencia Street.
At the counter, I tried to order a cafe au lait.
“Ah,” said the barista. “We do single-origin coffee here actually.” He described the bean flavor profiles in detail and I shifted from one foot to the other, not really listening. I could see my date at a table across the cafe.
“What?” I said. “I’ll just take whatever you recommend then.” He rang me up — five dollars for what appeared to be a cup of black coffee. When I sat down across from Charlie, we talked about everything but rivers and I liked it. Things I had almost forgotten I cared about: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Gloria Steinem and whether Kim Kardashian’s persona itself was art.
When he asked what neighborhood I lived in, I gave him my cross streets which I had learned to offer up like an identity.
“44th and Clement.”
“I didn’t know the streets went up that high,” he said. “Do you live in the ocean?”
I never learned my way around that city by heart, no matter how many times Alex explained it to me, that the avenues go east to west and the street numbers go north to south. Or is it south to north?
Instead, I drove by GPS, even routes I knew well, leapfrogging from familiar spot to spot without any sense of how they related to each other. I propped my iPhone behind the steering wheel and let it guide me around the city. I felt out the limits of my clutch on San Francisco’s hills.
Whenever I turned down a wrong street — which I continued to do, right up to the end of my year in San Francisco — my phone screen flashed.
“Rerouting,” said the Google Maps voice. My estimated arrival time flicking up by minutes. “Rerouting.”
I appeared in a promotional film for my rafting outfitter that summer. We shot it in one quick day and later the director met me back in San Francisco where he took me out for drinks and jazz. He had been a professional kayaker in West Virginia before he started working for an advertising agency. He told me reading Krishnamurti’s “On Fear” would make me a better boater. I thought I was in love with him although now I think that was the wrong word for it. I didn’t realize then how many different kinds of impulses one person is allowed to contain.
In September, as the rafting work started to thin out, my friend Greever drove to the city on Tuesdays to get Burmese food with me. We were both sick of the river by that point in the season. We wandered through the fog at Lands End and I took photos of him with his dog. When it got dark he smuggled the Basenji-McNabb mix up the stairs to my apartment in his arms and they slept on the floor in my living room.
I spent more time downstairs with Nur and her husband who hosted me two or three times a week for homemade beer or rosemary cake or too many dumplings from Shanghai Dumpling King down the street. They let me feel independent but never alone. When — in my haste to be every kind of person at once — I locked my keys inside my apartment, Nur helped me climb out her bedroom window and back into mine.
On a weeknight, I caught the bus to Polk Street, skipping dinner because I was broke and running late. It is one of the only times I can recall ever taking the bus in San Francisco so I must have been planning to drink. I had gone to college with Reed who was handsome and always eager to play devil’s advocate and had once called me “incandescent.” He’d been in San Francisco for three years by then and it was like he had a head start on the city and also on being a grownup.
He ordered red wine by the bottle. He was making tech money and I sensed he was trying to prove something when he rattled names off the wine list.
“So what’s the five-year plan?” he asked me.
I dodged the question with a joke.
“Marry a millionaire.”
He smirked. “A millionaire would never tolerate you.”
I understood it as a compliment, that he saw me the way I saw myself, as someone determined to be a main character rather than a supporting one.
Later, without any real food in my stomach, I excused myself from the table and threw up in the hallway on my way to the bathroom. The bartender found me there and instead of getting angry, he led me into the kitchen. He picked me up and set me on the counter and fed me pieces of baguette sliced for charcuterie plates. There were soft landings for me all over that city.
He had a neat, dark beard and a French accent.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“The ocean,” I said, my voice full of drama.
Eventually, Reed put me in a Lyft and sent me home. The driver played Melissa Etheridge songs in the car and idled at the curb until I made it into my lobby. I felt bad I didn’t have any cash to tip her.
I asked Alex about this later.
“The whole idea with rideshares is that cash never changes hands,” she explained.
I must have let the bartender have my number because the next day he texted me: “Do you remember your night a little? Do you remember telling me your roommate is a mermaid?”
I saw Charlie again for a bluegrass concert at the Fillmore. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders and invited me to come camping in the Santa Cruz mountains with his friends.
“I just feel more like myself in nature,” he said, which is the sort of thing people only say when they actually hate the outdoors. I thought about how much my guiding friends — most of whom were settling into shoulder season jobs trimming weed by then — would hate this guy and his romanticism.
After the show, back out on the street, we studied the bus map.
“Let’s just walk,” I said, overwhelmed by the grid and twisting routes.
He looked at me, horrified. “It’s at least a couple miles.”
“You don’t have any faith.”
“It’s not that I don’t have faith. It’s just that I can read a map.”
I shrugged and turned toward the ocean and I heard him scramble after me. He dug his phone out of a pocket and summoned a Lyft. I was relieved, but when the black sedan pulled up to the curb in front of us, I pretended I was humoring him as I slid into the backseat.
But just when it felt like I could get away with pretending forever, it would all slip away from me. I left a travel mug of coffee on top of a filing cabinet in my cubicle for so long the milk curdled. When I emptied it in the kitchen, the smell of spoiled milk lingered through the office all afternoon and the women in the payroll department shot me dark glances.
That same week, a river friend who had stayed in my living room sent flowers to the office as a thank you. I left the arrangement of white roses and delphiniums on my desk until the last of the blooms crumpled, proof for everyone in the office that I belonged somewhere.
Some days, I got up early enough to drive down to Ocean Beach before work and buy coffee at a surfer bakery near the water. They sold biscuit breakfast sandwiches wrapped in foil and hot beignets. While I waited for my order, I watched the shaggy-haired surfer guys come and go in Patagonia trucker hats.
I felt less alone in the quiet outer edges of the city and these guys seemed like they might be able to speak my language if I ever tried to talk to them.
In the fall, I went to a corporate tequila tasting with my coworkers on Embarcadero, and afterward, I walked six miles home across the city in my ballet flats.
I listened to Katy Perry’s new single “Dark Horse” over and over on my earbuds until my phone died and then I walked in the 1 am quiet. Those neighborhoods were far away from the bacchanalia of downtown and they really did get still at night. It wasn’t an accident that I lived out here on the fringe. It was an extension of the people I had aligned myself with and I knew I liked being able to retreat. On the edge of the city, I could avoid being swept up into any one life.
Later, I told people I walked home because I liked walking and I let them think I was tough, although the truth was I had less than $5 in my checking account that night and I didn’t know which bus to take.
I could’ve been home in a minute if I’d asked for help, but I walked anyway, like I wanted to know everything about those dark miles in between.