Harper had been mad at me since we left the city. A week or so with new friends, fawning over her, giving her all the attention a puppy deserved. It was hard to leave San Francisco, strengthening connections with old friends and creating connections with new ones, it is a city that I see myself coming back to in the near future. Regardless, Harper and I have a tight schedule, if such a thing is possible on a trip like this, a trip that has begun to blend into a lifestyle. We made our way down to Santa Cruz, back to the coast and Highway 1, a landscape we seemed to both forget while navigating the maze of the city.
I could tell Harper was getting antsy, cooped up in the back of the stuffy, clothe coated van, so I took her to a dog-friendly beach where she could burn off the adolescent angst that a 5-month pup builds. She ran up to the first dog she saw, a checkered brown and white pit-bull mix.
A tall thin man in baggy clothing was holding her by a pink, braided rope. His cheeks were burnt, his hair long on top, short on the sides, his eyes and mouth smiling. We got to talking; he had an accent I mistook for French. “German” he says. Not his dog either, walking it for his friend Roberto, an Italian. Romo is the dog’s name. The two of them are rolling in the sand and trading nips on the neck.
Turns out this tall German has been traveling for three years. He has four days left before he heads home to Bavaria to decide on what to do with the next chapter in his life. He is turning 30 and he is looking forward to spending it with childhood friends.. We shake hands, and exchange names: Michael and Michael. The two Mikes. Formalities aside, he asks me to hold Romo’s leash so he can run and jump into the ocean. I agree, and away he goes.
When he returns, he grabs the leash and invites me to dinner. He knows his way around, but street names fail him. A couple of lefts, a right, and look out for a stove with a “for sale” sign on it. Enough for me to figure it out, I thought. We said goodbye, waiting to see each other when the pasta would be ready at 7:30 pm.
Fast forward, Harper and I are hungry after a nice sunset beach run; we find the stove.
We walk through the gate to the backyard and find Michael, Romo the pit-bull, Roberto the Italian, and a fourth friend, Aaron, a Santa Cruz local and as I would learn, a travel buddy of Michael’s from Baja, Mexico.
The four of us sat around a plywood table resting on cinderblocks, in lawn chairs, waiting for an electric stove to heat up some tomatoes. Within minutes, dinner is ready and then served, wine is poured, and the storytelling begins.
The three, Michael Roberto and Aaron seemed to know each other and their stories well. I was the guest and as such it seemed best to sit back and listen to their recollections.
It was clear pretty often that Michael was running the show; when he was not talking or laughing, he was preparing the dinner with Roberto, full of enthusiasm and wit. He spoke like a native English speaker, a developed knowledge of colloquialisms and ease in deciphering unfamiliar ones.
Though Michael ran the show, this was Roberto’s home, a work in progress from the growing olive tree to the unfinished deck and kitchen. Roberto must have been in his late 50’s. A native of Italy, he left Rome in ’83 when he landed in Santa Cruz and picked up work as a handy man. Some 30 years later Roberto is still employed doing odd jobs, of which he specifies very little.
Roberto seems at ease, happy to prepare a space for three young men to eat and talk in peace. I want to be a good houseguest and begin asking Roberto questions. He answers them in very short, few worded answers. I begin to think that I am not asking good enough questions, so when the opportunity presents itself I ask: Why did you leave?
He turns and looks at me, his eyes betray that the words are still digesting in his head. He looks away and shrugs a little, looks straight ahead and then back at me. “The people,” he says. I sense remorse in his voice, as if this question struck something deep inside he does not want touched. I realize my mistake and determine to be more careful with my questions. Either that or I am stuck projecting my own feelings onto this man. Regardless, I am done asking Roberto much of anything.
Michael has not missed a beat; he turns the attention onto himself and begins to tell the story about how he and Aaron met in Baja, and later, chance encounters in Costa Rica. I listen, and begin to turn my attention to Aaron.
Aaron is close to thirty, which side of thirty I am not sure. He is a big, muscled guy with tattoos all over his arms, and a long black ponytail. He is calm and quite, yet shows bursts of personality and vulgar humor. He is renting the basement of Roberto’s apartment, the two of them less landlord and tenant than most, as they share meals and guests often.
I can tell Aaron has stories he would like to share, though he doesn’t seem to feel comfortable telling them in my presence. Having learned my lesson, I keep quite, turning my attention to Harper, who is rolling around in a bush, chewing on one of Romo’s beef bones.
The stories begin to slow, the food and wine all gone. I want to retreat back to the van to sleep on my new futon, but hesitant to go back and deal with the mess I made reorganizing my clothes into a trunk I got off Craiglist. Michael asks both Aaron and Roberto to go surfing with him. Neither of them surfs, and he knows this. I say I will join him and so we make plans to meet at 9 am tomorrow.
There is weird energy in the air. After a night of stories, good food and drink, this new friendship feels like it should matriculate into something more than just an early bedtime.
And yet, all I want to do is get out of here.