A San Francisco Relationship Story

I was rummaging through the stacks of City Lights Bookstore in North Beach when I saw an attractive young woman in the Russian Literature section. She read The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorite authors. I pretended to be interested in the books nearby and took the courage to speak to her.

“I love the book you’re reading now,” I said. “I don’t drink coffee today. Only hot bread and onions. “

She gave me a strange look.

“This is from The Nose. It’s the third story. “

“I haven’t read that yet,” she said. She had a European accent.

She had beautiful green eyes and pale pink lips.

“You don’t meet a lot of fans of Russian literature,” I continued. “How did you discover Gogol?”

“A friend thought I would like it because it’s weird and twisted.”

“That was my major in college, weird and twisted.”

I was hoping for a laugh. She remained stoic.

“I’m Loren.”

“Adeline,” she said.

“Nice to meet you, Adeline. Where do you come from?”


“What brought you to San Francisco?”

“I studied philosophy at Berkeley.”

“That should bring you a lot of job offers.”

She winced like my joke was an insult.

“I don’t usually start conversations in bookstores. I thought, since you’ve been reading Gogol, we might have something in common. “

“Maybe,” she said.

I took that as encouragement.

“How would you like to continue this conversation over dinner?”

“Okay,” she said.

“Big. How is Friday night?”


“Wonderful,” I said immediately and regretted the statement.

She took a pen from her purse and picked up a flyer for a bookstore announcing an upcoming lecture on death and dying. She scribbled her address on the back of the flyer and handed it to me.

“I’ll see you on Friday at six, Adeline.”

On Friday I took the bus to the Lower Haight District. I walked south on Divisadero Street through the panhandle toward Pacific Heights. 49ers pennants were everywhere to celebrate the team’s fourth Super Bowl win in nine years.

When I got to Block 1600, I was looking for Adeline’s apartment. I came to a large stone and glass building with a sign that said, Mount Zion Hospital Psychiatric Clinic. My heart has sunk She wrote down the wrong address so she wouldn’t go out with me.

I turned to leave when I decided to check the address anyway. The front door was locked. I pressed the buzzer. A nurse dressed in white appeared. He seemed upset with my presence. I asked if there was a woman named Adeline. He told me to wait and then disappeared into the building.

Adeline appeared a few minutes later, no makeup, her brown hair tied in a bun. She wore a long-sleeved green blouse with a ruffled collar. I did my best to hide my shock. Was she a patient in psychiatry?

We started walking on Divisadero.

“How are you?” I asked.


“Are you doing something interesting today?”

“I went to the Palace of Fine Arts.”

“It’s beautiful there.”

“I sat by the lake and read my book.”

“Have you already arrived at the story of The Nose?”

“I will never eat bread again,” she said.

I smiled. We turned onto Broadway and headed for North Beach. As we approached the Broadway tunnel, she stopped. The tunnel was about a quarter of a mile long, but it was dark and noisy with traffic. She seemed careful.

“Do you want to take the steps?”

She nodded yes. We went across the tunnel and descended the stairs on the other side. We drove down Broadway on Columbus Street, past the shabby strip bars and Italian cafes.

I took us to my favorite restaurant, Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. We sat at a small table near the door. I ordered a carafe of Chianti.

“I don’t drink,” said Adeline.

“Would you like a soda?”

“Only water.”

The waiter brought water and wine. I’ve looked through the menu. Adeline stared out the window at Washington Square Park, where teenagers tossed frisbees and locals ate lunch. She looked sad. She noticed that I was staring and looking away.

We were both aware of the elephants in the cafe, their presence in the mental hospital. I decided to break the ice. I leaned forward and whispered, “Why are you in the hospital?”

She fidgeted.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

She looked me in the eye and searched for my safety. She rolled up her right sleeve and showed me her wrist. There was a thick pink scar, slightly raised and rough. I noticed other scars along her arm. She covered her wrist again.

“I tried to kill myself six months ago.” She was trembling.

“I’m glad you didn’t succeed,” I said, hiding my shock. I grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“You want to get some food and sit in the park,” I asked.


She got a salad while I was ordering a small pizza. We walked through the park and sat on the steps in front of the Church of St. Peter and Paul. It was a beautiful day, the fast moving clouds dissolved over the Coit Tower. We observed a group of Chinese seniors practicing tai chi.

“I hope I can do this when I’m her age,” I said.

I devoured a slice of pizza.

“Are you from San Francisco,” she asked.

“I lived in Los Angeles until I was 24. Then my girlfriend broke up with me. It got me into a tailspin. I started drinking weed and smoking, and the next thing I thought was the world would be a better place without me. I made a list of ways to kill myself. I hated guns so that was out. Knives seemed too painful. I am against pharmaceuticals, that excludes sleeping pills. I thought of jumping off a building, but what if I land on someone? I was stoned one night listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as I was falling into this dark hole. I got in my car and headed for Dead Man’s Curve on Mulholland Drive. There Jan from Jan and Dean drove over the cliff. I hit the gas. When I was about 100 meters away, I put on the brakes. I almost walked over the cliff anyway. I do not know what happened. I guess I was wrong. “

“Who are Jan and Dean?” She asked.

We both laughed.

“I’m glad you didn’t succeed.”

“Me too,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes sir.”

“Why did you give me the hospital address? We could have met anywhere and I wouldn’t have known you were a patient. “

“Maybe I wanted you to know.”


“Maybe it makes me feel less alone.”

A baseball rolled across the street from a stray throw between a father and son. I grabbed the ball and tossed it to the boy.

We finished eating and went for lattes. We went to Fisherman’s Wharf and listened to the sea lions barking. We strolled through an outdoor farmers market by the marina, then headed west on Union Street. We entered an art gallery with a collection of Polish movie posters. Adeline was drawn to a poster of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, on which a human skull was framed by a porthole. My favorite was a poster from Chinatown that had Jack Nicholson’s nose slit open.

We held hands as we walked. I felt butterflies and tingling on my arm like I was falling in love with Adeline. I also felt protective of her as I was aware of her weak condition. We crossed the steep hill of Fillmore Street. Once at the top we enjoyed the beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in mist, while Alcatraz shone like a diamond.

“I’ve always found Alcatraz cruel,” I said. “The prisoners were so close to the city that they could hear people laughing and singing while they were locked in a cage like animals.”

“That’s how I feel,” said Adeline. “Everything around me is beautiful, but I only see darkness.”

“You won’t always feel that way.”

“How do you know?”

“Not me. But neither do you.”

We entered Pacific Heights and sat at a table in front of an ice cream parlor. A woman in sweatpants approached a black and white husky. The dog licked Adeline’s hand. For the first time I saw her smile. She was beautiful.

“He doesn’t usually do that with strangers,” said the woman in the sweatpants.

As the sun went down, the temperature dropped. We went on, holding hands again. We’re driving down California Street to Divisadero. We approached the hospital where she was staying. I felt sad. I didn’t want the night to end.

“Can we do that again,” I asked.

She frowned and pulled her lips together tightly.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“My mom is from Germany. She brings me home. “

I felt the air escape from my lungs as if I’d been hit in the stomach.

“That’s great,” I said, feigning optimism. “You will be with the family. It’s a good thing. “

“I hope so,” she said.

I took a pen and notepad out of my back pocket and scribbled my address.

“We can be pen pals,” I said.

“I can’t promise I’ll write.”

“Of course, of course,” I replied. “No pressure.”

I leaned over and kissed her cheek and forehead. I hugged her. We held the hug long before she pulled back. She half smiled and then entered the building. I watched her disappear from view.

I stood there for a few minutes, stunned. I cursed my luck. Then I felt elated just as quickly. In San Francisco, I had finally made a connection. I started walking home.

Several years passed. One day I came home from work and found an airmail letter in my mailbox. It was from Adeline. I tore open the envelope and read her words.

The letter began: “You were right. I won’t always feel the way I felt in San Francisco. ”She added a smiley face. She wrote that she lived with her parents in Frankfurt. She worked in a veterinary clinic and helped find homes for lost dogs. She described the process of capturing abandoned animals on the street, nursing them back to health, and then finding loving families to take them in. This gave her a sense of purpose. She added that our night together helped her healing process and she was grateful to have met me. She ended the letter with a quote from Gogol.

“Everywhere above all the suffering out of which our life is woven, a radiant joy will happily flash by.”

She added a postscript saying she bought an album from Jan and Dean and when she played it she thought of me.

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