It’s Okay to Talk About Leaving

I drove back up to the Pacific Northwest alone. I drove up the 101 with the mountains to one side and the deep, blue expanse of the pacific ocean on the other. Then I headed inland in northern California through the Shasta mountain range and pine forests. From then on the drive was harrowing. I wound through narrow mountain roads with sharp curves and steep cliffs beside eighteen wheelers and signs warning of rockslides and precipitous inclines. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping the steering wheel, certain I’d go careening off the side of a mountain to meet my end in a deep ravine at any moment.

“Just let me get over this mountain.” I prayed to no god in particular. But as soon as I was past the mountain….THERE WAS ANOTHER FREAKING MOUNTAIN!

Things didn’t level out until Eugene, Oregon. By then I was shell shocked and just ready for the trip to be over. An indicator that one or more of my tires was low kept blinking on my car’s dashboard. I don’t know how to put air in a tire, or how to change a flat, so in addition to all of the other things that deeply concerned me, I was also afraid of being stuck on the side of a mountain with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come.

I spent two nights in cheap motels. One in Fairfield, California and the other in Cresswell, Oregon. In Fairfield, the room was nice, and I watched cable television while some terrible children above me yelled for no reason until their terrible parents yelled at them to “shut the fuck up.” In Cresswell the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated. I lay in a lumpy bed with lumpy pillows, worried that someone was going to break into my car and steal my meager belongings, or that I’d wake up to a flat tire or both. At 3 am I listened to a man and woman have sex. The way the woman was screaming, I’d have been concerned that she was being murdered rather than made love to, had she not kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The weeks leading up to the move were hard. I was unhappy, and my unhappiness was a gray cloud that covered the whole house. Santa Barbara felt like a prison, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy, that I wanted to leave. We were no closer to getting a place of our own and still sleeping on couches in his parents’ living room. He was frustrated that I wasn’t trying harder to fit in and I was daunted by the prospect of spending $1600 a month on an apartment in a town where I had no friends, where there were no coffeehouses and bookstores, where everyone was tan and smiled toothpaste commercial smiles.

“You should go back to Seattle.” He said one evening. “You talk about it all the time. You miss it.”

It had become clear as time passed that we didn’t want the same things, or to live in the same places. I’d already been thinking of escape before he suggested it. Seattle was the last place I was really happy before we’d begun our haphazard, cross-country odyssey. Once the words were said aloud, it became fact. I was leaving.

We spent the last couple of weeks taking pictures of beaches and streets lined with palm trees. Of red-tiled rooftops and ocean sunsets. We sat in the garage watching the same shows or playing the same video games as if nothing was changing, but a distance was already growing. The invisible miles that separated his heart from mine.

His family had one last dinner for me before I left. C deep fried tortillas, and we had tacos. We drank wine from the glasses his mother had given us for Christmas.

“I really appreciate how well your family treated me,” I said.

“They’re your family too.” He said.

I didn’t cry until the morning I drove away. Then I sobbed, hard, wracking sobs onto his shoulder. He cried too, and we just stood in his driveway holding one another.

It’s very hard to leave someone you still love.

When I got back to Seattle, it rained. I drove up hills lined with wooden houses with rosebush front yards sporting “Black Lives Matter” signs, “No One is Illegal,” “Love is Love,” and I knew that I was back.

My friend Bill had been kind enough to allow me the use of his guest room. I unpacked my few things, my computer, a handful of books, and my clothes, and got settled in. After months without, such simple things as a closet and a bed that I’d taken for granted became precious. To have a room and privacy again was a gift I can never repay.

I couldn’t help but think about C still living with his parents. Still on a couch, still having no privacy or space of his own. Without me, he can’t afford to move out, and without my car, he has to rely on them or buses to get to and from school. He makes plans to transfer to a school in Northern California where the rent is cheaper. We talk about me going to visit at the end of the month, to see if that’s a place I might want to live for the next three years until he’s finished school. But I don’t know that either of us really believes that’s going to happen.

Being back in Seattle is strange. The city I used to live in has been replaced by a newer, more expensive one. I walk down gray, rain slicked streets, past the new restaurants and bars that have taken the place of my old haunts. The old city and the new city are superimposed over one another, so I see both at once. I feel like I’ve fallen out of linear time, and the past and present exist at once, giving me a never ending sense of deja vu.

I sit in a coffeehouse that I used to sit in when I lived here before. The barista is the same barista that I dated 10 years ago. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “How’s life?”

“Interesting.” I say.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by joblessness, the temporary room, the drastic change and stark absence of him beside me, sharing this with me. I weep a little as it rains outside and hipsters in wet jackets walk inside shaking umbrellas. I wonder if coming back was the right decision, or if this will be another in a string of decisions that I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever live the settled life of people with families and houses who have made better choices than me.

I sit in coffeehouses and walk to bookstores. Already I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve had brunch and drinks, I’ve made plans for dinners and happy hours. Piecemeal I try to reassemble the life I used to live. I sit in the same corner of the same cafe I used to sit in, and for a moment it’s as if I never left, as if the last 7 years never happened. But they did happen. The weight of them creases the corners of my eyes in wrinkles that weren’t present the first time around. The cities and the people I’ve encountered have left their mark inside me, invisible maybe, but present like scar tissue criss-crossing my heart. I look for jobs while folk music plays in speakers overheard, while people younger than me sit illuminated by smartphones and laptops, hoping that this time, I’ll make good decisions. That the second time around I’ll be able to do everything right, and that everything will finally work out….despite historical precedent.

For now the sky is heavy with dreams and the future unfolds like a map, clouded with uncertainty, but, for the moment, full of promise.

Just Like Heaven – Seattle, 2007

“Look, we’re wearing the same underwear,” he says. His mouth is swollen and red like the splitting skin of a squashed plum.  He finishes pulling down my pants.  There is no denying the unembarrassed redness of our briefs.

“So we are.”  I agree.

His pale skin is a stark contrast against his flannel sheets.  I slide on a condom.  His hand is on my chest.  Red.  I close my eyes.  Red.  When we kiss, we are reduced to a pair of red, open mouths.

Earlier, I’d been sitting in a coffeehouse, pretending to read, silently willing him to ask me what I was reading, to ask my name, to say something, anything.  Outside the sun crept blood red across a purple sky like a fuzzy spider.  A ray of light set all the trees lining the boulevard on fire.  My reflection was superimposed over the empty, gray street below as I stared dully out the window, surprised by the intensity of my own longing.

Later I sit naked on the edge of his bed.

“Can I snoop through your bag?”  He asks.

“Sure.” I say.

I start to put my clothes on.

“Which is which?”  I ask, holding up identical pairs of red underwear.

“At this point does it really matter?”  He asks.

At this point, I have to concede, it probably doesn’t, and I shrug into one pair and hand him the other.  I put on my pants and sweater and look under his bed for my socks.

“Can I borrow this?”  He asks of the book I’d been pretending to read when we met.  An impressively long, French novel, that after five years I’d never finished reading.

“Sure.”  I respond.  I put my hand on his naked shoulder and kiss the top of his head, gently.  I cannot find my socks.

“Good.”  He grins.  “Now you’ll have to see me again.”

Outside it has gotten cold, and I walk with my hands tucked under my arms back to Hannah’s apartment.  I walk up Pine Street, toward Broadway, where the homeless people huddle in doorways, where empty syringes litter the sidewalk of an abandoned lot, where young men in leather jackets walk from one bar to the next, where the sky is red and black like an infected wound, and no one expects any kindness.  A homeless man asks if I have any change, but I shake my head “no” and keep on walking.  When I rub my nose I notice that my fingers smell like him, and I smile into the cold night.  My breath hovers in front of my face like a lonesome ghost.

When she feels sad, Hannah puts on high-heeled shoes and plays the piano.  I hear the music echo down the hallway before I get to her door.  Once there I pause and wonder if I should go back to the coffeehouse.  I slip in, anyway.  She sees me and smiles, and once she’s finished with her song asks, “How was the coffeehouse?”

“Good.” I respond, taking off my shoes.  I leave my wallet, watch, and keys in a neat pile.  I try to be as unobtrusive as I can.

“Like the ones back home?”  She asks, sitting on her piano bench, draping an old, fringed blanket over the keyboard.

“No.”  I say.  “But promising.”

“That’s good,” she says.

I ask about her day at work.  She is the bookkeeper of a retirement community.  She relates a story about Herman, an alcoholic, paraplegic war veteran who came down stairs in his wheelchair with no pants on, covered in feces when they were showing some new prospective tenants the facilities.  She saw him first and wheeled him back up to his apartment before anyone else had a chance to see him and had an aid give him a bath and dress him.

“I guess we’ve got something to look forward to!”  I say, but Hannah just snorts and shakes her head.
“No,” she says.  “We could never afford a place like Victorian Gardens.  We’ll end up in some state run place, smelling like pee and talking to the walls.”

“I’m glad we had this talk.”  I say.

She grins at me with her crooked smile and says, “Let me cut your hair.”  I acquiesce and she leads me to her bathroom.  I sit on the edge of her bathtub with no shirt on.  She stands behind me with a pair of scissors and a comb.  “You were out late,” she says.  I feel her cold fingers on my scalp, on the back of my neck.  “Sit still.” She says.

I watch the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap.

“I met a boy.”  I say.

“That’s good.  That’s just what you need.”  She says, “lift your head.”  Her hand is under my chin.  After a while she says, there.  “How does it look?” I stand holding her compact and look at the back of my head in her bathroom mirror.

“Great.”

Then she says, “Want to go grab some hot chocolate?”

Walking to the French café across the street from her apartment we see that they have lit the Christmas tree on top of the Space Needle.  In the café we eat croissants filled with nutella and carols play and we joke about how Christmas music is inescapable.  We watch people walk by from the shops downtown with their arms full of shopping bags, packages tied up in neat, red bows.

Then we see him, her imaginary boyfriend.  He’s tall and thin, with sideburns like lightning bolts wearing all black.  She slips out of her seat and runs out after him.  They went out twice, and then he stopped returning her calls.  Nevertheless, she is convinced that he is her soul-mate and has spent hours sitting on her couch with me, analyzing the possible reasons why he hasn’t returned her calls, and relating why they are perfect for one another.

I see them standing in the street below beneath a streetlamp, her red lips and red shoes, the coal black shock of her coiled hair, her pale face.  I see them shout at one another as shoppers pass by hurriedly, as a homeless man sits waiting for a bus.  I look at my spoon sitting in a pool of pale brown chocolate in my white saucer.  I look up again and the imaginary boyfriend is gone, and Hannah is standing in the street alone.

In her apartment I curl up with a blanket on her couch.  After hours of her crying, after she stands on her balcony setting fire to a dried rose he had given her, after she leaves two sobbing, incoherent messages on his cell phone, after rubbing her back, after consolations and good nights and see you in the mornings, sleep becomes impossible.  Sometimes at night I turn into a giant, red monster, and I stomp around, smashing things and crushing entire buildings beneath my red, monster feet.   I stomp through memories and smash them.  Smash the face of the young man from the coffeehouse.  Smash Hannah’s bathtub.  Smash the  weathered awnings of the French café.  Once the night has been ripped to pieces so that only blackness remains, then finally, fitful sleep.

The entire city is underwater, blue and bloated as a mermaid’s lips.

“Get used to it.”  My coworker warned me.  “You won’t see the sun again for months.  Winter makes everyone crazy.”

Puget Sound is the same slate gray as the sky, as the sidewalks and the buildings, and there is no horizon, just muted shades of the same headachy color.  I walk to work shivering, my jacket damp from the wet, misty air.  The warm, rumbling thunderstorms of Texas seem like an imagined landscape from another world.

I’d left Hannah’s the week before and moved into an apartment of my own.  I’d traded a small space cramped with wires, electronics and musical equipment for the emptiness of stark white walls and unpacked boxes.  I’m relieved to no longer be sleeping on someone else’s couch, to have a place of my own again.

 

“I can hear you smiling.”  He says, as we lie curled up on his bed, afterward.  I can tell that I like him, because of my willingness to spend the entire night squished into his single bed.

“Did I happen to leave a necklace here last time?”  I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s blue.”

“I’ll look for it.”  He says.

“Thanks.”

“Who’s Jeremy?” He asks in the quite dark.

A question can fold space, can Medusa your whole body.  Your skin, your sinew and your organs can all solidify.  Dreams can be awakened from and realities can implode.  I feel myself sinking into his bed, stiff as stone.  “Why do you ask?”  Words forced through petrified lips, and even they seem heavy and solid.

“His name is written on the inside cover of that book you loaned me.”  He says.

“Just someone I used to know,” I say. He turns over, satisfied.  I feel the flesh of his arm against the stone of my chest.

Morning.  He and I go to a Russian bakery and get piroshkies for breakfast.  We walk down to Pioneer Square and take the underground tour of the city.  We walk through narrow walkways, the concrete of the city sidewalks above us, sunlight filtering in through purple skylights.  He holds my hand.  Mice scurry in the stones and rubble near our feet.  Ghosts shuffle down the abandoned avenues propelled by the memory of warmth.

We stand on the corner and he asks if I want to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

“I’m helping Hannah put up fliers for her show next week.”  I say.

“When is her show, again?”  He asks.

I tell him that the show is on Saturday.  I tell him he should come.

“Is it 21 and up?”  He asks. He stands in front of me, his hands in the pockets of my jacket to keep them warm.

“I guess so.” I say. “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Well, if it is I can’t go.”  He says.

I don’t immediately understand. “Wait?” I ask.  “How old are you?”

“20.”  He answers.  “How old are you, 23?”

“Oh god.” I say.

“24?”  He ventures.

I look at him, horrified. “Oh god.”  I say again.

Hannah and I are walking up Pike with a stack of fliers, advertising her show.

“You’re dating a 20 year old?”  She asks, laughing, and I immediately regret having told her.

“We’re not dating.  It’s just sex.” I say. “Only now it isn’t anything.  I’m cutting it off.”

She asks me to hand her the tape.  The newspaper beside us has a picture of Mount St Helens puffing a curl of thick, gray smoke into the sky.  Hannah tells me that she thinks Twenty is a good distraction, exactly what I need.  She and her Imaginary Boyfriend have reconciled and he’s coming to her show.  Besides, none of it will matter if the volcano explodes.

I tell her that the volcano is too far away.  Probably.  We imagine the city turned to ash.  The people will all be frozen, mundane figurines trapped in their everyday tasks like the citizens of Pompeii, to be rediscovered by some future archeologists.

“They’d think I was an accountant and you worked in a cubicle.”  Hannah says.  “No one would ever be able to tell who we really are.”  This is her biggest fear, invisibility. I realize that every action of Hannah’s stems from her desire to be seen, from her need for an audience.

“Who are we?”  I ask, and the question hovers in the air between us, unanswered.

Back at my apartment building I run into my neighbor, a drag queen with beautiful, caramel colored skin and a fondness for old soul music.  She sasses by in a powder blue dress and blue, high heeled shoes, a feathered boa.  I struggle with my key.

“Girl, I know you’re going to come to my show on Saturday!”  She says.

“I’ll try.”  I say, and I open the door to my apartment and go inside.  The walls are all still bare and white and the boxes all unpacked.  On my phone there is a text from Twenty.  He found my necklace behind his bed.  I should go meet him for Vietnamese and he’ll return it to me.

I meet Twenty for Vietnamese.

“Is this yours?”  He asks, holding the blue, beaded necklace in his hands.

“Yes.”  I say, eyes glistening.   The familiar feel of the necklace in my hands again.  I run my fingertips over the bumpy ceramic tile of the tabletop.

“It must mean a lot to you.”  Twenty says.

I agree that it does.

We order Pho, and sit across from one another, the steaming bowls of broth in front of us.

“You don’t look that old.”  He says, squeezing a slice of lime over his soup.

“Thanks.”  I say, stirring bean sprouts and basil into my broth, waiting for it to cool.

“Age is just a number.”  He says.  Over dinner I am surprised that I forget that he is twenty.  We talk about movies that we both love, and how he wants to study linguistics, that one day he wants to have children of his own.  Seeing a couple walk by outside with a baby between them, we smile, and his hand crawls across the table and finds mine.  “I really like you,” he says.

Outside we’re walking down Broadway, debating whether or not to stop at the chocolate shop for tiramisu.  I’m fingering my necklace, walking away from a warm, remembered past into an uncertain future.  The universe expands and contracts, and in that moment it seems possible that there is space enough for both the past and the present all at once.

 

“Will you buy me a Guinness?”  He asks, as we sit in a dark corner of the Karma Café waiting for Hannah’s show to start, our knees touching.

“So now I’m supposed to supply alcohol to a minor?”  I ask with feigned indignation.  I squint at him and then go to the bar and order a Guinness and a gin and tonic and carry them back to the table where Twenty waits for me.

“You’re the handsomest man here,” he says when I sit down beside him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”  I tell him, and hand him his beer.  The taste of gin on my lips as Hannah comes onto the stage in a black, low-cut dress.  Her hair is done up in ringlets.  She sits at the piano in high heels and begins to play.

“She’s good.”  Twenty whispers to me.  His knee is pressed against my own. Our shoulders are rubbing against one another.  I taste the sweet alcohol on his breath,  the smell of his cologne.

Hannah plays piano with a desperate intensity.  She sings, her thin voice rises high above the candlelight above the assembled audience and echoes in the rafters.  I look at the pale, candlelit faces of the audience as they look at Hannah.  There is the sound of glasses and bottles clanking, of people talking at the back of the bar, of pool balls smashing against one another from the other room.  I look outside and see two men passing a joint back and forth in the blustery, anemic night.

When the show is over, the audience stands in lingering clumps, looking in purses for cigarettes or checking the time on their cell phones.  A man begins disconnecting the microphone and amps and is rolling up cords.  Twenty and I walk up to Hannah and Twenty says, “You were great!”

I nod my assent, and say, “Really, it was a great show.”

Hannah scans the audience, now disappearing, or milling about in small circles.  “He didn’t come.”  She says.  “He said he would.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”  I squeeze her hand.  “Do you want to go grab dinner somewhere?”

She shakes here head, “No. You two go,” she says.  “I’m going to talk to the owner about another gig.”

Walking with Twenty down the street, he says, “You and Hannah must be very close.”

“We are.”  I agree.   But since moving to Seattle, I feel almost like we are strangers who know too much about each other, that all we have in common now is history, that if we hadn’t spent our twenties together, we probably wouldn’t be friends at all.  The only language we have in common is disappearing, being replaced with new words and new memories.

“You’re getting a bald spot.”  He says, his finger tracing a smooth place starting to form at my crown.  “It’s cute.”  He kisses the top of my head.  I’m sitting cross legged in his apartment, looking through the music on his phone while he picks up some homework to work on at the coffeehouse.

“You have terrible taste.”  I tell him.  I’m suddenly so afraid that he’ll stop liking me that I have trouble catching my breath.  The heart is such a stupid organ, I think.  It just keeps on beating, even though, at this point, it must be made entirely of scar tissue.  I imagine myself in a giant bubble, like the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.  I imagine floating down to the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in inky blackness.

“Lets go.”  He says, wrapping his fingers around my hand like a giant squid and pulling me up again.

At the coffeehouse an Asian girl sits in a corner, setting the timer on her digital camera to take a picture of herself.  We watch her smile, watch the camera flash.  She looks at the picture, and, unsatisfied, sets the timer again.

A young man with unwashed hair walks by wearing a red, Che Guevara T-shirt.  “Do you want me to do that for you?” He offers.

She nods, says “Thanks.”

“Smile,” he says, and she smiles.  The camera flashes.  The two of them look at the picture together.  They smile at one another and the waitress smiles, and I smile.  A deaf couple signs to one another, and they are smiling.  Everyone in the coffeehouse is smiling.

Twenty is sitting at the table across from me, working on trigonometry.

“Who is this?”  He asks when “Just Like Heaven” begins to play on the speakers overhead.

“The Cure!” I exclaim, shocked.

“Never heard of them.”  He says, and goes back to studying.

My narrow bed requires spooning.  My arm is wrapped around his chest.  The aching awareness that all that is separating us is a remarkably thin pair of underwear.   Outside the steady traffic on the interstate has become an impostor ocean.  Concrete, sprawling and gray.  The occasional blaring of a horn, a police siren, the revving engine of a motorcycle.  City sounds.  A discordant lullaby that does nothing to soothe my insomnia.

The drag queen next door arrives home from the club.  She plays “Sunday Kind of Love,” and sings along in a rich, baritone voice.  When the song stops, she plays it once again.  Someone in the apartment below her bangs on their ceiling with a broomstick and she turns the music off.

“Tomorrow we’re listening to nothing but the Cure.”  I tell Twenty.

He rolls over and kisses me, and he kisses me again.

My mind races. “I can’t believe I bought alcohol for a minor!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who I then had sex with!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who has never even heard of the Cure, and then had sex with him.  Twice.  What am I doing?  I’m a 31 year old man and he is 20.  20.  He was not alive when The Challenger exploded.  He doesn’t recall a time when there was no internet.  He has never mailed someone a letter.”  And then, “He has never lost someone he loved.”

Sunday morning.  He convinces me to walk with him in the rain to Pike Market to The Seattle Cheese Festival.  I let him drag me through the crowd from booth to booth.  He hands me cubes of cheese on toothpicks from different countries.  After about the 10th Gouda, I stop eating them and put them in my pocket until I can discretely throw them away.

Walking home, it is still raining.  I round a corner and stop in my tracks.  Standing across from me is a wolf.  Or anyway, I tell myself, it’s just a dog that looks like a wolf, a white, hulking beast straight from Siberia.  Twenty has already left me to go study.  We kissed goodbye in front of all the cold, wet tourists at the market, so I am alone.  The street near my apartment is deserted, eerily barren of Sunday traffic.  The wolf and I regard one another.  His black eyes meet my blue ones.  I am standing close enough to see the moisture on his coal black snout.

An ambulance passes in the distance, and as the siren wails, the wolf closes his eyes and howls in unison.  When the ambulance has passed, I turn, warily, and the wolf turns, and the two of us pad away in opposite directions.

At her apartment Hannah and I order Chinese take-out.  We eat with wooden chopsticks in front of the white light of her television.

“A wolf?”  She asks.

“Not a wolf,” I say uncertainly.  “A dog that looked like a wolf.”

“No fortune cookies.”  She says, disappointed.

“Maybe that’s for the best.”  I say.  She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder.

“I really wanted him to want me.”  She says.

“I know.”

She cries.  I can feel the wet tears seeping through my shirt.  I lay my head against her head.  I smooth her hair.  For a moment, we are in our twenties.  Sitting in the bedroom of my old apartment,  listening to The Cure on my stereo.  I feel suddenly larger than myself.  Like I’m too big for my own body.

“I love you.”  I whisper into her hair.

Night.  Twenty is in my bed, asleep.  I stare at his pale, white back.  The light brown freckles that spill across his shoulders.  The curve of his thigh, white leg against white sheets.  I want to memorize him.  The knobs of his spine.  The uneven line of his dark hair across his neck.  Nothing on earth is as smooth and soft as the small of his back.  I kiss him between his shoulder blades.  He wakes up, slides out of bed to go to the bathroom.    He stops in front of the window.  The blind is rolled up so that we can see the outline of the city stretching out below us.  I see him bathed in the orange light of the security lamp outside.

“It’s snowing.”  He says.

I crawl out of bed and stand behind him.  Outside, the trees and cars and buildings are all blanketed in white.  Glistening.  His skin.  White.  The walls of my apartment.  White.  The sidewalks and the streets.  White.  I want to memorize this moment.  To record it.  To be able to replay it on some future night, when he is, or isn’t there.  When it is, or isn’t snowing.  Think, how delicate time is.

He turns to me and smiles.

I put my arm around his naked shoulders and together we watch it snow.

Cities

 

IMG_1837Spring comes, even to Chicago. The snow has melted. The trees lining the boulevards are lush with green leaves. Every sidewalk is thronged with pale people in shorts, over-eager for any sign of warmth after a long winter spent indoors.

On sunny days I walk home from work instead of taking the train. The trek from downtown to our apartment takes me an hour and a half. I walk past the Magnificent Mile with its upscale shops and small boutiques, past the bistros that have pulled out their patio seating, past the planters with brightly colored flowers, through Lincoln Park with its brownstones and kids drawing on the sidewalk with pastel chalk.

Yesterday I walked past a park near the Loop and crossed paths with an elderly Asian woman on a cell phone, pushing a Shih Tzu in a baby stroller. The woman was wearing a parka even though it was warm, and the dog was decked out in a little, pink bow. This is what I love most about living in cities. The random intersections of strange lives, all of the different characters one sees in passing.

The first real city that I lived in was Los Angeles. I was still living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin at the time, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I was faced with the choice of finding another roommate or taking the plunge and heading out West to sunny California. Even though L.A. had never been on my radar of prospective places, at that point I was ready to experience life anywhere that wasn’t Texas.

Los Angeles was sprawling and strange. The weekly junk mail was littered with coupons for Botox, teeth whitening, and plastic surgery. Every time I met new people, they asked me what kind of car I drove. It seemed that everyone worked in the movie industry, drove a sports car, and had impressive stories of brushes with celebrity. I did temp work at a brokerage firm, drove a Daewoo, and impressed no one.

At my job, I was forced to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle doing mind numbingly boring data entry work. I rebelled in little ways at first, by wearing cheap, studded belts I’d bought downtown beside the men in track suits who were selling bootlegged DVDs. Later I rebelled more openly by dying my hair blue, or magenta, or purple.

Once an old man drove his car through the crowd at the Farmer’s Market on the Third Street Promenade across from the building I worked in. When our building was surrounded by helicopters, police, fire engines, and ambulances, our first thought was that there was a hostage situation. We scoured the internet for any news, and then watched in horror at the first responders carrying bodies away on stretchers. I’d had lunch at the Farmer’s Market not a half hour before, and shivered when I thought about how easily it could have been my body, limp and lifeless beneath a sterile, white sheet.

I experienced my first earthquake in that building. I was sitting in my cubicle and thought I was having a strange, sudden dizzy spell, when I looked up and saw a co-worker across from me bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Beyond her I could see the horizon with the palm trees, the beach, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean tilting back and forth as the building swayed. In a panic, my first thought was, “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and I ran down eleven flights of stairs in less than four seconds to the street below. (I would later learn this is what not to do in an earthquake since there could be falling glass and downed power lines, but I was willing to take my chances).

A few months later I left my access badge with a note on my boss’s desk telling her I quit, and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier and sat on the beach with my pants rolled up, holding my tie in my hands, my purple hair blowing in the breeze.

A few months later, a friend and I took a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. We were nearly into Portland late one night when we saw a giant ball of fire in the sky. It was neon green and larger than a full moon, and hurtling down toward the city in front of us. It was so big, in fact, that as it disappeared below the tree line, we braced for impact and expected to pull into the city to discover it engulfed in flames. But when we arrived, the city was intact, and there was no sign of the meteor. The local news mentioned in passing that several people had reported seeing it, and that it had most likely burnt up in the atmosphere as it descended.

We liked Portland, but kept driving past the lush green forests and gorgeous vistas of Multnomah falls, past the snow capped peak of Mount Rainier, to the picturesque city of Seattle. As soon as we arrived, I felt like I’d come home. A fat, colorful rainbow stretched across a pale blue sky to mark our arrival. It felt, on that first day, like the city was embracing us.

I stayed in Seattle for seven years. The friend I moved there with couldn’t quite take the long, dreary, gray Seattle winters, and after our second year decided to move back to Los Angeles. I spent a couple of lonely years after that inhabiting coffeehouses, looking for a connection. After Los Angeles, the people of Seattle seemed timid. The times I tried to strike up a conversation in a coffee shop with a stranger, I was met with an inevitable look of horror as the person I was trying vainly to engage panicked over the fact that someone was speaking to him. I grew so accustomed to being stood up on dates, that I started to take my laptop with me, so that when I was left sitting at the agreed upon place…alone, I could at least be productive and write a blog about it.

I did eventually manage to collect a group of friends who made Seattle feel like home again. I got a job where I worked from my apartment. I became gym obsessed and was in the best shape of my life, culminating in the running of the Seattle Marathon.

Around that time I met C who had also lived in California. We hit it off by trading war stories and bonding over our shared dislike of everyone who wasn’t us. After a year of not getting sick of one another, he suggested we save our money and head East, to New York City. A year after that, we got rid of everything we owned, and took the long flight to the Big Apple.

My first night in the city, we went to Times Square. I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise, the bright lights of the big screens advertising Broadway shows, M&Ms and Coca Cola. There were so many people everywhere we went. On any given block I was surrounded by languages I’d never heard before, and people from all over the world.

We bounced around from Queens, to an overpriced room we rented in Brooklyn from a vegan lesbian who made a living giving colonics. We spent a summer in Brooklyn sweltering with no air conditioning, lying naked in front of a fan circulating hot air. We ate $1 pizza slices and hot dogs in Central Park on our days off work.

Eventually we settled in the slightly cheaper, but considerably less convenient Staten Island. We took the ferry to Lower Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the island, we went for a week with no electricity.  I was amazed at how the city came together after this disaster. How everyone was willing to help one another. Several times I got rides to and from Manhattan from neighbors I’d never met while the ferry and the subway were out of commission.

We spent a year and a half in NYC. I loved the excitement of exploring the city, the museums and shops. So much of the city seems so magical. There really is no place like it. What wasn’t magical was the constant crowds of people, the piles of garbage everywhere, the filth, the rats fighting in the subway, and the increasing rents. So I convinced C to leave for a place more affordable where we could still have an urban life, but also space, and the money left over to actually enjoy ourselves.

He hasn’t quite forgiven me for our departure. And now that we have nearly a year under our belt in Chicago, (after a lost, ill-fated year in Austin, TX) we’re starting to get that wanderlust again, a longing to head off into parts unknown.

These cities, my cities, are all stacked on top of one another, are superimposed in my memory, so that some mornings I wake up, thinking about going to get a breakfast taco before realizing I’m not in Austin, or walking down to the Farmer’s Market for some flowers only to remember that the market is across the country in Seattle.

Now strangers walk down streets I once walked down. New places crop up and replace the ones I used to haunt. Other people are having their own experiences, and their cities are not my cities. These cities are ghosts. They exist only in the past, only in my memory. But I love every one of them, and all of the scary, fantastic, amazing, wonderful experiences I had when I lived in them.

The Time I Got Drunk With a Morrissey Impersonator

wifebeaterface2It began, like many of my adventures from that decade, with a call from Anna. “Come meet me in Belltown for dinner with the band!” She said with more excitement than I felt dinner with a Smith’s cover-band warranted. But as a dutiful friend, I came when she called.

The night was typical for late February in Seattle, cold with a fine, gray mist hanging in the air, giving the orange street lamps a diaphanous glow. Traffic lights stretched across rain-swept streets downtown. I pulled my striped black and gray scarf tightly around my neck and did my best to blend in with the other hipsters stumbling drunkenly from bar to bar.

The night before Anna had gone to the Showbox to see the band perform. They were an L.A. based Smith’s cover band cleverly named The Sweet and Tender Hooligans. Figuring this was as close as she’d ever get to seeing the Smiths due to Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s ongoing mutual contempt for one another, she dived into the show with complete abandon. She’d been wearing her black, Smith’s t-shirt, bobbing along to the music on the front row, singing the words to every song when the lead singer spotted her. He pulled her up on stage with the band, and while she didn’t dance like Courtney Cox had for Bruce Springsteen, she made enough of an impression to be invited out for dinner and drinks the following night, and told to “bring a friend.”

When we got to the restaurant, I could see right away that I wasn’t the kind of friend he’d had in mind, specifically that I was lacking breasts and sporting a penis, but he was a good sport about it. We had dinner with the band following their second show at a swank restaurant in Belltown. We made awkward smalltalk with crew. One of the roadie’s girlfriends told us she did Cher’s hair. For reasons now lost to time, Anna had me pretend to be her cousin visiting from the East coast. I slipped in and out of a bad, Boston accent, and told everyone I was a grad student at Harvard, majoring in linguistics.

After they sprang for dinner, the rest of the band dispersed and Anna and I were left alone with Faux-Morrissey. He suggested we meet up with him at Whiskey Bar for drinks. Sitting at a table in the dimly lit, red and black night-spot, Anna mapped out her plan to make out with him to fulfill a dream since childhood. I sipped gingerly on my gin and tonic and was quietly supportive. She was still getting over her imaginary boyfriend back then, and I thought that a make-out session with a celebrity impersonator could probably do her good.

While waiting, a handsome, young gentleman who’d been watching us from the bar came up to the two of us and suggested that we have a threesome with him. We sent him away to nurse his rejection alone while we waited for Morrissey. But the idea of Anna, naked, had been planted in my brain and couldn’t not be banished with gin.

Faux-Morrissey arrived shortly thereafter in a black shirt with the crazy eyebrows and pompadour of his celebrity look alike. His darker, Hispanic skin was the only thing that detracted from the illusion. He was Morrissey who’d spent too long in the tanning bed.

He ordered us another round of drinks, which was probably a bad idea considering what light weights Anna and I both were. Faux-Morrissey, aside from fronting the cover band, was also a lifeguard in L.A. We listened as he told us how he’d met the real Morrissey, who, we were unsurprised to discover, is a total asshole. Morrissey had asked him why Mexicans liked him so much.

By the time I started my third gin and tonic, I’d given up the Boston accent completely. Faux Morrissey kept asking hypothetical questions like, “If you could be anything at all, what would you be?”

I answered, “A proctologist.”

He seemed sleazy, and I was tired of playing along, and wondering why I was there in the first place. Noticing the glint of gold as he held his drink, I asked him about the ring on his left hand. He looked uncomfortable and assured us that he and his wife were having problems and were separated. I was doubtful, but Anna, intent on fulfilling her teenage dream was willing to ignore it. When Faux-Morrissey excused himself to use the restroom, Anna turned to me and told me I could go home now.

I hugged her goodbye and stumbled home, drunkenly through fog. I wondered what celebrity look alike I’d make out with, and couldn’t think of any in particular, but couldn’t dismiss the likelihood of such an event if the opportunity were to arise. Back in our apartment I put on my headphones and listened to “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” and waited for Anna to call and tell me how it all had played out.