What would a mental-emotional geography of my ghosts in San Francisco be without one borne of heartache and regret?
Let’s call the last girlfriend I had while I lived in San Pancho “Paola.” (She asked me to change her name for my memoir so I’ll try to be a good boy and keep it consistent aqui.) She was a bright, mildly nerdy mexicana who was a transplant to the Bay Area. When we were introduced by one of her former colleagues, Paola was also attending graduate school for creative writing. Before we began dating, we met at cafes in Bernal Heights and the Mission where we read books and wrote together. We often asked each other’s opinion on a line, paragraph, or word in the pieces we penned. Back then, I felt at peace sitting beside or across from her, immersed over our books and workshop manuscripts. In short time, once we began dating less than two months before I was diagnosed with lymphoma (the absolute worst time to begin a romantic relationship, let me tell you), I fell in love with this dream of us being a brainy, driven duo of writers—like a Latino version of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. (It also helped that she looked stunning in a red dress and heels when I saw her give a reading at her school.)
While we were together, I often spent the night at Paola’s home. During weekdays, she would awaken in the mornings and prim herself up for a day at the office. Oftentimes we would walk together, hand in hand, to the 24th Street BART station. If she was running late, she would walk a few blocks over to the bus stop by the corner of 29th Street and Mission to catch the 14 or 49 to the BART station.
With bicycle in tow (usually), I would wait with Paolita at this stop until the bus would arrive. In my life, there have been a handful of occasions when I have picked up my mom from the elementary school she worked at, and seeing Paola off on her bus felt like that for me. Giving her a goodbye peck, then cycling off to my home after her bus rode off was always a quiet, lovely way to start my day. Without fail (if I remember correctly).
In the end, Paola and I had a trying and often tormentous relationship that lasted—off but mostly on—for about a year and a half. When I think about her, or on the rare occasions when I browse at a particular picture of her smiling at me while I photographed her (the perils of writing a memoir is the past you have to re-dream), sometimes my lips tighten and I can feel tears forming from my eyes. After all this time since we finally parted and went our ways, I am still filled with sorrow and useless regret because I wish I could have been a better person to her then. This wouldn’t have salvaged our bad relationship, but those regrets are still there and probably always will be for me—like some emotional law akin to the conservation of matter.
After all this time, I still remember one morning we had in her bedroom. I remember laying in Paola’s bed, the morning sun trickling through the blinds behind me. I smiled as I watched her walk about the room in her pink bathrobe, a white towel wrapped in a bun over her wet hair as she dressed for work. When she stood in front of her mirror, dabbing make-up on her face, I rolled out of bed to come up behind her. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her cheeks. She smiled, turned her head to kiss me.
I thought every morning with her could be like that.