February in San Francisco is cold and windy and gloomy. When you drive across the Bay Bridge and your heater is turned on high, your window fogs up and all the lights around you turn into a ball of haze. When that happens, instead of trying to clear the view with the windscreen wiper, you should lower the window and let some cool air in. Balance out the temperatures inside and outside. If you freak out or you’re too tired or confused to do that and you run into a patrol car, the cops will sound the sirens and make you pull over. They might give you a ticket, or they might look at your learner’s license and give you a warning along with a look of pitying disgust. At least that’s what Charlie told me.
He was close friends with the ex-boyfriend. When we found out we’d be in the same college, an awkward introduction lunch was held and Charlie promised to give me a hand with settling down when September rolled by. And he did. We had dinner at the Foothill Dining Commons every Wednesday at 6PM after my last class in Fall, and at Unit 3 on Thursdays at 7PM in Spring. I suppose the first few dinners were equally awkward and obligatory, but somewhere down the line the topics converged and the conversations flowed naturally. I listened to him cuss out his professors and reminisce about his ex, and I routinely heard similar but somewhat conflicting versions of updates on the startup him and the boyfriend were working on. More often than not, after dinner when I was walking back to my dorm, I’d hit a “the line you’ve dialed is busy” ringtone because Charlie had called the boyfriend before I did.
Then I started hearing about his mum and Church and the tattoos. Charlie’s mum had cancer when he was in his last year of high school. She stopped teaching piano at home and moved into the study because she didn’t want to wake his dad when she got up at night. She had been going to Church all her life but then she started putting up Post-It notes with Bible quotes around the house—on the fridge, near the fruit basket on the dining table, on the light switch right next to the front door—meticulously italicized words about fear and despair and love. But those weren’t for herself, they were for her kids. That was when Charlie started going to Church with her, revisiting the Bible stories he slept through in Religious Studies classes throughout high school and making up for the Sunday mornings when she went to Church alone. When the surgery was successful, he stopped reading the Bible with her so often, but they still went to Church on Sundays, and then whenever he went back home from college.
But he never told his mum about the tattoos. He got a large cross on his left chest, one that took months to complete and from which he was still bleeding when he went home over winter break. He had to change the gauze and sterilize the wound secretly, always taking out his own trash in firmly-knotted black plastic bags that Christmas. His mum seemed pleased he was taking better care of himself. He also got one that resembled the face of Virgin Mary, or his and the tattoo artist’s interpretation of her anyway, on his right arm.
When the boyfriend visited we would stay at Charlie’ place because he had an air mattress and his living room was the size of my dorm room. After a first night’s struggle on the air mattress, Charlie decided to give us his bed and took the air mattress near the fake fire place instead. We went to Trader Joe’s and got snacks and steak and scallops and made the entire flat a meal on our first stay, but afterwards we all got lazy and we’d get drinks on Shattuck instead. Charlie took us to a Japanese restaurant with good sukiyaki that him and I ended up going to often in my sophomore year.
Then I started hearing about Seacat. Her name was Sandra but we made up a code name in Chinese so Charlie didn’t have to look over his shoulder every time he mentioned her, which was often. They were in the same dorm freshman year, adjacent suites, but he didn’t find her attractive until they started talking again in their third year. Then her boyfriend cheated, they broke up, and Charlie and her started talking more. He started asking her to dinner every week, first at the dining commons on the excuse he had bought too many meal points, then venturing out to the different restaurants surrounding Berkeley, Oakland, and sometimes, San Francisco.
I never met her in person, but I had seen her pictures, known where she lived, and followed closely her weekly updates and the things she was going through. Beginning of junior year, her GPA wasn’t high enough to declare Computer Science so she settled on Cognitive Science and a CS minor. Before that she was working towards the Environmental Science major, which meant she must have switched from the College of Natural Resources to College of Letters and Science the year before. Cog Sci wasn’t what she started out wanting and CS was challenging. 61C was a nightmare and like everyone else in the class, she hadn’t been getting much sleep. But things were looking up and the last of the 61-series meant she could start taking fun electives next semester.
She went with her family to Beijing over winter break, and showed him pictures of herself and her sister at the Great Wall that I ended up seeing too. She practiced her Mandarin at the old ladies who did morning dances near the hotel they stayed at, and found rekindled love for soup dumplings since she was last in China ten years ago. She wanted to go back more often, and made up her mind she’d raise her children bilingual and take them to Tibet someday. She had a good break and was ready for a good semester.
It almost felt like I actually knew her; it must have felt the same for Charlie too.
They found her body on a bench in the Golden Gate Park a little past midnight. She must have waited for hours after the gate closed, siting in the dark in silence so the guards wouldn’t notice her. She had the sleeping pills from last semester’s prescription, and a bottle of water she got from Peet’s at the Bart station. She called her sister after she took the pills, realizing maybe it was all too late. They found her in the Botanical Garden an hour later, but she was rather cold by then. Charlie got a call from her flat mate, another mutual friend who used to be in the adjacent suite. He said he didn’t know silence over the phone could be so deep.
Charlie drove up to the Botanical Garden once, but he didn’t realize it closed by 5PM so he parked his car by the gate and watched the sun go down. He told me he just sat and waited, as if something was going to happen. I imagine him sitting in his car, hood down in the cold, the fog seeping in and surrounding him. Maybe he was asking himself what he’d missed and what he could’ve done, or maybe he was already planning out his gap year to work for his older cousin back home. I imagine him with his back to the gate, the cold creeping up his spine immediately, but he didn’t move. I imagine him driving back with his windows all fogged up and the police car trailing behind with its blazing sirens. I imagine the first thing he said when he rolled down his window, “Sorry Sir, I had no idea.”
When the boyfriend became the ex-boyfriend, Charlie was in Australia. He had made up the gap year with summer sessions and graduated a semester ahead of me. I messaged him and he told me he had known all along. In fact, most of the guys in their group knew, the same people we played Call of Duty with at Charlie’s place back home a summer ago, after drinking the tea his mum brought in. I was incredulous and ashamed. I picked out all the mutual friends who I didn’t feel I know anymore and deleted each and every one from my contacts. I blocked Charlie on Messenger for a good while, but he stayed on my list.
“I wish you a better new year in every sense,” he wrote on New Year’s Eve before the clock struck, and I never replied. But I suppose any one of these days I could tell him I understand that knowledge doesn’t mean knowing and knowing is as fluid as its counterpart, and all of that is OK too. I suppose when I could say that unflinchingly, we could listen to stories again for what they meant in the moment, unafraid of that biting sense of doubt we learned to call loneliness.
Michelle Ko is currently a staff writer at a legal business magazine based that circulates in Asia. She has also published several interview stories in the American Chamber of Commerce magazine, Biz., in Hong Kong.