Illustration by Karen Chan

The air inside the car is heavy and warm. The windshield defroster fights off condensation while the wipers swipe at the interminable downpour. Kayla leans forward in the passenger seat with hands clasped tightly in her lap, eyes straight ahead and mouth drawn. I have to shout to be heard over the slosh of tires spewing out rain.

“Are we really going to drive all the way to the headlands? In this?”

“We have to at least try,” Kayla snaps back at me. “She’s out there somewhere and I can’t just sit waiting.”

All I want to do is pull over, but a huge red archway looms before me, and I know there’s only one direction to go. The brake lights in front of me flash and blur and are wiped straight again. Horns blare on the other side, and I can hear the tones elongate as they pass. I refrain from looking at the oncoming cars with their headlights glaring madly across the median.

In the fury of rain, I catch the briefest glimpse of a figure on the far right, climbing over the reddish railing to that four-second-long infamous drop. I don’t have time to think, as I look to Kayla and then back to the road where I can see the brake lights ahead hurtling toward me.

. . .

Order up!” Finally, my last table’s entrees are coming out of the kitchen. Everything can start winding down from here. I run the food over, and after bringing some extra condiments I can sit down for a few minutes and fold napkins. I’ve been on my feet so long that everything below the waist needs a break, but the steady flow of beer throughout my shift has kept me loose. By the end of the night, the servers have all had a pint or three and it helps make that last hour a little more bearable.

Once everyone’s closed out and everything’s cleaned up, we’ve all got wads of cash in our pockets from tips. It’s a rare night that we don’t travel further down Haight to some other bar where the bartenders will know what we want to drink and listen to, and that we’ll leave the best tips of their night. It might be a Tuesday, but someone will be snorting coke in the bathroom of Molotov’s or The Page. They think they’re bettering themselves—going to community college, taking online classes. One uninspiring year of college was enough for me. There’s no way I would go back now and be that older guy always raising his hand in General Chemistry. What, would I learn how to program? Get an art degree? One is as unlikely as the other is useless, and besides, I’d be thirty-something by the time I graduated.

Sometime before sunrise, I’ll make my way home and fall asleep on the couch. When one of my housemates wakes me up as they go to take an early morning piss, I’ll stumble, head pounding, to my futon on the floor and pass out there for another few hours. When noon rolls around I’ll be up and staggering out into the foggy daylight in search of coffee.

But really I prefer my nights off, when I can smoke a spliff and wander through the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. The lights send slanting shadows across the fountains, and you can pretend you don’t hear the cars on Fulton and Lincoln, that you’re not surrounded by a crushing amount of people pressed onto this tiny peninsula.

At home later that night, even through my closed bedroom door, I can hear the loud sounds of my housemate exchanging favors with girls or guys down the hall. Stoned and horny, I’ll hit up a girl from a few nights ago. So what if she sleeps on an air mattress and has a hamster that runs on its wheel all night? Or she has a podcast about her sexcapades where she rates her exes? Or she has a wall with whips and ropes and tells me to pick her punishment? Regardless, I’m rarely moved to venture from my room. I’ll see her some other night.

Occasionally though, the stars align and my mood is right, and you’ll find me out casually drinking with a friend or two.

. . .

At the bar there’s a happy cacophony that slowly increases until it reaches its peak at about 10 p.m., when the building is packed and voices ricochet around the taproom, amplified by the tall ceilings and bare concrete walls.

Nathan leans to me and says, “This fucking guy,” nodding over his right shoulder towards a man in his late sixties, “is here just about every night. And every night he sips his beer and makes those heinous moaning sounds. I think he must be about to orgasm every time he brings it to his lips. The beer isn’t that good, dude! And then he tries to hit on whatever bartender is working.”

“Well at least he’s doing his part to keep that beer moving. And I’m sure the bartenders are used to it by now,” I say.

“It was funny when he first started coming in, but it’s getting to be a bit much. Harmless enough I’m sure, but he weirds me out,” Nathan says, knocking back the last of his drink.

Behind me, I can hear two girls discussing whether the communal table Nathan and I are occupying might have enough room. My eyeballs ride a tide of beer over to them and I can see Nathan’s gaze follow mine. The room is dimly lit, but loud, and there’s only a few seats open anywhere. One of the girls leans in a bit and, yelling, asks if it’s okay if she and her friend sit at the table with us. We wave them in.

We start shooting the shit with them right away. “Have you been here before? Do you like the beer? This guy over here makes it!” I crank my thumb over at Nathan.

“I don’t normally drink beer, but this is pretty good, I guess” one of them says. Nathan is a little abashed already but I throw him all the way under the bus and talk up his craft and skill and dedication and whatever other bullshit I can think of. It might all be nonsense; I don’t think Nathan actually made any of this beer, and I’m sure he’ll tell me about it later, but it’s enough to get the girls hooked and Nathan is letting it slide and I’m just letting the beer I’ve already drunk do its finest.

The girl catercorner to me says, “Today is actually my birthday. … There’s like five more people who are supposed to be here already.” She’s slim and tall with very straight brown hair and a few freckles. Her friend has blonde hair with modest curls and is shorter and slightly out of shape. Both are attractively plain, and Nathan and I are no hot-shots ourselves.

“What?! One: happy birthday. And two: where are these people? We’ll happily celebrate your birthday with you. I mean, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Nathan says.

“Well I moved here like a couple of months ago,” she replies. “So I don’t really know anybody super well. Except Emily here, we both moved from Chicago within a month of each other. I think everybody else is on their way though, hopefully. But thank you guys for showing up!” And so we continue the farce, with Nathan and I eventually introducing ourselves.

“I’m Kayla and this is Emily.” So Kayla’s the birthday girl. Emily offers a simple, “Hi.” She hasn’t said much at all yet. She’s just observing us and doesn’t seem compelled to participate. Something about her indifference makes me almost jealous, like she doesn’t even feel the need to pretend to be social.

“Oh, here are my other friends though,” Kayla says while waving across the room. A small group of people walk up and apologetically squeeze into the table. They’re starkly tech—cleaner cut, more expensive. Immediately I feel closed off from the conversation, and I can’t quite tell if it’s all in my head or not.

Nathan and I mostly keep to ourselves after that, and things progressively get hazier, but I see that Kayla keeps glancing over at us. Emily’s watching it all. She obviously sees me and Kayla looking at each other, and when I make eye contact with Emily it feels more like mutual recognition than sexual electricity. We all stay on at the table for an hour more, and then as the whole group gets ready to leave, I catch Kayla’s eye again to say goodbye. We’ve had enough beers that Nathan and I both exchanging numbers with her makes perfect sense, and Kayla seems to agree.

We both text her the next day, and fortunately, sober agreements are easier to come to. And so within a handful of weeks she and I have been on about as many dates. I haven’t quite dated a girl in awhile and she hasn’t really partied much, so our lifestyles aren’t exactly aligned. But she’s persistent in wanting to see me, letting our relationship carry on with very little effort on my part.

I’m not really in the habit of getting to know the girls I’m fucking, and the more I get to know Kayla, the more I feel like we’re not supposed to be in a permanent relationship. For instance, there’s a night when I’m over at her house and we’re cooking some spaghetti. It’s not quite an Italian grandma’s recipe, but we’re doctoring up the sauce and having fun with it. Her housemates are home and downstairs, so we go up to her room to eat. With our garlic breath commingling, we strip each other down and get into her bed. Afterward, as we’re cuddling, Kayla tells me that she’s going to go to church on Sunday. This hits me like a softball out of left field—we’re lying naked in her bed—but she explains that she’s not really religious, she just likes the community and the stories.

“Everybody is so nice and it always serves as a reminder to be kind to one another and live your life selflessly. I used to try to go to church in Chicago every Sunday when I lived there, but I’ve been here for three months and I haven’t gone at all.”

“But you don’t believe in God?” I ask, worried what the answer might be.

“Well, I don’t really know. I was raised Lutheran and my parents were never really strict about it, but it’s always been there, you know? I mean, I’ve seen more of the world now, and that’s what makes it hard to believe that there’s just, like, the Christian God.” Still on my arm, she rolls a little away from me. “It’s hard to believe that I happened to grow up in a household that knows the truth and yet there are so many people around the world who put their faith in other gods, and somehow they’re all wrong? But I think the morals that Jesus teaches in the Bible are important and worthwhile, and that’s about as far as I’ve figured out.”

I’m not really in the business of pushing people’s thoughts one way or the other, even if I have a hard time imagining being anything but atheist.

After reflecting a moment, she continues: “In Chicago I actually used to go with Emily. Remember, she was with me that night you and I met? She was going here in San Francisco for a few weeks without me and I’ve been trying to get her to go with me this Sunday, but it looks like she’s kind of dropped out of church. I think she’s having a hard time with the move now and I’m not really sure how to reach out to her.”

I struggle to pay attention as I roll the whole church thing around in my mind. To be honest, Kayla’s words have scared me off from a flame that was only barely kindling in the first place. Still, I lack the motivation and empathy to cut things off entirely and two weeks later the relationship is still putting along.

I’ve got one foot out of it, and yet, one rainy night as I’m walking through the park, finishing up a joint, I see someone familiar. I quickly look away when I recognize her, but nevertheless she heads my way.

“Hey, you’re Kayla’s boyfriend,” she states matter-of-factly. She wraps her rain jacket tighter.

“Hey … Emily, right? Uh, are you out for a walk too then?”

“I guess so.”

I’m wondering why she came up to talk to me at all when we could have easily avoided each other. Her slow speech weighs heavy in the damp night air. We walk side by side, neither of us saying anything.

“Sorry if this is too weird, but have you ever felt like just putting yourself out? Not just in the rain, I mean,” she starts saying. We walk a few more paces. She adds, “But also, I deserve to be out in this. I just don’t feel right. …”

Each of her sentences seems to trail off and tell not quite the whole story. I think I know what she’s feeling, and it scares the shit out of me. Walking around in the rain like that can bring an antithetical clarity, but more often it’s a cry for help to nobody. And yet here she is laying it on me, as if I have some answer she’s looking for. I know how she feels, but the truth is that I have nothing to give her. She takes my silence as an invitation to continue.

“I got this weird feeling that night we met that you might know what it’s like to feel so separate from everyone … not like you’re special or something, but like there’s a glass shield around you. Like you watch everyone else going about their lives, and you even watch yourself interacting with them convincingly … and yet the entire time you wonder how you’re doing it. How am I pretending like everything’s okay?”

Emily pauses and draws a long, slow breath. “How can I pretend like I’m comfortable in the world that surrounds me? Like any of the day-to-day normal shit excites me at all? Like I have the room to really care for anyone else?”

I’m way too stoned to answer any of her questions and I don’t think she wants a real answer anyway. The rain is pouring down between us and we’re both inhabiting our own worlds inside our jackets, hoods up. I feel like a spectator to my own reality, as though I’m watching this all on a life-size screen.

It all makes me think though. When hadn’t I been out at a bar drinking, laughing loudly at shitty jokes, as if on autopilot? Wondering what this mask is that I’m wearing. Wondering what the fuck I’m doing.

“I think I remember a time when I really did care for my friends and my family. It seems like that was me. Even now, sometimes I do care, but I’m worried that what I feel right now might be the truth of who I am. I worry that I’m just an actress playing a role most of the time and I really just don’t know how to stop acting. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Maybe I’m just being a fucking idiot right now. I thought you might get it, but I should go.”

I still haven’t said anything beyond hello, but I watch as Emily turns off down a dirt path through some trees and bushes. I think just about anybody else would have followed her, but I feel more like a movie is ending. The lights turn on and the credits begin their slow roll up the screen. It’s over, and so rather than stay in my seat, I exit the theater. When I eventually get home, I text Kayla about what happened, only telling her that Emily was out in the rain at the park and, lying, I say that she wasn’t making any sense. Five minutes later Kayla calls me back.

“She’s going to the fucking Marin headlands right now,” Kayla cries into the phone.

“She’s walking there?” I ask, confused. “Are you sure?”

“It sounded like she might have been driving. I could hear cars. I think we have to go find her.” Kayla is starting to break down, but I’m not ready to let this unravel into some crazy search and rescue situation.

“Come on, why would she be going to Marin? And is driving after her really going to help anything?” I’m scared of the whole situation, and what I’d really like to do is drink some beers by myself and watch some TV and try to forget about all of this.

“I don’t know, she likes going over there to get away from the city. To be outside of it. She sounded so empty on the phone, and now my calls are going straight to voicemail. There’s no way I can just wait at home while she’s out there. You saw her tonight, you have to help me,” Kayla pleads.

I know Kayla doesn’t have a car, and by now I can tell she isn’t going to back down. This whole night has me kind of mentally fucked anyway, and I can’t think of a convincing enough reason to turn her down.

I pick her up in the Inner Sunset and we begin winding our way up Park Presidio. “Has she done shit like this before?” I ask, just to break the silence.

“Emily and I have been friends a long time. We both lived in Chicago for seven years and met each other soon after we moved there. For the first, like, five years everything was pretty normal, we dated guys and then bitched about them when we broke up. Had girls’ nights, studied together, cooked dinner. Then there was this night when we were drinking wine at home together, relaxing. We both got pretty drunk and some things happened. We stayed close after that, but … there were times when we were really close. I think she always had a harder time when I would date guys after that. It seemed like it meant a lot more to her.”

It takes me a second to process but I manage to ask, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“It didn’t seem like it mattered. She and I haven’t hooked up in awhile, definitely not since we moved to San Francisco. And I don’t even really know what you and I are doing. You’re so distant sometimes.”

By this point the rain is slamming down and I’m struggling to make sense of what’s happening both on the road and in the car as we wind our way through the park. My wipers are waving frantically, but I may as well be driving underwater. We cross Clement, then California, then Lake and I feel helpless to stop our forward trajectory. I’m the one driving, but I need anything that happens tonight to be Kayla’s fault. I don’t know Emily, I don’t think I ever really cared about Kayla, and I give a shit about myself only enough to not want to deal with any of this.

Unable to make myself pull over though, we pass the last turn-off. Then there is only one direction for us to go.

Andrew Combs is a California native and San Francisco transplant with a background in botany and brewing, of all things. In his spare time, he’s a voracious reader and sometimes a writer, too. Otherwise, you can find him outside biking or backpacking.