Until he rode his bicycle through her lane at the tollbooth, Linda had no idea she felt this way about Charlie. There had been the initial attraction to him when they had been introduced at the Fourth of July picnic, but since then Linda had always felt an empty compliance toward Charlie’s affections. He loved her. She let him. That was all. But now, two years into what Linda had always characterized as a simple—if at times unusually intense—friendship, there was this grand gesture. This proclamation of the highest order that reached back into her memories, tapped her on the shoulder, and asked, “How could you be so stupid?”
Charlie had risked his life to pedal his yellow ten-speed through the snaking traffic on the north side of the Golden Gate, weaved his way to her CASH ONLY lane, reached his hand into the window, and paid his five dollars in singles he had folded together into a large, green heart. She took them into her hand and looked down at five halves of George Washington’s crosshatched face. “Linda,” he said, “I love you.”
Linda looked south the length of the bridge toward the city and scanned the skyline. Cities were feelings from far away—all texture, no detail.
A car honked. Linda raised a hand into the glare off the car’s red hood. “Hold your horses, sir!” she yelled. The world disappointed her like this all the time. Linda removed her hat, brushed her hair back with her free hand and smiled. She thought, but did not say out loud, Charlie is making me aware of the different ways people love.
The car honked again. Linda stepped out of her booth. Charlie held a tiny glistening star of a ring out to her. “It’s not real,” he said. “This is just a place holder.”
“It’s ok,” she said.
“They can make diamonds out of dead bodies,” Charlie said. “Have you heard about that?” Charlie squeezed and released the front brake on his bicycle. “We’re all just carbon. That’s what gave me the idea.”
Linda looked at the way Charlie’s jeans stretched over the seat’s torn black vinyl, an irregular fungus of foam rising from between his legs like clouds. She followed the thin crossbar to a rusty patch of chipped paint at the joint where the top and head tubes met. The weld was evenly layered and made Linda think of snow sliding off a roof, a sight she had only seen twice in her life.
“Hop on,” Charlie said, and motioned with his head to the rack above the back wheel of his bicycle.
“I’m working, Charlie,” she said. “What did you expect me to say?” Linda watched the cars pulsing from the other toll lanes onto the bridge, then she looked down the growing line of backed-up cars in her own.
“I expected you to say ‘yes,’” Charlie said.
“Heart attack,” Linda said.
“We’re causing a heart attack, Charlie.” Linda pointed against the traffic. A small traffic jam was developing past the entrance to the visitors’ lot. There was a mess of flashing yellow turn signals and solid red brake lights as several cars tried to maneuver into adjacent lanes.
The red car honked again and inched up beside them. As he passed, Linda read a surprisingly long chain of foul language on his lips that, were she not so overwhelmed with the fact of Charlie and his bicycle and the ring not made from the carbon of dead bodies, would have enraged her. Traffic spilled from Linda’s lane into each of the lanes in the plaza. This would mean her job; she was sure of it.
Several pedestrians stopped on the sidewalk in front of the visitors’ center to witness the strange sight of a bicycle at a tollbooth. “Only in San Francisco!” There was forced, nervous laughter. A woman said, “What’s happening over there?”
Linda raised her leg and stretched it over the rack, sat down, placed her arms around Charlie’s midsection. She pressed her face into his shoulder. As Charlie started to pedal, Linda felt the rack press into her, bending under her weight.
Charlie pedaled across the left lane of traffic. He was nimble, and careful to avoid the cars and their yelling drivers. Linda felt eyes on her. She was aware of her uniform and that it made what was happening all the more incongruous and wrong. Charlie took the curb with a sharp bump and Linda held on tighter. She was careful not to let her boots get caught in the spokes or the chain. Her thighs already ached from holding her legs out to her sides. It was windy on the bridge. There were joggers and tourists. Linda looked out over the Bay. It was cooling down, but the fog hadn’t come in yet. Linda could clearly make out the beige scratches of a road working its way up and down Angel Island, and she felt sure that this was where she was at home.