Winter killed the muse
We were wading knee-deep through a grey, drab winter and I hadn’t written shit in months. One day it was too cold, the next I ate a late breakfast; I found a thousand ways to slow the blood flow to my brain, and excuse the underlying fear of failure.
By November the Pacific Northwest recedes into a cold, unfriendly darkness. The days get short and people’s faces grow pale. I thought of hibernating, but human beings just don’t have the stomach for it.
Days turned to weeks turned to months and I had nothing to say at all, just washed up in a pool of apathetic sludge; walking the dog, buying malt liquor at the 7-Eleven, and waiting for a great idea to fall out of the sky and knock me unconscious.
I watched the cold season drive a flock indoors, all soon rendered insane by cabin fever. Bored out of their gourds, they mixed whiskey with unusual dipping sauces just to break the tedium. Within weeks half had succumbed to food poisoning.
A few, more enlightened souls greeted the solstice warmly, as the beginning of a season of renewal and spiritual outpouring. Their creativity sprouted from their unwashed fingertips like parsley from an herb garden. They plucked out the best twigs with their front teeth, singing, “praise be to gaia!”
Personally, I found a Tom Waits song I liked a lot, grew a bad mustache and set out to meet women on the internet.
I tackled each date with varying levels of success. Some girls were very pretty but two weeks in became three-headed hydras, spouting demands like molten projectiles, and scaring me back to my cave.
A few times I drove out to the suburbs and picked up Ellie. I took her to see standup at the Bagdad Theater. The headliner was a funny woman from Seattle who really liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The next week we went to the science museum, enjoyed an exhibit on fetuses, and made paper airplanes, but we lost touch when she went back to Eugene to finish school.
On a different afternoon, I met a molecular engineer on the beach. She produced a hash pipe and asked if I carried a lighter. I didn’t have one on me, so instead we drove to a tiki bar down on Interstate Avenue. The road inland dipped away from the riverbank and sank between two strawberry farms, while she followed behind me on an old Mitsubishi motorbike.
We sang KISS karaoke, ate some dinner, and she introduced a throng of faces to me between bites, but I had trouble with their names. The tiki decor was disarming. I liked her curly red hair and goading laugh, but she was a step out of my league from the start.
I’d had some good times, but remained a lump of uninspired, flesh-covered dough. The cold weather was keeping me in form, but if I didn’t round into shape by summer, I was going to melt into a puddle and accidently slip through a sewer drain.
Thankfully, over the years I’d learned how to entertain a woman more keenly. In the beginning, I thought about nothing but seeing them naked, but with age I’d grown to appreciate getting common sense smacked into my neanderthal skull; maybe even more than a nice set of nipples.
I was spinning in this violent, haphazard vortex of imagined writer’s block and assorted nipple varieties until I met Sarah, who intimidated me immediately.
She looked pretty on the internet—there was a photo of her holding a giant fish. After some polite flirtation we arranged to meet at a dingy place I liked.
She approached the bar’s front door and removed an ID from her purse, her legs swinging in long strides while she walked. She acknowledged the bouncer and sat down next to me with a nervous smile.
All first dates initiated on the internet start the same way: with a cautious ten minutes where both parties watch for sudden movements, and make broad generalizations about the other based on otherwise imperceptible nervous ticks. That thaws, and then you’re laughing, drinking whiskey and comparing your instinctual senses of when to fly the coop.
Most recently, Sarah had run off to Alaska to join the crew of a fishing boat, where she participated in the traditional slaughtering of a great number of sockeye salmon, a few elk, along with the odd bear.
“I’d climb out of the ship’s hold covered head-to-toe in blood and guts,” she told me. “The smell sank deep into my hair.”
She’d returned to Portland a couple months prior, and now had her eye on a one-way ticket to the far east.
From the beginning, indications were that whatever distraction we found in each other would be fleeting. We said goodbye and she drove off into the cold. I pulled my coat collar up my chin and cursed loudly at the wind all the way home.
“Fuck! Shit! Piss!”
Things progressed naturally from there. We stayed up late eating pizza, and she told me about the time she inspired a bonafide stalker, what charm. On our second date, I feigned concern for her blood-alcohol level as an excuse to plant one on her lips. She returned my advances and we conducted further testing.
Certain women bust into your life, claim squatters rights on your Saturday nights and dare you, generally, to give a fuck. They’re spottable from a ways off. Their judgement tends to be swift and sound, but their behavior is unpredictable.
In short order, you’re having philosophically-challenging sex, and forgoing pants well through Sunday afternoon.
My dog Lola, always an astute judge of character, protested our coitus by squatting next to the bed in the dead of night, and taking a big shit. I woke to the smell of it.
“Does she do this for all the girls you bring over?” Sarah asked as I squatted in my boxer shorts and scrubbed the wood floors.
“No, she must really like you,” I replied, opening all the windows.
Spending time with her made the Oregon wilderness feel less desolate. This woman was intelligent enough to call me on my bullshit with her breath inward, and get me to appreciate my surroundings with her breath out.
That Sunday afternoon, we meandered along the river while Lola chased birds and ripped sticks out of the muck.
It got dark, so we walked towards the lights from the highway, rocks crunching under all four pairs of feet in rhythm. On the way home we picked up Chinese food and ate it on the couch, limbs intertwined.
Suddenly I was landing freelance work, and writing daily. Trying to impress a woman can be a powerful motivator. Maybe because my mother had always kept bread on the table, I felt extra concern to keep pace with a lady.
We said goodbye to 2013 at the Eagle’s Lodge on Hawthorne Avenue. A whole goonsquad packed into her friend Jenny’s suburban, all dressed up and well cooked from the preparty.
We were standing in line to enter the lodge when an elderly man wearing a ten gallon hat passed back and forth alongside us, welcoming anyone who would listen and reminding them to keep their tickets ready.
“Happy new year whippersnappers,” he called out shamelessly, “I hope you all came ready to dance.”
His deep jowls swung back and forth as he patrolled the line, keeping order like a metronome.
As I’d come to expect from a town like Portland, the Eagle’s Lodge was packed. We pushed behind another couple and handed our tickets to a woman in her 90s wearing a sequin-covered vest. She stamped the inside of our wrists with a green pineapple.
“Have a good time!”
Inside, we ran into Sarah’s friend who worked as a pedestrian advocate, fighting for the rights of people who like to walk. I’d met him at a party a few weeks prior.
“So what’s your scene?” he’d asked, standing in the kitchen next to the trash can.
“Pizza and explosions,” I’d answered indignantly.
Tonight, he had brought his girlfriend, the Buffy-loving standup comedian I’d seen months before with Ellie! I thought for a minute, but couldn’t remember Buffy ever driving a car.
We danced without shame. For a skinny white girl from the Pacific Northwest, Sarah could shake her ass just fine. Every 15 minutes or so the fog machine kicked in, and made everything all hazy. The man with the jowls mulled around, keeping drinks off the dancefloor.
At midnight we counted down the seconds and kissed. I’m not much of a romantic, but that part’s always fun, at least the years I can remember.
“HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
Everyone thought about their own mortality, the rising seas, and the scarcity of basic natural resources.
Sarah had spent these past few months house sitting out in the suburbs, not far from her parent’s place, and felt stuck. We talked about finding her a way out and I related, always looking for an escape of some kind myself. She applied for jobs all over the country, and even one out in the caribbean.
“I know I’m putting you in a tough spot,” she told me one night, “I really like you.”
“I like you too.”
“But what if I have to leave?”
“Well, why worry about it now?”
My birthday came around in late January and this woman rolled out the damn red carpet. At six sharp she showed up at my door with bourbon, cherry pie and tickets to the Blazers game—a multi-punch combo that opened my heart right the fuck up.
We walked west, past the mall, to the arena. She’d had an interview for that job in Haiti.
“It went well,” she told me, “the hiring manager was very relatable.” But she worried about signing a year contract, and living in a place that had just been torn to smithereens by a hurricane.
I offered what backhanded support I could, tactfully emphasizing the factors that might keep her in the United States a bit longer.
The game on the other hand, turned out famously. LeMarcus Aldridge went for a career-high 44 points, we ate hot dogs and I made Sarah cheer for my favorite Russian big man, Denver Nuggets Center Timofey Mozgov.
The next afternoon she got an email from the organization in Haiti. The director of the program wanted to call her at 2pm.
“They’re going to offer you a job,” I said, hiding my disappointment. “No doubt about it.”
The call came, a job offer with it, and the prospect of a year overseas suddenly weighed on her like a truck full of bricks. We took our dogs to a field and let them run around in the grass.
“I don’t know what to do. Why did this have to happen now?”
“At least you have two good options to choose from.”
Lola ran off into the brush, chasing a cat.
“I’ve been living at home for four months,” she paused and looked down at a sewer drain, “I just can’t take it anymore, I’m amounting to nothing.”
“You’ve changed and grown and have a better idea of what you want now, that’s not nothing.”
“You don’t understand,” she replied. “I’m going crazy out here, and now this totally unique opportunity drops into my lap. I can’t just ignore it.”
We stopped walking and stood in silence.
“I don’t want to leave now.”
“Then don’t. Stay and we’ll do something haphazard together.”
She called me late Sunday evening. I could tell by the way she was beating around the bush that she didn’t have good news for me. Who knew I’d come to feel so much animosity towards the Haitians?
“I just know that this is the sort of opportunity that if I turned it down, it’d affect our relationship moving forward, and I don’t want that.”
“But I want you to know that this was a really hard decision for me to make. What we have is really special to me and it’s not easy for me to turn away from.”
I told her I understood, but in the moment I didn’t understand at all. I poured myself a drink and put on that Tom Waits song.
We hung out a few more times before she left, but that proved difficult.
“Fine, to hell with her, I get to philander again,” I’d convince myself during the week. Then I’d see her that weekend and only half-heartedly fuck her, not finding the same well of enthusiasm.
We told each other we’d stay in touch, and a year’s only a year, so maybe I’ll see Sarah again. I appreciate what a good counterpart she was, but I’ve also grown a bit despondent about dating in general. It’s a whole lot of starting over and launching new volleys of getting-to-know-you questions.
Man needs a woman in his life to lend it some beauty and a bit of common sense. We remain stoic as a mating strategy, but deep down we’re brittle without a girl to prove our worth. I’ve hung my fair share of babes on my arm, but not all of them pushed me at the same velocity.
She couldn’t have stayed. Had the roles been switched, I would have left her in Portland the same way.
I’ve been on a few dates since. I went for drinks with a stripper named Butterfly and ended up at the IHOP until 5am, trying to jump-start her truck—not a euphemism. Sometimes the beauty of pancakes is beauty enough.
A man really needs that though, something beautiful in his life. Similarly, he needs to put on pants and a belt at least once a day, straighten out his back, and get some work done. No matter how tempting, you can’t find that same motivation in a woman, it has to come from some guttural, inner chamber.
And not to sound sardonic, there’s too much fun to be had for that, but you can’t rely on another person for inspiration, because they’ll all eventually leave. You might stick together long enough that you take them for granted, crank out a couple kids together leaving yourself with little choice otherwise, or, best case, you get to watch them die. I don’t like any of those options, so I’ll have to find my motivation alone.
I’ve been in Portland for the better part of two years now and it has its peculiarities. Folks will sugar coat their words just to avoid confrontation, whereas I enjoy a good argument. On the nights I take a girl out, things don’t feel so desolate, but otherwise the Northwest is a little barren.
Maybe I’ll go down to Guatemala to see my mom, and then catch a flight to meet Sarah in Cuba. She thinks it’s dangerous for Americans, and I want to prove to her otherwise.
The Cuban sun is warm, they cook with plenty of garlic, and they appreciate a good woman. No political impositions or historical differences can stand in the way of those basic principles.
Just like that, I have my own island on the horizon, promising an escape.
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