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The Effects of Darwin

In the San Francisco Estuary

By David Petersen


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December 22, 1990

Claire stirs the bourbon straight up with her finger and purses her lips: "One must always consider the effects of one’s actions upon another before engaging in the act." She sucks in a burp, and drops her chin so her eyes peer just over her glasses, now fallen to the tip of her nose. "So should you desert our daughter, you’d bear the responsibility for what she’d do in turn," she continues, expelling the burp. She is a silver-haired school teacher, blanketed in a red acrylic sweater with tiny snowflakes embroidered into a cursive "PEACE" script across the neckline. She lobbies to be Darren’s future mother-in-law, mentions him in the correspondence she keeps with inmates from Folsom Prison and her former foster children – all of whom she took for the inherent good, not the admiration, she insists, "Because altruism is all we’ve got."

Her husband, John, sits next to her, asleep, head reclined on top of the chair, his mouth wide open. He wears a Santa hat, now pinned between the back of his head and the back of the chair; he’d worn it for the grandchildren who’d visited earlier and thanks to his vodka tonics, continues wearing it – for the spirit of it, not the admiration, Claire insists. He is a retired engineer who pours Claire’s drinks, opens her doors, stays aloof until summoned for his big-picture perspective. "Darren," he says, "you and I are a lot alike. The main difference, however, is I’m old enough to know I can’t change the world. Some things won’t change, and you keep farting around with my daughter waiting for her to change – well, you might as well grease the world’s axle while you’re at it, ‘cause it won’t happen. More wine?"

Claire and John have invited Darren to their home tonight, without their daughter, to convince Darren of the merits of staying with their daughter – and the consequences of leaving her. Their ten foot tall Christmas tree sparkles with silver icicles, red and gold garlands, blinking lights, dozens of presents at its base. "Yes, please, John, I would like another bourbon, thank you – and make sure dear Darren here doesn’t go empty, will you, honey?" Claire says.

They live on the San Francisco Bay – "that’s really an estuary," as John will say when hearing "Bay," before nodding off again. Their row house in the Inner Richmond is down the block from The Blue Danube – a café in which one reads Karl Marx and drinks cosmopolitans, and becomes mesmerized when seated behind the pianist in the three-piece jazz ensemble due to the room’s tinny acoustics. Such an eclectic blend of wines, musky incense, and rhythm has led to various fanciful love stories – hence, Darren met their daughter, Margot, at the Danube two years previous.

Margot is twenty-seven and has long curly hair that hangs in her face and a French pout that elicits a vision of Antoinette seducing her executioner prior to his release of the guillotine blade. She drills nervous knuckles into her temples while smoking her pack a day and plows through her day and lovers with equal vigor, breathing as if she’s pacing herself in a marathon.

A beautiful woman may get away with anything, forget her anxieties, her inabilities to tame her anxieties, Darren believes; give me a pretty woman to look at and I’ll put up with anything. Of course you will, his friends say, given the way in which you, "Um, ‘gave’ yourself to her."

Friends point out the first twenty years of Darren’s life he "practiced the chivalry and chic of male chastity." In twenty years he’d never had trouble with girls, as he took them at face value – she says no, it means no – but he learned that wasn’t the way the game was played and he entered the Danube feeling he’d wasted two decades limping through a fairy tale like an impotent Don Quixote.

But Darren abandoned the reasons and restraint on his first night in the Danube, sitting next to Margot. He’d had too much wine, she’d pursed her lips, and in her loft an hour later, it was over and he was finally – relieved. "To a French princess," he wrote, "I did myself give." He was inebriated, but the verse sounded romantic and fateful at the time, and he carried that quip, with the day and time of his relief, in his wallet thereafter.

Over the ensuing nights, she grew tired, wanting time to herself, worrying over his intense longing for her – and to be blunt, "Couldn’t you just ease off for one night for Christ’s sake?" – and Darren was a junkie without his fix. The more he asked for "it," the less he got. He tried everything – kissing her eyelids, giving expensive jewelry, fragrant baths, exotic scents – and he still passed each night, he thought, in his so-called "involuntary withdrawal."

I give new and tortured meaning to the word "it," he thought. It stood for nothing less than "debaucherous copulation," a demand made of her that she did not always wish to honor, nor was she under any obligation to do so, he said. We all have to find our ways to release our tension – without dependence, she said.

Darren understood the sort of push and pull that happened in all relationships, with several husbands telling him, "It sounds like you two are ready for marriage if you’re already trying to buy her off." What passed for humor in the Danube was always funnier if not true.

A month into their tryst, she found him pacing naked around her bed, she asked what he was doing walking around the bed, "Is it some kind of perversion?"

"I don’t care about your demons or treatments or methods of release, but at the end of the day, give up and make love to me," he said. "Or have sex – whatever it is." Another lesson learned about the game is to shut your mouth about sex – and never say the problem is "sex," he learned. Instead say "it," even if that soon wears its welcome.

She ripped the blanket and pillows off her bed and ran to her second bedroom, locking herself in for the night. He said what the hell’s the problem, and she told him to go find a receptacle better suited for his selfish little needs. He stood at her door and "restrained," like he’d felt he’d done all his life, wanting to crawl out of his skin.

The next morning, she told him to get the hell out so he stayed at Gordon’s apartment, in the Marina district, until Margot found out where he was and pounded on Gordon’s door screaming I know you’re in there, you bastard, now come out because I want you back. Margot and Darren returned to the Danube, consumed Black Russians and beer and wine and unfiltered cigarettes, and she said she was hurt because he didn’t act heartbroken when she told him to get the hell out.

He told her he was only doing what she’d wanted, that he was heartbroken – and she said really? And he said yes, of course, I’ll always love you, and they drove back to her loft and did "it" all over the place as if it was their first time. He reaffirmed his commitment by adding to the quip in his wallet: "And from a French princess, I will never leave."

A week later, Margot asleep and Darren staring at the ceiling enforcing his restraint, he returned to the Danube to find someone to run to – I need to know someone will take me in when I leave her, he thought.

A Japanese girl named Jane, in a denim gaucho, introduced herself and they shared a wide-rimmed margarita. He told Jane about his virginity before Margot, his disillusion after Margot, and how much he loved her, or tequila, whatever. She said her culture didn’t really approach relationships with the same, "Um, intensity," as his culture, but he should consider himself lucky because half the solution is identifying the problem. "So," she said, "at least you know what you’re doing to yourself." He touched her thigh and she said, "Not until you tie up this problem of yours."

"I’d like to tie her up," he said, "and set her on a damn guillotine, that damn pout of hers and all. It’s the only way to get out of her life."

She smiled and said, "Call me when you’re free," and left without giving him her number.

The following week, Margot asleep and Darren staring at the ceiling, he walked to the Danube and met an Oakland girl with short auburn hair, a pierced nose, a skull and crossbones tattoo on her left shoulder, who said, "I’m thinking you’re like – at the back of a lemming pack, with your passivity and all. Cowboy, when you get to the edge of your cliff, you’ll just sail off with the rest of them. You’re a born follower. Don’t you know about preservation of self? It’s black and white – it’s Darwin out there, not Gandhi, darling."

"What’s a lemming?" he asked.

"A rodent-like thing. They all gather up and jump off cliffs, a mass suicide, like a regressive migration. It’s not really true, but it’s the image that’s important," she said.

"Mass suicide sounds like a service you attend before you kill yourself," he said, scooting closer to her in the bar. He’d heard the lemming analogy before and imagined the line would elicit much praise, but never dreamed it would lead to a night with a girl like that, from Oakland.

"I guess that describes you better than my lemmings, I’ll give you that," she said, sliding away from him, waving her fingers, scrunching her nose, the pierced stud lost in a wrinkle.

He left the café, stepped into the rain, and returned to Margot’s loft. He clenched his fists, released them – this thing with Margot is making me crazy and I can’t tell up from down – I hate myself, always waiting for it to get better. He lay next to her, staring at the ceiling, until the morning alarm sounded.

And so each night, each week, passed – until now, when he finds himself at a Christmas supper with Claire and John, everyone well into their alcohol and roast duck. He watches the blinking lights on the tree, the lights of San Francisco as seen from above, wonders if he’s been here before.

Claire insists if Darren just stays with Margot long enough, he can take the rewards in the long run. "I don’t know about your minimal qualifications for girlfriends or wives – and God knows, I’m not asking – but you owe it to her to give it a shot. People are who they are, and I’m certain you have your own demons to deal with, dear. But when you love someone, you’ll go through hell for him or her. I imagine you have the sex thing coming between you – like the others? Well, you can keep trying to get her love, or sex – same difference – or accept things as they are."

She says the family implemented a ruse many years ago, to protect everyone from Margot. It called for everyone to feign love and concern for her constant troubles, her constant men – so long as you didn’t get attached to her and her problems. See? Preservation of self. Take care of yourself and let things roll out the way they will. Sure, there are problems – there’s money, men, children, jobs, depression, drugs – she’s been through all of them like a bull in a china shop. The ruse is all we have after all these years to spare us from the pain of loving her, they said, while never committing to help her or getting sucked into her life – or downward spiral – same difference. So you can see, Claire and John say, we want to know how we are to include you in our ruse. Will you join us in the ruse or be subject to the ruse?

Darren swallows a second Black Russian, heavy on the vodka, pinches his wrists and elbows, makes sure he is still in their house, around the Christmas tree and bright lights, and not in another dream, those he finds himself in when asked to restrain. Effects of leaving, of staying – altruism, a ruse. Is this a setup? Claire and John don’t know me. They don’t know what hides just under my skin, they don’t know if I peek down Claire’s blouse after my third drink, nor if I care about Margot or myself. Perhaps I practice my own subversion, in keeping Margot around for those occasions when I can let loose the restraints. Is not life spent waiting for such moments? I’m either restraining and waiting, for days and weeks – or I’m letting loose, for ten minutes, an hour.

"Margot wants to get married," I say. "I’m not against it. How much does it matter that we can’t stand each other?"

Claire sucks in another burp and John snorts himself awake. "Now listen here, Darren," Claire starts. "John, what do we want to tell him?"

"Basically, we think it’s time you shit or get off the pot," John says, wiping the corners of his lips.

"God damn it, I’ve about had it with this little game …" Claire begins.

Darren fights back a smile, what with the Black Russians and a dream and a ruse, unsure of the consequence of mocking anyone in this situation.

"… I’ve seen dozens of dumb ass men like you. ‘Oh, I can change the world,’ you think, ‘I know more than you.’ Well, see, there’s myth and reality. And you’ve got to separate the two. There’s what you know and what you think you know. Margot goes through men like a turbo wood chipper. Some of the men have been good ones, the poor buggers. And we, John and I, really care about you," she says, finishing her fourth bourbon straight up.

She elbows John, who rubs his eyes and says, "Yup, absolutely poor buggers. Everyone of them, good. I think we’re done with supper, tonight, Darren, I’ll walk you to the door."

Claire grabs Darren as he passes her, kisses his cheeks, and smiles: "You’re a good boy, now scoot off and make this the last Christmas we see you, OK?"

Darren stands on their front porch, stares at the steps leading down to the curb, unsure of which foot to put down first. Shake it off, he thinks, it’s just more of a dream, it’s not real.

I need to leave her, but knowing what you should do doesn’t mean you’ll do it. I’m hooked on this game we play, and the nights she gives herself to me – few and far between – make everything better, gives me my fix. Until the following night.

You can depend on some things. Young guys like me getting drunk trying to figure out where they are – where they’re standing, where their lives are. Nights of desperation, insomnia, deprived of "it." But when you’re in that bed every night and you must have it but she doesn’t want to give it to you, you can’t depend on a rational response.

A driver leans out the window of his taxi, parked at the bottom of the steps: "Darwin? I been waiting here ten minutes, your ride is already paid, you live down by the Danube, right?" Claire and John had arranged and paid for the cab a few days ago, the driver says. "Hop in."

Darren slides into the backseat and rolls down the window, needing fresh air, to clear the senses. He watches men and women huddling in corners, on park benches, settling in for the night. While stopped at a red light, he throws a quarter at a man squatting in a cardboard box, under government Christmas lights wrapped around a streetlamp – God damn preservation of self, Darren whispers.

December 17, 1991

Margot slams the door on her way out, Darren rolls out of bed, checks the curtains, ensures she’s leaving and she’s out of sight. She makes a right on to the thoroughfare and thirty minutes later, the moving truck pulls up. Bruce and Homey jump out, hired for a couple hundred bucks to get Darren out of Margot’s loft before five o’ clock.

The new apartment will not be ready for move-in until the next day, but Claire and John tell Darren he can stay at their house, just for the night, as they’re in Tahoe for the week.

I’m ashamed of myself, he thinks, lying to Margot so long, consolidating what’s left of my past and me into boxes for almost three years. Homey looks at him as if he is a whipping post, tells him, "Dude, get a grip. Drive a nail in the wood and call it done," when he tells Homey he is reconsidering the whole thing.

The move is completed by four o’ clock and the movers take the truck to the new apartment, where the truck and its contents will be parked overnight. Darren parks his car around the corner from Claire and John’s house, closes the curtains, locks the cats in the garage, and sprawls on their couch. He allows his free arm and leg to fall to the floor.

Margot bangs on the door. "I know you’re in there, you bastard, get out here. You’re not going to leave me like this," she yells. She runs from one window to the next, peeking in where she can, smashing the flat of her hand on the windows. She tears through the gate into their backyard and rips open the broken latch on the screen door.

Darren rolls off the couch and crawls to the Christmas tree, climbing over boxes, wedging himself between the back of the tree and the corner of the wall. He pins his legs against the north wall, his back and head against the east wall, forcing himself to blend into the gifts and the walls. He closes his eyes, holds his breath – think of something, anything, to get yourself through this, like the nights you stare at the ceiling. You’re running from bulls in Spain, a bull gores you from behind, and you’re finally free from Claire as life and death swirl like ribbons twisting before your eyes. You’re with Jane and the girl from Oakland, you’re a lemming and you know you’re to go over the edge with the rest of them – but Jane relents and says, "Come with me," and – I’ve got to go through with this, run to the front of the pack, look out for myself. If that means I hurt someone in so doing, it only proves survival goes to the selfish. I’m a subversive lemming to the girl from Oakland; I’m a perverted boy looking for a receptacle to Claire. Subversion, perversion – same difference.

She is upstairs, stomping around, opening and slamming doors: "If you’re here, I’ll find you, you bastard," she screams. "You will make this right, I swear it."

I could marry her, he thinks – jump from behind the tree – I’m sorry I left, I love you so much – and have at "it" all over the place. And stare at the ceiling, pace around the bed naked for another two years until Claire and John invite us to Christmas supper and I’m on the other side of the ruse.

Margot screams in the kitchen, beats her fists on the counters – "I want to marry you, we should be married, God damn it, don’t you know what I know? How could you ruin everything?"

Darren buries his face into the carpet, stares at the Christmas tree needles poking up from the floor – don’t cry, whatever you do, hold it together. She passes by the tree, the coat closet, opens the front door, locks it, walks out, and closes it.

He hears her car start, hears it driving away – he expels his breath, whispering, "It’s over, and I’m still alive."

February 4, 1992

Darren slouches in the classroom of the Physical Science’s lecture building, on a college campus south of San Francisco. A plastic mauve chair sits atop an old oak lectern, stored behind a filing cabinet pasted with a yellow smiley face and a purple bumper sticker: Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.

"The animal kingdom is not unique in how it goes about ensuring its survival. Animals by and large behave selfishly, there’s no middle ground for them; all choices and acts center around their own survival, and they’re ruthless in so doing. Quite admirable, really," Professor Albrecht says.

Darren stirs the straw in his soda bottle, stirs the wild turkey bourbon into his beer – tells other students it’s apple juice – and imagines this Professor Albrecht in a fight for his life on the African savannah. His pasty-assed body wouldn’t last a second out there, he thinks. This guy is a comfortable balding white man who’s never been in a fight for his life.

"But of course, everything is relative, don’t you think?" Albrecht continues. "There are occasions when even we, of the higher order in the chain, will act selfishly, like the everyday scavenger. It all depends on the situation, and often times, particularly in the discipline of science, the difference between right and wrong is ambiguous, when saving yourself is not wrong."

When in winter, on the San Francisco estuary, in a classroom overlooking the interstate that splits California into east and west, a middle-aged white biology professor will tell you how things are in the animal kingdom, how things are in nature, how cause and effect lead to adaptation, to the weeding out of the weak, the climb to the top for the strong, and the selfish. You’ve the fifth of wild turkey and the five bottles of a dark German beer in a cooler on the passenger side of your car and a tumbler with straws in a sack next to you. You’ve the schoolbooks and notepads and pens in a gray backpack, and the wallet in your left back pocket that contains the date and time you gave your virginity to Margot. You’ve got the addendum folded atop the first note. And you’ve got the memory of Margot, how she looked that first night, those visions of white sheets and pillows rolled and crunched between the two of you and the kisses of alcohol, her long, curly hair tumbling across your body. And the knowing that she may knock on your apartment door tonight, as last night, and when you open the door, she will force herself into your room and say God damn it, I can’t believe how much I’ve missed you as she slaps off the light switch next to the door and falls to her knees in front of you.

And everything you’ve promised, heard, and thought about presents itself to you as an aggregate, as a choice of contrasts, do you proceed with the normal course of your nature or do you fight the tide, adapt, and act for yourself? There is what I should do and what I will do, you think to yourself, as you bend to her, take her head in your hands and whisper into her ear, "And I have missed you and love you more than you could know."

Lose yourself in what she offers you on these lonely nights, between all the alcohol and biology, and respond in kind when Claire and John invite Margot and their inevitable son-in-law to their Christmas dinner every year for the rest of your life.