"Well, there's what I really did Friday night and then there's this version." This large stranger and I were in one of my favorite coffee houses that's too far away from where I live now but close enough to my pharmacy, kind of my second home on Friday afternoon, payday. Slow turning fans are overhead above rifles, about 30 of them that hang on the walls: old Mausers, Mannlichers and carbines, Winchesters, Martinis or Enfields. I don't know what all else, but they looked as if they could have been taken anytime over the past 100 years from Afghan troops. All are above the glass counter tops displaying teas, coffees, cigars, and French, North African, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern brands of cigarettes, some of them packed with clove, others, with strong Turkish shag cuts of black Latakia that when ignited burn and smell for all the world like an Irish peat fire, if you've ever had that homey and fragrant pleasure.
The place is very masculine and 19th Century. It is owned by a man from the Mid-East somewhere, who always wears a Panama hat. The tobacco smells (some from pipes burning special blends; others, commercial aromatics that are like smoking fruit salad) vie with that of the tea and coffee always brewing and the smell of car exhaust from the street, mingling indoors with mundane cigarette and cigar smoke (or maybe burnt clove).
The man at the next table who had addressed me about his Friday night, dressed in Hawaiian shirt and Dodgers cap, pretended to hand me a fistful of "Greetings From San Diego" postcards featuring Shamu or some descendant possibly, buffed surfers, the Hotel Del, the current panda, the primate house at the zoo, etc., etc. The stack, some of them scrawled over completely, others blank, was clearly too large to read at any one sitting. He took them back with a bark of a laugh and returned them to his briefcase.
He then withdrew a blank one from an equally large stack of two dozen or so cards, set it before him and clicked his ballpoint pen over a photo of the Coronado bay bridge as if deciding his epitaph before jumping off of the thing. "How would you describe Coronado?" he asked me, seeming to duck my earlier question, "How did you spend your Friday night?" He was not, really. I described Coronado, using phrases such as, "A lot of retired admirals living with their parents," and "Even the gas stations have window boxes." He laughed. I didn't think he'd get it.
I'll call him Bert because he reminded me of the Sesame Street character complete with a Fuller Brush mustache, if anyone still recalls that reference. As I spoke, he filled the card with handwriting -- small script you'd not expect from a big guy -- and it filled every centimeter of white space, even along the sides, top, and bottom of the rest of the text. Finally, he explained what he was doing.
"I'm sending these to my chick in New York. I fly for [some airline I hadn't heard of] and met her there. I overheard her talking to her girlfriends about how she would only date men who had good relations with their mothers. Well, I don't, but I wanted to take her out. I started talking to her and brought up my mother and started talking about how I'd better get going, that every afternoon at that time I'd go home and call my mother and we'd watch Oprah together on the phone. My mom, I told her, was in a nursing home in L.A., but because I'm a pilot I got to see her pretty frequently. Lisa, that's my girlfriend, works at Kennedy in reservations or something. Now, she loved that Oprah thing."
Bert's real mother lives in Binghamton, in upstate New York, and Bert lives in Manhattan. They haven't seen each other or spoken since Christmas of '96. He didn't tell me what happened that Christmas, but he told me about meeting Pam from San Diego in the airline's first class, V.I.P. lounge. He fell in love with her, too, but he was still in love with Lisa. "Does that happen to you? It happens to me all the time. I always seem to be in love with two women at the same time. Maybe it's because I'm a Gemini."
Bert was writing a card for each of the next seven days. On every card, he would describe what he and his mom did together on their trip to San Diego. The previous week he had written Lisa that he had picked up his mother from Shady Haven or whatever it was supposed to be in Beverly Hills, had driven down the coast together, stopped at Capistrano, saw the sparrows or swallows or whatever they were, took her wading in the Pacific, which she always wanted to do, then spent the night at the Valencia hotel in La Jolla. He said he took her shopping, frolicked in the tide pools, etc., etc. All of this fiction sounded so idyllic that I figured Lisa, if she was buying this crap, was an idiot. At any rate, a gullible romantic -- all the same thing to me now, sad as that may seem.
He finished writing about his stay with mom at the Hotel Del on the card he had just crammed with writing, describing how his mom howled with laughter at Triple Espresso at the famous Old Globe Theater, a point on which I did not correct him. And then he gave me a rundown of his and the imaginary mater's projected activities at the zoo and how he'd send her a picture of himself and Ma on one of those donkey carriages down in TJ.
"How I really spent my Friday night? Well, it was how I spent every other night pretty much since I got into town. Banging the lights out of Pam. She lives in Pacific Beach, and we've only left her apartment to party at this bar that's really cool. Oh, we went to Horton Plaza and I made some purchases at Victoria's Secret you would not believe. This one thing has got this little thing right here that when you..." He was gesturing at his crotch, and I coughed and got up to get more Splenda coffee sweetener, which I didn't want.
I returned, but at this point I pretty much tuned out. I kept thinking about Bert's imaginary mother, feeling terrible that she had missed out on Shamu and even Triple Espresso. Bert and Pam had actually gone to see the wacky romp and loved it. He also told me "their song" was "Part Time Lover," a pukingly sentimental dance tune whose sentiment was as deep as lubricant-soaked Kleenex.
"What's your mom's name? You never mentioned it." I had to ask for some reason; I wanted to give her more substance than Bert's lack of description and whirlwind recounting of their fun.
"You mean my real mother?"
"It's Sylvia. Queen Sylvia of Binghamton."
"Is that what you tell your girlfriend in New York, or did you make up a name?"
"You know, I did say it was Sylvia a couple of times." At that point Bert resumed telling me about his sexual adventures with what'shername here in San Diego (she was at Nordstrom at the moment) and I had to interrupt him. "Bert, I gotta go."
"Yeah, what are you up to?"
"I don't know. I don't feel so great."
"Wow, sorry, Buddy. Here, take my card, maybe we'll catch up, dig up some action." I didn't take the card but kind of clutched my side like I was having some internal bleeding problems.
"Hey, good luck," I said, but guys like that never seem to need it. I said, "Take it easy." And I meant that.
"Yeah, nice meeting you." He turned back to the remaining blank cards and splayed them out before him, entranced as if in some weird conjunction of solitaire and Tarot card reading. He set quickly to writing another one with Torrey Pines Golf Course pictured, and I made a momentary bet with myself that he was having a better time right now, confabulating apparently impossible fun with his mother, than he had last night, Friday night, rogering the lights out of what'shername from P.B.
Wading through sheaths of smoke on the way out, I imagined Bert and Pam sharing some kind of French cigarette, Gauloise maybe, after doing the dance of the studly airman and the trembling, lovesick shop girl. Sometimes I can't turn that sort of thing off.