travelogue, san francisco: oh, this is the best part

At the diner, the boy feigns illness, pawing at his neck, mouthing the words, “I feel a little sick.” His cheeks are pink and his eyes a little glassy and I immediately envision the ride to the hospital in the ambulance, holding his tiny hand, our hearts racing.

On the night of his first birthday, we find him sitting up in the bed of the house we are renting for our beach vacation, a red angry rash on his skin and hot with fever. In the ambulance, he is strapped down, his small chest covered with bits of plastic and wire that monitor his breathing, his heart and what else? It is hard to say even, that I know.

The culprit? A peanut butter cookie. We spend the night in one emergency room and then another. We watch as our small boy is poked with needles and jostled, his pink mouth open and wailing all night, it seems. They set a splint on his arm to keep it flat for the insertion of the IV needle, but their splints are not made to accommodate arms so small. The constant taping and re-taping leaves red welts on his arm for days.

We panic a bit, M. and me, as we wait for the food to arrive. “Can you say anything?” M. asks, “can you breathe?” He shakes his head no, his eyes cast down. We are about to make the call when the pancakes arrive and I watch as his eyes get wide and he perks up on his seat. Quickly, I cut up the pancakes for him, pour syrup on top and hand him the fork, which he accepts with newfound vigor. Never before have I seen him shovel food into his mouth so quickly, and we sit back and laugh while we watch. Miraculously, it seems, he finds his voice. “More syrup,” he barks and I oblige. We shake our heads. “Clearly he has inherited the drama gene from both of us,” M. says.

There will be no ambulance trip this morning, at least.

We make our way to the other side of the city. The sky is gray and threatens rain. It is cool today; there is a little chill, but we are in high spirits and we shove each other and dance around a bit in front of the museum. Inside, we wander off in different directions then reconvene. We pat each other’s heads, squeeze each other’s arms before we drift apart again, following hallways where they lead.

The boy makes a game of everything. The wide wooden stairs, the patterns of the floor tiles, the benches in the galleries: “Here’s what you have to do on this level,” he tells us, as he jumps from one square of floor to the next, “this part is really hard.”

After the museum, we walk out to the ocean. There is fog that has settled in and it hovers over the mountains and over the iconic bridge like a postcard. We take the necessary photos and the boy, like generations of boys before him says, “Take a picture like I am pointing at the bridge.” Z. and I sit on the stone steps leading down to the beach, watch the waves break below us. There is what appears to be a sailboat race and in the distance, white sails move back and forth across the horizon. There is something about the sea that calms, that lends a solemnity to the moment and we sit quietly there, staring out toward the fog and the bridge and out toward the sailboats for a long time.

In one of the museums, there is a small, darkened room where a projector casts light patterns on the floor. The shapes – circles and lines – seem to bounce against the walls of the room. As the boy approaches, he hovers by the doorway before entering. Once inside, he runs and jumps on the light and within moments, he is shouting and laughing and calling out to me to watch his game. His small body is completely uninhibited. His arms wave around, he runs from corner to corner, all the while watching the moving shapes and jumping around them as if he could feel the touch of them on his skin. Other children drift in and out of the room, but he remains there in constant motion, outlasting them all. For a time, he shares the room with a group of six or seven other boys, all older, all shouting and jumping at once. I stand there, leaning against the entryway, and watch the easy way they throw themselves around, the way they are all limbs and energy and noise. My son, smaller than the rest, is unperturbed. He darts between them and calls out, “Oh, this is the best part,” his voice high-pitched and giddy, to me, to the other boys, to anyone who is close enough to hear.

We take a taxi back downtown. Our driver chats with us, tells us about the restaurants that she loves in the city. She is moving, she says, at the end of the month. Back home to Paris. For three years she has driven this taxi after hip surgery left her unable to stand for the long days that her chef ambitions required. The conversation is so lively that she forgets where she is taking us. She laughs, turns off the meter and backtracks. As I step down from the cab, I turn around to wish her luck on her move and I realize how much I mean this. I see her face for the first time, and she is older than I expected. Not old, but older than I had envisioned from the sound of her voice. Her blond hair is streaked with gray. She is wearing a little mascara that has smudged around her eyes – from the rain, perhaps, that she tells us we have missed. “I hope your move goes well,” I say and she says, “Oh, thank you so much.” For just a moment, it seems the saddest thing in the world that I will never know if in fact, the move goes well, but M. is standing on the sidewalk, holding his hand out to me and I take it, and we move on. We walk up the block a few steps before I turn around. The taxi is still idling on the sidewalk where she left us.

By the late afternoon, the rest of the family begs off any further excursions, so I walk down to the art museum alone. There is a cool wind and the sky is gray but when the sun breaks through the cloud cover, it gives moments of fleeting, but glorious warmth.

I sit outside on the rooftop sculpture garden until the wind picks up and chills me through.

I wander into a gallery of portraits. The gaze of the subjects turned back on me – direct, intense, unexpectedly moving. I stand for several long moments before a young man in the French military. There are marks across most of his face – purple and gray and green – and one can only conclude these are bruises but the portrait’s title reveals nothing. I move as close to the portrait as I can and resist the urge to reach up, to lay my hands on his damaged skin.

Past the portraits, I come upon a small room. The walls are covered with some sort of black material and narrow lines of masking tape mark off irregular rectangles. On the black carpeted floor, there are several black bean bag chairs and I find one, sink into it, stare up at the dark walls. Soft music is playing and swells at unpredictable intervals.

The announcement comes through the museum speakers: Fifteen minutes till closing. I stay there on the floor for a few more minutes then make my way down to the lobby. Outside, past the museum doors, it is still cool, but the sky is light. I cross the street to the park where I find my family, waiting.