It was our first morning in San Francisco, and things were going poorly. J. and I had a schedule to keep — a chain of time-sensitive tasks to settle us into our new lives as Bay area residents. Our financial situation fragile, the first link was crucial: buy MUNI passes. According to the map, it was a simple five-minute stroll from our hotel to the Powell Street ticket kiosk. Yet somehow, I’d gotten us lost.
The move from Ohio was my idea. I’d been accepted into an MFA program and, lovestruck, couldn’t imagine going without her. I asked J. to join me, and she said yes. My invitation, the gossamer foundation for the future we hoped to build together. But as our days until departure ticked down, a rogue thought had crept into my head and cooled some of my exuberance: I asked her to come. I was responsible. And now, immediately, I’d taken us down a wrong path.
For ten, twenty, thirty minutes, I impotently navigated crowded streets with unfamiliar names, trying to intuit the correct turn at increasingly suspect intersections. Eventually, J. asked if I was sure I knew the way. Hamstrung by stupid vanity, I said, yes — that it was just a few more blocks. Many blocks later, we stopped at a Starbucks on Market Street. J. went in for a vanilla latte while I waited and scanned for a landmark that might get us back on course. Such was my anxious headspace when the man in the rumbled suit came around the corner. We made eye contact. I nodded. It was all the opening he needed.
“Hey there, how you doin’?” He was already shaking my hand.
“I’m okay. How’re you?”
“I’ve been better.” He had a coiled intensity about him, like a simmering kettle on the cusp of boil.
“You’re not going to believe the day I’m having,” he said. “My wife and I were driving through on our way upstate and were carjacked! Can you believe that?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Turns out the police found my car abandoned by the road. Can you believe that?” He waved a slip of paper from his pocket in front of me. “They gave me these phone numbers, and now I have a half-hour to get a tank of gas and a gas can and claim my car before it’s impounded.” He adjusted the knot on his cheap silk tie. “Now, I’m not a beggar—”
That’s when I saw the first penis. It belonged to a naked man on a ten-speed bicycle pedaling past us down the middle of Market Street. Behind him, a loose peloton of several dozen similarly nude cyclists followed. Man in Suit, oblivious to the fleshy parade, continued his story. One of the cyclists rang a bell that chirped metallically, like one I’d had as a kid. Man in Suit mentioned his wife. He said diabetes. A rider whizzed by with a sweat-smeared message painted across his hairy torso. Man in Suit placed his hand on my shoulder. The onlookers cheered. If anyone around me found this buff cavalcade confounding, they were playing it very cool.
“I’m just having a run of bad luck,” he said. A muscular woman with a tiara perched atop a nest of gray hair went by. “I’m just a regular guy from out of town who wants to get his wife back home.”
“I can give you twenty bucks if that’ll help,” I said.
“Twenty would be great. Thank you, sir.” The last of the riders rolled past as I reached for my wallet, an unintentional mass mooning their goodbye.
“What are you doing?” J. asked. I hadn’t noticed her return. Hot shame bloomed in my face. Neither Man in Suit nor I dared acknowledge her.
I handed Man in Suit a folded twenty that J. and I really couldn’t afford to spare. He backtracked into the crowd and was gone.
For a moment, neither of us spoke. With painful difficulty, I met J.’s irritated glare. She wanted an explanation. I had none to give. All I could think of were drooping breasts and dicks dangling dangerously close to spinning metal teeth.
“It’s this way,” she said finally, rushing in the direction the cyclists had vanished, not waiting to see if I would follow.
Years late, agonizing over the ruins of our failed marriage, I’d think back to that moment — her flicker of disdain, my callow pride — and know it as the first crack foretelling our eventual collapse.
Keith J. Powell’s work has appeared in Dramatics magazine, Playscripts, Inc., Able Muse, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco. In addition to writing plays and short fiction, he is a founding editor of Your Impossible Voice. He occasionally tweets @KeithJ_Powell.