The Presidio

Halina Duraj


For three days all they did was drag themselves between bed and couch, swallow Sudafed, drink tea. One of them went out to buy canned soup—an exhausting errand not to be repeated. From then on, they foraged in cupboards: stale pita chips, pretzels, toast with jam. But today was New Year’s Day and they both finally felt well enough to get fresh air. He suggested a walk at the Presidio. She agreed. She had last been there with the man before this man, but she was no longer afraid to return. It had been long enough.

They drove through the winding streets of the Presidio’s hilltop neighborhood: stately turn-of-the-century homes, palm-lined drives, charming bungalows. He missed the turn-off for the first parking lot under the pines, so they drove part of the way downhill, overlooking the valley with its freeways and big-box stores and cheap apartment complexes and distant golf course and amusement park. He pulled into a spot by the museum.

 “I’ve always wanted to go in there,” she said.

“It’s open. Why not?” She liked that about him—he was always game. As they walked toward the museum, she reached for his hand and squeezed.

She had not gone into the museum with the previous man; she had not even suggested it. She had not been in the mood that day, nearly two years ago. They’d gone to the park after lunch at a terrible café with an outdoor patio; she’d heard the food was good from a colleague, but her lamb burger was dry and she spent as much time shooing flies away from it as lifting it to her mouth.

The man had taken the train to see her; he was old-fashioned that way. It was one of the charming things about him—along with his insistence on walking on the street side of the sidewalk, his proclivity for silk pocket squares in his blazers, his refusal to let her pay for a meal, and the offer of his handkerchief—just in case—whenever she used a public restroom in a park or at the beach. In case of what, she’d asked once. The seat might be wet, he said, or there might not be any toilet paper. And then what would she do with the handkerchief? Toss it, he said. But his handkerchiefs were beautiful, spotless pressed white cotton, and except for the presence of a monogram, reminded her of the handkerchiefs her father had carried in his pocket to church.

She thought he’d come down on the train to take her to lunch because he wanted to convince her she was wrong about him, to convince her that he could be in a couple with her, a real couple. For the past few months, they’d been back in limbo after another attempted disentanglement, still sleeping together and talking daily on the phone. She couldn’t call it a break-up because you had to be actually together before you could split. We’re friends with benefits, she had told him on the phone, a few nights before the lamb burgers. But I want to be a couple.

Friends with benefits, he said, laughing. What are you, a millennial? She wasn’t a millennial—she was older than that—but she was still too young for him, he said—too young to make a future together, though not too young to have sex with, she noted. I haven’t got much of a future, if you haven’t noticed, he’d say ruefully, pointing to his combed wave of white hair, and she’d roll her eyes. He was 68; she was 38. Age wasn’t the real problem. The real problem, she thought, was the ex-wife he talked to every day, the ex-wife who’d divorced him because he’d cheated on her for years but who was still his best friend, of a sort, he said, and whom he called daily and desperately wanted back though she wouldn’t take him back, not in that way. But his ex-wife wasn’t the real real problem either. The real real problem was one she’d tried to ignore—late night calls in which his voice sounded a little thick, a little slurred. Never totally out of control, but something off. He told her he was recovering—five years—but sometimes she wasn’t so sure.

She told him it was time for her to see other people. For real this time, because for three years she’d been trying to break up with him every few months when she got weary, over and over, of being his secret sex friend. She’d tell him she needed to get moving if it couldn’t be the kind of relationship—public, acknowledged—that she wanted it to be. And he’d tell her he understood, he wanted her to take care of herself, to look out for herself. He’d keep calling her. She’d keep picking up his calls. This time, when she told him it was really over, he asked her to see him one more time—he’d take the train, take her to lunch, a place of her choosing. Fine, she said and harbored hope, of course, waiting at the station, that he was coming to tell her everything she’d always wanted to hear.

But he was coming to ask her to wait. Three months, he said, over their burgers. We won’t talk, won’t see each other. I’ll figure out how to integrate you into my life, my public life. How to bring this out into the light, he said. What she’d always wanted. That he had to figure out how to bring her into the light meant she was in the darkness, which was true. Only his brother knew she existed, no one else—certainly not his ex-wife nor his kids nor his colleagues. He was a morning news anchor in L.A., the most minor of celebrities in a cesspool of celebrity, but he liked escaping to see her in San Diego where, he claimed, he was less likely to be recognized. She indulged his self-indulgence; his quasi-fame thrilled her a little.

She waved the flies away from her burger. No, she said. I’m tired. I don’t want to wait anymore. There’s nothing to figure out.

Just think about it, he said. Don’t answer now.

But I am answering.

Don’t, he said. Wait. Think about it.

Fine, she said.

Here’s the thing, though, he said. Don’t sleep with anyone else. Because in three months, say we come together again, say we do, that’s the only thing that would make things different. Do you know?

Oh, I know, she said. She tossed her napkin onto the half-eaten burger, crossed her arms. She didn’t want another bite. She looked at the cars parked just on the other side of the patio’s iron fencing.

This wasn’t how this conversation was supposed to go, he said. What happened? Where did it go wrong? He looked genuinely confused, maybe a little frightened. She almost felt sorry for him. Maybe he could tell this time she was different. She was still hungry when they left, and finally fed up.

There was time before his train, an awkward gap to fill. In the old days, they would have gone to her apartment, where he’d have begun undressing her immediately inside the door. Sometimes that annoyed her, though she never said anything. Sometimes she wanted to have a cup of tea first, talk about something, anything.

Where could we go for a walk, he asked. She told him there was a park by the train station. Good, it’s decided, he said.

They walked to the museum at the top of the hill. She had always wanted to go inside, all the times she’d driven on the freeway below and looked up at the white adobe on the hill, a replica of the first building in San Diego. But she did not suggest going inside. They would walk and she would take him to his train and they would say goodbye and she would get in her car and cry onto her steering wheel and when it was safe to drive she would drive. She had said good-bye to him so many times at train stations—hers or his. He always said, “I don’t know when I’m going to see you next,” and all she ever wanted was for him to say, “I’m going to see you next weekend” or “I’m going to see you two weekends from now.” But even that was too much for him, to plan to see her a week or two weeks in advance. Never mind a month or a year or five years or a future.

They passed the museum in silence and walked to the old Fort Stockton site overlooking Old Town and the train station. It was on a slight rise in the center of a maze of old cacti and a stand of eucalyptus. There were a few statues and big plaques affixed to boulders: one for the women of the Mormon Battalion, one for something else, she no longer remembered. There was a rusted flagpole, a flag snapping in the wind. Down below, the slow ambling of tourists, the muffled glide of cars, the progress of green lights to red, red lights to green, the trolley rolling in, the trolley rolling out. They stood, they looked. He kissed her. She let him, though she wasn’t in the mood. The kiss had a formal quality: they were standing in a place of monuments, where people marked things, so they should mark this, too. Three months, she thought, as he kissed her. What kind of bullshit is that?

She took him to the train. My answer is no, she said.

Tell me later, he said. Please. Not today.

I’m telling you now.

She cried in her car for a while after his train pulled out, as she always did. But this time she cried harder, longer. Then she wiped the wetness from her cheeks with the backs of her hands. She knew she wouldn’t wear this outfit again—she tore off the silk blouse and drove in her camisole and slacks. She knew of a clothing donation drop-box between the train station and her home. She drove right up to it and stuffed her shirt in. She knew she’d wear the slacks again; they were good quality, and she was old enough to know you do get over most things, eventually.

Later that week, she made an online dating profile; the following week, she went on a date, and then another and another. The handkerchief man called her and asked to see her again. She said no, and no again. She told him she’d begun seeing other people, and he stopped calling after that. By then she’d met the new man, who walked beside her today in the museum parking lot, sniffling into his wad of tissue, his nostrils rubbed as red and raw as her own.

They walked through the museum, looked at indigenous artifacts in glass display cases, climbed the stairs to look out the windows of the tower. They glanced at old photographs on the wall—the valley when it was still a pasture bisected by a pristine river. They read a display about Father Junipero Serra. It wasn’t a very exciting museum.

“Back outside?” the new man asked.

“Back outside,” she said. “It’s what we came for after all. Fresh air.” But she was glad they’d gone into the museum. It was good, she thought, to do something new on the first of the year.

They walked up the hill, around a grove of pines and eucalyptus and along a trail at the rim of a hidden canyon—surprisingly lush and tropical and peaceful, even though the freeway was right there. They walked on, rounded the hill. “Come on,” he said, and took her hand. “One more thing, and then that’s probably enough for today. We shouldn’t overdo it.”

He led her across the park to the cactus maze and the monument site. Oh, good, she thought. There was a perverse pleasure in seeing what she’d feel when she stood with the new man in the same spot she’d stood in with the handkerchief man. Now she was with the man for whom she’d disentangled herself from the handkerchief man, though she did not know at the time it would be for this particular man. But she had known he, whoever he was, was out there. She’d felt him out there all those years. I wonder who he is, she thought to herself sometimes, walking through the mall, driving on the freeway, the man I’ll meet when I finally stop making myself miserable.

She and the handkerchief man talked one more time after that call in which she’d told him she’d begun dating again. It was half a year later. She called him. She was already dating the new man, who on their first date said, “Forgive me for asking, but how are you still single?” He quickly introduced her to everyone he knew, made concrete plans together on clear timelines, and couldn’t accuse her of being too young for him because he was only a year older. But one afternoon she succumbed to a wave of longing for the other man, a wave so intense she almost couldn’t breathe. What if she’d been wrong? What if everything would have been different if she’d just given the handkerchief man those three months. No, that was bullshit. And no, she didn’t want to try again now—she didn’t think so. But she wanted—what? To hear he was happy, to hear he was OK? To hear that she hadn’t been rash, she hadn’t been wrong.

When the handkerchief man answered the phone, he sounded energetic. He was happy to hear from her, but happy with something else, too. He was driving to visit his daughter and grandchildren in Oregon. His ex-wife was already there. He sounded so happy she almost felt bad for calling; she had interrupted his life with a reminder of an old disappointment, even if she still believed she had the greater right to heartbreak. She wondered if he’d gotten sober again. She did not ask.

They did not talk long. Before they hung up, he grew serious; he said, “You know, I think of you sometimes, and if I’m careful with my thoughts, I don’t get pricked.” It stuck in her mind, the way so many things he’d said over the years stuck in her mind. The light fails, he said once. The light fails in Southern California, in the afternoon. Now she couldn’t not see it. He changed the way she saw light, even if he couldn’t bring her into it.

She did not tell her new boyfriend about the call; she never called again. For a while, every time her phone rang, she braced herself and readied her resolve, grateful for the new boyfriend as a last line of defense. She liked this new man, respected him. As long as she was with him, she would always say no to the handkerchief man. But there was no need: the phone call was never the handkerchief man.

Now, among the monuments overlooking the train station, standing beside the new man, she felt a stab of sorrow. Not for herself—for him, the handkerchief man. He had missed out on her—a life with her. He could have had her—all that she was, all that she wanted to give him. He’d miss out on everyone, probably, though she hoped he wouldn’t. She wanted him not to be lonely.

The new man—two years, not so new—took her hand again. They looked out over Old Town. The first of the year, she thought. The wind blew the ends of her hair around her face, under her cap. She swiped the hair from her mouth. They didn’t kiss—she had a cold sore, he had a cold sore. But she was happy. Happy enough.

She studied the new man’s profile out of the corner of her eye. He turned to her, caught her studying him. “What are you looking at?” he asked, smiling.

She shook her head, then rested her cheek on his shoulder.

She knew she would not stay with him much longer; she would never go back to the handkerchief man.

The flag snapped high above them.

“Enough?” he asked.

She nodded, her head still on his shoulder. “Enough.”

They returned through the cactus maze, stepping carefully.


Halina Duraj’s stories have appeared in The Harvard ReviewThe Sun, and the 2014 PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology. Her debut story collection, The Family Cannon, was published by Augury Books and was a finalist for a Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ debut fiction award. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of San Diego.