And so here we are, ten weeks into Memoir Monday, where I've posted the introduction and one chapter per week of my latest book, Memoirs of a Starving Artist. I hope you've enjoyed following these adventures as much as I enjoyed writing them up. This week marks the last installment here on the blog, but have no fear, the rest of the book will be available through Amazon and elsewhere starting this Friday! Woo hoo! In the meantime, here it is, the grand finale of Memoir Monday:
By now driving solo across the country was almost routine. This was the fourth time I’d done it. Five and a half days on the road. I felt like Kerouac and Cassady, racking up the miles in an incessant search for truth and meaning. When I arrived in San Francisco I spent the first night with Carlos and his girlfriend Bridget at their apartment in the Marina District. The next morning Carlos took me across the Golden Gate Bridge and down through the sleepy, quaint town of Sausalito to my new home, a 38-foot trawler with two staterooms, two heads, a galley, TV, stereo; the works. As he showed me around, Carlos opened a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of red wine.
“If you ever get a girl back to the boat and you need some wine, you can drink this. In case of emergencies,” he said.
“Let’s hope I need it,” I laughed. Over the next few weeks I quickly settled into my new home. I’d work on the teak for a few hours a day and then write. I started a script about a pretty, determined girl dealing with the moral and practical conflicts of trying to succeed in the male-dominated world of military aviation. I wrote a short story about a middle-aged surfer rediscovering the sport and sent it to Surfer Magazine. I came up with an idea for a script about three of twenty-something guys in LA who go around sneaking into fancy parties. One night they hop the fence of a Hollywood mansion and find themselves at an A-list engagement party. The shy guy falls in love with a bridesmaid just before they are thrown out on the street. Now they must find a way to crash the wedding itself or he may never see her again.
This last script was going to be the one, I was sure. I could tell I had a winner on my hands. If I didn’t have the talent to tell a story of depth and insight, then so be it. Maybe trying to change the world with my writing was simply more than I was capable of in the end. I still had it in me to spin an entertaining yarn. By this point I simply wanted to make a living, period. I was tired of all of the struggle and disappointment. I would stop trying to write dramas about fraternity boys suffering from alienation. I would tell a simple tale of love and innocent hijinx. I called this latest script The A-List and slowly but surely worked out the details and put it all on paper. In the meantime I made the most of my surroundings. One of my best friends from college was also living across the bridge in the city. Joe and I spent weekends watching UCLA games and heading out to Irish pubs. Writing is such an isolating exercise that having good friends around is an imperative to remain centered and happy. With Joe and Carlos in the same city it felt a little bit like home.
On days when I didn’t feel like writing I explored what San Francisco had to offer on my own, strolling through Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf. One afternoon I headed over to the Legion of the Palace of Honor, an art museum located in a tree-shaded park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. This architectural splendor is an imitation of a French palace and its stunning location does justice to the impressive collection within. August Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker sits in the courtyard forever pondering the passersby. I managed to make it over for my first look on the monthly free day.
Given the price, I was surprised to find few other people in the museum on this morning. The wood floors and spacious interior add to a homey feel and I took my time, enjoying the ambiance as I wandered around looking at paintings by the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, and a few modern Americans. In the very center was a round room lit by skylights and containing an assortment of smaller Rodin sculptures. As I turned from one to another I heard a zip, zip, zip sound coming from behind me. In my peripheral vision I saw that someone else was in the room. Again, zip zip zip, zip zip zip zip. I turned my head ever so slightly to take in a girl walking past. She appeared to be in her early-20’s, with bleached blonde hair and a pretty, round face. She wore baggy nylon pants and as she walked her legs rubbed together and made the zip zip noise.
I looked from the girl, to the sculpture, and back to the girl. “Rodin may have done some wonderful work,” I thought, “but he’s got nothing on her.” My pulse quickened. I tried to concentrate on the artwork but by now I couldn’t help sneak another glimpse or two of this girl. She wore shiny purple sneakers on her feet, the blue nylon pants and a tight gray hooded sweatshirt. Her wavy blonde hair was held together at the back by an elastic band with clear plastic stars, filled with water and glitter. Before long she disappeared down a corridor. “ZIP ZIP Zip Zip zip...” The sound faded away. “Ah well, the art will have to do,” I thought. Twenty minutes later, there she was again taking in a room full of 19th-century paintings.
It was obvious that the girl was alone. The prospect of actually talking to her crossed my mind. This seemed reasonable enough in theory, yet getting up the nerve to initiate a conversation proved daunting. We moved around the room, the girl bouncing joyfully from one picture to the next, until we stood side by side in front of an unusual painting; a dour-looking woman staring out in hatred from the canvas. The perfect picture to comment on. And I stood there. And the girl stood there. We were both equally aware of one another, yet no words came out of my mouth. “Talk to her!” I thought in desperation. And she walked on into the next room. I was hot on her heels.
We both headed slowly through this last room and toward the exit, giving each other quick, furtive glances as we went. I walked out the door and into the sunshine, expecting her to follow. When I turned around she was nowhere to be seen. “Uh oh,” I realized in a panic, “She is still inside and now I’ve left, and she knows it. It’s all over! I’m finished!” I continued walking on out to the front garden where I stood in disbelief.
“Damn, I blew it!” I considered the possibilities shattered. Admittedly I knew very little about this girl, but she’d seemed so happy and carefree. She was interested in art. That counted for a lot, in and of itself. If only I’d spoken to her when I had the chance! Now I’d never know what might have been. I would beat myself up over this for days. It had happened to me time and again. I’d be captivated by a girl I’d seen somewhere in public; on a train, at a coffeehouse or at the beach. I’d contemplate a way to approach her, running options through my mind. I’d consider the perfect opening line. Sometimes I’d manage to follow through, but more often I’d simply freeze and let the opportunity pass me by. In most of these cases, I’d spend the next several days thinking over what had gone wrong. In my mind, the girl would always be my perfect match. They were always my soul mates with whom I would have found everlasting happiness, if only I hadn’t blown it in one way or another. I couldn’t face the prospect of going through that again. Even if it meant humiliating myself, I had to talk to this girl in the museum. If she shot me down she would be doing me a huge favor; keeping me from obsessing over her for days on end.
I hesitantly made my way back inside and then quickly scoured the entire upper floor. She was nowhere to be found. I made my way downstairs and looked left, then right. I moved around to the very last room, and there she was, staring into a glass wall case near the restrooms. When she saw me, I sensed an immediate awareness in her eyes. Was she pleased? I couldn’t tell. I stood at the next case over. “Ok,” I thought to myself again, trying to rally my courage. “Now or never.” I walked straight toward her. As I drew near she turned and walked toward me. Our glances met and she barely contained a laugh before putting her head down and moving past with only a few feet separating us. Just then the door to the woman’s restroom flew open, stopping an inch short of the girl’s nose as another woman hurried out. My girl stumbled backwards in shock.
“Wow, that almost got you!” I finally managed to get some words out. After so much stress and strategizing, I’d broken the ice. At least it was something.
“Yeah, that was a close one!” the girl answered. We both turned to head toward the stairs.
“You have an interesting accent,” I said, pressing my advantage.
“I’m Australian,” she replied, “but I live in London.”
“That’s funny, I was just in Australia.”
We chatted all the way out and by the time we stood in the garden together it felt like we were already fast friends. A wave of relief washed over me. I’d actually done it.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Serendipity,” she replied.
“Isn’t that funny…”
Serendipity was visiting friends in Oakland and had no set agenda. Of course I was more than happy to show her around. We headed to Height Street for lunch. First time fish tacos for the girl from London and then we wandered the Height-Ashbury neighborhood, poking our heads into the funky shops to take a peek at everything from shoes to feather boas.
“Ohh, I’ve got a pair just like those at home,” she said pointing to some thigh-high black leather boots.
“I’d like to see you in them,” I replied with a sly grin. Was it too much? Apparently not, as Serendipity smiled flirtatiously in return. This was promising. We’d gone from being complete strangers to what was beginning to feel like so much more than friends in the blink of an eye. I tried not to read too much into it. That was a surefire pretext for disappointment, but I knew that I liked this girl. There was something infectious about her effervescent optimism. Even just walking down the street Serendipity had a spring in her step, as though she were dancing her way through life, embracing it to the fullest.
In the later afternoon we headed over to the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park. A big wrought-iron gate out front was closed and locked tight. We were twenty minutes too late. Serendipity held onto two of the iron posts, staring into the garden on the other side.
“Too bad we missed it,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a shame,” I answered. I gathered my courage and put my hands on either side of her waist, testing the waters. Serendipity turned her head, beaming broadly. She let go of the gate and spun to face me.
“What will we do now?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. The tension was palpable. Two strangers in the city, filled with loneliness and desire. I leaned forward slowly to kiss her and Serendipity wrapped her arms around me. We stood in front of the garden, locked in an embrace.
“How about sunset at the beach?” I asked.
That evening we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I turned off at a lookout on the Marin County side and pulled into a parking space. The sky was dark and all of the lights of the city were lit up gloriously before us. Serendipity slid across the bench seat of my pickup and leaned back into my arms. Entranced by the view, we sat and talked. Serendipity was a waitress back in London. She loved techno music, rave parties, and dancing all night. She wore glitter makeup, changed her hair color monthly, and had an affinity for Hello Kitty. This was a girl who seemed worldly beyond her years on one hand yet clung to the trappings of childhood innocence on the other. Mostly she was all about freedom, to live her life how she wanted no matter what.
From the overlook it was only a short drive down the hill to the marina, where I’d offered to give her a tour of the boat. When we came on board I remembered Carlos’ emergency bottle. I opened the cabinet and pulled it out. “Some wine?” I asked her.
“Marvelous,” said Serendipity. “Let’s go sit up top and drink it there.”
I grabbed a few warm jackets to ward off the winter chill, two glasses and an opener. We climbed up to the fly bridge and settled in on a settee beneath the star-filled sky, surrounded by the light specked hills of Tiburon and Sausalito. There could hardly have been a more romantic spot on earth. It seemed clear that Serendipity would spend the night. The signs were all there, in the way that she cuddled up to me with one hand on my thigh. In the gleam in her eyes when I gave her a light kiss. We’d come together somehow in the mad, chaotic world and for this one little moment in time there was nothing that could tear us apart.
Late that night in the stateroom below, Serendipity slept peacefully beneath the sheets beside me, her warm body banishing the usual loneliness that was my life on the boat. I should have been happy. I should have felt content, but I couldn’t keep my mind from contemplating the fleeting transience of youth. I was ten years older than her and felt every bit of it. Serendipity was living the most glorious years of her life; wild and young, beautiful and free. But I knew that eventually her youth would go and her beauty would fade. Where would she be when she reached her 30’s? I don’t know why I was worrying so much about her but I couldn’t seem to help it. When I finally fell asleep myself I dreamt that Serendipity was applying for a flight attendant’s training course and crying because she just didn’t want to do it. Perhaps it was my own unfulfilled promise that was haunting me. She had no focus in life, but I was the one who knew firsthand where that could lead. Or at least what could happen when dreams did not come true. Without any real dreams at all, I worried that she was setting herself up for a failure of her own, but what could I do about it? Serendipity would find her way without any help from me.
The following morning, the sun rose on a glorious day on the bay. It was easy to put any dark thoughts aside. Serendipity and I were so comfortable together that I felt like I had known her all of my life. She was flying up to Seattle that day to spend the week there with a friend, so I drove her first to Oakland to pick up her bags and then on to the airport. When I dropped her off curbside she gave me a big going-away hug and a kiss before heading into the terminal.
“See you in a week!” she said.
That week went by and I didn’t hear from her. Every day after that I knew my chances of seeing her again diminished. I worked on my script and varnished the boat. At some point I gave up on the prospect of ever seeing Serendipity again. Then on the tenth day my phone rang. She was back in town and had brought her friend with her. They were at the bus station downtown. Could I come pick them up? Twenty minutes later I was driving down Market Street trying to spot them in the crowds. I knew she changed her hair color often, so I wasn’t sure what to look for. Her new purple streaks threw me at first and I drove past once before I came around again and finally spotted them. I pulled my truck into a parking space and hopped out. A big hug on the sidewalk and we were together again.
Serendipity’s new side-kick Cathy was just as friendly but without the wild clothes, hair, or attitude. No techno music or rave parties for her. She was a down-to-earth kind of girl. Together the three of us toured the outdoor cafes of North Beach and the famous City Lights Bookstore. We had a picnic in front of the Palace of Fine Arts and then headed back to Height Street for another look at the funky shops. With a bright smile on her face, Serendipity skipped ahead in a short skirt and torn fishnet stockings. Sitting on a cement step nearby, a ragged homeless man whistled and nodded his approval. I nodded back. He was right; she was quite a sight after all.
At night we had sushi on the boat and I set up Cathy in the second stateroom. The next morning Serendipity and I stood outside on the bow, taking in another beautiful new day. “I wish I had a magic money machine,” she said, “and I could just make as much as I needed. That way I wouldn’t have to go home.”
“That would be nice,” I answered. I was in no position to let her stay long-term. It wasn’t my boat. Serendipity’s spirits seemed to drop, but only temporarily. She wasn’t the type of girl to let anything get her down for long. After a few days all together, eventually it was Cathy’s turn to go. She’d booked a bus back north to Seattle. Serendipity was due to fly out for London the following morning. A bittersweet parting loomed. Just past sunset we took Cathy to the bus station downtown. She was on the Green Turtle; a worn-out hippie bus outfitted with bunk beds from front to back. As the bus got ready to leave it was big hugs all around before Cathy tearfully climbed on board and was off.
Serendipity and I headed across town to the Marina District for one last dinner together at a trendy sushi restaurant. It was one of her things. Serendipity loved sushi! She was crazy about it. In fact, it was a sushi restaurant where she worked back in London. Only she didn’t like raw fish. Never mind that those two concepts don’t compute. She made do with edamame pods, California rolls and smoked eel.
With Cathy gone it was all the more obvious to Serendipity that she was next. The mood was somber. “I wish I could stay longer,” she said absent-mindedly, staring out the window as we drove.
“Too bad you don’t have that magic money machine,” I replied. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just words to fill the silence. Whether it offended her, I couldn’t say, but she was unusually distant.
“I used to sort of have one,” Serendipity said after a pause. “I’m sitting on it right now.”
“WHAT?” I thought. My eyes opened wide. I looked at Serendipity beside me, then back to the road ahead. Was she telling me what I thought she was telling me? No. It couldn’t be.
“I hope that doesn’t bother you,” she added.
I looked back to Serendipity. “No, that doesn’t bother me,” I lied. Suddenly I felt lightheaded. Everything was blurry. This girl I had come to know so well was...was a HOOKER!?! Could it be? Was she just a dancer, maybe?!? No, I knew better.
When we got to dinner I was in a mild state of shock. We were seated in a row of tables that were all within a few feet of one another. It was almost like we were having dinner with the couple on either side of us, all well dressed professionals having dull, inane conversations. Serendipity and I stuck out like two sore thumbs. Her with purple streaked hair, glitter make-up and a short black skirt with fishnet stockings. Me in a sweatshirt and old jeans.
I wanted to ask her all the details of her sordid secret. For the couples around us it would have made their night. “Oh my god, we went to dinner at Ace Wasabi, and this girl at the table next to us was telling this guy all about what it’s like to be a hooker, can you believe it!?” I decided it was better to wait.
“You seem a little quiet,” Serendipity said to me. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I answered. “Just a little tired I guess.”
We finished dinner and then headed to a coffeehouse across the street where we found some space to ourselves in the back. I couldn’t put off the questions any longer. Where exactly did she work? Was she afraid? About disease? What got her started?
Serendipity answered every question without hesitation. Life on her terms meant keeping no secrets. She seemed to want me to know. She’d run away from home when she was 16 to live with her boyfriend. Within a few years she was supporting them both by working at a “full-service” massage parlor. She always used a condom and had weekly medical checkups, much to my relief.
“What about the first time?” I asked. “Did you know what you were getting into?”
“Yeah, I knew what I was doing,” she answered. “A friend of my aunt worked there and she suggested I try it. The first time I did it, the madam set me up with a friend of hers and it wasn’t too bad.”
“But how did you feel about it in general? Over time?”
“It was exciting! I made a lot of money. I used to make $700 a night. That’s what excited me the most, making all of the money.”
“But what if some big, fat, ugly guy came in that you just couldn’t stand the sight of? What would you do then? Did you have to sleep with him?”
“I would just say, hey, this is a massage parlor and I don’t do that, but if you’d like I can talk to one of the other girls. Sometimes I would offer to do a massage topless for an extra 20 bucks.”
“If you liked it so much, then why did you stop?”
“When I moved to London I knew my boyfriend there wouldn’t want me to do it.”
“Would you do it again?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” Serendipity thought back. “I remember one guy gave me $100 just to give him a hug.”
“And did you give him a big hug?”
“Oh yeah, I gave him a hell of a hug! The biggest ever!”
I couldn’t imagine charging someone for a hug, but I was not going to be judgmental. Worried about her, but not judgmental. Her freedom to do what she wanted was one of the things I’d admired after all. She did whatever she wanted to do, period. I had more freedom than nearly anyone I knew, but still there were limits. I had a nagging guilt in the back of my brain telling me that I should be working harder, living a respectable life and aspiring toward standard middle class ambitions. Serendipity apparently had none of these hang-ups whatsoever.
On the way back to the boat we stopped again at the overlook to admire the lights of the city, sitting quietly for a while to take it all in one last time. “What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“Let’s just get a bottle of something and drink it,” she answered.
“I’ve got vodka on the boat. We can get some juice on the way.”
“That sounds perfect.”
When the vodka was nearly gone we climbed into bed to spend one last night together, doing our best to banish the pain and heartache of being human. We’d both known from the start that this relationship had an expiration date. It was part of the appeal, on both sides I was fairly sure. No commitments and no opportunity costs. That didn’t make it any easier to face the end, despite her revelations.
The following morning I drove Serendipity to the airport once again. This time she cried quietly on the way. When we unloaded her bags at the departure terminal she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and gave a desperate squeeze, as though she couldn’t bear to let me go. “This must be a hundred-dollar hug,” I thought as I squeezed her back. After a few moments I had to pry her arms away. I gave her a last kiss. “Thanks for everything,” I said.
Serendipity turned and headed into the terminal. One minute she was there and then she was gone, never to be forgotten.
Back on the boat I smelled Serendipity’s sweet perfume in my sheets for the next few days. On the pillow I found a little butterfly sticker that she’d had pasted on the inside of one breast. I missed her happy outlook, her bright smile and her warm body next to mine. I also felt that I really was living the life of a writer now. Henry Miller, Bukowski, and even Kerouac would have been proud. Sometimes over the years I’ve found myself wondering where life might have taken Serendipity after that, the girl with the ultimate freedom. In the end I’ll never be able to think of her without a smile.