Chapter 9

(2007)

I kept the details of my evening at Heath’s apartment to myself over morning coffee with Amy. I didn’t really believe what Sri Ravi had said, but there was something about the encounter which had stuck with me. Something about the way I had felt. For just a few moments, I had been at peace, the peace that I had been looking for in one-night stands, booze, and pills. I hadn’t known just how profoundly discordant my mind and body had become until that moment when Sri Ravi gave me his blessing. I wanted more, but I didn’t know how to get it, and it was sure as shit not going to come from a guru. I just couldn’t see myself become a devotee of this guy. I thought of how Padma had rolled her eyes over Heath praying so much with his guru. I found myself agreeing with her, and yet I could not shake the feeling that I had stumbled upon something important.

I’d given up on organized religion despite my upbringing to be a good Presbyterian boy. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God anymore; it was more like we just weren’t on speaking terms. How, I wondered, could a good God allow so much pain into my life? And I was in pain; I could see that now. I had thought I could run away from it, but it was still finding me again in small ways–in the Christmas decorations popping up around my neighborhood, the faces of couples who were spending the late season of their lives together, the laughs of children I would never have with Laura, and in Rodolfo and Mimi. It seemed like it was always there like it had always been there waiting for me to arrive.

“Farid wants to talk to you,” said Amy slurping up a spoonful of Sugar Pops. “Says it’s important.”

I thought it was odd because I saw him five mornings a week for most weeks. I wondered what was so urgent.

“Well, I’m about to see him on my way to work, so…” I said.

“Don’t get bitchy with me,” she said.

“I’m not getting bitchy; I just think it’s a little weird. Did he sound concerned?”

“Not really, he just wanted me to pass it along just in case you skipped your scone or whatever.”

“Ok,” I said, “Well, I guess I better get going.”

“James?”

“Yes.”

“I really did love the opera. I just didn’t think she was going to die.”

“You see, people die all the time on TV.”

“No, but that’s in a little box in the living room. These were real people in the same room as me making these beautiful sounds and pouring their souls out for us. A part of that soprano died in a bed of a now curable illness, even if it was just for one night and the next and the next. She died.”

“Amy, can we continue this conversation after work? I’ve really got to go.”

“No. That’s all I wanted to say except for thank you. That was truly one of the most special nights of my life.”

I took a long look at this girl, who was almost a woman. Then I reached out my hand to her expecting her to reject me once again, but this time she did not. She took my hand and stood up. Then she wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed me. And with her head in my chest said, “Thank you. For everything.”

When the sun does come out, San Francisco can get a little hot–not Oklahoma hot, but California hot. That’s why we dress in layers. It can be hot in the middle of the day, and a chill can roll in from the bay in the evening. By the time I reached Farid’s, I had taken off my jacket and was sweating.

“Can you make it an iced coffee this morning,” I said to Farid as soon as I walked in.

“No hello? No good morning, Mr. Farid, why it’s nice to see you in your fine establishment?” said Farid in his chiding manner. He signaled to the waitress. “Iced coffee for Mr. James.”

“Amy said you had something you needed to talk about?” I said

“Yes, yes, of course. A man came by yesterday at closing time. He said it was urgent. Said he needed to speak to you as soon as possible. Here.” He handed me a slip of paper and a first name: Joseph.

“Who is this?”

“That, I do not know, my friend. Wears a Giants ball cap, carries a newspaper. Anyway, my friend, he asked you to call him, and that’s all I know. Ah yes,” he said punctuated by a cluck of his tongue as the server brought him the coffee, “here is your perfectly chilled coffee, Your Greatness.”

I thanked them both and left.

At work, I poured a cup of coffee and sat down at my desk. Before logging in, I pulled out the slip of paper Farid had given me and studied it for a moment. It wasn’t Farid’s writing. He had a certain boxy print-style, very neatly rendered, but this was cruder, like how a fourth-grade boy would write.

“Good morning,” said Heath in his usual tone, bright-faced.

I was feeling a little shy with him now. We’d shared something quite intimate, and I was not ready for that to become the default with us, especially in the workplace.

“Good morning, Heath. Thank you for dinner. That was really great.” I said, somewhat formally.

“I told you Guruji had something important to say to you. What do you think about that?” he asked.

“Um…it’s certainly a lot to think about. I expect to test our services today. Perhaps you could examine the logs to make sure your code is executing as expected.”

“Yes. Of course, although I am very confident that it will. I have tested it thoroughly. The necklace he gave you–this is a very special thing in his culture. He wants you to be his devotee.”

“That’s a pretty big commitment, besides I’m already a Presbyterian.” It was a lie, but this is what I said when people approached me with an agenda with religion.

“It doesn’t matter who or what you are. He wants to help you, James. At least let him try.”

“Um, Heath?” I said, lowering my voice, “Can we not talk about this at work?”

“Certainly, I understand. This is a very private matter,” he said, and then he let it go. “Let me know when you are ready to test,” he said as he took his cream and sugar coffee out of my cube.

My feelings for Heath had become very complicated. He and Padma had shown me more hospitality than I had received since I moved to town. I thoroughly enjoyed their company. Sri Ravi, although his behavior was very strange, had affected me. I wasn’t sure quite how, but something was different in my life. I was feeling a tiny bead of hope in my mind, but what was I hoping for? Was I getting tired of being a drunk? Tired of grieving? What did this experience mean to me? What did this hope mean? I wasn’t sure about anything. It all seemed like bullshit on the surface, but something deep inside had shifted, and I could not deny that any longer. Perhaps Heath had become my friend. Maybe I should allow that to happen.

I turned to my work, trying to muster the determination to finish it before lunch. Software engineering required a lot from me–equal parts creativity and analysis, but for weeks, I felt blocked creatively, and my analysis was sloppy and unfocused. Most days, I’d come in hungover and unable to focus for much of the day. Perhaps, I wondered, my life would be easier if I quit drinking.

At lunch, I took out the slip of paper again and decided to call the number. A man answered.

“Hello, this is Joseph,” came a reasonable-sounding voice.

“Yes, my name is James Roberts. My friend Farid gave me this number–said you need to speak with me.”

“Thank you so much for calling me. I’m just worried sick. Can you meet me this evening? It is very urgent. I’m hoping you can help me.”

“Help me to what?” I said, a little brusquely.

“It’s better if we discuss this face to face. Can you meet me in North Beach? There’s a little coffee shop called Beacon Coffee and Pantry. My treat.”

“Yeah, ok. I’ll be there around 5:30. Is that good?”

“Perfect. Listen, I really appreciate this, James. I think you might be able to help me,” he said, with genuine gratitude and urgency in his voice.

After work, I took a cab to Columbus avenue; the day’s heat was evaporating fast. It was going to be a chilly evening. The shop was rather spare with simple subway tiles on the walls and a little pantry of specialty dry goods. I looked for the man with the Giants hat, but he had not arrived yet. I took a seat by the windows and began watching tourists stream by. It was busy for a Thursday. Then, I saw him. He was walking down Columbus on the other side of the street with a newspaper tucked under his arms. For some reason, I held a modicum of trust for anyone who still read print papers. I had definitely seen him before in Farid’s. He was medium height and build, with a mustache and goatee. He wore a tweed jacket, blue jeans, and hiking shoes.

He entered the shop and began scanning it, presumably for me. I raised my hand until it caught his eye. He nodded and walked toward me.

“Let’s get some coffee,” he said.

I began to stand up, but he stopped me saying, “I’ll take care of it. Have a seat.”

He was friendly enough in demeanor, but I was also cautious, not having a clue what this guy wanted with me.

After a few minutes, he walked by with two steaming mugs of latte, poured with elegant leaf patterns in the frothy milk. He set both of them down on the table and sat down across from me. “It’s busy out there. I hope you found the place ok,” he said.

“Yes, I’ve been around North Beach a few times. Look, what’s this about?”

“Ok, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m searching for a missing person: my daughter Amy. “

I studied his face. He had kind eyes, pleading eyes.

“And what makes you think I know anything about it?” I asked.

“I’ve seen you with her. At Farid’s about a month ago.”

“I don’t understand. If you saw her, then why did you not just come and get her?”

“It’s not as simple as that. We had a terrible fight. I felt like I needed some time. We needed some time.”

“I see,” I said. “Mr….um.”

“Pensiero. Please call me, Joe.”

“Joe. When I met her, she was beat up. Did you do that?” I said, trying to keep my cool.

He grimaced and took a sip of his latte. “It’s not what you think. I did not mean to hurt her. It was a terrible fight, and things just got out of control on both sides. I would never intentionally hurt her. Look, I’m imploring you, if you know anything, anything at all, please help me. It’s been tough for both of us–since her mother died.”

“Her mother died?”

“Yes, of cancer, six months ago.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” And then the opera all made sense. Death had been fresh in her life.

“She’s the only family I’ve got, James. What can you tell me?”

She was a minor. I couldn’t legally hold her from her father, but she had come to me. For whatever reason, she had come to me for refuge. There had to be a good reason, but perhaps I didn’t know the whole story. She was just seventeen. Kids have drama with their parents all the time. I wondered if this had simply been a fight blown out of proportion. But out of a sense of allegiance to her, I decided to proceed with caution.

“I did see your daughter. I bought her dinner, but that was weeks ago. I’ll tell you what, if I see her again, I’ll give you a call.”

He leaned forward. “Did she give you any indication where she was going? Did she mention leaving San Francisco or staying with a friend or anything?”

“She did not say much, Joe. She was hungry, so I fed her. Why didn’t you call me before? If you really wanted to, you could have found me.”

“Like I said, it’s complicated. I just assumed it would blow over, and she would come home. I called everyone she knows. No one knew where she was or was refusing to tell me. Look, ask anyone, I’m not a bad guy. I’m a good dad. I was a good husband. She’s just been through a terrible trauma.”

“I wish I could help you more, Joe. But I haven’t seen her.”

He put his hand over his forehead and closed his eyes for a moment. “Ok. Ok. Well, I appreciate your meeting with me. If you learn anything, please consider giving me a call. I just want my little girl back. Can you understand that?” he said, now pleading.

“Of course I do. I know this must be hard for you. If I learn anything, you’ll be the first person I call, ok?”

“Ok. Thanks again.”

We stood up, and he shook my hand and left.

The cab ride home gave me some time to think before seeing Amy. Perhaps he was not an abusive father, but his grief and frustration had gotten the better of him–an isolated incident. Maybe she should go home.

I entered to find a very familiar food smell, although I wasn’t sure what it was. Whatever it was, it was something I loved. Amy was stirring a pot.

“Hey,” I said as I stepped into the kitchen.

She was visibly startled as she turned around to see me.

“Shit. I did not hear you come in. Make some noise next time, asshole.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“I’m making your favorite,” she said. “Mac and cheese and English peas.”

I wondered how she knew, and it reminded me of a childhood friend who used that phrase to describe his favorite meal. I had liked the sound of it, so it stuck with me.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her, but I knew I had to say something. I decided to wait until after dinner.

“To what do I owe you cooking my favorite dinner? And how did you know?” I asked.

“I was snooping through your things and found your mother’s recipe in a letter.”

There was not much to snoop in my apartment. When I left Oklahoma, I took very little with me.

“Nice.”

“You don’t care that I violate your privacy on a daily basis?”

“Nope. I have nothing to hide.”

“Um…sure, just your whole life.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, right?” I said.

“No, I’m revising that tonight. Tonight, I tell you something; then you tell me something.”

All I could think of was what I was going to tell her about her father. He seemed so sincere and so worried. I was in a real bind over this. I was beginning to feel that he at least had a right to know that she was ok.

“I have something to tell you first, Amy. Something happened today. But let’s enjoy our dinner first.”

“Sounds ominous. The dinner is in the oven. It should be ready in just a few minutes. Your mom says it should be bubbly in the middle and just a little golden brown on top. Is that the way you like it?”

“God, yes.”

She laughed and checked the peas heating on the stovetop.

“That looks done. Just needs a little garlic salt.”

“I have garlic salt?”

“Dude, you have everything.”

Dinner was spot on. I ate way too much, and for a little while, I was able to put away my thoughts on my meeting with Joe Pensiero. But dinner had ended, and it was time to talk.

“Ok, boss. What’s on your mind,” she said, promptly.

I looked down for a moment, and then I looked her in the eye and said, “I met your father today.”

She froze. There was no expression on her face. After a few seconds, though, she shook her head and spoke. “I knew it was just a matter of time, he-”

“Amy, he is really worried about you. I think that he cares about you and wants to make it up to you. He says that you had a fight and that things got out of control. I think maybe you ought to hear him out.”

“No, no, no, no. That is not going to happen. You see? This is what he does. Everybody thinks he’s this great guy but, I know….mom knew. We knew the real Joe Pensiero. I mean, it just got worse after…after…”

“Amy, I know about your mother.”

And she was crying, “I thought things were getting better. When she got sick, he got better. He took care of her like a good husband. I was beginning to think he could be good, but – NO! No, no, no, no, when she died, it just got so much worse. You don’t know, James!”

“Ok, ok. It’s ok. I didn’t tell him anything. He saw us together once at Farid’s. I told him I fed you a meal and never saw you again.”

“You think he believed you?” she said, wiping her eyes and nose on the sleeve of the shirt she had borrowed from me.

“Well-”

“No, you see, he’s manipulating you. This is what he does. He’s going to track you down. He may already know more about you than you realize.”

“Amy, I think-,” I began, but she was on her feet and headed for the bedroom.

She came out with her army coat and her backpack.

“You don’t understand, James. I have to go. NOW.”

“Amy! Please don’t do this! Let me work this out. If he beat you, we can report it to the police, and-”

“And then what? They put me in a shelter? They put me in foster care. No! I will be 18 soon, and then I’m free to do what I want. He will never have power over me again!”

I tried to block her from leaving, but she shoved me and yelled at me to move. She was out the door before I could say anything else–if there were anything even left to be said. I stepped outside in the foggy night, but she was already nowhere to be seen.

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