San Francisco, City of Ghosts, 3

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Three months later, I dropped out of Stanford. There was no obvious reason why I left: my dissertation topic had been approved; all I had to do was write it. But after the Day of Outrage my heart no longer pointed in that direction. I struggled all summer long with the first chapter of The Great Disappointment: Progress and Apocalypse in a Michigan Millerite Community, and in September I sent a letter to my department chair, informing him that I would not be returning to the program.

“You moron!” Alex cried, when I told him what I’d done. “Go down to school right now and take that letter back.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe in history anymore.” I hadn’t realized that it was true until I said it. But actually I was angry at history, I hated history. It was good for nothing. Could history make Swan come back? Could it change anything about the city where I lived? “So?” Alex said. “What does that even mean, you don’t believe in history? How is that not a historical statement?”

“I think it’s useless,” I said.

Alex sniffed. “Baby, if you were looking for useful, you should have become a doctor.”

“Well, I don’t want to do it. If I’m going to do something I don’t care about, I want to get paid for it.”

We kept arguing, but Alex didn’t change my mind. Finally he said, “Do what you want, but don’t come crying to me when you’re peddling your ass on Polk Street.”

In another city, or another decade, he might have been right to worry, but this was San Francisco in 1997 and the Internet caught my fall. I mailed my letter to Stanford on a Wednesday, and the next Monday I was temping for Cetacean Solutions, LLC, and laughing at their motto, “We Go Deep.” A few weeks later I let slip that I’d once written a BASIC implementation of Adventure, and my boss, Mac urged me to get back into programming. I learned Java and C++ easily, and at that point Cetacean hired me and I was issued a key to the Fun Room.

If I had been thinking about it, I would have realized that my facility for programming was proof that the past mattered. In some significant if cryptic way I was picking up where I had left off when I was expelled from Nederland, as if everything I’d done since then was merely a detour or, as Swan might have called it, a long strange trip. But I wasn’t thinking about it; I didn’t want to think about it. I was happy to work long hours at Cetacean, managing other people’s content, about which I knew nothing and cared not at all. On weekends I went dancing with Erin and Star and Josh. We took Ecstasy and promised to love each other forever, then, at a party in Oakland, I met a woman in a white fur coat. “What’s your name?” she asked. I told her I wasn’t sure, I had names for various occasions, names that revealed my essential self to greater or lesser degrees, this was, for me, the problem with Ecstasy, I was filled with love for those around me, but love, in my case, took the form of complex sentences, each of which had to be uttered with great care, because I loved the concepts they articulated almost as much as I loved the people I was saying them to, or maybe just as much, I had to think about it, and so, when I was rolling, I did nothing but talk, talk, talk. The woman in the white fur coat accepted my explanation.

“I’m Alice,” she said. It was deliciously simple. By the end of the night, my head was in her lap, and I had told her no fewer than three times that I loved her. Oddly, she seemed to believe me. And more oddly still, after the drugs had worn off, after the sun had come up and it turned out that we had been in a courtyard all night, and not, as I had supposed, a vessel hurtling through interstellar space, I believed it myself. I was happy, although in retrospect it seems to me that I was already becoming a ghost.

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