Almost immediately after reaching cruising altitude on my flight to Portland last month, when that slow upward movement started to level out, I began to feel an intensely physical pull from my chest. It felt as though a cable were looped through my sternum – a thick, heavy-duty braided steel cable – and it was pulling me, and the plane, forward. And down. The most delicate, almost imperceptible sloping down toward the ground. It wasn’t frightening. It was disorienting. I could almost feel the hand on the lever using real strength to crank the cable in, bit by bit by bit. It felt like someone was tugging me toward the meeting of the Willamette and the Columbia – that picturesque point of Kelly Point Park where you can see both rivers merging and pushing out toward the ocean. Like my body telling me I was going home. Like Portland pulling me closer, whispering here, here, here I am, waiting.
The sensation was so physical that I pulled out a section of newspaper and began writing down how it felt – scribbling around the margins of the fluff stories and comics and word puzzles. I could feel the cranking, the slow-motion jerk stop-and-start of that kind of cabling system. I felt a little dizzy, off center. My plane was definitely going forward – it was certainly level – and yet. Yet it felt like I was sloping so slowly forward and down, forward and down, magnetized toward Portland. Like we might stage an adventurous and fabulous water landing just past the Fremont Bridge, slowing quickly enough to stop well before hitting the St John’s Bridge. A grand entrance. Home. Finally.
The time gone – seven months since my one and only visit after moving – became just a moment in my life. I almost felt like I was flying home to Portland. It was my first time flying since moving back to California, so it felt like all of those return trips from California I had made in the last year of living in Portland. Which conjured a whole other set of sense-memories that further derailed my equilibrium, a blender full of emotions and broken relationships and wayward feelings. I kept pulling that twice-folded piece of newspaper out of the seat-pocket and scribbling all over it, searching for clear grey space, wanting desperately to remember how this flight felt physically – the way it tricked my mind and my body and my heart. The way this jumbling of home and memory and heartache played itself out in my muscles and bones and on my skin.
I was excited to visit. Of course I was. I missed my friends and my places. I also hadn’t had a relatively stress-free time in Portland in a long time. My last year there was wrought with tension and stress and emotional overload. Even my first visit to Portland after moving was so intense that it has left an after-taste in my mouth somewhat akin to drinking cheap whiskey straight from the bottle – unforgettable and head-turning and grimace inducing.
Nothing was easy on that first trip. I was deep in the relationship that would unravel a couple of months later – I was at a point where nothing wrong enough had happened but I should have seen the signs in the kinds of long, tedious conversations we acted out on that trip. In hindsight, I can see the atom-bomb that trip laid in my relationship with Oregon and with Portland and with that ex. I needed this trip to replace that. I needed my Portland, not our Portland. I was looking forward to a true visit – relaxing and funny and stomach-stuffing and full of the weightlessness of good times with good friends.
I also wanted to say a final goodbye to my old neighborhood. I had tried to do that on the first visit – in fact some of these pictures are from that trip. It was cold and we walked around taking pictures, my friend and my ex and I, but I didn’t hang out in the places I knew so well. I didn’t walk in those doors and smell those smells and kiss those places, so quietly and so lovingly, goodbye. I still believed, then, that I would be back at least every month. I thought I didn’t have to truly let go yet. I thought I could hold onto the neighborhood I had spent nearly a decade in – the longest of my life so far – so long that it had begun to feel like an extension of my own shoulders, like another set of arms spreading out around me and providing any weird little thing I might need.
What feels like a million years ago (and also only yesterday), when my ex-girlfriend and I bought our house in Portland, it was further away from the center of town than we had hoped. Our realtor said it was considered the new ‘close-in’ – that coveted real estate term that meant high value and great neighborhood amenities. We gave each other that invisible-wink look – yeah, sure it is, ok. Whether we believed her or not wasn’t important. We couldn’t afford the neighborhoods we really wanted, so we were opening up to neighborhoods we didn’t know, exploring unfamiliar territory since we were only nine months into our life in Oregon.
When we saw our house, we fell in love pretty quickly. We had to – it was a hot market and we made an offer about 24 hours after looking at it. It was barely on the west side of Foster and the east side of Foster used to be called Felony Flats. It was already in the process of revitalizing (you know, old people dying and young families buying in) when we moved, but the grimiest parts of it were actually endearing to me. I grew up in Fresno, California and while I lived in ‘nice neighborhoods’ from junior high on, they were still in a part of town that meant we heard gunfire and sirens frequently. My high school rang out with the sounds of multiple languages and drive-by shootings (the latter, rarely, thank the goodlords, but . . .).
I have always found the sanitized dream of real suburbia discomfiting and so my little ‘hood, right where Holgate and Foster meet, felt instantly like a cozy robe. I read an article soon after moving about how it was an up and up and coming neighborhood. They nicknamed it FoHo to try to give it an identity and nudge the process along. I didn’t ever really think it would take on the prestige of certain other Southeast neighborhoods in town (and neither did anyone else, I’m sure), but I crossed my fingers for more restaurants, cafes, bike shops, non-slick but non-felonious bars.
Throughout the nine years I lived in that house, our small stretches of Foster and Holgate saw the opening and closing of a lot of businesses – including a casket shop, the Atheist Association headquarters and a moped shop. There was also, though, the long-standing plumbing supply with its large neon water-heater-man logo and the Decorette Shop, full of frosting and cake molds and other domestic treasures, and the Tan and Hide shop that traded gloves for hides and whose antler lamps always called to me through the large picture windows, as well as the Pal-Do market with its dried octopus and seafood delicacies.
We gathered more restaurants – some short-lived – and bars and knick-knack shops. When Snowpocalypse hit, we could walk (a long walk, to be sure) to the Fred Meyer or we could trek to the Round Table for pizza and salad. In normal weather, I could walk for breakfast or coffee or beer at a number of local places. Whenever a store went vacant, we would throw out our wishes – good Thai food, great ice cream, a fruit stand – and wait with baited breath until we saw what went in: a call-center, a poker place, a head shop, another biker bar. All of it, though, was our ‘hood – sweetly grimy and podunk and traffic-ridden. Nothing was left of the original cross-town horse and buggy thoroughfare except occasionally the smell of shit. But it was ours – and it was mine, for a very long time by the standards of my life. I missed FoHo as much as anything else in Portland, really, if not more.
I planned a whole evening – an open house of sorts – around that intersection of mine at Holgate and Foster. I invited all of the people I missed and loved to come see me there – in case one on one visits didn’t happen – and then I showed up slightly late to my own party, dropped off in the rain by a friend who would join us later. I walked in to smiles and hugs and hilarious women, to more men and women walking through the door and up to the bar, to more hugs and more laughs and more smiles. We started at Bar Carlo where I had ordered many a breakfast, where I had leashed my dogs to the water meter outside and ordered many an Americano, where I had my last Portland meal with some of my best friends on my last night in town. I had coffee and breakfast for dinner and then ordered a vodka and soda with lime and settled in to see what the night had in store.
We took up half of the side room and more people came in as I handed off a bag of naked barbies I had been holding for months – supplies for a friend who wanted to make a holiday wreath out of them. One example of the kind of odd cargo I often travel with, having found them at a salvage place in Oakland at the beginning of the year and then moved them several times before putting them in my carry on for this flight to Portland. And while everyone was already laughing, already joking, catching up with each other, being snarky and sarcastic and heartfelt and basically the amazing people I missed so much – an odd thing happened.
The friend who now had possession of her barbies started to pull them out and perch them on the edge of the table, looking at and inventorying her long-awaited toys. Once one naked barbie was out of the bag, though, all we could do was pose them and photograph them. In compromising positions. In miraculous poses. Hanging from lights. Bent over glasses. Bent over each other. We nicknamed several of these rag-tag plastic beauties. Inappropriate and perfect names. One friend discovered her knack for shooting just the right barbie porn shot while a male friend (and his wife) realized he was the Barbie Whisperer – able to pose barbies for just the right shot, intuitively, skillfully, artfully. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We discovered that Anal Bead Barbie’s string got shorter if you pulled her hair. We noticed that one barbie was the plastic equivalent to double-jointed. We were all more than a little frightened of Vapid Expression Barbie.
The waiter came through several times before one of my friends said something about what we were doing, about it being strange. And he said, so matter-of-factly, completely nonplussed, “You’re having a barbie party”. The silent ‘duh’ was written all over his face. To which we railed off into laughter, again, over and over through the night, replaying his Portland immunity to such weirdness. Of course. Why would we have thought he might be worried about us? Think we were strange? This was Portland. And Southeast Portland, to boot.
We had so much fun that when the woman who I delivered these barbies to decided she had to leave and we were migrating to our next FoHo stop, she left us with the dolls. I hesitated, worried about nabbing them away from her so soon after her long-awaited meeting with them and she shoved the bag at me – the obviousness of how much fun was left to be had clear in the gesture. So the handoff was undone and would have to happen again because, apparently, we all love naked barbies. I was with my people. For sure.
I carried the reusable grocery bag full of naked dolls over to the newest bar on Foster, a borderline-cheesy Zodiac-themed place owned by Portland Indie-Retail Royalty, and it wasn’t long before the barbies were out on the table, the newest additions to our party just getting into the fun, discovering how fun barbie-in-the-bar photo shoots can be, test shots being taken in this new, darker lighting, against these reflective table-tops.
Then, in the most Portland moment of the night: strangers asked, inquired and then started their own barbie shoots (once I delivered dolls to their tables, their hesitant, shy faces turned grateful and smiling). For hours, half the bar was engaged in barbie play. One table staged an elaborate Esther Williams scene – my favorite, really, of the whole night – and another group made napkin clothes and figured out that Turquoise Girdle Barbie actually spun around and so has been named Suck N’ Spin Barbie. The foosball table was filled with posing barbies and others were propped against the oft-ordered bad beers of the northwest.
I was full of vodka and chocolate caramel Torte and love and nostalgia and as I looked around the bar, I knew (deep in my marrow) that this wasn’t home anymore but I also knew exactly – in that wordless way of real love – what I adored and held deeply sacred about this city. I try to get at it with words even though I know I will fail – there’s the kindness and openness and un-self-consciousness of its people, there’s the way that weird is normal and expected, there’s the relaxed feel of even the coolest places and the cluster of creativity that hovers anywhere you go in town, the kind of energy in a place where people move or stay without any practical reason, but just because they love it, the kind of city people choose to live in. There’s the best of small-town life everywhere – whether grimy or seedy or downright provincial.
And I can try to zero in on why FoHo is my place, became the epitome of what Portland is to me – the dirt and grime and fresh paint and old-school supply stores and the people who go places not because they are hip or clean or ironic, but because it’s where you live, it’s your neighborhood and there’s a fierceness to the loyalty of that, the way that Portlanders love their independent businesses, their real bars, their quirky spaces and wobbly tables.
But ultimately there are not enough words – or the right words – to get at Portland or FoHo and what they are for me, who Portland is for me, how it feels from the inside of me. There’s a large static-filled space in my body where Portland resonates. Where no words are needed. A place that Portland fills up and pushes out, out, out. All of Portland. I also went to my favorite Cuban restaurant and my favorite brunch spot and my favorite purveyor of local goods. I went to new places. I visited with old coworkers, long-time friends, met a baby whose birth I missed, devoured garden grits with my long-time ex-girlfriend and shared the kinds of updates and family news that only people who’ve known you that long can really appreciate, really understand. I stayed with my closest Portland friend and her husband, tagged along with and dragged her everywhere. I got a new tattoo from a friend whose skill and talent and humor I’ve already missed most fiercely twice now in California while under someone else’s needle. I wallowed in everything I love and miss about that grid of a city. I felt that static open up in me almost everywhere I went.
But I didn’t feel what I expected while doing any of this. I had trouble even approaching – in my own mind – what it was I felt. And here is where it gets truly strange, so difficult to explain, so personal and unintentionally evasive. Even though I was raised in California, lived most of my life here and have returned to it, indefinitely, perhaps forever – Portland is the place where my heart has felt most at home. I ached over leaving it, even before I did, in a way I never ever did for California. I miss so much about it in a purely physical way like I never have for any place in California. It is my chosen native place.
I was, by many, always an interloper – not a true native for sure – but my heart knew it was home from the first instant I walked outside in the quiet of our first weekend in the state and caught the smallest of snowflakes on my tongue. As I basked in what would turn out to be the tiniest of winter snowstorms in all my years there, as I looked up at the white-dusted trees in the center lot of our lovely North Portland neighborhood – as I did this carelessly, mindlessly – as I couldn’t be bothered to care if I looked like an idiot or a Californian or whatever. As I felt lucky, so lucky, to have found this place, knowing so early on that it was just where I needed to be, neck bent and head back, staring up amidst the hushhush of that quiet snowstorm.
It was the exact plot of land where I belonged. Nothing ever changed that for me, not ever. It will always be a magical, singular, gorgeous oasis in my mind and my heart. It is where so much of who I came to be was formed, the years living there merging all the little bits of my past and present into the woman I now know myself to be. It is where my mind goes when I think of my home place. It will always be the point that magnetizes my heart, the point on a map I look to in order to find which direction everything else emanates from – my center.
And I love where I live now. I am happy. It is comfortable and striking and so so sunny. It is home now. And I am rooting here, re-rooting, deepening my connection to this place in a very adult way, organically and by conscious design. But despite this all, California feels like a home away from home. A place I have chosen to be while I know that my heart would choose elsewhere. The flight home felt almost void of any physical senses – just a vacuum into which I was trying to throw words so I could understand what it was I felt at all. And then I realized. Leaving Portland after this visit felt like I was reaffirming my own exile. That word loomed large in my mind. I am in exile. Of my own choosing, I know, but still. Exile.
What had at first, so many months ago, felt like I was choosing to go to California suddenly felt like I had instead only chosen to leave Portland. Leave all of it behind. That life. The chaos that erupted there. The emotional mess I brought with me. The places I used to go. The person I used to be. The people I used to love. It felt, no matter how stunning and green and familiar, like a place tainted by the end of my time there and what it meant for me through the first half of this year, the whole city troubled with all I could no longer keep space for, all the things I couldn’t hold in my hands or my heart or my head anymore. Like a home I could never live in again. Sad, but slightly comforting, too. This choice – this choice – was right. Is right. It’s where I need to be. It’s the place I will live, even if I never feel the kind of inexplicable love for it that I feel for my lost stumptown.
For me, Portland is that girl you meet when you’re young, who you can’t imagine not kissing. You will kiss her, in fact, if you have to beg and beg and beg and wear her down. And you will always love her – that tingle in your stomach that spreads into your chest and threatens to open you from the inside when you think of her, no matter how many years later, no matter how different you know she looks now – she will always be that first kiss, that surprising long sweet kiss where you knew you loved her, where you feared how much it would change you at the same time that you wrapped your arm tighter around her and reached your hand up to the nape of her neck to feel where her hair begins, to twist your finger there while you kissed her cheek.
She’s that girl. But also the girl you have to leave. Who’s right, except. Except that she’s not anymore. Who’s the one, but can’t be. Not anymore. Who you love and love but have to live without. And so you each move on. You find another place to hold, to kiss, to whisper to late at night. And she does, too. All kinds of other people. She lets you go. She changes just enough to let you know she has set you free. And you’ll try to be friends. But it’s hard. You can’t choose how to feel about her. And you can’t even yet decipher exactly what that feeling is, today, right here, the visit still so vivid in your mind. You know one thing: you feel most sad about not being more sad. It breaks your heart that you ache less for her. She’s lovely. Really fucking beautiful, in fact. So beautiful sometimes it literally hurts to have left her. You think it should even hurt more, she’s so captivating. And, but, yet. It already hurts a little less than it did just a handful of months ago.
And so you are Napoleon on Elba. Stuck – even if by your own decisions – on this craggy piece of land that feels so far away from there. And you can’t deny that this rock is stunning, breathtaking in its own way. Gaspingly gorgeous. Just last night you looked at the rosy and cloud-hovered San Francisco skyline as you curved around on the 80 heading home at sunset and you nearly lost your breath at how not-old this view gets – at how new it is every time, no matter how many years after first seeing it, how fucking ravishing this place is, every day. Bridges and buildings and ocean and fog and sun and clouds and wet wet air. A pink glow rising up and out of the skyline last night – the bridge and all else in dark monochrome. The stuff of postcards and you are simply on the freeway, finishing up an errand, stunned over and over by what you see before your eyes.
This is an amazing lady you sleep with now. Just as complicated and charming and messy and painterly. Your new home. Full of all that will feed you now. Full of all your future love, your future hopes, your growing-old dreams. So goodbye, FoHo (and with you, Portland), I will miss you. You will change, more and always, without me. Here is my expatriate air kiss to you. Hang it on an antler and switch on the light of your bedside table. You own a large part of my heart. You always will. Even if I have learned how to be, to live, to love somewhere else. We will catch up over and over and over. For as long as I am able to, I will seek out the taxidermied shape of your nightlight. Your Old Town glow and rain-soaked potholes. Your open heart with a wry, old laugh. Your dark bars with a hippy slant and a foodie’s menu. Your painted over rust-stained awning that shields a shiny powder-coated custom bike rack. Ex-home. Ex Isle. My Stella Marie, my northwestern star.