Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.
In October my friend Paul came to visit. He flew into Portland then rented a car and drove to Astoria. As I was arranging flowers I’d picked on the hillside behind my home, I heard his familiar voice calling, “Hello.”
I ran out my door and down my stairs towards him. “Paul! You’re here! How was the drive? How were my directions? How are you?”
“Just fine,” he chuckled, meeting me midway up the staircase.
“Can I help you with your luggage?”
“No, you can’t.” We walked down the stairs to his car. I walked around to the back as he popped the trunk. As I reached in Paul repeated, “You just relax. I can get these myself.”
Paul, raised in the Midwest, had strong values of the gentlemanly variety. Despite myself I usually found it endearing, if not necessary. He grabbed three stylish, matching bags of various sizes. I shut the trunk door and we headed back upstairs into my little apartment. The tour could almost be taken by standing in the middle and stretching my arms out to either side. My door led directly into my kitchen, which was L-shaped with most of it built into a counter coming straight out from the wall. Beyond the counter was a small hallway. Just beyond that was my living room with window overlooking the Columbia River. To the left was my bedroom, and to the right the bathroom.
Paul found a place for his luggage in the living room, where he would sleep. I put some water on for tea.
“I think I saw your landlords as I was pulling in. Did you tell them about me?” he asked pointedly.
“I told them a male friend was visiting.”
“Did you happen to mention that I’m black?”
I felt uncomfortable and answered cautiously, “No… Should I have?”
“Well, I think it’s generally a good idea. Particularly in a small town…”
“Sorry.” There was a moment of awkward silence.
Paul was a well-educated, elegant, willowy black man. He had grown up in a poor part of Chicago, but his sharp intellect got him a scholarship into a private school, and then into Stanford University.
“What are you doing in this God-forsaken place?” he asked with a smile. “I got off the airplane and started counting… It was a good ten minutes before I saw another black person.”
“Did you give the secret handshake?”
“More of a nod. And it wouldn’t exactly be secret, now would it?”
“What can I say? I don’t like it that this part of the country is lily white. But my list of criteria was pretty long, and, well….” I missed the diversity of the Bay Area. I missed the variety, the colors, the wide array of recreational and cultural opportunities. At times looking around my new community, everyone seemed bland and same. Sameness.
“So what is your criteria?”
I poured boiling water into two mugs. “I couldn’t find that Mango Ceylon tea we like, but I have some delicious jasmine green from a local place.”
He nodded assent, and I spooned tea leaves into two tea balls and put one in each mug.
I nodded towards the living room, and handed a mug to Paul. We walked into the living room and sat down on my well-worn thrift store couch, placed strategically to optimize the view. I’d thought about switching the living room and bedroom, so I could wake up to the view. My mom had convinced me that bedrooms were for sleeping, and living rooms for living; therefore to take full advantage of the view I should have it in the room where I spent more waking hours. She convinced me.
“Well, I wanted to live somewhere filled with natural beauty, with a slower pace. Somewhere safe enough to walk alone after dark and leave my doors unlocked.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And do you leave your doors unlocked here?”
“I lock myself in at night, but other than that yes. If I go out during the day, particularly if I leave Jackie, I leave the door open so she can go in and out into her little yard.”
“What, it’s safe! A lot of people do. It’s one of the things I love about Astoria.”
“Well, I wanted to live somewhere the water’s clean enough to drink straight from the tap.”
“And affordable, a place I might be able to purchase a home by myself.”
“And do you think you’ll do that, buy a house here?”
“I hope so, someday.” I removed my tea ball, let it drip into the mug for a moment, and placed it on a little dish. I took a sip of the fragrant tea.
Paul followed suit with his tea ball and sipped. “This is delicious! Glad you can actually get good tea here.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked at him disapprovingly.
“What?” he laughed. “It’s not like you can expect things like that here. This whole place sort of reminds me of that movie … what’s it called? Deliverance.”
We both laughed. “How so?”
“Well, it’s about some really horrible, creepy things happening in the woods, and everyone in the town is in on it.”
“I hope not!” I said. “Have you watched Deliverance?”
“No. No. But I think I get the gist of it.”
“Yeah, me too. Uhm, it doesn’t feel like that here to me.”
“That’s good. OK, what else?”
“Besides living somewhere with good tea?”
“Right, besides that.”
“Well, optimally I hoped to move somewhere with a really good bakery where I could buy fresh bread, and a sushi place and a good Thai restaurant.”
“Everything except the sushi. But the seafood is really fresh here. So I guess I could make my own… And I wanted to live somewhere with a progressive community, some place with cultural diversity.”
“Uhm, I don’t think you did so well there.”
“OK, of course I would prefer racial diversity as well. But in the Pacific Northwest that only exists in the cities, and I don’t want to live in a city anymore. There’s history here, and art. There’s a whole culture around fishing, and events like fisher poets readings. And there’s a huge Scandinavian population here; they celebrate traditional Scandinavian holidays throughout the year. You can listen to live music and theater, there’s always something interesting to do. That’s what I mean.”
“I didn’t realize you hated living in California so much.”
“No, I didn’t. It was fine while I was there. But I just got tired of all the crowds and traffic and the fast pace. I felt like I could never completely relax. Every time I’d visit my folks in Portland, I felt like I was finally able to really breathe. It felt as though I’d been holding my breath since the last visit, like I was holding my breath the entire time I was in the Bay Area. And anytime I wanted to get out of the city, go to the ocean or the mountains, I felt like I was traveling in my car along with the whole rest of the Bay Area. There was always a traffic jam trying to get out of the mess. Really made me feel trapped sometimes.”
“Well, sounds like a good thing you got out of that if it was so awful. I just thought you were happy there.” Paul sounded disappointed, sulky.
Somehow Paul and I always ended up arguing. It wasn’t a good sign that it started so soon after he arrived.
“There are a lot of things I miss about it. California’s great in a lot of ways. This is just better for me now.”
Paul shrugged. He didn’t look up at me, and seemed upset.
“I miss you. I’m glad you’re here for a few days!”
He smiled; it reached his eyes. I felt relief that disaster was averted, at least for now. I wondered if Paul had arrived already feeling some frustration with me. As I noticed my own level of tension, I wondered if I had anticipated his arrival already feeling frustrated with him.
Paul and I had become good friends when we both worked together in the Bay Area. Our friendship had been turbulent and we’d endured misunderstandings and hurt feelings. There was some ambiguity about whether our friendship was entirely platonic, and at times the lines had blurred. I felt apprehensive about the possibility of us wanting different things during his visit, and felt a familiar need to keep him at arm’s distance to make sure he didn’t think there was opportunity where there was none.
That evening we went to Baked Alaska, which sits on the Columbia River. We ordered a bottle of California pinot gris and fresh crab for an appetizer. We followed that with large entrees, then ordered strong coffee and their signature dessert. It was my first Baked Alaska, and it was incredibly sweet and rich; it seemed my duty to make sure we finished every last bite. After a delicious and enormous meal I felt like I could barely move. Full and drunk, we walked arm-in-arm to the end of the pier and looked out at the waves and the bright lights from the moored ships. The slightest mist wafted in our faces; I loved this weather. The air always felt wonderful on my face; I imagined it bringing life and healing. It was good sharing this with my friend; we felt like our old selves again, comfortable and content.
The next day we drove across the Astoria-Megler Bridge to the Long Beach Peninsula. We drove through Cape Disappointment State Park, but none of my favorite people were working so I didn’t stop to introduce Paul to anyone. I showed him the ancient sea stacks, and we walked beyond the campground to some caves.
“The rangers found a mushroom drying lab set up back here.”
“Hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in this park. It’s known for it – there are even websites telling people the best places to harvest the mushrooms, and how to make sure you don’t kill the mushroom plant so it will reproduce more mushrooms the next season.”
“So some people were in these caves doing what, exactly?”
“I guess the rangers found some boxes rigged like homemade food dryers. An old backpack. Remnants of campfires, food wrappers, stuff like that. They never found the guys though.”
“And you think it’s safe for us to be walking back here?”
“They never came back. Or at least didn’t try to set up again. They knew they’d been found out; they won’t come back here to start their operation again, they’ll go somewhere else. Bet they were mighty disappointed to see all their equipment gone.”
“So what, can they make a lot of money dealing mushrooms?” Paul laughed.
“I don’t know. But these folks apparently thought so. And dried, of course they last longer and you can pack out much more. My guess is they would stay here for days at a time.”
“Might have been really nice, actually. Start a small campfire, fall asleep under the stars. Quieter than the campground and complete privacy.”
“Bugs, sand, the ocean coming in and washing you away. Yeah, nice.”
Paul was not a camping enthusiast.
We drove north, then east to the Willapa Bay side of the peninsula. The Long Beach Peninsula is completely created from secreted sand that has washed out of the Columbia River, and the currents push it northerly where it gathers and settles. The geography of the peninsula is in a state of perpetual change. People who bought ocean-front property a couple decades ago are now upset to find that the beach has extended westerly, and more houses have been built between them and the ocean.
On our drive north to Oysterville it started raining hard. Known for fresh, delicious oysters, this tiny historic town on Willapa Bay still has its original church and schoolhouse. We drove through the tiny town following signs to the church which was white and pretty traditional looking for a hundred years ago. As we drove up to the oyster farm the rain turned to torrential hail that smashed onto the windshield, onto the ground quickly covering it in a lumpy white blanket, and onto the Bay creating a frenzy of water activity. We sat for ten minutes watching the crazy storm, which stopped as abruptly as it had started. The sun came out as we walked into the shop. A woman was behind a long counter, wearing a canvas apron and scarf around her head. “May I help you?”
“I don’t suppose you have oysters on the half shell?”
“We don’t, sorry. Not much of a market for that around here. We sell containers of shucked oysters but recommend you cook them. And we sell oysters in the shell that you can shuck yourself.”
“That involves a special knife and gloves, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, if you want to do it safely. Oyster shells are pretty sharp.”
I’d shucked a few oysters before with kitchen knives and no instructions, and it was a bear. Paul and I exchanged a glance. “Shall we look around?” I asked him.
He nodded, and we perused the items on the shelves. We settled on a sealed pouch of smoked oysters and some crackers.
“I wish we could sit outside for a picnic,” I lamented.
Paul laughed. “I don’t think so.”
I decided we could do like the locals when it’s rainy but they want a nice view for eating their lunch. I drove back to the ocean side of the peninsula, and turned down Cranberry Road to the beach approach. We drove a short distance onto the approach, staying on the solid, packed sand running straight from the road onto the beach and carefully avoiding the soft sand on either side. I stopped the car and we sat watching the wild waves cresting and crashing, and the rain pattering on the ocean and beach.
“Now this is nice,” Paul said and opened the oysters. We ate in silence.
After our snack we drove to the Cranberry Museum, operated by Washington State University. Cranberry bogs were scattered all around the peninsula, some of them a hundred years old and more. Cranberries are a bit like vineyards in that respect, each variety unique and some strains nurtured for generations.
The Cranberry Museum had bogs with several varieties of cranberries, labeled, that you could walk around. We made a hasty walk during a break in the rain, then retreated inside the gift shop to peruse cranberry relishes, cran-raisins, cranberry scone mix, and cranberry soaps.
From there we went to Marsh’s Free Museum, whose claim to fame is a mummified lizard-man called Jake. The museum is filled with coin-operated fortune telling machines, old arcade machines, and rows upon rows of cheap souvenirs. As we left Paul laughed, “What was that?”
“What do you mean? It’s a must-see for anyone visiting Long Beach.”
“It’s a bunch of junk.”
“It’s bizarre. And Jake is legendary.”
“It isn’t real,” he said grumpily.
“Doesn’t matter, it’s hilarious. You should have bought a bumper sticker.” The bumper sticker showed Jake in roughly the cobra position from yoga, laying on his stomach with his chest and head raised. “He was smaller than I imagined.”
Paul just looked at me. Our silence felt awkward. Why did this always seem to happen when Paul and I spent time together? I loved him, but he could be so frustrating. We seemed often to disagree and argue, and if I didn’t back down he would sulk.
In the morning we had breakfast before Paul made the return trip to the Portland airport. We’d picked up some Ethiopian Harar from the Long Beach Coffee Roasting Company during our outing the day before, which we sipped while picking at our French Toast. The mood was tense, even if the coffee was smooth and delicious.
“Had you hoped for something else to happen between us?” I finally asked.
“No, Kjerstin, I really didn’t have any expectations about that.”
“What is it that happens between us?” I asked.
He looked at me. “Maybe this is just how we are with each other.”
“You know I love you.”
“I love you too. But I’m not going to visit you anymore.”
He shrugged. “Let’s just be long distance friends, OK?”
I waved as he drove away, trying not to feel hurt. I didn’t succeed. I went back inside. My little dog Jackie was curled up on the far end of the couch. She looked up as I plunked myself down on the other end, making sure I didn’t sit too close to her; she was not a cuddly sort of dog and if I tried to sit too close she would jump down. As I reached out to pet her, she tensed and looked at me sideways, her body language telling me to back off. I withdrew my hand. The house seemed too quiet and empty.
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