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The City (The One) That Knows How

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The first time Tina took BART, exploring beyond the city and into the greater Bay Area, she thought her ears were going to explode. Under the Bay, yeah, sure, but wow. Now she's used to it, just like she's used to the buses and MUNI and the vagaries of San Francisco weather. She carries a tiny umbrella everywhere from November to April, nestled into her bag next to the pocket for her smart phone and whatever battered paperback she's picked up this week at Half Price Books. She reads pulp sci-fi, and romance novels, and her righteous glare is ready for anyone who might judge her for either of them. A girl's got to have something entertaining for the train, something she can lose herself in but also not care too much about.

She works at a Starbucks near the SF State campus, which she's aware makes her a total sell-out but which also pays for her leisure activities. Her scholarship covers tuition, no small thing, and part of room and board. Her parents cover the rest. Neither source of funding pays for the opera, plays, SFMOMA, loading up her Clipper card and getting the best garlic fries ever at the little Greek place in Nob Hill.

The best part, though, is the feeling she gets wandering around the city. It's so cosmopolitan, hopping on the bus, standing around on the platform with her friends until the train comes, packing themselves into the hard seats or clustering around a pole to hang on, and then, finally, rising up into the Financial District and the glorious hustle of downtown San Francisco. Tina always has her head up as she steps off the stairs and on to Market, grey sky above her and a crowd of tourists headed for the Embarcadero moving slowly around her. She cuts through them like they're a school of fish and she's a dolphin, fast and graceful and certain. Adventures with the girls from her floor or the people she met doing costumes for the winter play are always hilarious and wonderful, even when they're getting rained on in the Botanical Garden. And there's something perfect about standing alone on Ocean Beach, wind whipping her hair around, one girl from Ohio standing at the end of the world.

It's hard to go back to Lima now, although she does, of course. Tina's a good daughter, dutiful, and she does love her parents. She likes seeing them, likes grabbing dinner with the other glee clubbers who come back for holidays. It's just that when they're standing outside Breadstix she's always wishing they were meeting for brunch at the crepe place in West Portal, and when they talk about going to the mall she bites her tongue and doesn't say anything about walking among the giant trees in Muir Woods. She remembers how obnoxious it was to listen to Kurt and Rachel tell stories about New York, and that's a place that everyone was interested in.

When she's really honest with herself, Tina admits that she likes feeling like San Francisco is her own personal city. Her secret, her place to perfect the bored face of a city dweller and to enjoy the blossoming of her own possibility, all the people she might become someday. It's nicer not to know whether her experiences measure up with Mike's time in Chicago or Santana's storming of NYC. It's something only she knows about, and she hugs that knowledge to her.

Still, when Marley pulls Tina back and says softly, "Hey, this is totally random, but I'm kind of looking at Mills College? In Oakland?" Tina smiles and says, "Yeah, there's a girl in my calc class who transferred from there. It sounds like it was nice."

Marley smiles back, uncertain. "So if I went there we could hang out sometimes?"

"Sure." As she says it, Tina abruptly knows it's true. San Francisco has been her secret, but Oakland's its own place and anyway she's ready to share the Bay Area and the magic. She leans in confidentially. "I'll tell you everything you need to know. The most important thing is—" she pauses, reconsidering. She'd been going to talk about attitude and confidence, but as much as Marley's been coming into her own she's still not a warrior like Tina is. Maybe that's okay, though. There's room for lots of people in the Bay Area, and it could be nice to have someone like Marley along for an expedition. Not someone like Marley; Marley, who Tina hasn't given that much thought to in the past year, who could learn to stop ducking her head and start rising up with her face lifted to the clouded sky, who could take her turn picking a neighborhood to explore on a Saturday afternoon or show Tina around Oakland, who could stand next to Tina on the beach, two girls from Ohio at the edge of everything.

"The most important thing," she says again, "is to clear your ears a lot on BART. The trains run pretty deep under the Bay. The rest I'll show you when you're there."

This time Marley's smile is big and bright. "Yeah," she says. "When I'm there."

Tina puts an arm around her. "Don't worry, girl, you're going to love there just like I do. I know it."