It took enormous bravery for Stephanie to do what she did – to come halfway across the country, alone, to a place where she knew no-one, just to meet me and spend a week with me. Friends had warned her, the man you’re going to meet might be an axe murderer. He could attack you, hurt you, kidnap you, scam you, or all of the above. She listened to and weighed her friends’ warnings, and she must have worried about it. She was no dummy. But she gambled everything on me, a complete stranger who’d written her some letters. I’m sure glad she did. I don’t know that I would’ve had that level of courage, then or now. Would you?
I had booked her a separate room at the roach-filled residential hotel where I lived, on 16th Street in the Mission District slums. After I met her at the airport and we bussed back to the city, we dropped her luggage in the room and I took her to dinner.
We ate at El Castillito, the taqueria universally acclaimed (by me, prior to Steph’s arrival, and by both of us after) for building the best burritos in San Francisco or on the planet. I ordered two chicken burritos, she had a beef burrito. She loved it, which further cemented my growing certainty that she was the one. [Note: Stephanie & I left San Francisco in 2001, but the internet says El Castillito is still there, with several locations in the city. I’ve still never tasted a better burrito, so here’s an unpaid endorsement – if you’re ever in Frisco, stop by El Castillito for a cheap, yummy meal.]
After dinner, once Steph was settled into her room at the hotel, I took her up to the roof. Residents weren’t supposed to access the roof, but I knew a way. So in the loud urban evening overlooking 16th Street, we talked and talked, about everything. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to be “that guy,” the guy who gets a bit too pushy or too handsy too soon.
I don’t remember much of our conversation from that night, but I remember that it was easy. Conversation is never easy for me, but words with Stephanie were always easy. That night was loud, and not only the normal loud of traffic and arguments and music wafting up from the street; we were also just days from the Fourth of July, so there were amateur explosives in the air, punctuating everything we said. At one point we heard someone screaming far in the distance, and I quipped, “Someone’s screaming, Lord. Kumbaya.” She laughed, and man, what’s sexier than an attractive woman laughing at your lame jokes?
We stayed up late, talking and laughing on the roof and later in her room, and we told each other everything about our lives, our jobs, our families. But there were no kisses that night. In the movies, that first kiss is the falling-in-love moment, but we were already there. By the time I said good night and walked down the stairs to my room, I knew this was going to be more than a one-week holiday, and Steph told me later that she knew it, too.
Our first kiss of thousands came the next day, as we were walking across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Marin. And yeah, it was – memorable. Beyond memorable, beyond fireworks, but we kept walking. At the other side of the bridge we turned around, and as we were walking back toward San Francisco, we were talking about where we wanted to live. She said she wanted “A small house, maybe, with no children,” and later she told me she’d been a bit worried about the no-kids line, since that’s a dealbreaker for some men. Not for me; I prefer the company of grown-ups, and I’d be a lousy father anyway.
“Sounds great,” I said, “but a house is a lot of money and work. I’d prefer a cheap apartment somewhere, and we’ll run a pirate radio station out of the back room.”
“Yeah,” she said, “like Pump Up the Volume.” Of course, we had both loved that movie.
At the city-side of the Bridge, we had another moment that we both remembered fondly for the rest of our time together. We were sitting in the park area, we were a little tuckered from our mile-long walk across the water and back, and we’d briefly run out of conversation. Nothing was said for perhaps twenty seconds, and then Stephanie said, “A comfortable silence.” Meaning, it’s great for us to talk with each other all day and all night, but it’s also OK to have stretches with nothing much to say.
Stephanie had planned to stay for a week, and then she’d fly back to Wisconsin. But before we returned to the hotel that afternoon, those plans were being revised. It had only been about 24 hours since we first met, but we already knew a week wouldn’t be enough, so she decided to stay for a second week. She called her employer, and postponed her return to work. She called the airline, and rejiggered her return flight. She paid Mr Patel another $90 for a second week at the hotel. She called her best friend in Madison, and reassured her that she wasn’t being axe-murdered.
* * * * * * * * * *
On our third day together, we were walking around in one of San Francisco’s least photogenic neighborhoods, 14th and Mission, a section of the slums where I’d lived a few years earlier. Obscene graffiti was omnipresent. A bum was asleep just off the sidewalk, with two overstuffed plastic bags in his shopping cart, and one hand on the cart to keep it from being stolen, even as he slept. We danced over some trash and an orange syringe on the curb, and stepped over a broken, empty bottle of whiskey. The scent of urine was in the air, and I was feeling romantic, holding Stephanie’s hand. I was feeling “I love you,” but scared to say it, because those are big, frightening words.
“I love you,” I said, “can be hard to say.”
“I love you,” she answered, “can be tricky, that’s for sure.”
“Some people say ‘I love you’ so often, say ‘I love you’ to so many people, you have to wonder whether they mean it, or even know what it means.”
“Some people never say it, even when they mean it, and that’s just sad.”
“I love you,” I said, “ought to be something you don’t say unless you mean it, but if you mean it you ought to say it.”
“Oh, I mean it. I love you.”
“And I love you too,” I said, and then added, “But I hate it when someone says ‘I love you too’ just as the expected response, because someone said ‘I love you.’”
“I love you, too,” she said, “but you’re right about people who say ‘I love you’ too much, or too easily, or as some kind of obligation.”
“I love you, too” I said, “but let’s never be like that, saying ‘I love you’ all the time.”
It became our habit after that, to say “I love you” and say it often. It goes without saying is the cliché, but love should never go without saying. We said “I love you” every day we were together, and my calculator says we were together for about 7,600 days. We said it like other folks say “Good morning” or “Good night,” and we said it another half dozen times every day. We said it to celebrate a good lunch, or a good bowel movement. If we said it eight times every day, then the math says we said “I love you” 60,800 times. But that’s not enough. Nowhere near enough.
I will always love Stephanie, and she’s gone but I’m not done saying it. I still say it sometimes in the hallway, or standing at the Shrine, or while I’m looking through the fridge for something to eat. “I love you, Steph.”
More about Stephanie.