My year failed to begin with the cliché New Year’s kiss. That said, it still began with a rather intimate gesture to a stranger’s face. I wonder how that bodes for my year…
It was the second hour of 2013. Tired from working a crazy NYE party (and having next to no friends still in my hometown), I decided to call it a night. My parents’ apartment, where I was spending the holidays, was close enough to the party so I could walk home. This is one of my favorite walks, following the cable car line up a steep San Francisco hill. The sky was so clear, the moon shining, Christmas lights on the trees twinkled when I approached the park of the top of the hill. Lovely.
That’s when I met RJ, a young man my age, visiting SF from a small town north of the Bay Area. He sat on a stoop holding a can in each hand- Rockstar in one and a brown bag swaddled can in the other.
“Hey,” he called out to me.
He was lost, his friends had ended up in an entirely different neighborhood. He was just a little too drunk to successfully read the GPS on his iPhone. He looked at me with forlorn eyes. “Which way is North Beach?” Before I could answer he interrupted, “This is so embarrassing, you must think I’m a huge dork.” Poor men, the pain of asking for directions is pure agony.
He was lucky he was a huge dork. This status was the reason I stopped and talked to him. It is certainly why I told him to walk with me, as my destination was (sort of) on the way to his. RJ’s subtext was different from most of the fellas I’d talked to that night. Working a NYE party taught me to spot a “First-Lay-of-the-Year Mission” from across the room. This friendly dork just wanted a friend, an entirely different intent.
We were in the neighborhood I grew up in, right by Grace Cathedral Park. I love walking through this park, have since I was a little tyke. Now it makes me warmly nostalgic. Recalling memories of throwing pennies in the fountain, walking my neighbor’s dog in the grass, and going as high as I could on the swing set.
I started up the stairs of the park and RJ stopped. “Where are you taking me?” He asked, looking trepidatious.
I laughed, “It’s a park. Just trust me.”
He reluctantly followed, giggling when we reached the top of the stairs, “Oh, this isn’t a scary park at all. I was expecting junkies, or a band of angry bums.”
“You have absolutely no idea what neighborhood you’re in, do you?”
“Nope. I’m lucky I found you.”
It’s funny that he was the one worried about where I was leading him. You might be concerned for me, allowing a strange man to walk me (most of the way) home. To that I say this: I am good at reading people. This guy was a legit (and self-proclaimed) dork, not a predator masquerading as one. He was outfitted in one of the least threatening ensembles a man can wear: a navy sports jacket, a white button-up, and khaki corduroys. It may be dangerous to believe this, but I gotta say no man with dark intentions ever wears khaki corduroy.
The six blocks I walked with RJ, he forgot my name once for each block. “Sorry, I forgot your name again!” he confessed sheepishly.
“It’s really okay, dude.” I patted his shoulder, “Come morning you’ll think I was but a dream, if you remember me at all.”
“No, no. I am really going to remember you, I know I will. Shit, what’s your name again?”
There was something he was hiding. I could feel it. There was an anxiousness in the way he spoke. Something was brewing just below the surface, something he wanted to say, but didn’t quite dare. I didn’t get the feeling it was sexual or sinister. Maybe he was just drunk. Our walk half over, 5 minutes out of ten, he spewed.
No, not vomit, thank God.
“Ok this is really weird,” he stammered, “And I probably should just not say anything. God, you must think I’m so weird. Ok, sorry. Can I tell you something? I probably shouldn’t, like, most of my friends don’t know this. But, I dunno. I want to get it off my chest or something. I want to tell you.”
I smiled, this made me think of the guy I had met in Central Park with the sign that said “FREE LISTENING“.
“Sure,” I said, “You can tell me. It’s a safe space, really. We’re never going to see each other again in three blocks.”
He took a breath. “Ok. It’s the story of the only time I’ve ever been held up at gun point.”
His senior year of high school, him and his best friend had tried to score some “major pot”. They had ambitions of running the drug circle of their fancy private prep school in Sonoma County. Arrangements were made to meet with guys who would supply them. The boys showed up at the appointed place and time with $5,000 cash in their pockets. When they arrived, guns were drawn, money was taken. When it was all over, the two boys sat in the parking lot, their pockets empty. Dreams dashed, adrenaline surging, and an all encompassing feeling of oh-my-god-we’re-SO-stupid.
“That was years ago, dunno why I needed to tell you, but I did,” he said, finishing his story. I had listened enthralled, never expecting a story with so much violence, poor choices, and disastrous results. The kind of story that leaves you thinking, My life is great compared to that! I’ve never lost $5000! Go me!
“Think of it as a purge,” I said, “Now you have a fresh start for the new year.”
“Thanks for listening.”
“Oh, thanks for telling. It’s great, next time I have to act like I’m at gun point, ya know, in a play or movie- I’m using your story.” We laughed. I stopped walking, “This is where our walk ends. You’re going down the hill to North Beach and I’m going up the hill to bed. Thanks for walking me home. It was nice meeting you.” I grinned. He had been a funny, perfect way to end the night.
“Before you go, can you do one last thing for me?” He asked.
Oh no, I thought to myself, please don’t ask for a kiss, please! “What?” I voiced aloud.
“Can you slap me, hard, in the face?”
Relief must have flooded my face because he said, “You thought I was gonna ask for a phone number or something, didn’t you.”
“I’ll happily help you with that request.” I said, chuckling. Life is so funny. Truth truly stranger than fiction. I pulled my hand back and let it fly. The sound it made on contact was satisfying.
“Thanks,” he winced, “Now I’m awake. And maybe less drunk.”
“My pleasure. Happy New Year. Good night,” and with that I crossed the street, never looking back.
I’ll never see him again, but I’ll never forget my first slap of 2013.