KARL.

The mistrust of heights is the mistrust of self. You don’t know whether you’re going to jump.” -Janet Fitch

I now know the exact moment I fell in love with him.

We were saying goodbye in front of my Lyft on a gauzy early December afternoon; I put my arms around his neck and we kissed, twice. No tongue, just full, purposeful, dead-on, lips intertwined. The kind of kisses you can hear. Quiet, but piercing. Dry, but wet. Thrills shot down my stomach, a pleasant burn--notably and obviously not love.

The love came when I pulled back to look at him and meet his eyes, which always have a story. It had been an interesting weekend, more interesting than previous weekends, and there were now at least twenty question marks in my mind about twenty different things. Nothing was for sure, nothing was for certain, and everything seemed more unclear than it had ever been. But in that moment, despite my protestations and insistence to my girlfriends and my therapist and myself that it was wholly impossible for me of all people to fall in love in conditions like these, I looked into his face and it was decided within me. It was done. I studied his features in the nanosecond I had before it got weird, thinking I am looking at the face of the man I love. The thought was so ridiculous that I laughed at myself and smiled at him to cover it. He smiled back, the pleasing little smirk I’d gotten used to waiting to see. I had not been in love in years. Six, to be exact. And I’d actually had my doubts for some time that I was even still capable of it; but here it was back on my doorstep, unwilling to remove its muddy shoes and bearing no hostess gift.

He opened the Prius door and I dropped into the back, wondering how the hell I’d ended up here and what in God’s name the collateral damage was going to look like.

The driver, "Karl" per the app, had already put my suitcase into the trunk. He had the A/C on high even though the weather was relatively cold. He looked hot and a little sweaty and I told myself he'd been driving around in the sun and I had a warm coat on. I'd take the air as long as I could.

“Your boyfriend?” Karl asked as we drove down the street. He had some kind of Eastern European accent—not Russian, but Russian-adjacent—that made him more difficult to understand than I felt like dealing with that day. I didn’t respond. “He’s tall. Girls like tall. This is a nice area. I live out here. You live in the city?”

I told him I was tall myself. And that I lived in L.A., 400 miles away.

“You moving here?” he asked, sounding convinced I’d say yes. His voice was heavy with cigarettes, even though his car smelled vaguely floral and new. I was present enough to be grateful for this.

“No plans. And yes, it is a beautiful place. But so expensive.”

“You get married, move here. It’s better here.”

I told him there were no plans to get married. “No plans for anything,” I reemphasized, beginning to feel inadequate from the repetition of the phrase, craving the opportunity to fall silent without being rude. He looked at me in the rearview for a long beat, the way men look at women to convey approval. I wasn’t flattered.

“You are tall. Beautiful. But young. Maybe wait to get married, but don’t wait too long.”

I didn’t bother to break the news that I was probably well beyond the age he was imagining was “too long”. He moved on to some innocuous discussion of the Peninsula (lovely if you don’t have to commute) and Northern California property values (skyrocketing if you could afford to get in) while I watched the freeway whizz by.

As we hit the edges of the city though, he was back to center. Wondering things. “He treats you nice?”

I knew who he meant but still asked for clarification, mainly to buy time and maybe dissolve the question. “Who?”

“Your boyfriend.”

Pause. “Yes, he’s very nice.”

“How many kids he has?”

“Um, none. No kids.” I felt the heat of ire in the back of my throat at this question. But appropriately schooling a post-Soviet immigrant on the sociopolitics of making assumptions of a Black man, even my Black man, didn’t seem like it would serve either my Sunday afternoon or to clamp this conversation, which was the overarching goal. 

“You want babies, right?” He glanced in the mirror again and then back at the road, quickly. We were ascending into a canyon, where the streets were a little more narrow and the terrain required caution.

I was trying to be kind. But my mind was reeling from the street revelation back in front of the house, I was still mildly hungover from partying the night before, and I was also reconciling how I was going to manage being in love with someone who wasn’t in fact my boyfriend. I was in good spirits but a quiet space and really hadn’t bargained on this existential do-si-do in exchange for a 30-minute ride into the city. After realizing you’re in love with someone, the last thing you want is an Andy Cohen-style dress-down from a random third party, trotting you through your relationship’s nebulous highlight reel.  

“One day,” I said, proud to have found a response that would likely end the conversation. But Karl would not be deterred.

“Tall babies?” He smiled at me in the rearview, overly pleased with his own clever callback. I crinkled my eyes cordially but kept my mouth still, a pleasant-enough acknowledgement that silently screamed how desperately I was trying to disengage.

By now Karl could tell that I was annoyed but really didn’t care, evidenced by how easily he let my complete silence slide before opening his mouth again.

“You are in love.”

I looked up to meet his eyes in the rearview since I really couldn’t tell from his tone if he was serious or not. He was not looking at me then. He was looking straight ahead, unsmiling. Four words and suddenly he held all the power.

“What makes you think that?” I asked, genuinely curious and more than a little self-conscious. What made him so sure? Maybe it was something obvious. Or maybe he was clairvoyant, or worldly, or wiser than I'd estimated. Maybe he was just a blowhard. I wanted to know which it was.

He shrugged hesitantly, and I tried to gauge his age. 55, maybe 60. Maybe 48 with a hard life. The shrug felt immature. And his lack of a rapid response was glaring seeing how he hadn’t succeeded in being silent for more than 15 seconds since I got in the car.

“You are," he said. "Right?"

Now it was a question. He was sure but wanted my confirmation--my capitulation, as I saw it. But I wasn't pouring out the contents of my heart to a stranger in a rideshare, no matter how much Sex and the City this guy had watched.

I shrugged. "I wouldn't say that."

Karl seemed deflated in that moment, as though I had taken something away from him. I saw his shoulders slump and his arms lower. It was vaguely imperceptible, but an empath never misses those kinds of things. He tapped on the steering wheel for a moment with two fingers before abruptly turning off the air.

"Lucky man," he said simply. Then, he fell remarkably silent.

We were winding around coiling back hills, breezing through neighborhoods for which I had no name other than "San Francisco". But I knew enough to know they each had their own moniker and culture and zip code. I was glad, in my condition, to be in a place where I felt like a complete foreigner. New territory. The best part, for me, of unchartered land, is the abject newness that blankets everything, the blank slate it offers. There are no old memories or associations, no visuals you can’t erase around any corners. Everything is fresh and fascinating. You can write all new stories and hear yourself think.

And yet, I admitted, lately when I landed back in my own city it felt almost just as foreign, except not new or blank. It felt like someplace I used to know but had now just been dropped in the center of by a force over which I had no control. I didn’t really feel like I belonged there anymore at all, but I didn’t know where I did belong. All I knew was that I felt a bit like I was shedding a skin, slowly detaching from its sides. Just when I would actually glide out of it, I had no idea. But clearly, it would have to happen.

I kind of missed Karl’s voice, or at least my response to it. As long as he was talking I did not have to sit there and think about what the hell I was going to do about the man I’d left in the South Bay, who I was still picturing in the street even though I knew better. It was almost dusk. I imagined him in front of his computer, working. Was he thinking about me?

Karl was lost. My destination was a private street, tucked away and easy to miss, and he was flustered looking for it. I called the sister-friend who waiting on me to deliver an ETA and she gave brusque directions on speaker to help Karl turn around. Being the efficient multitasker she is, she suggested I just stay in the car and we would continue on to our next destination to save time.

I told her that wasn’t possible as he was headed on to his next destination, and she easily said she’d call another car. By now I was feeling silly. I’d made it awkward with Karl for no reason. I felt like he didn’t deserve my truth, but who was I? The truth is the truth. I was mildly ashamed to have responded so dramatically to what could have been shut down with ease, playfully dismissed. I was in love. It wasn’t an accusation. It wasn’t a slight. And it was nothing to hide.

Karl pulled up the steep driveway where my girl hobbled out in her boot, fresh from knee surgery. He made some casual joking comments about her injury as he pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, and she laughed good-naturedly. Naturally, he took this as an invitation to ask her something about the neighborhood, a question she answered in her signature no-nonsense tone that says she won’t be answering anything else. Down below, another car arrived to carry us on.

Karl gingerly sat my tote bag on top of my suitcase inside her garage and nodded with a tiny smile. “Maybe she will move here,” he said to her, clearly unable to resist one last comment.

She responded gleefully to the suggestion, much the way any best friend responds to the suggestion that 400 miles between them be erased. Karl seemed to find something redemptive in her effervescence. She lacked all the baggage and embraced all the joy.

After the fanfare that comes with getting a temporarily disabled individual down a San Francisco street and into a vehicle, she and I were off. The new driver was a young Japanese guy who drove wordlessly and very fast, with old-school hip hop blasting from his speakers. He turned it down when we began to talk, but I wouldn't have minded leaving it up. After my pensive, introspective trek with Karl, it was freeing to be sporting down the hills, only able to hear Dr. Dre and thinking only of how the next drop would feel in my gut. As we sped onto the Bay Bridge towards the East Bay I know so much better, she asked how the day had been, her typical inquiry following every day I spent with him. She always checked the temperature. I always acted like I didn’t realize her objective, but in actuality we both knew better.

She was splayed across the backseat, the way she had to be to elevate her knee, and I was in the passenger seat next to The Fast and the Furious. After my saga with Karl, I felt compelled toward honesty. I turned to her with wide eyes and the tacit smile only a best friend of 18 years could understand. She and I had last seen each other the night before, but there was new news to share. “I love him,” I announced, making her burst into hysterical giggles.

She came up for air after a moment, smirking as she studied my face. “Girl. I know.”