Sangfroid in San Francisco

Alexander Slotnick

Winter 2018

Mack and Jean met in the Reno amateur community orchestra. Mack played the violin, Jean the trumpet.

Their conductor was transsexual; Maestra X was her handle. Angular in the face, sort of Persian, Jean thought, in her color and lines, but scarred, too, from acne when she was a teen. Now Maestra only left home for rehearsals and infrequent seasonal gigs. She spent evenings reading Mahler scores while an MC5 or Bowie LP played down the hall, scanning the pages with simple private delectation, as if browsing a cookbook. She wore her hair in a loose bun; her top lip was waxed raw. The Reno orchestra, she liked to say, sounded like a speaker submerged in a toilet bowl. Maestra was talented enough to have had a career in Florence, Vienna, or the Berkshires in the summer if she’d remained “biologically unmarred,” as the symphony board member in Boston had put it the one time Maestra had auditioned outside of Nevada. After the last concert they performed before they moved, Night on Bald Mountain, Jean and Mack each kissed Maestra on the cheek. Champagne backstage in Dixie cups.

Mack had a residency in obstetrics at UCSF, and Jean, her RN certification completed, six shifts a week lined up in the Veterans’ ICU. “So what?” the Maestra asked. “The far side of the Sierras is better?”

They never played music together again.

Mack and Jean married in April and then decamped, circled Lake Tahoe twice before bearing west to San Francisco, down the mountain: Grass Valley, Folsom, Mendocino, a stop in Santa Rosa. By June, they’d found a place in the city, in rimy Noe Valley. Their flat was on the long slope of a hill. The architecture seemed improbable.

Jean sometimes thought she smelled gas in the kitchen. She pictured the knotted pipes underground, imagined them siphoning methane into their home. But the stove’s plastic knobs were always snug in the off position when she checked. Turning away, she felt an almost physical itch of doubt, and checked once more, counting them, until she reasoned she couldn’t be hallucinating: safety was real.

On weekends she walked the city. Mack preferred to lounge in bed, recovering from call, and wanted her there too. Lying atop the duvet, he’d strip off his T-shirt with his pants and toss them against the wall. The fabric limbs, ivory and indigo, grasped out in mid-flight. The piles were visible from down the hall when Jean entered the flat. She was always a little hesitant to undress. Though svelte from the waist up, Jean had stretch marks on her ass. They were ruby colored and they zagged. Mack called her Zebra. At certain posterior angles, in adequate light, she was an exquisite new breed, and he, the Naturalist of San Francisco.

“I’ve found the fauna,” he said. “Now where’s the flora?” Jean turned from hands and knees to lie on her back. She rolled her eyes, but she laughed.

It was 1982: Latter-day LSD, and Haight Street gutter punks sold oregano joints in the lobbies of financial district law firms for a quarter each, a dollar per deal max, ripping off recent graduates from Boalt Hall. In the city parks there was sex of all stripes, spent needles in the grass, microclimates that varied from hood to hood. Swamp weather in Noe might turn to Honolulu by the time you got to Hayes, Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies, and then Divisadero would be the Pacific itself, or, by the next block, the moon.

One ought not to have gone barefoot through Golden Gate Park, but it was done. Soon, to fuck was lethal; the gays were turning pure bone, and dead. Mack and Jean made rounds in their hospitals, came home under navy night skies, and tried, at first, to talk about the victims. But soon they just had to had to had to move on. The wine was red and from close by. The Bay, flushing out past Angel Island and Sausalito, felt like an exit marked in big bright neon. Whitecaps out there. After supper, Mack joined Jean and they walked the streets, buying records from estate sales, makeshift shop fronts set out on blankets before Edwardian-style houses with turrets painted pastel pink and lime green.

Their kitchen’s sienna fleur-de-lis wallpaper curled where they smoked. Mack got a set of free weights and stored them beneath the dining room table. When he dropped them, they put dents in the hardwood floor. Jean spent two nights hand-wringing about their rent deposit. “UCSF considers me a doctor,” Mack said. “My paycheck agrees.” He hung a chin-up bar in the doorframe, and began rising at four to jog every day. Passing by hookers getting off shift, he might recognize a few patients. If they liked their johns enough to walk out to the Apple Inn’s stoop side-by-side, they’d point him out to them: “That’s my gyno! He’s gonna fix what you just got done wrecking.” Or they’d call out, Hi Doctor Mack! He’d wave. The girls he didn’t know often were not girls.

That subsection of town would show up in Jean’s intensive care. She tried to hold their hands at the end, but was usually rebuffed. She could only spare a minute anyway. Too much to do. Nursing was heavy lifting. She wrangled with mean, dickish doctors, old boys who knew how to balance insulin levels, or locate an appendix in OR with an abdomen’s single palpation. But really that wasn’t much. The nurses knew more. The young patients had mothers sometimes. Or fathers might show up to dab a cold rubber bladder against their boy’s brow. The fevers were upsetting, the weight loss nauseating to behold. A father held his son’s withered head like a softball, the whole skull in his palm, looking closely. Siblings asked, Nurse, what if it’s infectious? (a shrug; another RN hailed.) A mother asked, Are these the ravages of sin? (this Jean knew: No.) And, Are you afraid?

Alexander Slotnick lives in Washington, DC. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia. His work has appeared in the White Review, Literary Hub, Meridian, and elsewhere.

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