The rainbow exploded behind them. They were young then. She remembered the cigarette smell of his kiss when he’d turned to her just before the shot. She remembered the Vonnegut book she’d left dogeared in the car, anxious to return to. She remembered feeling unwell and discovering she was pregnant upon returning home.
In the photo, they were all leather jackets and Rayban sunglasses. Cole and Haight. San Francisco. The rainbow mural persevered, even now, thirty years later. She knew, because they always went back.
The next photo, featured her, him and the baby. Little Charlotte. Tiny against the sprawling rainbow. Strangers smiled walking by. Or scowled, cranky at such innocence in the city.
But there they were, five years later, in front of the mural again, this time with Charlotte, now a kindergartener, plus Chloe, two, and, revealed by her protruding belly, the soon-to-be youngest, Christopher.
Another five years and there they were again, leather jackets long forsaken for LL Bean raincoats – the lifetime guarantee was so sensible – and she squinted against the glare having lost yet another pair of sunglasses. She never spent more than $10 on sunglasses then, as being the mother of three had clearly doomed her to a life of forgetfulness and misplaced items. Like her brain. Her sense of self. Her ambition.
They’d missed the next five-year mark, caught up in teen drama and she’d been drinking too much and while she prefaced any complaints to her friends with, “Oh, not that I’d change a moment of it…” the truth was there was a hell of a lot she’d change, starting with dropping out of college to stay home with the kids. Now she was trying to go back to school with a bunch of 19-year-olds who had no idea. None. They just didn’t know. But she was the one who felt stupid.
She flipped to the next album page. Charlotte was 20, the same age she’d been in the first photo, only Charlotte knew she was beautiful. She’d done that right, at least, instilled a good sense of self in her girls. Chloe was 17, then, also beautiful, but calmer, a middle child who knew her best chance lay in being the good kid, the antidote to her older sister’s rebelliousness. Christopher was 15, lanky and showing it – he stood in front of the blue stripe, slightly away from the rest of his family, with too-long legs and a half-smile. No one was sure which path he’d take.
After that, the photos alternated between her and Jack, and various combinations of the kids. The family had scattered, but whenever anyone found themselves in San Francisco, they made the pilgrimage. Cole and Haight. Rainbow mural. Grab a passerby to take a photo. Trust they’d not only take a photo worth saving, but that they wouldn’t run off, camera in hand. So far, so good.
As she looked at the photos, reassurance buoyed her. She couldn’t have failed completely, right? They had a whole history here. A tradition. Evidence that the family had survived intact. Sometimes she had rolled her eyes or outright bitched at Jack when he insisted on trekking to the Haight. The traffic! The parking! The people! But, she admitted, he’d been right. Ten years ago she wouldn’t have shared the realization, but tonight, she felt generous. “You were right,” she said, handing him the album. “Taking those photos was a fine idea.”
He grinned. “It was fun to put the album together. The kids loved it.” They’d presented it to her earlier, unable to wait for cake and candles and whatever other silly things were still included in a birthday party for someone turning 50.
Two years ago, she’d surprised Jack with tickets to the World Series. He’d spent most of baseball season holed up in the local pizza joint, nursing beers they could barely afford to cheer with people he didn’t know. She’d borrowed some money from her mom to buy the tickets. It was crazy, the kind of impulsive, impractical spending that drove Jack nuts. When she’d presented the envelope, the conflict of emotions played out across his face. His mouth burst into a smile. His forehead furrowed. His eyes widened, then narrowed again. He started to speak, stopped. She could hear his breathing quicken.
“These,” he began.
“This,” he said.
“I don’t know,” he started.
“How?” he asked.
“I made it happen,” she said. “Please don’t be mad.”
“I can’t be mad,” he said. “I feel a little sick about the cost, but I can’t be mad. The World Series? This is amazing.”
They’d had the best drive to the City ever, singing along to the Rolling Stones and Neil Young and throwing on random indie pop podcasts to make sure they wouldn’t fossilize into a classic rock cliché.
He’d loved every moment. She’d grown tired of sitting, of the long lines, of the wind, but hadn’t done anything but smile. He was a big kid, giddy on the game. Everything she’d ever loved about him shone forth that night.
And after, she hadn’t complained a bit, not once, when he aimed for the Haight. She’d stood in front of the mural, the spot where the red turned to orange, and laughed as Jack waved a $20 bill at the drafted photographer. “All yours, brother,” he said. “Just as soon as you get a good shot of my girlfriend and me.”
She’d laughed at the girlfriend part, but after, resting her head on his shoulder in the car, tears welled. Life could be so good, so very good, she thought. Why did they waste so much time making it not?
He tugged her out of her reverie. “Hey, babe, the kids are waiting.” She smiled, let him lead her out of the bedroom as she had a million times before.