Soon after we were married, Joel and I hit the road for Southern Oregon, leaving the Portland scene behind us. I quit my job at Coffee People, and he quit his at the microelectronics company. The season was fall, and the light–if visible–was gold like latticework, filigreed, taunting, disappearing. We may have listened to Harvest Moon on the way down. We might also have passed a hearse, and a woman who ran across the freeway, hands on face, screaming.
By the time we arrived, it was cold, as well as dark and unfamiliar. It was Halloween. Some friends of ours who lived in the area swung by with a fifth of whiskey and canned beer and helped us unpack the moving truck. And that was the start to our new life together, in a place distant to my childhood home. Depression soon set in for many reasons, just as the winter settled over the world. But in my mind, I erase those reasons. The genre of memoir relies on picking through the aftermath of numerous storms and discovering familiar relics–a life edited, in other words.
And so I skip to summer. We lived on 4th Street in Ashland, in the bottommost apartment of a smooth, stuccoed building constructed in 1916. Our place had at one time been a garage, and it came complete with louvered window glass. Its placement insured its coolness, so when I emerged from the land of the louvered glass, the hot southern sun blasted me as did the smell of dust and hot grapes.
By summer, after handing out my resume at multiple cafes around town, I was gainfully employed at a coffeehouse in the neighboring city of Medford. What did I do on my days off? What could I do, but hop across the street from my apartment to the 4th Street Cafe? This is what baristas do–they survive off the caffeine hanging in the air. They lap it up, breathe it in. And for my part, I carried a stack of lined paper and a handful of pens and pencils and scratched out my first novel a mano to the sounds and scents of coffee.
Back up. We haven’t arrived yet. Walk through the alley beside the stuccoed apartment building. Ashland is one of those towns connected from street to street through dusty alleyways, and these alleys not only provide shortcuts, but they supply intimate views of interior life, such that the clusters of fruit hanging from private yards become yours for the taking, as does the shade from hanging wisteria. Intimacy, summer, grapes–they blend together in delicious memories that might have been purely mental, even back then, even when the 90’s world was physical, tangible.
Steal a handful of grapes and eat them individually, spitting the seeds out as you cross through the alley, and then 4th Street, and then wander up the sidewalk until you reach the entrance to the cafe. Enter to the sound of wind chimes and native fluting–follow the call of the flautist to the back garden. Buy a cup of strong black coffee, sit and watch your lined pages ruffle in the breeze.
The flautist will attempt a conversation with you. He’s an older man with long, graying hair and beard. He’ll discuss [or, rather, talk at you about] religion and politics and inform you that his Sioux ancestors worshiped the Creator of the universe long before white men brought Jesus, and you won’t know whether he’s rejecting your religion or connecting himself with you in the way all humans are linked through a common Great Spirit. And you also won’t know how this man can sit fluting around with no real book knowledge or music lessons, but still be able to sit in the present, comfortable in himself and his abilities.
You won’t know because you’ve already exited the premises, if not in body, but in mind and deep yearning. [End Stop. I’m reentering my own memoir, thanks.] Especially when I was younger, exiting the world seemed the only way to master any subject or art form. Long before the summer, in that cold, dry winter I skipped over, I visited a music store and stared longingly at the racks of hanging violins, which chattered at me in chiding little voices. I played the violin as a child, but I never really played, and I could only imagine finding an alternate space for myself in which I would leave the world behind and become a musician. I’m not sure why this is–why I must exit the world in order to master a subject, but the necessity entangled with the impossibility has kept my life on hold for as long as I can remember. Because I’m still waiting to exit the world, where I plan to refine and master numerous disciplines, I haven’t lived. I’ve never truly lived.
The first book I scratched onto notepaper was–no surprise–about a violin player who exits her life, moves from Portland to Florence, Oregon, where she dwells in a parallel existence that enables her to reenter the world at large. I desired to be her, even though I made her homely, but she only existed in my imagination. And so, although I fashioned her to be real, she never really exited her life and, consequently, never reentered.
Places of the imagination exist in a way I can’t reach to grasp, and the same problem occurs in memoir. I’m busy working at leaving the world of my current self, who sits on my porch in New Mexico, and I’m doing this through selective memories. I’m creating positive spaces through negatives, negatives through positives, and I’m mastering nothing.
Where did I go–that girl who sat in the 4th Street Cafe? And how can I reach her? I’m lost. I’m neither here nor there, and all I have left is a day-old pot of coffee that brings me no closer to exiting my present reality. And how will I edit this moment later? Will I add flowers to the desert, stark red roofs, an unreal blue sky to cap off eternity?