I never hiked much when I lived in New York. A mile through sugar maple and hemlock here, two miles there up cobbled creek beds, but walking was my main mode of transportation in those days. Three miles each way between my house and a girlfriend’s, or four miles to work and back, and hiking seemed too much like commuting, albeit through pin oaks.
Within three months of arriving in Berkeley, I had moved into an apartment at the corner of Dwight Way and Piedmont, the last little vestige of what you might call flatlands at the base of the Berkeley Hills. Three blocks toward the hills, sloping upward the whole way, and the pavement ended. The climb began from there in earnest: a thousand feet climbed in a mile of steep trail, up the west face of Panoramic Hill. A thousand feet in that short a distance was more relief than you could find within a day’s drive of Buffalo. From the first moment I moved into the place, I eyed that climb. It took me perhaps a week to find myself with both the time and energy at once.
I was a weak little thing then, bone and a bit of sinew, and yet I walked up that hill once every couple weeks, the first dozen or so times in those flat-soled black canvas shoes you can buy in Chinatown. There was a row of aged Monterey Pines at the ridgeline that overlooked Strawberry Canyon, and I hiked up there one day with Shannon, a co-worker at the cafe off Telegraph Avenue where Matthew and I worked. We sat beneath the pines and shared an orange and some cheese, and she talked about her troubles with her boyfriend, an insanely jealous Peruvian expatriate, a veteran of that country’s air force. I don’t recall his name. Luis? Call him Luis. Luis heard about our little hike and was enraged, despite its utter outward innocence. He was civilized about it, after a fashion. A few days later he met Elissa and me on the deck of the cafe. Elissa and I were eating a late breakfast, and Shannon had taken a break to sit with us. Luis saw us, walked over, took an empty chair and turned his attention to Elissa.
“You look beautiful today, Elissa,” he said.
“Thank you?” said Elissa.
“Today is a very pretty day, don’t you think? It would be a great day to go to the beach.”
“It sure would,” said Elissa.
“We should go,” said Luis. “Are you busy today? Yes? Well, we should go sometime, together.”
His point made, Luis turned to address me. “It doesn’t feel very good, does it?”
I shrugged. I turned to Elissa. “Do you want to go to the beach? You’d have fun, and I have to work this afternoon.”
Elissa smirked subtly. “Some other time, maybe.”
Shannon told me later that Luis had apologized, regretted making even a minor, defused scene, swore that he trusted her, understood that I was just a friend, agreed that his response was condescending and sexist.
Though his behavior was obnoxious, Luis was not precisely wrong. He had seen into my heart. The hike was, in fact, innocent. Neither of us had any other intention on setting out up that steep trail. But I would have liked to have had that intention. I loved her. She was thoughtful, striking, and a little sad. She was taller than me. Her voice was deep, a contralto. Even in her early twenties she had a bold stripe of gray hair, the same color as her eyes if a bit lighter. At work she was quiet and relatively efficient. But when we hiked, for those few hours, she told me stories. Growing up, coming to the Bay Area to escape her small town origins, friends and school, and always I felt her shift when her stories would reach a certain point, as though some large part of her life, intertwined and connected and wound in upon itself, was still off-limits to her hiking partner. Perhaps even to herself. I wanted, more than anything, to unwind her.
Despite Luis’ apology, we never hiked again. Having extracted her admission of guilt from Luis, she conceded her friendship with me in return. Nothing was spoken, no sorrowful decisions relayed, but that sadness rolled in to cover her. After some weeks she quit the cafe.
I saw her five years later, the summer Elissa and I moved back from Washington. She was on the street in Berkeley. She was glad to see me, and told me about motherhood, and how Luis was behaving much better now. Her voice — how I had missed her voice — betrayed not a trace of restlessness. And though it seemed to me her eyes flitted nervously for the ten minutes we talked, and that her spine tilted slightly and familiarly with that same sad weight, a sigh of nothing can be done, I may merely have seen the reflection of my own seared soul in her gray eyes.