I took a Red Eye to San Francisco. The plane balanced on a navy sky and for a second I thought I was above the stars. The flickers of arrowhead lights were below me and as the clouds licked the sunrise, I saw the city. No stars, just twinkling city lights.
Half of the buildings were already drenched in gold and smudged gray. It was breathtaking to see an entire city half-asleep, rubbing the flocks of aging seagulls under its eyes. The streetlights blinked out like Morse code messages into the shadows and the plane directed its nose towards the airport.
It was not until I was waiting outside in the rain, a violet umbrella twirling between my fingers, that I noticed the snow. My suitcase jumped and danced over the cracks in the pavement and cold snowflakes kissed the arc of my umbrella. They were immediately sprayed off as the ribcage ripped through the air.
My granddad loved San Francisco, but I never understood why. It was the kind of love from a distance, like cable cars and foreign foods or the black and white faces of a velvet-curtained photo booth. I didn’t understand and I didn’t think it had ever snowed in San Francisco, but who was I to say anything? I was barely even a New Yorker.
I waved down a bumblebee taxi. Inside it smelled like bubblegum and online soulmate quizzes. A new scent for me; the ones back home smelled of old newspapers and sweaty raincoats. My granddad would’ve loved the aroma.
Too bad my granddad was the reason I was there.
When I arrived at the jumbled address, I gripped my suitcase as I stared at the cherry tree limbs outside of my brother’s apartment. His wife Sandy had her eyes closed to the world, but the way her unsmiling doormat glared up at me with white freckles peppered onto its cheeks made me unsure.
The doorbell hiccuped when I pressed my fingers against it.
Sandy clicked the door open. Her usual sesame face was swallowed by tears and she forced me into an embrace, gathering handfuls of my coat and sniffling into my neck. The cold smell of her perfume trailed along my spine and felt like I was locked in a dungeon full of open-faced orchid petals.
“Emery,” she whispered, ushering me inside. “So glad you came.”
She took my red-mittened hand and led me through a doorway. On the other side, my brother Lucas keeled backwards in a chair, gazing out the window, and tracing granddad’s name onto its frozen surface. We both knew the world was one of those hatless chasms right then with naked trees scratching the sky and watching it bleed.
Next to Lucas, a fire pirouetted over hot coals and I criss-crossed my legs and leaned into it. “Good morning, Lucas.”
He smiled with the tiptoes of his lips and faced my direction. “Em, how was your flight?”
I chuckled, letting my fingers graze on the fraying threads of the carpet. “It was a Red Eye, Luke. It destroyed me.”
He twisted the belt of his robe into three big knots, “Did you bring them?”
I pushed myself off the floor and hobbled over to where Sandy had left my suitcase. It dragged on the ground and chattered because of the broken zippers. I unfastened them and let one side swing onto the ground.
Inside, there was a collection of blackout dresses, toiletries, and high heels that tattooed bruises onto my ankles. But covered by rolls of mismatched socks, there was a rectangular box. I removed it and shut the suitcase while the hinges whined.
“Here they are,” I set the box before the flames. “His shoes.”
Lucas anxiously knocked over his box of tissues with the back of his hand as coughs erupted from his lips. He crawled onto the carpet next to me. It was up close that I saw the creases in his forehead, the color of a dandelion’s parachute. He slid the box closer to himself with delicate origami hands and raised the lid.
Under it was a pair of 1940’s shoes. They were slim, forming into a monochrome heart at the toes. The ankles were encompassed in black leather and the charcoal laces were roped into a neat bow. Dust was collecting in the sole but otherwise it looked like a pair of new shoes, not some that’d seen the world and printed footsteps into time.
Lucas immediately closed the cardboard box, swallowing hard and returning back to his chair beside the window. Our granddad had such nice shoes. To my chagrin, whenever he visited, Lucas and I would curl up in our rooms and exercise our thumbs on video games. We would ignore him even though he brought us sweet lollipops and snow cones with artificial flavors.
I tucked the box behind my suitcase so Lucas didn’t have to look at it. “Is this the first time it’s snowed here? In San Francisco?”
Sandy entered through the doorway, positioning a tray of three mugs on her forearm. “Yes, the first time in our lifetimes anyway.” She smiled sadly, placing the tray onto the ground. “And I know Lucas planned to go out and walk with the shoes but he’s got a little cold right now.” Sandy marched towards her husband and laid a protective palm on his shoulder. “I was wondering if you could go out instead?”
Lucas hacked into where his robe sheltered his collarbone. “You can’t do that, Emery. It’s hailing and snowing. It’s below freezing for the first time in San Francisco. Hell no am I letting you go out, it’s not worth it. And Sandy, I’m strong enough,” he barked, and Sandy flinched, staring at the ground. “It’s just that the Golden Gate isn’t even pretty now. He would’ve wanted to see it in all its glory.” He cleared his throat and touched his nose to the glass of the window. His breath painted the cloudy stripes of a winter tiger and blurred the awakening city.
I myself didn’t think it was true. Lucas’ speech might’ve been a result of his lack of respect for our granddad—but I couldn’t be too sure. He was curled lazily on the couch with a sickness that probably didn’t even exist. A few moments of silence passed as Sandy catapulted apologetic glances my way.
“I feel really dirty,” I lied abruptly, running my nails over my palms, “so do you think I could take a quick shower? Before I get to my hotel, of course.”
Lucas waved a hand, his eyes still glued to outside the window. Not one of us had touched the mugs Sandy brought over.
She wiped the back of her hands on her blouse and sighs through her teeth. “Of course, Emery. Anything for you. The bathroom is down the hall and to the left.” She cocked her head to the side and placed herself in the chair next to Lucas, her eyes wandering towards his.
I nodded, gathered the box under my arm, and led my suitcase in the direction of the bathroom. It didn’t take long for me to peel my sweat-soaked clothing from my body and spin the knobs in the shower.
The water carved iron letters onto my shoulders. I breathed in the steam and relaxed into the steady flow of droplets. The shower hissed and I wanted to hum the melody to Lights by Journey. But I didn’t because Sandy and Lucas were just down the hallway in the living room, probably still watching the sky spit snow onto the city.
Even though the skin on my back became raw and itchy from the heat, I kept the shower on. I climbed out, watching water spiral down the drain and into my brother’s monthly bill. Wordlessly tangling myself in a fresh towel, I outlined white comets onto my forearms.
Once I was dry, I opened my suitcase and slipped on a pair of leggings and squeezed into a tight long-sleeved shirt. My coat came back on too, snug on my body, along with a sun yellow hat that bore a red pom-pom. Way to fit in.
Finally, I set the box by the sink in the bathroom and carefully lifted the lid. The shoes were polished and a part of me didn’t want to mess it up. Yet I unlaced the anchor-gray ribbons and tucked my small feet into them. They were big, enough that I could wiggle my toes and shift my ankle back and forth.
It wasn’t difficult to sneak out. I crept past the kitchen and towards the front door, the heels clicking on the wood, but quietly enough so Lucas’ hushed conversation was the only thing heard.
Outside, snowflakes buried themselves in stray threads of my hair. Pink circles airbrushed my cheeks and the tears forming in my eyes froze. It wasn’t snowing that much, but enough for the wind to sweep salty sleet into the sky.
Mostly, it was raining. I called a taxi. This time it was crow feathers with silver-beak seat belts. I asked the trembling driver for a stick of gum and to take me to the bridge. I wasn’t clear but apparently we were boarding the same train of thought because he dropped me off at the edge. I tipped him generously with the few coins in my pocket.
The gum was flavored pineapple. I craned my neck and stared up at the towers before me. Cars honked and skidded by, their lights flashing and zig-zagging on the paved roads.
It was hailing and like a grease-stained painting, but I could make out its orange glow from the roadway. My hands throbbed and my eyes trailed up the suspender cables. In a way, it was beautiful. Standing tall, the scars whitewashed by paint.
The ocean loomed far below, crashing and dragging wet fingers through the sand. The hills tumbled right into the bridge and yet its posture remained straight and regal. Like a tangerine queen, watching over San Francisco.
Even right then, I still didn’t understand why my granddad loved it. He rambled about it with his soles on the ground but he never visited. He wanted to walk across and taste the sea embroidered in the air. San Francisco, my lady by the bay. And that was why I was there. My granddad would get to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge if it was the last thing I’d do.
I smoothed my tongue over my chapped lips. Should I do it? Is it worth it? I thought of my granddad, his voice in the click-clack of cable cars and his eyes in the silver windows like mirrors—reflecting what aren’t stars. I felt a deep sadness that seeped into my bones—like this was the only thing I could do for him, yet I was hesitating. My hands went shaking into my pockets while I sucked in a final breath. The interwoven metal flooring, laminated in a thin layer of ice, lied just ahead. I focused my eyes on my granddad’s tattered shoes and stamped my foot onto the icebound walkway.
And I knew Granddad felt it all.