We got into a fight that morning.
I don’t remember what it was about. Just another passageway of silence and anger. At least for me. I can’t speak for my ex-husband. I was quiet. But inside, I fumed. I always did. I’d replaced a bottle of gin with a mess of a man whom I thought I could fix instead of acknowledging that I needed to fix myself. I no longer drank the sting of hard liquor but instead inhaled the mental illness of a man who, at this moment in 2016, wandering among the ruins of the Marin Headlands, I didn’t call my husband, yet, but did call my brand-new fiancee. This long-awaited pilgrimage to the Mecca of the LGBTQIA+ Rights Movement had been hijacked, and what was supposed to be a retreat for my soul became a surprise engagement party. And it was my fault. I didn’t set a boundary. I didn’t say, “No, I’d like to take this adventure alone because I need the time with myself.” I didn’t say, “Hi, you, person I don’t even really like. You don’t make me feel good, and you’re dishonest, and I can’t change you.”
But fear can be irrevocably powerful. So can codependency. And both were, particularly at that point. I was only three years into my sobriety, completely lost, and nowhere to go but what felt like the only beacon of light in my mind, shining out across the Bay Area: San Francisco. He invited himself to go, and I didn’t say no.
It was the morning after he got down on one knee as the boat barreled towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The crew took photos. He said, “Look up,” as we passed underneath the sky made of red steel, soaked in the blood of paint. I did. The underbelly was just as handsome as the rest of it. Mighty. How did we, humans, pull this off? I thought. Then, the sky again. The fog. I tilted my head forward, and he was gone. I felt something in my periphery, down below. My head tilted down further. There he was, on one knee, with a ring I later found out he purchased in the Castro for $25. He hadn’t even planned to buy it. He found it at the Human Rights Campaign gift shop. That should’ve been a clue, but the palpable fear of being alone gripped me harder than reason. I tilted my head back towards the crew on the opposite side of the boat. Two phone cameras. I looked back down at my soon-to-be-husband.
“Will you marry me?”
And I said, “Yeah. Sure. Totally.”
Twenty-four hours later, something deep down in my guts yanked at my collar, begging me to rescind the “Yeah. Sure. Totally.” It’s a giant mistake, and you know it.
We had plans to hike the Marin Headlands, and somewhere along the way between breakfast and the parking lot, we got in a fight. I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I probably couldn’t recount 99% of our fights. He got out of the car and started walking, with no intention of waiting for me.
So I took my time, got out, and began to walk in the opposite direction. Space. Good. Time. It’ll blow over. I didn’t know where we were. My now-fiancee-soon-to-be-husband-then-ex-husband had planned this part of the trip. I opened my phone as I walked, dragging my feet through the gravel. Google Maps. Zoom out. “Marin Headlands.” Good. Great. I’m here for it. At the time, I had no idea that this sweeping park was full of abandoned batteries, bunkers, forts, from once very active military sites in Marin County, opposite San Francisco across the bay, up over the hills and cliffs that line the coastline as it winds up towards Sonoma County and beyond.
When I happened upon the first structure, I didn’t know where I was allowed to stand and where I wasn’t. There were no fences, no signs that said, “Keep off.” This was a public park, and the path flushed right up against the building, a crumbling battery and lookout. I took my first step on it, making an agreement with myself. It’s fine. Walk. The walls were adorned with tags, a coating of spray paint, which made it beautiful, a history of visitors, a guestbook that reflected current events as well as provided a look into the past, words and phrases about politics and culture and social shifts. It was pre-Trump, but the world still faced its host of problems without him. They were tattooed on this abandoned military post. I ran my fingers along the cool guardrails, painted a deep green, and I felt the concrete beneath my feet. I looked out at the ocean and thought. You don’t love this man.
True. I didn’t. And I didn’t want to be married to him. At that point, I wasn’t a praying man, but I closed my eyes as I gripped the metal, holding steady, and I whispered to God, “Please. Give me strength.”
It’s dawn. The mist of the San Francisco Bay follows me as I screech off the 101 and enter, trepidatiously, the Baker-Barry Tunnel. It’s longer than I remember, and certainly creepier, but I push past the willies and exit onto Bunker Road, headed for the parking lot at Battery Alexander. I’ve done no research on what I plan to revisit at the Marin Headlands, but I have a backpack full of snacks, a raincoat, and the vintage Polaroid camera I purchased yesterday.
I park the car, open the door, and swing my feet out, setting them gently on the gravel, lightly running the soles of my shoes on the pebbles and stones, slowly reacquainting myself with this place. I’m the only person there. For now. Once my feet feel connected to the ground, I snag my backpack, stand, lock the car, and start walking. I don’t have a particular direction in mind. I just walk. As I recall, the Marin Headlands are littered in abandoned military activity, so I know that no matter where I go, something will turn up.
I take a steep, hard left, down an overgrown footpath that eventually takes me to South Rodeo Beach. I gaze off to my left, dreaming of Bird Island, wondering what sorts of mysterious winged creatures reside on its rocky terrain. I peer right and see Fort Cronkhite in the distance, red roofs and white buildings, ducks in a row. I’m unsure if they’re active or not. I turn back towards Bird Island, pull out my Polaroid, and snap a picture of the shoreline. Despite the luscious waves rolling in and out, back and forth, I can hear my heartbeat the loudest. The sand curls beneath my feet. Sun taps me on the shoulder.
I’m there for what seems like hours until something calls me back up the hill. I stare up at the long ascent, the battle ahead of me. I begin to climb back to the main trail. I pace myself, one foot in front of the other. Typically, I rush up inclines because my legs are so short, and it feels easier. Not today. I take my time. I let the wild grass brush up against my long pants. I smell the sting of salt drifting through the air, a sensational scent that seeps into my nose and fills my lungs with stillness. Every inch up the hill, I think about him. I think about his long smile, his tired eyes, his bruises and his scars. Once I reach the top of the ridge, I turn back and see the sweeping ocean pushing me to move along, to move. Move through time and space. Just walk.
So I do.
I continue up the footpath, and I remember the fight. Not the specifics — but the feeling. The rage, the hurt. The pain. My own inability to disconnect, to tell the truth, to break free from this dangerous situation I’d put myself in over five years ago. I reflect on my own part in it, my own responsibility as I pass by a sturdy bench overlooking the blue beyond. I run my fingers along the top of it and think about the time that was spent in anger, the minutes that passed, the hours, where I couldn’t breathe. The tension. The anxiety. I sit on the bench. I take a moment to inhale. I’m around the corner from the first bunker, and I prepare my system for the ghosts to make their entrances. They always do. The imagination is wild that way, as wild as the rolling hills of these Marin Headlands. I offer a prayer to the sky, thanking my higher power for bringing me to this moment, today, Saturday, alone and in my solitude, to reflect and remember and forgive.
I make my way around the bend to Battery Smith-Guthrie, the first of three abandoned structures I will visit today. It’s just as I remember it: concrete, green metal, tons of graffiti, still a showcase of current events, words and phrases about politics and culture and social shifts. “FREE PALESTINE” and “WE DON’T CRY WHEN COPS DIE” and “YOU LIVE ON STOLEN LAND” and “ANTIFACIST ACTION” and “I HEART SAD BITCHES.”
Battery Smith-Guthrie is built directly into the hillside as all of the batteries and bunkers flooding the Marin Headlands are. This particular structure was abandoned in 1948. Two stories tall, it features turrets and large metal doors that are shut and locked for good, crevices in which to hide in case danger approaches. And a perfect view of the Pacific.
I hear the men shouting at each other, generals barking orders, “Stay alert in case enemies come up over the horizon, boys!” It’s 1942, and the United States is at war with the Axis of Evil. I’m at war with myself, desperate to find self-forgiveness, somewhere. I saunter along the top level and keep cocking my head to the right, to see the ocean, to ensure there are no Japanese or German ships sailing towards us. There aren’t. There isn’t any forgiveness on the horizon either.
I enter one of the stone cutouts, waist high, and rest my arms on the concrete. A tag reads “HEAD CASE.” I laugh. That’s me. I wonder who painted it.
The air is becoming warm. I take off my shirt and begin to prepare to take a portrait. I love self-photoshoots. I become engrossed in the right angles, the attractive postures. I’m on a body positivity journey, as I always am, and I’m at a point where I’ve started to really become comfortable in my skin. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to set my phone up properly without a tripod. Using what I have or what I can find in a space, to prop it up. Half the battle is finding the perfect place to position the camera, the best lighting, capturing as much as I can in a single frame to share an entire story without having to “tell” it. Sometimes it takes hours to find the right scene. Sometimes I don’t even walk away with the shot I want. I’m typically determined enough to make something work, but every once in a while, things just don’t.
Because sometimes things just don’t fit.
“Sometimes things just don’t fit.” I say these words aloud as I snap back to reality, to 2021. I realize I’m on the same battery, the same level, looking out over the same block of Pacific Ocean where I was back in 2016 when I thought these exact words, the day after I said, “Yeah. Sure. Totally.” I turn left and see the Golden Gate Bridge over the horizon. Five years has gone by between then and now, and I’ve held onto them, tightly gripped them in fear. I open my hands. The pain I’ve held exits my guts, rises from my waist to a spot in front of me, a glowing white ball of light. It floats there for a second, pondering me, as much as I ponder it. Thoughts can take on lives of their very own if you pump oxygen into them. “Move a muscle, change a thought.” Or, “Move a muscle, breathe into fear, exhale it, and turn a thought into a reality.” “Sometimes things just don’t fit” bobs up and down inches from my face, and it begins to pulsate.
My face gets hot, and I can feel sweat start to percolate on my brow. Tears begin to gather under my eyelids and fall to the ground. The pain from the fear that gripped me for so long begins to ooze out of every pore on my body, wheezing as it gasps for breath, the orb of white light, empowered, beginning to dance in front of me. The more I cry, the more I sweat, the hotter my skin gets, the larger and brighter this thought becomes, until suddenly, it bursts into a million little pieces that seem to freeze and dazzle in midair, just for a moment, then shoot off, like a firework show, into the midday sky. My spine grows straighter, seemingly pulled up by invisible strings, all attached to these shooting stars that have sailed into the atmosphere, along with my fear, along with my pain.
I glance to my right and see a funny tag. PERIODT.
“Sometimes things just don’t fit.” I say aloud. “Periodt.”
A smile cracks. I begin to laugh. I look back at my camera. It’s 1942 again. I position the lens to point directly at “HEAD CASE,” press the shutter button, run and hop up onto the waist-high wall, and “click.” “Click.” “Click.” A series is born. I kneel down to scroll through the photos. They’re beautiful. I’m beautiful. I’m okay.
I’m engrossed in these images on my screen when I hear a rustle. I look up quickly to see what the noise is. There, standing tall and proud and curious, about ten feet away from me, is a coyote. I freeze. I’ve never seen one up close. I always imagined them to be bigger. This humble creature stares at me, studying me, quizzical and confused. I can almost hear it thinking aloud, “What on EARTH are you DOING, man?” I can’t move. I focus on my breath. I try not to panic. I don’t know what a person is supposed to do when a coyote approaches. I can’t even reach my phone; it’s on the opposite side of the enclosed area. There’s no way to quickly Google what to do when a coyote comes a-knocking. I’ve always assumed they’re afraid of people and steer clear of any human activity, but not this one. It just stares. Joni Mitchell pops into my head:
And the next thing I know
That coyote’s at my door
He pins me in a corner and he won’t take no
He drags me out on the dance floor
And we’re dancing close and slow
Finally, I decide to move into a standing position, in case Coyote decides to charge. I can hop up on the ledge if it does, and it will be difficult for it to get at me. When I stand, Coyote backs up a few feet, eyes still locked onto mine. I speak: “Hello, Coyote.” It doesn’t move. It continues to stare. I hear it thinking, “Hello, human.” Then, just as Coyote entered, it turns and wanders off, looking back once to see if I’m following behind. I’m not. My heart quivers and shakes, an aftershock in my chest. “Goodbye, Coyote,” I whisper. Coyote doesn’t say goodbye back. Shaking, I slowly raise my camera and begin to videotape its exit. Coyote wanders off, another quest in mind, another curious moment to observe, another person to size-up.
I turn and see soldiers staring at me. They start to laugh. “It’s just a coyote, dummy!” “Why didn’t you shoot it?” I don’t like guns, that’s why. The men laugh again until the general shouts at them to knock it off and go back to their stations. Then he winks at me. I get flustered. The general is handsome. He says, “Go back to your photoshoot, Pfeil.”
So I do. I make another round of pictures as planes fly overhead, practicing their drills. I find a crumbling staircase where I take my trademark “Rise” photo, to honor the healing that exploring these abandoned spaces brings me. How my imagination tangos with reality, the reality of the pandemic where I discovered my inner-child, playing pretend, making art, connecting with the past, and learning to love myself, in ways I didn’t think were still possible.
But this particular photo in the “Rise” series means something different. It’s a way to make amends with myself, to mistakes I made, borne out of the fear that I may wind up alone. It’s my version of lighting a candle of that self-forgiveness, a moment to recognize that moving forward means allowing grace to enter in, to cleanse and realign my spirit. I press the shutter button. Ten seconds.
I run to the staircase as 1942 disappears around me.
“Nine, eight, seven, six.”
I find my light.
I close my eyes. The sun peeks out from behind a flock of clouds.
I lower my hands and accept the sunlight on my face.
I bend my knees and prepare to take the leap.