Sixteen white medieval trinkets, arranged in two rows of eight along the edge of an eight by eight checkered board, wafted in and out of the shadows. On the opposing edge of the playing field lingered another sixteen pieces, color being the only distinguishing factor between the two evenly matched platoons. Above the tv tray sized, wooden portable table on which the game board rested sat two men. “You first,” said the host competitor, a man in his late sixties, wrapped tightly beneath a maroon cortex hooded jacket. Smudged dirt could faintly be seen across the mid section of his face as the lamp post short circuited five yards away, causing diffuse light to fluster through the dense fog. A heavy set black man with a tattered beard sitting across from the host pushed forward a white pawn using a single sausage finger. The host stared fixedly at his collection of soldiers, adding up the possible moves he could make.
Ringtone chimes awoke me from a long slumber. Wrapped deeply inside the warmth of my comforter, curled cozily in the fetal position, I was hesitant to leave luxury to see who had sent me a text. The fan at the foot of my bed spread a light wind barrier between me and my phone. Over the course of the night the sound curtain the fan provided was much more welcome. One. Two. Three! I catapulted forward, clicking off the wall of wind, landing in an upright position at the edge of my bed.
Picking up my phone, I glanced at the screen’s upper left hand corner. A tiny black dialogue box with a face smiled back at me. Dragging down the menu bar I gaped at a message. “Let’s exchange sexy Santa pictures.” I quivered, but not from the cold. Strange, I thought to myself, very strange. There was nothing from our date a week prior that brought me to expect such sexual aggressiveness so soon. My heart and mind were piqued during our coffee meeting, but the physical attraction was still a question mark, that I was now further hesitant to seek out.
Santa Barbara winds carried ocean air into my dorm room through my open window. I sat across from my fifteen by fifteen inch television, lining up my shot on Nintendo Gamecube’s Mario Golf. Green Day’s most recent melancholic hit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” oozed from my Imac G5, the current pinnacle of consumer technology. Covering the itunes application window on the screen flashed a web browser with my Facebook profile. The social network was still in its infancy, catering only to college students. My status read “Beaten and battered down, can’t be feeling worse than I am now”. The melodrama I hoped would both be cathartic and an answered call for help.
An instant message window popped up on my computer screen. I shifted my chair slightly left, askew from the television, to read it. It was from a girl who lived in the hall downstairs, one I enjoyed as a friend, but nothing more. “Try listening to this. It should make you feel better.” A file transfer request popped up inside the AOL Instant Messenger window. I accepted and an mp3 of Radiohead’s “Optimistic” began to download. Minutes later I replaced the sounds of Green Day with her recommendation. Although I’d heard of Radiohead before, I had never listened them. A cacophony of depressing noise is all my ears perceived. Despite the distaste for the song, I thanked my friend for sending it to me. Her sentiment was welcomed.
Weeks later, long after the storm had passed, I received an instant message from this same girl. “Can I tell you something?” she asked. “Sure”, I replied. What followed was a confession of her romantic interest in me. I was unsure how to respond. She was my friend. On the one hand I didn’t want to see her desires go unmet, while on the other I felt uncomfortable offering something that was not going to be truthful. Through all the calculations I made in my head, I couldn’t build an equation that added up correctly. Ultimately, in my youthful naivety, I made the mistake of assuming the role of boyfriend, only to recant less than 24 hours later. She was heartbroken. To this day I believe she has never fully forgiven me for my mistake.
“My dad was a math teacher, but I always liked literature and English more.” Struggling to catch every word, I regretted sitting at a table so close to the speakers in Mojo Bicycle Cafe. Their voice battled the artist Neko Case’s for my attention, however my focus and interest did not waiver. “Naturally me and my sisters were above average at math. In the end though, I became better at writing and reading because I liked it enough to put more effort into it. My work at the [advertising] agency is pretty much only numbers. I’m great with the numbers, it’s in my blood. But ultimately if they were just numbers, I would get bored. The only way I can keep myself motivated and keep the work interesting is if I keep a story in mind while I delve into the numbers. There has to be a narrative behind the them.”
At the end of our date we headed our separate ways, north and south down Divisdero, the street that divides the city in two. Despite a physical attraction and personal connection, things didn’t add up. There was sparse chemistry and they mentioned nothing to indicate a desire for another go around. It was especially disheartening when I recalled the odd text that retreated my interests in the last romantic possibility.
Days later I found myself at a friend’s masquerade party in Noe Valley. Masked figures danced to the pulsing symphony of Passion Pit. Deep into the night I made my way to the restroom, a pit stop before a forty minute walk home to the Fillmore. On the windowsill, above the toilet, was a framed note. It politely, and wittingly, instructed bowl users to be kind and only flush toilet paper. The house often hosted couch surfers from across the globe, and a universal set of rules needed to be communicated to passers-by. I could never let complete strangers sleep at my place, I thought to myself.
On my way home, I walked down Haight Street. I passed the closed down Red Vic Theater, Ashbury Street, and eventually turned toward the Panhandle. Over the course of eight months the cityscape had gone from foreign to familiar. The streets were filled with personal landmarks that now defined home.
Pandora’s Android app skipped from commercial to it’s next track: Radiohead’s “Optimistic.” I whistled the melody from what had become, over the course of time, my favorite band. Thome York’s haunting and encouraging falsetto chimed into the flutter of electric guitars and carefully timed drumming. “You can try the best you can, you can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” Goosebumps tickled my skin, as vivid memories of the past swept rapidly through my veins. Over seven years their sound had transformed from chaos to vibrance for me.
Turning the corner at Masonic onto Geary I noticed two creatures scurrying across the street. At first they looked like cats. But as I staggered drunkenly closer and closer, their form became clearer and clearer. The two pudgey, furry figures wore masks across their faces and stripes on their bushy tails. Urban raccoons. Out of view they went, rounding an alleyway to the Kaiser Hospital.
Passing the sleeping homeless man who frequented the steps to Sinai Memorial Chapel, I noticed his chess set. A quick glance revealed the game had ended at check mate. There were few pieces left on the playing field. The white king was left defenseless.
Math is logical. Love is not. Whether it be the love of a band, a person, or even a board game, at one moment we can be exuberant, and at the next we can be disinterested. In math, the sum of two odd numbers always equals an even one. In love, an oddity can cause unevenness in our reactions and relationships. An over eager text here, a piercing guitar flare there. The strange strain causes us to put on our protective mask, and walk away, hoping for another opportunity to be so vulnerable, vulnerable enough to put down our wall of defenses and let euphoria in.
Black claws gripped the check mated white king and ripped it off the board. The raccoons faded into the night, camoflaged by the masks nature provided them.