The Hypothetical

Standing at the end of a pier, a man stares up at a flying ship emerging from a cloud.
Illustration by Karen Chan

PART 1: A Message Arrives

Lovers are highly susceptible to hypotheticals. But if circumstances were different, I do think we could have been together for a long time. We’re not the same type of person—we make different investments in work, cooking, and art. I like to see friends as much as possible, while you’re social in brief joyful bursts. Yet there’s an openness and vitality between us which I think would rise above those petty differences. You can build a good life with a different type of person when you both see with clear, loving eyes.

But here I go getting caught up in a hypothetical. Circumstances aren’t different. I’m still leaving the city tomorrow morning, and we have very different life goals. 

Yet our hypothetical is insistent. It keeps hiding my knapsack and knocking over the stack of folded clothes on my bed. And when I board my ship, and its sails unfurl to carry me and the other travelers away into the sky, I know our hypothetical will cling to my hand—never letting go but rather fading slowly until it melts into the tail of trailing mist.

This was the message I received by mistake one blustery spring morning, written on a single battered postcard in lustrous azure ink. I say “by mistake,” but “inexplicably” may be the better word. Though the card arrived with the rest of my mail, it was addressed to a different house number on my street—an address that does not actually exist. 

To add to the mystery, the message gave no clues as to the identities of its author or intended recipient. It was addressed only to “my dear heart,” and signed “your loving thief in the night.” And the handwriting didn’t imply anything about the author’s age or gender—only that they seemed to have used a fountain pen. 

The timing was funny for me to receive this kind of message. Like its author, I was leaving San Francisco soon, and could be said to be leaving someone behind. So the idea of a clinging hypothetical felt pretty relatable. And I couldn’t help being touched by the image of a lover sailing reluctantly into the sky.

PART 2: The Wrong Frank

The following day, I went to the post office on Bryant to ask about getting the postcard forwarded properly. I suspected this might prove fruitless, but the message had really struck a chord. Goodbyes are important. If there was any chance of this one being delivered, I felt I had to try.

The cashier on duty directed me to his manager, a harried-looking woman who didn’t quite grasp my question at first. When she finally took the card, she examined it for over a minute before saying, “The frank on this card is wrong.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“The frank,” she repeated. “The ink stamp here, over the postage—it indicates whether the postage is sufficient for servicing. We use circular franks, but this one is hexagonal.”

“And look,” she added, peering at the card again. “The stamp isn’t even real. It’s worth thirteen and a half cents. We’ve never sold stamps in that amount. I doubt this ever passed through one of our offices in the first place.”

“It came with the rest of my mail,” I said.

“I can’t help you there. Someone must have slipped it into your mailbox as a joke.”

She was clearly wondering whether I was the one joking around. I actually felt a little guilty for wasting her time. So I shrugged with as much sincere confusion as I could muster and bought a sheet of stamps I didn’t need—only to realize afterward that if she had been frustrated, twenty dollars in revenue wouldn’t have changed a thing.

PART 3: A Different Waterfront

Back home, I again examined the postcard for clues. After a few minutes, I found another discrepancy. It involved the picture on the front, which showed a grand waterfront building captioned “Pier 132, San Francisco, CA.”

San Francisco doesn’t have a Pier 132. And when I scoured the length of the Embarcadero on Google Street View, the building in the picture was nowhere to be seen. 

Now I was really curious. I took a cell phone photo of the picture and did a reverse-image search online, which turned up a single hit: a page on a website whose domain name was just a string of numbers and unusual characters. The page was sparse and largely unformatted, containing only another picture of the pier and an accompanying caption: 

The facade of San Francisco’s Pier 132, a frequent departure point for flying ships. Built 1893, restored and remodeled 1916 as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. A neoclassical design typical of that period, with two narrow colonnades flanking a central atrium. Notably, the column pedestals and architraves were carved from rose granite due to a temporary supply chain shortage on the part of the stonemason’s suppliers. These unique features became coated in soot by the late 1940s and were restored by the building’s owners two decades later.

A departure point for flying ships?

PART 4: Hitting Close to Home

At this point, I was pretty sure someone was in fact pranking me. A friendly prank, certainly—after all, I’m exactly the sort of person who would be tickled to receive a mysterious postcard alluding to some imaginary alternate San Francisco. 

But my friends insisted they had no idea what I was talking about. And they exhibited no suspicious coyness or excessive disinterest. In fact, of all the people I talked to, only one was anything other than politely curious.  

That person was you. You remember—that phone conversation after you’d gotten home from another late night at work. You were intrigued by the anonymous author, hexagonal stamp, and nonexistent pier, but when I described the card’s actual message, you went quiet on the other end of the line.

“I have a question,” you said after a moment. “Are you making this up?”

“No, it’s real,” I said.

“You promise. It’s not a story you’re working on.”

“No, I promise.”

“Because I’ll be honest,” you said gently. “I know you enjoy this kind of stuff. But for me, that message hits a little too close to home.”

“It hit close to home for me, too,” I said. “That’s part of why I’m so curious. But I’m sorry for hurting your feelings.”

“Thank you,” you said. “I hope you figure it out. It’s like the city is giving you a puzzle as a parting gift.”

Now it was my turn to go quiet and wonder what to say. 

“What are you up to this weekend?” I asked eventually. “Want to hang out one of those days?”

“I do, but I don’t know if we should,” you said. “I have some work to do, and, well, we just saw each other. If we keep spending this much time together, I—”

“I understand,” I said. “Think it over and let me know.”

We didn’t end up hanging out that weekend, but we texted each other the whole time anyway, which kind of defeated the point. Our own hypothetical was in the middle of a cunning streak then. We often thought we were doing a good job of avoiding it, only to realize it had been right there with us the entire time. 

PART 5: Further Research

Try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about the postcard. The picture and its online caption were my only solid lead, so I did some more Internet sleuthing to see what else I could learn.

I started with the site that hosted the picture. Its home page was an unformatted list of hyperlinks to additional pages with anonymous, vaguely sequential names: img287_1213, img288_1213, img289_1214, and so on. Each of these pages contained its own photo and caption. Each photo showed a random building in San Francisco: houses, warehouses, apartment blocks, and office buildings.

Some of the captions mentioned places and events I didn’t recognize, though none were as overtly strange as “flying ships.” Reverse-image searches of their corresponding photos eventually led me to another domain name of numbers and strange characters. This one was similar to the first, only its photos all had people in them. Their features were unremarkable, but they wore unfamiliar clothes: white linen tunics, short fez-like caps, and suede pants extravagantly embroidered with flowers, seashells, and stars. 

These photos had captions too, though they were lighter on detail, describing only names and locations: “Tomás, Stryko, and Ildina on Divisadero Street.” “Exienne in her wine bar on 5th.” When I examined these locations in Google Street View, some of the buildings in the photos were nowhere to be seen.

Had I filled in my friends at this point, they probably would have asked if I was feeling okay, and whether my impending move was stressing me out. I think that’s why I didn’t tell them. I felt I was onto something and didn’t want to be nudged off course. 

I didn’t tell you either, because I wanted to be respectful, but I like to think you would have been concerned as well.

So I had ample time to examine these new photos in painstaking detail. They struck me as the sort of pictures one takes while out with friends—people hugging and mugging in parks and bars or out on the street. Some of their poses hinted at relationships more intimate than friendship—were any of them the postcard’s author or intended recipient? I knew the thought was absurd, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. 

One picture caught my attention for a different reason. It showed two young men on the Embarcadero in the early evening, with their arms over each other’s shoulders. The sky over the bay was in fine form, a canvas of pale lavender streaked with clouds that caught the sunset’s crimson and luminous rose.

Something else was in the sky, too: a little blur darker and denser than the clouds. It was hard to make out clearly. Did I simply see the thing I wanted to? All I can say is what appeared to me when I zoomed as closely as possible onto that little patch of pixels: a ship—a grand galleon—with its sails unfurled. 

PART 6: A Late Night Conversation

As I said, I didn’t tell you about any of these discoveries. But we did keep talking, sometimes speaking wryly or regretfully about our situation.

“They’re such mature fucking reasons to break up,” you said over the phone one night. “You leaving. Us feeling differently about kids. It makes so much sense, and I hate that.”

“It would be easier if one of us turned out to be a huge jerk,” I said.

“I realized today I’ve been feeling a little, uh, mad at you?” you said. “For committing to the logical decision while I’m over here feeling like shit. Which isn’t fair, because I made the exact same choice, but—”

“And believe me, I don’t feel very logical or mature,” I said, glancing at the postcard, which was propped against my laptop’s screen.

“What’s funny is we never really got to try,” you said. “Actually being together. Arguing, making up, looking for a shared rhythm.”

“Waking up together and debating what to make for breakfast,” I said. “Falling asleep together and fighting over the sheets.” 

“Weekend getaways,” you said. “Date nights, and nights where we just watch movies and make out on the couch.”

“Getting to know each other’s friends,” I said. “Ditching them to stay in bed all day.”

“And all night. Getting no sleep and not caring at all.”

“Getting noise complaints from our downstairs neighbors.”

“Learning each other’s bodies like the backs of our hands.”

The conversation didn’t end there. It continued over the phone and then in person, despite the late hour and our both having to work the next day. It was one of those nights when we felt our hypothetical’s closeness and didn’t give a shit, telling ourselves we could balance out the inevitable pain by— 

But I don’t need to tell you about that night. You already remember how it went. 

PART 7: The Embarcadero at Night

Two nights ago—yes, we’re that close now—I went for a walk along the Embarcadero. I’d pored over the flying ship picture for long enough and wanted to see the place it had been taken. Stupid—I don’t know what I was expecting to find. The only good thing to say for my walk is that I wasn’t moping at home, trying not to call you. 

I brought the postcard with me. Again, I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought it would bring me closer to whatever nameless place or feeling I was trying to find. 

It was one of those restless, cloud- scattered evenings I will miss deeply upon leaving San Francisco. The wind made my blood pump harder and the air was scented with damp wood and sharp cold. I cut through Mission Bay and the slumbering bulk of South Beach and approached the Embarcadero from the southeast, joining the promenade where it passes under the Bay Bridge. The few passersby looked lost in thought, and the water was as unsettled as the sky.

Sometimes I stopped under street-lamps to read the postcard again, even though I already knew its message by heart. I tried to imagine the pen that had written it—carved from ivory, nibbed with burnished gold. I imagined the hand that had wielded that pen, squeezing love and yearning into its azure ink. I imagined that ink shimmering in the light of some other streetlamp that flickered and hummed in the gathering gloom. 

Finally I reached the pier where the flying ship photo had been taken. I was alone, and the clouds now fully obscured the stars. The clouds hung so low I could barely see the water, but I squinted out over the bay anyway, trying to picture a distant towering shape rising away from the waves. The wind would catch it quickly, making its sails snap and its rigging shiver. Soon fog would condense on those sails and fall away in a swirling trail.

Lights moving in the clouds. Creaking wood and soft receding voices. And perhaps a hint of your perfume in the air. 

PART 8: Goodbyes are Important

The postcard and pictures are just made up. Surely. They come from someone’s imagination, created for fun or as backstory for some video game. Real pictures like that wouldn’t just appear on the Internet, and the real postcard wouldn’t just find its way into my mail. 

I want them to be real. A city with different buildings, flying ships, and exotic clothes—another San Francisco, existing simultaneously. Another collection of possibilities layered over a familiar place. A hypothetical. Of all people, you understand why I want that. 

But even if that city did exist, it wouldn’t change what’s true here. 

I am still leaving San Francisco. You are still staying here, for now. We still want different things, and are justified in wanting them. Even if I were staying, it wouldn’t make sense for us to try. 

Soon I will gather my things and pack them in bags and boxes. I’ll agonize over what to bring and what to leave behind. The metaphor won’t escape me, which I’ll debate telling you about. Then I’ll think better of it and get back to work. 

I will do my farewell tour of old haunts and good friends. I will buy unnecessary mementos and eat a series of indulgent final meals. I will make a long playlist of songs that remind me of San Francisco. Some of them will also remind me of you.

We will have our goodbye, because goodbyes are important despite causing us pain. 

Finally, I will get a ride to the airport. You will not come with me, because we’re being mature and that wouldn’t be fair. I will check my bags, board my plane, and turn on a different playlist I hoped would feel suitably inspiring. The plane will start to taxi, and I’ll feel a stab of panicked doubt. Then I’ll calm down, take a final look out the window, and soar away into the sky. 

And when I do, I’ll feel your hand on mine. It won’t be holding me back, but neither will it want to let go.


Martin Reid Sanchez was born in the Bay Area and has lived in San Francisco for nine years. Previously, he was the author of the weekly short fiction project Unseen San Francisco. He’s never actually received a strange, anonymous love letter, but he hasn’t given up hope yet.

Karen Chan is an artist and designer who lives in the Fillmore District. You can often find her lost in thought at a sunny parklet, with a sketchbook at hand. Currently, she is on a quest to try all the delicious pastries that the city has to offer.