Vernie met me at baggage claim. He was not, as I had feared, difficult to
recognize. I first spotted him by the red bandana that held back his dirty, by which I mean
unwashed, blond hair. He wore black boots laced tight around his skinny legs under a
pair of rolled up old Carharts, and his black leather jacket gave his top half a false
appearance of bulk. He was twenty-nine, a year older than me, but he looked like a
teenager. All the years of experience, travel, drugs, and struggle that usually made it their
business to carve deep lines around the eyes had failed in their task, and he looked as
fresh as a seventeen-year-old on prom night. It was the same with me. We looked exactly
like a couple of teenagers.
He threw my bags in his Jeep and as we pulled out onto the highway we
immediately argued about smoking. A doctor had told him he was developing
emphysema; I didn’t want him to smoke. He was going to anyway. I heaved the most
dramatic sigh I could muster and declined his offer of a Winston before reaching into my
bag for a pack of American Spirits. “Is smoke the healthy kind,” I said.
January is a bad time to visit Portland, Oregon. The sky was so heavy the entire
city seemed pushed down low into the river valley under its weight. Thick gray fog
smothered everything. There were no reflections. No shadows. I couldn’t wake up. All the
sounds were muted. The city’s contours seemed worn smooth and my mind struggled for
a grip on its reality. I’d been up all night to catch an early-morning flight from New
Orleans, where the weather was similar—a little wetter, not quite as cold. I hadn’t come
for the weather. I filled my lungs with smoke and exhaled glee and mischief.
As we drove away from the airport he played Radiohead’s “Reckoner.” It was the
first time I’d heard it. The combination of chords, rhythm, and lyrics forged an exquisite
path through the neurons my mind was using to adjust to my surroundings and form an
idea of who this person was next to me. His voice was familiar, but his presence was
In October, I’d been standing in the frozen food isle at the Hong Kong Food
Market trying to find pot stickers without pork when he called, insisting that I go to
Portland. “Portland? You want me to fly to Portland? What am I gonna do in Portland?”
“I’m here. Come visit me.”
“Visit you, huh?”
While I was on the phone, he looked up airfares. One hundred eighty dollars
round trip. That was cheap. Why not go to Portland? I’d been restless and bored since
breaking up with my boyfriend the month before and needed a break from New Orleans.
Portland didn’t seem like a completely unreasonable idea. Being at the Hong Kong Food
Market distorted my conception of what constituted a reasonable idea. Just five minutes
before that I was pondering what unfamiliar vegetable would go with fish eyeballs. So I
agreed to fly to Portland to visit a guy I didn’t really know.
I’d met him the year before, between Christmas and New Year’s. He was in town
from Colorado visiting friends for a few days. We met at the sushi restaurant where I’d
come to meet up with a guy named Ben, whom I’d recently met on the internet. Ben had
been posting ads in the Craigslist personals, pleading for female company to distract him
from the pain of having his first broken heart at thirty. I had a boyfriend who was in New
York most of the time. I hadn’t seen him in weeks and the relationship was struggling. It
was out of loneliness and fascination with loneliness that I had gotten into the habit of
reading Craigslist personals. The third time Ben posted that ad I cracked. He seemed like
a harmless guy who needed company. I make good company. I decided to email him.
After a few emails I agreed to meet Ben and his friends at the sushi restaurant.
One of those friends was a scraggly charter named Vernie with a red bandana tied around
his head. He barely spoke to me but kept looking at me, which I noticed because I kept
looking at him. Ben called the next day to say that Vernie wanted me to go out with them
on New Year’s Eve. I responded by driving ninety miles to spend New Year’s Eve at my
mother’s, because I had a boyfriend in New York. I didn’t need to go out drinking with a
guy I was clearly attracted to. But a couple of days later I met up with Ben, his
roommate, and Vernie to go out and shoot pool. It was Vernie’s last night in town. He
and I could hardly contain ourselves. If you listened hard enough you might have heard
the buzz between us. What made us like each other was plain old narcissism. We were
both too skinny and too smart for our own good and harbored secret superiority
complexes. We electrified each other. We bounced and grinned and talked about
traveling, living hard, and having come to a time in our lives when we realized we were
going to survive after all and should start thinking about trying to be adults, doing
something meaningful and productive, making it all count for something. We stayed out
playing pool until five o’clock in the morning.
I gave Vernie my phone number, and that was I did. I had a boyfriend: a
boyfriend in New York. I wasn’t happy in the relationship but I was in the relationship.
We became phone buddies. For the next year we talked regularly as I broke up and made
up with the guy in New York. He liked to call me in the middle of the night, and I would
talk to him while curled up under the blankets in the dark.
Now, a year after we’d met in New Orleans, the voice in the phone was driving
me to his house in North Portland to drop off my bags.
We set off in search of a good time in Portland. The most obvious place to start
was a bar. All the bars in Portland serve food. It is a rule, like the rule about not being
able to pump your own gas. Portland is a Mecca for a certain sort of young hip crowd
with whom I shared some things. One of those things was vegetarianism. Pretty much
every place we went to accommodated the plentiful non-meat-eaters of the city with both
traditionally meat-free dishes and tofu iterations of meat-based fare. Living in a city
where vegetarianism was considered a joke, I was grateful. My first meal was tofu tacos,
washed down with a Ham’s, the local cheap and dirty beer. This vegetarian paradise was
also the land of beer snobbery, and I was to find my standard Miller Lite in a bottle hard
to come by.
After lunch we drove over to a building referred to as “Big Pink,” also known as
the U.S. Bancorps building, the city’s second tallest building, which, as a gleaming hunk
of glass towering over downtown Portland, is widely regarded as an eyesore. The top
floor of this building is home to the City Grill, where Vernie treated me to a couple of
Martinis, a stunning view of the city, and a proper education on Portland’s many bridges,
which I quickly forgot. Not being accustomed to drinking quite that much gin in a sitting,
I don’t have the clearest memory of what came next. I think we went to another bar.
Then we drank Ham’s in the living room before passing out. I was surprised when Vernie
woke me up a few hours later to tell me the evening was not over. When I had rousted
myself awake he took me to the neighborhood bar for a couple more rounds, which I
have very little memory of, except that it was dark, we ate French fries, and the music
was awful. After that I went to bed.
In the morning, by which I mean around 1:00 PM, we drove to southeast Portland
where I had my first visit to Dot’s, a bohemian-styled velvet-paintinged restaurant and
late night hot spot where I ate a falafel sandwich and a few of Vernie’s hot and spicy
fries. It was a stylish place staffed by comically hip but friendly servers and which,
despite the smoking ban that had taken effect in all of Oregon on the first of January–a
little over a week before–reeked appropriately of stale cigarette smoke.
Feeling full and optimistic, we drove to his favorite hang-out: LeGare’s
Community Resource Center, a tiny, brightly-lit cafe fronted by large steamed-up
window panes, where Jonathan LeGarre, a tall portly man with a goatee and long brown
ponytail, lumbered behind the small serving counter presiding over an espresso machine
and a surprisingly exotic array of edible fare that included caviar. Vernie and I settled
into a table in the middle of the small space and he commenced the banter with Jonathan
that would usurp the audible atmosphere of the whole place for the duration of our visit.
The young people huddled over laptops at tables by the wall did not seem to resent it and
eventually joined in. We drank our coffees out of large pint glasses. I picked away
dutifully at the (delicious) Guava cookie that Jonathan had presented over the counter at
our introduction. I was not hungry, but Vernie had warned me that eating this cookie, or
anything else that Jonathan handed me, was not optional.
The central activity in LeGarre’s that day, as with any other day, was a lighthearted
sparring of wit, a thing at which I normally excelled. But I was not up to the
game. It pained me not to be. My mind was dull. My stomach ached. The light was too
dim outside and too bright inside. I couldn’t catch my stride with the others. So I just sat
there looking pretty and listening while thumbing through the Portland Mercury, the
alternative weekly that, open on every table, kept the conversation going by providing
fresh meat for the comic stew that swirled around the room. We talked about going to see
a film, “Sukiyaki Wetern Django, “ a campy Japanese-made and -acted spaghetti western
modeled after old samurai movies and featuring a cameo by Quintin Tarentino. Vernie
was excited about it, because he is a film nerd. I am only slightly less ignorant about film
than your average Adult Contemporary radio listener but open-minded as they come, so I
was looking forward to seeing a film I wouldn’t understand. It sounded amusing, and
being able to drink beer in the movie theater was novelty enough to make the idea
enticing. First, though, I needed a nap.
Later that night Vernie and I were standing outside the Clinton Street Theater
having a smoke when suddenly the world just felt wrong. The words got hung up as they
came out of my mouth. They were all wrong. It was as if there was nothing I could say
that I really believed. I didn’t believe anything. Everything was bullshit. I stopped
talking, threw my cigarette on the ground, and walked back inside.
As we filed into our seats Vernie asked if I was all right, and I admitted to feeling
“off kilter.” Vernie said he felt the same. We settled into our seats. The film started and I
sat bolt upright with my beer in one hand, trying to concentrate. Japanese actors rattled
off American clichés, and it was clear they did not believe what they were saying. They
didn’t even know what they were saying; they were only uttering memorized syllables. I
struggled to follow the story, which was a sad story, a melodrama, presented in a way
that was meant to be funny. It was funny, but I couldn’t laugh. My muscles were taught
and my nerves were wound up like barbed wire. From time to time a slight groan escaped
my throat and Vernie squeezed my hand, glancing over his shoulder with concern. “I’ll
live,” my look said. I didn’t have to explain; he knew this mood.
After the show was over we got in the Jeep and he drove me around town, up over
the hills above the river. I hooked my knuckles over the edge of the cracked window and
stared at everything with anxiety. We didn’t talk. He asked how I was doing and I nodded
to say that I was doing pretty much like he thought. There was nothing more he could do
than be my silent and comprehending companion through this formless mental ordeal, the
torture of unarticulated pain passing like a train through the tunnel of my consciousness. I
closed my eyes and listened to its dark, incomprehensible rumbling and he watched my
face silently, calmly. “This is one of those things that could pass any moment, all of the
sudden,” I said. “Right,” he said, “Or not.” Or not.
I watched the houses go by, the lights in the windows, and imagined the people
inside. I hated thinking of all those people, all those lives, all those struggles to be happy.
Worse, I hated to think that those people didn’t struggle, or that they didn’t think so
much, didn’t demand, like Vernie and me, that life be exceptional. They didn’t need to
chase revelations, were not tortured by the need to know what it was they were supposed
to be doing. They were snug there in their two-story homes, their mortgages, their Audis
and Volkswagens. They accepted their roles in the world and they played out the story,
always knowing what lines to say, even if they didn’t know what the words meant.
We went home. On the couch he curled himself around me like a cocoon and I
slept and slept and slept. It was a sleep like going to the bottom of the ocean. We woke
up after twelve hours, at least, and I had recovered. He said he felt better, too. I was
hungry. I was starving. I wanted coffee and eggs. So we went to a place called The Cup
and Saucer, where we faced each other across the booth and sucked down several cups of
coffee. It was dim and gray outside. I had the vegetarian huevos rancheros.
Full of spicy satisfying breakfast and coffee, we knew there was only one thing to
do next. We headed downtown to a bar called Kelly’s Olympian, which likes to waste
perfectly good motorcycles by hanging them from the ceiling. I paid for my Bloody Mary
and Vernie’s Sapphire and tonic. We found ourselves in conversation with a stranger
down the bar, which was an odd thing to happen in the Northwest, where people
generally keep to themselves. But Vernie and I were hard to ignore. We were buzzing
now at our best frequency and irresistible. He was a Midwestern-looking guy, a pudgy
blond with a round head and stubby hands. The two of them talked about motorcycles
and I leaned on the bar behind Vernie, poking the ice in my drink with a straw, nodding
to reinforce his authority on the subject. The Bloody Mary was a double and as we left
the bar I was feeling it and it felt good. The cold air was exhilarating.
We needed coffee. People were waiting for us back at LeGarre’s. We arrived in
high spirits looking for caffeine and inspiration. His friend Greg was there. He’d recently
been mistaken for a girl in a bar somewhere. Vernie had explained this to me earlier.
Some girl had approached him in the bar thinking he was a lesbian. “He’s not an attractive
guy,” Vernie explained. “But when she found out he wasn’t a girl, that didn’t slow her
down.” This intrigued Greg. Or he was just flattered, or at least hopeful that this meant he
had a shot at something that he described as “sexual Disneyland.” When we arrived at
LeGarre’s, Greg was engaged in writing up an ad he planned to post in the “I saw you”
section of Portland Mercury’s personals. “I want to grow up on your north side,” the
prospective ad said. We debated the prudence of this kind of wording, concerned that if
the girl responded it might be an indication that she wasn’t exactly the kind of girl Greg
would be wise to pursue relations with.
We were joined by another patron of LeGarre’s as we made our exit for the
Clinton Street Pub, a dark, comfortable tavern where we found Snoop Doggy Dog’s entire
first album playing and a more suitable atmosphere for sliding drunkenly into the late
evening. After a couple of hours huddled under the low ceiling at the end of the bar, we
decided we were hungry and made for Dot’s Diner, which at that time of night was filled
to the brim with the Portland hipster crowd. Suddenly the velvet Victorian wallpaper
went from predictably stylish to depressingly predictable. We were on a movie set.
Everything made of cardboard. These people around us were two-dimensional. They put
on costumes and filled their scenes. It was almost too much to bear. The three of us were
uneasy. We ate fast and got outside.
That’s when Greg snapped. “Fuck this! God damn it. Fuck this!” Vernie and I
knew what was eating Greg. It was eating us, too. They were everywhere. Actors in
costumes. Hipster #1. Hipster # 6. Hipster # 53. Everyone interchangeable.
“Come on,” said Vernie. “Let’s get out of here.”
We left hastily and dropped Greg off at his house to sleep off his rage before
going home to sleep off our own.
The next day I convinced him to take me to Powell’s Books. I was to leave the
following afternoon. It would be the last of five days spent drifting back and forth across
the city, alighting like moths on barstools to imbibe whatever beverage that moment
seemed to call for. Coffee. Beer. Bloody Mary. Whiskey. Gin. Coffee. Beer. Running
away from the emptiness of existence. Consumed by guilt. The whole time, I kept
looking at him under the different lights: the afternoon light diffused through the Jeep’s
windshield as we slid along above the river, the lamps hanging low over the tables at the
maddeningly dark diners, the high street lights illuminating the mist that swam under
them like millions of tiny little fishes. But no matter how much I looked at him my mind
could not make out my reason for being there.
Vernie was reluctant to venture into Powell’s Books because he couldn’t go in
there and escape without spending at least sixty dollars. I knew I would have a hard time
keeping a grip on my own self-control. But I had to go. Powell’s, the largest new and
used bookstore in the country, is the Chocolate Factory for book addicts. A whole city
block filled with room after room of books rambling up and down stairs and around
corners. We wandered around wide-eyed, our heads spinning, yanking books off shelves
in an escalating state of excitement All around us an ocean of knowledge, ideas, words–
holy, lovely, meaningful words. We wanted to fill ourselves up with them, to breathe
them into our lungs and drown. After an hour or so, though, we swam for shore. I bought
a couple of used books on the way out. We staggered through the glass doors into the
downtown lights of Portland and each took a deep breath. It was time to look for a bar.