Late Summer, 2016
It’s been a long, cool Portland summer and goose bumps are, at this point, a familiar friend to my southern-born body. I’m in the process of re-quitting cigarettes again. My scalp feels raw like raw chicken. The more I pull out of it, the more I’m staking some sort of claim over myself. I’ve begun to find these consistent grey skies comforting. I have lived in Portland for just a little over 13 months. I am admittedly unfamiliar to “Old Portland.” I never knew or got to love the book shops and queer bars razed for condos and have only ever known the waffle-coney waft that travels down from the nearest artisanal ice cream parlor. I moved here from East Tennessee in 2015. Although my time in Portland has yet been brief, it is astounding how much of this wet place I’ve absorbed; allowed to become a part of myself.
I’m from Little Mountain, South Carolina, a town of 300. The men who slowed their trucks as I walked down the street all knew my father. My adolescent socialization consisted of smoking Pall Malls in the back of a truck on the way to Wal-Mart. There were only Christians, and there were no restaurants, and there was one flashing caution light. Though, what it cautioned against, I could never tell you. Portland is my first truly metropolitan-feeling home. It has somewhere around a million, if not more. And it’s growing. And it’s certainly nothing like the southeastern region I’ve only known until a little over a year ago.
I did door-to-door fundraising for a community non-profit based in Southwest Portland. Men and women shut their blinds to my arrival. Some yelled at me or threatened to call the police. Some people let me pet their dogs and offered me water or tea. The tired mom demographic gave me my most donations, pity donations. I once got invited in and offered Pizza Hut at the tail end of a rainstorm in Hood River.
In Tigard, I watch Little House on the Prairie with some shut-ins. I witness a family’s funeral for a pet rabbit, then am handed a crumpled five-dollar bill on my way out. A man smoking a cigarette in his yard says: “do your little speech and see what you get” and gives me ten dollars in one-dollar bills. I raise 225 dollars that day. I always raised more when I wore jorts.
A professional necessity tied to the attempt to enter the homes of strangers knots a dull ache in my core. I blow a co-worker in a ditch as the Max train goes by. I walk by tall shadows of park Basketball Courts for a picturesque sunset in Cedar Hills, a suburban delight. After he zips up his pants, I make him push me on the swing-set in a church playground. I raise 35 dollars that day.
In Lake Oswego, I get drunk in the woods near a ravine. Earlier that day, I was chugging white wine in a Starbucks bathroom and marking off addresses on my company Kindle, to look like I was going door-to-door. I sniff a bunch of tropical-seeming candles at a boutique called Mix it Up. I raise 75 dollars that day.
I eat Fred Meyer Chinese off the hotline at lunch. The van ride with the other canvassers to Wilsonville is simply hellish. I shop at a craft fair. Some man tells me I am breaking the law. One woman chases me off of her porch and yells that I have a piss-poor attitude as I scramble quickly onto the opposite sidewalk, middle finger flying. I see some goats. I raise 336 dollars that day.
There’s a house on Cleveland Street that I spent far too much time in. It’s a big house with old tile and an open, Spartan kitchen. In the upstairs closet, my height is self-measured alongside my name. The lime and mud-sage shaded exterior holds a self-knowing gloom. The back garden sprouts anemic squash and turd-thin zucchini. This is the house where I first met anyone I went to school with, a meet-and-greet party for grad school. This is the house that my grad professor was renting. This is the house where I first met him, a man with a forced-bohemian stank of American Spirit Yellows and unbroken-in flannel. Freshly moved from Colorado, or was it California? He says he’s from Oakland, the real Oakland, but everything about his demeanor says otherwise. He says he needs to touch my velvet blouse. “It looks so soft.” He says he’s always around if I ever get homesick or need anything at all, really.
He messages me the very next day on Facebook. He’s friend requested me on Facebook. He says he’s certain I don’t have enough money. He says he’s certain he’d like to help in any way he can. He says I should think of his house as my home. He asks me would I like to housesit for him? He asks me if I ever plan to get married?
At this point, he’s yet to have read any of my writing. He doesn’t really know me at all, really.
It’s November, and I’m in this house again. High on cocaine, I’m being hypnotized by my grad professor, who has given me red wine and gotten me high after cutting up the coke and serving it on the same tiny plates he smushes wet cat food onto with a fork. He calls his cat, Tilly. He calls me, Good Girl.
I’m getting electric shocks sent up my ass cheeks with an increasing velocity and I’ve heard the phrase “I just want to please you” shaken out of this tall man with a manic faux-enamor that is beyond unnerving. I melt into the sectional and will myself mute in the company of something so odd, so tamely attempting something wild and in the process becoming violent. It is a very specific stab at masculinity via mediocrity. An older time than just me. Getting taken advantage of by a man in power. Being rendered muse at the sake of my bodily autonomy. He promises me over and over that we won’t have sex and later I’m staring at the metal pie plate on the ceiling as he carries me up the staircase to his bedroom.
And then, he forces himself on me. My verbal reminder of the promise of no sex, my ensuing protest, goes ignored. I can’t sleep.
I leave the next day feeling all of my internal organs individually needing to wretch. He puts me in an Uber he’s ordered and gives me a liter of fizzy water and a check for 400 dollars. The money, he says, is for books he wants me to scan. I know the money is for sex. I don’t leave my bed at all for the rest of the weekend, but once, to vomit. I miss my grad school reading series.
I housesat for the grad professor and watched the cat over Christmas. The grad professor went on a binge that rendered him unable to drive home safely, so he flew at the last minute and needed someone to look over the place. I wasn’t paid.
Waking on Christmas morning, the first time without my family, and not yet the first time alone. I’m with a man whom I’ve spent all of Christmas Eve with. He cooked me vegan spaghetti in the barren Cleveland kitchen.
This is the third man I’ve brought to my assaulter’s bed. And the night before, a painter in his early thirties who works behind a local cheese counter. And before that, a businessman in his mid-twenties, who insisted on buying repeating rounds of shots. He paid for our Uber back to the house. I slapped his hand away when it rested firmly on my thigh under not-my-own bedding.
That bizarre night in November, my grad professor had told me he would cum inside of me, while pinning me down and penetrating me from atop my flat chest, my weak arms. When I looked scared, when I said, “No”, he laughed. I think about this as I bring man after man to his bed, trying to undo something or maybe just trying to get on top. The fact that he won’t know what I’ve brought to and done in his own sheets, is something I cherish. I feel strangely in control as 2015 dwindles into ending December.
The Christmas visitor is a co-worker from a new job. He showed me his confessional writing as an alcoholic who had been arrested for domestic abuse. The words were raw, yearning, and of course, frightening. We spent that entire night discussing life. He described to me a land of myself. A land with nourishing fruits that had been invaded, plucked many times through damaged walls, gates. I cried on the shag rug, eventually forsaking the sectional for the more honest floor.
I worked at a call center in Northwest. The experience was a big lesson in liminal space, in building boundaries. I quit drinking. I spent a lot of money on La Croix in the fancy vending machine in the break room. Strangers opened their lives to me and bought many, many trade paperback mystery books. Fittingly, this job followed soon after I quit my door-to-dooring. This felt like the subdued cousin of fundraising, the phone salesperson. The main difference: I was receiving, not transmitting.
My professional survival relied on being a skilled listener. On fully knowing those moments between words, the silence between two lines. I was smoking yellow American Spirits. I was living off of instant oatmeal and tiny oranges. Reading non-stop, I read short stories online in the more extensive times between calls. The co-worker I spent Christmas Eve with once tried to draw Yoda on a legal pad. He showed me the meager results with a harmless shrug. Someone brought a lot of pie once. Deviled eggs once, too.
I live in southeast, not too far from Safari Show Club. Adjacent to Safari, there’s a burrito truck. One day, I’m short one dollar for my food. Before I can finish my apology, a man slides a dollar up to the window. “You don’t have to do that”, I say. “I don’t have to do nothing”, he replies. “Thank Him, Thank God”.
This spring, a good friend visited from Virginia. She stayed in my bed with me. We walked all along southeast, stood in awe of the big trees in Lone Fir Cemetery and poked at the most bizarre Belmont free piles left for the taking. Near Powell and 34th, I held her on the ground while she seized. She has brain cancer. As she was re-acclimating, I hid my face from her view. I didn’t feel like I could cry in front of her. It seemed selfish of me to cry, considering. The sky was that same pallid shade of grey I’ve grown accustomed to.
We walked home from there.