Whenever I’m allowed to wander in Portland, I end up here. It doesn’t matter where I say I’m going—today the idea was I’d stop at Collage on Alberta Street to check out Halloween paper and get myself a new notebook. I’ve claimed to want some Salt and Straw ice cream or Aladdin hummus. When the freeway turns off into the roads I used to call my way home, I go off route. I’ll just drive by quick, I claim. Just to see what it looks like. Killingsworth Street turns to Holman turns to 28th, and I am standing outside of my first Portland address. Elizabeth Hall at Concordia University. The window into my dorm room still looks out onto the street. There is still a bench where smokers still huddle together to share lights and gossip, where I sat and waited for a stranger I now call husband to pick me up for a date.
It is still here. I am still here.
I turn down these streets and am heartened when I still know the turns, thirteen summers later. I remember everything and yet so little, trying to piece together a few lifetimes ago.
The campus has been completely rehauled, just as the streets I took to get here have been. The strip clubs and bodegas have been gutted. The bones of the buildings have been painted Pantone Colors of the Year and tattooed in twee, script-font logos. I can’t quite remember what Concordia looked like in 2003, when my family dropped me off with my Victoria’s Secret bag twin extra-long comforter and Thunder from Down Under poster. The baseball field was leveled and a gleaming glass LEED-certified library erected in its place. I’m sitting at a Pacific Northwest-nodding pine picnic table in front of the theater I performed in that’s no longer a theater. A group of shockingly early-rising students hunch over books and SmartWaters next to me, and they look like middle schoolers. I tell myself that I was that young in this same space, but it doesn’t seem true. I can park in this spot as many times as I wish, but grasping who I was and wasn’t is an impossibility.
Why do I keep circling back to a place that doesn’t exist?
Go with my parents to Seattle and you’ll end up on Alki Beach. No matter that you’re coming down for the Sounders game at Centurylink Field, or wanted to pop into the Pike Place Market, or fill a growler at Two Beers. It’s not that far, they’ll say. Just over the bridge.
They will drive up to the viewpoint on California Way, past the Baskin-Robbins where my mom worked in high school and ended up missing the 4th of July 1976 celebration. It’s right around the corner from the library where she walked as a kid. You’ll pass my grandparent’s old house and my great aunt’s old house and my old babysitter’s house, whom they’ll mention as if I can remember a blink in my life from the age of four. They’ll pass the condos my dad and his father built one summer, overlooking the Puget Sound’s postcard million dollar ferries-and-Space-Needle view. The high school where Mom and Dad met.
Growing up, I attended this tour with the disinterest of someone who has no history. It was a necessary price on the way for fish and chips or Pegasus deep dish pizza. Now I nudge it: do you want to go to Met Market on Alki, if it isn’t too much trouble? Which house was Grandma’s, exactly? What did Dad build? I’ve co-opted the tour as my own, pulling my companions over to the west side, tracing what I’ve claimed as part of my own history. The memories string together like rosary beads; a prayer in the hopes that we’ll be remembered.
I keep the memory that we were here alive because I finally understand its necessity.
This is why I write essays and this is why I haunt the places where I used to be. They are twin confirmations of the stories I tell myself. Standing here underneath trees that watched over an 18-year-old edition of myself reaffirms that the past I’ve assembled in my work has to be true, at least in facets. I am addicted to untangling the narrative that becomes richer and more elusive with each chasm-ing year, as the facts turn into anecdotes turn into legends. I’ve retold the stories of why I am here and how I became the person who circles the block this morning so many times that they don’t feel real. They aren’t. How can they be? I’ve distilled everything down to the explanations that fit neatly into a paragraph. I’ve cleaved away the unnecessary detritus and nixed the contradictions to smooth the arc. My memory, in my mind and on the page, is construct. Based on a girl who lived here and a heart I can’t recreate.
If I had children, they’d be stuck in the backseat while I gave this tour. Here’s where I used to buy fancy sandwiches and flowers for my dorm room, even though I couldn’t afford them. Here’s the house where I took singing lessons as an art credit and sang Italian arias in a voice I’ve lost. Here’s where I set out a campaign table for John Kerry and handed out flyers to the approximately five democrats on campus. But this is a solo tour; a wordless witnessing that yes, I remember. That I didn’t invent the history. Only its sorting.
Last night I was putting out Halloween decorations (because it’s really really close to October and the 80 degree days in the forecast have to be a lie), and Matt streamed The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack into our living room speaker. There’s a track at the very end that doesn’t appear in the film, an epilogue of Jack Skellington’s story narrated by Patrick Stewart.
And I asked old Jack, do you remember the night
When the sky was so dark, and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
Nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
To that long fateful night—now think carefully, Jack!
Would you do the whole thing all over again,
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?
And he smiled like the old Pumpkin King that I knew,
Then turned and asked softly of me… “Wouldn’t you?”
“Why wasn’t that in the movie?” Matt wanted to know.
I hid my face in a box of spider webs and pumpkins, where he couldn’t catch the tears riveting down my cheeks. “They didn’t want to animate that much more film,” I made up. “The studio was going bankrupt as it was.”
Because here is the story that you’ll find in all my work on Concordia and those first solo years in Portland: I was lonely, I’d made a terrible mistake in which school I should attend, and I nearly drowned while I tried to survive and be happy.
Which were all true, but ignore the bits about how in love I felt on that theater stage, a place I’d likely have no time and space for at a larger school. Or the friends I did make who were odd and smart and creative at a place that wasn’t set up to nurture that. Or the professors who introduced me to Cheryl Strayed’s work and kept reading my work long after class was over. I leave out how much I loved having a whole big room to myself plastered in Elvgren pin-ups and Betty Page shots, microwaving a big bowl of Nally chili and watching Sex and the City DVDs until my eyes hurt. It leaves out walking along the budding Alberta streets with their co-op galleries and queer coffee shops that can no longer afford the rent, dreaming up a woman who could live and work in this city and afford to drop in and spend $5 on a handmade letterpress card.
The story I tell leans into the suffering and omits the more placid, sentimental becoming.
And if there wasn’t a comfort in returning to this campus over and over again, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t frequent places that teem with terrible memories. I don’t go to Olympia or Gladstone or the hilltop in Tacoma. I still feel my heart rate tick up when I pass Canby Telcom or The Green Dragon.
But when I’m in the middle of this campus, I feel a softening. I remember that being in college and confused and conflicted was terrifying and hurtful but also free and hilarious and opulent. I can almost grasp again how light it felt to be so very certain in all of my unknowns and blank spaces. I remember falling in love with the possibility of this place and what I could be within it. The story that only I will ever know, because it is untellable in its entirety, it returns. It reminds me.
And I smile like the old stupid freshman I once knew, and I turn and ask softly of myself, wouldn’t you?