SECOND PLACE: Brown Haired Man in Petaluma

By Mary Jo Stevens

Do you remember sitting in the rental car at the outskirts of Petaluma, just down the road from Lombardi’s where earlier we’d eaten our fill of smoked beef on thick bakery buns, grilled asparagus? We’d parked in the empty lot of the lumber company because you said you needed to talk about something. That cloudy Sunday afternoon held the only dreary day of our trip.

What I remember is your crying, sitting in the passenger seat hunched over your knees, looking for-all-the-world like the 19-year-old you’d been long before we met. Shaggy brown hair covered your growth of beard. Tears and snot ran off your nose onto your hands, lying loose and open on your knees. The missionary boy’s fear, abandonment, need for comfort not available, poured out with the tears, shook your shoulders, filled the car with shame. Over and over you said, “I want to go home.”

What came next — after wiping your eyes on your shirtsleeve, blowing your nose in tissues I offered, staring at me with eyes wide as a child who expects to be comforted — what you said then has stayed with me in these years since I last saw you. “Is it OK for friends to mother each other?”

I believed I knew you then. Believed in you and me as surely as the existence of the ocean we had driven by to get there, knew as certainly as the aftertaste of asparagus in my mouth, saw as clearly as the stacks of lumber outside the car window. I thought I knew what you meant. In my unknowing I replied, “Yes, that’s what we do for each other.”

I still believe in what I said, in the rightness of it. Friends offer comfort as needed, tissues, hugs, space for grieving. Friends listen and tell you you’re OK, hold you as you cry, laugh with you when you see the wet sleeve of your shirt. Friends walk with you back the road a piece, toward town, and offer to drive a while. I still believe that friends offer you a hand to help you out of the ditch.

The image of you, crying in that car, moving to an empty row on the flight home to sleep, in profile in my camera lens traveling north along the 101 at sunset, arises now. That first visit — to Oz it seemed — land’s end smelling of eucalyptus, planted with flowers that appeared extraterrestrial, fed a hunger never before acknowledged, or even known. I believed, then, in the necessity of your eyes as mirrors of myself, that your voice, backed by the cymbals of crashing ocean, was the song I was meant to sing.

Today I fly to California again. If you ever went there again I know not. Our return home comforted you, engendered in me a loss of purpose, a need for foggy drives between ocean and cliffs. I’ve returned often, leaving more of you behind each time, flying toward the hard-won lesson you taught me that day. What I’d believed was a prologue turned out to be the end of a chapter. What I’d thought a silken thread of connection turned out to be a noose. What began a stop for coffee, one trip, became a worn black wallet dropped at my feet, the touch of another brown-haired man’s hand on mine as we both reached for it, a new definition of home.

When my plane lands I’ll pick up a rental car in San Francisco and drive north, as we did. Tonight I will sleep with the brown-haired man in Petaluma. He doesn’t need a mother. He waits with a bedroom lit by candles where we will lie together in tousled sheets, talking. Maybe tomorrow we will walk to town and buy warm sourdough bread at Lombardi’s for dinner, go to a movie, drink wine with friends.

He knows about you, knows the story of my first visit to Oz. From his house on the hill you can see the hotel where you and I shared a bed. One day soon I will move there to share that house, his life, placing in my trunk the box containing pictures, some of you, packing carefully the mementos of my life for the journey.

He will have cleared drawers, created closet space for me. Some days later we will drive his small truck to the lumberyard to buy boards for shelves to hold those items I’ve brought: family photos, a woman created of wire and tissue paper, a stone smoothed by ocean water, embedded with seaweed, picked up at my first Pacific beach.

With gratitude,