Portland / Transition

The Ghost on the Bench

Elizabeth Hall, August 2014

Elizabeth Hall, August 2014

For the past four weeks, I have been wandering in circles. I’m a strange woman in a familiar place, trying to convince herself that she can belong here again. The weekends, in particular, have been yawning vessels of time I am desperate to fill, afraid of where my mind will wander if it’s not full of chatter, how gnarled my hands may twist if they are not subject to a myriad of distractions. Eat here, shop on the other side of town. Pick this up here, that there, let my GPS twist me up and down Burnside and Sandy to McLoughlin and the labyrinth of Ladd’s Circle.

I gravitate toward my old, familiar beats. My favorite teriyaki shop in Wilsonville. Nordstrom Rack in Clackamas. New Seasons in Lake Oswego. I turn onto the road to my house without remembering that someone else lives there now; stocking my fridge with their food, claiming my address as theirs. I try to make up reasons to come to these places that still feel, after a year and a half packed with upheaval and certainty in my own sphere, unmarred. Peet’s Coffee in Bridgeport still charges $3.75 for my nonfat, sugar free vanilla latte. Whole Foods has my favorite curry paste. The vacant bar on the corner of my old town still hasn’t been rented out.

My head is too busy to make sense of my zig zags, my total lack of logic, it does not ask why I’ve driven an hour into inner northeast for an ice cream cone. It is too busy sifting through the charred wreckage I’ve made of my life. Taking notes, counting casualties, recalculating the cost. Calling for backup. My heart takes over, and it is all over the place.

This morning, I didn’t drive to the grocery store five minutes from the house I was staying. I didn’t process that all I wanted was a pint of berries and some yogurt for breakfast, and there was a farmer’s market on the main road. Even when I knew I wanted to go to New Seasons, I didn’t care about the five other, closer locations I passed on the way to the one I wanted to be at, the first one I was ever at—New Seasons Concordia District.

I used to come here ten years ago, and I would leave with little or nothing but the idea that this is who I wanted to be, a woman who grew up and shopped at New Seasons for yogurt and berries. I remember every so often buying one of the small flower arrangements or a make-your-own sandwich that I couldn’t afford, with money I have no idea how I came by, because I just couldn’t wait. I treasured these luxuries as postcards from a person I’d yet to become, a reassurance that somehow I would get there.

I followed that girl here, to the Concordia college campus, unrecognizable in chunks: the baseball field is now a lush green commons leading to a gigantic LEED-porn library full of daylighting windows and comfortable chairs, and rotating glass case exhibits on vanished Native American tribes and salmon runs. But Elizabeth Hall, my home for two years, has not been touched. I knew it hadn’t been, but something in me had to see it, had to feel that the place I’d been so lost is still standing.

The maple tree is here. The pine branches continue to sway outside of my window, its shades drawn. There are dragon flowers that are unfamiliar, but maybe because of the season. What matters still exists, the Elizabeth Hall bench, a sturdy port memorializing the building’s founding in 1958. It is covered in bird shit from the maple’s dwellers, and once school starts again, it will regain its moat of cigarette butts and ash. My smaller, more naïve ass spent hours on this bench. It sat here with a friend I’ve ceased speaking to. It puffed on clove cigarettes and paged through The Merc. It waited for strangers to roll through and pick me up, potential boyfriends who never committed to the role. I wept on this bench, on the phone to my mother who was too far to swoop in for someone who was too old to be saved.

Ten years ago, I was lost at this school. It wasn’t the right place for me to be. I had no tribe—I wasn’t a Christian or a soccer player, the main factions at what had been a small, intimate class. I had no idea who I was, and I scorned my decision every day to come here. I flew down I-5 to Portland chasing blurry dreams—new friends, love, a place of my own. A role I could fit. A chance to shine as brightly as I knew, deeply, I could.

This bench held my sorrow. It held me, convinced I had failed, that I was a disappointment to myself and everyone I’d ever known. I would become a cautionary tale instead of an inspiration. I ruined everything.

This bench held me on the afternoon when a man parked his silver Firebird in visitor parking, not knowing that he was about to meet his future wife. It held my last set of boxes I hauled out of Elizabeth Hall bound for my first apartment. It still stands in a city I’ve loved my entire life, from the childhood family vacations down to the coast up until right now, without my husband and my cats and my house, the one thing I know for certain is that yes, this is home.