Toby and I arrived back in Portland around the same time, jobless and house-less and full of cautious hope. Rents had gone up since we were young punks living in unfinished basement rooms in southeast, and the crusty punks who lived on scams had all scattered or Grown Up. We knew this. Gentrification was upon the world like a great sequined costume, and yet, neither one of us was Passing Through, not this time. Toby had spent the summer working at a hot springs resort, and the year before than in an old farmhouse on the Olympic Peninsula, and was ready, now, to be in the city in some sort of consistent, steady way, to have a routine and a place to put her cello and a wall on which to tack her hand-scraped cat-skin. I wanted to write a book, and also be in the city- in a way I felt like I was falling in love with it, for the very first time. As if it was just me, as if it was all me- myself, projected on all the buildings and the concrete, my thoughts scotch-taped to the falling rain.
But we were stressed. We wanted to live in the city, but we didn’t want to pay 450 dollars rent. And there weren’t, as far as we could tell, any jobs.
Luckily, it was Christmas, and all the world needed a pet-sitter while it went off to be with family. So we had someone else’s house to stay in, someone else’s bed to sleep in, someone else’s couch to lay on, sighing, unable to focus on the book we’re reading. And then I had an idea.
“Toby,” I asked, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
“The worst that could happen?” said Toby, curious.
“NOTHING,” I said. “nothing can happen.” Toby raised her eyebrows. She didn’t understand. “Say you don’t find a place to live. Say you don’t find a job. What will happen? Nothing!”
Toby laughed. It was true.
“We’re too privileged!” I cried. “We’re to privileged for anything bad to happen to us!” I laughed. We had friends, community, access to resources. We knew how to get shit for free. We would always have a place to stay, food to eat. Even if I tried, there is no way I could return to the poverty of my youth, the real, desperate poverty I knew growing up. I’d built a wall between my life and that one. Even though sometimes it was hard to see, I knew there were miles between them, spaces that could not be crossed. The portal had closed.
I’m just. Too. Privileged.
Toby and I laughed, and agreed to practice Just Not Caring. Because we knew, in the end, that nothing, really, could go wrong. Since my poor-as-dirt childhood I had been rising, and at some point I’d breached the surface, where there was warm sun and a breeze. And I knew I’d always float. It’s like magic.
Sure enough, Toby found a room for under three hundred dollars in a house with chickens and was magically hired at the anarchist coffee shop. My dog-sit was for longer than hers and I leisurely posted an ad on craigslist looking for a space in exchange for work-trade, claiming to be many things I am not, including a published author and a dog trainer.
Douglas firs and hard brown winter fields. It was afternoon and I was lost again. We were way north of Portland, where the suburbs of Vancouver gave way, finally, to the country, or to what passes for country these days. We were lost, driving on roads with no names, the numbers didn’t make any sense.
“We’re not in Portland anymore,” I said, half-joking. “The numbers don’t have to make sense. It’s the country- they name the streets at random, to discourage visitors.”
AM took over navigation, and managed to untangle the yarn-ball of google maps and hastily sketched directions I’d brought along. We pulled, at last, into the driveway of the tall yellow house with the wind-whipped american flag, and I saw the “cottage”, which was the size of a child’s playhouse and sided in the same hopeful yellow, sitting just across the driveway. So close to the main house, you could run a Dixie-cup string-phone from kitchen window to kitchen window.
I knew, then, that I would never live here, but I pulled into the driveway just the same. We parked in front of the barn. A man came out of the yellow house and onto the wooden deck to greet us, stepping into lined rubber boots, the bottoms crusted in mud. He was old and handsome, and moved slow. He took the steps carefully, with wooden knees, and reached out a warm hand to shake mine, not seeming to mind that we were an hour and a half late, that I already rescheduled our meeting once. He was there, it seemed, he’d always be there, he’d been there all day.
“My nephew was around earlier,” said the man, “but he just left.”
The man had responded to my ad on craigslist. “I’ve got ten acres north of Vancouver,” he’d said. “I need some help around the place. There’s a little cottage for a farmhand to live.”
“What kind of work do you need done?” I asked him, as we stood on the packed dirt of the yard. The air seemed still and frozen. It was colder in the country.
“I’ve got a berry patch,” he said, raising his hand at a stretch of dried-up canes, blackened from the rain. “and in the summer I have a pretty good garden. I need help with the weeding.”
“Not much weeding to do in the winter.” I said.
“No.” he said. “There’s nothing to do right now.” and then, after a pause- “But sometimes I leave. My girlfriend, she lives in Canada. Sometimes I leave for two weeks at a time.”
“So you need someone to look after the place.” I said.
He showed us the inside of the cottage- a tiny box of a house, with big windows that faced him. A linoleum countertop, a gleaming sink. A giant refrigerator that took up half the space. An ikea bunkbed over a plastic-looking desk. The room was shocking white and stinking of fresh paint. Less like a cabin, I thought, and more like a fishbowl. Like living in a fishbowl.
We crossed the frozen yard back to his wooden deck, and took of our shoes. I looked out over the field, dead and brown, and at the barn, standing tall under a steely, clouded sky. Yellow sure is a nice color in the wintertime, I thought.
He turned to AM as we walked into the house and said,
“You kids these days. Don’t wear clothes that cover your middles.” he faced the living room. “Just hanging out,” he muttered. AM turned to me, pulling down the waistband of her flannel hoody, shocked. I opened my eyes like What the fuck? and shrugged. We settled into the man’s couch and I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. He took the chair next to the woodstove. The inside of his house was all expensive cabinets and wooden flooring, clean and new like a movie set.
“So tell me what you’re looking for.” He said, rubbing a stiff finger over his eyes. I rambled off some vague answer that came out less clear, even, than I had expected. What was I looking for? The perfect thing. I wanted it to fall from the sky.
The man talked a bit and suddenly his eyes welled up.
“Sorry, It almost makes me start crying to talk about.”
And I hadn’t noticed, I hadn’t even been following what he was saying. Something about this knee surgery. Something about his nephew telling him he needed to get someone out here, so that he wasn’t all alone. So that’s what this was all about. He needed a companion, someone to kneel down in the beds and do his weeding. But mostly, he needed a companion.
“I just veg all day,” he said. “I just eat.” His computer was opened onto the bare wooden table. “I bought this house on craigslist. I bought my tractors on craigslist.”
Did he find his girlfriend on craigslist? I wondered what his story was. All of it. Not just the clean bits. He had a son in Romania, a son in Florida. Lonely, lonely man.
I’m RICH, I thought. I’m rich, I’m rich. I shifted on the couch, uncomfortable. I’m fucking rich. I’m the richest person on earth. I’m made of solid gold.
We tossed him story prompts for a bit, and then there was nothing else to say. AM and I said goodbye and walked to the car, stepping back out into the cold afternoon.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said to him, in parting. “and let you know if I’m still interested.”
We turned up the heat in Toby’s car, and AM put in a mix tape she found on the floormat. It was rock music so I punched it out again, tried to find the country station, turned the stereo off. We didn’t know what to say. Having company along made me feel twice as disappointed. I’d gotten a slew of responses from the ad I’d posted, and one by one the replies were turning out to be nothing but hot air, bags of magic dust. The people are all talk. There’s no such thing as a free ride. There was the older woman, looking to hire a personal assistant. She wove an impressive yarn on the other end of the telephone, until I could almost see it before me on the couch- her roomful of ephemera (“Do you know what that means? Ephemera?” No. What does it mean.) stacked to the ceiling, awaiting organization, several generations worth of photographs and letters, very historical. She had been alive during the McCarthy era (“Do you know what that means? The McCarthy era?” Tell me.) and had collected, somehow, lots of letters and documents that had passed between high-ranking so-and-sos. She wanted to write a book. She wanted to make paintings. She needed someone to organize her art supplies, sort the crap from the useful, sell everything else on eBay. (“I’ve traveled all over the world. Have you left the country? Some people don’t like to leave the country.”) She also needed someone to cook her meals. Oh, I can do that, I said. “Just something simple. Sometimes I have a hard time nourishing myself.” I could see it all- me, kneeling amongst the scattered photographs, sneezing at the dust. My imagination is so intense that sometimes things seem almost real, before they even happen.
When I called the woman back the next day, she had no idea who I was. She’d forgotten our conversation. I went over the highlights (You said “Have you ever left the country” and I said “Just to go to Guatemala and Canada”) but it was all gone, like her hard-drive had crashed in the night. All that work, all that talking, all that listening. Somehow I ended up telling her I was going country line dancing that night.
“Oh?” she said. “With a lesson, you say? Where does it happen?”
“Close-in southeast.” I said. It was gay country line dancing, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Is there an age limit?” she asked.
“I’m also looking for a companion,” she said by way of explanation. “I like to go out to things, I like to get out.”
I told her I’d call her that afternoon and we’d meet for an interview.
Then there was the wealthy gay couple who lived in southwest, deep, deep southwest, where I’ve never ever been. The richest neighborhood in all of Portland. They had a big fancy house, they said, and an apartment on the ground level they weren’t using. The apartment had a gym and a movie room in it, and its own kitchen and entrance. The couple bred labradoodles, and currently had six dogs, two of which were pregnant. The men both worked full time, and were looking for someone to walk and train and feed and socialize the dogs and make them “good dogs” so people would buy them. I looked up their house on google maps. The bus didn’t even go there. It was twelve miles away from the neighborhood where all my friends lived. I had a feeling they wanted someone full-time, a sort of frazzled mary poppins for their puppy mill. And what use was a fancy apartment, when what I really wanted was a little shack somewhere? With a woodstove? Better to save that space for someone who would really appreciate it. There were plenty on craigslist, crawling all over each other for a “free” place to live.
In the end I flaked on everyone. I didn’t call back the sad man in the country, or the older woman with her ephemera. I emailed the gay couple and told them their labradoodles were too far out for me. The cards I’d thrown into the air had settled, and the world remained unchanged. Minutes still became hours, snow fell at the speed of snow. I walked home in it, watching it pile up. I knew it’d be gone in the morning, new Portland weather that seemed to switch seasons in the space of six hours. My fate was still out there, waiting for me, and I knew that if I just imagined it hard enough, I would find it waiting in a snowbank. It’s a sort of magic trick and I know it works because that’s the way I’ve gotten by, every day of my life. I have faith in this magic, more faith than I have in anything. It’s the only thing I know for certain. And whether or not I can read my future like a newspaper, the life I want to live is the one I’m already living. I’m planted smack in the middle of it and I can’t help but see it in flashes, now and then, like a gift from the future- This is special. This is special. I am lucky.