Voyeurs

by Steven Kakowski

“Voyeurs” is an excerpt selected and edited by Kakowski, from his short story “Feral.”

I first spotted them on a warm, early spring day while I was eating a sandwich on a veranda of a building in the Financial District. She was wearing an off-white dress that billowed in the wind. She pawed at him and fed him grape tomatoes and wiped olive oil from his chin. He wore a pair of tortoiseshell Ray Bans, three days of stubble, a white polo, and rolled up olive khakis that revealed the tip of a dagger tattoo on his right ankle. His loafers looked comfortable. I took a napkin to my mouth and put on my polarized sunglasses from Walgreens. I’d been in the habit of sketching things that caught my eye at lunch and I opened my small sketch book.

I still couldn’t draw people very well, so I kept my sketches to the bench and the trees behind the couple. In the couple’s place I drew stick figures. I wrote “doting”, “entitled”, “predictable”, and “pristine” as stand-ins for their limbs. To my right, two girls prattled on about their dating lives. “I just want that,” one of them said, presumably about the American dream couple eating their California salads. Then the couple stood and kissed. He stuffed their plastic salad boxes into each other and put his arm around her waist. As they walked away, a pigeon defecated on my sketch book. The girls beside me snickered.

The next day, I returned to the veranda because we were in the middle of one of Northern California’s pristine stretches of weather: crisp blue mornings, warm still afternoons, and golden hours that creep beyond sunset. There the couple was again, sitting in the same spot. I chose a different bench and took out my phone and ate another sandwich. She had switched out her dress for jeans that hit at her calf and a pink button-down. He had changed the color of his shirt and pants; the fresh combo accentuated his sinewy physique better than the day before. She rubbed where his bicep and shoulder met and scrolled through her phone. Eventually, she leaned back into his lap and took off her sunglasses and let his torso shade the sun from her face. They both laughed when he squeezed her breasts. I laughed a bit, too, because the fondle was a little flagrant out there on the veranda. I coughed to cover up my laughter.

They rose and repeated their exit rhythm. From my seat, I could see the veranda’s stairway and Mission Street. At the bottom of the stairs, he kissed her, then turned left. She went right. Intrigued and bored, I threw my empty Ziploc bag and Diet Coke into a recycling bin and walked down the steps. I went towards the Embarcadero on Mission. Half a block away at First, I watched as she floated northward through the intersection towards Market. I jaywalked to the other side of Mission.

The stoplight turned red. Prevented from crossing First Street, she tapped at her phone, no different than the people surrounding her. I stayed behind, ten feet from her blonde curls and tanning skin. A construction worker leaned into his truck’s horn at a man riding a scooter. Most in the crowd turned to watch them yell at each other, but not her. She kept her attention to a bulldog at her feet. Everyone lurched forward when the light changed. She patted the bulldog’s head then skipped through the intersection, squeezing her way through the distracted pedestrians. She took a left on First and slowed in front of SoulCycle. She tapped once more at her phone and nodded to herself before continuing on, making a right fifty yards ahead into a beige thirty-story building. On the front door, in small type, I saw a familiar name: PepsiCo.

Back in my office at my computer, I switched my account settings on LinkedIn to private mode and typed “pepsico san francisco” into the search bar. Her photo and name appeared on the first page of the search results: Laura. LinkedIn’s facial recognition technology was working, exploiting nature’s golden ratio to the benefit of the bottom line. Come work for us! Look at how pretty we are, how pretty you can be!

Laura had graduated cum laude from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 2010 with a B.A. in Marketing. She had all sorts of endorsements on her profile: account and portfolio management, supply chain logistics, public relations, public speaking. She had worked for a small PR firm in Boston for two years after college, from which she received glowing recommendations from her ex-colleagues: “Laura’s approach to account management is similar to someone with decades more experience,” and “Our CEO loved Laura. Our company loved Laura. Our team loved Laura. Our clients loved Laura. I’m sad to see her go, but her impact will have lasting results on our firm and the people she worked with!” After two years getting her feet wet in dreary corporate America, I guessed that she became tired of living in the Nor’easter target that is Boston and made the Western leap to California, just like every other upwardly mobile young professional seemingly did in 2012. But instead of a one-syllable, incubated tech company replacing Newbury West PR, LLC on her resume, it was staid old PepsiCo there, and three consecutive positions delineated by two-year stints in the Investor Relations hierarchy. First was the Associate role, then Senior Associate, followed by a Manager position. She was due for a promotion.

I searched for him next. What type of name would Laura’s other half have? I began to audit her 423 LinkedIn connections (access compliments of LinkedIn Premium), made it to the B’s, and saw four Brian’s with crew cuts and blue collared shirts. Instead of descending further into the corporate hive mind, I turned my attention to monoculture’s preferred realms of Facebook and Instagram, where boasting about whom one is sleeping with is expected.

Laura’s public Facebook profile was limited to three viewable profile pictures: a shot from a sorority party at Miami U, a picture of her with her arms spread wide on the Charles Bridge with old, brick Boston in the background, and a third from Twin Peaks

in San Francisco, where, again, she stood with her arms spread wide with the expanse of San Francisco and Berkeley behind her. The images provided more context to her LinkedIn persona, but no tagging or indication of a love interest.

Instagram yielded a direct hit on Laura’s first post in the top left corner of her feed. There were the unmistakable jawline and Greco-Romanesque chest. I hovered over the image on my desktop; the handle “Visconsity” appeared. I clicked. Justin Visconti. “Leader of men. Follower of people with witty profiles. Trend setter.” read his profile, underneath a picture of him winking at a camera and sipping on a cocktail from a pink flamingo pool floatie. He appeared in Laura’s photos the previous autumn – apple picking, cider drinking, pumpkin carving, and Halloween costumes.

Back to LinkedIn I went. Justin studied at Yale. A fellow Connecticut resident? Possibly, but his aesthetic was more UCLA. The USC MBA confirmed my California suspicions, though I found it curious he didn’t parlay an Ivy League degree into an acceptance letter with a top ten business school. Justin’s professional career began in 2007 at a boutique investment firm in Manhattan that no longer had a LinkedIn profile. He matriculated into USC in 2010 at the end of his tenure with Bowery Lights LLC. Details of his position at Bowery were limited, but it’s easy to obscure particulars when you can flash a twenty-thousand-dollar smile in an interview. “I took some time for myself before B-school because I really wanted to be able to make an immediate impact on the organization I started working for after my MBA. I think it’s easier to do that without having any sort of traveling or life regrets. I also studied meditation.”

Justin leveraged his investing background with Bowery Lights and his MBA into a position with a large institutional investor in Newport Beach for a year, then jumped up to San Francisco with the wave of money that flooded into the venture capital world. According to LinkedIn, he’d been an associate with a notable VC fund on Sand Hill Road for the last four years.

Without any additional clues from social media, I relied on my imagination to weave Justin and Laura’s origin story.

Working for a VC fund down on Sand Hill Road requires a car, meaning Justin probably lived in the Mission or Noe Valley, where access to 101 and 280 is easy. Given Laura’s aesthetic and her Financial District workplace, I pegged her in an apartment in North Beach or the Marina, where most of the women resemble, well, Laura.

At work, people talk about mating constantly. Like most San Francisco-based companies, our workforce is comprised of many younger, aggressive and hungry employees. (We say they “hustle.”) Those that are single and under forty party and gossip about who they slept with or are trying to sleep with. The stories are faded out facsimiles of each other; either people meet at a bar or at a house party or they match with someone through an online service. All of the serendipitous encounters that formed the anecdotes of my early years in this city, of coworkers getting spanked

in the alley a block away from the Page or exchanging numbers in the library, feel ancient and revolutionary.

But Justin and Laura were too pretty for digital pairing. And I hated thinking that these modern totems of beauty met when neither could remember the particulars of a conversation lubricated by alcohol.

According to my origin story, they had met in early autumn of 2017 when San Francisco was experiencing a vintage Indian summer. Days stayed warm and windless and people in bathing suits surrounded the Ocean Beach firepits into the late afternoon. Laura had been invited to a party by Anna, a colleague from PepsiCo who had begged her to come in an attempt to snap Laura out of the funk she’d been in since the springtime after another of Laura’s failed California relationships. “You’ll like my friends,” Anna had said. “Cute boys, too.” Reluctant to put herself back into the San Francisco dating grinder, she had planned to keep her t-shirt on the whole time, even with the eighty-degree temperatures. Still, she wore a bikini underneath. Just in case.

Laura had walked down Columbus, her legs tight from a morning spin class. The noon lighting cascaded off the buildings downtown and resembled dusk. Laura boarded an N-Judah train at Montgomery Street, forgoing an Uber or Lyft in favor of the undulations of the subways and the outer Sunset. It was a trip she would take often when she had first moved to San Francisco, and one that she missed since ride shares had become her primary mode of transportation. She enjoyed the adobe architecture as the N approached the Pacific and the Sunset’s wide streets, the way she could lean her head on the N’s windows and feel like a part of the city.

The ocean air held still when she hopped down the N’s steps at Judah. The heat, in a surprise, reminded her of Ohio. A line snaked out from the café facing the Great Highway. Wanting caffeine and something cold, Laura waited and tended to her phone and sent a message to Anna asking where on Ocean Beach she was. Laura watched a couple enjoying each other inside the café. She scoffed and sighed and almost left but decided to endure the wait.

Armed with an iced coffee, Laura crossed the Great Highway into the sand. A line of waves rolled at surfers and the shore below where people had congregated in tight packs. She unclasped her sandals and dropped them into her bag. The sand was hot between her toes and on the skin around her calluses. She continued down Ocean Beach’s slope toward the water, dodging children kicking soccer balls and dogs chasing frisbees. At the water, with it lapping at her ankles, she clicked into the message from Anna. “We’re here,” read the message, its red pin marking the coordinates that led to a new group, a new cadre of men ready to take advantage of Laura and her vulnerability.

They sat huddled around a makeshift picnic table topped by plates of hummus and cheeses and fruit and crackers. Coolers flanked the group’s rear. Laura had to

interrupt Anna, who was deep in conversation and laughter, with a pinch on the shoulder. “Anna,” Laura said. “Laura! You made it!” Anna replied, and leapt up to hug her. Laura found Anna’s bare skin and its intimacy comforting. Conversation around the blankets ceased. “This,” Anna began to explain, pausing to let the shirtless men take in Laura, “is my fabulous and single coworker Laura.”

Laura kicked at the sand and looked away. She adjusted her sunglasses. When her gaze returned to the group, they exclaimed in unison, “Hi, Laura.” Save for the man laying back and resting on his elbows. Justin offered a simple wave and half-smile. Laura shook her head, said, “nice to meet everyone,” and sipped through the straw of her coffee. “Here, take this. Just as cold. And more fun,” Anna said, and handed Laura a beer from one of the coolers.

Justin lit a cigarette and watched Laura while she drank her beer and navigated through the discomfort of meeting a new tribe. He’d been in her position four years prior during his first foray into the social tapestry of this San Francisco clan. Cagey to start, the clan allowed Justin into its fold after their informal vetting. The vetting included several late-night parties to judge “how he handles his shit”; a weekend trip to a ski house on Lake Tahoe owned by one of the tribe’s fathers to judge “how he contributes”; and a “last-minute” substitute for the tribe’s co-ed soccer team to judge “fidelity” and “athletic prowess.” Justin passed the tests and had his California social safety net. The clan, of course, alluded to their threshold for excommunication: incest. They documented the disasters of previous clan members who’d attempted sleeping with and dating each other, always making sure to emphasize the outcasts’ names with an eye roll or a disappointed head nod. Justin would have slept with several of them, too, maybe would have made a long-term play, but he didn’t want to jeopardize the comfort in always having someone to hang out with.

The women in the tribe thought about breaking their own rule often. And alcohol did play a part in one late-night cigarette that may have led to a kiss and oral sex on a rooftop. But Justin woke up so anxious of his still-tenuous membership that he and his guilty counterpart agreed to shift the “may have” to “never happened” in their group’s folklore.

Despite the familial feel of his San Francisco friends, Justin introduced the women he’d date only when he’d made a monogamous commitment to them. It had also been six months since his last relationship fizzled, leaving Justin with – according to one of the elder clan members – “half a broken heart”.

If they were to have guessed, everyone on Ocean Beach that day knew what would transpire between this lithe, available blonde named Laura and the tribe’s unofficial brother and one-day-in-the-near-future VC partner Justin.

A walk along the beach later at dusk. Fireworks in an apartment after the alcohol had done its most impactful work. Long-term partners.

Two minutes after Justin handed Laura her second beer, she took off her t-shirt, exposing her shoulders, back, chest, belly and navel, and the rest played out exactly how the tribe envisioned it.

Laura spent the night at Justin’s three times during their first week together, not including the Saturday they met and the following Sunday evening. Justin’s apartment was an easy choice because of his commute down the 101 and 280 gauntlets to Sand Hill Road. The Marina posed too many logistical issues for an overnight stay, the primary one being Laura’s two roommates in her first floor flat. Thin walls and one bathroom being what they are, Justin drove home at midnight on Wednesday that week in a hypnotized state of satisfaction. It was a state he couldn’t remember ever feeling so acutely. He fell asleep as soon as he laid down in his bed. In the morning, he had two messages from Laura: “My roommates said: ‘sounded like you had a fun night’.” And “.”

He found her waiting for him on his front stoop when he returned from work. “I’d like to stay the night again,” she said, bag already in hand. She had a trip to the vineyards in wine country planned with her friends for the weekend and wanted to get as much time with Justin as possible before the terror of only being able to think about him for two full days.

Met with several tricky situations on Friday and Saturday night, Justin weighed his possible emotional responses to a night with a new woman that wasn’t Laura. The women that propositioned him in the din of the Mission’s taverns and dive bars were certainly appealing. But in his newfound lucidity, he said thanks but no thanks, and woke up Saturday and Sunday morning with a palpable sense of relief, like he’d just woken from a terrible dream to realize that this was reality, that he didn’t, for once, sleep with something that threw itself at him.

And their trajectory was set. The final barrier to Laura fully retreating from her bachelorette Marina lifestyle to live in Justin’s sleek one-bedroom loft was a trip to Europe together. They wanted to make sure they traveled like they shared a bed. They wanted to understand how they faced real living situations and having to shit at inconvenient times. They wanted to see how they communicated with people (and each other) in a non-native language. They wanted to not have the option of an Uber ride from the Mission to the Marina when it was obvious that both needed a breather.

This is as plausible a retelling of Justin and Laura’s courtship as any. Their story culled from the images they offered up, free of charge, complete with the psychological profiles and stains of lives lived for us all to see.

Steven Kakowski, a regular contributor to the magazine, currently writes for Carta in San Francisco. He frequents the coffee shops along Columbus Street in North Beach, but he’ll only sit at certain tables because he’s paranoid that somebody’s going to sneak up on him.